An unfortunate opportunity for misdirection, or, lack of evidence to support a biodynamic tasting calendar

A group of New Zealand sensory scientists have just published an article entitled “Expectation or sensorial reality? An empirical investigation of the biodynamic calendar for wine drinkers” with the open-access journal PLoS One. Without any offense whatsoever to the researchers, this is a bad paper, not because of how the research has been done, but because of how easily it’s likely to be misunderstood.

The study’s question was whether tasting wine on a fruit versus a root day, as determined by a biodynamic tasting calendar, affects how the wine tastes. The study’s method was to have 19* wine experts tasteT the same 12 New Zealand pinot noirs on a root day and again on a fruit day (or a fruit day and again on a root day; half of the tasters followed each order), scoring each wine (a few times over, for statistical consistency) as “low” to “intense” on each of twenty factors like “sweetness,” “tannins,” “expressiveness,” and “overall structure.”

The study’s conclusion was that the difference between fruit and root days made no difference to how tasters perceived pinot noirs in any way. That’s unsurprising for two reasons – that the idea of a biodynamic tasting calendar is hogwash, and that biodynamics is a spiritual system that can’t for the most part be relevantly tested by reductionist scientific means – but that’s not my main point.

My main point is that this paper is far too likely to be taken as empirical evidence that biodynamics is a load of nonsense, even though that’s not what the paper says. The paper says that perceptions of what’s in a bottle don’t systematically change between days categorized in a particular way by a calendar devised by Maria and Matthias Thun in 2010. Information about how they devised this calendar is difficult to find online, though I admittedly didn’t try very hard.

The question doesn’t address a core principle or practice of biodynamic agriculture. All the same, it’s far too likely to be inappropriately co-opted to support the “biodynamics doesn’t work when put to the empirical scientific test” argument even though the paper doesn’t support that argument. This danger of inadvertent misapprehension (or deliberate misapplication) is worse because of the relatively few peer-reviewed scientific papers published about biodynamics, which means that this one will get a relatively larger share of attention now and in future reviews than it would otherwise. Moreover, PLoS One is a generalist journal, and so this paper will be read by a lot of people who don’t know enough about biodynamics or wine to clearly distinguish biodynamic-guided tasting from biodynamic agriculture. That’s unfortunate. 

About those two reasons why this article’s findings are unsurprising. The first is that the idea that wine tastes different depending on astral movements just doesn’t cohere with, and indeed is contradicted by, enough other forms of knowledge to give it any credence. Bottled wine changes over time – call it “alive, “if you’d like – but over months and years, not days. And even without attacking biodynamics as a knowledge system, we have a lot of reasons to believe that astral movements don’t affect day-to-day life on earth.**

The second is that biodynamics is a “spiritual” system, which is to say that its efficacy is at least in some ways tied up with belief and personal development. Biodynamics treats the farm as a coherent ecosystem or “single, self-sustaining unit,” of which the farmer is a part. By that biodynamic logic, it makes sense that the caring, positive, trusting farmer is part of the efficacy of biodynamics on a farm, and that removing that person – or, indeed, isolating any one element in the biodynamic system away from the rest for the purposes of a controlled scientific trial – will disrupt the system.

All of that applies to biodynamic agricultural practices which, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think make a good deal of sense for the same reasons that following strange diets often benefits the dieter: in paying caring, positive attention to what you’re doing, you’ll probably do it better. Call it the placebo effect, though thinking about the farm as an ecosystem affected by everything you put into it and a living thing deserving of care is more than just the power of positive thinking; that’s good environmental stewardship. I can’t say the same about the biodynamic tasting calendar.

Of course, the placebo effect usually isn’t a bad thing, either. If opening your favorite bottles on fruit days helps you enjoy your wine more, who am I to say that you shouldn’t enjoy your wine? Just don’t use this new research as a reason why you (or, heaven forbid, someone else) shouldn’t enjoy a biodynamic one.


*Which makes you wonder what was wrong with the twentieth person’s data, or whether someone came down with a cold or had to go home to clean up an overflowing toilet.

**Beyond things like the psychological and sociological influence of full versus new moons, for example, which is a different matter and an important point, given how human psychological influences can ramify.

The objectivity of subjectivity in wine tasting and UC Davis’s first enology professor

Dr. Steve Shapin is a professor of the history of science at Harvard and a distinguished senior scholar. He’s also an oenophile. Sometimes these things mix, especially when he’s talking about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. When they do, I end up with five or six emails from friends and colleagues saying, “Hey, Erika, did you see that wine article in [title of the most eminent academic journal in our field]?”

