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Oak Chips For Wine

Every so often, there’s a bit of innovation in the wine industry. We’re seeing it with technological innovations like optical sorters, but we’re seeing significant push back in other technological innovations like the mechanized harvesting of grapes.  Much of the wine industry that seems to be hands off, comes from the old ways of doing this things.  Oak barrels definitely fall into that category.  Some are trying to innovate though, name in terms of using oak chips for wine.

Ok, so let’s have some basics.  Here’s how we normally age wine:

Using oak barrels to age wine, like we have for generations have some positives and negatives.

  • They’re expensive.  New French barrels run over $1,000 a barrel.
  • Good wood is from old growth, slow growing forests.  France is considered the best, America isn’t great, Hungarian and others are up and coming.  There are real climate change issues at play in cutting these forests down to make wine.  As well as any arguments you can generally make about deforesting.
  • They do add quite a bit of oak/butter taste to wine.  They also help to round out the flavor profile of the wine in question.
  • They only impart a lot of oak and butter flavor for about 3 vintages.  Some higher priced wines, only use the barrels once before reselling them.

As you might expect, people are experimenting.  One such experiment is using oak chips for wine. The results are interesting.  Here are some of the positives:

small oak chips for wine
  • They’re cheap.
  • They impart A LOT of wood and butter flavor.

Of course there are some downsides as well.  It’s said that the amount of toast cannot be controlled quite as much as it can with barrels.  Plus, you still need a container to put everything into, depending on the container, you’ll have some significant changes to the wine in question as well.

Ok, so overall what’s the deal with oak chips for wine? They’re a cheap solution for when a winemaker wants to impart an awful lot of oak flavor, while making a cheap wine that won’t allow for the purchase of new barrels.

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What is a Vintner?

what is a vintner?

So, normally I talk about spending time with winemakers.  I’ve been told, I talk ad naseum about my time with winemakers.  But, then sometimes I’ll throw in the term vintner.  I had a wine club member ask about the difference and if I made a mistake, or if they interchangeable etc.  So what is a vintner?

Ok, so there’s one main difference between a vintner and a winemaker. While both can technically make wine, in the term vintner we generally think of them as selling wine, as much as, or more so, than making it.

I’ll personally use the term vintner to include winery owners who are actively involved in the day to day operations of the winery, without the minute by minute work of fermenting grapes during harvest (ie that aren’t in charge of winemaking)

Largely, you’ll see the industry use the terms winemaker and vintner interchangeably.  I don’t think that they should be because they’re different jobs.  Just like how a winemaker that has been made the general manager of his winery, has a much different job than someone who only holds the title of winemaker.

So what is a vintner? They’re someone who might make wine, might sell it.  Depending on the winery, their job can actually change quite a bit.

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Why The Wine Industry Is Moving Toward Semi Sweet Wine

Rise of Semi Sweet Wine

It’s an interesting part of the wine industry, there’s a big push toward semi sweet wine, as an introductory offer of sorts.  It also pits generations against each other.  Boomers HATE semi sweet (or off dry) wine.  Millennials seem to really like it.  This isn’t the first time that you’ve heard that the two groups don’t exactly see eye to eye is it?

Video Transcription:

Hi, I’m Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. So, I’m joined today by what are two of I think the fastest growing wine brands in the United States. They’re here for kind of a similar reason, although the way that they’re created is completely different.

First, one thing that we’re seeing in the industry. Millennials, it’s a generation that I’m kind of on the cusp of, are getting older, and are starting to consume more and more wine. I think we’ve heard about millennials in the media kind of ad nauseam at times, but really this is the largest purchasing block that we’ve had as a single generation since the Baby Boomers, and so that makes them important. From the wine industry standpoint, if they drink more wine than beer, that’s incredibly important, but they also grew up with something that past generations really haven’t, and that’s soda and other sweet drinks, kind of juice, and that kind of stuff was more common when they were younger.

They stereotypically, and this is all stereotypically of course, have a kind of sweeter complexion for drinks than have had past generations. I think that’s fair enough to say and really that doesn’t say anything about Millennials themselves. That says more about our parent’s choices than are own, but the wine industry is starting to kind of try to bring them into the fold, and doing a fairly good job of it by making these kind of not sweet wines ’cause sweet wine to me is kind of a dessert wine, but really a semi-sweet or kind of off dry.

19 Crimes and Apothic both have some residual sugar. We should take a second and say wine makers are able to- Fermentation takes sugar and turns it into alcohol. To have residual sugar, you have to have taken some of that sugar and not allowed it to turn into alcohol during fermentation. So, wine makers have to stop fermentation to keep residual sugar ’cause they’re not dumping it in afterward.

