Take Two Glasses of Wine and Call me in the Morning

Yes, same name. I'm not quite as saintly.
Yes, same name. I’m not quite as saintly.

“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.

What you really have to watch is overenthusiastic endorsements of the current scientific studies. Online media outlets have been touting an outrageous headline lately: Is Drinking Wine Better Than Going To The Gym? According To Scientists, Yes! These stories all quote a Unversity of Alberta study that says a glass of red wine is as good as an hour at the gym.

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!
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.
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 Naked and the Deforested: Unoaked Wine

‘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  . . .
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
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).

Chardonnay? Chardon-YAY!
Chardonnay? Chardon-YAY!

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
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.

coffee-pipe-tobacco
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
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.

Which Wine?

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
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.

The Privilege of Failure

fail·ing

noun: a weakness, especially in character; a shortcoming. “Pride is a terrible failing..”

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.

–Woody Allen

So much deliciousness crammed in one pint glass
So much deliciousness crammed in one pint glass

I was over at a neighbour’s house a little while ago and brought some of my homebrewed beer with me.  His father, a very experienced brewer, was extremely complimentary about my Saison, a Belgian style of beer that features a low hop rate and a lot of spicy, fruity yeast character. I was momentarily filled with pride, because it was a pretty good beer, and it was the very first time I’d brewed it, and one of my peers was impressed. Yay me!

The next day I was working in my cellar and feeling pretty smug. As I racked a new brew into a keg I thought, “I can’t remember the last time I brewed a bad beer .”

That’s when I realised that I had a problem. Not failing was a sign that I was doing something terribly wrong.

For most people, failure is seen as a universally bad thing. Internet slang has produced a meme that has shortened criticism to the point where one can point to something and shout ‘FAIL!’, and it’s perfectly expressive opprobrium. Calling someone a failure is a pretty cutting insult.

The problem with this attitude is that a lack of failure doesn’t let us grow. Failure isn’t bad. If you want to learn something, really master it, the first thing you need to do is to figure out how not to do it. Thomas Edison made thousands of attempts to make a light bulb filament that would last more than a few seconds under current. When asked about his failure, he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Failure is a great motivator, it not only helps us grow, it also motivates us to try harder, to try again. But there’s an even more important benefit to failing: it frees you of pride–well, not pride precisely, because it’s fine to be proud of an accomplishment. What it really wipes out is hubris.  Hubris, according to the interwebs, often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

Dang.

I am in theory an ‘authority’ on home fermentation. That’s what my career is based on, anyways, and it’s how I navigate most of my business interactions. I’m an excellent candidate for hubris. Luckily I mostly suffer from Imposter Syndrome, so I’m protected from hubris to some extent.

Image from gamasutra.com
Image from gamasutra.com

Never heard of it? Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you’re not really competent in your given field, that you’ll be found out to be an imposter. This is most common among people who are actually competent, rather than those who are not–they’re covered under the Dunning-Kruger effect  , which is when someone cannot recognise their incompetence in a given area.

I was moping about how I was failing by not failing and generally wondering where to go next when I came across a philosopher who put his finger right on the main nerve. It isn’t the first time he’s put me on the right path when I needed guidance. Meet my spirit guide:

Jake the Dog
Jake the Dog

Yes, I’m perfectly aware he’s a cartoon dog created by Pendleton Ward and voiced by John DiMaggio. He’s also a perfect character to voice subtle wisdom. And here’s the quote that got me.

A more profound koan has not been produced
A more profound koan has not been produced

This works on two levels. First, it’s an acknowledgement that nobody starts out perfect, and it’s practice and effort that makes you better. But more importantly, sucking at something you thought you’d already mastered will open up new levels of complexity and new ways of thinking about what you’re doing.

Jake’s wisdom immediately cheered me up. I went out and brewed a batch of Belgian Witbier. I wanted to do something interesting, so I did a 5-step decoction mash (a complex technique that involves many steps of taking some of the grain mash, heating it and adding it back to raise temperatures, over and over again). I also added two kinds of dried orange peel and two different kinds of coriander, and a Saison yeast strain to kick up the spice.

It turned out terrible. And that’s great.

I learned things about the value of decoction mashing (low, in this case) subtlety with spices, and the lack of crossover between Saison and Wit yeast.

Most of all, I learned that I don’t have a magic touch or a lucky streak, and my beers can really suck when I lose focus, and that any pride I have is misplaced.

I followed that beer up by brewing a proper Saison, an Imperial IPA and a session beer. In every case I used new techniques, ingredients or yeast that I haven’t worked with before. I’m very lucky to have had the privilege of failure, the ability to make mistakes, see what they were, and to correct them. Failure makes me a better brewer, and I’m looking forward to screwing up next time–as long as I don’t run out of beer because of it!

Back In the Land of the Living

That's the one, officer
That’s the one that got me, officer. Arrest him! 

It’s been over a month since I posted to this blog. In social media terms, I might as well have left on a voyage for the new world and been captured by Barbary pirates and written off for lost, mourned only by creditors and a disgruntled cat, forgotten by time and tide.

I was originally taking a two-week break to go to Mexico, in order to soak up some Vitamin D (aka, ‘lay in the sun’) and local culture (aka ‘Tequila’). I did that and had some fun, but felt a little off the second week of the trip and by the time I got home, I had a cold.

Only no, it was a case of the H3N2 influenza. In popular culture a lot of folks equate a bad cold with ‘the flu’–I’ve probably been guilty of that myself. But the truth is this: if you can get out of bed, you don’t have the flu. Between a fever that ran over 102F for the better part of a week and the constant feeling that I needed a good solid night of sleep every time I woke up, I was off my feet for a week, recovering for two more and (oh the horror!) I completely lost my sense of smell and taste for nearly a month!

snu
All the happy bottles! 

Happily, that’s all behind me now, so I can get back in the saddle. I’m going to be tasting my Master Vintner series wines! They’re still very young but will have calmed down from bottle shock and be showing their true character.

I’m also hard at work on new projects with my friends at Northern Brewer, so I better get crackin’, and let the disgruntled cat and the Barbary Pirates know that I’m back amongst the living.

 

 

Master Vintner Small Batch Part 5: Bottling Day

One full equipment kit, three extra Big Mouth Bubblers and three extra wine kits!
Where it all started

It’s finally here! After starting my Master Vintner wines, racking them from the primary fermenter, and doing the fining/stabilising steps, bottling day has arrived, and I’m all about getting my Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay into the bottles–well, almost all of it into bottles, along with a little of it into a secret project . . . more on that in a minute.

rack-setup
Time to rack off the sediment.

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.

rack-from
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.

snu
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!

Wine and Fraud

But he seems so nice!
But he seems so nice!

If you follow my other blog at Winemaker Magazine, you may have read my recent treatise making fun of rich idiots being defrauded by scammers. At the rarefied prices that vintage Bordeaux and ultra-rare Burgundy command, it’s often a simple matter to take money from people desperate to believe they’re getting something too good to be true, like a 220 year-old bottle from Thomas Jefferson’s cellar.

Seems legit--after all, it's a picture of Jefferson with the bottle.
Seems legit–after all, it’s a picture of Jefferson with the bottle.

But it turns out that you don’t even need to go that high to find a way to scam wine consumers. According to the New York Times, the Hill Wine Company in Napa not only sold cheap Central Valley grapes as premium Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, they also stole premium grapes from clients they made wine for.

. . . 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.

Catching Up

Oh, I’ve been a bad blogger.

hopunion-interior
I’m smiling because I’m in the middle of a factory that processes hops–reason enough for a lunatic’s grin.

It’s been a full month since I last blogged. But to my defense, I’ve been a bit busy. In addition to my partnership with Midwest Supplies  and our cool new Master Vintner line of winemaking products, I’ve been busy doing a few other things. First, I shot some videos:

And then I did a little bit of travelling. Since the end of August I’ve been to:

  • Minneapolis
  • Houston
  • Atlanta
  • Victoria
  • Denver
  • Seattle
  • Yakima
  • Boston
  • Virginia
  • Philadelphia
  • Minneapolis (again!)
  • Detroit
  • Chicago
  • Kelowna
  • Summerland

In that time I’ve been to Hop and Brew School, done wine opportunity seminars for consumer beverage retailers, Limited Edition wine and food pairing events, shot many videos, attended the Great Canadian Beer Festival, helped plan catalogues, merchandised stores, drank beer and laughed a lot.

And now I’m typing this up in an airport lounge waiting to jet off to Winnipeg. I’ve had some exceptionally good luck with local weather on my travels, and had a lot of fun working with my friends in all of the cities I’ve visited, and I’m looking forward to the same over the next week.

I’ve got three or four blogs lined up, and soon I’ll have some very exciting news to share, but that’ll have to wait another few days: I’ve got some sales training to do, another couple of Limited Edition wine tastings and a webinar session for the members of the Canadian Craft Winemakers Association.

Uh-oh, it’s wheels-up. Hold the door, I’m coming!

Tim Vandergrift: Master Vintner and Midwest Supplies

midwest-announcement
I can’t remember why I was so mad at that wine glass . . .

The big news is finally here! Midwest Supplies and Tim Vandergrift are working together! I’m really happy with the fit between us and excited to introduce new products and to work on advancing home winemaking. I became an independent consultant early in 2014. My biggest concern about my new career was where I could apply myself to make a difference in the consumer-produced beverage industry (aka Homebrewing and Winemaking).

midwest-logo

While I connected with many small clients and really love the interaction I have with them, I looked around and realised that one of the most dynamic and exciting places in the industry was right in front of me, Midwest Supplies. I’ve worked with them for more than a decade on behalf of Winexpert and always loved how they ‘got’ the industry, understood home beer and winemakers, and generally felt they were my kind of folks. Of course, this didn’t keep me from thinking that they could probably use a guiding hand on the wine side, but I always had other priorities. Now that I’m their Technical Winemaking Advisor I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them to introduce some new ideas to home winemaking and do educational and promotional activities as well. I’ve even got a couple of videos up to start, one on the benefits of using a floor corker,

And one on the savage joy of using a three-pronged stirring whip! The Great! Big! Deal! that I’m really happy about is some of the new products we’ll be bringing out in the future. No hints just yet, but I’m pretty stoked about sharing them, and won’t hide that light under a bushel. If you’re already a Midwest customer, thanks! If you’re not yet, check ‘em out, and check out My Ten Favorite Wine Kits—nine of which are on sale for a limited time! Use the secret coupon code (hint: it’s WINEGURU) at checkout and you’ll save 15%. How’s that for a hello? Lots more to come, and so much to do, and I couldn’t be happier or more proud.

Road Trip

Houston skyline
Nice little place . . .

After a relatively quiet summer at Chaos Manor it’s back on the road for a bit. I’m in Houston today, a city I’ve only been through once before. I’m giving a presentation on wine retailing here and I’m really looking forward to it. Not only do I get to meet Texas homebrew shop retailers (some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet) but also, Mexican food!

texmex
Come to Papa

If you’ve never been to Texas but you have been to Mexico, the food is different. It’s even called ‘Tex-Mex’. But it’s ridiculously good, and I’m looking forward to digging into some of it.

I’m only here for one day: tomorrow at o-dark thirty I’m off to Atlanta to catch up with some more retailers there. Just like Houston, I’m looking forward to meeting up with a great bunch of people and having a really detailed discussion of wine retailing in the USA.

My lunch strategy might have to change there, but I’ve got a plan: barbecue. Canadians are woefully ignorant of real barbecue. Shamefully, we use that word to describe grilled food, which isn’t actually anything like barbecue, which actually centers around low-heat, long time cooking over smoky wood fires.

franklin-bbq-brisket-6
Now that’s a pit!

Before I started travelling in the USA I had no idea that there was so much regional variation–Texas does beef best while the Carolinas do pork but have fierce regional loyalties to different sauces. Memphis does chopped pork and fabulous ribs, while Kansas City barbecues any animal that holds still too long (barbecued lamb ribs are to die for). It was all confusing and I didn’t know what to order.

But I put in action a clever strategy: any place I go that has good barbecue, I ask for help, with a little twist. If I’m in Carolina I say, ‘I’ve had Texas barbecue–is this anything like that?’. Local pride swells like thunderheads, and folks are quick to guide the poor, misguided Canadian to ‘the good stuff’. Sure it’s  a wee bit of a fib, but I’ve had so much good barbecue from it that I can’t help myself.

Which reminds me of something my favorite food anthropologist, Margaret Visser put in her book, Much Depends On Dinner: people are the same everywhere: the only thing that changes is the dinner.

But it’s a long time until dinner–work first!

 Edited to Add . . .

barbecue
Ribs, brisket, spicy sausage, jalapeno corn muffin, heart-attack potatoes and dirty rice. Even the salad had barbecued meat in it.

That was some pretty good barbecue.

The Enemy Without

fruit-fly
A face only nobody could love

Summer is here and for winemakers that means one thing: the inevitable return of our sworn enemy, Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Minute little flying monkeys of doom, they’re hard to exclude from your winemaking areas, and while they’re easy to kill, by the time you’ve swatted one thirteen more have materialised out of thin air, looking for a free meal—females lay 400 eggs each, and they mature in as little as 7 days!

The reason why we need to be concerned over the little monsters isn’t just that they’re unsightly and chewy when you discover one inside a mouthful of Chardonnay. No, it’s their other name we need to think of, ‘Vinegar Fly’. The little blighters are filthy with acetobacteria, the organism that turns our delicious alcohol in to vinegar.

fly infestation
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

How to combat ‘em? First, understand that they don’t eat fruit: they eat mainly yeast. When they smell carbon dioxide and alcohol, they think it’s a piece of rotting fruit where they can lay eggs and get a delicious meal. When they smell a fermenting carboy, it’s their equivalent of a Vegas buffet ten thousand miles long.

Anybody who has ever worked as a bartender over the summer months knows the sad and icky truth: you come in for the first shift of the day and any bottles that have been left with an open pour-spout (‘speed spout’) overnight will need to be poured through a coffee filter to extract the little winged corpses from their watery graves. If a fermenting carboy smells a buffet, and bottle of vodka smells like ten tons of chocolate cake.

Step one in managing these horrific little pests is exclusion. You can’t keep them out of your house and your fermenting area, so you’ll need to exclude them from the wine itself. Always do covered fermentations. The commonest fermentation vessel used to start kit wines in the US is a 7.9 gallon (30 litre) bucket with a tight fitting lid and a port to plug in an airlock. By keeping the wine sealed and airlocked, you’ll deny entry.

Second, when your wine goes to the carboy, make sure you keep that airlock topped up with water. Some folks use sulphite, and while that’s mostly harmless the sulphite usually oxidises off in a few days into plain water. Other folks want the sanitising power of alcohol and load the airlock up with Everclear or grain alcohol—this only attracts the enemy!

Third, you’ll need to wipe up every single little tiny spill of wine or juice immediately, and sulphite the area to prevent any residue from getting a yeast film going on it. Then make sure you wash your cloths or discard your paper towels in a tightly sealed receptacle—the cloth used to wipe up the juice will become a source of attraction.

Fourth, if you have to wash all racked primary fermenters or carboys (those with lees and even a small amount of cloudy wine in them) immediately. If you can’t get to the right away, pop the bung and airlock on again.

Fifth, if you filter your wine (always a good idea—I’ll talk about that in a later blog) break down and clean your filter right away, and seal the used pads in a plastic bag before discarding them: they smell just dandy to fruit flies.

Flypaper only works on fruit flies by accident. Plus, some of the stuff is toxic as all get-out, and not good for winemaking areas. You can set up a wasp trap (available from hardware stores) for them. Normally they’re filled with fruit juice or other sweet liquid, but that doesn’t impress a fruit fly. Fill it with the magic formula: apple cider vinegar with a couple of drops of liquid dish soap. The apple cider vinegar drives them to a gustatory frenzy, while the dish soap removes the surface tension of the liquid: when they fly in and hit it, they drown right away—poof!

You can also, check out natural pyrethrin-based insecticides: they’re made from plant oils, are mostly safe and can be used in food prep areas. Never use any other kind of insecticide around wine or food prep areas! Triple-check to make sure you’ve got pyrethrin and not the synthetic pyrethroid, which is much more persistent and killier. Pyrethroids are bad for the environment and can be toxic to children and pets, especially kitty-cats, who lack the enzyme to break them down, and can rapidly succumb to pyrethroid toxicity. No kitty should be collateral damage to a fruit fly!

It should be noted that cleanly made wines that have fully fermented and are sulphited to an appropriate level (follow the manufacturer’s instructions) are fairly resistan against colonisation by acetobacteria. Sulphite in particular is a good bacterial inhibitor for this organism.

But there’s always that chance: a missed sulphite addition, a little extra oxygen pick-up in fermentation, one lone fruit fly wings in and . . . well, that’s thirty bottles of wine you can’t even pour on your salad (wild acetobacter fermentations make a kind of vinegar that tastes mostly like nail-polish remover).