The Pursuit of Happiness

Our town has a celebrity that you may have heard of. His name is Wayne Carini and he has a Cable TV show called “Chasing Classic Cars” on the Velocity Channel. As the title sequence begins, in the opening line Wayne says this about the cars, “it’s all about the chase.” As the show goes on, he details why the car he is chasing is so significant: its history, performance characteristics, restoration details, and auction tactics and results.
It made me think, maybe I could start a cable TV show, Chasing Wines, but Wayne is often traveling all over the United States finding and restoring then selling cars valued at $300K to over a million dollars. With my budget made we’d get to an out of state wine store and two bottles of wine! Nope, without a sponsor I don’t think my “pursuit” would get too far. Hey Food Network, I’m cheap and I’m entertaining, give me a call!
This whole train of thought led me to this “pursuit of happiness” thing. Of course, the line is from Thomas Jefferson. Founding father, Third President, and wouldn’t you know it, the first American wine geek. He penned that line in The Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
If you subscribe to the John Locke interpretation of the “pursuit of happiness” then you would say Jefferson was talking about Property. I don’t disagree, but I do believe there is more.
Jefferson was also influenced by a 17th century cleric and philosopher, Richard Cumberland, who wrote that promoting the wellbeing of our fellow human beings is essential to the “pursuit of our own wellbeing.” Possibly this is an echo of Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory we often ignore when discussing Capitalism. William Wollaston in his book, “The Religion of Nature Delineated,” says, “the truest definition of Natural Religion is the Pursuit of Happiness by the practice of reason and truth.”
Okay Griffy, this sounds like Government 101, what has all of this got to do with Wine? Well, as Wayne says “it’s all about the chase.” For me the wine is all about reason and truth. I research, I learn about different wines, and then the chase is on to find those elusive bottles. I drink them, report the truth, and hopefully you readers then go make your own wine discoveries.
This week’s pursuit of happiness takes us to upstate New York, specifically the Finger Lakes Region, to Keuka Lake in Geneva. The Wine is Ravines, Dry Riesling 2012. One of my accomplishments for 2013 was to develop a taste for white wines, and let me tell you this was one of the best.
Clear sparkling yellow straw flows freely to my glass and releases a fantastic bouquet full of white lilies and pear. The taste pear and apple, very refreshing and incredibly good, dance gingerly on my palate and culminates in a nice, well-structured finish. I loved it!
A great wine for less than $20 a bottle, Ravines Dry Riesling was #33 on this year’s Wine Spector’s top 100. It is evidence that when you think Riesling, you should be thinking New York Finger Lakes. JPM, thank you for bringing me the bottle.
Someone will say I’m being political and pretentious with this blog. Political maybe, but pretentious? No way! Wine to me is more than just a drink, and if you watched and enjoyed the movie SOMM, you’ll understand what I saying. Wine is human history in a glass.
Pliny the Elder, said in Vino Veritas, “In wine is truth.” In Roman times, this was a way of saying “people can’t effectively lie when they drink.” Maybe wine should be served in Congress and the White House before any new law is passed, or perhaps candidates should hold debates while drunk. It would at least be more entertaining.

So, what’s in your wine?


