Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Get on the offensive

Far be it from me to give PR advice to someone who is in the PR game—if I had any PR talent, I’d certainly be a much wealthier wine writer. But a recent series of posts at compelled me to both pull out of the discussion and give my opinion here where I am safe and comfortable!

I applaud Tom Wark’s work with the Specialty Retailers Association. I believe fully that the present system of alcohol regulation that was left to the states to decide, individually, is a disaster of great proportions, not to mention the little matter of it being the result of a Constitutional Amendment (the 21st) that contradicts an earlier and still existing Constitutional clause (the Dormant Commerce Clause in Article 1, Section 8).

Yet, I am of the opinion that Tom’s counter arguments to the specious arguments put forward by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) may be helping to create more fog rather than to lift it.

WSWA is obviously in favor of maintaining the present three-tier wine distribution system, and even to tighten it further. The system is perfect for the group. It makes wine wholesalers among the few, if there are any other, industries that survive by way of government revenue protection--a cursory glance at many state regulations clearly shows that the purpose of the three-tier system is to contain the industry so that the state can easily identify and collect its tax revenue.

That same glance at the regulations will show the astute among us something more enlightening about the system.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the country did not automatically lose those with “dry” sentiments. The Congress knew this fact, and some in congress knew they had constituents and lobbyists back home who were watching. So, the mealy bunch in Washington punted the ball to the states. After the feds set up their alcohol tax revenue interests, they allowed the states to set up their own, plus their own idea of what constitutes alcohol commerce.

States where powerful “dry” interests resided were more severe with regulations than those with a weaker “dry” interest. In the former states, legislators brazenly stated that their interests were to make it difficult for businesses to traffic in and for consumers to have access to alcohol—in a recent court case in Washington State involving Costco, that state’s liquor control authority plainly said so in testimony.

The 75-year three-tier system is entrenched. It will not go away easily if at all. The only way that it can ever be abolished is through a national frontal attack on its obvious Constitutional conflict, and even then it would take a less moralistic Supreme Court than the present one to shoot down those contradictions.

When Tom Wark rails against the self-interested bullshit that WSWA puts out, he gets himself sucked into the wrong arguments. Those who support the WSWA bring up all the side issues that have little or nothing to do with the real issue; then, Tom responds and some other subject comes up. With each response, a new subject comes up and soon enough, people are arguing over everything except the plain fact that the three tier system may not have been designed in conflict with the U.S. Constitution, but the Congress of 1933 certainly opened the doors for abuse of the Constitution.

If Tom or anyone else wants to do something positive concerning the disgusting way that wine is regulated and controlled across the U.S. it would seem best to ignore the WSWA and go straight to the courts. Build a coalition of legal minds from state-to-state to attack the constitutionality of state legislation over the commerce of wine and get that story into the mainstream press.

The people who agitated for Prohibition were successful because they learned that reformers do their best work when they turn the tides from being on the defensive to being on the offensive.

(Anyone reading this blog on a site other than Vinofictions is made aware that it has been used without permission--a violation of my copyright.)

Fermentation blog

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Is this what socialism means?

My dictionary lists at least three definitions for the word socialism, none of which apply strictly to any system of government that I can find, but for the sake of argument, let’s use the first definition that comes up:

...a political theory or system in which the means of production and distribution are controlled by the people and operated according to equity and fairness rather than market principles.

The above definition of socialism seems a lot more benign than we make of the word. Maybe that’s why our heads of state have no problem bailing out the corporate world or handing out an agricultural subsidy, even if the money is ours and we haven’t authorized using it that way.

The New York State grape and wine industries have been the beneficiaries of a form of socialism since 1985. That was the year the New York Wine and Grape Foundation was formed to pump government, er, taxpayer money into research and promotion connected to the two industries.

Originally, the Foundation was to get started with New York State money; then, the government payments were to be incrementally reduced over a few years while industry money was to supplant it, until no more government money was necessary.

Today, the Foundation faces the hard reality that you can’t count on the government forever.

As almost every governor will be forced to do in their coming budgets, New York State’s Governor Paterson is forced to shove economic realities down our throats with a budget proposal that cuts programs and raises taxes and fees.

One of the cuts in New York is the money for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. In his weekly e-newsletter, the Foundation’s President, Jim Trezise, alluded to the possibility that it might be the last correspondence from him and that 2009 might present us with the end of the organization.

I find it truly sad that after 24 years the Foundation still relies on state money that was supposed to have been cut off decades ago; how difficult it is to break a socialistic addiction. The situation seems to me like a combined indictment of the wine and grape industries, the state, and the Foundation.

The wine and grape industries should have long ago tried to become self-sustaining through a marketing order formula that would have made research and promotion industry-funded.

New York State is at fault for not forcing the industries to become self-reliant.

The Foundation should not have relied on New York State money as something perpetual but instead should have found ways to persuade the industries to create that marketing order.

Of course, the same problem that is causing government money to dry up has also created financial disarray in an industry that relies largely on tourism, which in this downturn is down. The grape and wine industries aren’t likely to be in a position to take up the slack. But then, maybe it takes something like this disaster to galvanize an industry, and maybe an industry-based solution will emerge.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: the New York grape and wine industries are about to discover how people feel when their welfare checks stop arriving or their unemployment insurance runs out. That's the down side of semi-socialism.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The promise of media

This morning someone sent me an email bubbling over with praise concerning what she called a “great wine history Web site.”

Of course, my interest in wine leans heavily toward its long and varied history so I clicked on the link my friend provided.

The Internet is a marvel quite like the marvel of television—early television, I mean. With the introduction of television came the promise of a revolution in information gathering. Sound familiar?

Television was to be the first instrument of mass information that would dwarf the power of radio. Well, television did ultimately dwarf the power of radio, but I doubt it went so far as to meet its promise to become THE important information medium. On the other hand, television did manage to succeed at becoming THE most effective means of transporting both banality and advertising directly into our living rooms and then into our brains.

Using as a guide the trajectory of television in our culture, I fear for where the Internet might lead us. That fear was heightened just a little when Firefox connected me to the so-called wine history site that my friend recommended.

The first thing that bothered me about the site is that no one, no company, and no entity takes credit for it, at least nowhere on the site that I could find it. Wait a minute. That’s not the first thing that bothered me. It was the music.

The site comes with a warning to “turn on your speaker.” My warning to you: turn off the speaker. The music made me feel as if I was on my way up to the fourth floor, or something.

Anyway, in the scheme of things, the music annoyance is small potatoes and I could live with it if I had to, and apparently, one must. It’s the wine history that I craved, and still do, since the site provides something lighter than wine history lite.

The site hasn't lifted or blatantly stolen the wine information; it does worse; it boasts that the source of the “history” is Wikipedia. Then, the site somehow manages to even shorten Wiki's already woefully brief wine history.

Having the close connection that I have to the Finger Lakes region and to New York wine in general, I ambled to the New York history section. To my surprise, I discovered that New York is a mono-wine culture. No mention is made of the state’s five appellations, and no mention is made of the the fact that some grapes do not grow throughout the state. Obviously, the site master doesn’t know that like politics, all wine is local.

On closer scrutiny of the site I discovered that the wine history is there as filler. The site is dedicated to marketing and selling to consumers. In other words, this wine site represents on the Internet the potential to meet the fulfillment of television.

If you must, have a look at it: WineHistory? Remember to turn off your speakers first.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

pay to play

A few years ago, I received a telephone call from two fellows who somehow heard of me and wondered if I would be interested in becoming part of a new online wine Web site.

The idea was sketchy, but it entailed highlighting and focusing on American wine appellations.

Part of their pitch to me was that as a freelance writer, I should break away from being in thrall to editors that pay peanuts per word. That was a good start, as it isn’t too far off the mark. This new idea was for writers to become part of the company and to share in its development. That’s about as much as I understood, but I was interested.

Soon, in a follow up conversation, the two fellows told me that plans had changed. Instead of becoming part of the company’s development, the new plan included hiring writers as freelancers.

Finding the change in direction to be suspicious, I demurred--couldn't help thinking about that initial pitch to me that had cast aspersions on the idea of being paid peanuts as a freelance writer.

Soon thereafter, Appellation America was online. I liked what it had become so I queried. I wondered if the offer to be a writer for the site, and to cover the Finger Lakes Appellation (or the wider New York region) was still open.

It wasn’t. I was told that no decision was made about the Finger Lakes Appellation; that was quite a while ago; apparently, no decision has yet been made. This came as a small shock to me, since the site includes correspondents dedicated to much smaller, much younger and a few less important American appellations than the Finger Lakes.

Last week, two principals in Appellation America walked away from the venture—the two fellows who first contacted me years ago: Roger and Adam Dial. The story is that they had irreconcilable differences with those who financed the venture. I have no idea of the veracity of the story, but that isn’t the story that instigated this blog entry.

Along with the story of the Dial’s departure, came accusations by others that Appellation America is a “pay to play” wine Web site. In other words, wineries that gain mention and/or reviews, or that have products for sale listed on the site, pay for the privilege.

