Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Final for 2011

Here we are at December 20 and I still have a wine fermenting. That’s what I call a slow fermentation. The other day, I wrapped the carboy in a heating pad to warm it so that I could help the Riesling fermentation come to an end—it’s been more than seven weeks!

For next year, if I do this again, I will have to remember that the cellar temperature in my home is not warm enough for a reasonable fermentation, cool or otherwise. I’ll have to take action to warm things up.

If my warming attempt doesn’t work this time, and I get a stuck fermentation, I’m afraid that I will have an alcohol level that is too low for my taste. Worse, however, is that I was counting on the Riesling to blend into the Gewurztraminer to adjust for acidity. I don’t want to add sweetness to the Gewurztraminer.

Woe is I…

Also, at this time of year I truly get excited because, after the winter solstice we start to see more daylight each day. From summer solstice to winter solstice daylight lingers about a minute less each day—the reverse takes place from winter solstice to summer solstice.

In our northeastern locale, it gets dark by 4:30 pm at this time of year, and it gets dark at almost 10 pm in June.

I love the longer daylight. Always been a daytime fellow. Therefore, I rejoice during the winter solstice, and I am almost certain that the change in daylight must have some biodynamic effect on my wines—make them better perhaps?

This year, we have lucked out thus far, having escaped major snowfall—hardly any of the white stuff at all. Today, I bought snow tires for my little four-wheel-drive Geo Tracker. That ought to solidify that we get no snow at all this winter, and if so, the money will have been well spent, for as much as I love daylight, I hate snow much more. The only good thing about snow is that I can use it to help cool down my wines for tartrate precipitation, which, in my cellar, may not be necessary, so to hell with snow—forever.

I know that a curmudgeon should never break this rule: but happy holiday to all my readers—every last five or six of you. This time next year, I might offer a toast with my own wine, if I don’t finish them off before then.

Oh, for those who have asked: I am deeply involved in researching and writing my next book, which is why my comments on blogs have been short and sweet, and fewer.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2011. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Year-end best

And now, Vinofictions presents its ten best wines, ten best wine books, and ten best wine blogs of 2011:

Gimme a drum roll: paradiddle, paradiddle, paradiddle, paradiddle, paradiddle, ad-infinitum-diddle.
Get real. Did you seriously expect something more???

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

For the love of it

About two weeks ago, I racked the Gewürztraminer (took it off its fermentation lees and moved it into another storage vessel). 
Three tests convinced me that the fermentation was going no where at that point, even though the tests showed that between ¼ and ½ percent residual sugar remained—that is the risk of a cool fermentation. I know that fermentations generally do not truly end with zero sugar, but I did want no higher than ¼ percent.

Perhaps, I could have avoided the problem by using some other yeast or maybe by warming the fermentation, but I wanted all the aromatics and fruit forwardness that a cool fermentation promises. In winemaking, as in life, having it all is not an option, but in winemaking, if we know what we are doing, we get a fantastic chance at taking what we are handed and balancing it, and so...

The Riesling percolates toward the end of its fermentation. This wine will be my balancing material. Its pH is so low, and its total acidity so high compared to the Gewürztraminer that before me is the opportunity to see if I know what I am doing. By managing a blend between the two wines, I will attempt to correct Gewürztraminer’s mouth feel while subduing the Riesling’s acidic nature.

This is fun. It’s also been enlightening, as I never evaluated how much I missed making wine since that last batch at my winery in 1993.

Sadly, had I been able to hold out financially a little longer I might have been able to ride the wave that swelled in the late 90s and into this century, producing an effervescence of new wineries in the Finger Lakes, like a hot fermentation foaming over the top of the tank.

Knowing that I had struggled with bouts of depression throughout my life, my wife worried greatly that closing the winery would send me into a downward spiral. She had seen some of my worst spirals (something to do with childhood trauma, although I always thought that growing up poor on the mean streets of Brooklyn was the next best thing to Nirvana!). But the depression did not come. In fact, I was relieved after closing the winery.

I worked so hard and so much through the eight years that I operated the winery, doing things that I loved, and for that I was grateful to have had the chance. I also, however, worked hard doing things that I hated, like having to listen to the inanities of the tourists that traipsed through the region, having to deal with retailers that demanded free wine in order for me to “sell” them a case of my wine, having to fill out myriad federal and state forms, and having to make so many decisions—every day, decisions.

It was a relief to get the business side of winemaking off my back. Nope, there was no depression.

More important, there was no regret either. I had done what I set out to do. The fact that it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to work out was merely the consequence of bad planning and bad timing, and timing really is everything.

So, as low key and small as the effort is, I am back to making wine—and loving it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
November 2011. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Winemaking 2011

Leave it to me to select a problematic vintage to decide to make wine again.
Up to August, the Finger Lakes region looked quite on track for a decent 2011 vintage. I had already decided that this would be my return year to dabbling with the nectar, and so I anticipated some fine Gewurztraminer and Riesling from my own hands.

September and October had different plans.

I had already placed my order with Fallbright Winemaker’s Shop before the rains came—and stayed. Being an honorable gent, I did not cancel, but I knew full well what was about to take place; the rain was not only torrential, it came down all too frequently, leaving room for only a few sunny days between rains.

The Gewurztraminer was scheduled for an October first harvest, and Fallbright just about stuck to that schedule, but the juice had to remain in cold storage for a while longer, as the proprietor of the business hurt himself while working the harvest. I picked up the juice on October fifth, not too late.

As suspected, the stats were not so good: 20 Brix; 3.55 pH; 5.55 grams total acidity per liter. The problem, as I saw it, is that the high pH and low acidity would require high alcohol in the finished wine, for both mouth-feel and stability. But you can’t get high alcohol from 20 Brix. Luckily, flavor was solid, as was the marvelous aroma of that grape variety, like a rose garden that had been sprayed with essence of ginger.

I went to work. Didn’t like doing it, but I brought the Brix up to 22 (potential for 12% alcohol); then, I added 1 gram per liter of tartaric acid. I figured that after fermentation, I’d take some readings—or maybe I’d just use my taste buds, to see how good I really am—and then either adjust with a little more acidity or not.

Last week, the Gewurztraminer was at 1% sugar—fermentation is getting close to shutting down. The aroma is yeasty, no H2S detected, and it also is flowery—the color is like popsicle.

Riesling was to be picked on October twenty-second. The rain that kept—keeps—coming down moved that schedule to October 14, and it was almost too late. Botrytis rot had set in, and the lack of sunshine to promote photosynthesis had halted sugar development at 18.5 Brix.

Once again, didn’t like to do it, but I added enough sugar to get the juice to 20 Brix, for a nice 11% potential alcohol. With a pH at 3.0 and total acidity at 7.8 grams per liter, I did nothing to the acid—I don’t at all like lowering acidity, as the methods available generally change the flavor profile too much for my liking, and this juice has great flavor—of lemons and tangerines, to be exact.

The way I start a fermentation is to draw off a volume of juice into which I make the sugar and/or acid adjustments. I bring that volume up to 18 degrees center grade and then add the selected yeast inoculant. Usually, the juice that’s left in the carboy starts to ferment from ambient yeast; I don’t mind that; the inoculant will take over. In both cases, I’ve inoculated with a yeast that withstands cool fermentation, which is normally a slow fermentation that highlights the variety’s flavor and aromatics.

Because of the Riesling stats, I have been thinking that instead of adding any more acid to the Gewurztraminer, it might be better for me to draw off about 10% of each wine later on and blend what I draw from the Gewurztraminer into the Riesling and vice versa. In fact, I will try that route—unless something happens along the way to change my mind.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
October 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Joe Dressner

Joe Dressner and I met once and talked once more on the telephone. Each time, it did not turn out well.

