Saturday, September 22, 2007

It's Idyllic!

~In the vernacular of the nineteen fifties, television offered America the Little Ole Winemaker, a jolly man with a singsong voice and a nice pair of lederhosen. He was supposed to represent winemaking at Italian Swiss Colony Wines, one of the largest operations in California back then.
~Surely, the old man was a marketing ploy. Italian Swiss Colony had long before shed its Old World immigrant roots. It had become part of Louis Petri’s United Vintners, which also owned Inglenook in the nineteen fifties.
~In fact, it was those Little Old Winemaker television ads that helped bring Italian Swiss Colony wines across the nation.
~Those winery names don’t mean as much these days as they did back then, but the idea of a little old man making personalized styled wines ain’t dead yet—just read the back label.
~I wish someone would hire me to write wine back labels; some of the stuff is truly sadly done, from the hokey concepts to the special wine industry grammar that often defies the English language.
~Alas, I may never get the chance to be one of those back label writers; I write mainly nonfiction!
~The little old man on the many back labels still produces wine with the family tradition as his guide. He grows only the finest grapes, picks them at their peak of ripeness, gently crushes them as if they were his infant children needing a loving squeeze, and then watches over them day and night, like they really are his children.
~By the time he gets the wines into the bottle, the old man must feel as if he is sending his kids off to college—but when these kids leave they bring money in, not take it away.
~In truth, few of those little old winemakers exist these days, especially in California, where it costs more per acre of prime land than it would to buy a small country. Most of the family wineries that have survived are either part of a bigger company or quite big themselves; and any remaining little old winemakers likely have blackberries with them in the vineyard, to give and receive information from their multiple properties, some of which are tended by robot-like computers and then, at harvest, are picked by the robot’s offspring.
~In the winery, the old winemaker doesn’t need to get up in the middle of the night any longer to make sure that the red wine fermenting cap is punched down. The vineyard computer’s cousin likely takes care of that kind of activity now, just as sure as the computer takes care of a lot of the winemaking processes from pressure during pressing to temperature control while in tanks.
~Even the bottling line, which often was the final purview of human wine production intervention, is almost on automatic control.
~It’s nice to think of the idyllic life of a vintner, and idyll may still be an accurate description for some winemaking, but it isn’t exactly an accurate description for most wine production.
~The idea of a dedicated old man hunching over his oak barrels in the wee hours of the morning to make sure that we get the very best in wine quality sells just like the words “natural” and “organic.” But wine is often about big money; if you don’t believe it, read below about the money recently spent on the Charles Krug Winery.
~I snicker at some of the back label gibberish, but I suppose I am equally captured by the idea of a dedicated person giving singular personal attention to his (or her) wines. That’s why I still read back labels and that’s why I still search for such wineries. They exist, but generally they will be found these days in unlikely places, perhaps in the 46 United States that are not part of the top four wine producing states in the country. (I hear some of them indeed exist in NAPA—see the link below.)
~One other type of winery that gets my attention is the one that thinks about the environment. It may not be obvious, but beyond the potential pollution of the environment through grape growing, wineries are major water and energy users. That’s why the story in the GREEN link below makes me perk up.
~One day I'll get to write that back label. Who knows, maybe when I do I'll wrap myself up in the idyllic and forget reality? That could be nice.

NOTE: This will be my last entry for September. I am going to be traveling. I’m scheduled to return in early October and am aiming to make the next VinoFictions entry around October 6.


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

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Once was blind but now I see

~What are the pros and cons of blind wine tasting?
~What is blind wine tasting?

Depending upon the situation, a blind wine tasting is either a parlor game or educational.

A blind wine tasting is also a way to evaluate wines professionally, which is, to me, its best application.

~There are two types of blind wine tastings.
~In one type of blind tasting, you know the identity of the wines, but you are not told which wine is hidden in which brown bag and in which order the wines will be served.
~The other type of tasting is called a double-blind; you neither know the identity of the wines in the tasting nor the order in which they will be served—in my view, you should not be told the grape or wine types in the tasting.
~Ringers are thrown into many blind tastings. At parlor games, they are there to fool tasters; in a professional setting, they are there to gauge the tasters’ consistency.
~In any blind tasting, the bottle shape and neck capsule should be hidden from the tasters—whether consciously or unconsciously, some use these as clues.

With the exception of the rare or trained person, most of us are not deeply in tune with our perceptions.

We have heard stories of people who once could see but after having lost sight have gained a heightened sense of smell, hearing, and/or direction; they are forced to trust their innate perceptive abilities and their abilities grow stronger.

~Most of us are not good at taking the time and thought needed to recall smells and tastes. Indeed, some of us have problems identifying what it is we smell and taste, even with eyesight intact.
~It’s one thing to have a memory of a particular wine, but it’s quite another to have a memory of particular sensory stimulus; the trained taster instinctively attempts to marry the two and so, the trained taster has a far better chance at identifying wines correctly in either a blind or double-blind tasting. But even trained tasters have problems, especially if they spend time trying to gather clues.

Clues can sabotage your training by fooling you.

~I have no interest either in fooling others or in proving myself to them, which is what many parlor blind tastings turn out to offer.
~I believe that blind tasting is essential for professionals, mainly for technical/quality purposes (I am partial to double-blind, but that method has become a rarity in wine competitions). But if you must engage in them in your parlor, it’s best for every blind taster—trained or not—to go with instincts.
~The odds are that if untrained tasters listen to their senses rather than what they think they know or are supposed to know, their unconscious memories will provide the best information on which to form an opinion.
~Oh, and a blind tasting should always be a silent tasting. What someone says during a tasting often takes on the power of suggestion over others.

The one thing a blind tasting should not be able to do is to make the taster like something that the taster does not like.

With that in mind, how is it that some tasters who hate a particular wine can proclaim it the best in the blind tasting?

~Damned if I know the answer to that question.
~Maybe the tasters aren’t properly trained, maybe clues fool them, maybe they try too hard, maybe they are influenced more by labels than by wine, or maybe a combination of many things.
~Maybe the real reason that I dislike the parlor game is because this thing about liking a wine at a blind tasting that one did not generally like before the tasting—it has happened to me...


Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
September 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Indigenous marketing

~For years I’ve been telling people who take my class or read my columns and/or books that the thing separating wine produced from grapes and other fermented fruits is that grapes are the only fruit, when ripened, that have the right volume of sugar and natural yeast to produce a minimum of 8% alcohol. This week I find that I may have to restate that belief.
~First, I received my copy of the recent edition of Wines and Vines Magazine; in it is a story by Tim Patterson about yeast and wine alcohol. Patterson claims that the high alcohol wines coming on the market today may be the result of commercial yeast strains, but they may also be the result of poor understanding of yeast fermentation plus inaccurate grape sugar readings.
~Second, a California winemaker whose wines Robert Parker, and others, have rated highly, posted on the Parker-centric Web bulletin board that he routinely gets high alcohol (as much as almost 20%) by fermenting with “indigenous” yeast only and by adding no nutrients to the fermenting must.
~I had a problem with this winemaker’s claim mainly because I was taught, and prevailing wisdom seemed to be, that indigenous or locally wild yeast cannot ferment much beyond 15% alcohol—they weaken and die off at that point.
~I started a thread on the bulletin board about yeast fermentation and I was rewarded with a bunch of grape grower and winemaker posts that both explained and confused the situation.
~Based on the marathon thread, it remains likely that so-called indigenous or wild yeast may not be able to ferment much higher than 15% alcohol, but it is equally likely that we may never know that for sure.
~The advent of commercially viable yeast cultivars was an advance in winemaking in that it gave more certainty over a fermentation, especially that the fermentation would not be easily interrupted and it could also ferment almost to complete dryness and to higher alcohol.
~The commercial yeasts supersede indigenous yeasts—they take over the fermentation from the locals. What’s more, when their yeast populations grew and spread into the winery and then into the air, the commercial strains mixed with the indigenous wild strains, making unclear which yeast strain either starts or finishes a fermentation.
~The information regarding questionable indigenous yeast strains heightened my problem with the above winemaker’s claim that he used only indigenous yeast and added no nutrition yet he routinely got alcohol in excess of 18%. Plus, he did this while taking in grapes from vineyards in various locations and fermenting his wines at a local cooperative facility, where no one would know how many yeast strains have been let loose into the atmosphere.
~The odds of this fellow’s yeast being indigenous seem so low as to make his claim seem like a complete marketing ploy, and marketing it is—many of his followers/consumers place value in his desire to produce “natural” wines.
~Water and sulfur dioxide have been added to wine for many centuries, so a case can be made that they are “natural” winemaking methods. But modern-day use of the word “natural” carries the implication that the producer of the food or drink doesn’t do much more than stand by and let nature take its course, which in winemaking would likely be a total disaster.
~I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying that I think food and drink purveyors should be silenced when it comes to using the word “natural.” All production is a manipulation of some sort; the only natural food and drink production is the one that happens in the fields when no human or other animal steps in to “guide” things.
~This post is also a way of admitting that, while I want to shed light on truth in wine, on the subject of fermentation I have to accept that I cannot do so. It’s simply too complicated, even for those who ferment commercial wine, for me to make a definitive statement about what goes on with yeasts and fermentation.
~On the bright side, many in the wine business have told consumers all along that fermentation is a most difficult process to understand and to unravel; they were not lying to us.
~Thanks to that tiny organism called yeast, wine remains a wonderfully mysterious product, and I am of course happy that the yeasts do their work. I don’t, however, enjoy wine that is hot with too much alcohol.
~I don’t care whether or not a wine seems balanced otherwise, when the alcohol exceeds 14% by volume I generally tune out.

I’m talking about table wine here.

I drink and enjoy fortified wines that come in between 15% and 20% alcohol, but not for the same reason I enjoy table wine. I like table wine with dinner; fortified wines I sip, possibly with cheese, nuts or chocolate.

Then, there is the exception: a hearty soup, and even some fish dishes, paired with sherry.

~I also tune out when I detect that a wine producer is trying to bs me, as in telling me that the high alcohol of the wine is the “natural” result of letting things happen.
~That kind of marketing message does not ring true.
~Besides, if allowed to do what they want to do, grapes would likely turn into vinegar and then into something resembling varnish—naturally.

Wines&Vines Bulletin Board1 BulletinBoard2

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
September 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


~A long time ago, longer than I care to remember, or admit, I drank Gallo products. Not that I don’t think Gallo products are worth drinking; in fact, many of them are superior wines, as the Gallo company is one of the most sophisticated wine producers on earth, and it has spawned some fantastic winemakers as well as wine marketers.
~The Gallo products I drank those many years ago had names like Thunderbird, Twister, and Boone’s Farm. Hey, I was young!
~In any event, the story goes that the Gallo formula for Thunderbird came about after company sales reps noticed a store in Oakland selling cheap wine with packets of lemonade. The point being, Gallo saw an opportunity and seized it.
~Back then the domestic wine scene was woefully deficient. Some marvelous wines were being produced in California, but not many Americans were drinking them. United States citizens only recently started to take to table wine on a large scale, finally surpassing beer consumption in 2005 and in 2006.
~Today, with mass products like Yellow Tail and Charles Shaw wines, the latter known as Two Buck Chuck (TBC), the price of some table wines make it unreasonable for even the most novice of novices to resort to drinking T’bird and its ilk, unless of course the idea is alcohol rather than taste (T’bird comes in at 20 percent by volume).
~While the cheap table wines with mass appeal may not offer the excitement or even the adventure that vintage premium wines offer, those among us who want to get started with wine or who simply can’t afford a so-called great bottle each day at least have better options than we had 40 years ago.
~The Gallo brothers were known as ruthless, tireless, aggressive, and shrewd. They certainly were smart. They knew the domestic market and they knew how to profit from it.
~The same can arguably be said about one particular man whose family owns the Charles Shaw Brand, among many other brands.
~Fred Franzia makes himself known. He has been in trouble with the law, he was on the outs with his father after dad sold the original Franzia wine and name to corporate interests, he fights with grape growers, he petitions the Supreme Court; in other words, he may be in the Gallo mold.
~Where Franzia differs is that the Gallo family did not blatantly court the press. Franzia seems to glow in the press’ limelight, spewing as much crudeness as print will allow. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was using the press...
~Recently, an article about Fred Franzia showed up on, under Business 2.0 Magazine (which I have heard has since been discontinued, but I don’t know for sure).
~The article rehashed much of the stuff about the rise of TBC and its parent company, Bronco, plus the many outrageous things that Franzia has said and done and continues to do and say. For that, it is just an article about seeming ongoing news.
~My problem with the article is neither the subject matter nor the fact that it is old news, but what I read in the first paragraph and then subsesquent to the paragraph.
~One of the things I learned about writing as a journalist is that you need to grab the reader in the first paragraph. You can’t do that effectively with a glaring mistake such as placing Haut-Brion in Burgundy, which is what the article does.
~After encountering that glaring error, instead of reading the article, I was looking for more problems—that’s not how you want to grab the reader. The writer lost credibility.
~As the profile proceeded, the interviewer interjected himself into the interview, a style of writing that makes me feel as if there is an agenda behind the article, and that makes me feel manipulated.
~By interjecting his views or opinions into the profile, the author takes on an added responsibility to know the subject. When this particular author treated with derision the fact that after decades in the wine business Franzia refers to grapes as “varieties” instead of “varietals,” he tipped his hand.

