I’m off to World Headquarters of Master Vintner. Great things are brewing (ha ha, see what I did there?) and I’m catching up with everyone at the Fortress of Solitude.
As I said, there’s big news brewing, As soon as I can share it with you I will: there’s going to be a big splash, and it looks like a real soaker! In the meantime, have you got your Sommelier Select kits yet? They’re the best!
As Winter rolls in my interest in ice-cold beer, well-chilled white wine or slushy blender drinks wanes. To be sure, I’m lucky enough to live in Canada’s Riviera, where it snows only half as much as cities only a few kilometers away and we average much warmer temperatures than most places in Canada. But winters round here have a humid chill that goes straight to your bones.
Average White Rock resident any time after November 1st
Our winter cold is hard to explain to someone from Alberta, Saskatchewan or Quebec. They don’t really understand cold. After all, they get huge amounts of snow, and temperatures that get so cold exposed flesh will freeze in only moments, so they think their weather is much sterner. But they experience a dry cold: dress well, in insulated layers and throw on a toque, gloves and good boots and you’re going to be toasty. The same layers will leave you chilled and miserable on the Pacific, as the damp, icy tendrils of the monstrous ocean cold permeate your very flesh, leaving your skin blue and pallid, and your spirit weak and trembling.
Sorry, your SUV does not come with a ‘Defiance of Physics’ option
It’s the same with boastful winter drivers from much colder climates. “Hah!” they snort, “People from Vancouver can’t drive in the snow.” Then they try it, and in only seconds they realize that it’s not their snow, crisp, dry and crunchy, able to pack down and supply some friction for driving. No, it’s a layer of wet, compacted ice, topped with slush and a layer of water that has as much friction as a teflon pan full of WD40, and off into the ditch they go in a tangled mess of snow, dinged fenders, and hubris.
What to do? Aside from denning until the spring thaw, or lurking in a hot bath for four months, there has to be a way to get warm in the chill of winter. The answer just might be a steaming mug, delicious and warming—a hot drink. Being as I’m a confirmed wine guy, I like a good winter drink based on mulled red wine, but there are others to consider. But where to start? At the beginning, of course.
Hot Drinks in History
Hot Drinks are not a recent innovation. In fact, cold drinks are the newcomer, with hot drinks the relative norm up until the 20th century and the advent of refrigeration technology. With the majority of North America’s immigrants hailing from Europe and Great Britain, they brought with them their recipes for chasing away the chilly, rainy climates at home.
Because central heating is another relative newcomer, every pub used to have a fireplace with a large hearth, where customers could gather and warm themselves. Propped in the fire were a number of poker-like irons, or ‘loggerheads’. These were used to heat up drinks served by the publican. They were literally dipped, red-hot, into the customers’ drink right at the table, not only heating them, but frothing them to a vigorous boil!
Not sure they had pot lights and central audio in colonial times, but that’s a loggerhead
(A funny aside: our phrase, ‘coming to loggerheads’ or ‘at loggerheads’ has to do with arguments in pubs. Customers wrangling important issues over a few hot drinks sometimes took advantage of the length and weight of the sturdy irons to make more pointed comments to their fellows. A modern establishment should probably avoid leaving a supply of pokers around!)
Coffee Drinks, Toddies, Nogs, and Mulled Wine
Hot drinks can roughly be divided into coffee drinks, Toddies, Nogs and mulled wine.
Coffee drinks have wide acceptance everywhere, but they’re really just coffee and booze–I can drink that anytime, but don’t find it particularly warming. Maybe it’s because I drink an awful lot of coffee anyway, to keep my central nervous system functioning. Whatever the reason, I rarely want a coffee drink with alcohol in it. Too confusing for my alertness response.
Hot Toddies are mixtures of spices, honey (or sugar) and spirits, warmed with boiling water. The classic is brandy or whiskey with a lemon slice, a cinnamon stick and honey, and is deemed very good for a sore throat. Hot buttered rum is enhanced by a pat of butter, and daring mixologists even use top-shelf tequila with a bit of honey and a lime slice for avant-garde hot drink. Again, however, I don’t associate heating a cocktail with warming up my insides, so not really a fan.
Nothing like having a pot to posset in.
Nog used to refer to a drink made from strong ale and eggs, frothed and heated with a loggerhead. Not many people want an egg in their suds these days, so commonly Egg Nog is a mixture of eggs, rum, cream, sugar and nutmeg, served cold. But it doesn’t have to be: hot Egg Nog is a richly satisfying drink, whether made with brandy or rum, and pre-packaged Egg Nog is available in season, so you don’t have to make your own–although you should, because it’s always better.
A note on the weird-looking twin-handled pot above. It’s for posset, which is an English drink that’s closer to a hot sherry custard than a Nog. Some even had a burnt sugar crust on them, much like a creme brûlée.
Wine, mulling with fruit
Glogg is the Scandinavian word for mulled wine, and is derived from the German word, Glühwein, ‘Glow-Wine’. I usually call my mulled wine by either of these terms because I think they’re more romantic-sounding.
