The Science of Good Taste – Geology, Wine, and Food


Larry Meinert: I'll start with a simple little thought experiment. Imagine two vineyards right next to each other. One sells extraordinary wine that's been acclaimed through centuries for thousands of dollars a bottle, and the other one sells vin ordinaire for 15 cents a liter at the local cafe.The deep scientific question is, why? That's what I'm going to address. The technical name for this is terroir, which just means all the stuff that goes into making wine the way it is. It's a French term. It's hard to come up with a more formal definition, but it's all the physical things that affect the ultimate quality of grapes and, therefore, wine.I'm going to look at three different regions around the world to illustrate this Washington State, California, and then their comparables in France. We'll start with Washington, and we'll look at the climate, volcanoes, glaciers, and soils. When I usually put this list up, people go, "Oh yeah, I get the climate part, but volcanoes and glaciers? What's that got to do with wine?" Well, as they like to say in the university setting, "I'm glad you asked that question." We'll get to that.Let's start with the climate. On the left side is how the world views the climate of Washington State. If you've flown into Seattle, you know it does rain there a fair bit. On the right is the actual climate in the bulk of the state, and particularly where almost all the wine grapes are grown. The reason for that huge difference between those, being very wet on the left and very dry on the right, can be easily seen on this map if you are a trained geologist looking at maps.What trained geologists immediately see, since this is a shaded relief map, is that going north south through the middle of the state are the Cascade Mountains, and they form a very effective rain barrier, rain shadow, and this is why.If you fly into Seattle, you would probably see Mount Rainier out the window. These are fairly high mountains. The rain shadow on the eastern side of this is very important for why grapes do as well as they do.When most people hear the word "rain shadow," they think of these mountains as being a physical barrier the moist winds coming off the Pacific Ocean somehow slam into the mountains and get stuck. That's not what happens at all. This is elementary physics. As the air rises and goes over the top of the mountain, as it rises, it cools. Anybody that's been backpacking in the high country knows it gets colder as you get higher up. As the air gets cooler, it can hold less moisture. Hence, whatever its initial moisture level is, as it rises, eventually it will rain and cause the moisture to fall out. That, in a nutshell, is why it's wet in the western half of the state.Once the air goes over the top of the mountain and goes back down the other side, the reverse happens. Now it is warming up. The air can hold more moisture. But it's already dropped most of its rainfall on the western side. There are places east of the Cascades that actually have negative rainfall, or what would more accurately be called negative evapotranspiration. The formal definition of a desert is about six inches of rainfall, and there's lots of areas that are well within the desert region.Why is this important? Because grapevines, left to themselves, will be overly vigorous, and you'll get lots of plant growth and less going into the ripening of the grapes. The reason why this is so important is that if you go to the local supermarket, wherever you live in the country, and you see those beautiful, ripe, red strawberries they sell there and quite often they're the size of golf balls or baseballs, or maybe even beach balls, depending on where you get them. They look beautiful, but they lack one certain thing there's no taste whatsoever.In contrast, if you go up to a nice alpine meadow somewhere and get those tiny little strawberries that are struggling for life, they just burst in your mouth. The same thing happens with grapes. Left to their own devices, uncontrolled access to moisture and nutrients, the grapevine will put all of its energy into making leaves and other things, which are beautiful, but not so much into making high quality wine grapes.In very simple terms, to make high quality wine, you need the grapes to suffer. We'll illustrate what that means.These mountains are also important because periodically they do this. They, in fact, are all active stratovolcanoes active in a geologic sense. Of course, in human timescale, we tend to think of them as being dormant each and every one of them, including Mount Rainier. This is Mount St. Helens, obviously, going off. This is important for a variety of reasons. All that ash that's going up into the air is going to settle back down somewhere, and that has an effect upon vineyard fertility as well.The other thing you can see on this map is the effect of glaciation. This might take more of a trained eye, but what the glaciers do, if we go back in time 15,000 years, all of Canada had a large ice sheet on it, and big lobes of that came down across the US border which, of course, didn't exactly exist 15,000 years ago scouring out the Great Lakes. If you're from New York City, Long Island is the terminal moraine for that glacier. That's what formed Long Island, when the glaciers stopped and melted and dumped out all the material that eventually became Long Island.If we go over to the west side, into the Puget Sound region, we have a big lobe of that ice coming down, where Seattle is now, and it's had some major effects. The reason why glaciers are important is that they can transport a huge amount of material. These are modern glaciers up in Alaska, and you can see the bare rocks on both sides of the glacial valley. Those rocks rolled out onto the top of the glacier and they're being transported along the side, we call them lateral moraines. Where two glaciers come together, they're medial moraines.The reason why it's important, if we go down to ground level, this is a favorite hobby of glaciers surfing along on top of rocks. That boulder that the geologist is sitting on is large enough that the only thing that can move it is glacial ice. When we see boulders like that, that is the evidence