Fact is, Joe and I didn’t much get along, and I am sorry for that, because I am certain that his crazy sense of humor and his impeccable taste in wine, not to mention his outspokenness, would have helped me to solidify a personal relationship with him. I am less certain that my personality would have done much to get him to that same point with me: Joe held a grudge as tenaciously as he held his passion for “real wine.”

Joe Dressner died on September 17, 2011 after almost three years living with brain cancer and all the injustices that the disease throws at those who have it. During that time, Joe was gallant, funny, morose, vicious, beautiful under fire, which is to say that he was not much different than he had been before the diagnosis.

The most telling thing, to me, about Joe and brain cancer was his passion to stand up to it. He was a passionate man to the end.

Now that I have been dealing with prostate cancer for almost a year, it’s time for me to admit that I looked forward to Joe’s entries on his blog, the Amazing Misadventures of Captain Tumor Man. When he addressed the cancer and not a member of his family, the blog was inspirational, not for any insights about the disease but insights about how to handle it. (There were times when I wanted to comment on his blog, but my IP was blocked.)

When faced with our own slow demise, many of us get religion. Not Joe Dressner. He was gruff, strident, and irreverent at times, but he was not a hypocrite. I particularly liked his attitude with those who wished him well—he objected when someone placed the weight of God on his shoulders, as he professed no belief in such things.

As I’ve said, I am sorry that Joe Dressner and I didn’t get along; I guess I figured that it was his loss, and I assume that he figured it was my loss.

What I know for certain, however, is that his death is the wine world’s loss.

It is for Joe’s taste in “real wine” that we wine drinkers are compelled to offer a farewell toast, and we should do it often.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Definition of Insanity

For the past two weekends I have been cleaning out the cellar, for two reasons: it badly needed to be cleaned and organized; I need space to make wine.

Yep; that’s right; you didn’t misread. After nearly 20 years away from it, I am planning to make wine this vintage.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not going to apply for a commercial winery license—never again for that. But I do miss the smell of fermentation, especially if that fermentation is the floral-spicy Gewurztraminer.

My plan is to produce Gewurztraminer and Riesling, about two cases of each. It isn’t much, but it will be enough to stimulate me, and if the wines turn out to be both potable and palatable, it will be a fine personal achievement.

Cellar cleaning ended last weekend, followed by cleaning a couple of old glass carboys to get them ready to receive the juice that I am buying from a supplier, Tom Mitchell, located directly across the lake from me and who was my supplier when I operated the commercial winery. Tom was a vineyard manager at Gold Seal and then at the Taylor Wine Company. He also has operated his own vineyards for decades, as well as, along with his wife, Marcy, a supply business for home winemakers named Fallbright Winemakers Shop.

While scrubbing the inside of a 6.5-gallon carboy, I had flashbacks of the old days at the winery. I particularly remember that 20 percent of winemaking is making wine; the other 80 percent is cleaning up.

I also remember my first crop of Aurora grapes that went into that first Finger Lakes wine (I had produced wine at home before moving to this location). That first batch was not commercial yet.  I had secured my federal permit as bonded winery number 713, but was awaiting my license from Byzantium (the New York State Liquor Authority).

The Aurora vineyard was already in operation when I bought the homestead, but the Taylor Wine Company contract had been pulled out from under me, so I grew the grapes and sold half the crop to a small local winery and the other half to a small grape juice operation. Aurora is probably better for grape juice than for wine, but it was decent blending material, mainly as a stretcher at the winery.

For me, the small amount of Aurora grapes that lingered at the lower end of the vines, where the mostly volunteer family and friends enlisted as pickers either could not bend to or would not, became my crop for my first batch of Finger Lakes wine.

In preparation for the arrival of the state’s stamp of approval on what would inevitably become my errant venture into commercial winemaking, I bought some equipment, but no wine press. The press that I wanted (a bladder press) came too big for both my production level and my wallet. For the Aurora, I settled on borrowing a screwpress from a neighboring winery that recently had bought a bladder press. The screwpress contraption came with a number of slats with cloth stretched across each where grape juice was pushed through by the screw while the pulp and skins was held behind—had to clean those damned things every few minutes.

Luckily, I had a small crusher/destemmer that split the grapes and removed the stems, without which pressing would have been virtually impossible, unless I wanted to spend about a week pulling garbage out of the juice by hand and produce wine that tasted like putrid plant material.

My first “employee” was an accident-prone brother-in-law who has spent most of his 50-plus years in emergency rooms across the United States. While residing with us for a few months, he managed to fall off a horse, dent a truck—my truck—and slice a piece of his leg while cross cutting a two-by-four with a circular saw; these many years later, I still find it hard to understand how anyone but a contortionist could position his leg right at the end of the path of a circular saw, but he did it.

The worst of all of my brother-in-law’s accidents was when he dropped a 5-gallon carboy filled with fermented Aurora. No one was hurt, physically, but my mind played many tricks that day, all of which had to do with crime and punishment of some sort.

I did manage to produce enough Aurora wine so that there was upwards of ten gallons in storage that winter, and when the wine was ready for bottling, its major flaw was that it was just a little too sweet for my taste—I had not learned the necessity of doing stringent and regular tests throughout the process to determine the true nature and makeup of the finished product, and that was because I was still learning to make wine; I simply hadn’t thought of everything—yet.

This year, I will buy already pressed juice from the reputable “juicer” Tom Mitchell so that one situation will be handled well enough. I also plan to handle the rest of the process by applying what I have learned over the years—that gives me a reasonable shot at producing stable and tasty wine.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress. Gewurztraminer is due for pick up on October 1 and Riesling on October 22. Stay tuned, or at least stay in the feed…

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Léon who?

Keuka Lake Vineyards’ 2010 Estate Bottled Léon Millot (Finger Lakes) was voted Best Red Wine at the recent NY Wine and Food Classic Competition held in Watkins Glen, NY.

How do I know this?

Because it seems that everyone is talking about it in the Finger Lakes.

Why is everyone talking about it?

Because, well, as much as wine industry people like to tout the continuing revolution when it comes to the establishment of Old World grape varieties in this New World of ours, especially in the Northeastern part of our New World, there seems to still be room for inter-species hybrids, but only when they are evaluated in a blind tasting.

It shouldn’t be the case, but blind tastings always seem to shock us. When you have no idea what you are tasting you are apt to like things that you say you don’t like and the other way round. That’s because tasting wine is as infallible as we are, and I want to meet the person who isn’t fallible. With wine, even the pros among us can be fooled by our perceptions.

I was told by those who tasted the winning red wine that it tastes nothing like a Léon Millot should; suffice to say that what that likely means is that people refuse to believe that a wine can step out of the class that others have assigned to it: generally, red inter-species hybrid wines are not supposed to be so good.

Anyway, Léon Millot was created in Alsace, France, in 1911 by crossing a hybrid of two North American species (Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris) with an Old World, German variety within the Vitis vinifera species. The resulting grape variety was named after a French winemaker and nurseryman. (The same crossing trials produced Marechal Foch, a grape named after an important French martial during the armistice negotiation of WWI.)

The variety is suitable for cold, moist climate cultivation as it ripens early and is supposedly highly resistant to fungal diseases, and this particular vineyard plot in the Finger Lakes was planted about 60 years ago by Charles Fournier, who was from Champagne and came to Gold Seal in the late 1940s to be managing winemaker.

Mr. Fournier not only knew what he was doing, he teamed with Konstantin Frank to produce the first successful commercial Vitis vinifera wines in the region, in 1962.

The official take on Léon Millot is that it gives off an aroma that some identify as “foxy,” a common descriptor for wines produced from North American species. For that reason, probably, the grape variety was initially banned for commercial winemaking in the European Union. That ban has been lifted for grape varieties that include a portion of vinifera pedigree, but very small amounts of Léon Millot are grown in Switzerland and in Alsace. Canada has plantings of the grape, too.

