Put a Cork in It! (Your Wine Bottle, That Is.)

“His heart danced upon her movement like a cork upon a tide.” — James Joyce

We all have such romantic notions about wine, don’t we…I wonder if we’d have felt the same way 300 years ago, when wine bottles were sealed with oil-soaked rags?

Corks

Corks lend a fanciful touch to the ceremony of cracking a special bottle – a sense that we’re about to celebrate something – that screw-on caps just can’t emulate. We sniff our corks, we admire their calligraphy, we hoard them. Have you ever met anyone who hoards screw-on caps? I think not.

Corks (the real kind, not those annoying, synthetic polyethylene things) are made from the light, tough outer layer of bark of the cork oak tree, a.k.a. Quercus suber – not to be confused with the cork tree, which also sports a corky bark but isn’t used for making wine corks. The cork oak is considered sustainable because it can be harvested without cutting down the tree; once the tree reaches 25 to 30 years old the bark is stripped and the tree lives on. Every seven or nine years (depending on whom you ask), the tree is ready to be stripped again; it’s the second stripping that produces the best wine corks.

Cork tree

[A guide explaining the cork oak tree on the grounds of SIMI Winery in Healdsburg, California.]

Cork oaks, which live an average of 200 years, grow in half a dozen countries, but most corks are produced in Portugal  – where the higher-quality corks are sourced – and Spain. And here’s something to remember when you dream of opening your own winery: the finest corks can cost bottlers as much as 1 Euro each, or at today’s conversion rate, about $1.17.

Harvesting cork is a delicate operation. Workers called “extractors” use a sharp axe to make two cuts: one horizontal slice around the tree, called a crown or necklace, and several vertical cuts called rulers or openings. Then they push the axe handle into the ruler – gently, to avoid damaging the tree – and peel off large sections of cork called planks.

Cork is a remarkable substance: its tiny air pockets make it buoyant, about four times lighter than water. It’s fire resistant (which is why it’s used in making home insulation) and forms a watertight seal in the neck of a wine bottle. Yet it permits a tiny bit of oxygen into the bottle, about one milligram of oxygen each year, enabling the wine’s flavor and aroma to evolve over time.

There are advantages to using synthetic corks, of course. They allow a consistent amount of oxygen into the bottle, and they don’t carry “cork taint,” caused by TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the chemical compound that can make your wine smell like Grandma’s moldy basement – an affliction found in about 1 percent of wine bottles. And TCA isn’t picky; it’s just as happy spoiling a $100 bottle as that cheap $6 bottle you snuck into your grocery cart.

For you cork hoarders, you can spin your cache into cash: used wine corks sell online to crafters and jewelry artists, about $8 to $10 in batches of 100. You can unload your used synthetic corks, too, for up to 14 cents each. And by the way, don’t bother sniffing the cork when you open a bottle. Flaws are detected more easily by smelling and tasting the wine itself; the cork probably won’t indicate anything important.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  NVnonvintage. When you look at the labels of most wines, you’ll see a year – the year when the grapes were grown and harvested, or the “vintage.” But in wine reviews or restaurant wine lists, you’ll often see the initials “NV.” That indicates the grapes used to produce that wine were harvested in two or more years. Winemakers blend grapes from different vintages if they’re looking for consistent aromas, tastes and other qualities in the wine, year after year.

Caranto PNVino ‘View:  A delicious example of an NV wine is Astoria’s Caranto Pinot Noir (13 percent alcohol, $11). The spicy, cinnamon first taste opens up to plums – maybe prunes – with a smoky, blackberry jam finish. My last glass was especially creamy (think fig newton, blackberry pie crust). This full-bodied wine with medium tannins is a terrific value! We paired it with pasta from Rustichella d/Abruzzo that was gluten-free, made from a red-lentil base, in a cold chicken-cashew salad – a recipe we found online. We chilled the wine slightly for our perfect summer supper.

Cheers!

