Thursday, April 26, 2007

Garage wine and ellipses

~In 1984 I started a small winery. I mean it was small, so small that I could produce my commercial wine in a two-car garage, which is what I had done.
~I cleared everything out of the garage, sprayed foam insulation on the walls, added a water line, sink, and drain system, stuck an air conditioner in it for the summer, and stocked it with small custom-made stainless steel tanks as well as oak barrels.
~Throughout the years I blithely went along producing Finger Lakes Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Chardonnay. I never knew that I was in the vanguard; in fact, I was a little embarrassed that I could not afford a larger more slick winery building.
~My garage winery lasted eight years, and in that time not one wine critic ever gave me any press—I think that had something to do with the fact that I was in upstate New York and most critics don’t know where that is.
~Finally, I ran out of money to keep the place going and so I decided it would be cheaper to close the winery and shine shoes for a living.

Note: I didn’t shine shoes. I did something even worse. I went to work for a wine distributor, which is when I really got my wine education!

~Not long after I ended my tiny American dream, I read a story about some people in Bordeaux who were starting wineries in garages. Since they were in Bordeaux—where at the time the world of wine critics and wine geeks salivated—the new “garagistes,” as they were called, gained attention, and then they gained acclaim.

The acclaim garage wines received did not, however, come from the traditional Chateaux and pedigree Bordeaux wine industry. In fact, from there came disparagement and predictions of doom.

~In the U.S. a few wine critics with the unhealthy power to make or break a winery or a wine movement took notice. This time, the critics generally chose to make rather than to break, and so the French garage winemakers accomplished what I could not: gain worldwide attention.
~The attention that the garagistes gained was accomplished even though their wines often seemed to have little to do with the Bordeaux pedigree. In fact, the attention they gained was because their wines were not like the old guard. Most of the wines were produced outside the French appellation control rules for Bordeaux.

Appellation rules dictate things like which grape varieties are approved for a region and some of the grape harvesting as well as winemaking production methods.

Appellation controls are supposed to give regional wines their signature.

~Instead of complying with appellation controls, the garagiste wines were creating personal signatures from garage to garage, using grapes and techniques that some would say made the wines taste more like they were being produced in California or Australia but certainly not in Bordeaux. Soon, the Bordeaux garage wines were a hit with consumers across the pond and all was well.
~Recently, the British wine magazine, Decanter, had a brief article in it about the possible impending doom of the garage guys in Bordeaux.
~Whenever an article like that appears in a British periodical the wine forum board dedicated to the American wine critic, Robert Parker, usually lights up like a Christmas tree on overload. Parker is one of the critics who took to the garages in Bordeaux.
~Soon, wine geeks were posting disparaging things about Decanter and some of its writers. Other wine geeks were defending the possible concept that the garage guys are dying off—figuratively.
~Even Mr. Parker chimed in, calling the impending demise of the garage guys merely a pipe dream and alluding to the possibility that some British wine writers don’t often know what they are talking about.

Mr. Parker has an annoying habit…he writes long paragraphs…which isn't annoying in itself...but he connects his thoughts that should be in sentence form in a funny way…he uses ellipses…an ellipsis is a three-dot format…its main function is to illustrate that something has been omitted…its other function is to illustrate that the something omitted is understood without explanation…I wonder why Mr. Parker uses the dot format...does he never really finish a thought??? are we supposed to simply understand his unfinished thoughts??? is there such a thing as a question mark ellipsis???

~The whole thing—the earlier acceptance of garagistes, the article in Decanter on their impending doom, the usual chiming of sycophants and geeks online, and those many dot, dot, dots made me think:

1. Surely, I started my garage winery in the wrong place—the wrong country.

2. Surely, wine geeks must have better things about which to spend digital impulses.

~ In the market place you make it or you don’t. My garage wine production didn’t make it; maybe the guys in Bordeaux will. But I don’t understand why this matter calls for all that spilled ink and vitriol.