So, I sampled this recently voted Best Red Wine a few days ago.

The wine did not smell like a native grape to me. In fact, it had a subtle and sophisticated aroma, slightly milky, which might mean the malolactic fermentation is coming through loud and clear for my schnozz.

The wine's color is deep and close to purple, like a bishop's cloak.

The taste, well... Remember that I was not tasting blind, so my perception may have gotten in the way, but I found the subtlety in aroma did not follow through on the palate. In fact, the wine seemed to me too forward and edgy for a red, which is what I usually dislike about most red wines from inter-species hybrid grapes--they seem too rough and earthy.

While we are on the subject of awards, top honor in the New York Wine and Food Classic, the Governor’s Cup, was awarded to a Long Island winery, Martha Clara Vineyards, for its 2010 Riesling.

I understand that the wine was produced with Finger Lakes grapes, which proves once again that great wine is produced in the vineyard.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Plan for the Future Online

Over the past eight or so years, I’ve had occasion to write online for others. While one experience proved fruitful, after a fashion, the other experiences have left me cold to the so-called social media revolution.

In a few situations, my writing went directly to an existing or developing Web site, and while I was paid for my effort, credits did not come my way, which was ok with me. In fact, those experiences are not the ones that leave me cold to the potential of social media. It’s the blogs that give me a jaundiced view and, as in one case, providing snippet writing for one of those AOL “information” sites that are akin to fast food: the site editors demand adjectives and nouns as verbs (sugar and salt) to make everything go down pleasurably and to hide the minimal to no information (nutrition) inside; that gig lasted only briefly, and, thankfully, my name was not attached to the entries. I understand that after Arianna Huffington merged her site with AOL, the direction of that particular site was changed.

Blogging-for-hire gigs ran for me the gamut from useless to discouraging.

The first blogging I did for someone else was intended as a favor—until I discovered that the site owner was planning to use the free writing to help move his online career forward without so much as even a promise to take care of the “volunteers” later on.

The second blogging was for a new site that started out with a mission in which I played a role, and was paid for my part. Within just a few months, however, the mission had changed and my blog was moved out with the old mission.

The third blogging went on for almost a year albeit, chasing payment each month made it seem like two years. But over time, I noticed the site’s overall bent had changed and that all the bloggers that had started with me were gone (what would be next?).

When I started to write for a living, many of the present blog owners were still shitting in their diapers. I say this not to boast, certainly not to point out our age differences, but to point out that while so many of these start-up geniuses were being told in school that they are special and that they cannot lose, many of us were in the trenches having to prove our “specialness” and the battles that we lost built scar tissue as well as experience—we were forced to learn something.

In business, whether print or online magazines, ideas are cheap when they are not accompanied by due diligence and a good business plan. The many start-up and crashed-down online sites that I’ve seen over the years plainly illustrate that their owners and originators spent most of their time thinking about the idea without understanding how to implement it.

To bring this particular diatribe of mine to a wine analogy, starting an online business is no different from starting a winery. In either case, the first consideration of the business plan is to identify who will buy your product and why, and if you can’t illuminate others concerning your target market within a few concise paragraphs, you probably have a weak future before you.

Oh, sure, some people blindly stumble into horseshit, as we used to say in Brooklyn, referring to the notion that stepping in the dung would bring good luck. But trusting in the cosmic belief that “I am special, as is my idea” will work for only a small portion of us. The rest of us will go the way of a previous era’s advanced product, the Ford Edsel, or more closely related, television, which four generations ago made promises that it broke about three generations ago. That’s fine, except when our failure causes us to break promises and to treat others like commodities rather than as valuable, talented assets to help move our ideas forward.

To put this blog entry into concise perspective: it’s about time that the many people who presently apply hyperbole to social media grow up and come back with a real plan—and a market for it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shining Star

On June 30, 2011, the Finger Lakes wine and culinary community lost a bright star in our galaxy to a car accident on the New York State Thruway. The following is the unedited eulogy that I wrote for my weekly local newspaper column.

Normally, the joy of an event at Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro began at the door with a greeting from Dave and Deb Whiting. Sometimes, especially if you entered through the bistro, Deb greeted you with her radiant aura, wide smile, and open arms.

Deb was not at the winery and bistro event on July 5, 2011, but her spirit was there a thousand fold.

When the email from the Wine and Grape Foundation’s Jim Trezise arrived in my in box just before the July 4th weekend, I learned of a serious two-car accident that injured Dave Whiting and took Deb’s life.

Jim’s words, “Deb is gone,” hit hard. First came shock, then denial, anger, and mourning. Soon, however, came time for remembering, which is what the July 5th event was all about.

Based on what looked like about 1,000 people attending the memorial, the memory of Deb Whiting will be durable and strong, which is as it should be.

My memories of Deb began about 20 years ago when Dave brought his future bride to the monthly winemaker dinners that we used to hold at the Pleasant Valley Inn in Hammondsport. Smart, attractive, energetic and outgoing, Deb certainly held her own at a table filled with mostly male egos—she also had an infectious smile.

Looking at Dave and Deb seated together at table it was obvious that the two were in love. They seemed cut from a mold that made their union inevitable. At the time, she was a microbiologist working with bugs in immunology; he worked with microbiological bugs as a winemaker. Their intellects and interests were in harmony.

I don’t know how long it took Dave to fall in love with Deb, but for me it was love at first sight. At future winemaker dinners, I found myself willingly performing for her benefit, in an effort to make her laugh, which she so easily did.

Deb developed a passion for cooking, which first manifested itself to admirers like me through baking—cheesecakes, to be specific. Hers was the best New York style cheesecake that I have ever found outside of New York City.

Soon, Deb left immunology for baking; soon after that, she operated a catering business out of a small place in Burdett; soon after that, she and Dave (they had gotten married by then) talked about operating their own winery and restaurant.

Not long after the talk came a deal in the late 1990s that put the couple in the old Wickham family winery facility off Route 414.

The Whitings were off and running, with Deb seemingly setting the pace, if only because she exuded boundless active energy to Dave’s deliberative style. But Dave proved no slouch in the energy department. While building Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro, a process that takes monumental fortitude, Dave and Deb did crazy things like take evening ballroom dancing lessons after a hard day at Red Newt, and they raised a couple of kids, too!

If there was doubt about their future, it was put to rest by the middle of this century. Dave’s wines, as well as his collaboration with other winemakers in our region, established Red Newt as a serious player in the Finger Lakes wine industry. Deb’s success at the bistro was equally dynamic.

In addition to her dynamism in the Red Newt Bistro kitchen, Deb began to stretch her culinary influence in many directions: she led the call for promoting and serving locally farmed meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables; she helped to establish a Finger Lakes culinary movement; she traveled the state teaching others to cook; and she made special efforts to highlight the healthful and commercial benefits of pairing Finger Lakes wine with meals made up largely of Finger Lakes foods.

Just as anyone who knew her, I shall miss Deb Whiting tremendously, and my heart goes out to Dave and the Whiting family, as well as to the Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro family. When she started the bistro, I briefly became part of the family after I asked Deb if she would let me gain some extra experience for my wine and food writing by allowing me to work in her kitchen—for free.

I believe it was those two last words that got her to agree; after all, hers was a new business.

I worked the kitchen during July, my birthday month. One night, after all the dinners had been served, Deb and I talked about yet another upcoming birthday of mine; then, I recounted a story that she had not heard before.

On my 50th birthday, my wife, Anne, threw a surprise birthday party. Quite a crowd filled three rooms in our home that night. Knowing of my madness for Deb’s cheesecake, and also knowing that many from my family drove up from New York City for the party, Anne ordered a number of cheesecakes from Deb to serve as the birthday cake. Unfortunately, for me, by the time I had gotten around to getting my slice of cheesecake, our guests had gobbled up every last morsel.

On the next day that I was scheduled to work at the bistro, my birthday was only hours away. At the door of the kitchen to greet me, stood Deb with a dish in her hands, on which rested a slice of cheesecake with a lit candle stuck in its middle.

Today, that candle conjures a bright and energetic light in the firmament that exudes its warmth—it is the image of Deb Whiting.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

California, there I went...

As the jazz pianist and composer Bobby Troupe wrote, “…won’t you get hip to this timely tip; when you make that California trip, get your kicks on Route 66.”

It wasn’t exactly the way Troupe told it, but the Amtrak train that took me home from Los Angeles through the Southwest to Chicago and then to New York, followed a great deal of the old Route 66, even made stops at some of the places mentioned in the song. The return trip was delightful.

On the way to the West Coast, however, the story is not so pretty. In fact, it was a nightmare, thanks to the floods and fires that caused Amtrak to cancel all trains.

In any case, I got to where I was headed in one piece and then Wednesday, June 15 came and it was time to meet some new friends.

That evening, I reconnected with Tom Wark and Jack Everitt, two guys that I first met online and then came to meet in person on a couple of past trips to the West Coast. That was a blast. But the real treat for the evening was to meet other Internet friends that I had yet to meet face-to-face: Samantha Dugan, John Kelly, Ron Washam, Charlie Olken, and Marcia (whose last name I didn’t get) plus Wark’s new wife, Charlie’s long-standing wife, John’s winemaking assistant, all of whom I was introduced to by name, but in my oncoming dotage have not held in memory. I apologize for that gap, and should have taken notes.

What I do remember of that evening wholeheartedly was conviviality. We ate good food served at Harvest Moon in Sonoma (oh, those sardines), drank fabulous wines brought by each of us, and talked trash as well as serious. (Have you ever sat at a table of nearly a dozen self-confident people with opinions? If not, don’t try it without some practice.)

I was especially pleased with the overall good reception of the Finger Lakes wines that I brought to the dinner.

The memorable evening fell in the middle of my trip, and that made it all the more wonderful, as it was a fine break from the combination work and scouting that I was doing while on the West Coast (in seven days, I racked up 1800 miles on a rented car). The work was to interview a few people for research pertaining to my next book, which is under contract. The scouting was to satisfy a sense that I had that it is time for me to move on, to relocate.

Unfortunately or not, the places I had planned to visit in southern Oregon as candidates for that relocation did not live up to expectations. Or maybe it is simply that I am not ready. Whatever, I have decided to stay put for the time being. It didn’t help that, despite a proliferation of coffee kiosks throughout the region, or maybe because of them, I could not find a decent cup of unadulterated espresso in southern Oregon.

People who deal with and survive cancer are also faced with our mortality, and that often makes us believe either that what we have may not be enough or it may not be the right thing for us. In the past few months, while facing mortality, and although I’d like to claim exceptionality, I proved to myself that I am as ordinary as any man. But after searching on this trip, and doing a lot of thinking as well, I have come to the conclusion that what I have is enough and it is right for me.

The only thing that I need to do to make comfortable the time that I have left on this earth is for me to escape the deep winters that often afflict this part of the country. For that, I don’t need to go to a warmer place; I need to be in a place that provides me with access to things that I cannot have while hibernating in my rural community, and that includes a good unadulterated double espresso—daily.

My latest thought, then, is to find a temporary apartment each winter in Manhattan. There, I can indulge in what truly makes me happy—cultural events. To do that in the Finger Lakes in winter it takes clearing the driveway of snow and ice, warming the car, driving in snow and ice for a minimum of 35 miles one way, and then trying to enjoy the evening while thinking of the energy-draining drive home in the dead of night and winter.

In Manhattan, all it takes to enjoy cultural events is to get dressed, go downstairs and either walk or take a taxi, whatever the weather is.

I am so glad to have reached a stage in my life where I get to enjoy conviviality more often and to also make decisions mostly on my terms. So, fuck cancer. It has nothing on freedom, friends, and conviviality.

I think I'll need another conviviality trip to the West Coast soon—better still, maybe some of my new friends would like to see how green is our valley during a Finger Lakes summer here in the East.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2011. All rights reserved

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rainy Friday afternoon musing

If the majority of wine bloggers don't get paid, from where do they get the money to attend a convention; more important, why do they spend money on a convention?

Is anyone making money from the convention? If so, who and how much?

Is there a tangible award, like a plaque or medal. If so, who pays for it? If not, why not?

If no one makes money on the convention, and most who attend are not paid bloggers, and the annual conversation at each convention covers how to cash in on wine blogging, can someone please explain to me what's going on?

Blogging awards

It's that time of year for the annual blogger awards, when humility and insincerity clash to make bloggers seem both desperate and unusually ambitious.

In any case, I believe that vinofictions and Hosemaster of Wine should be nominated for our silence. By shutting up, we have done more for blogging--as well as for readers--than any blogger that I can name.

Since we each are silent, and since it is a desperate act to nominate one self, we ask that readers nominate us for our silence. If enough do, maybe we can put this annual freak show to bed!

Monday, May 16, 2011


Within the past two weeks, a few people have asked about or commented on my absence. Being a man of insistent "responsible genes," I’ve decided to pass along this explanation, feeble as some may think it is.

First, radiation for prostate cancer ended April 25. Now, I wait, get checked periodically, and take shots that I hate having to take.

Over the nine weeks during radiation, the round trip drive of almost three hours each day, five days a week, plus the fifteen minutes of radiation saw to it that I had great amounts of time in which to think—always a dangerous thing for a guy like me, who never stops thinking to begin with (I listened to books on CD, but still managed to think).

When I began this blog, my intent was to pass along to consumers some of what really goes on in the wine world as opposed to what others want consumers to think goes on. I also had a decided bent against ever becoming a wine critic, as my view of aesthetic criticism is not the mainstream view of that occupation.

If I am to be honest with myself, the secondary intent for vinofictions was to gain access to people who might be in a position to buy my writing services.

In truth, neither of the intents seems to have panned out much.

After initial interest from some important online bloggers who sent readers my way, my lack of flashy, some might say sensationalistic writing ultimately relegated vinofictions to the low end of the readability scale. I have no idea how many people read or have read the blog (I have tracked the hits, but that baloney isn’t as telling as some believe—hits are not necessarily readers).

In addition, others have pointed out, and I have come to agree that the majority of wine blog readers are either in the business, wannabes in the business, or hard geeks. And in addition to that, I’ve learned that few want to read a blog for information beyond the opinions concerning the drinkability of this or that wine; in some cases, telling the truth behind the many myths that continue to circulate concerning myriad subjects connected to wine has gotten me into more trouble than the blog is worth.

Speaking of worth, the blog did manage to pull off a few incidents concerning my second intent—to attract an editor or two—but not nearly enough when I compare what my print writings (including books) have garnered for me when it comes to getting future writing gigs. Either not enough editors read wine blogs or I'm a poor excuse for a writer--or both. Still, in spite of the possibility concerning my talents, the fact that I have had the good fortune over the years to become a professional writer, who needs the time to write so that I meet my deadlines, often came into conflict with trying to maintain a blog that brought no direct revenue at all.

In sum, vinofictions may or may not be around much longer. I haven’t made a definitive decision about it. I know only these two things: right now, I am not inspired to write anything on the blog; and I have just received a contract to write what will be my fourth book, a project that requires much research and that will take up much of my time. The new book, plus the three columns I continually bang out on a regularly scheduled basis, the wines.com blog entries that I produce twice each month, and the scattered magazine articles that diminishingly, but still come my way will conspire to lessen the energy if not the ideas necessary to maintain regularly scheduled vinofictions blog entries.

Finally, not only have I faced a health ordeal, I’m getting older and less inclined to spend as much energy on speculative concepts as I once had.

To my four or five die-hard readers, I say thanks for reading, commenting, and overall support under the radar through emails. Vinofictions will remain online and maybe one day soon I’ll actually have something worthwhile to post to it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
May 2011. All rights reserved

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blogging comment contest--everybody's doing it, why not I?

If you are really into wine, you must have heard of the MS, MW, and WSET certificate programs that teach all you need to know about the subject—I think.

Because some of us, including me, aren’t sure whether or not those few wine education programs really do the job, a small group of divorced moms who receive large alimony checks came up with a solution at one of their afternoon drunkfests; they call their endeavor the Perspicacious, Pretentious, Presumptuous School of Wine (PPP).

The women sought to bring wine education to the people, more specifically, to people like us. In other words, they want to educate fools, and take it from this fool, the single moms with a two-ton drinking problem have come up with a foolproof wine education program…and now, vinofiction readers have a chance at benefiting from it.

For a brief time only—about twenty-five minutes—PPP offers my readers a chance to gain their highest-level wine education certificate.

Yes indeed, my readers have a chance at bypassing levels 1 through 4, which cover such mundane topics as grape growing, wine production, grape variety identification, sensory analysis, and winemaking as well as wine marketing to skip right straight through to the real meat of the program, the Pusillanimous Wine Professional Level 5 certificate (PWP5), the one that guarantees the world of your vacuous credentials as a talker rather than a doer.

You won’t have to memorize dates, smells, vintages, names, or even alcohol levels. Plus, to enter this contest you don’t have to hold either a WSET, MS, or MW, but it helps to hold very high self-regard, even if you are a fool—especially if you are a fool.

To enter this contest all you have to do is be the 53rd person to comment on this blog entry. Using fewer than 140 characters, tell us all that you know about wine.

Your entry will be printed out and dumped with other entries into a large red hat with a feather boa that sits on the table where the drunken ladies meet. The first lady who manages to grab an entry, and can focus her eyes enough to read it aloud, will pick the winner.

Fool that you are, you probably already have thought that to win this contest all you’ll have to do is wait until the 52nd comment is made and then dump your vanity on us. But think about this: right now, hundreds of people have read this blog entry (maybe thousands). Surely only one or two readers are smart enough to fully comprehend its contents. The rest are already clamoring to show what fools we mortals be, so hitting the 53rd comment mark will be quite random with high odds against you, and that means that only a lucky fool can win. Are you that lucky fool?
Disclaimer: I have absolutely no affiliation with PPP, although I do hold a PWP5 which I gained fair and square. In addition, I have received no compensation from PPP to post this contest and promote their brand, unless you count the check and two cases of wine PPP sent me for the wallboard work I did to remodel their ugly office, which was in fact a truly ostentatious living room of one of the ladies whose ex-husband had no taste.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


It’s been a while since my last post. I have an excuse, but I don’t want to take time making excuses. Truth is, I haven’t much to say right now about the subject of wine. In fact, I haven’t much to say about anything these days. That’s part of my excuse.

Still, almost without fail, at least once each day, the thought of me ignoring vinofictions crept into my mind. It bothered me almost the way a nagging control freak bothers us.

For days, thoughts of finally abandoning this blog for good gave me guilt feelings. The idea that I could walk away from something that I had created made me feel almost ill. This deep sense of responsibility has always haunted my psyche. Every dog or cat I have ever had as a pet figured that out about me and used that knowledge to mold my habits to suit their needs.

For the past three days, the compulsion to write in vinofictions tugged at my sense of responsibility until, today, I could no longer take it, and so I decided to write something, anything, to get this drag on my day to ease up.

Many years ago, I learned that the best way to face writer’s block was a combination of keep writing and keep taking breaks. It’s a contradiction, but it often works. You spend time each day, the same time of day, too, writing whatever pops into your feeble mind until, “voila,” you often find that you have begun to write something if not important at least intelligible. After each session, you do something that you truly enjoy doing—walking, running, biking, shopping, dining out, meeting friends, etc.

With that in mind, and noticing that I have yet to come up with anything either important or intelligible, I think I will go do something that I enjoy, expecting that tomorrow I’ll come up with a real vinofictions entry.

Oh wait: I have to drive over an hour one way for my daily radiation treatment.

Now you know my excuse for having not been writing in the blog.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Don't wait for me Argentina...

Sung to the tune from the Broadway play of the 1970s, “Don’t wait for me, Argentina…”

Thanks to the “Wines of Argentina team” I can plainly state that more than three read this blog. Also thanks to the “team” I can plainly state that marketers are sometimes funny, if not downright unscrupulous—or maybe they think that bloggers are unscrupulous—or maybe some bloggers are.

Here’s one way to calculate the scruples of a blogger: if a blogger writes this month about the white wines of Torrontes, be careful. You see, the blogger may be writing about that subject for the chance to win a free trip to Argentina, courtesy of the “Wines of Argentina team.”

Get it?


Here’s how it works. The “Wines of Argentina team” sends the following email to bloggers:
"We've seen your wine blog and would like to invite you to write a post about Argentine Torrontes and participate in our Blogger of the Month contest. You will have the chance to win a free trip to Argentina! Here is a link for more info http://www.winesofargentina.org/en/bloggerofthemonth
Looking forward to reading your blog post!"
The email is signed by the Wines of Argentina team.

If the “team” made an effort to read my blog it would know that I am a rather cantankerous old journalist who takes ethics extremely seriously, and that I would likely consider this “contest” a breach in ethics.

Here’s why: a journalist neither writes a story for a marketing entity nor does a journalist write a story to enter a contest for freebies.

I know that the official Argentine language is Spanish, and I know that there’s a large Italian contingency in Argentina that speaks a kind of SpanItalian.

Still, every member of the team should know what this means: quid pro quo.

This situation reminds me of an offer made to bloggers concerning a wine refrigerator and how to get yourself one. In my view, that, too, was an ethical breach in the waiting.

Now I know that there are some in the blogosphere who consider my attitude “old school.” I know because some bloggers have told me so after I’ve pointed out what I consider their actions as skirting on thin ethical ice. But I refuse to back down, and so I repeat to my three other readers: if you read a blog entry this month about Torrontes, remember that old “grain of salt.”

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Goings on

Alcohol by any other name...

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) wants us to know that the federal government releases its 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and there's good news for imbibers.

First, the guidelines define a drink as 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, that's 40% alcohol by volume; 5 ounces of wine at 12% alcohol by volume; and 12 ounces of regular beer at 5% alcohol by volume.

In each of the above, you will take in 0.6 fluid ounces of ethanol.

According to the DISCUS press release, the government has "scientifically" determined that a standard drink of wine, beer, or spirits equals the same fluid ounces of alcohol.

Maybe so, but this is not news. We knew this information 30 years ago.

We also knew then, and know now, that the spirits industry is rabid about making sure that people understand that alcohol is alcohol—the industry gets annoyed that wine benefits from the hype about moderate alcohol consumption being good for our health, leaving spirits behind.

The press release goes on to talk about what constitutes moderation: one drink each day for women and two drinks each day for men, of any standard drink of alcohol.

Then, the Wine Institute issued its press release on the matter; here's a portion of what that California organization said:
"...we agree with the time-tested definition of a serving as being 12 fl. oz. of regular beer, 5 fl. oz. of wine, or 1.5 fl. oz. of 80-proof distilled spirits but are concerned about the additional statement that each of the drinks contains the same amount of alcohol...in reality, alcohol content varies widely from drink to drink. Consumers should not be misled into believing there is such a thing as a 'standard drink.' In fact, the term 'standard drink' does not appear in the Dietary Guidelines."
Wow. It appears there's a drinks war going on.

