To Wine, or Not to Wine—That is the Question

While it’s tempting to assume that, when it comes to wine, the French invented almost everything, there’s one pursuit they largely overlooked: wine writing. For that, we have to thank the ancient Greek and Roman writers, then later, the English. The first book on wine in the English language was A New Boke of the Natures and Properties of All Wines, written in 1568 by William Turner. Turner’s book is thought to have been a guide for William Shakespeare, who laced his texts with numerous references to wine. Then, during the 18th century, dozens of major wine books were written—many of them, interestingly, by English physicians.


A Remarkable Ascent

Curiously, some of the world’s most powerful organizations start out the most humbly.

In the world of wine, there’s no better example than the Napa Valley Vintners which began 77 years ago as a modest association of just seven members. The year was 1944 and their agreement, pecked out on an old manual typewriter, listed five ways in which they could help one another. The first one— “to advance the interests of the Napa Valley through publicity, advertising and such other methods as may seem best…”—has been, by any measure, wildly successful. Today some 500 members of the association work to continue to achieve that purpose. Not surprisingly, the initial Napa Valley Vintners meeting happened over lunch with bottles of wine from the late 1930s and early 1940s. (One hopes the legendary 1941 Inglenook—a wine of the century—was there). The vintner’s spirit of camaraderie and shared determination must have been impressive for at the time the Napa Valley was a rural backwater better known for prunes and cattle than Cabernet. The valley has clearly changed. Enormous strides have been made in the last seven decades. And yet the organization that Joe Heitz (NVV Board Chair 1970-1971) described as “a great moving force to keep us working together,” remains as vital as ever.


The Original Seven

The original seven member wineries of the Napa Valley Vintners Association were:

  • Beaulieu Vineyard
  • Larkmead Vineyards
  • Napa Valley Cooperative Winery
  • Mondavi & Sons
  • Inglenook
  • Louis M. Martini Winery
  • Louis Stralla

Tempranillo: The Quick Inside Scoop

Next Thursday is International Tempranillo Day. Ahead of that excuse for drinking a great Rioja, here are a few thoughts on the variety. The name Tempranillo is derived from the Spanish temprano, meaning early, and is Spain’s best-loved and most-prized grape variety. In Rioja, Tempranillo makes mellow, long-aged red wines that are show-stoppers for their elegance. In Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo makes powerhouse reds. There, the grape is known as Tinto Fino. After centuries of adaptation, the Tempranillo clones that exist in Ribera del Duero are quite different from those in Rioja. Next door in Portugal, Tempranillo is called Aragonez or Tinta Roriz and is one of the grapes, along with other indigenous grapes, blended together to make the country’s renowned Ports.



A blend of religious and superstitious beliefs, the traditions of Halloween have evolved over several centuries. One such tradition, trick-or-treating, most likely took its cues from All Souls’ Day festivities in England. During the revelries, less fortunate families would beg for food and be given pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the gifting family’s dead relatives. The church encouraged distribution of soul cakes as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine out for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling,” was eventually adopted by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money. Ale and money were dropped from the tradition in the U.S. but collecting candy door-to-door still occurs of course. One quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween. With an estimated $6 billion spent, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday after Christmas in the U.S.


Champagne Charlie

In honor of International Champagne Day, here’s a story about one of the men who made the beverage popular in the United States. Charles Heidsieck founded his Champagne house, by the same name, in 1851 and promoted his Champagne extensively in the United States. He was dubbed “Champagne Charlie” by the American press. Champagne Charlie was an energetic, smooth-talking entrepreneur—by 1861 he had sold over 300,000 bottles in the U.S., and his Champagne had become a wild success. From an avid winemaking family, Charles Heidsieck was related to the founders of the two other Champagne houses that eventually came to be known as Piper-Heidsieck and Heidsieck & Co. Monopole. During the U.S. Civil War, Charlie was arrested and accused of being a Confederate spy on his travels through New Orleans. He was finally released from prison after President Lincoln received a letter from Napoleon III, then the Emperor of France, on his behalf. Returning to France penniless and ill, Charlie still managed to save his Champagne business when he was repaid a debt using land deeds. The repayment included one third of a small village in the U.S.  “Colorado Territory.” Shortly thereafter, silver was discovered in that same then little-known village of Denver, saving Charlie’s Champagne empire.


White Truffles: Piedmont’s Other Treasure

It’s October— and that means it’s time for white truffles. Just imagining autumn in the Piedmont region of Italy—drinking sumptuous Barolos alongside warm strands of buttery homemade taglierini or “tajarin” (thin, fine ribbons of egg pasta) mounded with shaved white truffles—is enough to send shivers up my spine. Of the more than seventy species of truffles that can be found throughout the world, Piedmont’s hypnotically delicious white truffles are the most highly sought after. Considered ectomycorrhizal fungi (they have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of a nearby plant), they grow a foot or more underground, generally near oak, chestnut, or beech trees. They ripen throughout the late fall; conveniently, at the same time as Piedmont’s grapes.

A variety of compounds contribute to white truffles’ spellbinding, sweaty/musky pungency, notably androstanol, a pheromone also found in the testes and ovaries of humans and the saliva of boars. The substance has a powerful psychological effect on human beings.

Because they grow underground, white truffles cannot be detected by humans and must be found by animals with a more refined sense of smell. Dogs and female pigs are trained to sniff them out. (Pigs are rather less preferred because of their habit of quickly gobbling the truffle after digging it up.) Truffle hunters “trifalaos” hunt alone and secretly, usually at night. The next morning they’ll sell the truffles they find (for $1500 to $4000 per pound as of last year) in hush-hush style (often in a bar) almost like illicit drugs.


The Incredible Crayères


In order to have enough stone to construct the city of Reims in what was then Gaul, in the fourth century, the Romans dug three hundred immensely deep quarries in the chalky rock. These same vertical chalk pits, called crayères, are used today by the Champagne houses to age Champagne. They are miracles of construction that seem to defy physics, and descending into their eerily quiet, cold, dark, humid chambers is an otherworldly experience that no wine drinker should miss. Because the best chalk was often well underground, many crayères go down as far as 120 feet (37 meters). They are shaped like pyramids, so the deepest parts of the crayères are also the widest, and the tops of the pits are narrow (this limited air exposure in the quarry and kept the chalk moist and soft, and thus easier to cut into large construction blocks). During World War I, when Reims was extensively bombed, twenty thousand people lived for years in the dark crayères (no sunlight penetrates). Indeed, the crayères under Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart were makeshift hospitals, and under Pommery was a school.


What is Kosher Wine?

With the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur both in September, we thought some information was fitting.  But get ready, kosher wine is a bit complex.

The term kosher means “pure” or “fit.” Kosher wines are those that are fit for Sabbath-observant (Orthodox) Jews to drink. By law, such wines can only be handled by a Sabbath-observant Jew from the time the grapes enter the winery until the time the wine is bottled. A non-Jew or non-Sabbath-observant Jew can be involved in the winemaking, but he or she cannot handle the wine while it’s in barrels or tanks. Additionally, anything used in making a kosher wine—from yeasts to fining agents—must also be kosher.

Kosher wines come in two categories—mevushal and non-mevushal. In Hebrew, mevushal means “cooked” or “boiled.”

Non-mevushal kosher wine (wine that is not cooked) must be made, handled, bottled, certified, opened, and poured only by a Sabbath-observant Jew. It is, in a sense, the highest class of kosher wine. If a non-Jew touches a non mevushal wine, the wine in effect loses its spiritual essence and is considered unfit for sacramental use. Strictly-observant Jews will not drink a non-mevushal wine that has been touched by someone who isn’t Jewish and observant.

The second, and far more common type of kosher wine is mevushal. Mevushal wines are flash-pasteurized and can therefore be bought, opened, and shared among Jews and non-Jews, as well as non-observant Jews and observant Jews. Kosher wines served in restaurants and at catered events are always mevushal.