Incidentally, I’ve tasted some of the garage wines from Bordeaux. To me, many of them do taste like they came from California or Australia. I suppose they will not die off after all…

Happy reading: Decanter, ebob,

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

Sunday, April 22, 2007

WSWA Makes Me Sick--Again

~In the legal world, when you are on the losing end of litigation your best bet is to create a diversion, and a good way to do that is to attack the character of your opponent’s lawyer, at least that’s what the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) believes.
~You might remember that a couple of years ago the Supreme Court weighed in on a wine shipping issue and came down on the side of free commercial access across state borders. In a nutshell, the Supremes told the states that they have a choice: if they allow in-state wineries to ship direct to consumers they must also allow out-of-state wineries the same privilege; otherwise, they must prevent all wineries from shipping direct to consumers.
~Contrary to what much of the ill-informed press wrote about the ruling, it did little to allow ready and free access of wine direct to consumers across state lines. The ruling placed no strings on states who opted to stop protectionism and to allow out-of-state wineries to ship direct—they simply charge extra for the access and they also make it more difficult to apply for a license, not to mention many states came up with other rules that limit a winery’s access.
~All of this nonsense is because a lot of state lawmakers are in the pocket of the WSWA lobby.
~To put it bluntly, the narrow ruling of the Supremes was as mealy as the congress of 1933 that created this mess when they gave states the right to monopolize wine distribution within their borders. Alcohol is the only commercial product in America that states have the right to control and to subject to punitive treatment, and to restrict its access.
~Still, the ruling got the WSWA scared. They see it as an infringement on their general monopoly in a system known as “three-tier.”

The three-tier system sets up a middle merchant that makes a profit without having to do much more than warehouse and deliver wine to retailers and restaurants (three tiers: producer to middle merchant to retail).

~The built in markup of the state-to-state mandated middle merchant runs between 20 and 30 percent. For that profit, WSWA makes some grand payments to statewide politicos through an array of lobbyists, and the state protection that WSWA receives probably makes the NRA or the health care industry jealous.
~To be fair, distributors do a little more than warehouse and deliver—they decide on which wines they want to carry and which wines they want to ignore (ever wonder why you can’t get certain wines in your state while people in other states can get them?)

When I was in the wine business I saw distributors at work breaking state alcohol control rules with the closest thing to impunity that I’ve ever witnessed. That’s because of all that lobby money they spend.

When I applied for a retail license in Manhattan I was subjected to a three-panel state liquor control board, the head of which finally was ousted after it became known how much he had been paid by WSWA member lobbyists to look the other way when they broke the rules.

The “holier than thou” head of the board was trying to stop my license because some local community board also had him in their pocket. It is an insidious system, but a system WSWA finds financially worth protecting.

~Ever since the Supremes issued their ruling WSWA has been working hard to protect their investments in the monopoly. They’ve been trying to prove that the shipping ruling has opened America to online alcohol purchases by minors. Unfortunately, every press release of the WSWA on the issue about so-called cases of minors having wine shipped to them has been a sting set up by WSWA money and local scum enforcement people—plus one newspaper (what’s up with that?). Not one case that I know of has been a real case of a minor ordering wine online, and I won’t even raise the issue of minors buying wine online to any level of worthiness by talking about its incongruity.
~Now that WSWA lobbyists have noticed that they are indeed losing ground, they’ve decided to go after the lawyer who brought that case to the Supreme Court and won. WSWA has filed suit claiming that the lawyer, who is a professor, used university resources and time to make his case.
~The university of course has caved to the pressure and is doing an investigation, the same university that endorsed the lawyer’s work—even took pride in the outcome of the Supreme Court case.

The most disgusting part of the story is that WSWA has asked the state of Indiana, where they filed the suit, to set up a fund to pay the lawyer in case the state loses. Unbelievable!

The British system of justice makes asshole lawsuit complainants pay when they lose a frivolous case—what I would give for that system right now.

~Remember this story; it is one in a string of scummy lobbyist moves that needs to be drummed into our consciousness, lest we forget what a sick system alcohol control really is.
~There are scores of idiots out there trying to protect us from ourselves by denying wine yet a college student can pick up a gun as easily as he can get a pack of gum. Incredible.

