Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stop and Smell the Asphalt

In my life as a computer programmer people would often come up to me, usually with a kind of scary smile that one associates with an impending car crash, and ask me what I studied in college. "Music" I would reply innocently, waiting for the inevitable response, "Oh yeah! Programming must have some connection with music. There's a lot of music majors who are programmers", which provided the perfect opening for my stock reply, "Yeah, the connection is that we are all poor". I structured my response this way in an attempt not to exact pity, but to forestall the inevitable nonsense about programming and music being both fundamentally 'mathematical' activities. What exactly this mysterious 'mathematical' component in either programming or music I must have somehow failed to grasp over the last twenty years. I think what they mean to say is that they are both somehow abstract, which is far more believable and accurate (but then again why be either one of those).

What music and programming do have in common is that they are both made up languages; entirely human inventions with arbitrarily constructed grammars. In both, one must follow the rules to a 't' or the entire effectiveness will be entirely lost. This of course is in direct contrast to normal language which was evolved rather than being intentionally constructed (like Esperanto) and which consequently permits all kinds of liberties with no fundamental harm to the underlying meaning.

Lest one leap to a conclusion, because a language is made up however, does not necessarily mean that it is abstract. The language which is used to describe wine is also an entirely made up language, but a language almost entirely constructed of metaphor, that is, it uses concrete objects to describe an abstract experience (this is, when you come to think of it, the exact opposite of abstraction). We have an unbalanced vocabulary when it comes to describing wine; the few non-metaphors (acidic, tannic, sweet, soft etc.) and then an extensive vocabulary of metaphors (cherry, peppery, herbaceous, black currant, vanilla and on an on), in fact, reading a wine list in almost any winery can almost immediately induce a state of metaphor fatigue (in engineering known as 'metal fatigue', in music as 'heavy metal fatigue', and in programming as a 'coffee break').

The sad truth is that smell and taste are the gangsters of the senses. One can peacefully coexist with an unsightly mess (witness my office) but an offensive smell or taste, once they've got you, they've got you by the short hairs (forgive the crudeness of the metaphor, but it is especially apt). They are the least prone to abstraction and not susceptible to negotiation (I'm gonna make you an odor you can't refuse). Neither is sight, for example, as indelibly wedded, or 'fixated' to specific objects. We do not generally call the color black, 'night' or the color red, 'apple' (orange is the exception) but the point is we have abstractions of color that serve us fairly well. The same is not true for aroma or taste. If we want to convey how something tastes or smells we generally have to link it to a concrete object (via metaphor not handcuffs). 'It smells like hibiscus', has meaning, saying
'it smells like spring' is virtually useless (unless you are a mattress salesman).

The explanation I have seen for this is that language is fundamentally a left brain activity while smell and taste is processed in the right brain. I am not too sure about this. What about if I turn around? (blonde joke here).

Anyway, by far the most interesting reaction I have gotten in my own tasting room was to my use of the term 'asphalt' to convey an aromatic component of my Cabernet blend. This invoked suppressed laughter and the accompanying suggestion that perhaps the grapes had fallen off the back of a truck while they were being delivered. I would like to reply here in that I have looked it up and 'tar' is in fact a member in good standing in most most wine descriptive lexicons. It's dues are paid up to date. It's funny you know that when you come to think of it there's a lot of musicians who make wine, I think it's because, you know, 'guitar', it has 'tar' right there in it!

Monday, January 26, 2009

To Sir2 With Love

There should be a government warning label on blogs when the blogger is about to go off on an ill-informed rant that concerns health issues. At least in this case, it concerns a subject which is of current interest to the wine (making and drinking) community, and, I will be in good company. The subject of course is aging, and my co-ranters (if anyone suspects that this is an article concerning the Islamic prohibition of alcohol, please note, that the phrase 'Co-ranter' has nothing to do with the Muslim bible which in English is generally spelled with a 'K', or a 'Q' never with a 'C') are Morley Safer and Sixty Minutes who last night did a 'science' piece on Resveratrol, the so-called 'anti-aging' component of red wine.

Winemakers in general (me included), tend to wet their pants whenever there is a high profile piece done on the benefits of Resveratrol. The reason is of course is that we see instant dollar signs on the assumption that increased public awareness of the health benefits of drinking red wine will translate into increased sales. The Sixty-Minutes piece provided a good illustration why this hope is probably ill-founded in that the American proclivity for distilling every possible physical pleasure or benefit into pill form is already well underway. According to the piece, a company called 'Sirtis' has been formed to develop and market Resveratrol in pill form. The piece featured the well tanned and youthful founders of the company, David Sinclair, a Harvard researcher and Dr. Christoph Westphals.

