Archive for October, 2007

We’ve had a lot of great ideas recently and I think they warrant a thread to keep track of them. Post your ideas and comments here!

Idea one: Oak and its many intricacies.

Winemaking includes a slew of variables that can be tweaked to alter the end product. Oak is among the most significant, having the potential to make a profound difference. Its use spans reds and whites, through most varietals. Different aging lengths, woods from specific regions or forests, barrel producers, barrel ages and so on are all sub-factors. We will explore the use of oak in wine production to better understand all aspects involved and how they play into the ultimate flavor.


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Every Friday, I look forward to reading the WSJ with much anticipation, waiting to see what Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher have to recommend in their latest wine article.

As usual, I wasn’t disappointed. This Friday’s article presents invaluable suggestions on everyday wines to drink – and to store in your wine fridge. Invaluable because as I’ve been cooking and consequently digging into my wine fridge for that pairing, I’ve finished most of my cheaper bottles and am now left with the dearer ones that I can’t really justify drinking alone on a weekday night.

With each new case, we’d be more and more adventurous. Our most important advice is to try new things and trust your own taste. Stock types of wine that you like, but force yourself to get out of your comfort zone. You’ll find many delicious surprises, wines that will be new friends to greet you at home, wines that make you smile. Here is a case of wines that would make us smile, that we know would pair with anything we might cook for dinner tonight. They are listed from white to red.

• Muscadet from France. It’s the classic wine to have with fish — fun, easy to drink and inexpensive.

• Riesling Kabinett from Germany. This is a must-have with pork and veal, but also lovely to drink on its own.

• Alsatian white from France, probably Pinot Blanc or Gewürztraminer. If we’re calling in spicy Asian food, this would stand up to it. And it’s great with pork roast with herbs or pork with simmering apples, prunes and raisins.

• Inexpensive Chardonnay from the U.S. Most inexpensive Chardonnay these days is sweet, heavy and unpleasant, but there’s a reason Chardonnay is still America’s favorite wine. When it’s good, there are few wines as enjoyable and casual. When we were young, our house Chardonnay was Estancia. We bought it by the case and always had a bottle in the refrigerator when we had informal, happy food like quiche. Over the years, we’ve liked Beringer, Bogle, Cambria, Gallo of Sonoma, Hahn, R.H. Phillips and others as our house Chardonnay, but this is one you really need to decide for yourself. This can pair with anything from fried chicken to seafood dishes. If we saw a lower-priced Grüner Veltliner from Austria or Torrontés from Argentina, we might substitute one of those because they’re more delightful than Chardonnay to sip on their own, before dinner, but those are harder to find than Chardonnay.

• Better Chardonnay from the U.S. or, if there were a reliable one, a white Burgundy from France. Sometimes we make a special meal that needs a white of some stature, and this would fit the bill. We’d probably look for a Montagny, Rully or Saint-Véran from Burgundy, since we’ve had good luck with those. The American Chardonnay would probably be anything we hadn’t tried before because there’s always a new one out there and it’s fun to experiment. By having it in our drink-now cooler, we’d open it instead of waiting for a special occasion.

• Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Chile or South Africa, depending on how much we wanted to spend. Sauvignon Blanc is mouth-watering and hunger-inducing and there are so many good ones today from so many places. These pair with a variety of foods, including salads, hearty grilled vegetable dishes and seafood.

• Beaujolais from France. Inexpensive, good both chilled or warmer, perfect with just about any food from salmon to hamburgers — how could we not have a bottle around? We might simply have a Beaujolais-Villages, but we’d probably have a bottle from one of the villages (See related column).

• A red Rhône from France or a Portuguese red. We often eat comfort food, like meat loaf or macaroni and cheese, and comfort food requires comfort wine. We’d get a Portuguese red if we could find one — we love their earthiness and their low prices — but, if we couldn’t, we’d probably go with one of the lesser-known (and therefore lower-priced) Rhône wines, like Vacqueyras.

• Mid-range Bordeaux from France. If we were having steak or short ribs, we’d have to open a good Bordeaux. We might actually go to the bigger cellar for this and break out something with age, but if not, we’d want to have a bottle of Châteaux Gloria, Phélan-Ségur, Beychevelle, Gruaud-Larose or Pontet-Canet. There’s nothing magical about those five names except they’re wines we’ve enjoyed for decades, so they give us a smile.

