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Until there is definitive evidence that the unique matrix or “chemical soup” of wine, by itself, leads to healthier outcomes for individuals, we need to stop with this “wine is healthy” talk.  The only thing we can say for sure at this point of the scientific path is that a healthy individual probably won’t suffer any negative outcomes by moderately drinking, preferably with food, and not as an attempt to alleviate stress.  Admittedly, I’m the one pushing last point, but I have good evidence and following that advice definitely will not hurt you.  Having said that…

Are people saying wine is good or bad for you today?  I can never keep up. According to some Google searches, on May 21, 2017 all of the “news” sources that I’ve never heard of viewed wine as health savior, but on May 22, 2017, that all changed.  The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs published two articles the day before looking at the potential associations between moderate drinking and long-term cardiovascular health.  Both of these articles were critical of how numerous studies conducted previously that suggested (not proved) there is a link between light to moderate drinking and reduced rates of cardiovascular disease may have made a common error in research by assuming that the results seen in the groups of individuals studied were widely applicable to everyone in the general population.  And then this happened:

 

Search

First, neither of the papers were about wine specifically so let’s tone it down “Starts at 60” (Tag line: “Australia and New Zealand’s, and increasingly, the worlds largest digital media platform for over 60s.”).  Second, neither of these papers proved or even attempted to prove that there is no association between wine and long-term cardiovascular health.  The edition of the journal these articles were published in even opens with the following text (red text mine):

This issue of the journal contains two articles with three associated commentaries on the yet-unanswered question of the association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health as well as general mortality.

Third, the idea that a single food or drink item should be deemed “Healthy” or “Not healthy” is beyond ludicrous because that’s just not how health works.

In general, this see-sawing you see in the news about whether something is healthy or not is a result of misinterpretations of what the results of a single study or small number of studies say.  Most journalists aren’t great at interpreting scientific literature unless they also have a science background; wine and food writers are especially bad.  As a general rule of understanding scientific research: the more studies that are conducted on a particular question, the less likely any single study is going to contradict all of the research performed before it.  For example, let’s take a look possible outcomes of the question: Is there an association (relationship) between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health?

  • Yes, there is a positive association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means moderate drinking could make you heart-healthy)
  • Yes, there is a negative association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means moderate drinking could make you heart-unhealthy)
  • No, there is no association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means being a moderate drinker in itself won’t determine your heart health)

The results of every study conducted on this question will add evidence to one of these possible outcomes. I generally visualize this as each study producing a single cube of evidence of roughly the same size/weight/volume as any other study that gets filed into one of the outcome columns.  Why the same size/weight/volume? Because an important aspect of the scientific process is that an experiment is repeatable.  The process is highly democratic in this respect which means that a single study cannot overturn the bulk of work done through previous studies.  A single study can influence future studies to be done to repeat the results however, which could lead to a turning of the tide, so to speak, but this process takes time.

Evidence

*Not actually representative of the current body of evidence no matter how much we want it to be true.

It is also important to note that in the scientific method there is no point where testing is stopped which is why declarative statements that an ultimate truth have been found are foolhardy.  Yet, there are times when the body of evidence is so large and convincing that it paints a picture of an inevitable outcome.  In other words, the pile of evidence is so vast in one column that the chances of that changing are slim to none.  Human-caused climate change, no association between vaccines and autism, an association between tobacco use and cancer, the theory of evolution, Aaron Berdofe being a pretty cool guy…these are all areas where the evidence paints a clear picture of the inevitable outcome.

But, as the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs pointed out, we just don’t have a clear picture yet on if there is an association between moderate alcohol consumption and cardiovascular health and general mortality.  Same goes for most health related questions about alcohol.  The only certain thing we know about our relationship with alcohol is that if we drink too much we can permanently damage ourselves and perhaps die.  How we define “too much” varies by individual, but that’s why we have population health recommendations about how much is too much.  To a somewhat lesser degree of certainty, we also know that there seem to be few negative consequences to drinking lightly or moderately.  Again, thresholds and circumstances affecting that may vary.

None of this changes the the fact that wine drinkers just want to believe that wine will ultimately make them healthier people.  It’s perfectly natural to hope that our potential problems in the future can be alleviated by either doing nothing or continuing to do the things we currently enjoy.  I do believe that it is within this shared hope amongst wine drinkers that we write articles extolling the health benefits of wine, sell wine by incorporating it in the idea of being part of a healthy meal, or lecture beer drinkers on why wine is better.  I don’t think wine professionals or yes, even health/wellness professionals are being sinister when repeating incorrect or perhaps misleading statements regarding the relationship between wine and health*, but I do wish we’d all start being a little more thoughtful when talking about the topic.

If you are a wine professional, I would recommend you stop using binary descriptors when discussing wine and health like good/bad and healthy/unhealthy.  Adding or subtracting wine to a person’s diet, as we understand it today, does not make that person’s diet healthier or unhealthier.  Are there some interesting interactions that happen when we drink wine that have what we consider to be positive effects on our bodies? Yes, certainly.  There are also some effects we consider to be negative as well, but it’s very complex and research is underway to figure out in exactly what conditions those effects will take place.

It’s also good to remember that what the research says and what the headlines say are not always in alignment.  For example, the studies I first referenced about 1,000 words don’t conclude as the headlines purport that wine is “NOT good for the heart”.  They do suggest that some of the cubes of evidence presented to the “Good for your heart” column (Yes +) maybe need more work done before they can officially be put there.  I would at least recommend reading the parts of the study referenced in an article labeled “Abstract” and “Results” if you can.  Frustratingly though, most writers fail to provide a reference link to the original study they are basing their article off of.  Another frustrating road block you may run into is that the study is behind some journal’s paywall and I doubt you’ll want to pay the $25 to read it.  For that, all I can do is apologize for the world and let you know we’re working on it.

Therefore, until the number of studies performed and the results of those studies give a definitive picture to the question of how wine may affect our long-term health the best answer to give someone asking is a good shrug and tell someone that unless their doctor says otherwise, moderate drinking isn’t going to negatively affect you and too much will obviously kill you.  Of course, if you want to put a twinkle in your eye along with a sly grin and whisper “Maybe there’s something to it…” before taking a thoughtful sip of a particularly enchanting glass of wine, I won’t stop you.  Gourmand’s are willing to take the risk for pleasure, but do they do know there is a risk.

 

 

 

*There are a few companies these days claiming they can prevent headaches or hangovers from wine and there is simply no scientific evidence to back up their claims.  This is somewhat sinister and potentially in violation of Truth In Advertising laws.

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As one does, I was having a conversation about spicy peppers the other day and someone referenced the Scoville scale when comparing two peppers to show that the difference in hotness between them was exponential.  After that though, knowing a little about how capsaicin causes us to perceive heat,  I started wondering how exactly does one measure a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU)?  So I looked it up and it turns out the Scoville scale is a subjective measure that relies on how diluted with water a pepper needs to be in order to not find it spicy anymore and not how much capsaicin is actually in the pepper.  In other words, it’s a subjective measurement, not an objective one.  There is an objective test for measuring capsaicinoid concentration now though; it’s called high-performance liquid chromatography and it was developed well after Wilbur Scovile was dead.

It turns out that Wilbur’s subjective test does a decent enough job of matching up with the objective one which is probably why it persists as the defacto industry scale today (or at least amongst people discussing peppers).  That got me thinking about the number of of “measurements” used in wine tasting there are and just how subjective most of them really are.  Some of them do a decent enough job of helping to answer questions like what’s different between these two wines or perhaps which wine you should bring to a party hosted by someone who reads too many wine magazines, but there are a lot of wine-related questions that can’t be answered by these methods…not that this has stopped people from trying.  Which ones help and which ones don’t? Settle in and read on to find out.