You can read all about this nonsense at these three online sites.

Read this: Then read this: Now read this:

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

Monday, April 16, 2007


~“Great wine starts in the vineyard.” It’s an old axiom but can today’s general viticultural practices sustain great wine production into the future?
~Some winemakers who answer no are going organic for their stake of the future.
~Prior to the 20th century, soil and plants were viewed as part of an environmental ecosystem (lack of a viable chemical industry helped preserve the concept). Just about all farmers were "organic." In European viticulture today, many top French, Italian, German and Austrian producers still farm this way, but they haven’t been saying so on their wine labels. They simply see nothing special about how they grow their grapes.
~The view of post-World War II agribusiness in the United States is that soil is inert—unable to grow anything without the help of new and improved synthetic chemicals to fight disease and insects. International wine writer Monty Waldin claims that the result of this practice leaves a residue of about five ounces of synthetic chemicals in every bottle of wine—that’s close to 20% by volume.
~With a growing list of wine producers claiming to be organic, it was inevitable the ante would be upped. Organic producers wanting to differentiate themselves in the future are considering something today called biodynamics.

Waldin explains that in the 1920s, the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner claimed that certain spiritual or mystical forces were necessary to all life. He prescribed farming methods based on the belief that not just animals but also soil and plants are cognizant living beings and that the complete universe plays a role in their health and growth.

~Whatever one thinks of Steiner's theoretical ideas, his practical farming methods have taken root in some 21st-century vineyards, under the name "biodynamics."
~To be biodynamic, you must first be organic. But biodynamic growing adds nine preparations required to enhance soil quality and stimulate plant life. Various combinations of mineral, plant or animal manure extracts are fermented, diluted, stirred and applied in homeopathic-like proportions to compost, soil, or directly onto plants. Before application, biodynamic preparations are buried in the earth usually for six months at a time to ferment.

Biodynamic theory also claims that the ultraviolet light of the sun, in a certain position in the sky, helps the leaves of plants to accept and assimilate a spray application.

~Okay, so organic and biodynamic viticulture is good for the earth, and since it leaves no synthetic residue in the wine we drink, it is likely good for our bodies. But has the wine gotten any better? Can we taste the difference?
~A lot of factors affect wine taste. But if synthetic chemicals poison the land then to what extent do they affect the health of plants. It takes healthy plants to produce healthy grapes to produce great wine.
~Which of course means that great wine starts in the vineyard.

Recently, the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG), in conjunction with two insurance companies, developed a Wine Industry Property & Liability insurance package that rewards growers with reduced premiums if they practice sustainable viticulture. CAWG’s mantra includes words like “managing risks proactively” and “implementing sound environmental practices.”

~If I were a betting man, I would lay a few dollars down on big changes for the future of viticulture. And I might even be inclined to up the ante, to bet on biodynamics. As for betting that the new direction will produce great wine. I don’t know. But it will be fun to find out.

Biodynamic1, biodynamic2, biodynamic3,

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


~When it comes to food and drink the word “organic” seems to have been taken to new and unsubstantiated heights. Indeed, many of those rebel farmers with their small plots of “back to the earth” farms that they tilled with their wives and the brood have long been co-opted by Archer Daniels Midland, Kellogg’s and a host of other conglomerate food giants. While the word might still mean that the farming isn’t heavily dependent on petrochemicals, “organic” isn’t exactly hand produced either.
~I suspect that, in the context of wine, “organic” does not mean what many of you think it means.
~Put simply, organic wine is produced from organic grapes.

Read the above sentence over. It does not say anything about how the wine is produced—does it? That’s where the confusion—and the problem—lies.

