WineFuture 2009 La Rioja, Spain

I'm on the road again with limited internet access after a couple of days of sightseeing in Rioja, but in the meantime, check out my take on the future of the wine industry at PalatePress.com. I'll be posting some additional commentary on specific issues from the conference and some of my more amusing travel encounters once I'm back in Napa.


My trip to Spain begins

The view outside my hotel window in Logrono, Spain

Did I tell you I’m traveling to Spain for a conference? I received a scholarship to attend the WineFuture Conference in Logrono, Spain 11/12-11/13. It was a last minute thing- I only had 3 ½ week’s notice to plan the trip, but I’ve arrived safe and sound. Let me regale you with my observations on getting here.

Day 1

I was unsuccessful at my attempt to avoid the last minute airport rush, and in the craziness I left my cell phone plugged into the charger in the wall at home. Ok- I can deal with that one. I’ve still got the laptop. I’ll just communicate by email instead.

Once I got to the airport, things went smoothly. The shuttle got us there in plenty of time. We had some breakfast and relaxed. And by we, I mean me and the surly teenager. I took a huge chance and brought my almost 17 year old son along with me. He and I don’t have the best relationship right now but I thought about how I would have really wanted to do something like this when I was his age. He agreed with me, and now, here we are in a hotel room in Spain where he is asleep and I am wide awake at 2 am.

The US portion of the trip – SF to Chicago went smoothly. As usual, the Skymall catalog provided the most amusement. Telekinesis game. You put on this headset and “supposedly” relaxation triggers energy waves that allow you to move this little ball around a miniature obstacle course. Really?? Who buys this stuff?

There was only an hour layover between arriving and the next leg of the flight- Chicago to Madrid. The gate was right next to the one where we landed. How lucky was that? We painlessly segued to Iberia Air for the next jaunt.

Here’s where things get interesting. The Iberia plane was decent, although without a lot of the perks that are becoming standard on some of the newer planes, like your own personal viewing screen or wifi. No problem, I can deal.

The guy in the seat in front of me trying to steal my under seat leg room? No deal. I deliberately chose the two seats together in the side row so I wouldn’t get squished into the middle seat. Airline leg room is one of my pet peeves. Why is it a given that the short person should take the middle seat? Mr. Inconsiderate in the seat in front of me stuffed his carry-on bag underneath his seat instead of the seat in front of him. It took me a few minutes to figure out why my modest sized purse wouldn’t fit in the usual spot underneath the seat. I may not be tall, but my back starts to hurt if I can’t stretch out my legs and end up scrunched up. I’m not giving up my leg room for him, especially on an 8 hour flight. Put your stuff in the overhead bin like everyone else, Bud. (For once there was plenty of room in the bins.) I just kept pushing his stuff with my foot until he got the message. Later on in the flight when he dropped a CD from his briefcase and it landed near me in the aisle, I picked it up and handed it to him while I smiled sweetly to offset the non-negotiable leg room issue.

Someone’s baby cried off and on the whole flight and I had ample opportunity to reflect on the fact that I’m less tolerant of stuff like that than I used to be. I’m trying to remember back when I was that mom with the infant who wouldn’t stop crying or the 3 yr old throwing a tantrum on the plane. I’m trying to be sympathetic, but my baby turns 17 next week. (Holy shit. How did that happen?)

Let me tell you about the stewardesses. They were nice enough and chicly dressed I might add. None of them were rude, but they also didn’t do anything that you usually expect stewardesses to do. They did the seatbelt, oxygen mask, cushion as a flotation device routine. They served dinner and that was it. Period. They even missed picking up our meal trays. Sam was trying to sleep, I was reading and suddenly I looked up and everyone else’s tray was gone.  Had to bus it myself and chase after the stewardess to get rid of the stuff. They spent the remaining 6 hours huddled in the back of the plane while everyone served themselves water or juice from the galley. No one bitched at you for getting up when the seatbelt sign was lit, no one checked that the seat back was upright in preparation for landing. De nada. Apparently, breakfast was “self serve.” If you wanted it you were supposed to go back and get the cigarette carton shaped box of sweet rolls from the galley yourself. By the time I figured it out we were landing. There was also no beer or wine on the plane- highly unusual for a European trans-Atlantic flight. I haven’t figured out if this was because some of the Iberia staff was on strike that day or if that’s just the way Iberia rolls. The plane landed safely at the Madrid airport even though my seat wasn’t in the upright position (hmmmm.)