• Pinot Noir from the U.S. We’d probably spend about $20 or so on a California or Oregon Pinot Noir to include in the cooler because, these days, there are few wines as reliably food-friendly and delicious. We also find that Pinot is especially fun to linger over, so we’d open it when we got home and sip it through dinner. Good ones always seem like several bottles as they change through the night, and they’re great with a wide variety of dishes from salmon to roast chicken to lamb.

• An informal red from Italy. We imagine many people, like us, eat lasagna, pizza and other casual Italian dishes pretty often, so we’d want to have a wine to pair with those. We might just go with Antinori’s delightful, inexpensive Santa Cristina, but perhaps we’d have a bottle of Barbera d’Alba or Dolcetto instead.

• Malbec from Argentina or Carmenère from Chile. We don’t often have game, but if we had anything that reminded us of game — a rich stew, or an herbed roast — these would be perfect. Malbec is far more widely available, but Carmenère is the kind of fun, different, often-inexpensive wine that reminds us that there are always new tastes out there to be discovered.

Remember: If you buy wine by the mixed case, you will usually get 10% to 20% off. And wines always taste better with a discount.

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From the Wall Street Journal today: Climate change may benefit northerly wine growers…

Northern Vintage:
Canada’s Wines
Rise With Mercury
Growers Try Classy Grapes,
October 15, 2007; Page A1

TAPPEN, British Columbia — Two weeks ago, a brief storm left the mountains above Gary Kennedy’s fields ominously capped in snow. His Pinot Noir grapes needed another week — maybe two — in the sun. The race was on: harvest versus first frost.

“We’ve literally bet the farm that this is going to work,” said Mr. Kennedy, a slight, sinewy man of 65, who is trying to make a go of winemaking 1,100 miles north of Napa Valley. “We’re right on the edge.”

Such are the perils of winemaking Canadian style, as global warming encourages vintners to press ever-farther north. If all goes well for Mr. Kennedy, his four-year-old Granite Creek Estate Wines will hold onto its place as one of the most northerly winemakers in North America — at least for a while.

The borders of the world’s grape-growing regions are shifting away from the equator and toward the poles, redrawing the world wine map in the process. Traditional winemaking powerhouses such as Napa and parts of Australia are struggling with excessive heat. Formerly frosty climes like this verdant corner of British Columbia are beginning to produce first-rate wines.

“There is concern in some areas, and there is opportunity in others,” says Gregory V. Jones, a professor of climatology at Southern Oregon University, who is a leading researcher on the subject of viticulture and climate. “Canada will be one of the winners in the wine world.”

Grape varieties traditionally harvested in Europe, such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, produce some of the world’s best wine — and the most expensive. But they are extremely sensitive to temperature. The thermal niche in which these types of grapes thrive is narrow, and the conditions required to produce a good vintage are narrower still.

That’s one reason why generations of Kennedys had mostly raised cows on the rolling, cypress- and pine-studded hills here, halfway between Calgary and Vancouver.

When Mr. Kennedy’s children informed him they didn’t want to take over the dairy, he began looking for alternatives. With a thriving wine business taking root in the Okanagan Valley to his south, Mr. Kennedy spent two years studying the region’s climate data. His conclusion: Winters were getting warmer, summers hotter, and the growing season longer. Four years ago, after selling the cows, he and his family took out a hefty bank loan and started Granite Creek.
Mr. Kennedy’s winery sits 70 miles north of the Okanagan Valley, where British Columbia’s winemaking industry has taken hold. A broad, deep lake lies at the center of the valley, surrounded by jagged, 5,000-foot mountains. The deep, dry soil, the long, hot summer days and the limited precipitation are favorable for grape growing. But the cold winters have always set limits on what could be harvested.

When farmers here first tried their hands at growing grapes in the 1920s, they used a cross between the heartier American varieties and their European cousins. The harvest was pressed into jug wine and sold cheap.

“B.C. wine was the joke of the wine industry,” says Howard Soon, a winemaker who came to the Okanagan in 1980. “Nothing that came out of this area back then was particularly good.”
In 1989, as tariffs were removed, hybrid grapes grown in the U.S. flooded the Canadian market. Thinking that local grape growers would be unable to compete, the Canadian government paid vineyard owners to pull up their vines and plant different crops.

