Monday, March 07, 2011

Brett - bad tides a'rising

I admit it, I hate the taste of wine that has been impacted by brettanomyces spoilage bacteria. I say spoilage because I firmly believe this is a flaw, despite what certain winemakers, terrior-suckers and wine-pundits may have you believe. After experiencing 3 flawed bottles from different areas of the world in the same week, I am not only "afeared" of what is to come in my cellar, but for the wine industry in general. I do not like wine that smells and tastes like wet dog fur dipped in pooh. Just not for me. I believe this is a flaw because, let's face it, most winemakers would prefer to avoid it impacting their wine (maybe Ch. Beaucastel being an exception). Yet they make excuses or claim it is supposed to be there when it does occur and often refuse to take the admittedly draconian measures necessary to remove it from their winery. Syrah and certain Bordeaux varietals (Cab Franc, Malbec) seem to be particularly susceptible to contamination, although this is my observation and I have no empirical data to support this and have not talked to winemakers or profs from UCD regarding my unscientific survey. Here is what I think about brett:

1. If you rail against overuse of oak, oak chips, vacuum alcohol removal, must watering, sugar addition, overripe grapes and many of the old and modern winemaking techniques used to manipulate the grape, you should also rail against brett contamination. It is not part of the grape nor the yeast used to ferment the sugar to alcohol. Rather brett is a SPOILAGE BACTERIA that is introduced to the grape, must or finished wine somewhere along the process that alters the wine downstream of the bottling process by chewing on residual "stuff" left behind after bottling. It may be natural, but it is not part of the fermentation process in much the same way that oak, oak chips, de-alcing and the other things I note are natural but not part of the fermentation process. It is also not controllable by the winemaker once the wine is bottled, which makes it that much more nefarious.

2. Winemakers, pundits/wine writers and the trade are complicit in allowing brett to flourish. Clearly it must be difficult to remove brett from wine. But those involved in this industry have made it their jobs to convince wine drinkers that the smell and taste of dog hair dipped in shit is okay, even desirable, in their red wines. Horsepuckey. The same thing has happened with TCA. The trade has thrown up their hands and said well it is too prevalent and there is not anything we can do about it, plus, most people don't taste it anyway. I would argue that most people just are not educated as to what a flawed wine is and will drink it to get hammered because even flawed, the wine tastes better than the MD20-20 they drink most of the time. Further, the well-being of the trade depend on people drinking wine and if people rejected the wines with brett, which I believe is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of all red wine made today, they would be without a job. The French try to hide behind the word "terrior" and guys like Reynolds, Tanzer and Sir Bob use "smoked meat, leather or game" instead of calling it what it is, brett-impacted flawed wine. I guess it is understandable they want to preserve their livelihoods, but doesn't my money mean something as well?

3. With all the well-meaning but over-reaching vintners attempting to use biodynamic, organic and other "natural" grape growing and winemaking procedures, brett is going to get worse, probably much worse, before it gets better. I read an article from a vintner who tries to utilize these procedures but does not advertise or certify because he understands that sometimes you have to stomp on a wine to make an excellent, stable, drinkable product. That sounds wise to me. But now we have every half-trained, hair-brained, sometimes well-intentioned grower and winemaker touting their use of non-interventionalist, organic or biodynamic procedures and the fact of the matter is, most of these are either unqualified, untrained or unwilling to do the hard, hard, hard work to make sure that this lack of intervention does not turn into spoiled wine after a couple of years in the bottle. I am convinced that in a few years, collector drinkers like me will be opening up spoiled bottle after spoiled bottle, contaminated with brett and other spoilage organisms that flourished because the grower refused to sensibly use sulfur or copper or other "interventionalist" means to ensure grape health and the vintner refused to add fining agents, sulfite or mechanical purification procedures to ensure a stable product in the bottle. Mark my words, this is going to blow up big, sort of like "ensuring physiological maturity" has blown up in California where wine after wine, wonderful to drink in its just released youth, begins to show baked, cooked and pruned notes after a couple of years in the bottle.

