Why writing about wine and health is a dead-end

My August article for Palate Press is a brief update on some new research about wine and cancer. It’s a tricky subject. Trying to determine the relationship between two highly variable things is always tricky, and cancer and drinking are highly variable. Cancer comes in a lot of different forms – all breast cancers or colon cancers aren’t the same – and affects a lot of different kinds of people, and we don’t even know about all of the different factors that influence when and how it progresses. Meanwhile, people’s drinking habits are a lot more complex than those abstinence-light-moderate-heavy drinker scales make it seem. Do you drink wine, beer, spirits, or a combination? What kinds? Do you drink with meals, or alone? If you drink with food, what are you eating? Do you have a drink a day all week, or seven drinks all in one setting, and is your “drink” anything like my “drink?” Are you happy while you’re drinking, or sad?

The wine-and-health story, or the wine-and-cancer story, consequently has to be a lot more complicated than “drinking good” or “drinking bad.” As I point out in the Palate Press article, this is a good thing. We’re understanding enough about disease and lifestyle to stop doing the lifestyle modification equivalent of treating all ailments with leeches, recommending that everyone stop drinking because drinking is bad, and to start asking why and when drinking might be a bad idea.

Here’s my problem. Every time I write about wine and health, I find myself wanting to shorten the entire 1200-ish word article to one sentence: “Drink moderately, especially with food; don’t go overboard, and don’t worry too much about the whole thing.” Continue reading

Is there a difference between Apothic Red and your average Napa cab?

My Palate Press article for July asks whether wine is becoming sweeter, and why. It may seem a stupid question. Of course wine is becoming sweeter. Ask everyone who’s been talking about Meiomi for the past week. But there’s a problem. Sweet wine has always been praised as a good things. Ask the Greeks, or the Romans, or John Locke. Now, their definition of “sweet” and ours might not be the same, and no one’s going to pull out a bottle they’ve been saving from Aristotle’s wine cellar to prove the case one way or the other, but we know that sweet wine isn’t just the new tipple of the undereducated. Syrupy Tokaji isn’t called the wine of kings for nothing.

It earned that name, though, because it was rare, precious, and frightfully expensive, not just because it’s delicious. No question that the various, dubious miracles of modern technology make it possible for everyday wine to be sweeter than ever. Excellent filtration systems keep bugs from lapping up extra sugar and spoiling wines with residual sugar after bottling. A lot of wine without residual sugar tastes sweeter because of riper fruit flavors and higher alcohol (alcohol tastes sweet), thanks to the fashionability of extra “hang time,” warmer climates, and all manner of viticultural improvements. The modern palate has come to expect (and demand, it seems) those flavors in unprecedented ways.

Apothic Red and your average popular Napa cabernet both taste sweet. So, is there a difference? Simon Woolf, who always has something intelligent to say, pointed out in a comment on that Palate Press piece that I could just have easily argued that wine is becoming blander, rather than sweeter, and that the palate of the average consumer has been dumbed down. Are Apothic Red and your average modernly-sweet dry red wine part of the same trend, or do they represent different ones?

Simon calls them different, but I’d say that they’re the same idea taken to different degrees. Mass-market wines, whether $8 grocery store blends, or $22 California pinots, or $60 Napa cabs, are made to sell; sweet sells because it takes so little effort to appreciate, and because it suits the modern ketchup palate. Having more money to spend doesn’t always mean having spent more of it developing your palate.

The counter-argument says super-ripe cabs are a phenomenon of winemakers/growers playing with their new toys. We can make riper wines, so we will make riper wines because they’re new, and novel, and maybe because they demonstrate New World prowess at ripening and our God-given superiority over the French and their inconsistent vintages. Cheap sweet wines, on the other hand, are just pandering to the soda-swilling public, plus covering up for grapes that have nothing else to offer flavor-wise.

The original winemaking motivation behind Apothic and modern cab might be different, though I’d expect that anyone who made high-quality overripe reds for the novelty has gotten bored and moved to something more interesting. The reason why they stick, though? The same. Over-hybridized year-round picked-to-ship grocery store produce, packaged products engineered with sugar and salt for maximum acceptance with minimum effort, and refrigerators (less call for fermented foods, and less spoilage, frankly) haven’t dumbed down everyone’s palates. If you’re an American, you’re more likely to prefer molecular gastronomy to McDonalds if you’re well-off, it’s true. But then you’re also not the person buying sweet-ripe Napa cabs; you’re pouring Assyrtiko with that kimchi (because let’s be honest; you’re eating kimchi, and half the folk eating molecular are only doing it because it’s trendy). Apothic, Meiomi, and high-end fruit bombs are all doing the same thing for people whose palates have more in common than their pocketbooks. Why is Meiomi, a flagrantly sweet red wine, doing so well at $22? Because a lot of ketchup palates have found mid-range PR jobs at dot-coms and the like and don’t want to take $12 bottles to a party. And because our idiotic drinking laws and backward wine-consuming culture meant they never learned about all of the other interesting flavors in wine growing up, but that is a handful of different questions for another day.


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.