Yeah yeah, I know. “You’re a beer guy, Ben. Why write about wine?” I’ll tell you why: because a girlfriend (now former girlfriend) told me I couldn’t. It was February 2010. I was having dinner with her and some friends. The three of them were trying some new wines, and I casually mentioned that perhaps I’d write a book about wine someday. My girlfriend immediately exclaimed, “You can’t write about wine!” Yessir, that’s what relationships are all about: supporting one another. I can’t figure out why we broke up.
Within 48 hours of my ex-girlfriend’s aspersion I started writing this book. One of the basic truths of the Universe is that if you tell me that I can’t do something, I will do it. Or die trying. If you’re reading this, it means that I didn’t die before it was finished. Lucky you. I’m sure my former girlfriend is ecstatic about it too.
My first book ever was Ben’s Big Book O’ Brewing Beer, which I wrote mostly in 1995 and self-published in 1997 after I got my first computer. It focused mainly on the making of beer. Since I am not an avid winemaker, this book will have to talk about more than just the making of wine if I want it to be more than two pages long. Hence I will include many aspects of wine, including the era of my life in which I made wine at home until the CDC ordered me to stop. I learned a lot about wine as I did research for this book. The World Wide Web is a wonderful thing. You can know zero about something, and after a few Google searches you can become a pseudo-expert. Thus college degrees have become meaningless as far as I’m concerned. You can learn just as much from Web pages as you can from college textbooks and boring lectures. And the Web is much, much cheaper. I am sure that I could earn a law degree from all the information available on the Web, but of course no one in the legal field would respect me because I didn’t spend $100,000 at Harvard. Of course, I did spend $100,000 on my ex-wife, and that never made her respect me.
So sit back with a glass or bottle of your favorite wine and experience the very limited and often erroneous information I have to offer. Sure, you might not learn anything, but you will get the great feeling of knowing that you’re much smarter than I am.
Oh, and if you happen to be dating me at this time, I apologize in advance for the disappointment you are about to suffer. (This time I’m referring to my writing, not my lovemaking.)
MY HISTORY WITH WINE
On Teacher’s Day, a kindergarten teacher was receiving gifts from her pupils. The florist’s son handed her a gift. She shook it, held it over her head, and said, “I bet I know what it is ... some flowers.” The boy said, “That's right!” The next pupil was the candy store owner’s daughter. The teacher held her gift overhead, shook it, and said, “I bet I can guess what it is ... a box of candy.” The girl exclaimed, “That's right!” The next gift was from the liquor store owner’s son. The teacher held it over her head but it was leaking. She touched a drop of the leakage with her finger and tasted it. “Is it wine?” she asked. “No,” the boy responded. The teacher touched another drop of the leakage to her tongue. “Is it champagne?” she asked. “No,” the boy answered. The teacher then said, “I give up. What is it?" The boy replied, “A puppy!”
Being Jewish, my first experiences with wine involved taking sips of it at Seders. The wine of choice was Manischewitz, which was basically a mixture of Welch’s grape juice and Robitussin. I loved it. It was sweet and yummy, and I still enjoy it to this day, which has earned me the derision of wine fanciers everywhere. I don’t know why they pick on me for my taste in wine when I have so many other flaws that are much bigger.
Another thing wine was used for at Passover was to make charoses (kha-ro-sis), which consists of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon. We could only eat limited amounts of it because too much would have made us drunk and given us charoses of the liver.
In high school my friends and I drank mostly beer, but occasionally someone would get hold of Riunite Lambrusco, which, although not as good as Manischewitz, would do in a pinch. We felt that we were drinking something classy because the name sounded Italian. That’s why I felt that I had class whenever I ate Ragú.
In college the drink of choice was again beer, but occasionally a sorority girl would invite me to a mixer where they had all sorts of booze, and I did try a few sips of wine, but I can’t remember what kind it was. All I can remember is that I didn’t like it. I also remember never getting laid afterward, so why I attended those things I’ll never know.
During my junior year I somehow got to talking with a friend’s dad who was visiting. He told me that he made a Japanese-style wine called saké. His description of the process fascinated me, and I saw this as an opportunity to manufacture cheap booze. Unbeknownst to me, former president Jimmy Carter had legalized homebrewing just four years earlier. Not that the legality of making wine would have mattered to me, as evidenced by all the pot, coke, shrooms and acid I took. I don’t know why those drugs are illegal. I mean, it’s not like thay efect yor brane. Anyway, you can say what you want about Jimmy Carter. You can proclaim that he was an incompetent dolt. Sure, he canceled military pay raises during a time of high inflation and gave amnesty to draft dodgers. But he made homebrewing legal, and that very act alone made him a much better president than George W. Bush and Barack Obama combined.
Anyway, a few days after talking to my friend’s dad I procured a used pickle bucket from a local sub shop, then went to a grocery store and bought yeast, sugar, oranges, rice and raisins. I mixed all the ingredients with water in the bucket, and within a few weeks I had saké. No, that’s not true. What I had was vinegar. You see, knowing nothing of sanitation or microbes (or personal hygiene for that matter), I had neglected to wash the bucket, which was surely infested with Acetobacter from the pickle brine. After tasting the horrible result of my experiment gone wrong, I decided never to try that nonsense again.
Hah! Fooled you! If there’s one thing you can say about me, it’s that I’m hard-headed. (Of course, you can also say that I’m clueless, uncouth, rude and obnoxious, but let’s not stray from the point.) I tried it again. And again. Each time the result came out a little better, which is to say a little less repulsive.
In late summer 1983 I entered my senior year. I moved into my fraternity house, where despite drinking lots of beer on weekends and occasional vodka on weekday mornings when sororities would wake us up at 6 a.m. for screwdrivers and donuts, I continued to produce my version of saké. My roommates and I enjoyed it (which isn’t saying much because we also enjoyed Budweiser). Eventually I figured out that the alcohol was produced by sugar, yeast and water, and anything else was just flavoring. Since I had to strain the wine with a cheesecloth to remove the raisins, rice and oranges, I decided to simplify the process by forgoing those ingredients and instead using Welch’s grape juice concentrate. Well, you can imagine the improvement it made. I went from making nasty, putrid, undrinkable swill to making nasty, putrid, semi-drinkable swill.
Note that neither type of wine involved the crushing of grapes. All I did was mix stuff in a bucket. I have never made wine by crushing grapes, so some would argue that I have never made wine. I don’t see why they nitpick like that when many of them will tell everyone that they “built a house” when in reality all they did was pay someone else to build it.
One time when I was returning to the frat house from class, several of the brothers were sitting on the front steps, each with a bottle wrapped in a brown bag. They were drinking Mad Dog 20/20, which is to wine what malt liquor is to beer. They were praising its potency. I went up to my room, brought down a bottle of my hooch, and swapped with one of the guys. I took a sip and it tasted like grape juice. He took a swig and gagged. He immediately grabbed his bottle from me and took a gulp to chase my rocket fuel. I’m happy to say that he eventually recovered. Except now he’s blind.
I continued to make wine after moving to Maryland in 1984. I would store it in used vodka bottles. Unbeknownst to me it was still fermenting after I screwed the bottle tops on, so sometimes when I came home there’d be glass shards on the floor and purple splatters on the walls. My first reaction was that Barney the dinosaur had been hit by the Mafia. That idea was silly of course, because Barney wouldn’t be invented for another three years.
Although I had some limited success, I eventually stopped making wine because I got fed up with people’s complaints and lawsuits. The last batch I made was in 2000. Coincidentally, that’s the same year that I made the bright decision to get married. I should have stuck with the wine.
As for sampling commercial wines, the only experience I have is a handful of wine festivals and parties, plus one time I visited a bunch of wineries along Napa and Sonoma Valleys on a friend’s motorcycle. I found it strange that some wineries gave out samples for free while others charged. I asked a guy at one place why he charged for samples. He said, “It keeps people like you away.”
VITICULTURE AND ENOLOGY
All wines are made from the fruit of the common grape vine, Vitis vinifera. There are thousands of varieties of grape, but only a few hundred are used to make wine, and only about a dozen are commercially popular and known to consumers. Grapes are the largest fruit crop on earth. Mangoes are the second largest. Prior to 2003 bananas were the second largest fruit crop. (Could this be where the term “second banana” came from? Do you give a shit?)
While the generally accepted word for grape farming is viticulture, raising wine grapes has so many aspects that differ from either table grape or raisin farming that some people refer to wine grape farming as viniculture. There are other pursuits that end in culture. For example, horticulture, as in, You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.
What is enology? The practice of making wine. Therefore a wine lover would be an enophile. Which sounds filthy. “Careful, that guy’s an enophile.”
We’ll discuss viticulture first, and enology later, which is only right since that’s the order in which they’re done. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get all the information you need in life in the correct order? For example, someone wants to marry you, so you get information about weddings, caterers, dresses, cakes, etc. Then, after the wedding, you find out that your spouse is a cheating bastard or a money-grubbing whore. Why couldn’t life give you that information before the wedding?
The grapevine prefers temperate climates, with warm, dry summers and mild winters. Winters of sustained cold kill grapevines. High humidity promotes vine disease. Tropical temperatures disrupt the normal vine cycle of winter dormancy. Vines are physiologically active only when the temperature is above 50°F. Degree days are the yearly total of the average daily temperatures above this point. (For example, 3 days at 51°F would equal 153 degree days.) Grapes need at least 1700 degree days to reach maturity.
Climate is so important that in 1935 researchers from the University of California at Davis began to investigate wine quality and compare climatological history. They classified each growing area of California as a region, based on heat summation data. Region I is coolest at less than 2500 degree days; Region II has from 2501 to 3000; Region III, 3001 to 3500; Region IV, 3501 to 4000; and Region V, over 4000. This information helps growers select appropriate varieties to match their climate, since grape varieties differ in the amount of heat required to mature their fruit.
Grapes are successfully grown in Europe, the Balkans, Asia, the Mediterranean, South Africa, South Australia, New Zealand, most of North America, and a good portion of South America.
There are two ways that grapevines are usually produced. The first is rooted cuttings. Cuttings are taken from a parent vine and placed in a cutting bed where they can grow a root structure. While this is a cheap production method, it leaves the new vines vulnerable to diseases. The second method is cultivated grapevines. Cuttings are grafted onto rootstock that has been specially cultivated to combine growth vigor with resistance to disease. Some more steps occur that I won’t bore you with, but it is interesting to point out that it can take anywhere from two to five years before a new grapevine produces fruit.
For example, seeds from a Chardonnay grape would not necessarily grow into Chardonnay vines. Why not? I have no effing idea. By the way, grape seeds are called pips. Good thing too, because otherwise we would have had a musical group called Gladys Knight and the Grape Seeds.
Grapevines, like other crops, are vulnerable to diseases, drought and pests. New vineyards are particularly susceptible to destruction from gophers and moles. Deer, raccoons, possums and other mammals can consume a lot of fruit, damage more, and even harm the vines, especially young plants and shoots. Birds cause the most crop loss and fruit damage. So the next time you’re sipping wine, remember that the grapes that made it were touched by all sorts of wild animals and bugs, plus they were covered with mold, bacteria and pesticides. Salud!
Better quality fruit will grow on vines that are pruned back to distribute the bearing wood evenly over the vine. So, in the winter months, when the leaves have dropped and the vines are empty of sap, they are pruned back almost to the main stem. Pruning is an art of delicate balance: too much will cause small, uneconomical crops; too little will cause over-cropping and low-quality fruit. Pruning also facilitates cultivation, disease control and harvesting. It is a skill that requires experience and judgment and cannot be done by machine. There is a lot more to know about pruning, but don’t expect me to explain it. That’s what Wikipedia is for.
During summertime the grapes sweeten as sugar is transported from the leaves into the fruit. Fruit maturity is not, however, a simple matter of sugar content. Acid content is every bit as important to quality, flavor and aroma. Grapes will respire acid (especially malic acid) as they ripen and this loss is greater in warmer vineyard locations. Plus, as the grapes swell from increased water content, the acids get diluted. Additionally, flavor compounds and tannins build. The grapes are tasted frequently to determine when they are ripe.
The grapes usually ripen in late August or September, depending on the seasonal climate conditions. The grape grower or winemaker tastes the grapes, chews the seeds, and measures the sugar content to decide when to harvest the grapes. Picking goes on for 2-3 weeks. When it’s over, there is still work to be done. Soil may be plowed back up around the vine bases where necessary for protection from freezing. Cover crops may be planted between rows to help prevent erosion. Land scheduled for planting the following spring may be deep-plowed.
All this work is done by vineyard employees, preferably illegal immigrants in order to keep costs down. I support this practice. Too many Americans are overpaid, underworked, spoiled crybabies. No matter how little work they do, they think that they are entitled to more pay, and their high wages are straining businesses. For example, in 2008, when the Big Three automakers (General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler and Ford) were going bankrupt, the average UAW employee cost them more than $70 per hour in current and future benefits. Meanwhile the typical “undocumented worker” will do just about any job for $7 an hour, without health insurance or retirement benefits. This is why so many jobs go to illegal immigrants, and why most Americans don’t want them here. I say that we need more illegal immigrants. Then maybe we’ll be able to get our homes repaired and painted for less than the price of a kidney.
All right, on to enology. The harvested grapes are destemmed (the stems have a lot of undesirable tannin) and crushed. You know how you see old pictures of people stomping grapes barefoot? Would you believe that this is still practiced today? Not at every winery, but still, with all the feats (har!) of engineering that enable us to do brain surgery and send people to the Moon, you’d think that each winery could use a simple mechanical crusher instead of giving us athlete’s mouth.
Since wine gets its color mainly from the grape skins, dark (red or black) grapes are used for red wines and white grapes are used for white wines, although pink or white wine can be made from dark grapes by separating the juice from the skins.
After crushing, the juice, called must, is left to ferment (with or without the skins depending on type of wine). Grapes normally have yeast on the skins, but since natural yeast can give off-flavors or fail to ferment enough of the sugar to produce a wine that isn’t too sweet, cultured yeast is usually added.
After initial fermentation, which lasts a week or two, the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in either stainless steel tanks or oak barrels. Specific strains of bacteria are sometimes added in order to convert malic acid into the milder lactic acid (this is called malolactic fermentation). Later on the temperature might be dropped to near freezing for a week or two in order to reduce tartrate crystals (KC4H5O6). These crystals look like grains of clear sand, and are also known as "wine crystals" or "wine diamonds". The chilling process, called cold stabilization, will cause the crystals to separate from the wine and stick to the sides of the holding vessel. Another possible procedure is heat stabilization, where unstable proteins are removed by adsorption onto a type of clay called bentonite. Vintners also run laboratory tests for gravity, sugar content, pH, acidity, sulfur, and other things. And I thought I was anal-retentive.
Sugar is the main solid in wine, and is by far the greatest determinant of gravity. However, since other dissolved substances contribute to gravity, sugar content and gravity do not always have a linear relationship. Hence there are separate tools to measure each.
The gravity, or density, of a liquid is measured with a hydrometer. It looks like a thermometer. It floats in liquid, and you get the density by looking at the mark at the liquid surface. The lower the density, the more the hydrometer sinks because it has a higher density relative to the liquid. In this sense people are like hydrometers: muscular people sink more than fat people because muscle is denser than water. Whenever I jump into my community pool, I sink like a stone because I’m dense.
Sugar content is determined by a refractometer, which measures the degree to which light passing through the sample is bent. Refraction is what makes a pencil look bent when dipped in a glass of water. If you were to stick a pencil in a series of glasses holding increasingly concentrated sugar water, you would see that the pencil apparently bends to a greater degree as the sugar content rises. A refractometer works on the same principle. A refractometer costs a lot more than a hydrometer. Guess which one I use.
Some wine is aged in oak barrels. As it ages it might be pumped from one barrel to another in order to leave the sediment behind. After a certain number of months the wine is bottled. Some bottles are sealed with corks, others with screw caps. Contrary to popular belief, corked wine is not necessarily any better than capped wine. Most expensive corked wine is acidic and puckering and bad, while Mansichewitz is capped. I rest my case.
Different batches of wine can be mixed before bottling in order to achieve the desired taste. Also, sugar can be added to sweeten. Sulfites (often potassium metabisulfite) can be added to stop fermentation or kill unwanted microbes. Fining agents are used to remove tannins, reduce astringency and remove microscopic particles that could cloud the wine. Sulfur dioxide and potassium sorbate are often added as stabilizers. Many wines are filtered. All this seems like cheating to me. I do not add anything to my beers or filter them; I bottle or keg them as is. Of course, they suck, so maybe I should stop being such a stubborn old fool.
TYPES OF WINE
Until I started writing this book I knew nothing about the different types of wine. All I knew was that whenever we went out, my former girlfriend would order Chardonnay, or “shard” as she called it. I once commented on how “shard” sounds like “shart”, and she looked at me as though I had just hocked a loogie on her shoes.
I spared no expense in researching the different types of wine: I typed “wine varieties” into Google.
Many wine varieties are named after the type of grape used to make them. For example, Chardonnay is made with Chardonnay grapes. Pinot Noir is made with Pinot Noir grapes. Manischewitz is made with Manischewitz grapes. Some types of wine are named for special processes used to make them, or the region where the grapes were grown. Here are brief descriptions of many types of wine.
Aligoté is an unimpressive white wine made from Aligoté grapes.
Barbera is a red wine that is similar to Merlot.
Blush is a relatively sweet pink wine.
Burgundy is wine made in the Burgundy region in eastern France. The most famous ones are red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes or white wines made from Chardonnay grapes.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied, tannic red wine that might have vanilla notes from aging in oak barrels.
Carignane is a dry, low-quality red wine.
Chardonnay is a popular white wine made from Chardonnay grapes. Many higher priced Chardonnays have vanilla overtones from being fermented and/or aged in oak barrels.
Chenin Blanc (sometimes called Pineau de la Loire) is a fragrant, acidic white wine. It tends to age very well.
Colombard is a fresh, acidic white wine.
Dandelion wine is made with boiled dandelion flowers, as well as fruits such as oranges, lemons and/or raisins, but not grapes because it’s usually made at home by people who don’t have a wine press. I included this wine in the list only because I once made some. It was horrible. Just horrible.
Folle Blanche is a tart, thin white wine.
Fortified wine is wine to which a distilled beverage (usually brandy) has been added. When added to wine before fermentation is complete, the alcohol kills the yeast, resulting in a wine that’s sweeter and stronger, normally containing about 20% ABV.
Gewurztraminer is a floral, fruity white wine.
Grenache is a fruity, full-flavored red wine that is light in color and is best consumed young.
Grüner Veltliner is a bright, distinctive, spicy white wine.
Ice wine (or eiswein in German) is a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The sugars and other dissolved solids become more concentrated.
Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine.
Malbec is a red wine that can vary greatly in flavor.
Malvasia is a white wine with an aroma of pears and spice and a fresh fruity flavor. It does not age well. (Of course, neither do I.)
Marsanne is a medium dry, full-bodied white wine.
Merlot is an easy drinking red wine.
Muller-Thurgau is a dry white wine.
Muscadine is wine made from Muscadine grapes. Typically sugar is added to sweeten it; however, one large variety of Muscadine grape, called a scuppernong, which is native to the southeastern U.S., is used to make dry wine. The oldest cultivated grapevine in the world is reputed to be the scuppernong “Mother Vine” growing on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. It’s more than 400 years old. That’s almost as old as Abe Vigoda.
Muscat is a fruity white wine.
Pinot Blanc, the “poor man’s Chardonnay”, is a light, dry white wine that should be consumed young before the fruit flavors diminish.
Pinot Grigio is a dry, acidic white wine.
Pinot Noir is a fruity, delicate, fresh red wine.
Port is a Portuguese style of fortified wine. It is sweet and red.
Riesling is a light white wine (much lighter than Chardonnay). The aroma generally includes fresh apple.
Rioja, named after the La Rioja region of Spain, is made from a blend of grapes and can be white, pink or red. It is aged in oak.
Rosé is pink.
Sangiovese is a medium-bodied, fruity red wine.
Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine with an herbal character.
Scheurebe is a crisp, fruity German white wine.
Semillon is a rich, aromatic white wine with a fig-like taste.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez, Spain. “Sherry” is an anglicanization of Jerez.
Shiraz (also called Syrah) is a fruity, spicy red wine.
Sparkling wine is carbonated. A lot of people refer to it as champagne, but, technically, champagne is sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France.
Table wine is a normal, everyday, pedestrian wine that is neither fortified nor sparkling.
White Zinfandel is a somewhat sweet blush made from the juice of Zinfandel grapes with shortened contact time with the skins, which produces a wine that is lighter in both color and flavor.
Zinfandel is a zesty, fruity, spicy red wine.
