Category Archives: Tasting

Barefoot Zin vs Ravenswood Vintners Reserve

The Zinfandel is my favorite of the Barefoot offerings, and The Lady of the house and I tasted it blind against Ravens Wood Vintners Blend 2008 Zinfandel.

Running the numbers

I measured the pH, titratable acidity, and specific gravity of these two wines and combined them with the reported alcohol content in the table below. As you can see, they’re very similar:

Measurement Barefoot Ravens Wood
Alcohol: 13.5% 13.5%
Specific Gravity: 0.994 0.994
pH: 3.4 3.5
Titratable Acidity: 5.5 6

I strongly encourage you to measure and record as much as you can about the commercial wines you drink. Why? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not a trained lab technician and getting more practice will improve our technique. Some wineries publish their own analysis, and you can compare your own results against theirs – that’s valuable feedback that you can’t get on your rhubarb wine!

Knowing how a wine analyzes out can help you when you’re tasting that wine. That’s because you can learn why a wine tastes the way it does (or two similar wines taste different). Write down your measurements and your tasting notes often enough and you’ll begin to see patterns. Were those full bodied reds you like finished sweet or dry? How about those bracing whites that were so good in the summer? How come one acidic white was an easy drinker but the other one was so harsh? You’ll accumulate a lot of data, it will be tailored to you own tastes, and you can use that in your own winemaking. So instead of adding the juice of half a lemon because someone in an online forum said so, you’ll learn how to consistently make wine the way you like it – start measuring and take notes!

Barefoot a better value

We both thought the Ravens Wood was more complex. I thought that made it lively and a slight favorite over the Barefoot. The Lady of the House thought barefoot had a bold taste without being harsh and was like, “one solid note.” The Ravens Wood was like an orchestra with potential that hadn’t practiced together. Even though I liked the Ravens Wood a little better, it costs about 80% more (using the best prices I’ve seen) and it’s not that much better.

Easy Blind Tasting

Tasting blind is the best way to know what your really think of a wine or mead. I devised an involved method to evaluate my boiled mead experiment, but here’s a simple method that the Lady of the House and I use for quick comparisons.

We have three different kinds of wine glasses: clear stems, blue stems, and red stems. When we want to do a quick tasting, We each pour up to three different wines into each kind of glass while the other is out of the room, note which is which, and then leave the room. We don’t know what we’re tasting as we scribble down our impressions of the “clear” wine or the “blue” wine. We only tell each other after we’re done sniffing, swirling, spitting, clearing our palates, and writing down what we think. Yes, I know what she’s tasting and she knows what I’m tasting, so it’s not double blind – that’s the price for a quick and easy setup. It’s not much of a price, though, because we’re both pretty focused on the wine in front of us.

Describing a wine

If you’re not a trained taster, it can be hard to know what to say about a wine. This is where comparing two of them side by side can help. The aroma: is one stronger than the other? Are they both strong or faint? Write that down. Do they differ in some way? Write that down – even if you have a hard time describing exactly how – “they differ in a way I can’t describe” is better than making something up or not writing down anything at all. Do the same thing for flavor (stronger, fainter, different) and make note of any familiar tastes that you notice (it’s ok if you don’t notice any or can’t describe them – the more you do this the better you’ll get). Pay attention to acidity (too much will seem tart, not enough will be flabby, and just right will feel lively), tannin (with soft tannins you’ll notice a drying sensation in your mouth, harsh tannins are bitter) and sweetness (does it taste sweet or not? is it too sweet?).

Clearing your palate

You might notice that flavors and aromas become more muted after you’ve been tasting for a while. It’s a bit like tuning out a steady sound – after a while you just don’t notice it. That’s why tasters clear their palate between different wines. A cracker or an apple will give your taste buds something different and “reset” them for the next wine. Sniffing some coffee beans or some such can do the same for your sense of smell.

Isn’t it supposed to be fun?

I know it sounds like a lot of work, but it can really turn something ordinary into an occasion. It isn’t just that you learn more about how wines differ or which ones go with which food, it’s that you have something new to talk about at dinner. Sometimes the Lady of the House and I agree on the wines, and other times it’s as though we were tasting completely different ones. There’s often a surprise and always something to talk about. So spice up your next meal with an easy blind tasting!

