For organic wine, sharing information isn’t always better

Premise one: Organic labeling laws are complicated, non-intuitive, vary from country to country, and are disputed more or less everywhere.

Premise two: When Joni Mitchell sings “give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees,” not everyone agrees with her, and some people think the spotty apples aren’t going to be very good.*

Warrant: Because consumers are confused by what “organic” means and because they associate “organic” with forlorn and spotty produce from the non-local and meagre selection at the grocery store, some may think that wine labeled “organic” is sub-par.

The most useful part of a recently published study on “eco-labeling” may not be the data, but the way the authors explain why it’s worth talking about in the first place. They explain “eco-labeling” as being about alleviating information asymmetry between producers and consumers, which is another way of saying that labelling is about trying to share what we know. And with wine, knowledge often goes along with enthusiasm.

Organic wine marketing ends up singing the same song I hear so often from folk in science communication: I know that my science is phenomenally exciting/important; I want to tell everyone else about it; why can’t I get everyone else as excited as I am? All of that excitement and deep caring makes it easy to fall into the solipsistic trap of telling everyone else all of the great details about what I do so that they can know how great it is, too.

Delmas and Lessem’s is only the most recent in a line of studies saying that more sharing isn’t always better. In an online simulated buying exercise, they asked potential wine buyers to choose which bottle they’d prefer to buy amongst a few invented-but-likely California cabernet sauvignons** with labels indicating “organic wine,” “made with organic grapes,” or none of the above. The wines were, in different versions of the exercise, from Napa or from Lodi and priced at $8, $15, $22, or $29.*** Their survey respondents were mostly Californian and younger, better educated, and a good deal better off than national averages, but so are a lot of potential wine consumers and what they found is consistent with previous studies.

A third of their respondents buy organic products on at least half of their shopping trips and 20% said they belonged to some kind of pro-environmental organization, and these folk were more inclined to prefer the organic-labeled wines. But better educated and wealthier respondents were more inclined to choose wines without organic designations. Lower-priced Lodi wines with organic on the label faired better than higher-priced “organic” or “made with organic grapes” Napa wines.

All of this is to say that this study is one more in a pile saying that consumers — even well-heeled Whole Foods-shopping eco-conscious Californian consumers — probably still think organic wine is wan and spotty. If you’re trying to sell premium wine and your environmental conscious leads you down the organic route, more information isn’t necessarily better.

The problem with marketing studies is that despite all their schmancy formulae and big tables full of numbers and tests for statistical significance, they don’t tell us much. Did people who didn’t prefer organic wines (especially the regular organics buyers) avoid them because of past experiences with icky low-quality bottles? Because they’ve heard stories about other people’s experiences with icky low-quality bottles? Because they know the details of the sulfite controversy, or just assume that organic wine isn’t as good, or because they think organic wines are overpriced or have cooties? If we can get those marketing folk to spend some of their time talking to people instead of just crunching numbers, organic supporters will have a better song to sing when we come back to those labeling disputes.


*Writes with sadness the person who’s been happily munching spotty apples from a nearby feral apple tree  that easily beat out any of the overhybridized, artificially sweet specimens from the grocery store or even the farmers’ market.

**Amusingly enough, their likely-sounding fictitious wine brands were common French surnames. Because, sensibly enough, consumers expect Californian wines to look and sound French. Really?

***Though how you simulate a believable $8 Napa cab, organic or not, is beyond me. Have I mentioned my qualms with marketing studies? This study makes a lot of assumptions that I find unwarranted, but none that substantially affect the core findings of their survey.

If you could learn which yeasts actually ferment your natural fermentation, would you?

The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has launched a new winery service. Winemakers can now submit samples from natural/wild/native/non-inoculated ferments (or, conceivably, from an inoculated one if they wanted to) and, courtesy of “next-generation DNA sequencing*,” receive a profile of the yeast species present along with approximate percentages. An additional step can give them more specific strain information, and the AWRI can also isolate, freeze down, and store the main yeasts from your sample as “insurance” if you need them in future vintages.

