A few years back, a group of Auckland-based researchers established that machine-harvested Marlborough sauvignon blanc has higher aromatic thiol concentrations = tastes more intensely Marlborough sauv blanc-y = is better than wine from hand-harvested grapes. I don’t know how widely that logic is known amongst wine consumers, in New Zealand or elsewhere. Reading back labels in my local wine shop makes it clear that the hand-picked grapes = superior wine logic rules in the minds of marketers and, if they’re any bellwether (a worthwhile question), at least some consumers.
Marlborough sauvignon blanc aside, is that prejudice justified? My January piece for Palate Press addresses that question. The short answer is that hand-harvested grapes are in many settings more about feeling good about purchasing genuine artisan wine than about quality or flavor. The longer answer is here.
Saying that hand vs. machine harvesting is becoming less and less of a quality issue, with better equipment in the field and in the winery, isn’t the same as saying that the difference doesn’t matter. It does, to our perceptions of what we drink. But it’s also impossible not to see this as one more instance of Robots Will Take Our Jobs, and a particularly hard-hitting one with wine such a cultural icon. A lot of vacuous dithering takes place in the media around this topic (even in outlets like The Atlantic, though this piece from The Economist might be an exception) and, to be honest, I’m not sure that I have anything worthwhile to add. We’re headed, I think, for a major shift in how people work, earn money/obtain necessary resources, and spend their time. That shift may come in the form of an organized political (maybe governmental, maybe by large companies) decision to redefine work and money, or it may come as a necessary post-degenerate organic movement after the fall of Rome. Either way, being human, we’ll continue to find meaning in our work whether that means choosing to harvest grapes by hand because it’s meaningful to do so, even when a machine/robot can do a better job, by redefining wine quality such that the robot can’t do the job as well, or by understanding human winemaking as a conceptual art independent of the physical work of our hands.
My Palate Press piece for this month (which I really wish was entitled something involving “water” to make the subject more clear) is a bit about Waiheke Island, just off the coast of Auckland, and a bit about water footprints in the wine industry. The relationship between the two is that Waiheke — shockingly, for a North American accustomed to consistent public amenities like central heating and easy wi-fi (both unlikely propositions in New Zealand) — has no public water supply. In good years, residents and businesses and wineries meet their individual needs either by collecting and filtering rainwater (most folk) or with a “water bore” into the under-island aquifer (large and/or resource-full folk). In bad years, all of the above buy water from private companies with private water bores, and do laundry less often.
Waiheke is a good reminder, though, that whether water comes out of a tap or off the cistern parked next to your car, it’s always coming from the same two places: the sky, or underground (which isn’t to say that the two aren’t connected, but only that it’s helpful to think of the two compartments). Tap water is a bit like packaged boneless skinless chicken breasts from the grocery store. Someone else has done all of the hard work for us. Both distance us from the hows and wheres of the stuff we use. Butchering chickens is a pain*. It makes endless sense to divide labor, specialize, and let someone else with better equipment and skills and economy of do it for you. And bake your bread, change your car’s oil, and collect and filter your water. Still, all of these things make it easier to abuse the system. We don’t pay as much attention to our dinner’s living conditions when it didn’t live with us before it appeared on the table, nor to how it died if we didn’t kill it. I’d never really thought about water that way before wandering around on Waiheke; I try to conserve it, but I don’t usually think so graphically about what my convenient kitchen faucet implies. I’d never wish drought on anyone (and California and its people have my sympathy). But maybe it’s no bad thing to look for a drinking fountain in a place with no public water and find none, and remember that I should be just as conscientious about my water as I am about my free-range, local, organic Sunday supper.
More about my Waiheke visit, and about water, is on Palate Press.
*As I know from recent experience. The Great Chicken Experiment is, regrettably, over. The first two hand-me-down hens lived happily with us until the neighbor’s rooster discovered them and decided that they were his, after which they lived happily with the neighbor until she decided she was done with poultry and she invited me to dispatch the lot of them (after which they lived in my freezer and my stockpot). Save the (charming, darling) several month-old chicks, who we adopted. Unfortunately, having been raised entirely outside in our mostly fenceless environs, they’d learned to be very freely free-range. A trip through someone’s spinach was more than anyone was willing to tolerate (save, maybe, the chickens) and we handed them on to someone else. We miss them, though my garden does not.
