Archive for: January, 2019

60 Second Wine Review — Wallis Family Little Sister Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2011 Wallis Family Little Sister Cabernet Sauvignon from the Diamond Mountain District of Napa.

The Geekery
Wallis Family Little Sister Cabernet Sauvignon

Edward Wallis first purchased 85 acres on top of Diamond Mountain back in 1975. The property included two buildings on the National Register of Historic Places–a 19th-century carriage house designed by architect William H. Corlett and a stone castle built in 1906 by Frenchmen Jacques Pacheteau.

In 1997, the Wallis’ planted 13 acres with plans of selling grapes to wineries like Lokoya and Ramey. By 2006, they were producing wine from their estate fruit.

Since 2008, Thomas Rivers Brown has been making the Wallis Family’s wines. Brown began his career in 1997 at Turley before moving on to cult producers Schrader and Maybach. In addition to making his Rivers-Marie wines, Brown consults for 45 clients in the Napa Valley including Vermeil, Revana, Round Pond and Outpost.

The 2011 vintage of Little Sister is 99% Cabernet Sauvignon with 1% Petit Verdot. The wine was aged 18 months in 80% new French oak barrels with only 650 cases made.

The Wine

Photo by Fir0002. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The juicy plums are quite fresh in this 2011 Cab.

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of red and black fruit–cherries and plums. Pop and pour, just the fruit shows up. But after 2 hours decanting, cured tobacco and spicy fennel emerge.

The fruit carries through on the palate and tastes fresh with medium-plus acidity. However, the palate brings out more oak than what the nose revealed. Creamy vanilla, allspice and clove become even more pronounced as the wine decants. The firm, high tannins also soften with the added time–balancing the full-bodied fruit. Moderate finish lingers on the fennel and oak spice.

The Verdict

The 2011 vintage in California has been hit or miss for me. Some wines, like the 2011 Stag’s Leap Fay have had way too much pyrazines for my taste. But there have been others that I’ve enjoyed.

This 2011 Wallis Little Sister falls into the enjoy camp, holding its own for $70-80. It definitely benefits from decanting, but it seems to have escaped the green monster of 2011.

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Getting Geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

I am going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out over my first ever Chinese wine–the 2012 Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz from the Shanxi province.

The Background

Mr. Chun-Keung Chan founded Grace Vineyards in 1997 with the help of his friend Sylvain Janvier, a native of Burgundy. Suzanne Mustacich notes in Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines that Chan and Janvier met during the former’s business dealings in France. At the time, Chan worked for the Chinese mineral trading and manufacturing firm Eastern Century.

When he sold his shares of Eastern Century in 1994, Chan inquired about purchasing a chateau in Bordeaux. But Janvier convinced him to explore the potential of viticulture in his home country. The two men hired French enologist Denis Boubals to scout for locations. Known as the “Apostle of Cabernet Sauvignon,” Boubals was famous for encouraging Languedoc wine producers to modernize. He promoted uprooting native cultivars in favor of the more fashionable varieties of Cab, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Merlot.

The Vineyard

Map by Shannon1. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Yellow River Basin with provinces noted.

Boubals identified 100 ha (247 acres) in the Yellow River Basin of Taigu County in the Shanxi Province as a potential vineyard site. Located on an arid loess plateau 2600 feet above sea level, the sandy loam soils near Jinzhong City provided good drainage. This allowed room for roots to burrow deep into the earth with ample tillage to bury the vines during harsh winters.

Shanxi’s inland location (nearly 600 km/373 miles from the coast) has a continental climate with cold winters and warm summers. Vineyards here experience a wide diurnal temperature variation between daytime highs and nighttime lows. This can help maintain acidity during heat spikes in the summer.

They planted 69 ha (171 acres) of eleven different grape varieties–including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Chenin blanc. Boubals sourced all the cuttings from France. The partners named their estate Yi Yuan in Chinese and Grace Vineyard in English.

By the estate’s 20th anniversary in 2017, Grace Vineyard had expanded to 200 ha (494 acres) of vines in Shanxi as well as additional parcels in neighboring Ningxia and Shaanxi provinces. The winery also works with several contract growers.

A Family-Owned Winery and a Growing Reputation

Photo by Nick Chan. Uplaoded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

The exterior of the Grace Vineyard estate.

At the time of Grace Vineyard’s founding, the majority of commercial wineries in China were government-owned entities or co-operatives. The large corporation Changyu based in the Shandong region dominated private enterprise.

In 2002, Chan passed the management of Grace Vineyard to his daughter, Judy, a 24-year-old recent graduate of the University of Michigan. She embarked on an ambitious business-plan that sidestepped the corporation controlled distribution networks in favor of direct-to-consumer sales to the growing Chinese middle class. Chan opened up several wine bars and boutique wine shops in major metropolitan areas that prominently featured Grace Vineyard wine.

Mustacich noted that Chan observed the reticence of Chinese consumers to ask questions that could potentially display ignorance. To combat these fears, she organized the wine bars and retail shops to emphasize education. Chan tailored these sites to be more intimate settings where consumers could freely explore.

As the reputation of Grace Vineyard wines grew domestically, they caught the attention of international critics such as Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. Soon major hotel groups like Peninsula and Shangri-La were featuring their wines. Cathay Pacific Airways, the flag carrier of Hong Kong, also began to promote Grace Vineyard wines on their flights.

Today, Grace Vineyard is considered the “role model” for Chinese boutique wineries as China grows in prominence on the world’s wine stage.

The Winemaking

Map by Pancrat. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Significant areas of grapevine production in China in the early 2000s. Grace Vineyard is in the Shanxi province, northeast of Ningxia, neighboring Hebei.

When the vines were nearing their first harvest, Chan and Janvier hired a Bordeaux winemaker, Gérard Colin. Before joining Grace Vineyard in 2000, Colin worked more than a decade for Chateau Teyssier in Saint-Emilion (before it bought by Jonathan Maltus in 1994). He then spent time at the Haut-Medoc estate of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Château Clarke.

Colin would make the first several vintages of Grace Vineyard, helping to pioneer serious viticulture in China. He eventually left in 2006 to join the new project of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) in the Shandong peninsula, CITIC-Lafite.

Colin was succeeded by Australian winemaker Ken Murchison who ushered in a period of exploration. He encouraged the plantings of unique varieties in China such as Aglianico, Marselan, Saperavi, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot noir and Syrah. He also helped Grace launch a sparkling wine project. A native of Victoria, with his own family vineyard in the Macedon Ranges, Murchison split time between working the northern hemisphere harvest at Grace and the southern hemisphere harvest in Australia.

When Murchison retired in 2016, he was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lee Yean Yean. Before joining Grace as a cellar hand in 2006, Yean worked in Australia at the Victoria wineries of Curly Flat and Brown Brothers.

The Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

Photo by Hahn Family Wines. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the central coast region of California.

Launched as an experimental batch in 2012 (along with an Aglianico and Marselan), the Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz was Grace Vineyard’s first significant departure from Bordeaux varieties. The series’ name comes from the founder’s first granddaughter, Anastasya.

The wine was aged for around one year in second-use oak barrels. Grace Vineyard’s initial release of the experimental wines was limited to 3000 bottles of each variety. Only a few dozen cases were exported.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Black pepper and red fruit like cherry and plums. There is a little noticeable oak spice such as cinnamon coupled with an undefined herbal element.

Photo by Parvathisri. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The black pepper spice, along with its juicy red fruits, is a defining feature of this Chinese Shiraz.

On the palate, the red-fruits carry through– mainly the cherries. Mouthwatering medium-plus acidity and soft, medium tannins balance the medium-bodied weight of the fruit. If it wasn’t for the black pepper and darker color, I could see myself wondering if this was actually a Pinot in a blind tasting. Moderate finish lingers on the mouthwatering red fruit.

The Verdict

For $25-35, you are paying a tad for the novelty of a Chinese wine. But taken on its own as a cool-climate Syrah, it does have enough character to make the price feel reasonable.

I would describe it as if a Syrah from a cool area (like the Russian River Valley or Santa Barbara County) and a regional Bourgogne Pinot noir had a baby. You can pick up some of the Syrah qualities. But the acidity and structure would lend me to treating it more like a Burgundy Pinot noir. Its best place to shine is on the table with food.

