January 1, 2006 A new "wine scanner" measures the presence of chemicals in a bottle without opening it, assessing for example if too much oxygen seeped in and turned the wine into vinegar. In a procedure similar to an MRI, the bottle is put inside a powerful magnet, then scans it with radio waves.
DAVIS, Calif. --If you are thinking about buying some good wine, you may want to consider giving the bottle an MRI first.
Leah Knight collects wine. She knows a bad cork lets in too much oxygen, turning wine to vinegar, but until now, the only way to know if a bottle was bad was to open it, and opening a bad bottle of wine is very disappointing.
Matthew Augustine, a chemist from the University of California, Davis, says he is not a wine connoisseur. Yet, he came up with an invention for wine lovers; a wine scanner that can tell if a bottle of wine is good without ever opening it. The bottle is put into a powerful magnet, then, it's bathed with radio waves -- an MRI for wine.
"Different chemical compounds absorb difference frequencies of radio waves," Matthew says. Computers analyze the data and detect chemicals that are bad for wine. Tiny bumps in a line graph help the group of chemists decipher which bottles are bad and which are ready to drink.
A bottle of 1888 Chateau la Tour survived two world wars and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but the wine scanner shows it's no worse for the wear. Matthew says, "This test is 100 percent accurate."
According to Matthew, this test is also useful on wines already in your cellar. In fact the wine scanner tells the status of a bottle of wine, meaning owners can know when to savor a bottle and when to serve it in the salad.
Leah says, "If you can sort-of say, 'Oh, great. We can keep this for a few years,' or, 'We need to drink this now or in a month or two,' that would be the key."
An estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of all red wines are bad. Besides oxidation, a moldy cork can also ruin wine. The developers of the wine scanner expect to have technology to detect that within a few months and plan to sell wine scanner franchises. It will cost $25 to have a bottle tested.
BACKGROUND: A scientist at the University of California, Davis, has developed a device that can determine whether a bottle of wine has gone bad or not without opening the bottle. Ultimately the technology could save restaurants and wine sellers a great deal of money that is currently lost to spoilage.
HOW IT WORKS: MRI technology can detect bad wine by analyzing the chemical compounds found in the beverage. A bottle is placed inside a six-foot cylinder and bombarded with radio waves. The compounds found in bad wine, such as vinegar, absorb radio waves at different rates than wine that is still good, and thus doesn't contain those compounds. The device is more sensitive than a human palate, and can detect changes as small as a tenth of the industry's benchmark for bad compounds. It can even tell if a bottle of wine is about to turn, so that consumers can drink it before it's too late.
WHY WINE GOES BAD: If wine is stored improperly, it can turn into vinegar. Direct sunlight, heat, or a loose cork are among the most common mishaps that can spoil a bottle of wine. For instance, when oxygen seeps in through a loose cork, it causes the bacteria or yeast to convert the wine into vinegar. Wines are common considered spoiled if they contain at least 1.4 grams per liter of vinegar.
ABOUT WINE-MAKING: Making wine a very simple process, since wine is little more than fermented grape juice. It involves using yeast to convert the sugar in fruit -- usually some variety of grape -- into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The CO2 evaporates into the air, leaving behind wine. Still, winemakers must work hard to provide perfect conditions for nature to take its course. Despite their best efforts, each year there are large amounts of waste and surplus wine produced that don't meet industry standards for quality and flavor, and thus never make it into a bottle.