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.

WAC 2014 Recap Series : The complexity of complexity

Complexity. Such power wrapped up in a single word. Describing a wine as complex effectively puts a big red flag on a wine review, signaling to readers a level of quality and sophistication that cannot be indicated by any other single term.

To add a bit of philosophy to the WAC 2014 mix, Professor Barry C. Smith, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses (CenSes) at the University of London’s Institute of Philosophy, and author of Questions of Taste, presented his ideas on this often-elusive concept.

Smith asks what, exactly, we refer to when we speak of complexity. He breaks it down into two components : perceptual complexity and hedonic complexity.

Perceptual complexity is multifaceted in itself.  What sensory phenomena are we coding for when we use the word complex?  How is complexity manifested from a sensorial perspective?  First, complexity could be a result of a multisensory experience – an engagement of multiple senses simultaneously.  This, however, seems only somewhat relevant in a wine, as all wines are going to stimulate the same senses (though the setting in which a wine is tasted could certainly play a role here, as discussed in another post in this series). It turns out that the perception of complexity is not correlated with the number of components, but it is rather a sense of harmony and balance that counts.  This is not surprising – anyone who has tasted a wine where the oak is poorly integrated can attest to this.   It is not simply the sum of a multitude of component flavors that will render a wine memorable.  No, wine-derived pleasure lies is the integration of these components – the “greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts” phenomenon. Part of the “magic formula” of wine complexity could be related to the dynamic quality of the sensory experience. The order in which a series of components are perceived has an influence on our impression of complexity, so it is possible that the nature of the components in creating a sense of balance is less important than the order these components are presented in.

This idea of balance brings to mind a concept that I recently learned about in reading an old NYTimes Mag piece about junk food.  “Sensory-specific satiety.”  This is the basis for the recipes in products such as Coca-cola and Doritos, that a balance of flavors causes us to want to eat more.  The phenomenon results from the fact that dominating flavors cause our brains send out signals of satiety, but a delicate balance where no individual flavor stands out is able to fly below our brains’ radar, allowing us to continue eating ad infinitum. It seems logical that the same concept would apply to wines, and that a proper balance where no aroma or flavor monopolizes the mix keeps our interest piqued, positively influencing our perception of quality.

The second aspect of complexity, according to Smith, is hedonic complexity.  A non-complex wine might be likable, but only a complex wine is capable of arousing our emotions. The enhanced pleasure of this experience may be linked to the presence, in small doses, of what is otherwise a highly unpleasant aroma. We don’t yet know how much of this is simply a matter of certain compounds that are perceived differently at different concentrations (take the compound sotolon as an example – in low concentrations it smells of caramel or maple syrup, but at higher doses it gives you the impression that someone sprinkled curry powder directly in your glass) and how much is due to the power of contrast.  But in any case, the power of small doses of certain aromas and flavors to change the entire profile of a wine is a hugely important consideration in blending.  This is why many wines contain miniscule percentages of different varieties.  It may seem like 3% of Cabernet Franc would have no impact in that Bordeaux you’re drinking, but it’s a bit like adding a pinch of salt – a little bit of certain flavors helps to bring out and enhance others in a way not yet entirely explainable by either wine chemists or sensory scientists.

Who knew that complexity was so…well… complex ?  It takes the mind of a philosopher to wrap your head around it.

WAC 2014 Recap Series : Sensory science, in its own right

            Sensory science is one of the most delicate areas of wine science, as the sensory mechanisms are only beginning to be understood, and questions of subjectivity abound.

