The History of Madeira Wine in the U.S.

Madeira Wine, which hails from a Portuguese island off the African coast, has a rich history here in the United States.

When it came time to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, this is the wine that filled the Founding Fathers’ glasses, and it is believed that George Washington celebrated the British leaving New York City with the fortified wine.

Workers at the Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey recently discovered three cases of the stuff dating from 1796 — too young to be the wine that Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams raised for their toast, but old enough that they might have sipped it a few years later.

There was a time you could find it prominently displayed on the top shelf of any reputable drinks shop, it was that popular. That’s not the case anymore. Aside from the competition of Port and the growing dessert wine category, the other reason is there’s not a lot of Madeira wine produced. Vineyard land is not plentiful on Madeira, about 500 hectares in total cling to the steep mountainsides, astonishingly just enough to provide raw material to eight producers. To me, that makes it a very good reason to have some on hand to raise your guest’s eyebrows. But don’t let its reputation for sweetness steer you wrong. Drier Madeira, like a sherry, is pretty versatile and might surprise you.

 

Madeira Wine

America’s First Designated Wine Region

If you listen to my radio show or podcasts you’ve heard me mention wine regions as AVAs. American Viticultural Areas are federally designated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (the TTB).

Would you believe the first official wine region designated as an AVA was in Missouri?  Yep, on June 20th, 1980. The Augusta AVA encompasses 15 square miles around the city of Augusta near the intersection of St. Charles County, Warren County and Franklin County. I find this of particular interest as I grew up outside of St. Louis, about 45 minutes from Augusta.

What prompted that decision?

In 1859, Georg and Friedrich Muench founded one of the earliest wineries in the area, Mount Pleasant Winery. Flooding in the Missouri River valley caused the river to change course in 1872, drying up the area’s riverboat landing leaving behind a distinct soil type between the town and the river. You guessed it, that made for ideal conditions to grow grapes for wine.

America's first official wine region

You may be surprised to hear that Missouri also had some of the earliest winemaking successes, dating back to 1837. By 1848 winemakers there produced 10,000 US gallons per year, expanding to 100,000 US gallons per year by 1856.

In case you’re wondering, Napa Valley received the second AVA distinction just eight months later.

 

The Origin of the Name “Merlot”

Most of the world’s well-known wine varietals derive their name from the location where they were discovered or made famous. Not Merlot.

The name traces its meaning to a word of the dialect of Occitan called Gascon. This relatively obscure Romance language is closely related to Catalan and still spoken in a few regions of France. The Gascon word merlau refers to a ‘little blackbird.’ Whether this refers to the color of the Merlot grape or its popularity while on the vine with small birds is an open question.  Be sure to bring that up the next time your sharing a bottle with friends.

The Origin of the Name "Merlot"

The Race to Take the Eagle’s Nest and Drink Hitler’s Wine

Compliments to VinePair.com for the following story.

As WWII drew to a close, and Adolph Hitler committed suicide, American and French armed forces closed in on the Führer’s compound in the Bavarian Alps. The American 3rd Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armored Division raced to the resort town of Berchtesgaden. The alpine village was home to vacation villas belonging to high-ranking Nazi officials, Hitler’s residence, The Berghof, and the Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus), which was furthest up the mountain.

The allure of capturing Hitler’s personal hideaway was only part of the reason the Americans and the French each maneuvered to make it there first. As the Nazis rolled over Europe they carted all sorts of war spoils back to Berchtesgaden – fine art, jewelry, gold, currency, and a lot of wine. Berchtesgaden was believed to be home to hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine, including the best of the pilfered bottles. To the French, reclaiming the wine was a matter of particular pride, so as both armies closed in on Berchtesgaden, orders were overlooked; first the French and then the Americans attempted to sprint ahead of or around each other.

It’s believed that the French reached the final prize, the Eagle’s Nest, before the Americans (though the American’s may have let that occur according to some sources). After an arduous climb to the top, the French discovered roughly half a million bottles of wine, some of the finest vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy, rare ports and cognacs, and massive quantities of Champagne.