For the third night in a row a woman declined to have sex with her husband because, she claimed, she had a headache. He got up and went to the bathroom. Minutes later he came back with white powder on his member. “What's that white stuff?” she asked. He replied, “Powdered aspirin. You can take it orally or as a suppository.”
Some people get headaches after drinking red wine. This is often attributed to the sulfites (potassium metabisulfite, sulfur dioxide, etc) that are added during the winemaking process. If sulfites were the culprit, then people would get headaches from lunch meat, sausage and cheese, all of which contain sulfites. Furthermore, white wines generally have even more sulfites than red wines have, yet it’s mainly the red wines that cause headaches. It is time to stop blaming sulfites. Sulfites are the Jews of the wine world. We Jews are always getting blamed for things that are not our fault. The Romans killed Jesus, but the world blames the Jews. The Arabs in the Middle East have been a bunch of warring, unhygienic, illiterate camel humpers for well over a thousand years, but they blame their problems on Israel, which didn’t exist until 1948. All the women I ever dated were sexually unsatisfied, and they blamed me.
It is true that a small percentage of the population (much less than 1%) is allergic to sulfites, but an allergic reaction would cause more serious problems than headaches, and besides, a lot more than 1% of people get headaches from wine.
So what causes wine headaches? It’s one of those mysteries of life, like how Donald Trump ever got to be anything more than a port-o-potty janitor.
We can look at the problem logically and suppose that since it’s mostly relegated to red wine, the offending substance comes from the grape skins, since the skins are left in contact with the must for much longer in the making of red wine than white wine. What do the skins contain? For one thing, tannins. Do tannins cause headaches? If they did, then tea, apple juice, coffee, smoked foods, nuts and chocolate would too. What else do grape skins contain? Pigments called anthocyanins. But so do blueberries, purple cabbage, beets, cherries and raspberries. So I don’t see how grape skins could cause headaches, unless they contained little images of Hugh Grant.
The culprits are chemicals called congeners such as aldehydes, acids, fusel oil, esters and sulfur compounds that are formed during fermentation. They are flavorful but toxic. Red wine contains more congeners than white wine does, so it’s more interesting but makes you sick, like Kanye West.
Okay, now that we know a little bit about wine, we can taste some. (As if we couldn’t before.) Wine tastings have always seemed a little snobbish to me. On the few occasions I drink wine I prefer to just enjoy the buzz, but I can understand tasting wine since I frequently taste beer. However, I do not pontificate about the beer’s bouquet or “legs” or other characteristics. Wine connoisseurs like to make smug statements such as, “This impudent little rascal has a complex aroma of fruit, butter, leather and Spam. The flavor is rather acidic and reminiscent of herbs, mushrooms, vanilla, oak, grape soda and Pine Sol. Subtle yet strong. Limp yet flaccid.” When I taste wine, my statements are limited to things like “Yuck” and “I wouldn’t drink this crap even if it were free.”
In general, the lighter in flavor and body a wine is, the colder it is served. It’s the same with beer: a robust stout or imperial IPA can be served at more than 50°F, whereas Bud Light cannot be tolerated unless it gives your tongue frostbite. White wines tend to be served chilled while reds aren’t, because white wines are usually lighter in flavor, although there are exceptions (e.g., an oaked Chardonnay might be served relatively warm). I prefer all wine cold because I’m uneducated in the wine world and I frankly find most wine so repulsive that I have to minimize the flavor in order to keep from spitting it on whoever served it to me.
Speaking of spitting, a lot of wine tasters spit rather than swallow. What are they, nuts? Would you taste a steak and spit it out? How about ice cream? Then why spit wine? Why waste alcohol? If you’re a spitter, then stay away from my beer. If I catch you spitting my beer out I will force you to read this book a second time.
Many wine tasters look for flaws such as contamination, oxidation, excessive tannins and cork taint. (Heh heh. I said “taint”.) They focus on the negative rather than the positive because the purpose of tasting wine isn’t to enjoy it, but to feel self-satisfied by picking out flavors and aromas and making clever statements.
I suggest that when you drink wine you just relax, enjoy and, most important, shut up. No one wants to hear you blather on about it like you’re evaluating a painting. And don’t get me started on art critics. They’re the worst. They look at artworks as opportunities to say things that sound impressive and will therefore launch them to art world fame because they’re so much more witty and perceptive than you and I are. Their phoniness has been proved on numerous occasions when they were shown works of “art” that, unbeknownst to them, were painted by monkeys, elephants or preschool children, and they made statements like, “A competent execution of abstract expressionism.” What the f--- does that even mean?
Bread and crackers are good for “cleansing the palate” between wines. Water is good too, but bread and crackers can absorb some flavor components that water can’t wash away.
Cheese is often served with wine, but I find that it coats my tongue and interferes with my ability to taste other things. Crackers might be better for cleansing the palate. Water with a little baking soda helps to counteract the acidity of many red wines, although I find that a better solution is to not drink them in the first place.
You’ve probably heard that you should let wine “breathe” before drinking it. This is mostly bullshit. I’ve read from authoritative sources – by which I mean random strangers on the Internet – that white wines and aged red wines derive no benefit from breathing. The only wines that might improve via breathing are red wines less than four years old. The idea is that the tannins mellow when they mix with oxygen. I question this. I mean, does letting your tea or coffee “breathe” make them taste better? Of course not. They are just as tannic 20 minutes after pouring them as they were from the get-go. Anyway, if wine producers really want their customers to taste something that’s easy on the palate, then why don’t they make a product that isn’t harsh in the first place?
A good place to taste wine is a wine festival. I’ve been to a few and I find them a cost-effective way to sample many different selections on the same day in order to compare them. This is the same reason I go to beer festivals, the difference being that I actually enjoy most of the beer I taste. Wine has to be fairly sweet in order for me to enjoy it, but beer can be anything: sour, bitter, sweet, roasty, spicy, fruity. The only thing it can’t be is tasteless. Which brings up an interesting point: every wine I’ve ever tried had flavor. It might not have been good flavor, but it at least registered on my palate. Megabrewers, on the other hand, insist on diluting malt and hops to the point where one cannot distinguish their product from club soda. This is why wine reviews are usually more interesting than beer reviews. For example, a wine critic might write:
Chateau Traileur Parc – Deep red color. The bouquet is reminiscent of vanilla, oak, cherry and rose petals, with just a hint of guano. Upon sipping, the palate is filled with raspberry, vanilla, oak, tobacco and cough syrup. Full in body with a little heat on the finish. Poignant but not overbearing. Fruity but not queer.
A beer critic, on the other hand, might write:
Schitz – It’s carbonated.
I admire megabrewers’ ability to market and sell enormous quantities of a product that costs less to produce than the container it comes in. Couple this with all the soft drinks and bottled water that consumers buy, and it becomes apparent that more people want essence than substance. So I came up with an idea for a new product: bottled air. I don’t mean compressed air, which people have been buying for decades, but just regular air at normal atmospheric pressure. The ad campaign could go like this:
Want to hold something in your hand that won’t fill you up but will still make you feel trendy? Try Ben’s Bupkus. Each bottle contains a half-liter of pure essence, composed of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other ingredients. Ben’s Bupkus is always light and never filling, with no offensive flavor. In fact, no flavor at all, thus guaranteeing that it will not distract you from the ball game or NASCAR.
How’s that? Laugh if you want (please), but I bet there are plenty of morons out there who would be stupid enough to buy it. In fact, I bet my powers of absurd ad writing could help the megabrewers sell even more of their swill. For example:
Budmilloors – A yellow beverage with a putrid aroma, because the employees piss in the vats. The flavor is rancid and sour with a hint of urea. This raunchy beer will bitch-slap you and call you a ho.
I don’t think I could help the wine folks though. You see, a lot of people believe that wine should be mysterious, unapproachable, distant, aloof, and for special occasions. And God forbid you should order the wrong wine with your pâté appetizer. Wine ads typically show well-dressed, thin, good-looking people, because fat, ugly slobs don’t deserve wine – they have to settle for beer. If I were to write ads for winemakers, they’d go out of business in a month. Imagine trying to sell wine with an ad like this:
Schwalblis – A purple drink that sucks every bit as much as other wines, except it’s suckier. Smells like grapes, if grapes smelled like a baboon’s ass. Tastes like New Jersey. If you can force it down, God help you.
Port or sherry? I prefer sherry. To me it’s the nectar of the gods. When the beautiful liquid is poured into my glass, I inhale the enchanting aroma and I’m lifted on the wings of ecstasy. My whole being begins to glow as I taste the magic potion, and I’m transported to another world. Port, on the other hand, makes me fart.
Call me cheap (and many people do), but most wine is way overpriced. A 750-ml (25.4-ounce) bottle can cost $50, $100, even $1000. Want a bottle of 2000 Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac 18? That’ll be $86,000. For that price the friggin’ bottle oughta clean your house, do your taxes, cook your meals, build you a deck, chauffeur you to work, and perform other services that I won’t mention because this is a family publication.
Why will some people pay obscene amounts of money at auction for an old bottle of wine that cost well under $100 when it was new? Does it get that much better with age? No. It’s all supply and demand: the more time passes, the fewer bottles of a particular vintage there are because most of them have been consumed, lost or broken. At that point it ceases to be wine for all intents and purposes; it is now a collector’s item, like an old coin. I mean, who actually drinks a $23,000 bottle of 1978 Domaine de la Romanée Conti Montrachet? For that matter, who can even pronounce it?
Okay, we’ll ignore the anomalies and focus on more modestly priced wine. Back around the turn of the millennium the average Cabernet Sauvignon cost $21.90 per bottle; Chardonnays, which were the lowest priced wines, averaged $14.20 per bottle1. Even the best microbrews rarely surpass that price. A beer would have to cost more than $40 for a six-pack in order to outprice the average Chardonnay, and $62 for a six-pack in order to outprice the average Cabernet. And that’s at wine prices from more than a decade ago. I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing I am: What the f---?
It’s not the producers’ or retailers’ fault that wine is so expensive – it’s yours. You willingly shell out hard-earned cash for a fancy label and hype. You pay $25 for a bottle of something that’s touted as being great, and when you drink it, you might not be crazy about it, but you convince yourself that you like it because you don’t want to admit that you’ve been had. It’s exactly like religion: people spend their entire lives believing whatever nonsense their parents and preachers tell them, and when they look at it logically and realize how ridiculous it is, they delude themselves that it must be true because the thought that they’ve wasted their lives is too horrible to bear. So they put their common sense aside and force themselves to have faith. I say that it is much better to acknowledge past failures, correct your mistakes, and salvage some years of wise living, than it is to continue doing the same foolish thing for the rest of your life. That’s why I got divorced.