Most grape growers in British Columbia took the government’s money and moved on. But about a half dozen Okanagan Valley growers, noting the absence of a serious cold snap for several years, opted to forgo the payout and roll the dice: They planted the delicate European grape varieties that had never before survived.

“I thought they were crazy,” says Mr. Soon, who is today a senior winemaker at Sandhill, one of the biggest wineries in British Columbia. “I thought everybody was going to get frozen out, and we’d all be out of a job.”

The point at which cold becomes deadly for most plants that produce European varietals is about four degrees below zero Fahrenheit, says Mr. Soon. Between 1947 and 1956, the temperature in the Okanagan Valley dipped below that mark 28 times. Between 1967 and 1976, the number of deep freezes fell to 11. In the last 10 years, the coldest recorded temperature was a half degree above zero, says David Phillips, the Canadian government’s senior climatologist.
“The changes are slight, but they’ve been enough to make a big difference,” says Denise Neilsen, a research field scientist for the Canadian government who has studied the valley’s climate. “The milder winters opened the door. They are what made this industry possible.”
As the winters moderated, warming an average of five degrees over that 60-year span, the growing season increased by 11 days, giving some of the slower ripening varietals a chance to mature. At the same time, average summer temperatures rose nearly four degrees, increasing the speed at which the grapes ripened.

By the mid-1990s, Okanagan winemakers were entering their still-young wines in international competitions — and being derided. George Heiss, owner of Gray Monk Estate Winery, was among the first to try to cultivate European grapes in the Okanagan. He remembers setting up a table alongside winemakers from Australia and Spain at an international wine competition in London.
“People would walk by and do a double take,” Mr. Heiss says. “They’d say, ‘Canada? Where do you make your wines, in igloos?’ ”

But as the vines matured, so did the grapes they produced. Okanagan wines began to earn a reputation for balanced, food-friendly vintages, and the wineries began to turn profits. By this year, the number of British Columbian wineries had shot up to 136, from 17 in 1990. The value of the wine produced has increased more than 20-fold.

In recent years Canadian wines have begun to consistently win gold medals at European wine competitions.

Wine and culinary tourism have taken off in the valley, and development has followed. Farmland has jumped to about $200,000 an acre, from $5,000 two decades ago. Albertan energy executives, flush with cash from the oil rush, have flooded the region, building vineyards and second homes.

Established winemaking regions are struggling to adapt to climate changes. In Spain, winemakers are planting vineyards at higher elevations to escape excessive heat. In France, they are altering centuries-old irrigation traditions to accommodate longer, hotter summers. Prof. Jones at Southern Oregon characterizes the anxiety in Napa as “worry, not panic.” In Australia, researchers say that up to 11% of the grape-growing land will be too hot to use by 2030.
As the Okanagan Valley has flourished, Mr. Kennedy is betting the good fortune will reach north to his spread.

“I’m not necessarily a proponent of global warming,” says Mr. Kennedy, whose grapes are now days away from harvest and have escaped frost so far. “But I do know the climate has changed here, and it’s having a pretty significant impact on the grape industry. How long it will last I can’t tell you. We’re pioneers up here.”

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So we have to choose a logo….Here are the two contenders. Email votes to our fearless leader…aglassofwine.

Splat by Aza


Vine by Wendy


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I’ve received a number of replies – both online and off – with respect to the earlier post of the same title I wrote recently. Instead of replying in the comments section of that post, I thought I’d address some of the concerns more fully here.

One of the feedbacks highlights a worry that “The move away from education makes the “wine club” into a social club… and when there are more strangers than familiar faces, there’s little incentive to show up.” One of the original intentions of setting up the wine club was to learn about wine. But the other goal was also to enable a group of friends to come together and socialize. Hence the classification as a club. And the changes we’re trying to put in place now does not really move away from education; we’re really more reformatting the way we learn about the wine – through an online discourse vs. through a formal group “lecture” setting. Ideally, people would still do their research before hand, submit it to the host to consolidate the notes and to post online, and then go to the tasting armed with the research to informally engage in conversation about the research topics and/or the wine tasting.

I think it’s unfortunate that when a group surpasses beyond a certain size, some of the old guard, if you will, may feel uncomfortable with the change and yearn for the cozy old days. It’s unfortunate, because I can empathize with that trusted sense of familiarity that is hard to shake off. When I started parking at this tiny family-owned parking garage by the airport, I knew the entire family and the rest of the employees there. They knew me too (to the point of recognizing my voice when I called in) and we got along great, and held easy conversations on the shuttle ride to the airport. But as they grew larger, they hired more employees, and the faces grew less and less familiar. I miss those old days, but I can’t really begrudge them for expanding their operations and reaping in the economies of scale. Consequently, I can totally understand why some people may be turned off by a much larger wine group, the same as my growing sense of indifference as to where I park at the airport now that I no longer feel some kind of attachment with the family-owned car park.

That said, the title of the post is “A Good Problem to Have,” which I think speaks volumes about my position on the issue. So I’d say that my solution to the problem would not be to limit the total group size, but to find a way to ensure that we successfully manage to find a way to blend the old in with the new. To that end, my one suggestion would be to enable monthly host-volunteers to cap the number of attendees at a limit they’re comfortable with, and then I’d host un-capped events once or twice a quarter at my more spacious apartment.


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The Cork Debate

From the Wall Street Journal 10/3/2007:

How to End a Bottleneck
October 3, 2007; Page D10

If you order a bottle of wine at a high-end restaurant these days, the sommelier might just come over to your table, a fine vintage in hand, and twist off a metal cap as if he were opening a bottle of Pepsi. Whether this tableside performance — so banal compared with the artful choreography of the corkscrew — is a sign of the cultural apocalypse is hard to say. But a business revolution does seem to be under way: Winemakers around the world are rebelling against the cork.

On the shelves of wine shops everywhere you can find bottles sealed with screw caps and with cork-shaped plastic stoppers. And it’s not just the cheap stuff. That bottle of wine with a screw cap could cost you $50, $100 or even $200. From the days when Thomas Jefferson’s cellar was filled with bottles of Lafite to the near-present, it was cork and only cork that sealed wine bottles from the invading effects of the surrounding air. As recently as the late 1990s, you would be hard-pressed to find a corkless bottle of serious wine anywhere in the world.

No more. The cork has nearly disappeared from Australia’s domestically produced — and broadly exported — wines. In California, screw caps are no longer reserved for jug wines: The $155-a-bottle Plumpjack Reserve Cabernet is a twist-off. Even France, the country most reluctant to abandon a corky tradition, is flirting with alternatives. Earlier this year, Maison Jean-Claude Boisset became the first to do away with corks on a grand cru red burgundy, sealing half its $200-a-bottle 2005 Chambertin with screw caps.

So what’s going on? Technology plays a part, but taste and competition do as well: Too many bad corks have been ruining too much perfectly good wine. For a couple of hundred years, winemakers and wine drinkers understood that the wine in a small percentage of bottles — as much as 3% to 5% — would suffer from the contamination of bad corks (and, sometimes, bad barrels). The culprit was a chemical called tricholoanisole, or TCA. It caused wine to become “corked” — that is, to smell like a moldy pile of damp cardboard. The TCA problem — apparently originating at the early stages of cork harvesting — seemed to get worse over the past few decades. But the cork industry, dominated by a handful of big companies in Spain and Portugal, refused even to acknowledge the problem, let alone do anything about it.

The cork makers were in for a rude awakening. “To cork’s critics, the failure rate is both outrageous and unacceptable,” writes George Taber in “To Cork or Not to Cork.” “They repeatedly argue that if 3% or 5% of Toyota cars or IBM computers failed, those companies would be out of business.” So over the past decade, winemakers have taken matters into their own hands, exploring alternatives that include, lately, glass caps.

There is more at stake here than the wages of sommeliers. According to Mr. Taber, the revenue of the companies that manufacture the stopping-apparatus for a bottle of wine — those who seek, yes, “closure” — is about $4 billion a year. Cork still dominates, but it is losing ground. In New Zealand the revolution is nearly complete: In 2000, nearly all its wines were closed with corks; today 95% have screw caps.

Such rapid change has provoked a debate within the wine business. In 2002, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery in California held an elaborate “funeral for the cork” in Manhattan, complete with pallbearers, a hearse and a “heartfelt wake for the old stinker” at Grand Central Terminal. The eulogy was given by British wine critic Jancis Robinson, who pronounced: “The great big supertanker SS Screwcap has set sail, and there will be no turning back.”


