We will look at how overall microbial communities correlate with quality traits in the wine, and whether you can predict quality from the microbes present

Was how graduate student Nickolas Bokulich described his endeavour to begin to quantify viticultural terroir in this New York Times article. Despite their reputation as a literate and sober paper for the intellectual classes, the NYT of the digital age likes to gin up outrage from their readership by inserting language and ideas that they know people will find controversial — even if they have to invent a controversy. Here’s the hook that Nicholas Wade uses:

There must be something to terroir, given that expert wine tasters can often identify the region from which a wine comes. But American wine growers have long expressed varying degrees of skepticism about this ineffable concept, some dismissing it as unfathomable mysticism and others regarding it as a shrewd marketing ploy to protect the cachet of French wines.

You see what he does there? Terroir is a matter of fact to people in the know, but American viticulturalists, those skeptical Yanks, aren’t so sure. The comments section explodes with vitriol. Steven Koplan, professor and chair of Wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park New York wants the lead author of the study to know that he and his ilk are idiots and they’ve always hated terroir and everybody who gets terroir is laughing at him. Funny, it looks like UC Davis and the CIA held a conference some years back called “Terroir 06.” Perhaps Dr. David Mills and Professor Koplan had a spat when Mills insulted the way that Koplan’s wife constantly swirled the wine in her glass as if she was going in for her first noseful.

“Why are you doing that? You know that’s just to expose more surface area to the air in the glass to bring a maximum of volatile aromatic compounds to your olfactory organs for tasting, right?”

Koplan seethes.

But enough fucking around with these cork dorks, let’s examine the quote. How do “overall” (regional, I imagine) microbes affect the quality of the wine produced from the grapes on which they live? Granted, I had to have a bunch of context to pull all that from the quote, but I think that’s what the graduate research student is getting at. What I don’t like about this quote, besides its unwieldy galumph, is the “quality” language. What is a scientist doing throwing around lazy, vague language like “quality?” Do researchers in the wine field view quality on a linear scale, like the Wine Spectator 100 point scale? (and if you aren’t familiar with the critiques leveled at that scale, you should click that link.) Let’s look at the release on UC Davis’ website where Bokulich uses a decidedly more specific vernacular to describe his work:

I apply combined molecular techniques including terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism and high-throughput sequencing (HTS) technologies to reveal the deep community structure and genetic expression patterns underlying a range of mixed-microbial food systems and systems-level interactions with product quality

And what the fuck does that mean? I think it means that he sequenced the DNA of a bunch of germs so he could figure out what they did to the product, in this case wine.

But then there’s that “quality” language again. Do they mean, “do some germs make the wine better or worse,” or “do different germs impart different characteristics to the wine?”  I’m gonna go with the latter, especially seeing as how this study was made possible with generous assistance from Constellation Brands, the alcoholic beverage megalith behind such treats as Robert Mondavi wines, Cook’s champagne and Corona. Yum!

But why does a beverage corporation whose portfolio includes precious few (probably no) non-interventionist winemakers care what bacteria are on the grapes? Since, I can assure you without having interviewed them personally, Robert Mondavi is using a generous application of microbicide before starting the fermentation process, with a yeast strain developed in a lab. Ah, we see the relevant passage here in the NYT piece: “Microbes could exert an influence both during the lifetime of the grape and during fermentation,” which is to say, they feel that those germs could be fucking up the product before they even pick the grapes. And when I say — nay, when Constellation says — “fucking up the product,” we mean it could be interfering with the consistency of the product. Next step, pre-harvest microbicide application on an experimental basis. Because when I buy a bottle of Clos Du Bois merlot, I want it to taste exactly like the last bottle I bought, 12 years ago, on that drunken road trip to Baja with the girls right after graduation. Even if every bottle tastes worse than it could.

During that road trip we discussed some of the ideas we were introduced to in our women’s studies classes, including the critique that the suggestive language used to describe scientific discovery is intended to appeal to a male audience. Scientists probe and penetrate and pry. They seek in unhallowed places that which is not intended for the hand of man. So when we announce the findings of a study that two guys at our university conducted, we should probably have contacted the women’s studies department before we titled it, “Sequencing study lifts veil on wine’s microbial terroir.” Because, are you going to marry that microbial terroir or just sleep with it, tell all your dickhead friends, and slut-shame it in public?

Meanwhile Wade, over at the NYT uses rougher language still, “American researchers may have penetrated the veil that hides the landscape of terroir from clear view.” The wedding’s over, now we’re “penetrating” the veil. The women’s studies department at UC Davis is on fire. But Mr. Wade is an older, British gentleman, he covers science. What does he know about about the sensibilities of modern, feminist language students? What’s more, what’s an old guy like him care?

But Poor Nickolas, now he suffers under the twin crosses of being an Eastern European (immediately suspect), and being associated with this problematic veil language. How’s he gonna get laid by those brainy humanities students?

And that’s the outrage provoked by Mr. Wade’s little article: is terroir really “ineffable” or is it reducible to a series of measurable variables? And the NYT wants you to chime in in the comments section: “Do you want the mystery to be solved or would a scientific explanation spoil the magic of great wine?” Is that really the question, New York Times? Or is the question more like, “how are we ever going to be pleasantly surprised when we can control every variable?” or, “what is the role for intuition and experience in a world that’s increasingly engineered?” or even, “should these subconsciously sexist scientists be putting their dirty probes into my pleasure spots?”

Over at the UC Davis site they assure us that no one questions the existence of a terroir, they just would like to see it become a little more predictable. Because if we’re going to do this, I’d just like to have a time of day, day of the week, location, position, and so forth planned in advance. Because what is this a marriage or a vehicular collision?

 

 

 

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