The art and science of high stakes

I tend to focus on the technical aspects of wine, but some recent winery visits and conversations with winemakers have gotten me wondering about the science and art of commercialization.  Commerce and marketing are always integral to winemaking, as sales allow for investment, and often the business end directs the technical decisions in the winery.

In Spain, this integration of affairs and production is particularly pronounced given the current economic situation. Diego Fernández Pons, winemaker at Bodegas Enguera in the D.O. Valencia compares money to energy – the source of nourishment for a business, which, these days, requires particular ingenuity and effort to acquire. Wine consumption amongst the Spanish, as in all of the Old World wine nations, is on the decline. According to Pedro Iglesias, also a winemaker at Enguera, the consumption of around 17 liters per habitant per year is not enough to be able to build up the local market first.  It is true that in general, products of “terroir”, which valorize their sense of place, typically earn that value first in their home community, a value that can then be applied in the export market.  There are, of course, other, ecological benefits to selling locally, reducing the transport footprint of the wines, though this is a complex topic in wine, where outside of their place of production, much of their worth and renown is based on the fact that they were produced in an often highly glorified wine region.


(Vineyard in D.O. Valencia)

So instead of selling locally, Enguera is exporting 90% of their wines, and apparently this is a common theme amongst Spanish wineries.  Since the beginning of the crisis, winemakers and marketers have packed up their bags to go traveling around the world in search of new export markets (keep in mind that Spain has the largest surface area of vineyards of any country in the world, and is the third largest producer by volume of wine – that makes for a lot of wine to get rid of if people aren’t buying it within the country).

Clearly then, the business side of things is important, crucial even, to the success of a winery.  But what is the best way to approach it?  Like much else in wine, it seems like the best approach is a sprinkling of art, solidified with a bit of science.

The ART of trend prediction.

Wine is not a product that is sold immediately.  At a bare minimum, production (of the final product… the production of the raw material starts much earlier) starts about 2 months before a wine could possibly be sold.  And these are the youngest wines, meant to be drunk immediately off of store shelves.  But often, a winery will work on a wine, in fermentation tanks, barrels and bottles, for several years before releasing it.  This means that during the year that the grapes are harvested and the majority of the pivotal decisions are made, the winemaker must be thinking ahead.  He must predict what people will be buying in 3, 5, even 7 or 8 years, to assure that he and his product will be relevant when that wine hits stores.

And this prediction must be blended with the answer to what, according to Diego, is the most important marketing questions there is : Does the world need my wine?

Winemakers must be able to make a wine that has some importance.  Something different. Maybe it expresses a beautiful classic terroir, but even that is questionable.  How many Barbarescos can the market support? It has to either have quality or value, but it also should have something more.  A story behind it. This is up to the creativity of the winemaker, as well as the marketing team (if they’re not one-and-the-same, which they often are).

One tool that many larger wineries employ is to create different products, and even different brands, to appeal to different markets. This diversification can help a winery respond to the two above challenges – of trend production and making itself relevant.  But in classical producer countries, especially in France, this can be a tricky issue since a lot of producers want to remain true to their terroir, and thus only produce the best of what their particular combination of variety, soil, microclimate and geography will give them.  But there’s some breathing room, I think, while still respecting terroir.  There will certainly be some diversity in the winery – different tanks vinified from grapes from different plots, different fractions of the press (juice/wine quality varies with the pressure exerted on the grapes during pressing), different varieties, etc., which all give options for blending at the end.  And instead of putting everything together to make one medium-quality wine, producers have various options to create different products appealing to different tastes and at different price points.


(The diversification of wine brands : labels produced by Bodegas Enguera)

And then there’s the science

The technical aspects that can be tinkered with to meet business goals and constraints.  This could take on many different forms, but I’ll just look at a couple of examples : mechanical harvesters, selected yeast, and wood chips.

