Could science kill the magic of wine?

Does an increased scientific understanding of wine kill the magic?

This is a question I find myself asking with increasing frequency. If our progress in wine science means we can deconstruct the flavour of wine, and then link this back to viticulture and winemaking, would this take away some of the fun?

In my former work life I remember attending a scientific meeting on empathy. Gathered in a small room were some of the leading researchers who’d studied this particular human trait, and they spent three days discussing it.

My concern? If our enhanced understanding of this (or any) human attribute progresses too far, it can take some of the meaning out of life. Indeed, one of the scientists at the meeting made this point: there’s a danger that much that is valuable, significant and even spiritual in our relationships is spoiled by peering at it too closely through a scientific lens.

I want to believe that the reciprocal care and affection shared among my friends and family is through choice, spurred on by love. It doesn’t help me to have this explained in terms of a wiring for empathy that results from evolution. If my behaviour is explained merely in terms of genes and chemicals and electrical wiring in my brain, this sort of understanding can rob my life of meaning.

I love science. I love wine science. I strive for an increased understanding of how terroir works, for example. And I’d love it if science could help more interesting wine to be made more cheaply, so more people could have access to it. And being an impatient sort, I’d like to see the timescale for identifying great sites and then making great wine from these new vineyards reduced a bit from the current 30 or 40 years it usually takes.

But ultimately there is a magic to wine. It’s about agency. Wine is not made by people. People are, of course, vital partners in the process, but great wine is made by the site, the vines and the fermentative microbes (yeast and bacteria). It is a gift from nature. It would be awful to spoil this by knowing too much.

15 comments to Could science kill the magic of wine?

  • I don’t think it can. Quite the opposite, I would imagine, it just increases the pleasure we get from the beverage to understand more about it than just what we get from drinking it. Or do you think that understanding how pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin work to create feelings of romantic love diminishes the love the scientist feels? No matter what field I look into, I always find the reality far more amazing and wonderful than I would have expected, and what little wine science I have so far read has similarly enriched my drinking pleasure.

  • Hi Jamie,

    I respectfully disagree. Wine is certainly made by people. Even if it is metaphorical to say that wine is made by the place, if it is repeated 1000 times, it starts to be accepted in a literal sense. Wine is made by the people who spend all year in the vineyards and all harvest in the winery. The place can help make the wine magical, make it unique, make it special. But it can’t make a wine.

  • Phil Handford

    You are not alone in your thinking. I am sure research money can be better spent on research into yield management, ripening and disease control.

    In the past I thought flavour analysis was interesting from a scientific angle but now I realise there are so many variables beyond man’s control – such as the way weather effects flavour development that it seems pointless to deconstruct wine flavours. Wine is a hugely complex chemical product lets enjoy it for its unkown.

  • Chris Williams

    Personally, as scientific enquiry opens up our understanding of nature, I become more awestruck and look on at these revelations in greater wonder than if they remain opaque or undiscovered. I can remember very clearly as a young teenager learning about atomic physics while at the same time beginning to question the religious teachings of my upbringing. The laws that govern existence are so much more enthralling and beautiful than ignorance or superstition and greater understanding and appreciation of these forces only makes me marvel more at the improbability and serendipity of it all.
    Without exception, the more I learn about the gifts of nature, the more I love them

  • Belinda Kemp

    Deconstructing wine flavours and aromas helps us to understand vineyard and winemaking techniques and their impact on the final wines. Additionally the flavour & aroma analysis has shed light on wine regions and specific traits/compounds found in their wines and from wines made from a particular vineyard site – is this not part of the Terroir research? An understanding of viticulture and oenology is vital to make informed vineyard management and winemaking decisions and to understand the their impact on the grapes and wine.

  • I have never understood the argument that understanding something makes it less meaningful. Understanding empathy as a set of dispositions made possible by evolution makes it more intelligible not less. Why would that understanding make someone else’s pain less worthy of a response?

    The alternative is that it is an uncaused capacity that has magically appeared in human nature. How is that more meaningful?

