Quantum physics and wine do not sound like bedfellows. The former conjures images of rarefied, infinitely complex scientific research; the latter is more nebulous. Whether you’re a connoisseur of wine, able to blind-taste a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 St-Emilion from a 2015 Chateau Julien Bordeaux, or just someone who enjoys a glass or two over supper, wine is warm, fuzzy, and fun. It’s not, surely, for the men and women in white coats.
That’s the received wisdom – but an Oxford start-up is turning the stereotype on its head. Welcome to VeriVin, set up in 2015 by Dr Cecilia Muldoon who, two years earlier, graduated with a PhD at Oxford in Experimental Atomic and Laser Physics.
“VeriVin is developing and producing a non-invasive spectroscopic device capable of detecting the presence of certain molecules in unopened bottles of wine, particularly those molecules associated with wine faults (like the TCA molecule responsible for cork taint), through the glass, without the need to take the cork out,” explains Muldoon, a polylingual oenophile who hails from Guadalajara, Mexico. Its potential is huge: the VeriVin technology could be used to differentiate a fine bottle of wine from a fake one, to quantify positive characteristics in a bottle of wine, to test for faults and, ultimately, to create a database of molecular ID tags that could revolutionise not just the wine industry, but also the sparkling wine, fortified wine, spirits and beer industries.
Put more simply, VeriVin’s device means you can taste a bottle of wine just by looking at it.
How, though, is all this possible? Enter quantum physics, married to spectroscopy – the study of matter using light. Verivin’s device uses quantum-enhanced sensing techniques to shine light into a bottle of wine and then detect the outgoing scattered light. As Muldon explains, “the scattered light contains optical fingerprints of the different molecules in the wine. By processing this light, and using techniques from quantum optics, it is possible to look for the fingerprint of a given molecule and spot its presence in the wine.”
In effect, then, VeriVin is a screening tool. It is simple and fast, and non-invasive. It can be used in situ, too: there’s no need to extract a sample and send it to a lab.
Help from OUI
Muldoon – who counts being a classic car judge and amateur ballerina among her interests – worked on her own for the best part of 18 months to build up VeriVin before she secured investment. She credits Oxford University Innovation (OUI) with helping open doors, imparting business know-how and developing pitches, and is also grateful to Oxford’s start-up incubator scheme, which yielded all manner of support: “They were able to give me a £5,000 grant, a workspace, and recommendations for everything from marketing to legal advice. The support from the project manager in the incubator was invaluable, too.”
Thanks also to OUI, which alerted Muldon to its existence, VeriVin recently bagged an Innovate UK Quantum Technologies grant worth £320,000. Development work continues – no surprise, given that wine is second only to blood in its complexity – but Muldoon hopes for VeriVin’s device to be commercially operable by early 2019.
For anyone about to fork out on a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 St-Emilion, but fearing that a humbler Bordeaux might be off, VeriVin’s commercial launch will be very welcome. After all, no one wants to part with more than £100,000 without knowing exactly where the money is going.