Archive for August, 2011


The Golden Age of Wine Writing

Posted on Aug 29 2011 | By

Snagging Venerable Wine Books with a Keystroke

You’ve gotta love the internet. Its scope is ginormous. Consider that even back in 2009 there were:

  • 90 trillion emails sent.
  • 234 million websites in existence.
  • 1.73 billion users worldwide
  • 126 million blogs.

If you can’t find it on the internet, it’s likely not worth knowing or possessing. One of the more useful actions this writer uses the net for is to purchase used books.

Yep, it’s a clash of the old and new.  Forget Kindle. Reading hard copy tomes is in this writers’ blood.  And wine books are the near the top of his favored subjects, with over fifty titles in the man’s library.

Perhaps the easiest channel of purchase is  Type in the name of almost any book and up pops the selection ready for a one-click purchase.  But wait.  Glance down a line or two and you’ll see a used copy that can often be had at a fraction of the new book price.


Let’s briefly review a few of the more interesting volumes on this blogger’s book shelves.  The list is not meant to be comprehensive and other’s favorites may not appear here.  Nonetheless, here is some solid writing on the subject.

  • A Short History of Wine by Rod Phillips; 370 pages.  This well researched volume could be read three times and you’d still be learning about the advancement of wine from earliest civilization to the 21st Century.
  • American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine by Paul Lukacs; 386 pages. From failure to worldwide recognition; just one fascinating story after another about the growth of the US wine industry.
  • Home Winemaking Step by Step by Jon Iverson; 226 pages.  This is this home winemaker’s go to book.  An easy to understand guide packed with all the critical details for producing wine at home.
  • Judgment of Paris: The Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber; 326 pages.  The movie Bottleshock was based on the events covered here.  Wonderful perspective on the early days of modern California winemaking and the revolution it unleashed.
  • Making Sense of Wine by Matt Kramer; 240 pages.  Wine Spectator’s premier columnist will have you highlighting passage after passage as he educates in his conversational style.
  • Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine by Mark Oldman; 364 pages.  If you fancy yourself becoming a sommelier someday but don’t have the time or money to pursue it, this is a good shortcut.  You’ll return often to this fun and highly informative reference book.
  • Passions:  The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson by James M. Gabler; 318 pages.  And you thought Tom was simply the author of the Declaration of Independence; the man had a serious wine problem in the best sense of the word.
  • The House of Mondavi:  The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler; 452 pages. A breathtaking story of the family who put America on the fine wine map.
  • The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. by Elin McCoy; 342 pages.  He created the 100-point wine evaluation scale and changed the way Americans evaluate and purchase wine.
  • The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode; 216 pages.  One of the most informative books on modern winemaking and written in an accessible style.  A tour de force on how grapes become wine.
  • The Wine Trials by Robin Goldstein; 188 pages.  This one may upset the wine snobs but learn how the average Joe lets his palate guide his choices.
  • To Cork or Not to Cork by George M. Taber; 278 pages.  Why are screw caps advancing in popularity?  Learn how New Zealanders and others lost patience with cork producers and led the way in upsetting a 300 year-old tradition.
  • Wine for Dummiesby Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW; 403 pages.  The title may be off-putting but you’d be hard pressed to glean more basic information on the world of wine than this easy to read dissertation.

The world of wine is a subject almost without end.  With each different bottle we open the journey begins anew.  Today, the United States is entering its golden age of the fermented grape.  Increasing your knowledge about this elixir will enhance its enjoyment.

So pull the cork then turn the page.  Hard copy isn’t dead yet.


Published in the 2011 Winter Edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Back in February, I posted an update on my 2010 white wine production.  Typical of many commercial wineries, I bottle my whites some six months after harvest so we can begin drinking the fresh, crisp and dry wines.  This year those included Seyval Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier.

Only my Chardonnay lingered in six gallon carboys for some additional months while it went through malolactic fermentation.  Even then, it saw no oak aging; naked or virgin Chardonnays are gaining wider acceptance in the marketplace and they comport with our white wine preference.  White wine with oak?  Nope.

