Friday, March 31, 2006

A few Rads with your Reds?

Now this IS exciting news!
(as in 'highly excited particles' that is...)

I've been sitting on this information for some time now, but have finally confirmed a few rumors heard over the past several years (from sources close to the project) that a certain company is about to unveil a line of bottling equipment which irradiates wine bottles right after they are filled and corked to ensure sterility. Apparently the equipment manufacturer has been conducting trials over the past 7~8 years, studying how X-ray exposures of up to 1 kGray (~100,000 Rads) affect the wines stability, clarification and ageing potential.

Some nuggets of information from what they’ve found so far (at least what’s from credible sources):

  • use of sulfur can be almost completely eliminated during ageing (only a minor amount is needed to prohibit oxidation)
  • small units for use at bottling are available already
  • larger units (which can treat several barrels of wine simultaneously) have been tested, and can irradiate the wine in situ to kill bacteria, molds and yeasts (including Brettanomyces!!) without the need to filter the wine [apparently the barrels are slid into the chamber, exposed, and then slide out the opposite side - I haven't witnessed one in use yet]
  • units for tanks are not available due to the size of the average tank, but small tube & pipe units similar in design to heat exchangers are available, and wine is circulated through a shielded exposure ‘zone’, and then passes out the other side so that tanks can be treated in place by recirculating wine, or when wines are moved from tank to tank thru the unit
  • longevity of fruit aromas and tannin seems to be slightly increased, but studies longer than 6 years are not yet complete
  • higher exposure levels can reduce the need for bentonite fining and subsequent filtration, shortening the time needed between blending the wine and bottling (and therefore reducing the costs of producing the wines - probably meaning we'd all be paying less as well!)
  • elimination/reduction of the use of sulfur can help reduce the number of cellar workers injured each year, as well as make the wines more friendly for sulfur sensitive individuals
  • exposure levels can be adjusted for various activities and effects - including higher levels which can help reduce some excess tannins and astringency, and increase complexity (at the cost of some longevity)
  • elimination of the use of animal products for fining (egg whites, casein [milk], isinglass [sturgeon bladder], etc) can make all treated wines organic & vegan friendly as well

I’ll post more when I can confirm some of the other items I’ve heard, and can publicly post the company's name, or where the trials have taken place. In the meantime, here is a link to an irradiation FAQ website:

Food Irradiation - A Quick Overview

Of the extra benefits being explored several really make me think; if you can leave the wine purer by using less fining agents, with less possibility of microbe contamination - and coupled with the use of screwcaps! - all that could lead to wines which are (almost) literally immortal, and continue to showcase their terroir for a hundred plus years!

The only drawback I can see is the problem of naming the wines... I mean is the world ready for, say, a Los Alamos Auslese, Manhattan Merlot, Cyclotron Chardonnay, an Oppenheimer Spätlese, Roentgen Red, or something like Strangelove Cellars Shiraz?

And with what tag lines? Something like "Our ageless wines in traditional styles can be enjoyed for generations!", or perhaps "Double-Cobalt medal winner at the 2045 Trinity Site wine fair!"...?

Will consumers embrace this new technology? Perhaps it will take a while...


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Chip on your shoulder?

Vinography currently has a dialog running about barrel chips, pellets, beans…whatever you want to call them – ‘barrel alternatives’ by any other name – being used in wine, and the supposed obsolescence of oak barrels. And as always, it seems a few people are hot under the collar.

How many times do people have to get themselves all worked up?
Didn't they read my post re Coppola using barrel chips over in Napa?
This is old, old news people...


What I said back then still applies that...
"... if France - which is about as ‘traditional’ as it gets -uses Micro-ox and has started to allow oak chips, as well as Italy…

Perhaps the danger lies in someone actually liking a wine which has seen [barrel alternatives], and not knowing it. Perhaps the danger is in our perception of what we should like, rather than what we do or can like…

If the only end result is improved wines at reduced costs, where is the harm?Perhaps it’s just an ugly knock to the ego…"

Another year gone by?

It's been a year since I had my 10,000th hit to this page.

This morning the counter sits at 38,715 - or 28,715 hits in the past year! And that's after having a massive drop in numbers when I had to change the name of the blog (& my alter ego).

Thanks to you all for stopping by.
Salutti da tutti!


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Put a Cork in the Propoganda - Please!

I wrote recently about the Portuguese Cork Association's (APCOR) continued attempts to promote cork through what I believe to be deceptive information and (mis)use of surveys that they are sponsoring. Apparently, what they are doing is working now that producers in 11 of Spain's Catalan D.O. regions will be prevented from using synthetic closures.

I should point out that I don't mind corks at all, in fact I have no real preference one way or the other. However, I dislike deceptive tactics like this example from yesterday's press release:

"A 2005 closure survey by the Wine Spectator showed 81% of those questioned in an internet survey preferred cork closures compared to 18% who preferred screw caps." - This doesn't distinguish between synthetic(plastic) corks and natural corks, it only refers to screwcaps. This tells us absolutely nothing about whether consumers prefer natural or synthetic corks. Next!

"In 2004, Wine Intelligence, a leading international wine industry consultancy, conducted a major survey of American consumer attitudes to two types of seal, cork stoppers and aluminum capsules (screw caps). Two thirds of the respondents thought it was positive to buy wine with a cork stopper, 52% rejected aluminum capsules and only 1% said they did not like to drink wine sealed with a cork." - Ah, but 48% of those polled accepted aluminum closures. Again, this survey does not distinguish between natural and synthetic and even then, combined cork preference was minimal (particularly if you consider the sampling error which may have been 3% or more!).

