Science and Wine

Full Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff From the Science Lab, from

Allison Loudermilk: Hey, guys, and welcome to the podcast. This is Allison Loudermilk, the science editor at

Robert Lamb: And this is Robert Lamb, science writer at This week we're talking about wine, wine and science. So first of all, we need to stress that -

Allison Loudermilk: Kids, don't go drinking a glass of wine while you're listening to this podcast.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, don't let this inspire you because, trust me, you're not going to like what it tastes like anyway when you're old enough to drink it.

Allison Loudermilk: But you will later, yes.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, later. It's going to take a while, so don't rush it. So yeah, we're - there's - has a lot of really cool articles about how wine is made, about some of the possible health benefits of drinking a glass of red wine a day, how to make your own wine, et cetera, but we're not really going to get into all that. If you want that, hit the site because we've got it.

Allison Loudermilk: We've got it covered.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. What we're going to talk about are a few cases where science and wine sorta hang out together and conduct some really cool experiments and also, in some cases, some really interesting chance encounters between the world of science and the world of wine.

Allison Loudermilk: I have a friend who used to live in Atlanta who was a microbiologist. He went out to California with his wife and wound up working as a microbiologist out there for one of the vineyards.

Robert Lamb: Oh, cool. I mean, there's a real chemistry to it. I don't know anybody that is that heavy into the science of it, that specific area of the science of it. I have a friend who's a dietician and she talks about wine. She definitely has a dietician's stance on it. Then I have another friend who took courses in how wine is made in the different regions, and she advises people on which one to get and which to pair with which cheese, et cetera.

Allison Loudermilk: So do you think you have a good palate?

Robert Lamb: I like wine a lot, but I'm not super - I don't have this amazing palate. I'm not a super taster or anything.

Allison Loudermilk: No, no. I don't think I'm a super taster either. I think some of my in-laws might be super tasters. They seem to have amazing palates. They can discern all these amazing tones and flavors, and all sorts of things in wine that I can never detect.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I tend to choose bottles based on what kind of animal is on the label.

Allison Loudermilk: Or what price tag they have, perhaps.

Robert Lamb: That also helps a lot, yeah. No, I like a good wine. I'll tell you who else liked a good wine, Frederic Brochet, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Bordeaux in France.

Allison Loudermilk: What did he do?

Robert Lamb: Well, this is pretty awesome. In 1998, he decided he was going to have some wine specialists he knew over for a wine tasting, 54 of them in fact.

Allison Loudermilk: That's a lot of wine knowledge in one room.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Brochet himself is quite the wine enthusiast as well, so this guy invites you over for tasting, you're, "All right, he knows his stuff. Let's do it."

Allison Loudermilk: So what happened at this tasting?

Robert Lamb: Well, he decided that he was going to first give them a pair of wines, a red and a white to taste, which they did and they all made their notes on the wine. Everybody -

Allison Loudermilk: I wonder if he provided them with spittoons.

Robert Lamb: Probably. Yeah, they're all about you spit it out and you cleanse your palate, and all that, swish around some water. Then you describe it in all of this rather elegant language, which I imagine a number of people have heard before. We have a whole list of these that came form the study that Brochet later published. I mean, I love how there are things, like, you talk about the raspberry tones and you talk about distinct lemon, honey, straw, floral tastes in the wine.

Allison Loudermilk: Those would be whites, primarily. Then you get into the reds and I heard one person describe it as leather.

Robert Lamb: Leather.

Allison Loudermilk: I thought that was fairly interesting and then there are plum, final, dark, intense, deep and all those sorts of things.

Robert Lamb: My wife has a theory that the more advanced the wine connoisseur or wine snob, if you want to be judgmental, the more advanced your knowledge of wine, the crazier and kinda disgusting your terminology will be for even a good wine. You might, like, "I detect a hint of dog, some like tachyon notes," it'll be stuff like that. What does that even mean, tachyon? That's a subatomic particle. How does a wine taste like that?

Yeah, so everybody knows the kind of language we're talking about. They tasted the red and the white and they made all these complicated descriptions. Some of the adjectives were very much white wine describers and others are red wine describers. So everybody tries the wine, comments on it, puts it on their notes.

Then he brings out a second pair of wines, again, a red and a white. Everybody does the same thing. They taste them, they put down their comments on it. They make their notes, white language for the white wine, red language for the red wine. Then, the big reveal. The second couple of wines are both the same white wine, he just put red food coloring, flavorless red food coloring into one of the whites.

Allison Loudermilk: No kidding.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. The thing is, nobody figured it out. Nobody, not a single person - and these are all specialists - not a single one said, "Hey, I think this the same wine and you just put food coloring in one of them." No one even said, "Hey, these are very similar." They used the distinct language to describe the red and the white.

Allison Loudermilk: But Brochet wasn't done.

Robert Lamb: That's right. He threw another wine party.

Allison Loudermilk: He must have had to invite a whole different set of specialists. I can't imagine the same set of specialists would come back after [inaudible].

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It seems if they would, they would be very suspicious, "All right, what's this wine? What did you do? Is this soda water?

Allison Loudermilk: A flawed experiment.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, which actually he kinda did something similar to that because what he did was he told everybody beforehand that he was going to serve a common table wine and a premium vintage, all right, something fancy. So he starts off, he makes a show of tasting each of them, and he responds in a predictable manner. He tastes the table wine and he's, "It's table wine, pretty good," spits it out. Then he tastes the vintage and he sorta waxes poetic about how nice it is.

Allison Loudermilk: The premium vintage, right.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah, the premium vintage. So then everybody else tries it as well. Of course, they do the same thing, "The premium vintage is this, this and that. The table is wine is all right, it's table wine. It's pretty good," but there's no comparison. Except they're the same common Bordeaux wine.

Allison Loudermilk: Oh, no, Brochet did it again.

Robert Lamb: There is no premium vintage, it's just a very basic wine.

Allison Loudermilk: Again, no one picked up on it.

Robert Lamb: No one picked up on it, yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: So what's the lesson here? It seems that taste is more than what's on your tongue. It's a combination of all the senses, especially what you're seeing and what you're perceiving. Is that what Brochet was trying to get at?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. He's not just being a jerk. Yeah, he's very adamant in the paper that he likes wine and that this is actually to the benefit of people who are into tasting wine and talking about it. Yeah, it's like we don't just taste a glass of pinot grigio. We are looking at it, we're smelling it, and we're bringing in all these preconceptions based on what someone just told us about it. What the label looks like, how much you paid for it, all these different things end up affecting our experience with the wine.

Allison Loudermilk: Didn't Brochet also predict that the more honed palate the wine specialist had the more likely they were to fall for this trick, the red dye trick at least?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, the more into wine you are and the more of a specialist you are, the more likely you are to fall for the red dye in the white wine experiment.

Allison Loudermilk: So this made me think of - have you ever heard of bartenders using top shelf liquors, or at least the bottles of top shelf liquors, and filling them with the cheap stuff and then serving them to people?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah. I've heard about that, yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: I don't know if I would pick up the difference. Do you think you would?

Robert Lamb: Probably not.

Allison Loudermilk: Say if somebody was giving you pawpaw versus Ketel One vodka, do you think you would pick up on it?

Robert Lamb: Probably not. For one thing, if you have it in a pina colada or something, you're probably not going to notice.

Allison Loudermilk: What about something like a martini or a gimlet maybe?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I can see - I don't know if I would because I'm just not - I don't have mixed drinks that often. I can definitely see where somebody would, especially if it was a sipping vodka or a sipping tequila or something.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, I think it would be harder if it were served neat as opposed to with ice.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. If it's just Irish car bombs, I doubt if anybody's going to notice. That actually brings up another point. There's a friend of mine who's a graphic design person and she has this theory that you could make money selling fake fancy labels that slide over your bottles of two-buck-chuck.

Allison Loudermilk: Absolutely.

Robert Lamb: So you can just go to the store, spend $2.00 on a bottle of wine, but then you put the fancy label on it and everybody's cool with it.

Allison Loudermilk: Or you bring it as a gift to a housewarming party.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, you bring it as a gift, and science backs this up as a solid plan.

Allison Loudermilk: So let's move on to our next intersection of science and wine, or more accurately, medicine and wine in this case.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, we have actually - we a flight of two wines here to present to everyone. The first one is - well, I don't want to spoil anything, so I guess I'll kinda set it up with the story, right. Where are we?

