June 15, 2008

Father's day wines

I'm doing the typical dad thing this Father's day - watching lots of US Open golf on the television while largely sitting on my duff. Or maybe that's sitting on my large duff.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of my own golf "game," I'm going for it by opening a few older, likely questionable wines. And like my normal experience on the golf course, I'm having fun even if most of the shots aren't going to go as planned.

First, a half bottle of 1998 Thevenet "Domaine de la Bongran" Macon-Clesse Tradition. In other words, culty white Burgundy from the Maconnais. It's questionable because I found it cheap at a local shop that's known for the occasional good deal amid some seriously suspect older wines. The trick is to get things that haven't lingered there long, and since this wine is available at other more reputable shops (for lots more money), I thought it was worth a punt. Nope, it's shot. Golden colored and maderized.

Back to the fridge, this time for a full bottle of 2001 Adea Chardonnay Willamette Valley, which I picked up for just $5 on close out. Adea is serious about chardonnay, but this is old for Oregon chard. I've heard it's "nutty," which could be good or really bad depending on who's saying it. After taking off the capsule, I find a yellow plastic "cork" and wonder if it's not going to be the really bad kind. But no. This wine is near the end of its life, but definitely still living and certainly worth drinking. It has a light to medium gold color with a slight green cast. Indeed there's a roasted nut aroma, with hints of baked apple and mint. In the mouth it's vibrant and still knit together despite its age. The texture is incredibly smooth, even a bit oily as the wine fills the mouth and persists, with a browned butted flavor. It's not watery, acidic, stale and sour as truly dead and oxidized wines tend to taste, as if the elements have come apart and individually gone bad (see above). The finish is long and cleanly nutty, not so fruity and fresh as most people would want, but complex and downright impressive. I might not want to drink the whole bottle, but this is nice. And it's getting better, fresher as it warms up from fridge temperature. Good show.

Later on, I opened another recent purchase from Winebid, a simple claret from the Haut Medoc, the 1988 Chateau Beaumont. This is exactly the kind of wine Robert Parker would hate. That is, it's "lost its fruit," meaning it showed only tertiary aromas and flavors of gravel, leather, and old wood spice. To me, there was an echo of the youthful cassis flavors, as if they'd been absorbed by the other earthy elements. Clean smelling, medium bodied with a fine tannic texture, this isn't easy sipping wine at a cocktail party. But with what was, I must admit, a fine homemade dinner of grilled flat iron steak with truffle salt and pepper, garlic roasted potatoes, a tapenade of fresh pesto, and garden greens with local blue cheese and roasted hazelnuts with a light olive oil dressing and sea salt. Oh my god. Sure, another more fancy, richly fruited wine might have been better to most people, perhaps my wife among them. But this old, quiet claret was just right for dinner in the backyard with the family. That is, tonight was dad's choice and this is what I chose.

June 14, 2008

Paper chromatogaphy

With most people, when they find out I like to make wine, they usually say something like, "you must really have to be a scientist." That's telling. Mention you're a chef and people seem to launch into what you cook and what they like to cook. Mention you make wine and people distance themselves and assume it's all science.

It's not true. Just as chefs don't need to be ranchers raising their own cattle, and for that matter wineries don't NEED to own and farm their own vineyards, winemakers don't need to be scientists. In fact, if I had a nickel for every time I've heard of a highly technical winemaker who's found they need to loosen up to make really great wine, well, I'd have some money.

The truth, though, is that you do need to know some wine science if you want to make good wine, just as you need to know some food science if you want to bake good bread. It's not just art. And sometimes the science can help make things cheaper and more personal. Take paper chromatography.

As I've written about my 2006 Pinot Noir, I struggled through the important malolactic fermentation, paying twice for a fairly expensive test for residual malic acid. If there's still malic in the wine, ML's not done. If ML's not done and you bottle the wine, besides the slightly sharp acid taste it might give, ML may continue in the bottle with bad results.

With my 2007, I'm doing what I see other winemakers doing, good old fashioned paper chromatography. That means getting some chromatography paper, a tall jar and a small amount of solvent similar to what you might use to develop photos. Nasty stuff to be sure, but that's part of the deal.

You can learn more about the process here, but paper chromatography basically goes like this: make spots near the bottom of the paper with your wine samples, let it dry, roll the paper in a circle and place in the tall jar. Let the paper soak up solution overnight, take out the paper and hang it up to dry. Once dry, there will be colorful spots on the paper above each wine sample, each spot suggesting the presence of a particular acid, with the intensity of acid concentration suggested by the brightness of the color.

