Answer Man

Answer Man: Winemaker decides sweetness

Q. Does homemade wine have more calories than store-bought wine?

— Stacy

A. Possibly. Or possibly not. It’s one of those questions that might drive you to drink if you think about it too long, jokes Gary Krekow, who works at the St. Louis Wine & Beermaking shop in Chesterfield, Mo. There just is no pat answer.

“It’s kind of like asking ‘Which has more alcohol: homemade beer or store-bought beer?’” Krekow said. “Well, they make strong beer and they make weak beer. At home, people can do the same thing. It’s about the same with calories in wine.”

I suppose it winds up being a matter of taste. My dad, for example, would buy several bushels of Concord grapes every summer as he prepared for his annual transformation into a little old German winemaker. Then, he’d mash them, let them sit in a hot garage for a week, press them and pour the dark purple nectar into the two sizable wooden kegs he kept in a basement cubbyhole.

Now, as Krekow says, grape juice generally has enough natural sugar in it to provide an adequate level of alcohol once the fermentation process ends. But using grape juice alone likely would have produced drier wine, and my dad didn’t care for dry wines. So he would pour in bags of sugar to sweeten it up, adding untold calories in the process. He did the same with his wild cherry, peach, blackberry, etc.

But who cared? His friends eagerly awaited the bottles he would give away as Christmas gifts. He passed on his sweet tooth, too. Although Niles Crane probably would sniff his nose at me, I to this day prefer a sweeter Concord or Catawba over most dry varieties.

So, you’d probably need to have each friend’s homemade wine analyzed to answer your question precisely, because it’s up to the winemaker to decide how sweet he or she wants his final product. For some fruits — say, pear — you almost have to add sugar, because there’s not enough in the fruit naturally to produce a decent alcohol level through fermentation, Krekow said.

But for others, there are ways to ratchet up the sweetness. First, you’d add a chemical like potassium metabisulfate to inhibit the yeast. Then, when fermentation could not resume, you’d add sugar to taste.

“I would guess that most commercially produced wine has been sweetened just a little bit,” Krekow said. “Even the dry reds probably have had a little bit of sugar added.”

In fact, if you look for wine recipes on line, you’ll find ingredient lists all over the map. At one site, a dry Concord recipe mixes 1 gallon water, 10 pounds of grapes and 11/2 cups of sugar, while a sweet recipe called for 1 gallon of water, 6 cups of grapes and 4 cups of sugar. (The latter sounds like it’s getting pretty close to my mom’s jelly recipe: 8 cups of sugar to every 7 cups of grape juice.)

So if you’re worried about calories, you’ll have to ask the maker. In general, though, it doesn’t sound like any cause for alarm. Except for your supersweet ports and Tokays, a 5-ounce glass of wine generally packs only about 125 calories, which is less than a can of soda with sugar (or high fructose corn syrup). And don’t forget that in 1992, Harvard listed moderate consumption of alcohol — and, perhaps, especially red wine — as one of the eight proven ways to reduce the risk of heart disease.

In the end, I’d say just sit back and enjoy Bacchus’ gift to us mortals. Prost, skoal and cheers.

Q. Can you enlighten me as to why they ever started to say “clean as a whistle” or “slick as a whistle”?

— T.D., of Fairview Heights

A. Unfortunately, the answer is anything but, so you’ll have to choose the theory that makes the most sense to you.

According to some, the popular simile arose to describe the whistling sound that a sword or ax make as it slices through the air en route to beheading someone. In fact, an early 19th quotation bears out this connection: “A first-rate shot. (His) head taken off as clean as a whistle,” according to the quote found in Robert Hendrickson’s “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.”

But others argue it has more to do with the instrument itself, which leads to questions of what the original saying really might have been.

For example, the best whistles must be free of imperfection to produce a clear tone. The buildup of grime on a once-shiny train whistle or even small imperfections in a wood or tin whistle can distort their sound.

“All of which means that an organization or person called as ‘clean as a whistle’ has been judged to be guiltless or flawless,’” according to Webb Garrison in his book “Why You Say It.” As a result, some propose that the original saying was “clear as a whistle.”

Others go one step further. They argue that it arose as a comparison to the limb of a willow tree that has been whittled smooth in preparation of turning it into a whistle. So, they think the original phrase may have been “clean as a whittle.”

Add “slick as a whistle” to the mix and you’re left with a definitive answer that’s about as clear as mud.

Today’s trivia

How did a St. Louis shooting lead to one of the best-known traditional American songs of all time?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: St. Louis native Albert Bond Lambert is the only man to have played in both Summer Olympics that included golf as a sport. In 1900, the 24-year-old finished eighth in Paris with a 189, 22 strokes behind gold medalist Charles Sands, also of the U.S. Then, playing in front a hometown crowd in 1904, Lambert helped his Trans-Mississippi Golf Association team to a silver medal, beating out the U.S. Golf Association squad, which took the bronze. (Golf, by the way, returns to the Olympics next year.)

Lambert, of course, is much better remembered for taking over his family’s Lambert Pharmaceutical Co. (which produced Listerine and is now part of Pfizer) — and his love of aviation. In 1909, he reportedly bought his first airplane from the Wright Brothers and took flying lessons from Orville. In 1911, he became the first St. Louis resident to hold a pilot’s license.

His biggest contribution, however, was buying the old Kinloch Field in 1925 for $68,000, constructing hangers and runways and then selling it to St. Louis in 1928 for his original investment, making it the country’s first municipal airport. Today we know it as Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

For more fascinating facts, today is your last chance to see “250 in 250,” an exhibit commemorating St. Louis’ 250th anniversary at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. Admission is free.