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Seven ways to puncture a wine windbag

Wine windbag need deflating? Try science. (Photo by Brian Maki, Center for Distance and Professional Education)

Wine windbag need deflating? Try science. (Photo by Brian Maki, Center for Distance and Professional Education)

Uncle Patrick gargles his wine. “I taste blackberries and cherry and oak,” he says, “and a lot of tannins.”

The only thing you know about wine is that it comes in different colors. But, with holiday meals approaching, here’s how to puncture wine windbags, thanks to Washington State University Professor Kathleen Williams:

Precipitate saliva. When Patrick says he tastes tannins, you say: “Tannins don’t have a taste. They create a sensation as they precipitate the proteins out of your saliva.” Tip: Stroke your chin sagely as you pronounce “precipitate.”

Throw in a German word. Patrick swirls the glass. “Good legs,” he observes. You say, “The French call them tears. The Germans call them kirchenfenster or church windows, because they form an arch.” Want more? Try this: “Water has more surface tension than alcohol. The evaporating alcohol pulls the water up with it. When the alcohol breaks through, the water runs down.”

Hit him with brix. Patrick looks at the label. “Oh my,” he says, “14.9 percent alcohol.” You’re ready for him. “Did you know that wines from hot areas tend to have more alcohol? That’s because the grapes have more sugar. As a rule of thumb, every 2 percent of sugar will produce about 1 percent alcohol. So this wine was originally almost a third sugar. Of course, wine makers don’t call them sugars. They call them brix.” Tip: Refill his glass. Keep refilling his glass. This becomes important later.

Diamonds are your best friend. He holds the glass up to the light. Tiny crystals stick to the sides. “It’s going bad,” he says. “Not really,” you say. “Those are potassium tartrate crystals, same thing as cream of tartar. They’re a naturally occurring acid in grapes.” Smile tolerantly, and add, “In Canada, they call them wine diamonds.”

Herbal harmony. Patrick says, “A red wine would overwhelm the turkey.” You say, “It’s not really about the turkey. It’s about the herbs with the turkey, such as onion, celery and sage. What works well is to contrast the herbs with a fruity wine, such as a Beaujolais Nouveau or a Gewürztraminer.”

Make something up. By now, Uncle Patrick should be a bit toasted, so hit him with something ludicrous, but difficult to disprove: “Gewürztraminer has an umlaut,” you say. “The word umlaut is derived from the word omelet and Gewürztraminer pairs well with omelets. As a matter of fact, most umlaut wines go well with egg-based dishes, such as quiche. It’s called a bio-linguistic reaction.”

Fancy footwork. As he sputters to object, quickly change the subject: “Do you know what the best pairing is? Scientists in England proved that it is milk and chocolate chip cookies. Speaking of dessert, how about some pie?”

WSU’s viticulture and enology program offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and certificates. For more information go to

Wine in a cool climate

Thomas Henick-Kling, the new director of Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program, focused on wine from western Washington during a recent reception at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.

Wine bottles - Mount Vernon

Wine bottles - Mount Vernon

On the tables around him stood bottles holding wines made primarily from grapes grown in areas like Hoodsport, Bainbridge Island, Mount Vernon, and the San Juans. While eastern Washington regions such as Walla Walla and the Columbia Basin form the base of the state’s wine operations, there are now more than 50 commercial vineyards and 150 acres planted in wine grapes on the west side of the Cascades. The oldest vineyard represented was Bainbridge Island Vineyards, established in 1973. Most, though, have only started up in the past five years. They are very small operations, with just a few acres of grapes. The varieties include the Müller-Thurgau a Riesling-like grape, the Armenian Burmunk, and the Madeleine Angevine which comes from the Loire Valley.

Thomas Henick-Kling

Thomas Henick-Kling

“There are so many great varieties out there: Regente, Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir. And some we haven’t even tried yet,” says Henick-Kling. He is looking forward to helping with evaluating new varieties for the region and looking at interspecific hybrids – grapes that are the result of crosses between European varieties and one or more American species. That would involve using native grapes to breed new grapes with ripening qualities, disease tolerance, and winter hardiness suited to western Washington’s climate, he says. (more…)