Grapes made to grow during cooler months could likely yield a higher quality crop and better wine, according to new research out of California State University, Fresno.
The research explores a method called "crop-forcing" that hasn't been used in the high temperatures of the Valley yet.
By removing buds from newly-set berry clusters on the vine while pruning back shoots and removing leaves and laterals, a second bud will appear several weeks later causing the grapes to ripen later in the growing season when temperatures are cooler.
Being done out of Fresno State's Viticulture and Enology Research Center, the research aims to move the harvest time of certain wine-grape varieties in the San Joaquin Valley from the beginning of September to the middle of November.
According to Dr. Sanliang Gu, Ricchiutu Chair of Viticulture Research, wine grapes produced in California's warmer regions amount to 60 percent of tonnage but only 25 percent of crop value. He added that the crop-forcing method has been used in Australia and some tropical areas.
The method, he said, would produce grapes with characteristics suitable to high-quality wines, including smaller berries, higher acidity, lower pH, deeper color, higher tannins and phenolics and more intense aroma and flavor.
The California State University Agricultural Research Institute provided some of the funding for the research while preliminary experiments have been conducted in vineyard sites at Fresno State and with industry partners in Madera County in 2009 and 2010.
|Last Updated on Monday, 26 September 2011 12:51|
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
VIDEO: Wine experts confused a $30 bottle with one worth $500
Wine experts confused a $30 bottle of wine with a $500 one. Art critics repeatedly fell for fakes. Nearly all .long-term economic studies prove to be wrong.
In his documentary, The Trouble with Experts, airing on CBC on Thursday at 9 p.m., filmmaker Josh Freed takes on the growing number of experts eager to tell us how to live.
The Star spoke to Freed about the value of advisors who are uncertain, weather forecasts and chimpanzees with good aim.
Is this documentary your revenge for some bum advice?
After the 2008 stock crash, I was down and everyone I knew was down 50 per cent. Obviously my financial expert and all the others didn’t know a lot more than we did. I began to wonder about all the other kinds of experts, and I started doing research. I was stunned. We spend a lot of time and money listening to people whom we think know more than they do. For experts, it’s easy to predict the obvious, but it’s hard for them to predict when something goes really wrong.
How likely are experts to be wrong?
The science of it is pretty spectacular. Science writer David Freedman, author of Wrong, determined that two-thirds of studies in major science journals are shown later to be wrong. Almost 100 per cent of long-term economic studies are proven to be wrong.
And in the granddaddy of all studies, Philip Tetlock, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, spent 20 years following 300 elite media and government experts making 82,000 predictions. After 20 years, the predictions did a fraction better than a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.
Tetlock found that the best experts were uncertain, because that kept them thinking about it. But that expert you rarely see on television. They’re boring.
Which field is the most rife with bad experts?
That’s tough to say. I think maybe health. There are a million of those so-called nutrition and diet experts who claim to have specific foods or cures to help you live forever. Many of them are self-made experts who belong to some association. Ben Goldacre (the British doctor who writes yjr weekly Bad Science column in The Guardian) applied for membership in a nutrition consultants’ association in the name of his dead cat, Henrietta. He now has a fancy certificate saying Henrietta is a member.
You call wine experts the snootiest. How incorrect are they?
In France, we met legendary wine researcher Frederic Brochet who has been testing wine experts for decades. We watched as he swapped $500-a-bottle wine and $30-a-bottle wine. The tasters pronounced the wine in the great bottle a great wine, although it was the cheap wine.
He also had 57 wine experts taste two red wines, except that one was really a white wine dyed with food colouring. Not one expert noticed the difference. He calls it “grape expectations,” what you expect to taste.
What about economic pundits?
The economy has always been hard to predict. There’s a famous quote by a Yale economics professor: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau” made on Oct. 17, 1929, days before the Great Crash.
We visited an ex-management consultant who flew all over the world advising top companies and governments. He says the most important thing is to look right, dress right and drop a lot of jargon. No one knows with statistical accuracy how to make a business run or predict the economy.
The guy who really struck me is William White. He helped run the Bank of Canada and was a top banker in Europe. He said that we pretend economics is a science, but it’s not. It’s mass behaviour. It’s unpredictable.
Experts are the new high priests, according to your documentary. Why now?
It’s partly the tremendous amount of information out there. You have thousands of decisions to make that are overwhelming. And it’s 24/7 television. Nothing is cheaper than a couple of experts debating.
We’ve always had people telling us the future, be it fortunetellers or oracles reading chicken entrails. Today we’re too educated to read chicken entrails, so we go to experts. We use Power Point instead of poultry.
How do you become an expert? Don’t you need degrees, stamps of approval, some vetting?
There are endless books on how to become an expert and a lot of courses. We went to a course that manufactures experts. The class was made up of respectable people, doctors, lawyers, fitness trainers. The course promised to make them look and sound like experts so they could go on television. The central message was to sound certain. Never use the word maybe. Always say always.
Life is complicated. We need expert advice. How do you tell a wise advisor?
The one who seems uncertain but offers ideas on how you can think about something. He’s not promising to save you but has five things that might help.
Now I trust most — bizarrely it’s the one we complain about most — Environment Canada weather forecasts. They give percentages — a 60 per cent chance of rain. They are statistically right more often than not.
How do you now get financial advice?
I do it differently now. I treat my financial advisor like someone you chat with, just one more voice in the wilderness. I get his opinion and others. I do a lot more work, more reading.
So now you’re an expert on experts. Why should I believe you?
I started as a regular person and now I’m practically an expert. The ultimate message is use your own brain and take more responsibility. There are no gods out there.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
“Wine is a food, a medicine, and a poison-it’s just a question of dose”.
Paracelsus, 16th century Swiss physician
Wine, the fermented beverage from grape juice, has hundreds of components. An important group is polyphenols. Polyphenols come in many forms and some more widely studied. Some polyphenols are especially important for health reasons. Research has shown the most abundant polyphenols in young red wines are proanthocyanidins (also called procyanidins).
There are a host of foods with procyanidins. They are abundant in nature; however modern food processing has a way of eliminating them. Fresh foods high in procyanidins include apples, cranberries, cocoa, chocolate, pomegranates, persimmons, raspberries, walnuts, cinnamon, pinto beans, sorghum grain, Concord grape juice and red wines.
Modern medicine has made fantastic progress over the past fifty years. However, dietary choices often counteract these gains. Societies with some of the healthiest, longest-lived people-Sardinia, Crete, rural southwest France-often lack state-of-the-art health services and clinics. Yet, because they take better care of themselves, their inhabitants still live to ripe old ages.
Recent studies indicate that life expectancy in the US and parts of Europe are decreasing. It is a complicated mix of reasons, but much is due to obesity.
Diets can be a problem and also are tricky. We evolved as a species living off relatively low-calorie foods. We had to eat more of these foods to get the energy to survive. In doing so, we consumed more micronutrients-the vitamins and minerals that keep the cells in our body in a healthy state.
Had Michelangelo been asked to portray 16th Century European man, it might have looked like this familiar figure.
Over the past century, the Western diet has become increasingly rich in calories. So now, the calories required to live can be obtained from a smaller quantity of food. But, in eating less, the micronutrients consumed also go down. The Catch 22 is that going on a diet may reduce caloric intake, but it also reduces micronutrient intake.
Other problems exist. Our lifestyles have changed. Energy expenditure has been reduced through jobs that are more sedentary and we don’t get as much physical exercise. Our caloric needs have gotten smaller. Also, our food is being processed away from its natural state. This has led to an increase in type B malnutrition. This is not as severe as malnutrition resulting from starvation, but is still important.
Had Michelangelo been asked to portray 21st Century American man, it might have looked like this evolved figure.
Western practices focus on medical or surgical intervention on symptom, rather than on prevention of the ailments. It is now believed that chronic progressive diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, dementia and several forms of sight loss have several common underlying symptoms. The most important of these are blood vessel abnormalities and capillary function.
Diets rich in flavonoids (a type of polyphenol) reduce heart disease and the frequency of cancer. Several reasons are being studied concerning these findings.
What is it about red wine?
Examining the dozens of studies on alcohol consumption and health, while moderate consumption of any alcoholic beverage is beneficial, red wine is best for long-term well being.
What represents healthy wine drinking? Most “diets” also eliminate alcohol, so we won’t look there. Tests show that some red wines contain much higher levels of procyanidins than others. By drinking these wines, maximum benefits, if any, can be gained by drinking less wine. However, red wine does not always show the same benefits as expected in all studies. Is it a particular substance in red wine that leads to health benefits? If so, knowing the active components would make it much easier to do more detailed research.
Some specific research has been done. Experimental studies have shown that alcohol was independent on red wines effect on arteriosclerosis. Grape seed extract at a dose of 1.5 to 2 grams per day has been shown to cut in half the level of cholesterol-induced arteriosclerosis. It has also been shown that purple Concord grape juice could hamper blood vessel wall changes that trigger arteriosclerosis.
Healthy artery walls are made of smooth muscle cells and fibrous connective tissues. Nerves outside the artery walls regulate the muscle cells, causing constriction and dilation. In one effect of high blood pressure (from stress and other occurrences) the nerves constrict the blood vessels. The fibrous tissue must be flexible when this happens. If the arteries are hard, they are less flexible and the blood pressure increases to dangerous levels. Blood vessels get firmer with age, increasing the risk for heart disease.
Blood cells are lined with endothelium. This single layer of cells creates a nonstick coating. The circulating blood won’t stick to the wall layers of smooth muscle. The endothelium also responds to inflammation. The endothelium can tell the body’s white blood cells where they are needed to fight infection and other inflammations.
How to keep blood vessels healthy
The endothelium releases a host of compounds that are important in maintaining a healthy blood circulation. Changes in the endothelium can result in many problem related to the blood and its circulation.
Which substances in red wine have a beneficial effect?
The simple answer is polyphenols…main contributors to color and taste. But there are many polyphenols with different properties. The polyphenols most commonly found in wine are called flavonoids. In red wines, the most abundant are flavonols and anthocyanins. (Quercetin and resveratrol are minor components.)
Flavanols, such as catechin and epicatechin, are found mainly coating grape seeds. Grapes with smaller berries generally produce wines richer in these polyphenols. Grape seed flavanols are mainly present as procyanidins. When these polymers are composed of three to ten repeated units of smaller molecules (like catechin and epicatechin) they are called oligomeric procyanidins.
Procyanidins are the most abundant polyphenol in young red wines. Total polyphenols may be about 3 grams per liter in young reds and procyanidins may account for 1 to 2 grams per liter. Procyanidin molecules are not very soluble in grape juice. As fermentation proceeds the alcohol created will extract the procyanidins into the wine. These are the main cause of astringency. Over time, procyanidins combine with each other and form longer polymers called condensed tannins. As wines age the condensed tannins grow in length. They soon become less soluble and precipitate to your bottles bottom.
The colored pigments in red wine are anthocyanins. The anthocyanins in red wine are mainly extracted during fermentation from the grape skin. Rosé and white wines have almost no skin and seed polyphenols.
Polyphenols can also come from wood cooperage. Fresh oak has high levels of nonflavonoid polyphenols called gallotannins. These will dissolve into wine after about six months.
Polyphenols are very unstable molecules. During fermentation and aging, they react with one another and with other substances such as sugars. The also readily oxidize. Because of the myriad of reactions, it has been estimated every bottle of wine could contain several thousand possible compounds. This explains the evolution of a bottle aging wine. So, red wines are complex well mixed elixirs.