This sounds like marvelous geekery. Winemakers who don’t inoculate probably wonder about what’s going on in there at least occasionally. What I’m unsure of is whether this yeast profile is a useful management tool beyond a fun way to satisfy your curiosity (or give even more detailed information to very well-heeled consumers). I imagine the following scenarios:

Good natural ferment — You like what’s happening with your uninoculated wine. You’re going to keep making it even if you learn that some generally undesirable bug has part of the action because you know you like the results. Maybe having a yeast profile sets you a benchmark so that if the ferment stops working in some future vintage you can send in a sample for comparison and see if the microbial blend changed, but how does that information then change what you do?

Bad natural ferment – You’ve tried not inoculating a wine and it isn’t working for you for whatever reason. You send in a sample from one that didn’t work (too slow, undesirable flavors, or didn’t finish fermentation). Maybe you’ll learn that some toxic bug is out-competing the yeasts you need to grow, or you’ll identify the source of that high volatile acidity you’ve been combatting. What then? The natural ferment still doesn’t work. Can you tweak pH or how much sulfur dioxide you use or your oxygen management to encourage more favorable microbes against the enemy? I don’t know how likely someone is to successfully adjust or amend a natural ferment to work better at that level — from the perspective of philosophy as well as how likely it is to work — but if you’re going to try these strategies, you’ll likely know to try them without knowing which yeast species are involved.

Planning a natural ferment – Maybe you run a test natural ferment to see whether you like what it does, and you want to “double-check” that it’s okay. The primary information you need stays the same: does it ferment to dryness? does it move fast enough to satisfy your economic needs and peace of mind? does it taste good? These will remain the primary drivers of your decision to move ahead or not, independent of what you learn from that yeast profile.

This service can help answer that perennial question of whether the yeasts in your “wild” ferment are really wild or just commercial yeast strains that have colonized your winery, and to some extent (especially if you go down to that extra strain level sequencing) the degree to which your ferment is different from some other winery’s. But the question — the AU $275 question for running a single sample, or AU $792 for the recommended panel of three samples per ferment — is this: will the extra information change what you do?

Nevertheless, forward-thinking actionability isn’t everything. Even if a winery never tries to replicate a previous successful wine by inoculating with its bespoke mix of strains banked through the system (that seems unlikely to succeed simply given the enormous variability in other parameters affecting wine quality directly and indirectly via influencing yeast growth), a retrospective look at yeast mixes in multiple vintages of the same natural ferment could be interesting. Did a change in viticultural management practices, or source of grapes, or fermenting conditions correlate with a clear change in microbial populations? That prospect makes me hope for two things. First, that a winery (or a dozen or two) will use this as a tool for looking back at the path they’ve taken and not just down at where they’re standing. Second, that when they do, they’ll share.


*Next-generation DNA sequencing (this introduction from Nature is dated and technical, but it’s also open-access; the article on Wikipedia is also quite good) is a collection of methods so called because they rely on new strategies for sequencing DNA — not just tweaks of the old traditional way, but really new ways of solving the problem — that let us do things differently, faster, and more efficiently. The most important things to know about next-generation sequencing are that, 1) it’s not a method, but a general term for a whole bunch of methods; 2) the idea has been around since 2008, which doesn’t mean that any of those methods can’t be cutting edge but which does mean that they’ve “trickled down” to the general market by now; and 3) they allow for pulling many sequences from many different organisms out of a single small sample. Old sequencing methods required a relatively large sample of (preferably) a single pure target sequence or else the signals would get so jumbled up that the whole instrument read-out would just look like soup (as I recall well from my first sequencing experiments as an undergrad in 2002-3). Now, we can sequence even single stretches of DNA, and even many different single stretches all hanging out in the same sample from some real-life microbe-rich setting: soil, seawater, or an active ferment. And we can do it quickly and inexpensively enough, now, to offer it as a commercial service. Remember those predictions about what genomics would bring us back around 2000, when sequencing genomes really hit the news? We’re getting there.

Felton Road’s low-tech precision winemaking


Gareth King at Felton Road

“Precision viticulture” refers to a technology-laden mission to optimize and equalize grape quality at a local level, decreasing variability plot-by-plot, potentially even plant-by-plant. By collecting data on water use, vine vigor, temperature, soil conditions, and other parameters at multiple points across a vineyard, vignerons can understand how different areas of the vineyard are differing in their performance and, consequently, irrigate or fertilize or prune or harvest or what-have-you differently to suit. Affordable GPS systems, high-tech mapping with geographic information systems (GIS), and lots of spiffy little wireless sensors have made all of this possible and even reasonably practical for vineyards within the past several years (Australia’s national Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been notably pushing PV adoption in that country). Oddly enough, though, I hadn’t really thought about what an equivalent “precision winemaking” strategy might look like before a week or two ago.

A week or two ago I paid my first visit (of many, I expect) to Central Otago, New Zealand’s most southerly wine region, famous for pinot noir, Wild West-style scenery, and hordes of international backpackers. When I made arrangements to stop by Felton Road, I was warned that I wouldn’t be able to meet Blair Walter, the winemaker, because he planned to rack that day. (Rack = remove wine from one container to another, most often for the purpose of separating it from the lees, the dead yeast cells and other particles that collect at the bottom of the barrel or tank.)  When I learned how he was racking — he found a few minutes to come out and talk in between barrels — the first thing that came to mind was, “gosh, this sounds like precision winemaking.” If precision viticulture is approaching the vineyard on a vine-by-vine basis, then precision winemaking seems as though it should be approaching wine on a barrel-by-barrel basis. Far from technology-laden, though, Walter’s method is simple, elegant, and light on gadgetry.

Their pinot noir is made like this:

1. Crush grapes into stainless steel fermenter tanks. Ferment.

2. Press and transfer wine to barrel. Let wine sit in barrel until February (in Otago, that’s about ten months after harvest).

3. Rack wine off lees, out of barrel and into tanks.

4. Bottle.

Racking happens only once. Walter says that everything that comes out of the barrel during that single racking goes into the bottle. With that single control point before bottling, he sounds fairly obsessive about ensuring sure that he sees everything that comes out of those barrels. Unsurprisingly, he uses a Bulldog Pup, a clever little racking wand that  moves wine by positive displacement instead of active pumping. Positive displacement functionally pushes — “displaces” — the wine out of the barrel by filling the barrel with gas. The barrel is sealed save for a tube pushing the gas in and the tube letting the wine out so that pumping in gas increases the pressure inside the barrel; the wine has nowhere to go but out the exit tube. Bulldog Pups are far more gentle than any pump. They can also virtually eliminate oxygen exposure during racking when nitrogen or argon is used to do the pushing.

Neither of those is Walters’ main reason for using the Pup. He even uses plain-old forced atmospheric air, replete with oxygen, to push. After ten months undisturbed in barrel, the wine can use the oxygen exposure. His reason for racking this way is so that he can watch the wine as it comes up the tube (through a conveniently placed sight glass) and decide on a barrel-by-barrel basis what to leave behind. Bulldog Pups have a foot that will automatically shut off flow at a pre-set level: a winemaker can decide to leave four inches of lees in each barrel, set the foot appropriately, and then leave the cane to mind itself while his attention is elsewhere. Walters doesn’t automate, and the only person who racks is him.

Walters’ approach reminded me of what his colleague Gareth King, Felton Road’s viticulturist, said about how he practices precision viticulture. The man doesn’t seem to want for much, but when we encountered the harvest crew coming in from a morning vineyard walk, he said, “You know my best technology? They just walked past us.”

I can’t say what difference GPS sensors versus summer interns might make, but I can say that Felton Road’s pinots were among the best I tasted. Central Otago pinots can be a bit clunky, but Felton Road’s are texturally lighter and more elegant, with plenty of clean raspberry and strawberry aromas up front backed up with enough earthiness and tannins to keep things interesting. The 2012 Bannockburn and 2012 Cornish Point bottlings seemed to walk that balance of lightness and structure particularly well.

Precision viticulture is veritably new. It’s downright revolutionary, really, in terms of how it changes the way vignerons can think about vineyard management. But technology isn’t the only way to pay attention to details. The old-fashioned strategy of carefully and consistently observing what’s happening with individual vines isn’t an exact substitute for GPS-enabled water uptake meters: the technology is more precise and lets the vineyard manager put his eyes in a lot of different places at the same time — and collect data in his sleep or during family meals, which has to be a real boon. And I can imagine monitoring individual barrels with some kind of wireless oxygen sensor that can track and measure differences between how each barrel transmits oxygen — since every barrel is unique in this respect — and lets winemakers make corresponding individualized adjustments. No amount of careful personal attention could do that.

But Walters’ version of precision winemaking and King’s version of precision viticulture will serve as a good reminder for me every time I read a journal article or press release about some nifty new precision gadget. Some of the best technology comes on two legs.