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12.31.2005

Can Computers Make for Better Wine?

Some of the most lively discussions on Vinography have been about the role of technology in the winemaking process and how much is too much. When does wine go from a magical mix of human art and nature's bounty to a chemically engineered beverage? If a wine's taste has been engineered by more than the decisions of when and where to pick the grapes, what to ferment them in, and for how long, does that make it a lesser wine? There are all sorts of gray areas here which intrigue some people, send others running for the hills, and conjure bile and vitriol from still others.

So lets add to the fray.

Today CNN reports on a joint team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and some scientists in Chile who are trying to understand at a molecular level the various chemicals which are responsible for the "good" tastes in wine, with the idea that if and when identified, this knowledge can help to make better tasting wine.

In particular, one area of focus is how yeasts turn the sugars of grapes into alcohol and the various chemical byproducts (ployphenols, flavinoids, etc.) which are responsible for the flavors of wine. Apparently this process isn't entirely understood, nor are all the various products of this complex biological transformation.

It's funny to listen to scientists talk about stuff that remains a bit of a mystery, as their rational, methodical sides struggle with the fact that chemical analysis never quite squares with the perception of taste, for instance.

In any case, it's interesting work to keep an eye on, and it makes for interesting hypothetical discussions. Will such research, which will invariably result in more technology being applied in the winemaking process only yield the oenological equivalents of MSG (chemical engineering to target specific physiological structures), or will it simply allow good winemakers to become better? Will it drive the homogenization of wine flavors or simply higher quality wines?

Comments (6)

John wrote:
12.31.05 at 8:58 PM

Happy New Year, and

It's fun to be curious about, and I think it has nothing to do with making wine fun, or good, to drink. I don't have any bottles that I would choose to drink day in and day out to the exclusion of others--variety is a critical ingredient.

Such things as in this article always have an effect at the fighting varietal level of winemaking (and this is by no means the first bit of this kind of research), but at the serious wine level things are far more contaminated by the tastemakers than by science. Happy New Year to you too, Mr. Parker. I don't think you've been a bad thing for wine, but it's not an automatic call either.

Mithrandir wrote:
01.02.06 at 10:26 AM

MSG was originally distilled from kelp broth in 1907, not chemically engineered. It is no less natural than tartaric acid, which is commonly added to wine.

So lets draw a line there, and consider whether crossing it is "ok". Tartaric acid (which occurs naturally in wine) is commonly added to wine to increase its acidity, and improve the quality of wine.

Is this ok?

It's not as if something new and foreign is being added. All wine contains tartaric acid. The balance is just being adjusted.

I think there is a sense in which it is more "elegant" to make wine out of just the grapes, with no additions at all. It's just kind of cool.

At the same time, there would be less good wine in the world if this restriction were tightly adhered to. I like good wine.

So, on balance, I think I'd rather give winemakers the freedom to tweak the balance of what the vines provide than give up the current availability of high-quality wine.

Alder wrote:
01.02.06 at 10:31 AM

Wow. Now that I did not know about MSG. Most of it is synthetically produced now, though, right? And in much higher concentrations than you would ever find in kelp no doubt.

Great point, though, about what is artificial and what is not.

Mithrandir wrote:
01.02.06 at 12:01 PM

It sort of depends on what you mean by "synthetically produced". Glutamic acid is a naturally occurring amino acid - one of the twenty that humans require to survive, though the body can synthesize it so a dietary source is not necessary.

Industrially, it is generally produced by microorganisms via a fermentation process. Various things need to be done to purify it, of course - much like distilling alcohol. From there, turning Glutamic acid into MSG is fairly simple; probably along the lines of adding sodium (possibly as salt) and controlling the reaction temperature.

It's really hard to draw a solid line to divide "synthetic" from "natural". Most "natural flavors", for example, are much more heavily manipulated than this. The process for producing white table sugar is pretty involved, but is it "synthetically produced"?

MSG is sold pure, so it's certainly in higher concentration than occurs naturally. Of course, the same can be said of table sugar.

N.R. Carlson wrote:
01.02.06 at 12:15 PM

As I have spent the last 9 years as a winemaker, I come back time and again to the feeling that I could be much more accurately described as a “wine ecologist.” The things that I do in winemaking are really about gently manipulating the “ecosystem” that is the wine in order to encourage the enzymatic and biological activities that will improve or stabilize the wine, and at the same time discourage the negative biological communities or enzymatic / chemical processes. I strive for as much understanding of these processes as possible, as well as the most technologically effective tools to track and manipulate this “ecosystem” with accuracy and the least possible disruption.

But when does all of our technology obliterate the notion of terroir? If one wine tastes better to you (or me, or Robert Parker,) than another wine, is it fundamentally superior, or only until it owes that superiority to technological manipulation?

This is a conversation that is constantly ongoing among my fellow winemakers, winery owners, wine marketers, and wine drinking friends. Our stated goal is to make the best wine possible. We have tools that can make wines that will taste better, receive better scores, be more successful commercially, etc… As a company, do we decide to make use of these tools, despite the fact that they may obliterate the notion of terroir and very real fact of seasonal variation? What if we forsake these tools, while our competitors all around us utilize them?

Our industry needs a “Wine Ethicist!”

(I will post a longer response on my own blog, as I don't want to monopolize too much space here.)

Jonathan wrote:
01.02.06 at 3:04 PM

Technology is a tool. If it can make for better wine, so be it - no one says that art must be traded for the new toys.

I'd be more scared of the abuse, not use, of technology -- and not in terms of making wine, but in terms of profiling the wine to mass commercial appeal and shelf-sales , instead of profiling it to have a particular taste angled at by the winemaker.

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