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Red-Dirt Riesling: The Science Behind Oklahoma Wines

justin brotton - Monday, July 01, 2013

By Jennifer Tylbon

Tuscany, Champagne, Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Cadiz … these places evoke images of rolling vineyards, broad-leafed grapevines draped across wires, and rich, ruby-colored wines swirling in crystal goblets. People think of Oklahoma a little less often when planning out their world wine-tasting tour. But with more than 45 independent wineries actively operating within the state borders, the wineries of Oklahoma are steadily working toward changing that perception.

Geographically speaking, the northern border of Oklahoma runs along the 37th parallel. This same line of latitude bisects the Italian island if Sicily and runs just south of California’s Napa Valley. This means we share quite a bit of climatic similarities with some of the world’s most famous wine-producing regions.

Our warmer temperatures, moderate humidity, excellent soil conditions and perfect balance of sun exposure mean our great state can grow grapes with the best of them. But growing the grapes is only half the battle of creating Oklahoma wines. There is a veritable art and science behind what makes a wine great.

Making wine is by no means a simple process, but it all starts the same way – with the grapes. The type of grape used makes most of the difference in the ultimate outcome of the wine. Riesling wines are made with a type of green grape called Riesling, which can be used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet or sparkling white wines. How the winemaker handles the grape and the fermentation process will determine the type of wine created.

Muscat grapes are used to make a variety of types of wine often named Moscato. Interestingly, members of the Muscat grape family are also used as table grapes and to make raisins. Moscato wines can be red, white or pink, sparkling or still, depending not only on the variant of Muscat grape, but also on the extraction of the juice and fermentation thereof.

It should be noted that most grapes produce a clear or slightly honey-toned juice not unlike the color of light white wines. Rose and red wines are born from allowing those clear juices to ferment in the same vat (or tank in the case of some modern wineries, including many of Oklahoma’s own) as the skins. Over a period of days, the skins lend a good bit of flavor, texture and color to the juice as the alcohol is produced. The task of the winemaker is knowing just how long the juice needs to ferment with and without the skins to achieve the desired effect.

Exceptions to producing clear juice do exist, namely the Concord grape, made famous for its use in bottled grape juice. Grapes are given their color by anthocyanin pigments. For most types of grapes, this compound is confined to the skin of the grape. For other grapes such as the Alicante Bouschet, Dunkelfelder and Norton varieties, the anthocyanin pigments accumulate with the berry or pulp itself. This is called teinurier in the world of wine. Winemakers will use small amounts of these juices to affect both color and texture of the wine they are crafting with other grape varieties. Alone, these particular grapes do not typically make the best wines, likely due to much higher tannin counts caused by the drastic increase in the anthocyanin compounds. Tannins are phenol compounds, closely related to alcohol, and are responsible for the bitter, mouth-drying property of wine. The higher the tannin count, the drier the wine is considered.

The process can be compared to making a glass of tea. Take a glass of hot water and use a tea bag for just a minute, and you have a very weak-tasting tea without much color. Let the tea bag steep for three minutes, and color darkens while the flavor gets stronger and more complex. After six minutes, the tea will turn a very dark, sometimes cloudy color, and the tea has an incredibly strong flavor and aroma, and is often more bitter. Just like tea can be made undesirable by allowing the leaves to steep too long, so, too, can wine be rendered “poor” by allowing too much time to ferment with the skins.

Just as steeping is not the only factor in making a good tea, there are countless more factors in producing a good wine. Oklahoma is quite fortunate to enjoy so many good folks who know a thing or 20 about what it takes to bring a delicious bottle of artfully crafted wine to the table.

The process of winemaking is not only an ancient art, it is one with so many techniques and variants that the science of it will likely be endlessly analyzed. From aging in a barrel to adding sugar to blending different juices before bottling, the debates are endless as to the best way to make wine. While there are certainly wrong ways to make wine, it is difficult to establish a single “right” way. Each batch can require different attentions, along with varying demands of climate, tools, time and grape.

A whole branch of science has developed, referred to as enology (or oenology), from the Greek –oinos, “wine” and –logia, “study of.” Enology is the science and study of all aspects of wine and winemaking. Subsequently, the study of vine growing and grape-harvesting is referred to as viticulture. A growing number of universities and schools are offering programs in viticulture and enology, including Virginia Tech, Washington State and Cornell.

