Pinot Now

Radical Wine Thought

Convert Your Front Yard Into a Vineyard

I have 20 Pinot Noir vines growing in my front yard. Actually, instead of my front yard.

Convert your front yard into a vineyard

Better than grass: Pinot Noir growing in my front yard.

When I bought my home, it had a front yard full of grass that was kept alive by a sprinkler system and  regular watering. The problem with grass is that you can’t drink it. Well, okay, you can. And I’m not saying wheatgrass juice is disgusting, I’m just saying it triggers an uncontrollable gag reflex in me.

The point is that your typical lawn is not meant for, nor would it be very good for consumption. Yet it tends to take up a lot of land. Sometimes acres. When I bought my house it became a mystery why someone would spend so much money buying land, and then spend more money to water and upkeep a lawn, usually by running some gas-burning lawn mower. A lawn is something that only takes from your wallet and the environment and never gives anything back.

Maybe because I value the earth, maybe because I see real estate as an investment that should produce returns, maybe because after renting landless apartments for years all I wanted was a patch of dirt to grow something edible on, to know where my food came from, to decrease the carbon footprint from importing and shipping, to not conform to some wasteful standard of property usage that came from a tradition of thoughtless suburbanizing, for the health of myself and the world, and for sure with inspiration from people like Ron Finley and Julie Bass… for so many reasons I see so much more potential to land than a yawn, I mean lawn.

So I ripped out my grass and put in a vineyard. And not just any vineyard. These vines are the clone descendants of  Grand Cru vines from around Vosne Romanee… the mothership and ground zero for all things Pinot Noir. The crazy thing? You can easily get some for your front yard too.

If you haven’t heard of Foundation Plant Services then you haven’t heard of the Library of Congress for grapes. FPS is, to my knowledge, the largest living library of grapevines in the world. There’s nothing like it. They catalog and cultivate samples of every variety of known grape that they can get their hands on, and some that they can’t. When I die I hope to go to FPS, not heaven.

AND…. AND…. you can buy pretty much any of the vines in the library!!  And they can ship them to you! (I know that’s a lot of exclamation points, but FPS is totally deserving.) And you can grow them right there in your front yard where all that useless grass is wasting space.

What could happen if you and your neighbors started growing grapes instead of grass? Imagine a neighborhood wine co-op where grapes and wine are shared and exchanged and tasted. Imagine your suburb becoming an AVA. Imagine your world transformed into a garden.

Okay, before I fully begin channeling John Lennon, let me just wrap this up by saying that future posts will give the how-to, step-by-step for growing and making wine from your front yard.

Wine Ingredients – The PinotNow Revolution Begins

wine additives

What’s in my wine?

If you’ve purchased and drunk wine from a grocery store, liquor store, or your local 7-11 any time in the past decade, you have consumed (almost without a doubt) something called Mega Purple.

The name Mega Purple conjures a large, fun-loving, violet-furred creature that has its own Saturday morning cartoon. But the real Mega Purple is a common additive in commercially mass-produced red wine that darkens and sweetens it , and is likely a big part of the current trend in big, dark red blends with gothic packaging and names like “Authentic Black” and “Midnight Crush” and other such nonsense that sound like the emissions of a BET Harlequin comingling.

Wait, “additive?” you ask. Isn’t wine just fermented grapes? Uh, nope.

Here’s a link to the list of over 60 chemicals that can be added to wine without informing the consumer.

There are many reasons to add things to fermenting grape juice to improve the flavor of the resulting wine. In addition to the yeasts and bacteria that are added to ferment the juice you can add yeast food (which contains things like diammonium phosphate). And then there are special enzymes that help break down the skins to extract more color and flavor. And of course there’s sulfites (potassium meta bi-sulfite, for example), which is put in every wine except for organic wines. There are fining ingredients like clay (bentonite) and egg whites (yes, egg whites). And then there are the really weird things, like Mega Purple (a concentrate made from Rubired, a teinturier grape*).

