Terra Sigillata

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Arikia Millikan, then-Intern at ScienceBlogs.com (now gainfully employed Ex-Intern), demonstrates her facility in liveblogging the comparison between two pinot noirs.

So why has it taken me exactly 11 weeks to write this post? I think it’s because once we post it, I have to let go of how awesome this event was. But, this post has been sitting in my queue for way too long. So, now, I must finally tell all regular readers about our proposed live winetasting on 16 January at ScienceOnline’09.


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As you may know, about 240 science bloggers and associated miscreants gathered in Research Triangle Park, NC, in mid-January to discuss all things about communicating science online. On the opening night of the conference, the Duke University Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) group sponsored a fantastic talk by journalist, Rebecca Skloot, author of the upcoming book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and blogger at Culture Dish.


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In the hour prior to Rebecca’s talk, I had gathered a couple dozen folks who signed up in advance to join me to compare four really nice wines, selected for the occasion by Craig Heffley (Grand Poobah Wine Swami), co-owner of Wine Authorities, an internationally-recognized Durham, NC, wine merchant and community resource and gathering place.

With his business partner, Seth Gross, away in Austria and Germany on a wine scouting trip (which he blogged), Craig was still generous enough to spend about an hour-and-a-half with me at the store coming up with these selections for The Friday Fermentable Live! The group of 20-25 was comprised of first-time wine tasters and experienced enthusiasts, local Bull City folk and guests from Berlin, Helsinki, and Toronto, youngsters of 22 and others of us, uh, older than 22.

I’ve gotta hand it to Craig for recognizing the wide variety of folks we were trying to please. After much deliberation, we concurred on having a demonstration of Old World and New World wines from the same grape and then show off a nice American red comparison.

Craig suggested a fine American chardonnay to compare with a French white Burgundy:

2005 Lynmar Estate Chardonnay (Russian River Valley, CA) – $33.99
2005 Eric de Suremain, Rully 1er Cru Blanc (Burgundy, France) – $27.99

For the American red, Craig suggested we compare a California pinot noir with that of Oregon, where pinot is doing best in the States.

2007 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills, CA) – $37.99
2006 Lemelson Pinot Noir, Thea’s Selection (Willamette Valley, Oregon) – $36.99

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Yes, yes, I know that these price points are well outside my normally stated goals for postdoc- or grad student-friendly wines but, hell, I was buying and these people are my friends, or at least friends that I hadn’t yet met.

Let it go forth from this time and place: if you come to my town, you get treated well. (PharmMom will remember the late PharmDad saying to my college friends who I’d bring home, “We don’t want you to go home and tell your family you were at the PharmHouse and they didn’t give you enough to eat or drink.”)

Surprisingly, to me at least, I was pretty nervous about hosting a session for out-of-towners on a topic that is not exactly my area of expertise. Yes, yes – I write about wine but I am an enthusiast, not an expert.

To ease my mind, I enlisted a few friends to field test the wines two days prior, but not just with anyone. I was invited to a fantastic, expertly homecooked vegetarian dinner: many thanks to journalists Barry Yeoman and his partner and multitasking genius, Richard Ziglar, for opening their home for dinner and a lovely evening of conversation (and wine!) for me and our aforementioned mutual friend and guest, Ms Rebecca Skloot. I learned that Rebecca was originally from Portland, Oregon, and that the Lemelson Pinot Noir, no surprise, was her favorite.

Just an aside: The world is a very small place – Richard turns out to have been a high school classmate of the PharmGirl. I mention this because such stories and coincidences are best encountered and discussed while enjoying four bottles of killer wine with wonderfully vibrant people. People skilled in telling engaging stories in print are the most amazing people with whom to share stories over dinner and wines. The wines were absolutely phenomenal but let me tell you this: if you ever have a chance to hang out with three incredible journalists and communicators such as Yeoman, Ziglar, and Skloot, do so, posthaste. This evening reminded me of the reason I am a wine enthusiast (not a connoisseur): wine is meant to be shared as a part of rich social experiences and I can’t think of a better group with whom to share such wines.

Until the two dozen folks later that week, of course.

Friday then came. To be honest, I never truly appreciated the work it took to pull off a wine tasting, even a small one such as this. The Sigma Xi Center (host of the entire ScienceOnline’09 activities) works with external caterers so there was no glassware, leaving me to rent wine glasses from Best Rent-All in Durham, where you can rent anything from fine china to backhoes.

When we got to the conference center, I enlisted the help of attendees to gather the wine glasses from the kitchen and bring them to the room (noted by Eva Amsen here). We were met at the loading dock by the wine fairy himself, Craig Heffley, stealthly delivering the last of the shipment for the evening’s post-winetasting reception. There was much genuflecting, kissing of the ring, speaking in tongues, and various chanting to praise our mentor and savior.

I was told by Erica Tsai of the Duke WiSE group that we would be required to have licensed bartender for the tasting and reception. So, I was shocked to learn that our assigned bartender did not have a corkscrew! We were screwed, or so I thought. Thankfully, Pat Campbell and her husband Tom Kibler do not travel anywhere without a corkscrew (my kind of people!) and they went the mile back to their hotel room to retrieve one.

Now, the fun could begin and Tom took the lead in demonstrating his expert technique:

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Scicurious held forth on the concept of “legs”: the characteristic of wine that causes it to remain or ride up on the inside of the glass upon swirling. In many cases, this is due to the viscosity of the wine and its glycerol content. This characteristic is often used as a determinant of a wine’s quality. Sadly, some winemakers now add glycerol to their wines to make them appear higher in quality. Damn chemistry!

The chardonnays gave us a chance to talk about other microorganisms used in the fermentation process besides yeast. The process of malolactic fermentation is often used for chardonnay, usually with Oenococcus oeni or a Lactobacillus spp., to “soften” the wine in converting malic acid (a typical apple flavor) to lactic acid (a smoother, milk/cheese flavor). Together with the vanillin extracted by aging in oak barrels, this approach imparts a creamy flavor to the wine.

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Our colleague, PalMD, who knows everything from the pharmacotherapy of sexually-transmitted diseases to writing about the humanity of being a father and physician, pretty much crystallized and moderated the discussion. Not only does the camera love PalMD, but he is exactly the warm soul in person that you would anticipate from his writing. And even though we moderated a session the next day on pseudonymity and building a reputation in blogging, we still did not spend enough time together.

And here is Prof Janet Stemwedel (aka Dr Free-Ride) demonstrating her focus and dedication to the task at hand, appropriately kneeling at the altar of wine:

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About halfway through, the Ex-Intern, Arikia Millikan (featured at the top of the post), reminded me that I had signed up with ustream.tv to send out live video of the tasting, so caught up was I in the socializing. We did get the session up and were then joined by DrugMonkey, Isis, and Mike Dunford (The Questionable Authority), with GrrlScientist at the controls of the chat board. I have no idea what was said under my username and am glad that the broadcast was not saved to the archives. Next year, I’ll try to be sure to have this working from the start and announce the wines in advance so that all of you could join us.

There is obviously much more to write but I have the good fortune of conducting this winetasting with fellow bloggers. So, many thanks to all who joined us and blogged about our Friday evening:

Adventures in Ethics and Science – Janet Stemwedel – ScienceOnline’09: Live-blogging a Friday Fermentable wine tasting

björn.brembs.blog – Björn Brembs – ScienceOnline09: FridayFermentable liveblogging wine tasting

Deep Thoughts and Silliness – Bob O’Hara – ScienceOnline09: Live-blogging the wine tasting

