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STANFORD - What to do with holiday leftovers? It's the dilemma that leads to Turkey à la King. But just when the Thanksgiving bird has boiled down to soup and the Christmas roast is hash, the holiday household comes to the most difficult leftover of all: New Year's Eve champagne. Can a bottle uncorked at midnight still keep its sparkle if some of the wine is saved for another day?
French folk wisdom, which ought to know about these things, prescribes a silver spoon. Hang the spoon, handle down, in the neck of the bottle, store it in the refrigerator, and the champagne is still bubbly days later.
Or so the legend goes. When a team of Stanford researchers put the idea to the test - all in a thirst for knowledge, and digging into their own pockets for research funds - they found that the spoon theory falls flat. In their test, with admittedly preliminary results, the big question about keeping champagne from going flat turns out to be whether or not to use a cork.
The idea for their test came three years ago, when a reporter from Germany called Stanford University chemistry Professor Richard Zare to find out whether and how the spoon theory works. Zare's scientific work is to watch molecules dance in chemical reactions, but he had just published an article in Physics Today about the physics of the bubbles rising in a glass of beer. The reporter's question left him intrigued but doubtful: How could a spoon stop the carbon dioxide from escaping an open bottle of champagne?
"I thought it might be a bubblemeise,” said Zare. “That's a takeoff on 'Bubbemeise,' Yiddish for a grandmother's tale."
Then this fall, Palo Alto author Harold McGee was asked the same question on a National Public Radio call-in show. McGee, who writes about the science of food, once published a paper in Nature on why the froth of a souffle stabilizes when you beat the eggs in a copper bowl. In McGee's words, the two friends realized an obligation to human knowledge: “Here was an experiment that cried out to be done.”
To see whether the spoon hypothesis would stand up to scientific scrutiny, they convened an informal team of eight amateur taste-testers. The group included Zare's wife Susan, a Stanford undergraduate advising counselor; McGee's wife, Sharon Long, professor of biology and a fellow of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; assistant biology Professor Susan McConnell and her husband Richard Scheller, who is also a Hughes Fellow and a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford Medical School; law Professor Henry Greely and his wife, Laura Butcher, M.D.
The team tested and scored 10 bottles, carefully controlled for temperature and with a single glass of champagne removed to make sure all were the same at the start. The bottles were masked so the tasters could not tell which pairs had received these five treatments: open the bottle just before the test; open it 26 hours earlier and leave it uncorked; leave it open 26 hours with a silver spoon or a stainless steel spoon in the neck; or open the bottle and re-cork it overnight.
“What we found was a surprise - at least to us,” Zare said.
The spoons, silver or stainless, were not especially successful in maintaining the sparkle of the wine. But spoons and all other treatments worked better than re-corking the bottles. At least in this test, re- corking seemed to be the best way to make champagne lose effervescence and taste.
Leaving the bottle open and untreated worked better than hanging a spoon inside. In fact, the two bottles left open in the refrigerator for 26 hours averaged a higher score than any other treatment - including just-opened champagne.
These results are complicated by the fact that no two bottles that received the same treatment got the same score. The researchers suspect this result is in the nature of sparkling wine made by the champagne method. Each bottle is a separate micro-environment, going through part of the fermentation, clarification and refilling process on its own.
Heisenberg in reverse
Another complication might be the state of the observers by the time a glass of champagne had been sipped - in some cases more than sipped - from each of 10 bottles. As research scientists, several members of the team noticed what Zare called "fatigue of the instrumentation." The instruments - themselves - were progressively less able to distinguish among the wines.
"Our palates were not as fine as at the beginning. Eventually we didn't feel quite right about letters and numbers," McGee recalled.
"You hear of the observer influencing the observed, but not often the observed influencing the observer," McGee said. "I think we have a reverse Heisenberg principle here."
One team member, law Professor Greely, had a philosophical disagreement with a test that used bubbles as the mark of quality. "I am unable to disaggregate the gestalt of the wine," he declared, setting down his scorecard.
Zare and McGee concede that their results are very preliminary and their data set is small. As Zare puts it, "We are struggling to achieve statistical significance."
However, after their study was completed, McGee learned of a French study that seems to confirm their results, conducted under the auspices of the Centre Interprofesionel des Vins de Champagne. French science journalist Hervé This-Benckhard told McGee by e-mail: "I think we can affirm now that a spoon, made of silver or stainless steel or of aluminum, has no effect on what the French term 'éventage,' or the loss of gas."
Spoon or no spoon, their research to date still leaves the Stanford team wondering about champagne. How can a re-corked bottle appear to lose more effervescence overnight than an open bottle? Is the common assumption true, that the loss of bubbles harms the taste of the wine - or are some champagnes improved when they're allowed to breathe?
"As usual, more research is needed, and the observations we have made open more questions about the laws of 'fizzics' than they settle," said Zare. "Industrial sponsorship is sought: So far we're working with California sparkling wine because that's what our pocketbooks allow. But we hear that it makes a difference if you do the experiment on Dom Perignon, and we'd love to test that out."
"Our thirst for knowledge is still not satisfied," he added with a grin.
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