It isn't foolproof, and it may seem a bit complicated. The solvent smell isn't great either. But for not so much money, you can do many sheets of chromatography with many wine samples per sheet. That means one set up like I've described (jar, solvent, and a 10-pack of special paper) can take care of dozens of samples, allowing you to save money and have what ends up being an easy process to stay in touch with ML progress.

Yes, there is a "simple and cheap" Accuvin test kit, but I don't find it so cheap. Maybe I'm an idiot, but other Accuvin tests, such as for SO2, just don't seem to work. And, frankly, I'm looking to learn what professional winemakers do. I know some who send everything out for ML testing, some who do that only after monitoring with chromatography, but it seems the Accuvin users are homebrewers. Could be wrong, but that's my experience. I don't mean to disparage my homebrewing brothers and sisters, but I want a different experience.

So, my barrel of 2007 Pinot Noir appears done with ML. However, my carboys of press wine are not, which means I'll stir them and bring them in the house to a warmer place than the garage to promote ML activity.

Happily, my 2007 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Rose both show LOTS of malic acid, which I want. These aren't wine I like to go through ML, so that they're fresh and crisp like a Pippen apple, not butter and creamy and anything but refreshing. Now I'll hit them again with SO2 to further deter ML activity, fine the wines with bentonite, maybe filter if I can get equipment. Or not, since these are small lots of homebrew and don't need to be completely free from bottle sediment. Then it's bottling time for the white and pink stuff. Summer's finally here.

June 10, 2008


I'm going to take some advice from a friend. Despite the serious increase in email I get from readers any time I "go negative" with a wine review, I think I'm better off focusing on more positive things. Like me. This is a blog after all. It's all about vanity, right?

So a few weeks back I recruited another friend to help me bottle my lone barrel of 2006 Pinot Noir from the Wahle vineyard in the northern Willamette Valley's Yamhill-Carlton AVA. In case you're not up on me and my every move, I got a 1/2 ton of mostly 30 year old Pommard and Coury clone Pinot Noir, with some 777 grafted some years ago onto 30 year old chardonnay roots from this historic local vineyard that's otherwise mostly in commercial production. These were excellent grapes for a homebrewer like me to be working with, and if I'm lucky or really nice or something, I hope to work with them again in the future.

Despite some challenges, the wine has turned out pretty nice. The short story is that my wild yeast fermentation turned stinky after several days, but I added some yeast hulls to feed the yeast and vigorous stirred the fermenting wine to aerate things. Happily, the stink went away. Then it came back in early 2007, so I intervened again to rack the wine off its smelly gross lees to again give the wine some air that helps the bad odor to go away. Again, the wine regained its freshness. However, I made a mistake by continuing to rely on naturally present lactic acid bacteria to complete the important malolactic fermentation that following spring. Turns out once I racked the wine, I probably should have innoculated with a cultured bacteria strain to help ML happen and finish. Instead, I waited all spring and summer for ML to finish, only to test in September to see if malic was done after lots of prickling noises in the barrel but no dramatic change. Nope, not even close. At that point, I innoculated and ML perked up and then finished fairly quickly. The concern -- I hadn't sulfured the wine in more than a year since harvest, which can lead to oxidation (stale aromas and flavors) and/or volatile acidity (vinegar or nail polish notes). Also, I didn't keep the barrel too cold in order to help ML progress. Happily, neither issue really presented itself despite lots of worry and hand wringing. A professional chemistry panel of the wine shows a slightly elevated VA level, but nothing to worry about. Certainly nothing anywhere close to legal limits, were this commercial wine. The lesson is that either I should have let my wine ride in the first place rather than intervene when the early 2007 smell showed itself, or I should have innoculated after racking. Racking and not innoculating was dumb. If you email me that (thanks to those who already have), I simply can't thank you enough for the help.

For the record, this year my barrel of 2007 Pinot Noir started smelling. Instead of racking, I stirred the barrel periodically with a copper pipe to help bind the stinky compounds as my professional winemaker friends suggested I do. Well, well, well, that worked and a recent chomatography test shows that ML is done in that wine. Time to rack, sulfur and put that one to bed until bottling sometime this fall and winter. I'm learning.

Back to 2006 wine. After finally sulfuring in late 2007 - a good dose mind you to bind what oxidation was present and otherwise protect the wine until now -- I patiently let the wine rest until early May, 19 months after harvest when it was finally time to bottle. So a friend who's a beer homebrewer and general good guy pitched in (yes, a yeast pun) to help bottle the wine with a makeshift and downright weird ass, haphazard method.

