For organic wine, sharing information isn’t always better

Premise one: Organic labeling laws are complicated, non-intuitive, vary from country to country, and are disputed more or less everywhere.

Premise two: When Joni Mitchell sings “give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees,” not everyone agrees with her, and some people think the spotty apples aren’t going to be very good.*

Warrant: Because consumers are confused by what “organic” means and because they associate “organic” with forlorn and spotty produce from the non-local and meagre selection at the grocery store, some may think that wine labeled “organic” is sub-par.

The most useful part of a recently published study on “eco-labeling” may not be the data, but the way the authors explain why it’s worth talking about in the first place. They explain “eco-labeling” as being about alleviating information asymmetry between producers and consumers, which is another way of saying that labelling is about trying to share what we know. And with wine, knowledge often goes along with enthusiasm.

Organic wine marketing ends up singing the same song I hear so often from folk in science communication: I know that my science is phenomenally exciting/important; I want to tell everyone else about it; why can’t I get everyone else as excited as I am? All of that excitement and deep caring makes it easy to fall into the solipsistic trap of telling everyone else all of the great details about what I do so that they can know how great it is, too.

Delmas and Lessem’s is only the most recent in a line of studies saying that more sharing isn’t always better. In an online simulated buying exercise, they asked potential wine buyers to choose which bottle they’d prefer to buy amongst a few invented-but-likely California cabernet sauvignons** with labels indicating “organic wine,” “made with organic grapes,” or none of the above. The wines were, in different versions of the exercise, from Napa or from Lodi and priced at $8, $15, $22, or $29.*** Their survey respondents were mostly Californian and younger, better educated, and a good deal better off than national averages, but so are a lot of potential wine consumers and what they found is consistent with previous studies.

A third of their respondents buy organic products on at least half of their shopping trips and 20% said they belonged to some kind of pro-environmental organization, and these folk were more inclined to prefer the organic-labeled wines. But better educated and wealthier respondents were more inclined to choose wines without organic designations. Lower-priced Lodi wines with organic on the label faired better than higher-priced “organic” or “made with organic grapes” Napa wines.

All of this is to say that this study is one more in a pile saying that consumers — even well-heeled Whole Foods-shopping eco-conscious Californian consumers — probably still think organic wine is wan and spotty. If you’re trying to sell premium wine and your environmental conscious leads you down the organic route, more information isn’t necessarily better.

The problem with marketing studies is that despite all their schmancy formulae and big tables full of numbers and tests for statistical significance, they don’t tell us much. Did people who didn’t prefer organic wines (especially the regular organics buyers) avoid them because of past experiences with icky low-quality bottles? Because they’ve heard stories about other people’s experiences with icky low-quality bottles? Because they know the details of the sulfite controversy, or just assume that organic wine isn’t as good, or because they think organic wines are overpriced or have cooties? If we can get those marketing folk to spend some of their time talking to people instead of just crunching numbers, organic supporters will have a better song to sing when we come back to those labeling disputes.

 

*Writes with sadness the person who’s been happily munching spotty apples from a nearby feral apple tree  that easily beat out any of the overhybridized, artificially sweet specimens from the grocery store or even the farmers’ market.

**Amusingly enough, their likely-sounding fictitious wine brands were common French surnames. Because, sensibly enough, consumers expect Californian wines to look and sound French. Really?

***Though how you simulate a believable $8 Napa cab, organic or not, is beyond me. Have I mentioned my qualms with marketing studies? This study makes a lot of assumptions that I find unwarranted, but none that substantially affect the core findings of their survey.

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.

Arsenic in wine: A news update, but not a scientific one

The news this morning is full of pieces on Kevin Hicks, proprietor of a consumer-oriented wine analysis company called Beverage Grades, and the class action lawsuit he’s bringing against multiple California wineries for selling wine with arsenic concentrations far exceeding what the US Environmental Protection Agency allows in drinking water. Many of the reports are emphasizing the “wine may kill you” side of this story.

