Wine stories by the thousand emit and circulate throughout a given year. Most are forgettable: a list here, a travelogue there. But some catch the eye and, more importantly, give one pause. Can this be true? How could any sane person come up with that? Wine has its share of lurid tales and amazing events. Here then are the good, the bad, the bizarre and the ugly in a farewell to 2005, and a hope for brighter heads to prevail this year.
England-based Passion Wines has begun using Braille tags to provide blind wine lovers with complete information on a wine's provenance and vintage.
Australia's Girl Guides, a kind of Aussie Girl Scouts, has begun collecting used corks from clubs, restaurants, hotels and local residents in order to have them recycled. This is an excellent fundraiser for them, and the corks are eventually used for creating balls, dartboards and cork flooring. Environmentally sound, this is a great idea for the United States to pick up on. It might have substantially lowered the cost of the cork kitchen floor my wife and I had installed a few years back.
New wine containers have exploded onto our shores in 2005. Not only is the "bag in a box" concept flourishing--and well it should, because the bags release the wine slowly, preventing spoilage and allowing a "box" to remain usable for weeks--but other items are selling too, including:
X-rays show that lead poisoning killed Ludwig von Beethoven! Using his hair and skull, scientists have found conclusive evidence that Beethoven's poor health and eventual painful death was due to lead. So how did this happen? Unfortunately, the most plausible deduction is that this occurred as Beethoven drank far more than his share of wine using what were then traditional lead goblets. If only Riedel Glassware had set up a shop in Bonn! This truly sad news to we musicians is certainly a lesson learned. Throw out any and all pewter mugs or cups, or at least never drink from them.
Now you can be a sophisticated and worldly winemaker by contacting crushpadwine.com. Customers choose how much participation they desire in creating a finished product from grapes sourced throughout California. Do you want to monitor the vineyard, oversee fermentation, control the pressing and decide upon aging technique? Now you can. I imagine this is all rather expensive, but what does it matter? If you can't touch or smell the grapes, what kind of pleasure can this give? In my opinion: none.
Will sex sell wine? Yes, says Bart O'Brien of Napa Valley. O'Brien has crafted a red wine for women. The name? "Seduction." The gimmick--you "undress" the bottle from the translucent organza sack that it comes in. (Is this really a product for women? Just asking.) Add this to Michigan's sparkling wine called "Sex" and California's "Cleavage Creek," and you have a litany of questionable inspirations.
Locusts swarmed over the northern Italian province of Piemonte, specifically the Asti region, devouring everything in their path. Vines, green beans, lettuce, courgettes and hay have all been decimated throughout their journey. Drought and less severe winters are being blamed for this exceptional outbreak. Locusts fly into handbags, entangle hair and rest by the thousands on village walls. Pier Valentino Piva, mayor of Cerrina, says, "It seems as though here we are living through a scourge from the Bible."
An English "Champagne," Merret Bloomsbury by name, won first prize as "best sparkling wine in the world" at the International Wine and Spirit Competition. Located only 88 miles northwest of France's Champagne latitude, this English sparkling wine region has evolved into that country's finest wine location. Global warming has only helped this chilly area succeed further. Numerous French Champagne houses have voiced interest in both buying these existing, precious vines (no sale, say the owners) and planting new British vineyards themselves.
Magnetize your wine for smoothness and drinkability? The Wine Magnet has actually been around for years and was recently retested by Dr. James Rubin and a group of 50 volunteers. Placing a bottle of wine in The Wine Magnet, the publicity says, "creates a strong magnetic field that goes to the heart of your wine and naturally softens the bitter taste of tannins in young wines." I used to do this years ago and felt that maybe it worked. Why not try? But you'll need a powerful magnet, not the refrigerator variety. Dr. Rubin's test was inconclusive, but then, aren't most group studies?
The Spanish wine industry sought permission at the European Union meetings in Brussels, Belgium to distill 30 percent of its 2004 wine harvest. Making cheap brandy and spirits is not the solution. Surpluses ravage most European countries as well as Australia and California. (Remember Two Buck Chuck?) Lower yields, restricting the expansion of vineyard plantings and eliminating those viticultural areas that are incapable of making a decent wine would all help. In the meantime, couldn't those grapes be made into wines and sold in the United States for $3 or so? We all deserve a break on our everyday wine bill. I know they'd sell!
On the flip side: With premium California mountain cabernet sauvignon grapes selling for $5,000 to $7,000 a ton, many new vineyards are choosing to "eliminate" the wildlife that populate these regions. Recently, four black bears were caught and killed at Aetna Springs Vineyard in Pope Valley. "They damage the fences on a daily basis ... the damaged fences allow deer to enter ... and they both damage the vines," says winery owner Paul Maroon. Some of Maroon's neighbors are incensed with what he has done. Ann Curtis, a local golf course owner, calls it "wine for blood--life versus profit." Jerry Sears of Black Sears Vineyard says: "We've had our vineyard for 20 years and we've had a bear in our vineyard every year. We feel it's just part of life, of nature, so we share." Amen Jerry. Let's hope this incident comes under a bright national spotlight so that random destruction of wildlife will cease--and the sooner the better.
Nota Bene: I am beholden to friend and Internet devourer Jim Reagan, who provided me, throughout the year, with many of these worldwide ideas on which to expound.
MY PLEA FOR 2006
If I could have one wine wish come true, it would be that you, the consumer, avoid the "Fat Badger," "Smoking Goon" and "Yellow Trail" bottlings. Instead of mass-produced wines, where the conglomerates think they know what you'll like, take a chance on wines without cute names, without day-glo labels and with the name of a small estate tucked away at the bottom of the label. Whether a Sierra Foothills zinfandel, a Rhone blanc or a Sicilian nero, you will get a wine with character, a wine that's different, a wine that will be an anticipatory joy to open. Any wine is a good wine when accompanying good food and fast friends. Any wine can work with your meal if you're carefree about it. Have a bite of bread, a swallow of wine and continue consuming your evening meal while discussing the events of the day. Say no to generic stuff that is destroying, or at least nullifying, the uniqueness of many a winemaker's dream and way of life. Give a nod to the kind of wine where the grapes all come from the same place, the personality is authentic and the experience thought provoking. You'll help save the thousands of small producers unwilling to meet corporate demands. Just as we now often choose small production cheeses, please try the myriad of individual wine enterprises that deliver novelty, mystery and satisfaction.