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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.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise 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 Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud