Standardized tasting: Could wine be like Thai food?

Wine tasting is astonishingly non-standardized. In an era in which kids’ writing on high-stakes tests is routinely being graded by computer algorithms*, computerized tongues still have a pretty limited use in grading wine. Sensory scientists try to standardize their human tasting panels as much as possible by training people to recognize standard smells and tastes and by using various statistical maneuvers to filter out individual variation. But wine tasting in nearly every important and interesting way involves everyone’s palates being a bit different. The question is: are we tolerating that difference or celebrating it? If we could really standardize wine tasting, would we want to?

My June piece for Palate Press is about a phenomenon, mostly marvelous but also a bit frightening, that could help a standardization agenda. Wine changes in our mouths, thanks to salivary enzymes and bacteria with more enzymes that create aromatic compounds from previously unaromatic ones. Because both the bacteria and the enzymes are different for different people, it’s likely that we’re each tasting the same wine a bit differently, not just because our physical apparatus for tasting is different — different numbers of taste buds and so on — but because the molecules we’re smelling are actually a bit different.

This is, on the one hand, fantastic. Not only is the science just plain interesting, but it’s one more part of an explanation for a common but peculiar and sometimes frustrating experience: multiple people taste the same wine, but taste different things. On the other hand, it opens up some frightening prospects. If we have individual variations, then we’re likely to find some way to judge those differences and make some better or worse or ideal or unacceptable. Will prospective judges for strenuous wine competitions need to spit into a sample cup for the sake of enzymatic analysis and be eliminated if they don’t meet the standard protocol?

Last year, the Thai government released an electronic tongue expressly designed to protect would-be eaters of Thai food from incorrectly prepared culinary monstrosities. (It occurs that the Thai government feels about its food something of the way France has historically felt about its language.) The machine awards a sample a score on a 100-point scale; 80 is the threshold for an “acceptable” version of a dish. The dense politics surrounding who gets to define the standards might be the only reason why a similar internationally distributable box for Bordeaux or Burgundy hasn’t yet been marketed.

Thailand’s authenticity verifier relies on standards generated by Thai university students: the scientists had students rank samples of a dish in terms of which they preferred. That strategy presumably worked well in a fairly homogenous cultural context and when we take it for granted that Thai people are the authorities on how Thai food should taste. Could the same ever be said for wine? I’d hazard that our global wine tasting palates — the way we educate ourselves to expect wine to taste — probably owe more to the oenophilous Brits, not only because they drank lots of wine but because they popularized a particular idea of wine appreciation and wine writing across their empire. Do we get British experts to generate our standards for good taste, or MW students, or some representative sample of global wine drinkers? And then, if your own tastes differ, are you wrong?

It may be that my notions about the validity of personal taste are peculiarly American, where individuality is so much a virtue that it’s hard to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t always feel the same way. But the question isn’t just about individuality, but about who sets the standards. Wine appreciators have spent a lot of energy convincing people who aren’t upper middle-class white British men that wine can be for them, too, and that what matters most is what you like, not what someone tells you you should like. Even if we can standardize wine tasting, actually doing so may work against what wine lovers at large are trying to achieve.



High alcohol wines dial down your brain (but does it matter?)

My April piece for Palate Press pokes at the question, “how can we really tell what we’re tasting” by removing as much of the subjective mess around language as we can and going straight to the brain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging — stop-motion shots of your brain in real time as you perform some kind of task, like tasting wine — we can look for differences in what parts of your brain are active when you’re sipping on wine A versus wine B and infer something about what effect they really have on you. Variations on the theme let us ask all manner of interesting questions. Make wine A and B the same, but tell tasters that one’s expensive and one’s cheap. Brain reward centers will light up more in response to the “expensive” wine. Or keep the wines the same and change the people. Trained sommeliers think demonstrably more and more analytically about wine tasting than casual sippers. Or try to pair up wines to be as similar as possible save for their alcohol level and ask whether tasters prefer the higher or lower alcohol versions.

Okay. The last one is  a stretch. Scientists have done it and shown that higher alcohol wines provoke less brain activation than their lower alcohol counterparts. That’s interesting, particularly because researchers expected the opposite. Instead of more intense wine provoking more intense sensation, it seemed that tasters had to work a bit harder to pay more attention to the subtle nuances in the less hit-you-over-the-head reds.

Okay. I suspect knowing this doesn’t change much for you if you’re a winemaker, but perhaps if you’re running complex formal tastings — either for sensory science experiments or to train sommeliers or diploma students — you now have more evidence to back using lower-alcohol wines to improve students’/subjects’ learning and focus.

But, can we say anything at all about whether tasters prefer the lower- or the higher-alcohol versions? Here’s where they’re stretching. Specific types of brain activation tell us things about pleasure, no doubt: we’ve identified “reward centers” and “pleasure centers” and we can even visualize people drawing associations with memory and emotions (perhaps you’ve made the acquaintance of your amygdala?). But to say that, because higher alcohol wines “dial down” the brain, relatively speaking, tells us nothing about what you should drink when you’re trying to maximize the pleasure of that evening out at the restaurant you’ve been anticipating for weeks.

Far too many other factors come to bear upon wine preference for us to imagine that these study results say much (if anything) about it. My somewhat embarrassing preference for light-bodied Willamette Valley pinot noir is a good example. I appreciate and enjoy virtually everything (just because I’ve never tasted a white zin I could enjoy doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist), but I have a soft spot for raspberry and pine and ocean spray-scented, fine-boned, earth and mushroom-framed pinot. Like the ones I grew up on as a kid scampering around a big front yard abutting a vineyard on Cooper Mountain. I have so many pleasant memories associated with that style of wine, long conversations with my father, warm evening light spreading across the great big round dining room table he made, and mud squishing through my toes while I picked the green beans that I’m going to prefer it, even if it turns out that they require less cognitive attention, even if every critic tells me that they’re poorly made, even if I learn to assess quality by other criteria.

Duh. I haven’t said anything earth-shattering. And, in one way, the difference between a marketing study and a neuroscience one is whether that gestalt gets captured in overall “behavior” or whether one factor is isolated and analysed. The neuroscience is still useful for describing how wine works (something marketing studies rarely do well, to be honest). But it does squat for speaking to complex behaviors made up of scores of these bitty considerations which we need to remember aren’t anywhere near as binary and are a whole lot messier than simple science like this fMRI study makes them seem. So let this be a counterpart to all of the enthusiastically reactionary science journalism that responds to press releases about people drinking wine in giant magnetic tubes by shouting “Science discovers high-alcohol wines aren’t really as good after all!” from their collective rooftop. Nope. We’re not there yet.

Ampelography –> Genetics –> ? Varieties –> Clones –> ?

How much difference does clone make to flavor, and where do we draw the line between important and unimportant differences? The line might really be between interesting and uninteresting differences; any difference is important if we choose to make it so. I’ve written on Palate Press this month about variety, clone, and treating pinot gris like pinot noir, which provokes an unsettling argument about what differences are important differences.

Before the global phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century, precisely identifying varieties was less crucial from a viticultural standpoint, bottles didn’t routinely carry variety information until the mid-20th c., and many from the Old World still don’t. But where variety is the way consumers make purchase decisions, some now go a step further and heralding specific clones, at least on websites and to wine writers.

We have reasonably fixed definitions for what constitutes a variety and a clone. A variety is the unique progeny resulting from a fertilized egg involving genetic reassortment between the DNA of two parents. A clone is a variant of a variety resulting from small genetic changes (usually spontaneous changes from random mutations) involving just those genes, not full-on mixing. Fine.