Even after all that trouble to create the wine, there comes a whole technique to drinking it. Wine-lovers and aficionados of the craft have a language of their own, and it can be rather intimidating. Words like body, aeration, balance, finish and vintage are common, and might deserve a bit of definition.

Body: Refers to the tactile sensation of enjoying the wine. A wine can be light, medium, or full-bodied.

Aeration: Closely associated with the term “breathing,” aeration is the exposure of the wine to air. This tends to affect the flavor of the wine, often softening it. This is considered a key step in truly tasting a wine, and is often why you see wine tasters swirling the liquid in the glass.

Balance: A well-balanced wine refers to one that offers a harmonious blend of the various elements that make up the wine: acids, sugars, tannins and alcohol. The type of wine, variant of grape used and various techniques in the fermentation process will affect the balance.

Finish: This is another word for aftertaste; however, for wine drinkers, it goes beyond that. The impression of textures and flavors left behind after the wine is swallowed is all a part of the experience that is created by that particular wine.

Vintage: This can refer either to the year in which the wine was bottled or the yield of wine from a vineyard during a single season. Wines must undergo a process of fermentation to go from grape juice to wine, and the vintage indicates just how long the wine has been aged. Wines can peak, meaning they will have the best texture, balance, finish, flavor and all those things that make a wine truly fine at a particular point in time after being bottled. However, the majority of wines produced today are designed to drink young, or shortly after bottling.

No matter your education or understanding of making and enjoying wine, Oklahoma is turning out to be quite the proving ground for burgeoning sommeliers. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department features an introduction to Oklahoma’s growing wine culture with their Wines and Vines Tour. Five of Central Oklahoma’s top wineries are included on the day trip, including the majestic Tres Suenos Vineyard in Luther and Drumright’s Tidal School Winery, both boasting award-winning wines and amazing facilities in which to enjoy a glass or two. Barring that, a visit to any of the state’s wineries will no doubt be an eye-opening and palette-expanding experience, not to mention an ideal day trip of the grown-up variety. 

Weathering the Weather: Why Oklahoma Weather is Only Going to Get Weirder

justin brotton - Saturday, June 01, 2013

By Jennifer Tylbon

Oklahomans are used to weird weather. We are born with internal barometers that alert us to drops in pressure indicative of impending storms. We learn very early how to read the sky, listen to the birds and dress in layers. You can tell the true Oklahomans in a room by their reaction to news of severe weather. Most people from other parts of the country abide by the blaring warnings of sirens to find safety, shelter and secure their belongings. Oklahomans dutifully make sure we shoved the oil pan and garage clutter off the shelter door before heading outside with our recording devices.

However, the transition from winter to spring this year likely threw us all for a loop, amateur meteorologists that we are. In a month typically characterized by blooming spring flowers, the firing up of grills and lawn mowers and venturing outside sans long sleeves, many Oklahomans experienced snow, sleet, record-breaking low temperatures, and even a minor ice storm. Never has Will Rogers’ quote, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute and it’ll change,” been more apropos.

Just what is causing Oklahoma’s already erratic weather to go completely haywire? We’re used to El Niño, La Niña, and we may have even heard about the effect of North Atlantic Oscillation; but this particular blame lies with melting ice in the Arctic Circle, in a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification.(3) Before we can explain that, we need a basic grasp on what dictates weather. Oklahomans are familiar with the term jet stream – basically a very fast flowing river of air in the upper layers of the troposphere, the tropopause. The polar jet stream separates the cold northern air from the warm air of the south.(2) Oklahoma weather can also be influenced by the subtropical jet stream, but in this instance, our focus is on the polar one. Pressure systems and a host of other influences cause the course of the jet stream to dip and lift across the continent in waves. Each time the polar jet stream dips down over Oklahoma, it brings with it the arctic chill. As it lifts to the north, the warm air from the south is allowed to wash over the state. Nearly every inhabitant of our great state can share a story of physically feeling the air temperature drop a solid ten degrees or more in a matter of minutes. Most of the time, that falling thermometer was caused by the polar jet stream passing by far overhead, and the cold air settling in.

