WineCountry Staff: August 2007 Archives

Syrah Shows That Change Is Intrinsic to American Wine

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Centuries of wine tradition are ending in a single generation. In just the past few years we've been given premium wine in boxes and cans, $160 Cabernet with screwcaps and imported wine named for small marsupials - and it's all wonderful. Wine is good for us and the earth, and today's trends toward an easier, friendlier wine experience are all positive.

But just a short time ago, almost none of them were on the horizon. In fact, some of the grapes we now take for granted were still struggling for a place in American wine.

Take Syrah. In the early 1970s, there were a few Syrah vines scattered here and there in northern California, but they were usually mixed in anonymously with other varieties. No one made anything with "Syrah" on the label. The University of California at Davis had vines which it had propagated from cuttings taken from a famed French vineyard in the northern Rhône Valley, but the faculty was divided on whether Syrah was worth planting in California. So the vines remained in the university's teaching vineyard.

Mario Andretti, Part 2

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National Champion

Mario Andretti's love of cars began at an early age in his native Italy, when he saw the great Alberto Ascari race at Monza. Influenced by this legendary driver, Andretti began his own racing career in 1959 - at the age of 19 - in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, four years after he and his family immigrated to the United States and discovered a dirt track, virtually in their back yard.

Mario Andretti, Part 1

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Andretti Winery

Note: Mario Andretti is widely acknowledged as the world's best race car driver. Modest and charming, he has a world-class palate for wine and food. Since its inception in 1996, the Andretti Winery has earned a reputation for producing excellent super premium wines. We spoke to Mario about the wine business, which has become a second career to him.

Corkscrew Caper

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Without intending, you've already committed a cardinal party-thrower sin - you're taking way too long to get the cork out of the first bottle of party wine.  I can picture the scene perfectly:  With your guests waiting impatiently in the living room, you curse silently to yourself as you struggle to insert the twisty metal prong into the cork, then guide the wings on either side upwards in a perfectly synchronized gliding motion.  Your reward for executing this challenging set of moves should be a neatly removed cork and sustenance for the thirsty revelers about to undergo party–goer mutiny in the next room.

Unfortunately, after several attempts all you have to show for your efforts are a few pieces of miserably crumbled cork and rapidly rising blood pressure (not to mention some seriously disgruntled guests).

Tricks of the trade
Been here before?  Well relax, because so has pretty much everyone else reading this blog.  That's right, anyone worth his party-throwing stuff can tell you that this first, simple task – getting the cork out of the bottle – isn't always as easy as it's made out to be.  Whether it's a straightforward-seeming winged corkscrew like the one referenced above or a super-technical rabbit version that you're using, there are sure-fire tricks to working successfully with all of these gadgets. 

Read on for just that, so that you can appear the flawless hostess next time — and spare yourself from a hostile takeover under your own roof.

Winged 'screws
Winged corkscrews come with an exposed worm — the twisty metal or Teflon piece that you drive into the cork — situated between two metal wings that you pull upwards to draw the cork out of the bottle.  Because winged ‘screws are inexpensive and widely available, they're some of the most frequently used — and abused — openers out there.

Much of the problem has to do with the fact that these don't readily allow for easy manipulation of the worm when it's first inserted into the cork.  As a result, the trick to successfully using a winged ‘screw lies in your ability to firmly insert its worm into the cork.  For the best results, start by drawing the wings upward and grasping them in one hand along with the top portion of the worm mechanism; with the other hand, guide the worm securely into the middle of the cork surface.  Once the worm is firmly inside the cork, release the wings and continue twisting the worm until most of it disappears inside the cork.  Finally, draw the wings slowly upwards while the bottle rests on a sturdy level surface.  The cork should come out easily.

Rabbits & such
Rabbit corkscrews are the hefty, often black devices that use a lever mechanism to take the elbow grease out of the opening equation.  Trouble is, rabbits not only take up a ton of unnecessary room in your kitchen, they're among the most difficult–to–figure–out 'screws on the market!  But, if you do choose to invest in one (or receive one as a non-returnable gift), it can pay to take a little time to figure out how to use the darn thing.

The upside to cumbersome rabbits is that they often come with a handy foil-cutting device (part of the bells and whistles portion of your purchase). Use this to remove the foil cap from your wine with a quick pinch and twist around the top of the bottle.  Next, position the worm portion of your rabbit over the cork, and close the handles around either side of the worm until the device forms a snug vice-like hold on the neck of the bottle.  Grasping the now-conjoined ends of the handles firmly with one hand, lift the top lever mechanism up and away from you until the cork is pulled cleanly from the bottle.  Then, release the vice grip from the neck and pour away; you can eject the cork simply by repeating the motion in reverse, without the bottle underneath. 

Waiter widgets
My own top choice for cork removal, the waiter's corkscrew is one that folds up compactly (to fit into a waiter's pocket, natch), doesn't cost much and works efficiently time and again.  Widely available for less than $10, the waiter's corkscrew consists of a basic worm and lever attached to a tiny retractable knife that's used to remove the foil from the top of bottles. 

How does it work?  First, use the knife to cut around the top of the foil cap just above the lip of the bottle (this is the part that protrudes outward near the bottle's opening), then peel the foil away to expose the cork.  Grasping the bottle firmly with one hand, guide the worm into the cork with the other, and use this same hand to then twist the worm all the way into the cork.  Next, secure the lever extension (this is usually a steel or chrome piece that tilts down towards the cork) to the lip of the bottle; place a hand firmly on top of where it joins the bottle to ensure a non-slip pull.  Finally, slowly pull upwards on the lever, which should extract the cork from the bottle. 

While this method does requires some brute strength (a double-lever extension alleviates some of this), it's the most sure-fire and efficient method I've found for cork removal, to date. 

Stay tuned for more tips.

contributed by:  Courtney Cochran

At harvest time in California wine country, it's not just warm during the day. Sometimes it's downright hot. That's because the vast Pacific Ocean, the cold California current that runs along the coast, and other factors conspire to push our summer season, weather-wise, much later into the year than in other parts of the country.

So while the south is steaming and the Midwest is baking in June and July, California's coastal counties are often chilled by morning fog and cooled by afternoon wind. Then in September and October, when the leaves are turning in Wisconsin's Door County and people are donning jackets to walk on Cape Cod, vines in California hang in all-day sun, soaking up the energy they need to complete their reproductive cycle.