A Wall Street Journal article published in this newspaper last week listed "10 Things Winemakers Won't Tell You" about what goes into your glass of wine. Since the article appeared, I've received calls, comments and questions, which have prompted this reply, based on my 60-plus years of pursuing fine wine as a hobby, mostly as a consumer, but also as a student in and teacher of wine appreciation classes. I'm also a frequent visitor to wineries both here and abroad, an attendee at numerous wine events, symposiums, galas, auctions, etc. -- I've even made wine!
Google tells me the author, Catey Hill, is a New York writer of articles about money management and fashion who has written a book called "Shoo, Jimmy Choo!" I do know the title refers to an expensive shoemaker so it follows that she opens with the following remark in her wine article:
1. "You'll be just as happy with the cheap stuff"
Sure you will if that's what makes you happy. Always drink what you like but there's so much out there to try. The author pointed out that the U.S. is now the No. 1 wine-consuming nation in the world -- there are more than 8,000 wineries here now -- but we are 12th in per-person consumption. Hmm. Perhaps people would drink more wine if they could find better-tasting ones.
2. "You may detect notes of fish bladder"
I'd like to know what she's been drinking. I thought I'd heard every possible descriptor from wine tasters. This must have been extrapolated from her references to isinglass, one of the substances used in the fining (filtering) of some wines and beers. Isinglass is made from fish bladders but I've never heard or read of such a taste in either beverage.
3. "Our experts aren't always so sharp"
True, but use ratings as guides to help you navigate the many wines out there. When you find a wine you like as a result of following their suggestion, stick with that reviewer or publication. Figure that they may have similar palates to yours.
4. "Our business is a money pit"
Yes, it certainly takes money to plant a vineyard, start a winery, or develop a cellar of fine wine. Liking what's in your glass and sharing it with friends is your reward. There are good wines for every pocketbook if you take a little time to search and study.
5. "Quaint grape-stompers? More like factory owners"
Ms. Hill reminds us that the romantic picture of the little old winemaker stomping grapes in a barrel is gone, a casualty of mechanization, which does keep the price down. We can see this first-hand here in visits to wineries. Look at all the stainless-steel tanks taking the place of wooden barrels -- and mechanical pickers and sorters in some places. I still admit to being impressed with hand-picking and sorting, but I've given up on stomping.
6. "That deep red isn't our natural color"
She would have you believe that your glass might contain some additive called Mega Purple, which is a food additive made from grapes in Madera and used in grape concentrates for juices. Apparently some low-end (cheap) wines contain it and all the winemakers I've ever known disdain it. My first thought is that the shade of red varies with the varietal, and color is also one of the reasons behind blending of wines, nothing unnatural in any of that. Your tasty Syrah from Paso probably contains other wines such as Grenache and Mourvedre, and the bottle will tell you what percentages are in it.
7. "Our restaurant markups will drive you to drink"
Apparently the average price of a glass of wine this year is $10.77. Restaurants are in business to make a profit. Decide for yourself whether to buy a bottle or bring in one from your cellar and pay the corkage. Caution: Don't be rude and bring in a bottle that is on their wine list.
8. "Investing in wine is risky business"
I've never bought wine as an investment, but I've known a few people who have. I remember walking into a restaurant in Napa a few years back and finding a wine I'd paid $75 for in the early 1990s listed at $1,800, but I've also poured out wine that didn't age well. I've told wine classes for 30 years to buy wine to drink soon or in a few years. That's what California winemakers make the wine for -- the consumer, not the investor.
9. "Wine isn't a cure-all"
Here the author wants to take issue with the recent spate of studies touting the health benefits of red wine. Everything in moderation, of course, and my latest health bulletin again cited the benefits of drinking red wine. Dueling health studies, what else is new?
10. "Climate change could ruin us"
Yes. New areas will be found to grow grapes. Mankind will not easily give up its centuries-old love affair with wine.
Learn what's out there
Going up from Two Buck Chuck, there are a few good wines on the shelves under $20, but how do you find them among all that's there? Explore, read, ask for advice from wine-shop people, stop by different wineries on your way to Central Coast beaches, listen, try different varietals, hold your own tastings with friends -- learn what's out there at a price you're willing to pay. Find what you like, but remember that the more expensive bottles command those prices because a lot of people really like that wine.
One last note: The harvest is beginning now on the Central Coast. Winemaker Ken Brown tells me this is the earliest on record for Pinot Noir, which is one of our most important red wines in Santa Barbara County and the Santa Rita Hills region.
-- Ann Cierley is a retired Kern County educator and wine lover