The Vine’s Ode to Winter

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Winter is a time for turning inwards.  Pulling all of our resources inside ourselves. Devoting ourselves to ourselves.

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Covering up and snuggling together against the harsh cold outside.

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We collect the richness we need, hoarding what is necessary…

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…but all the while trimming the excess out of our lives to make room for the new.

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Let us celebrate the season by turning our gaze within…

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…but never losing track of the beauty that surrounds us.

DSC_0142Let us live winter like the grapevine. 

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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.

Confessions of a [wine] geek*

*first and foremost – credit to confessionsofawinegeek.com for the name of this post – though I admit I found your site after wanting to use the title, but having a sneaking suspicion that this phrase was already being used by some creative blogger…

I have a confession to make.

I love science.  In a wine chemistry course this week (with Dr. Susan Ebeler of UC Davis), I was shaking with excitement simply to be talking about mass spectrometers and chemical structures and functional groups after such a long time. I am a huge geek.

I have an insatiable craving to play with numbers and formulas.

The issue here, the recent focus of my blog, is not, and has never been in any way counter to that.  It is to elucidate the aspects of science that frustrate me the most. The “unexplainable” that is off-handedly dismissed, the inapplicability of a carefully controlled experiment to the real world, the lack of rigor of a poorly controlled experiment, the public (read: media) interpretations of a single experiment that lead to sweeping generalizations, panic, elation, or, simply, fads.

These frustrations are often enhanced in the wine world – wine scientists are often funded by industry and thus looking for solutions, for quick fixes, that don’t necessarily reflect the complexity of the system.

-Wine is not a simple liquid, but a complex mixture made from a complex process involving physical, chemical, and biological changes.  You make one quick fix and you destabilize the equilibrium of the system, initiating a domino-effect with often unpredictable repercussions.-

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(HPLC instrument for separating nonvolatile compounds in wine – Vitec, Spain)

-Sensory science tries to break up a complex system into its component parts, which do not necessarily have the same impact individually.  The perception of mixtures is often not a sum of its parts, complicating a discipline already confounded by individual physiological differences and experimental obstacles.-

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(Sensory analysis laboratory – Vitec, Spain)

-Wine and health is an incredibly controversial subject, due to methodological differences between studies on the subject, generalized application of epidemiological studies that don’t always take into account confounding factors and individual variability. And even if the authors of the study are careful (not always the case) in their wording, relying on the subtlety of language to avoid suggesting that a correlation indicates a causal relationship, it is almost sure that someone will race to proclaim the life saving (or noxious – depending on the study) properties of drinking a ‘moderate’ amount of wine (which is how much, anyways?).-

Clearly, as we begin to probe more complex systems such as wine, to pose more complex questions, the methodology of investigation needs a major overhaul.  This is at the heart of what I’m looking for. We need a multivariate system.  A holistic approach that doesn’t sacrifice rigor.

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.

Inspirational moment: Phenomenological Chemistry

Yes, I am aware of the fact that I’ve been conspicuously absent of late. And all of my best excuses – I was on a study trip, I’ve started a new internship… are blatantly inadequate given that they would make perfect blog entry subjects.  The plan is to get around to it, just as soon as I’m feeling inspired.Well I think I may have just fallen into a delicious pool of sparkly, inspiration-laden goodness.  My boss (a consultant in organic and biodynamic viticulture and enology at the Coordination Agrobiologique des Pays de la Loire) handed me a book the other day to check out – Fundamentals for a Phenomenological Study of Chemistry by Waldorf School teacher Fritz Julius. Here’s the first paragraph of the introduction (translated by me from French, as I’m reading the French version) :

The current form of chemistry is not the only one conceivable.  On the contrary, other forms have existed that also led to discoveries and important concepts, and, no doubt, all new forms that followed.  We can even say that the manner in which chemistry is practiced today, as grandiose as its results can be, is still exclusive and limiting.

When we have understood this, we can look for a new route that leads to other considerations and conceptions of the world of substances, and that simultaneously demand that we structure our courses differently.

I have not yet read farther but thought already that the ties between his thoughts here and those running through my head lately merited positing it immediately.  Further reflections (and hopefully some photos of Italy, Hungary, and Switzerland !) to follow shortly.