Brett + bacteria = worse, or better

Microbiology has gotten a lot wrong studying yeast and bacteria. We’ve assumed, until quite recently, that if a microbe doesn’t grow in a dish it’s not there. And that a microbe is either on/live/growing or off/dead. And that we can study microbes in isolation — “pure culture” — away from other species in little sterile dishes and expect them to behave normally. In all fairness, microbiologists have sometimes seen these as a problems, but have mostly just gone on this way, writing books about what we think we know.

DNA detection and sequencing technology is showing just how many bugs don’t grow in dishes — “high throughput” technology can document (theoretically) all of the species in a drop of [insert favorite liquid here]. That’s pretty routine these days. And we’re slowly beginning to study how mixtures of microbes — you know, the way they live in the wild — behave in the lab. Wine was a bit ahead of the curve here: microbial enologists have been studying the goings-on of spontaneous and mixed fermentations since the late 1980’s.*

Usually, mixed-microbe studies are about what grows where together. Occasionally, you can predict something more specific with a bit of logic and some scratch paper. That, plus a little knowledge of yeast and bacteria metabolism, leads to an interesting hypothesis: some malolactic fermentation bacteria should make Brett smell worse.

Brettanomyces bruxellensis (aka “Brett,” aka barnyard-stench spoilage yeast) creates its signature aroma by converting hydroxycinnamic acids (HCAs) naturally present in wine to smelly volatile phenols. This is a two-step process. First, an enzyme (a decarboxylase) converts HCA to a vinylphenol. Second, a different enzyme (a reductase) converts the vinylphenol to the volatile ethylphenol, including the Brett signature 4-EP and 4-EG.

But before that can happen, Brett has to be able to get to the HCAs. Many of the HCAs in wine are chemically bound to tartaric acid. Brett can’t use them if they’re bound. The HCA-tartaric acid bond spontaneously and slowly breaks, giving off free HCAs for Brett to use, but there’s theoretically a much bigger pool of pre-stink molecules that need only lose their acid first.

Some lactic acid bacteria — like the ones that commonly perform the malolactic fermentation (MLF) so important to most reds and a lot of white wines — can enzymatically split HCAs from tartaric acid. In theory, that should mean that some (but not all) MLF bacteria are Brett enablers. Wine + bacteria + Brett = worse smell than wine + Brett alone.

Building on previous research, a team at Oregon State University has made that more than a theory. Their recent paper (currently pre-press in AJEV) shows that some commercially available MLF strains make more HCAs available than others, AND that leads to Brett making more 4-EP and 4-EG,

The team only experimented with one strain of Brettanomyces, and they obviously couldn’t test anywhere near all of the MLF strains on the market, but this (plus the multiple studies that have come before it supporting the effects of lactic acid bacteria on HCAs) is strong evidence indeed that winemakers buying commercial bacteria for MLF may have better and worse choices if they’re worried about Brett.

 

*A good open-access (no paywall) example of this kind of research is Granchi and company’s 1999 study here.

Don’t worry about mercury in whisky (but maybe worry about England?)

Mercury in single malt whisky is something about which you should never be concerned. Seriously, don’t worry about it. A recent study tells us that even the most highly contaminated bottles are more than 600 times lower than the World Health Organization’s current guideline for acceptable levels of mercury in drinking water. That’s for something you drink by the tablespoonful versus something you drink by quarts or liters. There is nothing to worry about here.*

So why bother talking about it, or measuring it in the first place? The authors behind that study were following up on a medium-sized hullaballoo in the mid-1990’s over relatively high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in single-malt. If that acronym looks familiar, it’s likely because PAH’s are the reason for the shadow cast over our grilling habits and, if I die of cancer, a probable place to point the finger.** PAHs are carcinogens formed by incomplete combustion that gives off smoke; in other words, PAHs are a minor-but-maybe-significant component of that marvelously flavorful char that accumulates on the outside of your barbecue, part of what makes smoked salmon such a very worthwhile thing, and one of the many reasons why cigarettes are a really nasty habit. It’s logical to suspect that they might be part of smoky single malts, too, which a group of researchers did strongly enough to bother studying it.

Chemistry confirmed the logic: moderate concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs showed up in the Scotch. But it also found something else. Single malts were worse off than American bourbons or Irish whiskies and even than blended Scotch. Worse yet, from my perspective, they found the highest concentrations in Laphroig and Oban, two of my favorites. Drinking whisky is associated with increased risk of colorectal, esophageal, and mouth cancer in the sorts of studies that measure such thing, though the researchers said that the concentrations of PAHs they found weren’t high enough to explain those risks.

