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Crying over Wasted Wine

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Posted: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 9:28 am

"You've got to be kidding," was my first thought upon reading a greedy recipe calling for an entire bottle of wine.

Years of watching Saturday morning cooking shows taught me that you shouldn't use salt-added bottles labeled as "cooking wine." Any wine used in a dish has to be something you'd be happy to drink yourself. That also rules out super-sweet or old vinegarized leftovers.

The problem is that I can't help but think I'm wasting a whole bottle that someone made to be appreciated on its own. There's something sad about the sound of a full bottle emptying into a pot. And with a requirement for 750 mL, I'd feel guilty even taking a little taste to see if the wine should be spared from being roasted. (Though I'll admit I did take a swig.)

But what wine would I sacrifice?

I quickly ruled out all $7 and up Lodi bottlings as being too precious to me. Whereas the lower-priced offerings were perhaps a bit sweet for the dinner I could only taste in my mind.

Wanting good tannins to fill that full-bodied requirement, I settled on a 2008 Beaulieu Vineyards Coastal Estates California Cabernet Sauvignon for $5.98 at the grocery store.

In the tasting room, customers would often let out a yelp of, "What a waste!" when I rinsed their wine glasses with the next wine to be served, swirled the wine around, then dumped just that tiny amount into the spit bucket.

As far as winemaking goes, there is a big difference in philosophy about rescuing wine between the smallest wineries and the biggest, where time is money.

At Woodbridge Winery, I used to watch the barrel racking crew as they rammed a hose from a huge tank into barrel after barrel arriving on an "assembly line" with red wine spewing everywhere.

With an entire year's production of only 4 barrels at our tiny "winery," after we'd drain a tank, I became the subject of many puzzled shaking heads when I would place a bucket to catch about a half gallon of slow drips. For everyone else, the tank would have been sprayed out with water immediately.

When I'd top those barrels, I often had a bottle or two worth of wine in the bottom of a beer keg that I'd bring home like rescued pound puppies. Same for partial bottles left over from a day's pouring in the tasting room.

I'll even admit to sometimes saving a particularly nice, expensive wine remaining in party guests' glasses after all have gone.

But I'm not the only one taking this a bit too far. My wife and I once tasted some notable Chianti from barrel in Tuscany with the winemaker in her cellar. After enjoying a sip or two, she reached to collect my lip-stained glass and proceeded to dump the last partial ounce back into the barrel.

In somewhat broken English, after watching our surprised faces, she said: "Not to worry. The alcohol kills everything." Now there's someone who believes their wine is good to the last drop!


Wine not Wasted

As a winemaker, I don't have a problem with bottles of wine schlurping into a kettle if it will be used for the holiday pleaser, mulled wine. (Though I would probably cringe if it were wine that I helped make!)

Something I'd never considered: America's Test Kitchen recommends toasting the cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns and allspice berries before adding them with sugar to the medium- to full-boded red wine.

A vat of warm wine simmering - not boiling - for a full hour brings a cozy comforting Christmas scent to the entire house.

Have a very Merry Christmas!