What if you come up with some great new wine additive but it’s not on the list of 60+ approved wine additives (like MegaPurple)? No problem. Here’s a link to the simple process for getting a new additive approved. The only problem? There’s no simple process for making us consumers aware that a new additive has been approved… and added to our wine!

To be fair, a lot of the additives are pretty much harmless. But some are not. Copper sulfate for example is something often added to wine when it develops too much hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

H2S is the gas responsible for that rotten egg smell that you might have detected if you’ve ever encountered a ruptured sewage pipe… or rotten eggs… or an “off” wine. H2S is flammable and toxic and just gross, and most humans can smell it in very small quantities. Like under 10 parts per billion. And yeast produce it under certain circumstances. So you can see how it’s problematic for wine makers. No one wants to drink a wine that smells like sewage.

Copper sulfate is one way to deal with this problem because it bonds to H2S and then can be filtered out of the wine. The problem is that it’s also moderately toxic. It’s a lesser of two evils. And when a million dollar batch of wine is at stake, it’s clear why you’d be willing to dabble in a little evil.

What’s not clear is why the FDA doesn’t require this information on a bottle of wine!

Ironically the two ingredients that are required to be listed on a wine label are the least surprising – alcohol and sulfites. Thanks, ATB! Could you also require that sinks be labeled to show that they dispense water? That would be equally informative.

There is no good reason that wine producers aren’t required to list ALL the ingredients that they add to their wine. There may be several bad reasons, I’ll admit. But I hope that mine will be one of many voices that lead to a change.

We want to know that our wine contains diammonium phosphate just as much as we want to know that our ice cream contains guar gum. I will lead us to research those ingredients and make better choices as consumers about what we want to put in our bodies, along with our alcohol and sulfites. It will expose wine producers who “cheat” nature with additives like MegaPurple. Some of us might not care, but others of us may realize that this is why there can be a “sameness” to many mass produced wines, and it may lead us to seek out producers who put as little into their wine as possible and still get great, interesting results.

Knowing what is in our wine won’t kill wine sales. But it might sting a little. And that’s because a change is needed. We can’t value organic, local food at the same time that we buy wine without knowing what’s been added to it.

To all wine producers: I’m calling you out. If you have nothing to hide, prove it. List every single ingredient that goes into your wine on every bottle that you sell.

* a teinturier grape is a grape whose both skin AND juice is red. Most grapes have clear-ish juice which reddens because of contact with the crushed skins. More about this in another article.



Welcome to Pinot Now

What we do here is about enjoying life to the fullest… draining your glass with gusto.

Keep Drinking, OR, How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love the Fruit Bomb

A few years back I held regular tasting parties in which everybody brought a bottle of red wine under $15 in a brown bag, and we did a mass blind tasting of 10 to 20 wines. I did this three times with three different groups of friends over the course of a couple years, and I know for a fact that some people snuck in wines over $15.

The results? The same wine won every single time: Yellow Tail Shiraz.

This might have been why I stopped doing the parties. The point – that I hadn’t been trying to make – had been proven. Despite what any of my friends may have thought or said about Yellow Tail Shiraz, if they didn’t know they were drinking it, they loved it.

The more I learn about wine, the more I think that those tasting parties were microcosms of everything that has been going on in the entire wine industry in the 21st century. The globalization of a single (YTS) style of wine-making, the bias of the 100 point scale towards essentially more expensive versions of YTS (an ironic combination of elitism and garishness), and the resulting reactions against these developments… all, really, came from a bunch of YTS-loving Americans (a few other nationalities were represented at my tastings too).

So while recently pulling a shift at the wine store where I act as guide for the perplexed once a week, I read the intro to the third edition of The Wine Trials.

If you haven’t read it, it’s probably worth a read, if only to reinforce the findings of my blind tastings with more scientifically rigorous blind tastings: that if you don’t know what you’re drinking, you are likely to enjoy Yellow Tail Shiraz more than just about anything.