So why the leap to mercury? Whiskies from southern Scotland turned up with higher PAHs than whiskies from northern Scotland. It’s well known that the south and west of Scotland is subject to more pollution than the north and east; it’s changing, but coal- and oil-burning proportionally overload the southwest with various airborne unpleasantries that end up migrating to soil and water and, evidently, to whisky. But maybe those Islay whiskies weren’t high in PAHs because of their proximity to the more densely populated and polluted parts of the country (and England). PAHs could just as easily come from those peat-smoked malts or the oak barrels used for aging.

If whisky’s carcinogens are a function of environmental pollutants, then concentrations of other environmental pollutants should follow the same south-north gradient pattern. And so we have the mercury study. Mercury levels in every whisky they tested were far too low to cause concern, but they nevertheless followed that same pattern: higher in the south, lower in the north.

This is a good thing, even for me and the rest of the hyper-peated club. Environmental pollutants from coal and oil combustion have declined massively, more than 90% since 1970, and continue to fall. Off-the-shelf whiskies the chemists tested were at least 9 years old, reflecting the environmental conditions of a decade or so ago. Tracing carcinogens to those conditions rather than to part of the whisky-making process itself means that it’s becoming less hazardous all the time. Or, at least, less hazardous in this one respect. Anything as delicious, expensive, and high-octane as a good single malt is always going to be at least a little dangerous.

 

*In light of recent events, I feel the need to make myself perfectly clear on this point.

**My diet is pretty ridiculously high in fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and all of those things we’re told should protect us in times of cancerous trouble, but I have an abiding weakness for smoked and charred foods. And I spend a lot of time with candles and incense, and I’m Catholic, which evidently doesn’t help.

***Which warrants quoting in full a letter to the editor sent to the Lancet following up on the PAH study:

Sir

As a member of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, I found Kleinjans’ (Dec 21/28, p 1731)1 report of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in whiskies of interest, but have one question. Since the authors used only 200 mL of each of the 18 whiskies studied, what did they do with the remainder? I hope that they had a very merry Christmas.

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.

Ampelography –> Genetics –> ? Varieties –> Clones –> ?

How much difference does clone make to flavor, and where do we draw the line between important and unimportant differences? The line might really be between interesting and uninteresting differences; any difference is important if we choose to make it so. I’ve written on Palate Press this month about variety, clone, and treating pinot gris like pinot noir, which provokes an unsettling argument about what differences are important differences.

Before the global phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century, precisely identifying varieties was less crucial from a viticultural standpoint, bottles didn’t routinely carry variety information until the mid-20th c., and many from the Old World still don’t. But where variety is the way consumers make purchase decisions, some now go a step further and heralding specific clones, at least on websites and to wine writers.

We have reasonably fixed definitions for what constitutes a variety and a clone. A variety is the unique progeny resulting from a fertilized egg involving genetic reassortment between the DNA of two parents. A clone is a variant of a variety resulting from small genetic changes (usually spontaneous changes from random mutations) involving just those genes, not full-on mixing. Fine.

But those definitions are essentially arbitrary, or at least they could be otherwise. The technology we have defines how we can define a species, or a variety, or a clone. Clones are only clones when those genetic changes produce some big, obvious physical change that a grower will notice and decide she likes enough to cut and reproduce. Most genetic changes aren’t like that. Most probably don’t result in any important change to grape quality, but there’s likely a whole category of mutations that affect ripeness, phenols, canopy development, or whatever that go unnoticed — because they’re not big and obvious, maybe because they deal with invisible chemicals — but that affect quality parameters we care about.

We’re developing precision viticulture techniques that map vineyards at a sub-block and perhaps even individual vine level for differences in development and quality. As genetic testing becomes easier, precision vit could easily include genetically typing individual vines. Purchased stock should fit the known genetic profile of a known and loved clone bought from a certified facility, but older vineyards are going to be full of endless numbers of new…clones? Do we call them clones when they’ve not been selected and propagated?

