A Humanist Rationale for Wine Science

Wine writers have all manner of reasons for writing about wine: the people, the moments of beauty, deciphering complexity for the hapless consumer, a passion for free samples. Why I write about wine is a question I perennially reconsider – the answer seems to keep changing – but I can always take the easy (and true, if not exclusively true) cop-out: wine is a fantastic vehicle for helping people learn about science.

Still, that answer begs the question: why is it good or valuable or worthwhile to help people learn about science? I’m currently studying in a department called the Centre for Science Communication, a magical place where everyone cares about bringing Science to the Everyman in accessible and entertaining ways. Some reasons for teaching people about science are pragmatic: better-educated people should make better decisions. Show people the beauty of the penguin or the wild orchid and empower them to care more about how their lives affect the natural world. It’s the democratic argument for why we have compulsory education: educate everyone enough to make them good (enough) citizens. Educate them more and make them better citizens. Or, if you prefer, the capitalist argument: people who know more science can do jobs that involve more science and generate more revenue than the ignorant. All good.

But I chose a small liberal arts college for my undergrad years, where I studied music and philosophy along with my molecular biology. I’m not all pragmatist; I believe in my heart of hearts in a liberal education. Learning makes us better people because it increases our appreciation and enjoyment of the world, because men were made to live and living is more than mere work and production. Moreover, learning makes us able to see. We only see what we can conceptualize, things for which we’ve created mental boxes. The Inuit can see twenty different kinds of snow; the educated oenophile can see twenty different kinds of pinot noir. The more we see, the more we are able to observe and to strive to understand, the more able we are to seek truth in all of its forms, and this is the highest calling of man. I don’t really write about wine science because it helps people learn about science. I write about wine science because I want to help people see and seek to understand.

I’ve been sipping on the taMt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noiril-end of a bottle of Mt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noir as I’ve been writing this. The wine is pretty (see below). The website gives me more than the usual information about how the wine was made, and that makes me happy. Can I taste the seven days of cold soaking or smell the twice-daily punch downs? Heck no. By knowing these details, am I thereby prompted to see and seek to understand more about the wine? Yes.  

Mt. Beautiful 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Noir (NZ $29.90) – smells like flowers and raspberries; very fresh, very nice. Fruity, but enough acidity and astringency to save it from being just fruity, with helpful if unexpected tannins on the finish. If not wildly complex, a pleasant iteration of a light, cool-climate style Pinot Noir. 

4 thoughts on “A Humanist Rationale for Wine Science

  1. Thanks for having provided such a rational and thoughtful explanation about how wine can be viewed on so many levels, including the scientific. This is the primary reason why I decided to earn an oenology degree in France. I enjoy your clear and easy-to-understand explanation of wine science, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover the website for Mt. Beautiful wines. It’s an excellent example of how a winery can provide clear and intelligent information about what makes its wines special.

  2. Thanks for this post! It comes at the perfect time for me, as I have been rethinking a bit how I ended up in the wine world and where I want to go from here. This piece gave me a lot of good fodder to add to my decision making as I start an internship in a wine lab next week. Thanks for sharing!

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