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The Trouble with Vintages (When You Should Care – and When You Shouldn’t)

Vinted on May 16, 2008 binned in wine how to, wine tips
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HiYa! If you're new here, you may want to Sign Up to get all the latest wine coolness delivered to your virtual doorstep. I've also got short, easily-digestible mini wine reviews and some educational, entertaining wine vids. If you're looking to up your wine tasting IQ, check out my book How to Taste Like a Wine Geek: A practical guide to tasting, enjoying, and learning about the world's greatest beverage. Cheers!

Vintages. Can’t live with `em… pass the beer nuts!

The question of whether or not wine vintages (the year printed on the label, which is almost always the year when the wine’s grapes were harvested) matter is one that often perplexes the budding wine enthusiast.

The questions that the Dude here regularly fields regarding wine vintages generally come in this variety:

Is it a “born on” date? Or an indicator of quality? Or a deciding factor in how long (or if) a wine can be aged?
The answer is “Yes.”

Sort of.

In this post, I’m going to try to clear up some of this vintage mess for ya. Mostly because I genuinely want to help. And, to be totally honest, because I get asked about wine vintages a lot, so I want to have a place to send people for more info. (read: I am lazy and don’t feel like answering the question anymore… hey, so sue me, I’ve got a newborn in the house!)….

Here’s the honest truth (well, the truth according to the 1WineDude, that is) about wine vintages: For the most part, the wine vintages printed on the label don’t matter all that much.

The reason that wine vintages (mostly) don’t matter is two-fold:

  1. 99% of wine sold today is not meant to be aged. Most of the wine that you encounter is meant to be enjoyed within 6 to 18 months of the vintage. In this sense, the vintage year functions more like a “born on” date – if someone is trying to sell you a really inexpensive older vintage wine, it’s probably because they want to pawn off their remaining stock of that vino that’s won’t otherwise sell because it’s past its prime.

    Does this mean that the wine will magically turn into vinegar at the stroke of midnight 18 months after the vintage date, Cinderella-style? No – but thanks to the miracle of chemistry, there’s a good chance that the fruit characteristics of the wine will start to dissipate after that time. For the majority of everyday drinking wine that you might buy, you can set a mental note to enjoy it before its second harvest birthday. That way, you will get a chance to sample those tasty fruit flavors before they disappear.


    For the most part, the wine vintages printed on the label don’t matter all that much.

  2. Modern wine-making can turn even poor harvest years into decent (and sometimes great) wine. Many moons ago, before the advent of versatile solutions for modern living that we take for granted today (like refrigerated transport, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, and best of all those nifty little laser-pointer flashlights that can fit on your keychain), winemaking techniques were not as advanced as they are today. As a result, the conditions of a particular harvest year (weather, economy, invasion by the Huns, etc.) could have a dramatic impact on a wine’s quality.

    While this is still true today to some extent, the stability of most of the world’s major winemaking areas, coupled with ultra-modern winemaking techniques and technologies means that consistent producers can churn out decent everyday drinking wine even in poor harvest years. In my experience, this has even been true for some fine wine in “bad” vintage years from regions with consistent weather (like California – Opus One’s 1998 blend is a good example of this).

So when does a vintage really matter?

Vintages do matter when you’re splurging on a fine wine purchase from a region that has a variable climate year to year.

The most famous example of this being red Burgundy, the fickle Pinot Noir areas of France that can produce wine tasting like sublime berry seduction one year, and rotten cabbage the next. If you’re going to shell out the coin for something special (either for drinking now or laying down for a special occasion later), it can’t hurt to do a little vintage homework. I recommend using the mobile vintage chart from BBR.com, which you can reference right from your web-enabled cell phone while at your local wine shop. This can help you to gauge the relative quality of a vintage for a fine wine purchase.

BUT… don’t steer clear of a vintage entirely just because it’s been deemed of lesser quality than a previous year. Why? You can miss some amazing bargains that way – these vintages are like a lower stock value; it’s time to buy. In an “off-year” you might have access to quality wines that might normally be out of your comfortable price range, and it’s a chance for you to explore the winemaking styles of great producers without totally breaking the bank.

Vintages do matter when you’re splurging on a fine wine purchase from a region that has a variable climate year to year. The most famous example of this being red Burgundy, the fickle Pinot Noir from France that can taste like sublime berry seduction one year, and rotten cabbage the next.

The majority of my fine wine purchases have been in “bad” vintages – I scoop that up like a day-trading stock hunter! The bottom line is that a passionate producer with talented staff and a history of great winemaking will still make impressive wine in an off year. They may not be wines of sublime perfection, but they sure as hell won’t be bad, and they have the potential to totally knock your socks off.

Cheers!

(images: globalbeautes.com [modified by the 1WineDude], art.com, weimax.com)

How to Fix the Broken U.S. Wine Shipping System

Vinted on May 14, 2008 binned in PLCB, wine buying, wine how to, wine shipping

I know what you’re thinking, after reading the title of this post.

“Is the Dude about to go on yet another tirade about the PLCB? Okay, okay, they suck – we get it already…”

Well… the answer is “Yes.” Sort of. I’m about to go on a bit of a tirade about the wine shipping laws not just of Pennsylvania, but also of WA, ID, AZ, CO, KS, MN, IA, WI, MI, IN, KY, GA, FL, SC, NC, NY, VT, CT, RI, and IL (pending review of currently proposed legislation).

The state of affairs of wine shipping laws in those states is almost hopelessly broken. Notice I say “almost hopelessly.” That’s because I’ve thought of a way to fix it. Let’s break it down…

I say broken because those states have laws on the books that restrict the free trade of inter-state wine sales – a practice deemed unconstitutional at the federal (and for some also at the state) level. For the most part, these states are trying to protect state-run monopoly businesses that would be handed their own jock straps in the free market if, say, a big buyer like Costco were permitted to sell and ship wines directly to consumers in those states. The state run operations add extra cost while limiting value and selection – because they are monopolies, they don’t need to compete on the basis of price or service. If individual consumer rights, or the best interests of local state wineries get in the way of their monopoly profits, those citizens are simply disregarded – even if the states’ supreme courts have ruled against those practices. So, they make billions, pay big bucks to lobbyists to protect their position, and the state governments (for the most part) turn a blind eye to it all (probably because of the huge windfall).

How to fix this mess? Simple. Here’s a 2-step process of playing politics that could turn the tide. The thing to keep in mind is that politics is almost always a numbers game. And it almost always involves you (the people getting screwed) getting off your keesters and getting active.

  1. Stop buying wine from the state. I mean it. Don’t buy wine from your state-run liquor store. What will this do? It will reduce the windfall (remember the part about this being a numbers game?). No profits, no windfall. No windfall, no paying lobbyists to turn the tide of free trade legislation. No lobbyists, no deceit-filled battles to block the spread of capitalism to the wine shipping business.

    Disclaimer: I’m not advocating you breaking the law – and to be honest, your state’s liquor laws are so convoluted you probably violated them already if you took any cough medicine this year. Anyway, I don’t care where you get your wine, as long as it’s not from a state-run monopoly. If you are lucky enough to live near a bordering state that does sell wine through the free market economy… well, I’m just saying that you might have alternatives.

  2. Write your state legislators. This is still a numbers game, because far fewer people actually do this than you’d think. So, if you flood your state legislators with correspondence, eventually they will question whether the tide needs to turn against the monopolies. Especially if you followed step 1 (politicians likely won’t stand by a sinking ship that is losing money) and indicate in your correspondence that you’re a voter in good standing and any re-election bid support on your part will hinge on their demonstrated support of free trade.

    Fortunately, writing your state legislators is very easy. Head on over to FreeTheGrapes.org – they will find your legislators e-mail addresses for you, and give you a handy form-letter to send them (don’t forget to add the re-election support part – politicians usually don’t like losing their jobs).

Maybe this sounds unreasonable, overly-simplistic and ridiculous to you.

But ask yourself this:

Is it any more ridiculous than a business with cripplingly poor business models, that can’t compete on the basis of service, selection, and price, making in excess of $1.5 billion dollars a year by hiding behind antiquated laws and charging you artificially high prices?

