Thursday, April 26, 2012

A fly in my glass

     Pity that poor woman standing off by herself, gazing into her wineglass. She's not shy; neither is she looking for gnats. She's checking out the meniscus – the curve of the wine's surface where color, or lack of it, at the rim that can indicate intensity and age. Now she tilts the glass while people around her look the other way and rattle their ice cubes. Meniscus-gazing has become a kind of vinous tic with her, as is the swirl-and-sniff routine.
She’s just wine-struck, a common condition not limited by gender or profession. This has no known cure other than penury and is on the rise with so much good wine around. By wine-struck I don't mean people who consume too much good wine, although that is often a concomitant exercise. I mean those for whom the evaluation of wine informs all experience - and sometimes drives friends and observers away.
The wine-struck spend their vacations touring wineries with other wine-strucks, separated from wet concrete floors by the waffled soles of running shoes once used to keep their owners trim. They keep wine under their beds, or in space once reserved for the cat. Every few weeks they lock themselves away with the new issue of The Wine Advocate or The Wine Spectator. On Saturday, instead of going to the hardware store like other civilized people, they peruse the shelves of wine shops and sample cabernet, zinfandel, and pinot grigio out of plastic thimbles.
The wine-struck and cigarette smokers often speak the same body language, although they're on opposite sides of the olfactory divide. When a smoker enters a strange house he no longer looks around for an ash tray because there won’t be one, but he does look around for a way to discreetly get outside for a quickie with a filter at one end. The wine-struck immediately looks for a bottle with narrow shoulders and a punt that may indicate a "decent” red, or the gleam of a good chardonnay without a tell-tale yellowish hue indicating either too much oak, or oxidation.
Not finding either, he accepts a glass of perfectly acceptable if not great wine and subjects it to the rigors of an oenophiliac, behavior that gets worse if he happens upon another wine-struck. At least smokers don't spend a lot of time comparing cigarettes and reading the small print on the packages.
The wine-struck person's social predicament is further complicated if the wine offered as an aperitif happens to be good. That means that the wines to follow may be even better, even great. Does he forgo a pre-dinner second glass in the interest of a clear head and palate later on, when the good stuff’s uncorked? Or does he take a heavy hit of the first because it may be gone by the time dinner’s served? Does he discreetly work his way toward the dining room, hoping for a glimpse of bottles on the sideboard, maybe even a quick perusal of a label?
Some people become wine-struck after long exposure to expense account lunches, but more often they finance their own introductions. Sometimes the experience is downright Wordsworthian in its mystical effect. There's the famous case of the wine critic who drank Coca-Cola in early adulthood, until he tasted riesling in Alsace, I think it was, because it was cheaper than Coke, and was so smitten that he gave up the latter and a career in the law for one pursue the ultimate nose around the world.
And consider the young oilman who was exposed to
bordeaux instead of milk by a young woman serving him dinner, bought a reference book about wine to discover what this miraculous substance was, and because he could afford it bought first-growths to drink with dinner for the rest of the week - Latour on Monday, Lafite on Tuesday, Haut-Brion on Wednesday, etc. He married the young woman, chucked the oil business, became a wine retailer and collected so much vino that the floor of their apartment threatened to collapse while his income declined.
Consider the wine widows and widowers who sit home nights their spouses attend wine tastings. Consider the reformed enophile I know one who was wild for wine at a time when his contemporaries favored chemical substances and politics. Now that the first of those subjects has fallen out of style, he has rejected wine as bourgeois, and drinks Coke, presumably to be different. A sip of cabernet still does for him what the madeleine did for Proust, except that his remembrance is still full of '60s rhetoric and a longing for peace marches.
Here’s some advice for the wine-struck: Lighten up. If your friend wants to see a movie, forgo the vertical Barolo tasting; if the party wine’s an unclassed Bordeaux, drink it anyway. And if you run into one of your own, try to help him or her with the problem. Talk about something other than wine.
Victims of the wine-struck can help by listening to at least some of what they have to say. Because you can learn a lot. Wine enthusiasm is contagious once you get beyond the intimidating factors - wine terms and procedures, and the sneaking belief that it's all a bunch of bull. It isn’t, actually, and once you open your mind - and palate – a tanta1izing blend of the intellectual and the sensual could flow in.
So the next time you see a woman staring into her wineglass at a party, and hear her say, "This cabernet is really immature. It has good intensity at the rim, and good depth, but so does jam," remember that’s preferable to hearing, "I have a bug in my glass.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A reader on hang-overs (Too Much, 4/20)