The resolution at which we can define species — actually, let’s make it simpler and just say define differences — changes with the technology we have to do so. So we moved from ampelography to Mendel to DNA sequencing to the Robinson, Harding, and Vouillamoz tome outlining the genetic relationships of darn near most grape varieties on the planet. A splendid article from 1938 outlining principles for doing ampelography — distinguishing grape varieties by their physical characteristics — observes that botanical and horticultural classifications of grape varieties are different. The botanists want to describe family relationships, the horticulturists to create practical guides for distinguishing varieties, so we have the genetic tree and the field identification guide. Different purposes, different resolutions, different differences called out as important.

Resolution isn’t about “natural” differences. It’s about the degree of difference we decide is important. I’ve tasted pretty profound differences amongst different clones from the same vineyard when they’ve been vinified separately and before they’re blended together. They’re striking. They’re wonderful. My little wine writer soul wants to proclaim over new-found differences. Those differences seem important. But in older mixed-planting vineyards full of whatever happened to be around at the time, harvested and made all together as a “field blend,” variety may not even be all that important.

On the one hand, people like Matt Kramer have been urging growers (of pinot noir in particular) to plant lots of different clones as a prayer against the curse of boring wine. And researchers looking to natural grape genetic diversity for breedable salvation from Pierce’s Disease, powdery mildew, and other expensive threats caution against limiting and losing living genetic pools that could be irreplaceable in our time of future need. And yet, if those researchers succeed, growers will have first one, maybe eventually a handful of clones carrying those disease resistance genes that they’ll want (or be pressured to) plant.

As many winemakers tell me that they don’t want to talk about clones and wish people would stop asking about them as want to talk about little else; I suspect that there’s a poetry competition for odes to chardonnay “Mendoza” and pinot noir “Abel” running somewhere in New Zealand. It’s part of your story or it’s not. Great. But we can say the same thing about variety, and maybe all of this consumer interest in genetic differences is merely a fad. A century from now we could be talking about micro-clones, or about clades, or about specific genes a vine does or doesn’t carry, or about famous vineyards planted with an especially successful mix. Wine evolution, made possible with the support of genetics, but brought to you by the eddies of our changing attention spans.

Story and strategic choices in talking about Central Otago subregions

Central Otago went from zero to international recognition in less time than it takes to test the merit of a great Burgundy vintage. Good for them. It’s occupants had the advantage of a favorable climate, enthusiastic pioneers, and in many cases an enviable lot of capital investment, but they also experimented generously and — most importantly — became polished storytellers. The stories may in fact have outpaced the wines, which is less a criticism of the latter than an acknowledgement that they are very much still figuring out what they’re about. And so, while it’s obvious that subregional differences are dramatic enough to shout about, not much shouting actually happens on that account. One: they don’t yet have the maturity for more than broad subregional outlines. Two: it might not be part of the story they want to tell in any case.

Driving through Central makes it clear that subregional differences should be important. Driving in from coastal Otago (the Dunedin area, where I live), the first substantial growing area you encounter is Alexandra, a dry, flattish valley with a large (for this area) town. Cross the hill and drive past the dam and you’re in Cromwell, where many vineyards enjoy the mitigating effects of Lake Dunstan. North at the top of the lake, the Bendigo vineyards are widely known as seeing both the hottest and the most extreme weather. Go east toward Queenstown and the Bannockburn vineyards are perched above the Kawarau river. Through the pass further toward Queenstown, the Gibbston valley has the highest elevation and the coolest climate. And then there are the outliers: dear Nick Mills at Rippon in Wanaka; vineyards in Waitaki closer to the coast. These are obvious differences. Central Otago doesn’t tend toward subtle.

Plenty of conversation is happening about subregions, none of them questioning whether they’re significant. The questions instead are about what is significant. Are site differences principally related to soil differences as you move up the “terraces” from the valley floor? Or is the elevation more significant? Maybe it’s enough to talk about those big subregions. There’s that first problem: it’s hard to tell in part because vines are young, but maybe even more so for want of continuity. Vineyard managers, winemakers, owners, directions, and styles have flexed enough here that two challenges become significant: creating distinctly regional pictures independent of those other factors, and passing down sensibly kept records and knowledge gained from experience. The openness to experimentation and international flux that has helped these folk find a niche in the pinot world so quickly has, at least in some cases, come at the expense of some stability. Point the first.

