I'm not much of a scientist. In fact, my career as a doctor ended abruptly in the first week of college when I discovered that a required chemistry course also required my attendance three days a week at 8:00 AM. So I approached this book with trepidation on several levels. Would it be pitched too heavily in science-speak for me to understand? Was it really more of a textbook than consumer's guide? Was it a soulless sucker punch for the reductionist school of winemaking so hideously embodied in companies like Enologix that use modern "science" to manufacture high-scoring Parker wines? Truth be told, I would probably have never gone near it but for a favorable blurb in a recent issue of Decanter magazine.
Well as Johnny Carson might have said, "Wrong, brettanomyces breath". This is in fact an astoundingly wonderful book for anyone with a passion for wine. It's too detailed and complex for beginners or people who don't really care about some of the factors that affect the taste and quality of wine. But it's also a remarkably humane pitch for the application of the scientific method to wine growing and wine making without in any way denigrating the mystery or romance that enshrouds the subject. Maybe a better quote would come from Joe Friday: it's "just the facts, Maam," wherever the facts that underlie the magic of wine can be ascertained.
The chapters in The Science of Wine systematically address the major factors and issues that contribute to the quality of wine from the vineyard to the winery. Each one is structured like a consumer-friendly, mini-version of an article in a refereed scientific journal. The author starts out with a description of what he will talk about, states his hypothesis, and then examines the evidence before ending with a conclusion. After a while I picked up the rhythm and realized it reminded me of the hundreds of clinical study write-ups I read while working in the marketing department of a pharmaceutical company.
What's really cool about this book is the way it tackles so many controversial subjects head-on, assessing the available evidence on the way to proving its points. It seems at times like the author has read and interviewed everyone who has written a scientific paper on wine anywhere in the world (especially Australia) in the last 10 years, and he quotes these authorities extensively. Here are a few of the critical topics he systematically examines and a quick summary of his findings (close your eyes now if you don't want to know the answers):
Brett-it's everywhere-you can run but you can't hide
Terroir-sorry, no one's ever proven you can taste the soil in the wine, so stop thinking the minerals come from the Kimmeridgean limestone
Sulfites-they don't cause headaches, try drinking less
Global warming-the Rhone will be making Algerian wines and Burgundy will have 15% alcohol before much longer
Tasting-humans can't discern more than about 4 flavors at a time (don't tell Parker or the Spectator)
Terroir-oops, since it isn't the soil,you're probably tasting reduced sulfur compounds
Actual rate of cork taint: about 5%
Best closure on the planet right now: screwcap
Average effective lifespan of a synthetic cork closure: 2 years
Biodynamics-no proof yet
Just to prove I'm not a complete spoil sport, here are some of the other subjects you'll get to learn about (this time without the answers):
Impact of oak
Wine and health
Regulated deficit irrigation
Pruning and trellising systems and more!
I suppose the major weakness of the book isn't what's covered, but what's still undiscovered. If you come to it hoping for the definitive answer to every question you've ever had about wine, you'll be disappointed. A lot of what we'd like to believe is the truth about wine has yet to be definitively proven, so many chapters end with the promise of future revelations instead of a real resolution. That certainly leaves room for a revised edition in 5 years! And truthfully, a few chapters have passages that are written in impenetrable scientific jargon that most of the book assiduously avoids. Finally, while it's a pretty book from an art director's viewpoint, the layout often presents massive amounts of block type on a page and the many sidebars, while illuminating, are as visually distracting as they are helpful.
All that being said, this book is well nigh indispensable for a wine lover. If you meet this criterion, and you know who you are, you need to get your own copy. Me personally? I feel like I need to start re-reading it right now to figure out how to scientifically approach the lovely bottle of A-F Gros Echezeaux I'm drinking tonight.