My Return to the Ivory Tower

The last several months have been bursting with emotion.  Frustration, anxiety, self-reflection, relief, elation.  It is true what they say, that human beings have a difficult time with change, but also that it is essential, clearing the old dusty parts of us to make way for the succulent new growth (perhaps it is no coincidence that this process has occurred in sync with the emergence and growth of the vine itself).

DSC_0145The magnificent Dentelles de Montmirail in the southern Rhône valley

I left my full-time winery job back around the holidays, needing to redistribute my time and energy in order to find a job more along the lines of what I really wanted to do long-term.  But I quickly realized that I had absolutely no idea what that was.  I applied for jobs a bit half-heartedly, but between my own disenchantment and the lamentable state of the French job market, the search bore little fruit.  I also began applying for PhD positions in anything remotely related to environmental chemistry, but when it came down to it, the opportunities that I was offered just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t bring myself to commit to such an intense journey without being 100% on board.

Around the time I was starting to feel the effects of this visceral anxiety of being unable to discern the desires of my own soul – a form of identity crisis in our society with its hyperfocalization on what one does in life, I stumbled upon the University of Cambridge’s History and Philosophy of Science department.  I had already thought about trying to pursue some kind of science studies or history of science route in France, but I couldn’t find the information I wanted and found my research thwarted by a collection of unanswered emails, so I’d let the idea slip aside.  It had never occurred to me to look in the UK as I hadn’t been ready to expand my search beyond France, but now that the months remaining on my visa were ticking conspicuously away, England suddenly felt much closer.

Applications were still open for the 1-year MPhil program, which was recommended to me by a couple of professors in the department, to get a taste for the department and give me the time to prepare a PhD proposal.  I applied and was accepted only a few weeks later.  I had simultaneously received another opportunity that, on paper, seemed perfect for me (a PhD in geochemistry looking at the interaction between soil and microbes in vineyards), but there was really only one of these choices that felt right in my heart.  Questions raised by the history of science and science studies have truly guided all that I’ve done in the past three years, and have informed all of the big questions that have captivated me throughout all of my wine related adventures.  Going to Cambridge for this MPhil, and writing a PhD proposal to study the history of biodynamic agriculture, a topic that has fascinated me endlessly, is a path forward that allows me to maintain my links to science, to agriculture, to nature and to the wine industry.

After college, I seized the opportunity to leave the academic world because I felt the need to know what other paths existed.  I wanted to experience the big questions instead of just thinking about them.  And for nearly four years I have lived incredible experiences, learned amazing lessons, and I am eternally grateful for each one of them.  But one of these lessons that I’ve learned is that I like the theorizing, the musing, the questioning, and I’m ready to hit the books.

A Baltic Love Story: The Intrigue of 170-year-old Shipwrecked Champagne

The internet is bursting with news of champagne: the BBC1, Fox2, NBC3, Discovery News4, Science5, Nature6, Popular Science7, Smithsonian Magazine8 (who published the most complete summary I’ve seen), and many more are all bubbling with excitement over the discovery of 170-year-old champagne bottles shipwrecked in the Baltic Sea.  Granted, the discovery itself dates back to 2010, but has been brought to the attention of the masses as a result of an article published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS)9. I had the pleasure to be a coauthor on this paper, and am thus that much more thrilled to see the media excitement surrounding its publication. But my attention is particularly piqued by the manner in which the science journalists and the twittersphere are talking about the article, as it gives a clear view of what the public finds most interesting about the discovery.  This public perception of science is always a topic of interest to me, but here I have the particular privilege of being an insider, and thus comparing the public reaction to that of the scientists who worked on the paper.

Such a discovery, of 168 bottles of label-less champagne bottles dating from the first half of the 19th century, is one that intrigues and excites.  The article begins in language uncharacteristically enthusiastic for a scientific article: “Discovering ancient objects from excavation sites or simply at the back of a cellar has always piqued human interest because of the messages from the past they may contain. Unsurprisingly, our interest increases even more when exhuming old bottles or even jars that seem to have contained grapes or wine, giving a glimpse into the little-known history of winemaking.” Clearly (and I can attest to this), the scientists were intrigued by this project for reasons that go beyond the scientific value of the study – here is a case where one of the fundamental motivations for a research project is simple curiosity and wonderment. This is, after all, one of the most essential wonders of wine itself – its ability to transport us in time and place, whether that be to the year of its production, a memory of a candlelit evening where a particular wine was first tasted, or to the vineyard itself. So this study does lend itself particularly well to popular interest, and indeed, the public has weighed in, expressing their curiosity as to what such an old champagne, aged in such particular conditions must taste like.

