Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What about the cork, anyway?

Quercus suber, the cork tree (oak), grows best between 330 and 1000 feet, with 15-30 inches of rain annually, and in a climate which never falls below 23 F. As a species of oak tree, it is relatively young. Portugal dominates the cork industry, though Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia together have similar acreage to Portugal, about 1.6 million acres. I didn't realize the cork industry actually started in Spain but was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, and while it still produces corks, most are now shipped to Portugal to support the industry there. France and Italy produce corks too, just not to the scale the Portuguese do.

Winemakers with small production spend a great deal of time thinking about the package your wine ends up in. This ranges from the shape, color, and thickness of the wine bottle, the label, and of course, the type of closure for the bottle. Stelvin closures (screw caps) are common, and when cork is used, there are many considerations. The cork supplier will have different grades of cork available. Those with the least marks showing along the sides of the cork are rated highest, and are the most expensive. Cork length varies also, with the longest (55-60mm) being about 5 times more expensive than the cheapest corks. You might have opened a bottle from Bordeaux or Barbaresco and had an unusually long cork (compared to most New World wines), since longer corks have a longer life as a closure.

I had an opportunity to visit a cork supplier recently to do a sensory analysis of the corks we'll be using this year for bottling. To prepare for the sensory analysis, the cork supplier takes random corks from specific batches, soaks them in a neutral alcohol for up to 36 hours, then remove the corks and pour the alcohol into wine glass which are then covered with slightly concave glass covers. We had about 45 glasses to sniff through, all numbered individually, and a sheet of paper with corresponding numbers to make notes on. These numbers also correspond to the batches.

Some of the notes we made for individual glasses (hence, corks) were, 'peppery(2x), off-odor (musty), bitter, soapy, slight chlorine odor'. Of the 45 samples, these were the 6 standouts. 'Peppery' might be fine, but 'musty', 'chlorine', and 'bitter' are warning flags. In the end, Kevin (see previous post for Kevin Kelley) chose the cleanest lots and those are the batches we'll end up with for bottling!

All wineries take care in their packaging, but a large producer (Yellowtail comes to mind) will assume that little attention beyond brand recognition is paid to the whole package. This is as it should be with that size production. A small producer might assume more consumer scrutiny, and will take care to coordinate the elements of their label (color, say) with the capsule (the foil over the cork). For a small producer, each unit sold has to be everything the buyer expects before the bottle is even opened.

Monday, August 11, 2008

W.E. Bottoms Vineyard

Kevin Kelley (Owner, Winemaker for Salinia Winery, Santa Rosa, CA and my boss for harvest this year) and I went last week to check on the progress of some grapes we'll be pulling into the cellar this year. W.E. Bottoms is a small vineyard within the Sonoma Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area). It spends quite a bit of time shrouded by fog from the coast, so it is a cooler climate location. This creates a longer growing and ripening season for the pinot noir planted there, yielding a more balanced grape by harvest time. The balance consists of acid and sugar. The sugar is important for alcohol (yeasts metabolize the sugar during fermentation, and in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic) yield alcohol), the acid for flavor enhancement and longevity of the wine in the bottle.

More on vineyard sites and grape sites/ripeness later. Here are some pics (above).

You and your palate (for beginners)

I find it interesting (and disturbing) at how little confidence many people have when it comes to tasting wine. I understand the feeling, but after countless conversations with friends, family, restaurant staff and guests, wine makers, wine sellers and others, I've come the conclusion that this is a function of the ceremony around wine presentation and most certainly not the lack of ability. Every human being with a functioning olfactory sense and taste buds can taste and enjoy wine.
If you are new to wine, or at a point where you are willing to venture away from your favorite 'go to' wine, then learning to taste what makes one wine distinct from another can be intimidating, though again, I have a feeling much of this has to do with opening the bottle (what are you supposed to do with that cork, anyway?), swirling wine around in the glass, taking a sip and 'slurping', and all of that just to figure out if it tastes good? Then, as if the process isn't cumbersome already, you are supposed to announce what you smell and taste, and get it 'right'. I have introduced hundreds of people to wine, and the point of least confidence is when they have to put a name to the smell or taste of what is in their glass. It is that moment I empathize most with for those new to wine. Well, let's demystify the 'ceremony' part of it, then address tasting...

