Archive for August, 2008

WineBlogEthics?

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

The following were posted online by two separate wine bloggers.

“Wine consumers basically want to know two things: which wines they should buy and why, and which wines they should not buy and why.”

“I blog to have fun, get some freebies and maybe meet some cool chicks.”

I hope the first one is not exactly the case. I have to hope that, since I don’t tell other people what I think they should or should not buy or why they should or shouldn’t buy the wines.

My aim for this blog was to dispel as many vinofictions as I could, because having been in the wine business for 25 years, I know that many fictions float about.

I’ve always believed, and practiced my belief as a wine salesman, that information is much better than opinion; it builds confidence in both the informer and the informed by establishing a give and take relationship. Opinions often boil down to a give relationship without much care on the part of the giver for what the taker gets—and of course, this is only my opinion.

As for the second blogger comment, I do hope it was posted in jest, but the context in which it was posted leads me to believe otherwise.

How can you measure whether or not wine has made it into mainstream American culture?

You measure by the level of media coverage wine receives, and lately that coverage has been a sorry affair.

In the last few months major wine frauds have been uncovered and explained. Frauds are always with us, in or out of the wine world, but since wine is now a mainstreamer, the fraud is blown into a major media frenzy, with a book already out and, I’m sure, a potential movie in the pipeline.

More recently, the Wine Spectator made news after someone scammed the magazine and exposed what many perceive as the magazines’ own scam.

The Spectator has had a program for years that accepts on good faith the faxed copy of a restaurant’s wine list, accompanied by a check for $250, for consideration of that wine list for the magazines Award of Excellence, or some such lofty title.

Many of us in the business haven’t given the program much credit, since we knew how it worked, but consumers didn’t seem to understand how it worked. Many of them assumed that the restaurant earned rather than paid for the award. And so, a gentleman scammer created a phony restaurant with a phony wine list that included wines the Wine Spectator had earlier decided were mediocre. Yep. He got his award.

The scammer did a few things that weakened his case in my view, but he did create a story that enlightened consumers.

In the hullabaloo over the incident, I don’t think anyone commented on the complicit nature of all those restaurants over all those years who paid their dues, got their award, and proudly lied to the public about the stature behind the award, but that’s a story on which only someone with a brain like mine seems to focus.

More recently than the Spectator fiasco, blogger Tom Wark, a PR specialist, took some other bloggers to task for reviewing wines after agreeing to preconditions. This incident is where the two quotes above can be found among hundreds of other quotes—the link is below. Wark’s initial comments about journalistic ethics began a torrent.

My view is that bloggers (or anyone) who review wine under preconditions may in fact be sincere, and they may even have a readership that doesn’t mind; they also may have valid or invalid opinions. What they don’t seem to have is an understanding either of journalism or of ethics.

If you follow the link (two links, actually), you don’t need me to recount what was posted or a he said/she said play by play. Still, I want to tell you what that thread has made me think about.

Back in the Stone Age, when the new invention of television was being sold to consumers, the major promise being made for the medium was that it will be the most innovative force for imparting information since the written word. The famous newsman, Edward R. Murrow, warned that is what television can be, but only if it is handled correctly. He warned what it would become if handled incorrectly.

Needless to say, Murrow was prescient, to a fault. Today, the words television and information hardly belong in the same room, let alone the same sentence.

Can anyone recall the promises being made when the Internet made its splash in the world? It was something along the lines of the greatest source for information ever invented. Well, yes, it is, but what’s the value of much of that information? As an author who must do a lot of research, I never trust the Internet alone as a source.

Wine blogging may have become another one of those information sources that must be taken with a large grain of salt, at least that’s how I’d feel if every blogger told me what the second blogger quoted above posted online.

I want to believe that wine blogging can be an alternative to the many bloviators that have infiltrated the wine magazine world. But I am slowly coming to the conclusion that I may be suffering from a case of wishful thinking.

In the course of that thread in the link below, I watched reasonable dialogue be overcome by pride, fear, defensiveness, childishness, and even a certain bloviation of its own making.

My position on journalism and blogging is made plain with my posts, so I won’t go over that now. But the whole affair certainly makes me wonder how long it will be before the slackers, PR stunt people, and overall opinionated children will leave the blogging stage and professionals will take over.

As long as wine blogging is a self-appointed profession, odds are that professionals may never take over. Maybe what is needed is a task force to develop criteria for creating not only a wine blogger’s professional code of ethics but also a market for wine bloggers so that those of us engaged in it can be paid as professionals rather than have to do it for love and small perks.