But those definitions are essentially arbitrary, or at least they could be otherwise. The technology we have defines how we can define a species, or a variety, or a clone. Clones are only clones when those genetic changes produce some big, obvious physical change that a grower will notice and decide she likes enough to cut and reproduce. Most genetic changes aren’t like that. Most probably don’t result in any important change to grape quality, but there’s likely a whole category of mutations that affect ripeness, phenols, canopy development, or whatever that go unnoticed — because they’re not big and obvious, maybe because they deal with invisible chemicals — but that affect quality parameters we care about.

We’re developing precision viticulture techniques that map vineyards at a sub-block and perhaps even individual vine level for differences in development and quality. As genetic testing becomes easier, precision vit could easily include genetically typing individual vines. Purchased stock should fit the known genetic profile of a known and loved clone bought from a certified facility, but older vineyards are going to be full of endless numbers of new…clones? Do we call them clones when they’ve not been selected and propagated?

The resolution at which we can define species — actually, let’s make it simpler and just say define differences — changes with the technology we have to do so. So we moved from ampelography to Mendel to DNA sequencing to the Robinson, Harding, and Vouillamoz tome outlining the genetic relationships of darn near most grape varieties on the planet. A splendid article from 1938 outlining principles for doing ampelography — distinguishing grape varieties by their physical characteristics — observes that botanical and horticultural classifications of grape varieties are different. The botanists want to describe family relationships, the horticulturists to create practical guides for distinguishing varieties, so we have the genetic tree and the field identification guide. Different purposes, different resolutions, different differences called out as important.

Resolution isn’t about “natural” differences. It’s about the degree of difference we decide is important. I’ve tasted pretty profound differences amongst different clones from the same vineyard when they’ve been vinified separately and before they’re blended together. They’re striking. They’re wonderful. My little wine writer soul wants to proclaim over new-found differences. Those differences seem important. But in older mixed-planting vineyards full of whatever happened to be around at the time, harvested and made all together as a “field blend,” variety may not even be all that important.

On the one hand, people like Matt Kramer have been urging growers (of pinot noir in particular) to plant lots of different clones as a prayer against the curse of boring wine. And researchers looking to natural grape genetic diversity for breedable salvation from Pierce’s Disease, powdery mildew, and other expensive threats caution against limiting and losing living genetic pools that could be irreplaceable in our time of future need. And yet, if those researchers succeed, growers will have first one, maybe eventually a handful of clones carrying those disease resistance genes that they’ll want (or be pressured to) plant.

As many winemakers tell me that they don’t want to talk about clones and wish people would stop asking about them as want to talk about little else; I suspect that there’s a poetry competition for odes to chardonnay “Mendoza” and pinot noir “Abel” running somewhere in New Zealand. It’s part of your story or it’s not. Great. But we can say the same thing about variety, and maybe all of this consumer interest in genetic differences is merely a fad. A century from now we could be talking about micro-clones, or about clades, or about specific genes a vine does or doesn’t carry, or about famous vineyards planted with an especially successful mix. Wine evolution, made possible with the support of genetics, but brought to you by the eddies of our changing attention spans.

On Palate Press: why authenticity makes most of us hypocrites, and why globalism makes it worse

My Palate Press article for this month is about why wanting authentic wine makes most of us hypocrites. I’m not talking about preaching wines of place in public and then buying Cupcake when no one’s watching at the grocery store, though there’s that. I’m talking about saying that we want wine to taste of its place, probably even truly believing it, but then really wanting wine to taste like the stuff we’re accustomed to liking. Drinking wine you like is fine — more than fine, in fact — but we run into real problems trying to compare or rank (formally or informally) wines from around the world: some authentic wines will always be underprivileged because their authentic flavors either don’t look like the established gold standards or just aren’t as nice. it leaves you one of three choices. 1. Drop ideas about wine tasting authentically of its place and look for producers who are just trying to match the global gold standards. 2. Burn the democratic wine flag and accept that some wines are the poor and downtrodden. 3. Stop comparing wines from different regions and love each in its own special, unique way. The argument in more detail, and with a cute dog picture, is here.

