The End: A New Beginning

I’ve now been back in the US for about a month, but I’m  actually writing this from the international terminal of the Chicago airport, where I await a flight back to France.  As one chapter ends, another begins. I’m headed to start the Vintage Master program in Angers, France (for the first semester, then I’ll move to Piacenza, Italy and then Valencia, Spain, and finish with a masters thesis project somewhere in the world).  It was a whirlwind last few weeks of the Watson year, followed by an incredible returning fellows conference, and a couple of weeks to get everything prepared to head back out again.  But I wanted to share my final report to the Watson Foundation here.

Providence and Planning: Lessons from a Watson Year

“That which you manifest is before you.”[1]

Though originally a bit of an afterthought, it felt almost providential[2] to be standing in the dimly lit cellar at Weingut Hirsch, watching spellbound as Johannes Hirsch pried open an old oak barrel and unburied glass jars of his biodynamic preparations (made from quartz and various types of dung, among other things) from the vineyard soil they’re stored in.  One preparation, in a special take on traditional biodynamics, was itself infused with a bit of vineyard soil in order to further encourage terroir expression.  I was in Austria, homeland of the late scientist and philosopher, and founder of biodynamic agriculture, Rudolph Steiner.  The concept of biodynamics, which I fell into a bit late in my year, functions, in many ways, as the ultimate case study under which to watch the themes of my Watson project play out.

Biodynamics was a concept that had piqued my interest on various occasions throughout the year, as I’d visited several biodynamic wineries in Spain and New Zealand, but my focus at these wineries was never to learn about biodynamic philosophy itself, so it wasn’t until mid-July, when I was staying with the family of winemaker Aleš Kunej in Slovenia (an incredibly multilingual experience – French, Slovenian, Portugese, and English were all flying around between the four of us!), who, in the first of a chain of providential events (okay, not the first, but to recount all of the earlier links in the chain that led me to Aleš would take more than five pages in itself) handed me a copy of Nicolas Joly’s Biodynamic Wine Demystified, which I immediately devoured.  Though I can’t say it was aptly named (if anything I was more mystified after reading it, but also intrigued), but it provided some interesting insight into the philosophical basic for biodynamics.  I was hooked from the preface, in which Joly simply writes:

The sole aim of this book is to forge a link between a knowledge existing since the dawn of time that is profound and endlessly available – but not understood – and a science which, while it knows almost everything, nevertheless understands next to nothing.

 

What could be more perfect?!  Here he is, explicitly setting the intention of dismantling a highly divisive boundary between science (of which he unabashedly questions the authority!) and a theory which few would consider to be scientific.[3]  And, as I dove headfirst into his dense prose, I quickly saw that this was a goal he managed to achieve.  I came away from his book believing that biodynamics, while certainly not based on the same principles as modern science, shares its fundamental roots.  Like any scientific theory, biodynamics is based squarely on first principles, which are essentially fundamental assumptions about how the universe functions that we must make in order for the scientific system to work.  So maybe biodynamic agriculture isn’t “science” as we know it, but from Joly’s description it seemed to fit into the same genre of activity – if we zoom out one level, we might be able to categorize it as a science, it just starts from a different set of first principles.  In the epilogue to the book, Yair Margalit, a physical chemist, writes that “biodynamic theory does not exactly “cope” with the rigors of the scientific method, its practice in grape growing certainly shows unique results.”  But maybe we shouldn’t just be settling for unique results.  Maybe biodynamics doesn’t “cope” because it isn’t built on the same scientific method.  Maybe we need to reexamine that scientific method because we are seeing great results from a system with a different fundamental basis.

So, seeing as Austria was in a way the homeland of biodynamics, and having no plans as of yet for the time I’d tentatively scheduled there, I began my final emailing frenzy of the year, contacting every Austrian biodynamic producer I could find and waiting until someone was intrigued enough by the description of my Watson project to respond.  Thus it was Slovenia that led me to Weingut Hirsch, which in turn led to Weingut Sepp Moser.  And both of these visits allowed me to see how biodynamics plays out firsthand, how these first principles I was so excited about are put into practice, and most importantly, taste the remarkable results.

