When wine grapes are medicine, forgotten varieties deserve a second look

Autocthonous, adj. – Indigenous to a particular environment, habitat, or geographical area.

Italy, like other places that have vineyards substantially older than their nationhoods, mothers a gobsmacking number of unique, local, autocthonous grape varieties known only to village natives and sleep-deprived MW students obliged to memorize them all. At the risk of offending, most aren’t famous for good reason. International grape varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling, and the like) become international in part because they grow well in diverse locales, in part because of accidents of history, but in part because they tend to make darn good wine. Even as the recent fashion for weird, little-known, and hard-to-get wines means that hyper-local varieties are hearing their names uttered in distant lands (like London and San Francisco wine bars), they’re a niche interest at best.

Nevertheless, lots of scientific work has recently been going into documenting these autocthonous grape varieties. A cynical observer might attribute that to the necessary technology being newly cheap and still trendy, a less cynical one to our renewed appreciation for biodiversity. We could even end up rediscovering lost talent and invigorating new wine styles, like finding the greatest novel of the 20th century as a manuscript in the bottom drawer of your great-aunt’s writing desk and giving it the publication run it always deserved. While we’re waiting for that to happen, there’s actually a different and you might say nobler motive at work. Biologists are hunting for medically useful compounds, and Frosinone in Latium in Central Italy has become their new Amazon rain forest.

Italian biologists have been scouring their countryside for “local, ancient ecotypes” and, beyond the usual business of documenting whether they’re genetically unique, a recent paper takes the extra steps of measuring their concentrations of antioxidant phenolic compounds and observing their effects against proliferating cancer cells. Having first ranked their 37 autocthonous Frosinone varieties by anti-oxidizing and free radical-fighting capacity, they threw concentrated seed extracts at model cancer cells growing in lab dishes. And some of the cancer cells died or stopped growing!

Now, dead cancer cells floating in dishes are clearly a very, very, very long way from wine grape seed extracts being used as the next cancer-fighting miracle drug. But. Compounds from wine grapes likely will (continue to) be investigated as medications. And no matter whether Zimavacca or one of the numerous unnamed “new genetic profiles” from this study become the trendy new somm-bait, we have good reasons to preserve such things. Analyzing samples from odd nooks about the countryside shouldn’t need economic justification: preserving our cultural-biological history is a good fight. But in the present climate, a little economic justification doesn’t hurt.

Melatonin: Regulates your sleep cycle, regulates grape ripeness cycle

Short: Spraying melatonin on vines increases grape size and tightens up the time window over which grapes ripen so that there’s less variation in °Brix across the whole vineyard on any given day. This was just one study in merlot vines, but melatonin could well become a useful viticultural tool.

Longer: Melatonin is a lot more versatile than the little bottles on “natural supplements” shelves suggest. You’re probably familiar with the hormone as something you take to relieve jet-lag or to help you fall asleep on-schedule if you have insomnia. Animals naturally produce the stuff, and so do plants. We know less about what it does in our leafy companions than our furry ones, but research over the past decade has been outlining some kind of role for melatonin in plant growth regulation. It’s structurally similar to auxins, used for decades to increase yields for table grapes which, together with recent studies using it on other fruits, led some Chinese researchers to try spraying melatonin on wine grapes.

14 year-old merlot vines were sprayed with melatonin twice, ten days apart, before veraison (July). The researchers also tried spraying vines just once; spraying twice had a more significant effect. Melatonin-treated vines bore slightly larger berries, possibly a negative for wine quality. But treated grapes also ripened more evenly, a boon for growers trying to harvest as many fully and evenly ripe berries in a single pass as possible. Untreated grapes came in at 16-25 °Brix and twice-sprayed grapes at 18-23 °Brix (eyeballing their graphs), with alcohol content in the resulting wines about even across the board. The researchers also documented some changes in a whole range of aroma compounds that are a bit too up-and-down to warrant saying much, but they suggest that melatonin probably has positive wine sensory effects, increasing ripe/spicy notes (perhaps in part thanks to more even ripening?)

This is one of those “early studies” that happens long in advance of a technology actually hitting the market. But if these results play out in other varieties and other locations, melatonin might well be a reasonable commercial prospect. It seems to have low (if any?) toxicity, be easy to apply and, I suspect is reasonably easy to produce. And (though I shouldn’t make light of the damage vineyard and farm workers suffer from exposure to toxic sprays), treatment for accidental exposure might just be going home for a nap.


