My Return to the Ivory Tower

The last several months have been bursting with emotion.  Frustration, anxiety, self-reflection, relief, elation.  It is true what they say, that human beings have a difficult time with change, but also that it is essential, clearing the old dusty parts of us to make way for the succulent new growth (perhaps it is no coincidence that this process has occurred in sync with the emergence and growth of the vine itself).

DSC_0145The magnificent Dentelles de Montmirail in the southern Rhône valley

I left my full-time winery job back around the holidays, needing to redistribute my time and energy in order to find a job more along the lines of what I really wanted to do long-term.  But I quickly realized that I had absolutely no idea what that was.  I applied for jobs a bit half-heartedly, but between my own disenchantment and the lamentable state of the French job market, the search bore little fruit.  I also began applying for PhD positions in anything remotely related to environmental chemistry, but when it came down to it, the opportunities that I was offered just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t bring myself to commit to such an intense journey without being 100% on board.

Around the time I was starting to feel the effects of this visceral anxiety of being unable to discern the desires of my own soul – a form of identity crisis in our society with its hyperfocalization on what one does in life, I stumbled upon the University of Cambridge’s History and Philosophy of Science department.  I had already thought about trying to pursue some kind of science studies or history of science route in France, but I couldn’t find the information I wanted and found my research thwarted by a collection of unanswered emails, so I’d let the idea slip aside.  It had never occurred to me to look in the UK as I hadn’t been ready to expand my search beyond France, but now that the months remaining on my visa were ticking conspicuously away, England suddenly felt much closer.

Applications were still open for the 1-year MPhil program, which was recommended to me by a couple of professors in the department, to get a taste for the department and give me the time to prepare a PhD proposal.  I applied and was accepted only a few weeks later.  I had simultaneously received another opportunity that, on paper, seemed perfect for me (a PhD in geochemistry looking at the interaction between soil and microbes in vineyards), but there was really only one of these choices that felt right in my heart.  Questions raised by the history of science and science studies have truly guided all that I’ve done in the past three years, and have informed all of the big questions that have captivated me throughout all of my wine related adventures.  Going to Cambridge for this MPhil, and writing a PhD proposal to study the history of biodynamic agriculture, a topic that has fascinated me endlessly, is a path forward that allows me to maintain my links to science, to agriculture, to nature and to the wine industry.

After college, I seized the opportunity to leave the academic world because I felt the need to know what other paths existed.  I wanted to experience the big questions instead of just thinking about them.  And for nearly four years I have lived incredible experiences, learned amazing lessons, and I am eternally grateful for each one of them.  But one of these lessons that I’ve learned is that I like the theorizing, the musing, the questioning, and I’m ready to hit the books.

WAC 2014 Recap Series : Steven Shapin – Modernity in a Glass

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The Third Edition of the International Conference Series on Wine Active Compounds, affectionately known as WAC 2014, was an overwhelming success in many regards, but most notably in the bridging of disciplines.  Partly a result of the participation of the UNESCO Chair “Culture and Traditions of Wine”, based at the University of Burgundy, the organizers of WAC strove toward the integration of natural and social sciences, rather unique for an international congress – particularly one that is, at its core, focused on wine chemistry.  Social science lectures were interspersed throughout the conference, falling between the more traditional lab-based research talks, but always maintaining a coherent link to the session theme. In honor of the success of this project, I will be devoting a series of posts to exploring some of the themes that were brought to light during the convention, including the regulation of enological practices, role of the sensory sciences, the notion of complexity, the neuroscience of perception, biodynamics, and the role of wine compounds in some key human diseases including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, metabolic disorders, intestinal inflammation and cardiac disease.

To kick off the series, I’ll begin with what for me was the most exciting talk of the conference – the keynote given by Harvard historian of science Steven Shapin.  I walked into the first day of WAC 2014 with stars in my eyes, as after 4 college years filled with as many History of Science and Science Studies courses as I could fit, to me Shapin is a true celebrity, and I’d had no idea that he took an interest in wine.

His talk was entitled “How does wine taste? Sense, science, and the market.” He dove right into a lecture about the history of how we describe what we taste in a wine.  There is, he argues, a dramatic split that occurred in the 20th century, fundamentally altering the manner in which we talk about wine. And this division corresponds to significant scientific and market changes in the same period.

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From the time of Aristotle up until the pre-WWII era, the specific lexicon used to describe wines was quite restrained, with only such words as “sweet”, “acute”, “austere” and “mild”, as well as terms for faulty wines, being regularly employed. Wines were more often described in terms of their medical properties or physiological effects, and people were more inclined to compare wine to poetry or particular emotions than to specific flavors. It wasn’t that people didn’t appreciate and evaluate wines – they certainly did as evidenced by the 1855 Bordeaux Classification – clearly wine aficionados were interested in differentiating and evaluating wines here, but they didn’t need to be able to describe the wines to make an opinion about it.

