Budget Wine: Marchese Di Pani Chianti 2014

marchese di paniI’m ambivalent about publishing negative wine reviews. Who wants to read about “blah”? But books and film receive negative reviews that are informative—why not wine? And truth be told, Chianti has been pushing this stuff on the export market for decades and it never seems to get much better. They should be called out.

Layers of dark cherry and earth on the nose, simple and pleasant. But the palate is thin,  tart and peppery with green vegetal notes and a medium length finish. There is almost no fruit. This is a standard, budget Chianti, but no bargain at this price. If you’re having pizza and you don’t like the taste of your water, give it a try.

Otherwise try the Straccali or Gabbiano instead.

And feel redeemed watching Otis Redding sing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” at Monterey 1967

Score: 80

Price: $10

Alc: 13%

Wine and Dine Makes You Happy


, ,

wine and dineWe already knew this but finding scientific confirmation and explanation is interesting nevertheless. It is widely accepted that substances called endocannaboids (ECs) regulate mood; increased levels are associated with anxiety and depression and decreased levels with positive moods.

The Academic Wino summarizes a report by a group of Dutch researchers that assessed whether endocannaboid levels were influenced by ambiance and wine consumption during a meal.

28 healthy Dutch women between the ages of 18 and 45 … were asked to consume three glasses of white sparkling wine and three glasses of alcohol-free white sparkling wine with a meal under pleasant or unpleasant ambiance (though not all at once). Every participant experiences each of the 4 scenarios at one time during the study, with one scenario occurring each week.

The pleasant room had colorful décor, soft lighting, soft music, and included a short, happy clip from Bambi and the Lion King. The unpleasant room had bright lights, no music, a full trashcan, no décor and plastic dishes and utensils; and the scene from Bambi and the Lion King in which Bambi’s mother dies. The participants were surveyed during the experience to help gauge their mood.

The results?

Overall, the results of this study showed for the first time that the endocannaboid system is influenced by ambiance during and after a meal. The specific ECs PEA and SEA were found to increase in an unpleasant ambiance which correlated strongly with tension and depression scores. In other words, the unpleasant environment stressed the participants out, which resulted in a physiological response by the endocannaboid system.

The influence of the wine was mixed:

…consuming alcohol basically made the unpleasant environment a little more tolerable, as noted in the increase in happiness score by those consuming alcohol in the unpleasant environment compared with those drinking the alcohol-free wine in the same environment. Interestingly, consuming the wine in the pleasant environment did not improve happiness any more than it already was after consuming the non-alcoholic wine in the same environment. The results then would seem to suggest that alcohol makes a crappy environment better, while it won’t make you any happier than you would have been already in the nice environment.

No word on what sparkling wines were served—I’m sure a nice grower Champagne would have boosted everyone’s mood.

This is interesting because it suggests that everyday aesthetics is a crucial component of happiness.

The Future of Wine or How to Turn Wine into Orange Juice


orange juiceEconomics professor Kym Anderson reports on the continued globalization of the wine business and paints a picture of what the future looks like:

Falling international trade costs and de-regulation of liquor retailing have also allowed large supermarket chains to become buyers of both bottled or bag-in-box wines and wine for building their own brands.

Retailing through such chain stores requires large quantities of homogenous wine year after year. Producers in the New World were more adept at initially responding to this new demand, creating a huge new category of robust, fruity ‘commercial premium’ wines that fall between expensive fine wines and cheap non-premium (‘table’) wines.

But now the old world is catching up. France, Italy, and Spain now export almost 50% of the wine they produce forcing new world producers to innovate to keep up.

Simultaneously, New World producers are seeking to expand their exports of more-expensive wines to complement their lower-end products. The next phase of wine’s globalization therefore may involve a convergence whereby both groups produce terroir-driven super-premium wines alongside more-affordable ‘commercial premium’ branded wines. Meanwhile, cheap basic non-premium wines are continuing their demise.