How about this from a survey created by Supreme Corq? Clearly, this is equally biased:

"The research, conducted by Wine Intelligence of Britain, showed that 93 percent of wine-drinking consumers are either positive or indifferent to the change from natural cork to synthetic cork." - Its all in how you ask the question and what your goal is, isn't it?

"The research also confirmed that 31 percent of wine-drinking consumers perceive the change from natural cork to screw cap as negative." - HA! Yes, it sure is all in how you ask the question (Supreme Corq makes synthetic corks, but not screwcaps!) and what your goals are!!!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Spectator Helping Out Confused Americans

Now, I've aired my grievances with Wine Spectator before (and got a rather pointed email from Thomas Matthews that I keep framed in my bathroom at home), but this is simply too much......

They've given up some space on the bottom-left corner of their home page to link to what appears to be
a handy guide to wine and food pairing. But look closely at the brands represented and you might spot a trend:

  • Mirassou
  • Red Bicyclette
  • Ecco Domani
  • Napa Valley Vineyards (with Mac & Cheese! Your kids will love this pairing!)
  • Gallo Sonoma
  • Rancho Zabaco
  • Louis Martini (paired with "shirt" steak -mmmm)
  • McWilliams

All are from Gallo! Its just paid ad!

One does wonder why they omitted a food pairing with Carlo Rossi's fine vintages, since "for over 40 years, Carlo Rossi wines have made good food taste even better."
And you would expect that they'd increase their 'public service' quotient (and advertising $$ generated) by 'offering' specific pairings for the Denny's, IHOP's & Applebee's of the world...what a great tie in!

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Costco Lawsuit - Why You Should Care

Interestingly, Costco’s current lawsuit against the state of Washington has received rather limited press coverage and wine industry interest, at least as compared to 2005’s Supreme Court Granholm ruling in the direct shipping case.

The reason that this case should be interesting for consumers and producers alike is that it potentially sets the stage to eliminate many of the state's policies which are claimed to reduce alcoholism, protect small retailers, reduce sales to minors and create "orderly markets". The state is scrambling to justify why it prevents retailers from getting discounts on volume purchases - Costco's stock in trade - and wholesalers in Washington are resisting any changes to these laws for fear that Costco's influence will lead to further demands including (presumably) direct purchases from wineries (gasp!).

(I should point out that I’ve previously defended wholesalers, at least on the broad scale, as they generally provide a service that wineries themselves don’t want to perform. Imagine a 20,000 case winery with 10,000 sales outlets (grocery, restaurant, liquor store, wine shop, etc) across the country. Managing that becomes tremendously expensive, inefficient and takes away from what wineries do best – make wine).

Having said that, I do take issue when distributors get unnecessarily protective – preventing direct shipments to consumers or retailers, for example. This stifles a free market and forces the consumer to pay more for a product in markets where wineries could self-distribute, even if on a limited scale (like selling to Costco, for example!).

What’s notable about the Costco case is that the state of Washington, according to legal analysts, has dropped the ball in initial proceedings. Costco intends to demonstrate a pattern of collusion between state officials and liquor wholesalers and has been much more effective in its arguments than expected during the initial proceedings. The state, on the other hand, is using defenses like "higher prices to the consumer produce lower consumption of alcohol", something that is hardly relevant, nor supported by either facts or the state's previous actions and policies.

The state also argues that by preventing volume discounts and sales on credit (something many other states allow) it helps retailers to maintain level inventories and keep strong business practices. (sarcasm on) Thank God we have the governement to watch out for our businesses! What foolish mistakes we would make without Big Brother around! (sarcasm off)

Much like Granholm last year, a victory for Costco strikes a blow against wholesalers nationwide as elimination of distributor protections will lead more states toward the less-regulated model of California where wineries can sell to anyone in the state (consumer, retailer, etc), prices and markups are unregulated, discounts are allowed, alcohol can be bought on credit, etc.

Here's to a brave new world!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Screaming Eagle - Some Estimates of the Numbers

I saw an estimate on Fermentation that Screaming Eagle sold for 100x profits and I also received a couple of emails asking about the numbers, so I thought I'd throw out some estimates (these are gross estimates only from my experience and could be waaaay off, but should be useful for the purposes of discussion).

First, let's look at the vineyard, 60 acres from which they produce ~5,000 cases. Let's assume they bring in 1,000 cases worth to have sufficient barrels from which to chose the final blend (very common). If they farm for $7,000 per acre (all hand-work, lots of passes to drop crop, work the canopy, etc), hire a $100,000 per-year vineyard consultant and yield 3 tons to the acre (hey, this is high-end stuff, gotta have maximum intensity per berry!) then the "excess" fruit they sell would generate $300,000 in farming profits. Nice, but wait 'til we look at the winery...

In the winery, let's assume $100 per case of general cellar costs (on all 1,000 cases), a $200,000 per year consulting fee to Heidi Barrett and $25 per case for those sexy bottles and labels, we've got total product costs of $460,000. Subtracting that from our sales (6,000 bottles x $300 per bottle), we get winery profits of $1.3 million, something one could live off if one cut back slightly and cut coupons.

