Wine and the Immigrant Worker

I was listening to the news this morning about how the hispanic community is split over whether to support today’s work stoppage.  Some favor it, others feel it will alienate their cause.  Congress seems only slightly more unified in their approach to suggested solutions.

I don’t propose solutions here, but rather pay a brief homage to the thousands of calloused hands that make possible the product of our passion.  Without these seasonal workers, some legal, some not, the wine you enjoy would cost far more than it does today. 

Perhaps Maya said it best in her poetic ode to wine in the movie "Sideways":

"I like to think about the life of wine.  I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing… about all the people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it’s an old wine, about how many of them must be dead by now…"

So tonight, when we pop a cork over dinner with the Sagerman’s, I’ll think about the field hands that made it possible.  I don’t know of any easy solutions on the immigration issue, let alone today’s work stoppage.  This complex issue calls to mind a saying from an old favorite of mine, the crumudgeon, H.L. Menken (1880 – 1956), in what he referred to as Mencken’s Metalaw – "For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong"

The Fine Art of Spitting

Tim McDonald spits at SFIWC
Tim McDonald – an A+ Spitter at the ’09 SFIWC!

Now, in fairness, tasting six or eight 1-ounce wine samples doesn’t exactly strain one’s liver or raise one’s BAC to dangerous levels.  And the lack of spitters at public tastings is not unusual.  In fact, finding a high percentage of spitters at any wine gathering pretty much assures you it’s a trade tasting.  Those in the trade not only spit, we take pride in it.  Competitive pride.

I’d like to tell you I’m the most accurate wine spitter you’ll ever meet.  That’s what I’d like to tell you.  The truth is that in the realm of professional spitters I come in at, oh, maybe a C.

My limited spitting skills became painfully clear some years ago during a barrel tasting at Napa’s Swanson Winery.  Marco Capelli was their winemaker (now a consulting winemaker in Placerville) and our host for the tasting.   He started the tasting by placing a 5-Gallon plastic bucket in the center of the floor before pulling a barrel sample with the wine thief.  He dispensed a small taste into each of our glasses as he told us about the wine.  One by one, each of us sniffed, sipped and then, taking turns at the spit bucket, bowed our head so that spitting was a combination of gravity and our natural-born ability to dribble.

Then Marco stopped talking and took a small sip.  He performed the requisite swirl and swish, considered it for an instant, and then stood where he was as he let fly a solid, cylindrical stream of wine.  It was heard more than seen, hitting the bucket with such authority that not a single drop had enough nerve to defy the boundary of the bucket.  He was standing comfortably upright, a full four feet from the bucket.

Later, when I could pull him aside, I asked about his enviable spitting technique.  As I dabbed errant wine stains off my shirt, he explained the basics of spitting like a pro:

“First”, he said, “to taste a wine adequately you need far less than most would think – half an ounce is more than enough.  This small amount also helps maintain an accurate spit. When ready, simply pucker your lips and tighten your cheeks (note, your mouth cheeks).  Flatten your tongue so it seals up tight against the molars on each side, allowing the wine to collect between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  Then quickly force your tongue up towards your teeth.”

“After that it’s all about getting the right muscle control and pressure – just practice in the shower until you can maintain a solid stream of water that accurately hits the target.  I use my shower drain for target practice every morning.”

Well, I’ve been following his advice for a dozen years now, and I’m still not a Grade-A spitter.  But I can stand in the cellar with the best of them and issue forth a stream of sufficient force and accuracy so that I can avoid the heave-ho – one must exhibit sufficient spitting prowess to be worthy of tasting next to the winemaker.

And of course, one must also be able to say something insightful and intelligent about the wine.  But that’s a topic for another posting.

(Related reading – Jancis Robinson’s “How To Taste”, where you’ll find a one-page spitting tutorial buried amidst a mountain of other valuable material.)


Dave the Wine Merchant

A Whack on the Head

In launching a business, one gives up certain things. A salary. Family time. Sleep. This latter sacrifice caught up with me recenty. I’d had one of those “up at 5:30, drive 350 miles, attend meetings” sort of days.  And by late afternoon, perusing a wine publication at the local coffee shop seemed just the thing.

But staying awake was a struggle. I read a frustrating article in silent disagreement with the curmudgeonly writer. He seemed threatened by our evolving industry – “Why buy Syrah when you can get Cabernet for the same price?” he queried, followed by inflexible statements such as “Napa is the only source for great Cabernet” and “Those who shun Chardonnay forget it’s simply the greatest white wine on earth!” His hubris grew irksome. I closed my eyes in frustration. They were closed just for a moment, and then… BANG!

My head bounced on the table.

This tends to wake me up. And while I don’t recommend it as a regular form of inspiration, this whack on my head did bring a certain clarity to my silent debate…

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"I ONLY Drink (fill in the blank)"

It’s been said we learn a lot from our kids.  And sometimes we learn from the books we bought specifically to teach THEM something.  You see, I have a young daughter who, despite our best efforts raise a woman prepared for today’s world, wants nothing to do with anything that isn’t pink and glittery.

So we stumbled upon (yes, I know my intros are long, but this is the set up for my point about wine – we’ll get there in a second!) a book we thought would help her understand the importance of balance, of diversity in choice – Priscilla And The Pink Planet, by Jocelyn Hobbie.

In a nutshell, Priscilla is an inquisitive little girl who lives on a planet where pink is the only color allowed, by decree of the Queen. But independent-minded Priscilla dreams of seeing other colors and blazes her own trail to do so. 

By the end of the story, she’s used some very adult psychology at a tea with the Queen to convince her that, while pink is CLEARLY the best color, hiding the other colors might not be in its best interest because "…it’s hard to tell that pink is the best without seeing all the rest.  If all the colors were out for the world to see, pink would look even pinker, don’t you agree?".  And of course, once the other colors were out of the proverbial bag, the Pink Planet became a more interesting place.

The Wine Angle (Finally)
I was talking with one of our club members recently, who was complaining about receiving a white wine in her club shipment.  "I only drink red", she haughtily explained, then finished with "Every sophisticated wine drinker knows that white wines are born hoping to grow up to be red."

And there I was.  Talking with the Queen of Red.

She’s not alone.  The ranks of the Red-only Royalty are so burgeoning that one concludes membership is not particularly exclusive.  In fact, admittance is easy – members must simply believe that red wine is the only wine worth drinking (even if it’s free).  The more extreme sect believes Cabernet to be the only wine worthy of their esteemed gullet.

I understand.  As I’ll write in my next post, I followed the Cabernet/Red wine infatuation path for years.  But then I tried red wines in Europe.  And I tried sparkling wines, in Europe.  And I tried WHITE wines and, yes, even PINK wines, in Europe.  And I loved them all.  And then I came back and tried the widest variety of Domestic wines I could find.

At first, I found that these new flavors made me love red wine all the more.  Then, over time, something funny happened.  I discovered that a big red wine over-powered everything I ate with it, while the floral, acidic white wines, the blush wines, and the softer reds (especially pinot!) tasted BETTER with food, and the food tasted better with them.  I was hooked.

And yes, I still love red wines, just not all the time.

The Wine Deal
And so, for those interested in sampling a broader spectrum of wines, we present the following recommendations:

White Wines:
For a great wine that complements our lighter International diets,
Marsanne is all too often overlooked.  Here we feature one from Buttonwood Farms in Santa Barbara County – where growing conditions strongly favor the Rhone varietals.  And for a full-bodied style of Sauvignon Blanc, we can recommend the anti-Kiwi alternative from Fiddlehead Cellars, now on sale for $27 – an age-worthy white wine that converts many "Red Royalty".

Blush Wines:
Blush wines aren’t just for picnics anymore!  Try the one from
Kalyra, made from Cabernet Franc – the predominant grape used in the delicious Loire Valley wines.  We have a flock of pink wines about to be released, and we’ll announce them here or through our email alerts (sign up here).

Light-Bodied Reds:
One of the more interesting wines I’ve seen in a while is a food-friendly wine, again from Buttonwood Farms, that is also from the Cabernet Franc grape.  Dubbed "
The Infant", the juice was left on the grape skins longer than one would for a pink wine, but not as long as one would for a full-bodied red.  A great spring wine.

As you might expect from us, no description of the "rainbow of wines" would be complete without pinot noir.  But there were so many to choose from in our store that I provide here a link to the entire
category for perusal by interested parties.  And yes, the category also includes Chardonnays – a vestige of my Burgundian classification habits.

As we progress up the scale of bigness, I hesitated to place Syrah before Bordeaux varietals, because so many of them are being made in bigger and brawnier styles.  So I’ve decided to
feature one here that hails from high-altitude, Central Coast vineyards that produce a softer, leaner style well suited to today’s foods.  It’s from rising-star winemaker David Corey, and is well worth checking out now, before the wines become so popular nobody can buy them anymore.

