Archive for December, 2007

In Living Color

Friday, December 28th, 2007

    Synesthesia is a word to describe experiencing one type of sensation with a separate sense. I can do that when I play certain musical chords on my piano: I see colors.

Not exactly a synesthetic reaction, but I see the color red when I read stories like the one about Clark Smith, who claims to have proved that the type of music you play in the background can change the taste of the wine in your glass.

As a wine professional, I find the idea absurd. Who is this Smith fellow, anyway?

It turns out that Smith knows a lot about changing wine’s flavor. He runs a consulting company that was behind some modern winemaking techniques that are either innovative or evil, depending upon whose interest is affected by the techniques. He also promotes something called the “sweet spot,” an ostensible place on the general palate where the brain’s pleasure center says to a certain level of alcohol in wine: yes, yes, thank you!

We wine professionals prefer no music at a wine tasting, but that’s because we don’t want to be distracted. It never occurred to me there might be another reason for the silence. Assuming Smith is correct, and music can change the taste of wine, the logical question then follows (at least in my logic): can wine change the music, or, in my case, can it change the color of the music?

My rebuttal to Smith’s theory was at my fingertips, at my piano keyboard—time for an experiment.

I got me ten fresh wine glasses. Proceeding from white to red, I filled each glass with four ounces of wine: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, and Riesling for the whites and Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Nebbiolo, and Blaufrankish for the reds.

I placed the glasses of wine neatly on top of the piano, which presented me with my first problem.

When I play, I leave the top of the piano up. To stand the wines on it would mean closing the top, and I thought that might influence the shades of colors I imagine. I put the glasses on a table next to the piano, which meant I had to remove all my sheet music, but that was ok—for this experiment, all I needed was to play chords.

With the wines lined up, I was ready to select the chords. Certainly, I wanted to hit the chords with the strongest influence on my sense of color. I settled on G sharp (red-orange), A minor (blue indigo), C natural (yellow), and B flat (green).

Starting with the G sharp, I played the chord and wrote down my description of the color, which was something like “hot, red-orange.”

I took an ounce of the first wine and played the G sharp chord again, once more recording a description of the color, which was now “hot, red orange, like the setting sun over a quiet beach with a finely-shaped young lady at my side…” wine does that to description-makers.

I repeated hitting the G sharp chord and sipping the wine until I had consumed an ounce of all ten wines.

Moving to the A minor chord, I repeated the exercise. I got blue indigo, plus a vague feeling either that life was not worth living or my wife was leaving me.

In fact, give or take a hue here and there, my notes were consistent throughout the G sharp and A minor sequence of ten wines. All the way from Chardonnay to Blaufrankish, G sharp produced passionate, hot, rumbling red-orange, and a fire engine at one point. (The Riesling passion was orgasmic, but Riesling often does that to me with or without music.) And no matter how many times I hit the chord, no matter which wine I paired the chord with, A minor made me want to commit suicide.

At the end of the A minor sequence I had completed half the chords and had consumed half the wine, so I took a break and checked to be sure that my wife was still in the house.

I was feeling a little woozy, but got back to work.

C natural with each wine produced a light, bright yellow, like a sunshine day out in clean fresh air. The wines with B flat produced a refreshingly minty green, except for the pairing with Cabernet Franc, which created the image of a green bell pepper—you Cab Franc drinkers know what I mean.

As I neared the end of my experiment, I could no longer read my own notes. Still in the house, my wife came to help me out. I believe she agreed that my notes said the wine did not change the colors that the music evoked, but I am unsure because I could not understand a word she said, except for when she told me to go lay down.

Confident that I already proved my point, I was, however, adamant to complete the experiment. I had one taste remaining. It was my duty as a wine professional and as a synesthetic to see if Clark Smith was or wasn’t onto something. I wanted to know if it is at all possible for wine to change the color that I see when I play a chord.

I took a final pound of what I thought should have been the B flat chord (it was difficult to see the keys). I reached for the last taste, which I hoped was the Blaufrankish (I couldn’t make out the wine glasses too well either.) I hit keyboard and took a sip.

Alas, the final taste may have proved me wrong. Smith might indeed be onto something.

I remember no minty green, not even a bell pepper. Instead, I took the last sip and everything went black!

See you all in 2008.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All rights reserved.


Salute

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

    If asked to choose, I would pick the nuanced, thought-provoking dialogues of Mort Sahl over what I consider the nose picking, fart humor of Dave Barry. I’ve always preferred theater that makes me think with my own mind rather than the circus that tries to make me believe in an individual’s capacity to do (or say) strange things.

Sahl steeped politicians in an infusion of irony so that by the time he served his tea, its humor entered the marrow, and then traveled the blood stream to my brain where I was forced to consider whether politics is a profession or a circus.

When I talk to my general physician, I often get the feeling I am sitting with Sahl. The stuff I am told comes at me with quiet authority, but when I am out in the real world, I understand that the doctor may have been laughing on the inside at the irony of sounding so certain about what is, “up for grabs.”

When I read or hear journalists on the radio spout off the latest news about wine and health, I feel as if Barry bombards me. At best, the reports may be a lot to do about little; at worst, they tend to be mirrors, with a lot of smoke to go around them. The journalists seem to be purposely picking their noses while they absently read the press releases, instead of the other way round.

I’ve said that wine is not health food. I’ve said it, but deep down I’ve also believed that while it might not be health food, wine certainly is healthy. I got that impression from having followed about thirty separate studies that have been completed over about as many years. In an array of chemical names, the studies list those components found in wine that supposedly make it an anti-oxidant and a form of Draino for the arteries.

One of the major benefits of wine, we are told, is its ability to help lower cholesterol. Well, I’m here to tell you that if that’s what wine does, I haven’t a clue how much wine it takes to do it. I’m anywhere between half to a full bottle of wine a day. My total cholesterol has stayed at about 250 for years, no matter what I have done to try to lower it, including a few pounds a day of wall paste-tasting oatmeal.

I’m told that total cholesterol isn’t the whole thing about which to worry. There’s that relationship between LDL (good) and HDL (bad). In my case, each is high, so it’s good and bad.

Then there’s the fat storing of triglycerides. In my case, that goes up and down, but remains on the high side.

Then there’s a new marker being connected to heart disease and cholesterol levels: C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP rises when the body suffers inflammations caused by diseases or stress. According to the latest news, CRP was found to be the only marker of inflammation that independently predicts the risk of a heart attack.

Then there’s lifestyle. The obese, sedentary smokers of the world have a lot to worry about. Their cholesterol levels and CRP reflect the danger for them.

My physician recommended that I swallow daily statin pills, the stuff that lowers cholesterol. I refuse to do it for three reasons:

My lifestyle keeps me from being obese and sedentary, and I have never had a smoking habit.

I do not have high blood pressure (another bad marker).

I don’t trust a pill that may cause serious side effects. Statins do strange things to muscles, and they also can cause liver problems—couple that last one with my daily bottle of wine and I shudder to think how the cure can kill me.

One of my blog readers, Mitch, sent me an email with information concerning the relationship between ethanol and cholesterol. If I remember correctly, introducing ethanol and cholesterol together may cause build up of the latter by prohibiting bile release of it, or something to that effect.

Ethanol is the predominant alcohol in wine. So, the more wine one drinks to increase LDL, the more total cholesterol the wine might build in the body, which may be my problem—and yours, too.

As if to smack me in the face for my cynicism, at my semi-annual teeth cleaning last week I asked the dental hygienist why it is that no matter how much flossing, how much of those Stimudents I scrape between my teeth, and how many times a day I brush with a sonic boom producing instrument, the build up keeps on coming.

Her reply: “All that acidic wine you drink creates more saliva and that creates a kind of mouth wash that moves the sediment right between your teeth, where it sticks.”

With Fred Rose, Hank Williams, Sr. wrote a song titled I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

I have a feeling all of us will one day meet the same fate as Hank.

Wine certainly isn’t a health food, but it is among the things that make being in this world palatable.

My impression has been that the decision whether to lower, increase or abstain from wine consumption should be made after careful study of the data. But when the data conflicts, shooting at us both positive and negative signals, maybe what we should do is pick our noses, fart and try to laugh at the world.

LDL/HDL Triglycerides CRP Resveratrol Ethanol

CORRECTION:

In my previous entry about wine forum activity, I said, “…Wine Therapy, was started in reaction to the eRobertParker site.”

Two “Therapy” patients quickly made it known that I was wrong.

Wine Therapy was started after a blow up on the Wine Lover’s Page. The cause of the blow up happens to have been the same fellow who tried to persuade me that a subjective critique is objective. No wonder.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

PS: If you see only 1 comment underneath an entry, that’s a spammer trying to sell me anti-spam software called Hashcash.

