Richard Hemming: Technology is music to my ears

on 15 May, 2015

Im not sure how to listen to music any more. I don’t mean that I’m sticking earphones into the wrong holes (you don’t make that mistake twice), I'm talking about the way music is accessed.

It used to be so simple. You’d buy a physical album or single and listen to it on a machine designed solely for that purpose. That was the norm fewer than 20 years ago, yet it already sounds absurdly prehistoric. Now, you can listen to anything, anytime, anywhere without needing to buy any dedicated equipment.

And guess what? There’s a comparison to make with wine. Technology is changing the way we consume everything. Its effect on wine may never be as dramatic as it has already been for music (thank God wine can’t be digitised) but it is still significant.

In the vineyard, GPS-guided machinery has given rise to precision viticulture, optimising how vines are planted and grown. Advanced irrigation technology monitors vine hydration to use water as efficiently as possible.

Vinification has benefited too. Optical sorters can eliminate grapes which don’t match the winemaker’s specifications for colour, size and shape. Presses are becoming ever more sensitive to allow greater control over extraction.

Packaging is improving too, and the improvements in bag-in-box, alternative closures and bulk transportation technologies offer an ever increasing variety of options to everyone throughout the supply chain. Then there are consumer-facing developments such as Enomatic machines and Coravin, both of which allow drinkers to sample wines in a way that was unthinkable before the technology existed to permit it.

All these things have one ultimate cause: to improve profitability for the wine industry, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Wilfully ignoring the new possibilities that technology presents is sheer Luddite folly – but that doesn’t mean technology should trump every other consideration.

It’s easy to forget that, like music, the most valuable thing in wine isn’t the most efficient, modern, technological way of handling it, but the soul that went into its origination.

Streaming technology changes the way I relate to music. An album is no longer a physical thing to wait for, to purchase and to treasure in its entirety, but something to access instantly and disposably.

The parallels with wine may not be literal, but they are comparable. Subjugation to technology threatens to undermine the single most important thing that wine has to offer us: a reflection of its origin.

For me, this is one of the most compelling arguments for practices that focus attention on the vineyard.

Organics, biodynamics and natural wine are not perfect systems, but they signify a prioritisation of the one thing that technology cannot replace or improve upon: terroir.

Furthermore, many of the best producers who adhere to these holistic philosophies don’t eschew modern technology but embrace it, using it to accentuate a wine’s authenticity rather than override it – which is music to my ears.

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