The public weighs in on wine science : questions from the ACS Webinar with Susan Ebeler

I just sat in on the ACS Webinar (acswebinars.org or facebook.com/acswebinars) by UC Davis researcher Susan Ebeler on “Wine Science: Designing Wine.  While the content itself was very interesting, most of it was familiar to me as Dr. Ebeler came to give a lecture series to my class in Valencia (as mentioned in this post), what I found particularly fascinating was the stream of questions rolling in from audience members over the course of the hour-long lecture.

The audience consisted of over 1001 participants, from all around the world (Argentina to Poland), and ranged from winemakers to bloggers to researchers to an entire “Chemistry of beer, wine, and bourbon” class.  Thus the questions represent an interesting cross section of what the world wants to know about wine.  What people don’t understand, such as the question wondering if the floral and fruity notes in wine just come from the added flavors, or if there is another source, as well as suggestions that those embedded in the wine world on a day-to-day basis might never have considered.

Dr. Ebeler didn’t have time to respond to most of the questions (something like 180 were posed), but I collected some of the ones that I found particularly intriguing, for one reason or another, whether they were answered or not :

  • “Do you think most of the flavor components in wine have been chemically identified, and can be measured with current GCMS technologies?” – this one Dr. Ebeler was able to get to.  Her response was that we’ve found all the major compounds, and anything else would be trace compounds (such as Rotundone, the compound responsible for the black pepper aromas of syrah) and that finding new compounds will continue to get more difficult as we already have found the ‘easy’ ones.  I don’t disagree with any of what she said here, but I think that it is important to qualify this statement given her description of the complexity of the sensory effects of wine.  Since there is often little correlation between the concentration of a compound and our ability to perceive it, as well as the complex interactions possible between different aromatic and flavor compounds, it is very possible that molecules present in trace quantities could have a significant impact on the perceived flavor, aroma, or even texture of a wine.
  • “I have heard that some people, particularly in Japan, choose their wines based on their GC spectra, what are your thoughts?” – this one she didn’t have time to answer, but I thought it was a particularly interesting comment.  I don’t know if this is indeed the case, though it does ring a bell.  I’d love to know if anyone has more information about this.  If it is true, I think that this is a fascinating use of what most nonscientists would consider a highly complex analytical technique into popular culture, and would really like to know how this came about and the specifics of how it is used.
  • “Has there been any work on transesterification during fermentation, to tailor the finished wine for a specific bouquet?” –   Dr. Ebeler responded that this would likely be too complicated and difficult to target any specific ester, and wasn’t confident that it would be able to reliably give the desired effects.  However, I thought it was a very interesting question, and one that could only come from the mind of a chemist approaching wine from an outside perspective.  I doubt many winemakers or even wine chemists would consider attempting such a reaction on wine, but why not? And ideas like this one, though they may never lead to technological advances in wine, could help us think of processes that already occur in wine in a different light, giving new insight that may lead to new or deepened understanding.
  • “Is there an objective testing mechanism that does not involve subjective human perception?” –  I thought this was a great question to be posed, in terms of how it reflects upon the current scientific paradigm. Why do we feel the need to eliminate ‘subjective human perception’ from the evaluation of a process (tasting wine) that is entirely dependent on human perception, in fact, it IS human perception.  But this is a quest that we are constantly on, how to remove subjectivity from a subjective experience.  This should, I think, cause us to raise our own questions about how science works, where its limits are, and what new approaches/philosophies might be able to help us resolve this quest to understand rigorously a subjective, sensory process.

You can see coverage of the webinar (mostly mine) by checking out #ACSwebinars

For ACS members, the webinar will be available after 1 week at acswebinars.org/wine-design

Follow ACS webinars on Twitter @ACSwebinars or facebook at  facebook.com/acswebinars

Autour de la vigne : Insight into the public perception of wine science

A recent piece on Radio France International (RFI), the French international public radio, reveals some of the current wine research questions being investigated at INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.  But more importantly, the format of the interview gives us some insight into what aspects of wine science are intriguing to the public, thus pointing out some trails to follow to better communicate wine science with the non-wine industry public.

