Maturing as a wine drinker and collector

In my last post entitled “My first wines”, I discussed how and when I started drinking (fake) wine during my university days and real wine during my graduate school days.

For the next 10 or so years (approximately 1978 – 1988), my wine drinking experiences did not evolve much.  I enjoyed decent enough wine, and had a few great wine drinking experiences which showed me how ethereal wine drinking can be.  Unfortunately one was truly wasted on me.  As a favor for a friend, I wrote a pretty complex COBOL program for him after he complained his company’s IT department could not understand and deliver what he needed.  He paid me $400 for the effort, but was so delighted that when I had him over for dinner and celebrated the success back in 1978, he brought over a bottle of 1961 Château Lafite.  I think we drank it while eating beef strogonoff or something of the like.  I just did not have the palate for great wine back then.

I also started to travel more internationally for work and was introduced to more varieties of food and wine.  I remember once getting upgraded to First Class on Singapore Airlines and being served a 1975 Château Brane-Cantenac and really enjoying it.  (The whole experience of First Class on Singapore Airlines in the late 1980s was a great experience!)  I then found and bought two bottles of it while going through the Frankfurt Airport a few months later.

But the 1961 Chateau Lafite and the 1975 Chateau Brane-Cantenac were exceptions to my wine drinking, not the norm.  However, they did provide a taste of how great wine drinking could be and generated more enthusiasm for drinking good wine as a regular activity.

It was really during 1988 – 1990 when living in New Zealand and drinking more wine with meals and out with friends that I really started to enjoy wine more.  New Zealand is know for some great Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs, and has an excellent wine growing industry.  Drinking more wine on a almost daily basis became the norm.

Then when I moved to Australia in 1997 for a long project, I started to collect and drink far better wines (including having a business dinner with 18 bottles of the 1986 Henschke Hill of Grace (for 14 of us!) – but that is a story for another posting!).  I was fortunate to have a few good friends like Michael Axarlis and Rob Tudor who had very good palates and an appreciation for fine Australian wines and they got me headed in the right direction to better understand and appreciate how many different and great Australian wines there were.

They recommended and I started to collect some bottles including the 1992 Penfolds Grange,  1996 Lindeman St George, 1996 Penfolds 707, 1998 Bannockburn Pinot Noir, 1995 Yarra Yering Dry #1, etc., etc.  I started to learn to appreciate some of the differences between different wines from different regions, different vintages of the same wine, and how sinful it is to drink a wine too early or too late in its maturation process.

When I moved permanently to Australia in 2000, I started to collect and sample even more wines and have been loving it ever since.  For a while, I was so hooked on the quality and value of Australian wines that I drank very little of anything else.  However, during the last several years, I have now been appreciating a broader variety of French, Spanish, Italian, and American wines.

Probably the biggest lesson I have learned through 35 years of wine buying and drinking is not to buy too much of a single wine and limit your tastings to a limited set of wines, as exploring the vast variety of great wines is a joy in itself, and no matter how much you really enough a particular wine, there is always a better one to be found.

My first ‘wines’

I started drinking alcohol while at university during my first year.  I used to drink vodka (because my dad did) gimlets while playing cards, beer while playing softball, bowling and other activities, and wine when we had nothing else.  My first ‘wines’ were not wines at all per se, but homemade concoctions my father and brother used to whip up with sugar and some flavoring.  Therefore, we had an assortment of flavored wines including apple, orange, dandelion, potato (which I think was just vodka under another name!), and others.

My dad and brother made this wine over several years until the cost of sugar rose too high.  I also think they got tired of cleaning up after numerous bottles exploded because they did not really understand the fermenting process!  I would then bring these wines to university to drink as required.  The ‘Shipley Vineyard’ classic was a bottle of the 1971 Orangeato.  My dad had some leftover Orange wine and leftover Potato wine, mixed them together, fortified it with a bottle of 100 proof vodka and bottled up four bottles.  The only remaining bottle in existence, sits in my friend’s wine cellar next to his prized Nepalese Plum wine!

We also used to buy Boone’s Farm wine, a low-level brand within the E & J Gallo Winery (my God, how bad it must have been to be considered the bottom of the Gallo wine tree!).  It came in Apple and Strawberry flavors and cost about $0.93 per 750 ml bottle.

