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

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Archive-name: drink/wine-faq/part4
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Copyright: (c) 1995-2000 Bradford S. Brown (Notices/Disclaimers in pt. 10)
Last-modified: 2000/06/01
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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.

--
 

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