At the scientific revolution around the Renaissance, a reliance on scientific observation as the primary source of all knowledge was born. Richard Tarnas has written a wonderful history of western thought entitled The Passion of the Western Mind. In it he characterizes the optimism of the age following the birth of modern science as directly tied to confidence in science and in its powers to improve indefinitely the state of human knowledge, health, and general welfare. This was true up to the early 20th century when the foundations of math and physics were shaken by, amongst other things, the theory of relativity. When this occurred the rebellion that had been brewing in other disciplines (such as philosophy) due to the emphasis on the individual began to sprout as sciences hold on base knowledge loosened. Suddenly it seemed scientific knowledge was confined to abstractions, symbols, and shadows not actual knowledge of the world itself. This ultimately led to our current Postmodern intellectual situation.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. While recognizing both an essential autonomy in the human being and a radical plasticity in the nature of reality we find ourselves in a challenging intellectual position that begins with the assertion that reality itself tends to unfold in response to [a] particular set of assumptions that are employed by each individual and each society. Based on these observations of western thought one would predict that a contextual interpretation of data will be seen more and more. Is this not what we do in the winemaking industry? First, there seems to be great skepticism regarding scientific knowledge and recommendations based on such data. Second, one might say, Well you may have observed that with your site, or your yeast strain, but what I see is x, y, zor different. Third, scientist operating under their set of assumptions tend to discount or even entirely disregard empirical data coming from the industry, doubting its validity. Therefore as I said before the risk of course is that people tend to begin to think that their practices (in their context) are impacting the wine and therefore their beliefs about winemaking begin to cloud their knowledge of winemaking and their ability to learn. This can lead us to a chaos of valuable but seemingly incompatible interpretations with no resolution in sight. Yikes!
So how does the industry help us gain knowledge and understanding about winemaking?
I must be careful here because, well, I am speaking to the industry. But also because I think it is easy to misunderstand my point. Certainly there are practices we employ that science has not shown an effect for yet, but may indubitably have an effect. The fact is we don’t always know why we do things because they simply haven’t figured everything out, but the bottom line is decisions must be made. So the risk of course is that people tend to begin to think that their practices are impacting the wine and therefore their beliefs about winemaking begin to cloud their knowledge of winemaking and their ability to learn. Let me try again: we begin to think we do always know why we do something, or we think we have real knowledge. Do we? Here’s some good and some not so good with the Industry:
The good: Loads of experience, empirical data and intuition, and the cogs of wine production.
The bad: Explanations of success usually tied more to one’s general practices and their beliefs about winemaking than reproducible information (or scientia, knowledge). For better or for worse but as far really knowing something this is for worse.
The ugly: Distilling what is really true, what really worked, from an anecdote associated with success. I tried this and it worked! Did it? That was true for you, but not in my vineyard or cellar. Oh.
The point: we can use more understanding and the industry can help us.
The Goal: develop and utilize our understanding of enology (via science and the industry) to make great wine.
So what to do? First let me say that there is a great cooperative spirit in the wine industry and a large degree of learning from one another. But I still observe skepticism due to context and dubious sources of knowledge being used. I beg your patience as I look a little further into how the good, the bad, and the ugly appear to manifest itself in the science/industry interface and their attempt to gain and use knowledge. Simply put, you might be able to say that epistemologically we have become contextualist, or relativist. I don’t think this is isolated to the wine industry but probably largely cultural. It might seem odd to delve into the history of western thought in the middle of a wine blog post, but I believe it is critical to understand our presuppositions – in particular with knowledge – in order come up with an approach to improving what we know about wine. So, a quick review.
People love the phrase In vino veritas I imagine because it rolls off the tongue so well, but additionally because of its witty reference to that muscles loosening when much vino is imbibed. In wine, or with wine, there is truth. But I wonder sometimes whether In vino scientia holds as well. Is there any true knowledge with wine? What follows are some observations I have made after 5 years in the industry spending time as a graduate student at UC Davis in addition to working in Fiddlehead Cellars, Sacred Hill, the vineyards of Germany, and HdV Wines. Most of this comes from a seminar I delivered as part of an interview for an Extension Faculty position that I ultimately turned down. Because extension positions naturally focus on distilling knowledge from both academia and the industry into forms that are usable my focus are some principles of science, enology, and in particular, how I think they may relate to aiding advancement of an industry.
I believe the goal of obtaining more knowledge of – and about – grape growing and winemaking is to use all our understanding to optimize our viticulture and enology to ensure we are making the best wine possible each vintage. Some may argue the real goal is to make money (certainly the owner’s goal if they are not also the winemaker). Why should these two goals be incompatible? They are not, but it takes scientific understanding, industry commitment, marketing, and cooperation to make it all happen.
But does anything stand in the way of this goal? As with most subjects, nothing is clear cut and nothing is blameless. I’d like to present the good, the bad, and ugly of Science and the Industry in terms of each’s ability to help us gain knowledge. Let’s start with science. How does science help us gain viticultural and enological knowledge and understanding?
The Good: Extremely valuable and responsible for much beneficial and useful technical knowledge regarding winemaking.
The Bad: Difficult to integrate all true possibilities that affect a certain outcome often the scientific problem is posed as one specific condition or treatment, but initial conditions of juice, or the condition of finished wine rarely have only one element that may cause a problemi.e. errors on being too focused or esoteric, requires patience
The ugly: Much more unknown than known. Requiring more research, money, etc.
The point: we can use more understanding and science can help us.