…On the way to the forum.

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Wine seems to spawn critics. I don’t know why, but it does.

The original purpose of this blog was to be a different voice, not a critic but an observer, a reporter, if you will, trying to get facts across. But I have to admit, I’ve done my share of criticizing—not wine, but those engaged in its marketing and consumption. I’ve also criticized the critics, but I hope never nearly as vitriolic as some of them can be.

Today I am going to give my critique of Web sites, the ones dedicated to discussing wine.

First, the sites can be addictive, so much so that at times I have to force myself to stop posting on them—a guy’s got to earn a living, and posting on wine-centric bulletin boards does not bring in cash. (I almost never stop reading them.)

Second, the bulletin boards can be entertaining, especially when a moderator goes ballistic, or a poster becomes incoherently abusive, or the subject is as inane as the aging potential of Blue Nun!

Third, the sites can be educational.

Fourth, they have separate personalities.

Let me begin my critique with this observation: It never ceases to be a marvel to me that after years of reading them, some people still believe that wine critics are objective.

I remember one particularly annoying poster on a web site trying to persuade me that an objective fact—reduction, volatile acidity, etc.—can be arrived at subjectively and therefore need not be proved in a laboratory. This is the kind of talk that sometimes takes place on wine bulletin boards.

My favorite site is named Wine Lovers Page; Robin Garr is its moderator.

Robin moderates with a light touch. People who become asses are gently prodded and reminded of their responsibility to be reasonable. When Robin gets into some of the discussions, he makes his points firmly but neither abusive nor vitriolic (I point this out because, well, you’ll see later).

Mostly, the people who frequent Robin’s site respond to the openness and relative moderation of its moderator. Not that there aren’t flare-ups as ideologies clash; just that they are rare and usually addressed well.

Flare-ups often happen in the “basement” section of the forum, where any subject but wine goes, but they are not confined to that forum—the subjective/objective confusion often creates arguments in the wine forum. Over time, I’ve learned to ignore certain posters, as I am sure they learned to ignore me.

Wine Lovers is habituated by professional wine people and wine consumers, plus knowledgeable wine people as well as novices.

Robin makes no excuses for the fact that he earns a living moderating his site, so you always know his motivation.

I used to participate much more in a site named The Wine Board. The irreverent Jerry Mead, a wine writer and founder of a major West Coast wine competition, started this site.

Jerry died a few years ago, but his site has been maintained as a business. I know the moderator only as Jackie.

Before he died, Jerry railed on his site about any subject related or unrelated to wine. He was largely libertarian, with a special disdain for the government’s intrusion into wine.

I loved Jerry’s attitude and especially loved his tolerance for the rest of us who posted on his site and were the source of his incessant arguing over a point, which he seemed to live to do.

Anyway, the forum operates at a quieter pace than it used to bounce along. It is habituated mainly by wine consumers with a stable of a few long-time posters that welcome a seemingly endless stream of novices and their questions.

The conversations on The Wine Board are generally lighter, but there have been a few ideological flare-ups here, too.

For ideological flare-ups it’s hard to beat eRobertParker.com.

I’m not talking about political ideology, as political discussions are banned on this site. I refer to the way fights break out on the wine forum: you would think that wine was crucial to our survival.

The fights often illustrate clearly the hazy understanding of people when it comes to the murky subjects of subjective as opposed to objective, opinion as opposed to fact. Indeed, the site was established based on the success of the opinionated Mr. Parker.

Over the years, this site has increasingly gained an uncomfortable edge, as Mr. Parker is subjected to increasing attack. I can understand his frustration, but I think his strident responses to attack make things worse. He does not have a thick skin.

The forum is moderated by Mark Squires, and he has become quite controversial. He wields an ax (and legal threats) over those who would question either him or his boss. He often seems to engage in goading posters, putting forward a closet full of “strawmen” arguments, appearing as if he purposely wants people who disagree with him to say something terrible and then he can ban them from the site forever and be happy talking with those who agree.

On the plus side, the Parker board seems to attract many winemakers. Maybe the reason is obvious, maybe not, but the discussions between the winemakers often are wonderfully educational.

From what I understand, the next bulletin board, Wine Therapy, was started in reaction to the eRobertParker site. Parker’s name is censored on this site.