Mr. Hicks contacted me by way of an email and a suggested arsenic-in-wine story — for which he advised me I could pay him by check or PayPal — a little over a year ago, which prompted me to write this post on whether wine consumers should be concerned. My admittedly brief scan of the literature suggests that no new scientific research on wine and arsenic has been published in English since then. I’ll stand by what I wrote in 2014. The key points:

  • Arsenic is definitely found in wine. It’s also found in many other foods and beverages. Arsenic is, in fact, naturally present in water and soil, and unless you’re part of a special population, drinking water is your primary source of dietary arsenic.
  • Researchers have found evidence of higher arsenic intake in wine drinkers, but also in people who drink beer and who eat rice, fish, and/or Brussels sprouts. (Exemplar references here and here.)
  • The FDA regulates arsenic levels in apple and pear juice, but not (yet) in wine. Dietary arsenic isn’t well understood, and whether we have good evidence for the current “safe” cut-offs and what those cut-offs should be has been discussed for decades.
  • Our current best evidence indicates that arsenic in wine isn’t a health concern. It’s fair to say that every food and drink we consume brings minor amounts of potentially harmful substances into our bodies. Risk assessments say that the amount of arsenic in wine doesn’t pose a threat to consumers. (Exemplar references here and here)

The wines indicted in Hicks’ lawsuit weren’t a major part of the studies I’ve listed above. His data may show something amiss with these specific wines, but he hasn’t shared either his methods or his data. When I looked at Beverage Grades a year ago, I was disturbed by the complete lack of detail offered to back up awarding specific wines badges like “HealthyPour™.”

I’m uncomfortable with Kevin Hicks and Beverage Grades’ tactics of withholding rather than being transparent with information, damaging at the best of times and ironic in light of his accusations. If third-party labs can back up Hicks’ claims in the course of this lawsuit, we may well have something to talk about: ways to reduce arsenic levels in wine, new regulations, and/or renewed scrutiny of the EPA guidelines. But until then, the healthiest thing to avoid is likely the inflammatory news headlines.

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.

The joyful paradox of non-icon wines and New Zealand chardonnay

Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore ubiquitous and boring. Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore endlessly diverse and interesting. If you like chardonnay, you’re never going to run out of wines to try, and with just a little effort they’re all (okay; mostly all) going to taste different.

Having an iconic variety is good for marketing: consumers can latch onto a recognizable and rememberable identity that, once tried and liked, they can come back to over and over. Willamette Valley pinot noir. Napa cab. Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Without such a regional brand, wines have a harder time finding a place in consumers’ memories and, consequently, wine lists and store shelves. Washington state…riesling? Merlot? Syrah? 

But having an iconic wine brings on a paradoxically both-and problem and joy that looks a lot like the paradoxical both-and problem of chardonnay. Stand-out wines tend to overshadow other, very interesting but minor wines that remain less well-known. But because they’re less well-known, interested persons can enjoy all the loveliness of finding a hidden treasure that, frankly, would be less of a treasure were it not so hidden. Oregon chardonnay and it’s clamor-inducing annual symposium, despite chard being less than 10% of the state’s production, is an excellent case in point. So is New Zealand chardonnay.

None of the three New Zealand winegrowing regions I recently visited on my dissertation-data-collecting tour is especially well-known for chardonnay, but they’re are among the wines that interested me most everywhere. That’s not to discount the balance of some Hawke’s Bay syrahs (and even one or two pinots there), or the fun of non-standard Marlborough sauvignon blancs (and a few pinots there too), or the diverse pinot gris of Central Otago (and, yes, even some pinot noir in that iconic pinot region). But it is very much to say that Kiwi chardonnay can and should be “hidden treasures” worth digging under the icons to find.

The unsurprising problem remains that these wines are hard to find outside of New Zealand. The only good thing I can say about that is that were New Zealand churning out as much chardonnay as standard mass-market sauvignon blanc, it might develop into a similarly iconic style that would quench so much of the non-standard joy that seems to come through these wines.

Elephant Hill Chardonnay 2013 (Hawke’s Bay) – Elephant Hill is ripping gewürztraminer out of it’s coastal vineyard to make room for more chardonnay, which is a real shame — the last vintage of the gewürztraminer is beautifully rich with magnolia apricot jam and an unctuous finish — but makes sense when you try the chard. Writing about big zesty lemon flavors backed up by oak and vanilla with some pleasant green notes sandwiched in between sounds fairly ordinary, but this wine isn’t: it’s briny, extraordinarily fresh and zesty, but still full rather than sharp in the mouth.

