Will magnetic yeast make better Champagne?

Wine Searcher ran a story this past week about new technology from the University of Ljubljana that speeds traditional sparkling wine processing times by magnetizing yeast cells. Magnetic nanoparticles affixed to the cells’ surface don’t interfere with fermentation and let winemakers literally and near-instantaeously pull the yeast into the neck of the bottle by applying a magnetic current. Since riddling — slowly inverting and rotating bottles to remove (unattractively cloudy) dead yeast after the secondary in-bottle fermentation responsible for effervescence-generation — traditionally takes a few months and a LOT of hands-on work, a 15-minute flip-a-switch solution looks pretty attractive. BUT:

Interesting fact #1 – This technology isn’t new, though applying it to the sparkling wine industry is. Bioengineers came up with magnetic yeast in 2009.

Interesting fact #2 – If actually adopted by the industry, magnetic yeast will be far from the only use of nanoparticles in food. Quite the contrary, which you know if you follow the American health and science news. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are common additives to everything from chewing gum and toothpaste to yogurt and soy milk, generally to the effect of making whateveritis whiter. Nanosilver particles are common both as agricultural pesticides and in antimicrobial coatings for household goods, and nanolipids and nanoproteins and assorted other nanostuff finds its way into all manner of food-related items. The consensus is that we don’t yet have a consensus on whether and to what degree ingesting nanoengineering is safe (a peer-reviewed take on that question here; a more accessible and more inflammatory story from Mother Earth News here). Logically, magnetic force should effectively pull all of the magnetic particles (made from magnetite, if the Ljubljana authors are using the same general strategy published in the 2009 paper) out of the wine, but nothing is perfect. If residual particles remain, drinking them might be a health risk, but it won’t be a unique one.

Interesting fact #3 – Alright; this one isn’t a fact. It’s a speculation based on fact. I speculate that we needn’t worry too much about magnetite in our celebratory libations. Champagne in particular and high-quality, methode champenoise sparkling wine in general, is not about fast. Exactly the contrary. Champagne legally has to spend at least 15 months in bottle and at least 12 months on the lees, and usually exceeds that by a year or two because age on the lees is vital to the flavor profile of high-quality sparkling. I reviewed some of those considerations in this article for Palate Press.

The problem with riddling isn’t the time per se so much as the labor: some poor guy has to spend his days jiggling bottles (and if champagne riddlers don’t have a high incidence of occupation-induced carpal tunnel syndrome, I suspect that it’s just going undiagnosed). The gyropalette solves that problem by loading a box full of bottles onto a modified forklift and letting the machine jiggle them for you. That bit of technology has been popular and successful, but it seems to me that it’s also a lot less expensive than magnetic yeast.

Think about it. Yeast reproduce in the bottle, a lot. So, every yeast cell used in inoculation needs to be loaded with magnetite particles to ensure that all of its many, many offspring has at least one magnetite particle.** Don’t even think about generating your own yeast innoculum. And that’s before we get to the magnetic set-up to actually pull down the yeast. I don’t know. Storing wine (and paying that poor guy) is expensive. Maybe this is a cost-effective solution. But if high-end producers aren’t going to be seduced by speed, and if lower-end producers are disinclined to spend more money on production technology, and if the wine industry in general tends to be stuck in the mud, I suspect we needn’t worry too much about drinking magnetite anytime soon.

** Maybe effective clarification doesn’t require that every yeast cell be magnetic, if the yeast tend to stick together (flocculate) and magnetic cells will help pull down their non-magnetic neighbors. Without reading the paper I don’t know, and since I can find neither the paper (maybe it’s not yet been published, or maybe it wasn’t published in English) nor the specific names of the researchers nor any other mention of the research on the University of Ljubljana’s website I have to speculate. It’s disturbing that I can’t find another source backing up the Wine-Searcher article (and I don’t personally know it’s author and can’t locate him via the usual tricks) but, then again, I don’t read Slovenian.

Hooray for Oregon: two counties vote for no GMOs

Oregon’s Josephine and Jackson counties have both, at least per the preliminary counts (official ones will take weeks), voted in favor of banning the planting of GMO crops inside their borders. Find accounts of the highly contested ballot measures at Oregon Live and The NationCommercial GMO wine grapes aren’t yet available, but it’s likely they will be soon with research in that direction underway in Florida and France. GMO wine yeast are already for sale — ML01, which has the bacterial genes for malolactic fermentation — though whether the ban applies to its use, since the yeast aren’t a crop per se, is a question.

