Leave Some of the Mystery in the Glass

This morning I woke up to a fun article about vineyard microbial activity in the New York Times.  Yes, I just typed that.  In short, the article (link here) – proposes that there is evidence that microbial activity in the vineyard could very well make its way into wine must.  And since microbial populations might be different depending on vineyard location, the sense of place exhibited by a finished wine therefore might be influenced by these microbes.  As someone who appreciates less manipulated wines more than those guided by more conventional practices, I am hopeful that this study turns out to be true.

However, I am also weary of research and studies that delve into the biological and chemical origins of romantic ideas such as terroir, minerality and other ideas that might define a wine’s sense of place.  We are quickly evolving into a society that believes that we must have answers to what used to be philosophical, religious and scientific questions – wine included.  Does God exist? Is there an afterlife? Do I taste chalk in my Chablis?  Though far less important than the first two questions in the long run, understanding what constitutes terroir on a biological basis is a question that we are doing our best to answer.  For me, I do not want to know the answer to the question of whether or not minerals make their way from the soil into the finished wine.  What I care most about is that the vineyard – as part of a greater, greener and organic Earth (the only one we have by the way) – is treated responsibly, with as few artificial and chemical additives as possible.  And hopefully the vigneron, regardless of where their vineyards are planted, uses as a minimal amount of treatment in the winery in order to preserve as much of the vintage, climate, weather and soil composition in the finished wine.  I have a hard enough time already avoiding processed food-like products that are pumped up with natural flavors and preservatives.  Unlike many writers and “experts” out there, I do not claim that this more minimally affected wine will be better than more conventional versions, but I do believe that a less manipulated wine is more expressive and wine-like.  And what I would like to see come of the above study is if wineries that blanket their vineyards with insecticides and other chemical treatments also show varied microbial populations in their wine musts.  If similarly treated vineyards in Sonoma, Santa Cruz and Napa all lack microbial diversity, I think a claim could be made that typicity in wines coming from these vineyards might be overstated.

This brings me to my last point regarding what I think is the most negative effect that will come from the latest foray into understanding how soil composition and microbial activity in general is perceived in wine.  Surely, there will be a score of articles coming from just about every corner of the wine world either championing this latest finding or burning its authors at the stake by those who think this type of hubbub doesn’t matter when it comes to making a fine wine. As someone who gets countless RSS feeds pumped into inbox every day, I am willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that those who believe they have the latest “answer” will be responding with all sorts of venom by the time we all depart tomorrow for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Either way, I enjoyed reading that we are a step closer to understanding if lively and responsibly maintained vineyards express a sense of place.  But I am not sure I want to know all of the details – after all, enjoying a great bottle of wine with family and friends does not mean that we should understand all of its components, but instead celebrating the mystery of how it arrived in your glass.