Terroir, climate change, and current trends drew attention to the many overlapping aspects of tea and wine at last week’s UC Davis colloquium, the fifth organized by Katherine Burnett, Ph.D., founding director of the Global Tea Initiative for the Study of Tea Culture and Science.
Discussions advanced this year’s theme: “The Great Debate: Discussions on Tea and Wine” beginning with a session “Aesthetics and Collecting.”
The debate began with tea, represented by renowned author James Norwood Pratt (Tea Lover’s Treasury and Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary) with Roy Fong, founder of San Francisco and Berkeley’s Imperial Tea Court. Pratt told Fong he had “become the apostle of Chinese teas” and paid tribute to Fong’s influence on him.
The session focused on pu’er, what it classically is, what modern variations there are, and why it has become collectible.
Fong, who ages pu’er in his warehouse, noted, “Aging pu’er is like raising a child,” explaining how humidity differences between the Bay Area and Yunnan affect how rapidly the bacteria develop in the fermentation process.
The adage “buyer beware” should be top of mind in buying high-end pu’er, Pratt emphasized, saying, “Your only defense is knowledge.”
As buyers become more knowledgeable, Fong added, they will increasingly look to China’s fabled “Seven Mountains” because terroir is just as important in growing tea as it is in growing grapes.
Both speakers pointed out that other teas, such as oolong and white tea, can also be aged, and have been collected in China for many years.
Jim Gordon, editor-at-large, Wine Business Monthly, and Contributing Editor, Wine Enthusiast, told the audience during the session’s Q&A portion that the tea industry could create additional “experiences” of tea on the winery model, expanding the market as consumers learn more with tours and hands-on activities.
Also standing for wine was Ron Runnebaum, Ph.D., assistant professor, Viticulture and Enology, UC Davis, was the first of several in the colloquium to reflect the widespread and intense chemical research being conducted on both wine and tea to better understand their composition and flavor, as more and more sophisticated techniques are invented and used for measurements.
Fitrio Ashardiono, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Asia-Japan Research Institute, Ritsumeikan University and a visiting UCD scholar opened the session on “Site, Terroir and Appellations.” Dr. Ashardiono focused on experiments in Japan’s Uji prefecture measuring the effects of climate change, and what farmers there are doing and could do to mitigate its effects. He reported that sudden drops in spring temperatures, higher temperatures in fall, changes in the quantity and period of the rainy season, longer periods of drought, and diminishing morning fog have been recorded. Uji farmers are harvesting earlier, using deep-soil treatment later, using a light covering in summer and watering systems, as well as employing “frost fan” systems. Dr. Ashardiono emphasized that traditional knowledge of familiar cultivars can be meshed with new scientific data to help maintain quality and deflect the unwanted effects of temperature fluctuations and extreme weather events.
Eliot Jordan, vice president of Mighty Leaf Tea, and Helen Hume, head of sourcing at Finlays, co-chaired the “Tea Internships & Careers” session. Jordan told the audience, “During the last six-to-seven years, the tea industry has been dragged into the modern food business.”
Hume listed multiple internship and job opportunities in areas such as agriculture, sustainability, forest management, traceability, supply chain, factory processes, tea tasting, blending tea, design, and marketing.
Panelists Cynthia Goldberg, representing the UC Davis Internships & Careers Center, and Paula Levitt, Assistant Director, UC Davis Global Experimental Learning, Global Learning Hub, both pointed to the increasing global possibilities for internships and careers with Goldberg specifically calling out “climate scientist.”
Oviya Sangary and Matt Maekawa, two UC Davis students and former interns at Mighty Leaf and QTrade Teas & Herbs explained their time had been well spent at these companies during their internships. Each fosters a real interest in continuing careers in the tea industry, which in their view has growing appeal to young people entering the job market.
During the evening reception, as well as during breaks throughout the colloquium, attendees were invited to visit and taste at sponsors’ booths, which included exhibits from Finlays, Harney & Sons, ITI, ITO EN, QTrade Teas & Herbs, Mighty Leaf Tea, and Rishi Tea and Botanicals, as well as affiliated sponsors Boon Tea, Sugimoto Tea, and the Shizuoka Prefecture Government. All sponsors featured information on internship opportunities.
A complementary exhibit in the adjoining conference room, “Old Traditions, New Trends: Tea and Wine in Japanese Art and Design” combined lovely antique artifacts with exciting contemporary design.
