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Winos, Healers, and Wine Weirdos: Four Historical Personalities

March 13th, 2012 No comments
Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great, who brewed his coffee with Champagne instead of water

Here are four interesting people who really enjoyed their wine!  (Whoever said history had to be dry?)

  1. Frederick the Great (1712-1786), King of Prussia, brewed his own coffee with Champagne instead of water, adding a little bit of powdered mustard to make the flavor stronger.  (Note: for anyone adventurous enough to try this at home, do not put Champagne into your Mr. Coffee® machine; use an easy-to-clean French press, instead.)
  2. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in his day, earned $25,000 a year.  From that amount, he annually spent around $3,000 on wine, alone.  (That’s quite a bit, considering the time period!)  He admired good Madeira and Bordeaux, and helped to stock the wine cellars of the first five presidents of the United States.
  3. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), composer, writer, philosopher, mystic, and Benedictine abbess, prescribed herb-infused wine for pain relief.  “One who is in pain from a stone should take parsley and add a third part saxifrage. He should cook this in wine, strain it through a cloth, and drink it in a sauna.”
  4. Dr. John Carmichael (1761-1837), a surgeon at Fort Adams, enjoyed his wine collection so much that he spent the majority of his later days in a rocking chair, staring at his wine cellar.  His will included specific instructions about how he was to be buried, following his death: before the burial, his friends were to move the casket containing his body to the wine cellar, then drink his entire collection of wine in its presence.  Following two full days of dutifully emptying his cellar, Dr. Carmichael’s friends forgot what they had done with his body!  After sober reflection, the casket was eventually found, and Dr. Carmichael was given a proper burial.

Champagne: a Holy Toast

December 27th, 2011 No comments
A Stained Glass Window of a Monk Examining Champagne

The important history of monks and Champagne is captured in a stained-glass window.

Named after the Champagne region of France, Champagne was first bottled by French monks.  But where do the bubbles come from?  The process of making the bubbles needed for this sparkling wine was invented by two Benedictine monks and cellarmasters: Frère Jean Oudart (1654–1742) from the abbey of Saint-Pierre aux Monts de Châlons, and Dom Pierre Pérignon (1639–1715) from the abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers.  Since the Champagne region has a very cold and short growing season, Champagne grapes must be harvested very late in the year.  Because of this they have less time to ferment, and cold winter temperatures often halted the fermenting process.  To counter this, the monks introduced a second fermentation procedure that takes place in the bottle during the spring.  It’s this second fermentation that creates the much-loved bubbles that are Champagne’s calling card.  Thank you, Brothers Oudart and Pérignon!  For more information about the process and actual chemistry of aging wine, check out the Vintage Cellars Science of Aging Wine page.  Cheers!

How Red Wine is Made, Today

December 6th, 2011 No comments

Today, most red wines are produced using a process similar to this one…

First, a vintner decides when the grapes are ripe.  This is done by taste, concurrent with today’s technology of taking accurate sugar readings.  The grapes are then harvested and placed into a machine that removes their stems.  The machine also crushes them (without pressing them) so that A) the grapes become exposed to yeast and B) the skins will color the wine.  The yeast then transforms the grape’s sugar into CO2, heat, and alcohol; this is fermentation.  The crushed grapes and liquid then sit (macerate) until it is decided that the taste is ideal.  During this process, the grape skins often float above the liquid.  Since these skins must remain submerged, for best results, they are repeatedly pushed back into the liquid, or the liquid is mechanically pumped over them to continually submerge them.  If the grapes sit for too long in this state, the wine will taste bitter.  If they do not sit long enough, the wine will taste too weak.  The vintner determines when enough time has elapsed.  Once the decision has been made, the liquid is removed and the solids are sent to the press.

Mechanical Wine Press

A Mechanical Wine Press (image from Wikipedia)

A mechanical press squeezes out the remaining juices in the solids.  This, too, is a delicate process; pressing too firmly or too frequently produces a poor quality wine.  After this, the wine needs to settle; transferring the wine from barrel to barrel after settling helps to separate/filter out solid matter and other particles that may cloud the wine.  Following this, a malolactic fermentation stage is often the next step in red winemaking.  Here, a wine’s malic acid is converted into CO2 and lactic acid.  Basically, the process reduces a wine’s acidity by organic rather than chemical means.  (Certain wines like Gewurztraminers, Reislings, Ehrenfelsers, and others that depend upon malic acid to enhance their flavors do not go through this step.)

After an aging process, the length of which is determined by the type of wine, fining and filtering processes remove sediments from the wine.  The wine is then bottled carefully to avoid contact with the air. (And, as we know, many of the best bottled wines are stored for several years before they are released to us!)  For more fascinating information about winemaking and wine technology, check out Vintage Cellar’s Wine Storage Education Center.  There, you’ll find more tantalizing trivia and wine storage tips to think about.  Cheers!

Wine Bottle History

November 24th, 2011 No comments

When we talk about aging wine, rarely do we realize just how recent a phenomenon wine aging actually is.  As mentioned in a previous post (Fun Wine Trivia), wine was not originally stored in bottles.  And when wine was not transported in animal wineskins, it was stored in large clay containers and secured with sealants called terracotta amphorae.

ancient clay jugs

Ancient Clay Jugs (Photo by Thomas Reichart)

While these 7000+ year-old clay jugs were kept in cool places, evidence suggests the wine inside was not aged nearly as long as most bottled wine is today.  In fact, when wine was later stored in wooden barrels for the first time, it was “aged” for a possibly shorter period of time.  Depending on the barrel’s construction, sometimes a wine’s barrel life was just long enough to transport it to its final trade destination before spoiling.  It was only when glass blowing technology was re-perfected (c.a. the 18th century) that glass bottles with smaller bottlenecks allowed for airtight wine storage.  This is when it finally became possible to age wine in the tradition we follow, today. Interestingly, while the English were the first to seal wine bottles with cork, wine bottles were not the first bottles to be corked.  Medicines, beer, and bottled beauty products benefited from corks long before wine!  Since aging wine is a recent development (relatively speaking), it’s amazing that the art of wine aging has been perfected to such a fine degree so rapidly.

Climadiff Diva 265 Bottle Multi-Temperature Wine Cabinet

Climadiff Diva 265 Bottle Multi-Temperature Wine Cabinet

We now know so much about optimal temperature control, humidity levels, and harmful UV rays, that custom wine cellars can be designed to optimally age any collection of wine.  And many wine storage units, like the Climadiff Diva 265 Bottle Multi-Temperature wine cabinet, even have UV-resistant doors.  Perhaps the most exciting thing about aging wine is that, just when we think we know all there is to know about it, some new discovery or innovation makes us think again: a new way to preserve wine, a new way to seal bottles, or new scientific information that allows for even greater precision when aging wine for optimal taste.  For more fascinating information about the history of wine aging, check out Vintage Cellars’ The Science of Wine Aging.  Enjoy!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! If you’re busy cooking today, check out our post from earlier this week on red & white wine sauces to go with your turkey and choosing wine for your Thanksgiving meal, or run through the wine & turkey or holiday tags for even more ideas!

Fun Wine Trivia

November 8th, 2011 No comments
  • Did you know that California is the 4th largest producer of wine in the world?  The three top manufacturers are France, Italy, and Spain.
  • When aged, red wines often fade, eventually turning a rusty, brick red color.  White wines, however, become more golden with age before darkening to brownish yellow.

    Hammurabi's Code: a Tablet

    The Prologue of the Code of Hammurabi. The Code outlines punishment for fraudulent wine sellers.

  • When a wine is paired with food, the food and wine have what is called “synergy.”  This is an additional flavor that the food or wine, if consumed alone, does not have.
  • Approximately 55% of wine consumed in restaurants is red wine.
  • European wines are given names based on their geographical locations, while non-European wines are named after grape varieties.
  • One of the oldest known literary works, the Epic of Gilgamesh, features wine prominently; the goddess, Siduri, is symbolic of fertility, as well as fermentation (wine).
  • Women are often better wine tasters than men; their sense of smell is often keener.
  • 1,000 lbs. of grapes will make about 60 cases of wine, or 720 bottles.  A single bottle of wine contains close to 3 pounds of grapes!
  • Hippocrates, the “father” of medicine, used wine in almost all of his remedies.  He used it to alleviate fevers, prescribed it as a diuretic, and utilized it for its antiseptic properties.
  • Hammurabi’s Code (1,800 B.C.) features a law to punish fraudulent wine merchants: drowning in a river!
  • When wineskins were used to hold wine in ancient times, the skins were cleaned, tanned, and turned so that the hairy side was on the inside, making contact with the wine.
  • Today, wine grapes take up the most acres of all fruit crops planted in the world.
  • The Vikings called America “Vinland” after finding numerous massive, native grape vines growing there around A.D. 1,000.
  • A typical glass of dry red or white wine contains 110 calories.  Sweeter wines have more.