Mary

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Wine & Spirits Exams: Not for Every Palate

Studying can be a greedy master. It devoured much of my time this spring, but the outcome was worth it: I passed my CSS (Certified Specialist of Spirits) exam, and the experience got me thinking about exams in general.

I hate them. When I’m not cramming for my next wine or spirits test, I feel a bit adrift. I love the studying part. But when it comes to the exam itself, no matter how well I know the material, I’m anxious and confused.

 

 

                         [From left: Three levels of Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) pins; Certified
                  Specialist of Wine (CSW) pin; Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) pin; CSS “pass letter”]

Each path to wine or spirits certification, whether you pursue credentials from the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), Court of Master Sommeliers, Institute of Masters of Wine, or college-based Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance (VESTA), has its own strategy. One school might emphasize technicalities – soil types and grape varieties, winemaking styles, wine laws across the globe – while others focus on vintages and subtleties of restaurant service.

Their exams are just as diverse. The WSET Level 3/Advanced exam, for instance, is mostly about wine, divided into three segments: First up is a set of multiple-choice questions, followed by an “essay” portion (some questions are brief sentence completions, while others require lengthy answers, such as discussing wines from various regions of Italy – and you dare not leave out any important details or terms). The last part of the exam is a blind wine tasting, which isn’t nearly as scary as you would think. You’re given two wine pours, a red and a white, and when I took the test we were required to list 26 separate attributes of each wine – appearance, four aromas, five tastes, alcohol level, tannin level, acidity, and so on, ending with the wine’s grape and region. Fortunately, my instructor, Marianne Frantz of American Wine School, was mercifully generous with those tastes, because after nearly three hours of testing we were ready for alcohol.

The CSW and CSS exams from the Society of Wine Educators are multiple-choice, which implies they would be easier to pass. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: every question from the exams is drawn from the textbooks. The bad news: there’s a pool of about 5,000 randomly selected questions for each exam, so each candidate gets a different set of questions to answer. Your only hope of passing is to memorize the book.

For the spirits certification, you might be asked, which scotch-producing region delivers the highest-quality whisky? How long is bourbon required to age? Which country is best known for distilling barley to make vodka? What is the Lincoln County Process? Who was “Old Forester”? Which cocktails are typically made by shaking, rolling or stirring? Which types of stills are used for which spirits? What’s the difference between a doubler and a thumper? What are the aging requirements and bottled alcohol levels – both in the U.S. and Europe, because they’re different – of whiskey, vodka and gin? And you’d better know every detail about Prohibition and Repeal Day.

The most punishing is the Masters of Wine exam – which is why, at this writing, only 370 individuals in 28 countries (125 of whom are women) are MWs. Candidates write papers on such topics as the effects of a worldwide labor shortage on vineyards, or the role of enzymes in winemaking. But far more terrifying is the blind tasting: three flights of 12 wines each. Grapes, regions, characteristics, every detail a true expert would be expected to know. Lastly, MW candidates must submit a report of original research, up to 10,000 words long.

Like any academic pursuit, sitting for wine and spirits exams can be grueling. Is it worth the trouble? That depends on your personal goals, how hard you want to study, and frankly, how much money you want to spend. I spent several thousand dollars; by the time you become a Master of Wine or French Wine Scholar, you could spend a small fortune. For me, it definitely has paid off – but now I might be finished studying. Stay tuned.

Liquor Lingo of the Day: Angel’s Share = the whiskey that evaporates as it ages in the barrel. Wood is porous, so the angels get a sweet allowance – up to 4 percent every year. A smaller amount is sacrificed to the Devil’s Cut, the liquor that seeps into the wood and is absorbed by the barrel itself.