Because I have no pumps nor any vat of significant size to bottle from, and because I wanted to touch up the wine with a final, minor hit of SO2 but failed to do so before bottling day because of general life complications, I had what may or may not be a genius idea. Why not carefully rack the wine from barrel into a series of 5 gallon carboys, adding a precise and tiny amount of liquid SO2 solution to each carboy as it began filling, and then bottle immediately from each carboy using gravity? I can only hope the SO2 mixed well during the racking, and I have no reason to think it didn't. I was careful not to suck up what fine lees remained in the barrel, and even left a few gallons at the bottom before filling a small carboy with it to use as topping wine to fill out my slightly lean 2007, if I need it. Maybe I'll just bottle it later instead. We'll see. The 2007 is showing better than I expected at this point, and I'll try to maintain its vintage integrity unless it simply needs help with leftover 2006. More on that later.

After many carboys and lots of bottles filled one by one, then corked by hand with a new, cheap, but very functional floor corker that doesn't tear up the corks like my old super cheap piece-of-crap corker, I ended up with 22 cases of 750ml bottles, 4 magnums, and several half bottles that I'll use mostly for checking up on things over time. While I'll keep a few cases for myself, my goal for this wine is largely to spread it around a friends and family network. Most people hear that I make wine and think, or even say out loud, that I must be nuts. So I want to show people that it's actually possible to make good wine, and perhaps when I take this project commercial, they might be inclined to support me with some of their hard earned cash. Or trust fund money. Whatever. I'm not picky.

All in all, I can't believe I actually did this. I've made wine before of course, but never more than a few gallons of this or that. For more than a year I've been really excited about what I'm doing, but there's always been the caveat -- let's see if I can get this in the bottle. That's done, and while this isn't wine to rival La Tache or even much of what good local producers have for sale, it's ok stuff. It's ripe, rich like 2006 Oregon Pinot Noir tends to be, and clearly Oregon wine in its flavor and soil profile. I'd probably hate it for being too big and burly if anyone else made it. Really. But it's mine and I'll take it. And let's face it, people dig big, rich wine like this. It may not be a realization of my winemaking goals, but it's reasonably good wine that so far has some fans. I'll take no small amount of pride hearing from one winemaking friend who I think was honest when he said that I've made something that's definitely better than a number of people out there are selling for decent money. Hmm, is that faint praise? Hell no. Pardon the country club suggestion here, but I'm like an amateur golfer who's qualified for a real tournament. I'm not competing, but just being here feels good and I'm not going to hide it. Maybe I'm like Tanner from The Bad News Bears, kicking the dirt and saying "wait 'til next year." Or better yet, coach Buttermaker sitting in the dugout cracking a cold one for no damn good reason except that it feels right. I always liked Walter Matthau. And I liked making this wine. Let me know if you want to try some.

June 08, 2008

Wine as film

I usually try to resist grandiose metaphors or comparisons. Yet after trying a bottle of 2006 Evesham Wood Pinot Noir La Grieve Bleue, I can't help but think of winemaker Russ Raney as Oregon's Akira Kurosawa.

I'm no film geek, but I remember seeing Kurosawa's epic Ran when I was a teenager in the 1980s. I was mesmerized, though I really didn't know what was going on at the time. The movie was just so epic, with space between the dialogue and striking colors, costumes, and framing. Only later did I study Shakespeare and figure out this movie is an adaptation (perhaps) of the classic drama King Lear, but in historical Japan.

Happily I've never heard anyone criticize Kurosawa for essentially covering Shakespeare. In some ways, why would we. Adaptation in music, literature, and film is so common. Ran is so true to its director, its culture, and its own story. Is there any question of its authenticity?

Yet, in wine, something that retells or adapts from another place is so often criticized as being untrue to its own orgins. There is the common notion that we can't and shouldn't make Burgundy in the U.S. And of course we can't, literally. But as with Shakespeare, himself a considerable adapter of others' stories, can we not rightly and truly adapt wine from another place and reflect or retell its elements authentically in our own place, in our own way?

It seems to be no secret that Evesham Wood wines take their inspiration from Burgundy. Yet they are consistently some of the most compelling and authentic Oregon red wines out there. This 2006 Evesham Wood Pinot Noir La Grieve Bleue is a terrific example. The only real surprise might be that it's this producer's lower tier estate wine. If this wine is this good, I can only imagine how the top end bottlings to be released later this year will be.