The Madrid airport was stunningly designed, think Gaudi meets Pompidou, and I admired it as we marched up and down escalators and along miles of glass walled corridors between the gates, customs and security and on the tram to the domestic terminal. It was a short commuter flight from there to San Sebastian where we picked up the rental car and more hilarity ensued. Well, mostly the sort of hilarity where you don’t know exactly where you are going, punctuated with “round about” intersections, vague directions from someone who only speaks a bit of English, and the GPS voice telling you “Turn around” “Take the next right” “Go through the round about and take the 3rd exit…” Eventually we found ourselves on the highway and made it to the hotel in Logrono.

To be continued.


A Photo Essay of Crush: Red Wine

The previous post showed the steps involved in making white wine. This time I'll show the crush process grapes go through to become red wine. While the basic steps are similar, there are a few differences. Depending on scale and the type of wine being made, a winemaker might choose to use either method. In this case the wine being made is a high quality, single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon crushed,fermented and cellared in small batches.

Start with a load of luscious Cabernet grapes from Napa. This was one of approximately 12 tons that were crushed in this batch.

The grapes are dumped a half ton at a time onto the sorting table.

The grapes are spread out evenly and the workers look for any foreign objects, pieces of vine, leaves, or critters (trust me - you don't want to know,) referred to as "MOG" (Materials Other than Grapes), that may have fallen into the gondolas when the grapes were picked.

The grapes ride the conveyor and enter a second hopper for a ride up to the destemming machine. Destemming removes harsh flavors that the stems and leaves can impart to the wine and helps insure a higher quality product. The grapes look juicy and delicious in this shot as they make the ride up to the destemmer at the top.

The destemmer houses a rotating stainless steel drum with holes in it that pulls the individual berries off the stems. The whole berries go into the fermentation tank. The stems collect in a container to be disposed of later. Here's a view of the destemmer from the back end.

The individual berries ready to go into the fermentation tank.

Leftover stems are collected in another bin.

The grapes then go through 4" diameter hose into one of the fermentation tanks.

Here's a photo of the tank barn. These tanks hold 3500 gallons each.

A shot from the top of the catwalk showing the hose heading into the tank.

The grapes sit for 24 to 72 hours in a process called cold soak. This allows the grapes inside the tank to reach the optimum temperature for fermentation and lets the natural yeasts that live on the skins of the grapes begin fermentation. Once the temperature is right, the tank is inoculated with the yeast. The fermentation process takes 7-10 days, but can vary depending on the outside temperature and the strain of yeast the winemaker uses. While the grapes are in the tank, the liquid that forms from fermentation is pumped up and over the solid material formed by the grape skins. Some winemakers do this by hand in open fermentation tanks using paddles or puncheons.

When fermentation is finished, the grapes are pumped back out of the tank and go into the press. This photo shows the presses in use.

The remaining grape skins are removed and discarded. Often the skins and stems are composted to be made into soil amendments.

The fermented wine is then put into barrels or back into holding tanks to age depending on the type of wine and the technique the winery uses. Only two years to go and the wine will be finished.

I'm hoping to get more photos of the winemaking process as the season progresses. Check back for additional photo essays in the future. I'll try to intersperse them my pithy (not) commentary on my experiences working in the wine industry.


A Photo Essay of Crush: White Wine

This is how we make wine in Napa...

Ok- just kidding. That's how they make wine in Sonoma. (A little wine country humor.) I took this picture today watching the grape stomping contest at the Sonoma Vintage Festival. It is one of my favorite events of the season, despite the fact it was 100 degrees in the shade in the Sonoma Plaza today.

The idea to create a photo essay on the grape harvest has been floating around in the back of my mind since I blogged about the Blessing of the Grapes. I started taking pictures of the crush process on that day, but I guess the blessing hadn't had enough time to soak in. No sooner had they cranked up the switches and started the conveyor line and de-stemmer, when some other thingamabob (I'm a whiz with the technical terms) stopped working and they shut the line down. I didn't get to take any more pictures that day.

But fear not my friends. The winemaking staff fixed the doohickey and crush was off and running. It started in fits and spurts, picking up speed as the grapes on the vine started to ripen. As of Friday 9/25/09 they were done with Sauvignon Blanc, finishing up the last of the Chardonnay grapes and expecting to work feverishly for the next two weeks on Cabernet grapes. I took some great pictures of crushing both reds and whites, but lets start with the whites since the process is a bit simpler.