LVOV new

Liquor ‘View: Eating your veggies is one thing, but drinking them is a party! I couldn’t wait to try LVOV Vodka (80 proof, under $20), a Polish import distilled from beets. I wasn’t disappointed; you won’t detect any beet flavor (though I love beets, so I wouldn’t have minded a hint of beet) or color. Sipped on the rocks, the mouthfeel is satiny and creamy, reminding me of a sweet whipped cream. It had no aroma and little taste except a hint of wheat, so I expected it would be a versatile cocktail vodka. It was fine in Bloody Marys, but really shone in summery drinks. I mixed citrus coolers and later some boozy watermelon slushies, and the bottle emptied – always a good outcome!

[A bottle of LVOV Vodka was sent to BigSexyReds for review purposes.]

 

Cheers,

Mary

Wine Blogging: There’s Always Something

I’m on the road at the moment – my favorite place to be – and I’m remembering that until this week I hadn’t flown for almost five months, since the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma. That event is 50 percent fun, 50 percent learning, and of course, 100 percent wine.

359DB19F-AB26-48C9-9985-36491F179351

[Jeff Hinchliffe, winemaker at Hanna Winery, pouring Saint-Macaire for thirsty wine writers]

So what happens when wine bloggers connect? Here are my takeaways from the confab last November:

  1. I need to drink more Chateau St. Jean. When the elegant wine estate closed for several weeks because of the Sonoma fires, our excursion to the winery was canceled. But they were good enough to donate some bottles, and we partied virtually with their 2014 Cinq Cépages (14.7% alcohol, $85), a divine Bordeaux blend with big tannins, healthy acidity and fragrant with blueberries and cherry cola.
  2. If you’ve driven in Napa Valley, you already know this: avoid Route 29, the primary road that bisects the valley. Not only does it get congested, it’s also where police linger, waiting to pounce on speeding tourists. Take the Silverado Trail instead; it runs parallel to Route 29 and will give you a more tranquil drive.
  3. For a deeper understanding of what’s in your glass, listen to the person who made it happen. Jon Priest, head winemaker at Etude Wines, dispensed a few prize nuggets for anyone who considers producing wine: “If we wanted our wine to express the place,” he said, “we had to learn everything about the soil before we planted a vine.” Later he shared his position on Etude’s signature varietal: “Pinot Noir is Pinot Noir. You shouldn’t blend anything into it. If you have to mix something into it, you’re trying to fix something.”
  4. We learned about some effects of wildfires at Hanna Winery. In short, if the barrel room fills with smoke, not to worry – smoke taint won’t permeate the barrel to reach the wine inside. But if you pour already-tainted wine in a barrel, then empty it and pour fresh wine in, that second batch also will be tainted. The smoke flaws from the first batch will likely spoil the barrel. In the vineyard, ash left in the soil won’t affect next year’s harvest; it only affects fruit that’s on the vine during the fire.
  5. If you’re making wine from Malbec next fall, here’s a little advice from Hanna’s winemaker, Jeff Hinchliffe: “When you have an abundance, turn some into rosé. It makes a killer rosé.”
  6. I wasn’t familiar with Saint-Macaire, so I was excited to taste some from the barrel at Hanna Winery. The obscure Bordeaux grape grows in large, tight clusters and “in the tank it turns into a monster,” Hinchcliffe says. It’s the quintessential Big Sexy Red – dark ruby colored with an aroma of anise that lingers in the taste, along with dark chocolate, lettuce, black fruit and a bit of pink grapefruit. I want to taste it again after it softens.
  7. When you build your own winery, take a tip from Rodney Strong Vineyards and ferment your wine in square tanks instead of the traditional round ones. Square tanks maximize space, often a valuable factor as the business grows.
  8. I learned something even more important from the folks at Rodney Strong: I suck as a winemaker. They sponsored a blending seminar, and we competed in teams of four to concoct the best Meritage wine. We worked with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to reach the best possible balance, adding 4 percent of one varietal here, 10 percent of another wine there, back to soften it with a little Merlot, giving it more backbone with more Petit Verdot. We had to track the exact percentages, and after an hour of calculating and blending and tasting, we were exhausted. Our team placed second.
  9. If you want to sharpen your wine-detecting abilities, a suggestion from Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson: buy liqueurs in various flavors, sip and smell slowly, and take notes. Flavors are more concentrated in liqueurs and you can distinguish specific tastes and aromas more easily than in wines.
  10. Wineries may soon feel the pinch from legalized marijuana: a few studies already show that because of competition from legal weed, people might reduce their alcohol consumption, or stop drinking altogether. I’m skeptical, but we’ll see.

