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.

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(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 confessionsofawinegeek.com 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.-

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(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.-

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(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

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Last Days in the Priorat

 

Last week I was able to go to Clos Mogador, one of the most well-known and respected wineries in the Priorat, to help with the harvest a bit and interview René Barbier and his wife Isabelle.  Harvesting white grenache was hard work on the steep slopes in the summer heat, but very good to get some hands-on action!  I also helped out a bit on the sorting table back at the winery, removing any overripe grapes or debris.

 

After working for a few hours, the Barbier’s welcomed me into their home for lunch.  We discussed their views on the importance of art in winemaking  – Isabelle, an artist herself, suggested that art and imagination are the most important aspects of wine – the base of any product that one can make, and René eloquently added that art is key because it is representative of spirit.  When I asked René how he instills such personality into his wine, he emphasized the importance of terroir, and especially of the winemaker knowing his terroir.  He said that the science is important too, as it acts as a tool for choosing what to do, and that now, unlike 40-50 years ago, there is no conflict between tradition and science in winemaking.  He suggested that half a century ago there existed a tension between science and “savoir faire” (know-how), which led to excessive pesticide use and other problematic practices, but now people are returning to their intrinsic knowledge of the land, incorporating knowledge of ecology and biodiversity.  Isabelle added that she sees art returning to the fore as well.  I also asked René what he thought about the importation of viticultural practices from places such as France to a region with such unique terroir.  He explained the complications inherent in asking such a question, as winemaking in the Priorat was really founded by the French Carthusian monks, so the origin is French, but taking place in Catalonia.  Thus there exists a confusion between authenticity and terroir, and one could ask, « le Priorat c’est quoi ? » (What is the Priorat ?).

Clos Mogador White Grenache Vineyard

René Barbier’s very unique old-fashioned press, which he continues to use.

 The Templar castle of Miravet and motorless car ferry to cross the Ebro River.

Vitec

Vitec is Catalonia’s wine science and technology institute, affiliated with the university in Tarragona.  Vitec’s director, Sergi De Lamo Castellví, was kind enough to show me around their facility in Falset, a beautiful new building with viticultural, oenological, and sensory laboratory spaces.

Their sensory laboratory consists of cubicles equipped with an “enoscope”, which is essentially a light box that emits the “perfect” white light to analyze color and transparency of the wine.  All experiments are tasted in this facility, and Vitec is working to attain EU accreditation to train professional wine tasters.  The official tasting glasses for Spain and France are small wine glasses (and black glasses are used when the influence of wine color is to be eliminated), but Vitec prefers to use the Riedel Syrah glasses as these give far better expression of aromas.

In the wine and must analysis lab, Vitec performs many different types of experiments, as their funding comes from many different sources – keeping their work quite varied.  Some of the things they are looking at include acids and amino acids as aroma precursors, the characterization of polyphenols in must and wines, as well as in the seeds and whole grapes, the use of infrared (IR) spectroscopic analysis to differentiate individual strains of yeast and bacteria in must, and the analysis of the contribution of cork materials to desirable aromas in wine.

Their gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) was equipped with two special attachments – a “sniffer” to run samples of volatile aroma compounds, and a “Twister” which uses a miniature stir bar to create a tiny vortex inside the sample tube, allowing for the analysis of very low concentrations of compounds in aqueous solutions (i.e. wine!).

They also have a viticultural lab, although Sergi described it as more of a storage space as all of the viticultural experiments take place in the vineyards.  Some things that they are looking into here are hydric management and “precision viticulture,” which involves analyzing small subsections of the vineyard in order to cultivate them in such a way that the overall crop yield is uniform.  The research at Vitec is integrated in such a way that all of the experiments in the field are carried through to final wines for sensory analysis (tasting).  This means that they must carry out a large number of microvinifications, preparing 30-50 liter batches of wine.  The problem with this method is that the smaller the batch size, the less realistic the vinification conditions.  Vitec has developed several methods to circumvent this problem.  They have a press that is specially designed for small batches – allowing 30-300 kg (66-660 lb) of grapes to be pressed at a time in conditions that mimic those encountered in the winery.  They also have found that fermenting their wines in 30 liter  beer kegs allows them to prevent oxidation of the wines, because they can top of the kegs with carbon dioxide after filling them.  (Notice in the photo of the beer kegs that there are some pink bottles sitting on the floor?  The wine in these bottles was an experiment where grapes were harvested from vines grown in pots!)