4. How can animal fur dipped in shit taste good or even be good for you to drink? Look, brett is most often caused by a spoilage organism growing in a bottle after it has been sitting around for some time. When I drink a flawed bottle like the recent Mantakata Providence 2002 I drank a week ago, my stomach actually hurts from either this bad bacteria or the sulfur comnpound it leaves behind. How can this be good for you, despite what the vintners in the Rhone have been claiming for years?

5. I rarely see this flaw in wines from Washington state, Italy, Germany, Austria or South America. However, wines from Australia, California, the Rhone, Bordeaux, South Africa and New Zealand seem to show more and more contaminated bottles. I am not sure why this is the case. I read somewhere that certain grapes like Syrah tend to grow brett on the grapes skins while in the vineyard and this makes it really hard to remove during vinification. Okay, so if this is true, then appropriate fining, filtration and preservative (sulfur) levels must be employed to ensure the bacteria does not ruin bottle after bottle. Why the regions I mention seem to avoid contamination is beyond me, but I find myself more and more patronizing these areas and avoiding the offenders. I suggest others follow suit in order to put heat on the winemakers to get their houses in order.

Join me in railing against brettanomyces contamination in wine. Together we can clean up the industry.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

WBW#45 Wine Blogging Wednesday with the WORLD

2002 Weingut Birgit Eichinger Riesling Strasser Gaisberg

Although I think that Riesling probably is the queen of all white grapes, I prefer dryer versions such as this to German non-dessert wine Rieslings containing significant residual sugar. Birgit Eichinger is a rising star in an Austrian winemaking world dominated mostly by male winemakers. This Austrian dry Riesling is somewhat restrained and yes, perhaps even feminine. Pale straw in color despite nearly 6 years of age, the nose is floral with perhaps a bit of oilyness to it. There are flavors of quince paste, oranges, a touch of grass and ginger aside a fairly good dose of minerality and acidity. Still quite fresh and refreshing, it perhaps just lacks a best of zest to get it into the excellent category. A very good buy at $10 on a closeout, although I did have at least one of my 12 bottles polluted with TCA.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Friggin' Spoofulated

Okay, so I am a wino and should join AA. I drink a glass or four every night. So sue me. And I use Cellartracker to keep my wine room up to date. 1200 bottles is not easy to keep organized in my pea brain, you know. So I drank 2003 Waterbrook Melange tonight and was underwhelmed by it. But some knuckledragger writing tasting notes just before me decided to use the word "spoofulated" to describe the wine. Now remember, I read a lot of wine reviews, both professional and amateur, and I have to admit, the word was a new one on me and for some reason it just pissed me off.

So I Googled it. Wonderful how we create new words (verbs in this case) in the English language. It turns out some anus created the word out of nothing at some nondescript point to describe over manipulated wine. First of all, the Melange was not good, but over manipulation was not its problem. But more fundamentally, why does someone have to create a word to describe something they can just describe? Yes, we hear new words all the time and some stick and there is a certain inside joke to be had when the word you create (google?) makes it to the lexicon. But spoofulated? How does spoofulated begin to describe over manipulated wine? I mean, taken out of context, "spoofulated" could be the word my two year old made up for what is in his diaper right now. If you are going to make up a word to describe something easily describable (overmanipulated perhaps?), at least make it have some intelligent tie back to what it is you are trying to describe. Otherwise, you might as well just pick some words my kid babbles and assign them random meanings. J.K Rowling or Tolkien can make up words. It would be a really, really, really long trilogy (or quadrogy?) if he had to describe a hobbit every single time one appears in the story instead of just calling it a hobbit. Wine reviewers not so good on the made up words.

So I do not know why this ticked me off so. Perhaps I am just jealous because I never heard of the word before today or did not make it up myself. But rather I think I am upset about a made up word showing up on community tasting sites without context. These sites truly will live or die by the quality of tasting note they provide to augment the professional gurus (or idiots if you prefer). Alder over at Vinography has already fielded a long discussion on why he thinks community tasting sites like Cellartracker (which of course serves a much greater purpose as a cellar tracking aid) are bound to fail. Idiot use of fake words like "spoofing" or "spoofed" or "spoofulated" or whatever are only likely to hasten that demise. If someone says "ginormous" to me again, or if I see it on another hamburger house commercial I am sure going to throw up, or at least never buy a hamburger from that place again. But at least a fifth grader can understand "ginormous"...gigantic and enormous rolled into one. I get it. But friggin' spoofulated??? Where does that take its roots from? Latin for idiot? If you are going to take the time to review a wine, at least take the time to speak English...for the greater good.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