For additional wine trivia and insights, check out the Vintage Cellars Wine Storage Education Center.  Cheers!

Wine Collections: Fantastic Investments in Uncertain Times

October 13th, 2011 No comments
A Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States (image from Wikipedia)

To date, the most expensive bottle of wine sold at auction was a 1787 label-less bottle with “Lafite” and “Th. J.” etched on its front; it was a bottle of wine which some believe to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  (The controversy surrounding this claim continues.)  Though the value of the wine was listed as “inestimable,” it sold for 105,000 pound sterling on December 5th, 1985.

With today’s economic uncertainties, instead of investing in stocks, several people are deciding to invest in tangible items like rare works of art, original manuscripts by famous authors and composers, clocks, watches, gemstones, old cars, and… wines!  Much of today’s “wine investment” focuses on old and rare wines, similar to the “Jefferson” bottle (mentioned above, and purchased by Christopher Forbes).  Earlier in 2011, a collection of 300 bottles of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild sold in Hong Kong for $540,000, making the record books for the highest-valued lot at any wine auction this year (so far).

Wine collections, unlike many equities, have value that appreciates quickly because of continued (and growing) interest of collectors worldwide.  And since investing in various financial services has become less-than-promising for many people (low interest rates, stock markets too temperamental, etc.), purchasing wine allows collectors to invest in something that is not completely dependent on the state of the global marketplace.

So if, like many others, you’ve been burned by the stock market, perhaps investing a small portion of your net worth in a wine collection may be worth considering.  You’ll have a tangible product in your cellar that, if stored properly, will most likely appreciate.  Plus, if wine is your hobby, you’ll have a great deal of fun searching for those elusive bottles!  If you do decide to invest in a serious wine collection, and do not yet have a wine cellar, visit Vintage Cellar’s custom wine cellar page to learn how easy it is to have a professional cellar designed to house the treasures you acquire.  Who knows?  Perhaps your collection will make the record books for being a high-valued lot, too?

Musical Wine Glasses

July 22nd, 2011 1 comment
Benjamin Franklin playing on the glass harmonica

Image courtesy of violinstudent.com

When was the last time you ran a moistened finger along the rim of a crystal wine glass, making it sing?  Perhaps, after reading this post, you’ll give it a try tonight! Concerts of “glass music” produced by this same technique used to be all the rage in Europe.  There were even performers, like the blind Marianne Kirchgessner, with entire careers that consisted of playing musical glasses.  Benjamin Franklin, after attending such concerts in London, invented and perfected the “Glass Harmonica,” an instrument made of concentric glasses mounted on a rod, turned by a treadle, the size of each glass determining its pitch.  Touching the rims of the turning glasses produced audible notes, and several glasses could even be touched simultaneously to produce chords.  Although it was something of a novelty instrument, many prominent composers wrote music for it, including Beethoven and Mozart.  In fact, Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica, K.365, is one of the last pieces Mozart composed. But, like the clear beverage craze in the early 1990’s that faded by the middle of the decade, the glass harmonica’s popularity came to an end around 1815, with few instruments built after 1820.  Today, there are special manufactures who do make glass harmonicas, but professional glass harmonica players are very rare.  Still, the ethereal, haunting, otherworldly sound of the glass harmonica can be heard in several films, including Interview with the Vampire,  Mesmer,  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and popular recordings like Björk’s “All Neon Like”.  If you want to know what this instrument sounds like, all you need to do is run your finger across the rim of a wine glass.  Crystal wine glasses, like those produced by Riedel, often work best.  Be sure, however, that you use a glass with a stem, otherwise the hand holding the glass will stop the tone.  Have fun!

Riedel Wine Collection Shiraz/Syrah Wine Glasses

Wine… and Song!