I begin with this story about biodynamics because it is representative of how providence, or fate, or intervention by some kind of Watson fairy, ensured that I didn’t return home without first grappling a bit with this fascinating piece of the wine world, something that fits in so elegantly with the project I designed.  But the whole year, and especially this last quarter, was an oversized exercise in learning to balance planning with spontaneity, paving my path flexibly enough that it maintained its freedom to wriggle and wind its way out from under my feet.

I had wanted to “put the year into persepective” during the fourth quarter with a visit to South Africa and then a bit of an overview of some of the regions in Europe I hadn’t been at the beginning.  This is exactly what ended up happening, but, as I should have guessed, not in the way I had anticipated.

Let me back up a bit.  South Africa.  A magnificent, overwhelming country, stunning in its natural beauty, shocking (to a post-Civil Rights movement American youngster) in its social idiosyncrasies, and bountiful in its wines.  I profited from the generosity of a winemaker in Bot River, an area outside of some of the most well-known wine regions but rightfully gaining a name for itself, who allowed me to live with his family, work in his winery, taste every barrel of his wine, attend a meeting of the Bot River Vineyard, meet and visit many other producers in the region, and utilize the open space of the farm to practice driving a stick-shift ‘bucky.’[4]  But mostly, PJ Geyer was generous in conversation.  We talked for hours on end, weeks on end, about everything relating to wine.  And he taught me what it is to make wine from the heart.  His motto is “Taste and feel, don’t think and do,” which I found to be, in a turn of irony, a perfectly logical methodology.  After all, why would you overthink your wine, when your product is one meant to be experienced?[5]  Our favorite thought experiment became to assess the explanation for why his friend’s wine matured in 500% new oak[6] doesn’t, supposedly[7], taste purely of oak.  He verbalized what I’d begun to see during my experience in Chile, when he told me the first prayer he made as a winemaker:  “Dear God, give me patience. NOW.”  And he started me thinking about the importance of marketing, even for someone whose primary role (on paper, at least) is to make the wine, something that became a bit of a theme throughout the weeks that followed, as I also paid a visit to Wharton alumnus Anthony Hamilton Russell who owns a very successful micro-wine empire in Hermanus, South Africa, and continued to explore marketing in the small winery context upon my arrival in Italy. 

South Africa wasn’t without its challenges, however, which came mostly in the form of the quite significant social differences between it and the US.  I spent the vast majority  of my time with white people of relatively high to very high economic status,[8] and just the seeming definitiveness of the social/racial stratifications made me a bit uncomfortable.  But nothing irked me as much as the recurring conception that people of different races have different capacities for understanding.  I struggled a lot hearing this idea come up, as I didn’t want to judge the people making these comments for having an opinion so drastically different than my own (which I recognize to certainly be a product of my own upbringing – for goodness sake I even took a course in college that was entirely focused on debunking exactly this idea), but also with breaking bread and, frankly, being associated with these people who held an idea which I find to be fundamentally wrong.  This is something I’m still grappling with, but I think an incredibly important thing to have experienced, especially for an American raised after these issues, once so prevalent in our own society, are seen to be on the decline.  I think, and hope, that seeing social and racial stratification in such a more pronounced way will help me recognize the more masked and hidden manifestations of the same issues in my own country.

            After South Africa I headed back to Europe, and after a brief but determinative detour to France (more on that below), I resumed my tour through regions new to me.  I crossed through the north of Italy, where I visited some amazing wineries, and an incredible wine museum that changed forever how I will think about public displays of wine-related knowledge.  I spent a day touring the Valpolicella region – vineyards, wineries, historical monuments and all – with the technology director of the enormous Bolla winery, with whom I discussed not only science and technology, but also history, marketing, environmentalism, and much, much more.  All of these experiences exactly fulfilled my goal of putting some perspective on how science and art relate to each other in the wine industry, and reminded me of the infectious zeal for wine that permeates the industry.  One night spent in the home of an Italian family who spoke no English, and another of Italian wedding crashing ignited a sharp craving to learn to speak the language in order to integrate into this incredibly rich, resonant culture without any translational middleman.  My lack of understanding in Italy confirmed just how key language was in defining my experiences in France and Chile.

Pour arriver jusqu’au trésor, il faudra que tu sois attentif aux signes.  Dieu a écrit dans le monde le chemin que chacun de nous doit suivre.  Il n’y a qu’à lire ce qu’il a écrit pour toi.[9] 

I mentioned above that I took a bit of a detour to France when I first returned to Europe.  I quickly learned, during my year, that some of the most enjoyable and valuable moments, weeks, and months were unplanned, and thus I felt confident arriving in Rome with five weeks remaining in the year and exactly zero plans.  This confidence was shaken a bit when I arrived at the hostel and found that the two nights that I’d thought I had booked had not even gone through, and this, combined with an unexpected Malaria scare (which, fortunately, a five-hour stint in the hospital revealed I didn’t have), confirmed that my newfound spontaneity had its limits.  This realization led to a semi-impulsive decision to return “home” to where I’d stayed in France, as I felt that the influence of familiar faces and places would help ground me enough to decide how I really wanted to spend my final Watson weeks.  And if this decision wasn’t providential, I don’t know what is.  The weekend I spent in my old ‘pigeonnier’ (former pigeon house-turned-apartment where I’d lived during harvest last fall) turned out to be one of the most emotionally tumultuous of my year, as I stood back and watched all of the post-Watson plans I had made tumble to the floor as the rug was yanked out from under them.[10]  I couldn’t have been more grateful to be surrounded by one of my Watson families, especially to have the distraction of two most adorable French children to keep me busy.

It was a harsh but potent reminder of that key fact that I’d thought I’d learned so well – nothing works out the way you plan.  This had become a sort of Watson-mantra, but still I’d managed to become a bit complacent and fall into that trap of false security that laying plans seems to pull us into.  But those Watson fairies, or perhaps it’s the ghost of Mr. Thomas J. himself, seemed to have a way of keeping me on track.  When I’d made the decision to go back to France, I’d also fit in appointments at the two schools that I’d been considering to apply for Masters programs (both to begin in 2013, as the application deadlines for this year had already long passed).   I headed to Angers, agenda for the next year suddenly blank, and was given the opportunity to apply to start the Vintage Master this September.[11]

At first I was a bit wary of spending Watson time make post-Watson plans, but visiting these schools and deciding what to do next turned out to be a hugely important aspect of my last quarter, as this decision-making process actually allowed me to process and integrate many of the changes to myself that had occurred during the year.  All of this was put into practice as I had to decide whether I would take the offer from the Vintage Master or wait until next year and apply to another program which, ostensibly, would be the more ‘appropriate’ choice given my background in chemistry, as it is more science-driven and technical than the Vintage Master which has a large marketing and language component.  But, looking at this past year, it is clear that two aspects stand out above all else as the most important, the most enjoyable, the most influential – people and languages.  And from that I’ve leaned that I want, even need, communication to be a key aspect of what I do, and that must take precedence over what I think I “should” be interested in pursuing based on my academic background.  I’ve struggled throughout my life with making decisions based on what I think I “should” do, and the Watson year has given me the unprecedented opportunity to make a year’s worth of decisions solely based on what I want to do, and in doing so I have finally allowed myself to begin to learn what, exactly, that is.

It seems a bit wrong to call this a “final” report after coming from the conference where we all came away with an understanding of just how non-final this moment is – the juncture between a Watson Year and a Watson Life.  I am so glad that I don’t have to say goodbye to the Watson, but rather hello to a new manner of interacting with my year.   And what a year it was.  I cannot begin to thank you, the Watson Foundation, enough for this opportunity.  For the opportunity to explore, observe, learn, play, work, love, hurt, laugh, cry, and discover myself.  For the blind faith, the support, the validation to do what I love, without stipulation, without expectation.  I have always been my biggest critic, my biggest hindrance, and your support finally allowed me to fully support myself.  There is no greater gift.  Thank you Watson Foundation for this incredible Watson Opportunity to have seized, this incredible Watson Year to have completed, and this incredible Watson Life to live.


