Toward better wine science communication (and my PhD)

If you’re a winemaker, a vineyard manager or viticulturist, or in a similar role, and if you have ten minutes to help a PhD student gather some data (and improve the state of research communication in the wine industry), I’d be most grateful for your response to this survey on your feelings about winemaking and growing information and where you go to find it. Find the completely anonymous survey here: http://fluidsurveys.com/s/winescienceinformation/

Science versus expertise and winemaker trust (and chickens)

I recently wrote an academic manuscript on, among other things, winemakers’ attitudes toward the relative importance of scientifically-supported information and information from personal experience. Some I’ve interviewed trust the science first, last, and always. Some trust experience (theirs or a neighbor’s, but usually theirs) and question the science, and many more fall into more complicated patterns somewhere in-between. To make it clear from the outset, my research takes the stance that none of these attitudes is better or worse than any other.

On what I thought was a completely unrelated topic, I took an hour out of PhD-ing to walk to the library for a book on chicken keeping on Saturday morning. I’d discovered a relic of a chicken coop at the house I’m renting and, as of yesterday, it has two new occupants*. Browsing around on the internet mostly told me that I wanted the coherence and completeness and ease of use that a book could offer.

My tiny neighborhood library had five books on keeping chickens (which tells you something about the neighborhood). Two were memoirs of woman-chicken romances; not what I needed. One was a tiny and poorly type-set volume that tried to cover ducks and guinea fowl and turkeys too; I set that aside. That left two for serious consideration.

I flipped through the much larger volume: professional and impersonal tone, readable text, black and white diagrams, detailed discussion of the various pelleted foods available and exhortations about how to choose the appropriate variety in the few pages I skimmed. The smaller: personal with lots of references to the author’s experiences, strongly authoritative, readable text, cheerful color pictures. I skimmed a page about kitchen scraps as feed with statements like “my chickens can tell the difference between real food and fake food, so don’t try giving them those plastic rolls you get on airplanes” and “people will tell you that citrus is bad for chickens and I’ve never had any problems but you should probably avoid it.”

I took home Jennie French’s Guide to Chooks** and left the Someone’s Guide to Backyard Fowl on the shelf.

On the walk home I realized what I had done. I had chosen the neighborly voice of “well, I tried it this way and it worked for me” over “poultry scientists agree that…”

I had decided between experience versus (not and, but versus) science. I didn’t want to believe that my chickens needed a diet of > 90% commercial feed plus a few kitchen “treats.” I assumed that that advice descended from nutritional guidelines developed for crowded battery farms looking for maximally efficient short-term egg production. I’m different. I want to live with my chickens, all two of them in their jungly run. The research doesn’t apply to me. But Jennie French talking about keeping chickens on her Australian avocado farm…Well, her farm is hot and dry and my garden is cool and wet, but at least she’s being sensible about chickens as productive members of a household.

I’d done exactly what so many of the winemakers I’ve interviewed do: decide that the research probably doesn’t apply to me and trust the more experienced peer who knows how it really is. Even though I’ve been thinking about this stuff (i.e. where stuff = my research on winemakers’ use of/attitudes toward science) for months now, my chicken book experience clarified two things:

1. I didn’t trust that the research applied to me because I couldn’t tell whether the research applied to me. The book didn’t tell me enough about where it’s authoritative recommendations came from for me to know whether or not to believe them. I heard exactly the same thing from winemakers about many of the recommendations in trade magazines: we need more. So, as a writer, the question becomes: how do I provide enough context to be useful?

2. I decided to trust the authoritative recommendations that were closer to what I wanted to do. I was looking to those books not just for information but for validation, to know that the half-formed plan in my head was probably okay and wouldn’t produce immediate chicken death. I sought confirmation, not challenge, because I didn’t want to have to change too much.

Old-fashioned science communication assumed that the scientists were enlightened, people who didn’t agree with them were backwards, and if they were only told about science they’d agree with it anyway (the much-maligned “deficit model”). It treated scientists like a different species of person or, rather, treated non-scientists like they weren’t quite right in the head. I wonder if guys who preached (and still preach) that model ever take home the neighborly chicken book.

 

* The ladies are hand-me-down trial chickens — a bit elderly, not laying for their previous owner, and acquired for free — so, backyard poultry enthusiasts, forgive me for not knowing their details. Mixed-breed both, I think: one smallish standard-looking red one (maybe a Shaver-RIR mix?) and one larger but still light white-blue girl with a bit of a fluffy head. And don’t worry. They’re getting a good, high-protein-with-oyster-grit feed alongside pumpkin seeds and rutabaga peels and outer cabbage leaves.

