Not Sure About a Wine's Health? Send It for an MRI

New Jersey restaurateur adopts new technology to check the condition of mature wines in his cellar
Jun 8, 2005

Technology has brought a wealth of intricate inventions to the world of wine in recent years--such as reverse osmosis and micro-oxygenation--all meant to help the winemaker make a better wine before it goes into the bottle. But how about a machine that can tell the condition of a wine after it's been bottled?

That's exactly what New Jersey developer Gene Mulvihill is using to check the older wines in his 20,000-bottle cellar, which supplies the wine for his recently opened Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs Resort in Hardyston.

"There, that's the spike that shows this wine is off," said technician Douglas Crane, pointing to a bar graph on a computer screen. The computer is reading the results from a machine that can calculate the acetic acid content of an unopened bottle of wine; an elevated level is a sign that the wine has turned to vinegar due to oxidation. The machine also measures the level of acid aldehyde, a closely related compound that is another sign of spoiled wine.

The scanner, a silver canister the size of a large water cooler, works using the same nuclear magnetic resonance technology employed in medical MRIs. It takes an inverted bottle of wine in through its top, places it in a strong magnetic field and exposes it to radio waves. A computer then calculates the absorption frequency to determine the presence of acetic acid at levels as low as 0.1 grams per liter.

"What we know is, when a wine goes bad due to oxidation, its acetic acid content is at least 1.4 grams per liter," said Matthew Augustine, associate professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis, who developed the machine based on research he conducted in 2002. "It is safe to say that, at that level, anyone would consider the wine to be bad."

Mulvihill, the man once behind northern New Jersey's Action Park and Vernon Valley Great Gorge, paid for the construction of the scanner prototype at a cost of $50,000 and has also purchased the exclusive rights to the technology. He has since started a company to pursue various opportunities, such as charging other collectors and auction houses to use the machine to check the condition of their own wines.

Mulvihill, who has the airy nonchalance of a man of wealth, is convinced by the machine's results so far (though it doesn't detect other possible flaws, such as TCA taint). "It's never been off," he says. Any wine that the scanner shows is bad is removed from the restaurant's inventory.

That's a noteworthy financial commitment, since Mulvihill has already spent a small fortune trying to assemble one of the country's best wine cellars for Restaurant Latour, which opened in September 2004. Cases of 1982, 1970 and 1961 Bordeaux are stacked in the temperature-controlled rooms two stories beneath the Adirondack-style clubhouse of Crystal Spring Golf Club, the center of Mulvihill's sprawling northern New Jersey resort. (There are six golf courses, with a seventh under construction; a spa; one hotel, with a second on the way; and 1,000 housing units.)

Mulvihill, whose passion is Bordeaux (particularly Château Latour, after which he named the restaurant), said he came to love wine on a lark. "I had just made a big score on Wall Street in the 1960s, so I decided to buy some wine," he said. "I went in to the store and bought whatever the guy sold me. My only condition was that it was something that would age. Turned out I bought a bunch of '61 Bordeaux."

To broaden the restaurant's Bordeaux-dominated cellar, Mulvihill hired John Foy, a longtime New Jersey-based wine consultant. Foy has overseen an ambitious acquisition program that has brought in California Cabernets from Araujo, Bryant, Colgin and Dalla Valle, along with top-flight wines from Italy, Spain and elsewhere.

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