Put a Cork in It — Or Not!

Your waiter has gracefully opened the bottle of wine and gently places the cork in front of you. What should you do? Actually nothing – you may smell the cork to see if it is good (the cork that is), yet it will not tell you if your wine is flawed. That comes when you smell the wine itself. The ceremony of presenting the cork evolved as the wine industry fought forgery. The one way to be certain that the wine in the bottle was what was represented on the label was through the cork. Wineries embed their name on the cork, and this should authenticate the wine.

Cork has been used as a closure for wine for hundreds of years. It is an age-old tradition – the popping of a cork is part of the process of enjoyment. Natural cork comes from the bark of the cork tree. Most top quality corks used today come from trees grown in Portugal.

A cork tree is harvested – stripped of its bark (that’s the source of the cork) – after 25 years of growth. Then the bark is harvested only once every nine years. A tree’s life span is 150-200 years of age. In that time, on average, a tree will yield its bark 16 times.

Why use cork? It is almost impervious to air. Corks are measured by the amount of air that is allowed in over time – called OTR – oxygen transfer rate. They are almost impenetrable to water, resistant to fire and can withstand temperature changes and vibration.

So if corks are so great, why are there different types of closures? One of the challenges that exists is the development of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole for my science friends) in cork that can spoil your wine. This will give your wine the smell of wet cardboard. It is then termed “corked” and is undrinkable. Every effort is made to clean the bark so as to prevent TCA, yet it still happens. At least, even today, 1-2% of bottles will be corked.

This opens the door for screw cap closures, with Stelvin being the most common brand. These types of closures are favored especially for white wines, which are intended to be drunk young. There is less oxygen transfer and, obviously, no TCA. There are many wines now coming from Australia with these caps, and they offer freshness even in rich reds. I have also bought Pinot Noir from Oregon with these types of closures. The point being that they are being used more today, and one should not think poorly of the bottle simply because it has a screw cap. Most importantly – one should just enjoy what is inside.


Flavor! Napa Valley

What if you only had a few days and wanted to explore and have a taste of many of the outstanding food and wine experiences in the Napa Valley? So many fine restaurants, so many great wineries. What is a person to do?

Well, there is a great week of events just for you. It is titled “Flavor! Napa Valley.” This is a week-long exploration of what the valley has to offer in food and wine experiences. “Flavor! Napa Valley” is for you. It is an immersion in fabulous food and wine.

It is offered by Visit Napa Valley, which is the official tourism marketing organization for the Napa Valley. According to their description of the 5-day event, “Flavor! Napa Valley…celebrates local and celebrity chefs and winemakers and includes cooking demonstrations, intimate winemaker workshops, a Grand Tasting and exclusive experiences that bring out the best flavors of the legendary Napa Valley.”

We attended the Grand Tasting, which is a culmination of a week of food and wine experiences designed to showcase the wonderful offerings of the valley. It was an opportunity to taste through sweet and savory offerings from over 25 Napa Valley restaurants accompanied by wines poured by over 80 Napa Valley wineries. What a way to end a week! Where else can you taste and swirl your way through all this wonderfulness?

We waited in line with several rows of excited visitors for the doors to open. Some came from as close as San Francisco and others from far away to celebrate the joys of fine wine and food. This was really a “crash course” in the wonders of food and wine.

Once inside, there were two floors of food and wine. Restaurants showed off their skills with many exotic bites, and fabulous wineries shared their talent in tastings that included well-aged wines. I personally loved the opportunity to taste wines from 2005, as well as current releases. “It’s like Disneyland – yet for adults.” This is an expression that I overhead more than once as a description of the delightful bites and wine tastings. Some of my personal favorites for the night were Chappellet, O’Shaughnessy, CADE and Laird.  Imagine though, you would have a night to discover yours!

Napa is one of the nine most prestigious wine locations in the world. The over 100 restaurants in the area have received more Michelin stars per capita than any other wine region in the world. I can’t think of a better way to get acquainted with this wonderful valley. Look for this opportunity next year.


Hall Wines: An Artistic Expression

Wine tasting in the Napa Valley is a joyous experience. Almost 500 wineries call the valley their home. So isn’t that a luscious palate to choose from for a tasting adventure? Yes, of course, yet not all wineries welcome visitors and offer tastings without appointments. Within the valley there are three distinct categories of wineries. One being that there is no permit or access to tasting. These wineries may not be able to build a tasting room based on the size of their production or because they sell out of their wines through their mailing lists. Secondly, there are wineries that welcome visitors on an appointment basis and may offer multiple choices of tastings that could include pairings with cheeses or other small bites. And then there is a third group of wineries that are open during certain hours and offer a menu of tasting options for the visitor, even without an appointment.

This is where Hall Wines fits in. Hall offers a portfolio of wines that one may stop in and sip through. They offer many different experiences to explore, although some of these will require an appointment as well. For those driving down Highway 29 looking for a beautiful setting and great tasting wine – Hall Wines is a perfect stop.

The walk-in tasting bar is situated upstairs in a magnificent building with clear glass walls that looks out over 26 acres of vines. It is truly gorgeous. On the day we visited, the sun was warm and bright in the sky and the vines stretched out in full view. Our wine tasting started with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc that set up our palates for the rich wines to follow. Hall also makes Pinot Noir under the label of Walt. On this day, the Pinot made from grapes from the Santa Rita Hills was one of my very favorites. The cabernets that were poured were deep and rich and begged for another sip. These are well-crafted wines that have met with critics’ approval. For example, Jack’s Masterpiece (retail $150) was awarded 99 points from Robert Parker. Quality streams through all their offerings. Hall makes a more modest priced cabernet that received 96 points, and it retails for $40. That is a great buy!

The quality of wine is the main reason that you would want to stop and taste at Hall Wines; however, there is much more to appreciate. The grounds are gorgeous with pleasant seating areas throughout, and artwork adorns both inside and outside areas. At the entrance, there is a large rabbit sculpture that is eye catching and remarkable. Take some time to relax, explore and enjoy!