An unfortunate opportunity for misdirection, or, lack of evidence to support a biodynamic tasting calendar

A group of New Zealand sensory scientists have just published an article entitled “Expectation or sensorial reality? An empirical investigation of the biodynamic calendar for wine drinkers” with the open-access journal PLoS One. Without any offense whatsoever to the researchers, this is a bad paper, not because of how the research has been done, but because of how easily it’s likely to be misunderstood.

The study’s question was whether tasting wine on a fruit versus a root day, as determined by a biodynamic tasting calendar, affects how the wine tastes. The study’s method was to have 19* wine experts tasteT the same 12 New Zealand pinot noirs on a root day and again on a fruit day (or a fruit day and again on a root day; half of the tasters followed each order), scoring each wine (a few times over, for statistical consistency) as “low” to “intense” on each of twenty factors like “sweetness,” “tannins,” “expressiveness,” and “overall structure.”

The study’s conclusion was that the difference between fruit and root days made no difference to how tasters perceived pinot noirs in any way. That’s unsurprising for two reasons – that the idea of a biodynamic tasting calendar is hogwash, and that biodynamics is a spiritual system that can’t for the most part be relevantly tested by reductionist scientific means – but that’s not my main point.

My main point is that this paper is far too likely to be taken as empirical evidence that biodynamics is a load of nonsense, even though that’s not what the paper says. The paper says that perceptions of what’s in a bottle don’t systematically change between days categorized in a particular way by a calendar devised by Maria and Matthias Thun in 2010. Information about how they devised this calendar is difficult to find online, though I admittedly didn’t try very hard.

The question doesn’t address a core principle or practice of biodynamic agriculture. All the same, it’s far too likely to be inappropriately co-opted to support the “biodynamics doesn’t work when put to the empirical scientific test” argument even though the paper doesn’t support that argument. This danger of inadvertent misapprehension (or deliberate misapplication) is worse because of the relatively few peer-reviewed scientific papers published about biodynamics, which means that this one will get a relatively larger share of attention now and in future reviews than it would otherwise. Moreover, PLoS One is a generalist journal, and so this paper will be read by a lot of people who don’t know enough about biodynamics or wine to clearly distinguish biodynamic-guided tasting from biodynamic agriculture. That’s unfortunate. 

About those two reasons why this article’s findings are unsurprising. The first is that the idea that wine tastes different depending on astral movements just doesn’t cohere with, and indeed is contradicted by, enough other forms of knowledge to give it any credence. Bottled wine changes over time – call it “alive, “if you’d like – but over months and years, not days. And even without attacking biodynamics as a knowledge system, we have a lot of reasons to believe that astral movements don’t affect day-to-day life on earth.**

The second is that biodynamics is a “spiritual” system, which is to say that its efficacy is at least in some ways tied up with belief and personal development. Biodynamics treats the farm as a coherent ecosystem or “single, self-sustaining unit,” of which the farmer is a part. By that biodynamic logic, it makes sense that the caring, positive, trusting farmer is part of the efficacy of biodynamics on a farm, and that removing that person – or, indeed, isolating any one element in the biodynamic system away from the rest for the purposes of a controlled scientific trial – will disrupt the system.

All of that applies to biodynamic agricultural practices which, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think make a good deal of sense for the same reasons that following strange diets often benefits the dieter: in paying caring, positive attention to what you’re doing, you’ll probably do it better. Call it the placebo effect, though thinking about the farm as an ecosystem affected by everything you put into it and a living thing deserving of care is more than just the power of positive thinking; that’s good environmental stewardship. I can’t say the same about the biodynamic tasting calendar.

Of course, the placebo effect usually isn’t a bad thing, either. If opening your favorite bottles on fruit days helps you enjoy your wine more, who am I to say that you shouldn’t enjoy your wine? Just don’t use this new research as a reason why you (or, heaven forbid, someone else) shouldn’t enjoy a biodynamic one.