Modern mechanical harvesting machines are increasingly selective in what they bring back to the winery and what they leave behind, with the capacity to separate healthy, ripe grapes from stems, leaves, rotten grapes, unripe grapes and other debris.  The Enguera winemakers assert that they can be at least as efficient in collecting a clean harvest than a team of manual workers, especially if the pickers are untrained or unmotivated (I can attest to this – I have hand-harvested my share of grapes and it is true that after a few hot, sticky hours, it can be very difficult to remain diligent). And it is a huge money and time saver (if the size of the winery and vineyards permits).


 (mechanical harvester in action)

Selected yeast can be either purchased from commercial suppliers or can even be cultured from a winery’s native yeast population.  The debate is still simmering on this issue, but it is generally accepted that selected yeasts are a more sure bet, as the winemaker can have a good idea of the conditions needed for fermentation, and most importantly the types of aromas that will be generated.

Wood chips put into the tank during or after fermentation are becoming a widely adopted practice, especially in large-scale wineries, and especially in the new world (they are often not permitted in European appellations).  But these products are a much cheaper alternative to putting wine in a barrel, and for certain quality levels of wines, can be a logical, economical replacement.

But the bottom line for such ‘nontraditional’ methodologies was quite nicely summed up by Diego. These can be useful tools, but only in the case where your consumer doesn’t care that you are using them.  I think this is a useful distinction to make, because the quality level or price point dividing wines that should or shouldn’t use oak chips is tricky to determine.  Diego’s philosophy is to be very up front about any technologies that he uses, so he would only recommend using them on wines where he knows that the customer would have no problem with it.  It is often a question of risk-reduction, and can thus be very beneficial, if it is in line with that all-important “story” of the wine.  If the wine is being marketed as completely natural, clearly the amount of inputs and manipulations must be kept to an absolute minimum.

So the success of a wine business is just a careful balance of art and science?

If only it were so simple

There’s also a fight.  The current examples of excellence are in Europe, but this is an issue all over the world.  Alcohol has risks.  Governments don’t tend to like risks.

In Spain, alcohol legislation is becoming stricter, adding to the list of difficulties faced by wine producers.  In France, it is the same story.  Anti-alcohol measures have been making headlines in France this week, the country often seen as the motherland of wine.

The current 4-part uproar concerns the potential extension of the law “Evin”, which strictly limits advertising of alcoholic products in France, to the internet and social networks.  There is also confusion between what is considered advertising and what is considered journalism, putting even critics’ columns at risk.  Additionally, the government is considering an increase in the tax levied on this product, which is the 2nd biggest export activity in the country.  And finally, they want to change the wording of the warning labels put on alcoholic products and advertisements for them. Currently it states that the abuse of alcohol is dangerous to health, but the new wording would simply read “Alcohol is dangerous to health”, thus eliminating any question of drinking with moderation (which, in the case of wine, is often suggested to be beneficial to health).

France’s response?  Just look at the words of the president and vice-president of the Interprofessional council of the wines of Bordeaux, Bernard Farges and Allan Sichel, who proclaimed, “we cannot accept to be considered dealers.” (

So the stakes are high, and the obstacles higher.  But somehow, with the perfect blend of creativity and technology, winemakers must create their perfect audience, and cater to them.

Crossroads : How can a decision break down a wall instead of closing a door?

I’m currently internship-hunting, soliciting offers for my 6 month internship/master’s thesis that will be the capstone project for my Master International Vintage.

Interestingly (or rather, completely normally, given how in my effort to bridge them, I tend to straddle two worlds – that of science and that of, well, not science), I am looking at two potential options (nothing confirmed, nothing concrete yet, so the descriptions will remain relatively vague for the moment).

Of offer I’ve received could be perfect.  Indeed it was designed with my interests in mind. It would be about biodynamics, in a with aspects both technical and social, looking at how to create protocols for particular indices (some already used in  winemaking, others not) in biodynamic grape growing and wine making (biodynamic winemaking, keep in mind, being a loose concept, since the messiah of biodynamics, Rudolph Steiner, believed that we shouldn’t even consume alcohol). Simultaneously, the project would look at how winemakers themselves go about making decisions – the role of their sense of observation and connection with their land.

