A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Truth about Emerald Riesling

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the Emerald Riesling grape, which was created by Dr. Harold Olmo at UC Davis and released to the public in the 1940's.  In that post, I wrote that the parentage given for Emerald Riesling by Dr. Olmo and by virtually every other source online was Muscadelle x Riesling.  Only one source that I could find dissented from this view: the online version of the Oxford Companion to Wine listed the grape's parentage as Muscadelle x Grenache.

I had been in touch with Julia Harding MW and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz, both of whom work not only on the online version of the OCW but also on this massive new book on Wine Grapes due out in October, regarding their entry on Hondarrabi Zuri, which I was able to help them clean up a bit.  I sent the following email to Julia asking for clarification on their Emerald Riesling post:

"Hi Julia:

While researching Emerald Riesling for my most recent post, I saw that
the OCW had the grape's parentage listed as muscadelle  x grenache,
though every other source I found has it as riesling x muscadelle
(most notably the VIVC database:
http://www.vivc.de/datasheet/dataResult.php?data=3894).  Is this
something else that was found during your recent research for your
book or is this a mistake?


To which Julia responded:

"Muscadelle x Riesling is wrong but you will have to wait for the grape book for the full story. We can't give you all our scoops!"

I wrote an aggrieved response to this in my second post on Hondarrabi Zuri, where I expressed my frustration that the OCW refused to provide any source material for the information that they were publishing, and were further insisting that in order to get that information, I would have to order their forthcoming book (which at the time retailed for $125, but now retails for $175).  For those who don't wish to read that entire post, the relevant bit is here:

"I would be fine with this if I wasn't already paying (dearly and annually, I might add) for the electronic version of the OCW, which they are coyly updating on the fly as they find new information, whether it is correct or not.  If I were paying for an online version of the book I also have on my shelf at home, that's one thing, as static reference materials go out of date all the time.  But since they are updating the work online, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask for clarification on a matter where the information that they are printing is in opposition to every other resource currently available, including a written statement from the man who created the grape himself.  The OCW is a valuable resource, but they're not infallible, as I hope I've shown in this post.  If you are going to charge people for access to information, I feel that you should be prepared to justify that information if asked and should not point them to another place where they can give you more money for the whole story.  If you're willing to publish part of the story in the OCW and take people's money for it, you should be willing to publish the whole story instead of using premium content as a teaser for more premium content."

I was annoyed at the time, but after this weekend, I'm legitimately angry.  I had been working under the assumption that the new parentage for Emerald Riesling was something that the editorial group had discovered in doing their own private analyses.  Dr. Vouillamoz was the curator for several years of the Swiss Vitis Microsatellite Database and in some of my prior email correspondences he had referenced data held within this database.  I was assuming that Dr. Vouillamoz or someone affiliated with the OCW had conducted the parentage analysis on Emerald Riesling based on some of his own data, and that rather than publish the data through scientific journals, they were electing to publish it in the new book due out later this year.  I wasn't thrilled about this particular arrangement, but if it was their own original research, they're free to do with it what they will and if they elect to sell it rather than make it available for other scientists, researchers, and general enthusiasts that's their own prerogative.

It turns out, though, that this isn't the case.  On Friday evening, reader George sent me an email entitled "Emerald Riesling - the truth," wherein he included a link to a newsletter published by UC Davis in 2006.  On page five of that newsletter, in an article entitled "Vouchers Hold the Key to Successful Grape DNA Identification," is the following paragraph:

This method of analysis has been used to verify the
identification of all of Dr. Olmo’s named varieties at
FPS. The parental analysis described above was consistent
for all of his varieties except ‘Emerald Riesling,’
recorded as a selection from the cross of “Muscadelle
(CA)” and ‘Riesling’. We had previously determined that
the cryptic “Muscadelle (CA)” was a vine labeled “Muscadelle
du Bordelais” from an old block of vines in the
Department of Viticulture and Enology’s collection that
served as one parent for ‘Emerald Riesling.’ ‘Riesling,’
however, had DNA markers that were not consistent
with what would be expected from the other parent.
Dr. Andy Walker of the Department of Viticulture and
Enology suggested that ‘Grenache’ be considered, since
it has traits in common with ‘Emerald Riesling.’ Analysis
of our database verified that ‘Grenache’ and “Muscadelle
du Bordelais,” were the true parents of ‘Emerald Riesling.’

While I was unable to find this during the course of my research (this article is a PDF and I'm not sure how well Google is able to search inside PDF documents online), it is available for free online through the UC Davis website.  Now, I can't prove that this is the source that the OCW was using (UPDATE - it is, as cited in their new book Wine Grapes, which I've reviewed here), and I can't prove that they didn't happen to stumble across the correct parentage for Emerald Riesling on their own and that this line of research is what they are using to justify their entry.  I can say that the second explanation there seems very unlikely to me and that this whole situation has made me angry for a handful of reasons.

1) The first reason is the same reason that I listed above.  The online version of the OCW is updating their entries on the fly as new information is made available, which I am fully supportive of, so long as the sources are good and the new information is reliable.  The problem that I have is in their unwillingness to provide information about these sources when pressed.  If you are charging people so that they can access your reference material, you should have to provide some justification of that material when asked.  The entries really should have references within them anyway, but short of that, if a reader challenges an entry, that reader is entitled to a justification beyond "you're wrong."  

