The pleasures of being 27 and 2001 Dr. Frank Merlot

I’m enjoying the delicious pleasure this evening of a 2001 Dr. Frank merlot from an old favorite from my Finger Lakes days, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars. Recent statistics showing that the majority of wine bought in the US is drunk on the same day it is purchased is a little frightening, given the implications that data have for the wine market. Most folks buy wine to drink young; to them, wine that doesn’t fit that bill is bad, even if it becomes really, really good two or five or ten or twenty years from now. The “Barolo wars” that began in the 1970′s and 80′s are a good example: in response to consumers wanting wine to drink young, producers changed over from traditional ways of vinifying Nebbiolo — ways that made wines often better for paint stripper than dinner until they’d sat around for 10-20 years — to make “fresh(er) and fruity(er)” Barolo…if you can still call it Barolo, which is where the “war” part of the equation manifested.

Then again, Italians are still making traditional Barolo, and there will always be that subset of the wine-loving populous that keeps a wine cellar or, for the Francophone, vin de garde. The fact that nearly none of us can purchase Screaming Eagle doesn’t mean that the California cult boys are destined for bankruptcy.

Back to the merlot. My memories of this wine when I first bought it are clouded by six years, sixteen days distance; it was part of a case my parents let me choose on the first wine tasting excursion we made after I turned 21. Aside from how the wine has changed over that time, how much has my palate changed? I can look at my tasting notes from 2004 — yes, I still have them — but I can’t really judge how the wine has changed?

What I can do is say that I am at this moment enjoying flavors very different from what I enjoy upon opening a fresh, lithe, youthful red. The first pour on the first day it was opened defined my mental picture of “closed.” The tail-end of that “glass” (I tend to pour my nightly one-glass alotment as two mini-glass pours) was a darn sight better: rounder, fruitier, and less roughly tannic. Pouring the second libation via a Vinturi aerator made a substantial difference, perhaps the first time that I can say the Vinturi improved my initial impressions of the wine to the extent that I would consistently use it to maximize enjoyment of the rest of the bottle. (An aside: I’ve been experimenting with the aerator over the past month or so with a few different styles of wine. Look for the tie-in of my observations with a bit of chemistry soon.) Letting the wine rest in the glass for thirty minutes — without having used the aerator — produced a similar, but distinct effect, bringing the fruit upwards without as much effect on my perception of acidity.

Dr. Frank 2001 Merlot (Finger Lakes, NY)

- garnet red, just beginning to go tawny amber at the margins; limpid and glowing.

Initial tasting from just-opened bottle, no aeration: Rich, deeply textured nose: dusty dried cherry with lots of tingly acidity, fresh pine needles. Light-medium bodied (especially compared to the WA state reds I’ve been tasting of late.) First flavors are of blackberry leaf, herbaciousness overlaying subdued sour cherry underpinnings, with more acidity than tannins on the finish. Moderately long finish is dominantly acidic, but in an invitingly fresh rather than a mouth-puckering way.

+ Vinturi aeration: Substantially more aromatic, noticable immediately upon raising the glass and especially accentuating black currant and cherry notes. Previously mellow fruit is now bright. Acidity seems less sharp up-front, with a rounder and smoother mouthfeel overall. Finish not noticeably altered by aeration.

Peynaud on Scientific Advances

“The faster the scientific advances, the greater the risk of widening the gap between what we know and what we do.”

- Emile Peynaud, 1984

Emile Peynaud was one of the winemaking and winetasting and winethinking geniuses of modern times and is my own wine guru. His books, translated from the French, on The Taste of Wine and Knowing and Making Wine were a major factor in my realizing that wine was far more than just a pleasant evening beverage.

As science advances, practice lags behind. If this was true in Peynaud’s day, how much more true is it today? But is it a problem? Science takes time to be communicated – a sort of “trickle-down” effect from the scientists to the practitioners — and more time to be accepted. Along the way, the science is sometimes resolved, refuted, refined, or even revoked. Should we really jump onto yesterday’s new finding before it has had time to sit around and age a bit?

Can Occam’s razor slice through a Scorpion?

Occam’s Razor: use the simplest means possible to accomplish your goal.

Scorpion: 1) An arachnid; 2) a genetic method, patented by ETS Labs, for detecting bacteria and yeasts in wine (or grape juice, or beer) samples based on real-time fluorescence PCR (poymerase chain reaction.)

Can Occam’s Razor slice through a Scorpion?

“Plurality should not be posited without necessity” or, in the words of William of Ockham, “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.” According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, the eponym was awarded to the monk from Ockham because he used the argument so often, even though it was already a common tenent of Medieval logic. Philosophers refer to the Razor in arguing over the existence of God, but most of us translate the phrase as “Don’t make it more complicated than necessary (stupid.)”

If Ockham’s monastery pew became a time machine one day and he was transported to 2010, the philosopher might be curious about the many incredible scientific advances we’ve made in the past 800 years.