[1] Quote from The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, which I was reading on my first planeride of the year, from Seattle to Barcelona.  I wrote down the quote on the front page of my journal in hopes that I would look back today, writing my final report, and it would ring true.  It does.

[2] My favorite of a list of ‘key terms’ we came up with in a weighty discussion group at the Returning Fellows conference, this word, in various forms, will be recurrent in this report.

[3] In fact, in the book’s prologue, wine critic Joshua Greene admits that many find the principles of biodynamics to be “romantic or foolish.”

[4] The South African term for a pick-up truck.

[5] Overthinking something meant to be experienced? Hmm… that sounds like a mistake on par with, say, overthinking the Watson 😉 But in all seriousness, doesn’t that make perfect sense?  Why ruin something sensorial by complicating it with the mind, which isn’t equipped, on its own, to fully enjoy the wine.  This is exactly the challenge I see with reductive techniques that attempt to understand a wine by analyzing its individual components.

[6] He aged the wine in a new oak barrel for a year, then removed it and put it in a new barrel again each year for a total of five years.  The explanation involved a metaphor using basketballs and tennis balls to express his theory that the wine becomes saturated by tannins more quickly than by smaller molecules, which continue to be extracted.

[7] The bottle goes for about $350, so naturally isn’t poured during a tasting.

[8] Such as the day I spent with the women I dubbed the “Real Housewives of Durbanville” – which was also the day I decided I never want to become rich.

[9] From The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which I read, in French, for the first time this year, continually finding myself amazed by the inspiration and clarity I found for interpreting my own experiences.  Here I quote the book in French, because that is how I read it, but this means, “To come to your treasure, you must be attentive to the signs.  God has written in the world the path which each of us should follow.  You must only read what he has written for you.”

[10] At least no earthquakes were involved, this time.

[11] This meeting occurred on July 10, a mere 50 days before I’d be heading back to Angers to start the program.  And yes, somehow, I have [almost] everything ready.

Reflections on NZ

Here’s my recently submitted second quarterly report, a brief summary of my time in New Zealand and Tasmania:

I arrived in New Zealand with the goal of probing the scientific approach to wine, and my experiences here have certainly given me a greater understanding, but, in true scientific fashion, have exposed at least as many questions as they have answered.  As I continued to tease apart the already bursting seam between science and nonscience in the context of wine, I stumbled upon some points of tension between the scientific and ‘nonscientific’ wine communities which complicate the rosy picture of the harmonious coexistence of science and art that had begun to take shape during my time in Europe.

 I began my New Zealand experience at Lincoln University’s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology.  In interviewing faculty and students of the department and writing articles to help update their website, I was able to get a good sense of the kind of work they are doing in this wine-centric, interdisciplinary department.  The contacts that I made while at Lincoln were invaluable, leading me to attend the International Cool Climate Symposium in Tasmania at the end of my time in Australasia.  In addition, because I was updating their website, I gained exclusive insight into how the department wants to present itself publicly, a fascinating perspective from which to pursue my interest in how science is portrayed in society.  The Centre is particularly interested in sharing its findings with the New Zealand wine industry.  Many projects are financed with industry support and most are of direct consequence to the industry.  Thus the viticulture and oenology research at Lincoln is very much on the ‘applied’ end of the research spectrum.  I believe that this tendency toward applied research has two main roots.  Beyond the obvious reason that the research is inextricably linked to an economically important industry, is the fact that wine science is embedded in winemaking, a tradition of craftsmanship and artisanship.  As such, the practice of making wine depends on the individual skill, creativity, and experience of the winemaker and grape grower (though one winemaker I met, Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley, argued that winemaking is not an ‘art,’ per se because the term implies that these types of skills are inborn, rather than learnable), and thus carries some inherent tension with the tenets of basic science, which suggest that logic alone, without special skill, should allow us to “solve” the problems of winemaking. But, of course, it can never be so simple, and this, I believe, is why wine science looks a little bit different, a little more applied, than many other disciplines.  And this assessment seems to be in line with the image that the industry, at least in New Zealand, is working to promote. The research section of the 2011 New Zealand Winegrowers annual report closes by saying:

Research and the scientific process can never provide all of the answers to the complex challenges facing growers and winemakers. Nor can it replace the role of experience and good observation by practitioners. The important role of research remains in helping understand the word in which we our growers and winemakers operate. Understanding this complexity and the impact of their responses to it can help our producers make better informed decisions and ultimately make better wine.”