The context, of course, is a bit particular to France, as the French public has a special relationship with wine that is unlike that of many other countries.  French culture is historically and traditionally tied up in the production and consumption of wine, so it is naturally a subject with importance to the public. The wine industry carries huge economic weight in France, being the second most important export industry after aviation.  Production is widespread and diverse, with a major impact in almost all regions of the country.  And the concept of terroir is one that is well-integrated into society, commonly referred to, if not always completely understood in its technical sense, as it is a concept that is used not only in wine, but also in discussing other food products with a fundamental tie to their birthplace.

This context must be kept in mind, but does not mean that the issues addressed in the piece are not pertinent to the public in other countries.  France is an example of a nation that takes wine very seriously, but this trend is being picked up in other regions with growing production and consumption of wine.  Thus the presence of wine science in French public media can be a model for other cultures, of ways in which we can approach scientific questions of pertinence to wine, giving us an indication of the elements of wine most intriguing to an inquisitive public thirsty for understanding and for wine.

The panel interviewed on Autour de la question included researchers from INRA in Montpellier and Colmar.  Véronique Cheynier, the research director at Monpellier whose research is focused on polyphenols, Jean-Luc Legras who studies the role of yeasts in winemaking, and Philippe Hugueney, research director at Colmar who studies primary aromas produced in different grape varieties.

The host, Caroline Lachowsky, launched the conversation with a question that I know well.  A question that intrigues me to no end and thus delighted me to hear on this show, confirming its relevance and interest : is winemaking a science or an art, or some combination of the two ?

The response picked up on a classically French element of this discussion : terroir.  Dr. Legras took the idea that a wine is an infusion of vineyard stones and defended it, at least for certain varieties, in proposing as an example the wines of Alsace, which can have entirely different profiles, even coming from a single producer who treats all of his wines equally, the only difference being the vineyard site.  What doesn’t come up until later is that this idea of minerality, of typicity of place, has not yet been linked directly to the soil.  But here he plays on the fascination aspect, the magic that is what intrigues the public about wine.  He openly admits that these differences in terroir are perceptible, but doesn’t expand on the science (or lack thereof) behind it at this point.  The panelists wait until the question is posed a bit differently, in terms of how the specificity of a soil might be injected into the wines, to clarify the state of the science on this matter.  Here Philippe Hugueney discusses the known direct influences of soil on grape quality – that soil nitrogen content impacts grape color, but that the roles of the minerals in the soil remain mysterious.  He explains that the popular term minerality has no agreed-upon definition and how this characteristic might come from the soil is still unknown (here I would add that we don’t even know whether this is the right question to be asking – there is much debate as to whether minerals in the soil even have an influence on this ‘mineral’ character, and thus we are not even yet at the point of working out how, but still at the level of if they have an impact).

Typical terroir of France's AOC Côte-Rôtie, in the northern Rhône valley

How is it, then that such an intriguing question, one of the first to be posed in this interview, in an accurate reflection of its frequency amongst wine lovers, remains unanswered?

Lachowsky later asks what types of evolution wine and wine styles have undergone over the years – if the identity of wine is changing, becoming sweeter, more or less acidic, or higher in alcohol.  Dr. Cheynier jumps to respond that the wines are certainly higher in alcohol, due to faster maturity and higher sugar levels, which are then converted through fermentation into elevated alcohol levels in the final wines.  She attributes this major shift to climate change, another hot topic in wine science as well as in the public eye.  Though a hugely important element to explore, here I think that the conversation was left isolated a bit too far into the scientific realm, as there are a host of other factors influencing the evolution of what we consider to be quality wine, or wine that consumers are interested in purchasing.  There is an element of taste, of fashion, here, that, while perhaps more fickle and trivial than climate change, is important to consider, especially when communicating with the public.   This is yet another aspect of the complexity of wine, and the complexity of understanding climate change, as we often cannot differentiate cause and effect in the race toward bigger, bolder, more powerful wines that has been occurring over the past 20-30 years.

Here is a potential disconnect between how researchers see the world – focusing on climate change as the primary factor influencing the evolution of wine styles, while consumers might be more interested to hear about the interaction between climate change and changing tastes with the introduction of new producer countries, the expansion of consumption in nations where wine-drinking was not traditionally part of the culture, et cetera.

The host was quick to pick up on the great complexity of wine science – of the distinct parts that must work together – plant physiology to understand the compounds present in the grapes, microbiology of the yeasts that produce the fermentation, and how these two interact to create the complex chemistry of finished wine.  And furthermore, the complexity of all of the environmental factors that go into making a wine – the elements of terroir : soil, climate, geography, and viticultral and winemaking techniques, the influence of pests, diseases, beneficial insects, yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that play a role in determining the final product.