Let's assume there is another $200,000 of overhead to manage the mailing list, TTB compliance etc. and we're still left with $1.4 million in annual profits.

The Wine Spectator suggested that the total transaction might be $20-40 million.

At $20 million, that would be a multiple of 14 times net profits, pretty reasonable since that's about the same multiple that Constellation paid for Ravenswood.

At $30 million, that would be 21 times earnings, not completely unreasonable as Franciscan sold for 18 times, and Peter Lehmann sold for 20 times, neither of which has the ScrEagle "pedigree".

At $40 million, that would be 28 times earnings. The highest multiple I've ever seen was Allied-Domecq's reported multiple of 24 times for Montana in New Zealand (something they later admitted they had overpaid for). However, this price is still possible considering that the new owners may take advantage of that "excess" fruit (notice how much more money the 15 tons that went into the winery made vs. the 160 tons that were sold in the above hypothetical) and sell more wine or create new brands. In other words, paying a price like that is not out of the realm of possibility, particulary considering we're talking about a wine that ultimately hits a "street price" of over $1,000 per bottle. Logic has little place there.....

Screaming Eagle cont'd

The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa has an online article which fills in most of the details about the sale of Screaming Eagle...and answers a few questions while raising a few more...

Screaming Eagle buyers step forward

Of particular note is the following:
  1. they are working to keep Heidi Peterson Barrett as winemaker
  2. they want to keep the production the same size
  3. vineyard replacement will continue as Jean Phillips had originally slated
  4. they have no plans to change or expand it

But having said that, Charles Banks (one of the new owners) stated the following -

He said improvements to the vineyards and winery could make Screaming Eagle wines even more exquisite. "Even a first-growth Bordeaux can be improved," said Banks.

I find that in somewhat in conflict with point #4 above. I'm not sure how something can remain the same, yet be improved...but I look forward to seeing what and how that's accomplished - as well as the confirmation from Heidi Barrett that she's staying on in the same capacity and with the same amount of control that she's had in the past.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Screaming Eagle sold

I'm still trying to get my sources to confirm various rumors regarding the details - more information to come as the story unfolds.

Screaming Eagle Winery Sold
From Tim Tesconi's article in the Press Democrat:
"...In a letter to Wine Spectator, according to the online story, Phillips, a former real estate agent, did not reveal who was buying the small winery, 60 acres of vineyards and the prestigious Screaming Eagle label. Phillips wrote that she had sold "my beautiful ranch with my precious little winery" but released few other details.
Speculation is that the buyer is a private person with deep pockets, someone interested in buying the premier property as entry to the Napa Valley lifestyle..."

I'd have to say that's a pretty good guess, and if so we won't have to wait long to find out who purchased it. You don't gain "entry to the Napa Valley lifestyle" without going public about your prestige purchase.

Earlier this month it was reported that a 21 bottle vertical collection of the '95 thru '02 vintages of Screaming Eagle was sold at auction for the sum of $52,875.00 (that's $2,517.86 each bottle).

Yearly production is ~500 cases (somewhere around 22 barrels of wine total before losses), and at $300/bottle puts gross income at about $1.8MIL. And being sold for maybe $30MIL (~$10MIL for the property) brings the price for each of those barrels to -hmmm- $1.0MIL each?

Making that "precious little winery" comment quite an understatement...

Topics of concern for the serious wine collector/Screaming Eagle 'cultist':

  • who will be making the wine? (arguably Heidi Peterson Barrett will always be the winemaker in the public's mind, and changes in that area may prove fatal to the perception of the brand & style...)
  • will the style of the wine remain the same? (same thoughts as above)
  • will the new owner try to expand production?

** update: sources are reporting the buyers as Charles Banks and Stanley Kroenke

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Terroir update...

The following link is to an article by Roger C. Bohmrich MW, and appears in the January edition of Wine Business Monthly (WBM).
The Next Chapter in the Terroir Debate

Its significance to the current debate about the influences (or even the definition) of terroir is apparent after reading through. A number of hot topics which are on the front burners of the worlds best winemakers are discussed, along with his analysis of whether or not they should play a central or peripheral role in the definition of what terroir is.
Certainly I have posted on a few of these topics before:
  • Wine is a human construct – an intervention by mankind in a natural process [10/17/05] [2/7/06]
  • Climate is much more influential than geology [12/20/05]
  • Soil characteristics are not transferred to the wine (you can’t taste the soil) [2/1/06] [3/15/06]
  • Crop yields vary, and quality may not be harmed by yields higher than 2 tons/acre [3/3/06]
  • Notions of being able to taste ‘authenticity’ and ‘terroir’ are subjective [4/7/05]
  • All styles of wine we currently enjoy were at some point in time ‘invented’ [3/9/05] [12/20/05]

And I do love the way he sums up how tasting is subjective in nature…:

“…we have to say that tasting is inherently fallible unless performed under the strictest conditions with qualified tasters who have been carefully screened. Otherwise, much of our judgment remains intuitive and subjective, and prone to suggestion and expectation. We may identify differences in aroma, concentration or acidity, but do we know with scientific certitude whether these come about because of soil and subsoil, or age of vines, clones, rootstocks or other factors?”

And his descriptions of terroir influences via 'terroir wheels'...Brilliant!

Definitely worth a read.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Still using leaded stemware?!

It must be time to post about…
Wineries sued over lead glassware!

"Dozens of California wineries are now among the hundreds of businesses that have been hit with what many are calling "predatory" lawsuits relating to lead in stemware.
The lawsuits are based on the California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65. Businesses that fail to provide proper warning signs about chemicals in glassware, including lead and cadmium, can be liable for penalties of up to $2,500 per violation per day, which when calculated based on the number of individual sales can be significant."

Like I wasn't already aware of this as a cause for concern...I had mentioned this on a post back of mine back in July of ’04 regarding Riedel glassware. [See the greatest-trick-riedel-ever-played.] Studies showing the link between leaded glassware and lead in acidic beverages have been around for a good decade-plus [see below for some links]...

Currently I don’t intend to focus solely on Riedel, but rather on all purveyors of leaded crystal glassware, though I still think the Riedel party-line-dogma of a different shape glass for each wine varietal to direct it to a different part of the tongue to be pure bunk.
But the problem here I guess shouldn’t be that the lawsuits are limited to the wineries, who frankly I don’t believe have given the issue any fore thought at all, but should focus on the manufacturers who are making a product known to contribute lead to your acidic beverages.

In fact, those who manufacture these items should be held accountable also for propagating the “leaded crystal” equals “high class” myths – among others – so I guess the marketing arm should be under the microscope as well.

Crystal may leach lead into food FDA Consumer May 1991
"Leaded crystal decanters may be beautiful, but they also may pose a serious health threat, a recent study suggests.
Researchers from FDA and Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons found that when alcoholic and other beverages are stored in crystal decanters, the decanters release lead into the liquid. As a result, FDA is advising people not to use crystal decanters or other crystal ware to store beverages or foods.
FDA warns that infants and children are particularly vulnerable and may experience adverse health effects even from low levels of lead exposure. The agency advises the following:
* Don't store foods or beverages, especially alcoholic beverages and other products with a high acid content (fruit juice, tomato sauce, vinegar, wine, etc.), in crystal glassware.
* Don't feed infants and children from crystal baby bottles or glasses.
* Pregnant women should not use crystal glassware.
* Decrease the frequency of use of crystal wine glasses, particularly by women of childbearing age.

FDA tested 60 samples of crystal ware from 17 different countries for leachable lead content. In the experiments, FDA scientists used in the glassware an acetic acid solution similar in acidity to household vinegar. Results showed that over a 24-hour period, amounts of lead released into the solution ranged from non-detectable levels to 7.2 parts per million. One experiment shows that when acidic juices or warmed infant formula were poured into crystal baby bottles, lead levels in the beverages rose. FDA and the crystal ware industry are performing additional studies on the release of lead by crystal glassware.

FDA presently has no maximum allowable level for lead leached from crystal ware. But experts recognize that lead is hazardous to health. Because lead accumulates in the body, limiting exposure to it is essential."


"The rate of leaching of lead from production processed glassware containing about 24% PbO (lead oxide) was investigated. The glassware was exposed to acidic wines, orange juice and distilled water, at room temperature and at 60 C, at periods of up to 41 days. Leaching was low initially, for up to 2 days, followed by a rapid increase in Pb (lead) levels in the contact liquid, and finally by slower increases in Pb (lead) levels, from the 24th day onwards. Levels as high as 8.5 ppm of Pb (lead) were recorded. Wine leached more Pb (lead) than orange juice, and distilled water showed no detectable Pb (lead) levels after 41 days. Fine polishing increased the rate of leaching, whereas acid polishing resulted in a decrease."

Co-operative study on the release of lead from crystalware 1998
Older (antique) is better...?
"The whole spectrum of lead-bearing glasses from 7 up to 32% PbO was investigated. Short-term extraction tests carried out with 4% acetic acid on three sets of 24% PbO stemware of different composition, show that lead release is closely related to the hydrolytic resistance of the glass. A linear correlation was found between sodium released from the bulk glass and lead released from the surface at any time after the first leach. Experiments of repeated leaching with wine and brandy showed that lead release decreases with increasing number of extractions, similarly to the decrease observed with 4% acetic acid. Long-term experiments carried out with brandy on a set of six decanters for three months at room temperature confirmed the well-known square root dependence of lead release with time. On the basis of these results an estimation of the risk associated with the conditions of consumer use is attempted."

So, I guess the guidelines should be as follows: Don't use leaded stemware (for anything except pencil holders), but if you do, try to find some antique glassware or glassware which has been acid washed to remove some of the surface lead prior to your use. Also, leaded glass decanters aren't a good idea, so we should probably just get rid of them all.


Friday, March 17, 2006

It's St. Patrick's Day...or is it?

March 17th, festival day celebrating St. Patrick, right?

Yes and No.

In keeping with it’s tradition of overlaying Catholic values and celebration over existing “pagan” holidays, the Vatican in it’s wisdom usurped a Roman holiday in designating March 17th for St. Patrick: the Liberalia, one of the last vestiges of the Bacchanalic rites (not to be confused with the Cerealia, a celebration of Ceres (corn & wheat goddess) and Bacchus, which was April 17th, but mentioned in passing by Ovid on March 17th).

The Liberalia was one of the less ‘abusive’ of the orgiastic celebrations of the cult of Bacchus, and managed to be excluded from the senatorial decree that “no Bacchanalia shall be held in Rome or Italy” (the Senatus auctoritas de Bacchanalibus) in or around the year 186 B.C.
That resolution was in response to the discover that upwards of probably 10,000 or more Roman citizens (I don’t think they were ever really sure how many were involved) were ‘initiates’ into the secret side of Bacchanic cult. Even by Roman standards, the drunken activities were so debasing to humanity and such abandon of moral obligation that the Senate felt obligated to try 7,000 of the participants in courts of law, for lechery, debauchery, murder, etc.

The Liberalia by contrast was described as “priests and aged priestesses, adorned with garlands of ivy, carried through the city wine, honey, cakes, and sweet-meats, together with an altar with a handle, in the middle of which there was a small fire-pan, in which from time to time sacrifices were burnt.”
It is also recorded that on this day it was customary for all citizens to express themselves freely. Some record the date of the festival as March 16th rather than the 17th.
But enough of the Romans – onto the Irish!

For St. Patrick's Day, wine with Irish spirit (on MSNBC by Jon Bonné)…
Is a pretty good article discussing the association of the Irish with both Old and New World wineries, and the wine trade in general.
Most notable quote from the article:
Ireland was drinking more claret than England,” he says. “In fact, we were drinking more claret than the rest of the British Isles put together.”…”

Hmmm…that's admirable, but not something I’d be bragging about!
But it does point to the fact that maybe one can enjoy wine today without feeling pressured to have a Guinness stout, green tinted Harp lager, or an Irish whisky.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

The party's over? Where'd the barrels go?

So, with all the oak barrels in California, where do they all end up when the party's over?

Generally speaking, oak barrels are used for 5~7 years and then decomissioned. Most wineries infuse their inventory with a certain percentage of new oak barrels every year to keep the 'house style' oak signature. Those percentages vary widely and depend upon the winemaker, market demands, grape varietal, etc.
Those old barrels are sold off to various companies which then convert them into the same half-barrel planters you might see at your local Longs Drug Store, Lowe's, Home Depot, or Wal-Mart Store (see
Barrels Unlimited).

There's even a company in Napa which slices & dices the barrels into chips & pieces for use on your home grill. Some of the chips are further soaked in wine to give them even more aroma when they're heated up, aroma which is imparted to the food along with the oak smoke & aromas.
I say further soaked, or more accurately re-soaked, because up to 1 gallon of wine from when the barrel was being used would have permeated the wood and been "stuck" in the barrel...this is yet another reason the prices for wines which have been oak aged are higher.
(Some notable reasons as to why this is the case:
  1. the cost of the barrel must be passed on,
  2. there are losses due to evaporation which drive your costs up,
  3. there is some wine which is absorbed into the wood and cannot be recovered,
  4. more labor is involved keeping the barrels clean than would be involved with just using a stainless steel tank
  5. more labor is involved in moving barrels around and the supporting racks, bungs, and other equipment needed [like forklifts, propane & batteries for them], etc.)
Now using barrels to ferment/age your wines imparts many different aromas, and provides a somewhat unique profile to your wine: a profile which can't really be duplicated by chips or staves (thought they can sometimes provide a nice alternative, and the cost of producing those wines drops quite a bit from not having to deal with the 5 points above).
(I'll save the discussions of various cooperage houses, oak source (French vs. American), stave aging, etc, for another post as that's just too long for this space...and those topics deserve attention in their own right.)

So how do you know if your wine has been in barrels? If you're not familiar with the producer, you might look for the term "Barrel Fermented" or "Barrel Aged" on the labels - though there are some who don't advertise that. If you're seeing a wine for $7 or under, chances are that it's probably seen alternative oak treatments where oak is used, as barrels will add more to the cost of the bottle. And that's NOT to say that all wines which cost more spend time in oak barrels, but as a generality it holds fairly true.

As for those barrels at the hardware store, be prepared to find them cut into many different shapes & sizes - even furniture (check Google or ebay for those).

My favorite use for old barrels is in the fireplace or grill. Plus living in the wine country, the costs I see per barrel (used from various wineries direct) are much lower than you might see in other parts of the country.

Time to curl up with a nice Tawny Port!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"Wine is Made in the Vineyard"

I was pointed to this old thread on eBob. The comment below by Mark Squires deserves a Medal of Honor as it ties in nicely with my thinking on terroir and winemaking.

"The myth that wine is made in the vineyard."Of course, it's a myth, at least as stated so baldly. In fact, the conceit that wine more or less makes itself, and the innocent winemaker humbly shepherds it into the bottle is just that--an utterly ridiculous conceit. Just like it's a myth that there are "non-interventionist" winemakers. EVERYONE intervenes. Just depends on where.

That said, no one disputes that you have to have a good vineyard, and have meticulous viticultural practices. If you don't start with both of those two things, you can't have great wine.

But wine is made by winemakers--who make 10,001 decisions from start to finish which affects how the wine shows. Acidification? (NB: Steve Edmunds is portrayed as a non-interventionist winemaker. I know he's acidified some wine...isn't that intervention? Of course it is.) Oak? What kind? Barriques? Let sit on the lees? How long? Stems? Carbonic Maceration? Chapitalization? I could go on--and we haven't even begun to discuss the decisions made in the vineyard that affect the wine, too. But all of these common decisions are made by winemakers. They make the wine. It's the one-sided monomaniacal emphasis on soil that Thackrey is rightly protesting."


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Rodney Strong: some changes

Yes, Rodney Strong just passed away...but the winery continues.

Rodney Strong invests $5.5 million in bottling line, winery

"...The new line will be operational by late March. Journey Bottling Co. of Santa Rosa has been operating an 80-bottle-per minute mobile line there since January to ease the transition. The winery will be gradually increasing production by 150,000 cases a year to 750,000 cases in the next several years. ...
On the winery side of Rodney Strong, winemaker Gary Patzwald is carving 12,000 square feet out of the barrel cellar for a $2.8 million winery-within-a-winery program. During the 2005 harvest, he selected parts of rows and lots for the best Bordeaux variety clones, soil and sun exposure (about 1 brix of sugar content higher than the average for other fruit) in the winery's estate vineyards and had them picked in the half-ton bins.

The fruit was sorted by a P&L Specialties Le Trieur shaker-sorter then manually by six to eight workers. It then went through presses at two to three tons an hour, five times slower than normal, and into five- to eight-ton fermenters. When the small-lots program is fully operational in July, it will have 60 tanks.

The inaugural wines of the program aren't named yet. They'll be in barrels for 18 to 20 months then sit in bottles 10 to 12 months before release in early 2008."

That's apretty labor intensive system. Patzwald was most recently winemaker at Matanzas Creek, and before that was a winemaker for Kendall-Jackson. I believe he had brought a similar picking/fruit sorting table and small tank fermentation system into play at K-J about a decade ago. It should be interesting to collect a vertical of Rodney Strong reds and see what comes of the changes.

One of the important factors in this kind of change is the style of the fermenting tanks installed. Normally tanks have a slightly thinner and taller profile than may be desired for red wines - what you might call a "general purpose" wine tank. By purchasing tanks specifically for small red fermentations, one can have them made a bit more squat and wide. That allows for a larger surface area of the wine to come into contact with the pomace - and thereby increases the extraction efficiency (more intensity, color, etc).

(This is the classic "open top" red fermentor: squat and wide, designed for plenty of extraction. Notice the dimpled cooling jacket on the exterior to help control fermenting temperatures. The wide door on the bottom is another hint that this tank was designed for reds; you need a larger opening to get a man inside to shovel out the red pomace. One big drawback is the inability to store wine in this tank type - without a top to keep air out, oxidation can happen quickly...)

Conversely, tanks for white fermentation don't need to be made with an eye for contact with pomace, so generally they're tall and thinner than red fermentors. This also decreases the surface area exposed at the top of the tank where oxidation usually takes place - reducing the chances that your white wine will go bad.

(This tank was constructed in more of a "white wine" configuration - tall and relatively thin- even though it appears to be an "open top" tank...which whites aren't kept in for oxidation reasons. Again notice the cooling jackets for temp control, and the smaller door because no one will need to go inside the tank to shovel pomace out. Clearly the door isn't set up for a red fermentor... )

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

RANT: The New Wine Rules

While I realize that wine generally receives special treatment among life's many indulgences, the others of which are more demonized to a certain extent, it continually irks me to see this steady trend toward wine as a part of "gracious living" and a "part of a meal". I drink wine with meals, and wish more people would do so, but I'm tired of seeing wine writers put wine into a box - "goes with food" (good) or "doesn't go with food" (bad).

Wine tastes good in all its many forms and I'm going to drink it as I please (sometimes without food! Its true!) whether the newest incumbent of Living Like Martha Magazine's Food and Wine desk thinks California chardonnay is too oaky, buttery and low-acid to pair well with anything.

We drink wine for many reasons, but the inescapable fact is that wine brings a certain hedonistic pleasure because it contains alcohol. Disagree? When was the last time you (or anybody else for that matter) bought a bottle of
Fre? Alcohol-free wine sucks every bit as much as low-fat ice cream, the network-TV version of Pulp Fiction, and hearing "let's just be friends".

Fact - wine contains alcohol and that is an integral part of why we drink it. To denigrate a wine for not "pairing with food" is absurb as wine can be enjoyed as a hedonistic pleasure on its own. Is there no place for a good Port by itself, or do I need to have decadence waiting in the wings to go with it? A bit of Stilton blue...? Not that I don't mind a good chocolate decadence or Stilton, but I do enjoy a tawny by the fire with the wife, and just looking at her is my dessert.

How has it become politically incorrect to sit down with a good book/movie/friend and finish a bottle for the sake of finishing a bottle? Tell me, as a fellow wine lover, that you've never cracked a bottle of chilled Riesling on a hot afternoon and put away half the bottle before you had realized it and I'll call you into question as a true wine lover...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

This is pretty wild...

The following is a quote from The Great Organic Wine Guide by Hilary Wright (her chapter on Biodynamics [aka BioD]):

"The use of cow manure is widespread in biodynamics, valued for the effect the cow's slow digestive process is held to have on the "digestive process" of the earth, linking the vein roots to the soil. Vines, after all, grow where little else will; indeed, you don't want a rich soil or they"ll overcrop like mad things. Joly has experimented with the effects of manure from different animals. Local people told him that if you are replanting vines, pig manure is best. He realised that pigs root for food underneath the soil, so this would give the vine roots a tendency to burrow deep. On the other hand, he said, you"ll miss out on elegance in the wine: "a pig is a pig after all, you can't change that."" that logic, I should get brooding Halloween wines if I use bat guano, light airy wines if I use pigeon guano, etc. That's so simple-minded I'm embarassed for her, especially since she's writing it in such earnest, and apparently Msr. Joly is in earnest as well...
Now I had doubts about his hold on the scientific method after reading his Wines from Earth to Sky book, and this quote is just another nail in that coffin.
Notice too the point of vines growing "where little else will"...a point I just discussed in the Yield & Quality post the other day.