And the HorseStank Goes On and On

So it is about time that someone at the Wine Speculator other than Jimmy Laube talked about the fatal brettanomyces flaw showing up in more and more wine these days, especially wine older than 5 years old. That's right, Jimmy Molesworth, one of their European tasters, complained politely about brett and in fact stated correctly that it is and has always been a flaw in wine. Off course he called George Brett, he of the something like 8 batting titles and maybe 100 career homers, a power hitter, but who expects a Brit to know squat about American baseball.

But the thing is, he managed to both knock the winemakers and apologize for them in the same article. Shameful. Jimmy M. obviously was trying not to piss off the winemakers who give him free bottles of their wine so while he properly raised the issue, he backed off, equating older brett filled wines with memories of old girlfriends or some BS like that. Basically, he said the brett was okay because it has always been there and he remembers the wine with the stanky brett there. Interestingly, he also talks about of couple of wines that were too close to the barnyard for his tastes.

Come on Moley, take a friggin' stand. No wishy washy its okay because it has always been that way, the vintners are trying to avoid it these days, blah, blah, blah crap. For me, brett is a fatal flaw nearly 100% of the time. I don't know if I am particularly sensitive to it, but with even small amounts I begin to gag. I have often abandoned brett-filled wines at my own loss. This, my friends, is unacceptable. Brett is a flaw and it smells like wet horse hide, or horseshite or wet cardboard or crappy dirt or some other indescribable thing, but it is anything but pleasant, unless of course your nose is hopelessly plugged and you have no sense of smell or taste. You will know it when you smell it or taste it, although you may not identify it as Brettanomyces without someone telling you that is what it is.

It is incumbent on wineries and winemakers, just like the fight against TCA, to remove it from their wine and admit it is completely unacceptable. None of this claptrap about it being part of the terrior of the wine, or improving taste (a lie the French are particulary vested in advancing). Consumers, just like you have voted against TCA with your pocketbook, you must vote against Brett with your pocketbooks. I have recently written off Mouton Rothschild wines because a whole case of '99 d'Armailhac I own is full of the shite. I am very close to doing so with several Aussie wineries. It seems the worst offenders these days are vintners in the south of France, Australia and Bordeaux. I have also had a few American vintners do me wrong. It is clear that aside from poorly maintained barrels and wood, the rush by oenologists and vintners to harvest ever-ripening grapes makes them dramatically more susceptible to Brett spoilage. Why? Riper grapes contain less acid, a natural preservative. Further, these wines often contain low levels of residual sugar, a fermentable for Brett. And these days, minimalist intervention means less SO2 and other preservatives are used, increasing the risk of a rogue organism like Brett taking hold as the wine ages.

But do not accept a flaw just because wineries have a vested interest in telling you you should. Use you palate, your nose and your mind and vehemently reject wines with Brett in them. Only by losing business will these guys really do the right think and rejoin the bottle to eliminate from their cellars and wines.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Like Mushrooms after a Rain

Did you ever find that your wine collection grows like mushroom after a rain? Do you know what I mean by this? Okay, notice that you can have no mushrooms in your flower beds, nice, clean, whatever. Then you get a couple of days of rain. Several days later mushrooms come screaming out of your ground and you wonder where the hell the spores that produced them came from in the first place.

Well, based on my very unscientific survey, essentially just talking to the voices in my head, I have come to believe that "wine collectors" and especially those of us who drink our wine, not hoard it for future sale at auction, find one day that those wine mushrooms have poked out of the ground and a collection of 200 bottles is somehow approaching 1000. Worst part, you have no idea how it got to be that way.