So what changed?  How did we end up with the current trend, wines “described as more or less complex aggregates of individual [flavor] components” – an “analytical” approach that reduces a wine to a series of comparisons to other foods or smells? The answer, according to Shapin, lies in the interplay between scientific and market changes that occurred around the mid-20th century.

A general trend began in chemistry, biology and physics, resulting at least partially from increasingly powerful analytical techniques, toward a focus on constituents of substances or organisms rather than their more general qualities.  The modern reductionist paradigm began to characterize science, attempting to understand systems by first understanding their constituent parts. This trend was reflected in the development of enology and sensory analysis in French and American institutions (notably the University of Bordeaux and UC Davis), where a focus on discovering the particular molecules in wine became paramount.  The understanding of the molecular composition of wine aroma fit effortlessly with a sensory model that breaks the aroma into its individual components, each of which associated with a corresponding molecule that can be isolated and measured.

Ultimately, this type of reductionist description trickled down into consumer culture, but how? The key, says Shapin, was the concomitant expansion of New World wine drinking markets. Wine has always been associated with a certain prestige and connoisseurship, and these new consumers were seeking an accessible vocabulary with which they could discuss their newfound beverage of choice. The most accessible, setting aside the flowery, poetic descriptions of the past in favor of more direct and analytic language with a clear link to chemistry, was UC Davis sensory scientist Maynard Amerine’s lexicon of descriptors that were systematically associated with “real wine compounds” (published in 1976 and available on Amazon). This type of description was, perhaps most influentially, adopted by Robert Parker in his publication the Wine Advocate, the first edition of which was released in the same year as Amerine’s book.

Thus, argues Shapin, the style of tasting notes that remains most widespread even today, a list of individual flavors of which a wine is comprised, is not a natural consequence of physiological sensation. No, like all human activities, wine description has a historical background, a past linked to concrete events that have shaped how we understand and articulate our thoughts. Wine is, he says, “modernity in a glass”, bringing together the sensations of taste with the worldview of modern science and consumer culture.

When Worlds (science, humanities & wine) Collide : WAC 2014

I have recently started an internship at the Jules Guyot Institute, otherwise known as the University Institute of the Vine and Wine (Institut Universitaire de la Vigne et du Vin) at the University of Burgundy in Dijon.  

For three years now, the Institute has thrown a big annual wine geek party (ie research conference) that is called the WAC (Wine Active Compounds) International Conference.  This year, March 26-28 in Beaune, I am thrilled to be able to attend, as the program promises to be quite interesting.

There are plenty of classic research talks on the schedule, with speakers from across the world including Wendy Parr (sensory science) from New Zealand, Elisabeth Tomasino (enological chemistry) from Oregon State University, and Georg Meissner (known for research on biodynamic viticulture) from the University of Geisenheim, Germany, all of whom are particularly interesting to me for various reasons.  

But the subject matter varies enormously – there are talks not only on phenolic chemistry, health effects of wine components, effect of viticultural practices on wine composition, minerality and wine aging,  but also on consumer choice, reputation of organic and biodynamic viticulture, winemaking legislation, and the sociology of winemaking, to name a few (the full program is available here).

All of this should make for a well-balanced conference that covers not only the science, but also some of the humanistic and social aspects of grapegrowing, winemaking, and wine consumption.  An appropriate menu, I think, for a subject that so naturally links the sciences with the humanities.  

But most exciting to me, and what gives me hope that these two aspects will be able to intermingle and a dialogue will occur that unites the natural science and the social sciences during the conference, is the keynote speaker. The keynote to WAC 2014 will be given by Professor Steven Shapin, Historian of Science from Harvard University.  A superstar of Science Studies.  His talk is entitled “Historical and cultural construction of the wine perception,” and I am thrilled to see a conference framed by a keynote from a history of science perspective, from an author that I have read since the very beginnings of my academic exploration of science studies, well before wine was part of my subject matter.  

All of this to unite the worlds of science, humanities, science studies, and, of course, wine.  I will certainly be reporting back.

Autour de la vigne : Insight into the public perception of wine science

A recent piece on Radio France International (RFI), the French international public radio, reveals some of the current wine research questions being investigated at INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.  But more importantly, the format of the interview gives us some insight into what aspects of wine science are intriguing to the public, thus pointing out some trails to follow to better communicate wine science with the non-wine industry public.

The context, of course, is a bit particular to France, as the French public has a special relationship with wine that is unlike that of many other countries.  French culture is historically and traditionally tied up in the production and consumption of wine, so it is naturally a subject with importance to the public. The wine industry carries huge economic weight in France, being the second most important export industry after aviation.  Production is widespread and diverse, with a major impact in almost all regions of the country.  And the concept of terroir is one that is well-integrated into society, commonly referred to, if not always completely understood in its technical sense, as it is a concept that is used not only in wine, but also in discussing other food products with a fundamental tie to their birthplace.