Again, I’ve no first-hand information concerning the veracity of the claim, but I do think that since this kind of claim has been made against other wine periodicals as well, it is a serious subject.

Newspapers and magazines have long faced the conundrum of pissing off advertisers if they tell an unflattering story. But as news organizations, at times they simply have to take the risk. They can do it if they aren’t one-subject periodicals. But what can a one-subject periodical get away with?

Not much, I fear.

One of the appealing characteristics of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (WA) is that it accepts no advertising, the implication being: the newsletter is beholden to no entity other than its owner. Wines and wineries mentioned in WA ostensibly are there because they deserve to be there on their merits, whether positive or negative.

The fact that WA is successful is a tribute to Mr. Parker’s ability to break a mold.

Like newspapers and general interest periodicals, the overwhelming majority of wine periodicals are advertising driven—they earn their revenue through the sale of ads, not through subscriptions. This already makes them suspicious to many wine consumers who constantly wonder over and point to evidence that only those companies that advertise seem to get consistent positive coverage.

If accusations of “pay to play” are true at any one of these periodicals, it not only reflects on that one, but on all of them. How can either the periodicals or the writers who fill their pages be taken seriously if there is a quid pro quo (reciprocal mutual consideration) involved in the stories and in the accolades?

With that in mind, it would serve Appellation America well to explain its policy and to prove that there is no “pay to play” functioning going on. The management owes it to its readers, to its writers, and to the general wine periodical community.

In fact, I believe that all wine periodicals, wine writers, and wine bloggers that review or extol the virtues of wine owe an open policy explanation to readers. Here’s mine:

I generally pay for wines that I consume and write about. If I choose to write about wines that have been sent to me for free, I will say so clearly.

Since I am not a wine critic, I don’t assign scores or awards to wines that I write about, and I have no plans to do so in the future.

As of today, I am under no work-for-hire contract with any wine producer, and if I do agree to one in the future, it will be limited to consulting or ghost writing/editing, and I will not place myself in a position that could stifle my views about anything connected to wine, but I will cease to write about any winery that pays me to do work for it.

With a partner, I operate a small publishing company that develops and publishes regional winery restaurant cookbooks, which in no way conflicts with my views and opinions about wine or the wine industry.


Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

There's ego and there's EGO!

My wife, Anne, comes from a literate family. True to her lineage, Anne is a good writer, but she doesn’t write. Believe me, she’s a lot better at it than I am. That’s why I often use her as my editor before I submit a book manuscript to the publisher.

Having been earning my keep through words, it escapes me how someone can disregard his or her writing talent and so one day I confronted my wife.

“With your talent and skill,” I asked in an all-important tone, “why have you never tried for a writing career?”

“Because,” she replied lightly, “I don’t feel that I have anything to say.”

As astonishing as her answer seemed at the time, it was also illuminating.

Why do bloggers blog? Why does anyone write anything?

We write and blog because we believe we have something to say. Plain and simple, writing is mainly an ego trip. Don’t get me wrong: I view having a healthy ego as an important ingredient for survival.

Now, there’s ego and there’s EGO; the out-sized latter all too often illustrates that the writer believes to a fault not only that he or she has something to say, but that we should believe it at face value.

Take for example something that took place online recently—a post by someone who said he smelled paint in a wine and wanted to know what that flaw is. A few quickly and emphatically responded that the smell indicated the wine suffered from a case of volatile acidity (VA).

Without getting too technical, VA is essentially high concentrations of naturally occurring acetic acid in wine. One way to wind up with a wine that suffers from VA is for excessive oxygen to meet up with a population of the acetobacteria that is in wine and then causing spoilage through build up of acetic acid.

Acetic acid concentrations in wine greater than 1.3 grams per liter can be unpleasant. Federal regulations allow for a maximum 1.4 grams per liter for red wine and 1.2 grams per liter for white wine (in France the maximum is lower and in Germany it’s higher than in the U.S.).

Most people with experience would say that VA smells like vinegar and they’d be correct: acetic acid is the definition of vinegar. Does vinegar smell like paint?

High concentrations of ethyl acetate in wine smells not so much like paint but like varnish. If we assume that when the poster smelled the wine, paint or paint thinner came to mind, it’s reasonable to assume that what he smelled was ethyl acetate.

Ethyl acetate is formed as an ester when ethanol (wine alcohol) reacts with acetic acid. It usually takes high levels of acetic acid for e. acetate to be noticeable in the wine’s aroma, but that does not necessarily mean that the wine had reached the point of excessive volatile acidity, just high enough for the alcohol and acid to react.

When a home winemaker tried to point out the technical issues regarding ethyl acetate and VA he was rewarded with this post from a wine geek: “…technical correctness matters little (perhaps not at all) in winespeak. If it's bad it's VA. If it's good then it's aromatic complexity.”

Seems to me that the geek who posted the above is stating that it doesn’t matter what’s really wrong with the wine, all that matters is that someone thinks it’s bad and so that someone can proclaim why it’s bad without really knowing the reason.

Now, there's ego and there's EGO.

In my view, those who proclaim erroneously to an unknowing audience can do damage, especially if they manage to sound commanding or if they hold a position of seeming authority. Whenever he was confronted with egotistical verbal gymnastics from people like that, my drill sergeant uncle used to say, “If you can’t back it up, shut up.”

And to think that I thought that my uncle was being unkind when he was only being perspicacious.

If you like wine and poster art, look at this: wineline

Copyright Thomas Pellechia

November 2008. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wine philosophy 101

A few weeks ago, one of my wine contacts, Jason, wanted to know if my aim is to talk about wine philosophically. He said that often my wine musings seem to go in that direction.

I’m not sure whether or not that is my aim. When I started Vinofictions I wanted to make blog entries that I thought would serve to dispel the many myths surrounding the subject of wine. But like anything we set out to do, surprises lurk around every corner.

The thing that surprised me most was my naiveté about wine geeks. Not being a geek myself, I don’t suppose I had a handle on what it meant to be a wine geek. What I’ve discovered more often than not is that far too many wine geeks already know everything there is to know—dispelling myths for people who have the answers gets you nowhere.

The other thing I’ve learned is that I don’t know as much as I thought I knew. I admit to shuddering each time I hear a pompous wine know-it-all—makes me think that I must have sounded like that once before. Ooh nooo!

A few months ago, I posted a series of questions on this subject. It was in response to a blog entry that Tom Wark made at Fermentation. Looking at them today, the questions seem to me to be framed in an academic-like syntax. Yuck. Let me re-do those questions here and then let’s see what I can come up with for answers.

1. Why should we have a relationship with wine?

No law says that we must. But by not having a relationship with wine we certainly miss some real pleasures.

2. Why do we feel the need to agree or to disagree about wine?

Because the insecure among us either like to tell others what to do or we need approval from others—or both.

3. What makes an individual think he or she is the arbiter of taste or of anything connected to wine?

I suppose the answer to number 2 fits here as well, but there may be another dynamic at work. Some people really do believe that they are superior.

4. Why can't we simply enjoy wine without having to dissect and obsess over it?

All of the above.

This subject came back to me after another thread on Fermentation a few weeks ago. I was truly annoyed with the attitude of a certain wine writer.

This writer has made a splash recently by attacking Robert Parker—nothing new there. But the writer has, I think, taken the crusade a little too far.

In the world view of this writer, if a person producing wine isn’t the one who digs in the dirt, prunes the vines, ties the tendrils to trellis, hauls the grapes, and whatever other manual labor involved, then that person has no right to claim a connection to terroir.

The first thing I notice about comments like that is when they come from writers who have never dug in the dirt, pruned the vines, tied, or worked anywhere near a vineyard as a profession. The second thing I notice is that the person with such beliefs has a difficult time explaining not only the concept of terroir (which everyone has trouble explaining) but also what gives validity to those beliefs.

Everyone has a right to an opinion about anything but, in my view, an opinion is worth as much as the facts that come with it to support it. The concept of terroir is based less on facts than on beliefs. Likewise, the concept that you can’t be a real wine producer unless you do all of the work yourself is nothing more than spiritual wishing. It belies a lack of understanding that makes me suspicious of the person’s wine writing.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in the concept of terroir. I am a gardener, and I once was a grape grower and winemaker. I know that what you grow from the soil gives you a portion of what is in the soil. But I sure as hell don’t know how, and I sure as hell don’t think I must do all the work in the garden for that marvelous transformation to take place.

It’s one thing to have subjective likes and dislikes, but it’s quite another to proclaim that you have a lock on the truth, especially when you haven’t bothered to do the research yourself.

If the above is a philosophical argument, so be it. To me, it's just one man’s opinion…

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2008. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wood alcohol

I buy California wines, but I certainly don’t buy as many as I did twenty or so years ago, and this past week I tasted three wines that represented perfectly why this is so.

An old friend of mine asked me to join him on a trip to California a few weeks ago. He wanted me to help him select wines that may still be unknown in Manhattan, where he operates three businesses that sell wine: a retail shop, a wine bar, and a restaurant.