By George M. Taber
(Scribner, 278 pages, $26)Maybe, but screw caps and synthetic corks may cause problems of their own: They may do such a good job sealing the bottle that they kill the wine. One of the first to explore this problem was Paul White, a journalist and wine expert in New Zealand, who has been on a crusade against the screw-cap revolution. Mr. White argues that cork is essential to wine’s aging process because it lets trace amounts of oxygen into the bottle. A perfectly sealed wine bottle with a screw cap can, over time, suffer from something called “reduction” — causing it to smell like sulfur-infused rotten eggs. The idea that a small amount of oxygen is essential to the aging of wine may not be universally accepted, but it is not new. As Louis Pasteur put it more than 150 years ago: “It is oxygen that makes the wine.” Mr. White’s criticism of screw caps has made him something of a pariah in New Zealand, where the wine industry is so heavily invested in them.

Faced with market pressures for the first time, the big cork producers are finally taking steps to tighten their quality control and seek out the cork that causes TCA. And the World Wildlife Fund — in a case of free-market environmentalism — has jumped to the defense of corks, since their use in wine bottles is the surest way of protecting the old cork forests in Spain and Portugal. Cork is harvested by slicing the bark off cork trees. The trees survive, living on for more than a century. If the market for cork dries up, strip malls may stand where cork forests now do.

In “To Cork or Not to Cork,” Mr. Taber does an able job of telling the story of the cork industry’s early history, its rise to global monopoly status and the recent search for alternatives. On the central question — to cork or not to cork — he takes a pass. The science, he believes, is inconclusive. Screw caps and plastic corks seem to work fine for wines, especially white wines, that are drunk soon after they are bottled. But it is too early to tell if they will work for wines that should stay in the cellar for years.

But the debate is about more than the science of wine aging. As Mr. Taber writes: “In the entire world, only a few sounds bring joy to all but the most jaded. One is the purring kitten, another is the thwack of a well-pitched baseball hitting a perfectly swung bat. And a third is the pop of a cork being pulled from a bottle of wine.” For a lot of people, the wine experience is as much about ritual and beauty as it is about the actual taste of wine. To avoid the Pepsi effect, a wine lover might say, put a cork in it.

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Back to earth: Hearty Reds


 I visited Bin 36 with some friends last Thursday where I tried a “Down to Earth Reds” flight – I was very impressed with the selection. At $14 for a flight of 4 wines, it was not only good value for money, it was also one of the more thoughtful selections I’ve seen put together in a long while. All four glasses of wine offered their own unique aromas and body; fascinating and interesting. I’ll not hesitate to buy any of these wines in a heartbeat; perfect to bring to party – and my next climbing trip!

Words in italics are tasting notes from Bin 36.

2006 (Grenache / Syrah / Mourvedre), Cotes-du-Rhone, Domaine Montirius, Rhone Valley, France $14: “This complex little wine manages to exhibit plush texture with chewy, dark minerals and fruit.”
-> I thought the nose was somewhat similar to an Oregon Pinot Noir – some damp earth, but softer and also a little sourish, some cherry. Definitely chewy. Hot finish.

2005 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Quattro Mani, Abruzzi, Italy $11: “Elegant and restrainted with earthy currants and hints of cedar.”
-> I LOVED the nose – interesting blend of spices and sweets. Whiff of strawberries.

2005 (Cabernet / Carmenere / Cab Franc) Vina Maquis, Calcu, Colchagua, Chile $13: “This one is all grown up with sophisticated flavors and a mineral driven profile, with dark fruit and dark chocolate.”
-> Lots of oak in the nose; tannic mouthfeel; deep red fruit – blackberries. Sweet fruit with a minerally finish.

2004: (Cabernet Sauvignon / Grenache / Syrah / Mourvedre / Carignan), Mas de Gourgonnier, Les Baux de Provence, Provence, France $19: “Smooth texture, earthy ripe and dark berriers, cassis and a plummy, mineral core.”
-> Loved the nose, though it was slightly maddening because I just couldn’t place the particular scent of spiciness. Thyme, sandalwood, cuimin, liqourice, Chinese herbal shop?!?! I need to pick up a bottle to more intensely sniff it out. Strong tannins in the mouth.

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