I was able to broaden the context for my assessment of the industry-science relationship by attending a viticulture and oenology convention in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.  The 8th International Cool Climate Symposium brought together scientists, industry professionals, and even the famous British wine writer Jancis Robinson to talk about issues specifically related to cool climate viticulture and winemaking.  Here again, the industry involvement seemed to spur an emphasis on research that has direct consequences for the industry.  In attending plenary and poster sessions and talking with researchers and students it became clear that though a large fraction of research is concerned with how to get certain results in the vineyard or bottle, some is done using a more fundamental, ‘basic science’ approach aimed at understanding the mechanisms behind these effects.  Still, it is clear that the industry consequences are never too far from the minds of the researchers.

The most surprising aspect of the conference was how much research was presented on topics that I had assumed to be well understood.  The amount of history entwined in the wine industry means that winemakers, both in Europe and in New Zealand, tend to make sweeping claims presented in a way that implies a firm scientific basis.  At this conference it was strikingly clear, however, that many basic aspects of viticulture and winemaking are still poorly understood from a scientific perspective.  I found this particularly interesting because it addresses one of my original project questions about how knowledge is created.  In the case of winemaking there seem to be two major streams – science and historical precedent, and in my experience so far both seem to have an equally important impact on what winemakers and viticulturalists are willing to accept as truth.  One particularly striking example of this is biodynamic viticulture – a frequently divisive topic in the wine industry.  There have been scientific studies that demonstrate that biodynamics has a positive effect on viticulture, but science has not been able to demonstrate why.  The practices themselves do not seem particularly ‘scientific,’ involving esoteric rituals and timing of vineyard tasks according to cosmic events (interestingly, scientists are largely unable to obtain funding for research on biodynamics).  Biodynamic winemakers tend to be vehement supporters of the methods, even though they cannot necessarily provide a rational basis for the claimed effects.  On the other hand, these same winemakers may insist on having the most cutting edge technologies present in their wineries, demonstrating a commitment to what would more typically fall into the realm of modern science (additionally, many of the biodynamic preparations that they put on their vines are actually now factory produced which creates an interesting conflict of interest, in my opinion).

Though I have seen many examples of amicability of science and nonscience, I expected some complications.  Through some work I’ve been doing with Dr. Christopher Oze, a geology professor at the University of Canterbury, I have found an issue where science and nonscience seem to butt heads.  Originally I planned to help Dr. Oze design a research project to investigate the chemical and geological basis for the concept of ‘minerality’ in wine.  Geologic references, including ‘mineral,’ ‘slate,’ ‘quartz,’ ‘wet stones,’ etc. are pervasive in reviews and tasting notes, but while many wine aromas and flavors can be attributed to specific compounds, the story is not so simple for minerality.  In conducting some initial research on the topic, I could divide the opinions on minerality into four main camps. First, the popular literature, which employs the term liberally, but with some inconsistency in the intended meaning.  The most direct contrast to this perspective is that presented informally by scientists, either in semi-academic publications intended for the public or in casual conversation. Most (rightly) point out that whole minerals cannot be taken up by the roots and end up in the grapes, let alone somehow manage to stick around during months or years of processing and maturation until they reach the glass. Metal ions are surely taken up from the soil, but the mechanisms for this aren’t well understood and contributions of metals from exogenous sources such as pesticides, metal tanks, and bentonite clays used for fining, complicate source allocation.  The formal scientific literature, on the other hand, is marked by a stark absence of direct references to minerality.  There have been published studies about related topics, such as the metals content of grapes and wines, or attempts to empirically define individual terroirs, but no one has looked specifically at minerality.  I spent some time visiting wineries across the South Island of New Zealand and found that the winemakers and viticulturalists I met tend to pick and choose from arguments presented in the first two camps.

