Winemakers are an enigma to us mere mortals who drink their product and wonder at the romance and genius that has gone into each drop. Knowing a winemaker is the grown up version of going to school with the child of someone who worked for Whittaker's, ...
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"Serious About Wine" - 5 new articles

  1. Five myths about winemakers debunked
  2. Feature Article: What’s missing from wine marketing? Honesty.
  3. Viktor & Rolf Rose Sauvage Champagne
  4. Countering Counterfeit Wines
  5. Paul Newman Enters The Wine Business
  6. More Recent Articles

Five myths about winemakers debunked

Winemakers are an enigma to us mere mortals who drink their product and wonder at the romance and genius that has gone into each drop.

Knowing a winemaker is the grown up version of going to school with the child of someone who worked for Whittaker’s, Tip Top or Griffins - and with it comes the same kinds of illusions of what their life must be like.

Despite all the glamour though, and as the following points illustrate, some myths about winemakers simply aren’t true.

1. Winemakers are wine snobs

While there are wines snobs in the general drinking public the rest of us are likely to give most things a go and the same can be said for winemakers.

Most winemakers would admit that while a seminal wine moment may have been on something a bit more highbrow, they probably cut their teeth on cask wine and Marque Vue just like the rest of us.

In fact a common complaint of winemakers is while they love wine, they rarely receive it as a gift, so scared are people of not quite measuring up with their gift of choice.

Of course winemaker palates are highly tuned, but remember - it’s their job to know a bit about flavour, style and structure so don’t think for a minute most of them are above swigging straight from a bottle of pinot while waiting at the bus stop.

2. Winemakers are rich

While wine is a glamour industry, it certainly doesn?t have glamour pay rates.

The average assistant winemaker’s salary is very modest (certainly not Bollinger every night material) and while some winemakers, when they get to the top of the food chain, will do pretty well for themselves most of the ones you meet will not be millionaires.

3. Living on a vineyard must be so peaceful

Where to begin on dispelling this myth…?

During spring wind machines cranking up at ungodly times in the night sound like your bedroom is located on the wing of a 747 aircraft.

If the vineyard doesn’t have wind machines you will instead be likely to have a helicopter hovering over your house like an alien spaceship set to suck you from your bed.

Come late summer and early autumn there’s bird scaring to contend with, which generally involves a combination of men racing around the vineyard on 4×4s shooting guns and automatic gas guns producing frighteningly loud explosive noises every minute.

Add to that all the usual agricultural noises of dogs, tractors and other heavy machinery spraying the vines every few weeks, and you’ll soon discover you may need to head back to the city for a rest.

4. Winemaking simply involves picking grapes, waiting, then tasting the fruits of your labour

As one winemaker has said the most enduring piece of advice she picked up upon entering the industry was: “Winemaking is 99 per cent cleaning”.

That’s about the sum of it when you think about all the pipes, pumps, plungers, tanks, vats, barrels, lab equipment and so on to clean.

Perhaps a pair of rubber gloves would be an appropriate gift for the winemaker in your life this Christmas?

5. It’s all cellar tours, wine show dinners, acceptance speeches and fancy marketing

While those glossy marketing photos in magazines would have us believe winemakers spend all day holding glasses of wine up to the light with stupid expressions on their faces, the reality of life as a winemaker is a little more grounded.

In fact, winemakers could be compared to elite athletes to a certain degree (though not quite as toned) in that the opportunities they get to perform in public and receive crowd adulation probably more accurately measures 5 per cent of the time, while the other 95 per cent is just hard graft and monotony (see point 4 above).

By Lesley Reidy. Lesley is an owner of online wine retailer



Feature Article: What’s missing from wine marketing? Honesty.

If you believe the old marketing cliche that wine is “made in the vineyard,” you might imagine that the grapes practically bypass the winery on their way to the bottle. Why, then, do so many wineries offer tours to show off their fermentation tanks and barrel rooms? And why are high-profile winemaking consultants in so much demand?

The truth is that wine quality starts in the vineyard, but there’s plenty that happens in the winery. A good winemaker earns his or her paycheck. Winemaking requires constant attention to detail. No matter how good the grapes, it’s very easy for the wine to go south if winemakers slip up or don’t know what they’re doing. And in a challenging vintage, the really talented winemakers stand out.

I started thinking about this after reading a column in the October issue of Wines & Vines, an industry publication, which argued that wineries may be ill-advised when they put so much emphasis on “natural” winemaking in their marketing. Consumers (and some wine writers) are often blissfully ignorant about some of the finer points of winemaking, but when they find out the truth, it fuels further suspicion. What dark secrets are the wineries hiding? For example, a couple of years ago, the Economist, a British magazine, discovered that (gasp!) California vintners often add water to super-ripe grapes before fermentation. The magazine hyped it as the industry’s “dirty little secret.”

I have to laugh sometimes when I page through consumer publications about wine. Ads depict vineyards in gauzy soft focus, perhaps with an eagle soaring overhead or a beautiful villa on a hilltop. Words like “simplicity,” “distinction” or “inspiration” are emphasized. Of course, the wine companies that can afford to buy those ads are almost always the big companies, which can also afford - and often make regular use of - all the latest technology.

