Text Size:-+
08.29.2007

The Inexact and Ancient "Science" of Growing Stuff

Farmers, that is, people who spend pretty much all day trying to coax living things out of the soil are a real enigma. They are some of the most genuine, inspiring, hard working and determined people I have ever met. They are also some of the most superstitious, irrational folks I've ever had to deal with.

While the existence of modern science and big agro-businesses like Monsanto can easily lull us into believing that growing stuff is pretty much a science at this point, all you gotta do is ride around on a tractor for a day, or walk through a vineyard for an afternoon to know that even those folks that deploy sensor mesh networks and utilize satellite thermal imaging to do their farming still rely on a lot of gut, and a lot of tradition to do what they do.

And like a lot of stuff that we do "just because that's the way we've always done it" some modern viticultural practices are actually complete bunk. Now I'm sure that there are a lot of them that are fantastically effective, and many notions of the right way to farm a vineyard are held up as powerfully true by science all the time. But we don't tend to hear about science proving those old farmers right, because that's a boring story.

What we do hear about, and what always pique my interest, are the stories where a little experimentation shows that what we've always believed to be true, just isn't.

In a recent article in Wines & Vines Magazine, Paul Franson shares some of the latest scientific research into the effects of certain viticultural practices that are commonly accepted as beneficial, but upon further analysis turn out to be, well, not so important.

Now before I set you loose on the claims reported in this article, it's worth mentioning that because of how many variables are involved in farming and winemaking, many of which are difficult to control enough to result in scientifically comparable results, any study which claims to "prove" that something works or does not needs to be scrutinized heavily and replicated several times under various conditions.

So what have we been wrong about all these years?

1. Lowering yields in vineyards by dropping fruit does not mean higher quality fruit. Winemakers like to boast about how they restrict yields on their vines by dropping lots of fruit to the ground so that the vine can "concentrate" on ripening the remaining few clusters fully. Apparently this practice has no scientifically measurable impact on wine quality.

2. Complex vertical vine training does not inherently mean higher quality fruit. Not only does this sort of trellising not seem to have a consistent effect on the quality of the fruit produced, it's also a heck of a lot more expensive.

3. Deficit irrigation (restricting watering of vines during certain periods of growth or maturity) works at some points but not at others. Apparently this technique (used primarily in the New World) is overused, having positive effects early in the season, but little or even detrimental effects late in the season.

Makes me shake my head in wonder at all the times I've heard folks talk about stressing their vines and dropping fruit and the effort and time they put into their trellising. I'm sure some of that effort and faith is not misplaced, but I'd sure like to know how many more high effort, high cost, high faith vineyard and winemaking practices don't bear up to the scrutiny of a little scientific investigation. Anyone want to do a control against a buried cow horn?

Read the full story.

Comments (44)

Steve wrote:
08.30.07 at 7:42 AM

That may be, but it's also true that when you look at the viticultural practices behind the best wines, they're usually along those lines [low yields, VSP, etc.] Those practices [and other best practices in viticulture] don't guarantee great wine, but they do seem to make it more likely.

Josh wrote:
08.30.07 at 8:44 AM

Hey Alder,

I wish I had time to write a proper post on this, its a great article. Just a couple observations...

On #1, be careful about conflating "no difference in Brix" and "no difference in quality".

In the study the article cites, they found that dropping fruit did not have a measurable impact on sugar, which is only one (and IMO not the best) measure of ripeness. The article notes that "the fruit didn't taste the same". Well, that's a darn good reason to drop it then. To get high quality, you need uniformly mature (phenolics, taste, acid, and Brix) fruit. Dropping crop, especially in Pinot does help in that regard.

Great post as always.

Back to the vineyard!

