Schrodinger’s Chardonnay, Part 1

Back in high school, I was a nerd. Now, to put this in context, when I was in high school,  we had to share crosswalk space with dinosaurs and bands had names like “Kajagoogoo.” Granted, I was not your typical Coke-bottle-glasses-wearing, pocket-protector-sportin’ nerd, nor did I eat my boogers. (However, if I did choose to eat my boogers, I’d say they’d probably go well with a Philo Ridge 2010 Klindt Vineyards Pinot Gris. Again, not that I’d know. Just sayin’).

I think Fred at Philo Ridge will pretty much kill me for this one.
I think Fred at Philo Ridge will pretty much kill me for this one.

The truth is I wasn’t as bad as this stereotype, though I was that subcategory of nerd whose brand makes the Black Plague look like a Facebook Event for a house party: I was weird. The difference between being a straight-up nerd and being The Weird Guy was that we Weird Guys didn’t necessarily look weird on the outside and weren’t awkward in social situations. Because of this, my fellow students did in fact engage me in conversation, perhaps unwittingly; it’s just that, at some point in the conversation, there was a 50/50 chance they’d say, “Oh my God, you’re so weird” and walk away.

This is not to give you the idea that I was anti-social or involuntarily hung on to my virginity until I was 37. I had a nice group of weird friends and even dated nice, weird girls. I tried dating girls who weren’t weird, but like a kid with Weirdness Tourettes, I would find myself involuntarily maneuvering the date-night conversation from “who do you think will be the Homecoming Queen?” to “how do we revive the space program and land a man on Mars?” And in doing so, I could literally see my date’s eyes glazing-over, segueing from hey, this is going well to hey, this is not the night you are going to get laid in about six seconds. Admittedly, some nights ended early, with me hanging out in my ’69 Mercury Cougar, overlooking the lights of northern San Diego County, listening to ELO and sipping California Coolers.

"Portrait Of The Artist Trying To Drop A Duece In Private," copyright 2012, from The Getty Collection.
“Portrait Of The Artist Trying To Drop A Duece In Private,” copyright 2012, from The Getty Collection.

Today, we have a new word for the nerd: Geek. And nowadays, geek is a badge of honor, something to strive for, and can be sub-categorized to describe the OCD nature of your personal geek specialty: Computer Geek, Car Geek  or of course, Wine Geek. Best of all, everyone has come to realize that geeks are not the objects of scorn and ridicule they once were: Geeks rule the world. (Except me. I have a wife in upper management, a teenage son and two daughters under the age of four, so I don’t rule anything. I don’t even rule my own bathroom. I can’t plop a morning johnny without having both girls and the freakin’ dog in there).

So where am I going with this? Why only one, off-the-cuff reference to wine and this verbose, Rachel Maddow-esque backstory? (You gotta love the way that woman intros a story. When she wants to discuss a newly-released book, she starts with a twenty minute history of the printed word, beginning with papyrus scrolls and lamb-blood ink, eventually working her way through the invention of syntax before finally introducing her fellow enraged commentator and his new book, Why Everyone’s Opinion Sucks Except Mine). OK, so the point is this: A person’s basic nature doesn’t change. The Weird Guy in high school is now the Wine Geek in adult life, only instead of sipping California Coolers, he sips Napa Valley Cabernets. And instead of thinking about walking on Mars, he compares wine tasting to quantum theory.

Oh no you di-int! Oh yes. I did.

I am suiting you up for a dive off the Wine Geek Deep-End. I am enticing you to open your mind and inviting you to join me as I pursue one of the all-time weirdest ideas I have ever entertained: Wine tasting is defined by the laws of quantum mechanics, and is a metaphor itself to quantum theory. WAIT! Before you say, “Oh my God you’re so weird” and walk away, give me a minute to lay down some easy-to-understand basics and I think you may find this idea absolutely fascinating. Better yet, go grab yourself a glass of what you consider to be the most complex and multi-layered wine you have and I’ll show you what I mean in real terms.

(Please note: I am not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV. My Middle School science teacher used to inject vodka into oranges and bring them to class to eat while he pretended to oversee our feeble attempts at Science Fair projects. I tried to obtain a minor in Astronomy while at USC, but the math was so difficult and so frustrating I once screamed at my professor that he made me want to rip my face off and eat my own head with it, and I was subsequently banned from the Astronomy Department Tea Social. So you’ll have to cut me a little slack as I explain this stuff).

