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WINE AT 35,000 FEET ©

Wine is becoming a major priority for a select group of fussy first and business class passengers jokingly referred to as “oeno-flyers,” (as in oenophile, or wine lover.) These travelers show their preference for quality products even when soaring through the sky. A number of airlines are investing time and money to hire knowledgeable sommeliers to select wines with special labels that retain their qualities at high altitude and lower atmospheric pressure. The combination of these issues can change the tastes of both wine and food on a plane. Early on in the travel industry, airline executives spent time and money to find ways of making food more palatable on planes. As service expanded to include wine, they were faced with the same issues of retaining aromas and taste.

Wine is usually described in terms of taste, but in reality, about 80% of taste is based on aromas and the sense of smell is the general introduction to a glass of wine, But all the rules that apply on terra firma change when pressurized cabins and dry air on planes make it difficult for passengers to capture wine’s complex aromas. The constant loud drone in the cabin also intensifies or negatively affects various flavor components. So what to look for when in the wild blue yonder? Start with low acid wines free of heavy tannins, particularly red wines. Instead look for ones, like Pinot Noir that have fruity flavors and more accessible pleasant aromas.  That’s problematic when choices are limited on board a plane.

Airlines face multiple problems once they find a wine that satisfies all customers at high altitudes. No single producer can supply an airline that serves millions of bottles a year to its passengers. Cathay Pacific, for example, is said to have poured 1.5 million bottles year while United reports a staggering 7 million bottles. Qatar and Singapore Airlines claim their wines attract affluent travelers who want maximum comfort while onboard heading to and from their destinations. So don’t be surprised if the wine style or favorite label isn’t traveling with you.

P. S. It’s best to skip alcohol altogether when flying.



Tracing the Historic Wine Trail


The rich history of viticulture and vinification parallels the journey of prehistoric man to the ancient world to 21st century. No one knows who was the first brave soul to taste fermented grapes, but the historical, undocumented moment probably occurred wherever wild grapes grew. Our curious, very observant ancestors who counted the stars were obsessive observers of the natural world. Visualize early man picking a strange fruit from a vine and popping a grape tentatively in his mouth. Picture him relishing its fruity flavor. Then imagine how the pleasure doubled after he tasted a grape that ripened and fermented naturally, adding a frisson of alcoholic pleasure to his experience. A sip of an alcoholic libation must have been considered a gift from the gods. It became a challenge to reproduce the intoxicating sensation of fermented juice.

Evidence supports the early connection between man and wine. Archeologists prove wines fermented from grapes, rice, and figs were a regular feature in the life of Neolithic man. For centuries, stomping was probably the most efficient way to release juice from grapes. Storage of the fermented juice was next. Innovations in pottery containers used to store food and liquids went hand in hand with developments in bread, wine, and beer. The discovery of an Iranian drinking cup with traces of wine residue revised earlier estimates of the date of 5000 B.C.E. and possibly further back.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and Egyptian hieroglyphics that depict winemaking and drinking confirm wine’s important role in early civilizations. Greek frescoes and pottery decorations depict wine growing, harvests, and the role wine played in celebrations. Greek and Roman writers, including Homer and Virgil, described the pleasures of wine and winemaking techniques. One hundred and forty references to wine are found in the Old Testament and the Talmud. The book of Deuteronomy describes the arrival of Moses in the land of Canaan and how he sent twelve spies from Israel’s twelve tribes to explore the fertility of the region. All came back with discouraging reports except for Caleb and Joshua, who returned with a large cluster of grapes, figs, and pomegranates to prove the land’s fertility. The New Testament citesthe function of wine for religious practices and pleasure. Writers and philosophers throughout time have lauded wine’s healing powers

But it was the Romans who exerted the biggest influence on viticulture as they expanded their empire, planting grapes to satisfy the thirst of their legions. Perhaps wine was safer and more enjoyable to drink than local water. Roman conquerors accepted wine as payment for tribute and taxes, and their love affair with wine it ensured the development of grape production and winemaking across the empire. Wine was so revered by the Romans it had its own god—Bacchus. The actual taste of Roman wine will forever remain a mystery, but it may have been sweet and thick, reportedly diluted with water and flavored with lemon peels, fermented fish oil, or pepper.

Alcoholic beverages were prohibited when Islam rose to power in Europe and the Middle East. Viticulture declined, except where Moslems permitted Christians to make wine for religious purposes. As Christianity spread across Europe during the Dark and Middle Ages, monks at powerful Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries pushed the boundaries of viticulture to Northern Europe’s cooler regions.

Explorers had a hand in the spread of winemaking. Norsemen sailing west from Greenland in the eleventh century may have been the first to discover wild vines in Greenland and North America. During the Age of Exploration at the end of the fifteenth century, the crews on ships like the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria included a cooper who made barrels to hold provisions for the voyage. Water became undrinkable on long voyages, so barrels filled with wine or rum slaked a sailor’s thirst, a custom that continued well into the nineteenth century. Gold and the Fountain of Youth eluded avaricious explorers sailing along the eastern coast of North America, but a wealth of wild grapes was a serendipitous find. European settlers migrated across the United States with their rootstocks and winemaking skills, creating new varietals by crossing their European Vinifera Vines with native grapes.

Viticulture moved with immigration to new lands making a gradual shift from European wines to those produced in North and South America and South Africa. Competition provoked countries with long traditions of winemaking to develop new markets and state-of-the-art techniques. Vintners from the Old and New World wine regions continue to perfect their mastery over nature and to elevate winemaking by combining science, art, and a labor of love.

Nations with a limited heritage in viticulture, like India and China, are racing to be contenders in the wine market. Marco Polo took note of wine production in Cathay during his historical journey, so it’s not a surprise to find the Chinese with a a long tradition of turning rice and fruit into wine, engaged in wine production. By 1892, European grape varieties were introduced into China and a Westernstyle winery was built. A French friar in 1910 converted a church graveyard near Beijing into a wine cave and hired a French oenologist to produce both red and white wines. In recent years, joint-venture partnerships with foreign winemakers are helping the Chinese adopt Western viticultural and winemaking techniques. Entrepreneurial farmers with small plots of land around the Great Wall and elsewhere the country are experimenting with a host of imported grape varietals to see which are best suited for China’s immense range of terroirs. The wine trail continues to trace its way around the world.



I wonder if the Pilgrims had an idea about how that first Thanksgiving morphed into the glorious holiday Americans treasure. New information redefines the myths surrounding that celebration. Fact or fiction, Thanksgiving is embedded, even sanctified, as our premier national holiday. Wherever we came from, we all have reason to celebrate the unifying holiday.

Variations of the iconic dinner are prepared in almost every kitchen across our country. The preparation of the dinner may differ from culture to culture, from palate to palate, from one culinary preference to another, but the ubiquitous stuffed turkey is present on every table along with a myriad of hors d’oeuvres and sides.

If wine is the beverage of choice to accompany this elaborate meal, which one to choose? Especially when the table holds so much food we become as stuffed as the poor carved bird. A light wine is the best partner for this dinner. Within the range of light wines, Beaujolais Nouveau from France arrives on our shores in early November. The inexpensive wine bottled by George de Boeuf or Louis Latour are one step away from grape juice. It’s an easy quaff, light on the palate, yet flavorful enough to pair with this rich dinner. Wines labeled Beaujolais Villages, different from their Nouveau cousins, are more sophisticated but still relatively inexpensive. Another excellent choice are Pinot Noirs from the Carneros region of California, from the Burgundy region in France, or from Oregon. Pinot Noir can be a crowd pleaser when it is produced well. Two remarkably inexpensive, uncomplicated Pinots are French Rabbit and the Little Penguin. They won’t break the bank, especially if there is a large crowd quaffing at the table. Want to spend a little more? Choose a Zinfandel by Cline, Ravenswood, Rodney Strong, or Frog’s Leap. Here’s the surprise of the year. Rosés have been on the back burner for a long time but new well-crafted ones are suddenly blushingly popular. Both still and sparkling Rosés would be a terrific complement to a turkey dinner. Choose pinks with color rather than a pallid one.Try Ruffino Sparkling Rosé from Italy since wine with bubbles is great for the digestion. Oregon’s A to Z and California’s Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, a tried and true friend, fill out the bill. But be brave and adventuresome. It’s not so much about spending big bucks, but finding affordable wines that are crowd pleasers.

Try the same recommendations at Christmas.



If you ever wondered how grapes transmogrify into wine, pick up a copy of “The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique and Terroir” published by  Columbia University Press. Telling interviews with over forty winemakers from wine regions around the world reveal their commitments, skills, passions, struggles, and training to produce a liquid refreshment that is enjoyed alone or as a partner to food. These conversations point out the impact of an individual’s influence on each vintage from deciding which grapes are best suited to a terroir, to pruning, harvesting, fermenting, aging, bottling, and marketing. It unravels the mystery and magic of the creation of one of mankind’s most enjoyable and historic companions.

Our early ancestors enjoyed the fruit of the vine but no one knows who was  the first person to taste fermented grape juice and say yummy. Archeologists unearthed information about the long history of wine from Egyptian frescoes and digs that uncovered winemaking techniques and drinking implements.

“The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique and Terroir” features producers from The United States, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, and Israel. Their unique insights show that what’s in the winemaker’s head is as important as what’s in the grape, and why wine varies from winery to winery, region to region, and grape to grape. Reading their stories would be akin to asking Monet and Van Gogh to explain why they use the same colors but produce strikingly different paintings.

Since grapes don’t jump into the bottle by themselves, vintners have struggled for centuries to improve wine. Today’s winemakers marry traditional methods to new technology., putting their skills together as scientists, farmers, and artists dealing with Mother Nature’s benevolent bounties and cruel limitations.

This group of winemakers represents a microcosm of their peers and the complexities they face each vintage to produce quality wine that varies from place to place and from winemaker to winemaker. It explains why two winemakers harvesting grapes from the same vineyard at the same moment will produce wines that speak, not only of its terroir, but of a reflection of an individual’s goals, dedication, and personality. Reading their stories would be akin to asking Monet and Van Gogh to explain why they use the same colors but produce strikingly different paintings. The love of the winemaking process, from bud break to harvest and bottling, shines through the telling conversations that account for the plethora of differences between wines.

For example, nonagenarian  Mike Grgich’s triumph over winning the Judgment of Paris, the1976 event that pitted upstart Americans against top French wines and with a wine put California wines on the map is only one exciting story. Cathy Corison’s and Dawnine Dyer’s successful break into winemaking at a time when women were relegated to picking and stomping grapes is equally fascinating.

The book  includes maps and the history of each region, a glossary of wine terms, a glossary of wine varietals, and information on the author’s background. Each winemaker submitted a personal recipe and a photograph.  A wine tasting wheel innumerates the various sensory perceptions around taste and aroma in wine ranging from desirable to off-putting,

“The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique and Terroir” is the next best thing to visiting a winery and meeting a vintner face to face. It’s a perfect read for  beginners and connoisseurs. It’s a great gift anytime, or during this holiday season. The book is available in hard cover and paperback through Amazon.


Nature’s Alarm Clock and the Life Cycle of a Grapevine©


The weather has become so screwy it’s a wonder that migrating birds know when it’s time to come and go or when perennial plants and hibernating animals sense naptime is over. In vineyards, climate change has the potential to disturb the signals that tell dormant vines to get up and going. Changing periods of daylight alert many  plants, like grapevines, that are sensitive to the relative amount of day and night as seasons pass from one state to another. The amount of daylight during a 24-hour period also is important. Variations in air temperature and the angle of the sun also play vital roles. As warm air increases, plant hormones and cells in the tips of a plant’s root triggers the plants to send out new growth. In the case of grapevines, the appearance of buds tells watchful winemakers and vineyard managers the cycle of growth and renewal is beginning. Bud break is the first joyful sign the vines are alive.

John Williams, owner-winemaker at Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley, notes that timing is crucial for grapevines. He says, “ If a grapevine gets up too early in spring, it’s very existence is in peril from crippling frosts lying in wait for its tender young buds. On the other hand, if it decides to sleep in, it may find itself at a competitive disadvantage from adjacent vines eager to grab space in the sunlight. Waking up is one of the most critical decisions the vine will make all year.”

During the long dormant season that precedes new growth, a lot of activity takes place in the vineyard. Vineyard workers are out in the field with pruning shears, tying the vines to supports for stability. Pruning vines sets the stage for the season’s growth, guiding the vine to grow in optimum directions to capture sunlight and moisture.

After a few weeks of vegetative growth, vines develop bunches of small flowers. Each flower will develop into a grape berry. This is a crucial time since frost can damage the potential development of grapes. The pollinated flowers drop their petals and form into tiny green bulbs. As plants develop during the growing season leaf production vies with grape development. Vineyard workers make many passes through the vineyard managing leaf removal and imperfect bunches to assure a proper balance between shade, sunlight, and air circulation around the remaining bunches. All grapes, whether ultimately red or white, hide their true nature and stay green until the middle of summer. The development of pigment on the skins takes place slowly in a process called veraison. Then the grapes continue to ripen until it’s time for harvest, or crush.





As a wine writer and educator, I have been invited to innumerable wine tastings both here and abroad. An invitation to visit Dom Ruinart, one of the most notable producers of champagne, was one of my most memorable early wine-tasting experiences.

On an overcast morning in Champagne,  the French region that lends its proprietary name to its local sparkling wine, our group of writers were ushered to a sizable vineyard whose plants were loaded with ripe grapes. I was handed a sharp metal clipper and set to work, relieving the vines of heavy bunches of berries, aka grapes,  and dropping them in a plastic bin. Serious vineyard workers, many of them arriving like migrating birds from as far away as Poland for every harvest, moved quickly along parallel vines of grapevines. The experienced workers left me far behind as I diligently clipped one bunch of grapes  after another. At the third swipe at a sizable bunch, I missed the grape stem and accidentally took a slice out of my finger.  It would be a overstatement to say blood ran like wine, but I needed a large Band-Aid to cover the beau-beau, the French version of our boo-boo.  It was a relief to know that after a few backbreaking attempts at contributing my share, to realize our group was involved in an exercise to illustrate the difficulties of bringing in the harvest. We were relieved from the back-breaking job, moving on to the next important stage: watching the grapes de-stemmed and crushed, grape juice flowing into vats

Thankfully, it was time for lunch. It is the custom to serve vineyard workers a hearty midday meal. Our reward was to share in a bountiful feast of stewed pork and wursts served with local red wine. We toured the local area around Rheims, the region’s ancient capital, with its glorious cathedral, famous for its connection with Joan of Arc, and its’ spectacular post-war stained glass windows designed by Chagall.

Later we dined at one of the best restaurants in Rheims, a city known not only for its history and culture, but also for its cuisine. Producers and wine writers take wine tasting seriously. Small talk was limited as we sampled the variety of Dom Ruinart’s excellent house styles. The only sound was the buzz of appreciative mm’s and ah’s counterpointed by a polite, discreet sound best described as a mix of gargling and gurgling. I needed to know the reason for the collective noise. “Why and how do you make those sounds,” I asked naively. The more experienced writers looked at me as though I had fallen off the turnip truck.

Bertrand Mur, Dom Ruinart’s chief and gentleman extraordinaire (who unfortunately is no longer with us) explained to the group, perhaps assuming I wasn’t the only one at the table who needed some instruction on the art of wine-tasting. “Let’s begin together so we’re all on the same page. In general, all wine tasting requires a few simple steps. Step one: Check the color and clarity for champagne, red, and white wine. Two: in general, always gently swirl wine to release its aromas. But never swirl champagne.” He shook his finger at us. “Swirling destroys the bubbles it took so long to cultivate and for which consumers pay top dollar. Next:  lift the glass  to inhale the wine’s aroma. Much of what we taste actually comes from our sense of smell. Finally, swish the wine around the mouth and then gently gargle a soupçon of wine.” (New wine drinkers may  develop a compulsion to swirl  every glass of liquid they drink, including their morning orange juice.)

I lifted my glass, swished and inhaled as directed, then attempted the gargle. Champagne bubbles caught at the back of my throat, and I choked, spewing a mouthful of bubbly across the table. So much for being sophisticated! After couple of tries, I learned to gurgle (or gargle, whichever you prefer) always discreetly.



GARGLING AND GURGLING WITH WINE, NOT LISTERINE Many years ago, during my early days as a wine writer and educator, I was invited to innumerable wine tastings both here and abroad. An invitation to visit Dom Ruinart, the remarkable producer of Champagne, ostensibly to help harvest grapes. Is as vivid in my mind today as it was long ago. On a gray morning In Reims, the heart of the French region that lends its proprietary name to its local sparkling wine, I was handed a sharp metal clipper and was ushered to a grapevine, the first in a long line that stretched for several yards. Serious vineyard works were already moving quickly along parallel vines of grapevines. I slowly approached one bunch of grapes, then another. At the third swipe at a sizable bunch of grapes, I missed the grape stem and accidentally took a slice out of my finger. Ouch! Blood ran like wine and I needed a large Band-Aid to cover the beau-beau, the French version of our boo-boo. The inexperienced American group failed to compete with experienced vineyard workers. It was a relief to know that after a few backbreaking attempts at contributing our share, we realized it was merely an exercise to show the difficulties of getting the harvest in. After we contributed a few bunches of grapes into baskets, we moved on to the next important stage, watching the berries de-stemmed and crushed. We joined the vineyard workers, many of them who arrived like migrating birds from as far away as Poland for every harvest. It is the custom to serve vineyard workers a hearty lunch. Our reward was to share in a bountiful feasted of pork and wurst stew and bottles of local red wine. Later we dined at one of the area’s best restaurants. Wine tasting by producers and wine writers is serious business. Small talk was limited as we sampled the variety of Dom Ruinart’s excellent house styles. The only sound was the buzz of appreciative mms and ahs counterpointed by a polite, discreet sound best described as a mix of gargling and gurgling. I needed to know the reason for all the mouth noises. “Why and how do you make that sound,” I asked naively. The more experienced writers looked at me as though I had fallen off the turnip truck. “First we inhale the wine’s aroma. Step two We swish the wine around the mouth to cover all areas of tongue and mouth,” was the answer. “Then you gently gargle a soupçon of wine.” Easier said than done. I lifted my glass, swished as directed, and attempted the gargle. Champagne bubbles caught at the back of my throat, and I choked, spewing a mouthful of bubbly across the table. So much for sophistication. I learned to gargle discretely. But I never fail to explain why wine is swirled in the glass (to aerate it, of course. Except for champagne because we pay extra for bubbles and a gurgle dissipates them. The technique is a boon to give a hint of what the wine offers. I tell new wine drinkers they will develop the habit of swirling every glass of liquid they drink, including their morning orange juice.