The color is bright ruby, dark but translucent. The aroma is what I'll call "above the glass." Meaning, you don't even need to stick your schnoz in the glass to smell it. The fragrance is perfumed, sweetly ripe and spicy without oakiness but just so perfumed and inviting. How did Raney do this in such a year where it was so easy to pick late and end up with hyper-rich but not especially elegant wine?

In the mouth, this wine is unusually bright and fresh for this vintage, with cherry and cranberry flavors that over time fill out with richer but not heavy fruit and spice flavors. There's no alcohol apparent, but no sign of underripeness or overripeness, just amazingly ripe but still so quiet. Like Ran, full of color and vision but with lots of space between the sounds, patient and perhaps slow moving for some tasters but simply exceptional for this one.

In sum, here's a wine that reaffirms the notion that one can be to one's source yet at the same time reflect the inspiration of another place. This isn't copying or simply covering, and not even reinterpreting. It's adaptation, with the result setting the bar higher for what is real, true, and good about, in this case, Oregon wine. What an effort.

June 07, 2008

Tough night

Some nights wine is simply frustrating.

Tonight started off well. I stopped by a great local wine shop to pick up a gift bottle of rosé that a kind local person had purchased for me after I provided simple directions across town. Oh, the kindness of acquaintances. Thanks Melissa, that was really cool.

I also got the chance to try some wines, a white, a different rosé, and a red. Things started well. The first two wines were delicious. Both 2007s, both from Spain, both labeled Protocolo, but I can't be bothered to look up the real name of the producer if that's not just a brand. The white was fresh and sauvignon like, but not sauvignon. I haven't looked up the variety or varieties used here, but this is terrific cheap white wine for casual sipping or the dinner table. Same with the rosé, also fresh and clean though perhaps a bit fat. I loved the finish though, with a clean soil note that really added intrigue to what is otherwise a pleasant wine. For $8 or less, these are steals.

Then I look a gift horse in the mouth. (Pardon the Belmont Stakes pun.) These were free pours but the red was perplexing to say the least. It was a 2005 "reserve" type wine of Oregon Pinot Noir from a producer I know well and usually enjoy. If you've followed this blog, I've found I simply can't be honestly critical about local stuff and not hear waaaayyyyy too much griping from the producers. So I've given up. I can't name names here, but email me if you must have the tawdry details. Suffice it to say, this wine is crap. Herbal, barnyardy, and overly oaky from barrel aging on the nose, with a soft, diffuse palate that finished with sour, almost bitter oak notes amid perfectly fine acid and tannin structure. Perhaps this bottle is off, and savvy readers of course are thinking the bottle was off, or opened too long. I don't think so. I might expect a 2005 to be tight and needing aeration. This wine is a mess, and the likely brett issues here are what's really troubling. That finish, now with a metallic edge, really suggests a problem. I'm saddened actually and I really do hope this example is somehow not representative. Otherwise, hmm, how do you bottle and sell this? I'm glad to try it and I'll seek out another chance to see if this was an abberation, but given the issues I doubt it was a bottle thing. There was no oxidation, not corkiness, and the diffuse nature of things suggested nothing to the hope that time would turn things around. Strange, very strange.

So at home I go to the cellar and select a wine for dinner. My choice, the humble 2004 Perrin Cotes du Rhone Nature is usually lovely, peppery southern Rhone red wine. Tonight, it's corked. So I find my wife and ask if she really wants some wine with dinner, or perhaps I should just give up. No, no, no, she would love something decent. Nothing special though. So I pick the NV Plan de Pegau Vin de Table L.04, meaning it's nonvintage wine by the letter of the law, but generally if not totally from 2004. Vin de Table in France can't have a vintage, and is usually a blend of things not allowed by any specific appellation. Perhaps even a blend of years, and who knows if there's little of this and that in what is otherwise apparently 2004 wine. Does all this matter? No, it's musty but maybe not corked. My wife finds band aid flavors, especially on the finish. That's brett, the spoilage yeast that can be fine in some amounts. Here, it's just bitter and ugly. So it's another wine down the drain.

That's it, I'm done with wine tonight. I open my last bottle of 2007 (not labeled as such) Laurelwood Vinter Varmer ale from a brewpub down the road. Well finally, this isn't compromised. Lots of malt and hop notes, it almost smells like my kitchen did when I brewed beer. A bit coarse and vulgar, otherwise tasty, clean, and full flavored. This does the trick.

But damn, what a crap night for wine. Sometimes...sometimes...it's just not your night.