Among the grapevine neckties and “Life Is a Cabernet” T-shirts, wine-accessories catalogs are selling more and more miracle devices to make wine taste older, smoother, brighter … instantly!! Ludicrous, of course. We know that. But still, if it were true …
So we tested: three different devices, tasting blind, using identical glassware. For each product, we compared two versions of the same wine—one “enhanced” by a gadget, the other left in its original state—to see if we could tell the difference. Both the wines and the gizmos used on them were kept secret until the results were in.
Wino Magnetism: The BevWizard Wine Smoother
What It Is: A pouring spout equipped with powerful magnets and a hole in its side that exposes the wine to oxygen. Retail price: $29.95.
What It Claims: Young, oaky wines become smoother-tasting when exposed to the BevWizard’s “powerful magnetic field,” which chemically changes the tannins in the wine from “hard” to “softer.” (Bonus feature: picks up paper clips.)
What It Did: We tested the BevWizard on a heavily oaked barrel sample of Washington state Cabernet Franc, and found that it did have a subtle effect on the wine. The enhanced sample tasted a bit softer and smoother, with less mochalike oak character, but the change wasn’t exactly mind-blowing. Why not use your $30 to buy a less oaky wine?
Crystals and Unicorn Power: The Catania Wine Enhancer
What It Is: A CD-size metallic disk that acts as a wine-transforming trivet for a standard wine bottle or stemless wineglass. The price ranges from $45 for the “mini” version to $150 for a psychedelic “grande” model.
What It Claims: The Wine Enhancer can “turn a good beverage into a great one” in about 10 minutes—just set the bottle or glass on the Enhancer and let it do its thing. It contains “very specific metals, minerals and crystals” that are “known for their specific vibrational frequencies,” which soften wine’s tannins. It also gives wine a brighter flavor, a longer finish, less burn, and less astringency, as well as reducing or eliminating red wine headaches.
What It Did: After placing a 2003 Bordeaux-style red from New York’s Finger Lakes region on the Wine Enhancer for 10 minutes, we found little to no difference between it and the unenhanced sample. Both were thin, astringent, and sour. If anything, the unenhanced wine seemed a little softer than the enhanced version. We retested the device on a different bottle of wine. Same result.
Metallic Time Machine: The Clef du Vin
What It Is: A small metal doodad made of stainless steel, gold, silver, and copper. Retail price: $99.95.
What It Claims: Dip the copper tip into a glass of wine, and the Clef du Vin replicates the wine’s natural aging process at the rate of one year per second, with 95 percent accuracy. It gradually modifies the wine’s properties by accelerating oxidation and “acts on the aromatic components” to “[reorganize] certain of the wine’s molecules.” Use it to make a young wine drinkable now, or to figure out when to drink that case of Bordeaux in your cellar.
What It Did: We dipped the Clef du Vin in a glass of 2004 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for three seconds to “age” it by three years. Guess what? Dramatic difference! The original wine was harsh, tannic, and acidic, but the enhanced version was softer, more balanced, and lots more enjoyable. Eureka! But like the good scientists we are, we needed to replicate our results. We tested the device on two more wines. And … nothing. Well, not exactly nothing; the Clef du Vin had some effect on aroma, softening the sharp edges. But there was no discernible difference in flavor between the enhanced and unenhanced wines at various levels of “aging.” Darn. Another cold-fusion-style case of irreproducible miracle results.
Why Miracles Might Happen
It is possible for certain metals to bring about chemical changes in wine, according to winemaker Greg La Follette, who studied oenology at UC Davis and makes wine for De Loach Vineyards and Tandem Winery.
“Anything that contains copper or silver will help to remove sulfides and mercaptans, which are stinky sulfur-compound-derived aromas in wines,” he explains. “Silver goes a bit further and can also remove sulfur-containing compounds, including disulfides, which are also quite odiferous and can’t be removed by copper. Call it a double whammy in funk control. The chemical reactions associated with these metals also are oxidative, so it is possible to get a bit of ‘aged’ experience.”
This process is not an instantaneous one, which may account for the Clef du Vin’s inconsistent results. “These reactions are a little more complex than just adding the metals, and can take a little bit of time, more than just a minute or two,” La Follette says.
Copper may be added to barrels when making wine, in the form of copper sulfate (usually .5 parts per million or less, since it can be poisonous), a powder that bonds with yeast and other molecules in the wine and is racked off after fermentation. (Home winemakers will sometimes drop a few copper pennies into a wine tank to achieve the same effect.) Distillers use metal in the form of copper stills to remove sulfur-based compounds.
As for magnets, minerals, and crystals, the science is somewhat murkier. While winemakers do use copper to tame funky wines, we have yet to hear of any who employ the use of magnets—unless it’s for holding up to-do lists on the winery refrigerator.
Ultimately, the best ways to avoid getting stuck with an out-of-balance, tannic wine are to read wine reviews (descriptions, not scores), taste before buying, or rely on a good wine seller for recommendations. And if a wine needs time to age, drink something else while you wait.