Wine Lingo: Red Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”) = wine produced using two or more red Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Gros Verdot, Carmenère and Saint-Macaire. If any other grapes are included in the mix, it’s not a red Meritage, though you also can find white Meritage made with Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and/or Sémillon. Neither red nor white Meritage can include more than 90 percent of any one grape. The wine style was created in the late 1980s when some American winemakers wanted a name for Bordeaux blends produced in the New World (i.e., not Europe). They attached criteria required of wineries in order to use the word “Meritage” on the label.

Virginia Dare bottle

[Photo courtesy of Emily Straffen]

Vino ‘View: When you need a reliable table wine, 2015 Virginia Dare Pinot Noir (13.5 percent alcohol, $24.99) is a safe bet. As I drank, I eventually tasted dark cherries, plums, black olives and toasted nuts, though I had to stretch to find those layers. One reviewer nailed it when he called it “a simple wine,” but it’s friendly and I would serve it to friends. More exciting is the story of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America in 1587. She belonged to the Lost Colony that disappeared from Roanoke Island soon after; legend says she was rescued and raised by the Native American tribe that might have attacked the settlement.

Cheers!

Mary

I Heard It Through the Grapevine – It’s Spring!

Ah…about four hours ago, spring arrived here in the northern states. It’s my favorite season because it’s the most forward-looking; already I’m getting jazzed about new projects, new discoveries – new possibilities!

Spring vineyard

[Photo: “The de Brye Vineyard” by Hanzell Vineyards, courtesy of flickr.com]

Vineyards love spring; it’s their time of rebirth and reconnecting with the world. Their new growth cycle has begun, and vineyard managers will respond with long hours of aerating the soil, planting and never-ending weeding. Soon they’ll begin trellising and training their vines so the leaves will be ready to soak up the sun.

In case you’ve forgotten your 6th-grade science lessons, today is the March equinox, also called the “vernal” or spring equinox, one of two annual occasions when the sun shines directly on the equator (the other equinox is in September). When that happens, day and night are almost equal the world over. Technically, it’s the moment when the sun crosses the “celestial equator” – an imaginary line in the sky that sits directly over earth’s equator.

The earth still is tilting at 23.4º, but today our tilt is perpendicular to the sun’s rays. We could go into the differences between “astronomical spring” and “meteorological spring,” but I think we’ve had enough science for one day.

March 20 also is World Storytelling Day, when we’re supposed to promote storytelling by, um, telling stories. Here’s one about a particularly fun spring tradition (though it’s likely give my sister Margie an episode of PTSD):

Chichen Itza small

[Photo: “Chichen Itzá” by Esparta Palma, courtesy of Flickr.com]

The ancient Mayans, you probably know, devised a remarkably sophisticated calendar. Each year on the vernal equinox, they sacrificed one of their own on top of their huge pyramid, El Castillo, at Chichen Itza, Mexico. Can you see those tiny people in the photo, slithering up and down the narrow stairs to the sacrificial altar? Margie slithered up – but then she was too scared to come down. No railing, no rope – just her and a few other brave souls who, unlike her, were not terrified and sobbing. I couldn’t help her; I’ve been called a lot of things, but brave-with-heights isn’t one of them. Fortunately, she enlisted the help of an older gentleman who helped her down. The temperature that day was at least 100º; it’s a wonder no one toppled over from heat exhaustion. Twenty years later she still accuses me of being unsympathetic.