The Eagle’s Nest was connected to the complex below by a 407-foot car-sized elevator shaft, which had been blasted out of the mountain itself. Fleeing German troops had destroyed the elevator – which led to an interesting question: How do you get hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine down a steep mountain. According to Wine & War, Donald & Petie Kladstrup’s fascinating history of wine and WWII, the answer was a convoy of medical stretchers.

With help from the Alpine team, the stretchers were carefully lowered a few hundred meters from the peak to where pairs of stretcher-bearers waited below. The stretchers were then carried slowly down the mountain to where tanks, trucks and other military vehicles were waiting.

Soldiers stripped their tanks and trucks of everything that was not essential, tossing out clothes, tools, even extra ammunition, to make room for the new cargo. Some of the men emptied their canteens and refilled them with such legendary greats as Latour ’29, Mouton ’34 and Lafite ’37.

The race to hitler's wine

Enjoying the sweet taste of victory at the Eagle’s Nest

Wineskins – The First Bota Bag Flask

In the ancient world wine was carried in what were known as wineskins. These handy liquid vessels, similar today’s bota bag pictured above, were made of animal skin, especially pig skin. The skin was thoroughly cleaned, tanned, and finally turned inside out so that the hairy side remained inside. Wine was then stored in it with the animal hair staying in contact with the wine. I imagine the ancient people were constantly pulling hair out of their mouth. But hey, at least they had wine.

Wineskins

Vintage and Non-Vintage Wine

What is a vintage wine?  It’s the wine made out of the single year’s harvest, the date on the label is the vintage. It does not indicate the year the wine was bottled.

Non-vintage wines are those produced by mixing harvests of two years or more. On occasion you’ll see NV on the label marking the distinction.  This is a common practice with Champagne and sparkling wine producers as winemakers provide a continuous house style through the blending of various vintages, to create the yearly non-vintage Champagne.

It’s not uncommon to see vintage year sparkling wines in California. However, in the Champagne region of France, vintages are generally produced three or four times a decade. This represents less than 5% of total Champagne production.

Vintage and Non-Vintage Wine

As you see, the vintage of this Lanson Champagne is 1998

Vintage and Non-Vintage Wine

This label does not indicate a year which would suggest a non-vintage Champagne

I should note, often a vintage date may appear on the foil of the bottle or on an attached tag,
especially these days with screen printed wine labels.

As you see here, Lanson does put their vintage dates on the label so it is likely the Black Label is a
non-vintage Champagne. As it turns out, Black Label was chosen to indicate a specific non-vintage Champagne they bottle to honor the long relationship it has with the British Court.

Who Really Put The Fizz in Sparkling Wine?

For centuries the French monk Dom Perignon was thought to have invented champagne in the late 1600s. However, the facts are as grounded as the bubbles in the wine itself.  Dom Perignon he was cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvilliers but there is no evidence that he was the first person to taste sparkling wine. Additionally, his famous quote, “I am drinking the stars!” also is false, with the first documented mention of that line appearing in an advertisement in the late 19th century. But to give credit where credit is due, it is said he was the first to use cork as a bottle closure.

Interestingly, the first sparkling wine is considered by some wine historians to have been invented by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Limoux, in Languedoc in 1531, almost a hundred years before Dom Perignon was born. Research has been unable to unearth any exact date of the creation of sparkling wine using, what is referred to today as méthode Champenoise…with one exception.

An English scientist, physician, naturalist and metallurgist is said to be the first to document “How to put the fizz into sparkling wine” in 1662.  The scientist, Christopher Merrett of Winchcombe was the first person to describe the second fermentation process and use the word “sparkling” when referring to the end product, says Winchcombe historian Jean Bray. The fine English residents of Winchcombe in the Cotswolds, U.K. are so convinced Dr. Merrett was the first to create sparkling wine they have installed a plaque in his honour. (Yes, that’s honor with a “u” out of respect for the locals)

Merrett                                                             

Even King Tut Enjoyed Wine

Did you know that King Tut’s journey into the afterlife included wine?

When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was sealed in 1322 B.C. there were approximately 26 amphora, or jars, of wine included. These were found when the tomb was opened in 1922. Following a study by Spanish scientists in 2004 it was determined they contained both red and white wine. This predates Egyptian white wine references by about 1500 years. It was presumed only red wine was made in the region. Surprisingly, the amphora were labeled with the year, the name of the winemaker, and vineyard, even comments such as “very good wine.”

 

How It Works Daily.com

The World’s Oldest Bottle of Wine and Where it was Found

The world’s oldest wine bottle is believed to date back to the year 325. It was found near the town of Speyer, Germany, in 1867.  Believe it or not, it is unopened and contains 1.5 liters of liquid, which is the exact same amount as Magnum in today’s world. The bottle was discovered during an excavation of a 4th-century Roman nobleman’s tomb which contained the bodies of a man and a woman. The man, believed to be a Roman Legionnaire, was holding the bottle. No doubt a treasured wine he chose to take with him on his journey to the after world. The bottle is on display at the Historical Museum of Pfalz, Germany. If I had the chance to taste it, would I?  Mmmm…no.

Oldest Bottle of Wine

Where Wine Goes to Die

I came across this fascinating story from John Capone via Quartz Media (qz.com). It answers a question I never thought to ask.

That unsold bottle of Merlot is probably winding up in your gas tank

The first thing you notice is the smell. An acrid eau-de-wet-garbage mixed with electrical fire and burning diesel. Mad Max meets scratch and sniff.

Breweries and distilleries have a distinct aroma, like moist bread. The backrooms of gin distilleries can fill with the scent of cardamom and juniper and smell like a Silk Road spice cart. During harvest season in Napa, the work of yeast fermenting wine permeates the whole valley.

Despite the presence of fermentation tanks and mega stills, this place smells like somewhere all those things would go to die. It is. It’s where the dregs of every vodka still and every 9-year-old barrel-aged small batch bourbon expire. It’s where all the watery beer that didn’t end up at frat parties does its final keg stand. And it’s the fate that awaits the wine Robert Parker spits and finds not up to snuff, and where cases upon cases of merlot likely were sent after the pinot-pocalypse that was Sideways.

The life of a California wine starts with such promise.

From a vineyard in Napa, a bottle of red can travel to a five-star restaurant in Manhattan, or a well-heeled dinner party in Tokyo. But for some unlucky vintages, it’s a quiet drive more than 400 miles south down the coast of California, to Parallel Products, where, in a facility surrounded by scrub brush, scrap heaps and festering waste ponds, a bottle of fermented grape juice can be dumped into modified stills and converted into fuel-grade ethanol.

Commercial distilleries have been churning out ethanol as far back as World War II, but ones that turn our waste alcohol into fuel are relatively new.

Those forlorn wines turn east at Los Angeles and head 40 miles more down the San Bernardino Freeway ending up in Rancho Cucamonga, on the outskirts of the suburban sprawl that extends basically unabated from where Malibu hits the water. Palm tree-lined shopping developments full of In-N-Out Burgers, tanning salons and Sam’s Clubs, punctuated only by massive car dealerships (five or six at a stretch) and the occasional meth lab, quickly give way to scrub brush, scrap heaps, and festering waste ponds and the end of the line for the cast offs of the beer, spirits and wine industry.

How I ended up here standing on the roof of a rented Dodge in the dark, damp, Rancho Cucamonga night amid car-eating steel separators and monolithic humming electrical towers pointing a camera at rusted fermentation tanks in a junkyard speaks to the very reason for the facility’s existence—the last stop in a side of the wine world nobody ever thinks much about.

This is the home of a company that might not manage the trick of turning water into wine, but turns wine into fuel-grade ethanol on a large scale. At the gate, you’d be forgiven for worrying your lungs might be seared by whatever noxious odors assault your olfactory senses, next to the sign warning you of the presence of detectable amounts of chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects and other reproductive harm.

With a guard standing behind him, a manager declines my request to tour the grounds. He’s sorry, he tells me, but “we destroy some products here that the brands don’t want people to know about.” Then adds, “Believe it or not.”