Since reading Kermit Lynch’s book, “Adventures on the Wine Route,” I have become increasingly interested in knowing exactly what am I drinking when I pull the cork on my bottle of wine.  I mean beyond the sulfites, winemakers don’t tell you everything that goes into your wine.
However thanks to Deborah Grossman of Wine Enthusiast magazine ( I know more now than I ever have.  I will caution you now, if  you are one of those people that will be enjoying a meal until someone says something like, “wow this venison is good,” and you can’t take another bite, don’t read any further.
It turns out that your bottle could be packed and processed with a lengthy list of safe-to-drink preservatives, fining agents, and even flavorings.
Sulfur dioxide/Sulfites
Protects and preserves the integrity of the wine.  Sulfur can stop fermentation, if needed, and kills the nasty microbes and bacteria that can harm a wine’s flavor or aroma.
Potassium Sorbate
Like sulfur, potassium sorbate (also used in cheese and yogurt) wards off bad bacteria.  In sweet wine, it’s often used to prevent further fermentation once bottled. 
Tannin powder
Tannin powder is often added to enhance structure and astringency for varietals that are naturally tannin-deficient, or for grapes lacking them due to vintage conditions.  The powder is often a mix of grape seeds and skins, oak, chestnuts and nutgall, which are small nut-like swellings on tree branch bark. 
Used (where wine laws allow it) to restore water lost to dehydration or to lower sugar/alcohol levels. 
Certain enzymes help cull compounds from the skin and help clear out any impure, microscopic crud leftover from fermentation.
When faced with under-ripe grapes, winemakers may add sugar to still wines to increase alcohol levels.  Sugar may also be added before bottling to improve mouthfeel and lower astringency.  Many regions allow the practice (known as chaptalization), but in California sugar can’t be added to any still wine.  The only time it’s allowed in the Golden State is during the dosage phase of sparkling winemaking—the stage just before it’s corked. 
Mega Purple
A brand of wine-grape juice concentrate, Mega Purple boosts both color and sugar level—without technically adding pure sugar (hello, California).  It’s commonly used in commercial fruit juice.  There are similar grape concentrates for white and rosé wines.
Oak chips, staves or powders
These incarnations are far cheaper than barrels and provide for increased surface contact with the wine, which can help with consistency.  Winemakers can choose from American or French oak and pick specific flavor profiles, from vanilla and coconut to leather, smoke and spice.
Acid is a critical component in wine that affects microbes, particle stability, color and aging potential.  Tartaric acid is prevalent in wine grapes and is the most common addition.  Malic and lactic acids are also naturally occurring and often blended with tartaric into low-acid wine.  Grapes also contain small amounts of citric acid, which can be added before bottling to “lift” and add brightness to white wines. 
Yeast, the key ingredient in converting grape juice to wine, is a one-cell critter that gobbles up sugar and makes alcohol.  Yeast also impacts aroma, mouthfeel and flavor. 
The Four Main Fining Agents 
Suspended particles naturally occur when fermenting grapes and aging wine.  These particles cause cloudiness and sediment.  Winemakers clear wine by adding agents that glom onto these floaters and absorb them.  While many of these agents may alarm, know that these chemical sponges are filtered out before bottling. 
Fish Bladders
This one got me.  Known as isinglass, this pure form of protein can be used to pluck out bitter tannins and binds with haze-inducing particles.
Mammal proteins
Egg whites and gelatin are especially effective in clarifying red wines.  Casein, a milk protein, is used to clarify white and rosé wines. 
Bentonite Clay
In addition to absorbing, it helps reduce astringency.  Mined in Wyoming, bentonite packs the most sponge power of all the clays.  It’s common in toothpaste.  Lynch has a story about a white French wine that he had bought and that he and his customers had enjoyed for years.  New vintage arrives and its terrible flat and devoid of flavored.  Lynch checks everything do something go wrong is transportation, storage, finally calls the vineyard and learns after a prolong conversation that the winemaker had pumped that year’s vintage through a bentonite filter.  It was the last time Lynch purchased from that vineyard.
PolyVinylPolyPryrolidone, or PVPP, is a workhorse.  It eliminates ugly colors and helps stabilize the wine.
Other additives
Yeast nutrients
When yeasts get sluggish and winemakers don’t want to feed them sugar to boost fermentation, so they add nutrients.  These additives are basically vitamin pills for yeast. 
Acid reducers
When a batch contains too much acid, minerals like calcium carbonate come to the rescue.  Think of them as Tums for wine. 
I have done a lot of talking to a lot of people about this, and will probably continue for a very long time to try and get answers about what goes into your wine, but here’s what I’ve learned.  Most of what is on this list is removed from the wine in the production process.  Some of the fining agents have been used for centuries, so really this is nothing new.  Even so, I still find Isinglass disturbing.
Many retailers have told me, “if you buy a better quality of wine you avoid stuff like this,” or to use the old adage, “you get what you pay for.”  In this case, you don’t get what you don’t want but do have to pay for it.  I get it, but my reading tells me this stuff is everywhere, at all price levels, and is just part of the wine world.
A few months back I railed against having winemakers list the ingredients they put into their wine.  I argued that I didn’t like government telling wine makers what they had to put on the label, but, I’m less sure of that position today.  Ouch, that hurt my Conservative individualistic pride!  Some winemakers, though I haven’t found any yet, do list the ingredients they put into the wine.  The question I have is if they put it in the wine and then take it out, do they have to put it on the label?
As I sit writing this I have a big smile on my face. It’s wine!  Winemakers have been adding stuff to wine ever since the beginning: pine pitch, cinnamon, distilled liquor (Masala& Port), Sulfites, Finning Agents (egg whites), yeast; natural and engineered, all of this to make a better-tasting, longer-lasting wine.  And I applaud their efforts.
What I’m not sold on is adding mulch wood chips to flavor the wine, Mega Purple, and PVPP.  To me this crosses the line between winemaking and fraud.
I have yet to try an organic or natural wine.  I promise I will and you will get my full report.  I have tried to buy only non-factory wines.  Listen to how you can make 100,000 bottles of anything without resorting to wood chips, mega purple and PVPP.  Small is beautiful and most likely tastes better too.  Yeah, it costs more, but we’re talking a difference between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle, not a $10 bottle to $100 bottle.  So drink less, drink better, and enjoy!