My task was to set up a few meetings for us to taste and maybe to meet the producers. Since I have always appreciated the wines of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties over those of Napa, I suggested we concentrate on the two former rather than the latter. He, however, has a friend in Napa so we were going to spend at least a day there.

We took the trip, we tasted and met, and I believe my friend now has at least a start in the direction he set for himself. On my end, as I expected, wines from the Russian River area of Sonoma and from Mendocino County interested me much more than the wines I tasted from Napa.

One of the people I wanted to meet works at a California winery further south, in Paso Robles. Since we couldn’t make it there on our schedule, the winery sent to my home three bottles for my friend and I to taste.

I could tell that the first wine that we opened was Zinfandel first by the name of the grape on the label, and then by the description of the wine on the back label.

When I tasted the wine, it did not fit the back label description, which spoke to classic Zinfandel rustic bramble-like qualities, although I did detect raspberry-like flavor. Had I been served the wine with my eyes closed I might have thought it a framboise eau de vie, an impression that would have come from raspberry meeting with the 16.8 percent alcohol of the wine.

I did not like the wine at all.

Next, I opened a Carmenere. The alcohol was lower, much lower. In fact, it was within the legal definition of table wine in the United States—between 8 and 14 percent by volume, I believe.

Except for a couple of Carmenere varietals from Chile, my limited experience with the grape has yet to give me a sense of its varietal character, but that didn’t seem to matter in this case. Mostly, the wine was too woody for me. After tasting it without food, I put the wine alongside some spicy chili and it completely died there, tasting mostly astringent.

Finally, I opened the Syrah.

I have had experience enough with Syrah that I should be able to pick out its spicy chocolate and peppery varietal character, but with this wine, I simply could not, with or without my eyes closed. I did manage to identify that the wine was quite woody, and also extremely alcoholic. I could take no more than two minuscule sips of the wine.

I know it’s not right to issue blanket condemnation of a complete wine region after tasting just a few wines, but over the years I have had far too many experiences similar to the above, and that’s what keeps me from thinking California when I go wine shopping.

Eau de vie


Copyright November, 2008

Thomas Pellechia, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Just to let everyone know that I've teamed with a group that operates a wine-oriented site called Cruvee.

They've asked me to keep a blog going on a regular basis. I've accepted.

It's not easy to come up with ideas for two separate blogs, as well as for my two newspaper columns, so I'm going to give Vinofictions a rest for now.

In November, after I've settled in, I'll get this blog regrouped and going again.

The blog at Cruvee is similar to here. I'll be talking about the same issues and in the same manner. But over there, I might have a better shot at reaching a wider audience than I was able to attract here.

This is the Cruvee Url and blog address:

Cruvee blog

Cruvee Web site

Friday, September 26, 2008


The subject of value wines came up recently on a wine Web forum.

In both my career in the wine business and in my at-home wine consumption I’ve probably spent more time seeking what I consider value wines than I’ve spent seeking whatever it is we call the other wines: excess, premium, top-notch, status, I don’t know.

I suppose when wine is a hobby the named wines of the world, the status products, the ones that a hobbyist “must have” are important. But hobbies like that can be quite expensive. Even those of us in the wine business have to think twice about the cost of wine, especially wine priced first in euros and then converted to dollars.

My wife says that she’ll know when I’m about to die; it will be two seconds after I refuse a glass of wine and a meal. Being that intent on consuming wine means that wine is not my hobby, which accounts for the relative paucity of the “great named” wines that have gone down my gullet when compared to the volume of daily quaffers, value wines, and general nice stuff that I’ve consumed—with dinner.

Years ago, learning wine meant reading about it—not about its ratings, but about wine, from writers who took us on a journey of exploration rather than on a ride through their palates. What some of us learned is that, like most anything else, there’s a hierarchy to wine. That lesson never meant to me that something on one end of the spectrum is worth more than something on the other end of the spectrum, not unless I’ve tasted it and it touched me. It meant that some wines are regarded one way and other wines are regarded another way—end of story.

As I began to learn the nature of the establishment and maintenance of the wine hierarchy I began to have questions about it, but I digress.

The first time I tasted a top hierarchy wine, Chateau Petrus, the wine touched me. It seemed worth what people paid for it—other people, of course, as I couldn’t afford it.

Likewise, the first time I tasted a lesser Bordeaux, a 1982 Chateau Coufran, it touched me, too. It was a wine that I could afford more regularly, and that about the wine touched me all the more; It was a value wine, since it expressed 1982 well and it did so without me having to take out a mortgage to try it. But that Coufran may not be a value wine to others today, because it costs well over the $14 or so that I paid for it two decades ago.

I just finished taking a look at a book called The Wine Trials, by Robin Goldstein. He’s the fellow who recently made a splash concerning wine list awards that Wine Spectator gives out.

Despite its title, The Wine Trials is not about people caught perpetrating frauds. The book is about experiments that Goldstein, et al, performed which he claims prove that high-priced wines are rated and prized not because of their quality but because of their status.

I won’t go into the evidence Goldstein presents to prove his case, I’ll just say that it isn’t a revelation to me—I’ve witnessed the phenomenon many times, but I’ve finally learned to shut up about it when it happens in my presence.

Most wine hobbyists don’t know what a blind tasting is—many don’t accept its value—but that is the only way for Goldstein to have proven his point, and that is why I value the results.

Still, people generally aren’t interested in being told that critics successfully manipulate them, never mind that their own brains are likely manipulating them, so even after doing the research, Goldstein’s findings will produce detractors, and many of them are likely to be wine hobbyists.

Non-hobbyists probably like the idea that lower priced wines can please people as much or more than the status giants. The idea has value, and it makes them value wines.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2008. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Out of the mouth of wives...

Out of the mouths of wives often come illuminating thoughts.

Last night, out of Vinho Verde for our before-dinner drink, I asked my wife if she would like a Prosecco instead.


I ran downstairs and found the remaining Prosecco (Zardetto) in our cellar.

Although it is not the Prosecco that has pleased me most, I like Zardetto’s version of the bubbly. No matter. This blog entry is not about Prosecco that pleases, although to get to my point I do have to tell you how we felt about the Zardetto.

I was preparing duck seared breast with a maple/soy/wine/garlic/onion sauce, with rice and olives on the side.

There’s some preparation to the sauce and also to the duck, which I rub with soy/garlic and white pepper and then coat with a dusting of flour. Sipping the aperitif wine while working is fully in order, and for that purpose, I like the wine to be fresh and lively, with a bite that will tease my appetite.

Prosecco is both the name of a grape and two wine styles produced in the Veneto region of Italy. The wine is either frizzante, a fizzy still wine or it is spumante, a fully sparkling wine.

In either case, the wines are generally light, fruity, a touch sweet, and nicely acidic at the finish. The Zardetto tastes somewhere between a 7-Up and Schweppes Tonic, but on a higher plane; its bubbles seem more gentle than a Charmat sparkling wine process usually throws at you (see the link below).

In short, the Prosecco was exactly what I wanted while cooking—a fine alternative to Vinho Verde.

Somewhere between when I dusted the duck breast with flour and added flour to thicken the sauce that was cooking, my wife came into the kitchen. She pointed at the Zardetto bottle and asked, “Why don’t we have something like this produced in America and at this price?”

The price of a well-made Prosecco is between $13 and $15 a bottle.

It is a good question, to which I have no answer.

Certainly, we have the technology for Charmat wines. They are on our market and for a lot, lot less than $15. But are they as fresh, lively, biting, and pleasing as Prosecco? Not to me.

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve tasted an American Charmat process wine, and that’s because I’ve hated most of them. With bubbles as big and seemingly as damaging as brass marbles, plus the cloying, often limp quality of the wines, I simply gave up trying.

On second thought: why can’t I find an American version of Vinho Verde at $5 that is as pleasing as the Portuguese wine?

I know that everything is costing us more these days, but I also wonder if the general cost of American wine, relative to quality, has been split dangerously into camps. For real money, you get real wine; for small money, you get barely drinkable wine.

Of course, I know the real answer to my wife’s question, but I hate thinking about the part of the domestic wine scene that has to do with supply and demand. It’s too depressing.

Oh, with the duck, we had Cannonau, from's Grenache.

Charmat Method

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


When we go out to dinner, my friends often look in my direction when the waiter comes around with the wine list in hand. Then, they tell me to order whatever I think is good, and at whatever price. They trust me—probably not a good idea, but they do anyway.

My usual response is to ask each what meal he or she plans to order. I’m trying to balance the varying orders with the offerings on the wine list. Generally, we wind up with red and white on the table and after a few oohs and aahs over the wine, everyone fills their glass with whichever wine they like best, damn the pairing with their food.

Last week, over dinner at the home of a friend, he served a Merlot from the Dolomiti of Italy. Boy, was I impressed by this non-wine geek’s selection.

The wine comes from the Dolomite Mountain range located in Northeastern Italy. It is an impressive mountain range, known by us for climbing and skiing more than for anything else, unless you are a wine person.

