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Bucher optical sorter

This post by Dr. Vino got me thinking about where our mad dash toward a machine-generated world is headed.

The intrepid reporter ventures to Napa Valley to check out an optical sorting machine, technology pioneered in Europe that has come to our shores for $175k a pop. Instead of having people sort the picked fruit off a vibrating sorting table, the machine runs the fruit through a destemmer, then snaps pictures and blasts offending berries off the conveyor belt with a blast of air (sometimes called the “air knife”). The final bin ultimately contains berries without blemishes.

I’m no luddite. I love my machines and wouldn’t want to do without them. The revolution in winemaking technology over the past 30 years has made good wine more plentiful and accessible. What’s not to like?

But I wonder, as we blindly plunge down the techno rabbit hole, whether wine quality is always best served by technology. Technology gives winemakers more control over their final product and enables them to eliminate flaws that in the past warranted a pour down the drain. But there are flaws that make a wine undrinkable—TCA, too much volatile acidity—and flaws that give wines character—a little brett, a modicum of volatile acidity, or grippy tannins that make the finish sing. One flaw that can give wines their unique character is varying degrees of berry ripeness, which presumably this sorting machine would eliminate. It would also reduce the use of whole-cluster fermentation or carbonic maceration both of which are important methods in the winemaker’s arsenal.

Do we risk creating an excessively standardized winescape—lots of great wines that taste the same—when winemakers employ too much technology. Will perfectly coiffed and manicured wines support an army of serious wine drinkers who look for difference, originality, and sometimes eccentricity?

An analogy with creativity in the arts is useful here. Artists and musicians seldom report beginning a project with a clear idea of how it will finally look or sound. It is only via the process of trial and error, working around obstacles, and solving problems that spontaneously arise, that a work of art finally take shapes. And it is usually impossible to know ahead of time when a work will be finished; at some point it just seems like further modifications and additions will not be an improvement. What counts as a flaw often cannot be determined early on.

Back in the day when I was a musician and songwriter, I would begin to write a song with only the vaguest notion of what it will sound like in the end. Often what seemed to be a flaw, a problem to be solved, would stubbornly persist and become the leitmotif of the work. The recording process was serendipitous in the same way. The fortuitous mistake would be the theme that makes the recording pop.

We are just not that good at imagining perfection before it falls in our lap and we can only tolerate perfection when it is something that is constantly slipping away from us.

Giving winemakers more control is probably a good thing for the creative process just as the development of the synthesizer has been a good thing for musical creativity. But technology that forecloses possibilities, that makes down the happy accident unlikely, will not in the end serve the artistry of winemaking.

I’m not sure that the optical sorter is pernicious. I’m just wondering.

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