“Making good wine is a skill. Fine wine is an art.”
The words are Robert Mondavi’s in Harvests of Joy, an autobiography by one of the pioneers of the wine industry. But exceptional wines and beers owe as much to skill and attention to detail as they do to a painter’s flair for creativity, say three crafters from the university’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Scientists Tom Stevens, Jeremiah Marsden and Micah Bodner use their backgrounds in research to produce noteworthy wines and beers. The precision they bring to their work also applies to this wholly satisfying hobby, whether their libations are meant for the market or simply the enjoyment of family and friends.
It's All in the Yeast
Tom Stevens, a biochemist with the UO Institute of Molecular Biology, knows everything there is to know about yeasts. He’s been studying these hard-working, unicellular wonders for more than 30 years, and uses an array of biochemical, biological and molecular approaches to uncover esoteric processes such as how yeast cells sort proteins and assemble membranes.
But use yeast to produce an award-winning merlot? To Stevens, it sounded like rocket science.
That was in the 1980s, before Stevens met Joel Rothman, then a new graduate student in his lab fresh from the Sonoma wine industry, who convinced him that a love of grapes and a background in science were the only ingredients necessary to create unforgettable chardonnays and cabernets.
Rothman, now chair of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, “demystified” wine-making, Stevens said. Together with Stevens’ wife, Flo DeLaney, and a handful of graduate and undergraduate students, they began dabbling in the centuries-old craft.
Stevens has never looked back. Today, Tom and Flo run Gremlin Cellars out of their home in downtown Eugene, annually producing 300 bottles of reds and whites that go to family, friends and the occasional charitable auction.
Stevens’ research background enabled him to quickly grasp critical wine-making variables such as the life cycle of yeast, what they need to grow and how to protect the process from an intrusion of oxygen—the bane of good wine, sure to rob a bottle of its fruitiness, he noted.
Stevens brings a scientific interpretation to his wine-making; he has charted every phosphate, sulfite and diphosphoglycerate necessary to the process. He also gives talks on wine-making—complete with quizzes—that have been well-received not just by the general public but by his colleagues in chemistry.
But Stevens also enjoys the creative aspects of wine-making that Mondavi found so important.
“Most scientists have something else in their lives—music, art, wine-making—because they use both hemispheres of their brain,” Stevens said. “I think of making wine as an artistic outlet. There’s an aesthetic pleasure.”
Belgian Blonde and Flanders Red
Jeremiah Marsden started making beer as an undergraduate in South Dakota more than 14 years ago. His only education in brewing came from a book and, to be blunt, that’s the way his beers tasted—like the pages of one.
“I made some pretty crappy home brew,” Marsden said, chuckling.
That was before the Ph.D. in chemistry, which Marsden received from the UO in 2005. Today Marsden spends his days doing contract research for pharmaceutical companies and his nights and weekends piling up awards as one of the better amateur brewers in the Eugene area.
Marsden’s chemistry training has given him new appreciation for the complexities involved in producing a barrel-aged Belgian blonde or a Flanders red with just the right mix of tart, sour flavor, malt character and hints of wood and vanilla. He earned first-place honors for both at this year’s KLCC Beer Festival, a top local competition.
There are corners of Marsden’s home that resemble mini-laboratories. In the laundry room, the washer and dryer share space with a conical, stainless steel fermenter; out back, a storage shed reveals a keggle—a keg minus its top—and a mix of copper coils that, together, ensure that Marsden has a clinician’s control over every aspect of the brewing process.
“Maintaining a proper fermentation temperature is critical for yeast health, avoiding off-flavors and for producing the desired flavors and aromas for the beer style,” Marsden said. Lack of temperature control, he added, “is a common mistake for new brewers.”
Like any good scientist, Marsden also has a taste for experiments. As a member of the Cascade Brewers Society, he participates each year in the club’s tongue-in-cheek “weird ingredient” competition; he won the contest in 2009 for producing a beer seasoned with a pork chop—even the vegetarian judge liked it, he said.
“Having those lab skills—attention to detail, knowledge of the processes—and being able to make a change to your beer and detect that in the finished product—it’s pretty cool,” Marsden said.
Marsden lobbied his wife for permission to complete their living room with an eight-tap kegerator always at the ready to serve his brews up to family and friends. “She said as long as it looks like a nice piece of furniture, it’s cool,” Marsden said.
His has solid walnut trim, granite tile and a back-lit, stone backsplash.
The Freedom of Not Having Complete Control
“The biggest advantage of being a scientist is not when things go right,” Micah Bodner said, “but when things go wrong.”
Bodner dipped a plastic pipette—it’s called a “wine thief”—into a 150-gallon fermenter, extracted some of his 2011 Riesling, poured a glass and extended it for sampling. One sip, and bright flavors danced on the tongue—bubbly green apple, the hint of minerals, a tempting sweetness. It tasted like springtime.
The sweetness had presented a tricky little science problem for Bodner, who received an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the university and now works as a postdoctoral research associate in the Institute of Molecular Biology.
The Riesling had completed fermentation when Bodner noticed recently that it was beginning the process again: yeasts were again consuming sugars in the wine, threatening to eliminate that residual sweetness Bodner wanted to retain. The knee-jerk reaction would be to add a preservative, but Bodner knew from his education that it wouldn’t stop fermentation in progress.
But a drop in temperature would—so Bodner threw open the doors of the barn in Pleasant Hill where he runs a small-scale commercial winery with his wife, Laura, on their family’s property. Problem solved.
Bodner Wine Co. (www.bodnerwinecompany.com), just two years old, sells Rieslings and pinot noirs in Eugene grocers Kiva, Sundance and the Market of Choice on Willakenzie. The Bodners also sell directly to consumers, wine shops and restaurants.
Laura, who graduated from the UO in 2003 with a double major in journalism and Spanish, handles sales and marketing while Micah takes care of the science. She laughed at the complexity of the enology books the couple referred to for background—“it was all Greek to me,” Laura said—but Bodner quickly recognized wine-making particulars such as titration, acids and molecular composition as concepts he’d been studying for years.
Bodner finds, in his hobby, a flexibility absent from his day job. In the IMB, he must account, with painstaking attention, for every variable; if his work is off by even the smallest of margins, the project fails.
But with wine-making, Bodner said, his task is simply to create an environment in which the wine can be its best. Subtle differences in the finished product from year to year become mementos for the conditions at the time the grapes were picked—following an especially wet spring, for example, or during a summer heat wave.
“There’s so much variety in wine beyond what you can analyze—it’s really the neat thing about it,” Bodner said. “I don’t have all the control. You feel like you get to be out there and be part of the world rather than trying to analyze everything. I’ve enjoyed science a lot more since I started this.”
—Story and photos by Matt Cooper