You get a truer picture when you look at the ads in a magazine like Wines & Vines. The October issue included ads for alternatives to oak barrels, such as oak staves and chips; products that are added to wine to clarify or stabilize it; and all manner of sophisticated refrigeration and filtration equipment.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not making a blanket condemnation of the use of technology in winemaking. The development of things like temperature-controlled fermentation tanks and gentler equipment for tasks such as de-stemming grapes and moving wine from one container to another has contributed to the huge improvement we’ve seen in wine at all price levels in recent decades.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about some of the winemaking techniques that are common these days but that many consumers don’t know much about, like adding tannins or acid and reducing alcohol. I didn’t necessarily mean it as an exposé or an indictment. None of the techniques is harmful to consumers. But I did pose the question of whether winemaker intervention can become excessive. Lots of winemakers add acid to achieve balance; it’s a fact of life in sunny California. But what about alcohol reduction or the addition of powdered tannins? Is there a point at which wine becomes too much of a “manufactured” beverage?

I think this is something for consumers to decide. The vast majority of wine drinkers don’t care whether the bottle they buy is from Australia or California or France or Inner Mongolia, so long as the wine tastes good. Most of them also probably wouldn’t care if a winemaker uses reverse osmosis to keep alcohol in check. They buy on brand or price and simply want a sound bottle. But they should have the information. If they don’t want to pay attention, that’s their business.

It’s not just mass-produced wines that are subjected to these winemaking tools. Some limited-production, extremely expensive wines are tweaked and sculpted, too. Sometimes this tweaking is used to remedy a problem or flaw that develops in the wine. But techniques such as alcohol reduction are often built into the regular “recipe” for a high-end wine. These are the same wines that are promoted as reflecting the unique qualities of the vineyards where they originated.

I would argue that the resulting wine often reflects the winemaker’s hand more than the vineyard. That may be OK with some consumers - hey, they like how it tastes - but it’s dishonest to say the wine reflects the French concept of terroir and is a reflection of a specific place. It’s a gussied-up wine that lacks soul.

The issue of what’s being added to your wine is likely to become a topic of broader discussion as the federal government moves toward more specific labeling requirements. Some consumer groups are pressing for a fairly comprehensive listing of ingredients. In addition to grapes, yeast (which transforms the sugar in the grapes into alcohol) and the already-listed sulfites, the lineup might have to include items like wood tannins and grape extract used for color.

In the coming months, the US government is expected to require the listing of potential allergens that are used in production of the wine, even if none of the allergen remains. Examples include eggs (egg whites are used for fining, a process to clarify and remove excessive tannins) or fish (another fining agent, isinglass, is derived from sturgeon). The industry has opposed such requirements, saying that they’ll mislead consumers.

Many winemakers are very forthright about their practices when you ask them. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, for example, has always been upfront about whether he’s used certain tools, even when it’s a technique he’s since rejected. In my experience, it’s mostly the marketing and public relations people who want to sidestep the issue and shield the winemakers from nosy journalists. They’re like the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men,” adopting the line of “you can’t handle the truth!”

But I’ll give consumers some credit: They can handle the truth, if it’s available. It’s time to stop treating winemaking like some dirty little secret.

By Laurie Daniel.


Viktor & Rolf Rose Sauvage Champagne

Fashion designers are lured to Champagne like moths to a flame. Quirky Dutch fashion designers Viktor & Rolf have lent their unique design sense to Rémy Cointreau’s Champagne house Piper Heidsieck to create Viktor & Rolf Rosé Sauvage.

The designing pair are famous for their upside down designs and so they have turned the traditional Champagne bottle on its ear. The back is the front and the bottom of the bottle is the top. The related flutes and buckets are also upside down. As near as I can tell, the bottle still opens in the traditional way. It sells for £50 at Harvey Nichols.



Countering Counterfeit Wines

Many citizens recycle their empty wine bottles in order to be green. But certain shady citizens and sellers recycle because they want that other kind of green that ultra-pricey bottles can bring, industry insiders say. Empty bottles of pricey vintages, obtainable from restaurants specializing in great wine, can make their way to the underbelly of the wine trade, where counterfeiters refill one or more of the bottles, their prestigious labels intact, with inexpensive wine. The bottles would then be re-corked and their necks wrapped in new foil. Voilà — the bottles are ready for resale.

The world is suddenly awash in newly minted, cash-heavy wine collectors. As they vie with European and American collectors for trophy wines, prices have soared to levels unimaginable just a few years ago. Château Lafite Rothschild 1982, for example, which was originally released for under $500 a case, sold for $28,800 a case two weeks ago at Christie’s. Last month at a Zachys auction, two cases of Château d’Yquem 1945, the legendary sweet wine, fetched an astonishing $178,500 each. No wonder such wines have become fodder for fakers, who have one leg up on art counterfeiters. While a prospective buyer can examine art closely, the best test of the authenticity of wine is in the drinking — and that can come only after purchase.

