Beauty in Analysis

Would the quantitative analysis of a wine somehow detract from its perceived beauty?

One of VeriVin’s ambitions is to go beyond fault testing and one day be able to partially – or even fully – characterise a bottle of wine. Some implications might be practical. Imagine a comparative purchasing tool that could give a broad measure of the acidity and tannic grip of two different bottles of wine on a scale of one to ten. Some implications might be downright futuristic. Imagine being able to non-invasively determine the precise and complete molecular makeup of a bottle of wine: you could then use that data along with data from other bottles (and a machine learning algorithm) to predict its Wine Spectator score.

Of course, it would be difficult to replicate the sophisticated analysis produced by a human being, and you would be hard pressed to match a human taster’s ability to quickly recognise and translate nuances. For instance, the WSET’s “Systematic Approach to Tasting” encourages tasters to evaluate the quality of a wine in an objective way, by using a method in which points are awarded for a wine’s balance, length, intensity, complexity, and typicity. Even this seemingly straightforward method relies on five complicated and nuanced metrics which would be readily understood by the palate of an experienced taster but which would be difficult to define in terms that would be useful to an algorithm. Still, automated non-invasive testing could help sort through a greater number of bottles or perhaps serve as an initial quality filter.

The idea of a machine performing sophisticated molecular analyses in order to emulate human assessment is bound to be met with some resistance and scepticism by those who love wine. For many, wine is a mysterious and beautiful substance that magically evolves in bottle and glass, and rigorous quantitative analysis would doubtless be seen as detrimental to its beauty. However, quantitative analysis of something perceived of as beautiful does not detract from the intrinsic properties that make it beautiful, and it could be argued that the added knowledge should in fact augment its beauty. The physicist Richard Feynman gave an excellent example in this now famous quote:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

Of course that those who make or work with wine for a living will know that science is already adding to the beauty and originality of many wines. A recent article by Jancis Robinson in the FT weekend magazine explains how wines made by the famous oenologist and producer Denis Dubourdieu are “far from technical and soulless” despite the fact that he makes ample use of scientific testing, both in the winery and in the vineyard. Dubourdieu, who favours a clean, fresh style for his red wines, explains how grapes which are allowed to shrivel on the vine before picking produce overripe wines which are currently fashionable but are more at risk of developing brettanomyces. To make sure his grapes are not picked too ripe, Dubourdieu tests them for the presence of a chemical compound that causes premature oxidation before deciding to pick. Keeping this prune-flavoured compound out of his wines contributes to their distinctive character.

There is also an argument to be made for the fact that added knowledge increases the perception of quality and luxury. Imagine purchasing a beautiful handbag and being told that the leather comes from a rare breed of cow in the north of Scotland, that it was stitched by hand in a small town in Tuscany renowned for its leather craftsmen, and that its shape was inspired by a beautiful artefact in the Louvre. Suddenly the bag seems much more luxurious, perhaps even more beautiful. Knowledge of the precise molecular makeup of a bottle of wine should only add to its story and make it more desirable, in the same way that knowing that the grapes used to make it come from a particular vineyard and were picked by hand.

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