Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Sensitive crystalization of Wine

It's a new year, and intelligent people will continue to find differences of opinion between themselves as they have throughout history.
In fact, even though we find ourselves another year away from our superstition ridden past, it's not uncommon to find otherwise reasonable people who might still hold onto "quaint, old fashioned" ideas - like astrology actually being accurate, etc.
But to find that the number of people who are turning their backs upon science, and reverting to "populist psuedoscience" as evidenced by the "sensitive crystallization" movement within the wine industry, is...well, an "ill omen".

For those not familiar with the practice, wine is mixed with a solution of copper chloride, dried at 95°C (~205°F), and the resulting crystal pattern is interpreted.

Amazingly, the pattern is supposed to reveal the inner strength and harmony of the wine. Yet more amazing is that reasonable people seem to be suspending their critical thinking processes, and start believing that it actually IS doing what proponents claim.

Along those lines, Domaine Laflaive has results posted for a rather interesting experiment - sensitive crystalization of a vintage 2000 Burgundy...

From the picture above on the right, we see a wine which is obviously damaged after being scanned with a supermarket scanner (from the article posted on the Domaine Leflaive website). The "tell-tale" marks in the crystal which are so important are the ones which breakup the even visual flow. But do they really portend such ill omens as the article concludes? If you allow your wine to be scanned by an optical scanner at the local market, is it really going to be "dumb" for 10 days following it???

Personally, I can't speak to the types of optical scanners they were using, but I find it highly unlikely that a quick scan - which takes what, 1/3 of a second? - would have such a profound affect on the wine...
For another article on the subject, look at the post on Appellation America, where some enquiring minds experimented with crystalization...unfortunately, they don't seem to ask the all important question - "is all this reproducible?"...there are side by side shots of crystals, and the conclusions are boldly stated on the basis of those pictures. But how many times did they do this? Are all the results similar, or did they cherry-pick results that reinforced the views they wanted to see? Are the results due to something like dust motes settling on the plates causing the odd patterns? I just can't see drawing these conclusions from a single set of slides, and hopefully they have plenty of other trials that were faithfully replicated on much larger scales so that they had a larger database to come to these startlingly profound conclusions...

It's one thing to draw conclusions about the state of a wine by looking at the crystals it leaves behind, but what really are you examining? The amount of acid in the wine? The amount of non-volatile compounds in the wine like tannins and color compounds in the wine? To really baqck this up, you'd have to have enough of the bottles to replicate the crystal trials, AND actually taste the wines to back up the conclusions they come to.


Here's another article which plays up the "wonders" of BD...and has this wonderful quote:

"A small, but still dramatic, example: composting according to the actions of both lunar and solar forces. "If you want to do compost at the right time, you have to look at the earth" and the things that exert an influence upon it. "The earth is connected to the sun -- you can see that by looking at the seasons. In the springtime, it's getting warm, the plants are shooting up, growing. The earth is 'breathing out' -- exhaling, pushing. Things grow." Then, "In the summer, there's a big change -- the plants stop growing and put all their energy into the fruit. Once the fruit is picked and gone, the vines lose their leaf and go into dormancy." At that point, "You've got all this energy which is actually moving toward the center of the earth. The vegetation above the soil dies, but the soil is reawakening. The earth is 'breathing in.' That's the best time to put compost on top of the soil."

There's an even better spot in the article where the French born vinyardist for Bonny Doon states that the vines take mineral up from the soil for the "minerality" effect that some wines exhibit, but then totally contradicts himself only a moment later by saying that the vines don't actually take up minerals into the wine....

Confused, at best, would be the most charitable way to characterize the views...
Another photo from the Leflaive article (just for fun)...


Anonymous Doug Smith said...

Yes, we posted some very skeptical commentary about sensitive crystallization over at the World of Fine Wine debate on BD:


Quoting some of this, re. an article by the winemaker Randall Grahm:

"Just what is sensitive crystallization? It is a technique that originated with Ehrenfried Pfeiffer in the 1930s. Pfeiffer was a student of the occult philosopher and founder of biodynamics Rudolf Steiner. His technique is performed by mixing organic material with a copper chloride solution in a Petri dish. The liquid is then left to evaporate. As the material dries out, patterns remain in the dish. These patterns are supposed to reveal something about the organic material, and thereby the plants themselves. How do the patterns do this? It would appear that they do so by looking pleasant to the investigator: “in the density and symmetry of their pattern,” says Grahm (p.106). There is no attempt to come up with any sort of coherent mechanism that would explain the purported relation between plants and pretty patterns in Petri dishes.

