COMMUNICATING science to a wider audience is increasingly important and the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has risen to the challenge by developing a series of interactive wine science events.
These events, conducted during the Australian National Science Week each year, blend wine tasting with scientific information and stories for an evening of entertainment that aims to highlight the often-overlooked role of science in beverage production.
The events take science out of laboratories and lecture theatres and move it to a more accessible and relaxed venue, in this case the wine bar. Attendees are offered a glass of wine and some food on arrival, which is included in the ticket price thanks to a National Science Week grant and the generous support of local businesses who provide free venue hire.
Research scientists then lead the 60-80 guests in a guided wine tasting excursion, each demonstrating a different aspect of wine science with a story of scientific discovery. Microbiologists highlight how yeast strains can affect wine aroma and flavour, how new strains can be developed and how secondary fermentation changes wine flavours.
Chemists then demonstrate some of the key scientific discoveries that make wine last longer, how wine changes with age and what oak really does to wine.
Sensory scientists showcase the individual compounds that cause pepper, capsicum or passionfruit aromas in wines and how some flavours are only released in the mouth by saliva enzymes.
The evening remains light and entertaining with short, sharp presentations interjected with competitions awarding prizes for correct answers and breaks where guests can peruse the self-explanatory displays set up around the bar. Competitions include guessing the smell of an isolated aroma compound in a model wine solution and the amount of red and white wine in a ‘standard drink’.
Wine consumers are generally used to listening to stories whilst consuming their favourite beverage through the ritual of wine tastings; however, remembering the information later can be a challenge. To address this, the key points of the stories told throughout the evening are summarised as fun facts printed on coasters and postcards for guests to take home and share with their family and friends.
This event has been a success each year, often selling out in advance, and is one of the more popular events in the highly competitive National Science Week programme.
Many guests return each year, although most are new to the idea of wine science. Attracting new attendees is a challenge and requires ample advertising across multiple social media platforms, events websites, newspaper articles and good-old-fashioned flyers at related venues.
Wine science is fortunately quirky enough to draw media attention and this has also helped attract new attendees as well as provide the AWRI with positive publicity. One year the event also received interest from a state member of parliament. He attended the event for a photo opportunity and ended up being a strong supporter of AWRI research activities, an unexpected bonus.
Feedback from the event has been resoundingly positive. Guests have told us directly that the event was highly enjoyable and entertaining with just the right amount of information provided. Social media posts from guests about the event have also been positive and helped spread the word about the amazing science of wine.
Science communication is often focused on the audiences; however, the greatest impact of the AWRI’s wine science community events has been on the scientists involved in organising and running the events. Being a part of this type of event shows scientists how interesting their research is to the community and is a great reminder that working in science is fun!
NOTE: Dr Jacqui McRae is a Senior Research Scientist at the Australian Wine Research Institute in the Wine Texture Team. Her key areas of research include the matrix effects of white wine haze formation, better ways of predicting protein haze and the molecular drivers of wine texture. She is a keen science communicator and wine enthusiast.