Newspapers and magazines have of course made that attempt, but those venues are failing at their main business; newspapers may not be around much longer and wine magazines long ago abdicated their earlier position as sources of information. Today, they are mainly lifestyle periodicals almost completely in thrall to their advertisers.

The crash of newspapers and magazines isn’t entirely their fault. Consumers, it seems, don’t have much attention span for information. They want quick and easy advice, and adding a celebrity crack up, to spice it up, doesn’t hurt the periodical.

Maybe the whole concept of informing the public has run its course. Maybe people don’t want information—they want to be led.

Maybe I would have more fun with my blog if I start accepting free wine—maybe I’ll even meet a few cool chicks, although my wife might have something to say about that.

Maybe a code of ethics for wine bloggers is a waste of time against the forces of the marketplace.

Maybe wine really has made it into mainstream America—maybe it’s time to move on.

First link


Second Link

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.

Costco

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

You know that something’s afoot in the wine world when wine geeks start touting the selection at their local Costco. This happened a few weeks ago on the Robert Parker forum Web site. That came as a surprise to me. I never would have thought that wine geeks of the magnitude that post on that forum would even step into a Costco

Well, something just may be afoot at Costco, as I have tasted my first few wines bought at a Staten Island store. For $10 to $12 a bottle, these wines okay.

One of the wines, a Pinot Noir, was under the Robert Mondavi label.

I’m unsure how the wines wound up in Costco, but it appears to be a sign that the once famous Mondavi name may be in some over-production trouble. I won’t even go into how sad that makes me feel. The sadness kicked in when I read the news that Constellation Brands bought the Robert Mondavi brand name. Ah well, what to expect from a culture that has become a brand name whore, but I digress.

My friends find the practice of taking notes annoyingly geeky, so when I am in their homes I honor their wishes. Therefore, I don’t have any notes about the wines they served, but I do remember the Mondavi Pinot Noir as a wonderful bargain, and it was joined by one fantastic and one not-so-fantastic New Zealand (Marlborough) Sauvignon Blanc—remember, each wine was from $10-$12.

There was a Chardonnay in the crowd, but it must not have made an impression among the other wines—I remember nothing about it.

My friend said he settled on $10-$12 to see what range of quality Costco offered at that reasonable price. Based on what I tasted that night, I’d say Costco did a good job in that price range.

Of course, I do not consider myself a true wine geek, but still, I have never been in a Costco. Part of my problem is that we have no Costco around my neighborhood. We have a Sam’s Club not far away but two things keep me from shopping there: it’s a Wal-Mart store and it’s a Wal-Mart store.

If Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart were giving away premium wine I’d still rather pay for it. Call me an elitist, but my aversion to that place runs deep. I view such mega-businesses as one major sign of a decaying culture, and I refuse to be made to feel a part of the decay. In my lifetime thus far, I have been in one Wal-Mart; more than enough for me (it’s the same with Starbucks, although I’ve been in that store twice).

I suppose I should feel the same way about Costco as I do about Wal-Mart as I understand the former is trying to gain major advantages in wine distribution and retailing. But since I have never even seen a Costco, the only opinion I can form is based on the decent wines I tasted that didn’t cost my friend a lot of money.

Maybe some of you can enlighten me. Is Costco just another version of Wal-Mart or is there hope?

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.

Believing in something

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

A couple of years ago I asked a winemaker friend to explain to me the difference between tannin and tannic acid.

This friend is trained in microbiology and wine production, so I figured he would have a definitive answer. He did not. He said that he wasn’t sure about the relationship between tannic acid and tannin, because the words have often been applied and misapplied.

Well, I said to myself, that clears everything for me!

Being fairly well acquainted with cool climate wines, I am positive that their aging potential is seriously helped along by their acid make up, especially tartaric, which is the dominant acid of a few that are natural to grapes—and if you find that your dominant acid isn’t tartaric when you make wine, it’s usually best to add some.

Over time, the overall acidity (and tannin) in wine mellows as various reactions take place during the aging process, but it’s pretty well known that the tartaric portion of the wine’s structure plays a great role in fending off spoilage organisms, and that allows for the slow aging transformations.

For a long time, it was believed that tannins worked similarly to acidity as wine aged. Today, however, that belief is questioned and in fact, some question whether tannin is at all important in the wine aging process.

One of the results of being vocal or opinionated is that others will find you and take you to task. I was recently taken to task by a California winemaker because I  posted on the Wine Lovers forum that acidity is what allows white wines to age and tannin is what allows red wines to age—the latter having more tannin and less acidity than the former.

I was spouting a long-standing belief, but the winemaker will have none of that. He wants to know which scientific study has proved that tannins help wines to age.

I did some checking around and I can’t help my winemaker friend by providing a study to support the role of tannins on wine aging. I can, however, report that there are scientific studies on the effects of tannin in nutrition and many other areas of plant and human health. One of those effects seems to be that tannins slow down oxidation.

Here’s my question to the winemaker: if tannins indeed do slow down oxidation, wouldn’t that help wine age?

Here’s my other question to the winemaker: what IS the difference between tannin and tannic acids?

The below links are interesting reading on this subject. Notice within some of the links that tannins can link to tannic acids through a process known as esterifying, and that those acids are not nearly as strong as tartaric or another grape acid, malic, or even as strong as citric acid.

My sense of the situation is this:

Forget the nonsense that white wines don’t age as well as red wines. That old saw is proven wrong on a regular basis with just Riesling alone, but with many other whites, all with high acid content.

Reds surely do have lower acidity and higher tannin content than whites, yet many of them age rather well. I believe that the anti-oxidant effects of tannin has an awful lot to do with the aging of red wines. But that is not to say that all tannin acts that way.

Hidden in one of the definitions of tannin I found that certain tannins, particularly from woods like oak, oxidize more easily than grape tannins.

Hmm. Could that be why some reds age longer than others?

Although winemaking is a science, understanding wine is quite often a belief system. Read the links below for the science; then, like the rest of us, form your own belief system. But please, don’t tell others that your belief system is THE answer.

WikiTannin

WikiTannicAcid

TannicAcid 1

TannicAcid2

WikiTartaric

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.

How can something wet be dry?

Friday, August 1st, 2008

The International Riesling Foundation says it has identified appropriate terms for describing the relative dryness or sweetness of Riesling.

The Foundation came up with five categories: Dry, Off-Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet.

To help winemakers, the Foundation offers a technical chart of parameters and the relationship among sugar, acid, and pH.

What, no tannin? Of course no tannin; Riesling doesn’t concern itself much with that stuff.

I applaud the effort, but still, I wonder why only Riesling? What about the volumes of sweet Chardonnay and those blueberry milkshakes called Shiraz that flood the marketplace? Aren’t they confusing to consumers looking for so-called dry wines?

Wouldn’t consumers benefit from a chart that generally holds for all wines, which of course would then include tannin in the chart?

Of course, the answer to my last question is yes, but the challenge is nearly insurmountable.

First, while the winemakers may have guidance so that they can label their wine dry, sweet, whatever, there is no such thing as a monopalate—what’s sweet to someone may not be so sweet or sweet at all to someone else, no matter what a chart tells them.

Second, Riesling is in the enviable position of being the rare grape that can handle producing a stellar wine with or without sugar, and at various levels in between.

Third, I believe the emphasis is in the wrong place anyway.

When I run out of things to read, I go to my philosophy books for comfort. Lately, I’ve been digging into Aristotle, Hume, Epictetus, and William James. It occurred to me that maybe I can address this dry/sweet conundrum by using one or two methods of philosophical analysis.

Brace yourself. I’ve never done this before.

Let’s start with me proving the premise that dry is the opposite of wet.

You want proof?

When you wash your clothes they get wet; then, you dry them. When you perspire, your head (or under arms) get wet; then, the wind blows and dries your skin. When you jump into a pool, you get wet; then, a towel rub dries you off. When the barometer goes down, the air is wet; then, the barometer goes up and the air is dry—that’s’ a two-fer, because the opposite of down is up!

Now you can plainly see that the opposite of wet is dry.

Water is likely the wettest thing on earth. Our bodies are composed mostly of water. Without ample water, we would shrivel and die—in other words, we dry out.

The area of the body that has been assigned the task of warning us that we are drying out is our palate—we feel dry and so we drink water to replenish our bodies.

Our palate uses some of the water in our bodies to make saliva. Saliva is wet. When our palate feels dry, it means that our saliva is or has become less wet, or does it?

Do not be deceived by what seems a simple statement. Simplicity is not all that it is cracked up to be when talking about the palate. One can have ample supply of both water in the body and saliva in the mouth, but one can still have a palate that feels dry. You can test this hypothesis by drinking a gallon of water. You will be fully hydrated and certainly not dry. But if you wait a few minutes and then drink two glasses of Tannat or Malbec wine, watch what happens.

A few seconds after you drink either of the two wines you will begin to smack your cheeks, if you can, and rub your tongue against the upper part of your mouth in a near vain attempt to find your saliva. If you don’t panic, the saliva will return. In fact, it probably never left you but it certainly felt that way.

You have just experienced a dry wine, or have you?

It’s agreed that water is wet. It’s also agreed that dry is the opposite of wet. It’s further agreed that our bodies are mostly made of water; the same applies to almost all matter on earth, including wine. If wine is largely made up of water, then wine is wet. If dry is the opposite of wet, how can the Tannat or Malbec you swallowed have been dry?

The answer to the above question is complicated, but it can be illustrated thusly.

We’ve established that if you were to drink from a glass of water, it would feel wet.

If you were to stir in the equivalent of 1 % by volume of sugar to the water and then drink, it will still feel wet, but it will also taste sweet.

If you were to stir into the water a squirt of lemon juice and then drink, the water would still be wet, but it would not seem as sweet.

If you were to stir in another squirt of lemon, but this time add a pinch of shaved dark baking chocolate (99% sugar free), the water would still be wet but it would also seem even less sweet than before, or maybe not sweet at all, depending upon individual taste variations.

If you were to add successive doses of lemon and chocolate, in due time your palate will feel really, really dry. You won’t even notice the sugar, but it will still be there, and the water, of course, will still be wet.

The water, sugar, lemon, and chocolate experiment was a simulation of those components—acid, sugar, etc.—found in all wine, not just in Riesling. As your palate seemed to lose its saliva, it also made you crave something to drink (from this we can speculate over the origin of the phrase, “mouth watering,” when what you taste makes you want to produce more and more saliva.)

My hypothesis and solution:

We have agreed that water is wet, and that dry is the opposite of wet. We have further agreed that wine is mostly water therefore: wine is wet and cannot be dry. We have also agreed that when you add certain components to something wet it can alter your palate perception, and even make your saliva seem to dry up therefore: something wet can make your palate feel dry.

We have further agreed that sugar can make your palate feel good—and sweet—but it doesn’t seem to change the effect of other components and, after a certain point, sugar is overcome by the other components, or at least it takes a back seat to them. While this is happening, the other components are making you feel dry yet, the delivery system—the wine—is still wet therefore: there is no such thing as a dry wine.

For some time I’ve had the belief that the first time anyone used the word dry to define how a wine tasted, that person did not refer to what was in the wine—that far back, people hardly knew what was in wine, but it’s certain that major components—acid and tannin—were prevalent. The person likely used the word in reference to how the wine made the palate feel.

In fact, an Internet buddy once found historical evidence in writing that seemed to support my belief.

As the wine industry progressed, sweet wines took on greater importance. Large doses of sugar in wine changes the focus away from that dry sensation. Over time, people began to refer to wine either as dry or as sweet, and by extension, they began to think that a wine that makes your palate feel dry cannot be sweet therefore, it cannot contain sugar, and that false notion has been spread around ever since. Just one taste of a well-produced Late Harvest Riesling will put the notion to rest as such wines often provide sweetness alongside that dry sensation on the palate.

In my opinion, the new chart that is devised for Riesling is nice, but it is not the answer to the seeming age-old, and completely inaccurate question, do you like dry Riesling?

There is no such thing as a dry Riesling—remember, all wine is wet.

Here’s my solution to the dry vs. sweet discussion. Take the chart that is devised for winemakers and establish certain acid, tannin, pH, sugar balances that pair well with certain food types. This category may include wines with sweetness, like those Late Harvest Rieslings, which, because of their acidity do pair with certain foods.
Label such wines as: best with food (or insert the names of foods).

This system prevents people in and outside the wine industry from talking nonsense such as something wet like wine is dry. The system would also stop people from thinking philosophically about wine and instead think of it as food.

For those who can’t give up the chic, geeky practice of analysis, the winemakers can also label some wines: best to sip and analyze.

Plus, for those who cling to the taste of sweetness and refuse to try a so-called dry wine, and are tired of being fooled by those so-called sweet wines that make them pucker, label sweet wines that don’t make your palate also feel dry as: best for dessert.

Tongue may be planted in cheek here, but not by much!

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.