Monday, April 24, 2023

The real origins of grape-growing and wine-making?

It is now two decades since the first modern book appeared about the origins of wine-making, Patrick McGovern’s Ancient Wine: the Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2003), which itself came a dozen years after the first conference on The Origins and Ancient History of Wine (1991, the proceedings also being edited by McGovern). By “modern” I mean: applying to archaeological studies all of those fancy new techniques that scientists keep coming up with (often called molecular archaeology), and thus leveraging all of the new knowledge that we can now access.

This process has not slowed down since then, and, so, new publications keep appearing all the time, often challenging previous preconceptions. The histories of viticulture and viniculture work both ways — human history has led to the development of these two activities, and these activities have in turn affected human history to a great extent. The latter was, of course, especially true of classical Ancient Greece and Rome, about whose wine habits much has been written. However, previous work on the actual origins (rather than subsequent development) has focused on what Europeans call the Mid-East (although it is actually just west of the majority of the people on this planet — see: Valeriepieris: a circle housing majority of the world’s population).

This Euro-centric focus has been challenged in recent years, as I will discuss here. How did Vitis vinifera (the scientific name for the cultivated grapevine) originate from Vitis sylvestris (the wild grapevine)? After all, grapes may well have been the first plants that we domesticated!

V. vinifera (left) and V. sylvestris (right)

In the 2019 Afterword to a later edition of his book, McGovern emphasizes the ongoing rapid growth of molecular archaeology, along with other tools for the study of our ancient past. In particular, interest has focused on an understanding of how viniculture came to central and northern Europe (via southern Europe?) — we have a fairly good record of how it got from there to the so-called New World, much later. However, interest has also focused on ancient Chinese fermented beverages, which included grape wine. The history of the peoples of Central Asia is much more poorly known, to Europeans and their descendants, than that of the Near- and Mid-East.

So, our reconstructed historical scenarios can be expected to need updating. I mean, let’s face the reality of scientific procedures. Scientists start with the simplest hypothesis, and then abandon this only when forced to do so by mounting evidence (The best reason to trust science). Obviously, the simplest idea, in this case, has been that there is a single place and time for the origin of grape domestication and wine-making — sometimes called the Noah Hypothesis, as the Bible reports him to have re-planted vines only once near Mount Ararat (now in north-eastern Turkey) after the Flood.

However, it should surprise no-one that this idea is too simplistic. Grape-vines are just too widespread across Asia for people not to have stumbled across the process of grape domestication, for example, probably many many times in many many places. The only question, then, is: how many of those peoples started to carry out the process of fermentation, for instance, deliberately, rather than letting it continue to happen fortuitously? This development is, of course, in addition to those people who merely used grapes as a food source, rather than as a source of fermented beverages.

Map of the proposed scenario

The latest (2023) publication covering this topic, in detail, has 89 authors: Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution. This follows an earlier (2019) paper by the same research group (but with only 34 authors): Whole-genome resequencing of 472 Vitis accessions for grapevine diversity and demographic history analyses.

The reason for the large number of persons involved is the amount of genome sequencing required: 3,535 “cultivated and wild grapevine accessions worldwide.” Their final conclusion, from looking at 2,237 Vitis vinifera and 949 Vitis sylvestris samples, goes like this:
In the Pleistocene, harsh climate drove the separation of wild grape ecotypes caused by continuous habitat fragmentation. Then, domestication occurred concurrently about 11,000 years ago in Western Asia and the Caucasus to yield table and wine grapevines [respectively]. The Western Asia domesticates dispersed into Europe with early farmers, introgressed with ancient wild western ecotypes, and subsequently diversified along human migration trails into muscat and unique western wine grape ancestries by the late Neolithic.
So, their idea is that our modern wine-grapes came from the Mid-East while our eating grapes came from Western Asia (the Caucasus), as depicted in the map above. Their time-line of the origin and subsequent dispersal of wild and domesticated grapevines is shown in the figure below. *

There is nothing original about this idea, as McGovern describes roughly this possibility in his 2019 Afterword. After all, it is quite likely that the initial cultivation of grapevines was for nutrients (and calories), while the development of wine-making cultivars was accidental. What we do have in this new paper, however, is a detailed quantitative confirmation of the idea; and this is what we need. The question that remains, now, is: Is this idea still too simplistic? After all, I noted above that this is the way science works: keep it as simple as possible until forced by circumstances to accept that reality is actually more complicated.