One also finds a discouragingly large number of ways the method is supposed to work. Originally, Pfeiffer intended the method to demonstrate the “vitality” of the plants tested. We also find practitioners who suggest that it may be used to determine whether “companion plants” work well together.4 Others suggest that it shows “variations in food quality.”5 (This cannot be the same as “plant vitality,” since some very healthy plants make poor quality food. Take nightshade for example.) And Grahm believes it shows both “the strength of the relationship between the soil and the vine, as well as the organizational forces of the wine” (p.106), whatever those are. So, which is it going to be? Or does the method rather show whatever the investigator wants it to show at that particular time, a sort of magical assay of a million and one uses?

One wants to know how this method is any different from that of a fortune teller reading tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, of a dowser following a stick, or of a child entranced by a Ouija board. Spoken bluntly, sensitive crystallization is pseudoscience. Pseudoscience in that it takes on the trappings of scientific experimentation, making use of words such as “crystallization,” “copper-chloride solution,” and the use of Petri dishes rather than teacups. But at base the science is just a stage set, doing the marketing work for whatever the follower of biodynamics wants to sell. There is no legitimate experimental research involved, and the methods of sensitive crystallization have no scientific basis whatsoever. To be fair, Grahm appears aware of this difficulty when he says, “Certainly to many scientists this will seem like utter mumbo jumbo” (p.107). One only has to wonder why, given these grave problems, Grahm nonetheless persists in trumpeting its results. Or is it simply that he has nothing better on offer?"

January 02, 2008 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone that has taken high school chemistry and tried to grow crystals in the lab would recognize "sensitive crystallization" as uncontrolled crystal growth in a supersaturated solution. The process is random. In this case it is likely influenced by the number of dust particles the landed in the mother liquor (the supersaturated solution) or some undissolved copper chloride crystals.


January 02, 2008 7:13 PM  
Anonymous Raoul Duke said...

Next they'll be foisting some bullshit about planting cow horns, filled with, yea you guessed it, bullshit, in the vineyard on a full moon night. Stick with Freud and analyze your own droppings.

January 29, 2008 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Wine and Food Pairing said...

Wow. I guess the more you look, the more crazy sounding stuff you will find. Should I ask my wine retailer to type in the bar code by hand?
Kathleen Lisson

February 22, 2008 11:31 AM  
Blogger Tor Hershman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

February 23, 2008 12:19 AM  
Anonymous sstorch said...

it must be good to sit in your cloistered rooms and always be right. if you would care to investigate the sensitive crystallization method you would see that pfeiffer had done many trails and developed 'standard' pictures. he was awarded an honorary medical degree for being able to show cancer in patients before any symptoms occurred. take an x-ray to ten different doctors and see what they say; totally subjective, totally.
people like you will never get or understand a method like biodynamics because the current paradigm and thought process makes it that way.
if you were to try it out [even without 'believing'] you would see how the method works. but that is alright, stay in your place of comfort, because ignorance is truly bliss.... peace...sstorch

September 25, 2011 5:10 AM  
Blogger Bryen Lehto said...

Crystallization tests have been used for decades in the lab. Here is a research paper on it's use for the detection of malignancy in tumors.


As far as the laser light and it's effect on wine goes- a change may be detectable as even low level lasers easily make physical changes such as blindness. It's good to be skeptical but maybe you should look a little more closely at these issues.

May 19, 2013 11:00 AM  
Blogger Bryen Lehto said...

As far as the cow horns go- they are a natural method of reducing calcium nanoparticles out of the manure of lactating cows. Calcium nanoparticles in very low amounts (ppt)applied to crops produce similar effects. The big difference is that they have to be produced in the lab at high expense and with a great amount of toxic waste and here the reduction process is natural and occurs over the course of a year and can be done by any farmer.

May 19, 2013 11:03 AM  

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