Andrew L. Waterhouse, Ph.D., director of the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science, introduced the colloquium’s second day, the first half of which featured complex and technical lectures about the chemical makeup of tea and wine, how climate affects it, and how that chemistry creates human perception of aroma and flavor.
Professor Al Robbat, Ph.D., director of the Chemistry, Sensory and Science Center and Center for Field Analytical Studies & Technology at Tufts University, explained the use of pioneering “stir bar” technology (attached to tea leaves and measured at various growth points). Study sites included Yunnan, Fujian and South Carolina, and samples were collected over a three-year period. The results showed, “Small differences in temperature cause big changes in chemistry at both high and low elevations,” said Dr. Robbat. “This affects both taste and health properties.” Another conclusion from the research: The more bio-diverse the farms are, the less impact climate change is having on tea quality.
Sue Ebeler, Ph.D., professor of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, spoke about “Relationships Between the Aroma Chemistry of Tea and Wine,” noting that in each beverage, human perceptions of “taste, aroma, color and texture/mouthfeel” are what creates “flavor.” She described studies investigating chemical compounds such as “indole,” which, at low concentrations, creates a “floral/jasmine” sense, and “theanine,” related to the sense of umami or “broth” manifest as mouthfeel.
The long-mysterious “thearubian hump” of components found in black tea was the subject of a 10-year study by a team headed by Nicolai Kuhnert, Ph.D., professor of Analytical Chemistry, Jacobs University Bremen. Using high-resolution analysis technology not previously available to researchers, the team was able to isolate thousands of compounds in black tea. From this, Dr. Kuhnert extrapolated some compounds are linked to black tea’s ability to partially shut down cell aging. He stated, “Science needs to do more research on the health effects of black tea and its 30,000 compounds.”
Similar intensive research on compounds in wine was discussed by Jonathan Cave, Ph.D., Analytical Chemist, Viticulture and Enology, Treasury Wine Estates.
The colloquium’s final sessions switched to a focus on history, new markets, and new products and trends.
A historical perspective of tea in North America was provided by Caroline Frank, Ph.D., American Studies, Brown University and author of Objectifying China, Imagining American: Chinese Commodities in Early America, who took attendees back to colonial times when tea was smuggled in from the Dutch colonies and there was a definite bias among some groups that “real men don’t drink tea.” The Puritans, Dr. Frank explained, demonized tea as a “heathen beverage” and fought (unsuccessfully) against its acceptance. She commented that iced tea was introduced primarily to induce men to drink more tea, and that Millennials are now drinking almost as much tea as coffee, attributing this increase to a desire for products with health benefits.
The growth of the wine industry in China during the past 70 years was described in detail by Pascal Durand, Ph.D., University of Burgundy, France. Dr. Durand, who is also a winery owner in China, noted that although state control of wine production has in the past limited the growth of smaller producers, that is changing and the quality of wines produced has dramatically increased. The varietal Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, has been adopted by the Chinese as a favorite and is being extensively produced there.
The colloquium’s final session, “New Products and Trends,” was moderated by Mondavi’s Andrew Waterhouse, and chaired by Rona Tison, senior vice president, corporate and public relations at ITO EN. Panelists included Stephen Thomas, director of the New York Metropolitan Region for Rishi Tea and Botanicals, Amy Finn, director of education at Rishi Tea and Botanicals, and Alison Crowe, director of Winemaking at Plata Wine Partners, Napa.
Tison saw potential market growth for tea in the focus on “plant-based foods, clean foods and mindfulness.” Finn and Thomas pointed to ready-to-drink beverages, citing convenience as a top priority for consumers. All the tea expert panelists agreed that consumers increasingly want to know where products come from, and how they are grown and processed. Tea “provenance” has become important, and travel to tea growing areas is growing.
Crowe noted some wineries have begun offering tea-tasting menus for nondrinkers and designated drivers, and Thomas mentioned the popularity of the MNDFL Meditation Studio in NYC, where tea is served both before and after sessions.
“We are not tea or wine companies, we are beverage companies,” said Tison, adding that wine terminology is being used widely in the tea industry.
Finally, the panel cited the popularity of single-serve portions, often in cans. ITO EN having introduced unsweetened green tea (“Oi Ocha”) in a can during the ’80s was mentioned as a forerunner of this trend.
The colloquium concluded with an invitation to attend next year’s event: “The Stories We Tell: Legends, Myths and Anecdotes about Tea,” Jan. 28-29, 2021.
Learn more: Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis