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.

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.

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.

Learning by heart : Knowledge transmission and the modification of terroir

How is knowledge constructed in winemaking?  How is this knowledge transmitted across the network of winemakers? By winding through a web? Or sliding down a chain? Are the intricacies of winemaking and grape growing best learned in a classroom or by apprenticeship and hands-on experience?

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Today’s winemakers, especially in Europe, are faced with the consequences of this question.  There has been a revolution in winemaking education, not a new one, but one that has slowly but surely converted family-owned wineries from educational institutions for the younger generations, into places of reception for the pre-trained.  More and more young winemakers who want to follow in the wine-laden tracks of their parents and grandparents, are heading off to universities and technical schools, and then often to far off lands (frequently in the New World) to gain harvest experience and bring back a fresh perspective for the family business.

This raises some questions, the answers to which could be different for each winery, but which could certainly be related to the type of knowledge transmission employed :

  • How much of an impact does education outside of the family winery have on the identity of the wines produced?
  • What technologies and innovations are easily accepted into the framework of the traditional family operation, and which are rejected?
  • Can this type of external exposure change the marketing approach of the winery, perhaps toward a strategy more effected in the New World markets?

But a more subtle aspect of this alteration in how winemakers learn their craft is broached by anthropologist Rachel Black in the following excerpt from her article, Wine Memory.  She considers the transmission of sensory knowledge – how winemakers learn to identify and replicate certain characteristics in the aroma and flavor profiles of the wines themselves :

 …oenology schools from UC Davis to Bordeaux all have cellars that are used for teaching students about what different and old wines taste and smell like. What is missing in this pedagogical context are the generational conversations that often bridge the temporal and technological divides. Comparing the learning that goes on at oenology and viticulture schools to apprenticeship practices in small family wineries demonstrates how taste memory is connected to familial setting where intergenerational discussion and cumulative knowledge are directly implicated in production. The social nature of knowledge production is critical here (Herzfeld 2004). The family winery is tied to Pierre Nora’s idea of milieu de mémoire, a “real environment[s] of memory” (1998, 7). The environments of memory that Nora speaks of are deeply imbedded in peasant life. In this cultural context, winemaking is a repository of collective memory that implicates the senses in the embodied act of remembering. The modern winemaking school offers lieux de mémoire (places of memory): “a turning point where the consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn—but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory…” (Nora 1998, 7). The embodiment of winemaking memory in the case of the school setting is only explored through the sensory experience of old wine; it is disassociated from the embodied apprenticeship of winemaking and the historical narrative that takes place between generations of winemakers.

Thus Black suggests that the disconnect from the lineage of knowledge production and sharing could create a corresponding disconnect in the characteristics of a wine.  If the winemaking practices change, and the profile of the wine changes, does this mean that the education shift has actually changed the terroir* ?

Would love to hear your thoughts. #ThroughTheGrapevine

*Here employing (as I always will) the cultural definition of terroir, which includes the influence of the winemaker and his practices

**Please read Rachel Black‘s full article, here : http://sensatejournal.com/2012/06/rachel-black-wine-memory

Crossroads : How can a decision break down a wall instead of closing a door?

I’m currently internship-hunting, soliciting offers for my 6 month internship/master’s thesis that will be the capstone project for my Master International Vintage.

Interestingly (or rather, completely normally, given how in my effort to bridge them, I tend to straddle two worlds – that of science and that of, well, not science), I am looking at two potential options (nothing confirmed, nothing concrete yet, so the descriptions will remain relatively vague for the moment).

Of offer I’ve received could be perfect.  Indeed it was designed with my interests in mind. It would be about biodynamics, in a with aspects both technical and social, looking at how to create protocols for particular indices (some already used in  winemaking, others not) in biodynamic grape growing and wine making (biodynamic winemaking, keep in mind, being a loose concept, since the messiah of biodynamics, Rudolph Steiner, believed that we shouldn’t even consume alcohol). Simultaneously, the project would look at how winemakers themselves go about making decisions – the role of their sense of observation and connection with their land.

The other potential option on my table is in a lab. But the circumstances would also be unique.  It would be with a wine chemist that I’ve identified for his rigorous science that takes a novel approach, a more “holistic”, at least in intention (and the intention is strong – he was more than open to all of my off-beat perspectives and frustrations about science, which to me is a very good sign), approach that is analogous to systems biology. I see it as at least one step in the right direction for studying the complex system that is wine.  Looking at it a bit more like a biological or environmental system, rather than a static structure where each component doesn’t impact the other.

That’s what intrigues me to want to participate and be able to judge for myself.

Because that’s been what’s buzzing around in my head lately. If I want to critique, to alter and reform science (on whatever microscale I might be capable of), maybe I need to go a bit further within the system first.

I was afraid that being within would suck me back in, blind me to its limitations. But I think the trick would be working in an atmosphere of exchange.

This seems to be that opportunity.

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(hand-built stone wall in Swiss vineyard, Aigle, Switzerland)

But it is going to be a tough decision.

Because as much as I think it is ridiculous, science has its wall around it.  And this decision will put me on one side of the wall or the other.  Until I can break it down.

Terroir : The Dirty Word of Wine

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I recently blogged about wine and science, and mentioned the difficulty of terroir as a concept, given its vast array of nuances and effective unstranslatability out of the French language.

But its just dirt, right?  … If only it were that simple.

As part of my masters program we spent two months studying nothing but the subject, and even then we only scratched the surface.  To give an idea of the complexity of the concept, our courses throughout the unit included those in geology, sociology, administration/law, geography, landscape analysis, and sensory analysis.

We had lectures and field trips, all to grind into us that terroir is an all-encompassing concept that includes everything from the underlying geology, the soil, the climate (at multiple scales – macro-, meso-, and micro-), to the ‘savoir-faire’ or know-how of the producers, and the collective social network in a region.

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But is it a concept that will ever really become fully embraced in the New World countries ?  Sure there are plenty of viticulturalists around the world who adhere to the concept, could even be considered die-hards who devote their work (and often, therefore, their lives) to expressing the terroir in their wines.  And then there are even more wineries who hype the concept of terroir as a marketing tool, hoping that this catch-phrase will help sell their wine, but not necessarily embracing the concept at its fullest.   I’ve found this to be a potential barrier between French and non-French wine pros, as the French are so indoctrinated with terroir that the idea that this concept just doesn’t exist in many winemaking cultures is simply incomprehensible.  The French (many of them, at least, and a select few outside of France as well, of course!) want to valorize their terroir, but in labeling any old wine as terroir-driven, many new world producers aren’t helping to define the concept amongst consumers.  How do we solve this dilemma?  Is it possible to have real terroir-driven wines in places where there isn’t a history of wine production?  Its certain that anywhere where the land hasn’t been too badly destroyed the geological/pedological components of terroir exist, but is that enough?  How do we judge the relative importance of the different components – the soil, the climate, the people?  Posing these questions begins to shed some light onto why scientific studies looking at the ‘terroir effect’ have such limited applicability – the concept is too complex to study with a traditional, reductive scientific approach.  So we need a new method.  Or… do we let it remain the seductive mystery that it is?
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