Monday, August 27, 2007

Old Vines

~When I worked for a wine distributor, Pellegrini Old Vine Carignane was one of the wines in our portfolio. I loved the wine for its rustic quality and for its year-to-year consistency. (The winery also produced an Old Vine Zinfandel that was every bit as appealing to me.)
~I loved the wines but never gave much thought to the Old Vine designation. I suppose, however, like so many others, I made an assumption that older vines are better than younger ones at producing fine wine.
~California producers noticed that seemingly innate assumption that older is better. Not long after I had taken myself off the road as a wine salesman, the Old Vine designation seemed to become ubiquitous as California wineries used it to command high prices.
~To be sure, Old Vine designation isn’t a California invention. European wine producers have used the designation to make a point about the quality of their wine. But what that point is has never been clearly spelled out to the consumer, and I am not so sure it can be.
Talk to a New World winemaker with young vines and you will hear that old vines offer the same quality that proper crop control on new vines offers.
Talk to an Old World winemaker whose vineyard has been in the family for generations and you will hear that old vines offer more depth and concentration in their wines because they provide reduced crop and because their root systems are so deep that they manage to bring up more and more of the “terroir.”
Go back to the New World winemaker and mention the potential “terroir” connection to quality Old Vine designated wine and you are likely to be laughed at.

~In Europe, I believe the Old Vine designation started out to mean vines that were never affected by the nineteenth-century phylloxera blight. Over time, the designation took on new meaning and the date of an old vine shifted based on various high or low points in vintages and in wine production calamities.
~To my palate, something unique seems to be at work in wines produced from older vines (beyond about 50 years old). Such wines almost invariably seem earthy, rustic; they seem more complicated at the same time that they seem well integrated; they make me think of wisdom.
~Conversely, wines produced from young vines (under ten years old) often present themselves not as having come from the earth but from the fruit factory; they are forward and in your face at the same time that they seem shallow; they remind me of impetuous immaturity.
~Wines produced from vines between 10 and 50 years old are all over the map; some show promise, others falter and then regroup, others are consistent, and still others are inconsistent. In other words, these vines seem to be constantly reacting and adjusting to life in the vineyard.
~Is it possible that my feeling for wines produced from old vines is just a reflection of good marketing? Am I that shallow?
~Maybe, but having once been a grape grower, and still being a gardener and fruit tree grower, has made me a believer that what comes from the soil brings to us what is in the soil.
~I have no scientific proof to back me up, but I believe that the Old Vine designation, when it truly denotes wines produced from old vines, gives us something that only durability can give. The vines have formed a symbiotic relationship with the soil and site in which they reside. The longer the two are together, the more the symbiosis strengthens and the more we can taste that relationship in the wines.
That older vines produce less fruit likely means one of two things.
Fruit production is incidental to the survival of plants. Leaves are the carriers of continued life and survival. In fact, fruit production is an energy sapping process. Maybe older vines put out less fruit as a way of expending less energy, thereby doing what we do when we get old—slow down.
On the other hand, older vines might produce less fruit because over their lifetime they have learned the lesson of focusing on quantity over quality. Maybe old vines have something to tell us.
~Of course, this whole subject is mere sentimentality. Whether they are old vines or new vines, it still takes good grape growing and winemaking to produce the best wine. Sadly, things can and do go wrong.
~Still, I have a suspicion that when things go wrong, like older trees that are often able to withstand an insect onslaught better than younger trees, older grape vines may be more forgiving of the mistakes of others and of nature.

Here’s a link to a conversation about Old Vine designation:

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Myth Exposed?

~From its inception, this blog was intended to explode myths about wine, and there are many to explode. But last weekend I discovered two situations that may have exposed rather than exploded a myth.
~Circumstance found me at a family gathering, in the home of one of my wife’s brothers. He’s a fairly successful businessman, and he has a liking for wine. But he has no geeky interest in the product. He simply drinks wine with his meals and to relax. In fact, he has no knowledge of wine beyond the ones he likes to drink.
~Unfortunately, his lack of knowledge leaves him doing something that, according to us wine professionals, one should never do.
My brother-in-law stores his wines in a rack, in the kitchen.

