Going Screwy Over Corkscrews – Happy Thrift Shop Day!

Writing about corks in my last post reminded me of my old corkscrew collection.

I miss it. I had found unusual antique corkscrews at yard sales, flea markets, street fairs and in thrift shops. One of my favorites came from a street vendor in Brussels who sold nothing but old bottle openers; he displayed about 150 of the treasures and I wanted to buy his whole inventory.

Corkscrew

[Photo “Corkscrew” by Kaino Kaihomieli, courtesy of Flickr/Common Creatives]

Most corkscrews are simple tools – you have the helix, or “worm” (the metal spiral you stick into the top of a cork) and a perpendicular handle of wood, bone, ivory (boo!), tin, brass, steel – but you knew that. Some models come with a foil cutter, though it’s not vital; you can twist the foil off of most bottles with your bare hands. (Yes, you can – try it!)

If you’re in a shopping mood, August 17 – National Thrift Shop Day – is the perfect day to launch your corkscrew hunt. You can find dozens of different styles, especially if you’re looking at old-fashioned varieties. There’s the Champagne tap, a confounding device that looks as if it belongs in a torture chamber. You’ve probably seen the “direct pull” with just a worm and a wooden handle; older versions had brushes sticking out of the handle.

The “winged” or lever type, with two handles that extract the cork as you push down on them, is the model found in most kitchen drawers. When you’re traveling you’ll come across souvenirs called “figurals;” these have a screw protruding from a dog- or other animal-shaped handle, or from a man’s (ahem!) groin area. If you want to get fancy, you can buy an electric corkscrew. One popular brand is the Rabbit; mine lasted three years before it stopped taking a charge.

Food and Wine magazine chose the “waiter’s friend,” also called the “wine key” or “sommelier knife,” invented in 1939, as the best corkscrew on the market. It’s my favorite, too – more efficient and less cumbersome than most models, and it fits in your pocket. The worst, in my view, is the two-pronged “butler’s friend.” It’s almost impossible to pull a cork with that thing, and it’s no friend of mine.

I usually carry a corkscrew – but if I forget, there’s no need to panic, as I discovered when I found myself in a hotel room without one:

Key corkscrewWhen you’ve forgotten your wine key, a house key will do the job.

I sold my corkscrew collection several years ago, but if I wanted to collect again, several websites, including Corkscrews Online and Corkscrew Collecting, provide great tips for buying and spotting fake “antiques.” And if you want to view a terrific collection, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena, California, has one of the best. Housed in the former Christian Brothers Winery, the CIA showcases more than 1,000 corkscrews in its main entry hall – plenty of examples to make you go screwy.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Helixophile = a person who collects corkscrews.

Vino ‘View: I put my waiter’s key to work cracking this bottle of Sexual Chocolate (13.5 percent ABV, $24.99, http://www.SLOdownwines.comand was sorry when it was empty. This 

Sexual Chocolate

California blend was a true BigSexyRed – dark purple and full-bodied, with tears clinging to the inside of my glass. I got a strong aroma of dark chocolate and walnuts, then a taste of tobacco, Ferrero Rocher milk chocolate truffles and even more nuts. On the finish, blackberry and slight black pepper lingered, then a surprise – a subtle bit of orange liqueur on my tongue. The winemaker’s bootlegging story on the label is a bonus.

Cheers!

Mary

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

On Earth Day, I’ll Take My Wine Organic

Every community celebrates Earth Day – or, more accurately, International Mother Earth Day, as the United Nations renamed it in 2009, though I’ve never heard heard anyone use that wordy title. School kids plant flowers, neighborhoods sponsor cleanups, environmentalists remind us to reduce, reuse, recycle. It all helps.

This year, Earth Day stands out for a couple of reasons: more than 150 UN members will sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, an initiative supported by all 196 member-countries across the planet, pledging to strive for no more than a 1.5ºC global temperature rise. And the Earth Day Network, the group that first organized Earth Day in 1970, set this year’s theme as “Trees for the Earth” with the goal of planting 7.8 billion trees over the next five years.

Organic wine

My contribution will be a glass (or two) of organic red wine. I’ve tasted organic wines from various countries, including Chile, Argentina, Spain and Portugal. But if it’s made in the US, it must have that little green sticker you see in the photo above, “USDA Organic” – the US Dept. of Agriculture’s stamp of approval – or the winery can’t claim it’s organic.

For winemakers, it’s not easy being green. The government’s National Organic Program (NOP) set forth its requirements in a 7-page labeling guide. The most important feature of organic grapes is that they’re grown without fertilizers or pesticides. There’s a difference between organic grapes and organic wines – long story – but basically a vineyard must be free of substances on the NOP’s list of prohibited materials for three years before it can be certified organic.

So, how to keep a vineyard free of chemicals? By getting creative, mostly, and spending money. Spraying fertilizer and pesticides is easier and cheaper than investing in mulch to keep weeds down, or buying specialty soaps to help control insects. Some vineyard managers buy predator insects to eat the bugs that destroy their grapes. Some of the organic processes call for more people in the vineyard, which always drives up the cost.

And sometimes nothing works. If the vines become diseased or a pest invasion overwhelms the vineyard, the winegrower has no choice but to get rid of the problem as quickly and painlessly as possible. Once a non-approved fertilizer or pesticide is used, the vineyard loses its organic certification and has to undergo the long process of trying to go organic again.

It’s easier to grow organic grapes in some parts of the country than others. Few growers attempt it in the Midwest, for instance, because the humidity makes it easy for mold and rot to take hold of the vines, while dryer environments see fewer disease and insect problems.

Corks

But since few of us are lucky enough to own vineyards or wineries, there are other ways we can go green with wine. One is to recycle corks. We’ve all seen “cork art” – I’m not a fan, though I’ve seen a few works that were extraordinary. But there’s an easier way to recycle your corks, and that’s to sell them online, for about a dime each. A bag of 100 can bring you a cool $10, and they weigh so little, shipping costs are minimal. (You can sell those dreadful plastic corks, too, but you’ll only get about 5 cents each for those.) Some sellers “batch” them in different ways – Spanish wine corks, California corks, French corks.

Empty bottles

You can sell your empty wine bottles, too, for about $1 each. These cost more to ship, of course, but people who make their own vino need them. Soak the labels off, and you might want to separate them by color and shape.

Box wine

One last way to reduce your environmental footprint, wine-wise: drink boxed wines. It takes far fewer natural resources to manufacture and ship cardboard boxes with rubber bladders inside, than glass bottles. And stop snickering; some of this stuff is delicious. (And yes, some is nasty.) I’ve had great luck with Big Sexy Reds produced by Bota Box, Vin Vault and Black Box.

If you want to go on record as an “official” supporter of curbing climate change, go to the Earth Day Network’s website, http://www.earthday.org, and become a “citizen signer.” You can brag about it to the kids someday – over a glass of organic wine.

Wine Lingo of the Day =  Sustainable viticulture, growing grapes in a way that not only protects the environment organically, but also considers the long-term future of society and wine growing, addressing such issues as global warming, greenhouse gases and water usage.

[Photos by Mary Mihaly, Deb Harkness/Flickr (corks), Monika Andrae/Flickr (empties) and anokarina/Flickr (boxed wine).]

Cheers!

Mary

Forget Exercise – Raise Your Glass Instead?

Let’s get one thing on the table: today is National Beer Day. That’s a good thing, but it’s not my thing. I’d rather write about wine: why at BigSexyReds.com we love learning about wine, writing about it and most of all, drinking it.

And the best reason for drinking red wine especially: because it’s good for you – apparently as beneficial as a one-hour workout at the gym.

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Scientists aren’t telling us to hang up our sneakers just yet, but they have discovered some surprising gains in recent years from drinking a glass of vino.

Researchers from Oregon State University found that ellagic acids, antioxidants found in grapes, can delay the growth of existing fat cells and slow the development of new ones. Pretty cool, yes? When they tested the acids on mice, those that were given extracts of Pinot Noir grapes stored less fat in their livers and had healthier blood sugar levels, while those who scarfed down “mouse chow” developed fatty liver and symptoms of diabetes—“the same metabolic consequences we see in many overweight, sedentary people,” the researchers wrote.

Jeff Gargiulo, now owner of Gargiulo Vineyards in Napa Valley, isn’t surprised. “We all agree out here that wine is very healthy,” he told BigSexyReds.com. “People out here live it.”

It gets better: in a separate study out of the University of Alberta last year, scientists concluded that drinking one glass of red wine per day bestows the same payoffs in physical performance, heart function and muscle strength as working out for an hour. Resveratrol, they found, “could mimic exercise” for patients unable to work out, or to boost benefits for those who did exercise.

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But moderation matters: Three glasses of red does not equal three hours in the gym, no matter how pricey the wine. The good news is, you don’t have to spend a fortune; cheaper red wine brings the same health benefits as the good stuff.

And the bonuses keep coming:

  • Drinking red wine can lower your risk of depression, according to a  2013 Spanish study published in the journal BMC Medicine. That’s for people who drink two to seven glasses per week.
  • Another mental health boost: a study published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment showed that 23 percent of participants who drank red wine lowered their risk of developing dementia.
  • A newer study last October found that for patients diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes who also were at low risk for alcohol abuse, enjoyed more restful sleep and higher HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) when they drank one glass of red wine each day. That group, in fact, scored better than patients who drank white wine or water.
  • A bit of surprise, but it makes sense: researchers at the University of Barcelona found that drinking moderate amounts of red wine helps protect against sunburn.

Beer drinking, by the way, carries its own health advantages: it’s a heart-healthy drink, it boosts creativity, and it helps prevent cataracts, among other benefits.

So, I’ll raise my wineglass to beer drinkers today – and whatever you pour, drink it in good health!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Flavonoids = compounds that contribute to a wine’s color, astringency (tannins), texture and bitterness, and are largely responsible for wine’s healthy qualities.

Healthy sipping!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Steve Corey and donireewalker, Flickr/Creative Commons]