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
08.30.07 at 12:14 PM

Alder,

Nice post but I have few things to consider. First is "quality fruit", anytime science takes on "quality" they are on very shakey ground. In terms of yield and "fruit quality" I am sure the author would agree that this is true in a given range of yields. If you crop Oregon Pinot Noir to 7 tons to the acre I promise you "fruit quality will suffer". But who really cares about fruit quality it is wine quality we care about and what I will say is that yield has a tremendous effect on wine STYLE. Quality is difficult to measure so yield may not correlate well with wine quality but it will correlate well with wine style. In fact one management comapany here in Oregon says that if you tell him what kind of wine you want to make ( style ) he will grow fruit to give that sytle by altering crop loads. Again, we are getting caught up in the defination of quality. Regarding the lack of correlation between VSP trellising and fruit quality, aside from the pitfalls of defining wine quality, there is another reason VSP is so widely used for quality wine production... Cost. It is well known that high hanging trellises can produce high quality wine ( lets assume fruit as well ) the problem is that it costs about twice as much in labor to do so. In cool climates such as Oregon VSP produces high quality wines because growers can afford to do what must be done to do so. If they were to use hanging trellis sytems the potential of wine quality is the same as VSP but the expense of realizing that potential greatly decreases the likelyhood of that happening.
I am sure this work was done in California and I would warn against generalizing the findings of studies conducted in warm climates, with high yielding varietals to cool climates with low yielding varietals. Just some food for thought!

Tyler T wrote:
08.31.07 at 12:47 PM

Alder -

Nice to see someone mainstream bringing attention to these facts. I was in the MS Viticulture and Enology program from 2002-2004 and it was interesting to see students who resisted this teaching despite the facts laid before them (old ideas die hard). The caution in the comments above is merited, but as per #1 and #3, quality was not just defined as the chemistry. Sensory work was also performed.

One reason this vintage may turn out to be so fantastic is because early (pre veraison) water stress was actually possible because of the low rainfall amounts this year. This has been shown to have a great impact (positively) on quality, more so than water stress later. Combine that with the consistent cool weather and it could be a good one. Incidentally, the yields are low BECAUSE of that low stress. I discussed this in a post over on my blog regarding this schematic from a UCD prof.: http://matthews.ucdavis.edu/Yield-Size.html . How the yields became low is more important than just being low. Nice work.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
08.31.07 at 3:06 PM

Tyler,

I have serious problems with studies of wine quality even when 'sensory' work is done. Quality is very hard to define and harder to measure. That said I do believe good (read: quality ) wine can be made at higher yields ( here in oregon 3.5ton/acre ) but again the style of the wine is quite different between 1.o, 2.0 and 3.0 ton/acre. Again the wine is made in the vineyard.
How many of your profs at Davis have actually managed vineyards and been responsible for growing fruit to be made into premium wines? I do find the work done by academics useful but when it comes to actually getting it done I will take the advice of an experienced grower any day. I do believe the scientific studies that illustrate the above points are numerous but more numerous are the experiences of growers and makers of wine. They suggest, nearly without exception, that yields ( and trellis ) have an effect on the wine.
The main point to consider in managing a vineyard is the sight specific nature of management descions. I am sure the work done by academics provides extremely useful information for the regions and specific sites studied but, I am sure you would agree, those findings are of limited use in other sites and regions. Here in Oregon, in a year like 2007, the differnece between 1.5 and 3.0 tons/acre won't just be a differnce between wine quality or wine style it could be the difference between harvesting a crop or not harvesting a crop. Until scientists come and do exhaustive experiments in my particular vineyard I am left to trust the only thing I have that has worked so far...my instincts.

nrc wrote:
08.31.07 at 4:23 PM

We have always found that we need to trial any practice on our fruit, in our appellation, over the course of several years before making pronouncements about whether it is working or not for our goals. Brix does not equal quality, as clearly pointed out by Alder, and I think Jerry is really doing us a favor by bringing up the subject of quality vs. style - just because a wine is not in a style which you appreciate, it may still be a wine of very high quality. The viticultural methods involved in attaining a certain style may be at odds with those for attaining a different style.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
08.31.07 at 8:11 PM

NRC,

You are definately right about trialing things and following these experiments into the winery because in the end who cares about the grapes? It is the wine we ( or at least I ) are interested in improving.
We also have to consider the vintage. In 2006 ( blistering hot vintage ) many of us left more crop on, not only because we were sure we could get it ripe but also because we hoped it would slow ripening down and balance sugar accumulation with flavor development. The same tonnages in 2007 ( coolest august in a decade ) might prove to be a challenge to ripen ( before Oregons famous rains arrive ).
Again as NRC points out, it is absolutely dependent on your sight and thus region. I have worked in New Zealand a couple of times and I can say that I often played the fool when opening my mouth assuming that what worked in Oregon worked in NZ ( the Kiwis took great joy in taking the piss out of me for it ).