For wine people like I, who has visited the region, it is as exciting as visiting another mountainous ski area in Italy, Valtellina, the home of Sforzato, a red wine produced from the nebbiolo grape—in Valtellina Italian, sforzato means “strained,” a reference to the way the grapes are dried like raisins to make the intense wine, which is similar to Amarone produced in the Volpolicella region.

What makes these two regions, plus Piemonte located in the country’s Northwest, is that the mountains face due south; the sun beats down on them in all seasons, and that makes for intense red grape growing; hence, a fine Merlot from a mountainous region.

Merlot has been growing in Northeastern Italy for more than a century, yet we hear little about it, and we get to drink even less. This wine was a delight: bright, cherry-like acidic fruit qualities and with a medium body normally ascribed to mountainous wines that was accompanied not by powerful but by fine enough tannin structure to hold its own and to offer a lingering finish.

The wine is Mezzacorona 2005 Merlot (Imported by Prestige Wines, NY). It’s not a powerhouse wine, just a stable, good drinking Merlot that paired with skirt steak, and it cost my friend $10.

The skirt steak had been marinated in soy, garlic, and pepper. I liked it so much that I got me some of the wine and some skirt steak and tried them at home later on, and got the same result.

My friend is a wine person—not a geek. He loves wine with his dinner but he hasn’t much education concerning winemaking and he cares little about wine producers. He just likes wine with his dinner. He searches for wines unknown to him.

It makes me feel good that my friend sometimes asks for advice, not about a particular wine or wine and food pairings, but about general wine categories that he knows little or nothing about and that I think he should try. This time, he went after the Merlot without my help.

It’s what friends are for, and it's certainly nice to know that I can get through to someone in this world, but it isn't a given. Let me explain.

The wine forum called Wine Therapy is no more. The forum got its start, I believe, because some wine geeks wanted a place where they felt secure and, apparently, where they could act like the prep boys they may once have been, complete with four-letter ramblings just for the fun of seeing them on a screen, although without hearing the guffaws and sniffling that often accompanies an adolescent burst, I don’t understand the appeal of typing them out online.

No matter. They got what they wanted.

I made fun of Therapy, but I also participated once in a while. I’m no prude, I can take the snappy riffs of infantile swear-wording, and every so often, I felt the desire to enter into a conversation.

Admittedly, I can become a pest to those who seem to know all there is to know, because I am always asking questions. Immature people often take a question as a challenge to their knowledge rather than as, well, a question so that I might learn something or—heaven forbid—that I might be able to point out what I consider an error in thinking.

There were many problems with hackers getting into the Wine Therapy site, so a cabal got together and created a new site called Wine Disorder—don’t blame me for their penchant for cutesy monikers!

I call it a cabal because, well, that’s almost what they want us to think of them. They call themselves the politburo, and when you register to become a posting as opposed to just a lurking member, you must deal with the politburo—I don’t know by what method, but they decide who gets in and who does not. Guess who does not.

I think I became a pest on Therapy, although I hadn’t posted much at all. (I know I pissed off one fellow, but that was well before Therapy existed, and I thought he had accepted my explanation.) Whatever, the fact that I am barred from registering at Wine Disorder bothers me only in a small way—there are people there with whom I love engaging, but I can find them on a few other forum sites.

I am, however, disturbed by this particular cabal that speaks an egalitarian message about wine, but obviously holds an apparatchik mentality. But then, maybe I’m being too critical. After giving the situation some thought, it is to be expected.

If I remember correctly, schoolyard bullies loved to talk dirty and they also preferred to hang around together so as not to offend the gene pool. They didn’t let many outsiders in, and when they did let some in, it was mainly to torment and laugh at them with a disorderly display of giggling four-letter words and inside jokes.

I’m sure there is a place in this world for private clubs, but if you want to give it a shot, click below; before you do, brush up on the bawdy side of Kant and Kazantzakis: the cabal members may act like frat boys, but they are smart nonetheless.

Disorderly Conduct

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


The following were posted online by two separate wine bloggers.

“Wine consumers basically want to know two things: which wines they should buy and why, and which wines they should not buy and why.”

“I blog to have fun, get some freebies and maybe meet some cool chicks.”

I hope the first one is not exactly the case. I have to hope that, since I don’t tell other people what I think they should or should not buy or why they should or shouldn’t buy the wines.

My aim for this blog was to dispel as many vinofictions as I could, because having been in the wine business for 25 years, I know that many fictions float about.

I’ve always believed, and practiced my belief as a wine salesman, that information is much better than opinion; it builds confidence in both the informer and the informed by establishing a give and take relationship. Opinions often boil down to a give relationship without much care on the part of the giver for what the taker gets—and of course, this is only my opinion.

As for the second blogger comment, I do hope it was posted in jest, but the context in which it was posted leads me to believe otherwise.

How can you measure whether or not wine has made it into mainstream American culture?

You measure by the level of media coverage wine receives, and lately that coverage has been a sorry affair.

In the last few months major wine frauds have been uncovered and explained. Frauds are always with us, in or out of the wine world, but since wine is now a mainstreamer, the fraud is blown into a major media frenzy, with a book already out and, I’m sure, a potential movie in the pipeline.

More recently, the Wine Spectator made news after someone scammed the magazine and exposed what many perceive as the magazines’ own scam.

The Spectator has had a program for years that accepts on good faith the faxed copy of a restaurant’s wine list, accompanied by a check for $250, for consideration of that wine list for the magazines Award of Excellence, or some such lofty title.

Many of us in the business haven’t given the program much credit, since we knew how it worked, but consumers didn’t seem to understand how it worked. Many of them assumed that the restaurant earned rather than paid for the award. And so, a gentleman scammer created a phony restaurant with a phony wine list that included wines the Wine Spectator had earlier decided were mediocre. Yep. He got his award.

The scammer did a few things that weakened his case in my view, but he did create a story that enlightened consumers.

In the hullabaloo over the incident, I don’t think anyone commented on the complicit nature of all those restaurants over all those years who paid their dues, got their award, and proudly lied to the public about the stature behind the award, but that’s a story on which only someone with a brain like mine seems to focus.

More recently than the Spectator fiasco, blogger Tom Wark, a PR specialist, took some other bloggers to task for reviewing wines after agreeing to preconditions. This incident is where the two quotes above can be found among hundreds of other quotes—the link is below. Wark’s initial comments about journalistic ethics began a torrent.

My view is that bloggers (or anyone) who review wine under preconditions may in fact be sincere, and they may even have a readership that doesn’t mind; they also may have valid or invalid opinions. What they don’t seem to have is an understanding either of journalism or of ethics.

If you follow the link (two links, actually), you don’t need me to recount what was posted or a he said/she said play by play. Still, I want to tell you what that thread has made me think about.

Back in the Stone Age, when the new invention of television was being sold to consumers, the major promise being made for the medium was that it will be the most innovative force for imparting information since the written word. The famous newsman, Edward R. Murrow, warned that is what television can be, but only if it is handled correctly. He warned what it would become if handled incorrectly.

Needless to say, Murrow was prescient, to a fault. Today, the words television and information hardly belong in the same room, let alone the same sentence.

Can anyone recall the promises being made when the Internet made its splash in the world? It was something along the lines of the greatest source for information ever invented. Well, yes, it is, but what’s the value of much of that information? As an author who must do a lot of research, I never trust the Internet alone as a source.

Wine blogging may have become another one of those information sources that must be taken with a large grain of salt, at least that’s how I’d feel if every blogger told me what the second blogger quoted above posted online.

I want to believe that wine blogging can be an alternative to the many bloviators that have infiltrated the wine magazine world. But I am slowly coming to the conclusion that I may be suffering from a case of wishful thinking.

In the course of that thread in the link below, I watched reasonable dialogue be overcome by pride, fear, defensiveness, childishness, and even a certain bloviation of its own making.

My position on journalism and blogging is made plain with my posts, so I won’t go over that now. But the whole affair certainly makes me wonder how long it will be before the slackers, PR stunt people, and overall opinionated children will leave the blogging stage and professionals will take over.

As long as wine blogging is a self-appointed profession, odds are that professionals may never take over. Maybe what is needed is a task force to develop criteria for creating not only a wine blogger’s professional code of ethics but also a market for wine bloggers so that those of us engaged in it can be paid as professionals rather than have to do it for love and small perks.

Newspapers and magazines have of course made that attempt, but those venues are failing at their main business; newspapers may not be around much longer and wine magazines long ago abdicated their earlier position as sources of information. Today, they are mainly lifestyle periodicals almost completely in thrall to their advertisers.

The crash of newspapers and magazines isn’t entirely their fault. Consumers, it seems, don’t have much attention span for information. They want quick and easy advice, and adding a celebrity crack up, to spice it up, doesn’t hurt the periodical.

Maybe the whole concept of informing the public has run its course. Maybe people don’t want information—they want to be led.

Maybe I would have more fun with my blog if I start accepting free wine—maybe I’ll even meet a few cool chicks, although my wife might have something to say about that.

