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.

A Baltic Love Story: The Intrigue of 170-year-old Shipwrecked Champagne

The internet is bursting with news of champagne: the BBC1, Fox2, NBC3, Discovery News4, Science5, Nature6, Popular Science7, Smithsonian Magazine8 (who published the most complete summary I’ve seen), and many more are all bubbling with excitement over the discovery of 170-year-old champagne bottles shipwrecked in the Baltic Sea.  Granted, the discovery itself dates back to 2010, but has been brought to the attention of the masses as a result of an article published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS)9. I had the pleasure to be a coauthor on this paper, and am thus that much more thrilled to see the media excitement surrounding its publication. But my attention is particularly piqued by the manner in which the science journalists and the twittersphere are talking about the article, as it gives a clear view of what the public finds most interesting about the discovery.  This public perception of science is always a topic of interest to me, but here I have the particular privilege of being an insider, and thus comparing the public reaction to that of the scientists who worked on the paper.

Such a discovery, of 168 bottles of label-less champagne bottles dating from the first half of the 19th century, is one that intrigues and excites.  The article begins in language uncharacteristically enthusiastic for a scientific article: “Discovering ancient objects from excavation sites or simply at the back of a cellar has always piqued human interest because of the messages from the past they may contain. Unsurprisingly, our interest increases even more when exhuming old bottles or even jars that seem to have contained grapes or wine, giving a glimpse into the little-known history of winemaking.” Clearly (and I can attest to this), the scientists were intrigued by this project for reasons that go beyond the scientific value of the study – here is a case where one of the fundamental motivations for a research project is simple curiosity and wonderment. This is, after all, one of the most essential wonders of wine itself – its ability to transport us in time and place, whether that be to the year of its production, a memory of a candlelit evening where a particular wine was first tasted, or to the vineyard itself. So this study does lend itself particularly well to popular interest, and indeed, the public has weighed in, expressing their curiosity as to what such an old champagne, aged in such particular conditions must taste like.

The study includes, of course, a sensory analysis, and thus can answer this most pressing question that the media poses. At first whiff (known as the “first nose” in French, smelled before swirling the glass and thus oxygenating the wine), the expert sensory panel remarked odors resembling cheese, animal notes, and wet hair or fur, none of which are particularly surprising given the oxygen deprived environment that these champagnes were aged in (during normal storage, a small amount of oxygen, does diffuse through the cork over long periods of time, but underwater, it was, in fact, the carbon dioxide responsible for champagne’s signature bubbles that diffused out of the bottles, leaving behind a ‘flat’ champagne with only a bit of tingly, prickly sensation in the mouth). After swirling a bit to expose the wine to oxygen, the predominant aromas shifted to far more appetizing “grilled, spicy, smoky, and leathery” as well as the more expected floral and fruit notes. All of these sensory impressions were corroborated by the detection of corresponding aroma molecules using advanced chemical analysis methods.

Despite the inherent intrigue of the champagnes’ organoleptic profile, the paper’s discussion goes far beyond sensory analysis, delving into the domain of “archaeochemistry,” or the use of chemical evidence to unravel the archaeological mysteries of this shipwrecked champagne found in the Baltic Sea. Evidence such as the content of sugar, alcohol, metal ions, salts, and wood-derived compounds were all analyzed with an eye to reconstructing of the methods employed in making these wines, and these results even give insight into the viticultural practices and the probable intended destination of the bottles. This careful detective work is of great interest to the chemically-, enologically-, historically- or archaeologically-minded, but it appears that the question of these wines taste remains the issue that most profoundly captivates the public.

1 http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32388123

2 http://www.foxnews.com/science/2015/04/22/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-from-bottom-sea/

3 http://www.nbcnews.com/science/weird-science/shipwrecks-170-year-old-veuve-clicquot-reveals-champagne-history-n345176

4 http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/shipwrecked-champagne-leathery-still-pretty-good-150420.htm

5 http://news.sciencemag.org/chemistry/2015/04/what-does-170-year-old-champagne-taste

6 http://www.nature.com/news/cheesy-metallic-sweet-170-year-old-champagne-is-clue-to-winemaking-s-past-1.17361

7 http://www.popsci.com/popping-cork-170-year-old-shipwrecked-champagne

8 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-and-tasted-baltic-shipwreck-180955050/

9 A PDF of the original article is available here on the University of Reims’ website.

The Magic of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

It was a lucky break. Thanks to their collaboration with the lab where I did my master’s thesis (see their most recent publication in PLOS One here) , I was recently invited to visit the world renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (known in the industry as DRC) in Burgundy. This winery, famous for its eponymous Romanée-Conti wine, which comes from grapes grown in the small (1,8140 ha) vineyard (“climat”) of the same name in the village of Vosne-Romanée. This wine is one of the most cherished in the world, and comes with a pricetag that is accordingly extravagant (NPR ran a story just a couple of days ago about a book written about a 2010 plot to blackmail the winery).

