Toward better wine science communication (and my PhD)

If you’re a winemaker, a vineyard manager or viticulturist, or in a similar role, and if you have ten minutes to help a PhD student gather some data (and improve the state of research communication in the wine industry), I’d be most grateful for your response to this survey on your feelings about winemaking and growing information and where you go to find it. Find the completely anonymous survey here: http://fluidsurveys.com/s/winescienceinformation/

Why thinking of wine as food solves the natural wine debate

Wine is a food. A surprising number of people are surprised when I say this. It seems obvious: wine is nourishment. Nourishment with specific effects, yes, but all foods have some kind of effect on us, if some more profound than others.

Saying that wine is food isn’t the same as saying that wine is harmless. Nearly every food will cause you some sort of harm if eaten in inappropriate quantity, and any amount of some foods are bad for some people. Jack Sprat and his wife are really caricatures of all of us: some people are happiest and healthiest as vegetarians and some really live best with meat, some feel their best eating dairy-free and some can’t digest soy, some thrive on lots of carbs and some on more protein, some need to avoid salt and some don’t. Guidelines apply, sure, but setting down universal rules about what’s healthy for everyone just doesn’t work. Alcoholic beverages are food, dangerous for nearly everyone in large quantities (allowing that what qualifies as large varies from person to person), not tolerated by some, and healthy and useful for many.

Remembering that wine is food fundamentally solves the debate about whether or not wine must be “natural” in order to be valid. The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is still no, but with some elaboration.

The reality about food in our post-Wonder Bread, post-Michael Pollan, post-Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall world is that we* near-universally know that locally-grown, minimally-produced, food with clearly identifiable ingredients that came out of the ground, off a tree, or from a recognizable piece of a pastured or wild animal represent “real food” and the ideal of what we should be eating. On the other hand, anonymous food processed out of recognition in large factories, wrapped in plastic and trucked about the country feeds most people most days. This is not ideal, but it’s the situation we have. Wine is the same. Boutique, caringly-crafted, often minimally messed-with wines are the ideals much lauded by our leaders. Still, Gallo and Yellow Tail and their ilk are still responsible for most bottles (and boxes, and jugs) on most tables most of the time. This is also not ideal.

The conundrum: while real food — including wine, and meaning ingredient-focused, sustainably grown, minimally processed, and preferably local — is ideal, it’s usually more expensive and sometimes unavailable. Especially in economically impoverished urban areas (and even very rural ones sometimes, perversely), wholesome fresh food sometimes is simply unavailable. Some people don’t have the know-how or time to prepare fresh food well. Even if just about everyone knows that eating mostly out of packages is bad, many still do so for a variety of reasons that may or may not be their “fault.” My husband once said that if the United States wanted to create an effective and complete anti-hunger program, the government should contract McDonalds to administer it. Neither of us voluntarily choose to eat fast food. But you can’t deny McDonald’s expertise in delivering enormous quantities of consistently edible food to essentially every corner of the nation. When it comes to hunger, food is better than no food, even if the food is a mass-produced hamburger. Even though wine isn’t a basic necessity, mass production of what the natural folk would call fake wine makes wine accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to afford or access it at all. And much as I spurn the capitalist-driven food production system, I have to give credit where it’s due. We have industrialization to thank for safer food supplies and clean, well-made (as in not overtly faulty) wine. Understanding the benefits science and technology can bring, our task now is to undo the additive-filled and soulless damage we did to what nourishes us in figuring all of that out.

We can and should put community gardens into empty city lots, teach children how to grow their own radishes and encourage them to tear up the grass in the yard to do it, support fresh food markets in food deserts, make food production and cooking classes part of the school curriculum, and design economic policies to support local and organic food production. How to do this stuff is complicated. People specialize in economics and food policy. I’m not one of them. I’m not going to pretend that I know how to make these changes happen. I don’t believe that we need GMOs and factory food to provide enough food to feed the world, but I recognize that as a belief based on gut feeling and emotion and philosophy because I haven’t worked through all of the data. I’m consistent, though, in believing that the entire world could and should have access to real, honest, well-crafted wine if we changed the infrastructure surrounding how wine is produced and distributed. And we should.