This complexity, at every level, at every turn, is where we should really focus in communicating wine science.  This is what makes the system endlessly interesting, but also endlessly difficult to study.  But this is where the magic is.  And it is precisely this magic, this wonder, that is what attracts people to wine.  So to incite and interest in science in those already intrigued by wine, we can use this ‘magic’,  this complexity, to unite the two and spark passion for a new level of understanding in those who are enthralled by this fascinating beverage.

You can listen to or download the radio show (in two parts), Autour de la question (French) at the following links :

Part 1: http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20131218-1-pourquoi-le-vin-soif-recherche

Part 2 : http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20131218-2-pourquoi-le-vin-soif-recherche

Official DWCC13 Video is out!

Video

Here’s the official #DWCC13 video from the folks at Vrazon. A great short peek at some of the highlights of a great weekend! And who knew my 15 milliseconds of fame would be for mixing vermouth, of all things! (guess all those chemistry courses have payed off to turn me into a professional blender..)

Originally available at http://vimeo.com/80395371

Learning by heart : Knowledge transmission and the modification of terroir

How is knowledge constructed in winemaking?  How is this knowledge transmitted across the network of winemakers? By winding through a web? Or sliding down a chain? Are the intricacies of winemaking and grape growing best learned in a classroom or by apprenticeship and hands-on experience?

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Today’s winemakers, especially in Europe, are faced with the consequences of this question.  There has been a revolution in winemaking education, not a new one, but one that has slowly but surely converted family-owned wineries from educational institutions for the younger generations, into places of reception for the pre-trained.  More and more young winemakers who want to follow in the wine-laden tracks of their parents and grandparents, are heading off to universities and technical schools, and then often to far off lands (frequently in the New World) to gain harvest experience and bring back a fresh perspective for the family business.

This raises some questions, the answers to which could be different for each winery, but which could certainly be related to the type of knowledge transmission employed :

  • How much of an impact does education outside of the family winery have on the identity of the wines produced?
  • What technologies and innovations are easily accepted into the framework of the traditional family operation, and which are rejected?
  • Can this type of external exposure change the marketing approach of the winery, perhaps toward a strategy more effected in the New World markets?

But a more subtle aspect of this alteration in how winemakers learn their craft is broached by anthropologist Rachel Black in the following excerpt from her article, Wine Memory.  She considers the transmission of sensory knowledge – how winemakers learn to identify and replicate certain characteristics in the aroma and flavor profiles of the wines themselves :

 …oenology schools from UC Davis to Bordeaux all have cellars that are used for teaching students about what different and old wines taste and smell like. What is missing in this pedagogical context are the generational conversations that often bridge the temporal and technological divides. Comparing the learning that goes on at oenology and viticulture schools to apprenticeship practices in small family wineries demonstrates how taste memory is connected to familial setting where intergenerational discussion and cumulative knowledge are directly implicated in production. The social nature of knowledge production is critical here (Herzfeld 2004). The family winery is tied to Pierre Nora’s idea of milieu de mémoire, a “real environment[s] of memory” (1998, 7). The environments of memory that Nora speaks of are deeply imbedded in peasant life. In this cultural context, winemaking is a repository of collective memory that implicates the senses in the embodied act of remembering. The modern winemaking school offers lieux de mémoire (places of memory): “a turning point where the consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn—but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory…” (Nora 1998, 7). The embodiment of winemaking memory in the case of the school setting is only explored through the sensory experience of old wine; it is disassociated from the embodied apprenticeship of winemaking and the historical narrative that takes place between generations of winemakers.

Thus Black suggests that the disconnect from the lineage of knowledge production and sharing could create a corresponding disconnect in the characteristics of a wine.  If the winemaking practices change, and the profile of the wine changes, does this mean that the education shift has actually changed the terroir* ?

Would love to hear your thoughts. #ThroughTheGrapevine

*Here employing (as I always will) the cultural definition of terroir, which includes the influence of the winemaker and his practices

**Please read Rachel Black‘s full article, here : http://sensatejournal.com/2012/06/rachel-black-wine-memory

Postmodern Polemic : Clark Smith and Arto Koskelo at the DWCC13

I mentioned in my summary of the 2013 DWCC that controversial winemaking consultant Clark Smith was one of the keynote speakers, pitted against Finnish wine personality Arto Koskelo, known to take a much more humanistic, and less scientific (here comes that same old dichotomy again…) view of wine.

