Friday, October 30, 2009
Behind the tasting room door is another world most visitors never see – the wine cellar. There is a flurry of activity in a wine cellar and most of it is preceded and followed by cleaning. Lots of cleaning! Here is a quick example from just the other day:
For the past several weeks, in a 1,000 gallon stainless steel tank, our last batch of wine (fresh Merlot grapes transported via refrigerated semi-truck from California) has been slowly fermenting. Yesterday morning I performed a pump over operation on this wine.
Pumping over is a process where the ferment (juice/wine and grape skins) are suctioned from the bottom of the tank through a hose connected to a pump and sprayed “over” the top of the must (the floating grape skins on the surface) – while perched precariously atop an 8 foot ladder. This important process, something most winery visitors don’t see frequently, is needed to extract all the wine goodness (e.g., color, flavor, tannins, etc.) and helps prevent bad bacteria from taking over.
For cellar rats, a term of endearment for those who work in the cellar, this is a thrice daily (at least) activity during the early stages of fermentation and a task many would call “work”. To me at least, performing a pump over or doing the traditional punch down (same function as the pump over but requires the use of a hand tool where one plunges the must below the surface) is almost a meditative endeavor. I punch down, pull back, submerge the must, in a Zen-like state or trance trying not to be overcome by the oxygen-depleted environment. You see, during fermentation a tremendous amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is released and if a cellar rat (figuratively and literally) breathes in too much can die or lose consciousness. A dead body in a vat of wine, despite what you may have heard, doesn’t add complexity to any bottle of wine!
After carefully cleaning the hoses, pumps, and thousand-gallon tank there were countless other tasks that needed attention. For the rest of the day I conducted a panel of wine laboratory tests, including pH, TA (acidity) and Sulfur Dioxide (SO2). And of course there was plenty of cleaning! Always cleaning, lots of cleaning!
Brad is a contributing writer to Make Mine Wine Magazine and can be found on Facebook at the Eastern Iowa Wine Club (Fan/Group) pages.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Okay. You've decided to splurge and are going to have an evening out with the Mrs. which will feature dinner at a good restaurant with wine. Oh. My. God. You think to yourself: I am going to have to select wine. What to do? What to do?
When ever I am going to plan a night out which features wine I ALWAYS look the restaurant up on the web and search for a copy of their wine list. Generally, the web based wine list won't be 100% accurate, but it will usually be 80% accurate and that is good enough for my purposes.
Even though I have sipped and sampled hundreds of wines over the past several years there is NO WAY that I can remember which wine and which vintage are hits and which are misses. And, I'd feel like a fool were I to show up with my dog-eared wine log comparing my favorites with their listing. That is why I consult the online version first. At least I'll have a couple of wines in mind when I arrive.
As I have noted before there are several keys to understanding how to buy wine in a restaurant:
1. There is always garbage on the wine list. Your job is to NOT buy the garbage.
2. There is a lot of good expensive wine on the wine list. Pay attention to #1 above, as some of the expensive wine is bad.
3. The wine director will spend the overwhelming majority of his/her time populating the lower priced end of the wine list.
Keeping #1, #2 and #3 in mind I typically begin my search at the lower priced end of the wine list. The first thing I do is to discount the obvious bulk wine in sheep's clothing such as Sutter Home and Gallo.
The next thing I do is seek out the bazaar named wines and eliminate them. I know it isn't very scientific and I don't have good data to back up my decision. You know the sort of brand to which I am referring: Fat Bastard or Ugly Blonde.
I also eliminate critter wines. These are attempts by the vintner to sway your wine buying judgement because there is a cute animal on the label. Run. Run very quickly away.
If there is anything left on the list: I look for a brand that I have enjoyed before; I look for French, Australian, Californian or Washington state origin; I look for standard varietals.
There is a lot of good, reasonably priced wines to be found - even at restaurants. You just need to do a little homework before you head out the door and be ready to dig through the low-priced selections when you get there.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Over the years I have enjoyed many bottles of wine and have come to believe that humans have never lived in a time with more, higher-quaity and less expensive wine. We live in a time when it is almost impossible to find a bad bottle of wine. Like I said, almost impossible.
The truth is, the 2006 Beringer Merlot California Collection is not a bad wine or an awful wine: it just isn't a good wine.
My impression: Medium bodied with astringent mouth-drying tannins on the tongue and rich plum on the nose. Vegital and medicinal on the finish. Not pleasant to drink.
I paid $6.99 for the 750 mL bottle at my local wine store. Easily the least enjoyable wine I have drank in quite some time.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
In my new quest to find good inexpensive wine I am spending a little quality-time with 3 liters of Black Box Chardonnay.