Further reading

For a great book on how to taste wine, try How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine.

Food and Wine Pairing

Did you know that Chardonnay goes with poached eggs? I didn’t either. It was date night at the Washington Winemaker household, and that meant I needed to select a wine to go with dinner. The Lady of the House decided we were having eggs poached in mushroom soup. This is a new recipe for us from Morrison Wood’s With A Jug Of Wine. A great cookbook for a winemaker that, sadly, is out of print. His more recent Through Europe with a Jug of Wine is available and will probably end up in my library.

The Wine and Food Matcher

Alright, we were both excited about the recipe but what was I going to serve with it? If you can pair wine with breakfast cereal, then eggs ought to be doable. I needed some advice, though, and for that I turned to Natalie MacLean. She’s a respected wine writer and the author of Red, White, and Drunk All Over. The wine and food matcher on her homepage gives you suggested wine pairings if you pick a food or suggests foods for a particular wine.

Would you like Chardonnay with that?

For eggs, it suggested Chardonnay. It just so happens that I’ve been buying a lot of bargain Chardonnay that I really like – it holds it’s own against $15 bottles for a fraction of the price – so I uncorked a bottle. How’d it turn out? The eggs were terrific, so was the wine, and Natalie was right – they were great together.

As to having eggs for dinner, well those of us who think pizza is breakfast food can’t object too loudly …

Mulled Wine

Adding sweeteners and spices to wine then serving it hot – sounds a bit like herbal tea with alcohol, doesn’t it? – was something I never understood. I’m giving it another look this Christmas season because I happen to like herbal tea, it’s something new (to me anyway), and I’ve got some bland wine that I don’t know what to do with. I was excited when I made wine from supermarket grapes, but in the end I didn’t want to drink it. Sweetening didn’t help, but maybe mulling will.

Mulling Spices

In researching mulled wine (in cookbooks, Wikipedia, search engines, my Mom), the same ingredients keep coming up:

Ingredient Amount per Bottle of Wine
cinnamon 1-2 sticks
cloves 6
citris (juice and/or zest) from half an orange or one lemon
sugar or honey about half a cup

Also common are vanilla, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamon. You sometimes see pepper, peppercorns, nuts, and raisins too.

Making Mulled Wine

Dissolved sugar or honey in water (about half a cup to a cup – enough to dissolve and cover everything, but no more), bring to a boil, take off heat, add spices, and cover. If using citrus juice, use a little more sugar/honey and a little less water. Let sit on low heat for about 20 minutes. Strain and add wine. Heat the combined mixture (but don’t boil) and serve hot.

This ought to work just as well with mead or cider – maybe even beer.

You can omit the water and stir everything into the wine, then heat the wine – I’ve seen recipes take either approach. I prefer to do the dissolving and extraction separately to guard against boiling the wine.

Straining out the spices might be easier if you use a tea bag or tea ball.

Citrus juice might help by adding flavor if your wine is bland. If you’re going to be zesting, for mulled wine or anything else, a dedicated zesting tool is a godsend.

Final Thoughts

I’m excited about making mulled wine this year. I haven’t decided on a commercial mix or making it from scratch – maybe I’ll try both. I’d love to hear about your experiences with mulled wine – triumphs, disasters, better methods. If you’re having trouble finding supplies, check out my new mulled wine store.

Update 12/13/2010 – A great eggnog recipe!

Eggnog is another tasty treat for the holidays, and this eggnog recipe won’t disappoint!

How To Make Bland Wine: Use grocery store grapes

Click here for a larger image and technical details about the shot
Wine from store-bought table grapes

I like to experiment. It’s a great feeling when a crazy idea turns into an enjoyable wine. Crazy ideas are unpredictable, though, sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. The wine I made from store-bought tables grapes falls into the “don’t” category. What went wrong? Nothing.  I got a balanced dry wine with no faults or off flavors. But its so bland I don’t want to drink it. Sometimes sweetening can tease out a little fruitiness in a wine. I tried that and wound up with sweet bland wine that I still don’t want to drink.

