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Entries in wine wednesdays (18)


Just a Spoonful of Sugar

If Chardonnay is the grape varietal most commonly associated with oakiness, and Sauvignon Blanc with crispness, then Riesling is the one mostly common associated with sweetness.

I mean something very particular when I talk about sweetness in a wine: I mean that it has noticeable residual sugar. Recall that wine is made by letting yeast turn sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. A dry wine is one in which all of the sugar — or really, almost all of the sugar — has been converted into alcohol. In reality, almost all wine has at least 1 gram of sugar per liter in it, as certain sugars can’t be completely fermented by most yeasts. If a wine has more than about 4 grams per liter, however, it will start to taste sweet, and by 12 grams per liter it is easily noticeable. There are several ways to achieve these levels of sugar, but the most common are by stopping fermentation before all of the sugar is converted — usually by lowering the temperature and filtering out the yeast — or by harvesting the grapes at such high levels of ripeness that the yeast die in the alcohol produced before they can convert all of the sugar. The grape this is most often done with is Riesling.

Riesling originates in the Rhine region of Germany, where it is made in a variety of styles, ranging from trocken (dry) to Trockenbeerenauslese (literally “dry berry selection”, because the grapes have almost raisinated on the vine before they are picked). When I was in Portland last month, we had dinner at a restaurant that offered a flight of four German Rieslings that really showed off what the grape could do. The drier wines were wonderfully floral and minerally, indicative of the slate slopes of the Mosel vineyards they came from. The sweeter ones were lush and intensely fruity, with the sugar enhancing the pear and apricot flavors. Because an elevated level of sweetness works so well with its natural flavors, Riesling is the grape you will most often hear the words “late harvest” associated with, or in French vendage tardive.

Outside of Germany, Riesling is also heavily grown in the Alsace region of France, as well in Austria. It thrives in cooler-climate regions, so while there are good examples of it from California, some of the best North American Rieslings come from Oregon, Washington, the Finger Lakes region of New York, and from Canada, where is is often made into icewine.

Because Rieslings are often high in both sugar and acidity, it ages better than many white wines. In our cellar you’ll find a few, including: Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Kabinett (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer), Schloss Schönborn Riesling Beerenauslese (Rheingau), Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile “Vendage Tardive” (Alsace), and La Vie Late Harvest Riesling (Monterey).

Any Reisling lovers out there? Do you like them sweet or dry?


Fitness: Ran 3.5 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 384 words, 55 seven-day average, 269 average, 43333 total, 2167 to go for the week

It's pH Thing

I love Sauvignon Blanc because I am an acid freak.

One way to think about the flavor of wine is in terms of certain primary components, measured along orthogonal axes. Great Wine Made Simple uses four: Dry, Crisp, Oaky, and Tannic. Chardonnay is where the Oaky axis most often comes into play, as we talked about last week. Some Sauvignon Blanc also has oak character, but usually the axis we’re interested in with it is Crisp.

Crisp-ness comes from acidity, or more specifically from the way the acid balances with the other components. If the acid is prominent, the wine is tart, often carrying with it a lively character. If it’s not, it tends to me more mellow. And much as I like my Chardonnays less oaky and more minerally, I like my Sauvignon Blancs with lots of acid. When I drink Sauvignon Blanc, I want a wine that makes me sit up a take notice.

So how I do find these? In France, Sauvignon Blanc comes primarily from two regions: Bordeaux and Sancerre. In Bordeaux, it’s often blended with another white grape, Semillion, and made in a fuller-bodied, lower-acid style. In Sancerre, however, where the climate is cooler, it makes bracing, high-acid, minerally wines. In the United States, it’s made in both of those styles, so again, tasting notes are useful. For clues as to style, look for the same sorts of things we talked about with Chardonnay: malolatic fermentation, new oak, stainless steel, etc. But if you really want a wine that will knock your socks off with acid, look to New Zealand, particularly the Marlborough district. These wines are always very acidic, usually with grassy or herbal flavors. I do remember drinking a bottle of Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from about 2002 or so and realizing it tasted like a lemon tart in a bottle.

While we’re on the subject, I find that acidity is a key factor in pairing food and wine. In particular, you want a wine that’s more acidic than the food. Otherwise the wine will taste — for lack of a better term — flabby. Having Chicken Piccatta, with that lovely lemon and caper sauce? Skip the Chardonnay and go with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

So what Sauvignon Blanc is in my cellar? Not a lot, because we tend to go through it pretty quickly. High-acid Sauvignon Blancs don’t tend to benefit from a lot of aging, so we don’t hold onto it long. We do have the Fiddlehead Cellars “Hunnysuckle” (Santa Ynez Valley), Domaine Daniel Chotard Sancerre (Sancerre), Twomey Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley), and Clifford Bay Awatare Valley Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough), which I’m sipping right now.

Any other acid freaks out there?


Fitness: Ran 4.5 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 360 words, 450 seven-day average, 279 average, 42949 total, 551 to go for the week; 21-day streak

A Most Malleable Wine

Chardonnay is a chameleon. More than those made from any of the other eight grapes my list, wines made from Chardonnay express the region in which they are grown and the style the winemaker wants to express. They can be lean and supple or rich and fat. As such, it’s one of the varietals that’s hardest to figure out from the label.

Chardonnay is grown in every major wine-producing region of the world. Its home, however, is the Burgundy region of France, where it is used to make that most seemly oxymoronic of wines, White Burgundy (Bourgogne Blanc). For most people, Burgundy is synonymous with red wine, but some of the finest and most expensive white wines in the world come from there. These wines are often very different from New World Chardonnay, in part because the grape is so expressive of the soil and the climate in which it is grown. Another big factor, however, is winemaking style.

Remember when I talked about how wine is made? For Chardonnay, there are two critical decisions a winemaker has to make. The first is whether or not to do a secondary fermentation, also called a malolactic fermentation. This is the process of adding bacteria to the wine that transform malic acid — the acid that gives Granny Smith apples their crisp bite — into lactic acid — the acid found in milk. Almost all red wine undergoes this process, but it’s optional for white wine. A malolactic fermentation softens the wine, makes it less crisp, and as a byproduct produces diacetyl, the compound added to margarine or popcorn to make it taste like butter. Ever had a buttery Chardonnay? It almost certainly underwent a malolactic fermentation.

The other choice the winemaker has to make is about cooperage. What barrels — if any — the wine is aged in will make a huge difference in the final character of a Chardonnay. Wines absorb flavor from the barrels they are aged in. If you’ve picked up oaky, toasty, or vanilla flavors from a wine, they probably came from the barrel. New barrels will impart more flavor than older barrels, so the longer the wine is in barrel and the higher the percentage of the wine aged in new oak, the stronger the oak flavor will be. In cheaper wines, this flavor is often added by soaking oak chips in the wine.

So when you’re looking at a bottle of Chardonnay, how do you know what you’re going to get? If it’s from outside of France, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. Most New World Chardonnays undergo both malolactic fermentation and extended oak aging, particularly the more expensive ones. This trend is changing a little bit, as people get tired of drinking oak, buttery, two-by-fours. With wines from France, Chardonnays from Chablis tend to be more minerally and acidic than one from the rest of Burgundy. I find that like a lot of Chardonnays that undergo minimal malolactic or are aged in stainless steel (or minimal new oak), but that’s often hard to tell from the label, so I also make it a point to ask. My advice for learning about these wines? Get out there and taste them.

Despite not being huge Chardonnay fans, we’ve got two cases of it in the cellar, including: Bouchard Père & Fils Bourgogne (Burgundy), Alma Rosa Winery “El Jabali Vineyard” Chardonnay (Santa Rita Hills), Foxen “Bien Nacido Block UU” and “Bien Nacido Steel Cut” Chardonnays (both Santa Maria Valley).

So, what do you think about Chardonnay? Do you love them? Or are you a member of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club?


Fitness: Ran 2 miles + Pushups (10-12-9-9-8)
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 287 words, 375 seven-day average, 271 average, 39802 total, 1198 to go for the week; 14-day streak

Wine Varietals: Overview

Great Wine Made Simple talks about the Big Six, the six biggest selling varietals in the US. Far be it for me to disagree with a Master Sommelier, and I do think these are an excellent starting point. I like to expand this list to nine, however, given how common several other prominent varietals are on wine lists I’ve seen the last ten years. So here’s my list of essential varietals to learn:



Each of these has a distinct profile. All but one are widely grown in several areas around the world. So I bet you can guess what I’m going to be talking about for the next nine weeks. But first a poll: How many of these nine have you had? How many do you feel you understand well?


Fitness: Ran 2.5 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 484 words, 441 seven-day average, 266 average, 37175 total, 825 go for the week; 7-day streak

Start With the Professionals

Tonight I sat down to skim one of my favorite wine books as preparation for writing my promised post about wine varietals. I’m still going to write it, but today I’m going to say instead that if you want to learn about wine, read Great Wine Made Simple. It’s my gold standard for introductory wine books. When I taught a wine tasting course, I based my curriculum on it. It’s probably what I’m trying to write in these posts. So start there, and we’ll get back to talking about varietals next week.


Fitness: Ran 2 miles
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 0 words, 116 seven-day average, 258 average, 34090 total, 1910 to go for the week