This could be a fun site, provided you are a member of the “in crowd,” are willing to become one, or can take the often childish welcome you will receive when you sign on for the first or third time, depending upon who missed you on your earlier attempts.

Therapy posters include wine professionals and consumers, but many are not just your garden-variety consumer. You’ll find scientists, poets, linguists, musicians, and all manner of accomplished individuals discussing wine and everything else.

Although conversation on this site runs from the arcane to the sublime, the place reminds me of a classroom for unruly high achievers vying for the teacher’s attention. Too often threads devolve into a top-dog, one-upmanship game that I remember engaging in when I was in high school.

The site has a particular oddity to it: those smart adults seem to get jollies by posting strings of profanity—but, hey, whatever makes you happy, which seems to be the theme of Wine Therapy (that and freedom from spoofulated wine, a reference to the perceived influence of the CENSORED one).

For some reason, Therapy is a magnet to spammers from Asia, Albania, and everywhere else, selling porn, credit card scams, and even mustard.

Wine Talk’s moderator, Serge, posts on Therapy—it’s about the only site that will allow him to post.

Serge’s been banned from other boards for a variety of reasons, all connected to irreverent behavior. He was banned from eRobertParker once, but managed to get back on that “Real Names” site under another name, was ratted out and then banned again and of course, threatened with a lawsuit.

On Therapy, he has been given slaps on his wrist.

Anyway, his site, Wine Talk, is a cozy group of a few nice people, in and out of the wine business, who share talk of wine and of anything else that comes up. Some of them, like me, frequent the other bulletin boards. We go to Wine Talk, I think, because it’s fun.

I happen to like Serge. He is harmless and fun loving. I have been watching his wine learning curve for about three years, and he has been learning, too.

Many other wine bulletin boards are out there. I’ve stopped in on a few of them, but have found them mostly moderated by pompous wine bloviators—not my glass of wine.

Check these out and get back to me:

WineLovers WineBoard eParker Therapy WineTalk

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Keep the cold wolf at bay

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

    It’s been my observation that when it snows heavily in the Finger Lakes region between the end of November and the beginning of December, we are in for a pile-up of a winter, after winter officially begins, that is!

In summer, I turn to cool drinks like wine coolers and even a shot of Campari with seltzer and lime.

In winter, I go to the hot stuff, the fortified, the almost chewy wines. I’m talking of course about Port, etc.

Recently, Robin Garr posted on his Wine Lovers Page Web site his feelings about what to do with the Port that remains after you have opened a bottle and had your fill. His remarks are worth considering—see the link below.

First, when I talk about Port I refer to the stuff from Portugal. I’ve tried a number of American Port-style wines and have never been persuaded they are worth switching from the original. The Australian stuff is ok, but again, it offers nothing special that makes me want to switch.

Second, I discount anyone who tells me that a bottle of wine that has been open for a week, stored in or out of the refrigerator, tastes exactly as it did when it was first opened. I say it isn’t possible—the only way to know for sure is to open a fresh bottle when you go back to the opened one and taste them side-by-side. People who have made the claim to me also hadn’t done the comparison, but I have.

Because of its high alcohol (18% to 20% ) Port is among the few wines that most of us purposely leave in the bottle to finish another day; those of us who go through a bottle at one sitting, well, need I say anything more about that?

In my view, that “another day” should be no more than a week to ten days away. Like any other wine, the aroma and taste of Port is affected the moment you pop the cork and the wine is exposed to a burst of oxygen. The longer it is exposed, the more it evolves. Whether the evolution is good or bad is a matter of perception, preference, and length of time resting in an open bottle.

The one thing I haven’t tried with Port, but assume would work to preserve it longer, is as soon after opening the bottle, pour half into a 375 ml bottle and cap it for another day. It works to slow down the process on table wine, so it should work on Port. I’ve never done it because of Port’s potential to cast sediment; pouring into another bottle might stir up things too much.

After a week or ten days, a previously opened bottle of Port will have changed from its original state, but mostly it will be fine. Its high alcohol content is believed to be one reason for Port’s staying power. The rest of the reasons are up for major speculation, which I am not prepared to offer, for fear of creating an argument similar to the inane arguments that ensue on some wine bulletin boards. I am content to say that Port seems to have more staying power than table wines.

Incidentally, I am partial to Late Bottle Vintaged Ports, not the least of my reasons is that it generally offers good quality/price ratio.

