Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Behold the humble yeast

Behold the humble yeast: They turn sucrose (table sugar; C12H22O11) and water into CO2, heat, and alcohol (C2H5OH).

Without yeast, there would be no wine (though I suppose one could distill hard alcohol and add it to grape juice, but I don't see that product clogging the grocers' shelves).

Without yeast, no wine.
Without wine, chaos (surely).
Ergo, without yeast, chaos!

I've been studying yeast, preparatory to making some Viogner wine, and you know what? They are really just like goldfish. Like pet fish, they come in many forms, and have been bred (hybridized) for particular properties. Just within the ambit of enology, there are dozens of specialized yeast varieties that one can buy and use--some are for cooler ferments, some express fruits better, some are good for high residual sugars, some don't mind concurrent malo-lactic fermentation, etc. There is even K1-V1116, a "killer yeast" that engenders comparisons to piranhas; I'm using it on some Cayuga grapes right now (the yeast, not piranhas). And if you add in the myriad naturally-occurring yeasts that rest in their trillions upon the skins of grapes and elsewhere, the sheer number of types might boggle the mind.

Unlike pet fish, yeast can remain dormant in a dry environment, but they are most at home in water, such as the sweet and boundless sea contained in a single grape! They have a set of requirements, if they are to be able to function. Behold, the needs of wine yeasts:

1. They must be stored cool. Mine are by the butter dish in the fridge.

2. They need to be re-hydrated carefully. Not too hot and not too cold. Not for too long. Not with water containing chlorine. Not with must (grape juice) containing too much SO2 (sulfites).

3. The right quantity of yeast must be added to the must (the fruit juice). Too little, and it could take too long to spread throughout the must, allowing other organisms to reach the bounty first and make vinegar, acetone, or bitter wine out of your precious juice.

4. Like fish from the pet store, yeast must be introduced carefully to the must. If the must is too much hotter or colder than the yeast, it can shock the yeast into creating "petite mutants," reducing the rate of fermentation, or causing it to produce hydrogen sulfide (think rotten egg smell). And the must temperature must be at least a certain temp.

5. Like pet fish, yeast must be fed. In addition to sugar, they like nitrogen and phosphates. No french fries or pizza for your pet yeast, mind you.

Then, when the alcohol level is finally too high for them, they quit working, and go dormant. They sink by their millions into sludge at the bottom. They could be used again, but in practice (due to their contamination with undesirable stuff), they are sent to the septic tank or the sewage treatment plant. Almost makes you wonder if somebody will pick up the banner for them: "Prevent Yeast Abuse!" Give them pensions, or something.

And get this: Their mere existence in winemaking poisons their own environment, not unlike overpopulated humans in that way. They die as victims of their own success. Is the universe cold, or what?

But that is the life of wine yeasts. They sleep, dormant, forever if need be, but then are suddenly thrust into absolute Heaven, but only for a few days. For us, they make their Heaven into a Hell. One person's Hell is another's Heaven! Reflect on that, the next time you lift a wineglass.

Here's an article:

Grape and Wine Glut!

Check out this article on msnbc. As one might expect in a recession, there is a widening excess of grapes and wine.

It is made worse by the rapid influx of newbies to the business. Here in Oregon, we've seen hundreds of Californians sell their homes in the Golden State for a small fortune, and then they use the cash by moving to Oregon and opening a vineyard/winery. Others, like me, plant small vineyards and dream of planting commercial vines. This is fine, so long as the demand can meet the supply. But Oregon Pinots have always been priced high (some say, too high), and there are more and more wines elsewhere in the US and the world (even Pinots, say, from New Zealand or CA) that provide similarly high quality for less cost. The Willamette Valley's continued success will depend on the stability of the luxury market demand. It's nice when you serve the rich, so long as they keep buying. So long as they keep rich.
We may see an increase in winery failures. We are already seeing reductions in grape sale prices, and land prices.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Emperor of Wine's clothes

I recommend that you read the following article, on (if you're a subscriber):

We're All Wine Critics Now: How the Internet has democratized drinking.

By Mike Steinberger

Posted Friday, Sept. 25, 2009

The upshot:

1. Robert Parker and his fellow wine critics/writers have, allegedly, not always held to the high ethical standards that they have long espoused (standards, the widespread belief in which helped catapult them to the top of the world's wine review scene):

a. They have allowed people in the wine trade to pay for their trips;

b. They have allowed wineries to hand-pick the bottles to be tasted (if you have ever tasted a peach slice at a farmer's market, and then bought the supposedly same peaches, only to get home and find them much less sweet than the piece you tasted, you know what I mean);
c. He doesn't buy all the wines he tastes; this is economically understandable, but I think he used to claim that he never tasted wines that were given to him by the wineries.

