I am a Serious Wine Drinker. Not just volume, but also for a long time. After years of wine tasting and lecturing, I studied in the wine trade to obtain my professional qualifications (WSET Level 3 Advanced). Then a few years ago, I moved to Georgia from my native England. Now, on most Friday afternoons, you will find me in the tasting room at Cavender Creek Winery.

People have asked me: “So, why go to Cavender Creek?” Well, in England, pubs are not just bars, they are community living rooms. When I lived in London, a group of friends, eight, ten or even a dozen of us, used to chill out every Friday at our local pub, the Wheatsheaf on Haven Lane. We would discuss the successes and disasters of the week, the upcoming weekend and everything of interest. We would drink a bottle or two of wine or maybe a few beers together. But, these days, it’s a bit far to go to drop into the Wheatsheaf and we have found a similar friendly atmosphere at Cavender Creek.

A winery tasting room is more than a shop front for the winery. It is a place where the spirit of the place shows through. And Cavender Creek is a place full of happy, determined folk who are making a success of the difficult business of producing wine. Which is why I am happy to be part of the Friday Club, along with good friends I have made here.

You may not need to be mad to own a winery: but it might help

On the face of it, owning and running a vineyard and winery is a pretty thankless trade.

First of all, it is a farm with just one crop: grapes. Grapes are not an easy crop: it takes several years for vines to start producing fruit. And they take constant care right through the year. A little bad weather at the wrong time (like a late spring frost, or a bad storm at harvest time) can destroy everything overnight, and there is never an opportunity to plant a second crop to take up the slack.

Then there is the second business to run: a cross between a catering operation and a chemical laboratory. Even if the crop is good, turning grapes into wine takes the brute force of a donkey, the skill of an alchemist, the investment in a small factory and infinite patience.

Even when the wine turns out well and has been stored for years to mature, it has to be sold to fund the whole business. So being a skilled salesman, marketing guru and an entertainer to charm visitors, all rolled into one, is a prerequisite.

And above all there is the need for a great business head. Keeping half a dozen juggling balls up in the air is simple compared to juggling the demands of a winery. How many businesses face the mountain of government regulations imposed on an alcohol related business? How can the risks of a whole year’s crop being lost overnight at the whim of the weather be managed? What other enterprises take years before their first crop, and then another year to turn it into a product, and finally even more years holding it in stock to mature before receiving a single cent of revenue?

I asked Claire Livingston, the owner of Cavender Creek why she took on such a burden.: “I had a dream”, she said,: “and now I am living it. I have a great team of people helping me, which makes it all possible.” And all her loyal customers have confidence that Claire can make an even great success of Cavender Creek.

Grapes and Vines, Fruits, Wine – and Vikings

When the first wine was produced in North America isn’t certain. Certainly not Virginia, where attempts to plant European vines in the early 1700s failed dismally. Spanish monks planted the first European grapevines in 1629 near what is now Socorro in New Mexico, USA. The first winery growing European vines in Mexico, Casa Madero, was founded in 1597. Wine production by Huguenot settlers in Florida using native American scuppernongs was recorded in 1562. However, maybe there was even earlier winemaking,

But what is: “wine”? A general definition involves grapes grown on vines. But what about fruit wines, involving berries, apples, pears and the like? Or even more unlikely starting materials: pea shucks is one that I know of. To make a fruit wine needs a fruit starting point, yeast (which may occur naturally on the fruit), plus the know-how. Sugar or honey is needed if there is not enough natural occurring sweetness. The concept is not new. Recent excavations in China revealed evidence of fermented liquors based on rice, berries, honey and grapes produced 8,000 years ago. Over the millennia, wine making became more sophisticated and the Roman Empire then spread this expertise across Europe.

So where do Vikings come into this? Wheat beer and strong mead were their tipples of choice. Scandinavia is not prime grape growing country, but there are many tasty berries found in the wild from which fruit wines and spirits have been made for centuries. From the 900s onwards, Viking traders had exposure to grapes and wine in Spain and the Eastern Mediterranean. So fermented drinks were common amongst the Vikings a millennia ago, and they knew about using grapes too.

In about 992, Leif Eriksson led an expedition from Greenland to establish the first European colony in North America. They built stone longhouses in a base camp at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Then they explored further south and stayed in America for two winters before returning home. Tyrki, Leif’s foster father, found abundant supplies of wild grapes. In the subsequent history of their travels, Leif Eriksson’s Saga, they called the place Vinland (Wine Land).

The Viking explorers found source materials for wine making, they had the technical knowledge of fermentation, they had the time to make a wine during two long winters. They even named their discovery Wine Land. It is not unreasonable to think that theirs was the first wine making in North America, more than 400 years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic.

It seems possible that wine (though perhaps not of the quality of Cavender Creek) was made in America far earlier than the average history book tells us.

Have No Terror of Terroir

Terroir is a word that sounds horribly like Terror: but I am glad to say that there is no link!