Wine lovers are not doomed to pay outrageous prices. There are plenty of wines priced at under $10 per bottle that taste good. Mansichewitz comes to mind. In fact, some good wines cost less than $5. For example, there is a nice assortment of extremely inexpensive vintages from the Bronco Wine Company in California. They own the Charles Shaw label, better known as Two Buck Chuck. At the 28th Annual International Eastern Wine Competition in 2004, Shaw’s 2002 Shiraz won the double gold medal, beating roughly 2,300 other wines in the competition. At the commercial wine competition of the 2007 California Exposition and State Fair, Shaw’s 2005 California Chardonnay was judged best Chardonnay from California. At the time, Charles Shaw wines sold for $1.99 per bottle. You see, this is what I’m talking about when I say that expensive wines aren’t worth the price, and that some people convince themselves that they like a wine only because it’s costly and therefore should taste good, while pooh-poohing inexpensive wines not because they don’t taste good but because they’re inexpensive. Blind tastings like those mentioned above prove that I’m right (as usual), but most people refuse to believe me because I dress and act differently, as though my appearance has any bearing on reality. I stand by my preference for Manischewitz. You can call me a cheap, uncultured, tasteless slob – and I am – but you won’t catch me spending more than $7 for a bottle of wine or a button-down shirt or a tie or a box of laundry detergent. In fact, no matter what the price, you’ll never catch me buying nice clothing or deodorant or soap.
Let’s do some simple math. It takes about 2¾ pounds of grapes to make a bottle of wine. Wineries buy grapes in bulk for anywhere from 12¢ per pound for cheaper varieties to $3 per pound for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. That means that the grapes that go into a bottle of wine cost somewhere between 33¢ and $8.25. Now we add labor, freight, receiving, administration, storage, taxes, bottle, label, and retailer markup. I don’t know what these costs are, but seeing as Two Buck Chuck can sell wine for about $3 per bottle (the price has gone up over the years), non-ingredient costs are certainly less than $3. Therefore, if you pay more than $11.25 for even the highest quality wine, you’re getting ripped off.
If Two Buck Chuck can charge $3 for a bottle of wine and turn a profit, then why don’t others follow suit in order to undercut the competition? How can they charge five or ten times that amount and still attract customers? Like I said before, it’s because morons like you are willing to pay it. You can’t blame any industry for charging a price that plenty of consumers are willing to pay. For example, you might complain about the price of gas, but you continue to buy it, don’t you? You could walk, ride a bicycle, live closer to work, or take a bus or a cab. But you don’t, do you? You drive everywhere, chauffeur your kids, make unnecessary trips to buy crap you don’t need, and drive long distances to vacation spots. Why should the oil executives lower their prices? I wouldn’t. Hell, if I were an oil executive, gas would cost $27 a gallon. Then every time you went to the beach I’d get $200.
Some people comparison shop in order to feel good about their wine purchases. For example, you look at the $25 bottles, then find a bottle of something else for “only” $14 and think you’re getting a good deal. Of course, who am I to criticize? I’ve lost more than a quarter of a million dollars on bad investments and my ex-wife, and here I am telling you how to save money. I might as well lecture you on fashion or tact.
There are a few factors other than those I mentioned that affect wine prices. For example, the top quality wine regions are only allowed to produce so many grapes per acre. After that, winemakers must either plant grapes somewhere else or buy grapes from a grape grower. Why? I don’t know. I don’t care either – I drink beer.
Aging wine in expensive new French oak barrels will increase a wine’s production cost – and therefore purchase price – whereas simply tossing in some wood chips for flavoring will have less effect on price. I wonder whether barrel aging is necessary. For example, I have aged some homemade beer in oak barrels and flavored other homemade beer using oak chips, and I’ve found no flavor difference. So why do I have a couple of 50-gallon oak barrels full of homebrew that weigh 500 pounds each? Well, it seemed like a good idea when I got them. They take up space and they’re not very pretty or useful, but I’ve grown accustomed to them and now that they’re exceedingly heavy I don’t feel like moving them. Kind of the same reason I was reluctant to get divorced.
Using celebrities to sell wine can increase the price. Did you know that Madonna, Olivia Newton-John, Joe Montana, Bob Dylan, Larry Bird and other celebrities have their own brands of wine? I wonder how they market them. Porn star Savanna Samson has her own wine. Perhaps an ad for hers could go something like this:
Spread Eagle Sauvignon – This titillating wine has nice legs, great body and a slightly tart, musty flavor. Goes down easy. And often.
Wine makes a great gift, because it’s something that most people can use. Even if they don’t drink, or don’t like a particular wine that they received as a gift, they can re-gift it to someone else. I like re-gifting wine because I’m too clueless to choose appropriate gifts. If I pick out something, I just know it will disappoint or offend the recipient, and if I avoid that situation by not buying a gift at all, I come off as cheap. I could simply hand the person cash, but for some reason people get insulted when you do that. Wine is the perfect solution. It says, “I have no idea what you want, but here’s something that I know you can use. Sure, I didn’t actually pick it out – someone else gave it to me three years ago – but it makes me look like less of a bumbling idiot.”
