Is wine writing becoming better?

Is wine writing improving? Someone or other asks me this question fairly often. My short answer is “no.” Here’s my longer answer.

To judge whether or not something is becoming better, you have to know what improvement is. Much of what we (popular media, wine writers, academics) say about “progress” isn’t of much use for this reason.

So let’s think about the purposes wine writing can serve:

  • Accurately describe wine – only useful if we define what “accurately” means, which means creating a hierarchy of wine values with one way of judging at the top.
  • Make wine seem appealing
  • Entertain
  • Sell more wine (allowing that wines that consumers think sound exciting and wines that consumers want to buy are two different categories)
  • Create a sense of community —  by inviting you to share the writer’s experience. If a tasting note is written in a way that lets the reader identify with the experience of tasting — to think that she could be there tasting this, too — she becomes part of a “we” group with the writer, which builds a sense of identifying with wine and wine people. Researchers call this a “wine identity,” and both that identity and that idea of creating “we” groups is the subject of a fair bit of research.
  • Judge wine quality

A tasting note might beautifully describe, but do a terrible job of judging quality by creating a comparison with other wines. A tasting note might make a wine sound appealing without inviting a reader into the tasting experience. We can ask whether wine writing is becoming better at any one of these possible goals, and we could have a good conversation about that, but we’ll be talking about part of what wine writing does, not about whether wine writing is better.

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The objectivity of subjectivity in wine tasting and UC Davis’s first enology professor

Dr. Steve Shapin is a professor of the history of science at Harvard and a distinguished senior scholar. He’s also an oenophile. Sometimes these things mix, especially when he’s talking about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. When they do, I end up with five or six emails from friends and colleagues saying, “Hey, Erika, did you see that wine article in [title of the most eminent academic journal in our field]?”

Yes, I did. And since you can’t, unless you belong to an institution that subscribes to Social Studies of Science, here are Dr. Shapin’s main points:

  • Maynard Amerine and the sensory science movement he engineered as the University of California Davis’s first enology professor were “objectivity engines” that turned uselessly soft subjective experience into reliably hard objective knowledge…
  • BECAUSE (at least in part) Amerine needed tools to help producers improve California’s wine quality, and then needed to be able to convince Francophilic American wine consumers that Californian wine was really, objectively, good wine
  • BUT: subjective and objective assessments are essentially dependent on each other, with the “objective” tools the product of documenting one or a group of individuals’ subjective experiences and asserting that everyone should use their terms…
  • AND: what counts as objective and subjective in any context depends on that context, and a bunch of what counts in the 20th c. Amerine/Davis tradition as Objective Wine Sensory Information would be called a subjective judgment somewhere else.

In short, capitalism (and egos or, if you’d rather, a man with a dream) had a lot to do with why we’re now all talking about raspberry and asparagus flavors instead of about elegance and finesse. Alright: some of us still use elegance and finesse, but Amerine wouldn’t have approved. Shapin, who spent time in the archive of Amerine’s papers, says that Amerine also didn’t approve of “flinty,” “petrol,” or “terroir;” the first two were characteristics he said he’d never found in wine, and the third was just the result of dirty winemaking. With very few exceptions, his terms didn’t refer to specific chemical compounds in wine (those came later, and Amerine was skeptical about explaining sensory impressions in terms of specific chemicals); they were about choosing terms that had some kind of “real” referent in sensory experience. According to his system, you could find raspberry in wine, but you couldn’t find elegance.

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The power of blending: On sherry, beer, and Brexit

Friday saw me thinking a lot about blending. I awoke to the seemingly impossible news that the UK (or, more precisely, English voters, as folks here in Edinburgh will be quick to point out) had voted to leave the European Union. And then I went to work, where we’re exemplifying the power of blending multidisciplinary research teams. I sat in a synthetic biology lab populated by microbiologists, geneticists, automation and biomedical engineers, computer scientists, designers, and me (the resident social scientist), by people from across Europe, Asia, and North America, where we all ended up spending more time mutually coping with Brexit than talking about yeast genetics.

Arguments in favor of the power of blending evidently didn’t win over British separatists. I can’t help but wonder whether Remain would have prevailed if the British population spent more time with good sherry and good beer instead of gulping unthinkingly through volumes of the cheap stuff. Granted, that opinion has a lot to do with the evening’s events after I left the lab, the first of which was an informal sherry tasting.

Sherry conveys one lesson about blending: resilience comes from interdependence. Fino and Manzanilla – “biologically aged” styles – age under a blanket (the unsuspecting would probably say “scum”) of oxygen-dependent yeast. In contrast with ordinary table wines, sherry barrels are only filled partially, leaving plenty of oxygen-filled head space to let flor yeast develop on the exposed surface. That space, plus the hot climate, means plenty of evaporation, which means that barrel volumes are topped up with wine from younger barrels, and so on down the line – the solera system, which also helps build microbial consistency from year to year.

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