Allison Loudermilk: So 2007, we're in Spain, right. What starts happening is there are wine drinkers and they're winding up in the hospital. They've having severe allergic reactions. In fact, I think one of the five people that shows up at the hospital is anaphylactic, so this person is going to die from constricted airways if they don't get medical help.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so this is not just, "Oh, my face turned red because I had wine," this is, "I'm in the hospital and I'm in some serious pain."

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So the doctors conducted a couple tests and it eventually ruled all the likely suspects, and these were all wine drinkers we should mention. That's a very important detail. So the doctors conducted tests and they were trying to figure out what was what. So there were a couple likely suspects, maybe egg whites, which is sometimes given to wine to clarify it and reduce harshness. When the doctors started scrutinizing the patients' blood, they found antibodies that suggested a recent bee or wasp sting.

Robert Lamb: Except none of these people had been stung recently by a wasp or a bee.

Allison Loudermilk: All they'd been doing was chugging down wine.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so they started investigating. What they came up with is that - everybody knows the one step in the process of winemaking.

Allison Loudermilk: Absolutely.

Robert Lamb: Even if you don't know all the chemical stuff, you know people with their bare feet squashing grapes, or a machine squashing grapes up. Well, what if there's something crawling on the grapes, right? What if you have yellow jackets?

Allison Loudermilk: Which happen to like ripe fruit, like, grapes.

Robert Lamb: Uh-huh, yeah. I think everybody knows these guys from picnics, they love picnics and apparently they love grapes. So what was happening is yellow jackets were getting smashed up with the grapes and you were getting wasp venom in the wine. Then when these people drank it, they had an allergic reaction to that venom.

Allison Loudermilk: So this would probably be more of a problem in a wine that hadn't been allowed to age then, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. They found that older wines were safe because, even if there's venom in there, the venom will have had time to just -

Allison Loudermilk: Degrade.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, degrade and lose its potency. They said you probably would be good with even just a couple of weeks of aging.

Allison Loudermilk: So something like a beaujolais, aren't those very new and don't you drink them very quickly after they're produced?

Robert Lamb: I think I've heard that, yeah. So yeah, if you had a wine that was really fresh, like, made yesterday, this would not be a wine to drink if you had some sort of severe allergic reaction to, say, wasp stings.

Allison Loudermilk: This is really interesting. My mother-in-law actually has an allergy to bee stings and she always forgets to carry her epi-pen around with her. It makes me a little nervous. So I guess that means that we can only drink the really good stuff with her, the really good old stuff with her.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, 2009, good stuff. So our next wine in our little flight of wines for this tasting is a Chinese super wine.

Allison Loudermilk: Most excellent. What does it do for you?

Robert Lamb: Well, here's the deal, all right. So everybody's red, like we were talking about earlier, these articles about red wine is good for you, all these studies, "Red wine is good for you because of this. It'll keep you younger, it'll make you live longer. It'll fight cancer or heart disease," you name it.

Allison Loudermilk: A lot of it boils down to the antioxidants, right?

Robert Lamb: Right.

Allison Loudermilk: So the antioxidants in red wines are called polyphenols and the idea is that they're thought to protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart, according to Mayo Clinic. Then there are these two main types of antioxidants, the flavonoids, like Flavor Flav, and non-flavonoids. There's one non-flavonoid that you guys have heard a lot about, I'm betting, called resveratrol.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, you can buy it in supplement form, right?

Allison Loudermilk: You can, although you can't internationally. I think you can buy it in the States. I don't know if the FDA has regulated it yet or what.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, some of this stuff is weird. You can get melatonin here, just over the counter, but I think it's more controlled in the UK.

Allison Loudermilk: So resveratrol is a compound found naturally in grape skins. There have been various studies conducted on it and some of them have found that high doses can improve muscle endurance in mice, and also that the compound keeps them slim. How nice, slim mice.

Robert Lamb: Of course, again, we'll stress that the wine skins, those end up more in the process for red wine. That's why red wine is red and white wine is white.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So other studies have linked resveratrol to improving longevity. Then, of course, you have the people who say it doesn't, but it improves your overall health.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It seemed like for a while there was a study every week, somebody else was hitting it. It's understandable because there's a lot of money to be made in things like staying young and living forever.