Made from sugar, cinnamon, water, orange and cloves boiled together with wine Glogg is very popular with European ski fans. Not only is it warming and restorative, it also has a moderate alcohol content—a good thing for the active crowd, but a property lost on a winter sloth like me.
‘Gluh’ means glow: no glue involved
Mulled wine can also be punched up a bit, with the substitution of Cointreau for the orange, and/or Port wine for regular red wine. Another winter alternative is mulled cider, or mulled apple juice: brown sugar, cinnamon, orange and rum come together to make a smell reminiscent of hot apple pie, a wonderfully appetising aroma when the frost is on the leaves.
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 bottle of red table wine- Merlot, Cabernet or anything else sturdy and rich. I suggest making your own–check this out.
Mix water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and the juice of the orange together in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the orange peel and the wine, bring back to a boil and serve immediately in pre-heated mugs. This mixture can be kept warm in a crockpot, or on a coffee warmer (covered) for several hours, and can be successfully reheated the next day.
The only version of A Christmas Carol worth watching
If, like me, you’re a fan of the 1951 Alistar Sim version of A Christmas Carol, you’ll recall when Scrooge tells a suddenly relieved Bob Cratchit that they’ll discuss it ‘over a bowl of smoking Bishop’. Far from a cannibal barbecue, Bishop was one of the code-words for drink used in the 19th century–Dickens knew his drink. The ‘Pope’ recipe used burgundy, ‘Archbishop’ claret (what we call Bordeaux), the ‘Cardinal’ was champagne and Smoking Bishop used port, and was a clove and orange-infused port punch, warmed and mulled with baking spices and another dose of red wine
The recipe takes a few steps, and is suitable for a big gathering. From Punchdrink
750 ml port
750 ml red wine
1 cup water
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ginger, freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon allspice, ground
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
20 cloves, whole
Garnish: clove-studded orange slice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Wash and dry oranges. Pierce and stud each orange with five cloves.
Place oranges in a baking dish and roast until lightly browned all over, 60-90 minutes.
Add port, wine, water, sugar and spices to a saucepan, and simmer over low heat.
Slice oranges in half and squeeze juice into the wine and port mixture.
Serve in a punch bowl, and ladle into individual glasses.
Now I’ve got to plan a party where I can try this out on some unsuspecting Scrooges.
Oh dear, it’s started snowing again. Good thing I’ve got a crockpot full of Glühwein to keep me warm. Now where’s my nightshirt and cap?
I’m wicked pleased to announce my 2016 Limited Edition wine kits, by Master Vintner. They’re the only Limited Edition kits with my name on them–if you know me, you know that’s a big deal. After more than two decades helping people make their own wine I’m only interested in the best.
What’s the Deal with Limited Edition?
Limited Edition is to home winemakers what vintages are to commercial wineries: once a year we assemble four different wines (two reds and two whites) and offer them for a short period of time. Winemakers have to pre-order, or they don’t get any. The kits are delivered over four months, January through April, staggered so they can get them all made in a decent amount of time as wines get racked and carboys get freed up.
The pre-order is crucial. These wines are from cool, exciting vineyards that make excellent grapes. One of the things about making excellent grapes is that it drives yields down, so there is always a limited amount of them available. We cut off the pre-orders when they reach the point where we can’t make any more kits, and those ones go to the people who got in first.
This Year’s Wines: France
All of the wines from this year come from France, with three Bordeaux grapes and one from Burgundy. While France is the world-champion maker of fine wine (other countries make more wine, but it’s not classified as ‘fine’) it’s very hard to get grapes from there.
First off, they can turn them into fine wine and sell them for a handsome profit. Second, explaining to a French grape grower that you want their grapes to make into juice for home winemakers . . . let’s just say that it can be a surreal conversation. Third, since the French are used to using all of their grapes to make fine wine, facilities to process the grapes are hard to come by. It requires the resources and expertise of a full winery operation to turn top quality grapes into top-quality wine juice. Fortunately, Master Vintner has those, and put them to good use, getting grapes at peak physical and organoleptic (flavor) ripeness and turning them into perfect juice in only hours.
Luckily, that’s what have brokers and logistics people for–doing the impossible. We manged to come away with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay grapes, and we’re turning them into spectacular wine kits, right this minute.
The Tasting Event
The best way to teach people about wine is to hand them a glass and let them taste it. Even better is to give a bit of background first, and to hand them a glass and a food to pair with the wine.
So that’s what we did: this September at Northern Brewer World Headquarters, Master Vintner held a wine tasting and food pairing, featuring versions of the grapes we’re using for the Limited Edition kits, and it was awesome.
I’ve been doing wine tastings for nearly thirty years now, and it’s always a thrill to share great wine with people who appreciate it. Getting to present wines as good as these to people who make their own wine is a special treat: home winemakers are so engaged, so committed to enjoying the experience and the wine, that it’s not like work at all to do a tasting like this–it’s a lot more like a really great party with friends.
A party where you show a PowerPoint!
I had a blast talking to my winemaking friends, answering questions and trying out the food pairings (Sauvignon Blanc paired first with goat cheese and second with honey will change the way you think about how food and wine work together) and enjoying a truly fun evening.
