“When students discover something in the laboratory, they need to be able to communicate what that discovery means and how it can be applied to everybody’s life. Students with a liberal arts education can do that.”
Connoisseurs might tell you a particular bottle of wine is complex. Most probably don’t realize the depth of the complexity.
Jerry Seebach does.
Among his areas of interest is the oxidation of wine. “There are about 1,000 to 2,000 different components in a bottle of wine,” Seebach said. He hasn’t studied them all—but he’s working on it.
During a recent sabbatical, Seebach worked with a respected member of the enology department at the University of California, Davis. They were researching what causes oxidation of wine.
What role does copper play? Iron? “We found that this reaction is pushed along if there is dissolved copper or iron present in the wine.” Whether extracted from the soil by the plants themselves or introduced by a knife used to cut the vines, both elements are indigenous to wine. “You can’t totally remove them. Even at 10 to 20 ppm (which is not a very large amount), they will continue to catalyze this oxidation process.”
After a bottle of wine is opened, the ingredients are oxidized, “and that improves the taste for a short period of time,” Seebach said. “We also know that an opened bottle of white wine will be no good in a day or two. It will degrade. Red wine isn’t as bad because of the extra ingredients used to make the red wine. The same ingredients in red wine that they talk about being good for you for added health benefits—the antioxidants—can stop the oxidation process. Three or four days after opening a bottle of red wine, it’s still good to drink.”
Seebach also studies how flavors are extracted from toasted American oak and how that affects the production of bourbon. It appears to depend in part on temperature. “During the summertime, the alcohol goes more deeply into the staves. During the wintertime, when it’s cold, the alcohol comes back out. In the near future I expect distillers may start controlling their warehouse temperatures to get a competitive edge.”
His students “get a kick out of working with the liquor industry. It’s a way to get them to see how science relates to a segment of the economy.”
One of his students in his third year of working on the oak project attended an American Chemical Society meeting in San Diego. “He talked with the owner of a winery, and they understood each other. It let the student know that his research was worthwhile.”
Seeing practical applications for their work helps chemistry students get through times when research can be painstaking. “Chemistry research is not a nine-to-five job. Reactions sometimes take longer than you hope for. It can be dull drudgery. We’ve been working on the wine project for four years, and we may have looked at 20 chemicals in those four years.”