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Champagne Mystery — Who makes Drake’s Mod Sélection? And will it be worth it?

Ace of Spades, part II?

Photo by The Come Up Show. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Canadian rapper Drake and Brent Hocking (founder of DeLeón Tequila) are partnering to produce a new high-end Champagne called Mod Sélection. Right off the bat, the line-up will feature a $300 non-vintage Brut and a $400 NV Rosé.

That’s a hefty price tag for a Champagne house that is being created virtually out of thin air.

In comparison, consumers can pay $300-400 and get things like:

1996 Bollinger R.D. (Wine Searcher Average $328) aged ten years on the lees. Only 750 cases imported.

1996 Duval-Leroy Femme de Champagne (WS Ave $346) from 100% Grand Cru fruit that was aged 14 years on the lees. Only 1000 cases made.

Dom Perignon “P2” Brut, 2000 (WS Ave $351) aged 15 years on the lees.

Jacques Selosse Substance Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut (WS Ave $312) from a solera that started in 1986. Usually only around 250 cases released at a time.

Pierre Peters L’Etonnant Monsieur Victor (WS Ave $301) from 100% Grand Cru fruit, including the best parcels of Les Chétillons, aged as a perpetual cuvee (similar to solera) that started in 1988. Only around 150 cases imported with each release.

And tons more great Champagnes for a heck of a lot cheaper.

Plus, these are all houses with established track records. We can figure out the grape source and know how long these wines have been aged. We can also get a general sense of how limited and prestigious these wines truly are. Yet, Drake and Hocking want folks to pay an equivalent price for Champagnes that no-one knows anything about?

Even Ace of Spades had a bit of a backstory.

Photo by Wallytraud. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

From $60 to $300, not a bad business deal for Cattier.

Offended by comments by the CEO of his-then favorite Champagne house, Roederer, the American rapper Jay Z began promoting a brand called Armand de Brignac in 2006.

The gold plated bottle, now known as “Ace of Spades”, was made by the Champagne house Cattier. The Champagne was essentially a rebranding of their Antique Gold line which previously sold for around $60.

But once Jay Z got involved, including acquiring partial ownership of the brand in 2014, the price of the Champagne skyrocketed to around $300 for the basic non-vintage brut, $450 for the NV Rosé and approximately $600 for the NV Blanc de Blancs.

Yeah, you can see what Drake is doing here.

But, again, consumers at least know about Cattier’s involvement. The brand is even prominently featured on their website.  While a négociant-firm that purchases grapes, the Cattier family does own over 30 ha (74 acres) of vines in the Montagne de Reims including the notable premier cru Clos du Moulin in Chigny-Les-Roses. For their top cuvee from the Clos, the house only produces around 25,000 bottles.

In the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, Tom Stevenson & Master of Wine Essi Avellan offer some more details about Armand de Brignac (presumably provided by Cattier). They note that across all the Ace of Spades wines, only around 3200 cases are produced. They also mention that at least the NV Brut is aged for around four years on lees.

Photo by Jsatroc. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Cattier who continue to operate their brand in addition to making Jay Z’s “Ace of Spades.”

 

Another Champagne Mystery

Perhaps more details about Mod Sélection will eventually come out. But it is clear right now that its proprietors are purely marketing it based on its association with a celebrity rapper. Still, I’m always down for a good mystery (especially when Champagne is involved), so I decided to see what I can dig up.

Like with Armand de Brignac/Ace of Spades and Cattier, Drake and Hocking are probably partnering with an already established Champagne house. They’re not going to buy vineyards, start aging stock and truly create a brand from scratch.

With a NV Champagne needing a legal minimum of 15 months aging on the lees before release, it’s very likely that the initial release of Mod Sélection is going to be a Champagne that was originally harvested and aged to be labeled as something else. Probably a Champagne that was going to be sold for a much lower price.

That is a big reason why the identity of the house will likely be kept under wraps.  But can we still figure out who makes Drake’s Champagne?

On the Mod Sélection website, details are scarce. However, we do get two solid clues that slip through the marketing flourish.

1.) They’re based in the Vallée de la Marne.
2.) They claim “a legacy” dating back to 1892.

Cracking into some of my Five Essential Books On Champagne, I can eliminate a lot of prospective houses. The Christie’s Encyclopedia is, in particular, really good at noting the location of many houses so I can focus in only on the ones based in the Vallée de la Marne.

Clue #1 – The Vallée de la Marne

Photo by Pline. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ–the most prestigious in the Vallée de la Marne.

This area is broken into three sub-regions. The most prestigious is the Grande Vallée de la Marne which is home to the Grand Cru village of Aÿ as well as several notable premier cru villages like Hautvillers, Cumières and Dizy.

The other two sub-regions are the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche (Right bank, Left Bank) which are home to autre cru villages that are ranked below premier cru.

Peter Liem’s book, Champagne, does an excellent job of explaining the differences between these sub-regions.

While it is possible that Mod Sélection’s mystery house is in one of the lesser Rive Droite or Rive Gauche villages, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and focus on the houses in the nine villages of the Grande Vallée de la Marne.

Clue #2 – Founding date 1892

Photo by Arnaud 25. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Bollinger wouldn’t even give James Bond his own made up Champagne house. It’s not likely that they would partner with Drake and not use their own label.

We can rule out major Champagne houses based in the Vallée de la Marne like Deutz, Jacquesson, Bollinger, Philipponnat and Billecart-Salmon because they have little reason to create a branding apart from their own. Plus, their founding dates don’t match up with Deutz (1838), Jacquesson (1798), Bollinger (1829), Philipponnat (1910) and Billecart (1818).

This clue is going to require more heavy digging since many Champagne books don’t list founding dates and sometimes even a winery’s website isn’t very forthcoming with details. Still, we can gradually start to eliminate notable Champagne houses and well-regarded growers like:

Gaston Chiquet (founded 1919)
Gonet-Medeville (founded 2000)
A.R. Lenoble (founded 1920)
Mousse Fils (founded 1923)
Bereche & Fils (founded 1847)
Gatinois (founded 1921)
Marc Hebrart (founded 1964)
Laherte-Freres (founded 1889)
Georges Laval (founded 1971)
R. Pouillon & Fils (founded 1947)
Tarlant (founded 1928)

But eventually, with a little bit of online sleuthing, I was able to come across at least one estate that fits our bill.
Photo by 2005 Zubro. Uplaoded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the premier cru village of Cumières in the Grande Vallée de la Marne. Is this the home of Drake’s $300+ Champagne?

Champagne Philippe Martin in Cumières. Founded 1892.  They produce around 12,000 to 80,000 bottles which range in price from 18 to 34 euros ($20-39 US dollars). While they apparently have a healthy enotourism operation, as far as I can tell, the wines of Champagne Philippe Martin have never been exported out of France.

This kinda aligns with the Mod Sélection description of partnering with a house whose “highly sought-after champagne had never been exported for sale to the general public.” Though you have to eye roll at the “highly sought-after” part.

Is this our mystery Mod Sélection house? Perhaps. There are still at least 30 other small growers that I need to investigate. But so far Champagne Philippe Martin is our most solid lead.

Will the Champagne be worth $300+?

I highly doubt it.

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60 Second Wine Review — Rivetto Barbaresco Marcarini

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Rivetto Barbaresco from the Marcarini vineyard.

The Geekery
Rivetto Marcarini Barbaresco

The Rivetto family has been producing wine in the Langhe region for four generations. Their origins began with Giovanni who made wine for a food shop in Asti in the late 19th century. Today the family’s estate includes 15 ha (37 acres) of vines based in the Serralunga d’Alba region of Barolo. Giovanni’s great-grandson, Enrico, runs the winery.

In 2009, Enrico started moving his family’s estate towards organic viticulture with Rivetto certified entirely by 2013. In 2015, the estate subsequently started experimenting with biodynamics.

However, the fruit for the 2014 Marcarini is sourced from a grower who practices organic viticulture.