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DRC courtyard in Vosne-Romanée with its vineyard backdrop.

The history of this famed winery began around the year 900 AD, with the founding of the priory of Saint-Vivant, which acquired the vineyards of Romanée-Conti in 1131. The monastery controlled the vines until 1584, when the land was purchased by Claude Cousin, the first in a long line of family-owners of this property (only 2 different families in 430 years), which continues today with Aubert de Villaine, and his nephew, Bertrand, our guide this morning, incredibly generous with both his knowledge and his wine.

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Bertrand de Villaine explains how the Corton is blended from three different parcels.

He led us into their recently expanded cellars, where he led us through a barrel tasting of the 2013 red wines from each of their 7 red appellations : Corton, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux, Romanée-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. Each of them were phenomenal, still very young, of course (some just finishing or having just finished malolactic fermentation), but a wine cannot age well if it doesn’t begin with all of the fundamentals in place. This was a concept that I knew well, but did not understand on a visceral level until I tasted these wines. Each one different from the others, they were all unique and fabulous in their own way, each characterized by its particular magnificent balance. Bertrand explained that they assure this balance by waiting until the grapes are perfectly ripe before harvesting. Their neighbors might be out harvesting a few days, even a few weeks before this moment of perfection for fear of losing yield due to an upcoming rainstorm, for instance, but DRC will wait, no matter what. Of course with the prices of their wines, they are in a better position to take this risk than many producers, but it is a major risk none the less and results in a relatively high variability in the quantity of wine that they produce, but with an incredible consistency in the quality, which is, without fail, exceptional.

DSC_0238Barrel of 2013 Romanée-Conti 

Each of the 7 wines had its particular personality, all of them like someone you hit it off with right off the bat. But it is true that the Romanée-Conti is the one you fall in love with at first sight. Not in a stunningly-gorgeous-knock-your-socks-off-from-across-the-room kind of way (though maybe with a few years of maturity she becomes so), but in a far more subtle, delicate way. Such that your first sip seems so incredibly satisfying, but then trails off leaving hints of so much more to be discovered, and so you find yourself chasing her, praying, begging for her to reveal just a bit more. And she keeps tempting you in this way until your glass is empty, but you are not angry that she’s gone, but rather you have never felt more content in your life.

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Bottle storage of 2011 Romanée-Conti and La Tâche

In the bottle cellar we were introduced to another incredible beauty, this one a blond. Bertrand served us a 2007 Bâtard-Montrachet chardonnay, the only wine they make that is not sold (they do sell one white wine, a Montrachet), as they produce only 1-2 barrels (300-600 bottles) each year that are used exclusively for private tastings, special events, and the family’s personal consumption. It was glorious. I will not even attempt to describe this wine because words will not do it proper justice. I must simply counsel you to pray to someday have the chance to encounter such a bottle, as I have done thanks to the generosity and scientific curiosity of Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine.

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2007 Bâtard-Montrachet

I took 5 pages of notes during the visit, wanting to absorb everything that Bertrand told us, not miss a single detail. But I know, and I knew as I was doing so, that there is no secret recipe. I could tell you that they use 100% new, untoasted oak barrels. I could tell you that for the Romanée-Conti and a part of Richebourg and Montrachet they use a plow horse, named Mickey, to work in the vines. And that alternatively, they have a custom-built tractor that is the weight of a horse in order to avoid undo pressure on the soil and root systems. You could probably replicate their work exactly, but I fear that it would be in vain. There is something special, magical about this place. This is the indefinable in the world of wine. The sum that is greater than its parts*. There is an element here that no one can explain it, and I hope that no one tries. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves be captivated.

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Barrel cellar at DRC

*Yes, for the record, because I am sure that you are wondering, for me personally the prices paid for these bottles far exceed even the whole that exceeds the sum of the parts, but such is a luxury economy, and we must just be happy to embrace the rare opportunity to savor these wines in another context that does not involve thousands and thousands of dollars of expense, as I was so lucky to do here.

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.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape and environs

Enjoy these photos from a recent visit to the south of France: the southern Rhône, Avignon and some of the gorgeous hill towns of Provence.