I find it odd that many wine fanciers consider wine to be a “better” beverage than beer, when beer is so much more popular. Every year the average American drinks roughly 20 gallons of beer but only 3 gallons of wine. And most of that beer is big brewery swill. This illustrates how unpopular wine is: most people would rather drink carbonated urine.
Speaking of carbonation, sparkling wine (champagne, et al) is enjoyable only because it’s carbonated. Have you ever drunk flat champagne? It sucked, didn’t it? The same goes for flat beer and flat soda. Carbonating is a great way to make a sucky libation less sucky. Maybe all wines should be carbonated so more people will enjoy them. The only one they shouldn’t carbonate is Manischewitz, because that’s the one wine I really like.
Which country is number one in per capita wine consumption? Did you guess France? Well, they are number one in total consumption, but in per capita consumption they are number two. (Heh heh, I said...) The leading wine consumers are the Italians, who drink almost eight times as much wine per capita as we do. Of course, they have to in order to wash down all that pasta.
What’s interesting is that even though most European countries outdrink us, they don’t have as many alcohol abuse problems as we do. This is because alcohol is incorporated into their culture and people are exposed to it from childhood. For example, France and Italy have no drinking age. In our repressed society, we have strict laws designed to “protect” youngsters from alcohol, and then what happens when they finally get their hands on it? They get shitfaced and puke.
Wine is often considered a woman’s beverage, while men drink beer. Well, according to the Wine Market Council, almost half (47%) of American wine drinkers are men. So it’s not true that all men prefer beer; only the heteros do.
Ours is the fourth largest wine-producing country in the world, behind France, Italy and Spain. When you think of American wine you probably think of California, but many states produce wine, including Texas, Missouri, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi, which proves that wine production doesn’t require culture or teeth.
The alcohol content of wine has crept up over the past several years. Some people attribute this to global warming, which just goes to show that the Al Gorons will blame anything on global warming. Their reasoning is that warmer temperatures cause the sugar content of grapes to go up, and of course more sugar = more fermentables. Well, why don’t growers plant vineyards in locations that used to be too cool but are now warm enough for grapes? If the world really is heating up, then there must be new areas suitable for planting, right? In fact, rising global temperature means that there are also new areas suitable for old people, who hate the cold. This is fortunate because the number of senior citizens is growing in our country. With formerly cold areas heating up, they won’t all be retiring to Florida anymore, and that’s good because Florida is already jam packed with geezers who have weak hearts, limited movement, arthritis, slow reflexes, and bad eyesight. Thank God they can all still drive.
A few years back I read an article saying that a study showed that women who drank wine gained less weight than those who didn’t. Now, we know this has to be true because it was written on the Internet. Forget the fact that the article didn’t give a shred of information about the alleged study, such as when and where it was done, who participated, or who ran it. But I can see how women might keep their weight in check by sipping wine: they often substitute wine for food. A 125-calorie glass of wine in lieu of a 500?calorie plate of food makes perfect sense, as long as you ignore vitamin deficiencies and cirrhosis. Men, on the other hand, actually gain weight when we drink, because we don’t substitute booze for food -- we add it to food. In fact, we eat more food than we would if we weren’t drinking. I am normally pretty good at avoiding fatty foods like cake and french fries, but when I have a buzz on, I start shoveling these things into my mouth like Rosie O’Donnell after a three-hour fast.
One healthful component of wine is an antioxidant called resveratrol. It’s an antibiotic compound produced by red grapes, blueberries, bilberries and cranberries as part of their defense system against disease. In humans, resveratrol inhibits oxidation and inflammation. It’s more concentrated in red wine than in white because the skins are removed earlier during white wine production, lessening the amount that’s extracted. Scientists theorize that resveratrol is one reason that frequent wine drinkers such as the Italians and the French live longer than we do. I don’t know. I think it has more to do with the fact that most Americans are fat, lazy pigs who eat at McDonalds and Taco Bell and then wonder why they’re fat. So I guess we can add stupid to the list.
Once you open a bottle of wine it starts to deteriorate because oxygen from the air reacts with components in the wine, causing it to go stale. If you drink half the bottle and put the rest in the fridge, it won’t stay fresh for more than a few days. Then again, if you’re a taste-challenged cretin like I am, you won’t notice the difference. Virtually all wine tastes bad to me, so having it go stale won’t make me hate it any more than I already do.
On a similar note, the idea that aging wine improves it is a myth. The vast majority of wine is meant to be consumed fresh. The only wines that can be successfully aged are fortified wines because of the added alcohol and sugar, and even those must be kept at around 55°. The other 99% of wines do not improve with age at any temperature, and will go downhill as they get older. Like you and I.
If you hold wine for long periods, corked wine should be stored on its side. This keeps the cork from drying out and letting air seep in to oxidize the wine. Capped wine can be stored upright. Either way it should be stored at as close to 55° as possible. My parents had a dark, dank cellar that stayed near 55° year-round. They used to store all their wine down there, right next to my bed.
So that’s all I know about wine. Unlike most authors I will not pad this book with rhetoric or marginally related stories in order to make it a “respectable” length. Don’t you hate that? You pay $22.95 for a book and you end up skipping (or laboring through) half of it because much of it is filler. This book is free and it gets right to the point. Instead of wasting your time or insulting your intelligence, I gave you everything I know about wine in the equivalent of about 20 pages. That makes it less than half as long as most of my other books, which is lucky for you because you didn’t have to suffer as long.