I can tell you for sure that reciprocal states (thank God for sane wine shipping laws in most states these days) have a lot to do with this. I receive at least six emails per day with the latest, hottest wine, rated 95 by RP or WS, at deep, deep discount. It is really easy to get sucked into buying the price or the rating without realizing your weekly purchases were 2 dozen bottles and $1000 and sheeite, how you gonna pay for that? Before the internet and reciprocal states (like IL where I used to live and my current abodes in TX), you would have to drive down to the local liquor store, supermarket or even visit a winery to make your purchases. That took time, effort and you most importantly, you had to carry the cases to and from the car and sign the Visa receipt with trembling hand. NOT SO ANYMORE.

No, instead I get an email from one of ten vendors spread across at least 5 states (Il, NJ, CA, WA, OR) who already have my credit card on file. Fill out the number of bottles you want, add the three or four digit code on the front or back of the card and magically, in 2 weeks, the wine arrives at your door in styrefoam and screaming "drink me, drink me".

The average family in the us has two wine drinkers or less. So you do the math, even one bottle a night (which may lead to a hangover) and those dozen wines add 5/week to the wine collection. 52 weeks in a year, add in the days you don't pop a bottle (out on business, travelling on vacation, eat out at restaurant, go to a friends for dinner, hung over and afraid of wretching) and you can easily add over 250 wines a year to your collection without even realizing it. That is unless storage becomes an issue. If you have a passive cellar in a basement, watch out. You may get tired from carrying the cases down stairs, but before you know it, 250 begats 500 and you are sitting on 1000 bottles of wine of which half have a two year shelf life and your pants just became a little soiled.

So STOP you say. Obsessive compulsive behavior I say. Yeah, it runs in my family and whether you have it or not, wine becomes that obsessive compulsive thing in your life that grows like a monster and is awfully hard to control. And I know that I am not the only one with this tendency. Just this month old Jimmy Laube of the Wine Spectator (previous readers of this blog, all three of you, know how I feel about them) intimated that he also had this problem. I think true wine lovers with any space to collect will all admit, in their heart of hearts, that it is a problem that is pervasive and almost too hard to control.

MADD members will say it is the alcohol talking. I say NO. Wine is a food beverage, made to enjoy primarily (but of course not always) with a meal and I estimate that well north of 95% of the wine I drink is consumed in conjunction with a meal. The exception may be when I go to a party or a tasting with a wine group but these usually include food, if for no other reason than to ensure I can walk out at the end of the thing.

Without consulting my shrink (I really do not have one, okay), I have to say this disease is really one of too much love of a good thing. You know, you see the review it gets a 95 and is "only" $59 a bottle and it will age for ten years so you have to buy six bottles. Six, twelve times 5, etc., etc. I have found the only way to slow the advance of the disease is to unsubscribe from the emails. Since I do not have willpower yet to do this, the next best thing is to erase them before reading. With this in mind, set an upper limit for your cellar. For me, this is 1300 bottles, give or take, which is all my wine room can hold. Then challenge yourself to go one day, then one week, then one month, without clicking "Purchase Now". I have been working to tell myself there will always be another vintage of the decade or century. If you miss 2005 Chateauneuf, just drink those 2003's until that next great vintage comes around in, say 2010.

It is hard and maybe I need to start a support group to really show progress. My wife hopes not. Running out of cash and space also may curtail activities.

So wish me luck as I do all of you fighting the "mushrooms in your yard". I hope sanity will prevail.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Global Warming will signficantly impact Wine production world-wide

If you are a wine drinker, you need to be concerned about global warming and its effect on wine growing regions around the world. Whether you are ignoring the facts of man's impact on global warming or you understand the fact that we are contributing signficantly to the natural warming factors already at work in our environment, as a wine lover, you need to be fearful of the future and what it means to your beloved beverage.

You have already seen some of the impact of the warming environment in areas like Germany, which has seen average temperatures jump to the point that they are having a hard time making the fresh, high acid, zippy kabinett rieslings we have all come to enjoy (at fair prices too). The grapes have been getting too ripe, above the kabinett level, and there is no way to make this type of wine with these riper grapes.

I have read projections that within 100 years, wine growing regions south of the latitude of Washington State will be too hot to grow quality wine. Areas like Washington will have riper conditions and will need to switch the type of grapes that they grow. Now you might think "no big deal, just move wine production to Canada and Greenland and Norway". The problem is these areas do not receive the correct amount nor the proper light exposure to produce quality wine. Further, finding the proper soil types and other climate factors (rain levels, timing of rain, etc.) is likely to be difficult if not impossible.

The prediction is that within 100 years it will be nearly impossible to grow high quality vinifera grapes in the US and maybe anywhere.

If that doesn's scare the stuffings out of you, you are just being ignorant. Maybe you won't live to see this but your children and/or grandchildren will. Don't you want them to have the opportunity to enjoy wine as you have.

So do your part, fight global warming, drive a Prius, recycle, support projects to reduce our impact on our environment and push the government to get in the game. Barack Obama has one of the most cogent plans for fighting Global Warming. There is no doubt that the earth will try to heal itself but we must do our part for our children, our grandchildren and to save the vines.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Why wine ratings are a joke (or...the joke is on us)

I admit it, I am a ratings whore. It seems like I am continually searching out the 94 rated Robert Parker Wine Advocate or the 96 Wine Spectator rated wine that "only" cost $95. Sometimes I get so mad at myself for chasing those whore wines with the knowledge that the three tier distribution system doubled the price of the wine the week before I bought it because they got an advance copy of the magazine with the "high" rating and knew they could get away with taking an obscene price increase because idiots like me will pay for the rating.

Intrinsically I knew there was something wrong with this but I could not put my finger on why. I knew it was not just that I was trusting another person's palate to determine what I thought was "good". It was deeper than that, soul deep. It finally hit me today and it all has to do with the science of the ratings. Screw the fact that people taste differently. The science of rating wines is no science at all.

As a researcher working in the food science area, I utilized statistical experimental design, demanding testing protocol that would yield statistically significant results. Without the proper test design, no statistically valid conclusions can be drawn about your test product. I knew that in developing a new product, I had to be sure to the 95% confidence level that the conclusions I was drawing were right. If I was trying to show that one product was better than the other or if I was trying to draw conclusions regarding the characteristics of my product (subjective (taste) or objective (pH)), I needed to have a statistically valid sampling program so that I tested enough samples to be truly confident of my conclusions.

Now back to wine ratings. There are absolutely NO STATISTICALLY VALID CONCLUSIONS that can be drawn from wine ratings. Parker, Wine Spectator, Tanzer, whomever, they all work off of one bottle, maybe two, provide from thousands, maybe tens of thousands, maybe even millions of bottles of the "same" wine available to us ratings whores. It is pure folly to believe that that one bottle in any way, shape or form represents the batch average of that wine. The chances of it representing the average are about the same as you hitting the PowerBall when the jackpot hits $300 million. Not very good odds, indeed.

What is the cause of the variation and why do you need more than one bottle to draw conclusions. First, the biggest tank you are likely to see in most wine production facilities is maybe a few thousand gallons. Most blending tanks are considerably smaller than this. Even a wine with as few as 100 cases (250 gallons) would like be blended in more than one batch since it was probably stored in 4 or 5 50-gallon oak barrels for aging. This means that most wines are blended in batches, tanks being refilled due to size limitations. At a minimum, to truly have a statistically significant sampling program, you would need to have multiple bottles from each of the blendings, certainly sampled throughout the tank. Add small barrel aging, which is inherently variable, and more bottles would need to be sampled to generate statistically valid results.

But it goes deeper than that. Winemakers know that they have variation, bottle to bottle, caused by the vagaries of blending and mechanically filling bottles as well as the closures used. Mechanical movement of the wine, oxygenation during filling, incomplete or inconsistent flow patterns from tanks and in lines are among the filling issues that contribute variation from bottle to bottle or at best, case to case. Add that to the batch issues described above and closure variation (cork problems and variability) and the number of bottles that need to be tested to have a statistically significant sample size increases dramatically, perhaps exponentially.