These discrepancies suggested that designing a scientific study was a bit premature.  Instead, Dr. Oze and I decided to begin research for a review article that will act as a call to arms to encourage systematic research on minerality, beginning with a concrete definition of the concept.  While still in New Zealand I spent about a month laying the groundwork for this article, and this is a project I will remain involved in over the coming months.  This paper has given me an outlet to think a lot about questions pertinent to my project’s focus on understanding knowledge construction and how this knowledge is presented in and out of the scientific community.  What I find particularly fascinating about this particular case is how the lack of empirical evidence has been used as ammunition to argue that minerality is not directly caused by soil chemistry, when in fact there is simply no evidence either way.  It may well be the case that there is no direct link, but no one has shown conclusively that this is the case.  So it is not necessarily that scientific and historically-embedded popular ideas about wine are at odds here, but it is a case where scientific knowledge, or a lack thereof, has clearly been interpreted in the context of wine history and culture, rather than in a vacuum.  It has been very gratifying to use my research on minerality as a case study to see this play out not only in the literature (both scientific and popular), but also in conversations with wine scientists, winemakers, and viticulturalists from around New Zealand.

The most challenging aspect of the past three months was unquestionably living in a city rattled to the core by a series of earthquakes over the past 18 months.  While I lived in an area that was relatively mildly affected by the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes (along with months of continual aftershocks), the damage was never far from view, as the central business district of Christchurch remains completely closed off, as well as many buildings on the campuses of both Canterbury and Lincoln (in fact, a decision to permanently close the building I had been working in at Lincoln was announced the day after I left).  Still, I felt fairly detached from the intensity of the situation until December 23, when a strong earthquake shook the area.  The event itself was scary, but tolerable, but the earthquake started off a series of aftershocks that have still not completely subsided, almost two months later.  The constant low-grade anxiety resulting from never knowing if an aftershock would hit and not knowing how bad it would be when one did was certainly grating, but spending a couple of weeks traveling to other parts of the South Island helped to alleviate this stress.  In addition, as horrible as the events of the past year and a half have been for Christchurch, it was a strange honor to be warmly welcomed into a community that has withstood so much trauma and stress. 

Overall, the past three months have provided a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to a new twist on the academic approach.  Coming from a strongly academic background, where I have worked in labs continuously since high school, I have come to expect certain norms to be associated with science.  My time in New Zealand introduced me to a different take on science, one more tied in with industry and therefore blurring and complicating the boundaries that I have become so fascinated with throughout the first half of my Watson year.

From here I move on to South America, where harvest season is nearly upon us again.  I will start out travelling across Argentina and visiting wineries there, and will end up in Chile for the majority of the season.  I am looking forward to becoming immersed in the industry side of New World winemaking to compare both with my industry experience in the Old World and the academic perspective I experienced in New Zealand.

The glass is 3/4 full

I recently submitted my first quarterly report to the Watson Foundation, which, unbelievably, means that my year is already a quarter over.

Terroir and Passion as the Great Arbiters of Science and Art in Old World Wines

“To be original doesn’t mean to do strange things, but to go to the origin – nature.” – Antoni Gaudí

Three months ago, I set out to explore one particular boundary – that between science and art in the world of wine.  It was a matter of days before I realized that this was only one of many interfaces, borders, and frontiers that I would encounter – both in the world and within myself.  I have delighted in treading the delicate lines between foreigner and local, work and play, family and friend, all while living at the crossroads between several different languages and cultures.

I first landed in the Priorat region of Spain.  Here, the region itself is a play of interfaces as it maintains a distinctly Catalan identity against the backdrop of a more broadly Spanish character.  I was graciously welcomed into the home of a wine tour guide, who helped me to achieve exclusive access to some of the most iconic personalities of the Priorat wine industry – winemakers, scientists, and the president of the wine appellation, or Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) as it is referred to in Catalan.  Through informal interviews (not infrequently over a glass of wine) and visits, I developed an immense appreciation for the passion with which wine is made in that region.  Passion for the uniqueness of the region, and thus for the distinctiveness of the wines produced there.