We celebrate spring with a bit more restraint in Cleveland. No gruesome sacrifices here, though I do expect the high-spirited guys across the street to dance naked on the front lawn tonight. (You know who you are!) I like to celebrate in some way that acknowledges spring’s rebirth and renewal. Some years I pledge to meditate every morning – a vow I have to repeat, since my resolve usually breaks down over the months. This year I’m starting to clear my space and get some fresh energy into this place.

If that sounds like too much work, you can always kill some time trying to balance an egg on its pointier end. Folklore says this is the day when it’s possible.

Wine Lingo: Bud break = when dormant buds on the grapevine break open and the shoot begins to grow. It happens when spring rain sends water and nutrients up through the roots and into the vine; the buds swell and finally burst, liberating tiny, exquisite grape leaves. Bud break is the first stage of the vine’s growth cycle.

Missianer

Vino ‘View: Last year in early spring I visited Trentino Alto-Adige, a mountainous wine region in northern Italy. The landscape was adorned with wildflowers, and I wanted tonight’s wine to reflect that adventure. I chose 2016 St. Pauls Schiava Missianer (12.5 percent alcohol, $14), made from 100 percent Schiava, a red grape that thrives in Südtirol (South Tyrol) Aldo Adige DOC. One reviewer called this wine “lightweight” and I think that’s fair; it’s definitely light-bodied with strong strawberry and red cherry aroma and taste. I also got some floral hints, though it could have been self-suggestion; I was thinking of those wildflowers in the foothills. Treat it like a Pinot Noir but with more acidity. I chilled it for 30 minutes and paired it with broasted chicken.

[St. Pauls Missioner Vernatsch was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Happy spring!

Mary

 

Women on Wine, for International Women’s Day!

You know that title doesn’t refer to women who subsist on our favorite adult beverage – you get that, right? (Although I admit, it might not be a bad idea…)

We’re talking about women’s thoughts on wine. Unless you’re a recluse with no connection to the outside world, no doubt you’re aware that today is International Women’s Day, when we celebrate the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of the female sex. You knew I couldn’t let the day end without passing along some women-wisdom.

wine, women

[Photo, “Wine Pasion,” by Gisela Giardino, courtesy of Flickr.com]

But rather than waxing on about our strengths or accomplishments – plenty of people are doing that today – I thought it would be fun to read what women say about wine.

It didn’t take long to discover, women have plenty to say. I found some great quotes – some funny, some sweet – and managed to narrow it down to a “top 10.” But first, my least favorite quote:

“I drink red wine on ice to water it down.” – Diane Keaton, actress

Yuck, right?

Without further ado, here are my Top 10 favorite wine quotes by (or about) women:

10.  “I’m like old wine. They don’t bring me out very often – but I’m well preserved.”           – Rose Kennedy, philanthropist and mother of President John F. Kennedy, 1890-1995

9.  “One of my most exciting Saturday nights was just me and a bottle of wine and a crochet book.”  – Jessica Pare, actress who played Megan Draper on the television show Mad Men

8.  “I suffer from CLAUSTROPHOBIA, a fear of closed spaces. For example, I’m petrified that the WINE store will be closed before I have time to get there!”  – Tanya Masse, author

7.  “Wino Forever.”  – actor Johnny Depp’s tattoo that formerly read, “Winona Forever”

6.  “What I do and what I dream include thee, as the wine must taste of its own grapes.”         –  Elizabeth Barrett Browning, poet, 1806-1861

5.  “The wine – it made her limbs loose and liquid, made her feel that a hummingbird had taken the place of her heart.” – Jodi Picot, author

4.  “The lover drinks                                                                                                                                as the cup-bearer pours.                                                                                                                       The lover thinks                                                                                                                                     but the cup-bearer knows:                                                                                                                   love begets love.                                                                                                                                     Since this wine is love,                                                                                                                                                          then this cup is love,                                                                                                                                       then this tavern is love,                                                                                                                                  then this life is love.”  – Kaman Kojouri, Iranian author