The other potential option on my table is in a lab. But the circumstances would also be unique.  It would be with a wine chemist that I’ve identified for his rigorous science that takes a novel approach, a more “holistic”, at least in intention (and the intention is strong – he was more than open to all of my off-beat perspectives and frustrations about science, which to me is a very good sign), approach that is analogous to systems biology. I see it as at least one step in the right direction for studying the complex system that is wine.  Looking at it a bit more like a biological or environmental system, rather than a static structure where each component doesn’t impact the other.

That’s what intrigues me to want to participate and be able to judge for myself.

Because that’s been what’s buzzing around in my head lately. If I want to critique, to alter and reform science (on whatever microscale I might be capable of), maybe I need to go a bit further within the system first.

I was afraid that being within would suck me back in, blind me to its limitations. But I think the trick would be working in an atmosphere of exchange.

This seems to be that opportunity.


(hand-built stone wall in Swiss vineyard, Aigle, Switzerland)

But it is going to be a tough decision.

Because as much as I think it is ridiculous, science has its wall around it.  And this decision will put me on one side of the wall or the other.  Until I can break it down.

Confessions of a [wine] geek*

*first and foremost – credit to for the name of this post – though I admit I found your site after wanting to use the title, but having a sneaking suspicion that this phrase was already being used by some creative blogger…

I have a confession to make.

I love science.  In a wine chemistry course this week (with Dr. Susan Ebeler of UC Davis), I was shaking with excitement simply to be talking about mass spectrometers and chemical structures and functional groups after such a long time. I am a huge geek.

I have an insatiable craving to play with numbers and formulas.

The issue here, the recent focus of my blog, is not, and has never been in any way counter to that.  It is to elucidate the aspects of science that frustrate me the most. The “unexplainable” that is off-handedly dismissed, the inapplicability of a carefully controlled experiment to the real world, the lack of rigor of a poorly controlled experiment, the public (read: media) interpretations of a single experiment that lead to sweeping generalizations, panic, elation, or, simply, fads.

These frustrations are often enhanced in the wine world – wine scientists are often funded by industry and thus looking for solutions, for quick fixes, that don’t necessarily reflect the complexity of the system.

-Wine is not a simple liquid, but a complex mixture made from a complex process involving physical, chemical, and biological changes.  You make one quick fix and you destabilize the equilibrium of the system, initiating a domino-effect with often unpredictable repercussions.-


(HPLC instrument for separating nonvolatile compounds in wine – Vitec, Spain)

-Sensory science tries to break up a complex system into its component parts, which do not necessarily have the same impact individually.  The perception of mixtures is often not a sum of its parts, complicating a discipline already confounded by individual physiological differences and experimental obstacles.-


(Sensory analysis laboratory – Vitec, Spain)

-Wine and health is an incredibly controversial subject, due to methodological differences between studies on the subject, generalized application of epidemiological studies that don’t always take into account confounding factors and individual variability. And even if the authors of the study are careful (not always the case) in their wording, relying on the subtlety of language to avoid suggesting that a correlation indicates a causal relationship, it is almost sure that someone will race to proclaim the life saving (or noxious – depending on the study) properties of drinking a ‘moderate’ amount of wine (which is how much, anyways?).-

Clearly, as we begin to probe more complex systems such as wine, to pose more complex questions, the methodology of investigation needs a major overhaul.  This is at the heart of what I’m looking for. We need a multivariate system.  A holistic approach that doesn’t sacrifice rigor.

Valencia and the human capacity to understand wine

Just a little update – I arrived in Valencia this weekend and Monday began courses of the enology unit of the Vintage Master. So far it looks like it will be a really interesting 3 months with a lot of great guest speakers and visits to wineries (including my first Watson stomping grounds, the beautiful region of Priorat, and likely even the winery of René Barbier – where I harvested my first ever grapes!).

