Friday, December 28, 2007

In Living Color

Synesthesia is a word to describe experiencing one type of sensation with a separate sense. I can do that when I play certain musical chords on my piano: I see colors.

Not exactly a synesthetic reaction, but I see the color red when I read stories like the one about Clark Smith, who claims to have proved that the type of music you play in the background can change the taste of the wine in your glass.

As a wine professional, I find the idea absurd. Who is this Smith fellow, anyway?

It turns out that Smith knows a lot about changing wine’s flavor. He runs a consulting company that was behind some modern winemaking techniques that are either innovative or evil, depending upon whose interest is affected by the techniques. He also promotes something called the “sweet spot,” an ostensible place on the general palate where the brain’s pleasure center says to a certain level of alcohol in wine: yes, yes, thank you!

We wine professionals prefer no music at a wine tasting, but that’s because we don’t want to be distracted. It never occurred to me there might be another reason for the silence. Assuming Smith is correct, and music can change the taste of wine, the logical question then follows (at least in my logic): can wine change the music, or, in my case, can it change the color of the music?

My rebuttal to Smith’s theory was at my fingertips, at my piano keyboard—time for an experiment.

I got me ten fresh wine glasses. Proceeding from white to red, I filled each glass with four ounces of wine: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, and Riesling for the whites and Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Nebbiolo, and Blaufrankish for the reds.

I placed the glasses of wine neatly on top of the piano, which presented me with my first problem.

When I play, I leave the top of the piano up. To stand the wines on it would mean closing the top, and I thought that might influence the shades of colors I imagine. I put the glasses on a table next to the piano, which meant I had to remove all my sheet music, but that was ok—for this experiment, all I needed was to play chords.

With the wines lined up, I was ready to select the chords. Certainly, I wanted to hit the chords with the strongest influence on my sense of color. I settled on G sharp (red-orange), A minor (blue indigo), C natural (yellow), and B flat (green).

Starting with the G sharp, I played the chord and wrote down my description of the color, which was something like “hot, red-orange.”

I took an ounce of the first wine and played the G sharp chord again, once more recording a description of the color, which was now “hot, red orange, like the setting sun over a quiet beach with a finely-shaped young lady at my side…” wine does that to description-makers.

I repeated hitting the G sharp chord and sipping the wine until I had consumed an ounce of all ten wines.

Moving to the A minor chord, I repeated the exercise. I got blue indigo, plus a vague feeling either that life was not worth living or my wife was leaving me.

In fact, give or take a hue here and there, my notes were consistent throughout the G sharp and A minor sequence of ten wines. All the way from Chardonnay to Blaufrankish, G sharp produced passionate, hot, rumbling red-orange, and a fire engine at one point. (The Riesling passion was orgasmic, but Riesling often does that to me with or without music.) And no matter how many times I hit the chord, no matter which wine I paired the chord with, A minor made me want to commit suicide.

At the end of the A minor sequence I had completed half the chords and had consumed half the wine, so I took a break and checked to be sure that my wife was still in the house.

I was feeling a little woozy, but got back to work.

C natural with each wine produced a light, bright yellow, like a sunshine day out in clean fresh air. The wines with B flat produced a refreshingly minty green, except for the pairing with Cabernet Franc, which created the image of a green bell pepper—you Cab Franc drinkers know what I mean.

As I neared the end of my experiment, I could no longer read my own notes. Still in the house, my wife came to help me out. I believe she agreed that my notes said the wine did not change the colors that the music evoked, but I am unsure because I could not understand a word she said, except for when she told me to go lay down.

Confident that I already proved my point, I was, however, adamant to complete the experiment. I had one taste remaining. It was my duty as a wine professional and as a synesthetic to see if Clark Smith was or wasn’t onto something. I wanted to know if it is at all possible for wine to change the color that I see when I play a chord.

I took a final pound of what I thought should have been the B flat chord (it was difficult to see the keys). I reached for the last taste, which I hoped was the Blaufrankish (I couldn’t make out the wine glasses too well either.) I hit keyboard and took a sip.

Alas, the final taste may have proved me wrong. Smith might indeed be onto something.

I remember no minty green, not even a bell pepper. Instead, I took the last sip and everything went black!

See you all in 2008.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


If asked to choose, I would pick the nuanced, thought-provoking dialogues of Mort Sahl over what I consider the nose picking, fart humor of Dave Barry. I’ve always preferred theater that makes me think with my own mind rather than the circus that tries to make me believe in an individual’s capacity to do (or say) strange things.

Sahl steeped politicians in an infusion of irony so that by the time he served his tea, its humor entered the marrow, and then traveled the blood stream to my brain where I was forced to consider whether politics is a profession or a circus.

When I talk to my general physician, I often get the feeling I am sitting with Sahl. The stuff I am told comes at me with quiet authority, but when I am out in the real world, I understand that the doctor may have been laughing on the inside at the irony of sounding so certain about what is, “up for grabs.”

When I read or hear journalists on the radio spout off the latest news about wine and health, I feel as if Barry bombards me. At best, the reports may be a lot to do about little; at worst, they tend to be mirrors, with a lot of smoke to go around them. The journalists seem to be purposely picking their noses while they absently read the press releases, instead of the other way round.

I’ve said that wine is not health food. I’ve said it, but deep down I’ve also believed that while it might not be health food, wine certainly is healthy. I got that impression from having followed about thirty separate studies that have been completed over about as many years. In an array of chemical names, the studies list those components found in wine that supposedly make it an anti-oxidant and a form of Draino for the arteries.

One of the major benefits of wine, we are told, is its ability to help lower cholesterol. Well, I’m here to tell you that if that’s what wine does, I haven’t a clue how much wine it takes to do it. I’m anywhere between half to a full bottle of wine a day. My total cholesterol has stayed at about 250 for years, no matter what I have done to try to lower it, including a few pounds a day of wall paste-tasting oatmeal.

I’m told that total cholesterol isn’t the whole thing about which to worry. There’s that relationship between LDL (good) and HDL (bad). In my case, each is high, so it’s good and bad.

Then there’s the fat storing of triglycerides. In my case, that goes up and down, but remains on the high side.

Then there’s a new marker being connected to heart disease and cholesterol levels: C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP rises when the body suffers inflammations caused by diseases or stress. According to the latest news, CRP was found to be the only marker of inflammation that independently predicts the risk of a heart attack.

Then there’s lifestyle. The obese, sedentary smokers of the world have a lot to worry about. Their cholesterol levels and CRP reflect the danger for them.

My physician recommended that I swallow daily statin pills, the stuff that lowers cholesterol. I refuse to do it for three reasons:

My lifestyle keeps me from being obese and sedentary, and I have never had a smoking habit.

I do not have high blood pressure (another bad marker).

I don’t trust a pill that may cause serious side effects. Statins do strange things to muscles, and they also can cause liver problems—couple that last one with my daily bottle of wine and I shudder to think how the cure can kill me.

One of my blog readers, Mitch, sent me an email with information concerning the relationship between ethanol and cholesterol. If I remember correctly, introducing ethanol and cholesterol together may cause build up of the latter by prohibiting bile release of it, or something to that effect.

Ethanol is the predominant alcohol in wine. So, the more wine one drinks to increase LDL, the more total cholesterol the wine might build in the body, which may be my problem—and yours, too.

As if to smack me in the face for my cynicism, at my semi-annual teeth cleaning last week I asked the dental hygienist why it is that no matter how much flossing, how much of those Stimudents I scrape between my teeth, and how many times a day I brush with a sonic boom producing instrument, the build up keeps on coming.

Her reply: “All that acidic wine you drink creates more saliva and that creates a kind of mouth wash that moves the sediment right between your teeth, where it sticks.”

With Fred Rose, Hank Williams, Sr. wrote a song titled I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

I have a feeling all of us will one day meet the same fate as Hank.

Wine certainly isn’t a health food, but it is among the things that make being in this world palatable.

My impression has been that the decision whether to lower, increase or abstain from wine consumption should be made after careful study of the data. But when the data conflicts, shooting at us both positive and negative signals, maybe what we should do is pick our noses, fart and try to laugh at the world.

LDL/HDL Triglycerides CRP Resveratrol Ethanol


In my previous entry about wine forum activity, I said, “…Wine Therapy, was started in reaction to the eRobertParker site.”

Two “Therapy” patients quickly made it known that I was wrong.

Wine Therapy was started after a blow up on the Wine Lover’s Page. The cause of the blow up happens to have been the same fellow who tried to persuade me that a subjective critique is objective. No wonder.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

...on the way to the forum

Wine seems to spawn critics. I don’t know why, but it does.

