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Are Sulphites Really Such a Big Deal?

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Almost every wine show, seminar or in general every time I speak to a group about wine, I get the now dreaded sulphite question. I have heard everything from “Sulphites give you headaches” to “Italian wine doesn’t have sulphites” and let me assure you, sulphites are probably not your headache problem, and Italian wine most definitely contains just as much sulphites as any other. So why is this such a hot topic? Over the past decade or perhaps a little shorter, the topic of sulphites in wine has grown in popularity for a number of reasons, and continues to be the subject of controversy. This has a lot to do with wine drinkers continuously trying to find a blame for the dreaded hangover (guess what, you drank too much!) and has also been the focus of the ever growing and prominent “Natural Wine” scene. To be clear, natural wine is a wine that has been made without the addition of sulphites, but not a wine that contains NO SULPHITES, as many people misquote.

So what the heck are we all talking about here? Well sulphites are naturally occurring during the winemaking process, and also an additive that acts as both an anti-bacterial and antioxidant. Why is that important? Well since there is the possibility for there to be bad bacteria in either the winery or the vineyard that can ruin your grapes, and/or wine, it is important to protect them throughout the process. And since oxygen can be wines best friend or much more commonly worst enemy, it is extremely important to protect it from the dreaded oxidation before necessary. So in short, sulphur dioxide is not just some additive that bulk production wineries throw at their wines in order to give you a headache, and has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the wine; in fact you would be hard pressed to find a common super-premium wine that does not have added sulphites.

Most wineries try to add as little SO2 (Sulphur Dioxide) as possible, even your big production wineries are not interested in loading their wines with un-needed doses of SO2. To give you an idea of how much SO2 is added to a wine during the winemaking process, I would say that a common range I have been made aware of is around 20-80mg per litre, so we are talking some very small amounts. So to answer the title question for this blog… YES! Sulphites are a big deal, just not the way you may have heard. Wineries need SO2 to insure that their wines are clean and fresh by the time they are released, and also so that you can hold on to that wine in your cellar while it continues to develop all of those beautiful nuances that come with gentle bottle age. I will not claim to know if they are the cause for your headache or hangover or if you are intolerant to them (Sigh…) but all of my research has pointed to that NOT being the case. When people drink, they are usually also not consuming water, therefore becoming dehydrated, a very common cause of headaches. It is also increasingly common to eat foods that you would not normally consume when you are drinking wine, and most common of all we have a bit more wine than we are willing to admit, almost always resulting in feeling a little less than 100% the next morning, I could go on but you get the idea. So my goal with this blog is to simply provide some accurate information on the purpose of adding SO2 to a wine, and allow you the reader, and consumer to make whatever conclusion you feel fits the information.

I would also like to make very clear that there are some absolutely stunning examples of wines made without the addition of SO2 (Look at the Loire Valley reds and Beaujolais to find a few) and are totally worth trying, but lets give Sulphites a break here, and not let that taint your opinion before you dive in and have a taste. Oh and one more thing! If you are reading this, PLEASE give your sommelier a break and don’t ask them about sulphites your next night out, they are probably a bit tired of answering questions of that nature. You will probably benefit much more asking them about the back story behind your wine choice, if you have a moment or two that is.

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by: TJ Harstine Certified Sommelier

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Wine Prices,Whats the Deal? Part-2

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Before I get in to demand, I should touch on the cost of getting a wine to market. This is a tricky topic because like almost everything else in the wine world, it doesn’t necessarily make perfect sense. You would think that imported wine would be more expensive than domestic product, however in most cases it is actually the opposite due to taxes and trade agreements. Now to avoid going on about boring business costs for too long, lets just acknowledge that there is a cost that comes with selling your wine, and leave it at that, moving on…  Time to talk about demand. As much as you may think this is directly linked to supply, that certainly is not always the case. The demand for a wine can be a very unique thing at times, and does not always follow the normal economic trends like other goods might. It is not always dependent on the individual quality of each wine, and their certainly is not a simple formula that determines the demand of each wine. You have to think about where the wine was made, is it from a famous region? I can re-use my Napa and Bordeaux reference once again to describe regional price influence (they generally garner higher prices as a base). Some wineries have to claw and scratch to gain recognition and then eventually raise their demand. Spending a long time making very little money due to their high production costs making great wine but low margins due to being stuck in a region not well known for expensive wines; see the red wines of the Loire for an example of a region clawing and scratching for a few hundred years, and recently having some success.

