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.









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

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.

Wine science takes on the Chesapeake

I have just landed on home soil. Coming back to my roots, my terroir, to deepen and round out the research project I’m working on at the University of Burgundy.  I have come to spend two weeks at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, with our collaborator Michael Gonsior.

2014-05-07 10.12.42

They grow wine in the Chesapeake?  Actually its possible… I’ll have to find out (in any case this weekend I’ll be spending some time in another surprising wine region, at Galer Estate in western Pennsylvania).  But that’s not the reason I’m here.  I am here to work with environmental chemists, to learn their methods, typically applied to marine water or other environmental samples, and apply them to wine.  This collaboration started a couple of years ago, Gonsior and my mentor, Régis Gougeon having been introduced by another non-wine collaborator, Phillipe Schmitt-Kopplin (whose lab in Munich I spent three weeks in back in March), and the research looks quite promising.

In brief we are using fluorescence spectroscopy methods to study the global signatures of different wines.  This has been done before (see Airado-Rodrígeuz et al., 2011), but we hope to combine the information gleaned from the “fluo”, as it is affectionately called (at least in French) with our already well-developed metabolomics approach (see Gougeon et al., 2009; Liger-Belair et al., 2009; Roullier-Gall et al., 2014) to gain a more well-rounded view of a wine and the effects of different factors, such as terroir and bottle age (Roullier-Gall et al., 2014), cooperage (Gougeon et al., 2009), or vinification choices. Early results were presented at WAC by Christian Coelho and Chloé Roullier-Gall.


Personally, this experience brings me full circle, in a way, as a major part of my chemistry training took place in an environmental context (my senior thesis, at Haverford College, was carried out in Biogeochemist Helen White’s lab), and I am looking forward to seeing how my project and intentions are received in such an environment, seeing that I work on a very different substrate, with very different stakes and objectives.  This was less of a factor in Munich, as the collaboration is a long-standing one, and several PhD students have already passed through their lab, desensitizing them to what might otherwise seem a strange topic in the context of the “Environmental Health” focus of that particular institute.


Additionally, this puts the study of wine in a new context for me, one that is less bathed in wine than the French context I have been working in. Though in Munich wine is not the beverage of choice either, the lab’s PI (Schmitt-Kopplin) is French, and has a vested personal interested in wine.  In the US, particularly outside of the more longstanding winemaking regions, wine is often viewed quite differently from in the Old World, particularly France, as America does not have the longstanding, deep-rooted history into which the vines and wine issue from them, spread their roots.  I’m looking forward to seeing (and sharing!) how this all plays out during my stay.



Airado-Rodrígeuz, D., Durán-Merás, I., Galeano-Díaz, T., Wold, J. P. Front-face fluorescence spectroscopy: A new tool for control in the wine industry. J. Food Comp. Anal. 2011, 24, 257-264.

Gougeon, R. D.; Lucio, M.; Frommberger, M.; Peyron, D.; Chassagne, D.; Alexandre, H.; Feuillat, F.; Voilley, A.; Cayot, P.; Gebefügi, I.; Hertkorn, N.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. The chemodiversity of wines can reveal a metabologeography expression of cooperage oak wood. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2009, 106, 9174-9179

Liger-Belair, G.; Cilindre, C.; Gougeon, R.; Lucio, M.; Gebefügi, I.; Jeandet, P.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. Unraveling different chemical fingerprints between a champagne wine and its aerosols. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2009, 106, 16545-16549.

Roullier-Gall, C.; Boutegrabet, L.; Gougeon, R. D.; Schmitt-Kopplin, P. A grape and wine chemodiversity comparison of different appellations in Burgundy : Vintage vs. terroir effects. Food Chem. 2014, 152,100-107.

“Does bottle age reveal terroir ?” A discussion.

When  I received the notification from Erika Szymanski’s (also of Palate Press) blog Wine-o-Scope that a new post was up entitled “Quantifying terroir with chemistry: still searching for the Holy Grail”, I knew immediately that I’d find myself responding.  The destiny became reality when I saw the article she was citing – the most recent release from the laboratory where I had started my internship just days before.

In the final phase of my Master Vintage program, I am currently doing a 6-month internship in the laboratory of Régis Gougeon, at the Institut Universitaire de la Vigne et du Vin, (Institut Jules Guyot) of the University of Burgundy.  His current PhD student, Chloé Roullier-Gall, has taken me under her wing, and is the first author on the concerned paper discussed on Wine-o-Scope.  Thus I had no choice but to seize the opportunity to respond.

The paper, published in Food Chemistry, presents findings using an ultra-high resolution method of mass spectrometry, known as Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry (FTICR-MS), which is capable of determining the exact masses, and thus the exact chemical formulas, of thousands of compounds in a sample. Gougeon and his collaborator, Phillippe Schmitt-Kopplin of Helmholtz Zentrum Muenchen in Germany, use this methodology to look at the metabolomic profiles of grape, must and wine samples, effectively ‘fingerprinting’ them to look for particularities of individual or groups of samples.  In the present paper, the team looks at a series over 3 vintages of grapes, musts, and wines from four different vineyards, two in the Côte de Nuits region and two in the Côte de Beaune region of Burgundy.