Interesting quote from the first day of classes – my professor, in talking about the aspects of wine that are little understood, told us that for the moment, “the human being is not yet capable to understand everything that occurs within a wine”.  Interesting, I thought, because here he was making the comparison a bit to other fields in science, where 50 years ago we didn’t understand certain things, take brain function for example, nearly at the same level that we do now, and we just weren’t yet ready for it back then.  Maybe. Maybe we just haven’t looked enough (there are certainly, and justly, fewer resources devoted to wine science that neuroscience). But maybe it goes a bit deeper than that.  Science has certainly evolved over the last 50 or 100 years. We often think of science as concrete, static, but it evolves just like anything, based, really, on the modification and correction of previous conceptions and methodologies.  So this evolution, depending which direction we take it in, could help us arrive at a greater understanding of wine.  Maybe its not just the techniques that need developing though, but our entire mindset when looking at it.

Anyways, to lighten the intellectual load a bit, a couple of photos of Valencia :Image



Decantation and Incantation

Why decant a wine? Tonight’s sommelier, your favorite winemaker, that snobby wine obsessed colleague will probably all have a different explanation, from removing sediment to aerating the wine, soften tannins, to the more refined explanation reported recently Tyler Colman on (HERE) that decanting has been shown to actually reduce the concentration of organic acids and polyphenols in the wine (of which the consequences are debatable… especially given the efforts that winemakers often go through to extract those polyphenols – which also happen to include those much-hyped antioxidants – out of the grapes and into your wine). For other reasons, too, the study conducted at Shenyang School of Pharmacy is a bit controversial, as the decanting conditions required to see an effect do not necessarily correspond to what goes on at your table, as well as to the incongruency of the reaction ratios – Colman reports that Dr. Andrew Waterhouse of UC Davis is not convinced that the quantity of oxygen dissolved in the wine during decanting would be enough to react in any significant way with the tannins.

So the mystery remains open, which caused me to begin thinking about another ‘mysterious’ practice that resembles decanting in many ways – the biodynamic method of dynamization.

Dynamization involves the mixing of the liquid containing biodynamic preparations in a very particular fashion – first with stirring in one direction to create a vortex, and then rapidly and suddenly changing direction in order to create what is referred to as a chaotic flow. This technique builds upon the principle that water is capable of absorbing and retaining information in various forms, and then behaves accordingly when it comes in contact with living beings.  For example, a simple experiment involving three jars of cooked rice covered in water has been described, where you close each jar while thinking of a particular word, and write the word on the outside of the jar, for example love, hate, and joy.  The jars are left and the rate and nature of the rotting process that ensues corresponds to the words on the jars (full disclosure : I have not done this but have seen images of the results. I would like to try). Thus the dynamisation of biodynamic preparations is meant to help the water to absorb and integrate the information stored in the preparation – whether it be compost, a “tea” made from plants with particular properties, or quartz.

Could decanting have a similar effect on wine? Could the water in wine actually be absorbing some type of information from the process, that gives decanting the ability to change the wine more than it “should” be able to, given the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed during the process?  What would happen if you decanted a wine while sending it good vibes? Could you make that Yellowtail taste a bit more like a Lafite (I don’t really think so…)?

It might sound a bit outside of the bottle, but looking at the science, I don’t yet see an explanation with a whole lot more backing. This is all about being open-minded when you open that bottle.

Thanks Tyler Colman! 

Minerality and the relation between Intuition and Correlation

Rick VanSickle (@RickWine) of recently posted an article by Mike Risk about some work he did with Alex Brunton on minerality in the Niagra region.  The article sparked some reflections on this, one of my favorite (see my earlier post ) often hotly-debated subjects and how it is (or most often, isn’t) studied scientifically.


(Rocks that potentially contribute various minerals to a vine near Saumur)

This is a subject that I worked a lot with while I was in New Zealand, looking into anything and everything written about it to try to understand the knowledge base that exists on the subject.  My conclusion?  There is no base.  There are lots of contradictory arguments thrown around, but no side seems to present a satisfactory case.

Here’s where I found this article intriguing.

Right of the bat, Risk makes what is often considered to be a big concession by scientists, but what I, and many, many winemakers and wine drinkers see as completely undeniable – he says “There’s no doubt about the importance of terroir – it is intuitively obvious [my emphasis] that wines from different locations will taste differently.”

