Steven Shapin Explains How UC Davis “Made Sense” of Wine

Would you describe your Napa Cabernet as woody and fruity with rich tannins, or as a generous wine with velvety notes of warm brioche? In his talk, “How Davis Taught the World to Talk Sense About Wine,” Steven Shapin reminded us that there is a lot of “nonsense talk” in the sensory evaluation of wine, but that UC Davis scientists in the mid-twentieth century set out to counter this by developing a lexicon based on the objective qualities of wine.

Steven Shapin, the Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, delivered a presentation on how the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology was of central importance in developing knowledge about the taste and odor of wines. Introduced by his fellow colleague UC Davis Professor of Law Mario Biagioli at the February 10 event, Shapin explained that his visit to Davis was intended only as an archival research trip until Biagioli convinced him to present his work-in-progress – the first time Shapin had done so.

Shapin is the author of the groundbreaking book Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 1985) and many other publications including the honestly-titled Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

In “How Davis Taught the World to Talk Sense About Wine,” Shapin described how UC Davis researchers studying the aromatic chemical principles of wine in the mid-twentieth century proposed a “reform of language” in how connoisseurs and amateurs alike used the descriptive language of wine and effectively “made sense out of nonsense.”

Shapin began his lecture in the seventeenth century, explaining that people knew about the scientific components of wine before we developed a chemical language to describe them. He said, “the pre-existing language for the organoleptic (involving the sense organs) qualities of wine pertain to those as the gross constituents concerned with gustation (the palate),” which produced a descriptive language of wine accounting for heat, fruitiness, and acidity that are experienced through taste.

Bizarre and Fantastical Wine Talk

While the figure of the wine connoisseur has been around since possibly the seventeenth century, Shapin noted that connoisseurship intensified in the nineteenth century when the language of wine moved into the realm of the bizarre and fantastical.

Nineteenth-century “wine talk” described “what wine reminded you of, and what emotions it evoked in you,” Shapin said, such that a wine would be described as “sensual,” “moody,” or “gracious.” The “fanciful and subjective” writing about wine at this time provided the entry point for Shapin to introduce his key argument about the tensions in objectivity and subjectivity apparent in wine talk.

Shapin argued that post-World War II wine researchers at UC Davis, namely Maynard Amerine (1911-1998) chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology from 1957 to 1962, developed an objective, scientific language of wine – built on the “durability and solidness of chemistry” – that rejected the earlier “fancified” and subjective language.

According to Shapin, Amerine searched for a language of objectivity that might “institutionalize our experiences of wine, so that ‘sense’ might be talked about it.” This standardized descriptive language of wine established a basis on which “wine judges could evaluate characteristics of wine,” and then “experience, report, and confirm on wines in the same way” Shapin explained.

Wine Talk about “Intrinsic Qualities”

Drawing from Amerine’s widely-popular book Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation, Shapin described the tremendous work that Amerine put into decontextualizing the experience of wine tasting so that only the “intrinsic qualities of wine” would be observed.

Shapin then described the larger effects on Amerine’s work, which shaped the way consumers experienced and described their subjective tasting of wine through seemingly objective, scientific language.

The standardization of experiencing wine was a boon to the California wine industry, who capitalized on the language to win consumer approval in the marketplace. Driven by the scientific investigation into the “intrinsic qualities of wine,” new technologies “created new possibilities for identification” of chemicals and microorganisms in wine, Shapin said.

In his work-in-progress, Shapin revealed how UC Davis “taught the world to make sense of wine” by developing a “set of disciplined protocols” practiced by a subject to describe the “reliable, repeatable, consensus-generating knowledge that subjects have of qualities that are inherent to the wine itself.”

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies