My September piece for Palate Press asks, “Is New Zealand the world’s most sustainable wine producing country?” to which the answer is: quite possibly, but the metrics we have don’t exactly say. The more important point is that sustainability is an excellent tool for industry self-improvement and a pretty terrible tool for comparisons between countries. It’s also not good at guaranteeing consumers of any particular pro-environmental or pro-community practices, though it still has a place in consumer communication: IF consumers understand that “sustainable” means “we’re thinking about what we’re doing (and usually trying to make it better)” OR if we let the marketing folk equate “sustainable” with “good!” and leave the right to use that word as an incentive to participate in sustainability programs. Which, even if they don’t guarantee vineyards full of happy children and chickens frolicking under thoroughly non-toxic vines, still do a great deal of good.
Stuck fermentations — when sugar levels stop dropping and the winemaking process stands still — are one of the more persistently frustrating mysteries in winemaking. Like most winemaking mysteries, we understand part but not all of the situation. Bacterial contamination is one of numerous known causes of sticking: lactic acid bacteria can compete with wine for access to sugar, but it’s also long seemed that something else is going on. Researchers now have a better idea of what that something else is, and it involves prions.** Yes, prions, best known by nearly everyone as the infective agent in bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more fondly known as Mad Cow Disease.
Briefly, bacteria are producing some kind of small signaling molecule that provokes Saccharomyces cerivisiae to shift from preferentially fermenting glucose into alcohol to consuming other energy sources indiscriminately. Bacteria release the molecule, yeast take the molecule up and begin expressing a prion, and in some as-yet-unknown way, the prion jams the mechanism that normally tells yeast to consume only glucose when it has both glucose and other energy sources available. Bacteria don’t tolerate alcohol as well as S. cerivisiae, so it’s in the bacteria’s interest to get the yeast to make less of it. S. cerivisiae can use all manner of different molecules for energy, but a specific control mechanism ensures that it (usually) eats glucose first when glucose is around.
These findings tie into an overwhelming lot of very interesting, very intricate biology, the fullness of which is a bit much to discuss here. But (understanding that there are others), a few reasons why this research matters to scientists and to winemakers stands out.
- Bacteria and yeast are talking to each other. Or, rather, bacteria are controlling yeast for the bacteria’s benefit. Bacteria produce lots of small messenger molecules — a bit like hormones in the human body — to communicate amongst themselves. But the idea that they use a similar molecule to control the behavior of a different species is exciting. Bacteria probably do this all the time, too, but microbiologists are behind on learning about it because we traditionally study one type of microbe at a time, by itself, in a test tube or beaker. Imagine studying 12 year-old boy behavior by putting lots of 12 year-old boys in a room by themselves and watching them for a week. That’s what we’ve been doing with bacteria. Microbiology as a field is increasingly realizing that there are better ways (which are, of course, more complicated, and therefore harder…)
- The mechanism involves prions, which are cool because they’re a relatively recent discovery and we’re finding them in places we didn’t see coming. It’s still not clear how they’re working in this setting, but finding out will almost certainly involve learning some new and interesting biology
- Winemakers who are adamant about avoiding stuck fermentations are probably also vigilant about trying to keep bacterial contamination out of their wines, so I imagine this news doesn’t change much. Nonetheless, some folk might end up using more sulfur dioxide in an effort to knock down bacteria in ferments that tend toward stickiness.
- More interestingly, researchers may be able to develop yeast that don’t respond to the bacteria-induced switch, maybe with a mutated form of the prion protein. Non-stick yeast?
**The research is published in two complementary papers (here and here) in the journal Cell and, as happens with particularly interesting stuff like this, the editors have put together a short summary. It’s still pretty dense stuff unless you have a background in molecular microbiology, but you can find it here if you’re interested in the details (and if you have institutional access to the journal).
The Romeo Bragato conference is New Zealand’s national wine industry conference for producers, policy makers, vendors, researchers, and such (and today, “such” even included New Zealand’s prime minister). With that audience, the topics discussed are broad, which makes it particularly interesting that the word “sustainability” seemed to crop up more often than any other today.
The main message from many today — growers and winemakers and administrators — is that New Zealand is awesome and needs to shout about it a bit more loudly. It’s hard to disagree. 94% of the country’s wineries are certified through the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand program (“swins”). 94%! And yet, to me, that’s actually a lot less significant on a story level than the individual, often very thoughtful initiatives wineries and vineyards are taking beyond that certification. From a consumer perspective, it’s near-impossible to translate the soft language on nzwine.com/sustainability into something meaningful and tangible; “foster biodiversity” and “monitor and manage erosion risk” and “engage in clean production practices,” as the sustainability standards say, is all pretty soft soap. But when I hear that Yealands Estate in the Awatere Valley is baling their vine prunings (yes, like hay) and burning them to fuel boilers that supply most of their hot water needs and eliminate the need for about $100,000-worth of LPG per year, that’s meaningful. That’s tangible. So are things that don’t involve metrics at all, like sniffing fine-aged manure with Rudi Bauer on his biodynamic estate in Central Otago; whatever you think of biodynamics, his extraordinary care for his land and vines and people is, well, something you can practically taste. Nevertheless, while I think folks abroad tend to think of New Zealand as a near-untouched refuge of pristine greenness (not entirely true, regrettably), the fullness of what Kiwi winemakers have achieved together on the sustainability front doesn’t come across as it should. Kiwis tend to be a pretty understated bunch, and it came up several times today that they may not realize how extraordinary, and how absolutely worth talking up, “just the thing we do here” really is.
But a second message — the step most speakers take after patting their collective backs — is the what’s next question. We’re great, but we can do better. And not just we can do better, but we must do better, and fast, not so much to protect our land as to protect our edge over those wilily Chileans who could rapidly and easily overtake us if they can market their wines as being more sustainable than New Zealand’s.
So what’s next? The industry has just updated and stepped up their sustainability reporting tool, WiSE (part of the Sustainability Dashboard project through which part of my PhD research is being funded), which is intended to be not just a reporting but a benchmarking and self-improvement tool. But that doesn’t really answer the question. The New Zealand wine industry has been remarkable in collaborating to create a unified international image. Seriously: where else can you find 94% certification in any non-mandatory administrative scheme? What’s the next direction in which the industry, collectively, will choose to travel?
Gwyn Williams, the chair of the New Zealand Winegrowers Sustainability Committee and a man with 31 years of Kiwi vineyard-managing experience, thinks that the national wine sustainability movement has stalled. I wonder if that stall is because there isn’t clear consensus on what’s next. Organic Winegrowers New Zealand is aiming for 20% certified organic vineyards by 2020. The president of that organization, James Milton (also the winemaker at the Demeter-certified biodynamic Milton Estate in Gisborne), said today that the organic and biodynamic folk need to work harder at speaking the languages of sustainability and science instead of isolating themselves in their own strange little corner as they’ve traditionally been wont to do. But, in a later session also on sustainability, Chris Howell of Prospect Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay mentioned being unconvinced about the totality of organic practices from a science perspective. A walk through the vendor’s area made it obvious that he’s not alone.
Is organic the next step beyond “sustainable?” Or biodynamic the next step beyond organic? Or organic-with-caveats — organic, but we’re not certified because we do X when we really have to, as I hear many vineyard managers say? Or just raising the bar on those key performance indicators about which the sustainability folk are always talking? More and better of the same, or something new?
If the New Zealand wine industry can decide, together, what better-than-sustainable looks like, they’ll achieve it. They don’t talk very loud, and they’re the most collectively laid-back people I’ve met, but I’ve learned in the past nine months not to underestimate the extraordinary Kiwi capacity for getting the job done.
Napa was hit by a 6.0 (read, major) earthquake early this morning that seriously damaged wineries, historic public buildings, houses, and people. Unless you’ve been wearing a cardboard box on your head since you woke up this morning, I’m sure you knew that already. Social and traditional media are laden with images of barrels and bottles in disarray, and Facebook tells me that several people I know needed to evacuate their homes on account of gas leaks.
The news coverage has (at least thus far) given prime attention to the visually arresting wine-related damage. Understandably so: just seeing a photo of Matthaisson’s tumbled barrel room on Facebook this morning took me aback, and I can only imagine how their team must have felt when they walked in. It goes without saying: wine is irreplaceable.
But amidst all of the appropriate shock and horror at the wine-related damage, it becomes too easy to forget the people who we aren’t seeing on the news. News outlets are interviewing representatives at wineries and resorts. Most pictures I’ve seen are of well-known wineries, upper-middle class houses, well-to-do folk who should have good insurance policies, or historic public buildings. That’s not everyone. Napa’s fire chief has been reported saying that one of the six known structural fires took out four mobile homes and damaged two others. Folks dependent on assorted retail and seasonal work will be disproportionately hurt by closures during clean-up. So will seasonal agricultural workers without home and property insurance.
The governor has declared a state of emergency, which I can only hope will support putting things back together for ALL residents of Napa County. Still, a chance of help later does little for people without a cushion now.
The media is doing a terrible job of directing public thinking around this event. It’s nice to know that the Meadowood (a leading luxury resort in the area) was undamaged, but I honestly don’t care; they can afford to deal. I care a great deal for the wineries who have lost wine in bottle or barrel. But as we express our solidarity with winemakers who have lost their work, let’s not forget the impoverished who are, perhaps, going to have an even harder time putting their lives back together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.