This does not even begin to address the statistical issues surrounding a human based measurment system. I admit that it is impossible to develop an objective machine-based system to measure human taste. Maybe in 30 or 50 years, but today, no. I am sure nerds somewhere are workingon it, but I have to believe it is years away. Unlike a machine, human tasters are not all the same and the same taster is not the same from tasting to tasting or even bottle to bottle within the same tasting session. Maybe Jim Laube has a cold or had garlic for dinner last night or has an owie on his tongue. His subjective taste would be changed due to these factors. Palate fatigue is also a common problem, even among highly trained tasters who have been in the business for years. I believe this is why big, huge, overoaked, overextracted wines have become the darlings of the tasting world. Sorry Jimmy Laube and Bobby Parker, but when you deign to taste 30, 40, 50 or more wines at a seating, you know that by the time you hit the 10th, your taste buds are more or less shot. The only wines that could possibly get your attention and score well after that are the ones that hit you over the head with fruit or oak. The germination of the "international style", I feel, was the vintners' response to palate fatigue and their commercial and financial need to have a highly scoring wine to get us ratings whores to buy their wine. The tasters (Parker, Tanzer, Wine Speculator, etc.) are at fault for tasting so many wines at once in a situation that is, at best, untenable, at worst, impossible. And for not demanding statistically significant sample sizes they can be wholly blamed. In their defense (slightly) I understand that huge wine corporation and small winemakers rely on those ratings to get us wine whores like me know what to buy. ARRGGGH How do you win as the consumer?

I have a BS in Chemical Engineering from UC Davis, probably the greatest wine training University in the world (sorry Bordeaux). I wonder what Maynard Amerine or the current faculty have said about the science (or lack thereof) surrounding wine ratings. I hope they have written about it. It is one thing to test a bottle and say that bottle is good. Or maybe tasting a few bottles out of a reasonably small sample, the number of bottles determined by the math, and concluding that based on the scores, that subset of the wine is good. But the more I consider what we accept as "proof" that a wine is good, the more my head hurts and I kick myself in the butt for chasing scores.

So what is a wine whore to do? Good question because it is not feasible to test every wine when you want to buy it unless you are independently wealthy (and few of us wine whores are). The independently wealthy among us buy the ratings anyway and could care less if they make any statistical sense. When you have unlimited resources what do you care what the statistics say? If you don't like it, f..k it, pour it down the drain and get another bottle of something else. So us wine whores have to stop buying ratings. Find producers or regions of the world or wine styles or whatever you like and stick with them.

A perfect example for me is Ridge and Turley. It used to be that any wine Ridge or Turley produced got a big score from the Wine Speculator. Recently that has not been the case. In fact, I think Ridge refused to submit their recent zins to the Speculator for rating because they knew they would get hammered by Jimmy Laube. It seemed to me (and famous vintner Randy Lewis even wrote a letter to the Spectator agreeing with my conclusion) that the Speculator, or Jimmy Laube, had decided that any extracted, high alcohol zin is bad and refused to give them decent ratings, even if they were perfectly balanced, zingy and tasty and deserved the ratings. I had been mad that the wines I was paying good money for were being rated for shit. Now I understand that the ratings mean next to nothing. My palate keeps saying that, by and large, these wines are still excellent and deserve a better fate, no matter what the Speculator says. So I keep buying them because I trust the producers and my taste buds say they are good. Now I have been critical of California Zin, even in this blog, in the recent vintages and I do believe it has been off the pace and variable at times in the 2000's. But there are still plenty of good zins that I have purchased and my taste buds are saying that the wines are improving with age in many cases.

We have to quit buying wines solely based on ratings. I cannot begin to count the hundreds of wines that never lived up to the ratings I purchased. In fact, I would say it is the rare wine that I rate as highly as the experts. This is especially important when you realize that often, the greedy distributors automatically raise the price of any wine that scores a 90, completely ripping off us wine buyers. Now I am not against capitalism, but these suckers are doing it based on a subjective score that we all know is flawed and they were happy to sell the wine at the lower price pre-score. Can you say price gouging? Sound like gasoline to you? Me too.

The truth is that wine ratings can give you a general impression of a wine. But they should never be used for any more than that. We have to realize that wine is a highly variable, highly changeable, highly subjective art form and the best you can hope is that when you get around to drinking it, it meets the taste profile you had hope for when you purchased it. Wine whores of the world, wake up and smell the coffee. Quit chasing that high score because it is likely that the score is flawed or that you won't agree with it anyway. Be your own man (or woman). Your enjoyment of the wine will probably go up and no doubt your pocketbook will thank you.