How It All Began

"a line drawing of grapes being crushed"

I founded Vinmetrica in December of 2009 on the belief that I could put together products that would help winemakers like me.

This belief  crystallized over several years and several events.  In 1993 I moved to Palo Alto with my family after living in Indianapolis for 8 years working as a research scientist at Eli Lilly.

We bought a house that had a venerable apricot tree in the back yard.  This tree was probably a remnant of the fruit orchards that used to occupy most of the Silicon Valley area in the early part of the 20th century.

apricots in a tree
Too Many Apricots?

It was a very productive tree, and after making several cases of apricot jam one summer, I still had several pounds of apricots.

It occurred to me to try to make wine out of them.   It wasn’t long before I was fussing over 5 gallon batches of apricot wine, and gradually I found myself learning the ropes of fermentation chemistry.

Over the succeeding years I graduated from fermenting fruit to condensed juices, then to wine kits and finally grapes (though I still like the dry apricot wine one can make from sugar, water and halved apricots).   Inevitably I was confronted with the task of measuring my sulfite levels.

Now, as an analytical chemist by training, I understood the basics of measuring sulfite by iodometric (or “Ripper”)  titration.  You take a measured quantity of wine, add acid and starch solution, and titrate with an iodine solution of known strength until the color turns blue.

My local winemaking supply guy recommended the Chemetrics Titrets(r) which essentially minimize this procedure into handy measuring ampoules.  Despite the manufacturer’s admonition that these are not suitable for red wines, I kept trying to use the Titrets for a whole winemaking season before finally giving up.  You just can’t see the blue endpoint reproducibly.

Next I went on to doing the full Ripper method with starch.  But again the red wines defeated me. As a scientist I had to admit that I would be fooling myself in claiming that I could see that endpoint in any kind of reproducible way.

I remembered the iodine titrations I did as an undergraduate.  In the experiment we determined the endpoint via a cobbled-together battery-powered electrode system with a microammeter as a readout.  I recall remarking to my professor that I could see the faint yellow iodine color about the same time that the meter started to indicate.

I asked my professor,”Couldn’t you just use the color as the endpoint?” He quipped, “Oh sure, Rich; even better, we could just add some starch and it would turn deep blue!  But the point of the experiment is to make you aware that you can use electrochemistry to detect the endpoint. “

So I thought I would cobble together one of these as best as I could remember.  Two platinum electrodes from ah, disused equipment at work, a few components from Fry’s Electronics, and an output that I read with my voltmeter.  Wasn’t much to look at, but I found I could get reproducible results in minutes.  This was about 1995.  I used this setup for years in my garage.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into…