    Remember those old British films where the first thing offered to a guest in the living room or to a fainting heroine was a dash of Sherry drawn from a thick decanter? By the volume in many of those decanters, it was clear that the custom was to allow Sherry to sit on that mantle—even with a fire going—for weeks or months. Not bloody likely to have been a good idea!

I don’t consume much Sherry, and when I do I prefer the dry stuff, which, if I am not going to finish a bottle, I treat as a table wine: either I pour half into a 375 ml bottle or, if I have any left in the original bottle, into the refrigerator it goes. The Sherry I drink comes in at about 15% alcohol, lower than so many California so-called table wines on the market.

Some prefer sweet Sherries. Since I am not one of those people, I have little to no experience trying to save an open bottle of sweet Sherry. But I assume it is to be treated no differently than Port.

One wine deserves special mention for keeping the wolf of winter at bay: Madeira.

    No wine on the face of the earth is as pleasing to me than a glass of Madeira. There was a time, pre and post the American Revolution, when Madeira was the preferred wine in the colonies and the new nation. The preference changed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the island of Madeira was truly hard hit in the nineteenth century by powdery mildew and then followed by the phylloxera blight. Estimates I’ve read had the island suffering nearly 90% vineyard losses.

Madeira became scarce, and to a great degree, it remains that way today.

    The four ranges of Madeira, from the dry side Sercial to the truly sweet Malmsey, with Verdelho and Bual in between, leave me with a preference for Bual. I believe there are two other Madeira classifications, but those four are the backbone of the industry.

I once successfully hosted a five-course dinner that paired each course with a Madeira wine. The recipes came from Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, a cookbook by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas that was based on books by Patrick O’Brian.

Like Port, Madeira is between 18% and 20% alcohol. But what makes Madeira truly special is its ability to live in an opened bottle seemingly forever.

I’ve tasted Madeira dating back to the 1950s and the late nineteenth century, from bottles that had been open for weeks. While the wines may have lost something over those weeks, it was difficult to say they had lost a lot. (The expense of the wines made impossible doing a comparison with fresh bottles!)

    Madeira is essentially pasteurized through a special heating process that keeps the wine at or above 104 degrees F. for a long period of time, its long life is attributed to that process. Apparently, there’s nothing left on which pathogens can feed.

The Madeira winemaking process gives over a purposely oxidized and cooked wine that delivers fragrances and tastes in the nut, caramel, mocha ranges. Delightful stuff.

WineLoversPage

NOTE: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog has lifted and printed my copyrighted material in its entirety from Vinofictions.com, without my permission and without paying compensation.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The boomerang

Friday, December 7th, 2007

    It’s difficult to keep track, but I would be surprised if a week goes by without someone on the many Internet wine-centric sites bringing up the subject of the difference between Old World and New World wines. The subject is like a boomerang, it comes at you, makes a slow, wide arc, flies away and soon enough comes at you again and arcs off, as if in endless orbit.

The argument over the dichotomy between Old World and New World wines is an endless orbit; there is no definitive answer.

In a recent posting on Wine Lovers Page the question was posed thusly: Spoofulated or Artisanal?

In case you don’t know, “spoofulated” is a word used by some geeks to describe wines they consider overly touched by the hand of technology and by winemakers eager to please a certain wine critic.

Artisanal is a word that geeks often use to describe wines that they feel express the singular, hands-off nature of so-called traditional winemaking, not to mention the true expression of terroir.

The concept of terroir is often behind the arguments that ensue. As you probably know, the elusive concept refers to the particular “place” where the wine was born. After that, interpretation of the word is all over the wine map.

Before I proceed, let me say that this argument is mainly confined to red wine, for as anyone with a diploma in geekdom knows, “white wine is something to do with your hands.” That is a quote I remember from a once respected (even by me) but now retired wine writer. So, unless specified to the contrary, I am talking about red wine from hereon (but I don’t for minute believe that white wine is undeserving).

There was a time when I engaged in such arguments on the side of terroir, tradition, artisanal, whatever it’s called. I hated the so-called New World style of winemaking: ripe, overly juicy (sometimes more like a fruit infused milkshake than a wine), and often heavily oaked. When the alcohol levels of still table wine began a steady upward invasion into Port territory, I hated the wines even more. So, I deluded myself into thinking that I knew the answer: Old World wines are traditional (artisanal) and New World wines are an abomination (spoofulated)!