Allison Loudermilk: Indeed, immortality. So it's been quite the fad.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, to say nothing of some sort of a health reason to drink that glass of wine every evening.

Allison Loudermilk: As if you needed an excuse.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. You go, "Hey, I'm probably staying young."

Allison Loudermilk: So if resveratrol is really great for us, then why not make this super wine that has a lot of it in it, and make a profit from it?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, exactly.

Allison Loudermilk: So what's going on in China? Is that what they're after?

Robert Lamb: Well, sorta. There's some researchers at China's Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University. They've working to produce a genetically modified grape vine. What they're doing is they're throwing in a gene variant from a particular wild Chinese vine that increases resveratrol production, but they're not doing this specifically with the idea of, "Hey, we will make some crazy wine that will make people think -

Allison Loudermilk: - make you live forever.

Robert Lamb: - think they're going to live forever. No, because as it turns out,

resveratrol also works as an effective antifungal agent in the plant protecting it from fungus. So that's really what they're going after with this, but that's not what's necessarily picked up on by various media outlets.

Allison Loudermilk: The vine of [inaudible].

Robert Lamb: Antifungal wine, antifungal grapes, I may not read that.

Allison Loudermilk: Not as sexy.

Robert Lamb: Super Chinese wine that could make not age, that sounds great, I'll click on that.

Allison Loudermilk: So what about robots and wine? What's going on there?

Robert Lamb: Well, on one level, you have the - I think a number of people may have seen this. Actually, I did a blog entry about this a year ago and it's kinda old news, but the sommelier robot from Japan's NEC System Technologies, this is, like all Japanese robots, it's this cute little guy that looks kinda like a little pudgy dwarf or something. He looks like he just came right out of an anime. He can identify wines with an infrared scanner and give food pairing recommendations. He can also taste leftovers and tell you what they are, and -

Allison Loudermilk: Okay. Wait, can we just stop right there?

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: Why is he tasting leftovers? Why don't you know what the leftovers are in your fridge? Do you need a robot to tell you what your leftovers are in your fridge?

Robert Lamb: Well, do we -

Allison Loudermilk: Are they so unrecognizable? If they are so unrecognizable in your fridge, then perhaps you should just throw them away.

Robert Lamb: Well, if you start asking do we need a robot to do this, that or the other, then you're going to end up - that crosses out most of the robotic stuff that's going on in Japan.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, this particular sommelier robot identified human flesh as bacon, so it seems like there are few flaws to be worked out.

Robert Lamb: Maybe, I don't know. Maybe human flesh tastes like bacon. I think I've heard that before.

Allison Loudermilk: Really?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so maybe the robot is correct.

Allison Loudermilk: I suppose. Well, we have another pretty cool story about wine robots and this one was detailed in Astrobiology Magazine.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, this one's a pretty cool story. It centers around - basically a couple of years ago. It centers around this UC Berkeley chemistry professor by the name of Richard Mathies, all right. During the day, he was working on a prototype for the Mars organic analyzer, or MOA. This is the most sophisticated life detection instrument ever to be sent to the red planet.

Allison Will be sent to the red planet.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, will be sent. It's going to go in 2013. So that's his day job. At night, like a lot of us, he likes to come home.

Allison Loudermilk: Maybe sit on his porch.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, have a little dinner, have a little red wine and then go to sleep, and then wake up at 3:30 a.m. hot, flustered, with a racing heart, and has to get out of bed and somehow calm himself back down.

Allison Loudermilk: Was Richard going through menopause?

What was going on?

Robert Lamb: No, but what was happening was something called tyramine, okay.

Allison Loudermilk: Tyramine, the modified amino acid that sets off a chemical reaction that causes the body to produce adrenaline you mean?

Robert Lamb: That would be it. It's common in a lot of foods that are made with bacterial fermentation.

Allison Loudermilk: So your pungent cheeses, good wines.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, wines, aged meats, all the good stuff.

Allison Loudermilk: Got you.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. So he was probably - he was a little bummed out about this.

Allison Loudermilk: So Professor Mathies had this idea he wanted to know what produces it. Then, wham, he realized, what do you know, he can marry his nighttime wine drinking with his daytime job. He spent a decade of his life, in fact, building a machine that can analyze organic compounds.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, the most advanced one on the planet.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, so that's pretty sweet to have that at your disposal.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. So what he did is he got in touch with a local wine cellar and they started running wines through this device. The original - the article, which you can look up, it's online, and we'll probably link to it on the blogs -

Allison Loudermilk: We sure will.

