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Better wine through chemistry? Perhaps

Scientists insist they can help, but some vintners aren't convinced.
/ Source: The Associated Press

This city is a short stagger from the nation's winemaking heart, a geography lesson not lost on the chemists flocking here this week with scientific papers and theories on how to take some of the guesswork out of grape growing and winemaking.

The occasion is the 232nd annual meeting of the American Chemical Society and several of the attendees spent Sunday afternoon extolling the virtues of making better wine through chemistry — even as some organic vintners complain the technology is being used to mass market wine that all tastes the same.

The wine scientists aim to bring the same chemical analysis used in chemical plants, oil refineries and pharmaceutical factories to make wine manufacturing more efficient, consistent and, of course, more profitable as the industry continues to enjoy burgeoning sales.

Last year, U.S. retail wine sales totaled $26 billion, a 5 percent increase over 2004 and California winemakers produced nearly two-thirds of the 703 million gallons sold, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.

Many winemakers are now dabbling with high-tech chemical analysis to streamline the yearlong wine making process and squeeze more money out of the grape. For now, chemical analysis is largely being used to make harvest decisions — but others are using high technology equipment to tweak the grape juice while it ferments.

Michael Cleary, manager of grape and wine chemistry at the world's largest winemaker, E & J Gallo, said before the Sunday meeting that deciding what constitutes a quality grape has been largely a subjective process, left to a vineyard's location, the previous performance of the particular grower and simply looking at the grape for blemishes. Harvest decisions historically have relied heavily on simply tasting the grape.

Cleary said the Modesto-based winery is using a laboratory process called chromatography that chemically separates grape into its component parts, such as the molecules responsible for aroma, taste and feel. That analysis can be used to make the decision to harvest when these particular molecules reach their highest concentration levels, Cleary said.

"It takes good grapes to make good wine and we're trying to improve our predictions of when to harvest," Cleary said.

Scientists don't fully understand the delicate mix of compounds that emerge during fermentation and why they create such pleasing sensations for wine drinkers. So chemists are trying to isolate chemicals that produce desirable fragrances and flavors.

Scientific analysis is now also being used to uncover the chemicals that give wines their taste, aroma and texture. Those tests help vintners monitor the wine as it ferments, enabling them to make subtle changes.

One company has even made a lucrative business by chemically analyzing wine in its attempt to inform winemakers how their wine will ultimately score among influential critics and how much each bottle will probably be worth once it hits store shelves.

Enologix of Sonoma takes juice samples from grapes, chemically analyzes them and then uses powerful software to generate taste recommendations on how to tweak the wine as it ferments. The suggestions recommended by Enologix are aimed at landing top scores from leading critics such as Robert Parker, who publishes the influential Wine Advocate.

"People like me finally said to ourselves that we can compute and calculate the outcome of anything — a stock or a wine," said Enologix founder Leo McCloskey. "In the case of wine, we compute the price and what the national critics will say."

McCloskey said his eight-person company consults with between 60 and 70 wineries a year and generates about $1.5 million in annual revenue.

He dismisses criticism that his use of chemistry compels his clients to sacrifice creativity and diversity by brewing similarly tasting wines to please the palates of a few powerful critics.

"It's a misconception to say we are all about chemistry," McCloskey said. "I'm using industry-based insider knowledge to build a model for predicting wine quality."

‘Better wine through alchemy’?Still, many wineries are shunning such technology and embracing distinctly Luddite, back-to-the Earth growing techniques. That includes using things like "Preparation 500," the springtime vineyard spray made from the manure-stuffed cow horns, buried over fall and winter, then ground up and mixed with water and turned into a soil spray to stimulate root growth.

"We're trying to make better wine through alchemy," joked Jim Fullmer, director of the Philomath, Ore.-based Demeter Association, a nonprofit group that certifies vineyards as "biodynamic" — a sort of hyper-organic designation that means the vintner relies on such things as lunar cycles and planetary alignment rather than chemistry.

"Biodynamics is probably the exact opposite," Fullmer said. "Winemaking is an art."

Chemists such as Oregon State University's James Kennedy said that while scientific "sophistication has definitely gone way up," no one is close to turning wine into a monolithic, mass-produced and bland tasting product.

"That's a gross injustice to the complexity of the grape," said Kennedy, who is trying to identify the chemicals responsible for giving red wines their thick, bold textures in the mouth. "Grapes are too complex and no two vintages are the same — it's very difficult to bring a Budweiser approach to wine making."