The National Science Foundation’s new policy means better wine research access (and maybe just better research)

Last week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that any journal article published as a result of funding issued from its coffers must be made freely available to everyone. The policy goes into effect for papers published in and after January 2016. Let’s get the two caveats out of the way first:

  1. Articles must be made available within 12 months of publication, so SAGE and Elsevier and the rest of the journal hogs (I’d prefer to use stronger language) have a year’s space for embargo policies. (Though there’s already work to make this 6 rather than 12 months.)
  2. The NSF won’t (for now, at least) compile it’s own article archive. They’ll have a database of titles and authors and abstracts and such with links to full-text articles available on publishers’ websites. That’s cheaper in the short term but less than ideal: different journals’ formats will make collecting “big data” sort of information harder, and we’re still tied to those journal hogs.

This is still a good thing. Between this and similar policies at the other major U.S. funding agencies (the National Institutes of Health did this, plus creating their own archive in PubMedCentral, in 2008), the published results of essentially any research project funded at least partially by the American government belong to everyone, worldwide. A good example of NSF-funded wine-related research is California-based work on the glassy winged-sharpshooter. Hardly mitigates the harm our government has done to the world, but it’s nice, and it makes the slope toward information being shared freely for everyone’s benefit a little slipperier.

Many wine industry folk look to Google for technical information and browse what surfaces pretty omnivorously, reading reports in trade journals, scientific articles or their abstracts, agricultural news, other farmers’ blogs…so long as it doesn’t end in .porn or seem to be published by a puppy mill in a third-world country, it’s probably at least worth a look. That said, some sources are more reputable than others and some of the most reputable are the most inaccessible: unless you’re a student or staff member at a tertiary educational institute, or unless your sugar-daddy parent company buys a subscription to AJEV, you’ll only see one-paragraph summaries (abstracts) of scientific articles.

The new NSF policy helps change that. Not all American wine research receives government funding, and countries such as Australia and New Zealand still think that research resources should be walled off just to their domestic levy-payers. The EU has exhorted it’s member countries to implement “European-level open access,” but maybe they’ll eventually care that this isn’t doing global social justice any good. Still, this means that winemakers’ (and everyone’s) Google searches will now lead to more full-blown studies with methods and detailed results and all of those other useful middle bits not encapsulated in the one-paragraph summary.

I think that open access will do more than just make it easier for everyday non-academics to see journal articles. I think that this will change the way scientists interact with the “end users” of research and, maybe, eventually, how those journal articles are written. Let’s say that you’re a winemaker trying to learn more about bacteria and soil health (already open-access thanks to the Department of Energy’s policy). You search for key words, find and read an interesting-sounding article, and have a question. You can, if you’ve got gumption, email one of the scientist-authors to ask it. And since most scientists are nice-but-busy people who want their work to matter to someone, you have a decent chance of seeing a reply.

In other words, the audience for scientific publications — especially for applied, industry-relevant research — is getting bigger. As it does, scientists may begin thinking about writing conclusions that acknowledge the interests of those non-scientists, and writing more clearly, and helping everyone — scientists included — see and make better connections between bitty research findings and the bigger world. That’s the real purpose of scientific research — to doodle in the blank spaces on the shared knowledge map of humanity. Open access helps.

Arsenic in wine: A news update, but not a scientific one

The news this morning is full of pieces on Kevin Hicks, proprietor of a consumer-oriented wine analysis company called Beverage Grades, and the class action lawsuit he’s bringing against multiple California wineries for selling wine with arsenic concentrations far exceeding what the US Environmental Protection Agency allows in drinking water. Many of the reports are emphasizing the “wine may kill you” side of this story.

Mr. Hicks contacted me by way of an email and a suggested arsenic-in-wine story — for which he advised me I could pay him by check or PayPal — a little over a year ago, which prompted me to write this post on whether wine consumers should be concerned. My admittedly brief scan of the literature suggests that no new scientific research on wine and arsenic has been published in English since then. I’ll stand by what I wrote in 2014. The key points:

  • Arsenic is definitely found in wine. It’s also found in many other foods and beverages. Arsenic is, in fact, naturally present in water and soil, and unless you’re part of a special population, drinking water is your primary source of dietary arsenic.
  • Researchers have found evidence of higher arsenic intake in wine drinkers, but also in people who drink beer and who eat rice, fish, and/or Brussels sprouts. (Exemplar references here and here.)
  • The FDA regulates arsenic levels in apple and pear juice, but not (yet) in wine. Dietary arsenic isn’t well understood, and whether we have good evidence for the current “safe” cut-offs and what those cut-offs should be has been discussed for decades.
  • Our current best evidence indicates that arsenic in wine isn’t a health concern. It’s fair to say that every food and drink we consume brings minor amounts of potentially harmful substances into our bodies. Risk assessments say that the amount of arsenic in wine doesn’t pose a threat to consumers. (Exemplar references here and here)

The wines indicted in Hicks’ lawsuit weren’t a major part of the studies I’ve listed above. His data may show something amiss with these specific wines, but he hasn’t shared either his methods or his data. When I looked at Beverage Grades a year ago, I was disturbed by the complete lack of detail offered to back up awarding specific wines badges like “HealthyPour™.”

I’m uncomfortable with Kevin Hicks and Beverage Grades’ tactics of withholding rather than being transparent with information, damaging at the best of times and ironic in light of his accusations. If third-party labs can back up Hicks’ claims in the course of this lawsuit, we may well have something to talk about: ways to reduce arsenic levels in wine, new regulations, and/or renewed scrutiny of the EPA guidelines. But until then, the healthiest thing to avoid is likely the inflammatory news headlines.

How to replicate a wine from 1500 year-old grape seeds

How to replicate a 1500 year-old Negev wine: 

  1. Unearth 1500 year-old grape seeds from the famed Byzantine-era city Halutza. (Done; credit Israeli archaeologists.)
  2. Extract DNA; sequence. (This is the easy part.)
  3. Check sequence against known contemporary grape genomes (to infer evolutionary relationships, and to double-check that seeds really weren’t refuse from archeologist’s lunch before proceeding).
  4. Realize that DNA sequence from seeds doesn’t represent DNA sequence of original cultivated vines, because Vitis species are notoriously mutation-prone, Halutza vignerons would probably have worked with grafted vines and selected varieties the way we do now (cf. Theophrastus who wrote about grafting in Athens in the 3rd c. B.C.). Deal, because we can infer a lot about the parent vine from the seed DNA but the stuff we can’t infer can definitely change wine quality (cf. reason why every contemporary commercial grapevine is propagated by cutting and not from seed).
  5. Synthesize fresh, lab-manufactured DNA from the old sequence (there are companies for this).
  6. Get someone like Dr. Andy Walker at UC Davis to (get his grad students to) clone new DNA into grape stem cells.
  7. Plant lots of babies. Watch lots of them die. Wait.
  8. Try to find a climate similar to c. 500 AD Halutza for vine cultivation (consult archeological meteorologist?) Hope that soil types also have something in common, or try to replicate historically appropriate soil.
  9. Accept that since grapes are subject to lots of somatic mutations, the new grape vines may change a bit along the way and not be exactly like the original Negev wines. Keep dealing.
  10. Consult Dr. Patrick McGovern (biomolecular archaeologist specializing in fermented beverages; Dogfish Head collaborator/co-creator of Midas’s Touch, etc.; outstandingly nifty person) about mimicking historical winemaking. Do what he says.
  11. Hope that Dr. McGovern has advice on how to handle the problem of modern Saccharomyces cerevisiae being a darn sight different than whatever might have been around to ferment things in the Byzantine Negev.
  12. Option A: Backtrack 15-20 years and clone person using DNA from bones found at Halutza dig. Raise in a bubble (consult designers of The Truman Show) to mimic growing up in Byzantine Halutza. Make sure he doesn’t try any wine until the replicated stuff is ready, then get him to write tasting notes. Option B: Accept that even if we’ve perfectly replicated an ancient wine (see above caveats about genetic variation, yeast, etc), we won’t actually have replicated the wine because we, the drinkers, will be different, and the wine only fully exists in its drinking and enjoying via the participation of complex sensory and thinking apparatus attached to a subjective human being.
  13. Drink the darn wine anyway. Invite Robin Trento over to make dinner (ask her to bring her own garum). Look up retirement residence addresses for the journalists who were “ready for a taste of the Byzantine Empire’s favorite wine” back in 2015 and make sure they get a bottle.

DNA tests don’t do anything, or, how to read wine science news

Yesterday, a headline appeared in my email inbox, courtesy of Wine Business Monthly’s daily run-down, that read “DNA tests defeat wine barrel fraud.” About four different reactions crossed my mind more or less simultaneously.

1. I doubt it. Sounds like journalist hype.

2. Took them long enough; haven’t we had that technology for awhile now?

3. DNA tests don’t defeat anything. People defeat things.

4. Nifty!

I mightn’t have thought any more about it. But having spent the past week or two tearing apart assorted wine writings for evidence of how we make science happen in words, it seems I can’t just read anything anymore without asking: what do these words DO?

The headline is from a Wine-Searcher brief about new French technology to identify the geographic origin and species of barrel oak. But, really, the article is about the French asserting that they’re better than everyone else. The first three sentences of the piece outline, in very general terms, what the DNA tests do: researchers have genetically profiled enough oak trees to create a database against which new samples can be compared. Extract some kind of genetic information from tiny bits of barrel, compare that genetic “fingerprint” against the database and look for matches, and you’ve figured out where the oak used in the barrel originated.

I’m actually elaborating on what the Wine-Searcher piece said from general knowledge of how genetic testing works because the article spent its remaining 29 sentences describing how this technology fits into maintaining the cultural superiority of French oak over Hungarian oak. I’ve put it that way for a reason.

The DNA test itself might (maybe, in a very limited way) be value-neutral. But the way the test is constructed and used embodies the values of the researchers and the networks of interested industry members and funding agencies and organizations surrounding the researchers. The test determines geographic origin. Which geographies are important? Were American oaks included? We don’t know, because it wasn’t relevant, i.e. the French aren’t much worried about American fraud. How finely-grained do we want to make our distinctions in those famous French forests? The test isn’t value-neutral. The test is part of a network of people and organizations and values and priorities and economies and things. And in this case, the test has been enrolled in a program of asserting that French oak is both different and better than Eastern European oak. And that unscrupulous barrel makers are threatening consumers — and the integrity of the industry — by trying to pass off inferior stuff as the genuine article. So the headline actually is accurate (sorry, me #1 and 3), even if it left out some bits. The full version: “DNA tests” created by French researchers are enrolled in a program,  funded and commercialized by the leading French wine research institute INRA and the French Institute of Technology for Forest Based and Furniture Sectors (FCBA), “defeat wine barrel fraud” and increase the value of French oak.

But the article goes on to say that coopers aren’t so sure that this technology is useful after all. Barrels are complicated with many different pieces. Testing all of the pieces would be expensive and cumbersome. Not testing all of them wouldn’t necessarily prove anything useful about the barrel. The Wine-Searcher piece sets up the common dynamic: scientists say that new technology will help; industry people (coopers, here) say we’re not so sure. Maybe the coopers aren’t willing to be enrolled in that INRA- and FCBA-led program. INRA has decided that their participation doesn’t matter. Their own news release says, with certainty, that the test “will be an effective deterrent against fraud and will promote traceability measures with wood industry stakeholders.” Who’s right? Not really important. The important thing is the conflict. Everyone isn’t on the same page, which means that moving forward will be sticky.*

I’m not suggesting that the Wine-Searcher writers should have done things differently, though just a little more detail on the tests in that first paragraph would have gone a long way. It’s impossible to tell how much information these scientists and their tests can give us about a particular barrel: country-of-origin and species, or what forest, or what part of a forest? The headline overstates the case, but that’s journalism and readers know the genre: the title grabs our attention so that we read and figure out that the headline isn’t exactly true.

“Scientists craft DNA tests to verify wine barrel identity claims” — a more accurate headline — is cumbersome and less effective as an attention-grabber. If we want to be precise about it, we can say that the headline uses metonymy, a specific figure of speech in which a part of something stands in for the whole, more complicated thing. “DNA tests” stands in for “scientists who have developed and conducted DNA tests.” Cognitive linguistics says that metonymy doesn’t confuse readers; no one is running around out there thinking that DNA tests have evolved sentience and will be lobbying for the right to vote or applying for drivers’ licenses (I hope).

So if my point isn’t to call out journalists for promoting scientific inaccuracy — something I do often enough, but not today — what is my point? That words construct and reflect how we see the world. Wine researchers are plagued by the persistent failure of winemakers and growers and assorted other industry non-scientists to do what science clearly says is the right thing. We know that overhead sprinklers are a terrible way to irrigate grapevines in Eastern Washington state, so why are growers still using them? Why do people do wrong things against their better interest, even when they’ve been told that they’re wrong? First, because those industry non-scientists see pieces of their own complex networks that the scientists don’t/can’t/won’t see. They’re probably not being unreasonable (probably; everyone’s unreasonable sometimes); they’re working with different considerations. Second, because “science” is never just “science.” Science is always part of value-laden programs into which winemakers and growers and coopers may or may not want to be enrolled. The science isn’t just right; the science is part of an agenda. Third, because words make technologies real to people. We interact with ideas, scientific and otherwise, through words. Words tell us what ideas can and can’t do. And, in this case, words have helped criminalize Hungarian oak…and made a new French technology a good deal more limited and parochial than it might otherwise.

 

 

*The French have a habit of developing great, or at least new and complicated, ideas at the administrative level only to have them fail majestically at the implementation level because everyone else/the common people/the people actually affected by the technology saw problems the administrators never considered. See Aramis and the 1970’s attempt at French electric autobuses, among others. Or maybe everyone does this sort of thing and we just have a habit of noticing the French cases.

 

Will magnetic yeast make better Champagne?

UPDATE: Deborah Parker Wong has written a detailed discussion of magnetic yeast technology and its implications for the Champagne and sparkling wine industries for the September-October 2014 edition of Vineyard and Winery Management in which she makes it clear that I’m wrong about #3 below: at least some traditional producers are enthusiastic about rapidly making use of the new technology. The full text of Wong’s article is available for free via her website.

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.