    The same is true of wine. Understanding how the peculiar weather conditions, soil components, and grape varietals of Cote d’Or produces the flavors and textures of a Grand Cru provides context for what is otherwise a meaningless (albeit enjoyable) collection of sensations, especially when the aesthetic sensibilities of the people of Burgundy are included in the account.

    The alternative is just ignorance, which I don’t find at all awe-inspiring.

  • Deconstructing wine into its parts is one thing, but the human and spiritual experiences are even more of the magic of wine. Where does the wine take us while we swirl, sniff and taste? What about who we share it with? My photographs of wine through a microscope may be considered science, maybe they’re art, for sure they reveal more of the magic of the amazing elixir we call wine.

  • Jaime, I really disagree with the statement about spoiling something by knowing too much. I think knowing as much as we can about everything is a good thing — but wine appreciation is very much helped by science and the understanding it brings. So much of what we think we know about wine is really untested assumptions. What we think we know is, in fact, a sort of cultural imperialism: we think we shouldn’t irrigate vines post-veraison… Why? Because the French have never done so and even have a law preventing it. But it turns out — surprise! — water is good for plants and late-season irrigation actually improves fruit quality. That’s a fact determine, and a myth buster, by science. We are busting myths and improving consumer experience with science, as well. When we can actually substantiate and quantify the subjective review (“jammy, with a hint of spice” or whatever), we are going to be able to write more reliable reviews, which in turn will better educate consumers and — hey! — sell more wine. In short, I think your fear of science is misplaced: it is ignorance we should fearlessly combat.

  • Magic doesn’t exist. It is an erroneous and uninformed explanation of observable occurrences. Most children know that by age 7 or 8.
    So the question should be: “should adults who can afford wine and (are supposed to be able to) discern its finer points bring their intellectual conceptualization of a commercial good to be on par with their biological and underdevelopmental age?”

  • At the bottom it’s a question of epistemology, that means it’s not a question of ‘how much we know’ but a question of ‘what’s our relation to the knowledge we have’.

    I can assure you that primitive people did not enjoy reproduction more than we do although they did not fully understand the specifics of fertilization.

    Cheers from Finland,

    Arto

  • Here is an interesting video of Richard Feynman discussing how science adds to the excitement and mystery of nature using the beauty of a flower as an example (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbFM3rn4ldo). I reckon we are still only at the tip of the iceberg – there’s still a lot more to understand and many more mysteries to unravel!

  • Stupid autocorrect…

    That last sentence of mine should have ended with:

    “…bring their intellectual conceptualization of a commercial good to be on par with their biological and **neurodevelopmental** age?”

  • David Vergari

    Science hasn’t killed wine yet and I doubt that it ever will. Much ado about nothing, IMO, and I attended university to study wine.

  • I definetely agree with Arto Kosekolo (good reproduction argument Arto!). It is a question of epistemology. It is not what you know but what you choose to do with your knowledge.

    In Cognitve Science we had the same discussion about conciousness. Will neuroscience take the magic out of consciousness and “the way it feels” to experience something? I think some 30 years of research have proven that it does not!
    The same goes for physics. Our increased knowledge of how the world works and are put together haven’t diminished the wonder we feel when for example we take a dive in to the ocean.

    Wine science can give us all kind of new useful knowledge and tools for making better wines. We can choose to use those tools as we see fit – but it does not compel force us to use those tools. More knowledge is almost always better and ignorance is very seldom bliss! ;)

    I think the natural wine movement, that you have written so extensively and well about Jamie, is a good case point in the debate. Here we have a lot guys sometimes going against “the scientific tradition” but still producing great wines. Others, doing equally good wines, are quite scientific in their approach and still choose to make wines in the artisinal and “natural” way. The latter at least knows why something functions (or depending on the current state of knowledge – are on their way to a better understanding of) why things work and why the wines taste good. And that can’t be bad! :)

  • Erik Jurisch

    Well said Magnus, science is a tool to which helps us gain knowledge. It is up to peoples’ consciousness on how to employ that knowledge. Science does not make wine just how a place does not make wine, people do. Wine is a product of peoples’ conscious effort that inherently involves plenty of mystery, magic and fun.

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