Archive for the ‘Wine Facts’ Category

I have an interest in the size of a wine pour that borders on pathological—just ask anyone who’s ever been in my kitchen. On the side of my fridge, a few inches above counter level, there are two pieces of blue painter’s tape. If you position a Libbey stemless wine glass on the counter against these pieces of tape, you see the exact measure of both a 4 oz. pour and a 5 oz. pour.

This compulsive bit of measuring dates back to my pregnancy, when I became just the teeniest bit obsessed with how much—if any—alcohol was safe to consume during pregnancy. My doctor advised that one 4 oz. glass a month, after the first trimester, was fine—but no more. That was when I learned the ugly truth about what a 4 oz. glass of wine really looks like. (It looks like a large sip.) And as this was not my usual pour size, Peter slapped some tape against the fridge to keep me honest. Post-pregnancy, we went nuts and added the 5 oz. measure.

If this all sounds a little crazy, well, it is. But no crazier than W. Blake Gray’s great pour-size experiment of 2013, wherein the esteemed wine writer went to four wine bars and six restaurants—all in San Francisco—armed with a carefully concealed Pyrex measuring cup. He ordered a glass of wine from each establishment, and when it arrived, his wife produced the Pyrex and quickly measured the wine pour before returning it to its glass. He found that the average pour size was just above 5 oz., with 4 oz. being the smallest (Terroir Wine Bar) and nearly 7 oz. being the largest (20 Spot). Upon reflection, he realized that the most generous pours came after he’d inquired about the wine and engaged his server in conversation. He didn’t necessarily have to take that person’s advice on what to order, but merely seeming interested in wine clearly influenced pour size.

Lately it seems that every time I go to a new—or at least new-to-me—restaurant, there’s an atypical pour size on the menu. AL’s Place in San Francisco’s Mission District offers wine by the glass, bottle, and “grip,” which is essentially a glass-and-a-half. Meanwhile, at 123 Bolinas in Fairfax, you can order a “smidge”—which is roughly half a glass. A friend in the business says he sees more and more places pouring against a measure—which could account for why restaurants feel compelled to offer a range of pour sizes, with pricing to match.

Perhaps one day we’ll walk into a restaurant and find a Home Glass (definition: as generous a glass as you’d pour yourself at home) on the menu. Back when I first wrote about the concept, my home glass clocked in at about 6 oz—but the burning question is, how big is your home glass? Please respond in the comments, and invite others to weigh in. Pictures welcome; I’ll start.

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I have a friend who looks for the organic label every time he shops—not just for produce, but for all consumables. He lives in Portland, for the love of tiny houses and mushroom foraging—of course he buys organic! But when it comes to wine and this same friend sees the word organic anywhere on the bottle, he firmly takes a pass. “I find that whenever a wine person in the store or restaurant adds to their suggestion that it’s organic, I immediately think, ‘I don’t want it,’” he recently told me. “Organic is important to me in every food product I eat. If it’s available organic, I assume it will be better. But with wine, I assume it will be worse. It’s like a criteria I don’t want applied to wine for some reason. Like it screws it up. Am I alone?”

He is not. Quite a few wine experts complain that certified organic wine can veer a little to closely toward, well . . . vinegar. The problem seems to be this: producers of wine made from organically grown grapes can’t actually label their wine organic unless they bypass the use of sulfur dioxide in their production process. The omission of SO2 makes preventing spoilage a tricky business, and it sometimes necessitates storing the wine in a stainless-steel tank without letting it breathe. As a result, wine made this way either has a high potential of spoiling (vinegar) and getting a bacterial infection that could lead to odors of sauerkraut or paint thinner or the stainless steel storage process that prevents spoilage keeps the wine “closed” and lacking in depth.

For this reason, truly organic wines are quite distinct from wine made from certified organically grown grapes but not labeled organic. The latter simply means that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were used in the vineyard. More and more wines fall into this category these days, thanks to a mix of market demand and eco-consious vineyard management. Health concerns are much less of a factor, since the fermentation process seems to do away with any chemical residue in a wine that would otherwise result from the use of pesticides in the vineyard. And while the omission of SO2 makes organic wine the healthier choice for those allergic to SO2, for the rest of us the difference is negligible.

