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11.02.2010

Winemakers Howling at the Moon, and Other Follies

moon.jpgThe esteemed Mr. Jay McInerney recently penned a blog post in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Fine Wine by Moonlight? Not So Much..." in which he related a recent occasion where all the bottles of fine wine he opened at dinner showed poorly, or at least, under their potential. It happened to be a full moon that evening, which led him to wonder... well, you know.

McInerney opens his column with the quip that perhaps he has been "spending too much time looking into biodynamic viticulture." Even without his recent forays into the wilds of heavily trademarked anthroposphic agriculture, it's quite commonplace to hear people speak about the effect of the moon on many things in the human domain, but especially wine.

The only problem? It's all complete hogwash.

Hogwash, that is, provided you believe in the scientific method and the facts about our existence that such inquiry has managed to unearth, such as the principles of Newtonian physics. Practitioners of biodynamics do not, as a rule, so we don't need to spend much time arguing about their use of astrology to make wine.

But the pull of the moon, if you'll forgive the expression, is strong even amongst winemakers that are avowed skeptics of many aspects of biodynamic winegrowing. I've heard such folks suggest that fermentations behave differently based on the phases of the moon, that racking wine at a new moon makes for clearer wine (a common practice among biodynamic winemakers), and that, yes, the moon can affect how wines taste out of the bottle.

Such beliefs are simply modern incarnations of what were once commonplace suppositions, such as the fact that women's menstrual cycles were governed by the moon, or that the full moon caused mental breaks (hence "lunacy" and "lunatic"), or that we had more drunk driving accidents at the full moon.

All of these have been disproven by modern statistical analysis, biology, and physics.

But it's not hard to understand the inclination to believe them, nor the inclination to believe that the moon can affect our bodies in general, or other containers of liquids both large and small. After all, we see the clear power of the moon over the oceans in the form of tides, which can be so dramatic in their movement that it's not hard to think that perhaps the same force is exerted in smaller multiples over other fluids.

But if Mr. McInerney (or anyone else that harbors such thoughts) bothered to look at the science, they'd see that as "intuitive" as such thoughts are, they are a great example of how our common sense betrays us.

In short, here's why the moon cannot affect a bottle of wine, a barrel of wine, or the 60% of our bodies' mass which is water:

Tides are created not by the simple gravitational tug of the moon on the bit of the ocean closest to it, but by the differential in gravitational pull of the moon on different parts of the ocean. The pull in some areas is stronger (the side of the earth closest to the moon at the time) and the pull in other areas is weaker (the side farther away). To oversimplify slightly it's the difference in these two pulls that actually creates the tides. It's worth noting that the sun actually accounts for about 30% of the gravitational forces at work to create the tides.

The gravitational force of one body on another is partially a product of the mass of those bodies, and their distance from one another. As a result the person opening the wine bottle has a greater effect on a bottle of wine from the standpoint of pure gravitation than the moon does.

Once science has ruled out the one tangible force that the Moon could possibly use to affect anything on Earth, all we're left with is, what? The moonlight?

Actually, what we're left with is our psychology, which is more powerful than most forces of the universe.

As someone who has opened his share of bottles that didn't quite taste as good as they should have, I understand the deep desire for some cause, especially one that, should we be aware of it, we might avoid in the future. But we must simply accept the effects of time, temperature, and random chance on our wines, just as we must on our lives.

The moon is romantic, as is wine, but that doesn't mean there is any connection.

Comments (11)

Roger Beery wrote:
11.03.10 at 8:32 AM

Very well said.

11.03.10 at 11:11 AM

Alder, some important facts have been overlooked in your rant. I am pleased to add them here.

--Corks stripped from trees at the full moon have less TCA because the elves push the molecules out at the time of the highest gravitational pull. This gives cork an great advantage over Stelvins which do not respond to gravity.

--It is a well-known but little publicized fact that the sprinkling of pixie dust at the full moon is every bit as effective as the spreading of various noxious blends of elements.

--Despite the claims that planting cow horns full of manure is good for the vitality of the soil, it is also true that the elves in the ground whose job it is to push the vines up do not like cow manure, thereby causing certain vines closest to the shit to be less productive.

--Where is Stu Smith now that we need him?

--Oliver Humbrecht once told a bunch of journalists that the best thing BioD had done for him was to make him much more aware of his vineyards and their health. In that, I have no argument.

--I am rigidly agnostic about all claims that anything a winery does is THE ANSWER. I prefer to let the wines do the talking. Since BioD wines show no better or no worse generally, I remain rigidly agnostic.

--That does not keep me from being both skeptical and amused at the continuing debate. Thanks for waking me up in time for the Giant's parade.

Jason wrote:
11.03.10 at 12:55 PM

Don't confuse the issue with inconvenient things like facts.

John Townley wrote:
11.03.10 at 5:50 PM

Some time ago, at a party on board one of my favorite tall ships, I was standing on deck as the full Moon rose, listening to a self-absorbed engineering-B.S. type wax on about how “scientifically” we couldn’t possibly be influenced at all by things in the sky because of Newton’s “inverse square law.” [that is: gravitational attraction is proportionate to the size (mass) of the objects involved and the square of their distance] Why, my goodness, he himself had more gravitational effect on us right there sipping cocktails than anything that far away in space, he boasted. It seemed so authoritatively reasonable the way he put it, and everyone nodded accordingly without refutation, but by the time he had finished his lecture on the official physics of life along with a couple more drinks, we all had been raised a full foot-and-a-half higher than when he started, and along with us the boat and everything on it. The Moon, it seems, wasn’t listening to the conversation, or was at least ignoring his intellectual point, if not his physical position. In the unspoken debate, Q.E.D., Moon wins.

It's not about the local effect, but the effect on the system within which it develops, wine or otherwise...

Alder Yarrow wrote:
11.03.10 at 6:04 PM

John,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. As someone who runs an astrology site I don't necessarily expect you to agree with me, but your story, while charming, doesn't refute the science, it merely reinforces the flawed "common sense" that we all walk around with.

John Townley wrote:
11.03.10 at 6:18 PM

Appreciate it, Alder. But it doesn't attempt to refute the science, only its casually inappropriate application. If there is science in biodynamics, it is in the lunar gravitational rhythms (though nocturnal light may be involved as a diurnal-cycle trigger, as it is in fish migrations) as they effect the entire physical and biological environment surrounding the crop, not the single grape or later bottle. The problem of too many defensive debunkers is that they so often attempt to debunk arguments that have never been proposed to begin with...

11.03.10 at 11:37 PM

Let's face it. The boat may have been lifted a foot and a half but I have yet to see a tidal swing in my wine.

Let's face it. The crop does not get pushed harder in the full moon because everything around it moves together.

And finally, let's face it. In blind tastings, BioD wines do not do any better statistically than non-BioD wines. Indeed, there is even some evidence that all this soil health produces healtier plant life at the expense of the grapes. I can't prove that. I just taste them and comment. And I see no empirical evidence that comparable wines are improved by BioD. I also see no evidence, despite claims I have read, that they are injured. What I see is that the wine itself is not improved and thus it matters not that your boat went up a foot and a half because your wine did not.

I have nothing against anyone's belief system. I am stone solid in my religious beliefs, for example, but do not expect anyone to follow them and do not hold them out as fact or better than the next guys. And if it is not observable in the end product, then it is simply a belief system, not a fact.

1winedude wrote:
11.04.10 at 4:51 AM

Awesome!

Now we just need to get Creationist wine lovers to acknowledge that we wouldn't actually have wine without evolution... oh, wait a second, it's already been done!

http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~ballardh/pbio480/thisetal2006-winegrapegeneticdiversity.pdf

;-)

11.05.10 at 9:34 AM

John, BioD winemakers have indeed suggested it is "larger gravitation" that "improves" racking of wines on the full moon. This is what Alder has debunked quite correctly. As far as tides are concerned, it's the spatial derivative of the gravitational force that matters. A smaller nearby object, the moon, will tend to win out over a massive distant object, the sun, since this quantity goes as d^-3. In terms of gravitational force, though, the sun wins out over the moon, but indeed a person standing nearby may well produce a larger gravitational force upon you than the sun depending on his distance. The BioD explanation of gravitational influence and lunar cycles is simply wrong.

Your point regarding moonlight, however, is worth further investigation. This absolutely may make a difference as plant physiology depends directly upon flux of incident light. What's missing, however, is evidence of why harvesting or pruning on the full moon is superior to vineyard work on the new moon. Let's try to understand what the effect is so that it may be harnessed optimally instead of making assumptions.

John, you also dismiss reductionist arguments because you claim it is the whole system that matters. This is true to some extent, especially because science functions best as a reductionist methodology. But that does not shift the burden of proof in any way shape or form. It is up to you to make the connection or at least demonstrate rigorously that a certain set of circumstances yields a superior result.

david pierson wrote:
11.07.10 at 9:24 PM

I'm not surprised that a hack novelist would be a hack wine writer... but jeesssuuuusss, the flowery comments after would do Miles and his with just a hint of asparagus proud...

11.08.10 at 1:43 PM

Hi Alder et al--
I hope you will read my forthcoming book on biodynamic wine, due to be published April 2011! I do quote a physicist who says “It's utterly implausible that there are gravitational effects of the moon on plants.”
I'd also point out that Demeter does not require proof of adherence to any lunar calendar for Biodynamic certification. This is something that practitioners do purely by choice. Many practitioners I spoke with told me they followed lunar calendars simply out of a sense of tradition (ie "they do it in Burgundy"). I also heard practitioners say that it's just a simple way of determining a day to do things (ie "let's rack on Wednesday because it's the best day according to the lunar calendar"). There is a surprising amount of banality in Biodynamics. I think outsiders like McInerney get more caught up in the hocus-pocus than most practitioners do.
Cheers,
Katherine Cole
PS: Apologies if this posts twice.

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