Most grapes are picked at night to keep the fruit fresh and to spare the picking crews from the heat of the day. I don't have the right camera equipment (ok, really I didn't want to get up at 3 am) to get good shots of the picking process, but lucky for us the Napa Valley Register just published this mini-video of crews picking at night.
The trucks start bringing in the full gondolas (a term for the large plastic containers that hold 1/2 ton) of grapes early in the morning. The winemaking staff starts between 6:00 and 7:00 am depending on how many tons they are expecting to arrive. The gondolas are unloaded from the trucks with forklifts and stacked for processing.

One at a time the gondolas are dumped into the initial hopper and the grapes start their journey along the sorting table. These grapes are Chardonnay.

The workers make sure the grape clusters are spread evenly and pick out any large items such as pieces of vine or large clumps of leaves that may have gone into the gondola with the grapes. Whole clusters are kept intact and they rise up the conveyor and tumble into the press.
Here's a shot showing the press.

The press full of grapes.

Once the press is full of grapes they rotate it and start to press very gently. The first juice that flows without using much pressure is called the "free run." It goes directly into the fermentation tank. The juice collects in a large tray below the press. I couldn't get a good shot of that, although it smelled delicious.

Additional pressings are tested and tasted for flavor and sugar content. As they press harder, successive runs of juice have harsher flavors. The juice from successive press runs that are considered unsuitable for the wine being made are kept separate and either go into lesser wines or are fermented and then sold on the bulk wine market to be made into another brand.

From here, the juice is pumped into a holding tank where it is inoculated with the yeast and fermentation begins.

The empty tank waiting for the pressed juice.

The winemaking staff continues this process until all the grapes picked the night before are crushed and in the tanks starting to ferment which often takes until late at night- think midnight onward. They finish by washing and sanitizing the equipment. When its all done for the day they go home, only to get up and start the whole process again at 7:00 am.

Coming up next: red wine crush


Key Elements for Sucessful Winery E-Commerce Strategy

I'm delighted to announce Practical Winery & Vineyard has published my article, "Key elements for successful winery e-commerce strategy" in their September/October 2009 edition. The journal doesn't put much of their content online, so for those who don't subscribe, get a subscription. They publish lots of interesting wine related content. But for the rest of us, you can read my article here.


The Blessing of the Grapes

Or crush begins and I am divinely inspired to blog.

Today was the beginning of the grape harvest at the winery. In the business we call it "crush." We use the word "party" as a verb to describe the action of celebration and in this case "crush" becomes a noun that evokes the action of harvest. In the wine making business, the party starts now.

The winery has a tradition of holding a brief ceremony to bless the harvest when the first grapes come in from the vineyards. As crush approaches, the wine making interns are sampling grapes from the vineyards on an almost daily basis so the winemaker can decide when they've reached the perfect sugar content. When the brix (a scientific term for the amount of sugar the grape contains) hits the "sweet spot" the winemaker is looking for, harvest begins for the winery.

One of the charms of this event is that you never know when it will be until just a day or two before it takes place. The winemaker decides its time; the grapes are ready. Someone calls Father Steven from the local Episcopal Diocese and an email goes out: "The Blessing of the Grapes will be held tomorrow at 9:30am."

I'm not religious, but I'm always touched by the solemn dignity of the ceremony and by the respect shown by all the winery personnel. Everyone attends, from the vineyard workers to the general manager. Father Steven always reads the benedict about the "milk and honey," waves the incense over the grapes, and uses a sheaf of freshly-cut rosemary to splash the crowd with holy water to bless us all for creating the wine. There's always a little nosh and a glass of wine to celebrate.

Once the ceremony is done, they start up the sorting line and crush officially starts. The first grapes picked this year were Merlot, in case you were wondering. Here they are in all their glory, waiting to be blessed and fulfill their destiny.


Equations, Exams and Excel

I started writing a post about business school a few weeks back, but the post (and the whole blog) got lost in a maelstrom of work drama, the class group project and the final exam that seemed to suck up the entire month of May. The good news is that I passed my class. Some of you who know me might be thinking my stress over not getting a “C” or better in the class is just a bunch of dramatic mental gymnastics. Take it from me, though, college is a lot harder when you get older. Between working full time, family responsibilities and brain cells lost, it is a hell of a lot harder to digest equations and memorize chunks of data at forty-something than when I was twenty-something. On the other hand, the thought of producing 10 pages of research on a subject in APA format, complete with abstract and references seems like no big deal. Unfortunately this semester didn't give me the chance to rock my crazymad paper writing skills. It was all equations, exams and excel.

