A Wine Education, From A Woman Who Knows


Wine - the answer to all our Friday night questions and Saturday morning sorrows.

But how much do you know about that drink that can both haunt and excite your daydreams?

We've enlisted an expert to provide a little education before your next dinner party or trip to a wine bar. Let's call it wine 101. You might even call yourself a connoisseur after you've finished.

Can I find a wine without sulfites?

While you can find wines without added sulfites, all wines contain sulfites. Yeast produces sulfites naturally during fermentation. Sulfites are an antioxidant and act as a preservative, which keeps wine from spoiling prematurely, and, therefore, are essential to winemakers. Depending on how the grapes are grown, picked and then processed, different levels of sulfites can appear in the wine and winemakers may decide to add additional sulfites to prevent spoilage. Even if a winemaker chooses to add sulfites, wine actually contains fewer sulfites than many other common foods. Just a small handful of dried fruit, for example, can have ten times the amount of sulfites as a typical wine.

Gevrey Chambertin, Burgundy

What are tannins?

Tannins are polyphenols found in most plant-based compounds, most notably seeds, grapes, wood, tea, roasted coffee beans, chocolate and dark leafy greens. They often appear as bitter or astringent in our mouth and are noticed most prominently on the back of our tongue. When it comes to wine, most of the tannins are coming from grape skins and are sometimes picked up from the oak that is used during fermentation/aging.

Is it possible that I am allergic to red wines?

Yes. While people think that they are allergic to sulfites, most people who have reactions to wines are actually allergic to tannins. Tannins are found in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. Most white grapes are gently crushed before fermentation and the wine does not have much contact with these grape components. Whole red grapes, however, are used for red wine production and both tannins and color are extracted from the skins. Therefore, it is usually only red wines that tend to cause some people grief. A tannin allergy usually presents as nasal congestion or headaches and is often less intense with thinner skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Gamay. It should be noted that these symptoms almost always show themselves immediately. If you find yourself with a headache well after drinking wine, then you most likely just need to drink more water.

How long can you keep a bottle of opened wine?

This is a question that I get all of the time and there are several important things to note:

  1. Old wine won’t kill you (but if you keep it long enough it might turn into vinegar)
  2. Once you open a bottle of wine, the oxygen inside slowly breaks down the wine and the flavor becomes muted. This is noticed by some people the next day and by most people the 2nd day.
  3. If you really like a wine only keep it until the next day (2nd-day max)
  4. A really bold, tannic red might be more delicious the next day because the oxygen will tame the tannins (same premise as decanting a wine)
  5. Sweet, fortified wines like ports and some sherries can last a month to several months.
Does age matter? / How long can I hold onto a bottle of wine?

Wine is constantly evolving, even inside a sealed bottle, and you cannot keep it forever. Flavors will change and eventually decline until there is nothing delicious left. The extent to which that occurs greatly depends on the wine, how it is stored, and your own preference. While they are safe to drink, wines that are past their prime might not be the most interesting or even palatable.

Over time tannins will soften, acidity will lessen, and fresh fruit flavors will turn more into dried fruit characteristics which, eventually, will also disappear. All of this happens at different rates depending on the wine and could happen within just a couple of years or roll out slowly over a couple of decades. To complicate matters, everyone prefers wine at different periods of its life. Some people prefer a young red for its more bold, tannic qualities while others swear by an older wine for its softer, more nuanced features.

I always recommend this one important rule: if you like the way the wine tastes now, then drink it now! You might not care for it as much in a year or two and you certainly cannot hang on to the flavor that it possesses now. It’s fleet, like a moment in time.

It is also important to note that if you are planning to age your wines then you should have a cellar or a wine fridge. A normal living environment with monthly and daily temperature fluctuations can ruin the wine. If you don’t have an aging option, then storing your wine in a cool dark place does a decent job for the short term. I wouldn’t recommend keeping the wine longer than a year though.

Wine cellar. Photo courtesy of vinote

Does vintage matter?

Yes and no. To the average wine, consumer vintage shouldn’t be too much of a concern as long as you know that the wine will most likely taste slightly (to drastically) different with each vintage.

