What I’ve been reading

Books and articles I’ve been reading lately:

European wine lovers prefer a little Brett: Really, this should surprise no one. In a casual experiment, a majority of attendees at a European wine business conference preferred a red wine dosed with a little Brett to a “clean” wine. Here’s what I wonder. 80 years ago, when “clean” wines were more rare, would people have reacted against the Bretty wine and in favor of the clean wine. And have reactions shifted as clean, boring, industrial wines have become the norm? No data beneath that speculation, but wouldn’t it be interesting to try to find out?

Appropriate terminology for “significant” results (Academia Obscura, blog): a helpful resource either for writing or for deciphering any academic article using statistical tests of significance. Read with tongue firmly in cheek, or not.

Yet more evidence for microbial wine geography (Open-access, Fronteirs in Microbiology): This primarily Portuguese team has found once again that microbial (both yeast and bacteria) communities vary from vineyard to vineyard. They also generated some interesting data tracking changes in the “wine microbiome” from the beginning to the end of fermentation and showing, unsurprisingly, that much of the environmental microbiota alive and kicking at the beginning of fermentation can’t be detected by the end of it.

The symbiosis of lactic acid bacteria and bees (Nordic Food Lab blog): Okay. This has nothing to do with wine (though if you figure out a connection, let me know). But this Nordic Food Lab essay on how bees’ bacteria helps them preserve their food supply (and makes an interesting food supply for humans) delights the microbiologist in me. Bacteria: everywhere, and so often the good guys.

More evidence connecting neonicotinoids and bee decline (Nature open-access): A large, 11 year-long study across England and Wales has found good correlation between neonicotinoid use (as an oil seed coating) and colony collapse. The study also demonstrated that farmers who planted imacloprid-coated oil seeds sprayed fewer pesticides later on, but they didn’t compare yield efficacy across alternative management systems. It’s worth noting that the study was funded by folk on both sides of the pesticide-use debate and is less transparently agenda-driven than most.

Korean rice wine and anti-cancer effects: A lot of studies show that cancer cells growing in a dish grow slower (or sometimes faster) when you throw some potentially exciting new compound at them. The reason why this study, which shows that (dealcoholized) Korean rice wine (makgeolli) slows down human stomach cancer cells, is that makgeolli is traditionally seen as having health benefits. Also, Korea has the highest rate of stomach cancer in the world. This is research worth paying attention to.

Alcohol and skin cancer: Have you ever worried about the effect your drinking has on your skin? If so, you’re probably now thinking about “signs of aging” and women’s magazines, not skin cancer. Feel free to keep not thinking about skin cancer. A recent study failed to find evidence that alcohol consumption is related to developing melanoma.

Yeast cultures for fermenting chocolate: Chocolate is underappreciated as a fermented food: raw cacao fruits need to ferment before the beans can be dried, roasted, and ground. That fermentation is usually spontaneous — the fruits sit out in warm weather and ferment on their own — but Swiss and Belgian researchers have suggested that inoculating the fermentation with specially prepared cultures, including some wine yeasts, can make for better chocolate. What I want to know is what effects inoculated chocolate fermentations might have on how we buy, sell, and taste the end product? Could commercial yeasts become a thing just for small, high-quality producers, or just for large, corporate ones? A tool to create more flavor diversity, or a way to make flavors more homogenous and boring?

Sensible people doing sensible things with coffee: The brewing company Oskar Blues became famous for putting their nice craft beer into cans when everyone assumed that cans meant dishwater beer, because cans made sense. They’ve decided cans make sense for their fine roasted coffee, too, even if Folgers associations persist (even if Folgers is now sold in wretched plastic barrels). As someone who perennially fights with bags before transferring beans to glass storage jars I say: amen, brothers, amen. Retake the rhetoric of the can.

Chemical measures for wine quality: The Australians are working on a comprehensive way to link chemical measures of grapes to what we can expect of wine quality. You’d think that science would have made this possible decades ago, but linking molecular measurements to quality has been surprisingly hard. Then again, so is defining quality. A final report is expected next year, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with.

150 year-old beer: The 150 year-old Champagne recovered from the same shipwreck has attracted most of the attention, but a few bottles of beer were also recovered and analyzed. The results indicate that they look an awful lot like contemporary beers (plus saltwater and microbial spoilage), but may have been sweetened after fermentation. We unquestionably have a problem with “hidden” added sugar in processed foods, but findings like these have to make you wonder whether our sweet tooth is really anything new.

