Wine and the Modernist Cookbook

What the champion of the avant-garde has to say about the grape
Mar 25, 2011

Some are calling Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, by Nathan Myhrvold, the most important cookbook since Escoffier. Up-to-the-minute, scientifically tested, lavishly and innovatively photographed, this six-volume exploration of everything we know about food preparation, 10 years in the making, explains in detail how cooking techniques really work, busts myths and wive's tales, and thoroughly explores the modernist arsenal of equipment, ingredients and techniques, complete with recipes in a unique format.

It even takes on wine. In Vol. 4, devoted to ingredients and preparations, a glass of red wine splashing across two pages dramatically illustrates the opening spread of the wine chapter. (The photograph, one of more than 3,000 in the set of books, was actually an out-take from a photo shoot meant to show how a wineglass breaks.)

So, what does the champion of modernist cuisine have to say about wine? Plenty, it turns out. The former technology chief of Microsoft does an outstanding job of laying out the fundamentals of winegrowing and the state of winemaking around the world, explores issues of tasting, and suggests some practices that will appall some wine drinkers and strike others as eminently practical.

Along the way he questions some strongly held beliefs. The section on tasting properly debunks the ubiquitous "tongue map" that implies we taste acid on different parts of the tongue than we taste sweet. Actually, scientists know that we have taste buds all over our mouths and even further into our digestive systems, and that there are more tastes to consider than the oft-mentioned sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Actually, the book notes, there are at least 10 different types of bitter, and our tongues can differentiate among them.

On the other hand, after taking some shots at professional wine tasters for not being infallible, he defends our descriptions and descriptors. "It's almost too easy to make fun of the ... language used to describe the aromas of wine." He suggests an experiment: "Take any food that you like—a strawberry, a piece of steak, a carrot. Taste it, then try to describe its flavors without using its name. Not so easy, is it?"

Amen, Nathan. Amen.

In a clear-eyed analysis of what makes great wine, Myhrvold casts a skeptical eye on terroir. He supports the fundamental notion that natural aspects of the land, including its contours, soil composition, drainage and exposure, define what geography contributes to the character of wine made from the grapes grown on it. But then he makes the valid point that rectangular vineyards, which dominate every winegrowing region, do not fit those natural contours. "A man-made fence," the book notes, "does not denote terroir." Something to ponder while assessing grands crus.

Noting the wide variation in the quality of vintage years and producers within any given region, Myhrvold writes, "One of the amazing things about the wine business is that [it has] managed to turn unpredictability into something the consumer accepts, even embraces."

Come to think of it, he's absolutely right about that. He's also dead-on about the deficiencies of corks, and wholeheartedly supports replacing them with twist-off caps.

The book also unblinkingly describes scientific approaches to wine handling that most wine books sidestep or denounce, such as cryoconcentration, vacuum evaporation, microoxygenation and de-alcoholization. It maintains that each of these technologies "remove a barrier that once inexorably led to a product the winemaker regretted." In other words, it can make wine better.

"Some people argue that modern technology will somehow remove the soul of wine—much the same way that people argue that sous vide cooking methods somehow take the soul out of cuisine," he writes.

The chapter is full of advice on how to use science to improve our own experiences with wine. Take this little tidbit, for example: "Too much tannin in a glass of red wine? Here's a dirty little trick: swirl a sip in your mouth and spit it—well, let it slip—back into the glass. Proteins in your saliva will react with the tannins and solidify them into precipitates that settle to the bottom of the glass." Hmmm, maybe that's one reason why tannic wines seem to soften and "improve in the glass."

He relates UC Davis professor Andrew Waterhouse's idea of treating corky wine with polyethylene (a topic I wrote about here and here), allowing that the best it can do is make the tainted wine drinkable, not bring it back to its full power.

But the most controversial piece of advice about wine, hands down, must be his approach to decanting. To separate clear wine from the sediment that forms with age, he recommends a Büchner funnel and filter setup straight out of the chemistry lab. The bowl-shaped ceramic funnel, lined with filter paper, sits atop a glass flask. Pumping air out of the flask pulls the wine through, leaving the sediment behind. "It does a perfect job of removing sediment, and wastes very little wine," reads the text.

Even more unconventionally, rather than splashing a young wine in a decanter, as we have done for generations, he favors something he calls "hyper-decanting." The process involves pouring wine into a blender and running it for 30 to 60 seconds. "Wait for the foam to subside, and pour," say the directions. "In our own tests we never found a red wine that wasn't improved (at least a bit), as judged by multiple people at blind tastings. Even legendary wines, such as 1982 Château Margaux, benefit from a quick run through the blender."

Those who hate the idea of screw caps because they lack romance would be apoplectic if this became the norm. But I for one can't wait to try it. Looks like the Büchner set-up would cost me about $30 online, much less than a good decanter. And I already have a blender. Expect a report on my experience with this next week.


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