Empirical evidence: organic/biodynamic vit = more textured wines

A six-year comparison of organic, biodynamic, and “low-input” and “high-input” viticulture (three years of conversion, three of maintenance) recently came to fruition in South Australia, courtesy of researchers at the University of Adelaide. The full report is freely available here (and three cheers for research freely shared). It’s 73 pages long, but the conclusions are fairly simple. The most worthwhile among them: in blind trials, experienced wine professionals rated the organic and biodynamic wines more interesting than the conventional versions.

  • Soil health (nitrogen, phosphorus, organic carbon, microbe mass) was most strongly improved by compost, not by any particular management system. All four systems were tested with and without compost.
  • Compost had the single most dramatic positive effect on soil health, no matter the underlying management system.
  • Management system had no consistent effect on vine growth, berry weight, or berry composition.
  • Low-input, organic, and biodynamic alternatives yielded at 91%, 79%, and 70%, respectively, of the high-input condition.
  • Organic and biodynamic wines were more “textural, rich, vibrant, and spicy” than their conventional counterparts. (pH, TA, and color held constant; high-input wines were a bit higher in alcohol.)

Improved soil health with organic/biodynamic management has been demonstrated numerous times over, and so have the benefits of compost. This study was unusual in making compost a separate variable, showing that both organics/biodynamics and compost, separately, were beneficial. The upside here is the attitude, across the study, that conventional growers can benefit from organic techniques even without undertaking a full-on organic conversion.

The downside is that the “organic” and “biodynamic” management used in the comparison are weak compared with what many committed non-conventional growers undertake. How can you practice biodynamics without compost? “Biodynamic” here seems to have meant nothing more than adding the core preparations 500 and 501, a far, far cry from anything Demeter would certify as honest biodynamics. Even the organic system is pretty bare bones: weed control with mowing and cultivation instead of herbicides; no insecticides or pesticides other than copper. (The low-input condition pulled back on the insecticides and some of the pesticides.)

Talking about those lower yields, the researchers make an important point. Very little research has been done on organic or biodynamic cultivation methods. We could develop better techniques within those systems and preserve environment and fruit quality while improving yields. Many organic/biodynamic growers have surely worked out such techniques on a local scale, which leaves a role for scientists to listen to what they’re doing, identify why it works and how/whether it can be generalized more broadly. Some environmentally conscious wine people are happy to pour their big pharma money (or whatever it might be) into projects they believe in with no thought for financial return, but most are trying to support their families as well as their values. Sharing successful organic/biodynamic techniques — say, for weed management, which was the biggest issue in this study — developing them scientifically, and stamping them with a scientific seal of approval so that they’re not dismissed as just those quacky organic people, will help conventional growers improve their weed management tactics, too. Likely, too, with economic benefits you can appreciate even if you honestly don’t care about trashing the environment for short-term gains.

The researchers should have made another point about those yields. Are the high-input yields a reasonable benchmark? Should we buy short-term gains with long-term environmental and social damage? If your business isn’t “sustainable” without using chemical warfare to eke every last grape out of the earth, then perhaps you need to reconsider your business practices in other areas. It comes back to the old resurrecting dinosaurs argument. Just because we have the technology to do something doesn’t mean we should. The wine might even be more interesting.


Brett + bacteria = worse, or better

Microbiology has gotten a lot wrong studying yeast and bacteria. We’ve assumed, until quite recently, that if a microbe doesn’t grow in a dish it’s not there. And that a microbe is either on/live/growing or off/dead. And that we can study microbes in isolation — “pure culture” — away from other species in little sterile dishes and expect them to behave normally. In all fairness, microbiologists have sometimes seen these as a problems, but have mostly just gone on this way, writing books about what we think we know.

DNA detection and sequencing technology is showing just how many bugs don’t grow in dishes — “high throughput” technology can document (theoretically) all of the species in a drop of [insert favorite liquid here]. That’s pretty routine these days. And we’re slowly beginning to study how mixtures of microbes — you know, the way they live in the wild — behave in the lab. Wine was a bit ahead of the curve here: microbial enologists have been studying the goings-on of spontaneous and mixed fermentations since the late 1980’s.*

Usually, mixed-microbe studies are about what grows where together. Occasionally, you can predict something more specific with a bit of logic and some scratch paper. That, plus a little knowledge of yeast and bacteria metabolism, leads to an interesting hypothesis: some malolactic fermentation bacteria should make Brett smell worse.

