basics personal

Ikea to the rescue

Fancy cellarThe last note for a while about my burgeoning cellar, I promise: when shopping at Ikea recently for kitchen cabinets (we’re remodeling our kitchen at the end of the month, a fact which fills me with unreasoning dread), my beloved and I stumbled across a wine storage system which would store 80+ bottles… for only $100!

While Tom could very easily make me a wine rack, we’re embroiled in this remodel currently, and he’s also working on building us our own tear-drop trailer. So we figured to take the easy way out, and he put them together for me yesterday, an unusually cold rainy Saturday which would have kept him in doors anyway.

We located the new rack in the hall closet. I don’t know where we’re going to put all the camping gear that lived in there before – it’s hunched in the corner of the guest room, whimpering and bewildered.

For those of you that dream of someday owning your very own wine collection, bottles gently aging toward perfection, there are a few things you need to consider in the placement of your treasure trove. Firstly, light: wine hates it, and you don’t want your wine to learn to be a hater. Choose a wine storage location away from light.

Secondly, temperature: we call wine collections “cellars” because traditionally wine was kept in the basement, because there is little to no temperature variation underground. Sure, if you spring for a refrigerator to keep your wine in, you can store it at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, just like it would be kept in a cellar. Or if you actually have a basement (something largely uncommon in my neighborhood of houses built on solid limestone, and not so much with the tornados), you can keep your juice there with much sense of tradition. But simply giving your wine somewhere to sleep that will have a constant temperature (in my house, this means in the center of the home, close to the floor) is completely acceptable. Especially if you’ve got the dark part taken care of.

Thirdly, inclination: with the advent of the Stelvin closure, this is becoming less vital, but if you are storing bottles closed with corks, you need them to stay wet. Horses may sleep standing up, but wine doesn’t like it. Treat your wine better than the airlines treat all of us, and let it lay down to rest. Your corks will stay moist and pull-able, and everyone will live happily ever after.

basics food & wine pairing

Giving Thanks, Not Advice

Traditional ThanksgivingOK, so I love love love love love Thanksgiving. It’s a secular holiday that is not corrupted by snarly patriotism, and it’s the only US holiday that has an integral relationship with the seasons. Sold, and sold. And then, it’s all about food and cooking, which is really how I relate to any holiday anyway: Easter is eggs, 4th of July is barbecue, Halloween is candy, etc.

Feasts are my favorite, and I love cooking for guests; so I’ve been hosting Thanksgiving for my entire adult life, ever since I had my own place — even making tofu turkey back in my Greenpeace days. I revel in the recruiting & inviting of guests, the planning of the menu, the shopping, the preparation, the cooking and staging of the meal.

Color me surprised that I am so cheerfully looking forward to being hosted this year: my darling and I are going to a friends’ house for Thanksgiving. They’re some of our best friends, and the cook in their marriage is my closest foodie friend. He’s a vegetarian who expertly cooks meat for his wife and loved ones, and his parents are going to be visiting for the holiday… so I’m anticipating a grand meal and lots of fun, fun times. (And no clean up at my house, which I admit is a decadently fine prospect.)

basics news

Science and Your Red Wine Headache

“I can’t drink red wine,” the person says. “I’m allergic to sulfites, and I get terrible headaches.” Heard it? Ever been told that European wines are safe to drink because they have no sulfites in them? Ever meet someone who would only drink organic wine because of their migraines?

This is a barely-restrained pet peeve of mine. I want everyone to be able to enjoy red wine, heaven knows, but come on now — as less than 1% of humanity is allergic to sulfites, and as an allergic reaction to sulfites results in anaphylactic shock, and as sweet white wine is just as sulfite-ridden as dry red wines….. I have a hard time scraping up any sincere faith in your alleged sulfite allergy, dear one.

A few other debunkings, as I brought up the issues:

basics IDK wine

IDK Wine: Pinot Noir

I geek out.  About wine, about other interests… I confess that I love to really dig into the minutiae of a subject and then share my newfound treasured facts, telling people more than they ever needed to know about, really, anything.

And so it is that I begin a new Wine Scamp Series: I Don’t Know Wine, posts for those who read this site for pleasure, maybe a little knowledge, but really not to find out how the ’05 Cortons are drinking.

The concept here is to impart to you just enough wine knowledge to defend yourself in a wine shop or at a normal, public tasting. These skills won’t protect you against an all-out onslaught of wine geek-o-rama, but they should, given proper maintenance and some remaining short-term memory, allow you acquit yourself worthily if your group asks you to pick a wine for dinner.