This is of course a gross over-simplification of the WT “manifesto.” So let me give a more detailed summary (I love that oxymoron):

1. There are many wines under $15 that you will enjoy more than much more expensive wines. This is especially true of champagne/sparkling wine/cava.

2. If you know a wine’s cost or brand, and it is expensive or a brand that you like, you are likely going to enjoy it more. In other words, perception influences taste.

3. Many of the “revered” top-tier wine producers – like LVMH who produces Dom Perignon among many others, and Veuve Clicquot – spend more on marketing than on wine making. In other words, you’re paying for what’s ON the bottle rather than what’s IN it.

4. The 100 point scale favors expensive wine.

5. It’s a near statistical impossibility to get consistent ratings or awards for the same wine when judged in multiple competitions or by different judges, or even by the same judge at different times. In other words, wine awards and scores are almost completely arbitrary.

While these points can all be very liberating to the consumer, there’s something contradictory at the heart of the of the Wine Trials manifesto.

Mr. Goldstein, the author, uses these points to make the compelling case that we should all trust our taste, and value brand less. The whole book is built around the recommendations that follow the manifesto, over 100 wines under $15 that were preferred in blind tastings to similar wines over $50.

However, near the end of the manifest, he bemoans the fact that wine producers are using the consumer’s preference for certain styles of wine (yes, YTS) to influence their wine making toward that style. He doesn’t want wine makers to make wine for anyone other than themselves. He wants diversity of wine style to be preserved. Please, dear god, don’t let La Tache start to taste like Castle Rock!

So I finished the manifesto thinking “hmmmm.” It seems to me, that if you’re going to write a book celebrating the power of the consumer to make their own decisions about taste, and promoting inexpensive, crowd-pleasing wines, then you can’t turn around and complain about the global dumbing-down of wine.

People vote with their dollars, and if you encourage everyone to believe that their taste is god, they’ll spend money on the easy pleasures of the uneducated palate. And producers will chase those dollars.

Say what you will about wine, though, there IS a learning curve. You can be taught to taste more, to taste differently, to taste without prejudice, to understand what you’re tasting. In many cases these things have to be learned.

Tasting something as complex as a good wine is not intuitive, though it can have intuitive elements. YTS succeeds in pleasing many because it plays to the intuitive elements: sweetness and richness predominantly.

YTS, along with many, many other globally-styled wines (Menage a Trois is one of my favorites), strives to have no unfamiliar or sharp elements, like minerality or acidity or tannins, that intrude on the intuitive pleasures and require interpretation or education to understand. It aspires to be simply pleasurable, because that’s where the money is. It is, and this is neither compliment nor insult, the water of wine.

At a recent Court of Master Sommeliers intro course/test (I passed, yay!) we did multiple blind tastings throughout the weekend. The attempt was to get us to identify wines – grapes used, region made, vintage – by their characteristics of sight, smell and taste. I noticed how difficult it was, for most everyone, to distinguish wines from Chile, Australia, Argentina, and California – the New World – while the wines from France, Italy, and Germany were all so remarkably different.

Perhaps Old World wines are what they are because they’ve grown out of and are still, to some extent, part of their cultures, whereas New World wines are part of, mainly, the world of commerce.

What’s lost in the globalization of the YTS style, though, is diversity, individuality, terroir, vintage… but who really cares if you like it, right? Well, I guess that’s the question. Do you care?

If you don’t, then you’ll be relieved to know that you can stop paying for over-priced luxury brand wines that are selling you a lifestyle, rather than a wine. There are plenty of inexpensive wines of uncomplicated pleasure to be had. God knows, you can’t go wrong with YTS at seven bucks a bottle. And you’ll find plenty more throughout the New World.

Unless of course you care that people see you drinking Veuve Clicquot more than you care that it’s made from cheap grapes and tastes worse than, well, cheap champagne. In that case, feel free to feed their corporate marketing machine. I wish I had your money.

But if you care about that world of wine that has been evolving over millenia to express the various cultures and lands where it has been made; if you care to expand your tastes, nay, your very soul, beyond the bounds of the familiar; then you have a more difficult, but also more fun and potentially more rewarding road ahead: self-education.

