Q&A

Q: What is a wine thief? I had a friend that said she tasted wine in Napa Valley with a "wine thief" and I was afraid to ask her what she meant.

A: Assuming she didn't share a glass with some wine-stealing bandits while she was in the Napa Valley, a wine thief is a long, glass tube that is used to draw samples out of barrels. Winemakers continually taste wines during the aging process to make sure things are progressing as expected, and they use a wine thief to do so. Some wineries will allow visitors to taste wine right out of the barrel using a wine thief as part of the tour and tasting.

Q: I often see the term "balanced" used to describe wine. What does it mean?

A: I like to use lemonade to describe this term. I think we all have had lemonade that either has too much added sugar and the lemonade is too sweet, not enough sugar and it is too tart, or the right amount of sugar and lemon juice, and you have a perfect glass of lemonade where all the flavors come together. Wine has many components to it and if they all come together seamlessly and no one particular flavor seems to dominate, the wine is described as balanced. A winemaker's goal is to create a balanced wine.

Q: What is the difference between Syrah and Shiraz?

A: Syrah and Shiraz is the same grape. France, Europe, and many American producers call it Syrah, and Australia calls it Shiraz.

Q: How long does wine stay in the barrel before it is bottled?

A: It all depends on the wine. There are some un-oaked wines that will see no barrel age and go straight from stainless-steel tanks to the bottle. Other whites, like Chardonnay, will be aged for various amounts of time in oak barrels to give the wine richness, and subtle oak flavors. In general, red wine ages in the barrel for a longer amount of time. In the United States, there are no legal requirements, so it is up to winemakers to establish how much barrel age is needed in order to achieve the style they are seeking. It will vary from year to year and from wine to wine.

In Europe, it is a bit more regulated. For example, in order for a Spanish red wine to be labeled as "Gran Reserva," the wine must be aged for at least two years in oak casks and another three years in the bottle before it is released. The back label will often include the amount of time the wine has aged in the barrel.

Q: What does it mean if the term "sur lie" is printed on a wine label?

A: This is French term that means "on the lees." Lees is the sediment that accumulates during the fermentation and aging process which consists of dead yeast cells and small grape particles. This sediment is usually filtered out but sometimes if a winemaker believes the lees can add flavor or complexity to a wine, they will age the wine on the lees and label it as "sur lie."

Q: I read a wine description that referred to the "brix level at the time of harvest" — what is that in reference to?

A: The brix level is simply the sugar content of the grapes at the time of harvest.

Q: So many wines are referred to as "dry" — what does this mean?

A: Dry is a term that is used often in the wine world to describe wines that are not sweet. When something is sweet, the sugar coats your palate and stimulates salivation, which makes your mouth feel wet. If there is no sweetness in a wine, your mouth will not water and your palate remains dry.