Wine Columns

Published as a syndicated column for Main Street Media in California

 Leaping Forward Into the Past

Celebrating Earth Day last month reminded me of the growing trend towards organic farming in the vineyard and organic practices in the winery.  Although only about 5% of California wineries are certified organic, variations of sustainable agriculture can be seen in any vineyard up and down the state.  Most wine drinkers I know turn up their noses at organic wine, pointing out the lack of good color and blandness of quality.  I doubt that pesticides are a great flavor additive so I was curious to find out what makes wine organic and why it has a bad reputation in the market place.

An American wine labeled "organically grown" or "made from organically grown grapes" means that the vineyards have been handled in accordance with the organic certifying agency of the state in which they were grown. In California, that's the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

Sustainable agriculture has no legal definition, but generally refers to vineyards using environmentally friendly techniques, such as owl boxes to encourage predators of gophers, cover crops to stimulate the populations of beneficial insects, composting for fertilization and Integrated Pest Management for pests and diseases.

The California Organic Food Act of 1990, which was modeled on the CCOF regulations, put organic wine requirements into law.  This means the fruit is certified organic, and the wine is made with no sulfites added. Sometimes the wine is fermented with only the yeast found on the skins rather than with strains of special wine yeast, and only naturally occurring fining agents, such as certain kinds of clay, are used to clear the wine of any cloudiness.

Most winemakers are business people and organic methods have to reflect their bottom line.  According to the CCOF, organic farming is becoming an increasingly viable alternative to industrial agriculture. By adopting organic practices, growers can reduce costs and conserve resources while providing health and environmental benefits. Their On-farm research comparing organic practices to conventional approaches has shown the potential to maintain yields and profits.

The Demeter Association is another certification program that goes a step further; it is based on biodynamic agricultural principles emphasizing living soil, the farm as a holistic organism, and that the farmer supports a broad ecological perspective that includes the cosmic influences and rhythms of which the earth is a part.

So why do wine drinkers think organic wine tastes bad?  I think it has to do sickly vineyards and inexperienced winemakers in the early days of everything organic.  Organic farming is hard work and much more difficult than blanket spraying of pesticides or just leaving the vineyard to do its own thing.  The layers involved in Integrated Pest Management and the patience to just watch what’s going on daily and wait to see what needs attending to means grape growers need to be “at one” with their vines.  Inside the winery depending on naturally occurring yeast can be a tricky business and preserving wine without adding additional sulfites to the naturally occurring sulfites means a shorter shelf life for their products.  So it takes more than average skill to make a good commercially viable organic wine.

Locally, there are a few organic wineries that afford the wine drinker a good organic experience.

Carmel Valley's Heller Estate doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides in the vineyard.  As part of their Integrated Pest Management they release predatory wasps on the vineyards to keep the undesirable insect population away. To provide a home on the vineyards for these natural predators, the vineyard has planted French prune trees around the property in which these wasps flourish.

The Organic Wine Works, a division of Hallcrest Vineyards in Santa Cruz, produce wines that are not only produced from organically grown grapes, but are organically processed as well. They are one of two vintners that produce an organic, unsulfited wine that is nationally distributed and the first winery to release 100% certified organically processed wines in the United States.

Even the big boys are seeing the benefits of organic practices.  I wanted to share this quote from Tim Mondavi who is the Robert Mondavi Family of Wineries' managing director and winegrower. "We've leaped forward to the past," he said of organic practices in the vineyard. "Technology should help you look into life; to see how and why it works as it does, not to just slaughter it."

Wines for Your Easter Basket


Easter is a time to be with family and friends.  In my family Easter is both a religious time as well as a time to celebrate the arrival of spring.  In my chat with my mother the other day, snow is s
till on the ground in Ontario, Canada and she has bought the Easter ham.  

Ham is the traditional main course served in many families on Easter Sunday, and the reason for this probably has to do with the agricultural way of life in old Europe. In late fall, usually in October, also known as the month of the Blood Moon, because it referred to the last time animals were slaughtered before winter, meats were salted and cured so they would last through the winter. Poorer people, who subsisted on farming and hunting, would often eat very sparingly in winter to assure their food supply would last. With the arrival of spring, there was less worry, and to celebrate the arrival of spring and of renewed abundance, they would serve the tastiest remaining cured meats, including hams.

