Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wines for Summer's Final Party

Well, it’s here – the ‘unofficial’ end of summer.  True, we still have a few more weeks of warm (OK – hot) weather, but with school starting, those lazy days and weekends are ending.  So plan one more picnic, cookout, or great all-out get-together and bid summer a final adieu.

The Right Wines:
Great parties call for great food and great wine.  White wines have been the mainstay of summer, crisp, light, and mainly chilled.  So let’s send off the season with an eye toward those moody autumnal red wines, with a few whites thrown in for comfort.  Fire up the grill and let’s start pairing!

Burgers and Ribs:
Try a full-bodied red wine, maybe a Zinfandel with some nice tannins, or a Syrah.  The Zin’s fruity and spicy flavors will go well with a burger or ribs. The Syrah has a peppery, plumy flavor that is wonderful with grilled red meats.

Steak or Lamb:
You won’t fail with a Cabernet Sauvignon and steak or lamb; but another great wine that’s often overlooked is Malbec.  The tannins are hearty, the aroma can have hints of plum or tobacco, and the flavor should be fruity.  For lamb burger or chops, Pinot Noir is nice.

Pork and Ribs:
Although I won’t hesitate to pair a red with pork, many still feel more comfortable pairing a white wine with ‘the other white meat,’ especially when entertaining.  If so, then grab a chilled bottle of Gewurztraminer or Chenin Blanc for a nice alternative.  Perfect with chops hot off the grill!
Otherwise, try a Merlot with chops, and a Barbera with grilled pork ribs.

Hot Dogs or Brats
You know someone will ask, so here are some options: A Zinfandel will work well with grilled dogs.  If you’re adding a chili sauce, go for a Beaujolais.  For grilled brats, try a Pinot Noir, or a chilled Riesling.

Chicken and Poultry:
Yes, I know, Chardonnay is the natural answer, but if you adhere to the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) rule, let’s look at some alternatives. A drier Chenin Blanc will let that grilled chicken flavor shine through. 

Feeling a bit bold?  Pair a Merlot with it, those berry flavors and a spicy finish can make grilled chicken taste amazing.

Pinot Grigio’s crispness goes well with plain, grilled fish or shirmp.  If you’re grilling salmon, tuna or mackerel then pull out a red wine, maybe Pinot Noir or Merlot.

Of course, sauces and sides may affect your pairing, so take a bite of the food and a drink of the wine and see if it works for you.  Remember, wine is subjective; the main point is to celebrate the end of summer with the food, the wines, and the people you love - so Enjoy!

~  Joy

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Professional Wine Tours - Worth Taking?

If you’re a wine lover, chances are when you go to a new place, you check to see if there are any wineries close by.  Over 27 million travelers in the U.S. have taken a food or wine tour since 2000.  But have you ever taken a professional wine tour?  Maybe now’s the time to consider it…

As a DIY person, I understand the thrill of searching the internet for wine trail maps, wine ratings, and winery info.  But you may just miss out on some tour-only finds and options.  Here are a few reasons to consider leaving the driving to someone else.

The first thing to remember is that a wine tour is only as good as the company and/or person leading it.  Many states will offer you several options; other states will be lucky to have one wine tour company. So how do you decide?  

First, find out how long the tour company has been in business.  Are the guides knowledgeable about the topic?  What’s their experience?  Have they been involved in this industry in other ways? Has the company received recognition? In other words, have they or are they establishing a good reputation?   

Few people get in the tour business unless they want to offer a memorable and fun experience to others who have an interest or passion for their tour destinations. Visit the tour company’s web site, then call them, talk to a real live person, and ask some questions. If they won’t take time to talk with you, they probably won’t on the tour either.  Remember, this is supposed to be fun – for everyone!

To find the right wine tour company, begin by knowing what YOU want a tour to cover.  Do you want to see where the wine is made, or are you happy just tasting the wines?  Would a trip through the vineyard be fun, or would you rather have time in the gift shop?  Hiring a professional wine tour company is a bit like having a personal shopper.  You need to know your basic requirements to be satisfied, then let them work their magic.