Clark Smith had intrigued me for a few reasons, one being the frequency with which he cites the fact that he got into wine after dropping out of MIT (“declining program completion” according to Wikipedia) in 1971.  This made me wonder if he was one of those wannabe Einstein types who after 40 years still feels the need to emphasize that he was once accepted into MIT, but that his thinking style was too [fill-in-the-blank : alternative, evocative, innovative…] and thus was impelled or obliged to take his grey matter elsewhere.  In Clark’s case elsewhere was a wine shop in Oakland, and he’s been in the wine biz ever since.  He is best known for the founding of Vinovation, a consulting and “high tech services” company famous and contentious (at least in certain circles) for its reverse osmosis technologies.

This intrigue was compounded after an initial encounter at Thursday evening’s BYOB dinner where he, unprovoked, except, perhaps, by a bit of alcohol coursing through his veins (**I can’t confirm this, but given the quantity of open bottles at the event I think it is relatively safe to assume that there was at least a few molecules of good ol’ EtOH in his system), apologized “for all the shitty things I’ve done.” The explanation of what, exactly, he was referring to seems to be elaborated in this letter on his website, winecrimes.com, but it also makes me doubt the sincerity of the apology.  Or perhaps he was simply apologizing for his Cabernet, which tasted as though he had reverse-osmosed an entire packet of El Paso taco seasoning into the bottle (appropriate, then, that they put a link to this Rachel Ray recipe directly on the GrapeCraft website).

By Friday afternoon I was very much looking forward to hearing what Clark had to say, as I now had hands-on experience with his controversial nature.  After our brief meeting I was pretty sure I would disagree with a lot of what he had to say, but I thought at least he’d provide me with some juicy morsels to chew on.

There were a few curve balls thrown in, but I got my food for thought.

His talk bounced around haphazardly from biting comments directed toward the wine-blogger audience (telling them explicitly not to express their opinions, which, it seems, defeats the purpose of the blogger entirely – not the first time he has expressed contempt toward wine writers, see again his letter on www.winecrimes.com ) to the purported multiplicity of the natural wine movement and a lot of incomprehensible musings about ‘The Bad Marriage’ between winemakers and #winelovers, ie wine bloggers (perhaps this argument is better developed in his book – I have yet to read it but it is at the top of my Christmas list… or Clark, if you want to change my mind, I’d be happy to give you my address. In the meantime here’s some insight from Richard Siddle at Harpers.co.uk ).

All of this followed up with a tirade against the use of the word ‘manipulation‘ to describe winemaking (a word I have not, personally, noticed in excessive usage), that evoked the French disgust for even the word winemaking – preferring the much more passive élevage.  Clark’s argumentation, however, included what to many was a highly offensive metaphor (“calling a winemaker manipulative is like calling your wife a whore because she is sleeping with you”).  His point being that we can’t expect a winemaker to be up front about their methods and additives if we chastise them every time they do.

Personally, however, I think he has missed the point, focusing too much energy on this particular battle of semantics when maybe the effort should be focused on convincing writers and consumers that there is a place in this world for both ‘natural’ and ‘technical’ wines.

But what the writers are aware of is that all consumers are not created equal.  Some are far more interested in the STORY of the wine, and thus typically interested in a wine with less ‘technology’ added.  What Clark doesn’t seem to realize here is that these wine bloggers that he so happily chastises for their critique of “manipulation” are not writing for the people that will be buying the more ‘technical’ wines, searching simply for something that checks in above a certain quality-control threshold.  No, the bloggers are writing for the only people that are interested in reading about the story behind their wine.  And those story-searching people are, by nature, the ones that want a wine that approaches those made in a traditional, that is to say, non-technological, fashion.  Thus it is normal that wine writers be a bit critical of highly-interventionist winemaking techniques, as this is not what their readers want. However, he is absolutely right that for large-scale companies wanting to make a clean, technically-correct wine for the average consumer, the technology is great and sure, go ahead and put that QR code linking to a list of processes and additives on the bottle.  Clark, you tell me how many of those consumers, who will be contentedly sipping that bottle at their next barbecue, scan the code.

