Archive for the ‘Wine Tasting’ Category

Grape, the obscure

Monday, August 11th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I’ve always held a special place in my heart for Sicily, which has to be one of my favorite places. So I read with interest this article that appeared in Palate Press:

The Grapes of What?

Michelle Locke

While the article was about Sicily, and Sicilian wines, the point of the article is one that applies worldwide. It is simply difficult bordering on impossible to make a dent with wine varieties no one has ever heard of in a world awash with Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot.

Having played around with different wine varieties from the south of Italy, I have to admit I have my own thoughts about them. It is no doubt true that Nero d’Avola is a dominant grape in the region, but I simply cannot get very excited about it.

On the other hand, Aglianico and Negroamaro both make stunning wines. Of course, as far as most wine buyers are concerned in the United States, I may as well be speaking Klingon. Because the vast majority of those buyers have never heard any of those three grapes. And if they have heard of them, they have never tasted them, and if they have tasted them, they’ve certainly not tasted enough of them to gain any real insight into what they are capable of doing.

To some extent, it is an insoluble problem. Between a day at the office and picking up the children at day care, a parent makes a quick stop at the local grocery store. There is simply no room in that person’s life for a sophisticated comparison of grapes obscure if not unknown. Why would that person ever consider pulling a bottle of Aglianico off the shelf even in the unlikely event that there were one there that could be pulled off?

Of course, they wouldn’t. And so it doesn’t matter how good a wine Aglianico makes if nobody tries it.

So I guess that is where the tasting room can really make all the difference. I experimented with a number of varieties some years ago and one of the most successful was Montepulciano. Good luck selling that in to national distribution. But in our tasting room it is a big hit. If you can sweep away all the hype, all the branding, all the association with the big-name grapes (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay) and strip the process down to its bare essentials (i.e., just tasting the wine), the “mano a mano” square off where the only thing that counts is how they taste, then all of a sudden Montepulciano has a fighting chance. And that’s all it needs, because everybody who tastes it (or at least almost everybody) loves it.

Of course, you should not expect to see a Gallo Montepulciano on a grocery store shelf in a market near you anytime soon, since the chances of our quasi-prohibitionist nation allowing that type of tasting on a broad basis is remote at best. And even if it were to happen, the marketing machine that supports the status quo is an immense force that is not easily overcome.

So, at best, I think we will see a few “obscure” varieties transition from “obscure” to “niche”, in somewhat the way Zinfandel and Petite Sirah have done. They may still be drops in an ocean of wine, but at least most wine consumers when they hear “Zinfandel” can identify it as a wine grape, which puts it way ahead of Aglianico.

Finally, I think

Monday, April 28th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

As you are probably aware if you’ve been reading this blog, we’ve been trying to get a winery and tasting room opened in Suisun Valley for well, forever. I just checked for when we applied for TTB winery bond, and it was in July 2012. So we have been at this for almost 2 years.

At the time, I thought dealing with the TTB and the California Alcohol Beverage Control Board was a total pain. Now, I look back on those as the good old days. Getting the local permits in order to open has been 1000 times more difficult.

The latest manifestation of this has been dealing with the State Water Quality Control Board. I’m not an expert in this field, so I’m not even sure I understand exactly what has gone on. It sounds to me as though dealing with our septic system used to be something that the county handled, but due to some recent legislation, is now handled by the state. Only, due to limited manpower, the state really can’t deal with it. Or something like that. At any rate, as far as I can tell our future has been sitting on a desk someplace in Oakland waiting for somebody to get to us. Except that’s not totally true, either, because I talked to the person who deals with this six months ago, who indicated this should be no big deal. I suspect that is how he felt, but when he went to higher-ups to get it approved, that isn’t what happened. That’s really speculation, though, because nobody really talks to you, so you really don’t know what’s going on.

About six weeks ago we made our latest submittal, and waited for the 30 days that it’s supposed to take to get a response. 30 days came. 30 days when. No response.

So after trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that we seemed to be getting nowhere, my partner, Richard, finally got ahold of the guy at State Water Quality Resources, who indicated that our application would be approved, and he would give the okay to Solano County to issue the permit. It’s too good to be true. And, like they say, if it sounds too good to be true, maybe it is too good to be true.

