Every now and then, a big-ticket wine commentator will gingerly prod at an issue that a lot of big-time winemakers wish would go away: Wood chips. A couple of weeks back, Decanter Magazine briefly reported that the practice of adding oak chips to aging wine had increased by more than 200% in Bordeaux, which moved Eric Asimov to throw the issue open for discussion in his New York Times blog. (In the dialogue roused there, at least one chipper chip-booster rightly pointed out that if the process had a name with more cachet, the practice of using oak chips in winemaking would be a lot less controversial.)
But mostly, the sound you hear is that of a lot of wine-people walking softly. There’s a mighty oak growing in the corner of the room, but nobody really wants to talk about it. Why doesn’t anybody want to talk about it? Because everybody knows that nobody really knows anything, and controversy usually most easily thrives in an information vacuum.
What part does an oak barrel play in the taste of, say, a good Bordeaux? (The part it can play in a really crummy bottle of wine is already obvious to anybody who indiscriminately drinks a lot of new world wines.) More precisely, what part of that glamorous flavor comes from wine merely coming into contact with oak; and how much from something that an oak barrel sitting in a Bordeaux cellar can uniquely provide? Or if you really want to be paranoid in your epistemology, if the makers of Chateau Margeaux suddenly started conscientiously aging half of their output in stainless steel with oak chips, and the other half in their usual barrels, would Robert Parker notice the difference if he didn’t know to look for it in advance?
Nobody really knows: in strict symbolic logic, all counterfactuals are true; and in an information vacuum, your guess is as good as mine, or Robert Parker——or Dick Cheney and Woody Woodpecker’s. And when nobody really knows, tradition and inertia is all you have to guide you. The tradition is oak barrels for great wines, and with the stakes as high as they are for great wines, nobody in the information-vacuum continuum is going to change any time soon. (Or at least tell anybody about the changes they’ve made.)
When does tradition mutate into mystique? And has the oak barrel crossed over into that dimension? Well, without taking sides, let’s just observe that the winemakers who can charge hundreds of dollars for a bottle of their product (which you also won’t be able to drink for years) have the most to gain from science morphing into the supernatural. When your business is founded on mystique, you’re not likely to join the mythbusters.