What if your state controlled your cell phone service that way? Or forced you to buy milk only from the state, even though it was stored improperly and cost 35% more than what your cousin, who lives in the next state over, pays for his family’s milk (which he can buy from wherever he feels offers the best milk at the lowest price)? Or limited your selection of underwear to a handful of brands and sizes?

Or treated women’s designer shoes the same way? (scary… that one might have the potential to drive Mrs. Dudette to kill)…

Sure, there’s a big difference between “essential” goods like bread and luxury goods like designer fashions. But before you write off wine as an item that is fair play for regulation by the “pleasure police” (Robert Parker‘s term for the alcohol regulators in his home state of MD), don’t forget that two of our founding fathers (the two widely regarded to have had the most raw intellectual horsepower, by the way) – Jefferson and Franklin – viewed wine as an essential life good, equal to water and bread in terms of necessity.

So… who’s being unreasonable?

Cheers!

(images: blog.whathappensnow.com, wine.appellationamerica.com, ronalfy.com)

Book Review: 101 Wines (or “Will Gary Vaynerchuk Save the World of Wine Reviews?”)

Vinted on May 12, 2008 binned in book reviews, wine books

You see, it’s like this:

Gary Vaynerchuk is the Howard Stern of the on-line wine world.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last two years: Gary is the driving force behind Wine Library TV, an on-line video blog of wine reviews and palate-building tips that has become a sensation in the Wine 2.0 community.

In his chosen medium (in this case, web video), Gary – like Howard Stern – unleashes his slightly-irreverent style with over-the-top, grass-eating gusto. Depending on your demeanor, you might find Gary’s love-it-or-hate-it, in-your-face style endearing and energizing, or downright exhausting.

Off-line – also like Howard Stern – things are bit less off-the-cuff, and a bit more calculated.

Gary has stated that he is not in the wine business for the money, but “for my soul.” This assertion seems entirely genuine (otherwise, how could he sustain the energy levels on a daily basis!). But it only takes hearing a few sentences from his father (a sometimes-guest on his video episodes) delivered in a more straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to realize that business is business – and for business, it had better be at least partly about the money. That money comes by virtue of getting wine from the shelves of their N.J. family store (Wine Library) and into the glasses of wine consumers…

To that end, Gary has performed brilliantly, shrewdly parlaying his on-line exposure into business success: he has garnered TV spot appearances (4 minutes on Ellen will still get you far more exposure to more eyeballs than any on-line presence), spearheaded a tenfold factor growth of his family’s brick-&-mortar store, and purchased on-line wine social networking website Corkd.com (with trails leading back to Wine Library).

Well, performed brilliantly notwithstanding his poor taste in NFL teams of course.*

Gary’s approach is New Media, for sure – but it’s sagacious, old-school business sense all the way.

Gary’s latest foray into expanding his media media presence is the printed word: his first book, 101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World hits the streets in paperback tomorrow. Following is my review of Gary’s latest friendly assault on the wine world.

[ Full disclosure: I received 101 Wines from Gary's publicist for a review (under the condition that I could write any positive or negative reactions, of course). ]

If you’re skeptical about a wine retailer writing a book of wine recommendations (I had my doubts as well), take note that not every wine in 101 Wines is available via Wine Library. At least, not yet anyway… I know this because I checked it myself.

The Low Down

Like Gary’s video episodes, there is minimal wind-up (less than 15 pages of introduction) in 101 Wines, and maximum time (200+ pages) spent on extolling the virtues and colorful descriptions of his wine picks. For those bordering on ADD, the final 20+ pages of the book provide quick-hit lists of recommendations for holidays, or based on top his rankings.

“Without the benefit his exuberant live delivery, some of the written descriptions lack the punch they would otherwise have ‘in person’”

Gary’s enthusiasm translates to the printed page – mostly. Without the benefit of his exuberant live delivery, some of the written descriptions lack the punch they would otherwise have “in person” (case in point: a wine that has characteristics of a big guy in a barrel floating towards your mouth…).

