Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reader Question: Gadgets

Too good to be true?

On occasion we get mail from our readers.  Some of it is fan mail, some hate mail, and still more if it is questions.  Here's a good one we recently received about wine gadgets:

While flying recently I was looking through Skymall magazine. This publication contains some of the most outrageous items and this one was no exception. Listed in the magazine was wine glass for about 40 dollars that claims to age your wine 10 years and another magnet for about 100 dollars that makes similar claims. My question is do these items work and would I really want to use them?



Great question, Rich.  Your question, "...would I really want to use them?" is the real question.  But let's start with your first question, "do these items work...?"

It's impossible to know.  You can't empirically measure the taste of a wine using one of these gadgets today, then wait ten years, taste it again without the gadget and compare numbers.  There are so many factors that go into how a wine changes over time, that we'd say that they don't work as advertised.  They can't.

But the question the manufacturers want you to ask instead is, will using one of these gadgets make the wine taste different?  (Notice the use of the word different instead of better.)  And there the answer is an easy yes.

Here's, briefly, what happens when a wine ages:  The fermentation process produces alcohol and CO2) as a byproduct of yeast interacting with sugar.  After secondary fermentation and barrel aging, the wine is bottled.  From a chemistry perspective, in that bottle, aside from the obvious, is water, ethanol (alcohol), sugars from the fruit, and some acids (tannic, malic, lactic, acetic, etc.)

Over time, the acids interact with the sugars to (ideally) produce a pleasing layering of flavors.  But a lot has to go well for that.  The wine has to be balanced: Too much sugar and you get flab or rot after a while.  Too much acid and you can end up with vinegar.  Too much alcohol and your acid/sugar balance doesn't even matter - the wine gets too "hot" and the alcohol will derail the desirable chemical interaction.  And temperature matters, too.  If wine is stored in too hot a place, the aging process can be accelerated while a different process (burning) kills off all the sugars.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  There's a lot to it.  So that answers your second question.  Even if they did work, "...would I really want to use them?" Not necessarily.  If you've got a wine that's not ageworthy, why rush to turn it sour?

So, if these things don't really work as advertised and - even if they did - you wouldn't necessarily want to use them, then what do they do and why do people buy them?

Different devices take different approaches to the same equation, but most of them use materials that induce a chemical reaction.  What kids of a reaction you get is a bit of a gamble, but it's not like you're mixing a batch of polyethelene into your wine here, you're just pouring your wine into/over a vessel.  So, it's not like you're going to get a huge change.  But a noticeable one, perhaps.

But one thing almost all of these devices share in common is the requirement that you expose your wine to oxygen.  And that, folks, has the single most important influence on a wine.  Aeration is commonly incorporated into the winemaking process for this very reason - to open the wine up and make it more accessible. 

And doing that does not require any special equipment.  A glass, a decanter, heck, even an old pitcher your wife made in that pottery class will work.

In the meantime, merchandisers are happy to wield their impossible-to-prove claims and people are happy to buy them.

Should you?  Well, do you like your wine the way that the winemaker intended or do you want it to taste different?  You decide.