Wine’s genetic diversity: Thank goodness we’re not coffee

Wine has a diversity issue. Wine actually has several diversity issues, but I’m not prepared to deal with the massive and significant question of non-white non-male winemakers (today). The much easier diversity question is about the wine grapes themselves. And even though it’s an issue, and one that’s been rightfully earning more press of late, wine grapes have the potential to be a good deal better off than most crops. The problem is of our own making, and we should be able to unmake it.

Arabica coffee varieties, according to a recent genetic survey, share 98.8% of their genes in common. That’s an estimate made by sampling both wild and cultivated plants (781 sequences in total) from around the world. So, even if coffee breeders try their darndest to increase the diversity of cultivated coffee plants – which they are, because genetic diversity means better resilience against threats like infectious diseases and climate change – they only have so much room to work. The survey found that wild plants were more genetically diverse than cultivated ones. The breeding stock can be improved. But compare coffee to maize, for which something like 30% of the genome varies across all of the plants on the planet, and there’s not that much room.

Wine grapes are like maize, not like coffee. Both maize and Vitis are, in fact, extraordinarily diverse. No shortage of room here. What’s most curious for wine grapes, though, is that the difference between the genetic diversity of wild and cultivated vines isn’t that great. When humans domesticate a species, we create a genetic “bottleneck” (Nature has a nice image here), reducing genetic variability in the new crop. For wine grapes, the bottleneck was “weak;” the reduction wasn’t that dramatic. (Coffee, by the way, suffered a very severe bottleneck.) And earlier this year, a genetic survey of wild and cultivated grapevines in the Republic of Georgia, where grapes were first domesticated to the best of our knowledge, still found plenty of diversity in wild grapevines that doesn’t overlap with cultivated varieties and which have yet to be explored.

Unlike coffee, the real problem with wine grapes isn’t that the genetic diversity isn’t available, in wild or even in cultivated plants. The problem is that we’ve artificially selected for an incredibly narrow set of vines, over and over again, through clonal selection to replicate what we think is the best of the best. To recapture the genetic diversity that might help wine combat disease and changing climates and whatever else the next century or three throws our way, we need to undo the relatively recent work of the modern wine world.

The numerous research teams working around the world on the grape diversity issue have a great big spectrum of possibility out in front of them. That’s a good reason to be hopeful. And to be sorry for the coffee guys.

Is wine a paragon of sustainability? Nope; it’s just me.

The wine industry seems so very forward-thinking. We’re inundated with stories about this or that winery’s new sustainable innovation. We check websites to read about how our wine was made. Everyone seems to be doing something new. Have you ever checked a website for info about how your canned tomatoes are made? Did the marketing for the crackers you eat proclaim where the wheat was grown? Does the brown sugar package in your baking cabinet tell you where it came from and how it was processed? Unless you’re a strict vegan, a strict locavore, or uncommonly environmentally conscious with a lot of leisure time on your hands – an extra for Portlandia, say – it’s likely that none of these things is true.

Here’s my confession: I ticked “no” for all three of those boxes, and I’m a reasonably conscientious reusable bagger who buys local/organic and volunteer at the nearest farmers market. I might have seen that my Watties tomato can* said “Grown in NZ,” but I hadn’t bothered with the website until tonight. It has a nice little vignette about a tomato grower, but no additional details on how the tomatoes actually in my can were grown. That’s awfully backward from my enlightened wine perspective. I’m buying really standard grocery store tomatoes so, for a fair comparison, let me look at Kim Crawford’s website. I just did, and I found…

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

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

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

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

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