Still, you have to give serious props to a self-described “wine guy for the average Joe” who isn’t afraid to recommend wines made from Charbono, Tinto Fino (recognizing the sometimes-neglected rising star that is Spanish wine), or who is bold enough to spotlight excellent Lebanese wines. Hardly the first choices that the average Joe might be looking for at their local wine shop.

Like wine itself, 101 Wines is best consumed in responsible doses. This is no knock on the writing, which is witty and expressive. It’s just an acknowledgment of the fact that reading about wine tasting is like trying to learn how to french kiss by studying a diagram. Fortunately, each wine in 101 Wines is given about two pages of focus, making every recommendation a quick-hit read so you can get on to creating a shopping list and finally tasting.


Buy It or Skip It?

Buy it. 101 Wines is an entertaining and fun read – likely, you’ll feel as though Gary is talking you through a gunshot-speed introduction to some skillfully picked wines. It’s geared towards the wine novice in its presentation of wine varietals and Gary’s vocabulary of wine descriptors. More experienced oenophiles will find value in Gary’s recommendations, some of which will surely surprise those that still doubt Gary’s palate.

101 Wines is an entertaining and fun read – likely, you’ll feel as though Gary is taking you on a gunshot-ride introduction to some skillfully picked wines.”

While the tone of 101 Wines is all-Gary, it’s also a slightly toned-down Gary. If you enjoy the Love-it-or-Hate-it style of Gary’s on-line video episodes, then you will likely enjoy his imaginative descriptors on the written page.

If you’re not a fan of descriptors like “badass flowers” and comparing wine to the theoretical taste of purple paint, then this book will NOT turn you into a “Vayniac.”

But if you haven’t yet checked out of WLTV, and if you like a no-nonsense wine approach, you’ll also probably enjoy this book.

In the book’s introduction, Gary discusses his view on changing the world of wine. In a nutshell, that revolution in wine appreciation boils down to this: By eschewing snobbishness and empowering the palates of the masses, wine consumers will no longer be shackled by the reviews of a handful of people critics in traditional media dictating the prices and styles of today’s wines. This wine 2.0 liberation will allow excellent wines that don’t fit the current mold of securing high Parker scores to be appreciated by a wider audience of consumers.

In a way, Gary’s popularity really is changing the wine world, and convincing a great number of people that wine, like beer, is damn fun. But as Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben once said, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” As Gary rails against the industry impact of Robert Parker‘s points-based wine rating system, it’s worth keeping in mind that Gary himself uses a Parker-esque 100-point scoring. As Gary’s popularity continues to grow, securing him as the most influential wine reviewer outside of Parker (Robert, that is, not Peter!), won’t this surely add to the issue of winmakers “chasing the points” to increase their bottle selling prices?

Only this time, they’ll be chasing after the Vaynerchuk point?

Will Gary chose the Dark Side? Or will he deliver on the promise of his wine reviewer “Robin Hood” status?

Time will tell…

Cheers!

* Gary – got a bet for ya: If the Jets have a better record than the Steelers this season (yes, that’s the most difficult 2008 schedule in the entire NFL Steelers), I will personally record a video spot to air on your show – wearing a Jets jersey, & introducing you as “the master of all wine AND football. ” If the Steelers have a better record, then you can plug my blog on WLTV, mentioning me as “the guy who knows more about football than Gary Vaynerchuk.” I’ll also take a bottle of `04 Branson Coach

Now, the gauntlet has been thrown so please don’t go the route of Mary Ewing-Mulligan, who (to-date) has cowardly ignored my challenge to arm wrestle her for a bottle of `82 Mouton.

Here we go Steelers… HERE WE GO!

(images: opusseven.com, wikipedia.org, pictopia.com)

5 Common Wine Drinking Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

Vinted on May 9, 2008 binned in best of, wine appreciation, wine buying, wine tasting, wine tips


Whoops.

Everyone makes mistakes. In the case of the Dude here, mistake frequency is pretty much daily. Thankfully, almost every mistake is an opportunity to learn.

