Friday, December 31, 2010

Go Prosecco For New Year's!

Happy New Year's Eve everyone! I recently ran across a decent Prosecco at Trader Joe's that would make a perfect celebratory libation for anyone who wants to keep it cheap. At 5.99 a bottle, Villa Carlotti Prosecco offers a great balance of quality and price. I use this cheap Prosecco as a welcome cocktail for my out-of-home supper club, Hip Nana. It has many of the qualities of an good Prosecco - crisp, lightly fruity, friendly - with the only drawback being that it isn't 100% clean. But that's splitting hairs! For this price, you can go for more than a couple bottles.

Here's a review with pictures.

If you want to get real classy, Trader Joe's also sells Zonin's "Brut" Prosecco, a delicious Prosecco, for 6.99. Buon capoanno ragazzi!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Digging Through Mountains of Grape Skins - Memoir of a Winery Worker

(Above photo courtesy of Dobbes Family Estate Winery and yep - that's me)

In this part of the wine making process, the grape juice has turned to wine, i.e. the sugar has been turned to alcohol, and we need to separate the grape skins and seeds from the juice. To do so, you have to put on a CO2 meter, a harness, and all-weather gear and climb inside the giant steel tanks. This is a pretty dangerous activity, since loads of carbon dioxide are present, so you get a fan and a spotter to help keep you safe. No one was knocked out by CO2 this year as far as I know.

At this point, the skins have been mixing with the juice in order to create aromas and flavors. This process usually takes ten to 30 days. You can add additives, such as FermAid, to make fermentation go more quickly.

Below is a tank digging photo-story. Click on the title "Digging Out Tanks" in the lower left-hand corner to check it out. Click anywhere on the image for full screen.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gifts for Wine Lovers

Since I have a lot of wine lovers to shop for this year - some new to the wine world, some professional - I thought I'd put together a list of shopping ideas.


Waiter's Corkscrew
Price: $11-$20
I worked as a fine-dining waiter for 9 years, and this style of corkscrew is the best. It is easy to take on a picnic and thanks to the double-lever hinge it makes opening wine at home a breeze. This is for those who think the rabbit style is too bulky. Example.

Price: $11-$70
The simpler the better. No base. No handle. No stopper.

Bottle Ring or Collar
Price: $3-$15
A great stocking stuffer; especially for those with too many bottle stoppers! These collars make it so that wine will never again drip from the mouth of the bottle and down the side. Fun and cheap. Examples.

Wine Breather or Aerator
Price: $20-$30
This is just fun: You instantly get to taste the transformation that a wine undergoes when it breathes. Instead of waiting 45 minutes, the wine is ready to drink immediately. Example 1 and Example 2.

Here are some good deals from Puglia, the region of Italy that I specialize in.

Cantele: Great wines for $10-$15 that can be found almost everywhere. I highly recommend the Salice Salentino, the Primitivo, and the Negroamaro.

Taurino: Great wines for $12-$22 that are available almost everywhere. The Salice Salentino is great for the novice, while the Notapanaro is great for everyone. This latter wine is a fine wine at a ridiculous price. Here are some tips for where to find it around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pairing Zinfandel and Primitivo: If your wine lover particularly enjoys Zinfandel, I recommend buying a bottle of Zinfandel and a bottle of Primitivo (the Italian name for Zinfandel) so that he or she can compare the two. While the wines will feature the same grape, they are drastically different due to difference in growing conditions and local wine-making philosophies. Most Primitivos from Puglia run between $12-$25. Because their availability is rather unpredictable, I suggest asking for local wine guy for the best bottle.

Best Wine Book:

The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil
Price: $12
Though published in 2001, the book is still relevant today. MacNeil does not focus on specific vintages, but gives a very down to earth perspective on wine. She covers it all and manages to keep it interesting from page 1 to 904. Amazon's.

Magazine Subscriptions:
There are more magazines than I have time to write about, but here are some of the best:

Wine Spectator
One Year: $49.95
With a highly respected point system, Wine Spectator is a great magazine for those who like to collect wine. Articles are usually engaging and informative but can sometimes be less than entertaining.

Wine Advocate
One Year: $99
Robert Parker's magazine, the Wine Advocate is for those who share his tastes, or those who like to find up and coming, inexpensive wines, just 1.25 seconds before the rest of the world. Some great deals, but not a good magazine for those who like photographs and travel stories.

Wine Enthusiast
One Year: $29.95
I really like this magazine. It's articles are more entertaining, "cool," and even irreverent than most, and it also provides you with some great deals.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Blasting - Memoir of a Cellar Rat

Buy 6 or more bottles from our online wine store and get 1/2 off shipping with code "wblog81"

After the Pinot Noir grapes are destemmed, the resulting mixture of grape skins, seeds, and juice, is pumped into massive stainless steel tanks. This is when the maceration process takes place; the process where the flavors and aromas of wine are created. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the more powerful it becomes. To really get those powerful fruit flavors, you don't just let the skins sit around. No, you have to blast.

Ever seen pictures of grape stomping? This is the ancient method of extracting flavors from grape skins. The skins are pushed around, putting them in contact with more and more of the juice. Two of the most popular methods for making wine flavorful are punch downs and pump overs. Punch downs are just what they sound like: You punch through the cap of grape skins using a large stick. It's like dipping a tea bag to extract more flavor (to the right: photo shows the process being completed on 1 ton bins). With pump overs, you pump juice from the bottom of the tank over the top. (Below: 1st photo shows a pump over in the foreground; my buddy Paul watching a tank in the background; 2nd photo shows Paul, 15 feet in the air, watching a tank mix.