If the Wine Institute had asked me I would have advised this response:
A drink may be a drink, but it's not nearly as easy to pair a shot of spirits with a meal as it is to pair a glass of wine with a meal—and leave it at that.
Sabbath? What Sabbath?

Hubris and hypocrisy can be funny.

Georgia is one of three states remaining that does not allow alcohol sales on Sunday, but the legislature is addressing the issue and the law likely will change, if it hasn't already.

Last January Connecticut, Indiana, and Texas became the 45th, 46th, and 47th states to lift the Sunday alcohol sales ban.


Because state coffers are empty and by adding one more day of alcohol sales to the week each state brings in one more day of tax revenue.

Follow the money--always.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ahh, Love New York

Most of my two readers know that I reside in the Finger Lakes, where I also once produced wine. Because of that relationship, and because some truly outstanding wines are produced here, I try to keep abreast of what’s going on in the region and in the state.

I recently joined a teleconference that was arranged to fill the media in on the latest findings concerning the wine in grocery store issue that has fermented in New York for about 30 years.

The closest the state ever came to legislating to allow grocery stores to sell wine was in the state’s 2010 budget, when a compromise bill was introduced to answer all the objections of the retail liquor lobby. Alas, when push came to shove, the lobbyists’ response was simple: we don’t want any changes at all in the present system. Essentially, they never negotiated in good faith and have no plans to do so in the future.

Now, with a new governor and a new budget, the issue seems to be dead as a budgetary item, but it is not quite dead as an issue.

The teleconference was set up by Archstone Consulting, a division of The Hackett Group, which bills itself as “a global strategic business advisory, operations consulting and finance transformation firm.

The New Yorkers for Economic Growth and Open Markets (NYEGOM) funded Archstone’s study.

According to Matt Tepper, spokesman for Artchstone, NYGEOM is, “a statewide coalition of family farms, liquor stores, supermarket chains, independent food stores, grocery wholesalers and small businesses.

Archstone investigated last year’s proposed legislation and budget and determined that if enacted, allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores would have generated for New York State almost $347 million during the first year in license fees, and about $71 million annually for the next five years through licenses and excise taxes.

State revenue is, however, a small part of the benefits.

First, 35 states out of 50 allow wine sales in grocery stores, and of the top ten wine-producing states, New York is in fourth place but it is the only one of the ten states that does not allow wine sales in grocery stores, and in most of the other nine states small retailers operate along with large grocery store chains.

More important, according to the study, if passed, last year’s proposal could have produced a net job gain at wineries, wholesalers, plus all retail outlets of almost 6,400 jobs in the first year and more than 7,600 over five years.

The study looked in depth at four other states—Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Michigan—where wine is sold in grocery stores and pharmacies as well as in retail liquor stores. The findings included double-digit growth in the number of liquor stores between 2002-2007 in each state.

Conversely, in New York, where wine is not sold in grocery stores, there were about 8,000 liquor retailers just 20 years ago; there are about 2,500 today.

Finally, the study found that in states where wine is sold in grocery stores, liquor retailers must keep up with the market. The result is better choices for consumers as well as better prices, thanks to entrepreneurial competition (as opposed to the static, protected turfs that New York State provides to liquor retailers).

The newly elected State Senator for our region, Thomas O’Mara, was in on the teleconference. He voiced concern that everyone involved needs to have an open and frank dialog and also to recognize that change is difficult and it offers a potential negative impact to retailers.

The following is for the senator’s benefit: during the last go-round with proposed legislation on this issue in 2010, the retail lobbyists, Laststoreonmainstreet.com, turned down changes, including some that liquor retailers have been clamoring for years to achieve: the ability of liquor retailers to sell mixers and food items; the chance for liquor retailers to form cooperatives to buy products to gain access to large volume discounts; the chance for liquor store retailers not only to sell their licenses at fair market value, but also to hold more than the one license which they are presently confined to owning; the chance for relaxing stringent rules that force retailers into negative relationships with wholesalers; and the chance to change shop owner/order takers into free market entrepreneurs (I believe this is the one that gives most of the retailers the jitters).

To drive home their point, Laststoreonmainstreet.com stated flatly and plainly that it didn’t want anything to change in the way wine is sold in New York State—nothing.

Mr. Senator, can the dialog be any more frank or open than that?

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
February 2011. All rights reserved.
Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Surf and turf

The unusual lentil/mussels soup that I ate at Savore in New York City was on my mind ever since that night. Last night, I decided to do something about it.

I’m one of those nuts who try to deconstruct the ingredients that go into a restaurant dish, especially when the dish sparks my appetite and my interest. Mussels with lentils was such an unusual pairing—at least I’ve never done it before—that it was a natural for me to think about deconstructing…and if that fails, I simply construct my own!

I believe that I have captured much of what was in that bowl at Savore, whether I did it with the proper ingredients is not the issue for me. To my taste, the earthiness of the lentils and the fishy-ness of the mussels (and broth) was truly an interesting version of “surf and turf” dining, and that is all I sought to duplicate.

The other day, my wife and I ate trout for dinner. As we usually do in our home, the bones from the trout did not get thrown out; they rested in the fridge overnight and waited for their appointment in the morning to simmer on the stove in water to make a fish stock. (We seem to have a stock pot simmering almost every day, from fish to chicken to vegetable.)

My aim for the trout stock was to use it as part of the base for my experiment with lentils and mussels soup, which we had at dinner last night, and for lunch as leftovers today.

Here’s how I made the soup.

I steamed a bag of mussels until they just popped open their shells, and put the mussels aside; then, I added the water from the mussel-steaming plus the trout stock (total of six cups) into a pot, cleaned and screened one and one half cups of lentils and put them into the pot, added a teaspoon of cumin, three large bay leaves (we have two laurel trees), and a chopped cayenne pepper (we grow and then freeze them), brought everything to a boil and then simmered it for about 20 minutes.

While the lentils simmered, I chopped two large carrots, one large fennel stalk (in place of celery, which to me tastes like kerosene) two garlic cloves, one onion and put them aside.

After they simmered to tender, I took half the lentils out of the pot with a slotted spoon, pureed them, mixed the lentil puree back into the pot and added the chopped vegetables. Everything simmered until the vegetables cooked to tender.

At the last minute, I stirred into the pot the juice of one lemon and two tablespoons of olive oil; then, I added the mussels (in their shells), lowered the flame to below low, covered, and let the mussels get hot in the pot.

The result was close to Savore’s but not exact. It was, however, quite a nice soup—both times that we ate it.

At Savore, I drank Morellino di Scansano with the soup. At home, we tried it with a Heron Hill Cabernet Franc. The wine is clean and crisp, very much in the Chinon style, but it was not the best pairing for the mussels and lentils soup.I'll have to try it again with another wine---any suggestions?
Some have asked about my prostate cancer situation. I don’t care to go into too much detail, but I am feeling fine. I’ve been given a hormone shot to shrink and make brittle the cancer cells in preparation for radiating them. The shot produces potential side effects; in my case, the side effects have been minimal, almost to undetectable.
According to the doc, my overall good health (and the fact that I take no medications, nor have I ever been a habitual smoker) should benefit me during this process. But I do not fool myself; I know that when radiation begins I will suffer fatigue and who knows what else! Until then, I will exercise daily, eat healthy, drink some wine, and keep on writing.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Energize me

New York City is energizing. For me, being there is like being plugged in to recharge, and recharge I did. The weekend was filled with goings on but nothing compared with dining with my old friends.

For those familiar with the city’s layout, you might find it impressive that on my way to meet my friends for that Friday night dinner, I walked from 92nd Street and 3rd Avenue to 42nd Street and 12th Avenue, through Central Park, inside of one hour and ten minutes. As I said, the city is energizing!

I met one of my friends, John, who I’ve known since fourth grade and who is just fifteen minutes older than I, at his apartment on 42nd Street and then we drove in his car to the restaurant, Savore, located at the southeast corner of Spring and Sullivan Streets, in Soho.

Savore has been at that location since 1995. I discovered the restaurant in 1996, and loved it from the start. Both menu and wine list offered a healthy dose of Northeastern Italy.

When I first ate at Savore, it was populated with Italians. These days, the front of the house, the wait staff, and probably the kitchen staff too, represent places like Mexico, Honduras, and Guatamala. The place has changed a little, with a wider offering that includes more universal dishes. But the influence is, as it should be, simplicity in preparation and mainly Italian. I can tell that the wait staff loves to work there, too, by the way that they serve and by the fact that a few of them have been serving for many years.

There were eight of us at the table, each planning to order a separate meal. Once again, I had to call upon my appeasing instincts as the wine list made its way to my spot in the group. It was a bitterly cold night in the city and because of that no one felt like drinking white wine. A good look at the list and then in a flash I decided on a Caldaro Pinot Nero (Alto Adige) and il Puntone Morellino di Scansano Riserva (Maremma).

I didn’t take wine notes that night—no geeks around—but as I remember them, the Pinot Nero was beautifully round and fruity with a velvety finish. The Morellino (which is the Maremma’s version of the Sangiovese grape, or is it?) was solidly leathery, lean but flavorful, with truly integrated acidity.

I could tell that everyone liked the wine because no one complained and we ordered more bottles.

The dishes at our table represented quite a range, from artichoke stuffed pasta to branzino over root vegetables and all kinds in between. Mine was an order of lentils and mussels soup to start, a soup so unusual that it called to me, and I was glad that I answered the call. Hard to explain how the salty sea-like flavor of mussels offset the earthy lushness of lentils, but it happened. I followed with a seared salmon over crisp vegetables on a soft bed of pureed cauliflower (I’m eating more omega3 foods these days).

The evening went long—four hours—and the conversation went even longer. Once again, we talked of our youthful indiscretions, like the time we broke into the basement of a neighborhood bar and stole two kegs of beer.

We broke the kegs open with a screwdriver and a hammer in a hallway without thinking about the consequences of having just finished rolling them more than two blocks—the beer spray and foam filled three floors of hallway.

The caper was such a spur-of-the-moment thing that we also didn’t consider what we would serve the beer in. A few of us wound up with a case of trench mouth from the old coffee cans that we used as beer glasses.

Ours was a mobster neighborhood. Tough guys were everywhere, as was violence. One of them was a particularly nasty prick, a loan shark that we knew was responsible for breaking a few legs.

A long time ago, there was such a thing as a small kitchen table with a metal top. On one snowy night, after we had downed pints of T’bird and were feeling mischievous, one of my friends saw such a tabletop lying in a pile of garbage. He wondered aloud: what would happen if we buried that tabletop in snow right in someone’s walking path?

That someone turned out to be the loan shark, and it was such fun to watch him unknowingly walk onto the slick, wet metal top, glide up into the air and then come down with a pleasingly, to us, hard thump, cursing all the way up and all the way down.

It was all we could do to hold in our laughter from our perch behind a car across the street.

Finally, there was the teacher whose arm we broke—inadvertently, of course.

It was a Friday afternoon fire drill. The class was made to line up along one wall before filing out. The wall happened to be the one that included the coat closets, which were fronted with sliding doors. It so happened that the chairs in the classroom fit snugly in the closets and so we stacked a bunch of them in there and slid the doors closed.

The following Monday, as the teacher prepared the classroom she opened one of the closets and out came a stack of chairs right on her!

We have recounted these and many other stories more than a few times over the years but we never tire of telling them once again and we always seem to find them as funny as they were when the events took place.

I’ll be seeing this group again soon, as each one of my friends has offered to make the 300-mile trip to visit me and to take turns relieving my wife from the responsibility of driving me five days a week for about nine weeks of daily radiation treatments of my prostate cancer.

As I’ve said, the love that binds these friendships is palpable.


Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

In this world, we are lucky to maintain a friendship with just one person from our youth or childhood. I consider myself among the luckiest of them all, as I have not one but five close friends, some of whom have been with me from near infancy, others since our teen days.

Many years ago, my close friends and I used to get together at least once a month for dinner in New York City, to stay connected. It’s amazing how many years you can tell and listen to the same stories but find them equally hilarious each time. The love that we six men have for one another is palpable; I know this because my wife tells me that she can feel it when the group gets together with our wives.

The monthly dinners were always sans wives. That way, we could be our childish selves. We spread ourselves around town, dining in many restaurants, but visiting a few of them many times, as they were our favorites. My favorite was named Via Margutta, which used to be located on Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village; it’s veal dishes were superbly done.

Via Margutta had once been the hangout for some of the Village’s mobsters—I believe every seat in the restaurant was situated so that backs were always facing a wall! The mob connection gave me a story to tell over the years.

One time, I carried a brief case from work with me to dinner at Via Margutta and stuck it under the table. After a few hours of wining and dining, and laughing, my friends and I fell out of the restaurant, each to grab a taxi home. No sooner had we stepped outside, however, I remembered the briefcase that I had left under the table.

Back in the restaurant, with two waiters suspiciously eying me, the Maitre d’hotel cautiously asked me if anything was wrong. I told him about the briefcase. He grinned widely and told me to wait; then, he swung around and walked into the kitchen. When he returned, he carried my briefcase, which had some liquid on it as well as the smell of salad.

The man handed me the briefcase and said, quietly, “In this place, we never know what might be inside these things.”

Apparently, the briefcase had been thrown into the dumpster either in case it exploded, or to get rid of the machine gun that might have been inside it.

Over the years, as my friends and I moved to varying distant locations, the regular dinners ceased, but we managed to stay connected, and we gather for various reasons a few times each year. The latest of those reasons has had a lot to do with advancing birthdays. The absolute latest of those reasons is my prostate cancer situation.

On January 20, I’ll be off to New York City for a few days, to meet with a few people. One of the evenings on my trip is reserved for dining with my five wonderful friends. Via Margutta is gone, but we have decided on a place that in the past has been among my favorite restaurants. In a future blog entry, I’ll let you know if the restaurant has held up.

Since the 1980s, after I changed careers and got into the wine business, dinners with my friends have invariably begun with one of them telling the waiter to hand me the wine list. They rely completely on my recommendations. It is both a nice and a frightening experience for me. We’ve known one another for so long that we generally don’t hold anything back. If I pick wine clinkers, these fellows let me know with gusto.

Of course, I’ve had enough time to figure out what each of them likes in a wine, and I can almost tell what each one will order for dinner. Still, I always feel like I am auditioning for a part when the waiter hands me the list.

If I had to make a guess, I’d say that I’ve gotten the part more than not. But that’s probably because I try to go the safest route that I know when in a situation like this: I seek Riesling for white and Pinot Noir for red. If that won’t work in one of the restaurants, I usually go crazy and pick the most outrageous things I can find.

I remember one of those times when a couple of the guys thought I was a genius, and the rest thought I was a jerk.

Par for the course, I’d say.
NOTE: I’ll be offline for the next few days, so comments will remain unanswered until next week.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.
Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


If you don’t count youthful indiscretions with Thunderbird and other fortified bombasts, wine has been a regular part of my daily life for quite some time. The passion was put there at age 7 or so after sniffing a recently emptied wine barrel allowing the fumes to enter my soul and stay there, but it took me a while to settle down and understand what wine had in store me.

The operative word is “store,” as a couple of retail shops played a nurturing role in the beginning of my career.

One of those shops was in Summit, New Jersey and it was named, oddly, The Beer Barrel. Despite its name, one of the store’s partners was a “wine guy.” At the time, 1976, I had just returned from two years in Iran, where I discovered the ancient connection to wine (and drank some fine Riesling and red wine for which I was unable to secure grape variety). My wife, Anne, and I bought our first home in Summit and I began to make wine in the basement. Also fermenting, but in my brain, was the idea of getting into the wine business.

I shopped at the Beer Barrel and came to know Cono, the partner with the wine interest. He watched what I bought and realized that I was an experimenter. Soon enough, he encouraged me by throwing a free bottle my way every so often of something new in the shop; then, he invited me to stop by and taste with him in the back room when he was evaluating wines for possible purchase for the store; then, when I asked for a part time job so that I could learn the business, he gave me one.

For three years, I commuted from Summit to New York City for my day job and worked at the shop a couple of nights a week and on Saturdays. The experience was divine, and my wine consumption rose exponentially. At the day job, I stashed a case of splits in my desk and pulled one bottle out each day to have with lunch, which often consisted of a cheese wedge and a baguette. Of course, we always had wine with dinner.

In 1979, we became pioneers and moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn. There were no wine shops in the neighborhood then. But Anne discovered one that was located on Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights. The first time she saw it, she knew that I would be hooked on the place. One day, she led me there and watched the expression on my face as we walked through the door. Racks of wine covered nearly every inch of Marcolini’s Wine Shop. Walking through the store gave me the same feeling I get when I walk through the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan: euphoria.

Armand Marcolini was as passionate about wine as any person that I have ever met, and he shared that passion openly. Once again, I was favored with sample bottles to take home and try out; once again, I sat with the owner and sipped in the back room; once again, I had access to an array of wines from the world over that seemed to be in endless supply.

Anne and I joined an organization named Les Amis du Vin, which was out of Maryland. It provided a nice monthly periodical and a series of wine events around town. In its earliest days, people like Robert Mondavi spoke at events. I didn’t meet him, but I met a couple of other wine professionals who engaged me with their passion. Still, the person whose passion served to push me over the edge from fermenting an idea to acting on it, was someone that I had met entirely by chance.

At the time, I was in the audio-visual business writing scripts, designing storyboards, and producing soundtracks for the corporate world. As I walked down 55th Street in Manhattan, on my way to a video studio located across from City Center to transfer a 35-millimeter slide show to video, a flag blowing in the wind caught my eye; it read "Tastings." As I came close to the flag, I saw that "Tastings" was a brand spanking new restaurant and wine bar. I peeked in the window.

Behind the window was a smiling young man in a suit who saw me and waved hello. He walked over to the front door, opened it and welcomed me in to take a look around. He noticed the boxes of slides I carried and with great interest he asked what I was doing with them. He was interested because upstairs, over the restaurant and wine bar, the International Wine Center had just gotten started and this fellow was its prime educator. He used audio-visual media to back up some of his presentations.

His name is Eddie Osterland, and he was the first American to hold Master Sommelier title. We instantly became friends.

I took Eddie’s sensory evaluation class, and followed that with a winemaking class from Rory Callahan who also taught in the early days of the center.

In 1984, I was on my way to the Finger Lakes, probably with the notion of becoming the East Coast version of Robert Mondavi. Of course, I didn’t fulfill the notion, but you won’t find any regrets in this story.

It’s been a joy ride for me all the way, from the part time job with Cono, to the many conversations with Armand, to learning from and socializing with Eddie (he gave me my first taste of Chateau Cheval Blanc and turned me onto Emile Peynaud, under whom he had studied). Certainly, the ride was made even more exciting when I produced my own commercial wine, owned with a partner a wine shop, and developed a wine writing career.

The world of wine and wine information is of course quite different from when I began. In early 1970s America, there was no 100-point scale (thank the heavens for that), there were no major wine magazines, and there certainly was no such thing as a blog. For me there was only a lovely future. I was an empty vessel to be filled with learning and knowledge. I had boundless energy and so I went many places and called on many people to help fill the vessel. Without exception, the people who taught me were patient, passionate, and kind.

Things began to change drastically in the late 70s and early 80s: magazines and gurus who wrote for them became important. Many of them claimed they were necessary because so much bad wine was being passed off on the public, a position that I never understood, since I remember a hell of a lot of good wine from those days. I think what the burgeoning critics were saying was that Americans had poor taste and that they were here to save us from ourselves, a message that I have yet to embrace. I don't think Americans have poor taste; I think we suffer from poor education, and I don't believe that you teach people by lecturing them.

In any event, I’ve said no regrets and I mean it. The only thing I miss is that tingling sense of discovery of the early days. I envy the young people who have that sense of discovery and embark on their wine journey. There’s so much joy in front of them. My only wish is that the cacophony of critics and know-it-alls would quiet to a gentle prodding so the seekers can have their vessels filled while they discover for themselves.

Now, back to work. I still have wine stories to write.

For whatever reason, the past few days have produced a small run on bloggers writing about point scores, from Tom Wark to Keith Levenberg, to the number 1dude, and points in between (enjoy the pun). I don’t know what brought this on, but the subject is tiring. Are we finally running out of things to talk about on wine blogs?
Also, it seems that bloggers are being tapped to give away tickets to wine tastings and events. Not sure that I like the marketing tinge associated with such activity, but I also know that the horse has left the barn on loose ethics on the Internet. I remember asking Frank Prial (NY Times wine writer pre-Asimov) if he’d like a review copy of my first book. His reply was that he didn’t get to set the book review agenda at the newspaper for obvious potential conflict of interest reasons. Of course, he may just have been trying to let me down easily…

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The nose knows

Surely, I have always been able to recall smells that remind me of events from long ago. But after years of dealing with chemicals and sniffing to evaluate wine, I seem to have developed another sense of smell, the one that acutely reacts to what others don’t seem to smell.

Where we live, we are not connected to a municipal water system. Ours is well water, and around here, the well water often provides quite a blast of sulfurous aromas, so much so that we had to have a complete water filtering system installed that not only removes the sulfurous odor but also the iron and other mineral deposits that plague the water supply.

Our water system provides two outlets for us: one is for washing and the other, on a reverse osmosis filter, is for drinking. The water source for washing is cleansed with chlorine and some large particle filters and then passed through salt to ostensibly take out the chlorine. It doesn’t always work so well but I seem to be the only one who thinks so.

Sometimes, as happened recently, I can detect sulfurous odors in the shower or from the faucet. When that happens it means to me that something is wrong with the system. The problem is that when the service guy arrives to fix what’s wrong, he doesn’t smell the sulfurous odor and thinks that I am nuts. It doesn’t help my cause when my wife can’t smell it either. But I detect it and I don’t care what others say.

Last week I had to call the water company to complain once again about detecting sulfurous odors. The fellow who came out to check things asked me what I do for a living. When I told him his eyebrows went up and he began to jump up and down.

When I asked him what was the matter he said that he just knew that my complaint had to do with my profession. He said they have a customer nearby who is a chemist and who seems also to detect odors in his water that none of the service people can detect.

All well and good, but I wanted to know what he was going to do to fix the problem. His solution was to adjust the chlorine level up a little.

I told him that I hope it doesn’t cause me to smell chlorine because I hate the smell of chlorine in water; when not overpowering and at low levels, it smells like mildew to me. He said that he wasn’t beefing it up so much that it would become a problem.

The next morning, as I splashed my face to wake up I smelled chlorine in the water. My wife did not.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
January 2011. All rights reserved.

Lifting a blog entry without the author's permission (and without recompense) is a copyright infringement--period.