Now as we approach harvest 2011, I have bottled the last of my reds.  This year I chose to focus on only two; Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Why?  The quality of red fruit last year was outstanding for these two varietals and my 2009 wine “warehouse” was still in good supply.  If I don’t monitor the capacity of my cellar, I can end up with cases of wine scattered all over the basement.

So what’s the problem?

Good point.

At any rate, even with my self-control in check, I managed to produce some 360 bottles of red this year and they are poring nicely and will improve with age.  Don’t get me wrong.  Making wine in small six gallon carboys using oak chips rather than 60 gallon French oak barrels is not a recipe for producing world-class cult wine.  Yet, these easy drinking reds are satisfying to make and satisfying to drink.  One can’t ask much more from a bottle that costs about two dollars to produce.

My favorite of the two is the Cabernet Franc.  This year I tried something I hadn’t done before…and is typically avoided by the pros.  I co-fermented the Cab Franc with 25% Petit Verdot.  Good decision.

Most professional winemakers produce their red wines by individual varietal and then blend them early in the ageing process, if a blended wine is their goal.  Taking a contrarian tack, I blended the fresh, crushed red fruit together and commenced fermentation as a single cuvée.  The Petit Verdot worked its magic and deepen the color, aroma and flavor of the Cab Franc.  Based on the resulting wine, I intend to pursue a similar strategy this fall.

And how is this year’s Virginia grape crop shaping up?  It’s been a lot of work for vineyard managers.  Heavy rains early in the season, coupled with a hot and humid mid-summer, resulted in excessive vigor in the vineyard.  Throw in the numerous fungi that love such conditions and workers in the vineyard have been very busy this year.  Pruning, leaf pulling, and spraying have consumed much of their work schedule.  Veraison occured a bit earlier than normal and whites such as Seyval Blanc and Pinto Gris were harvested as early as August 13 in some areas of the state.

Stink bugs have also reappeared in some vineyards but not at levels seen last year.  As fall advances that could change.  The little stinkers could leave their forest dwellings and cling to grape vines in abundance.  This is a serious issue if they are harvested along with the gapes and crushed in the winemaking process.  We do not need the aroma of stink bugs in our wines.  All efforts will be taken to avoid this scenario, be assured.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

Over all, the quality of the crop this year is shaping up to be excellent.  The one unknown element is the return of heavy rains.  Particularly troublesome is a major hurricane or two that could cause our viticulturists to grab the Prozac.  Let’s hope their emotional well being will not be tested.  A stressed out vineyard manager is not a pretty sight.  It can also turn a normally placid winemaker into a nail biting worry wart.

But this is Virginia.  The classic Eurasian grapes were not intended to thrive here and it’s enormous achievement that our industry’s professionals are producing world class wines in a difficult climate.

And how do we know?   Have you visited a local tasting room lately?


Categories : WINE ARTICLES

World’s Oldest Libation Is Newest Rage 

It’s common knowledge among those who follow wine that the USA is hot.  And we’re not talking global warming.  Consumption is the function.

Two recent reports speak to what is unfolding in the United States of Winemerica.  First, in 2010, we became the largest wine consuming nation on earth. Secondly, beer consumption is in decline, being driven by a younger, upscale crowd called millennials who are more eager to pull a cork than a pop top.

Added to these dramatic shifts in alcohol consumption, there’s been an explosion in the growth of wineries nationwide, further encouraging sipping rather than guzzling.

As of 2010, there were 7,626 bonded wineries scattered across every state in the union, with California being home to forty-four percent of them.  Here in Virginia, we have passed the 200 mark and there doesn’t appear to be any easing up.  Is this fun or what?

But let’s do the numbers.  Wine consumption in the US climbed 2 percent last year to 329.7 million cases, generating $30 billion in retail sales.  That compares with 320.6 million cases for France.  While the French still hold the per-capita wine drinking title—USA’s 311 million population is five times that of France’s—our surging growth of younger wine drinkers and torrent of social media promoting the world’s oldest libation is having its impact.