The two main areas studied vis-à-vis red wine polyphenols are on platelets and LDL-cholesterol. Platelets are tiny blood cells without a nucleus. Their main roll is to stop bleeding by plugging blood vessels at the site of wounds and controlling blood coagulation. If they become too sticky, they can bind to the epithelium and form small blood clots. Some work has shown that people from red wine regions in France have lower blood clotting speeds than do people from non-wine regions like southwest Scotland. These studies are on going.
Experimentally, red wine polyphenols are more effective antioxidants than Vitamin C and E. Oxidized LDL is not readily eliminated. It can stimulate inflammation of the artery walls. This is a trigger to arteriosclerosis. If LDL-cholesterol is prevented from oxidizing, it is less likely to cause arteriosclerosis. However there has yet to be shown a correlation between antioxidant intake and heart attack incidences. So maybe the anti-oxidant properties in red wine or any food are not relevant.
So, what’s going on?
The endothelium function is very important in preventing arteriosclerosis. High blood pressure, raised LDL-cholesterol, diabetes, lack of exercise, age and smoking all reduces the protective property of the epithelium. After reduced protection, blood vessels in the heart and other tissues have trouble resisting arteriosclerosis. It is known that red wine polyphenols protect the epithelium from raised LDL-cholesterol.
Some work in the 1990’s showed that red wine and grape extract caused endothelium-dependent vasodilation through nitric oxide releases. Healthy subjects were given 500-ml of red wine over a period of time. They produced endothelium-dependent vasodilation. A similar group was given vodka with no similar results. (Vasodilation is the widening of blood vessels resulting from relaxation of the muscular wall of the vessels. What widens is actually the diameter of the interior (the lumen) of the vessel. The opposite of vasoconstriction.)
In another study, patients with coronary heart disease were given 350-ml of Concord purple grape juice twice a day for two weeks. They showed an improvement in endothelium-dependent vasodilation. The susceptibility of LDL to oxidation was also decreased by this treatment.
Still, what is it in red wine and Concord purple grape juice that modifies vascular function and prevents arteriosclerosis? There are known vasoconstrictors. They narrow blood vessels and hence raise blood pressure. So if red wines can be shown to restrict vasoconstrictor synthesis, this could give protection from heart disease.
Studies have shown that all red wines suppressed vasoconstriction. Red grape juice has about 10% of the activity of average red wine and white and pink wine none. This led to the thoughts the benefits all started in the skin or seeds.
So, they honed in on the red polyphenols in seeds and skins. The most potent isolated were the procyanidins of various sizes and structures. Other work has shown procyanidins are best at preventing platelet aggregation.
Further work has shown that a wines ability to control vascular problems is directly related to the procyanidin content of the wine. Many red wines have high procyanidin content, with amounts close to 1 gram per liter. For your information that’s about 1,000 times greater than the normal levels of the once championed resveratrol.
Polyphenols of all types tend to be rather astringent. So man has modified fruits and vegetables that may be too astringent or bitter to make them more palatable. Unfortunately, these processes generally strip the polyphenol benefits. Chocolate was originally made as a bitter drink. It is now a highly processed, sugared, fatted beverage with virtually no procyanidin.
The history of cocoa
Cacao trees are native to parts of Central and South America. The Olmec grew the trees 3,500 years ago. The Maya and later the Aztecs did also. Naturally bitter, it was at times flavored with vanilla beans. It was never sweetened. The Aztecs called it cacahuatl or “bitter water”. Columbus and then Cortés brought some back to Europe. The Europeans made it more palatable by adding sugar.
Cocoa beans are one of the richest sources of procyanidins, but chocolate manufacturing has evolved where the health-promoting compounds are gone from the final products.
Studies have shown controlled diets of non-manufactured cocoa have yielded lower blood pressure, faster blood vessel response and better vascular functions than control groups. It also seems to be more beneficial with population age.
If it’s chocolate you want, the most beneficial from a health standpoint comes from Ecuador. It is particularly tannic. But approximately one ounce of good dark chocolate containing 70 to 86% cocoa solids, or about three tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder, is equivalent to a 4-ounce glass of procyanidin-rich red wine. That’s about 150 calories of chocolate. The main problem is chocolates on the market are loaded with sugar and fat.
Apples contain only moderate amounts of vitamin C, potassium, folic acid and fiber. Research has shown they are a good source of procyanidins. The average procyanidin content of a medium apple is equivalent to a 4-ounce glass of procyanidin-rich red wine. Eat them fresh.
Cranberries are a rich source of procyanidins. About 2 ounces of fresh or frozen berries or about 8-ounces of juice containing 25% cranberry is roughly equivalent to a 4-ounce glass of procyanidin-rich red wine. The juice phase can be too high in sugar.
Raspberries are loaded with polyphenols. Approximately 2 ounces of raspberries, or 4 ounces of blackberries, strawberries or red currants, contain are the same as a 4-ounce glass of procyanidin-rich red wine.
Pomegranate is high in procyanidins. One medium pomegranate will yield about 4 ounces of juice. This is equivalent to a 4-ounce glass of procyanidin-rich red wine.
Walnuts are very rich in polyphenols. They are not procyanidins but a mixture of antioxidant polyphenols. A serving of 1.5 ounces of walnuts provide the same benefit as a 4-ounce glass of procyanidin-rich red wine.
Beans, grains, cinnamon and other foods can be beneficial. The preparation is critical to not destroy the potency. Tea has very few large procyanidin molecules.
Will you live to be 100?
Some societies feel this is reasonable and achievable. In Sardinia, the common greeting is “A kent’annos”-“to one hundred years”. Sardinia’s mountainous Nuoro province has the highest relative number of centenarians in Europe. Medical care in the province is basically nonexistent. Life style is important. Smoking. Exercise. All important. The Nuoro residents are pretty much like most other parts of Europe in regard to these items.