If a scheduled wine tour doesn’t meet your needs, consider a private tour.  Many tour companies offer not only regularly scheduled wine tours, but also wine and dinner tours, wine spa tours, and private custom tours.

Find out how many winery stops and tastings are included in the price.  (A brewery tour I took in Wisconsin had five breweries on their agenda, but we only stopped at two for tastings and tours - the other 3 were drive-bys. ; (

Questions to ask:
What is included in the tour and price?  Is it a winery tour or a wine tasting tour?  A winery tour may include a trek through the vineyards, the winemaking facility, a chat with the winemaker, and end with a tasting at the bar. 

A wine tasting tour may include a quick trip through the production facility, but the majority of the time will be spent tasting the wines in a private room, maybe pairing them with food, or tasting at the bar.

Regardless, remember that if you will be entering the winemaking facility on your tour, the floor may be wet and slippery, and there will be drains in the floor covered with grids. (IE; wear flats or sneakers, NOT heels! And consider taking a light sweater or jacket.  Winery buildings are kept very cool temperatures for the wines.)

Other questions:
Is the tour company independent of any winery? Will you meet the winemakers or winery owners?  Do you get a souvenir glass to taste with and keep?  Is a meal or snacks available?  Is food included in the price?  Is bottled water available?  Who pays any tasting fees?  Is tipping of the winery staff expected, or allowed?  Is there a discount on wine purchased on the tour? Are you limited to the number of bottles/cases of wine you can purchase on the tour? Will the tour company assist you in shipping the wine back home?

Ask if the tour company has a PDF of the itinerary so that you can familiarize yourself with the wineries you’ll be visiting. Have an idea what wines will be tasted at each stop or what you’d like to taste, if asked.  Find out how long you'll be gone.  Will your tour vehicle be locked during destination stops?  What is the cancellation policy? Is there an age restriction for tour participants? Are ID’s required in order to be served?

Once you’ve covered all the details and understand what the tour will include, and what it will not, you’re ready to go.  Be on time to the designated meeting area, wear comfortable clothes that fit the  tour's itinerary, relax, and have fun.

A wine tour company should allow you to experience the local area or region, and get a little taste of its terrior, wines, and hospitality.  You should come away from a tour feeling like you’ve had a fun and carefree day.

Many wine tour companies also offer brewery tours, bourbon tours, whisky tours, even themed wine tours.  If you’ve enjoyed your tour experience, let the wine tour company and the wineries know!  If something was off or not quite right, let them know that too!  

Wine tour companies and wineries are in this business because they love sharing wine and the wine experience with others. Take advantage of their expertise and Enjoy!

~ Joy

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Screw It? or Put A Cork In It?

The purpose of a wine closure is to keep the wine in and the air out.  When a winemaker decides on a closure s/he considers many elements including, regulations, tradition, style of the wine, cost, and consumer perception.  Cork has been the favorite wine closure for hundreds of years, but other options exist and studies have been conducted throughout the world, trying to pinpoint the one that is best.

Here are just a few options with their benefits and their peccadillo’s.

Corks have been used to seal wine since the seventeenth century when Champagne maker, Dom Perignon used them.  Cork is a natural, flexible material that seals well and lends an air of tradition and sophistication to a bottle of wine.  But due to the extensive demand for cork, another viable closure would help to easy the demand on the cork oak tree.

While cork has been an easy closure to work with and does a relative fine job of sealing wine, there are some problems.  The main one is cork taint.  This happens when TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) contaminates the cork.  The result is a mold that grows on the bottom of the cork and leaches out into the bottled wine. Cork taint gives a musty smell, and a ‘wet-dog’ or moldy taste to the wine.  This is referred to as a “corked” bottle. Research indicates that between 5 to 10% of all bottled wines spoil due to cork taint.

A major advantage of the cork closure is that it is porous and lets some oxygen interact with the wine.  This allows for better aging by letting the wine develop secondary characteristics like new aromas and flavors. This is especially desired with reds that are to be cellared for years.

Cork is also seen as the ‘greener’ solution for wine closures since it is biodegradable.  And, let’s face it, there’s romance, tradition, and a bit of drama all wrapped up in the presentation and sniff of the cork, as well as that resounding ‘pop’ when a bottle is opened!

