The bottle as beaker

A New York vintner discusses the role of science in winemaking

By | Posted December 28, 2010
Posted in: Life Science, Video
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Dave Breeden discusses the art and science of winemaking from Scienceline on Vimeo.

Video by Stephanie Warren and Ritchie King

The bottle as beaker

by Stephanie Warren

Dave Breeden pops a ripe cabernet sauvignon grape into his mouth. A look of complete absorption fills his face as he chews. “It’s sweet,” he says. “The seeds are crunchy and ripe. There’s nothing green, no bell pepper flavors.” He looks up from the vines, pleased. “These are ready to go.” On this windblown, brightly sunny October day, it’s time to harvest the grapes. Then they’re off to the crusher-destemmer, the fermenter, the barrel, the bottle, and at long last, the glass. Breeden will watch over them through each step of the process, sniffing, swirling, sipping and spitting what starts out as a muddle of sugars, acids, and other chemical compounds and eventually becomes that magical beverage humans have revered for nearly seven thousand years: wine.

Breeden, 46, is the head vintner at Sheldrake Point Winery in the Finger Lakes area of New York state. He is an endearing mix of bohemian and geek: tall and lanky, he sports glasses and a long graying ponytail, a navy button-up and several silver rings. The rings emphasize his exceptionally long fingers, which he uses to punctuate his every passionate sentence. They fly around him in a blur: now stabbing the air as he denigrates the overripe, jammy flavors of California cabernet sauvignons, now twisted tightly together as talks with a sort of sheepish pride about Sheldrake’s numerous awards.

As he sips Sheldrake’s most recent medal-winner, the 2008 Late Harvest Riesling—it had won the title “Best Sweet Riesling in the World” at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge in Australia just two days earlier—Breeden talks about his winemaking philosophy, which he attributes mostly to fellow vintner Randall Graham in Santa Cruz, California. “I think the very best wines are about where they come from,” he says. “They express the taste of the area.”

Breeden’s area is a landscape of verdant hillsides covered in orderly rows of grapevines that slope gently down to sparkling blue Cayuga Lake. In the French tradition, a rosebush is planted at the end of each row of vines. And those vines produce wines especially suited to the cold climate of upstate New York: cabernet francs, rieslings and gewürztraminers, to name a few. All told, Sheldrake makes about 15 different kinds of wine each year.

The ideal of making “wines of place” guides Breeden though each step of the process, from choosing the perfect moment to harvest to picking the right yeast strain. “He’s got this ongoing curiosity about wine, and he’s always thinking about how to change his approach to make his wines better,” says longtime friend and fellow vintner Peter Bell, the head winemaker at the nearby Fox Run vineyards.

Breeden has spent a long time thinking about what a perfect wine should taste like and how to go about realizing that vision in his vineyard. He holds dual master’s degrees in chemistry and philosophy from the University of Illinois, and was well on his way to a Ph.D. in philosophy when he decided he’d rather make wine. Breeden’s philosophy background informs his thinking about wine, but he uses his chemistry education every day in the small lab he shares with hundreds of fruit flies, which float drunkenly around the bottles and beakers. During the harvest season, he constantly tracks the ripeness of the grapes, measuring their acidity with a pH meter and their sugar content with a refractometer.

“He is a chemist: He definitely is precise, and he’s deliberate and careful,” says Chris Gerling, an oenologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “He’s always observing things, he’s measuring things.”

Good science is the foundation of good winemaking. Successful vintners have to know a little about a lot of different sciences: organic chemistry to understand the wine’s flavor compounds, microbiology to choose the right yeasts and thermodynamics to get the temperature right as the wine ferments.

But as big a role as science seems to play in his work, Breeden thinks it can only take the winemaker so far. “If you spend too much time thinking about ‘Did I measure this right? Did I measure that right?’—if you get lost in the numbers of the thing, you forget that ultimately, it’s about taste,” he says.

As Bell notes, “A bottle of wine is the culmination of thousands of different choices.” Many of those decisions can’t rest on science alone. Take blending, Breeden says. A scientific approach would be to test each combination of, say, cabernet franc, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon to figure out which blend was best. “But if you have a hundred different barrels, that’s one hundred factorial different blends you could make,” Breeden points out. “You would spend the rest of your life doing it.” Instead, he says, “As you taste each one, you have to think, ‘What’s missing here?’ ‘How could this be better?’”

Another example is taste. “A huge amount of our genetic makeup is devoted to our ability to taste and smell,” Breeden explains, crediting the idea to Cornell University wine scientist Terry Acree. Assume we have 1,000 of these taste and smell genes, he says. Of those 1,000, a relatively small number, say 200, are actively functioning in each of us. “And the interesting thing is,” says Breeden, “it’s not the same 200 in each of is. So there’s no reason to believe that we should be able to talk to each other about what we are tasting at all, because we’re likely not tasting the same thing.” What makes a wine taste good can’t be quantified. Only skill and intuition can help you create a wine that will please a range of taste buds.

One thing is certain: whether it takes art or science, Breeden will do whatever is necessary to make wines that evoke the green hills and the lake-blown breeze of Sheldrake. As Gerling says: “What he cares about most is the flavor and how the wine turns out. If he decides in the end he has to turn around twice and touch his nose to make it great, he would do it.”

Posted in: Life Science, Video
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  1. This article is such a well-written, informative and enjoyable piece! The video is fantastic and the article accompanies it perfectly. As a self-proclaimed “wino”, I loved the characterization of the wine maker and the science of the wine making process because wine is both fun and serious. I’d love to see more of these wine science articles…

    Brittany Alwerud, December 29, 2010 at 12:09 am
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