Monday, September 24, 2012

Modern viticultural science made me do it (turn to Biodynamic viticulture that is)

Winemakers who are turning to biodynamic viticulture are not doing so just to be contrarians. Rather, they are being driven there by inexorable, wrong-track trends in traditional viticulture.  At least that is the perspective of Jason Tippetts as presented in the Spring 2012 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture (The Science of Biodynamic Viticulture). This post examines Mr. Tippets' arguments.

As I have noted previously, quality grapes are a precursor of quality wine, and the science of viticulture has developed and evolved with a single goal in mind: the delivery of high-quality wine grapes to the cellar door.  The quality of wine grapes produced in a specific harvest is not only a function of that year's harvest conditions; it is also dependent on a combination of factors which, together, represent the full scope of viticultural science.

Mr. Tippetts takes issue  (based on his arguments) with my characterization of viticultural science as being quality-focused.  Rather, he sees the discipline as the problem.  In his view, there are two trends shaping the future of conventional viticulture: (i) a focus on the marketability of wine (which, over the long haul, will lead to mediocrity) and (ii) what I term the vineyard-imbalance cycle.  Let us examine these trends in turn.

The road to banality begins, according to Mr. Tippetts, while the viticulturist-in-training is still in school.  Deep dives into a broad array of science courses causes the budding viticulturist to "lose sight of what she loved about wine" and "why she thought it was important to be a winemaker in the first place."  The ideals and perspective of the fledgling has been hijacked and dulled by the weight and rigor of science.

The graduating student is a full-fledged agriculturist with no "insight into how winemaking might have significance beyond being a means of employment."  The graduate will be in possession of minimal amounts of inventiveness and innovation.  The scientific knowledge absorbed in the classroom will be unleashed against the problems (real or imagined) encountered in the vineyard.

The application of science-based, recipe-type solutions to vineyard problems has led to a "narrowing" of the focus of modern winemaking, according to Mr. Tippetts.  Rather than pursuing greatness in the bottle, winemakers are instead pursuing consistency.  Tippetts likens the viticulturist pursuing this path to a manufacturer who utilizes a set of raw materials and a well-established methodology to produce a consumer-friendly product.  "The potential greatness of the ends is neglected as a result of too much focus on the means."

Viticultural science, according to Mr. Tippetts, provides the basis for a continuing "unbalancing" of the vineyard environment; a cyclical, long-term degradation of the vineyard which almost guarantees reduced fruit quality.  This cycle was initiated when it was discovered that chemical fertilizers could improve the productivity of farmlands.  According to Mr. Tippett, fertilizers are salts and they cause the plants to take in more water, a situation which improves growth and productivity in the short term but saps the plant's energy, rendering it more susceptible to attack from parasites and other pests.  Pesticides are then applied to eradicate these pests (which they do until the pests adapt) but they also deplete the soil of its nutrients while also stressing the broader environment.

Viticulturists who are considering biodynamic viticulture want to make better wine, according to Mr. Tippets, and in order to accomplish that goal, they see the need to treat their vineyard differently. The implication here is that biodynamic viticulture is that path to better wines.

Looking at Mr. Tippetts' arguments, I give him credit for the implication throughout that wine is made in the vineyard.  It is a position that I hold.  Beyond that, however, I take issue with a number of his positions and assertions.  First, I thought that it was rather bold of Mr. Tippett to provide a blanket indictment of viticultural schools and practicing viticulturists as being co-conspirators in a plan to drive us all to banal wines.  He spent most of the article making the case against modern viticulture but was less-than-convincing in making a case for the biodynamic alternative.

Second, in some of his forays, he likened viticulturists to agriculturists, damning the latter practitioners with "faint" praise.  Third, Mr. Tippett asserts that viticulturist who want to make better wine realize that they have to treat their vineyards differently.  The implications here are that (i) only a subset of viticulturists want to make better wine and (ii) biodynamic viticulture is "the" vehicle for treating your vineyard differently (in so doing ignoring alternatives such as organic vitculture, for example).

I applaud Mr. Tippett for his advocacy of biodynamic viticulture but (i) he could have taken a more "pro"-active approach and (ii) his arguments do not necessarily point to biodynamic viticulture as the answer.

©Wine -- Mise en a byme

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