I went in for wine tastings, and left with a view into wine science

I’m not a wine connoisseur, but through visits to various vineyards this spring, I not only took home delicious new wine varieties but also caught a glimpse of the intricate choices in wine making that shape our wines.

With a tasting menu in hand, I awaited the winery staff to ask the exciting question: “Which wine would you like to try?”

1703I would usually reach for the classic white wines and red wines, but deferring to the wineries’ recommended specialties, I was pleasantly surprised by their varieties of ice wines, fruit wines, and rosés.

Though ice wines often can be excessively sweet, Lulu Island Winery offered a unique Pinot Gris which let me savor the distinct ice wine flavor without the heavy sweetness. Meanwhile at Paumanok Vineyards in Long Island, New York, their award-winning 2014 Semi-dry Riesling and Vin Rosé became my new favorites.

Since a rosé was not on my radar much before then, I asked, “What makes a rosé wine?” One casual question led to another, and in the developing discussion with the winery experts, the wine making process became much more imaginable.

  • Starting with the basics, using only the pulp of grapes makes a white wine, but leaving the grape skins on slightly longer into the wine making process makes a rosé. Also compare the amount of grapes in one bottle of wine: the 750ml bottle of Pinot Gris I tasted was made from 3-5 pounds of grapes, whereas the same size bottle of their ice wine uses 30-35 pounds of grapes for a white ice wine, or 60 pounds for a red ice wine variety (12 – 20 times more grapes!). For ice wines, harvesting the grapes later into the freezing days of winter ripens and concentrates the grapes, and allows to compress a lot of grapes’ sweetness into one bottle of ice wine.
  • Those are the broad types of wine, but every step of wine making affects a wine’s finish: from handling the crop plant and soil, to adjusting the subtle flavors and aromas with different ingredients and fermentation processes, and to bottling and sealing.
    Knowing the chemistry and processes of wine making, can wineries consistently make their great wines like the Lulu Island Pinot Gris, Paumanok 2014 Semi-dry Riesling, and Vin Rosé? Here is what scientists have done for us to help advance wine making; without them, we won’t have the wines we enjoy today. Yet, as Paumanok Vineyards credited their great harvests in winning the New York Winery of the Year of 2015, consistent processes also depend on the source materials. 
  • Also, a wine’s flavor is not only based on what we can analyze with numbers; the flavor is affected by human perception. Lulu Island Winery’s white ice wines came in two flavors: a Riesling Chardonnay with honey flavors and a Viognier with mango flavors. Interestingly, most people naturally associate honey with a sweet taste, so even though scientifically the sweetness rating is higher for the mango flavored ice wine, the honey feels more sweet and heavy, and the mango more refreshing.
    A more in-depth look of how scientists study the relationship between taste, smell, and our personal perception and tolerance to different tastes is covered in this article on wine tasting.

Comparing different flavors of wine is also comparing wine makers’ careful choices in the wine making process and our tastes. The science behind delicious wine is better learned with tastings, isn’t it?
I welcome stories about everyone’s favorite wine tastings! 


Cracking the code: color

“Marble berries” have fruits that are not only blue, but shiny, metallic blue. Close up, you can also see flickers of rainbow colors. As the berries’ leaves eventually wither from bright green to dull brown, you would expect these bright blue colors to disappear as well, but somehow the fruits keep the same polished blue color for months, years, and even decades.

Now, soap bubbles may be transparent, but the light somehow makes rainbow colors on the surface as the bubbles float into the sky. Marble berries and soap bubbles actually have colors made in similar ways –  and this is the secret to why marble berries have luminous and long-lasting colors.

Link to original image on flickr.com
Soap bubbles by Martin Fisch.

Surprisingly, it was was a physicist working in materials chemistry who taught me how this plant produces color. By modifying a basic plant material, cellulose, Dr. Silvia Vignolini is trying to recreate the marble berry (Pollia condensata)’s intense blue colors. Imagine if we could make long-lasting color to paint our houses or dye our clothes so they don’t fade, won’t turn white with bleach, and are much cheaper than dyes we currently use.