Diet wise, they eat a large proportion of roasted meat and cheese. The wines produced in that area are made mainly from Cannonau (same as Grenache), Barbera, Monica and Muristellu. Lab analysis of the wines from the province showed higher levels of procyanidins than wines from Sardinia’s coastal regions. Just to be noted. Not evidence.
Similar studies show other population centers with high percentage of centenarians also consume wines with high levels of procyanidins.
Everybody remembers the French Paradox of the 1980’s. Red wine consumption accounted for low occurrence of heart disease in France. It has been further studied if longevity differences exist in France.
1999 census data was used to analyze the regional distribution of men and women aged 75 years and more. The analysis showed six regions in southwest and central-southern France where relative numbers of men aged 75 or older was more than 25% higher than the national average. Further analysis showed that all over France, for every man in this older age range there are approximately two women (2.12 to be exact).The département of Ger had a ratio of men to women that was more than 20% of the national average. Gironde, which includes Bordeaux, was the same as the average. Ger also had double the national average of men aged 90 or more.
Is this an intra-French paradox? Ger is famous for its foie gras, cassoulet, saucisson, and many great cheeses. Analysis of the wines from the area, notably Madiran, indicated three to four times more procyanidin than Argentine Cabernet Sauvignons. These Cabs are known for high procyanidin levels. This means, one small glass of Madiran can provide greater benefit than two bottles of most California red wine. It seems probable these wines are linked to the high survival rate to the men of Ger.
Why are these wines special? The primary grape of the region is Tannat. The winemaking methods are centuries old. The wines can be tannic and not suitable for drinking standing up. But when sipped with robust local foods, the high tannin of these wines is hardly noticeable. In fact, most other wines are dwarfed by the dishes and are poor matches. The winemakers in the area still harvest at fairly low sugars and do not yet practice hang time to get fruit forward characters and soft ripe tannins in their grapes.
Hunt for procyanidin wines
Polyphenols are a large group of unstable compounds. Different tastes in wines can be attributed in large part to the variety of polyphenols wine contains. Polyphenols also interact with acids and create additional flavors. Young red wines are often astringent, and procyanidins are thought to be one of the causes in giving a wine astringency. This is mouthfeel and not taste. Astringency is sensed as a rough dry mouthfeel. It’s puckering. It’s caused by the interaction of saliva proteins and polyphenols. The interacted polyphenols then precipitate and become insoluble so the lubricating effect of saliva is briefly lost. Acid does the opposite. It makes the mouth salivate more. The astringency and acid must be in balance in a wine to be appreciated. Astringency declines as wines age.
Key factors in vineyards for making high procyanidin wines
There are complex interactions playing into what harvested grapes are like. Some observations:
Long, slow ripening
What can the winemaker do?
Extended maceration is the process of leaving a red wine in contact with the skins after fermentation is complete. This technique is employed when a winemaker wishes to modify the amount, and types, of tannin present when pressing the wine to barrel. In red fermenters, the peak in anthocyanin extraction occurs within the second day of fermentation and those of skin tannins and flavonoids (or total phenols) usually show complete extraction by the end of fermentation. So, extended maceration will result in the continued extraction from seeds only. It may seem counterintuitive but this extended amount of time in contact with the skins and seeds can actually soften the tannin structure of a wine that finishes fermentation with an elevated sharp tannin structure.
These are just suggestions.
Procyanidin Rich Wines
Searching for wines in the regions listed below may result in high procyanidin wines.
Excellent 120 or more mg procyanidins.
Very Good 60 to 190 mg procyanidins.
Good 60 to 90 mg procyanidins.
“Red wine procyanidins and vascular health”, Nature 444, Nov 2006.
L. Pierce Carson, “Sex, along with wine and food, topics at edgy Taste 3”, Napa Valley Register, May 11, 2007.
“Procyanidin: Why This Tannin Keeps Your Arteries Flexible and Blood Pressure Low, and Best Source”, SixWise.com .
“Six Disease-Fighting Super Antioxidants You are Likely Not Getting Enough Of”, SixWise.com .
Roger Corder, The Red Wine Diet. 2007
Roger B. Boulton et al, Principles and Practices of Winemaking. 1998
Proanthocyanidins.doc Education VWT 180 Folder
6 May email@example.com
Friday, September 23, 2011
HISTORY & ARCHAEOLOGY
The Beer Archaeologist
By analyzing ancient pottery, Patrick McGovern is resurrecting the libations that fueled civilization
By Abigail Tucker
Photographs by Landon Nordeman
It’s just after dawn at the Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where the ambition for the morning is to resurrect an Egyptian ale whose recipe dates back thousands of years.
But will the za’atar—a potent Middle Eastern spice mixture redolent of oregano—clobber the soft, floral flavor of the chamomile? And what about the dried doum-palm fruit, which has been giving off a worrisome fungusy scent ever since it was dropped in a brandy snifter of hot water and sampled as a tea?
“I want Dr. Pat to try this,” says Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head’s founder, frowning into his glass.
At last, Patrick McGovern, a 66-year-old archaeologist, wanders into the little pub, an oddity among the hip young brewers in their sweat shirts and flannel. Proper to the point of primness, the University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor sports a crisp polo shirt, pressed khakis and well-tended loafers; his wire spectacles peek out from a blizzard of white hair and beard. But Calagione, grinning broadly, greets the dignified visitor like a treasured drinking buddy. Which, in a sense, he is.
The truest alcohol enthusiasts will try almost anything to conjure the libations of old. They’ll slaughter goats to fashion fresh wineskins, so the vintage takes on an authentically gamey taste. They’ll brew beer in dung-tempered pottery or boil it by dropping in hot rocks. The Anchor Steam Brewery, in San Francisco, once cribbed ingredients from a 4,000-year-old hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian beer goddess.