We, as a society, seem increasingly preoccupied with the subject of aging, witness the movie, 'The Case of Benjamin Buttons' and the 'The Case of Barry Manilow' (and of course who could forget the memorable 'Case of Viagra')all instances where the normal processes of aging seems to have been confounded. Before we all rush out to return the 'Depends' to Shoprite, I think it's worthwhile to take a closer look at the question of the benefits of Resveratrol.

What exactly is Resveratrol? In this blog we have already talked about one component of wine which as a group are called 'polyphenols' (also called anthocyanins), Resveratrol is a member of this group. It occurs almost entirely in the skin and seeds of the grape (as do all polyphenols).

One of the biggest challenges in growing grapes is their susceptibility to various forms of mildew and rot. All grapes require anti-fungal sprays and, as most winegrowers are aware, white grapes in general require several more anti-fungal sprays throughout the season than do red grapes (there are of course a few exceptions). Resveratrol plays a significant role in this in that it is a natural anti-fungal. This of course explains this discrepancy in susceptibility (in that red grapes have more anthocyanins) and why it occurs in the skins of grapes as that is the point of entry for fungus. Most people however are not particularly susceptible to topical fungal infections (with the exception of athlete's foot, which may explain the popularity of grape stomping), so why does Resveratrol have benefits for us?

The reason advanced by the Dick Clark look-a-likes in lab coats on Sixty-Minutes (does Resveratrol help with bitter anger?) is that Resveratrol activates an anti-aging gene call Sir2. Activation of this gene results in various benefits including increased elasticity of blood vessel walls, cancer-suppression, diabetes suppression, greater motor coordination, reduced susceptibility to stroke and cataract reduction. All this much is pretty well established, and this, without even the necessity of putting it in ironic context, is great news!. Where there is still some disagreement is whether Resveratrol actually extends the life span. Sinclair's tests on yeast and worms seem to indicate it does, other studies, (Pearson et al., 'Resveratrol Delays Age-Related Deterioration and Mimics Transcriptional Aspects of Dietary Restriction without Extending Life Span', Cell Metabolism (2008)), seem to indicate otherwise. The suggestive title of the second article indicates that there is in fact another way to activate this gene which there is, that being by prolonged semi-starvation or what is called (somewhat both ironically and euphemistically) in scientific circles, 'DR' (dietary restriction) and indeed this 'mimetic' effect is what prompted Sinclair's original work.

Because of the anti-fungal properties of Resveratrol previous studies had been done to determine if it had any anti-bacterial or anti-yeast qualities. Interestingly, these showed that there were, but only on specific bacteria, namely those that cause meningitis or gonorrhea. (Docherty, et al, Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (2001)). Normal staph and strep germs and yeast were all unaffected.

So, to summarize to this point, (and I apologize for the level of technicality of this blog, which, if you were taking Resveratrol you would have no problem with), Resveratrol, in people, causes the body to think it is starving, in test tubes it prevents gonorrhea and meningitis and in grapevines wards it off fungus.

All this information has encouraged me to form my own company called 'Starving Over-Sexed Artists Being Blatantly Attacked by Mushroomlike Entities' or "S.O.S ABBA ME". As indicated in the Sixty Minutes piece, it would take one thousand bottles of wine to deliver the amount of Resveratrol found in one pill. My plan therefore is to sell miniaturized bottles of wine with one thousand bottles to the case. My only problem may be getting approval for the government health warning on the labels about the risks of drinking wine. The type may be too small to read without glasses.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Super Bass-O-Matic 76

Before there was sushi there was the Bass-O-Matic 76. Never mind the painstaking artistic hewing of plump maroon slabs of Ahi Tuna into bite sized delectable portions of exquisite proportion by keen eyed artisans with razor edged knives. If we are to believe the breathless injunctions of Dan Akroyd's smarmy informercialist on SNL, 'you'll never have to scale, cut or fillet again'. Just throw the whole fish into the Bass-O-Matic 76 and voila, fresh, drinkable sushi without all the, smiling, bowing and messy green toothpaste looking stuff that makes you feel as if you were being dragged uphill by a meat hook inserted in your nasal passages when you've eaten a portion the size of a small mole. Fast, not labor intensive and refreshingly
simple, no messy waste and it does not require mastering the use of chopsticks.

