With upwards of 800 wineries, Washington state has emerged as the second-largest premium wine producer in the United States. Turning off a side street in an industrial area of sleepy Woodinville, I start to think the majority of these wineries might reside here, within a complex of storage depots referred to by locals as the “warehouse district.”
OK, so industrial concrete isn’t quite the image of vast farmlands and sprawling grapevines I envisioned on my way over. For that you’d have to travel to Eastern Washington, to Walla Walla and Horse Heaven Hills, places with the kinds of names you couldn’t make up if you tried. But I didn’t come here for the scenery. I came to meet Kevin White, Bing principal program manager lead and driving force behind the well-reviewed Kevin White Winery.
On paper, red wine and data mining hardly seem an appropriate pair. One goes with meats, the other with user experiences. But beneath the surface of alcohol and statistics, there’s a common running theme concerning an attention to detail.
Yet somehow that doesn’t do justice to White and his world. In his case, there’s another current coursing through his veins: obsession. “With data mining, you’re obsessed about understanding how people use products so that we can deliver the best possible experience,” said White. “With wine, you have to be obsessed about everything. From the quality of the product, to what the label looks like, to how are you going to sell it, to ‘Oh my God – can I sell it?’”
We’re in the cellar at Baer Winery now, where White makes his Syrah and Grenache-blended wines. “Here, let me show you around,” said my mild-mannered host. We’re surrounded by rows of French oak barrels stacked floor to the ceiling. While not a large enough space to get lost in, you might wish you could dive inside one of his barrels. For that’s where the vino chemistry occurs, converting grape sugar to CO2 and alcohol.
In some ways, White’s story, soft-spoken data scientist turned chemist, reads like a “Breaking Bad” episode. The other Mr. White, aka Heisenberg, was also a converted chemist, albeit in a more dangerous way. In that world, chances are I’d end up as an ingredient inside the large metallic de-stemmer or grape press off to my left. Fortunately, my subject’s obsession does not take such a dark side. But just to be sure, I quiz those who know him best.