OK, if being king means you’re the biggest, I guess Cabernet is still the king of reds.  And while we offer some excellent
Bordeaux Varietals, our featured Big Red wine is the Nebbiolo from Benjamin Silver – another winemaker on the rise.  His Nebbiolo is very true to type, grown in conditions similar to those of the great wines of Northern Italy – Barolo and Barbaresco.

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Build Your Own Pinot – part 2 of 2

How would you go about making a world-class pinot noir?  This, of course, is a rhetorical question.  Creating a satisfying pinot requires years (lifetimes?) of experience in winemaking and viticulture.  The well-worn path to pinot failure is lined with the remains of those hoping to shorten the time-intensive process, then discovering their odds of success are only slightly better than winning the Lottery.

As with most things artistic, there are a thousand creative decisions that interact to determine the ultimate result.  Here is an overview of the choices you would have to make in producing your own, award-winning pinot:

Which vineyard location?
Few varietals reflect a sense of “place” as much as pinot – it is Terroir-Driven.  In selecting your vineyard, consider altitude, soil type (is it high or low vigor?), drainage, wind, average temperature by day-part, rainfall by season, and avg. hours of sunshine.  U.C. Davis recently held a conference on “Terroir”, with the day’s most memorable quote coming from <i>Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyards</i> (though as I write this it seems more appropriate to make that the other way around) who said “I’ve concluded that one lifetime is simply insufficient to learn how to produce terroir-driven wines”.

Which Root Stock?
This is relatively easy, as there are likely only a handful of viable rootstocks.  But if you have high-growth, vigorous soils you’ll get lackluster pinot.  So pick a low-vigor rootstock to reduce your crop yield (an activity known as “de-vigoring” the vines).  Two tons of fruit per acre is a reasonable goal, though some of the best pinots come from vines producing less than a ton per acre.  The increased intensity of the fruit from low-yielding vines is one of the primary reasons for the high price of pinot.

Which Pinot Clone?
This gets tougher – pinot has a highly unstable DNA structure that easily mutates.  To date, over 1,000 pinot clones have been documented, each producing pinot with slightly different characteristics, and which must be selected to grow and ripen most effectively in your chosen vineyard and on your rootstock.  Note, by contrast, the highly stable Cabernet Sauvignon vine has only a dozen identified clones. 

The truly curious find it helpful to know some pinot clones are named after the winery or vineyard that popularized them (Wente, Beringer, Martini, etc.) while others are numbered, with domestic clones being assigned numbers under 100 and French clones assigned numbers between 100 and 1,000. 

Which Trellising System?
Trellising, or “training”, the vines determines how much sun exposure the grapes will receive.  This decision requires that you balance freedom from the molds and diseases that threaten these temperamental grapes against the possibility of sunburn and.  Direct sun exposure also affects the grapes’ ripening speed and the flavor profile they produce. 

Etc. Etc. Etc.
Your list of creative choice goes on to include decisions on date of harvest , sorting technique, whether to de-stem prior to fermentation, cold stabilization prior to introducing yeast (or choice of natural yeast, if you have experimented enough to know your local yeasts are desirable), type of yeast if innoculating, length of maceration, to rack or not to rack, to filter or not to filter, type of oak barrels to use, degree of toast desired for the oak, and length of time in barrel.  Finally, how much do you want to spend on bottle, label and closure (cork or screwcap?)

This long and intimidating list of choices is being taken on by a growing number of small producers, many of whom are refugees from the increasingly large wine conglomerates whose accounting departments over-manage their artistic wine making process. 

Wines from these producers dominated the San Francisco Pinot Noir Shoot-out in March of ‘06.  This public event featured 40 pinots, each wrapped in foil and randomly assigned an identifier, then tasted in a blind format.  A panel of astute pinot experts had tasted over 200 pinots in order to select the 40 they thought the most worthy.  This format not only tests one’s palate, but allows an accurate calibration relative to that of others.  I am pleased to report that I discovered some great new pinots that day, and am in discussions with some of the producers to them to you.  Watch for them here.

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Quote of the day:
"How can a few notes of music, some paint on canvas, mere juice of grapes fermented with yeast, have the power to lift the human spirit? No one can explain this; it is the mystery of art."
– Unknown