that we had past glacial activity, even if the glacial ice isn't there anymore.The other effect of these glaciers is that they came down and they blocked up many of the major drainages. The most famous one this is a famous story in geology they dammed up the Clark Fork River in Montana, the one they made the movie "The River Runs Through It," and it formed a lake over the western half of Montana. That lake water rose until it was 1,000 or 2,000 feet deep. You have ice, you have water, ice floats on water. Eventually the ice dam broke, and catastrophically, all that water flooded across the state of Washington.This is an artist rendition of what that might have looked like. So the ice dam would have been there on the right and the water is racing across, gouging out everything in its path. This is critically important for the later establishment of vineyards, as I'll show you in a second.This is a satellite view of that same area. On the left you can see what looked like river drainages cutting across the rectangular farm fields. These are huge, western ranches, these are 10s of thousands of acres, and on the right I've put little arrows showing you where the water would have flowed.What's interesting is at the ground level there are no streams in what looked like stream valleys. We go down to it, here's one of these, there's actually a special geologic name for these. They're called coulees. There's a farm in the middle of it and the water races through here, stripping away all the soil. The water moved fast enough and actually was able to channel down into the bedrock itself.You've probably heard of the biggest one of these coulees, that's Grand Coulee. They built a dam across to take advantage of this. This tells us something about the power of the water moving across the landscape. This is another artist's rendition of what this looked like.You can see it going across huge waterfalls, the size of Niagara Falls, maybe an Iguacu down in South America. Now there's no more water flowing. This was a very temporary event. That ice dam broke, the water, again, a lake across the western half of Montana, flooded across the state of Washington in a matter of a week or perhaps two weeks at most.We can calculate how fast that water is moving and once it moved past, then we had these waterfall looking things without any water going over them. There's a state park in Washington State called Dry Falls State Park. It's those waterfalls without any water. When people see it, they scratch their head and go, "What could have happened?"Another thing they did, this water racing across the state has formed these huge ripple marks. There's a four lane highway going across the back of this. These ripple marks are several miles long and have a height of a hundred, two hundred feet.We can calculate you've all seen ripple marks at the ride of a stream or a lake, the general lapping of waves. This water is moving so fast we can calculate the speed at about 100 miles an hour, this water rushing across the state, which is why it could pick up all this material.All that water rushing across the state had to go through various constrictions. This is a canyon on the present day Columbia River. All that water's trying to rush through here and it's like going through a kink in a garden hose, it caused all the water to back up behind this, back flooding the central part of Washington State.This is the gap where all that water is trying to go through to get out to the Columbia River and it backed up forming a temporary lake, a temporary lake that probably existed for a week, two weeks at most, and then that water finally worked its way out to the Pacific.Why is this important? That water rushing across the state was stripping away all the soil, a lot of the bedrock, anything that was there, and when it got to this constriction and back flooded all these valleys, that water slowed down. This is simple hydrology, another field of geology.When the water slows down, all that material drops out. All those areas that are covered by that blue stipple pattern, these slack water floods, when they slow down, all that mud was deposited. So this area covered by the floods, when I show you the appellation map for Washington State, there's about a 95 percent overlap between where these floods occurred and where the vineyards are now.This is why we have the scientific basis for affecting where grapes can grow. This is an illustration of the power of that. This canyon, called Burlingame Canyon, there's a person up there in the upper right for scale, was cut artificially when somebody left an irrigation ditch open on Friday, when they went home.When they came back on Monday they went, "Oopsy," and the water cut through all these lake bed sediments there in Walla Walla Valley like a knife through butter. Here you can see all the layers. Each one of those layers was deposited by one of these floods.For the grammatically astute, you notice that was the plural, floods.[audio cuts out 10:29 10:34]Every vineyard in Washington State has this as a substrate. So some amount of loess windblown sand on top some amount of these slack water sediments. They get mud deposited and what's key to both of them is that they've had almost all their nutrients stripped out of them because of flood waters going through there and getting all the vegetable matter. If you're a gardener and you want a nice rich garden, you're going to have a nice black soil full of organic material.This material, in contrast, allows water to drain through it very freely, and has very few nutrients. This is perfect for controlling the vigor of the vines.This is a map of the appellations in Washington State. This large area here, Columbia Valley. This big central area in here, and there's lots of subareas within it, corresponds almost exactly with that previous map I showed you of these slack water sediments.When I was a Professor, in a former life in Pullman, Washington, right here at Washington State University, I would get telephone call all the time from somebody saying "I'm a farmer. My neighbor's been converting his wheat farms to grapes. He's getting $2,000 an acre for these grapes. That's a lot more than I'm getting for my wheat. Can I plant a vineyard on my property?" I say "Well, tell me about where your property is." "Well it's right next to my neighbor who's just making a fortune with these grapes."I "Well, tell me a little bit more." On the scale of this map, he might say "Well, my neighbor is right here and I'm right here." This is just like real estate. Location, location, location. I said "Well, I have some bad news for you. Even though you're right next to your neighbor, he's on the good stuff and you're not."[laughter]Larry: This is the terroir, the geological underpinning of where we're going with this. To take this over to the realm of science, we did a series of very carefully controlled studies. This is a smaller area within the Columbia Valley, called Walla Walla. If you're from the Northwest, this is a very famous wine producing area. When I moved to the state of Washington, which was 1980, there were eight wineries in the state. When I left there were 500. My personal consumption probably contributed to that pattern.[laughter]Larry: But some of the very best wines at that time were being made in Walla Walla Valley. I thought, as a university professor, how am I ever going to afford to taste those wines? Research.Here's the research. The outer line, you can just barely see it here, this black line. That's the appellation boundary, everything within there is the Walla Walla Appellation. All these colors represent different substrates. Different rock and soil units.I won't bother you with the details, but you can image that the red stuff, the brown stuff, the yellow stuff, and the green stuff, these are highly technical terms, have different capabilities for growing grapes, and those little black squares, that you can barely see on here, are different vineyard locations.What we did was we went out to each one of those vineyards and we're looking at the quality of the grapes being produced, and correlating that with the various substrates they're growing on. I'll show you what that looks like.There's one example, we're standing right in the middle of one of the finest vineyards, Pepper Bridge Vineyard, in Walla Walla Valley. We're looking across at this slack water terrace up here you can see the rows of vineyards up there these are some of the most valuable grapes in the state.Right next to them, in fact there's a very sharp line, you come out here to the Walla Walla flood plain and there's not grapes growing there at all. If you grow grapes there, they're terrible quality. The only thing they grow there are onions. You might have heard of them. Walla Walla Sweets. That's where they grow those.Here is the difference between these slack water terraces. Slack water again, where the water slowed down, the mud came out, and there isn't that material. Let's take you into the vineyard. A little 101 on grape physiology. This is the trunk coming up.We have the two branches that are trained out onto the trellis wires. That's called the cordons. These in fact represent up on top what's called the canopy. We're looking right down the rows of a very well managed vineyard. You can get a very rough idea of the canopy size relative to the trunks. There's some grass growing in between that is a cover crop to control weeds and moisture in there.Now, we're going to step across one of those boundaries of the yellow stuff to the brown stuff on that previous map. This is a different vineyard, and that's the owner of the vineyard standing in front of it. We're looking down the rows. There's a post there, there's a post here. You can see that the vigor here is much, much higher. That things are totally grown together, the canopy is huge.[[[[[[The reason for that is this is on different substrate where those plants have access to moisture. This is the natural vigor of the vine taking over. Two years after we did the study, the owner pulled all this out and converted it to barley. What he told us, was he couldn't even sell these grapes for wine.He was having to sell them into the grape jelly and juice market because the quality of this just wasn't up to winemaking standards. Even though we are very, very close to that real estate analogy to a great vineyard, this one is not so good. Here's one. You look at this, and most people who are gardeners look at this and go "Oh my God, how can you possibly grow things here?"This is a great story. This vineyard was put in by Cristophe Baron, he's one of the what they call traveling winemakers. He grew up in France, had several generations of winemakers in the family. He was working all over the world producing wines for different people. He eventually wanted to settle down to own a state winery.He looked at all over the world, and he found this spot, this gravel. He went "Oh, this is perfect." This is what I want. Everybody thought he was nuts. You couldn't grow anything here. You could buy at that point this land for $10 an acre. You couldn't grow apples, you couldn't grow peaches, you couldn't grow nothing there.If you look at in more detail, this is what it looks like digging a trench down through it those are roots going down through it its gravel all the way down. Again, if you are gardener and you're growing tomatoes, or corn, or cantaloupe, you look at this and you say this is horrible.But again, for controlling the vigor of the grapes, this is ideal. He put this in, he was winning awards all over the place. That was Walla Walla down here. I'll show you one more, which is this tiny little area here called Red Mountain. This is another one.This historically has been listed as one of the very best vineyards in the whole world. All the different magazines like to rank things like that. This is it. Again that question. How's a University Professor ever going to be able to afford to taste that wine?Research, here we go. Now you know the drill. Here's the outline of the Red Mountain appellation. You've got different colors for different rock types within it. This will allow you to visualize a little bit better. This is an oblique aerial photograph with a color infrared photograph draped over the top of it.Color infrared sees things differently than our eyes do. That chlorophyll gives us the bright red, and where it's barren is actually green. You can see the location of the vineyards quite