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The Wine Doctor Is In


Beringer Vineyards recently decided to pour a few too-long-in-the-cellar bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon for visitors. When some of the 1937 was opened, winemaker Ed Sbragia for comparison poured glasses of his 1992 Cabernet, which at the time was still in the barrel.

The older wine had a magnificent mature aroma of cedar, cigar-box and leather. But its taste was completely washed out, thin and lackluster. The 1992, by contrast, had no bouquet at all--it was pure fruit, blackberry jam and cherries.

Faced with two flawed wines, I did what I could to get something enjoyable: I poured one into the other. The blend was intriguing, with the aroma of maturity from the 1937 and the taste of fruit from the '92. It wasn't a great wine, but it was better than either had been on its own.

That got me to thinking about what Acacia Winery winemaker Larry Brooks calls dinner-table chemistry: the repairing of a wine that, though not "broken," is not really enjoyable by itself and needs a bit of help. Think of it as an adult's version of playing with your dinner. I do it all the time.

"Repairing" can be something as simple as adding ice cubes to a wine that is too warm. That's an old and common trick, especially in the back country of France and Italy, where red wines need to be cooled and thinned out in summer.


But there are a number of other tricks: A tart, steely, totally dry Chardonnay can get a splash of a slightly sweeter Riesling. Or, for a Chardonnay made too sweet, a few drops of grapefruit juice. Sauvignon Blanc that's too sweet can benefit from a drop of lime juice.

One of the simplest things you can do to improve a red wine that is too tannic is to add an ounce or so of water. ("I use Evian because it's better than tap water," says Brooks.) Water is also excellent to add to a heavy red wine when it's hot outside and all you want is a taste of the wine with your food.

Craig Williams of Joseph Phelps Vineyards prefers club soda to water and uses it to fix a too-alcoholic white wine. He even says a dash of 7-Up is not unthinkable in a Chardonnay that's very tart.

Tom Rinaldi of Duckhorn Vineyards likes to experiment with inexpensive French white wines. He says the aromas and tastes are different from what California produces, but occasionally these wines are awfully tart, almost sour. In these cases, Rinaldi says, he puts in a little NutraSweet--not enough to actually sweeten the wine but just enough to soften the acid.

Acacia's Brooks observes that the addition of a bit of artificial sweetener is also useful in fixing wines that lack fruit. "Equal or some of the other sweeteners are flavor potentiators as well as sweeteners," he says. "What little flavor is there (in the wine) can be brought out by careful use of Equal."

When winemakers come upon a wine that has a faint sulfurous note, like rotten egg, many toss in a penny. The copper reacts with the sulfide to eliminate the aroma.


Mike Richmond, president of Acacia, is addicted to tabletop blending. He'll blend wines from three or four producers--even if the wines are made from different grape varieties--to make a wine that is better with the food than any one of them would on their own.

Bruce Rector, former winemaker at Glen Ellen Vineyards, adds a drop or two of Tabasco sauce to Sauvignon Blancs that lack varietal character. "It really gives the wine more intensity," he says. "With three drops, you get the heat."

But adding just two drops to a six-ounce glass makes the wine tell a different story. "The slight amount of vinegar in (two drops of) Tabasco will bring the nose up out of the glass," Rector says. "You need some volatile acidity, and that's what the vinegar is. Then there is the herbal-ness, the chile pepper/paprika character, that adds to the character of the wine."

Scott Harvey, winemaker for Renwood Winery in Amador, occasionally finds wine too high in volatile acidity--a vinegar aroma. He suggests splashing the wine back and forth between two glasses for a couple of minutes. Because the smell is volatile, it may aerate off. If not, pour in a splash of another winery's wine of the same type. "You can blend VA down real easy," he says.

For those who have a wine that needs added flavor, a new product has hit the shelves, though it's in limited supply: verjuice (often spelled the French way, verjus ). It is the unfermented juice of tart, unripe grapes. The name is French for green juice . Of course, verjuice is new only in this country. It's actually a very old ingredient that was used all over medieval Europe.

When verjuice is combined with a nondescript Italian Pinot Grigio, for example, the results can be amazing. The wine takes on a more fleshy, full-bodied character, and the flavors are far more interesting.


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