Category Archives: Wine

Identifying Flaws and Faults in Wine

David White

David White

David White

Sniff, swirl, sip.
Whether at home or at a restaurant, analyzing wine is a fairly straightforward process. And when you stick your nose in a glass of wine, you’ll typically encounter pleasant aromas like fruits, flowers, and spices. Sometimes, though, a wine will seem off.
One unfortunate truth about wine is that a decent percentage is flawed — somehow spoiled along the way to your table. Flawed wines should be poured down the drain or returned to your server. Wine should be delicious — and life is too short to drink bad wine.
Recognizing common wine flaws is at least as important as memorizing grape names and tasting descriptors. So here’s a quick primer on some common faults.
Cork Taint. Wines bottled under natural cork are vulnerable to damage from a fungus that feeds on the cork. This fungus produces a compound called “2,4,6-trichloroanisole,” or TCA. If the wine is affected by TCA, it’s “corked,” and the fruit will be masked by aromas reminiscent of wet cardboard or a damp basement. While TCA won’t make you sick, it’s not a pleasant odor.
Heat Damage. Wine is perishable. And if it’s exposed to high temperatures — an all-too-common occurrence in the summertime — it may be “cooked.”
When you open a bottle of wine, check the cork to see if it’s streaked or drenched with wine. If it is, the wine might be heat-damaged, as heat causes wine to expand and push against the cork. But you’ll need to smell the wine to make sure, as it could also mean that the bottle was simply overfilled.
Oxidation. When you open a bottle of wine, also check to see if the cork is crumbly. If the wine is relatively young, this could be a sign of improper storage or a faulty cork and the wine could be oxidized. It may be reminiscent of Sherry and Madeira, as the production of those wines relies on oxygen. The color can also be a giveaway — white wine will appear more golden than you expect; red wine may take on a brown tinge.
wineBarnyard Funk. Ever encountered aromas of manure, sweat, wet dog, or Band-Aids in your wine? Those smells typically signal the presence of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast typically called “brett.”
At low levels, the flavors imparted by brett can be enjoyable — in fact, they’re often desirable in wines from the Rhone Valley and Burgundy. But brett yeasts can’t be controlled. As wine blogger Joe Roberts once explained, “whether or not the wine has pleasant smoked meat characteristics or instead smells like one of my daughter’s diaper blow-outs is almost entirely dictated by chance.”
If you think your wine might be flawed and you’re at a restaurant, give your glass to the server and solicit her opinion. If you’re at home, just trust your nose.To post your comments, visit or follow us on Twitter @Resident_News.

Zinfandel: Uniquely & Distinctly American

David White

David White

Mention Zinfandel to most wine consumers, and it’s quickly dismissed. It’s easy to see why.  For starters, many Americans associate the variety with the cheap, sweet “blush” wines that became popular in the 1980s, like Sutter Home’s white Zinfandel. This style of wine will always have fans, but to many, it’s just too cloying. Most white Zinfandel tastes more like Kool-Aid than wine.

But Zinfandel can be delicious. The best examples are wonderfully accessible and strike the perfect balance between power and finesse. While certainly robust, they’re marked by fresh, brambly berries and are energetic enough to pair with a variety of cuisines. Plus, Zinfandel is uniquely and distinctly American. It’s well worth exploring.

Zinfandel came to the United States in the late 1820s, when a nursery owner in New York purchased cuttings from Austria. The origins of the name “Zinfandel” remain a mystery, but shortly after its arrival to the East Coast, the grape’s popularity quickly soared.

When East Coasters started heading to California during the gold rush, Zinfandel followed and quickly became the variety of choice, often planted right alongside other grapes for diversity. Many of these vineyards remain, giving wine drinkers a direct connection to California’s earliest settlers.

Without question, these ancient vineyards—typically full of thick, gnarly vines—produce the most complex, vibrant wines. Several California vintners are working to catalog, protect, and promote these vineyards through a new nonprofit called the Historic Vineyard Society. Winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson, the 32-year-old owner of Bedrock Wine Company, is leading this effort.

Twain-Peterson has become a rock star in the wine community because his wines—sourced from some of California’s oldest vines and made using old-fashioned winemaking techniques—are stunning. Indeed, his winery’s namesake, the Bedrock Vineyard, was planted nearly 125 years ago. Twain-Peterson estimates that the vineyard is about half Zinfandel and a quarter Carignane, with varieties like Mourvedre, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah comprising the rest.

Other wineries that source from ancient vineyards include Ridge, Ravenswood, and Seghesio, all of which make delicious, affordable wines that can easily be found at your local wine shop. Smaller labels worth looking for include Carlisle Winery, Dashe Cellars, and Nalle. With all these producers, the big Zinfandel fruit is still there, of course, but the wines are balanced, bright, and pair well with food.

Those who fear monolithic, alcoholic fruit bombs when purchasing Zinfandel still have plenty to worry about. But more and more producers—in a quest to rediscover America’s winemaking—are moving towards elegance.