It’s going to cost you a bit more, both in time and in cash, because it takes some studying to learn about how good wines are made and what makes them distinctive. And some of the most interesting wines – I won’t call them “best” – do cost more because of the care and attention given to the grapes both in the vineyard and in the winery.

But there are those fascinating and affordable wines you would never get to experience unless you branch out into the Abruzzos, Burgenlands, Cahors, and Duoros of the world. And the good news is that caring about diversity, valuing it, can have the same affect as knowing a wine is expensive: you’ll start to get more pleasure from the diverse tastes.

Even if you don’t care, and just want your YTS, the good news is that if you keep drinking, sooner or later you’re probably going to want variety. If for no other reason than boredom, you will likely then start caring about diversity and individuality in wine. Just hope it isn’t too late to find some.

Merlot vs Pinot

Miles, from the movie Sideways, refused to drink Merlot (with now infamous emphasis). Within a year of the Academy Awards where Payne & Taylor took home the Oscar for a screenwriting adaptation, Merlot sales had dropped over 40%. Pinot Noir on the other hand, Miles’ favorite, is enjoying an unprecedented heyday. Yes, this shows the power of movies to influence our lives, but unfortunately it also shows that the subtlety of good storytelling is lost on the general public.

Miles hated Merlot. He also disparaged Cabernet Franc. But remember his precious 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, the wine that was a metaphor for Mile’s life, that he finally guzzles at the end when he has learned whatever it is he learns? It is a little known fact, except among wine geeks, that the Cheval Blanc is a wine made of a 50/50 mix of, you guessed it, Merlot and Cab Franc. It was a brilliant move on the part of Payne & Taylor, to underline the contradictions inherent in their complicated protagonist. One of those juicy tidbits that makes Sideways a movie to revisit. Unfortunately devastating to California Merlot producers.

Merlot is the most predominantly grown grape in Bordeaux. The hands down most expensive and revered wines in the world, the Bordeaux first growths, are made with differing mixes of Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, and a couple other grapes. Lucky for the French, they name their wines after the location from which they are produced rather than after their varietal, so the unwitting American Merlot snob wouldn’t be deterred from spending a small fortune on Merlot. It’s not Merlot… it’s a Chateau d’Whatever.

Is my point that Merlot is actually better than Pinot Noir? No. The moral of this story is that prejudice is always silly. Great wines come from every family of grape, and your particular tastes on any specific occasion often play the most important role in determining if you will love or hate a wine. So go out there and drink some #@%ing Merlot!

Pinot Now Recommendation:

Try some Napa Cellars Merlot. Full of hypocrisies and contradictions, rich with metaphor and insight, this vino will appeal to both the undiscerning layperson and those with a taste for subtlety. Pairs well with In-&-Out and an unprejudiced heart.

Tasting Wine, Part 1: Wine Country

Here are some insider secrets that will help you prepare for a weekend in wine country.

  1. Pack a lunch. Restaurants in wine country are often few and far between. The ones you find will be overpriced. Plus, you won’t get through many tasting rooms on an empty stomach. The max is around 8, and that’s pushing it… trust me. The bar crackers only go so far.
  2. Bring a date who is allergic to alcohol. They will come to be known as your “designated driver,” but let them discover this destiny along the way. Staggering sideways toward the car and dropping your keys as you fiddle with the lock is a good way to encourage them to discover their destiny. Then be effusively grateful. If needed, convince them to come with promises of all the great restaurants in wine country. Dates with sulfite allergies work too, but make sure they haven’t brought a secret stash of whiskey. Search them if necessary.
  3. Make evening plans. Tasting rooms usually close at 5. That’s usually a few hours before your buzz peaks. Do the math. I suggest over-priced dining, drinking of bottles you purchased during the day, fire of some kind, hot tubs, movies, skinny-dipping and dessert. I suggest doing these first one at a time, then all at once.
  4. Use Vegas money rules. At first you’ll just pay for a tasting fee. Then another. Then you’ll taste an amazing wine and you’ll have to buy a bottle. Then you’ll go to a winery where everything tastes good and you’ll say “One of each!” At the next one you’ll reason, with what seems to be utterly sensible logic, that you drink wine all year so you might as well get the buying part out of the way when you can taste what you’re buying, and you’ll come home with a year’s supply of pink champagne. Whatever you do to protect your money from yourself in Vegas, duplicate it in wine country.

