Born Digital Awards shortlist

I’ve been doubly short-listed for the 2015 Born Digital Wine Awards, for a post on this blog on how to replicate a 1500 year-old wine and a piece at Palate Press on whether “hand-picked” on the label means better wine inside the bottle. The blog post may be one of the better things I’ve written: it’s silly, but perhaps it gets its point across, and (unusually for me, I know) it’s a quick read. The Palate Press piece isn’t as entertaining, but the topic is important. We glean so many of our assumptions about wine from the way it’s marketed, and so it’s easy to end up thinking things that don’t always hold water if you look at them more closely.

Thanks to the Born Digital folk for their support, and congratulations to the other finalists. It’s an excellent list, and a real pleasure to be in such good company. And while I’m still working to understand (and read through the extensive website of) the main sponsoring organization, Wine in Moderation, I certainly appreciate the sentiment.

When a wine is salty, and why it shouldn’t be

Salty is not a common wine descriptor. That it’s also not a positive one probably goes without saying. As a consumer, it’s also not a fault you’re likely to fret over (I don’t think I can recall ever hearing anyone say something like “Hey, Sarah, does this wine taste salty to you?”) But the fact that wine-producing countries have (widely varying) legal maximums for sodium chloride in wine should tell you something. Salinity is a concern in dry locations when frequent irrigation increases soil salinity, which increases wine salinity, which may add one more to the list of western American winemakers’ concerns. Soil composition often doesn’t translate in the way you’d expect into grape composition; salt is, unfortunately, an exception.

An article in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture last year mentions Australian growers’ and winemakers’ experience that grapes that taste salty may clock in under the legal sodium chloride limit and vice-versa. Law or no law, obviously no one wants “salty” to show up in their product’s tasting notes. The article reported on an effort to quantify when wine saltiness kicked in and how best to measure it. Most of the non-sodium chloride salts that show up in wine – potassium chloride is notable – register as bitter more than salty. Sodium chloride registers as salty, obviously, but also appears to convey soapy sensations. They were interested, then, both in how much salt it took for a taster to call a wine salty and in the negative impacts of defined amounts of salt on wine flavor.

Their cadre of tasters – enology students at the University of Adelaide with some specialized tasting experience – were able to first identify saltiness in Australian Shiraz and unoaked Chardonnay at .36 to 1.76 g/L with a median of .8 g/L and a lot of individual variation (values were lower for the white wine, higher for the red). The Australian legal maximum of .606 g/L, then, means that some of these folk may sometimes encounter a salty wine; the Swiss limit of .06 g/L, on the converse, seems unwarranted at least in terms of sensory concerns. The researchers also spiked the Chardonnay with several concentrations of NaCl and asked a smaller group of specially trained students to rate their sensory qualities. Those experiments confirmed that at .5 and 1 g/L, added salt dampened perceptions of fruit and added a salty flavor and soapy mouthfeel.

To the Australian researchers, the utility of their findings was in recommending that Australian growers could probably rely on their (quite possibly a bit more sensitive than average) taste perceptions to gauge grape saltiness in the field, in terms of acceptability for the Australian market, but not for meeting more stringent international guidelines. They didn’t comment on the implications of their findings for the reasonableness of those guidelines, though perhaps they go without saying. It does seem plausible that saltiness perception thresholds might vary among people of different nations accustomed to different diets, though this study’s Australian-based results were about on par with previous studies including a few conducted in Japan.

One other interesting implication, for household use. Obsessive molecular gastronomist Nathan Myrhvold has recommended that people try salting their wine as they would salt any other food. This is the same gentleman who suggests that a blender is an efficient tool for oxygenating wine, a more aggressive version of “letting it breathe” in a decanter. Myrhvold suggests a tiny pinch per glass. If one teaspoon of salt weighs about six grams, then 1/10th teaspoon per liter of wine amounts to the Australian limit of .6 g/L. A standard glass of wine is about 150mL. In other words, any realistic pinch will send your glass over the technically established edge. But it’s worth noting that Myrhvold is recommending this as a tactic to make a wine taste more savory.

I tried this with an exceptionally ordinary glass of Australian shiraz. The salt did, indeed, make the wine taste more savory. Frankly, that was neither difficult nor especially unwelcome for something that started off as a bit of a fruit bomb. But – and keep in mind that I was not tasting blind – the potential for that to be a benefit was outweighed by the kind of soapiness you get from having added a bit too much baking soda to your biscuits. In this wine, where the fruit was pretty much what it had going for it, I wouldn’t do it again, but I’m interested to see what happens with the next glass of reasonably lively Chardonnay I come across.

For producers in California, Washington, and other devastatingly dry locales, unfortunately, adding salt isn’t going to be that kind of easy option.

(Some of) the trouble with tech transfer

Technology transfer is an old-fashioned idea and I think we should get rid of it. Not because it’s old, but because it doesn’t work. Technology transfer assumes that the research world looks like the practice world, and you just need to “transfer” research from one place to the other. The obvious problem is that the research world doesn’t (or doesn’t always) look like the practical industry world. Folks are doing different things in different places, and if we’re going to make sense of how (or whether) they relate to each other, we’re going to have to do work to make that happen. “Research mapping*” to “technology transfer,” because mapping is an active task you perform when you want to figure out how to get from one place to another, and its inevitable that you create some new information in the process.

Technology transfer also tends to imply the idea that whatever is being transferred is good and works. The experts come up with something and then pass it on down the line for use by everyone else. In some ways, that’s great: research is great; sharing is great; getting science to do stuff in practice is great. What’s less great is the ease with which sharing can turn into making assumptions about what someone else will do with your information. You know how it works, you’re going to tell other people how it works, but maybe sometimes they see other ways and those work pretty well too. And if they’re experts in how the practical industry world works, because it’s their life to work with them, then their opinions probably count for a lot.

The gist of the article I just published in the Journal of Wine Research is that Washington state winemakers and growers use research in a lot of different ways, and it’s probably best to respect that – both in terms of supporting the diversity of the industry and in the interest of getting people to listen to the scientists. The point is simple, but it’s packaged with some interesting interview and survey data about what scientific resources winemakers/growers are using and how they see the role of science in their practices. The official Journal of Wine Research version is behind a paywall, but I’ve posted an author’s manuscript version here (please cite the version of record from JWR). I’d be interested in your thoughts.**

This article includes data I hope folks will find useful for thinking about doing industry-oriented science communication, but only starts to hint at the bigger arguments for doing science communication differently, as mapping instead of as tech transfer. The rest? Well, my official dissertation submission date is November 3, 2016, but a few more articles are working their way through the system in the meantime.


*With apologies to any Deleuzians, because this usage conflicts with Deleuze’s ideas about mapping. I’m still working out whether and how I’m going to alter my terminology to deal with that.

**The trouble with publishing articles as you go through your PhD, I find, is that the way I think about this and my research on the whole has changed a fair bit since I wrote and submitted this article about a year ago. If you’re interested in talking theory about technology transfer, research utilization, or the relationships between scientific and industry practice, please give me a ring. I’d love to chat, and this article won’t necessarily give you a good picture of my current ideas on those subjects.