Ham is a challenge to pair wine with.  Its relatively strong and salty flavors and garnishing of pineapple and cherries make it a quirky partner for dry table wines. But it can be done.  I like to serve Chenin Blanc or Pinot Gris with ham.  The acidic richness without the heavy oak of a Chardonnay or the sweetness of a Gewürztraminer lets the richness of the curing process shine.  

Though often underestimated, Chenin Blanc can be a sensational selection for a meal. Off-dry styles of Chenin Blanc match well with recipes that are either piquant or slightly sweet matching well with the fruit and brown sugar adornments. Bone-dry interpretations such as the pungent and powerful Savennières from France can penetrate a dish's richness and offer fresh balance in the mouth.

Pinot Gris is a pleasant and tasty grape that may remind you of cream and apples. It can be vinified either slightly sweet or dry. Pinot Gris is much less perfumed than a Gewürztraminer.  The greatest examples of Pinot Gris come from France’s Alsace, where Pinot Gris tends to be more concentrated.  Alsatian Pinot Gris are generally fermented dry with a little residual sugar to give a softer flavor. Most wines are bottled within a year of vintage to retain freshness.

I like to use wine in the cooking process, and I think the addition of wine in cooking ham helps keep it moist and, of course, adds more complexity.   I cook ham in the oven proof plastic bags you can get at the grocery store.  Pour a cup of the wine over the ham, seal the bag, vent it and then enjoy!  I like combining the wine with a little pineapple juice and reducing it to a rich sauce to pour over the plated slices.

Wine is always an important part of celebrations.  In the Jewish faith wine is so central to the Passover service that participants in the Seder, or evening meal,  on the first night of Passover, drink four small cups of it during the feast. By tradition, a fifth cup is left untouched for the Prophet Elijah. According to Jewish custom, this commandment is so important that even a poor person who depends on charity should sell his clothing if necessary to buy the Seder wine.  

Several first-rate California producers make certified kosher wines of real quality, including Gan Eden, Weinstock and Hagafen.  I’ve recently tasted an Israeli wine, Golan Heights 2000 "Gamla" Galilee Merlot.  This wine is kosher for Passover, but you'll find no hint of the traditional Manischewitz style in it. Very dark garnet in color, it offers pleasant aromas of ripe cherries with distinct herbal notes.  It will work well with lamb.

We may not have to sell our clothes to enjoy wine with dinner.  But wine always enhances the festive meals we create and share with family and friends.

The Stopping Power of Quercus Suber

I have to admit I’m still rather intimidated by a corkscrew.  I’ve tried every gadget on the market to get a cork out smoothly and professionally.  There is a definite etiquette about getting a cork out of a wine bottle; I’ve learned that by pouring wine at different events and sniffing the corks at expensive restaurants.  But I’ve also had to pick out bits of cork floating in a wine glass, and I’ve created a few spectacular wine geysers by pushing the cork inside the bottle.  So why use a cork?

Corks have been used for centuries to keep the wine in and the oxygen out.   Many winemakers have told me they get the best seal with a screw top, but the wine drinking public isn’t quite ready for that.  However cork is getting expensive to use; you may have seen some corks made from cork mash with a thin veneer of cork around the outside, or synthetic corks that are a rubbery resin material.  So what’s the difference?  And does the cork tell you anything about the wine inside?

Corks were first used by the Greeks and Romans.  The wine was kept in clay amphora jars and sealed with cork when available. This early cork seal was not very tight and wine went bad quickly. The other method the Greeks and Romans used to seal the jars was to use wax or resin. In order to open them the top had to be scraped off, which made resealing them very difficult.  In medieval times wood stoppers were used, but they had the same problems with leakage. 

It wasn't until the 17th century that the concept of the cork and corkscrew was developed, and that development was based on the shape of the container changing from a jar to a long necked glass bottle. The light and clean properties of the bark on the cork oak tree were very appealing to winemakers. It was also available in mass quantities and fairly easy to manufacture.Cork comes from the cork tree, or Quercus Suber. This is a species of oak that grows in Spain and Portugal. 

