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

I just sat in on the ACS Webinar ( or 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.

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Tourism by the Glass

I am working on a presentation on the Washington state wine industry for my ‘Methodology in the French language’ course (ie how to put your ideas together in French and for a French audience), and was reminded of a paper I wrote at Haverford for a class on the History of the US Built Environment.  In what is officially my first US-wine related post, I am posting the paper which, while admittedly a bit long, toys with the idea of how this particular building, the Novelty Hill-Januik Winery in Woodinville, WA, embodies the transformations in wine tourism that have, essentially, allowed this suburb of Seattle to come into its own as Washington state’s hub of wine tourism, despite its isolation from the heart of WA wine production, in the Eastern half of the state.

Tourism By the Glass: Reshaping of the Wine Industry by Redesigning its Spaces

Passing through the short strip of industrial warehouses on Highway 202 out of Woodinville, Washington, one might initially mistake the concrete façade of Novelty Hill-Januik Winery (NHJ) for a part of this industrial monotony.  However, upon closer inspection the deliberate landscaping becomes apparent, as does the wide driveway inviting passerby to pull into the 100-space parking lot that stretches along the length of the concrete structure.  Most striking from the parking lot is the starkness of the simple, linear façade against the downward sloping landscape, which begs the question of what lies below.

If the designers hopes are realized, the visitor’s interest is piqued and he passes through the cave-like entryway to find himself awash in a contrast of warm wood and cool concrete, still emphasizing the linearity of the façade.  It is here that the intent of this space becomes clear.  The design of NHJ embodies the emphatic adoption of tourism by the wine industry.  Though consumers traditionally had limited access to the winemaking process,[i] this began to change significantly as wineries learned that tourism could be a profitable adjunct to their business, promoting the appeal of wine in general and their vintages in particular.  In the United States, this shift began as early as 1935, just two years after the repeal of Prohibition, when tourism was suggested as a means to teach the public about wine so as to instill a deep love and respect for the product.  After World War II, the travel industry began to swell, and wine tourism followed. [ii]  The infrastructure of the winery had to be changed in order to incorporate those factors meant to attract visitors, including reorganizing space to support tours, tasting and sales rooms, and increasing the aesthetic appeal of winery spaces.[iii]  NHJ expands this focus on the consumer by creating a space providing not only amenities for the visitor, but also an invitation to learn about the winemaking process through the organization of space and its aesthetic components.  However, a boundary is simultaneously drawn between consumer and producer to ensure the maintenance of professionalism and efficiency in the process.

Tom Alberg, the owner of NHJ, deliberately chose the location for his winery with an eye toward the importance of the wine tourist.  In a press release marking the opening of the winery, he cited Woodinville as “rapidly becoming one of Washington’s most exciting wine producing and tasting destinations for quality wines.”[iv]  This rapid growth is surprising as Woodinville is located across the state from most of the vineyards that supply grapes to its wineries.  Elsewhere, wineries and their associated vineyards are typically located in the same region, if not on the same property.  So why are there over seventy-five wineries and tasting rooms located in this small city of 11,350 people?[v],[vi]  The answer lies in Woodinville’s proximity to and accessibility from Seattle, about twenty miles away.  In a study of the success of tourism in wine regions, Getz and Brown found that the second most important factor in determining a visitor’s likelihood of patronizing a winery was having “a lot to see and do in the area.”[vii]  There are several direct, highway-linked routes from Seattle to Woodinville, whereas the wine country of Eastern Washington is isolated from populous Seattle by the looming Cascade Mountains.  This accessibility, along with the historical presence of Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, which was established in Woodinville in 1967,[viii] initially made Woodinville a magnet for the tasting room and winery outposts of Eastern Washington winemakers.  Once wine began to flood the area, Getz and Brown’s sixth most important factor, the presence of many wineries in an area, became a driving force for the success of the Woodinville wine industry, drawing still more wineries to the area.[ix]  NHJ is located on the main thoroughfare into Woodinville’s most concentrated wine district, as well as on the way to Chateau Ste. Michelle, which continues to draw large crowds for wine tasting as well as its summer concert series.   This strategic positioning emphasizes the focus of the winery on catering to the tourist – not only is it easy to find for those who are looking, but it is also easy to stumble upon.  This piggybacking on the success of Woodinville’s wine tourism industry is one way in which NHJ embodies the history of wine tourism and makes the wines of Eastern Washington accessible to the state’s more populous western side.

Alberg wanted the architecture of the building itself to “enhance visitors’ knowledge and appreciation” of their wines.[x]  This aim recalls the original reason for establishing wine tourism, as one speaker at the 1935 Conference of Vintners and Allied Interests advocated for winery visitation on the grounds that visitors would be “imbued with the lore of wine and learn to know it.”[xi]  While many destination wineries have relied solely upon aesthetic appeal to attract tourists, the design of NHJ fosters this educational aspect of the tourism experience, while maintaining a functional division between workspace and tourist.

