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10 Tips for Selecting Wines for a Wedding

 

Keep things in perspective.
The wines served will be well down on the list of important wedding memories, even for hardcore wine enthusiasts. Don’t try to elevate the wine above its place by selecting something with a big personality or “fascinating” characteristics that typical consumers might not enjoy.

At the Food & Wine Magazine American Wine Awards

Last night some of America’s best winemakers met at the Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley for a very exclusive event. They were there to receive awards for making what Food and Wine Magazine considered to be the best American wines of 2009. I was there to cover the event so that you can have a feel for what went on.

Cats and Dogs Blogging Together

There are two species of wine bloggers. Within each species, there are many breeds—reporter, diarist, taster, storyteller, etc.—which have analogs in the other. But the two species are very different animals.

The Dogs BedFor one species, wine blogging is part of a career in or around the wine industry. Their involvement with wine may not pay all the bills yet, but they seriously intend to make that happen. For the other, wine blogging is, and always will be, a hobby. They might hope to cover some costs and receive wine samples, but their blogging is really a pastime, a creative outlet, a way of sharing their experiences.

I’m not saying one species of blogger is better than the other, just that they are distinct. Their goals, outlooks, interests and approaches to blogging contrast clearly. The Wine Bloggers’ Conference has always tried to serve both species. Each is addressed by certain activities within the programs. But the target audiences for seminars aren't overtly identified. Content doesn't give the impression of having been fine-tuned for either segment.

In retrospect, this is at the root of my frustrations with the conference and, I suspect, those of numerous "career bloggers" who have attended. We feel uncomfortable with multiple aspects of WBC that happen to have great appeal to hobbyists. And many careerists feel WBC doesn’t offer them enough unique value to justify their time and travel expense.

My favorite non-tasting seminar at this past conference was Michael Larner’s presentation on Terroir of Santa Barbara County. He was thorough, authoritative, focused and occasionally showed his dry humor. I found the session was very informative and time well spent. Unfortunately, there weren’t more than 25 bloggers in the tent.

Why, in a conference taking place in Santa Barbara County, were there not more people eager to learn about Santa Barbara County? First, the career group, which has much greater interest in the details of soil, climate and geological history, is, at best, 20% the size of the hobbyist camp. Second, Michael’s session was concurrent with two others, each having a title starting with “The Business of.” If you’re a career blogger, all three sessions have appeal. Which do you attend? If you’re a hobbyist, none are particularly exciting. Do you grudgingly attend one or do you sleep in?

My favorite tasting seminar of the conference was “Syrah Territory: Ballard Canyon.” It was instructive, allowed winemakers to address the audience directly and the wines were tremendous. The tasting seminar called “Dig In: Sta. Rita Hills” might have been even better. I’ll never know. These two core seminars on Santa Barbara wine were presented simultaneously.

Many people enjoyed the panel discussion entitled “How the Pros Taste.” I like and respect each of the panelists: Patrick Comiskey, Steve Heimoff and Joe Roberts. Much of the crowd enjoyed these gentlemen’s interplay, stories, enthusiasm for particular wines and occasional nuggets about their tasting habits. But I and a few careerists sitting around me, writhed in frustration, wondering when Steve, Joe and Patrick would tell us how they actually approach tasting: their process, how they characterize tannins, how they weigh various criteria to reach an overall quality assessment, etc. That never happened, but the majority of attendees—the hobbyists—were entertained and left happy.

And then there’s “live blogging.” I loathe it. I understand a winery’s desire for face-to-face time with many small sets of bloggers adn the benefit of having their brand trending on Twitter. I grok the revenue model for Zephyr. I can relate to the happiness and invigoration bloggers experience when learning and tasting so many new things in rapid-fire succession, and having to write/tweet about it under the pressure of 5-minute deadlines.

But I feel badly for the winemakers who can barely make themselves heard in a hall with hundreds of people talking at once. I wonder who, reading at home, can keep up with and benefit from the tidal wave of 80 character (plus multiple hashtags) “reviews.” I mourn for my palate which is required to first taste a fortified wine, then a delicate white, then a pungent Sauvignon Blanc, then a neutral white from a box. Thank Dionysus for the occasional palate-resetting bubbly!

In Tuesday’s article, I’ll offer ideas for restructuring the conference to better serve both hobbyist and career bloggers.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons: Petteri Sulonen. All rights reserved.

Here a Blend, There a Blend

I’ve read that there are at least 3,000 different decisions made about a wine from the time a winery starts to consider where to plant vines to the time a bottle is actually released. Blending decisions are made very late in that timeline. However, blending has a huge impact, arguably more than any other decisions, on the final taste of a wine.

It is impossible for a wine consumer to really understand how much difference minute variations in blend can make without actually having a blending experience first hand. Fortunately, a number of wineries now offer you just that opportunity.

“Strong Victory for Organic Winemakers” is a Loss for Consumers and Common Sense

Let me be clear. I have no general issues with organic foods or wines made from organically- grown grapes. In fact, I believe many of the best wines made today are derived from either organic or biodynamic grapes. But "organic wine" has been, and will unfortunately continue to be, a very different product.

The "strong victory" quote in the title of this article is the headline of a press release from Frey Vineyards of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. Sent on behalf of “a coalition of organic winemakers and distributors,” it announced that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) had elected to maintain the current regulations for wines labeled as “organic wine.” This NOSB vote reversed a decision made by the USDA.

Roussanne-at-Tablas-Creek-VineyardsThe core issue is sulfites, specifically sulfur dioxide or SO2. The original, and now continuing, rule is that “organic wines” may not include any added sulfites. None. This is similar to regulations for other organic products which also ban the addition of sulfite. I, the USDA and many others — including committed organic and biodynamic growers — have two problems with this. First, sulfur dioxide is important in the process of making quality wine and in having that wine remain sound in bottle. Second, unlike virtually all other produce — organic or otherwise — grapes have naturally-generated sulfites on their skin. Thus, it is almost impossible for any wine to be sulfite free, even if sulfites are not added.