How do you do that? Quite honestly, the easiest way is you just drop temperature low enough and fermentation stops. It’s something that happens occasionally. This year, we probably will see it in Napa as the Napa harvest gets later and later in October. If we have a cold winter that starts early, you will have some open top fermentors that stop fermenting because they frankly get too cold, and some wine makers will move them into a warmer area and get started again, others will set it in the corner of the winery and wait for Spring. It’s an interesting dynamic.

In any case, back, so wine makers stop fermentation so it keeps it a little bit of residual sweetness. It also keeps alcohol levels fairly reasonable. This 19 Crimes brand which I’ll go into more detail individually about it, but it’s kind of a fascinating marketing study, but it’s only 13 and a half percent alcohol. The wine, it’s a red wine from South Australia, which really if we were to let it play out completely would be over 15 percent.

In a lot of ways, it’s an incredibly smart way for industry and for certain labels to react, so you’re hitting kind of two high points at the same time. First, you’re getting a little bit of residual sweetness. Second, you’re hitting a lower alcohol point, which even if you only moderately drink wine you’ve heard about, and then lastly, what does residual sugar really do other than give you a sense of sweetness? It also rounds out the tannins, so you get this kind of more complete kind of look and mouth feel than you would if it’s a completely dry wine.

Both brands growing and growing incredibly quickly. I’m sure you have 19 Crimes and Apothic Red at your local grocery store, or at your local drugstore, kind of wherever wine is sold over the counter for $10 or so a bottle. I’ll go into detail on both of them, but really this is a way that the industry is starting to bring in new drinkers and younger drinkers. It’s this off dry and if you look at these, these are … Where is this made? South Australia. Southeastern Australia in this case. I mean, that’s a huge place. Where is it actually grown? You don’t know. California, likewise. Huge place, number of vineyards, but this is marketing more so than wine making. The wine making is let’s make something that’s consistent from vinage to vinage and let’s do that by we can partially control based on sweetness and mouth feel as opposed to actual grape kind of input.

In that case, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Hope everyone’s having a good week so far.

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Wine Documentary

wine documentary

Quite honestly, there aren’t many high quality wine wine documentary movies out there. The wine industry is awfully hard to create high quality film, in large part because so much of what actually happens in the industry is contained within a small segment of the year: harvest.  For a documentary filmmaker, having to film the 16 hour days that accompany harvest can be almost impossible.  It’s hard to build trust with winemakers quickly enough to have unfettered access during harvest.

Plus, if you’re trying to make a wine documentary, it’s hard to know where to start.  Too often those in Hollywood, don’t know how the wine industry works and vice versa.

Somm: A wine documentary that’s about the people studying for the Master Sommelier exam. With less than 200 Master Sommelier’s in history, the documentary filmmakers are creating drama by saying that not everyone studying for the exam, will pass.  Winemakers and wine regions from California to France and Italy are featured in such a way as to prove that it’s impossible to know everything about wine. 

My personal thoughts on the wine documentary Somm: The most popular documentary series about wine, it’s a pass for me.  I’d prefer to see more of the people actually making the wine, rather than the people studying it.  Think about a documentary about a chef, do the filmmakers follow around the food critic or the chef himself?

Mondovino: Attempts to show how the wine industry is changing based on globalization.  There are some cringe worthy moments in the movie, normally held to only American winemakers, largely due to the relationship between vintners and their vineyard workers, often low wage immigrant labor from Mexico.  Mondovino is shot in a single camera, interview style and does a good job introducing you to a cast of characters in the wine industry in both France and California.  

My Personal View of Mondovino: I like the overall concept enough, there is a very real difference between corporate winemaking and small batch winemaking.  But, I think the folks behind Mondovino miss the mark by trying to set the wine documentary up as a California vs France, Good vs Bad thing.  There’s plenty of small scale wine in California, even more as a percentage than there is in France, so this felt contrived on a few levels.

A Year In: So, there’s a few of these.  There’s a Year in Champagne.  A Year in Burgundy etc.  I LOVE the concept of showing an entire year of the wine industry in a specific region.  In my opinion, it’s the only real way to show what actually happens.  After all, it’s not necessarily a skill or any specific task that makes winemaking hard, or nearly impossible. Instead it’s the mental grind of planning ahead and truly being at nature’s mercy all the time.  The Year in Champagne, is really the first wine documentary that in my opinion shows how

American Wine Story: This was the first wine documentary that I watched and said, yup….that was awesome!  Part of it I’m sure was familiarity. I’ve shipped Brooks Wines before (the story is about the death of the founder of Brooks and how his son, being raised in the midwest owned a winery and how winemakers kept the winery alive until he could take over). Plus, some old friends including Cartograph Wines were interviewed for the project. American Wine Story is a great story of perseverance and I really liked seeing Oregon on film since seemingly, every domestic wine documentary seems to be based in Napa Valley.

