What I Learned About Wine from Neil deGrasse Tyson

One of the great science minds of our time, and almost certainly the finest science communicator of our time, is a wine lover. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a well documented love of wine; apparently when he’s not working on unlocking the secrets of the cosmos, he’s trying to understand the secrets of Gouges, the enigmatic grand cru wines of the Nuits-Saint-George region of Burgundy. (Better stick with the cosmos.)

This is not pertinent to much of anything, beyond simply being an enjoyable fact for those who love wine and science. Tyson is on the Lunch List, my wife often says; she’s referring to the short list of people with whom we’d love to break bread and open a bottle of wine. Where do you begin the conversation with Tyson in that circumstance? You almost wish you didn’t know he was a wine lover. You could waste so much time with that alone.

I resisted the urge to talk wine with Tyson when he joined my talk show two weeks ago. I had a fast-disappearing 30 minutes. But reflecting on his remarks later, my mind drifted back to wine.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson enjoys a glass of wine on a recent episode of "Cosmos"

Neil deGrasse Tyson enjoys a glass of wine on a recent episode of Cosmos.

Tyson is the host of Cosmos, the reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic series designed to invigorate the American interest in our stars. Here’s what he said about the critics of his show (often from the religious community):

We’re presenting science. I’m not going to tiptoe around how you think or feel, if what you think or feel conflicts with objectively true observations and measurements of the universe in which we live. If you receive science politically, culturally, or religiously, that’s not the fault of Cosmos. You have issues with the universe.

What does this have to do with wine? Well, when facts conflict with beliefs, re-examine your beliefs, no matter the subject. I thought about some of the beliefs about wine that we clutch doggedly, in spite of the evidence. In that spirit, here are five wine facts that might conflict with our beliefs.

1. Weight and mass do not always equal power.

Former Wine Enthusiast writer Steve Heimoff often tried to equate weight with power. He’s hardly alone, of course, but this paragraph from Heimoff nicely illustrates the mistake critics are prone to making:

The main thing I look for in a wine is power. There are synonyms for power: concentration, intensity, volume, size, mass. (These are all nouns; their corresonding adjectives would be words like intense, massive, powerful, huge, etc.). The more mass a wine has, the more likely I am to give it a high score.

Mass does not necessarily mean intensity or power. Weight can be a burden. Imagine a trim, nimble kickboxer. Now imagine an obese, lazy person who can barely get off the couch. Which is more intense, more powerful? Do you want the wine that is a kickboxer, or do you want the lazy guy?

In that piece, Heimoff tried to hedge a bit, but to no avail. His bungling of the very definition of mass was his downfall. In science, there is a relationship between mass and power, but they are not the same thing. When critics pretend they are, it should be no wonder we see winemakers striving to eliminate acidity in the name of compote-like glop.

2. Wine scores are subjective, highly variable, and impermanent.

This one is meant for the retailers who love to tell customers that “this is a 95-point wine,” as if that score is etched into the wine just as factually as the grape varieties.

3. It’s not a 100-point scale if there’s a baseline.

Again, this just a fact. If the scale starts at 50, it’s a 50-point scale. James Suckling’s scale starts at 90, so his is a 10-point scale. (That’s not a jab; he is only interested with 90-point wines.) Most 100-point scales are truncated; John Gilman is the exception, as he proved with his 47-point lampooning of 2010 Pavie.

4. No one is a perfect blind taster.

The best tend to be our most consistent critics, as well as the MW candidates who have to pass rigorous examination. This doesn’t mean that some of us are more adept at discerning wine in a blind setting. It can be great fun. The danger is that people who fall in love with wine inevitably find themselves in a blind tasting, and it can be humbling. We ought not allow them to head home in shame or an illusion that they lack what the rest of the wine-loving world has.

5. Natural wines are not natural.

This has been covered before, but it’s ideally suited to Tyson’s comments about belief versus facts. And the fact is, let a grape hang without intervening and you’re not getting Jamet Côte-Rôtie. You’re getting salad dressing. Once we accept that human intervention is necessary in making wine – and it is – we’re just wrangling over the preferences on a sliding scale.

One of the finest wine writers in the world, Keith Levenberg, wrote the best defense of the term I’ve yet read. His point is that it’s a term that is quickly and easily understood. He might be right, but other terms could be understood as well, and I think he’s ignoring the faith-based fervor that the term “natural” instills. So let’s get back to our Tyson roots here: wine is not natural; that’s just a fact.

And isn’t it easier to stick with facts, and go from there? Tyson was talking about science, but he was talking about life. We’re all better off when we put facts and evidence first, then construct our beliefs around them. Some things we know; others we don’t, and we’re open to finding the answers. When will Gouges open up? I suspect we’ll first find an Earth-like planet with sustainable life. I’ll keep trying Gouges, but I won’t call it natural, and I won’t apologize if I fail to identify it in a blind tasting.

About The Author

Evan Dawson
Staff Writer

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. It won the 2012 Roederer International Wine Book of the Year. Outside of Palate Press, his wine writing has been published in Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel Magazine, and the New York Cork Report, for which he serves as Managing Editor. He hosts The Connection on WXXI radio, the NPR affiliate in western New York, where he focuses on community affairs. He is a middling but enthusiastic cook.

  • startalkradio

    Thanks for a great post, Evan. If you want more of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about wine, you might want to listen to our episode of StarTalk Radio, which he hosts, called “Wit and Wisdom about Wine”, with guest Wine Jedi Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan: http://www.startalkradio.net/show/wit-and-wisdom-about-wine/

    • Evan Dawson

      Thanks for the link! Wonderful stuff. Our regards to Neil.

  • http://blog.seattlepi.com/wellredwhiteandrose/ szymanskiea

    Were it only as simple as putting “facts” first. Every science communication student I know is (rightfully and understandably) in love with Tyson and Cosmos, but the way you/he have presented scientific facts (wine-related or otherwise) is potentially dangerous. Science isn’t just about clear and objective facts. It’s about interpreting those facts; fundamentally, about making those facts into a story that mean something, because they don’t mean anything on their own without our thinking about them. And so while we should absolutely and unquestionably respect observable measurements, we also need to respect that the ways in which those observations are understood inescapably reflects our social, cultural, and personal situation. And that makes putting facts first a fair bit more complicated.

    • Evan Dawson

      No reason to over-complicate this. There’s nothing “dangerous” about science. Sure, there’s something potentially harmful when over-emphasizing a black-or-white nature of science; after all, science is always open to new evidence. As for how observable facts impact our culture? I’m less concerned about that, because when you allow your culture to dictate evidence, you risk pushing ideology into science.

      • James Biddle

        Yes, but…
        Since the ’70’s (Kuhn et. al.), it has been clear the “scientific revolutions” are not driven by raw facts–the human brain is infused with “ideology,” and our whole being influences observation. This doesn’t minimize the quest for more facts; rather, it cautions us that history is awash with “facts” subsequently shown to be errors.

  • Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Twitter 25()

  • Morten Båtbukt

    Another problematic wine misconception is that minerality in flavour comes from the minerals in the soil (as in chalk in Chablis etc.). http://www.enologyinternational.com/articles/Minerality_reprint.pdf

    • Evan Dawson

      This is a good one. The way to state it as fact is simply to say: vines do not import minerals physically from the soil. So we can not assume that a wine grown in certain soils will taste like that soil. I am open to the idea that the immediate physical environment could impact the wine, but I don’t assume it always will.

  • Wes Barton

    The 100-point scale starts at 50, making it a 51-poiint scale. Likewise, Suckling uses an 11-point scale.

  • Wes Barton

    The 100-point scale starts at 50, making it a 51-poiint scale. Likewise, Suckling uses an 11-point scale.

    • Evan Dawson

      My mistake, yes.

  • http://batman-news.com ththhekjek@aol.com

    Interesting article. On a 100 point scale started at 98, I give it a 99.