Aroma Wheels

AromaWheel

The science of wine aroma is beautifully (or frustratingly) complicated.  Let’s take a quick trip down the process flow of how wine aromas come to be:

1.) Each grape variety has its own genotype that determines the spectrum of possible aromatic compounds the grape can develop and will have when crushed and squeezed into juice.

2.) The environment the grapes develop in which includes the climate, the weather, how the vine was trained, the soil composition, pest and disease exposure, and a whole host of other environmental factors reduce that genetic spectrum of possible aromatic compounds into what is known as the phenotype, or how the grape’s genes express themselves given the environment they develop in.

3.) How the wine is then made from the resulting grape variety or blend of varieties will not only modify the aromatic compounds in pre-fermentation grape juice, but also add in new aromas from the yeast and fermentation process as well how the wine is aged, especially if oak is used.  To make things more complicated, various wine making techniques used to refine the appearance or change tactile sensations of the wine can also modify those aromatic compounds or even strip some out.  Those compounds can then again be modified over time as the wine ages through slow exposure to oxygen.  This is all what is desired to happen so it’s not even taking into account flaws in the process that can also modify the aromatic compounds; usually for the worse in terms of our preferences.

4.) Which aromatic compounds in the wine actually get to the olfactory receptors in our noses and throats is determined by the weights of the compounds, the temperature of the wine, the shape of the glass, the amount of oxygen that’s been infused into it through either swirling the glass, decanting, or just letting the wine sit for awhile.  Compounding the complexity of these aromatic compounds are the other potential aromas coming from the food in front of you or the food you’ve already consumed wafting up from your stomach.  And that’s just taking into account the olfactory receptors scattered throughout your nose, mouth, and throat.  Various organs like our livers also contain olfactory receptors.  Oh, and sperm does too.

5.) The receptors triggered by what we smell send signals up to olfactory bulb in our brains creating an “image” of what is being detected which may or may not change slightly based on our current state of mind or environmental cues like the color of the wine itself.  Then we compare that picture with other smell “images” we have sitting in our memory banks of things we’ve smelled before to see if we can find a match.

Simple, right? [Eye-roll]

Wine professionals and amateurs alike spend a lot of time describing what a wine smells like.  Back in 1984, Ann C. Noble, who is an actual sensory chemist with a PhD and who has done actual research on techniques and applications of wine tasting, developed what has become a homogenizing tool in the wine world: The Wine Aroma Wheel.  The wheel contains three levels of aroma characterizations that increase with specificity as you move outward.  For example, the specific aroma of “Pineapple”, which is in the third or outer-most tier, falls under the more encompassing term “Tropical Fruit” in the second-tier category, which itself falls under the general category of “Fruity” in the first-tier.  This structuring of a defined set of terms was modeled on what was already being utilized for whiskey evaluations at the time.  To use the wheel as it was intended as a smell-assist guide you classify what you are smelling to a category in the central or first-tier, then reclassify it into one of the possible subcategories in the middle or second-tier, and then finally reclassify it again into the outer or third-tier.

The purpose of this tool was so that people could elucidate the differences between certain wines they were in the process of discussing with someone and in that respect, it is an extremely helpful tool.  But where did this list of aromas come from?  Keeping in mind the process flow of how aromas get from grape to your brain, the development of this particular tool is limited primarily to the last step, #5.  Dr. Noble sifted through numerous tasting notes which in all actuality are people’s subjective interpretations of what aromas are being observed as well as some actual sensory research that identified various aromatic compounds and created a refined list based on the most common descriptors used.

Now humans are pretty good sniffers, despite what some people say, and we can train ourselves to be better at identifying particular aromas.  For blind tastings of wine, experts use clues, including aromas, to discern where the wine comes from.  A Chardonnay from a warmer region will generally have more tropical fruit aromas if we are using the aroma wheel, and those from cooler regions tend to have more stone fruit aromas.  However, this isn’t necessarily true 100% of the time, especially as wine making techniques advance and our brain/nose combo is an imperfect instrument for sussing out the actual aromatic compounds.

A more perfect instrument is a spectrophotometer.  Spectrophotometry is one method for figuring out the chemical composition of a substance and it works be measuring the amount of light absorbed by a substance at different frequencies.  Chemical compounds all have unique signatures that can be identified by this method without the “noise” that our human instruments can experience.  While there is a massive library of these spectrophotometry signatures built, we still haven’t fully connected the presence of a cocktail of aromatic compounds (cocktails themselves in some cases) with how we will interpret them.  For instance we know that Methoxypyrazines (sometimes green pepper aromas, sometimes mint, sometimes…) can be detected by humans as an aroma at 2 parts per trillion in a substance whereas Diacetyl (Buttery aromas) can be detected at 0.1 parts per million.  That’s about a factorial difference and that’s not even taking into account how other aromatic compounds shape our interpretation of those aromas.

While the scientific understanding of wine isn’t there yet, some day we may be able to list out the all the aromas you could possibly smell in a wine based on the genetic code, how that grape develops, the wine making process, etc.  We may even discover that there are possible aromas for a wine which no one has gotten out of a particular set of grapes thus far and we’ll develop new wine making techniques to achieve them.  Until then, we’ll discuss the differences between various wines using the Wine Aroma Wheel or the number of emulators it has inspired.  Just know that its only slightly more scientific than talking about what a passing cloud looks like so you should by no means restrict yourself to it or assume that someone who already knows the words on the wheel is somehow a better smell detective than you are.

Age-ability

DSC_0011

How long should you wait to drink that bottle of wine?  The question is based in the adages of “Wine gets better with age” and tales of astounding vintages.  The truth is that no one really knows exactly when the best time to drink a bottle of wine is.  Partly, because it’s a matter of preference, but mostly because what happens when wine ages in the bottle is still somewhat of a mystery.  The little we do know about wine aging is humorously depicted on the chart on the back wine label above that probably was meant to be dead serious.

The desire to age wine hasn’t actually been a big thing for wine drinkers for the bulk of the time humans have been making wine and consuming it.  When humans first started making wine, it was consumed as soon as possible since we hadn’t come up with good methods to store and transport wine in.  Even when we did figure out how to make heavy amphoras or light leather pouches we either didn’t stray far from the amphora or couldn’t carry much wine in our leather canteens so we consumed as much as we could until it “went bad”. It wasn’t until wine makers began adding sulfur in addition to the sulfur that occurs naturally via fermentation that we were able to keep wines for any significant period of time.

And what does it mean anyway when wine “goes bad” anyway?  In general, it means one of two things: 1.) It no longer smells like healthy wine or doesn’t have much of any smell or 2.) It is in the process of turning into vinegar.  The second undesirable occurrence happens when acetic acid bacteria gets into the wine.  Sometimes this happens by accident or neglect and other times it happens on purpose when someone actually wants to make vinegar.  The first issue though is a result of either contamination or willful oxygen exposure that has taken the wine past what I call the Point of Diminishing Maturity.  In other words, the bulk of the volatile chemicals known as aromatics have been persuaded by oxygen to leave. winearomaticsexperiencechart-0012

There are 4 factors that generally determine how long a wine can age before getting to the Point of Diminishing Maturity: Sugar, Tannins, Acid, and Alcohol which all act as preservatives in addition to the sulfur added.  The simple explanation is that these factors help slow the oxidation of the wine and oxygen is what promotes the aging.  The balance of those items (excluding sulfur since it shouldn’t be added at human perceivable levels) are a determination of the wine’s quality, which is separate to the question of “How long should I age this wine?”  In general, the more preserving factors there are in the wine, the longer it will be able to sit in your cellar before it reaches the point of diminishing maturity.  Ergo, oaked/tannic red wines will be able to age longer than most white wines, and dessert wines with lots of sugar or fortified wines will be able to age longer than anything else.