For the most part, the jet streams’ waves follow a very predictable pattern of movement. The last few years have seen some new trends in the behavior of the polar jet stream and the resultant weather patterns it creates. April’s uncharacteristic and tomato-plant-threatening cold temperatures came from the polar jet stream dipping low over North America and bringing with it the cold arctic air much later in the season than customary.(1) Normally, by this time of year, the polar jet stream has safely retreated to Canada, allowing the warm, moist air to flow north and the effects of the subtropical jet stream to begin to take hold of the Oklahoma sky.

So what changed this year? A record amount of ice melted this year from the arctic ice cap. One might stop to muse that if the ice caps are melting, shouldn’t that mean the weather gets warmer? It is getting warmer in the North Pole, relatively speaking, with near surface temperatures increasing by as much as 9° F over the past three decades. But “warmer” at the North Pole is still considered dangerously cold in habitable zones.(3)

Although that still doesn’t explain how melting ice at Santa’s Toy Shoppe threatens early blooming irises in Oklahoma. Let’s look at the role the ice plays in the far north. For most of recorded history, the greater part of the Arctic Ocean has been covered by solid ice pack. During the summer months, that ice pack breaks apart into great ice floes, but this still only exposes a relatively small portion of Earth’s smallest ocean. The ice itself plays a vital role in keeping the global climate stable. The bright white ice reflects a generous amount of solar energy back into space. But as more and more of the ice melts away, more and more of that energy is absorbed by the dark, frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. In turn this warms that water, further accelerating the polar ice thaw. The loop of cause and effect is what is currently termed as Arctic amplification.(9) The warmer waters of the ocean release unprecedented amounts of humidity into the cool air.(1)

All this relative warmth and moisture begins to destabilize the polar jet stream two to four miles above the melting ice. The wind speeds in the jet stream itself and its waves of motion slow down across the landmasses, allowing more arctic air to flow to the south and stay there for longer periods of times.(1) This has led to the epic storms experienced both here and across the nation. Unprecedented weather events lovingly dubbed “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon” have been confusing us since 2009 as colder, moister air stays over the North American continent for longer periods of time.(4) A study released in the 2012 Geophysical Research letters indicate this same occurrence may be responsible for heat waves, flooding, droughts and cold spells given just how influential the polar jet stream is on North American climate.(7)

Scientists warn that these flukes of weather may become the trend as more and more of the ice will continue to melt away. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a lengthy news release in October 2012 outlining that these shifts could be a long-term change and increasingly difficult to predict. Our current methods of estimating the motion of the jet stream and subsequent weather patterns associated with it don’t account for the effects of Arctic amplification.(8)

Believe it or not, there are some potential positive effects of polar ice melt. While it indicates slightly more miserable winters here in Oklahoma, it means that more of the landmasses in the far north are exposed. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, the Arctic landmasses might enjoy their first days of being fully ice-free as early as 2030. Their lengthy study addressed both “natural and anthropogenic drivers of climate change,” examining both the natural cycle of the planet as well as the impact humans have had on climatic shifts.(5)

As the ice retreats from the dry land, invaluable resources including oil and natural gas become attainable. The United States Geological Survey estimates that as much as 30 percent of the planet’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of the oil lay virtually unreachable due to the prevalence and danger of drilling near monstrous ice floes. The cost and danger of harvesting those resources rendered them unreachable, not to mention not terribly cost-effective. These resources, while substantial, may not represent a tremendous leap in global production and dependence on fossil fuels.(6) Nonetheless, they would represent a gain on the part of countries with Arctic interests including Canada, Russia and even the U.S.

No one is totally sure what exactly will result in this projected climate shift or just how drastic it will be. Basically, we here in Oklahoma can continue to expect weird weather. Well, weirder than normal.










Out of the Box

justin brotton - Wednesday, May 01, 2013

By Jennifer Tylbon

“You’ve got to think out of the box.” Anyone who has ever attended a professional development seminar has heard that phrase. For the second year in a row, the good people at Science Museum Oklahoma have decided to take the phrase quite literally. The challenge was issued to 11 leaders of Oklahoma culture and industry to “construct a work of creativity that celebrates the inherent scientific and aesthetic quality of the world around us by using miscellaneous supplies provided by SMO.”

All 11 groups heartily accepted the challenge. Eleven boxes containing 18 seemingly useless bits – like a metal dome, a spring and something that vaguely looked like it should belong in a car engine – were to inspire 11 exhibits to be placed on display. Some took the opportunity to construct intricate combinations of imagination and whimsy. Frankfurt Short Bruza, one of Oklahoma’s premier architectural and engineering firms, arrived with a stunning creation.

