Archive for: September, 2016

Tripping into Wine’s Loopholes

What if I told you that the Cabernet Sauvignon you were drinking was really a red blend with at least 6 other grapes in it? What if I told you that the bottle labeled as Pinot noir on your table was also a blend, but not necessarily a “red” one since it had Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay in it. Or how about that bottle of Napa Valley wine that you ordered at a restaurant in Texas which was actually made in Texas?

By W.carter - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The red pill pairs with Albarino while the blue one pairs with Pinot grigio

Now to some degree, none of this really matters because blissful ignorance is truly blissful if you are enjoying the wine that you’re drinking. That is the blue pill of wine and while it would make a boring blog post (and movie), everyone is welcome to take it. But if you want to know the truth and be a little bit more dangerous as a wine consumer, lets take the red pill and look at some of the loopholes in US wine laws.

Fighting Varietals (or not)

The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) provides a nice brochure with a breakdown of the minimum standards for a wine label in the US. Here we’ll note some key details.

To be labeled as a single grape variety, you only need to have 75% of that grape- This is the fallacy of the grape varietal snobs who drink “only Cabernet Sauvignon” and think red blends are inferior wines made from the “left overs” or would never buy anything unless it says Merlot on the label. HA! Just kidding about that last one. The truth is that most of the red wines in the world are blends. Even if you want to discount many of the amazing European wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone, Tuscany, Valpolicella, Rioja, Douro, etc that have historically always been blends, you still have this huge 25% loophole in American “varietal” wines that US winemakers are all to happy to exploit.

My personal favorite of Ginny's wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her "Peanut butter & Chocolate" pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

My personal favorite of Ginny’s wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her “Peanut butter & Chocolate” pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

Why? Because blending helps them make potentially better wines. I remember listening to winemaker Ginny Lambrix of Zinfandel specialist Truett-Hurst talk about how she loves blending a little Petite Sirah with Zin because the rich plums, blackberry and pepper spice marries so well with the similar (but sometimes uneven with its ripening habits) flavors of Zinfandel. Of course, Zinfandel can make outstanding wines on its own and, yes, Petite Sirah can also make some great bottles. But, as Ginny described, putting the two together is like adding a little chocolate to peanut butter. Great by themselves but absolutely scrumptious together.

No one can discount that Joseph Wagner developed a recipe for Pinot noir that, literally, hit the sweet spot of American palates with blending in the white wine grapes of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay to add sweetness and make the wine more soft. Yet with that 25% “other grape buffer”, he (and now Constellation Brands) could still market Meiomi as a Pinot noir. While there are many incredible 100% Pinot noirs out there, its clear that the blended grapes have been vital to Meiomi’s smashing success and growth yet I don’t know if anyone can credibly argue that Meiomi would have been anywhere near as successful if it was marketed as a Red(ish) blend.

By Steph Laing CC BY 2.0

Only a true confectionery snob would say that the flour alone taste better than this blended creation.

Likewise, the Lohr family has built a very successful brand for Cabernet Sauvignon with their Seven Oaks label yet every single year they are just hitting that 75-76% minimum of Cab and rounding it out with other grapes. You have to give major props to the Lohrs for being transparent with their blends and tech data which is something that not many wineries do. You can tell that they’re proud of the wines they are making but you better believe that they are still making the business decision that they are going to sell more wine labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon than they would if it was labeled as a red blend.

That is my personal gripe about this loophole. I’m very pro-blend but disheartened that the reality of the wine business is that wineries are basically rewarded for hiding the fact that what they are truly making are blends dominated by a particular variety.

Now, of course, we should note that individual states can add their own conditions to tighten some of these laws. For instance, in Oregon a wine labeled as Pinot noir needs to be at least 90% of that grape. Though, curiously, 18 other grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) are “exempt” from these stricter wine laws so, hey, a loophole to a loophole!

Napa with a Twang

Another of the TTB’s bare minimums relate to the use of wine regions or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on the bottle:

To have an AVA listed, only 85% of the grapes needed to be sourced from that region— Napa grapes are expensive with the average price of a ton being over $4300 in 2015. To put that in perspective, 1 ton equals about 2 barrels or 50 cases of wine. This is just the base grape costs and speaks nothing to the cost of labor, winemaking equipment, barrels (new French oak barrels can cost over $3000 each), packaging and marketing. This is one of the reasons why it is hard to find Cabernet from Napa under $20. Unless……

You turn some corners. With your grape truck. On the roads between Napa and neighboring counties.

When you go next door to Sonoma County, the cost for grapes is closer to $2400 a ton with Lake County clocking in at around $1600 a ton. And in the southern Central Valley around Fresno, you can get a ton of grapes for around $300. So clearly there is some financial incentive in offsetting the cost of production for your bottle of “Napa Valley wine” with that 15% loophole of grapes grown elsewhere.

But is it really still “Napa” or, at least, what a consumer would expect from a Napa Valley wine? That’s an interesting question but this loophole goes far deeper when you realize that that 15% could include grapes from places like Texas and Georgia. I’m not kidding y’all.

Big Tex portion of pic from By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)Email the author: David R. TribbleAlso see my personal gallery at Google Picasa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

To be fair, I think Napa stole the idea of erecting big signs from Texas first.

The TTB is currently holding a comment period over a particular loophole that allows a winery to buy fruit from outside their state, truck it into their state and maybe even blend it with local fruit, but still label it under the AVA where the 85%+ of the fruit came from as long as they only sell it within their home state. So, yes, a winery in Texas can buy Napa Valley fruit and potentially blend in 15% of Texas fruit and still sell it as a Napa Valley wine to the wine shops and restaurants of Texas.

The comment period for discussion over this particular loophole will run till December 7th, 2016. For those who like to indulge in some not-so-light reading, you can take a look at the diverse perspectives of people who are both for closing the loophole and against it.

I’m going to bet on the law being changed and this loophole closed, if only because of the big money involved with the Napa brand itself. But, as we’ve learned, there are still plenty of other loopholes to trip over. Maybe its best for all of us to sit back and chase down the blue pills while enjoying our $20 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.

Can Wine in a Can really take off?

I’ll be honest. I’m a skeptic about canned wine. I look at the craft beer industry where you have numerous benefits of using cans over bottles yet because of negative associations with cheap canned beers, craft brewers have been trudging through decades of getting consumers to (slowly) start seeing the light.

Why would wineries want to dip their toes in that fight? Especially when the wine industry still hasn’t gotten our $hit fully together about screw caps and boxed wines. Yes, wine consumers of the world are slowly coming around to those things as well but is it really the best marketing idea to open up another battlefield theater against consumers’ perceptions with wine in a can?

Apparently it is. According to Nielsen data reported this summer sales of canned wine jumped last year from $6.4 million to $14.5 million with sales in 2016 expected to be even higher. I guess maybe I should start looking for some good canned wine to pair with my crow?