3.  “If you love food and you love red wine and they put you in France, you’re in a good place and you’re in a bad place at the same time. You have to weigh yourself every day, and you have to have an alarm number. When you get to that number, you have to start putting it in reverse.”  – Salma Hayak, actress

2.  “Independence is a heady draught and if you drink it in your youth, it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine does. It does not matter that its taste is not always appealing. It is addictive and with each drink you want more.” – Maya Angelou, poet, 1928-2014

1. “Wine and women make wise men dote and forsake God’s law and do wrong…However, the fault is not in the wine and often [emphasis mine] not in the woman. Even if you get drunk on the wine and through this greed you lapse into lechery, the wine is not to blame but you are…” – Anonymous, Dives and Pauper, a 15th-century commentary on The Ten Commandments.

Food (or drink) for thought!

Wine Lingo:  Since women love to hang together, today’s lingo is hang time = the time from veraison (that moment when grapes start changing color from green to yellow or red) and harvest. The longer the grapes hang, the deeper their richness and complexity, but if they hang for too long they overripen. No bueno.

Traverse City bourbon

Vino ‘View:  On International Women’s Day, I think we can admit that many (most?) of us are badasses who like the hard stuff now and then. You’ll notice that this bottle of Traverse City XXX Straight Bourbon (86 proof, $34.99 onlineis half empty. That’s because I’ve been sipping, yes I have. Produced in northern Michigan by Traverse City Whiskey Co., this bourbon doesn’t bring the corn-sweetness one usually expects from bourbon, though I did get cornbread on the finish, and caramel – again without the sweetness, which is fine with me. It’s aged four years in American white oak, and the wood taste is strong but not smoky. There’s also vanilla, but it’s authentic-Mexican-cooking-vanilla, not vanilla ice cream flavor, and cinnamon. It’s good on its own, maybe with an ice cube, but you won’t feel much burn on the way down. 

[The Traverse City XXX Straight Bourbon was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers, especially to you women who will speak out and make great choices this year – Brava!

Mary

Hoarding Souvenir Wineglasses

It doesn’t matter whether you drink from 50-cent water glasses or $100-a-pop fine crystal  – if you love the grape, then you have a stash of souvenir wineglasses.

 

 

I’ve collected these over the years, starting long before I actually knew anything about wine. I don’t need the glasses, don’t even drink from most of them. I have a cupboard full of divine Riedels and Marquis by Waterford that I use every day.

Yet I keep these, I think because they remind me of good times with good friends. That stemmed glass in the back row with the big “2” is from 2 Lads Winery on Mission Peninsula in northern Michigan. I was there with my sister Margie sometime in the last century, shortly after the winery opened. We drank our way up Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, stopping at any winery with a pretty lake view (which was most of them).

Another sister trip got me the beer glass in the upper righthand corner. I was with my sister Carol in Dubrovnik. It was hot that day and we exhausted ourselves shopping, so we stopped at a sidewalk café for a cold glass (or two) of pivo. I remember having to practically drag her away because she couldn’t stop staring at our handsome waiter.

The stemmed glass in the upper left corner is from the annual tasting fundraiser for the International Women’s Air and Space Museum on Cleveland’s waterfront. It’s a small affair, as tastings go, so it’s an easy evening for strolling and talking. I never miss it. Last year they switched to the small stemless glass, second from left in the front row. I brought the stemless, ridge-bottom glass in the corner from the Island Wine Festival at rowdy Put-in-Bay. It was my friend Anne’s maiden voyage on the Miller Ferry to the Lake Erie Islands  – how could that be, I wondered, when she’s lived here all her life? – and she was smitten.

The tall water bottle from Livermore Valley in California isn’t a wineglass, but it says, “Live a little more” – how could I toss away that cheery message? Livermore was one of the excursions offered at the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi; this year we’ll meet in Walla Walla, Washington, and I know I’ll snag at least one good glass there, too. I might even drink from it while I’m there (twist my arm).