Alessandro Masnaghetti’s very excellent book on the vineyards of Barbaresco, Barbaresco MGA, notes that the Marcarini cru is surrounded by the crus of Ferrere (northeast), Vallegrande (east), Casot (southeast) and Pajorè (southwest).

Other producers who source fruit from Marcarini include Marcarini (actually based in La Morra in the Barolo zone), Ca’ del Baio, Elvio Pertinace, Giuseppe e Figlio Mascarello and Nada Giuseppe.

The Wine

Photo by Qirille. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

This Barbaresco is very spice-driven, especially on the nose.

High-intensity nose. Lots of spice going on ranging from tobacco spice to the fruitcake spices of cardamom, nutmeg and allspice. Also a little black pepper as well. Underneath the spice is some red fruit and herbal notes. Not quite defined yet.

On the palate, those spices carry through with the red fruit becoming more defined as cherries. High acidity amplifies their presence and makes the wine very mouthwatering. Medium-plus tannins are somewhat soft for a Nebbiolo but balance the medium-plus bodied fruit well. Moderate finish brings back the herbal notes. However, the mouthwatering cherry lingers the most.

The Verdict

The softness of the tannins for this relatively young Barbaresco surprised me. However, it certainly has the acid and fruit structure to continue developing.

At $40-50, it’s a decent value for a spicy wine that is enjoyable now.  But really you are banking on its potential to deliver a lot more.

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The Real Influencers of the Wine World

Earlier this month, the Drinks Insight Network published their top ten influential wine experts in the beverage industry. They highlighted 10 Twitter accounts with 17,000-245,000 followers and a ranking of at least 54 on GlobalData’s “influencer score”.

Photo by Dantadd. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Yes, that is Kevin Bacon.

I follow all these accounts on Twitter and it’s not a bad recommendation to check them out. But I only actively interact and read 2-3 of them–Jamie Goode (@jamiegoode), Robert Joseph (@robertjoseph) and Ken Alawine (@alawine). I follow Goode and Joseph for their engaging dialogue about wine topics while Alawine’s feed is a nice diversion of fun memes and infographics.

I don’t think I’ve ever been influenced to buy a wine mentioned by any of them.

And I’m an active social media user who is already motivated to seek out wine stuff.

If I’m so minorly influenced by the most prominent influencers, then what kind of influence do these folks (as well as other influencers/bloggers) really have on the typical wine consumer?

Do You Want The Brutal Truth? 

Very little.

I know this post is not going to make me friends among my fellow bloggers or “influencers”. But I can’t forget about my past life before I really started blogging. In addition to several years working wine retail, I studied winemaking at the Northwest Wine Academy with thoughts of one day opening up my own winery.

Bottling wine

One of my favorite photos from winemaking school. Featured here is my mentor, Peter Bos.

While I’ve moved on from that goal, I still have many friends who work at or own wineries in the Pacific Northwest. When I talk to them about my experiences working in the trenches selling wines like theirs, I’m not going to bullshit them.

I know how tough it is for a small winery to compete in a saturated market. With time and money scarce, I’m not going to encourage my friends to waste either chasing the favor of “influencers”–especially if it’s not really going to help them sell wine.

Yeah, this is a self-defeating post for a blogger to write. Oh well. But I will share with you the same advice I give my winemaker friends. While this is, of course, anecdotal, it’s drawn from my years of helping tens of thousands of consumers while working as a wine steward at a major grocery store chain and a big-box retailer.

It’s also the advice that I would put into practice myself if I started my own winery. There are real influencers out there that drive people to a store looking for wines. But few of them would rank an “influencer score”.

The #1 Influencer — Friends and Family

In over seven years working on the floor, I’ve never had a customer come in with a blog post, Instagram or tweet on their phone looking for a wine. Again, anecdotal, but that is the stark truth.

However, every single day I would have multiple customers come in looking for a wine that a friend or family member recommended to them. These personal recommendations are, by far, the most valuable currency in the industry—and not just in wine.

Of course, friends and family are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can consider some social media influence from outside sources. But the reach of a blogger or “influencer” is going to be indirect and weaken with each link away from that personal connection.

The Bacon number of wine

A Few Good Men and some Sleepers

Essentially if we want to “Kevin Bacon” this, your best influencers are going to be the folks with a Bacon number of 1. When you start getting 2 steps or more removed from the consumer, the amount of influence dwindles considerably.

Advice for Wineries

Remember, keep your eye on the Bacon.

Personal recommendations from friends and family are more valuable than 90+ points from a famous critic. Wineries should seek these recommendations out every bit as aggressively as they court a high score.

Many wineries allow wine club members to bring guests to the tasting room for free. But I can’t think of many who do “friends and family” wine club events. Most events allow their members to bring only a single guest who is usually going to be a spouse.

How does that help you grow your clientele list? Think about expanding that allowance to 3-4 guests as well as promotions that reward current customers for referrals.

#2 Restaurant By-The-Glass Programs

While Millennials tend to be more adventurous than previous generations, there is always a risk in accepting a recommendation. For many, the risk of paying $7-20 for a glass pour of wine at a restaurant is more appealing than spending $25+ for a full bottle at a store.

After personal recommendations from friends and family, the second biggest driver of consumers to my wine shops was the desire to find something they had at a restaurant. Once in a while, a customer would be seeking something they ordered a bottle of but the vast majority of the time it was something they had from the BTG list.

Advice for Wineries
Photo by Iwona Erskine-Kellie. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

There is a reason why the big mega-corps focus so heavily on their on-premise accounts.

Getting on restaurant wine lists should always be a priority for small wineries. In many ways, it is the perfect setting for people to have their first experience with your wine–with great food and great company.

Placement on the BTG list is even more valuable than being on the general wine list. The intimidation factor is less while the openness to explore is greater. Of course, well-run programs will have talented sommeliers that can hand sell the entire list. However, there are very few consumers (like me) who indulge in things like playing the Somm Game.

Plus, for those consumers who are open to recommendations, the odds are better for your wine getting a BTG recommendation from the sommelier than getting one of your bottles recommended from the full list. Think about it. You’re competing against a dozen or so options by-the-glass versus potentially hundreds of bottle options.

I know competition for placement in these programs is high and brings a lot of challenges. But I firmly believe that the effort pays more dividends than chasing online influencers.

#3 First-Hand Winery Experience

While the influencers above drove more people to my shops, this is the area where wineries most control their destinies. Of course, the quality of your wine should be of paramount importance but second only to that should be the type of experience guests get in your tasting rooms.

Photo by Georg Botz. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

I know the sight of a “Bridesmaid Brigade” fills tasting rooms with dread. But they are all prospective customers, even if they don’t buy jack on that first visit.

Living so close to Woodinville Wine Country and within driving distance of all the major wine regions in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen the best and worst of tasting room experiences. I’ve also heard on the floor, from consumers, the best and worst as well.

The best experiences give people a reason to be excited about a winery. Often people visit 2-4 wineries on a trip, so the goal should be to stand out positively. Every tasting room is going to be pouring wine. That’s old hat. The memorable wineries are the ones that give their guests something more than just booze.

Advice for Wineries

I can not emphasize enough the importance of making sure you have a great staff working your tasting rooms. Pay the good ones well and work like hell to retain that talent. They are truly the difference between bringing home the bacon or burning it to a crisp.

I can’t count how many times I recommended a wine only to have a customer recount a bad tasting room experience that they (or friends and family) had. Even if it was several years ago when the winery was owned by someone else, it was a non-starter.

If I started a winery, I would take this Maya Angelou quote and frame it in my tasting room.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. — Maya Angelou

#4 Published Media “Best of…” lists and Wine Competition Awards

My last retail holiday season was 2017 but I remember it quite well. This is when all the “Top Wines of the Year” and “Best of….” lists come out. It seems like every newspaper and magazine publishes some year-end compendium.

For retailers, these lists are both blessings and a royal pain in the ass. They’re easy sales because consumers come in ready to buy and you can fill their basket in 3 to 5 minutes—that is, if you happen to have the exact wine and vintages. The pain in the ass comes from nearly all these lists featuring wines of limited availability (sometimes even winery-only) or from a vintage long sold out.