It is one of two ethanol recovery facilities operated by 30-year-old Parallel Products and where it turns the West Coast’s distillery waste and unsellable (or “distressed,” in industry parlance) wine, as well as beer and corn syrup-rich soft drinks into fuel. A similar company, MXI Environmental, took large shipments of Four Loko, the banned alcoholic energy drink, at its Virginia facility a few years ago.

These companies portray themselves as greenwashing saviors producing “waste-derived renewable fuels.” An ad for Parallel’s services in Beverage Industry News asks, “What’s important to you? Security… Brand Protection … Tax Recovery… The Environment?” over a backdrop of green grass, a tree and the sky. This is a face of the energy industry to which we’ve become used. But Parallel isn’t quite an energy company, is it?

The company purchased the facility in Rancho Cucamonga in 1979 from E.J. Gallo—this area of scorched earth was once a wine producing region. Parallel modified and added to the existing fermentation tanks and stills on the property, which dates back to the 1800s as a winery. It’s now fitted with the means for destroying the products it once created.

Parallel Products

Not exactly water into wine. (John Capone)

Not far from Parallel’s smoking skyline, wedged between power generators and warehouses for big box retailers, are the remnants of an old vineyard. Gnarled Zinfandel vines twist only a couple of feet off the ground just down some abandoned railroad tracks from Parallel’s clanging work.

The main products destroyed at Parallel are either waste from the distilling process (commonly known as the “heads” and “tails” of each batch—this is the part you throw away unless you want to go blind), or “distressed surplus” beverages. According to its website “Each year, Parallel Products receives and recycles over 13 million cases and 3 million bulk liquid gallons of unsaleable beverage products.”

So just how does a wine become “distressed?”

Despite idyllic visions you may have of Peter Mayle lounging in verdant idylls in Provence, winemaking is a tough business and its consumer a constantly moving target.

In the wine industry, when your product outweighs your demand, there are few ways to legally dispose of it. With permission from the state, pouring it down the drain at specially equipped public facilities is one method, but when it’s already bottled and labeled, there are prohibitive labor costs and headaches involved. And somebody might see you do it.

In another industry, a producer might just slash its prices, but in the wine market, if last year’s $20 Merlot is selling for $10 this year, brand reputations can suffer irreparable damage and affect the value of future vintages. In some instances, the discovery that you’ve been dumping product can be just as damaging. When nobody wants you, the last thing you want is for the market to find out that nobody wants you. And so Parallel, a place that processes skunked beer, tainted liquors and flat colas into gasoline additives, becomes an attractive option for a perfectly palatable Pinot.

Overproduction, due to the long lead time involved, is a notorious problem in the wine industry, according to Robin Goldstein, author of The Wine Trials and Principal Economic Counselor at the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, who has long studied wine economics and trends. According to Goldstein, “It’s always been a risk factor and cost of doing business,” and it’s becoming more difficult all the time. The problem, he says, is that producers tend to overreact to short-term trends. Even under the best of circumstances the wine market is unpredictable, with a huge amount of guesswork involved and the years it takes for newly planted vines to come to maturity.

Not least of the contributing exigencies of managing inventory is factoring in the pronouncements of a few influential critics and scorers, such as Robert Parker or Wine Spectator.

In France, Beaujolais nouveau producers actually successfully sued a critic from a French magazine who anointed their wine “vin de merde” (or “shit wine”).

On this side of the Atlantic things are a little different (as are libel laws), with a few powerful critics more or less having their ways with domestic producers. “The undue influence of wine critics and 100-point scores has a really negative effect on producers in general, but especially on producers’ ability to manage inventory from year-to-year and to not overproduce.” says Goldstein. The problem arises, “when you have scores that are being assigned fairly arbitrarily in an unscientific way—as has been shown again and again by economists and neuroscientists,” including in work done by Goldstein himself.

“The human palate is so fickle,” he says, “and critics are influenced by extrinsic factors and often don’t taste blind, so the evaluation of the wines is an unfair process, but can have a huge influence on the market.”

