Anxious Time at Harvest


To say harvest is the most hectic time at wineries is an understatement.  The steps preceding the time when pickers pass through rows of vines to pluck the rich fruit are fraught with drama. The grapes are carefully judged since picking too early or too late changes the complexity of the juice. So how do the vineyard manager and the winemaker (sometimes the same person depending the size of the winery) discern the optimum moment in preparation for sending workers to the vineyards to pick?  Everything is ready. The fermentation tanks have been cleaned. The winery is spotless. Teams of workers are ready to go loading hand or machine picked grapes for delivery to the winery..

The wait is harrowing because all goes well when the skies are blue. Timing for harvest can be accelerated by bird and insect attacks that also damage the fragile grapes. Dark clouds are a harbinger of trouble. Rain dilutes the juice and hail damages the fruit, spoiling the vintage.  Rain is more worrisome in regions that have frequent bouts of inclement weather like Bordeaux. Not long ago I was in Bordeaux during harvest when winemakers across the region checked the weather station and watched clouds darken the skies. Anxiety filled the air as winemakers decided whether to pick or hazard a few more days of ripening. Either way was a gamble.

A number of factors tell winemakers when to make the call to pick. The taste of juice is crucial. Additional indicators include a hand-held device called a refractometer that measures brix, the amount of sugar in the grapes. Brix is key since sugar changes to alcohol during fermentation.Two other crucial signs of the berries’ maturity include skin and leaf color and the change of color of seeds from green to dark brown.





It’s said that an untalented vintner can spoil a harvest of good grapes, but the reverse is also true. No matter how skilled a winemaker, it’s next to impossible to turn bad grapes into good wine. The exception? Late harvest sweet wines, (also called dessert wine) are produced from grapes attacked by a fungus, Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, the same fungus that infests strawberries and soft fruits. Grapes left hanging on the vines shrivel and become blanketed with ugly mold. (Consumers would call the board of health if the moldy grapes appeared on supermarket shelves.) But along winemaking’s historical path someone bravely tasted the mold-ridden grapes, surprised by the concentration of sugar. In a case of waste not, want not, the berries were pressed and fermented into sweet wines with enticing flavors and alluring bouquets. Golden-hued sweet wines, including Sauternes from France, Tokaji from Hungary, and German Spätlese made from Riesling,are some of the world’s most coveted. Moscato d’Asti or a Moscato from Napa like the ones produced at St. Supéry are excellent well-priced alternatives. I remember when St. Supéry served a mouth-watering French toast topped with a sauce of orange-flavored Moscato one glorious Napa morning on the winery’s grounds.

My first introduction to grapes infested with noble rot  was at a prestigious Bordeaux vineyard during harvest. I winced at what seemed to be a harbinger of viticultural disaster. Surprisngly, the winery’s owner/winemaker beamed at the harvest touched by Botrytis. Chance plays a  huge part in the development of sweet wines . The erratic arrival of the fungus provides the beneficial conditions for the production of sweet white wines. But  weather doesn’t always cooperate so winemakers who specialize in late harvest wines play a waiting game. While neighbors pick their vineyards clean,  other winemakers hold their breaths gambling on nature to align necessary conditions of ample fog, rain, and humidity to cause unpredictable mold to appear in the vineyard. Mold devours water in grapes causing them to shrivel, producing profoundly sweet juice. In years when Botrytis fails to arrive, an entire vintage goes down the drain. Grapes destined for sweet wine are too far past their peak to harvest for dry wine. But when Botrytis strikes, the yucky, spore-covered shriveled grapes are picked slowly over several weeks, fermented, and aged. The time it takes to pick berry by berry is another reason the wine can be so costly. Fermentation in small barrels or vats for two or three years adds to the cost.

Unfortunately, the American general aversion to sweet wines means a limited audience for the delectable product. One reason may be ignorance about what foods besides desserts are a good match for the wines. They match well with many savory foods, like duck a l’orange, foie gras, chicken or pork in fruit sauce, and surprisingly, intense blue cheese. Dry wine is less appropriate for dishes with sweet components..