Timeline of the proposed scenario

Most of you have no direct experience of science, because your personal and professional lives are quite separate from this activity. In that case, you may well have an image of scientists as being a bunch of weirdos in white coats playing in laboratories, where they collect data, which is then fed into black-box computer analyses, and interpreted based on wild daydreams. This is often quite an accurate image, I am sorry to say, as I can attest from decades spent surrounded by professional scientists.

Many other times, of course, science is done by quite ordinary sorts of people, who proceed carefully and quietly, often “out in the field” rather than in a laboratory (ie. in a forest or an agricultural plot). The work of these latter people always seems to be more realistic, and their conclusions more convincing, at least to me.

The point here is that this new paper discussed above seems to come from the first group, not the second. Therefore, things may well change, perhaps even in the near future. We may yet find evidence for multiple independent grapevine domestications!

*  Note that we are talking mainly about red grapes here. It seems that the first evidence of cultivation of a modern white-grape variety is from what is called Late Antiquity, in this case the 8th century CE (Ancient DNA from a lost Negev Highlands desert grape reveals a Late Antiquity wine lineage).

Personal note: In honor of this post, my wife and I drank a bottle of Askaneli Brothers’ Rkatsiteli Qvevri 2020, from eastern Georgia (the Caucasus, where wine-grapes originated). This (yellowish) white wine was aged in large half-buried earthenware vessels (qvevri), just as it has been for the past five thousand years. Very different, and very interesting (and also nice wine!). This aging practice is apparently being tried elsewhere (Ancient European winemaking tradition using qvevri revived in Tasmania).

Monday, April 17, 2023

Tidbits from the United States Economic Impact Study 2022

For those of you who did not notice, WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries in Washington, commissioned a 2022 National Economic Impact Study of the Wine Industry, produced by John Dunham & Associates. The study shows that the American wine industry generated over $276 billion for the US economy in 2022, which is pretty impressive.

Let’s look at a few of the other interesting patterns, here. We might start with the overview, which looks like this:

Summary figure

Clearly, there’s quite a few producers, based on farming quite a few acres. These producers pay quite a bit of federal, state and local taxes, don’t you think? That’s also a lot of tourism visits, which generate a lot (quite nice) of tourist expenditure.

However, I thought that here we might start by looking at some of the data relating to jobs and wages. After all, the people in the wine industry do rely on this, rather a lot.

This first graph shows the relationship between the number of wine-industry jobs per state (horizontally) and the average wage per job (vertically), with each point representing a single state, some of which are labeled. Note that the states with the largest number of wine-industry jobs are California, Texas, Florida and New York, but that the workers in California and New York do much better financially than do their compatriots in Texas and Florida. It is the workers in Mississippi, Wyoming and North Dakota who are paid the least, while those in Connecticut do best of all — those in Massachusetts and New Jersey do just as well as those in California and New York. The fewest jobs are in Wyoming and Alaska, but the Alaskan workers are paid much better.

Relationship between wages and number of jobs

Moving on, the second graph shows the relationship between the number of wine-industry jobs per state (horizontally) and the number of tourist visits per state (vertically), with each point representing a single state, some of which are labeled. As we might expect, the two sets of data are highly related, as shown by the pink line — they are both dependent on the size of the wine industry in each state. However, Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, South Carolina, Nevada and Florida do have fewer visits relative to the other states.

Oregon and Washington are just to the left of New York in the graph (along with Pennsylvania). These states have recently been disadvantageously compared in terms of their tourism budgets (Tourism budget cuts set Washington wines back a decade).

Relationship between number of visits and jobs

Finally, the third graph shows the relationship between the different types of taxes paid, with once again each point representing one state. Apparently, everyone is treated equally, across the country — the more you pay in one type of tax, then the more you pay of the other tax types, as well. So, it doesn’t much matter which state you are in, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the myriad state alcohol beverage control boards (ABCs) think that you are all the same. However, the federal taxes considerably exceeded the other taxes in almost all states (that is, the graph points are below the pink line of equality), except two. In Wyoming, the taxes were almost equal, and in North Dakota the federal taxes were slightly less than the sum of the others.