The gold color straw made me feel fancier

The gold color straw made me feel fancier


I know one brand of can wines that I would consider for that pairing would be River Road Vineyards’ We Are California Chardonnay and red blend. Despite my skepticism, I will have to say that the Chardonnay was really, really tasty and quite fitting for sitting out in the vineyard on a warm August evening. I appreciated how cold, crisp and refreshing the can kept the white wine and, yes, my tasting note for this can included the word “delicious” more than a couple times. I could easily picture myself lounging in a floating pool chair, sipping this Chard or sneaking a can of this wine into a church picnic as I may have done a few times with cans of Coppola’s Sophia sparkling wine back in my younger days.

I assume that crow would taste better barbecued so I would probably pair that with the We Are Sonoma red blend. But this is where I’ll also admit that my skepticism is more than just objective wine marketing ponderings. It’s also personal because, to me, the red does taste different in the can as opposed to pouring it in the glass. In the glass, I find this wine very fruity with black cherry and a little floral pepper spice (like fresh pink peppercorns). I don’t know what the exact blend of this wine is but it reminds of Pinot noir and Zinfandel. Sipping it straight from the can, I lose the floral and pepper spice though I can still enjoy the smoothness and dark fruit.

But I want the whole package. I want the aromatics to go with the flavor and mouthfeel. For me, the marketing appeal of canned wines with their grab and go, toss in the backpack style is lost. I still need to find room in that backpack for glassware–just like I would for a bottle of wine or a box wine. So what’s the point?

Yes, there have been times that we've all been the guy up the top. But usually that is only during emergencies or Thanksgiving.

Yes, there have been times that we’ve all been the guy up the top. But usually that is only during emergencies or Thanksgiving.


It’s not snobbishness, it’s about pleasure. The science is well known about how intimately connected our sense of smell and taste is. It is also well known how the exposure of oxygen (decanting or letting the wine “breath”) can positively impact the wine. You don’t need a fancy decanter or aerator for simple everyday drinking wine but even the small amount of agitation and aeration from pouring a wine into glass helps the wine open up a little more. Sipping a wine straight from a can doesn’t give me that.

So, yes, I’m a still skeptic but I’m a reasonably open minded skeptic. I will try a canned wine from a high quality producer like River Road and, as I found with their We Are California cans, will admit when I’m pleasantly surprised at how delicious they are.

Though I still don’t think that wineries have figured out how to market to folks like me. What is the real benefit for me to make wine in a can a regular purchase? Sure, there are certainly occasions (like camping, float trips, etc) where a canned wine is assuredly more convenient than lugging around a bottle or box wine.

But, for those occasions, why don’t I just buy beer?

Feeling low on Merlot

Let’s talk about Merlot. And let’s talk about it with only mentioning the movie Sideways once. There. We’ve got that perfunctory obligation out of the way.

Yes, Merlot has been down for a while though Forbes contributor Thomas Pellechia will tell you that it has had a little bump in popularity lately. However, it is still a far cry from the powerhouse it once was.

As a Washington wine lover, Merlot’s downfall has been disheartening. The grape holds a special place in this state because it help put Washington on the national wine map (far from the Potomac) when wineries such as Leonetti, Andrew Will and L’Ecole earned numerous accolades in the late 1980s and early 1990s for their Merlots.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.


Washington Merlots are also very distinctive–richly textured with medium plus to high tannins and moderate acidity that sew together dark fruit flavors with floral and spice notes that can not help but capture the attention of both “big red drinkers” and those who adore elegance and subtle complexity in their reds. If Goldilocks was a Napa Cab fan and Bordeaux lover, she would find Washington Merlots to be “Just right”. There are many reasons why wine writer Lettie Teague calls Washington State a missionary for Merlot.

This distinctiveness and incredibly high quality of Washington Merlots help catapult it to the top of the state’s production, leading the way from the mid-1990s till 2006. But then it dropped.

And dropped.

It wasn’t just Washington State that fell out of love with Merlot. It was nationwide with winemakers sensing the changing tide a couple years before you-know-what premiered in 2004. The movement was already afoot with Merlot vines being uprooted in favor of new Rhone varietals like Syrah and Grenache as well as some of its old Bordeaux buddies like Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Why? It’s easy to blame a movie but I think that overlooks something important.

Merlot is boring.

You weren’t expecting that after the first few paragraphs were you?

By Chilli Tuna - Cropped from El bosque, CC BY 2.0

Plot twist!


Now don’t get me wrong. Merlot wines can be absolutely delicious but be honest with me for a moment. When was the last time you were at a restaurant and your heart soared with intrigue when someone at the table asks for “a bottle of Merlot”? Not a particular producer or a region like Pomerol, just a Merlot. Now think about that same situation if someone asked for a Syrah, a rosé, a Grüner Veltliner, a sparkling wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir. I’m willing to bet there would be a bit more arching of the brow and sense of anticipation in wondering what was in store as one of those bottles was brought to the table.

It’s just not the same with Merlot. And to be fair, I think a lot of people have the same reaction with Chardonnay as the ABC Movement (Anything But Chardonnay) is still alive and kicking with nary a film to blame for its strength. Part of it is the ubiquitous nature of both grapes. You see them everywhere. But, as a millennial, I often hear another refrain among my cohorts.

Our parents (and grandparents) drink Merlot.

They drink Cab too and maybe this trickle down apathy will eventually topple that red wine king, but for millennials it’s hard to get excited about something that you strongly associate with older generations. In the tech world, there is similar discussions about why younger users are leaving Facebook for other social media platforms. More and more, Facebook is being associated with mom and dad, aunts and uncles and that weird dude you shared one study group with back in high school. Facebook is becoming boring and that is the realm that Merlot has been in for some time.

What do millennials find exciting?

That’s the million dollar question for wineries and marketers the world over. Many virtual trees have been slaughtered as article, after article, after article, ad infinitum is written about millennials’ influence on the wine industry and how wineries are (or aren’t) adapting. We can nitpick about correlation and causation but its hard not to notice that the growth in the millennial wine market has coincided with the decline in Merlot. It’s also hard not to notice that this has also overlapped with the rise of red blends.

The irony, in a semi-Alanis sort of way, is that many of the most popular red blends in the market today feature Merlot very heavily.

By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr; cropped, and resized by Hajor. - Agência Brasil [1], CC BY 3.0 br,

It’s like Cheval Blaaaaaaaaaaanc
in a fast food cup


Apothic Red – Merlot with Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Menage a Trois – 35% Merlot with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon
Cupcake Red Velvet – Merlot with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah
14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend – Merlot and Syrah
Radius Red Blend – 57% Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Tempranillo.

On the higher end we have restaurant wine list staples like Duckhorn Decoy Red Blend (52% Merlot), DeLille D2 (57% Merlot) and Chappellet Mountain Cuvee (43% Merlot) leaving Merlot’s mark on consumers’ palates.

This doesn’t even count the huge influence of Merlot in Bordeaux where it is the most widely planted grape in the region. Even in the “Cab-dominated” Left Bank, many top estates of the Medoc feature Merlot quite heavily in their blends. Check out some of the recent blends of Chateau Palmer, such as the 2013 which was 49% Merlot and the incredible 2009 that was majority Merlot!