The older the tree, the more cork it produces.  Cork naturally grows to form 14-sided cells in the bark. Strips are carefully removed and dried in strips for 6 months.  The strips are then boiled and dried for another 3 weeks.  The cork strips are cut into the round cylinders we are familiar with.  Only 40% of this final cut ends up being usable. 

The Whistler Tree, pictured above, grows in the Alentejo region of Portugal
and is over 212 years old. It has been producing the finest quality wine corks 
every nine years since 1820. It currently averages over one ton of raw cork 
per harvest - enough cork for 100,000 wine bottles.

Cork does not go brittle or rotten for a long time after it is in a bottle. Some corks have been known to keep a good seal for 100 years, and if the seal is good the wine inside had a good chance of having a long shelf life in your wine rack.  There are different grades of cork, and often the best corks are kept for the best wines.

 Synthetic corks are much cheaper than cork or even composite cork mash stoppers.  These stoppers are made from a unique formulation that creates a dual density foam core. A uniform skin with the balance of compressibility and memory provides a proper seal with no leakage or bacteria holding properties. 

The compressibility and memory are created by a very fine cell structure next to the outer skin that becomes less dense toward the center.  Synthetic corks are being used in Canada, California, Australia and South Africa.

One good thing about synthetic corks is that they are bacteria free, and that solves one of the biggest problems with corks…Corking.  When you smell a cork and look at the bottle end of a cork you are looking for mold that can occur in the cork itself.  This bacterium spoils the wine, making it undrinkable. If you see mold on the cork in a restaurant or on a cork at home send it or take it back.  Synthetics also have a tighter seal and that means a longer shelf life and not much evaporation.

The day is coming when you may not need to sniff another cork, and if the industry moves towards screw tops corkscrews may become obsolete.  But ritual is still a part of the wine experience, and nothing pops quite like an authentic cork coming out of a good bottle of wine!

History Over a Barrel

I like looking at the classified sections of my wine magazines and E-zines.  This ad caught my eye the other day: 1999 Used Pinot Noir Barrels-Low Miles!

Most of us know that barrels make a difference in how wine is aged and flavored, but when we drink wine can we tell if the barrels are new French Oak,  three year old American Oak, or old enough to make the ultimate sacrifice in becoming a garden planter?

Two years ago I organized an event where we had barrel making, or cooperage, demonstrations throughout the day. What skill it takes.  Cooperage is an ancient craft that uses a lot of brute strength and finessing of details to create a storage container that is so much more than Tupperware.

The history of wooden barrels dates back to around 100 BC.  The Celtic technology of heating wood to make boats was transferred to the construction of the barrel.  Clay pots had been the wine vessel of choice but wooden barrels did better in colder climates and were easier to transport and stack for storing.  Until World War I it was the cooper who made the barrels for a specific winery and then looked after the cellared wine for the vintner.

Louis Pasteur, at the request of Napoleon III in 1863, was the first to study the phenomenon of oxy-reduction, or slow oxidation. He had been instructed to find the reasons for wine spoilage. He found that wine, even when carefully protected from contact with air, would absorb oxygen through the staves, but in particular during racking.  His conclusion was that excessive contact with the air allowed vinegar-producing bacteria to flourish. But he also found that very slight amounts of oxygen helped the maturation of the wine even over several years following bottling.

 Using wood is complicated as it must infuse the wine with flavor and tannins without allowing too much evaporation.  Oak is perfect for that. There are 400 identified botanical species of oak in France. Robur and Sessile Oak are the predominant species used in barrel making. The size of the tree makes a difference as does the way the forest is managed.

The stave wood is split along the pith rays of the tree rather than sawed. By splitting the wood the fibers separate but respect the lines of their growth, this also prevents the wood from shrinking and swelling due to weather conditions.  Cutting these fibers across the grain would make the barrel too porous.