This French word translated literally means “land”. But that is just the beginning of what it is in the wine trade. It implies all the characteristics affecting grapes grown there. The quality of the soil and the underlying geology. The regional climate and the microclimate of the specific site. The slope of the land, affecting both draining and exposure to the sun. Even nearby hills and cliffs changing winds and fogs. There is the belief that grapes and wine gain a unique quality from their terroir, and the terroir should identify the wine.

Terroir is not a new idea. Three thousand years ago, ancient Egyptian producers inscribed the source of their wine on pottery storage jars. In France, where so many ideas about wine developed, the belief in terroir is strong. Cross a road between two apparently similar pieces of land. One side may be worth twice as much per acre as the other because they are identified as different terroirs. Woe betide the winemaker who tries to buck the system and produce wine that is not true to its terroir.

In USA, labelling rules for wine to identify origin (state, county and even district) are more flexible than in France. Many of the big name brands you see in the shops do not come from anywhere specific. Instead, the winemaker blends grape juice or wine from anywhere at all in a factory to achieve a consistent tasting wine without any local pedigree.

I recently visited a small vineyard with a huge winery near Asheville. The bottles carry comforting words like “Estate” and “Reserve”. It produces 46 different wines made from 18 different grapes. But only three were from grapes grown in North Carolina, let alone on the property. Tons of grapes and juice were trucked in from California. It may be a triumph of marketing, but the wines do not have much to do with the locality.

It happens in Georgia too. California grapes are used for most expensive wine produced in Georgia. There is even a wine mixing Georgia grown with imported French wine.

So, if you want a wine which really reflects to place where it was born, don’t just grab any bottle at a grocery or package store. Go to a boutique winery like Cavender Creek or many of the other Georgia wineries, and ask the winemaker where the grapes, all of them, come from and what makes this wine special. It’s all to do with the terroir.

How many grapes does it take to make a bottle of wine?

Not all grapes are the same. Big ones, little ones, maybe more juicy if it rains close to harvest, maybe more flavorsome but less plump if they have been left to ripen longer. But as a general rule, about 600 to 800 grapes go into each 750ml bottle.

But that is only one answer. Perhaps we could ask how many different varieties of grapes go into bottles of wine. There the number is much much larger.

Most wine drinkers could name a dozen or more grape varieties. Try it yourself: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, how long a list can you think of? If you visit Cavender Creek winery, your mind may turn to Petit Manseng or Norton. There is even a club (http://www.winecentury.com/ ) for people who claim to have tasted at least 100 grape varieties.

But how many different varieties are there?

To say: “nobody knows” doesn’t help. A recent attempt to name and describe grape varieties in a very weighty book gives us a list 1368 varieties which are grown commercially. Experts have made informed guesses of more than 10,000 varieties. To confuse the picture, many of these are called different names in different places (like Syrah and Shiraz, or Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio).

There is an established science of grape genetics, tracing the ancestry of the grapes that end up in our wine bottles. The stories can be very interesting for wine lovers. For example, Zinfandel, first documented in USA in 1829 is a Californian specialty giving us rich, full bodied red wines (and sweetish pink: “blush” wines). In the 1970s, it was identified as Primitivo from Italy. That sparked a small trade war – Italian growers began selling their Primitivo labelled as Zinfandel, much to Californian fury.

DNA testing is a science not limited to episodes of CSI and paternity tests. Plants have their own DNA. Now, with the coming of modern DNA testing, both Zinfandel and Primitivo have been identified as really being Tribidrag. This is a much older grape variety still grown in Croatia, written about as early as 1518.

But where did all these thousands of varieties of grapes come from? They didn’t emerge miraculously out of the mists of pre-history. That’s a story for another day.

Why don’t wines just taste of grapes?

A few years ago, I studied for my formal wine educator certification. It was an intense course, covering the history, geography, theory and practice of wine making and tasting. The class spent much time tasting wines – thirty or forty different wines (and a few spirits too) every day. Even with tasting size samples, that is a lot a wine to go through. On the course, I learned to spit politely rather than swallow. I also made sure that I did not drive to classes: I have no desire to attract unwanted attention from the law!

You might think that this would be a great way to build up course credits, tasting wine after wine. But it’s harder work than you might imagine. The underlying objective of all the sampling was not just glugging down wine. We analyzed what wines taste like. We learned to categorize what we discovered for each of 18 items.

One of the 18 different items about each wine was the: “flavor” of the wine – and there are more than twenty standardized categories of flavors, each with its range of options. It’s not enough to simply say: “this flavor of the wine is fruity”: is it like a grapefruit, or a red cherry, or a fig or a banana? And the list of flavors extends widely, including unlikely oddities like tar, tobacco and steel.

But why does a wine taste of such things that certainly are not included in its makeup? There is a science behind it!

