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Plastic – Crush – Glasses – Harvest 2K – malolactic

Sore Legs,
Sour Milk, and Fine Wine

Of the many buzzwords that
winegeeks use to mystify amateurs, one of the most effective is
“malolactic.” What could this confounding term mean? The bad feeling
in your legs that follows a long run or hard workout?

close, believe it or not. Lactic acid, which builds up in muscles
after strenuous activity, is also a common component in fine wine.
The athletic aphorism “no pain, no gain” applies to many aspects of
winemaking; in this case, it’s a transformation that changes harsh
wines into friendly ones.

Like most fruits, grapes contain
considerable amounts of acid. After tartaric, the most prevalent
type in winegrapes is malic acid, also prominent in green apples.
(Malum is, in fact, Latin for apple.) This taste
bud-stimulating substance is largely responsible for the
“refreshing” quality of juice, but in many wines — especially red
ones — it’s too tart to be enjoyable.

So how do winemakers
deal with it? They bring in bacteria that turn malic acid into
gentler lactic acid, resulting in a more complex, softer-tasting

Malolactic fermentation takes place during or after
the primary yeast fermentation of sugar into alcohol. The process
has long been common in cool wine-growing regions such as Bordeaux
and Burgundy, where grapes often remain highly acidic. One byproduct
of “ML,” as it’s called, is the chemical diacetyl, which smells and
tastes like butter; this isn’t terribly surprising, as lactic acid
is also found in dairy products.

Almost all red wines today
undergo malolactic fermentation. In whites, it’s not as universal:
Crisp, traditionally high-acid wines such as Champagne, Chenin
Blanc, and Riesling are often protected from the procedure to
preserve their refreshing aspects. On the other hand, ML is
responsible for some of California white wine’s most readily
identifiable characteristics. Of the Golden State’s two dominant
styles of Chardonnay — green appley or buttery — guess which kind
goes through malolactic?

Malolactic fermentation isn’t
always beneficial, even in reds. In warm climates, for example, it
reduces already low levels of acidity, resulting in dull and
“flabby”-tasting wines. Many vintners now put only part of their
white wines through the process, striking a stylistic balance
between lively-bright-refreshing and soft-deep-complex. Some of
California’s most prestigious Chardonnays — for example, Hanzell,
Stony Hill, Trefethen, St. Clement, Grgich Hills, and the wine that
won a historic 1976 Paris tasting, Chateau Montelena — remain
largely or wholly non-malolactic.

In wineries that have
encouraged malolactic fermentation, the habit can be literally
impossible to break — the bacteria remain present in barrels, even
when thoroughly rinsed and cleaned. Thus, winemakers who want to
prevent ML must sterile-filter their products, else the process take
place spontaneously where nobody wants it to happen: inside
the bottle, where it gives rise to disagreeable flavors, excess
carbon dioxide, even blown-out corks. When that happens, wineries
and wine-drinkers alike have big problems with lactic acid (even
more so than when it’s associated with sore legs and sour milk).

Harvest 2000
Dispatch, Part One: North Coast California Zinfandel and Pinot

The first results of the 2000 Northern California
harvest are in, and the judges (that is, winemakers) have pronounced
it … weird! Very good, in fact, and potentially excellent. But

Things started swimmingly last spring, when a warm,
dry flowering period was agreeably followed by a moderate summer
(jarred only by a two-day, 100-degree spike in June). A scarcity of
marine fog, combined with reasonable air temperatures, bestowed
unusual maturity on the grapes by late August.

Then came the
weirdness. Around Labor Day weekend, the normal kickoff time for
harvest, unexpected rainsqualls disrupted the previously placid
weather. Next came scorching heat, igniting a furnace under
early-ripening grapes, which started pouring into wineries by the

It didn’t seem to faze makers of Pinot Noir,
however. Owing to the abundant (but not too hot) summer sunshine,
Michael Terrien of Acacia Winery says that his Napa Carneros grapes
“got ripe flavors early with lower sugars. Our hand was never forced
by the weather — we could pick when we wanted to, and the wines
taste rich and full.”

Dan Moore, who makes Chardonnay and
Pinot Noir at Lynmar Winery in the Russian River Valley, also
reports “full, rich flavors with elegance and finesse. The grapes
sugared up beautifully — everything came in clean and
classy-looking, with little uneven ripening or raisining. We pass
all our grapes across a sorting table, but we barely pulled anything

Compare that with Zinfandel and its natural proclivity
for raisining. “We’ve seen more dramatic differences in ripening
this season than we have in 10 years,” reports Kent Rosenblum,
president and director of winemaking at Rosenblum Cellars, which
makes single-vineyard Zinfandel from all over Northern California.
“Because of the long flowering period in the spring, we’re getting
everything from green to very ripe fruit in the same vineyard. We
had to pick selectively, then come back again in two weeks.”

