The City of Wine

The City Of Wine

by John VerPlanck and Jennifer Laskey VerPlanck,

Black Sheep Wine and Beer Shop, Harpswell,Maine


Travel to the island of Sicily, the far western end to be specific, and you’ll find Marsala, “The City of Wine”.Marsala wine is made exclusively in this region, producing more than eight million liters annually.


In the mid eighteenth century there was a war going on that dramatically affected the Iberian Peninsula. Unable to obtain their favored Ports and Sherries, England was in the market for something comparable. So, in 1773, John Woodhouse, an English merchant, discovered the local Sicilian Marsala wine called Perpetum tasted similar to Sherry. Perpetum was produced using a system similar to the solera used to make Sherry, with vintages constantly (perpetually) blended and aged in wood barrels resulting in a naturally sweet and powerful wine. He added brandy to fortify the wine for the sea voyage home. It was an immediate success.Image

Admiral Nelson celebrated his victory over Napoleon at Trafalgar with Marsala and declared it his “Victory Wine”, and ordered five hundred barrels a year for his fleet.


Marsala was so popular that Florio, the importer, had ninety nine ships and was prevented from building more because he would have had more ships than the Royal Navy.


The wines are categorized by color, age, and dryness. Colors are oro, ambra and rubina, which are tied to the grapes used. The principal grapes are the preferred grillo and the more prolific catarratto, for the oro and ambra, both popular Sicilian wines in their own right. The rubina Marsala is much rarer, made from blends of red grapes including nero d’avola.

Aged Marsala can be: Fine, aged one year,(used for cooking),  Superiore, aged a minimum of two years in oak or chestnut, Superiore Riserva, four years, Vergine, five years, Vergine Stravecchio for ten years and Vergine Solaras, a blend of multiple vintages aged a minimum of five years in wood barrels. Sweet Marsala is dolce, off dry is semisecco and dry is secco.Biscotti_and

Often regarded as just a cooking wine, good Marsala is delightful and will easily hold its own with the other fortified wines of southern Europe. Distinct flavors of dried figs, dates, honey, caramel, orange peel and almonds make this historic wine a great aperitif. Match the dry versions with smoked fish or meat, olives, nuts and hard cheeses. Sweet Marsala is used in Italian dessert dishes like Zabaglione and Tiramisu; it matches well with Roquefort cheese, dried fruits or desserts such as dark chocolate, cookies and custards.

Photo/ illustration credit: Wiki commons,Pixabay,Public Domain

©2013 text  Black Sheep Wine and Beer Shop


Cool Stash

Cool Stash

By Jennifer Laskey VerPlanck

wine champagne cave-reims de-pommery-greno- history

Some places are legendary. Like the wine caves of Champagne, in France, which are protected as part of a World Heritage Site. Which is fitting because for centuries these caves and underground caverns have been used to protect people, artifacts and wine. The reason that underground sites are still being used for wine storage is that they are dark, stable, with a consistent cool temperature and controlled humidity, pretty much naturally. And some are vast, covering miles and extending like another city deep beneath the surface.

cave limestone underground tunnel ancient
In the Champagne region there is a labyrinth network of tunnels from the old chalk quarries, with hidden rooms and subterranean caves, some dating as far back as the Roman occupation. The Champagne caves of France were used as refuge for desperate villagers, hospitals and schools during World War I, especially in the town of Reims, where on one day alone, in 1914, nearly 3000 artillery shells fell on the ancient city. The inhabitants would live underground for years during the war. At least they had plenty of Champagne.

History champagne caves ww2 habitation- Pommery-caves
During the World War II Nazi occupation, along with risking their lives to hide people, some wine makers of France also courted danger to protect their most valuable commodity, their best wines. Ironically, the disastrous 1939 grape harvest came in handy, as the former sub-par plonk was cleverly relabeled in order to fulfill the Germans enormous demand for their most sought- after wines. This ploy worked for a while. But Berlin ordered up to 400,000 bottles of Champagne a week during the occupation. Quite a few vignerons hid their best wine in wine cellars, behind false walls and in mislabeled containers. They were hoping to be able to save something for after the war. Nearly 70% of the region’s economy was centered on the wine industry.

soldier ww1 champagne uniform vintage free pic60_720
Domaine Drouhin owned a huge underground wine cellar in Beaune, nearly a hectare, and hid their best vintage wine behind a false wall. Maurice Drouhin was a key resistance liaison and bravely hid Jewish refugees and smuggled resistance fighters across the Occupied Zone in wine barrels. When the Nazi’s came after him, he escaped to the cellars and through a connecting door out to the local charity hospital run by the Catholic nuns, who hid him until the end of the war.

window stone vintage building (2)
During the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys buried his fine wine along with a parmesan wheel and other valuables in haste, in a deep pit on his property and retrieved them unharmed 10 days later, although the buildings were all destroyed.

art Great_Fire_London 1666 tower london bridge

The nobility of Europe chose some ingenious places to hide their priceless artifacts, jewelry and wine over the centuries, including under the floor, behind secret walls, within shrines and buried in their yard. The British Royal Family even hid the crown jewels in a biscuit tin, buried within the grounds of Windsor Castle, during World War II.

the-battle-of-britain monument free pic ww2 (4)

If you’re in a hurry, I guess hiding the family jewels is more important than the wine stash. Although Winston Churchill famously loved his Pol Roger Champagne so much, he’d probably have a hard choice to make if he had to leave something behind. The winery honored their ardent patron in 1975 by naming their top Champagne, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.

sir-winston-churchill- free pic


Photo/Illustration Credits: Public Domain, Pixabay, Libreshot, wikicommons


We’ll Always Have Paris

We’ll Always Have Paris

By Jennifer Laskey Verplanck, The Black Sheep Wine and Beer Shop

Some people say that the 1942 film, Casablanca, is the best film ever made. Although it’s been around for 75 years, it still has great authenticity, a suspenseful plot with an exotic location, complex characters, many of them shady, romance, betrayal and political intrigue, a great score and theme song, and the irresistibly alluring Ingrid Bergman. The film was made during World War 2 and had an intensity which may have been partly because no one knew what the outcome of the war would be. One emotional scene in the film has the patrons defiantly singing the French National anthem over the German soldiers singing of  “Watch on the Rhine”. Many of the extras in that scene had real tears in their eyes,as they were actual refugees from Nazi persecution at the time.

casablanca french national anthem

Perhaps you haven’t seen this one, but you may have heard some of the often- quoted lines: “Play it (again), Sam”, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”, “Round up the usual suspects”, “ Here’s looking at you, kid” and “We’ll always have Paris”. The rich dialogue is just one of its charms. The characters smoke and drink like there’s no tomorrow, while they desperately connive and deal for precious ‘‘letters of transit” they need to escape Morocco and the dangerous Vichy regime. It’s bittersweet that Rick and Ilsa are destined to be kept apart but they will always have the memories of their idyllic time together in Paris.

cinema casablanca 1942

There is talk about a sequel. I’m not sure it could ever match the magic of the original film; the expectations would be impossibly high. What do you think? The ending has to rank as THE classic ending, though. It’s one of those things that is so perfect that I would rather they left it alone.

cinema Bogart Casablanca-Ending
I have a cork from the wine that we had on our wedding day; I kept it as a memento. We were married in Paris, it was rosé Champagne and it was a lovely romantic time. We enjoyed Paris. It might be fun to revisit the places we went but we could never recreate the mood or the moment. It’s more fun to create new happy memories.

champagne art deco pretty lady (2)
Good wine is not like any other drink. It’s not made in such a way, like soda or tea, that you will have an exact taste every time. That is just elusive with wine. That fabulous wine that you had on vacation, when you open a bottle when you get back home, may surprise you. It’s not that it will be bad, just probably a bit different.

wineglass wine tasting
Mitigating factors as varied as the accompanying food, serving temperature and the shape of the wine glass, to the weather, altitude and even the mood you’re in, all will influence your enjoyment of a wine. Wine is a living thing and it is constantly evolving. It’s an expression of a time and place.

art wine label
You may never find the same experience that you once had, so try something new or look for a wine that is reminiscent of the style that you like. You may find something that you like even better!