Native shrubbery good for vine health and for butterflies – Washington state growers have been planting native sagebrush around vines to assist with natural pest prevention by providing habitat for beneficial predatory insects. Turns out that they’re also providing habitat for butterflies and increasing butterfly numbers, too. Don’t you love it when things like that happen?

Wine and heart health, again – Did you need more good news about the benefits of red wine for heart health? A new study says that, if you have chronic heart failure, go ahead and keep having your daily glass or two. Regular moderate drinking seemed to lower inflammation in this population. Not unrelatedly, it also seemed to make the drinkers feel better: regular red wine drinkers were less depressed and felt better about their health than their abstaining counterparts.

Wine nanotechnology? – Two words that don’t usually go together, but nanowires are able to sense ethyl acetate in wine vapors.

Women winemakers: progress in California – A new study tracking historical progress of women winemakers in CA and anticipating future movement. I’ll quibble with WineBusiness just picking up on the “innovative” headline their source fed them — nothing dramatically innovative here — but it’s a good look at where we’ve been and where we’re going in the ongoing work against the Old Boys’ Club

Everything you’ve been wanting to know about oak-derived polyphenols all in one spot (open access) – A group of Chinese researchers have published a new review to answer your questions about what kind of polyphenols oak contains, why and how they vary, and how to detect them. If you’re looking for advice on how to manipulate them in winemaking you’d best look elsewhere, but this is a good primer for recognizing chemical names and how they’re related.

Powering your car with winery waste? (paywall) — A(nother) new review, this one on ways to exploit your winery waste — marc and lees — for fun and profit. Mostly profit, since the authors spend most of their time discussing using wine byproducts as fuel for biotechnology processes to make, for example, lactic acid or biofuels. Winery waste will never be the main thing in your gas tank for seasonal and supply reasons, but it’s not far off.

Protein hazes: why they happen and how to get rid of them (paywall) — This is the week for new reviews, it seems. The newest material included in this review is an updated model of how hazes form, but it also provides an excellent overview of the theory behind bentonite and alternatives to bentonite for haze removal.

Selective methods for polyphenols and sulfur dioxide determination in wines (paywall) — The authors of this Food Chemistry paper think that rating wines for healthfulness by their polyphenols (i.e. good stuff) to sulfur dioxide (i.e. assumed bad stuff) ratio is a good idea. I think it’s silly. But the article is still a helpful comparison of the various methods international standard-setting bodies recommend for measuring those things.

(If you’re British and heterosexual), you may find people more attractive after they’ve had a few (but not too many) drinks per a newly published study (by, it’s worth noting, authors who think this mayn’t be a good thing)

Polyphenols content, phenolics profile and antioxidant activity of organic red wines produced without sulfur dioxide/sulfites addition in comparison to conventional red wines – Polyphenols and total antioxidants in organic wines aren’t statistically significantly different than those in conventional wines. But were hopes and dreams about antioxidants ever part of why you’d choose to drink organic wine in the first place?

Aromatic evolution of wine packed in virgin and recycled PET bottles: Sometimes research confirms what we pretty much knew already. Case in point: this study tells us that wine stored in plastic (PET) bottles probably doesn’t lose much from aromatic compounds being absorbed into or adsorbed onto the plastic, but it loses a lot to oxygen working its way through the relatively permeable bottle. In other words, unless you can guarantee consumption within a few months, plastic’s just not a good idea.

Climate Change, California Wine, and Wildlife Habitat: A new paper from the Journal of Wine Economics (paywall, unfortunately) on how climate change is likely to change wine growing in California. Nothing especially new or radical here, but another model showing that central valley vines may end up replaced as the amount of water it takes to maintain them exceeds our willingness to not put that water to other uses, including maintaining wildlife habitats. The interesting questions here are as much about where “society” — lawmakers and people who influence them — draw the line on valuing the wine grape industry versus other agricultural and environmental interests. To me, it’s about drinking less wine and buying (often more expensive) bottles from places where fewer viticultural inputs are necessary.

Thinking about authenticity, with help from beer: Without getting in over my head in details around beer styles, I’d dare say beer has bigger or at least more interesting questions around authenticity than does wine. The Mad Fermentationist takes the position that what matters is solely the flavors in the glass and asks whether an IPA can be an IPA without hops. He looks for the same flavor molecules in spruce and grapefruit and reports on the experiment here. The results are interesting, but the thought experiment even more so.

Red ginseng may actually help with a hangover: Questionable hearsay makes great fodder for scientific research. Korean nutrition scientists had men down whisky followed either by water or by a red ginseng drink and — lo, behold — the ginseng drink actually reduced hangover symptoms. PROBLEM: they only tested men. Why? (Apart from rampant scientific misogyny and carelessness, that is.)

New models for Pierce’s disease and the glassy-winged sharp shooter: Mathematical modelling for how the glassy-winged sharp shooter moves around is incredibly important, not just because the GWSS carries Pierce’s disease, which kills vines, but because governmental biosecurity organizations use these sort of models as the basis for how they manage a local GWSS infestation: what is and isn’t allowed through the infested area, how big of an area is subjected to GWSS search-and-destroy measures and for how long. Current standards are pretty blunt instruments — concentric circles — so it’s good to see mathematicians applying some new strategies to the problem. Now, if we can just get the regulatory bodies to hear and attend to the research…

The FT offers a brief profile of Dr. Patrick McGovern, the utterly delightful-sounding archeologist who investigates ancient fermented beverages (and helps Dogfish recreate and commercialize some of them, too).

Andrew Jefford delivers an uncommonly reasonable (for wine columnists, not for Jefford) take on why completely blind tasting is very rarely the best option in wine judging.

Intoxicated people walking in to a Christchurch (New Zealand) emergency room had most often drunk beer and least often wine, though wine only earned its place at the bottom of the pile (after spirits and purchased ready-to-drink mixed drinks) by a few percentage points. Drawing conclusions from this is difficult — so many reasons influence why someone might end up in an emergency room — but chalk it up as one more contribution to the pile of studies showing that wine is, at a society level, relatively less of a problem than other alcoholic options.

Unravelling the diversity of grapevine microbiome — A group of Portuguese investigators has catalogued (with rDNA sequencing) every bacterial and fungal species with isolatable DNA on the surface of a wine grape leaf. And they’ve published it in PLoS One, which means that the full text of the article is free for anyone to access. The results don’t necessarily do a lot for us on their own, but as a starting point toward looking at how those microbe populations change around the year and, even better to my mind, with different vineyard treatments (organics and biodynamics, anyone?) this is a beautiful and necessary first step.

I hope that I tend to be a reasonably civil person most of the time, but from the things that raise my hackles and make me spit fire file I offer you the following drivel by Ethan Millspaugh for Grape Collective. Mr. Millspaugh massively underestimates the cost of earning an MW at $25,000 (not including travel, not including wines, not including the time you didn’t spend working, not including babysitters or keeping the right society or purchasing the appropriate suits), and then suggests to us all that we don’t have to spend that much to become a wine expert. We could spend a very reasonable $60 to attend a WSET-hosted Champagne tasting or something (if, you know, you live in NYC or San Francisco or Chicago, or Dallas, from whence Mr. Millspaugh evidently hails). Because really, that’s as good, isn’t it? And hence, once again, we have an opportunity for thoughtful and critical discussion on the internet sunk by smily faces and sheer lack of thinking.

Winemaking in extremely salty Chilean deserts? I look forward to reading more about the technical challenges of this project. If you have institutional access and the interest, searching the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture online archives for “saline” will bring up recent research that I’m sure those Chilean viticulturists have memorized by now.

Dr. Matt Hoffman of the Lodi Wine Commission recently led an excellently detailed study of how Lodi growers learn new vineyard management techniques, similar to the work (submitted and, I hope, soon to be published) I’ve recently completed in Washington State. A summary of his findings is at his Coffee Shop page.

Wines and Vines says that Washington state needs more vineyard and winery workers, which Washington State University’s growing V&E program (among others, including Walla Walla Community College’s) will be well-positioned to fill. EXCEPT: most of those positions are going to be relatively unskilled; someone with a BS in viticulture from WSU would be overqualified.

From the Financial Times, a short piece posing some worthwhile questions about teenage drinking in international context. The danger in such cross-cultural comparisons is imagining that one country’s plan might work elsewhere but, nonetheless, thinking through how and why most Italian teens drink with meals (that is, more safely) is a good tool for imagining better solutions to our own “underage drinking problem.”