09.28.14 at 8:09 PM

You could definitely see your skills within the article you write.
The sector hopes for even more passionate writers like you who
aren't afraid to say how they believe. Always go after
your heart.

biogeniste wrote:
09.28.14 at 9:10 PM

I love it when folks come together and share thoughts.
Great blog, keep it up!

09.28.14 at 11:06 PM

Thank you a bunch for sharing this with all of us you
actually realize what you are talking approximately!
Bookmarked. Please also visit my web site =).
We may have a hyperlink change agreement among us

09.29.14 at 1:28 AM

Cheers! I enjoy this!
xunjie ?????????????????????????????????3?4???????????????????
?????????????????????????????????????????????
???????????????? ??????? ?????????????
??????????????????????????????????????????
??????????????????????????????????? ??????? ??????????????????????????
??????????????????????????
????????????????????????????????????????
????????????????????????????
?????????????????????????????
????/??????????
???????????? ???????

09.29.14 at 1:47 AM

Aw, this was an extremely nice post. Taking the time
and actual effort to produce a very good article… but what can I
say… I put things off a whole lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

????? wrote:
09.29.14 at 2:51 AM

Reliable knowledge Thanks a lot.
xunjie ????????????????NicolasGhesquire????????????
??????????????????????
???????????? ???????????????
?????7???800???????????????
???????????????????????????????????????"
??????????????????? ?????2014 ????????????????????ERP????????????
????????????????????
???????????????????????????????????????? ????????????????????????????
?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
?????????????????????
????????????????????????????2010?3?1????????????????????"
???????????????

09.29.14 at 2:55 AM

You actually make it appear really easy together with your presentation however I in finding this topic to be actually something which I
believe I would never understand. It kind of feels too complicated
and extremely vast for me. I'm taking a look ahead for your next post,
I'll attempt to get the hold of it!

09.29.14 at 3:12 AM

You made some good points there. I checked on the web for more information about
the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this web site.

09.29.14 at 3:18 AM

Hello there I am so happy I found your blog, I really found you by error, while I
was browsing on Digg for something else, Anyhow I am here now and
would just like to say many thanks for a marvelous post and a all round entertaining blog (I also
love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read through it
all at the minute but I have saved it and also included
your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read much more, Please do keep up the great b.

09.29.14 at 3:49 AM

This website was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me.

Thanks a lot!

09.29.14 at 6:31 AM

Awesome article.

09.29.14 at 6:45 AM

I am really impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on
your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself?
Either way keep up the excellent quality writing, it's rare to see a great blog like this
one today.

reskin wrote:
09.29.14 at 7:02 AM

I got this website from my buddy who informed me about this website and at the moment this time I am visiting
this website and reading very informative articles or reviews at this place.

09.29.14 at 8:17 AM

GHG automatic curler
Hi, I do think this is a great blog. I stumbledupon it ;)
I am going to return yet again since I book marked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to
guide other people.

09.29.14 at 8:18 AM

Hi there! I could have sworn I've been to this site before but after reading
through some of the post I realized it's new
to me. Nonetheless, I'm definitely happy I found it and I'll be book-marking and checking back
often!

Alfonzo wrote:
09.29.14 at 9:02 AM

Allow us to take into account the words
of this sterling silver tongued orator, the uncompromising Odysseus
C.

09.29.14 at 9:03 AM

The gallery told the press that the painting was unsuitable for
'vulnerable adults' as well as children. “By eliminating illicit images in the workplace and identifying the people
responsible, The Irish company Auditor helps organisations and individual managers or
directors to avoid corporate or personal litigation. VCR's turned to DVD's and now
instant steaming on one's own television or acquiring a new movie every week in your mailbox is
usual.

09.29.14 at 11:22 AM

I like it when folks come together and share views.

Great website, stick wjth it!

09.29.14 at 12:07 PM

Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering
if you knew of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.
I've been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like
this. Please let me know if you run into anything.
I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

09.29.14 at 12:28 PM

Hola! I've been following your weblog for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Austin
Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the excellent work!

