Science and Wine Vocabulary: An Uneasy Pairing

chemical analysisI have a love/hate relationship with wine science. While advances in our scientific understanding of viticulture and winemaking have produced enormous gains in the overall quality of wine over the past several decades, wine scientists and academics are sometimes hell bent on destroying what is beautiful about wine.

Case in point, Maynard Amerine, UC Davis’s first enology professor and an enormously influential teacher and writer who died in 1998. Historian Steve Shapin wrote an article about Amerine’s influence in a 2012 article in the journal Social Studies in Science which scientist Erika Szymanski has helpfully summarized for those who lack access to academic journals.

In order to improve wine quality, Amerine was dedicated to turning “uselessly soft subjective experience into reliably hard objective knowledge”. In other words, forget describing wines as elegant or full of finesse and talk about only what can be detected via scientific assessments of wine. According to Amerine, fruit flavors were permissible but “petrol” and “flinty” were not. His reasoning? He smelled fruit flavors but not petrol or flint. In other words, being objective meant relying on Amerine’s subjective reactions. I guess he never drank the Mosel or Chablis.

Frankly this is just bullshit—a powerful person utterly lacking in self awareness with the position to impose his nonsense on others, although Shapin and Szymanski treat him with more respect than I am in this post.

Today, of course, we have gas chromatography and other sophisticated methods for detecting chemical compounds in wine, but you won’t discover elegance or finesse using a gas chromotagraph. Many wine experts today with a scientific bent will argue we should restrict our wine vocabulary to what these chemical analyses reveal. But why?

Elegance, finesse, balance, the unique aromas that can best be described via metaphor, and our emotional reactions to wine are what wine lovers adore about wine. To refrain from using such terms is to refrain from communicating what wine is all about. Are these descriptions sometimes misleading and overly flamboyant? Of course. It happens to people writing about art and music as well. Describing sensory experience is hard.

But demanding we restrict descriptions to what is scientifically detectable sucks much of the enjoyment out of wine while doing nothing to enhance the consumer’s experience.

This reminds me of philosophers who argue we should replace our emotion vocabulary with reference to brain states—“I love you” is replaced by “C-fiber 145 is firing”. If this strikes you as useless and silly why is wine vocabulary different?

Scientists should stick to science and leave the writing to writers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.