To make a barrel the cooper has to bend the wood through wetting it then heating over a fire, the staves are winched into the classic wine barrel shape and then the new barrel is heated again and held in place by six iron and eight wooden hoops. The fire toasts the wood inside the barrel and this also builds the complexity of flavors.

New oak barrels are expensive. A French oak barrel costs around $550 to $700. and an American Oak barrel is about half of that.  Most winemakers use a barrel for four years. A new barrel’s flavor is extremely “oaky.” By the second year, the oakiness is half as strong and by the third it’s half again as flavored. By year four, a barrel is considered “neutral,” and does not impart much flavor.

So why buy a 1999 model?   Small wineries and home winemakers can’t afford to get new barrels so they look to recycle what they have and expand their operation by adding on used barrels.  But they don’t have to compromise on flavor.  Today winemakers can give the barrels a longer life by using renewal systems, which include new staves to put inside the old barrel or adding wood chips, sticks and powders that have been toasted to different levels of darkness or vanilla flavor.

Wine barrels are much more than just a container, each winemaker uses their barrels like an artist uses a brush, and the results are a combination of history, natural resources, and individuality.

Wine Storage for the Beginning Collector

I know many of us are collectors of things.  Now that I own two wine racks that hold about 120 bottles, I’m a minor collector of    wine, and I have enough variety and substance to hold an impromptu wine tasting or multi course dinner.  My racks are in the living room and double as a TV stand, not ideal conditions for keeping wine at its best. 

However, I keep wine to drink; not to trade or to invest in, or keep for 100 years.  So my storage solution works for me.  But there are some important things to know about storing wine and a variety of methods to consider.

 A wine cellar usually evokes the Old World image of dim subterranean alley ways lined with dark wooden floor to ceiling racks cradling expensive dusty bottles. Or a natural cave in the side of a hill, overlooking the vineyard below.  Many wineries in California have cellars along with their tasting rooms, some elaborate, some purely functional.  

I was invited to a Wine Institute event last year that highlighted the wineries in Livermore.  Wente Vineyards, one of the earlier wineries in California, has an incredible cave system, with a labyrinth of vaulted hallways, and lamp lit-alcoves. It functions as both a wine cellar and as an event venue.

You can have your own wine cave built; there is company in California who will do that for you for about $100 a square foot. Wine storage underground means cost savings other than construction; wine evaporates at a much slower rate.  But if your needs are smaller, a wine refrigerator or a rack is a good option.

Here are some basic guidelines to storing wine.

Maintain a constant temperature.  The ideal temperature for storing all wine is 55 to 65 degrees but it needs to be constant.  While heat is the worst enemy of wine, having it too cold or frozen impedes its storage life significantly.  A common problem with wine kept too cold is that glass-like crystal tartrates can form, you can still drink the wine but its appearance is diminished.

Maintain constant humidity.  High humidity, around 70-80%, will keep the corks moist, and thus minimize evaporation and leaks.  Putting a pan of water near your rack or using a humidifier will do the same thing in your home.

Keep the environment free of vibrations, which can cause the corks to not seal well, and prevent the wine from properly settling.   Strong light means heat, and odors from paint cans or even pets can get into the wine.

But one of the most important rules is to store wine bottles on their sides.  This is done to keep the wine in constant contact with the cork. If the cork becomes too dry, air will get in and the wine will spoil.  Most corks have a 10-20 year life span.  So if you are planning to hold on to wine longer than that, recorking should be done.   I don’t recommend turning the wine bottles; the whole point of racking it is to let it settle properly.

So if you are just looking to have a ready supply of some favorite wines on hand, empty wine boxes turned on the side works well. Many of us start wine cellars because we have found buying wine by the case is a cost effective way of enjoying a favorite brand of wine at home. But remember, the rule of thumb is, the longer you intend to keep and age your wine the more care you need to take.

I noticed the other day one of my wine racks is turning slowly into a book case as I drink the contents.  But as a wine hobbyist with storage space, that just gives me incentive to hit the wine tasting trail again soon and refill the shelves with some new discoveries!

Debunking the Terror of Terroir

If you hang around winemakers for very long you will hear them talking about terroir, some may even roll their “r”s in the French tradition.  A direct translation means the earth, or soil, but in the mystery of winemaking “terroir” is akin to magic pixie dust.  So as an amateur what the heck does terroir matter?  Is this just another artful descriptive for selling wine?

