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Sour grapes, aging grapes

Well, we never said they were Paul Masson, but really:

According to the LA Times last week,  a large Australian winemaker is ditching $35 million worth of their Napa-produced Beringer wines that have passed their “sell-by” date but haven’t been sold and distributed yet. Apparently they’re the exception on the US market, but it’s still pretty disconcerting to think of all that table wine going to smash.

Beringer is drinkable enough but supposedly doesn’t age like better-made wines, according to the parent company. I don’t see why not, unless it isn’t really wine–is that what they’re claiming? Can’t be. So in reality, it probably has enough tannins to age at least a little if you leave it alone in a decently cool dark corner unopened for 3 or 4 years. At least the cabernets and merlots, I would think. Might show a little improvement, if given a chance.

But the company is probably looking at the bottom line–they ain’t movin’, so why should we pay storage for another 3 years, because the supermarket chains won’t buy it that they’ve become better wines deserving of a higher price? And at the million-bottle level, I can see that argument. I can. Storage is expensive. And they can claim a business loss.

For home consumers, though, I’d say it’s worth taking a chance. One of the most interesting wine-tasting experiences I’ve ever had was the opening of 20-year-old bottles of California wines a friend had inherited from her late father. He’d been one of those early nuts–an enthusiast in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s, when local winemaking was still in its infancy and not all that well thought of. Whenever he tasted something better than screwtop, he bought a case or so, opened up one or two bottles and put the others up to age in a part of the basement that had been dug into the side of a hill. The wines were okay to start with, maybe a bit better than that, and the makers became better known and better at their craft over time. But what started out as vin ordinaire did, after 5, 10, 15 years, transmogrify into something much more graceful, sophisticated, and  interesting in a number of cases.

Those wines have no match in the supermarket selection of 2- and 3-year-old bottles. So as an ordinary down-at-the-heels consumer without a fat trust fund, you probably can’t get anything like them without aging your own. Just because the wineries insist their wines are sold ready-to-drink-now doesn’t mean they have no further potential or that aging is a thing of the past. It just means the bigger companies don’t see much profit in it. But of course the small wineries up and down California always keep a few “library wines” for their customers to try–that’s how they end up selling a $15 or $20 bottle’s older cousin for $50, $150 or even more.

What for those of us living in apartments or lacking cooled hillside cave basements of worth? I’ve always been more ready than the average cook to play with my food and eat my mistakes as long as they don’t risk rampant botulism or salmonella. So this might seem tacky or harebrained: I’m not advocating those hideously expensive little wine refrigerators that look like Sharper Image humidors (note: I actually saw one of these in, of all places, the local Goodwill, standing below the racks of the more usual abandoned toasters and waffle irons and curler heaters. I wasn’t quite tempted enough).

All I’m saying is that if you have a bit of room in a little-used corner or closet or wherever doesn’t get horribly hot or cold in your house, a couple of bottles or a case here and there of ordinary drinkable table wine can often benefit from time undisturbed.

Case in point:

Recently I dug out an old bottle of Baron Herzog Sauvignon Blanc–never what you’d call a great vintage white–from about 5 years ago. We’d left it in the reserve box in the dining room (replete with dust bunnies), buried under something else, for when we ran out of kosher wine for Friday night and we’d forgotten about it because it was about the cheapest kosher dry white wine  in the bunch, and although it’s not too bad for an under-$10 Sauvignon blanc, kosher or not, it’s no great shakes.

Normally, the common wisdom is you can’t age whites other than champagne for more than 3 or 4 years; after that they supposedly just decompose and the flavors dissipate. Certainly they stop being clear bright pale yellow or yellow-green. In short, they get a brown tinge after a few years.

But this sauvignon blanc–and the color had definitely gone a little amber–surprised us. It tasted much, much better than the “fresh” stuff. Softer, more complex, decent fruit and acidity still, not dead at all and not soured. The oak had quieted a lot, the famous characteristic sauvignon eau-de-catbox even more, and there were “buttery” and “toasty” notes, thanks to the oak that had started out popsicle-stick-strong but was now faded into the background. It was, on its own merits, and quite surprisingly for a kosher wine, pretty good.