Drink Better in 2013

David White

David White

Ask a wine enthusiast to name his favorite value wines, and he’ll likely to steer you towards bottles that cost between $15 and $25 each.

This makes sense—many oenophiles think nothing of dropping $25 or more on each bottle of wine. But this ignores market realities. The average bottle of wine in the United States sells for just $6.22, according to Nielsen. A full 90 percent of all wines sold cost less than $12 per bottle. Americans like to drink cheap.

In 2013, resolve to splurge more often. Even if this means drinking less wine to keep your budget balanced, your palate will thank you.

This isn’t to say that wines costing less than, say, $10 per bottle are inevitably bad. There are plenty of satisfactory options at that price point. The shelves at stores like Trader Joe’s are full of such wines. But spending so little generally relegates one to mass-market brands that benefit from economies of scale.

Spending $15-25 per bottle increases the possibility of finding a wine that’s exciting—a wine that’s both delicious and intellectually captivating.

One could compare it to the difference between a national franchise and the local Italian joint. The former is certainly adequate, offering heaping piles of salad, breadsticks, and focus-group-tested entrees. The latter is hit-or-miss, but investigating such restaurants is always exciting. And exploration—with food, wine, and so much else—is the only way to discover underappreciated gems.

Once you’re at the $15 to $25 price point, the number of options is virtually endless. Sure, even at $25, it’s nearly impossible to find Champagne, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, or high-quality Pinot Noir. But if you’re willing to drink bravely—to explore the unfamiliar by trying unusual grapes from unusual regions—you can sample some of the greatest wines in the world.

So long as you’re willing to spend $15-25, you can easily explore some of the most renowned whites from South Africa, France, Italy, Austria, and Germany.

Early January is the perfect time to reflect on the previous year and make resolutions for the new one. For those of us who take wine seriously—or at least want to—it’s smart to include wine in our New Year’s resolutions. The world of wine offers endless possibilities. So in 2013, make sure to explore those possibilities—and drink better!

Wines: The Electric White Wines of Italy

David White

David White

Legend has it that a renowned British wine taster was once presented with a flight of wines while wearing a blindfold. He nailed each wine, correctly identifying the grape and the region in which it was grown. Toward the end of the challenge was a glass of water. Upon smelling and sampling it, the taster expressed bewilderment. “I have no idea what this is,” he exclaimed, “but I can assure you it’s something I’ve never had before!”

Traditionally, this story has been used to spark a conversation about the futility of blind tasting. The wine world’s smart alecks, however, have taken to replying back with a joke: “Why didn’t he peg it as Pinot Grigio?” Sadly, there’s some truth to this retort. All too often, Pinot Grigio is simply a substitute for water. Mass-market bottlings are refreshing and fruity – and deliver a buzz – but they’re never very compelling.

This reality has tarred the reputation of all Italian white wines. Even Pinot Grigio can be spectacular. When the ancient Greeks colonized southern Italy, they called it “Oenotria,” or land of the vine. Pinot Grigio gained a foothold in America in 1979, when wine importer Tony Terlato visited Milan in search of the “next great white wine.”  Terlato tasted a Pinot Grigio and “was taken by its fresh aromas, its crispness, freshness and the way it paired effortlessly with foods.” The next day, he drove to northern Italy’s Alto Adige region, where Italy’s best Pinot Grigio is grown. Upon arriving, he visited a local restaurant and ordered every Pinot Grigio on the wine list. Of the 18 bottles, Terlato most enjoyed the offering from Santa Margherita. He visited the winery the following day – and returned to the United States as its sole importer.

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio took off. Today, it’s America’s most popular imported restaurant wine. Over the past 33 years, however, Pinot Grigio has become a victim of its own success. Santa Margherita isn’t cheap – it retails for $25. So the market has been flooded with cheap alternatives, led by brands like Cavit, Ruffino, and Ecco Domani.

There are better wines for the money. More grape varieties are planted in Italy than any other country in the world. Thousands of Italian wines make their way to the United States. The most exciting whites come from northeast Italy, particularly the regions of Alto Adige, a neighbor to Austria and Switzerland, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which borders Slovenia to the east and Austria to the north.

Alto Adige is still home to the world’s best Pinot Grigio, but dozens of varieties flourish there. Pinot Bianco, for example, is more floral and mineral-driven than Pinot Grigio. Gewurztraminer, Muller Thurgau, and Kerner are exceptionally aromatic – and display enough sweetness and acidity to complement cream sauces and even spicy foods.

It’s no secret that Italy produces some of the finest red wines in the world. Top Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino easily command hundreds of dollars per bottle. But too many consumers disregard Italy’s whites thanks to the flood of cheap Pinot Grigio that’s come ashore.

They shouldn’t. Italy produces more distinctive wines than any other nation – and its whites are positively electric.

