Saturday 16 May 2015

Old Red Biddy

O.R.B. was the favorite tipple of all the loungers and wastrels who used to hang out with Ed "Doc" Ricketts in Steinbeck's Cannery Row.  It was what I used to label the 'wine' I produced from tins of grape-juice concentrate, back in the 1980s, when I was in the business of fermenting anything that would stand still.  The bums on Cannery Row would buy a gallon jug of Old Red Biddy whenever they had sufficient funds.  The Boy used to buy Thunderbird when we moved back to Ireland mainly because it was 17.5% alc/vol and the cheapest bottle in the offy.  But I'm not here to talk about rot-gut, it's quality time today.  It's quality because you can't afford the techie solution to better wine that is offered by Fruition unless you have several $,000s to spare for the intervention.

It's all in a really interesting Wired article, about Fruition, the brain child of two French viticulturists Sébastien Payen and Thibaut Scholasch.  The company is about measuring [whoop whoop data alert!] water-stress in Californian vines rather than intuiting it or relying on witchy-poo nonsense that will cost time and money and quite possibly deliver a worse outcome that if you just left your vines alone and went on a Caribbean cruise until your Mexican foreman starts the harvest. Fruition can measure the flow of sap through the stem of a vine by using a pair of thermocouples which gives them a direct reading on the changes in the amount of water that the plant seems to require. This is a directly applicable parameter that is really important for good yields, other factors - the local weather forecast; what you neighbour is doing; whether the leaves look a little crinkley - are all secondary data and so indirect and unreliable.  The consequence of using the wrong measure is almost always chronic over-watering - to be sure, to be sure. This might amount to 50 billion litres of water wasted in Californian vineyards every year. Which is shockin', given the persistent and devastating drought that has been scorching the Southern half of the state for the last two years.

The correct solution is often counter-intuitive.  It is sometimes a good thing to beat up on the vines - they are designed by millions of years of evolution to set fruit to escape from adverse condition.  Which partly explains why the best grapes are grown on really marginal soils from which no normal plant would be able to scratch a living. Making great wines can never be wholly scientific because it is dependent on the weather which can't predict as well as we'd like; although we're really much better at weather prediction than, say, earthquakes.  It is certainly true that wine-tasting is effectively unreproducible, unscientific posturing for almost all who affect to know their chablis from their chateau.

Following the convention of 'balance' the Wired article's author hunts out a nay-sayer, who claims that Fruition is geek-boy nonsense and asserts that he can do better from a life time's experience.  It is just possible that this is true - if he is the very best viticulturist in the County.  But grape-growers, like any other profession, follow a normal distribution: some are exceptional but most are middling-poor. Somewhere out there is a stunningly talented HR manager but s/he isn't going to be working in whatever marginal organisation you work in. Same with the tiers and tiers of managers in the Health Service: they pull down the big bucks and think that they are earning their salt . . . until a crisis looms that requires some actual management. The middle-ground of wine-makers could probably do with some help and, as I've asserted throughout The Blob, scientific help is more likely to deliver than stick-shaking.

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