At WAC 2014, Wendy Parr of Lincoln University in New Zealand launched the sensory session with a provocative introduction. She asserted that sensory science takes on two major identities in wine science, first as a sort of “nexus” linking culture, psychology, oenology and viticulture, where it plays a “collaborative” or supplementary role in projects aiming to understand the effects of different winemaking or grape growing practices. The second face of sensory science is as a discipline in its own right.  A discipline based in psychology that “makes the role of the perceiver explicit.” When seen in this way, she argues, sensory science can allow for the integration of psychological phenomena to understand individual differences between tasters or the impact of context – the order the wines are presented, the background noise in a room, even the mood of the taster herself when evaluating a wine.  In the collaborative approach of sensory science, these individual and contextual variables are seen as sources of error, and thus researches strive to “eliminate” and “control” them at all costs.  Costs that, in some cases, can be extreme, resulting in conditions so far removed from reality that the study results are near-meaningless in the real world. Thus more research in the second sense, with sensory science being done for the sake of sensory science, could help us to understand physiological differences between individuals and the impact of contextual factors, which ultimately might make our wine science more relevant.

Anthony Saliba of Charles Sturt University in Australia, a self-proclaimed “wine psychologist”, picked up on this theme of contextual and individual factors, elucidating the nature of these sources of “error” with a series of examples.  He discussed how humans are much more influencible than we tend to think. This influence could come from within, with physiological phenomena, or from the exterior – contextual cues that change our perception without us even realizing it.

For example, individual variation in sensory thresholds (the minimum concentration of a substance for it to be perceptible) is a physiological constant – humans cannot be trained to smell a substance at a concentration lower than their individual threshold level.  Optical and auditory illusions, such as a musical scale that seems to continuously go up or down, demonstrate the fallibility of our senses.  Yet it is these same senses, limited by physiological factors, that hold us so tightly at their mercy.

Continuing with the theme of sensory tricks, neuroscientist Gil Morrot from the University of Montpellier described a study in which the best sommeliers of France were able to blindly identify the region of origin of Bordeaux or Burgundy wines in only about 50% of cases. If even these experts can be tricked, clearly our physiological limitations are inhibitory. Moreover, he discussed the important influence of wine color on our perception.  Our descriptions and differentiations of wines are principally based on a color-based dichotomy, but we know that we can so easily trick tasters into mixing up red and white wines when they can’t see the color. It turns out that unlike sight or hearing, which each activate a specific region of the brain, olfaction causes a global activation – activating parts of the brain normally responsible for the other senses.  Thus we cannot smell properly without seeing, explaining the close link between color and sensory perception in wines.

All this taken into account strongly supports Wendy Parr’s call for sensory science to be practiced as a “real” science in its own right. The understanding of such sensory phenomena can allow us to delve deeper into our sensory studies, hopefully developing methods that can take into account individual variation and contextual influences, rather than simply eliminating them. Thus we can begin to foster a more holistic approach to sensory science, rather than cutting out factors that could turn out to be detrimental to the applicability of the results.

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

2014-03-26 12.22.33

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.


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.

DWCC 2013 Highlights

After my incredible opportunity to attend the 2013 Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Logroño, Rioja, Spain, I had too many great exchanges and experiences to capture them all. I’m still catching my breath a bit from a whirlwind October filled with DWCC, visits to wineries all over the west of Spain, a trip to Dijon to settle up my internship plans, a half-marathon,and some personal excitement of family and loved ones visiting, but in the meantime, here are some photo highlights of the DWCC, for a glimpse into the life of a wine blogger :

The first event was hosted by Dinastia Vivanco, who invited us to the winery for a tour, lunch, and visit to their incredible museum, which houses artifacts collected by Pedro Vivanco Paracuello.  I was impressed by the variety of artifacts and the quality of the displays and curation- would have loved to have a bit more time to explore, but this was the beginning of a rapid-fire weekend! And I can’t complain too much, as although the visit was quick, it also included tastings of their wines in each of the 5 sections of the museum (each devoted to a distinct aspect of wine and culture – from its origins to artifacts related to opening, serving and drinking the final product).

View of the village of Briones from Dinastia Vivanco vineyardsView of the village of Briones from the vineyards of Dinastia Vivanco

Densitometers_Dinastia_Vivanco_MuseumDensitometers in Dinastia Vivanco Museum

ancient_amphore_dinastia_vivancoOne of the oldest pieces in the Dinastia Vivanco Museum

Back at the Rioja Forum in Logroño, the fabulous venue for the conference, we rarely saw a moment with our glasses half empty.  The tastings that were organized were impressive and varied, and a great opportunity to quickly get a taste of the wines from Rioja, Iberia, and beyond.

aged_riojas_DWCC13Aged Riojas tasting, including Riojas of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ styles dating from 1970-2001.