 

*Which makes you wonder what was wrong with the twentieth person’s data, or whether someone came down with a cold or had to go home to clean up an overflowing toilet.

**Beyond things like the psychological and sociological influence of full versus new moons, for example, which is a different matter and an important point, given how human psychological influences can ramify.

Analytical chemistry says that Scotch whiskys really are different

Short: The Scotch industry has new scientific evidence that different single malts and blended Scotch whiskys are complex and distinctly different from one another. (Unlike, the suggestion might be, some mass-produced American “craft” whiskeys.)

Long: You can learn a lot about a field by its acronyms. Acronyms arise for awkward word-strings that a certain flavor of professional uses often but everyone else uses infrequently enough for English not to have a better and less cumbersome word for whateveritis. Winemakers talk about MOG: Material Other than Grapes.* MOG is interesting because winemakers are generally trying to get rid of it. Mass spectrometry experts talk about NOM: Natural Organic Material. Wine is a NOM. NOM is interesting because it’s replete with myriad compounds at miniscule concentrations and therefore helps spectrometer-ers figure out how good their techniques are. Mass spec is interesting to NOM-lovers because its a good way to learn about the composition of the NOM. And who are NOM-lovers? You are. Wine is a NOM. So is whisky.

A batch of analytical chemists from Scotland has just published a new article (open-access) in the Journal of the American Society of Mass Spectrometry (no, I didn’t know that existed, either) applying a particularly sensitive and wide-seeking version of mass spectrometry (more detail on what that means below**) to quantify the complexity of single malt and blended Scotch. Across 85 different commercial whiskies, they found 4271 unique molecular fingerprints – not precisely the same as identifying 4271 unique molecules because of the kind of data mass spec generates, but definitely evidence that whiskies are very, very complex mixtures. Only 407 of those probably-molecules were common to every whisky, and only about a thousand were common to 75% of the samples. In short, whiskys are highly variable, and perhaps even more complex than you’ve been imagining.

That result should please the SWRI – an acronym you’ll recognize if you’re in the spirits trade and that I should otherwise explain stands for the Scotch Whisky Research Institute – who provided funding for the study. A cadre of American “craft” whiskeys have been attacked from many quarters (including NPR and Serious Eats) for being remarkably similar across brands and price points and, not unrelatedly, for originating in the same industrial production facility in Indiana. Funding analytical chemists in Edinburgh looks like a Scottish move to assert that Scotch is the real deal, and maybe that consumers’ money is well-spent trying honest-to-goodness different brands.

That implication brings us back to the NOM. For the chemists, the choice of NOM isn’t precisely inconsequential – I know that the lead author on this paper is a NOM-lover himself, and they obviously wouldn’t have won funding from the whisky industry if the lab was studying, say, latex wall paint. But this study is published in a journal of mass spectrometry, and at least a large fraction of the point here is about demonstrating the prowess of their hardware and analytical methods. And that point has to do with the kind of data this study provides. We know that whiskys contain a lot of unique molecules, and we know that different whiskys contain lots of different molecules. What we don’t know is anything about how or whether those molecular differences translate to sensory differences. But since the SWRI is interested in Scotch, not just in NOMs, I suspect that we may be seeing that sensory study soon.

 

* Material other than grapes that ends up in collection bins with grapes, not all non-grape matter everywhere; winemakers might get accused of singlemindedness, but they’re not that bad.

**Mass spectrometry, broadly speaking, is a method to identify chemicals by their mass which, given that every kind of atom (think the periodic table) has a unique mass and molecules are defined by their atomic composition (and how those atoms are arranged, which makes life more complicated), makes mass spec something approaching a molecular fingerprint. Mass spectrometry, narrowly speaking, is any one of many, many different versions of that general principle, all of which have their own acronyms. These folk sent their 85 samples of fine Scotch through ESI-FT-ICR MS, which means electrospray ionization-Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry, which means that the scientists didn’t have to decide in advance which compounds they wanted to look for.

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.

Continue reading