So, the obvious conclusion. Appreciate mass-produced wine for providing volume and access while actively working toward making real wine — defined the same way we define real food — available to as many people as possible. Those of us with the money and education to buy real wine should, something we pretty much do already for cultural reasons, but perhaps without seeing the connection to the local and real food movements. Realizing this connection is important: it brings into focus the privilege inherent in preferring real wine and, in tandem, should help motivate us to work for change in both spheres. Think of real wine as part of real food, prefer both if you have the resources to do so, and think about what you can do to support its production and improve access. The Michael Pollans and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls of wine have yet to step up in terms of consumer education at least in the United States, hardly surprising considering our short history and present state of wine education, but something toward which to look forward nevertheless.

Now, what we define as “natural wine,” as in where we set the line between wine that’s allowed to carry that distinction or to show up at The Real Wine Fair — that’s a different question, and a semantic and philosophic more than a practical one. So is what we call “authentic wine,” and the issue of drinking local versus global is an entirely different discussion. More on those another day.

Incidentally, if we’re post Michael Pollan, I’d say that fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz (upon whom I’m inclined to wax poetic) is the prophet of our future food revival. Does that mean that I love quirky “natural” wines? You bet.

 

*I may be defining “we” rather narrowly as reasonably well-educated Westerners, but I doubt it. I haven’t surveyed people shopping for packaged foodstuffs with food stamps, but I know that my friends who fall into that category know what healthy food looks like and aren’t choosing it for a variety of reasons. Less well-educated folk may not know who Michael Pollan is, but the collective media we has achieved pretty high penetration if not on his message, than on the message of fruit and veg and whole grains good, processed foods and added sugar and salt and fats bad.

“Feminine” wine: Why are we still having this conversation?

I’d thought that “masculine” and “feminine” wines were on their way out. Or, rather, I’d thought that the use of gendered stereotypes to connote particular wine styles was on its way out. One small sign that my hopes were premature: Wine Enthusiast’s online feature on “Top Wine Terms Defined” not only includes “feminine” but asks me not to “automatically bristle at this gendered wine term.” Okay. Tell me why. Unsurprisingly, their reasons are unconvincing and point back to why we shouldn’t be using this term in the first place.

The article praises the term for being easy to understand and quotes a beverage director to the effect that feminine wines share a woman’s “best qualities,” being “light, refined, and delicate.” So, I’m being asked not to bristle because, first, everyone knows the female stereotype of womanly refinement and, second, because it’s implied that we’re paying women a favor, referring to their best qualities. After all, “feminine” wines aren’t moody, flighty, or hysterical, equally stereotypical but negative characteristics associated with women. Nope. I’m bristling.

We’re being invited to agree that women are supposed to be — or at least that the best women are — gentle, fair, and fragile. I don’t need to belabour the point. Women can and should be praised for being a lot more than that: strong, intelligent, capable, funny, and any other praiseworthy characteristic we appreciate in people. Heck, we have plenty of television ads of women getting muddy playing sports or brokering business deals but — stereotypically — at least some part of the wine community is being backward. It would be funny if it wasn’t damaging first. Asking to be mollified by the idea of being paid a compliment just makes it worse.

Men aren’t treated well by the gendered wine phenomenon, either; stereotypes of big, burly, strong, rich masculinity put them in a box just as much as do the female stereotypes for women. Suggesting so is hardly new. Steve Heimoff’s blog hosted a promising debate over his reference to the feminine aesthetic in winemaking last year, for example. Nonetheless, Googling “feminine wine” suggests that the term remains reasonably common. Backwardly.

What’s the problem? The short answer: stereotyping is bad. One better: stereotyping is bad because it limits individual’s identities in terms of who they feel they can be and in terms of who other people allow them to be, because it let’s us treat others as something less than human — because when we label them with a stereotype we apply and expect the contents of that category to how we see them and stop seeing them in their fullness as people — because we make categories and then fill them. Ideas don’t exist out there on their own. We construct them. And so every time someone uses the term “feminine wine,” they help build the cultural phenomenon of the associated stereotype. In a small way, sure, but large ideas are built of small instances. Castles and bricks.

I’d like to hand the editor of Wine Enthusiast some Michael Foucault (or Judith Butler, or pretty much any other late-2oth c. critical theorist). Instead, I guess I’ll just rail a bit and embody the outraged middle-aged woman. You know the type.

On Winning Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2012

Something rather remarkable happened to me on Monday. At about 11:30 PST — 8:30-ish London time — I received an email from David Honig, publisher of Palate Press, consisting of three words. “You won” in the subject line, and “congratulations” in the body. I hadn’t been able to fly to London where the Louis Roederer International Wine Writing Awards were being presented; the trip would have cost me about fifteen percent of the annual pittance I make as a graduate student, and that clearly wasn’t happening. David, who went on behalf of Palate Press’s nomination for wine website of the year, offered to accept for me should the necessity arise. I had planned on not winning, partly because I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but also partly because I don’t see what I do as being that award-winning. So, when David’s email arrived, I was truly surprised. It even occurred to me for a moment that it might be a mistake or a joke, but that’s not David’s style. I’ve been doing even more than my usually generous amount of smiling ever since.

I’m honored, naturally, and humbled, and astonished, and delighted. But I also feel as though my winning this award says something about the position of wine science writing in the the wine writing world. From my very first article for Palate Press, I’ve written almost exclusively about wine science: microbiology, flavor chemistry, article critiques, and the like. Doing so, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the wine writing world. I can’t relate to most other wine writers’ experiences about press trips to Portugal or interviewing a great sommelier or trying to tell the story of this beautiful South African Pinotage. Researching an article, for me, doesn’t involve tasting and talking; it involves hours of reading scientific journal articles. It’s nearly impossible for me to compare my writing to people more in the mainstream; we’re talking apples and oranges, in some ways.

Most importantly, it’s hard to judge whether what I’m doing is valuable. I can say that I’m one of the few people trying to talk about wine science to the lay-wine enthusiast. I can say that I think doing so is important. But I can’t say whether anyone else agrees with me.

The other finalists for Emerging Wine Writer of the Year are all splendid writers — including my Palate Press colleague Evan Dawson — but they all write something closer to the mainstream of wine writing. That I was chosen among them says something about wine science writing as much, and perhaps more, than it does about my own skill. It’s a validation, at least by this group of people, that the science of wine is potentially as interesting and important to the wine enthusiast as is the personal narrative of wine, or the economics or architecture or politics of wine, or tasting notes. It’s a statement that wine science writing has a place in the greater mission of wine writing. Even if I sometimes feel peripheral, I’m still sitting at the table. It’s a good place to be.

Let me have won the Roederer, then, not just for myself, but for the greater cause of wine writing. And, maybe, even for every writer who takes the risk of doing something different because it’s what she loves.

Because the air is very smoky here today

The sky is innocent enough but the dust, the dust is coming from some place I’ve never been and calling me to a place that is only a memory, and a collective one at that. I’m solidly focused on trying to place one foot in front of the other, calmly, resolutely, to make it look like this is easy, to make it look as though I’m not trying to ignore the horses cantering and the cattle grazing and the women in long skirts going about their business through my mind. But then a guitar comes from an open door, a guitar and a voice, and the only reason that I know the door is open is the music because I’m still staring resolutely at my feet, but “steeeel guitars from Memphis on the way to rock ‘n rollllllllll…” makes me look up, and back, briefly, and I see the figure in the worn jeans and sturdy belt and pale cowboy hat the color of a steer you might rope at the county rodeo and smoking what I’m certain must be Marlboroughs And I stop in my tracks for a moment, an instant, short enough that the kid behind me thinks that I’m still walking, because I hear the man in the jeans and the belt and the hat asking me the whereabouts of the young buck cowboy I lost years ago and who owns the horses he saw cantering and the cattle he saw grazing and whether I’m friends with the women in long skirts going about their business. But it’s a quarter to nine o’clock and I keep walking as though I don’t know the answers to his questions, no, sir, you’ve got the wrong girl.

In Response to Mr. Gray on Wine Lists and Mr. Dawson on corkage

I somewhat belatedly read my fellow Palate Press columnist Evan Dawson’s article on corkage and then, also somewhat belatedly, The Gray Report post in which W. Blake Gray (also a fellow Palate Press columnist) responded to Dawson. When I realized that I had more to say about the topic than was going to fit tidily into a comment on either piece, I thought that I’d continue the chain by responding here. Please don’t think that I’m trying to steal either Evan or Blake’s thunder. Everything I’ve seen tells me that both Evan and Blake are great guys and even better writers, and I couldn’t steal their thunder even if I wanted to.

 

Blake asks the pertinent and (characteristically) punchy question: should a wine list educate or is the wine list just a price list? His question is prompted by realizing that he (an experienced wine writer, no less) doesn’t recognize most of the offerings on the wine list Jeremy Parzen has compiled at Sotto, which Dawson used as an example of a particularly thoughtful and interesting list. Since Blake can’t order based on familiarity and is given only the most general information about the wine – name, vintage, red or white, “bold” or light, and a very general idea of place (it’s an Italian restaurant; most of the wines are also Italian) – he has three options.

  1. Ask the sommelier for advice. Blake dismisses this option as impractical because the somm isn’t always there and takes a long time to arrive table-side when he or she is. And while some servers are reliable sources of knowledge about the wine list, most are not.
  2. Choose a wine based on price.
  3. Bring his own bottle from home (which is the original connection with Evan’s article on corkage.)

The fourth option, which Blake didn’t mention, is to pull his smart phone out of his pocket and use his favorite wine app to look up tasting notes on the list’s mystery wines, but I’m going to give Blake the benefit of the doubt and guess that he’s too much the polite diner to unholster a cell phone at table.

 

Both Evan’s and Blake’s articles caused me to reflect on how narrow an audience they’re really addressing. We’re all addressing a narrow audience when we write about wine; most people don’t care enough about wine to read about it for fun, and that’s especially true of the geeky stuff I prefer. But Evan and Blake are writing to people who, additionally, live in sizable cities with significant fine dining restaurants AND who eat out at such establishments often enough to think about bringing their own bottles from home. I suspect that this does, in fact, describe most of the readership of Palate Press and The Gray Report, but it definitely doesn’t describe me. Blake lives in the San Francisco area. ‘Nuff said. Evan lives in Rochester, NY where I also once lived and so which I can attest is definitely not San Francisco, but it still has some reasonable restaurants. It unquestionably has restaurants whose wine lists surpass the boundaries of my wine knowledge.

 

I live in Pullman, Washington, a town the size of which is overstated by its 30,000-somethingish population estimate. Pullman is a small town on the Washington-Idaho border, smack-dab in the middle of wheat- and lentil-farming country, that just happens to have a sizeable university (Washington State) stuck in the middle of it.  It is, therefore, a peculiar blend of redneck farm community and partying college town. I love it. I love living in a town where I have a field ten minutes from my door and where I can’t go to the grocery store without seeing someone I know, but which has the critical mass necessary for cultural events. And a decent library. But what we don’t have are restaurants of the caliber that Evan and Blake assume are the norm. Pullman restaurants are largely designed to feed college students, which means neither fine dining nor notable wine lists. I’d qualify one restaurant in town (the lovely Black Cypress) as “fine dining” – two if I include the nearby Idaho town of Moscow – and its short but satisfactory wine list favors Washington and Oregon enough that I can reliably identify every glass and bottle. I’ll guess that at least some other readers can relate. We don’t all live in San Francisco or New York or even Rochester.

 

Back to Blake’s question about whether the wine list should educate or can be just a price list. As much as I enjoy the former, I’m honestly okay with the latter, which brings me to my second point about narrow audiences. On the rare occasions when I find myself within range of a good restaurant, I don’t have a lot of money to spend there. I know that more expensive bottles generally carry a proportionally lower markup and are therefore a better deal. I often know that some of the more expensive bottles are hard-to-find treasures, and sometimes I know that they’re really yummy. But none of that matters when you’re a grad student who’s functionally living below the poverty level.  I DO use the wine list as a price list. I don’t make a selection based on price alone – there are usually a few options around the lowest price point and I can rule out bottles that I know I don’t like or that are inappropriate for what I’m eating or that are horribly overpriced – but price still ranks as the most important factor in my decision. Hand me Jeremy Parzen’s beautiful wine list at Sotto and I’ll have no trouble making a decision even though I’m woefully incompetent at Italian wines. I want something red, and I want something bold – because I’m eating a braised oxtail dish, let’s say – so I go to that section of the list. The least expensive bottle is something called a syrache, which sounds a lot like syrah and I know that I’m hit-or-miss on liking syrahs, so I move to the second least expensive bottle. This one says “di Sardegna” which I’m pretty sure means “from Sardinia” and I’ve heard a lot of interesting things about Sardinian wine. Sold.

 

The worst thing that can now happen is that I don’t like the wine which, at a restaurant of Sotto’s caliber, is more likely to mean that I simply don’t care for it than that it’s poorly made. (If the bottle is clearly flawed I would send it back, but I’d also say that I’m more confident than the average consumer about my ability to identify wine faults.) Whether I like it or not I’ve probably learned something. It’s possible that the wine isn’t a good representative of it’s type and that I’ve therefore not learned anything that I can generalize beyond this specific wine, but that also seems unlikely in a restaurant like this with Jeremy Parzen running the wine show.

 

Actually, I’m much more likely to order a beer or stick with water regardless. Obscene markups on restaurant wine lists bother me so much that I rarely drink wine in restaurants even when I’m not the one paying. At less schmancy places with little or no wine on offer I feel fine bringing a modest but interesting bottle of my own. I won’t bring a bottle to someplace like Sotto unless the bottle ranks comfortably in price with their own list AND rocks, and since I have no such bottles in my cellar I won’t bring one. So I’ll drink water or, if the beverage manager has been thoughtful enough to put together an interesting beer list with a few curiosities, I’ll order one of those. Beer is usually an obviously better deal and, if I’m lucky, I’ll find keg- or cask-only offerings that I couldn’t try at home, all for less than the least expensive glass of wine on the menu, and almost universally more interesting.

 

I would be overjoyed to find a wine list full of things I’ve never seen before with clear, accurate, and interesting descriptions of its contents.  But, if I did find such a list, I would:

  1. Be tempted to rudely bury my nose in the wine list rather than attending to my dining companion, should I have one;
  2. Take 75 minutes to place my order because it took me that long to read the list and I forgot to look at the menu; and
  3. Still order wine based primarily on price.

 

So, in the end, perhaps it’s better that the wine list act as a price list rather than an educational tool. When I go out to eat, I want to enjoy the meal and, hopefully, the pleasure of good company. I might not do either of those things very well should my attention be caught by an educational wine list. I can learn about wine at home, and that’s probably the best place for it.

 

I know that most people reading Evan’s and Blake’s articles aren’t like me but, if there are any who are, know that you’re not alone. To Evan and Blake, thanks for the thought-provoking reads. And I envy you getting to eat in those restaurants.

Does Mommyjuice become babyjuice?

All of this claptrap about “Mommyjuice” had me wondering: to what extent does Mommyjuice become babyjuice? That is, how much alcohol is translated into the breastmilk of lactating women who imbibe? I could tear through pages of search results on PubMed, or I could trust the La Leche League and the American Academy of Pediatricians to have done that work already. Nothing substitutes for a primary literature review but, well…a girl has to allocate limited resources somehow. Keeping with their respective personalities (organazationalities?), the AAP is very conservative, LLL more reasonable. Ooops…I mean more restrictive.

From The American Academy of Physicians policy statement on “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk” (and for what else besides breastfeeding are we inclined to use human milk, dare I ask?) last revised in 2005:

“Breastfeeding mothers should avoid the use of alcoholic beverages,because alcohol is concentrated in breast milk and its use caninhibit milk production. An occasional celebratory single, small alcoholic drink is acceptable, but breastfeeding should be avoidedfor 2 hours after the drink.”

If I wanted to be punchy, I’d take note that that occasional AAP-sanctioned drink needs to be celebratory. Maybe consolatory or commiserating drinks inherently carry greater health risks?

La Leche League FAQs, last revised in 2008, go into a bit more detail. Acknowledging that “breastfeeding mothers receive conflicting advice about whether alcohol consumption can have an effect on their baby,” the general gist of the article is that alcohol consumption in moderation is just fine. Their research agrees that alcohol passes into breastmilk and, furthermore, that alcohol in breastmilk has deleterious effects on infants — “drowsiness, deep sleep, weakness, and decreased linear growth” (big surprise!) but that alcohol concentrations in breastmilk are inconsequential after 2-3 hours. The bottom line? “Adult metabolism of alcohol is approximately 1 ounce in 3 hours, so mothers who ingest alcohol in moderate amounts can generally return to breastfeeding as soon as they feel neurologically normal. Chronic or heavy consumers of alcohol should not breastfeed.” Good commonsense rules the day once again.

I’m not one to extrapolate from the specific to the general, but I can’t let this topic pass without mention of a family yarn that has firmly rooted in the Szymanski Book of Classic Stories. My mother drank — moderately, I’m sure — while breastfeeding me, under the guidance of her (good Eastern European, I believe) pediatrician. The good doctor even advised that the iron and B-vitamins in dark beer might be beneficial for a breastfeeding woman. My Irish-German mother was happy to follow his advice with a pint of Guinness once or twice a week. When I took a liking to Guinness at an unusually early age, then, my parents concluded that a touch of Guinness-flavored breastmilk might have had something to do with my acquistion of that acquired taste.

 Anectodatal to be sure. But, should I ever find myself breastfeeding an infant of my own, I might partake of a weekly glass of Oregon pinot noir just in case.

Ergo, “mommyjuice” does become babyjuice to some extent, but ’tisn’t necessarily a bad thing if mommy doesn’t hit that juice bottle too often.

If I had a million dollars…

If I had a million dollars…

…I would stock my cellar with a few cases of higher-end Oregon pinot noir — and at least three representatives from every major winemaking region in France (and perhaps Italy and Spain, too) just for educational purposes — and buy myself a UC Davis degree before investing the rest in agricultural microcredit.

On a less serious note, a reasonable alternative might be starting my own company at the intersection of the great intellectual loves of my life: wine, microbology, and medicine (if I could work music history and medival culinary practices into the mix, too, I would.)  My flagship product? The wine headache dipstick.

Lest you get the wrong idea, the wine headache dipstick is not the young man at your local eating establishment who repeatedly fills your wine glass to the rim and leaves you with a wine-related headache that has nothing to do with the wine itself, properly. I’m also not referring to an ear probe that diagnoses a wine headache and documents the magnitude of its severity for employer sick-day verification, for example.

What I have in mind is a tool that would instantly let the susceptible individual know if the glass of wine before her is likely to induce a headache or other unpleasant reaction.

The etiology of the “wine headache” remains something of a mystery (for an excellent discussion of some of the possibilities, see my fellow Palate Press science wise guy Tom Mansell’s article here.) While we’ve not yet one single, pat explanation, one of the more probable invokes a reaction to biogenic amines present in some wines. Biogenic amines – histamine, tyrosine, and putriscine, to name a few – are a product of the metabolism of nitrogen-containing compounds – amino acids – by malolactic and spoilage bacteria. Brettanomyces in particular tends to send biogenic amine levels sky-high, and other wines may owe their b.a. counts to the bacteria that performed malolactic conversion. Reds more than whites, then, tend to have this problem.

And why are biogenic amines a problem? In some people they cause headaches; in others, nausea, in others, a panoply of other assorted allergy-ish symptoms. In me, they provoke what my colleagues sometimes call the “thermometer” effect: I turn bright red, and the brighter red I turn, the more biogenic amines are in the wine. A headache comes along with the color change, too, and I’m left feeling a bit woozy even if I’ve only had one glass. I’m sure that I’m not the only one.

Molecular biology has produced diagnostic tests for everything, it seems, both in the clinic and in the lab. We have pre-loaded, multi-compartment test tubes that identify bacterial samples based on metabolic profile. We have indicator strips that will detect the presence of certain compounds in urine. Why couldn’t we have an indicator strip – a little paper dipstick – that detects the presence of biogenic amines in wine?

Testing every bottle is sure to be overkill – expensive overkill – for most people most of the time. But imagine someone who doesn’t drink wine very often and who reacts very severely to biogenic amines, but who enjoys drinking wine with friends from time to time. Imagine someone who drinks wine often but only wants to ensure that wines are biogenic amine-free on special occasions when turning bright red or having a headache would be compromising or inconvenient: an interview or a date, for example. Imagine someone who is teased when she complains about wine headaches and would appreciate scientific evidence correlating her bad reactions with a chemical wine fault.