Make Welch’s Wine Instead

If you’re looking for winemaking ingredients at the grocery store, go to the freezer section and buy concentrated frozen grape juice. It’s easier to make wine from frozen concentrate because you don’t have to process the grapes. It’s cheaper too:

Cost of table grape wine
Item Quantity Unit Cost Total
Grapes 20 lb $0.88/lb $17.60
Sugar 20 lb $0.50/lb $17.60
Corks 6 $0.35 $2.10
Total $17.60

I got six bottles, so that works out to just under $3/bottle for bland wine that I don’t like compared to under $1/bottle for a lively, enjoyable Welch’s wine.

Improving table grape wine

I know that some people regularly make wine from Thomson Seedless (Sultana) grapes, and they often cold soak to extract more flavor. If I make this again, I’ll probably do that. Fermenting on the skin, like a red wine, might be worth a try too. Another approach is to add flavorings: vanilla and chocolate extract come to mind. Have you had better luck making wine from grocery store grapes? I’d love to hear about it.

About the label

The best thing about this wine is the label, and I want to thank Mark Hammergren for letting me use his The Truckstop artwork. The idea for putting Lost’s Dharma logo on the wine came to me after I realized I couldn’t rescue this batch. Mark’s take on it combined femininity, humor, and a new Dharma station concept that’s perfect for this wine – thanks Mark!

Update 12/3/2009 – Can I fix it by making mulled wine?

If the problem is bland flavor, then maybe mulling spices will liven it up. Using spices like cinnamon, cloves, and citrus zest (ok, I don’t think zest is technically a spice) in wine, then serving it warm goes back a long way. I’ve never made mulled wine before, so I’m really excited about it – might be a new Christmas tradition for me!

Wine and breakfast cereal?

Once upon a time, food and wine pairing was as simple as, “red wine with meat and white wine with fish.” Then I learned about full bodied whites that can stand up to meat and realized that it can get more complicated. Then I thought about Asian food and chocolate. After some work, I came up with good pairings for them and started to think I was doing pretty well.

Then I came across this video discussing wine pairing with breakfast cereal, and that’s when I gave up! He insists that it’s not a joke and he starts out with his favorite pairing, Cap’n Crunch with a $30 bottle of Riesling, and goes on to discuss two others.

I can’t say I’m convinced, but I know at least one “meal” with wine and cereal is in my future. Once she hears about it, no power in the universe will keep the Lady of the House from trying it. By comparison, it makes my Superbowl wine seem downright respectable – cheers.

Labels: Dressing Up Your Wine

Can a good label make your wine taste better? Not in the sense that it alters the chemistry involved in your senses of taste and smell, but your enjoyment of wine is more than chemistry. A California Institute of Technology experiment showed that expectations and psychology have a big impact on how much people enjoy a particular wine: test subjects liked wine better when told it was more expensive. This means we home winemakers need to present and serve our wines with pride if we are to get the most enjoyment out of them.

A good label on a clean bottle, without scuff marks of the previous label on it, is part of that presentation. It should be attractive and informative. An informative label answers questions about it. You don’t have a lot of room on the label so make sure you cover the basics, like “what am I drinking?” and “is it sweet or dry?” If you’re serving to other winemakers, then measurements like specific gravity (SG), titratable acidity (TA), and pH might be important. Attractive labels make people feel good about the wine and want to try it (and if the CIT results can be applied here, make it “taste better”).

The Image: Tell a story

My labels are usually text on artwork. I try to choose artwork that reflects the wine in some way. This relationship between the label and the wine can make a nice story to tell your guests as you serve the wine. That can mean showing the base fruit of the wine on the label – one of my apple wine labels featured a woman eating an apple. It can mean color and mood coming together the way a fun pinup of a woman blushing became the artwork for my “Raspberry Blush” wine. It almost certainly means different things to different people. To me, wine and mead are feminine so most of my labels are too – though I did use a self portrait on my first wine from grapes and the Dharma Initiative logo on a wine I bottled just as a new season of Lost was starting.