I now have two semesters under my belt. I estimate I have four more to go if I take two classes each semester. I was trying to go at it a little slower, but my advisor pointed out the error in my thinking. It seems some classes are only offered in the spring or fall, the wine business electives are offered somewhat randomly, and there are three classes which are a prerequisite for a fourth (only offered in the spring). This would mean I’d end up being stuck at some point along the way with nothing to take while waiting for a class I needed to roll around next semester. So, now I’m back to giving the two classes at a time another try. Lesson learned from my first semester- do not, under any circumstances if it can be avoided, take classes two nights in a row. Space them at least one day apart to keep your energy up and spare your sanity.

This past semester was tough even though I only took one class. Following the advice of a more seasoned student, I traded my choices of the required Marketing class, or the elective Wine Sales/Marketing for Financial Statement Analysis. I’m not sure if it was a good idea or not. This is the class where they train you to be your own personal version a Wall Street Master of the Universe. The curtains are pulled away from the inner sanctum of stock analysis. It's your ticket to grab the golden egg of MBAhood.

According to an article in the New York Times, 40% of graduates decide to take jobs in finance and/or consulting doing this kind of work rather than staying in their chosen fields from their undergraduate days. The professor many times mentioned that all of us in the class were now qualified to get a job as a junior analyst. As long as we were willing to work 70 hours a week for 5 or 6 years we’d be set - as brokers, or hedge fund managers, or whatever, and make a bazillion dollars a year. I found it ironic that the professor obviously rejected all of that for the calmer waters of academia. I understand, though. I can’t think of anything I want to do less than financial analysis on that scale. Seriously. Even if I could make a ga-jillion dollars doing it, I never got anywhere close to feeling like I mastered any of it.

All this, combined with the recent collapse of the financial sector, gave me a lot to think about over the sixteen week semester. There were quite a few editorials about the demise of the MBA if you were paying attention. The New York Times and others were almost gleefully reporting on new graduates from the top schools going begging for jobs and there were plenty of comments suggesting that MBA’s in general were responsible for the collapse. The premise of the first article I mentioned is why business schools needed to change and focus less on the financial side of business and more on the actual production of goods and services.

Week after week, I had to work at keeping my perspective straight as I struggled to absorb all the information we were learning in class. People who go into the wine business tend to be romantic. Most of the other Wine Business majors were not interested in doing financial analysis either. We all want to be making, or selling, or drinking, or talking about wine. Financial Statement Analysis was like a soul-sucking demon speaking a foreign language to which I had to pay tribute before I could pass to the next level. I was starting to question my purpose in getting the MBA in the first place.

Luckily, the semester ended and I was able to bid Financial Analysis adeiu. After giving it a lot of thought, where I considered giving up (for a millisecond) I was able to remember why I came to the program.

Post script- It’s taken me a few weeks to get this finished and up on the blog. Due to some family issues, I’m back to considering only taking one class in the fall. I’m looking forward to taking one of the wine business electives, Wine Finance. I’m afraid taking one class at a time will leave me to slog through a lot of less interesting stuff when I’m done with the wine classes and just have the general MBA units to finish.

In case you were wondering, I’m doing the MBA program because I enjoy understanding the big picture of how things work. I want to know why decisions are made. I’m also looking to get a leg up in a career in which I got a late start.


April in Careneros, Part 2

The weather on Saturday was warm but still in the just right range. Sunday was officially too darn hot. We're troopers when it comes to wine, though and I wanted to check out several of the wineries at the 8th Street East area. This is a group of boutique wineries that rent space in industrial complexes in the city of Sonoma.

We started with Tin Barn- awesome wines and a great pulled pork food pairing. Did I mention this year's event had some of the best food parings I can recall? We really liked the Zinfandel with the pork, and all of the wines were great.

We moved down the row to Talisman, which specializes in Pinots. Talisman is a good example of focusing on one varietal and doing it really, really well. They were offering a vertical of Pinots from 2003 to 2007. Visitors had the chance to taste the difference between vintages and gauge how the aging process effects the wines. Both M and I were enamored with the 2004.

We stopped in at Parmalee-Hill and Ty Caton, both had good showings, but our next favorite was Enkidu. Nice people and great wines. Some inky, intense Rhone styles here. But I have to confess, between the heat and all the heavier wines I was feeling overcome, and had to switch to whites and roses for the end.

We finished up our 8th Street foray with Anaba. Stephanie, their marketing manager, and I are both in the MBA program. We chatted a bit. I skipped the reds, but loved the Voignier blend. Lovely florals with a nice acid component to balance the wine. At this point I was over wine tasting for the day, but M wanted to stop at Folio.

