Wine column no. 64: Honor yourself and others: good wine isn't built on false pretenses.

Jan. 18, 2015: Wine gives us so much that it’s easy to overlook its role in the experience. As the reason for the life of the party, as the device that enhances a meal, as the gift that demonstrates appreciation and respect, wine can become just a conduit, a method for execution.

But what does wine get from us? What in its chemical or other specific properties makes it work with us, and not against us? And why should we care?

I ask this because it can get tiring always taking from a bottle of wine. Sometimes you just want to give back. And sometimes the best way to do that is not with honors, awards or compliments, but by trying to understand where a wine comes from in the first place.

A good wine to start with is the 2011 Murphy-Goode Liar’s Dice Zinfandel from Sonoma County, California. Or, at least you’d think it’s a Zinfandel if you read the label. Do a bit of research, though, and you’ll find that 7 percent of it is Petite Sirah. So, is the label living up to its clever name? Or is this label technically right, given laws regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department?

The answer is it’s technically right. According to www.napavintners.com, winemakers are required to list the type of wine on the label. Wines using varietal names like Zinfandel or Chardonnay must derive at least 75 percent of their volume from the designated grape. “Although not required, many wineries voluntarily list the proportions of the grape varieties that comprise their wine blends,” the website said.

On that last point, the Liar’s Dice decides to gamble; it’s not giving up anything more than what it’s required to do by law. Still, it’s a good buy for only $16.59 at the Newburgh Schnucks. This Zinfandel blend offers a nose of cassis, brown sugar and cigar box. It’s light-bodied but yet, at 15.5 percent alcohol, deceptively powerful.

Another worthwhile wine coming in at a higher price is the 2012 Honig Napa Valley, California, Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine has an earthy edge but also includes cherries and spice. It’s smooth, round and impressive. But it’s also not purely a Cabernet Sauvignon despite what’s written on the label. According to Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, 7 percent of it is Petit Verdot and another 4 percent is Cabernet Franc. $37.99. Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago.

The 2011 Dry Creek Vineyards Heritage Vines Zinfandel from Sonoma County, California, is a good food wine. It has a blackberry nose and a smooth texture, but the nose is better than the flavor, which is somewhat muted and tastes watered down. However, it went very well with beef marinated in wine. This bottle is also not what the label says it is. Dry Creek Vineyard’s website explains that it contains 16 percent Petite Sirah. It has 14.5 percent alcohol, and The Wine Vault sells this for $17.09.

What makes some wines more aromatic than others? The answer is complicated and involves chemistry. Cold temperatures can detract from the aroma, and volatile and non-volatile compounds in the wine can also impact its nose and flavors. Wine aromas change depending on the age of the wine, their interaction with oak, the grape varieties and their degree of ripeness. Roughly 80 percent of what we taste is attributable to our sense of smell, according to Total Wine & More. Since each scent (apple, clove and vanilla, for instance) is essentially a chemical compound, this opens up possibilities for doctored aroma profiles.

Some wines don’t pass the smell test. According to an article in The Daily Beast called “The Great Wine Cover-up,” winemakers at the KWV winery in South Africa were caught adding vegetable flavorings to several of their Sauvignon Blancs to give them “varietally correct aromas of green pepper and grass. They were successful: The wines racked up several awards before the fraud was discovered” in 2004.

So what can we take from wine that also allows us to give it something in return? I’d argue for mutual respect. If you want to learn more about a wine, do the research. Read the law and see what’s allowed and what isn’t. And then do your best to make and appreciate wine within those constraints. But wineries should not allow the pursuit of fame and fortune to distort their purpose in making wine in the first place. That’s not how to honor wine. That’s not how to honor people, either.


Wine column no. 63: Should grapes have more privacy than you? (I don't think they should.)

Jan. 4, 2015: Every time I encounter a proprietary wine blend, I think: 
It must be great to be able to teeter there, on that edge, between 
being open, and being secretive; between being constructive, and 
being obstructive; between helping your customers learn more 
about wine, and making them throw their hands up in the air.

In other words, I don’t like proprietary blends. They bother me. Why 
do some winemakers take the time to respect consumers, telling 
them exactly which grapes are used to make the wine in their hands? 
And why do other vintners do all they can to make their wines a 
mystery, implying that if consumers really knew what was in them, 
they wouldn’t be interested in the wine at all?

There’s no legal definition for a proprietary blend in the United States, 
according to Wine Spectator. This means that Caymus' 2012 
Conundrum Red Blend isn't doing anything wrong when it sells its 
proprietary red blend from Rutherford, California, for $22.99 at The 
Fresh Market.

The Conundrum, actually, is quite a good wine for the price, what with 
its plum and cedar nose and its round feel. I'd purchase it again 
without any delay, or regret. Paired with a juicy cheeseburger, it would 
win out. 

Yet that’s not what concerns me. What bothers me is the philosophy 
used to market and sell proprietary wines. It would be different if 
consumers were banned from knowing the grapes used to make 
these blends. If the law said: “The privacy of the grapes used to 
produce these wines is guaranteed,” then I’d understand. The law 
is the law. I’d even support that, since I believe laws should be followed. 
Yet there isn’t a law that says grapes have privacy. There isn’t a law 
that says vineyards have privacy. There isn’t a law that says consumers 
shouldn’t be told what they are drinking, what they are served at parties, 
at dinner tables, during after-hours business deals. So it bothers me 
when vineyards capitalize on mystery, when they take what’s good and 
make it unattainable — when they kick out honesty and instead say, 
“Our privacy is more important than yours.” Because here’s the truth: 
Wouldn’t you want to know what you are swallowing? Wouldn’t you 
want to know what’s running through your veins? I would. And I don’t 
think I’m in the minority.