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.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Capping Out

~It seems there’s a story behind every little detail connected to wine. For instance, there appears to be a story behind the reason for capsules, those sometimes plastic, sometimes light metal often-colorful things that cover the cork and the top portion of the neck of the wine bottle.
~The story I’ve heard is that back in the nineteenth century, when the butler was responsible for opening the wine bottle, some butlers did a bait and switch; they poured the good wine for themselves upon delivery, filled the bottle with plonk and then re-corked it.
~The capsule, or foil as it is sometimes called, was designed to prevent the butlers from doing their nasty deed.
~I make no claim on the validity of this story. In fact, knowing that the cork was being stamped with the producer’s logo, etc., to prevent similar kinds of activity, makes me think the capsule story is made up.
~Capsules seem more likely to have been invented to “finish” the look of the increasingly slick wine package.
~Many old capsules were produced from lead, but you know where that will get you today…
~A tin or metal alloy was—and still is—used, but that sometimes leads to a fine, thin cut on a thumb or finger.
~Plastic seems the capsule of choice these days, when the producer chooses to apply a capsule, that is.
~It seems some producers have been doing away with slipping the capsule over the cork, preferring instead to top the cork with maybe a dot of hardened wax and let the cork show through the glass. It works for me. A bottle with no capsule gives me one less thing to pull at in order to get to the wine, which after all is why I buy the bottle in the first place.
~No capsule also likely cuts producer cost.
~The environment probably also benefits from the vanishing capsule. I don’t think any material used for wine bottle capsules is biodegradable or if there is one it likely takes longer to degrade then the life of a small universe!
~I know for certain one wine bottle topping that doesn’t biodegrade: the screwcap—at least my recycler says so.
~A few weeks ago I was told that I had to take the metal thing that remains as the second half of the screwcap off the bottle neck before handing the bottle over for recycling.
~Fine, I said, I’ll take them off, and then I stupidly tried to do it.
~I am a proponent of the screwcap. I have found no reason not to like its use, until now.
~The fact that the metal screwcap is nearly impossible to completely remove from the bottleneck and that it is not biodegradable makes me rethink my enthusiasm for the product.
As I write this entry, I am thinking about my feelings for wine closures and capsules. Here’s the tally:
I like cork, but hate TCA infected corks, which seem to show up on the most expensive bottles of wine or at the most anticipatory dinners.
I hate those plastic things that are supposed to look and act like cork—they don’t, in either case.
I can live without the capsule; it serves no purpose that I can discern, except that it looks nice.
The screwcap is a great alternative closure: it has yet to bring me TCA; it is not intended to look or act like a cork, and so it doesn’t; it is truly easy to open. Alas, it is a problem for the environment—bad, bad.
~If you want my advice wine industry, do away with corks, plastic thingies, screwcaps, and of course capsules. In fact, do away with bottles.
~If you want my advice government regulators, allow wine producers to sell their wines from small casks or stainless tanks so that customers can bring our own containers and fill up from the tap.
~Such a change would lower the cost of wine, promote social interaction as we gather around the keg, and it would help the environment.
~Look closely—is my tongue in my cheek or is it not?

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
October 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

SO2 Reprise

~OK. I’ll do it one more time. I’ll write about sulfur dioxide, a subject that doesn’t seem ever settled, especially when dealing with that ridiculous CONTAINS SULFITE warning on wine labels.
~Most of us in the business know that the warning was the result of pressure by anti-alcohol lobbyists to make people believe that wine is a dangerous product because it includes one of the sulfites, the one known as sulfur dioxide (SO2).

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?

Again, worry over SO2 in wine is a ruse—but one with legs.

~The lobbyists’ message has been heard by many: people still believe sulfites cause headaches—no scientific evidence to support that b.s.—and people still believe that sulfites are always, under any circumstance, inorganic. Generally, sulfur dioxide production is the result of decaying matter, which makes it a rather organic process, but that’s splitting hairs, as it is not carbon-based, which apparently is the definition of organic matter...
~Are you still awake?
~I’m not necessarily against non-intervention wine production. In fact, I applaud attempts to stay free of chemicals in grape growing and winemaking. But there are both exceptions and extenuating circumstances, as there are in any subject matter.
~Many non-interventionist wine producers pound their chests about how they don’t spray their vines against pests and diseases and how they don’t use commercial yeasts to start fermentation (a subject that is so fraught with confusion that I have yet to establish the best way for me to present it to readers).
~The non-interventionists carry the theme into the winery with no fining, no filtration, and no SO2 additions.
~To be sure, some non-interventionists produce fine wines. But some also produce pretty awful wines, and some who get by with a drinkable product, may put forth unstable wines that don’t hold up too well in the bottle over time.
~Again, I don’t condemn non-interventionists but I do condemn those who practice it from the vantage point of a blind spot such as “making wine like grandfather used to make it.”
~In the Italian-American Brooklyn community where I was spawned, grandfathers produced great vinegar among one or two drinkable wines. Those guys pressed, fermented, barrel aged and bottled their wine. Their only intervention was to move the product from place to place. Many of them had no idea what “topping up” meant or what a carbon dioxide blanket could do to slow down oxidation during wine transport.
~Vinegar was often the result of grandfather’s winemaking, and vinegar can be a drawback of non-intervention professional winemaking, too.
~If a non-interventionist doesn’t know when, how or doesn’t care to top off barrels properly all the political belief in the world may not help the wine survive.
~If a non-interventionist can’t recognize an off odor from bacterial activity, all the political belief in the world won’t help correct the problem.
~If a non-interventionist is against correcting problems out of sheer political beliefs, all the science in the world will not be brought to bear on the resulting products, and all the centuries of knowledge might as well have been thrown down the same drain that the wines may need to be thrown down.
~I have tasted a few non-interventionist wines that clearly illustrated what can be wrong when political beliefs meet with scientific realities.
~Whether or not a winemaker wants to believe it, SO2 additions can protect wine from various bacterial attacks and from the effects of oxidation, especially when the winemaking practices may require extra protection.

The latest information I’ve read is that SO2 in wine may not prevent oxidation directly but it may help the wine by some indirect activity.

However it does its work, SO2 was discovered in second century Roman winemaking as a means to address the percentage of wine that turned to vinegar each year; I believe something around 10 percent was lost to the acetobacter bug, a bug that cannot thrive without oxygen.

In modern times, the U.S. government identifies acceptable levels of volatile acidity (a condition caused by chemical reactions concerning acetobacter and ethanol in wine).

Volatile acidity is often a precursor to vinegar but can also be manifested as ethyl acetate development, giving wine the smell of furniture polish.

Proper SO2 additions can prevent these problems.

~When no SO2 is added as part of the non-intervention winemaking regimen, the producer is exempt from the CONTAINS SULFITE labeling requirement, provided the naturally occurring SO2 produced from fermentation does not exceed 10 parts per million (SO2 levels are routinely monitored in most wineries).
~The lack of a label warning often interprets in the marketplace as winemaking that is pure or—dare I say it—organic, but as far as I know the definition of pure or of organic neither includes quality nor “drinkability.”
~When I buy wine, I want it to be drinkable, with or without SO2 additions. Based on my experience thus far, the odds that I will get what I want appear to be stacked against non-intervention.

Government SO2 discussion
Organic Nonintervention

Does SO2 help?

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
October, 2007. All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 6, 2007

I'm back.

~When I decided to make my recent trip to northern Italy, I discovered a few others who would be visiting the Piemonte region around the same time (it was also truffle season).
~My relationship with the people who were visiting Piemonte stems from contributions on a few wine-oriented bulletin boards on the Web. I had met only one of the people in person—once—but he is so disliked on many bulletin boards that others wonder why I even talk to him.
~I talk to the fellow because I understand that he is harmless and that he is also interested in wine rather than in talking about wine. He says that some of the things wine geeks post online drive him crazy; something we have in common!
~The difference between us is that his responses often cause a fight.
~Anyway, I avoided meeting up with wine geeks on my travel through Piemonte and into Valtellina. My trip was by invitation from a Danish wine importer named Henrik to whom I am deeply indebted for his hospitality and the meetings he had set up for me.
~Thanks to Henrik, I met with many producers that I’ve never heard of and likely will not hear of in the U.S. until small, passionate importers discover them.
~I got the distinct impression that many of the Italian producers I met don’t say what they really feel about wine geekdom for fear of antagonizing the flow of American money, even if the dollar is rather worthless right now.

Every time I changed dollars into euros I not only lost money, I felt like I was a citizen of a Third World economy.
The dollar is so worthless that a few producers told me they are not making money in the American market and therefore they are looking to Asia right now.

~One or two producers, however, did tell me how they feel.
~By design, the Piemonte producers I met were not the names most Americans will recognize: no Gaja, no Giacosa, and no Conterno, all names that surely understand the value of wine geekdom. But I already know their wines. Meeting them would serve little purpose— whether it is real or perceived, I don’t do well genuflecting to royalty.
~Still, with a few exceptions, the wines I tasted were outstanding. The exceptions included some producers who aren’t careful in their methods and some who seem to think wine is supposed to be wood.
~In Italy the word “barrique” has lately become idolized—well, not the word but the process, a process that too many producers overdo because, as one producer told me, “It’s what Americans want.”

“Barrique” refers to aging wine in small French oak barrels, a concept that was just about unheard of in most of Italian wine production until two or so decades ago.

~"It's not what all Americans want,” I told the producer, but he only knows what he is told and what people seem to have learned from wine magazines, not to mention what tourists buy from him.He admitted that he does not drink barriqued wine at home.
~When I pointed out the promotion value of magazine ratings he seemed indignant, going into a dissertation on why he does not stoop so low as to beg for reviews. I got the feeling someone was forcing him to produce over-oaked wines.

One producer said to me that he already knows the quality of his wines and he doesn’t need Gambero Rosso’s glasses or American point scores to make him feel any better (Gambero is a major wine review magazine in Italy that assigns numbers of glasses to rate wine).
It seemed that, like me, these producers have trouble genuflecting.

~To my taste, the “barrique” method wipes out many otherwise perfectly fine wines. I wish Italians would stop doing that to their wines. Some producers commit the crime on Barolo and Barabresco, but most of the criminal activity is perpetrated on Barbera.
~At two producer’s cantina, I tasted side-by-side Barbera of the same vintage, one in the traditional method and one with the added French barrel aging time. When subjected to “barrique” treatment, the normally racy, often acidic Barbera is offensive to me, like chewing on a wooden front deck that had been soaked in acid.
~One producer seemed impressed that I managed to identify his Barbaresco wines as typically traditional. He had been ridiculing Americans who visit the big names to taste wines that he dislikes.
~Fortunately, the tradition behind producing Barolo and Barbaresco is still strong in Piemonte as well as the Sforzato tradition in Valtellina. The tradition in each region does not preclude oak, rather it highlights judicious use of barrels. When done right, the tradition offers stellar wines.
~Still, the “barrique” stuff made me wonder to what extent the New World truly influences Old World winemaking, and to what extent the influence may be good or bad.
~I suppose the jury is still out, but I know where I stand on the issue.

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