My piece for Palate Press this month asks what California (proto-Davis) wine researchers were doing in the era before mass spectrophotometers and DNA sequencers and even automated pH meters and all the other fancy stuff wine scientists consider essential today. The short story is that they were trying to figure out what grows best where, and how, which is fundamentally what we’re still trying to do. The long story is on Palate Press.
The long story didn’t have space for me to really geek out over the fun of reading old research articles. I think it’s fair to say that science writing — of the by scientists, for scientists variety — wasn’t as dry then as it is now, not just because antiquated language is quaint but because the distance between normal-talk and science-talk was shorter then than it is now. It’s pretty accessible and often entertaining. There’s the simple, voyeuristic pleasure of being astonished at just how backward they sometimes were, and sometimes at realizing that they weren’t as backward as we tend to assume. And then there’s the higher-order pleasure of making stories by connecting what they were doing to what we’re doing and finding new meaning in both the historical and the modern.
But reading about someone else geeking out over light archival wine reading isn’t near as fun as doing it yourself, and the archives of Hilgardia: a Journal of Agricultural Science from the University of California, including much about wine, are freely available via the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Respository. When so much is pay-walled and protected, free access to land grant university resources — not just for subscribers, not just for local winemakers, and not just for the taxpayers of California or even the United States — seems increasingly meaningful, and a good reminder of this massive, excellent, egalitarian knowledge-sharing project we practice through land-grant universities and agricultural extensions. I won’t ask you to excuse my unfashionable patriotism.
An enormous lot has been said about the relationship, or lack thereof, between grape yield and wine quality. So why is my October piece for Palate Press about whether higher yields mean lower quality?
1. My Palate Press colleague W. Blake Gray took an interesting economic tack on the problem a few months ago, reminding me that I wanted to revisit what we know via the scientific approach.
2. I’ve been more than a bit obsessed with the contacts (and conflicts, and congruencies) between anecdotal and scientific knowledge of late. The yield-quality problem is a fantastic case of the scientific evidence we have strongly suggesting one position (higher yields ≠ lower quality) while some peoples’ experience suggests that more may be going on than science has yet to document.
3. It’s a perennial question for a reason (or two): it’s interesting, and it’s important. And revisiting interesting and important things is worthwhile.
4. Richard Smart wrote an article for Wine Business Monthly back in 2004 proving, via contrary anecdotes, that higher yields don’t always mean lower quality, and that the principle isn’t true from a scientific perspective. He also implied that anyone who thought that myth had a place in winemaking was 1) a moron, and 2) unscientific, and that riled my epistemological feathers enough to want to write on the same topic from a different (better)* perspective. More on myths another day.
The short version: the oft-cited yield-quality relationship is more about correlation than causation particularly from the perspective of the scientific evidence, but whenever we’re talking quality things get fuzzy (and social) and our perceptions about wine quality involve more than just measurable scientific variables.
The long version is here.
* Yes. I’ve just compared myself to a highly-accomplished viticultural scientist and found him wanting. Dr. Richard Smart is a marvelous scientist. He also, by this single account at least (I’ve not tracked down more examples), has ideas about which forms of knowledge-making are valid that I find deeply misguided.
My September piece for Palate Press asks, “Is New Zealand the world’s most sustainable wine producing country?” to which the answer is: quite possibly, but the metrics we have don’t exactly say. The more important point is that sustainability is an excellent tool for industry self-improvement and a pretty terrible tool for comparisons between countries. It’s also not good at guaranteeing consumers of any particular pro-environmental or pro-community practices, though it still has a place in consumer communication: IF consumers understand that “sustainable” means “we’re thinking about what we’re doing (and usually trying to make it better)” OR if we let the marketing folk equate “sustainable” with “good!” and leave the right to use that word as an incentive to participate in sustainability programs. Which, even if they don’t guarantee vineyards full of happy children and chickens frolicking under thoroughly non-toxic vines, still do a great deal of good.