Demand and large orders can skyrocket for a wine that gets a Parker score over 90. Dramatically increased production for the next crop, of course, follows. When Parker goes to taste the next year’s vintage, let’s say, he gets stuck in traffic on the way or has a toothache, and gives it an 88. Overage—faster than you say “ton merde.”

“The most notorious example is known as ‘The Sideways Effect,’” Goldstein says, referring to the fervor for pinot noir and disdain for merlot immediately following the Paul Giamatti movie. How did Hollywood throw the market into a tizzy? There have been serious academic dissertations written about this.

In the Oscar-winning 2004 film, Giamatti’s character, Miles, famously has a penchant for Pinot Noir, and is emphatic that he is “NOT drinking any fucking Merlot.”

Winemakers were blindsided. While stock in Pinot suddenly skyrocketed, demand for Merlot plummeted. By the time the wines came to market, the demand was, of course, no longer what it had been.

“It took years to adjust,” said Goldstein.

Parallel Products, however, you can be sure, churned out plenty of ethanol made from Merlot in the following years. And for years after, when the demand for Pinot came back to earth, Parallel Products surely had a whole new source of raw material, making Pinot-fuel for your Prius.

Follow John on Instagram at @startedoutonburgundy

Earliest Winemaking Anywhere in the World

The University of Toronto and the Georgian National Museum have uncovered evidence of what is now considered the earliest winemaking anywhere in the world. The discovery dates the origin of winemaking to the Neolithic period around 6000 BC. That’s 600 to 1000 years, earlier than the previous discovery made in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

Click here to find out how chemical techniques detected “the fingerprint of winemaking.”

 

jar

(photo by Judyta Olszewski)

Coca-Cola is related to wine?

Yes, the world’s favorite cola owes its existence to wine. In the mid 1800s ”tonic” wines were introduced. These were fortified with coca, which is the same source of cocaine. Vin Mariani was a popular variety.  Tonic wines were enjoyed by millions across the globe including Queen Victoria and Thomas Edison. An American version was Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, produced in Atlanta. In 1885, local prohibition laws forced John Pemberton to produce a non-alcoholic version. Already pepped up with caffeine-rich kola nuts, he replaced the wine with non-alcoholic syrup and Coca-Cola was born. 

 

The First Successful American Winery

Where was the first successful American winery located? The answer is Cincinnati, Ohio. In the mid-1830s a winery owned by Nicholas Longworth made sparkling wine from Catawba grapes. By the 1850s he was producing 100,000 bottles a year with distribution to Europe and across the U.S. Unfortunately, by the 1860s, black rot and downy mildew struck heavily in the Ohio Vineyards. Little by little this prompted many up and coming winemakers to move to the Fingerlakes region in New York, which continues to thrive. Missouri also had a large wine region in the mid to late 1800s and was second only to California in wine production by the end of the century.

 

nicholas longworth

Nicholas Longworth

6,000 year-old wine vessels discovered in Sicily

Since a 2010 discovery of a winery in Armenia near the village of Areni, it is known that winemaking dates as far back as 6,100 years. Mesopotamia has also been considered to be one of the earliest winemaking regions. Now researchers have discovered traces of wine in terracotta jars in a Sicilian cave dating back to the fourth millennia BC, which is also about 6000 years ago.  That means Italians have been making and drinking wine much longer than previously thought, which was suspected to be the first millennia BC. With this recent discovery some historians argue winemaking could go back as far as 10,000 years. It didn’t take long for early humans to craft the elixir of the Gods, did it?

 

This is an image from the Armenian discovery released with the UCLA/National Geographic press announcement. The ancient-winery study was led by UCLA’s Hans Barnard and partially funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.(Photo credit: Gregory Areshian)

 

What does Pinot Noir mean?

In celebration of the upcoming National Pinot Noir Day, on August 18th, here’s some Pinot trivia for you.

What inspired the French to call a grape variety Pinot Noir? You might know that noir means “black” in French, but what does pinot mean?

