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Subject: Wine (the beverage) FAQ, part4 of 10 [LONG]

This article was archived around: 30 Sep 2000 17:19:26 GMT

All FAQs in Directory: drink/wine-faq
All FAQs posted in: rec.food.drink, alt.food.wine
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Archive-name: drink/wine-faq/part4 Posting-Frequency: monthly Copyright: (c) 1995-2000 Bradford S. Brown (Notices/Disclaimers in pt. 10) Last-modified: 2000/06/01 U.S. WWW (HTML) Mirror: http://www.sbwines.com/usenet_winefaq [newest] U.K. WWW (HTML) Mirror: http://www.bath.ac.uk/~su3ws/wine-faq/wine-faq.html
Flaws --------------------------------------------------------------------------- Due to improper production, handling or storage, there are a fair amount of things that can go wrong with wine--most of which should be cause to return a wine if ordering in a restaurant. Some wine merchants will also take back a flawed wine, though I suspect only for their best customers. How often a wine is flawed turns out to be a controversial questions. Some people feel that 1 out of every 12 wines they consume is flawed. Personally, I don't find anywhere near that many wines to be a problem (but then I don't have the wherewithall to consume a lot of _really_ old wine). A good number of people, when faced with a bottle that doesn't seem right (or is just plain awful) will say that it is "corked." They have come to use the term as a catch-all for all flaws. So just what is a corked wine? _Corked Wine_ To me corked wine has the flavor of wet, musty cardboard. Once you have really tasted a corked wine, you'll know what it is--it is not subtle. It is caused by trichloranisol [(TCA) 2,4,6], a compound released by molds that can infest the bark from which corks are made. One theory: you can't get TCA without chlorine, which is used to bleach corks (for aesthetic reasons). If corks aren't properly rinsed and dried this problem can occur. If you haven't been "lucky" enough to experience a corked wine (at least for educational purposes), apparently you can buy the odor of the stuff from enterprising entrepreneurs. One advertised business is: The Wine Trader, attn: "Corky," P.O. Box 1598, Carson City, Nevada 89702. _Other Flaws_ While some people attribute all flawed bottles to being corked, there are a number of other things that can go wrong. A non-exhaustive list follows. + _Brettanomeyces(Brett)_. Earthy and/or manure type smells caused by the Brettanomeyces strain of yeast. Liked by some (for example particular French wines), disliked by many California vintners. In small amounts, can add "character" to a wine. Too much, and forget it. + _Dekkera._ Another wild-yeast caused flavor of fresh dirt or cement. Liked by some (for example in some Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Italian red wines), disliked by many California vintners. Dekkera can also come from contaminated equipment and barrels. + _Madeirized. _Wine subjected to oxygen or heat through poor storage which ends up tasting like Madeira or Sherry. No fruit flavor left. Off-color. + _Mercaptan._ Smells of garlic or onion or even of skunk. I'm told that this is much of the cause of the "foxy" flavor produced by grapes native to North America. It is said that the term "foxy" came about because there wines were often made from the Fox grape, where the flavor was first seen. + _Sulfur._ Burnt match smell caused by too much sulfur dioxide (used in the winemaking process) and rotten egg smells caused by hydrogen sulfide from bacterial contamination. Depending on what it is, it might go away if you air the wine for a while. + _Volatile Acidity._ Smells of vinegar. May go away if you air the wine for a while. There are long lists of flaws and descriptions in _*How to Test and Improve Your Wine Judging Ability*_ (see BOOKS section), and _*Elements of Wine Tasting*_ (American Wine Society Manual #11). Something that probably _isn't_ a flaw are tiny glass like crystals on the bottom of the cork (or sometimes in the wine). Assuming they really aren't glass from the winery, they probably the result of tartaric acid in the form of potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar). I'm told that this is tasteless and harmless. I've seem them and they haven't hurt me! A final note about flawed wines. If you are on good terms with the store or winery from whom you purchased the wine, they will often replace a bottle which is flawed. No harm in trying! Describing Wine -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Lots of terms have come about on how to describe wine. When you hear them tossed about and you don't know anything about them, you can feel lost _and_ the people using them may sound more than a bit lofty. But after a while you'll find that you'll start using the terms too! I think I was just a little bit amazed the first time I said the wine I was drinking had a nice "nose!" And I used it correctly, too. The biggest point I wasn to make here is that you shouldn't let yourself get bogged down in the terms. Drink the wine. Enjoy it. Eventually you may search for a way to describe it and you might then find that these words are close to what you want to say! There are a lot more terms than what follows, but here's a sample to start: + Austere: The wine is kind of stiff or tight, sort of hard. Hard to tell other traits. + Balance: Describing the relationship between tannin, acid and alcohol. You want to drink a "well-balanced" wine. + Big: A strong, perhaps alcoholic wine. It is a good wine that can get better. + Buttery: A sort of smooth feel and taste, like butter. Most often seen in white wines which have undergone malolactic fermentation. + Dry: If sugar remains in the wine it is sweet. When it isn't sweet, its dry. + Flabby: A bland tasting wine that isn't going to get any bet-ter. + Grassy (or herbaceous): Smells like grass. Often seen in Sauvignon Blanc. + Hard: A wine that has a lot of tannin still in it, like a young fine red. The tannin keeps you from tasting the other qualities of the wine which will come out through maturation. + Nose: The totality of what you smell. + Thin: A watery sort of wine. I have been told that the book "Masterglass" by Jancis Robinson contains an excellent, unpretentious list of terms. There is a very large WWW glossary of wine terms at: http://metcon.met.co.nz/nwfc/beard/www/wine_glossary.html. The Ritualistic Art of Wine in a Restaurant and other Quibbles -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Its one thing to learn about wine, buy it and drink it. Ah, but then comes the restaurant. There's all those _rules!_ Who do you talk to? How do you do it? What do you do when they stick the cork down in front of you. (And what happens when you're sure you want to drink a [geh-vertz-tra-MEEner], but can't pronounce it let alone, spell it?) The evening's fun starts with the wine list. If you're lucky they've brought it to you. If you're _very_ lucky, they've brought _all_ of them to you. [I can recall eating in one of the "best" restaurants in a capitol city of one of the United States. The waiter never mentioned that they had a "special" wine list with the "better" wines on it. He had only brought the short, less-expensive list of decent but not as fine wine. One wonders if they didn't intend to sell the good stuff? Maybe it was how I looked.] An informative wine list will tell you the type of wine, the producer of the wine, where it was grown (though with some wines, that is inherent in the name), and the vintage (year) that it was grown. Since there can be considerable variation in vintages (or the wine may be just too young), this is an important piece of information. If the wine list doesn't say, ask! If they won't tell you, have them bring the bottle and reject it if it doesn't suit your wants. Do not be seduced by the process. If they bring a much younger wine than is listed, odds are it isn't worth the price on the menu. Ask for a price reduction. If they won't, tell them to forget it. The best ammunition is to not buy any wine at all--most restaurants use it as a profit center. [OK, so I'll admit it. When we first started drinking wine in restaurants, we brought along a little pocketbook guide that told us what were good wines. We'd sneak a look at the guide, then confidently and boldly order--hoping that we got the pronunciation right.] Now lets say you don't know about the wines on the list (and haven't sneaked in your handy guide). Once again, ask. In a good restaurant, the waiters will have a good working knowledge of the "wine list." And in some restaurants (more in Europe than in the United States), there will be an individual (the wine steward or Sommelier) who's only job is to work with the wine. Often this person can be invaluable in choosing a wine for you that perfectly matches the food. A word of warning: Sometimes their job is to point out the most costly wine they think they can get you to pay for. I'm not saying this is the norm, but caveat emptor always applies. Personally, we decide on what we are having for dinner before we order the wine. This seems to perturb most waiters and wine stewards who always seem in a rush to have us order. While they _might_ be trying to do the right thing by getting the bottle opened as soon as possible, we're usually more interested in the food to start. The waiter can wait. If you have come to drink wine first and food second, then by all means, order the wine and then match the food to it. Frankly, however, we eat at restaurants for food. Wine is cheaper at home, _especially_ once you have started collecting it. When your wine comes, look at it. Make sure it's the bottle (and vintage) you ordered. Busy staff can and _do_ make mistakes. The server will remove the capsule (the wrapper on the top of the wine, which traditionally was made of lead foil but is giving way to supposedly less toxic materials like aluminum or even plastic--or least toxic--nothing at all). The top of the cork should be wiped off (it can be moldy or have other contaminants), then removed. The cork is usually then given to the person who ordered the wine. Why? What do you do? This is where some people start to squirm. Don't worry, there is a reason for this. And it even makes sense. Once you know the reason, you know what to do. So what's the reason? Alright, actually I've heard two equally plausible stories. Both sound correct, or at least useful. The first is that if you take the cork and sniff it you may note some off-smells. This can be your first indication that the wine has problems. If it is corked or has turned to vinegar, you'll not likely want to keep the wine. (There are other, sometimes more subtle things that can go wrong.) The second is the idea that someone between the winery and the consumer may figure that unknowing wine neophytes couldn't tell or wouldn't complain about a wine no matter what. So they _switch_ the wine by opening the bottle, replacing the good stuff with something cheaper and then re-cork it (I guess with a different cork). So the cork is shown to you so that you can see that it has the marking of the winery that produces the wine you ordered. Certainly you can check the cork to see if it is moldy (though usually you can spot this from a block away, and it doesn't necessarily mean that the wine is bad). You can see if it is moist. If it isn't it might mean the wine wasn't stored properly (but doesn't mean the wine isn't bad, so I don't know how this may help at this point). One wag recommends that as the cork is placed before you, you pull a cork out of your pocket and hand it to the server. The point being, I guess, that there is little usefulness in the cork ritual. Most people are going to sip it anyway. Some revel in the standoff of leaving the cork completely ignored and deciding if the server thinks you either imbecile or expert. Another wag relates the story of dining with a friend in an elegant restaurant. When the friend was presented with the cork, he ate it. A lot of people have written me to say they think the whole cork ritual is useless. The person who ordered will then be poured a small amount of the wine for tasting before drinking. If you smelled the cork, you may have a good idea if there is something wrong. Give it a small sip. If the wine is bad, there is no reason for you to drink it. Send it back. Most restaurants will accept back a bad wine gracefully. But . . . , one should not be hyper-critical. Many people will tell you that only 1 in a 1000 bottles is bad, others place it at 1 in 50. Some go so far as to say 1 in 12. Our personal experience is that it has been a *fairly* rare occurrence. _Do not_ send back a wine that "is good" but you don't like. You ordered it. The same applies to particularly older wines that you know darn well might not have survived. Though you _can_ distinguish this last by recognizing the difference between a bottle that has gone "over the hill" and one which is corked, oxidized or otherwise bad. You shouldn't have to pay a restaurant for something that is bad for reasons beyond your control. You probably have seen people "swirl" wine around in their glass. Is that another part of arcane ritual? Sure, but it also has a very good reason. Swirling releases the smells of the wine, which are very important to enjoying the full experience of drinking it. You can swirl the wine around, stick your nose in it, even suck it through your teeth. All these things "bring out" the wine. I _like_ to swirl, then sniff, then sip. Sometimes I manage not to swirl it onto the tablecloth, too. (See the section on glasses.) An interesting point was sent to me by a correspondent which I think is worthy of reproduction (almost) in full: "Incidentally, you don't usually need to taste a wine to tell it is off. The nose is enough. Just give the glass to the server and ask him what he thinks if you're not sure. Most aren't confident enough to assert that the wine _is_ OK to your face." And whether they are knowledgeable enough or not, "turning the initial tasting from confrontation to discussion will probably improve your chances of getting good wine." Check out the discussion on what temperature a wine should be when served. There's nothing that should keep you from insisting that a restaurant do the same for you what you would do at home. That's what ice buckets are for. I've been in plenty of "fancy" restaurants that have brought out a fine red wine at 70 degrees or so, Fahrenheit. Yuck. I have learned not to have any compunctions about making it quite clear how I want to drink wine in a restaurant. It is a fact, of course, that I'm paying for it. One particularly expensive San Francisco establishment that supposedly prides itself on its wine list sent out a red wine that was clearly too warm. As I mentioned above, there are way to deal with this, if you want to. When the waiter was informed that we wanted the wine cooled, he looked at us like we were the idiots we apparently were, told us that he certainly wouldn't want the wine to "close up" and was generally nasty. When I asked him just what temperature the wine had been stored at, he came up with 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Now this is about 5 degrees too cold (on average) of what the "perfect" cellar temperature would be (and I would expect perfection from this place.) Since it was clearly not that cold and was, in fact, too warm, we decided that we besides believing in the strength of our convictions, we would never again visit this establishment. We insisted on what we wanted and made sure his tip represented our displeasure. Another poor restaurant practice is the one of overfilling the glass. I haven't yet figured out if the majority of these errors are due to unskilled servers or from training designed to move a greater volume of wine through the cash register. Perhaps they don't want me to pour the wine since I'll probably stain the tablecloth with drops of red wine (and I do). Maitre d's and servers scurry to my table in horror when I pick up the bottle. I have found, however, that there are very few restaurants that know how to keep a perfect fill level in a glass and that I am willing to risk their wrath and insist that I pour my own. Just by way of contrast to the prior restaurant horror story, I can say that there are some places that do know what they are doing. A very good restaurant, associated with a winery, in California's Napa Valley not only kept the fill level at just exactly the right level throughout my meal, they did it without my even noticing. A rare treat, in my experience. Restaurant Pricing --------------------------------------------------------------------------- For many years and in many places, the cost of wine has been a standard mark-up of the retail cost, say two to three times retail. But in many cases a restaurant probably isn't paying retail--in fact, the price to them is often less to much less than what it would cost you at the winery. The huge mark-ups paid by the customer are an incredible amount to pay for wine and often means that there is more profit in the wine than in all the other food combined. Certainly if the restaurant can get customers to pay such inflated prices (and perhaps by doing so subsidize their otherwise perhaps fine cuisine), then so be it. But personally I think that it is time to not give in. There are several ways to go about this: + _Learn the better buys._ For example, where I live, (Red) Zinfandel is not nearly in as much demand as Cabernet Sauvignon. The bargains are better (and I like it anyhow). Lesser known wines may be just as good or better than the more expensive "name" brands. + _Some restaurants_ (as limited by local law) who are not allowed to sell wine may allow you to bring your own. It would be a good idea to ask for details before showing up, however. + Some restaurants (as limited by local law) will allow you to bring your own (even if they have a wine list) and charge you a "_corkage_" charge for the privilege. If you have some special wines at home, the corkage charge is rarely going to come close to the cost of the same wine, were it on the wine list. Note that it is bad form to bring a wine that is on the wine list. At least one Internet poster claimed that there was not a "single true gourmet restaurant in New York, Boston, or Washington" which allows customers to bring their own wine. While I'm willing to doubt the statement, I know for a fact that this just plain not true in Southern California. In any event, it would be a good idea to ask for details before showing up, however. + _Boycott the restaurant _(or boycott buying wine in the restaurant). When doing this is probably will have a much better effect if you let the restaurant know what you are doing. Some restauranteurs are truly devoted to a fine evening at prices that are not horrendous mark-ups. The meal may not be inexpensive for fine ingredients are expensive, but the mark-up over cost is certainly not fixed. There is something to be said for the cost of cellaring the wine (and keeping good glassware--which breaks--to serve it in). Also, local laws may mean that the restaurant isn't necessarily paying anything less than retail. However, there are enough fine restaurants in this world that one should seek out and promote the ones who are willing to present a fine meal without gouging. In so doing, they will do even more business and will "make up," at least to some degree, profits "lost" from not over-charging on the wine. Some will ask: "how much is gouging?" I don't have an answer for that. But I can tell you that one local restauranteur (in one of the best restaurants in California) would rarely add more than a fixed amount (say $8 for the more expensive wines) over what he paid. Not a fixed percentage, merely an amount that was about the same as his corkage fee (and less for the less expensive wines). It seemed fair to me. And speaking of gouging, what is a fair corkage? Well, just what is the corkage for, anyhow? I said above that perhaps corkage covers the cost of serving since the glass gets dirty or can break. But then, everything else gets dirty including the spoons I don't use because I don't order dessert or coffee. Well, alright, glassware *might* be more expensive. Persuasive? Then there is the cost of storing wine. If people kept bringing their own wine, storage costs would go up, since you would have less room. But then you wouldn't need to buy more wine if you had a good idea of how much you needed, and the wine you stored would go up in value as it aged (except for wines that eventually go bad). Knowing how much to buy and how much of what is the key. Pesuasive? Corkage can be the way the restaurant makes the profit it isn't getting when you don't but their marked-up wine. But you don't have to drink any wine. Persuasive? Finally, perhaps corkage is the way the restaurant discourages you from bring you own wine. I've noted the price of corkage going up of late. At least one restaurant raised its corkage because it was trying to bring them in-line with the more expensive, fancier places. Does this tell you anything about what corkage is about? There is nothing that says you can't negotiate with a restaurant. If you are a good customer and you make it clear that you will either take your business elsewhere (or perhaps worse for them), come and not buy wine, then their idea of what they want to charge may change. It is all business and you as the customer may, in at least some situations, have more control than you think. There are those that like to bring up the mark-up on carbonated beverages (where it is oft stated that the cost of the container is higher than the cost of the liquid itself--and in any event can be measured in pennies). It is said that if you don't complain about that outrageous mark-up you have no right to complain about wine mark-ups. Personally, I won't order carbonated drinks for that reason. In any event, I don't buy the argument, however. $1 is a lot more affordable than $50. While restaurants are in business (and it can be a very risky business) to make money, some restaurants are willing to charge less. There are those who make cogent arguments that high prices for wine are merely the way that a restaurant can stay in business--and they are entitled to make as much as then can. But I am friendly with enough restauranteurs (and good ones, for that matter) who feel that a more reasonably priced wine list is part of the way that they want to do business. For that reason, I spend more in such places overall. I'll usually leave the over-priced places to those who are willing to pay. Supply and demand is controlled by the buyer. A restaurant which puts emphasis on a good and fairly-priced wine list may find that it will attract a great deal more customers. We, the wine-buying public, should seek out such establishments and prove it. One interesting sidelight to this discussion: It has nothing to do with those restaurants who cater to people who have all the money in the world--and act like it. I doubt I would be comfortable in such a place. Well, I know I'm not, having tried a few--and I don't think wanted me there, either. --