Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Going to a wine tasting?

Someone asked me to post this—it’s something I wrote a couple of years ago in my weekly wine newspaper column.
Fifteen wine tasting etiquette tips:

~1. After receiving your pour, get out of the way – don't shuffle, walk.
~2. Do not wear white (even if you don’t intend to taste red wine, others will and an accident is only a drunk away).
~3. If you must wear white, and you spill red wine on it, immediately splash the stain with white wine. Don't forget to get out of the way, preferably in the method described above.
~4. Do not wear perfume or anything else that smells up the room.
~5. Talk, don't holler, but keep your travel stories to a minimum; we are there to taste the wine in front of us not the one you had in Europe, the name of which you cannot remember but you seem to have all night trying to recall.
~6. If you know nothing about wine, don't use this forum to dump a pile of questions onto the table for the pourer to answer, who may know less than you and will give you a bad answer anyway. Taste the wine (and get out of the way). If you like what you taste resolve to take a wine course later.
~7. A common complaint heard at wine tastings: "this wine tastes metallic." Leave your tongue ring at home.
~8. Forgo the lipstick too, but you already knew that.
~9. Most wine tastings include a buffet of some sort. The food is there to eat, but don't be a hog. Also keep in mind there are hundreds of people behind you. This is not the time for indecision. Fill your plate and get out of the way – see number one for instructions.
~10. It is common knowledge among wine professionals that one should drink a glass of water for every glass of wine consumed. This practice prevents you from becoming dehydrated and maybe from getting drunk. The water cure has an added advantage: it helps to thin the crowd every so often, shifting the bulk from the tasting floor to the waiting line at the toilet.
~11. Leave the wineglass and the buffet dish on the counter/s provided for them – do not leave them in the toilet.
~12. If you reject the water treatment but want to prevent yourself from getting drunk learn to spit, preferably in the spittoon provided. Under no circumstances should you spit in someone's face, intentionally or not. In fact, if you must talk to your neighbor, stand a few feet apart; people at wine tastings who do drink a lot of water tend to release the water between toilet trips by spraying droplets when they speak.
~13. If you attend a wine tasting for the sole purpose of putting on a free drunk, make an appointment with your counselor to talk about it. But if you are unsuccessful at reaching your counselor and so you attend the wine tasting instead, do not leave your coat at the coat-check counter. What with the increase in crowds at these events, it is quite difficult to get your coat back under the best of circumstances.
~14. If the wine tasting is a consumer event leave your business cards home. People who engage in business discussions rarely remember their etiquette and so they take up valuable floor space. If you must give out a business card, be discreet and be quick about it, and be sure the recipient wants the thing.
~15. If you are in the wine business and at a business-oriented wine tasting, you are likely impervious to the requirements of proper etiquette, so do whatever you want, but do get out of the way.

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

65,000 bottles of wine on the wall

~A friend recently told me about a story in the New York Times concerning a man who uses 8,000 square feet of cellar storage space to house his 65,000-bottle wine collection.

I suppose the New York Times must have had to fill some space of its own. I also suppose that whichever reporter submitted the story must have been impressed. I further suppose that the cellar is designed to be impressive.

I can only suppose these things because I haven’t the slightest interest in reading that story or any other story about what, to me, is a gross misuse of such a lovely product—to collect it for the sake of collecting it.

~A quick turn of math indicates that if one person drinks one bottle of wine each day it would take that person 170-plus years to consume 65,000 bottles. So, do you think this collector has any intention of drinking all that wine?
~ I suppose it’s possible he isn’t too good at math and he just miscalculated, but that’s got to be my biggest “suppose” of this post.

The guy can count; how else would he figure out that he owns 65,000 bottles of wine and that his cellar measures 8,000 square feet?

~In my wine career I meet people with too much money, too much insecurity, and way too much space in their cellar.
~Generally, the encounters go something like this:

Collector: “Oh, so you are in the wine business. I’ll bet you get to taste some of the great wines.”
Me: “Well, to me, a wine that gives me the greatest pleasure is the one that pairs well with my meal.”
People trying to impress often don’t listen.
Collector: “Sure, sure. My wife wishes I had never heard of some of the great wines because she thinks I spend too much money on them at the auctions.”
Me: “She may be right about that, if all you do is collect them.”