At Wine By Joe, we used cutting edge technology to get the most flavor from the grapes. Blasting (technically called the pneumatage process), uses blasts of air to move the grape skins around. I connected four air hoses to the bottoms of the steel tanks, then sent evenly time bursts through thousands of gallons of wine. This made for some incredible sights.

First, the CO2 that was trapped under the skins is released; the smoke-like gas spews out of the top of the tank, making it look like a volcano, as the slideshow above shows.

Sometimes the air blast is too powerful; this makes angry oceans of wine: juice actually shoots out of the top of the tanks. To make sure that this doesn't happen, you need to use a scissor lift to get to the top of the tanks, some of which stand 20-25 feet high. Fireworks = grapes in the slideshow above.

Sugar is also converted to alcohol during this process. Say the Brix reading begins at 25 degrees: You'll want to wait until it drops to negative degrees before draining the tanks and pressing the grape skins. The maceration process differs depending on the grape variety and the winemaker's vision. Usually between 10 and 30 days. At Wine By Joe, the process usually took 10-15 days.

In the next post I'll talk about one of the most fun parts of being a winery assistant: Digging out tanks.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Memoir of a Winery Assistant---Welcome To The Winery

When the trucks came, they came fast. On the fastest days we'd process 180 tons of grapes with 17 people in 24 hours (that's more than 10 tons/person). Trucks would arrive filled with half-ton bins of grapes and you'd hop on forklifts to unload them, then weigh the grapes and bring them inside the winery. It could be an amazing sight: flatbed trucks arriving at night, torrential rain pouring down, and 4 to 5 guys on forklifts racing to unload the fruit while staying out of each others way.

Inside the winery, the half-ton bins of Pinot Noir are dumped into hoppers on top of destemming machines. One person drives a forklift with a dumper attachment. The hopper on the destemmer we used stood about 12 feet up, so the half-ton bins were dumped at this height. To make sure the grapes went down well, another person grabs a plastic pitchfork and climbs a ladder up to the top of the hopper. If the grapes were too wet, we would run some of the free running water and juice off in order to get a higher Brix reading. This is the saignee method, which Assistant Winemaker Andy McVay described as making espresso instead of coffee.

The destemmer knocks the grapes free, then the mixture of grapes and juice is pumped into one of the many steel tanks in the winery. One person has to keep track of the amount of grapes pumped, to make sure that the tank doesn't overflow. Pinot Noir grapes are very delicate, breaking easily to release juice. Other varieties, such as Sirah, have much thicker skins.

For all intensive purposes, this is the complete winemaking process. Believe it or not, all you have to do is break grapes and put them in a clean container for a little while, and they'll turn to wine on their own. Of course, this is only the 2nd of a 6-part series: There's a lot more to tell. But those are the fundamental principles.

For white wine, it's a little different. We worked with Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Muscat. The grapes are poured into a hopper, but they are not destemmer or pumped directly into steel tanks. Instead, they are pumped into a giant bladder press. The grapes are then pressed immediately. I'll get into pressing---one of the more subjective and artistic components of winemaking---in part 4. In the next part, I'll describe blasting.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Memoir of a Winery Assistant---Watered Down Fruit

So far not much has happened on the Dobbes Family Estate blog, so I'm gonna give it to you straight. Here's what I've been doing as a winery assistant. If you want to know what goes on behind your wine, this is an inside look. This six-part, photo-story-driven Memoir will show you exactly what happens inside of a winery---from the moment the grapes arrive to when they're racked in barrels. Let's get started.

To make good wine, you need good grapes. Winemaker Joe Dobbes was in constantly communication with Oregon's grape farmers. Since I wasn't eves dropping, I can only guess at what was discussed, but I think they were trying to predict the weather. If rain is predicted and the fruit already has good sugar levels, you want to get the fruit into the winery. Sugar levels are measured in Degrees Brix (I believe that ideal fruit comes in between 23-27 Degrees Brix), and rain instantly dilutes the overall character of the grapes, lowering the Brix. Rain water is carried both inside the grapes themselves and inside the grape bunches. Because sugars are converted to alcohol, low Brix equals low alcohol levels. It's like pouring water into your wine. At Dobbes, there's an entire lab dedicated to tracking Brix levels in all of the vineyards.

Dobbes Family Estate and and Wine By Joe produce a lot of wine (this year we processed 1,950 tons of grapes in all----yeah, that's a lot), and it was cool to watch Joe shuffle the multiple vineyards around, kinda like a Rubik's Cube. Here are some of the things Joe had to work with:

-every vineyard matures at a different speed
-birds destroyed an estimated 1 or 2% of the fruit this year. this made the vineyard managers eager to harvest (more fruit=more money), but harvesting too soon sacrifices quality
-waiting too long results in more attacks from parasites and molds
-Oregon's sun-breaks (short periods of time when it's not raining) are unpredictable, so when they happened, everyone went crazy: fruit arrived all at once or not at all

The 2010 harvest in Oregon was one of the latest in recent history. At the end of this memoir, I'll try to provide a overall picture of quality of the harvest, similar to my covered of the 2009 Harvest in Puglia, Italy. Right now I can tell you that most of the farmers reported a decrease in quantity of 50% in respect to 2009, but that the total amount of fruit processed at Dobbes was nearly the same as last year--- last year being a record breaking year.

In the next part, I'll show you how wine is made.

Celebrate the Holidays With New Washington Grape Varieties

Looking for a rare and unusual wine to sip with Christmas dinner or on New Year's Eve? It's easy to throw cash at a well-known bottl...