If you wish you could have been there for the tasting, you’re in luck: while we can’t deliver any wine for you to try, we recorded the presentation so you can see what it’s all about.
I’ll be talking more about the Limited Edition wines in upcoming blogs, but if you want to make these wines for yourself, make sure you get in early: when they’re gone, they won’t be back, and there aren’t any extras. And if you have any questions, pop in a comment below and I’ll be happy to answer them all.
Good taste doesn’t exist. It is our taste. We have to be proud of it.
If you read my blog, you know by now that I’m the Technical Winemaking Advisor for Master Vintner, the first new line of wine kits in years, and the first one sold exclusively by an All-American company. Aside from the usual sorts of things I do as an advisor (which grapes and juices, what varietals, how to package, instructions, launches, instructions, etc, etc) which fall under the heading of ‘Curation’–a designation I love because it really says what it is I do–I also make and drink the wines.
After all, how else am I going to ultimately know how they taste? The human palate is the single most sensitive analytical tool that a winemaker possesses. Not that mine is necessarily the most sensitive in the world, but it does have three decades of training going for it, and that’s what I put to use this week when I went into my cellar and pulled out samples of my very first Master Vintner wines. They’ve been in the bottle long enough to develop their full slate of flavours and aromas, which I go through on the videos below.
I’m as proud of these wines as I could possibly be. The process for making a new wine kit is long and sometimes it seems overwhelmingly complex, as you have to ensure that the wine is going to turn out right from the first time and every time. Working with the talented and dedicated folks at Master Vintner has been a joy. It’s not a matter of just making a kit, but of getting the kit painstakingly right, and good enough to put my name on it.
And it’s that good. I’m putting on a dozen new kits right away so I can fine-tune a whole bunch of winemaking parameters–oak, yeast modifications, sur lie and battonage, temperature control, barrel ageing, all of the good stuff that winemakers get to do to make every batch of wine their very own.
Yeah, that’s about the size of it
One final thing: when you’re watching these keep in mind that I’m a long time video presenter, but a first-time video shooter . . . I bought a brand-new camera and put it to use for the first time, and during the filming my new studio lights caught fire and nearly burned my house down, construction on the street out front got loud and then a lot louder (a pneumatic hammer on an excavator shut me down for almost two days!) and a crow stole my lens cap. It’s really a testament to how tasty the wines were that I got anything on video at all, and I’m looking forward to learning to shoot more (and better quality) in the future.
I’ve been busy! The Master Vintner website has launched and we’re busy filling it up with great wine kits, great deals and lots of cool info about making your own wine–and having lots of fun with it. One of the things I’m pursuing is making a bunch of new videos, right here in Chaos Manor.
Before I started making new videos, I went back and reviewed the stuff I’d done before, some of which is on my YouTube channel, with more on Northern Brewer’s channel. Some of it has even been bootlegged by other people, and much to my surprise some of my videos have gotten hundreds of thousands of views–how does that even work?
I thought I’d curate a bunch of them so you could pick and choose right here if you wanted to have a look at what’s going on with home winemaking right now. If you like ’em, go ahead and subscribed to my channel and you’ll get updates when new stuff is uploaded.
Note that some of these videos are of me from previous employers: don’t worry, the information is still good and you can learn just as much.
“Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” (1 Timothy 5:23)
If even the Bible backs up the health benefits of wine, is it really true that wine isn’t just harmless, but might actually do your health some good? That’s a common suggestion among wine-lovers, and there appear to be some studies that back up the idea. And for a while at least, wine was suspected as a primary cause of the French Paradox.
Those lucky French people, despite a diet that features a high amount of saturated fats, are known to have a lower prevalence of coronary disease than people in other places. When scientists first realized that, one of the most popular suggested explanations for this health benefit was all the red wine the French drink. You can imagine how sales of red wine increased in North America after that theory came out. But despite the known good effects of certain ingredients in the wine, there just didn’t seem to be enough of those ingredients to create such a drastic health effect. And when you realize that on average, a French person drinks only a couple of bottles more per year than a North American, well, there goes that theory. Darn it anyway.
But don’t throw the health effects out with the wine bottle! All is not yet lost. Because despite the crash and burn of red wine as a theoretical cause of the French Paradox, there is still some evidence suggesting health benefits to moderate alcohol intake. And yes, those benefits relate to cardiovascular health. So red wine may be back on the menu after all–maybe.
Except, actually: no. According to Jason Dyck, lead author of that study,
Dyck’s study was published more than two years ago. It examined whether resveratrol, a compound found in grapes and other foods, can increase exercise capacity for those already exercising.
“We didn’t use any red wine in our study nor did we recommend not going to the gym,” said Dyck.
The study did conclude that resveratrol could help maximize exercise benefits for people with restricted exercise capacity, like heart failure patients.
To be effective, the compound would need to be used like a performance-enhancing supplement, with concentrations far beyond a glass of wine.
“To get the same amount that we’re giving patients or rodents you’d have to drink anywhere from 100 to a thousand bottles a day,” said Dyck.
Now get all these drank by lunch: 90,000 more bottles to go!
