Divining Wine

September 24, 2020

My wife told me a story from a news bulletin tidbit she had viewed – it was about the ascertaining of the dating provenance of wine.

Fine wines are a great status symbol for a person to become fussy about, to learn and so accumulate knowledge about; and the icing on the cake of wine divination is for an aficionado to be able by sheer taste-bud power alone – to discern, and to discern accurately, on the worth, on the value, of a wine - value to the taste and to the pocket.

In my own view it’s just one of those multitude of things, like customised car registration plates, and the £99 sandwiches on sale in Harrods, which are the snares of status seekers. Very often, maybe most often, threse things are bought and used, chiefly so that they are seen by others to have been bought and used, and so that the respective hints and innuendoes in that visible message is being admired by others.

“Now that lilacs are in bloom

She has a bowl of lilacs in her room”

Now the story about the date provenance of wine goes like this:

Wine claimed to be, or supposed to be, of certain dates, can be tested, scientifically, and it can be evidenced more certainly whether the claim or supposition for the wine is true or bogus.

The test is this:

Wines grown in those years which post-date and are of near proximity to the occurrence of atmospheric nuclear bomb explosions, whether exploded in anger, or for tests, carry a higher level of what is commonly called by people ‘fallout’.

I’d expect, if the tale has any legs, that there has been someone somewhere, some institution somewhere, who has made a study about this effect on wines. This is because this kind of story sounds like it is typical of the way people with too much, and with too many resources, at their disposal, are keen to waste them and to squander their labour in pursuit of vain and silly, and in the end downright useless and misguided, researches.

Here in Britain some such folly research item reaches the news, usually as a tidbit, in some form almost daily.

This item concerning wine is worth my time I believe to be examined.

Let’s start with some incontestable factual data.

To my mind come the following dates, years in which I know nuclear bombs exploded in earth’s atmosphere – 1945, many years during the 1950s, maybe some few in 1960s, and Chernobyl in 1986?, maybe Sellafield (Windscale)? And maybe Three Mile Island too? Japan in the Tsunami?

These stragglers with questionmarks attached are dubious simply because minimal information about how large or small their radiation emissions and effects actually were - and maybe such data is publicly available somewhere, and reliable, but this data was never made a big fuss about at the times of their occurences, and I’d think so as not to stir-up social disquiets etc.

So let's stay with the items which are hard fact common knowledge and in acceptance. But staying with these, we can bear in mind that a potential for ‘interference’ is in play from these uncertain questionmark events, and from their actual consequences, a potential which might easily invalidate any conclusions which might be though valid about time provenances of wine.

So we have a few definite years 1945, 1950s some of the 1960s

I can’t answer this question I am about to put; but it is one which must be asked and answered well before any wine dating conclusions under this banner might be valid ones. The question is: Are there any other events, natural or manmade, which might also account for raised nuclear radiation levels in wine made during years immediately post dating these occasions?

I do know that volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are accompained by electrical storms and emissions of fluid and solid minerals, some of which sometimes are quite strongly radioactive.

I do now that granite plutons (which are vast presences of granite which once welled-up to near the surface of the earth before solidifying) remain in place ( Dartmoor is such a place) and which emit a radioactive gas known as Radon. And I know that these places, where plutons of granite subsist near the earth’s surface, see a higher incidence of cancers in peoplle and animals, and which are associated with radiation poisoning. I do know that the common consensus at the present time among scientists is that the granite plutons and the Radon they emit, are considered to be the likely culprits for these rates of cancers.

Are any vines grown for winemaking in soils situated above granite plutons?

You can see the sorts of doubts that can easily arise. And I am no scientist and I am writing only from the dregs of science I have managed to scry through in my life mainly interested in the Liberal Arts and Christian Religion.

I tend to think there must be more, perhaps many, granite-pluton-like events and situations regarding wine grape growing and dating.

So there’s our first and potent interference tending to invalidation of the nuclear bomb effect thesis.

But let’s move into discussion of the purposes of the research I spoke of. Ask yourselves, is there any practical purpose, even were it a sound hypothesis, for the dating of wine by means of the amounts of radioactivity it contains?

(Of course there is probably radioactivity and radioactivity, and maybe nuclear bomb radioactivity has a signature special to itself, and so it can be isolated in a test and so still be useful as evidence? I don’t know)

Let this be our supposition: that the evidence is good then, and the test does isolate wines bottled shortly after the nuclear explosion events of the historic past.

Ask yourselves now: why should a wine be in need of such a test and validation? Authentication. The answer from the wine geeks would be that such wine, were it so verified, might be bought and sold in the marketplace for its proper price. Especially when the case beforehand to testing is that the time provenance of the wine concerned is unknown, or is perhaps being obfuscated for some reason. To dupe wine bibers?

My answer to this would be this: that if the wine tastes to a high grade quality, what is the need for a test and for assuring its date provenance? Surely in these matters “the proof of the pudding is (always) in the eating”?

Otherwise the conclusion must ask that were a dreadful wine able to be ascertained by this research and its tests to be bona fide and of a certain vintage, would that make it any more saleable?

And conversely, were a wine of a proven very poor vintage to taste superb; does this mean this wine nonetheless should be sold at a very low price so as to reflect its poor vintage?

And if it transpires that a wine-taster needs a scientific test to back him/her up in his decisions on wine; and that s/he cannot rely assuredly on the connoisseur tasting-judgment which any expert wine-taster presumes to possess, does this mean that wine-tasting generally is not what it is cracked up to me and that wine tasters are for the most part not as delicate in the palate - as the popular belief has them?

Are they, and is this wine-tasting affair, really and truly every bit as much a piece of sheer vanity as personalised car registration plates and Harrod’s £99 sandwiches?

Maybe, maybe not – bigger and similar charlatans and frauds have duped the undiscerning rich for centuries. Some I guess are still duping, and after millenia maybe?

For my part the whole fetish concerning food and drink – the Waitrose phenomenon – the TV cooking show phenomenon – the exquisiteness with which a food – usually an item of food unknown to plebs – or at least unaffordable to us – is cherished and lavished praise-in-delight on, and then that ‘look at me, I’m discerning, I’m a delicate flower – and I know about these things’ – comes right through like an express train in the speaker’s self-satisfaction. Then there is the way that one such colleague surrepetitiously is working into his/her dialogue subtile wiles aimed to outdo his/her collegue aficionado – the Monty Python I was born in a shoebox on the motorway syndrome – is also in evidence and blatantly so.

For myself wine falls into the same garbage bin as fussy food. I acknowledge the fact that some wines taste better than do others. I acknowledge the fact that wine is a good table companion and at night a quietener for the weary soul, and so on. But to make a totem, a Babel, a Pharisaical Shibboleth about its purposes, value, and delights, is missing the point of life altogether.

“In the room women come and go

Talking of Micaelangelo”

Whichever way you look at it, indulging – in any of a multiplicity of ways – in wine and its vintages – is self-indulgence – Epicurism, hedonism, “eat drink and be merry – for tomorrow we die” stuff.

Who in her/his right mind would find any satisfaction, any life-direction, anything worthwhile, in living, or even in admiring those who live, such a life? My senses pall and reflexively repel at the thought of having (to live) such a life. It would be far worse to bear than these many and stupid restrictions on our societies and cities in place right now.

I suspect that the ‘gift’ of wine-tasting is in truth given to very very few in good authenticity; and that ninehundred and ninety nine in one thousand tasters merely ‘follow the leader’ or else ‘ham it up’. The problem being that that 0.001% with the gift in general have been given a poison chalice which is very likely to have led them into a sort of life and an area of society hardly worth being in, and definitely boding ill to the welfare of one’s soul