clearly within this. There's the mountain behind it. This is an illustration of what that flood looked like when the ice dam broke in Montana and the water's racing across the state.It's spreading around Red Mountain, and here's the high water mark. We know where that is because they had big chunks of ice moving along full of rocks. When those glaciers and those icebergs grounded, they would sit there and melt and drop out the rocks. We have a geologic evidence for where that water line was. The maximum level for this lake wasn't quite over the top.But initially when that water was rushing through, there would have been a huge standing wave over the top of this. If you were a surfer, that's where you want to be. Get in your time machine, go back 15,000 years, wax up your board, stand on top of that, and this wave would carry you all the way to Japan.That's what it looks like in the field. You see those big boulders there. Now we're looking at Red Mountain. This is the West, so things a lot bigger than they appear on the East coast. They're called glacier erratics. Glacier because only a glacier can carry a boulder that big.A river can't do it, wind can't do it, I can't do it. It takes a glacier. The other thing about them, this is one of my colleagues with it, is that you can see it's both white in color and rounded. Rounded because the glacial tumbling of this moving along. White because that's a big boulder of marble.There is no marble within 500 miles of this vineyard spot. That's how we can demonstrate that this was indeed carried in from far away. This one's a little bit dark, but you can see a vineyard in the background. There's a road cut in the foreground. You might be able to see that there are some lenses of course, or gravel in there.This affects the performance not just of the vineyard, but of individual plants within the vineyard. This is a close up of one of those things. Ground water is moving through here.It's the arid country, so the ground water evaporates depositing caliche, calcium carbonate, on the individual rocks. This affects the pH. All these things come together in affecting in the growing environment for those plants.As geologists, we can go in there, we can map this out in great detail in terms of the grain sizes. How that affects permeability and water movement through these rocks. Here we go back to the basic science. Here is a particular vineyard, Ciel Du Cheval. This is that black rectangle right there.Based upon all those measurements we've made in the subsurface, we've divided what the plants are growing on into three different series. We don't need to worry about the names. We've got this stuff, this stuff, and this stuff. We've got individual vineyard blocks that are going across all three of them.Here we have a great controlled scientific experiment. We have the same grape variety grown by the same owner, using the same techniques, arguably with the same sunshine, wind, and rainfall. I mean, it defies belief that there could be a difference across those.Then we had wine made under controlled circumstances. In each one of those we asked a simple question, are they the same or are they different? Turns out that they were extraordinarily different. The only difference that we can document is what we can see in the subsurface.Let me illustrate this for you in terms of what we can see. Again, we're looking down the vineyard rows. By now, you're experts at this. You can see the canopy up there. You can see the ground cover. We're going to move about 200 feet across one of those boundaries.Now it looks like this. You can see that the canopy is more vigorous. You can see that the ground cover is greener. That's because the moisture holding capacity as different soil horizons is a huge control on the vines. When I say that vines need to suffer, you can get all sorts of effects.One of them we can measure, what we call pruning weights. This is looking at the size of the canopy. In the fall, they go in there and they prune everything back to a certain number of nodes along the cordon, and we can measure that. This gets technical, but we can look at the difference in different soil types in how much they grow.We can look at the individual clusters of grapes. We can weigh those clusters so we can see the size of the clusters. We can ask why that would make a difference. Here are two different clusters of grapes. They're both Merlot. These are from blocks that are right next to each other.You can see there's a difference of size of clusters. If you have good eyes, you can see the individual berries are different in size. Why would this make a difference? Why would we care? If you think about it I'll put on my winemaker hat here. For a grape, almost all the color and tannin and flavor is coming from the skin.Inside it is basically sugar water. This is greatly simplifying it. When you crush the grape, you start fermentation and you extract all those materials. If the grape is small, relative to big, the ratio of the skin to the amount of water changes dramatically.In fact, for those of you who passed high school geometry, it's πr^2. It's the square of the radius of the grape.These small differences in grape size have a huge impact upon the taste characteristics of the grape, and therefore the resulting wine. This is backtracking what we can observe scientifically is there are differences between these.For this one, we're using a research winery, so these are large bins. We're making these in three quarter ton aliquots. If you go into a research winery you can tell it's a research winery because everything's labeled "research." For those of you who have run laboratories, people are always stealing your equipment, and they have a full blown commercial winery next to this. So they label it "research" so people don't go in there and steal their stuff.We can go in and look at the actual wine composition, all sorts of technical things that I won't bore you with. But we can document that these grapes are different growing on those different substrates from the previous map.Let's jump down to California, a different wine region. Now we'll look at the influence of tectonics and the alluvial fans on wine quality. The map of central Northern California. You can see