In most studies done so far, even taking into account the possibility of moderate drinkers having a better income and healthier lifestyle, and factoring out non-drinkers who had quit because they had already ruined their health with alcoholism, there seems to be a correlation between improved health outcomes for moderate drinkers. They are less prone to heart disease.
Red wine will not solve your problems, kitty.
Pay attention to that word, “moderate,” though, and don’t rush out and buy or make an excess of wine or other alcohol “for your health.” Too much of a good thing can reverse all those good effects. And we all know that excessive drinking leads to liver disease, heart failure, and even certain cancers, not to mention accidents and injuries caused by drunkenness. When the biblical writer says “a little wine” rather than “jugs and jugs of the stuff,” he knows what he’s talking about. It’s fine to have a large, well-stocked cellar, but you don’t have to drink the whole thing by next Wednesday.
The effects of moderate amounts of alcohol on the body are many: it helps reduce blood pressure and reduces insulin levels. It increases the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) while reducing the levels of the bad kind (LDL). It contains antioxidants that fight cancer, and it helps prevent blood clotting. But what about that reference to the stomach in the Bible verse? Does wine help the digestive system too?
Studies seem to support that idea also. Wine apparently combats certain food-borne pathogens quite well, either because of the acidity or because of the alcohol itself going to work directly on the bacteria. It even works against the bugs that cause ulcers.
But it’s important not to read too much into the health benefits. After all, something as fun and delicious as wine shouldn’t be completely perfect.
‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’—Sherlock Holmes
‘If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.’ –Jack Handy
From little acorns . . .
I’ve written many times over the years about oaking your wine, including barrels, oak substitutes and élevage techniques for improvements. This time it’s a little different: it’s all about wine without oak.
Of course, not using oak on wine is a time-honoured tradition for many varietals and styles, and often for good reason. There are few things as disconcerting and deeply weird as a heavily oaked Riesling, and few Rosé wines show better with a heavy layer of deeply toasted oak covering their finish. Oak just doesn’t make sense with many highly floral-aromatic wines, which is why only a few of them get exposed to it, but there are some reds that are happy without oak as well.
That’s some mighty fine barrel action
Almost all red wines do get at least some oak exposure, and the trend in the last 30 years has been to over-oak lesser wines to increase their price-point and saleability. This is because oak is such an immensely useful tool. It’s often used in a knee-jerk way, both to bring out the character of wine (élevage) to cover flaws (cheating), to add a bit of glamour and sophistication to an otherwise undistinguished vintage (lipstick on a pig), and sometimes, just because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ (mechanical winemaking).
A happy reversal of this state of affairs has come from one of the usual suspects: Chardonnay. Easy to grow, cropping well, and relatively simple to make into drinkable wine, Chardonnay became a target for Oak Abusers in the 1980’s. Like many terrible things, it was caused by Australians. They found that the more oak they added to their heavy, hot-climate Chardonnay wines, the better they sold. A little math showed them that barrels were too expensive for polishing wine in a plonk price category, so they tended to use granulated oak products—by the shovel full. Throw in more serious wines (many from California) that used barrels like a weapon, and you had a bunch of expensive Chardonnays that were thick, viscous, creamy and woody.
More recently, ‘unwooded’ Chardonnays have shown up. Some are still in the cheap and cheerful category (under $7 in most places) but others have more serious aspirations—Kendall Jackson, makers of one of the most popular and oaky Chardonnays in America have started making an unoaked version, and the tricksiest and most clever winemakers in the New World have discovered that slightly less over-ripe grapes and no oak can not only make a better wine, one more like an old-world white Burgundy, but also that leaving off a brand new barrel means they’re much cheaper to make—and sell.
Oak isn’t the answer to every winemaking question, and to understand the complexity of the varietal character the grape can bring to a finished wine it can be very useful to taste it without any oak at all. What will happen if we peel back the layers of wood and reveal the form of the wine underneath? To figure that out, it’s important to know what oak actually does. As the man once said, if you want to break the rules, you first have to know them.
Why Oak At All?
People have enhanced aromas and flavoured wine with various things over the years, from herbs, fruits and honey to pine resin, seawater and lead-based syrup (yes, really), but in the very beginning, oak was never intended as a flavouring agent. It was a container.
Although coopers were making water-tight wooden buckets nearly five thousand years ago, these were all open-topped and wouldn’t seal airtight or stack well. Around 900 BCE technologies improved, and fully-closed, airtight barrels were available to store not only liquids, but also anything that had to be shipped—barrels are impressively light and strong, stack well, and are easy to move and handle, and keep things in good condition.
A fine stack
It was probably the very first person who kept wine in a barrel for any length of time who noted the amazing changes the liquid inside underwent: wines kept this way would become rich, complex and more flavourful than wines in clay containers (and way less ‘organic’ than wines kept in animal skins!)
Part of this is due to small amounts of oxygen that get introduced into the wine through barrel handling: racking from barrels and topping up (to keep the airspace in the barrel to a minimum, preventing serious oxidation). More importantly from a gross flavour perspective, toasted oak has many complex chemical compounds, each contributing flavours or textural note to wines.