I still hate the style of wine that I described above, and only drink it when I am exploring and do not know in advance what is in store for me, and I don’t drink much of it. But I have also grown up—finally, my wife would tell you.

In my adulthood, I’ve realized these three things:

1. I don’t know all the answers.

2. I don’t have to know all the answers.

3. All I need to know is what I like in a wine. There’s no reason for me to force anyone else into liking it, or to accept anyone else trying to force me into liking that other crap, er, style…

Yet, many wine geeks have this compulsion to be right, to be definitive, to be the arbiters of everyone’s taste.

I was content with sitting out the recent boomerang discussion on Wine Lovers, until someone entered the fray with a post that made me see a bright red!

Jamie Goode is a respected scientist in the viticulture and wine sphere. I respect him. His blog is in my blog roll. I’ve read his books—not sure if he has ever read mine, but that’s just my ego talking. Let me get back to the glare of reality.

This is part of what Mr. Goode posted in that particular discussion: “…technology can be harnessed to make wines taste more like ‘they should'; to make them truer to their terroir.”

I’d say he tipped his hand toward “terroir” geekdom. Nothing wrong with that, except the word “should.” I had no idea that Mr. Goode knows exactly what wine should taste like—I didn’t know that when I was making wine, and I know a lot of winemakers who aren’t quite sure yet either. I mean: the possibilities are endless.

In any case, Mr. Goode went on to post further and he came up with the one that shot right up my spine: “…it’s my view that there are few other places in the world that can make Cab/Merlot blends that have such freshness, drinkability, expression and ageing (sic) potential as Bordeaux…”

It’s my view that few statements about wine have ever been so vague yet so confident. What are freshness, drinkability, and expression, anyway? The words mean nothing specific to me.

Plus, guessing the aging potential of wine is a game of putting pieces together, not the least of which is the particular vintage, the producer’s track record, the nature of the blend, and the wine’s component balance. Blanket statements about a region’s wine age-ability do not activate my “understand” button.

Moreover, Bordeaux is a region within which are a number of growing districts and numerous macro and micro climates. I just don’t buy sweeping claims of superiority based on unidentified geography, especially after the claimant just told me how important terroir is.

To Mr. Goode’s point about “few other places in the world…” I assume he referred to the New World, which would take in a place called California.

In the 1930s, Martin Ray was in the California vanguard, pushing European grape varieties, and producing wine to prove their merit. Ray once owned and operated Paul Masson, in the days when the company produced stellar wine instead of successful commercials for mediocre wine.

In the 50s, Napa, Sonoma, and their surroundings started to do what Ray knew could be done: produce world-class red and white wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. For the next twenty-five years, in relative obscurity, some of the most wonderful Cabernet-based wines ever produced in the United States came from California, especially between the 60s and 70s.

I suppose I should forgive Mr. Goode. He is too young and too far away (Britain) to have experienced the old Inglenook, Masson, Martini, et al, wines. He certainly must have missed the wines of Andre Tchelistcheff, especially the Georges De Latour Private Reserve. Those wines proved a long time ago that Cabernet Sauvignon (and other grape varieties) can express themselves quite well in California, with the help of good winemaking, of course.

It’s neither the fault of the grapes nor of the terroir that recent developments have removed such “traditional” wines from the California scene. To allude that it can’t be done may sound definitive but is incorrect, which leads me to how I became an adult.

After fighting the good cause for a number of years it occurred to me that, while words like tradition, artisanal, and even terroir may have their place as adjectives to describe a particular feeling or sense that a wine evokes, they say little, if anything, about what wine is or, in the words of Mr. Goode, “should taste like.” They say more about the human egocentric outlook, “I know and therefore I’m going to make sure you know, too.”

As an adult, I have come to understand that this argument over spoofulated vs. artisanal is a nice parlor game but a distraction from the plain truth that people need to discover for themselves what they like and what they do not like. If they are too lazy to do that, well, what’s there to argue over?

Now an announcement!

My first blog entry for 2008 will have an added feature.

I intend to include a note or notes about individual wines at the end of each blog entry, with special emphasis on wine and food pairing.

I am doing this because I have been asked to do it. Also, I see it as an experiment. I want to see if I can remain within the boundaries of subjectivity without proselytizing and without making seemingly objective definitive proclamations.

I promise, however, never to say, “you should buy this wine.” Plus, every wine I mention either will have been paid for by me or, if it happens to be a freebie, I will let you know.