these nice linear things through here. For any geologists in the crowd, I don't have to tell you what those are. That's the San Andreas Fault. Up here in Napa County, we have different splays of faults that are coming off the master plate boundary fault of the San Andreas.If we go up into Napa Valley itself, we've got a series of ridges. If we go right to the edge of one of those, so here is the valley bounding fault. We've got a small hill. We've got a stream coming down that is emptying out into the valley floor. This is the boundary of an alluvial fan.Here I've cut it across so you can see that stuff near the mouth of the alluvial fan is going to be much coarser grain. The water's coming out. It's faster. So, coarse grain stuff here, and it's going to get finer grain as you go down that way.The important point is that if we look at individual vineyards within that each one of these blocks is a different vineyard it makes sense that a vineyard up here will have different characteristics than a vineyard down there.Again, imagine that you've decided to start your own winery. You'd be independently wealthy, you're a Silicon Valley millionaire, or you just won the lottery. You say, "I want to follow my dream and I want to have my own winery." You call up the equivalent of the real estate agent and you say, "I've got more money than smarts. Please sell me a nice vineyard in Napa Valley."Say, "Oh, you're in luck! One just came on the market. It's right next to this world famous winery that's selling wine for thousands of dollars or whatever. I can get it for you special because it's not listed yet." You say, "Well great, where is it?"Well, here's the winery it's right next to. It's right here, and I've got dibs on this one right over there. Before you came to this lunchtime lecture, one, you're less hungry than you used to be. Two, you now understand, "I can see why those two might be different." That real estate agent probably wouldn't know the difference between them.But now you're an educated buyer, so when you win the lottery and you want to go buy your vineyard, you now know how to do it.Some other people have done this. You may have heard of this one. This is the joint venture between the Mondavi family, probably the most famous wine making family in the United States, and the Rothschild family, one of the more famous families in France. They came together. They produced one wine there called Opus One. It's one of the more expensive wines that comes out of Napa Valley.They could pick basically any vineyard site they wanted. They have enough money to buy the whole valley if they wanted to. They picked this particular fan. They knew what they were doing. They studied this terroir stuff, and so they sited that vineyard right there.This is another one. This is Stags Leap, and you may have heard of this one. This was one of the wineries that was involved in the famous tasting that happened in France in the 1970s. It's very famous. They made movies about it. "Mondo vino" is probably the one that people know the best.To make a long story short, they did the tasting. It was a blind tasting. The American Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and the American Cabernet from Stags Leap won that contest. That changed the whole world of winemaking. Looking at Stags Leap, these are trenches dug into different parts of the vineyard to try to establish why the wine that they say is their very best wine has the characteristics that it does.Now we're going to jump across the ocean to France, and we'll look at the analog to this. For Cabernet, Merlot, we'll go to Bordeaux. Again, the influence of glaciation. Now most people who've been traveling around France say, "Wait a second. I didn't see any glaciers when I was there in France."If we go back in time 15,000 years ago, and these are the mountains between Spain and France and they were covered by glaciers. We see lots of evidence of active glaciation up there. If we go to a map of France itself, we have the Massif Central. This area in here these are the mountains down along the border. All of them are feeding material up into this region of Bordeaux. This is a close up map of that.There's lots of famous names in here. Things like Margaux and Graves. For those of you that speak French, you know that "graves" means "gravel." You can probably see where this is going. We've got lots of glacial outwash coming into this area. If we draw a cross section through this, not only do we have the estuary itself, the Gironde. But the areas where the vineyards are, and some of these vineyards are some of the most famous in the world.Château d'Yquem is probably the most consistently expensive wine in the world. It's a very, very special wine. It is situated on a particular stratographic unit. This is one of these glacial boulder outcrops, Miocene marine terrace. A particular unit within that called the [indecipherable 26:53] Terrace is the substrate for every single one of the vineyards that is classified as a first growth there.If you're familiar with Bordeaux wines, you know the famous classification back in the 1880s when they went through and they classified what they considered to be the top vineyards maybe the top one or two percent. All of those are located on this particular stratographic unit.There's a geologic connection to this thing about wine quality. Not because it makes the wine taste different because you're pulling up minerals or rocks from the ground, but because they're controlling the whole environment that the grapes are growing in. It affects the whole quality of them.This is just an illustration of what one of those gravel terraces looks like. On the right is a vineyard on that gravel terrace. When you look at this, you can now see what was going through the mind of Christophe Baron, the guy who came to Walla Walla, and I showed you that picture. He bought this land…It was selling for $10 an acre and everybody there thought he was nuts.He knew that this was producing the very best wine in this region of France. He recognized that same sort of terroir in Washington State. He knew the climate was much, much better in Washington State. That's where he located his vineyard.If we go up to Burgundy, the very last example I'll show you. The influence of rock type and weathering. This is my favorite picture in the entire world. This is looking at some very, very famous vineyards. The one up at the top, Chevalier has been producing wine in that same block for a millennium for 1,000 years. Some of these have been owned by the same family for centuries. They've been growing grapes in the same place for so long, that the boundaries between the different vineyards are stone walls. They've been built up for so long.Chevalier up at the very top is extremely famous in the wine world and sells for ridiculously high prices. They probably average $400 or $500 a bottle.You come down the slope a little bit to Le Montrachet. This is much, much cheaper. You can buy these for $200 a bottle.][]You come down another slope, and now we are in Bâtard Montrachet. This is much, much cheaper. Almost the secretary could afford to buy this. These sell for about $100, $125. Where I'm standing to take this picture, which is across another stone wall, is commune wine that is sold in the local café for 50¢] a liter.Here is my initial thought experiment that I started this lecture off with at the beginning. Here are three vineyards that are right next to each other. Arguably, there's no difference in sunshine and temperature between these. There's a little bit of difference in slope. But if we ask the question what's in the subsurface? What differences are there? What could possibly explain what they observe through centuries as having an effect upon the quality of the wine?This is a cross section through that hill. Here are the three vineyards I was just describing. This bottom one is just a blow up of that. Here's the boundary between Chevalier and Le Montrachet. The brick wall is right there.In the subsurface, there's a fault. Now 1,000 years ago, when they first planted this, they didn't know that fault existed because the science of geology did not exist. Nobody knew what a fault was. When they did the famous classification in the late 1800s of the quality of all the wines, they didn't know about this fault. They didn't know about the geological connection.We now have a much better sense, so what effect does it have? What it's done, it's uplifted different rocks with a different weathering profile. Those that have a dramatic effect upon the vigor of the vines. Their ability to access moisture and access nutrients.That in a nutshell is a very quick list. They told me to get it done in half an hour. When they saw how many slides I had they said there's no way you can do it. Well, I did it. Thank you for your attention.[applause]Audience Member 1: I'm not a wine person. Let's see. Is it working OK?Larry: Yes.Audience Member 1: I'm not a wine person, I don't drink wine. But I drink cognac which is a different thing. They have similarities I guess. My question is, I see the geology. I'm a geological engineer.Larry: You look very distinguished.[laughter]Audience Member 1: My main question is, I see the subtle location difference which causes your panel back up there on the wall. One is light yellow, one is dark yellow in the bottom of the screen there.Same way, can someone, you do research, do experiments like you bulldoze and take maybe 200 feet of that loess or whatever you call it from there, from one place. From this side of the fault, and then make a trench and put it on the other side. Make an acre there, and grow and see what difference it makes?Larry: Yes, and you can do that, and people have done that. This is a question that, I say with all due respect, that I get a lot from engineers, because this is how an engineering mind's going to work. OK? Here's a problem, we understand the boundary conditions, we can program this.When they do that, they have absolute failure every time, because I have greatly simplified this to get it in a half an hour so you could have your lunch and then go back and be productive federal employees.What haven't we talked about? There's a whole ecosystem here, beyond just the grain size and the composition. There's an ecosystem of bacteria, of fungi, of insects who are all part of this ecosystem that all affects the wine, as well.When we go in there, and this is kind of an arrogance of the human species to think that, OK, the fact that we understand some parts of it, that we understand the whole thing. You can, indeed, bulldoze something off, and you can say, "OK, Larry talked to me about the loess. Give me some truckloads of loess." Put down a layer of loess and we can grow grapes in there.You go, "Well, this wine's not as good as I was hoping for. Larry, what's wrong?"He said, "Well, you didn't account for the slacker sediments beneath it.""Oh, oh. Do it again. Bring in 10 truckloads of the slackwater sediments, 10 truckloads of loess. Now I'm done.""Well, no, not exactly, because in nature, these things have been growing there, so what about the burrowing insects? The worms, the chipmunks, the other things that are providing channels through there?"Ooh, didn't think about that. "10 truckloads of chipmunks, please, bring that in here."[laughter]Larry: Trying to account for the complexity of this in nature. This is the essence of science. As scientists, we try to isolate factors, say, OK, what happens if we hold everything else constant?One, it's difficult to hold everything constant, but two, trying to wrap your mind around the larger picture of all these different variables that are involved. I don't mean to side step the question, but it's too simplistic to say I can go for 10 truckloads of the loess and that'll get the job done.That's the short answer to your question.Audience Member 1: Thank you. I think in another part that which you'd add to your, what your explanation was, I think the practice that that family has been doing for thousands of years, they have a certain way of doing it, a certain timing. I mean, that also counts, like if you make a statue, your statue would be different than mine, no matter if we use the same substance.Larry: Yeah, and all that's true.Moderator: Do we have questions from the Internet?Larry: Like a French vineyard owner out there is going to go, "Ah."Moderator: No questions.Any more questions in the room?Lori Carmanian: I'm Lori Carmanian. I think