I’m sure that my imagined “Wine Headache Indicator Strips” would be prohibitively expensive for daily use but, heck, I’d buy them. On those days when I really, really don’t want to deal with the after-effects of biogenic amines and the glass before me is suspect, I’ll discreetly pull a small case from my purse, pull out a strip, and pull my glass towards me to touch the strip to the liquid therein (perhaps while my companions are distracted.) If the strip turns orange, I’ll happily imbibe. If the strip turns deep chestnut brown, I’ll take one very small sip, play with the glass a bit, and drink lots of water.

If I had a million dollars, I’d invent such a thing. Since I don’t have a million dollars, does anyone else want to take me up on the challenge?

Wait; What Century is This? A response to “The Daily Sip”

This morning, The Daily Sip ran an installment entitled “She Gets 100 Points” about Sophie Parker, a young woman wine critic from New Zealand. The tag line reads “If Robert Parker looked like this, we’d pay more attention,” and it’s made perfectly clear that those 100 points refer to the 22 year-old, blonde’s feminine charms, not her writing. The Daily Sip (TDS) is the trademarked daily e-newsletter of Bottlenotes, “the premier online wine community,” with over 175,000 subscribers according to its advertising page.

Wait; what century is this? Haven’t we, as a wine community, moved past this? I’m not talking about using attractive, scantily-clad women (and men) in wine advertising – heck, sex sells cars and toothpaste, too – but explicitly rating a woman wine critic on her looks? Really?

Eric Arnold from TDS responded to my outraged comment that “that’s merely the introduction, meant to be humorous. Having spoken at length with Ms. Parker, we’re confident that she’s not offended. Furthermore, you should read the full interview, which shows unequivocally we paid attention only to her work, not her appearance.” Having read the full interview prior to making my original comment, I naturally realized that the focus was indeed on Ms. Parker’s wine reviews. But does that justify the introduction? The title and leading paragraph are what TDS uses to promote reader “click through” to their main site. By focusing that lead on Ms. Parker’s looks, TDS is implicitly telling its readers: “We’d like to tell you about this young woman’s professional interests, but we think that the best way to get you interested, to hook you and pull you in to the rest of the content, is with her physical attributes.”

Even if Ms. Parker isn’t offended by this approach, I am offended as a reader. Furthermore, this kind of lead is naturally going to inspire a disproportionately high click-through rate from readers who are principally interested in Ms. Parker for the wrong reasons. And what of those readers who receive TDS’s emails but don’t bother to read the interview? That substantial readership segment has now been given entirely the wrong ideas by a very heavily skewed leading paragraph. As Ms. Parker proceeds forward with her career, this is the kind of attention that she’ll do best to avoid. A few of the comments following the interview sarcastically asked if wine reviewers need to be old and ugly to be taken seriously. Let’s not be absurd. Jancis Robinson, Andrea Immer Robinson, Meg Houston Maker (emeritus editor of Palate Press), Sarah Chappell (a Palate Press contributing editor and manager of a Manhattan-based wine company)…the list is too long to continue even if I leave out the many young men in the wine world who should never be called “old and ugly.”

Am I overreacting? Maybe, but this is an excellent excuse to point out how far we’ve come, and to show exactly how far from the norm TDS places itself. The books Women of Wine: The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry (A.B. Matasar, University of California Press) and Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women who Make, Taste, and Enjoy Wine (D. Brenner, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.), written in 2006 and 2007 respectively, had no lack of material on which to draw. Today, women winemakers are so commonplace that their gender is hardly even remarked upon. Gina Gallo, Merry Edwards, Heidi Peterson Barrett, Helen Turley, Sarah Marquis, Elisabetta Gippetti, Amelia Ceja, Claire Villars…again, it would be ridiculous to continue.

So, to those at TDS: I appreciate your jocular approach and your desire for humor, but you can do better than this. Any journalist worthy of the name can come up with more than one lead for a feature, and anyone worthy of a feature is worthy of fair representation. Ms. Parker is worthy of more respect than this, and so is your readership. You can do better than this but, until you do, TDS, you’re on my black list.

Am I alone in thinking this is inappropriate? Let me know what you think.

Word of the Day: Delestage (and 2008 Folie a Deux Napa Valley Merlot)

Délestage – (‘dehl-luh-STAJ’) aka “rack and return” (though the French sounds much more refined and romantic, as usual.) Refers to the practice of repeatedly draining fermenting red wine off of its skins through a screen that traps some portion of the seeds, then returning the drained-off juice to continue fermenting on the skins, but minus the seeds entrapped in the draining process. Fewer seeds = lower seed-to-juice ratio = less extraction of seed tannins into juice = less tannic wine.

You know that it can’t really be that simple. There are two reasons why just describing the mechanics of the operation is inadequate. First, the “rack and return” process does more than just remove seeds. Like other methods of cap management*, the process also douses the floating grape skins. Unlike some other methods of cap management, délestage generally incorporates a lot of air into the must when the juice is pumped back over the skins.

Besides stimulating their growth, oxygen discourages fermentation yeasts from producing unsavory cooked cabbage and onion-like sulfides. Oxygen also has far-reaching and often poorly-understood effects on myriad elements of wine chemistry. Tannin polymerization, for example, is influenced by oxygen in complex ways that seem, in general, to lead to softer and rounder wines In fact, the role of oxygen in winemaking is so very complex that I’m going to refrain from saying any more about it here for fear of perjuring myself. In any case, the influence of délestage on a wine can’t just be attributed to removing seeds; oxygen must play a part, too.

The second reason why délestage is more complex than its mechanical description comes from our understanding – or, rather, our lack of understanding – of tannins themselves. We once separated tannins into the two broad categories of seed tannins and skin tannins. Seed tannins were bad: harsh, bitter, and green. Skin tannins were better: softer and malleable. In this context, délestage makes a lot of sense. Decreased exposure to bitter seeds during fermentation should reduce harsh, bitter flavors.

For better or for worse, tannin chemists, led by Dr. Jim Harbertson at WSU, have shattered this simplistic understanding. Tannins are polymers of flavon-3-ols. According to Harbertson’s work, longer tannins are usually perceived as more astringent, yet seed tannins are about a third of the length of skin tannins, averaging ten instead of thirty units. On the other hand, seed tannins take longer to extract than skin tannins; even though seed tannins outweigh skin tannins in magnitude, they release more slowly. To add yet another layer of complexity, the make-up of each tannin polymer influences its sensory characteristics in addition to its sheer length. And even then tannin experts haven’t yet deciphered what happens to tannins over time to make well-aged wine seem softer and less harsh than its youthful counterpart. For more on this topic without delving into the scientific literature, try this palatable Wines and Vines article.

The upshot of how to use délestage in the face of all of this complex chemistry? Taste, taste, taste. I’m no winemaker, but isn’t this self-evident? Superb winemakers have been making superb wine for centuries before anyone ever named or knew of a flavon-3-ol. Intuitively, it makes sense that removing seeds will reduce seed-y flavors. If that makes your wine taste better, go for it. As for oxygen, even if it remains the great unknown variable, scientific uncertainty doesn’t invalidate your taste buds.

*Cap management – grape skins are pushed, parachute-like, to the top of the must by CO2 bubbles created by the fermentation process, creating a “cap” of skins that can literally float above the surface of the must. Free from the protective effects of alcohol and acid and exposed to air, this cap will rapidly submit to spoilage microorganisms if not frequently reincorporated into the must. Hence, in making red wines, the “cap” must be “managed.” 

The fact sheets for these wines state that it they were “fermented using the Délestage method.” Without tasting the délestage and non-délestage samples side-by-side, I can’t help but think part of the benefit of using “rack and return” is being able to incorporate the word “délestage” into promotional materials.

 2008 Folie à Deux Napa Valley Merlot ($18 on the winery website) – Purple-tinged garnet red. Fairly monochrome but very pleasant sweet cherry nose, releasing a bit of cinnamon and clove heat over a few sniffs. Assertive Maraschino cherry hit up front – warm, round, and sweet – made less cloying by overtones of baking spices. A bit alcoholic on the finish with very spare tannins. Pleasant fruit flavors overall, but just a bit too much heat and alcohol for its own shoes.

Folie à Deux Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($24 on the winery website) – Looks like cranberry juice and smells a bit like cranberry juice, too: bright, astringent, simultaneously fruity and herbaceous. Full, sweet, black raspberry and cherry jam fruit is satisfyingly mouth-filling and sweet before disappearing into an acidic, refreshing finish (again, not unlike cranberry juice.) More tannin in the nose than on the palate with a smooth and fairly light aspect overall. Definitely not a big, chewy, rich, cabernet, but very tasty for a light-weight.