~Growing grapes organically is indeed a noble endeavor. I grow my own vegetables for the same reason that I like the idea of organically grown grapes: I know (or at least I hope) they have not been subjected to potentially dangerous insecticides.
~When it comes to my vegetables, I also know they are not processed with potentially contaminated water, they are not blended with potentially contaminated vegetables from some other farm, they are not transported and packaged with vegetables from other farms, and they are not treated in my kitchen with chemicals before I eat them. When it comes to commercial grapes I know little or nothing about their treatment, and believe me, if you knew what shows up in a vat of grapes you’d understand why the word “organic” is the least about which you should worry!
~I’ve heard with my own ears wine sales people call certain products “organic wine” when I know that the wine had been subjected to a few inorganic processes—not that the processes are necessarily detrimental, just that they certainly are not organic.

You notice I don’t dignify the word “natural” here. That’s because in the food and drink industry that word literally is a lie.

~Assume, however, that organic wines are supposed to be produced a certain way. Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture definition of organic wines refers to wines that can prove 95% of the resources were from certified organic sources? Further, wines that are “made with organic grapes” need only include 70% by volume from certified organic sources.
~Each of the “organic” wines above can have sulfur dioxide added to them, which is not exactly an organic process, but that is up for argument in some quarters.
~The only guarantee that I know of that makes sense is when a wine is labeled 100% organic, 100% of the grapes must have been certified organically grown and no sulfur dioxide was added.
~Now, you know about sulfur dioxide, don’t you? No? Let me explain.

Sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring sulfite gas from decaying vegetation (its chemical signature is SO2); it is also a pollutant gas produced from industrial smoke; it is also a gas that is used to preserve food and wine; and it is also a gas produced as a by-product of fermentation. You might think that its natural state would make it an organic substance, but SO2 is not considered organic, mainly because it is not carbon based.

~The fact that SO2 is a natural by-product of fermentation is cause for some confusion when it comes to wine.
~The preservative affect of SO2 for wine was discovered in second century Rome. Since that time, it has been used to protect many foods from spoiling by slowing oxidation, which is what it does for wine. But because it is not considered organic, an addition of SO2 is not allowed in 100% organic wine.
~Remember, however, that SO2 is a by-product of fermentation. That means that while it may not be added to 100% organic wine, there still could be small levels of SO2 in the wine, from the fermentation. The confusion is when so-called organic wines claim they are sulfite free, which may be untrue—they may not have had SO2 added, but they also may contain low levels of it.

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.

~It appears there are no restrictions on using the word “organic” when wine is subjected to other processing like fining or filtering. While some of the material used for fining is organic, materials used for filtering may not be. Plus, other additions to wine like certain chemicals to fix certain problems that may pop up in the winemaking process are not all necessarily produced from organic matter.
~The use of the word “organic” generally has power as promotion, but it can also be misleading. The best thing for consumers to do who are concerned about whether or not their wine is truly an organic product is not to read the label but to ask specific questions of the producer. Come to think of it, that’s the best thing to do concerning all consumer edibles and potables.

Next time, I’ll explore “biodynamic.”

Try these sites: 1, 2, 3,

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

Friday, April 6, 2007

Heroes and wine

~There are times when my fellow man makes me want to be a unicorn rather than a human. One of those times just came up this morning and it goes by the name Six Heroes.
~Some fellow who goes by the name and title George Bacon, Proprietor and Vintner, offers a wine he calls Six Heroes. He calls the wine Memorial Merlot and claims it is from hand-picked grapes and that the wine ages in French oak barrels for 13 months.
~On their own, those qualifications mean absolutely nothing, except that they are a method of wine production; without knowing anything about this company, they certainly don’t justify paying $30 a bottle for the unknown wine.
~The other claim made is that purchase of two to six bottles of this wine benefits the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes. Nice thought, but where’s the documentation—where’s the proof that this is not a scam? The proof offered on the Web site simply isn’t enough for me.
~The overall name of the company is Friar’s Choice, so I went to the Web site for that winery. All that is on the site are two wines and the same statement I’ve read on another Web site about how Friar’s Choice has partnered with the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, blah, blah, blah.
~I’m sorry, but I find the whole thing disturbing.
~If I want to donate $30 to the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, I would send them $30.
~If I want a wine worth $30, I would buy a wine worth $30.
~I don’t think the two have much of a relationship, but even if they do have a relationship, I still want to know if the wine is worth $30; for that answer I want to read the label and I certainly want to find out more about the winery and the winemaker.
~On the plus side, the polo shirt with the Six Heroes logo might be nice to have—I wonder how many months that had been aged in oak.
Check out the Web sites and see for yourself, but keep your hands on your wallet.