Maybe a code of ethics for wine bloggers is a waste of time against the forces of the marketplace.

Maybe wine really has made it into mainstream America—maybe it’s time to move on.

First link

Second Link

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


You know that something’s afoot in the wine world when wine geeks start touting the selection at their local Costco. This happened a few weeks ago on the Robert Parker forum Web site. That came as a surprise to me. I never would have thought that wine geeks of the magnitude that post on that forum would even step into a Costco

Well, something just may be afoot at Costco, as I have tasted my first few wines bought at a Staten Island store. For $10 to $12 a bottle, these wines okay.

One of the wines, a Pinot Noir, was under the Robert Mondavi label.

I’m unsure how the wines wound up in Costco, but it appears to be a sign that the once famous Mondavi name may be in some over-production trouble. I won’t even go into how sad that makes me feel. The sadness kicked in when I read the news that Constellation Brands bought the Robert Mondavi brand name. Ah well, what to expect from a culture that has become a brand name whore, but I digress.

My friends find the practice of taking notes annoyingly geeky, so when I am in their homes I honor their wishes. Therefore, I don’t have any notes about the wines they served, but I do remember the Mondavi Pinot Noir as a wonderful bargain, and it was joined by one fantastic and one not-so-fantastic New Zealand (Marlborough) Sauvignon Blanc—remember, each wine was from $10-$12.

There was a Chardonnay in the crowd, but it must not have made an impression among the other wines—I remember nothing about it.

My friend said he settled on $10-$12 to see what range of quality Costco offered at that reasonable price. Based on what I tasted that night, I’d say Costco did a good job in that price range.

Of course, I do not consider myself a true wine geek, but still, I have never been in a Costco. Part of my problem is that we have no Costco around my neighborhood. We have a Sam’s Club not far away but two things keep me from shopping there: it’s a Wal-Mart store and it’s a Wal-Mart store.

If Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart were giving away premium wine I’d still rather pay for it. Call me an elitist, but my aversion to that place runs deep. I view such mega-businesses as one major sign of a decaying culture, and I refuse to be made to feel a part of the decay. In my lifetime thus far, I have been in one Wal-Mart; more than enough for me (it's the same with Starbucks, although I've been in that store twice).

I suppose I should feel the same way about Costco as I do about Wal-Mart as I understand the former is trying to gain major advantages in wine distribution and retailing. But since I have never even seen a Costco, the only opinion I can form is based on the decent wines I tasted that didn’t cost my friend a lot of money.

Maybe some of you can enlighten me. Is Costco just another version of Wal-Mart or is there hope?

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Believing in something

A couple of years ago I asked a winemaker friend to explain to me the difference between tannin and tannic acid.

This friend is trained in microbiology and wine production, so I figured he would have a definitive answer. He did not. He said that he wasn’t sure about the relationship between tannic acid and tannin, because the words have often been applied and misapplied.

Well, I said to myself, that clears everything for me!

Being fairly well acquainted with cool climate wines, I am positive that their aging potential is seriously helped along by their acid make up, especially tartaric, which is the dominant acid of a few that are natural to grapes—and if you find that your dominant acid isn’t tartaric when you make wine, it’s usually best to add some.

Over time, the overall acidity (and tannin) in wine mellows as various reactions take place during the aging process, but it’s pretty well known that the tartaric portion of the wine’s structure plays a great role in fending off spoilage organisms, and that allows for the slow aging transformations.

For a long time, it was believed that tannins worked similarly to acidity as wine aged. Today, however, that belief is questioned and in fact, some question whether tannin is at all important in the wine aging process.

One of the results of being vocal or opinionated is that others will find you and take you to task. I was recently taken to task by a California winemaker because I posted on the Wine Lovers forum that acidity is what allows white wines to age and tannin is what allows red wines to age—the latter having more tannin and less acidity than the former.

I was spouting a long-standing belief, but the winemaker will have none of that. He wants to know which scientific study has proved that tannins help wines to age.

I did some checking around and I can’t help my winemaker friend by providing a study to support the role of tannins on wine aging. I can, however, report that there are scientific studies on the effects of tannin in nutrition and many other areas of plant and human health. One of those effects seems to be that tannins slow down oxidation.

Here’s my question to the winemaker: if tannins indeed do slow down oxidation, wouldn’t that help wine age?

Here’s my other question to the winemaker: what IS the difference between tannin and tannic acids?

The below links are interesting reading on this subject. Notice within some of the links that tannins can link to tannic acids through a process known as esterifying, and that those acids are not nearly as strong as tartaric or another grape acid, malic, or even as strong as citric acid.

My sense of the situation is this:

Forget the nonsense that white wines don’t age as well as red wines. That old saw is proven wrong on a regular basis with just Riesling alone, but with many other whites, all with high acid content.

Reds surely do have lower acidity and higher tannin content than whites, yet many of them age rather well. I believe that the anti-oxidant effects of tannin has an awful lot to do with the aging of red wines. But that is not to say that all tannin acts that way.
Hidden in one of the definitions of tannin I found that certain tannins, particularly from woods like oak, oxidize more easily than grape tannins.

Hmm. Could that be why some reds age longer than others?

Although winemaking is a science, understanding wine is quite often a belief system. Read the links below for the science; then, like the rest of us, form your own belief system. But please, don’t tell others that your belief system is THE answer.



TannicAcid 1



Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 1, 2008

How can something wet be dry?

The International Riesling Foundation says it has identified appropriate terms for describing the relative dryness or sweetness of Riesling.

The Foundation came up with five categories: Dry, Off-Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet.

To help winemakers, the Foundation offers a technical chart of parameters and the relationship among sugar, acid, and pH.

What, no tannin? Of course no tannin; Riesling doesn’t concern itself much with that stuff.

I applaud the effort, but still, I wonder why only Riesling? What about the volumes of sweet Chardonnay and those blueberry milkshakes called Shiraz that flood the marketplace? Aren’t they confusing to consumers looking for so-called dry wines?

Wouldn’t consumers benefit from a chart that generally holds for all wines, which of course would then include tannin in the chart?

Of course, the answer to my last question is yes, but the challenge is nearly insurmountable.

First, while the winemakers may have guidance so that they can label their wine dry, sweet, whatever, there is no such thing as a monopalate—what’s sweet to someone may not be so sweet or sweet at all to someone else, no matter what a chart tells them.

Second, Riesling is in the enviable position of being the rare grape that can handle producing a stellar wine with or without sugar, and at various levels in between.

Third, I believe the emphasis is in the wrong place anyway.

When I run out of things to read, I go to my philosophy books for comfort. Lately, I’ve been digging into Aristotle, Hume, Epictetus, and William James. It occurred to me that maybe I can address this dry/sweet conundrum by using one or two methods of philosophical analysis.

Brace yourself. I’ve never done this before.

Let’s start with me proving the premise that dry is the opposite of wet.

You want proof?

When you wash your clothes they get wet; then, you dry them. When you perspire, your head (or under arms) get wet; then, the wind blows and dries your skin. When you jump into a pool, you get wet; then, a towel rub dries you off. When the barometer goes down, the air is wet; then, the barometer goes up and the air is dry—that’s’ a two-fer, because the opposite of down is up!

Now you can plainly see that the opposite of wet is dry.

Water is likely the wettest thing on earth. Our bodies are composed mostly of water. Without ample water, we would shrivel and die—in other words, we dry out.

The area of the body that has been assigned the task of warning us that we are drying out is our palate—we feel dry and so we drink water to replenish our bodies.

Our palate uses some of the water in our bodies to make saliva. Saliva is wet. When our palate feels dry, it means that our saliva is or has become less wet, or does it?

Do not be deceived by what seems a simple statement. Simplicity is not all that it is cracked up to be when talking about the palate. One can have ample supply of both water in the body and saliva in the mouth, but one can still have a palate that feels dry. You can test this hypothesis by drinking a gallon of water. You will be fully hydrated and certainly not dry. But if you wait a few minutes and then drink two glasses of Tannat or Malbec wine, watch what happens.

A few seconds after you drink either of the two wines you will begin to smack your cheeks, if you can, and rub your tongue against the upper part of your mouth in a near vain attempt to find your saliva. If you don’t panic, the saliva will return. In fact, it probably never left you but it certainly felt that way.

You have just experienced a dry wine, or have you?

It’s agreed that water is wet. It’s also agreed that dry is the opposite of wet. It’s further agreed that our bodies are mostly made of water; the same applies to almost all matter on earth, including wine. If wine is largely made up of water, then wine is wet. If dry is the opposite of wet, how can the Tannat or Malbec you swallowed have been dry?

The answer to the above question is complicated, but it can be illustrated thusly.

We’ve established that if you were to drink from a glass of water, it would feel wet.

If you were to stir in the equivalent of 1 % by volume of sugar to the water and then drink, it will still feel wet, but it will also taste sweet.

If you were to stir into the water a squirt of lemon juice and then drink, the water would still be wet, but it would not seem as sweet.