His wine rack is not next to the stove or refrigerator, but still, a kitchen can get quite warm, making it a candidate for the worse room in the house to store wine.
~My brother-in-law receives many gifts from associates; one of them is wine, and many of those wines wind up on his rack in the kitchen, a fact that made me particularly nervous when he invited me to pick any red wine I wanted to open and that I thought would delight the group. On the rack was a bottle of a Bordeaux wine from the 1983 vintage.
The wine critic Robert Parker made his bones (as we used to say back in Brooklyn) by correctly calling the quality of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. It was the single event that catapulted him from mere critic to guru.

The vintage that followed was no slouch either, and so, while I was excited to find the particular 1983 vintage in my brother-in-law’s rack, the storage conditions to which it had been subjected made me afraid to open it.
~I succumbed to curiosity and selected the Bordeaux to open. I checked the bottleneck and I eyed the fill level: no wine seemed to have leaked and little, if any, evaporation seemed to have taken place. I reached for the corkscrew.
~Being relatively unconcerned with wine, my brother-in-law uses one of those winged corkscrews. I hate them. They are designed for ease but they are also badly designed for leverage, and if something goes wrong, they seem completely useless as an implement for innovative remedy.
~I inserted the corkscrew into the cork and turned the worm. It went into the cork without incident, and when I noticed that the instrument’s wings had not been opening as I turned the worm I knew that the time had passed for the cork to lift but it had not budged.
~I gently pulled on the corkscrew and it easily slid right out, leaving a hole in the center of the cork. Pieces of cork clung to every level of the worm screw—the cork had disintegrated during storage.
~The only way left for me to get at the wine was to widen the hole in the center of the cork to allow an escape hatch for the oxygen when I pushed the cork into the bottle, so that the bottle would not explode in my hands, which I have had happen twice over my years in the wine trade.
~Of course, with all the cork particles in it, I dumped the first glass of wine that I poured, but not until after I took a deep whiff and a small taste.
~In spite of it all, the wine was marvelous!
~The wine certainly showed its age, but in a good way. It had not browned—it was a beautiful brick color; its aroma was of slight oxidation, but also with an under aroma of earth and fruit; its palate was broad with a hint of bacon fat that lingered in a long finish.
Myth Exposed?: Bad storage and a disintegrated cork is a perfect prescription for ruining a wine.

Neither deplorable storage conditions nor a disintegrated cork seemed to have had much effect on a quality 1983 Bordeaux red. The wine had been transported to New Jersey from London (where my brother-in-law had gotten the wine) and then it rested in that rack in the kitchen for about a dozen years.

I was humbled.

~Later in the day one of my niece-in-law’s husbands asked for me to help in opening a white wine. It seemed he had met with a recalcitrant cork, one that refused to budge.
~This cork was not disintegrated. In fact, it was a young white wine from Italy—a Pint Grigio produced for quick consumption.
~The winged corkscrew seemed powerless to lift the cork out of the bottle. This time, I rummaged through a kitchen drawer and there I found a cheap version of a waiter’s corkscrew, the kind of screw that comes with a knife to cut the foil that covers the cork and a leverage device that one rests on the lip of the bottleneck after the worm has been fully inserted.
~I inserted this version of a corkscrew into the cork slightly to the right of the hole that the winged version had made. I slowly turned the worm to keep control over it from slipping to the center, and when the time came, I placed the leverage device over the lip of the bottle and pulled.
~The cork came out but with great difficulty.
~The wine, however, was oxidized.
Myth Exposed?: Storing wine on its side keeps the cork moist.

The cork from this bottle was completely dry and just about fused to the bottleneck. My brother-in-law did not remember how long the wine had been in the rack in the kitchen, but he said it had been there at minimum two months.
~I really don’t know the moral of these stories, except to say that the older I get the more I become convinced in the fallacy of speaking or thinking in absolutes, which is one reason that listening to blowhards who try to prove that they know what they are talking about gets harder and harder with each passing year, no, minute. And I am trying harder and harder not to sound like a blowhard...

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
August 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Sorry all. There has been a death in my family. I'll be unable to post until later in the week.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Go offline

~For those of you who are not obsessed with wine let me explain an “offline.”
Online refers to wine geeks discussing and arguing about wine on an Internet bulletin board or a wine forum.
Offline refers to wine geeks physically gathering in a pre-agreed upon place, normally a restaurant, to engage in their passion: to talk about wine.

~Over the years, I’ve attended not many but a few offlines, and each time I have done so I have told myself that I would not do it again.
~It’s not that I don’t like the people—in fact, most of the people I have met through wine are decent and fun loving (unfortunately, quite a few snobby, unusually unlikable people have crossed my path too, but that happens in any gathering of people, and I am certain a few of them thought the same of me).
~It’s also not that I don’t like sharing wine with other people who like sharing wine. I love doing that.
~It’s not even that I don't like to avoid buying wine in a restaurant—pricey as many are—by choosing to bring my own wine, and my own glass, and my own corkscrew...
~For me, there are two ways to sample wine: in a professional setting or in a structured wine tasting.
~One of the worst things I can think of for sampling wine is to do it at dinner without parameters.
~What usually happens at an offline is that a wine theme is agreed upon in advance and then almost without exception each attendee brings wine that fits the theme plus wine that does not. The table winds up with an array of wines—sometimes they are spectacular wines that only a fool would pass up tasting.
~Sometimes, however, many of the wines are not friendly to the food on the menu. But that's often ok, since at offlines, the dinner becomes almost incidental. The focus is on talking about the wines—endlessly...talking...about...the...wines.
~Since I like to separate wine tasting from wine for dinner, I prefer talking about the wines at a tasting and I prefer talking about all the fun and glorious things about life that are made even more glorious when the wine and food are singing to me.
~I bring this up because last night I attended an offline. I met a couple of people in-person whom I had known only online. They were great fun to be with, open hearted people who like a good laugh and who certainly enjoy tasting wine. But.

I remember just about every wine that I tasted last night, especially the one I truly disliked.
The general theme of the offline was Rhone varieties. With the exception of one fellow who is a local wine producer and who brought the wonderful wines he produces in the Finger Lakes, and with the exception of a Provencal rosé and a Loire dessert wine, the theme was represented by three red wines from the Rhone and one Syrah from California, plus one white Rhone wine, which happened to have been TCA tainted and ruined (and it was one of the wines I brought).
The three Rhone reds comprised two Hermitage and one Chateauneuf du Papes. The California Syrah was from Paso Robles.
I loved the Rhones for different reasons, but they generally reflected the racy, almost funky aroma and spicy/peppery/full density of body that I expect from the wines. The one I liked the least was from a hot vintage (1998) and the others were from 1989.
I absolutely hated the California Syrah. It was from 2002. It smelled like stewed prunes and it tasted like two tons of stewed prunes mixed with raisins that had been stirred in a barrel of grain alcohol.
The Rhones were between 13 and 14 percent alcohol—the Syrah was listed a tenth of a percent under 16!

~The restaurant gracefully allowed us to bring the wine and did not charge us its usual corkage fee, which is a cheap $5 per bottle.
~The restaurant serves vegetarian meals, although I can never figure out why restaurants that serve, and people who eat, cheese and eggs call themselves vegetarians, since the animal products are not vegetation. But I digress.
~From what I saw on the menu, maybe one item might have been able to stand up to the Rhone wines. (I don’t think anything in this world could stand up to that Syrah, except maybe a car bomb).
~Because it sounded good to me, I ordered an Italian-style tort of ricotta filled philo pastry.
~Unfortunately, the wines were so powerful, I cannot remember what the food tasted like, which presents a perfectly valid reason for restaurants not to like BYOB: it could ruin the taste of their food.
~In all, the people were fun, the wines were generally wonderful, and the evening was fun. But on my way home, I vowed once again not to attend offlines.

You can see what kinds of things go on at offlines by reading about them at these links:




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

Friday, August 10, 2007

The customer is--or isn't--always right?

~In my wine career, I have worked in wine retail and wine distribution, plus I operated both my own winery tasting room and wine retail shop.
~The one thing I know from my experience selling wine is that the customer isn’t always right.
~The other thing I know is that the customer is always right.

I’ve had customers come back to seek replacement for a bottle of wine they claimed was no good, yet they did not think to bring the wine with them to return it.

I’ve had customers come back to seek replacement for a bottle of wine they claimed was no good, yet the bottle they brought back with them to prove it had no more than a glass of wine left in it.

I’ve had customers come back to seek replacement for a bottle of wine that they simply did not like—sometimes they brought the unfinished wine back, sometimes not.

I’ve had customers hand me a nearly full open bottle of wine claiming that something was wrong with it.

I’ve had customers call me on the phone to complain that the bottle of wine they were drinking at that very moment had something wrong with it.

In most of the above cases, I likely replaced the customer’s wine either with the same or with a different wine—of course, the customer on the telephone got a soothing apology, but if he was thinking I would run over to his apartment with a bottle of wine…

~Next to the concept of volume sales, the key to running a retail wine shop is to build relationships. A wine retailer is up against plenty of competition both in pricing and product choices.
~Sorry to have to say this, but wine consumers aren’t especially loyal, not unless the retailer has taken the time and effort to build a solid relationship, and even then it takes constant stroking of that relationship for it to thrive.
~I’ve seen customers walk away from a relationship over a $1 difference in price.
~Today, I am a retail customer.
~I am always exploring and so I buy a lot of wine with producer names that I had not heard of before. A little while ago, one of those bottles of wine unknown to me had a problem.
~I bought this wine from a retailer with which I have had a relationship for many years, since the late 1980s, when I sold my wine to him when he was manager of a store. He knew me when I was a winemaker and he and I used to meet on the road when we worked for separate distributors.
~A few years back he opened his own wine retail shop. Lately, I have been buying at least ten cases of wine a year from him.
~At home, after opening the particular wine that I referred to above, I discovered that it was oxidized. I called the retailer to warn him of a potential problem with the wine, which happened to be at a discount price at the store.
~I was shocked when the retailer said to me, “You are the only person to complain about the wine.”
~In retail, you don’t verbally accuse or doubt the customer, at least not in your first sentence.
~I suggested that he open a bottle or two and then told him that I would bring back the bottle that I had so he could taste for himself.
~When I got to the wine shop, the employee who had sold me the wine was there. I told him what the situation was and just at that moment the retail shop owner came downstairs to announce that he was late and on his way to a meeting.
~He looked at me and reiterated that so far I was the only one to complain about the wine, he looked at his employee and told him that whatever he worked out with me would be ok with him.
~The employee started our conversation by saying that he had just opened a bottle of that same wine the night before and it was fine.
~I explained to him that we were not talking about the wine he had, but the one I had in my hands, and this bottle was not fine, and that I am quite capable of determining when a wine is oxidized.
~The employee opened the wine, poured some into a glass and said. “Oh yeah, that one is over the hill.”
~He replaced the bottle. I bought a case of wine and left the store, but while driving home, I began to get angry over how the retailer had handled the situation.

This retailer has known me for so many years, knows my wine background, and he knows my spending pattern in his store.

He also must know that I have never brought a wine back to the store—I have had a few cork tainted wines but just didn’t bother to bring them back.