Folio offers a mix of their own labels, wines they import, and several boutique wineries who use their facilities for custom crush. I was just too whupped to do any serious tasting this time around, but I have some favorites from previous tastings. I melted into the chair, enjoying the stunning view on their back porch, while M tasted. Then we got a call from our friends from Saturday who had come back for more. I bucked up and took one for the team so we could meet up at Ceja to finish the afternoon.

I'm going to admit I am biased here. We know the Cejas socially. They are good people and I love their wine. I sipped on a bit of their amazing Sauvignon Blanc (before switching to water) while we sat in the shade on the patio and chatted with friends to end the afternoon. A great end to a great weekend.


April in Carneros

I just had the most fantastic weekend. It was April in Carneros, the first of two weekends each year when the wineries in Carneros feature a food and wine event that raises money for a college scholarship fund. The second event, in November, is called Holiday in Carneros. Typically 15-20 of the members of Hospitality de los Carneros participate. The $40 fee includes two days of wine and food parings. Many of the wineries are offering special pricing for the weekend and lots of bargains.

If you aren't familiar, Carneros is a crescent shaped area that runs along the south edges of Napa and Sonoma counties where they meet the northern edge of the San Pablo Bay. This region gets more fog and wind than Napa or Sonoma proper, and has a different soil. These conditions make it perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Many of the member wineries feature these varietals along with other varietals they source from vineyards in other Northern California appellations. We tasted wines from the Sonoma coast, Lake County, the Sierra foothills, and Napa to name a few.

It seemed like there were more wineries participating this year and certainly more than you could reasonably visit in two days, so we had to pick and choose (unfortunately.) Like everyone, we had a few favorites, but also tried to make it to some new wineries.

Morning wine tasting needs a full stomach in my opinion and we started Saturday slowly with a good breakfast. We decided our first tasting would be with Roche, the winery furthest to the southwest. Nothing here thrilled us this time, but we've had some great wines there in the past. Our friends were taken by a late harvest Merlot they were offering that paired beautifully with chocolate dipped strawberries.

Next stop on the map was Cline. They always have a nice spread, and were pouring seven Rhone influenced wines along two barrel tastings of two of the seven. I always think you get good value for your money with Cline and they have beautiful grounds to visit. I particularly liked the 2008 Marsanne Roussane blend and Mourvedre Rose they were pouring, while M thought a GSM blend called Cashmere featured in the bottle and in the barrel was as voluptuous as it's name. We also bought a bottle of Ancient Vine Mourvedre, a tasty wine we've had before. Could have spent the whole afternoon by their pond, enjoying the shade and the atmosphere, but there was more to do.

We motored down the road to Cornerstone Place which now features 4 tasting rooms in addition to the home and garden boutiques and rotating outdoor sculpture installations. This was our first visit to Cornerstone. I'm always intrigued by the landmark tree covered with blue ping pong balls that you see from the highway but we've never taken the time to stop and check things out. While we didn't take the time to visit the sculpture garden which is a separate area, we weren't disappointed. The buildings all have a modern artsy vibe that was enhanced by the surreal snowfall of fluff that swirled around outdoors. I thought it was part of an art installation, but came to find out it was coming from a (cottonwood?) tree nearby. Cool nonetheless.

Cornerstone has four new tasting rooms. A shared space features Artesa and Larson Family Winery. Two separate spaces serve Roshambo and Grange/Mantra. Larson Family was offering great deals and we particularly liked one of the Pinots and the Merlot. My favorite wine at this stop was from Roshambo. Their new tasting room is designed to reflect the irreverent, and fun label with a dark interior and a classic Pac-Man game table but I noticed our friends found it uncomfortable. It kind of reminded me of a bar in Cabo. My assumption was that they are aiming for the millennial crowd, although everyone was on good behavior (unlike Cabo.) Kind of a shame, because it was fantastic wine and I'm sorry our friends missed tasting it. I asked our friends later and they admitted it wasn't comfortable for them. Surprisingly, they also weren't crazy about the sleek, post modern retro space that was pouring the Mantra label either. I liked the space but wasn't knocked out by the wine.

We moved on from Cornerstone with a visit to Shug, an old Carneros favorite, and finished up with Homewood Winery. Homewood during April in Carneros feels more like a party than wine tasting- in a good way. They set up their event in between the crush pad and tanks. It's always breezy at that spot in Carneros which was a good thing this year with the heat.

