Wednesday, December 30, 2009

End of year thoughts

Here it is, the close of 2009. The interminable “best of” lists are everywhere, and as it is with individual wines, the many lists face agreement as well as disagreement. It’s all a great testament to the subjective tastes of people—which of course leads to wine.

Now that we are in the last stages of the “best of” blogs will certainly rack up their 2009 wine picks, and I will yawn with Jack at Fork & Bottle, as I can hear him all the way across the country.

Having said that, I particularly like Fredric Koeppel’s end of year list at his blog, Bigger Than Your Head—it’s a 12 days of Christmas list of sparkling wines, and it’s among the original-thinking lists to come around at this time of year. If I were so inclined to create a “best of” list, Fredric would be in the top few—he not only has things to say that don’t drip with self promotion; he can write.

In any case, it is the end of my third full year of blogging and I’ll be damned, I am running out of things to say.

One way to develop material for writing is to scan the Internet and pick stories that might appeal to readers. The problem with that method is that there are so many wine blogs these days that any good story that pops up seems to gain more coverage than is necessary. What’s worse, so many stories are the same stuff wrapped in new packages, as are so many online discussions.

So, on the eve of 2010, I am left not with something to say, but with questions.

How many times can the shortfalls of critics be discussed?

How many times can we cover the way wine producers (and critics) try to fool consumers into a false sense of security?

Is there a wine retailer conspiracy, as so many suspect?

Can the Commerce Clause ever be over-invoked?

How big can one wholesaler actually get?

How long will it take for consumers to learn to understand the messages found on a wine label? Will they ever?

In how many variations can one talk about the relationship between acid and sugar?

Is there such a thing as too much wood, or too many wood chips?

Do fruit-forward wines last in the bottle?

How many gallons of water does it take to add back to wine to make it palatable because the grapes were overripe and the wine was over the top in alcohol?

How many stupid wine gadgets can we laugh at, and how many do we have waiting for us in 2010?

Must we endure armchair winemakers alongside armchair wine philosophers?

Can we ever measure the amount of philosophy contained in one bottle of wine?

How many arguments must we engage in before (or if) one of us on either side admits to having learned something?

Do people really understand subjectivity, or do they care to understand it?

How many terroir-driven wines get requisite accolades, no matter their orange color?

While we are at it, can we define terroir to everyone’s liking?

Must we face the same worn arguments in 2010 that we faced in 2009, 08, 07 and before?

Finally, is there anything that someone can say in 2010 that will hold our interest and maybe even break new ground?

Let’s hope so.



If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Ah, for the days when top wines sold at about $4 a bottle—yes, I am old enough to remember. Besides, the 1970s isn’t that long ago.

Among the Bordeaux, Italian, and Spanish wines that were good to splurge on once in a while were a number of California wines of equal quality and at far better prices. These $3 and $4 bottles came from venerable names like Beringer, Beaulieu, Inglenook, Sebastiani, and Martini. The latter two producers were always standouts, especially in their rustic presentation of Zinfandel that spoke to wines from the earth.

Among the many times that I drank Martini wines I cannot remember having ever been disappointed either with the wines or their value. This was the case well after Louis M gave way to his son Louis P who gave way to his son Michael in 1977. Although I haven’t bought a Martini wine in a long while, I can say that from what I recently tasted, the Napa winery is still doing well for us consumers, and if you relate the value of the dollar today with its value in the 1970s, the price hasn’t risen at all.

Today’s Louis M. Martini wines are the responsibility of the multi-tentacle E. & J. Gallo Winery, and based on the back label of the Louis M. Martini 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Michael is still the winemaker who, “continues his grandfather’s tradition of crafting rich, complex and beautifully-structured wines.”

It isn’t exactly the description that I would have used for Martini wines of thirty years ago. For the purpose of this blog entry, however, the word that got my attention on that back label was “crafting,” which is different from winemaking, and which I'll get to later.

First, let me say that I take exception to most back labels because more often than not the writing is deplorable and because I hate being told what I’m supposed to taste in the wine; that’s my job. This particular back label description, however, wasn’t too far off from my personal description, although I have no idea what the back label means by “old-world complexities.” The only thing that description brought to mind was the way European monarchies used to in-breed.

In any case, for $27 suggested retail, the Louis M. Martini 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is quite a mouthful of dark fruits, lush body and firm, yet silky tannin, and at the labeled 14.2% alcohol, it does not come off hot. A nice wine.

The wine came to me free and unsolicited from the company’s promotion arm in San Francisco. The press release and description sheet that came with it did a good—and objectionable—job at telling me what I’m supposed to think about the wine, but what no one ever told me is who produced this wine.

It says on the front label that it’s a Napa Valley wine from Louis M. Martini—even has a near unintelligible signature at the right hand corner that is ostensibly the old man’s. I know that Gallo owns the winery, and I know that the winemaker named on the back label is Michael Martini yet, based also on the back label, I have no idea who actually made the wine.