Advice for Wineries
Photo by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-4.0

Customers coming into a wine shop with an actual print copy of a wine magazine is becoming rarer and rarer.

I ranked this one #4 but it could have easily been #5. The influence of traditional print media is certainly fading. When I first got into retail, I would almost weekly have customers coming in with the latest copy of Wine Spectator or the local newspaper critic’s column. Now it seems mostly concentrated on these year-end lists.

I’ve also noticed that the clientele that actively uses these lists skew older as well. Again, only anecdotal, but I suspect that the influence of these media sources will only continue to wane with the growing prominence of Millennials and Generation Z in the market.

Likewise, I see less excitement and influence surrounding wine competitions every year. But there is still some fight in the old girl. Personally, I don’t think they should have much any influence but people like shiny things. Wine competitions dish out lots and lots of shiny things.

For my own winery, I would still be entering competitions and sending samples out to the traditional print media. However, I wouldn’t put all my eggs in these baskets and focus more on the top #1-3 influencers above.

But you ultimately can’t discount the easy sales that a winery can get with prominent list placement. Nor can you downplay the influence that even a silly bronze medal sticker has in making a wine stand out on the shelf.

#5 Wine Apps

Wine apps with Yelp-like rating systems are another thing that I think shouldn’t hold much influence–but they do. As I described in my post Naked and Foolish, I think these apps are incredibly gameable and ripe for misuse.

My apprehensions aside, I realize that wine consumers (particularly the younger set) are downloading and using them. It’s not yet a considerable quantity, hence my #5 ranking, but it is growing. Before I left retail, I would see maybe a handful of customers a week whipping out their phones and scanning bottles to see how many “stars” something got. I can only expect that number to increase.

Advice for Wineries
Wine Searcher screen grab

While not necessarily a rating app itself, I often saw consumers on the floor using WineSearcher to check prices and critic scores.

While I doubt that wine apps would ever supplant the top 3 influencers, it is nonetheless a Bacon number 1 influencer that shouldn’t be ignored.

At the very least, I would recommend that wineries download these apps and pay attention to what scores their wines are getting from consumers. For small wineries that aren’t likely to get many inputs, it is probably not a bad idea to upload nice pictures of your labels. That way when someone is searching for your wines they can find them more easily.

I would avoid the temptation to add your own ratings and take part in the easy gaming of these apps. But that’s just me.

#?? Recommendations of Wine Stewards/Sommeliers

As a steward on the floor with face-to-face contact with consumers, I carried a Bacon number of 1. But how influential I truly was depended on a lot of factors. This makes it difficult to give a blanket ranking on how influential stewards (and in the same vein, sommeliers) really are.

For customers that I interacted with often and built a relationship, my influence would be only behind that of the #1 influencer–family and friends. I earned trust by learning their palates and backing up my recommendations with my knowledge.

But more broadly, my influence probably fell in the #3-5 range depending on the consumer’s personality (i.e. willingness to seek out a recommendation) as well as their past experiences with other stewards and wine shops. It’s very easy for a consumer to feel burned by a bad recommendation that they received one time, from one person, and then be skeptical about any recommendations they get–from anyone.

The hiring prowess and training programs of a wine shop/restaurant have an immeasurable impact on how influential their stewards and somms will be.

Advice for Wineries
Picture with Jean Triaud of Ch. Gloria

A pic from my retail days where I had a chance to meet Jean Triaud, the grandson of Ch. Gloria’s founder Henri Martin.
Trying the wine was nice, but I was able to introduce many more consumers to Ch. Gloria’s wines through the stories and insights that Jean shared.

After family and friends, wine stewards and sommeliers have the potential to be the second most potent influencer selling your wine. I would give the nod to a winery’s own tasting room staff vis-à-vis, but when you add up how many people visit your tasting room versus the numbers that visit wine shops and restaurants, the potential is higher with the latter.

It is undoubtedly in a winery’s best interests to influence these influencers. These are the folks that are in the trenches presenting your wine to consumers. They have the potential to move far more cases of your wine than a blogger like me ever will do.

But it is not just about getting wine stewards and sommeliers to try your wines. Keep in mind that they’re likely getting samples, trips and other perks from dozens upon dozens of other wineries.

You need to sell them on what makes your winery unique and distinctive, just like you do to a consumer face-to-face. Successful wineries reach out to wine stewards and sommeliers and give them tools (great stories, behind-the-scenes insights, etc.) that they can share to the thousands of consumers they interact with yearly.

I’m not saying that bloggers and social media influencers have zero influence, though.

I don’t want to come across as slamming my fellow bloggers or denigrating their efforts. I know we’re all working hard to make original and useful content that people will want to read. Believe me; I feel the same flutter of excitement and gratification looking at page views and subscription numbers as you do.

But the truth is, is that we are, at best, Bacon number 2s when it comes to the true reach of our influence. We have some influence, but it is quite limited.

We can contribute content that shows up on Google searches when an already engaged and intrigued consumer looks for more info on a wine. Indeed, this is the area where we probably exert the most influence which is why creating original and compelling content is critical.

But that audience of actively engaged consumers is still relatively small. And those prospective consumers needs to be initially “engaged” by something else before they start searching–often by things in the Bacon number 1 realm like sommeliers and wine stewards.

Photo from Renee Comet of the National Cancer Institute. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-author

Engage bacon is by far the most influential bacon.

Now bloggers and social media influencers can certainly influence those sommeliers and wine stewards. Stepping back and thinking about my retail days, I most certainly read blogs and got intrigued by wines.

However, when I step back further and look at the blogging and “wine influencer” scene–when I look at what I’m doing–I realize that we are mostly just influencing ourselves.

Spend any amount of time scanning the comments and likes on Instagram of notable wine influencers and you start seeing a pattern. Take a look at the retweets and replies on Twitter as well as the various #winechat hashtags and you see a similar pattern.

It’s the same people talking to each other.

Now, truthfully, that is great because this is a community that abounds with terrific friendships. One of the most edifying results of attending the Wine Bloggers Conference was meeting fellow bloggers that I could geek out with.

But we can’t mistake shared passion for influence.
Photo by J.Dncsn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Non-engaged bacon.
This is how I view my blog posts. They’re an ingredient that needs to be “cooked” before its sweet aroma influences anyone.

Wineries that invest hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars sending out samples to influencers are not getting their money’s worth. Especially compared to the return on investment they could get focusing on the Top 3 influencers I noted above.

Preaching to the choir will never bring people off the streets and into the pews. And getting people off the streets to check out wines is the whole point of marketing. It’s what wineries need to do in order to survive.

That is why when my good friends with wineries approach me about sampling their wines for review, I’ll accept them–but I’m not going to mislead them about my “influence.” I know that there are better ways that they could be spending their time and money.

And sharing that might be my real influence.

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Want to know the next trends in wine? Follow your stomach

All across the globe, the wine industry is ringing in the new year with prognostications. Everyone has a crystal ball trying to nail down what the next big trends will be.
Sourced from the Library of Congress. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US expired

Some of these predictions bear fruit, while others are just throwing spaghetti at the wall. But in an industry where it takes vines at least three years to be productive and another 1 to 3 to get wine to the market, wineries and retailers need to be a step ahead of the trends.

The difference between success and failure in the wine industry is to be more proactive than you are reactive.

That is what makes trends and prediction articles worth reading–even if you have to take them with a grain of salt.

One recent article by Andy Young of The Shout, an online news service covering Australia, caught my eye. While written from an Aussie perspective, these predictions of Cellarmasters’ Joe Armstrong do hold intriguing relevance to the American market.

First up, Armstrong says that “Cava is the new Prosecco”.

“Our palates are getting fatigued with Prosecco’s fruit-forwardness, so Cava’s dry and biscuity characters are welcome flavours,” he said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019

It wasn’t so much the preference for Cava over Prosecco that surprised me. I’ve been bearish myself about the Prosecco market. I expect its bubble to soon burst as over-expansion and poor quality examples flood the market. Yet it’s not overproduction that has Armstrong and Young seeing Spanish Cava poaching Prosecco’s market share in Australia.

It’s a craving for something drier and less fruity.