Briefly put, quantum mechanics provides a mathematical description of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of matter and energy (take a sip of wine, keep reading). A while back, scientists noticed that light sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes behaves like a particle, so they set up a series of experiments to determine once and for all which one it was, wave or particle. What they found is that if the experiment was designed to detect particles of light, light behaved as a particle; if it was set up to detect light waves, light behaved like a wave (take a sip of wine, keep reading).

So the conclusion was this: Light behaves like a wave or a particle, depending on how you observe it. Before you observe it, light is said to be in its quantum state, where it is simultaneously a wave and a particle and neither a wave nor a particle.

You may now chug instead of sip if you need to. Seriously, this is heavy shit, but stick with me.

One of the best illustrations of this paradox of quantum mechanics is the “thought experiment” developed by Erwin Schrodinger back in 1935. In this experiment, Schrodinger imagined placing a cat in a box that contained a radioactive source, a monitor and a flask of poison. The box is then sealed and one cannot see inside. If the monitor inside detects radioactivity, the flask of poison is shattered and the cat is killed. Because one cannot see the cat, the implication is that after a while, the cat is simultaneously dead andalive. To go one step further, opening the box may break the flask of poison as well, so by observing the state of the cat we may in fact alter the state of the cat.

One of the earliest known portraits of Schrodinger's cat, emerging from the Box, circa 1934. This particular test subject, lovingly nicknamed "Doomed Feline #6," is seen here with her eyes closed, indicating her quantum state of dead/not dead or cute/totally cute.
One of the earliest known portraits of Schrodinger’s cat, emerging from the Box, circa 1934. This particular test subject, lovingly nicknamed “Doomed Feline #6,” is seen here with her eyes closed, indicating her quantum state of dead/not dead or cute/totally cute.

Now, set that glass of wine down in front of you and have a look at it. What is that stuff, exactly? I’ll tell you, exactly: It is grape juice and yeast. Seriously, that’s it. All wine is grape juice and yeast. Why can one glass of wine taste so differently from another when it’s all just grape juice and yeast? Well for one, there are over a thousand different grape varietals. And of course, there are hundreds if not thousands of variations of winemaking techniques which allow the winemaker to impart his or her own creative signature on the wine. But again, it’s grape juice and yeast, so why does it taste like berries and figs and plums and coffee and licorice and cocoa? Why do we use words like grass and mineral and flint and fur when we smell and taste a wine when it’s not made of those things?

Because you think it tastes that way.

To me, a glass of wine is just like the box which contains Schrodinger’s Cat. It is both dry and sweet and neither dry nor sweet until we observe it; and in observing it, we change its nature. Each glass of wine is in a quantum state until we bring along our sensory prejudices to it and in doing so, we create the reality of the wine.

Alright, we’re in the Home Stretch right now, so stay with me just a little longer. Go get that second glass if you need to, but for the love of God don’t go roll a joint or something crazy like that or you will quite literally be lost forever.

To exemplify my point, here is a real-life conversation I had with a girl who’s a server at the wine bar I work at. For the sake of this blog, we will call her “Kristina,” because that is her name. Kristina came to us as tabula rasa when it comes to wine, but the boss thinks she’s cute and cute sells wine. This is why everyone who has a Sommelier’s Certification is, like, Brad Pitt hot. During this conversation, we were tasting the 2009 Enkidu Napa Valley Cabernet:

“OK, Kristina, swirl this glass around a bit and then take in a deep breath through your nose. Now, tell me what you smell.”

“It smells like wine.”

“Awesome, that’s what it should smell like. What else do you smell?”

“I don’t know. Lots of alcohol.”

“Good. Wouldn’t be wine without it. You know what I smell? I smell fruit. Specifically, I smell crushed up blackberries. Do you smell that?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“I also smell oak, like an oak tree. This wine sat around in an oak barrel for 18 months. Do you smell oak?”

“Yeah! I smell the oak!” (and I believe she meant it)

“Now, close your eyes and take a really deep smell. I get a hint of vanilla. Do you get vanilla at all?”