Point the second: wine, and Central Otago, is all about story. Subregions may not be the story people want to tell here. Yet. Adept storytelling is a stand-out feature of many successful wineries here: to justify selling $70 pinot noir with nearly no history behind them, it has to be. Telling a story doesn’t mean talking about everything that goes into making a wine; it means carefully curating elements that create a specific image. Subregionality may not be part of that story. In some respects, that choice is about market readiness, which is obvious. They’ve succeeded when someone in Louisiana or Newcastle knows where Central Otago is; talking about Bannockburn is too much.

But it’s also a choice about style and direction. Some wineries here bottle from estate vineyards. Many blend fruit from different vineyards for balance and complexity and, no doubt, economy and ease. Matt Kramer told producers in 2013 that using many clones was (one; he had a few other interesting points) key to making exciting pinot noir, and it could be said that blending across multiple vineyard sites is similarly looking for complexity. As those vineyards age, and maybe as they’re planted with increasingly diverse clones, maybe

Back to choosing a story. Wineries here have mostly built their identities around concepts other than subregions. If that’s working for them, serious investment may not go into defining, refining, and emphasizing subregional stories.

Since differentiating yourself is ever necessarily the new world winery game, it makes sense that a (but not all) winery here is built expressly around exemplifying subregional differences. That’s Valli, where Grant Taylor bottles separate pinots from Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Waitaki. Tasting those three wines, made by the same winemaker in essentially the same ways, is an education that makes me wish Taylor’s portfolio included bottles from Bendigo and the other subregions as well. The Gibbston wine is the sharpest with the highest acidity, the Bannockburn the biggest and smokiest, the Waitaki the spiciest with the most prominent tannins. The Waitaki stands out to me as the most interesting wine, possibly because it’s the least standard and, dare I say, maybe the most complex: while the Gibbston and Bannockburn are well-made and enjoyable wines, the Waitaki has the thing that makes me want to keep coming back to the glass.

That’s the direction I hope Central Otago pinots take as they grow up: not just well-made wines with fancy labels and nice stories, but intriguing and maybe even intellectually satisfying wines. Whether they find that intrigue in multiple clones on single vineyard sites, blending across regions, or even just older vines under winemakers who decide to stay put, I’ll hope that Valli keeps doing what Valli does, and maybe more of it.

**By the by, “Central Otago” is a “district” within the “region” of Otago, where a “region” is roughly equivalent to a province or a state. Central Otago is a recognized Geographical Indication — it can be used on labels going to the EU, with a defined meaning — and various subregional names are allowed as “Appellations of Origin” on labels going to the States.

 

Update on saving a historic California vineyard: the news is good

If you already know what I’m talking about, the good news is that the California DWR plans to preserve the Jose vineyard when it renovates the surrounding marshland. If that didn’t make sense to you, keep reading.

This past March, a small hullaballoo arose in response to a California Department of Water Resources plan to reconstruct a tidal marsh in Eastern Contra Costa County in the general, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area. The project, while an otherwise lovely effort to protect and maintain verdant wetland habitat, would have destroyed a historic and utterly irreplaceable 14-acre Carignane vineyard (“the Jose vineyard”) originally planted in the 1880’s. I wrote about the project and reasons for saving the vineyard here: Let’s stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason: saving a historic California vineyard.

This morning, the Dept. of Water Resources released their final plan and recommendations for the project, revised after a comment period during which 115 people (including me), and the city of Oakland, voiced concerns about losing the vineyard and supported changing the project to preserve it. The good news: the revised plan keeps the vineyard in place, along with a perimeter access road and an adjoining “buffer area.”

The original plan read: “The proposed project will result in the removal of the Jose Vineyard in order to achieve proper elevation and vegetation consistent with the tidal marsh restoration, which would be considered a substantial adverse change to the property under CEQA. Project redesign in order to avoid this impact while still meeting restoration goals has been determined infeasible.” Well, somehow they found the will to make it feasible, mostly by looking for soil fill elsewhere.

.6 acres of obviously newer, replanted vines at the vineyard’s edge will be ripped out and replanted with native dune vegetation, but the remaining 13.4 acres will stay put. This seems entirely sensible. While I think an argument could be made for keeping the whole vineyard intact as a historic site, the old vines are the most important concern here. It’s hard for me to argue for why we should value .6 acres of newish vines over .6 acres of good native habitat without intimately knowing the vineyard.

The project report recommends restrictions on what vineyard management techniques can be used in the interest of protecting the surrounding flora and fauna which, again, seems entirely sensible unless and until some deadly disease threatens the whole vineyard with salvation available only by drastic chemical means. I don’t know how significant the restriction is for this specific vineyard or if it changes anything about the way the vineyard is currently managed. But, again, it’s hard for me to argue in favor of using environmentally-damaging chemicals in agriculture ever, period.