Wine Lingo:  Avvinare i bicchieri = an Italian wineglass custom. Clean glasses aren’t ready to drink from until the server pours a little wine into the glass, swirls it, then tosses out the used wine. Then the glass is ready. Author Karen MacNeil, in The Wine Bible, called it a “baptism of sorts.”

Bervini Rose

Vino ‘View:  I took half a dozen photos of this bottle, trying to capture its gorgeous salmon color. We’ve had a few warm days here in the northern states – our harbinger of spring – and they sparked my taste for a nice rosé. This is Bervini 1955 NV Spumante Extra Dry Rosé (11 percent alcohol, $17.99), a sparkling wine that tastes as pretty as it looks, filling my mouth with red berry flavor, floral notes and plenty of tingly acidity. The bubbles  come fast and tiny, making it even more elegant. Bervini rosé is a blend of Glera, best known as the white grape that produces Prosecco (no surprise, since the vineyards border the Prosecco region of Italy) and Raboso, a red grape that adds backbone, color and some tannins to the more demure Glera. I drank it before a salmon salad dinner (a nod to the wine’s color) with a berry vinaigrette and just a bit of blue cheese.

[The Bervini 1955 NV Spumante Rosé was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

No Whining About Wining Today!

We’ve celebrated Zinfandel Day, Carmenere Day, Chardonnay Day and a dozen more dedicated wine days – and when the holiday-makers ran out of grapes they wanted to salute, I guess they just decided to drink.

Hence a wine lover’s favorite day: National Drink Wine Day, February 18, designed to help us “embrace the positive benefits” of vino (as if we weren’t good at that already).

Vinitaly med.

[Fans of the grape, tasting at Vinitaly 2017 in Verona, Italy.]

Alaska Airlines will mark the day in a big way: in addition to offering a free glass of wine on most flights Sunday, they’re expanding their super-cool “Wine Flies Free” program. If you haven’t taken advantage of the program, get familiar with it – on flights departing from a long list of cities in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho, you can take home a case of wine as checked baggage, free of charge. You have to sign up for their mileage plan before you fly, and the offer is ongoing – not limited to Drink Wine Day – on Alaska and their partners Horizon Air and SkyWest.

You can find other special events and discounts Sunday, too, from Miami to Malibu, so Google your town and see what’s being offered. I started my celebration last night, when

Zweigelt

The Niece And Nephew brought me this bottle of this 2013 Hiller Pulkau-Austria Zweigelt, one of my favorite Big Sexy Reds. It was plummy, a little dusty and went down beautifully with our chicken-pesto pasta.

This morning I saw a survey by National Today, an organization that tracks the “cultural calendar,” that said almost 75 percent of Americans believe two glasses of wine is enough for one day. That fits perfectly into my Weight Watchers plan. With zero carbs, zero fat, 125 calories and four “points,” I can drink two glasses without guilt. Fewer than 10 percent of people, National Today learned, drink five or more glasses in one sitting – and thank goodness, because if they pour that much down their gullets, they’re probably also foolish enough to drive in that condition.

More stats that fascinate me: 3 percent of people say they always cry when they drink wine. (Me, I cry when I finish that second glass because I have to cut myself off.) And a whopping 24 percent think a $15 bottle is a splurge. I believe it; there’s so much good wine on the shelves at bargain prices, winemakers and sellers are no doubt paying attention to that trend.

But here’s my favorite factoid: a 40-year study by Harvard researchers found that middle-aged men who drink red wine are less likely to experience erectile dysfunction than those who drink white, or none at all. (Yee-ha! Have another glass, gentlemen!)

National Drink Wine Day is always on February 18 – a Sunday this year, and for most of us, the next day is a work day. Will that keep us from over-indulging? Or will thousands of wine lovers call in sick Monday?

Here’s my suggestion; you’ve heard it before but it bears repeating: for each glass of wine you drink, sip a glass of water. You’ll slow down your drinking and avoid a hangover. I know, keeping that water glass going is a pain. But you’ll thank me in the morning.

