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Room to Breathe

Author: Bonnie Allen
April, 2009 Issue


NorthBay biz takes a look at the ever-evolving—and always exciting—world of wine gadgetry.

 

When people started drinking wine 6,000 years ago, it was a hit-or-miss concoction of grape juice and whatever yeast took up residence. No one seemed able to predict whether the finished product would make them weep for joy or just make their eyes water.

It was a revelation when someone figured out that you could take the harsh edge off a wine by pouring it into an open vessel where the air could get to it. Thus was born the decanter, which remained the wine gadget of choice for centuries. Renaissance Italian glassmakers added the long, slender neck and wide base.

Early vintners also realized that too much air was harmful to the wine. Before the arrival of the cork, they sealed containers with clay, resin or wooden stoppers wrapped in oiled rags—with varying success that prompted people to drink their wine young.

Today, the same problems of getting air into the wine—and keeping it out—continue to dominate the world of wine gadgetry, especially since our hurried lifestyle often doesn’t lend itself to the leisurely task of letting an open bottle of wine aerate for a couple of hours before consumption. In recent years, sales of wine aeration devices have jumped, according to Elliot Mackey, editor and publisher at the San Francisco Wine Appreciation Guild.

Is aeration necessary?

Experts disagree on how wine aeration, or breathing, works. Some say oxygen tames the harsh tannins of a very young wine. Others—such as Andrew Waterhouse, a professor of wine chemistry at UC Davis and a specialist in oxidation reactions and phenolic substances (including tannins)—say the only thing ordinary air can do is neutralize—or perhaps just waft away—the noticeable sulfur compounds in a freshly opened bottle. Some say aeration, other than swirling in the glass, is a waste of time or downright harmful to the wine; other purists believe the only sound way to aerate a wine is to pour it into a decanter and wait a few hours.

Recently, there’s been a renewed interest in decanting, as more people become aware of the potential of aeration to soften a young wine. High-end decanters often feature a wide bowl tapering to a narrow pour spout. The wine should fill up the decanter to its widest point, so that a large surface area of wine is exposed to air.

But aeration isn’t simply a matter of putting any old wine into a decanter. Different wines require different amounts of aeration based on amounts of tannin, fining and filtering; hence red wines are more likely to benefit from aeration. A young, barrel fermented, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon generally needs more breathing time than a young Pinot Noir or a more mature Cabernet. A well-aged wine needs comparatively little time to breathe, and a 20- or 30-year-old wine can even lose character if it’s allowed to breathe more than a few minutes. For best results, sample the wine during the breathing process, so you can drink it at its peak. Most wine experts agree that it’s a waste of effort to try to let the wine breathe in the bottle. The opening is just too small.

No time to breathe

So what do you do if unexpected company arrives and the wine is still in the bottle? Suppose it’s an expensive wine, and you want to show off the label. Here’s where the fun begins. From special funnels and pouring spouts to magnets and alloys you dip into the wine, there’s no end to gadgets—ranging in price from $10 to four figures for hand-crafted art objects—to quickly aerate the wine during its trip from the bottle into your glass. Let’s start with funnels.

Wine funnels have been around for some 300 years, and collectors prize the antique ones. Many old funnels incorporate helical designs or bumps that break up the flow of the wine as it passes through them. The latest high-tech funnels are constructed to draw air into the wine through holes as the wine passes through a sort of funnel within a funnel. One such device is the Vinturi out of Carlsbad, Calif.

“People are fascinated by them,” says John Manning from the Dry Creek Vineyards tasting room, “and there’s a discernible, side-by-side distinction between wines that are and aren’t run through the aerator.” Manning uses the Vinturi to show off Dry Creek’s Bordeaux-style wines.

Manning confesses to having been a skeptic who was won over after he tried the Vinturi. “I found the wine was enhanced as though it had been decanted for an hour or more, and I was pretty impressed. It’s a good tool to sell wine as well as sell the device.”

He describes the Vinturi as “like a small carburetor with two holes on the side that draw air in as you pour through the opening at the top.”

The Vinturi is the best known of a variety of similar devices, perhaps because about a year ago, the company gave them out by the dozen to wineries to try in their tasting rooms. They were a hit with wine staff and customers. Dry Creek ordered a case of them with the Dry Creek logo on them, and they’ve become a popular item in the tasting room. You’ll find the Vinturi at wineries and some retail stores for about $50.

Another way to add air is through an assortment of stoppers and pouring spouts that break up the droplets of wine or add spin to them as they come out of the bottle. Or you can decant your wine “on the fly” with mini-decanters, such as the Soiree, which attach directly to the bottle so wine fills a cavity that overflows into the wine glass, putting on quite a show.

Any device that causes the wine to splash around a little before it reaches its destination in the glass tends to add air to the mix. So devices ranging from ribbed glass or pewter balls to glass helixes to artistic—and pricey—vine or animal shapes are available for you to place over a glass or in the mouth of a decanter.

Not high-tech enough for you? Try the PEK Rouge 02 Electronic Wine Breather. This battery-operated wand bubbles air through the wine bottle to reduce breathing time, according to its manufacturer, “from one hour down to one minute.” For those who like to support local products, PEK Wine Preservation Systems is based in Windsor.

Glassware that breathes

What about further aeration in the glass? That’s what swirling is for, say wine traditionalists. But it would be un-American not to try to improve on tradition. Or perhaps un-European. A German glass company, Eisch Glass Works, has developed a type of glass that, it claims, can breathe—sort of like Gor-Tex for the well-dressed vintage. The breathable glass has passed numerous taste tests and has found favor at the prestigious French Laundry restaurant in Yountville.