No, terroir is important to understanding why wine from one vineyard tastes completely different form a grape vine five miles away.

 It is as much about nuance as it is about the chemicals in the soil.  My first experience learning about terroir came form my French wine shop friend, Rene Aversenge, who could talk about the herbs in the fields of the Loire Valley entwining with the grape vines for centuries of pleasure like it was a poem of the gods.  He would transport me to France with his words and I could see the miles of ancient roots picking their way over rocks and under streams collecting a myriad of flavors as they traveled the fertile valleys.  Well, wine can be a poem.

The concept of terroir is defined by the legal parameters for historical winemaking practices and place designations, specific within each region.  So an appellation like Santa Clara or San Benito would have its own characteristics based on climate, soil minerals, the direction the grapes are planted in, and the winemaker and grower having their own vision.

Santa Clara is known for its Mediterranean like climate and that has helped the growers plant sympathetic grapes, but Santa Clara also brings something to the table on its own.  Each winery pairs its grape varietals to create a specific terroir in the bottle.  Not only should a wine taste like the South of France, it should also represent  a specific vineyard in San Benito county that may have more ocean breeze than others; or the mists that cling to the Gabilan mountains in the mornings may create the perfect microclimate for Merlot on one acre of land.

What grows next door, be it lavender or a rose, can influence the taste of the wine in the glass.  A number of wineries in Napa have scent gardens that represent the specific flavors found in a wine, and at COPIA the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts they have created a series of edible gardens that represent the Californian terroir as well as the culinary matching of herbs and fruit with wine from the vineyards.

The three and one-half acres of landscaped, organic edible gardens are an integral feature of COPIA.  These exquisitely planned gardens are designed to provide hands-on learning about soils, farming and viticulture, furthering COPIA’s mission of contributing to our understanding of American life, culture and heritage. The gardens are divided into 50’ by 50’ beds, which demonstrate a broad range of horticultural styles and types of edible plants.  Jeff Dawson, Curator of Gardens for COPIA, describes the gardens as a place for “higher learning,” where the links between man, the environment and the land are explored.

I will have more in a few weeks on a unique summer festival at COPIA that will give you a hands-on experience with terroir.

Until then take a look at the soil in your own garden, smell the earth and pick up the scents that are carried from miles away.  Watch how the fog changes different parts of your garden, and taste how much flavor there is in your basil, or how the scent of your roses lingers past dusk.  This is your terroir. 

And the next time you have a chat with a local winemaker ask him or her about the terroir they live and breathe every day.  Their passion and descriptions will enchant you.

Neighborly Practices

I was looking up a date on my calendar the other day, and the picture shows a beautiful view of a winery on top of a hill with a pristine wetlands pond in the foreground.  The calendar is the Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Calendar put out by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

The Alliance was created in 2003 to conduct public outreach on the benefits of widespread adoption of sustainable winegrowing practices, and to enlist industry commitment and assist in effective implementation.   It grew out of collaboration between the California Association of Winegrape Growers and Wine Institute (CAWG).  In October of 2002 they rolled out a Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices, a voluntary self assessment tool for California winemakers and growers.  This year Wine Institute and CAWG will issue a first annual “California Wine Community Sustainable Report” using the data collected so far.

February’s calendar theme is water conservation and quality.  The caption reads, “A properly constructed process water system provides wetlands habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, and creates beautiful landscapes that improve the wine tourism experience.” 

Water quality and population growth are certainly of local concern to our region, and are hot political buttons as well. So let’s take a behind the scenes look at the work the wine industry engages in to deal with the business of doing business responsibly.

As California's population explodes, currently growing at 600,000 people per year, land will become an increasingly precious commodity. The Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices is a way to communicate that winegrowers and winemakers are stewards of the land, striving to sustain the industry for generations to come. By trying to bridge the gap between rural and urban communities, the Code will help the wine industry share its story and history of responsible farming and winemaking. 

Whether we like it or not, the world-wide trend to legislate environmental procedures is coming.  It has become apparent that on an international scale, regulatory and governmental bodies are willing to make more sweeping environmental decisions. 

Many businesses are moving ahead of the curve, and are now set to adopt the environmental practices being outlined through the ISO 14001 standards, a comprehensive set of standards for all types of business to apply which measures incorporation of "Environmental Management Systems" and is verified by an accredited international body. These standards will require that businesses, throughout a supply chain, conform to environmental management system applications in their business practices. 

The Wine Industry, by initiating the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices workshops across the state, is ahead of this curve.   Self governance versus legislation.  The Wine Industry has been assessing itself for about a year; it will be interesting to see the results of the first annual report.  But from what I’ve seen of the local industry, neighborly concern and healthy vines have been in practice for many generations.

By building on practices that are working, embracing progressive attitudes and raising cultural and community awareness, Wine Institute and CAWG intend to create a win-win environment for everyone in the wine industry, and for the communities that live close to the natural beauty of vine-clad hills and vales.


Stepping Outside the Box By Getting Inside the Box

I was at a BBQ a few weekends ago, a kick off to a long list of summer parties, BBQ’s and outdoor concerts.  Sitting on a side table was a series of little black boxes looking like high end gift boxes, glossy and well designed little tuxedos with gold trim.  Wine was inside. 

Yes wine in a box is making a comeback.

I am dubious at best about boxed wines; I’m old enough to remember the stuff that used to pass for wine sitting for months in someone’s refrigerator with the spigot ready to be turned on, orange in color and tasting like the inside of a refrigerator.  Yuck!

 Wine marketing is as much about the packaging as it is about the allure of the product, we are all attracted to bottles of wine by the labels.  So, here was an elegant packaging of a boxed wine; could the contents reflect the packaging?

Surprisingly the Black Box Cabernet and Chardonnay are premier wines.
The Cabernet Sauvignon won a gold medal at the 2004 Orange County Fair Wine Competition, one of the most prestigious competitions in the country.

Walnut Creek California Vintner, Ryan Sproule, founded Black Box in early 2003 after enjoying premium boxed products in Europe and Australia.  In a recent interview he said, "Just because it’s in a box doesn't mean it is bad. Just because wine's in a bottle doesn't mean it's good." 

I like taking wine to outdoor concerts, and I’m always forgetting to put it in a plastic container.  Last year at a San Jose Thursday night concert my friend and I found ourselves siphoning a very respectable Mexican Merlot into a water bottle we had just drained onto the lawn.  Where were the boxed wines then?

I don’t think you will see boxed wines replacing the bottle in a fine restaurant, but having good wine in a portable container is a great addition to summer fun.

Wine in a box is really wine in a bag packaged in a box. The wine is sealed inside a plastic bladder with an attached tap that lets the wine out but doesn't let air inside.   And this is the real beauty of the bag in a box wine, no air means the wine can keep once it has been opened for as long as 90 days.

The bag used in U.S. boxed wines was invented as a package for battery acid in the 1950s, but caught on in Australia as a way to sell wine. In the last few years the bag's been improved and the tap has also been designed to function better and that means portable wine that will be fresh all day long at a BBQ.

Box wine has been popular in Australia and France for decades. According to the United Kingdom's Decanter magazine, Norway's boxed wine sales now exceed 40 percent of its total wine sales; Sweden is experiencing 22 percent annual growth in boxed wine sales, with 65 percent of all wines sold in the summer packaged in boxes. In Australia, 52 percent of the wine sold is in boxes.  In the USA boxed wines have held their own for years, accounting for around 15 per cent of wine sales but with California wineries like Black Box and Manteca-based Delicato Family Vineyards producing award winning wines in a box the industry is going to see a shift in consumer interest in this kind of packaging.

Boxed wine is now referred to as “Cask” wine, a marketing strategy designed to leave the bad reputation of the past behind.  Most casks are sold in three liter bags in a box for around $15. that’s the equivalent of three bottles of wine in a box for a very reasonable price.

So this weekend why not look for a cask wine to compliment your BBQ…step outside the bottle and get inside the box!