The Text: Explain and get them interested

Once I have the artwork, I choose the text style and color to match. Placement is just as important. You don’t want to trample over a beautiful sunset or a pretty smile with boldfaced text. The top and bottom are usually good places, and you can often say a lot on one side or the other without ruining or upstaging the artwork. What do you say? That depends on who you’re serving to. For other winemakers, you might include the basic measurements, the yeast, and other details about how you made it. If you mainly serve mead or unusual wine to friends who are unfamiliar with it, then a short explanation can go a long way. You might say something like, “apple juice and sugar can ferment into a terrific white wine!” or “men have been fermenting honey and water to make mead for centuries.” Remember, you haven’t got a lot of room so keep it short, tell them what they’re drinking, and pique their interest.

If you already make labels for your wine, I’d love to hear about them. If not, give it a try. You might find it’s just the finishing touch to set your wines apart.

Making Mead: Testing the controversy over boiling

Six of us gathered for a great evening that began with a tasting. Not just any tasting, it concluded a three year experiment that tested the effect of boiling on making mead. Two meads went head to head that night. I made one with a ten minute boil, and the other was as identical as I could make it without boiling.

I was careful to arrange it so that none of us, not even me or the Lady of the House, knew which one we were tasting at the time. I decanted the meads into identical containers, labeling the boiled mead “Whidbey” and the no boil mead “Mercer.” I was alone when I did this, then I left the room and the Lady of the House removed the labels and color coded them (orange for Whidbey and blue for Mercer). Neither of us knew what the other had done, but we could compare notes afterward to find out which mead was blue and which was orange. Everyone got color coded index cards to write down our impressions of each mead.

The most detailed of the lot summed it up this way:

#1 [the no-boil mead] has a very light body, a nice rich bouquet, a strong dry beginning, and a very light finish. #2 [the boiled mead] has good body, a light feathery aroma, a slightly fruity beginning with a strong flowery finish.

In addition to reading the comments, we also talked about the meads after the tasting was over. So what did we find?

Boiling does weaken the aroma

We confirmed the common wisdom that boiling weakens the aroma. All of us agreed that the no-boil mead had a stronger aroma. There wasn’t anything unpleasant in the aroma of the boiled mead, it was just less pronounced. One of us even preferred it. We described the boiled mead’s aroma as “feathery” and “subtle” compared to “rich” and “brandy-like” for the no-boil mead.

But might improve the body and flavor

Four of us (all the women) preferred the the boiled mead, overall, because of its better flavor. The word “smooth” came up five times and each time it was to describe the boiled mead. Two of us explicitly talked about the body, and both described the boiled mead as more full bodied than the no-boil mead.

I specifically asked about the aroma and overall preference, so all six of us commented on that. But some talked about the body and how “smooth” the mead tasted. I’ve compiled the comments on those four categories into a table.

Category Boil No-Boil # Responses
Stronger Aroma 0 6 6
Best Overall 4 2 6
Smoother 5 0 5
More Body 2 0 2

Surprised? I was!

I went into this with preconceptions, that’s why it’s so important that the tasting be double-blind. I didn’t expect much difference between the two, but boiling clearly makes a noticeable difference. The other surprise is that there might be some benefit to boiling. Most people, who have an opinion on the subject, seem to think that boiling can only harm the mead – specifically by weakening the aroma. And so it does, but as with many things in real life there’s a trade off. Giving up some intensity in the aroma can get you a mead that is fuller bodied and smoother – four out of six of us thought it was worth the trade off for this particular mead.

Making better mead with what we’ve learned

It might make sense to be dogmatic about some things, but boiling isn’t one of them. I think I understand better how it affects mead, and I can use that knowledge when I make one. How might this affect my future batches? I’ll probably want to boil meads made with strong-tasting honey (the one we tested was made from heather honey, it has a strong flavor and makes a great mead) because I think they’ll benefit most from the smoother more rounded flavor that results. It also makes me wonder how this experiment would have turned out if I had used a milder honey. Anyone want to give it a try?

Judging An Experiment With A Tasting Party

I love to experiment in my winemaking, and that means being just as careful about judging the experimental wines and meads as it does about making them. In a controlled experiment, I’ll make at least two almost-identical batches. The only difference between them will be the object of the experiment. Details are important here because any other difference might affect the outcome.

