Laser treatment

A physicist with a passion for wine is researching a way to shed light on old problems. Felicity Carter reports.

The team at VeriVin: Drs Edoardo Ceci Ginistrelli, Cecilia Muldoon, Axel Kuhn, Paul Bertier and Joscha Gutjahr
The team at VeriVin: Drs Edoardo Ceci Ginistrelli, Cecilia Muldoon, Axel Kuhn, Paul Bertier and Joscha Gutjahr

Dr Cecilia Muldoon was on a train in Switzerland when she took a phone call from her boyfriend, who had a question. Why was nobody applying optical spectroscopy to wine? It’s not the kind of conversation most people have on the way to work. But Dr Muldoon, a physicist, thought about the question for the next two years. Finally, in 2013, she created the company that is now VeriVin, whose purpose is to apply laser technology to wine.

If she and her team succeed, they will upend the wine world. Dr Muldoon wants to be able to offer a diagnostic test for cork taint, and a way to determine if a wine is fake or not — all without opening the bottle.

Brilliant idea

After studying physics and finance at Princeton University, Dr Muldoon headed to the University of Oxford to do a PhD in atomic and laser physics. With five languages under her belt, plus a talent for ballet, she’s not what you’d call an underachiever — and at Oxford she developed another skill. “I joined one of the university’s wine clubs, the Oxford University Wine Circle, and eventually ended up running it,” she says. Not only that, she ended up co-running the competitive blind tasting team. Dr Muldoon fell so hard for wine that her supervisor asked her if she was doing a PhD in physics or wine. Today, she also holds the WSET Diploma.

The marriage of the two disciplines gave her a unique idea: that optical spectroscopy might reveal some of the chemical secrets in wine. At its simplest, optical spectroscopy is a technique for shining a light at something, then interpreting the scattered light. “This outgoing scattered light will contain faint ‘fingerprints’ of the different molecules or atoms present in the object,” says Dr Muldoon.

Her aim is to develop a way to use spectroscopy to characterise a bottle of wine. The challenge is formidable, as “wine is second only to blood in its complexity” because it consists of around 85 percent to 87 percent water and 12 percent to 14 percent ethanol. The compounds that make wine unique — flavonoids and so on — make up the remaining one to two percent. Not only are there a thousand or more of these, but many of them “look kind of similar”. Dr Muldoon says that many of these compounds have been studied with chromatography mass spectrometry, but “these machines are mostly really large and expensive and the technique is necessarily invasive”. 

In the first instance, the search will be on for TCA, the molecule behind cork taint. “We are also working on one product that will give us a sort of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the presence of only one type of molecule.” Armed with that knowledge, it could be possible to create a commercial laser that could be directed at a bottling line, to identify any bottles with TCA in them. This would be done at many times the speed of a human tester, without the need to open the bottle. “It sounds nutty, but the physics is actually sensible enough that we were awarded an Innovate UK Quantum Technologies grant to do this,” she says.

Dr Muldoon would ultimately like to develop a test to characterise specific wines. A sought-after Bordeaux, for example, would be analysed shortly after bottling, then during its life in the chateau cellar. This would be the control bottle, against which subsequent bottles of that wine would be assessed. “We envision a tool which allows for the molecular ID tag of a bottle to be uploaded on to a database and its progress monitored as it ages,” she explains. Then when a bottle from that vintage came up for auction, it would be compared to the control bottle, to assess its authenticity and condition. Being able to judge its condition would allow it to be priced properly. 

“I see the applications as falling into four camps: fault detection, anti-counterfeiting, taste profiling and detailed characterisation,” says Dr Muldoon. 

Of course, if the day comes that VeriVin does develop this commercial technology, it will have applications far beyond wine, from healthcare to identifying fake olive oil. Dr Muldoon adds that most of her colleagues believe she’s only using wine and spirits as a testing base, before she goes on to more serious things, but she says she’s in it for the wine. “I am still amazed at how much I keep on discovering about wine and spirits.”

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