The back label states that the wine was: VINTED AND BOTTLED BY LOUIS M. MARTINI WINERY, NAPA, CALIFORNIA.

Estate Bottled on a wine label tells you that the grapes were grown and the wine was fermented and bottled by the winery that owns the license, vineyard, and winery.

Produced and Bottled By... tells you that the winery that owns the license fermented, stored and bottled the wine, but not necessarily from its own grapes or grapes from its own vineyard.

Cellared By and Vinted By... are really rather meaningless, but they do tell you that the entity that grew the grapes and fermented the wine was not the entity that bottled and labeled it. In other words, wines with those designations on the label have been either assembled or stored, but not fermented or made, by the license holder.

If you want to kill some time, see if you can find the definition of the word "vinted" in a standard English dictionary.

Michael Martini may have crafted this Cabernet Sauvignon, and if so he did a fine job, but according to the label, neither he nor anyone at Louis M. Martini made the wine.

The problem that I have with this kind of label information is that under the rules it is perfectly possible that the same wine was shipped from its source to more than one winery. Following that trail, it is also perfectly possible that the same wine can be bottled under many labels and at many different prices.

Buyer beware: the romance of the wine isn't always reflected in the reality of the label.


If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wine Trials

When I first saw the title, Wine Trials, I immediately thought it had something to do with a recent story about phony wines that a collector discovered and was suing over—but I was wrong.

The Wine Trials refers to wine tastings hosted by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch, two WSET certificate holders who are behind the Fearless Critic Restaurant Guide series. The tastings are organized in a successful effort to show that consumers and wine critics aren’t exactly synchronized. According to the results of these tastings, which have become annual events, wines that consumers prefer are generally inexpensive and not the same as the wines that well known magazines and critics routinely rate highly, and which are usually expensive.

According to Goldstein, the major difference between the Wine Trials tastings and the wine magazines or critics is that the latter do not taste blind. Anyone who isn’t a stranger to this blog knows how strongly I believe in truly blind wine evaluations.

Still, I have a problem with the Wine Trials take on the issue of inexpensive versus expensive wines as it relates to blind tastings.

Surely, wine evaluations should always be done blind, but whether blind or not, wines preferred by untrained tasters are likely to gravitate toward a taste for the easy to drink, smooth, on the sweet side, not too complex. These are the attributes that the common wine consumer is accustomed to and to whom the mass production wine industry caters. It stands to reason that in a blind tasting, consumers would prefer them over the more complex wines, which seem always to cost more, too. The seasoned wine geek normally eschews such wines, often deriding them. No matter their claim to the contrary, wine critics aim their evaluations and ratings at those wine geeks, because that’s where the lemmings with money are located.

This is not to say that the wines that receive high critic ratings are either better or worse than the mass-produced wines, and it is not to justify ridiculous prices many of the rated wines command. This is to point out that the Wine Trials tasting system is as biased on one side as the wine critics’ rating system is biased on another side. One must keep that in mind when trying to use one evaluation to discredit another. No matter how you cut it, each evaluation is audience-specific—that's why to me proper training is important for wine evaluations to mean anything of substance.

Having said that, I also believe that the Wine Trials performs a service for consumers by helping them understand the real meaning of wine, which is something that should be consumed for enjoyment and not because it costs a lot or receives certain numerical accolades. Simply put, the Wine Trials is a way to inform consumers to consider what they like and not what they are told that they are supposed to like in a wine. Such a message is a threat to self-appointed arbiters of taste and I am glad for that.

Last week, I had the pleasure of joining the Fearless Critics at a dinner to highlight a few of the 2010 Wine Trials picks. The idea was not only to show the quality of the inexpensive wines in the list, but to also show them with food. The following is my assessment of that evening.

We were greeted at the door with a glass of sparkling wine—blind. My first impression of the wine was that it contained a minimum of about 2% residual sugar; I didn’t like it. I questioned the decision to serve something that sweet as an aperitif, and it did not enhance the Alsatian tart that was served with it. In addition, the wine showed minimal complexity—no yeastiness, which I seek in sparkling wines. Until I learned otherwise, I thought it was Prosecco with small bubbles!

It turned out to be a two-time Wine Trials top sparkling wine pick: Domaine Ste. Michele N/V Brut, Washington State.

The sparkling wine seemed to prove my earlier point concerning the general consumer preference for easy to drink, smooth, on the sweet side, not too complex…

The first course was roasted red beets and frisée salad with goat cheese over apple.

The wine was Domaine Wachau 2007 Gruner Veltliner, Federspiel Terrassen.

It had a fine nose but it was rather thin on the palate, lacking the signature Gruner spiciness. With either the beets or the apple, it was a bust, but with the goat cheese, it was quite a good match.

The lobster bisque that followed was among the best I have tasted recently. It came with a small crab cake seated atop what tasted like a mashed potato but was billed as a sugar cake.

Unfortunately, the bisque was almost marred by the Marques de Caceres 2007 Rioja White.

