People love the phrase “in vino veritas”–in wine there is truth. But I wonder sometimes whether “in vino scientia” holds as well. Is there any true knowledge with wine?
The goal of obtaining more knowledge about wine growing is to use it to optimize our viticulture and enology to ensure we are making the best wine possible each vintage (not as some seem to think to increase technology and sameness in wines). In my time in the industry, I have observed a contextual approach to “knowing” and understanding. People tend to believe what they have experienced at their site, their winery, or in their lab, and often are skeptical of other insights.
While both the industry and academia can play a vital role in obtaining understanding, both have pitfalls. For example, science is extremely valuable and responsible for much beneficial technical knowledge. It can, however, be esoteric; difficult for research to integrate all true possibilities that affect a certain outcome, and disregard feedback from the industry. The scientific problem is often posed as one specific condition, but initial conditions of juice–or the condition of finished wine–rarely have only one element that may cause a problem.
The industry provides experience, empirical data, intuition, and is the cog of wine production. However, explanations of success are usually tied more to one’s general practices and beliefs about winemaking than to reproducible information. Was it really the extra boost of nutrients at 16° Brix (not 14!) that prevented the stuck ferment? The risk is that people begin to think their practices are impacting the wine–when they may or may not be. The challenge is to distill what is really true, what really worked, from an anecdote associated with success.
So how did we get here and where do we go? It might seem odd to begin talking philosophy, but I don’t think this contextual approach to knowledge is unique to the wine industry. Rather, it is a symptom of our post-modern intellectual culture. Richard Tarnas, in The Passion of the Western Mind, suggests that since the birth of modern science there has been a “confidence in science and in its powers to improve indefinitely the state of human knowledge….” But in the early 20th century, the foundations of science were shaken by, among other things, the theory of relativity. When this occurred, it seemed scientific knowledge was confined to “abstractions” and “symbols,” not actual knowledge. Tarnas has noted that we find ourselves in a “challenging intellectual position that…reality itself tends to unfold in response to (a) particular…set of assumptions that are employed by each individual and each society” (emphasis mine).
Based on these observations, one would predict an increase in contextual interpretation of data. Isn’t this what we do? There seems to be greater skepticism regarding scientific knowledge and recommendations based on such data. One might say, “Well you may have observed that with your site, or your yeast strain, but what I see is … x, y, z.” Scientists tend to discount empirical data coming from the industry, doubting its validity and not using it to inform their research. This can lead us to “a chaos of valuable but seemingly incompatible interpretations … with no resolution in sight.” Yikes!
Let’s not despair, as Tarnas articulates: “Since evidence can be…interpreted to corroborate a virtually limitless array of world views, the human challenge is to engage that worldview or set of perspectives which brings forth the most valuable, (wine)-enhancing consequences.”
We do know quite a bit, and we know it certainly, not contextually. We know that the berry accumulates sugar after veraison, that yeast– independent of context (wood vs. steel vessel)–ferments sugar to produce alcohol. I know this seems silly and simple, but reminding ourselves of these basic answers places what we do not know in, well, context.
I believe we (the industry) must allow what we observe in our context to loudly communicate with (not against) more objective forms of gaining knowledge (research) so that together, understanding can be gained and quality improved. What I’d like to see is: “Thoughtful individuals engage the task of evolving a flexible set of premises and perspectives that would not … suppress the complexity and multiplicity of (cellar, vineyard) realities, yet could also serve to mediate, integrate, and clarify.” Then we can assert, In vino veritas et scientia.