Photo/Illustration credits: Pixabay, Public Domain, Wiki Commons, MorgueFile

The Bacchus Bottle







 The Bacchus Bottle   

by   Jennifer and John VerPlanck

   If you are in a foreign country and don’t know the language, you can still have a clue as to the type of wine in a bottle   simply by the shape and color of the glass. Ages ago, somebody decided to create four distinct shapes of glass bottles for wine storage and it stuck. It is thought that the shapes and colors were created fairly at random. If you’re seeking Pinot Noir, Gamay or Chardonnay, look for the bell shaped bottle from Burgundy, France.  A heavier bottle of the same shape, but with a concave indentation in the bottom, contains sparkling wine, Prosecco or Champagne. You’ll find Alsatian and German wines like Riesling in tall slender bottles with long necks colored green or blue (Mosel) or brown (Rhine). Cabernet and Merlot, typical Bordeaux wines, are packaged in the traditional slim cylindrical bottle with straight sides and a high, slightly sloping shoulder.   bottles-colors    

    Before the wine bottle became standardized in 1979, to the 750 ml. size, wine bottles varied wildly in size, shape, color and volume. It was even illegal from 1636 to 1860 in Britain to sell wine by the bottle, due to the common practice of cheating on the volume. So the law was to sell wine wholesale by the barrel and then pour it to customers who brought their own containers. wine-transport-antwerp


   The advent of the coal-fired furnace in the 17th century, which burned hotter than wood or charcoal, allowed for stronger, thicker glass to be produced, including the Champagne bottle. Before this, glass bottles were too fragile for practical use in storage or transportation of wine. The Romans perfected hand blown glassmaking and eventually figured out fragile bulbous shaped wine bottles with cork as the preferred closure.


Up until the 17th century, though, glass bottles were luxury items. Other than cost, glass was ideal mostly because it was inert and didn’t interfere with the flavor or processing of the wine and you could easily see what was inside. 

   kenhelm-digbySir Kenelm Digby is cited as the “father of the modern bottle”. He was a colorful character, an adventurer, privateer and alchemist who actually faked his own death to avoid his troubles. But his savvy furnace-blower system, technique and secret formula produced superior glass that launched the wine industry to a new level. Champagne bottles need to withstand about 80 to 90 psi, 3 times the pressure of your normal car tire, or they’ll explode. In case you’ve wondered, the “punt” on the bottom of sparkling and other wine bottles is for strength because the bottom of a glass bottle is the weakest spot.


   The ancient history of wine vessels for storage and transportation before glass includes animal skins, clay jugs lined with beeswax or pine resin, terracotta, wooden casks and barrels, ceramic and metal containers. The addition of spices, honey and other additives was generally to cover up how awful the wine was. Oxidation and flavor impurity, stabilization and breakage were all commonplace problems. People still loved their wine.


They even had massive wine transport containers called “dolia” installed in their ships, which held up to 2000 liters of wine. Recently discovered shipwrecks in the Mediterranean revealed the holding tanks. Before this discovery, clay amphorae were thought to be the main transportation vessels for wine. Wine and beer related artifacts are some of the most common pieces found at archaeology sites.


     Homer said, “Wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.”  L,et’s bottle that!

Photo credits: Pixabay, Public Domain, Unsplash, rawpixel


Who’s Your Daddy?

Who’s Your Daddy?

by John VerPlanck and Jennifer Laskey VerPlanck

ancient tile vineyard harvest black sheep
A few years back we visited the Serego Alighieri Winery, north of Verona, Italy. It was founded in 1353 by the son of the poet Dante Alighieri, best known for his Divine Comedy. Still in the family over six hundred years later, it is hardly unique in continuous family-owned wineries. Chateau de Goulaine in France’s Loire valley, has been making Muscadet, Vouvray and Sancerre since 1000 A.D. The winery of Barone Ricasoli was founded in 1141 A.D., and Feudi San Gregorio has been family run since 590 A.D. These are all noted producers, and all still in the same family.

Families have operated wineries through the Hundred Years war, the Black Death, the Napoleonic wars, the Norman invasion, the Crusades and the discovery and settling of North America.

Black Sheep wine shop 14th century
We can hardly match that in our country, but there are many examples of estates still in the family after one hundred years or more.

There is a trap however. The name may be old but the ownership may be new. A number of businesses have been sold to conglomerates, often with a decided decline in quality. We have seen a few of our favorites go rapidly downhill following their absorption by the big guys. We look for wines whose vignerons have been given autonomy to produce their product on their own terms. So, while their parent company does not represent the family any longer, the wine still reflects a commitment to quality.

Napa winery Cal free pic vineyard
Sometimes an old family winery needs to add investors in order to stay healthy and competitive. In many cases it’s a strategy that pays off with not only extra resources but fresh ideas.

family sheild lions vine

The oldest continuously operated winery in the United States is the Brotherhood Winery, founded in Washingtonville, New York in 1839.

The age of a winery is interesting, but not necessarily all that significant, nor is the family presence, unless they maintain their level of quality and consistency. Grape vines older than forty to fifty years are at the end of their productive years. There are vineyards in Campania where Spartacus once camped, but the vines have been replanted hundreds of times.

vine old vine hampton court palace
One exception to the old vine rule is a vine we saw at Hampton Court Palace. This oldest and largest vine was planted there in 1768. It is now thirteen feet around the base and produces over 800 pounds of Black Hamburg grapes per year. Archie Bunker aside, “All in the Family” still has some meaning.

Photo/ illustration credit:  Wiki media commons,, public domain,,

Dirty Secrets

Dirty  Secrets

by Jennifer Laskey VerPlanck and John VerPlanck



So, what is dirt or soil? It is the sediment of the earth’s surface capable of supporting plant growth. It consists of rock particles, the chemically altered remains of plant and animal matter and varies in porosity and permeability.

Soil does not always sit on bedrock. There are frequently layers of stones or rocks beneath. Grape vines hate wet feet; good drainage is essential. So what are the soils that work best for wine grapes?

vineyards italy

Grapes are like Russian novelists, they like to suffer. Good fertile soil, beneficial to other crops, is not what you need for wine grapes. The famed Left Bank in the Bordeaux appellation is little more than gravel and sand; one area is actually named, “Graves “, for its characteristically gravelly land. Gravel has good drainage but poor fertility so vines planted in this type of soil must reach down deep to find nutrients and minerals in the subsoil. Grapevines have deep root systems that get their nutrients down deep, not from topsoil. Deep roots help make the vines impervious to severe weather, they cannot freeze, and they can still find water in very dry conditions. The vines need enough nutrients to encourage good root growth but not abundant leaf or vine growth in order to produce more and better fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon is the star of the Left Bank and thrives there.grape vine Vitis_vinifera

The Right Bank of Bordeaux is dominated by clay based soils which have good water retention ability with some limestone and sand for drainage. The soil is often very cool and high in acidity, suitable for Merlot grapes, in fact they produce some of the world’s best Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Bordeaux has what grape vines love, but it wasn’t always so. In the seventeenth century, much of it was swamp and marsh, until some Dutch engineers cleared and drained the waters around Haut-Medóc, revealing a rocky gravel soil rich in minerals and perfect for growing grapes. Now it’s an internationally famous region where Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Merlot, Cab. Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec thrive.

Limestone and clay soils also produce the highest quality Tempranillo from Rioja and Ribera del Duero,   vineyards in Spain. Marl, which is a calcareous clay-based soil that adds acidity to the wine, is the main soil type in the famed Piedmont wine region of Italy which produces spectacular Nebbiolo. The calcium has also been found to help prevent disease in the grapes. champagne vineyards Verzenay_moulin

Slate is the main type of soil in the Mosel region vineyards of Germany, famous for their Rieslings. Slate drains well, warms quickly and retains heat through the cooler evenings thus allowing the grapes to ripen slowly, over time, developing more flavor.

You can plant grapes just about anywhere but you can’t forget about the soil if you want to make world class wines.

Open Up! Wine Police!

Open Up!  Wine Police!

By John and Jennifer VerPlanck
Many centuries ago, people determined that a bottle with a cork was an
excellent way to store wine.  The next day they had to decide how to get the
cork out.

shipping wines in gauls barrels
The corkscrew.  Most early corkscrews were quite adequate.  It is only
through the marvels of modern technology that we have been able to make some
truly bad ones.
The central part, the auger should not look like a wood screw, but a
slender “worm.”  A worm is a twisted metal coil that firmly grips the cork
from within.  Teflon coated worms are best.

corkscrew golden pulltap
So let us start with the worst, first, the wing corkscrew.  As you
insert the auger into the cork, two wings open out to the sides.  `Two
problems here.  Most wing type corkscrews have an auger that looks like a
wood screw.  It very frequently ruins the cork by pulling the center out and
dumping fragments into your wine.

corkscrew wing type

Even the ones with worms are usually too short to work effectively.