If you think this means better, more interesting wines to drink, I’m not so sure:

Technological developments are rapidly altering the means of exporting commercial premium wines. In the past decade or so the share of wine that is exported from the New World in bulk shipping containers has risen from less than 15 to more than 40 percent. Bottling in the country of destination is sometimes cheaper, and it lowers the cost and carbon footprint of shipping. By shipping in 24,000-litre bladders to fit 20-foot containers, this new technology offers greater opportunities to blend wines from any region of the world.

Translated, this means that bulk wines blended to all taste the same to satisfy the average consumer, with differences created by marketing, is moving from the budget wine sector to the premium sector. You will now have the privilege of paying $25 for a pretty label and a story about family farms in the 18th Century.

Windrun Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills 2013


, ,

windrun santa rita hillsThe Pinot wars are still with us with California bold fighting Burgundian finesse, stereotypes to be sure but true enough to make a good story. The Santa Barbara négociant Windrun gives aid and comfort to both sides. Their slender Santa Barbara 2013 was the picture of Burgundian elegance; this offering sourced from the Lafond vineyard in the Santa Ynez valley is bold and savory.

Ripe black cherry with faint caramel notes in the upper register; a stealthy influx of sage and earth tones creep in with some aeration. The oak presence is persistent but subdued and is already nicely integrated, thankfully showing no vanilla, a testament to aging in large neutral oak barrels. When poking about for subtle aromas I found myself fighting the alcohol on the nose but this is not a wine for persnickety sniffing.

In the mouth it’s manly with plenty of midpalate density, and almost full bodied. Vibrant dark fruit rests on a structured frame, a surface texture of velvet cloaking an anvil, too sturdy to be called lush. The tannins are well-handled, firm but not astringent giving space for the fruit to mount a tenacious, mouthwatering finish, with lingering autumnal after flavors and great length. What it lacks in finesse it makes up for with an enchanting evolution on the palate. The finish has some Wow! factor.

Despite all this these lusty components the wine is not at all aggressive. Balanced and integrated, it is neither beast nor beauty, think Jason Bourne, quiet, understated, but tautly coiled for action with a latent power focused on the end-game.

It has has already come together and is ready to drink although I suspect it has the stuffing to age well. A perfect wine for hearty, fall stews.

Pair with one of the sturdiest bands of the 1970’s, a very good live cut of “The Boys are Back in Town”

Score: 92

Price: $30

Alc: 14.3%

Review based on an industry sample

Good News for Wine Nerds


wine mustThe concept of terroir, the idea that the flavors in wine reflect the geographical characteristics of the region in which the grapes are grown, is a fundamental source of fascination in the culture of wine and central to wine appreciation. There is no doubt that geography deeply influences the final product, but how it does so remains a bit of a mystery. Weather is the obvious influence and soil composition seems to play a role as well but wines from similar soils nevertheless show distinct characteristics; weather and soil may not be the whole story.

One of the more intriguing hypothesis to come out of recent scientific work on terroir is that wine is influenced by local bacteria and other microbes. Scientists have discovered that each vineyard has a unique collection of microbes and those microbes will be in the wine must when the grapes are crushed, but thus far there has been no evidence that the microbes are influencing the flavors in the wine—until now, according to this research published at nature.com.

Native yeasts populations in several wine regions in New Zealand were isolated and analyzed for their influence on aromas in wine:

We experimentally tested and quantified the extent to which genetically distinct regional populations of S. cerevisiae affect wine phenotype in terms of volatile composition. We show significant positive correlations between the genetic and geographic relatedness of natural S. cerevisiae sub-populations and their effect on resulting wine phenotypes. As far as we are aware this is the first empirical test for whether there is potential for a microbial aspect to terroir. This result aligns with the belief that microbes significantly contribute to the regional identity or terroir of wine and may potentially extend to the differential effects of microbes on other important agricultural crops and produce generally.

All the usual caveats about one study apply but if this research is replicated, the endless discussion of rocks that takes place in wine circles may be replaced by endless discussions of the different genotypes of  S. cerevisiae

Budget Wine: Voga Red Fusion Salento IGT 2013


, ,

vogaPeople who buy wine because of the label or packaging are often the subject of derision among wine snobs. But since wine has become a commodity, a low cost, standardized product mostly made by large companies all striving for the same taste profile, sometimes packaging is the only thing to distinguish one wine from another on the supermarket shelf. So some wineries put a lot of effort into making their bottle appear unique or eye-catching.  Voga wines, presenting a lineup of easy drinking crowd pleasers, does seem to be all about marketing  with a bottle that looks like designer water, complete with a cap that screws on after the cork is pulled, and an ad campaign that mimics the world of fashion. The irony of an upscale, modern, “fashionista” image on a $10 bottle of wine doesn’t appear to be part of the appeal.

But the wine turns out to be quite good for the price. A blend of 65% Zinfandel (the Primativo clone) and 35% Cabernet from the warm Puglia region on the heel of Italy’s boot, the nose is of ripe blackberry as you would expect from a region where grapes ripen easily. But freshly-turned earth notes are even more prominent giving this wine a flavor profile that is to a degree out of the ordinary, despite some distracting green top notes. The full bodied palate is plush with chocolate-infused dark fruit and medium grain tannins that don’t bite but stay firm and thick supporting a medium length, dry finish. As expected with crowd-pleasers there is a bit of sweetness up front and the acidity is much lower than is typical of Italian wines but the earthiness and sturdy mouthfeel give this wine a unique aspect.

Plush but firm and earthy, pair with Mary Blige Real Love

Score: 87

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5

The Paradox of “Ethnic” Food



indian food buffetOne could argue that the food revolution in the U.S and our increasing interest in taste was made possible by the emergence of ethnic* cuisines brought here by immigrants. While mid-20th Century Americans were subsisting on a bland diet of TV dinners and Twinkies brought to us by the industrial food system, immigrant enclaves were busy figuring out how to preserve the tastes of home using American ingredients. Exposure to these exotic flavors, made available through small, mom and pop eateries, increasingly motivated Americans to be more adventurous in their eating habits paving the way for the explosion of innovation that is now routine in U.S. cooking.

But the driving force behind the acceptance of ethnic cuisines is that the food was cheap and fast. Immigrant populations, especially 1st generation, tend to be less well-off than more established populations and have to hustle to make ends meet. They could not afford high prices or leisurely meals. As a result, ethnic foods—taco stands, Indian lunch buffets, Thai lunch specials, Bento boxes, and a United Nations of food trucks–have become a fixture in the fast food and casual dining sectors providing Americans with a multitude of interesting, exotic up-to-a- point, inexpensive dining options.

But as chef and mathematician Hari Pulipaka points out in this lamentation regarding the plight of Indian food, this path to success for ethnic cuisines has come at a cost:

In a nutshell, the more we expect ethnic food to be inexpensive, the more frequently it is executed in a formulaic and tempered way using sub-standard ingredients. This is a case of driving down the quality of supply to meet an obvious demand. There is certainly a time and place for a less than refined or inspired execution, but just because it isn’t French or Japanese cuisine, to name two examples that have been successfully marketed to be deserving of upscale prices, it doesn’t mean that the other cuisines of the world are lesser in stature when it comes to technique or intrinsic quality.

Pulipaka points out that the Indian diaspora is both highly educated and wealthy compared to other immigrant populations, and the cuisine of India is as refined and varied as more celebrated cuisines. But with a few exceptions this population has not supported a movement to represent this quality in restaurants.The more popular a cuisine gets, the less it becomes representative of its real potential. Indian food is surely more interesting than “hot, spicy, and curried”.

He closes with a gentle upbraid:

The Indian diaspora in this country bear a certain responsibility to spread the deserving demand. After all, the facts point towards a group who can certainly afford it and are educated enough to understand that the stereotypes will remain as long as we perpetuate them ourselves.

But I don’t think this issue is unique to Indian food. As he notes, Japanese food is the only so called “ethnic” food (if we exclude French and Italian) that has been routinely able to charge higher prices and achieve a level of refinement that approximates the highest achievements of which the cuisine is capable. Stereotypes are hard to break even when you have the resources.


*For what it’s worth, I don’t like the term “ethnic” because I’m never sure what is to be included in the concept. Is French food “ethnic”. It’s been part of mainstream high culture for decades; so has Italian food more recently. Generally it seems to mean “food you didn’t eat growing up”. But the term is in widespread use; it would appear we are stuck with it.

Just What the World Needs



bitter beer faceAs I wander about the country, I’ve been in several bars recently where 2/3rds of the beer list is made up of IPAs. I know this is the hipster brew and all, but really this IPA craze has gone too far. As the poet Wordsworth wrote “But hushed be every thought that springs From out the bitterness of things”.  Bitter thoughts from bitter tastes—I think that’s true. I’ve never had a pleasant thought while sipping an IPA.

But I have always been able to count on the roasted malty goodness of Guinness to rescue me from IPA hell. Everybody sells Guinness.

Unfortunately, the latest news from the beer world is that Guinness will now make an IPA. This is like the Red Sox joining the Yankees or the Dalai Lama as Donald Trump’s VP.

Just what the world needs—another IPA.

Ranchero Cellars Carignan Mendocino/Paso Robles 2012



ranchero cellarsWinemaker Amy Butler has a passion—for Carignan, the ignominious grape widely planted in the South of France because its high yield enables an ocean of cheap wine for export. It’s a strange passion to have, but often people with strange passions create beauty out of curiosities.

And indeed, she has tamed this rough, tannic, sometimes bitter grape like a ranchero breaks a horse while leaving a wild spirit behind to jolt the complacent.

Rich blackberry ensconced in lovely tarragon and clove-scented cedar  layered on top of fresh loam, a riveting nose of great intensity and depth.  The medium weight palate continues the dark fruit/wood theme exploding on the midpalate with generous acidity and finishing with medium grain, edgy, persistent tannins that support licorice notes as it fades. Structured and focused,yet still rustic despite the careful winemaking, this is quite young and still unruly but will integrate nicely with time in the bottle.

This is the richest Carignan I have tasted. A blend of Mendocino and Paso Robles fruit that undergoes whole-cluster fermentation and is aged in  30% new American oak, and 70% neutral French oak.

Only 154 cases made so get it soon.

Sophisticated but with a down-home grind like Templeton Thompson When I Get that Pony Rode

Score: 91

Price: $32

Alc: 14.2%

Industry Sample from Uncorked Ventures,  a wine club devoted to small wineries.

Mind Games



mind gamesI can’t tell you how many times I’ve tasted a wine and detected a hint of sweetness, only to find out from the winemaker that it was vinified dry with almost no residual sugar.

New research from France explains why:

‘What we have uncovered is that it is the species of oak that makes the greatest difference to taste. The research uncovered that oak contain naturally-occurring compounds that impart sweetness (the QTTs), and others that impart bitterness (there are several, but one of the key molecules is Glu-BA). Peduncular was richer in bitter compounds and sessile in sweet.’

Sessile oak has always been privileged for ageing wine. It contains many of the aromatic molecules such as vanillin and whisky-lactone that imparts the patisserie and coconut smells typical of oak-aged wine, but the discovery of the QTT molecules deepens our understanding of why. Taste is intensified by molecules of aroma, so a sweet taste will ‘taste’ sweeter if it is imprinted with the smell of vanilla. In this way, sessile oak wins on both counts.

If I understand this correctly, we perceive sweetness in wine that has been exposed to vanillin or whiskey lactone because we associate vanilla and coconut with sweet foods. But if we associate vanilla and coconut with sweetness because they are usually consumed with sweet foods, doesn’t a similar phenomenon occur with fruit? Ripe fruits are naturally sweet and so we are likely to taste sweetness in a fruity wine even if it is bone dry.

The mind plays tricks.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 170 other followers