Here are yet more nuggets from Ms. H. Wright:

The moon
If the sun controls the light and heat on earth, the moon controls water – and not just the tides. Humans, grapes, all plants and animals, consist mostly of water. We spend the first nine months of our lives suspended in it so it's not surprising it's familiar.
The moon moves through several simultaneous cycles each month, each taking more or less 28 days, all of them weaving around each other. The first and most obvious lunar cycle is the waxing and waning moon. The effects of the round full moon are clearly experienced by many. Police, bar staff, nursing staff in mental hospitals can all attest to differences in human behaviour when the moon is full (and of course we all know about werewolves.) More babies are born just before a full moon than afterwards. [see link /StV] Repeated tests have shown it's best to sow seeds shortly before the full moon, in the second quarter of the lunar cycle, and weed or prune in the "rest period" of the fourth quarter.”…

At first I thought she was joking about the werewolf thing...but as I read more I became less sure of that. And what about those repeated tests she mentions - who's performed them? Actually, I believe that the "link" between the moon and purported increases in odd human activity has been disproven time and time again. And if it's a "rest period" why am I out weeding and pruning? Superstition reigns supreme here.

"Each year, biodynamic experts issue planting calendars telling vineyard workers what to do when, because it's quite complicated. And each year, the calendar says do nothing at all to the vines on Good Friday and Easter Saturday. Some say that this is because Christ's suffering is so deeply imprinted into the earth. Others point to the adverse planetary arrangements on those two days. I just think it's really interesting that it should be so, year after year. And what about that old folk wisdom that says the best day to plant your potatoes is Easter Monday?"…

Fascinating, I'd have expected the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday to be a 'do nothing' day also - wasn't Christ suffering that day also?
She hovers for a moment at the brink of questioning "what the hell are they saying?", but stops shy of going there. And here's an example of one such calendar from Boisset [click image for larger view] :

Hilary continues with...

“Take picking, for instance. If you hire a team of grape pickers it can take them several weeks to move through the vineyards, depending on size of plot and team. Yet in the calendar you only have three picking days each cycle – fruit days during an ascending moon, to be precise. So what do you do? Hire a huge team and pick then, regardless of conditions? Watch the weather and pick when the climate is right irrespective of calendar correctness? Or maybe bring out the picking machine and get it comfortably done in the lunar time frame, and worry about soil compaction from the machine's tyres later.”…

A point I've made before. The system's just not designed for modern life, and is fraught with contradictions and forced compromises to follow it's dictates...[link here to read what the Grgich's have to say about the proper day for picking]

"The planting calendar extends into the wine cellar, too. You should bottle the wine on a fruit day in a descending moon, because, as Veronique Cochran of Chateau Falfas in Bordeaux explained, if you bottle during an ascending moon all the aromas that belong in the bottle will leave the wine and fill the cellar. If you bottle during a descending moon, she added, you keep the aromas where they belong. In the bottle.”…

Ha ha ha ha!...Whew! My sides hurt from laughing...

"The planting calendar can act as a wonderful motivator for the experts at procrastination among us. Noticing that you can only prune the vines in the next four hours or you"ll have to wait until next month (which will be too late) concentrates the mind wonderfully, and out come the secateurs. As James Millton in New Zealand points out, however: "it does tend to intrude on the pleasures of life and although work is pleasure we still need to eat, drink, talk and be merry."…

Ohmygawd! Tante grazie! I haven't laughed that hard in a long time...

This system also begs the question of when you can rack wine, top it, blend it, etc.,... I mean do you really only have a few days per month that bottling is allowed on as well?

And William (Caveman), you seem to be right... I looked over the calendar, and there's no dates for acid, malo-lactic bacteria or yeast adds, so I guess they can't be made after all....I think it's about as useful as the Old Farmer's Almanac calendars [see here to discover how to predict the weather using a pig's spleen (no, I'm not kidding...)].


Monday, March 06, 2006

Webcams: put it on your list

The post with links to the Scottish distillery the other day was very remarkable in the sense that not only do they have webcams of what appears to be the entire process they employ, but more importantly a schedule of when they will be performing various actions in their cellar.

But why haven't more wineries taken this approach, and made this available?

Even if the argument is that daily activities vary, and it'd be difficult to follow a set schedule - wineries should get some video of their operations in the cellar, field, bottling, etc., and post links on their sites. They could control the environment the videos are produced in, wouldn't need to have "live" feed which might compromise their "house style", and yet would draw tons of interest...

Why hasn't this been promoted for wineries?!?!?!
(Attn: Tom Wark - please report to the white courtesy phones...)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Terroir 2006 @ UC Davis

UC Davis lecture series - 4 day workshop on Terroir! [UC DAVIS LINK]
[WineBusiness online link]

Only $650 per person if in the industry...and each day Mon through Weds is a full day - though you're on your own for dinner most nights.

Some highlights of the program:
Sunday 3/19, 5:20~6:00 PM Opening Speaker: Alain Carbonneau
Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Vigne et du Vin, Montpellier, France
"Terroir: a French Word and Concept, as Old as Wine and Vine are, as New as Man, Mind and Technology are"
(the title leaves me little hope of any clarification of the term "terroir" to make it more fact it sounds more like the title of a pep-rally speech...)

Then the afternoon of Tuesday 3/21, everyone will be treated to 1:45 min total time in discussion of "Biodynamic Methods": Alan York and John Reganold (“Biodynamic Viticulture: Myth and Reality”); Phillippe Pessereau (“Biodynamie at Phelps: A New Viticultural Approach”); Randall Grahm (“The Phenomenology of Terroir” (with wine tasting)). I know some will give hoots of joy to know that BioD is being presented as a part of a "terroir" lecture series, though I have doubts as to the benefit of it's inclusion.

The final 3.5 hours of lectures focus on Marketing the Romance of Terroir, which is what they want you to leave thinking about...
Again, that doesn't bode well for clarification of the term "terroir"...and indicates yet more of the pep-rally orientation...

Is there a chance we could experience a sea change in the way people look at terroir from their participation @ this event? Yes, there must be some chance...but it isn't very plausible from the tone so far...

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Yields & quality

The following quote appeared a few months ago in Wine Business Monthly, in an article about vineyard yields and the resulting wine quality by Richard Smart:

"Surely the predominant myth of the wine industry is that high yields result in low wine quality—it is the basis of European mythology that has become legislated under appellation schemes. And these ideas are also widespread in the wine industry of the New World. ......for those of you out there who thin crop on your grapevines, how much factual basis do you have that discarding a proportion of the fruit will make the remainder better? Who are you trying to convince? Do you rely on a belief system?..."

One could kill the whole conversation by mentioning that last year in the Fresno area yields were 13 tons/acre, while in California's North Coast the average was around 5 tons/acre.
Looking at the quality from the two areas and average $$/ton of fruit would be plenty of ammo to prove the "low yield" myth. So enough said, right?

Well, no'd have to discount the large differences in Fresno and the North Coast climate before you could make such a statement, so it'd never be an "apple to apple" comparison. But Mr. Smart has what amounts to nuclear warheads in his arsenal: pruning and yield trials conducted in Napa Valley...trials which appear to poke a hole in the "low yield = high quality" maxim.

Intellectually, it stands to reason that there is some maximum amount of fruit that any one vine can bring to maturity from a quality standpoint. Certainly each area will have some upper limit on crop size which will produce the best wines - and that limit would depend somewhat on trellis system, varietal, rootstock, vineyard aspect, and weather for a particular harvest. Even so, Mr. Smart seems to have evidence that it may not be the case that lower is always better, and while not suggesting overcropping either - asks whether some of the hype in relation to amout of fruit dropped before harvest might be driven by the public perception that less is good.

Historically, Roman authors noted that some of the highest yield vineyards were delivering ~19 tons/acre, while "...first class vineyards produced a hundred amphorae to the iugerum..." in the De Re Rustica (~6.5 tons/acre if my math is correct). It should also be noted that they were discussing financial viability of vineyards, in which more yield is universally better. Sadly they didn't note what those resulting wines were like quality-wise, with the exception of the note about "first-class vineyards", and they ranged over much of the empire in their examples - so again it wasn't an apple-to-apple comparison.

But they also noted that even then people "pick out the very worst section of their lands, as though such ground alone were particularly fit for [grapevines] because incapable of producing anything else." (De Re Rustica, III, 257).
Was this the begining of the myth that grapes must suffer? And is it linked to low yields because our ancestors planted grapes in crappy areas that wouldn't support anything else, and had poor results as far as fertility was concerned?

Mr. Smart has a few other choice observations, like...

"[t]his idea has so much currency that I have heard some grape growers "reverse boasting" about how much fruit they put on the vineyard floor. Enologists, almost universally, believe that high yields will lead to reduced wine quality. But, is it true?
If it is true, we must concede that we are part of an inefficient sector, forever destined to low productivity. The other side of the coin is even more economically distasteful: that we are discarding some of our production in the mistaken belief that this will improve quality, for which we will be rewarded.

Perhaps we should be looking at claims of "low-yield" a little differently...
I know I will...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

If the Survey Says it, it Must be True

It turns out that US wine consumers actually prefer corks and dislike synthetic closures! What’s that? You think that a survey funded by the Portuguese Cork Association (APCOR) might create a biased survey? Pshaw!

Well, okay….I guess if you do read the first paragraph: “a stunning 94% - think that non-cork closures sometimes or often cheapen a bottle of wine” you might get a slight impression that the questions were leading……I imagine them thusly:

1.) Do you agree that cheap closures like screw caps cheapen a bottle of wine when used?

2.) Do you agree with true wine lovers that only real corks should be used to close bottles?

3.) If you are a server, do you agree with most other servers who feel that wine with a cork closure leads to a bigger tip?

4.) Aren't corks great?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Off topic

Not something I normally post about, but interesting all the same:

Bruichladdich distillery in Scotland has reportedly just quadruple distilled a batch of whiskey.
Why is it interesting?
The product distilled is 184 proof (92% alcohol) [read more]...

[check out their webcams!]
A 300 year old tasting notes describe the product as thus~

"… the first taste affects all the members of the body: two spoonfuls of this last liquor is a sufficient dose; and if any man should exceed this, it would presently stop his breath, and endanger his life.”

The Associated Press quotes Mark Reynier, managing director of the distillery, that it was produced "purely for fun"...
Yeah, it sounds like a blast.