Brettanomyces bruxellensis (aka “Brett,” aka barnyard-stench spoilage yeast) creates its signature aroma by converting hydroxycinnamic acids (HCAs) naturally present in wine to smelly volatile phenols. This is a two-step process. First, an enzyme (a decarboxylase) converts HCA to a vinylphenol. Second, a different enzyme (a reductase) converts the vinylphenol to the volatile ethylphenol, including the Brett signature 4-EP and 4-EG.

But before that can happen, Brett has to be able to get to the HCAs. Many of the HCAs in wine are chemically bound to tartaric acid. Brett can’t use them if they’re bound. The HCA-tartaric acid bond spontaneously and slowly breaks, giving off free HCAs for Brett to use, but there’s theoretically a much bigger pool of pre-stink molecules that need only lose their acid first.

Some lactic acid bacteria — like the ones that commonly perform the malolactic fermentation (MLF) so important to most reds and a lot of white wines — can enzymatically split HCAs from tartaric acid. In theory, that should mean that some (but not all) MLF bacteria are Brett enablers. Wine + bacteria + Brett = worse smell than wine + Brett alone.

Building on previous research, a team at Oregon State University has made that more than a theory. Their recent paper (currently pre-press in AJEV) shows that some commercially available MLF strains make more HCAs available than others, AND that leads to Brett making more 4-EP and 4-EG,

The team only experimented with one strain of Brettanomyces, and they obviously couldn’t test anywhere near all of the MLF strains on the market, but this (plus the multiple studies that have come before it supporting the effects of lactic acid bacteria on HCAs) is strong evidence indeed that winemakers buying commercial bacteria for MLF may have better and worse choices if they’re worried about Brett.


*A good open-access (no paywall) example of this kind of research is Granchi and company’s 1999 study here.

Don’t worry about mercury in whisky (but maybe worry about England?)

Mercury in single malt whisky is something about which you should never be concerned. Seriously, don’t worry about it. A recent study tells us that even the most highly contaminated bottles are more than 600 times lower than the World Health Organization’s current guideline for acceptable levels of mercury in drinking water. That’s for something you drink by the tablespoonful versus something you drink by quarts or liters. There is nothing to worry about here.*

So why bother talking about it, or measuring it in the first place? The authors behind that study were following up on a medium-sized hullaballoo in the mid-1990’s over relatively high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in single-malt. If that acronym looks familiar, it’s likely because PAH’s are the reason for the shadow cast over our grilling habits and, if I die of cancer, a probable place to point the finger.** PAHs are carcinogens formed by incomplete combustion that gives off smoke; in other words, PAHs are a minor-but-maybe-significant component of that marvelously flavorful char that accumulates on the outside of your barbecue, part of what makes smoked salmon such a very worthwhile thing, and one of the many reasons why cigarettes are a really nasty habit. It’s logical to suspect that they might be part of smoky single malts, too, which a group of researchers did strongly enough to bother studying it.

Chemistry confirmed the logic: moderate concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs showed up in the Scotch. But it also found something else. Single malts were worse off than American bourbons or Irish whiskies and even than blended Scotch. Worse yet, from my perspective, they found the highest concentrations in Laphroig and Oban, two of my favorites. Drinking whisky is associated with increased risk of colorectal, esophageal, and mouth cancer in the sorts of studies that measure such thing, though the researchers said that the concentrations of PAHs they found weren’t high enough to explain those risks.

So why the leap to mercury? Whiskies from southern Scotland turned up with higher PAHs than whiskies from northern Scotland. It’s well known that the south and west of Scotland is subject to more pollution than the north and east; it’s changing, but coal- and oil-burning proportionally overload the southwest with various airborne unpleasantries that end up migrating to soil and water and, evidently, to whisky. But maybe those Islay whiskies weren’t high in PAHs because of their proximity to the more densely populated and polluted parts of the country (and England). PAHs could just as easily come from those peat-smoked malts or the oak barrels used for aging.

If whisky’s carcinogens are a function of environmental pollutants, then concentrations of other environmental pollutants should follow the same south-north gradient pattern. And so we have the mercury study. Mercury levels in every whisky they tested were far too low to cause concern, but they nevertheless followed that same pattern: higher in the south, lower in the north.

This is a good thing, even for me and the rest of the hyper-peated club. Environmental pollutants from coal and oil combustion have declined massively, more than 90% since 1970, and continue to fall. Off-the-shelf whiskies the chemists tested were at least 9 years old, reflecting the environmental conditions of a decade or so ago. Tracing carcinogens to those conditions rather than to part of the whisky-making process itself means that it’s becoming less hazardous all the time. Or, at least, less hazardous in this one respect. Anything as delicious, expensive, and high-octane as a good single malt is always going to be at least a little dangerous.


*In light of recent events, I feel the need to make myself perfectly clear on this point.

**My diet is pretty ridiculously high in fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and all of those things we’re told should protect us in times of cancerous trouble, but I have an abiding weakness for smoked and charred foods. And I spend a lot of time with candles and incense, and I’m Catholic, which evidently doesn’t help.

***Which warrants quoting in full a letter to the editor sent to the Lancet following up on the PAH study:


As a member of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, I found Kleinjans’ (Dec 21/28, p 1731)1 report of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in whiskies of interest, but have one question. Since the authors used only 200 mL of each of the 18 whiskies studied, what did they do with the remainder? I hope that they had a very merry Christmas.

There’s fat in your wine, but the fatty acids are the issue

Oil and water don’t mix (unless you add egg, but then you’ve got an emulsion…and mayonnaise). Wine is essentially water plus alcohol, which doesn’t mix well with oil, either. Since there’s no oil slick layer floating on top of your glass of wine the way fat drops glisten on top of a bowl of ramen, you’ve probably assumed that the wine is fat-free. And if you Google “is there fat in wine?” about 102,000,000 results will tell you that you’re right.

Which is wrong, sort of. Wine does, strictly speaking, include very small amounts of fat. New and improved chemical analyses of New Zealand sauvignon blancs have identified that they at least 25 different kinds of triacylglycerides — the chemical reference for your standard fat molecule: three fatty acids (tri-acyl) bound to a glycerol molecule (glyceride). That’s in addition to an assortment of other fat relatives such as free fatty acids and some waxes.

It’s actually the free fatty acids that are most important here. (Those fats are there in such minuscule quantities that even the jumpiest health journalist can’t pretend there’s anything to jump about there.) They’re present in milligram per liter quantities (so we’re talking less than the amount of sugar found even in truly dry wines) which is enough to make a significant sensory impact on wine indirectly. 

Yeast need lots of free fatty acids to grow well; they’re a major raw ingredient for new cell walls. With plenty of oxygen they can make their own; without oxygen, that particular yeast production line shuts down. Fermenting wine is a mostly anaerobic job for yeast: they get a little oxygen exposure at the top of the vat, a little if the wine is vigorously mixed to keep the skins submerged, but mostly need to rely on the fatty acids initially contained in the grape juice to tide them over. If that source fails, a long and very complicated chain of yeast stress response events kick in, ultimately ending in stuck fermentations, icky aromas, or both. In short, the amount and kind of fatty acids in particular and lipids in general affects wine aroma.

That’s not a wholly unheard-of problem. Overly enthusiastic efforts to clarify white juice before fermentation can pull fatty acids out, too, to the yeast’s detriment. But, ironically, the more common issue is too much of the wrong kind of fatty acid after the yeast have been at it awhile. Lacking the ability to synthesize cell wall components they really need, too much of cell wall molecules they can make (decanoic and octanoic acids) accumulate with toxic consequences. The effect fatty acids have on yeast is a bit like the effect fat has on humans: too much of the wrong kind kills us after awhile, but not enough of the right kind can cause serious problems, too.

But there’s a different and possibly more interesting point to be made here. Lipids originally present in the grape juice affect yeast metabolism, which affects wine aroma, which gives us new places to intervene to make alterations. Adding lipids to South Australian chardonnay boosted production of aromatic molecules: esters, aldehydes, higher alcohols, and volatile acids. The authors of that sauv blanc study speculate that adding specific lipids might be a way to create new, different styles of that so very identifiably aromatic wine.

This information is splendid in two ways. First, it tells us more about that complex and ill-described business of how winemaking works. Second, it may be a way to experiment with new wines. But, third, it could open up one more avenue for adding stuff to make wine fit a particular sensory profile, which we might more generally call “manipulation” and to which many of us* are generally opposed but which fuels the contemporary commercial wine-as-supermarket-commodity industry and supplies inexpensive reds and whites to fit market niche-targeted profiles specifically designed for the glasses of middle-class suburban mothers between 31 and 40 or single 22-29 condo dwellers who prefer to drink wine before dinner with friends on Thursday and watch Orange is the New Black. All wine is manipulated, all wine contains fat, but what that means for any individual case is a different question.



*Assuming, perhaps unfairly, that “us” is mostly comprised of people who prefer to drink and/or help produce unique and expressive wines that rely more for direction on local traditions, personal philosophy, and vintage conditions than Nielsen numbers.


High alcohol wines dial down your brain (but does it matter?)

My April piece for Palate Press pokes at the question, “how can we really tell what we’re tasting” by removing as much of the subjective mess around language as we can and going straight to the brain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging — stop-motion shots of your brain in real time as you perform some kind of task, like tasting wine — we can look for differences in what parts of your brain are active when you’re sipping on wine A versus wine B and infer something about what effect they really have on you. Variations on the theme let us ask all manner of interesting questions. Make wine A and B the same, but tell tasters that one’s expensive and one’s cheap. Brain reward centers will light up more in response to the “expensive” wine. Or keep the wines the same and change the people. Trained sommeliers think demonstrably more and more analytically about wine tasting than casual sippers. Or try to pair up wines to be as similar as possible save for their alcohol level and ask whether tasters prefer the higher or lower alcohol versions.

Okay. The last one is  a stretch. Scientists have done it and shown that higher alcohol wines provoke less brain activation than their lower alcohol counterparts. That’s interesting, particularly because researchers expected the opposite. Instead of more intense wine provoking more intense sensation, it seemed that tasters had to work a bit harder to pay more attention to the subtle nuances in the less hit-you-over-the-head reds.

Okay. I suspect knowing this doesn’t change much for you if you’re a winemaker, but perhaps if you’re running complex formal tastings — either for sensory science experiments or to train sommeliers or diploma students — you now have more evidence to back using lower-alcohol wines to improve students’/subjects’ learning and focus.

But, can we say anything at all about whether tasters prefer the lower- or the higher-alcohol versions? Here’s where they’re stretching. Specific types of brain activation tell us things about pleasure, no doubt: we’ve identified “reward centers” and “pleasure centers” and we can even visualize people drawing associations with memory and emotions (perhaps you’ve made the acquaintance of your amygdala?). But to say that, because higher alcohol wines “dial down” the brain, relatively speaking, tells us nothing about what you should drink when you’re trying to maximize the pleasure of that evening out at the restaurant you’ve been anticipating for weeks.

Far too many other factors come to bear upon wine preference for us to imagine that these study results say much (if anything) about it. My somewhat embarrassing preference for light-bodied Willamette Valley pinot noir is a good example. I appreciate and enjoy virtually everything (just because I’ve never tasted a white zin I could enjoy doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist), but I have a soft spot for raspberry and pine and ocean spray-scented, fine-boned, earth and mushroom-framed pinot. Like the ones I grew up on as a kid scampering around a big front yard abutting a vineyard on Cooper Mountain. I have so many pleasant memories associated with that style of wine, long conversations with my father, warm evening light spreading across the great big round dining room table he made, and mud squishing through my toes while I picked the green beans that I’m going to prefer it, even if it turns out that they require less cognitive attention, even if every critic tells me that they’re poorly made, even if I learn to assess quality by other criteria.

Duh. I haven’t said anything earth-shattering. And, in one way, the difference between a marketing study and a neuroscience one is whether that gestalt gets captured in overall “behavior” or whether one factor is isolated and analysed. The neuroscience is still useful for describing how wine works (something marketing studies rarely do well, to be honest). But it does squat for speaking to complex behaviors made up of scores of these bitty considerations which we need to remember aren’t anywhere near as binary and are a whole lot messier than simple science like this fMRI study makes them seem. So let this be a counterpart to all of the enthusiastically reactionary science journalism that responds to press releases about people drinking wine in giant magnetic tubes by shouting “Science discovers high-alcohol wines aren’t really as good after all!” from their collective rooftop. Nope. We’re not there yet.

One more reason why wine is good for you, and not just the red stuff

When it comes to health benefits, red wine tends to get most of the credit.

Cardiovascular benefits have been ascribed to alcohol itself (find a reasonably readable and full-text review here, courtesy of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology). But, of late (as in, say, the past decade), resveratrol has attracted the most attention; as a potent antioxidant, it truncates the chain of events involved in endothelial plaque formation (“hardening of the arteries”). Resveratrol is much more concentrated in red wine than in white. But resveratrol is a polyphenol, one of many. And polyphenols in general, and both red and white wine, have circulatory system benefits in lab studies we can ascribe to other causes.