This all makes perfect sense because Merlot is delicious. The grape’s rich plum and cherry flavors, subtle chocolaty notes, lush tannins, moderate acidity and ability to marry well with the flavors of new oak barrels hit many of the cues that make wine consumers sing with pleasure. People love Merlot. People drink Merlot. It’s just in the form of red blends.

But SSSSHHHHH ….. don’t tell anyone. Especially not Mom and Dad.

The Magic Beans of Wine

One of my favorite links that I check almost daily is the news article aggregate of Wine Business Monthly. It’s a nice one page purview of what’s going on in the wine world. On one visit to the site, my eyes fell upon the click-bait title 10 Words To Look Out For On Affordable Wine Bottles. I clicked on the article and clicked and clicked and clicked some more (The Drink Business loves the slideshow format) and now my head hurts.

Sometimes it is a journey to find a good bottle of wine

Sometimes it is a journey to find a good bottle of wine

To save you the clicking, here are the 10 magical words (or, more accurately, phrases) that Business Insider and Jörn Kleinhans, owner of the The Sommelier Company, promise are almost silver bullets to help you bag high quality wine at affordable prices.

1.) ‘Classico’ on a Chianti
2.) ‘Riserva’ on Italian wines like Barolo or Chianti
3.) ‘Gran Reserva’ on a Rioja
4.) ‘Old Vine’ on a Spanish Grenache or California Zinfandel
5.) ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on a Bordeaux
6.) ‘Meritage’ on a California Cabernet Sauvignon
7.) ‘Trocken’ on a Riesling
8.) ‘Premier Cru’ on Burgundy
9.) ‘Cru’ on a Beaujolais
10.) ‘Grand Vin’ on a Bordeaux (Bordeaux Geeks who really want a belly laugh should just jump to this slide right now)

The issue is not that these are “silly words” or that there are not any benefits in learning what certain key phrases mean on wine labels. Quite the opposite. These are actually extremely helpful words and phrases that would be in Chapter One of any wine book titled How to Know Just Enough to Be Dangerous. However, it is beyond ludicrous to present these words as the secret code crackers that help you “navigate your way to an exceptional bottle of wine.”

I understand how alluring the thought is of magical words that only the wily and the wise know which, when whispered to you, opens up the gate to all the gems hidden in plain sight on wine shelves and wine lists. But there are no “magical words” in the world of wine and peddling a list like this as click bait to readers is like selling magic beans to Jack.

“Well, Jack, and where are you off to?” said the man.

“I’m going to market to sell our cow there.”

“Oh, you look the proper sort of chap to sell cows,” said the man. “I wonder if you know how many beans make five.”

“Two in each hand and one in your mouth,” says Jack, as sharp as a needle.

“Right you are,” says the man, “and here they are, the very beans themselves,” he went on, pulling out of his pocket a number of strange-looking beans. “As you are so sharp,” says he, “I don’t mind doing a swap with you — your cow for these beans.”

“Go along,” says Jack. “Wouldn’t you like it?”

“Ah! You don’t know what these beans are,” said the man. “If you plant them overnight, by morning they grow right up to the sky.”

“Really?” said Jack. “You don’t say so.”

“Yes, that is so. And if it doesn’t turn out to be true you can have your cow back.”

Now those who remember their childhood tales will know that those beans were, indeed, magical and the old man wasn’t necessarily lying. Planting the beans did produce a stalk that grew straight up to the sky. He just forgot to tell Jack about a few giant details that ended up causing, you could say, a few problems for the lad.

The same is true with this list. Jörn Kleinhans, the wine expert behind the list, isn’t necessarily lying in that knowing these phrases will be helpful in selecting good bottles of wine but he’s overselling it in his simplicity (i.e. “Wine that is only labeled Chianti is usually not very good. If you see ‘Chianti Classico,’ that is always a good wine.”) and leaving out some giant details that could end up leading you to A LOT of not-so-enjoyable bottles of wine.

Moral of the Story (TL;DR version)
Don’t be fooled by the promise and simplicity of magic beans. There’s ALWAYS more to the story. If you’re happy with that, you can stop reading now and start surfing Netflix for Jim Henson’s adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story. But if you want to plant these magic beans, we can take a deeper look at this list and mine out the key details that will give you a better chance of finding the right wine for you the next time you’re at a wine shop or looking at a restaurant’s wine list.

1.)‘Classico’ on a Chianti
The assumption: “Wine that is only labeled Chianti is usually not very good. If you see ‘Chianti Classico,’ that is always a good wine.”

Err….no: Chianti Classico is just a region like Napa Valley and just as there are “good” Napa Valley wines, there are also “bad” Napa Valley wines. The same is true with Chianti Classico. Looking for a region alone on the label is never a winning strategy. Now, yes, there are some slightly more restrictive laws regarding yields, aging and blending (such as the fact that white wine grapes are no longer permitted in Chianti Classico). And, yes, you can make a fair argument that the “terroir” of the “Classico” zone of Chianti is better than the larger Chianti area–just like you could make a fair argument that the terroir of the Rutherford AVA is better than the larger Napa Valley AVA.

BUT… good producers make good wines in a variety of terroirs and many of those more restrictive laws of Chianti Classico, such as lower yields and not using white grapes in the blend, are followed by quality minded producers in the greater Chianti area anyways. In fact, from many producers you’ll see offerings of both a Chianti and a Chianti Classico. The difference will often not be in the quality of the grapes and winemaking but rather in the use of oak and aging with the Chianti bottling often being more fresh and fruit driven, meant to be consumed younger and usually with food. That’s not a bad thing if that is what you want.

What you should do instead: Ask about the producer. Again, good producers make good wine and they rest their reputation on every bottle that is labeled with their name–whether it be on a Chianti or a Chianti Classico. If you are just looking for a fresh and easy drinking Chianti to go with a dinner, you don’t necessarily need to spring a couple extra dollars more for the Classico if a good producer’s Chianti is available.

2.) ‘Riserva’ on Italian wines like Barolo or Chianti
The assumption: “This term indicates the winery has full confidence this wine has high potential and shows their best quality. Since the term is regulated in Italy, a riserva is always better than a non-riserva and is an important word to look for in Italian wines.”

Err….no: I’m going to do a shout out here for one of my favorite wine books, Peter Saunder’s Wine Label Language. Published in 2004, it does need to be updated in a few places but for the most part it does an awesome job of telling you exactly what the regulations are for different wines. In the picture below we see what distinguishes a Barolo Riserva from a regular Barolo.
img_9454
The difference is age before release. Yes, you can follow the logic that a winery will save their best plots and best barrels for the wines that they proudly will label as a “Riserva”. But that certainly doesn’t mean that if you are standing in front of two bottles, say a 2011 Barolo and a 2010 Barolo Riserva, that the 2010 Riserva will be the better bottle, right now. In fact, often its not. Often the reason why Riservas get more age is because they need it and may need even more aging beyond the release.