April 15th, 2011 No comments
beethoven

Beethoven was quite fond of his Wine

Aside from Beethoven’s well-known drinking habits, and Mozart’s love affair with wine bottles as “romanticized” in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1984), few people realize how great a role wine has played in the history of Western classical music.  During the late 16th to early 18th century, over 250 books containing “Serious” and “Drinking Songs” were published in Paris, not to mention the rest of Europe.  Many of these drinking songs, as you can imagine, are quite humorous.  Even opera is not free from references to the drink!  Take, for example, Verdi’s exuberant “Drinking Song” from La Traviata!  There even exists a comical CD entitled Opera’s Greatest Drinking Songs!  The classical masters are known to have frequently indulged in the good stuff of life, including wine.  In addition to Berlioz, Brahms, Debussy, and Lizst, Tchaikovsky relied on wine to ease his troubled nerves, Mussorgsky was rarely found without a glass in hand, Erik Satie enjoyed wine for its simple pleasure, Jean Sibelius spent large sums of money on gourmet dinners and fine wines, and the list goes on.  While some composers chose to write humorous music about stimulants–have a listen to J. S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata–a great body of secular music written by the classical masters includes direct or indirect references to wine and spirits.  Ponder this the next time you hear Carl Orff’s famous Carmina Burana, used in many Hollywood movie previews, which is primarily a setting of medieval drinking tunes!

American Wine “Newbies”: Blame Prohibition

March 28th, 2011 No comments

Contrary to what you may think after reading a recent article about wine “newbies” in Wine Spectator, Americans have been enjoying their wine for quite some time.  Historically, the first Europeans that explored this land dubbed it “Vinland” because of the massive grape vines they saw covering the terra firma.  In fact, the early American colonies included “wine making” as one of their goals in their founding charters.

The first commercial vineyard and winery of the infant United States, named First Vinyard, was established by an act of Kentucky Legislature in 1799 (Two oaken casks of wine produced at this site were sent to Thomas Jefferson in 1805).  Prior to this, Franciscan missionaries established vineyards in California, the first being near San Diego in 1769 (Yes, the toponym “California” was used on maps as early as 1562!).  And let us not forget about the wineries that appeared in the Finger Lakes region in 1860s, the Rocky Mountain wineries, and ones in the Midwest.  Today, in fact, there are almost 3,000 commercial vineyards in the U.S., and each state is home to at least one commercial winery, to say nothing of private wineries.

Marie-Francois-Regis Gignoux’s “American-Landscape”

Given America’s rich wine history, how can it be that the author of the article in Wine Spectator calls Americans “newbies”?  Drawing on his own experience, he states, “Most of us didn’t grow up with wine. My parents never drank wine. Indeed, they didn’t drink anything alcoholic except an occasional cocktail at a party in order to be “sociable.” I’ll bet you anything that the same could be said for most of your parents, too—at least if you’re old enough to be in the Baby Boomer cohort.” The “Baby Boomer cohort” gives us clue about why the author’s parents may have adjusted to a life without much wine: Prohibition.  Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, America’s once thriving vineyards had deteriorated, left unattended for over a decade.  Expert winemakers had passed away, unable to pass knowledge of their craft on to their children, and thus a generation of people grew up unexposed to wine.  What took a few hundred years to develop was destroyed in the blink of an eye (okay, a decade!).  It took many years for commercial American vineyards to recover, reaching almost 3,000 in number by 2003.

Prohibition Makes the Press

After such a drought, it’s no wonder many American people were slow to imbibe after adjusting to a life without wine or spirits. Many families did resume drinking after Prohibition, but now they often bought inexpensive, less-than-ideal jug wines.  In many ways, because of the lasting effects of Prohibition, the claim that “Most American wine lovers are almost as new to wine as most Asian wine lovers” may not be far from the mark in some parts of this country, but the article does not address why this may be so, and also fails to inform the casual reader about America’s previously-rich wine history that is, once again, thriving (and nowhere more so than here in SoCal!).

6,000-Year-Old Winemaking Site Found

January 11th, 2011 No comments

Today, the media reported that archeologists in Armenia have unearthed the world’s oldest known winery.  They think that the 6,000-year-old winemaking equipment, which includes a wine press and desiccated grape vines and seeds, was used to make special wines for funeral ceremonies held nearby.  Very cool!

Read the full story on Time.com here.

Click here to learn about the winemaking process.