For instance, NO, which is to say nitric oxide. Polyphenols encourage artery-lining cells to produce more NO. We know NO both as laughing gas and as a potent (if short-lived) vasodilator. NO tells the artery muscular to relax, which increases vessel diameter and lowers blood pressure. Arteries that no longer relax properly are a feature of many cardiovascular diseases and part of the cascade of interrelated faults that progressively damage both the heart and organs like the kidneys and eyes that suffer damage from blood pressure that’s consistently too high. NO also helps makes platelets less sticky with the effect of gently working against that damaging plaque formation.

Antioxidants, including polyphenols, increase NO levels indirectly by countering oxidative molecules that can rapidly destroy NO in the bloodstream. Polyphenols also stimulate NO production directly, and arteries benefit by learning to relax and suffering clogs less readily.

A paper just out in PLOSOne (always and ever open access) convincingly adds to evidence that caffeic acid, a polyphenol in which white wines are particularly rich, increases arterial lining NO production. The research team demonstrated that caffeic acid increases NO, but also that it improves arterial cell function and slows kidney disease damage in mice. Translating caffeic acid-dosed mice to white wine-dosed humans is still a leap we’ve not yet made, but it’s a likely one. Doses mice received were along the lines of what a moderately-drinking wine lover might ingest, and these sorts of mouse experiments have worked well to model human arterial disease in the past.

In short, there’s a good argument to be made that white wine is good for your heart. As good as red? That’s going a step too far, and not least of all because individual wines vary so much in their concentrations of resveratrol and caffeic acid and total polyphenols that we’d need to compare individual wines rather than try to stereotype by color. But the next time someone tries to talk you out of a glass of Chablis or riesling in favor of the red option for the sake of your health, don’t let them. You know more than they do.

In other news: three useful-if-not-groundbreaking reviews arose in recent days, on biotech uses for winery waste products, causes of and solutions for protein hazes, and polyphenols found in oak. Details are here.

For organic wine, sharing information isn’t always better

Premise one: Organic labeling laws are complicated, non-intuitive, vary from country to country, and are disputed more or less everywhere.

Premise two: When Joni Mitchell sings “give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees,” not everyone agrees with her, and some people think the spotty apples aren’t going to be very good.*

Warrant: Because consumers are confused by what “organic” means and because they associate “organic” with forlorn and spotty produce from the non-local and meagre selection at the grocery store, some may think that wine labeled “organic” is sub-par.

The most useful part of a recently published study on “eco-labeling” may not be the data, but the way the authors explain why it’s worth talking about in the first place. They explain “eco-labeling” as being about alleviating information asymmetry between producers and consumers, which is another way of saying that labelling is about trying to share what we know. And with wine, knowledge often goes along with enthusiasm.

Organic wine marketing ends up singing the same song I hear so often from folk in science communication: I know that my science is phenomenally exciting/important; I want to tell everyone else about it; why can’t I get everyone else as excited as I am? All of that excitement and deep caring makes it easy to fall into the solipsistic trap of telling everyone else all of the great details about what I do so that they can know how great it is, too.

Delmas and Lessem’s is only the most recent in a line of studies saying that more sharing isn’t always better. In an online simulated buying exercise, they asked potential wine buyers to choose which bottle they’d prefer to buy amongst a few invented-but-likely California cabernet sauvignons** with labels indicating “organic wine,” “made with organic grapes,” or none of the above. The wines were, in different versions of the exercise, from Napa or from Lodi and priced at $8, $15, $22, or $29.*** Their survey respondents were mostly Californian and younger, better educated, and a good deal better off than national averages, but so are a lot of potential wine consumers and what they found is consistent with previous studies.

A third of their respondents buy organic products on at least half of their shopping trips and 20% said they belonged to some kind of pro-environmental organization, and these folk were more inclined to prefer the organic-labeled wines. But better educated and wealthier respondents were more inclined to choose wines without organic designations. Lower-priced Lodi wines with organic on the label faired better than higher-priced “organic” or “made with organic grapes” Napa wines.

All of this is to say that this study is one more in a pile saying that consumers — even well-heeled Whole Foods-shopping eco-conscious Californian consumers — probably still think organic wine is wan and spotty. If you’re trying to sell premium wine and your environmental conscious leads you down the organic route, more information isn’t necessarily better.