Grapes are classified first as within a species and then as varieties within the species; wines named after grapes or showing a particular grape’s characteristics are called varietal wines or varietals for short; varieties is a noun; varietals, used to describe a wine, is an adjective.

Franzia’s reference of grapes as varieties was correct.

The writer either did not know his subject or his grammar.

Halfway through the article, I stopped reading.

~I am not against writing opinions, I’m engaging in the practice right now. But I am not crazy about interjecting opinions inside a seemingly fact-based personality profile, and I certainly am against erroneous facts.
~Fred Franzia may be all the things that people say he is and he may be half of the things he says he is. He may also be a media hound who keeps his name out there as a means of free promotion. I don’t know any of this to be or not to be true.
~I do know that the possibility existed that I might have learned something about the wine industry or at least about a particular wine company had the writer not sabotaged his own effort.

Where were the editors at

~Finally, it bothers me that the article was not written to a wine drinking audience but as a news item, which means there may be some unknowing consumers traveling Burgundy right now looking to visit Haut-Brion and to find out which grape varietals they use for their wines!

The article

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


~In the wine trade, sales people and customers engage in a practice called “rinsing.” This is how it works.
~The sales person makes it to the retail establishment at the appointed time to present wines for consideration.
~To minimize having to clean many glasses, the customer puts out one or two glasses per taster, but the sales person has five or six wines to pour.
~To handle the situation, the sales person pours a small amount of the first wine into each glass, swirls and then dumps the wine into the bucket provided, duplicating the procedure for each wine between each taste.

The idea behind the “rinsing” ritual is to clear out the prior wine’s influence and to set up the glass for the next wine. If that’s the case, why did the sales person pour the first wine rinse?

The first rinse is to clear out any dish washing cleaner residue.

~Dish washing cleaners and soaps often leave enough residue not only to affect the wine’s aroma in the glass but also its taste. With sparkling wine, soap residue can subdue or completely kill the bubbles.
~Rinsing is a good practice, and it should not be confined to the wine trade. I have never seen it done at wine tastings for the consumer, where it should be done; it should also be done at wine tastings in your home.
~Restaurant service should also include rinsing the wine glass, provided the restaurant doesn’t take the perfectly good idea and make it meaningless theater.

~A famous New York City restaurant explains its wine glass rinsing program this way:

“Diners often look on curiously when we take a small amount of wine from a bottle, rinse out a series of glasses with it, and then place the rinsed glasses on the table to be filled with the wine. This “priming” of the glasses is a little extra touch that we feel greatly enhances the wine-drinking experience. The point is to rid the glasses of off odors or other impurities, so that all you smell and taste when you take a sip is the wine.”