Finally, he claimed that his list of ‘intensity ratings’ are a more holistic method of rating wines (than what, I’m not exactly sure). Personally I don’t see how a point on a line of variance between two extremes is any more holistic that a point on a number line between 1-100, but he seems to think that his baroque vocabulary, employing personified wine-analysis scales such as ‘obviousness: generous……austere’, ‘allure: pretty…….sexy’ and ‘mood: cheerful……..dour’ constitute holism.  To me it just seems like dressed-up versions of any other one-dimensional rating system, with the added issue of being entirely abstract and thus inaccessible to consumers.

To quantify this approach, he talks about the “flavor space”, which then would be an appropriate subject to blog about, in his opinion.  But don’t worry – it is a ‘flavor space’ that covers a whopping 2-dimensions, thus computationally assured to not confound the problem of ‘sameness’ in the wine market.  And then he would like to implement a “personal sommelier app”, employing a Netflix-like approach to help match a person’s preferred flavor space to personalized wine suggestions.  Interesting idea, and certainly something sellable, but I’d like to see how it can combat ‘sameness’ when only the largest and most well-distributed wine companies would be able to have their wines in the database. Again, an interesting tool but probably not one that will attract the most devout wine aficionados, who are, again, the primary audience of most specialized wine blogs.

And then Arto took the stage.  The whole room took a deep breath and the tension flying around in the tweetisphere and tangling up the #DWCC web calmed momentarily. Arto focused his talk on the issue of modernity versus post-modernity, and claimed that the problem with the wine industry is that it is stuck in modernity, a dated paradigm tied up in the Scientific Revolution. This is linked to algorithmic-based analyses and a blind faith in the rationality of science (replacing an earlier blind faith in religion), except that this blind faith in reason locks us into a paradox (he didn’t directly broach the question of whether Clark’s “Postmodern Winemaking” is in fact appropriately titled, but the insinuation of doubt quickly became clear). And to Arto, it creates an opposition between reason and emotion, a disconnect particularly concerning in the wine world, where we attempt to analyze an object of pleasure by numerically breaking it into chemical components.*  For him, the disconnect takes the form of the ‘culture of experts’ who have ‘lost their flavor’ – critics operating without passion and pretending to do science with their [subjective] tasting notes.

2013-10-25 16.42.13 I particularly appreciated this image, in which Arto makes the comparison between anthropometrics, the pseudo-science of measuring physical characteristics in search of correlations to racial and psychological generalizations. It is a branch of the history of science that I have studied with particular depth as an example of science’s unwillingness to take responsibility for its subjectivities and thus I found it a striking analogy to the numerical system of wine notes and criticism, so heavily critiqued for their ‘dehumanization’ of wine.

 But with Google at our fingertips, the Modern Era is being forced to a close. The wine world will be forced to follow suit, and for Arto, this represents a great opportunity for wine bloggers to reinject that “flavor” into communication. This means striking an emotional chord in readers (something that is much more difficult to do when talking about reverse osmosis than native yeast and battonage, for instance).

So vive the Pathos, and lets try it. Personally I think that communication is just a starting point.  Let’s work to combine the reason and the emotion there, and then maybe we can find a way to see the two as slightly more compatible.

*In a side note, in a class last week taught by Josep Lluis Pérez, owner of Mas Martinet in Spain’s Priorat region, he drew a stark distinction between reason and emotion, telling us not to let emotion get in the way of our reasoning.  I was surprised to hear such a comment from a winemaker, as I personally believe that the wine world is one where we can best see how emotion can be a ‘plug-in’ that enhances and rounds out the tastelessness of pure reasoning.

DWCC 2013 Highlights

After my incredible opportunity to attend the 2013 Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Logroño, Rioja, Spain, I had too many great exchanges and experiences to capture them all. I’m still catching my breath a bit from a whirlwind October filled with DWCC, visits to wineries all over the west of Spain, a trip to Dijon to settle up my internship plans, a half-marathon,and some personal excitement of family and loved ones visiting, but in the meantime, here are some photo highlights of the DWCC, for a glimpse into the life of a wine blogger :

The first event was hosted by Dinastia Vivanco, who invited us to the winery for a tour, lunch, and visit to their incredible museum, which houses artifacts collected by Pedro Vivanco Paracuello.  I was impressed by the variety of artifacts and the quality of the displays and curation- would have loved to have a bit more time to explore, but this was the beginning of a rapid-fire weekend! And I can’t complain too much, as although the visit was quick, it also included tastings of their wines in each of the 5 sections of the museum (each devoted to a distinct aspect of wine and culture – from its origins to artifacts related to opening, serving and drinking the final product).

