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Is ASEV a pulpit for iconoclasts?

Probably, and that is a good thing
by Mark Greenspan
September 14, 2018

Iconoclast. Definition: a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions. I attended the 2018 American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) Annual Conference, held in Monterey, California from June 18-21. The ASEV means a lot to me, having been a member of the society for over 25 years myself, and having served on the board of directors and as society President rather recently. So, I rarely miss one of their annual conferences and I felt that this one, convened by outgoing society President Jim Harbertson, had a bit of a different feel to it – in a good way.

Keynote by Mark Matthews
The conference featured a keynote speaker this year – something new. And the speaker was someone I think is the king of the iconoclasts, Mark Matthews, professor emeritus of viticulture from UC Davis.

Matthews wrote a book I discussed in an earlier column . His talk was largely along the lines of his book, only I would compare his talk to seeing a band live after listening to their records for years. His talk was probably the best one I’ve ever witnessed at an ASEV meeting, and I’ve seen some truly great ones.

Matthews knocked off myths one by one in a manner that was riveting and humorous at the same time, not to mention quirky, quintessential Matthews.

As a slight aside, Matthews turned us all on to something called the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Google has amassed a mind-boggling database of books and one can run searches on this database to find out how often words are used over time: from the 1800s to the present day. He mentioned searching for the phrase “plant physiology”, since he himself is a plant physiologist. He showed that the phrase increased dramatically from just prior to 1900 and peaked out about 1984. Its usage dropped dramatically after that time, and he jokingly blamed it on himself, as it was the time he took on his professorship. But, the sad thing is that it points to the decline in scientific discussion on the topic since the mid 1980s.

Now, here is the kicker: Running the same Google Ngram on the word terroir showed that the term, which was used as far back as 1800 according to the Ngram, dramatically took off in usage since about the same time as the decline of the use of “plant physiology”. Is the decline in plant physiology cause the increase in terroir? Of course not. But it does illustrate very well the declining interest in science over the increasing interest in a concept more fuzzy and undefinable. Matthews instructed us that the term terroir was originally not intended to describe a “sense of place” in a wine, but a defect in a wine characterized by off-aromas and off-flavors. Do I believe in the concept of terroir? I do, but only in the way that soil influences the water and nutrient ebbs and flows to a vine and the environment influences fruit development and ripening. Those scientifically-verifiable phenomena are not something one discusses with wine consumers, but that we should be discussing as wine producers.

Matthews talked about the yield versus quality “myth”, something that I’ve discussed before and also in the discussion on his book2. He pointed to some of his studies that initially debunked the idea that higher yield reduced sugar accumulation and hampered ripening. I think he was a bit more candid this time, however, and felt that he did concede that the higher yields may have resulted in similar basic fruit composition, but that sensory properties were affected negatively with higher yields. So, while this myth should be busted because an incremental reduction of fruit load does not always equate to an incremental increase in quality, there is definitely an decline in quality beyond some crop level. In my opinion this has more to do with clumping and layering of fruit than to the actual amount of fruit. Likewise, weaker shoots on vines cannot always carry the full fruit load, and so some crop adjustment is almost always needed. Myth only somewhat busted.

Along those lines, Matthews debunked the concept of vine balance. Not really that it did not exist, but that representing balance by something like the Ravaz index (harvested fruit weight to pruning weight ratio) is relatively meaningless and an oversimplification. Indeed, Matthews brought forth the reality that Louis Ravaz only made casual mention of such a ratio in a paper published in the early 20th century and that he never really intended to use it to define “vine balance”. He also talked about the “small berry” concept and that small berries do not necessarily make better wine, but that in reality the factors that make small berries (water stress, sunlight) also enhance the characteristics of the fruit for wine.

Read the rest of Mark Greenspan's column, "Is ASEV a pulpit for iconoclasts?" In the September Wine Business Monthly 

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