Plenty of pro-GMO publicity relies on the lack of scientific proof that GMO foods are in any way harmful to eat or nutritionally inferior. That’s true, but it’s also not the point. In my opinion, the strongest reasons to oppose GMOs are:

Biodiversity – GMOs are usually designed to be more disease-resistant, more vigorous, and/or higher-yielding than non-engineered varieties, which means that they have a competitive advantage in the wild. With yeast and bacteria, or if GMO plants make it out into the wild, that means that they’ll out-compete native varieties, which means that we lose biodiversity. Biodiversity is good. Natives and rare variants among natives may harbor as yet-undiscovered genetic and biochemical solutions to diseases or bioengineering problems. Diversity makes systems more resilient to disease and changing environments. And there’s the aesthetic argument: life is beautiful in its many shapes and colors.

Food security and sustainability (the biology side) – At least 70% of the US corn crop is Monsanto “Roundup Ready,” and something like 90% of the soybean crop. What if a disease struck to which Roundup Ready X was specially susceptible? Bacteria and viruses mutate to adapt to their hosts; this isn’t that unlikely. Not only do we need farmers growing a diversity of varieties, but we need to ensure that in the case of wind-pollinated crops (like corn) hypercompetitive genes don’t spread to infiltrate even non-engineered crops.

Food security and sustainability (the economic side) – GMO crops are patented. Growers can’t legally save their seed from one year to replant the next; they’re obligated to pay the giant corporation to provide their next crop and set of paychecks. Monsanto has aggressively defended this “right.”  I understand that the economics here are complex, but I can’t see a way to slice this argument that doesn’t come down to feeding mega-business, collecting power and money in the hands of the few who are already powerful and wealthy, protecting and encouraging increased commodification and commercialization and engineering of our food supply, and hurting everyone who A) isn’t a corporate billionaire and B) eats. And if all of that is a bit much, just imagine being the family farmer who gets sued by Monsanto. The layers of anti-sustainability, anti-farmer, pro-big business unprintable evil this represents are too many to explore in full here, particularly because I may need to go out and chop some wood now just to burn off the anger I feel thinking about this nonsense.

All of that is in addition to the possibility that GMO crops may pose some danger to human or animal health, both of which are still untested possibilities insofar as we haven’t been studying them long enough for a full assessment.

The Josephine and Jackson measures still need to be put into effect and enforced, neither of which are yet certain bets. But the vote is a definite step in the right direction and, more importantly, sets a precedent for other counties in other states. More reasons why, along with some very fine pinot noir, I’m proud to be an Oregonian.

Why playing music to wine may not be a cockamamie idea

When is a train like a jazz tune? When someone tries using them to improve wine quality. Recently, Wine-Searcher ran a piece on Juan Ledesma, a Chilean winemaker using waterproof speakers submerged in the barrel to – infuse? – his malbec and cabernet as they age. If you believe that some kind of spirit inheres in all living things even through their killed and processed forms, and also believe that music has spiritual effects, then it might also be logical for you to believe that music has some kind of metaphysical effect on wine that transmutes through its spirit into its physical form, affecting both the taste of the wine and, perhaps, the spirit of the person who consumes it. Fair enough logic. But when I think about music, I think about trains. Trains and music, both, are sources of vibrations which at least theoretically affect on wine quality. What kind of an effect has been a matter of speculation and maybe a little superstition or wishful thinking, but not much research. A few years ago, a winemaker contacted me to ask whether his barrel room being under a railway overpass – and, consequently, being subject to the rumbling vibrations of frequent passing trains – might have some kind of softening effect on the tannins in his reds. Had he consulted what turns out to be a century-long history of winemaker interest in train-derived rumblings, from  he would have found as much or more worry about negative effects as positive. His spiritual predecessors, 1920’s London wine merchants, hoped that their wines stored in barrel under the city’s railway arches would mature faster and to good effect. Sixty years later, a great vinous uproar occurred when the French government proposed a new TGV route to transgress Vouvray in the late 1980’s, not only for fear that vineyards might be destroyed but that vibrations from the train might disrupt cellaring wine. (The not-entirely-equitable solution: a tunnel under the vineyards and anti-vibration mats under the tracks.) The TGV folk purportedly did their own research and found that passing trains had no effect on wine quality, but they never published any details from their studies. Playing music to wine could be dismissed as new-aged nonsense and worrying about trains as old-timer technology resistance. But, both trains and music are sources of vibrations. Vibrations may not make wine “mature” faster, but they could do something. The obvious effect of vibration, at least on wine being aged before fining and filtering, is in stirring up lees. Sound vibrations jostle and stir up wine a bit — just a little, but enough perhaps to keep dead yeast cells that would settle to the bottom of an unjostled tank stirred up and suspended in the wine a bit longer. Interaction with dead yeast cells — lees, when they collect at the bottom of a tank or barrel — changes wine quality: as yeast cells die and decay, they release a slew of interesting cellular leftovers. Some of these add directly to flavor, some give weight and richness to mouthfeel, some we certainly haven’t yet figured out. Increasing “must turbidity” — stirring up the wine — increases the amount of these yeasty components in the finished wine. To date, research on wine and music has involved how shoppers respond to in-store playlists (French music improves French wine sales, German music improves German wine sales) or how ambient music alters our sensory perceptions while tasting (people’s ratings of the weight and sophistication of the wine they drank tended to match the weight and sophistication of the music they heard). We’ve yet to see research on playing music to the wine rather than to the customer, though that looks to change as the Chilean Agricultural Innovation Fund has, the Wine-Searcher piece reports, invested in studying the wine-plus-music phenomenon. Regrettably, no indication from Amtrak that they plan to participate.

Tragon’s new closures report, transparency, and the marketing vs. science clash

Tragon, a consumer sensory testing firm based in San Francisco, just released the fourth installment of a study into how consumers feel about natural cork versus screw caps. Tragon conducted surveys in 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2013. The 2013 report shows that consumers are more accepting of screw caps than they’ve been in the past. Still, the bottom line is the same now as it was in 2004: people prefer natural cork, perceive cork-topped wines as higher quality, and think they’re more appropriate for fancy occasions. Those conclusions held true across the US, Germany, and Australia, though the Aussies see screw caps as being very nearly equal to cork in nearly all settings.

I have no trouble believing that the average wine buyer prefers cork and thinks that it’s classier. Aesthetics, tradition, and familiarity are important. Cork wins on all three accounts. Given the exact same wine under different closures, my experience as a human who interacts with other humans tells me that most wine geeks will choose the screw-capped option, most non-wine geeks the cork.

Here’s where I have a serious problem accepting Tragon’s report. At first glance, their study seems to show that the average-Jessica wine consumer cares more about closure type than where the wine came from or what variety it is. Really?

Maybe lots of people (non-locavore people) don’t look at country-of-origin because they just see the brand and label design without reading the fine print. But closure is more important than whether the wine is white or red? This is hard to believe. Do people go to the store saying “I’m looking for a wine with a cork” or “I’m looking for a wine with a screw cap” more often than “I’m looking for a red?”

It took me a few reads to realize that the problem is probably with how the survey questions were worded** The summary report says that closure beat out country of origin and color in “character importance.” That tells us nothing about what question consumers were actually asked, but let’s imagine that the survey item was something along the lines of “How important are the following characteristics in terms of telling  you about a wine’s quality? Rank in order of importance.”

Whether a wine is red or white isn’t at all important in telling me about its quality. Red wines aren’t always better than whites or vice-versa. Duh. Similarly, for country of origin, a wine from California or Italy or New Zealand can be either very high quality or very low quality; not helpful. But if you show average-Jessica wine consumer two identical bottles, one corked and one screw capped, she’ll identify the corked one as higher-quality.

Nomacorc, makers of the leading plastic cork-like closure, sponsored a study in 2012 that found that American consumers only care about closures when they cause a problem: when a wine is corked, when they have trouble opening the bottle, etc. Those results might appear to be at odds with the Tragon study, but I’m not sure they are.  The Nomacorc report says that consumers don’t think much about closures. The Tragon study asks people to think about closures, then asks them whether they think of corks or screw caps as higher-quality. 

I don’t watch basketball. If someone asks me whether I think about basketball, I’m going to say that I only think about basketball when I’m annoyed and inconvenienced by traffic created by a basketball game (anyone who’s been on the Washington State University Pullman campus on a Thursday game night can probably relate). But if someone gives me a list of basketball teams and tells me to rank them in quality, I’ll come up with some kind of list based on what I’ve overheard from friends and news reports.

