Saturday, August 29, 2009

Boxed Wine

Recently, Melissa and I offered to bring wine to a casual birthday party. She texted me from The Spanish Table: She had bought a wine we had tasted before, Alandra's simple, fruity, friendly red table wine, but she had bought it in a box. (She also bought the white wine from the same producer.) She thought it would be funny if we, the wine people, brought boxed wine.

It surprises people when I say it, but I'm not bothered by boxed wine. I'm not talking about Franzia products, though. I'm talking about decent wine that happens to come in a box instead of a bottle.

But I felt some trepidation about showing up to a party of food lovers with boxed wine, when only about one-third of the guests knew us well enough to get the joke. It takes a reasonable amount of wine knowledge to understand the benefits of boxed wine.

One of the main ones, especially for the casual drinker, is that you can pour yourself a glass or two and not worry about the rest of the wine. Pull two glasses from a bottle, and you've just added a massive amount of oxygen to the wine that won't go away, though you can combat the effects. Get yourself some wine from a box's spigot, however, and the plastic liner inside collapses in on itself, keeping oxygen out and maintaining the wine's freshness.

It's not a perfect seal; plastic is more permeable than glass. A 1997 article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry looked at different containers for wine, and found that oxygen enters a boxed wine much more quickly than it does a sealed bottle. Starting at the 6-month mark, a "bag in box" wine gets about 1 g/mL of oxygen in the liquid for every 4 months; glass bottles have barely changed their oxygen levels after two years. In other words, buy new boxes of young wine and don't cellar them.

The guests who knew us saw the box, shrugged their shoulders, and said, "If you brought it, it must be good." But I noticed some arched eyebrows among the other guests. Or I thought I did. Perhaps my self-conscious mind added bogeymen where none existed. Years after I've become comfortable with my wine knowledge, I guess I can still feel a twinge of worry about how strangers might judge me by my wine choices.

The host didn't judge, of course. She even offered a bon mot on the subject when she saw the little cartons: "Oh yeah, I know; boxes are the new screw caps."

It's true that boxes today, just like screw caps a decade ago, have a public relations problem. A few years ago, the arched eyebrows I imagined I saw at the party would have been on my own face. Boxes are common enough in Europe for everyday wines, but here they are too closely linked to cheap wine that seems closer to syrup than to fermented grapes.

As society gets more green-focused, however, boxed wine may become the darling of the sustainable food set. Consider the fuel it takes to shuttle wine about. A bottle's worth of wine, 750 ml, weighs about 750 g by itself. An average wine bottle weighs in the neighborhood of 500 g. The box we brought contained 3,000 ml of wine, and the box added 190 g. In other words, 40 percent of the weight of shipping bottled wine is the bottle while only about 7 percent of the weight of boxed wine is the box.

And bottles are inefficient space fillers. If a bottle was a rectangular prism, it would occupy about 1,500 cubic centimeters for 750 cubic centimeters of liquid. But since bottles don't pack tightly, probably one-third of that is wasted space. Our box's dimensions were about 3,500 cubic centimeters to hold 3,000 cubic centimeters of liquid, and you can, of course, pack boxes right up against each other. You can get a little less than twice the volume of boxed wine in the same space you would need for bottles.

Not that glass is evil. Far from it. The McGraw-Hill Recycling Handbook makes the startling observation that "One 12-ounce glass bottle, melted down and reformed, yields one 12-ounce bottle without any loss of quality." Glass is, the book says, "one of the few manufactured goods that is 100% recyclable." But producing a bottle requires an oven kept between 2,600 F and 2,900 F, a full order of magnitude above temperatures used in paper production. The industry has come up with a lot of tricks for making their processes more energy efficient, but that's still a lot of fuel.

But for a casual party featuring pizza and snacks, or a house wine to drink with dinner, bottles may not be the best choice. At least, that's what I'll say the next time I hear the slight sniff of a wine-loving guest.

New Wineries In The Chronicle

This last Friday, the Bay Area got a whiff of days of yore, when the last day of the work week featured an entire newspaper section devoted to wine. While those pieces have been rolled in to the Sunday food section, there was a wine-focused insert this week filled with articles about the state of the California wine industry. I wrote one article for it about some new wineries that have cropped up in the last year. You'll also find articles about Lodi's growth as a wine region, the growing use of solar power in vineyards, the state of Rhône varieties in California, and more.

A quick addition. Today marks the 7-year anniversary of this blog, and I'd like to thank you all for reading. Whether you've found OWF recently or have been following along since the beginning, I appreciate your comments, thoughts, and emails. I always tell people that I have one of the smartest batches of readers around.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Backberry Jam

No, that's not a typo.