What you should do instead: Ask which wine is drinking better now. When making a wine purchasing decision, your focus should never be on getting the categorically “best bottle” (by whatever vague or subjective standard) but rather on getting the best bottle for you at that moment. That 2011 Barolo which was from a very good year may be at a point in its life where it will give you more pleasure drinking it now than the 2010 Riserva even though 2010 was an outstanding year. And remember, producer matters too. A good producer’s non-Riserva can easily beat a sub-par producer’s Riserva even in classic vintages.

3.) ‘Gran Reserva’ on a Rioja
The assumption: “… you’re always looking for, without exception, the Gran Reserva,” says Kleinhans. “It means this wine has a strong oak flavour, the hallmark flavour of Rioja. It also guarantees this wine has been aged in oak for two years or more, and an additional three years in the bottle.”

Err….no: OMG NO! I’ll save for another blog post about the changing style of Rioja but most wine folks nowadays would say that the Reserva level (minimum 1 year in oak, 2 year in bottle before release) is more indicative of a winery’s “style” and consumers are flocking towards the fresher and more fruit forward styles of a lot of Crianzas (minimum 1 year in oak, 1 year in bottle) and Jovens (only a few months, if any, in oak).

What you should do instead: Pick the style that you enjoy. If you like oak, more dried fruit, spice and earthier flavors, then by all means, grab a Gran Reserva Rioja. There are definitely some great examples out there. But if that is not the style you like, then someone telling you that “without exception” you’re not getting the right bottle if it is not a Gran Reserva is dead wrong. The wines of Rioja are not monochromatic and I dearly pray that anyone who has so been lead astray with such horrible advice will give Rioja another chance and seek out some of the exceptionally well made Crianzas and Reservas out there.

4.) ‘Old Vine’ on a Spanish Grenache or California Zinfandel
The assumption: “The older a vine is, the smaller the grapes are and the more concentrated and jammy the flavour will be.”

Err….no: Well….kinda. Older vines have better means of naturally regulating the yield (smaller yield, not necessarily smaller grapes) and there is some relationship between yield and wine quality–though it isn’t so cut and dry.

One of my personal favorite Old Vine Zins is St. Amant Marian's Vineyard from Lodi. Assistant Winemaker Joel Ohmart (pictured with me) says that these vines, planted in 1901, still produce around 3.5 tons/acre of outstandingly spicy fruit.

One of my personal favorite Old Vine Zins is St. Amant Marian’s Vineyard from Lodi. Assistant Winemaker Joel Ohmart (pictured with me) says that these vines, planted in 1901, still produce around 3.5 tons/acre of outstandingly spicy fruit.

The problem is that the term “Old Vine” isn’t regulated anywhere. It could be applied to a 20 year old vines just as easily as 100+ year old vines. It could also be used to refer to a wine that may have been 60% sourced from 40+ year old vines with the rest supplied by 10-20 year old vines. It’s truly up to the producer (or marketing department) to decide what the term means.

What you should do instead: Ask about the producer. Find out the story about the wine and look for a vineyard name. Truly “Old Vine” wines will have a story behind them and a vineyard whose name the producers are usually quite proud to put on the label. Plus, in the US, vineyard designated wines DO have regulations that they need to follow in order to use the vineyard’s name on the bottle which includes having 95% of the wine sourced from just that vineyard.

5.) ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on a Bordeaux
The assumption: “Those are the chateaus not allowed into the Grand Cru classification 150 years ago. Several outstanding chateaus were left aside, and nowadays these wines not labeled Grand Cru, but Cru Bourgeois, you can get at a great value. It’s the level right under the Grand Cru level people are paying thousands for.”

Err….no: Simply put, the Cru Bourgeois system is a mess. This will certainly be a fodder for another blog post in the future but the key thing that you should know right now is that the term “Cru Bourgeois” has been so diluted and devalued that many of the best estates in Bordeaux that could use the term, such as Chateau Lanessan, Ch. Chasse-Spleen and Ch. Sociando-Mallet, etc. have declined to do so.

What you should do instead: Ask about the producer. Are you noticing a theme? While there are certainly lots of outstanding values in Bordeaux beyond the fabled 1855 Classification, there is no magic silver bullet term that is going to make those values jump out at you. You can either figure it out by trial and error (which following this Cru Bourgeois magic bean would lead to a lot of the latter) or you can ask people who have already done the trial and error themselves.

6.) ‘Meritage’ on a California Cabernet Sauvignon
The assumption:“Relatively simple, but Meritage is a marriage of words between “merit” and “heritage,” and you’ll only ever find it on Bordeaux-style wines from California.”

You can even get a Meritage made in Canada, such as this one from Burrowing Owl in the Okanagan region of British Columbia

You can even get a Meritage made in Canada, such as this one from Burrowing Owl in the Okanagan region of British Columbia

Err….no: So. Much. Wrong. First I would encourage you to check out the Meritage Alliance page where you’ll find out that, No, California is not the only place that you’ll find “Meritage” wines from. Oh yes, there are Meritages being produced across the United States in places like Washington State, Virginia, Missouri and even Rhode Island. Also, a Meritage doesn’t even need to have any Cabernet Sauvignon in it. You can make a “Right Bank Bordeaux-style” Meritage of Merlot and Cabernet Franc or you could make a Carménère-Malbec blend (which sounds really cool) and call it a Meritage.

However, the main reason why this magic bean is bad advice is that the term Meritage is appearing less and less often on wine labels. That’s not because wineries are not making Bordeaux-style wines anymore but rather because fewer wineries are seeing the need to pay a group like the Meritage Alliance membership dues and trademark fees to use the term ‘Meritage’ when they can just come up with a proprietary name and sell it as a red blend.

What you should do instead: Walk into the Red Blend aisle or flip to that page in the wine list and, you guessed it, ask about the producer.

7.) ‘Trocken’ on a Riesling
The assumption: “In the US we often enjoy drier wines, and the Germans have a word for it: trocken,” Kleinhans says.

Err….no: Actually, the common knowledge in the wine industry is that Americans “talk dry but drink sweet” (another future blog post topic). This is why wines like Apothic Red and Menage a Trois are so popular. Even with with noticeable sweetness, they are marketed as just “red wines” which most people assume are always “dry”. It’s also how Meiomi Pinot noir, with Riesling and Gewurztraminer blended in, became a $315 million dollar success. It was a subtly “sweet-ish” Pinot noir that Americans could happily guzzle down without even knowing that there was any residual sugar in the wine.

What you should do instead: Enjoy what you like! (Another reoccurring theme here) If you like sweet wines, wonderful! If you like Apothic, Menage a Trois and Meiomi, that’s fantastic. If you don’t, that’s fine too. There’s plenty out there for everyone. You don’t have to seek out a dry, trocken Riesling just because someone is telling you that is the better wine. Besides, one of the reasons why Riesling is the darling of sommeliers is that the interplay of the wine’s natural sweetness with its lively acidity is magical with food pairing. So knock yourself out.

8.) ‘Premier Cru’ on Burgundy
The assumption: ““With some luck you will find one under $25 and know with confidence you have a single vineyard, highly classified Burgundy rather than a lesser level,” Kleinhans says.”

Err….no: This magic bean isn’t horrible advice. But, again, it’s incomplete. For one, you can have a blend of multiple Premier Cru (or 1er cru) vineyards and still have it labeled as Premier Cru. Second, it is actually getting harder and harder to find good Premier Cru Burgundies under $25.

What you should do instead: The better bet for value is to look more for “Village-level” bottles from areas like Mercurey or even regional Bourgogne levels from outstanding producers. As the mantra goes, good producers make good wine. This will always be your safest bet.

9.) ‘Cru’ on a Beaujolais
The assumption:“These other so-called Cru Beaujolais, you know under $25 that you found a Beaujolais that is as serious and as good as many of the great red Burgundies.”

Err….no: I love Cru Beaujolais but I would never compare these to the “great red Burgundies”. That’s not the point of them as they are made from two different grapes. The Gamay grape used in Beaujolais lends itself better to fresh, floral and slightly spicy wine styles that can pair with a variety of food dishes. The Pinot noir of the “great red Burgundies” tend to show its best with more spice and earthy complexity that pair with heartier dishes.

What you should do instead: So, yes, discover Cru Beaujolais. They are so much better than Beaujolais Nouveau which is, sadly, the extent of most people’s experience with Beaujolais. But don’t try to paint them as something that they’re are not. It’s like appreciating the skill and talents of George Clooney without trying to paint him as Laurence Olivier. They both have their charms but they’re different.

10.) ‘Grand Vin’ on a Bordeaux
The assumption: “The best berries of every vintage are selected into this wine — it’s not one of the leftover sell-offs. This is important because in many years in France, the lesser berries are very disappointing. Sometimes the Grand Vin is very expensive, but you can get many under $25.”

Some estates, like the First Growth Chateau Margaux, even make a "Third Wine" which in exceptional vintages like 2010 can be outstanding values. I was very excited to see this wine on the list of Goodman's Steakhouse in London.

Some estates, like the First Growth Chateau Margaux, even make a “Third Wine” which in exceptional vintages like 2010 can be outstanding values. I was very excited to see this wine on the list of Goodman’s Steakhouse in London.

Err….no: Why in the world would they use a bottle of Chateau Latour (average retail price $792 a bottle) to illustrate this point, I have no clue. This slide kind of seems like it wants to be a continuation of the Cru Bourgeois tidbit from #5 but is even less useful. Yes, the Grand Vin is a producer’s “top wine” but that tells you nothing about the quality of the producer themselves.

What you should do instead: Ironically, the “leftover sell offs” that Kleinhans poo poos is often a great value. Rather than “sell off” the grapes, many high quality producers will make a Second Wine from lots that have been declassified. Different producers have different guidelines but the basic idea behind a producer doing this is that they only want to make a limited quantity of the Grand Vin, of which they want to be extremely selective in making sure that only the cream of the crop is used. This doesn’t meant that the declassified lots are “very disappointing”, they’re just not the very best. These second wines are still being sourced from many of the same vineyards and terroir of the Grand Vin and handled with the same amount of exceptional care and skill.

It’s like the difference between getting a ‘A+’ on the report card in school versus a ‘B+’. They’re both very good grades, just one’s better. While mom and dad may have given out $5 for each “A” on the report card and $3 for each “B” so too do we see a difference in the pricing between the top tier Grand Vin and the top value Second Wine. For example, the 2010 Chateau Margaux (incredible wine, incredible vintage) earned numerous 100 point accolades and averages for over a $1000 a bottle. The second wine, the 2010 Pavillon Rouge, also earned lovely accolades such as 96 points from James Suckling and a pair of 94 points from Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. That wine retails for an average around $195 a bottle. But, again, this is where knowing the producer is key if you want to get the best value. In many cases the second wine of an outstanding producer, for less price, is better than the Grand Vin of a sub-par one.

Moral of the Story (Part II)
There are no “silver bullets” or “magical words” that will pick out for you the best bottle for the money each and every time, only magic beans that give you part of the story. If you really want to increase your odds of getting the right bottle for you, the best thing you can do is simply ask about the wine–get more of the story. Whether it is a restaurant sommelier or a store retail clerk, ask them what they think about the wine and how it matches up with the kind of wines that you personally enjoy.

Making a Bet on Washington Chenin blanc

Earlier this week the big news in the Washington wine industry was the announcement of a collaboration project between the highly acclaimed Betz Family Winery and the Stellenbosch estate of DeMorgenzon Winery called Quinta Essentia. Sourced from four vineyards of old, head-trained bush vines, this South African Chenin will be produced in a dry style and retail for $40 a bottle.

Like many Washington wine lovers, I was intrigued. This was certainly an interesting spin for the fabled Washington winery which has long been known for its outstanding reds. It also made sense giving the South African heritage of the winery’s new owners, Steve & Bridgit Griessel. However, it also left me a little dishearten in that it looks like Washington Chenin blanc is being left in the dark once more.

There is just not enough sunbreaks (and good Chenin blanc like this example from Convergence Zone Cellars in North Bend) in the Pacifc Northwest.

There is just not enough sunbreaks (and good Chenin blanc like this example from Convergence Zone Cellars in North Bend) in the Pacifc Northwest.

Back in 2011, Sean Sullivan of the Washington Wine Report (and now Washington editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine) wrote a terrific article about why Chenin blanc deserves saving . At the end of the article he makes a recommendation for several Washington Chenin blancs, all of them on the off-dry or sweet side, with the driest being Marty Clubb’s L’Ecole 41 Chenin blanc sourced from 30+ year old vines planted in 1979. At around 4000 cases a year, L’Ecole remains practically the lone champion of the grape in Washington State with a bottling that is likely to be available at retail and restaurants. There are other producers with a passion for Chenin in the state, like Scott Greenberg of Convergence Zone Cellers, but these are usually made in very small quantities that are sold through the wineries tasting rooms and wine clubs. Even still, very few of these Chenin blancs are truly dry.

This is disappointing because in other markets (particularly the East Coast), wine consumers are getting hip to what sommeliers and wine geeks have been crowing about for some time–that Chenin blanc makes some mouth-watering and outrageously delicious dry wines with layers of complexity that can match a vast array of cuisine. In a foodie culture like the Pacific Northwest which embraces the flavors, charms and fusion of Asian, Latin and African dishes with ease, you would think that a grape that embraces the balance of acidity, texture, aromatics and fruit so seamlessly as Chenin blanc would be right on the table.

But its not and I think a big reason for this is that no one, outside of L’Ecole 41, has really made a big bet on Washington Chenin blanc and no one has taken the chance to produce and market some of the electricfyingly dry styles that are capturing people’s attention across the globe. This is why it was so disappointing to see that Betz’s new project was going to focus solely on South African Chenin blanc. It’s clear that the Griessels and Master of Wine Bob Betz know good Chenin. So when they took the bold step of introducing the first white wine to their portfolio, and chose to look beyond Betz Family Winery’s home state, it felt like a damning write-off of the potential of Washington Chenin blanc.