If you ever wanted to know more about how hops happen, Rogue Farms has posted some excellent pictures describing how they process hops from raw plant to beer ingredient.

You may have heard the news about a new meta-analysis showing that organic produce contains more antioxidants and less heavy metals compared with their conventional counterparts. The analysis involved many more individual studies than have previous analyses finding that organic practices don’t make food healthier. Excellent work (I have to take the stats folks’ word for it). I hope that it encourages more research on whether and how and why specific organic practices can support better health. Good for everyone, and the article is open-access, too.

Sourdough “hotel,” anyone? (in French)

Tannins in vinifera vs. hybrids – Yes, vinifera-labrusca hybrids have lower tannin concentrations, but they also hold onto their tannins more strongly, according to new research from Cornell’s Gavin Sacks, explaining part of why wines made from hybrids tend to be less tannic in general than viniferas.

Sex, sexism, and the natural wine label – Rémy Charest gives a short analysis of misogynistic wine labels (particularly in natural wines, particularly in Europe) and the debate surrounding them. One more stick on the fire that wants to torch the juvenile old boys club

Periodic aeration of red wine compared to microoxygenation at product scale (Behind AJEV’s paywall) – Occasional rack-and-return for “macrooxygenation” has the same color-fixing and some of the same positive sensory effects as more equipment-intensive microoxygenation? This study seems to be trying to do too much at once and their end-points are all chemical analyses, not sensory (i.e. having someone actually sniff and taste the wines). It’s a start, but I think we’ll all need to see more before trusting that micro-ox can be replaced by just moving your wine around.

The Mad Fermentationist has been running an interesting set of pieces on sour beers, off-cuts from Michael Tonsmeire’s upcoming book on the topic. Lots of good microbiology-in-context (and fascinating beer history) here.

Impact of yeast strain on ester levels and fruity aroma persistence during aging of Bordeaux red wines – It’s hard to take too seriously any one specific study on the importance of choice of yeast or malolactic bacteria on aroma; data and opinions differ. But here’s one more study to add to the stack saying that different yeast strains produce differences in aromas that can be detected 3 and 12 months post-bottling, and that different ML bacteria have much less impact.

Ever wondered about inhaling alcohol? It’s been done.  (Courtesy of the always-excellent Edible Geography)

One more step toward sustainable local brewing and distilling in Washington: Washington State University researchers are working on better malting grains to provide the state’s (increasingly numerous and successful) brewers and distillers with local sources.

The Smithsonian is running an exhibit on “Transforming the American Table: 1950-2000.” If you’re not able to visit the museum (say, because you live in New Zealand), some of the objects on display are also depicted in a well-curated online space. The wine-related collection includes some great photographs including an image of a UC Davis research lab circa 1940.

Resveratrol levels and all-cause mortality in older community-dwelling adults – This JAMA article is regrettably behind a paywall, but the link will take you to the abstract. While this study made some news this past week and is an interesting addition to the “we don’t understand resveratrol” literature, I honestly don’t find this sort of thing very enlightening. The amount of resveratrol in older adults’ diets (from any and all dietary sources) didn’t correspond to their risk of dying or developing heart disease or cancer. Hardly surprising, given how many other factors are simultaneously influencing death and disease! In practical terms, we’re still where we were before: moderate drinking can be a healthy part of most people’s diets, red wine might be especially good, and we don’t understand which molecules are responsible well enough for a purified and simplified pill to replace eating real food.


What co-fermenting does for the color of syrah – a new study from a group at the University of Seville shows that syrah fermented with 10% white grapes had more persistent, more purple color, but that upping the white fraction to 20% began diluting flavor. Frustrating things about this study: the researchers didn’t examine the effects of white additions lower than 10% — which would have been useful since syrah cofermentations often include a much smaller fraction of white grapes — and the only white grapes used were Pedro Ximenez. PX isn’t exactly a common syrah addition internationally, and it would have been helpful to know whether other varieties (especially the much, much more common coferment culprit viognier) have similar effects.

Why cider is the world’s most misunderstood drink – a really excellent, informative, entertaining note on how most commercial hard cider is more sugar water than apple juice. I’m never picking up another bottle of non-craft cider again.

I’m wildly enthusiastic about the new Ten Speed Press Food + Drink Catalogue for Fall 2014. North, on “the new” Icelandic cuisine, a book entirely about bitter foods, a new bread book from Peter Reinhart are particularly exciting for this natural foodie-food scientist.

Polyphenolic, polysaccharide and oligosaccharide composition of Tempranillo red wines and their relationship with the perceived astringency (behind the Food Chemistry journal’s paywall, regrettably) – evidence that polysaccharides — longish chains of sugar molecules — mitigate how we perceive the astringency of tannins. Especially interesting because polysaccharides can come from yeast lees, supporting the idea that wines aged on their lees have a smoother mouthfeel than those promptly racked off the sediment of dead yeast and other precipitated stuff that collects after fermentation.

Quantitative history makes a comeback (open access at The Chronicle of Higher Education) – biologist becomes a historian and takes his quantitative methods with him. With one of the better quotes I’ve read about having a mid-life crisis: “Instead of divorcing my wife and marrying a graduate student, I divorced my biology and married history.”

One more thoughtful — and yet brief — argument against GMOs, from David Schubert as an editorial for CNN.

Unraveling the Diversity of Grapevine Microbiome (free full text online at PLOSone) – more work on the microbial terroir front, though these researchers haven’t framed their findings that way. They attempted to observe and identify every microorganism — yeast and bacteria — they could find on grapevine leaves from May through June in a Portuguese vineyard. They found, unsurprisingly, a whole lot of microbes — roughly 200, and they’re betting that they didn’t catch as many as half of what’s out there. Foundational work for folks looking at vineyard microbes in more specific ways.

Degradation of Aflatoxin B1 during the fermentation of alcoholic beverages (Toxins, free full-text in PubMedCentral) – a new study showing that a particular aflatoxin — a highly toxic compound produced by molds that can grow on both grain and grapes — is partially degraded during wine fermentation, but apparently not during beer fermentation. Not all that helpful in practical terms because only about 30% of the aflatoxin was degraded — and who knows whether these results will be reproducible under different fermentation conditions, with different yeasts, at different temperatures…

Food items contributing most to variation in antioxidant intake; a cross-sectional study among Norwegian women – Coffee explained a full half of the differences between Norwegian women’s antioxidant intake. Red wine, tea, blueberries, walnuts, cinnamon, broccoli, and oranges were also especially important. I’d love to see these kind of data across countries and cultures, not so much for what it might say about improving health, but for how it reflects food culture in an interesting way. (Free full-text online; hooray!)

Specialized Science (article in Infection and Immunity, regrettably behind a paywall) – an incredibly intelligent consideration of the benefits and costs of ever-increasing scientific specialization, by one of my all-time favorite rockstar microbiologists who makes a welcome habit of philosophizing about his craft. Understanding Wine Technology by David Bird This book is currently in its third edition; I read the first edition because that’s what was in-stock at my university library. I wish I could recommend it. Amazon and other reviews indicate that many people seem to find it helpful. But I can’t quite figure out who Bird is addressing: he glosses over some details with barely an explanation, while giving more detail about others than would be needed by anyone shy of an enology tech. Moreover, while I appreciate his effort to make science understandable, he’s sometimes factually inaccurate, even allowing for changes since the book was published. Nevertheless, it will give you an opportunity to think about the undiscussed, “hidden” processing steps that happen in much of wine production.

Communication: Spontaneous Scientists – improvisation to help scientists communicate more effectively, an informal review of people and programs trying it out, on Nature. A great idea, and part of a movement in the US to increase scientists’ communication training. Now, let’s move it from the elite to the mainstream.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – Some reviewers on Amazon were deeply disappointed that this book wasn’t a grown-up version of Harry Potter. But that’s not at all what Grossman is doing, even if his book does involve an unhappy youth, an unexpected invite to a magical school, and his adventures thereafter. Really, this book is about happiness and its absence when we live constantly in search — or hope, or expectation — of our dreams. This is not a happy book. It is thought-provoking, and it is well worth a few afternoon’s time. I devoured the whole thing in a day and a half.

Severe Drought Grows Worse in California (January 17, 2014) — When the New York Times headlines a story about agriculture in California, you know it’s a big deal. Possibly the most disturbing part of this story is how it highlights how tremendously wasteful water practices have become a taken-for-granted norm for many folks. Landscape watering and hour-long showers? How about xeroscaping and moving our soapy rumps a bit faster?

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