The Homewood folks are really welcoming and the wine is dynamite. They usually offer about a dozen wines to taste and have a food paring for all of them. It's always on our list of places we have to go. Last year, M got a great bargain on a Zinfandel and some Pinots. This year I was knocked over by a newly released 2007 Mendocino Petite Verdot - velvet, floral, chocolate, mwah! delicious, a Dry Creek Zin, and a Knights Valley Cabernet.

At this point we all needed a rest and we headed back to the vivaELvino casa for ice water and chat in the backyard shade. We finished up the day with dinner at Uva in downtown Napa accompanied by a Shug Pinot and a bottle of the Homewood Knights Valley Cab.

Next up- Sunday wine lineup.


How to return a bad bottle of wine

Part of my job includes answering the customer service calls and emails at the winery where I work. We get the occasional call/email from consumers who feel there is a problem with their wine purchase. It seems that lately I've gotten more of these than usual and I don't think there is anything wrong with the wine.
My theory is since the economy is in the crapper, people are more likely to get upset when spend good money on a bottle that doesn't meet their expectations. But to be honest, bad bottles do occasionally happen. If you follow a few simple rules, you might be surprised to find that returning a bad bottle isn't a big deal.

Here's an example that happened last Friday afternoon. I answered the phone (4:45 pm on Friday- my mistake, I know) and found myself speaking to a caller with a complaint. Here's a reenactment of our conversation.

Guy: "I bought a bottle of your wine and when I opened it the cork fell apart and was wet all the way to the top."
Me: "Which wine did you buy?"
Guy: It was the 2002 blah blah blah Cabernet."
Me: "Did you taste it? Was there a problem?"
Guy: "It tasted kinda off."
Me: "Did you try returning it to the retailer?"
Guy: "They told me to call you."
Me: "Where did you buy it?"
Guy: "I bought it at Longs [Drugstore] in Petaluma"
Me: "Does the Longs in Petaluma usually these sorts of wines? I know the Longs where I shop doesn't sell more expensive wines."
Guy: "This Longs sometimes has some good deals on wine."
Me: "Do you have the wine so we could take a look at it?"
Guy: "Uh, no, I had some and gave it to my friend to drink" I hear another voice in background saying "Yeah, it was kinda off."
Me: "That's not our current release. The 2002 was released to the market in 2005. We haven't sold any of that vintage since then. It sounds like Longs got a deal on some leftover wine and it hasn't been stored properly. I'm sorry, I can't help you with that. You need to talk to Longs about it."

Where do you think this caller went wrong?

1. Buy your wine from a reputable wine retailer. You are more likely to be able to return it if there is a problem and chances are good that you will buy a bottle that has been stored properly. You can also ask the store about their policy about returning bad bottles and that should be a good clue to whether a retailer cares about its customers and wine quality.

If you see a spendy wine marked with a price too good to be true at a place where towering case stack displays of Sutter Home and Franzia boxed white zinfandel are the norm, please keep the following phrase in mind, "Buyer Beware." Who knows what route the wine might have taken to get there. This was the guy's first mistake.

Tip- If your local grocery store always has a killer wine selection, that's great. Try speak with the person in charge of the wine department instead of the 16 year old clerk with way-too-much makeup if you need to return a bottle.

2. Save your receipt. Always a good idea.

3. Save the wine for return. If you open a bottle of wine and something seems wrong, ie: bad smell, musty taste, cork on a newer bottle falls apart, by all means pour a bit in a glass and confirm your suspicions, heck- let it breath for 30 min and see what happens. If it doesn't improve then put the cork right back into bottle and put the bottle aside until you have time to return it. Make a few notes on the aromas or flavors to help you describe the issue if needed. DO NOT under any circumstances pour out the wine, or give it to your less picky friend to drink. This was the second mistake.

You aren't going to get anywhere with an empty bottle. This is akin to eating every last bit of your meal and then telling the waitperson you didn't like it. Retailers and restaurants regularly return bad bottles to the distributor for credit. The winery where I work will occasionally have a bottle of their more expensive wine shipped back to the winery, at their expense, for analysis depending on the problem.

Tip- If there is a problem with the cork and you can't reuse it, then use a cork from another bottle, or take some plastic wrap and a rubber band- be creative- just stopper the bottle and save the bad cork to show when you return the bottle.

Tip- If you are using email send a photo along showing bottle or cork damage if appropriate.

4. Be polite. You know the old saying "You get more flies with honey than with vinegar." This is especially true if you are claiming the wine in question has turned to vinegar. This guy was polite, I'll give him points for that, but I've had other people start out calls and emails in a more threatening mode. If you start out nicely and explain the problem you have a better chance of getting some help. If the clerk or customer service person is rude, you have my permission to express your disappointment in a way that Miss Manners would approve of.

