I have spent the past couple of weeks doing some work at Lincoln University‘s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology (CV&O). My role there has been to update their website, including setting up a blog and writing a bunch of news stories that will be posted over the next several months. This has been a great opportunity to meet with faculty and students involved with the Centre – a very diverse bunch that includes experts in chemistry, molecular biology, viticulture, plant pathology, soil science, ecology, marketing, and tourism.
This opportunity has allowed me to get a taste of the caliber and variety of research that goes on at the CV&O, which, while small, is very highly regarded in the wine world. Researchers at the Centre work with collaborators from across New Zealand (in academia, industry, and the government) and from around the world. The University also draws students from far and wide – I share an office with grad students from China, Chile, and the US, and an intern from France.
I have learned about research into the wine consumption habits of Generation Y (in fact, if you were born after 1977 and are of legal drinking age in your home country, you can be a part of the latest study on this subject by completing the brief, confidential survey found here), the impact of installing biodiversity trails on the wine tourism experience, the use of crushed glass (from used wine bottles, of course!) as a reflective mulch spread in vineyards to improve grape quality, the effect of UV radiation on grapevines and the wine produced from them, the characterization of New Zealand Pinot Noir regions by sensory and chemical analysis of the wines, and much, much more.
In my role as website updater/reporter/blogger I have also learned a lot about how the Centre wants to present itself, and to whom. In addition to attracting graduate students, as is the goal of any good research institution, the CV&O is particularly interested in sharing its findings with the wine industry. Many projects are financed with industry support, and most are of direct consequence to the industry. Findings are sometimes published as reports for New Zealand Winegrowers, and research projects seem to reflect the challenges and needs of wine producers in New Zealand. Thus the V&O research at Lincoln is very much on the “applied” end of the research spectrum, and I would be interested to know if there are many wine scientists out there doing what would be considered “basic” research. My suspicion is that most wine science would fall on the “applied” side, for the fairly obvious reason that it is tied very closely to an economically important industry, but also, and more interestingly, for the more nuanced reason that wine science is embedded in wine making - a tradition of craftsmanship and artisanship. As such, the practice of making wine depends on the individual skill, creativity, and experience of the winemaker and grape grower, and thus carries some inherent tension with the tenets* of basic science, which, at least on the surface, suggest that logic alone should allow us to “solve” the problems of winemaking. But, of course, it can never be as simple as this, and this, I believe, is why wine science looks a little bit different, a little more applied, than some other disciplines.
(*tenet is a strong word used here for effect – I don’t actually intend to suggest that ‘science’ is a well-defined or rigid category, but that’s for another post. or maybe a whole book…)
And this assessment seems to be in line with the image that the industry, at least in New Zealand, is working to promote. The research section of the 2011 New Zealand Winegrowers annual report closes by saying:
“Research and the scientific process can never provide all of the answers to the complex challenges facing growers and winemakers. Nor can it replace the role of experience and good observation by practitioners. The important role of research remains in helping understand the word in which we our growrs and winemakers operate. Understanding this complexity and the impact of their responses to it can help our producers make better informed decisions and ultimately make better wine.”
So, apparently, science and art can coexist, and the industry is dependent upon such coexistence. It just might mean that the science and art don’t look quite like they do in other contexts.