“Quinta Essentia emphatically confirms why Chenin Blanc is one of the world’s great white grape varieties… This is not the overcropped, insipid quaffer that Chenin has most often become in the U.S. This is old vine Chenin Blanc, conscientiously grown in a unique site, crafted by a skilled artisan.” — Betz news release

Betz is both right and wrong here. Yes, for a long time US Chenin blanc has sucked. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just think of how exciting it would have been if Betz announced their collaboration with DeMorgenzon and took a page out of Allen Shoup’s book with Long Shadows or Chateau Ste. Michelle with Eroica and Col Solare. What if, instead of just doing a single South African bottling, they set out to change wine lover’s impression of American (and by extension, Washington State) Chenin blanc as being an “overcropped, insipid quaffer”. Working hand in hand with their South African partner, Betz could have done something truly unique in creating two companion bottles, one from Washington State and one from Stellenbosch, made with the same skill and care, that demonstrates the terroir and incredible potential of Chenin blanc. A project that would have combined the credibility and renown of Betz with the passion and respect for Chenin blanc of South Africans would have been just the jolt that this little underdog grape needs here in the Pacific Northwest.

If only Betz was willing to take a bet on Washington Chenin blanc.

A Magnitude of Triviality

I greatly respect Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator. I love his writing style, particularly his Making Sense series of books, where he makes frequent use of anecdote and relatable metaphors to explain wine concepts. It’s a plain spoken style that I often try to emulate in my own writings and teachings on wine. But Matt Kramer is also a wine critic and as such is prone to the same navel-gazing and self justification for their existence that all critics indulge themselves in from time to time. The most recent example comes from his explanation of the difference between professional wine critics like him and mere wine loving folks. For Kramer, it was about differences in magnitude.

Think of it this way. You’ve seen a certain movie a dozen times, then two dozen times. You know it intimately. You begin to notice things you missed the first time or two. Then, after the tenth time, small elements begin to loom ever larger. By the twentieth time, that effect gets magnified yet more.

This is the critic’s perspective. After tasting 200 or 500 Cabernets from a single vintage, it’s not that you’re bored (although that’s surely possible). Rather, it’s that, often unconsciously, what to anyone else seems a very small difference is precisely what captures your attention and excites you.

I sincerely apologize if this post causes you to spend several minutes of your life wondering if Matt Kramer has a navel piercing.

I sincerely apologize if this post causes you to spend several minutes of your life wondering if Matt Kramer has a navel piercing.

The shorthand summary of this quote and the article is that wine critics are important because they taste so much and therefore can pick out the minute differences in wine that most people often do not. While this is undoubtedly true and Kramer’s logic is quite sound, it does beg the question that if the “magnitude of difference” between a 95 point wine and a 94 point wine is derived from these minute differences that only become apparent when awash in a sea of peers–then what’s the value of that to regular consumers? If they’re not going to be able to pick up on these subtle differences, then why would they care if those notes are in a 95 point wine but not a 94 points wine?

The point where a “magnitude of difference” become a “magnitude of triviality”

It’s okay to look at wine scores as a reference point. When you are a consumer, looking at a literal wall of wine in front of you, it can be comforting seeing a sign that says “95 points! Wine Spectator” or “94 points! Beverage Dynamics”. It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking that because someone thinks this highly rated wine is good it must be a “good wine.” But you have to remember that while it may be a “good bottle”, that doesn’t mean that it is a “good wine” for you.

It’s important to understand that Kramer’s “Magnitude of Difference” between a critic and someone like you cuts both ways. All the knowledge that he’s acquired, all the bottles that he’s tasted has shaped his palate to where it is. Yes, he will certainly taste and pick up on things in the wine that you won’t but that also means that you will taste things and focus on aspects of the wine in ways that he won’t. Your “magnitude of triviality” is different and that matters a lot when you consider that you are the one that is ultimately consuming (after likely paying for) the wine.

This is why you should always fall back on yourself, your palate and what gives you pleasure as the final arbitrator of what is “good”. I don’t care if someone is telling you this is one of the greatest bottles of all time, from an amazing vintage and a prestigious estate with critics falling over themselves to award it 100 points. If that bottle doesn’t give you pleasure then, for you, its not really a “good wine”.

It’s just a wine that other people liked.

This is Napa

Forbes contributor Cathy Huyghe recently did a lovely write up on Cain Vineyard & Winery and described why she feels that the Spring Mountain estate is the “ultimate movie location in the Napa Valley”. While I’ve not had the privilege of visiting Cain, I was recently at Spring Mountain in August for a work trip and got to experience the majesty of the fog from nearby Barnett Vineyards on Spring Mountain. I took a video as I was walking through the vineyard and about 15 seconds in you can see my “WOW” moment with the fog.

Seeing the fog and watching it slowly burn off over the course of an hour as it crept back towards San Pablo Bay had me feeling like Neo from The Matrix the first time he had programs, like martial arts, uploaded directly into his brain. It really clicked what made Napa so unique. I’ve read about it. I’ve tasted a lot. I’ve visited the area before (just not this early in the day) but all that stuff I thought I knew became more vivid and real at that moment.

Probably had the same dumb look on my face as well

Probably had the same dumb look on my face as well

This is Napa
This is how such a warm, beautiful Mediterranean climate can still produce wines with such lively acidity that allows them to still taste fresh and then age for decades. This is why, contrary to what is the norm in the Northern Hemisphere, AVAs to the north like Calistoga and St. Helena are so much warmer and can grow Zinfandel while AVAs to the south like Carneros and Oak Knoll District are more Pinot and Chardonnay country. This is why with the vineyards planted in the Mountain AVAs that your elevation and placement above or below the fogline can be the difference between wines with chewy but ripe tannins or wines with more intense and firmer tannins.

Taken from roughly the same location at Barnett Vineyards

Taken from roughly the same location at Barnett Vineyards

It truly is an incredible sight and experience that no amount of pictures, videos or descriptions would ever do justice. I would encourage any Napa Valley wine lover to make it a point, at least once in their life, to book an early morning appointment with a producer on one of the mountain AVAs. Not only are there several terrific ones on Spring Mountain like Barnett, Cain, Philip Togni, Newton, Pride, etc but there are usually tourist options on Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder as well. It might take a bit of cajoling to convince them to open the gates that early for an appointment but it’s worth the effort.

But be forewarn, if the wine is even half as awesome as Barnett’s was, it will be incredibly difficult to want to spit. So just enjoy your early morning boozing with a view. We won’t tell anyone.

Practice makes Super Human

The CBS station in Las Vegas posted last night a report about scientists studying Vegas somms as part of Alzheimer’s research. They interview the wine director of Mandalay Bay, Harley Carbery, and throw this effusive praise his way:

Harley Carbery has developed an almost super human sense of smell over the years.