Blood Into Wine: Another wine documentary set outside of Napa, which is a good thing.  Blood Into Wine is the story of Maynard Keys, the former lead singer of Tool becoming a winemaker in his native Arizona. Having tasted these wines over a lunch with Keys, it was interesting to see him on film talking about his project.  If you have any interest at all in wine being made in what is called the “Other 46” this is an essential wine documentary.

Decanted: Ok, so not surprisingly, another wine documentary set in Napa Valley.  Decanted does the best job of all the wine doc’s out there at actually interviewing winemakers, however the entire thing feels a bit disjointed.  It’s almost like the folks behind it, ran into so many awesome stories that they didn’t feel like they could pick a single one.  So they tried to tell them all, at once-which lost some of the appeal for me.  The visuals are stunning of course, but it just still feels incomplete.

As more wine documentaries are released, I’ll try and keep this list updated.  If I had to make a suggestion, Somm is a fun watch overall if you aren’t expecting winemaking.  American Wine Story and Blood Into Wine are the best wine doc’s out there right now though.

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How Many Bottles in a Case of Wine?

how many bottles in a case of wine

There are 12, standard 750ml bottles in a case of wine. If you’re using the metric system, or filing tax payments for a winery, the most important number is that those 12 bottles make up 9 liters of wine.  Exactly 9 and you’ll see why that’s impressive in a minute. But first, let’s delve a bit deeper into what should be a basic question in the wine industry: how many bottles in a case of wine?

I’ve always thought the size of a wine bottle is an interesting story (largely it’s because 750ml is the approximate amount of air your lungs can hold and wine bottles were once blown by hand, by glassblowers).  But why 12 bottles in a case?  Why not 6?  Or 9, especially 9, wouldn’t a 3×3 case have made more sense? Our current 12 bottle in a case setup, isn’t uniform or square, it’s a 4×3.

The honest answer about why a case has 12 bottles and not some different number is that I don’t know. I’ve asked around.  I’ve googled it. I’ve looked at the reference materials I have and there’s absolutely nothing, there’s no reason given. It seems that there are 12 bottles in a case of wine, because there always have been 12.  But why?

I’m going to conjecture that there are 12 bottles in a case of wine because those 12 bottles often weigh about 35 pounds.  35 pounds, based on personal experience is about the amount that most grown adults can comfortably carry without dropping it.  It’s not the minimum, but pretty close to the maximum in my opinion. If you needed wine to be transported as quickly and efficiently as possible, especially when you were working by hand without the help of any technology, wouldn’t you want to maximize the amount of wine in each trip, while minimizing breakage? Makes sense to me.

So how many bottles in a case of wine?  It’s 12. 

Why are there 12 bottles in a case of wine?  That part is unclear at best.

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Substance Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Review

Substance Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Want an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington State-which means that it’s likely a fraction of the price you’d pay if it came from Napa? Then we have a good choice for you in this Substance Cabernet Sauvignon review!

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. I’m joined today by a Charles Smith Substance Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon from 2013. We’ll get to 2013 vintage here at the end. Charles Smith’s wine that we talked about a few times in this space, he makes K Vintners and also a few kind of other labels. I believe there’s six or seven of them in total. I also believe that Substance is the most recent of the labels to be created.

I think if we look at this from a marketing perspective, this is one of the great looking wine bottles that you’re likely to find. Then, after you get it and you bring it home from the grocery store or your local wine store, and we’re talking about giving some of their new distribution models and that kind of stuff. We’re likely talking about grocery store kind of stuff here.

This is a $15-$25 bottle of Cabernet. That’s where the state of Washington has really started to grow a lot, especially in comparison to California where we struggle to create high quality wine at this price point because the land values are so high. Washington, especially guys like Smith who are great wine makers, but also maybe better wine sourcers if that makes sense, as far as finding great quality grapes.

These are grapes from higher elevation vineyards in the state of Washington. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave this wine a 90-93 point score. If you think about it, it’s really one of the insane values that you’re likely to find throughout the course of the entire year. That’s big production, small production, or anything in between. You don’t find 93 point wines for $20 a bottle or under. It just doesn’t happen.