Young and Armstrong also predict growth in rosé wine–particularly domestic rosé. But it is not wannabe influencers and #YesWayRosés hashtags that’s fueling its growth. Instead, domestic Aussie rosés are moving towards a style that has been a trademark of French rosé long before anyone made their first duckface on Instagram.

“Due to the popularity of French rosé, more Aussie rosés are being made in that typical, French dry and savoury style. The rise of domestic, dry rosé is a win for consumers as they are affordable and of great quality,” Armstrong said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019

Lanzavecchia Essentia

More people definitely need to get on the Italian wine wagon with wines like this crazy delicious Piemontese blend out drinking bottle more than twice its price.

Additionally, Armstrong sees Australian consumers gravitating towards wines coming out of Spain, Portugal and Italy–countries that have been popular picks with prognosticators in the US and UK as well. These folks also see in their crystal balls an uptick of interest in wines from European countries as part of what’s being dubbed “The Year Of The Curious Wine Drinker.”

Why?

Despite the vast diversity of grape varieties and terroirs, there is a common theme among these European wines.

They tend to be dry.
They tend to be savory.

Kind of like the food that we’re eating now.

Mama, this ain’t the Coca-Cola generation anymore

In the US, there is an old marketing adage that Americans “talk dry, but drink sweet.”

For many years, there has undoubtedly been truth to that saying. Mega-corps have sold millions of cases sneaking residual sugar into “dry wines.” But it’s not only faux dry wines that have caught Americans’ fancy. This country was also at the forefront of the recent Moscato boom that is just now starting to wane.

Photo from : The Ladies' home journal1948. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain with no known copyright restrictions

Margaret dear, you know that is shitty stemware to be serving your Sagrantino in.

And why is it waning?

For the same reason that Pepsi and Coke are seeing declining soda sales.

We’re moving away from sweeter flavors towards sourer (acidity), more exotic and savory ones.

Part of it is health consciousness–with the upcoming Generation Z being particularly “sugar conscious.”

But it is also driven by a desire for balance. (Sounds familiar?)

Food and wine, wine and food. Tomayto, Tomahto

In New World regions like Australia and the US, the association of wine and food hasn’t been as culturally ingrained as it has been in Europe. But that’s changing.

However, you don’t need to have wine with food to understand that our taste in cuisine goes hand in hand with our tastes in wine. When we craved sweet, boring dishes, we ate TV dinners and jello pops.  We drank with them Blue Nun, Riunite and high alcohol reds.

Now that our tastes are going more savory and exotic, what are we eating?

Mushrooms
Sourdough
Chickpeas
Grilled Meats
Cauliflower
Avocado toast
Dry-aged poultry and pork
Turmeric
Pumpkin

Among many other things.

The Takeaway

Wine doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The beverage that goes into our body has to appeal to the same eyes that see our food, the same noses that perceive aromas and flavors and the same taste buds that respond to umami, sour and sweet flavors.

Wineries that cater to the tastes of the past are going find themselves left in the past. You don’t need a canary to see that American (as well as Australian) tastes are changing.

Likewise, you don’t need a crystal ball to predict what the next big wine trends will be. You just need to follow your stomach.

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60 Second Wine Review — Sea Smoke Southing Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Sea Smoke Southing Pinot noir from the Santa Rita Hills.

The Geekery

Sea Smoke Southing Pinot noir

Bob Davids founded Sea Smoke in 1999, planting over 100 acres on south-facing bluffs overlooking the Santa Ynez River. The name comes from the cool Pacific fog that funnels into the Santa Rita Hills each day and tempers the ripening of the vines.

In 2016, Sea Smoke acquired the neighboring Rita’s Crown Vineyard which allowed them to expand their holdings to 144 acres of mostly Pinot noir planted to 10 different clones. Focusing exclusively on estate production, Sea Smoke sells a limited amount of grapes to other wineries such as Foxen and Brewer-Clifton.

Until 2008, Sea Smoke’s winemaker was Kris Curran. When she left to join the Foley Wine Group, her assistant, Don Schroeder, took over winemaking and is still in charge today.

The 2014 Southing is sourced from Sea Smoke’s estate vineyard that has been biodynamic since 2013. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak barrels (55% new).

Across all their wines, around 13,000 cases a year are produced.

The Wine

Photo by Takeaway. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The overt oak and chocolate espresso notes dominate this Pinot.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Noticeable oak vanilla and chocolate espresso notes. Underneath is some dark fruits–black cherry and plum. Smells more Merlot-like than Pinot.

On the palate, the oak certainly carries through with baking spices of clove and nutmeg joining the vanilla, chocolate and toast. Medium acidity gives some lift to the full-bodied fruit but not enough to balance the sense of sweetness. Ripe medium-plus tannins are very velvety. Long finish lingers on the oak, particularly the chocolate espresso flavors.

The Verdict

I fell in love with Sea Smoke’s wines ten years ago and was excited to join their mailing list. But, unfortunately, these last few vintage releases have been underwhelming and I’m going to leave their list soon.

Only the color would keep me from thinking this was a Merlot. While this 2014 Southing would be a decent $40-60 Napa Merlot, it’s not quite what I’m looking for in an $80-100 Pinot noir.

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2018 SpitBucket Year in Review

I just returned from vacation and am working on my blogging calendar for 2019. As I plan my content goals for the year, I decided to take a look back at what I did in 2018.

TruthTeller and the Wine Fool at WBC18

Winemaker dinner with Chris Loeliger of TruthTeller Winery and the Wine Fool at the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference.
Going through my Google Photos, this one jumped out to me as an apt summary of 2018.

While I technically started this blog back in 2016, I didn’t dedicate myself to full-time writing until last year. I spent a good chunk of 2018 feeling my way through and figuring out what I enjoyed writing about–as well as what resonated with readers. I’m a bit shocked at how much my traffic and subscription rate has jumped over these past 12 months and am very humbled by the support.

So as I look back on 2018, I’m also going to share a few of my thoughts on what content I’ll be producing going forward. The primary purpose of this blog will always be to serve as a study tool as I work on my WSET Diploma. But I am an inquisitive geek and a slutty boozer so it’s hard not to write about other alcohols that catch my attention. They also seem to grab the attention of readers (and search engines) as my top posts by traffic reveal.

The 8 Most Read Posts on SpitBucket for 2018

1) Apothic Brew Wine Review — Published on April 8, 2018
2) What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal — Published on October 14, 2018
3) Johnnie Walker “White Walker” Limited Edition Scotch Review — Published on October 15, 2018
4) 60 Second Whiskey Review — Tullamore DEW Caribbean Rum Cask Finish — Published on March 9, 2018
5) Wine Clubs Done Right — Published on January 14, 2018
6) 60 Second Whiskey Review – Alexander Murray — Published on November 28, 2017
7) 60 Second Whiskey Reviews — Jameson Caskmates IPA edition — Published on January 20, 2018
8) Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures — Published on July 11, 2018

Some Thoughts
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

For several weeks after the MS scandal hits, folks were searching for details about Reggie Narito, the somm at the heart of the scandal
Screenshot from Narito’s public blog.
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

I’m quite surprised by how much traffic I still get on the Alexander Murray whiskey review. I wrote that piece back in 2017 and get weekly, if not daily, hits on it. While I’m not very familiar with search engine optimization (and only recently learned about how readability plays into SEO rankings), it’s clear that a lot of people are searching for info on this relatively obscure independent bottler.

Likewise, the eruption of the Master Sommelier scandal drew big interest from search engines. I also benefited from having my article picked up by various news aggregators like Wine Industry Insight and Flipboard. Admittedly, Flipboard is a platform (like Pinterest) that I still haven’t figured out. I plan on spending some time this year learning more about them.

My early January post about deciding to join the Tablas Creek wine club took off when Jason Haas wrote about it on the Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog. I was very shocked and honored that Haas would even read, much less seriously consider, the viewpoints of a random blogger. But as I learned in my continuing journey as a wine club member, this is just par for the course with the Tablas Creek team’s outstanding engagement of their customers.

