A $2500 bottle of Château Latour wine that scored a 98 on the Wine Spectator point scale is not for amateurs. The sobering business of the high end wine trade involves scientists on a variety of different levels. One big problem is that wine—especially superb wine—goes bad. A chemist at U.C. Davis has found a way to tell if a bottle is fit for the Queen of England, or for the Queen of Wishful Thinking.
In the basement of the chemistry building at U.C. Davis, associate professor Matthew Augustine works with a unique nuclear magnetic resonance device of which there are only two in the U.S. Besides being able to do things like locating liquid explosives in sealed containers such as turpentine and nitro glycerin, Augustine has used the NMR to test the quality of wine.
NMR has been a much beloved tool of doctors and chemists for years. Its most common uses are NMR spectroscopy, which can be used to map molecules, and magnetic resonance imaging, which produces detailed images of the human body.
Before using the machine to test wine Augustine used it to probe other molecular structures to find their shape. “If you understand shape you can understand the function of those molecules,” he said.
In 2003 a student approached the associate professor with a request—to work with wine. Being a chemist with an aim to please Augustine became preoccupied with her idea. He began with the basics. “I instructed my student to party with wine students that weekend to see what she could find out.”
What his student learned from her rendezvous with oenologists was something Augustine didn’t believe at first—leaky corks. “So, I went to Safeway and bought red wine vinegar and red wine,” said Augustine who is now an expert on the effects of oxidation in wine.
In the three weeks following, Augustine lived and breathed factors contributing to the spoilage of wine. Red wine vinegar and red wine, containing acetic acid and acid aldehyde respectively, are oxidized examples of what happens to wine that has been improperly stored or has cultivated acetobacter bacteria as a result of a leaky cork.
When wine hits 1.4 grams of acetic acid per liter it is considered bad. Although the average bottle of vinegar has around 12.50 grams acetic acid per liter the difference is nothing to take lightly. NMR measures acetic acid in wine down to the tenth of a gram.
Up to 10 percent of wine spoilage comes from the oxygen-alcohol blend. Cork taint, from the 2, 4, 6-tricloroanisol molecule accounts for the other main contributor of wine spoilage. Though NMR is only used in locating oxidation based spoilage, it is still a major breakthrough in the wine world, especially when it comes to auctions.
Auctioneers say as many as 50 percent of the vintages pre-1950 auctioned at places like Christie’s or Zachy’s, where $2000 bottles are the norm, are spoiled. Augustine says that when it comes to exquisite wine the importance of protecting the investment is up to an individual.
“There’s that mystery associated with wine but I imagine everyone has a threshold when it comes to the value,” said Augustine who hopes to add NMR based security to the wine world.
The NMR machine at U.C. Davis carries a patent that extends to all sealed containers so Augustine is not worried about his invention being stolen. It has even been licensed to one private collector on the East Coast to be utilized in testing wine.
Augustine describes wine in California, for the most part, as drinking wine. In areas where there is more history behind wine, such as Europe and the East Coast collections of old, expensive wines exist, as does the appeal of a mechanism that is able to take away the “as is” risk associated with purchasing auction wines.
“In a perfect world, if there was a handheld device you can aim at a bottle and get an instant reading that would be great. Of course you’d have to be able to run bottles through quickly and inexpensively,” principal auctioneer for Zachy’s wine auctions in New York, Fritz Hatton, told Wine Spectator.
One test involving the spoilage of wine compared results from the NMR device with the palates of sommeliers from Zachy’s auction house. “At first they were disbelievers,” explained Augustine.
“There were two bottles of Château Latour. One was good and one was bad by the test. When the bottles were opened for the real test the experts agreed with the NMR results,” said the NMR expert.
Tiptop wine means elevated prices on all levels. Though the price to test the spoilage of wine is not low, blue-ribbon wine isn’t ether. Augustine, who has sipped “spoiled” expensive wine, said that though it is drinkable there is no question that it tastes flat. “The good one blows you away,” he said.