The point of my wine (and other drinking) during university was to get inebriated on alcohol, not to enjoy the flavor of the wine or the experience of wine drinking with friends – we were just getting bombed!  It was not until I entered graduate school at the University of Minnesota that I started to drink real wine.  I am not sure why or how, but I assume some friend introduced me to wine drinking and I felt it a pleasurable things to do with a meal or while studying or being involved in other activities.  Fortunately, there was a wonderful wine store near the University campus called Surdyk’s.  I did not realize and certainly was not in a position to discern what a great wine store Surdyk’s was at the time.

The people were really helpful and friendly, provided great advice on wine, and steered me towards very good valued wines.  This was during the time when Chili was just emerging on the global wine scene and I was able to find some great Chilean reds for $3 – $5 per bottle.  I also was told by one of the staff to buy some of the 1977 Dow Vintage Port and I got two bottles.  I had one bottle several years ago and it was beyond superb.  I am pretty sure I paid only about $12 – $15 per bottle for it then, and it was one of the great buys in my life!  That was just the type of place Surdyk’s is.  That whole experience changed my life and I started to experiment more with wines, pay a bit more and start to enjoy it more.

Therefore, it was visiting and getting help at Surdyk’s that got me on the journey to finer wine drinking.  Last year, my wife and I were visiting Minnesota again to see my parents and I went by Surdyk’s.  It looked and felt the same and I told some of the staff how much I appreciated their help some 35 years ago and what a great store it still is.  They also introduced me during that trip to the 2009 Hugel Alsace Riesling for $22 in the US which is an outstanding value.  I have since bought a dozen in Australia (where it was $30 per bottle) and it is a great, great Riesling.

In my next post, I will explain how my ‘fallow’ years as a wine drinker, but how I was introduced to several great wines which provided a true appreciation for how great an experience wine drinking can be, and how I became a real wine enthusiast while living in Australia, one of the great wine countries of the world!

Why I don’t write for GT (Gourmet Traveller) Wine magazine

Well, simply because they have not asked me!  I would love to, and I expect so would the other 1,000 or so people who blog about wine.  Of course, I do plan on continuing to improve my wine blogging over the next year and hopefully get some amount of following and notoriety, possibly even some acclaim – who knows?  I have been writing a lot (on a variety of topics, not just wine) more recently, and been doing a lot of editing and guest blogging, so hopefully my writing will continue to improve.

The best way to get into GT Wine magazine is to enter and win their annual Wine Writing competition, of which the next round of submissions is in January, 2013 for the 2013 award.  In the meantime, I am planning on writing on the following topics over the next few months:

  • Why I keep empty wine bottles
  • Mistake of buying too much of a single wine
  • Terroir and its influence on various grapes
  • The difference between a wine snob and a wine enthusiast
  • The wine region Alsace
  • Review of matching wine with food and food with wine for special events
  • Specific wine and wine region reviews
  • Different varieties of corkscrews
  • Use of aerators
  • When and how to decant wines
  • Storing wines
  • Best wine magazines, wine blogs and wine writers to read
  • Wine applications
  • Use of iPad as a wine list for restaurants
  • Why James Halliday pisses me off when he writes about the ’27 Le Tache

and a variety of other topics.  I also plan on including more pictures and links to other resources.  I would be adding a number of pictures now, but we are packing to move apartments and most everything is packed for the move.

Hopefully, you will continue to follow and enjoy my wine blog.  Also, if you have any topics you would like to recommend that I write on, please let me know.  While I am not an expert on wine, I have a growing knowledge base, a lot of friends in the industry and love to share ideas and experiences with others who have a similar interest.

Working in the cellar – being prepared

Most of us probably don’t own or lease our own cellar.  I have built two of them now, only to have changed homes and gotten very little value out of them which was a real shame.  Now we live in an apartment and I use a larger and smaller Vintec wine fridge to store about 150 bottles of wine for close access in my apartment.  However, when we are doing a tasting or I just need to replenish my apartment holdings, or more importantly if I just want to ‘play’ and organize my larger cellar, I sometimes will spend a considerable amount more time there – usually from 1 – 4 hours.  (My wife claims it is my ‘man cave’!)