Six, Friar's, Coalition,

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

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Sky is Falling

~To keep up awareness over a non-issue, the National Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association (WSWA) does the “Chicken Little” sky-is-falling dance every so often. They keep trying to persuade gullible government bureaucrats and the often equally gullible news media, not to mention we gullible consumers, that a mass exodus of wines from out-of-state retailers are being shipped into our individual states—to college students.
~I suspect the organization spends a lot of money to keep this hoax up. In fact, I don’t suspect they spend the money; I’m convinced that they do. The stories all sound so familiar and the press release that WSWA sends out almost within minutes of an event seems all too coincidental to this justified cynic.
~The latest WSWA charade came a few weeks ago when a newspaper in Iowa reported its sting operation to get out-of-state retailers to ship wine to a college-age person. The story didn’t seem to mention how many retailers had been stung, but it did talk about the one that got bitten bad and managed to ship wine into the always liberal-minded state of Iowa, where it is a felony to ship wine into the state, but take a glance at Iowa’s gun laws—the disgusting stupidity of the situation makes me want to throw up.
~In any event, Iowa’s alcohol distribution network must be strong to get a newspaper to provide a sting operation for them. The newspaper publisher should be ashamed of him or herself. Here’s why.
~Whether the newspaper was duped into performing the sting or whether it really believes in the alcohol distributor’s hype, the fact is that the only time we ever see a story in newspapers about online sales of alcohol across state lines to college-age students or minors it turns out to be a sting. Why is that?
The first answer to the question is easy to explain: the event doesn’t much happen unless it is provoked. You have to wonder how many college students are willing to order wine or beer online and wait a week or so for the shipment, especially when the party is that night—which leads to the second answer to the “why a sting” question.
Most college-age or underage kids get their illicit alcohol from what is commonly known as a bricks and mortar retail outlet: a store. The store is of course within the state in which the sale takes place, and that would include Iowa (unless the state has made it legal to buy from a store all the guns you want, but not all the wine you’d like to own).
The WSWA doesn’t much care to send out press releases about store sales to college-age or minor kids for a simple reason: the out-of-state retailer did not buy the alcohol from them, so that shop could go to hell in their view; the bricks and mortar store, however, is the local WSWA member’s customer; why would they want to out it in a press release about illegal alcohol sales?
~I do get weary of this situation. But I also know that if the WSWA is allowed to fund politicians, newspapers, and maybe even law enforcement, which in the Northeast displays a true jones for doing sting operations, the public will continue to get the press release version of the story, which brings up another issue.
~You know that old saw about believing only what you see? I can’t think of a better motto for living in today’s so-called information age. We have online journalists who don't know how to check a fact or that they are supposed to check facts before telling a story, we have mainstream media outlets trying to compete with online bloviators and so they rely on press releases and don’t much check their facts either, and we have ideological self-interest groups acting as newscasters.
~Hell, under such circumstances as we have today, we shouldn’t believe in what we see, we should poke what we see to make sure it isn’t a mirage, like a WSWA press release, which isn’t so much a mirage as it is a pack of lies.
If you are wondering how this ridiculous situation came about, look again into the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, Section 2, which blatantly and in violation of a constitutional issue of commerce, gives the states the right to block traffic of alcohol across their borders; look also to the Supreme Court’s recent decision about shipping wine across state lines.
In the supposedly democratic United States of America alcohol is the only commercial product that is not allowed free commercial traffic across state lines—not unless someone pays the piper for the privilege, and the piper is a member either of the WSWA or (pick a political office).

21st Amend, Supremes, The Sting,

WSWA, Notice how the WSWA explodes the issue into a national tragedy.

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