Too much of a good thing. Our bodies have policies. Breaking these policies can have mild to severe results, from the hangover to the clap. Happy to say I’ve had countless bouts of one and none of the other. After all, I’m on a wine site rather than a skin site or medical site.

There was never a time when the hangover didn’t hurt, but lately, I’ve been more sensitive to it. Or maybe “good-sensed” to it. Hangovers always hurt, but being mid-30’s, they hurt more.

One new urban legend which came to me from a doctor-friend (a toxicologist, nonetheless) was to drink half a 5 hr energy drink before getting after it. No kidding, it helps a little.

Paul Worsterberg

Monday, April 23, 2012

Doc on France

Hear the one about a Frenchman who walks into a bistro and orders a bottle of Coca Cola instead of Bordeaux? It’s not a joke. Consumption of wine by the French is in le pissoir. According to a study in The International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Small Business, wine consumption in France plunged from 7 billion bottles a year to 4 billion between 1980 and 2008. The latest data shows just 16.5 percent of adults in France are regular wine drinkers. Research by Toulouse Capitole University finds there are fewer French who order a bottle of wine on the table at every meal – except among the over-65 generation. The middle-aged now drink wine more with friends than with families, as was the age-old custom. And the under-30s rarely order wine even when out with friends. 
Doc Lang
Doc Lang.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Too much

It began with champagne, as good things and disasters often do. Laurent-Perrier rose’, to be precise, served in elegant flutes with some canapes. The champagne was followed by a glass - was it two? - of white Hermitage, among the fine but largely neglected white wines of the Rhone Valley. By then the guests were at table, eating oysters en croute and pursuing the philosophical vagaries of real estate and politics. Tomorrow did not exist.
Next came a glass of red Hermitage, full-bodied and quite elegant with the lamb. The gracious host produced an unusual red wine from Provence, with character and finesse, that carried them on an even keel through the salad course. The hostess then served an elegant gateau de pommes with a coulis of apple and calvados, the famous apple brandy of Normandy. “It’s nice to drink a little calvados with the dessert,” she added, and indeed it was. It seemed even nicer to drink a lot of it.
I lived nearby and so didn’t have to climb behind the wheel of a car. I simply toddled down the hill, assisted by gravity, glowing like a uranium rod. Sleep was instant and deep and lasted longer than it should have. I awoke, if that’s the right word, inside the belly of a rhinoceros.
The hangover lasted a full day, during which time I did absolutely nothing, receiving sympathy from some people but not from my wife. Only once did I glance in the mirror and told the thing I saw there: “Never again.”
Hangovers seldom get discussed, maybe because they were once considered a fact of life, or evidence of bravado, but are now no longer politically correct. The new moderation lays shame on over-indulgence, but despite this a hangover is still occasionally visited upon even the circumspect drinker.
The old saw is it’s cured with “the hair of the dog.” Guinness stout’s sometimes cited as the ideal combination of alcohol and nutrients to jump-start another day, but stout requires a strong stomach. Some get an instant hangover, usually from red wine, and consider themselves allergic to histamines. I knew two women, one a food writer and he other a movie producer, who were plagued by headaches after only a few sips of wine until they began taking half a Benadryl tablet beforehand. One of them no longer drinks alcohol in any form, and the other drinks sparingly. But the antihistamine was, in their words, near-miraculous.
I’m not recommending it with alcohol, just passing along some folk wisdom. On the surface, hangovers seem utterly non-productive, but they have their existential proponents. The novelist and poet Jim Harrison, has written of the sharpness of detail in a world observed by the hung-over and of its inspired paranoia that sometimes leads to creation of fabulous characters.
Hemingway must have learned early how to deal simultaneously with hangovers and writing, considering how much he drank (and wrote). And in his journals, which are full of over-drinking, James Boswell admitted, “My intemperance was severely punished… I lay till near two o’clock, when I grew easier, and comforted myself by resolving vigorously to be attentively sober for the future.”
Some things never change. Noah, the first vintner, made his first vintage and, according to the King James version of the Bible, “drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent." In other words, he passed out naked. Ham saw him - not a nice thing to do in those days, apparently - so Noah cursed Ham’s son and all his offspring.
Some people say many of the world’s insoluble problems can be traced to that first morning after.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reader response (to Sniff, sniff... 4/6) and an interview

