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.