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Wine and the Modernist Cookbook

What the champion of the avant-garde has to say about the grape
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 25, 2011 1:23pm ET

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.

Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  March 25, 2011 2:27pm ET

this book sounds awesome! i'll definitely seek it out. and i'm with you; if the blender works, i will do it. a lot of the new world fruit bombs i like already taste like fruit milkshakes, so this makes sense. :)
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  March 25, 2011 4:04pm ET
From a scientific point of view there is very little with which to fault Myrhvold. I agree with much of what he says, especially on the subject of terroir. How can one justify the superiority of one vineyard that is adjacent to it? But we frequently see critics praising the wine from one as compared to the wine from another that is produced by a different winemaker. Is it the winemaker or the land, or a combination of both? The answer is not readily forthcoming.

As I have skimmed through the book, the main question I have is the cost to most of us in purchasing the equipment to cook many of the recipes that he provides. There is no question that sous vide cooking enhances the taste of food on so many levels, but for many cooks the cost is prohibitive. To compare the kitchen that Myrhvold has to what most chefs have in the finest restaurants is ludicrous. I applaud what he has done, but it is of little practical use to all but the wealthy.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 25, 2011 5:04pm ET
Richard, I think the value of the book is more as a reference and perhaps an incentive for all of us to try something new. Although few of us can cook out of it, even though the final volume is designed exactly for that, I can see myself referring to it for precise temperatures and cooking times, or ingredients and timings for perfect custards, etc. And the explanations of ho food cooks are phenomenal, and the photos of food cooking are mind-blowing to see.

Myhrvold readily admits no professional kitchen has all the equipment he has, but how much does that really matter? When you do get a piece of equipment, this book should be the go-to source for how to use it to make the best food.

The price tag is daunting, for sure. But I think a great book could be made in the future by extracting the information and recipes that do not require elaborate equipment, and those that offer alternative ways to achieve something similar using a standard batterie de cuisine. In my skimming through, I saw plenty of those.

As for sous vide, Myhrvold notes that, except for very low-temperature procedures, where there is a safety issue, you can get the same effect with a pan filled with water and a good thermometer to monitor the water temperature.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  March 25, 2011 7:10pm ET
Harvey, I totally agree with you. The book is a masterpiece of cooking and the science of cooking. I'm not even questioning the price of the set, which is high. I have art books which approach the price of the six volume set and don't regret spending the money. As someone who has a scientific background I appreciate what he and his collaborators have done and I can see using his recommendations in adapting his recipes for average Joes like me in the kitchen. My concern is that I see it being used more by very "serious" cooks than most of us who enjoy cooking good food and drinking good wine. I hate to think of it as being a beautiful set that ends up resting on someone's bookshelf to show others how sophisticated the owner is.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 25, 2011 7:13pm ET
Harv, I had a bright, young winemaker in our office recently who decanted her wine as delicately as possible, like rocking a baby to sleep...made me worried that my splashing methods might be too agressive...needless to say, I'll be trying my blender, too, ASAP...
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 26, 2011 10:27am ET
Blending will be conducted in my home as well, post haste! But I will probably continue to credit Mollydooker for having the guts to first(? to my knowledge) promote a "Mollydooker Shake" on their website (there are instructions there, seriously) by which to give the bottle a similarly vigorous treatment with air. It works, and not just with Mollydooker wines. I'm tired of having so many bottles "shut down", requiring a full day while open to really express their true textures & flavors.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 26, 2011 12:15pm ET
Rocking a baby, eh, Jim? Did it wake up the wine? Or put it to sleep? (grin)

And thanks for mentioning the Mollydooker shake, Don. It agitates the wine, but since the winery recommends doing it in a closed bottle it doesn't expose the wine to air. I am betting Sparky and the gang will be doing blender experiments soon!
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  March 26, 2011 1:14pm ET
i actually did the blender thing with an '09 mollydooker shiraz blue eyed boy last night. i did a blind test on my wife and had her do the same to me using a pop n pour glass, a mollydooker shake glass, and a blender glass. i treated the wines in those order: pour the pop n pour, then do the md shake and pour those glasses, then do the blender with what's left and pour those glasses.

her favorite was the blender wine. my favorite was the pop n pour, though after the reveal i liked the md shake wine the best. the blender wine (60 seconds on the "mix" setting) had a nose very similar to the md shake, but the flavor profile and finish came across like a wine that had been opened for a week rather than an hour. a little dull and boring.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 26, 2011 7:05pm ET
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  March 28, 2011 5:42pm ET
Can't wait for the 500 dollar lead crystal Reidal Blender! Well, I guess I'll have to try it though fewer people may decide to bring wine to my house next time. They'll think I'm nuts.
John Rider
Mission Viejo, CA —  March 28, 2011 11:39pm ET
I too have found this to work. I had a group of friends over and the wine I had decanted was still not there yet, so I just grabed the decanter and shook the heck out of it, yes it worked.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 29, 2011 7:51pm ET
Harvey, I posted the link above so you could see that lots of air contact is involved in the MD Shake... not sure where you got the other idea from.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 29, 2011 8:18pm ET
Don, you are correct that the Mollydooker shake involves pouring off 1/2 glass of the wine before shaking the reclosed bottle. I was mistaken. The principle is the same, but shaking in the bottle does not expose the wine to air nearly as much as the blender does. Also, that 1/2 glass never gets shaken.

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