Much earlier in my “career” (since I can’t drink much in one sitting and often let a bottle go for at least a week in the fridge opened), I’d opened a forgotten (nonkosher, quite decent namebrand, though I’ve forgotten which now) chardonnay that had also ambered and it was nothing short of phenomenal compared with the original table-ready form.

So anyway, the point is that if the parent company hasn’t warehoused the Beringer under hot nasty conditions, probably some of the wine is still fairly drinkable. It just may not be all that sellable, and they’re paying warehouse overhead to store it.

Taking it all a step further in the waste-not-want-not category, one of the readers of the LA Times article commented that ditching all that wine is also a total waste of an important second market, maybe more profitable than the first (because it doesn’t require an alcohol license): chi-chi wine vinegar.

And that brings me to an actual recipe of sorts, or at least a DIY how-to that I figured out by accident.

DIY Leftover Wine Vinegar

All you need is some leftover red wine that’s starting to turn (preferably Spanish, but Beringer might still do), and preferably so dark a red it turns your tongue purplish black (but again, if what you have is Beringer, it still might work). If you’ve got a good candidate bottle and it’s open already and ***NOT “CORKED”***, all you need next is a coffee filter and some rubber bands or tape. And a little time. And air.

Serious aficionados add mother-of-vinegar cultures they probably purchased online from some chi-chi mail order gourmet house; I dunno. In Southern California, I haven’t had any trouble getting bread dough to sour, and my solo wine vinegar experiment worked better than expected without further purchases of any kind. I don’t know about white wine–it might not have enough residual wild yeasts and lactic fermentation bacteria in it since the grapeskins are removed earlier in the winemaking process, but it might still work–on the principle of sourdough, it’s worth trying once or twice. Just not with chenin blanc, which I truly, truly hate. Or Asti, which is sugary and weird and a bad surprise when you were told you were being treated to champagne. God knows what you’d get from one of those.

Anyway–getting back to the “recipe” if you can call it that:

You take the paper coffee filter and fasten it neatly over the mouth of the bottle (cork or screwtop left off) with the rubber band–scotch tape will work too if you’re out of rubber bands–so that air can get at the wine but you still keep flies, dust and any other nasties out. Let it sit on the counter in a cool relatively shadowed corner a week or two, maybe three, and it should vinegarize. Obviously, smell before using–if it don’t smell like vinegar, it ain’t vinegar.  Even then, taste a little and see. If it’s properly vinegary-smelling and tastes right, it’ll be fun to use and if it’s awful, just pour it down the drain and stick the bottle out for recycling–you were gonna do that anyway.

3 Responses

  1. If wine’s been only a little corked, sometimes you can fix it by pouring it in a bowl with a bunch of Saran Wrap. I’ve found it’s worth a try before you dump it.

    Don’t waste the wine, people!

    • The chemist in my mental broomcloset is intrigued, wondering what compound is responsible for corking and why it would bind to Saran Wrap. The biochemist is screeching, “Rinse it first! BPAs! Nitriles! Ack!” And the eat-your-experiments-and-cackle-at-the-lightning-clap adventurer is asking, “Wait–how much Saran Wrap? For how much wine? Does it have to be Saran Wrap ™? I think I have some left over from last night’s eggplant parmigiana that will do nicely …. oh damn. All the wineries have gone to screwtops! Igor!”

      • I Googled it, of course. Something in the particular molecule of corking has an affinity for whatever unholy plastic molecule Saran (or other that aren’t TM — I think I used Safeway brand). So the wine runs off and the corked flavor bonds. I dunno, I wasn’t good at organic chem. All the wine needs to contact, it’s something with surface area.

        It takes a little of the complexity of the wine with it, but it’s so much better to have a 90% good wine than a 100% corked.

        It’s an excellent experiment to do after you’ve already had some wine — just a big bowl, some wrap, and the wine! It’s also twice as amazing if your audience has had a few! 🙂

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