Minerality and the relation between Intuition and Correlation

Rick VanSickle (@RickWine) of winesinniagra.com 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 http://goo.gl/nfq1Tp ) 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.

Study Trip Photo Drop – Italy, Hungary, Switzerland


20130607_130410Trentino Alto Adige

DSC_0619 Cinque Terre

DSC_0628Cinque Terre

DSC_0647Cinque Terre

DSC_0968Prosecco, Italy

DSC_0978VCR Nursury, Italy

DSC_1087Goulash – Tokaji, Hungary

DSC_1417Monorail to transport grapes and vineyard equipment – Scion, Switzerland

DSC_1427Art and Wine – Robert Gilliard, Scion, Switzerland

DSC_1477Vineyard treatments by helicopter – Martigny, Switzerland

DSC_1572Riez, Switzerland

DSC_1573Riez, Switzerland

IMG_0369Lake Geneva, Switzerland