In short, I feel comfortable calling this good news: for the herons and frogs, for the wine industry, and for however we represent the general interests of California history. And if you need to spend more time thinking about good news today, or if dense legislative language gives you thrills, you can find the full revised report here along with a summary of comments and the Department’s replies here.

Wine research news: the improbable edition

Some wine research is revelatory: it provides an “aha!” moment for some long-standing grape growing or winemaking question. Some wine research is disappointing: it doesn’t come up with the answer we wanted, or an answer at all. And some wine research is just plain weird. This week, a few entries in the weird category:

Using fruit flies as model sniffers – Drosophilia melanogaster, the common fruit fly, ranks right up there with the mouse and Escherichia coli as a hyper-common lab animal: their giant chromosomes make them easy targets for genetics research. What I didn’t know before? They’re also good for sniffing research. Some computational neuroscientists in the UK used flies to look for differences between brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar odor molecules? Familiar for a fly? Wine aroma molecules, of course. No word from the research group on whether the flies’ tasting notes will be released at a later date.

Impregnating yeast with wood aromas – We have oak adjuncts: cheap, convenient chips to mimic expensive, bulky barrels. We have lees aging: letting wine sit on the sludge of dead yeast cells left over after fermentation to yield flavor and texture. Ever thought of putting the two together? The idea somehow occurred to a group of Spanish enologists, who used the sometimes-spongelike qualities of yeast cell walls to absorb flavors from wood chips, then steeped the yeast gunk in red wine. The “wood-aromatised yeast lees” released woody flavors back into the wine, and both tasters and chemical analyses could show a difference (tasters particularly appreciated chestnut-infused wine, which was more plummy and spicy than oak, acacia, or cherry wood). The idea appears to be making wood-flavored wine faster, though it’s hard to see why using dead yeast as wood chip sponges is better than just using the wood chips.

Grape marc as an herbicide – Grape marc (or pomace, or solid leftover grape bits) isn’t usually considered toxic. Quite the contrary: it’s a common livestock feed for ranchers who live in wine regions. So it seems odd that mixing a chemical herbicide with marc made the herbicide a more potent plant killer, but that’s what a group of French plant scientists found: the mix specifically increased the herbicide’s cell killing capacity. The herbicide in question is less toxic than many other agricultural chemicals, but strategies to use less of the stuff by augmenting it with a natural (and otherwise pretty darn safe) waste product are mighty appealing nonetheless.

None of these studies will win an Ig Nobel — for research that makes you laugh, and then makes you think — though Ron Washam recently had a few suggestions for MW thesis topics that just might, should anyone have enough chutzpah to take them up. Embarrassingly and disappointingly enough, the only instance of wine-related research or a wine-related researcher being granted an Ig Nobel was in 2005, when Yoji Hayasaka of the Australian Wine Research Institute was part of the team that won that year’s biology prize for carefully creating a catalogue of the smells 131 different frog species produce when they’re stressed. Enology is such an excellent repository of enjoyable, engaging, thought-provoking, and sometimes silly research; surely, we can do better…or worse?

Napa’s earthquake: the people we aren’t seeing on the news

Napa was hit by a 6.0 (read, major) earthquake early this morning that seriously damaged wineries, historic public buildings, houses, and people. Unless you’ve been wearing a cardboard box on your head since you woke up this morning, I’m sure you knew that already. Social and traditional media are laden with images of barrels and bottles in disarray, and Facebook tells me that several people I know needed to evacuate their homes on account of gas leaks.

The news coverage has (at least thus far) given prime attention to the visually arresting wine-related damage. Understandably so: just seeing a photo of Matthaisson’s tumbled barrel room on Facebook this morning took me aback, and I can only imagine how their team must have felt when they walked in. It goes without saying: wine is irreplaceable.

But amidst all of the appropriate shock and horror at the wine-related damage, it becomes too easy to forget the people who we aren’t seeing on the news. News outlets are interviewing representatives at wineries and resorts. Most pictures I’ve seen are of well-known wineries, upper-middle class houses, well-to-do folk who should have good insurance policies, or historic public buildings. That’s not everyone. Napa’s fire chief has been reported saying that one of the six known structural fires took out four mobile homes and damaged two others. Folks dependent on assorted retail and seasonal work will be disproportionately hurt by closures during clean-up. So will seasonal agricultural workers without home and property insurance.