Tell Me What You Drink, I’ll Tell You How You Vote


As you are aware I am a wine nut, but what you may not know is that I’m also a recovering political junkie.  Sometimes my worlds collide!  Such was the case on National Drink Wine Day when a friend of mine, a Demographer, dropped by to lift a glass and told me about an article he had seen.  Apparently, it told about how what you drink can predict how you’ll vote.  Two days later, my Wine Spectator magazine shows up and lo-and-behold there’s a story, “Tell me what you drink and I’ll tell you how you vote.”
So, if you drink Robert Mondavi wines and Jim Beam Bourbon, you probably vote Republican. If you prefer Moët & Chandon or Courvoisier Cognac, chances are you’re a Democrat.  Who knew that you were making a political statement every time you reached for a bottle of wine or spirits?  Consumer data supplied by research groups GFK, MRI, and analyzed by National Media Research Planning and Placement suggests that what you drink says a lot about how you vote.
How much truth you want to read into this I’ll leave to you.  I take it with a big grain of salt, but its fun to kick the results around just the same.
When it comes to domestic wines, devoted Republican voters also tend to drink Kendall-Jackson, Beringer, Fish Eye and Sterling wines. Loyal Democrat voters choose Smoking Loon, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Glen Ellen and Sutter Home.  You’ll notice that these are all relatively big, relatively inexpensive brands.  I don’t think Screaming Eagle or Château Pétrus factored into the equation, in case the big spenders out there are wondering.
There are some other interesting results to be culled. Republicans tend to like their liquor brown: Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, Crown Royal and Canadian Club, which is not entirely surprising. If you spend enough time in the conservative-leaning South, for example, you can’t help but develop a taste for Bourbon or whisky.  While Democrats have a thing for Courvoisier Cognac, they generally prefer the clear stuff: Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray gins.  Apparently the only transparency with Democrats is in their drinks.  No report on if the vodka was grass-fed yet either.
Rum is the great uniter.  I know it works in my house, both sides of the political spectrum love it; particularly Bacardi, Captain Morgan Spiced and Malibu Coconut.  And no matter what your political leanings, if you drink Jägermeister or Don Julio tequila, you rarely vote at all, most likely because you’re unconscious.
Wine Spectator’s authors, Tim Fish and Mitch Frank, reached out to a few of the wineries mentioned in the study and, not surprisingly, most wouldn’t touch the topic with a 10-foot wine thief.  
Sparkling wine producer Korbel declined comment, but the fact that its wines were situated safely in the political middle makes sense when you consider it has been served at every presidential inauguration since 1985, both Democrat and Republican.  While vintner Don Sebastiani doesn’t read a lot into these types of reports, as a faithful Republican he admitted to having mixed feelings that his brand, Smoking Loon, tops the list with high-turnout Democratic voters.  “From a business standpoint I’m thrilled,” the former California State Assemblyman said.  “From a political standpoint I’m disappointed.”
Perhaps the most fascinating detail was something the Washington Post pointed out in its analysis.  Wine drinkers vote more frequently than spirits drinkers.  Among the most-likely voters, 14 of the top 15 brands are wine, not spirits.  It seems like wine drinkers are as devoted to democracy as they are the fruit of the vine.
I continued the survey and confirmed its results with my friends and associates. For me the biggest disappointment was Chateau Ste. Michelle, one of my favorite wine producers, being decidedly Left leaning.  Bummer, considering I’m to the right of Attila the Hun.  I also love classical music too, and that is reported as a characteristic of a Liberal.  Oh well, into each life a little rain must fall, so I’m still going to enjoy my Chateau Ste. Michelle and my classical music and keep casting my votes for Conservatives.
Want to see what you drink says about your voting habits?  Send me a message with your favorite drink, I’ll let you know how you vote!

