I’ve been in retail for a long time, first as the manager of a big home beer and wine supply store twenty years ago, and later as both a retail coach and trainer to others (while still running a smaller retail store on the side as part of my day job).
I love the business, which is really a thing you need to understand: either you love retail and the whole ‘I have stuff and want to get people to give me money for it because that’s how commerce and most everything works’, or you don’t love it at all, and feel positively sticky about asking strangers to pull out their wallets in exchange for your sordid junk.
It’s okay to be the latter. After all, there are certain aspects of business that I’m ill-suited to myself (accounting, bookkeeping, staying awake in meetings that last longer than 19 minutes, etc) and I avoid them. If you hate retail, you’re probably smart enough to avoid being in a situation where you’re obligated to perform as a retailer.
Unfortunately, some people don’t do that. And it drives me bananas.
I understand if it’s a job and you really need one. Been there, done that, actually shovelled manure for 10 hours a day for minimum wage. But I didn’t do it out of hate, and I understood how the job worked: that end of the shovel went into the muck, and the other end connected to me, and I kept my mouth shut and shoveled and somebody gave me a paycheque. Hating your job (believe you me, I hated that poopy job) doesn’t mean that you let it influence how you perform it. If it does, you’re letting yourself down. After all, if you’re bad at shoveling dung, what else can’t you do in life?
While it’s a sad case when retail employees dislike their job and let it show through inattention, ineffectiveness or pure loathing, it’s much worse when it’s the retail shop owners who are the problem. That’s when things get grotesque. I’m sure that there is nobody reading this who hasn’t had the experience of entering a shop with the clear goal of making a purchase, but has been frustrated out of it by an absolutely dreadful retailer, someone who was either having a bad day and let it loose on you, or someone who simply did not acknowledge that the act of transferring money from you to them, and goods from them to you was the only thing on the agenda.
I could raise a dozen examples I’ve experienced in the last month without even trying, and probably several hundred if you gave me a day (and I didn’t get depressed and quit trying because it’s all so repetitive and awful) but my very worst peeves are when I’m goal-oriented on a purchase to the point of target fixation, where my burning desire is to give money, get the thing and go, but the retailer wants to talk me out of it–‘Oh, those are quite expensive’, ‘That’s the display model’, ‘The new ones are coming out in a few months’, ‘I’ve given up stocking those–we can’t keep them on the shelves’. AAAAGH!
It was on this topic that I ran across a quote in an odd spot today, and as soon as I read it, I knew I had to share it.
The spot was Terry Pratchett‘s Unseen Academicals. For those who don’t know Pratchett, go forth and know his work immediately. He’s a British fantasy author who writes subtly, subversively and hilariously about the human condition, under the guise of a moderately ridiculous fantasy world that rides about on the back of a giant turtle.
It might seem like kid’s stuff at first, but Pratchett is a class warrior, and egalitarian and one of the humanest humanists I’ve ever read. Nine stars and eleven thumbs up for him–if you know and love a reader, give them the gift of Pratchett, posthaste. Ahem.
” . . . shops were doing well these days, largely because they understood the first rule of merchandising, which is this: I have got goods for sale and the customer has got money. I should have the money and, regrettably, that involves the customer having my goods. To this end, therefore, I will not say ‘The one in the window is the last one we have, and we can’t sell it to you, because it we did no one would know we have them for sale’, or ‘We just can’t keep them on the shelves, or ‘I’m fed up with telling people there’s no demand for them’. I will make a sale by any means short of physical violence because without one I am a waste of space.“
Yes, yes, YES! The retailer’s target demographic is people with money who are willing to give them some. Nothing else matters, give the people what they want, quickly and efficiently and you’ll be so far ahead of your non-retaily competitors it’ll make your head spin. Just having a store with goods in it and warm bodies doesn’t mean you are a retailer–retailers sell things, period.
And if you’re a retailer, I salute you. You have goods, I have money: let’s talk.
I have a zillion things going on right now, and it’s making me very happy indeed. I’m not a chap for sitting quietly and waiting for events to unfold. That way lies madness for me. Luckily, the unfolding, she comes. First, after a relatively short wait, I got a spot of shoulder surgery that I really needed. I first injured my right shoulder back in the mid 1990’s, competing as a powerlifter.
The sport was very good to me, teaching me discipline, persistence, and the rewards of focusing on really big goals. The trade-off was, that high goals come with costs and I had three knee surgeries (which turned out well) but finally hurt my shoulder badly enough that I had to stop competing back in 2005. At the time I looked into surgery, but since I was considered extremely high-functioning (“It hurts when I bench-press more than 315 lb.” “Well, don’t do that.”) my best choice was to put off surgery until the techniques got better. Fast-forward a decade and they have. Last fall I went in for an assessment and day before yesterday they knitted me new set of rotator cuffs.
I had full ruptures of all my rotator cuff muscles, a torn biceps tendon, bone spurs and the head of my humerus apparently looked like a used golf ball. But all better! Other than being in a sling for two months, I’m pretty dang happy, and the prognosis is that I’m going to actually be able to return to training. Competitive powerlifting? Well, wouldn’t that be a trip . . . but we’ll see. I’ll just be glad to be able to reach for things on low shelves without having my arm flop out of the socket.
I’ve also got a couple of irons in the fire right now that are really exciting, product development-wise, plus something I’m terrifically pleased about. I hope to be able to let everyone know more very soon! Keep watching this blog, as I won’t be hiding any lights under bushels!
If you’ve never been to Austin, make haste, for it is a very cool, often strange place, filled with delightfully odd people and a sense of community and solidarity rare in any country, and perhaps a wee bit at odds with the common perception of Texas-qua-Texas. Dang fine barbecue to boot.
I’ve been friends with the folks at AHB for many years, and have always enjoyed their service and style, and now they’ve gone and stretched out to their customers even further. My buddy Adam Lipscomb now does their AHS Brewing Blog. He’s a good writer, and I know he’ll be telling some great stories. I was actually updated in real time when he was making his infamous Frisky Whiskers Tuna Porter, a surefire hit with all kitties.
Check him out and add him to your bookmarks, and you can even drop him a line if you’ve got questions.
In the meantime, relax, don’t worry, and have a nice cool beverage.
A busy weekend: today I’ll be teaching a beer brewing class at Beyond the Grape in Port Moody. The last time I taught a class there I had a great time.
The thing that keeps impressing me every time I have a beginners class is how young the new brewers are. I guess I shouldn’t be so startled: I began brewing in my teens, and was as enthusiastic as could be, so it stands to reason it isn’t just old guys who like to make their own suds.
We’ll be making a Brewers Best Belgian Witbier today. It’s a classic wheat beer, an ale that’s lightly hopped, with spicy fruity notes from coriander seed and orange peel added right to the boil. It’ll be perfect, just ready to drink in June when the heat is upon us.
The class itself goes through the entire process, from how to choose equipment, an explanation of ingredients, sanitation (cleanliness is next to goodliness), brewing, racking, bottling and more sanitation (it’s kind of a thing with beer), all in a single class.
If you’re near Beyond the Grape, they hold classes regularly, so give them a call and sign up. If you live in another area, almost all home brew supply stores hold classes–the fee is usually nominal, it’s much easier than you think, and you not only get the knowledge, you get a support network of the store, it’s staff, and a bunch of like-minded brewers who want to do the same things as you.
Look at me: thirty-five years after my first batch I still love to make and drink my own beer.
I understand folk’s chagrin. The Blessed Carl Sagan once wrote a book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, to explain the scientific method and instill skepticism and critical thinking in a wide audience. I’m not Carl Sagan (not even Neil DeGrasse Tyson is, although it’s nice that someone is trying) but I am someone who took Carl’s words to heart. If a thing sounds too good to be true, then you probably need to look very closely at it before you accept it as true. A big fluffy pile of powder that yields a single drink does not equal ‘magic powdered alcohol’.
In order to demonstrate how this works, I ordered some maltodextrin yesterday, so I could give this a shot and show just what an ounce of booze mixed into a pile of fluffy white powder looked like. But lo! Someone at Popular Science has actually gone to the trouble of making their own homemade Palcohol ahead of me.
As I postulated yesterday, the base is maltodextrin. In this case the author used a commercial version called N-Zorbit M, used by molecular gastronomists to adsorb liquids into a compounded powder, typically something like olive oil, which is then sprinkled onto stuff to delight and amaze diners with the juxtaposition of olive oil flavour in a light fluffy powder. Or to bamboozle them into spending nine hundred bucks on a meal with eight bucks worth of ingredients, I always forget how that works with molecular gastronomy . . .
Here’s the process from the PopSci article, emphasis mine:
Weigh out 100 grams of N-Zorbit into a mixing bowl. Because the powder is so fluffy and light, this will be a sizeable mound.
While whisking steadily, drizzle in 30 grams of high-proof spirit. I use Lemon Hart 151-proof rum. After you’ve stirred it in completely, the powder should be dry, but somewhat chunky. If it’s still moist, sprinkle in a little more N-Zorbit.
Sift the dry liquor through a fine sieve to break up the chunks and make a nice powder. If you’re making a larger batch, you can do it in a blender and step 3 won’t be necessary.
At the end of the process you are not only carrying the original amount and volume of alcohol that you started with, you’re also toting along a cup (perhaps more) of extremely fluffy white powder to boot. That’s not what people visualise when they’re being sold ‘powdered alcohol’: everyone wants something that looks like a teaspoon of baking soda that magically turns the liquid it’s dropped in into alcohol. And that’s not happening–it’s just not possible in organic chemistry for that to happen. Once you have pure ethanol, you can’t ‘dehydrate’ it into a powder, no matter how cool that sounds.
In the meantime, people have often tried to package alcohol in low-volume/low packaging, easy-to-conceal formats (which, let’s face it, is the killer app for powdered booze). Many people will be familiar with Shotpak
Those are all dodges to try and circumvent rules about using alcohol in public or in licensed areas. People never want to be told that they can’t have a drink, and putting one over on the man (and maybe saving money on over-priced stadium booze) is very appealing. But powdery alcohol isn’t going to do it.