Tip- Everyone is flattered when you ask for advice. It's a good way to start off your conversation or email when you have a complaint about the wine.

The good news is I don't turn everyone down. While I can't speak for every winery, if you call me I'm going to give you a fair shot. I'll ask you to describe what wrong with the wine, where you bought it, how it was stored, and if you have the bottle of wine for us to examine. I'm looking for clues that point to things like wine that is "corked," usually a musty, off flavor caused by fungi growing in the cork, or where wild yeasts or bacteria have given the wine off flavors the winemaker did not intend to be there.

If you can give me legitimate answers to my questions that point to a flaw in the winemaking I will happily replace a bad bottle. You might also be surprised to know that I pass the information consumers give us along to our winemaking staff and ask their opinion on problems when we aren't sure about the answer.
In this case, the evidence pointed to improper storage after the wine left the winery's care, which is one thing the winery does not guarantee. I can guarantee, however if ever buy a bad bottle and you follow these my suggestions you have a much better chance of getting a replacement or your money refunded.


Wine, Women, Miami or there's a puchline in here somewhere

I read an article about a survey of female wine drinkers and their experiences in restaurants. Women & Wine sponsored the survey, asking buying habits and service in restaurants. Interesting but not surprising, women noted a marked difference in the service they received. I've observed that same phenomenon in restaurants myself.

I'll admit the servers in Napa & Sonoma are pretty savvy. A good many residents, who you might not guess from their appearance, have ties to the wine business and/or know gobs about wine. It's not that surprising to meet a rough-around-the-edges looking Napkin (what the born & raised in Napa elite call themselves) who seems more like the Nascar, Skoal & Bud type tell you about the Opus One they've been patiently cellaring or rattle off a who's who of names in the wine industry they've known for years.

But more about me- the person who really matters in this tiny sliver of the Internet. M and I recently spent a delightful vacation in Naples, Florida at the end of the year. While Naples is known for it's wine auction which rivals the Napa Valley Wine Auction for wine bacchanalia and fund raising, it's not exactly wine sophistication central the rest of the year. But that could be an entire different post. I want to tell you a snippet about a restaurant I was at in Miami, more specifically South Beach. Bear with me, we'll get to the point of this post eventually.

We drove the 2 hours from Naples to Miami. I highly recommend driving the older 2 lane Highway 41 straight through the everglades. Not only do you get to see all sorts of cool birds and alligators in their natural habitat, but the drive also includes such entertainment as homemade billboards advertising 'gator wrassling' and air boat tours. My favorite, made of weathered uneven boards, hand painted in big letters with one word stacked on top of the other, read "Alligators! Snakes!" and in smaller print "Ice Cream" I should have made M. to turn around and go back for a photo. You will have to imagine the equally homemade fishing shack and dock, surrounded by vegetation accompanying the sign. Here's an alligator picture I took at one of the wildlife viewing spots to help put you in the mood. I can hear you asking, "Are we there yet?" I'm getting to the point even if I'm taking the slow route ala Highway 41.

We spent part of the day on Key Biscayne, and then made our way down to South Beach in the late afternoon. First let me say, if you have never been to Miami, it is the most urban, sophisticated beach I have ever visited and I've been to my share. Most beach towns are pretty casual especially where the land meets the water, but not Miami. So we are here in South Beach, walking around and gawking at the crowd. I had the wherewithal to bring some dressier shorts and a nice top- the beach equivalent of jeans and heels- which I changed into in the car, knowing that M would probably want to go somewhere nice for dinner before we headed back. I should have worn the jeans and heels. The crowd was dressed to kill. We could have been in a bar in downtown San Francisco- everyone was ultra sophisticated and wearing black.

M. wanted to have dinner at Wish which turned out to be a spendy place inside The Hotel. It has a beautiful outdoor dining space and intriguing decor designed by Todd Oldham. I definitely recommend it.

We were shown to our table and M excused himself and proceeded to be gone for what seemed like hours but was really only 15 minutes, but was enough time for me to be miffed about being abandoned at the table by myself. This did give me plenty of time with the menu and the equally spendy wine list. (Hang with me, I'm getting to point of the post.)