~I do it that way because I have learned from experience that if I encourage the conversation to continue I will soon start hearing about the collection, about all the wildly expensive bottles of wine from vintages dated before Christ!
~Then, I will be subjected to information about the cellar: how large it is, how much the temperature control system set him back, how many bottles are in the collection, and of course the names—oh, the names, the endless parade of names and vintage dates and on and on...
~These are the people who make my task difficult, which is to make wine drinking a daily habit in America, alongside another daily habit—dinner.
~When I heard about this latest wine bottle collection I had just reached into my five-case wine cellar for a bottle of Rioja to pair with my chorizo and yellow rice dinner.
~Later, after dinner, I did some reading, finished my nightly wine allotment, which seems to creep up in winter, and then went off to bed to drift swiftly and blissfully to sleep, content with the wine that collected in my belly that night.
~I imagine that the collector spends most nights in fitful sleep, poised for the sound of the burglar alarm. Not even the fifth of Bourbon he drinks does him any good.
~What? You don’t think he drinks wine, do you?
~If the collector were to drink wine what would he do to justify that big, beautiful cellar?

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

Friday, February 16, 2007

Snake Oil

~More than twenty years ago, I remember having been invited to a business associate’s upper East Side Manhattan apartment for a gathering. In my usual, but unfashionable manner, I was early. I was also unaccustomed to the Upper East Side, which can be as prime in pretension as it is in real estate.
~The host knew about my growing interest and involvement with wine and so, when he telephoned to invite me to the gathering he mentioned a new gadget that he had recently acquired that made even the least expensive wine taste like a wine of a Chateau of the highest order (one way to keep your money is not to spend too much of it).
~Since I was early to the party, the host felt the need to entertain me. After walking me through the 4,000 or so square feet of the ostentatious, but impressive nonetheless, duplex apartment off of Fifth Avenue, he took me into his “library” where the wine aging gadget was being housed.
~As we approached a small oak barrel, I was about to comment over the quaint-ness of having a faux wine barrel in his library when my host pointed to the barrel and said, “Look at that, will you.”

My host poured me a sample of what turned out to be cheap, red oxidized wine that was past the point of recognition.

This man of money, this V.P. of a small ad agency, this middle-aged wine aficionado was sold a meaningless bill of goods and he didn’t have the taste buds to figure it out.

“Isn’t that something?” He asked me the question with such pride I almost couldn’t bear what I was about to say to him.

Incidentally, I never got the project that I was bidding on with my host’s company.

~These days, to rake in the dollars, the “improve your wine” scams are more technical than a mere small barrel. The scammers use magnets, ion exchangers, things with compartments, shiny objects, computerized shiny objects, and just about anything else that looks like it might make the buyer feel like he or she has been transported to the future of wine production and aging.
~Some of the modern gadgets claim to age your wine before your eyes; others claim to remove from your wine whatever the hell it is that you want removed.
~Mostly, the gadgets are probably useless, but even if they were to work as promised, I am still trying to discover a reason to buy a wine that is undrinkable and then buy a magnet that would make it drinkable. Seems to me it’s much smarter to buy a wine that is drinkable in the first place.
~As to whether or not the many gadgets do indeed perform the function they are intended to perform, I can’t speak from first-hand knowledge, since I don’t buy gadgets.
~I learned as a child from my father that buying from scam artists through the mail will only get you things like Christmas tree ornaments that glow in the dark. The ornaments performed as promised, but in order to enjoy them we had to wait until dark and then turn out all the lights in the apartment—even the ones we painstakingly hung on the tree the day before Christmas!
~I have many friends and associates in the wine business. I know of not one who thinks anything more of these products to improve your wine than that they are scams. A few of my colleagues host and operate a wine forum or two on the Internet. When these fellows questioned the inventors of some of the “improve your wine” products the answers to their questions have been laughable. They avoid offering tangible proof, and they quote a variety of supposed scientists or wine people who, it often turns out, are part of the scam.
~I suppose there are some people who would prefer Christmas tree ornaments that glow in the dark over a string of lights.
~I also suppose that many of these people are quite content remaining in the dark—that’s their prerogative. But you wine drinkers out there know that the only way to tell if the wine in your glass is red, white or pink is to turn on the light.
~In my view, the only way to make sure that the wine you have is properly produced and aged, is to turn on the light of knowledge, and not to rely on light bulbs that have been darkened with a thick coat of snake oil.