If you were to stir in another squirt of lemon, but this time add a pinch of shaved dark baking chocolate (99% sugar free), the water would still be wet but it would also seem even less sweet than before, or maybe not sweet at all, depending upon individual taste variations.

If you were to add successive doses of lemon and chocolate, in due time your palate will feel really, really dry. You won’t even notice the sugar, but it will still be there, and the water, of course, will still be wet.

The water, sugar, lemon, and chocolate experiment was a simulation of those components—acid, sugar, etc.—found in all wine, not just in Riesling. As your palate seemed to lose its saliva, it also made you crave something to drink (from this we can speculate over the origin of the phrase, “mouth watering,” when what you taste makes you want to produce more and more saliva.)

My hypothesis and solution:

We have agreed that water is wet, and that dry is the opposite of wet. We have further agreed that wine is mostly water therefore: wine is wet and cannot be dry. We have also agreed that when you add certain components to something wet it can alter your palate perception, and even make your saliva seem to dry up therefore: something wet can make your palate feel dry.

We have further agreed that sugar can make your palate feel good—and sweet—but it doesn’t seem to change the effect of other components and, after a certain point, sugar is overcome by the other components, or at least it takes a back seat to them. While this is happening, the other components are making you feel dry yet, the delivery system—the wine—is still wet therefore: there is no such thing as a dry wine.

For some time I’ve had the belief that the first time anyone used the word dry to define how a wine tasted, that person did not refer to what was in the wine—that far back, people hardly knew what was in wine, but it’s certain that major components—acid and tannin—were prevalent. The person likely used the word in reference to how the wine made the palate feel.

In fact, an Internet buddy once found historical evidence in writing that seemed to support my belief.

As the wine industry progressed, sweet wines took on greater importance. Large doses of sugar in wine changes the focus away from that dry sensation. Over time, people began to refer to wine either as dry or as sweet, and by extension, they began to think that a wine that makes your palate feel dry cannot be sweet therefore, it cannot contain sugar, and that false notion has been spread around ever since. Just one taste of a well-produced Late Harvest Riesling will put the notion to rest as such wines often provide sweetness alongside that dry sensation on the palate.

In my opinion, the new chart that is devised for Riesling is nice, but it is not the answer to the seeming age-old, and completely inaccurate question, do you like dry Riesling?

There is no such thing as a dry Riesling—remember, all wine is wet.

Here’s my solution to the dry vs. sweet discussion. Take the chart that is devised for winemakers and establish certain acid, tannin, pH, sugar balances that pair well with certain food types. This category may include wines with sweetness, like those Late Harvest Rieslings, which, because of their acidity do pair with certain foods.

Label such wines as: best with food (or insert the names of foods).

This system prevents people in and outside the wine industry from talking nonsense such as something wet like wine is dry. The system would also stop people from thinking philosophically about wine and instead think of it as food.

For those who can’t give up the chic, geeky practice of analysis, the winemakers can also label some wines: best to sip and analyze.

Plus, for those who cling to the taste of sweetness and refuse to try a so-called dry wine, and are tired of being fooled by those so-called sweet wines that make them pucker, label sweet wines that don’t make your palate also feel dry as: best for dessert.

Tongue may be planted in cheek here, but not by much!

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 28, 2008

What a welcome!


After standing back some, I ventured into a few bulletin board conversations and was immediately reminded why I chose to stand back.

It isn’t that debating issues about wine is no fun—to the contrary, it can be great fun. It’s just that debating via the keyboard and electronic impulses is a weak form of communication at best. It’s so easy to be misunderstood, and after that happens, control of your own words seems to morph into a game of who should own those words, you or those who disagree with you?

There will come a day when I will back away completely—I hope, I hope. But until then, I fear that I will find myself hopelessly drawn into debates about wine production processes and wine criticism, debates that cover much of the same ground and don’t seem to change my or anyone else’s mind.

What is it about wine that makes so many of us so passionate as to hurl at one another whenever a belief or an opinion lands counter to ours?

In my often non-humble opinion, the phenomenon is as complicated as a California fruit bomb with alcohol that rivals jet fuel (now is the time for someone to accuse me of slamming his or her beloved California Cabernet).

On one level, we wine nuts express camaraderie (me, I’m a nut, not a geek). But how easily that friendship can fall apart— if you don’t believe me, just attack the wines of your wine buddy’s favorite producer.

On another level, we wine nuts give lip service to the idea that people have different tastes. But how easily that can devolve into a conversation of hurling epithets as soon as one of us claims to have, well, different taste.

On still another level, we wine nuts agree that we all have opinions. What we don’t seem to agree on is that the opinions of others have any merit. On this subject, I get into trouble regularly, especially when I attack the opinions of wine critics who hold no credentials, have no training, and make rather bizarre claims. I value opinions, but only when they have been formed through knowledge, not just through will and force of personality, or luck at having been given a pulpit.

One of my latest brush-ups had to do with the issue about which I feel strongly: that to be a credible critic, one needs to at least have done a little legwork in the subject, and since wine is a subject with technical, creative, and practical applications, a critic’s duty is to learn what they are.

All too often, I read diatribes from certain critics that display a blatant lack of knowledge alongside a volume of opinions. Not to make a pun, but these wine critics leave me with a bad taste.

Truth be told, and this is where I get into the most trouble with my attitude, I don’t give much credence to the profession of critic. Mainly, a critic tells us what he or she likes or dislikes. Mainly, I don’t really care what someone else likes or dislikes, unless that someone can point me to a reason beyond his or her bias or prejudice. At least then, I can explore and decide whether the critic speaks truth or blather.

I know this is blasphemy in certain quarters of the wine world, but I cannot imagine the value in “calibrating” my palate to someone else’s. My fun with wine includes me doing the exploration, not me finding out what someone else explored and then running down to the nearest wine shop to gobble up the latest achiever.

But then, I never was a follower, so maybe it’s not the critics; maybe it is I who is the problem. Maybe I should just teach people who want to learn what little I know, drink the wines I like, and just shut up.

To do that last one, I believe I might have to throw this computer out the window!

Below is the thread that got me thinking. Notice in the moderator's post just before my final one that I am accused of having "chuztpah," unmitigated gall for living my opinions, and I am also accused of being prejudice and lacking creativity. Within the accusations are these hidden gems: subjectivity equals un-biased; objectivity equals prejudice; and, by extension, faulty logic equals creativity.

Talk about "chutzpah!"

Critic's Ethics

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2008. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Certifiably government thinking

Recently, a blogger, Lyle Fass, brought my attention to an article by Food and Wine writer, Lettie Teague.

The article Teague wrote was rather confusing, and I don’t fully understand what point she was trying to make, but in one way or another, it concerned the concept of organic winemaking. I was left with the impression that she considers the idea of organic winemaking or so-called “green” winemaking just another marketing scam.

I generally agree that words like “organic, green, biodynamic, etc.” all have the potential for scamming. I’m also sure that marketers use the words if not to scam at least to bamboozle us. To put it bluntly: organic was long ago sullied, and green is beginning to get on my nerves.

How many of you know what exactly is meant by the concept of green winegrowing?

I’d bet that your answer is not the same as mine or as someone close to you. Marketing has already messed that concept up to a fine jumble of confusion—is it “green” to use wooden or cardboard boxes, trucks or trains for transportation, glass or cans for packaging, tractors or donkeys, and how green is it to cut trees down to make barrels or worse, to make wood chips?

Sure, I want the environment to suffer less, but I want that to be a joint effort among industry, government, and us. And to me, a major part of why we pay taxes is for protection against threats to our existence. I can’t think of greater threats than being attacked or fading away because of global meltdown.

I’m convinced that we are threatening our own existence with outmoded Industrial Revolutionary thinking and practices, and that means fossil fuels and petrochemicals.

Along with a better environment, I want both my food and my wine to have as little exposure to petrochemicals as is humanly possible. But I know that there is no easy fix—our culture is heavily invested in the chemistry of petroleum. No company illustrated that fact better than Dupont with its decades-old commercial message, “Better living through chemistry.”

The other day, while digging into my latest issue of Wines and Vines Magazine, I was slapped awake by my own incredulity. The article was about federal and local government requirements for certification for so-called organic grape growing.

The way things work, individuals who use petrochemical sprays on their vines must take classes and be certified, mainly because everyone recognizes the danger in using the chemicals. But nothing on a wine label is required to indicate whether or not there are potential dangers to the consumer.

Yet, when a wine is produced from grapes that were not grown in the “better living through chemistry" mold, giving us grapes that are pesticide and fungicide free, the wine producer must be certified by the authorities before the company is allowed to tell the consumer about its organic practices.

In other words, we aren’t warned when there might be danger in our wines, but we are warned when there probably isn’t any danger.

How about the following addition to the GOVERNMENT WARNING label:

The grapes for this wine were produced without petrochemicals, but don’t worry, these guys applied for and got certified for the privilege of doing things the natural way.
Rest assured that we’ll charge them a fee each time they do it right.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2008. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Biased notions

Something can be said for the fun of that parlor game when you single out the wine know-it-all and get that person to taste a wine—blind—to try to guess what it is.

