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Posts Tagged ‘wine’

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No New Year’s Eve party would be complete without a toast of bubbly after the ball drops.  In fact, making sure you have a glass of the bubbly seems to be an essential selling point for bars and event spaces when trying to seduce you into spending that precious moment that only happens once a year with them.  Of course, you’ll pay for it…exorbitantly.  But never fear, they’ll throw in a glass of Champagne for free…or will they?  I’m 99% confident they won’t.

The vast majority of wine drinkers are well aware that the term Champagne strictly applies to the sparkling beverage made in the traditional method that comes from grapes grown and fermented in the Champagne region of France.  The vast majority of wine drinkers also don’t care when someone calls any sparkling wine, “Champagne”, and honestly, could most people tell the difference?   In fact, anyone who corrects someone using the term “Champagne” inappropriately in casual conversation such as:

“Do you guys want some Champagne?”

or

“I just loooooove drinking Champagne!!”

…can rightly be referred to as ‘pedantic’ most politely or any other word of your choosing if you’re feeling more comfortable in that social setting.

However, there are specific times where choosing the correct wording matters.  In regards to NYE, let’s zero in on one particular facet that sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines outside of where it is grown and produced:  On average, it’s much more expensive than any other kind of sparkling wine.  When someone is advertising something and then it turns out they’re really giving you a much cheaper product, we don’t call that a cute colloquialism mix-up (or a “generic trademark” to be technical).  We call it fraud.

The stupid thing is that if you put on your advertisements what you’ll actually be serving (Cava, Prosecco, the generic Sparkling White Wine, or even just good ol’ bubbly)…people will still be interested.  Plenty of people like other sparkling wines just as much if not more than Champagne.  Will it sound as classy as using the term Champagne?  Probably not. But quite frankly, if you need to lie about your event to make it sound better than it is it probably wasn’t going to be that classy anyway.  It’s not unfair to question whether if you ordered a gin martini at a place like that, would they actually give you a lower priced vodka martini but charge you the same price as they would for the gin martini?

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I see no reason why consumers couldn’t ask for a refund if they were offered Champagne included in the price they paid and then they got something that was valued less.  In fact, I would encourage people to do so if they find they’ve been intentionally misled with regards to wine.  Alternatively, since it’s safe to assume most places advertising “Free Champagne” will not be giving you Champagne, let that color your decision a bit as to whether you want to plunk down the money for that particular establishment.  Assume it’s a half-glass pour of the cheapest Prosecco they could find and see if you still value their offer the same way.

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After spending 12 years in Minneapolis, I recently moved to Boston, a wonderful city in its own right, but I’m going to do some serious city bashing here.  The restaurant scene in Boston has historically been given a hard time by fervent New Yorkers because…Sports?  I don’t really know and I haven’t been to NYC in my adult life so I really can’t tell if anything a New Yorker says is justified or not, but I can tell you that so far I now have a lot more trepidation in venturing out to a new restaurant in Boston than I ever did in Minneapolis.

Where I used to live in Minneapolis, I was within a 1-10 minute walk from the Grand Cafe, Victor’s 1959 Cafe, Rincón 38, Blackbird, Nighthawks, Kyatchi, Pat’s Tap, and Hola Arepa.  Each of these restaurants are highly acclaimed in their own right and have not only local, but regional and national recognition for either the restaurant or the chef’s that work there.  Now, I’m not listing my favorite 9 restaurants out of the 100 in this walking distance here. Minneapolis isn’t a dense city. I just listed 9 out of the 10 restaurants within that radius.  Most entrees at these restaurants are between $12-$18.   One of these has a menu with both sushi and hotdogs on it and they made it work well.

Outside of this hot spot for superb dining, let’s not forget the places within a short drive like Heyday, Revival, Spoon and Stable, The Bachelor Farmer, Borough and Parlour (Which has the best damn cheeseburger in the world. I will cut you if you say otherwise!), not to mention those tasting menus from the simple, yet perfectly executed at Tenant to the mind-blowing extravaganza that is Travail (Technically in Robbinsdale, I know). Even now, I’m leaving out dozens of restaurants that I have wandered into and left, not just sated, but impressed.

There are two primary factors that go into me being impressed with a restaurant.  The first is Quality, the second is Value.  Quality is an assessment of how well the food is prepared: freshness of the ingredients, how tender the meat is, the crispiness of things that are supposed to be crispy, appropriate temperatures, etc.  All of these are objective measurements that most food critics seem to breeze over in order to get to extolling their preferences about how food should be.  The other factor of Value is admittedly a subjective measurement, but to put simply: was the meal worth the price I paid?  The Minneapolis restaurant scene shines on these factors by setting a high bar for average quality and simultaneously being an amazing value.  I can say with statistical probability that if you walked into a random restaurant in Minneapolis, the quality would most likely be well above average if compared to a magical national restaurant quality index (Sadly, this doesn’t exist) and you would most likely feel the meal was of good value assuming you are normal fine dining restaurant goer.  And on these two levels, other cities like Boston fail to compete.

