From the Archives: ScienceOnline’09 Winetasting (and a new, alcohol-free PSA)

I had a Twitter exchange last night with ScienceOnline2012 co-organizer Karyn Traphagen about a great upcoming event at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC, the place where she works when not running the behind-the-scenes madness. On February 9, they will be hosting a Science of Wine event and she mused on Twitter as to whether such a thing would be good to have for this year’s ScienceOnline meeting.

The conversation brought back lovely memories of such a similar event I put together for the unconference in 2009. I revived the following post from back then to illustrate the fun community that comes together around SciencesOnline (is that the proper plural form?).

However, I do want to make the point that despite much attention to the ethanolic libations at ScienceOnline (see the #drunksci Twitter hashtag), we are also very sensitive to those who may not wish to consume alcohol for cultural or medical reasons. (FYI, we had Bora walking around the winetasting with his characteristic glass of Coke – the soda, not the alkaloid).

As scientists, we know that 18 million US citizens have an alcohol use disorder, a rate of roughly 6% (source: NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking). Assuming that rate is roughly the same across all US and international attendees, that means around 30 ScienceOnliners are likely to wish to stay away from alcohol for health reasons – plus those who otherwise don’t drink. Just so those of you know, it’s totally cool and this is a truly accepting and understanding crowd. You’ll still have fun and you will certainly have other compatriots. I have been known to consume large quantities of club soda with lime so you can hang with me.

But for those of you wishing to imbibe, you may care to read a bit about how we’ve approached it in the past, in a responsible and intellectually-satisfying manner. With 56% of this year’s attendees coming for the first time, here’s a little taste – as it were – of the awesomesauce that is ScienceOnline.


This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 3 April 2009.

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Arikia Millikan, then-Intern at ScienceBlogs.com (now gainfully employed Ex-Intern), demonstrates her facility in liveblogging the comparison between two pinot noirs.

So why has it taken me exactly 11 weeks to write this post? I think it’s because once we post it, I have to let go of how awesome this event was. But, this post has been sitting in my queue for way too long. So, now, I must finally tell all regular readers about our proposed live winetasting on 16 January at ScienceOnline’09.


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As you may know, about 240 science bloggers and associated miscreants gathered in Research Triangle Park, NC, in mid-January to discuss all things about communicating science online. On the opening night of the conference, the Duke University Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) group sponsored a fantastic talk by journalist, Rebecca Skloot, author of the upcoming book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and blogger at Culture Dish.


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In the hour prior to Rebecca’s talk, I had gathered a couple dozen folks who signed up in advance to join me to compare four really nice wines, selected for the occasion by Craig Heffley (Grand Poobah Wine Swami), co-owner of Wine Authorities, an internationally-recognized Durham, NC, wine merchant and community resource and gathering place.

With his business partner, Seth Gross, away in Austria and Germany on a wine scouting trip (which he blogged), Craig was still generous enough to spend about an hour-and-a-half with me at the store coming up with these selections for The Friday Fermentable Live! The group of 20-25 was comprised of first-time wine tasters and experienced enthusiasts, local Bull City folk and guests from Berlin, Helsinki, and Toronto, youngsters of 22 and others of us, uh, older than 22.

I’ve gotta hand it to Craig for recognizing the wide variety of folks we were trying to please. After much deliberation, we concurred on having a demonstration of Old World and New World wines from the same grape and then show off a nice American red comparison.

Craig suggested a fine American chardonnay to compare with a French white Burgundy:

2005 Lynmar Estate Chardonnay (Russian River Valley, CA) – $33.99
2005 Eric de Suremain, Rully 1er Cru Blanc (Burgundy, France) – $27.99

For the American red, Craig suggested we compare a California pinot noir with that of Oregon, where pinot is doing best in the States.

2007 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills, CA) – $37.99
2006 Lemelson Pinot Noir, Thea’s Selection (Willamette Valley, Oregon) – $36.99

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Yes, yes, I know that these price points are well outside my normally stated goals for postdoc- or grad student-friendly wines but, hell, I was buying and these people are my friends, or at least friends that I hadn’t yet met.

Let it go forth from this time and place: if you come to my town, you get treated well. (My Mom will remember my late father saying to my college friends who I’d bring home, “We don’t want you to go home and tell your family you were at the Kroll’s house and they didn’t give you enough to eat or drink.”)

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Scicurious held forth on the concept of “legs”: the characteristic of wine that causes it to remain or ride up on the inside of the glass upon swirling. In many cases, this is due to the viscosity of the wine and its glycerol content. This characteristic is often used as a determinant of a wine’s quality. Sadly, some winemakers now add glycerol to their wines to make them appear higher in quality. Damn chemistry!

