Pro-alcohol research and improving wine science communication, one PhD at a time

Yesterday, Tom Wark snarked off (I mean that nicely, Tom) about “alcohol ‘researchers'” who seem to think that wine, beer, and spirits are social evils to be restricted and discouraged as much as possible. I’ve read plenty of papers that appear to start (and finish) with that agenda, but not all “alcohol researchers” are anti-alcohol. In fact, you could call me an alcohol researcher.

More properly, I’m a wine science communication researcher. (Yes, I know that that’s a mouthful.) While at one point I researched the microbiology of wine production, I now look at how wine research information moves around the industry among scientists and writers and winemakers and growers (and sometimes even consumers). I’m trying to understand how scientific ideas about winemaking and growing come to exist in the industry. When science moves from a peer-reviewed scientific article to a trade magazine, what changes? What can those changes say about how we can better design experiments and better communicate their results. Of course, I can’t say how all of this communicating is important if I don’t know what winemakers and growers are reading and using — and, to my shock, no one seemed to know (if they do, they’re not telling). So I’m also investigating how winemakers and growers navigate the morass of resources available to them: what they read and listen to, who they talk to, and their frustrations about the process. If you’re a winemaker, vineyard manager, or someone in a similar role, you can help me out by taking ten minutes to complete a short survey around those questions. (The link is also tacked to the top of this blog). Finally, I’m writing a popular (that is, not academic) book about how the story of wine is also the story of the sciences, from physics to medicine and everything in-between. More on that later.

I probably don’t need to argue for why wine is worth researcher’s time as a public good to promote instead of a social ill to eradicate, but it’s good to note that it’s fundamentally about humanity as much as science. Wine is a food nourishing to body, mind, and spirit when taken in appropriate quantities. It’s also a cultural icon and a historical treasure. If you want to talk to me about restricting wine because too much alcohol can kill you, your agenda had better also include restricting access to and advertising of butter and cheese — because too much saturated fat can kill you — and honey and jam — because too much sugar can kill you, too. Then show me your thoughtful plan for accommodating the essential cultural and social roles that all of those foods play around the world.

My research is aimed, at the biggest picture level, at making scientific research more efficient, but it’s also about helping people make better wine by improving the information available to them. Besides, when getting a PhD involves wine, science, and writing — and rhetoric, and philosophy, and talking to winemakers, and trying out living in New Zealand — it’s hard to see how things could be much better.

 

Rippon’s Gewürztraminer and the quandry of white wine fermentation temperatures

I opened a bottle of Rippon’s lovely 2011 Gewürztraminer a few nights ago in a small act of celebration upon having an academic manuscript accepted for publication (hooray!) As I bathed my nose in pretty peach and lime and rose notes, to my surprise, my very non-oenophile husband commented that he didn’t find it very aromatic. (I blame the tahini-miso oca, or New Zealand yams if you prefer, that he’d just noshed). Conversation ensued about white wine aromas. Conversation turned technical, as it’s inclined to do around our table (he may not be an oenophile, but my partner is unmistakably an academic and a knowledge-hound), and an interesting conundrum turned up.

Modern winemaking dogma says that white wines should be fermented at fairly cool temperatures to maximize their aromaticity. Aromatic molecules are, by definition, volatile — they can leave the liquid and travel into the air, where we can sniff them into our nostrils and bring them into contact with aroma receptors. Fewer of those volatile molecules will leave the liquid at cool temperatures than at warm ones because (to simplify), warmer molecules have more energy, are moving faster, and consequently have a better chance of flying off the liquid’s surface. Fermenting at cool temperatures, then, keeps more aromatics in the wine for you to enjoy on a later occasion rather than liberating them into the atmosphere of the winery.

Fermentation creates heat, sometimes even enough to kill off the yeast and stop fermentation in mid-stride. To keep that from happening, winemakers have a few different options. Smaller containers have higher surface area to volume ratios than large ones, release more heat into the surrounding air, and generally stay cooler. The old-fashioned solution, moving small tanks or barrels outside to take advantage of cool night-time temperatures, can work for small operations in cool places. Keeping the room where fermentation is happening cool helps, though that’s a pretty inefficient and energy-expensive option. Far and away the standard contemporary solution, the jacketed stainless steel tank, lets cellar staff dial in specific temperature programs and is near-ubiquitous in modernized operations of decent size. Near-ubiquitous, but not entirely so. Two of my favorite wineries near my old home and my new one, Eyrie in the Willamette Valley (an Eyrie pinot blanc would have been on my celebratory table if I’d had any) and Rippon in Central Otago, both do without. They’re expensive, and they also don’t fit with the low-manipulation philosophy both espouse.

So here’s the quandry. Both Eyrie and Rippon turn out deliciously aromatic whites. Neither uses sophisticated temperature control during fermentation. Both McMinnville, OR and Wanaka, NZ are coming on cool roundabouts harvest time and both operations use small tanks, but it’s still safe to say that those ferments are exceeding the UC Davis-endorsed temperatures.

Why don’t they (and every lovely white wine made before the advent of modern refrigeration) seem vapid, empty, and unappealingly burnt out? I can’t be certain. When I asked Jason Lett, winemaker at Eyrie, this question, he suggested that I do an experiment to try to find out. Having left my lab days behind me, I’m not in a position to do so (it would be a big project in any case) so I’m left to speculate.

The situation is too complex with too many variables for me to evaluate with any chance of accuracy. Yeasts produce different arrays of aromatic compounds at different temperatures, for example. But I also speculate that these wines would, in fact, be more aromatic if they were kept cooler. They don’t seem to be lacking anything, I suspect, because spontaneous fermentations, excellent grapes, and attentive winemaking are already contributing plenty of aroma in any case. A recent study (that actually concerns itself with the possibility of using non-Saccharomyces yeasts to alleviate some of the potentially harmful side-effects of fermenting at low temperatures) suggests that the microbial diversity that comes with spontaneous ferments is probably helping hold up aromatic diversity, and it’s not the only one (this excellent article on sauvignon blanc aromas points to advantages from yeast diversity, too).

In other words, I can’t help but wonder if fermenting at artificially-controlled cool temperatures is something we’re told we need to do because modern industrial practices strip aromas in other ways; that is, if we’re not compensating for less-than-ideal winemaking. Cooler fermentation might (or might not) make that gewürztraminer I enjoyed more aromatic, but it wasn’t wanting. The $15 mass-market version, on the other hand, probably needs all the help it can get.

Those oca, incidentally, threatened to steal the show from the wine. (I think the wine won, though: a bit off-dry, but well-balanced, with the sort of creamy richness I look for in a gewürztraminer and, of course, plenty of peach-lime zest aroma.) Should you catch some of these unusual almost-potato tubers in the market — or, like me, should the house you’ve rented have a patch of them resident in the back garden — here’s a suggestion. North American yams take well to the same treatment.

Tahini-miso oca for four (or two plus leftovers)

1 lb (450 gm) oca, washed and cut into approximately 1″ pieces if large

2 tbsp tahini

3 tbsp white or barley miso

2 tsp butter

~ 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, if available (or substitute 1 tsp dried thyme)

Heat about an inch of water in a medium-sized saucepan over moderate heat until steaming, then add the oca, cover, and steam over moderate heat for about 10-15 minutes or until tender all the way through when prodded with a fork. While they’re cooking, combine the miso and tahini in a small bowl. (The purpose of doing this, rather than just adding both to the pot individually, is to help the miso mix more easily into the oca. If you’re really interested in saving dishes you can just do the former, but you may end up with miso-lumps.) Drain any remaining cooking water from the pan. Add the tahini-miso mixture, the butter, and the thyme and toss gently until all of the tubers are coated in the sauce. Serve immediately.

Why do yeast make alcohol?

Ever wonder why yeast make alcohol? Probably not, I realize, but you should. Yeast throw off ethanol in the process of metabolizing sugar, so alcohol is a byproduct of survival; fair enough. But alcoholic fermentation is, in fact, a surprisingly inefficient way to get energy. The standard oxygen-requiring way of breaking down sugar used by most cells, our own included, wrings somewhere between 30 and 38 ATP (38 is the ideal number; it’s probably never quite that high in practice) out of a single glucose molecule. (ATP is the cellular currency in which energy is transferred and spent.) Nevertheless, alcoholic fermentation has the distinct advantage of not needing oxygen and so it makes perfectly good, intuitive sense for Saccharomyces cerevisiae to use it when oxygen isn’t available.

Here’s the quirk: S. cerevisiae uses inefficient alcoholic fermentation even when it does have access to oxygen, even though it has the machinery for the much, much more energetically worthwhile aerobic metabolic process. Yeast will only switch to aerobic metabolism when the amount of sugar available for them to eat is very low. Why? A good question, and one microbiologists haven’t had much success answering.

Our best hypothesis according to a brand-new review on the subject comes in two parts:

  1. Alcoholic fermentation lets yeast act fast to use up the “public goods” while squirreling away private resources for later. Every microorganism you’ll encounter in grape juice can consume sugar. Very few can also consume (and get energy out of) ethanol, but yeast can. So, by converting sugar to ethanol, S. cerevisiae can starve out other microbes and leave itself with a food source for later.
  2. As an additional and maybe even bigger benefit, ethanol is toxic to most yeast and bacteria at concentrations that Saccharomyces can tolerate with relative ease

Possibly the most bizarre thing? We don’t know much about what determines the circumstances under which S. cerevisiae, our long-time compatriot and coworker, produces alcohol versus making energy in some other way. We’ve looked at when and where different yeast genes are expressed and when and where it makes different byproducts but, like so much else in the wonderful and frustrating world of modern-day genetics, putting together the whole story is still a work-in-progress.

Are historical arguments about “authentic wine” good for anything? (No.)

My June article for Palate Press aimed to take a sensible look at rationale for allowing sulfur dioxide in “natural wines” when adding anything other than sulfur dioxide is widely accepted as not okay. (The short version: the only logical argument I can see is that sulfur dioxide aims to protect what the wine already has rather than add or change something; otherwise, we’re left with the entirely unsatisfactory argument that SO2 is extremely useful…but so are other additives.) Trying to pin down “natural wine” is trouble, but “authentic wine” is even worse. I’ve been thinking a good deal recently about both.

First, let me be clear: I think that the idea of authentic wine has a lot going for it. It’s intuitive: wine that’s less “messed with” seems as though it should have more soul, be somehow truer and realer than wine pulled and pushed through lots of chemical manipulations. And you can taste it. Revelatory wines — the ones that make you stop to think that wine is capable of more than just yumminess — are usually less manipulated, more authentic.

That said, talking about “authentic wine” as “wine the way it’s always been made” or wine made using traditional methods raises my hackles. “Traditional” is only ever relevant with respect to a specific time frame. I can say that a family cookie recipe is traditional, but at some point a grandmother must have come up with it or cut it out of a magazine, and in any case if we go back very far the grandmothers wouldn’t have had modern baking powder, so are my cookies authentic?

Russian tea cakes are a traditional Christmas favorite in my family, passed down from my mother’s side. What we call a Russian tea cake is similar to the nut balls or Mexican wedding cookies many folk make – a half dome-shaped mouthful of nutty, buttery yumminess dusted in powdered sugar – but no one else’s recipe is quite like ours. Betty Crocker and Smitten Kitchen and a pile of other bakers think they have a Russian tea cake recipe, but they’re wrong. Ours are the best. Unlike most, just a few tablespoons of flour are used to bind the nuts together and the concoction is only very lightly sweet: the flavor of the nuts and the butter is the point. And it is, of course, sacrilegious to make these at any time other than Christmas.

For as long as I can remember (until I moved to New Zealand and couldn’t come home for Christmas), every third week of December my mother and I have whipped up at least one and usually two batches in her 1980’s-era Cuisinart, first processing the whole walnuts (or pecans, for the second batch) into meal, then adding the butter, then the two tablespoons of flour and sugar and the all-important vanilla. But as a girl, the eldest of six children growing up in a tiny square house in semi-rural Ohio, it was my mother’s job to do the whole job by hand. Fail to chop the pecans (because in those days they were always pecans) finely enough and the cookies wouldn’t hold together properly. Naturally, my grandmother didn’t own a Cuisinart: I don’t think they’d been invented yet and, even if they had, I’m sure she wouldn’t have owned one with her tiny kitchen and tight budget.