I want to start with the grape varietal Pinot Noir because of its enshrinement by the movie Sideways and because it’s a flexible, reliable (if not inexpensive) wine choice.

basics personal

How to Drink Bad Wine

Yeah, yeah, I know. Life’s too short, right? Well, bullshit. There will always be that party where you’re the “wine gal,” so you get the special bottle of Turning Leaf Pinot Noir they’ve been aging on top of the fridge for 5 years, or that gathering where you are forbidden to bring anything and everyone’s drinking Franzia Merlot from plastic cups.

The fact is that there are times when you have no choice: due to social or psychological pressures, everyone eventually is trapped into drinking bad wine.  Fighting it won’t help you.  Quit struggling.  Accept that glass of pukey juice with a smile, confident that you can knock this fucker out with panache.

1. Drink very little.  Accept your glass gracefully and then contrive to lose it somewhere, and then switch to water after a decent interval.  If anyone raises an eyebrow, make some comment about feeling dehydrated.  That shuts everyone up.

2. Keep it cold.  Cold is your best friend when it comes to bad wine.  When given a selection of seemingly identically bad wine choices, choose the cold one: cold mutes a wine’s flavor, you will taste less of the badness.  If your bad wine choices are not refrigerated, ask for some ice.  Even Franzia Merlot is almost palateable over ice; the blueberry flavors almost conquer the bile flavors when it’s cold enough.  Plus, ice will dilute it, and you won’t be too drunk to go get a decent drink after the party.

3. No smellsies.  I know it’s a reflex to swirl and sniff everything, even your coffee cup and water glass, but don’t go sticking your nose in this crap!  It’ll only remind you of the misery of your situation and exaggerate the nastiness of your swill.  Even better, close off your nose when you swallow — you know how you kind of close the back of your throat when you drink?  Like that.  Keep your throat closed for a few seconds before and after your swallow, and you’ll minimize the amount of flavor you can perceive.  (This also works when you have to down nasty-tasting medicine, and Jagermeister.)

4. No sipping.  Take big gulps, using the throat-closing technique, and soon you’ll be buzzed enough that the ick won’t bother you as much.  This will invalidate your ability to go find a glass of something bearable later on unless you have a driver, I’m just warning you.

5. Mix it.  If you’re given bad champagne, splash some Kir or cranberry juice into it. Bad white wine can also be fruited up or made into a (more) drinkable spritzer.  If you’re really desperately staring down the barrel (no pun intended) of 4 bottles of rotten red and no way out, cheerily suggest Sangria.  If your hosts have no fruit, just throw some ice and OJ into your glass. Colder, dilute, and the juice will mask some of the skank.

Do you have another secret way to withstand bad wine?  A good story about learning that life’s not too short after all?  Pull up a comments box and tell us all about it!

basics industry

Quit staring at my legs

One of the things I will encourage you NOT to comment on when it comes to wine is legs.  “Nice legs” is a phrase best used in private, only with your beloved partner whom you think has attractive lower limbs and wants to hear your opinion of them. 

Unfortunately, wine legs are easy to spot, and commenting on them is one of the early defaults that a wine drinker learns.  Please, please, please resist.  Legs mean one thing: alcohol content.   If the wine legs you are seeing in your glass are so outstandingly pronounced that you simply must say something about them, then just say something about the alcoholic content in the wine, like “What percent alcohol is this?” or “What is this stuff, Port?”

Tears of WineHere’s how legs work:  wine is made of water and alcohol.  Alcohol evaporates faster than water but has lower surface tension, and so the wine in your glass of wine starts climbing the sides through capillary action.  This exacerbates the quicker evaporation of the alcohol, and the resulting change in the surface tension pushes even more wine up the side.  When gravity kicks in, the wine drops back into the glass.  The tracks of the wine running up and falling down the sides of your glass are the legs, which the French call the “tears of wine.”

Alcohol is one of the things that makes a wine full-bodied, creating that sensation of expansion in your mouth, and sometimes contributing to the mouth-coating texture of a wine.  There has been a lively discussion since late June in the wine world regarding how much alcohol is in modern, high-scoring wines, and whether that’s a good thing.  Wines from Germany usually have about 8-10% alcohol.  French & Italian wines tend to be about 12%.  California wines can range as high as 16%, which winemaker extraordinaire Randy Dunn says is too much.  Tom Wark at Fermentation agrees with him, as I tend to.  Wines & Vines pleads for an appreciation of alcohol.