It’s clear that they are continually striving to improve and actively want to hear from consumers. They’re not hiding out in some ivory tower or behind a moat-like tasting bar. The folks at Tablas Creek make wine because they enjoy it and want to share that joy with others. This is a big reason why they, along with Rabbit Ridge, are one of the few wineries on Twitter that are worth following.

It’s not all Champagne and Bordeaux

Working at grocery stores and wine shops, you learn quickly that the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t necessarily drink the same things you enjoy. You can respond to that in two ways–get stuck up and snobbish about it or try to understand what makes wines like Apothic Brew or its whiskey barrel aged brethren appealing.

Mamamango wine

The fluorescent glow of Mamamango in the glass was a bit weird.

I prefer to take the latter approach which is why you’ll find me researching the backstory of wines like Apothic Brew, Capriccio Bubbly Sangria, Mamamango, Blanc de Bleu and non-alcoholic wines with just as much attention as I do for my reviews of Petrus, Lynch-Bages, Giscours, Krug Clos du Mesnil, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque or Louis XV Rose.

Going forward, I will continue my exploration of new wine trends that emerge. While I am sincerely dreading the advent of cannabis wine, I will nonetheless try it–for science.

A Few of My Favorite Posts from 2018

These articles might not have gotten the search engine traffic that my whiskey and other wine posts did, but they were ones that I had fun writing. They’re also the posts that I think most convey who I am as a wine writer and my general approach to wine.

January

Snooty or Flute-y? — Published on January 13, 2018
Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit — Published on January 22, 2018
Don’t Be a Jackass and Blindly Listen to Bloggers — Published on January 25, 2018
Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne — Published on January 29, 2018
Cab is King but for how long? — Published on January 31, 2018

So apparently I was a bit feisty back in January (and drinking a lot of Champagne). While I’ve always had little tolerance for know-it-alls or folks who dish out bad advice–my language is usually not that stark.

Still, I stand by those words I wrote back then regarding the ridiculous assertations of so-called “wine prophets” and bloggers who aim to stir anxiety and doubt in newbie wine drinkers. These folks don’t do anything to improve the dialogue around wine or promote exploration. They deserve to be taken down a peg or two. And I sincerely hope that if I ever stray that far that someone will come along and knock me down as well.

February-March

Under the (Social Media) Influence — Published on February 13, 2018
What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines — Published on February 25, 2018
Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care? — Published on February 28, 2018
The Mastery of Bob Betz — Published on March 5, 2018
Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine — Published on March 8, 2018
The Legend of W.B. Bridgman — Published on March 31, 2018

As I mentioned in my note about the Apothic Brew review, being in the trenches in retail gives you a lot of insight that you don’t glean from wine books or blogs. The typical wine consumer thinks about wine in a completely different way than most wine writers. That experience fuels my skepticism about the true reach and influence of “influencers”.

I noted in a later post in November, What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?, that I never once had a customer come up to me on the floor with blog review or seeking a wine that they said they saw on Instagram and Twitter. Never. In contrast, nearly every day I had customers looking for a wine they had at a restaurant. When major newspapers or magazines came out with their yearly “Best of…” lists, they were also far more likely to bring people in than a blog or social media posting.

In October, I may have annoyed my fellow bloggers at the Wine Blogger Conference when I told a few winemakers that if I were running a winery, I would focus more on the influencers at national and regional publications as well as getting my wine on by-the-glass programs at restaurants. I would also enter every wine competition I could find because, even though these competitions really shouldn’t have the influence that they do, consumers respond to seeing shiny medals on bottles.

Putting the Pieces Together
Bob Betz and Louis Skinner

A highlight of my year was being invited to Betz Winery where I got a personal lesson on Washington State terroir by Bob Betz and head winemaker Louis Skinner.

Though the posts in March are genuinely some of my favorites. I love getting knee deep into the history of influential figures in wine. Wine lovers across the globe should know about people like Bob Betz, W.B. Bridgman and (in later articles) Martin Ray and Nathan Fay. The world of wine is a quilt with many people contributing to the stitches that keep it together. It’s easy to focus on the patches, but to understand the quiltwork, you have to look at the stitching.

My piece on Jancis Robinson, though, has a bit of a personal bent that goes beyond an academic profile. This one I keep prominently featured in my Author Bio because anyone wishing to understand who I am as a wine writer is well served by understanding the immeasurable influence that Jancis Robinson has had on my career.

April-June

Why I Don’t Use Scores — Published on April 4, 2018
Playing the Somm Game in Vegas — Published on May 7, 2018
Naked and Foolish — Published on May 21, 2018
Pink Washing in the Booze Industry for Pride Month — Published on June 24, 2018

Tokay Eccenzia from Lago

Still can’t get over the jackpot I scored playing the Somm Game when I was in Las Vegas this past May.
It pretty much made up for the disappointment of the 2018 Wine Spectator Grand Tour.

I also keep a link to Why I Don’t Use Scores in my bio as it is an indelible part of my approach to reviewing wine. I know I’m sacrificing traffic and backlinks by not providing magical numbers that wineries can tweet about or feature on their sites. Likewise, I’m sure many PR firms scan over postings like this that convey my love/hate relationship with reviews only to close their browser tab quickly. Frankly, I could care less.

Perhaps it’s privilege in that, with my wife’s career, I don’t need to make an income from writing. I don’t need to count on a steady stream of free wine samples for topics to write about. Truthfully, I prefer paying for the wine that I review or the events I attend because I feel that it gives me a better grounding in measuring their value.

I rate with my wallet instead of with scores because that is how most regular wine consumers judge wine. Did the bottle give you enough pleasure to merit its cost? Great, that’s was a good bottle for you. It doesn’t matter what points it got from a critic. Nor how many stars it had on an easily gameable rating system (Naked and Foolish).

While as a blogger this view is thoroughly self-defeating, I can’t ever see myself straying from the mantra of “Ignore the noise (i.e. bloggers like me) and trust your palate”. I’m not here to tell you what you should buy or how you should drink. I’m just geeking out over whatever is tickling my fancy at one particular moment in time.

September-October

Birth Year Wine Myopics — Published on September 6, 2018
Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine — Published on September 11, 2018
The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray — Published on September 29, 2018
The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials — Published on October 8, 2018
Race From The Bottom — How Should Wine Regions Break Into New Markets? — Published on October 25, 2018

A drum that I will continue to beat loudly in my writings is that the biggest threat to the wine industry over the next several years will be the “Boredom Factor” of the next generation. In 2019, Millennials will outnumber Baby Boomers as the largest demographic in the US. As I touched on back in my January post Cab is King but for how long? and in The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials, wineries are foolish to rest their laurels on the old-standbys of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Millennials crave new experiences and are notorious for getting bored quickly. We crave uniqueness and distinction. As the influence of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers fade from dominance, wineries are going to have to figure out how to stand out from the pack of “same ole, same ole.” The wineries and wine regions that aren’t planning for this (or, worse, doubling down on the old guard) are going to struggle mightily.

November
Wagner Pinots

Pitting these Joe Wagner wines against various Oregon Pinot noirs in a blind tasting yielded some surprising results.

Wine Media Musings — Published on November 9, 2018
Viva La Vida New Zealand — The Coldplay of the wine world? — Published on November 13, 2018
What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews? — Published on November 15, 2018
Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano — Published on November 30, 2018

While I’m coming around to the Wine Bloggers Conference’s name change to Wine Media Conference, I still hold a lot of the same sentiments I expressed in Wine Media Musings. The mantra Show, Don’t Tell is another one that I’m not likely to abandon. I see little need to puff up my credentials or try to claim a title of “Wine Media” for myself. I’m a writer. I’m a communicator. But ultimately it will be readers like you who decide what is Wine Media and what is just noise. My job is merely to put my head down, do my due diligence and work, and create content that will hopefully show that it’s credible and original.

December

The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews — Published on December 10, 2018
Stop Scaring the Newbies — A Look at the Wine Hierarchy of Needs — Published on December 16, 2018
Winery Tasting Notes Done Right — Published on December 17, 2018
Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith — Published on December 31, 2018

Image source https://medium.com/@crypto_maven/bitcoin-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-7bf1be0a366c

The Wine Hierarchy of Needs.
Original image from Bitcoin & Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Drawing by Kenneth buddha Jeans with text added.