A few posts back I wrote about a the 1.5 liter Wine Cube offered at Target. The
first big difference between Wine Cube and Black Box is the volume of the offering. A 3 liter box is not insignificant in size and makes demands on you refrigerator shelves. Also, the Wine Cube is a Target product and available only at Target. I bought my Black Box ($23.99) at a somewhat upscale Harris Teeter grocery store.
I am trying not to get hung up on the size of the Black Box Chardonnay and feel that there is something important here. Only a few years ago the 3 liter size was reserved for not-very-good off-dry whites and blushes to be served at parties and quickly dispatched. This Chardonnay is something else all together. What if...what if better-than-average wines could be sold reliably from boxes? What if those storage sacs in the box REALLY could keep out oxygen for a week or two? What if we surrendered our romance for the glass bottle and cork and concentrated on the contents and not the packaging?
My impressions: Reminded me immediately of a very good French Chablis. Big nose of citrus and smokiness finished with wet-stone minerality. Moderately acidic. It is the stone-minerality which pushes me towards the Chablis comparison but it isn't nearly as acidic as most Chablis.
I paired the wine last night with a very simple dinner of boiled fresh vegetables, cold sliced chicken and a mayo-sour-cream-dill sauce on the side. The wine was a great accompaniment to the sauced vegetables and chicken.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
A friend at work who knows my fondness for fine wine asked me what I'd been drinking lately. I found myself slightly embarrassed as I'd not really tasted anything noteworthy for quite awhile. My drinking has been limited to some very humble, low priced offerings since giving up my position as Wine Director for Restaurant 213.
The question did get me to thinking: What would I like to drink if I had the choice? In the old days, I would taste whatever the wine reps brought by placing me at their disposal. Granted, their offerings were often good and occasionally sensational. Yet, it does beg the question. What would I like to drink?
1. French Champagne. I know, I know it sounds really vague but I have NEVER been disappointed when I opened a bottle of the real French stuff. The humble Moet & Chandon White Star is a reliable mid-priced Champagne which has never disappointed me. Nor, for that matter, has it overwhelmed me. I have been overwhelmed with the fragrent, sumptuous Krug brand. On more than one occasion I have shared a small sip of a horrifically expensive bottle of their vintage stuff and was floored by the difference. Careful: There is a Krug brand in California: this ain't the REAL stuff. The French Krug is most definitely the REAL stuff.
2. 1986 Cabernet Sauvignons from California. I had my personal wine awakening in 1984 while stationed in San Diego in the Navy. I visited Napa Valley several times while living in America's Finest City and each time I sampled products from different wineries and always falling back to the bold California red. It may very well be that 1986 was not a great year for California cabs, but it was a great year for me and I continue to hold the memories of those first reds in my mind. Principle among them: Monticello Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Jefferson Cuvee, and Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. I bought two cases each of these 86's and they endured until 1998 when I finished the last bottle of the Monticello Cellars in my back yard that May night before we started our drive East. It was a great wine at, or near, it's peak.
3. Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. The hard-core French White wine fans will find it difficult to understand why I'd put these two wines in the same category. Well, it is simple really: I can't tell the difference between them and I find them to be day-in and day-out simply the finest white wines on the planet. There is almost something magical about them as they warm in the glass until the steely backbone is softened with flowers and butter.
So, that is it. My desires are not too special and all that I want to drink are the finest Champagnes, Reds and Whites the planet has to offer. But, for the moment I have glass of Black Box Chardonnay sitting next to me demanding my attention.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Wine Lab 2
Originally uploaded by iowine
As I walk into my back porch, a 3-season porch, I am greeted to the sound of 17 gallons of La Crosse (white, hybrid grape) fermenting like mad! I know this because on the top of my primary fermenter (a closed container) is an air locked filled with a sulfur-citric solution that keeps critters out and air from entering the vessel.
The exiting carbon dioxide gas burping from the air lock has a nice rhythm that goes: burp, burp, burp....bubble, burp, bubble. The sound
of fermentation is a comforting sound to me because in its own way it is saying everything is going fine. Then there is the smell, some would say fragrance, of fermentation. I know many a winemaker widow (the wives of friends who make wine) who complain about the nasty stench of fermentation. To which I shake my head in complete lack of understanding.
The scent of fermentation, like the sound, tells me everything is going well. And similar to the smell of bread dough rising on the counter, the smell of fermenting wine is similar. Comforting. Soon, when all the sugar is consumed by my yeast friends, the scents and sounds of fermentation will be no more.
And this winter as I visit my wines, patiently waiting for the heavier particles to fall to the bottom so I can rack and transfer the wine to a new container to wait some more, I'll think back to these short few weeks and reflect.
I love the smell/sound of fermentation in the morning! :)