Responding to Matt Kramer: Is terroir a metaphor?

Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator, recently wrote about his guest lecture for Dr. Kevin Pogue’s terroir course at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Kramer, invited to speak to a class about terroir, led by a professor known for supporting terroir, as a wine writer known for supporting terroir, could have chosen some particular element of that big tangled concept to dissect, knowing that he didn’t have to spend most of his time explaining what terroir is and arguing for why it’s valid. Instead, as he explains in his Wine Spectator column, he explained what terroir is with an eye to why it tends to provoke such consternation. Terroir, Kramer says, is a metaphor.

My first reaction, seeing that phrase, is that it’s interesting idea.

My second reaction, reading on, is that Kramer isn’t talking about metaphors.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’d like to explain why, and argue for why the difference isn’t pedantism but is actually significant to how we understand and work with this concept.

Kramer says that terroir is a lens through which we see and (can) come to understand the world: “As a metaphor, terroir is nothing more—and nothing less—than a way of being alert. It’s a way of both acknowledging and accepting that the Earth—not just the soil—can speak.”

Metaphors are a way of directing our attention, highlighting some elements of the metaphor’s target over others, directing us to ask some kinds of questions over others. All language functions this way, to a greater or lesser extent. If I introduce a wine as “a lush, ripe Australian red” I’m predisposing you to pay attention to its sweet fruit flavors. Introducing the same wine first as “a classic Barossa shiraz with a meaty finish,” I’m encouraging you to pay more attention to its savory side right from the start.* Rhetoricians call the ability of words to make us selectively alert “framing.” The words we use change what we see by drawing our attention to some aspects of a complex picture and hiding or downplaying others.

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Vegan wine: Do the yeast count?

The vegan wine conversation usually goes like this:

“So, I’m looking for a vegan wine…”

Wait; isn’t all wine vegan?”

Dude, no. A lot of wine is clarified using egg whites, or gelatin, or a milk protein called casein, or this stuff from fish bladders called isinglass. Wine isn’t just fermented grapes, you know. Winemakers can use a bunch of other stuff for processing steps, and they often don’t have to put it on the label.”

Wow. I never knew that. I don’t want animal products in my wine! So, are any wines really vegan?”

Yes! Not all winemakers use those products. Some use a kind of powdered clay called bentonite, and some just let the wine sit for a longer time so the particles settle out by gravity. But all of that isn’t always on the label, so you have to look kind of carefully for “vegan friendly” or “no animal products” or “fined with bentonite” on the label or something like that. Some big brands, like Bonny Doon, are known for making only vegan wine, so that makes things a little easier.”

That whole dialogue sidesteps a crucial question: what counts as an animal? And what counts as exploiting it? Talking about whether wine is vegan, in other words, should sound more like talking about whether honey is vegan. Do the bees count? Do the yeast count? Are they being exploited?

A Slate article about the vegan honey question way back in 2008 makes the central point: “any vegan who eats honey but avoids milk is making the tacit assumption that the pain experienced by a bee counts for something less than the pain experienced by a cow.” From caring about bees, it’s a short and slippery slope to caring about silkworms, or yeast or, heck, plants. And then where does that put the conscientious vegan?

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GMO yeast in wine and how to find them

The vast majority of wine does not involve genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Let me repeat, the vast majority of wine does not involve GMOs. On to the rest of the story:

Whether wine contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a question I’m asked often. In general, the answer is no. Genetically modified grapevines aren’t being used for commercial winemaking (though not for want of trying). Two genetically modified wine yeasts have crossed the commercial production threshold, but not worldwide. One, the un-charismatically named ECMo01, available only in the United States and Canada, has been engineered to produce an enzyme that degrades urea. That’s a useful property because urea in wine can become ethyl carbamate, which the World Health Organization thinks is probably carcinogenic enough to be worried about it.

The other, ML01 (which rolls off the tongue much more easily), is legal in the US and Canada as well as Moldova, and seems to have won more traction (though not, I dare say, because it’s available in Moldova). ML01 includes genes for two non-Saccharomyces cerevisiae proteins: a malate permease from fellow yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe, and a malolactic gene from the lactic acid bacteria Oenococcus oeni. Together, those molecules allow ML01 to import malic acid into the cell and convert it into lactic acid, granting ML01 the rather magical ability to perform both alcoholic fermentation and malolactic fermentation simultaneously, all by itself. In addition to speed and convenience, this one-stop fermentation is advertised as a route to fewer wine headaches. Lactic acid bacteria can produce biogenic amines, which can produce headaches and other unpleasantries in sensitive people (I’m one of them); eliminating the need for those bacteria should eliminate the biogenic amines and those symptoms.

For reasons which are probably obvious, North American wineries using these GM yeasts don’t exactly go shouting that news from the rooftops, fewer headaches or not.

What if you wanted to identify whether or not any given wine was made with a genetically modified yeast? You’d go looking for the modified gene, right? This isn’t as simple as it sounds, and not just because genes are very small. The genes that distinguish ML01 and ECMo01 are also found in other common wine microorganisms; detecting ML01, for example, means ensuring that you’re not just detecting the presence of perfectly normal malolactic bacteria.

The authors of a recent paper in the International Journal of Food Microbiology handled these problems with a conceptually simple solution to identify ML01 in mixed microbial company. They used PCR – the polymerase chain reaction, or the standard means of “looking” for genes that constitutes the bread and butter of virtually every molecular biology lab these days. PCR amplifies a very specific DNA sequence, determined by “primers” that line up with the genetic sequence you’re looking for, so that even a tiny amount of that genetic sequence in a sample can be detected. By choosing those primers to line up with the joints at either end of the signature ML01 genes – the scars left over from its engineering procedure, essentially – they could target the engineered yeast to the exclusion of both O. oeni and unmodified S. cerevisiae. By using quantitative PCR, which adds some fancy fluorescent chemistry to the basic PCR process to provide a rough idea of how much of that specific genetic sequence is in a sample, they could distinguish between large quantities of ML01 indicating that it was used for primary fermentation versus small quantities suggesting accidental contamination

The goal, in this paper, was to offer a means of establishing whether GM yeasts are being used illicitly in countries where they’re illegal as well as a test against ML01 contamination in factories where it might be produced near non-GM strains.

That’s how to find GM yeast in wine if you’re a biologist. If you’re not, you’re left with less precise methods. One: exclude wine from outside North America and Moldova. Two: exclude organic wine and wine from companies which expressly declare themselves non-GM-users. Three: recognize that the general ethos of a winery probably gives you a good idea of how likely they are – or aren’t – likely to use ECMo01 or ML01. Four: invest in a PCR machine.

*See, for example, this Australian report from 2003, or this Cornell proposal from 1996, along with numerous research projects investigating the concept.