Vitec has also come up with an innovative solution to the problem of controlling the temperature of so many tiny fermentation tanks.  Buying microvinification tanks with built in temperature control systems would run them about €1500 (as opposed to about €50 for the regular tanks), and they can be working with up to 80 microvinifications at a time.  They have devised a system where they insert a heat exchanger in the bottom of a large water tank, which they can then set to the desired temperature (with a fish tank pump to keep the water circulating) and control the environment of several tanks simultaneously.

Vitec has the only instrument in Spain which is capable of comparing the oxygen environment of inside and outside of a cork (or any other type of closure).  In this way, they can measure the amount of oxygen that enters the bottle per day, and find that some corks can allow up to 20 times more oxygen to pass through than others!  They can use this information to determine the most appropriate type of closure for a particular type of wines, as, for example, relatively “closed” red wines can benefit from a bit of oxygenation, whereas a young white or rose can become oxidized quite easily with the wrong cork, turning essentially into sherry!

The breadth of research at Vitec is astounding, and they seem to have a well integrated program.  It is the institute specifically focused on wine in Spain, as other wine research is conducted at centers that study food science as well.  Locating the center in the Priorat was an important political gain for the region as well, as it brings this resource of technological innovation directly to the area.

Also:  Important information about traveling with wine!!!

The Week in Photos

Lead mines of Bellmunt, Siurana, and the Falset wine cooperative:

The lead mines were a very important industry in the area but were closed in the 1970s due to decreased demand for lead.  After learning so much about the unique soil profile in the Priorat, it was interesting to get a new perspective by looking at the earth from the inside out!

Siurana is a gorgeous clifftop village famous for its rock climbing (as you might imagine from the photos).

The Falset wine cooperative is representative of the co-ops built around the region in the early 20th century.  This building was built by a student of Gaudi in typical art nouveau style.  Though the architecture is quite ornamental (known as one of the “cathedrals of wine” because the architecture shares many features common to cathedrals), it was designed as a fully functional space and is still used to produce wines from the Montsant DO today.

Just DO(Q) it

“Wine is a photograph of a specific place and time.” – Toni Alcover Jofre, President of DOQ Priorat

Professional tasting room at the DOQ Priorat Headquarters in the village of Torroja

The primary role of the Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ – Qualified Denomination of Origen) Priorat is to certify where grapes are coming from, thus ensuring that wine bearing its label is a quality product, according to Toni Alcover Jofre, the recently appointed President of the DOQ Priorat.  In 1954, Priorat became the second DO to be established in Spain (after Rioja), and the “Q” was added when the Catalan government approved the application for the distinction of Priorat as a “qualified wine region” in 2000 (a distinction that this region shares only with Rioja).

The process of certification is intensive, with each of the 93 registered wineries subjected to vineyard and winery inspections at key points of the year (ie harvest and winter pruning), a full laboratory workup of the finished wines (including sugar levels, pH, volatile acid, sulfur dioxide and sulfate content, and possibly other tests such as tannin content), and a blind tasting by a panel of tasters.  The tasters include someone from the Wine and Vine Institute (a branch of the Agricultural department of the Catalonian government – INCAVI, someone from the oenology institute in Tarragona, Mr. Alcover (who has long been a teacher at Falset’s oenology school), and two winemakers from the region (though it is set up so that they are never tasting their own wines).  To dequalify a wine, three of the five members must agree  (though according to Mr. Alcover, such a decision tends to be unanimous).

Mr. Alcover replaced the former President, Sallustià Álvarez, who had held the position for 18 years.  Though he is still getting to know the ins and outs of the job, he expects that streamlining the qualification process, preparing for the EU checks that are coming up (to ensure that each of the DOs across Europe is following its own guidelines), and promoting the region within Spain will be the top priorities during the first years of his Presidency.  Though it might seem strange that they should be focusing on internal promotion, Toni explained that the Spanish market is not developed enough to recognize the quality of wine produced here.  Further, most Spanish people immediately think of Rioja when they think of wine, so he hopes to promote Priorat wines in order to demonstrate the diversity of wine production in Spain.