Thursday, February 25, 2010

Grape Sex

There are about 60 species of Vitis in the world (of which Vitis vinifera--the classic wine grapes--is but one). Many (all?) of these species have several or many different varieties within the species (Merlot and Riesling, for example, are two varieties of the Vitis vinifera species). Just in Italy alone there are more than 200 different vinifera varieties of grapes made into wine, so the likely number of grape varieties, amongst all grape species, worldwide, must be in the tens of thousands or maybe even millions.
All of these sixty grape species can be crossed with each other, to make hybrids. Nature continually makes hybrids in the wild, and for about 150 years humans have been doing it purposefully and scientifically.
Most grapes have 38 chromosomes, but some, including Muscadines, have 40 chromosomes. (Humans have 46 chromosomes, in 23 pairs.)

Grape breeding continues apace across the world, in a determined-but-by-its-nature-very-slow race to develop better varieties. The improved grapes will lead to less use of sprays, less use of tractor fuel, less use of bird netting, and, hopefully, good wines. All those "less uses" are Green with a capital G, so it is well worth the effort.
Monkeying with grape flowers (which are some of the smallest flowers) is a big deal and takes a very long time horizon, just to be able to properly judge the results. It would be helpful if we consumers keep an open mind towards wines made from new hybrid grapes. They may taste different to our palates, but do you remember the first time you tasted a good Malbec wine? It is different from the other common vinifera grapes, and yet if you're like me, you were able to happily make a place on your shelf for it . . .

Thursday, February 18, 2010

When NOT to trust a Frenchman

This is for all of us who have had trouble, in a blind tasting, identifying a Pinot noir from a Syrah:

Guess what? Gallo, the largest winery in America, had trouble, too. They didn't figure out for years that "Pinot noir" which they bought from France was actually much cheaper merlot and syrah, which had been fraudulently mis-labeled by clever French criminals. Clever criminals who are right now probably wondering whether there is good wine in prison.

Hey, is there?

Update: Hey, last Friday night I attended a blind tasting (we didn't know the grape varieties) and I correctly guessed four of the six grape varieties. Yoohoo! Bet I couldn't repeat it. What made it tough is that some of the wines were not good examples of their type.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More fallout in the California wine industry

The NYT has a fascinating story about the wine woes of our gargantuan sister state to the south:

(note: this photo did not run with the article; I found the photo separately)

Their, and my, points:

1. Wineries are seeing declines of 25%, 30% and as much as 40% in sales.
2. Most wineries sell most of their production to distributors, and don't use social media
to build their direct sales markets (their direct sales are mostly to winery visitors). Consultants are encouraging wineries to grow their social media marketing.
3. Profit margins are better in direct sales to consumers, but additional staff is required for more and smaller shipments. I would add that it's not as efficient, in terms of carbon footprint, for a winery to ship many small packages to diverse locations, compared to, say, shipping all of the wines bound for Texas to Austin, from which they can be shipped on to retailers and consumers who live closer to that distribution hub.
4. With previous vintages piled up in winery warehouses, some wineries are seriously considering just letting the 2010 vintage grapes rot on the vines. If a winery has debt to service, you can imagine how devastating that would be.

. . . and I have no idea why someone would just flood a winery floor with thousands of gallons of fermenting wine . . . (vandals? hose popped off? irrecoverable infection in the wine, and it's being poured down the floor drain? market so weak it can't be sold? Normal blowoff of lees remaining in the bottom of the tank? (but it doesn't look milky or chunky enough)). Why would he wear a ski mask? If he's a vandal, why would he allow a photo of his crime to be taken? This world is a strange place.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Police look for discolored tongue, to spot thieves

No, these fine younglings are not thieves. As far as I know.
This is a story about France, just after the Revolution. Besides worrying about the guillotine, everyone was short of food. Thieves roamed the countryside, stealing whatever they could eat. In response, vineyard owners started painting their ripening grape clusters with a mixture of copper sulfate and lime sulfur. When thieves tried to eat the grapes, they tasted terrible, and the spray also left a telltale discoloration on their tongues. Some thieves were went to prison and to the guillotine, after the police spotted them by their tongues.
Epitaph: Someone noticed that the grapevines that had been sprayed did not have as much infestation by the typical fungus diseases (Powdery Mildew; Downy Mildew; etc.). Upon a bit of experimentation, the first effective spray for grape fungal diseases was developed, called the "Bordeaux Mixture."
You can't make this stuff up.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Four C's

Isn't that stone gorgeous? That is a spinel ("spi- NELL"), a fairly rare gemstone which doesn't get nearly enough play in jewelry, given its superior qualities (great hardness, fantastic dispersion (reflectivity/ sparkle), and range of colors. Until modern lab testing, Spinel was thought to be ruby, and indeed some of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London were always believed to be rubies, but are really spinels.

We grade gemstones by the Four C's: Color, Cut, Clarity, and Carats.

But why stop at gemstones? What about wine? The color of a wine is one of the ways we most identify with it, whether it is a meek attempt at red (I'm thinking of Pinot noir, of which the French say, "Color in Pinot is like clothes on a woman--utterly unnecessary!") or a vivid, teeth-staining purple so rich in resveratrol that you could turn a nursing home into a kindergarten with it. Let's call the cut in a wine the style of it--as we could speak of "the cut of a person's character," we could talk of the cut of a wine. Is it big? Balanced? Complex? Aromatic? Clarity is an interesting wine topic. Some winemakers will filter and filter until they get a product that is so polished and sparkling that it might seem more like sculpted marble in the Musee d'Orsay than mere liquid. Others think that filtering strips out flavors, but science is seeming to suggest that filtering, even down to .45 microns (enough to prevent yeasts and bacteria from passing) doesn't, can't, strip out flavor compounds. Me? I'm fine if a tartaric acid crystal occasionally floats by. I wouldn't want my wine to look like a Hefeweizen, but if it's reasonably non-opaque, that's fine. Carats? In Wine? We could say it relates to the size of the bottle, surely.

And why stop at wines? I have survived 28 years, and counting, in modern corporate life. It seems to me that all we need are the Four C's:
1. Competence: A sense that we have enough skill, experience, and resources to accomplish reasonable goals set out for us. This requires managers and peers who serve as good mentors and encouragers and enablers. In the true Montessori spirit, we must all give, even better than we receive, in this regard.
2. Challenges: The right kind of problems to solve: Not too many (stressful), not too few (boring), not too easy (boring); not too hard (frustrating).
3. Congratulations: We need recognition for our achievements, and we need to freely give recognition to others as well. This process helps to create a peer-based reality, instead of everybody feeling like a low rung in a far-flung hierarchy.
4. Communication: We need to be told what's going on; without that, we feel excluded and we aren't able to contribute as well to the company's success as we might.

If employees don't get the Four C's, they will likely be demotivated. After all, as employees we are serving in the role formerly played by slaves or serfs. The life of a serf was nasty, brutish, and short. One way to break out of the "owe my soul to the company store" mentality is to avoid most forms of debt; limit the urge to be materialistic; save like crazy, especially when you're young; invest conservatively in diversified, low-cost investments; don't panic when others are; see yourself as a citizen of both your immediate community and also of the whole world (this whole national-identity thing is much over-rated); and work like hell to preserve your good health, so that you can enjoy what should be many years of happy pursuits in whatever fields turn you on.

Thus endeth the Four C's.

How Climate Change's Extreme Weather Events Affect Grapes and Wine:

  We (Epona) joined the Porto Protocol a year or two ago; it's a collaboration of grapegrowers and winemakers, worldwide, who are focusi...