The original purpose of this blog was to be a different voice, not a critic but an observer, a reporter, if you will, trying to get facts across. But I have to admit, I’ve done my share of criticizing—not wine, but those engaged in its marketing and consumption. I’ve also criticized the critics, but I hope never nearly as vitriolic as some of them can be.

Today I am going to give my critique of Web sites, the ones dedicated to discussing wine.

First, the sites can be addictive, so much so that at times I have to force myself to stop posting on them—a guy’s got to earn a living, and posting on wine-centric bulletin boards does not bring in cash. (I almost never stop reading them.)

Second, the bulletin boards can be entertaining, especially when a moderator goes ballistic, or a poster becomes incoherently abusive, or the subject is as inane as the aging potential of Blue Nun!

Third, the sites can be educational.

Fourth, they have separate personalities.

Let me begin my critique with this observation: It never ceases to be a marvel to me that after years of reading them, some people still believe that wine critics are objective.

I remember one particularly annoying poster on a web site trying to persuade me that an objective fact—reduction, volatile acidity, etc.—can be arrived at subjectively and therefore need not be proved in a laboratory. This is the kind of talk that sometimes takes place on wine bulletin boards.

My favorite site is named Wine Lovers Page; Robin Garr is its moderator.

Robin moderates with a light touch. People who become asses are gently prodded and reminded of their responsibility to be reasonable. When Robin gets into some of the discussions, he makes his points firmly but neither abusive nor vitriolic (I point this out because, well, you’ll see later).

Mostly, the people who frequent Robin’s site respond to the openness and relative moderation of its moderator. Not that there aren’t flare-ups as ideologies clash; just that they are rare and usually addressed well.

Flare-ups often happen in the “basement” section of the forum, where any subject but wine goes, but they are not confined to that forum—the subjective/objective confusion often creates arguments in the wine forum. Over time, I’ve learned to ignore certain posters, as I am sure they learned to ignore me.

Wine Lovers is habituated by professional wine people and wine consumers, plus knowledgeable wine people as well as novices.

Robin makes no excuses for the fact that he earns a living moderating his site, so you always know his motivation.

I used to participate much more in a site named The Wine Board. The irreverent Jerry Mead, a wine writer and founder of a major West Coast wine competition, started this site.

Jerry died a few years ago, but his site has been maintained as a business. I know the moderator only as Jackie.

Before he died, Jerry railed on his site about any subject related or unrelated to wine. He was largely libertarian, with a special disdain for the government’s intrusion into wine.

I loved Jerry’s attitude and especially loved his tolerance for the rest of us who posted on his site and were the source of his incessant arguing over a point, which he seemed to live to do.

Anyway, the forum operates at a quieter pace than it used to bounce along. It is habituated mainly by wine consumers with a stable of a few long-time posters that welcome a seemingly endless stream of novices and their questions.

The conversations on The Wine Board are generally lighter, but there have been a few ideological flare-ups here, too.

For ideological flare-ups it’s hard to beat

I’m not talking about political ideology, as political discussions are banned on this site. I refer to the way fights break out on the wine forum: you would think that wine was crucial to our survival.

The fights often illustrate clearly the hazy understanding of people when it comes to the murky subjects of subjective as opposed to objective, opinion as opposed to fact. Indeed, the site was established based on the success of the opinionated Mr. Parker.

Over the years, this site has increasingly gained an uncomfortable edge, as Mr. Parker is subjected to increasing attack. I can understand his frustration, but I think his strident responses to attack make things worse. He does not have a thick skin.

The forum is moderated by Mark Squires, and he has become quite controversial. He wields an ax (and legal threats) over those who would question either him or his boss. He often seems to engage in goading posters, putting forward a closet full of “strawmen” arguments, appearing as if he purposely wants people who disagree with him to say something terrible and then he can ban them from the site forever and be happy talking with those who agree.

On the plus side, the Parker board seems to attract many winemakers. Maybe the reason is obvious, maybe not, but the discussions between the winemakers often are wonderfully educational.

From what I understand, the next bulletin board, Wine Therapy, was started in reaction to the eRobertParker site. Parker’s name is censored on this site.

This could be a fun site, provided you are a member of the “in crowd,” are willing to become one, or can take the often childish welcome you will receive when you sign on for the first or third time, depending upon who missed you on your earlier attempts.

Therapy posters include wine professionals and consumers, but many are not just your garden-variety consumer. You’ll find scientists, poets, linguists, musicians, and all manner of accomplished individuals discussing wine and everything else.

Although conversation on this site runs from the arcane to the sublime, the place reminds me of a classroom for unruly high achievers vying for the teacher’s attention. Too often threads devolve into a top-dog, one-upmanship game that I remember engaging in when I was in high school.

The site has a particular oddity to it: those smart adults seem to get jollies by posting strings of profanity—but, hey, whatever makes you happy, which seems to be the theme of Wine Therapy (that and freedom from spoofulated wine, a reference to the perceived influence of the CENSORED one).

For some reason, Therapy is a magnet to spammers from Asia, Albania, and everywhere else, selling porn, credit card scams, and even mustard.

Wine Talk’s moderator, Serge, posts on Therapy—it’s about the only site that will allow him to post.

Serge’s been banned from other boards for a variety of reasons, all connected to irreverent behavior. He was banned from eRobertParker once, but managed to get back on that “Real Names” site under another name, was ratted out and then banned again and of course, threatened with a lawsuit.

On Therapy, he has been given slaps on his wrist.

Anyway, his site, Wine Talk, is a cozy group of a few nice people, in and out of the wine business, who share talk of wine and of anything else that comes up. Some of them, like me, frequent the other bulletin boards. We go to Wine Talk, I think, because it’s fun.

I happen to like Serge. He is harmless and fun loving. I have been watching his wine learning curve for about three years, and he has been learning, too.

Many other wine bulletin boards are out there. I’ve stopped in on a few of them, but have found them mostly moderated by pompous wine bloviators—not my glass of wine.

Check these out and get back to me:

WineLovers WineBoard eParker Therapy WineTalk

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Keeping the cold wolf at bay

It’s been my observation that when it snows heavily in the Finger Lakes region between the end of November and the beginning of December, we are in for a pile-up of a winter, after winter officially begins, that is!

In summer, I turn to cool drinks like wine coolers and even a shot of Campari with seltzer and lime.

In winter, I go to the hot stuff, the fortified, the almost chewy wines. I’m talking of course about Port, etc.

Recently, Robin Garr posted on his Wine Lovers Page Web site his feelings about what to do with the Port that remains after you have opened a bottle and had your fill. His remarks are worth considering—see the link below.

First, when I talk about Port I refer to the stuff from Portugal. I’ve tried a number of American Port-style wines and have never been persuaded they are worth switching from the original. The Australian stuff is ok, but again, it offers nothing special that makes me want to switch.

Second, I discount anyone who tells me that a bottle of wine that has been open for a week, stored in or out of the refrigerator, tastes exactly as it did when it was first opened. I say it isn’t possible—the only way to know for sure is to open a fresh bottle when you go back to the opened one and taste them side-by-side. People who have made the claim to me also hadn’t done the comparison, but I have.

Because of its high alcohol (18% to 20% ) Port is among the few wines that most of us purposely leave in the bottle to finish another day; those of us who go through a bottle at one sitting, well, need I say anything more about that?

In my view, that “another day” should be no more than a week to ten days away. Like any other wine, the aroma and taste of Port is affected the moment you pop the cork and the wine is exposed to a burst of oxygen. The longer it is exposed, the more it evolves. Whether the evolution is good or bad is a matter of perception, preference, and length of time resting in an open bottle.

The one thing I haven’t tried with Port, but assume would work to preserve it longer, is as soon after opening the bottle, pour half into a 375 ml bottle and cap it for another day. It works to slow down the process on table wine, so it should work on Port. I’ve never done it because of Port’s potential to cast sediment; pouring into another bottle might stir up things too much.

After a week or ten days, a previously opened bottle of Port will have changed from its original state, but mostly it will be fine. Its high alcohol content is believed to be one reason for Port’s staying power. The rest of the reasons are up for major speculation, which I am not prepared to offer, for fear of creating an argument similar to the inane arguments that ensue on some wine bulletin boards. I am content to say that Port seems to have more staying power than table wines.

Incidentally, I am partial to Late Bottle Vintaged Ports, not the least of my reasons is that it generally offers good quality/price ratio.

Remember those old British films where the first thing offered to a guest in the living room or to a fainting heroine was a dash of Sherry drawn from a thick decanter? By the volume in many of those decanters, it was clear that the custom was to allow Sherry to sit on that mantle—even with a fire going—for weeks or months. Not bloody likely to have been a good idea!

I don’t consume much Sherry, and when I do I prefer the dry stuff, which, if I am not going to finish a bottle, I treat as a table wine: either I pour half into a 375 ml bottle or, if I have any left in the original bottle, into the refrigerator it goes. The Sherry I drink comes in at about 15% alcohol, lower than so many California so-called table wines on the market.

Some prefer sweet Sherries. Since I am not one of those people, I have little to no experience trying to save an open bottle of sweet Sherry. But I assume it is to be treated no differently than Port.

One wine deserves special mention for keeping the wolf of winter at bay: Madeira.

No wine on the face of the earth is as pleasing to me than a glass of Madeira. There was a time, pre and post the American Revolution, when Madeira was the preferred wine in the colonies and the new nation. The preference changed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the island of Madeira was truly hard hit in the nineteenth century by powdery mildew and then followed by the phylloxera blight. Estimates I’ve read had the island suffering nearly 90% vineyard losses.

Madeira became scarce, and to a great degree, it remains that way today.

The four ranges of Madeira, from the dry side Sercial to the truly sweet Malmsey, with Verdelho and Bual in between, leave me with a preference for Bual. I believe there are two other Madeira classifications, but those four are the backbone of the industry.

I once successfully hosted a five-course dinner that paired each course with a Madeira wine. The recipes came from Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, a cookbook by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas that was based on books by Patrick O'Brian.

Like Port, Madeira is between 18% and 20% alcohol. But what makes Madeira truly special is its ability to live in an opened bottle seemingly forever.

I’ve tasted Madeira dating back to the 1950s and the late nineteenth century, from bottles that had been open for weeks. While the wines may have lost something over those weeks, it was difficult to say they had lost a lot. (The expense of the wines made impossible doing a comparison with fresh bottles!)

Madeira is essentially pasteurized through a special heating process that keeps the wine at or above 104 degrees F. for a long period of time, its long life is attributed to that process. Apparently, there’s nothing left on which pathogens can feed.

The Madeira winemaking process gives over a purposely oxidized and cooked wine that delivers fragrances and tastes in the nut, caramel, mocha ranges. Delightful stuff.


NOTE: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog has lifted and printed my copyrighted material in its entirety from, without my permission and without paying compensation.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, December 7, 2007


It’s difficult to keep track, but I would be surprised if a week goes by without someone on the many Internet wine-centric sites bringing up the subject of the difference between Old World and New World wines. The subject is like a boomerang, it comes at you, makes a slow, wide arc, flies away and soon enough comes at you again and arcs off, as if in endless orbit.

The argument over the dichotomy between Old World and New World wines is an endless orbit; there is no definitive answer.

In a recent posting on Wine Lovers Page the question was posed thusly: Spoofulated or Artisanal?

In case you don’t know, “spoofulated” is a word used by some geeks to describe wines they consider overly touched by the hand of technology and by winemakers eager to please a certain wine critic.

Artisanal is a word that geeks often use to describe wines that they feel express the singular, hands-off nature of so-called traditional winemaking, not to mention the true expression of terroir.

The concept of terroir is often behind the arguments that ensue. As you probably know, the elusive concept refers to the particular “place” where the wine was born. After that, interpretation of the word is all over the wine map.

Before I proceed, let me say that this argument is mainly confined to red wine, for as anyone with a diploma in geekdom knows, “white wine is something to do with your hands.” That is a quote I remember from a once respected (even by me) but now retired wine writer. So, unless specified to the contrary, I am talking about red wine from hereon (but I don't for minute believe that white wine is undeserving).

There was a time when I engaged in such arguments on the side of terroir, tradition, artisanal, whatever it’s called. I hated the so-called New World style of winemaking: ripe, overly juicy (sometimes more like a fruit infused milkshake than a wine), and often heavily oaked. When the alcohol levels of still table wine began a steady upward invasion into Port territory, I hated the wines even more. So, I deluded myself into thinking that I knew the answer: Old World wines are traditional (artisanal) and New World wines are an abomination (spoofulated)!

I still hate the style of wine that I described above, and only drink it when I am exploring and do not know in advance what is in store for me, and I don’t drink much of it. But I have also grown up—finally, my wife would tell you.

In my adulthood, I’ve realized these three things:

1. I don’t know all the answers.

2. I don’t have to know all the answers.

3. All I need to know is what I like in a wine. There’s no reason for me to force anyone else into liking it, or to accept anyone else trying to force me into liking that other crap, er, style…

Yet, many wine geeks have this compulsion to be right, to be definitive, to be the arbiters of everyone’s taste.

I was content with sitting out the recent boomerang discussion on Wine Lovers, until someone entered the fray with a post that made me see a bright red!

Jamie Goode is a respected scientist in the viticulture and wine sphere. I respect him. His blog is in my blog roll. I’ve read his books—not sure if he has ever read mine, but that’s just my ego talking. Let me get back to the glare of reality.

This is part of what Mr. Goode posted in that particular discussion: “…technology can be harnessed to make wines taste more like 'they should'; to make them truer to their terroir.”

I’d say he tipped his hand toward “terroir” geekdom. Nothing wrong with that, except the word “should.” I had no idea that Mr. Goode knows exactly what wine should taste like—I didn’t know that when I was making wine, and I know a lot of winemakers who aren’t quite sure yet either. I mean: the possibilities are endless.

In any case, Mr. Goode went on to post further and he came up with the one that shot right up my spine: “…it's my view that there are few other places in the world that can make Cab/Merlot blends that have such freshness, drinkability, expression and ageing (sic) potential as Bordeaux…”

It’s my view that few statements about wine have ever been so vague yet so confident. What are freshness, drinkability, and expression, anyway? The words mean nothing specific to me.

Plus, guessing the aging potential of wine is a game of putting pieces together, not the least of which is the particular vintage, the producer’s track record, the nature of the blend, and the wine’s component balance. Blanket statements about a region’s wine age-ability do not activate my “understand” button.

Moreover, Bordeaux is a region within which are a number of growing districts and numerous macro and micro climates. I just don’t buy sweeping claims of superiority based on unidentified geography, especially after the claimant just told me how important terroir is.

To Mr. Goode’s point about “few other places in the world…” I assume he referred to the New World, which would take in a place called California.

In the 1930s, Martin Ray was in the California vanguard, pushing European grape varieties, and producing wine to prove their merit. Ray once owned and operated Paul Masson, in the days when the company produced stellar wine instead of successful commercials for mediocre wine.

In the 50s, Napa, Sonoma, and their surroundings started to do what Ray knew could be done: produce world-class red and white wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. For the next twenty-five years, in relative obscurity, some of the most wonderful Cabernet-based wines ever produced in the United States came from California, especially between the 60s and 70s.

I suppose I should forgive Mr. Goode. He is too young and too far away (Britain) to have experienced the old Inglenook, Masson, Martini, et al, wines. He certainly must have missed the wines of Andre Tchelistcheff, especially the Georges De Latour Private Reserve. Those wines proved a long time ago that Cabernet Sauvignon (and other grape varieties) can express themselves quite well in California, with the help of good winemaking, of course.

It’s neither the fault of the grapes nor of the terroir that recent developments have removed such “traditional” wines from the California scene. To allude that it can’t be done may sound definitive but is incorrect, which leads me to how I became an adult.

After fighting the good cause for a number of years it occurred to me that, while words like tradition, artisanal, and even terroir may have their place as adjectives to describe a particular feeling or sense that a wine evokes, they say little, if anything, about what wine is or, in the words of Mr. Goode, “should taste like.” They say more about the human egocentric outlook, “I know and therefore I’m going to make sure you know, too.”

As an adult, I have come to understand that this argument over spoofulated vs. artisanal is a nice parlor game but a distraction from the plain truth that people need to discover for themselves what they like and what they do not like. If they are too lazy to do that, well, what’s there to argue over?

Now an announcement!

My first blog entry for 2008 will have an added feature.

I intend to include a note or notes about individual wines at the end of each blog entry, with special emphasis on wine and food pairing.

I am doing this because I have been asked to do it. Also, I see it as an experiment. I want to see if I can remain within the boundaries of subjectivity without proselytizing and without making seemingly objective definitive proclamations.

I promise, however, never to say, “you should buy this wine.” Plus, every wine I mention either will have been paid for by me or, if it happens to be a freebie, I will let you know.

Spoofulated or Artisanal

NOTE: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog lifts and prints my copyrighted material in its entirety from, without my permission and without paying compensation.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Two kinds of chains

Last week, a wine and spirits retailer in New Jersey (NJ) sent to his mailing list a plea for his customers to support smaller retail shops against a move by large chain stores to kill a particular provision of NJ Alcohol Beverage Control regulations that limits an individual or company to two licenses to retail wine and spirits.

Let me say up front that if it were up to me, I’d dismantle every state’s alcohol beverage control on grounds that I have yet to face one that wasn’t either corrupt or at the least, a bureaucratic nightmare.

In every state, you must pay for a license to distribute and sell wine. You must also pay certain fees beyond the annual license fee. You pay the money to a state bureaucracy that, at best, needs only a money rake and a telephone number, and of course, a hearing room, where regulators can impose fines for breaking one of their Byzantine rules. Licenses aren’t revoked all too often; it would be rather stupid of regulators to remove future revenue.

Let me point out what we are up against with licensing and regulating wine.

NJ borders New York (NY) and both states border Pennsylvania (PA). But if you were to buy the same bottle of wine in all three states, on the same day, you’d likely not only pay wildly separate prices, you’d find yourself in wildly weird territories of retail ownership—private in NY and NJ, mostly government owned in PA, and sometimes connected to a grocery store in NJ, not in NY.
You would, of course, have to find that same wine in all three states and that may not be so easy: distribution is one of the problems connected to varyingregulations throughout the fifty United States.
In NJ, you might see wine stored in a refrigerator near the beer; perish the thought in NY.
In PA, you might find that the person selling you the wine barely has an idea that wine is different from gin.

If you are like me you wonder if consumers are that different from one another from state-to-state that we need to be regulated under a separate set of rules. Of course, the rules have nothing to do with us. They are there to feed special interests and state coffers. The separate interests shift from state to state, while we, and the wine, remain the same.

The two-license limit in New Jersey was instituted in the early 1960s, I have no idea why, but it must have been because some retail chain outdid itself and opened too many alcohol beverage shops for the good of some interest group—maybe an association of smaller NJ retailers.

Strong retail associations have been known to influence regulators. In NY, the retailers association (along with the beer lobby) has for years successfully fought allowing wine sales in grocery stores.

Still, I am certain that people get around the two-license limit, especially those with a large extended family; each family member can own his or her license; get it? The best part for the extended family: NJ allows small retail shops to “pool” their wine buying. It helps them take advantage of discounts that distributors give to retailers who can buy by the pallet (an advantage of large stores in NY that truly hurts small retail shops; NY does not allow retailers to pool their buying).

Big chains certainly can buy by the pallet, but they can’t easily get around the NJ two-license limit. They want it changed back to the old ways.

It’s funny that in this country of deregulation it is near impossible to break the alcohol regulatory fiasco. Follow the money and you’ll know why.

Sadly, it’s a fact of American life that conglomerates and chains have swept the landscape, pushing into the dustbin many small businesses ( wiped out my wife’s out of print online book search service.) We are seemingly helpless against the trend, and for that, I have sympathy with the NJ retailer who is trying to sell the idea that removing the two-license limit will wipe him out of business.

In his plea for consumer action, the NJ retailer talks about the marvelous services retailers like him offer to consumers—the personal service, the knowledgeable staff, etc. He claims that the chain stores will never offer such service. I agree with him, which makes me wonder what his worry really is.

Years ago, I argued with a wine retailer in NY who was dead against allowing wine in grocery stores. His point was similar to the NJ retailers point, that if we put wine into grocery stores consumers will be stuck with no small stores and a bunch of poorly operated chains offering mediocre wine sold by ignorant people.

I counter-argued that I saw such a situation as he described as an opportunity. If I held a NY retail license and wine could be sold alongside groceries, I would add gourmet items to my shop, and I'd focus on the wines that the chain couldn’t or didn’t want to sell. I would continue to offer good service and a knowledgeable staff, too.

In some cases, it appears that those large chain stores aren't the problem. The problem often appears as if small wine retailers are happily bound by the regulatory chains that they should despise.

NJ Retailer

NOTE: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog lifts and prints my copyrighted material in its entirety from, without my permission and without paying compensation.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Change of Heart

Just when I am warmly wrapped in my self security; just when I know exactly what I think about an issue; just when I have made up my mind, along comes a fact to slap me back to reality.

In my last blog entry, I stated the following: “I’m for the Nutritional Facts labels—I am not so sure about the Ingredient labels.”

Not any more, not since a story broke recently concerning copper in a New Zealand wine.

An unidentified German company declined to accept a shipment of bulk wine from New Zealand because it contained 3.6 parts per million of copper; in Germany, the maximum is about half that, but in New Zealand the maximum is 5 parts per million. According to any thing I’ve read, the New Zealand maximum seems way too liberal. In the U.S. the feds set the maximum under 1 part per million.

The human body needs copper as a trace mineral, but it definitely doesn’t handle copper too well in large quantities. One of the serious dangers is liver damage; one of the milder yet discomforting dangers occurs when copper is out of proportion to other trace minerals in the body: heart palpitation, which reminds me of something I read a few weeks back.

A researcher in Berkeley, California claims to have developed a computer gadget that can analyze the wine in your glass for potential allergens connected to biogenic amines (histamine, tyramine, etc.) This fellow said that he got the idea while researching biogenic amines and connecting his heart palpitation when he drinks red wine as a reaction to the amines. Well, maybe he drinks too much wine with copper in it!

Anyway, all of this has made me rethink my position on Ingredient Labeling. (You see, even the self-secured are prone to doubt—we don’t tell people, except that I just told you.)

When I wrote about the labeling issue I stated that not much is added to wine. That was both true and misleading. If you add a substance to wine that is dangerous, what does it matter that you don’t add much else? Copper is added to wine, but not routinely—I hope!

To be brief, wine is subject to the formation of hydrogen sulfide, especially when the juice may have come into the fermentation tank with a nutritional imbalance. During fermentation, the yeast plays a role in converting and releasing compounds and when conditions are right on the nutritional scale, hydrogen sulfide can be one of the results of that activity. Also, high residue of sulphur from spraying grapes against disease during the growing season can cause hydrogen sulfide to form in wine.

This form of sulfur is not to be confused with sulfur dioxide which is commonly called "sulfites" on the warning label.

You know that party trick: you have a glass of wine in front of you that smells like an old egg and when you drop a penny into the glass the rotten egg smell vanishes? That’s what copper does to hydrogen sulfide.

Sometimes when hydrogen sulfide forms in wine, it can be released by simple aeration. Sometimes the winemaker can simply stir the wine with a copper rod.

It’s been reported, but not accepted outright, that the airtight nature of screwcapping causes another problem connected to sulfur compounds.

The progression of hydrogen sulfide can lead to a more serious problem known as “reduction,” which takes that rotten egg smell to odoriferous heights. The reason a winemaker aerates to fix the hydrogen sulfide problem is that the sulfurous compounds in wine cane be subdued in the presence of enough oxygen. But bottled under screwcap, wine is supposedly in a vacuum and that means the sulfurous compounds in the wine would be starved of oxygen—reduction might take place.

Some, including the respected Jamie Goode, who’s on my blog roll, have accused wine producers of adding copper to their wines before screwcapping the bottles. If Goode and others are correct, and wine producers are adding copper before bottling under screwcap as a preventive measure, the science says that they are dead wrong: the dangers of copper are high enough that adding it should be as a curative only, and a finely-tuned measured one at that.

Since that New Zealand wine was a bulk product—read, cheap—it may have been a wine needing a fix, and that would explain the copper. Still, it does not explain the high level, since, by all accounts that I’ve read, it takes a lot less copper than 3.6 parts per million to fix hydrogen sulfide or reduction problems.

There’s another possibility, however, for the high copper addition: New Zealand has been in the vanguard of the screwcap revolution. Perhaps, their wine industry has taken to dumping copper into wine as a preventive measure. Scary.

In any event, if copper is allowed in wine (and at higher than necessary levels) the next question is what else is allowed?

Believe me, you have no idea how difficult it is for me to say this: Ingredient Labeling may be the right thing for the wine industry to do.

If anything, Ingredient Labeling might serve to make certain wine companies (and wine industries) act responsibly. As an aside, it might help certain researchers suffering from heart palpitation to look in all directions for the source of the problem rather than to make assumptions and then invent a gadget based on the assumptions.

NOTE: I wrote last time about an organization’s blog that has plagiarized some of my blog entries and that I have contacted Google AdSense about the matter. I haven’t heard from Google, but I could not load up the blog this morning. Until I hear further: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog lifts and prints my copyrighted material in its entirety from, without my permission and without paying compensation.