I'm a little late, so maybe you did, maybe you talked about it already.Larry: I did.Lori: A lot of places like Virginia and New York and Ohio are also growing wine now. Can you talk a little bit about what makes California and Washington so great? Is it the glaciation, specifically? Or are there other issues, as well?Larry: Yeah, that's a very good question. In fact, there are wineries in all 50 states, so, every single state has a winery. At least one winery. Many people, when they hear that, go, wow, I'm astounded. Even North Dakota? Yeah, even North Dakota. Even Florida? Yeah, even Florida.Lori: The one in Florida's not very good.Larry: I didn't say anything about good. The old truism, the fact that you can do it doesn't mean you should do it. OK.You can, indeed, grow grapes in a variety of different places, so now we're getting to the question of, well, what makes for really high quality grapes? I've tried to give you the 30 minute version of a much longer story.Being an academic, I couldn't help but say, and I've got a whole armload of publications about this that I'd be happy to steer you to go through some of the technical details, including the main book on the subject, so if you want to really study further, you can go read my book. But I'll give you the answer for free, so you don't have to even pay tuition for this course.Some of the major variables are the ability to control moisture and nutrients. When I talked about all the rocks and the substrate, those are things that are controlling moisture relative to what's naturally available.If you are in a climate that has more moisture coming from the sky, you can't demoisturize it, so you have a constraint. What you ideally want is a climate that's dry enough that you can then go in and control moisture when you want it.If you are in a place that gets 100 inches of rain a year, it's going to be extremely difficult to grow high quality grapes. Now, it's not impossible, you can grow grapes. But this word, high quality, is difficult.For some of the areas that you mentioned, such as New York State, which is a major producer, used to be number two, now it's number three in the country, but still a major producer of grapes, and Virginia, which certainly is a growing wine industry. Certainly one of the challenges there, as any winemaker will tell you, is the climate and the climate on several fold.One of getting rain at times where you don't really want rain, and second is the humidity. Now for those of you who live in DC, I'm sure this is going to be shocking to you, but the humidity here in the summer might be a problem. The humidity's a problem.What the humidity does is that it affects the opening and closing of stomata, the pores on the leaves, and therefore, photosynthesis. In particular, it allows for very ready growth of fungus, mildews, molds, things that are bad for the wine quality.Now that could be controlled by using various fungicides and other things, so now you get at cross purposes between many people's desire to have a natural, perhaps even organic or bio, organic vineyard and what Ma Nature is telling you to do.Being in a wetter, more humid climate is going to make it more difficult to control some of these quality factors, and certainly, to control some of these disease things, what they call in the trade, disease pressure.Disease pressure in Virginia is going to be much, much higher than being in the roughly arid west. Then controlling the timing of water. If you were to have a rainfall the week before harvest, that's going to undo at least half of all the work that you've done throughout the whole year in terms of trying to make really high quality grapes.Because now they're going to swell and they're going to be looking like those strawberries I mentioned at the beginning of the lecture. You probably weren't here for that part, but I was dumping on those big red strawberries in supermarkets that lack one thing, called "flavor." So that's what happened to your wine grapes.If you had a big rainfall the week before harvest, the grapes are going to suddenly swell and now they're going to have a lot more water there than they would have before that.That climatic aspect is part of it. Then we get into the age of the soil and how long that soil has been there. This gets complicated in a hurry. But it's understandable, you can approach this scientifically, it is subject to measurement and observation and careful thinking about what's going on.Moderator: Internet questions?Wendy Dorman: Hi, I'm Wendy Dorman. Then this business of climate change must really be impacting the business of viticulture.Larry: Absolutely.Wendy: For example, in France, where they have these famous wine regions, they could become infamous, I suppose, if the climate changes in such a way.Larry: Yes, and we can start thinking about this from a first principles level. Let's imagine that we had a vineyard. Let's look at three case histories. Let's imagine one vineyard right now that's just perfect, they like everything about life, they're wonderful.Now let's fast forward to a century in the future where the average temperature is now, whatever projection you want to use, four or five degrees higher. It's also going to affect circulation patterns. So it's probably going to change the moisture. It'll be more rain, less rain, that depends where you are.So that vineyard which was perfect now could be considerably less perfect. Let's imagine a vineyard that, right now, is too cool. We can pick, say, a lot of Northern Germany, Northern France, where the reason why vintage variability is so huge...What they mean by that is only 1 year in 10 is it warm enough to actually ripen the grapes so we get high quality. They don't phrase it quite that way there, they just...But we won't go into that, especially since I'm being recorded.But we can even go further north, to England. England used to grow grapes they actually used to grow grapes in Greenland, back during one of the warm periods. You can imagine that those places will be better off, everything else being equal, than places that right now might be sort of ideal.We can go to the other extreme. We can go to places like Spain, Italy. They're really not going to like me for this. They're pretty