by Tim Atkin

Wine, science and, er, sperm

It was enough to make me splutter into my muesli. The news that scientists at the North East England Stem Cell Institute claim to have created “fully mature, functional” human sperm raises ethical questions about life itself. Does so-called In Vitro Derived (IVD) sperm make men, biologically speaking, redundant? It’s all chillingly reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, even if the scientists concerned deny that their research will lead to human beings “produced in a dish”.

That wasn’t the only piece of news that disturbed my breakfast recently. The decision by the court of appeal to overturn a ruling against the government on pesticide spraying, ignoring the evidence of environmental campaigner, Georgina Downs, was rightly criticised by Peter Melchett of the Soil Association: “Whatever the court of appeal says, the fact is that UK regulation of pesticide spraying does not take into account the safety of schools or families20living next to sprayed fields.”

Am I alone in believing that “science” (for want of a better term) is getting out of control, or rather that it is often used for the wrong ends by drug companies and agri-business? I don’t want to sound like a New Age weirdo, but I sometimes feel that we mess with nature at our peril. The example of what happened with BSE should give us all pause for reflection.

Does this have anything to do with the wine industry? You bet it does. Sections of the wine industry are considering playing God with nature, too. The use of GMO vines, as yet at a research level only, could change the way that wine is produced, inserting flavour triggers, increasing disease resistance and making it possible to grow vines in areas that have previously been too hot or cold for viticulture.

On the plus side, this might reduce the need to use pesticides, but the negatives are stronger still.=2 0GMOs would reduce diversity, putting pressure on growers to plant them to keep up with their more efficient competitors. They would also play into the hands of the big brands, whose owners are always looking for a way to increase profitability. What price Aglianico, Tannat or Mencia, when genetically modified Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Pinot Grigio are cheaper and easier to produce?

Defenders of GMOs argue that natural crossings occur all the time in vineyards and that their use is merely a question of agency, with man replacing nature. I’m not a scientist (as you can probably tell), but I am extremely wary of what GMOs might do to the micro-flora that are an essential part of terroir. Even if extensive vineyard trials take place, can we be sure of what will occur if they are used on an industrial scale?

This may never happen, of course. There is enough resistance to GM vines, especially in France, to restrict their existence to non-commercial trials. The only GM product I know of in the wine industry is the ML01 yeast, which is employed in California to induce alcoholic and malolactic fermentations simultaneously. But you can be sure that the world’s biggest wine companies are monitoring the on-going research.

Maybe now is the time to consider what sort of wine industry we want to be part of in ten years’ time. Wine, as we all know, is a natural product made from fresh grapes. The things that are added to it (yeast, tannin, sugar, enzymes, tartaric acid and so on) are harmless, despite the scaremongering of last year’s largely moronic Channel 4 documentary about the wine business. Sulphur dioxide can cause problems for asthmatics, but only in large doses.

Our industry contains its (small) share of cheats, who use flavourants, fruit juice and, on occasion, things such as sorbitol, diethylene glycol or more deadly methanol in their wines, but they are in a tiny minority. Most producers play by the rules. It is also significant that we are witnessing a significant shift towards sustainable, organic and bio-dynamic forms of viticulture, with wineries reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, returning to farming methods that were employed three or more generations ago. The wine industry is arguably 9 Cgreener” now than it has been for 50 years and the evidence is there to taste in the bottle.

But I think we could go further still. The one point where the Channel 4 documentary made sense was in its call for ingredients listing. Why not adopt a policy of full disclosure, telling consumers exactly what their bottle of wine contains? Let’s be proud of the fact that wine, even when it is produced in large, mechanised, chemically treated vineyards is a comparatively natural beverage. At a time when the health lobby is targeting the wine industry as never before, it’s just the kind of positive message we need. Wine, like sperm, is life.

Originally published in Off Licence News