Drowning in a world of science

Although I grew up with the advertising slogan "Better Living Through Chemistry," I never felt comfortable around bubbling beakers, pointy pipettes and funky fumes.

In high school, my friend, Lois, and I were forced into an advanced chemistry class, and I mostly remember burning our hair accidentally and repeatedly on the Bunsen burners. Somehow, by memorizing the staggered periodic table (who can forget the noble gases and that Fe, not Ir, stands for iron?), I was allowed to escape with a B and never looked back.

Until now. Most of my days are spent with wine growers and winemakers (called "viticulturalists" and "enologists" in nerd lingo), and all of their talk is centered on science. While I may want to compare the lip-puckering tang of a German-style riesling to Sweet Tarts, they want to go into great detail about titratable acidity, tested with an Erlenmeyer flask and drops of phenolphthalein.

If I mention how much I rely on alcohol, they wax on about how they calculate alcohol concentration by using an ebuiliometer to compare the boiling point of wine with water, but only after they have measured the barometric pressure. I say "potato," and they say "n[C6H12O6]."

You can see that many times we are not speaking the same language, and I guess it's up to me to bridge the gap with those Poindexters.

So I turned to Linda Donovan, a smart scientist who makes wonderful wine and can explain the process to someone whose mind wanders when talk exceeds the Baby Einstein level.

Linda is the owner of L. Donovan Wines and Pallet Wine Co., a custom-crush facility in downtown Medford where she advises wine producers at all stages, from which vines to plant after studying climatic and soil conditions, to when it's time to harvest based on the brix level as measured by a refractometer that looks like a kaleidoscope with a glass tongue.

She uses all types of other scientific devices to monitor the wine's health and happiness every inch of the way until it leaves her facility. (I'm surprised she doesn't strap a GPS tracker around the bottle to follow it and make sure we drink it at the proper temperature. But that may seem intrusive, and she is kind of busy with other things.)

On the afternoon I came to visit, she wasn't wearing an intimidating, white lab coat, and she laughed a lot. This put me at ease, as did the fabulously alluring scent of young wines aging away in a former lumber warehouse.

Her tidy laboratory is on the sunny, second floor of the building. Nesting on the ground level are 3,000-gallon stainless-steel tanks, a 15-bottles-per-minute bottling machine and a potentially out-of-control forklift.

Below the ground floor rests the really heavy stuff: barrels and barrels filled with more than 30 different varietals, mostly pinot noir, grenache and chardonnay. Each oak barrel holds the equivalent of 280 bottles of wine, enough to get me through my day.

In the white-walled lab, there is a sink underneath a window, reminding me of my kitchen. OK. I'm feeling even more comfortable. There are drawers filled with utensils, cupboards lined with glassware and a counter holding small appliances. Some I recognize: a coffee maker, a microwave. Below them, a mini refrigerator. So far, so good.

But then Linda starts to talk about testing squeezed grapes with a temperature-compensating probe attached to a pH meter, a device that looks like a gray phone-answering machine, and she tells me something about a "simple test" that is critical because spoilage microbes can invade if the pH is approaching the "magic number of 4.0," and suddenly my mind flies out the window and I notice a guy on a bike. Fascinating.

Standing near gizmos and gadgets, plastic bottles with bent, strawlike thingamajigs, bulbous, glass containers, percolating chambers and dangling hoses, Linda also explains about acid levels and how she can prevent wine from turning into vinegar, and I casually glance over her shoulder toward her computer and wonder if she has ever played the video game "Grand Theft Auto V," but then I remember she has chemistry and enology degrees from the University of California, Davis. With her refined mind and palate, surely she would be playing "Lollipop Chainsaw." If she weren't so busy.

Then I looked at the notes I had scribbled on my palm and asked her to explain why she uses the more European approach to winemaking that relies on natural yeast fermentation instead of gum arabic to increase the mouth feel or gelatins or egg whites to Franken-food the wine. She explains that she loves chemistry but uses it sparingly.

"We do very little," she says, adding, "sanitation is high, but the right decisions made along the way mean you don't have to put in additives."

I'm impressed. You can meet Linda and peek at her towering, stainless-steel tanks at the Wine-a-Palooza Dock Sale from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 19 at Pallet, 340 N. Fir Street, Medford. Cases are priced at $125 to $175, and bottles can be mixed.

If you like the idea of buying wine at a discount, ask your favorite tasting-room staffers when they are having their next case sale. You'll be surprised.

EVENT: The Science of Wine — three days of exploring, eating and drinking to fund educational programs for ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum in Ashland — is my favorite fundraiser. Events start with a four-course winemaker dinner ($75 to $85) May 3 at Ashland Springs Hotel.

The following day, ticket holders ($15 to $20) will sample wines at ScienceWorks while learning from Phil Burton of Barrel Builders how a wine barrel is banged together, from John Quinones of RoxyAnn Winery how the barrel's toast changes the taste of wine, from Ron Stringfield of Galaxy Wine Distributors about distinct traits of French varietals and from Donovan how wine, bread, yogurt and pickles benefit from fermentation.

Then more than 400 people will wander through the massive museum May 5 for the Midnight in Paris Science of Wine Gala ($55-$65). They will be lured from room to room, from tasting table to tasting table by live, Cole Porter-inspired music and opportunities to talk to more than a dozen winemakers about French varieties planted locally. (In the spirit of the evening's theme, please tell me the vintners will be wearing jaunty, burgundy berets.) Learn more at www.scienceworksmuseum.org.

COMING SOON: Rogue Opera is performing Gaetano Donizetti's comedy, "Elixir of Love," an Italian opera "about a wine masquerading as a love potion," explains board member David Works. The opera will be staged May 4 and 6 at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford and May 12 at the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center. To commemorate the love triangle, bottles of 2007 Red Lily Tempranillo ($35-$55) have been outfitted with a new label created by Jacksonville artist Katharine Gracey. The art depicts a redhead in a red dress gazing at a vineyard dangerously close to a red, heart-shaped potion container. Watch for it.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com.

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