YAKIMA, Wash. — Dry white wine might one day be as common under the kitchen sink as it is upon the dinner table — as a sort of "wine-sol" to disinfect countertops and cutting boards.
"Simply put, the wine kills bugs," said Mark Daeschel, a food scientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Centuries ago, wine was considered a "hygienic drink," imbued with the power to prevent or minimize food-borne illness, a serious matter in times when there was no real refrigeration and cooks weren't required by law to wash their hands.
Even today, some people won't eat raw oysters without an alcohol chaser, and many savvy travelers believe that a glass of wine consumed with food that's served in unsanitary conditions can ward off tummy troubles.
"We've always heard it's safer to drink the wine than it is the water," Daeschel said.
So Daeschel and research assistants Jessica Just and Joy Waite decided to study wine's germ-killing properties against some of the common culprits in food-poisoning: salmonella and E. coli bacteria.
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In test tubes of chardonnay and pinot noir, the germs died off within an hour. In test tubes of grape juice, the bacteria survived up to 16 days.
The antimicrobial punch of wine is a synergy of alcohol and acid, which is why beer or vodka don't deliver the same germ-killing kick.
"Alcohol weakens the cell wall, allowing the (wine's) acid to penetrate and kill it," Daeschel said.
The researchers also made a model stomach to determine what protective effect the wine might have with cuisine of questionable origin.
"Drinking more wine with less food is better," he said. "The more food you eat, the less effective it is."
From there, came the idea for a very different kind of white wine "spritzer," a disinfectant spray for the kitchen that's environmentally safe.
"It would be attractive to people who didn't want to use … heavy-duty chemical sanitizers, who wanted something a little more natural, more food-friendly," Daeschel said.
It could be made from waste wine, batches that fail to meet cellar standards for the bottle. The timing may be right as many wine-producing regions around the globe report an oversupply of grapes, a development toasted by consumers finding great values among some of their favorite vintages.
"The idea of alternative uses of wine is an intriguing one," said Betty O'Brien, director of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board in Portland. "There are places in Europe where they turn it into fuel because they have so much."
Not all varieties of wine have what it takes to be a disinfectant. Reds are out, of course, because they stain. Sweet whites, too, because the sugars make them sticky. But dry whites are just right.
"A nice sauvignon blanc or chardonnay is best for a formulation like this," Daeschel said.
Wine grape grower Roger Gamache of Gamache Farms near Mesa calls it a potential win-win opportunity for wineries and consumers.
"When there are years there is excess, it's nice to know there's an avenue or a home for it," he said.
Oregon State University has applied for a patent on Daeschel's work, which was published in the latest edition of the Journal of Food Science.
There is still some fine tuning to be done, he said.
A wine-based disinfectant would have to be denatured by adding 1.5 percent table salt — essentially making it undrinkable — so it would not be subject to liquor taxes, could be sold at any type of store and would pass regulatory muster with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, he said.
"If you drank wine with 1.5 percent salt, you would probably throw up pretty quickly," Daeschel said.
Another detail is aroma. No one wants to their kitchen, however sterile, to smell like the alley behind a fraternity house on a Sunday morning.
Fragrance neutralizers could eliminate that winey smell, and natural fruity or floral scents might be added, he said.
On the Net:
Oregon State: http://www.orst.edu
Oregon wines: http://www.oregonwine.org
Institute of Food Technologists: http://www.ift.org/publications/jfs/