2. A senior employee at KL Wines in San Francisco told me that Parker does NOT blind taste his wines. Allegedly, he knows beforehand what he's drinking. I suspect that is why the First Growths in Bordeaux tend to receive consistently higher scores than the others; one can only wonder how the scores would shake out if all the wines' identities were kept in cognito.

3. The internet, and the growth of massive numbers of amateur wine critics (ahem, like me, and, perhaps, like you) have blown the doors off the emperor's clothes, to mix a metaphor. This is all to the good: It will keep the great critics more honest. What we need is the benefit of their tremendous experience and tasting skills, unmarred by any resemblance of ethical impropriety.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oktoberfest in Cincinnati!

Well, I can tell you that Cincinnati OH (which now employs our elder daughter) has the US' largest Oktoberfest. And why not, with its many German immigrant neighborhoods, including one we walked called "Over the Rhine?"
Where else can you sample Goetta, a grain-pork-beef-spice concoction that is really quite tasty, as well as challenging haggis for the title of supreme weird national food item. We had Goetta on a stick, no kidding. And sauerkraut balls, which were awesome: breading around kraut and bits of sausage. Yum! The many, many sausages are just too divine--I recommend the "Mett" ones; far better than simple bratwurst. And all kinds of strudel, including pumpkin. Many bands were there, doing the Chicken dance and polkas, but also including impromptu late-night rock songs by guys with accordians and trumpets and voices, but they were fantastic. A few cops around, but no rules and lots of fun, spread out over six huge city blocks. Nobody cared if we brought in our own beers. Norm (from "Cheers") was there to lead a beer trivia contest. There were more beer stands and beer types than I have seen anywhere except Portland's beer festival and the beer fest in Boonville CA.
If you can't make it to Munich's Oktoberfest, or Mt. Angel's (where it's kind of fun, but they are so uptight and you can't even carry a beer down the street), you might consider Cincy's, someday. It is the real deal, transported to the US.
PS-I just found this pic online, but I actually saw that couple!

Heart + Wine = Healthy, part 17

In yet another finding of better living through wine, a new study concluded that older citizens can ward off dementia, diabetes, disability, heart disease, and stroke, by indulging in a beer or glass of wine, daily. Alcohol thins the blood, raises "good" chloresterol, and keeps clots from forming. But if you already have dementia, wine makes it worse, so start drinking early! ;)
And 11% of seniors admitted to hospitals exhibit symptoms of alcohol addiction, so if you're older, watch your dosage of wine. Older folks can't metabolize alcohol as quickly, so they need to be very careful to monitor their dosage of it, as well as the time between drinking and driving or other physical activities.
And did you know that moderate wine drinkers tend to get more exercise, weigh less, and be overall healthier than the non-drinking and excessively-drinking population?
Source: Oregonian, Sept 23, 2009, page D2.
PS-Isn't the human heart beautiful? Just think of what it does for us. The brain, for all its inner glory, is much less extroverted than the heart-it is content to function without any discernible motion at all, like a black cat sitting in a dark corner, watching a party. Little wonder that our recent forebears (say, the Classical Greeks) ignored the quiescent cauliflower in our skull and thought the heart, with all its wild gyrations, must be the center of the soul, thereby giving us the immortal Valentine heart motif. We indicate love by gesturing to our hearts--maybe we should start pointing to our heads instead, only without making any circular motions or L-shapes with our fingers ;)

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

We two tepid travelers took a slow train (the Empire Builder) through two nights and two mountain ranges. The train started (in Portland and Seattle) in two parts which merged in a 2am Spokane hookup. Our "Superliner Roomette" cost two hundreds more than coach fare (including meals and newspapers), and had two bunk beds in its too-small quarters. Each dining table hosted two pair of tasters at a nifty afternoon winetasting, at which we enjoyed two pairs of wines and cheeses, each, somewhere near Twin Falls. The train tooled not too smoothly on two silver rails to to-morrow, with many too-ts of its horn, passing through lands settled by Teutonic peoples. Two volunteer naturalists boarded, to tu-tor us on the wildlife (pronghorns, bighorn sheep and foxes) and history. Don't forget your too-thbrush, and have fun if you go!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Vino Began in Azerbaijan

In the beginning of an agricultural renaissance that began tens of thousands of years ago between the Caspian and Black Seas (modern day Azerbaijan), grapevines were brought to the villages from the forests where they parasitized trees. Before the first bronze-age vineyards were established, wine was made by collecting less-than-ripe fruit from the boughs of trees and large bushes. It was a race to get the berries before the critters — so nothing much has changed for some of us. The wine was likely low in alcohol and high in acid, and may well have been mixed with water when drunk. Bringing the production from the trees to the village (trellising with crude teepee-shaped structures, the villagers found keeping the vines in the sun increased sugar and made better wine. The result was the first viticultural revolution — western culture would never be the same after wine became commonplace in Europe. And wherever Europeans went, wine followed. Now we have entered the 21st Century and we have been blessed to live at a time when more advances in winegrape growing have emerged than in any other period of history.

This is excerpted from the (really excellent) Winemaker Magazine, to which I subscribe:

What is a Duckhorn, anyway?

I tasted some Duckhorns last night. Duckhorn was co-founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. They certainly built a pretty building. I'd guess they are somewhere near the middle, in terms of popularly-perceived wine quality. Spectator gives their wines a tremendous range of scores, from the 70's and even a 68 score (those are failing grades, folks) to lots of 80s and some few 90s.

But, guess what? Just look at Duckhorn's per-bottle charges, and you'll be amazed; I guess they're marketing to damn fools, because nobody else would pay these prices for such low quality:
Their 2005 Goldeneye Pinot noir is $60: I disliked the wine down there (although the setting is gorgeous and the patio tasting service is top-rate), and I disliked it again last night. No varietal bouquet or flavor. For this kind of money, buy the 2008 Beaux Freres or any number of good Oregon pinots!
2006 Napa Merlot: $59. ($59???) Very plain. No nose. Not worth $12. Hell, not worth $2.
'05 Napa cab: $69. Way too tannic--you can't even drink it. Too little bouquet.
'03 Napa cab: $99. It gets only 87 points from Spectator and they want $99 for it? Hey, dudes! You can buy an 87 point cab for just $10-15--why would you waste money on this stuff? It's just as over the top with tannins. I don't see any fruit in there. Maybe it will drink in 20 more years? If they're going to make wines like this, they should do us all a favor and cellar them for 10-20 years, and then sell them when they can actually be consumed.

I'll say it again: Head for Yakima, Red Mtn, Tri-cities, and Walla Walla. Drink the cabs (and syrahs and cab blends, and Lemberger) from there, and notice all the change in your pocket afterwards, and marvel at how good the wines are, and how clueless many of the CA winemakers are. Ultimately, the damn fools will die off or quit buying-overpricing your wares on low quality is not a successful strategy.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Mars vs Venus? Hogwash!

In non-enological matters (admittedly, a small topic ;), I would argue that there are far more similarities than differences, between men and women. One could even claim that the differences are so few as to be surrounded by the following statements:

1. Women need iron supplements and men don't (men tend to eat more red meat and they don't lose blood regularly).
2. Women and men have the same pituitary hormones, but in different ratios.
3. There are a few anatomical differences (such as, in the 1970's and 1770's, many men wore their hair longer than the women did. And such as, women do the whole PG, L&D thing, while men either smoke cigars outside or catch spears inside while marveling at the elasticity of the cervix).
4. Women are now achieving more in education than men are, particularly in college and grad school, but also in high schools. And men are paid more for the same job, in some places, but I think that may change faster now, given the women's advantage in school.

There. That's about it. The similarities include everything else, and it's a big world out there, so there are millions upon millions of similarities.

You think I'm wrong? OK--you wanna talk shopping? I can't stand the mall, but you should see me in a garden store, or with a wine catalog. Whether it's a young woman in the mall, or a 50-something guy in Home Depot's tool bin, shopping is really only research, isn't it? Or, you wanna talk about staying at home, versus pushing papers in an office? For the first time, there are more women employed than men in the US. Or, how about math and logic and using the left brain? There are plenty of women who prove every hour that those are emphatically not a male domain. And the number of men who know how to listen to their "feelings" is probably, oh, 100%, though maybe not enough of them know how to talk about it.

So why would wine be any different? I know some manly guys who prefer rose and white wines. Ditto for ladies who want a red so tannic it can curl teeth. Maybe more women than men prefer sparkling wines (aphrodisia is far beyond the scope of this note), but how often do you see a guy turn down a free glass of Moet Chandon?

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

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