Of course, I do not actually have the permit in hand, and I don’t really know how long it takes to get from the “your permit is being approved” to its actual issuance.

I do know that when it comes to a winery and tasting room, we could hardly be smaller or more inconsequential. Why it should have taken close to two years to get through this process I cannot begin to understand. Everybody says we want wineries, we want agri-tourism, we want small businesses, we want employment. But I would be a whole lot happier if instead of talking the talk, they walked the walk. Because the process has been mind numbingly difficult.

I can’t say that any of the regulations that we have needed to comply with are on their face unreasonable. But when you pass a reasonable regulation, only to delegate its enforcement to an overworked and underfunded agency, what started out as a reasonable regulation just ends up as red tape. And when you need to deal with the federal tax and trade Bureau, the state Department of alcohol beverage control, the County of Solano planning department, the County of Solano building department, and state water quality resources, the regulatory maze is simply multiplied by five.

I hope in a few months time this will all be forgotten like a bad dream, but if I had known then what I know now about what would be required, I doubt I would even started the process two years ago.

And even though we have the verbal okay, I still don’t know when we will actually get the paper that we need to open. So I am excited, but still feeling the trepidation that results from knowing I have felt this way before,  only to find out that it just wasn’t happening.

So, hopefully, in a matter of some weeks, I can actually start moving in wine and pouring tastes. Only time can tell if that will really be the case. Stay tuned.

How To Store That Half-Finished Bottle

Monday, April 21st, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

Too busy this week to write a post, so I’m reposting one of my older ones:

It’s a problem that just keeps cropping up—you’ve finished half the bottle, which means that you still have a half a bottle left over that, hopefully, you’ll finish in a day or two.

All too often, when you come back to it, it’s no longer drinkable.  Usually, oxidation (which, as the word implies, results from exposure to oxygen) is the problem. At any rate, another half a bottle down the sink.  Can this be avoided?

Before answering this question, it is worth noting that wines vary greatly in how long they will last once open.  Younger, more tannic, reds seem to be able to last much longer than lighter, older, ones.  Whites, properly corked and refrigerated, seem to be able to last quite a while.  Fortified wines can last for months without undue distress. But a dry red wine, young or old, sooner or later will turn on you.

There are two main types of products on the market that aspire to overcome this problem, both by eliminating the oxygen in the bottle.  The first type is an aerosol can that contains inert gas (usually carbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon, or some combination).  This employs the same method used in a winery for partially full tanks, where inert gas, normally argon or nitrogen, is used to fill up the headspace in the tank, thus keeping out oxygen.  The theory is impeccable.  The reality less so.  My experience is that no matter how much of the gas you put into the bottle, the results are only so-so.  I think that the problem is that you can eliminate most, but not all, the oxygen, and most isn’t good enough.  So while this method is better than nothing, it falls far short of optimal.

The second main means of preserving the wine uses some sort of vacuum method. Most common is a rubber stopper with a slit in the top.  You then use a plunger type device that sucks out most of the air from the bottle.  They do seem to achieve this, since when you pull the stopper out, there’s a rush of air into the bottle filling up that partial vacuum.  But you’re not eliminating oxygen from the bottle, just diluting it. And, as with the aerosol can, getting rid of most of the oxygen isn’t the same as getting rid of all the oxygen.  These devices are better than nothing, but no panacea.

There’s a third method, and it’s what winemakers use.  It is by far the most effective of the three.  It’s also very simple.  It suffers from the fact that it’s hard to make any money off of it, so no one has an incentive to push it.

A full sample bottle.  Some tape and a marker will help you to remember which wine you've saved.

A full sample bottle. Some tape and a marker will help you to remember which wine you've saved.