Smith [inaudible 00:01:33] about keeping the price point consistent even with the high score and this is the first fore, I think, into … You’re going to see the Charles Smith wines for that $10 price point and then you’re going to see the Substance wines in the $20-$25 price point probably at a lot of stores. Then, I think you’re going to start seeing more of the K Vintner stuff show up at the $45 range.

Partially why this wine’s so good, and partially why, I think, 2013 was an interesting vintage for Washington, a lot of people will tell you that that’s the warmest vintage they’ve had for about ten years before that. I believe it’s ’03 and ’05 when the state of Washington went through two really warm vintages, almost California-esque, but, in ’13, and quite honestly in ’03 and ’05 most of the vineyards you talked to say, “We didn’t know what to do because we never had it that warm before,” and in ’13 they both had some experience and, at the end of the vintage, stuff hung on the vine for a lot longer and they had let the canopies grow a little bit extra. There’s certain things you can do in the vineyard to help counteract when it’s so darn hot and they had done that, really, for the first time in the state of Washington.

With all that stuff put into place and then the weather, it kind of magically in September and October, cooled off, not where it was cold but it was warm but not hot. The vines were able to have the grapes hang for quite a long time. This is higher elevation stuff so it tends to hang longer anyway but this was picked at the beginning of November, which is kind of incredible if you think very hot vintage plus picked really late, late, late in the season.

I think what you end up having is this dense, thick wine that people really think of when they think of Cabernet Sauvignon and what you don’t always get at that price point. It’s really something that tastes like a wine that’s twice the price point or three times the price point and you’re getting it for under $20 at the grocery store. It’s a really great value and I think it’s a great example of what happens in Washington state, why they have, perhaps at this price point, a wider range of outcomes than we do elsewhere. If it gets really hot, the wine can still be really good. If it doesn’t get as hot as they like it, it still ripens enough to get finished. That’s where I think you’re going to continue to see Washington pick up sales and I think Charles Smith is one of the guys that’s leading the way. I think you’re probably going to hear more about him in the main stream wine press than you have already.

Substance Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Back Label

Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. It’s not something I can ship in a wine of the month club  just because it’s out there everywhere already, although quality wise, I would love to. We really do still like all of Smith’s stuff from K Vintner’s label all the way down through. If you have the opportunity to do so, I’d check it out.

Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures, hope everybody’s having a good weekend.

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How Many Bottles of Wine in a Barrel?

what is a garagiste?

We’ve all seen them in a winery: rows and rows of oak barrels.  Many people do wonder, how many bottles of wine in a barrel?

oak barrels in a wine cellar

I know you all want a straight answer.  The answer that you normally read is 25 cases in a barrel of wine, or 300 bottles.

But, that’s not entirely true. The fact is, that the number of bottles of wine in a barrel can and does, change.

Look at how wine is often transferred from that barrel to the bottling line:

how many bottles of wine in a barrel

As you might expect, you might lose a bit of wine in those “pipes”.  You might also lose some wine in barrel due to any number of factors…..yes, shrinkage definitely does happen in the wine industry like it does to retailers across the globe. But, the entire concept of taking wine out of a barrel to taste it happens with something called a “wine thief”.

So yeah, some wine is “lost” along the route.

Take the last two barrels of wine that I’ve bottled myself.  The first one, Aselstine Stoney Peak White gave me just over 22 cases.  The second, with the same bottling line and other factors, Aselstine Family Cellars Carignan gave me just over 25.  

Was someone thieving along the route?  Maybe.  Did I give away some of those extra 30 bottles along the way? Maybe.

But really, this is an ongoing issue for wineries across the world.  When you ask the question, how many bottles of wine in a barrel?  You think it’s a simple answer and many would tell you 25.  Winemakers would shake their head at that simplistic of an answer.

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What Are Tannins?

Ready to Process Sangiovese Grapes

There are a number of terms within the wine industry that we take for granted, but that the average consumer, might not be familiar with.  Tannins probably comes up more often within the industry than we care to admit, but what are tannins?

Tannins exist in all the parts of the grape, which aren’t the juice.  So basically we’re talking about grape skins, seeds and grape stems.

You experience tannin in two ways generally and if you’re unlucky, a third.  First, tannins can lead to the sensation of dryness in your mouth.  Secondly, tannins can cause you to pucker your cheeks when you drink wine.

As for those that are unlucky, it’s generally accepted that tannins are the reason that some people experience headaches from wine, especially red wine since the tannin levels of red wine are so much higher.

As you might expect, different grapes carry different levels of tannin naturally in large part because of the thickness of their skin.  Pinot Noir is a finicky grape, in large part because it has a very thin skin. So less tannins than say Carignan which comes with a much thicker skin.

There are also a ton of winemaker choices that go into the amount of tannin in a wine.  Allowing grapes to ferment with longer skin contact, increases tannins.  Fermenting with whole clusters does the same.  Of course as is the case with a lot of winemaking, some winemakers will tell you that some of the choices that seem to add more tannins to wine, actually don’t.

In any case,  if you’re wondering what are tannins?  They’re the part of your glass of wine, that dries out your mouth and provides structure to what you’re drinking.

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What Causes Sediment in Wine?

Pile of Corks...Hopefully none cork tainted

What Causes Sediment in Wine?

Every so often, I open a bottle of wine and am greeted by:

What Causes Sediment in Wine?

So to start, there’s nothing wrong with the above picture.  Sediment is a completely normal thing when it comes to red wine. If you get it in white wine, unless the wine was aged for a significant period of time, something has gone wrong.

What causes sediment in wine?

So sediment in wine can come from two main sources.  Neither is necessarily bad, but like so much in wine, it’s nice to know more, than less.

First, if you’re aging your wine, that usually does lead to some level of sediment.  Tannins can combine with phenols as time goes by (more on Phenols here).  Normally, people who drink much older wine than I do, report this starts happening in earnest around the 10 year mark.

Secondly, they can be caused by any number of things within the wine itself.  Left over yeast cells.  Bits of grape skins. Grape seeds. ETC ETC.  Yes, even bits of dirk.  (if that disgusts you, a quick reminder, wine is an agricultural product, like the strawberries your kids ate at breakfast).  If a winemaker filters his/her wine, it’s to remove this kind of stuff.  For white wine, this is much, much more common than it is in red wine.

So what causes sentiment in wine?  There’s a couple of possible things, neither of which is an issue and neither of which should cause any level of concern, even if it does.

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Harvest Update 2018

what does uncorked mean

It’s a difficult thing.  To get an update on harvest from winemakers during harvest.  Harvest, for better or worse, is a crucible of 16 hour days, in fact that it’s so bad that winemaker spouses joke that there are harvest widows, those left behind during the 12 weeks of average 16 hour days.  Some elementary schools go so far as offering later after school care during harvest.  It’s a crazy time. Here’s some more information on 2018 harvest in both Napa Valley and Sonoma.

Video Transcription: Hi all. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. In any case, I wanted to give everybody a quick harvest update. So, no scattered bottles of wine today, although I know that’s always fun.

So, harvest is kind of in full swing in some areas and not even happening in others. So, I’ve talked to Sonoma Winemaker who makes mostly Pinot and Chardonnay and she said that she has three picks this week, and then she’s done. Meanwhile, some of my friends on the central coast, they’ve said they haven’t picked anything, including rosé. So you get these huge swings, but the frank matter for the year is that it’s been a pretty cold summer in California, at least in much of it, so winemakers were kind of begging for heat at some point to get the grapes to ripen those last few bricks.

So bricks is the sugar content in the wine. 17, 20, 22, 24, depending on what kind of style people want to make is kind of the range where people pick. Often, it’s the hardest to get them from that 17 to whatever that finishing wine is, and that’s where you need the most heat. And I think this year we’re gonna see the largest dichotomy between early picks … Not early, but late picks in some areas, but then extremely late picks in others, and that’s driven by two things. First, of course, local climate plays a big role, but then second, when you have cold years, it takes a lot longer to ripen these thicker skin grapes that are … Like, [inaudible 00:01:28] is an example. So if you’re growing Carignan or Syrah, you’re probably, fingers crossed, hoping beyond hope that the rain that’s coming this week in parts of the state is not gonna hit you very hard because it’s not even supposed to be warm after that, so that really is the issue that we’re gonna start running into.

As the picks for these thicker skin grapes move later and later in the year, these are also the grapes that are most at-risk for stuff like mildew, which happens from moisture. But, this part of the year is also where we have the most moisture coming in, and it’s the coolest part of the growing season, so it’s the least chance for the moisture to dry out. So you’re gonna have people, I think, in some areas of the central coast, at least, that are going to have to make some real decisions about should we let this hang on the vine, or maybe we should make something that’s a little bit more acidic. So, for all those folks that say California can’t make anything that’s Frenchman style, they might get their wish this year.

So, in any case, that’s the quick harvest update. We’ll have some harvest for your guys probably coming this week, and it’s been a fun 10 days or so. Hope everybody’s doing well.