Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How to find good QPR? The secret may be waiting at your local wine store

QPR stands for Quality/Price Ratio.* Whether spending a lot or a little for a wine, we are sure you want to get the most for your money. Help for your hunt is probably at your nearest wine store. With apologies for our Northern California-centrism, here are some examples.

The Kermit Lynch catalog is worth subscribing to for its great wine descriptions--and the occasional bonus piece by Jim Harrison or other gastroliterary luminaries--even if you never buy from the store. Several times a year the catalog features a sampler at a hefty discount. The budget samplers (often well under $150/case) can be fabulous deals, and the occasional regionally-focused samplers, such as the years-ago-but-oh-so-memorable Alsatian sampler provide an affordable way to explore a region's wines at all quality levels. So sign up for various mailing lists (e-mailers are very common eco-options), and see what you can find. If shipping costs remove the value from the value samplers, take the list to your local store and ask them to put something similar together for you.

Many wine stores are selling their own labels. North Berkeley Wines has two house brands (at least): Clearwater Creek and, in years they consider particularly good, Mesa. Since NBW does not own a winery, these wines are necessarily comprised of wine from the bulk market. The old fashioned term for these is negociant wines. Bulk market wine is often riddled with defects, but often genuinely good wine appears on the market when it simply does not fit into the producer's program.

When we had some wine that just didn't work in our blends, we thought of North Berkeley and their Clearwater Creek program. They were delighted to hear from us, but upon receiving the samples, they declined. The wine was ultimately bought by Quintessa. Whether it went into the $135 Quintessa or the $55 Faust we do not know, but this example illustrates both that wine stores buying on the bulk market can have high standards, and that whether or not a wine works in a particular blend depends on more than its inherent quality.

We believe the Clearwater Creek wines retail in the $15-20 range while Mesa is typically $25.

Getting to know one or two of the floor staff at your local store is a great idea. They know what they have and, with some guidance from you, they should be able to recommend reasonably-priced wines that you will enjoy. A store such as the oft-mentioned San Francisco Wine Trading Company has very knowledgeable staff. Their love of wine inspires them to help the buyer choose something they will enjoy.

Other stores, such as San Francisco's The Wine Club (google it if you care), apparently have a different business model. Their goal is to get (mostly) sought after wines at low prices by whatever means necessary. This business model requires high inventory turnover (not that that hurts any business model), and the emphasis of the clerks is often on selling selling selling, rather than listening to what a customer might actually want. Good values can certainly be had, but you are on your own, and buying wines you already know is probably the only sensible strategy.

Gentle readers, we do not think you will find it difficult to tell a SFWTC from a Wine Club. Find a store like the former and cozy up to the clerks. And remember, the more information you can give them about wines you have enjoyed, the better the recommendations they can give you.

One final suggestion: buy at least two bottles of any wine that is new to you. This can be really hard, especially when a budget is tight and there are OH so many different wines you want to try. But unless you have a great memory or take really good notes you will probably find it difficult to remember what you thought about a particular wine in a month or two. When you try that second bottle, you will remember the first. It will also be a great lesson in how the same wine can seem very different in different contexts. Most importantly, you will begin to know that wine/variety/region/etc.

Happy hunting, and good luck!

*Math geek aside: since "free" wines can be dreadful, we usually add a one to the denominator to avoid having free wines score infinite QPRs.

Monday, September 15, 2008

DIY--Wine by the people, of the people, and for the people

We now spend all day every day making wine, so naturally when we are home all we think about is... making wine.

We hereby encourage each of you to make some wine while you can. Don't live nearby suitable grapes? Ask your local brewery supply store if they have any to sell. Many stores by a ton or two of good grapes to divvy up amongst their customers.

It's also not too late to make a fruit wine. That's right, fruit wine. Don't be scared. It will only be sickly sweet if you make it that way. And you'll only make it that way if you want it that way.

Grapes are the perfect fruit for winemaking--their balance of acid and sugar just can't be beat. But it can be reproduced. Compared to grapes, most fruits have far more acid and far less sugar. You can compensate by adding water to dilute the acid, and sugar to boost the finished alcohol. Remember, sugar in fruit, whether winegrapes or figs, blackberries or pears, will become alcohol in the wine. It will remain as sugar in the wine only if you stop the fermentation.

It takes 12-15 pounds of grapes to make a gallon of wine. I recommend using about 4 pounds per gallon of any other fruit, bringing up the volume with water containing sufficient sugar to reach the alcohol level you desire. 22 Brix (22 grams of sugar per 100 grams of solution) will yield a wine of about 12% alcohol. Want a little more? Shoot for 24 Brix. A little less, 20 Brix. You can measure Brix directly with a hydrometer from that brewing supply store, or you can do math. I recommend ignoring the sugar content in the fruit--it won't make much difference in the final alcohol.

A gallon is 3.786 liters, which, conveniently, weighs 3,786 grams. 22 Brix is 22 grams sugar/100 grams solution, so a gallon of 22 Brix water contains 22/100 * 3786 g sugar = 833 grams of sugar. That works out to about 29 ounces. The key is that the total volume of the solution is one gallon. You are not dissolving 29 ounces of sugar in one gallon--the resulting volume would be greater than one gallon and your final Brix would be less than 22. So you weigh out the sugar and pour boiling water over it to dissolve the sugar, slowly adding water until you reach the gallon mark.

Throw in your fruit (as mashed up as possible), add some yeast if you want (you probably won't need to), and let 'er rip. In a day or two you'll notice the fermentation starting. After a week or so you'll notice that it's about done. When it really slows down, you'll want to transfer it to a container that fits it well (minimal airspace). That container should be sealed with an airlock to let CO2 out while excluding the ingress of air. A stopper and airlock will set you back less than $1 at your brewing store.

When all airlock-bubbling is done, you've got wine. Transfer the clear wine off the lees (sediment) to a airlock container (wise to continue with the airlock, just in case). At this point you can let the wine age or consume it.

Any questions? Ask away. And don't forget to tell us about your home winemaking projects!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Harvest is upon us, folks. The time of year of 12-hour days and weekend-less weeks. Don't worry, we're still drinking wine. We just have less time to share our discoveries with you.

We'll post as we can. In the meantime, poke around the site here and please let us know what you think, and what you would like to see once the harvest madness is over.
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