Harvest Is Magical, But Work Is Grueling

David White

From the outside, winemaking seems romantic. Farm workers lovingly tend to their vineyards throughout the spring and summer, and then hand harvest their grapes in the early fall. Those grapes are then gently crushed — by foot, of course — and turn into wine on their own through the magic of fermentation.

We’re led to believe that winemakers simply monitor this process. They’re there to make sure the final product winds up on the dinner table, but nature takes care of virtually everything.

Wherever wine is made, harvest is a special time. But the work is exhausting. In the evenings and early mornings, vineyards are packed with laborers collecting fruit, as picking while the weather is cool protects workers from daytime heat and ensures the grapes arrive in pristine condition.

The roads are equally busy. In the mornings and evenings, trucks are filled with grapes. Throughout the day, those same trucks haul equipment and vineyard supplies. As grapes come in, they’re sorted, de-stemmed, and sorted again, as no winemaker wants leaves, spiders, or rocks to end up in her wine. With white wines, those grapes are crushed and pressed before fermentation. With reds, most of the grapes are typically left intact before they’re placed in barrels or tanks. At this point, yeast gets to work — gradually converting the sugar into alcohol and imparting a litany of new tastes and aromas. Over about two weeks, what begins as grape juice becomes wine.

The work seems endless. Harvest only lasts about six to ten weeks, depending on the grape variety. But during this period, 12- to 14-hour days are normal. Much of the work is messy and physical. Some is mind-numbingly repetitive. Many tough choices have to be made. And at every step, attention to detail is critical — one small error could result in hundreds ofgallons of lost wine.

Because of all that, the harvest is magical.

An Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove

David White

Napa Valley accounts for less than 4 percent of America’s total wine production. Yet it’s the country’s best-known wine region.

Napa rocketed to the forefront of American winemaking in 1976, when British wine merchant Steven Spurrier organized a wine competition in Paris to pit California‘s best Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon against the best wines France had to offer.

Everyone assumed that France would win. After all, the nation had been making wine for thousands of years and was widely regarded as the world’s top wine region. But with both its whites and reds, California won.

The white wine, produced by Chateau Montelena, came from Calistoga, a city at the north end of Napa Valley. The red, produced by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, came from the southern Napa town of Yountville.
The outcome shocked the world. Ten years later, the red wines were re-tasted at the French Culinary Institute. Once again, California came out on top. This time, the Cabernet Sauvignon was produced by Clos Du Val, a winery located down the road from Stag’s Leap.

Ever since, the world has recognized America’s ability to produce world-class wine.

The portion of Napa Valley that stretches from just north of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars to Clos du Val is now known as the Stags Leap District, a one-mile-by-three mile stretch of land that comprises just 1/100th of Napa Valley. The federal government recognized this district as an official American Viticultural Area in 1989.

If it weren’t for this stretch of Napa Valley, America might not have its reputation for producing some of the world’s best wines.

In early October, I spent a week in Stags Leap learning about the region, its history, and its wine producers.

Grape growing in Stags Leap began in 1878, when Napa Valley was little more than sleepy towns and horse paths. That year, an entrepreneur named Terrill Grigsby built Occidental Winery, the region’s first winery. Fifteen years later, Grigsby was joined by another entrepreneur, Horace Chase, who founded Stags’ Leap Winery. By 1895, Chase’s winery was producing 40,000 gallons of wine each year.

Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008

Grape-growing in the region took off. But around the same time, a pest called phylloxera was spreading – and it soon destroyed half the area’s vineyards. Most vines that survived were ripped up during Prohibition, as vintners planted walnut trees and other legal crops.

Grapes returned to the region in 1961, when a gutsy farmer named Nathan Fay planted several acres of Cabernet Sauvignon near the now-shuttered wineries. Fay’s grapes quickly gained a reputation among Napa Valley’s vintners, including Warren Winiarski, an intrepid winemaker who was quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best. In 1970, Winiarski decided to buy land next to Fay and establish Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

The rest is history. Today, the Stags Leap District is home to 19 highly praised wineries.

The wines from the region are unique for two main reasons.

First, there’s the soil. Most of it is coarse and volcanic with good drainage, which is perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Then, there’s the geography. At the southern end of Stags Leap, low-lying flatlands extend all the way to San Pablo Bay, an extension of San Francisco Bay. The eastern side of Stags Leap is marked by dramatic, cliff-like hills, which serve two purposes. In the mornings, they reflect heat onto the vineyards below, enabling temperatures to rise more quickly than they otherwise would. In the afternoons, they help funnel cool air in from San Pablo Bay, resulting in low nighttime temperatures. These swings help the grapes attain complex flavors and achieve balance.

These factors result in wines that display not just richness and ripeness but vibrant acidity and soft tannins. Especially when young, Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District is more approachable than other Napa Valley wines.

It’s no wonder that Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap District is sometimes described as an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” The wines from this region aren’t cheap – few wines from Napa Valley are – but they’re worth seeking out.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of His columns are housed at, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.