An equally interesting counterpoint to America’s wine ascendency is the decline in wine drinking occurring in France, where consumption has dropped by three billion bottles in the last generation.  There is a fear among French wine lovers that the culture of wine drinking is fading.  Just 16.5 percent of French citizens are now regular wine drinkers.  Sacre bleu, who knew?

One of the key drivers in our Nation’s interest in the fermented grape is the growing importance of wine with food.  Lifestyle changes in the last few decades have created a dramatic interest in serving wine on social occasions, from family dinners to corporate grand banquets. Unconvinced?  Note the reaction of your party hosts the next time you gift them a bottle of wine.  It will be all smiles.

But is beer drinking really slacking off?  Indeed.  A July 2011 Gallup study surveyed 1,016 US adults revealing that 35% drank wine most often compared with 36% who favored beer and 23% who preferred liquor.  It was the best showing for wine ever and the trend is likely to continue.

In January of this year, a Nielsen report revealed millennials are more likely to explore new and different alcoholic beverages.  In the US, this means looking past the beer aisle.  The trend toward experimentation bodes well for future wine sales.

One possible reason for the change in behavior is the marketing of beer for many years had a frat house slant, emphasizing goofy humor or young guys watching sports on TV.  That’s not a demographic brewers are pursuing now.  Today, you’ll likely view upscale couples enjoying a night out at a classy restaurant or outdoor activities such as cycling followed by a frosty brew that bears no connection to the image of partying good ol’ boys.  Beer makers are following the dollar signs.

Whatever the causes of the shift to wine, it bodes well for the health of our citizens.  Numerous studies have shown that moderate wine consumption produces a number of positive effects on our health and well being.

Ben Franklin summed it up nicely saying, “Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance.”  Sounds like sending a bottle of wine to every Member of Congress might even improve our political discourse.


Published in the 2011 Winter edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Getting To Know You

Posted on Aug 05 2011 | By

Creating a Wine Society Gathers People Together You May Rarely See—Your Neighbors

In 2000, Robert Putnam penned a bestseller titled, Bowling Alone.  The book explored how Americans have become increasingly disconnected with one another.  Today his findings are still valid, notwithstanding the avalanche of social media.

Putnam’s tome—all 544 pages—centers on the deterioration of ways people have come to interact with one another over the past two generations. One small example is the number of Americans attending public meetings of any kind declined 40% over the last thirty-five years.

The book is packed with voluminous data showing how Americans have grown increasingly isolated, less empathetic toward their fellow citizens, angrier and less willing to unite in communities or as a Nation.

Sounds like a press release emanating from Capitol Hill.

To buck the trend, Putnam called for more educational programs, work-based initiatives and community service programs.  But there’s another easy and enjoyable way to link with the locals.  Share a bottle of wine.

Today in the United States, there are over 40 million wine drinkers.  And in 2011, the United States assumed the title of the largest wine consuming nation on earth.  So if you are looking for something you might have in common with folks in your neighborhood, reach for a corkscrew, a wine glass and a bottle of Cabernet.

This writer founded a community wine society back in 2005 and has held over thirty-three tastings since first sampling South African wines in a group setting.  Since then, our posse has pursued the world of fine wine, evaluating bottles from almost every producing region in the world.  Uh, we haven’t gotten to Chinese wines yet.

It’s been a rewarding experience.  And while it’s been fun tasting all those great wines, deepening existing friendships and creating new ones has been even more satisfying.

Think you might not be up to hosting a wine tasting party?  It’s easier than you might imagine. Here are some thoughts on establishing a local wine association; and dismiss any preconceived notions of its difficulty. Simply assume the mantle of its chairperson and success will follow.  It’s a given your disciples will enjoy the experience because the social magic is in the wine.  Your job is simply the facilitator.

