Autour de la vigne : Insight into the public perception of wine science

A recent piece on Radio France International (RFI), the French international public radio, reveals some of the current wine research questions being investigated at INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.  But more importantly, the format of the interview gives us some insight into what aspects of wine science are intriguing to the public, thus pointing out some trails to follow to better communicate wine science with the non-wine industry public.

The context, of course, is a bit particular to France, as the French public has a special relationship with wine that is unlike that of many other countries.  French culture is historically and traditionally tied up in the production and consumption of wine, so it is naturally a subject with importance to the public. The wine industry carries huge economic weight in France, being the second most important export industry after aviation.  Production is widespread and diverse, with a major impact in almost all regions of the country.  And the concept of terroir is one that is well-integrated into society, commonly referred to, if not always completely understood in its technical sense, as it is a concept that is used not only in wine, but also in discussing other food products with a fundamental tie to their birthplace.

This context must be kept in mind, but does not mean that the issues addressed in the piece are not pertinent to the public in other countries.  France is an example of a nation that takes wine very seriously, but this trend is being picked up in other regions with growing production and consumption of wine.  Thus the presence of wine science in French public media can be a model for other cultures, of ways in which we can approach scientific questions of pertinence to wine, giving us an indication of the elements of wine most intriguing to an inquisitive public thirsty for understanding and for wine.

The panel interviewed on Autour de la question included researchers from INRA in Montpellier and Colmar.  Véronique Cheynier, the research director at Monpellier whose research is focused on polyphenols, Jean-Luc Legras who studies the role of yeasts in winemaking, and Philippe Hugueney, research director at Colmar who studies primary aromas produced in different grape varieties.

The host, Caroline Lachowsky, launched the conversation with a question that I know well.  A question that intrigues me to no end and thus delighted me to hear on this show, confirming its relevance and interest : is winemaking a science or an art, or some combination of the two ?

The response picked up on a classically French element of this discussion : terroir.  Dr. Legras took the idea that a wine is an infusion of vineyard stones and defended it, at least for certain varieties, in proposing as an example the wines of Alsace, which can have entirely different profiles, even coming from a single producer who treats all of his wines equally, the only difference being the vineyard site.  What doesn’t come up until later is that this idea of minerality, of typicity of place, has not yet been linked directly to the soil.  But here he plays on the fascination aspect, the magic that is what intrigues the public about wine.  He openly admits that these differences in terroir are perceptible, but doesn’t expand on the science (or lack thereof) behind it at this point.  The panelists wait until the question is posed a bit differently, in terms of how the specificity of a soil might be injected into the wines, to clarify the state of the science on this matter.  Here Philippe Hugueney discusses the known direct influences of soil on grape quality – that soil nitrogen content impacts grape color, but that the roles of the minerals in the soil remain mysterious.  He explains that the popular term minerality has no agreed-upon definition and how this characteristic might come from the soil is still unknown (here I would add that we don’t even know whether this is the right question to be asking – there is much debate as to whether minerals in the soil even have an influence on this ‘mineral’ character, and thus we are not even yet at the point of working out how, but still at the level of if they have an impact).

Typical terroir of France's AOC Côte-Rôtie, in the northern Rhône valley

How is it, then that such an intriguing question, one of the first to be posed in this interview, in an accurate reflection of its frequency amongst wine lovers, remains unanswered?

Lachowsky later asks what types of evolution wine and wine styles have undergone over the years – if the identity of wine is changing, becoming sweeter, more or less acidic, or higher in alcohol.  Dr. Cheynier jumps to respond that the wines are certainly higher in alcohol, due to faster maturity and higher sugar levels, which are then converted through fermentation into elevated alcohol levels in the final wines.  She attributes this major shift to climate change, another hot topic in wine science as well as in the public eye.  Though a hugely important element to explore, here I think that the conversation was left isolated a bit too far into the scientific realm, as there are a host of other factors influencing the evolution of what we consider to be quality wine, or wine that consumers are interested in purchasing.  There is an element of taste, of fashion, here, that, while perhaps more fickle and trivial than climate change, is important to consider, especially when communicating with the public.   This is yet another aspect of the complexity of wine, and the complexity of understanding climate change, as we often cannot differentiate cause and effect in the race toward bigger, bolder, more powerful wines that has been occurring over the past 20-30 years.

Here is a potential disconnect between how researchers see the world – focusing on climate change as the primary factor influencing the evolution of wine styles, while consumers might be more interested to hear about the interaction between climate change and changing tastes with the introduction of new producer countries, the expansion of consumption in nations where wine-drinking was not traditionally part of the culture, et cetera.

The host was quick to pick up on the great complexity of wine science – of the distinct parts that must work together – plant physiology to understand the compounds present in the grapes, microbiology of the yeasts that produce the fermentation, and how these two interact to create the complex chemistry of finished wine.  And furthermore, the complexity of all of the environmental factors that go into making a wine – the elements of terroir : soil, climate, geography, and viticultral and winemaking techniques, the influence of pests, diseases, beneficial insects, yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that play a role in determining the final product.

This complexity, at every level, at every turn, is where we should really focus in communicating wine science.  This is what makes the system endlessly interesting, but also endlessly difficult to study.  But this is where the magic is.  And it is precisely this magic, this wonder, that is what attracts people to wine.  So to incite and interest in science in those already intrigued by wine, we can use this ‘magic’,  this complexity, to unite the two and spark passion for a new level of understanding in those who are enthralled by this fascinating beverage.

You can listen to or download the radio show (in two parts), Autour de la question (French) at the following links :

Part 1: http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20131218-1-pourquoi-le-vin-soif-recherche

Part 2 : http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20131218-2-pourquoi-le-vin-soif-recherche

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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.

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.

Confessions of a [wine] geek*

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

I have a confession to make.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Sensory analysis laboratory – Vitec, Spain)

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

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

Decantation and Incantation

Why decant a wine? Tonight’s sommelier, your favorite winemaker, that snobby wine obsessed colleague will probably all have a different explanation, from removing sediment to aerating the wine, soften tannins, to the more refined explanation reported recently Tyler Colman on wine-searcher.com (HERE) that decanting has been shown to actually reduce the concentration of organic acids and polyphenols in the wine (of which the consequences are debatable… especially given the efforts that winemakers often go through to extract those polyphenols – which also happen to include those much-hyped antioxidants – out of the grapes and into your wine). For other reasons, too, the study conducted at Shenyang School of Pharmacy is a bit controversial, as the decanting conditions required to see an effect do not necessarily correspond to what goes on at your table, as well as to the incongruency of the reaction ratios – Colman reports that Dr. Andrew Waterhouse of UC Davis is not convinced that the quantity of oxygen dissolved in the wine during decanting would be enough to react in any significant way with the tannins.

So the mystery remains open, which caused me to begin thinking about another ‘mysterious’ practice that resembles decanting in many ways – the biodynamic method of dynamization.

Dynamization involves the mixing of the liquid containing biodynamic preparations in a very particular fashion – first with stirring in one direction to create a vortex, and then rapidly and suddenly changing direction in order to create what is referred to as a chaotic flow. This technique builds upon the principle that water is capable of absorbing and retaining information in various forms, and then behaves accordingly when it comes in contact with living beings.  For example, a simple experiment involving three jars of cooked rice covered in water has been described, where you close each jar while thinking of a particular word, and write the word on the outside of the jar, for example love, hate, and joy.  The jars are left and the rate and nature of the rotting process that ensues corresponds to the words on the jars (full disclosure : I have not done this but have seen images of the results. I would like to try). Thus the dynamisation of biodynamic preparations is meant to help the water to absorb and integrate the information stored in the preparation – whether it be compost, a “tea” made from plants with particular properties, or quartz.

Could decanting have a similar effect on wine? Could the water in wine actually be absorbing some type of information from the process, that gives decanting the ability to change the wine more than it “should” be able to, given the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed during the process?  What would happen if you decanted a wine while sending it good vibes? Could you make that Yellowtail taste a bit more like a Lafite (I don’t really think so…)?

It might sound a bit outside of the bottle, but looking at the science, I don’t yet see an explanation with a whole lot more backing. This is all about being open-minded when you open that bottle.

Thanks Tyler Colman! http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2013/08/decanting-what-makes-it-work 

Inspirational moment: Phenomenological Chemistry

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

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

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

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

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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