Fortunately for you, the Dude here has made plenty of mistakes when it comes to drinking and appreciating wine. That means that you don’t have to make all of those same mistakes, my friend! You can thank me later (preferably with a bottle or two of `82 Mouton…).

Anyway – following are Top 5 of the most common mistakes in wine drinking and wine appreciation that I’ve come across (or made myself) during my life dabbling in the wine biz. Hopefully these help you to avoid the same…

  1. The Over-pour. Far and away, the most common mistake that I’ve seen is over-pouring wine into your wine glass. Believe it or not, being skimpy in this case is not being wimpy – pouring the right amount of wine is what you need to do to allow you to really enjoy the wine in your glass.

    Filling that glass to the brim is being generous only in the extra amount of calories that you’re consuming. It’s a killer for wine enjoyment because a) it prevents the wine’s aromas from being concentrated towards your nose (where they belong), b) it prevents you from swirling the wine in your glass (which releases those wonderful aromas and flavors in the first place) and c) it makes you much more likely to spill your wine (and you probably paid good money for it!).

    At this point you’re probably thinking, “Wait a second Dude – waiters do the Over-pour all the time in restaurants. What am I supposed to do about that?” Simple: ask for a second (empty) wine glass. Now you have two glasses of wine that you can fill properly (which basically means filling to the bowl shape of the glass and not beyond). You’re welcome!

    “Filling that glass to the brim is being generous only in the extra amount of calories that you’re consuming.”

  2. Serving wine at the wrong temperature. Wine that is too cold will taste dull, with subdued fruit characteristics. Wine that is served too hot will taste astringent and will highlight the alcohol above the other flavors in the wine.

    In a word – Yuck.

    Now, you don’t need to be too anal about this one, but to get the most out of your wine, you do need to get the wine temperature in the right ballpark – and the right ballpark is different depending on they type of wine you’re trying to enjoy. Sweet whites and sparklers usually stand up to the coldest temperatures; hefty reds like Zinfandel and Port can withstand the highest temps. For more specific information, check out this handy chart of wine serving temps from recipetips.com.

  3. End-Bin shopping. What does “End-Bin shopping” mean? It means shopping only at those flashy, special displays at the end of the aisles in wine stores. Why is this a mistake? Because the end bins are sometimes where good wines go to die.

    If you already know the wine and think it’s a good buy, then you may have found a good deal in that end-bin. While it’s certainly possible to catch a great bargain, I’ve also seen on many, many occasions wines that are woefully past their prime stuck into the end-bin at steep “discounts”. Don’t totally ignore those end-bins – but it’s a big mistake to make those the only stops on your foray through the wine store.

    “…the end bins are sometimes where good wines go to die…”

  4. Ignoring the sauce. There are few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to wine and food matching. I only really offer people two rules: 1) Match the “weight”/body of the food with the weight/body of the wine (lighter wines with lighter fare, heftier wines with heartier fare) and b) Don’t ignore the sauce!

    A thick, flavorful sauce can turn a lighter dish into a heavy monster of a meal. So, if you’re pairing a lighter wine with that heavier sauce, you might not ever get to really taste that wine, as it will get totally overpowered. Epicureans take note!

  5. Not doing any homework. You by no means need to have fancy-schmansy wine certifications to appreciate wine. But a little knowledge about wine styles and wines from different areas of the world can arm you with a very important weapon when it comes to wine enjoyment: Context.

    What do I mean by context? I mean knowing what some of those wines typically taste like, and what foods are typically enjoyed with them. This allows you to avoid a whole heap of mistakes when it comes to wine appreciation, because it means you’re more likely to taste the wine in its proper context. Someone can tell you that they hate Italian wines – and if that person tried those wines with super-spicy Thai food instead of Italian cuisine, they’re probably not giving that poor Italian wine a fighting chance to be liked!

    Grab yourself a book and get in some wine learning. Take a wine class, practice your tasting, or host a wine tasting party. The important thing is to keep an open mind about wine, and be willing to learn – in terms of helping you avoid the most common wine drinking foibles, those two things will never let you down.

Cheers!

(images: chichesterdesign.co.uk, comparestoreprices.co.uk, oleswanson.com)

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