In my previous life as the go-to technical guy for retailers and consumers, I’ve spent a lot of my time giving answers to questions both simple and complex, about beer and wine making. I’ve spent even more of my time trying to counter misconceptions, folk tales, and outright jiggery-pokery about beverage alcohol. Most of the time it’s a case of imperfect understanding or incomplete information that I’ve dealt with, but every once in a while something perfectly ridiculous shows up. You’d think that the sheer dumbness of an idea would make it easier to debunk, but that isn’t the case. Because clickbait/aggregator sites like Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed and the like keep sensationalising and promoting dumb ideas with witless, boundless and breathless enthusiasm, it only takes a small number of people not reading critically to keep the very dumbest ideas in circulation, spreading them out like a slick of dumb across the media waters.
Case in point, ‘Powdered Alcohol’. An enterprising self-promoter named Mark Phillips set up a website to promote Palcohol. After as much checking as I can manage, I haven’t found a strong indicator that this is a hoax. There’s a credible-seeming document showing label approval for a distilled spirit under the name Palcohol, and the Lehrman beverage law firm is leading on the story, which has, somewhat predictably, made the aforementioned sensationalist sites go absolutely insane with joy, crowing from both sides of their mouths about the joy of smuggling ‘vodka powder’ into stadiums and the danger of ‘snorting powdered alcohol’. All in all, it’s a fabulously rich tapestry to hang fantasies of danger and intrigue on.
Thing is, it’s total crap. Hooey. Malarkey.
Physics prevents alcohol from becoming a powder. Ethanol (CH3-CH2-OH, the good alcohol that we know and love) is a volatile liquid. ‘Volatile’ refers to a substance that vaporises (evaporates) readily, and ethanol evaporates extremely quickly, far faster than water (that’s why rubbing alcohol feels cool on the skin: it evaporates rapidly). At room temperature pure alcohol doesn’t last, and can’t be made into or ‘converted’ to powder. It just goes away.
You can, however, stabilise it by mixing it into an appropriate powder and sealing it in a vapour-proof package. You could use sugar, or more likely a polysaccharide like maltodextrin, which bulks like sugar and has similar hygroscopic qualities, but would not taste abominably sweet in the amount needed.
Now the key to why ‘powdered alcohol’ is a load of bovine feces: the putative TTB label to Palcohol declares 100 ml of powder at 12% ABV, (never mind the mock-up labels on the Palcohol site. They declare much higher levels, but they’re not legal and not approved–fake or simply erroneous, take your pick) and also states that the product is 58% ABW (alcohol by weight). Running the numbers a little, 12% of 100ml = 12ml of 100% pure ethanol. That doesn’t sound like much, but most spirits are sold at 80 Proof, or 40% ABV. Divide 12 ml by 0.40 and you get 30, or roughly one fluid ounce worth of 80 Proof alcohol.
And confirming this bit of math, the packet is marketed as the equivalent to one cocktail. However, the 58% ABW number tells us that the alcohol is much denser than the powder it is suspended in, making the packet fairly bulky–100 ml is almost exactly the same volume as three standard ping-pong balls. This bulk means you’d need 26 of the packets to make up an entire vodka bottle’s worth of cocktails, which is 2.6 litres of powder or 7/10ths of a US gallon.
Assuming you do make this damp maltodextrin substrate-with-alcohol mix, where does that leave you? With a product that’s only 12% ABV, probably costs more, and bulks much larger than simple beverage alcohol, is tough to dissolve in cold liquid and doesn’t taste like anything without the addition of lots of extra additives. Additionally you’d be consuming some form of unidentified powder in vastly higher quantities than the alcohol you’re seeking. Peachy.
So yeah, it might be a thing, but it’s not the thing people want it to be, which is a tiny pinch of magic powder that will turn water into hard liquor like magic.
And in this, I blame Warner Brothers. Specifically, I blame their employee, Wile E Coyote, and the Acme corporation that he supported so strongly. The technology that was displayed in the cartoons was surreal and magical–holes you could drop things into and then roll up and take away, paintings that you could enter or alternatively smash your face against, gravity that only acted long after you stepped off the cliff, and so on, all examples of magical thinking, where the observed could not always be understood and actions and events had absurd causal relationships.
And really, that’s what human beings want: easy answers that make sense on an emotional level–alcohol is bulky, if it were dried out, you could carry lots with little bulk or weight, hurrah! Only no, reality has to intervene with its fancy college learnin’, laws of physics and general fun-spoiling party-pooper attitude.
I’m not immune to the desire for magic answers. When I was a little kid I was promised moon vacations and a jet car. I’m still waiting for those to be practical, but I know they’ll never come my way. It may make me a cynical curmudgeon now, but on the other hand I save space in my brain for things that are physically possible. Powdered alcohol is a pretty strong marketing hook, but snake oil often is.
Oh, and the danger of ‘snorting’ Palcohol (which Phillips’ coquettishly advises against): if you can snort a volume of sugar/maltodextrin the size of three ping-pong balls to get the stinging equivalent of an ounce of booze up your nose, you’re not human, you’re a vacuum cleaner. Plus, ever get alcohol in your sinuses? It doesn’t stay there: your body won’t let it.
Credit to my friend Peter Cargasacchi for letting me clutter up a Facebook post of his with my immoderate ranting on this topic earlier today. Comments there made me do better math (trust me, as bad as my math is, this is better than it was) and think harder about why we want things like this to be true.
Say ‘decanter’ and every wine drinker will know what you mean. They either visualise the never-used cut-crystal wedding gift on Mom’s china hutch (incidentally useless for decanting) or a stuffy British television show where the characters pass around a glass-stoppered vessel of port while harrumphing to each other about the imminent collapse of society. Whatever the image, the conventional wisdom is that decanting wine is accepted for letting young reds breathe and for getting old gunky reds off their sediment.
Funny thing is, there’s a bit of controversy about decanting. One of the most revered and famous winemakers on the planet (Professor Émile Peynaud) thought that decanting was the worst possible thing you could do, and railed against it. Of course, just being a professional French oenologist who shaped many of our modern ideas of winemaking means nothing: I think he was full of hooey. Who are you gonna trust, some French guy, or good old Tim? Okay, perhaps hooey is a strong word (anyone know what ‘hooey is in French? Sottise?) I confess I’m referring specifically to wine from kits, something on which, as far as I’ve been able to discover, Peynaud never commented.
With home winemaking in mind, let’s have a look at decanting, in history and in practise
Decanting in History
In the past there was always some sort of decanter in any wine drinking household. At first this was because wine was typically stored in large vessels, either giant clay jars, amphorae or barrels, and some sort of carrying vessel was needed to get the wine from the cellar to the drinker’s glass. Until the 17th century wine was never stored, aged or transported in glass bottles, although the ancient Romans did use blown glass decanters to serve their wine. You can tell that the early 17th century bottles were intended for serving wine rather than storing it, because they were often shaped like ‘onions’, with a globular body, flattened bottom, and a very short neck–a shape that would never lie on its’ side in a cellar, even if there were a cork to fit it!
In the 16th century the Venetians rediscovered glass-making technology, and their wares spread across (and were widely copied by) the rest of Europe. Because corks were an exciting and newly emerging technology at the time, nobody had thought of using them to seal wine bottles, so blown or ground glass stoppers were included with some bottles to seal them up, at least temporarily. With a custom made glass stopper for each bottle, it was imperative that the two not be separated–stoppers weren’t interchangeable. To that end, stoppers were wired or tied to each bottle. In order to facilitate this, a ring of glass was applied just below the top of the neck where the string was anchored. You can still see the vestiges of this on the neck of almost every modern bottle in the form of a tiny rim around the top.
Examples of early wine bottles. Simple, rounded shapes are easier to make.
In the early 1700’s people rediscovered something important: vintages mattered, and if you could keep some of your best wines well cellared, they improved dramatically. The best way to store the wine turned out to be in a glass bottle, sealed with that exotic new cutting-edge material, ‘cork’. While cellar ageing was great for improving wine, it also lead to another condition–layers of goo in the bottle. Fining, stabilising and filtration technology was not as advanced then as it is now, and many wines would throw sediment, tartrate crystals (‘wine diamonds’) or a haze during storage. The answer, of course, was decanting the wine into a clean serving vessel for the table, leaving the detritus behind.
Silver bottle tickets
Another benefit of this was the ability of the host or hostess to decant all of the wines being served at a dinner party well before the guests arrived. They could then be displayed on the sideboard or table, ready for each course in turn. This custom is where the practice of using decanter labels (the Victorian name for these is ‘bottle ticket’) came from. These are small metal nameplates hung around the necks of the bottles–it would be a terrible crisis for the party hostess to confuse the Madeira with the Canary before the toast course!
Modern decanter,designed to expose the largest surface area of the wine. It is widest at the point of a 750 ml fill.
While any clean food-safe vessel of sufficient capacity can be used as a decanter, modern folks are usually intent on either separating their wine from sediment or giving it an airing. To this end, most decanters are made of clear glass and are approximately 30-50% larger in volume than a standard bottle of wine. With an eye to the airing thing, the design usually allows for one bottle of wine (25.6 ounces, 750 ml) to fill them exactly to their widest point. This ensures that the wine is presenting the largest surface possible to the air to allow it to pick up oxygen.
There are also cut-glass decanters, more for serving fancy spirits, and some specialty decanters that hold two bottles of wine (for magnums), some very pretty models shaped like Greek pitchers, with handles and pouring spouts, and some decanters even have perfectly rounded bottoms–so they can’t be put down on the table, and have to keep being passed until they are empty!
Decanting Theory and Practice One: Sediment
Bottle showing tartrate crystals and various pigments, tannins and other compounds settled out as a ‘crust’.
Virtually all modern table wine is intended for more-or-less immediate consumption, and will never have the chance to throw any sort of haze or sediment. Vintage Port, however, almost always throws a ‘crust’ in the bottle. This is because it’s bottled very early in its evolution. As many Vintage Ports need 10 or even 20 years before they’re ready to drink, this means that they will continue to evolve not just in flavour and aroma in the bottle, but also in appearance, dropping a thick layer of tartrate crystals, colour compounds and polymerised phenolics (tannins, mostly). If you just poured the Port directly from the bottle, you’d wind up with a pretty hefty layer of goo in the last three or four glasses. In this case, decanting helps present a wine in its best light.
Decanting to separate the wine from sediment is done very carefully. First, the bottle is brought up from the cellar and stood upright for 24 hours, to allow all the sediment to settle. Next, a scrupulously clean decanter is readied, and the Port is very slowly and gently poured into it. This can take as long as three or four minutes. The goal is to disturb as little sediment as possible. Towards the end of the bottle, the sediment will begin to flow down towards the neck. However, Port bottles have a strong drop-shoulder, and by keeping watch, you can stop pouring as soon as the sediment begins to flow towards the neck.
Traditional decanting process in Portugal. In this case the top of the bottle was actually cut off to prevent any residue from the cork touching the wine.
There are some gadgets that are designed to help with the process. The traditional candle held behind the neck of the bottle to help illuminate the flow of sediment has been replaced mostly by strong flashlights, but decanting cradles are still around. This gadget, looking like a cross between a dismembered music-box and a hand-driven apple-corer uses a mechanism to tilt the bottle with glacial slowness, to prevent any sudden tipping that could disturb the sediment. They’re not cheap, and most of the ones around are antiques.
Should you decant your Port before serving? If you’re the kind of person who collects vintage Port, you already have your own opinion on that. If you’re like most of us, making and enjoying Ruby and Tawny-style Ports from kits or home fruit, it’s probably not going to be necessary–but it does look fancy, and won’t hurt a strongly-flavoured, high-alcohol Port in the least.
Decanting Theory and Practice Two: Breathing
The most wide-spread reason for decanting is aeration, giving the wine a chance to soak up some oxygen, to ‘open up’ and express its aromas. On the surface, this sounds pretty good: the wine has been cooped up in the bottle, so letting it out to stretch its legs would make sense, right?
Well, according to some oenologists, wrong. According to these experts, post-fermentation oxygen exposure is virtually always detrimental, and the greater the exposure the more damage it does, driving off delicate aromatics and numbing the wines delicate bouquet. Only heavily sedimented wines should be decanted, they say, and then only at the very last minute before they’re served.
Old wine, trending to brickish-coffee colour as it has aged.
Indeed, for very old wines this is true. I was at a wine tasting in the early 90’s where a very rare bottle of Argentinean Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1950’s was poured. It was amazing at first, a rare and delicate wine with cedar, hints of blackcurrant, dusty cigar box, even rose petals lurking around. As I sniffed and swirled it over the course of four or five minutes the aromas got lighter and thinner until suddenly poof! It smelled of nothing except lightly vinegared water. It was almost like seeing a vampire getting trapped in the sunlight; it decayed away to nothing so rapidly. Decanting this wine would have doomed it to losing its character before the drinkers ever saw it.
Keep in mind, however, that most oenologists don’t make wine at home (hey, it’s their loss–I’m here when they want to try). If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 15 years of working in the consumer wine industry, it’s that people tend to drink their kit wines before they’re actually ready. Not that this is such a terrible thing–some wines taste just fine while they’re fresh and snappy with youth, and others, like the Mist-type fruit and wine beverages are meant to be drunk the day of bottling. However, the bigger, oak-aged whites and many of the reds really benefit from at least a year of age in the bottle, resting quietly and gaining strength for their unveiling. For these underage wines a little airing not only doesn’t detract from them, it also accomplishes the following:
Separates it from any sediment (definitely an ‘oops’ in young wine, but if you decant it, no one will ever know!)
If the wine has a small amount of trapped carbon dioxide (CO2) and is slightly ‘fizzy’, decanting can drive this off, making the wine smoother. Dissolved CO2 in solution forms carbonic acid, giving the wine a sharp ‘bite’. This is an issue that afflicts beginning winemakers quite frequently.
If the wine has an appreciable aroma of sulphite, decanting can oxidise it and drive it off. Most kit wines have a carefully measured amount included, but if you think you can detect it, decanting will disperse the ‘burnt match’ character.
Wines that are heavily oaked will lose some of the ‘Chateau Plywood’ character and show more of their fruit quality.
Highly tannic red wines will lose some of their harsher bite, and present a fruitier, more approachable flavour and aroma.
Indeed, with very young home-made wines the improvement made by decanting the young ones can be quite dramatic. They go from closed, low aroma wines with a character that some people interpret as ‘that taste’ to fully open, approachable wines with a pleasant aroma, and only the characters associated with commercial wine.
Decanting Theory and Practice Three: The Going Gets Weird
If you’re a very serious computer geek, the name Nathan Myhrvold will be familiar. As the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, he was charged with applying his brains strenuously to important science-y stuff. In his retirement he didn’t leave his big brain behind. In addition to spearheading private initiatives on clean nuclear energy and geo-engineering, he wrote the book Modernist Cuisine, a bazillion page tome on applying science to food preparation. He caused quite a stir back in 2011 when he wrote a short article for Bloomberg Businessweek. In it he described a radical idea for decanting:
Wine lovers have known for centuries that decanting wine before serving it often improves its flavor. Whatever the dominant process, the traditional decanter is a rather pathetic tool to accomplish it. A few years ago, I found I could get much better results by using an ordinary kitchen blender. I just pour the wine in, frappé away at the highest power setting for 30 to 60 seconds, and then allow the froth to subside (which happens quickly) before serving. I call it “hyperdecanting.”
Images from Myhrvold’s book, Modernist Cuisine
Your average winegeek will feel faint looking at that. I had my own gadzooks moment on reading about it, but I have since tried it many times. While Myhrvold suggests double-blind triangle tasting to confirm (where you taste three wines, two the same, one different, several times, served by someone who doesn’t know which wine is which, to eliminate bias) it’s such a simple thing to detect that I only bothered the first time.
It works, very well indeed.
Does this mean you should be putting your vintage Bordeaux in the Vita-Mix, as Myhrvold suggests? Not necessarily, as it’s actually very pleasant to allow a wine to open up slowly to enjoy its progression, it’s opening and changing over the minutes or hours. But if you’ve got a very young wine that’s stubbornly clinging to a closed and tenacious nature, and you own a blender . . . I guarantee you’ll notice an immediate change.
My friend Larry pointed out that I’d mentioned a decanting doohickey ‘looking like a cross between a dismembered music-box and a hand-driven apple-corer’. I really should have included a picture to go with that imagery, and courtesy of another chum (thanks Glenn) here’s a shot:
Any questions about it–is it useful, is it relevant, is it necessary–are irrelevant. I need one.
Tim Vandergrift Worldwide Product Development Laboratories
FOR IMMEDIATE DISSEMINATION
TVR (Tim Vandergrift Research–a division of TVCC Worldwide) is excited to announce a completely new product category for consumer wine and beer makers! For thousands of years, people from every walk of life have taken pride and pleasure from fermenting their own wine, beer, mead, sake, etc., not only because of the delicious beverages that result, but also from the sense of accomplishment and purpose that making things with your own hand can bring.
However, while consumers freely share their wine and beer with family and friends, there has always been one member of the family that has been left out: the cat.
Hey, who’s shoe do I have to soil to get a drink around here?
Around the world, over 90 million domestic cats are kept as pets, and in North America one-third of all households have at least one cat. While we lavish our feline companions with soft beds, dangly toys, good quality food and treats, they have never been able to participate in our rituals of wine consumption—until now.
After nearly a decade of research, TVR has produced the first home winemaking kit exclusively for cat owners, Nepeta Cellars ‘Le Chat Mechant’. Available in an easy-to-use format, it allows users to produce 4 litres (one gallon) of an invigorating, stimulating beverage that your cat will find irresistible.
Fragrant and lush, drives cats mad
The base is made from first quality Nepeta Cataria, grown by artisanal farmers in British Columbia. With extremely high levels of cyclopentanoid monoterpenes (the active molecules in catnip) this provides the kick cats desire and crave.
“Cat ‘wine’ cannot be based on alcohol”, says Dr. Stanley Owsley, head researcher. “Even relatively small amounts of alcohol are dangerous to cats. That’s where the specially developed ‘stutter-step’ yeast comes in.”
G.O.O.F.Y, engineered to not make alcohol
“Genetically Obviated Ortho-Flocculant YeastTM, also known as ‘stutter-step’ will ferment the sugars in the base, extracting the active ingredients in the catnip.” Dr. Owsley notes. “ However, as soon as it reaches 1% alcohol, the yeast re-absorbs and breaks down the alcohol, then starts over. In this way the active ingredients are extracted, slowly and smoothly, without any permanent production of alcohol that could harm feline neurological systems.”
Rich, green and fragrant, with aromas of mint, heather and tuna
In addition catnip and the necessary sugars in the base, flavours include tuna, rodent, chicken and turkey with giblets, for the savoury tastes that cats crave.
And crave it they will! Not only are cats are delighted with the flavour, they go bonkers for the effects. According to Feline Attractant, cis,trans-Nepetalactone: Metabolism in the Domestic Cat (Waller, Price and Mitchell 1969), behaviors include sniffing, scratching, rolling, increased motor activity, running, vocalisations, terrorising other pets and spaced-out drooling.
Side effects include agitation, sleepiness, and potential psychotic episodes
And not only is Le Chien Mechant completely safe (Behavioral and toxicological studies of cyclopentanoid monoterpenes from Nepeta cataria. Harney, Barofsky and Leary, 1978) it’s non-addictive and improves cardiac function and blood pressure in exposed cats.
Red with fish, White with fish.
If you love making your own wine and beer, and love your cat, you’ll love making Le Chat Mechant for them! Available April 1st at all good home wine and beer retailers.
I’ve only written my first words in this entry, and I’m already ashamed of myself. Why? Because I’m providing coverage of something I despise: the 100 point wine scale. If only it would have the decency to die a swift and painful death I’d never have to talk about it again. I hate it, I don’t use it, and I have a strong feeling that people who do so are fundamentally different from me.
Unfortunately, certain people are hanging on to the scale tooth and nail, knees and toes. I’ve criticised it before, in long-form at my previous blog (read it, sometimes I can’t believe I can be that coherent) but I find that the urge is back. What started me off this time was Jamie Goode. He’s a very accomplished and articulate wine critic, and doesn’t like the 100 point scale either.
Jamie put up a video on the scale. He speaks about the obvious flaws: the way the score is influenced by the critic’s biases/current state, the implied precision of a finite scale (1 point in a hundred!), score inflation (88 points is abject failure), the unattainability of a 100 point score, the low effort a lazy system like this enforces, meanwhile it’s the default system, as bad as it is, score inflation (eventually all scores will be 99 or 100), etc.
Jamie goes on to ask if it could be changed, if a consortium of wine writers could force a different system. The answer is probably not. Not because it wouldn’t be better, but because he’s missing the central flaw of the 100 point system, and its central appeal to people who market and sell wine–and who those people really are. More on this in a minute.
Jamie and I are mostly in agreement. What really set me off was the response from the other side of the fence, specifically Tom Wark over at Fermentation blog. Tom is a PR guy/publicist for the wine industry, promoting and marketing wine, wearing many hats, all of them well. He does fine work in his field, but it has to be understood that while he rails against certain details of the system and modern winemaking and wine, he represents the status quo and defends it.
Tom’s apologia is well-written, as usual. What he comes down to is this: the scale is shorthand, the imprecision is understood, and critics use it as an honest way of conveying important information in a soft field (subjective quality can’t be precisely qualified) and consumers who have the same mindset as Tom will find the scores useful, as they are well-intended.
Jamie may have missed the most important point, but Tom is subtly more wrong. Understandable, given his stance on the true usefulness of the 100 point scale. From a podcast episode of winebizradio.com
“What’s unethical…when I call a magazine and say ‘I’ll give you $25,000 for a 93 point score,’ and they say ‘You’re on’ – that would be unethical. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’ve only bought coverage, uhm, once or twice. As a publicist my job is to get as much ‘right’ kind of exposure for my clients as I possibly can. If I thought I could buy a 95 point score from a reputable publication and be reasonably assured that no one would find out, I’d do it in a minute.”
Let’s just soak in that for a minute. would it be possible to buy positive reviews from magazines without using the 100 point scale? Sure it would. Would it have the same portability, impact and downstream usefulness as a 95 point starburst sticker on your wine label? Not bloody likely. But Tom not only says he considers it an acceptable thing to do, he mentions having done it ‘once or twice’.
So here’s why the 100 point scale is a sick, rotten vestige of the bad old days of wine writing: it’s too easy for those in the wine buseiness to misuse it for gain.
I actually agree with Tom in some ways: it could be a useful if inaccurate and subjective way to describe wine in a shorthand that would benefit consumers. But as long as humans are human, it will be misused. Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale, wrote this about wine criticism:
Both the wine dealers and writers have a vested interest in maintaining their informational monopoly on the quality of wine.
Let’s go to the reigning champion on human economic behaviour. Adam Smith said
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
Meeting together in this case means tacitly agreeing on the 100 point scale as the arbiter of taste in wine sales. As long as critics can use the scale without having to fully qualify what the scores actually mean, it’s not just useful shorthand, it’s a direct route to manipulating wine consumers.
Before anybody uproars that no decent or ethical wine critic could possibly countenance that, I suggest you go back and read Tom’s quote above. Not only does he countenance it, he acknowledges that it is done, and that he has done it on multiple occasions.
Lest anyone think that I’m personally spiteful towards Tom, I like the guy. He’s a warm, thoughtful and genuine fella, and every time I’ve met him, he’s been kind enough to share his time and insights with me. But he’s a businessman defending his commercial interests here. The 100 point scale is a proven sales tool and can instantly raise any winery to unthinkable cult heights in a single number, and any publicist who didn’t fight for a high number as hard as they could is a bad publicist.
This leaves us wine consumers in a state. Three decades ago when I used to slavishly follow the Wine Spectator for ratings, the scores were useful: they guided me through the bottles in my local liquor store and helped me find some treasures–some of which scored only 87 points. I’m not entirely certain that the scale was free of corruption back in those days, but I know what it’s like today, and I can’t use it.
The only advice I have is to do a bit of meta-analysis: I’m a big fan of structuralism and this is where it comes in handy for me. I’m not nearly smart enough or educated enough to enter into extended debate on De Saussure and his philosophy, but in interpreting wine criticism a reductive version of structuralism is useful and necessary. Nothing a critic says means anything until you understand the context of his interrelationship with the wine and the world. Once you know where the critic is coming from, and how his or her bread is buttered, you’re more-or-less immune to their bias. From there you can pick out useful nuggets of information from the dross of their less noble intent.
But better than tedious Derrida-ist analysis of wine critics and their writings, I think the best thing a consumer can do is to grab a couple of good books on the history and general interest of wine and start trying a few bottles in their price range. Get to know the folks in your local wine shop, find out what they like personally, and then filter their recommendations as you go.
You’ll discover not only great wines, but the knowledge of their greatness within yourself–not along some imaginary, arbitrary and false scale designed for deceit.
Who is Tim Vandergrift and why does he want to help?
Excellent question–I’m glad you asked.
I’m an authority on consumer-produced alcohol beverages, what most folks refer to as ‘homemade’ wine, beer, mead, sake. For more than two decades I helmed the Technical Services department for first one and then the other of the world’s largest consumer beverage companies. ‘Technical Services’ makes it sound like I was in IT, but it was the only title that really fit the job I did. Mainly I talked, lectured and wrote about wine and beer making, wine, kit wine technology and applications, and anything else that people will sit still and listen to, and I did promotions and marketing and helped design and set up homebrew shops and On-Premise operations across Canada and the USA.
Nowadays I’m an independent consultant to the industry, doing much the same things as before, but as a freelance type guy–I’m always late for work and my boss is a slave-driver.
My usual writing style is pretty loose, and I can never stay on topic (my wife says I have undiagnosed ADD) so if you’re reading here, please join me in hoping for the best. I’ll be blogging about stuff I’m doing, beer, wine, food, cooking, drinking, eating . . . come to think of it, if you can ferment it, cook it, eat it, or drink it, I’ll pretty much be interested in it. Label me a professional hedonist, I think it fits.
I’m 50, and I live in White Rock British Columbia with my wife of thirty years and a horrible gigantic elderly curmudgeon of a Siamese cat named Spot.
Important Questions I get asked:
What do you mean, ‘I’m here to help’?
Just that: if you’re in the industry, you can reach me for consulting at tim (dot) vandergrift (at) gmail (dot) com. If you subscribe to Winemaker Magazine, I’m the regular kit columnist. I also blog on their website: Wine Kits. Or you can keep reading here and pick up useful things, such as which wine to drink (see below) or which beer to drink (all of them, especially the one you made yourself).
What’s a good wine?
Anything you like to drink is good. Seriously, if you enjoy it, it’s awesome. Never let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t enjoy because they’ve got their hand on your wallet.
Beer? What do you know about beer?
I’ve been an all-grain brewer since 1996 and I’m a BJCP certified judge. A lot of people say they love beer, but honestly I think they just say that to get it into bed. I have a deep and abiding emotional connection to beer that transcends time and space, and forms the basis of my personal philosophy (if more people relaxed and had a beer, more people would be happy).
What’s your favourite wine?
Whatever I’m holding at the moment. I’m awfully fond of Champagne and mind-bendingly expensive French Burgundy, but I’m happy to drink anything reasonably tasty.
What’s your favourite beer?
Duvel. There, I’ve said it. Try it and see if I’m right. As a category I’m awfully fond of IPA.
Do you ever drink anything else?
Sometimes a day goes by when I don’t have time to enjoy a beer–but not two days in a row. In between I’m very fond of the brown liquors, with emphasis on Scotch and Irish whisky, love a good cocktail (after three decades of devotion I’m still working on my Martini recipe) and sometimes even drink non-alcoholic beverages and I’ll try anything once. I’m not big on sweet drinks, or drinks made out of candy–they strike me as childish, and I grew up specifically so I could enjoy potent, bitter, sour things, not comforting sweetness.
I roast my own coffee and keep fifty or sixty kinds of tea on hand. I also remember drinking water once. Tasted like fish lived in it.
Why can’t you spell anything correctly?
I write in British-Canadian English. That means I put u’s in things and have the letter s where many people would put a z (pronounced ‘zed’). I should probably have a copy editor go over my stuff, but that’s a layer of complexity I rarely have time for–although I have a lot of time and love for good editors.
Why do you hate sommeliers and cicerones?
I don’t hate them personally (well sure, a couple) and I’ve even practised the profession in the past. I just don’t like the way their profession has evolved. A sommelier is just the person who manages and sells wine in a restaurant. They’re not gods among men, and they should be treated like any other knowledgeable waiter, not like superstars or arbiters of taste. As for the bizarre attempt to hijack the sommelier designation for beer service with the whole cicerone thing . . . I’m at a loss, really. It’s fun to talk to knowledgeable folks about beer and wine and the food pairings that go with them, but honestly, it’s not rocket surgery. People have been successfully consuming food with beer and wine for over ten thousand years without a designated expert to tell them that they’re doing it wrong.
What do you think of the whole Robert Parker/100 point ratings/professional wine reviews thing?
This is a family friendly blog.
Are you a curmudgeon?
Kind of. I honestly like people, though. Especially you–are you always this wonderful? Have you lost weight?
Can I ask you a question about winemaking?
If you’re a homebrew shop owner or a winery, contact me at the address above. If you’re a consumer, I’m pretty booked up most of the time, but I’ve got a notion to hold an ‘ask me something’ blog in future. I’ll let you know.
Do you do anything else?
Besides drink, you mean? I’m a national level competitive powerlifter, love motorcycles, garden a lot, hunt and shoot guns, travel, cook (everything) and I try to spend as much time as I can reading and thinking. Sometimes I even write for magazines and make deadlines.
Ha ha, just kidding. I never make writing deadlines.
Where can I read more of your stuff?
There’s the Winemaker Magazine blog I mentioned above. Sadly, the big fun blog I had at a previous employer has been erased with a liberal application of lawyers. Stay tuned to timvandergrift.com for the best stuff.
You could friend me on The Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tim.vandergrift
Or follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/Wine_Guy_Tim
Or look at my Instagram feed http://instagram.com/tim_vandergrift
Lord, please let there be no more social media thingies to hook into.
Spot can be found on The Facebook, when he can no longer be bothered to answer, being an ex-cat. I miss him always. . https://www.facebook.com/spot.cat.35