One year when I was in my early twenties, I decided that I wanted to make a batch of Russian tea cakes for my friends before I flew home to my parents’ house for Christmas. I didn’t and still don’t own a food processor, so I chopped those nuts by hand – and the cookies weren’t as good. Doing it the traditional way made for frustratingly crumbly, uneven cookies. In this case, the machine could do a better job than me and my knife. I’m glad to have done it, for the sake of appreciating how my mother and grandmother operated, but I’ve not attempted it since.

I don’t know where my mother’s mother’s mother got the recipe, or if I need to add more mothers to that litany. I do know that my grandmother always used pecans because my grandfather had friends and family in Louisiana where they could get bountious bag-fulls of the genuine Southern article, and that my mother usually uses walnuts, because my father prefers walnuts and because they moved to California after getting married where walnuts came in bag-fulls and pecans mostly didn’t. I know that the cookies I’ve grown up eating aren’t the same as the ones my grandmother knew, not only because of the Cuisinart but because my rather well-to-do mother has switched to using excellent European butter and mail-order Tahitian vanilla instead of the McCormick’s stuff. My own innovation is to use whole wheat flour—the cookies are ever so slightly crumblier (only a problem sans Cuisinart), but the flavor accentuates the cookies’ nuttiness. Mine are the best.

Are my cookies inauthentic? I’m not sure, because if every woman in her turn tweaked the recipe a little, was there ever any such thing as an authentic Russian tea cake in the first place? Who’s to say? Did the Cuisinart technology corrupt the genuine article? Quite the contrary. No woman and her cleaver are going to be able to chop nuts as finely and evenly as a good food processor and, in this case, uniformity is a good thing.

I won’t make Russian tea cakes without a food processor…well, maybe I might twist my own arm on that one of these years if I continue to live food processor-less. What I definitely won’t do is make Russian tea cakes and add butylated hydroxyanisole to them to “preserve freshness.” Sure, these cookies go stale if you let them sit on a too-warm counter too long because all of those nut oils which you’ve liberally exposed to the oxygen-rich air will oxidize or, in other words, go rancid. (Mother-approved tip: this is why you wait until the first batch is nearly gone before making the second instead of trying to whip everything up in advance.) I won’t not add butylated hydroxyanisole because it isn’t in the traditional recipe. I won’t add it because it’s butylated hydroxyanisole. Ewww. To be perfectly clear here, I’m not cringing because BHA has a polysyllabic chemical name – there; the abbreviation solves that problem – but because it’s a synthetic laboratory product that never occurs in food. It doesn’t help that several lab studies say it causes cancer in rodents, even if those rodents were given far more than two or three mouse-sized cookies’ worth of the stuff. Maybe more relevantly, I wouldn’t add even the best concentrated nut flavoring to “beef up” the nut flavor because I want to taste the real nuts here. It’s important to take care to choose really good, fresh, flavorful nuts for this recipe, and it would be anathema to the spirit of the recipe to make the flavor about some artificially constructed ideal of perfect nuttiness. Moreover, the cookie wouldn’t be as good.

I’ve been talking cookies. What if I instead imagine a traditional family chardonnay recipe? If I’m staying true to the spirit of the recipe – maybe it’s a nutty, buttery little chardonnay – but using better technology because doing so allows me to make a better wine, splendid. Who cares whether it’s “authentic” or not (keeping in mind that we can only define “authentic” with respect to a specific version of the ever-changing recipe to call the wine), if it’s tasty and meaningful? Adding potentially dangerous non-food ingredients isn’t okay because people shouldn’t eat non-foods. Adding (or removing) extra sugar or acid might be a problem if the point of doing so was mimicking some ideal wine at the expense of doing justice to really good grapes. But using contemporary technology (does Cuisinart make winery equipment?) to make the wine taste better, or to make the wine more consistent?

 The College of Humanities at the University of Utah produced a splendid poster featuring what has become one of my favorite maxims: science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurus rex; humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea. Maybe authentic wine is made the way wine should be made, in contradistinction to the way wine can be made. Maybe that makes authentic wine a very personal concept, or maybe the well-educated wine philosophers and wine scientists among us can help establish a sense of universal wine ethics for us to live by. But, in any case, those judgements about authenticity have to come from thoughtful reasoning about the difference between what we can do and whether or not it’s a good idea. The historical argument is a lazy oenophile’s shortcut.