“We are excited to participate in this ‘Out of the Box’ challenge because we see it as a celebration of the essence of our profession. That is, architecture and engineering are essentially creative problem solving. Over the last 68 years, FSB has developed a unique and holistic approach to the art and science of building design. It is that same approach we have implemented into this challenge. The volunteers working on this solution represent a near cross section of our office. Architects, interior designers, as well as structural, mechanical and electrical engineers have collaborated to develop a solution which is intended to celebrate the creative process exemplified in the kinetic building design concept of David Fisher’s Twirling Tower – a powerful building concept which is claimed to be able to produce enough energy to power itself as well as ten other similarly sized buildings. Our hope is that, through this solution, people might consider the benefits of and recognize the need for thinking ‘out of the box,’” said John M. Osborne, director of design at Frankfurt-Short-Bruza Associates.

Other participants went for a more industry specific approach. Buy For Less and Uptown Grocery Co., the People’s Choice winner named at the March 30 opening, constructed an homage to the grocery checkout counter, complete with a moving conveyer belt and a checkout girl who really waved.

The Boeing Company’s contribution also served a purpose. Through elaborate methods, their employees created a Rube Goldberg-like machine from out of the box. Guests can run a toy Boeing plane up the runway as it zips a zipper.

The Judge’s Award was given to Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics for their interactive exhibit, not only featuring their contributions and achievements in the world of prosthetics and orthotics, but all the “ingredients” from Science Museum Oklahoma’s box. Children anxiously waited to turn a crank that rotated a column, then carried a ball to the top of a track. As the ball spiraled downward, it zipped past images of Hangar’s work, their involvement in the Dolphin Tale project (popularized by the 2011 major motion picture of the same name released by Alcon Entertainment), and examples of their prostheses.

Funnel Design Group, one of Oklahoma City’s most engaging advertising and marketing firms, brought The Change Maker. The creation, created well out of the box, while still incorporating the items from the box, invites people to toss spare change into a funnel. The coins then fall through a track that lights up and chimes happily. At the March opening, guests were regularly pelted by flying pennies, but no one seemed to mind.

Oklahoma oil control equipment manufacturer Kimray blended the industrial feel of their native product with the dulcimer tones of a self-playing xylophone, while Red Earth Systems built a robot with 18 items not typically found in the construction of a robot.

The Oklahoma City Barons found a way to combine their box ingredients into a thought provoking explanation of physics, space and, of course, hockey. Science Museum Oklahoma also featured the participation of @Link Services, SAIC, a Benham Company and Hom by WarHall, each with astounding creations of their own.

Suzette Ellison, vice president of Science Museum Oklahoma, sums up very well the driving force behind the exhibit.

“SMO believes a key to improving science literacy is to drive creative thought. Challenging people to take risks, acknowledging failure is part of the creative process, learning how to take independent ideas and funneling them to the final working solution, which is what this exhibition is all about.”

The exhibit is better experienced in person, and Science Museum Oklahoma will be displaying all 11 examples of creativity made real through September.

The God Particle: A Brief Explanation of the Higgs Boson and Why It Matters at All

justin brotton - Thursday, November 01, 2012

By Jennifer Tylbon

On July 4, 2012 scientists at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, announced the discovery of an elusive and long sought after particle known as the Higgs boson, or God particle. Since then, physicists across the world have been dancing around using strange words like particle and field, boson and Standard Model. Technically speaking, it announced the discovery of a Higgs-like particle, but a good part of the physics community is celebrating all the same. The rest of us have been nodding idly, unwilling to admit we have no idea what they are talking about. To fully explain what a Higgs boson is and its true impact on humanity is a little overwhelming, but there are some important things to know about this pivotal discovery in the scientific community.

To begin with, you need just a touch of history. The Higgs boson is an important part to a widely popular theory in physics called the Standard Model. First proposed in 1964 by Peter Higgs, the Standard Model is a mathematical equation that seems to govern all physical laws of the known universe. One single equation can be used to explain how human beings can do everything from breathing to launching ourselves into space. It explains why trees look like trees and why water can be a liquid, a solid and a gas all at once in the same environment. One might think that a single equation could not possibly by used to explain literally everything; but it might be easier to think of the Standard Model a bit like a recipe. If you pick up a recipe to roast a chicken, it doesn’t give the specifics of raising and slaughtering the chicken or planting and harvesting the herbs and spices. The recipe assumes you already have the ingredients you need, and instead tells you what to do with said ingredients. The Standard Model makes the same assumption that its parts, or ingredients, are already understood. It uses math to explain how the universe moves and behaves and what it is made out of, like photons, neutrons, quarks and gluons.

