If I had a million dollars…

If I had a million dollars…

…I would stock my cellar with a few cases of higher-end Oregon pinot noir — and at least three representatives from every major winemaking region in France (and perhaps Italy and Spain, too) just for educational purposes — and buy myself a UC Davis degree before investing the rest in agricultural microcredit.

On a less serious note, a reasonable alternative might be starting my own company at the intersection of the great intellectual loves of my life: wine, microbology, and medicine (if I could work music history and medival culinary practices into the mix, too, I would.)  My flagship product? The wine headache dipstick.

Lest you get the wrong idea, the wine headache dipstick is not the young man at your local eating establishment who repeatedly fills your wine glass to the rim and leaves you with a wine-related headache that has nothing to do with the wine itself, properly. I’m also not referring to an ear probe that diagnoses a wine headache and documents the magnitude of its severity for employer sick-day verification, for example.

What I have in mind is a tool that would instantly let the susceptible individual know if the glass of wine before her is likely to induce a headache or other unpleasant reaction.

The etiology of the “wine headache” remains something of a mystery (for an excellent discussion of some of the possibilities, see my fellow Palate Press science wise guy Tom Mansell’s article here.) While we’ve not yet one single, pat explanation, one of the more probable invokes a reaction to biogenic amines present in some wines. Biogenic amines – histamine, tyrosine, and putriscine, to name a few – are a product of the metabolism of nitrogen-containing compounds – amino acids – by malolactic and spoilage bacteria. Brettanomyces in particular tends to send biogenic amine levels sky-high, and other wines may owe their b.a. counts to the bacteria that performed malolactic conversion. Reds more than whites, then, tend to have this problem.

And why are biogenic amines a problem? In some people they cause headaches; in others, nausea, in others, a panoply of other assorted allergy-ish symptoms. In me, they provoke what my colleagues sometimes call the “thermometer” effect: I turn bright red, and the brighter red I turn, the more biogenic amines are in the wine. A headache comes along with the color change, too, and I’m left feeling a bit woozy even if I’ve only had one glass. I’m sure that I’m not the only one.

Molecular biology has produced diagnostic tests for everything, it seems, both in the clinic and in the lab. We have pre-loaded, multi-compartment test tubes that identify bacterial samples based on metabolic profile. We have indicator strips that will detect the presence of certain compounds in urine. Why couldn’t we have an indicator strip – a little paper dipstick – that detects the presence of biogenic amines in wine?

Testing every bottle is sure to be overkill – expensive overkill – for most people most of the time. But imagine someone who doesn’t drink wine very often and who reacts very severely to biogenic amines, but who enjoys drinking wine with friends from time to time. Imagine someone who drinks wine often but only wants to ensure that wines are biogenic amine-free on special occasions when turning bright red or having a headache would be compromising or inconvenient: an interview or a date, for example. Imagine someone who is teased when she complains about wine headaches and would appreciate scientific evidence correlating her bad reactions with a chemical wine fault.

I’m sure that my imagined “Wine Headache Indicator Strips” would be prohibitively expensive for daily use but, heck, I’d buy them. On those days when I really, really don’t want to deal with the after-effects of biogenic amines and the glass before me is suspect, I’ll discreetly pull a small case from my purse, pull out a strip, and pull my glass towards me to touch the strip to the liquid therein (perhaps while my companions are distracted.) If the strip turns orange, I’ll happily imbibe. If the strip turns deep chestnut brown, I’ll take one very small sip, play with the glass a bit, and drink lots of water.

If I had a million dollars, I’d invent such a thing. Since I don’t have a million dollars, does anyone else want to take me up on the challenge?

Wait; What Century is This? A response to “The Daily Sip”

This morning, The Daily Sip ran an installment entitled “She Gets 100 Points” about Sophie Parker, a young woman wine critic from New Zealand. The tag line reads “If Robert Parker looked like this, we’d pay more attention,” and it’s made perfectly clear that those 100 points refer to the 22 year-old, blonde’s feminine charms, not her writing. The Daily Sip (TDS) is the trademarked daily e-newsletter of Bottlenotes, “the premier online wine community,” with over 175,000 subscribers according to its advertising page.

Wait; what century is this? Haven’t we, as a wine community, moved past this? I’m not talking about using attractive, scantily-clad women (and men) in wine advertising – heck, sex sells cars and toothpaste, too – but explicitly rating a woman wine critic on her looks? Really?

Eric Arnold from TDS responded to my outraged comment that “that’s merely the introduction, meant to be humorous. Having spoken at length with Ms. Parker, we’re confident that she’s not offended. Furthermore, you should read the full interview, which shows unequivocally we paid attention only to her work, not her appearance.” Having read the full interview prior to making my original comment, I naturally realized that the focus was indeed on Ms. Parker’s wine reviews. But does that justify the introduction? The title and leading paragraph are what TDS uses to promote reader “click through” to their main site. By focusing that lead on Ms. Parker’s looks, TDS is implicitly telling its readers: “We’d like to tell you about this young woman’s professional interests, but we think that the best way to get you interested, to hook you and pull you in to the rest of the content, is with her physical attributes.”

Even if Ms. Parker isn’t offended by this approach, I am offended as a reader. Furthermore, this kind of lead is naturally going to inspire a disproportionately high click-through rate from readers who are principally interested in Ms. Parker for the wrong reasons. And what of those readers who receive TDS’s emails but don’t bother to read the interview? That substantial readership segment has now been given entirely the wrong ideas by a very heavily skewed leading paragraph. As Ms. Parker proceeds forward with her career, this is the kind of attention that she’ll do best to avoid. A few of the comments following the interview sarcastically asked if wine reviewers need to be old and ugly to be taken seriously. Let’s not be absurd. Jancis Robinson, Andrea Immer Robinson, Meg Houston Maker (emeritus editor of Palate Press), Sarah Chappell (a Palate Press contributing editor and manager of a Manhattan-based wine company)…the list is too long to continue even if I leave out the many young men in the wine world who should never be called “old and ugly.”

Am I overreacting? Maybe, but this is an excellent excuse to point out how far we’ve come, and to show exactly how far from the norm TDS places itself. The books Women of Wine: The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry (A.B. Matasar, University of California Press) and Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women who Make, Taste, and Enjoy Wine (D. Brenner, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.), written in 2006 and 2007 respectively, had no lack of material on which to draw. Today, women winemakers are so commonplace that their gender is hardly even remarked upon. Gina Gallo, Merry Edwards, Heidi Peterson Barrett, Helen Turley, Sarah Marquis, Elisabetta Gippetti, Amelia Ceja, Claire Villars…again, it would be ridiculous to continue.

So, to those at TDS: I appreciate your jocular approach and your desire for humor, but you can do better than this. Any journalist worthy of the name can come up with more than one lead for a feature, and anyone worthy of a feature is worthy of fair representation. Ms. Parker is worthy of more respect than this, and so is your readership. You can do better than this but, until you do, TDS, you’re on my black list.

Am I alone in thinking this is inappropriate? Let me know what you think.