Further, the retailer knows that the distributor of the wine credits or replaces returned bottles that are bad.

Why in the world would the retailer treat the situation the way that he did?

~I suppose the retailer either has contempt for his customers or he is overworked (or both), or maybe he thinks that I am a jerk.
~In any case, it is not my problem, and it was a stupid thing for him to do.
~His payoff: I have decided to shop elsewhere in the future.

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

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Careful what you wish for...

~I’ve said it before and will say it one more time: wine is not health food. But is wine food at all, and if so, does it promote health?
~Last week I read the following quote by a British spokesperson for
an outfit known as Cancer Research, UK:

“There is a lot of confusion over safe levels of drinking.”

~If the above is not an understatement I’m not a white male blogger looking for an excuse to be heard…
~The spokesperson was referring to the results of a study that her organization just released which says that just one glass of wine or beer a day increases the risk of bowel cancer by 10%.
~A couple of weeks ago I read the results of a Harvard Men’s Health Watch study that claimed men who drink an average of four to seven glasses of red wine per week are 48% less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than men who do not drink red wine.
~By now, all of you must have heard of the 40 or so studies that claim moderate wine consumption is good for us and that the chemical in red wine, resveratrol, protects us from heart disease and possibly cancer.
~How many of you remember the statistics that show how much wine one would have to consume to benefit from the resveratrol?
~The answer is not in glasses a day but in the impossible count of bottles a day.

We don’t remember the negative stats because we want to believe the positive ones.

~The wine industry and its promotional organizations like to shout about the seemingly good news concerning health and moderate wine consumption, plus they like to tell us that wine is good food.
~Fine, but the federal government never believed that wine is food. If it did, it would have given regulation of the product to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
~When the federal government came up with the idea to raise revenue through excise taxes on alcohol, it lumped wine in with evil drink and tobacco—the sin tax mentality.

Wine used to be lumped in with firearms, but after decades of that insanity, the government has un-lumped it—but in name only. If you don’t believe me, apply for a license to produce wine; you’ll feel like you were asking for permission to engage in something unsavory. In fact, it’s probably less of a hassle to get a gun license than it is to get a license to produce wine.

~Anyway, the wine industry and its promo hacks spoke loud and clear about the product’s food value, so loud that they once again awakened the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and other such oxymoronically-named organizations.
~In its infinite desire to make sure that all Americans think and live the way its zealot founder does, CSPI has petitioned the federal government to mandate that wine labels come with nutritional information on them, like all other food labels.
~You would think there are two problems with the nutritional label idea:

First, if, as the government and CSPI have tried to make us believe in the past, wine is not food, why should it contain nutritional information?

Second, the FDA does not regulate wine labels, the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau does (TTB).

Since TTB doesn't regulate food it hasn't required nutritional labels.

~The solutions to the two problems:

CSPI cries UNCLE! OK, the moralists say, wine is food, now put its nutritional value on the label.

The federal government all of a sudden seems to think that wine is food. TTB entertains the idea of mandating nutritional labels on wine and it goes through the motions of asking for public input.

~TTB is likely to mandate the nutritional label, but if it doesn't this time, it will be only a matter of time before CSPI and its friends prevail. Remember, this is the organization mainly responsible for promoting the disingenuous GOVERNMENT WARNING and the meaningless CONTAINS SULFITE labeling.
~Congratulations are in order to the wine industry and its promotion hacks. You've persuaded CSPI and the government that wine is food. I wouldn’t bet, however, on either organization going all the way and referring to the revenue-raiser as health food.
~In fact, after the nutritional labels get onto the bottles, you will then see what CSPI can really do to mess with our lives—watch for the many “new” findings about what is or isn’t contained in wine.
~Watch the FDA; it wouldn’t surprise me if that outfit makes a grab at regulating wine labels.
~Do you suppose CSPI has any friends at FDA?

TTB SeattleTimes Wine&Vines


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