warm right now. If you've been to Spain or Italy during the summer, they're beautiful places. I love to visit them, but they're pretty toasty in the summer. You add another five degrees to that and you're getting pretty marginal for the survivability of grapes.What is going to happen is that we're going to see different grape growing areas migrate with time. We're already seeing it. It's happening. Wineries are moving their vineyards to different locations and some areas are just not going to be possible for certain grape types and we're going to see changes in the mix of grapes that are grown.There are some grapes that grow really well in cool climates. There's some that really need hot temperatures. So an area that may have previously grown Cabernet and Merlot might now be growing Seurat and Malbec because they benefit from warmer temperatures.Conversely, if somewhere were to get cooler, I can't really imagine where that's going to happen, you can imagine going in the other direction in terms of grape varieties. So these bands of optimal conditions for particular grape varieties are going to migrate in response to climate change and what grapes in particular a winery will be producing, if they're paying attention, will also change with time.Audience Member 2: Larry, I have a question.Larry: Yes.Audience Member 2: What do you grow and where do you grow it?Larry: OK. I operate a small winery. I used to be in Washington State, as I mentioned. I was a professor at Washington State University in a former life. Then all my grapes came from Washington State.I make what's called a Bordeaux blend. It's dominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with a mixture of other typical blending grapes, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot. Because of the research I do, I have access to grapes from anywhere in the world. So when I first moved to the East Coast, I moved across the country to Smith College, Massachusetts.I moved the winery with me. Obviously I didn't move the vineyards with me. I was initially trucking grapes across the country in refrigerated trucks to Massachusetts. That worked fine.Then, because of the work I've been doing, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, I know that there are particular grape varieties that are some of the very best in the world.The wine I make now is a mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carminere and Malbec. OK, and I source those from the particular vineyards that I think are best suited for those in Chile, then I bring the grapes up from Chile to Washington, DC. I am, Washington, DC's only winery.Moderator: Are we sure Internet is getting us? Can someone send us a message, if not a question? OK. Any questions? Any questions in the room?Audience Member 2: Could I ask a second one?I know you didn't bring Italy into it, but my developing taste for reds, it is the earthquake zones in Italy turn out some of the best, earthiest red wines compared to earthquake zones in Oregon. Can you explain why they're even earthier?Audience Member 2: OK, we have to step back and think about what it is we're actually meaning with those words. But with Italy, you have to understand, this is probably the most complex enological in the world, they produce wine from thousands of different grape varieties, only the top dozen or two dozen people would ever have heard of.When you go into a particular valley or a particular area, they usually are growing grapes that they've been growing there for centuries, in some cases, millennia. They've always been growing those grapes. Some cases, we don't even know what the grapes are. With the advent of being able to use DNA to actually fingerprint different grapes, we now have a better idea of what some of the grape varieties are.To generalize anything about all of Italy just doesn't make a whole lot of sense, because we're talking about just huge variability. We could go to particular regions and look at what affects them.I list them off, so in order of priority, well, even that's got a huge range. Things are going to affect it.Climate is going to be number one. Overall, we have a Mediterranean climate. What that means to geographers is winter rain and summer drought. During the growing season, we have a very small amount of moisture, which means we can control the moisture to the plants. By now, I hope it's clear why that's important in terms of the quality of the grapes.The second thing is the evapotranspiration, the evaporation, which is also very high throughout most of Italy, including Sardinia, and so you develop fairly alkaline soils, because evaporation and you leave behind the calcium carbonate. You start changing the pH balance of the wine, and the pH then affects the ability to bring up certain nutrients from the root zone.This is getting wonky in a hurry, and I'm sure it's probably way beyond what you wanted to know. But in a nutshell, different regions of Italy have different physical characteristics, and would have very little directly to do with faults or earthquakes.That being said, there are going to be certain rock types that are produced, mélange would be a typical example, that actually are physically produced by earthquakes, by fault zones, and certain types of fault zones are associated with certain types of rocks.You could make that sort of indirect connection between the presence of earthquakes, certain types of fault zones and certain rock types and therefore, affecting different ones. But it wouldn't be the direct link that you were implying in your question.Moderator: Any other questions? Well, thank you very much. This is making us all think of other things.[laughter][applause]

Speaker: Larry Meinert, USGS Program Coordinator for the Minerals Resources Program

This seminar will address how physical factors affect food quality, examining some food and wine producing areas in France, California, and Washington State. Records of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks contain observations that certain lands seemed to produce better food and wine than others. This is still true today, as adjoining farms may share climate, slope, and farming methods, yet produce crops that are vastly different. The simple question is, "Why?"