Corks: The cork is just a fine way to seal a bottle, and has been for a long time. As a wine drinker, the cork is one of your best early indicators of how the stuff inside the bottle has been treated since it was put there. The first thing you want to do is look at the end of the cork that came out of the bottle. If it is wine colored, and most importantly, moist, you likely have a good bottle of wine in front of you. Gently squeeze that end of the cork to see if you get a little moisture, and again, that will tell you the wine in the bottle was sealed well. That is your biggest clue. The other thing to look at is the overall condition of the cork. If it is dry and crumbly, even if the wine end is moist, your wine might not taste the way it was intended. If it is soaked through with wine from bottom to top, it is possible that your wine might be off-tasting. If this explanation is adding to any confusion, just remember this:

Corks-check the wine end for moisture.

Glassware/Stemware: For our purposes, any wine glass with with a bowl shape will do. The larger the better, however, since it is helpful to get enough wine into the glass to swirl, but not so much that it will spill over the side. A tip: make sure your glass is clean by sniffing it empty. Sometimes it will smell soapy from the detergent used to clean it, and this definitely masks the smell of wine, so just rinse it with water, using your fingers to give it a little wipe, then shake the water out. Now, with a couple of ounces poured into your glass, give it a good swirl, and smell. Here is another hint: keep your lips barely parted so as you breathe in through your nose, some air is drawn into your mouth also. Try this smelling anything- a cup of coffee, a spice jar from your kitchen cupboard, absolutely anything that has a smell, and you will smell it more 'fully' since more air (and molecules of stuff you are smelling) are drawn in if air is taken in through your mouth and nose. Again, part your lips just a little, so don't be self-concious about it. Nearly everyone who deals with wine for a living tastes this way.

That is all I want to say about the 'tools' of tasting for now. The message to take away from the above points is this: Don't let the show of opening the bottle, the person opening the bottle (say, in a restaurant), or anything else distract or intimidate you when it comes to enjoying your glass of wine.

Now, and finally, back to tasting wine, and your palette. As I stated above, if you can smell and you have taste buds, you have the same ability to taste as anyone else, including wine professionals. Nothing you say about how a wine tastes is wrong! Your 'palate' is nothing more than an accumulation of all the tastes and smells you've experienced over your lifetime. Wine, chemically, contains molecules of all sorts of smells so when you try a wine that tastes a little bit like strawberries or raspberries, for example, it is because you know what those fruits taste like. THAT is what tasting wine is about- identifying smells and flavors you already know because you've smelled flowers, enjoyed fruits and other foods, smelled a spice cupboard, or sniffed the herbs in a garden or in the produce aisle at the grocery store. You have all the necessary equipment built-in to enjoy and explore wine, just a fact, so don't ever worry about being wrong. Anyone who is asking you to try a wine, or helping you learn about it, shouldn't expect a certain response, but rather guide you while allowing you to draw your own conclusions!

There is a vocabulary wine professionals often use to describe wines, but there is no reason to know it until/unless you are interested in doing so. If you think a wine has a smell or taste of vanilla, pineapple, pear, rose petals, cedar, plum, cinnamon, chocolate, grapefruit, lemons,pepper, or just grapes and alcohol, there is absolute truth to that, and any one of those is as good a description as anyone can give. For people new to tasting wine, this is where the second-guessing happens most! DON'T worry about it! Say what you taste, don't over think it, and most of all just enjoy!

I believe there is a right wine out there for every single person who drinks alcohol. If you prefer Bud Light, great! If you are a 'beer person', then stay one, but don't be afraid to try out different wines when the opportunity arises. Maybe it is with family at Thanksgiving, at a restaurant (by the way, ask the server for a taste first if it is a wine by the glass), a business lunch/dinner, or any other of dozens of occasions to try something different than your 'usual'. I guarantee you will find a wine to grab your interest!!!

Sensory evaluation (as in wine tasting) is fascinating. It is a topic we'll revisit from time to time.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Another wine blog???


Blogging about wine these days is like writing a love song-its been done, and it continues to be done again and again, so whatever is original about this one will primarily be anecdotes, tasting notes, 'finds', and a log of sorts relating to this year's harvest in Sonoma, California.

I really look forward fleshing out 'Metaphor' over time to see which directions it will take and grow in. I have a thousand ideas and will try them here, one post at a time! It is an earnest desire to include something to interest nearly anyone with a taste for wine, ranging from what a busy day in the cellar during harvest is like to tips on tasting, some personal favorites and picks, observations about wine as part of culture and life, photos, etc.

Enough preamble to 'Metaphor'! It distracts from the fun stuff, so welcome, and cheers!