Category:Wine advice

Anthony J. Hawkins and the Wine Grape Glossary

The Wine Grape Glossary, perhaps the most important wine reference tool on the Internet, was compiled by someone who did it to learn how to use a computer and to teach himself basic programming.

Thank you, Anthony J. Hawkins.

“That’s one reason why it’s so simple,” says the 83-year-old Hawkins, retired from the ceramics department at Alfred University in western New York state. “I didn’t want to put in any bells and whistles because I didn’t want it to be too complicated.”

It’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of Hawkins’ work. The site lists thousands of grapes (not even Hawkins knows how many), cross-referenced by parentage and the grape’s name in different regions and countries, along with growing and winemaking notes. All of this is annotated with academic sources and references.

Not sure what monastrell is? A couple of clicks and you’ll see that it’s a Spanish red grape that isn’t related to the French mouvedre, as is commonly thought. Surprised to see symphony listed as a grape on some California white blends? Click through and you’ll find that it’s a cross devised in 1948 at the University of California-Davis to blend with sweet wines.

And it’s free and incredibly easy to use. By comparison, Jancis Robinson’s new book, “Wine Grapes,” which has been released to critical raves, runs almost 1,300 pages and costs $175.

Is it any wonder I check the glossary (hosted by Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers Page) at least a couple of times day? Or that it’s reference material at many wine competitions that I judge?

Even more amazing is that Hawkins wasn’t all that interested in wine when he started work on it in early 1990s (though, he says with a laugh, he has a nice cellar now). He knew a home winemaker, and wanted to learn more about what that involved, as well as to understand what grapes were being grown in upstate New York 20 years ago. His goal, he said, was to grow a couple of vines so he could pluck grapes from his bedroom window. Besides figure out computers.

And, in those almost pre-Internet days, there weren’t many places to look. “Jancis Robinson ?s Guide to Wine Grapes,” her first grape book, wasn’t published until 1996 and only had 800 entries, an abridged version of a more expensive book that was almost impossible to find. Hawkins was on his own.

“The sources were hard to come by, though I did eventually get decent references from Cornell,” he says. “And the first versions were a little inaccurate, and I got some comments on that. It was like working in the dark. But then it started to grow like topsy.”

Until 2007, when Hawkins had to stop work on the glossary. He has had some health problems, he says, including heart surgery. But that doesn’t mean he wants to see it fade away.

“Yes, I’d like to see someone take it over and improve it,” Hawkins says, knowing that it’s time for an update that he can’t do. For one thing, diamond, one of my favorite New York state hybrids, is missing. Anyone who is interested can send him an email at hawkins at alfred dot edu (forgive that format, but I want to spare him any spam).

As for me, I want to double check the difference between ruby cabernet and cabernet sauvignon. Excuse me while I click.

2012 holiday gift guide redux

wine gifts

Unfortunately, this Champagne bottle lamp has been sold.

Just a week until Christmas, so it ?s time to remind everyone who missed it the first time that the Wine Curmudgeon has you covered. Check out the holiday gift post, as well as a couple of more suggestions:

? Templeton small batch rye whiskey ($38, sample): The revival in brown goods means those of us who drink rye have more to choose from than Old Overcoat. The Templeton, from Iowa no less, has that wonderful rye sweet edge, and it lasts from beginning to end. Cut it with a little water, sit by the fireplace, and it doesn ?t matter how cold it is outside.

? ?Wine Grapes, ? which my pal Dave McIntyre described as ?a book of biblical scale. ? How about entries for 1,368 grape varieties over 1,280 pages for $175? Yes, it ?s not for everyone, but I have to confess: It would be fun to have around the house.

The “What do you drink when your magazine is sold and everyone gets fired?” blog post

The Wine Curmudgeon ?s career in the newspaper business included three newspaper closings as well as one really spectacular newspaper wake (for the late and much lamented Dallas Times Herald). So I am, sadly, well qualified to write this post.

Pet Age, the premiere trade magazine for the pet retail business, has been sold and all of its employees have been fired. I have freelanced for Pet Age since the early 1990s (one does not live by wine writing alone), and so I know the good work the staff did. Cathy Foster, who was my editor, was smart and quick to see how a story should be written, and editor Karen MacLeod, a fellow Northwestern alum, may know the pet business better than I know cheap wine.

So this is my gift to them for a job well done: What to drink when they hold the Pet Age wake, be it public or just sitting at home trying to make sense of the whole thing:

A decent boxed wine: Because, frankly, a lot of people are going to want to get drunk, and boxed wine provides the best price quality ratio for that purpose. Black Box and Bota Box whites are a safe bet (though I’d skip the pinot grigio); the price works out to the equivalent of $4 to $5 a bottle. (Though, of course, the Wine Curmudgeon does not advocate drinking to get drunk, driving while drunk, or any of those sorts of things.)

A bubbly for toasting: Regular visitors here know this one — Cristalino, all $6 or $7 of it. Or, as I wrote the last time it was the wine of the week: “bone dry, refreshing and brisk.”

Something nice: As my pal Tim McNally reminded me when I told him about this post, life is too short to not to drink something nice at a time like this. I’d open one of my remaining bottles of 2002 Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, but any fine wine will do. What was something you once had and really liked, but never drank again because it was too expensive or too hard to find? Now’s the time for it.

The hard stuff: I’m not much of a cocktail guy; I prefer my fruit in a pie. I do, however, appreciate good spirits. Wild Turkey makes a rye whiskey for about $18 that gets the job done (just cut it with a little water). And I was lucky enough to sample Partida tequilla, which offers value for $45.

Drink up, my friends. You deserve it.