On Palate Press: Machine vs. hand-harvesting (and our future with robots in winemaking)

A few years back, a group of Auckland-based researchers established that machine-harvested Marlborough sauvignon blanc has higher aromatic thiol concentrations = tastes more intensely Marlborough sauv blanc-y = is better than wine from hand-harvested grapes. I don’t know how widely that logic is known amongst wine consumers, in New Zealand or elsewhere. Reading back labels in my local wine shop makes it clear that the hand-picked grapes = superior wine logic rules in the minds of marketers and, if they’re any bellwether (a worthwhile question), at least some consumers.

Marlborough sauvignon blanc aside, is that prejudice justified? My January piece for Palate Press addresses that question. The short answer is that hand-harvested grapes are in many settings more about feeling good about purchasing genuine artisan wine than about quality or flavor. The longer answer is here.

Saying that hand vs. machine harvesting is becoming less and less of a quality issue, with better equipment in the field and in the winery, isn’t the same as saying that the difference doesn’t matter. It does, to our perceptions of what we drink. But it’s also impossible not to see this as one more instance of Robots Will Take Our Jobs, and a particularly hard-hitting one with wine such a cultural icon. A lot of vacuous dithering takes place in the media around this topic (even in outlets like The Atlantic, though this piece from The Economist might be an exception) and, to be honest, I’m not sure that I have anything worthwhile to add. We’re headed, I think, for a major shift in how people work, earn money/obtain necessary resources, and spend their time. That shift may come in the form of an organized political (maybe governmental, maybe by large companies) decision to redefine work and money, or it may come as a necessary post-degenerate organic movement after the fall of Rome. Either way, being human, we’ll continue to find meaning in our work whether that means choosing to harvest grapes by hand because it’s meaningful to do so, even when a machine/robot can do a better job, by redefining wine quality such that the robot can’t do the job as well, or by understanding human winemaking as a conceptual art independent of the physical work of our hands.


On Palate Press: Water footprints and Waiheke (and chickens, again)

My Palate Press piece for this month (which I really wish was entitled something involving “water” to make the subject more clear) is a bit about Waiheke Island, just off the coast of Auckland, and a bit about water footprints in the wine industry. The relationship between the two is that Waiheke — shockingly, for a North American accustomed to consistent public amenities like central heating and easy wi-fi (both unlikely propositions in New Zealand) — has no public water supply. In good years, residents and businesses and wineries meet their individual needs either by collecting and filtering rainwater (most folk) or with a “water bore” into the under-island aquifer (large and/or resource-full folk). In bad years, all of the above buy water from private companies with private water bores, and do laundry less often.

Waiheke is a good reminder, though, that whether water comes out of a tap or off the cistern parked next to your car, it’s always coming from the same two places: the sky, or underground (which isn’t to say that the two aren’t connected, but only that it’s helpful to think of the two compartments). Tap water is a bit like packaged boneless skinless chicken breasts from the grocery store. Someone else has done all of the hard work for us. Both distance us from the hows and wheres of the stuff we use. Butchering chickens is a pain*. It makes endless sense to divide labor, specialize, and let someone else with better equipment and skills and economy of do it for you. And bake your bread, change your car’s oil, and collect and filter your water. Still, all of these things make it easier to abuse the system. We don’t pay as much attention to our dinner’s living conditions when it didn’t live with us before it appeared on the table, nor to how it died if we didn’t kill it. I’d never really thought about water that way before wandering around on Waiheke; I try to conserve it, but I don’t usually think so graphically about what my convenient kitchen faucet implies. I’d never wish drought on anyone (and California and its people have my sympathy). But maybe it’s no bad thing to look for a drinking fountain in a place with no public water and find none, and remember that I should be just as conscientious about my water as I am about my free-range, local, organic Sunday supper.

More about my Waiheke visit, and about water, is on Palate Press.