I figured we would both be ordering seafood, since M loves scallops, and I'm a tad resistant to paying more than $30 for a steak. I narrowed my choice down to a white. We both prefer Sauvignon Blanc over a California style chardonnay. The one Albarino on the menu was an older vintage and for a white that is usually drunk young it made me wonder. I'm always up for trying something new, so I thought we'd go French. I asked the waiter for a recommendation- white, not oaked, in the $50 range. He complied with a good suggestion. No complaints there, but here, finally, is my point- when M came back to the table (turns out he was negotiating at the front desk for a room for the night- gotta love that man) the waiter felt obliged to tell M that he had helped me pick out the bottle.

Maybe I'm a little sensitive about this. I'm perfectly capable of choosing a wine from the menu- maybe more so than M. I familiar with a reasonable amount of wine styles and regions to know what I might be ordering. I know what I like and obviously I don't mind asking for suggestions. Here's the crux of the matter- do you think the waiter would have said the same thing to me if M. had ordered the bottle when I was away from the table? I bet not. This was a classic example of what those women who participated in the survey were taking about.

So, waitpersons, someliers, wine retailers out there, please take a minute to question your assumptions about gender and wine. Some of us would greatly appreciate it.


How do you feel about needles?

Or Adventures in Accupuncture

My voice has still not come back all of the way from the laryngitis episode. It is better than it was pre-prednisone. Instead of being barely able to whisper, I sound like I smoke three packs a day. There are still several months heavy with tree pollen for me to deal with and I'm worried. It feels like I need to push the reset button on my immune system. Sooooooo, I decided to give accupuncture a try. I had my first appointment on Friday. Would you like to know what it is like?

First, the nice, French, accupuncturist lady (NAFL, for short) took a lot of time asking me about my symptoms, checking my pulse and looking at my tongue. She asked me if I wanted to see the needles and I said "yes." The needles used are disposable, about the thickness of a piece of hair and flexible. (Maybe don't look if you are squeemish.)

NAFL announced that I should lay down on the table on my back and that she needed to be able to access my wrists and ankles. She briefly left the room. Okey dokey- I pushed up my sleeves and rolled my pants legs up a bit, laid down and closed my eyes. She returned, cleaned the areas to be "punctured" with an anticeptic, and proceeded to put a needle in my left wrist area. It stung just a bit, but didn't really hurt. I ended up with needles in both wrists, three needles in my face- between my eyebrows and one on either side of my nose, and needles in both ankles. She then said I needed to lay there on the table for 10-20 minutes and to let her know if there was any pain or problems and she left the room.

There was nice, soothing, new-agey, Asian music playing and it relaxing laying there. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on just being still. After a while the nice lady came back into the room and felt my pulse. "You need a little more time." She left the room again. I continued to focus on staying relaxed. After what seemed like a fairly short time, she came back into the room again and checked my wrist. Whatever had happened was enough and she started to remove the needles. This felt like a slight tugging, but did not hurt. "When you are ready, come out to the waiting room and we will finish up." I lay there for a bit longer, collecting my thoughts, got up from the table and left the treatment room.

NAFL gave me some Chinese herbs in capsule form to take (3 pills, 2 times a day) and suggested I come back in a week. That will be $75.00 please.

So, I'm taking the herbs and going back next week. I gave it some thought and realized that my expectations aren't that high. It was relaxing, at the very least. If it works - great. If not, it was worth a try. I've certainly spent that much on allergy meds and MD visits in the last couple of months which aren't working. I'm on day two of the herbs - not much is different. I'll report back on whether it seems to work or not.


(aaaarrrgggggghhhhh) the sound of silent frustration

This is literally what I sound like right now- I'm trying to howl with frustration, but no sound comes out. Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Well, ok, I can sort of make whispery moans and croaking noises. I have a terrible case of laryngitis that has been plaguing me for almost a month.

It started before Christmas. I called the doctor's office to ask if it might be a side effect of the combination of new allergy meds I was taking, but didn't get a solid answer. Tried stopping each med for a few days with no improvement. Meanwhile we were busy as hell at work, I was getting ready for the holiday, and leaving on vacation 12/26. I had high hopes that it would clear up while I relaxed in the sun, but nooooo. I continued to croak and whisper through the entire trip with not much improvment. *sigh* For no apparent reason on Monday 1/5 I woke up barely able to whisper and had to ask M (my partner in crime, er- life) to call the doctor and make an appointment for me as soon as I got back to Napa.

Update- since started this post a few days ago- My doctor prescribed Prednisone, and so far it's been working. I now have a throaty purr instead of a whispery croak. (Whooo hoooo) No yelling yet for me. Mostly I'm getting tired of people asking me if I am sick, which has been happening for almost a month now. I'm not sick, damnit. Well sort of not sick. I don't have a virus or infection. Just some strange allergy thing going on.