Riesling — the grape that doesn’t get enough respect

Riesling is, perhaps, the most misunderstood of all the wine varietals. People who don’t like sweet wine dismiss it because it can be sweet, while people who drink sweet wine are often confused by the various ways that riesling is made. Both of which are too bad, because riesling is a refreshing alternative to the white wine that we usually drink.

Most rieslings, even those that are dry, have some sweetness. But since it occurs naturally, and not as added sugar or high fructose corn syrup or a winemaking trick, it’s not overwhelming and unpleasant.

In fact, in the best rieslings, the sweetness ? even in the most sweet ? is balanced by the fruitiness and acidity of the wine. There are some top-flight German rieslings that combine a wonderful lemon freshness with low alcohol and sweetness; drinking them is about as much fun as wine gets (as my old pal Cody Upton, who shared a bottle with me on a 100-plus Dallas afternoon can attest).

The good news is that riesling is making significant progress in overcoming this resistance. Chateau Ste. Michelle, the giant Washington state producer, has scored financial success with its $10 grocery store riesling, which you can order in a strange restaurant and it will be OK. The Wine Curmudgeon has mostly been partial to Pacific Rim ?s various rieslings, which can be a step up from Chateau Ste. Michelle and are almost as widely available.

In addition, the International Riesling Federation, a consortium of producers and like-minded sorts, has worked diligently to improve the way riesling is labelled. The group uses terms like dry and sweet, a huge improvement over the old German system, which uses terms like auslese and spatlese.

More about riesling, including a variety of wines to try, after the jump:

Continue reading

Catfish meuniere, Randall Grahm, and Spy Valley

Honest wine

Honest wine is the best pairing for honest food.

The most important lesson I ever learned about seafood came from the late, much loved and much missed Merlin Kleinpeter: If you can ?t buy it from Robert at Bayou Seafood, she used to say, then don ?t buy it.

Which was Merlin ?s way of telling me that fresh is what matters, and that any supplier who wasn ?t honest about things like freshness wasn ?t worth my time and money. If the crabs weren ?t good that day, then Robert told her so, and Merlin didn ?t buy them.

I mention this because food and wine are inextricably linked, and not just about which wine goes with which food. Pairing wine with most takeout pizza, which never tastes as good as you think it should, is one thing. That ?s what $10 grocery store merlot was invented for.

But pairing wine with honest food ? food that someone cared about and that required them to make an effort when they prepared it — is another matter entirely. More, after the jump:

Continue reading

Wine and your wedding

Wine and your wedding

It’s your wedding — pick the wine you want, not what others force on you.

This is the time of year when brides-to-be start planning for next spring’s weddings. And, since one of the most common questions that the Wine Curmudgeon gets from blog readers is about choosing wine for weddings, why not a post with just such advice?

Even better, I brought in two other experts ? wedding planner Linda Alpert of suburban Chicago’s Affairs with Linda, and my old pal Mr. Sommelier, who has been doing this sort of thing even longer than I have been writing about wine. And, yes, that is a nom de plume, since Mr. S. has a day job and his bosses might not appreciate this gig.

“They know they’re supposed to have wine, but they’re not sure what to do,” says Alpert, something we’ve heard on the blog before. Thank you, wine business, for confusing your customers. So don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to tell someone you would like them to answer your questions in English, not winespeak.

• The people are attending your wedding because they like you, not because they want to tweet about the wine selection. In this, simple is usually more than sufficient. Make sure the wine more or less pairs with any food you’re serving (whether reception or dinner), make sure there is red and white, and don’t worry about spending trillions of dollars to impress anyone. Most people won’t notice.

• What specific wines to serve? That depends on your budget and local availability. But this is what brands like Rodney Strong, Hess and King Estate do best — give you value for money and quality wine that’s a step above the grocery store stuff.

• Mr. S. has your quantities covered with his interactive Drinks Calculator. Click a few boxes on the web page, and it generates a complete list of what you’ll need. As a rule of thumb, figure on a couple of glasses of wine at dinner.

• Hotels are not in business to help you save money on wine. They’re in business to make as much money as possible, and their markups make restaurants look reasonable. And, says Alpert, how does a $40 corkage fee sound if you want to bring in your own wine? The hotel’s house wine, because of this, is almost always your best bet, she says.

• Caterers, on the other hand, are more flexible, and are more willing to work with you if you want to buy your own, Alpert says.

• Yes, you should serve sparkling wine. And, no, it doesn’t have to be the expensive French stuff. Mr. S. likes prosecco, the Italian bubbly, which is reasonably inexpensive, while regular visitors here know my preference for cava, Spain’s sparkling wine. And, since so many future brides get hung up pouring a big-name Champagnes, the prices hotels charge are gouge-worthy.

Why most wine is not made to age

P4210035We ?ve talked about this on the blog, but a regular visitor makes the point dramatically with this picture. When you buy wine, drink it. Almost all of the world's wine is made to drink more or less when you buy it ? and not to age.

Sadly, the person who bought these three bottles of 1988 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau didn ?t know that. Which is not surprising, since most Americans (thank you, Winestream Media) still think that ?s true. But Beaujolais isn ?t made to age, and nouveau ? made quickly so it can be sold shortly after harvest ? is especially not made to age.

Hence 24-year-old bottles of wine that look like this. The wine has evaporated in the bottle and those gross splotches (mold, perhaps?) will not doubt enhance the wine ?s current post-vinegar flavor profile.

Thanks to Rich Liebman, who sent the photo and has been a loyal reader since the blog started. Where he found them (and it wasn ?t his house) is probably best left unsaid.