Find the full article on Palate Press.
My August piece for Palate Press, up today, reviews some of the recent literature on what alcohol restrictions do for public health. I’d hoped, when I first logged in to PubMed, for one of two things. 1. Three or four reviews showing that placing restrictions on alcohol reduces consumption by “everyday” drinkers but doesn’t change heavy drinkers’ behavior. 2. Three or four reviews showing mixed evidence for whether anti-alcohol regulations improve public health that still argued in favor of those laws because all drinking is bad drinking.
What I found is the latter, sort of. Medical research is never as simple as you’d like it to be. Drinking can do bad things to people, and restricting when and where it can be sold reduces how much people drink… probably, most of the time, it seems. For researchers who dismiss alcohol as a health hazard and won’t see it for anything else*, that’s enough.
My argument is this: instead of chasing down exactly when, where, and how regulating alcohol sales might reduce deaths by liver cirrhosis or drunk driving accidents or domestic violence, let’s spend our resources on finding better strategies altogether. Drinking isn’t the problem, whether you’re considering just human health or (thinking more thoughtfully) human well-being in general. Heavy drinking — the kind people do to escape from other problems in their life or, less often, the kind people do out of ignorance for the harm it does — is the problem. We’re doing surgery with a log splitter by trying to decrease problem drinking by decreasing all drinking. There are better ways. Education. Better server training. Encouraging social pressure. Addressing the underlying social ills with which alcohol abuse tends to be associated, such as family instability. And my favorite: working, however slowly, on changing the prevailing American culture of alcohol-as-drug to one of wine and beer as food, and spirits as drugs with appropriate ceremonial and ritual functions**.
*Or for researchers who adopt that prohibitionist perspective for the sake of winning grants from misguided and uncritical public health organizations, though I’m inclined to think that most researchers have at least a little (and sometimes a lot of) personal investment in their work and its implications.
** Ceremonial and ritual taken broadly. Sipping whisky with your mates in the pub on Saturday night is ceremonial; it invokes a particular kind of social bonding and communication and creates and demarcates the space in which that happens.
With so much interesting research, so many papers published, so many nit-picky little things to remember about temperatures and acidity and bugs and the rest, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees in enology. When the much-beloved chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall came to visit the Centre for Science Communication that I call home about a month ago, in talking about the African forests she actually reminded me to step back and look at the metaphorical enological ones, too. Maybe studying chimps isn’t all that much like making wine, but I’m not sure they’re that different, either: technology and training can get in the way of both, and stories win people over more than arguments whether you’re talking primates or pH. The full story of what Jane Goodall taught me about wine science is here on Palate Press.
My February piece for Palate Press takes a look at what wine lovers can learn about (I’d say, a more balanced, maybe more functional attitude toward) terroir. Does beer have terroir? Finding a definitive answer is, I think, less important and interesting than what we can learn by thinking through the question. It also gives me an excuse to mention Beers Made by Walking, an inventive and classically Oregonian project combining hiking, foraging, and beer. And Rogue Brewing Company, possibly the most creatively place-focused brewery in the country (at least among those big enough to sell beyond their own doors). These people embody so very much of what I love about being an Oregonian.
On Palate Press: Terroir is for Weirdos, and Other Place Lessons from Beer
My December column at Palate Press, the online wine magazine, is now up. I revisit an issue I covered in late 2011 — the relative environmental impact of natural corks versus screw caps — with new data from Nomacorc, the leading manufacturer of synthetic (plastic) cork-like closures.
Closure for closure (that is, if we ignore the question of waste as a result of wines made undrinkable by the failure of their closures), natural cork still comes out as the most environmentally friendly choice in nearly every respect. A bigger point is that closures are a very small part of the total environmental impact of a wine. (How small? Probably an unanswerable question, unless we’re calculating numbers for a specific wine.) That said, if you’re the kind of person who reuses her plastic wrap, it might be worth remembering that the neck of your wine bottle can contain something made from metal, something made from plastic, or something made from a tree that’s still standing and respiring in a Mediterranean cork forest.
Read the full article here.