I rent a larger wine cellar from Wine-Ark which does a very nice job of providing cellar space.  They provide either a managed cellar service (where they inventory and store / retrieve your wine on your behalf) or you can rent a private and dedicated cellar space which is what I do.  It is located about 20 minutes from where I live, so I want to make sure I am both safe and productive while visiting my cellar.  The cellar is consistently cooled to 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit).  This is necessary for storing and aging the wine properly.  Other safety considerations include that I am mostly over in my cellar by myself.  During the business day and on Saturday morning the office is open and I could have access to the guys who man the operation, but mostly when I am over there working in my cellar it is only me in the location, so I take that into consideration.  For example, my old phone service did not provide strength of coverage being in the basement of the Wine-Ark, so I switched and my current coverage does.

While I do not think of organizing wine as a dangerous activity, it is possible I could fall off a stepladder, drop a case of wine on me, or have some other small accident (fortunately I have not had an accident in 4 years!).  More importantly, I want to be comfortable and productive.  I have seen guys enter their cellar in a T-shirt to retrieve a few bottles, and that is OK if you are only in 14 degrees in a T-shirt for a few minutes, but if you plan on spending 30 or more minutes at that temperature, you should prepare to keep your body warmer.  I always wear a long sleeve shirt and a wool sleeveless (to provide more arm movement when moving things around) vest.  However, once in my excitement to get over to the vault, I forgot my vest and it was uncomfortable.  Therefore, I now have a vest always stored in the cellar for such an event.  While it is not like being stuck in the freezing cold for an extended period, it does sap your energy more quickly and can be uncomfortable to the point of nausea if you stay in for too long a time without proper clothing.

I also keep 3 bottles of water (so as not to get dehydrated) and a flashlight in case the lights go out while I am working.  This should never happen as the electricity system needs to be backed-up to ensure constant temperature is provided for the wines, but the lights are motion sensor-ed or time controlled and can go out if you are not careful.

My basic tool kit comprises:

  • preprinted paper to inventory my wine and making adjustments to inventory as I move wine in and out
  • plain paper (for writing notes)
  • Labels to overlay boxes that have text written on them already or as a mailing label is I am going to ship off some wine
  • 2 pens
  • Large tip black marker for writing on and labeling boxes
  • Small tip black marker for writing on labels
  • A wine review guide (to research specific wines as to when to best drink and mark it as such on the carton)
  • Tape gun and extra roll of packing tape (I use 3M as there is no problem keeping it in the cold) to make up boxes as needed to move wine back and forth
  • Roll and dispenser of regular (Scotch 3M) tape for taping paper or labels onto boxes
  • Several one-bottle and two-bottle shipping containers in case I want to package up a bottle or two to ship off to a friend
  • Extra boxes to store or transfer half dozen or dozen bottles as required
  • Flat-head screwdriver to lift off wooden lids from containers (usually more expensive wines are shipped in wooden boxes)
  • Cutting (Exacto) knife to cut open boxes of wine or to cut up empty cardboard boxes for recycling

I started with most of these items, but added a few as I learned the need for them over time.  All of my supplies and tools fit into a single cardboard box which is used to hold a six pack of wine, so it does not take much room at all.  The pens, markers and tape all work fine at 14 degrees, but I check them every now and then to ensure they are still working.  Wine-Ark provides stepladders and trolleys to provide transfer of your wines from the cellar to your car, so I do not need to keep my own of those.

If you plan on working for longer than 4 hours, you should also consider packing a snack, but I just make it a point to get out of the cellar (and warm up a bit) to grab a bite of lunch.

I get great enjoyment out of ‘playing’ in my man-cave and want to make sure it is a comfortable and productive environment.  It all adds to the enjoyment of drinking the wine.

Matching wine with dinner

This is a posting I did in September, 2011 as a guest blogger for Deanna Lang’s blog Daz in the Kitchen and Other Places.

It provides the general approach I use when having been given a menu for dinner and the process I go through to match the wines.  It is called “The Boys Role in Matching Wine with Dinner”.  Hope you enjoy!

