Terra Sigillata

The Friday Fermentable

Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Friday Fermentable, the end-of-week fun feature of Terra Sigillata. As I was on vacation and sick last week, I did not accomplish my goals of wine and beer tasting to share with you specific recommendations this week. So, let us take this week to explain our philosophy:

The mission statement for The Friday Fermentable is:

1. To celebrate the convergence of agriculture, biology, botany, chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, neuroscience, pharmaceutics, and the pharmacology of natural products and herbal medicines in the production of historically-relevant beverages containing ethyl alcohol.

2. To educate and inform the public that the responsible consumption of alcoholic beverages can serve as valuable social and cultural adjuncts to a well-rounded, rich and meaningful life.

3. To use this forum as a bully pulpit to offset the snobbery and exclusionary behavior of some alcoholic beverage experts that serve the counterproductive aim of alienating the public from gaining a rewarding, enriching, and stress-reducing experience.

4. To provide insights allowing even the most monetarily-challenged readers of Terra Sigillata, particularly graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, that cost is no barrier to the universal experience of wine and beer appreciation and enjoyment.


What qualifications do I have to hold forth on such a topic?
Well, I haven’t brewed a batch of beer in five years, but I can still get excited about the chemistry or, dare I say, the alchemy that occurs in the brewing process to create a beverage that Ben Franklin tells us is “evidence that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” The property of germinated barley when heated in water to activate enzymes that break down complex starches into simple, fermentable sugars is nothing short of biological elegance.

I am neither a wine writer, critic, nor connoisseur. I am a wine enthusiast. You can write about wine, you can talk about wine, and you can use big words and phrases like “cloying” or “tightly-wound tannins.” One PhD is good enough for me, but you can even get a PhD in the study of wine and vinification, a field called oenology, by taking up a rigorous course of study in well-known programs such as those at the University of Bordeaux or the University of California at Davis, who hosts international conferences like Terroir ’06. But, to me, good wine is like good music – reading and writing about it is secondary to actually enjoying it! The most important purpose of wine in the service of humanity is that it be enjoyed with people you love, in the context of a warmly-shared experience, hopefully in a beautiful setting and with a fine meal or something as simple as bread and a few good cheeses.

I have yet to truly grasp the wonder of distilled fermented beverages: Scotch whiskies, bourbons…well, okay, maybe gin in the heat that is crushing us currently in the Northern hemisphere, and that only because gin is essentially a distilled extract of a number of wild herbs and trees. In winter in front of a roaring fire, I am known to enjoy a group of wines called port, a beverage halfway between a wine and distilled spirit (although still technically called a wine) that is made by stopping the fermentation prematurely by the addition of sherry to kill off the yeast and preserve some of the sugar.

Central to all of these processes is the mystery of the budding yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an amazing unicellular organism that has evolved to produce ethyl alcohol environments rich in sugar to compete for resources against other microorganisms. However, one shouldn’t overlook the contributions of a number of bacteria, many in the genus Lactobacillus, whose lactic acids contribute to the flavor of some beers, like Belgian lambics, or the softening of malic acid into lactic acid characteristic of California chardonnays. My favorite example of a role for bacteria in winemaking, however, occurs out in the vineyard with grapes used for wines like French Sauternes or German auslese, beerenauslese, etc. where grapes are left on the vine to be attacked by “nobel rot” (Botrytis cinerea) leaving raisiny grapes giving rise to heavily concentrated, sweet or semi-sweet wines that are among the most valued commodities of the last 200 years or so.

So, yes, we’ll talk here about the science behind fermentable beverages, but only to celebrate the plants and microorganisms central to their synthesis and enrich our understanding of their beneficial role in humanity throughout recorded history.

Where it all started – an invocation to my wine mentor, Wade Tyler
My graduate school training at the University of Florida in Gainesville in the mid- to late 1980s was central to my identity as a scientist as I was so fortunate to train in the laboratory together with some outstanding MDs, experiences which today give me a somewhat uncommon appreciation and respect for the laboratory prowess of my clinical colleagues that is often lacking among my basic science compatriots.