Read Part 2 now: At The Bar.

Tasting Wine, Part 2: At The Bar

There’s no right or wrong way to taste wine, but there are some things that will make you look really really stupid. The key to wine tasting is understanding that although in truth the whole experience is a glorified version of bar hopping, maintaining the illusion that that it is a process of appreciation, education, and sophisticated shopping is half the fun. These tips will prevent you from inadvertently violating this jolly pretense.

  1. It’s not a shot. Spend a minimum of two minutes with each glass of wine. To kill time, swirl the wine in the glass compulsively – there are really good reasons for doing this, number one of which is that it makes you look like you know what you’re doing.
  2. Get creative. If you read notes from a professional tasting you will be dumbfounded to find that a critic detected notes of things like “crushed pebbles,” “guava,” “forest mushrooms,” and “stone fruit.” How many glasses had they drunk? Consider for a moment that the sensitivity of your palate could possibly be equal to your ability to B.S. Stick your nose in the glass and smell the wine – yes, it smells like wine, but get creative. Take a big sniff. What’s that? Do you detect a whiff of… sunshine? Sea breeze? Dew covered blueberries? Yes, you do.
  3. Hold the stem, not the bowl, of the glass. It looks prissy, but you are preventing your hand from warming the wine. Prissy is good. In fact, stick your pinky out as you sip.
  4. There’s no accounting for taste. Wine should be described, not judged. If you hate it, never say so. Rather describe it as having aromas of “barnyard and freshly mulched earth” with flavors of “lead pencil and pasture clover” and a texture of “brushed tree bark and a finish like a nail in a coffin.” If you love it, describe it like the most romantic kiss of your life. “Intoxicating aromas of lilac and strawberry, rich and luscious with ripe, juicy fruit, plush and silky, with a finish that lingers in your mouth like steam on the windows of a car after you’ve made love in the backseat.” Go ahead. Get carried away.
  5. Pretend whatever wine you taste is the cure for cancer. Act as if you are holding a precious elixir, extracted over centuries, crafted by the life-blood of a thousand generations, delivered to you in sacred ceremony, solely for you to have a fuller, happier, and possibly longer life. You might, after all, be right.

“Approachable” is a Euphemism

Wine lingo can be as esoteric as entertainment industry gab, and it tends to sound twice as pretentious. A “hot” wine is overly alcoholic. The “robe” is the color of a wine. A “varietal” is the kind of grape from which a wine is made. A person who loves wine? Yes, a “wine-o,” but also, technically, an “oenophile.” How do you even pronounce that?

The descriptors that are the most fun personify wine. At a wine tasting you might hear people nod and agree, with a straight face, to a wine description such as “rich and well built, with nice legs, a sexy mouth feel, and a silky back end.”

One of the silliest words I’ve heard used to describe a wine is “drinkable.” Really? Because I assumed this was meant to be poured down the drain. That’s why I’m spending the ten bucks. My drain needs a wine rinse. Even better is “very drinkable.”

But the term I find to be the most insidiously pretentious is “approachable.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this tossed around in wine shops, in wine magazines, and on wine bottles. What bothers me about this word in particular is that it is used almost exclusively as a signifier. And what does it signify? Usually that the person speaking it thinks that the person hearing it has very little knowledge of and therefore pedestrian tastes in wine. Or it’s code for those in the know that a wine is not sublime.