09.29.14 at 1:10 PM

No matter if some one searches for his necessary thing, thus he/she desires to be
available that in detail, so that thing is maintained over
here.

09.29.14 at 2:49 PM

It's remarkable to pay a visit this website and reading
the views of all colleagues on the topic of this article,
while I am also keen of getting know-how.

09.29.14 at 3:01 PM

Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.

After all I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

09.29.14 at 3:09 PM

WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for transcription words per minute

09.29.14 at 3:12 PM

We stumbled over here by a different web address and thought I might as well
check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you.

Look forward to looking at your web page again.

?????????? wrote:
09.29.14 at 3:13 PM

Outstanding quest there. What occurred after? Thanks!

09.29.14 at 5:11 PM

I am sure this paragraph has touched all the internet users, its really really good article on building up new webpage.

09.29.14 at 5:27 PM

You can use the cisco certification 642-732 cuwss course of ccnp2015 to
pass the exam. This includes DC Networking Infrastructure, Applications Services, Storage, and Unified Computing.
When our competitors products provide a basic 650-294 practice test to prepare you
for what may appear on the exam and prepare you for surprises, the - Exam1pass 650-294 exam questions are
complete, comprehensive and can guarantee to prepare you for your Cisco 650-294 exam.

09.29.14 at 5:51 PM

Hello there, I found your website by the use of
Google at the same time as searching for a related
subject, your site came up, it seems to be great. I've bookmarked it in my
google bookmarks.
Hello there, just became alert to your blog thru Google,
and found that it's really informative. I am going to watch out for brussels.
I will be grateful for those who proceed this in future. Numerous folks will likely be benefited from your writing.

Cheers!

Susanne wrote:
09.29.14 at 6:02 PM

Asking questions are in fact fastidious thing if
you are not understanding anything fully, but this article
presents nice understanding even.

09.29.14 at 6:08 PM

These of you who would love nothing less than superb dumpster rental service within the Boca Raton, FL area should call Ames Dumpster Rental's office at 888-416-8891.

09.29.14 at 7:46 PM

Thank you for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for
your further post thanks once again.

09.29.14 at 8:44 PM

Tout cees ?ost sont vér?tablement att?actifs

09.29.14 at 10:15 PM

I just like the valuable information you supply in your articles.
I'll bookmark your blog and test once more right here frequently.
I'm rather sure I'll be informed many new stuff right right here!
Best of luck for the next!

09.30.14 at 1:09 AM

Hello, I enjoy reading all of your article. I wanted to write a little comment to support you.

09.30.14 at 1:43 AM

I'll immediately seize your rss feed as I can not find your email subscription link or e-newsletter service.
Do you've any? Kindly allow me recognize so that I may subscribe.

Thanks.

09.30.14 at 2:08 AM

I seriously love your website.. Pleasant colors & theme.
Did you build this web site yourself? Please reply back as
I'm looking to create my own site and would like to learn where
you got this from or exactly what the theme is called.
Many thanks!

Comment on this entry

(will not be published)
(optional -- Google will not follow)
Yes
 

Type the characters you see in the picture above.

Buy My Book!

small_final_covershot_dropshadow.jpg A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.

Follow Me On:

Twitter Facebook Pinterest Instagram Delectable Flipboard

Most Recent Entries

Vinography Unboxed: Week of September 21, 2014 The Essence of Wine is Ready to Buy! Vinography Images: Spring Carpet California Law and Wine: Ups and Downs From the Quiet Garden: The Wines of Pichler-Krutzler, Wachau, Austria Tallying the Damage from the Napa Quake Vinography Images: A Sea of Blue Vinography Unboxed: Week of September 14, 2014 The Taste of Something New: Introducing Solminer Wines Vinography Images: Swift Work

Favorite Posts From the Archives

Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo, Toyama Prefecture Wine.Com Gives Retailers (and Consumers) the Finger 1961 Hospices de Beaune Emile Chandesais, Burgundy Wine Over Time The Better Half of My Palate 1999 Királyudvar "Lapis" Tokaji Furmint, Hungary What's Allowed in Your Wine and Winemaking Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Appreciating Wine in Context The Soul vs. The Market 1989 Fiorano Botte 48 Semillion,Italy

Archives by Month

 

Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.