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 : 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.

Psychologist Anthony Saliba of Charles Sturt University in Australia 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.

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.