What it means, essentially, is that this wine appeals to the undiscerning masses. It’s uncomplicated, unrefined, fun. Yes, you’ll enjoy it. Everyone does. In other words, “approachable” is a highfalutin way of saying – if I may coin a new wine term – “slutty.”  Take it as you may, at least we’ve left the realm of pretense… and at Pinot Now, there’s no shame in a wine that goes down easy.

Aging Wine: Is Your Wine Helen Mirren or Keith Richards?

“Like a fine wine, I get better with age.” It’s an old adage that sounds nice, but we all know examples to the contrary. So how do you know if your wine is a Helen Mirren – one for whom the years only serve to undress her subtle beauty, grace, and style – or a Keith Richards – one that you wish had kept his clothes on? The key is that not all wines are “fine.” In fact most aren’t.

The truth is that 85-90% of wines produced worldwide are at their peak upon release and are meant to be drunk when you purchase them. As tastes are becoming more and more influence by a “new world” style of wine, that percentage is growing. Life is uncertain, and people want good wine now, not in 20 years when we’ll all be refugees in Antarctica. Yes, these non-fine wines can hang around for a year or two, and sometimes longer, but it’s not going to make them taste any better. And depending on how you store them, that extra time may actually make them taste worse.

So how do you know if you have a bottle from the other 10%, the kind that are designed to age? Here’s a good rule of thumb: if it’s under $20, go ahead and drink it . Those “fine” wines tend to be on the high end of the price scale. Here’s another adage: “Wine does improve with age. The older I get, the better I like it.”

Original Zin

My vote for the most unassuming grape grown in the U.S. is Zinfandel. Until recently this varietal was shrouded in mystery. What language is that name? Where did it come from? Zinfandels only come from the U.S. for the most part. As it turns out, Zinfandel may be the quintessential American grape.

In 1832 plantings from Austria, the imperial Viennese collection no less, arrived in Boston. They were purchased wholesale by nursery owner, Samuel Perkins, who promptly put a sign on his door saying “Zinfandel for sale.” No one knows why he named the shoots Zinfandel, but voila! the new grape was given a uniquely American identity.

Since then Zinfandel has left an indelible cultural stain (and I mean that in the best sense) on the U.S. wine industry. Zinfandel is a red grape, and makes bold, zesty, full-bodied premium red wines. However, by a happy accident, Zinfandel revolutionized the American wine industry in its sweet, pink embodiment as White Zinfandel.

As you may know most pink wines, blushes or rosés, and some whites are made with red grapes. The reason this is possible is that contact with the grape skins while it ferments is what gives the juice its red color. If the juice is removed from the red skins as soon as the grapes are crushed, the juice will stay clear, or “white.” If the juice gets to stay on the skins for a few hours, but not for the entire fermentation, it will turn pink.

1973 was a good year for Sutter Home winery in Napa. The sun shone bright and long and they had an abundance of ripe, juicy grapes at harvest as they began crushing the grapes for their premium Zinfandel (the red kind). Too juicy, in fact. To make the Zinfandel more concentrated and flavorful, they drew off some of the juice during fermentation, leaving them with some plush red and some pink “throw-away” stuff. That pink stuff didn’t ferment completely, so it was sweeter, and it didn’t spend as long on the tannin imparting skins, so it was smoother. When they tasted it again at the end of harvest to see what to do with it, it turned out to be quite tasty. So – what they heck – they bottled it.

White Zinfandel turned out to be the most popular wine in America until it was out-sold in 1998 by Chardonnay. Today there is more acreage planted to Zinfandel grapes in California than any other grape varietal.

It was recently discovered that the Zinfandel grape is genetically identical to Primitivo, a grape grown in Italy, and that the vine most likely originated in Croatia. But you can’t get a real Zinfandel anywhere else but here. Zinfandel has become both in name and in style, uniquely American. The Italians even recently requested permission of the EU to call Primitivo Zinfandel. I dare anyone to find any other instance in history where this has happened. It would be like asking to call pizza a cheese pie.

Another interesting bit of oenophilic patriotism: Both Zinfandel and White Zinfandel pair wonderfully with Thanksgiving Dinner – the quintessential American holiday.

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