But answering the specific question of how long to age a particular wine gets a bit tricky.  For red wines aged in oak, because that’s generally what people are referring to when they talk about letting a bottle sit in a cellar, the main consideration is the state of the tannins in the wine.  Wine professionals usually refer to the tannins of a newly bottled red wine that was aged in oak as harsh.  For older wines, they generally refer to the tannins as being soft.  Those observations are unfortunately about the extent of where the scientific knowledge of what’s happening when a wine ages (and I just checked the Third Edition of the Wine Science Principles and Applications text book on that one).

There are a variety of different types of tannins and depending on the types and sizes of them in the wine they will feel differently in your mouth.  Just in terms of oak aging, a professional taster can usually tell the difference between a wine aged in American oak and one aged in French oak.  Acid, proteins, and a whole host of other chemicals can have an effect on tannins over time.  To what extent and what types of effects are largely unknown at this point, but we do know that some tannins do in fact breakdown over time which could be one of the causes of why the tannins in an aged wine appear “soft”.

The other aspect of an aged wine is that it tends to lose it’s brighter fruit (or lighter weight) characteristics over time because of oxygen exposure.  Eventually, the heavier fruit characteristics and earthy tones will go by way of oxygen exposure too, but how long that will take is highly variable and it’s something you find out after the fact.  Right now, answering the question of “When will this wine taste best?” can only be answered retrospectively, despite the number of wine professionals that attempt to make predictions.  However, wine professional estimates based on their collective experiences of tasting wines of different vintages is the best information we have to go on to answer the more general question that we should be asking: “What’s the maximum amount of time I should let this wine sit before I uncork it?”

To answer that, I would tell you to drink the wine within a few years of buying it off the shelf.  The vast majority of wines made, and I do mean vast, especially if you’re spending under $30, are intended to be consumed immediately upon purchase.  If the wine maker thinks the wine would be best if it sat for 5-10 years first because of the amount of oak aging, it’s good to listen to them.  They’ve been tasting their own wines for years, including the ones that have been aging and they want you to taste their wine as they intended so even if they put it in a stupid chart like above, they are a trustworthy source.  But aging wines after 10 years is where things get even trickier.  Some wines aged beyond 10 years will still be lively and fruity, some will be boring, some will be contaminated with bacteria, some will be complex and mesmerizing, but the fact is, no one can accurately predict how an aged wine will fare.  It can be an intellectual treat to drink older wines to see how they turned out, but don’t for one second expect them all to match up with your preferences as to what you think is good.

Tannin Scale

The Tannin Scale, or more accurately, the Total Polyphenol Index (TPI) is an actual scientific measurement that a wine lab can provide for a wine producer.  Some wine producers are including it in their vintage statistics and from that perspective, it’s actually interesting to take a look at over time alongside other harvest information like Brix and Total Acidity (TA).  In fact, these numbers are much of the basis behind those Vintage Charts that have been losing relevancy in modern times, but more on those later. Why the Tannin Scale has made this list, despite it being actually based in science, is that some professional wine tasters are now using the TPI score in their assessments as if it has some relevancy as to how someone will perceive the tannins in a wine.

Let’s get one thing clear: All tannins are polyphenols, but not all polyphenols are tannins. Scroll through this to see an incomplete list of polyphenols in wine (there will be a lot of scrolling). Generally, when actively tasting wines (as opposed to just drinking them) the amount of tannins will be rated on a Low-Medium-High scale.  There aren’t actual measurements to this scale, it’s just a subjective assessment based on the range of wines you’ve already had.  In other words, it takes experience to assess how much tannin is in the particular wine being tasted in relation to other wines.  The range of the scale is based on what the individual has tasted in the past.  The tricky thing about tannin perception (the “cotton-mouth” feeling you get caused by tannins binding to saliva molecules) is that it changes based on the types of tannins and their state in a wine and other factors such as acidity and sweetness…or if you’re eating, the salt or acid on your food.

Given that the total volume of tannins is only a fraction of the TPI and given that the perception of tannins in a wine is dependent on a variety of factors besides the total volume, knowing the TPI is essentially worthless.

 

Wine (100-pt) Scores

I’m going to be upfront here and just let you know that I don’t know what goes into calculating the ratings given out by wine quality “authorities” like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator.  Their methodologies are proprietary so only those who do the calculating know how they are totaled up.  They may have developed some top secret techniques, heavily based in scientific reasoning, to objectively calculate their scores.  They may also just be throwing darts at a board with numbers on it.  However, there is certainly evidence that throwing darts may be a more accurate assessment than an objective assessment.

For instance, the same wines generally have different ratings based on who is rating them.  Scroll through these Riojas and check out the scores listed.  Usually the variations aren’t wildly different: a one or two point difference on a 100-pt scale doesn’t seem too significant.  However, once you factor in that no one has really heard of a wine being rated below a 60 and no one really publishes a score below an 80, a point or two is more statistically significant on a 40- or even 20-point scale than the supposed 100-pt scale.  Additionally, there’s some heavy speculation that certain raters have certain preferences which means the ratings are most likely better thought of as assessments of how the rater feels a wine stacks up against what they deem as “perfect” instead of an actual assessment of quality or how much you will enjoy the wine.

Vintage Chart

Vintage Charts have historically been the wine aficionado’s go-to guides when deciding what to pull out of their cellars and drink.  They’ve also been deemed essential to the process of selecting a wine from a restaurant’s wine list and the memorization of them was crucial to cementing one’s status as The Highlander the one true wine lover amongst one’s friends. Now they are predominately used to help set prices for wine auctions.  Vintages are always talked about in terms of what the weather was like that year and while weather is definitely a factor in how a wine will turn out it is becoming less and less relevant as wine making techniques improve.

VintageChartFull vintage chart here.

The sacrosanct irony of the wine vintage chart is that it takes all of the things I’ve listed in this post as not being overly scientific and puts them in a handy chart for you!  Vintage charts are not compilations of grape quality, lab quality metrics, and tasting evaluations, they are purely the last one: tasting evaluations, and not properly samples ones.  What usually happens is that a producer of a wine vintage chart will ask a few wineries in a particular region how they feel their wines are that year and then compare that to what their tasting staff is saying about what they’ve tasted and come up with their best guess as to how a wine from a particular region will be in terms of “Quality” that year.  The method hardly provides what a statistician would call a good sample.  Since access to previous vintage wines may prove to be difficult, it’s even more of a stretch to find a good sample of aging wines that you could accurately assess a region by.  This leaves you with a chart that may be fun to look at, but it’s a bit like listening to a bunch of gossipy rumors in a high school cafeteria.

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WineLabel

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the wine world as to whether or not wines should have similar ingredient labeling like other food products are required to.  A lot of this discussion seems to generated by people who don’t actually make wine as is evident by the fact that they keep using the word Ingredient, defined as a component part of a mixture…but that’s not how wine works.  Therefore, here’s a little primer for any lawmakers or regular ol’ wine drinkin’ citizens that want to be more informed.

Wine making is conceptually similar to sculpting: you start with a single source material and remove the parts you don’t want.  This is the opposite of making beer or, to carry on with art metaphors, painting, where you start with a single source material (beer: water, painting: canvas) and then add to that material to create your final product.  In beer making or painting, it is wholly appropriate to use the word Ingredients when talking about the final product.  In wine making or sculpting, the word Ingredients is not applicable due to the very nature of how the product is created.

At this point, some of you may be wondering why the government keeps a list of legally allowed materials that can be used during the wine making process.  Aren’t these things being added to the wine?  Yes and no.  These materials are being added to the process of making the wine, but they aren’t present in the final product that you consume, at least not in noticeable amounts.  There are some very minor, yet notable exceptions to this, which I’ll point out as I give an overall explanation as to what types of materials and what happens to those materials get added in to the wine making process.

Yeast: When yeast is added to grape juice it converts the sugars into alcohol and CO2.   You can drink the resulting product and get drunk off of it so this is technically all it takes to “make wine”.  The amount and types of yeast can determine what percentage of the sugars get converted into alcohol and some of the aromas that will show up in the wine, but when the yeast has done its job, it sinks to the bottom of the fermentation tank and then is physically separated from the juice that is now arguably wine.  Technically, Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is also a byproduct of fermentation, but more on that later.

Fining, clarifying, and stabilizing agents:  These are all the things that most people drop their jaws to in surprise to find out they are used in wine making:  Fish scales (Isinglass), egg whites, milk casein, Polyvinyl-polypyr-rolidone (PVPP), clay (Bentonite), and a host of other hard-to-pronounce substances that most people would never be interested in consuming by themselves.  When these materials are mixed in to wine they slowly fall down to the bottom.  Along the way though, they do some work at the molecular level of which the result is to make the wine look more aesthetically pleasing.  Some materials are used to break apart stubborn compounds that are causing the wine to look hazy while others are binding to oppositely charged particles and dragging them down to the bottom as they fall.  At the end of this process there is a layer of solids at the bottom of the tanks which are then physically separated from the liquid.

Acid modifying agents: Tartaric acid, malic acid, citric acid, and lactic acid are the predominant organic acids found in grape juice.  These are also there in the finished wine product most noticeably in the amount of saliva that rushes into your mouth after you swallow.  However, a winemaker may change minor changes to the amounts of each during the wine making process.  Can this mean actually adding acid into the wine?  Yes, it can and here is one of those notable exceptions I mentioned before.  Technically, a winemaker can add as much as they want, but it has been found that anything above a minor adjustment will make the wine less acceptable to consumers.  Minor adjustments also go for taking acid out of a wine which is done with various Calcium compounds.  These calcium compounds work similarly to the fining agents in which they are mixed in, fall to the bottom and take something with them along the way.  They are physically separated out before the wine is bottled.  Perhaps the largest change that can be made is what happens when Malo-Lactic bacteria is added to the wine.  As the name implies, this changes the harsher malic acids into softer lactic acids.  The total amount of acid isn’t changed in this process, the percentages of each are modified.

Preservatives: There has been a segment of the “Health and Wellness” movement that have labeled preservatives as the devil so let’s clarify this up front.  The preservatives used in wine are not the same as those used in industrial food manufacturing.  In fact, there is effectively only one used in wine: Sulfur Dioxide (SO2).  This is the same preservative used on dried fruit.  Additionally, this is also one of those notable exceptions I mentioned before. The acidic nature of wine and the amount of alcohol in it are doing the the heavy-lifting when it comes to protecting the wine from unwanted bacteria, but nevertheless, spoilage can still happen which is where SO2 comes in as a supporting player.  As I mentioned above when talking about yeast, SO2 naturally occurs as a byproduct of fermentation and usually only at levels of 50-100 ppm.  The legally allowed limit of Total SO2 in wine in the US is 350 ppm.  In Europe, it is 160 ppm for red wines, and 210 ppm for whites and rosés.  Why the difference between red and white?  The reason is because SO2’s other job is to protect the wine from oxidation.  Here, the degree to which SO2 plays a supporting role is determined by the amount of Tannin in the wine which are natural protectors against oxidation.. Tannins, which come from the skins and solids of the grape are therefore inherently found in red wines at much higher levels than whites or rosés. Despite the legal regulation differences, all good winemakers follow the “natural law” that whites and rosés require a little more SO2 than reds.   For a more detailed explanation on SO2 in wine, check this out.

Ageing: It’s debatable to say that anything is added to the wine during the ageing process.  Traditionally, you put wine into a steel tank or oak barrel to age it.  Alternatives include: concrete or a clay vessel known as an amphora if you’re feeling ancient. When you age wine (or any other alcoholic beverage), oxygen is being slowly allowed to interact with the wine, but it’s not like oxygen is being added in to the wine.  Compounds from the oak, which is usually toasted with a flame, are technically added into the wine, but this isn’t much different than when some aroma compounds are imparted into the wine from yeast.  These include things like eugenol (think clove aromas) and vanillin (you can probably guess on this one).  Technically, if a wine maker uses oak chips or oak powder instead of a barrel, they are “adding” these into the wine, but like everything else added in, those get taken out before the wine is bottled too.

As you can see, anything that gets added during the wine making process, doesn’t actually stay in the final product that we drink.  Even the exceptions that do stay in the final product (SO2, acids) are only things that already naturally existed in the wine before. Therefore, the idea of labeling a wine with its “ingredients” is ridiculous because in actuality, there is only one: grapes.  The real question is whether you want to list the treatments the wine has gone through on a label.

In general, I am very much for transparency in food labeling as it provides the customer with actionable information.  This is especially true for those customers with food sensitivities or allergies.  Even though when you treat a wine with a material, effectively 100% of that material is removed from the wine, technically a tiny little bit could remain;  as in <1 ppm.  Food labeling laws in general don’t require items be listed on a label unless they hit a certain threshold.  That’s why you don’t see “Parts of rats and bugs” listed on a food label as an ingredient because food product producers are legally required to keep the ppm of rats and bugs in their products to a minimum.  The exception to this is known allergens.  When a producer cannot guarantee a known food allergen like nuts, dairy, or soy was kept out of the product due to the product being made in the same location as other products, they put the “This product may contain trace amounts of…” verbiage on the label.  In wine, we already have that.  This is why you see a notice about the wine containing sulfites on the label because we know sulfites are an allergen to approximately 0.4% of the population.

Personally, I would be very happy if wines were required to list all the ways they processed their wines on their labels, but that’s me as a wine professional, not me as a wine consumer.  Big Data analyses on various wine treatment methods? Yes, please.  But, a regulation like this, while not particularly burdensome to the wine producer since they already write that information down for their internal quality processes, is just not helpful to the consumer.  One could argue there’s a reason to add calorie and sugar levels to alcohol labels in addition to the ABV%, but at the same time, it’s difficult to mindlessly consume alcohol without very negative short-term effects, unlike snack food products. Food labeling, which was developed primarily as a public health information awareness mechanism so the population would think about their long-term health probably wouldn’t have the same impact with alcohol.   Having consumers be able to choose a wine based on its caloric content given that the range for dry-ish wines is generally between 70-120 calories per serving (5oz), probably won’t have much of an impact, if any on their weight-loss or other health-related goals.  Residual sugar could be useful in determining how sweet the wine will taste, but then you’d also have to add in the Total Acidity level to to really figure that out and then somehow explain to the consumer how those two measures interact to define how sweet the wine appears to be.