In addition to being a cousin of the tarantula, Scorpion is ETS Labs’ patented name for a genetic method to detect common spoilage yeast and bacteria in wine samples. Send ETS Labs 60 mL of your wine and they will send back a report listing which, if any organisms are swimming around in your tank or barrel or bottle. Scorpion analysis relies on differences between the genomes of different organisms. Probes designed to bind to DNA sequences that uniquely identify a species are labeled (“tagged”) with fluorescent markers. Toss probes specific to many different organisms into a wine sample, and the tags show which probes are bound and, therefore, which organisms are in the sample. (This is a gross oversimplification, but I’m trying to avoid a detailed discussion of RT-PCR here. For a little more detail, see ETS Labs’ website.)

The first assignment for my wine microbiology lab this semester is to identify the bacteria and/or yeast contaminating an unidentified wine sample. The professor will give each group two wines — one spiked with nasties — and ask us to give him a report on what we found in the wine and how we found it. The first part of the assignment is to propose a method for attacking the problem: when we have the wine, how will we analyze it?

Oooohhh…There are lots of ways to analyze wine, and I could show my prof that I know about them by including all sorts of nifty things in my report. Scorpion analysis is outside my budget, but I could always run my own genetic tests if I can find out where to buy the right genetic probes.

Or I could smell it. “The nose knows” may be cheesy (why cheesy? Why not yogurty, or cucumbery? There’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish…) but such aphorisms arise because they are true. Looking at my lab manual and the list of microorganisms that could be the unknown contaminant, each has a peculiar smell. Brettanomyces bruxellensis is probably the most famous — many wine lovers can identify “Brett” — but Pediococcus parvulus, Acetobacter, and Lactobacillus species have distinctive aromas, too, as I know from culturing them in the lab.

Oenococcus oeni, a bacteria very often responsible for malolactic fermentation, is a little trickier to identify based on smell alone, so I might need to move up to the next level of complexity (by the way, we aren’t allowed to use taste as part of our analysis; some of my classmates are underage.) If my nose isn’t quite sure, I can drip a few milliliters of wine onto a Petri dish and see what grows. We make Petri dishes full of growth media for yeast and bacteria by combining sugar, some protein and a few other basic nutrients, and adding agar — a gelatin-like substance from seaweed — to make it solidify. Culture media in a dish is essentially Jello (mmmm….yeast extract-flavored Jello!) Any bacteria and yeast in my wine will grown and reproduce on this media and, after a few days in a nice warm incubator, each little microbe will have grown into a colony of identical offspring microbes that I can see with my naked eye. Different bacteria and different yeasts have different colony morphologies; they look different; even within the same species, different strains can have different morphologies. One of my favorite strains of Brettanomyces bruxellensis looks like this.

Between smell and colony morphology, I expect excellent odds of correctly identifying the bugs my professor has hidden in my wine. My nose, and Jello in a Petri dish. In terms of levels of complexity, I think that I’m ranking far below genetic testing even if I do need to use the Jello. I could spend several hundred dollars to use the fancier technology, but why bother when the good, old-fashioned, simple method will do? Now, I’m not at all knocking ETS Labs; Scorpion is a potent analysis when you need to know “how much” as well as “what,” for complex microbial problems, and for busy wineries amongst other things. Scorpion analysis definitely has its place, but this isn’t it.

Occam’s razor: 1

Scorpion: 0

Violet wine

“Although there are almost innumerable shade of differences in the colour of wine, they are all variety of two, the reddish and the yellowish color. I say reddish, for we know no kind of wine that is actually red or yellow. What we call red in wine is violet, mixture of red and blue. We do not in chemistry speak of the reddish wine as red, but designate its hue by the term wine-colour.”

- from G.J. Mulder’s Chemistry of Wine, 1857, London. p198

Sometimes, generalization for the sake of simplicity is worthwhile. Inaccuracies on the scale of generalizations can make communication so much easier. Can you imagine how Mulder might have asked one of his chemist friends what sort of wine he would like with his roast chicken?

If I don’t have words for a flavor, do I still taste it?

Language shapes reality. The words that we use to describe physical things and abstract ideas help shape how we see them. The way we express our thoughts clarify what we are thinking. The words that we use to describe flavors change what and how we taste.

Case in point: how many times have I been to a wine tasting or shared a bottle with company, listened to someone else say that they taste mushroom flavors, and suddenly find myself recognizing mushrooms in the wine, too? Partly power of suggestion, perhaps, but not entirely so; if myself come up with a descriptor to which I can put a name, I find myself coming back to that flavor over and over again. Even if other, unspecified flavors are equally (or more) prominent, my brain has a handle — a specific word — to draw it back to the flavor I recognize. 

What if I had  (gasp!) never eaten mushrooms? I would never come up with the notion that a wine tasted like mushrooms, and I wouldn’t be able to recognize what someone else meant if they called a wine “mushroomy.” Drawing on different sensory experiences, I might call the same mushroom-like flavor “earthy” or “meaty.” But if I define a given sensation as “earthy” instead of “mushroomy,” does that change the way I sense that flavor? Will my brain use its repertoire of stored sensory experiences to make its perception of the flavor in my mouth more like the sensory memory with which I have associated it?

So, a teenaged girl from the Languedoc, a civil engineer from Kansas City, a physical education teacher from Brussels, a Nepalese farmer, and an Egyptian nurse walk into a bottle of Australian Shiraz. Do they all taste the same thing?

Other musings from Freakonomics at the NY Times.