**Chooks = chickens down-under. For all their laid-back attitude, folks seem to want to abbreviate everything around here.

Using a log splitter to perform surgery and other thoughts on alcohol regulations

My August piece for Palate Press, up today, reviews some of the recent literature on what alcohol restrictions do for public health. I’d hoped, when I first logged in to PubMed, for one of two things. 1. Three or four reviews showing that placing restrictions on alcohol reduces consumption by “everyday” drinkers but doesn’t change heavy drinkers’ behavior. 2. Three or four reviews showing mixed evidence for whether anti-alcohol regulations improve public health that still argued in favor of those laws because all drinking is bad drinking.

What I found is the latter, sort of. Medical research is never as simple as you’d like it to be. Drinking can do bad things to people, and restricting when and where it can be sold reduces how much people drink… probably, most of the time, it seems. For researchers who dismiss alcohol as a health hazard and won’t see it for anything else*, that’s enough.

My argument is this: instead of chasing down exactly when, where, and how regulating alcohol sales might reduce deaths by liver cirrhosis or drunk driving accidents or domestic violence, let’s spend our resources on finding better strategies altogether. Drinking isn’t the problem, whether you’re considering just human health or (thinking more thoughtfully) human well-being in general. Heavy drinking — the kind people do to escape from other problems in their life or, less often, the kind people do out of ignorance for the harm it does — is the problem. We’re doing surgery with a log splitter by trying to decrease problem drinking by decreasing all drinking. There are better ways. Education. Better server training. Encouraging social pressure. Addressing the underlying social ills with which alcohol abuse tends to be associated, such as family instability. And my favorite: working, however slowly, on changing the prevailing American culture of alcohol-as-drug to one of wine and beer as food, and spirits as drugs with appropriate ceremonial and ritual functions**.

*Or for researchers who adopt that prohibitionist perspective for the sake of winning grants from misguided and uncritical public health organizations, though I’m inclined to think that most researchers have at least a little (and sometimes a lot of) personal investment in their work and its implications.

** Ceremonial and ritual taken broadly. Sipping whisky with your mates in the pub on Saturday night is ceremonial; it invokes a particular kind of social bonding and communication and creates and demarcates the space in which that happens.

Fermentation caused by living things? Balderdash!

Small Things Considered is the very endearing blog of the American Society for Microbiology and, like all microbiology, it occasionally touches on alcoholic fermentation. This week, Elio unearthed a hilarious spoof from the early days of fermentation science. Two acclaimed chemists (Justus Liebig and Frederich Wöhler published it in 1839 to make fun of their competitors’ obviously stupid notion that living microorganisms are responsible for the process of fermentation — really, what self-respecting chemist could believe that nonsense! Their imaginings around what those microorganisms might be doing is made even funnier by how close they came — entirely by accident — to the truth. It’s a good laugh, but it’s also a good reminder that so much of what seems patently obvious seemed patent nonsense to our predecessors…and that it can be hard to tell what parts of what we know today might well be balderdash in another hundred years.

“Fit-for-purpose” yeast from the AWRI

The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has created a quick-read summary page on their ongoing project to develop “fit-for-purpose” yeast: yeast strains designed to facilitate specific flavor profiles for specific applications. They’ve already developed and released (through AB Mauri and Anchor) several strains including two interspecies hybrids — Saccharomyces cerevisiae crossed with S. kudriavzevii or S. cariocanus — and low H2S-producing strains. More are being tested in Shiraz and are likely to emerge over the next 3-5 years. The AWRI is making a point that this research is Aussie-focused — their argument is that similar work being done elsewhere is creating yeasts not necessarily suitable for Australian wine styles — but no doubt their results will end up helping non Australian-industry levy payers, too. It’s worth noting that their development strategies rely on good old traditional genetics strategies and not genetic engineering. They’re not inserting genes from other species into yeast; they’re breeding different yeasts together, encouraging yeast to mutate (that is, spawning lots of random changes in their DNA with chemicals and stress) and looking for useful mutations, and using contemporary genetics to understand which genes do what. For a quick explanation of why I’m glad that they’re sticking with traditional genetics strategies instead of creating GMO yeast, check here.

Whether you’re excited about the prospect of using tailor-made yeast to target particular flavors or whether you’re in the don’t-inoculate-my-wine camp and hold that fermenting with yeast from the environment is the only or best way to terroir-full wines, it’s hard to argue that knowing more about yeast is a bad thing. Developing new commercial products may be an increasingly major research driver as scientists need to look for support from private sources. Furthermore, ending up with a new product you can hand to someone is a tangible way of saying, “Here, look; our research really is applicable and relevant to real-life winemaking!” Regardless, projects like these continue to provide an umbrella for basic research on yeast genetics and wine flavor development. And maybe not tomorrow, and maybe not next year, but in the long run, that’s something that ends up helping everyone.

Does adding tannin boost aromatic thiols, too? It just might.

Thiols aren’t quite like bacon, but they’re not too far off trend-wise. These aromatic sulfur-containing molecules are highly appealing in small quantities — even low concentrations lend a wine’s aroma fresh fruity notes (tropical in sauv blanc, black currant or berry in reds). Just about everyone wants them, or wants more of them. They’re at work in the expected places (thiols in sauvignon blanc are like the bacon in your pasta carbonara; bland without, and much better with), but also do a fair bit in the unexpected ones, too (thiols contribute to the aroma of Bordeaux reds and Provençal rosés, for example, and bacon, I’m told, does excellent things to cupcake frosting*).

Unlike bacon, we still don’t have an especially good idea of how thiols are formed (we figured this out for bacon a good long while ago, I believe). The amounts yeast transform from various precursors under realistic wine conditions just don’t add up to the final concentrations we find in wine, and how the rest happen remains an open question. Last year’s news was that tannins contain thiol precursors upon which yeast act during fermentation. Now, those researchers (an Italian group, with the aid of a Sauvignon blanc-oriented researcher from New Zealand) have demonstrated what I’m sure they’d hoped for when they published last year’s paper: adding tannins to wine before fermentation increases a wine’s thiol concentrations, specifically 3-mercaptohexan-1-ol (3MH). (For some context on 3MH and other sulfur compounds, Jamie Goode’s blog article on the topic is a good primer).

This study is very much a first step, and a bit of a disappointing one. Tannin was only added at one concentration: 1.6 g per 2 kg batch, compared with a no tannin-added control. Seeing a dose-dependent response — add more tannin, get more thiols — or showing that the relationship between those two variables isn’t linear, anything other than just two points, would have been much more convincing. As would using larger than 2 kg batches for those experimental wines (2 kg ~ 1 750 mL bottle), since the volumes in which experimental wines change yeast fermentation and oxygen exposure dynamics; the oxygen mightn’t be relevant here, but the fermentation parameters are. AND, each wine was only made in duplicate, not satisfying the usual experimental expectation of performing studies in triplicate. With two samples, if one is off you can’t tell which reflects the trend you’d see if you did the experiment a hundred times (and you certainly shouldn’t just average them together); if three samples all group, you can feel better about life (and your results). AND, with so little wine, the authors couldn’t conduct a proper sensory analysis, not that doing so would have been worthwhile in any case with their mini-make-do winemaking technique. In other words, this study is less than convincing on methodological grounds.

All of that said and duly noted, this study points toward some interesting possibilities. For instance, I’ve recently talked with a few winemakers who have been experimenting with tannin additions to good but confusing effect. (I seemed to come across people talking about tannin additives about as often as I did bacon-laden menu items on my most recent trip through Eastern Washington, which is to say, a lot.) They know good results when they see them, and they like what they taste. But tannin assays sometimes seem to yield results that conflict with experience, with the assay saying that the with-addition and without-addition wines contain the same amount of tannin even though the winemaker can taste a difference. All manner of possible explanations exist for that phenomenon, and I don’t want to suggest that thiols are responsible for those sensory differences. Nevertheless, this study is a good reminder that adding anything to wine is bound to have more than just one obvious, direct effect, and that adding tannins could play with wine aromas in ways we hadn’t expected.

*I’m told, because I’m one of three people on the planet who likes neither bacon nor cupcake frosting.

(More) Race, class, and gender in wine writing

Eminent wine blogger Tom Wark is being provocative again (if you know Tom, I’ll wait for your shock and awe to subside, and if you don’t know Tom, that was sarcasm) and poking at several attendees’ comments that speakers at the recent 2014 North American Wine Bloggers Conference* were overwhelmingly male. Tom’s original post is less interesting than the comment thread — sincere congratulations on that, Tom. I chime in with a reminder that critical awareness of power structures is a non-stop job.

I don’t have an answer to the problem of discrimination, Tom; if I did, I should darn well be sharing it a little more aggressively. But I can say that the answer to “why aren’t there more women speakers at WBC?” or “what should we do about it?” begins with awareness that power structures exist. And that, fundamentally, the answers boil down to what I tell my composition students when they ask me nearly anything: 1. What is your purpose? 2. Be aware of what you’re doing.

