Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Myth in the Making

Before I begin, indulge me this mini-rant against the misuse of a word that makes me crazy: shutting down a military base is a closing; the thing that caps a bottle is a closure, about which I am now going to talk.

~Tina Caputo writes and edits for the trade magazine Wines and Vines, located in San Rafael, California. Ms. Caputo recently wrote a brief story about the time she and a few of the magazine’s staff went out to a local restaurant for lunch.
~Instead of a cork the bottle of wine the group had ordered was capped with a twist or screw cap, the kind that you see on soda pop, juice, and other bottles. Being in the trade, the magazine crowd wasn’t surprised by the screw cap itself, they have been made quite aware of a move in the wine world toward the bottle closure. Still, they were surprised that the restaurant served wine that way without anyone saying anything to them in advance—knowing that most people think that only cheap wines are screw-capped, most restaurants are afraid to serve wines packaged that way.
~Someone in the group made mention of the screw cap and, overhearing it, the waiter quickly went into explanation mode. He explained that the cork tree is becoming extinct and so wine producers are being forced against their better judgment to use the screw cap.
~As I read Ms. Caputo’s retelling of the event I imagined the start of a new telephone game. By the time that waiter’s explanation is passed along to a number of people it likely will end up sounding as if global warming has been killing off the cork trees and so the federal government has mandated that all wine producers abandon the use of cork and switch to the environmentally friendly screw cap, and pay a separate tax for the privilege (adding the tax thing would give the rumor a certain sense of reality).
~I’m not sure if the screw cap is environmentally friendly, but I do know that, while it isn’t exactly flourishing the way it once did, the cork tree is still with us, mostly in Portugal. What the tree is doing with certainty, however, is providing a problem for wine producers, one that is estimated to ruin anywhere from 5% to 8% of all wines produced. Moreover, cork bark sanitizing is behind the ruined wine.

The sanitation of cork bark often includes chlorine. Unfortunately, it’s been discovered that the interaction between chlorine and cork creates conditions for the development and growth of a compound, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). TCA is believed to also naturally affect cork bark as the result of air pollutants. Either way, by air pollutants or by sanitizing with chlorine, when TCA meets with airborne fungi, the result can be a decidedly ruined cork that smells like wet cardboard, a smell that infiltrates the wine inside the bottle.

~It doesn’t always happen, but wine ruined by the cork happens enough for wine producers to want to change course.
~The first change was for producers to turn to plastic. You’ve seen those colorful plastic stoppers shaped like cork and supposedly handled the way cork is handled, with a corkscrew for extraction. Aside from a few early technical problems that ruined some wine, the plastic things often prove challenging to those of us who want to get to the wine. I personally have had the neck of a bottle break off in my hands as I tried to pry the plastic stopper out. I have also had some plastic stoppers refuse to give me back my cork after I had successfully managed to get them out of the bottle without breaking glass.
~The screw cap had proved itself a long, long time ago. Today, a lot of people are betting on it to fix the cork problem. Both the Australian and New Zealand wine industries have made a major commitment to the screw cap. They started using it on lower end wines but have since been using it to close bottles of their best products, and now the trend is growing in Europe and in the Americas.
~Throughout history, every advance has produced its detractors; the screw cap has its share and they are mainly in the form of traditionalists.

For perspective on tradition, wine is about 8,000 years old. The cork has been used to cap wine bottles for about 400 years. Before cork, the tradition was to use rags, a layer of olive oil, or wax to seal wine in its amphora. I know by reading history that cork was used to cap pharmaceutical bottles in Europe well before the wine industry accepted its use for wine bottles.

~There are those who love the popping of the cork. To them, opening a bottle of wine is ritual and romance. But when we open a bottle of wine many of us aren’t tied to ritual and many of us don’t need the sound of a cork to supply us with romance. We just want the wine that is inside the bottle. So, I summarily dismiss that particular tradition.
~There are those who believe that the cork is essential to the wine’s aging process. Now this has been a traditional belief for some time, probably ever since the cork was first used as a stopper for wine bottles in the 16th-17th centuries, and I admit to having held this belief too. Yet, while there are a lot of theories as to why the cork helps wine age gracefully in the bottle, no definitive scientifically tested mechanism has yet been presented to prove any of them. But this is the main argument used against the screw cap.
~Many anti-screw cap people in the wine industry, including cork manufacturers, claim that the air tight environment of the thing creates problems that the cork does not, but just like the claim that cork helps wine age gracefully, there is no definitive proof to back up this claim against the screw cap.
~Studies continue and people argue while, faced with losing not only 5% to 8% of their product, but also the possibility of losing potential customers who blame the winery for the bad wine, not the cork, more and more producers are putting more and more wine bottles into the marketplace under screw cap and at all price levels.
~It isn’t time yet to believe everything you hear about the screw cap, good or bad, but the next time you sit by candle light, pop the cork and then smell wet cardboard, see if tradition makes either the wine or the evening any better.

Incidentally, the cork industry has been promoting a study that claims another compound—TBA—causes as many wines to go bad as does cork; the claim has been hotly disputed even by people unconvinced that the screw cap is the answer.
This subject is all over the Internet. Start with these sites and then keep searching:

WSA, Corkind, Jancis

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December, 2006. All Rights Reserved

Friday, December 22, 2006

Wine: the New Enlightenment

~Silly me. I’ve been under the illusion that wine is a marvelous pleasure that enhances a meal. Just recently, however, a few wine geeks informed me that wine is an intellectual pursuit as well as a great hobby.
~I feel so low when I think of all the years I’ve wasted reading David Hume, William James, Ayn Rand, and Groucho Marx for intellectual stimulation when all I had to do was open a bottle of wine and I would “know.” But not just any wine.
~When I take stock in my hobbies and find that wine is not on the list, I feel the lack so deeply it makes me want to run out and buy more wine to put away for thirty years so that I may “know.” But it can't be just any wine.
~I have wasted so many years experimenting with hundreds of different wines from hundreds of wine regions and producers, pairing them with a variety of foods, not to mention tasting them with a wide sweep of people of varying tracts of life, and from various countries and cultures, and what have I got to show for it?
~I’ve experienced the vacuous nature of fun, joy, and pleasure, but do I “know” anything intellectually?
~None of the wines have ever taught me about the universe or the meaning of God, although I have to admit that a lot of them have made me think I had gone to heaven. But what do I “know?”
~Now I know that I've chosen the wrong wines all along, and under the wrong circumstances.
~How sad that so late in my life I learn that to have truly experienced life through intellectual pursuit I should have been building a wine cellar and a wine collection, I should have been keeping copious notes and assigning points, I should have been making sure that top names and top dollars were all that left my lips and wallet, I should have subscribed to one or more of the guru-zines so that I would “know” even more, I should have been looking down on 95% of the wines as well as 95% of the people in this world, none of which would ever reach greatness, nor would they stimulate my intellect—hell, at this point I’m wondering if I’ve even got an intellect. I just don’t “know.”

It’s been estimated that about 95% of the wine purchased in America is consumed within hours of purchase—the sad, unknowing, great unwashed at their best, and probably not one of them has a wine cellar, let alone a wine refrigerator. What’s worse, many of the wines they consume come without ratings or reviews, and to buy them does not require securing a mortgage. For shame.

~How sad it is that most of us don’t get the real purpose of wine. We miss the intellectual stimulation of finding a restaurant dumb enough to allow us to bring our own bottle, to take up a corner of the place away from the stench of humanity so that we can take in the stench of horse shit in our pedigree red wines and cat piss in our whites. We miss the camaraderie involved in the parlor game of guessing the vintage, the grape variety, whether or not the wine had been filtered, and the age of the horse that shit in the wine. We miss the joy of berating those who guess wrong, who inadvertently bring a bottle that had been spoiled, who actually like what they are not supposed to like, who spent less on their offering than the rest of us. But most of all, we miss all that cock-sure knowledge that drinking pedigree provides.
~If only I had known.
~If only the great mass of non wine geeks could have the experience of drinking a wine that has scored at least 90 points, or drinking one with a price tag that rivals beluga.
~If only the un-intellectual could raise their intelligence quotient by drinking wine out of highly breakable crystal glass that also has the ability to direct the wine to the proper places on their palates (yes, a glass manufacturer makes this specious claim).
~If only instead of mandating a warning label the government mandated that wine replace books.
~If only the great teeming swell of humanity could collectively become one big world of wine geekdom—then we would all “know.”
~If only wine were part of the American culture from its beginning; then, we wouldn't need geeks to make it an intellectual pursuit and I could go back to reading David Hume, William James, Ayn Rand, and Groucho Marx.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December, 2006. All Rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006



~Now don’t you feel better after reading that?
~You’ve got all the knowledge you need to make an informed decision whether or not you should buy a bottle of wine to take to the restaurant that allows corkage so that you and your recently pregnant wife can have a nice weekly dinner out. Plus, you can decide whether or not to drive home after dinner or call a taxi and pick up your car in the morning—and whether or not you should cut that wood before you go to bed.
~If you read the government warning literally you would know exactly what not to do—don't believe it. Like the CONTAINS SULFITE warning, the above warning provides no real information and, in the words of the bureaucrats, it may cause you to act out of ignorance.
~In scientific research studies there’s a set of numbers referred to as insignificant, which essentially means that some data showed up but not enough for a definitive answer—certainly not enough to issue a declaration or a blanket warning without qualification, let alone without information. A lot of the data behind the first half of the warning label is like that.
~I’ve read a lot of research and have discussed with a lot of people over the years about the existence of a birth defect known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS); its cause is believed to be alcohol in a pregnant woman’s blood stream (there are a number of other related syndromes within and beside FAS with initials of their own, but for the purpose of this post, I will use FAS as the overall one).
~The studies connected to FAS show that alcohol has an effect on the brain and physical functions of the fetus, creating a variety of possible problems from low memory retention to malformation of the body. The government warning that pregnant women should not consume alcohol alludes to but does not identify specific birth defects probably because it doesn't really know what to tell us.
~While much research points to the existence of FAS, it has not clearly identified how much alcohol it takes to cause it or at what point in the pregnancy the fetus is susceptible. In fact, there seems to be a lot of scientific speculation behind susceptibility.

The only thing that the research seems to be clear on is that for the most part heavy drinkers or alcoholics can possibly give birth to babies afflicted with FAS; when they do, the studies indicate that the birth defects represent anywhere between 1 and 5 out of 1,000 births, which leads me to wonder: if alcohol is the cause of FAS why aren’t all pregnant women who drink heavily giving birth to babies with FAS? Plus, how can some of the women in the studies have given birth to more than one baby but not all births seemed to suffer from FAS?

~There must be other factors involved in what is called FAS—smoking, drug abuse, poor diet, race—and if they are, then we need to find out to what extent alcohol plays a role? Some research has been done on those questions, and it appears there are indeed other factors involved in addition to alcohol, race is one of them, as is poverty, which could indicate diet. As you dig into the data the blanket government warning looks more and more dubious.
~Through all the studies that I have read about FAS none offered evidence that pregnant women who drink moderately have given birth to babies with the syndrome, although I remember a study claiming that 33 monkeys did show perceived signs of possibly having been affected by their mother’s low alcohol consumption during pregnancy, but no proof was provided that the monkeys suffered from FAS.
~Government officials and many in the medical profession take the attitude that if FAS is connected to alcohol then it is safe to recommend abstension while pregnant. You know, if you never drive a car you can’t drive one into a fence, but if you do drive a car it is possible that you may never drive one into a fence. But if that logic escapes the government how about this: should pregnant women stop consuming pickles, ice cream containing vanilla extract, vinaigrette dressing? All contain doses of alcohol. Should pregnant women stop gargling with mouthwash? Surely, there must be a safe low level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
~I think it’s fair to say that the warning to pregnant women is not just vague; it’s misleading.
~I have no doubt that consumption of alcohol can impair one’s ability to drive a car. I admit to having driven drunk when I was young and stupid. I believe every effort should be made to prevent people from driving while drunk, and people should be made to pay the consequences when caught doing so. But the warning doesn’t address the issue logically—again, it is on the side of complete abstinence, leaving the real question to dangle: how much alcohol impairs one’s ability to drive?
~To answer that question you need to know gender, body mass, and length of time over which a certain amount of alcohol is consumed and metabolized. For argument’s sake, let’s assume we are all alike. Generally, it takes almost one hour to fully metabolize the alcohol in a glass of wine. If you and your spouse have a bottle of wine over dinner in a restaurant and you each drink half, you will have each consumed about three glasses of wine. If you stay over dinner for two hours you will have metabolized at least two of those glasses, which means you will leave the place under the influence of one glass of wine. Would that impair your ability to drive?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued a new food pyramid. It reduced meats, upped fiber, and added wine in moderation for a healthy diet. Does the Department of Agriculture represent the same government as the one that created the warning label?

~The warning label states that alcohol consumption “may cause health problems?” OK, so too much alcohol may cause health problems. So does too much of a thousand other food and drink—what’s the government’s point?
~I.F. Stone used to tell his class of soon-to-be journalists that the first thing to remember is “governments lie.”
~I used to think that the point of the government’s warning label was to lie to the public but now I think differently. I believe the government’s alcohol warning exists as a way to alleviate guilt while appeasing certain interests groups. The government’s guilt stems from reaping tax revenue from demon alcohol; it’s appeasement is aimed at the variety of moralists and pseudo science groups who both lobby lawmakers and contribute to their coffers. But now I have ventured into the cynical; I should stop that.

Personal anecdote: My mother gave birth to ten of us. She gave up nothing during her pregnancies (notice my surname and its connection to wine). Despite what some grade school teachers might say about it, none of us seemed to have been mentally or physically handicapped by our mother’s lifestyle.

~On this subject it is truly difficult to recommend Web sites. You can find an abundance of online sites offering FAS information, but scratch the surface and you also find an awful lot of them with an agenda, and that includes the National Institute of Health. Check out these two sites and then put aside half a day and check out many of the others that Google will bring to you: FAS1, FAS2,

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December, 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Health Food?

~Two minutes after I submit this post I expect an email—maybe more than one email. It will be from my contemporaries and colleagues in the wine business, a group I believe that will hate me for this. But a recent story that reported on soaring red wine sales thanks to the latest report about resveratrol and its life-saving qualities compels me to say it: WINE IS NOT A HEALTH FOOD.
~Let's suppose for a moment that what researchers speculate one day proves true, that resveratrol can help us live longer by providing protection from heart disease, one fact may remain: the level of resveratrol in a bottle of wine probably won't do the trick. In the most recent studies, mice that were tested produced beneficial results only after consuming enough resveratrol to meet the equivalent of a few hundred bottles a day of wine. Lord knows as a young man I tried hard, but I don’t think I ever came close to the equivalent of a few hundred bottles a day.

Resveratrol is a chemical found naturally in grape skins. The reason it is supposedly found in higher levels in red wine as opposed to white is simple: reds are produced by fermenting as whole, split grapes with skins intact; whites are pressed first and then fermented as juice with no skins (that’s also what gives each wine its color). While red grapes ferment, the heat that develops from the process draws out more and more color and components from the skins, including resveratrol.

~In a number of lab experiments with mice and even fruit flies, over a two-decade period, resveratrol seems to show health benefits by acting as an antioxidant, which, as we supposedly know, is necessary to maintain good, clear arteries hence, a healthy heart, plus some stuff about not becoming obese, but I've written that information off completely...
~As we can imagine from the latest experiment, the good effects of resveratrol from wine certainly are far outpaced by the bad effects of drinking the quantity necessary--or even a measurable fraction of the quantity necessary. Yet that fact gets lost in the news reports and soon thousands of people too lazy to take care of themselves run out to stock up on something they may not even like.
~This nutsy stuff about people ratcheting the sales of red wine after a health news story is not a new phenomenon. I remember it happening in 1990, following a report by Morley Safer of CBS’s Sixty Minutes, a man who just happens to be a wine aficionado.
~Safer’s report was named the French Paradox, the paradox being that the French were believed to eat a diet much higher in saturated fats than Americans yet they seemed to suffer from fewer coronary problems. A study done at Harvard University proposed that the answer to the paradox was found in red wine—the French drank more of it than us and they benefited from those heart-saving chemicals.

Studies about alcohol and health have been ongoing for nearly fifty years. They show that the benefits of alcohol are only possible when it is taken in moderation and for that, a formula for wine has been devised. Only recently has the focus of alcohol and health shifted to wine and so the moderation formula is expressed as glasses of wine: two to three glasses of wine a day for the average man, one to two glasses a day for the average woman (the alcohol in a glass of wine is roughly equivalent to an ounce of spirits and 12-ounces of beer). Of course, none of us want to think of ourselves as average and so every study comes with a requisite warning.
Indeed, there may be something to heeding a message of moderation—Morley Safer’s report did not scream it out, but while the French didn’t die as rapidly as Americans from heart disease, they were dying from liver cirrhosis in much greater numbers than Americans!

~When Morley Safer’s report aired I was on the road as a wine salesman, in a motel. The following day, while on my retail shop rounds, I was in one store talking with the owner when a man interrupted us to be cashed out. He was holding a few bottles of inexpensive red wine. He left and two more were right behind him. After a few more of the same, the owner and I resumed our conversation. A man ran into the store as if he had a car outside with the engine running. Loudly he demanded, “I need six bottles of red wine.”
~The owner had never seen this man before so he naturally asked for the types of red wines and the price range preferred, to which the man replied, “It doesn’t matter. I saw it on T.V. and now the wife said we have to start drinking red wine.”
~"It's been like this all morning," the owner said to me while shaking his head.
~Over the past couple of decades we have been told that, generally, any food providing antioxidants may prolong our lives. I suppose that is a good enough reason to drink wine, but you should be warned that no matter how much or how little wine you drink each day, your exit will come sooner or later, and it can come naturally or it can come in the form of a Mac truck driven by an amphetamine infused cross country trucker who hasn’t seen his family in over a week. The moral: drink wine because you like it.

There are a minimum of three reasons to drink wine: first, the multitude of sensory and sensual pleasures in a glass of wine; second, the way wine increases the hedonistic pleasure of a meal; third, that relaxing buzz ain’t so bad either. If it turns out that wine does offer health benefits consider it a plus but don't consider it a reason to drink wine.
~If you don’t like wine, surely you can find another way to prolong your life, although I am sure that a case can be made that non-wine drinkers suffer the risks associated with “agita.”

~I usually rail against the inane government intrusion on wine labels, and I promise to tackle the GOVERNMENT WARNING on wine labels in a future post, but I have to admit that one regulation which I first saw as an intrusion I now see as a potential benefit for wine producers. The government forbids wine producers from making any claims regarding the potential health benefits of wine, either on the label or in promotion pieces. I seem to remember that we were once told that eggs would kill us and margarine would save lives; need I say more?
~In any event, wine consumption is neither about health nor about quantity; it is about quality—of life. If I live to be 100 or more I will die happy so long as I have lived the quality of life I wanted to live. Wine may be part of what can make that possible, but I wouldn’t bet that wine would be the reason for my longevity.

PS: My attitude about wine and health should not be construed as an endorsement of organizations like Center for Science in the Public Interest. The information this group puts out is more agenda driven and less fact-centric. The real scientists are at least maintaining objectivity.

Some studies: mice, quacks, healthcastle, australia, winehealth,

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December, 2006. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

California did not save Europe--geez.

~I’ve been told that Texas has the highest number of separate grape vine species (not the highest number of grape vines) in the United States.
~Yeah, yeah, I’m a fountain of information, but what does this have to do with California and Europe? Bear with me. First let me tell you a story.
~Recently, while standing in the lobby of a wine and culinary center at which I taught wine classes, I engaged in conversation with a woman who was waiting in line for her cooking class to begin. When she discovered that I taught classes she began to tell me about a wine tour guide in California who told her group how California vines saved the European wine industry. The guide knew that her group was from New York so he explained how the event spurred one of those Europeans to come to New York to save our wine industry.
~Astonished, I asked the woman to explain. She said that in the nineteenth century European vineyards were hit with a major vine disease. Well, she got that right.

The rest of the story was a wonderful flight of fantasy that included the California wine industry philanthropically sending vines and experts to replant and save the Europeans in the nineteenth century. One particular European was so impressed by the Californians that he joined them when they returned to America, winding up in New York where he saved the local wine industry.

~I can only imagine how many passes of “telephone” that story has gone through.

Back to Texas

~The fellow likely responsible for the vast variety of grape varieties that exist in Texas was Thomas V. Munson. This major grape vine horticulturist lived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He tinkered and experimented with vines at his nursery in Denison, Texas, and I am told that his work left behind 300 grape varieties in the state. Munson’s viticultural work attracted attention both here and abroad.
~In fact, a lot of grape vine experimenting went on between North America and Europe. After the American wine industry began to make itself known in the middle of the nineteenth century, experiments heated up, and while a great deal was being learned, a great deal remained unknown, especially about vine diseases.
~Why do you think that when you re-enter the United States after a trip abroad customs wants to know if you are carrying any plants with you into the country?
~In the nineteenth century they didn’t ask that question when boats docked and delivered foreigners. You would think that after centuries of exploration across continents, humans would have known by then that you can’t bring plants from one continent to another, stick them in the ground and then wait for them to grow and give you what you want. What you often get is disease, and that is exactly what happened in Europe after experimenting with North American grape vines.
~Americans had similar experiences with European vine transplants in the South, Midwest and East, but not so much bad experience in the Southwest or the West Coast, where the vines managed to root and survive. They did not know it then, but the European vine success in the West was related to the fact that there were no indigenous vines.
~Back East, and in the South, where there were indigenous vines, the European vines that were brought in mostly succumbed; before they died a few of them romped in the fields with native grapevines; their offspring were often quite healthy and promising. One of them, Catawba, became the leading American wine grape in the middle of the nineteenth century. Catawba was even planted in California and for a while was used to produce commercial wine in Anaheim.

Enter the Disease

~We call it powdery mildew; they named it Oidium Tuckeri when it hit Europe in 1850. This fungus kills vines. A British fellow named Berkeley suspected that the disease had been introduced by transport of American vines. He probably was learning about the sub species difference between European and American vines. Eventually, it was discovered that sulfur spray kept powdery mildew under control—didn’t cure it. Some Europeans were not pleased. They began to wonder why they ever brought vines in from America. One wine industry—at Madeira—lost a majority of its vines.

With powdery mildew behind them, the French experienced a series of fantastic vintages but at the beginning of the boon, 1863, a few vineyards in the Rhone district displayed odd shriveling up behavior, and then they died. Soon, a few more vineyards, and then some more, until the French realized they had a major disaster on their hands.

~After a number of attempts to control the new disease, a scientist named Planchon figured out that the cause was a root louse. In America Munson had discovered the same root louse. The two scientists had independently discovered what was happening in Europe—in America the native vines are resistant to the root louse, but when the louse was introduced into European vineyards by transplants of American vines, the European vines showed that they were not resistant.
~While the French fought over what to do about the root louse problem, the disease, now named Phylloxera Vastatrix (a Greek-Latin construction that literally means “shriveling devastator”) marched across French borders into most of Europe and even as far as Australia and back to the United States, to California. Wait a minute. California? Didn’t I just say that the root louse lives on American vines without seemingly causing a problem? Well, with the exception of that Catawba at Anaheim, the vines in California mainly came from Europe. That Catawba, and a few other vines brought in from the Midwest, must have spread that little louse through California vineyards.

Remember what happened to Madeira during the powdery mildew disease? After phylloxera, Madeira was down to about 10% of its vineyards and its wine industry remains smaller than it once was.

~Unfortunately, Planchon offered no cure for phylloxera—Munson seemingly did. He is believed to have figured out that by grafting European vines onto American rootstock they could create root louse resistant vines in Europe. That is what they did, and that is what they still do in order to propagate the European vines globally. (Everyone wants the European vine sub species because everyone in the wine business who counts agrees that its wines are the classiest.)
~Munson organized selection and shipment of rootstock to Europe. His task was to carefully select so that he did not send any vines that had European blood in their line, such as Catawba. Most true native vines were in the South, and parts of the Northeast and the Midwest, plus in Canada. Munson gathered those vines, selected and classified them in Texas, and sent them across the seas. Seems he might have kept one of each for himself…

Modern Times

~In 1934 Charles Fournier left the Champagne region of France, where he produced wine at Veuve-Cliquot. His destination was Keuka Lake and the Urbana Wine Company (later changed to Gold Seal) in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
~One of the results of the phylloxera disease and its fix was a burgeoning new grape vine hybrid species of French and American vine crossings. A hybrid cross is not the same as a rootstock graft: the former creates a new species from crossings of two or more sub species; the latter maintains the vine species that grows above the ground.
~At Gold Seal Fournier produced the first French-American hybrid sparkling wines and to great success. His Gold Seal wine won an award in California, beating out local sparkling wines and causing the Californians to bar future out-of-state entries into the competition. Fournier knew that he would not get the wine world’s attention unless he could produce sparkling wine from European grapes, but no one had figured out how to grow them in the erratic Finger Lakes climate.

The Russians Are Coming!

~Fournier had been at Gold Seal for more than twenty years when an irascible Russian immigrant arrived on Keuka Lake. Stubborn but oh so right, Konstantin Frank went up against Cornell University’s Agricultural Station when he claimed that he could successfully grow European grape vines in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The academics had a comfortable arrangement with the big wine and juice industry in New York; it essentially meant that the professors researched only the sub species of vines that the big producers needed growers to provide, and that was the so-called native varieties (many of the grape varieties were actually cross breeds). The official line was that those vines could withstand the erratic temperature swings of the region. In return, the producers funded academic research.
~Konstantin Frank produced grape crops in Ukraine, at Odessa. He knew that proper vine selection could get the European species to survive cold, erratic climates. But he was up against entrenched academics, a big wine industry, and a bunch of grape growers who were making a good living doing what they were told to do, and he had to fight them in broken English.

Frank knew how to clone vines to select adaptive qualities that would allow them to survive in harsh environments. Fournier recognized a chance and so he persuaded Gold Seal’s owners to hire Frank to develop the clones on Keuka Lake. Frank did and by 1962 Gold Seal released a couple of wines that became the first successful commercial release from European vines in New York State.

~Frank went on to establish a rootstock nursery and to sell his wares across the nation. But in California he once again came up against academe, this time the University of California at Davis, the country’s premier wine college. Frank claimed that he had developed truly root louse resistant rootstock for the European vines. At the time, the California wine industry was poised to make its successful splash in the global wine world. Frank warned that the rootstock Davis was recommending for the California vineyard expansion had European blood and would prove a mistake.
~Konstantin Frank lived just long enough to see his work in New York start a wine revolution and to see Cornell’s researchers finally get on board. He was not around, however, when the phylloxera root louse that he warned UC Davis about brought down vast California vineyard plots in the 1990s.


~I find the real story more fascinating than the one the woman told me. I also find it offensive when a person, a group, or an industry makes baseless claims as promotion. I sincerely hope that the tour guide in California who recounted the flight of fantasy to that woman and her group did so without the knowledge of his employer—come to think of it, the employer really ought to give guides the real story.

Here are some links for you to read more about it: Munson, Munson2, phyllox, phyllox2, rootstock,

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Waiter, My Water Is Dry

~When I was a boy in Brooklyn, New York, the following was a local beer company's radio and television commercial jingle:
~"My beer is Rheingold the dry beer. Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer. It's not bitter not sweet; extra dry-flavored treat; won't you try extra dry Rheingold beer."
~The tune perplexed my young mind. How can something wet be dry?
~When I became a wine-consuming adult, or reasonably close to being an adult, I learned what the beer jingle meant—or did I?
~According to some wine writers and most consumers, the word “dry” describes a wine without sugar. The opposite of dry, then, is sweet. Give me a break! I learned nothing at all.
~I know that my water is sugar free, but it also isn't dry.
~Here's an experiment to show you what I mean: fill up an 8-ounce glass of water and then take a small taste. It is not sweet; it certainly is wet; it doesn't remind at all of dry wine.
~Water's sensation of relative blandness on the palate has to do with its neutral pH.

pH—potential of hydrogen—is a measure of acidity relative to alkalinity. The scientific calculating scale for pH has neutrality falling at the value of 7, which is the pH of water. Acidic properties are below the value of 7; alkaline or caustic properties are above the value of 7. The optimum pH of finished wine falls between 3.0 and 3.7. Like the Richter scale that measures earthquakes, the pH scale is logarithmic, so that 3.x range below neutral 7 makes wine quite acidic (vinegar is about 2.9 and beer is about 4.5).

~Back to the experiment: add back the water you tasted so that your glass is back to 8 ounces full; put two lemons on the counter; cut one lemon into wedges and squirt the juice of one wedge into the glass of water and stir. You just adjusted the water's pH down. Take a really tiny sip. Don't sip too much because you want most of the water to be in the glass when you are done with this part of the experiment.
~On that first sip, take note of what, if anything, happened on your tongue, especially at the sides. Now, squirt another wedge into the water, stir, and sip; do this with lemon wedges until your tongue and mouth get so puckered you can't stand it anymore—it may mean cutting up that second lemon.
~What you did, obviously, was to make the water acidic. With each addition of lemon juice your tongue and mouth felt like they were drying that much more.
~Now, rinse your mouth with plain water to get your palate back to neutral.
~Into the lemony water drop 1/8 teaspoon of sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves and then take a tiny, tiny sip. Do this in increments of 1/8 teaspoon of sugar until you can taste sweetness.
~For most of us, the first two 1/8 teaspoons of sugar won't make a noticeable difference; our palates will still feel quite dry from the lemon in the water. At some point, however, subsequent 1/8-teaspoon sugar additions will become noticeable. Make note of how much sugar it takes to reach that point.
~As you continue to add sugar, somewhere along the way the balance between the sugar and lemon will be pleasing (we’d call that lemonade, no?). Make note of how much sugar it took to reach that pleasing balance.
~Keep adding sugar until the liquid becomes cloyingly sweet, just for the fun of it...
~You can make the experiment even more interesting if instead of plain water you add tea to the water. That adds tannin to the water, and tannin also makes the palate dry out so, with the lemon and tannin, it might take more sugar than it would with plain water and lemon before you start to taste the sweetness.
~In a nutshell, the above is what winemakers do to wine, although they often don’t add sugar, their method generally is to leave residual sugar in the wine by stopping the fermentation before it completes. How much sugar they leave depends upon how acidic the wine is, and what effect they are reaching for in the wine.
~A so-called dry wine is produced by allowing the fermentation to go to completion. Still, traces of sugar remain in most wines—in some cases, a “dry” wine can include more than just a trace; it can equal as much as just under a teaspoon of sugar per bottle. Generally, our palates have a hard time distinguishing sugar in wine when it represents less than .5% by volume.

Brut Champagne is a so-called dry wine. Yet it can include as much as close to three teaspoons of sugar per bottle.

~So, rather than it describing a wine without sugar, the word “dry” really describes the sensation of the wine on your palate.
~There's a saying in the wine business: "Americans talk dry but they drink sweet." It is a generality, but in the mass market it is true. The reason behind Americans talking dry is that the public has been bullied into accepting that only unsophisticated palates don't like so-called dry wine. But so many wines that are marketed as “dry” are on the sweet side, or at least they include identifiable residual sugar—a lot of those wines seem to have critters on their labels, but I don’t know if that is a coincidence or an occurrence of a higher order!
~Wouldn’t it be much better if we drop the charade and refer to wine by what it tastes like and not by what category it is supposed to fall into, even when it does not fall into that category? Here’s my proposition to the wine industry.
~Identify the relative acid/sugar balance on your labels. At first, consumers would not know what the label should mean to them, but as they taste a lot more wines, over time they will notice which acid/sugar balances they tend to prefer. They will have discovered that they like a certain style of wine instead of a certain category. More important, one facet of enjoying wine will have been demystified, or should I say, demythified.

If the feds read this blog (and who thinks that they aren’t?) they should consider this: since the acid/sugar on the label would actually mean and accomplish something, maybe it can replace the sulfite warning? Or maybe I am getting carried away…

Do You Know What a Wine Geek Is?
~Forget the original definition of the word geek, which entails working in the circus and biting the heads off live chickens. A wine geek doesn’t work in the circus, although some remind of clowns.
~A wine geek is someone who gets great enjoyment out of collecting, talking about, and spending a lot of money on wine. (Geeks also like to think that they know what makes for the best wines; a segment of them collectively thinks that the best can be quantified with a number rating, but that subject is for a later post on this blog.)
~Certainty is a frequent affliction suffered by the wine geek.
~The last time I tried to persuade a few wine geeks that it is inaccurate to define dry wine as one that lacks sugar I was called names and even laughed at—ridiculed would be a good description of what happened.
~Of course, none of the geeks tried my experiment. They don’t need to. They are certain.
~Take my advice: don’t be a wine geek—it's limiting.

For possibly more lucid explanations, try these links: ph, Thor, epicure, wikisweet,

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December, 2006. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Salad and the Wine Headache

~If a book has anything to do with food and wine, it’s likely to wind up on my sagging bookshelves. A couple of years ago I added to the shelves, What Einstein Told His Cook, by Robert L. Wolke. I loved the book for its explanation of science in the kitchen. One example among many of what I learned from the book had to do with the fastest way to defrost meats, sans the microwave.
~I am not a Luddite, but in the kitchen I don’t use a microwave—don’t even own one, and don’t feel I need one. But with my penchant for deciding late on what to have for dinner, defrosting meat without a microwave has always caused, shall we say, a discussion at home. Wolke gave me the answer: stainless steel.
~Stainless steel is a good conductor of temperature, so when frozen meat is placed in a stainless steel vessel and rested in the kitchen, the stainless steel conducts the room temperature so that the meat defrosts faster than it would if resting on any other surface. A lesson learned.
~Still, as much as I like Wolke's book, something in it made me want to scream.
~The book doesn’t cover wine much, but Wolke made a passing reference to the wine headache that is caused by sulfites. Unlike all other scientific statements that he made in the book, he left this “fact” about sulfites hanging without explanation.
~I sent Mr. Wolke an email, asking that he please direct me to the science behind the sulfite-induced wine headache. He answered that he had no scientific evidence for his comment. In fact, he said that he had heard of the phenomenon and was just passing the information along.
~I was floored by the fact that the tenacious sulfite wine headache myth is so lodged that even an otherwise thorough scientist would accept it as truth. I sent him a second, raving, email, but he chose—wisely— not to respond to it.


~In prehistoric times—the middle nineteen eighties—restaurants across the country went absolutely crazy over the salad bar concept. But salad is a difficult thing to leave out all day in a large pit, under lights (it's also an ugly thing in a restaurant, but that subject is for someone else’s blog). Left hanging around, the green stuff in salad turns brown, the colored vegetables pale, and all of the vegetables wilt. The browning and wilting is caused by oxygen, the same culprit that makes us shrivel when we hang around too long and get old.
~Restaurateurs made use of a substance that keeps browning, wilting and an early demise at bay, at least in vegetables. The substance is made up of one part sulfur and two parts oxygen (SO2), and it is a gas. Ironically, SO2 gas is largely the result of decaying vegetation.
~Restaurants used a powdered form of SO2, which was sprinkled on the vegetables to keep them looking fresh. Unfortunately, airborne SO2 can shut down the respiratory system of asthmatics. More unfortunately, restaurant use of SO2 was unregulated, so the stuff was over-sprinkled and sure enough a few asthmatics suffered serious reactions (I believe a couple of them may have died).
~The federal government banned the use of SO2 in salad bars, which some of us considered no real loss—I refer to the salad bars, of course. But while this SO2 problem erupted, interest groups with names like the Center for Science in the Public ~Interest took notice.
~Around the time of the salad bar incident lobbying groups were pressuring the federal government into slapping the GOVERNMENT WARNING on wine labels (that regulation is just short of two-dozen years old). The interest groups knew that SO2 was being used to protect wine from early oxidation, and since they already had helped to predispose the government to warning labels on wine, they jumped at what they saw as an opportunity. When they couldn’t get the government to ban its use in wine production, a move that would have set the wine industry back about 1,800 years, to the first time SO2 was used in the Roman wine industry, special interest groups pressed for a separate warning label: CONTAINS SULFITES.
~The main problem with the sulfite warning on the wine label is that it doesn't provide much in the way of information. The warning says nothing about quantity, you know, like, how much SO2 does the wine contain? More important, wine is not alone: bread, cheese, yogurt, and just about every packaged baked food also contain sulfites. Call me a nitpicker, but if the government is going to warn me I’d like the warning to have meaning (in a later post I shall take on the overarching GOVERNMENT WARNING, which truly is a waste of font).
~I digress. Anything that ferments produces sulfites as a by-product, and that includes your stomach as it digests food. So we all experience sulfites in our systems. Wine is of course a fermented product but the natural by-product levels of SO2 left behind are not high enough to keep oxidation at bay, so winemakers add SO2—usually as a gas—to increase its effectiveness, and they do so under strict government regulations, and yes, almost every wine produced contains sulfites in some level. To be sure, asthmatics respond negatively to sulfites but they don’t all respond in the same manner or to the same level of SO2—estimates in the United States are that about .02% of the adult population may react negatively to sulfites and not all of them are known wine consumers. Generally, the regulated levels of SO2 in wine pose little threat to the majority of consumers. Further, the SO2 levels in wine are usually lower than they are in packaged baked goods; you know, the foods without the sulfite warning.
~So what exactly did the sulfite warning accomplish? Not much for the consumers but a little for the special interest groups.
~First, confusion over the issue, plus the fact that the sulfite warning doesn’t tell us anything, gave the impression that wine producers started to add SO2 to wine in the middle of the nineteen eighties. Again, 1,800 years ago in Rome and ever since; need I say more? (For those under the other illusion created by confusion, that Europeans don't add sulfites in Europe; they do, they just haven't had to warn their customers at home, but they had to warn us when they exported wine to the U.S.)
~Second, after the sulfite label was affixed, almost overnight American consumers started to get headaches from the SO2 in wine.
~I’d call those two events a parley for special interests.
~The people who claim headaches from the sulfites in wine don’t often talk about the headaches they experience after eating bread, cheese, yogurt or those SO2-loaded packaged baked goods. The reason: the sulfites in wine do not cause the headaches, at least not according to the science. To date, after numerous studies, no serious scientific evidence supports the sulfite-induced wine headache phenomenon. It is a die-hard myth.
~Ruling out a hangover, real science (as opposed to special interest science) has yet to offer a definitive cause for the wine headache. The latest information points to substances known as biogenic amines. Histamine is one of many biogenic amines that can be found in wine. Coincidentally, a lot of people who say that wine gives them a headache take an antihistamine before consuming wine and they say that it works—imagine that!
~Finally, a note to asthmatics, if you stick your nose into a glass of wine and you get a heady whiff that reminds you of matchstick flint, there may be too much SO2 in the wine. But if you are at that point, it may be too late—you should have read the sulfite warning. Wait a minute, that won’t work either: the warning tells us only what we already knew.

For more information try these links: Anorak, SO2, SO2(B), Biogenic

Copyright December, 2006
All rights reserved, Thomas Pellechia