Yes, I did. And since you can’t, unless you belong to an institution that subscribes to Social Studies of Science, here are Dr. Shapin’s main points:

  • Maynard Amerine and the sensory science movement he engineered as the University of California Davis’s first enology professor were “objectivity engines” that turned uselessly soft subjective experience into reliably hard objective knowledge…
  • BECAUSE (at least in part) Amerine needed tools to help producers improve California’s wine quality, and then needed to be able to convince Francophilic American wine consumers that Californian wine was really, objectively, good wine
  • BUT: subjective and objective assessments are essentially dependent on each other, with the “objective” tools the product of documenting one or a group of individuals’ subjective experiences and asserting that everyone should use their terms…
  • AND: what counts as objective and subjective in any context depends on that context, and a bunch of what counts in the 20th c. Amerine/Davis tradition as Objective Wine Sensory Information would be called a subjective judgment somewhere else.

In short, capitalism (and egos or, if you’d rather, a man with a dream) had a lot to do with why we’re now all talking about raspberry and asparagus flavors instead of about elegance and finesse. Alright: some of us still use elegance and finesse, but Amerine wouldn’t have approved. Shapin, who spent time in the archive of Amerine’s papers, says that Amerine also didn’t approve of “flinty,” “petrol,” or “terroir;” the first two were characteristics he said he’d never found in wine, and the third was just the result of dirty winemaking. With very few exceptions, his terms didn’t refer to specific chemical compounds in wine (those came later, and Amerine was skeptical about explaining sensory impressions in terms of specific chemicals); they were about choosing terms that had some kind of “real” referent in sensory experience. According to his system, you could find raspberry in wine, but you couldn’t find elegance.

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Is hedgerow the same as sweaty passionfruit? (The social constructedness of wine at ICCWS, part II)

The International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton was an excellent chance to sample English wines, and to discover that what New Zealander’s call “sweaty-passionfruit” seems to be what English people – or at least Oz Clarke – calls the distinctively English aroma of an English countryside hedgerow.

Let it be duly noted that I’m not suggesting that Oz Clarke’s mode of description, or his palate, need be considered broadly representative of the English. Moreover, I expect that many of his countryfolk spend more time carrying laptop bags down exhaust fume-sodden city streets than carrying a rifle and a brace of dead waterfowl down “distinctively English” hedgerows. Even still. Hedgerow is a much better fit for an English wine than sweaty passionfruit, and the reverse is true for those New Zealand sauvignon blancs.

We have no absolute language for talking about wine aroma. Advocates for standardized tasting terms sometimes complain about wine writers “just calling a smell whatever” (I’m paraphrasing). Sure, everyone who writes about wine could agree to use the same words – and maybe even to take the kinds of standardized training necessary for us to all use those words in roughly similar ways – but we’d still just be calling a smell whatever. We use analogies. Wine aromas are like passionfruit, or sweat, or hedgerow, which is to say that we use memory to describe wine, which is to say that available and useful descriptions will vary amongst individuals and cultures.

Nothing new here. Plenty of folk will be familiar with efforts over the past few years to devise useful tasting terms for China and put them into use. Describing aromas of jujube or wolfberry seems more productive than trying to teach Chinese drinkers about “blackcurrant” as a wine aroma completely divorced from its associations with blackcurrants drowning in double cream or preserves spread on toast in the morning. At the ICCWS, Marianne McKay of the University of Stellenbosch described related efforts to define South Africa-relevant aroma terms. Most of her undergraduates begin knowing very little about wine, many not even being wine drinkers. Students who have to learn how to assess wine aroma at the same time as learning what to associate with “raspberry” have a harder time learning those assessment skills than students working with descriptors they already recognize. She and her colleagues are working with students to create a South African aroma wheel, which makes incredible sense. (So long as those students will work in South Africa, and one imagines that they can learn European terms later if they move to the Northern Hemisphere.)

The thing about all of these studies is that they assume that wine aromas remain identical while we just exchange one word for another. One Australian-German study actually tested the equivalency of European and Chinese wine descriptors: “dried wolfberry” was a fair replacement for “strawberry preserve,” but “fresh wolfberry” and “raspberry” didn’t match. The ideal is a one-to-one translation of the tasting note, with the sole effect increased understanding (and increased sales, those Australians are surely hoping) amongst their audience.

I disagree. Words aren’t transparent conduits for information. The words we use shape our realities. They direct where our attention travels. They activate memories and associations. We know that memory and smell are connected at the level of brain activity, and so we know that words change the way things smell.

I wonder whether “sweaty-passionfruit” as it’s used to describe sauvignon blanc and “English hedgerow” as it’s used to describe English whites both map to the same chemical compound (3-mercaptohexylacetate, or one of its cousins*), and I hope that Dr. Wendy Parr, who’s been at the center of characterizing what’s unique about the aromas of New Zealand’s signature wines, takes up that question. But even if sensory science says that these descriptors are two different words for “the same thing,” I won’t be willing to say that a mass spectrometer knows more, or better, than Oz Clarke. Not because I have any special love of Oz Clarke or mistrust in the scientific instrumentation, but because the English wine industry is in the process of shaping what’s unique about it’s terroir, and it is, and those hedgerows are part of it. Even if every English person doesn’t spend misty mornings walking down hedgerows, I’m sure that that mass spectrometer never has.