Monthly Archives: October 2011

How is Wine Made?

Question from Roy: How is wine made? 

Reply: Hi, Roy. Thanks for writing! Your question has a, potentially, very long answer but I assume you want the short story.

For anyone who is intimidated by wine, you should know that making it is so simple it was discovered by accident. Making good wine can be quite another matter but someone, yea long ago, thought he put aside a pot of grape juice. Then, after a few days he noticed it bubbling and foaming. If he was brave enough to taste it, he found that it had a very warm, pleasant relaxing effect. So, wine was born and, as you know, goes back thousands and thousands of years. 

All you need to make wine is grape juice and yeast. The yeast is supplied, courtesy of Mother Nature. It’s like bacteria – it’s everywhere. 

The yeast feeds on the sugar in the juice setting off a chemical reaction called fermentation. The yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide gas (thus the foaming) and heat. When the yeast runs out of sugar it dies or goes dormant and you have a dry (not sweet) wine. If the yeast peters out or dies early the wine will be sweet because there’s sugar left over. Continue reading


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Today’s Wine Word: Botrytis

The mention of botrytis draws very different reactions, depending upon who you’re talking to. 

What is it? It’s rot. It belongs in this year’s harvest vocabulary because there’s lots of it around. 

In my last post I talked about the problems associated with rain and, of course, rot is one of them. Some varieties are more resistant than others: Thin-skinned and tight-clustered varieties are the most vulnerable. We tend to think that tough-skinned varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, will weather a storm quite nicely unless it just goes on and on (which it hasn’t).

However – a friend who grows Cabernet grower told me that she’s had to thin out botrytis in her vineyard so it doesn’t spread. Bummer!

So, there’s that word again. It’s nearly always a bad word, but it does have a place in the world of winemaking. I sent a quick email to Roger Harrison, of RA Harrison Family Cellars, to check with him on his outlook for this vintage. His reply? “I’m the only man in the valley who’s smiling.”

You see, Roger only makes late-harvest, Sauternes-style wine and for that you actually need botrytis! Say what?

Yup! Under the right conditions, it perforates the grapeskins and the grapes start to dehydrate, concentrating the sugar and flavor. And, believe it or not the botrytis, itself, gives the wine a distinctive honeyed character that, once experienced, is never forgotten. Continue reading

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Napa Valley Harvest Update

Such an “interesting” crush this year! Well, we don’t like interesting – we prefer things to be blissfully boring (as my husband pointed out, I’m acting like I’m a grower or winemaker this year – I’m not. But after upteen+ years of working for wineries and having friends who own vineyards and/or wineries I feel 100% invested in what happens).

Napa Valley is famous for blissfully boring weather. Warm, sunny days… cool, foggy nights… month after month of dry weather during the growing season… It works out really well! Not this year. 

We had a wet, rainy spring, even into June. Rain during flowering disrupted pollination, effectively thinning the crop. Never really had a summer, so a season that was already running late got even later. 

And then Mother Nature had the temerity to drop a bucket of rain on us the first week of October! As it turns out, it had a major impact on growers who still had their white varieties and their Pinot Noir out – yucky, rotten grapes. Those who hustled to get them in before the rain should have quite a good vintage. Probably lower in alcohol than normal, but that’s certainly better than rot! In fact many sommeliers see it as a real plus! Late ripening, thick skinned varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon came through quite nicely.   Continue reading

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Wine Appellations, AVAs, Places of Origin…

Market Watch had an interesting article indicating that Americans care very much where our wine is grown. I think that’s great news – we’re maturing as a wine-drinking country! And, I agree. When I’m shopping, especially for value wine, the appellation is one of the most important criteria in making my selection. You could pick out a variety you like from a ca-ca location and end with: ca-ca!

What’s not such great news is that the article went on to say: “Perhaps most troubling was the fact that despite broad interest in wine location from all sectors of the U.S. wine-consuming populace, when presented with two labels to compare side by side, most consumers were unable to determine the correct origin of the wine.”

Hmm… How can I help? Let me just cover the American laws quickly – most new-world wines have similar regulations. Happy to look at labels from around the world – let me know which ones you want.

So, below there’s a clean, easy to read label from a winery a few blocks from my house (they’re not a client). You see that there’s actually very little information on the front label, but the important stuff is there – the variety, place of origin and the brand.  Continue reading

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Do I Need to Let the Wine Breathe?

Question from James: Do I need to let the wine breathe before I drink it? It’s one of those things you hear all the time, but you’re not really sure what to do.  

Reply: Thanks for writing, James. Yes, this is a common question, and giving the wine some air is a great idea.

I’ve noticed that the wines that benefit the most from getting some air are young reds. They kind of resemble tight rose buds – they can be very tightly wound. When the bud is all closed up it doesn’t have much fragrance. But after it opens up, the lovely scent is released.

For a lot of people, letting the wine breathe is a matter of pulling the cork early (or unscrewing these days!). There’s not a lot of point in that. That skinny little bottle neck isn’t going to allow for much air exchange. So, once you’ve pulled that cork you need to go an extra step to get any good out of it.

There are a few different things you can do. The easiest thing to do is to pour it into a decanter or a pitcher an hour or so before you plan to serve it. If it’s a young wine you can splash it around quite a bit and it will thank you for it! 

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Is the Rain Bad for the Grapes?

Question from Mark: Is the rain bad for the grapes? 

Reply: In a word – yup! Rain is never good news when the grapes are ripe or nearly so. One of the things that makes Napa Valley such a great place for the vines is that we don’t, normally, see much rain after April through most of October. Our usual long, dry growing season of warm days and cool, foggy nights with perhaps a heat spike or two, to make things interesting, is just about perfect for wine grapes. 

But, this hasn’t been a normal year. The spring was quite cool and rainy, even into June and summer never, really, warmed up so harvest is late. 

And, now – RAIN! Oy, veh…

A little sprinkle doesn’t matter, just helps to settle the dust, but this week we’ve had honest-to-goodness rain. And with honest-to-goodness rain comes potential rot, mildew and dilution. Haven’t heard how many inches yet.

This is a bad combo – the rain coming so early on a harvest season that’s running late. It just puts more varieties at risk. October rain isn’t all that uncommon but, usually, by then most of the grapes are harvested leaving mostly rot-resistant varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah left to go. They have thick skins and loose cluster formation which helps quite a bit.  Continue reading

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