Copper Story

Wines&Vines EuropeanCommission

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
November 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Nutritional Facts

In an editorial, Jim Gordon, Editor of Wines and Vines Magazine, recently talked about the Nutritional Facts labeling proposed for wines. Unfriendly as I am to government labeling, mainly because it usually takes the sleaze road rather than the information road, I found myself agreeing completely with Jim’s position. (I can call him Jim, because for some reason, he thinks I am worth paying to write articles in the magazine! You can read his column by clicking the link below).

In brief, Jim’s point is that if we wine industry people want to keep telling everyone that wine is food, then we best allow the government to treat it as such.

Jim was referring to only 50 percent of the new labeling possibilities. His editorial concerned itself with the “Nutritional Facts” portion of the labeling, which, as I said, I agree should be applied to wine.

First, there’s nothing in wine—nutritionally—that is scary. In fact, there are matters which are quite good to know: wine contains no fat and no cholesterol, and while it doesn’t contain much in the way of protein (or in the way of anything else, really, just some trace minerals and possibly B vitamins, but I could be wrong about that) four ounces of wine contains only from 120 to 150 calories—I’d say that’s energy well gathered!

Another of Jim’s points goes right to the heart of the matter for nutritional facts on wine labels, but he only briefly mentioned it. In some states, my home state, New York, being one of them, wine is treated strictly as alcohol and so, you can’t buy it in a grocery store where, incidentally, beer is sold, which I believe also contains alcohol, unless of course it’s from the big beer companies—that stuff can’t possibly contain much of anything but water, but I digress.

Suppose nutritional facts are slapped on wine labels; how long do you think New York State can hold off the beer lobby when the public starts noticing that its regulation preventing the sale of wine in grocery stores is in conflict with the federal government’s claim that wine is food?

The wine industry was given a federal agency proposal for the new labeling and it reacted to a couple of things it did not like. One of its dislikes was the “Serving Size” that appears on nutritional food labels. The wine industry felt that the use of the phrase was almost like telling people how much wine to drink. The government and the industry settled on “Serving Facts.”

Another thing the wine industry did not cotton to was the feds attempt to show on the label a visual that presented a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, and a shot of booze, proposing that each contain the same amount of alcohol. The problem with that visual is that, when you go to a bar, the spirits drink you are served often contains more than the prescribed one-ounce shot of spirits that measures one drink. Plus, some real beers are much higher in alcohol than the American bland beers. I believe the visual is out.

The other half of the new wine labeling concept is the part that special interest groups like the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) want to see: ingredient labeling.

As you know from reading food packages, whether or not you know what some of the ingredients actually are (what are "natural spices" anyway, or "red die number so and so?") the labels come with a list of everything that supposedly went into creating the product. The list is organized in the order of volume—the more of one ingredient, the closer it appears at the top, which is why so many products sicken me, as I read the top lines that contain “high fructose, corn syrup, sugar…” After reading that list of cheap diabetes delivery systems, my interest in what is inside the package dwindles to nil.

Wine should come out all right in the ingredient listing message, since, except for the process of fining, filtering, and sulfiting, not much is added to wine. But the problem with ingredient labeling is in the very techniques of fining and filtering. It’s there that watchdog groups are interested, claiming that the material used to clarify (fining) and to filter wine can be allergens.

Admittedly, some of the materials can be allergens. But three extenuating circumstances make me wary of the ingredient labeling rules:

1. Winemakers say that by the time wine is in the bottle, much of the materials like egg white, caseine (milk product) bentonite (clay), etc. have been removed through the filtration process.
2. Except for the rare cases of asthmatic allergies to sulfites, which already has its warning on the label, there aren’t many cases cited of people having severe allergic reactions to wine.
3. CSPI is both a mettle-watchdog group and anti-alcohol. I find suspect anything they propose.

I’m for the Nutritional Facts labels—I am not so sure about the Ingredient labels.

Unlike other foods, where the US Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture regulate labels, the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulates wine labels; that’s because, after Prohibition, when it dawned on both federal and local governments that they could gain a windfall revenue stream by taxing wine, the feds gave the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) control over those three industries—it was the government setting up a welfare system for itself!
BATF has been part of Treasury Department. Recently, Treasury changed the organization and created the TTB.
I predict that the nutritional labeling will go into effect in a few years and after that, FDA may get hold of regulating at least the food portion of wine labeling. That would mean that wine would have two federal regulators on its tail, along with the constant irritant of those so-called consumer groups.
NOTE: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog lifts and prints my copyrighted material in its entirety from, without my permission and without paying compensation.
The organization has ignored my attempts to get it to stop stealing my work, so I am embedding this note in every one of my blogs until they stop or until I gain legal redress. Perhaps, the bloggers won’t even notice this note through the RSS feed, as they seem to lift everything without looking at it--the links I post show up on the blog as part of my text.
The blog is also selling ads through Google’s AdSense program, and I have contacted Google about the matter in accordance with the rules set by Congress to govern Internet copyright infringement.
To my fellow bloggers: watch out for these copyright infringements--they threaten to increase as more and more people discover blogging.

Jim Gordon

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
November 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


~According to my dictionary, “amelioration” is defined, “to make better,” or “to improve.”
~When I got into the Finger Lakes wine business in the nineteen eighties, I discovered that in Federal government regulations, amelioration was a function that took place in the winery, namely, adding water to juice, mostly to lower acidity, which is usually high in grapes grown in cool climate regions.
~The concept of amelioration was a joke to Farm Winery owners. We claimed the upper road of purity by having never even considered adding water to juice to make wine; that was a function of the big wine factories!
~To lower acidity, we could add calcium or potassium carbonate or we could induce malolactic fermentation.

Another avenue open to us was to not lower acidity but to add sugar before fermentation so that we could stop the fermentation before the yeast consumed all the sugar and still have wine with reasonable alcohol levels.

The added sugar would offset the acidity on the palate.

~Twenty-plus years later, lowering acidity in cool climate wine regions is handled just about the same way as it was before, but adding water to juice has become almost common practice in warm climate wine regions.
~Wait a minute: warm regions produce grapes lower in acid than in cool regions. Why would you need to add water to lower acidity?
~You don’t need to add water to juice to lower acidity in warm regions.

Ask a warm region winemaker about the procedure and the first thing you might be told is that water is not added to the juice—the juice is being rehydrated. In other words, water is being put back into the juice.

"Well, ok," you might ask, "why did you take the water out in the first place?”

You would be forgiven for asking because this is no easy topic, and I assume that my explanation is likely to be wrong in many places, but I’ll give it a shot.

The winemakers who read this blog can comment on my mistakes and maybe enlighten all of us.

~In warmer grape growing regions it’s not uncommon for grapes to reach high sugar levels quicker than they reach full maturity. That’s because grape maturity and high sugar levels are not exactly the same thing.
~The grape’s sugar, acid, and pH rise and fall based both on climatic conditions and on the fruit’s general growth cycle—while that is an issue both important and problematic to wine, it is not an issue solely of maturity.
~Grape maturity is reached when the recognized overall character of the fruit hits optimum expression, which is different for each grape variety and for each vineyard site. Maturity is expressed mainly through phenolic development and concentration, especially in the most aromatic white grapes and in just about all red grapes.
~Because of the inexact relationship between sugar development and maturity, it is almost a given in warm climates that sugar rises faster than the grapes mature. When that happens, rehydration is the fix.

Brix is the word used to express the measure of sugar solids in grape juice. The Brix at which grapes are picked indicate the potential alcohol of the finished wine.

The general ratio is that every 1 Brix degree fermented equals approximately .55 percent of alcohol by volume in the finished wine.

A dry wine at 12% alcohol by volume must have started out as juice at about 22 Brix (some sugar just about always remains after fermentation, as yeast have a hard time getting all of it as they age and grow weaker and die off during fermentation).

Put simply: the higher the Brix at the start of fermentation, the higher the alcohol of a dry wine in the end.

~If sugars rise before grape maturity, it’s conceivable in warm climates to pick mature grapes at extremely high Brix levels: 29 Brix at picking can potentially give you a wine above 15% alcohol.
~For grapes to reach 29 Brix it has to be warm and dry in that vineyard. That means often enough that the grapes have started to shrivel or take on the look of raisins as the fruit dehydrates.
~Winemakers faced with fruit in that condition add water to lower the Brix, which in turn lowers the potential alcohol after fermentation completes. They claim that their procedure does not affect the characteristics of maturity because they limit the extent of rehydration. Many strive for a reduction that takes alcohol down by no more than 1%, which would still leave a 15% wine at a high 14% (many winemakers claim grapes coming in at 30 Brix, which would interpret into higher than 15% alcohol after rehydration).
~To complicate the matter, there are the acids and pH issues.