With all that said, here are a few quick and dirty tips for drinking organic:

Understand the difference. There’s wine that’s 1) made from organically grown grapes and organically produced,  2) just made from organically grown grapes, and 3) neither. If the environment is the big factor in your purchasing decision, there’s really no difference between No. 1 and No. 2. If the deciding factor is your health, all three are fair game.

Be prepared to pay more. Just as organically grown produce costs more, so does wine produced from organically grown grapes. Blame the added labor involved, and the cost of certification.

And, if you do go for full-fledged organic . . . 

Consider going directly to the source. Since organic wines can be more vulnerable to spoilage during bottling and shipping, the optimal way to experience these wines would be straight from the barrel. If you live near a wine region, look for opportunities to barrel-taste or bottle your own.

Choose typically robust and higher-alcohol varietals over lighter, more delicate wines. Big reds like Zinfandel are likely to fare better without the SO2 than something like Sauvignon Blanc.

Drink it soon. The omission of SO2 does not set the stage for graceful aging. The best strategy is to pick a wine that typically does age well (again, think big reds like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) and consume it soon after purchase.


The options for drinking wine made from organically grown grapes are plentiful—and if you’re still a skeptic, one great place to start would be Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Sinskey winemaker Jeff Virnig started down the path of organic farming back in the early 1990s, moving to enhance vineyard fertility through composting, green manuring, and cover cropping. By 2001, all of Sinskey’s vineyards were certified organic.

Sinskey is probably best known for its much-loved Carneros Pinot Noirs, but this rosé is my personal favorite. I’ve also heard good things about this Pey Marin dry Riesling, made from organic grapes grown here in coastal Marin County, and friends rave about this Alexander Valley winery, whose vineyards are also 100 percent organic. For the PDX dwellers among you, consider following the musings of my favorite Portland wine correspondent, who often covers organic and sustainable viticulture practices.


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California's Central Valley

A few years ago I used my old wine column to write a love letter of sorts to Lodi, California. My newfound Lodi love was based on the many good, inexpensive wines made from Lodi-grown grapes that I’d tasted at that year’s Zinfandel Advocates & Producers Festival (ZAP) in San Francisco.

That was early 2008. In the recession-plagued years since, Lodi’s low prices have started looking pretty good to consumers who may once have scoffed at Central Valley wines. At the same time, grape prices have dropped all over California—including in swankier regions like Napa and Sonoma—so good values are suddenly a lot easier to find than they used to be.

All of which made it a little confusing when I recently received a bottle of 2008 Michael David “Lust” Zinfandel from Lodi priced at $59. There’s an old rule of thumb in the wine industry that in order to break even, your per-bottle price needs to be roughly the price you paid for a ton of grapes divided by 100. This is somewhat reassuring to a consumer who’s handing over $50 for a Napa Cab (2008 average price per ton: $4,780) or $35 for a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($3171). But it’s less heartening if you’re drinking a $59 bottle of Lodi Zin, where the average price per ton in 2008 was $311.

Lust would have made one fine $3 wine, with its liquorice nose, luscious mouthfeel, strong finish, and 16.9 percent (!) alcohol, but at nearly 20 times that price, it’s a harder sell. If you already have plans to be at the 20th annual ZAP festival at the end of this month, however, you can try it for free; the three-day Zinfandel celebration runs January 27-29, with admission fees varying by event. For more information visit zinfandel.org.

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Decrying wine critics, publications, and competitions that use numerical ratings to measure a wine’s worth has been the fashion for a while — but now a few academic types are using research to back up the rancor.

Robert Hodgson is one such academic. As the Wall Street Journal recounted in great detail over the weekend, this retired statistics professor-turned-vintner joined the advisory board of the California State Fair’s famed wine competition a few years back and subjected the competition’s judges to a controlled scientific study. Every year for four years, 70 judges were presented with a blind tasting of approximately 100 wines over a two-day period, with each wine being served three times. Results showed that, on average, each judge’s ratings of the same wine varied by +/-4 points, with a different rating each time it was tasted.

Hodgson followed up on that study, which was published earlier this year in the Journal of Wine Economics, with a broader look at multiple wine competitions, and the statistical odds that any one wine will win a gold medal in any competition. To quote the Journal, “The medals seemed to be spread around at random, with each wine having about a 9% chance of winning a gold medal in any given competition.” The results of the second study were published in September in a newsletter called the California Grapevine.

As recently as last week, ratings skeptics found backing in the pages of the trade journal Psychological Science, which featured Brock University business professor Antonia Mantonakis’ article “Order in Choice: Effects of Serial Position on Preferences.”

Mantonakis and her coauthors subjected volunteers to yet another blind tasting, with each taster sampling five glasses. The first glass tasted repeatedly earned higher marks than the second and third among novice tasters, while wine experts preferred the fourth or fifth glass. The kicker? Unbeknownst to the tasters, all glasses contained the same wine.

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Writing about Zinfandel for the October issue (see “Original Zin”) got me thinking about my personal connection to the varietal, and how that’s changed over the years. Zinfandel didn’t really enter my consciousness until 1999, when I first moved to the Bay Area and a friend gave me a bottle of Ravenswood Zin as a welcome gift. Now along with Ridge and more recently, Rosenblum, Ravenswood is one of *the* names in Zinfandel, with winemaker Joel Peterson offering up numerous examples of the varietal. These offerings range from the high-end Vineyard Designates to the more-moderate County Series and the budget-friedly Vintner’s Blend.

You can be sure that the bottle my friend gave me back in ’99 was the latter, given that we were all starving twenty-somethings at the time, and Ravenswood Zin quickly became a favorite for both its price tag, rich flavors, and almost-cocktail-like alcoholic punch (which is, let’s face it, another favorite characteristic among beverages of starving twenty-somethings…).

It’s that alcoholic punch that can occasionally get the varietal into trouble: witness Darrell Corti’s decision to no longer sell his once-beloved Amador County Zinfandels at Corti Brothers gourmet grocery and wine store in Sacramento. Now, if you read my article, you’ll recall that Corti was largely responsible for putting Amador wines on the map in the ’60s and ’70s, thanks to his successful lobbying campaign on behalf of the county’s Zinfandel grapes. That campaign was aimed at Napa winemakers, and given Corti’s reputation as something of an industry sage, those winemakers listened and began to source their grapes from the region — with impressive results.

But in recent years, the alcohol content in Zinfandels has been sneaking ever higher (16 percent isn’t unheard of), perhaps in an effort to suit the tastes of critics who bestow their highest scores upon wines that are big and bold. Corti has said that his objection is not with Amador Zins in particular, but with all unfortified wines whose alcohol content exceeds 14 percent.

Fair enough — even this Zinfandel lover can now only handle the occasional glass of Amador’s old-vine finest. Guess I’ve mellowed with age.

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I mentioned in my last (and so far only) post that my husband is a winemaker, so during the harvest months of September and October, his long work days begin before dawn, and his weekends are nonexistent. You can therefore imagine the twinge of panic we felt upon learning that our first child’s due date was September 3 of this year — a date that can often mark the harvest period’s beginning.

Well, it turns out that our happy and healthy new daughter, Willa, sensed the urgency and decided to arrive a month early — which accounts for the long lag between that first blog entry and this one. Her considerate timing afforded Peter a few calm weeks with her before harvest chaos descended (which happened, at his winery at least, on September 4th).

My return to the blog coincides with the October issue of Marin Magazine hitting the stands, arriving in mailboxes, and appearing online. I plan to devote the next couple of posts to ‘outtakes,’ if you will,  from “Original Zin,” the article I wrote for the October issue about Zinfandel, California’s signature grape. But let me quickly address here one correction:

A sentence in the story’s introduction refers to Zinfandel as the second-most-planted grape in California. While it’s true that Zin is the second-most-planted *red wine* grape in the state, after Cabernet Sauvignon, both Thompson and Chardonnay have it beat in the non-wine and white wine categories, respectively. My apologies for the error.

Finally, with all due respect to my beloved Zinfandel, I want to mention a great-value Cab I recently discovered. The 2007 Bon Anno Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley, has an aroma of leather and dried cherries, with big, ripe, flavors and soft tannins on the palate. At $20, it’s a rare — and delightful — Napa bargain.

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