“Dr. Pat,” as he’s known at Dogfish Head, is the world’s foremost expert on ancient fermented beverages, and he cracks long-forgotten recipes with chemistry, scouring ancient kegs and bottles for residue samples to scrutinize in the lab. He has identified the world’s oldest known barley beer (from Iran’s Zagros Mountains, dating to 3400 B.C.), the oldest grape wine (also from the Zagros, circa 5400 B.C.) and the earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China’s Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago.
Widely published in academic journals and books, McGovern’s research has shed light on agriculture, medicine and trade routes during the pre-biblical era. But—and here’s where Calagione’s grin comes in—it’s also inspired a couple of Dogfish Head’s offerings, including Midas Touch, a beer based on decrepit refreshments recovered from King Midas’ 700 B.C. tomb, which has received more medals than any other Dogfish creation.
“It’s called experimental archaeology,” McGovern explains.
To devise this latest Egyptian drink, the archaeologist and the brewer toured acres of spice stalls at the Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s oldest and largest market, handpicking ingredients amid the squawks of soon-to-be decapitated chickens and under the surveillance of cameras for “Brew Masters,” a Discovery Channel reality show about Calagione’s business.
The ancients were liable to spike their drinks with all sorts of unpredictable stuff—olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadowsweet, mugwort, carrot, not to mention hallucinogens like hemp and poppy. But Calagione and McGovern based their Egyptian selections on the archaeologist’s work with the tomb of the Pharaoh Scorpion I, where a curious combination of savory, thyme and coriander showed up in the residues of libations interred with the monarch in 3150 B.C. (They decided the za’atar spice medley, which frequently includes all those herbs, plus oregano and several others, was a current-day substitute.) Other guidelines came from the even more ancient Wadi Kubbaniya, an 18,000-year-old site in Upper Egypt where starch-dusted stones, probably used for grinding sorghum or bulrush, were found with the remains of doum-palm fruit and chamomile. It’s difficult to confirm, but “it’s very likely they were making beer there,” McGovern says.
The brewers also went so far as to harvest a local yeast, which might be descended from ancient varieties (many commercial beers are made with manufactured cultures). They left sugar-filled petri dishes out overnight at a remote Egyptian date farm, to capture wild airborne yeast cells, then mailed the samples to a Belgian lab, where the organisms were isolated and grown in large quantities.
Back at Dogfish Head, the tea of ingredients now inexplicably smacks of pineapple. McGovern advises the brewers to use less za’atar; they comply. The spices are dumped into a stainless steel kettle to stew with barley sugars and hops. McGovern acknowledges that the heat source should technically be wood or dried dung, not gas, but he notes approvingly that the kettle’s base is insulated with bricks, a suitably ancient technique.
As the beer boils during lunch break, McGovern sidles up to the brewery’s well-appointed bar and pours a tall, frosty Midas Touch for himself, spurning the Cokes nursed by the other brewers. He’s fond of citing the role of beer in ancient workplaces. “For the pyramids, each worker got a daily ration of four to five liters,” he says loudly, perhaps for Calagione’s benefit. “It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay. You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they’d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer.”
Soon the little brew room is filled with fragrant roiling steam, with hints of toast and molasses—an aroma that can only be described as intoxicating. The wort, or unfermented beer, emerges a pretty palomino color; the brewers add flasks of the yellowish, murky-looking Egyptian yeast and fermentation begins.
They plan on making just seven kegs of the experimental beverage, to be unveiled in New York City two weeks later. The brewers are concerned because the beer will need that much time to age and nobody will be able to taste it in advance.
McGovern, though, is thinking on another time scale entirely. “This probably hasn’t been smelled for 18,000 years,” he sighs, inhaling the delicious air.
The shelves of McGovern’s office in the University of Pennsylvania Museum are packed with sober-sounding volumes—Structural Inorganic Chemistry, Cattle-Keepers of the Eastern Sahara—along with bits of bacchanalia. There are replicas of ancient bronze drinking vessels, stoppered flasks of Chinese rice wine and an old empty Midas Touch bottle with a bit of amber goo in the bottom that might intrigue archaeologists thousands of years hence. There’s also a wreath that his wife, Doris, a retired university administrator, wove from wild Pennsylvania grape vines and the corks of favorite bottles. But while McGovern will occasionally toast a promising excavation with a splash of white wine sipped from a lab beaker, the only suggestion of personal vice is a stack of chocolate Jell-O pudding cups.
The scientific director of the university’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health, McGovern had had an eventful fall. Along with touring Egypt with Calagione, he traveled to Austria for a conference on Iranian wine and also to France, where he attended a wine conference in Burgundy, toured a trio of Champagne houses, drank Chablis in Chablis and stopped by a critical excavation near the southern coast.
Yet even strolling the halls with McGovern can be an education. Another professor stops him to discuss, at length, the folly of extracting woolly mammoth fats from permafrost. Then we run into Alexei Vranich, an expert on pre-Columbian Peru, who complains that the last time he drank chicha (a traditional Peruvian beer made with corn that has been chewed and spit out), the accompanying meal of roast guinea pigs was egregiously undercooked. “You want guinea pigs crunchy, like bacon,” Vranich says. He and McGovern talk chicha for a while. “Thank you so much for your research,” Vranich says as he departs. “I keep telling people that beer is more important than armies when it comes to understanding people.”
We are making our way down to the human ecology lab, where McGovern’s technicians are borrowing some equipment. McGovern has innumerable collaborators, partly because his work is so engaging, and partly because he is able to repay kindnesses with bottles of Midas Touch, whose Iron Age-era recipe of muscat grapes, saffron, barley and honey is said to be reminiscent of Sauternes, the glorious French dessert wine.
In the lab, a flask of coffee-colored liquid bubbles on a hot plate. It contains tiny fragments from an ancient Etruscan amphora found at the French dig McGovern had just visited. The ceramic powder, which had been painstakingly extracted from the amphora’s base with a diamond drill, is boiling in a chloroform and methanol solvent meant to pull out ancient organic compounds that might have soaked into the pottery. McGovern is hoping to determine whether the amphora once contained wine, which would point to how the beverage arrived in France in the first place—a rather ticklish topic.
“We think of France as sort of synonymous with wine,” McGovern says. “The French spent so much time developing all these different varietals, and those plants were taken all over the world and became the basis of the Australian industry, the Californian industry and so forth. France is a key to the whole worldwide culture of wine, but how did wine get to France? That’s the question.”
Francophiles might not like the answer. Today wine is so integral to French culture that French archaeologists include the cost of cases in their excavation budgets. McGovern, however, suspects that wine was being produced in Etruria—present-day central Italy—well before the first French vineyards were planted on the Mediterranean coast. Until Etruscan merchants began exporting wine to what is now France around 600 B.C., the Gauls were likely guzzling what their epicurean descendants would consider a barbaric blend of honey or wheat, filtered through reeds or mustaches.
McGovern’s Etruscan amphora was excavated from a house in Lattes, France, which was built around 525 B.C. and destroyed in 475 B.C. If the French were still drinking Etruscan vintages at that point, it would suggest they had not established their own wineries yet. The trick is proving that the amphora contained wine.
McGovern can’t simply look for the presence of alcohol, which survives barely a few months, let alone millennia, before evaporating or turning to vinegar. Instead, he pursues what are known as fingerprint compounds. For instance, traces of beeswax hydrocarbons indicate honeyed drinks; calcium oxalate, a bitter, whitish byproduct of brewed barley also known as beer stone, means barley beer.
Tree resin is a strong but not surefire indicator of wine, because vintners of old often added resin as a preservative, lending the beverage a pleasing lemony flavor. (McGovern would like to test the Lattes samples for resin from a cypress-like tree; its presence would suggest the Etruscans were in contact with Phoenician colonies in Northern Africa, where that species grows.) The only foolproof way to identify ancient wine from this region is the presence of tartaric acid, a compound in grapes.
Once the boiling brown pottery mixture cooks down to a powder, says Gretchen Hall, a researcher collaborating with McGovern, they’ll run the sample through an infrared spectrometer. That will produce a distinctive visual pattern based on how its multiple chemical constituents absorb and reflect light. They’ll compare the results against the profile for tartaric acid. If there’s a match or a near-match, they may do other preliminary checks, like the Feigl spot test, in which the sample is mixed with sulfuric acid and a phenol derivative: if the resulting compound glows green under ultraviolet light, it most likely contains tartaric acid. So far, the French samples look promising.
McGovern already sent some material to Armen Mirzoian, a scientist at the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, whose primary job is verifying the contents of alcoholic beverages—that, say, the gold flakes in the Italian-made Goldschlager schnapps are really gold. (They are.) His Beltsville, Maryland, lab is crowded with oddities such as a confiscated bottle of a distilled South Asian rice drink full of preserved cobras and vodka packaged in a container that looks like a set of Russian nesting dolls. He treats McGovern’s samples with reverence, handling the dusty box like a prized Bordeaux. “It’s almost eerie,” he whispers, fingering the bagged sherds inside. “Some of these are 5,000, 6,000 years old.”
Months later, McGovern e-mails me with good news: Mirzoian has detected tartaric acid in the Lattes samples from France, making it all but certain they contained imported Etruscan wine. Also, the project’s archaeologists have unearthed a limestone treading vat from 400 B.C.—what would seem to be the earliest French wine press, just about 100 years younger than the Etruscan amphora. Between the two sets of artifacts, McGovern hopes to pinpoint the advent of French wine.
“We still need to know more about the other additives,” he says, “but so far we have excellent evidence.”
McGovern’s Irish ancestors opened the first bar in Mitchell, South Dakota, in the late 1800s. His Norwegian predecessors were teetotalers. McGovern credits his relationship with alcohol to this mixed lineage—his interest is avid, not obsessive. In his student days at Cornell University and elsewhere, when McGovern dabbled in everything from neurochemistry to ancient literature, he knew little about alcohol. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s; other mind-altering substances were in vogue; the California wine revolution had barely begun and Americans were still knocking back all manner of swill.
One summer, during which McGovern was “partly in grad school,” he says with the vagueness frequently reserved for the ’70s, he and Doris toured the Middle East and Europe, living on a few dollars a day. En route to Jerusalem, they found themselves wandering Germany’s Mosel wine region, asking small-town mayors if local vintners needed seasonal pickers. One winemaker, whose arbors dotted the steep slate slopes above the Moselle River, took them on, letting them board in his house.
The first night there, the man of the house kept returning from his cellar with bottle after bottle, McGovern recalls, “but he wouldn’t ever show us what year it was. Of course, we didn’t know anything about vintage, because we had never really drunk that much wine, and we were from the United States. But he kept bringing up bottle after bottle without telling us, and by the end of the evening, when we were totally drunk—the worst I’ve ever been, my head going around in circles, lying on the bed feeling like I’m in a vortex—I knew that 1969 was terrible, ’67 was good, ’59 was superb.”
McGovern arose the next morning with a seething hangover and an enduring fascination with wine.
Earning his PhD in Near Eastern archaeology and history from the University of Pennsylvania, he ended up directing a dig in Jordan’s Baq’ah Valley for more than 20 years, and became an expert on Bronze and Iron Age pendants and pottery. (He admits he was once guilty of scrubbing ancient vessels clean of all their gunk.) By the 1980s, he had developed an interest in the study of organic materials—his undergraduate degree was in chemistry—including jars containing royal purple, a once-priceless ancient dye the Phoenicians extracted from sea snail glands. The tools of molecular archaeology were swiftly developing, and a smidgen of sample could yield surprising insights about foods, medicines and even perfumes. Perhaps ancient containers were less important than the residues inside them, McGovern and other scholars began to think.
A chemical study in the late 1970s revealed that a 100 B.C. Roman ship wrecked at sea had likely carried wine, but that was about the extent of ancient beverage science until 1988, when a colleague of McGovern’s who’d been studying Iran’s Godin Tepe site showed him a narrow-necked pottery jar from 3100 B.C. with red stains.
“She thought maybe they were a wine deposit,” McGovern remembers. “We were kind of skeptical about that.” He was even more dubious “that we’d be able to pick up fingerprint compounds that were preserved enough from 5,000 years ago.”
But he figured they should try. He decided tartaric acid was the right marker to look for, “and we started figuring out different tests we could do. Infrared spectrometry. Liquid chromatography. The Feigl spot test....They all showed us that tartaric acid was present,” McGovern says.
He published quietly, in an in-house volume, hardly suspecting that he had discovered a new angle on the ancient world. But the 1990 article came to the attention of Robert Mondavi, the California wine tycoon who had stirred some controversy by promoting wine as part of a healthy lifestyle, calling it “the temperate, civilized, sacred, romantic mealtime beverage recommended in the Bible.” With McGovern’s help, Mondavi organized a lavishly catered academic conference the next year in Napa Valley. Historians, geneticists, linguists, oenologists, archaeologists and viticulture experts from several countries conferred over elaborate dinners, the conversations buoyed by copious drafts of wine. “We were interested in winemaking from all different perspectives,” McGovern says. “We wanted to understand the whole process—to figure out how they domesticated the grape, and where did that happen, how do you tend grapes and the horticulture that goes into it.” A new discipline was born, which scholars jokingly refer to as drinkology, or dipsology, the study of thirst.
Back at Penn, McGovern soon began rifling through the museum’s storage-room catacombs for promising bits of pottery. Forgotten kitchen jars from a Neolithic Iranian village called Hajji Firuz revealed strange yellow stains. McGovern subjected them to his tartaric acid tests; they were positive. He’d happened upon the world’s oldest-known grape wine.
Many of McGovern’s most startling finds stem from other archaeologists’ spadework; he brings a fresh perspective to forgotten digs, and his “excavations” are sometimes no more taxing than walking up or down a flight of stairs in his own museum to retrieve a sherd or two. Residues extracted from the drinking set of King Midas—who ruled over Phrygia, an ancient district of Turkey—had languished in storage for 40 years before McGovern found them and went to work. The artifacts contained more than four pounds of organic materials, a treasure—to a biomolecular archaeologist—far more precious than the king’s fabled gold. But he’s also adamant about travel and has done research on every continent except Australia (though he has lately been intrigued by Aborigine concoctions) and Antarctica (where there are no sources of fermentable sugar, anyway). McGovern is intrigued by traditional African honey beverages in Ethiopia and Uganda, which might illuminate humanity’s first efforts to imbibe, and Peruvian spirits brewed from such diverse sources as quinoa, peanuts and pepper-tree berries. He has downed drinks of all descriptions, including Chinese baijiu, a distilled alcohol that tastes like bananas (but contains no banana) and is approximately 120 proof, and the freshly masticated Peruvian chicha, which he is too polite to admit he despises. (“It’s better when they flavor it with wild strawberries,” he says firmly.)
Partaking is important, he says, because drinking in modern societies offers insight into dead ones.
“I don’t know if fermented beverages explain everything, but they help explain a lot about how cultures have developed,” he says. “You could say that kind of single-mindedness can lead you to over-interpret, but it also helps you make sense of a universal phenomenon.”
McGovern, in fact, believes that booze helped make us human. Yes, plenty of other creatures get drunk. Bingeing on fermented fruits, inebriated elephants go on trampling sprees and wasted birds plummet from their perches. Unlike distillation, which human beings actually invented (in China, around the first century A.D., McGovern suspects), fermentation is a natural process that occurs serendipitously: yeast cells consume sugar and create alcohol. Ripe figs laced with yeast drop from trees and ferment; honey sitting in a tree hollow packs quite a punch if mixed with the right proportion of rainwater and yeast and allowed to stand. Almost certainly, humanity’s first nip was a stumbled-upon, short-lived elixir of this sort, which McGovern likes to call a “Stone Age Beaujolais nouveau.”
But at some point the hunter-gatherers learned to maintain the buzz, a major breakthrough. “By the time we became distinctly human 100,000 years ago, we would have known where there were certain fruits we could collect to make fermented beverages,” McGovern says. “We would have been very deliberate about going at the right time of the year to collect grains, fruits and tubers and making them into beverages at the beginning of the human race.” (Alas, archaeologists are unlikely to find evidence of these preliminary hooches, fermented from things such as figs or baobab fruit, because their creators, in Africa, would have stored them in dried gourds and other containers that did not stand the test of time.)
With a supply of mind-blowing beverages on hand, human civilization was off and running. In what might be called the “beer before bread” hypothesis, the desire for drink may have prompted the domestication of key crops, which led to permanent human settlements. Scientists, for instance, have measured atomic variations within the skeletal remains of New World humans; the technique, known as isotope analysis, allows researchers to determine the diets of the long-deceased. When early Americans first tamed maize around 6000 B.C., they were probably drinking the corn in the form of wine rather than eating it, analysis has shown.
Maybe even more important than their impact on early agriculture and settlement patterns, though, is how prehistoric potions “opened our minds to other possibilities” and helped foster new symbolic ways of thinking that helped make humankind unique, McGovern says. “Fermented beverages are at the center of religions all around the world. [Alcohol] makes us who we are in a lot of ways.” He contends that the altered state of mind that comes with intoxication could have helped fuel cave drawings, shamanistic medicine, dance rituals and other advancements.
