Skip to main content

Podcast: Wine Physics

Richard Feynman once commented that “if you look at a glass of wine closely enough, you will see the entire universe.” On today’s podcast, we take a little wine tour of our own, to explore some of the physics behind the reds, whites, and rosés. First, we catch up with Martino Reclari, an expert on oenodynamics: the physics of wine swirling. Reclari and his collaborators developed a mathematical treatment of the standing wave patterns formed in a glass as it’s shaken. The three dimensionless parameters they derived can be applied to any container size, from the glass in your hand to the thousand-liter bioreactors mixing nutrients to cultivate cells. The work was nominated for an Ig Nobel Prize in 2012, but Reclari isn’t shaken. “In a sense, it’s a bit scary being nominated for that. It means your research is a little weird and not very useful,” he says, “but in fact...the research nominated is usually research that increases understanding of the normal people of the physics, so why not?”

Close-up view of a refractometer used to measure the sugar content in grapes.
Image Credit: Meg Rosenburg

The second stop on our physics-of-wine tour takes us out into the field with Matthew Rawn, co-owner of Two-Mountain Winery in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Rawn describes how a hand held instrument called a refractometer helps winemakers make harvest decisions by measuring the sugar contents of the grapes on the vine. Light passing through a sample of grape juice is bent, or refracted, by different amounts depending on the exact proportion of sugar and water in the juice. The refractometer measures that angle of refraction and compares it to the Brix scale, which lets winemakers decide when to bring in the harvest, depending on the varieties of wine they want to make.

On our final stop, we chat with Dan Quinn, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University, who made a popular YouTube video explaining why “legs” or “tears” of wine form on the side of your glass. The key to the process lies in the difference in surface tension between alcohol and water. When alcohol in the thin film of wine on the glass evaporates, it raises the surface tension of the remaining solution enough to continue drawing wine up the side of the glass. Droplets form and slide down under gravity over and over again. Quinn’s novel approach to the topic - recording the phenomenon and speeding up the footage - reveals how dynamic the process is, and with more than 130,000 views, the video has a wide reach. “If you’re not inspired or excited,” he contends, “then you’re not going to look for the papers, look in the textbooks, not going to want to learn more, so you’ve got to start somewhere. I think that’s why science videos are really important in the grand scheme of science.”

Thus concludes our science-soaked wine tour. Cheers!


  1. I loved your videos. My wife and I have been on several wine tours in person over the years. In all honesty, I have to say that I have never been so educated about the science of wine, until I watched your videos. Your video of why wine cries is super interesting.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know: "What's going on in this video ? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream. (We've since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux ) Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?