Once you’ve made your experimental batches, and carefully controlled the differences to meaningfully test something, then you’ve got to determine how the batches differ. This sounds like the easy part, but there are all sorts of ways that human judgment can be biased. As the experimenter, your own preconceived ideas can creep in even if you have someone else bring you unmarked samples to taste. It could be that one just looks different than the other, and you’ll know which is which because you made them.

The problem

I’m getting ready to conclude an experiment that tests the effect of boiling on a mead, so I’ve been thinking about how to observe the differences in my experimental batches. Well, if my own preconceptions can skew the results, then I’ll want other people in on the testing. They’ll have to know enough about the experiment to give me useful feedback; I’m not interested in whether they prefer their mead at room temperature rather than chilled, for example. One of the claims made about boiling is that it drives off volatile compounds that are responsible for the aroma, so I’ll ask for feedback on the aroma. On the other hand, I can’t tell them so much that I influence their judgment.

The solution

So I decided to host a tasting party. There will be six of us, including me and the Lady of the House. All of us will taste, but none of us will know which one we’re tasting. I’ll tell them that they, “will be tasting two similar meads, and I’d like to know how they differ. I’m particularly interested in how the aroma differs from one to the other. I’d also like to know which one they’d rather drink, given the choice, and why.”

The details

I’ll decant the two meads into identical containers, I recently bought two decanters just for this tasting party, and give them arbitrary labels. I’ll write down which label is the boiled mead and which is the no-boil mead, then leave the room. The Lady of the House will then come in and replace the labels with colored post-it notes. She’ll write down which color corresponds to which label. After all that, anyone can serve the mead and hand out colored index cards for everyone to write down their observations. None of us will know which one we’re tasting, but the Lady of the House and I will be able to sort it out afterwards.

I just need to pay attention to the details for a little while longer, then we’ll have a fun evening with friends and finally learn something about this boiling controversy!

Update 4/19/2010 – A simpler and easier way

Tasting blind lets you see a wine as it really is – some irony in that! – but this careful setup is a lot of work. Here’s an easier way to run a blind tasting that gives you most of the benefit with a lot less work. Its what I use to to compare a new wine to an old favorite.

Making Wine: What I Learned From An Economist

Greg Mankiw teaches economics at Harvard University, and I read his blog regularly. He recently spotlighted part of a Boston Globe Article on the lighter side of science. He zeroed in on the work of another economist – ok, I know what you’re thinking, “as exciting as one economist talking about another sounds, what the heck has it got to do with winemaking?” I’m getting to that. The other economist is named Dan Ariely, and he experimented on volunteers to find out how marketing impacts a drug’s effectiveness. He administered an electric shock to the volunteers then gave them the same placebo. Some of them were told it was an expensive new painkiller, and others that it was cheap.

Those who got the pricey fake medicine reported a bigger reduction in pain than those whith the cheaper fake.

What’s going on here? The same thing that was going on when California Institute of Technology scientists looked into the effect of price on a wine’s perceived quality. It all reminds me of a Candid Camera piece that had grocery store customers sample a new wine, and they showed a guy raving about the wine and how much he’d be willing to pay for a bottle. Then they cut to tape of another fellow who said, “it tastes like prune juice.” There was a good reason for that – it was prune juice.

Confidence is sexy

There’s more to this than having a good chuckle and nervously reassuring ourselves that it could never happen to us. The thing to take away from this is that if you make a good wine (or mead or beer or liqueur), treat it like a good wine. Dress it up in a proper wine bottle and a nice looking label. Pour it into wine glasses and serve it as though it were something special – because it is! You don’t have to be dishonest, just be proud of what you have done and let it show.

Update 4/19/2010 – How to tell if an expensive wine is worth it

Clearly, our tasting experience can strongly influenced by our expectations and preconceived ideas. Tasting blind gets us around that problem by removing the mental baggage we bring to each tasting. We can’t prejudge a wine if we don’t know which wine it is, can we? Learn how to run an easy blind tasting at home so you can sniff out bargains that are worth more than they cost and to tell which pricey wines are worth the money.