Rosenblum also observes that, “There’s been no rhyme or
reason to the order of things. In a normal harvest, Contra Costa
County (east of San Francisco, bordering on the Central Valley)
grapes would come in first. This year, Paso Robles (Central Coast)
was first, then northern Sonoma, and then Contra Costa.”
Consistent with such contrariness, Rosenblum says that, “some
big-name vineyards are having trouble, but there are also some big
winners. Our Dry Creek and mountaintop vineyards look great, and
Mendocino looks unbelievable. It’s also going to be a magnificent
year for white wines — our Viognier, Roussanne, and Chardonnay are
all looking beautiful.”

Joel Peterson of Ravenswood agrees
that this year’s Mendocino Zins are “spectacular.” He also concurs
that the customary picking progression was way out of whack, and
that Zinfandel contained “many more raisins than you’d normally
expect. That means the wines will be high in alcohol, but the acids
and pHs stayed within good bounds, so they’re also well balanced.
The colors and flavors are great; the wines are dark and spicy. Some
people are comparing this vintage to ’97, but I think it’s more
fruit-forward. In general, it’s very successful.”

only half the story of this eccentric harvest, though. After the
torrid September heat, early October turned downright wintry: The
jet stream dropped a Pacific storm out of the Gulf of Alaska,
bringing yet more rain as well as record low temperatures. As a
result, unpicked Bordeaux varietals — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot,
and Cabernet Franc — came to a ripening standstill in mid-October.
The extended hang time promised great flavor development — if the
rest of October straightened up and acted like an autumn we might

What’s in a

A container of any type can transport liquid
to your mouth. So why do wine buffs insist on using clear, stemmed,
curvaceous glasses? Wine.com Senior Wine Merchant Jeff Prather

Dozens of specialty glasses exist for all types of
wine and spirits. One style, however, will suffice for almost any
wine: a clear, stemmed, 12-ounce vessel. Aside from this, the only
other type of wineglass you need is a tall, slender flute (to
showcase the bubbles in sparkling wine).

A 12-ounce glass is
large enough to be used for either red wine or white. (If you want
to get finicky, glassware for white wine should have a tulip shape
that tapers inward at the top to focus aromas, whereas red wine
needs a deeper and bigger bowl to collect bouquet.) Some glasses,
such as Riedel crystal from Austria, are designed to deliver wines
to the palate in a way that maximizes their flavors. Each style is
meant for a specific wine: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, et al. The
idea that a glass can affect flavor might sound far-fetched, but in
repeated demonstrations, wine professionals have observed a clear
improvement when varietal and glass are matched.

Why the
stem? To have something to hold onto, silly! Urban rumor alleges
that grasping the bowl of a glass will increase a wine’s
temperature, just as handling a Champagne bottle supposedly warms
the bubbly. Poppycock! The role of the stem is to keep the glass
clean, which is also why the glass should be clear and not tinted or
cut: to let the wine shine through. Nothing detracts from a wine’s
appearance more than greasy fingerprints — and besides, holding a
glass by its stem makes you look cool (or, at least, more

Given its proximity to godliness, our friend
Dionysus considers cleanliness the single most crucial wineglass
issue. Despite its smooth appearance, glass contains tiny pits where
food can be trapped in microscopic quantities; dairy residues are
worst, as they impart a smell of spoiled milk that can persist
throughout the life of the glass. For this reason, wineglasses
should never be used to hold desserts — or anything, really, except
wine or water. (Even neatniks should be sure to rinse away every
trace of soap, which can also cause sparkling wine to go flat.)

With all that said, the secret truth is that, after a hard
day’s work, I don’t care if I drink from a jelly jar as long as it
conveys a decent wine to my body (and soul). It’s the beverage that
I appreciate, not the container. But when it comes to the dinner
table, a proper, elegant wineglass enhances the whole experience,
which for me adds up to an expansive, soothing, and (Dionysus knows)
heart-healthy smile.


In the Northern Hemisphere, now is the time of year
when winegrapes are being harvested for the annual vintage — a
period that winemakers affectionately call “crush.” The reason for
the nickname, of course, is that freshly picked grapes are crushed
to begin the process of fermentation.

Or are they? Crushing
is the most common and efficient way to expose grape juice to yeast
(especially in red winemaking), but many winegrapes go into
fermentation vessels without any such treatment.