Vougeot 1View from Château Vougeot in the Côte de Nuits

In the grapes, musts and just-fermented wines, no major differences were seen based on the vineyard locations.  Each of the three vintages gives a distinct profile in the freshly-made wine, but wines from the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune region cannot be distinguished based on statistical analysis of their FTICR-MS profiles.

However, the team re-analyzed the wines in 2013, thus when the 2007s had been in bottle for 5 years, the 2008s for 4, and the 2009s for 3, and this is where the story gets interesting.  In her post, Szymanski wonders whether this follow-up analysis was out of desperation or always part of the plan, but frankly, it doesn’t matter.  In science, it is certainly true that many experimental decisions are made ‘out of desperation’, and honestly I don’t know the motivation in this case, but what is key is that they did the analysis, as this is where the most interesting result of the study was revealed.

Unlike in the wines analyzed immediately post-fermentation, the bottle aged wines do appear different based on the vineyard zone (the vintage effect remains important, as well).  Thus there is an evolution that occurs in bottle, that actually takes us back to a point where we can see differences based on the origins of the grapes – how do we explain that?! In the article, Roullier-Gall et al. propose that the terroir “impacts the initial chemical complexity of a wine, but time – i.e. bottle ageing – might be required to fully reveal it through the in-bottle diagenesis of complex chemical signatures.”  In other words, the terroir imprints its characteristics on the wine, but these signature elements are not revealed until the wine has aged in the bottle.  Could this correspond with some of the language that we employ to talk about bottle aging?  That wines need time to “open up,” “assimilate,” “integrate,” “mature” ?  Maybe there is a deeper truth to these statements than we know – something that goes beyond tannin softening and integration.  Maybe there are certain elements of a wines terroir ‘trademark’ that are only revealed after a bit of time in bottle.

Szymanski isn’t happy with this conclusion, as she says they haven’t gone this far in the study, that they have simply shown that “different wines are different.”  This is true, in effect, but dismissing it as such overlooks the real importance of the study, which is exactly this :  some kind of change is occurring in the bottle that allows us to characterize wine metabolomic fingerprints differently than immediately after fermentation.  Key changes are thus occurring to the chemical makeup during bottle aging, and we thus need to be keenly aware of this fact when choosing at which moment to analyze a wine, as this choice of time point may have an enormous impact on the results obtained.  And from a more romantic standpoint, yes, perhaps there are important changes occurring during bottle aging that reveal a wine’s identity.  But here Szymanski is right to be hesitant – it is a key finding of this study that opens up new questions to be explored, but for the moment, these questions remain wide open (but likely tied to the 95% of compounds found that are as-yet unidentifiable).

st aubin 2014 st vincentSaint Aubin, in the Côte de Beaune, during the Saint Vincent Festival 2014

In defending her statement that this paper’s sole valid conclusion is that “different wines are different,” Szymanski characterizes the researchers’ definition of terroir as broad.  They define it as the “vine-soil-climate-human ecosystem”, which I find to be an accurate summary of the most widely-accepted definitions of terroir, such as that of the OIV (Resolution OIV/VITI 333/2010) which states :

 Vitivinicultural “terroir” is a concept which refers to an area in which collective knowledge of the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment and applied vitivinicultural practices develops, providing distinctive characteristics for the products originating from this area. “Terroir” includes specific soil, topography, climate, landscape characteristics and biodiversity features.

For me, then, the authors’ definition of terroir is correct and incorporates all of the key elements, not broadening it by any sense.  In any case, even if they are only saying that different wines are different, that is not a conclusion to be dismissed.  It is, in fact, precisely the point that is interesting about this paper, which is that said differences only seem to appear after a certain time in bottle.

The criticism of merely two time points not being enough is a valid one, but this is only one article, and this work will surely be followed up, by this group or another, with a longer-term study that attempts to verify and further characterize these changes over time.  The present experiment is a proof-of-principle, successfully showing that this methodology can be applied to show differences from wines from different places, and further experimentation will need to be done to understand these differences, including additional sampling points, and certainly increasing the sample size as well.

Yes it is true that the vintage effect remained more prominent than the effect of vineyard location, but this does not, as Szymanski suggests, nullify the methods ability to distinguish terroir.  The vintage effect is stronger, yes, but the profiles of the wines can also be statistically grouped, within these vintage years, by location.  This is not surprising, as year-to-year climactic variation can be much more significant than the variation that occurs between vineyards located only a few kilometers apart (the entire zone of Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits spans a length of around 60 km), though this is complicated by the fact that terroir includes not only climate, but also geographical, pedological, and vitivinicultural factors.

In sum, the paper presents some interesting findings, not on the existence of measurable terroir effects so much as a methodology that allows us to elucidate distinguishing characteristics of wines only after a certain amount of time spent aging in bottle.  With further research this may eventually be traced to terroir fingerprints that are only revealed over time, but for now this remains an interesting theory, one to be questioned, debated, and explored, as Szymanski has already begun to do.