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The Papal Palace in Avignon

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View from Les Baux-de-Provence

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The Vineyards and Scenery as seen from the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

 

 

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The eponymous Châteauneuf… du-Pape.

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Châteuneuf-du-Pape vineyards, with the characteristic river stones, known as “galets”.

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The Ancient Theater of Orange, still used for shows today.

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Gordes

WAC 2014 Recap Series : Legislation and the definition of wine’s “natural state”

How much does legislation influence our perception of what a product should be?  Wine represents a particularly fine example of this surreptitious legal sway over our intellect, particularly in France, where its production has been closely regulated since the end of the 19th century.

The evolution of this legislation was the subject of a presentation at WAC 2014 by Alain Chatelet, of the DFCCRF (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes – General council on competition, consumption and the repression of fraud).

The story begins in 1889, when the French “Griffe law” defined wine as a product of the fermentation of fresh grapes, and nothing else.  Good ol’ strawberry wine?  Not so fast – if it is made from strawberries, it is, by definition, not a wine, at least under French jurisdiction.  A few years later, a French law banned any practices that served to modify the “natural state” of a wine.  The intention here was not to establish some early grain of the natural wine movement, but rather to protect the consumer against fraud.  At the time, all products that strayed from the most straightforward fermented grape juice could be, and probably were, the result of an attempt to cheat and swindle the buyer into buying something [cheaper] that wasn’t really “wine.”  The only practices that were allowed, were coupage (blending with a different wine to ameliorate the quality), freezing or partial freezing of grapes, pasteurization, chaptalization (addition of sugar to the must to increase the alcoholic degree in the final wine), fining, and the addition of cultured yeasts, tannins, plaster (since outlawed), or sulfur dioxide.  Acidification of must using tartaric acid was allowed, but the acidification of final wines was strictly prohibited.  Why the distinction?  In part because the practice of adding acid directly to wines was seen as overly articficial (indeed, a transformation of the acid occurs with the microbial activity of fermentation, and acidified wines are much easier to pick out than wines that were made from acidified musts).  But more importantly, this rule was a protection against an increasingly globalized economy.  By eliminating the recourse to wine acidification, the French government was effectively preventing the possibility of a southward expansion of the wine industry, because grapes couldn’t be planted where it was too hot if they were to avoid producing wines severely lacking in acidity.

Thus the initial regulation of oenological practices was based on two underlying objectives: to protect consumers from fraud and to protect the established French wine industry from competition by new growing regions.  The goal of winemaking was to produce a drinkable, sellable product, but the technology was more limited than it is today, thus leaving few choices when it came to oenological practices. But the law still shaped how people defined what could and could not be considered “wine,” a trend that continues to our present day.

When the laws governing winemaking within the European Community were first created in 1978, they picked up the same principle of the law passed in 1907 – that winemaking practices should preserve a wine’s “natural state.” A few more products were added to the “safe” list, in accordance with technological developments of the time, but in general the rules of the game didn’t change.

But in the 30 years that followed, not only did the rules change, the underlying principle also evolved to fit the new drivers in the industry present by 2008.  Now, the EU stressed the imperative of preserving the “essential and natural” characteristics of a wine.  This leaves us with not one but two ambiguous terms in the definition, leaving the interpretation and application of this principle rather nebulous. A 2009 modification authorized 50 oenological practices in the European Community (click here to download the full document: Commission Regulation (EC) No.  606/2009). 15 of these are additives, and will soon be required to be marked on labels as such, and the remainder are “oenological techniques,” which do not have to be indicated.  But there are 80 products that have been in discussion since 1999, and these products have yet to be pegged as “additives” or not, highlighting the delicate nature of defining what “belongs” in a wine (even if it is a conventional wine). Of particular interest are products that could be potential allergens, for example those that containing milk, eggs or gluten, which have been an important focus of labeling laws across the globe in recent years.

Thus we see, in this brief legislative timeline, the evolution of the legal definitions of wine and what is considered appropriate oenological practice. The natural wine debates aside, this history accentuates the more fundamental discussion about what should be allowed to go into a wine at all, and where we draw the lines between the “essential” nature of a wine and an artificial wine-like concoction.  The labeling solution is an interesting one, as it allows for a fudge-factor.  The government is going to decide what can be added to wines to maintain its “essential and natural” characteristics, but the labeling of approved additives allows the consumer to decide for himself if he is willing to accept the EU definition of a “real” wine.  If he feels that certain additives cause a wine to stray too far from its native state, he can choose to avoid wines that contain them. Whether or not consumers are willing to play such an active role in defining the nature of wine remains, of course, to be seen.

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.