Wine, Scientism and Specialization

wine scienceI complained recently about Mark Mathews new book Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, arguing that it’s obvious to anyone with a passing acquaintance with wine that climate,weather, sun exposure, yeast, bacteria, and soil—all aspects of terroir—help explain wine flavors.

Matt Kramer has now piled on as well with more insight about how someone so learned as Mathews, a professor of oenology at UC Davis, can go so wrong.

I wish I had a dollar for every winemaker and grapegrower I’ve met in Napa, Sonoma and elsewhere in the world of fine wine who have told me that they had to unlearn everything they were taught by their wine science professors in order to gain traction in their fine-wine ambition. Too often the nuances sought for fine wine are not necessarily captured by the “facts” established in one or another often-narrow scientific experiment.

Kramer accuses Mathews of scientism—the belief that only scientific knowledge counts as real knowledge and everything else is just nonsense. The charge seems appropriate here.

Science is of course a hugely successful enterprise that serves as the most impressive exemplar of genuine knowledge we have. One can’t do epistemology (theory of knowledge) without understanding how and why science works. And we have no reason to doubt settled, scientific consensus on any topic that has been subjected to thorough scientific scrutiny.

But, as they say in the computer science field, garbage in, garbage out, and Kramer points to the problem with Mathews’ hasty conclusions.

One of the features of professor Matthews’ book—and virtually all of the others of its sort penned by his fellow academic wine scientists—is that it never reports actually tasting wines, let alone trying to correlate tasting experience with academic knowledge. Nowhere in Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing does the author refer to a tasting experience. Such a thing is too subjective and thus inherently suspect.

This is a stunning claim and a wholesale indictment of Mathews approach to wine knowledge.

Mathews and his ilk are looking at a narrow range of data excluding facts that are too ambiguous to fit their need for quantification and exact measurement. So, to draw on another cliché, if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. If quantification pays the bills then everything will be quantified or made to disappear. Many scientists are specialists interested in the parts but ignoring the whole if the whole can’t be neatly packaged for easy access with the tools at hand.

And wine doesn’t lend itself to that kind of inquiry. Wine cannot be understood in a laboratory. It needs to be understood in context, among people tasting, enjoying and learning together. The investigation of wine is an intellectual pursuit but you can’t understand it without bringing in culture, tradition, and various tasting communities with their own aesthetic interests all trying to grasp something inherently ambiguous and a bit mysterious. With regard to wine, If academic knowledge is not trying to explain tasting experience then what exactly is it doing and why?

No doubt the wine world is fraught with half-truths, mythologies, and ideological snafus that wine science can help to untangle. That Mathews seems to have no interest in the tasting experience, however, speaks volumes about the limits of science when its focus is too narrow.

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