Let's be honest though, the flying Wine Angels are the real Super Humans

Let’s be honest though, the flying Wine Angels are the real Super Humans

Now I have no doubt that Carbery is a sommelier with an excellent palate and sense of smell. My wife and I have stayed at Mandalay Bay a couple times and we love the wine and spirits selections at their casino bars and restaurants. Aureole, in particular, is a must visit for any food and wine lover. But Carbery is not “almost super human”. He’s just a professional who has put in the time and effort to be very good at his job.

He’s like the nurse who has spent hours practicing on dummies (and willing friends & family members–not always the same thing) at finding the vein and being able to draw blood or set up the IV painlessly. The chef who has cracked many, many eggs in their career and can flip an omelet with pitch perfect perfection every time. The software engineer who can look at lines and lines of code and spot almost in an instance where the bug is. The concert pianist who has devoted thousands of hours of practice time towards letting the beauty of Chopin glide seemingly effortlessly from their fingers. Harley Carbery is like Yadier Molina, who has practically perfected the art of managing pitchers and catching by never settling and always striving to get better.

Not sure how much practice Yadi's tattoo artist had before doing that neck tat

Not sure how much practice Yadi’s tattoo artist had before doing that neck tat

Yes, there is certainly an element of natural-born talent but even the greatest athletes and musicians in the world will tell you that is only a small fraction of what made them great. But let’s also be frank here, smelling and analyzing wine is not playing Chopin nor is it trying to do a full back twisting salto on the balance beam. (You go Simone!) It’s a skill, yes, but it’s a skill that is built up more through practice than through the fortunate blessings of innate talent. Also, if we want to get into the nitty gritty, most women have a leg up on some one like Harley Carbery through genetics that tend to favor women’s sense of smell over men.

The point of this is not to bring some one like Harley Carbery down to human level, but rather to point you towards the path that you could take to be “almost super human” yourself. The quote near the bottom of the article from Dr. Sarah Banks of Cleveland Clinic Center for Brain Health, sums up this path really well.

“… sort of stopping to smell the roses a little bit, to enjoy life to think about your sensory experiences,”

No, not that Brett.

No, not that Brett.

But don’t just smell the roses. Smell everything. Smell the spices in your spice cabinet. Smell the different plants in your neighborhood as you take a walk. Smell the linens at Bed, Bath & Beyond–ideally when the employees aren’t looking. Don’t make it weird. Smell the room when you first walk in. Even the bathroom. (Hola Brett!) Just smell and spend a few brief seconds thinking about what you are smelling. (Emphasis on brief sometimes more than others)

But don’t over think it. Trying to “correctly” identify what you’re smelling is not necessarily the point and when we take this exercise over to the world of wine, this becomes the biggest pratfall for a lot of people. Yes, there may be a tasting note or other people around you waxing poetically about anise, nutmeg, cassis, thyme and Nicaragua Maduro wrapped tobacco and you’re not getting any of that. That’s FINE! Just focus on you and what you are getting. If all you’re getting in the wine is Red Vines black licorice, blackberries and Swisher Sweets, then your redneck description of 2005 Lynch Bages is just as on target as the wino next to you.

And by your redneck description of 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages, I mean my redneck description of 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages. I'm projecting here.

And by your redneck description of 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages, I mean my redneck description of 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages. I’m projecting here.

One of the best exercises that I ever did in my wine training was during a Sensory Evaluation class at the Northwest Wine Academy taught by the simply fabulous Regina Daigneault. Using an aroma infusion method that she learned from the equally fabulous Dr. Ann Noble of UC-Davis, inventor of the Wine Aroma Wheel–which is 7 shades of awesome BTW, Reg put in front of us several glasses of a neutral white wine that had one dominant aroma infused in it. She told the class, right off the bat, don’t try to immediately identify it. Just think about it because our entire perception of aromas are tied to particular memories of when we encountered that smell. If you can tap into that memory, you’ll be able to more easily recognize that smell.

However, sometimes our memories are like witnesses on Law & Order–we often add our unique spin to them. But since we are just drinking wine and not trying to solve a murder with Fred Thompson breathing down our backs, that’s perfectly fine. For instance, during that exercise one of the glasses of wine made me think of (and I kid you not) pot and hippies. It had this mix of herbal, medicinal and floral notes that made me think of incense and hemp products. Turns out that the aroma in that particular glass was cardamon. For whatever reason, that connection in my brain interprets the aroma of cardamon in wine with my memories of “pot and hippies” (Hey, I live in Seattle!). Now, I’ve got that aroma note down solid and can easily pick it out of wine. If I’m swirling a glass and it makes me think I’m in Eugene, Oregon or at a Rasta shop then boom I know I’ve got cardamon.

Some people hear Morgan Freeman's voice as the voice of God. I often hear this man's voice when I'm smelling wine

Some people hear Morgan Freeman’s voice as the voice of God. I often hear this man’s voice when I’m smelling wine “Look Amber! It’s cardamon!”
And now you will too.

Truly the more off the wall the memory and connection you make, the better it is for you to retain it. So spaz out and smell the world. You don’t have to aspire to reach the level of someone like Harley Carbery who is at one of the pinnacles of his profession. But there is still benefit for all of us in practicing towards becoming an “almost Super Human” smeller. Not only will you potentially strengthen and enlarge the part of the brain that is vulnerable to Alzheimer’s diseases, but (as recent studies have shown) your vino homework may also help ward off the disease.

Happy smelling!

The jilted wives club

Today an interesting thread caught my eye on Wine Berserkers titled Chateau Poujeaux is Dead to Me, Along with Other Recently Rollandized Estates. The whole thread is well worth a read, especially if you are a Bordeaux geek, and touches on topics like the differing roles of big name consultants at different estates. But the cliffs note version is: Chateau XYZ is no longer making wine in the style I previously enjoyed and this is a very, very bad thing Vs. Eh, it happens and some people like the new style.

That's what the cloud gets for heeding Michel Rolland's call to micro-oxygenate

That’s what the cloud gets for heeding Michel Rolland’s call to micro-oxygenate

There is some great back and forth from posters in the thread with Jeff Leve who runs, IMO, one of the best websites on earth for Bordeaux lovers at http://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/ (Read it, save it, bookmark it, love it). Jeff is very much on the “Change Happens” side of the argument and I will gladly share that boat with him, especially if he brings a bottle of the 2009 Cos d’Estournel that they kept talking about in the thread.

The strongest argument on the OP side (the “traditionalist” side, if you will) of the Beserker thread is that the somewhat sudden change in style for many houses contributes to a “walking minefield” for people whose palates were used to the more traditional style. When old favorites become new enemies, it can be quite jarring–especially if you’ve invested time and cash into cellaring something that ends up not being the style of wine you enjoy. That’s a fair cause to be annoyed over. But I can imagine it being even more jarring when you realize that the reason for this change is that your loyalty and faithful patronage of the estate (and that of people like you) simply wasn’t enough.

Basically you're the guy in the salmon colored tie on the left and the party has moved on. Everybody just forgot to text you.

Basically you’re the guy in the salmon colored tie on the left and the party has moved on. Everybody just forgot to text you.

The Chateau wanted more–more sales, more acclaim, more prestige, etc–or they wouldn’t have put up the enormous risk of changing their style. For whatever reason, when the decision makers and number crunchers at the estate looked at what the future held for them, they thought that what they had wasn’t enough and they acted on it. It is certainly not a sniffling investment to hire someone like Michel Rolland. Lettie Teague estimated in 2013 that Rolland’s retainer per client was between $100,000 to $250,000 a year. Then you add the potential vineyard investment that may include replanting, retrellising, more extensive labor, etc as well as winery equipment investments (micro-oxygenation isn’t free). Those investments will only be worth every penny if there are people who like this new style of wine. The upsetting news for the traditionalists is that there are.

For the traditionalist, they’re not just being dumped by their favorite estates. They’re being dumped and watching their ex lose weight, get in shape and start driving around in a fancy new sports car while trying to attract a hot, new Millennial to cozy up next to and whisper sweet en primeur scores into their ears. With that can you really blame the “traditionalists” for feeling jilted? When you take a step back, its not hard to see these long time Bordeaux lovers feeling a bit like Annie from The First Wives Club in this scene.

But the thing to remember is that today’s traditionalists aren’t really “The First Wives” of these Bordeaux estates. In fact, they aren’t even the second or third wives. The style of Bordeaux has been changing for a long time. The Bordeaux of Samuel Pepys was quite different from the Bordeaux of Thomas Jefferson or the Bordeaux of Alexis Lichine. As several commentators on the Berserkers thread noted, the famed 1982 vintage that many of today’s traditionalists hold so dear was once scoffed and derided by the traditionalists of that era as “too ripe” to ever produce classic wines. But here we are. With legendary 1982s being savored to the last drop, dwindling down to ever smaller numbers with lots of delicious (or not, YMMV) 2009/2010s vying to take their space in the hearts and cellars of Bordeaux fans.

Yes, you are Shelly. Yes, you are.

Yes, you are Shelly. Yes, you are.

If there is anything that the traditionalists can take solace in, its that history will repeat itself again and again. Change will happen once more. All the Bordeaux lovers of today who are lapping up the new, more ripe, lusher style of Bordeaux will eventually have their own “Jilted Wives” moment.

Because in the end, we’re all just Shellys.

A Matter of Taste and temptation

A couple of days ago I got an email about Robert Parker’s “Matter of Taste” Napa event on November 5th, 2016 at The Meritage Resort and Spa. The event describes itself as “one long weekend of ninety plus ultra wine and dine indulgences that true hedonists will not want to miss!” Now I don’t consider myself a “true hedonist” (or a true Scotsman for that matter), but I do like to wine and dine so I clicked on the link for more info.

The skinny

I'm pretty sure this guy will be there

I’m pretty sure this guy will be there

The most basic package is $150 a person for the General Walkabout Ticket from 2 pm to 6 pm where you can go and sample wines from a fairly impressive list of wineries and, presumably, chat with some representative of these wineries. I doubt Bill Harlan or Bob Levy will be rubbing elbows with the general hoi polloi but who knows?

The step up from that is the VIP Walkabout Ticket which, for double the money at $300 a person, gets you one extra hour of tasting from 1 pm to 6 pm. That’s a hefty upgrade that immediately makes me wonder how much wine is being poured and if paying that extra hour premium is the difference between getting a 1 to 2 oz pour of the 2010 Henschke Hill of Grace or missing out and being stuck fighting the hoard at 2pm for what’s left of the 2009 Chapoutier Ermitage Le Meal.

Beyond that you can enhance your experience with the All Access Ticket at $1,250 a pop which includes VIP entry (so you can finish your [Hill of] Grace before your [Le] Meal at your leisure), Master Classes (which range from $90 tickets on Australia’s greatest vineyards to $300 to listen to Robert Parker talk about Pritchard Hill in Napa–hopefully with some opportunity to taste Chappellet and Bryant Family), and entry to the Ultimate Hedonist BYOB Dinner ($350 a ticket by itself).

The sommelier who did this pairing clearly lacks imagination.

The sommelier who did this pairing clearly lacks imagination.

Then to top the whole shebang, you can shell out $3000 a person for a dinner and retrospective tasting of Cheval Blanc with Robert Parker and Pierre Lurton. This dinner will feature 9 vintages (NINE!) of Cheval Blanc ranging from 1959 (!!!) to 2010 and include the epic 1982 (!!!) vintage and 100 point rated 2005. The food could be Oscar Meyer bologna sandwiches and I’m sure the dinner would still be amazing.

Is it worth it?

My Boston-born wife (as well as this guy) would say that was still money well spent

My Boston-born wife (as well as this guy) would say that was still money well spent

If you have the money and time, then it might be. You do have to think about events like this in that “once in a lifetime” context and figure out how much that experience is worth to you. Every year sports fan across the globe grapple with this decision when their team makes the championship game like the Super Bowl.

Last year, the cheapest tickets that Broncos or Panther fans could get were around $2550 which seems cheap when you think that the average ticket for the previous year’s Super Bowl between Seattle & New England was around $9000. Just think of how much Cheval Blanc and bologna sandwiches that Seahawks fans could have enjoyed for the same amount that they spent to watch Marshawn Lynch not run the football?

What about having Skittles with Sam Neill?
Now if you’re someone like me who doesn’t necessarily have Super Bowl and Cheval Blanc money lying around, a more interesting question is how much value is there in getting the General Walk About ($150) or 100% More Money/25% More Time VIP ($300) tickets? Of course, we’re not even considering at this point the cost of airfare, car rental/uber, hotel or other expenses that such a trip would warrant if you’re already not in the Napa area.

For me, it comes to what I have the opportunity to taste and how much is that opportunity worth it to me. Looking at the partner page and what I’m presuming is the list of wines being poured, I’ll list the Top 10 wines that I would be most excited to try and the current average bottle price listed on Wine Searcher for those wines.

Come on. Would you not want to spend at least $150 to potentially gaze into these eyes? At least the right eye, not quite sure what is going on with the left one.

Come on. Would you not want to spend at least $150 to potentially gaze into these eyes? At least the right eye, not quite sure what is going on with the left one.

2010 Henschke Hill of Grace ($542)
2009 Chapoutier Ermitage Le Meal ($216)
2012 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red ($1,066)
2012 BOND St. Eden ($468)
2002 Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard ($407)
2002 Shafer Hillside Select ($506)
2001 Ridge Monte Bello ($308)
2013 Penfolds RWT ($119)
2012 Kapscandy Roberta’s Reserve ($393)
2012 Two Paddocks Pinot noir ($38)

That’s over $4000 worth of wine that I could potentially try for the “low” investment of $300–or $150 if I want to go with the “fingers-cross-there-is-still-some-left” special. Again, there are other costs to consider but, then, there are other wines that will be poured too. When I get my tasting mojo going, I can usually enjoy and fully evaluate 6-8 wines an hour so that is potentially 24-40 samples of deliciousness awaiting me.

It’s tempting.