Fining wine-ing

What do you do when you’re snuggled in a comfortable seat with unlimited movies and a hearty prepackaged meal on your hands?

Well, I decided to order some wine and start binging, because for the next 13 hours, I had nothing else to do but wait for my flight to touch down in San Francisco.

I was travelling from Sydney for a work event and I couldn’t have asked for a better meal or hospitality. Unlike most people’s claims, I’ve always thought airplane food quite good. Despite being a picky vegan, I’ve managed to find the meals palatable and enjoyable.

So of course I was going to complement it with wine. A white sauvignon blanc, please, I asked. And with a wide smile, the cabin staff member handed me a two-serve bottle of wine. Settling myself in a more comfortable position, I glanced at the label as I always did.

“Made with the aid of egg whites and traces may remain.”

My heart stopped in mid air. Egg whites in wine? Wasn’t that illegal? Why would anyone combine grape juice with eggs? What abomination?

Questions bombarded my already heavy head. Everything I knew and loved about wine came to a sudden halt and I started questioning my entire affliction to the grape nectar. I started searching my brain for any information I’d heard or read of that justified or even explained the use of dairy in winemaking. Alas, not even my memories of winery visits and tastings revealed anything to shed light on this phenomenon.

I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the cabin member to pass my seat again. I returned the unopened white and asked for a red instead—a syrah, this time. With another, judgement sans smile, he handed me a bottle, twisting the cap open as if to indicate I couldn’t change my mind anymore.

“Made with the aid of egg whites and milk and traces may remain.”

I drank the wine. I was having bad headache and it wasn’t the time to research or argue with the flight crew about my dietary preferences in alcohol. In a moment of deep sadness, guilt, and weakness, I drowned the wine and slept like a baby for the next 12 hours.

Three days later, still battling jet lag, I looked it up online. According to some articles, winemakers use egg whites, milk, and even fish bones to help separate the natural sediments in wine. Grape starches, peels, and other natural and goopy stuff that occur during the ageing process stick to these dairy products and sink to the bottom of the barrel. This makes it easier for winemakers to filter those sediments from the wine that goes into bottling. The entire process is called fining—refining the wine from the undesirable lumpiness of the residue from crushed grapes.

So there we have it—although the eggs and milk don’t leave any trace in the actual wine that goes into our bottles and glasses, dairy is an ancient part of the wine process.

What’s interesting though, is that most modern winemakers have found vegetarian alternatives like seaweed and volcanic clay for their fining processes. And when they use dairy, they say so in their labels—it’s even required by law in Australia and New Zealand.

Ha. And I used to think “vegan wines” was just a modern marketing stunt!

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Red wine in a glass - happy new year

Cheers!

Food, booze, reflection

a night like any Friday

oh, happy new year

Brighten the day, lighten the mood

Nothing is more attractive than clever wit. Throw in some wine, and you’ve got yourself a winner. I found this in Seattle’s infamous Pike Place Market. It brought a smile on my face, brightened my day, and lightened my mood. I’m sure it does the same to you.

Brighten-the-day,-lighten-the-mood

Anytime’s a good time

What would I rather be doing than whatever I am doing now?

I’d rather be wining.

Wine - Robert Mondavi

Enough said.

A taste of commercial winemaking

My first wine tasting was a hit. I enjoyed every moment of it, and grinning from ear to ear as my colleague drove out of the gates. Our next stop was the actual Robert Mondavi Winery.

We’d seen the family and their current estate, Continuum, and now we were about to visit the infamous winery they sold to a multi-national corporation. The buyers retained the name because—well—Robert Mondavi was an established name in the wine market. And so my colleague, the ever-enthusiastic guide, drove us to the one winery that rules them all.

The first thing that threw myself at me was the sheer number of people outside the winery. In stark contrast, Continuum had been empty except for our host. Here, however, I saw hundreds of people; men in shorts and women in tank tops, fanning themselves with brochures, some even clutching their hat in one hand and gesturing to their partners in the other. It was like a carnival where people congregated to stare at inanimate objects on display.

