Saturday, January 14, 2017

Free advice for home winemakers!

My Zeppelin brings all the drunks to the bar
   And they fight
It's better than yours
   Damn right
It's better than yours
   I can teach you but you have to sparge

Having been at times forced or enticed into "enologie sub-garagiste" (that is not to say, using the bomb shelter under my inferior-vintage Citroen-Maserati as a wine cave) I am all too aware of the difficulties involved in making very small amounts of wine: temperature control, oxygen management, free grapes that are worth less than their cost, and discreet disposal when no one wants to drink them.  Though my professional career has shown my advice to be worth its weight in dimethyl dicarbonate, I am not unwilling to answer the questions that come from time to time from enophiliacs who dabble in what I am pleased to christen the Sour Science: for a mistake can give the same result as the so-called Sweet, if perhaps not felt until the next morning.
Goddamn, why did I drink that bottle of Two-Buck-Chuck Wepner?

You do understand what I mean by sparge, right?  Recule - j'ai un carbodoseur!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Really slipping on the new posts, ain't I?

Pardon my oak dust, but either I've had nothing to say that exceeds a hundred words since last harvest or my memory has . . . um, wait . . . well anyway, my old posts are still up.  And here's a picture of guess who-all from almost twenty years ago, taken in Santa Fe, New Mexico during my dual-nationality winemaking years.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Band photo courtesy Elvis Died For Your Sins 

Of all the reeking, noxious terms left in flaming paper bags on the doorstep of the wine drinker by the hacks and cogs of the industry (i.e. writers, marketers, sales sluts, and the occasional semiliterate sommelier) are there any more posturing, more absurd than "rock star winemaker"?

I'm waiting.

I'm not referring to famous musicians who signed off on a marketing program after quickly pounding glasses of the three different blends offered them in an attempt to give the product a bouquet of authenticity, and I'm certainly not referring to winemakers with discernible musical talent.*  No, it is the ludicrous claim that the common possession of hair, personality and a microphone make one like the other.  It does not.  Nor does a bad drug habit, especially if acquired by a bad winemaker.** Working a crowd is the provenance of stand up comedians, motivational speakers, and recently paroled salesmen at seminars; while musicians may do so, it is not their primary activity, unless they suck.***  If a winemaker is like a musician, the comparison should rather be with the serious guitarist working on his masterpiece in the studio for months unto years, not the howling clown deafening a horde of unruly drunks with the same stupid song he's been performing for decades.

Though when was the last time you heard a winemaker say something original?

* Among whom I can be numbered, as an audience consisting of my loyal fans quickly discerns that I have almost no talent in the few moments before my "voice" burns out and/or I forget the lyrics.  
** We do not confuse Dee Dee Ramone with - well, there used to be two Paso vintners named Shannon.  I refer to the forcibly retired one.

*** Something my loyal fans yell at high volume when I'm onstage; to acknowledge the accuracy of their judgement and their saliva, I stage-dive on them.  I'm quite good at that, at least.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The third and last of the series: The Corporate Winery

"You're from . . . Franzia?"

To conclude our series,  we will examine the type of winery that's responsible for most of the world's swill.  CORPORATE OH NO!  Skip the addled graduate student's anti-capitalist screed:  what passed for Soviet wine was capable of producing a hangover ten minutes before the initial buzz, and Hitler's little known attempt to produce a "People's Wine" under the motto "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Riesling" wound up overheating the cooling systems of Panzer tanks.
Can we move on?

The Corporate Winery often began as one or more Authentic wineries, became successful and was purchased: sometimes by Jess' a vain ol' empire builder not content to have unleashed a tsunami of sweetened Chardonnay upon the cougars of the world, and sometimes by a multinational marketing company that has since changed hands so often that key cogs no longer know where some of their vineyards are.  Some retain some authenticity, but at least the winemaker's checks don't bounce.

Corporate wineries are usually successful at brand-building and Sales! and indeed, the wines sometimes increase in quality, though this is not the case if the Czar-E-O issues an order that no winemaker will be allowed to set foot in the vineyards without prior permission from the Kendall-Kremlin.  (More leaves and more clusters meant more wine and more money went his reasoning.) When they are not successful, it might be found advantageous to their Treasury (ahem) to inter thousands of cases of their wine (some of it excellent) in landfills because projections were missed and their Mafioso distributors returned the wine.
I did not make that up.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Part 2 of a series "There are three kinds of wineries in this world, my friend . . ."

 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a.k.a. the Authentic, the Vanity, and the Corporate.
(In Cal-Ital, we call them Il Buono, Il Brutto, y El Nino.)

In the scene above, the Vanity winery moves in next to the Authentic winery;  the guns represent the huge, deep new wells they drill, enabling them to flood their acreage in July in the middle of a drought and plant nursery-started green-growing vines instead of dormant cuttings in spring.  They're in a hurry!
Soon afterward, the Authentic winery's wells go dry.

"Hey, what happened to my vineyard?!?"

     The Vanity Winery's owner got rich doing something supremely, somnolently boring and/or utterly odious, according to your perspective, dear reader, (real estate development, environmental law, waste disposal, rock band management) and is heavily motivated to start his winery by the hoped-for purchase of social status and the drowning of nightmares.  (There are female examples of the type, but 'exceptio probat regulam';  they are rare and will go unmentioned.)
     The tasting room and offices generally represent an obscenely large fraction of the winery's cost, and there are ostentatious displays of questionable artworks that have no relation, symbolic or otherwise, to Elvis Presley.
Perhaps he wears a powerful cologne more expensive than any of his wines, but he almost always has little real knowledge of viticulture or enology; in the worst cases, he pretends to be or actually is the winemaker.  (If the latter, the visitor should be prepared to spit with 99.44% efficiency.)  
     In extreme cases, the owner will be seen to use horses in place of a tractor in the vineyard when there are cameras present, much as the Hollywood Morgul drives a Prius by day and a Bugatti by night.  In Napa, there will frequently be caves, unnatural, if not a Batmobile taking up valuable barrel space.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"You see, in this world there are three kinds of wineries, my friend . . ."

"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

Just kidding - that's a takeoff on Clint Eastwood's line to Eli Wallach at the end of Sergio Leone's marinara masterpiece, and while a loaded (squirt)gun can be useful when confronted with an obnoxious wine writer, digging pomace is killing work.

Pardon me: that train of thought derailed before it left the station!  I'll start over.
The three kinds of wineries are:
"The Authentic, the Vanity, and the Corporate."
(There will be no pseudoscientific Venn diagrams here to tell you that the categories partially overlap - I just did.  Other types of wineries we will ignore: e.g. Hopeless Amateur Vinegar Works.)

The Authentic Winery's owner and winemaker are often the same person;  if not, the owner knows how to do some parts of the winemaker's job, not just lying to wine writers.  If there is a pristine copy of a book on biodynamic wine somewhere on the property, perhaps hovering in midair or buried in a compost pile of unicorn dung, there is also a much-worn copy of Professor Emile Peynaud's textbook in office or lab.  The wines are at least palatable, in proportion to the achievable quality in the region and the experience level of the Authentiste, and for the purposes of authenticity it matters not if the winery is in a garage in Bordeaux or a cement monolith on the edge of Death Valley.  I withhold judgement on the winery in downtown Chicago, and no, I did not make that up.

The next blog post will discuss Vanity wineries, which are a lot funnier.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Colossal philosophy: thoughts on high-alcohol wines

     The recent reputational suicide of the critic Robert Parker, known for his love of high-extract, high-alcohol wines, has freed some of us to produce in this style without opening ourselves to charges of pandering to the Noseless Emperor, and I am one of those - though unlike Mr. Parker I didn't spend my college years dropping candy bars into tumblers of Everclear and slamming them down at parties.  During my New Mexico enological sideshow in the '90's, I made a few wines under 12% in alcohol, as it seemed what the variety, chemistry, and ripeness required, and most of my best California wines of the last century (!) were under 14% ABV, though primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

     Upon devoting my overtime oenological energies to California (I'd never stopped making wine here;  our New Mexico harvests were in July leaving me free to return west in mid-August) and more importantly, moving to the Central Coast, I noticed that Syrah in particular often did not flavor-ripen until higher potential alcohols were reached, and in the case of the west Paso hills and mountains, the best examples were often over 16%.  (Saxum is perhaps the prime example;  I can say I was present at their creation while claiming no credit.)  The La Mort Du Roi and Colossus wines, which have ranged from 16.1 to 17.5, have I think been in the same league, or ballpark to abuse the metaphor.

     The percentage of alcohol by volume is usually the only scientifically derived number on a bottle of wine, and thus offers an easily misunderstood measure of its other features. The pretentions to expertise of wine writers being what they are, ignorant opinionation on the subject has multiplied like yeast cells in rich must over the last decades, and show no signs of stopping, though some of us smelled the off aromas of bad fermentation a long time ago.

    "As is well known" the alcohol in the bottle is the result of the sugar in the grapes;  without intervention the conversion rate is in the .55-.62 range, and so by reading the number on a label we can deduce a general idea of the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, remembering that Buellton is not Barstow nor Sonoma Sacramento, and of course accounting for the variety.  The complicating factors make assumptions unreliable, to say the least: in wine as in so many other things, exceptio probat regulam: the exception probes the rule, puts it to the test, it does not prove or confirm it.  (A different kind of 'proof' though related.)  So to the anti-high-alcohol pontificators, let me offer the following:

    If you're getting too buzzed from a glass or three of 16% alcohol wine, drink a bit less or add an ice cube.  I won't judge you - much.

    Some high-alcohol wines are 'flabby' - low in acid, low in tannin if red, and/or low in C02.  That's not because of the alcohol.  (Repeat.) This goes for other faults as well, all of which can be found in lower alcohol wines.  Balance between structural elements is complex!

    High alcohol wines aren't food-friendly?  Who has a huge Shiraz with trout?  Would you have a dry Rose of Grenache with a BBQ glazed tri-tip?  If your sommelier suggested those pairings, he's just a busboy who won't shut the fuck up.

UPDATE: Several hours after writing this, one of my wines won a 'shootout' tasting at a swanky event in Solvang (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara) - over two dozen winemakers were asked to bring their 'best' wines, which were then tasted blind with each judge - the aforementioned winemakers, for the most part - being asked to vote for one wine.  The winning wine was 17.5% alcohol, and the vote wasn't close.  (It was a fraternal twin sister of the Colossus under one of my client's labels, different barrels being the only distinction.)


Band practice

Band practice