The organic winemakers claim maintaining current labeling laws will prevent consumer confusion. I believe it simply confuses them in a different way. It is true that other organic products are not allowed to add sulfites. But, based on that, the few — very few — people who are sensitive to sulfites buy organic products knowing them to be free of sulfites. Consumers cannot do that with wine. Even with this NOSB ruling, “organic wines” may contain sulfites.

Winery quotes within the press release show how easily consumers can be confused by this rule. “Organic wine has always been defined as preservative-free with no added sulfites,” says Phil La Rocca, founder of La Rocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch, CA. That is true and a clear statement. However, Paul Frey, President of Frey Vineyards in Redwood Valley, CA states, “The preservative sulfite has never been allowed in any organic food that carries the USDA organic seal.” That is a confusing statement. It implies to consumers not well-versed in the law that “organic wine” does not include sulfites. The catch is the law states added sulfites are termed “a preservative.” Naturally occurring sulfites are not. Frey isn’t really saying there are no sulfites, just that there are no sulfites added.

United States’ law requires all wines with sulfites in excess of 10mg/liter (10 parts per million) to display the text “Contains Sulfites” on the label. Wines with less than that amount, as determined by analysis, may omit the warning. Wines which, by analysis, show less than 1ppm may be labeled as “No Sulfites.” These are the phrases that people with sulfite sensitivity need to look for, “Contains Sulfites” or “No Sulfites.” An “Organic Wine” may well have more than 10ppm and therefore be required to bear the “Contains Sulfites” warning.

All the NOSB ruling really did was continue a labeling policy that consumers don’t understand in order to preserve the market share of a small number of companies which elect to not add sulfites. A change in the rule would not have forced them to add sulfites, nor would it have prevented them from omitting “Contains Sulfites” warnings on eligible products, or even using “No Sulfites” labeling. What it does do is prevent hundreds of other wineries from labeling their products “organic wine,” even though they are made solely from organically-grown grapes in certified-organic vineyards.

If the USDA-recommended change had been adopted, a wine could have contained up to 100ppm of sulfites and be labeled “organic wine,” assuming all other criteria for that designation were met. In reality, the average sulfite level in wines is less than 80ppm. Many individual wines are far lower. U.S. law prohibits any wine from having more than 350ppm or 350mg of sulfites. Note that the human body produces about 1000mg of sulfites per day on its own.

Some people do have a sensitivity to sulfites. Studies suggest such sensitivity is very rare and is essentially limited to 5% to 10% of those individuals who have asthma. In those people, exposure to large doses of sulfites can bring on asthmatic reactions, nasal irritation, hives, etc. But some medical studies have shown no reaction whatsoever from sulfite-sensitive individuals when drinking a glass of wine with sulfite concentrations of 150ppm — 50% higher than the proposed rule change would have allowed. There is no confirmed medical evidence that sulfites cause headaches either, though many people have that misperception.

SO2 is SO2. The press release, and the appeals of organic winemakers and their supporters to the NOSB, repeatedly refer to added sulfites as “a synthetic preservative.” SO2 isn’t a very complicated compound. Use of the word “synthetic” makes added SO2 sound sinister. But manufactured SO2 isn’t any different from that which occurs naturally.

According to Pat Henderson, senior winemaker at Kenwood Vineyards, sulfur dioxide is “without a doubt the most important additive that is used in winemaking.” Vineyard managers use sulfur dioxide as an antioxidase, sprinkling it on the picked grapes before they are taken to the winery. This preserves the freshness and bright flavors while preventing browning of the fruit and juice by acting on the enzymes which encourage oxidation. Winemakers also use it to prevent oxidation to prevent browning, formation of acetaldehyde and limit the actions of tyrosinase.

Sulfur dioxide is also an antimicrobial agent. By using just the right amount, winemakers can kill bad microbes without affecting good ones. For some winemakers, this includes ambient yeasts that can take fermentations in the wrong direction or result in off flavors. Winemakers also use SO2 to control malolactic fermentation and sanitize barrels, corks and equipment.

There are a number of bacteria and yeasts that cause wine to spoil. They include Acetobacter (vinegar bacteria), Brettanomyces (smells of barnyard), Lactobacillus (can smell like dirty socks), and Pediococcus. Sulfur dioxide is an important part of controlling them. I suspect you and I agree that wine which smells of vinegar or dirty socks is not appealing.

Failure to add SO2 in the vineyard or winery can allow oxidation and bacteria to run amok. White wines may brown early in their lives. The off aromas and flavors noted above may occur. In extreme cases, wine can even begin to ferment again in the bottle. These are the risks taken by winemakers wishing to qualify for an “organic wine” label. But, really, the risk is taken by those consumers who buy the wine.

Excessive use of sulfur dioxide isn’t good. It can result in excessive sulfite levels in the wine. It may also cause off aromas, including smells of burnt match or even rotten eggs. Winemakers use sulfur dioxide very carefully and, usually, in as small an amount as possible to achieve the desired results. They stop using sulfur several weeks before bottling to ensure that “free SO2” dissipates and doesn’t wind up in the bottle.

I believe most people who seek “organic wines” are really looking for good wine made from organic fruit. Those people need to look for these phrases on the label: “Made from organically-grown grapes” or “biodynamic wine.” People legitimately sensitive to sulfites should seek wines that say “No Sulfites” or at least do not bear the “Contains Sulfites” warning. People who are curious or feeling lucky may want to try an “organic wine.”

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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