The problem with marketing studies is that despite all their schmancy formulae and big tables full of numbers and tests for statistical significance, they don’t tell us much. Did people who didn’t prefer organic wines (especially the regular organics buyers) avoid them because of past experiences with icky low-quality bottles? Because they’ve heard stories about other people’s experiences with icky low-quality bottles? Because they know the details of the sulfite controversy, or just assume that organic wine isn’t as good, or because they think organic wines are overpriced or have cooties? If we can get those marketing folk to spend some of their time talking to people instead of just crunching numbers, organic supporters will have a better song to sing when we come back to those labeling disputes.


*Writes with sadness the person who’s been happily munching spotty apples from a nearby feral apple tree  that easily beat out any of the overhybridized, artificially sweet specimens from the grocery store or even the farmers’ market.

**Amusingly enough, their likely-sounding fictitious wine brands were common French surnames. Because, sensibly enough, consumers expect Californian wines to look and sound French. Really?

***Though how you simulate a believable $8 Napa cab, organic or not, is beyond me. Have I mentioned my qualms with marketing studies? This study makes a lot of assumptions that I find unwarranted, but none that substantially affect the core findings of their survey.

The National Science Foundation’s new policy means better wine research access (and maybe just better research)

Last week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that any journal article published as a result of funding issued from its coffers must be made freely available to everyone. The policy goes into effect for papers published in and after January 2016. Let’s get the two caveats out of the way first:

  1. Articles must be made available within 12 months of publication, so SAGE and Elsevier and the rest of the journal hogs (I’d prefer to use stronger language) have a year’s space for embargo policies. (Though there’s already work to make this 6 rather than 12 months.)
  2. The NSF won’t (for now, at least) compile it’s own article archive. They’ll have a database of titles and authors and abstracts and such with links to full-text articles available on publishers’ websites. That’s cheaper in the short term but less than ideal: different journals’ formats will make collecting “big data” sort of information harder, and we’re still tied to those journal hogs.

This is still a good thing. Between this and similar policies at the other major U.S. funding agencies (the National Institutes of Health did this, plus creating their own archive in PubMedCentral, in 2008), the published results of essentially any research project funded at least partially by the American government belong to everyone, worldwide. A good example of NSF-funded wine-related research is California-based work on the glassy winged-sharpshooter. Hardly mitigates the harm our government has done to the world, but it’s nice, and it makes the slope toward information being shared freely for everyone’s benefit a little slipperier.

Many wine industry folk look to Google for technical information and browse what surfaces pretty omnivorously, reading reports in trade journals, scientific articles or their abstracts, agricultural news, other farmers’ blogs…so long as it doesn’t end in .porn or seem to be published by a puppy mill in a third-world country, it’s probably at least worth a look. That said, some sources are more reputable than others and some of the most reputable are the most inaccessible: unless you’re a student or staff member at a tertiary educational institute, or unless your sugar-daddy parent company buys a subscription to AJEV, you’ll only see one-paragraph summaries (abstracts) of scientific articles.

The new NSF policy helps change that. Not all American wine research receives government funding, and countries such as Australia and New Zealand still think that research resources should be walled off just to their domestic levy-payers. The EU has exhorted it’s member countries to implement “European-level open access,” but maybe they’ll eventually care that this isn’t doing global social justice any good. Still, this means that winemakers’ (and everyone’s) Google searches will now lead to more full-blown studies with methods and detailed results and all of those other useful middle bits not encapsulated in the one-paragraph summary.

I think that open access will do more than just make it easier for everyday non-academics to see journal articles. I think that this will change the way scientists interact with the “end users” of research and, maybe, eventually, how those journal articles are written. Let’s say that you’re a winemaker trying to learn more about bacteria and soil health (already open-access thanks to the Department of Energy’s policy). You search for key words, find and read an interesting-sounding article, and have a question. You can, if you’ve got gumption, email one of the scientist-authors to ask it. And since most scientists are nice-but-busy people who want their work to matter to someone, you have a decent chance of seeing a reply.

In other words, the audience for scientific publications — especially for applied, industry-relevant research — is getting bigger. As it does, scientists may begin thinking about writing conclusions that acknowledge the interests of those non-scientists, and writing more clearly, and helping everyone — scientists included — see and make better connections between bitty research findings and the bigger world. That’s the real purpose of scientific research — to doodle in the blank spaces on the shared knowledge map of humanity. Open access helps.