No need to be an expert
Wine provides an endless opportunity to learn something new, so starting from a position of unfamiliarity can actually be an asset.  It will be rare to find folks in your neighborhood who think they are experts.  And if they aren’t pros, you needn’t be either.  A love of wine, coupled with friendly people to drink it with, fulfills the basic requirements for forming a group.  A wine society enables everyone to learn together.

Start Small
Your first meetings should be limited in size; eight to ten people makes for a good starter group.  A bottle of wine holds 25.6 ounces, so five bottles will provide ten participants over two ounces of each selection, or about 13 ounces.  You can provide the wines yourself or each couple can bring a bottle of their choice.  The tasting can be a stand alone event or it can be the lead-in to a group dinner or bar-b-que.  With the focus on wine, initial meetings might best be limited to just tasting.  Expanding the format can come later.  A selection of gourmet cheeses and crackers makes a nice accompaniment to the wine itself.

Our local wine society typically has twenty to twenty-two people at each meeting tasting some thirteen wines, or somewhat over half a bottle per person.  As a group grows in size, two bottles per each selection will offer tasters the opportunity to sample more of each wine although less variety.

Levy a fee that reflects the cost of all the wine and food.  You do not want to go broke.  Avoid inexpensive wines readily available at the nearby grocery store.  You’re goal is to expand everyone’s palate by tasting quality.

Rely on the pros
To select your wines, trust the guidance of a wine merchant.  Describe your goals and ask for suggestions. Over time, your relationship with these pros may result in occasional discounts.  A merchant who knows you will be buying quality wines on a regular basis will want to keep you as a customer.

Each session should have a focus—such as France, Italy, Chile or Virginia—and include both whites and reds, unless the group requests otherwise.  Or, you could have a selection of wines from around the world.  Large wine retailers often will be able to provide printouts on each bottle purchased describing the aroma, palate flavors and scores awarded by nationally known experts.  Such information is helpful in sussing out the tastes of each wine.

Encourage discussion
As each wine is poured, elicit reactions from the attendees.  Not everyone will feel comfortable commenting, especially if they think they know little about wine.  But listening to the opinion of even the novice can provide insight.  Initially, don’t be concerned with generating a host of detailed comments like, “A touch of pineapple with melon notes and a veil of citrus.”  Such language can intimidate wine newbies.  Descriptors like, “Smells great…is fruity…has a bite…smooth finish,” or simply, “I’d buy this one,” are easier to understand and can generate profitable discussion.

Your responsibility
As chairman of your society you will need some basic materials.  Here’s a starter list.

Good quality wine glasses.  These need not be expensive but an all purpose glass capable of bringing out the best in both white and red wines is important.

Sufficient seating.  As your society expands, word will spread and you’ll receive additional requests to join, so extra seating will be needed.  Choose a room large enough to place everyone in a circle.  Lawn chairs and bar stools will do just fine as a group expands.  Your members are not expecting to be seated in King Louis XIV chairs.  Once the tasting begins, any concerns about the seating arrangements will evaporate along with the disappearing wine.

Decant the reds.  About three hours prior to the event, open each red and pour it into a pitcher and repour it back into the bottle using a small funnel.  This will enable the wines to open up and offer maximum aromas and flavors.  The whites should be chilled but do not have to be opened till the tasting begins.

Scoring sheets for evaluating the wines.  You will likely find some of the members may not want to score the wines.  But at least two or three guests should make some attempt at rating each wine so you can select the “favorites” at the end of the evening.  An excellent scoring format is the UC Davis 20 point system that awards points for appearance, aroma, palate, finish and overall impression.  While this can get a bit techie, it is a valuable way to rate the total impact of each bottle.

Bowling alone may represent today’s isolated society but there is no need to drink alone.  Many of your friends and neighbors will be pleased to receive a call or email announcing the formation of a neighborhood wine society.

Ben Franklin once said, “The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation.  The universe is full of stars.”  Begin your personal discovery of wine stars and experience how it can enrich the lives of you and your companions.


Published in the 2011 winter edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES