Decanting Wine: How, When and If

There is only one reason we know that you MUST decant a bottle of wine.  If the cork breaks as you open a bottle and you can’t get it out, the only option is to push it in.  This makes decanting necessary.

After that, there are several reasons why you might WANT to decant your wine:

  • A decanter of wine on the table is attractive and adds to the pleasure of a meal.
  • The wine is too young and needs extensive aeration.
  • The wine is quite old and needs a little aeration.
  • The wine is quite old and probably has a lot of sediment that you don’t want to swallow.

Photo courtesy of The Manual.

Some restaurants decant wine, perhaps in an effort to justify overcharging.  Some people decant wine because they think they look cool, even if it makes them look cork-dorky.  And then there are the occasions when Aunt Gertrude is coming over for dinner and she gave you the decanter.

Wineries generally don’t decant their wines, although they should.  They mostly serve younger releases that might benefit from some extra air.

If you are going to decant a bottle, here are some tips.

  • Don’t decant too early or too late. A younger wine, and even one well within its drinking age, can be decanted hours earlier than you plan to serve it.  This is not a requirement but it does get the maximum benefit of airing out the wine.  But in our opinion,  if you’re serving a very old wine, decant it just before serving, to let out some of the accumulated gasses in the bottle without losing flavors.
  • Simple decanters work just as well as fancy ones. The objective is to expose the wine to air and to leave the sediment in the bottle.  The ones that are examples of the glass-blowers’ art may be very pretty but not so easy to pour from.  A simple carafe can do the job.
  • Don’t decant too fast, but don’t make a big production of it, either. As the wine passes from bottle to decanter, it all meets air.  If you pour too quickly, you’ll lose some of this benefit and are more likely to get some sediment into the decanter.  Restaurant sommeliers and dedicated snobs will pour the wine very, very slowly, in front of a candle.  That way they can see the first little bits of sediment and stop pouring.  All very dramatic, to be sure, but the same thing can be accomplished in front of a well-lit white or light colored wall or even a piece of paper.  Yes, pour slowly, but be reasonable about it.
  • Consider double decanting. If you’re serving a bottle you’ve saved for a special occasion, you might actually want to see that well-anticipated bottle on the table.  So if you think the wine would benefit from decanting, do so.  Then pour the sediment out of the bottle, lightly rinse with a bit of wine and pour the wine back into the bottle.  You’ll maximize the aeration as you pour twice and you still get to see that pretty label.

Bad Wine

The rationale for wine tasting as an avocation is – of course – that you get a chance to try a lot of really good wines.  Sometimes when we enter a winery’s tasting room, we know we are going to taste something delicious or at least interesting.  Often, when we’re visiting a winery for the first time, we may not know what to expect, but we have every reason to be excited about trying something new.  And a few times, we’ve been disappointed with the wines we’ve tasted.

But there have been rare occasions when we’ve been handed a glass of really bad wine.  That’s not the same as wine we didn’t like.  We’re talking about wine that has been poorly made, bottled or stored.

The most common cause of spoilage is corked wine.  This is not really the fault of the winemaker but rather of the company that sold corks to the winery.  In growing or preparing the corks, a grower may have unintentionally introduced a chemical known scientifically as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (or more usefully, as TCA).  From the moment that cork is put in the bottle, the wine in it will taste corked.

A wine testing lab.  Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

We were once at a winery that prides itself on their scientific approach to winemaking.  We even got to see their lab where people in white coats were doing something that looked like high school chem lab to us.  When they poured our first taste it was immediately apparent that the Chardonnay smelled and tasted like wet cardboard.  (Some people say it’s wet dog, but let’s not go there.)  The server was at first surprised and then abashed, but truly it was her fault.  She should have tasted the wine first before pouring it.  Maybe she did and didn’t recognize that the bottle was spoiled, which is even worse.

Consumers should be on the watch for cork taint.  If you find it at a tasting room or at home, bring it to the winery’s attention.  Many corks have identifiers so that the winery can tell who had sold them the faulty corks.

Another common fault in wines you might taste is called brettanomyces, or brett.  This is a type of yeast.  Since yeasts are an essential ingredient in making wine, some funky yeasts are bound on occasion to sneak in.  However, in some cases brett is considered a feature, not a flaw.  This yeast produces an aroma and taste that is generally referred to as “barnyard” in polite company.  In rude company it’s called…well, never mind.  There are some wine lovers who find a bit of this taste to be admirable, especially in Pinot Noirs from Burgundy in particular.

For the record, we’re not brett fans.  A little is bad and even Burgundians know that a lot isn’t good.  If you find it in a bottle opened at a winery, bring it to management’s attention right away.  When it happens in a wine opened at home, a reputable wine seller should exchange a purchase.

The point is not to play wine detective looking for bad bottles.  They are rare enough that most people only rarely encounter one.  We have seen some people who were evidently unaware of what bad wine smells and tastes like, finish a bottle and not understand why they didn’t like it.  That’s why a sommelier takes a sip of our wine and let’s us try it before serving it.  There’s no reason to drink bad wine…Life is too short !