This is not to say that all restaurants in Boston suck or that all restaurants in Minneapolis are better than they are in Boston.  I’ve had wonderful experiences at places like Ten Tables, Juliet (Technically Romeo’s at Juliet, their “weekly reinvention”), Legal Harborside (floor 2), Coppa, and Marliave, but there is no way I’m going to take a chance anymore at walking into a random restaurant and it’s difficult to trust rave reviews.  I need more trustworthy restaurant recommendation sources that are able to evaluate quality. It’s really about not being able to trust the restaurant to deliver what is promised.  Why is your slow-cooked lamb or pork tough? Why does what you label as a “smashed burger” not appear to actually be smashed? Why is the light and crispy breading on this veal piccata water logged and soft? On the whole, Boston restaurants are delivering lower quality food on average for a higher price.  There are more slightly elevated versions of Applebee’s here, if you will.  The shining exception to this is pizza.  I can walk into just about any hole in the wall, buy a slice for $2 and be in heaven.  Minneapolis can’t do cheap pizza by the slice like Boston.

The price factor can be attributed to higher rent.  While this is an assumption, it’s clear that real estate in Boston is quite a bit more costly than other parts of the nation and therefore, higher costs on most items can be expected simply because of this and honestly, this was my expectation going in.  However, there are quite a few more restaurants in the Boston area on average that list entrees in the $30+ category simply because they consider themselves to be a fancy restaurant (i.e. they put white table cloths on their tables).  I tend to shy away from $30+ entrees in general because A) I’m not super rich and B) I’d rather buy better ingredients and make that dish myself.  That’s not a boast about my cooking skills by the way, it’s just a reflection on restaurant economics.

The difference in the quality factor is what I can’t figure out though.  Perhaps the expectations of Boston restaurant goers and food critics is lower?  Perhaps there is less intermingling of chefs and restaurant staff in the Boston restaurant scene? Perhaps there is an oligopoly of food suppliers that give restaurants little choice. Or perhaps, it’s because they are focused on entirely different factors here than the base quality of food and how much they are charging for it.  I have noticed that restaurants in Boston tend to have items on their menus or entire menus that are a bit more complex than what they probably should be. They try to sell you on how unique their menu item is (even though, yes,  the restaurant down the street also has a wild boar tagliatelle too) instead of how good it is.  Instead of making a street taco with 8 different toppings on it, just make a high quality basic street taco.  Instead of having 20 hamburgers, just make 2 high quality hamburgers.  Instead of having a huge menu of disparate foods, pick a theme or a cohesive element to tie a shorter list of menu items together.  There needs to be more focus on making things well than focusing on how interesting the menu sounds. At this point I certainly haven’t gotten to a majority of the restaurants in Boston yet and this assessment may change at some point because there’s always a chance that I’ve just magically chosen all the wrong restaurants to base this assessment on.  Until then, I fear I’ll sound like a New Yorker when talking about the Boston food scene.

 

Side Dish Rants

Coffee:  I spend a lot of time in coffee shops because I work from home so it was a surprise when all of the Americanos I was ordering seemed to be…off when ordering them from Boston coffee shops close to home.  It turns out that for whatever reason, the local coffee shops in Minneapolis generally add the espresso or ristretto shots to the hot water and not the other way around.  After some serious internet research, I found that this is technically called a Long Black and I prefer it because the crema of the espresso sits on top making the first few sips extra special. I’ll probably be making myself a lot more Americanos in the future, but until then I have a few coffee shops in the Boston area identified as potentially favoring the Long Black method which I will be seeking out.  I tried asking my usual coffee shop this morning to do it, but they topped it off with more hot water before I could intervene to fill up the cup which defeated the purpose of me having them reverse their usual order.

Cocktails:  When the Bradstreet in Minneapolis first began serving up amazing cocktails at a then unheard of high price of $10, I was quickly on board.  They were beautifully and simply crafted with ingredients that well justified the new higher price point.  Then Marvel Bar came along and added a show of chopping ice in a dark basement with hipster wall paper and the price went up to $12.  Then everyone began delivering cocktails as a sideshow, many of course were much less interesting and with lower quality ingredients, but the price became a range of $12-$15 and at that point I somewhat stopped looking at the cocktail menus and stuck to wine.  I’d still go to the relocated Bradstreet if I was yearning for a cocktail.  I don’t know if Boston ever had a true cocktail renaissance, but they are very much in the $12-$15 range with cocktails of debatable value so I haven’t had much success here.  The last experience included a good rye and Fernet that had potential from the menu reading, but came out shaken instead of built or stirred which I was expecting since it didn’t contain any egg white or citrus.  I hesitate to call this the “wrong” way to make this cocktail, because the proportions of the ingredients, which is really the only hard and fast cocktail rule, were right, but it just seemed…off.

