The key seems to be that the chelators bind with iron that is naturally present in the wine. Iron serves as a catalyst for chemical interplay between various wine compounds and oxygen - "oxidative" reactions that can cause an open bottle of wine to develop unwanted odors and flavors after a day or two.
When the iron is tied up by chelators, however, the level of these reactions is reduced, the authors reported. The scientists did not drink the wine used in the experiments, but measured the levels of undesirable compounds using chemistry.
The Penn State authors included Gal Y. Kreitman, a doctoral candidate in food science, and Ryan J. Elias, assistant professor of food science. They were joined by scholars from the University of California, Davis.
The process of chelation has long been used in medicine for the treatment of lead and mercury poisoning. The researchers pursued the same idea in the wine, but with different metals.
In the Penn State experiment, the scientists tested four kinds of chelators, adding them to a pinot gris and also to a simplified "model" wine that they made in the laboratory.
None of the chelators is currently approved as a wine additive, but two of them are reasonable candidates, said Kreitman, the paper's lead author.
One of those is EDTA, which is already widely used elsewhere in the food industry, he said. The other is phytic acid, which is naturally present in grape seeds. The four additives had varying impacts on wine oxidation, but in general they reduced the level of unpleasant compounds for more than a week.
Brent Trela, a Seattle-based wine industry consultant who also has published research on chelation, said the Penn State research seemed promising.
"The evidence is pointing more and more to iron as really a key, and even at very, very small amounts, parts per billion or less," Trela said.
Jill Weber, owner of Jet Wine Bar on South Street, agreed that the research sounded intriguing. But she questioned whether chelation might take matters too far. She cautioned that a little bit of reaction between the wine and oxygen is a good thing.
"You want the oxygen to enter and mellow the flavor," Weber said. "That's why we let it breathe."
While some wines should be drunk within a day, others continue to improve, she said.
"Some great Bordeaux wines I would prefer the second day, because of the mellowing," Weber said. "It can change the flavors completely."
Kreitman said further research was necessary. He said that if chelators were ever approved for commercial use in wine, they would most likely be added right before bottling.
"As for doing it on the consumer side, I don't see why not," said Kreitman, who prefers reds to whites but admits to being not very picky. "But I find it unlikely that your regular consumer would keep a bottle of chelator stock solution in their fridge."
Some restaurants preserve their opened wines with a tap system to prevent oxygen intrusion. On Front Street, Ristorante Panorama boasts that it can maintain 120 open bottles of wine for an extended period by pressurizing each bottle with inert nitrogen gas.
Then there's always the approach taken by Jet Wine Bar.
"We just sell it quickly."