The governor has declared a state of emergency, which I can only hope will support putting things back together for ALL residents of Napa County. Still, a chance of help later does little for people without a cushion now.

The media is doing a terrible job of directing public thinking around this event. It’s nice to know that the Meadowood (a leading luxury resort in the area) was undamaged, but I honestly don’t care; they can afford to deal. I care a great deal for the wineries who have lost wine in bottle or barrel. But as we express our solidarity with winemakers who have lost their work, let’s not forget the impoverished who are, perhaps, going to have an even harder time putting their lives back together.

Why thinking of wine as food solves the natural wine debate

Wine is a food. A surprising number of people are surprised when I say this. It seems obvious: wine is nourishment. Nourishment with specific effects, yes, but all foods have some kind of effect on us, if some more profound than others.

Saying that wine is food isn’t the same as saying that wine is harmless. Nearly every food will cause you some sort of harm if eaten in inappropriate quantity, and any amount of some foods are bad for some people. Jack Sprat and his wife are really caricatures of all of us: some people are happiest and healthiest as vegetarians and some really live best with meat, some feel their best eating dairy-free and some can’t digest soy, some thrive on lots of carbs and some on more protein, some need to avoid salt and some don’t. Guidelines apply, sure, but setting down universal rules about what’s healthy for everyone just doesn’t work. Alcoholic beverages are food, dangerous for nearly everyone in large quantities (allowing that what qualifies as large varies from person to person), not tolerated by some, and healthy and useful for many.

Remembering that wine is food fundamentally solves the debate about whether or not wine must be “natural” in order to be valid. The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is still no, but with some elaboration.

The reality about food in our post-Wonder Bread, post-Michael Pollan, post-Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall world is that we* near-universally know that locally-grown, minimally-produced, food with clearly identifiable ingredients that came out of the ground, off a tree, or from a recognizable piece of a pastured or wild animal represent “real food” and the ideal of what we should be eating. On the other hand, anonymous food processed out of recognition in large factories, wrapped in plastic and trucked about the country feeds most people most days. This is not ideal, but it’s the situation we have. Wine is the same. Boutique, caringly-crafted, often minimally messed-with wines are the ideals much lauded by our leaders. Still, Gallo and Yellow Tail and their ilk are still responsible for most bottles (and boxes, and jugs) on most tables most of the time. This is also not ideal.

The conundrum: while real food — including wine, and meaning ingredient-focused, sustainably grown, minimally processed, and preferably local — is ideal, it’s usually more expensive and sometimes unavailable. Especially in economically impoverished urban areas (and even very rural ones sometimes, perversely), wholesome fresh food sometimes is simply unavailable. Some people don’t have the know-how or time to prepare fresh food well. Even if just about everyone knows that eating mostly out of packages is bad, many still do so for a variety of reasons that may or may not be their “fault.” My husband once said that if the United States wanted to create an effective and complete anti-hunger program, the government should contract McDonalds to administer it. Neither of us voluntarily chooses to eat fast food. But you can’t deny McDonald’s expertise in delivering enormous quantities of consistently edible food to essentially every corner of the nation. When it comes to hunger, food is better than no food, even if the food is a mass-produced hamburger. Even though wine isn’t a basic necessity, mass production of what the natural folk would call fake wine makes wine accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to afford or access it at all. And much as I spurn the capitalist-driven food production system, I have to give credit where it’s due. We have industrialization to thank for safer food supplies and clean, well-made (as in not overtly faulty) wine. Understanding the benefits science and technology can bring, our task now is to undo the additive-filled and soulless damage we did to what nourishes us in figuring all of that out.

We can and should put community gardens into empty city lots, teach children how to grow their own radishes and encourage them to tear up the grass in the yard to do it, support fresh food markets in food deserts, make food production and cooking classes part of the school curriculum, and design economic policies to support local and organic food production. How to do this stuff is complicated. People specialize in economics and food policy. I’m not one of them. I’m not going to pretend that I know how to make these changes happen. I don’t believe that we need GMOs and factory food to provide enough food to feed the world, but I recognize that as a belief based on gut feeling and emotion and philosophy because I haven’t worked through all of the data. I’m consistent, though, in believing that the entire world could and should have access to real, honest, well-crafted wine if we changed the infrastructure surrounding how wine is produced and distributed. And we should.