However, there are a few concepts the Standard Model can’t quite explain. Chief among them is the problem of mass. In elementary school science class, mass is defined as the amount of space an object occupies in the universe. A single strand of human hair does not have a very high mass; Jupiter, on the other hand, has an incredibly high mass – 317 times larger than that of our entire planet. Physicists define it a little differently; for them to explain what it is to have mass, you must first explain what it is to have no mass.

The utmost quality of a particle with no mass is that it can travel at the speed of light. (The term “light speed” is actually a misnomer, but since the first massless particles scientists understood were photons of light, we call it light speed.) Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity explains this whole concept more fully, but for now suffice it to say that any particle with no mass will always travel at the speed of light, or 299,792,458 meters per second, and will never be able to stop. If massless particles encounter an obstacle, they do not stop, but instead they bounce off and travel in a new direction at the same speed. Particles with mass will never be able to travel at light speed, but they are able to slow down, speed up, or even stop. The amount of mass an object has will determine how difficult it is for that object to increase its speed.

This definition is important because, according to the Standard Model, nothing should have mass. When mass is forcibly inserted into the equation, everything turns out wrong (a bit like deciding to add strawberry frosting to your roasted chicken – you can do it, but no one is going to willingly eat it). This is problematic, as quite a few things in the universe are not zipping around at light speed. Since, by definition, the only things that do not constantly move at light speed are objects with mass, it means that everything from your favorite pair of shoes to our very own Sun must have mass. Taken at face value, the existence of mass renders the Standard Model rather useless. However, Peter Higgs theorized that this problem occurs because an integral part of his Standard Model theory, called the Higgs field, simply had not been discovered, or rather, proven.

The Higgs field does two very important things in the Standard Model. First, it helps explain a concept called weak force. (An example of weak force is radioactive decay.) Second, it helps explain the way particles actually move, justifying how some particles apparently have mass. To illustrate why the movement of particles helps explain mass, think of a fan. When you turn the fan on, the blades spin and begin to move so quickly, your eyes cannot track them. If you stare at the fan long enough, it begins to look like the fan blades are moving much slower than they actually are. Sometimes, it may even look like they have stopped moving altogether, or even are moving in the opposite direction. It might give the illusion that the fan is no longer operating. A very similar concept happens with particles as they pass through a Higgs field. The way the massless particles move and interact with the Higgs field makes it seem like they are not moving at all. Since only particles that have mass are allowed to stop moving, this phenomenon can explain mass within the Standard Model.

The Higgs boson is an incredibly unique type of particle created only within a Higgs field, and is actually the only part of the Higgs field that can be verified through experimentation due to the nature of the field and the role it plays. According to Peter Higgs, if physicists could discover this frustratingly elusive particle, it would complete an equation that would explain the universe. This led to the term “God particle” being assigned jokingly. Generally speaking, the science community is not a fan of the term given the underlying implications as to its capabilities. This very discovery, made by CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, is certainly a momentous leap in particle physics, but does not mean scientists are attempting to play God. The Standard Model explains the universe and can lead to other important discoveries, but serves only as explanation, not instruction manual.

Human beings have always questioned the things around them. This has shaped our history, our ideals and the way we interact with each other. It is no coincidence that most children go through a “Why?” stage at some point, or perhaps multiple points, in their lives. The scientific community stands in the forefront of our drive to ask questions and seek out their answers. The discovery of a Higgs-like particle and its ability to begin to answer an all-encompassing question like “How does the universe work?” with a single equation may represent the pinnacle of all the questions we, as a species, have ever managed to answer before. Even if we manage to complete the Standard Model, we will find new questions to ask and invent new ways to answer them. If nothing else, this discovery in physics represents the absence of boundaries to human understanding and the impact science can have in our lives.

**Writer’s Note: Many thanks to Minutephysics on YouTube for assisting with a great part of breaking down this concept. This article is written as a supremely basic introduction to the tremendously complicated concept of the Higgs boson and the Standard Model.

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