Something still doesn’t quite compute here. Tragon’s report shows that price was the most important factor in “character importance” — sensibly enough — but that $10-15 wines were ranked higher in “character importance” than $15-20 or wines over $20. I’d expect perception of quality to increase steadily with price, but that’s not what the graph shows. If Tragon shared their methods and their data — if they published the survey itself and graphs documenting actual results instead of just the slick summary — we’d know how to understand their results.

But instead, since this is a private company doing research on behalf of Wine Vision — an industry conference in which Amorim, the world’s largest manufacturer of natural cork, is a major sponsor — we see only the highly polished conclusions. So instead of research that adds to global understanding, we have research that supports Amorim’s market position, just as the Nomacorc study supported Nomacorc’s market position. A shame.

My conclusions? One: surveys are always more complicated than they appear at first glance. Two: how we ask questions has an enormous effect on the answers we get. Three: when private companies don’t share the details of their study methods or data, misunderstanding follows. Four: I’m not sure that science and marketing must always be at odds (though, frankly, I think they probably are) but, when marketing means no transparency, science loses.

**Neither the public summary reports nor the Tragon “research methods” web pages (frustratingly rich in graphics and poor in information) give any details, so all of this is speculative.

Let’s stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason: saving a historic California vineyard

In a classic case of a bad consequence to an otherwise-good idea, 14 acres of Californian vineyard planted in the 1880’s are at risk of being bulldozed in the course of environmental restoration.

The Environmental Impact Report on the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project, which plans to restore 1178 acres of farmland to tidal marsh around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is currently open for comment. To sign a petition asking for a 14-acre exception for the historic Carignane vineyard, go here.

Reasons why this matters:

1. The vines and vineyard represent agricultural techniques (sustainable, non-irrigated farming) valuable as both a historical and a practical lesson.

2. Carignane vines used to be common in California, but are now rare. This vineyard is a living testament to what the pre-prohibition California wine industry looked like.

3. Viticulture researchers look at grape genetics to understand why vines work the way they do and how we can make them work better. Jim Wolpert, the preeminent California viticulturist, argued that these vines represent a unique and useful source of grape genetic material in the letter he wrote to the project directors. Once that material is gone, it’s gone.

The petition organizers have compiled a much longer and more detailed list of reasons to preserve the vineyard.

The Tidal Marsh Restoration Project is, on the whole, a really excellent thing. 1178 acres of fields bordering Oakley that would otherwise have been turned into asphalt and concrete instead being turned into tidal marsh — wetlands where streams and rivers meet the sea — with adjacent “shaded channels, native grasslands, and riparian forests,” according to the project description. If you live in a coastal state, you probably toured a tidal marsh as a school kid; they’re incredible habitats for all manner of birds and fish and amphibians and insects and what-not (your teacher may have called it an estuary; they’re overlapping categories). The Environmental Protection Agency says that tidal marshes even help regulate water flow during drought-flood cycles because they’re big, flattish spaces that tolerate a lot of water rising and falling. Bacteria in marshes improve water quality by processing fertilizer run-off, too.

All of this is great for local native wildlife, increasingly being pushed out — and let’s be blunt about it: killed and threatened with extinction — when developers build fancy high-rises over their habitats.

BUT: 14 acres in the middle of this area-to-be-restored contain some of the oldest vines in California. Those vines are irreplaceable. We can conserve the vines and otherwise proceed with the restoration project.

Saving the vineyard isn’t about the wine industry versus environmentalism. This isn’t about money. It’s about the value of conserving history, about recognizing that historic vineyards merit the same consideration as historic buildings and other monuments, and about not doing irreversible things today that we’re going to regret in the future. I’d encourage you to sign the petition, send a comment to Patty Finfrock at Patricia.Finfrock@water.ca.gov, and help stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason.

Gluten labelling and the American government’s problem with fermentation

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has just issued a new ruling on gluten-free labels for alcoholic beverages. Alcoholic beverages made with gluten-containing grains can’t be labeled as gluten-free, no matter what kind of processing they undergo.  That means that “gluten-free” can only show up on beers and whiskeys made entirely from sorghum, rice, teff, or other gluten-free grains (and which aren’t then stored in barrels sealed with wheat paste, which is a real potential source of gluten in alcoholic beverages). The language on this point is surprisingly direct for a document mostly filled with legal jargon thicker than oatmeal stout.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  issued rules in August 2013 saying that foods could be labeled “gluten-free” if they were either made without ingredients that contain gluten or with “an ingredient that is derived from a gluten-containing grain and that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food (i.e., 20 milligrams (mg) or more gluten per kilogram (kg) of food).” But this wording poses a problem for beer and grain-based distilled alcohols. What about whisky, made with gluten-containing grains that aren’t pre-processed to remove gluten but distilled such that gluten never makes it to the bottle?

FDA rules say that “Allowing the ‘gluten-free’ label claim on food whose ingredients have been processed to remove gluten, but not on food that has been processed to remove gluten helps ensure that the finished product has the lowest amount of gluten that is reasonably possible, and consistent with the use of specific manufacturing practices that can prevent gluten cross-contact situations.” And “food labeled gluten-free cannot be intentionally made with any amount of a gluten-containing grain (wheat, rye, barley, or their crossbred hybrids like triticale) or an ingredient derived from such grain that was not processed to remove gluten.”

The new TTB rules extend from those FDA rules. Labels with statements along the lines of “processed to remove gluten” are okay if the producer runs the drink through lab testing demonstrating that it contains less than 20 ppm gluten IF they also say one of the following on the label:

“Product fermented from grains containing gluten and [processed or
treated or crafted] to remove gluten. The gluten content of this product
cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.”

OR,

“This product was distilled from grains containing gluten, which
removed some or all of the gluten. The gluten content of this
product cannot be verified, and this product may contain gluten.”

AND explain in detail the process used to remove the gluten. Yeah, right.

The fundamental problem is that the FDA and the TTB don’t think that we have adequately proven detection tools for gluten in alcoholic beverages, and they have a point. There’s surprisingly little published research on detecting gluten in alcoholic beverages. A few studies demonstrate that we can detect gluten in conventional beer and in wines clarified with gluten (see Simonato et al. or Catteneo et al.), but I can’t find any published studies looking for gluten in distilled alcoholic beverages. This looks like a major gap in the literature.

That said, this labelling issue represents in some ways a much bigger problem that the FDA — and the American food regulatory apparatus in general — has with fermented foods of all kinds. We have excellent methods for detecting gluten in food and beverages generally. The FDA is perfectly fine with those methods applied to crackers, or soup, or anything other than “fermented and hydrolyzed foods.” But “fermented and hydrolyzed foods” are different, for some mysteriously unexplained reason.

The US government just doesn’t know what to do with ferments. FDA regulations about refrigeration and hygiene make restaurant foods deliberately left out to grow (beneficial) microbes illegal: house-made lacto-fermented sauerkraut or pickled beets or traditionally-prepared crème fraîche need to be quietly hidden under the table when the health inspector comes ’round. And when implementation of the new Food Safety Modernization Act — which requires that all food preparation facilities be inspected by FDA agents — made its way to wineries last year, inspectors accustomed to touring dairy plants told winemakers that cellar staff should wear hair nets, that crushing outside wasn’t okay because birds could poop onto the grapes, and that dogs weren’t allowed in wineries.

The antibiotic, antibacterial mainstream assumes that bugs are bad, and the government regulations aren’t smart enough to differentiate spoiled = bad from fermented = good. Fermentation culture patriarch Sandor Katz gave a lovely talk at MAD last year that touched on these issues. And thanks in no small part to people like Katz (really, thanks in no small part to Katz; the guy is a fermentation powerhouse, an icon for the movement, and one of my veritable heroes), foodie activists are fighting in small, quiet ways against the  bacteria-are-bad mainstream and building a strong counter-culture capable of recognizing that refrigeration is one of many good and useful ways of dealing with food. One of many, also including pickling by lactic fermentation, salting, drying, alcoholic fermentation, distilling, smoking, canning, and I’m probably missing something.

Our food regulation issues go beyond bartenders wearing gloves to mix Sazeracs. Food safety is good; I’m delighted to know that the flour I buy hasn’t been bulked up with talc. But as a culture, we need to reevaluate what defines “safe.” We need to find our cultural memories of foods that, as Katz says, inhabit that “creative space between fresh food and rotten food where most of human culture’s most prized delicacies and culinary achievements exist.” And the FDA and TTB need to catch up.

What I’ve been reading

I’ve just added a page (linked at the right) entitled “What I’ve been reading” where I’ll keep short notes on books and articles that I’ve been reading of late, mostly about wine, science, and rhetoric (and sometimes about other things). I hope that some of these may spark your interest, too.

 

Arsenic, BeverageGrades, and the Power of Withholding Information

I received an unusual “story” by way of Palate Press this week. It looked like this:

To:
Submissions

Message:
Alcoholic beverage testing company, BeverageGrades has discovered lead
and arsenic present in wine at levels that exceed the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) standard Maximum Contaminant Levels for
drinking water.
Independent laboratory testing has been conducted on the top selling
white wines in the United States. Approximately one in every three
bottles tested was found to contain either arsenic or lead levels that
exceed the Maximum Contaminant Level.
Regular consumption of these elements, even at low levels, can present
a serious health risk.

Topic (wine, food, wine pairing, travel, etc.)
Wine Science

Suggested Title
High Levels of Arsenic and Lead Detected in Wine

Lede
Approximately one third of the top selling wines in the United States
found to contain lead and arsenic.

Your Website or Other Writing Sample
http://www.beveragegrades.com

Preferred payment method:
Check

Mailing Address (Check)
7000 Broadway
Suite 307
Denver, CO
80221

PayPal email

BeverageGrades, it seems, is a young company creating a private database of beverage health information, summarized in their trademarked “grades.” They say that they run a bottle – of wine at the moment, of beer, spirits, and coolers in the future – through a pile of lab tests to create a profile for each product. Users can see calories, sugar, and carbohydrates per serving, plus a set of “grades” that are supposed to indicate how healthy a wine is overall, how “skinny” it is, how “pure” it is, how likely it is to trouble your allergies, and how likely it is to give you a headache. The problem with HealthyPour™, SkinnyGrade™, and the rest of these ratings is that if you’re looking for more information on how they’re calculated, you’re out of luck. New users have to click “I do” to having read BeverageGrade’s methodologies page, but those “methodologies” say nothing more detailed than “we take lots of measurements of lots of stuff.” And, rather than showing numbers for any of these measurements, wines are rated as average or better or worse than average.

Concerns about proprietary details aside, that’s not enough information. What in tarnation does “pure” mean? What counts as a “contaminant” or an “additive” in BeverageGrade-speak? How do they summarize how healthful a wine is when a whole pile of scientists are still trying to figure out how and why and whether wine is healthy? They list sodium and “vitamins and minerals,” but should I care about sodium in wine, and is wine a good source of “vitamins and minerals” in the first place?

Instead of seeking to educate consumers, BeverageGrades is patronizing them with overly simplistic branded products while hiding information. And that brings us back to arsenic.

Arsenic is found in wine. Recent studies in New Hampshire and France have shown higher arsenic concentrations (in toenails and urine) in wine drinkers versus non-wine drinkers (fish, beer, and Brussels sprouts were similarly implicated, as has been rice in studies based in Asian countries). Arsenic is found in water and soil; drinking water remains, in fact, our most significant source of arsenic exposure. Grapevines and some other plants seem to take up and concentrate it and other heavy metals. The FDA has set maximum limits on how much arsenic can be present in apple and pear juices in the US and is working on similar limits for rice; wine very well may be next on the list. If we stop here, things look bad. 

But stopping there means withholding important information. Sying that arsenic is found in wine is, crucially, different from saying that arsenic in wine poses a significant health risk. Arsenic in wine and arsenic as a health risk in general aren’t things we understand well yet. We don’t yet have a clear picture of how much arsenic is too much arsenic (the same is true for a lot of environmental toxins, including lead).

The several recent studies I found all indicate that arsenic in wine probably doesn’t pose a significant risk to most drinkers. The “probably,” “significant,” and “most” hedges in the previous sentence are all a nod to that yet-unsolved “how much arsenic is too much” problem. But an analysis of arsenic in wine, sake, and beer for sale in Central Europe concluded that it’s not a significant risk to consumers. A comparative risk assessment of fifteen “known and suspected human carcinogens” judged that ethanol was the only really significant carcinogen in alcoholic beverages; the rest, including arsenic, “may pose risks below thresholds normally tolerated for food contaminants.” In other words, these fish are too small to bother frying.