~As I’ve said, a fine idea. The problem here is that from what I understand the restaurant server does not empty out the small rinse portion, leaving it in the glass and then pouring more wine over it. In that case, the portion of wine used for the rinse will hold the potential off odors.
~If what I am told is true, then the restaurant defeats the purpose of rinsing—hence, it becomes theater.

Restaurants can likely avoid having to perform rinsing if they simply do not use soap or dishwashing fluid on wine glasses. With health agency requirements in place, dishwashing water is probably hot enough to sanitize without soap.

I doubt that any restaurant would take that risk, and I further doubt that the local health agency inspector would allow it.

Even if the health agency did allow using just very hot water to wash wine glasses, that would lead to the possibility of chlorine residue. Those of us familiar with TCA taint know the importance of steering clear of chlorine.

~By all means, get into the habit of rinsing. It makes a difference.

RinseDiscussion Babbo

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

Saturday, September 1, 2007

WSWA claims a RUSE

~In the state of Maine, in the United States of America, there is a law that requires tobacco delivery carriers to verify the age of the buyer.
~The New Hampshire Motor Transport Association does not like the law and has challenged it on a constitutional basis, claiming it violates the Commerce Clause found in Article 1, Sections 8 through 10 of the U.S. Constitution, concerning an individual state’s inability to hinder the flow of commerce across state borders.
~The case is named Rowe V. New Hampshire Motor Transport Association (Rowe is the Maine Attorney General).
~Ever on the lookout to maintain their position as the leader in paying for protection, the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief supporting the state of Maine’s law.
~In its brief, WSWA says that “It is the states that have primary responsibility for combating underage drinking, as reflected in the Twenty-First Amendment (Section 2), congressional enactments, and prior decisions of this Court.”
~So what does underage drinking have to do with verify age for tobacco deliveries?
~WSWA filed the brief because the organization noticed that laws on the books in other states aimed at alcohol delivery are worded similarly to the Maine tobacco statute. WSWA hopes to chide the justices in their direction, and also have us believe that they want to save our children; sure, as much as I want to live in a dentist’s chair.
~If the Supreme Court finds that state laws like Maine’s are preempted by federal statutes, WSWA knows it is only a matter of time before they lose the benefit of state protection rackets regarding alcohol distribution and monopolistic-like control known as the “three tier system,” which is, from producer to warehouse/distributor to retailer.
~Under the three tier system, state laws generally mandate who gets to warehouse, distribute, and maintain a hold on our access to wine. The sole interest of WSWA is to maintain its membership in that position.
~A recent development in Indiana might make WSWA a little nervous.
~U.S. District Judge John D. Tinder trashed a law requiring Indiana residents to pay a visit to a winery to provide a written signature before being allowed to purchase wine and have it shipped; the law meant no telephone, Internet or mail ordering for adults of legal age.
~If someone living in Indiana wants a California wine shipped to him or her, the person has to first go to California and sign a document verifying age and requesting the shipment.
~As distributors, WSWA members are allowed, no given the mandate, to transport the wine from California to an Indiana retailer, so the law is a prohibition applied to a transaction between producers and consumers but not to the ordained, licensed distributors and retailers.
~The system seems like restraint of commerce and extortion combined.
~The judge ruled the law clearly "erects a trade barrier to most out-of-state wineries," and that violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
~The Indiana arm of WSWA defends the law because—you guessed it—it prevents alcohol from being sold to minors.

Maybe we should change the WSWA initials to RUSE.

It would be good of WSWA to make sure that our kids are sober—it would be good of all of us to make sure of that.

Yet, I suspect that the money WSWA spends to pay politicians and lawyers so that its members are protected would go a long way to stop the production of cheap-drunk products, those high alcohol delivery systems that youngsters and people with the disease of alcoholism favor.

It's interesting to note that those cheap products are are warehoused and distributed across the nation by WSWA members.

Yeah, sure, WSWA has the health and welfare of our children in mind.

~RUSE—excuse me, WSWA—defends the disregarding of the U.S. Constitution and its commerce laws by claiming its members are out to save our children when in fact, doing the former reaps profits for them and doing the latter wouldn’t bring a dime into their coffers.
~Which do you think is their real aim?

Commerce Clause



Rowe v. NH


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