Friday, April 3, 2020

My Life in Wine

When I started this blog, a feature I thought might be of interest was a personal experience or remembrance that related to the topic of the blog. Readers said they enjoyed these vignettes and so they will continue. Additionally, every month, I'll be running a series of observations, experiences and remembrances of my life in wine. Here is the first episode. I hope you enjoy it.

My Life in Wine
Some winemakers and grape growers are born into their fields. Not so with wine writers. Most come to writing about wine through other professions like law, medicine, and journalism. 

Whatever the path, for them, the transition is natural.  Lawyers, doctors and journalists who become wine writers, make the choice because of a love for wine and fine food. Their transition is from an avocation to a vocation. 

But today, it's not a sure thing that the child of a winemaker or grape grower will enter the family business.  It's a problem felt throughout agriculture.

                                       Antique icon characters icon machine icon, Typewriter Icon ... 
My move to wine writing in the early 1970s developed from an unexpected exposure to wine while serving with the U.S. Air Force in France and Germany.     

Following many years of working at something I was only mildly interested in, I began to recognize my latent creativity.  I had always felt that doing something artistic and creative was important to me. I just didn't know how to develop and nurture that feeling. Looking back on those years, it's a wonder that I ever wandered into wine writing at all.

Early Experimenting 

In the early 1950s, my mother and I Iived in Folsom, a small town southwest of Philadelphia and a long way from any winery. Our home was a former tavern that had been converted into two small apartments. Long before I knew of the Green Goose Tavern, it was a road side stop, across from a gas station.

When I was about 12 years old, my brother joined the Navy which meant that one of my jobs then was to tend an old creaky coal furnace and a "bucket-a-day" mini furnace used for heating water. The dark space beneath our apartment, where I dreaded to enter, was a cellar in every sense of the word, cold, damp and dark. In my neighborhood the space under your house was a cellar and I didn’t know that people had finished basements until years later, after I left home. Our cellar was mysterious, scary and forbidding, hardly the ideal place to store wine.

My earliest memory of wine in our house was probably a bottle of New York port, purchased at a Pennsylvania state store. Clara and Howard Ellis, our friendly neighbors, would often run errands for my mother, especially during the holidays.

One Christmas, when I was about 13 years old, Mrs. Ellis came by and told my mother she was going to buy a little "Christmas cheer" at the state store and did mom want a bottle or two? Mom nodded her head yes and then Mrs. Ellis turned to me and said, "Jerry, would you like to come with me?" The unexpected invitation presented a rare opportunity for me to have a new adventure, so I pleaded with my mother until she finally said yes.

In those days, Pennsylvania state stores were the only source, outside of licensed bars, taverns and restaurants, for alcohol of any kind.  Except for the official colors of blue with gold trim, state stores were, by design, plain and very staid.  A pair of identical, completely empty display windows framed the single door into the shop, with a prominent keystone-shaped sign (Pennsylvania is the Keystone State) over the door frame.  

As a minor, I wasn’t allowed inside the store, but that didn't stop me from checking out the interior through the long window in the front door. There was a plain counter that ran from one side wall to the other, with a hinged section that opened for access behind the counter and to the rear of the shop. The counters were bare except for a push-key and crank cash register.  Behind the counter, flanked by two sets of empty shelves, was a curtained doorway.  

When the door opened, a little bell at the top of the door frame jingled softly. Immediately, a man appeared from behind the curtained doorway, as if he were waiting for the bell. Without saying a word, the clerk reached down below the cash register and brought up a loose-leaf binder, placing it on the counter.

Mrs. Ellis silently leafed through the pages, pointing to the spirits she wanted, including a bottle of port for my mother, then closed the binder. The clerk placed it back under the cash register, turned on his heels and disappeared behind the curtain. Mrs, Ellis stood there for a moment then turned to look at me through the door window, smiling reassuringly.

In a few minutes the stone-face clerk reappeared with the three bottles in brown paper bags. He rang up the purchase, Mrs. Ellis gave him the money, slipping the change into her worn black purse, then stepped out through the door to where I was waiting - no sales talk, no marketing - just a wordless transaction.

Side Note: Hindsight is wonderful, but it may not always be as accurate as we remember it. My memory of visiting a state store is now seventy years old and a little ragged around the edges. All these years later, though, it seems odd that I had developed a passion for wine and that a single experience in France, a life-changing epiphany, would change my life. More about my epiphany in the next episode. 

The Folly of Regulated Alcohol Sales
Such was the highly regulated state of alcohol sales in Pennsylvania in the late 1940s, and that legacy in a less restricted form remains today with 18 states, including Pennsylvania, maintaining a near monopoly on the sales of wine and spirits through state-owned and operated stores. The other 32 states exercise less state control over sales of alcohol, with some states allowing sales of  beverages containing alcohol in privately-owned stores and in stores that sell food, such as super markets.

Even with the bureaucratic nonsense in Pennsylvania, my mother still got her bottle of Christmas port, but it took some effort and patience.

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Gold Seal Winery, Hammondsport, NY
Thinking back on those days, I reckon the port my mother sipped after dinner or when she came home from work was probably made by one of the big Finger Lakes wineries like  Taylor, Gold Seal and Great Western. Then, the base wines for New York ports and sherries were made from native grapes like Catawba, Concord and Delaware, fortified with grape spirits and racked into barrels that were, in some cases, stacked on the roofs of the winery buildings, exposing the wine to the elements throughout the year. This weathering method of aging gave the wines a rustic character, a far cry from Portuguese Port or Spanish Sherry. 

In the years following the repeal of Prohibition, the country was dealing with residual effects. U.S. wineries used every marketing advantage they could, including the use of European terms and place names like Sherry, Port, Champagne and Rhine to sell their wines. Unlike France, Italy and Spain, America never had a wine culture, but Americans suffered from narrow-mindedness, much of it driven by religious orthodoxy, about how the consumption of beverages containing alcohol would lead the country to ruin.

Of course, the restrictions of Prohibition caused problems much worse like rum running, illegal and often poisonous hooch, not to mention the huge losses in taxes because legal  wine companies, breweries and distillers were forced to close their doors, while the illegal racketeers reaped non-taxed profits. 

A wonderful example of how ludicrous the restrictions controlling the production and sales of wine, as spelled out under the Volstead Act, were, not to mention the ingenuity of the American entrepreneur, was a ingenious product called the "Wine Brick." It was illegal during Prohibition to make any beverage with alcohol for commercial sale. But that prohibition only encouraged an enterprising person to sell a block of dried pressed grape concentrate and a packet of yeast, with a label on the wrapping with this warning: "After dissolving the brick and yeast in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine."

Misguided Youth

My next experience with alcohol happened while I was a senior in high school. Wine was not part of my early years, but beer, or at least the thought of beer, was on my teenage mind.  

My friends, Sonny and Billy and I had heard rumors of a tavern where you could sneak in, slide up on a bar stool at the dark end of the bar and ask for a glass of draft beer in a voice you thought was mature and adult but probably quaked with fear.  It was a gamble, but the lure of the forbidden eventually won out.

So, we headed for the tavern, then nervously paced back and forth in the shadows outside, hoping nobody we knew would see us, which was a crazy thought because why would anyone we knew go so far from our neighborhood for a drink when there were plenty of bars near home.  


At last, we mustered the courage to enter the tavern and strolled to the bar like we came there every night for a cold one and a hard-boiled egg.  A couple of old guys who seemed attached to their bar stools turned to see who just came in, gave us a long stare and a tight smirk, then turned back to their drinks and casual conversation.  We found three empty stools at the end of the bar and ordered three glasses of beer.              

                        Gluten-free Beer: A Practical Guide for your Brewery

Billy noticed the bartender grab a hard cooked egg from a glass bowl on the bar and slam the large end of the egg on the bar top so the egg stood upright.  We huddled and decided that this was what men did in bars, so we ordered three eggs with our beers. The bartender slid the juice-size glasses down the bar then sauntered down to us with three white eggs clutched in his massive fist. Without looking at us or breaking the conversation he was having with the man sitting closest to us, the bartender whacked the eggs down and walked away. 

One glass of beer and a hard cooked egg was enough for us. The experience was nerve-racking! And I was so nervous, I don’t remember us paying. 

Time has a way of distorting memory, so the events of that evening may not have been exactly as I remember them, but that night in a tavern is indelibly etched on my memory.                                                                    


 The second episode of "My Life in Wine: Europe and My Wine Epiphany" will appear in this space May 4, 2020. Future episodes will be published once a month.

 Next Blog: The Germanic Wines of French Alsace

Comments?  Suggestions?  Email me at


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Wines of Antiquity

In the early years of the 8th Century B.C.E., Greek colonists were plying the western Mediterranean seeking new land for expansion. Phoenician explorers had gone before them and the Greeks followed the Phoenician routes to a fertile land they named Oenotria.

As settlements grew in Oentria, agriculture flourished and with it an ancient form of viticulture. The colonists saw potential in the rich volcanic soil, deposited along the slopes of an active volcano that towered over a natural bay. Vineyards thrived and expanded, eventually moving northward on the peninsula. 

As civilization moved further north, the Etruscans, who were influenced by the Greeks, established their luxurious lifestyle, in an area known today as Tuscany. 

By the time of the Roman era, vineyards and wine were firmly established and every wealthy Roman had his own vineyard. Falernian was valued as the best Roman vineyard, but it was one of a dozen top vineyards planted between Rome and Pompeii. It is believed that Falernian was made from Falanghina, one of ancient Rome's most valued grapes.

South of Rome, the region of Campania became known as the site of what Antonio Mastroberardino called "The Wines of Antiquity." The Mastroberardino winery is in Avellino, a small city inland amidst layers of Italy's history and some of its scenic gems: the bustling port city of Naples, the scenic coastal town of Positano, the romantic Isle of Capri and the historic ruins of Pompeii. Towering over it all is Mt. Vesuvius, on whose slopes are many of Campania's best vineyards, the source of modern versions of ancient Greek and Roman wines.                                                            
For Antonio Mastroberardino, making modern versions of ancient wines was a passion matched only by his interest in restoring grapes that were planted in Campania in the days before Christ. For his work, Mastroberardino has been called "The Grape Archaeologist."

 And that reminds me of my first visit with Antonio Mastroberardino...

                                                   Image result for free photo of Antonio Mastroberardino

When I drove up to the Mastroberardino winery on a narrow street in Avellino the first thing I noticed, besides the absence of street parking, was the wall, in the front of the winery, that was still showing signs of damage from an earthquake a few years ago. Antonio shrugged in that way that Italians have as a silent comment about the slow-moving bureaucracy that affects everyday Italian life. 

Before we visited the winery and tasted the wines, Antonio led me into his study to see the collection of books, some quite old, about local grapes and wines. He was especially proud of a large illuminated book with numerous watercolors of ancient grapes and Latin descriptions. "These," he said, "are the grapes of antiquity."  We drove out to the back slopes of Vesuvius in his dark blue Lancia (Italian vintners then either drove dark blue Lancias or Fiats) to see some of his vineyards, planted in the same spots as the ancient vines were, or as close as archaeologists tells him they were.  

Back in the winery, we tasted through a line of seven wines from the seven grapes of antiquity: one of Greek origin, one purported to be from Greece; the other six traced to the Romans that are grown in Campania by a small number of wineries, with Mastroberardino the most recognizable brand.  

The Greek grapes are Greco di Tufo, a white grape that grows well in the local Campanian zone around the village of Tufo. Contrary to popular belief, Greco di Tufo does not take its name from a type of soil known as tufa. Greco bianco is dry, with a forward aroma and full body. 

Campania's most important red grape is Aglianco, purported to be of Greek origin (Ellenico is the corruption of the Italian word from Hellanic). Aglianco is the grape of Taurasi, Campania's best red wine. It has a deep color, choco-berry aroma and flavors and bracing acidity.  

Piedirosso, is not quite the quality of Aglianco and doesn't enjoy the same popularity. But along with Aglianico, Piedirosso is one of Campania's few red grapes. Piedirosso makes fruity wines with firm tannins.  

A trio of classic white grapes believed to be of Roman origin are: Fiano di Avellino, with an assertive honied aroma that attracts bees; Coda di Volpe, or "tail of the fox," another full-bodied classic white with lots of character; and Falanghina, one of Campania's most a valued white grapes.  

Finally, there is the common but popular Lacryma Christi, made from the Coda di Volpe
and Verdeca grapes and is thought to be the closest equivalent to the wine drunk by the ancient Romans. The story behind the name Lacryma Christi, is an example of Italy's many wines with fanciful names and background stories that, while they may not be true, are charming. 

In Italian, Lacryma Christi means "tears of Christ." The story goes that Christ cried over the fallen saint Lucifer, casting him out of heaven. Where Christ's tears fell on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, vines grew. The extension of that tale is that when Lucifer's body hit the earth, the impact formed the Bay of Naples. The tale of Lacryma Christi and the wine  captured the imagination of literary figures from Voltaire to Ray Bradbury.

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Vineyards on Mt. Vesuvius slopes

Prices and supplies of Campanian wines vary, with the average price for most wines below $50. Taurasi averages about $26, with the Mastroberardino "Radici" Taurasi priced at $40. Other prices: Fiano di Avellino, $26; Falanghina, $15; varietal Aglianico, $13 and Piedirosso, $19.                            

Antonio Mastroberardino passed away in Jan 2014, but his legacy of promoting ancient grapes continues to focus attention on the wines of Campania as valuable additions to the range of Italy's other great wines. 

To read more about the wines of antiquity, look for Hugh Johnson's excellent "Vintage: The Story of Wine," from Simon & Schuster. 


Next Blog: From the first issue of Gerald D Boyd On Wine in July 2019, a popular feature with readers has been my personal remembrances that relate to the blog topic. Beginning April 4, 2020, "My Life in Wine" will become a regular monthly feature. 

Comments?  Suggestions?  Email me at

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Demise of a Unique Wine

The canon of world wine is crowded with unique and unusual wines. Wine making, as we know it today, started centuries ago in Europe, with many of the wine rarities, discovered by accident, that have evolved over the years. Progress, unfortunately, doesn't always mean positive stability.

Before winter disappears completely, here is a look at German Eiswein, an iconic dessert wine that was discovered by accident and now faces an uncertain future. The 2019 German vintage was one of the warmest on record, prompting the German Wine Institute to declare there will be no 2019 eiswein.

The culprit is said to be climate change, with 2019 possibly being a harbinger of what is to come for the German wine industry.   

A Cold Discovery
In the winter of 1830, A German vintner mistakenly left some frozen grapes overnight in a harvest vat. The weight of the grape mass partially crushed some of the grapes on the bottom of the vat and the sweet juice fermented. The result of this fortuitous accident is what is known today in German wine making as eiswein (ice wine).

Germany is the northern most wine region in Europe and because of its location, the wine industry struggles most years getting grapes to ripen for wine. Some winemakers, however, gamble by leaving a portion of their grapes to freeze on the vine. If all of the conditions are right, the gamble pays off and the winemaker produces limited quantities of eiswein, one of the world's truly unique wines.  

Although eiswein is usually associated with the Rhine, it is made in other German wine regions where it gets cold enough. The key requirement for eiswein is the temperature to be at least 18F on a morning in November or December. Although rare, eiswein has been made from grapes frozen in January or February of the following year, the wine is still labeled for the year of the growing season.  

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German eiswein grapes

Most dessert wines, such as Sauternes and Tokaji, are made from botrytis infected grapes. German law does not forbid the presence of botrytis in eiswein, although most eiswein is not made from botrytized grapes. Still, in recent years growers have resorted to covering their vines with plastic sheeting to protect the grapes from birds and wild boar, but the practice is controversial as the plastic creates humidity, one of the things needed for the development of botrytis.

Frozen grapes are brought into the winery and pressed immediately to preserve the essence of the sweet juice or must. German winemakers measure must weight on the Oechsle scale, which is not easily converted to brix, the scale used by many other wine countries, including the United States. While it depends on the region, German eiswein must be 110-128 Oechsle, about 35 brix. The sweetness level for eiswein is at the same level as beerenauslese. If that level is not met then the wine is bottled as an auslese.

Understanding a few basic German labeling terms will help you make better buying decisions.
Under the German Wine Law, all wine is generally divided into Deutscher Wein and Qualitatswein. While it bears some similarities to the French AOC system, the more precise German Wine Law is unique and has provisions not found in other official wine requirements.

Within Qualitatswein are wines in pradikat ("distinction") categories based on must weight; must is a mixture of grape juice, skins, seeds and pulp. The pradikat categories:
Kabinett, lightest of the six pradikat wine
Spatlese, late harvest
Auslese, selected harvest
Beerenauslese, botrytized berry select
Trockenbeerenauslese, botrytized shriveled ("dry") berry select
Eiswein, ice wine
In cool growing years, non-pradikat German wines may be chaptalized or sweetened with sussreserve, a sweet reserve juice.

Riesling is the preferred grape for German eiswein, however there has been some  experimentation with other varieties such as Muller-Thurgau and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and even a few red grapes like Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir).  A variety of grapes has been used to make ice wine in other places, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Vidal, Merlot, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer. 

Outside Germany, interest in ice wine has been active in Austria, the Alsace region of France and 16 other countries, including the United States. But there is one country that has made ice wine its premier wine.

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               Picking frozen grapes in Ontario                               

Since the 19th century, Germany has had a lock on ice wines. Then, in 1972, the first Canadian ice wine was made in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Twelve years later, Inniskillin (the leading ice wine producer in Canada) made an ice wine from Vidal, a hybrid grape that proved to be a survivor in Ontario's punishing winters. Today, Canada produces more ice wine than any other, including Germany. 

United States
Interest in eiswein and ice wine has been sluggish in the United States. Perhaps it's because the plea has always been to drink dry. That may be contradictory, though, because, while American wine drinkers talk dry, sales figures show they drink sweet; Kendall-Jackson off-dry Chardonnay proves that point. 

Production of ice wine in the United States has mostly been limited to the Finger Lakes and Michigan. Great Western, in Hammondsport, made the first U.S. ice wine in 1981. Wineries in Michigan have turned out promising ice wine from Riesling and ice wine production has had modest success along Lake Erie, in Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

Cold Cash
German eiswein is usually sold in half-liter bottles and can cost $200.00. Canadian Ice Wines from Inniskillin or Jackson Triggs are available in 200ml and 375ml bottles, the later sell for $150.


Next Blog: Wines of Antiquity

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