I’ll try to make a New Year’s resolution to stop writing about wine reviews for 2019. But I will say that posts like The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews have done a lot to solidify in my mind just what the hell I’m doing here. Even though I often draw on my experiences working retail, at restaurants and wineries for posts, at my core, I’m just a regular wine consumer like most of you. It’ll always be hard to separate from that mindset when I deal with wine reviews as well as winery tasting notes.

While there are aspects of those things that are undoubtedly helpful for consumers making buying decisions–a lot of it is also a heap of bullshit. (Sorry, must be a January-thing)

Finally, two of these year-end posts–the Wine Hierarchy of Needs and my piece on Nathan Fay–were my absolute favorites posts that I’ve written on this blog to date. It felt good to end the year on a high note.

My Favorite 60 Second Reviews of 2018

I went back and forth about whether or not I wanted to do a Top Wines of the Year post. Ultimately I decided against it for a few reasons. For one, I haven’t yet published my reviews on all the great wines I had last year–especially from the past three months. While I have my tasting notes written down, the Geekery sections take longer to do because I’m a stickler for research and fact-checking. I want to find multiple sources beyond just a winery’s website for details I publish. This means that many of the wines I review are ones that I might have had several days or weeks prior. (I do consider that when I make verdict calls relating to a wine’s aging potential or pratfalls.)

The second reason is that I don’t want this blog to be all about reviews. In general, I try to post reviews only around 2 to 3 times a week with the bulk of my articles being on other wine topics. For me, it will always be about the Geekery section. So while I will likely do 60 Second reviews in 2019 with the same frequency as last year, I may turn more of them into Getting Geeky with… posts.

With that said, this list below is not necessarily my favorite wines of the year (though many of them were excellent) but of the posts that I had the most fun researching for the Geekery section.
Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape

I learned a lot about Beaucastel’s approach to blending while researching this post.

Winderlea Shea Pinot noir — Published on January 29, 2018
Pierre Gerbais L’Originale — Published on January 31, 2018
Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny — Published on February 28, 2018
Guardian Newsprint Cabernet Sauvignon — Published on March 14, 2018
Gorman Evil Twin — Published on March 15, 2018
2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape — Published on April 9, 2018
2004 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant — Published on April 21, 2018
Domaine des Pins St. Amour Les Pierres — Published on April 23, 2018
WillaKenzie Pinot blanc — Published on May 8, 2018
2007 Efeste Final-Final — Published on August 22, 2018
Adobe Road Bavarian Lion Cabernet Sauvignon — Published on September 28, 2018
Ch. de la Perriere Brouilly — Published on October 9, 2018
DeLille 2015 Rose (Can Rosés Age?) — Published on October 17, 2018
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 — Published on November 17, 2018
Accordini Ripasso — Published on November 19, 2018

Speaking of Getting Geeky

Few posts convey the spirit and focus of SpitBucket more than my Getting Geeky and Geek Notes features. Here is where I get down and dirty with the type of material that wine students pursuing higher levels of wine certification should aim to master. They make up a good chunk of the 350+ posts that I’ve written so far so I will narrow this down to just my ten favorites of each from this past year.

Getting Geeky with Domaine du Grangeon Chatus — Published on February 18, 2018
Getting Geeky with Soaring Rooster Rose of Counoise — Published on March 7, 2018
Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul — Published on March 19, 2018
Getting Geeky with Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot — Published on April 6, 2018
Getting Geeky about Malbec — Published on April 17, 2018
Getting Geeky with Davenport Cellars Ciel du Cheval Rosé of Sangiovese — Published on August 4, 2018
Getting Geeky with Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre — Published on August 17, 2018
Getting Geeky with Otis Kenyon Roussanne — Published on August 25, 2018
Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot — Published on October 13, 2018
Getting Geeky with Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch — Published on October 21, 2018

Geek Notes

This section changed focus in the latter half of the year. Previously, I used Geek Notes as a curated news feed featuring interesting weblinks with added commentary. After attending the Wine Bloggers/Media Conference in October, I realized that I needed to come up with a game plan for my social media channels. I moved the curated new feed over to the SpitBucket Facebook page and refocused Geek Notes to highlight useful study aides like podcasts, maps, videos and books for wine students.

Out of all the features that I do on the blog, this is the area that I will be increasing the frequency of my postings the most for 2019.

Barolo Cru map

A section of the Grand Crus of Barolo map with the full version at http://www.jdemeven.cz/wine/Barolo_map.pdf

Killer Clos Vougeot Map — Published on January 9, 2018
I’ll Drink To That! Episode 331 Featuring Greg Harrington — Published on August 23, 2018
UK Wine Show Episode 111 with Ian D’Agata — Published on September 23, 2018
Super Cool Map of Barolo Crus — Published on September 30, 2018
Grape Radio Episode 391 Interview with Hubert de Boüard of Ch. Angélus — Published on October 10, 2018
Insider’s Peek Into Champagne — Published on November 7, 2018
Top Audiobooks on California Wine History — Published on November 11, 2018
Five Essential Books On Champagne — Published on December 5, 2018
The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast — Published on December 8, 2018
More Champagne with GuildSomm Podcast — Published on December 22, 2018

Additionally, in 2018 I launched my Keeping up with the Joneses in Burgundy series which dives into the family lineage and connection of Burgundy estates. I started with the Boillot family and have completed cheat sheets on the Morey, Gros, Coche and Leflaive families as well. I will definitely continue producing more of these posts over the next several months.

Wine Events of 2018 and Some Personal News

Last year I had the opportunity to attend many fun wine events. Some were great (like the Wine Bloggers/Media Conference and Hospice du Rhone) while others (like the most recent Wine Spectator Grand Tour and Taste Washington’s New Vintage) were a bit of a dud.

Morgan Twain-Peterson

Meeting Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock at the Hospice du Rhone was another highlight of the year for me.

Walla Walla Musings — Published on February 15, 2018
Quilceda Creek Release Party — Published on March 18, 2018
Event Review — The New Vintage at Taste Washington — Published on March 27, 2018
Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar — Published on March 29, 2018
Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner — Published on April 22, 2018
Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018 — Published on April 30, 2018
Déjà Vu at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour — Published on June 2, 2018
Getting Ready (and a bit nervous) For WBC18! — Published on October 3, 2018

My schedule of events for 2019 will be quite a bit different from last year. My wife and I are moving to Paris sometime in March as she takes on a new job opportunity in France. I will be making frequent trips back to the US to see family and work on a research project about the Stags Leap District AVA. But I’m not sure which events I’ll be able to attend–at least in the United States.

I do have my tickets already booked for the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley this October, so that is a definite. I will also be transferring my WSET Diploma course work to London for an online/intensive classroom block schedule. This will give me a chance to explore some of the various wine events going on that side of the pond. Stay tuned!

Bordeaux Futures Posts

2015 Ch. Margaux

While I’ll likely never score as great of a deal as I did for the 2015 Ch. Margaux, I’ll still be a regular buyer of Bordeaux futures.

I started my coverage of the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign on May 1st of last year with an examination of the offers on Ch. Palmer, Valandraud, Fombrauge and Haut-Batailley. I completed 15 more posts, covering the offers of 64 chateaux, before it got too late into the year for futures offers to be relevant.

While my post Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures was one of my most popular of the year, admittedly I’m not certain if I want to continue this series with coverage on the 2018 campaign. These posts take a considerable amount of time to research and write and, overall, they don’t seem to get much readership.

But I will still be buying futures and doing this research on my own. I’ll likely do a modified version of the series in more of a summary format of the offers. I don’t need to necessarily repeat the geekery sections for each estate. I can shift that focus to individual Getting Geeky with... posts as I did for the 2007 Léoville Poyferré and 2008 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose.

However, if you were a fan of my coverage on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign, I would love to get some feedback in the comments below.

Book Reviews

One area that I want to make a commitment to work on is posting more book reviews of useful wine books. Last year I only completed four.

Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers by Robert Walters — Published on January 16, 2018
Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan — Published on January 27, 2018
Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Paul Gregutt — Published on March 15, 2018
Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich — Published on August 20, 2018

While these are a bit of work, they are a lot of fun to write. I’m such a bibliophile that few things give me more joy than a highlighter and a good wine book. Writing these reviews is a way for me to relieve the delight of discovery I had when I first read them. They’re also terrific learning tools as I inevitably pick up something new (as I did with Oregon Wine Country Stories) when I go back to the text to write a review.

I’m going to set a goal of posting at least one book review a month for 2019. Some of these may be new books but most will probably be old favorites that I feel are particularly of benefit for wine students. I also enjoy putting together the Geek Notes for the Five Essential Books On Champagne and will continue that this year with listings of essential books on Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italian Wine, Winemaking and more.

Onto 2019!

So that is my look back at 2018 and thoughts for this year. Thank you to everyone who has subscribed as well as follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I had a lot of fun last year and look forward to more geeking in 2019!

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Wine & Politics — Strange Bedfellows or Drinking Buddies?

A few days after Christmas, the South African Twitter account @WineMag decided to resurrect the ghost of controversies past by revisiting Jon Bonné’s provocative article Why Is the Wine World So Un-Woke?.

By Neeta Lind - IMG_0416, CC BY 2.0,

Written in the aftermath of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide last summer, Bonné wondered why we didn’t have more writers who embraced Bourdain’s willingness to “tear down the false romanticism” around wine. Instead, wine writers seem to actively avoid covering sensitive topics or the industry’s unsavory elements.

Food, and food writing, may be guilty of its share of glossing-over, of preening and celebrity and the lionizing of malcontent, egoist chefs—not even at the Batali-Friedman-Besh level, but more subtly. It’s no different with tech, where Steve Jobs’ iconic status could overshadow the fact he wasn’t a terribly nice person. But when it comes to whistling past its problems, wine asks those other industries to hold its beer. Jon Bonné, PUNCH magazine, July 18th, 2018

Bonné certainly garnered a lot of attention (and interesting comments) when his post was originally published. But then, like many things in our ADD-driven culture, it faded from the conversation. At least it did until the December 27th tweet from @WineMag. That piqued the interest of Master of Wine Tim Atkins who retweeted it on his feed.

Then Whoa Nelly!

While I’ll comment on a few things below, I can’t possibly do justice summarizing all the many excellent points and divergent opinions in the thread, as well as the many side threads, that sprung up from Atkins tweet. Instead, I’ll encourage you to take a trip down the rabbit hole to read the insightful comments from Atkins, Artisan Swiss, Felicity Carter (the Editor-in-Chief of Meininger’s Wine Business International), Master of Wines John Atkinson and Elizabeth Gabay, Petri Pellinen as well as Bonné himself.

While Bonné’s original post wasn’t explicitly about wine & politics, several of the threads converged on the question about how “political” should we expect wine writers to be. Things took a particularly charged turn when Maureen Downey, probably the wine world’s foremost expert on wine fraud, shared her stark disagreement that politics and wine should ever mix.

This set off another cascade of replies and threads–including one where I finally poked my head. My tweet came in response to Felicity Carter’s comment that wondered if American and European folks were looking at Bonné’s article from different angles.

Why Go Red or Blue When You Can Go Rosé?

As I learned later, through a series of tweets by Jon Bonné, my political views and Maureen Downey’s are very different. I’m a moderate who disdains tribalism that puts people into red/blue, liberal/conservative camps. I personally don’t believe that any ideology has a monopoly on good ideas (or bad ones) which is why we should listen to each other and compromise.

While the vitriol of Downey’s political posts disheartened me, they still don’t sway my overall respect for her work. I feel it would be foolish to shun her expertize or boycott her company just because our beliefs outside of wine are so different.

But I fear that such a public outing of personal politics (even if they’re made in a public forum) would cause others to rethink their esteem of Downey. And that disheartens me just as much as Downey’s politics.

Simply put, I don’t want to lose the “safe space” of a wine community. I love that people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs can set aside their differences and share a common joy. Losing this sense of community is exactly what we’re risking when wine writers dive too much into politics.

Exceptions not Expectations

However, I don’t believe that the world of wine needs to avoid politics completely. I do somewhat agree with Bonné yearning for a Bourdain-type figure in wine. We do need writers who aren’t afraid of poking sacred cows or exposing the ugly side of the industry.

But I think those people, like Bourdain, are rare breeds. I shared this sentiment in a further reply on Carter’s thread.

It would benefit no one if wine writers were judged by how “woke” they were and how actively they covered political topics. Not everyone has the skills set (or tact) to tackle those issues in ways that move the conversation forward instead of disintegrating into pontification and invectives.

Those that have those skills should be valued and encouraged to write when they’re inspired. But for the vast many who don’t, their dabbling into political tussles is more apt to produce a landscape of replacing facts with opinions and emotionally charged slurs of SJW, liberals, right-wingers or conservatives slung about.

And where does that help? It certainly doesn’t help enhance the appreciation of wine. Nor would it edify anyone’s understanding of sensitive political issues.

Maybe We Need More Esther Mobleys Rather Than Anthony Bourdains?

If you want an example of a wine writer that has the skills and tact to write effectively about politically charged issues go check out Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle. Over the years, she has tackled some thorny subjects like the role of immigrant labor in sustaining the California wine industry and gender issues.

While you might be able to infer Mobley’s politics by her topic choices, you would be hard-pressed to peg her exact personal views down. That is because her work rarely speaks to her opinion. Instead, the scalpel she uses to cut deep into her topics speaks loudly enough for her. Sure, she’s not as blunt as Bourdain was in calling out perceived ills. But her thoughtful approach moves these delicate conversations forward.

That makes her far more effective as a wine writer than a wannabe Bourdain being a bull in the china shop.

If there were more Esther Mobleys writing about wine, I wouldn’t feel as cringey about the thought of wine writers being political. But just like Anthony Bourdain, Esther Mobley is a rare breed as well.

Not many can fill those shoes. I know I can’t. Which is why I’ll continue to keep my two Twitter accounts separate.

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60 Second Wine Review — Chante Cigale Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape

A few quick thoughts on the 2010 Domaine Chante Cigale Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The Geekery

Chante cigale CDP wine

The Favier family tends the 40 ha (100 acres) of Domaine Chante Cigale in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The estate was founded in 1874 by the Faviers’ ancestor, Hyppolite Jourdan.

Alexandre Favier, grandson of Noël Sobon and part of the notable Sobon clan, has been in charge of his family domaine since he was 20 years old. Harry Karis notes in The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book that Noël (Roger’s brother) ran the domaine from 1950 to 1975 when he was then succeeded by Alexandre’s father.

On the label, cicadas feature prominently in the crest and pay homage to the French translation of Chante Cigale, singing cicadas.

The domaine’s best parcels include Grenache plantings next to Chateau Rayas as well as old vine plantings in Bois Dauphin, Pignan, Les Pialons and Cabrieres.

The 2010 vintage is a blend of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. Parcels for the Vieilles Vignes comes from vines with a minimum age of 80 years up to 100+ years. After fermentation, Favier then aged the wine in a combination of 30% oak barrels (mix of new and neutral), 30% concrete tank and 40% foudre.

Yearly, Chante Cigale produces only around 20,000 bottles with the Vielle Vignes accounting for about 500 cases.

The Wine

Photo by MarkSweep. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Roasted coffee beans compliment the savory bacon notes of this wine.

High-intensity nose–roasted coffee beans with some smokey bacon fat.  Very mouthwatering aromatics. Blackberries and pepper spice round out the bouquet.

On the palate, the roasted coffee notes come through with a little chocolatey espresso flavor of oak. Medium-plus acidity amplifies the full-bodied dark fruit, adding black currants and cherries. Medium-plus tannins have a firm grip with a chalky texture. Long finish ends on the spice and mouthwatering bacon notes.

The Verdict

This is an incredibly elegant and complex Châteauneuf that more than merits its $80-100 price tag. A bottle worth savoring.

The wine is in a good spot now with its mix of fruit and savory notes. However,  it certainly has the structure to continue aging beautifully.

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