Thursday, October 24, 2013


Bill Humbert sniffed. He sneezed and sniffed again. No doubt about it. Thirty years of Special Services duty taught him the smell of spent cartridges. The SO2 was distinctive. It took him back. Kunduz, November 2001. The ground was littered with cartridge cases some still smoking. The wisps of smoke mingled with the smoke from body parts ripped from comrades who lay amidst the debris. Bastards…..

 Under the sulphur there was something else. Beirut 1983. The Marine Corps hospital. The bandages that swathed Humbert’s body gave off a cheese and plastic smell, not offensive but unnatural, antiseptic…. Brettanomyces? He gingerly sniffed the wine again and yes, there it was. Bretannomyces in unacceptable concentration. “Bastards.”

 The 2011 Oregon Pinot Noir was spoiled. This wasn’t good enough. The bottle had set him back $80 at the corner wine shop but it wasn’t the money that bothered him it was the ruined expectation of delight. Something had to be done. Should he go back and kick the shit out of the clerk who sold him the bottle? No, no point. It wasn’t his fault even though he should know the quality of the wine he sold but the poor prick was only being paid $15 an hour so probably never gets to try anything more expensive than a two buck chuck. No, something had to be done and Humbert knew where.

 “Brettannomyces” Humbert mused as he rode the Greyhound from Seattle along Route 99W to Willamette, “volatile phenols and fatty acids are the key molecules responsible for the olfactory defects in wines affected by brettanomyces, the key molecules being 4-ethyl-phenol, isovaleric acid and The ratio of the disgusting 4-ethyl phenol to the comparatively pleasant smelling 4-ethyl guaiacol varies substantially from wine to wine from as little as 3:1 to over 40:1. In the latter case the wine smells like Band-Aid. Hospitals. Bastards.”

 Humbert knew that red wines, due to barrel ageing are susceptible to brettanomyces if poor winemaking and cellar management come into play. The ‘good’ wine yeast saccharomyces normally overrides development of brettanomyces but if too much oxygen is allowed during primary fermentation (unlikely given the amount of CO2 generated) or more likely during barrel maturation then brettanomyces is stimulated. Lazy winemakers who fail to adequately top up barrels during this stage run the risk of brettannomyces developing. Worse, winemakers who syphon off amounts of wine from barrel to use for cellar tastings without topping up leave too much room in the barrel so that the aerobic conditions allow the ‘bad’ yeast to flourish. In such cases, before bottling the criminal winemakers add extra Sulphur to try and slow the process and to mask the spoilage. Spent cartridges? SO2. Bastards.

 The bus slowing pulled Humbert out of his reverie. They had passed through Oregon City and as arranged were stopping at the intersection of Routes 5 and 206. The Greyhound headed off to Woodburn. Humbert shouldered his pack and headed off by foot up the Chehalem Valley. In the early morning air there was a smell of violets and heather intermingling with wood smoke and cooking. Humbert’s belly rumbled and he remembered he hadn’t eaten since the evening before when he boarded the bus. The Tilapia slider washed down with the creamy Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay was a pleasant but distant memory. “It’ll have to wait” he thought “there’s business to be done”.

 After an hour and a half trek along a gently climbing dusty road which was bordered by sprawling vineyards Humbert saw what he was looking for. Cheetim Cellars. The large and imposing frontage of the winery announced grandeur, expense and confidence. The front door was locked. Humbert made his way around the side of the building. The grandeur, once out of sight of the visitor car park out front disappeared and he could see that the frontage was like a Hollywood film set with ramshackle, poorly maintained sheds behind. All doors were closed but Humbert gripping the corner of a piece of corrugated iron that the largest shed was made of and, with power developed from many years opening wine bottles, peeled the iron back to allow him entrance. Humbert peered about, wrinkling his nose at the various odours. Normally he loved being inside wineries. The fruity smells mingling with toasty oak and pleasant yeasty aromas usually made him hungry but here all he could small was vinegar, mustiness and….Band-Aid. There were no lights on but the many holes in the roof allowed the mid-morning sun to penetrate. The shafts of sunlight illuminated tanks, barrels and winemaking equipment. He stopped as he heard a sound. It was coming from above somewhere. He remembered that in the Takht-e-Sulamein mountain passes to triangulate a position you stood slightly side on so that direct sound and reflected sound would converge thus eliminating false echoes. He stood still. He turned, looking up and saw boots at the top of a ladder which leant against a huge wooden vat. Humbert climbed quietly. Reaching the top, just below the boots he said loudly “Humbert. Bill Humbert”. The man at the top of the ladder jumped in fright and almost lost balance. Grabbing the rungs of the ladder he dropped the bag he had been holding and as it fell past Humbert he could smell it. Spent cartridges. SO2. Bastard.

The man was worried. Humbert sincerely hoped he wouldn’t pee himself given that he was on the ladder directly below. He decided to cut to the chase, no preliminaries needed.
 “You the winemaker here?” he asked while taking a strong grip of the ladder with his left hand allowing his right hand to be free.
“Yes, what’s it to you?” answered the man who seemed to be recovering himself and was adopting a belligerent attitude, just what Humbert liked.
 “You make the 2011 Pinot Noir?” Humbert asked.
 “My best wine” smirked the winemaker as he edged himself higher up the ladder.
 “What’s this wine in the vat here” asked Humbert.
“My new creation, a fortified wine” answered the winemaker.
 “This here a butt?” asked Humbert even though he knew the answer.
 “I guess so” said the winemaker.
“Have you got a name for the wine-style yet” asked Humbert.
 “No, any suggestions” sneered the winemaker.
 “You familiar with George Plantagenet, First Duke of Clarence?” asked Humbert.
 “What about it?” said the winemaker, sounding confused.
 “Well from now on you can call this wine Malmsey” said Humbert as he grabbed the guy’s boots and lifted him up and over the edge of the vat.

Humbert climbed to the top and perched on the edge of the vat quietly watching as the winemaker floundered gasping for breath as the foul wine filled his lungs made worse by the recent sulphuring which cut
down on the available oxygen. When all was still Humbert climbed down.

 Job done.


Richard (of RBB) said...

Is it snowing up there?

THE WINE GUY said...

Not yet but getting colder. As you can see I'm indoors a lot now and have time to blog even though the frigging computer is difficult to work with. I might get Bill Humbert to rug up and explore more wine bars.