Low acid/high pH wines are unstable mainly because they have lost some of their protective devices against microbial attack.

Grapes with high tannin, plus additions of sulfur dioxide offset some of the danger, but at certain reduced acid and high pH levels, it might take more to stabilize the wine.

Quite often, rehydration means adding water that has been acidified, to maintain a decent acidity level in the wine.

Acidified water calculations are tricky, since the winemaker is dealing with statistics based on liquid that will end up being reduced once again, this time by the removal of solids during fermentation and pressing.

~As you might expect, the issue of rehydration has its critics.
~First, there are the grape growers. Some claim that wine producers force them to leave grapes on the vines longer than necessary, and since their grape price contracts are tied to tonnage, the “raisining” of the grapes interprets into weight loss, robbing them of income. (They are particularly vexed when wineries add back the water, and weight).
~Second, there are the consumers who dislike high alcohol wines. They argue that leaving grapes to hang is a wine style issue, and that high alcohol wines with so-called concentration are produced mainly to gain critical acclaim as this is the style of wine that seems to please the palates of powerful wine critics.
~Third, there are those, like me, who cannot get past the idea of adding water to make wine.

Rehydration Ripeness

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
November 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


~Don’t people have more to do than to spend hours online arguing over their opinions?
~Alas, I have no answer, and I am guilty as charged.
~Every so often, however, online arguments make me want to run from my computer; then, I take a breather; I stop posting for a while and just read the posts of others, until someone posts something that compels me to respond, and I am right back at it.
~It’s an addiction.
~Over at Robin Garr’s “Wine Lovers” site we argued seemingly endlessly about a San Francisco Chronicle article concerning Clark Smith’s recent comments (or, as Smith would have it, his recent revelation) concerning the power of music over wine.
~The article was put forward in a rather confusing manner, but what I (and a couple of people) got from it turned out to be different from what some others got from it.
~I discounted one of the opinions, mainly because over the years I’ve noticed that this fellow has a problem with cognizance. But some of the others are people whose online opinions I have often come to value. Why then couldn’t they understand that Smith was talking about music changing the wine in the glass and not that music changes our mood or perception of the wine in the glass? In fact, if he meant the latter, there would be no story, since we already know that.
~Smith even recommended specific music for specific wines.
~Have you heard of the “sweet spot?” It’s a concept also fostered by Clark Smith. He claims to have discovered that the general public palate has a particular capacity for a specific range of alcohol. (Smith runs a wine consulting firm, among other things.)
~The sweet spot concept may be in part responsible for what some of us feel is a nasty creeping up of alcohol in wine, and that subject led to another argument.
~Last week the alcohol debate heated up once again over on Robert Parker’s Web site (or Mark Squires’ Web site; I don’t really know who owns the site, but Squires runs it his way).
~This “alcohol in wine” subject is about as contentious as any. Here’s where I stand on the subject.
~I have been consuming wine for decades. I know when a wine is hot with alcohol, and I don’t need a lesson about balance either. As one poster aptly pointed out in the online debate, the nature of producing high alcohol wines often adds other offenses on the palate in an attempt to “balance” the wine.
~I also don’t need a lesson about the 1.5 % leeway, plus or minus, concerning the “alcohol by volume” government mandated statement on the label. Sure, those old 12.5 % wines may have been as high as 14 %, but certainly not as high as 16 and 17%, which seems to be inching toward the norm. (On an earlier thread, one California winemaker boasted about his so-called “non-interventionist” wines that he managed to bring to nearly 19 % alcohol. I shall spare myself the experience!)
~To this palate, there’s a lot more high alcohol wine out there today than there was two decades ago, and why not? Two decades ago, we had neither a sweet spot concept in play nor do I believe California wineries routinely demanded that grapes hang on the vine until their sugar to liquid ratio reached Amarone-type statistics, not to produce Amarone but to produce so-called table wines: Cabernets, Zinfandels, etc.
~I don’t claim to understand the process of harvesting dried out grapes with astronomical sugar levels and then, after fermentation, adding water back to lower the alcohol. I don’t understand it and, based on the alcohol in so many finished wines, I don’t think it’s working very well.
~What all this means, I certainly don’t know. I only know what I like or do not like about individual wines, and I don’t like my wines to taste like spirits. But arguing over that with others is about as meaningful as arguing with an automobile, and so I’ve resisted the recent argument. Luckily, should I choose to give in to the urge to argue over alcohol in wine, a chance will arise soon enough—it’s an argument that seems to come up on Squires’ site with frightening regularity.
~Another discussion ensued online after Constellation Brands bought itself yet another cache of well-known wine names.
~One has to wonder what this company is after. Bean counters don’t exactly look for the winemaker’s philosophy on the balance sheet. How can a small winery maintain artisan character after having been gobbled up by faceless conglomerations?
~Ask a bottle of Ravenswood Zinfandel that question and see what the response is—but have an older version of their wine on hand for comparison, and for better enjoyment.
~Soon enough, we will have a few big wine corporations and a few national wine distributors, plus a few national retail outlets running nearly the whole show. Imagine what that will do both to competition and to choice.
~I’ve been a wine drinker since the late nineteen sixties, and a wine professional for almost three decades. For the first time, I really believe we are losing the product that I love. I am afraid we will be drinking something along the lines of mass-produced, high-alcohol homogenized milk, or milkshake, as so much bulk Shiraz already is.
~I suppose it’s inevitable. It is the way of the world. Look at what happened to beer in the United States before a small brewing industry reignited.

I take refuge in two things:

First, the ruination of wine isn’t quite complete. There still are many dedicated winemakers that produce near hand-crafted wines, and small distributors and retailers who love wine.

Second, I’m told that after a certain point, my palate will think that all things taste the same, and since they probably will anyway, I’ll be in the vanguard just before I make my exit.

You can read the arguments for yourself. Caution: arguing on the Internet may be habit forming.

Alcohol Music Constellation

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
November 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


~At least three times last week I was asked by three different people why a certain wine that was on the wine list at a restaurant in another state could not be found either at retail or in a restaurant in the person’s home state.
~For imported wines, the answer is as simple as either no distributor in your state carries the wine or the producer doesn’t market in your state.
~For domestic wines, the answer is varied.
Even though a producer may claim national distribution, it does not necessarily mean distribution in all fifty states, first, because there are no distributors that operate completely nationally—although one is perilously, for us, close to doing so—and second, because not all distributors are interested in every so-called nationally distributed product.
In some states, the state acts as distributor. This is the worst system because the states generally buy what is nationally distributed and cheap!
Within a state, retailers and restaurants have the option to buy from any distributor they choose, and because in most states a wine is allowed distribution through only one distributor, certain wines are not stocked on shelves in certain outlets or restaurants. (If what you want is distributed in your state, smart retailers can usually get you what you want, but there’s no requirement to be smart in order to be a wine retailer.) Then, some retailers or restaurants may have a bad relationship with the distributor of the wine you want— in that case, you’ll have to find another way.
In many states, small distributors survive, but what they carry is strictly within the confines of where they are licensed to operate, and within states, some products don’t make it outside major cities for a variety of reasons, not the least of which may be that they are carried only by small distributors who do not operate in all locales.
Some producers are small and limited to local distribution.
Some producers have just enough wine to distribute in a few states and have not selected yours.

~I'm sure I have missed a few other reasons, but the main reason for this confusion of national distribution is called the “three tier” system of alcohol distribution.
~Devised ostensibly to control alcohol against potential criminality and corruption the three tier system is mainly in effect so that states can ensure their steady excise tax revenue stream by giving the collection function to a small set of business entities in their states rather than to hundreds of smaller entities.
~The system was put in place after Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, when the mealy and misinformed congress gave states a free hand. In effect, congress gave states the ability to act just like the criminals had acted during Prohibition, complete with extortionary measures that are euphemistically called licensing, fees, and regulations.
~Both the Supreme Court and the Internet make up the demolition equipment to put the three tier system to rest, but that is going to be a long slog. The system is a direct affront to a section of the U.S. Constitution that deals with unfettered commerce, but our courts have decided that alcohol, though legal, does not deserve all the cover that any other legal product deserves and gets.
~If the day arrives when the court finally opens wine to unfettered commercial access, any wine sold anywhere in the United States will be available to anyone anywhere in the United States. Still, even when that day comes, the problem with finding imported wines throughout the country may not go away.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
November 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Must be in the air

~There must be something in the autumn air that brings out plans and schemes, and new products connected to wine.
~Or maybe the wine world is paying the price for its new mainstream status, for its growth, for its relative difficult to understand persona.
~In the past couple of weeks stories have broken concerning the latest research finding that has produced either a new product or a product soon to be stirred by new research, each of which will make the pleasure we derive from consuming wine even better.
~My last blog entry was about the product that you can take to a restaurant to dip in your glass of wine to find out beforehand if that particular wine will give you a headache.
~A few days following that entry I heard about an M.I.T. dropout turned wine producer/consultant who claims that in studies he has performed, it has been proven that music changes the taste of wine—not that music changes our mood and therefore our perception of taste, which I believe it does, but that music literally changes the taste of the wine.