*I wasn’t there for obvious reasons, i.e. being in grad school on the other side of the world.

Pairings with pinots and the futility of looking to science for answers

I have a horrible (given my current location) admission to make: Central Otago pinot noir is, to date and as far as I can tell, not my favorite thing in the world. That said, Otago pinot noir is lovely and fulfills a completely different function at table. One of the best meals I’ve ever had with an Oregon pinot was the whole salmon I roasted with a bunch of herbs and various alliums for my last Thanksgiving in the States. A guest serendipitously brought a Lange pinot, and it was memorable. On the other hand, Grasshopper Rock’s example — grown on the Clutha River in Alexandra, Otago — didn’t really grab me on its own, but was just lovely when I tried it alongside some smoked hoki that I’d brought home from the Auckland fish market (yes, in my backpack, on the airplane). Those rather robust smokey flavors emphasized the wine’s structural and savory notes and took the focus off cherry flavors that were a bit more candied than I prefer.

What I just offered you is a lay theory. To make it more than that, I’d need an empirical study or three to examine the interaction of smoky foods with various potential sensory qualities found in pinot noir. The problem with that idea, apart from it having nothing to do with my current main priority, i.e. the PhD, is that food and wine pairing research is obnoxious. .

Food and wine pairing articles (I’m quoting this one) are full of statements like this: “This research found that eating cheddar cheese before drinking Shiraz reduced some of the negative characteristics of the wine and enhanced the preference for the wine. This indicates that consuming food and wine together can minimize some of the less desirable flavors of both.” And hypotheses like this one: “Certain food and wine combinations will be perceived as significantly better than others.” The latter of which, I suppose, points out that food-wine preferences could be completely personal, like favorite colors (except that favorite color preference isn’t random, either).

Perhaps this sort of research really interests sommeliers who could think about the benefits of a shiraz and cheddar pairing in a tasting menu, though I doubt they need reassurance that their choices will work for someone other than just themselves. The question still arises: is science, in all its reductionist glory, really the best way to attack food and wine pairings?

First, let’s get a methodology point out of the way. Apparently, the best way to evaluate food and wine pairings is to ask people to eat and drink at the same time rather than, say, munching a bit of cheese, swallowing, and waiting thirty seconds before taking a sip of wine or vice-versa. Because that’s the way people usually eat.

Moving on. Research to date says that wine sweetness and astringency, but not its acidity, are significant in determining ideal food pairings. The most recent food-wine pairing article I’ve encountered tried to suss out whether acidity was in fact important, and the role of wine expertise in food-wine preferences, along with moving beyond many previous studies by pairing wine with foods other than cheese. The chosen foods? Chevre, brie, salami, and milk chocolate, paired with an Ontario chardonnay, an Ontario sauvignon blanc, an Argentinian cabernet sauvignon, and an inexpensive LBV Port. Needless to say, this study isn’t going to give me any insight into my pinot noir pairing theories. Or, for that matter, any insight into any real food and wine pairing conundrum anyone ever faces anywhere.

I’m poking fun, but I’m not being wholly fair. The authors of this article have more expertise in what they’re doing than I do. It’s obvious to any wine or food nerd which of the above pairings will and won’t work, but that evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, and maybe those assumptions are worth testing. But when the authors begin asserting that this study provides evidence that acidity, sweetness, and tannins are all important in pairings, just from showing that milk chocolate works better with port than with chardonnay? No. Four examples aren’t enough to allow for that conclusion, not near enough to weed through and rule out all of the other things (confounding factors) going on in both the wines and the food.

So we’re back to where we started with pairing food and wine. What says our weight of accumulated, non-scientific wisdom? And does it taste good? The reductionism of sensory science may have useful ways to tackle the hyper-complexity of food + wine (don’t ask me whether that’s more or less complex than, say, the human immune system, which science seems to tackle with at least some success), but I’m not sure they’ve figured them out yet. And when I’m trying to decide what to serve with my next glass of pinot noir — Oregon, Otago, or otherwise — the only research I expect I’ll do will be on my favorite cooking blogs.

**All sorts of other fascinating alternate-scientific approaches have been taken to food and wine pairing, Chartier’s fascinating Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor being perhaps the most interesting example. What I’m talking about here is the mainstream pairing science found in peer-reviewed journals.

On Palate Press: What Jane Goodall taught me about wine science

With so much interesting research, so many papers published, so many nit-picky little things to remember about temperatures and acidity and bugs and the rest, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees in enology. When the much-beloved chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall came to visit the Centre for Science Communication that I call home about a month ago, in talking about the African forests she actually reminded me to step back and look at the metaphorical enological ones, too. Maybe studying chimps isn’t all that much like making wine, but I’m not sure they’re that different, either: technology and training can get in the way of both, and stories win people over more than arguments whether you’re talking primates or pH. The full story of what Jane Goodall taught me about wine science is here on Palate Press. 

Measuring not just tannin concentration but tannin behavior: Kennedy’s stickiness assay

Why does it always seem that we know the least about stuff that’s the most important? Tannins garner a lot of wine researcher’s attention, and for good reason. No one needs convincing about how important tannins are to wine quality (especially not the consulting companies who’ve correlated high tannin concentration with high wine magazine ratings). The amount of noise made about tannins, though, could give someone seriously inflated ideas about how well we understand them.

Excellent wine chemists are, in fact, still thinking about really good, consistently accurate, and every-day-practical ways of measuring a wine’s tannin concentration. The well-known Harbertson-Adams assay went a long way in that direction, but isn’t the last word on the topic. But just looking how much tannin a wine has doesn’t tell us enough. “Tannin” describes a whole group of molecules, and those molecules behave in different ways.

What we really need is a way of measuring not just how much tannin a wine has, but how astringent it’s likely to feel. That’s a tall order — astringency is a complicated sensation affected by alcohol concentration, sugars, polysaccharides, the person doing the tasting, and undoubtedly other factors. Just tasting the darn thing is, without question, the most elegant and reliable way to measure wine astringency. But it would still be useful to have a way of measuring the relative astringency of different types of tannins to correlate with how different production techniques affect those tannins and make some predictions. And, just as importantly, if we’re ever going to figure out what tannins do, how they behave, and how astringency works, having more tools to look at them is important.

James Kennedy’s group at Fresno State is working on a way to go beyond traditional tannin measurements, which just tell you how much tannin you have, to develop analyses to tell you what the tannin you have does and how it’s likely to produce astringency. More particularly, they’ve developed a way to measure the stickiness of any particular type of tannin molecule. Stickiness, as defined in the article, is “the observed variation in the enthalpy of interaction between tannin and a hydrophobic surface.” Or, to put it a lot more simply, stickiness describes how strongly a tannin is inclined to attach itself to something else (without actually reacting with it). This seems pretty commonsensical — if we sense astringency when tannins glom together with our salivary proteins, then we’d like to know how glom-inclined those tannins are. They’ve shown that their stickiness measurement for a particular set of wine tannins remains constant no matter how much of the tannin you test — in other words, they can measure stickiness as a tannin quality, not tannin quantity.

It’s a trickier puzzle than it might seem. How do you measure how tightly two molecules are holding on to each other? And when you’re interested in how different tannins interact with proteins, which are themselves a very diverse group of molecules, how do you choose which protein is going to be the protein that represents all other proteins?

For Kennedy and company, the solution involved choosing something that isn’t a protein at all but polystyrene divinylbenzene, a polymeric resin that holds on to tannin in remarkably the same way as the specific amino acid (proline) that acts as the tannin-attractant in salivary proteins. The resin allows for a standardized stickiness measurement and no doubt has all sorts of advantages in terms of working with it in the lab. It won’t actually behave like real salivary proteins which, being folded up into various shapes with proline more or less accessible along their various crannies, don’t bind tannins in ways so predictable. The upshot is that this is a standardized measure of stickiness (a defined scientific parameter), not an actual measure of astringency (a subjective sensation). Nevertheless, stickiness values and astringency should be related in predictable ways. We’ll very likely see a publication verifying that relationship with human tasters before too long.

Stickiness assessment involve some fairly complex chromatography, improving on a method the lab published last year. The methodological details are less important than realizing that this isn’t something that even a well-equipped winery lab is going to be able to do on their own (unlike that Harbertson-Adams assay, which is pretty accessible for a lot of winemakers). Though some wineries may measure tannin concentrations with that Harbertson-Adams assay, which is pretty accessible for a lot of winemakers, stickiness measurements aren’t going to become the new best thing in figuring out how long your syrah needs to spend on its skins before being pressed off. Too expensive (the chromatography columns needed for this kind of work run hundreds of dollars each), too training-intensive (unless you have a chemistry grad student hanging out in your winery), and too little of an improvement over just tasting the darn thing. This research isn’t likely to change the way anyone makes wine tomorrow or even for the next year or two. But it very well may change the way scientists study and think about tannins, the kinds of questions they can answer — those tricky issues around the relative astringency of various seed and skin tannins, for example — and what they can tell winemakers about targeting specific wine styles a few years down the road. And that’s worth making some noise over.