The complex elixirs are lip-smacking delicious, worth the price and worth seeking out.  Chateau d’Yquem is generally reputed to top the list of Bordeaux Sauternes. Suduiraut, Its next-door neighbor is excellent.

Read about Sauternes producer Xavier Planty of Chateau Guirard, considered by many to be the best in the region in my book “THE WINEMAKER’S HAND: CONVERSATIONS ON TALENT, TECHNIQUE, AND TERROIR” available on Amazon or through Columbia University Press. The book contains interviews with over 40 winemakers from around the world, and each winemaker talks about the special qualities he or she brings to their wines.




Five easy steps that enhance enjoyment of wine


It sounds unbelievable, but very wine tells a story. Five simple steps help understand what a wine is trying to communicate. In five steps its story is unlocked, enhancing the enjoyment of wine while adding to your tasting skills. The five steps are easy to remember are because they all begin with the letter S. Best of all, going through the drill can be done unobtrusively in a restaurant or at home any time a new bottle is opened. Note not everyone experiences the same sensations from the same bottle of wine. Some folks say their experience is limited to a general sensation of drinking wine.

Step 1: SEE. The color of wine offers an introductory esthetic experience as well as  revealing information about its weight and texture. White wines’ pale color indicates it is light in texture while as the color increases the wine is more robust.  Whites range in hues from the palest yellow to straw to a deep golden hue depending on the varietal and the wine’s age. Red wines showcase bright tones ranging from ruby red to intense plum tinged with purple. A dark brownish tint that develops in white or red wine shows it oxidized with age and practically bellows, “Pick me up and pour me out. I’m way over the hill.”

Taking a good look at wine requires a clear glass rather than one with jewel-like colors—as beautiful as they may be. Fill the glass halfway (the bulge in the bowl of a glass is a good guide) and hold it at eye level to check the color. White wines can range from pale yellow to deeper straw. Red wines can range from ruby to red tinged with purple.

Step 2: SWIRL. Hold the glass by its stem and gently rotate it. The action releases the wine’s aromas, or bouquet, pent up in the bottle. (I like to think the release of aroma as the exhalation of the Genie in the bottle.) The action sets us up for step 3. Wait a few moments until the aerated wine allows the wine to show its true nature.

Step 3: SMELL. One of the pleasures of wine is the anticipation that comes with inhaling its aromas, hinting at what’s to come. It broadens the awareness of the complexity of individual wines.

The ability to taste actually begins with the ability to discern aromas. Wines release  aromas ranging from pleasant to funky. Noses outweigh taste buds with an amazing ability to detect hundreds of aromas while tastes are limited to a mere five: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, a relatively new term that describes yummy flavors.

Step 3 begins by lifting the glass close to your nose and taking a deep breath, inhaling the aromas that range from simple to heady and complex, from pleasant to funky.

Some individuals whose sense of smell is elusive or who lack a sense of descriptors that show the range of aromas should check out the Aroma Wheel at winearomawheel.com sold by its creator, Ann C. Nobel, sensory chemist and retired professor of Viticulture and Enology, University of California. The Aroma Wheel classifies descriptive terms into hundreds of favorable and unpleasant aromas associated with wine.

Step 4. SIP: Take a moment to savor the flavors in the wine by holding the wine in your mouth. Swish it over your tongue, teeth, and gums. The action releases the flavors your nose predicted. Tannins, a sensation of dryness that also happens in strong tea, is often discernable in red wine.

5, Swallow. That’s what we’ve been waiting for since the wine was poured in the glass. Enjoy.

P.S. If you have time and are drinking alone or with friends, take notes. Notes help you remember labels, aromas, and tastes. Notes are especially helpful if you like the wine and want to purchase it again. They can help describe what you’re looking for in  taste profiles, so if the wine you enjoyed isn’t available. it is easy to  find a similar wine.





“Say MEAD, and people hear MEAT,” says Greg Heller-LaBelle, co-owner of Colony Meadery in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It’s the first step he and his partner, Michael Manning need to overcome when they seek to introduce an ancient beverage to a contemporary audience. “We have to get up-close and personal to market our mead, especially if consumers haven’t heard of it or tasted the honey-based alcoholic beverage. Mead recycles its popularity after long periods of dormancy and right now is its time to be experiencing an amazing renaissance. Modern technology coupled with inventive ingredients has significantly improved the ancient beverage.

Eons ago, mead occurred accidently when rainwater and wild yeast entered beehives, creating the perfect environment for honey to ferment and produce alcohol. Archaeological evidence indicates mead may have been a precursor to, or perhaps evolved at the same time as beer and wine, dating from as early as 7000 BC in northern China and slightly later in Egypt and Rome. Archeologists discovered a two thousand-year old crystallized honey that was still edible. Vikings had a taste for mead. In literary writings, Beowulf andChaucer’s Canterbury Tales mention mead several times. Chaucer wrote, ”‘He sent her sweetened wine and well-spiced ale and waffles piping hot out of the fire, and, she being town-bred, mead for her desire.” Mead was drink of preference during the Middle Ages when it was safer to drink  than water. Picture Robin Hood and his Merry Men at a trencher table drinking mead from large flacons.

Greg Heller-LaBelle and Michael Manning, co-owners of The Colony Meadery, welcomed me at their facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Their working space is part of a single-story industrial building. Several steel fermentation tanks at the meadery take center stage. Plastic conditioning tanks hold various meads until suitably aged and ready to go to the bottling line  sit across the floor. Each plastic tank is named to identify and keep track of batches of mead. The steel tanks are labeled from A to Z. Two are called Agnes and Bertha. The secondary tanks start at Z and go to A, one bearing the name Xavier. They have yet to figure out what to do when the alphabet meets in the middle.“We don’t measure output in bottles or cases, but rather in gallons. Our 2,000-gallon production goes into bottles and regular old beer kegs. In some meads, we’re looking for CO2 to brighten the flavors and add a fizzy mouth feel,” Manning says.

The partners are two affable, articulate guys with an obvious sense of camaraderie. They bonded as hobbyist beer makers at a beer festival and switched to mead after realizing the potential market for a beverage that delighted the palates of mankind for thousands of years. Heller-LaBelle combined his background in beverages, startups, and economic development with his love of craft beer, bourbon and mescal. He handles the company’s business. Manning’s hand steers mead’s production, adding inventive ingredients, modern tools and fermenting techniques to Colony’s artisanal production. “We get along because we have the same vision and do different jobs. We don’t step on each other’s toes,” says Manning.. His personal recipe had earned  Best of Show at a previous Valhalla mead competition. “Some companies produce a basic mead, but mead evolves over time. Some have more or less alcohol. Ours includes a number of complex styles using berries, herbs, fruit, and hops. Blueberries and other fruits are pressed and the juice, along with pulp and skins go into the tanks to add color and tannins to the mead. Some meads are ready to drink with no aging requirement. Light, delicate meads can last for two years in the bottle while heavier ones can last for over a decade.

Mead’s flavorschange with the seasons and with pollen from flowers brought to hives by bees. Honey is subject to terroir. Where bees source their pollen from affects the flavors of mead. Seasonal styles range from sweet to bone-dry with fruit and floral aromas. Light spring honey tastes of dandelions, clover, and tree fruit blossoms that make a delicate mead. Summer’s abundant flowers change mead’s character. Fall’s darker and more flavorful honey is the backbone of more assertive mead.

Colony gets its honey from two pollinators located in New Jersey. “We almost exclusively use an orange blossom honey from bees whose hives are trucked south to giant orchards in Georgia and Florida in early spring. We pay about $2.50 per gallon. The price varies, but not significantly, always staying below $3.00.”

“We like to produce many flavors and styles. Some are produced year-round while others are sold depending on the season. “Wolfie Dog” is a straight-forward hops and honey based mead. We favor the Pennsylvania Dutch style that likens the taste to cream soda. Another year-round mead made from honey and raspberries is called “Favorite Child” because we loved it from the first moment we tasted it.”