In a San Francisco Chronicle story, the fellow is supposed to have said, “…it's not possible to record a generic ‘music to drink wine by’ CD because a song that might make Pinot Noir taste great can make Cabernet Sauvignon taste awful. You have to pay attention to individual music and wine pairings.”

~No mention was made of a particular musical product coming on the market any time soon, yet some guy at Muzak seemed to perk up his ears; deaf to music as those people are, I’m not sure I’d want them trying to get me to drink a certain wine.
~I am convinced that a CD of music to make a cheap Pinot Noir taste like Burgundy is in the oven. Hey, with thousands of wines produced in this world, the CD industry, not to mention music composers and musicians, may have found a years-in-the-making profit center!
~The fellow who has this idea has a reputation for off-the-wall concepts. He is credited with being the one responsible for the so-called “sweet spot” concept, which essentially says that alcohol levels have a certain spot that is harmonious to a large majority of people. This is in part a theory that explains the recent surge in alcohol levels in wine, kind of like the means justifying the end.

I suppose after the dining room table stops rising and the spirits stop blowing out the candles on the table, a guy’s still gotta earn a living.

Hey, I wonder if it was the Rock ‘n’ Roll that used to make high alcohol Thunderbird wine taste so bad those many years ago…

~In another incident, I received a phone call from a woman I’ve known for twenty years. Her daughter is married to a wine aficionado—a physician. She wants to get him something special for Christmas. When she heard about a wine decanter that comes with a silver cap through which the wine flows when you pour it into your glass and, get this, improves the quality of the wine, she told her mother about it.
~Skeptical, her mother called me and of course I confirmed reasons to be skeptical.
~I’ve never even heard of such a product and I fear that either my friend or her daughter may have gotten their information messed up.

In any event, I told my friend to tell her daughter that instead of giving her husband a gadget to improve the quality of his wine, she should buy him high quality wine for Christmas!

~Finally, an academic from California posted on a wine bulletin board what he thinks is a great idea to quantify the “dimensionality of wine’s taste.”
~In a nutshell, he believes he might be able to devise THE supreme wine rating system, one that would personalize your wine choices by telling you exactly what it is about any wine that you will like or dislike, and the exact food to pair with that wine.
~Maybe he can do it and maybe he can’t, but I’m betting on the “can’t” portion of the maybe, especially since he seems to think he has to start out by establishing consensus agreement over standards of quality relating to acidity, alcohol, tannin, oh hell, why am I even bothering to go on with the list.

I couldn’t convince this man that the myriad nuances connected to wine have already doomed his effort, but I tried.

Happy reading.

Music and Wine Headaches


Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
November 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, November 2, 2007

I'm getting a headache

~A researcher at Berkeley named Richard Mathies published a report Thursday in a journal called Analytical Chemistry. Once again, this is a report concerning the red wine headache.
~Mathies is quoted in an AP story as having said the following:
"The food you eat is so unbelievably coupled with your body's chemistry…"
~Can anyone dispute that claim? Not much news there.
~The AP story goes on to say that several culprits have been identified as potential triggers for the red wine headache, not the least of which are called amines (or biogenic amines). These are substances like histamine and tyramine.
Histamine is the result of a complicated chemical reaction to the amino acid histidine.
Histamine is implicated in sleep control, white blood cell immune system response, allergic responses, and food poisoning.
Certain production methods, such as malolactic fermentation, may increase the level of histamine already established in a wine by the breakdown and interaction of proteins and acetaldehyde.
Tyramine is one of the many results of fermentation or decay; it is found in aged, smoked, marinated, cured, pickled, or spoiled, fish and meats. The chemical is also found in most cheeses, sour cream, yogurt, tofu, miso soup, soy products, chocolate, pickled vegetables, many plant foods, and of course, alcoholic beverages.
Tyramine has been identified in connection with blood pressure rises—and drops—plus it has been connected to—yet denied by some—migraine headaches.
Tyramine is also connected to malolactic fermentation in wine.
~The above is a truly cursory look at the two amines that are being implicated as the cause of the red wine headache. While scientists may have identified these amines as potential culprits, scientists have not, as far as I know, issued a definitive answer to the red wine headache.
~Almost every red wine undergoes malolactic fermentation—not many whites do. Therefore, the wine headache that is mostly connected to red wine seems also likely to be mostly connected to malolactic fermentation.
~Mathies has the answer. He has co-founded a company to create a smaller version of a device already created at Berkeley as the result of a NASA research program.
~Matheis’ device would be small enough to be a so-called “personal digital assistant.” It could go along with you to your favorite restaurant so that you can test the wine before drinking it. The device measures the amine level in wine—does it in five minutes.
~Matheis says that he is hot on this device mainly because red wine gives him a racing heart and high blood pressure.
~I don’t deny, discount, nor think crazy this kind of story and these kinds of devices—well, maybe I think them crazy. But once again, here’s my problem with this kind of stuff:
If tyramine, histamine and other amines are the problem, why doesn’t Matheis get a racing heart or high blood pressure from one or more of the foods in that list above?

~Like those crummy magnets that are supposed to make your wine better, wine seems to attract gadgets that will make both the wine and your life better. Why not a cheese magnet or device? Or something we can stick into our smoked meat dish at the restaurant to find out its amine level?
~About fifteen years ago someone told me that the best way to ward off a wine headache is to drink a glass of water for each glass of wine. For fifteen years, I have been following that advice—I have had no wine headaches for the past fifteen years.
~There is one problem that I have yet to solve: sneezing. Many, many first sips of red wine make me sneeze. I attribute that reaction to the histamines, and it just dies down after a while.
~The other day, about fifteen minutes after eating a good chunk of a moldy cheese I had a sneezing fit. Hmmm. Must be something to this amine thing—but it isn’t just wine!

Histamine Tyramine

Histamine and Malolactic Tyramine and Malolactic

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
November 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Smell and taste: in the twilight years

~Our frequent commenter on the blogspot version of this blog, Jack, at Fork and Bottles, had a question for me regarding what age does to our ability to smell and to taste.

(Jack, I replied to your email but it was returned to me as undeliverable, a particular annoyance with aol…)

~Jack has read, as have I, that the older we get, the weaker our ability to smell and taste.
~In fact, the science that I link below seems to indicate that we lose our sense of smell more so than our sense of taste as we age, and, men seem to lose it before women—wouldn’t you know; boys mature later than girls, and men peter out sooner; must be a message in it somewhere!
~Anyway, Jack’s question is whether, at 47, he should start opening those wines in his cellar and stop collecting any more wines that have a 20-year aging window.
~On the basis of the science, that sounds like a good idea, but…
~First, I am considerably older than Jack, but slightly younger than the seeming-start date in the studies done on smell and taste. If anything, my sense of smell and taste seem to be better than they were when I was in my thirties.
~I believe the main reason behind what seems to me like a better sense of smell and taste these days are the years of training that I have behind me, coupled with a natural heightened sense of both sensations. My sensitivity to so-called off odors is quite active, and my sensitivity to various taste stimuli at times seems over-active. Perhaps, practice helps retain the senses for longer.
~Also, pharmaceuticals have a way of messing up our natural sense of smell and taste. I avoid taking pills unless it is a matter of grave concern.
~Therefore, I am not so sure I would clean out my cellar based on personal evidence. Nevertheless, I already have stopped buying long aging wines, but not because of my fear of losing the sense of smell or taste.
~A few years ago a friend I had known since our youth, and who was my age, died suddenly of a heart attack, and after having had a clean bill of health issued after a physical check-up.
~It occurred to me that there are no guarantees on this earth.
~Then, last year, a neighbor and friend, with whom I had spent many years sharing food and wine, was killed in a car accident. In an instant, she was gone—no more sharing recipes and new wine finds with her.
~It occurred to me once more that there are no guarantees. It also occurred to me that saving wine for decades is rather futile unless you are guaranteed that you will get to drink them.
~I have some wine around that is age-worthy, and I will slowly empty those bottles. I will also pick up bottles of wine here and there that will have the ability to age, but won’t necessarily need 20 years.
~To me, living means today: not yesterday, for I can’t change that and not tomorrow, for I can’t predict that.
~It is, however, comforting to know that there may be a more concrete reason for my attitude—and it might have no smell at all…

These two studies might interest you:

Study1 Study 2

To anonymous:
~I have a problem dealing with so-called anonymous comments on my blog: I dislike conversing in a vacuum. Plus, I am suspicious of people who are afraid to lay claim to their own words.
~In any event, I will respond to the anonymous commenter regarding my comments about sulfur dioxide by pointing to some of my quotes with references to blog entry dates, plus some Web sites with information.
~I am responding because he or she has misunderstood and misrepresented my comments. (I have posted the anonymous comment, under the old blogspot entry that it references.)

VinoFictions, Oct 9, 2007
“I’ve read that about 1% of 4 million asthmatics in America are the only people at risk of serious sulfite-induced side effects, and there is hardly any record in the U.S. of serious side effects connected to SO2 and wine.
Yet, few anti-sulfite conversations concern dried fruits or packaged foods, which likely contain as much or more SO2 than wine?”

VinoFictions April 11, 2007
“The reason for concern over SO2 is that in its gaseous/airborne state, the chemical can negatively affect the respiratory system of asthmatics. But the levels allowed in wine have never been proven to be cause for concern, whether added to the wine or in there naturally.”

VinoFictions, December 1, 2006
“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.

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.”

~You may notice that I continually point out that asthmatics are at risk. The problem is, most numbers presented are estimates plus, if a government “at risk” level has been determined you wouldn’t know it from the wine label warning.
~But I am repeating myself.
~Anonymous: take a look at these other Web sites.

SO2 Again etc.





and etc

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
October, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tasting Notes

~Not long ago I was asked why I don’t post tasting notes on the few wine-dedicated bulletin boards that I frequent.
~I tried to answer a question that I knew would be difficult to explain and I was correct: the questioner was not impressed with my response.
~Since then, I’ve thought it over and I am more and more convinced that my decision makes sense, but now my feeling exceeds my original reason.
~When I stopped posting tasting notes my original intent was that since I get paid to write articles and books about wine I did not want ever to be accused of shilling for one or more wine producer. This thought came to me after I reflected on the volumes of press releases I receive from PR people that wineries hire, and from the wineries themselves.
~Inherent in the press releases is an assumption that a writer can be enticed not only into tasting the wines, maybe also into visiting the winery, and possibly into blithely believing in what the release says. The intent is to get the writer to write about the winery, favorably of course.
~I know that press releases are supposed to perform the function of promotion and to impart information—I know it because in the past I’ve gotten paid to write them. But that did not stop me from feeling insulted by the press releases coming my way.
~I’ve even had unsolicited wine sent to me.

I cannot imagine how to explain having written a tasting note that agrees with a press release concerning a free bottle that I had received, even if I knew that I hadn’t cheated—to me, the perception of a conflict of interest is damning enough.

(Forget about writing about wines after a trip that was paid for and sponsored by promoters or wine producers.)

~A personal sense of integrity still prevents me from writing tasting notes for the public to read; my notes are reserved for wine competitions and for my own information, which brings up another reason for my reluctance.
~After having read numerous tasting notes written by both consumer and professional wine critics, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t care what they think of any particular wine. Whether or not I agree with their tasting note, I’m interested in the wine not in the discussion of it.
~I either like it or I don’t, and the only way for me to know that is to taste it myself, and I don’t need the notes of others to do that.
~With the above realization came the realization that others also don’t need to know what I think about a wine.
~It boils down to wine being a matter of personal—and highly subjective—choice.
~I can’t imagine using other people’s tasting notes to direct my wine buying, and I don’t think anyone should use my preferences to direct their wine buying.
~Then there are those who want to know what others think about a wine for the purpose of picking apart or finding agreement, which doesn’t seem to me to be about the wine but about voicing opinions. This is one reason I refer to my occupation as wine writing and not as wine criticism.
~The exception to my reluctance is when sharing wine and food with people, at table.
~Online, you have a distant calculation and opinion about wine by someone you may have never even met.
~Sitting at table tasting and talking about wine sparks conversation and that leads to more conversation and that illustrates, to me, the real purpose of wining and dining: conviviality. I don't get conviviality at my computer desk, no matter how many seemingly nice people I email or "chat" with online.

I know that some of you will completely disagree with me, and I’d like to read your reasons for engaging in posting tasting notes online. But keep it nice. The other thing I despise about a lot of online discourse is the lack of civility that often tinges a discussion, which may be another reason not to post tasting note opinions…

~Do you think some wine writers are influenced by freebies and press releases?
~Do you care what others think about any given wine and if so, why?
~Do you think your wine taste has merit for someone else’s palate, especially someone you don’t know personally?
~Do you think talking about wine approximates the pleasure of consuming it?
~Are you a fan of convivial wining and dining?
~Can you still render a coherent opinion after a few of those high-octane 16 percenters and up???

Just click on "comments" and start talking!

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
October 2007. All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 19, 2007


~Let me say at the outset that not only do I have a couple of friends who teach wine classes, but I also teach wine classes, or at least I used to (seems the wine education industry has gotten quite competitive, and my writing schedule leaves me with not enough time to keep up the wine education marketing; you fade from memory if you don’t stay in their face).
~Having said that, I am perplexed by the many so-called wine specialists and educators I seem to be coming across lately.
~Often, I receive a request for interview from a writer who is doing an article, and often I am glad to be interviewed. But I always ask the writer not to refer to me as a wine expert. I hate that term; it seems pretentious. I’d rather be called simply a wine professional.
~I hate the term wine specialist for just about the same reason as I hate wine expert. But I have an idea what a wine expert might be. I have no idea what a wine specialist might be.
~I’ve done an online search for the term wine specialist. I gave up the quest after about half an hour.
~Many wine shops describe themselves as wine specialists.
~A few wine selling schemes offer wine specialists, educators, and associates. These outfits often promise special wines at unheard of prices but they really sell second and third label stuff at ridiculously high prices, relative to the wine’s merits.
~The term wine specialist also shows up in a lot of ads for jobs. Dig into the ads and you often find the job is in sales, auction inventorying, and as a wine buyer.

Some ads for a wine specialist include the requirement that the applicant be able to lift at least 50 pounds without incident (a case of wine weighs approximately between 38 and 55 pounds, depending upon the type of bottles and whether the carton is wood or cardboard).

What do you suppose that job turns out to be???

~Many of the wine specialists I run into also claim to be wine educators. What constitutes a wine educator?
~This term has something backing it up. A number of programs exist to teach the subject of wine. The serious student will spend thousands of dollars going for a certificate or other diploma such as a Master Sommelier or Master of Wine.
~Mostly, people who have earned their certificates or their MS or MW are quite knowledgeable enough to teach wine classes. Whether or not they are any good at teaching is a separate issue.
~Yet, others, like me, teach but do not hold those wine teaching degrees. That's because:

Many of us have studied wine for decades, as avid readers and as avid consumers.

In my case, I studied how to make wine on my own and later in courses at the original International Wine Center, in Manhattan, and at Cornell University’s so-called short courses, in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.

I was a professional winemaker in my own winery, after which I worked as a wine salesman, after which I operated a wine retail shop.

During my work in the industry, I drew upon my original education, as a writer, and began a wine writing career, which entails engaging in an amazing amount of research!

My classes are light on rote and heavy on practicality.

~Many wine specialists and educators that I have been meeting often don’t seem able to fork over the barest credentials. Just because someone has bought and sold wine for decades offers no guarantee that he or she has valuable knowledge to impart, or knows how to impart it.
~I am especially careful with people who claim to be wine specialists and educators by tacking a Ph.D after their name without explaining the nature of their doctorate; it often turns out to be engineering or some other field unrelated either to wine specializing or wine education, but it looks impressive.

(Of course, some trained wine educators hold a doctorate in another field, but I am not talking about them.)

~If you are thinking of taking a wine class, challenge the person who claims to be a wine specialist and educator before you drop any money. If a wine sales pitch seems to underlie the specialist part of the resume, move on.
~Better still, check out the following sites; they do not sell their students wine.

Educators Masters Somms

Here are three wine specialist job openings.

1 2 3

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
October 2007. All Rights Reserved.