Arrowood Winery

Back in our earlier years of wine tasting in California, there was Napa Valley and only Napa Valley.  Oh, we had heard that there was wine being made on the other side of the mountain in Sonoma County, so occasionally we’d take the Oakville Grade and find our way to Route 12 in Glen Ellen.  Turn right and we could visit Arrowood…if we could find it.  The problem was (and is) that the turnoff road for Arrowood ( is shared with another winery and that one’s sign is more prominent.  So we would drive right by.

If you see a sign for Imagery, be aware that that’s Arrowood too, and there are still some very good reasons to take that turn.

The tasting room at Arrowood, with its great view.  Photo courtesy of Winetraveler.

The first is the beauty of the setting.  Arrowood’s tasting room sits atop a rise and there is a wide panoramic window that provides a view of the vineyards and a swath of Sonoma scenery.  If you care for wine with a view (and we do) Arrowood has a lot to offer.  The building itself seems like an upscale farmhouse, but it’s a bit difficult to take in because it is best seen while driving up the hill.  Better to keep you eyes on the road.

The winery is named for its founder, Richard Arrowood.  Now retired, his career reads like a history of Sonoma winemaking.  He began at Korbel in 1965; then at Rodney Strong; was the first winemaker at Chateau St. Jean and then opened his own winery in 1985.  The winery has changed hands several times over the years and is now in the Jackson Family collection, with Richard staying involved through 2010.

He has been a strong proponent of Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County and the wines you will sample there lean heavily in that direction.  The winery used to make a Syrah that we particularly liked, but that no longer seems to be the case.  They source grapes from all around the county: their own estate in Sonoma Valley, whites from Russian River, Alexander Valley and Knights Valley.  This alone is a reason to have a tasting at Arrowood.  With one winemaking team, the differences among the wines must be reflective of the terroirs where the grapes are grown.  In general, we have found the servers to be knowledgeable and helpful, especially in describing the different vineyards.

If you happen to be tasting in December, you’ll find the tasting room to be pleasantly decorated for the season, with a fire going in the fireplace.  It reflects the elegant hominess that is a hallmark of Arrowood, both the winery and the wines.

Arrowood’s story in many ways echoes that of top-end California winemaking.  It has a reputation and a style built around its founder, a Sonoma County pioneer.  It has been sold and re-sold and now belongs to a multi-label corporation.  While Jackson is best known for its low-end wines, the company does own quite a few well-respected vineyards.  It seems that Arrowood is left to its own stylistic devices; still, there is a similarity among its wines and among Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignons generally.  Is this a good thing or the opposite?  Each taster needs to make up his or her own mind.



Greenport, Long Island

Going wine tasting on Long Island’s North Fork is a day trip for New York City residents.  Except it isn’t.  Figure two hours each way on the Long Island Expressway if you’re very lucky and it’s easy to see why it’s a good idea to plan for at least one overnight stay.  Moreover, that gives visitors a chance to take in the little villages and towns along the skinny peninsula at Long Island’s northeastern end.  (The southern fork is where rich New Yorkers go to get away from other rich New Yorkers.)

Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

Once you pass through Jamesport, Mattituck, Cutchogue, Peconic and Southold you’ll get to Greenport.  It’s the largest village on the North Fork, but it can hardly be called a town, much less a city.  It is where you’ll find the most inns, restaurants and retail establishments.

These days, the major industries in Greenport are tourism and wine, which are obviously related.  It’s a scenic village with roots back to the 17th century, when it was settled by people expanding beyond New Haven in Connecticut.  At one time, fishing, oystering and whaling were the primary means of livelihood in Greenport.  The oceans were overfished and the waters became too foul for oysters and the North Fork became known for agriculture, in particular duckling and potatoes.

Greenport always retained its maritime character and many people still make their way there to sail their pleasure craft.  There is a thriving business in charter fishing, which is not our thing.  But we hear from others that at a non-industrial scale the waters are plentiful with bluefish, flounder and other flatfish, fluke, striped bass, porgies and sea bass.

Photo courtesy of Food & Wine Magazine.

We prefer to take our fish one at a time, on a plate with a little lemon sauce.  Greenport is famous for its restaurants, all nautically themed with names like the Frisky Oyster and Crabby Jerry’s.  Quite a few are elegant spots with fine wine lists and views of the marinas.  Others are more casual, with picnic tables rather than white tablecloths.

A half century ago, when Alex and Louisa Hargrave decided that potato fields might also do well with grape vines, they created an attraction that continues to bring many visitors to the North Fork and into Greenport.  Now, Greenport is not St. Helena or Healdsburg, but for those whose idea of a good time is a glass of local wine on a charming patio (AKA the readers of Power Tasting), Greenport is a place to visit.

There is a New England vibe to Greenport, some of which is mostly its natural heritage and little bit the creation of town planners.  Either way, a wine tasting trip with time given to enjoying the pleasures of an authentic fishing village, polished up to be sure, is well worthwhile.  Unfortunately, Greenport gets crowded in summer and empties out the rest of the year.  We enjoy a midweek getaway in late May or early September best of all.