Now if someone could interpret those German wine labels for the average American consumer, that would be something…

 

 

 

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Let’s be honest, you are probably the social nexus and best entertainment source of all of your friends and acquaintances. Given this, it is inevitable that this holiday season you will most likely be hosting one, if not all of the the premier holiday parties in your neighborhood/city/region/world.  As a result of this, and the fact that your social network inevitably includes some thoughtful people, you will undoubtedly receive a number of bottles of wine brought by these guests as gifts.  Naturally, you, as a gracious host will follow the standard lines of polite society:

  • Say ‘Thank you’.
  • Add the bottle to the “Open bar” amongst the ones you’ve provided.
  • If you have prepared wine pairings with a specific meal, ask if you can hold on to the bottle for Tuesday Taco night.

But what if someone brings a bottle of wine that is truly undrinkable? I’m not talking about someone bringing a bottle of California Pinot Noir to a Francophile’s house, because that host just needs to get over themselves.  I’m talking about the bottom of the bargain bin, of dubious origin, might not actually be wine, bottle of wine.  These wines aren’t accidentally acquired.  One has to purposefully wander into the specifically set up section of the store that other shoppers are avoiding like the plague and then select a wine solely based on its lowest price status. Yet, it’s still my general assumption that no one brings these wines as gifts on purpose, but then again, I don’t know your friends.  The question then becomes what to do with these wines.  The answer of course depends on whether you’re good or evil.

The Good Way:

First, let Jeff Goldblum teach you how to act:

Then you have to figure out what to do with the wine short of pouring it out in front of the person.  Your best option is to tell them you’d like to save it for Tuesday Taco night (This is a thing people do, right?) and then toss it out the next day.  Do this discreetly if they are neighbors.  Now, some so called experts will tell you to add this wine to a festive holiday punch or cocktail, but if you’re adding bad wine to these things, you’re not making a good punch or cocktail are you?  At a minimum you have to add the other ingredients at a quantity that masks that bad wine taste which is kind of like throwing good money after bad.

The problem doesn’t stop there either.  What happens when you see the person again?  Yes, you can hope the topic never comes up again, but what if they ask you how you liked it?  Like a lost puppy, bad wine follows you.  You have to come up with a back story. Sure, you could just tell the truth and say it wasn’t the type of wine you prefer, because after all, you’re a good person, but you also don’t want to hurt their feelings because you’re a good person. So what else can you do?

  • Use the bottle for a candle holder or art project.  You’ll probably want to remove the label first because no one wants that in their house.
  • Use the wine to catch fruit flies.  It works.  The whole “Catch flies better with honey instead of vinegar” thing is a complete lie.  The opposite works.
  • If it’s a red wine, use it to dye some fabric.  Get crazy.  I don’t know, I’m not crafty.

The Evil Way:

  • Give the person a sympathetic smile and say “I’m so sorry, you’re uninvited to this party now” and then hand them back the bottle of wine.  Close the door slowly.  Lock the door.
  • Graciously accept the bottle of wine (see above Jeff Goldblum tips on acting) and then secretly serve it back to them and only them throughout the party.
  • Ask guests when offering them wine whether they’d like the good stuff or whatever “wine” (air quotes acceptable) [insert guest name here] brought.
  • Re-gift the wine on the next event those who gave you the bottle host.
  • Tell them your Elf on a Shelf drank it…and then died.

 

Whichever path you decide to take remember that wine is there to help you celebrate so share it with those you hold dear and be grateful they’re willing to put up with you.

 

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There has been an increasing amount of discussion over the past few years over what a ‘Fact’ is which is interesting in itself, because the word has a definition as all words do and that is a fact.  However, in this era of truthiness, an aspect of that definition that is more and more frequently being warped is the process of turning experience into fact. This insistence that things that are not actually facts are in fact facts is something that the wine world has been dealing with for quite some time.  Perhaps it correlates with the invention of the wine snob, but I can’t verify that as a fact.

If an experience happens; that’s a fact.  The fact that the experience happens though doesn’t mean that the experience was perceived accurately or that the experience is reflective of some larger truth.  As one example let’s say Person A believes, based on their experience, that all people with the name Aaron are horrible people.  Person B doesn’t believe this because they’ve had quite a few pleasant experiences with people named Aaron.  Additionally, some research has been performed which defines what a horrible person is and there has been a reasonable evaluation of a sampling of Aarons and that sample didn’t meet the definition of  horrible people.  However, neither Person A or Person B is fully aware of this.  In this case the facts are this:

  1. Person A believes people named Aaron are all horrible people based on some bad experiences.
  2. Person B believes people named Aaron are generally decent people based on some positive experiences.
  3. Research shows that people named Aaron cannot generally be defined as horrible people.

If someone bothered to look into the issue (and they really should;  highly critical issue here), we could see that while it is a fact that Person A and Person B believe different things based on their experiences, there is evidence that Person B’s belief is more in line with the larger truth.    Therefore, if Person A went around telling everyone that it’s a fact people named Aaron are jerks, they would in fact, be wrong.  No matter how many times they said it.  Even if Person A said: well, it’s their opinion and they have a right to voice it, they are still, in fact, wrong and should be encouraged to not purport their opinions and/or beliefs as facts. Even if Person C comes in to the conversation and says they agree with Person A, they are still, in fact, wrong.

Unfortunately in the wine world, there are a lot of Person As running around and have been for quite some time.  It seems that it is almost the standard rate of currency in wine knowledge that the more opinions/beliefs stated, the more knowledge that is held.  The sad part is that there is now quite a lot of research and evidence that people can reference to check these opinions/beliefs against.  People don’t generally question a statement coming from an “expert”, and usually take a statement expressed as fact at face value.  There have been a number of times that I personally have made statements regarding wine that I believed to be true and purported them to be facts. Why? Because I was told they were facts by experts.  I tend to be more careful about that since my younger days.

I would love to have an exhaustive list of all the mis-truths paraded around as facts in the wine world, but that would most likely be impossible and if it is, it would be better presented in an encyclopedia format.  Therefore, I’ll just address the major categories that seem to contain all of the issues and what to look for.

What Wine Professionals Learn in Class

I went through the International Sommelier Guild for my “official” wine training.  Through conversations and demonstrations of knowledge with people who have gone through other wine schools (International Wine School, Wine and Spirit Education Trust, etc. ), my impression is that the curricula are roughly the same.  While the breadth of knowledge should certainly be viewed as impressive for anyone coming out of this education, it should be emphasized that the main focus as you reach higher levels of the education is on the memorization of wine regions, what wines they produce, and what appears to be unique about the wines from those regions.

  • A historical overview of wine’s role in society.
  • The very rough basics of how wine is made and the various styles it can be made into.  Anyone attending these classes does not actually make wine as part of the course.
  • A high-level look at viticulture and the common ailments grapevines can face.
  • The wine regions, which grape varietals are most commonly grown in those regions, what styles of wine are generally made from those grapes, and what laws govern wine production including the legal descriptions of what “Quality” wine is in wine producing countries.
  • Sensory training to identify and describe acidity, astringency, sweetness, alcohol content, and basic aroma descriptions (see more on aroma descriptors below).
  • Traditions and expectations around wine service at restaurants including wine storage.
  • Traditions of pairing wines to various foods and a collection of “rules” to follow when creating pairings.
  • Cursory overviews of beer, spirits, and cigars.