No matter what side of the high-alcohol fence you’re on, or if you’re dazed by the whole hullaballoo, please take this home in your pocket.  It’s uncool to talk about legs.  Not uncool in a cool way, like Napoleon Dynamite, but simply and utterly inept, like the way our president ad libs.  Don’t say it!  You’ll thank me when you’re older.

basics grapes

Nice Acid

A Poem

In posting my tasting notes on certain white wines recently, I may have mentioned that a wine had “good acidity.”  It occurred to me much later that all my attentive readers may not be familiar with the importance of acid.

Many friends may now be thinking, “Well, now, if it’s acid we’re talking, I know my way around a blotter sheet… er, hey, I thought this was a wine blog!”   Got it in one: this is a wine blog, and no discussion of wine would be complete without a thorough understanding of acid.

The acid in wine is largely of four kinds: tartaric, malic, acetic, and citric.  Sorry, none of the three-initial-variety here.  It is not the acid in wine that made you stagger up to that guy at the party and tell him all your theories on fetal genital development.  But you wouldn’t have been drinking that wine if it weren’t for the acid in it (OK, you have a point, let’s blame the pH this time), because acid is one of the essential elements of What Makes A Wine Taste Good.

Wines with good acid are refreshing and bright.  They taste better with food, they age better, and they make you more appear more intelligent.  OK, maybe not so much with that last one, but the other three are all true.  Wines without acid taste flat, and are frequently maligned with descriptions like “flabby.” 

“But Scamp,” you ask bravely, because you know there are no dumb questions, just dumbwaiters, “how will I know that my wine has this nice acid of which you speak so wittily?”  I’ll tell you:  acidity makes your mouth water.  Just like taking a sip of fresh lemonade, sipping a Chablis or an un-oaked Sauvignon Blanc will trigger your salivary glands.  John Juergens, in his excellent Wine 101  article on Robin Garr’s Wine Lover’s Page, says that wine without acid tastes like a flat Coke.

Wines with naturally high acidity usually come from cool wine regions, like France’s Champagne, Chablis, and Alsace, all of Germany, California’s Anderson Valley, Santa Barbara, and Carneros, most of Oregon, and most of New Zealand.  (This is not an exhaustive list, to be sure.) 

Sometimes grapes grown in very cool regions actually have too much acid in them, and wineries are permitted to chaptalize the wine, which means they add sugar to make fermentation possible (because yeast eats sugar, but is killed by too much acidity) and to balance the flavor of the wine.  Frequently highly acidic wines are subjected to a second fermentation, called malolactic fermentation, which takes the malic acid (think apples) and converts it to lactic acid (think milk).

It is high acid that makes many of my favorite whites my favorites.  German Rieslings and Gewurztraminer have such divine sweet aromas of roses, honeysuckle, peaches, apricots, melon, and spice that it’s a refreshing pleasure to finally sip the nectar and be treated to a bright, no-nonsense slap of honest acidity.  It’s like meeting a person who is stunningly beautiful but utterly humble at the same time: entrancing, and rare.

You can also find high acid in red wines, which usually either means it’s a New World wine built to age (high acid also stabilizes a wine and kills certain micro-organisms that can harm a wine during aging) or it’s an Old World wine from a colder region.  In Europe, where wine is just one more kitchen staple like cheese and bread, no meal is complete without a wine on the table, and so wine is made to be drunk with food.  More acid in a red wine will help it stand up to acidic foods like tomatoes, and will help your palate cleanse itself by stimulating your salivary glands. 

A warning: acid makes a wine taste sour, so if a wine with higher acid does not have correspondingly powerful sweet fruit flavors, it may not appeal to you.  If you don’t like a wine and you think it’s because of the acid in it, you might try it with food before you write if off completely, because it may simply not be built to drink by itself.

Here’s a Nice Acid Cheat Sheet, if you want to try an acidic wine with dinner (hint, hint) tonight:


Chablis (must be French)

Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot Grigio

German Riesling



Chianti or Sangiovese



Burgundy, and other Pinot Noir from Oregon, and in CA the Central Coast & Carneros


Fancy winespeak you can use to describe acidity in a wine include:  racy, crisp, tart, brisk, snappy, twangy, and juicy.  After the second glass, others may occur to you… enjoy!