Local wine: Slight deviation from the restaurant scene, but since I spent a lot of time working with local grape growers and winemakers in Minnesota, I have been looking for ways to get involved in Massachusetts.  Oddly, in Massachusetts, you can import grapes from anywhere, ferment it within the state and still put Massachusetts on the label as the source of origin of the wine.  In Minnesota, laws dictate that 85% of the finished product must be from Minnesota grapes to call it Minnesota wine.  Out of state grapes seem to be favored by Massachusetts winemakers which to me seems like they have little interest in making parts of Massachusetts wine country or improving the quality of locally grown grapes.

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This turkey attempted to attack the car shortly after this photo was taken.

By now, on this day before the most gluttonous of all American holidays (Save the Super Bowl) known as Thanksgiving, you have probably seen a fair number of blogs and magazine articles about what wines you should bring to the table.  Oddly enough, you’ll probably also notice that no two articles agree on which wines to bring to the table even though they all declare their picks to be the best.  Well they’re all wrong…or perhaps all right depending on if you’re a wine glass half-full or half-empty kind of person.

The safest option for you would be to acquire ALL of the wines that have been recommended.  However, I understand that some of you have a limited budget and that may not be an option.  Even if you could, there’s the issue of finding the wines in the first place.  I would hope if you’re reading an article by a local wine expert that they at least listed which shops to find the wines at and how much they’re priced at, but this sadly isn’t always the case.  Most will leave you scouring the internet to hunt down these bottles and if you’ve waiting until now to do this, you’re going to be out of luck to get them by tomorrow.  The majority of seasonal wine recommendations that are given by actual wine experts are for wines that aren’t distributed to all 50 states.  At most, you have a moderate chance at finding them if you’re in a major city.  If you’re in the suburbs or beyond, don’t bother hoping your wine shop will carry them.

Given this, what wines should you go buy?  First, if you have a wine shop you like to go to, ask the “wine person” there.  Regardless of how much of an “expert” this person is, they’re the ones buying the wine for the store you like and they’ve tasted these wines so you can trust their recommendations.  If you don’t even have this, just buy some wines that you like to drink and don’t worry too much about how well they pair with the odd assortment of dishes on your table. Even pairings that seem off won’t make you unlike a wine.

For those that want to get a little more technical, here are some base recommendations that you can ask your wine shop about:

If you want to bring out any of those traditional Thanksgiving baking spices, especially clove, go for a red wine that has been aged in oak.  The aromatic compound, eugenol comes from toasted oak, and it’s the same compound in clove.

If you want to bring out the butter in your croissants and everything you are slathering with butter, get a Chardonnay that has been through the Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) process.

If your dishes are all carb/fat/savory/make-you-want-to-sleep-forever get a wine with some acid in it (usually from cooler climates) to brighten up your dishes and perhaps bring out their flavor a little more.

If you want a wine with dessert get a sweet wine (bonus points if you follow the baking spices recommendation above too).  If the wine isn’t as sweet as the dessert, you’ll notice.

Regardless of what wines you get this Thanksgiving, feel free to make fun of the person that brought their pumpkin-spiced beer.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!!!

 

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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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Picture selected based on the artist’s misunderstanding of when the USA was founded and when bards and swashbuckling pirates existed. 

Recently, I had a birthday dinner at a local restaurant here in Minneapolis.  It was French.  It was delightful. It was serene.  The most wonderful part of it though was the fact that this restaurant was offering half-glasses of wine (2.5oz instead of 5oz) on their menu of any wine they poured by the glass.  Even better, the price of that half-glass was exactly half the price of the full glass.  It was brilliant.  I was inspired.  I wrote a ballad about it:

 

The Ballad of the Half-Glass Pour

As I sat down at the restaurant,
Menu soon in hand,
I was craving bubbles from a Francophonic land.

But as my eyes danced merrily,
From savory small plate to sweet,
My wine desires multiplied, how would my cravings be complete?

But what was this? Could it be true?
I spied in the margin,
Half a pour for half the price? A fair and even bargain.

How else could I sample them all?
Mix and match as I pleased,
This restaurant was offering half glasses of wine, it seemed like such a tease.

Unlike the up-marked volume sales of the airport,
Where they offer you 6 ounces or 9,
I’ll take variety so 2.5 will be fine.

In the end a similar volume
Will probably be consumed,
But who can choose just one flower, when the entire field is in bloom?

Bubbles to start
Then I selected a Cab Franc rosé
Could have gone on to a red, but I’d already had a glass that day.

For dessert, I had the Byrrh,
A digestif to settle all that food.
Having only just half glasses had put me in the mood.

Satiated, satisfied,
I sat back in my chair with a delighted sigh.
It felt as though Utopia had finally drawn in nigh.

If you chance upon a restaurant
Whose menu begets a paradox of choice
You’d best hope they have the half-glass pour, and if they do rejoice.

For the wine flight is constructed
Meant for comparing and not completing
The option for the half-glass pour however, is certainly worth repeating.

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Taken in Lyon, France…not the bottle I drank from the night of the half-glass pours. 

 

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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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