August 2006 Archives


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Okay, quick show of hands.

How many of you have more than one corkscrew? Almost everyone.

How many of you have more than one kind of corkscrew? Two kinds? Three kinds? Funny how they gather in the back of the drawer, isn’t it?

How many of you have a corkscrew on your pocket knife? (This is how we identify the real hard-core wine-drinkers.)

How many of you have a decanter? A few people. Not many, but more than a few years ago.

How many of you have a gadget for preserving the freshness of the wine in an unfinished bottle? Not as many hands as there should be, my friends.

Okay, how many of you have a triple-pronged neodymium-magnet instant wine aging tool?

Hmmm, no hands for that last one.

To tell you the truth, I never saw one of these before last night, when a friend showed me one that she had been given. At first I thought it was a joke, but the package goes on at some length about how you can age anything from a bottle of wine to a glass of whisky in seconds due to some mysterious forces in the magnets. I’ve got the thing at home now and will test it soon. It's probably a total hoax, but what the heck: better I warn you than you spend your hard-earned money on a.... gadget.

But while we're on the subject, let’s talk about wine gadgets. It seems to me that one of the surest ways to measure the democratization of wine in America is to measure the lengths connoisseurs have to go to in order to differentiate themselves from everyone else. The more gadgets and gizmos there are in wine shops and wine catalogs, the more ways there are for hard-core fans to separate themselves from fringe fans.

So we all have corkscrews now. I bet there was a time when you didn’t. Some of us have a plain old headwaiter’s corkscrew, a “Rabbit” knock-off, and an “Ah-So” for good measure.

I admit I have a corkscrew on my pocket knife, but it’s not because I drink at the drop of a hat. It’s because the Victorinox “Climber” model has a really a tight screw, much narrower than conventional corkscrews. This has saved my butt on some incredible old bottles, whose corks were crumbling while eager crowds awaited their sip of some majestic old elixir.

The only other wine gadget that ranks with my pocket knife, at least so far (remember I haven’t tried the magic magnets yet), is the simple vacuum pump that pulls air out through a one-way plastic plug that you put into the wine bottle you haven’t finished. No air left in the bottle, no oxidization. Only one moving part, lightweight, and cheap. No kitchen is complete without it.

So if you want to know where you stand relative to the rest of the population, count your wine gadgets. If you have more than five, you’re serious. If you have more than ten, you’re out there. If you’re in the low single digits, don’t feel bad: the entire wine business loves you and depends on you.

44th Parallel

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A friend strolled onto the front porch last weekend with a bottle of white wine in his hand and one of those swallowed-the-canary smiles on his face. I learned years ago that when this smile shows up, its owner will be carrying a bottle with a little test attached for the wine writer of his or her acquaintance. Usually I find a way out of the test, but this time I was the host and everyone else had already arrived.


Got some of the wine in a glass and took a sniff. Oaked Chardonnay was clearly one component, but the diesel notes were more like real automotive fuel than Riesling. I didn’t think my friend was trying to kill me, and I saw the cork pulled, so apparently it was a blend of Chard and Riesling and who knew what else.

Years ago the owner of the Sushi Ran restaurant in Sausalito, California correctly guessed the components of a blend of Riesling and Viognier that I brought back from a trip to Arizona (that’s another story), so I knew that weird combos are out there everywhere. But I wasn’t going to guess without a clue, so I asked for one, and got it: “Forty-fourth parallel.”

Forty-four degrees of latitude is a great address for wine on this planet, running through the Rhone valley and Tuscany and cruising past important vineyard regions from one end of North America (Niagara) to the other (Oregon). Was this mystery wine Canadian, perhaps from Nova Scotia? It wasn’t made in any style I knew from this continent, so I went back to Europe in my head.

The 44th parallel was too far south for Hungary, too far north for Lebanon or Israel. Piero Antinori once told me he was helping a friend plant a vineyard at 6,000 feet of elevation on Kyrgyzstan, but that was also too far south. Time to ask for another clue.

How much did the wine cost? “One dollar.”

I headed inside to look at the atlas. The 44th parallel goes all around the northern hemisphere, so at some point it pretty much has to run through China -- the only place where $1 for a bottle of wine makes sense. But where?

Xinjiang Province, surrounded by Mongolia, Tibet, and Kahakhstan. I kid you not. The vineyard is on the Yili River, according to the bottle. I could not find it in my atlas at first, so of course I went online. There I found a Chinese blogger who posted pictures of the river and advised visitors to the arid region thusly: “Maybe reasoning the hot and passion, I like the grapery there most. You can feel a kind of special breath. Grape what growing in this area seems alive and have nimbus. Well, you must not believe me. So, you'd better go to see it by yourself.”

After that, the wine made a lot more sense. It may have been only 11.5% alcohol, and the oak treatment might have lacked a certain finesse, but all that special breath and nimbus for only $1? Tell that to the terroirists!

- Thom Elkjer
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