While at Florida, graduate students had the option of gaining teaching experience, but not simply as a teaching assistant for a large laboratory section. In our pharmacology department in the medical school, faculty members were responsible for teaching pharmacology to students in the college of pharmacy. To entice graduate students to take advantage of this “learning and career development opportunity,” our chairman and graduate advisor offered us graduate students additional compensation in the form of $50 (USD) gift certificates redeemable at The Wine and Cheese Gallery, a wine shop with an accompanying bistro (called Panache) near the intersection of University Avenue and Main Street in Gainesville. Still owned by two knowledgable and down-to-earth fellows, Wade Tyler and Bunky Mastin, The Wine and Cheese Gallery offered us young, budding professionals an option to Gainesville’s well-known party scene of $2 pitchers of beer, jello shots, the search for the true “Gainesville Green” cultivar of Cannabis sativa, and the subversive, nocturnal pursuit of Psilocybe cubensis growing in cow pastures across North Florida. So, I gave a lot of lectures…and bought a lot of wine for a graduate student, purely in the spirit of self-education, of course. In a separate post, I will hold forth on how those experiences (the teaching, not the wine drinking) told me I was meant to be a seek a faculty position with a substantial educational component.

I consider Wade Tyler as important as my dissertation mentor in molding who I am today. The University of Florida student union ran a series of what were then called “leisure courses” in the evenings, ranging from ceramics and performing arts courses to wine appreciation. The latter is where Wade became my other mentor. Wade ran a fabulous, participatory wine appreciation course that I found so enriching that I took it twice before leaving town for my postdoctoral fellowship. Wade is clearly an expert beyond description from three decades in the business and traveling the world tasting the best wines, beers, and cheeses. But his approach to us, mostly undergraduates and graduate students, was that wine was a beverage meant to be understood and appreciated by all, no matter what one’s social or educational class.

Wade’s expressed goal in our class was that we were develop a taste for what we liked in wines, regardless of what was written about them or what the hot trends were. If we came to his class liking, say, Beringer White Zinfandel and left his experience still liking Beringer White Zinfandel, then that was cool with him, so long as we at least offered ourselves open-minded exposure to red and white, still and carbonated wines from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, among other countries.

The most important lesson I learned as a poor graduate student was that price bore no direct relationship to wine quality. In addition to the leisure courses at UF, Wade and Bunky also ran some tastings at their bistro and I recall very fondly a blind tasting (where the identity of wines and their prices are kept secret until the end of the tasting) of 1985 Bordeaux. (Tasting wine of all the same vintage year is called a “horizontal tasting”; in contract, tasting many years of wines from a single producer or vineyard is called a “vertical tasting.”)

For the entry price of $15, we spent an evening tasting wines priced from $9 to $130; our group conclusions were that a then-$35 bottle of Chateau Lynch-Bages was #1, a $103 bottle of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was #2, but #3 was a $13 bottle of a little known Chateau de Marbuzet (not the better-known, and more expensive, Chateau Haut-Marbuzet). It blew me away that even with a graduate student stipend, I could afford a wine like Chateau de Marbuzet that tasted nearly of the quality of wines three to eight times more expensive.

Today, I make a little more than my $6,600 per year graduate stipend then, but the search for great wines under $15, and especially those under $10, remains one of my favorite hobbies.

There are many other lessons Wade taught me, but foremost was to trust my own taste, or palate as the wine writers call it. Fortunately, I was mindful enough at the time to appreciate what he had done for me and I made a special trip to The Wine and Cheese Gallery in my harried rush to pack, clear out my apartment, and get out of town for my postdoctoral fellowship awaiting out West. What I recall saying to him was something to the effect that I was grateful that he had opened my eyes to such a life-enriching experience that I was certain it would stay with me for the rest of my life. And like my scientific training, the objective and humble appreciation of wine that he and Bunky helped instill in me was something I could share with my friends and students for decades to come. In my three-dimensional life, I continue to do this enthusiastically and actively seek scientific collaborators who also share my enthusiasm.

So, beginning next week, I will continue this tradition and pass it forward by identifying and recommending some wines (and beers wherever necessary) that can be enjoyed on a graduate student’s budget. The readership of Terra Sigillata is currently running about 75% American, with 5% from Canada, 10% from the UK and the rest of Europe, another 5% from Australia and New Zealand, and the remaining 5% from Central and Eastern Asia and South America. There is no way that I can recommend wines that will be widely available in all of these locations. But I will try to strike a middle ground by buying my own wines at our local Whole Foods store since its offerings are quite standard across North America and because they specialize in superb values from around the world that meet my criteria of costing less than $15 and, more often, less than $10. Yes, we will miss out on special, low production wineries producing mindblowing wines of reasonable cost, but I’ll be sure to publicize some of these “secrets” as I learn about them.

I am still a student, though, and I am still learning. So, I welcome any suggestions from my colleagues and readers as we move forward with our Friday fun.

But, dude, you can’t just leave us hanging until next week…
Ahh, you’re right, I can’t just leave you with no recommendation at all. After all this talk of wine, I’m ready to open a bottle in the 93 F heat and 85% humidity bearing down on my soul here in my neck o’ the woods (thought not as bad as Prof John Lynch’s 117 F today in Phoenix). So, I’d like to recommend a rose from Provence that here costs $9.99 at our Whole Foods(and on sale for $8.99 this week!). It’s a 2005 Domaine Houchart Cote du Provence from the Jerome Quiot family (www.jeromequiot.com). If you get a bottle this weekend, come back to the comment thread here and let me know what you think. It’s a really beautiful and pleasing looking bottle with or without the wine; I saved our last one to keep in our guest bathroom because it adds a really nice touch with just a couple of cut flowers sitting in it.

But what about the contents of the bottle? Unlike many American “blush” wines made to retain high sugar levels to cover up for inferior grapes leftover from over abundant harvests, a new style of rose or lightly-crushed wines with minimal to no residual sugar are offering a fun summer drinking experience from around the world without the boredom of American chardonnays. Many of these wines are made from red grapes, which give them a character and complexity not found in many white wines, even good summer-drinking Pinot Grigios or Gruner Veltliners.

So how does that rose vs. red wine thing work? When most red grapes are initially crushed to release the sugars to the yeast, the must (the fermenting mixture of crushed grapes) retains a whitish, almost boogery color (remember, I said that I am not a wine writer) for the first day or so until the increasing alcohol begins to extract the red pigments from the grape skins. The longer the “skin contact” the more of these pigments and flavors come out of the grapes and into the developing wine. (This is where, over a couple glasses of this winner, you can tell your sweetheart that your relationship will grow in complexity, just like a fine red wine, but all that is needed is more skin contact.) This is why you will sometimes read on a champagne label that it is made from red pinot noir grapes and then do a double-take when you see the champagne is the color of straw, just like a white wine.

For those keeping notes on this particular offering, the Domaine Houchart also gains its complexity from being everything plus the kitchen sink, pretty amazing for a $10 wine. It is made from 35% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 20% Cinsault, 10% Cabernet Sauvingnon, 5% Mourvedre, and that mysterious 5% “other grapes.” With these grapes all grown in the south of France in Aix-en-Provence you can almost picture the view of the vineyards at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire when you close your eyes and take the next sip. Or, you can just look at the gorgeous pink color, inhale the floral aromas of France, drink it down and say, “more, please.” The wine experience should be what you want from it.

So, enjoy the fruits of modest skin contact this weekend, drop some comments about your experience with the wine (good or bad – heck, I’m used to reading the anonymous review of my NIH grant applications), and c’mon back next Friday for some more recommendations.

Comments

  1. #1 John Lynch
    July 21, 2006

    Nice post!

    Had some wonderful wines – even roses, which I don’t normally like – while in Paris a few weeks back. Ah, the memories. Je ne regrette rien!

    A recommendation – try Foris’ 2003 Pinot Noir (http://www.foriswine.com/release.html – $18 at Whole Foods). Very worthwhile.

  2. #2 John Lynch
    July 21, 2006

    Ah, and it’s no longer 117 here. Just 106 at 8 in the evening. So I’m having a fine IPA :)

  3. #3 Doc Bushwell
    July 22, 2006

    I’m tickled by the incentives given to you as a T.A. at the University of Florida. One of my closest friends received his undergrad degree in chemistry at Gainesville and your description of the party scene rings true from his accounts. Sigh. I wish I had a gift certificate for the Memorial Union Terrace during my single stint as a T.A. for a lab course at the UW-Mad School of Pharmacy.

    Anyway. thanks for the most excellent introduction, Abel, and I’m looking forward to the series. Next time you’re up in my neck of the central Jersey woods, be sure to let me know. My favorite watering hole has a nice and interesting selection of wines by the glass so we can engage in some qualitative analysis.

  4. #4 anjou
    July 22, 2006

    My favorite wino has delighted and suprised folks who are used to pink Calif Zins with roses from the south of France!! They are wonderful and we will look for your recommendation.

    hmm, wouldnt ya know– he was one of the few who knew right away that Id taken my screen name, Anjou, from a wine region in France, rather than from the pear.

  5. #5 Shelley Batts
    July 23, 2006

    Great post, I’m gonna try that this weekend. :)

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