I've always been fascinated by astronomy. When I was a kid growing up in suburbia, I'd lie on the see-saw, balanced on the other side by my best childhood friend, and we'd stare up at the stars, point out planets and constellations, and think out loud about what might be up there.
<-- NASA photo of the Milky Way, taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006
A few years later I went on a 2 week canoe trip in Maine, far from any city lights. I'd never experienced the night sky in such dazzling splendor as I did on this trip. Most nights of this journey, if we had made camp by still water, my sister and I would canoe out into the middle of the water around 9 or 10pm, and look up-- the stars seemed so close, so bright, exhibited in folding layers of endless depth. The center photo on the left is somewhere on Maine's Moose River, near the Quebec border, where we first saw the sky this way-- my first experience seeing the sky without the pollution of city lights!
I had started taking some physics in high school by this point, and as we'd marvel at the Milky Way that ripped across the sky, I'd tell my sister Blair about how, by looking at the Milky Way, we are really peering into the center of our galaxy from a quiet corner on the very edge. I tried to explain how light travels at different speeds, and that, by looking up, we were actually watching images, projected across the universe, from different points in the distant past.
More recently, I've been interested in stellar genetics (the life cycle of stars). Since the 1970s we've made great leaps and bounds in our understanding of the universe. Super-telescopes around the world, plus telescopes on satellites, and telescopes attached to spacecrafts (such as Voyager) have greatly filled in our knowledge of the universe. We've found thousands of galaxies and star systems, we've mapped the sponge-like make-up of galaxy configuration, and we've even caught a supernova on camera. Last year, in fact, in the span of a few months we had two monumental feats: the Higgs Boson opened up secrets to our micro-universe, while Voyager 1 finally broke into the final region of our solar system before it is expected to be the first manmade object to reach interstellar space and begin to transmit heretofore unimagined data.
Here's what fascinates me about stars: all of our concepts of terroir, all of our ideas about how wine transmits the essence of land, these ideas are directly linked to stellar genetics.
A star has a life and death cycle, much like a person, except a star's life lasts billions of years, and a star creates baby stars only when it explodes in death and forms a nebulous (or, star nursery). There are several kinds of stars. Some stars do not have the energy capacity to explode as a supernova; these types of stars collapse into white dwarfs, or expand into red giants. But large stars with powerful churning fusion power will come to a point in their life when the star's core has used up all of the hydrogen fuel. At this point, a star will start to churn heavier elements. The elements get heavier and heavier until the fusion process creates an atom of iron.
Iron is kryptonite to a star. Once a single atom of iron is created, the star will explode as a supernova within seconds. The star's fusion process simply cannot sustain the process of breaking apart the heavier metals. In the last moments before a supernova, just before that second of explosion that could outshine our entire galaxy, the star will create the heaviest metals: gold, silver, platinum. Because the star can only make these in the final micro-second before exploding, these metals are much more rare than other elements, and this is why we find them in sparse quantities on our own planet, and why we consider them precious. The star explosion also creates the other, more plentiful elements (with lighter atomic weights, such as Carbon, Oxygen, Magnesium, and Calcium), that we often look for in our search for great terroirs.
A star explosion is the only method scientists have identified that can create large amounts of matter from energy (though we have succeeded in creating tiny particles like positrons from photons in particle acceleration machines). Thus, it is most likely that every atom in your body, on our planet, in our solar system, and in our galaxy came from a supernova explosion that happened billions of years ago. When this "mother star" spewed out clouds and clots of pure elements it created a nebulous that, through accretion and a violent period of conglomeration, eventually formed our galaxy. Our own sun is a baby star that ignited in the wake of the supernova explosion of this former giant star.
Earth is unique for so many reasons.
Once the supernova explodes, it takes thousands of years for planets to form, as large asteroids knock together until they reach a critical mass to have a significant gravitational force to make them round. During this period of our solar system, Earth was lucky enough to accrete vast amounts of several elements that are considered vital to certain great terroirs. Plus, of course, Oxygen, which is the main feature of our atmosphere.
The following is a list of the top elements found on the Earth's crust. As you read through the array, think back to your talks with winemakers and how they have often mentioned the presence of these elements in their soils, and how certain combinations of these elements make their terroir special:
46.6% Oxygen (O)
27.7% Silicon (Si)
8.1% Aluminum (Al)
5.0% Iron (Fe)
3.6% Calcium (Ca)
2.8% Sodium (Na)
2.6% Potassium (K)
2.1% Magnesium (Mg)
.62% Titatnium (Ti)
.14 Hydrogen (H)
.13 Phosphorus (P)
As you peruse the list, a few of these common elements stick out in relation to terroir. Calcium (the Calcium rich soils of Burgundy are probably what popped into everyone's mind first, also certain regions of Champagne), Iron (grapevines originated on Iron-rich terra rossa soils in the Fertile Crescent, and terra rossa soils around the world produce some top quality wines with unique flavors, such as Coonawarra), Bordeaux's great crus are usually characterised by high Potassium, and low Magnesium and Nitrogen. Furthermore, many winemakers discuss the importance of the ratio between Calcium and Magnesium-- in certain proportions, these two elements facilitate water flow through the soil. The ratio in which we find these elements on our planet (very) roughly correspond to the proportion in which they were created in the supernova that made our galaxy. We owe the nature of our greatest terroirs to the explosion of this ancient star.
We are lucky that much of the .14% of Hydrogen has bonded with Oxygen to form the water on our crust. Interestingly, Earth is only .02% water; we are lucky that all of this water is on Earth's surface. We are also lucky that we have the amount of water we have-- with just a small amount more, we would have no protruding landmasses, no land vegetation (no vines), no land animals (no people), and Earth would be a water world.
