Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief strategist and chief technology officer, has a tip to make a glass of red wine taste better: Add a pinch of salt.
Myhrvold — who holds degrees in mathematics, geophysics and space physics from UCLA, a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics and a master's degree in mathematical economics from Princeton — made the discovery after a few glasses of wine at a dinner.
“I was sitting next to Gina Gallo, from the Gallo wine- making family,” Myhrvold says in an interview in London. “She's telling me what she values in a cabernet is the savory tones, so she tries not to have them be sweet or too fruity.
”I'd had enough wine by this point that I was a little incautious. I said, 'I can make it more savory.' So I added a little salt to the wine. There's nothing I could have done that would have shocked her so much.” She then grabbed the glass from his hand, he recalls, and said 'It totally changes it.”
“I start by adding just a tiny pinch and what it does is to balance the flavors. With most wines, they immediately taste smoother.
“We have many different types of flavor receptors,” he said. ”People say there's sweet, sour, bitter, umami. In reality, there are at least 40 types of receptors and probably more. When you taste something, you have this cacophony of different tastes and your brain tries to summarize that. A tiny bit of salt changes the overall impression, which is why chefs salt food.”
Emily O'Hare, a sommelier at the River Cafe, says this isn't something she would try: ”The wine is the expression of the winemaker and I wouldn't alter it. It would be like seasoning food without trusting the chef. But it makes sense. If you eat salty food, it improves lighter, cheaper red wines. If you bite into a lemon, red wine tastes fruitier and less acidic.”
Myhrvold came to the attention of the food world in 2011 with “Modernist Cuisine,” a six-volume work on the science of cooking that runs to 2,400 pages. He followed that with “Modernist Cuisine at Home” and, last year, with “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.” Pursuing his diverse interests, he recently wrote a paper on dinosaur growth rates.
Myhrvold's approach can be iconoclastic. Instead of decanting wines in the conventional way, he suggests blasting them in a kitchen blender for about half a minute.
“When you decant you're doing two things,” he says. “You're taking oxygen from the air and oxidizing some of the compounds in the wine; you're also allowing the wine to off-gas. Typically, there's going to be sulfur dioxide, which comes from the sulfites they use. You get that out.
”I thought, 'We can turbocharge this.' So I put it into a blender, and I would say there's two reasons to do that. One is that it's a better form of decanting. The second reason is the look on people's faces. It is such sacrilege for wine snobs.
”Even people who are not wine experts, we grow up with this deep reverence. I would do that particularly for younger red wines. I wouldn't do this for a really old red wine.”
Myhrvold, 54, is entertaining company. He enjoys what he is doing and is a natural raconteur, laughing as he recounts his exploits. In 2011, I attended a dinner at his food laboratory outside Seattle, and he served a fruity concoction that looked exactly like a raw quail egg. (The look is achieved by a process called spherification, developed by Ferran Adria at El Bulli.)
Some diners are alarmed at consuming a raw egg.
“I always tell people after they've tasted it that the main thing they're tasting is relief,” Myhrvold says.
When we meet for breakfast at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, he is planning a dinner for the El Bulli chef, making his first visit to the laboratory in Seattle, where Myhrvold's company Intellectual Ventures is also based.
Myhrvold describes cocktails he is developing for Adria, including one that involves inhaling via a glass tube.
“It looks like you are smoking crystal meth,” he says and roars with laughter. “Not that I've smoked crystal meth, but I've seen 'Breaking Bad.' “