Read these sites. Some of it is funny: snake, oil, snake, pit,

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

Friday, February 9, 2007

10,000 Grapes

~Ever hear of Croatina, Dornfelder, Durella, Dureza, Falanghina, Fer, Frappato, Kerner, Sercial, Touriga Nacional, Uva Rara, Vilana?
~They are the names of grape varieties, and they are used in wine production.
~If what I’ve been told is correct, the above dozen grape varieties represent .0012 percent of the wine grapes that grow throughout the world. In other words, there are about 10,000 wine grapes on this planet. Interestingly, about half that number is believed to grow in Italy alone—Ah, that Roman Empire.
~Ok, that many grape varieties yet the press seems to write about, what, maybe two-dozen of them. What’s that about?
~A great deal of the unheard-of grape varieties are used for blending, and that is one good reason for them having remained relatively unknown. At the same time, however, many seeming obscure grapes do get their own varietal label, and that is one good reason to take writers to task for not covering them. We have to actively seek the obscures because few wine critics ever mention them (truth be known, I’d bet that few critics even know about them, or worse, few care).
~Before the twelfth century human beings had the chance to play around with wild grapes and to create new grapes--they had 12 centuries plus about 60 more before Christ. The ancient Greeks and Romans probably did more to add to the grape stock in Europe than any other cultures before them. Some of those ancient grapes are still with us, and they are still in Italy and Greece; none are named Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir; grapes like these came much later
~Between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries a lot of viticultural activity took place, and a lot of new grape varieties had been introduced by breeders—Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for instance. Wine had historically been a good economic force, but in Europe during these centuries it became a major force.
~Many of the new grapes were purposely designed for certain growing and climatic situations, and when the design worked it often worked quite well, developing great renown for many grape varieties. When Europeans began to codify regional winegrowing and winemaking regulations, part of the activity included demanding which grapes a region could grow and how much of the grapes were allowed in each blend.
~There is only so much ground within a region, so it stands to reason that regional grape variety selection had to be limited. It also stands to reason that as certain regions gained a higher level of fame, the grapes from those regions took on a higher level of importance. This is the simplest explanation for why, out of 10,000 grape varieties, only a choice few are well known.
~In the New World, where wine production has nearly 8,000 years to go in order to be as old as in the Old World, the initial desire was to produce wine in the image of our immigrant forefathers, so we homed in on the well-known grape varieties; we planted and we marketed them, and then our illustrious wine critics told us all about the few wines, over and over and over again.
~There’s not much wrong with the system, really. Some of the greatest wines in the world are produced from the well-known grape varieties. Yet, 10,000 grape varieties for wine! What a challenge and joy it would be to explore them all.
~Many times I talk about wine geeks as being a limited, focused species of wine phenomenon. Mostly, they are. But, there are some out there who reach beyond the “tried and true.” Just this morning a discussion ensued on one wine Web site that proved there are geeks and there are GEEKS. I was happy to read some of the comments people made about so-called obscure grape varieties.
~I will go out on a limb and say that within the 10,000 grapes in the world, there are many that can produce as great a wine as any of the “known” varieties. In fact, I’ll name a few: Aglianico, Albarino, Blaufrankisch (also called Lemberger), Falanghina, Mondeuse, Schioppetino, and yes, Grenache, especially as a dessert red wine produced in the south of France.
~Sure, most of these wines won’t command the prices that Pinot Noir, Cabernet, etc do…wait a minute, that’s a good thing. Better for us searchers.
~Here’s what I do about obscure wine:

First, I seek a wine retailer with a vocabulary that reaches beyond, “this is a popular wine,” and who expresses true interest in wine. If the retailer’s conversation doesn’t give away with whom you are dealing, the store selection will. I love standing in a retail shop that offers wines I have never heard of or seen before.
Second, I attend wine tastings offered by lesser known regions and producers.

Third, I like to get friends and wine groups together where we pick a theme and then go for it. When I am responsible for the theme, it’s usually obscure or at least out of the norm. I once presented a group with a five-course dinner from eighteenth century recipes; each course was served with a different Madeira wine, from dry to sweet—in that century Madeira was quite the rage.

Fourth, I don't spend my life seeking the greatest wine on earth. That kind of aspiration can never really be met, and while one spends valuable time trying to meet it, one misses so much.

~If you want to learn a lot more about this subject, get yourself the latest version of the Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson. It is among the best laid out resources about almost anything connected to wine. One caveat: I don’t think Ms. Robinson includes all 10,000 grape varieties, but I never took a count to find out for sure.

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

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Supremes

~Nearly two years ago the Supreme Court ruled on Granholm V. Heald, a case connected to wine that has been reported in the press as some sort of breakthrough. Unfortunately, the ruling was what a lot of the court’s rulings become: a narrow decision with a wide ambiguity running through it.
~In short, the Supreme Court justices said that no state can bar wine shipments direct to consumers from wineries in other states while allowing wine shipments direct to consumers from wineries within that state. To the judges, the legal choice a state has is either to allow every winery to ship direct to consumers within that particular state or to bar every winery from shipping direct to consumers.
~Giving wineries in your state a commercial advantage over wineries out of state is called protectionism.
~Either I’m an idiot, which is always a possibility, or the justices have a blind spot when it comes to alcohol, which is not so impossible, as I will show you later on. In any event, alcohol seems to be the only legal commodity that does not deserve the protection of the Commerce Clause found in Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution.

The Commerce Clause is a legal doctrine in U.S. Constitutional law that limits the power of states to legislate and impact interstate commerce. The U.S. Constitution reserves for Congress the exclusive power "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States…”

~The above definition means that individual states are either excluded from, or limited in their ability to legislate on interstate commerce—the bench has often cited the Commerce Clause to restrict states from passing protectionist regulations and to apply undue burdens on interstate commerce.
~ Granholm V. Heald was seemingly about wine shipping. But what it has turned out to be about is the old guard being threatened and state legislators being bought. Not much new there, really.
~What the case should have been about was a conflict between the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and the Commerce Clause.
~The 21st Amendment to the Constitution is the only amendment to have repealed an earlier amendment (the 18th Amendment: Prohibition), which is not an easy thing to do since after an amendment is passed in Congress it must be ratified by the states. In this case, however, the states were handed a veritable cash cow; the real wonder is why any state had to think over ratification.
~ In its wisdom, Congress inserted into the 21st Amendment the right of individual states to regulate and control the sale and distribution of alcohol within state borders. By so doing, Congress opened a floodgate of confusion, not to mention corruption.
~State legislators were quick to see a bonanza revenue source; they imposed taxes, fees, stipulations, restrictions (which always lead to fines) and all kinds of social engineering, like Sunday “Blue Laws,” prescribed hours of operation, wine in or not in grocery stores, and so on.
~Most of all, the states were handed the freedom to create whatever system they wanted in order to provide or withhold access to alcohol. Mostly, the states built individual Byzantine empires known either as Liquor Control or Alcohol Control Boards. The boards are generally made up of political appointees, and you know what that means.

Some states opted for the three-tier system, which builds in not only a mandated middle-merchant, but also a sizable cost to the consumer and a quasi-private monopolized business that is heavily controlled by the state. In some states a retailer can buy certain wines from only one distributor--how's that for creating free competition?

Some states opted for state control. In other words, the state buys and sells alcohol. When the state is involved in commerce you have the potential for corruption, and in states that opted for this choice potential has usually become reality. Yet, at least these states did not offer the illusion that the three-tier states offered, that they were allowing competitive commerce to flourish.

Some states allowed localities to select whether or not they wanted an alcohol business in their community. This option allowed situations where a person could cross an intersection into another county and buy wine that could not be bought in the county across the street. Of course, crossing the street into the “dry” county carrying the wine in a bag might have left the person open to prosecution.

I'm sure there are other choices states could have made, but thinking any further about them gives me agita.

~Notice that through the maze of state legislative restrictions and controls, something American always got lost: free flow of commerce.
~Because the states have such power over the commerce of alcohol, the result of the recent Supreme Court ruling was not exactly an opening of wine shipments across state borders, as the always eager to recite a press release media often reported.
~What really happened is that the states created new legislation that opens shipping, but that usually makes it extremely difficult and more expensive. Imagine owning a small family winery and having to apply for fifty licenses—one for each state—in order to send wine direct to consumers in the rest of the country. That is only one costly hurdle. There are restrictions on volume, on cases shipped, and probably on the color of the box that the winery uses as packaging. I'm not being cynical; in some states a winery that submits certain tax reports on the wrong colored paper risks being cited in violation.
~As predicted, a flurry of court actions are popping up all over the USA—some exploit the glaring Supreme Court ambiguities and some want them fixed.
~In my opinion, the only thing that will definitively end the legal battles is a direct ruling by the court whether or not the 21st Amendment violates the Commerce Clause; if the court were to find that it is a violation, then a whole lot of things regarding access to wine are likely to change. But any winery willing to take on that fight has to be careful. It's not a given that a court ruling would be on the side of the Commerce Clause.
~When the Supreme Court ruled in the wine shipping case Justice Kennedy read the majority opinion. He made a fleeting reference to the Commerce Clause, calling alcohol a “special” commodity that may not deserve the same commercial protections as other legal products.
~Isn’t that great? Free and unfettered commerce is a constitutional right, but for wine it will be a right only so long as legal alcohol fits the majority morality of the Supreme Court justices or the Congress. You can’t ask for anything more beautifully hypocritical than that.

In my view, Congress should free alcohol from its unconstitutional chains.

On the other hand, Congress can pass an amendment to the constitution to make alcohol illegal—now there’s a novel approach…

Read on: commerce, 21st, 21st again, granholm, litigate,

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