Relationship between tax requirements

Mind you, local taxes in the US wine industry don’t sound easy (A look at how beverage alcohol businesses are managing compliance):
All the industry sectors surveyed said they have a tough time filing sales tax returns with the appropriate state and local jurisdictions, and they’re challenged when it comes to keeping track of changing state and local sales and use tax rates.
For those of you who have not noticed, the US alcohol regulatory system is one of the most complex in the world; and many things change from state to state (and there are 50 of them). The European Union is easier to deal with!

Anyway, clearly California is the number 1 state for the U.S. wine industry (raisin, table and wine grapes represent a key component of the state’s economy). In this regard, you may want to read a summary of the California part of the report: New study provides insight on the economic impact of the California wine industry. Another report specifically for this state is the one on the Economic Impact of California Wine.

Monday, April 10, 2023

The wine with the worst carbon footprint in history?

I am happy to use other web sources as an inspiration for my blog posts here, but I have until now refused to steal a blog-post title from any of them. However, this time I could not help myself. The above title has been stolen unashamedly from Alder Yarrow’s Vinography page. It perfectly sums up what I have to say in this post.

The subject is the rash of recent multi-continent blended wines being released. It is all very well to swoon over the multi-regional taste sensation, but the environmental consequences of the movement of grapes/wines between continents, in order to make the finished product, should not be overlooked. Sustainability is supposed to be a modern priority, both in the vineyard and winery, and it is difficult to see how these blends can be sustainable in the long term.

Before I proceed, some people might get the idea that the movement of grapes/wines before blending is, in principle, no different from afterwards moving the finished wines for sale. That is, the energy expended in wine movement is simply transferred from “before blending” to “after blending”. However, this is too simplistic. There is no getting around the fact that there is at least one extra global movement involved, for at least some part of the wine. In the modern world, this can matter.

So, it is this extra movement of the ingredients, and its consequent increase in the carbon footprint of the wine-making, that is at issue in this post. We all know about carbon over-production and its connection to Global Climate Change (or Global Warming, as it used to be called: You were first warned about global warming 110 years ago), and so I will not belabor the point again here. If we and our children are to have a good future, things need to change, now.

The latest culprit wine (as referred to in the title) is this one: Michel Rolland launches multi-continent Bordeaux blend. Here, we have:
A new winemaking project that brings together Bordeaux grape varieties from five different countries worldwide, creating an uber-blend called Pangaea that clocks in at €500 per bottle, with 2,500 bottles produced per year. Each variety in the blend comes from a single place of origin – namely Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Merlot from Right Bank Bordeaux, Petit Verdot from Dehesa del Carrizal “Vino de Pago” in Spain, Cabernet Franc from Helderberg, South Africa and Malbec from Valle de Uco, Argentina.
The alleged rationale for this blended wine is “the idea of highlighting the terroirs of the world, and how they interconnect”. Robert Joseph has already played devil’s advocate here (Defending Michel Rolland’s five-nation wine blend): “All that matters is how Pangaea tastes. If it’s good — and I’m betting it will be — others will follow and, who knows, in a decade, there will be lots of affordable multi-national blends that will be giving lots of people lots of pleasure.” Well, this is the exact opposite of what I am arguing here.

First, I doubt that mixing these terroirs together would highlight anything for me, personally. If I did want to study this topic, then I would sit down with a bottle of each individual wine, and do a direct comparison using five different glasses. Then I might learn something.

Second, and more importantly, energy expenditure has recently become a high-lighted issue in the wine industry. Glass bottles, for example, are energy-intensive to produce, and alternative packaging has been discussed (The problem with wine bottles) — even recycling glass is very energy-intensive. * The host of other issues has been discussed elsewhere (Carbon footprints, wine and the consumer).