After becoming accustomed to the many idiosyncrasies of the Priorat – where grapevines are grown on the faces of precipitous slate cliffs and yields are incredibly small making for exceptionally concentrated wines, I moved on to the country that, for many, typifies grape growing and winemaking – France.  I spent the six weeks of harvest season working with the Dubard family who owns properties in six wine appellations near Bordeaux, giving me the opportunity to see the differences, both subtle and dramatic, between them.  Harvest season is a hectic but enchanting time, as all becomes inextricably tied to the whims of nature – the decision of when to harvest balancing weather predictions with the levels of sugar, acid, and aromatic compounds in the grapes (and these criteria taking precedence over normal sleep schedules for those in charge of harvesting the grapes).  I did a little bit of everything, including harvesting grapes by hand, but most of my time was spent in the winery, where I received on the job training in everything required to turn the grapes from more than 200 acres of vines into wine.  Soutirage, remontage, microbullage (racking, pumping-over, micro-oxygenation) are all relatively straightforward tasks, even when you are simultaneously (re-)learning the French language, but the ability to decide precisely when and how these and other tasks should be carried out – the real job of the winemaker –requires years of experience, as well as a delicate balance of science and art.

Happily, I have not found a simple or straightforward answer to the question of whether science or art predominates in these crucial decisions of the winemaker.  As I suspected when I designed my project, both are key components which can, and do, exist in harmony.  Thus my quest has been to pick apart the nuances and intricacies of the relationship between science and art rather than to attempt to definitively label winemaking as one type of activity or the other.  Though immensely complex, I have found that, at least in the Old World, this relationship hinges on desire to impart a sense of place in the wines, such that the consumer is transported to the region, even the particular plot of land, which produced that particular wine  – what the French refer to as terroir.  In the Priorat, both history and geology play an enormously important role in defining the region, and the winemakers’ passion for reflecting this uniqueness in their products is palpable.  René Barbier, the prominent Priorat winemaker who has played a key role in revitalizing their wine industry, expressed this passion for terroir eloquently.  For him, the expression of terroir in wine is an art because it is expressive of spirit – the spirit of the region, the vineyard, and the winemaker.  But to instill this personality, this terroir, into the wine, one must not overlook the importance of science, as it can be used as a tool to determine how best to express the terroir.  I have found this theme, of science as a tool rather than a solution in and of itself, has been recurrent, among winemakers, viticulturists, and scientists in both Spain and France.

In France, not only are winemakers passionate about terroir, but its existence is required by law.  The French appellation system requires that only certain varietals be grown in certain areas, and places restrictions on the ways in which they can be blended into wines.  Largely as a result of these strict guidelines, the passion for terroir is one of very few consistencies uniting winemaking in the Priorat and in southwestern France.  Winemaker Gregory Dubard is as passionate about making great wine as anyone I met in the Priorat, but his methods are distinctly different because he has a different goal.  He must create a consistent product – one which fulfills the expectations of his customers from year to year, as well as with the requirements of the appellation.  This gives his approach a more systematic feel.  Still, all major decisions are based upon dégustation – with both Greg and a hired consultant working together at every turn.  Thus an inherently subjective method, tasting, is used as the primary method of analysis, which allows their personal tastes to be imparted into the wines, with “science” coming in, again, as a tool to increase the precision with which these tastes and the sense of place are expressed in the final product.  Briefly visiting the regions of Burgundy and Champagne, I found it fascinating that the goal of consistency was paramount in each region (that I visited).  This does not, however, make for uniformity amongst French wines, but instead the variety and uniqueness comes not at the level of the individual producer, but at the level of the region, each of which producing vastly different wines.  This parallels the incredible sense of regionalism in France generally, as each region has a distinct identity, a distinct culture, and most importantly, there exists a desire to preserve these regional variations, which was, for me, one of the most captivating aspects about French culture.