The number of companies producing mead has exploded in recent years. By 2009, 90 commercial meaderies were in production in the U.S. Today over 200 operate with more in the works. It’s not only seeing a resurgence in the U.S. English consumers testify to its current popularity. If you’re looking for an interesting expiration into another taste profile, check out mead. It’s definitely worth a try.



















Understanding wine with bubbles begins with comprehending its production method. The first step in sparkling wine begins with the creation of  base or still wine. The second step requires a second fermentation to create  those enticing bubble. The méthode champenoise (also known as méthode traditionelle or methodo classico depending on the wine’s country of origin) is the most common technique. It involves a second fermentation that takes place in individual bottles. Charmat, (autoclave or tank method) is a less expensive option where the second fermentation occurs in a large pressurized tank after which the wine is bottled .

Many countries produce sparkling wine with specific names. In Spain, it is called Cava. In Italy, its Prosecco. and German it is Sekt.

Two categories of sparkling wine are Vintage  and Non-vintage. A winemaker who wants to showcase the special characteristics of a single exceptional harvest sets it aside and labels it Vintage.  It is the only time a date appears on a bottle of bubbly.  Non-vintage sparkling wine is a blend of wines from multiple harvests. A winemaker holds back a certain amount of wine from previous years to produce a consistent style (often called the house style) without regard to a particular harvest.

Label terms indicate the composition of grapes used in a wine’s blend. In France, the U.S. and Australia. for example, a historic blend often consists of a combination of one white – chardonnay – and two reds – pinot noir, and another variety of pinot. But each winemaker can choose the varietals and amounts of each one, and every country can use its indigenous grapes.

Because there are several styles of sparkling wine depending on its sugar level, terms indicating sweetness are on the label. Blanc de Blancs are  made from white skinned grapes only. A Blanc de Noir is made from the white juice of red-skinned grapes. Rosé sparkling wine is produced by adding small amount of red wine before the second fermentation. Rosé saignee is a pink wine produced by allowing a small amount of color from red skins to bleed off into the juice during pressing instead of adding red wine later on.

Sweetness levels  for sparkling wine are determined by the amount of residual sugar in the Dosage, a small amount of sweetened liquid (sometimes brandy) added to wine at the end of production. Usually terms for sweetness are written in French, but may also appear in the language of the wine’s country of origin. Brut Nature, Brut Zero, and Brut None indicate the wines are are completely dry without any residual sugar. Extra Brut is very dry while Brut is dry. Dry or Secco are moderately sweet. Demi-sec is sweet and Doux is very sweet. Most commonly, sparkling wines are sold in the Brut or Demi-sec versions.

Sparkling wine is the most versatile choice as an aperitif or as a companion to a wide range of foods.




Gertrude Stein wrote, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” not differentiating between the flower’s vast spectrum of colors and aromas. Happily, the limitations she declared do not apply to the many iterations of attractive, enjoyable rosés or “blush” wines.

France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy are traditional producers of rosés (pronounced ro-say) of various qualities and sweetness levels. France’s regions of Provence, Langedoc, Burgundy, Loire, and the Rhone lead the production of popular wines refreshing in warmer areas and on hot summer days. Portugal’s entries include the familiar Mateus and Lancers in their pint-sized distinctive bottles that were my starter wines long ago.

Unfortunately, Americans, particularly men, turn their collective noses up at what they perceive as wishy-washy wine fit for the feminine palate. These light-hearted wines are treated with disdain, confusing them with the sugary, soda pop version of white zinfandel to which concentrate or sugar are added. In truth, many versions of rosé can beuninteresting, slightly sweet, and pallid.

Until the last coupe of decades, rosé was the overlooked runt of the wine world, stuck between its more respected red and white colleagues. Wine writers are writing paeans to their attractive tastes, aromas, and array of color, creating a burst of interest in the wines. Rosés blossomed into the love child of serious American winemakers who vinify new variations of pinks as dry wines using other grape varietals besides the classic Provençal varietals of grenache, cinsault, and mourvedre.