It’s fun to serve a wine that is close to a certain other wine that you know this person will have tasted before and so is likely to be fooled this time around.

It’s even more fun when you throw in a $5 cheapie and this knowledgeable fool proclaims it Pavie or Cheval Blanc or something else of high esteem.

The above may be fun, but it has nothing to do with blind tasting wine, and I was particularly amused (and somewhat surprised) to discover that there are people out there who consume a lot of wine and spend a lot of money every year on it, but they don’t know the value of a truly blind evaluation and comparison.

Recently, I got into a discussion about the attributes of Finger Lakes Riesling. It was the same old discussion of how Finger Lakes Rieslings don’t hold up against German or Alsatian counterparts, a belief that I am convinced is of questionable merit.

The reason I think that consumers who make the claim that Finger Lakes Rieslings, though good, are not world class, is because I have numerous times sat in on blind evaluation comparisons. Finger Lakes Rieslings easily held their own.

The kind of evaluation I’m talking about is when the tasters know only that the wines are Riesling and that each flight of wines is within a certain stylistic parameter and vintage. We know nothing about their location, winemaker, producer, and price. That’s a blind tasting.
A double blind evaluation means that the taster knows nothing about the wines, not even the grape variety. That method is best used for training purposes, to hone one’s sensory abilities.

The task in a blind tasting is to evaluate each wine on its merits, to see if it lives up to varietal character and to stylistic parameters.

A blind tasting is not when a bunch of geeks bring bottles of their favorite wines and then someone puts them into a brown bag and the tasters don’t know which wine is in which bag. Just knowing that your wine is in the bunch will either expose or shatter your bias. It’s human nature to look in every glass of wine served for the one you brought. It will confuse the hell out of you. You may find it, or you may think you ha found it. (Not to mention that bottle shapes can give a lot of information.)

A blind tasting is not when the people selecting the order, opening, and pouring the wine also serve it to the tasters. To remove all bias, even the servers shouldn’t know what they are pouring. That way, they can’t give something away with unconscious body language.

In a well run blind tasting, the wines are poured in a back room or kitchen. The glasses are numbered to correspond with numbers that have been assigned to the tasting sheets. The pourers give the glasses to the servers and they take them to the tasting panels to serve.

Tasters are free to taste in whatever order they want, but they must be sure to correspond the correct glass numbers with the tasting sheet numbers.

The evaluation can be done with scores, verbals, or both. But everyone should conform to a pre-established set of scoring rules.

I and two other fellows proposed to the unbelieving that if they claim that Finger Lakes Rieslings do not belong in world class status with their beloved European products, then they should be willing to compare the wines in a completely blind tasting setting.

One geek said I was a chicken, apparently meaning that I was using the blind tasting as a way to back out of proving my point, which is that Finger Lakes Rieslings are likely to surprise those geeks.

His childish chiding, however, illuminates to me that he hasn’t a clue what the purpose of a blind evaluation is. More important, he seems to think that he has super-human talent, that he can remove all bias by simply willing himself to do so. I’m worldly enough to smell the bullshit in that concept.

I’ve seen too many so-called unbiased wine tastings in my day. The main purpose is to prove an already expressed opinion and to have fun while doing it. That’s a parlor game.

The truly blind tasting method is closer to science, and we all know that science is supposed to search for answers—not validate preconceived notions. Well, maybe all but the biased wine geeks know that.

I'm unsure if the blind evaluation will take place, but I know that I am willing to take the risk. I believe that tasters would find many Finger Lakes Rieslings to be world class wines, especially since they won't know that they are tasting Finger Lakes Rieslings.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Long in the tooth

Being born with a small physical frame has its advantages and its disadvantages.

As a youth, the advantages of my small frame produced a decent track runner and base stealer, not to mention an ability to squirm through small spaces like side windows to perpetrate my share of adolescent indiscretions.

Some of the disadvantages of my small skeletal frame include a put down at a party for being too short for a great looking Air Force nurse, a small bladder that has caused me to rack up many miles over my life on my small feet as I made my way—frequently—to restrooms across the world, and a mouth of gums that are too small to house all my teeth, making flossing a challenge as the string continually gets caught and snaps between the tight spacing.

Speaking of gums, the phrase “long in the tooth” refers to a particular condition of aging, when gums begin to recede. In some cases, the recession can expose nerves located where the teeth’s roots begin under the gums. A person long in the tooth, as I am, sometimes knows exactly why wine is considered an acidic medium.

Last weekend I was a judge at the New York State Fair Wine Competition. The State Fair competition draws more Finger Lakes wineries than wineries from the other New York appellations. The common thread among Finger Lakes wine is acidity. A guy who is long in the tooth has to be careful.

The judging was broken into panels of four judges each. After each wine flight, each panel of judges compared scores then decided whether or not to award medals by forming a consensus.

Only a few times did the judges on my panel have to discuss to make a case to gain consensus. The majority of times we had to do nothing more than to compile our aggregate and form an average to arrive at a consensus that fit the wine.

In a field of more than 100 wines that day, our panel awarded only one Gold Medal, a few Silvers, mostly Bronzes, and a number of no medals at all.

With so few outstanding wines having reached our panel, I began to wonder whether or not wineries have the ability to determine the quality of the wines they submit for evaluation. Or maybe they have little regard for the abilities of the evaluators. Or maybe, since winning medals is one way to promote and sell wine, they just send in their wines and hope for the best.

This is volunteer work. Judges are paid only for expenses incurred, like travel to the site and overnight hotel and dinner. It would be nice to know that wineries try to send us their best. In my case, I don’t even mind suffering a little pain afterwards for the good of great wine, and by the end of this all-day judging I was rewarded with short bursts of pain every time I drank or ate something cold, hot, sweet, or salty. The acid worked on my gums.

Yet, considering the results of the judging, I have to wonder whether I should try to suffer a little less in my waning years. Maybe I need to lobby the organizers of the wine competition so that I wind up on the panel with the most Gold Medal entries instead of the least!

I probably should retire from wine judging, but I won’t.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 9, 2008

I'm baacck!

In early spring, I read somewhere that this summer was scheduled to be hot and dry in the Finger Lakes, thanks to El Nina. Well, it ain’t summer yet, and it surely is hot and dry.

My land is cracked the way it usually gets in late August. Right now, I have eggplant, okra, and Israeli melon plants far ahead of their usual slow start in this region. For the first time since I can remember, in June I have bell peppers and tomatoes already fully flowered and maturing!

All this is to say that if it keeps up, this could be a truly anomalous vintage year in the Finger Lakes, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. We like our crisp, acidic wines here—we don’t want no stinkin’ California style vintage…

Speaking of the Finger Lakes, two weeks ago I hosted two separate groups of six people here at Keuka Lake. The first group comprised old friends who have been here before but never for an extended stay and never for the red carpet treatment that my wife and I gave them. It was a glorious Memorial Four-Day weekend, topped off by a fabulous dinner at the Pleasant Valley Inn, outside of Hammondsport.

I’ve known the owner of the Inn since he took it over in 1991. He knew it would impress my friends, so he brought out an old wine list from 1993 on which he had listed my Gewurztraminer, which he loved and used to sell at the restaurant when my winery was in business.
Looking at restaurant wine prices of 17 years ago surely induced nostalgia!
Tom, that’s the owner’s name, never charges exorbitant prices for the wines he serves. He told me a long time ago that his aim is to offer great food with decent wines at prices that bring people back, not push them away.

My old friends are not wine geeks. They simply enjoy wine with food. When we dine out together, they usually allow me the privilege of selecting the wine, and they rarely, if ever, complain either about my choices or about the prices. This held true at the Pleasant Valley Inn.

On the heels of the first group to visit, the second group comprised new friends, all of whom are more wine centric than my old friends, one of whom seems to go over the edge every so often with geekism.

My friend claims he does not care for wine geeks with inflated egos. He knows they are concerned more with themselves than with the wine. I generally agree. But wine geeks do other things that drive me crazy, and my friend did it at the Pleasant Valley Inn.

First, he mentioned that he would like to bring wine to the restaurant. I did not like the idea. Reasoning that the only wines my friend had with him were the local Finger Lakes wines that he picked up at some of the wineries, I told him the restaurant would have Finger Lakes wines, too. Fine. He brought no wines with him.

At the restaurant, however, my friend grew interested in a 1982 Lynch Bages on the list that he said was reasonably priced (I did not look at the price. I felt if he was buying the wine, I should be gracious and not try to determine what he is paying for it.)

My friend wanted to be sure that the wine had been stored properly so he asked the waiter to find out the temperature of wine storage at the restaurant. This is where I became nervous.

I reasoned that I know Tom, and if he were to sell a wine that the customer thought was spoiled he would easily take it back. I figured if the price was good, it was worth the risk. Quite frankly, I was trying to head off my embarrassment in front of both Tom and my visitors, because either way, this was a no-win situation for me.

