Monday, May 28, 2007

Statistics don't lie; do they?

~A few months ago a research organization known as Wine Opinions (WO) issued the results of a study they underwrote to determine if there are definite differences between men and women when it comes to wine.
~The study was not concerned with sensory perception differences. WO conceded up front that men and women have “genuine biological differences.”
~WO built a study group of more than 2,000 people that the organization claims represented a geographic and demographic cross section of wine consumers that “drive the market for fine wines.”
~The first thing about the study that made me take notice is that more women than men drink wine once or more a week—54% to 46% (in California, the numbers are reversed). Also, 80% of all wine consumed in the United States goes down the throats of this group.

The study seemed also to discover that men claim to drink mostly red wine—40% to women's 27%—but that represents the mature wine-drinking group. Younger men wine drinkers consume as much white and red wine as younger women.

That news did not surprise me. The more I meet with young people just starting to appreciate wine, the more I am encouraged that the snobbism of a certain older crowd may soon be a thing of the distant past.

I would, however, love to see something else fade: the statistic that shows men core wine drinkers experiment with a “wider variety” of wines than women.

~The organization claims that tight statistical differences show that men and women don’t differ much in selecting varietals. I simply have too much experience selling wine to believe that stat. But then, it has been three years since I sold my last bottle of wine.
~Apparently, with lower priced wines there is no obvious male or female type or brand, even for wines with gimmicky labels. I'm glad for that, the statistic between male and female, not the gimmicky labels; I hate those.
~I was truly surprised by WO's statement that the study showed that the number of men wine geeks in the U.S. is no higher than the number of women wine geeks. Since I am not overjoyed by the level of discourse among wine geeks in general, this news hurts my sensibility toward women, whom I always assumed are generally less interested in pounding their chests, which is the general attitude of so many geeks on a few Internet wine bulletin boards. Come to think of it, those bulletin boards seem to attract more men than women, sometimes causing testosterone to ooze from the computer screen.
~According to WO, however, the phenomenon known as “point chasing” is a male activity. The study also points out that wine collecting, buying based on reviews, and issuing forceful opinions are predominantly male wine consumer activities. Yet, it also seems that men are more likely than women to think that when the alcohol in wine reaches past 15% by volume it’s too high. Go figure. Saving grace for geeks.
~Now that I wasted your time with meaningless statistics gleaned from a study done by a company that makes its living consulting for the wine industry, I can easily tell you that I really don’t believe any statistic that does not conform to my opinions!!! Doesn't everybody feel that way?


Copyright May 2007 by Thomas Pellechia
All rights reserved

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sommelier or logistics manager

~Jason, whom I have not met in person—only via the Internet—but whom I respect for his many decades in the wine business, recently wondered online over the real purpose of a restaurant sommelier or wine buyer.
~The question came to Jason after an experience he had in an upscale restaurant around San Francisco. Boiled down, the experience included a so-called sommelier who displayed woeful regional wine knowledge, a wine list that the restaurant produces itself but can’t seem to keep updated, and a dessert wine that the server recommended but Jason discovered was deficient in a particularly important component for dessert wines—good acidity—leaving Jason to wonder why the high-priced restaurant’s wine buyer even brought that wine into the place.
~His displeasure having been posted online, on a bulletin board forum devoted to wine geekdom, Jason of course was greeted with all kinds of reactions to his wail, but generally people agreed that the situation was deplorable.

Did you know that there is no firm requirement that allows you to call yourself a sommelier?

~While there are schools and programs to teach wine sommeliers, to be a sommelier in the vast majority of restaurants across the United States does not require that you show up with a Master Sommelier certificate. Just a little wine knowledge will do; quite often, that little knowledge may be more than the establishment’s owner or manager holds.

One of the most annoying things about dining out in the United States is that, with some exceptions, the American restaurant trade cares rather little about the relationship between wine and food, and some care even less about paying for quality employees.

In fact, it’s built into the restaurant trade’s collective business plan to pay below the federal minimum wage—which is legal—in the hope that an improperly trained staff will make a living on tips forked over by guilt-ridden consumers.

Few in the restaurant industry seem to think that paying for quality wine knowledgeable employees, or at least trained ones, might improve their bottom line by enticing consumers to keep returning to the restaurant and to keep ordering wine.

~Unfortunately, in many, many restaurants the person who appears to have the most wine knowledge, and is willing to work for the least paycheck, gets the sommelier title and maybe even the title of wine buyer. What it often means is that the person is a glorified inventory control or logistics manager, one who would likely earn more money performing the same function in manufacturing, leaving me to fear that should American industry choose to start manufacturing products ever again the restaurant trade would be sorely deficient in wine buyers!
~To be sure, this is not only an American problem.
~Travel the European countryside and you often find yourself dining at local restaurants whose cuisine may or may not be stellar but it may always be regional and therefore not much different from restaurant to restaurant.
~In regional European restaurants the wine service is usually good, but the sommelier has so little with which to work that it would be a waste to go to school to learn what to serve with what food. Regional European restaurants generally serve the local wines—period.
~Granted, local wines in Europe often pair well with local cooking, but not always. For instance, in a place like Cahors, in France, where the local wine is 100% deep, dark red Malbec, restaurant servers seem to recommend the wine to pair with everything from a rich cassoulet to a fine broiled fish—not on your life does the wine have that kind of range. A good sommelier should know that.
~Sorry to have to tell you, Jason, but you are old enough to understand and I think you can take it: until the American culture sheds its Calvinist values and places value in the hedonistic pleasure of dining (which even the sacrilegious are likely to admit is a gift from God) the wine sommelier will remain a wonderful-sounding title for the position of logistics person with sales abilities.
~Our unending task as wine lovers is to seek and find those enlightened restaurants that make an effort to serve wine that pairs with their menu, both in the palate and in the wallet.

Note: I had the good fortune to have gotten my early wine training from the first American Master Sommelier, Edmund Osterland. Here is his Web site:

Eddie, and here is another site to peruse MS,

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

Friday, May 18, 2007

Come Fly With Me

~In the late 1970s, United Airlines had a domestic flight program called “Unlimited Wine Flights.” You paid a dollar for the first 375 ml bottle of wine and then you could drink as many more of them as you could handle, for free.
~Luckily, I used to fly a lot to the West Coast in those days, and so I always flew United.
~Luckier still, the wine was fairly decent, Inglenook or Beringer; it was in the days just before the two wine companies went, well, suffice to say that they went.
~What I would give for those days of unlimited wine flights, those days when airlines seemed to have wanted our business, those times when flying was an adventure rather than a necessary shoeless cattle call, and without toothpaste too!
~These days, to go along with the peanuts that you might or might not get on a plane, you are usually stuck with some of the worst wines in the universe. I’ve come to avoiding even asking for wine, but the airlines have even subverted that effort by serving what tastes like surplus ginger ale.

I have been told things are different if one flies in what used to be called “First Class” but is now called the more politically correct “Business Class,” first class having the taint of the caste to it. I have yet to fly in that lofty class, forgive the pun, so I can’t say for sure. But I have tried some of the wines offered in Business Class, and I can say that judging by the wines I’ve encountered, it doesn’t seem to be any better in the front of the cabin.

~Over the past few years, I have been called upon to serve as a wine judge for a business traveler oriented magazine. The wines are submitted for judging by various airlines; we judge them semi-blind, and then the magazine prints the results of what we determine are the best.
~I say that we judge the wines semi-blind because we are given the name of either the varietal or region for each wine. We get to judge them within their class. In my view, a truly blind tasting would require that we are told nothing about the wines other than that they are grouped by class. I should point out that I am in a minority with that view—wouldn’t you know…
~This year’s judging took place just a few days ago in New York City.
~First, let me say that when I judge wine I apply my technical training to the task. I try hard not to let my wine preferences influence how I judge what is before me. In other words, I first look for the technical things rather than the hedonistic things about a wine--the technical gets scoring preference.

Not all, but many of the judges—writers, retailers, and sundry wine professionals—do not have winemaking training and so their view of the technical stuff often differs from people with my view.

That’s why I often find myself explaining to some of the judges, as I was explaining the other day, things like “that sauerkraut smell could mean a bad malolactic event took place,” or “that rubber smell could indicate reduction,” and so on.

At the recent judging of the airline submitted wines, I had many occasions to say such things.

~There were five or six panels of judges. The panel I was assigned to judged some of the worst wines I had ever been asked to evaluate, from that sauerkraut smell to vinaigrette, and almost every conceivable technical flaw in-between.
~I was told that all the wines we judged are served in Business Class. I wish I had also been told the name of the airlines so that I would not only avoid Business Class but those airlines.
~The experience made me feel that airline wine buyers ought to be arrested for grand larceny and maybe even attempted murder.
~Our panel comprised seven judges. We judged 23 separate wines within six classes. We generally agreed that the wines were mostly horrid. We also generally agreed that the best of the 23 was a white blended wine from Turkey; it had a slight whiff of petroleum common to Riesling, and its fruit/acid balance was solid, but its body was slightly thin. I scored the wine 15 out of 20 points.

The 20-point scoring system is tight. In this case, the maximum points for appearance is 2, for aroma is 6, and for overall impression is 12.

My score for the Turkish wine was 2, 5, and 8.

~This Turkish delight came as a wonderful surprise, beating the 22 other wines that came from big-gun countries like France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Chile, and so on.
~Unfortunately, we are not told the names of the wines and so I’ll have to wait until the results are printed to find out if I can find that Turkish wine anywhere in New York State.
~For now, I’ll stick to my guns and drink no wine served on airplanes, which I suppose is just as well since when there is any, the food stinks too. Why do we pay them for the privilege to put up with that kind of treatment?
~Oh, right: there are no tunnels under the oceans and there are no ships that can get us across in a few hours.
~Talk about a captive market!

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

Monday, May 14, 2007

Wine Classes

I start with a disclaimer: I designed and taught a wine class called “What is wine?” I developed the class after being taught by two great wine professionals: Eddie Osterland and Rory Callahan, at the original International Wine Center in New York City. I am grateful to each man for my grounding in wine.

~Mr. Osterland and I submitted a wine education proposal in the 1980s to the then new NY Wine and Grape Foundation, but they didn’t buy it. Oh, well, we each moved on, as I assume the Foundation has in its new offices at the recently established New York Wine and Culinary Center (NYWCC) located in Canandaigua, NY, in the Finger Lakes region.
~NYWCC is a beautiful facility with top-notch training equipment for cooking and for learning about wine.
~When I operated my winery, and afterwards, as I worked as a wine salesman, I had developed classes for consumers and for the restaurant trade. My aim was to make the classes practical, to bring wine to the dinner table without the diner having to become overly proficient at naming the top wine chateaux of France, etc., in order to have a good dining experience.
~I have since presented those classes under the title, "What is wine?" in restaurants in New York City and at Cooper Union College, also in NY City.
~When NYWCC opened in 2006 I had great hopes for it, and so I made a bid to teach my classes there.
~The idea of the classes is to give people what they need to know about the make-up of wine, from vineyard to bottle, as it relates to enjoying the product with or without food. It seemed an ideal fit with the NYWCC mission.
~So many wine classes take students to certification and beyond, as in the Master Sommelier and Master of Wine degrees, which is fine for helping people develop the rote powers that most of us have and can fine-tune with practice.
~I’ve always felt that the expensive certification programs are essential if you want to be able to identify wines by pedigree so that you can become a major wine buyer for Chrystie’s Auction House or at one of the top Michelin star restaurants in the world. Other than that, the general consumer’s money for a certificate seems to buy a talent suitable for parlor games, which is also fine, if you like that sort of activity.
~Besides, wine certification programs are mainly skewed toward a wine hierarchy system that—in my view—should have been if not abandoned years ago at the very least updated. Knowing the names of and how to identify wines you can’t afford, well, what’s the point?

Although wine interest on the consumer level is growing nearly exponentially in the U.S., we still have a long way to go before most adults drink wine everyday with dinner, which is the experience that should be the aim of wine education.

Yet, while many wine professionals complain about the general lack of consumer awareness and consumer interest, classes continually eschew practical wine education, preferring instead to offer the stuff of wine snobs.

Makes little sense to me.

~It seems that the latest in the long line of certificate programs is now offered at the NYWCC in the Finger Lakes.
~The first thing that bothers me about this development is that I was under the impression that NYWCC was to be devoted to New York wine. If the certificate is offered for that purpose, I can’t see why spending a few hundred dollars on that would be worth the price. There isn’t even a wine hierarchy in New York about which to teach!
~My assumption, of course, is that NYWCC has opened its scope, and the class is the same certificate program that leads to the Master of Wine program that was established in Britain.
~I wish NYWCC well, but I still think it is not what the general consumer needs. But then, in its first year, the NYWCC found it difficult to sell practical wine education programs. I don’t know if it was the fault of the offerings or the NYWCC promotion effort, such as one existed. Maybe they expect to have better luck selling the certificate classes, and I hope they do but I want to make one more disclaimer:

Last year, I was one in a small list of wine educators hired to teach classes at NYWCC. Most of us seem to have been removed form the list. I admit that I still would love to teach practical classes at NYWCC, even though I am peeved at the lack of professionalism in the way I found out my services are no longer required. I had to guess; not even an email or phone call to break the news to me.

~Anyway, last night I drank Traminette with a spicy chicken wok dish—the wine provided a perfect pairing with the food. The Traminette was ginger-like, with just a touch of sugar to foil the heat of the dish. Goose Watch Winery, in the Finger Lakes, produced the wine. I doubt you would learn about Traminette or Goose Watch (not to mention the pairing with spicy wok cooking) in most wine certificate courses, but if you must spend your hard-earned money, here are two places to begin:


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

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


~In the late nineteen-seventies I made a trip to Napa Valley, to taste first-hand the wines that I was told had started a revolution.
~I have many memories of that trip, and two rather vivid ones.
~One vivid memory was of Cabernet Sauvignon that tasted like bell peppers; the other was of Cabernet Sauvignon that tasted like eucalyptus.
~About the bell peppers, I was given a weak explanation along the lines of “this is what the grape tastes like.” I have since learned that the bell pepper situation, as well as other vegetal qualities in wine, often has something to do with unripe grapes. In the seventies there were a lot of new wineries in Napa with young vines.
~The eucalyptus, I was told back then, was because of a grove of eucalyptus trees situated near the vineyard. “You see,” the tasting room person said, “it’s the terroir.”
~I knew the word terroir, but I had yet to understand its implications, and I don’t think I do today either.

In the French wine world, the word terroir began as the phrase "goút de terroir," taste of the earth. It meant that the wine reflected the earth in which the grapes were grown.

Over time, however, the complete phrase has been diminished to a word, terroir, and the word came to mean not only the earth, but also the micro/macro climate of the vineyard.

~Some wine drinkers think of terroir as the taste of the stuff that is in the earth in which the grapes were grown. The most blatant example of this reflection is in the taste descriptor, “minerality.”
~Terroirists believe that the minerality of a wine is a direct result of the minerals located in the earth of a vineyard site.

I have talked with and I have read myriad people on the subject of minerality and terroir. I’m not so sure I have learned anything concrete from anything I have heard or read.

On Sunday, May 6, 2007 Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson did an admirable job for the New York Times at trying to, as the headline read, “debunk the idea of earth in a bottle.”

~McGee and Patterson made what appeared to be a cogent argument that the taste of minerals in wine is not the result of the actual minerals in the earth. Then they went on to make the case that what is actually happening in the vineyard is that the minerals in the earth are dissolved in rainwater and then vine roots take up the water, which of course carries the trace minerals.
~If it’s true, and I believe it is, that the minerals are dissolved and then taken into the roots system in water, it seems perfectly clear to me that the vine is taking up minerals, diluted as they may be, but minerals nonetheless.
~Are we talking semantics here?
~At one point, the authors claimed that it is the fermenting yeast that is the driver of the mineral taste in many wines. Perhaps that argument would have been believable had the writers explained why the same yeasts used to ferment different grape varieties don’t usually produce the same mineral qualities in the taste. The only reason I can think of for that situation is that even though yeast fermentation plays a role, grape components have an awful lot to do with the resulting taste of the wine—and grape juice with trace minerals, well, you get my point.
~What happens during fermentation is one of the most complex subjects to mankind. One thing we do know about fermentation is that the various components found in grapes are altered and manipulated by the process, often resulting in a host of sensory offshoots.
~I wanted to tell the authors of the article that it is too simplistic, and probably also false, to make a definitive claim that yeast fermentation creates the mineral taste in wine. But they seemed to have figured that out on their own; later in the article, they clarified that particular claim.
~The authors mentioned Jamie Goode, a plant scientist who makes the claim that the minerals that we think we taste in wine are actually sulfur compounds in various forms. I suppose that would mean that wines without a mineral taste to them have no sulfur compounds, but from what I know about wine, that can’t be an absolute.
~Mr. Goode’s explanation may need further explanation.
~Then there’s the Frenchman who is paid quite handsomely to trot the globe consulting with wine producers. He claims that it is the winemaker who determines what a wine should be, the implication in that claim, I guess, is that the earth is just their to support the trellis system and the vineyard posts. Bleh!
~It’s true that the winemaker manipulates the hell out of the juice and the resulting wine, but I believe that somehow what gets into the juice through the root system still manages to have an influence. The strength of that influence is based on many factors, not the least of which is the vineyard’s terroir.

In their article, however, McGee and Patterson made a salient point, one that is so much misunderstood.

Wine does not necessarily taste like what is in the earth, but the vineyard’s environment is often reflected in the taste of wine.

Still, there is that thing about Cabernet Sauvignon growing next to a eucalyptus grove…

~The thing that really makes me wonder, however, is how some wine geeks can get overly exercised by the idea of “terroir.”
~Often the difference between wine geekdom and the rest of the universe is the difference between enjoying what you like as opposed to enjoying what you are supposed to like. Therein lies a geek’s penchant for overreacting.

TheArticle, JGoode,

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

Saturday, May 5, 2007


~Almost two-dozen years ago, when we were each a lot younger, I read an interview with Robert Parker in a wine magazine. The interviewer said he would throw out names of wine regions and he asked Mr. Parker to respond with the first thing that comes to his mind.
~At the time, I had just started my small Finger Lakes winery, so I was quite interested in Mr. Parker’s answer when the interviewer said “Finger Lakes, New York” to him.
~His response was along the lines that the region’s wines would remain local and insular.
~I didn’t like his answer and I wrote a note to the magazine, but after all these years I have to admit that Mr. Parker seems to have been correct.
~No matter how much the Finger Lakes region has progressed in the quality of its wines, there hasn’t been enough promotion money to buy promotion talent and there hasn’t been enough interest in the region from critics and writers to give it the boost it needs, which creates a “Catch 22” that leaves the region needing promotion to garner interest and needing interested influentials to help promote it.
~Beyond the lack of promotion savvy, one thing that holds the region back is an old and meaningless image that will not go away. I am talking about so-called “foxy” wines.
~I was reminded of this die-hard image by an acquaintance in Denmark, Henrik, who happens to own a winery in Italy’s Piemonte region, and whom I will visit in the autumn of 2007.
~Henrik said that he had been told that Finger Lakes wines taste like fox piss.
~Having never tasted fox piss I couldn’t say one way or the other, but what Henrik points out is an image that goes back to who-knows-where, when someone labeled all North American wines as “foxy.”
~Now, there is a grape in the United States called the fox grape. It is a wild grape variety that produces tiny red/purple grapes. It is in the Vitis labrusca species. The problem is, commercial wines produced in New York have hardly ever been produced from this grape.
~Even though Vitis labrusca is a local wild species, when the Finger Lakes region started producing commercial wine in 1858 the basis for the wines were from hybrid grapes called Catawba and Isabella; each grape has Vitis labrusca in its bloodline, but each also has the European species, Vitis vinifera in its bloodline, the result of field hybridizing that took place when Europeans planted their grapes in America. Even the so-called foxy Concord grape is a hybrid and not a true Vitis labrusca.
~Granted, Catawba, Isabella, and Concord produce quite "grapey" wine tastes and the Finger Lakes region’s biggest commercial wine successes were with those three grapes, but that is an old story that died with the Taylor Wine Company.

The Taylor Wine Company started in 1880. It lasted nearly 100 years as a Finger Lakes powerhouse until, in 1976, Coca Cola bought the company. In fact, Taylor was the most famous and largest winery in the Northeastern United States.

After a series of poor decisions, Coke sold the company to Seagrams, and that was the beginning of the end for the Taylor Wine Company. Today, it is a pared down brand under the global giant, Constellation Brands.

Taylor built its reputation on Catawba and Isabella grapes. In the 1950s, it pioneered French-American hybrid grapes in the region. By the 1980s, it had added Vitis vinifera wines to its product line, but not enough to make a dent in the company’s “foxy” image, and that image lingers.

~You can still find some Finger Lakes wines that are produced from Catawba and other labrusca hybrids, but the region has produced wines from European Vitis vinifera varieties since 1960. Since the 1980s, production of Vitis vinifera wines has steadily outpaced the other wines.
~The most successful of all the European grape varieties in the Finger Lakes happens to be Riesling. In my view, the region produces the most exciting Rieslings in North America. But the region also produces lean Chardonnay, fine Gewurztraminer, Lemberger, Cabernet Franc, and every few years wonderful Pinot Noir, plus some of the most exciting sparkling wines in the United States.

One more thing about those “foxy” grape varieties: In the 19th century, experiments with grape vines brought a root louse from North America to Europe. The little bug almost wiped out the European wine industry by eating the roots in the vineyards. Scientists ultimately discovered the cure, which was to propagate Vitis vinifera vines on the rootstocks of Native American vines, which are resistant to the root louse.

That rootstock system still exists today in Europe, but oddly, none of the European wines are called “foxy.”

NYWINE, phylloxera, Taylor,

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


~I forgive the consumer for not understanding the wine world in which I have lived and worked for the past two-dozen years. Sometimes I don't understand either.
~Until today, I thought I had a handle on the AVA system, but I now understand that I do not have the handle I thought I had on it. It’s more like I am holding the ass end of…
~There’s a Web site called Appellation America which claims to cover the wine world across America; it does, after a fashion.
~In any case, I read an article on their Web site today about Paso Robles, an AVA in California. Maybe it would help you to have a brief explanation of AVA.

The federal agency that regulates such things refers to American Viticultural Areas (AVA) as “delimited grape growing areas.”

In theory, an AVA would have some sort of identifying nature to it, like particular soil structure, etc. Application for an AVA requires soil and geographic information. In fact, however, when subjected to dissenting opinions during the required public comment when an AVA application is submitted, the government agency often overrides or plays down geological information before making its decision.

It turns out that an AVA is assigned when the government agrees to recognize a particular geographic location as a place where grapes grow.

Unfortunately, while the AVA may include tons of stuff about the geographic location, it tells us nothing about which grapes grow there or how well they may grow there, and it certainly says nothing about quality.

To truly confuse the issue, an AVA can be the size of a postage stamp or the size of one of the fifty United States.

Recognizing from the above the relative non-importance of a federal recognized AVA, why would the subject have people in Paso Robles screaming at one another?

PS: don’t assume that the words “Appellation of Origin” have anything to do with AVA. They really do not. All the appellation of origin does is to point you in the direction of where the wine comes from and that could be a city, a town, a village, a state, or a country, depending upon where the grapes in the wine came from and in what percentage of the volume. Confused? You should be.

~Put as succinctly as I can, AVA is rather meaningless to anyone other than those who would regulate words for tax purposes and those who would exploit words to make wine sales.
~In Europe appellation controls were originally set up to both identify specific regions and specific wine types within those regions. Without applying such controls over grape growing (types of grapes, minimum levels of sugar/acid at harvest, size of vineyard area, etc) and without wine production prescriptions (mandatory blending parameters, types of vessels and length for aging, etc.) an AVA designation doesn’t tell the consumer nearly as much as what a European Appellation of Origin Control tells us. All we really know with an AVA is that grapes grow there and taxes are paid for the privilege of turning those grapes into wine.
~In Paso Robles, which is an AVA, a petition has been put up for public comment which, when passed by the government, and I predict that it will, the present AVA will divide into an east vs. a west AVA.
~Unless someone can tell the consumer why the AVA is good for the wine, why should the consumer care?

See for yourself:

AVA, Paso Robles,

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