The chardonnays gave us a chance to talk about other microorganisms used in the fermentation process besides yeast. The process of malolactic fermentation is often used for chardonnay, usually with Oenococcus oeni or a Lactobacillus spp., to “soften” the wine in converting malic acid (a typical apple flavor) to lactic acid (a smoother, milk/cheese flavor). Together with the vanillin extracted by aging in oak barrels, this approach imparts a creamy flavor to the wine.

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Our colleague, PalMD, who knows everything from the pharmacotherapy of sexually-transmitted diseases to writing about the humanity of being a father and physician, pretty much crystallized and moderated the discussion. Not only does the camera love PalMD, but he is exactly the warm soul in person that you would anticipate from his writing. And even though we moderated a session the next day on pseudonymity and building a reputation in blogging, we still did not spend enough time together.

And here is Prof Janet Stemwedel (aka Dr Free-Ride) demonstrating her focus and dedication to the task at hand, appropriately kneeling at the altar of wine:

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About halfway through, the Ex-Intern, Arikia Millikan (featured at the top of the post), reminded me that I had signed up with Ustream.tv to send out live video of the tasting, so caught up was I in the socializing. We did get the session up and were then joined by DrugMonkey, Isis, and Mike Dunford (The Questionable Authority), with GrrlScientist at the controls of the chat board. I have no idea what was said under my username and am glad that the broadcast was not saved to the archives. Next year, I’ll try to be sure to have this working from the start and announce the wines in advance so that all of you could join us.

There is obviously much more to write but I have the good fortune of conducting this winetasting with fellow bloggers. So, many thanks to all who joined us and blogged about our Friday evening:

Adventures in Ethics and Science – Janet Stemwedel – ScienceOnline’09: Live-blogging a Friday Fermentable wine tasting

björn.brembs.blog – Björn Brembs – ScienceOnline09: FridayFermentable liveblogging wine tasting

Deep Thoughts and Silliness – Bob O’Hara – ScienceOnline09: Live-blogging the wine tasting

Expression Patterns – Eva Amsen – Friday Fermentable Liveblog

Fairer Science – Pat Campbell – First wines

Lecturer Notes – Propter Doc – The Friday Fermentable

Sciencewomen – Sciencewoman – Friday night at ScienceOnline

the path forward – leigh – leigh is a busy, busy bee

Thesis – with Children – acmegirl – Liveblogging – with Wine

For those of you interested in more economically approachable wines, Craig also selected the two offerings served for the Duke WiSE reception before Rebecca’s talk, a 2007 Valdesil Godello “Montenovo” (Valdeoras, Spain – $11.99) and a 2007 Altosur Malbec (Tupungato, Mendoza, Argentina – $9.99). Hitting a varied group of nearly 300 attendees for Rebecca’s talk, Craig suggested the Godello not only because it is my new favorite white grape, but because it exhibits the best of many styles without being pigeonholed – a clean balance of the mineral soils of northwestern Spain with white peach and pear flavors. Craig and Seth have also had the Altosur Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon on their Enomatic and I’m hardpressed to find another $10 bottle of this quality and complexity. Craig suggested we offer the Malbec because, “You never hear anyone say they hate Malbec.” Good enough for me.

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Finally, for the Saturday night banquet I arranged at the Radisson RTP, headquarters hotel for the conference, I had an ethical responsibility to be sure our guests were not subjected to the hotel house wine, Trinity Oaks, insipid corporate plonk for which they charged $20/bottle. (In contrast, the food was superb and the hotel staff amazingly accommodating to our guests.). Even with the hotel’s $10 corkage fee, Craig helped me bring in two lovely $10 offerings that were far superior for the same $20 total:

2008 Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch, South Africa)

2006 Domaine Pinchinat, Venus de Pinchinat Rouge (Provence, France)

I was particularly pleased with these two, especially after the German, Swedish, and M.D. Anderson-trained scientist, Björn Brembs, stopped me the next day to tell me that he and his ladyfriend enjoyed both – high praise from a globetrotting scientist who hails from the only European city where I’ve been invited to speak (Würzburg, Germany) and one of my favorite wine appellations, Franconia.

Anyway, if there is a ScienceOnline’10, I hope to host another wine tasting if for nothing else than to spend some fun time with my valued colleagues, readers, colleagues who have become readers, and readers who have become colleagues.



Photo credits:

Me: Arikia Millikan, PalMD, computer screen

Eva Amsen: Janet Stemwedel

AlexKL: Tom Kibler, Radisson dinner
In fact, Alex has the best collection of photographs from the entire weekend, including several more from the tasting and a superb shot of Rebecca after her talk.

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