It should be noted that little to no actual science is included in this education.  Wine schools are geared toward preparing students to work as Sommeliers, be in wine sales, and writing articles entitled “The Top 5 Wines You Should Be Drinking NOW!!!”…which it seems a lot of people forget, is still wine sales.   I always compare wine to fashion; if you are a fashion “expert” generally you’re just promoting certain brands and talking about trends and styles, but that doesn’t make you an expert on how the clothes are constructed, production costs, labor issues, the science behind dyes and fabric production, etc.  Most wine “experts” I know and come across still haven’t even bothered to make a single batch of wine and therefore when they talk about the subject, it’s really from an armchair perspective.  If you like sports commentary, maybe that’s your thing.  A wine’s legs or tears (the drips down the inside of the glass after you swirl it) is an aesthetic that is sometimes evaluated in wines, but it means nothing in terms of quality despite the opinions of some.  Therefore, it’s appropriate to question whether what is being related is a fact, or just this person’s opinion especially when it comes to statements as to what makes something better than something else.  It is also appropriate to question sensory assessments, but more on that later.

Wine and Food Pairing

There are a lot of facts about how we interact with wine from a physiological and psychological standpoint.  I address a number of these in my wine sensory experience series that starts here.  When it comes to wine and food pairing advice though, these are all matters of opinion and not fact. Most current wine and food pairing advice can be boiled down to one of two things: 1) What grows together goes together (Traditional pairings), or 2) Flavor matching, or putting wines that have certain flavor characteristics with foods that share those characteristics.  There’s a lot of talk about “perfect” pairings, but given that the designation is wholly subjective, as in, not based on anything objective or measurable whatsoever, we can throw out the idea that people are using any metric besides their preference to declare what wines go better with what foods.  This is why we spent at least decades with the thinking that white wines can only go with fish and chicken and red wines can only go with beef and, depending on some cultures or who you’re trying to impress, Cabernet Sauvignon should be ordered with absolutely everything.  Therefore, saying you had a certain wine paired with a certain dish and you enjoyed it is a fact.  Saying a certain wine pairs better with a certain dish than all other wines is a matter of opinion and given that the person probably didn’t taste test all of the wines in the world with that dish, it is perhaps an uninformed opinion regardless of who they claim to be.

Wine Aromas

If there’s one thing all wine buyers are constantly exposed to it’s tasting notes.  They’re on the bottle, they’re posted in reviews on-line, they’re heralded as the highest art form in the wine world.  People who are respected by other wine drinkers are said to have a “Good nose” or a “Good palette”, and what the hell does that even mean?!?! Are these people quantitatively more in tune with their senses than the rest of us?  Are the physically and mentally superior?  Usually, the answer is no, they’re just better at bullshitting (Important life skill kids.  Don’t say ‘bullshit’ though).  Now, there is a way to see if someone was actually superior to someone else at identifying various aromatic compounds and it is a skill that can be developed. In a nutshell, we teach ourselves to match up the aromas we are smelling with the “image” of an aroma in our memory banks, but that process can be conflicted and conflated by a wide number of different things.

Let’s face it, most people in this world aren’t that great at describing what we smell.  It’s not our fault, we just don’t have the words for it. Yet it’s the central focus in the world of wine.  To alleviate this, various lexicons of aromas have been developed.  Most notably is Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel which is a great way to have a discussion that compares and contrasts various wines.  But the aromas listed on that wheel were taken from looking over tasting notes, which as mentioned above, aren’t really a scientific analysis of the actual volatile aromatic compounds in the wines.  They are people’s perceptions or opinions of what they smell.  Therefore, if someone says “There are lilac and peach aromas in this wine.” the fact that they are meaning to convey is “I smell aromas that remind me of lilacs and peaches in this wine.”  You may very well smell something different.  This isn’t to say that there are no “correct” or “wrong” answers.

Regardless of what we interpret as the smell, one could chemically analyze the wine and compare it to the 40+ million fragrant molecules that have been identified that our noses can sniff.  And each varietal of wine has it’s own aromatic spectrum or range based on its genetic code of things it could possibly smell like…not to mention the addition of aromas that come from wine making practices, but we don’t have a definitive index yet of which fragrant molecules are absolutely found in certain wines based on terroir, or some might say, phenotype.

If someone tells you they smell cinnamon in a wine, you can wonder if someone else could interpret it as clove, anise, Thai basil, wild basil, malted barley, fresh mangoes, apricots, pineapple, strawberries, rosemary, potatoes, cooked asparagus, mozzarella cheese, or grilled beef.  Why?  Because all of those descriptions of aromas contain the aromatic compound eugenol.  But if someone said that the chemical analysis of this wine reveals that there are molecules of eugenol, estragole, s-carvone, apigenin, r-carvone, menthol, and anethole.  One could assume that an anise aroma could be found and one could also assume that someone wouldn’t interpret the aromas as butter (that’s primarily diacetyl).

But no one says that, and it’s highly improbable that you’re going to chemically analyze the wine you’re drinking. Let’s just say that when it comes to a wine expert describing a wine to someone it’s more of a performance and exercise in creativity than anything.The same goes with blind tasting.  But since I’m not writing a novel on the subject right now, I’ll just say this: while training does help with identifying a typical variety of wine from a particular place, a wine of a different variety from a different place can be made to taste the same way.  Education in wine builds the skill of identifying typicity, and that’s good for two things: recognizing when something is either atypical or typical of what it is supposed to be, and a neat party trick to impress your friends and potential mates.  Actually, there’s a third thing: verifying the server brought you the correct glass of wine.  Perhaps the best use of the skill, I’ve had to make corrections only a couple of times, but that was when I ordered a wine that I really, really knew.  I’ve probably been served the wrong wine multiple times, but it was similar enough I didn’t notice.  Mistakes in restaurant service happen and it’s ok.

The list of chemical compounds and aromas was taken from the book Taste Buds and Molecules and is the result of the chemical analysis of a large, but obviously not complete sample of wines.

To top it all off, there are a lot of “facts” floating around out there that have been disproven that are still in popular circulation: our tongues have certain areas that only perceive certain tastes (false), steak goes with tannic wines because the fat softens the tannins (false), sweet wines are always lower quality than dry wines (false), or even that people who prefer to drink red wines are more superior or somehow better educated than those who drink whites (false…in case you were wondering).  Therefore, it’s acceptable and encouraged to question anything being presented as fact in the wine world until you can have it proven for yourself.  You can prove that the more acid a wine has, the more saliva will rush into your mouth.  You can prove that wines made in typical styles from different locations are different from each other.  You can prove that when wines have certain characteristics, you tend to enjoy them better.  But if something being said seems ungraspable, unreachable, untenable, there’s a good chance it is.  While demonstrated experts should certainly be trusted, wine is not a magical beverage no matter how much we claim it to be so it’s best to also be skeptical.

 

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In the first draft of this piece I began with a 1,000 word treatise on the history, sociology, and science behind why people care about a wine’s vintage.  It was really great and all but A). You probably don’t care and B). I’d rather tell you about this vertical tasting I did the other day instead of trying to convince you that I know a lot about trivial matters.  But if you want to drink wine and talk about it sometime, let me know.

Here’s the abbreviated version. You’re welcome.

Let’s face it, worrying about the vintage (The year the grapes are grown and harvested) of a wine is, to the average consumer, so 2009.  It’s passé. It’s behind the times. It’s outmoded, outdated, obsolete.  It’s antiquated. It’s…vintage?  There are some really good reasons as to why the year the grapes are grown matters to how the wine will taste:

  • Acid, tannins, sugars, and phenolics levels (all the things that affect the flavor of the wine) are in flux until the grapes are picked.  Weather, the microbiome, and the grape overlords (humans), which are commonly known as Terroir, can all affect these levels.
  • The resulting wine from these ever-changing grapes will therefore be different assuming winemaking practices are the same.