This is what you do:  take that half-filled bottle, and pour it into a smaller bottle.  You can use a funnel at first, but you’ll quickly develop the ability to pour from the original bottle directly into the smaller one.  The important thing is that you fill it all the way to the very top.  Don’t use a cork—use a screw-capped bottle instead, so that you eliminate all air.  I use what are called sample bottles, which can be obtained in various sizes, but a 375 ml size (half a normal 750 ml bottle) is perfect for that half empty bottle.  It’s closed with a plastic screwcap.  If you can get your hands on a few of these, great.  (If you can get your hands on the 500ml and 187ml sizes as well, you’ll have an assortment which will allow you the flexibility to preserve differing amounts of leftover wine.)  Any screw-cap bottle will work pretty well, however.  An clean, empty water or soda bottle will do.  The important thing is that fill it all the way to the top so you have zero air left in the bottle.

This method will not be the equivalent of an unopened bottle of wine.  For one thing, oxygen got into the wine when you first opened it, which has now become absorbed into the wine itself, and can’t be removed.  Normally, there’s enough sulfur dioxide in the wine (all wine has it, pretty much) to bind to this amount of oxygen, and keep it from destroying the wine, at least for a few days.  Nor is this type of screw cap going to keep oxygen out indefinitely (the oxygen seal for this type of screwcap isn’t intended for long-term storage).  The point isn’t to put that half finished bottle down for a few years, just to buy a couple of days till you can finish it off.  And for that purpose, except for the most fragile of wines, this method works.

There’s always the problem that you never have exactly half a bottle left.  Always a little more or a little less.  If you have a little too much, it is far better to pour out some excess wine and have an air-free bottle for what’s left, than it is to store more wine in a larger, partially air-filled, bottle.  Less good wine is far better than more bad wine.  If the thought of discarding some amount of wine is unacceptable, then you need to get even smaller sizes of bottles to handle the excess.

If the problem is that you don’t have enough wine to fill up the half bottle, there’s an easy solution.  Get some marbles, wash them off, and put as many as necessary into the bottle to top it off.  Since wine kills off any microbes that can harm you, the marbles don’t need to be antiseptic clean.  Just as long as there’s no dirt or grime on them, you’ll be fine.  (Actually, a little dirt or grime probably wouldn’t be that big a problem either.)

If you have way too little to fill half a bottle, then you just need to get smaller bottles. The one-serving size screwcap wine (or spirits) bottle will come in handy for this situation.

Since wines vary, there’s no absolute rule to how long these wines will last before becoming unacceptable.  For most wines, however, you can count on getting at least a few days.  For many wines, a week or more isn’t out of the question. A very sturdy wine can go even longer.

Finally, there’s the problem of the bottle you didn’t finish because it wasn’t that good.  There’s not a whole lot of point to preserving it for another day, because that day probably will never come.  If you’re like me, that bottle hangs around long enough to go off no matter how well it’s stored, at which point I discard it without guilt. The better choice for that wine would have been “down the sink” at once.  There’s too much good wine out there to waste your time with second-rate plonk.

Telling wines apart

Monday, April 14th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

As I was going over the week’s posts for my Good Reads Wednesday, I came across this one from Steve Heimoff:

The internationalization of style is no friend of blind tasting

The gist of the post is that trying to figure out what variety a wine is or which region it is from is made more difficult in light of the “internationalization of wine”.

I can understand this argument in theory. When we say the “internationalization of wine” basically what we mean is that wines have tended to be made in a more and more similar style which can roughly be characterized as very ripe, low acidity, softer tannins, too much oak, etc. Obviously, to the extent everybody’s trying to emulate the same style, it should make it harder and harder to differentiate one wine from another.

And while I would have to admit that the “internationalization” of wine has been going on for some time, I am old enough (unfortunately) that my wine drinking days started in the 70s and I tasted wines from even earlier than that on a number of occasions. While the “internationalization” of wines had probably started by then, it certainly was not in full swing.

I remember hosting a party where a number of my wine drinking friends came over and we tasted quite a few wines blind. The whole point was to try to figure out as much as we could about each wine based upon tasting alone.

I would have to say that this group was a particularly adept group when it came to wine tasting. We all went to numerous formal tastings which were really quite common, even at that time, in San Francisco where I lived.

If you would hazard a guess that our abilities to identify a wine weren’t all that good, you would be wrong. Our abilities were far worse than you could ever imagine. Since, at that time, pretty much all wines were either from Europe or the United States (pretty much California), you would have to figure that we had at least a 50-50 chance of getting the continent right. But we failed to exceed even that incredibly low hurdle.