The use of glass in the building conveys a literal and figurative sense of transparency in the winemaking process.  From the tasting room, floor-to-ceiling glass windows expose hundreds of oak barrels stacked and resting patiently as they await the release of their contents, red stains on the oak the only evidence of the product within.  Down the hall, across from the private event room, a matching wall of glass permits viewing of the fermentation room, lined with enormous stainless-steel vats that protect the infant wine from the outside world as it is transformed into alcohol.  The workspaces are located a floor below the observer, literally giving viewers an overview of the winemaking process.  The view provided by these windows is such that the visitors can observe the different stages of the journey from grape to bottle, but are still isolated from the activity.  This separation reflects another historical trend in winemaking – the increase in scale of winemaking as demand for the product has grown.  In pre-WWII United States, wine consumption averaged two liters per year, but by the 1990s was up to about seven liters per year.[xii]  Larger batches create a struggle for producers of high-end wines as they aim to maximize efficiency through the use of industrial methods while maintaining a sense of artisanship and quality in their wines.  By using the design of the winery to invite visitors to witness the making of wine, NHJ strives for transparency in its methods, thus demonstrating pride in the quality of their technique and products.  At the same time, the distance between the visitor and the process that the windows ensure helps to maintain efficiency, as extraneous bodies will not be present inside of the production areas.  This separation is a vestige of the sense of secrecy in the wine industry that existed before tourism was integrated into the spaces, and limitation of public access to the more “proprietary areas” of the winery remains common even in wineries designed to welcome visitors.[xiii]  This separation establishes a sense of expertise, where the winemaker possesses a body of tacit knowledge unattainable by the public even though they can watch the process from a distance.

The architecture of NHJ leads visitors outdoors to the terraced garden which continues the theme of linearity seen in the structure itself, connecting the interior and exterior spaces.  The gardens are a prominent feature of NHJ, and represent an intention to express the relationship between earth and wine.  More specifically, the landscape design uses a descending series of terraces to “evoke the low hills and agricultural environment of the ‘other Washington’” – east of the Cascades.[xiv]  In so doing, the designers were able to abstractly import the missing portion of the winemaking process – the growing of grapes – to the winery.  Since NHJ is located over 150 miles from its estate vineyard, viticulture is the one aspect of the wine that is not made transparent to visitors by the physical space.  Instead, NHJ’s prominent gardens serve to conjure an image of the vineyards of Eastern Washington.  In this way, space again serves as a quasi-educational tool to expose visitors to the methods of winemaking while maintaining distance.  In this case, the division between process and tourist is not meant to aid efficiency or demonstrate technological prowess, but is a function of consumer demand.  As wine tourism became more prominent, proximity to consumers became more important than proximity to grapes, especially in Washington where accessibility of the vineyard regions is compromised by the presence of a prominent mountain range.

Prior to opening the NHJ facility in 2007, Alberg processed Novelty Hill wines in a nondescript warehouse in Woodinville.  The space had no signs and did not accept public visitors.  The transformation from this purely functional space to NHJ, with its deliberate aesthetic and focus on educating the public while maintaining a professional division between production and consumption, is emblematic of the broader shift in the wine industry from a focus on production to a greater emphasis on tourism.

[i] Sean Stanwick and Loraine Fowlow, Wine by Design (West Sussex, UK: Wiley 2006), 19.

[ii] Thomas Pinney, History of Wine in America: From Prohibition to the Present (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 2005), accessed February 20, 2011,, 217-218.

[iii] Pinney, History of Wine in America, 218.

[iv] Novelty Hill-Januik, “Opening of New Novelty Hill-Januik Winery in Woodinville Marks Important Milestone in Washington Wine Tourism: State-of-the-Art Destination Winery Opens June 8,” press release, 4 June 2007,  (22 Feb 2011).

[v] “Woodinville Lifestyle,” Greater Woodinville Chamber of Commerce, (22 Feb 2011).

[vi] “About Woodinville: Demographics/Statistics,” City of Woodinville,, last modified January 4, 2011 (22 Feb 2011).

[vii]Donald Getz and Graham Brown, “Critical success factors for wine tourism regions: a demand analysis,” Tourism Management 27 (2006) 152-153.

[viii] “Washington Heritage,” Chateau Ste. Michelle,, (21 Feb 2011).

[ix] Donald Getz and Graham Brown, 152-153.

[x] Novelty Hill-Januik, press release.

[xi] Pinney, History of Wine in America, 217.

[xii] Stanwick and Fowlow, Wine by Design, 18.

[xiii] Stanwick and Fowlow, Wine by Design, 19.

[xiv] Clair Enlow, “A Winery Before its Time,” Landscape Architecture (2008) 44-45.