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A chemistry professor and his team of undergraduate researchers are benefiting from $165,000 in funding from an unusual source: a class-action lawsuit over fraudulently labeled wine.

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wine research

Rabia Fattah, a biochemistry sophomore in Eric Anslyn’s Supramolecular Sensors research stream, prepares plates to run an experiment to differentiate wine blends. [Marsha Miller] 

Pinot Noir Swindle Benefits a Chemistry Professor and his Undergraduate Corps of Wine Detectives

A chemistry professor and his team of undergraduate student researchers are benefiting from $165,000 in funding from an unusual source: a class-action lawsuit over fraudulently labeled wine.

Eric Anslyn, the Norman Hackerman Chair of Chemistry in the College of Natural Sciences, has been using wine as the primary test substance for the development of a device that mimics the human senses of taste and smell.

“Wine is pretty complicated stuff and contains many chemical compounds such as tannins whose structures and levels are unique to each varietal. These chemicals are difficult to distinguish, yet humans can do it through taste and smell,” says Anslyn.

Undergraduates in Anslyn’s Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) stream, “Supramolecular Sensors,” and the students’ former and current research educators, Alona Umali and Eman Ghanem, have been workingon the wine research for more than four years. The research has already borne fruit.

Anslyn and his students published a 2010 paper in Chemical Science on how the device had become sophisticated enough to discriminate between different wine varietals.

Little did Anslyn know, this very research would be a key factor in a trans-Atlantic fraud case.

The Crime

In 2010, several French grape growers and wine producers were found guilty in France of defrauding two American wine companies from Northern California, Gallo and Constellation. The French group was accused of purposely selling the companies wine of the wrong grape varietal they said the grapes were pinot noir, but they were actually gamay. This is a serious crime in France, and several people were jailed or fined.

student researcher

Rabia Fattah, a biochemistry sophomore in Eric Anslyn’s Supramolecular Sensors research stream, prepares plates to run an experiment to differentiate wine blends. [Marsha Miller] 

On this side of the Atlantic, Gallo and Constellation learned they had been defrauded but decided not to pull their mislabeled products from the shelves. Wine consumers who thought they were getting a nice bottle of pinot noir had been duped.

When this came to light, a class-action suit for nearly $2 million was filed against the two American wine companies.

One day, Anslyn received a surprise phone call from an attorney for Gallo and Constellation, telling him about a settlement agreement for the lawsuit.

“It’s quite intriguing to me because all of this was going on behind the scenes as we were working on the science,” says Anslyn, a University Distinguished Teaching Professor. “The day the attorney called me he guided me to a website, and there I was mentioned in a court settlement.”

The lead plaintiff learned about Anslyn’s research through stories about the work in two popular wine magazines, Wine Spectator and Wines and Vines.

As part of class-action suits, any money not claimed by the public must be directed to efforts to prevent the kind of wrongdoing that led to the lawsuit. In this case, the idea was to fund research that could have prevented the two companies from being defrauded in the first place. Anslyn’s research  and that of Hildegard Heymann, his collaborator at University of California at Davis  was the perfect fit. They split the leftover money.

The Science

Anslyn’s device works a bit like a human tongue.

The human body uses receptors on the tongue and nasal cavity to bind numerous chemicals in food. Every food substance carries hundreds of chemicals; over a lifetime a person can encounter millions of different chemicals while eating.

graphic with wine varietal

Wines made from different grape varietals can be distinguished through the tests developed in the Anslyn lab. For example, beaujolais samples are very distinct from pinot noir. The test can also distinguish between wines made from the same grape varietal but from different wineries, as seen here with zinfandels from Carol Shelton and Bonterra, both California wineries. 

The brain takes this array of signals and creates a pattern. Every food sends a different pattern of signals to the brain, which manifests in the difference in flavor between, for example, chicken and beef. Each time that food is consumed, it sends that specific mix of signals to the brain, and it is “tasted” uniquely. Anslyn has taken this premise and put it to work in his lab.

“We wanted to do this in a fashion analogous to natural taste receptors but use receptors that we construct in the lab that bind to various chemicals in wine,” he explains. “We have constructed plates with numerous receptors inside them, made out of peptides, metals and pH indicators. We put the plates in contact with the wine and because each receptor reacts in different ways with different wines, they interpret the wines’ properties.”

The Anslyn group engineered the receptors to interpret properties of wine by changing color, which is then read by a spectrometer. A computer program then constructs patterns from the color changes. Each wine varietal creates a different pattern, so it can be distinguished from another varietal.

“We could ultimately be able to test in advance not only the varietal but also what the human response would be to a certain wine,” Anslyn adds. “It could be something as subtle as aftertaste and astringency or even the overall quality of a varietal.”

Carrying on his research thanks to this strange series of events is exciting to Anslyn. A string of lawsuits that began across the Atlantic isn’t quite where labs predict their funding to come from, but it’s an interesting tale to tell, he says.

“This really shows the power of communicating research,” he says, “and what it can do for the students, because now they get to continue gaining experience in this research area.”

Anslyn says the Freshman Research Initiative stream is now figuring out how to detect the types of grapes in wine blends, for example, a cabernet sauvignon-merlot.

“Although we ultimately want to use our device on solutions other than wine, such as urine, blood and in industrial applications, I thought wine was of great interest as a test solution that we could also develop an undergraduate lab around,” Anslyn says.

The unexpected funding for wine analysis will also help them further develop basic principles for the device, he says, with the goal of using it on urine or blood to make complicated and sophisticated health diagnoses.

This story also appears in Texas Science.