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At the reception, there were groups of 15 members each, with each group led by a white-clad guide bouncing with excitement as they explained the estate’s massive layout. Tours ran every 15 minutes, and prices started from $45.

We stuck our badges on our clothes and lumbered behind our guide, a young man who spoke of wine and the art of winemaking as it’s been in his bloodline for ages. It was believable, but I wondered if he made it up to keep the engagement alive. He first led us into a room full of maps of Italy, France, and most of California. In fleeting moments, he explained the world’s popular wine regions and the varied temperatures that defined their wines.

We then strolled down paved walkways through the vines. Our willing host answered questions, and explained the role of roses in wine making. Winemakers planted rose bushes amidst vines to help identify illnesses in the grapes. When the roses in infected areas begin to die, winemakers know something’s amiss. It was a hot day, and although most of rest of the tourists “ooh”ed and “aah”ed, I drifted. It was a glorious sight, however, and I wanted to stay there looking around in silence.

But our guide ushered us to our next stop at the winery—the actual wine cellar. He had been building up our excitement, and we were about to get our treat. At Continuum, harvest hadn’t begun yet and so they had no activity in the cellars. At the Robert Mondavi Estate, though, machines were grinding, grapes were drying, and people were chatting away in every corner. A hum of enthusiastic activity clung to the air, and blended with the waft of fresh whole grapes and fermenting crushed ones, like an additional slice of pie over a thanksgiving dinner.

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Further down the cellars, we walked through rows of red wine barrels with stained markers and white wine barrels with peachy tones. Telling us how each barrel comes from artisan manufacturers and remains untouched throughout the storing process, our host injected an air of grandeur that was only too obvious. At such a large scale, I knew, the Robert Mondavi Winery was a commercial producer.

We saw barrels upon barrels ready to unwrap, stock, and store for another 18 months. The difference between Continuum and Robert Mondavi was striking. While this estate had cellars capable of storing over a thousand barrels, Continuum paid more meticulous attention to the few hundreds they produce.

While I’d been musing, our guide showed us into another room. A long table stood in the middle with 15 places and three glasses in each spot. It was time to taste some of the Robert Mondavi makes. We each had a booklet in front of us with details of the wines we’d taste and the recipe for the cookie we’d nibble on. Along was a membership opportunity with pricing details and benefits—a classic sales move for any corporate, I remembered.

The tasting experience was noisier this time. Some of my fellow tourists gulped their wine and looked around for the next, while some followed each rule in the book; looking, smelling, swirling, smelling again, sipping, lip smacking, and so on.

The first was a white, and as I let it trickle down my throat I realised for the first time that I liked the flavour of the wine. It came as a surprise because I hadn’t expected to like white wines so much. Curious, I drank some more, and I enjoyed it even more. Smiling to myself, I awaited my next sample. Perhaps this tasting wouldn’t be such a dousing experience.

The second—a red—was less satisfying, but a third red made up for it. At the end of it all, though, the white still seemed the winner. Surprising us all, our host announced a bonus tasting of a Moscato. He told us to either drink up or pour down the rest of our white wine (I drank, of course), and then started filling each person’s glass with Moscato.

I hadn’t expected that.

Later, I questioned the guide if reusing the same glass for another wine would affect the taste of the second wine. To me it seemed like it would. To my my utter amazement, the guide shook his head. He claimed that using one glass to drink two wines would be the same as drinking each wine in separate glasses—and here I was thinking I should rinse my mouth in between changing wines! Although doubtful of his expertise, I decided to let it go. The day was warm and the wine was fine, and I figured I shouldn’t complain.

Our final stop—as in any commercial museum or exhibition—was the gift shop, where we could get stamped reminders of our visit to the winery. Taking only photographic memories, we drove away from the once-glorious, now-still-glorious-but-more-salesy, Robert Mondavi Winery—also known as RMW for easy corporate brand recall.