We had berries in our backyard this year. Actually, our neighbors had them in their backyard. But branches from their bush flopped over our shared fence like bangs on an emo teenager. You could find me out there each day for a week or so, tugging gently at the little black clusters to see which ones came off easily.

They looked like blackberries, but there are so many blackberry variants and children, each with its own identity, that we decided to just call the fruit backberries.

And I wanted to turn them into jam.

I've never made blackberry jam before, so I turned to the smattering of preserving books that I own. What better way to compare them than to read each one's approach to my simple goal?

The first up was Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It by Karen Solomon. This book has been getting a lot of positive press, in part because Solomon is friends with a number of Bay Area food bloggers. But the positive press also comes from the accessible recipes. They're clearly laid out, written in a friendly tone, and obviously developed by someone who lives in a snug home without a lot of extra space for kitchen gear: Her beef jerky recipe uses a low-heat stove instead of a separate dehydrator, numerous smoking recipes use a stovetop smoker and sawdust instead of a backyard smoker, and so forth.

But it doesn't contain a recipe for blackberry jam. This omission became a theme. When I showed the book to a friend, he was surprised that he couldn't find information about cornichons. Last week, I tried to find advice on making traditional cucumber pickles, the kind that sit in a salt-only brine for 2 weeks and require a daily skimming from the cook. No luck, though she does offer a technique for kimchee. (I should note that the book does include a strawberry jam, but I didn't know if the exact same proportions would work.)

I suspect Solomon simply didn't have space for all these items. You might guess from the title that the book is just about preserving, but Solomon tackles the entire pantry. Alongside recipes for jam, cured meat, and pickles, there are recipes for crackers, chocolate candies, infused spirits, homemade pasta, and other foods that at first seem out of place. Such breadth in a slim book does not allow for much depth. The recipes may inspire cooks to try new things, but they may not provide answers for cooks already inspired to try one specific thing.

From Solomon's book I turned to Putting Food By, the classic, but perhaps hard to find, book on preserving by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughan. Every time I rummage through this chunky little paperback, I am charmed by the prose. It's written in a slightly archaic tone — the book was originally published in the early '70s — that evokes a stout Midwestern homesteader teaching a new neighbor the ropes. Consider this text on freezing seafood:

Fish must be cleaned immediately and washed in fresh, running water; ocean fish may be kept alive in sea water, but neither fish nor shellfish should be cleaned or cooked in sea water … You will be meticulous about sanitation and sterilizing surfaces. The packaging materials will be adequate for preventing ice crystals or freezer burn. The seafood will be sharply frozen, stored at minimum temperature, and used relatively soon.

Of course PFB, as the authors refer to their book, has a blackberry jam recipe. In fact, it has two: One is a diet version with less sugar and more gelatin. The one I used has optional extra steps for de-seeding the blackberries — I opted to not de-seed — but emphasizes the important detail: "… you will be adding an amount of sugar equal to the measurement of prepared berry pulp." The proportions mirror the ones in The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard, which friends of ours recommended to us.

Small-Batch Preserving, as its name suggests, gives techniques for the quantities non-homesteaders might deal with. It occupies a space between Jam It and Putting Food By: It has a depth of recipes closer to Putting Food By but without the wrapping prose; like Jam It, it is little more than recipes.

In the end, my tour of preserving books stopped at Putting Food By, but with a twist. I put my "backberries" through the maceration step mentioned in Jam It's strawberry jam recipe.

Maceration simply means letting solid ingredients sit in liquid ones. Winemakers use maceration to extract the color compounds and tannins of grape skins into the clear liquid: It's how you get red wine. In simple terms: the longer the maceration, the more tannins and color in the wine.

But what role does it play when making jam? Winemakers remove the skins and seeds floating on the wine, but a jam maker dumps everything into a pot: The raw source of color and flavor compounds is still there. Solomon doesn't offer an explanation, but The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that maceration, at least in a winery, extracts compounds via diffusion from cells whose walls remain intact during the crush. The Oxford Companion to Food offers a different theoretical rationale for the step, saying that maceration softens the ingredient in question.

Jam It is a good, solid book, despite the gaps in coverage. I'll flip through it often and no doubt make many pantry items from it — crackers, homemade peppermint patties, and more all caught my eye. But my preserving heart still belongs to Putting Food By.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Fundamentals of Wine Studies II: Sensory Evaluation

Just a note to let you know that my UC Berkeley Extension wine tasting class, Sensory Evaluation, is being offered again this coming fall, in Berkeley. Unlike most wine classes, this one is less focused on regions and more focused on how you describe what's in your glass. The first class covers acidity, sweetness, and tannins; the second, scent; the third, faults and flaws; the fourth, oak; the fifth, terroir; and the sixth, blending and blind tasting.

As I like to say, sign up early and sign up often.