Great article and wonderful stories.... chemicals or the molecules of smell (or taste) are not the only things that influence our experience... past experiences, how our neurons are wired, the environment in which we are swirling - much more than the molecules.
Sondra, Cushing ME

This interview with me is by Tom Wark at

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Doc takes on global warming...

How is climate change affecting vineyards? Will growers have to go north and Kamloops, Canada, become the next Napa? Well, it so happens that, for the first time, scientists are documenting a direct effect of climate warming on vineyards. Using decades of records in Australian vineyards, scientists are able to show that early ripening of wine grapes is directly linked to a heating climate and the consequent decline of water content. The records show that, in turn, is causing lower yields. The study, just published in Nature Climate Change, was done by climatologists and viticulturists at University of Melbourne. It concludes that in southern Australia: “. . . grape maturation dates have advanced about eight days per decade. . . impacting wine grape quality.” So, Kamloops, here they come.

Doc Lang

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Coming into the subject

A reader asks how I got interested in wine, a common question often followed by: “Isn’t wine-tasting a marvelous excuse for getting smashed?… Isn’t the wine world glamorous?… And isn’t your real ambition to own a winery?”

And the answers are, in order: No, yes, and no.

I got interested in wine by drinking Gallo Paisano out of a gallon jug with a screw-off cap, a long time ago in California. I was living on the proceeds of a writing fellowship at Stanford, where my future wife and I also discovered the joys of eating in the company of this beverage - not just sourdough bread and pizza, but also such daring culinary leaps as lamb chops garnished with rosemary.

Next came New Orleans, where I worked for The Times-Picayune as a reporter and discovered that wine came in smaller bottles, with corks. Paisano was not to be despised with po’ boys, oyster loaves and steamed crabs, but even better was Wente’s “gray Riesling” with poached fish and crawfish tails.

Then we lived in Rome, where I worked for another newspaper. Our Italian whites were limited to Frascati, often drunk with huge mushrooms from the Alban hills that sautéed in olive oil and served like steaks. There is no food like Italian food, period, and the wines accommodated it in some mystical way. They were cheap and abundant; although we had little Chianti classico and no brunello or barolo, whatever the reds they were firm and memorable in their ways.

In Switzerland, where we lived on the top floor of a farmhouse and spent the winter skiing – believe it or not, that was once affordable – and those crisp Swiss wines live well in memory, served by our landlady with fondue and a slide show about the family’s cows. There was also cheese melted under electric heat and spread on little baked potatoes eaten with gherkins and spritzy white.

My first sip of burgundy came in Switzerland, too, from the Cote de Beaune. I can’t remember the village or the producer but I sure remember the taste. A French friend served it at a dinner party with veal in cream, on a very cold night, after placing the open bottles on the hearth.

After that, Penny and I made forays into France to smuggle lesser burgundies and Rhone wines back into Switzerland. Then, while working in Paris, we drank Bordeaux superieur, and inexpensive blends from the south - muscadet and, yes, lesser chardormay from Chablis, reasonably priced then and a great, steely wine for seafood and omelets.

In London, we moved up the wine list. “Hock" - West German wine in England - inevitably accompanied the first course. Then we got into the crus bourgeois bordeauxs and an occasional first-growth, and better burgundies. We were introduced to port and the ritual of the port decanter. (Don’t pass but slide the decanter, and if you do pass it you won’t be invited back.) Port with Stilton and walnuts was one of our great discoveries.

Finally, in Washington, I pored over Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine and began a long process of reading broadly about it and attending tastings. The subject appealed to me as a kind of index of the world, a small mirror of history and social values, as well as fun. I worked for a time for the Washington Post and ended up writing the wine column between writing profiles for the very politically and culturally engaged section Style then was, and in a few years tasted more wines than I ever knew existed.

Exactly how much I learned is another question, but I certainly learned a lot about human nature. Writing about wine isn’t a profession, really, it’s just an avocation that got slightly out of hand.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Bottle Stock:

Another voice clearly heard from Paso Robles: Austin Hope Winery, 20 miles from the Pacific in the Templeton Gap, offers a worthy antiphonal response to the power of the Rhone in its 2010 Grenache. Bright garnet, spicy nose, good up-front fruit and a lush, peppery finish suited to robust food.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

More from Hawk and Horse:

I painted the horse and my dear friend, graphic designer, Harrison Goldberg, painted the hawk. We were inspired by ancient cave renderings of animals in motion. I see the hawk and horse on our wine label as being in a sort of synchronized flight. We like to leave the arguments to the attorneys! Cheers!

Tracey Hawkins, co-manager

Note: Blogspot can make commenting difficult, for mysterious reasons. If you have difficulty write to me directly and I'll post for you:

My Traveler blog is

Friday, April 6, 2012

Sniff, sniff...

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but what about wine?

Does cabernet present the same bouquet to every nose? More exactly, does it ring the same sensory bells in all of us? Anyone who has sniffed and sipped in company knows that cabernet can elicit associations as disparate as black tea and raspberries from knowledgeable people, and both can be right.

Many people taste wine the way they look at abstract art, making their own associations in what is a highly personal relationship. That's hooey, say the experts. Aromas in wine are the direct result of natural substances and their interaction and can be cataloged more or less like groceries. Recognition lies not in the ephemeral imagination but in knowledge of the actual, and in memory. Chardonnay that has undergone secondary fermentation contains some of the same substance that’s in milk: hence, it can accurately be described as "buttery."

While smell is a basic sensory perception, it’s also a tender and mysterious subject. Simply biting into a madeleine called forth the complex childhood of Marcel Proust reflected in Remembrance of Things Past. Such are the powers, and potential magic, of our fully-employed individual olfactories. It’s offensive, therefore, to tell someone they’re a kind of personal computer that requires only the proper statistical in-put to spread butter on their chardonnay.

Part of the problem is wine evaluators – and wine writers - who freely associate and then put forth a blizzard of descriptors. Such wanton nosing should be controlled, say the same experts. One of them, Ann Noble, who taught sensory evaluation at University of California at Davis, invented the Aroma Wheel which presented the one hundred most common aromas in groups making them easier to identify.

In on-going efforts to define terms, winemakers try to pin down the exact - that is, classifiable - smells and tastes in their wines to use as marketing tools. Years ago a group of Napa and Sonoma wineries adopted, after considerable research, strawberry, cherry and spice as flavors that distinguish their pinot noirs from the rest of the world's.

Regardless of the accuracy or the consistency of your nose, knowing some basics is important to your enjoyment of wine. One common confusion involves the distinction between sweetness and fruitiness. Many people reject riesling, for instance, as being sweet when in fact it displays the floral aromas and tastes of that grape but can have a crisp, dry finish.

Even without descriptors, you may detect a lot about quality just by swirling the wine up the side of the glass (to increase evaporation), and taking a few short sniffs (rather than a major inhalation), and concentrating. Initial impressions are the most revealing, so try to articulate and remember them. Then take a sip and move the wine around inside your mouth, but don't swallow it. Draw some air in through your lips and over the wine, close your lips and exhale through your nose. Finally, swallow.

Sounds tricky - and maybe silly - but you'll find that it enhances flavor. Finally, relax and enjoy the conversation - which is now probably about your bizarre behavior.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A new appeal

In this the season of the Supreme Court’s least memorable performance I bring you… David Boies. You remember: he successfully argued for the landmark decision upholding the constitutional right of same-sex marriage, with his old adversary Ted Olsen.

Now Boies is a vintner as well as a lawyer and apparently knows something about grape, as well as jury, selection. The address on the label of Hawk and Horse Vineyards is St. Helena, Napa Valley, but he has vineyards of volcanic soil up in Lake County from which have evolved a big, deeply-hued cabernet and an elegant dessert wine – Latigo - in half bottles, also made with cab, that’s intensely flavorful and gallops on after you’ve swallowed it.

As you might have guessed, these wines aren’t cheap - $65 and $45. The hawk and horse on the label are either racing, or arguing, I’m not sure which, but definitely on the move.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Pretentious punts

We’re in the era of product enhancement, in case you haven’t noticed, including the pretentious punt. That's the indentation in the bottom of a wine bottle that gives the glass added strength which it rarely needs these days. Bottles with shallow punts cost less and often indicate inferior wine, whereas deep punts used to indicate quality. Often they still do, but nowadays a bottle of over-priced, over-oaked, alcoholic drek, too, can come in a Fort Knox of a bottle with a three-inch punt.

A wine bottle’s generally considered a means to an end, the world concerned only with its contents. But the bottle will outlast the wine and ends up on the kitchen table the next morning, or in the trash, to mock the reveler. The evolution of wine bottles is closely tied up with the history of wine, and questions of bottle size and shape are still subjects of debate.

Wine was first stored in amphorae that had been sealed with pitch, and then in barrels. Bottles were used only to serve wine until about 1700, when corks started appearing in bottles to keep out air and allowing wine to age and improve. But corks also dry out unless the bottles are turned on their sides, so as a result wine-bottle shapes evolved from pot-like containers to cylinders that could lie flat and be easily stacked. Presto, the wine cellar!

Over the years wine producers developed standard shapes and sizes of bottles that vary according to the origin and expected shelf life of a wine. The most common bottle size is 750 milliliters or 26 fluid ounces, but because good wine ages better in larger bottles many wines come in 1.5-liter magnums, which hold two bottles in one. Bordeaux also comes in double magnums, and in imperials, which hold about eight regular bottles. Champagne has its magnums, double magnums, jeroboams (four bottles), methuselahs (eight bottles) and salmanazars (twelve bottles).

For many, the choice of bottle size pivots more on consumption than storage considerations. Around our house standard bottles usually have wine left in them, which means putting in a rubber stopper and evacuating the air with a plastic pump. Some people consider this tacky, or ineffectual, but they’re wrong, at least on the second point. If you do it immediately after pouring, the wine – particularly reds – will be fine for a day or two.

If you abhor tackiness and the effort required to pump, a smaller bottle would save you some money from otherwise wasted wine, but half-liter bottles are proportionately more expensive and, from a producer/seller’s point of view, a pain. But half-bottles take up less storage space. And, because wine ages faster in them, some cabernets and other reds not yet ready in full-sized bottles can be drunk earlier in the smaller bottles.

Many half-bottles have the screw-on caps discussed earlier, which don't affect the taste of the wine and are cheaper and more efficient than corks. But they, like half-bottles, wine in boxes - and honest punts - lack of sex appeal.