How much fake wine is out there? It’s impossible to say, since nobody knows how many skillful examples are taken for authentic. One certainty: It’s a relatively small circle of stellar wines that are the target of counterfeiters, what John Kapon, the president of Acker Merrall & Condit, a leading retailer and auctioneer, calls “an A+++ problem.” Happily, that rules out the less stellar-rated wines most of us drink. But it does make for a highend cat-and-mouse game. Earlier this year, just prior to an auction in Los Angeles, Christie’s took the unusual step of withdrawing a featured lot of six magnums of Château Le Pin 1982 (estimated between $60,000 and $100,000), a rare St. Emilion, after stripping of the neck capsules revealed corks of questionable authenticity. “We have now installed a system in which at least two people must inspect any consignment worth over $10,000,” the wine sales director for the Americas at Christie’s, Richard Brierley, said. Mr. Kapon reports that he recently removed the foil on a purported bottle of a great Burgundy, La Tache 1971, only to discover that the cork was branded 1970. That unremarkable vintage is worth only a quarter of the price of the 1971.

An unpublicized effect of the fake wine problem is that the top Bordeaux châteaus including Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Haut Brion, have cut back their long-standing service of “reconditioning” old bottles to extend their lives. That process involves removing the old corks, tasting each bottle, and “topping off” those that show the proper character with wine from a “donor” bottle. New corks stating that the bottle has been reconditioned at the château are then inserted.

But now the properties are wary of giving the gift of provenance to possibly fake wine through reconditioning. The owner of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Baron Eric de Rothschild, said, “At one time, we sent our maitre de chai [cellarmaster] to the U.S., Britain, and Germany to re-cork our wines. We did thousands of bottles. No more.”

One prestigious winery continues to conduct traveling reconditioning clinics: Penfolds of Australia. Earlier this month, a stream of collectors lugged their bottles of Penfolds wine to a clinic held at the Westin Hotel. One of those collectors was a former Time Warner executive, Michael Pepe, who arrived with five bottles of Penfolds’ greatest wine, Grange, from the 1985 vintage. “I always choose the bottle that looks like it’s in the worst condition to open and taste first,” Penfolds’ head winemaker, Peter Gago, said. Once uncorked and tasted, the “worst” of Mr. Pepe’s Granges was declared to be just fine. The bottle was “refreshed” with a bit of a younger Grange, and resealed with a cork bearing the clinic’s date. On the back of the bottle went a tracking label attesting to its reconditioning.

Wines brought to the clinic that are drinkable but don’t measure up to Mr. Gago’s taste test are resealed with a blank cork. “If there’s an ulterior motive to what we’re doing,” Mr. Gago said, “it’s to take faulty bottles out of the system.” With auction prices having exceeded $1,100 a bottle for top vintages of Grange, it has been a target of counterfeiters. Would Mr. Gago consider giving up the re-corking clinics? “Absolutely not,” he answered. “If anything, they are an excellent vehicle to detect fakes.”

At least now, though, wine fakery is being countered by new technology. At Château d’Yquem, a tiny serial number is embossed on each bottle of new wine. So-called “smart corks,” embedded with a chip, are being tested by the Italian winery Arnaldo Caprai. The giant Australian winery, Hardys, has imprinted the neck label of its top wine, Eileen Hardy Shiraz, with vineyard DNA.

The simplest DNA test of all, however, is provided by Ann Colgin, owner of an eponymous Napa Valley boutique winery whose wines have sold at auction for more than $700 a bottle. Upon request, Ms. Colgin will imprint any bottle of her wine with a wet lipstick kiss.

By Peter Hellman.


Paul Newman Enters The Wine Business

Following in the footsteps of Martha Stewart, Paul Newman becomes the latest celeb with a wine label. Newman’s Own 2006 California Chardonnay and 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignon will be released next March. In the press release, Paul Newman notes that he originally bottles his first product, his salad dressing in old wine bottles with parchment labels, so the brand is coming full circle. Since that beginning 25 years ago Newman’s Own has grown into a major brand offering pasta sauce, lemonade, salsa and more. Money generated from the products has allowed the Newman’s Own Foundation to donate more than 200 million dollars to thousands of charities.

Newman worked with Rebel Wine Company, which also makes True Earth organic wine which we have previously profiled. The Newman wines are made from grapes sourced from coastal vineyards and are expected to sell for $16. An article in AdAge mirrors a question I had which is whether $16 is too high a price for wine’s that have a celebrity name but not a lot of celebrity input. The True Earth wines sells for around $13 and Martha Stewart’s wine is expected to sell for around $15. Newman’s products generally seem to be a little pricer than others and consumers have been willing to pay a little more knowing that it goes to a good cause. Wine lovers, however, tend to purchase based on a complex variety of factors (including terroir and the recommendations of wine bloggers and critics) and might be a tougher nut to crack as they expect a lot from a bottle that veers toward the $20 bottle range.

By Deidre Woollard.


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