Tastes of Things Before My Eyes: The Beauty of Wine, Under A Microscope

Vinted on March 25, 2010 binned in book reviews

Just when you thought that wine has been analyzed form pretty much every angle possible, along comes Philadelphia native, biochemist PhD and former medical research scientist Sondra Barrett.

Sondra’s journey to wine seems spiraling and circuitous: Originally a researcher on human leukemias, she was asked to photograph a patient’s leukemia cells, which lead to her presenting slide shows of normal and abnormal cell comparisons at oncology clinics.  After attending a photographic exhibit of chemicals of the brain, Sondra saw parallels in her leukemia work and, noticing an artistic quality in the brain chemical photos, decided to try similar photographic techniques on molecular structures in nature.

Structures like wine.

Sondra is now the author of a recently released collection of those photographs, titled Wine’s Hidden Beauty.

And the images in this book (Sondra sent me a review copy) are, simply put, extraordinary.

According to Sondra:

“My first discovery was at Sterling Vineyards when I was artist-in-residence documenting winemaking from the inside out. The winemakers gave me barrel samples and wines from all over Napa Valley. This extraordinary experience led me to uncovering distinct patterns and beauty in a glass of wine. Early on, a Napa grape grower, Rachel Balyeat, provided some financial support for me to delve further into the life of wine. She hosted a special dinner with acclaimed wine maestro André Tchelistcheff to discuss what these pictures could mean. Andréʼs first reaction – ‘They are the jewels in wine. Put them on silk scarves.’”

I think Andre was on to something (though I don’t wear silk scarves so I’ll stick to admiring the photos in printed form)…

If you’re a geek, like me, the first thing you want to know is how these pictures were taken and exactly what the hell they are are pictures of in Wine’s Hidden Beauty – again, according to Sondra:

“The pictures you will see are taken through a 35 mm camera atop an interference light microscope. Interference microscopy breaks white light into its rainbow of colors. In other words, I “paint” what I see with this light. Many of the pure chemicals and patterns in wine would be transparent were it not for the interference prisms on the microscope.”

In other words, we can’t normally see these molecular structures in wine even under standard microscopic examination.  They are hidden.  And they are beautiful.

One of the most interesting aspects about Wine’s Hidden Beauty is the repetition of patterns that Sondra has unearthed in those hidden molecules, where excellent older vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon take on similar complex forms, sharp edges define crisp, refreshing white wines, and even malolactic fermentation shows a telling pattern.

In other words, Sondra’s book might just be revealing the “shapes” of taste.

I found the prose of Wine’s Hidden Beauty to be enlightening, but nearly as circuitous as Sondra’s journey to wine itself – at times it’s sprawling and confusing, and you get the sense that you’re galloping just to keep up with hr on the tangential journey of her thoughts.  But there’s no denying that her molecular photographs are gems, and the book is stunning simply on that facet alone; it’s the kind of book that you don’t even need to read to have it change your perspective, and a rare case in which the cover (Which features a photo of Muscato Azul) does indeed accurately judge the contents.

If you find yourself saying “WOW” at the cover, then this book is well worth your time.

About $25 on Amazon.com, $35 signed by the author, and some copies are still available via the Palate Press Wine For Haiti auction.






  • Darby Raju

    Hi, Dude,
    thanks for this amazing find !.
    Wine’s hidden beauty- by sandra Barret is truely a gem..!.


    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Darby. My understanding from Sondra is that the book is being offered in more and more tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma. The images really are striking, it's worth a look even if you're at the bookstore and just want to pursue the pictures over a cup of coffee!

  • @nectarwine

    OK – I did say WOW, off to Amazon.com – Thanks Joe and Sondra

  • Sarah Vino

    Wow! This is fantastic!! Never heard of it – thanks! Hope I'll review it on my blog someday.

    • 1WineDude


  • 1WineDude

    I'm still waiting for someone to get the musical reference in the title…

  • Jo Diaz

    Hey, Joe,

    Found her last September, and wrote about her, too. (You can search on my blog for Sondra, and the link will pop up for Bioscapes… can search on that, too.) She also lives just a few miles from me, and I'm reminded that she and I are going to do lunch… The beauty of being here. I'm pleased you landed on her spectacular art work within the beauty of the liquid itself!

    • 1WineDude

      thanks Jo – have a mimosa at lunch for me! :-)

  • Lovella Arriaza

    Hey there! I just wanted to convey that I enjoy your publishing way and that I am going to follow your blog often from now on :) Stay the best!

  • @Sondra_Barrett

    Hi Joe,
    Thanks so much for your kind review of my new book, my only book, so far. I have been accused of writing the round about way before – I think part of the reason, if I need a reason – my scientist mind wants to hedge the bets of the potential meaning of the pictures; my artist says its beauty, wine is exquisite, does it need to be anything more. My 'minds' argue – the patterns are intriguing in terms of taste and our instinctive intelligence. Maybe one of these days we'll have research to illuminate. In the meantime, we can drink in beauty in many ways. Thanks for telling your readers about it. No more books are available on the Haiti auction, sorry – its either Amazon, me, CIA, some great wineries and independent bookstores. Cheers!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Sondra – and thanks for giving us this gem of a book!

  • Winepine

    I agree. Very refreshing write-up. I'm glad I stumbledupon this. Thank you for sharing!

    • Sondra

      I am so glad you stumpledupon wine's hidden beauty and you had me stumble upon once more Joe's great write up of my book. The writing is sometimes circuitous trying to bring together the spirit and mysteriousness with the science of taste, wine, and pleasure. Enjoy. If you order a book from my website, I'll include a cd called Molecular Messengers of the Heart – meditation-relaxation bodymind medicine.

      Next book out will be Secrets of Your Cells from Sounds True in May 2012…. the hidden beauty of our cells and molecules. another wonderful journey.

      • 1WineDude

        Always nice to see past posts still generating some discussion and new discoveries. Well, positive discussion, I mean! :) Cheers!

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