A key point is that the marble berry and soap bubbles’s colors are produced by structural color. The berry is smooth, but on a microscopic (or even smaller nano-) scale, the berry has stacks of tiny arc-shaped structures on the surface. These shapes help amplify reflected light to produce an intense blue. Different thicknesses of cellulose add red and green to the mix, helping to create a hologram effect. Usually, we see color because of a material’s inherent chemical properties (pigment/dye), but pigment would degrade after a while and the color fades. With structure creating color, the marble berries stay vivid metallic blue as long as the surface structures stay intact.

So far, blue is the most common structural color, but there are lots of other examples of structural color: the sparkly red on hummingbird necks, cat eyes glowing in the dark, or peacock feathers that change color depending on the angle you look at them…we’re making progress to crack the code for nature’s vivid colors.


Inspired by the presentation: Vignolini, Silvia. “Photonic Structures in Plants and Cellulose Biomimetic: From Nature to Materials.” University of British Columbia. Vancouver, BC. 27 Jun 2014. Related publication (

Christmas encounter with alpacas

“Come touch these!” I called over to my friends at the Christmas market booth. I thought I found the softest fur I ever touched.

“They’re from alpacas.” The shopkeeper walked over and I shyly drew back my hand, but he smiled and continued. “The special thing about alpaca, is that each strand of fur is a hollow tube. It’s not a twisted fiber like sheep’s wool, so there are no rough edges.”

Alpacas and scarves made from alpaca fiber. Photo by Maki Sumitani.

Alpacas are animals in the same family as llamas and camels. They have very long and full fur, so their annual haircut gives us alpaca fleece that can be used to make scarves, hats, socks, and incredibly soft stuffed animals like the ones I encountered at the market. Continue reading

December 31, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

Build a window workshop

Link to original photo on flickr.
Cutting out the sun. Photo by Sam Hughes.

There’s more to window technology than putting together sheets of glass. Some claim you can feel 10°C cooler inside with more efficient windows…how do they do it?

I moved in to a great new apartment with big windows and bright rooms. Unfortunately, summer and west-facing makes a dreading hot room in the evening.

That’s why some big bold letters “feel 10°C cooler” caught my eye. It was advertising a new window product that effectively turns a normal window into a double-paned (or double-glazed) window. Another exaggerated ad, I thought. Sunlight through a window is like pouring boiling water into Continue reading

September 3, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

A life without air conditioning

Here are some numbers for how much energy we spend for making ourselves warm or cool in the changing weather. National Geographic says 47% of the world’s energy is spent on heating, way more than transportation at 27%. If you consider just your home, the number goes up to 60%, says HRAI Canada. Are we supposed to get rid of this energy use completely?—that sounds a bit too drastic for me who cuddles in front of the heater every day these winter days. Still, a lifestyle without any heating or air conditioning existed much closer to home than I thought.

This story takes place in a tea ceremony house in Kyoto, Japan. Continue reading

October 17, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

Squeeze More from Every Drop –inspired by the video

How much do you think of water as a “precious resource”? Of course I appreciate water after a long, hot day on my first sip to quench my thirst. But we hear much stronger calls to “conserve water.” Water is so easily available at home, there’s tons of water in the ocean and lakes, it even rains all the time in Vancouver! So why do we need to conserve water?

Think of how much of the water we see can be labeled “drinking water.” To obtain water appropriate for drinking or washing, the water needs to go through treatment plants that purify water. Once used, the waste water going down the drain is then processed in waste plants, returned to the environment, and entered into natural water cycles that makes water available again. This means that if we use up water faster than nature can replenish, we’re continuously draining our water resource, energy and money.

And this is what is happening with our current lifestyle. Lots of water use depletes the “clean” water we have, while adding more work to the wastewater plants and nature to recycle the water into something usable for us. The impact dirty wastewater has on our water and wildlife opens up a whole new door of problems as well.

So how can we help? Mr. Water in this humorous video shows very well where we find water in our daily lives and provides hints to “squeeze more from every drop” to help conserve water. Next time I walk to the sink, I’ll see if I can pour more into our human-water “relationship.”


(This article was published in December 2012 on At this time the news magazine and Community of Accounting and Business Professionals blog)