I would like to say that this was an isolated instance of incompetence, but even when I have tasted with wine professionals results have really been no better. Incompetence has been the norm.

And when you consider that numerous studies have been done with “wine experts” tasting white wines that had been colored with red dye, and the “experts” uniformly identified the wines as being red, and exhibiting flavors associated with red wines, my experience has hardly been unusual.

The thing that makes me wonder about this, however, is that I pretty clearly have in my mind what different varieties are supposed to taste like. A Pinot Noir is supposed to be light, with a strawberry like nose, and devoid of any raisin, prune, or even dark cherry flavors. So it should be a no-brainer to pick a Pinot Noir out from a bunch of other red wines. But it’s not.

I do have little doubt that Heimoff is correct that the “internationalization” of wine styles has made the task even more difficult. But considering how we are all universally awful at this task, and always have been, I’m not sure that the “internationalization” of wine styles really has made very much of a difference.

The 100 point system redux

Monday, March 31st, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

It’s a lovely Sunday afternoon here in Napa, and my main concern in life at the moment is trying to catch up on all my recorded basketball games from the NCAA basketball tournament. I still haven’t gotten around to doing my Monday blog so I need something quick, easy, and hopefully a little sexy.

Ergo, the hundred point system. Added to my need to get back to the TV set is the fact that I don’t think I’ve talked about the hundred point system in at least three weeks.

What brought this all to mind was my reading of Tom Wark’s blog on this very subject, which can be found at:

100 Point Wines and My Worry I Might Have Gone Round the Bend


Suffice it to say that I largely disagree with Wark, who thinks the 100 point system has a lot of value. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. I’m not to talk about whether the 100 point system is good, bad, irrelevant or anything like that. I’m instead going to talk about why we argue so much about it.

And I think the reason is that for so many major issues in the wine world, the hundred point system is at the epicenter of the debate.

I think if you read Wark’s article, his point of view seems to be that you should not think of the hundred point system as being any sort of objective assessment of the quality of the wine. If you do, then you are way off base. You should view it simply as the one critic’s personal and very subjective view of the wine he is tasting. Does it have anything to do with your personal, subjective view? Maybe, maybe not.

And I think even granting Wark the benefit of the doubt, you end up walking away thinking that if the hundred point system is good for anything at all, then it’s not good for very much.

To me, I don’t think giving a 97 to a wine has any more validity than giving a 97 to a van Gogh or a Renoir. It says more about the tastes of the critic than anything else (a point that I think Wark would concede).

So given that pretty much everybody would agree that the hundred point system occupies a spot someplace between mostly and totally irrelevant, why is it here?

The reason is simple. If there is an epicenter that the hundred point system occupies, I think it is in the crosshairs of where marketing meets winemaking. And let’s face it, if something moves cases then it is going to be embraced irrelevant or not. And the hundred point system moves cases. I don’t know the winemaker whose criticism of the hundred point system won’t suddenly abate the moment that he gets a 97 for one of his wines. What does it matter that some other critic gave the same wine an 87? Or a 77? Well, it doesn’t matter at all, since that 97 is gold when it comes to moving cases.

So, as Joel Grey said in “Cabaret” (or was that “Cabernet”?), “money makes the world go around.”

But the 100 point system sits not just at the epicenter of marketing versus winemaking, but also at the center of the dispute about objective versus subjective when it comes to wine quality. We would all like to think that wine quality is an objective thing. But the evidence seems to be largely to the contrary. Well, not all the evidence. We would all agree that a corked wine is, objectively, a bad one. Most of us would agree that a badly oxidized wine is also a bad wine, again in an objective sense.

But do we all agree that a oaky wine is a bad wine? Or a very tannic one? What about one high in acid, or one low in acid? Of course not. I don’t think raisins have any place in the taste profile for a wine, but obviously lovers of late harvest Zinfandel cherish that flavor.

But we hold on to the belief that wines are subject to objective evaluation as we do to other beliefs that are cherished, beautiful, and patently false. To abandon the hundred point system is to abandon our most closely held beliefs about wine and, for that reason, it will never happen.