Wine Lingo:  Anthocyanins = chemical compounds that give grapes their red, blue or purple color. They’re why red wine is red.

German Pinot Blanc small

Vino ‘View: Drink Wine Day doesn’t mean we should drink only reds! Since it’s winter, this crisp, spicy Dr. Heger Pinot Blanc 2015 (13 percent alcohol, $19.99) will warm you up a little. It’s a Qualitätswein (“quality wine from a designated region”) from the Kaiserstuhl district, reportedly one of the warmest areas of Germany. That accounts for its apple and citrus aromas, and the honeydew I tasted – but without sweetness. This is a light Weissburgunder (the German word for Pinot Blanc) with plenty of mineralogy and just enough alcohol to feel cozy.

[Dr. Heger Pinot Blanc 2015 was sent to Big Sexy Reds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary 

Are You a Seasonal Drinker?

Until April, you’ll find me burrowed under blankets with my winter tonic in hand. That could mean a Big Sexy Red – preferably at least 14 percent alcohol – but more often I reach for a more bracing drink: bourbon, rye, a nice sipping rum, brandy or grappa. Something distilled, please.

Me.rye.medium

Scientists say I’m not alone, but they don’t agree on the reason we change drinks with the seasons. Some claim seasonal drinking is triggered by changes in temperature and precipitation, others believe it’s a social curiosity.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report an early-winter pattern of over-indulging during the holiday season, then a pause when we make our New Year’s resolutions to cut back on the booze. They even have a name for it: the “January effect.” (The spirits industry probably doesn’t mind; they earn more than 25 percent of their profits between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.)

Another study found people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) sometimes drink more in winter as treatment for their sunshine deficiency, resulting in an alcohol-induced depression. One more possibility: there could be a genetic link between drinking and seasonality.

But you can’t broad-brush these findings. For instance, college students’ breath alcohol levels are reportedly higher in spring and winter – so why do they drink less in the fall, when you’d expect they would be kicking up their heels?

Apparently, location matters, too, but results still are puzzling. A study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation found that Swiss men drink more and cause more alcohol-related accidents on summer weekdays, but not on weekends. In Australia, drinkers cut back on beer in winter and drink more red and fortified wines. In fact, their red wine sales spike more than 33 percent between July and September when it’s winter in the southern hemisphere. I would expect a small increase in red-wine sales, but 33 percent?

If your “January effect” is about spirits, this also is flu season, and fans of the hard stuff know that one of the most soothing remedies is a simple hot toddy. Just steep two tea bags in a cup and a half of boiling water (about 5 minutes), then add lemon and honey. Pour two ounces of bourbon in a mug and pour the tea over it. You’ll feel better, just a little, in an hour.

Wine Lingo:  Solera system (used in producing the rums reviewed, below) = a fractional blending process that involves stacking casks of wine or spirits with the youngest at the top. Periodically, some of the newest wine is poured into the row of casks below it, while some of the wine from that cask is transferred to the next row down, and so on. Only wine from the oldest/bottom batch is bottled, and fresh wine replenishes the wine in the top batch so every bottle is a blend of old and new. The solera system traditionally is used in producing sherry and Madeira, but often with other wines and spirits as well.

Papa Pilar rum small

Vino ‘View:  If I didn’t tell you that Papa’s Pilar (86 proof; Dark $39.99, Blonde $29.99) was rum, you’d think you were sipping quality brandy. Sourced from various locations across the Caribbean and Central America, these rums are solera-blended and aged in sherry and Port casks. The dark version is full and smooth, tasting of plums, pecans, unsweetened chocolate and allspice, with a bit of dry sherry on the finish. The blonde is a tropical surprise; grapefruit competes with orange peel, cantaloupe mixes with lemon bar, and it’s another super-smooth number. I wouldn’t mix these rums even with a splash of water; the alcohol level isn’t so high that you’d need to dilute them. Add an ice cube and relish the refined taste.

[Papa’s Pilar Rums were sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary