Is wine writing becoming better?

Is wine writing improving? Someone or other asks me this question fairly often. My short answer is “no.” Here’s my longer answer.

To judge whether or not something is becoming better, you have to know what improvement is. Much of what we (popular media, wine writers, academics) say about “progress” isn’t of much use for this reason.

So let’s think about the purposes wine writing can serve:

  • Accurately describe wine – only useful if we define what “accurately” means, which means creating a hierarchy of wine values with one way of judging at the top.
  • Make wine seem appealing
  • Entertain
  • Sell more wine (allowing that wines that consumers think sound exciting and wines that consumers want to buy are two different categories)
  • Create a sense of community —  by inviting you to share the writer’s experience. If a tasting note is written in a way that lets the reader identify with the experience of tasting — to think that she could be there tasting this, too — she becomes part of a “we” group with the writer, which builds a sense of identifying with wine and wine people. Researchers call this a “wine identity,” and both that identity and that idea of creating “we” groups is the subject of a fair bit of research.
  • Judge wine quality

A tasting note might beautifully describe, but do a terrible job of judging quality by creating a comparison with other wines. A tasting note might make a wine sound appealing without inviting a reader into the tasting experience. We can ask whether wine writing is becoming better at any one of these possible goals, and we could have a good conversation about that, but we’ll be talking about part of what wine writing does, not about whether wine writing is better.

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Have we domesticated yeast? Yes.

Common sense says that winemakers – and beer brewers, and bread bakers – were developing specialized Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeasts a good long while before Red Star marketed its first dried and packaged commercial product to the industry in 1965. Winemakers weren’t inoculating ferments with an aluminum foil packet they bought at the store, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t inoculating, maybe with a little bit of an already-active ferment, maybe just by having a conducive winery environment where the right kinds of yeast were happy to make a home. Either way, the yeast you’d find in any given winery or brewery weren’t the same as the yeast you’d pick up off the street, or the same as what you’d find in the next alcoholic beverage factory down the road.

Plenty of evidence, old and new, supports that story. But did those yeast become different simply because they were isolated from each other, like Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches? Or did they change because they became domesticated, because brewers and winemakers cultivated and selected them? In other words, what kind of difference did the humans make to the yeasts’ evolution?

The theory basically goes like this. If yeast populations developed in different ways just because they were physically separated, then their genomes should look like what you expect from “wild” yeast. If humans domesticated them, they should be less genetically fit, because they’ve grown accustomed to being specially cared for and protected by humans and have lost some of their capacity to live on their own.

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The neurophysiological shape of wine expertise (and why reports that somms are Alzheimer’s-resistant are wrong)

Even if you think of your brain as a muscle, you probably don’t think about it literally bulking up as a result of exercise. It does, at least in some cases. Master sommeliers – professionals who we assume (and sure hope) have intensively developed senses of smell – have more white matter in regions of the brain associated with olfaction, according to new research (open-access) comparing images of master somm’s brains with those of randomly wine inexpert university students. Very similar patterns of brain-buffness have been found in the heads of professional perfumers.

There’s a funny paradox at play here. On the one hand, smell is probably the least understood of the senses – at least if we’re only counting the canonical ones. On the other, in part because it’s so little understood, smell is a favorite subject for this kind of study. You might suspect that smell is also useful for being simple and isolated from other elements of mental function. It’s not.

One reason for being interested in the brain’s anatomy of smell is to test the limits of neuroplasticity – how much our brains can change after we become adults. (How much can it change? A lot more than previous models of human development allowed.) At least in the United States, most wine experts will have learned their craft as adults. Another reason for smell-focused research is that olfactory regions are among the first to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to the extent that smell impairment is being considered an early warning sign of those diseases. That link is especially interesting in light of the mountain of scientific and lay-person evidence linking smell with memory.

I’m still waiting for the study investigating whether well-trained oenophiles have better memories or are less prone to Alzheimer’s. Which, contrary to reports by writers who actually earn salaries for their work, is not what this study did. This is observational research about neuroplasticity and developing expertise, about the capacity of the adult brain to change shape with training. No one investigated rates of Alzheimer’s amongst aging sommeliers. No one gave them memory tests. Certainly no one sat around and watched the somms who took part in this study into their retirement years to check up on their mental acuity. Even if they had, too few sommeliers were involved to make any kind of statistically significant judgment even about a disease that the US National Institute on Aging calls the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

We can say that the effects of intensive sensory training are apparent on an MRI. We can’t say that becoming an expert wine-sniffer prevents Alzheimer’s. Not yet.