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Molecular engineering is improving the wines we drink.

For centuries, wine was simply fermented grape juice, and the amount of alcohol in it depended solely on the sugar levels of the grapes at the time of harvest.

That works fine in Europe, where the sun comes out just enough to give winemakers grapes that ripen fully and yield a modest 12 percent alcohol. And if the sun fails to come out, there's always sugar. Adding sugar during fermentation can make the difference between something insipid and something with enough alcohol to carry the full flavors of the grapes.

But in California, we have the opposite problem. Too much sun can increase grape sugars so fast that the grapes must be picked before they are physiologically mature. So winemakers face a dilemma: either make wine with moderate alcohol but unripe flavors, or make wine with ripe flavor but higher-than-needed alcohol, making for a rough, hot taste. Unfortunately for consumers, most winemakers take the latter course.

Now two companies offer a choice. Wineries can use a bit of molecular wizardry to reduce the alcohol in wine without affecting aroma or taste.

"In terms of flavor, the best situation is to let the grapes stay on the vine until they are truly ripe," says Tony Dann, "but occasionally the sugars are so high by the time they are picked that the resulting alcohol is a problem."

Dann is president of ConeTech Inc., a Salinas, Calif.-based firm that markets a machine, called the Spinning Cone Column, that removes alcohol from wine without damaging aroma or flavor.

Alcohol removal isn't new. It's been done for decades; one widely used recent process is reverse osmosis. What's new are two methods for refining the process to make wines of lower alcohols.

During the last two years, the Spinning Cone, invented in Australia by Flavourtech Pty. Ltd., has caused dozens of clients to bring their wine to the first California winery to install it -- Delicato Vineyards in Manteca in the San Joaquin Valley. (Sutter Home Winery in the Napa Valley also owns a Spinning Cone.)

"Right now, tens of millions of bottles sitting on shelves have had their alcohols reduced in this way," says Dann. He says nearly 5 million gallons of wine were processed in 1994 alone.

Dann says confidentiality clauses in contracts prohibit him from saying which wines were so treated, but he does acknowledge that four of the largest producers of Chardonnay in the game are among his clients. He emphasizes that the process adds nothing to the wine as it reduces the alcohol.

Vinovation Inc. is a Santa Rosa, Calif., firm that does essentially the same thing as ConeTech. Vinovation's system removes alcohol in a slightly different way, but it achieves the same result: a lower-alcohol wine with better texture, taste and balance.

Another Spinning Cone is going through test runs at the Associated Vintage Group winery here.

Samples of various wines run through Delicato's Spinning Cone were sampled by nearly 100 winemakers here recently. In various tests, winemakers compared wines with high and low alcohol.

In the most meaningful example, winemakers tasted a wine made from grapes harvested at flavor maturity, fermented to an alcohol level of 14.7 percent and the same wine with its alcohol cut to 13.6 percent.

The first wine was flavorful, but there was a harsh alcohol aroma, a hot taste and a faint bitterness in the aftertaste. The second wine, though not much less alcoholic, was more alive in fruit character, with more fruit flavor and no bite on the tongue.

The following day I also sampled wines with lowered alcohol made by Vinovation's system. A 14.6 percent alcohol Chardonnay was harsh in the mouth; the same wine at 13.5 percent alcohol was smoother, softer and more agreeable.

Bill Nakata, director of winery services for Delicato, says most clients use the Cone for alcohol removal. But the device, which has a price tag of $700,000, also can be used to take other elements out of the wine. For example, a wine with a technical flaw could conceivably have that flaw removed without affecting the aroma or taste.

Clark Smith and his Vinovation partner, Rick Jones, both winemakers, also can do that with their machine, which can be constructed for between $40,000 and $200,000. One of its capabilities, on which Vinovation has a patent pending, is the removal of volatile acidity from wines. This vinegary smell, considered a flaw, is a major problem for most producers of Zinfandel.

"Zin ripens so unevenly that you usually wait and wait for the grapes to ripen fully, and then the alcohol shoots up," says Jones. Such wines often can develop the vinegary aroma, he said.

Both the Spinning Cone and Vinovation's as-yet unnamed machine rely on a form of low-temperature distillation, which requires the winery to obtain a special distilling permit from the federal government.

Both Associated Vintage Group and Delicato have gotten the permit. Vinovation also has a portable de-alcoholization unit that it can bring to clients' wineries; those clients too must obtain a permit.

Is lowering the alcohol in a wine worth it?

Yes, says Rick Sayre, winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County. "Ideally you ripen the fruit on the vine and get the proper sugars, but I've had wines get away from me. All winemakers have." He says he has thought of reducing alcohol levels in special cases.

The winemakers at the Spinning Cone display at AVG admit that the procedure's appeal can be financial as well as aesthetic. The federal tax on wines with an alcohol level of 14 percent or less is $1.07 per gallon; the tax on wines above that level is $1.57 per gallon. (California's state tax on these wines is a flat 20 cents per gallon.) So dropping a wine below 14 percent can save money in lower taxes.

Vinovation and ConeTech charge between $1 and $1.20 per gallon to process wine for alcohol reduction. Assume a batch of 50,000 gallons of wine at 14.9 percent alcohol is reduced to below 14 percent by processing 10 percent (or 5,000) of the 50,000 gallons to zero alcohol and adding the alcohol-free gallons again to the rest of the batch. The result is a reduction in the tax on the entire batch of wine by 50 cents per gallon ($25,000). But the cost to reduce the alcohol is only $5,000 or so.

"Winemakers will tell you the reduction in alcohol makes a better wine," says Nakata. But he adds, with a wink, "and the winery accountant will tell you it makes a better wine too!"

1993 Toro Collegiata Blanco, Bodegas Farina ($6): This crisp, fresh, dry Spanish white wine produced from the underrated malvasia grape offers ample lemon and apple flavors set off by clean, stony nuances. It's not overwhelmingly complex, but it packs a lot of flavor for a wine of its price. It would make a good house wine to buy by the case.

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