When McGovern traveled to China and discovered the oldest known alcohol—a heady blend of wild grapes, hawthorn, rice and honey that is now the basis for Dogfish Head’s Chateau Jiahu—he was touched but not entirely surprised to learn of another “first” unearthed at Jiahu, an ancient Yellow River Valley settlement: delicate flutes, made from the bones of the red-crowned crane, that are the world’s earliest-known, still playable musical instruments.
Alcohol may be at the heart of human life, but the bulk of McGovern’s most significant samples come from tombs. Many bygone cultures seem to have viewed death as a last call of sorts, and mourners provisioned the dead with beverages and receptacles—agate drinking horns, straws of lapis lazuli and, in the case of a Celtic woman buried in Burgundy around the sixth century B.C., a 1,200-liter caldron—so they could continue to drink their fill in eternity. King Scorpion I’s tomb was flush with once-full wine jars. Later Egyptians simply diagramed beer recipes on the walls so the pharaoh’s servants in the afterlife could brew more (presumably freeing up existing beverages for the living).
Some of the departed had festive plans for the afterlife. In 1957, when University of Pennsylvania archaeologists first tunneled into the nearly airtight tomb of King Midas, encased in an earthen mound near Ankara, Turkey, they discovered the body of a 60- to 65-year-old man fabulously arrayed on a bed of purple and blue cloth beside the largest cache of Iron Age drinking paraphernalia ever found: 157 bronze buckets, vats and bowls. And as soon as the archaeologists let fresh air into the vault, the tapestries’ vivid colors began fading before their eyes.
Archaeology is, at heart, a destructive science, McGovern recently told an audience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian: “Every time you excavate, you destroy.”
That may be why he likes dreaming up new beers so much.
Dogfish Head’s Ta Henket (ancient Egyptian for “bread beer”) was unveiled last November in New York, in the midst of a glittering King Tut exhibit at Discovery Times Square. Euphoric (or maybe just tipsy) beer nerds and a few members of the press file into an auditorium adorned with faux obelisks and bistro tables, each with a bowl of nuts in the center. The words dog, fish and head in hieroglyphics are projected on the walls.
Onstage beside McGovern, Calagione, swigging an auburn-colored ale, tells the flushed crowd about how he and the archaeologist joined forces. In 2000, at a Penn Museum dinner hosted by a British beer and whiskey guidebook writer, Michael Jackson, McGovern announced his intention to recreate King Midas’ last libations from the excavated residue that had moldered in museum storage for 40 years. All interested brewers should meet in his lab at 9 the next morning, he said. Even after the night’s revelry, several dozen showed up. Calagione wooed McGovern with a plum-laced medieval braggot (a type of malt and honey mead) that he had been toying with; McGovern, already a fan of the brewery’s Shelter Pale Ale, soon paid a visit to the Delaware facility.
When he first met Dr. Pat, Calagione tells the audience, “the first thing I was struck by was, ‘Oh my God, this guy looks nothing like a professor.’” The crowd roars with laughter. McGovern, buttoned into a cardigan sweater, is practically the hieroglyphic for professor. But he won over the brewer when, a few minutes into that first morning meeting, he filled his coffee mug with Chicory Stout. “He’s one of us,” Calagione says. “He’s a beer guy.”
Ta Henket is their fifth collaboration—along with Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu, they’ve made Theobroma, based on an archaic Honduran chocolate drink, and chicha. (All are commercially available, though only five barrels of the chicha are made per year.) McGovern is paid for his consulting services.
Now the inaugural pitchers of Ta Henket are being poured from kegs at the back of the room. Neither Calagione nor McGovern has yet tasted the stuff. It emerges peach-colored and opaque, the foam as thick as whipped cream.
The brew, which will be available for sale this fall, later receives mixed reviews online. “Think citrus, herbs, bubblegum,” one reviewer writes. “Rosemary? Honey? Sesame? I can’t identify all the spices.”
“Nose is old vegetables and yeast,” says another.
As soon as he has sampled a mouthful, McGovern seizes a pitcher and begins pouring pints for the audience, giving off a shy glow. He enjoys the showmanship. When Midas Touch debuted in 2000, he helped recreate the ruler’s funerary feast in a gallery of the Penn Museum. The main course was a traditional lentil and barbecued lamb stew, followed by fennel tarts in pomegranate jus. Midas’ eternal beverage of choice was served with dessert, in wine glasses that showed off its bewitching color—a warm caramel with glimmers of gold.
In his laboratory, McGovern keeps an envelope containing Neolithic grape seeds, which he wheedled out of a viticulture professor in Georgia (the country, not the state) years ago. The man had six desiccated pips in good condition, ideal for DNA analysis.
“I said, ‘Maybe we could take some of those back and analyze them,’” McGovern recalls. “He said, ‘No, no, they’re too important.’” “This would be for the cause of science,” McGovern persisted.
The Georgian left the room for a moment to agonize, and returned to say that McGovern and science could have two of the ancient seeds. Parting with them, he said, was like “parting with his soul.” The scholars raised a glass of white Muscat Alexandrueli to mark the occasion.
But McGovern has still not tested the seeds, because he’s not yet confident in the available DNA extraction methods. He has just one chance at analysis, and then the 6,000-year-old samples will be reduced to dust.
One day I ask McGovern what sort of libation he’d like in his own tomb. “Chateau Jiahu,” he says, ever the Dogfish Head loyalist. But after a moment he changes his mind. The grapes he and his wife helped pick in the summer of 1971 turned out to yield perhaps the best Mosel Riesling of the last century. “We had bottles of that wine that we let sit in the cellar for a while, and when we opened them up it was like some sort of ambrosia,” he says. “It was an elixir, something out of this world. If you were going to drink something for eternity you might drink that.”
In general, though, the couple enjoys whatever bottles they have on hand. These days McGovern barely bothers with his cellar: “My wife says I tend to age things too long.”
Staff writer Abigail Tucker last wrote about Blackbeard’s treasure. Photographer Landon Nordeman is based in New York.