#6: Stacking the deck

The uncertainty of wine; dinosaurganizations; expeditionary archaeology

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The uncertainty of wine

I was in central Europe for a few days this and last week—first to Burgenland and Slovakia, then to Vienna for the eighth instance of Karakterre (a fair focusing on the low-intervention wines of eastern and central Europe), finally west and south into Styria.

Last Saturday in Vienna.

You may have heard of low-intervention wine as “natural wine.” It’s in the news more and more now. Even Action Bronson loves natural wine. Whole books could be (and have already been) written about natural wine. I prefer calling it “low-intervention” because all winemaking involves intentionally transforming grape juice into something that generally does not exist in nature—but some wines are much more unnatural than others.

From the winemaking perspective, natural wine implies both less intervention and a different kind of intervention. For the here and now, what’s important is that low-intervention wine requires the winemaker to voluntarily give up control both practically and philosophically.

High-intervention wine

And winemaking can involve an enormous amount of control. Most wine is made in a high-intervention way—by which I mean the winemaker takes many, many actions on the long journey from grape to bottle to make the wine predictable in quantity, color, flavor, and aroma.

To ensure yield, the vineyard is fertilized and irrigated, sprayed with fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides, to ensure yield. In the winery, the grapes are pressed and the juice heated to kill existing yeasts and bacteria, then inoculated with a cultured yeast selected to produce a particular flavor profile. This cultured yeast produces this profile within a particular temperature range, so the tank of juice is cooled or heated during fermentation.

After fermentation converts the juice into wine, plant-based pigments are added to intensify the wine’s color, and it is stored temporarily in a cask made of a wood and of a size chosen for the flavor—a container that works a bit like a teabag. Sulfur is added to prevent bacterial or fungal growth that might change the flavor or the color of the wine. The winemaker has an idea at the outset about what the wine should become, and these actions—which are just a small handful of the numerous control actions winemakers can take—are designed to shape the wine to conform with that idea.

I don’t much like this style of industrial wine and have avoided it nearly entirely since 2011.

Low-intervention wine

I have much more elective affinity (i.e., am more sympatico) with low-intervention winemakers who try to take fewer control actions. Few or no fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides in the vineyard. No yeast, color, or flavor added in the cellar. No pasteurization, as little sulfur as possible—or none at all. By choosing to not take these and other control actions, the low-intervention winemaker gives up a large degree of control and certainty of the exact nature of the wine that results.

In Styria, our first stop was at the house and cellar of Maria and Sepp Muster. Late in the evening, Sepp took us into the cellar to taste the most recent vintage in the middle of fermentation. One question that came up was how often he tasted the fermenting juice to make sure it was going in the right direction. His reply: “When you are just starting to make wine, you’re tasting and tasting and tasting every day and every week and you do something because the wine tastes this way or that way. It makes you crazy. But the wine is changing all the time, it is becoming what it wants to be. There is no point to taste so often.” Control in the high-intervention sense requires surveillance; when you relinquish that kind of control, you require less surveillance.

Control in the low-intervention sense is applied in a different place: the vineyard. Every winemaker we visited emphasized the importance of the raw material— the grapes from which the wine is made. In low-intervention wine, the vineyard is managed as a system and the goal is to bring the system into a sense of balance. This requires abandoning many conventional vineyard management principles.

Pruning and training is less aggressive (some producers barely prune at all), so the vine grows more as it would on its own. The space between the vines is allowed to grow over with grass and herbs; it is tilled much less or not at all. The vineyard becomes a place with high biodiversity and a complex soil and mycorrhizal structure.

These are actions designed to influence as a whole instead of actions designed to individually control. These actions aim at influencing the vineyard in the direction of balance, which creates what Muster called “a sense of life and life force. When you observe nature and farm according to it, everything comes by itself. If you have no life in the vineyard, you can do everything to the wine in the cellar and there no point. And if you have life in the vineyard, you can do one thing in the cellar and it is gone. One filter, and five minutes later the life in the wine is gone. The problem is you cannot measure it—but you can taste it.”

At the grassy, minimally pruned, very steep experimental vineyard of Christine and Franz Strohmeier.

[half-baked] Stacking the deck vs deterministic control

Low-intervention wine requires a change in mindset to take fewer and different types of actions—you could say it represents the uncertainty mindset as implemented in winemaking. It also highlights aspects about the uncertainty mindset that apply outside winemaking.

The most important insight from looking at low-intervention winemaking is that it shows the difference between two different ideas of control. The high-intervention winemaker thinks of control in a deterministic sense, taking a series of actions each of which dominates the outcome in a specific and predictable way.

The low-intervention winemaker influences the outcome without assuming deterministic control or having a specific and predictable objective. Actions taken are not individually dominating; instead, as a whole they are intended to move the entire system in an amorphous but generally desirable direction.

One of the farmers that has influenced low-intervention winemaking captures especially well this fundamental difference in the conception of control:

The narrow view of natural farming says that it is good for the farmer to apply organic material to the soil and good to raise animals, and that this is the best and most efficient way to put nature to use. To speak in terms of personal practice, this is fine, but with this way alone, the spirit of true natural farming cannot be kept alive. This kind of narrow natural farming is analogous to the school of swordsmanship known as the one-stroke school, which seeks victory through the skillful, yet self-conscious application of technique. Modern industrial farming follows the two-stroke school, which believes that victory can be won by delivering the greatest barrage of swordstrokes. Pure natural farming, by contrast, is the no-stroke school. It goes nowhere and seeks no victory. (from Masanobu Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolutiona very worthwhile read.)

The uncertainty mindset requires understanding and accepting this different way of thinking about what it means to control an outcome—which is inextricably connected to being attentive to actual reality (whether it is the development of a vineyard through a growing season or the interpersonal dynamics of an R&D team) and acknowledging that complex systems defeat precise prediction.

When control is conceptualized differently, people invariably take different practical actions. They stack the deck to encourage a general idea of an outcome instead of taking particular actions to achieve a specific outcome. And the desired outcomes themselves are different, representing different beliefs about what is valuable and worthwhile:

For [making wine] an apprenticeship, not scholarship, is required, which the Sculptor served during the years we spent in the vineyards above Carrara. Everyone agrees that the magnificent wine he makes is better than the neighbours’. There are many reasons for this, one is that nothing is put in it, medicaments I mean. An artist who has taken risks all his life accepts the risk of his wine “going off” and only takes the more care of his barrels. The agriculturalist spoils his wine by “making sure.” (from Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed—one of the best cookbooks of the 20th century.)


From the inbox

[half-baked] Dinosaurganizations

A reader who’s worked for a long time in government wrote last week to say that large organizations like ministries are likely to find the uncertainty mindset “a very tough sell and hard to execute,” and that leaders are likely to find it hard to signal willingness to accept unknown outcomes because top management craves certainty about key outcomes.

It’s never easy for large, long-established organizations to be radically innovative and adaptable. Most of them survive and prosper off built-up stocks of intellectual property or other forms of exploitable capital (which is seductive and easy) until their environments change enough to wipe them out. Maybe government agencies get a free pass because they’re meant to be stable (vs innovative) institutions—but the growth of non-governmental action (or, more accurately, the ongoing decline in governmental efficacy) almost everywhere outside of a few pockets of northern Europe suggests that other institutions or agents are taking over in the absence of effective governmental institutional change and innovation.

It will take profound change in large institutions to adopt the uncertainty mindset and become innovative and adaptive. A big part of this change is developing the ability to become truly willing to accept unknown outcomes—at this point, the signaling of willingness becomes a non-issue. The barrier here is that not-knowing is cognitively and emotionally extraordinarily difficult. People at all levels in an organization want certainty even when it is impossible to have (for instance, in any innovation or R&D group). For this reason, it is especially important that senior leadership is able to resist the urge to retreat into false certainty. But senior leaders are often those whose careers began in more stable environments where fixating on certainty wasn’t maladaptive.

The dependence on certainty is learned over time and seems to be one of the toughest nuts to crack, both organizationally and individually. People and organizations which don’t invest in overcoming the discomfort involved in cracking this nut are likely to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Expeditionary archaeology

Another reader writes:

I’ve been steeped in working within the uncertainty mindset since I started with the Antarctic program 8 years ago. Each year my tasking becomes more amorphous as I delve deeper into uncovering the archaeological remnants of the construction of the south pole station, 15 years ago. The storage berms gradually become more and more drifted in, burying more and more material, along with the memory of what the material is/was/should be for.

I’ve taken to wearing a large sweater with this cartoon on the back [see below], to remind me it’s all about learning. And today I downloaded the Woo album and listened to it on repeat as I had a great day pulling apart berms and dealing with uncertainty. So thanks! You’ve been making this season one of the best! It’s weird times, and uncertainty is awesome.

Information loss is a source of uncertainty; partial information recovery can create uncertainty but also be an opportunity for new meaning-making. Mining and excavation are good metaphors for representing and handling these kinds of uncertainty. (Also see: pentimento)


On loop

Contrast after five days in Austria: Doughboys, Playboys, and Cowboys.


Not unrelated miscellany

  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Høeg. If you like snow, a sense of darkness, estrangement, parasitic infestations, and ambiguous endings, this book is for you.

  • Reading Between the Vines, by Terry Theise. A good entry-point into the world of small-production, lower-intervention wines—and one which emphasizes the importance of becoming sensitive to the reality of aesthetic experience.


If you enjoyed this issue and found it useful, please share it with people who might like it too. You can reach me on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

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