The fact that there are differences has led small groups of humans to declare that some vintages are better than others based primarily on subjective reasoning.  However, there are reasons why this is somewhat nonsense:

  • Winemakers have always tried to produce consistent wines from year to year.  It’s only been in the past 50 years or so that they are actually getting good at it.  Wineries are a business.  They want to have consistent product and generally try to avoid a “New Coke” situation.
  • Wine is constantly changing.  Therefore, when someone declares that one vintage is superior to another, they may think differently if they tried the two next year.  Therefore it’s impossible to constantly compare the latest vintage with all of the vintages that have ever been.  Additionally, you’re comparing vintages against how they are now, not how they have been or will be.
  • People have different preferences (As will be shown below).

I offer this background purely to color my hesitation in putting on what is known as a vertical tasting where you taste and compare the same wine from the same producer made in different years.  With this particular vertical tasting I wanted to bring up all of the topics that come up in the snobby versions: weather, geography, bullshit, stories about the winery, but give them appropriate context as to why certain things matter and others don’t.

Through a serious act of self-restraint I had 6 years of Yoakim Bridge’s Zinfandel sitting in my cellar.  Yoakim Bridge is a Sonoma, CA winery located on Dry Creek Valley road between Lake Sonoma and Healdsburg.  Because I was only able to find 3 other people to partake in this venture I only brought out 4 years: 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 for the tasting.  All the bottles were opened about an hour ahead of time as an attempt at providing some sort of even playing ground.  Since we were having Zinfandel, I made some Strawberry/blackberry/ginger barbecue sauce and slow cooked some beef in it, served along side  cornbread and collard greens because sometimes I like to remind people that I was born in the south.

Everyone had 2 glasses (same size and shape) so I poured the 2008 and 2009 first before we moved on to the 2010 and 2011 all the while discussing the historical weather patterns and the growth cycle of a grape.  Correction:  I lectured on those topics and they politely asked some questions and then we discussed a variety of non-wine related subjects while we ate and drank.  I even had a map and a couple of graphs comparing the weather year to year…I thought that was kind of cool.

Yoakim Bridge produces what I would call a typical Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel.  If you were able to taste all of the Zinfandels that were grown and produced in Dry Creek Valley you would find that they all have relatively similar characteristics which is now starting to be defined as Typicity in the wine world.  When doing a vertical tasting, you’re really learning about the Typicity of that particular winery.  But of course, as with statistics, you’re really only discovering what is typical about your particular sample (In our case the 2008-2011 Zinfandels as they tasted on that day).

Dry Creek Zinfandel will have a number of common Zinfandel flavor characteristics if you were selecting them from a flavor wheel: a mix of red and dark berries followed by a collection of baking spices for those that have spent some time in oak.  It differs slightly from the typical Zin in that the big, bold jammy and stewed fruit flavors don’t usually appear.  The Yoakim Bridge 2008 and 2009 were fairly similar in flavor profile; more prominence of the darker berries than red, a dash of baking spices, prime for drinking…which, by the way, what does that mean?

When you make a red wine and especially if you throw it in some oak afterwords, it’s going to have some very noticeable tannins (the cotton-mouth feeling you get in your mouth after consuming red wines, coffee, teas, etc.) and hopefully a sufficient amount of acid (Saliva rushing into your mouth after you swallow).  Over time, both the harshness of acid and tannin will degrade.  When tannins degrade of “soften”, your saliva still binds to them causing that rough feeling, but it’s like someone changed the sandpaper grit from 40 to 180 (That’s moving from a coarser grain to a finer grain for non-sandpapering people).  Concurrently, while the Total Acidity (TA) doesn’t lessen significantly, the composition of acids in the wine does change.  The harsher acids transform through processes like esterification and the overall perception of acid is that it’s softer.  The resulting effect is that a wine that starts off being bright and exuberant will mellow over time.

So could the tannins of the 2008 have been a little softer than the 2009? Sure.  Could the acid have felt a little tamer in the 2008 than the 2009? Sure.  But the differences were fairly negligible and what what most wine connoisseurs are looking for really is balance anyway.  Have the tannins softened an appropriate amount that matches how the acid has softened or is one of those items still sticking out?  Both of these wines were well-balanced and well into their mellow period, which I assume is like an artist’s blue period,  in this respect and that’s  why I would call them prime for drinking.  How long a wine will age depends on how much and how well balanced the levels of tannin, acid, alcohol, and sugar are when the wine is made.  It should also be noted that while numbers about how long a wine can age are thrown about with alarming degrees of authority and confidence, I would estimate that the margin of error to these guesses is probably somewhere between (+/-) 5-10 years.  Fact is, the science of aging wine just isn’t at the point where anyone can state emphatically what is going on and what the exact timeline will be for the aging process.

The atypical wine of the bunch was the 2010.  It was brighter (think acid) and the fruit flavors were slightly more skewed to the red berry spectrum.  While the typical flavor profile returned in the 2011, it was noticeably younger than the 2008 and 2009 in that it also carried stronger acid and tannins.  Why the difference between the 2010 though?  The official conclusion is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Looking at the weather charts I put together, you can see a slight dip in average temperatures in 2010 along with less temperature fluctuation during the growing period which could theoretically mean a higher level of acid, but the winemaker could very well have done an acid treatment slightly differently that year, or perhaps a wine used for topping off was slightly different, fertilizer regiments could have been different, or…well there are a myriad of variables that could have changed.  I did send a last minute message to the winery to see if I could get the pH and brix (sugar levels) from each of the harvest years, but they hadn’t responded yet at the time of the tasting.

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In terms of preferences, there were 4 of us tasting and 3 different answers to that.  Two people thought it was a toss up between the 2009 and 2011, one person preferred the atypical 2010 probably because they’re a bit contrarian, and I preferred the 2008 most likely because I subconsciously have been programmed to think that the older a wine is the better it will be even though I consciously know that’s not necessarily true.  By volume, in a bottle line up after the initial tasting had been completed, the 2008 had the least, the 2009 was the second most drained, followed by the 2011, and the 2010 still retained the most.  So I win.

What does one really learn when they do a vertical tasting?  You learn that wine changes over time and that those changes will either be negligible or stark depending on where that chemical cocktail is in its journey.  It moves in terms of spectrums, not definite steps.  In this vertical tasting it was fortunate that none of these wines had passed their “Point of Diminishing Maturity” as I call it where all the components go from being balanced to falling apart.  I’ve been in tastings with wines that have been 30-40 years old and while most were certainly interesting, I wouldn’t want to drink more than a glass.  I’m sure there’s a 50 year old wine out there somewhere that tastes divine, but honestly I doubt I’ll ever get to experience it due to access issues.

Yes, wine gets better with age, but at some point they just get senile and crotchety.  Depending on the wine, that point can be 1 year all the way up to who knows.   Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a point at which the wine is “perfect”.  Some people prefer the young and bright wines, while others prefer the more mellow experience.  Also like people, a balanced wine will generally stay balanced throughout its lifespan until it turns into a balanced vinegar…except that people don’t turn into vinegar.  Oh dear, my metaphors have reached their Point of Diminishing Maturity.