Spoofulated or Artisanal

NOTE: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog lifts and prints my copyrighted material in its entirety from Vinofictions.com, without my permission and without paying compensation.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Two kinds of chains

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

    Last week, a wine and spirits retailer in New Jersey (NJ) sent to his mailing list a plea for his customers to support smaller retail shops against a move by large chain stores to kill a particular provision of NJ Alcohol Beverage Control regulations that limits an individual or company to two licenses to retail wine and spirits.

Let me say up front that if it were up to me, I’d dismantle every state’s alcohol beverage control on grounds that I have yet to face one that wasn’t either corrupt or at the least, a bureaucratic nightmare.

In every state, you must pay for a license to distribute and sell wine. You must also pay certain fees beyond the annual license fee. You pay the money to a state bureaucracy that, at best, needs only a money rake and a telephone number, and of course, a hearing room, where regulators can impose fines for breaking one of their Byzantine rules. Licenses aren’t revoked all too often; it would be rather stupid of regulators to remove future revenue.

Let me point out what we are up against with licensing and regulating wine.

NJ borders New York (NY) and both states border Pennsylvania (PA). But if you were to buy the same bottle of wine in all three states, on the same day, you’d likely not only pay wildly separate prices, you’d find yourself in wildly weird territories of retail ownership—private in NY and NJ, mostly government owned in PA, and sometimes connected to a grocery store in NJ, not in NY.

You would, of course, have to find that same wine in all three states and that may not be so easy: distribution is one of the problems connected to varying regulations throughout the fifty United States.

In NJ, you might see wine stored in a refrigerator near the beer; perish the thought in NY.

In PA, you might find that the person selling you the wine barely has an idea that wine is different from gin.

If you are like me you wonder if consumers are that different from one another from state-to-state that we need to be regulated under a separate set of rules. Of course, the rules have nothing to do with us. They are there to feed special interests and state coffers. The separate interests shift from state to state, while we, and the wine, remain the same.

The two-license limit in New Jersey was instituted in the early 1960s, I have no idea why, but it must have been because some retail chain outdid itself and opened too many alcohol beverage shops for the good of some interest group—maybe an association of smaller NJ retailers.

Strong retail associations have been known to influence regulators. In NY, the retailers association (along with the beer lobby) has for years successfully fought allowing wine sales in grocery stores.

Still, I am certain that people get around the two-license limit, especially those with a large extended family; each family member can own his or her license; get it? The best part for the extended family: NJ allows small retail shops to “pool” their wine buying. It helps them take advantage of discounts that distributors give to retailers who can buy by the pallet (an advantage of large stores in NY that truly hurts small retail shops; NY does not allow retailers to pool their buying).

Big chains certainly can buy by the pallet, but they can’t easily get around the NJ two-license limit. They want it changed back to the old ways.

It’s funny that in this country of deregulation it is near impossible to break the alcohol regulatory fiasco. Follow the money and you’ll know why.

Sadly, it’s a fact of American life that conglomerates and chains have swept the landscape, pushing into the dustbin many small businesses (Amazon.com wiped out my wife’s out of print online book search service.) We are seemingly helpless against the trend, and for that, I have sympathy with the NJ retailer who is trying to sell the idea that removing the two-license limit will wipe him out of business.

In his plea for consumer action, the NJ retailer talks about the marvelous services retailers like him offer to consumers—the personal service, the knowledgeable staff, etc. He claims that the chain stores will never offer such service. I agree with him, which makes me wonder what his worry really is.

Years ago, I argued with a wine retailer in NY who was dead against allowing wine in grocery stores. His point was similar to the NJ retailers point, that if we put wine into grocery stores consumers will be stuck with no small stores and a bunch of poorly operated chains offering mediocre wine sold by ignorant people.

I counter-argued that I saw such a situation as he described as an opportunity. If I held a NY retail license and wine could be sold alongside groceries, I would add gourmet items to my shop, and I’d focus on the wines that the chain couldn’t or didn’t want to sell. I would continue to offer good service and a knowledgeable staff, too.

In some cases, it appears that those large chain stores aren’t the problem. The problem often appears as if small wine retailers are happily bound by the regulatory chains that they should despise.

NJ Retailer

NOTE: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog lifts and prints my copyrighted material in its entirety from Vinofictions.com, without my permission and without paying compensation.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.