2) The form of that justification cannot be an invitation to purchase another extravagantly expensive reference material from you which you swear will be adequately annotated and will contain all the answers that I'm currently asking for.  I paid for my initial subscription to the OCW with the expectation that the content is good and factually accurate.  After I've found an error in one of your posts, it's reasonable for me to doubt other things that you've published without providing any kind of backup.  Inviting me to purchase more of your reference materials doesn't address the fact that the current reference material that I'm paying you for contains claims that you are unwilling to justify. 

3) If the justification for the claim is original research, I don't have a problem with you saying that it's original research and that I'll have to wait for the new book to read all about it.  If you want to sell original research, that's your business, but at least be up front about it and tell me that rather than just telling me I'm wrong.

4) The big issue in this case, though, is that the justification is actually research done by someone else, which is freely available online.  Further, the person who did that initial research isn't affiliated with the publication of this new book at all, as far as I can tell, so the OCW is essentially trying to profit from the freely available research of someone else.  I understand that this new book doesn't hinge on this particular piece of research and that this bit of research forms a very small part of the book as a whole, but it doesn't change the fact that they are at least directly trying to sell me this new book based on someone else's work.  

5) I'm not saying that you can't publish someone else's research in a book that you then charge money for.  It happens all the time and it's OK.  What I am saying is that when you do use someone else's research, you must properly cite them for it.  Without a citation, the reader is invited to believe that the material being presented is from the author.  If an author presents information knowingly taken from someone else's research and doesn't properly cite the original research, that's plagiarism.  If they sell someone else's research as their own, that's theft.  I understand that the entries in this new book will be immaculately cited and all referenced materials will be accounted for, but that doesn't change the fact that in the OCW, this information is not only presented without citations, but is sold without citations and when I asked for additional information, I was essentially told to buy another one of their products for access to the proper citation.  

In an email to me, Julia Harding addressed this issue of citations, as she read about my frustrations on this front in my first piece on Hondarrabi Zuri.  This was her response:

"Having read your point about lack of sources in the Oxford Companion, I have to say that it would have involved just too much work to add in all the new sources that we have uncovered and referred to while working on the grape book (where ALL sources of DNA info are given, leading to an enormous bibliography). When we are next able to devote a few years to a full update of the Oxford Companion, I will certainly bear in mind the need for more sources for DNA assertions."

"Too much work" is not a valid excuse for using other people's research without attribution, especially when people are paying you for that information.  

Look, I understand that in the grand scheme of things, this really isn't that big a deal.  That doesn't change the fact that I think what the OCW has done in this case is wrong.  The email from Julia specifically says "We can't give you all our scoops!"  The implication here is clearly that this is something that they feel they have discovered and that they will be using their upcoming book as the vehicle to transmit this information.  The fact of the matter is that this isn't actually a "scoop" at all.  This information was originally published in 2006 by someone not affiliated with their publication, but they are claiming it as their own and are using it to try and drive up their own sales.  

I understand that they are in the publishing business and that selling books and selling online subscriptions is how they make their money.  I do still subscribe to the online OCW, I have a hard copy of the book at home and I have pre-ordered their new grape book.  My problem is that in addition to selling books, one of their implicit missions is, or at least should be, the dissemination of factual information to their subscribers and customers.  Disseminating this information means being respectful of where the information came from in the first place and, whenever possible, giving proper credit to those whose findings you're incorporating into your own work.  Part of this is giving proper citations within the work itself, but another part of it is providing these citations or references when a reader challenges something you've published.  Just being the Oxford Companion to Wine isn't a suitable justification.  Forcing a reader to purchase another work in order to obtain the proper citation is just mean.  

Treat not only the information itself with respect, but also treat your readers and your customers with respect.  Don't treat information and knowledge like mere commodities and don't treat your readers merely as potential book sales or potential subscriber fees.  Be honest and be nice.  That's all.


Phynk said...

You can stand up on that soap box as long as you keep making salient points, which you have. Well written and very interesting. Seems to me that an enormous publication like OCW could collect all of their required references online for free. The additional text in the book would add very little volume to the print edition and it would drive traffic to the website. Sure, it would be a lot of work, but it's certainly worthwhile for a publication that wants to be not only taken seriously, but regarded as the premier resource for information on a particular subject.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment Phynk. I typically shy away from opinion pieces here, but this is an issue that I feel strongly about. I don't think that they have to cite every individual fact within the book, but if they're referencing particular studies, then they should credit the original authors of those studies. Their standards for the online version (and to a lesser extent the print version, which does have resources listed in the back of the book, but no references either within entries to specific references or indications in the references section as to which sources were used for which entries) are below the standards even of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is free and the online OCW costs around $100 a year for access.

Gretchen Allen said...

any questions re: Emerald Riesling should be directed to Darrell Corti at Corti Bros in Sacramento. He was a good friend of Dr. Olmo and is one of the leading experts on grapes and wine. His website is cortibros.biz. His assistant is Rick Mindermann. Best wishes!