Samuel Hahnemann: Homeopathy and the origins of wine authentication

While only just beginning my adventures out of the wine world and back in the sphere of academia here at Cambridge, I’ve already stumbled upon an interesting connection.

Because of my longstanding and sustained interest in biodynamics, often referred to as the agricultural analog of homeopathic medicine in reference to its use of infinitesimally small ‘homeopathic’ doses of biodynamic preparations, I thought it appropriate to look at homeopathy in my first paper.  In reading up on the biography of Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathic medicine, I unearthed another of his contributions – the “Wine Test.”

Because of the prevalence of sweetening wines by illegally adding “sugar of lead” in the early 18th century, an earlier test, the “Wurtemburg Wine Test” had been in use since 1707, which allowed for the detection of adulteration of wines via chemical reaction.  However, it became clear that the test was incapable of differentiating between traces of lead from the addition of “sugar of lead” and more innocuous traces of iron, which could result from contact with metal tools or vessels (iron levels are of course closely monitored in modern wines).  Hahnemann’s contribution was thus to develop a new test that avoided the false positive resulting from iron contamination, and instead warned specifically of the presence of lead in wines.  Hahnemann’s test came to replace the Wurtemburg test as the official method for verification in Prussia.

Thus it turns out that in addition to inventing homeopathy, which was arguably an important precursor to the development of biodynamic agriculture, Samuel Hahnemann was also a pioneer in analytical chemistry for wine authentication.

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.

When one door closes…

Let us hope that the old adage holds true. After 6 months of back and forth trying to decide if I’d like to follow up my current research internship experience with a PhD in the same lab, the choice has been, at least for the moment, decided for me. The ever present financial crisis has not left its dirty little paws in the scientific coffers, either, and so the project I was considering will not be funded for the moment.

This is probably good news for this blog.

Beginning in September, I’ll be headed south, to Avignon, delicately placed on the cusp between Provence and the southern Rhone Valley. A wonderful place to be inspired, and, hopefully employed as well. While on the job-search trail, I plan to take advantage of any free time and sunshine to work on writing. For the blog but also for an upcoming book project encompassing my experiences and insights from my adventures.

One theme I hope to explore much more deeply, for the book, the blog, and perhaps professionally, is one that has been recurring on this blog : Biodynamics.  I recently read Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course, the original lecture series where he outlined this practices and philosophy.  Adding to this inspiration, last week I attended a special showing of Natural Resistance, the latest film by Jonathan Nossiter, the filmmaker behind Mondovino, followed by a debate session with Emmanuel Giboulot, the biodynamic winemaker recently tried for refusal to treat his vines for flavescence dorée, a grapevine disease carried by leafhoppers. Initially faced with 6 months in jail and a 30,000 € fine, he was found guilty and sentenced to a reduced 500 € fine. But his story created a major controversy, forcing winemakers, consumers, and hopefully lawmakers, to reconsider how such decrees to treat for certain diseases are put into action, and whether or not it is justifiable to apply nonspecific insecticides when (a) an attack is possible, but not guaranteed, and (b) the treatment’s efficacy against the disease is under question. How do we weigh the competing factors against each other, the potential losses on both sides ?

The film focused on the natural wine movement in Italy, centered around a handful of producers who make wines not accepted as part of the appellations in which they are geographically located, because they do not conform to the standards set by these official denominations. Less focused on practice than on philosophy and value-determination, the film compares winemaking to cinema : an art focused so much on the future that we often tend to lose touch with and forget the past. For cinema, to protect means to convert to digital, and the viniviticultural equivalent is to attempt to produce authentic wines speaking to their historical origins through the employment of technology. This is perhaps possible, and many would argue that digitalization can indeed help us to protect much of our artistic heritage, but the film elegantly demonstrates that this is not the only possible approach. There is a more direct route to the past than via the most cutting edge technological innovations.

WAC 2014 Recap Series: Holistic science? The study of Biodynamics

I’ve often mused about biodynamics (some examples here, here, and here), how it should be interpreted, and how it should be studied.  At WAC, two starkly different takes were presented on how it is being studied : one from the production side, and one from the commercial side.  Both of them focused on a particular factor – quality.  This is often a primary reason cited for converting to biodynamics (BD for short) amongst winemakers, but the scientific world, and many consumers, can have trouble finding any concrete reason that the esoteric practices of BD should have such a positive influence.

Georg Meissner has been studying BD practices since 2005, in what is probably the largest and most in-depth scientific study being conducted on BD (at least in Europe – let me know if there are others in other parts of the world!). He explains the long-term project as taking a “holistic” approach, which, in theory, sounds exactly like what I have often proposed as necessary to understand BD.  If we want to understand this holistic system, we will never succeed with a reductionist approach, as we would inevitably be excluding some of the variables imperative to the functioning of the multidimensional system (if indeed the explanations of BD are correct, and its functioning relies on the synchronization of all parts of the system).

But I’m not sure where we draw the line between “holistic” and simply looking at as many factors and responses as one can possibly think of.  To me, holism implies a sense of unification, a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” element, that we can’t necessarily access simply by looking at all of the variables simultaneously.  There is a missing link, that extra little edge that boosts our sum into a bigger whole, that doesn’t come so easily.  This project does the best that science can do, I believe, looking at the effect of biodynamic preparations (particularly 501), but seemingly not the more abstract aspects of BD, notably the role of the lunar calendar, on a multitude of factors: the soil, the worms residing in it, the vines, diseases, biodiversity, grapes, juice, and wine, and even the copper chloride crystallization (“sensitive crystallization” – a subject often spoken of in the same breath as Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Graham, who uses this technique in his marketing materials) patterns resulting from it. The first three years of the study were dedicated to getting an overall picture of how each of these factors is affected by different viticultural systems (BD, organic, and conventional), and since 2010 they have attempted to dive deeper. I fear only that in diving deeper they may lose sight of the holistic picture they are striving to create, in focusing, as science tends to do, on the micro-level details that tend to be seen as disconnected from the greater whole. All of this remains to be seen, but in any case I applaud this team of researchers for their dedication and effort in pursuing a subject not always appreciated in scientific circles, and attempting, within the bounds of the scientific system, to take an approach that remains true(r) to the integrated spirit of biodynamic agriculture.

BDprepsBD Preps at Weingut Hirsch in Autstria 

Giacomo Negro, a Business professor and sociologist at Emory University, presented quite a different approach to studying BD. His work focuses on the consumer perception of BD, and he proposes that BD is a “signal” of high quality.  The work is based on the concept of “collective signals” which are one of the mechanisms by which a consumer can glean information about the products available for purchase. To study this, Negro’s work compares a winery’s scores in two important wine reviews, Wine Spectator and Gault & Milau’s Le Guide des Vins de France to their chosen method of cultivation.  The work looks at a winery’s rating before and after conversion to BD, and finds in general that there is a positive correlation of quality rating, as expressed in the scores, and BD production. He also looks at price, though here I worry that too many confounding factors may be present, as it is generally accepted that BD (and organic) producers incur slightly- to highly-elevated production costs, which can also be linked to higher bottle prices.

Quite clearly a different type of study and thus one that confronts a whole host of different issues, this work also represents a way of thinking about BD.  Can we evaluate its quality (or that of any wine, for that matter) properly by a one-dimensional numeric score?  What other factors play into quality?  Does the story of a wine count as well?  I think, in BD especially, consumers are often inclined to purchase more than simply the bottle’s contents.  Their reasons for buying may have ecological, moral, even borderline spiritual (especially when it comes to BD) undertones, so perhaps further consumer perception studies on BD wines could take aspects of this complexity into account.

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.

Decantation and Incantation

Why decant a wine? Tonight’s sommelier, your favorite winemaker, that snobby wine obsessed colleague will probably all have a different explanation, from removing sediment to aerating the wine, soften tannins, to the more refined explanation reported recently Tyler Colman on wine-searcher.com (HERE) that decanting has been shown to actually reduce the concentration of organic acids and polyphenols in the wine (of which the consequences are debatable… especially given the efforts that winemakers often go through to extract those polyphenols – which also happen to include those much-hyped antioxidants – out of the grapes and into your wine). For other reasons, too, the study conducted at Shenyang School of Pharmacy is a bit controversial, as the decanting conditions required to see an effect do not necessarily correspond to what goes on at your table, as well as to the incongruency of the reaction ratios – Colman reports that Dr. Andrew Waterhouse of UC Davis is not convinced that the quantity of oxygen dissolved in the wine during decanting would be enough to react in any significant way with the tannins.

So the mystery remains open, which caused me to begin thinking about another ‘mysterious’ practice that resembles decanting in many ways – the biodynamic method of dynamization.

Dynamization involves the mixing of the liquid containing biodynamic preparations in a very particular fashion – first with stirring in one direction to create a vortex, and then rapidly and suddenly changing direction in order to create what is referred to as a chaotic flow. This technique builds upon the principle that water is capable of absorbing and retaining information in various forms, and then behaves accordingly when it comes in contact with living beings.  For example, a simple experiment involving three jars of cooked rice covered in water has been described, where you close each jar while thinking of a particular word, and write the word on the outside of the jar, for example love, hate, and joy.  The jars are left and the rate and nature of the rotting process that ensues corresponds to the words on the jars (full disclosure : I have not done this but have seen images of the results. I would like to try). Thus the dynamisation of biodynamic preparations is meant to help the water to absorb and integrate the information stored in the preparation – whether it be compost, a “tea” made from plants with particular properties, or quartz.

Could decanting have a similar effect on wine? Could the water in wine actually be absorbing some type of information from the process, that gives decanting the ability to change the wine more than it “should” be able to, given the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed during the process?  What would happen if you decanted a wine while sending it good vibes? Could you make that Yellowtail taste a bit more like a Lafite (I don’t really think so…)?

It might sound a bit outside of the bottle, but looking at the science, I don’t yet see an explanation with a whole lot more backing. This is all about being open-minded when you open that bottle.

Thanks Tyler Colman! http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2013/08/decanting-what-makes-it-work