*As I know from recent experience. The Great Chicken Experiment is, regrettably, over. The first two hand-me-down hens lived happily with us until the neighbor’s rooster discovered them and decided that they were his, after which they lived happily with the neighbor until she decided she was done with poultry and she invited me to dispatch the lot of them (after which they lived in my freezer and my stockpot). Save the (charming, darling) several month-old chicks, who we adopted. Unfortunately, having been raised entirely outside in our mostly fenceless environs, they’d learned to be very freely free-range. A trip through someone’s spinach was more than anyone was willing to tolerate (save, maybe, the chickens) and we handed them on to someone else. We miss them, though my garden does not.

On Palate Press: Old wine research we’re still trying to finish

My piece for Palate Press this month asks what California (proto-Davis) wine researchers were doing in the era before mass spectrophotometers and DNA sequencers and even automated pH meters and all the other fancy stuff wine scientists consider essential today. The short story is that they were trying to figure out what grows best where, and how, which is fundamentally what we’re still trying to do. The long story is on Palate Press.

The long story didn’t have space for me to really geek out over the fun of reading old research articles. I think it’s fair to say that science writing — of the by scientists, for scientists variety — wasn’t as dry then as it is now, not just because antiquated language is quaint but because the distance between normal-talk and science-talk was shorter then than it is now. It’s pretty accessible and often entertaining. There’s the simple, voyeuristic pleasure of being astonished at just how backward they sometimes were, and sometimes at realizing that they weren’t as backward as we tend to assume. And then there’s the higher-order pleasure of making stories by connecting what they were doing to what we’re doing and finding new meaning in both the historical and the modern.

But reading about someone else geeking out over light archival wine reading isn’t near as fun as doing it yourself, and the archives of Hilgardia: a Journal of Agricultural Science from the University of California, including much about wine, are freely available via the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Respository. When so much is pay-walled and protected, free access to land grant university resources — not just for subscribers, not just for local winemakers, and not just for the taxpayers of California or even the United States — seems increasingly meaningful, and a good reminder of this massive, excellent, egalitarian knowledge-sharing project we practice through land-grant universities and agricultural extensions. I won’t ask you to excuse my unfashionable patriotism.

Yield and quality, and epistemology (on Palate Press)

An enormous lot has been said about the relationship, or lack thereof, between grape yield and wine quality. So why is my October piece for Palate Press about whether higher yields mean lower quality?

1. My Palate Press colleague W. Blake Gray took an interesting economic tack on the problem a few months ago, reminding me that I wanted to revisit what we know via the scientific approach.

2. I’ve been more than a bit obsessed with the contacts (and conflicts, and congruencies) between anecdotal and scientific knowledge of late. The yield-quality problem is a fantastic case of the scientific evidence we have strongly suggesting one position (higher yields ≠ lower quality) while some peoples’ experience suggests that more may be going on than science has yet to document.

3. It’s a perennial question for a reason (or two): it’s interesting, and it’s important. And revisiting interesting and important things is worthwhile.

4. Richard Smart wrote an article for Wine Business Monthly back in 2004 proving, via contrary anecdotes, that higher yields don’t always mean lower quality, and that the principle isn’t true from a scientific perspective. He also implied that anyone who thought that myth had a place in winemaking was 1) a moron, and 2) unscientific, and that riled my epistemological feathers enough to want to write on the same topic from a different (better)* perspective. More on myths another day.

The short version: the oft-cited yield-quality relationship is more about correlation than causation particularly from the perspective of the scientific evidence, but whenever we’re talking quality things get fuzzy (and social) and our perceptions about wine quality involve more than just measurable scientific variables.

The long version is here. 


* Yes. I’ve just compared myself to a highly-accomplished viticultural scientist and found him wanting. Dr. Richard Smart is a marvelous scientist. He also, by this single account at least (I’ve not tracked down more examples), has ideas about which forms of knowledge-making are valid that I find deeply misguided.

On Palate Press: Sustainability, in New Zealand and elsewhere

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.

Find the full article on Palate Press.

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.