Then you have media attention – wine critics, magazines, blogs and so on. Of course there is the fact that wine is produced annually with only a limited supply from each winery, and therefore you have to factor in the supply, even though this often does not become a factor until you get in to back vintages (older vintages of a particular wine).  So what does all of this mean at the end of the day? Well to try and explain this quickly lets use a few examples.  Starting with one of my favourite places on earth to visit and also synonymous with one of my favourite liquids to consume – Champagne.  Right away having the word Champagne on a bottle of bubbly wine will increase the base price that that particular wine will be able to demand when placed along side a comparable product from any region not named Champagne. There are many reasons for this, and I could describe a plethora of them, but how many other consumers can? My point is that as much as there are many good reasons to enjoy Champagne when craving bubbles, it is generally just the recognition of the word Champagne that creates the higher demand in the eyes of the consumer and to be fair, Champagne has largely become what most people call ALL sparkling wine just as people ask you for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, so it is pretty justified. So that is the regional influence in a nutshell, and can be applied to many other regions throughout the world, although Champagne definitely wins in terms of regional recognition.  Next up lets get in to media attention and the influence that can have on a wines final price.  To describe this I may as well use an example from another region that I have mentioned; The Loire Valley. This is of course the ultra sought after and extremely hard to acquire wines of Clos Rougeard.  Never heard of them??? No surprise, they are still under the radar, but don’t expect to pay anything short of outrageous for a bottle of their exquisite Cabernet Franc.

This is a great example of a winery that kept their head down and made ridiculously over-performing wines for years, and sold them for very reasonable prices. Until some time shortly after 1993 when a bottle of their 1990 Le Bourg Saumur-Champigny was snuck in to a blind tasting along side the likes of Petrus and Le Pin among other top 1990 Pomerol producers that sold for much, much higher prices, and was awarded the highest average score!  Just like that, a new cult wine emerged, and the demand skyrocketed to a point that the wines are pre-sold for years. Whats nice is that typically when one winery in a relatively under appreciated region is discovered, it shines a light on the rest of the region and allows other great wineries to start earning a buck or two, or three, or… well you get it.  So what is the end result of this strange and sometimes confusing pricing game that runs through the wine industry? For the most part it simply means that when it comes to wine, you are generally getting what you pay for at the higher price points, which is a relief because at least you know your not getting ripped off. But what is much more exciting, is that it also means you can find some crazy good deals out there that perhaps have not been discovered yet, and you can enjoy wines that hold the same quality as some of your super-premiums without killing your bank account.  So I say good luck to you on your journey to enjoying some beautiful and delicious wines at any price point, and hopefully this helps you feel a little more comfortable when putting a few extra bucks out there, or giving an unknown star a shot at becoming your new favourite.

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By: TJ Harstine/ Certified Sommelier

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Wine Prices, Whats the Deal?

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Part 1

Does that $300 bottle really taste better than that $75 bottle? To be truthful, I have no idea. A question like that is only answered by the individual tasting the wine, but WHY is that bottle $300? Now that is a a question that can be answered…sort of

To describe why a wine price is so high is to simply talk basic economics. First you have the cost of production, the cost of getting to market, then there is the demand, and of course the supply. There are definitely many other factors that can sneak into the mix, like the personal ideas or motivations of the proprietor, but to keep it simple lets talk about the 4 main reasons behind determining prices.

