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BERGER: Some sediment in wine bottle may be good

One day in the late 1980s I got a phone call from an old friend, a Sonoma County wine marketer, who was dealing with a nasty problem, and he needed advice.

The following day I met with Peter Friedman, whose Belvedere brand was one of Sonoma County's top brands at the time. And he told me his problem: Some retailers were sending his chardonnay back, complaining that there was ground glass in the bottles.

Obviously it wasn't glass. It was tartrate crystals that had formed as a result of the chardonnay being stored in very cold refrigeration cases. What was happening was that some retailers and consumers were concerned that the "glass" could cause injuries.

I wrote a column about the issue, explaining the phenomenon, which helped a bit. However, some of the same problems have recently arisen, and it's creating the same alarm as it was before: ground glass.

Friedman, who passed away in 1996, was upset to his last days that the technique, a real effort to make a better wine, had backfired because it was then sold to people who should have known better.

The explanation is a tad complex.

After a wine is finished fermenting, the juice retains minute elements that could cause sediment to form in the bottle under some conditions. Some people think the sediment looks bad and may be taken by some buyers as a flaw.

So winemakers routinely endeavor to prevent the sediment from forming by cold-stabilizing the wine before bottling. They put the wine into a tank and drop the temperature down so the sediment forms in the tank and can be removed from the wine before it's bottled.

Some winemakers believe strongly that the colder the wine gets during the stabilization phase, the more flavor and aroma are negatively affected. So cautious winemakers drop the temperature down to 35 degrees Fahrenheit and hope that's sufficient. The more conservative approach is to stabilize at a lower temperature.

It is now January. Nighttime temperatures in many parts of the country drop below freezing, especially in garages (which are rarely heated) and in rooms designed for wine storage.

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