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02.10.2006

Let a Computer Chip Do The Sniffing For You

chip_glass.jpgWhile wine geeks and snobs alike enjoy the ritual of wine presentation at a restaurant -- the presentation of the bottle, the presentation of the cork, the small pour, the swirl and sniff -- many amateurs or budding wine enthusiasts are intimidated by all aspects of buying wine in a restaurant. I remember when I first started ordering wine out to dinner. It was a scary proposition, especially the part where I was supposed to determine whether the wine was any good or not. Like most neophyte wine consumers, there was a time that I thought the wine was being poured for me at tableside to see if I LIKED it or not. I soon learned the folly of my ways, but it didn't make life any easier for me as a young wine consumer. How the heck was I supposed to know whether the wine was bad or not? I didn't know the first thing about wine faults.

In reality, determining whether a wine is faulty can be difficult for even the most experienced connoisseurs. Some people are lucky (?) enough to have an extreme sensitivity to TCA, or cork taint, that they don't even have to put their nose in the glass. Greg, who occasionally posts comments here, is one of those people. Whenever we're at a wine tasting together, he's our canary in the coal mine of cork. Jim Laube, a critic at the Wine Spectator, is also rumored to be exceptionally sensitive.

Unfortunately, I'm a bit less sensitive than I would like to be. I'm gradually teaching myself to become better, but I don't think I'll ever get to the point where I can spot it without fail. So what's you're average consumer to do?

Well, it looks like we just have to wait a little. Silicon Valley is coming to the rescue again.

Several new technologies are converging to make it possible to design computer chips that can instantly and reliably sense faults in wine. Soon restaurants and early adopting consumers alike will have (relatively) cheap sensors that can detect any manner of problems in a wine, from oxidation to volatile acidity, to hydrogen sulfide, to cork taint.

Recent advances in chip technology are making it possible to make circuits from carbon compounds rather than from silicon. These carbon compounds have two huge advantages: 1) they can be activated by, or react to, a myriad of different environmental stimuli, such as different chemical compounds in liquid or gas and 2) they can be printed onto thin plastic sheets using a technology based on inkjet printing. This latter quality makes them very cheap to manufacture and makes it possible to use multiple compounds layered on top of each other, so that a chip might be able to be extremely multi-function in its sensing capability.

I don't pretend to fully understand the technology, but it's very exciting to think that it may be possible to drastically reduce the number of corked wines that get served undetected at restaurants and at home. Of course, we'll still want to smell the wine, but mostly because it smells good.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.