Firstly there is the simple and obvious cost of production. This can be influenced in many ways throughout the process of making each wine. Depending on whether or not the winery is new, old, or somewhere in between can affect the production cost a great deal. If the winery is brand new, the proprietors will be carrying a large start up cost like any new business, although the wine business certainly ain’t cheap. Purchasing property in an established wine region is anything but affordable, and the cost of building a winemaking facility only gets more taxing on the pocket book, oh right, then there are the taxes, damn the government! It can be argued that startup costs should not factor in the price of your wine but to be honest, it almost always does, so I thought I would mention it. Then you have the vineyard practices. Do you farm organically? Do you control your yield and if so how much fruit do you drop throughout the year? These are a few factors that can become quite expensive in the vineyard. As a quick example: some vineyards may harvest a crop of over 5 tons of grapes per acre while others may choose to crop closer to 2 tons per acre, and this will undoubtedly result in a more expensive wine as the winery cropping at 2 tons is surely spending more time and money controlling their volumes while ensuring only the best quality grapes get into their wines. Once you get passed that and to harvest time, you then have the option of mechanical harvest which can save some time and money, or hand harvesting which takes longer and is much more labour intensive and usually higher cost. Now that the grapes are harvested you are dealing with a plethora of ways that the cost can vary once in the winery. To keep the list short, the best way to describe winery costs is to think about the time each wine spends being made and its wait time before being released for purchase. One of the main factors that can drive a wines production cost up is barrel ageing. Not only do barrels cost a lot of money, some of which can reach the thousands for a single barrel that holds about 300 bottles of wine, it also means that the wine will have to rest inside that barrel for an extended period of time [sometimes upwards of 2 years and in some cases well beyond that]. So if you are making a wine aged in 100% new oak for 2 years (Can anyone say Oak Bomb! Okay, maybe not, but probably?!) you are not only spending thousands and thousands of dollars on the barrels to age this wine, you are also waiting an additional 2 years before you can see any return on all of your hard work and investment. Think of some of your favourite and most expensive red wines you enjoy from say Napa, or Bordeaux, both regions that are notorious for using new oak on their wines. Beyond this there are certainly many more cost factors that must be considered, but this should give you something to think about when wondering what went into making that $300 bottle of wine and keep in mind that expensive does not always mean better. More likely it means that a lot more time and money went in to making it, which HOPEFULLY means better.

Check out Part Two next week when I get into supply and demand. There is no shortage of controversy when it comes to the reasons people buy wine and how much of it some of the most prestigious wineries make!

By: TJ Harstine

Certified Sommelier

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Lets Talk About Food and Wine…

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So often I am asked, “what is your favourite wine?” and I hate this question, because I have no answer. This drives me crazy, because wine is my career, and life to a certain extent, so how can I not have a favourite? Well I don’t have a favourite wine because I am obsessed with flavour, and there are far too many to choose from. You really want me to pick between an 02 Clos Rougeard and a 98 J.L.C. Hermitage Rouge?! No thanks, because then theres food, and when you through that in to the mix, all bets are off.

Now I would not argue with anyone that they should not have a favourite wine, I believe that you should always enjoy what you want to no matter what any snobby Somm has to say about it, but there is good advice behind some of that snobbery most of the time, now allow me to explain. Lets say your favourite wine is Caymus’s Cabernet Sauvignon, and you like to enjoy it with every meal. A fine wine indeed, but what if your not having a hearty and hefty, protein and fat rich dish this evening? Well weather you are noticing or not, or maybe just don’t want to admit it, your favourite wine tastes awful, or your dish has been rendered flavourless and unfulfilling. Curse the kitchen you say! Caymus has really dropped their quality you claim! No to both!!! You just ate a plate of perfectly made carbonara while drinking a well made Cab Sauve, unfortunately they pair about as well as toothpaste and orange juice. So how do you make the right choices when your out on the town dining at a restaurant with an extensive wine list? Well the best thing to do if you are not all that wine savvy is to ask your server for a bit of advice. Most restaurants have someone that is educated on food and wine available to help, and they can offer a recommendation that will probably blow your socks off when it is paired with careful consideration. Being a Certified Sommelier myself, I often spend too much time perusing great wine lists and start pairing up dishes with their wines while I browse the selection, but more often than not, I actually leave it to the Sommelier to pair my wine or suggest a bottle. I can not count the amount of times I have made a new and grand discovery by letting a fellow Sommelier choose my wine for me, and I cant think of an example where they steered me in a terrible direction. There seems to be a bit of fear when letting someone else make a choice for you at dinner, and I have a hard time figuring out why. I have heard a few reasons, and some are quite comical. Mostly I think diners are worried that they wont like the selection, so they play it safe and stick to what they know, but what is the fun in the same flavour over and over, do you go to the same movie twice? Are you afraid to take the medicine that a doctor orders? Probably not, they are a doctor after all, and sometimes I wish I choose Med school. So sit back, relax, and listen to your Sommelier, they wont steer you wrong, they generally leave the table pretty quick after they serve your wine, and I think you will find that they prescribe the best kind of medicine.