The Bass-O-Matic however also serves another educational purpose; it demonstrates that under the right conditions, most protein is water soluble. Why and under what conditions protein remains soluble is a question that faces winemakers frequently, particularly in the production of white wines where the sudden appearance of 'protein hazes' and precipitates can markedly influence the marketability and sometimes the taste of white wines. What is 'protein haze'? Is it related to 'purple haze'? Will it make you 'kiss the sky', or 'kiss this guy' (a veritable close-captioner's nightmare which perhaps explains why Hendrix gets very little TV airtime) while under its influence? Well, it seems that Hendrix once again has proven somewhat multi-lexically prophetic, if still obscure, in that the appearance of haze, purple or otherwise is somehow related to the quantity of acid in the system. Protein solubility in liquids is, to a large extent, a function of the pH of that solution which in turn is related (indirectly) to the overall acidity. The worst possible pH of a liquid (when it comes to solubility) is about 4.0. Most wine has a pH of about 3.2-3.4. Red wine is slightly higher. The tricky part for winemakers is that white wine's pH will slowly increase over time. This slight increase of even .1 pushing the wine toward that twilight zone of minimum solubility is enough to precipitate out proteins which are then immediately noticeable as whitish stringy, dancey long globules, (like the goo they show you on CSI when they are doing the DNA tests, with Gucci safety goggles of course). In any event, it means the wine can start to appear something like a slightly anorexic lava-lamp. There are of course other factors, like heat, agitation, the presence of unbound complex polyphenols (and thank goodness for these! I could drink them by themselves) which insure that if you throw a slightly hazy wine into a Bass-O-Matic 76 the result will be creamy and delicious. Far Out! What could be a better match! White wine and fish!

The easiest method of removing these proteins, long before you have a Woodstock commemorative concert in your bottle, is to add a quantity of bentonite to the must which turns the proteins into a wine slushy that sits on the bottom of the tank or barrel or whatever you are using to keep the wine from spilling onto your Ahi Tuna.
The problem with this method is that it also removes a lot of the flavor compounds as the bentonite does not distinguish between proteins that have already attached to polyphenols and those that are living the carefree bachelor life. I guess there are no easy answers in life. 'Scuse me while I kiss this bass'.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reversal of Fortune

Today is a really remarkable day. Yesterday I watched an image of Joe Biden and Barack Obama standing together on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial while Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang. There was the president-elect and vice president-elect and I couldn't help noticing that something in me, call it conditioning or an unwillingness to suspend disbelief was almost forcing me to perceive, in contravention of fact, that the roles were reversed, (not Pete and Bruce but Barack and Joe); that I should be encouraged about our society because we had finally come so far as to elect a black man vice-president. A moment later I realized just exactly how remarkable this picture I was viewing was.

Changes in society are sometimes not incremental but they never come out of the blue. It is like a big chunk of ice breaking off from a glacier. It' the sudden, dramatic visible evidence of decades of tedious pushing from behind and cumulative pressure along a broad front. A big chunk has broken off today in a very visible and dramatic manner but we should not forget either all the pushing from behind or the fact that it is dropping into very troubled waters.

So how do we relate this to wine or Hudson Valley wines in particular? Well, our terrain here is to a large extent determined by the path of a previous glacier, one that carved out the Hudson River Valley and pushed thousands of tons of Canadian soil, rock, gravel and hockey sticks down to our area here. What they call the 'terminal morraine' or the deposit of rock and soil that marks the point furthest south that the glacier reached is to found in Brooklyn, specifically it is a hill that occurs in the otherwise mostly flat borough that is the location of Greenwood Cemetery. A lot of famous people are buried here in Greenwood, including the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, Leonard Bernstein, the famous composer and conductor, and George Catlin the famous Indian painter. There are also quite a few mobsters buried here including Albert Anastasia and (Crazy) Joey Gallo (no relation to the winemaker), Hey, it's Brooklyn.

In the last few posts I focused on 'debunking' some of the myths about wine (this in a reversal of my normal tendency toward 'bunking'). On this remarkable day, this particular day when we are looking forward, I would just like to suggest that we also look back, to remember that the wine industry in New York State today would not have been possible if it had not been pushed forward by some rather remarkable and some arguably crazy individuals, individuals like Mark Miller, Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier and others. While the big chunk of ice has not yet broken off for us, there is definitely a perceptible cracking sound and we can clearly mark the terminal morraine where their efforts ended and our work begins. So, when it feels like things are not really moving ahead, listen for the sound of falling ice (and let's hope it is not just the sound of someone drinking scotch on the rocks at an inaugural ball, or cleaning the White House roof from icicles before the new tenant moves in).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

De Department of Homewand Secuwity

"I'm going to catch dat wascalwy terroirist if it's the wast ding I do" --Elmer Fudd

There is something about the phrase, 'Homeland Security' that makes me vaguely uncomfortable. It has a disconcerting, somewhat abstract, almost European feel. The word 'homeland' is not one that, previous to the coining of this phrase. was in general usage or employed in any conventional context to describe America. I suspect it was invented 'de novo', cloned, not born, specifically for the purpose of naming a government agency after it (I have the same suspicions about new breeds of dog like 'Labradoodle', I think the dog was invented to suit the name and not vice versa) .

The use of the word 'security' in conjunction with it does not improve matters much as it seems to imply that America is some big mall and that terrorists are simply trying to boost a pair of jeans from the 'Gap' (call Security!). Maybe I'm just being picky, but when I use a word to describe America, I prefer 'country' or 'land', even 'neighborhood', any of those sound far better than 'Homeland'
which ranks up there with 'Motherland' and 'Fatherland' s one of my least favorite words. Worst of all, it doesn't make me feel like the place it is describing is anyplace special, it is 'the Homeland' without even the benefit of a possessive pronoun like 'my'.

The French have a word to describe what makes a certain piece of land, a certain location special; They will tell you that it is some ineffable mystical combination of sun exposure, soil, wind, temperature and terrain. It is generally used to describe why it is that wine from a certain piece of land is different in character from that produced on another piece of land whether that second piece be across the ocean or just over the hill; that word is 'terroir'. Americans have another word to describe something that is ineffable, impossible to define and produces hard to categorize results. They call it 'b_llsh_t".

If I seem skeptical about the concept of 'terroir' as contributing anything whatsoever to the quality of wine, it is not because I do not believe that all the elements of weather and terrain are important to producing grapes of quality; of course they are, but, to assert that they somehow collectively seep in to the grape and make my grapes (and consequently the wine) somehow different from Joe Snow's grapes over the rise is just nonsense. The reason my wine may be better or worse will stem from the fact that I have planted grapes appropriate or not to the terrain, picked them at the optimal time or too late or too early and had a winemaker who knew exactly how to handle them, or, I used 'Winemaking for Dummies'. Nothing mystical about it.

Let me tell you the reason this idea of 'terroir' has become so entrenched and so facilely adapted as an explanation for varying quality. Europeans had some six or seven hundred years to determine which grapes were appropriate for which soils and locations. This resulted in a mutually beneficial adaptation of site to grape, and also over time, through selection, of grape to site. This all came to a screeching halt around 1860 when a little North American root louse called 'phylloxera' was accidentally introduced into European vineyards. Since that time, all the European vineyards had to be replanted on grafted onto American rootstock. By the time this was largely accomplished, some thirty years later, the fate and character of the majority of wine grapes was fixed forever. Every (non-hybrid) grapevine that was planted thereafter was a clone of one of these original replanted vines. In essence, grapes that were transplanted or newly planted were no longer adapting to soil, climate and terrain any more than a biological twin who goes to California when their sibling remains in New York will automatically undergo physiological changes. It doesn't, as a rule happen, at least not in any predictable manner ('What-evh-her dude').

Don't get me wrong, I truly believe Blue Mountain Jamaican or Hawaiian Kona beans make the best coffee, and probably San Marzano tomatoes are superior for making lasagna (I'm still not sure on this one) but, what should be realized is that these crops are still undergoing cross fertilization and selection, that is to say, still adapting to their unique environments. Terroir notwithstanding, clones, which for our purposes means grapevines, do not adapt, and until there is a radical change in the susceptibility to that little root louse, they never will, at least not the classic varieties.

So, the next time somebody tells you that it is just impossible produce a wine as fine as they do in Bordeaux or Mosel or even California, because those places have a unique 'terroir' you can tell them
'Be vewy qwiet! I'm hunting b_llsh_t.'

Friday, January 16, 2009

First Rule of Horseback Riding: Don't Lick the Saddle

While this may be an odd thing to admit on a wine blog site, most people will tell you that beverage consumption in the west was vastly improved with the introduction of something that had been known in the Far East for millenia, tea.
The English love tea. Wars have been fought over it. In 1773 a good deal of it was dumped into Boston Harbor. In 1973 another great deal of it was dumped into San Francisco harbor also, --well the cops were chasing me, it was dark! --Just kidding.

The habit of wearing of clothes was greatly improved when Armani discovered leather, not really just any leather but fine Italian leather, but as cave-man movies and historians of skin will both
testify, skins and furs have constituted apparel from time immemorial.

Well, what do these do improvements to Western Civilization have in common? They are based on
tannins. Tannins are what give tea its pleasant astringency and they are also what is useful in 'tanning leather', thus, it is actually the case that 'tanning' here refers to the use of tannic acid in the process and does not refer to an assemblage of cows in bikinis.

Tannins, (as mentioned in my previous post), also are an important component of wine and in this case, and unlike tea, their presence in wine can be directly traced to the woodier part of a plant. (At my age, I'm glad when it occurs anywhere.)

Tannins, (as in the case of Emporio jackets), as well as in wine, act as a preservative and they contribute a quality, interestingly enough in both cases, called 'suppleness'. (Also interestingly, when I went to the Armani site to price Emporio leather jackets, I got an 'unsupported browser', error-- even my computer can't afford them.)

The question is, why does this occur. Without going into a lengthy technical discussion on the subject, the simple answer is that tannins love proteins, they dance with them, they bind to them, they,-- complete them. When you drink either wine or tea (or chew on an Armani jacket), what occurs is that the tannic components bind with the proteins in your saliva. The result of this
is less viscosity to your saliva which we interpret as astringency. Viscosity is a quality that most people are familiar with in reference to motor oils but I can assure you, that most people have thirty or forty weight saliva
which is really not optimal either for winter driving, or for wine-tasting. In fact, the reason why plants produce tannin is for this very same quality. Pests usually penetrate into plants by biting and injecting saliva. Interestingly the tannins have the same effect on insect saliva as they do on human saliva. (The lesson to be learned here is perhaps that if an insect is spitting at you the best defense is a tea bag.)

Not to stray too far from the subject at hand, we have mentioned that younger tannins can be a bit harsh, a bit judgmental, and the reason for this is something called the law of averages. Have you noticed that whatever it is you might roll down a snow covered hill in the winter, whether it is a stick or a, package of Ding-Dongs, or a VW microbus, by the time it gets to the bottom, it has acquired a roundish shape, or at least the roundest shape of which it is capable. The same occurs with tannins in wine, they tend to aggregate in rounder and larger shapes over time, thus minimizing the sharp and protruding edges. This is not just a metaphor it is an actual chemical fact based on the shape of larger molecules. Gee! Who would have thought you could taste how round a molecule is but the fact is you can! The less biting rounded tannins are large round beach balls of molecules while the taste you interpret as sharp is just that, sharper, more angular in shape and smaller.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Case of the Heartfelt Sediments

Does wine really improve in the bottle? To a large extent this depends on how the wine was handled before it ever got to the bottle. Determining whether a wine is alive or dead, much like Schrodinger's famous cat, can often be a tricky undertaking. The brutal fact is that all wine needs to be murdered, but how slow or fast this is accomplished determines whether you have a wine that will improve with time or something that is already as immutable as a piece of static artwork exhibited under glass, which accordingly may be representatuve a variety of well codified stylistic characteristics, whether they be of museum quality, (a Botticelli or an Andy Warhol) or, something you might rather tape up on the refrigerator.

The winemaker goes to great deal of trouble to 'stabilize' his product and this process is always to some extent a Holbeinian Dance of Death. Living yeast is introduced to convert sugars to alcohol but then the yeast must be killed off. This can be accomplished by any number of means from natural attrition to the introduction of anti-organics like meta-bisulfites, or what is called cold-stabilization, (literally freezing the little buggers to death). The wine itself contains some naturally stabilizing elements like tannins and acids. In some cases additional tannins are introduced, this also by a variety of means; from exposure to woody components of the grape itself like the rachis or the seeds, or through storage in a receptacle that leeches them slowly over time like barrels, or quicker methods like oak wood chips. These tannins, when 'young', tend to be harsh, like fresh idealogues without the tempering of time and experience to round and soften them. In other words, when it comes to tannins you don't want them to present themselves in black in white like the sharp edged Sean Hannity or Joe Scarborough but in nuanced variation, more like a fuzzy, elbow patched avuncular Tom Friedman or Chris Matthews who can evince everything in shades of gray.

The unfortunate fact is that wines may be overstabilized; they can smother, in other words, be filtered, fined and saturated with SO2 to the point where they will never live to improve, (of course, neither will they get any worse).

The dangers of understabiliziation stem from the fact that you will get volatile components organizing chemical revolutions from the dregs of unemployed proteins, rabblerousers, unantipated outcomes, guillotined aromatics, foul and inflammatory finishes, and if the most radical elements are given sufficient breathing room, that bane of polite society; vinegar.

In other words, as in any healthy society, in the bottle there must be a large stable constituency but one that does not completely stultify or overpower the smaller creative elements of discontent and ferment that move things forward, so the wine improves.