But rosés never fell completely out of favor because wine lovers recognized the wine’s compatibility as a partner to food and as a perfect beverage in hot summer days when heavier reds don’t fit the bill. It also works as an aperitif to get digestive juices flowing.  New, exciting versions made by forward-thinking vintners from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet frank, syrah, merlot and zinfandel are growing in popularity, sending bottles flying off shelves. Rosésold by the glass appears more frequently on restaurant wine lists. The Nielsen Report indicates retail dollar sales for non-bubbly, or flat roséjumped 65% with an expected continuation of growth for the next several years.  Sales of bubbly roséswith a tint of romantic pink continue to maintain their demand.

Pink wines come in an engaging range of colors from pale coral that matches petals of a rosebud, a deep pink resembling a glorious sunset, and others are an appealing shade of apricot-orange. (My personal preference for this wine has a deep pink color with a lovely floral aroma and a crisp, bright berry taste.) Roses are best drunk young and partnered with light meat dishes, salads with light dressings, summer fare, and seafood. Some people consider them as an introductory step to more serious wines, but make no mistake, they have the ability to stand alone. Their lower price point are an additional benefit since most roséssell between $10 and $20.

Three basic methods are the basis of most rosés. All grapes, red and white, produce clear juice. To obtain the desirable color, many vintners blend a small amount of red wine into finished white wine.  Another technique is saignée, the French term meaning bleeding or bled when a certain amount of free-run juice from crushed dark-skinned grapes after maceration is set aside to produce a light pink wine, and at the same time, concentrating the flavors in the remaining red wine. Different results are achieved when the first run of clear juice is macerated on red skins for up to several hours depending on whether the grapeskins are deep or lightly colored. It takes a good eye and lots of luck to determine the desired depth of color and flavor components as well as the right balance of fruit, acid, and sugar. In addition, flavors change because of new varietals. For example, Zinfandel adds more spice to the wine, while cabernet sauvignon adds softer, rounder notes. Too much bleeding removed the vital characteristics needed for the production of red wine, and it’s always a challenge because color can be unpredictable.

Make sure to try some rosés soon. You’ll be in for a delicious experience.







A Winemaker’s Skill Leads To Great Wine


What makes the difference between poor wine, jokingly called plonk, and truly great wines with complex characteristics? The current explanation dictates quality is determined by terroir, elements of nature:soil, the amount of sun, rain, wind, and even the influence of nearby rivers or oceans. Unquestionably, a great wine’s concentrated flavors are the consequence of grapes grown in mineral-rich soils that are often volcanic or strewn with pebbles and rocks No farmer would choose to plant a tomato in these soils. But its precisely these seemingly difficult soils that are perfect for grapes, forcing  vines’ roots to dig deeper to find water and to extract flavors from soil’s various strata. Vintners with a goal of complex wines choose soils because they give their vines a head-start. Deep, loamy, soils produce grapes without character and flavor since the roots stay closer to the surface, reducing the opportunity to extract complex mineral and other flavor components. Winemakers at many large- scale wineries are less fussy about soils since they prefer optimum quantity over optimum quality.

Soil and terroir are the first two parts of a three-legged stool. The winemaker is the third leg of the stool, challenged by each vintage by the infinite steps that start anew each season. A winemaker brings acumen, training, philosophy, artistry, patience, and aptitude to the task. To say wine is totally determined by nature is akin to saying a Beethoven piano concerto flows from the keyboard without the pianist, or paints jump onto the canvas without some help from the painter.

What makes a good winemaker? According to Andre Tchelistcheff, one of America’s first great winemakers and mentor to winemakers who would put California on the map for great winemaking, said in a 1985 interview, the first prerequisite of a winemaker is practical and theoretical knowledge. “Outside of that, … the winemaker … must understand the wine, to really know how to listen. I believe every wine has its own voice.”

In order for a winemaker to produce the best wine possible it’s necessary to manage every detail starting in the vineyards every step of the way, from spring to harvest in the fall through fermentation, and when necessary through aging in barrels, on to bottling, and marketing. The hardest decisions come at harvest because a whole year’s income often rests on those last days in the vineyard checking the grapes’ sugar levels and hoping diluting rains stay away.

Good wine is never made from behind a desk or by committee. An individual winemaker infuses wine with passion, heart, soul, and personal style.