By: TJ Harstine /Certified Sommelier

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20 Things Only People Obsessed With Going Out to Eat Understand

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1. You don’t understand when your friends don’t remember the names of the restaurant they went to. “What do you mean it’s an Italian restaurant that maybe starts with a J or it could be a P?”

2. You plan your vacations around meals. You’ll probably visit the absolutely must-see tourist attractions, but you’re going to be squeezing them in between the stuff on your food itinerary. And when your friends tell you about their trips, your first question is, “Where did you eat?”

3. You have sent emails with the subject line “pizza.” Or “cookies.” Or “new burger place.”

4. Your Instagram account is mostly pictures of things you’ve eaten, and you feel fine about that. If someone is going to be really appalled when you photograph your sushi spread, you can resist. But for the most part, you have no problem taking a quick picture before proceeding with your meal.

5. You don’t understand people who “just aren’t that into dessert.” Like no chocolate or vanilla? If someone gave you a slice of apple pie, you wouldn’t eat it? Who are you?


6. When someone asks you for a brunch idea, you send back links to four to six different options. You also occasionally annotate them with notes like, “Haven’t been but want to try,” “Very popular, but might be too crowded,” and, “SO good.”

7. You start talking about dinner before you even order breakfast. Just because you haven’t even decided between an omelet or pancakes yet doesn’t mean you can’t look ahead to discuss that amazing pasta they’re supposed to have at the restaurant you’re going to that night.

8. You always volunteer to be the one to make the reservations because you get the OpenTable points. “I’ll take care of it!” you say, leading your friends to think you’re doing them a favor. (And you are!) But you have selfish motives as well.

9. You will also book a restaurant on OpenTable 30 minutes before you go to eat there, even if you know it won’t be that crowded. If you can get the points, why would you not get the points?

10. Friends come to you for ideas rather than using Yelp. You do request that they provide a general price range, type of food, and neighborhood though. Otherwise, it’s so hard to narrow down your favorites.


11. You look up menus on the day you’re going to a restaurant. Sure, you’ll see the selection in a few hours, but you need a preview. You need time to consider your options. This is why they invented the expression “food for thought,” yes?

12. But you don’t even have to open the menu at some of your favorite spots.That Mexican food place down the street? Portobello burrito, no onions, please. The local Chili’s? Chicken Crispers.

13. You have a Google doc or spreadsheet of places you want to try. And it is a looooong list.

14. You are actually kind of ashamed when someone asks you about a newish restaurant and you haven’t been. You’ve totally been meaning to try it. It’s on your list. Seriously, you know, it’s supposed to be so great. And yet you have no insight into the actual dining experience. Sad, you know.

15. You consider getting a reservation somewhere impossible an achievement.You feel like you need to tell your story of triumph with friends. You are disappointed when they don’t seem to understand what a big deal it is.

16. You feel guilty about spending too much on shoes, but you are fine with splurging on a seven-course prix fixe. You can’t do this often, but every once in a while, it’s worth it for the experience.

17. You could never be with someone who was just “meh” about food. You tell your significant other that there’s a new fried chicken restaurant and he just replies “cool” or “OK”? Unacceptable.


18. You want to hear every single detail of someone else’s meal. “Yes, that chicken sounds great, but go back, what did you have for an appetizer? And did you order side dishes?”

19. Bar dining can be the best dining. You might have to spend a little time scouting out seats, but it’s one of the best ways to try out a place that you didn’t book weeks in advance or that doesn’t take reservations.

20. You can be so full, but you know you’ll probably have room for a snack later. “Ugh, that was great, but I am miserable. I’m never eating again. What? There’s a great ice cream shop around here? OK.”

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