Open a bottle of wine and many different aroma compounds called stereoisomers are released. These compounds reach the smell receptors in your nose. The smell receptors, each with its own sensitivity, send signals to your brain to identify and match that particular compound with something remembered. However, some aroma compounds can be very similar and share comparable chemical structure, such as honey and apricot, or more surprisingly spearmint and caraway seeds, or cinnamon and green bell pepper.

Wines contain many naturally created stereoisomers. Your brain tries to pick out the characteristics of several different flavors at once. No surprise that flavors considered as total opposites can become confused as the brain takes a shortcut trying to second-guess the flavor.

Food technologists mix natural and synthetic flavor compounds trying to create new flavorsome products. Wine makers must rely on the natural juice of their grapes and the fermentation process to make stereoisomers which generate the aroma and taste of the wine. Many of a wine’s aroma compounds match things we may smell or taste elsewhere. Viognier wine may offer a touch of peach and almond, and Cabernet Sauvignon (like that produced at Cavender Creek) often includes a flavor compared to black currents and plums.

There is a grape-like flavor sometimes detected in wine, especially muscadine wine. But do you really want a wine that just tastes of grape juice?

Is the wine in your glass the same wine as in mine?

It is not uncommon. Groups of people try a wine, and everyone has a different opinion. Why?

In a previous blog, I described the hard work in becoming a professional wine taster. I was one of a group of thirty thirsty students, all seriously committed to upping their game when it came to wine tasting skills. We worked hard to apply a standard approach to describe the wines we tasted. Each wine tasting led to a group discussion sharing our conclusions. More often than not, there were clearly different opinions.

It can be perplexing when you pick up a flavor that seems way off compared to everyone else’s impressions. But we all do find different things in the same wines – because each individual has a unique and personal approach to taste. The point about personal taste was driven home when the course tutor passed around a clear liquid. Opinion was completely divided: half found that it tasted neutral or even sweet; the other half said it was unpleasantly bitter. We had all tasted a chemical called PTC (phenylthiocarbamide). This standard biochemical test has been subject of tens of millions of trials. Whether you find PTC bitter (and how you react to many other flavors) depends upon your DNA and genes.

I saw this in practice recently at the Friday Club at Cavender Creek. We had a chance to taste a new wine, still in production. We tried three samples of the same wine, each with a miniscule difference in the amount of naturally occurring tartaric acid. Three samples, and every sample was at least one person’s favorite. Who is to judge which of the samples is the: “best” wine?

Everyone has their own inbuilt preference for one sort or another of tastes. Nobody has a perfect palate giving the only correct opinion about a wine, however experienced they may be at tasting.

I am often asked:: “Which wine would I like?” I can only offer one safe answer:: “The one you like the best”. Everyone finds their own taste profile in a bottle of wine, and the wine you like is the right wine for you!

An unwelcome immigrant from America

From the beginning of contact between Europe and America, plants were shipped in both directions. Wheat to America, potatoes to Europe, there were many great successes from this transfer. In the early 1800s, botanists began experimenting with crossing native American vines with European vines, trying to produce better grapes. The introduction of fast steamships permitted American vine samples to survive the passage across the Atlantic.

The thought that this could lead to eco-disasters did not cross anyone’s mind. Nobody was particularly concerned when French vineyards noticed that a few vines were dying. In 1863, the scale of the disaster became apparent. This new disease was now attacking French vineyards on an ever-increasing scale. Over 40% of French vineyards were destroyed within ten years: small pockets remained free of the disease, but for no discernable reason.

The disease marched ever onwards, eventually reaching around the globe as far as Australia and Argentina. Investigations were conducted, theories propounded and cures proposed, all to no avail. The French government offered a reward worth $5 million in today’s money for a cure for the disease.

Viticulturists and botanists at Montpelier in eastern France discovered a sap-sucking louse called phylloxera infesting the roots of the dying vines. As well as the damage done by boring into the root to feed, the louse opens the way for bacterial infection that finally kills the vine. Nasty! Entomologists working in France (Planchon and Lichtenstein) and America (Riley) concluded that the louse causing all this trouble in Europe was an American immigrant. Phylloxera had hitched a lift on the vine samples sent to Europe for breeding trials. The wheel turned a full circle when the phylloxera louse arrived on the West coast of USA, previously an uninfected region.

Knowing the cause did not provide a solution. Chemicals and pesticides were tried without success. More desperate measures including placing toads under each vine or allowing poultry to roam free in the hope they would eat the insects. Even more extreme was flooding the vineyards every winter to drown the pest. None of these methods worked.

What did work was grafting European vines onto American vine roots (though much work had to be done to select American rootstocks that would flourish in European soils). Today, almost all wine producing grapes around the world grow on rootstock with American parentage.

The only major wine producing country in the world remaining free of phylloxera is Chile: how long will that last, I wonder. Other unexpected consequences of the phylloxera plague are worth a further post, coming soon.

What about that reward from the French government? It was never paid. The viticulturist who had pioneered growing European vines on American rootstock claimed the prize. The French government refused to pay, claiming that he had not cured the blight, but rather stopped it from occurring,