Another type of aerating wine glass, called the Vino2, has a dent in its side—a sort of dimple that causes the wine to splash around more when it’s swirled.

Adventures in gadgetry

Alan Arnopole, wine salesman at Peju Province Winery in Rutherford, was recently surprised when a man pulled out a small metal device and dipped it into the wine he was tasting. “It was a little metal strip, and it changed the wine, it opened up. It was astonishing. Whatever that little thing did, it really did the job.”

Most likely it was the Clef Du Vin, an alloy of copper, silver and gold (secret formula, of course), that’s supposed to instantly mellow a wine. The alloy, attached to a folding stainless steel holder you can put on a keychain, is calibrated to provide one year of aging with each second in the wine. There’s no question that this French gadget does something, but debate continues over whether it actually improves the wine. Some experimenters swear by it, while others feel the device softens the tannins somewhat but muddies up the aromas.

The Clef is meant to determine how much aging a wine requires, says its creators. By dipping the Clef into the wine repeatedly, the theory goes, you can plot out how many years the wine will take to reach—and surpass—its peak, so you’ll know the right time to open the wine.

Of Wine Wands and magnets

Straying further into the mystical realm is the Wine Wand, developed by watchmaker and “leader in mind-body wellness using natural frequency-based technologies in luxury products,” Philip Stein.

“The Wine Wand,” says the Philip Stein website, “has been created to accelerate the aerating process of wine by replicating the natural frequencies of air and oxygen, and infusing them into the wine.”

Results vary by experimenter, some swearing by it and others finding no effect at all. In a similar category are coasters—and, in some cases, coasters with matching stoppers—that claim to improve wine with vibrations.

And then there are the magnets, such as the Wine Clip, a magnetic collar, and the BevWizard, a pouring spout that combines aeration and magnetism.

Magnets and wine go back to at least 1885, when Dr. Edwin J. Fraser, a San Francisco physician, patented the “Fraser process” of subjecting wine to an electromagnetic field, hoping to build a wine empire with his instantly aged wines. Scientists are skeptical about wine magnets, but both sites feature testimonials by happy customers.

According to Wine Clip marketing copy, “In wine, it’s believed that the large, polymerized tannins that normally result in a high degree of astringency are broken up or otherwise affected, resulting in a less astringent, ‘softer’ flavor.”

BevWizard makes the opposite claim: tannins become softer and more mellow when they bind together to form larger molecules, according to company partner and master of wine Patrick Farrell. Farrell provides a “Costs and Value” assessment of the BevWizard, which retails for $30. Using the BevWizard, he explains, will effectively turn a “2-Buck Chuck” into a “6-Buck Chuck.” “Thus, after seven or eight bottles of 2-Buck Chuck, the device is ‘free.’”

Preserving wine

Aeration, as we said earlier, is only half the challenge of keeping your wine drinkable. The other half is keeping further air out of the wine after it reaches its peak—that is to say, wine preservation. It’s likely to be the next big trend in wine accessories, says Mackey. Simple devices like the Vacu Vin use a manual pump to suck air out of a bottle. The problem with them, says Mackey, is you can’t apply enough force manually to truly create a vacuum. The ReServe system relies on a cartridge of inert Argon gas, which it pumps into the bottle to displace the air. You can buy the ReServe at Dean and DeLuca in St. Helena. In addition, PEK Wine Preservation Systems offers an enclosed Argon suffused system.

The Wine Saver Home provides a centralized Argon source for several bottles, each with a combination tube and pump spout, so no air is introduced when the wine is poured.

Sound complicated? Relief is on the way in the form of a newly patented Australian device called the Wine Preserva. Using a specially designed inserter, you place a disposable plastic disc inside the bottle, where it settles over the wine, keeping air from the surface. The disc remains in place until the wine is finished, when it can be recycled along with the bottle.

 

Gadgets at a glance


Aroma enhancers

A clingy plastic disk called Vino Chapeau that rests on top of the wine glass, letting you swirl vigorously without spilling the wine or getting it all over your hands. It also lets the volatile aromas develop in the glass for a few seconds before you smell the wine. www.vinochapeau.com

Wine chillers

These pouring spouts are designed to be stored in the freezer. For a glass of chilled wine, just pour through the frozen spout. A few different companies produce such tools. One is the Ravi Wine Chiller, made by a Canadian company. http://chillyourwine.com

Palate cleansers

San Tasti is a lightly carbonated beverage that’s designed to cleanse the palate between wines, letting you follow a heavy red with a delicate white, if you want to. It’s found at many local wineries and at the Oakville Grocery in Oakville and Healdsburg. http://santasti.com

Wine thermometers
The most interesting are the ones that can tell you the wine’s temperature before you open it, such as the VinTemp. www.vintemp.com

Seasoning
Made locally by Napa Seasoning Company, Vignon is designed to make food taste extra good with wine. Its website offers a video (if somewhat inaudible) endorsement by John Ash. Great for seasoning vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus, and other foods that are difficult to pair with wine.
www.napaseasoning.com

Unbreakable glassware

Do you have a frequent guest who tends to get overly exuberant when drinking? The solution: unbreakable wine glasses made of polycarbonate, the same material that toughens eyeglasses, available at Target. Kwarx is the name of a high-tech glass material from Mikasa that is virtually indestructible.

Hands-free wine drinking
Go to MobileGrape.com and order a wine glass lanyard. It holds the wine securely around your neck so you can make dramatic hand gestures without baptizing anybody.



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