This context must be kept in mind, but does not mean that the issues addressed in the piece are not pertinent to the public in other countries.  France is an example of a nation that takes wine very seriously, but this trend is being picked up in other regions with growing production and consumption of wine.  Thus the presence of wine science in French public media can be a model for other cultures, of ways in which we can approach scientific questions of pertinence to wine, giving us an indication of the elements of wine most intriguing to an inquisitive public thirsty for understanding and for wine.

The panel interviewed on Autour de la question included researchers from INRA in Montpellier and Colmar.  Véronique Cheynier, the research director at Monpellier whose research is focused on polyphenols, Jean-Luc Legras who studies the role of yeasts in winemaking, and Philippe Hugueney, research director at Colmar who studies primary aromas produced in different grape varieties.

The host, Caroline Lachowsky, launched the conversation with a question that I know well.  A question that intrigues me to no end and thus delighted me to hear on this show, confirming its relevance and interest : is winemaking a science or an art, or some combination of the two ?

The response picked up on a classically French element of this discussion : terroir.  Dr. Legras took the idea that a wine is an infusion of vineyard stones and defended it, at least for certain varieties, in proposing as an example the wines of Alsace, which can have entirely different profiles, even coming from a single producer who treats all of his wines equally, the only difference being the vineyard site.  What doesn’t come up until later is that this idea of minerality, of typicity of place, has not yet been linked directly to the soil.  But here he plays on the fascination aspect, the magic that is what intrigues the public about wine.  He openly admits that these differences in terroir are perceptible, but doesn’t expand on the science (or lack thereof) behind it at this point.  The panelists wait until the question is posed a bit differently, in terms of how the specificity of a soil might be injected into the wines, to clarify the state of the science on this matter.  Here Philippe Hugueney discusses the known direct influences of soil on grape quality – that soil nitrogen content impacts grape color, but that the roles of the minerals in the soil remain mysterious.  He explains that the popular term minerality has no agreed-upon definition and how this characteristic might come from the soil is still unknown (here I would add that we don’t even know whether this is the right question to be asking – there is much debate as to whether minerals in the soil even have an influence on this ‘mineral’ character, and thus we are not even yet at the point of working out how, but still at the level of if they have an impact).

Typical terroir of France's AOC Côte-Rôtie, in the northern Rhône valley

How is it, then that such an intriguing question, one of the first to be posed in this interview, in an accurate reflection of its frequency amongst wine lovers, remains unanswered?

Lachowsky later asks what types of evolution wine and wine styles have undergone over the years – if the identity of wine is changing, becoming sweeter, more or less acidic, or higher in alcohol.  Dr. Cheynier jumps to respond that the wines are certainly higher in alcohol, due to faster maturity and higher sugar levels, which are then converted through fermentation into elevated alcohol levels in the final wines.  She attributes this major shift to climate change, another hot topic in wine science as well as in the public eye.  Though a hugely important element to explore, here I think that the conversation was left isolated a bit too far into the scientific realm, as there are a host of other factors influencing the evolution of what we consider to be quality wine, or wine that consumers are interested in purchasing.  There is an element of taste, of fashion, here, that, while perhaps more fickle and trivial than climate change, is important to consider, especially when communicating with the public.   This is yet another aspect of the complexity of wine, and the complexity of understanding climate change, as we often cannot differentiate cause and effect in the race toward bigger, bolder, more powerful wines that has been occurring over the past 20-30 years.

Here is a potential disconnect between how researchers see the world – focusing on climate change as the primary factor influencing the evolution of wine styles, while consumers might be more interested to hear about the interaction between climate change and changing tastes with the introduction of new producer countries, the expansion of consumption in nations where wine-drinking was not traditionally part of the culture, et cetera.

The host was quick to pick up on the great complexity of wine science – of the distinct parts that must work together – plant physiology to understand the compounds present in the grapes, microbiology of the yeasts that produce the fermentation, and how these two interact to create the complex chemistry of finished wine.  And furthermore, the complexity of all of the environmental factors that go into making a wine – the elements of terroir : soil, climate, geography, and viticultral and winemaking techniques, the influence of pests, diseases, beneficial insects, yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that play a role in determining the final product.

This complexity, at every level, at every turn, is where we should really focus in communicating wine science.  This is what makes the system endlessly interesting, but also endlessly difficult to study.  But this is where the magic is.  And it is precisely this magic, this wonder, that is what attracts people to wine.  So to incite and interest in science in those already intrigued by wine, we can use this ‘magic’,  this complexity, to unite the two and spark passion for a new level of understanding in those who are enthralled by this fascinating beverage.

You can listen to or download the radio show (in two parts), Autour de la question (French) at the following links :

Part 1: http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20131218-1-pourquoi-le-vin-soif-recherche

Part 2 : http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20131218-2-pourquoi-le-vin-soif-recherche

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.

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(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.

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(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).

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 (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.” (sudouest.fr)

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.

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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.

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.

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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.