1959_Vina_Soledad_DWCC13The surprise finish to the Riojas tasting – a 1959 Viña Soledad Rioja white – a spectacular discovery (that was apparently served to President Eisenhower on a visit to Rioja)! Maintains great mouthfeel – round but wide awake, with slight nuttiness of aged wine on finish.

IMG_0623 Ancient Colheitas tasting – my favorite tasting of the conference – Colehita Ports from Kopke from 1983, 1974, 1966, 1957 and the 1940 special edition. 

2013-10-25 13.49.30-1More port. Couldn’t get enough.

Kopke_1940_colheita_special_editionPackaging of the 1940 special edition. Amazing. The others were also great but this was perfectly balanced, with a bit of peaty spiciness, caramel-drizzled pineapple. I wrote in my tasting notes “When I drink these wines I feel like I am drinking history.”

vermouth_mixingA mix-your-own Vermouth tasting.  Very interesting insight into a beverage I knew almost nothing about. And we got to keep the ingredients (base wine – sweet fortified Muscat, and aromas – bitter orange, sweet orange, chinchona bark, gentian, and cinnamon) 

IMG_0629Grand tasting of native Iberian varieties led by two of the three authors of Wine Grapes (winegrapes.org) Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz (Jancis Robinson was not present in person, though did make a video appearance to announce the location of next year’s conference – in Montreux, Switzerland!)

Not all of the sessions involved tastings however.  Some were even a bit tense, such as the keynote session that paired up scientifically-minded entrepreneur Clark Smith (most recently talked about for his book Postmodern Winemaking – postmodernwinemaking.com but also for his wine-score prediction company Enologix – enologix.com ) and  Finnish wine personality Arto Koskelo ( koskeloonwine.com ) in what was meant to be a bit of a head-to-head.  I am saving my commentary on the matter for a separate post.  Expect it soon.

Sunday was filled with visits to various wineries.  My tour went to Bodegas Bilbainas (bodegasbilbainas.com) and Bodegas Palacio (bodegaspalacio.com).

bodegas_bilbainasBodegas Bilbainas Winery

cobwebs_bilbainas ancient_vat_bilbainasImages from the ancient cellar at Bodegas Bilbainas

Bodegas_Palacio_murals Palacio_mural_tank_doorOld Cement tanks painted with murals at Bodegas Palacio

ancient_cellar_palacioAncient cellar at Bodegas Palacio

Cosme_Palacio_verticalVertical tasting of signature wine Cosme Palacio (one of first to be produced in “New Rioja” style with the 1986 vintage – with council from Michel Rolland at the beginning – using new French oak barrels, long macerations to assure full extraction of color) with winemaker and marketing manager. We tasted the 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010 vintages.

Glorioso_Gran_Reserva_1978_Bodegas_PalacioLunch was served with Palacio’s other wines, including their entry-level Milleflores (carbonic maceration), a wonderful white called Cosme Palacio 1894 made from barrel-fermented Viura (the Rioja name for what is called Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) and Malvasia, the Glorioso Reserva 2008, and this, the Glorioso Reserva 1978, still potent with alcohol, spices, and red fruits. 1978 was one of the exceptional vintages of the 1970s, and happens to be the current winemaker’s birth year as well. 

To finish, some glorious views from the town of Laguardia :





Rioja, Here I Come!!

Newsflash!!! Just found out that I’ve been awarded the EWBC Scholarship to attend the European Wine Bloggers Convention/Digital Wine Communications Conference on **flavour**in Rioja, Spain at the end of October!!!! So honored to have this opportunity to meet some of the greatest minds in wine communication, exchange ideas, and of course soak in the views and wines of this amazing region!  Thanks to everyone involved and HELLO! to all the new friends and colleagues that I’ll be meeting very soon!



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