I suspect that BeverageGrades isn’t counting alcohol itself against a wine’s HealthyPour™ rating – though I don’t know for sure, since they’re not sharing that information. In any case, I appreciated a comment made by one reader of a popular press story about arsenic in wine, who suggested that not just drinking, but eating and breathing and sleeping were hazardous to our health, too, and that we should probably stop doing all of those things. Wine, unlike breathing, isn’t a necessity. But if we try to eliminate every risk from our way of life, we’ll end up not living at all. 

Microbial terroir? The media gets it wrong again (surprise)

As has by now been widely publicized in wine circles and elsewhere, Dr. David Mills and graduate student Nicholas Bokulich of UC Davis have just published a journal article (in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences here) demonstrating that populations of bacteria and yeast associated with wine grapes vary geographically in organized and predictable ways. Bokulich collected samples across California, isolated bacteria and yeast from those samples, sequenced bits of their DNA, and then looked for patterns.

This is a beautiful, extremely strong study with useful implications. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the news headlines are getting much of it wrong. The New York Times article on the subject* sets up the long-standing American skepticism about terroir, then proclaims that “American researchers may have penetrated the veil that hides the landscape of terroir from clear view, at least in part. They have seized on a plausible aspect of terroir that can be scientifically measured – the fungi and bacteria that grow on the surface of the wine grape.” This is the kind of unscientific media hogwash that contributes to people on the street having balderdash-worthy ideas about how science works. I can’t blame the article’s author for being one more journalist who doesn’t understand science (or who knows better but still needs the sexy story). I can blame the NY Times for not having the sense or taking the effort to get someone with enough research knowledge to cover the story well (Inside Scoop SF did, though they do have Jon Bonné). You’re the NY Times; you folks can do this.

Problem #1: Bokulich and Mills’ findings don’t actually say anything about terroir as we typically talk about it: in terms of sensory impact. The paper describes regional variations. The paper doesn’t connect those variations with any element of wine quality, perceptible or otherwise.

Problem #2: This is not the first time researchers have attempted to quantify some element of terroir. Not even close. Geologists and pedologists (soil scientists) have done a lot of good work looking at soil structure, depth, aspect, and so forth. Other microbiologists have looked at differences in bacteria and yeast across space. Bokulich’s study is exceptionally strong, but it’s not as earth-shatteringly unique as the media are making it out to be.

Problem #3: A technical point, but Bokulich and Mills didn’t actually look at microbes on the surface of grapes. They collected grape musts, which for them meant “destemmed, crushed grapes, representing a mixed, aggregate sample of all grapes from an individual vineyard block” collected after ordinary stemming and crushing operations at the winery. The strength of looking at musts is in having a sample that reflects averaging across a vineyard block and does away with potentially idiosyncratic variations between individual grapes. The main weakness is that we’re a lot less sure of where the microbes came from. What if some of the microbes came from the winery equipment or from handling operations instead of being present on the grapes in the vineyard? Significant regional patterns correlated with environmental factors – precipitation and temperature, for example – but we still can’t actually pinpoint where those microbes are originating.

The NY Times article does a pretty good job of summarizing the original PNAS paper. Kudos to it’s author for talking a bit about the methods behind the findings, for observing near the end of the piece that “the Davis scientists still need to prove that these microbes affect the quality of the wine,” and for calling up Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling at Washington State University for a second opinion. The problem is in the headline and the first few paragraphs which are, of course, what get picked up and misconstrued by everyone else.

This is a fine example of a frequent pattern in news science coverage. Researchers publish a paper on a sexy topic like wine or cancer, and – being like other humans – their conclusions about the implications of their findings might take a few steps over the bounds of reasonability. The university and/or the academic journal puts out some kind of press release, highlighting the sexy bits and the in-our-dreams implications. Journalists pick up on the sexy bits and elaborate even sexier hooks and headlines around them. The hooks and headlines get picked up by less reputable news replicators and on Facebook and Twitter. And by now we’re wandering around smack-dab in the middle of unreasonableness territory.

A chicken-and-egg problem: do we get headlines like this because national science literacy is bad, or does poor science literacy stem (in part) from the uncritical quality of our media? Either way, there’s improving to be done here.

  • Wine-Searcher’s coverage has to get an honorable mention, not only for its especially unreasonable tag line – “New research suggests that bacteria and fungi could be as important in the expression of regionality as soil and climate” – but for referring to what we all know and love as Botrytis cinerea or Noble rot by the show-worthy name of its anamorph (another form of the same fungi), Botryotinia fuckeliana.