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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 (116)

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 ).

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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.