My friend was not having any of my ideas and so I went to Tom and asked him myself about the temperature of his wine storage.

Tom told me that he keeps wine in his cellar over winter (about 58 degrees F) and when he opens the restaurant between May and November, he brings the wine upstairs and stores it in a room with cement floors and no windows that remains between 65 and 68 degrees F. Then Tom said, “Tell your friend not to buy the wine. I don’t need the aggravation of having to stand their discussing the intricate details of a few temperature degree shift.”

It was obvious that Tom was annoyed and that embarrassed me.
After having worked in the wine distribution trade, and after having sold wine to restaurants, I don’t often trust restaurants about wine storage either. But I handle the matter in a different way. I simply don’t order certain wines in restaurants—I opt for the ready to drink crowd.

If I find myself in serious doubt about a restaurant, even with the ready to drink crowd of wines, I simply eat elsewhere. I certainly don’t care to grill the restaurant owner about his wine storage practices while my dining partners look on.

To me, there’s a distinction between dining out with friends and evaluating wine with geeks. If pressed, I’d always prefer the former to the latter, and that guides my attitude at a restaurant.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia, June 2008

All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Okay, okay, I'm awake!

Well, now I am awakened. My last entry received more responses than all my earlier blog entries-some responses online, and some via email.

Generally, I have been supported, yet mildly taken to task for being cynical and giving up. An email I received this morning from another Finger Lakes-based writer made a good point about my cynicism, not to mention the relative difficulty in posting a comment on the Worpress version of Vinofictions, as opposed to the ease of doing so on Blogspot.

Unfortunately, the Wordpress version is more prone to spammers, and I am a simple writer. I don’t want to spend my time fending off spammers and various forms of sludge. Hell, I don’t even want to take the time to look into the stats to find out how many and who is reading this blog. I just want to write. So, I take the easy route. Maybe I should shut down the Wordpress version—maybe I will.

I’ve decided not to quit, but I will have to scale back my entries for the summer. My wife and I are erecting a greenhouse plus, we have various guests coming from the world over throughout the season.

For now, let me say a few words about why I made the previous entry. Primarily, it was because of the wine forum Websites. I read them in the hope of gaining information and to keep up with events, but I generally am sick of most of them. Not only are the conversations circuitous and repetitive, they are often abrasive and obsessive. But what truly gets to me about them is that the majority of their habituates seem comfortable with their myths—impervious to greeting a fact and shaking its hand.

My other problem: too many people don’t seem willing to take their own initiative, to go out and explore wine for themselves. They need one or two critical palates to guide them. Being a general “do it my way” kind of guy, I admit to finding the lemming trait offensive. But I do understand the argument that there is so much wine out there it is impossible for any one person to find them all.

I understand that argument, but I don’t buy it. In the immortal words of Dick Cheney: so what?

Once you realize that there isn’t enough time in your life to drink them all, it doesn’t mean you need to let someone else direct you to the wines, and it certainly does nothing to change your tastes, provided you are willing to trust your own taste and not the taste of the self-anointed.

Then there’s the argument that “I have only so much money, I don’t want to waste it on buying wines I may not like.”

First, a review and a high rating maybe helps, but it's no guarantee. I've never thought that I need anyone else's palate to guide mine, and I don't believe anyone else does. Anyway, consuming wine is a matter of personal taste.

Second, so much that we spend our money on comes with risk. As an example, take the Maytag dishwasher that I am throwing out the window this week.

Remember those TV commercials with Jesse White playing a Maytag repairman who sits alone most of his life because the units don’t need much service?

I stupidly bought into the Maytag reputation (not realizing that the company was sold to Whirlpool). I might as well have taken the $500 I spent on that dishwasher and lit it in the fireplace—that way I would have gotten something for my money. In other words, I took the easy path, didn’t do my own homework, bought from reputation and suggestions. What I got didn’t work (in less than four years, I had to replace the control panel three times!).

Buying anything comes with risk. High ratings and high praise do not negate that risk. In fact, if you look at it another way, they probably increase the risk by creating complacency, a sense of false security.

Sure, we’ll never get to taste every wine in the world, but we can have fun finding them on our own and trying as many as we can. In fact, sticking to one style or one place creates a stagnant taste preference. What fun is that?

I believe that with all the wines available to us, obsessing over the possibility of missing one of them means needing help, but not in wine buying…

Thanks to all who slapped me a little. You made me realize that there is an audience for my ramblings, and even if it is a small audience, it’s a fine one.

PS: To Tom Wark I have a suggestion (and to anyone else interested). Maynard Amerine once wrote a beautiful essay concerning wine quality: how to evaluate it and why it can and should be done. Try to get your hands on a copy of it. Look up Wayward Tendrils, a California organization of wine book collectors. Someone there might be able to help you find the essay, which Tendrils covers in its latest quarterly.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2008. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The SwanSong

So, I’m sitting in my chair facing my keyboard and looking at a blank screen—that’s today’s version of a writer facing a blank page.

In this case, the blank screen is because I am no longer sure what to say about wine online.

A number of adjectives describe what the online discourse about wine sometimes does to me. This week, I stumbled upon one too many adjectives, along with one too many jerks.

It saddens me that so many times those who voice their self-righteous proclamations seem to know just enough about wine and winemaking to be dangerous and not enough about humility and the general way that people need to act toward one another in order to peacefully share this planet.

In other words, a hell of a lot of wine geeks should never have been let out of high school!

How did it come to pass that people use the gift so pleasant as wine to bring attention to their status, to their self worth, and to their self-appointment as arbiters of taste? They subvert the goodness of wine. They claim they speak and consume wine out of passion. What comes through to me is obsession. Passion is an emotion of the heart—obsession is an emotional illness.

In any case, wine geeks never were my intended audience for Vinofictions. They are not my whole problem.

I aimed for the general wine consumer. My aim was to use Vinofictions to educate to the extent of my knowledge, which in wine amounts to about 26 years of study and experience in the business, from grape growing to winemaking to wine selling and wine writing, alongside decades of wine consumption that reaches back to age seven.

I am fully aware that, while I may have learned things through study, I don’t know it all, and so I also hoped that through dialog on Vinofictions I could continue to learn from others while they learned from me. But Vinofictions hasn’t really captured much attention and has generated even less dialog.

Wine writers with more than just opinions can help others come to their own decisions by giving them an understanding of the facts. But that doesn’t appear to be what gets the attention. What seems to get attention are wine writers who issue proclamations and position subjectivity as if it were information. I don’t do that kind of thing well because I do not believe in it.

I am suspending Vinofictions for the 2008 summer while I consider if I have anything left to say and also to find out if what I have to say has much of an audience. Right now, I’m of the opinion that the audience isn’t nearly as large as the time and effort warrants.

The blog will remain online so that the archives will be available to sift through and read.

A few of you have been kind enough to take part in this blog and to throw me encouraging words. I thank you. I wish there were more of you.
And to prove to you that I am not a saint, and that I, too, have something to sell: my third book is scheduled for an autumn release. Hope you all read it.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2008. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What has this wine done for me lately?

It’s probable that every one of us has had the experience of a wine that tastes different from glass to glass over an evening. We call the phenomenon evolving, and by that, we generally mean that the wine evolves. But could it be that the taster is also evolving?

Surely, exposure to oxygen changes a wine; how much and how fast it changes I suppose is determined by the wine and the amount of oxygen to which it is exposed. But it’s highly possible that as the wine changes, so, too, does our perceptive capacity.

Maybe something volatile in the wine’s aroma that is subdued by time also hits a threshold point that subdues our aroma receptors. Or maybe what we taste first is still slightly closed; opened, it may offer more, but what if that excessive offering happens to land on a dull palate? Will it make for a good or a bad perception?

These kinds of concerns (and further myriad possibilities) may prevent from ever producing a definitive answer or an answer that even satisfies. You’d have to track every oxygen molecule and every person in the room to do it!

What about the other perception phenomenon, the one where you taste a wine today that you had tasted two weeks ago from another bottle but within the same box, and the present taste seems quite different from the previous one? Is it that the wine has changed, the bottle is a variation, or is it something about you or the conditions that causes the change in perception? Or maybe after a lengthy time span you simply can’t recall a taste exactly .

This subject came up recently on the Robert Parker Web site (see link below). Along with the usual unsubstantiated opinions that many provide about wine-related phenomenon, the thread received many considered responses, some of which come with a tinge or at least the possibility of truth.

See if you agree or not, but reading the thread reinforces the conclusion I came to a long time ago: the reasons are many that cause us to remember a past taste as different from the present taste of the same wine. I don’t think it’s either a good or a bad thing—just the way things are.

What the variance tells me is to enjoy the wine in front of me, if I enjoy it, and dislike the wine in front of me, if I dislike it. That’s another way of repeating that, “there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine.”

Looking at this subject objectively, it’s obvious that collecting wine can produce future unintended disappointments. I’m so glad I stopped collecting wine.


Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2008. All rights reserved.