The pinot noir grapes are smaller and come in tight clusters. To the French centuries ago it looked very much like a pine cone. Since the grapes are darker than other varieties the word black was also attributed to them. Hence the name Pinot Noir.  I guess they could have gone with Pinot Cône Noir, which does roll nicely off the tongue, but Pinot Noir is sufficient.

 

Pinot Noir cluster

Whole cluster Pinot Noir in the bin following sorting during the 2015 harvest, Russian River Valley

What are those Crystals on your Wine Cork?

Have you come across crystals on your wine bottle or cork?  Is that a problem? Not at all.  Wine diamonds, as they’re sometimes called, are tartrates that are formed when potassium or calcium and tartaric acid bind together to form crystals. Both are naturally occurring products of wine grapes and you may know potassium bitartrate as cream of tartar. They are little gems that are often a result of handcrafted wine.

wine crystals

A Classic Car or High Priced Wine…Which Would You Choose?

Here’s something interesting from Wine Spectator. In 2016, for the first time, investments in fine wine outpaced classic cars. To be clear, more money is spent on classic cars, about twice that of wine, but last year investments in wine were nearly triple that of classic cars. Investments grew considerably for Bordeaux wine and investors are also very interested in Northern Italy wines, specifically the Piedmonte region. If you have bundles of cash at your disposal fine wine is an investment to consider.

motorcar

Four Things You Didn’t Know About Prosecco

Here are some things you may not know about Prosecco, the rival to champagne. It’s history goes back over 2,000 years. Pliny the Elder once referenced its benefits to a long life. Prosecco is made primarily with the Glera grape but others whites like Chardonnay & Pinto Grigio may be included. It’s popularity grew during the post recession because it’s less expensive than champagne and is just as refreshing. And it does hail from a town named Prosecco in Italy, formerly known as Puccino.

prosecoo

Wine Consumption Continues to Grow in the U.S.

We Americans are continuing to consume wine at a greater pace as each year goes by. We are the highest wine consuming country by volume, drinking 341.5 million cases in 2016. Considering the size of our country that’s no surprise. That figure is expected to rise nearly 5% by 2020, to 358.3 million cases. However, our dominance may come to an end as I just read China is expected to grow faster and surpass us as the world’s largest consumer.

Americans

How to say “Cheers” in 30 Different Languages

These days borders seem to be getting stronger rather than coming down but many of us still prefer the pleasures of travel, and meeting those who travel here to enjoy our wine country lifestyle. Thanks to VinePair.com for coming up with a list of how to say “cheers” in 30 different languages, pronunciations included. Pour yourself a glass and get studying!

Afrikaans – Gesondheid (Geh-soond-hate)
Albanian – Gëzuar (Geh-zoo-ah)
Arabic – في صحتك – (Fi-sih-tik)
Bosnian – Živjeli (Zee-veh-lee)
Chinese (Mandarin) – 干杯 (Gan-bay)
Croatian – Živjeli (Zee-veh-lee)
Czech – Na zdravi (Naz-drah-vee)
Dutch – Proost (Proost)
Filipino – Mabuhay (Ma-boo-hay)
Finnish – Kippis (Kipp-iss)
French – Santé (Sahn-tay)
German – Prost (Prost)
Greek – ΥΓΕΙΑ (Yah-mahs)
Hebrew – לחיים (Luh-kai-um)
Hungarian – Egészségedre (Eg-esh ay-ged-ruh)
Icelandic – Skál (Skowl)
Irish (Gaelic) – Sláinte (Slawn-chuh)
Italian – Salute (Sah-loo-tay)
Japanese – 乾杯 (Kan-pi)
Korean – 건배 (Gun-bay)
Norwegian – Skål (Skowl)
Polish – Na zdrowie (Nahz-droh-vee-ay)
Portuguese – Saúde (Sow-ood-uh)
Russian – Будем здоровы (Boo-dem Zdor-oh-vee)
Slovak – Na zdravie (Nahz-droh-vee-ay)
Spanish – Salud (Sah-lood)
Swedish – Skål (Skowl)
Thai – ไชโย (Chon-gow)
Turkish – Şerefe (Sher-if-fay)
Vietnamese – Dô (Djo)