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Often a book idea begins while I am listening to one of many stories presided by the greatest storyteller of anything vine genetics, our beloved professore! This was no exception, it was during one of our Italian Wine Podcast recording series, “Everybody needs a bit of Scienza”, the idea came to me to dedicate an entire book to the professor’s latest obsession: racism in vine genetics.
In full disclosure, I must confess that my comprehension of what he speaks about is anywhere in the range from 50 to 80%. Some of what he has to say is indeed complex and often I am not technically proficient enough in vine genetics to decipher in its entirety. Sometimes, neither my attention span nor my Italian language skills are on par with the level necessary to comprehend fully what the professor wants to convey.
I always say that il professore was a walking Wikipedia before the internet era. He has a special gift, however, he never makes his audience feel stupid, but rather strokes just enough curiosity to long for just a slightly better understanding of the topic in mind. He invokes curiosity, this is his special power! This book is yet another example of that power in action.
Professor Attilio Scienza has been riffing on this subject, one that we have come to know as ‘vine and prejudice’, for years. Probably even decades. Nobody really knows how old he is, so it might even be a century! Refining his arguments, fine-tuning his conclusions in the light of emerging data and taking into account the evolving sciences of DNA and biotechnology, everybody knows that he has been actively presenting his case to the Italian wine community, in his own inimitable style, at conferences, seminars and workshops across the country.
His central argument – about inequity and prejudice in the field of wine science – is that grapes, like humans, are equal, at least from an evolutionary point of view. His pithy conclusion, that there is no Serie A or Serie B when it comes to grape varieties, is one that I was immediately inspired by, and one that I felt was much deserving of a wider audience. The book's central themes are absolutely of the moment, as industry and society more generally continues to grapple with the vexed questions of diversity and inclusion, science and progress, and the importance of education. Themes that particularly resonate with the ethos behind Mamma Jumbo Shrimp Guide Series (presenting complex topics in a more digestible form).
So, the idea was to produce a single short volume in English that brings together the scientific arguments, sometimes spurious, sometimes inspired, that have shaped the development of grape cultivation over the centuries. From the very origins and evolution of the species, to the earliest cultivation of the vine, mankind has endeavored to improve upon what nature has so generously provided. Although we may like to think of the grape as a perfectly natural product, we have in fact long interfered with its natural state, in search of the ever more perfect grape. As science has progressed, so too has the scope and extent of that interference, sometimes with favorable outcomes, but frequently not. From the selection of the most favorable sites, the use of soil improvement and drainage systems and pruning and training techniques that are now commonplace, farmers have always employed their knowledge and experience in search of an ever more perfect harvest. Some of the other points include a contextualization of the long-headed predicament of phylloxera. While the victory against the phylloxera outbreak of the late nineteenth century is correctly regarded as a significant scientific achievement, over-production and the proliferation of low-quality, mass-produced wines in the 1970s and 1980s, when wine production in Italy was often dominated by large industrial cooperative wineries, where an inevitable consequence of the science-inspired industrialization of the vineyard, as quantity displaced quality as the defining purpose of the global wine industry. Who invented “alternate facts” by the way?
With the re-emergence of “fake-science” and the ongoing public debate surrounding genetic engineering and climate change, there has never been a more important time to understand the true science that lies behind the vine. Wine production takes place in almost every corner of the globe, from Europe, South America and Africa, but as the impact of the climate crisis intensifies, bringing with it rising summer temperatures and milder winters, as well as unpredictable frosts, increased rainfall and the increasing risk of severe wildfires, the threat facing the global wine industry is stark. And so, everyone seems to be obsessed with climate change nowadays. For some producers, climate change could bring certain advantages – warmer temperatures and a longer growing season, but for many the climate crisis will have a devastating impact. Changing rain patterns, earlier springs and droughts are already starting to push wine production northwards. Where temperatures fall, the effect will be equally devastating – destroying buds, reducing yield and killing the vines. With the risks of climate change so apparent, a better understanding of the science that lies behind the vine, and indeed of the scientific debates that have occurred in previous generations, is crucial. Perhaps one of Scienza’s most controversial arguments is the subject of genetic engineering. Often maligned as an “unnatural” interference, il professore explains the role that such technology can play in relation to disease resistance if the industry is to become less dependent on chemical solutions, while in response to climate changes, genetically engineered crossbreeds may enable vines to cope with drought conditions. The ever-increasing extent of varietal concentration at the expense of the loss of local and regional diversity is another cause for concern, though there are some promising signs that things are now heading in the right direction.
Many producers are now returning to native varieties and embracing more sustainable means of production, while certain wine regions in Italy are actively transitioning from a low-cost to ultra-premium wine strategy, embracing science and technology as they do so. While there must clearly be a valid business case behind such strategies, there are also sound environmental motivations. We must seek out these producers and embrace them, not least in Italy, where the great diversity of its grape varieties is one of its most defining assets. Some regions are also encouraging a shift in emphasis towards smaller family-run estates, more organic farming methods, and an increasing focus on terroir. Behind each of the issues addressed in the book lie complex scientific and ethical considerations that require to be addressed in a serious and informed way. That’s why Scienza believes in an education system that embraces both humanities and science in order to equip our future decision makers with the skills and knowledge to grapple with these issues, enabling them to make the best decisions for the future of our planet. This book has a similar mission.
We hope that not only will it make a timely and important contribution to our understanding of the evolution of the vine by drawing together various strands of scientific thought, but it will also equip its readers to understand and debate some of the biggest issues to have ever faced the wine industry. None of this could have been done without our dedicated team, especially Richard Hough, who has spent many waking hours learning a new language called “Scienza” and then translating into what you find here today. I am grateful for his perseverance beyond the call of duty. Grazie Richard! If you got this far then congratulations, I think you might be ready for the next pages to come:-) In addition, if you have some Scienza withdrawal symptoms after the completion of this reading, there’s plenty more where this comes from also via our weekly podcast banter on Italian Wine Podcast “Everybody needs a bit of Scienza” series to get your weekly dosage! Buon Scienza a tutti!