So, the obvious conclusion. Appreciate mass-produced wine for providing volume and access while actively working toward making real wine — defined the same way we define real food — available to as many people as possible. Those of us with the money and education to buy real wine should, something we pretty much do already for cultural reasons, but perhaps without seeing the connection to the local and real food movements. Realizing this connection is important: it brings into focus the privilege inherent in preferring real wine and, in tandem, should help motivate us to work for change in both spheres. Think of real wine as part of real food, prefer both if you have the resources to do so, and think about what you can do to support its production and improve access. The Michael Pollans and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls of wine have yet to step up in terms of consumer education at least in the United States, hardly surprising considering our short history and present state of wine education, but something toward which to look forward nevertheless.

Now, what we define as “natural wine,” as in where we set the line between wine that’s allowed to carry that distinction or to show up at The Real Wine Fair — that’s a different question, and a semantic and philosophic more than a practical one. So is what we call “authentic wine,” and the issue of drinking local versus global is an entirely different discussion. More on those another day.

Incidentally, if we’re post Michael Pollan, I’d say that fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz (upon whom I’m inclined to wax poetic) is the prophet of our future food revival. Does that mean that I love quirky “natural” wines? You bet.

 

*I may be defining “we” rather narrowly as reasonably well-educated Westerners, but I doubt it. I haven’t surveyed people shopping for packaged foodstuffs with food stamps, but I know that my friends who fall into that category know what healthy food looks like and aren’t choosing it for a variety of reasons. Less well-educated folk may not know who Michael Pollan is, but the collective media we has achieved pretty high penetration if not on his message, than on the message of fruit and veg and whole grains good, processed foods and added sugar and salt and fats bad.

“Feminine” wine: Why are we still having this conversation?

I’d thought that “masculine” and “feminine” wines were on their way out. Or, rather, I’d thought that the use of gendered stereotypes to connote particular wine styles was on its way out. One small sign that my hopes were premature: Wine Enthusiast’s online feature on “Top Wine Terms Defined” not only includes “feminine” but asks me not to “automatically bristle at this gendered wine term.” Okay. Tell me why. Unsurprisingly, their reasons are unconvincing and point back to why we shouldn’t be using this term in the first place.

The article praises the term for being easy to understand and quotes a beverage director to the effect that feminine wines share a woman’s “best qualities,” being “light, refined, and delicate.” So, I’m being asked not to bristle because, first, everyone knows the female stereotype of womanly refinement and, second, because it’s implied that we’re paying women a favor, referring to their best qualities. After all, “feminine” wines aren’t moody, flighty, or hysterical, equally stereotypical but negative characteristics associated with women. Nope. I’m bristling.

We’re being invited to agree that women are supposed to be — or at least that the best women are — gentle, fair, and fragile. I don’t need to belabour the point. Women can and should be praised for being a lot more than that: strong, intelligent, capable, funny, and any other praiseworthy characteristic we appreciate in people. Heck, we have plenty of television ads of women getting muddy playing sports or brokering business deals but — stereotypically — at least some part of the wine community is being backward. It would be funny if it wasn’t damaging first. Asking to be mollified by the idea of being paid a compliment just makes it worse.

Men aren’t treated well by the gendered wine phenomenon, either; stereotypes of big, burly, strong, rich masculinity put them in a box just as much as do the female stereotypes for women. Suggesting so is hardly new. Steve Heimoff’s blog hosted a promising debate over his reference to the feminine aesthetic in winemaking last year, for example. Nonetheless, Googling “feminine wine” suggests that the term remains reasonably common. Backwardly.

What’s the problem? The short answer: stereotyping is bad. One better: stereotyping is bad because it limits individual’s identities in terms of who they feel they can be and in terms of who other people allow them to be, because it let’s us treat others as something less than human — because when we label them with a stereotype we apply and expect the contents of that category to how we see them and stop seeing them in their fullness as people — because we make categories and then fill them. Ideas don’t exist out there on their own. We construct them. And so every time someone uses the term “feminine wine,” they help build the cultural phenomenon of the associated stereotype. In a small way, sure, but large ideas are built of small instances. Castles and bricks.

I’d like to hand the editor of Wine Enthusiast some Michael Foucault (or Judith Butler, or pretty much any other late-2oth c. critical theorist). Instead, I guess I’ll just rail a bit and embody the outraged middle-aged woman. You know the type.