Third, of course, the movement of grapes/wine between regions has been frowned upon under other circumstances. For example, we have recently had this report (What Marlborough’s new wine map says about its future):
Weather events in recent vintages have resulted in reduced yields. They’ve hit small to medium-sized producers especially hard, as many have found themselves with a demand-over-supply issue. To fill the gap, an increased number of rogue operators, keen to profit from the Marlborough name, have swooped in. The companies buy wines in bulk — sometimes from fruit grown outside of Marlborough and often farmed above the region’s cropping and disease thresholds — and bottle them overseas.

So, this new multi-continental blending could be a risky precedent to be setting. Jane Anson has listed some of the other recent blends of similar type:
This project joins recent multi-region wines such as the Penfolds’ Wines of the World released in 2021 which contain grapes from both Napa and Australia, and the Penfolds II Cabernet Shiraz Merlot, a joint venture with Vignobles Dourthe whose inaugural 2019 vintage contained 71% grapes from Bordeaux and 29% from South Australia, blended and bottled in Australia. Back in 2010, James Suckling also created a blend called One Wine One World that assembled grapes from California, Mexico, Hungary, Slovenia, Roussillon and Italy, sold in aid of a charitable foundation.
Look, I don't give a rat’s rear-end about the alleged motivation for these things — however, you don’t address one issue by creating a different one. I am as favorable towards charitable work as anyone else (and I do do my own little personal bit), but I also care about the planet that I live on; and we should not sacrifice the latter to carry out the former.

After all, we have also been told that: “48% of US based beverage alcohol drinkers’ purchasing habits are positively influenced by a company's sustainability or environmental initiatives” (Beverage alcohol retailers place strategic bets on sustainably focused emerging brands). Doesn’t this give everyone a hint about where the customers think that the future lies?

So, can we please get all wine-makers to recognize that, in the modern world, the wine industry is supposed to be decreasing its carbon footprint, not finding unnecessary ways to increase it? ** We have been told: “As a business, the wine industry sucks. Fires, floods, droughts, local laws, distribution issues, insect infestations, changing consumer tastes — it’s just all so awful.” Isn’t this bad enough? We don't need to make it worse for ourselves.

* You might also like to check out: Label-less wine launched.

** The concept of “carbon offsets” also has its difficulties (see: The carbon offset problem).

Monday, April 3, 2023

Vineyards and wildfires — clear management conflicts?

As the northern hemisphere moves into spring, media articles are starting to appear concerning wildfires, which can be a feature of summer in some locations. By wildfires, I mean those that burn in forests, shrublands and grasslands, not those confined to urbanized areas — your house may burn down in a wildfire, but most house fires may also start independently. Some of these new media articles are in the wine literature, and therefore natural fire is a topic worth looking at in this blog.

You see, two decades ago, I spent a lot of my professional working time studying the interaction between wildfires and the vegetation of South-Eastern Australia; and so it is part of my professional experience. Basically, the leaves of the plants have volatile oils that guarantee that the plants will burn every few years; and, in return, the fires provide the conditions that the plants need to turn their seeds into young plants (ie. seed release from the parent and/or germination in the soil). That is, the fire is advantageous, and therefore to be encouraged. This means that the plants themselves must have adaptations to survive each individual fire.

From our perspective, like it or not, conservation of the natural environment may thus require an acceptance of wildfires, in this case. However, the local foresters and agriculturalists are not necessarily impressed. Indeed, the wildfires are often a direct threat to any attempt to make a living out of the non-burning plants nearby. For example, in the USA: “Throughout much of the last century, federal and state land management agencies viewed wildfire as an adversary and sought to suppress fires entirely. The US Forest Service, in particular, regarded wildfire as a threat to timber harvests.” This quote comes from Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Trends and solutions in wildfire management, which provides a good overview of the more recent change in attitude discussed below.

This conflict surprises no-one, because human beings are so often in conflict with their environment (eg. global warming). For our purposes here, one of these conflicted groups is grape-growers; and I will discuss here their attempts to grow grapevines without their plants incinerating.

Obviously, we are not talking about all grape-growers, here. Only some of them have to deal with nearby wildfires, usually in what we scientists call Mediterranean-Type Ecosystems — those with hot dry summers and cool wet winters. This includes southern Europe, western North America, western South America, and south-eastern and south-western Australia (see Delineations of Mediterranean climate in Lodi & the rest of the world).

Now, there are two clear requirements for a wildfire, plus the obvious extra one of an ignition source (which may be natural or entirely artificial). The first main requirement is suitable weather, which is usually “hot and dry”, often over an extended period of time. In Australia, they have roadside signs indicating five increasing possibilities of local fire weather, as shown above. (Note: in the modern world, there is now an extra category: Catastrophic.) When it is Extreme, don’t you even think of throwing a cigarette butt out your car window!

The effect of weather is complex — hot and dry encourages fires, while cool and wet encourages plant growth, which can then burn later (Why historic storms are ‘both a blessing and a curse’ for California's fire season;   How winter’s atmospheric river storms could supercharge California’s wildfire season). In turn, of course, wildfires can change the local weather patterns (Extreme wildfires make their own weather); and they can affect, for example, future drought conditions. Everything ties together!

Lots of burnable plant fuel.

The second main requirement for a wildfire is a minimum amount of burnable vegetation, which we call the “fuel load”. Obviously, the more fuel there is, in terms of both area covered and amount of plant material per unit area, then the bigger the fire will be. Most wildfires start off small, especially if the ignition source is artificial; but they can spread pretty damn fast. (Indeed, faster than you can run, as many people have learned to their cost.)

Fuel management is a complex topic, which I will not go into here. An important point, though, is who should be doing the managing, and what is the goal of the management (for example: conservation within native vegetation versus property protection nearby). You can guess what parts of the wine industry think (Leave fire management to farmers, says Aussie wine boss); but other organizations are involved as well (Napa County works on fire hazard road standards). Things can get worse either way (UC Davis Study: California wildfire growing stronger as fuel management practices adapt).

The effect of the fire on the burnt area is obvious to all observers; and, so, those landholders in nearby areas are quite correctly concerned about how far any given fire will spread. After all, they don’t want their cash crop incinerated (Vineyard recovery from fire damage), or their buildings burnt (Fire destroys Hunter Valley’s Tamburlaine Organic Wines function venueFire destroys outbuilding at Napa County winery). As an example of the possible magnitude:
From 2017 to 2020, wildfires burned through more than half of Napa County's land area and destroyed more than 1,500 structures. The valley’s fire risk has had major repercussions for wineries — and all North Bay landowners.
However, there are also other potential fire effects on the surrounding areas (ie. the non-burnt part), notably smoke, and heat. Both of these are of serious concern to grape-growers, for example. Smoke is becoming a topic of more interest (How much wildfire smoke can California wine grapes sustain? A new bill aims to find out); and clearly there needs to be a management strategy (A clear objective for smoke research).

Obviously, there are only three possible management strategies for unwanted fires:
avoid  /  mitigate  /  ignore
Over the decades, the first one has been shown to be basically impossible in Mediterranean-Type Climates (this is what a lot of the previous scientific research has been about). The third one is easy to do, but will obviously not be successful in the long term (and farmers are usually more pro-active than this!). That leaves the second option.* There are many aspects to this (Napa Valley to host wildfire resilience summit), and the planning needs to take into account fire mitigation as well as ecosystem restoration. This also includes appropriate insurance, of course (Napa Valley wineries, seeking insurance relief, show steps to lessen wildfire risksFarm Bureau continues advocacy on Napa Valley wildfire issues). Whole books have been written about this topic; and there is now a UN-REDD program for Fire Management (inspired by the interaction between climate change and increasing propensity of fires).

Sadly, dealing with wildfires is not the only thing that a grape-grower needs to deal with:  California farmworkers cope with wildfire smoke, pesticides, roaches and rodents, survey says. It is much easier to drink wine than to be a part of making it! (Especially in Argentina, just at the moment.)

* A classic example is what in Australia is called a “fire-block” — an open piece of land around something valuable, which can act to stop the progress of an oncoming wildfire. Well, one such piece of land in the Clare Valley (South Australia) is now home to the Fireblock vineyard. This is of interest to me, personally, because it is owned by Bill Ireland (and his wife Noelene), who is the person who first taught me to appreciate wine, when he used to hold free tastings of new wines in his Summer Hill Wine Shop (in Sydney) on thursday nights (late-night shopping night). The Fireblock wines are not exported to many places, but Sweden is one of them!