The screw top controversy

For decades now, the controversy has been raging about the screw top and if it is as effective as cork for sealing a bottle of wine.  In my opinion, it is 99% as effective in 98% of the cases (the numbers are intuitive and have no statistical value).  And the risk of a corked bottle or bottles turning to vinegar because they were left upright for a prolonged period of time (and the corked dried out letting too much air into the bottle) is greatly reduced – therefore you will have far fewer bottles of wine that are damaged.  This avoids that disappointment of opening an anticipated and potentially expensive bottle of wine, only to find it is not drinkable.  Therefore, I am a big fan of the newer screw top method for sealing wine!

Almost all of the flavor and complexity of the wine (and its ability to mature and reach its maximum potential) is already inside the bottled when it is sealed, regardless of the type of seal used.  The quality of grapes and the wine-making process will mostly determine the ultimate quality the wine reaches when you drink it.  Regardless of sealing technique, there is air bottled inside to promote the microbiological development of the wine over time.

And here is where the minor difference between using a good cork and a screw top comes into play.  Once sealed with a screw top, no more air can get into the bottle.  With cork, there is some additional breathing that goes on (very little as the cork is always moist if stored properly and if not stored properly and the cork goes dry, then too much air gets into the bottle and the wine turns to vinegar).  This means that a bottle sealed with cork will mature and be drinkable slightly earlier than the same bottle with a screw top.  However, there are other factors that may influence the rate of maturation even more, including the temperature the wine is stored at.  The warmer the temperature, the quicker the maturation process.  However, most good wines can be drunk over a period of years and you need to occasionally taste a bottle to determine how they develop and when to optimally drink them.  By doing so, a very slight rate of maturation difference (which is what you have between a cork and a screw top) makes very little difference, either in determining the quality or the right time to drink the wine.

The big difference in my opinion is that screw tops are extremely consistent from cap to cap and each bottle of the same wine from the same vintage will taste the same – there will be very little difference from one bottle to the next.  For the most part, this is a very positive trait and provides for a consistent and pleasant drinking experience with no disappointment!  Whereas, cork by its very nature has faults or at least differences in the structure and composition from cork to cork.  While estimates vary study to study, significant cork faults can occur in between 3% and 15% of corks made.  And sometimes, whole batches of bad corks are produced and sold to wine makers which can ruin an entire vintage of the wines.

I once had two bottles one right after the other in a restaurant of the 2003 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay (a great wine BTW!) which I was paying $160 per bottle in the restaurant in 2007.  While both bottles were acceptable to drink, most of us at the table could determine the slight difference and the second bottle not being quite the same as the first.  Just being slightly different meant we found the second bottle to be less enjoyable than the first (because are taste buds had been set and were expecting the exact same taste).  I am assuming both bottles came from the same lot and were stored in exactly the manner, so the only difference between the two bottles was due to slight differences in the cork.

For some more complex and long aging wines, it may be possible the a specific cork variation may allow several bottles of that wine to achieve a presence that is unique and slightly better than the majority of the bottles.  This is one small advantage of cork as I see it – that because of the variation of the cork from bottle to bottle that some bottles may be better than average, however it also means that just as many may be slightly worse than average!  And if the cork is bad, the bottle may be undrinkable!  Therefore, the slight advantage that you may find a few bottles of a particular wine that are slightly better than the rest does not, in my opinion, justify the ongoing use of cork.  I believe screw tops provide significant advantages overall, including:

  • consistency from bottle to bottle and ‘no surprises’
  • no wastage due to ‘corked’ (were the cork is faulty) bottles that have turned to vinegar
  • no wastage from bottles that have been stored incorrectly (standing up) and the cork has dried out (even though it was a good cork) and the wine has turned to vinegar
  • ease of use and convenience opening bottles

Most Australian and US wine makers have or are switching over all of their bottling to using screw tops and I believe this is the right thing to do.  The wine will not suffer and more of it will be drinkable over the years.

I have a variety of corkscrews and love taking the cork our of a bottle of wine, especially a saturated cork that has been in the bottle for 20 or more years.  Getting the cork out successfully is like the thrill of landing a 15 – 20 pound fish on a 6 pound test line!  Removing the cork from a bottle is like foreplay before sex – an enjoyable part of the anticipation and build up to drinking the wine.  Therefore, I have and will always have bottles in my cellar for the next several decades that have corks for sealing.  But I do applaud and agree with the wine makers to switch over to screw tops as the right thing to do – for the wine, the wine maker and the consumer.