RJR Reserve Special Cuvee 2011


How do you drink a unique wine?  U-nique up on it!
As I was writing this post it was a snowy day here in CT.  I worked from home, but my commute still took over two hours as I still had to clear my driveway.  So, as a special treat for all my hard work, I opened a bottle of wine from the Wall Street Journal wine club, RJR Reserve Special Cuvee 2011.
This…wine…was…awesome!  It might have been the euphoria of my workout pushing 8 to 10 inches of snow around with a very large snow blower, or the fact that I’m involved with a “biggest loser” contest at work and the wine is hitting my system more directly.  It could just have been that I recently cut my wine consumption to ridiculously low levels and hadn’t had a standout bottle in a while.  However, when I poured the ink-black purple liquid from the bottle, drew in the exceptional dark cherry aroma, and tasted the blackberry, black cherry, and chocolate flavors, my wine drinking mojo erupted.  It took a week for the smile to fade from my face.  
The RJR is 53% Petite Sirah, 35% Carignan and 2% Malbec.  I think it’s the Carignan that makes this wine so exceptional; at very least I know it’s what gives its special color.  If you have not experienced the Carignan, do yourself a favor and get introduced. The Petite Sirah is a major weapon in the California winemaker’s arsenal, blended into most California wines to lend body because its high acid content.  Oh, and by the way, this wine can sit on the shelf until 2016 and still deliver the goods.
This Special Reserve Curvee hails from Lodi, California, an area best known for its Zinfandels.  Constantly overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma, Lodi makes wonderful wines that offer a great value when compared to the more opulent zip codes of the West Coast.
But the real star is Reed Renaudin, the winemaker behind RJR, and his 12-year old winery, X Winery.  I think X must be for exceptional!  Yeah, I stole that!
I’ll order this wine again and lay it up for another snowy night, or any time I want a unique wine.