 

Weather data attained from the National Centers for Environmental Information

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I had an unfortunate experience a couple of months back and I’ve finally gotten up the courage to write my thoughts down about this horrific event.  Therefore, be warned, you may cry as I relate this to you.

It was a normal winter day in Minneapolis which means I was going about my innocent business of getting work done, deciding if it was too cold or not to go for a run around the lake, and determining what delicious dish I wanted to grace my kitchen with for the evening.  Naturally, my mind will wander to wine when food is involved and it is a wonderful coincidence that my go-to wine shop is directly across the street from one of the grocery stores I go to.  As an aside, yes it’s the plural “grocery stores”, because a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do.  Anyway, in a rare occurrence, I had my heart set on a particular Shiraz/Viognier blend and as I approached the door, I had already mentally mapped my path through the wine store as to where this particular bottle would be procured.  I would head to the back left corner where Australian wines could be found and find it located on the middle shelf which roughly denotes its price point.  As I opened the door, I was greeted by the familiarity of Italian wines directly in front of me, but something was amiss.  Between steps two and three into the store, which also include a slight pivot so I wouldn’t blast through Barolo, it hit me deep in the gut:  The shop was in mid-transition from a layout organization that made sense to some degree to one that now, quite frankly, I’m not sure if I can get over.  Disaster.  You can cry now.

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For those of the unimpassioned variety, let me explain:  There are two general philosophies when it comes to how wines, primarily focused on still wines here, are organized and displayed in a wine shop.  The first is by varietal which means you’d see signs for “Chardonnay”, “Cabernet Sauvignon”, etc. smattered across the store.  One big flaw in this philosophy is when you get to wines that are blended from multiple varietals.  The other major flaw is that there are thousands of grape varietals that are used to make wine.  Hopefully, they are listed alphabetically…

The opposing philosophy then is to organize by wine regions.  Italian wines, French wines, Chilean (or “Chilian” as I saw in a wine shop once) wines all get their section of the store and then their respective wine regions and appellations are gathered together within.  The flaw in this philosophy generally comes from American wine.

Unlike, what we term “Old World” wine regions, aka European countries, American wines can go ahead and put the wine region on a bottle (e.g. Napa) regardless of what kind of grapes go into that wine as long as those grapes were grown in the region*.  However, in a wine region such as Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti, they legally cannot put the name of the region on the bottle unless it is only made from certain grape varietals which all had to be grown within that region.  Therefore, if your wine store is laid out by region, the pristine organization kind of falls apart when you hit America.

Obviously, the correct answer, or at least the answer to appease the most number of people is somewhere in between those extreme philosophies.  Even then though, sides are chosen.  Some wine shops opt for a primarily regional-based layout and then elect for varietal labeling for domestic wines and generally also include a miscellaneous reds and whites section for the odd-balls.  Others go for varietal labeling as the primary, then sprinkle some regions haphazardly in between and top everything off with a poorly named red blends and white blends section. I say poorly, because if they have specific regional sections, those are going to be blends too. Additionally, the flavor profile of wines in the blends sections are all over the place so it’s kind of like a random grab bag.  Personally, I am biased towards the former instead of the latter, but that is most likely because I have a general sense of what kinds of grapes are in a bottle that is only labelled with the region it is from.  But imagine my dismay upon walking into a wine shop that is switching from a primarily region-based layout, to one that is primarily varietal-based.  It’s horrible.

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Interestingly, smaller wine shops are generally regionally focused while the big, discount wine shops are going to be varietal focused.  This generally has to do with the kinds of people that the wine shop attracts.  Ironically though, the typical shopper going to the smaller wine shop is probably going to be purchasing a wider variety of wines over time than the typical shopper going to the big store.  The larger stores just attract a barrel-load (wine term) more people who are generally more concerned about the price of the bottle and less interested in going on a virtual world tour.

Back to why my preferences are better.  When I walk into a wine shop in search of something interesting, which can be defined as:

  • a varietal of grape not usually found in a particular region
  • a unique blend
  • a wine from a lesser-known wine region

…I’m generally not going to find it in a store that has a primarily varietal layout.  Let’s say I’m looking for, or even want the possibility of coming across, a dry wine from Hungary.  Which section would you search for it in each type of wine shop?  In the wine shop that is primarily region-focused, they might have a Hungarian, or perhaps eastern European section if they want to throw in places like Croatia too.  Probably not, but I can dream, can’t I?!  More likely, they would throw it in to the Miscellaneous White section, because dry, regional wines from Hungary are made from single varietals of grapes like Tokaji Furmint and Tokaji Hárslevelű.  How about in the varietal heavy layout?  First, we can guarantee that they don’t have a Furmint or Hárslevelű section, because it would only be stocked with 1 or 2 wines.  Second, it probably wouldn’t be under its own region header because those are reserved for the most popular wine regions.  Third, it’s not a blend of different grapes, so it doesn’t really fall under that White Blends category either.  Therefore, you could probably wander around the shop for hours and not find it before you finally give up and choose whatever is on-sale near the door (which is what they really want you to do anyway).

This isn’t entirely a random example, by the way.  After my wine shop reorganized, I later was looking for some Tokaji Furmint, which I knew they had previously, but couldn’t find anymore.  The employees didn’t know where it was either until we finally tracked it down as being found tucked in between the Sauvignon Blanc and the Chenin Blanc, because when you switch to a varietal-focused organization and still have interesting wines, you’re forced to throw them in random places.

So is there an ideal layout?  For me there is.  I want the region-focused layout where domestic wine is somewhat broken down by varietal and if they really want to get me, they’ll have a section in the middle with a handmade sign that says, “Cool and interesting shit here.” and then there would be an arrow pointing to a curated collection of obscure wines.

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If you use a wine pun in the sign I will cut you.

I get that most wine is purchased by people who don’t know or don’t care what grapes are grown where and I’m not saying everyone needs to only enjoy regional-specific wine.  I do think a region-based approach creates the most certainty for wine consumers though.  If you know which grapes you like, you can buy a wine from a region that uses those grapes with some degree of confidence that you’ll like it in addition to only buying wines with those grapes on the label.  How tough would it be for a wine shop to throw up a small map of a country and its major wine regions listing the major grapes found in those wines?  Sure you could, you know, talk to people, but I’m an introvert and generally avoid talking to strangers, so maps would be better.  Whatever the map situation, just tell my wine shop to switch things back please.

 

 

*“New World” wine countries like America, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and all the other non-European countries don’t have laws that dictate what grape varietals can or cannot be included in a region-specific wine.  The only relevant law in place is that if the wine is claiming to be a varietal, like Cabernet Sauvignon, it needs to mostly be Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.  Percentages defining “mostly” vary by country, but most are >= 80%.  Why you generally don’t see a plethora of varieties from “New World” countries in your wine shop is primarily due to the filtering process of condensing a whole country of wine down to a 5ft expanse in the wine shop.  Yes, more than Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir is grown and made into wine in Marlborough, New Zealand, but chances are, you’ll only see those two.  If you walked into a supermarket or wine shop in a different country, you might think that only Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in Napa and only Pinot Noir is grown in Willamette Valley.  Of course, if you find yourself in a Chilean supermarket, you won’t find any foreign wines at all…

P.S. There is a 3rd “Philosophy” that some wine shops are trying and that is to organize the wines by flavor profile.  You’ll see signs that say stupid things like “Big and Saucy” or “Light and Airy”.  The idea is to attract people who know nothing about wine, but know what sounds tasty to them.  It’s not inherently a bad idea, but in practice it doesn’t work in a shop that has more than say, 50 wines to sell.

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