For me, vintage is less about paying attention to specific years and more about celebrating the fact that each year is unique and different flavors arise due to the new year’s specific growing conditions.

Some areas of the world, like California or Argentina, have less fluctuation during the growing season. Other places, like France and Australia, encounter varied growing conditions from year to year resulting in some vintages greatly benefiting from (and needing) aging while other vintages being immediate stunners that can be consumed young.

Often, larger producers will strive to create a wine that tastes similar from year to year by replicating a specific flavor through blending and/or chemical manipulation. Smaller producers often celebrate the difference in years by letting that difference shine through. These small producers try to make the best wine possible and hope that their consumers understand that their wines might taste different with each vintage.

Corks or Screw Caps: does it make a difference?

Nowadays, so many great wines are under screwcap that we shouldn’t consider this a sign of an inferior wine. While the jury is still out on whether screw caps are as good as corks for long term storage of wine, this most likely will not be an issue for us impatient drinkers who can’t keep our wine shelves stocked.

At what temperature should wine be served?

While everyone has their own preference, here are some rules to ensure that everyone is happy and that your wine is always tasting great:

1. Don’t serve your white wine ice cold. The average temperature of a refrigerator is 37 degrees and at that temperature, you won’t taste much at all. Think about eating a peach straight out of the fridge versus a peach that has been sitting on your counter for hours. It’s a good rule to pull your wine out of the fridge about 20 minutes before you’re going to serve it.

2. Don’t serve your red wine warm. More abrasive attributes like tannins and alcohol are highlighted at warmer temps. Room temperature is often between 70-75 degrees which are too warm for showing off those reds. Red wines should have a slight chill on them so it’s a good rule to put them in the fridge for about 20 minutes before you’re going to serve them.

3. Hold your wine glass by the stem or base. Our hands are very warm and can quickly bring that nicely chilled wine up 10-30 degrees in a minute or two.

4. At a party, it is always better to serve wine colder rather than warmer. By cupping the bulb of a wine glass with your hands, you can quickly warm up a chilly wine. It is much more difficult to make a wine colder especially once you’ve poured it for your guests. You end up running the risk of people throwing ice cubes into a really great wine and, while I approve of serving a red wine cold, I don’t approve of someone watering down a good wine.

I normally buy my wine based on labels, is that bad?

Almost all of us are attracted to bottles based on how they look. How can you avoid it? There are hundreds of bottles that we have probably never encountered and we don’t know where to start. There is nothing wrong with being drawn to something because it is pretty BUT if it’s a good wine shop with a knowledgeable staff then use their expertise to your advantage. If not, go for the labels. My biggest recommendation when doing that, though, is to avoid the bells and whistles. I rarely choose bottles that come in overly ornate packaging because, all too often, part of the price is in the packaging.

How do you know what you're buying in a wine shop if you're not an expert?

Ask for help! I know this could be intimidating but, in reality, only a very small percentage of customers walking into that shop know anything about wine. If it’s a good wine shop, the owner or clerk should be able to offer recommendations. I like to go simple for my first buy and see if they recommend something in the $15-$20 range. If they end up recommending something great, then next time I can get bolder with my money. I prefer the shops where the owner or buyer works on the floor because they know their product well and are usually very excited about sharing their finds. The other thing I recommend is taking classes when you can. The more you learn, the more you’ll figure out exactly what you like. You don’t need to know anything about any of the wines in the shop as long as you know how to tell the clerk what you want it to taste like.

Does price really matter?

This is a question I get fairly often and if you take a class with me you will quickly learn that, while I am a snob when it comes to flavor and quality, I am not a price tag snob. There is an absurd amount of wine in the $15-$30 range that is fantastic and if you allow yourself to explore different grapes and different regions you’ll find amazing deals. Just keep an open mind and ask for help.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing $100 bottles out there and, yes, when you taste them you can see why they are priced at the range. Once you get past $100, however, the price is often about the brand and the demand for the wine rather than about the wine inside the bottle.

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Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.

When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.