Fromm Clayvin Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Marlborough) – It’s hard to say too many good things about Fromm’s chardonnays. Savory, with lots of lime and some herbaceousness over a fairly big wine carried by enough oak that I’d appreciate seeing this again in a few more years. Great, long, lime zest-driven finish. The LaStrada remains complex and bordering on savory in a lighter style.

Felton Road chardonnay 2014 (Bannockburn, Central Otago; barrel tasting) – Some of the chardonnays I encountered in Central Otago felt disjointed, like someone was trying to tow the line mid-way between creamy weight and steely acidity and instead ended up making something with elements of each that didn’t quite fit together in the end. Felton Road’s tries and succeeds, with interesting and well-integrated acidity keeping from flabbiness a wine with definite mouth-filling creaminess and palate weight.

How to replicate a wine from 1500 year-old grape seeds

How to replicate a 1500 year-old Negev wine: 

  1. Unearth 1500 year-old grape seeds from the famed Byzantine-era city Halutza. (Done; credit Israeli archaeologists.)
  2. Extract DNA; sequence. (This is the easy part.)
  3. Check sequence against known contemporary grape genomes (to infer evolutionary relationships, and to double-check that seeds really weren’t refuse from archeologist’s lunch before proceeding).
  4. Realize that DNA sequence from seeds doesn’t represent DNA sequence of original cultivated vines, because Vitis species are notoriously mutation-prone, Halutza vignerons would probably have worked with grafted vines and selected varieties the way we do now (cf. Theophrastus who wrote about grafting in Athens in the 3rd c. B.C.). Deal, because we can infer a lot about the parent vine from the seed DNA but the stuff we can’t infer can definitely change wine quality (cf. reason why every contemporary commercial grapevine is propagated by cutting and not from seed).
  5. Synthesize fresh, lab-manufactured DNA from the old sequence (there are companies for this).
  6. Get someone like Dr. Andy Walker at UC Davis to (get his grad students to) clone new DNA into grape stem cells.
  7. Plant lots of babies. Watch lots of them die. Wait.
  8. Try to find a climate similar to c. 500 AD Halutza for vine cultivation (consult archeological meteorologist?) Hope that soil types also have something in common, or try to replicate historically appropriate soil.
  9. Accept that since grapes are subject to lots of somatic mutations, the new grape vines may change a bit along the way and not be exactly like the original Negev wines. Keep dealing.
  10. Consult Dr. Patrick McGovern (biomolecular archaeologist specializing in fermented beverages; Dogfish Head collaborator/co-creator of Midas’s Touch, etc.; outstandingly nifty person) about mimicking historical winemaking. Do what he says.
  11. Hope that Dr. McGovern has advice on how to handle the problem of modern Saccharomyces cerevisiae being a darn sight different than whatever might have been around to ferment things in the Byzantine Negev.
  12. Option A: Backtrack 15-20 years and clone person using DNA from bones found at Halutza dig. Raise in a bubble (consult designers of The Truman Show) to mimic growing up in Byzantine Halutza. Make sure he doesn’t try any wine until the replicated stuff is ready, then get him to write tasting notes. Option B: Accept that even if we’ve perfectly replicated an ancient wine (see above caveats about genetic variation, yeast, etc), we won’t actually have replicated the wine because we, the drinkers, will be different, and the wine only fully exists in its drinking and enjoying via the participation of complex sensory and thinking apparatus attached to a subjective human being.
  13. Drink the darn wine anyway. Invite Robin Trento over to make dinner (ask her to bring her own garum). Look up retirement residence addresses for the journalists who were “ready for a taste of the Byzantine Empire’s favorite wine” back in 2015 and make sure they get a bottle.

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.

 

On Palate Press: why authenticity makes most of us hypocrites, and why globalism makes it worse

My Palate Press article for this month is about why wanting authentic wine makes most of us hypocrites. I’m not talking about preaching wines of place in public and then buying Cupcake when no one’s watching at the grocery store, though there’s that. I’m talking about saying that we want wine to taste of its place, probably even truly believing it, but then really wanting wine to taste like the stuff we’re accustomed to liking. Drinking wine you like is fine — more than fine, in fact — but we run into real problems trying to compare or rank (formally or informally) wines from around the world: some authentic wines will always be underprivileged because their authentic flavors either don’t look like the established gold standards or just aren’t as nice. it leaves you one of three choices. 1. Drop ideas about wine tasting authentically of its place and look for producers who are just trying to match the global gold standards. 2. Burn the democratic wine flag and accept that some wines are the poor and downtrodden. 3. Stop comparing wines from different regions and love each in its own special, unique way. The argument in more detail, and with a cute dog picture, is here.

Studying sulfur dioxide effects with better DNA technology suggests we may not need much of it

Fast: In a new study using better-than-ever microbiology, 25 mg/L SO2 added after pressing was enough to “stabilize” yeast and bacterial growth during fermentation, and higher concentrations actually seemed to slow fermentation. Inoculating the must with commercial S. cerevisiae had a very similar effect, even without adding SO2, which looks really, really good for no-added-sulfur wines. BUT (and this is a big but) the study only included one wine (a California chardonnay) made in one way, in smallish (19 L) lab volumes. Goodness only knows if their results will generalize, but let’s hope this encourages someone to look.

More: Sulfur dioxide is the single most commonly used winemaking chemical worldwide. That familiarity probably has something to do with our not understanding it better: we know it’s safe, we know how to use it, and so we don’t have much reason to study it.

In all fairness we do understand SO2 well, but microbiology keeps changing. The publishing dynamo* of Nicholas Bokulich and David Mills – responsible for really excellent recent research on how microbes are spread around a working winery over space and time – plus UC Davis wine microbiologist Linda Bisson (and another Davis student and a Japanese collaborator have published a new American Journal of Enology and Viticulture article on how SO2 affects bacteria and yeast populations in fermenting wine.

The question isn’t new, but the technology they’re using is. Short story: better DNA detection techniques let them pick up on the presence of a bigger range of both bacteria and yeast than previous strategies.

Longer story: Microbes in wine (and elsewhere, for that matter) can be “viable but nonculturable” (VBNC), a new idea ten years ago when microbiologists could still think that agar and Petri dishes were a reasonable way of identifying bugs in a sample. Until better DNA technology made clear a serious issue: yeast and bacteria might be stressed out enough by environments (like wine) to not grow on command but still be alive and able to multiply and cause problems, aka VBNC. (The unculturables who won’t grow in dishes at all are trouble, too.) The details of the high-throughput DNA sequencing they used to ensure that VBNC bugs weren’t left out of their survey aren’t important except to note that it lets them detect more microbes than previous studies.

The other great = new element of this study is its looking at multiple SO2 concentrations, from 150 mg/L down to nil. More work for them; more data for everyone. They also included ferments inoculated with commercial S. cerevisiae and not, which ended up being important.

Their results say that the most important factor in determining what grows in fermenting wine seems to be the degree to which a single strain has the opportunity to take over. One way of encouraging dominance is inoculating with commercial yeast: it more or less takes over and overall microbe diversity declines. But another way is adding SO2, which knocks down some microbes and gives tolerant ones (S. cerevisiae strains included) an opening. Adding SO2 and inoculating S. cerevisiae even without SO2 had similar effects on overall microbial diversity. And, moreover, 25 mg/L was enough SO2 to “stabilize” the ferment. In other words, sulfur-free wines may be less risky than winemakers are generally inclined to believe if they inoculate (which plenty of people inclined not to use sulfur are also inclined to avoid).

The obvious problem: one wine, one vintage, one set of processing techniques, and 19 L volumes. All of these are major reasons to question whether these results will hold for any other set of circumstances. pH and a slew of sulfur-binding compounds affect SO2 efficacy. Fermentation temperature, oxygen, clarification, means of harvesting…the list of processing steps important to microbial diversity is too long to list. And it’s well-known that fermentation volume is important to microbial kinetics.

In short? This article is almost certainly more important to wine microbiologists as a methods paper than to winemakers. (It’s not incidental that the methods section abbreviates the winemaking protocol — “grapes were harvested, crushed, and pressed according to standard winemaking procedures,” whatever that means – and uses nearly a full page of text to describe the DNA sequencing technique.) Nevertheless, it may well serve as impetus for more experimentation with low- and no-sulfur wines, and a good reminder that we always have more to learn about SO2.

Even more: find the full paper, with many more details on which specific yeast and bacteria species were detected and when they peaked (unfortunately behind the AJEV‘s lovable paywall) here. Read the full paper if you can; it contains plenty of potentially idea-generating details that I’ve not even attempted to summarize here.

*Hackneyed maybe, but, seriously, what else do you call them? Bokulich’s CV, as a PhD student, could put to shame plenty of tenured professors. When I’m not just feeling horribly inadequate, I’m wondering where this guy will end up post-graduation. Barring his speaking French and fancying living overseas – or starting a lucrative consulting firm – he’s probably lined up to make tenure at Davis in record time. Heck, he probably already qualifies for tenure.

Finding unboring wines in Marlborough, part 1: Seresin Estate

If you don’t live in New Zealand, Seresin Estate is a producer you should know, or know better. They’re a largish (if you’re not comparing against Yealands) biodynamic producer in Marlborough, and the biodynamics is one reason you should know them: Seresin proves that fresh, approachable, frankly delicious biodynamic and even no-sulfur wines are possible. But you should also know them because their wines are worth drinking with no labels attached, like the vegan carrot mole salad good enough to make the omnivores reject their roast chicken.

Perhaps the best way to describe Seresin’s core wines (the winery also produces a second label, Momo, and several higher-end pinots hovering around NZ $100) is that they’re easy to drink without being boring. These are biodynamic wines you can serve to people who don’t like weird wine. More importantly, these are interesting wines you can serve at a dinner party: you won’t be bored; your non-oenophile guests won’t be turned off. And you can probably even find them whereveryouarenotMarlborough.

The following are rough-cut notes from the tasting room; more important than the specifics is that all were delightful and eminently drinkable.

2011 Memento riesling – Seresin has in the past produced a dry riesling but has (at least in part because the style is such a hard sell in New Zealand) scaled back to this single sweeter bottling. Robustly aromatic with a rich honey apricot nose accurately foreshadowing its dominant flavors. Rich and honeyed, but well-balanced by bright acidity (and lots of it). Something to pour with the lovely array of chêvre- and nut- and fruit-adorned salads in perpetual vogue.

2013 sauvignon blanc – One of three S.B.’s Seresin produces under its main label, and the most regionally typical. Combines classic sweaty armpit, passionfruit, and asparagus notes with typically bracing acidity, but underpinned by enough body to keep things pleasant. A simple grilled fish kind of wine.

2012 Marama barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc – Easily the most challenging wine on this list, in part because it strays from easily recognizable styles. Obviously sister to the stainless S.B. in aroma, though bigger and rounder. Clear oak presence especially in the mid-palate with some oiliness lasting through on the finish. I’d like to see it after another few years’ integration time.

2012 pinot gris – Splendid bright acidity carries throughout without being overwhelming over apple-dominant fruit. Slightly sweet, but on the crisp rather than the oily side of what gris does. More roast pork tenderloin than seared salmon.

2012 chardonnay – Light, fresh, relatively understated aroma emphasizing the green apple-lemon side of the chardonnay spectrum. Crisp, fruit-focused but still with some dimension, and lots of acidity on the finish.

 2013 Osip pinot noir – Osip is Seresin’s sulfur-free line: no sulfur sprayed (as a de rigeur anti-fungal) in the vineyard; no sulfur used in the winery. Proof-of-principle that a sulfur-free wine can be (here, at least) fresh, fruity, and easy-to-drink. Fresh, bright raspberry aroma with an equally exuberant impression in the mouth. Not wanting for intensity, but light on its feet. At the risk of using the word “yummy,” it is. I’d like to try this with sushi.

2012 Leah pinot noir – The flagship and least expensive of six (excepting the Osip) pinot noir bottlings. More intense, darker, and brambly than the Osip, but still unquestionably fruit-driven. Silky up-front but with prominent tannins dominating the finish. Duck pastrami comes to mind, though an herby smoked-salmon pasta is a lot more likely in my kitchen.