Feudo Maccari “SAIA” Nero D’Avola


Last night I lay sleeping and dreamed a dream so fair.  I dreamt I was in Sicily beside a “Palmento” there.  A Palmento is the name of the facility in Sicilian vineyards where the grapes are brought to be crushed and processed.  I dreamt I owned a vineyard and lived in a “baglio.”  A baglio is the traditional home on a Sicilian vineyard; usually a rectangular building enclosing a central courtyard.  Back in the day these were fortified buildings, giving the land owners and local mezzadri (sharecroppers) protection from bandits and invaders.  In the dream I’m a “vignaiolo,” someone who labors in all aspects of wine production, from growing the gapes to making and marketing the wines.  It was a happy dream.
My vineyard is located in Pachino, about 12 miles south of Noto.  I grow and make Nero d’Avola, vini da taglio, also known as Nero Pachino (Black Pachino) wine.  This wine has a distinct violet ruby hue, with vivid blackberry smells, high alcohol levels, and great tannins.  With the Ionian Sea to the east and the Mediterranean to the south, the land is just perfect for producing great red wines.
My neighbors have given up growing grapes, now concentrating their efforts on tomatoes.  They have even hijacked the name “Pachino,” which used to refer to my wine.  Now it’s a non-native cherry tomato.  When they aren’t growing tomatoes, they produce other vegetables or citrus crops.  Me, I hold onto the wine.
Then the alarm goes off and once again I’m in Connecticut.  I find my fields snow-covered and cold.  My cash crop–the electronics industry–is not nearly as romantic as my dreamscape vineyard.  You can still find palmentos and baglios abandoned and falling apart all over Sicily, pitiful reminders of a bye-gone age.
Now let’s add some reality to my fantasy.  With a little imagination, and about $35, you can at very least taste the wine.  The reality of Pachino can be sampled in the wine “SAIA” by Feudo Maccari.
“Saia” is an ancient Arab word referring to small canals or viaducts built to hold water for use during the summer months.  There are Arab influences all over Sicily.  Made from a restricted yield of Nero d’Avola vine, typically averaging 20 years of age, the grapes are hand-harvested and the fermentation is initiated in stainless steel tanks.  Maceration on the skins for lasts 15 days with regular punch down of the cap.  Full malolactic fermentation is followed by 15 months in French oak barrigues, of which half the barrel consists new wood, while half was used before.  The wine then rests four months in the bottle before release.
My bottle was from the 2005 vintage, which I wish I had seen before I purchased, because this put my wine a little on the senior side.  The wine itself is designed to last a decade, but I would have preferred a little more youth.
Saia is the creation of two off islanders, Carlo Ferrini and Gioia Cresti.  As is often very typical of Sicilian wine, the producers often are not from Sicily, which is sad.  This team is from Tuscany, and you can definitely taste the Tuscan influence.
Saia is deep violet in color, with aromas of dark and bitter red cherry, spearmint, spice and oak.  These lead into a velvety palate of lush, exotically-concentrated fruit, balanced by a fine, acidic underpinning and ripe, sweet tannins.  The long, penetrating finish ends on notes of wood, spice and pepper.
I love Sicily.  From Tornamira in the east to Trapani in the west, in my mind I can walk all over Sicily.  The three valleys Val di Mazara, Val Demone, and my favorite, Val di Noto; none are off limits.  I climb the hills in Trapani, traverse the Palermo highlands, and ponder the majesty of Etna.  One of my Sicilian friends said I know more about Sicily than most natives.  To many it doesn’t matter.  As some sage Sicilian would say, “just because the cat has kittens in the oven you don’t call them biscuits.”  You can’t be Sicilian, unless you are born Sicilian.
I want to leave you with a poem from Antonio Veneziano, a sixteenth century Sicilian poet who refused to write in anything but Sicilian.  I feel it sums up my hope for wine makers in Sicily, that they find their voice in their wines:
“If you want to live in joy, drink red wine throughout your life,
The red wine made in Mascali.
Which when sold out of a stein, will be looked upon with disdain
But when bottled, well tarred and sealed by a cleaver foreigner who comes barking in the square:
‘Drink my friends, this wine’s from France!’
Then it’s bought as an elixir at four times the price.
Learn from the ‘cleaver foreigner’ but speak Sicilian in your wine!”
Readers, friends, this is my 100th post.  Most of you have been with me from the very beginning hopefully enjoying the adventure with me.  On my best day ever I got 68 views, today I’d like to get 100.  Please suggest Griffy on Wine to anyone who might be interested.  And THANK YOU.
“Look on the trunk buds break;
A newer green than the grass,
A balm to the heart:
The trunk seemed already dead, leaning over the gully.
Everything seems to me like a miracle:
This green, bursting of the bark that even last night was not there”