The wine was woody, slightly oxidized, and truly D.O.A. when put up against the fabulous bisque. (I have since been informed that this wine was produced in stainless steel, and after reading a few reviews of this wine, with so many references to fruitiness, I'm baffled. Maybe this is a case where we should have been tasting blind and I was guilty of making a pre-conception evaluation.)

Have you ever tasted a monkfish “osso buco?” I can now say that I have, and that I liked it—a lot. It sat over well-prepared, al dente saffron risotto alongside two ribs of a rack of lamb, over sautéed spinach, which was too mushy to be called sautéed.

Other than the spinach, the dish was nicely done and this time the wine pairing was perfect.

It was Bodegas Lan 2005 Rioja Crianza, a wine with hints of dark fruit and light wood, finished with interestingly subdued but still available tannin.

The next course, the cheese plate included a fine Gruyere which was unfortunately accompanied by a nondescript blue cheese.

The blue cheese did not pair with the wine at all, but the Gruyere showed a distinct affinity for the Altano 2006 Douro Red, which was solid, if medium bodied. I loved its enduring finish.

Finally, I am not much on desserts so I was not likely to eat the chocolate cupcake with the hot chocolate inside it and what tasted like a cherry sorbet but was not listed on the menu.

The wine was a raisin-like, sweetness restrained and delightful Patras Kourtaki Mavrodaphne non-vintage. It made me glad that I ate the chocolate, as the two were made for each other.

Responsible for the food was the Swiss chef, Claude Solliard, at Seppi’s Restaurant, at Le Parker Meridien. In all, it was a fine evening, although I wondered how many of those everyday consumers eat such meals with such wines.

It appears that Robin and Alexis are onto something, but the Wine Trials message could use some refining. Untrained wine evaluations may get you a wine that you like at a decent price, but it really doesn't dispute the claims of professional critics.

I expect that over time, Wine Trials will get the refinement it requires and it will prove to others that the price of solid wine need not be prohibitive.

Wine Trials

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2009. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

SPAM, spam, SPAM, spam, SPAM, spam...

As if it seemed at all possible, the Internet has given SPAM a bad name. This product (chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite) produced by Hormel Foods Corporation, which came up with the name to replace its Hormel Spiced Ham product, got many people through World War II, especially in England, and thanks to America’s Lend lease program.

The accepted etymology of today’s “spam” with a lower case, is the 1970 Monty Python sketch in a restaurant where SPAM rules and SPAM is spoken and sung incessantly—SPAMming the dialogue.

Years later, on the earliest message boards of the Internet, piling on of the word SPAM was used to crowd out certain people’s messages, a practice that morphed into an actual message of no consequence repeated over and over.

Today, we know spam as a separate word that refers to generally unwanted email, or posts in online discussion groups, or in the comment sections of blogs.

Over the years, I’ve received my share of spam on this blog, each of which is screened and zapped before making it to the screen (or in some cases, right after).

By way of email, spam is prolific. My IP server screens the truly viral stuff, plus the ones from illegitimate email addresses. I get to look at them online and can choose to have them sent to me or zapped. But valid email addresses that I have not listed for my server to zap wind up coming to me, so my share of spam hasn’t ended.

Lately, I’m receiving a lot of spam from wine clubs, PR people that work for wineries, some wineries themselves, and people with wine accessories to sell. Some of it is legitimate and welcome, but most of it is the annoying spam. What bugs me about it is that I have no idea what methods these people use to find my multiple email addresses.

One assumption I make is that by participating in online discussion boards (which I haven’t done for months and don’t plan to ever do again), by commenting on other people’s blogs, and by generally surfing the Internet for information my email trail is sniffed, despite the privacy messages that every outfit issues these days but that I have never taken seriously.

Besides the annoyance of receiving unwanted solicitations, I also wonder what it is that I must have said or done online to make anyone believe that I would endorse the next stupid and useless wine accessory, or the next wine gimmick, or the next winery with lots of money but nothing interesting to drink, or the next best wine expert in the universe.

I make every attempt to persuade people to think of me as a major curmudgeon who cannot be persuaded by wine ratings, cannot be enticed with praise, cannot be snared into shilling, cannot be made to write a non-story, and cannot be bought (well, if the price is really right—maybe). Yet, the spam keeps coming.

When I re-started a wine column in a local newspaper that I had abandoned a few years ago, I sent an email to all local wineries to let them know that I was interested in what they were doing. I explicitly told them that I did not want to know about their special holiday events or their new pricing structure, etc., as I was not to be considered an extension of their promotion effort. What I want from them is information about their vineyard and winemaking program that was either new or innovative, information about their plans for sustainability, and other hot topics.

What do I get from the majority of these wineries? Email about their holiday events and their latest sale prices—spam, to me.

Ever wonder why Hormel hasn’t tried to prevent the use of its trademark?
We writers obsess over such matters, as we must be extra careful about trademark use.
Well, if you owned the trademark to a word so widely used that typing it into the Internet could get you here SPAM would you try to stop that word from being used?

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2009. All rights reserved.