Thus in my experience with the Old World so far, I have found that science is seen as a key part of the wine-making process, but decidedly not as the ultimate solution to making great wine.  Winemakers do not look to tests or analyses for proof of greatness, but rather to the wines themselves, and use whatever tools they (and their appellations) deem appropriate to achieve this.  Their decisions might be influenced by their education, winemaking traditions in their family or region, or the opinions of consultants, but primarily they rely on experience.  For instance, in the Priorat, the traditional style of planting vines was not on a trellis, as is commonplace in just about every wine growing region in the world, but as individual “bush vines” which are easier to plant on the steep llicorella (slate) slopes that typify the region.  Twenty to thirty years ago, many grape growers began to trellis their vineyards, which required building terraces into the steep rock cliffs, but allowed for plowing and increased yields from the vines.  Many growers continue to stand by their decision to trellis, arguing that it allows them to produce a better product, but some are finding the trellising experiment to be a failure, and they are returning to the bush vines, based on the results they have seen over the years.

Similarly, in tasting the must (grape juice undergoing alcoholic fermentation, or wine-in-progress) at the winery, I found it incredibly difficult to assess the quality and aromas.  Clearly, much experience is required to taste must and extrapolate to the final product, after malo-lactic fermentation (which decreases the acidity of the wine), and aging (whether in stainless steel or in oak, this will significantly change the aromas and flavors in the wine).  It is the requirement for such experience, such savoir-faire, that gives the process of winemaking its air of mystery and intrigue, and will always keep me coming back for more.

But perhaps more important than what I’ve learned about this passion for terroir and its relationship to art and science is how I have learned it.  Much of it came at meal times.  Two-hour long lunches around an enormous table with the ten or so people who comprise the cellar and vineyard crew to the soundtrack of discussion about when to harvest which blocks, the progress of the alcoholic fermentation in this tank or that, or even unbridled excitement about the uncanny abundance of cèpes (a variety of wild mushroom) this season (because to fully appreciate French wine culture, it is imperative to have an equally thorough appreciation of French food culture as well).  Sitting around the dinner table in the home of Greg and Marine Dubard, watching Greg nearly fall asleep in his plate as a result of working nineteen-hour days beginning at 3:00 AM (though he remained alert and constantly happy in the cellar – I don’t think it is possible to find a clearer sign of passion).

In France, my methods of learning have evolved as my command of the language has improved.  Though upon my arrival I understood fairly little (particularly in the cellar, where the combination of southwestern accent and liberal use of slang joined forces to render my formal French education essentially useless), the hospitality and kindness of everyone I met ensured that I never felt that the language barrier prevented me from experiencing the culture.  Rather, in the beginning I felt a bit like I was bathing in the culture – constantly surrounded by it but distinctly separate, while still able to enjoy its warmth and comfort (and flavors, of course).  Then, as my comprehension improved, the culture and community began to permeate my pores, dissolving what barrier had existed until I felt a part of it.  This transformation happened gradually, subconsciously, but the other day I caught my reflection in the window, carrying four baguettes, and for a moment I was suddenly unable to distinguish my identity from the French around me.  There were certainly moments, even days, of frustration when I couldn’t understand, or felt like I was retrogressing, but the goal of reaching a point where I can fully participate has kept me going.  It is difficult to leave when I am finally nearing this point, but I have pledged to continue practicing my French in any way I can so that when I next return I am able to pick up where I left off.

Though I had initially planned to see a variety of wine regions during this first phase of my journey, I am very happy with my decision to spend the vast majority of these three months fully immersed in only a couple.  I quickly began to appreciate the value of being able to become part of a community, which is a unique opportunity that this fellowship has provided, and for which I am immensely grateful.

I depart the Old World with mixed emotions – sad to be leaving a place where I have fallen in love with the earth, the wine, and the culture, but it is a contented sadness – a sadness that could not exist if it weren’t for the incredible experiences I have shared with people who have shared everything with me.  My next adventures, in New Zealand, will primarily take place in more traditionally “scientific” settings, but the allure of the winery has captivated me, and I will also seek out ways to spend time with the people who make wine.  People who, I have found, despite making a product that can at times be shrouded in an air of pretension, can be some of the most welcoming and unpretentious I have ever encountered.  People who are truly passionate about creating a product that sparks pleasure and, even more, a product capable of forging bonds between people while conjuring the particular plot of land from which it derives.