We are also lucky in our distance from the sun. A little closer, and we'd be too hot to sustain life as we know it, and our water and atmosphere would have burned off long ago. A little farther, and our planet would have formed very differently as a gas giant.
We are also lucky Earth has magnetic poles that create a bubble, allowing our atmosphere to rest on the crust and not be blown away by solar wind. Scientists posit that during the formation of our solar system, a large mass banged into the newly-forming Earth and blew a huge chunk of Earth into the sky, which went into orbit around Earth (our moon). Our moon, therefore, is essentially made up of similar substances as Earth-- but we see how desolate and waterless the moon is, and can come to realize the importance of having magnetic poles that allow this sliver of atmosphere where we can thrive.
We are also lucky to be in a certain period of our solar system's life cycle. A little earlier, and life would be unsustainable in the violent period of accretion. A little later, and Earth would have already been swallowed up after our sun expanded into a red giant.
So as our understanding grows of wine, terroir, the Earth's chemistry, and stars, we see more and more that they are all inter-related.
But there is another side of this to consider:
I often hear people speak reverently about terroir, and yes, the qualities of unique places are special. Terroir is important- amazing, really. But special terroirs are commonplace throughout the universe, even billions of lightyears away in distant galaxies. What is truly unique, truly phenomenal, truly spectacular and mind-blowing is the possibility of the multiple variations of life that can and do abound on our planet that include us, grape varieties, yeast species, and the multitude of microorganisms and animal life that make "soil" possible. So often, one such incredible and unique grape variety-- whose existence is so magnificent and tenuous in the grand scheme of things-- will get slammed and dragged through the mud by sommeliers and wine writers (just remember what happened to merlot after Sideways came out, or zinfandel after the white zinfandel craze), or an AOC board will see no value in a particular variety of fascinating genetic richness that it will no longer allow it in the AOC, or someone will completely dismiss wine made from any other grape variety aside from Vitis vinifera despite the fact that wine as we know it depends on the rootstock of other species.
I truly believe that the genetic diversity on Earth is one of the most amazing and incredible phenomena in the universe, and the trend in the wine industry toward monoculture is dangerous and in direct conflict with the premise of life. As we narrow down allowable and acceptable varieties we focus in on monoculture, and as this happens our precious varieties become more genetically strained, and less resistant to the constantly evolving threats they face. In a way, the trend toward monoculture is the sommelier's fault, and the fault of New World wine marketing. When a wine label distinguishes the type of wine as a specific grape varietal ("CHARDONNAY" written in big letters across the front), or when a sommelier groups a wine list by grape varietal (of which I am guilty), we signal to the wine consumer that they should fix upon these chosen grape varietals and look for them elsewhere. The emergence over the last century or so of the International Varieties has fed into this obsession with a few grape varieties while others are ignored and fall into extinction, causing genetic diversity in grape vines to continually narrow. We've all seen laments over the effluence of International Varieties in Spain at the cost of many Spanish indigenous varieties falling by the wayside; but really, this is happening on a global scale. In a new region, most winegrowers go immediately to that crutch of the International Varieties; and I get it. It's an economic decision to have a sellable product. But it's an economic decision made because as a group we enable consumer dependence on a tiny selection of varieties.
In new wine regions, people have the opportunity to attempt to discover new varieties (by panting from seed), but this is seen as a crazy thing to do. Most winegrowers who want to experiment or at least steer clear of International Varieties will work with an obscure variety brought in from elsewhere, or an unusual winemaking technique. I find it mind boggling that so few growers are willing to experiment with new varieties, because grapes have seeds for a reason. Imagine if we lived in a world where we were no longer allowed to have children, and the only way we could propagate was to clone ourselves. Then imagine if the government started to impose laws on what types of people were clone-able "only people with perfect pitch, or an affinity to mathematics, or perfectly symmetrical facial features." The types of people would become similar-- everyone would want a clone of Brad Pitt or Beyonce or Albert Einstein as their child-- and we'd lose the diversity of human genetics and along with it the resistance to disease that emerges over long periods of evolution. The average person will react negatively to human cloning, but this same person might say to you in a restaurant "Oh, I only drink sauvignon blanc." Cloning grape vines is great for uniformity, but the extent to which the entire global market is obsessed with a few varieties is dangerous. I don't see it too much in Manhattan, but in many areas of the world the lack of diversity can be startling.
And I'm not just disappointed by the lack of genetic diversity in global grape vine plantings. Wine is a crossroads of grape varieties and microbiology, and industrial farming mostly ignores the diverse microbiology present in soil and on plant material. There is a bit of a renaissance with yeast strains right now, which I find exciting, but I often sense there is not enough focus on soil microbiology.
I love a good pinot noir, and it's amazing to try these museum-like varieties that have been cloned for over 1,000 years. But why do we need to find another Burgundy in the next wine region? Why does every new region have to emulate an established European wine region? I would love to see more emerging regions searching for their own identities. And as consumers, by taking the time and the risk to drink outside of the box on a regular basis, we can honor the magnificent array of genetic diversity that exists in the brief season of life on our planet, in our solar system, and--ultimately--in the universe.
If places like this exist ---->
then surely there can be room in our lives for a little Norton or Rotgipfler.
30 Doradus image by NASA, ESA, & F. Paresce (INAF-IASF), R. O'Connell (U. Virginia), & the HST WFC3 Science Oversight Committee
Seguin, Gerard. (1986) "Terroirs" and pedology of wine growing. Experentia 42 861-871.
Smart, Richard. (undated paper) New World Responses to Old World Terroir.