Religious scholars speculate that the reason for the two types goes far back in history. Traditionally, Jewish religious authorities knew that wine was used not just for sacramental purposes, but also socially. Wine eased and encouraged social interaction. It’s thought that early Jewish intellectuals may have feared such socializing, viewing it as the first step toward the disintegration of Jewish culture and the assimilation of Jews into other cultures. To mitigate this, two versions of Kosher wine would be made. Mevushal wine would be, quite literally, boiled, making it less palatable and potentially lower in quality, but also “morally sterilized.” Mevushal wine could therefore be shared by non-Jews and non-observant Jews with observant Jews.

Today mevushal wines are no longer boiled per se, and many are no longer flash pasteurized. Instead, during a method called flash-détente, the just-picked grapes (rather than the wine) are quickly heated and then rapidly cooled in a vacuum. Flash détente is gentler than flash pasteurization and has less impact on the flavor of the final wine. It has tended to close the flavor gap between mevushal and non-mevushal wines.


Summer Iced Tea

How’s this for summertime trivia?  The first iced tea was more like a cocktail and often included wine.  For example, the cookbook The Kentucky Housewife, written in 1839 by Lettice Bryan, has a recipe for iced tea that includes tea, sugar, sweet cream and, “a bottle of claret or Champagne.”  Why these teas fell out of favor is anyone’s guess, since they undoubtedly made for more interesting sipping than cold Nestle.


The Name Shiraz

The Second Annual International Shiraz Day was yesterday. Herewith, some information on the name shiraz. Until the 1980s, Australians often called syrah “hermitage” and occasionally “shiraz.” But because Hermitage is an official appellation in the northern Rhône Valley of France, use of that term was eventually discontinued.  As for the name shiraz, it is probably a linguistic variation on a string of different names that the French have historically used for syrah. These include schiras, sirac, syrac, serine, sereine, and scyras. But no matter what it is called, DNA typing reveals that syrah is definitely a French grape and not named for the Iranian city of Shiraz (as has sometimes been suggested). Back to the wine itself: We love top Australian shiraz; it’s simply impossible to ignore the wine’s seductive aromas, gracefully soft texture, and luscious berry and violet flavors, plus the wine’s bolts of enlivening spiciness and black pepperiness.


The First Big Bar Tab

America’s early presidents were all avid wine drinkers—starting with the first president himself, George Washington. On September 15, 1787, to celebrate his election a few months earlier, as well as the impending signing of the Constitution two days later, Washington rounded up other “founding fathers,” plus friends, and troops to celebrate. The bill at the City Tavern in Philadelphia that night came to just over $17,300 in today’s dollars. By the end of the night, the 55 guests had consumed 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Bordeaux, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of porter ale, 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 jugs of beer, and 7 large bowls of punch. (The staff and musicians drank another 21 bottles and just as much punch). The bill also included reimbursements to the tavern for a serious number of broken glasses. The receipt for the night was saved in the First Troop Cavalry Archives.


The Charm of Absinthe

Despite the lovely charm of a good rosé, we know that occasionally you may want to drink something else on a hot summer night. In that case, there is another famous, well-loved French libation—absinthe, a bitter, bold green, licorice-flavored spirit that in French cafés is usually served as an aperitif with a carafe of ice water. When the water is added to the absinthe, the drink immediately turns ominously cloudy. Absinthe’s emerald green color and herbaceously bitter flavor come from green anise, fennel, and the plant wormwood. Alas, in the early 20th century, several reports claimed that a volatile compound in wormwood, thujone, was a hallucinogen that could “destroy the nervous system.” Although absinthe brands like Pernod were wildly popular among Paris’ bohemian artists and authors at the time, absinthe was banned in France in 1915, and before that in much of the rest of Europe and the United States. For several decades, absinthe drinkers had little choice but to substitute pastis, a similar spirit made from anise, fennel, and licorice—but no wormwood. Then research in the 1980s revealed that wormwood did not contain enough thujone to be toxic or deleterious to health. By the 1990s, bans lifted, wormwood was back as a legal ingredient in absinthe which, for its part, has regained its status as a café staple. Cheers.