(Pause. Eyes closed. She is sincerely trying, bless her cute little wine-selling heart)

“Yes! I smell vanilla!”

Like a scientist attempting to prove that light behaves like a particle, Kristina smelled the vanilla in the wine when she went looking for vanilla, and in turn the wine assumed the characteristic she was trying to observe. Look for the oak: She found oak; look for the fruit; She found fruit. Thus, one could extrapolate that if the observer creates the nature of the wine by observing it, this observer could literally say “this wine tastes like Cap’n Crunch” and therefore it would. And that’s exactly what I’m extrapolating.

Mmmm...Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries. Made childhood worth it, despite tearing the crap out of the roof of your mouth. Maybe I should harvest me up some Crunch Berries, crush ‘em and make a wine out of it? It’d still be better than Sutter Home.
Mmmm…Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries. Made childhood worth it, despite tearing the crap out of the roof of your mouth. Maybe I should harvest me up some Crunch Berries, crush ‘em and make a wine out of it? It’d still be better than Sutter Home.

However, there is one point of contention we need to address in order to prove or disprove this theory – the point that will take us into Part 2 of this blog: Is this more a matter of sociology than quantum theory? In the example of the tasting with Kristina, was she simply influenced by my greater experience in the field, my age, my higher position at the wine bar and the hypnotizing effect of my raw male sexuality? We human beings have a pretty amazing way of influencing other human beings, hence the belief by thousands of teen girls that a Tramp Stamp tattoo is a really cool idea.

Or…wait for it…wait for it…does an influential person simply have a greater ability to manipulate quantum states into their chosen reality?

Alright, enough of this madness. Obviously, we need to hand this over to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, and that’s what I intend to do. In Part 2 of Schrodinger’s Chardonnay, we’re going to talk to an actual quantum theorist and see whether there’s any substance to this argument or if I just drank one too many shots of bong water on a dare in college. I have put out a handful of requests for interviews to some prominent PhD’s at UC Berkeley’s High Energy Particle Physics Research Department, and I’ll keep you posted on my progress!

10 thoughts on “Schrodinger’s Chardonnay, Part 1”

  1. Wow…you will find references to this infamous cat on my blog, but even I couldn’t relate it to wine. (Maybe my daughter who has some small knowledge of Schrodinger, but HUGE knowledge of wine could do it. I’m sure she will appreciate this post and I will forward it to her.)

      1. Hey, I use the Schrodinger’s cat analogy all time–at least in my head. When I was doing fantasy baseball years ago, I even considered calling my team Schrodinger’s Cats, on the grounds that you don’t know if your team is dead or alive until you look in the box (scores) every morning! 😀 I realized that none of the other guys would probably get the gag, so I didn’t do it.

      2. Click on the Quantum Weirdness Primer category and Schrodinger is covered in #102. But I make satirical reference to him and the cat in at least one other post.

  2. John, I read every one of your posts and enjoy them thoroughly. It is clear to me that our brains are sometimes not on the same page, but do appreciate the occasional descriptions in layman’s terms so that I can somewhat follow. And, as for the Cap’n Crunch, I agree that it cuts the roof of your mouth, but may I recommend you use the Oops! All Berries version for your wine experiences. Keep ’em coming, JAT!

    1. Hey Kristi! So glad you’re enjoying the postings, and I really appreciate your support. I promise it’s not going to be all quantum theory, and it’s my intention to keep the wine talk somewhere in the realm of informative and fun and not overbearing and snobby 🙂

  3. Hahahaha! Another fabulous post JT. You inspire me!
    I think nerdism runs in the family. I attended the most fascinating food lecture last night. I was so excited about the lecture I posted it as a status update on FB. I had 2 likes. LOL!! Ok, maybe it’s not a chocolate cake recipe or a cute kitty picture but I was totally jazzed. Me and 2 other people. 🙂

    1. Hey Karista! Yeah, sometimes we geek out so much we don’t realize we’ve left the rest of the world behind. I’m currently at the Wine Spectator New World Wine Tasting event in LA, and I’m so geeked that it may tear a hole in the fabric of the space/time continuum. I don’t dare post because I may lose everyone 😉

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