Most familiar of these are vanillins: phenols in the wood interact with the wine to produce sweet, toasty aromas of honey and tobacco, often described as ‘vanilla’. Barrels also have their own tannins, just as grapes do. Not only do they contribute to astringency, mouthfeel and structural complexity, some of them help protect the maturing wine from oxidation.
Aside from the flavour and aroma of fresh-roasted vanilla bookcase, oak also helps decrease ‘green’ or tart young flavours in wine. Oak is like fine-grit sandpaper to a rough surface, levelling unevenness, taking off burrs, and giving a smooth, lustrous finish to a previously lumpy and scratchy wine.
Why and How to Not-Oak Your Wine Kit
Kit manufacturers are already producing kits that declare their wood-free status, all of which are currently Chardonnays. This is a response to the change in the commercial market, which they track very closely. As the man said, if you would plant a seed, follow the plough; you do not walk ahead of it.
If you’d like to try other varietals au naturel, you first need to consider the way wine kits use subtle procedures to achieve commercial character. Many kits require you to add oak directly into the must, before pitching yeast. This might seem a bit odd to non-winemakers, as pre-fermentation new oak is commonly only emphasised in commercial wine in regards to barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, or Chardonnay. It isn’t unique to kits and kit manufacturers didn’t invent this technique. Like many great ideas, they stole it.
40 or 50 years ago, before stainless steel was ubiquitous, wines were mostly fermented much as they had been for centuries, in wooden vessels. Because of the difficulty (real or perceived) of sanitising wooden fermenters, winemakers who could afford to, adopted stainless steel as soon as they could, reaping the added benefit of much simpler temperature control in the bargain.
This changed in the last 20 years, as some commercial winemakers came to feel that wines fermented to dryness in stainless steel had less harmonious fruit character and seemed less complex even after barrel ageing. This is because during fermentation yeast modifies oak characters, sequestering some of the sharper tannins, making the wine easier to drink much earlier, and interactions between wood and wine during fermentation generates furfural compounds, which promote a coffee/tobacco note.
Please don’t smoke coffee beans
Of course, there are some issues with barrel fermenting red wine: it’s only suited to small lots (if you’ve ever done a red wine from grapes, imagine getting a hundred tons of grapes into and out of your barrels—wow!) and there are difficulties controlling temperature inside the barrels. Fortunately, oak-products are there to rescue the situation: chips, chunks, powders, staves, spirals and beans are used to get oak into wine without having to get the wine into wood, giving the same positive benefits at a much lower cost. They can be added directly to fermenting musts, even before the yeast, and clean-up is a breeze—they go out with the compost.
Post-fermentation oak has a more direct transfer of wood character, but it has the same outcome: a layer of character on top of the fruit that helps harmonise and smooth the flavour and aroma of the wine and promotes earlier drinking.
Clean, crisp and showing pure fruit
Summing up: without oak your wine will have disjointed fruit character, less mouthfeel, lower complexity, won’t have any notes of spice, vanilla, coffee, or tobacco and will need longer aging before you can drink it—sounds like a winner, doesn’t it? That assessment is only from the point of view of someone who is already oak-positive; a real fruit-head/oak-negative type is more likely to view it as ‘truer varietal fruit, cleaner flavour profile, a finish free of extraneous wood character, and a wine that rewards aging’, which sounds like a lot more fun, and worth taking a swing at.
You can de-wood any kit you like—any wine your favorite kit producer oaks can be unoaked, from aromatic whites, big reds and little, and anything in between. You’ll have a completely different flavour experience, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, many reds achieve balance between in fruit character with the help of wood tannins. In the absence of those tannins the fruit that shines through might seem very aggressive—what’s called a fruit bomb. On the other hand, since oak can give sweet, vanilla notes the fruit could be in more balance because the acidity of the red will be easier to perceive in the absence of wood.
Hard to drink at that angle
Second, unoaked wine does require more age to come to drinkability. Without the creamy schmear of buttery wood to smooth out aromas and acid, fruit, tannins, alcohol, and any residual sugar, the wine will seem disjointed and jangled long after an oaky version has knit together. How long? Depends on too many factors to judge, but it’s likely to be 9 to 12 months before it stops being darty and nervous and comes to drinkability.
But when it does turn that corner you’ll be drinking something very different and special: clean and unvarnished varietal fruit, harmonised only by the character the grapes brought to it, the soil it was grown in—and your hand as a winemaker.
Warren definitely put his finger on it: in the face of intransigent problems sometimes strong solutions are required, like legal advice, firearms, or piles of cash. On the other hand, if you’re on the receiving end of such a solution, sometimes a bit of critical thinking is the best cure you could hope for.
(Hicks) tested more than 1,300 bottles of wine. Almost a quarter of them had levels higher than the EPA’s maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water: 10 parts per billion. No one can say for sure why, but Hicks noticed a pattern.
“The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic,” he said.
This sounds terribly alarming. And, it gets worse:
CBS News took those results to epidemiologist Allan Smith, associate director of the Arsenic Health Effects research program at U.C. Berkeley.
“These are about two to three times in this particular sample, the drinking water standard, and they vary, they fluctuated, but some of them were up to three, four or five times the drinking water standard,” Smith said.
Smith said 50 parts per billion of arsenic — the highest level found in one of the bottles Hicks tested — can be deadly over time.
Even though “parts per billion” seems like a very small amount, Smith said “Arsenic is highly toxic; it’s astonishing.”
“It has as many effects inside the body as cigarette smoking does,” Smith said.
The obvious conclusion that Hicks and CBS want you to draw is WINE WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU LOVE! PANIC! HURRY UP AND PANIC ABOUT WINE!
It sounds terrible. And it’s meant to, because the guy who helped gin up the lawsuit stands to profit from it. You see, BeverageGrades doesn’t offer lab services for wineries based on their need to make biochemically correct wine. It’s business model is one of ‘certification’. For a fee, they’ll test your wine and reassure consumers that it’s ‘safe’. From their website:
BeverageGrades is a private company offering lab testing, quality assurance and certification of alcoholic beverages for suppliers, restaurants, retailers and ultimately, the end consumer.
But you can’t ask the consumer to pay for the testing–it’s too expensive on an ad hoc basis. So it’s up to BeverageGrades to get money out of wineries. Unfortunately, according to the CBS report
He took the test results to some of those wine companies.
“Most wine companies, when I mention arsenic and wine in the same sentence, literally almost hung up the phone on me,” he said.
The next step, he said, was to supply the data to a law firm.
“He was trying to get their attention; he was trying to blow the whistle on them,” attorney Brian Kabateck said.
Initially this sounds horrifying, and smacks of coverups, shady deals and would seem to suggest a scenario of a crusading laboratory saving the public from a campaign to poison them. But this doesn’t hold up when you start looking at the facts. The first is that BeverageGrades will profit from increased testing using their certification, which amounts to a strong-arm job, or it will profit as a paid expert witness in the lawsuit on behalf of ‘consumers’. To the point, BeverageGrades issued a press release:
BeverageGrades believes that retailers need a screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all of the alcoholic beverages they sell, and particularly their control or private label brands.
And that is what Hicks sells: relief from fear. If it happens to be the relief of fear caused by an irresponsible and valueless lawsuit that he ginned up with a bent premise, then all the more power to him for a creative way to increase business.
There is some question, however, if he was actually the discreet and altruistic consumer advocate he makes himself out to be. From the very good article by Snopes on this:
Wine Spectator contacted some of the wine brands named in the lawsuit, many of whom stated that Hicks had made no effort to contact them before filing the class action, although he did send out a press release to some wine vendors offering his company’s testing services to them:
[A wine company] spokesman said he had not heard of any named winery contacted by Hicks before the lawsuit was filed. The same day the suit was filed, BeverageGrades sent a press release to certain retailers offering its services for a “screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all the alcoholic beverages they sell.”
Well, well, well.
A very troubling issue is the conflation of safe standards for arsenic for water and for wine. There is no federally mandated standard for wine. Sure, drinking water is set at 10 PPB, and the average adult drinks two litres of water per day, and furthermore uses the water to cook, make other beverages, and to wash and bathe. It makes sense to set drinking water standards very low.
However, anybody drinking two litres of wine per day, and using it exclusively to cook, make coffee and bathe is living a very odd lifestyle. They’ll be dead of acute alcohol poisoning or the effects of chronic overconsumption of alcohol before there are any measurable effects from arsenic on their system, so comparing water to wine is a waste of time.
SHUT UP AND KILL ME
And the amount of arsenic you could consume in wine isn’t even in the same league as other sources. For instance, the FDA limit for daily inorganic arsenic intake from shellfish (mussels, clams, and oysters) is 30ppm (parts per million) versus 30ppb (parts per billion) in apple or pear juice. That’s right: you can consume one thousand times more arsenic in a bowl of cioppino than you can from a juice box–or a glass of wine.
That is, if going is a thing you want to do, eh
Interestingly, Canada has a standard for Arsenic in wine: 100 PPB. I haven’t been able to find out how that level was determined, but for the moment I’m assuming “common sense”, based on levels cited for drinking water extrapolated for wine consumption’. According to Stephen Cater, director of quality assurance for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario:
In the past year alone, the LCBO quality assurance laboratory tested more than 11,900 wines for arsenic levels, including 1543 wines from California. All of the wines from California that the LCBO lab tested and subsequently offered for sale were below the maximum allowable limit for arsenic. We have not observed elevated arsenic levels in US wines compared to what is found in wines from other regions and countries.
11,900, last time I checked, was a much higher number than the 1300 Wicks tested, and the fact that world wines are comparable to US wines is significant, since you’d expect to see a spike if indeed cheap US wines were heavily contaminated.
Which brings us to the bottom line: is this a real story, or is it a health panic induced by an unscrupulous laboratory and a predatory lawyer, for their personal profit? That will have to come out in court because you can bet there will be counter-suits for damages and some serious legal scrapping.
Don’t you hurt me baby
What we can tell right now is this: the amount of arsenic in wine won’t materially contribute to the overall levels of arsenic taken in by the average consumer, unless they’re actively trying to kill themselves with wine. Should we be concerned about the food and drink we consume? Always! But there’s a time to panic and a time to use common sense and reason to navigate the world, and this is one of the latter.
Now if I may be excused, I’m going to go drink an entire bottle of wine, because I feel I may be low on important trace elements, like happiness, contentment and joy.
Days late yet still contributing to the spread of Hick’s misinformation scaremongering, Mother Jones wrote yet another non-journalistic, click-bait ‘article’ with a terroristic headline. If you’d like to share the disdain, you can read it here.
At least the person who cut and pasted the clickbaitery published an addendum. Here it is:
Wine industry groups have begun to contest the lawsuit’s contentions and motive. The California wine trade group, the Wine Institute, released a statement saying, “While there are no established limits in the U.S., several countries, including the European Union, have established limits of 100 parts per billion or higher for wine. California wine exports are tested by these governments and are below the established limits.” A representative of The Wine Group, one of the defendants, says that the plaintiffs “decided to file a complaint based on misleading and selective information in order to defame responsible California winemakers, create unnecessary fear, and distort and deceive the public for their own financial gain.”
My first step was to clean and sanitise all of the equipment I’d be using, including my autosiphon, bottle filler, jugs and such–as always, cleanliness is next to goodliness in winemaking.
Next, I set up my racking station by the simple expedient of lifting my Little Big Mouth Bubbler on top of a convenient box on my counter. If you haven’t used one of the Master Vintner Small Batch kits yet, it’s hard to convey just what a joy this is. I’m old-school in many ways, having started off making wine in lots anywhere between 23 litres (6 US gallons) and 650 litres (three 60-US gallon barrels) at a time. With truly huge amounts you need a pump to move the wine around. A standard kit wine batch of 23 litres isn’t nearly as demanding, but lifting full carboys from one shelf to another, or putting them up on a high place so you can rack the wine down into a clean carboy on the floor (which then needs to be lifted back into the winemaking area!) starts to wear on the lower back after a few thousand batches. At only a single gallon, you can easily lift the Small Batch kits onto a convenient box or shelf above your kitchen counter, just as easy as getting a gallon of milk out of the refrigerator!
Once the fermenter was in place I racked the wine off of the sediment. Doing this is really helpful, since there’s a decent chance that the siphon will disturb sediment from the bottom of the carboy while your moving the hose from bottle to bottle. Rather than risk getting cloudy wine, it’s better to move all of the clear wine into a new vessel in one go, and then you can relax from there.
Note the siphon rod carefully placed on the far side of the fermenter–this will be important as we get to the bottom.
When the wine gets down to the bottom, the level of sediment needs to be carefully monitored. Remember, the point of racking is to get 100% of the clear wine and leave the muck behind, so don’t leave any of that delicious grape nectar behind.
A careful tilt keeps the end of the autosiphon in the wine.
To get and keep that tilt hands-free I usually improvise some kind of prop or wedge. Because I was making wine in my kitchen (another thing Small Batch Kits makes easy!) my carboy wedge wasn’t around. No matter: I just popped a bung under the front of the carboy and watched the levels as they dropped.
Never leave a man, uh, a drop of wine behind.
Just to make sure I was being completely efficient in my racking, I measured the amount of sediment left in the bottom of the Little Big Mouth Bubbler after it racked over. It came to just over couple of tablespoons all in all–which meant I was going to get a total of about 3.75 litres out of my US gallon (3.78 litre) batch, meaning I could fill five bottles, which is exactly what I wanted.
The wine was exceptionally clear on racking.
Limpid and gorgeous.
I could have bottled it right there, but since this was an actual test batch for quality assurance and proof of concept purposes, I pulled out my Buon Vino Minjet filter. Filtering doesn’t actually clear a wine: that’s what fining agents are for. Clearing polishes a wine so that it sparkles with a brilliance like diamonds. A former colleague had the best analogy for wine filtering: it’s the difference between a freshly washed car and a freshly waxed car. Both look great, but your eyes can instantly tell which car was waxed and polished because it glows. Same with wine.
Now that’s shiny!
It’s easy to see this in white wines: you could read the fine print of an EULA through that Chardonnay!
I got all four batches of wine through a single set of Buon Vino #3 pads in about 20 minutes, including sanitising and prep, going from the Chardonnay to the Pinot Noir, then the Merlot and finishing with the Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet another bonus feature of the Small Batch kits: you can make four of them and only need the tiny, convenient BV mini, rather than a much larger filter.
Rest, little filter: you’ve done a man’s work today.
While larger filter systems need a washtub or a laundry sink for cleanup, the Minijet is kitchen sink-friendly for cleanup. Note that the colour you see on those filter pads isn’t anthcyanins (grape pigment) stripped from the wine. It’s suspended material from the wine itself, stained by those pigments. That suspended material, principally yeast cells and colloids, would eventually settle out of the wine on its own. Even though the unfiltered wine was perfectly clear to the eye, after a year or two in the bottle a bit of colour would deposit out on the side or bottom of the bottle. Hurrah for filtering!
Next up, time to fill my wine bottles. I had a mixture of standard wine bottles in Flint (clear) and some swing-tops, also in clear. I like using swing tops for wine that’s going to be analysed and/or destroyed in testing–not because of any technical superiority of swing tops, but because I can never seem to find a dang corkscrew when I’m in the wine lab.
Bottles, autosiphon, siphon tip, impact corker, corks and sulphite for sanitising the bottles.
Also shown in the picture above is the Handy corker. It uses a plunger and a compression sleeve to press-fit the corks into the bottles.
Takes a little oomph, but works great.
Because of the forces involved, it’s a good idea to use the (included) #8-sized corks and soak them in a bit of warm water before use. While I’ve used the Handy and it’s a fine unit, I had another plan in mind for my bottles. But first, I had to fill them.
Fast, clean and efficient–now that’s good winemaking!
Getting the bottles filed without splashing, spilling or endlessly fiddling to get the right fill level (very bottom of the neck, to leave the width of two fingers below the bottom of the cork) used to be a drag, but a siphon filler (included in your equipment kit!) makes it a snap.
The one-way needle valve on the tip of the rod stops the flow of wine as soon as you pull it up, while the volume of the rod displaces exactly the right amount of wine–when you fill the bottle to the top and then pull the rod out, the level of wine is perfect to accommodate a cork!
With the bottles filled, it was time to put corks in. My alternate scheme was to use my Italian bronze-jawed floor corker. This mighty beast has been my faithful companion for 25 years and tens of thousands of bottles of wine.
Industrial Age technology at its finest.
The key to how well this thing works is in the amount of leverage it can bring to bear, and how cleverly it compresses and inserts the cork into the bottles. The heart of the matter is the set of bronze jaws. Not brass–brass is too soft, and corks would wear it away in a short time, and this bronze is the same stuff they make steamship propellers out of.
You’re in for a squeezy time, Mr. Cork.
The jaws move as the corking arm is pulled, squeezing the cork down to just slightly larger than the size of a pencil. When it’s at is tiniest, the cork finger comes down. pokes it into the bottle and you’re done.
It’s as easy as that, every time.
After only a few minutes all of the bottles were filled, corked and swing-capped.
Say, what’s with that pink wine?
Astute observers will notice that there are 15 bottles, a gallon jug and one bottle of pink wine, which doesn’t match up that well with the whole four batches of five bottles each motif I started with. The gallon jug is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I blended it at a rate of 3:2, Cabernet to Merlot, after a few benchtop trials. I’m going to let it marry in the jug for a month or so and taste it before bottling.
The pink wine is slightly notional on my part–it’s my job to do the weird stuff so you don’t have to. Or, more accurately, so I can explain it when you do it without my knowledge! It’s a blend of 4% Pinot Noir into the Chardonnay. That kind of blending is a standard technique in commercial winemaking, and I was curious to see how it would marry up with a little time in the bottle.
How does it taste? Even though it’s very young, it’s everything I’d hoped: good fruit, varietal character, smooth tannin, balanced acid and a long finish, especially for a wine just in the bottle. I’m going to do a more formal taste-test in another three weeks, and then once a month after that to see how it’s progressing.
I’ve already ordered another four kits–I’ve never made wine with so little effort or mess, and I’m going to keep production up. Heck, it’s no more work than keeping a vase of flowers on the counter, with the added bonus, it’s wine!
. . . Del Dotto formally accused Hill Wine of stealing the first batch of grapes and sought repayment of nearly $42,000 it had paid for vineyard management services. Tony Ventura, Del Dotto’s attorney, said in an interview that the grapes it claimed were stolen from Howell Mountain were intended for a wine that his client planned to sell for $195 a bottle. “If you’re going to steal, steal the good stuff,” Mr. Ventura said.
Oy. You have to wonder where this leaves us as wine drinkers, and as wine makers. In my opinion, first and foremost we should not seek out wine that relies on charm or exclusivity to sell itself. There are almost no wines in the world that cost more that $75 a bottle to put into the market. Prices much beyond that either indicate fanatical dedication to lowered yields, insane pick-over strategies, 100% new barrels every year and other, equally ridiculous levels of attention to detail and quality. That covers maybe half a dozen vineyards on earth. The rest can come in cheaper.
When they come in at vastly higher prices you’re either living in a crazy-high alcohol tax zone or the winery is relying on non-quantifiable (and thus cost-free) gimmicks to push their product. From the NYT article,
“Most Napa wines to me are way overpriced,” said Tony Westfall, co-founder and chief executive of Invino, an online wine seller based in Sonoma. “A lot of people would say Lake County is just as good as or better terroir than Napa.”
To persuade someone to spend $30, $50 or $100 for a bottle of wine, wineries need to not just produce quality juice, but also build an emotional connection with the customer.
While I feel that all wine should be experiential, that we should drink in places we love, with people we cherish, and for reasons of celebration, I have enough emotional connections in my life that I don’t need one with a winery. I’d rather get honestly-made, fairly-priced wine–and I’d also like to get what I paid for, not the disarming charm of con artists.
Now if anybody needs me, I’ll be making my own wine–and I know exactly where those grapes came from.