Synthetic Cork
Synthetic corks are made from high-grade polymer plastics.  While it is a suitable alternative for natural cork for the short term, synthetic cork has not fared well in keeping oxygen out for longer periods of time.  Since it does not retain its seal over the years, it is suggested synthetic corks be used on wines that will be consumed within five years of bottling.

Synthetic corks are used in less than 10% of all commercially bottled wines in the world.  In Italy, synthetic corks are used mainly for white wines.  Natural corks are used for red wines and the more paramount wines that require aging.

Overall, consumers have grudgingly accepted them.  While they do not crumble or break apart in the bottle, synthetic corks do not provide any clues about the wine such as freshness or aroma.  They do, however, provide the required “pop’ when pulled!

Screw Cap
Screw caps, made from aluminum, were developed in the late 1960’s and used commercially in the 70’s. Most U.S. consumers equate them with cheap wines and find screw caps to be unacceptable.  But in other parts of the world, screw caps are slowing gaining in popularity, thanks in part to New Zealand and Australia.

At the beginning of 2000, winemakers from Australia and New Zealand decided to end their problems with cork taint by using screw caps on their wines.  In 2001, 1% of New Zealand wineries were using screw caps.  By 2004 it had risen to 70%.  Australia followed suit and now the majority of non-sparkling wines in Australia use screw caps.  Even the United Kingdom is learning to embrace them.  In 2003, 41% of consumers viewed a screw cap wine as acceptable; that number is up to 85% as of 2011. (Just over 10% of Americans find a screw cap to be acceptable on wine.)

Some advantages to screw caps include easy of use and no tools required. Other countries (Spain, Italy and France) are also reconsidering the screw cap for wines that are to be consumed while young.  A screw cap also helps a wine retain its fruitiness, freshness, and aroma. For wines that are to be consumed within 3 to 5 years, screw caps are fine.

But for wines that are to be aged, screw caps are not the answer. Since they do not allow any air into the wine, which aging reds need, that can reduce certain sought-after qualities. And, that ritual “pop” of the cork is missing.

There are two other alternative wine closures that are being used in the market.

The glass/plastic closure is known as Vino-Seal or Vino-Lok.  The stopper has an inert o-ring that creates an airtight seal, thus preventing oxygen from getting to the wine.

The glass closure was introduced into the European market in 2003 and has been used by over 300 wineries.  While easy to use and attractive, there are some drawbacks for use in the U.S.

Unfortunately, compatible bottling equipment is only found in Europe, so to use it in the U.S. would require hand bottling, or a major investment in new bottling equipment and shipping it over here.  Also, one topper cost 70¢ - a tremendous expense compared to other closures.

Zork is the newest wine closure on the field.  Launched in 2010 in Australia and New Zealand, the closure is made from 100% recyclable food-grade polymers.  The closure is similar to a screw cap expect that it “pops” when opened. 

To open, you pull the tear tab at the bottom and unwind to the T-top.  Once opened, the closure becomes the T-top with its reusable cork.


New research, the “Bottle Aging – Closure and Variability Study,” is now being conducted by the University of California, Davis, in partnership with the PlumpJack Group.  The study, which was announced in June, will compare the effectiveness of natural cork, synthetic cork, and screw caps on keeping a wine at its utmost quality. 

Two hundred bottles of Cade Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, crafted by a winery owned by the PlumpJack Group, will be used in the study. The study will establish what the range of differences is for each closure. Findings are expected to be published at the end of 2013.

In Conclusion
For alternative wine closures to really catch on, they will have to first gain the trust of winemakers and producers.  These are the people who know and understand wine science, and want to use the best closure available for each of their wines.  That may mean that a winery or producer might use two or three closures; each wine topped with the best closure suited for it.

Considering that most wines bottled today are meant to be consumed within three to five years, screw caps may make sense to many wineries and producers, especially those targeting a younger wine drinking crowd who are more versatile and more accepting of change.

Then there are those of us who love the tradition, the romance, and that exciting sound when you pull out the cork – the “pop” that just says “Relax and Enjoy!”

~ Joy