ICCWS2016: The delightful, shameful state of the English wine industry

Last week’s International Cool Climate Wine Symposium (ICCWS2016) in the classic English sunny seaside town of Brighton occasioned an array of largely worthwhile technical presentations about which I’ll surely be writing for a while. But two general observations about the conference as a whole trumped all of the technical presentations combined,* and they affected me in opposite ways.

The delightful: Of course I was delighted by the English sparkling wines, and a fair number of the still ones; near as I can ascertain, everyone writing in English with an opinion on the matter rightly has that same opinion. Nyetimber (for extraordinary elegance across the range) and Gusborne (for strikingly different, richer, wonderfully intense flavors) were particularly sock-knocking. But the people doing the pouring and speaking for the industry were equally delightful, both on-point and thoughtful about their wines and English wines in general.

The shameful: The whole conference – that it happened in the first place, and the whole attitude of the event – speaks well for the English industry’s forming a strong community. That community should be supporting, and supported by a strong teaching and research institution. Plumpton College, which houses the UK’s only college-level viticulture and enology program, should be that institution, and it’s doing an admirable job of educating English (and international) vineyard and winery workers. But Plumpton isn’t getting the support it needs, definitely not from national funding and – I’ll say at the risk of offending a bunch of people – probably not from the local industry, either.

Jancis Robinson publicly chastised the chief minister of the the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for recently reducing Plumpton’s funding for wine education, in front of him and the audience for her opening keynote at the ICCWS. The many news reports that have followed have encouraged public shock at that move. Those reports fail to take into consideration that normal public/academic funding cycles mean that fixed-term grants aren’t always renewed when their term expires, and that’s not always shocking.

The problem here is that neither education nor research at Plumpton is receiving adequate funding any which way. On the one hand, it’s a circular problem caused by distant administrative process: to win competitive government-funded research grants, the school needs a solid research reputation, but the school needs grants to fund research to create a competitive reputation. On another, the government isn’t making viticulture and enology research a priority and making funds available to the only school doing concerted work in that area. That’s short-sighted and narrow-minded. Look to other successful young or recently rejuvenated wine regions and you’ll find strong research institutions studying local concerns, working with and educating local industry members: UC Davis and CSU Fresno in California, the famed Australian Wine Research Institute, Washington State University in Washington State, Cornell in New York’s Finger Lakes, Lincoln in New Zealand, Provence has even funded a rose research institute. I can’t imagine why England hasn’t rushed to develop a research and teaching program that can proudly stand its own in international company.

The industry should be helping. The English wine community may be young, but why hasn’t it stepped forward to offer a levy on grape and wine sales in support of national research? Why aren’t the largest players in the field taking a more prominent (and consistent) part in supporting research projects that will benefit their companies and the industry as a whole? I’ve interviewed dozens of winemakers and growers about the value of research to winemaking/growing practice. Nearly every one says that its fantastic to have research on their unique, local concerns being done “in their own backyards.”** Again I ask: why aren’t the English learning from their international role models a few steps ahead in the game?

Plumpton’s viticulture and enology staff seem to be badly overworked and underfunded, even while the English wine industry grows. This situation needs to change.

Why, if the English can win and successfully host a major international conference, and if they can speak eloquently and enthusiastically in support of their industry, can they not support and encourage their government to support the kind of research and teaching facility so central to their continuing success?

[And the manifestly absent: Where was Wales? However minor they may be, their total absence was conspicuous. The few times Welsh wines sidled into a conversation, they were discretely shoved back out. Maybe that’s because Welsh wines are embarrassingly bad, but I don’t know because no Welsh folk were at the conference to speak for them. Given the whiff of disparagement that seemed to follow its rapid entry and exit from the room, either Welsh wines are far from presentable, or the English are carrying their longstanding racism toward Wales into the wine scene, or both.] Update: I’ve been informed by someone amongst the conference organizing team that Welsh wine industry members were invited to participate, but none chose to do so. 

*I have to make an exception for Dr. Matt Goddard’s fantastic research into microbial terroir, which he presented on day 2 of the conference and of which I’ll give an account in short order.

**To perpetuate the phrase one of my Washington State interlocutors used.

Endings and beginnings

Endings: of my PhD, of my research project on wine-industry science communication, of my time in New Zealand.

Beginnings: of a research fellow position at the University of Edinburgh, of new work on human-yeast interactions in synthetic biology, of my time in Scotland.

I’m no longer a few hours away from the fine wine-growing regions of Central Otago, Canterbury, and Marlborough. On the other hand, I’m a few hours (by air, at least) from the fine wine-growing regions across Europe and the southern UK, and a few steps away from wine purveyors with selections the likes of which I haven’t seen in years. I consider this a fair trade. The difference might even make up for not having a superb beach just outside my front door, though maybe I’ll withhold judgment on that one.

If you’re interested in synthetic biology, human-yeast collaboration and co-evolution, or if you’re in the UK and would like to strike up a conversation about other vinous or yeasty topics, feel free to contact me at erika(dot)szymanski(at)ed.ac.uk.

The Synthetic Yeast Project: What it is, and why you should care

What it is: The world’s first project to build a whole genome of a eukaryotic organism, based on Saccharomyces cerivisiae, entirely out of bits of DNA stuck together by geneticists in labs. Now, to break that down:

Eukaryotic: Organisms with cells with nuclei. (Prokaryotic) cells without nuclei are limited to bacteria and archaea (which look a lot like bacteria to folk who aren’t microbiologists). Cells with nuclei comprise everything else, from yeast all the way up to us.

Genome: Cell software. A genome alone doesn’t do much for you; it’s like having Microsoft Office without a computer. But plug the genome into the right machine (i.e. a cell with mitochondria and ribosomes and other such equipment) and that machine will follow the genome’s instructions.

Build: Most genomes are duplicates of existing genomes, made when cells reproduce themselves. They evolved on their own. Scientists can alter those existing genomes by applying chemicals that induce mutations in DNA, or by using any one of a variety of techniques* to replace a section of existing DNA with new DNA, or to add a whole new DNA sequence. Geneticists can create those DNA sequences in labs, outside of cells, and stick them together. Assembling small bits of DNA in this fashion is genetics bread and butter. This project, however, involves creating and sticking together a whole yeast genome’s worth of DNA, and then putting it inside a cell and letting it run.

Entirely: Scientists build bits of genetic code out of lab-created DNA all the time. Heck, I’ve done it myself, and (don’t be a prude, now) I even started when I was a teenager**. Building an entire genome is a project multiple orders of magnitude larger than putting together a little chunk of DNA. If routine genetic engineering is writing one really well-crafted sentence, then this is composing the complete works of Shakespeare several times over.

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