Martian Wine and Other Futuristic Ideas

Now that we know that Mars is capable of holding an atmosphere, it’s only a matter of time until we put one up there again. When we do, I hope that the citizens of Earth have it together enough to make a joint decision about what to do with it instead of drawing lines and waging war in the old imperialist fashion. It’s comforting to imagine, too, that we might endeavor from the outset to keep this bright and shiny new atmosphere pollution-free. Maybe, if interplanetary transportation becomes cheap enough – and if the soil is suitable, and if we can find enough water in the right places – we’ll be able to put agriculture up there while keeping heavy industry down on Earth. More likely, we’ll build new, internally-complete Martian cities and just endeavor to be less destructive from the outset.


Regardless, I’m certain that there will be wine. Wine – in all of its culturally complex, ritual-rich, socially lubricating, multi-sensory intensity – is sign, symbol, and sometimes agent of what makes us human. Anyone living or working away from Terra, in an environment heretofore entirely foreign to our species, will need such things. If the French are involved in Martian colonization, surely they’ll send wine rations; after all, they’ve historically provided wine to their soldiers. It’s already been suggested that red wine may benefit astronauts insofar as resveratrol helps protect against declining bone density and other effects of weightlessness. So there will be wine. And, if we figure out how to plant anything at all up there, someone will plant wine grapes.

Thinking about Martian wine – will we talk about Martoir? Will we hybridize grapes specially adapted to Martian soils and climates? – makes me think about other futuristic wine developments.  Martian wine will surely take us some time. Some of these may come a bit sooner.

No SO­2 required – Regardless of your position on the sulfites debate, you can’t argue that the debate exists. So let’s use something else. Grape-derived phenols are powerful antimicrobials; in the future, perhaps we’ll isolate and concentrate them for all-natural, grape-derived protection. Using grape-derived antimicrobials tidily solves at least three problems. First, if we can salvage phenols from winery waste – the seeds and skins left over after pressing – we have another use for a widely-available resource that can all too easily become trash instead. Second, we’ve assuaged the fears of the small but vocal group of winemakers and consumers who believe that SO2 is a health hazard or evil of some other kind. And third, we’ve helped the handful of genuinely SO2-sensitive asthmatics enjoy wine while breathing a bit easier. I do hope that someone is working on industry-scale trials of this technology.

Custom food-and-wine pairings at your table – Covet a particular red on a restaurant wine list, but also covet the scallops? Concerned that the combination will leave a bitter, unpleasantly fishy taste in your mouth? Evidence from Japanese scientists suggests that iron (Fe2+ ions, specifically) in wine is to blame for those off-flavors, and that removing those ions makes the red wine-fish pairing taste better. (They also hypothesize that acidic white wines work better with fish – especially very fishy fish, like sardines – because acids bind to and neutralize iron. Today’s red wines may play more nicely with fish than those from earlier times, then, because cleaner winemaking practices now yield wine with lower iron concentrations. No solid evidence to substantiate those hypotheses yet, but interesting thoughts.) So, maybe we’ll come up with a sleek-looking tableside treatment –something stylishly along the lines of a contemporary aerator – to pull out those unfriendly ions and instantly improve your wine-with-fish experience.

New and improved vines – Dead vines? Well, maybe we can fix that. I’ve written before about transgenic vines being designed to resist disease. Now, with the recognition that specific genes can make syrah susceptible to a fatal, virus-induced disorder (and the likelihood that other grapevine diseases are similarly dependent on specific genes), I wonder how long it will be before we are successfully switching alleles – different versions of the same gene – to armor a clone against such disorders while maintaining all of the other desirable characteristics of the clone. Not long at all, I think. The biology is simple and not even particularly new. The payoff is obvious. The legal approval is…likely to be a sticking point. French plantings of experimental genetically modified vines for research purposes have been destroyed by activist groups. Australian and Californian industry groups have made officially unfriendly noises about the idea. But, sooner or later, increased profits from more reliable vines may win over enough hearts to make genetically custom-made vines both legal and acceptable. Maybe.

Containers – When I consider the glass bottle horizon and what lies beyond it, I think about the scene early in Star Wars: A New Hope in which Luke and his aunt and uncle are sitting down to a meal. In the late 1970’s, the future looked (to George Lucas, and surely some other people) to be full of plastic and not much else. Likewise, it’s easy to imagine a future full of flexible plastic wine pouches: fill, drink, flatten, and recycle. Right now, practical plastics are still sufficiently porous that wine in a pouch has a shorter shelf life than wine in a bottle: oxygen will slowly diffuse through the plastic itself, noticeably oxidizing the wine inside after about a year. We can probably make better plastics, including flexible, recyclable, high-barrier plastics that will fix this problem. But even advanced plastics will still be plastic. And, unless the world really does begin looking like Star Wars, I suspect that wine will continue to be perceived as high-brow and plastic low-brow, and that the two will meet only occasionally. I’d rather place my bets on wine kegs: stylish, green-friendly, economical, thoroughly tested in Europe, and now legal in every state save Utah. A refillable wine bottle on every table, I say!

Massive open online winemaking – Massive open online courses – MOOCs – bring exceptional college courses from well-known universities to anyone with an internet connection via instructional videos, online written content, and interactive discussion boards. What about lab courses, you ask? At least one MOOC purveyor – the long-standing Open University – offers online labs in which students control lab equipment remotely to perform experiments and collect data. Which means, of course, that we can’t be too far away from MOOWs: the full experience of making your own wine, virtually. See pictures of your grapes, use a refractometer to take measurements, choose when to pick, make decisions about fermentation parameters, decide how to age and when to bottle, and have your own wine delivered to your front door at the end of the process. You’ll get advice from an expert and the opportunity to talk about your wine with all of the other virtual winemakers in online discussion boards. In other words: custom crush for people who live anywhere.

I’m also thinking about multi-function microbes able not only to perform alcoholic and malolactic fermentation simultaneously – we’ve got that down already – but to make must adjustments for which we currently rely on extra enzymes or chemical additions. I’m thinking about whether we can make weather modification really practical and prevent hailstorms from punching holes in Burgundy’s best vineyards again. I’m thinking about all of the different ways we may have for proving that the contents of a bottle are the same as what the label claims they are, and wondering whether we can devise a non-invasive strategy that will let us detect counterfeit wine without having to open the bottle.

I don’t feel I’m risking too much to speculate that as soon as we solve one problem, we’ll have another (or two) ready at hand. If we can grow grapes on Mars, we’ll start worrying about the effects of interplanetary transport on tannin development (and we thought shipping cross-country was bad). The bad news? We’ll always have new problems to tackle. The good news? We’ll always have new problems to tackle. Because, really, wine is all about a story, and every good story needs a problem to solve.