The study includes, of course, a sensory analysis, and thus can answer this most pressing question that the media poses. At first whiff (known as the “first nose” in French, smelled before swirling the glass and thus oxygenating the wine), the expert sensory panel remarked odors resembling cheese, animal notes, and wet hair or fur, none of which are particularly surprising given the oxygen deprived environment that these champagnes were aged in (during normal storage, a small amount of oxygen, does diffuse through the cork over long periods of time, but underwater, it was, in fact, the carbon dioxide responsible for champagne’s signature bubbles that diffused out of the bottles, leaving behind a ‘flat’ champagne with only a bit of tingly, prickly sensation in the mouth). After swirling a bit to expose the wine to oxygen, the predominant aromas shifted to far more appetizing “grilled, spicy, smoky, and leathery” as well as the more expected floral and fruit notes. All of these sensory impressions were corroborated by the detection of corresponding aroma molecules using advanced chemical analysis methods.

Despite the inherent intrigue of the champagnes’ organoleptic profile, the paper’s discussion goes far beyond sensory analysis, delving into the domain of “archaeochemistry,” or the use of chemical evidence to unravel the archaeological mysteries of this shipwrecked champagne found in the Baltic Sea. Evidence such as the content of sugar, alcohol, metal ions, salts, and wood-derived compounds were all analyzed with an eye to reconstructing of the methods employed in making these wines, and these results even give insight into the viticultural practices and the probable intended destination of the bottles. This careful detective work is of great interest to the chemically-, enologically-, historically- or archaeologically-minded, but it appears that the question of these wines taste remains the issue that most profoundly captivates the public.

1 http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32388123

2 http://www.foxnews.com/science/2015/04/22/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-from-bottom-sea/

3 http://www.nbcnews.com/science/weird-science/shipwrecks-170-year-old-veuve-clicquot-reveals-champagne-history-n345176

4 http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/shipwrecked-champagne-leathery-still-pretty-good-150420.htm

5 http://news.sciencemag.org/chemistry/2015/04/what-does-170-year-old-champagne-taste

6 http://www.nature.com/news/cheesy-metallic-sweet-170-year-old-champagne-is-clue-to-winemaking-s-past-1.17361

7 http://www.popsci.com/popping-cork-170-year-old-shipwrecked-champagne

8 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-and-tasted-baltic-shipwreck-180955050/

9 A PDF of the original article is available here on the University of Reims’ website.

The Vine’s Ode to Winter

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Winter is a time for turning inwards.  Pulling all of our resources inside ourselves. Devoting ourselves to ourselves.

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Covering up and snuggling together against the harsh cold outside.

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We collect the richness we need, hoarding what is necessary…

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…but all the while trimming the excess out of our lives to make room for the new.

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Let us celebrate the season by turning our gaze within…

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…but never losing track of the beauty that surrounds us.

DSC_0142Let us live winter like the grapevine. 

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Language and Wine – Book Teaser

But he goes on. Does he really believe that I’m following along, or simply enjoy the sound of his own voice? It is beautiful after all, rhythmically flowing along at that southern pace, each word closing itself up with a gentle lift like the crest of the faintest little wave. Shaking myself dry of my imagination, I realize he’s offering me another glass of crémant. I probably shouldn’t, but I accept it. I don’t want to seem rude on only the first day. I catch a few words, here and there: those that haven’t undergone such colloquial metamorphosis, altered beyond recognition.

 We are on our lunch break, from my first official day of “work”, a title that has turned out to be a gross overstatement. I have come to harvest grapes, but when the morning coffee led leisurely out to the vines where we were each given a tripod camping stool to perch on as we cut bunches of Merlot, one by one, dropping each one tenderly into bright yellow plastic bins, it dawned on me that this could not possibly be an accurate reflection of typical labor practices in a country that manages to pump out a respectable GDP. I know the French savor their vacation time, but this had to be atypical. Indeed, harvest “à la Parisienne” turned out to be a primarily social occasion, an annual pretense to reunite an old clan of rugby-mates while kicking off the harvest season with a wine consumption that at least equals, if not surpasses, the day’s production.