White grapes: more colorful than you think

Our society has a bizarre habit of mislabeling things by color. The familiar case in point: white people are never white but always various tints of pink, peach, and yellow; black people are invariably not actually black but some shade of brown or tan. Less familiar case in point: white wines are really always somewhere in the yellows, and the grapes themselves range from green through yellow to pink. (Red wines are, at least, red, even if the grapes which give them birth are more aptly blue, black, and purple).

We do talk about the color of white wines, from the pale straw of a light-bodied sauvignon blanc to the amber of an elderly riesling. Anything not firmly lodged on the green-yellow to brown-yellow spectrum, though — including forays into pink — is considered a fault. Now, that judgment (like some other “wine fault” decrees) seems a bit arbitrary to me: would I really mind sipping a pinkish chenin blanc? (No, I would not). But “pinking,” as it’s called, is a problem, if for no other reason than consumers might have a hard time coming to grips with it. Gewürztraminer grapes are unquestionably (and beautifully) pink, but gewurztraminer isn’t one of the grapes prone to pinking and, in any case, we’re not talking about color derived from skin contact — those wines are “orange,” not pink. Real pinking qua pinking can show up before bottling or suddenly after pouring and seems to be the result of exposing a reductively-made wine to oxygen.

A group of chemists from Portugal have done a convincing job of demonstrating that — at least in the Siria grapes they tested — pinking is caused by…anthocyanins. Yes, the very same pigmented molecules that make red wines red. But, what are anthocyanins doing in white wine?

In some sense, they were there all along. All grapes have the genetic machinery to be red. White varieties are mutations, the result of genetic changes in the genes responsible for the production of red anthocyanin pigments in grape skins. The same mutations seem to exist in all white grape varieties, which suggests that they probably all descended from a common ancestor.

Anthocyanins would seem the obvious culprit for pinking, even if it does seem odd to think of them being found in whites — that genetics of grape color research isn’t especially new. One of the classic wine science textbooks, Ribéreau-Gayon and company’s Handbook of Enology, says that pinking is caused by unknown compounds that can’t be anthocyanins because they don’t respond to sulfur dioxide and pH in the expected ways. That book was published in 2006, though, and folks like James Kennedy at Fresno State University and Jim Harbertson at Washington State University (along with a good many other researchers) have, since then, made a fair bit of headway into figuring out how anthocyanins react with each other and other wine components. (It remains a terribly complex and incompletely understood topic.) This team of Portuguese researchers could still observe that the pinking-related anthocyanins they observed didn’t act exactly like “normal” anthocyanins because they polymerize over time in the wine, which makes them more resistant to the color-bleaching effect of sulfur dioxide. Suffice it to say that they go through some complicated chemical acrobatics to show that the molecules they isolate from their pink Sirias are indeed anthocyanins.

The researchers responsible for this study speculate that Siria, the rather obscure Portuguese white grape variety with a persistent pinking problem that they chose to examine, may have regained the ability to manufacture some anthocyanins. Not enough to make the grapes overtly pink in the vineyard, but enough to belie their presence after at least some kinds of winemaking operations. (Anthocyanins are unstable molecules susceptible to changing in the presence of oxygen and other molecules.) Though they haven’t substantiated that speculation with molecular analyses, it’s not out of the question that additional mutations in those anthocyanin-producing genes might restore some of their functionality or cause them to be transcribed under specific circumstances.

If you’re not a winemaker with pink problems, why is this research interesting? It’s a good reminder that white grapes aren’t necessarily simpler than red ones, as it’s so easy to imagine, and that we’re still learning a lot about the very complicated pigments that make wine color happen. But it also makes me stop and think about how flexible plants really are. We can select for and preserve features we want through careful clonal selection of the most highly desirable plants, but vines are still going to change and mutate and do new (or redo old) things on the sidelines.

Will magnetic yeast make better Champagne?

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 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 choose 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.