View of the village of Briones from Dinastia Vivanco vineyardsView of the village of Briones from the vineyards of Dinastia Vivanco

Densitometers_Dinastia_Vivanco_MuseumDensitometers in Dinastia Vivanco Museum

ancient_amphore_dinastia_vivancoOne of the oldest pieces in the Dinastia Vivanco Museum

Back at the Rioja Forum in Logroño, the fabulous venue for the conference, we rarely saw a moment with our glasses half empty.  The tastings that were organized were impressive and varied, and a great opportunity to quickly get a taste of the wines from Rioja, Iberia, and beyond.

aged_riojas_DWCC13Aged Riojas tasting, including Riojas of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ styles dating from 1970-2001.

1959_Vina_Soledad_DWCC13The surprise finish to the Riojas tasting – a 1959 Viña Soledad Rioja white – a spectacular discovery (that was apparently served to President Eisenhower on a visit to Rioja)! Maintains great mouthfeel – round but wide awake, with slight nuttiness of aged wine on finish.


IMG_0623 Ancient Colheitas tasting – my favorite tasting of the conference – Colehita Ports from Kopke from 1983, 1974, 1966, 1957 and the 1940 special edition. 

2013-10-25 13.49.30-1More port. Couldn’t get enough.

Kopke_1940_colheita_special_editionPackaging of the 1940 special edition. Amazing. The others were also great but this was perfectly balanced, with a bit of peaty spiciness, caramel-drizzled pineapple. I wrote in my tasting notes “When I drink these wines I feel like I am drinking history.”


vermouth_mixingA mix-your-own Vermouth tasting.  Very interesting insight into a beverage I knew almost nothing about. And we got to keep the ingredients (base wine – sweet fortified Muscat, and aromas – bitter orange, sweet orange, chinchona bark, gentian, and cinnamon) 

IMG_0629Grand tasting of native Iberian varieties led by two of the three authors of Wine Grapes (winegrapes.org) Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz (Jancis Robinson was not present in person, though did make a video appearance to announce the location of next year’s conference – in Montreux, Switzerland!)

Not all of the sessions involved tastings however.  Some were even a bit tense, such as the keynote session that paired up scientifically-minded entrepreneur Clark Smith (most recently talked about for his book Postmodern Winemaking - postmodernwinemaking.com but also for his wine-score prediction company Enologix - enologix.com ) and  Finnish wine personality Arto Koskelo ( koskeloonwine.com ) in what was meant to be a bit of a head-to-head.  I am saving my commentary on the matter for a separate post.  Expect it soon.

Sunday was filled with visits to various wineries.  My tour went to Bodegas Bilbainas (bodegasbilbainas.com) and Bodegas Palacio (bodegaspalacio.com).

bodegas_bilbainasBodegas Bilbainas Winery

cobwebs_bilbainas ancient_vat_bilbainasImages from the ancient cellar at Bodegas Bilbainas

Bodegas_Palacio_murals Palacio_mural_tank_doorOld Cement tanks painted with murals at Bodegas Palacio

ancient_cellar_palacioAncient cellar at Bodegas Palacio

Cosme_Palacio_verticalVertical tasting of signature wine Cosme Palacio (one of first to be produced in “New Rioja” style with the 1986 vintage – with council from Michel Rolland at the beginning – using new French oak barrels, long macerations to assure full extraction of color) with winemaker and marketing manager. We tasted the 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010 vintages.

Glorioso_Gran_Reserva_1978_Bodegas_PalacioLunch was served with Palacio’s other wines, including their entry-level Milleflores (carbonic maceration), a wonderful white called Cosme Palacio 1894 made from barrel-fermented Viura (the Rioja name for what is called Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) and Malvasia, the Glorioso Reserva 2008, and this, the Glorioso Reserva 1978, still potent with alcohol, spices, and red fruits. 1978 was one of the exceptional vintages of the 1970s, and happens to be the current winemaker’s birth year as well. 

To finish, some glorious views from the town of Laguardia :

LaguardiaRioja1

Laguardia_Rioja2

Laguardia_Rioja3

Laguardia_Rioja4

When ignorance is bliss – for science’s relationship to society

I recently watched, and loved, Professor Stuart Firestein’s TEDtalk on “The Pursuit of Ignorance.”

Firestein, a professor and researcher of olfactory neuroscience at Columbia (the pertinence of his subject to mine already draws some important links between us, but just wait for more) presents an exposé on how science is really done, versus how it is often perceived by the public.

I highly recommend that you watch the talk itself (around 20 minutes and well worth the time), but here I’ll provide a bit of a summary and mostly my reaction, relevant whether or not you have time to watch the whole thing.

I find his assessment of the modern public perception of science very accurate – that it is often perceived as (and more importantly, I think, purported to be) a “well-ordered mechanism” that leads us neatly from a question, down the neatly hedged path of the rule-based scientific method toward the production of “hard cold facts.”

This, he proclaims, is in total contrast to the real way in which science is conducted, which he claims to be more similar to “bumbling around in a dark room” looking for answers that may or may not be within.

I found all of this wonderful, as I love when people, particularly scientists, recognize the great divide between the perception of science and what science actually means, but his next point was really where he brought it home for me, helping me to realize where some of my personal interest in this subject of the perception of science really comes from.

He discusses his experience as a lecturer, teaching a general course on neuroscience, and how he realized that the manner of presenting the course, with a giant textbook (weighing the same as two brains… now how are students supposed to be able to fit all that in their single brain, anyways?) and force-feeding lecture method, must give the impression that “we already know all there is to know about the brain”.

This sentence brought me back to the hard chairs of my high-school chemistry class, where, in fact, I fell in love with the idea that everything was already understood.  I think this is precisely why I’ve always struggled a bit in my research experiences, as they are, in reality, a world apart from what you learn in a course, and how the material is presented.  I actually chose my major in college because I preferred the coursework in chemistry over biology, because I always felt that it was more well-defined, precise, mathematical, but a part of me never really understood why more research needed to be done in this discipline, which in my years of courses, seemed to be so… complete.

In stark contrast to this world of knowns, this world of facts and certainty, the world of research is wide-open.  Questions, hypotheses and theories are posed, modified, proposed, and reposed, but rarely are these things we call “facts” defined.

I have seen this gap.  This wide crevice between how science is presented in school and how science is “done.”  And it shocked me.  But I was one of the lucky ones – I was introduced to ‘real’ research at the tender age of 16.  But still, throughout my years of academic training, I felt this disconnect – I always had a bit of trouble connecting what I learned in class and what I did in the lab.  They were related, but didn’t ever feel like the same activity, or even that they utilized the same cortices of the brain.

Firestein explains why scientists need to know all of these “facts” – to be able to pose good questions.  But the fact of the matter is that they don’t everything, just everything that is specific to their particular field (which is typically very narrow).

He proposes that it is this, the questioning, that is what is interesting in science, where the magic (or science, as it were) really happens. This is why he’s chosen to study ‘ignorance’.  He goes on to explain what he means by this, and I’ll let his own words speak for themselves there, but basically he is referring to everything that we don’t know.  A process of “question propagation” where working to answer one question creates still others.

I think he is right, that the way we present science to students needs to be modified.  We need to reflect more of this unknown, this ignorance, that predominates in science.  Students should be presented with a clearer picture of what research is really about, not only to help keep them interested in science by assuring them that there is plenty left to be done (which is important in itself), but also as a sort of societal insurance (nothing like ObamaCare – don’t worry – I don’t think this one would create so much controversy. Let alone a government shutdown).  The more accurate society’s picture of “science” is, and how it is done, the better.  The smaller the gap between “the perception and pursuit of science,” as Firestein puts it, the better.  People should be critical of scientific “discovery”, they should allow themselves to question, just like they would of any other discipline.  Experts are experts, but they are not deities.  Science is not here to dictate facts, but to open our minds and give us tools to explore our natural world.  But science often has an impact on the populace – think of nuclear energy, the ethics of GMOs or stem cells, etc.  Having a more accurate vision of science would help society to be able to make their own assessments of scientific advances and their greater implications. The more knowledge we have about ignorance, the better.  For everyone.

More info can be found on Professor Firestein’s website, about him, his research, the course on Ignorance, and his book, which I’m currently reading in Kindle version.