Bill Easton
makes both red and white wines in the Sierra Nevada foothills under
the Easton and Terre Rouge labels. Like most modern vintners, Easton
employs a mechanical crusher-destemmer that can be adjusted to mash
the grapes, let them pass through untouched, or achieve any degree
of molestation in between. “We don’t treat grapes the same way every
year, or every week, or every day,” Easton explains. “It all depends
on the fruit. Some years it might be firmer, so it’ll be crushed
more. But if grapes have gotten rained on, they might be softer and
pulpier, so those get crushed less.

“It also depends on the
varietal, and on what you want from the finished wine. Syrah,
Grenache, and Zinfandel all have different textures — and diameters.
In France, it’s traditional in the southern Rhone to ferment whole
clusters of Grenache on their stems, but California Grenache doesn’t
have the same characteristics — the stems don’t get as brown and dry
so they make the wine taste too green.

“You do get more
fruity character from whole berries,” Easton acknowledges, “so we
usually have some tanks with whole berries and some without. In the
end, we blend them to taste, or bottle the fleshier wines with less
barrel age for near-term drinking.”

When it comes to white
wine, Easton doesn’t crush any grapes at all. One-hundred percent of
his barrel-fermented Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Semillon,
Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat is whole-cluster pressed (separated from
the skins without crushing) by a bladder that expands with air
pressure inside a stainless-steel cylinder.

juice is cleaner and purer,” Easton explains. “One of the great
things about white wine is its aromatics, and whole-cluster pressing
allows you to capture all the floral character of grapes on the
vine. The juice also contains fewer solids, so it requires less
fining — especially if you’re barrel-fermenting and aging the wine
on its lees (sediment).”

Obviously, “crush” is much too
simplistic a term for this time of year. If winemakers want to be
really accurate, they should refer to September and October as

On second thought, “harvest” has a nice ring to it.

One Word:

Last week, wine.com Senior Wine Merchant Jeff
Prather began to work himself into a lather on the subject of
natural corks — a method of sealing wine bottles that, he says,
shows “we’re still stuck in a medieval mentality.”

to Prather, this is literally true because “the last [accepted]
improvement in wine-closure technology was three or four hundred
years ago.” That’s when Dom Perignon, a French Benedictine monk,
drove a piece of cork bark into the neck of a wine bottle, instead
of banging the (then traditional) oil-soaked rag into the bottle
with a wooden bung.

Although it was a great innovation in
the 17th century, a porous and spongy cork is hardly an ideal way to
seal a bottle. To keep the cork swollen and tight, a wine bottle
must be stored horizontally. Still, mold and/or chemicals on the
cork contaminate as many as one out of 15 bottles.

would you want to spend 25 dollars on a bottle of wine and then have
it ruined by a 25-cent piece of bark?” Prather asks. “Wineries put
years of work into their products and spend millions of dollars
marketing them — and meanwhile, we’re raping the cork forests of

Prather’s solution echoes the career advice
offered to Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 movie “The Graduate”:

“Plastic doesn’t have the organic problems of
cork,” says Prather. “Modern artificial corks don’t change the taste
of wine at all — we now have neutral food-grade polymers that don’t
break down in contact with wine’s alcohol or acidity. The long-term
effects on aging are still being tested, though, so we won’t know
that for 10 or 20 or 50 years.”

One of the biggest producers
of synthetic stoppers in the United States is SupremeCorq of Kent,
Washington, which defines its product as an “injection-molded,
closed-cell thermoplastic elastomer.” According to Vice President of
Sales Marla Rosenberg, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon aged for five
years under such stoppers “is developing beautifully.”

respected, well-known California wineries as St. Francis and Bonny
Doon now seal all their wines with plastic closures. St. Francis’
marketing director Nan Fontane says that the winery made this
decision after losing a substantial amount of wine (including “a
high percentage” of reserve Chardonnay) to tainted corks.

“We wanted to make sure that our wine would reach people in
the condition it was meant to,” Fontane explains. “If you’re looking
for an excellent seal, plastic has all kinds of advantages. You can
store your wines upright because you don’t have to keep the cork
wet, and removal is always consistent. Conventional corks tend to
break in half or crumble.”

Fontane says most of the feedback
about plastic stoppers has been positive. “There were some Puritans
who said they needed to smell the cork and would never buy our wine
again,” she reports. “We weren’t going to win those people over,
even though sniffing a cork doesn’t give you an accurate impression
of a wine’s bouquet at all.”

Synthetic stoppers are now
widely used in Europe, Australia, South America, South
Africa…almost everywhere, it seems, except the United States.
“Most American wineries’ marketing departments are afraid that
they’ll be perceived as cheap,” Rosenberg explains.

To Jeff
Prather, that’s merely evidence of our “prehistoric stubbornness and
stupidity and dogged loyalty to something called ‘tradition.’
Longing for your hunk of bark is just as backward as people in Dom
Perignon’s time longing for their oily rags.”