Personal note to Erika Szymanski : I must say that despite a bit of healthy debate here, I adore the concept of your work and of your PhD.  You hit precisely upon the theme that launched me into the world of wine with my Watson Fellowship – that it is an extraordinary context in which to understand relationships between scientific disciplines, between scientific research and those who put it into practice, and between empirical research and artistic expression. Wine is a fascinating subject matter precisely because the boundaries between all of these are constantly being pushed, prodded, dissolved, and redefined in ways that we don’t always see in other fields.  I’d love to read your thesis once its finished, and if ever you run across material that is particularly interesting in this regard, I’d be thrilled if you’d pass it along, either directly or via your blog!

When ignorance is bliss – for science’s relationship to society

I recently watched, and loved, Professor Stuart Firestein’s TEDtalk on “The Pursuit of Ignorance.”

Firestein, a professor and researcher of olfactory neuroscience at Columbia (the pertinence of his subject to mine already draws some important links between us, but just wait for more) presents an exposé on how science is really done, versus how it is often perceived by the public.

I highly recommend that you watch the talk itself (around 20 minutes and well worth the time), but here I’ll provide a bit of a summary and mostly my reaction, relevant whether or not you have time to watch the whole thing.

I find his assessment of the modern public perception of science very accurate – that it is often perceived as (and more importantly, I think, purported to be) a “well-ordered mechanism” that leads us neatly from a question, down the neatly hedged path of the rule-based scientific method toward the production of “hard cold facts.”

This, he proclaims, is in total contrast to the real way in which science is conducted, which he claims to be more similar to “bumbling around in a dark room” looking for answers that may or may not be within.

I found all of this wonderful, as I love when people, particularly scientists, recognize the great divide between the perception of science and what science actually means, but his next point was really where he brought it home for me, helping me to realize where some of my personal interest in this subject of the perception of science really comes from.

He discusses his experience as a lecturer, teaching a general course on neuroscience, and how he realized that the manner of presenting the course, with a giant textbook (weighing the same as two brains… now how are students supposed to be able to fit all that in their single brain, anyways?) and force-feeding lecture method, must give the impression that “we already know all there is to know about the brain”.

This sentence brought me back to the hard chairs of my high-school chemistry class, where, in fact, I fell in love with the idea that everything was already understood.  I think this is precisely why I’ve always struggled a bit in my research experiences, as they are, in reality, a world apart from what you learn in a course, and how the material is presented.  I actually chose my major in college because I preferred the coursework in chemistry over biology, because I always felt that it was more well-defined, precise, mathematical, but a part of me never really understood why more research needed to be done in this discipline, which in my years of courses, seemed to be so… complete.

In stark contrast to this world of knowns, this world of facts and certainty, the world of research is wide-open.  Questions, hypotheses and theories are posed, modified, proposed, and reposed, but rarely are these things we call “facts” defined.

I have seen this gap.  This wide crevice between how science is presented in school and how science is “done.”  And it shocked me.  But I was one of the lucky ones – I was introduced to ‘real’ research at the tender age of 16.  But still, throughout my years of academic training, I felt this disconnect – I always had a bit of trouble connecting what I learned in class and what I did in the lab.  They were related, but didn’t ever feel like the same activity, or even that they utilized the same cortices of the brain.

Firestein explains why scientists need to know all of these “facts” – to be able to pose good questions.  But the fact of the matter is that they don’t everything, just everything that is specific to their particular field (which is typically very narrow).

He proposes that it is this, the questioning, that is what is interesting in science, where the magic (or science, as it were) really happens. This is why he’s chosen to study ‘ignorance’.  He goes on to explain what he means by this, and I’ll let his own words speak for themselves there, but basically he is referring to everything that we don’t know.  A process of “question propagation” where working to answer one question creates still others.

I think he is right, that the way we present science to students needs to be modified.  We need to reflect more of this unknown, this ignorance, that predominates in science.  Students should be presented with a clearer picture of what research is really about, not only to help keep them interested in science by assuring them that there is plenty left to be done (which is important in itself), but also as a sort of societal insurance (nothing like ObamaCare – don’t worry – I don’t think this one would create so much controversy. Let alone a government shutdown).  The more accurate society’s picture of “science” is, and how it is done, the better.  The smaller the gap between “the perception and pursuit of science,” as Firestein puts it, the better.  People should be critical of scientific “discovery”, they should allow themselves to question, just like they would of any other discipline.  Experts are experts, but they are not deities.  Science is not here to dictate facts, but to open our minds and give us tools to explore our natural world.  But science often has an impact on the populace – think of nuclear energy, the ethics of GMOs or stem cells, etc.  Having a more accurate vision of science would help society to be able to make their own assessments of scientific advances and their greater implications. The more knowledge we have about ignorance, the better.  For everyone.

More info can be found on Professor Firestein’s website, about him, his research, the course on Ignorance, and his book, which I’m currently reading in Kindle version.