Waiheke Island and why I’ll probably never be an entrepreneur

Before I arrived in Auckland on Saturday evening, I’d planned to spend Sunday at the art museum and wandering around town. I was there for a two-day “PhD Research Innovation and Commercialization Course” hosted by the University of Auckland Business School on Monday and Tuesday and flying in on Saturday proved the least expensive and most reasonable option. Having never been to Auckland before, I figured that I’d enjoy the extra day in the city to explore. I was wrong. Walking from the bus stop to my hostel was more than enough of crowds, air pollution, and garish shops, thank you. Fortunately, I was also wrong about how easy it was to get out to Waiheke Island, as I discovered upon realizing that the ferry terminal was a five-minute walk from the hostel with ferries leaving nearly every hour. So, on Sunday I discovered that my favorite view of the city is from a boat headed away from it.

Waiheke Island is about 40 minutes by ferry from Auckland and home to something along the lines of 12 wineries, additional vineyards, and the inevitable mix of eccentric artists and rich people one finds on beautiful little islands. Being a completely spur-of-the-moment decision, I unfortunately didn’t have time to call in advance and arrange for proper winery visits. Also unfortunately, it was Mother’s Day and I was on foot. Not an ideal visit, and I’ll have to remedy its deficiencies with a better-planned future one (and one that includes visiting some of the island’s olive oil producers, I hope). But I did learn something interesting that, as it turned out, helped me think about what we were doing at the business school’s course.

Vines at Te Moto, Waiheke Island

Vines at Te Moto, Waiheke Island

I walked into Te Moto at the same time as a trio of Oregonian girls who’d just finished working harvest in Marlborough, and the tasting room host kindly offered to show the lot of us around their itty bitty production facility. As the girls cooed over the adorable little tanks, she explained that winemakers didn’t come to Waiheke unless they were interested in staying small and hands-on. An expanding business model just isn’t going to work on a 36 square mile island with astronomical land prices: at the most basic level, you can’t afford business here unless you can afford small, expensive, and precious. But you’re also not likely to plant roots (or rootstock) in this place unless you want a lifestyle that’s a little bit precious. Te Moto was founded in 1989 by the Dunleavy family, notable because patriarch Terry Dunleavy was the first CEO of the Wine Institute of New Zealand (one of two parent organizations to the present-day New Zealand Winegrowers), and though they’re clearly doing well, their crush pad-cum-open-air fermentation space is barely bigger than my office. And they’re doing something that’s the envy of many winemakers: holding on to their vintages until they think they’re ready to drink. The tasting room is currently pouring the 2006, 2007, and 2008. Even with their second label, Dunleavy, for more immediate cash flow, holding onto their flagship wine is an expensive proposition and an interesting choice.

A day later, I was sitting in the Owen G. Glenn building on the University of Auckland’s campus (a structure that could have been dropped into Starfleet Academy without anyone thinking twice about it) listening to a business professor tell me that my chances of becoming a successful entrepreneur increased with the size of the city I called home. Per capita, more start-ups are born in Sydney and Melbourne than in Auckland. Auckland fosters more than Wellington or Christchurch (the second- and third-largest cities in New Zealand, respectively), and Christchurch more than Dunedin, the seventh-largest city (and less than a tenth the size of Auckland) that I currently call home. The moral of the story was three-fold: first, aspiring innovators should live in densely-populated places; second, New Zealand innovation is hamstrung by its relative lack of large-scale urbanity; third, connections between people lead to innovation, and connections are easier in big cities. The prof was trying to convince us that making connections was easier in big cities than in smaller ones, simply because more “talent” was readily available, and that connectivity is important for business growth. Sure. But he ignored an important complicating factor: what kind of people choose to live in big cities versus small towns? Moreover, what kind of place would New Zealand be if we had six Aucklands and a Melbourne?

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Te Moto’s tiny winery/restaurant/tasting room complex

I can’t but wonder if part of why big cities grow small businesses is because the kind of people energized rather than irritated by the bustle, people who value or will tolerate constant motion, people willing to give up quiet porches for dirty pavement, are the kind of people willing to trade freedom of information and generosity of spirit for fatter wallets. I work hard, but being the person I want to be and living a good life is more important to me that climbing ladders, closing deals, and building an investment portfolio. I wouldn’t have come to New Zealand — and I dare say neither would most of my American friends here — if more of the country looked like Auckland.

And so I think about what Waiheke. Te Moto’s definition of success involves a couple of compact car-sized fermenters with no plans to expand. You’re not going to start a winery on Waiheke unless you have money, but you’re still making a deliberate choice in favor of a particular kind of lifestyle. And so the community develops a particular flavor because the place attracts people with similar values.

My experience with Kiwis, at least outside of Auckland, is that they take time to enjoy the outdoors, sit with friends to drink their coffee, and spend money on experiences more than on fancy houses. Most folk I know in Dunedin wouldn’t live in Auckland because it wouldn’t afford them the lifestyle they treasure. Start-ups and entrepreneurs can do great things, and Villa Maria and Kim Crawford and Cloudy Bay are tremendously important for the New Zealand wine industry. But as for me, I’ll be watching the bell birds splashing around in the bird bath on the porch of my quiet little cottage on the bay, hopefully sipping something from a winemaker who’s decided to find the space to do her own thing.

 

 

The complicated business of recreating a wine aroma

How wine aroma happens is both very simple and very, very complicated. The simple version: molecules capable of leaving from the surface of the liquid (or carried up to the liquid in the tiny gas bubbles that make sparkling wine sparkle) are carried through the air up to our nostrils where those molecules meet sensory receptors that, when bound to the right kind of molecule, trigger a “smells like” response in our brain. Hence why we swirl and sniff: swirling encourages aromatic molecules to leave the wine; sniffing encourages those molecules to travel into our noses. As you’d expect, the complicated version elaborates on what kinds of molecules are capable of leaving the wine — of moving from the aqueous phase to the gaseous phase, we’d say — and what has to happen between an aroma molecule and a smell receptor for a message to be sent, and how activating a receptor turns into a perception of “smells like” in our conscious minds. But it’s actually even more complicated than that, because molecules that aren’t aromatic and that don’t ever leave the wine for the air influence what we smell, too.

A new study of the aromas of two different Australian shiraz (shirazs just doesn’t look right to me) is a good example of what it takes to make up a wine’s nose.

Wine — talking all wines collectively, not any one in particular — involves at least 800 or so different aroma compounds. The strategies used to figure out that sort of thing, and to analyze the aroma composition of specific wines, are all fundamentally based on separating out all of the many different molecules a wine contains. A common way of doing this is with gas chromatography which, to put it simply, separates molecules by the differences in how they interact with specific solvents. How long it takes a particular molecule to let go of the solvent — its “retention time” — is unique, so seeing a molecule’s retention time is as good as knowing the molecule’s name…at least when someone else has already done the meticulous work of correlating the two. Of those 800-some-odd wine aroma molecules, we can actually only name something like 10-20%. But we know the rest exist, because we can see their retention-time fingerprint pop up on the chromatography results. Even better than gas chromatography, for wine aroma purposes, is gas chromatography-olfactometry, which takes the apparatus for chromatography and adds a smelling port so that scientists can sniff the separated-out molecules as they come up in turn. In the case of the Australian shiraz, the gas chromatography came up with about 100 “odorants,” but the consensus among sniffers was that only about half of those actually smelled like anything. Of those, for only 27 or 28 were their concentrations in the wines high enough to theoretically be detectable (they exceeded their odor threshold). It took 44, added to a wine-alcohol-acid-sugar base, to make something that credibly mimicked the original wine.

Then the researchers asked their trained sensory panel to do something interesting: sniff  the aroma + base wine-like synthetic and the same mix minus one of several key aroma compounds with the goal of identifying which molecules contributed to which perceived smells. The details get long-winded, but the final message stands out. Removing non-aromatic constituents changed aroma perceptions — sometimes more intense, sometimes less, depending on the aroma and the other molecules involved — even when the key aroma compounds themselves were left untouched. And some very obviously smelly compounds present in the wines in quantities far above their odor thresholds had a much smaller impact on wine aroma then their high concentrations would make you think.

In other words, wine aroma isn’t as simple as just pairing up odiferous molecules and their corresponding smells. And we can’t yet predict how or why wine will smell the way it does from first principles. Synthetic wine, then — or at least synthetic wine that replicates real wine — is going to take some time, and a lot more sniffing.