January 26, 2015


NATHAN MYHRVOLD, MYTH BUSTER : He was the physicist who went to Microsoft and made his fortune. These days he's a tycoon, philanthropist, dino-hunter, bestselling author and barbecue champion, who has discovered the most scientific way to enjoy claret. (Alex Renton, January/February 2015, Intelligent Life)

EVERY YEAR A list of the world's 100 greatest thinkers appears in Foreign Policy magazine, and most years Nathan Myhrvold is on it. An inventor, scientist, patent tycoon and Bill Gates's "second brain" in Microsoft's tiger years, Myhrvold is not well known outside geekdom and the arcane world of intellectual property. But he may be more useful than most great thinkers. When did Stephen Hawking or Pope Francis actually do something that might improve your daily life? Myhrvold, who had a post-doctoral fellowship under Hawking, achieves that quite frequently. I meet him in Vancouver, where he is giving the keynote speech to a conference of intellectual-property traders and lawyers. Few people combine pleasure and business with the gusto of Myhrvold, who has been touring Vancouver's best restaurants. At one it was decided that a bottle of Bordeaux wasn't quite right. "We were sending it back, and I said 'No, wait a minute--let's put salt into it.' Which was actually excellent. Then we took it into the kitchen and blended it. That really freaked the sommelier out." Myhrvold cackles his contagious laugh, a pitch higher than you'd expect from his solid frame.

Adding salt to wine, a tiny pinch to a glass, is a new idea, not yet fully tested. But blending wine--or, in Myhrvold's phrase, hyper-decanting--has already rattled the wine world ("It has made the experts frothing mad," he giggles). With the chefs and scientists who work with him on his "Modernist Cuisine" books he set out to try all the mechanical methods of making sure wine is at its best when it is time to drink it, from an old-fashioned decanter to aerators that draw oxygen into the stream as it is poured.

The most effective was simple and cheap: frappé it in a blender at top speed and drink it within an hour or so. Myhrvold has risked a bottle of 1982 Château Margaux, worth several thousand pounds, on this: it is one of his most famous feats. As we walk along a Vancouver street, a passer-by stops us to tell Myhrvold of his hyperdecanting experiences at pompous parties. For the man, it's a happy way to challenge received wisdom and discomfort smug experts. For Myhrvold, too, these are favourite pastimes.

He and the team are convinced that hyperdecanting "invariably improves red wines", but, of course, they cannot prove it. Matters of taste are frustrating, that way. There is little absolute evidence of success in food and drink--how do you measure the best?--which may explain why scientists do not often stray into the kitchen. Myhrvold's team recruited wine experts to do triangle tests (with three glasses of the same wine, two blended, one not) to establish the value of hyperdecanting. But they turned out to be less consistent even than ordinary people: in triangle tests, the Masters of Wine could not give the same verdict on two glasses treated identically.

This failure gives Myhrvold great joy. "Wine experts! They cannot tell white from red, if you blindfold them. There's a famous experiment, where they tinted a white wine with food colouring, and they end up writing them up like a red wine." (I looked up this cruel exercise and found that it was done by Frédéric Brochet of the oenology department of the University of Bordeaux in 2001. He fooled 54 critics into thinking two glasses of the same white wine were different, simply by adding food colouring to one of them. The red was praised for being "jammy" and having a savour of "crushed red fruit".) "The thing is that taste in wine is quite context-dependent. There was another great experiment where they took a bunch of wines and took the wine critics' descriptions of each and asked them--'Can you match them?' Could they? No!" He bubbles with laughter, a mischievous, beguiling imp.

Posted by at January 26, 2015 3:16 PM

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