Robert Lamb: There's a real detailed description of how this device works, and it's really detailed, so we'll just -

Allison Loudermilk: Hit the highlights.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Trust us, it works. It involves lasers and tagging the molecules, and then analyzing them. It's far more advanced than anything like the Viking rovers we had on Mars in the past. Anyway, so goes to the winery, they start running wine through it. Not just the finished product, but wine from every step of the fermentation process, to figure out when the tyramine is coming into play. They ended up keying in on the secondary fermentation process also known as the malolactic formation where malic acid converts into lactic acid.

Malic is typically in the fruits and it can be a bit bitter, so lactic acids softens the taste, right. So this is the process that fills the wine with not only tyramines, but also histamines which cause allergic reactions.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, antihistamines, sure.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. The research is still continuing and they're looking at which wines are more likely to contain tyramine and even which wineries are more likely to produce it. There's actually a really even more incredible possible future for this technology.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. You could see it being deployed on a much grander scale. I mean, there are so many food allergies and we're so hyperaware of what we're eating these days. Peanuts have made the headlines numerous times. You could see a parent wielding a handheld device like this and analyzing a sample of that airplane food to see if it had peanuts in it, or whatever your allergy was.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Mathies even predicts that this technology could be incorporated into other food related gadgets. It could be part of a food processor or something even in refrigerator, where you wouldn't have to look in the refrigerator and be, like, "I wonder I the tuna fish is going to kill me today," because the refrigerator will tell you, "Hey, dude, don't eat that tuna fish because it will kill you," that kinda thing. So it's pretty amazing.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, it would totally be your call if you disobeyed the device, which I would be likely to do. I hate to see food go to waste.

Robert Lamb: I thought you hated to be bossed around by refrigerators.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, that too. "Close the door." "I don't want to close the door."

Robert Lamb: So there you have it. There's some science and wine. So if you're of legal age and the next time you partake of a fine vintage -

Allison Loudermilk: We hope you'll think of us.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, think of some of that.

Allison Loudermilk: Stuff From the Science Lab.

Robert Lamb: So, hey, we've got a little reader mail, by the way.

Allison Loudermilk: Why don't you read it?

Robert Lamb: We recently heard from Chantal from Australia and she had a couple of things to correct us on. First, in the venom podcast, we were talking about a gusset, and it turns out this is a part of the pantyhose. It's not specifically an Australian thing.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay, good to know.

Robert Lamb: So yeah, good to know on that part. Also she wanted to clarify - we were kinda having a little fun with Australia and it's many venomous things, and talking about people having to wear pantyhose everywhere to keep from being killed by horrible, horrible [inaudible] wildlife.

Allison Loudermilk: She set us straight on the difference between pantyhose and stockings, which I was not aware of. I think I used the terms interchangeably until now, but now I will not.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I was not aware either, but she also points out - and should I do an Australian accent?

Allison Loudermilk: No, I don't think so. I think no on the Australian accent.

Robert Lamb: She says, "By the way, we don't live in caves. We all have electricity and none of us ride kangaroos to work each day." Good to know. "The spider and venomous creatures are only found out in the wild and on National Geographic shows. Our cities and towns are much the same as those in the U.S.A., just with less junk food outlets." Good to know.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. I still want to visit badly.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah, I'd like to get down there.

Allison Loudermilk: So if you want to tell us what's on your mind, whether it's about Australia, wine, or anything else, send us an email at

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and check out blogs. We have a lot of cool blog entries. In fact, we have one that I did recently about what is the coldest wine can get and where is the coldest place in the universe you could possibly drink it.

Allison Loudermilk: Sounds good.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's pretty fun.

Allison Loudermilk: I might have to read it over a glass of wine.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Oh, and we have a Twitter and a Facebook.

Allison Loudermilk: We do.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so check that out. We're Lab Stuff on Twitter and you can also just do a search for Lab Stuff on Facebook as well.

Allison Loudermilk: Or Google.

Robert Lamb: Or Google, yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: All right, that's all we have. Thanks for listening, guys.

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