Art Over Science
By: George Balling
Wildfire and wildfire smoke are certainly issues for the farming of wine grapes, and for producing those grapes into wine. I’m not trying to be funny when I say that the 2020 and 2017 vintages have seared the threat of wildfire smoke into our collective minds as wine consumers. I read with interest, as any wine consumer would, the story published this past week in the Coeur d’Alene Press about research being done at some Western US universities, including “winery U” also known as UC Davis on smoke taint in wine grapes.
Over the 14ish years I have been writing for the wine consuming community here in North Idaho I have often expressed and still maintain that winemaking and wine grape growing are an incredibly challenging balance of art and science. On the science side you certainly need the chemistry of the grapes, meaning sugar and acid levels to be in the right spot to make really good wine. When farming grapes you need the science to tell you everything from when to apply fertilizers and what under-crops to plant in the vineyard, along with hundreds of other decisions that go into producing a successful crop.
When it comes to winemaking, the best winemakers move beyond science to the true art form of the business. Selecting which yeasts to use for fermenting if any, how the flavor profile of the grapes improve or fade with additional hang time in the vineyard even though the chemistry tells you the grapes are ready, and how long to age a wine in barrel versus other vessels are just a few of the hundreds of artistic choices that go into crafting world class wine.
For growers artistic decisions abound as well. Knowing if and when to irrigate, when to drop fruit if at all and when to cut the crop back, canopy management to get just the right sun exposure on the grapes are again just a handful of the bucket full of choices that need to be made with an eye to artistry. Then, perhaps the most artistic choice of all that includes both the winemaker and the grower, when to harvest?
This is why I get a bit skeptical whenever I hear about science taking an outsized roll in what goes into crafting really delicious wine. Just in the last couple of weeks I wrote of the decisions made by some growers in Napa that made the call to harvest early in 2020 based on the “red flag” and smoke warnings they were hearing just before the ignition of the devastating “Glass Fire”. For those who made that decision it was certainly more art based than science based, and perhaps created a model for how to do things if another set of circumstances like that comes up again.
Back to the university research that is being done regarding wildfire smoke. All of us as wine consumers can support the notion of better monitoring and the deployment of scientific measuring equipment to measure the presence of smoke taint. While we can certainly respect the attempts to mitigate smoke taint in the grapes once they are harvested this has largely proved to be a dead-end. Additionally, all of these attempts at ridding the grapes of the smoke once it is present have resulted in heavily manipulated wines that don’t taste very good.
Where I have to draw the line though, and I suspect many of you would feel the same way, is the broad-based spraying of scientific “creations” on the grape crop. How many times have we heard of this chemical process or that scientific intervention in nature that ends up going badly years down the road? Plenty.
One of my favorite winemakers who also happens to be a close family member has a saying, “Just make the best wine you can”. And he is right. There are going to be smoky years, just as there will be cool and wet years, just as there will be dry hot years. That has been the case since man began crafting wine from grapes. The best winemakers use all the tools they possess to adapt to the unpredictable and changing conditions of farming. However, they always do so with an eye to the clear balance between art and science this delicate task requires. The best craft great wines regardless, while the rest have good years and bad years. For those who think this challenge is a bridge too far I suggest you try a bottle of the 2020 Pride Mountain Vineyards Estate Cabernet, or the 2020 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet, or any of the 2020 wines from Staglin Winery. It will be abundantly clear of the possibilities even in the toughest years.
Let’s be sensible and keep science in check and allow winemakers to practice their art.