Leave this monster in the drawer, or give it to
someone you don’t like. The same goes for the pressure air – pump bottle
opener design. When the possibility of breaking a bottle comes with the
instructions, you don’t want it.
The best tool, in my not even remotely humble opinion, is the single
pull “Waiter’s Corkscrew.”

corkscrew waiters-italian

This is the universal restaurant opener which
includes a foil cutter and perhaps a cap opener on one end. Even easier to
use is one with a spring loaded foil cutter, which snaps back when you’re
There is one modern improvement that actually works.  It is a Waiter’s
Corkscrew with a longer hinged lever.  The cork is pulled out with much less
effort utilizing the extra leverage. The “double-pull,” as it is called, is
my odds-on favorite for functionality.

corkscrew dbl lever
Then there is the “Ah-So.”  You have seen it.  It has two flat, metal
prongs, one slightly longer than the other. It takes a little practice, but
can be very helpful with older vintage wines, whose corks require a gentle

corkscrew ah so
The vertical style lever pull known as “The Rabbit” works fine but it’s
bulky and does require some hand strength and dexterity to use that isn’t as
practical as the simple waiters corkscrew.

corkscrew rabbit style

If price is no object, or you are
opening a lot of bottles regularly, there are counter top stationary
vertical models. They work well and are more efficient and less hard on your
wrist for mass openings, but they take up space and you can’t carry it
around in your pocket. Make sure the gear inside isn’t plastic before you
buy a pricey one.
For absolute ease of use, try the basic electric openers. These
are great for anyone with hand strength or grip issues. They are less
portable and take a battery but the overall benefits make this a good
Be kind to your wine. Use the right tool to open it and you’ll
be thinking about the wine and not the opener.

wine toast vintage

Photo/Illustration Credits: personal photos of the author, Wikimedia Commons,, Public Domain,,

Spanish Wine is Summer Wine

Spanish Wine is Summer Wine

by Jennifer Laskey VerPlanck and John VerPlanck

wine tasting rose black sheep wine shop
Spain is an ancient wine-producing country that makes nearly as much wine as Italy and France, the number one and number two wine producers in the world. Wine has been made there for at least three thousand years. Vineyards in today’s Sherry region were planted by the Phoenicians around 1100 BC. These people know wine. Spain has more than 600 indigenous grape varieties! If you’re not familiar with Spanish wine, join the pack. But once you try it, you’ll be hooked. One very good reason is the price: on the whole, a bargain. pour red wine for yourself
Until the Rías Baixas was named a denomination of origin (DO) in 1988, the region’s fresh, white wines were unknown outside Galicia. The grapes are grown on trellises, high above the ground to permit airflow and avoid rot in the very rainy climate. Like Maine, granite is everywhere and its minerality is amply manifested in the wine. The native Galegos swear they can also taste the sea in their pale, gold wines. With the sea playing such a major role in the lives of Galician people, Albariño wine is a natural choice to drink with meals of seafood and shellfish. Pair Albariño with steamed mussels, sushi, garden salads, crab salad or cold soups, too! As well, look for good quality Mencia from the Bierzo region, which is a lovely light bodied red wine, similar to a Cabernet Franc. Buena_uva,buen_albariño_(pre-veraison)
Verdejo, the signature wine in Rueda, is fresh, aromatic and full bodied, pairing beautifully with oysters and shellfish. Try the bracingly tart Txakoli white wine from the Basque Country, too, which is delightful with buttery lobster, fried seafood, cured meats or tuna. Txakoli wines are made from the rare Hondarribi Zuri grape, which is not grown anywhere else in the world.
In Spain, the terms meant to connote quality in the production of Tempranillo based red wines are Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, based on the ageing process. All of these mellow Rioja reds will best complement grilled or roasted meats, perfect for BBQ and cookout feasts. Mick Stephenson Tempranillowine
Garnacha is a native grape of Spain, the second most planted variety in the world. If you haven’t tried it, what are you waiting for? This is a lighter bodied red wine that can actually take a slight chill to bring out its cherry, raspberry flavors. You get the best of both worlds with Garnacha; flavor and texture of a red wine along with the lively characteristics of lighter white wine. Enjoy this versatile wine with most summer meals. Mick Stephenson Tempranillo vines ClosLaPlanaEdit
Sparkling Cava is produced from the Penedès region, on the shores of the Mediterranean just a little south of Barcelona. Cavas, especially those made in the “methode champenoise”, (champagne method) are quality wines at a fraction of the price of Champagne and superb with summer fare. Low in alcohol, feather light and with a clean refreshing finish, try Cava with paella, hors d’oeuvres and, yes, BBQ, especially chicken. Try it instead of Prosecco, for a change!

sherry from barrel Venenciadora_serving_Sherry

Photo/Illustration Credits: personal photos of the author, Wikimedia Commons,, Public Domain,,