- Honestly, Dara -

No, There’s Not an App for That

When it comes to improving our experiences with food, new technologies have their limits.

wine illustration

The first time a reporter — ostensibly interviewing me about my new wine book — asked me what iPhone apps I recommended for people who wanted to drink wine, I thought it was a peculiar question. Would you rely on a computer program to help you pick out eggs?

I mean, if you came to Earth from Mars, I can imagine that the egg case at the grocery store might look a bit daunting: Some eggs are brown! Some are pasteurized! What are chickens, anyway? But for the rest of us, the situation isn’t that far beyond our grasp. We invest some energy learning a few key points, and we go forward. (Point one: Eggs are best not carried loose in your pocket. Point two: Before use, remove their brittle
exterior housing.)

To me, it just seems obviously faster, and easier, to learn those few key points from personal experience than it is to hand yourself over to a little data-packed robot, even if that robot is conveniently located in your phone.

Still, the seventh time a reporter asked me about iPhone apps to pick out wine, I started to get nervous. Because if there’s anything that being a food and wine writer has taught me, it’s this: In matters of food, drink and agriculture, looking to science and technology for solutions rarely solves a problem well, or for long.

Take, for instance, the troubling case of Burgundy, France. Burgundy, being the home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is one of the most esteemed, and most valuable, wine regions in human history. The wine-grape farmers of Burgundy, more than most farmers, had the money and the incentive to try each and every new gee-whiz innovation that was introduced to farming after World War II: every pesticide, every herbicide, every mechanical doohickey and whoozigig.

The result? By the 1970s, a lot of the soil of Burgundy wasn’t soil the way any of us know it. It wasn’t black crumbly stuff that ants and earthworms aerate and fertilize; it was dead, sterile powder. And dead, sterile powder, for reasons no wine critic understands but that every wine critic can taste, makes awful wine.

The next thing you know, wine critics were saying that French wine was over-valued, and in came California wine, besting French wine in an influential 1976 competition called the Judgment of Paris. French wine never regained the market dominance it had held for thousands of years.  

“Anti-rot sprays, herbicides, fungicides — they kill vineyards,” Robert Kacher, an influential importer, once explained to me. “When you don’t see any worms or living things in a vineyard and the soil is dry and hard, [it’s a sign] you’re killing the fruit. I wouldn’t ever take wine from a vineyard with dead soil; it has nothing to it but the name on the bottle. When you hang out with farmers, you see all the time that you get these choices — you can do something right and it will take all week, or you can do it in a day with the ‘right’ technology and make bad wine.”

Many French winemakers wound up investing decades in bringing their soil back to health and balance, and I’m sure the irony was not lost on them: Their soil was destroyed precisely because it was so valuable. Unfortunately, few of the rest of us learned the lessons those Burgundians did, and today, all around the world, overenthusiasm for gee-whiz farming technology leaves more and more farmers with an unappealing set of options: Either pump more chemicals into the soil and compound the damage, or spend years repairing the damage already done.

Sometimes, that requires undoing generations of technological innovation. Michael Honig, owner of Napa Valley’s Honig Vineyard and Winery, once told me about his war with a vineyard pest called the glassy-winged sharpshooter. This leafhopper is considered one of the great problems in California winemaking today because it will bite grapevines to get moisture from them and, in the process, transmit bacteria into the vine that can kill it. It can wipe out a whole vineyard.

The generation of farmers who preceded Honig were in the habit of planting their vineyards as close to the watercourses as possible (because the more acres planted, the more money you would get out of your land), and they tried to spray the sharpshooter into submission. But, when you spray pesticides on the bugs and herbicides on their river habitat, you turn the world into an inhospitable chemical desert.

“We called [those farmers] nozzle-heads,” recalled Honig. “They never saw a problem that didn’t have this solution: Spray, spray, spray!”  

Honig, one of California’s pioneers when it comes to all things green and sustainable, figured there had to be another way. So he started researching his bug enemy. He discovered that, from the sharpshooters’ perspective, grapevines were the meal of last resort; they ate them only when the native river vegetation they preferred disappeared because the river went dry. (The fact that the river went dry because of upstream agricultural use seemed like a particular irony.)

Honig’s first thought was to irrigate the bugs’ native areas to keep them there: “The old guys thought I was just nuts,” he recalls: ‘You’re spending money to make sharpshooters happy?’” Eventually, though, Honig realized the sharpshooters were doing what they were doing because of a whole compounded array of man-made problems: It turned out that the native vegetation they preferred was not just dry, it was being choked out by invasive species, and even worse, the river’s natural meandering course and natural flood plain had all been removed, so all the alternative habitats for the bugs were gone.

So Honig started working with his neighbors on the Napa River to remove the invasive vegetation, revive the flood plain and restore the river — in other words, undo the best technologies of the last few generations — because if he didn’t, he might not be able to make wine anymore.
Of course, such problems are in no way limited to the realm of wine. Wine growers are simply farmers, after all, and the effects of technology overkill can be found in most, if not all, of our food sources.

So what’s the solution? From a consumer standpoint, it’s actually pretty basic: Just learn a thing or two about good food production. For instance, the best-tasting eggs are laid by chickens with access to the outdoors, chickens that run around freely and hunt and peck after bugs — and not by chickens that live in their own filth on a diet of antibiotics and ground-up feathers.

How do I know this? The same way I know that wine from dead soil tastes worse than wine from living soil. This is not something anyone needs an app to discover, and it’s not really something an app can adequately convey.

We are forever looking for faster, cheaper, higher-tech ways to get the food we want. Now we’re also looking for faster, easier, higher-tech ways to download our food knowledge, rather than relying on our own firsthand experience.

I know it’s fashionable these days to ask: Is there an app for that? But I think sometimes we would all be better served by asking: Is technology the best way to solve this problem?michael 

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. She is the winner of five James Beard Foundation awards — the Oscars of the food world. Her new book is Drink This: Wine Made Simple (Ballantine, 2009).

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