Thursday, September 19, 2013

Did any wine writer actually read the PNAS TCA article?

So, the buzz in the wine writing world the past few days has been the "surprising new research" that suggested 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole (TCA) doesn't actually smell like anything, let alone musty. The authors of the acclaimed study suggested that their data show TCA actually suppresses odors. Is that really new news? If you actually read the article (I conducted the arduous Google search for you...), you might come to a different conclusion than some of the people writing about the article.

I can't be the only person that knows low levels of TCA will kill a wine’s aroma and flavor. In fact, I know I'm not as Ray Isle wrote the last eleven words of the previous sentence over four years ago in Food & Wine. Yet, over the last couple days, Steve Heimoff, Wine Spectator and Decanter all wrote about the research seemingly without actually reading the paper.

If you read the article with a critical eye (I know, that's a pain to do sometimes...) you will see two things that should make you question all the lazy pundits. First, the study was conducted on newts (Cynops pyrrhogaster), not humans (Homo sapiens). They clearly stated, "functional olfactory receptor genes is different between amphibians and mammals, so we cannot rule out the expression of receptors with very high TCA sensitivity in humans." Hmmm. That changes the conclusion a bit. Human olfactory receptors could interact with TCA differently than those of newts! Additionally, the authors stated that, "we cannot assume that we surveyed all possible olfactory receptors in the newt." Might there be other olfactory receptors that transduct musty odors? Humans have around 400 functional genes coding for olfactory receptors. The picture just got a bit more complicated...

[note: the following paragraph was re-added after my original post was published to better reflect the full content of the PNAS study]

The authors did in fact conduct an experiment on on human perception of TCA (and TBA) in wine. They investigated the concentration levels at which "the reduction of original odor and the extrinsic musty smell from TCA were discriminated." So, in fact, the authors were able to show that humans do sense musty odors in wine caused by TCA and TBA. The levels varied person to person and the musty odor was recognizable in red wine at a lower concentration than white wine. So why the media blitz about an article that basically supports what we all knew about TCA? I know PNAS isn't hoping to increase its advertising levels! [end revision]

I don't have any answers to the question of why olfactory receptor cells removed from a decapitated newt did not trigger a musty odor, but I think the idea that this research is somehow earth-shattering is a bit hyperbolic. It is interesting to know how TCA (and don't forget the often neglected 2,4,6-tribromoanisole, or TBA) interacts with neurons, but to borrow something I saw in a tweet from my chemical engineering buddy Tom Mansell

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The beauty of, and problem with, the wine industry today...

Last week, I attended the first-ever portfolio tasting for Synergy Fine Wines. 350 different wines, beers, spirits and sakes were hopefully poured for Denver's restaurant and retail buyers to taste and buy. It was nice to see the guys from Ruby Trust Cellars pouring their 2011 wines. With only a handful of Colorado wineries represented by distributors, it's a big deal to see one at an event like this. I was only at the tasting for about an hour and I spent most of that time walking around and randomly trying wines; a few Burgundies, some Californian wines, a couple from Italy  and of course a handful of Spanish wines. I wasn't surprised to see that the lone Slovenia ribolla gialla was thoroughly ravaged by the flock of sommeliers at the venue (what do you call a group of sommeliers?).

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Maybe Steve Heimoff was right (I might have lost my mind...)

After giving it a week of thought, I'm going to argue something with which, on the surface, I adamantly disagree. Last week, my digital buddy, Steve Heimoff, wrote a blog post titled, "Saying Goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing." His thesis was that with the rise of the "Age of Digital Information" (i.e., wine blogs) wine writers are finding it more and more difficult to earn a living writing about wine. He claims that the world of wine writing is no longer the utopia it was when he got into this profession and made a name for himself (I'd argue he actually has made his name via his blog and not as the California Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine). David White penned a great response to Steve's assertions and claimed that things are actually getting better in the world of wine writing. I wholeheartedly agree with David, but I want to take a deeper look into Steve's post.

Monday, September 9, 2013

John Madden the wine critic...

Football season is finally upon us. For many of you (including me), yesterday was spent parked in front of the TV with a beer in hand. The entire state of Colorado is bursting with anticipation for a Super Bowl run after Peyton Manning and the Broncos thrashed the defending champions on Thursday. However, I grew up in Wisconsin so naturally I'm a Green Bay Packers fan. In fact, ever since 1998 I have actively rooted against the Broncos. If the Broncos aren't going to finish 0-16 this year, I'd like nothing more than to see the Packers beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl in New York. I'd be in a better mood today had the Packers beaten the 49ers, but thinking about a Green Bay Super Bowl victory over the Broncos keeps me smiling.

You may be wondering what football has to do with wine. Bear with me as I get there. Along with the beginning of the NFL season, perhaps the most popular sports video game, Madden 25, was released recently. In the game, every single player is given a numerical rating - from 1 to 100. Sound familiar to wine yet? Thinking about how and why human beings are given such subjective ratings got me thinking about how the video game is like the wine review game. Is Calvin Johnson equivalent to a bottle of 2009 Château Latour (WS 99)? Is Anquan Boldin like a bottle of 2007 Canyon Wind Cellars IV (WS 88)? Which bottle of red blend or which receiver would you rather have had yesterday?