Reflections on NZ

Here’s my recently submitted second quarterly report, a brief summary of my time in New Zealand and Tasmania:

I arrived in New Zealand with the goal of probing the scientific approach to wine, and my experiences here have certainly given me a greater understanding, but, in true scientific fashion, have exposed at least as many questions as they have answered.  As I continued to tease apart the already bursting seam between science and nonscience in the context of wine, I stumbled upon some points of tension between the scientific and ‘nonscientific’ wine communities which complicate the rosy picture of the harmonious coexistence of science and art that had begun to take shape during my time in Europe.

 I began my New Zealand experience at Lincoln University’s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology.  In interviewing faculty and students of the department and writing articles to help update their website, I was able to get a good sense of the kind of work they are doing in this wine-centric, interdisciplinary department.  The contacts that I made while at Lincoln were invaluable, leading me to attend the International Cool Climate Symposium in Tasmania at the end of my time in Australasia.  In addition, because I was updating their website, I gained exclusive insight into how the department wants to present itself publicly, a fascinating perspective from which to pursue my interest in how science is portrayed in society.  The Centre is particularly interested in sharing its findings with the New Zealand wine industry.  Many projects are financed with industry support and most are of direct consequence to the industry.  Thus the viticulture and oenology research at Lincoln is very much on the ‘applied’ end of the research spectrum.  I believe that this tendency toward applied research has two main roots.  Beyond the obvious reason that the research is inextricably linked to an economically important industry, is the fact that wine science is embedded in winemaking, a tradition of craftsmanship and artisanship.  As such, the practice of making wine depends on the individual skill, creativity, and experience of the winemaker and grape grower (though one winemaker I met, Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley, argued that winemaking is not an ‘art,’ per se because the term implies that these types of skills are inborn, rather than learnable), and thus carries some inherent tension with the tenets of basic science, which suggest that logic alone, without special skill, should allow us to “solve” the problems of winemaking. But, of course, it can never be so simple, and this, I believe, is why wine science looks a little bit different, a little more applied, than many other disciplines.  And this assessment seems to be in line with the image that the industry, at least in New Zealand, is working to promote. The research section of the 2011 New Zealand Winegrowers annual report closes by saying:

Research and the scientific process can never provide all of the answers to the complex challenges facing growers and winemakers. Nor can it replace the role of experience and good observation by practitioners. The important role of research remains in helping understand the word in which we our growers and winemakers operate. Understanding this complexity and the impact of their responses to it can help our producers make better informed decisions and ultimately make better wine.”

I was able to broaden the context for my assessment of the industry-science relationship by attending a viticulture and oenology convention in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.  The 8th International Cool Climate Symposium brought together scientists, industry professionals, and even the famous British wine writer Jancis Robinson to talk about issues specifically related to cool climate viticulture and winemaking.  Here again, the industry involvement seemed to spur an emphasis on research that has direct consequences for the industry.  In attending plenary and poster sessions and talking with researchers and students it became clear that though a large fraction of research is concerned with how to get certain results in the vineyard or bottle, some is done using a more fundamental, ‘basic science’ approach aimed at understanding the mechanisms behind these effects.  Still, it is clear that the industry consequences are never too far from the minds of the researchers.

The most surprising aspect of the conference was how much research was presented on topics that I had assumed to be well understood.  The amount of history entwined in the wine industry means that winemakers, both in Europe and in New Zealand, tend to make sweeping claims presented in a way that implies a firm scientific basis.  At this conference it was strikingly clear, however, that many basic aspects of viticulture and winemaking are still poorly understood from a scientific perspective.  I found this particularly interesting because it addresses one of my original project questions about how knowledge is created.  In the case of winemaking there seem to be two major streams – science and historical precedent, and in my experience so far both seem to have an equally important impact on what winemakers and viticulturalists are willing to accept as truth.  One particularly striking example of this is biodynamic viticulture – a frequently divisive topic in the wine industry.  There have been scientific studies that demonstrate that biodynamics has a positive effect on viticulture, but science has not been able to demonstrate why.  The practices themselves do not seem particularly ‘scientific,’ involving esoteric rituals and timing of vineyard tasks according to cosmic events (interestingly, scientists are largely unable to obtain funding for research on biodynamics).  Biodynamic winemakers tend to be vehement supporters of the methods, even though they cannot necessarily provide a rational basis for the claimed effects.  On the other hand, these same winemakers may insist on having the most cutting edge technologies present in their wineries, demonstrating a commitment to what would more typically fall into the realm of modern science (additionally, many of the biodynamic preparations that they put on their vines are actually now factory produced which creates an interesting conflict of interest, in my opinion).

Though I have seen many examples of amicability of science and nonscience, I expected some complications.  Through some work I’ve been doing with Dr. Christopher Oze, a geology professor at the University of Canterbury, I have found an issue where science and nonscience seem to butt heads.  Originally I planned to help Dr. Oze design a research project to investigate the chemical and geological basis for the concept of ‘minerality’ in wine.  Geologic references, including ‘mineral,’ ‘slate,’ ‘quartz,’ ‘wet stones,’ etc. are pervasive in reviews and tasting notes, but while many wine aromas and flavors can be attributed to specific compounds, the story is not so simple for minerality.  In conducting some initial research on the topic, I could divide the opinions on minerality into four main camps. First, the popular literature, which employs the term liberally, but with some inconsistency in the intended meaning.  The most direct contrast to this perspective is that presented informally by scientists, either in semi-academic publications intended for the public or in casual conversation. Most (rightly) point out that whole minerals cannot be taken up by the roots and end up in the grapes, let alone somehow manage to stick around during months or years of processing and maturation until they reach the glass. Metal ions are surely taken up from the soil, but the mechanisms for this aren’t well understood and contributions of metals from exogenous sources such as pesticides, metal tanks, and bentonite clays used for fining, complicate source allocation.  The formal scientific literature, on the other hand, is marked by a stark absence of direct references to minerality.  There have been published studies about related topics, such as the metals content of grapes and wines, or attempts to empirically define individual terroirs, but no one has looked specifically at minerality.  I spent some time visiting wineries across the South Island of New Zealand and found that the winemakers and viticulturalists I met tend to pick and choose from arguments presented in the first two camps.

These discrepancies suggested that designing a scientific study was a bit premature.  Instead, Dr. Oze and I decided to begin research for a review article that will act as a call to arms to encourage systematic research on minerality, beginning with a concrete definition of the concept.  While still in New Zealand I spent about a month laying the groundwork for this article, and this is a project I will remain involved in over the coming months.  This paper has given me an outlet to think a lot about questions pertinent to my project’s focus on understanding knowledge construction and how this knowledge is presented in and out of the scientific community.  What I find particularly fascinating about this particular case is how the lack of empirical evidence has been used as ammunition to argue that minerality is not directly caused by soil chemistry, when in fact there is simply no evidence either way.  It may well be the case that there is no direct link, but no one has shown conclusively that this is the case.  So it is not necessarily that scientific and historically-embedded popular ideas about wine are at odds here, but it is a case where scientific knowledge, or a lack thereof, has clearly been interpreted in the context of wine history and culture, rather than in a vacuum.  It has been very gratifying to use my research on minerality as a case study to see this play out not only in the literature (both scientific and popular), but also in conversations with wine scientists, winemakers, and viticulturalists from around New Zealand.

The most challenging aspect of the past three months was unquestionably living in a city rattled to the core by a series of earthquakes over the past 18 months.  While I lived in an area that was relatively mildly affected by the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes (along with months of continual aftershocks), the damage was never far from view, as the central business district of Christchurch remains completely closed off, as well as many buildings on the campuses of both Canterbury and Lincoln (in fact, a decision to permanently close the building I had been working in at Lincoln was announced the day after I left).  Still, I felt fairly detached from the intensity of the situation until December 23, when a strong earthquake shook the area.  The event itself was scary, but tolerable, but the earthquake started off a series of aftershocks that have still not completely subsided, almost two months later.  The constant low-grade anxiety resulting from never knowing if an aftershock would hit and not knowing how bad it would be when one did was certainly grating, but spending a couple of weeks traveling to other parts of the South Island helped to alleviate this stress.  In addition, as horrible as the events of the past year and a half have been for Christchurch, it was a strange honor to be warmly welcomed into a community that has withstood so much trauma and stress. 

Overall, the past three months have provided a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to a new twist on the academic approach.  Coming from a strongly academic background, where I have worked in labs continuously since high school, I have come to expect certain norms to be associated with science.  My time in New Zealand introduced me to a different take on science, one more tied in with industry and therefore blurring and complicating the boundaries that I have become so fascinated with throughout the first half of my Watson year.

From here I move on to South America, where harvest season is nearly upon us again.  I will start out travelling across Argentina and visiting wineries there, and will end up in Chile for the majority of the season.  I am looking forward to becoming immersed in the industry side of New World winemaking to compare both with my industry experience in the Old World and the academic perspective I experienced in New Zealand.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s