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?

3 thoughts on “If I had a million dollars…

  1. I agree that detecting before drinking would be helpful, but knowing how to identify and control during the winemaking process would be even more beneficial.

    • I unquestionably agree with you, Todd. Heading off biogenic amine production before it occurs is clearly the best solution to my thermometer-effect/headache problem, but a clean-cut winemaking solution hasn’t happened yet. Research on low biogenic amine-evolving yeasts is happening; for a general idea of what wine microbiologists/yeast geneticists are trying to accomplish, check out an article from the Vancouver Sun on ML01 at http://www.vancouversun.com/story_print.html?id=4284370&sponsor=

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