But see, I don’t know that yet. My lack of comprehension has become a sort of training device in Buddhist philosophy: I can’t understand, or ask, what’s coming so I have no choice but to live in the moment. To be present. And for now, that means accepting another pour, and staring blankly at the lips moving all around me, trying to piece together some meaning from the patchwork of syllables that I can make out. But as I’m sitting firmly in the present moment, enjoying a not so well deserved break from a morning of not so intense seated harvesting, I am oblivious to the fact that this is only the beginning. I have not yet been indoctrinated into the culture of the French apéritif, and thus the idea that an entire meal, paired with wines from across the range: whites, reds and rosés, awaits me. And then suddenly, as if warned by an invisible call – pheromones, perhaps – everyone, spread throughout the garden relaxing in the early autumn sunlight, becomes alert, like the wave of attention as it passes through a coterie of nervous prairie dogs abruptly alerted to a nearby danger. We begin to file into the garage, emptied of its heavy vineyard machinery for this special occasion…

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A little work…

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…and lots of play

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France’s “High Environmental Value” Certification : What does it mean and where could it take us ?

The French Ministry of Agriculture is trying out a new system of certification for agricultural operations to promote their engagement in environmentally respectful practices. The three-tiered system, originally introduced in 2011, encourages farms and vineyards to focus on increasing biodiversity, decreasing the negative environmental impact of their phytosanitary strategy (read: reducing the use of pesticides and fungicides), managing their fertilizer inputs, and improving water management. Once an operation has attained the third and most stringent level of the certification process, it is deemed worthy of the title “High Environmental Value” (“Haute Valeur Environnementale” or HVE). The authorities are in the process of establishing an official label that producers with this status could display on their products and marketing materials, an advancement that the trade organization Vignerons Indépendants de France has been fighting for since 2013. They have begun to diffuse an unofficial label among their members crowned with HVE status, and have received much positive feedback about the system from members.

HVE-logo-1009x1024The “test-run” logo for the Haute Valeur Environnementale certification currently used by winemakers associated with the Vignerons Indépendants trade organization

But what is the relationship between the Haute Valeur Environnementale certification and being organic (in French, “Biologique” or “bio” for short)? Is it as rigorous? How much confidence can the consumer have in products made within one system or the other? Does the presence of this alternative pathway discourage producers from converting to organic?

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The official European Organic logo, on organic wine (since 2012) and wine produced from certified organic grapes (before 2012). 

These are complicated questions, but a recent conversation with a representative from Vignerons Indépendants shed some light on the situation.

It is important to note that the group Vignerons Indépendants is comprised of about 25% organic producers, and the popular image of wineries that are part of this organization is one of a relatively eco-conscious, small-scale producer. But in recent years, they have noticed a slowing in the organic-conversion trend, to the point that the numbers have stagnated. Producers are not backing out of organic, but not many are converting any more either. This suggests a saturation of the pool of potentially organic producers, either because those who were interested have already converted, the cost-benefit analysis no longer seems favorable to would-be converts, or a decrease in the perceived demand for organic products. All of which are important factors to consider in the analysis of HVE versus organic.

  • The two certifications are different, but each has its pros and cons. HVE is less strict in terms of the elimination of chemical inputs in the vineyard, but it emphasizes other points, such as the promotion of biodiversity, which, while it can be an important value for organic producers, is left out of the regulations and thus can easily be glossed over. This biodiversity element is particularly important, as we tend to forget that vineyards are a monoculture as nefarious as the rest, and we have lost much of the savoir faire, commonplace only a few generations ago, about maintaining biodiversity in a way that benefits all of the crops and animals, as well as the surrounding environment.
  • Organic certification is clearly not a panacea, as its requirements to not suit every producer, nor every consumer. Haute Valeur Environnementale provides an alternative pathway, more adaptable, perhaps, than traditional organic certification, which still moves in an environmentally friendly direction and promotes a more environmentally conscious agricultural approach.
  • Though it is hard to believe for those of us living in a world where Whole Foods has popularized what was once shunned as a crunchy granola lifestyle, there still exists a fair amount of hostility towards organic agriculture, and particularly towards organic wine. Many winemakers report that advertising as organic can close more doors than it opens – despite major advances, the organic label has not been able to entirely shed its reputation of faulty, unclean wines that are garishly overpriced. Organic wine remains a niche market, with certain customers who seek it out specifically, but also with others who’s primary requirement is that their wine be “ABO” (anything but organic). HVE thus opens an alternative route for winemakers to put their environmental concerns into action and be recognized for it (as opposed to converting to organic and not advertising it, which many do, but seems like a sort of defeat if some producers still feel the need to hide such an accomplishment and major investment), without attaching themselves to the still partially stigmatized organic label.
  • There are several drawbacks to the HVE system that, paradoxically, work in its favor in an important way. It is new and relatively unknown – it is gaining a reputation among producers, but because no label exists, the consumer is left out of the loop about this relatively complicated-seeming certification. BUT, the fact that this certification is essentially unknown forces producers to redirect their discourse. Instead of talking up their list of environmental labels that they can stick onto their labels, they are naturally driven to orient their rhetoric towards their actual practices and philosophy, a more human and authentic approach that tends to be highly effective in selling wine to buyers with an interest in environmental values.
  • That said, will the imminent creation of an official label diminish this effect? Perhaps a little bit, but the process will be a long one, and in the meantime producers will have, ideally, honed their practice- and principle-based discourse and built up a customer base that shares their environmentally respectful values. And the positive effects of the label outweigh the negative, as its “recognizability” will ultimately help to legitimize the approach, and if, like the organic label, adds value to the product, this increased value may become another motivation for producers to participate in the certification process.

No one is claiming that HVE is a perfect solution (but what is? Organic certainly has its limitations as well), but it is definitely a step in the right direction. It is a worth keeping watch on how the system evolves with the introduction of the official label (though whether there are already so many logos that the consumer is lost and no longer finds meaning in any of the is certainly a subject for debate), and other countries should be closely watching this system as a potential model for environmental certification systems on their own soil, learning from and improving on this French test run as it grows and evolves.

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A sampling of the profusion of environmental logos seen on French products, from http://eco-industries.poitou-charentes.fr/thematiques-et-projets.php?p=eco-conception&annee=2013

For more information (unfortunately, all in French), see the following links :

http://agriculture.gouv.fr/Certification-environnementale-exploitations

http://www.anfovi.com/innovation_et_technologie/haute_valeur_environnementale_hve/actualit%C3%A9s_hve.Anfovi

http://www.anfovi.com/innovation_et_technologie/certification_haute_valeur_environnementale_hve/certification_haute_valeur_environnementale_hve.Anfovi

And a French document detailing 50 different environmental logos :
http://www.ademe.fr/sites/default/files/assets/documents/14-10_7706_logos_environnementaux.pdf

Harvest 2014 : A worthwhile compromise

Yes, it has been an inexcusably long time since my last post, and yes, I hate it just as much as anyone when bloggers post their excuses for their extended absences, but really, I have a good excuse. Or two, in fact.

Harvest 2014 and a Master’s thesis.

harvest hands_MFEWine-stained hands finishing up a Master’s thesis

I defended my Master’s thesis, “Targeted and Untargeted Analysis of Premature Oxidation in White Burgundy Wines Issued from Different Vinification Strategies,” in French, last week in the midst of 2014’s incredibly abundant harvest.

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View from the vineyards at Saint Jean du Barroux

In the AOC Ventoux, where I’m working for the winery Saint Jean du Barroux, 2014 was an atypical vintage. The grapes were bloated due to an abnormal excess of rain throughout the growing season, producing a record-high average bunch weight for the appellation. During maturity checks before harvest began, I noted enormous bunches, which in certain zones of the vineyard were having a hard time achieving ripeness – there were colossal bunches bursting with pink and green grapes interspersed with more reasonably-sized bunches that were already ripe. Philippe Gimel, the owner and winemaker of Saint Jean du Barroux, subscribes to the motto that winemaking is all about compromises. But the tactical approach we put into action turned out to be a win-win on three fronts. We began harvest by going through the most heavily loaded plots to harvest only the biggest, least ripe bunches, which we pressed to make a fresh, bright rosé. Meanwhile, the vine, her load significantly lightened, could focus her energy on ripening the remaining bunches to perfection, and could do so with a greatly reduced risk of disease. High yield and big bunches mean that the grapes are crowded up against each other, trapping moisture and reducing the potential for airflow – a perfect storm for the propagation of rot.

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View from the winery at Saint Jean du Barroux

After a whirlwind three weeks, the compromise seems to have paid off. Now the winery is bursting with wine, almost all of the alcoholic fermentations now completed and all but two tanks of red pressed and racked. Now we’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor – watching the evolution of these new, promising wines and deciding on blends. The theme of compromise will always remain at the forefront, as this is key in winemaking : compromise between quality and quantity, effort and patience, acidity and tannin, knowledge and know-how, power and delicacy, and of course, art and science.

2014-10-16 18.05.58Saint Jean du Barroux’s Pierre Noire presented at the post-graduation tasting for the Master International Vintage class of 2014

The Magic of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

It was a lucky break. Thanks to their collaboration with the lab where I did my master’s thesis (see their most recent publication in PLOS One here) , I was recently invited to visit the world renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (known in the industry as DRC) in Burgundy. This winery, famous for its eponymous Romanée-Conti wine, which comes from grapes grown in the small (1,8140 ha) vineyard (“climat”) of the same name in the village of Vosne-Romanée. This wine is one of the most cherished in the world, and comes with a pricetag that is accordingly extravagant (NPR ran a story just a couple of days ago about a book written about a 2010 plot to blackmail the winery).

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DRC courtyard in Vosne-Romanée with its vineyard backdrop.

The history of this famed winery began around the year 900 AD, with the founding of the priory of Saint-Vivant, which acquired the vineyards of Romanée-Conti in 1131. The monastery controlled the vines until 1584, when the land was purchased by Claude Cousin, the first in a long line of family-owners of this property (only 2 different families in 430 years), which continues today with Aubert de Villaine, and his nephew, Bertrand, our guide this morning, incredibly generous with both his knowledge and his wine.

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Bertrand de Villaine explains how the Corton is blended from three different parcels.

He led us into their recently expanded cellars, where he led us through a barrel tasting of the 2013 red wines from each of their 7 red appellations : Corton, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux, Romanée-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. Each of them were phenomenal, still very young, of course (some just finishing or having just finished malolactic fermentation), but a wine cannot age well if it doesn’t begin with all of the fundamentals in place. This was a concept that I knew well, but did not understand on a visceral level until I tasted these wines. Each one different from the others, they were all unique and fabulous in their own way, each characterized by its particular magnificent balance. Bertrand explained that they assure this balance by waiting until the grapes are perfectly ripe before harvesting. Their neighbors might be out harvesting a few days, even a few weeks before this moment of perfection for fear of losing yield due to an upcoming rainstorm, for instance, but DRC will wait, no matter what. Of course with the prices of their wines, they are in a better position to take this risk than many producers, but it is a major risk none the less and results in a relatively high variability in the quantity of wine that they produce, but with an incredible consistency in the quality, which is, without fail, exceptional.

DSC_0238Barrel of 2013 Romanée-Conti 

Each of the 7 wines had its particular personality, all of them like someone you hit it off with right off the bat. But it is true that the Romanée-Conti is the one you fall in love with at first sight. Not in a stunningly-gorgeous-knock-your-socks-off-from-across-the-room kind of way (though maybe with a few years of maturity she becomes so), but in a far more subtle, delicate way. Such that your first sip seems so incredibly satisfying, but then trails off leaving hints of so much more to be discovered, and so you find yourself chasing her, praying, begging for her to reveal just a bit more. And she keeps tempting you in this way until your glass is empty, but you are not angry that she’s gone, but rather you have never felt more content in your life.

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Bottle storage of 2011 Romanée-Conti and La Tâche

In the bottle cellar we were introduced to another incredible beauty, this one a blond. Bertrand served us a 2007 Bâtard-Montrachet chardonnay, the only wine they make that is not sold (they do sell one white wine, a Montrachet), as they produce only 1-2 barrels (300-600 bottles) each year that are used exclusively for private tastings, special events, and the family’s personal consumption. It was glorious. I will not even attempt to describe this wine because words will not do it proper justice. I must simply counsel you to pray to someday have the chance to encounter such a bottle, as I have done thanks to the generosity and scientific curiosity of Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine.

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2007 Bâtard-Montrachet

I took 5 pages of notes during the visit, wanting to absorb everything that Bertrand told us, not miss a single detail. But I know, and I knew as I was doing so, that there is no secret recipe. I could tell you that they use 100% new, untoasted oak barrels. I could tell you that for the Romanée-Conti and a part of Richebourg and Montrachet they use a plow horse, named Mickey, to work in the vines. And that alternatively, they have a custom-built tractor that is the weight of a horse in order to avoid undo pressure on the soil and root systems. You could probably replicate their work exactly, but I fear that it would be in vain. There is something special, magical about this place. This is the indefinable in the world of wine. The sum that is greater than its parts*. There is an element here that no one can explain it, and I hope that no one tries. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves be captivated.

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Barrel cellar at DRC

*Yes, for the record, because I am sure that you are wondering, for me personally the prices paid for these bottles far exceed even the whole that exceeds the sum of the parts, but such is a luxury economy, and we must just be happy to embrace the rare opportunity to savor these wines in another context that does not involve thousands and thousands of dollars of expense, as I was so lucky to do here.