So this intuition thing is what really intrigues me here – as a question to throw out there, what is the weight that we give to our intutitons when we’re defining what is or isn’t true? It depends what we’re defining, right?  In everyday life, sure, we go with our gut (in any case, if we don’t, we regret it).  But you don’t see articles in Nature about how quantum physics is right because its obvious.

Intuition ≠ rigor.

Okay, obviously, but hold that thought for a second.

Risk goes on to say that even though the concept of terroir is logical, minerality is not so simple.  And he’s absolutely right that science disproves the thinking that an intact mineral could enter a vine root and travel up to the grape bunch and end up in our glass. (and I’m not suggesting that this occurs in some magical – that’s the opposite of science, right? hah – way either. that’s not the point. the point is simply to question how we think about the science that says all of this).

But despite the complexity of the question, his team collects som data on trace elements and mineralogy in a few vineyards, and sits down with the excel file open and a flight of wines from different plots.  And he tells us that the wines are distinctly different from eachother, despite quasi-identical winemaking practices (except in one case, which he throws out – my thoughts on this decision, which I wholeheartedly agree with, will have to wait for another time).

But the data don’t correlate with the differences in the glass. (Okay correlation is my word – he uses ‘explain’, but, correct me if I’m wrong – and I’d love to be, this is a scientist reflex – because it’s the tool we have – to start looking for explanations based on correlation).

But why, anyways, do we rely so much on correlation? We know that correlation does not equal causation, we learn that early on.  We’ve seen many examples where the cause and effect relationship has been inversed because of assumptions based on correlations.

Here we have a case where the intuition, that wines from different places will taste different, matches with the reality that the wines taste different.  But our tool, our scientific implement of explanation, correlation, tells us next to nothing.

What happens when intuition corresponds more to reality than correlation does?


(Lets dig in!)

Link to the article is here if you missed the hyperlink above:

*Thank you Rick VanSickle, Mike Risk and Alex Brunton for your article, I am a big proponent of any and all research in this field because it is something that absolutely needs more serious attention such as this.  Enough with the bickering like school children about whether minerality exists or doesn’t or whether rocks have an odor etc etc.  We need people out in the field just like you have done.  I hope that you continue your work and I’d love to hear how it pans out! And as for all scientists, I hope that you always keep a little meta-perspective in your work, asking yourself questions about how you pose your questions!

**PS I am very curious about your passing remark about Brandi MacDonald and the fact that she runs an analytical lab at the same time that she is doing a PhD in anthropology. I’m very curious if there is a link between the two and I’d love to hear more!

The Semi-Anti-wine science Blog

During my hiatus from writing blog articles, I’ve been reading a lot of them.  And thinking about how I want to hone the direction of my own – in a reflection of what interests me most and what would remain interesting to readers.  I’ve noticed that there are a heck of a lot of blogs that cater to the wine science hashtag (which is great – keep at it @TheAcademicWino , @JamieGoode , @DrVino , @JancisRobinson , @WineFolly , @Hawk_Wakawaka , and tweeter @alawine ), but what about all the wine concepts/ideas/phenomena that are floating around out there that are, precisely, NOT scientific.

An ANTI-wine science blog?!?

Not exactly.  I will never shed my scientist roots, but I’m interested in all those concepts that, despite being unproven or disproven or simply un[der]studied, simply seem to ring true in the wine world – whether grounded in history, experience, vigneron-lore, or just simply those imaginary little worlds that seem to exist in the bottom of your glass.


We all have experienced some of these things – whether its minerality or biodynamics or the wild herbs that you taste in your glass just because you saw them in the vineyard and the winemaker assured you that they have an influence (and its 100% sure that they do – you literally taste them in your glass!).  And these things have merit too, just as much as the latest and greatest scientifically proven health benefits of wine, or the listing of 22 new compounds in your favorite Barolo that validate its status as the most complex wine of northern Italy.  But I want to discuss those other things.  Not explain them, because that’s exactly the point.  But we can discuss whether they could be explainable by science. Whether we want them to be explained by science (or does that take all the mystery and sex-appeal out of it?).

And how can we explain & justify & back up & claim something if science (or at least “science” as we know it) doesn’t say so?

I have the questions, let’s explore the answers.