Expression Patterns – Eva Amsen – Friday Fermentable Liveblog

Fairer Science – Pat Campbell – First wines

Lecturer Notes – Propter Doc – The Friday Fermentable

Sciencewomen – Sciencewoman – Friday night at ScienceOnline

the path forward – leigh – leigh is a busy, busy bee

Thesis – with Children – acmegirl – Liveblogging – with Wine

For those of you interested in more economically approachable wines, Craig also selected the two offerings served for the Duke WiSE reception before Rebecca’s talk, a 2007 Valdesil Godello “Montenovo” (Valdeoras, Spain – $11.99) and a 2007 Altosur Malbec (Tupungato, Mendoza, Argentina – $9.99). Hitting a varied group of nearly 300 attendees for Rebecca’s talk, Craig suggested the Godello not only because it is my new favorite white grape, but because it exhibits the best of many styles without being pigeonholed – a clean balance of the mineral soils of northwestern Spain with white peach and pear flavors. Craig and Seth have also had the Altosur Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon on their Enomatic and I’m hardpressed to find another $10 bottle of this quality and complexity. Craig suggested we offer the Malbec because, “You never hear anyone say they hate Malbec.” Good enough for me.

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Finally, for the Saturday night banquet I arranged at the Radisson RTP, headquarters hotel for the conference, I had an ethical responsibility to be sure our guests were not subjected to the hotel house wine, Trinity Oaks, insipid corporate plonk for which they charged $20/bottle. (In contrast, the food was superb and the hotel staff amazingly accommodating to our guests.). Even with the hotel’s $10 corkage fee, Craig helped me bring in two lovely $10 offerings that were far superior for the same $20 total:

2008 Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch, South Africa)

2006 Domaine Pinchinat, Venus de Pinchinat Rouge (Provence, France)

I was particularly pleased with these two, especially after the German, Swedish, and M.D. Anderson-trained scientist, Björn Brembs, stopped me the next day to tell me that he and his ladyfriend enjoyed both – high praise from a globetrotting scientist who hails from the only European city where I’ve been invited to speak (Würzburg, Germany) and one of my favorite wine appellations, Franconia.

Anyway, if there is a ScienceOnline’10, I hope to host another wine tasting if for nothing else than to spend some fun time with my valued colleagues, readers, colleagues who have become readers, and readers who have become colleagues.



Photo credits:

Abel: Arikia Millikan, PalMD, computer screen

Eva Amsen: Janet Stemwedel

Alex K Ley: Tom Kibler, Radisson dinner
In fact, Alex has the best collection of photographs from the entire weekend, including several more from the tasting and a superb shot of Rebecca after her talk

Comments

  1. #1 Salamanzar
    April 3, 2009

    Great work here sir. Glad you enjoyed the wines and thank you for the kind words.

  2. #2 ScienceWoman
    April 3, 2009

    It was a lovely, lovely evening. Thanks so much for hosting it.

  3. #3 leigh
    April 3, 2009

    thank you for all the work you put into arranging the wine tasting! even though i know very little about wine, i had a lovely time, and it was great to meet you. (even if maybe it wasn’t the first time we’ve met… and i just don’t remember the first time.) i can’t believe it’s been that long ago already- how the time flies!

  4. #4 Skloot
    April 3, 2009

    Awh. What a great post! It was all so much fun. I still dream of that Lemelson Pinot Noir sometimes, and the Friday night malbec was really great for that price! Thanks for all the hard work you put into this — it was all such a treat.

    And PS: What do you mean IF there’s a ScienceOnline10?!

  5. #5 Arikia (The ex-tern)
    April 3, 2009

    Abel, I absolutely adore this post!! It brings back all the wonderful memories of Sci09 and the lovely Friday Fermentable. Thank you so much for hosting this and for inviting me, I had a blast!

    :)

  6. #6 Pat
    April 5, 2009

    Ah it was a great time. We’ve have had the Lemelson Pinot Noir since then and continue to think it wonderful. We also found that the New Zealand Oyster Bay Pinor Noir, while not as good, is definitely acceptable and a lot cheaper.

    May we sign up now for the next tasting?

    Pat

    PS love the picture of Tom; the man does know how to swirl a glass of red. One quick correction– I’m Campbell; he’s Kibler.

  7. #7 Isis the Scientist
    April 6, 2009

    This was so, so much fun to join in remotely. I can’t wait to do it in person next year.

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