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Riding the 'Wave
[April, 1999]

Loyal readers may know us as laid back wine writers, but to the rest of the professional world, we're men of science. "The Crush guys?" we often hear, for instance, "you mean those men of science?" To prove it, we hereby publish the following groundbreaking research, on a issue critical to our survival as a species: should responsible adults microwave their wine?

It's not actually as insane as it sounds, though the fact that we've been doing it for years probably doesn't reassure you. It's the final step in a solution to a problem which has dogged wine lovers for centuries: since prolonged contact with oxygen in the air makes wine increasingly undrinkable, what does one do with half-finished bottles? We (and others, it should be noted) have discovered that storing them in the fridge and (if they're red) microwaving them to about 60° gives us instant access to surprisingly youthful leftovers.

We knew our peers in the scientific community -- well-versed in the literature about the effect of microwaves on poodles and Easter Peeps -- would scoff at this line of inquiry. Isn't it obvious, they'd cry, tugging at their waxed moustaches: the wine will surely explode! But while microwaves do generate heat by vibrating moisture molecules within foods, a limited dose will raise the temperature as little as a few degrees. Our question was whether they harm the wine.

Microwaving isn't the only technology available to solve the problem of oxidation, of course. Indeed, in many ways the question of how to store wine shadows the history of wine itself. One of the oldest (and easiest) techniques is to simply put the cork back in the bottle and call it done. But within even a few hours it can start down the road toward vinegar. Young red wines can take a few days to surrender, while some fortified wines like port can last for a month or two unprotected.

So within the last few decades, gadgets from little vacuum-inducing pumps to elaborate gas-displacement systems have all jockeyed for consumer approval. Despite the promise of these gewgaws, however, our untested experience was that simply sticking your wine in the fridge was the best solution. The cold temperature slows down the chemical reactions initiated with oxygen contact (which is why everything else in the fridge stays fresh), so bottles can taste relatively fresh when warmed up again, even after a few weeks. But this solution leads to its own problems: you need to plan ahead, calculating when you'll want a glass, pulling the bottle from the fridge three or so hours before. Who has that kind of foresight? Certainly not us.

Our exhaustive test employed five bottles of the same red wine. We used an excellent California blend named Reds, which brings to this test plenty of fragrance and flavor to potentially degrade, if not a reasonable price tag, at about $9. Four of the bottles were opened and drained of two glasses worth of wine (8 oz.), while the fifth was left unopened as a control. Three were simply recorked and stowed -- two in the fridge and one out on the counter. The fifth was gassed with Private Preserve (a blend of gasses which displace oxygen out of a bottle, $10) and left out. Four days later, and three hours before the test, we removed one bottle from the fridge to warm up gradually. When the actual test began, we opened the fresh bottle and nuked a glass from the remaining chilled bottle up to about 60 degrees (about 15 seconds on our machine).

The results will undoubtedly change life as we know it on this planet. Freshly opened, Reds shows a satisfying nose of red fruit, spicy oak, anise, and leather, followed with a jammy fruit flavors, chocolate, and pepper in the mouth. At the other end of the spectrum, the ungassed bottle we left out was weak and tired, developing a sour, musty odor and woody, gamey flavors sullying the original fruit: oxygen had claimed another victim.

Closest to the brand new experience was the gassed bottle: it was virtually the same wine, but muted down a few notches. Just behind came the refrigerated, gradually warmed bottle: it offered more fragrance than the gas, but added a little gaminess to the nose and a rounder, less focused experience to the mouth. Our guess was that oxygen in the head space of the bottle had roughed up the wine a bit before and after it was cooled.

What really surprised us were the microwave results. Like its refrigerated brother, it was a toned down version of the original, but it was much softer, showing a palpable creaminess on the tongue, and slightly more fragrant. Our consensus was that it tasted aged, as if the micowaves had pushed the clock ahead to soften the tannins, integrate the flavors, and round the sharp edges.

Does this mean you can board up the wine cellar and cook your heirloom wines tonight? We'd be fools to say so. But where bringing a leftover wine back from the dead is concerned, it may have its place. In any case, our far-from-exhaustive study suggests you start with gas and refrigeration. From there, either let it warm gradually to taste the wine as you left it, or nuke it for that old time flavor.


©1999 Matt Giraud and James McQuillen. This column originally appeared in April, 1999 as The Crush, a bi-weekly wine column published in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon. Matt and James alternated writing the columns; this column was written by Matt.

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