All posts by Amber LeBeau

Top Ten Wines from 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

As we wrap up Spitbucket’s 3 part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour in Las Vegas, we come to our grand finale–my Top Ten Wines of the event. Of course this list is entirely limited and subjective. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, it is virtually impossible to try all 244 wines available in just 3 hours. While I thoroughly enjoyed the 68 wines that I did get to try, I undoubtedly missed out on several gems that may have found their way to this list.

Among the wines that I regrettably missed out on:

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2010 (94 pts. Wine Searcher average price $75)
Graham’s Vintage Port 2000 (98 pts. Wine Searcher average price $98)
Marques de Grinon Domino de Valdepusa Petit Verdot 2011 (93 pts. Wine Spectator list price $40)
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque 2007 (93 pts. Wine Searcher average price $143)
Recanti Judean Hills Wild Carignan Reserve 2014 (91 pts. Wine Searcher average price $48)
Anthonij Rupert Cabernet Franc 2009 (92 pts. Wine Searcher average price $77)
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 2012 (93 pts. Wine Searcher average price $227)

Now as for my Top 10 list, as frequent readers know I do have a bit of bias towards Bordeaux wines. While the geek in me seeks out tasty treats from across the globe, Bordeaux will always be my most enduring love in the world of wine. So it should not be a surprised that Bordeaux wines account for almost a third of this list with many of the other wines capturing my attention for their “Bordeaux-like” elegance and qualities. Again, this list is completely subjective.

My Top 10 wines of the night:

Adobe Road 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $175) Still the undoubted wine of the event. Even glancing over my list of missed opportunities, I don’t think any of them would have knocked this 228 case limited release from Adobe Road off the pedestal.

As I described in part 2, this wine was classic Napa but what set it far above its peers that I tasted was the fresh, lively acidity that gave sparks to tongue while the velvety soft and rich fruit was wrapping it up in a kiss. When you are “power-tasting” through a lot of great wine, you find that they start to meld together, making it hard to stand out. Especially in Napa where the check-list seems to be [x] Ripe dark fruit [x] Full-bodied [x] Soft but noticeable tannins and [x] Noticeable oak. It’s easy to check all those boxes and make a wine that will give immense pleasure when being enjoyed by itself.

But for a wine to stand out when it is being tasted along such illustrious wines as the 2009 Caymus Special Selection, 2012 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow, 2013 Alpha Omega Era, 2013 Beringer Private Reserve, 2012 Chimney Rock Elevage, 2013 Vine Cliff 16 Rows Oakville, 2005 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and 2013 Trinchero Mario’s Vineyard, it is going to be that freshness that hits you like a finger snap in front of your face, commanding your attention. None of the aforementioned wines were bad and, indeed, two of those wines also ended up making my Top 10 list. The 2013 Adobe Road Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon was just better.

Altesino 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli (93 points. Wine Spectator list price $110) Outside of Burgundy and the Mosel, we usually don’t talk about individual vineyards in Europe the same way we do with American wines. There are certainly legendary vineyards in Europe, and single bottlings from those vineyards, but the names don’t easily roll off our tongues quite like To Kalon, Ciel du Cheval, Shea, Monte Bello, Red Willow, Sangiacomo, etc. However, you can make a fair argument (as James Suckling does here [subscription]) that the Montosoli vineyard owned by Altesino is one of the top vineyards in all of Montalcino. In fact, it was the very first vineyard to be bottled as a single cru of Brunello di Montalcino.

Despite being a very young Brunello (even for a warm vintage), this wine lived up to its lofty pedigree with an intoxicating bouquet of tobacco spice, orange peel, black cherry and savory leather. It had me picturing myself drinking an old-fashioned at a Victorian Explorer’s Club gathering. The palate brought more richness to the cherry notes with enough acidity to keep it juicy without being “bitey”. The tannins are still quite firm, again confessing its youth, but a silkiness emerges as you roll the wine around your tongue that holds much promise.

Emilio Moro 2011 Malleolus de Valderramiro Ribera del Duero (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $85) I am still a bit dumbfounded how this wine only got a mere 90 points from Wine Spectator. (As I was with several wines like this that I reviewed in the first part of the series.) While I can appreciate the palates and scores of critics like Thomas Matthews, its always important to formulate our own opinions on wine. While I try to avoid using the 100 point scale myself, with pegging wines down to just a number, I will say that this delicious wine from Emilio Moro far surpassed many 93-94 rated wines.

Heitz 2005 Martha’s Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (93 points. Wine Searcher average price $181) Like the Adobe Road Beckstoffer Georges III, Martha’s Vineyard located in Oakville is a legendary site for Cabernet Sauvignon. My adoration of this wine will again reveal my “Bordeaux-bias” a it had, by far, the most Bordeaux-like nose of all the Napa Cabs. Lots of savory herbal elements of what I like to call the “Chicken herbs” used for roasting–sage, thyme and particularly rosemary. The classic Martha’s Vineyard eucalyptus was also there but I was surprised with how much St.-Julien like cedar box and tobacco spice was also present.

The mouthfeel though was tried and true Napa with rich, almost Port-like dark fruit and Belgium dark chocolate undertones. The medium-plus acidity added enough freshness to balance the weight. The tannins were mostly velvety but they had a firm grip along the edge which hinted at how much more time this already 12-year old wine could go. While some of the eucalyptus and tobacco spice carried through to the palate, most of the savory Bordeaux-like notes on the nose were gone. In many ways it felt like I was drinking two different wines and that kept my interest.

Ramos Pinto 30 year Tawny Port (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $85) You can find my full review here. Again, simply a fabulous Port that is among the best I’ve ever had. If you can find it, its definitely worth grabbing and if you find it priced under a $100, grab two.

Ch. Pichon Longueville Lalande 2011 Pauillac (91 points. Wine Searcher average price $116) You can’t sugar-coat over how rough of a vintage that 2011 was. Spring was too hot and fraught with drought while summer was too cold with rains happening at the most inopportune times (if they happened at at all). Still, the blessings of modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge means that even in the roughest of vintages, wineries still have the skills and the tools to produce delicious wine.

Does this 2011 Pichon Lalande stack up to the 2010, 2009 or even the absolutely scrumptious 2005 (one of my all-time favs among all wines)? No. But neither does the 2011’s price tag of around $116 stack up to the price tags of those vintages–Wine Searcher average of $229, $204 and $152, respectively. That is the landscape of Bordeaux with every bottle and every vintage needing to be evaluate both on a curve and within the big picture.

So judging this 2011 among its vintage-peers, I was exceedingly impressed with how well it was drinking this evening. With 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot and 2% Petite Verdot, this wine had far more Cab than typical Pichon Lalande and with the characteristics of the vintage, I was expecting something that needed far more time. But this wine was ready to dance with a mix of black currant and red cherry fruit framed with the typical savory tobacco and cedar cigar box notes of a good Pauillac. The mouthfeel had a lot more noticeable vanilla oak notes than I would expect. Much as the vanilla works to coax early drinking approach-ability with New World wines, so here it was smoothing out the rough edges of youthful tannins. With a little dark chocolate and Christmas fruitcake spiciness on the finish, you end up with a delightful wine that has character and personality.

Marchesi Fumanelli 2009 Octavius Riserva Amarone (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $173) Another wine that took me by surprised as I reviewed in part 2. This wine may be more difficult to find in the United States but it is well worth the hunt for any wine lover of bold, brooding reds with layers of complexity.

Diamond Creek 2012 Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points. Wine Searcher average price $216) This was only my second encounter with Diamond Creek after previously trying a 2009 Volcanic Hill. That one experience coupled with reading Cellar Tracker reviews of their wines helped form my expectation that this was going to be similar to other Diamond Mountain Cabernets that I’ve had in the past (Wallis Family, Lokoya, Martin Ray and Von Strasser)–powerful, rich but with a lot of structure and firm tannins that need time to mellow.

While this 2012 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow certainly had the power and richness, I was taken back by how soft the tannins where. In a blind tasting, I would be completely fooled that this wasn’t something from Rutherford or Oakville. It was downright velvety with the opulent black fruit. On the nose there was some earthiness, like dusty crushed rocks with a tinge of smokiness, but it was no where near as herbal as I would have expected. This was another wine that I found myself excited at the thought of what enjoyment savoring a full bottle of this wine would bring.

Ch. Calon Segur 2003 (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $117) As I wrote in part 2, it is easy for Bordeaux lovers to dismiss the 2003 “heat wave” vintage (especially on the Left Bank) but wines like the 2003 Calon Segur shows that there were still many great wines made that year.

Ch. Lascombes 2010 Margaux (91 points. Wine Searcher average price $118) Oh you didn’t think I could get through this list without slipping in a 2010 Bordeaux, did you? Of course not. I especially couldn’t pass up tasting again and falling back in love with this wine from the 2nd Growth estate in Margaux. Since Dominique Befve took over in the early 2000s (after stints at l’Evangile in Pomerol and 10 years as Technical Director of Chateau Lafite), Chateau Lascombes has been going from strength to strength.

Lascombes is a little unique in that the fair amount of clay in the soils of their vineyards around the communes of Cantenac, Soussans and Margaux, allows them to grow more Merlot than you would expect for a highly classified Medoc estate. In 2010 that translated to a blend that was dominated by Merlot with 55% followed by 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. While many of its 2010 Cab-dominated Left Bank peers still need ample time in the cellar, this Lascombes is following the path of Angelus, Canon-La-Gaffelière, Pavie-Macquin and Le Dome in being one of the best drinking 2010s right now on the market.

The nose has swirls of black licorice spice with smokey espresso that give way to black currant and Turkish figs. The tannins on the mouthfeel are silky with the same black fruits on the nose being wrapped with even more smoke and now chocolate espresso flavors. The finish is long and lingering, giving ample pleasure but making you soon crave another sip. While most 2009/2010 prices are in the stratosphere, this is still an absolute steal for how much this wine over-delivers.

Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas (Part 2)


First things, if you haven’t checked out the first entry in Spitbucket’s 3 part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas, head there now. You will find a lot of a great wines that often get passed over as score hounds hunt for the wines with the blockbuster ratings.

While the wines featured in Part I were described as Ted Williams wines, the wines that I’m featuring now are more the Joe Dimaggios. They got the big scores and married Marilyn Monroe (or MaryAnn Worobiec) so of course they garnered the bulk of attendees’ attention. Out of the 244 wines, there were 25 wines that received scores 94+ available for tasting, headlined by two Vintage Ports–the 98 point rated Graham’s 2000 and 97 pt Croft 2011.

I got a chance to try several of them and while there were many delicious treats that made my Top Ten list, there were also a few that were just “meh”. It’s good to remember that while Joe did get Marilyn–so did Arthur Miller.


Adobe Road 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $175) Hands down, my wine of the night. Tiny production wine from a single block of Cabernet Sauvignon in the legendary Beckstoffer Georges III vineyard in Rutherford. The highly sought after fruit from this vineyard is prized by a “Who’s Who” of high-end California wineries like Caymus, Alpha Omega, Chateau Boswell, Duckhorn, Staglin, Hunnicutt, Myriad, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Provenance, Robert Craig, Sojurn and Schrader. This example from Adobe Road delivers in spades.

High intensity aromatics of black currant, blackberry with floral elements and a mixture of baking and Asian spices. I spent several minutes just smelling my glass before taking sip because the bouquet was so intoxicating alluring. The mouthfeel was classic Napa–silky smooth tannins that added weight and depth to the palate but wrapped around your tongue like kiss. But unlike a few of the other high scoring wines, this is not a fruit bomb. The acidity was still medium-plus to keep the fruit lively and fresh with the ability to age in the cellar for several more years. However, it is at such a fantastically delicious spot now, I don’t know if anyone lucky enough to get their hands on one of these bottles will want to wait. Just a perfect combination of power, balance and elegance.

Ch. Calon Segur 2003 Saint Estephe (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $117) Another wine that made my Top 10 list. The 2003 vintage often sends a shudder down the spines of European wine lovers because it was a “heat wave” vintage. Indeed, a staggering number of people died from the heat and, while nowhere near as tragic as the loss of human life, grapevines also suffered. But the axiom that “Good wine is made even in bad vintages” is still aptly true. You just have to be more selective and look for the gems that had the kismet of the right terroir and right winemaking touch for the vintage. The 2003 Calon Segur is a perfect case in point.

Located in St. Estephe, the Third Growth estate of Calon Segur is the most northern of the classified growth in the Medoc. While the soils have the typical Medocian mixture of gravel and sand, you also find a far amount of clay. This coupled with the overall coolness of its northernly location, gives you soils that were more apt to retain the limited, precious amount of water needed to weather the heat. Then you add a winemaking style of Calon Segur that (was then) focused on lower alcohol but brawny wines that prized acidity and structure, and you have a wine with a fighting chance to not only be good but maybe even great.

It was a long term bet but one that paid off exceptionally well for the 2003 Calon Segur. The wine had a floral, spicy nose with a delicate touch of fruit that almost smelled like a great red Burgundy. The palate, though, was very Bordeaux–almost full-bodied with velvety tannins that had no greeness or bite. The spice from the nose carried through as a mixture of tobacco and baking spices that complimented the juicy, ripe dark fruits which still had plenty of acidity and life. This wine easily has several more years that it could go on but it is at a great point right now and an absolute bargain at this price. I would put this toe to toe with Bordeaux from the more heralded 2005 vintage in the $170-200 range.

Croft 2011 Vintage Port (97 points. Wine Searcher average price $81) This was the highest rated wine that I got to try that night and it came from the highly acclaimed 2011 vintage. This is a vintage that is often compared to the great vintages of the 1970s as well as 1963 and 1945. However, the thing to keep in mind with vintage Port is that after a few brief years of youthful exuberance following release, these wines tend to “shut down” and enter their quiet phase or “awkward adolescence” that can last for several years or even a decade plus. The trade off is that when these wines re-emerge from that “dumb phase”, they are even more outstanding and mind-blowing. You need the patience of a grasshopper to reap the beauty of a butterfly.

I go through that tangent because, sadly, this Croft has entered that awkward adolescence. This is a fate rapidly befalling upon its 2011 peers with the Cockburn and Graham’s that I’ve tried in the last year likewise being a bit underwhelming despite their pedigrees and potential. What does a “quiet vintage Port” taste like? Well in the case of the Croft it was very muted on the nose, red fruit and that was about it. On the palate, instead of being focused or concentrated, it was a rather clumsy hodgepodge of undistinguished fruit flavors and sweetness. I have no doubt that the potential to live up to its lofty score is there but it is clear that this wine was tasting exponentially better 2-3 years ago when it was being reviewed and that its best years is still much further down the road.

Kistler 2013 Hudson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $80) Combine one of California’s top Chardonnay producer with a legendary Chardonnay vineyard and you are sure to have a winning combination. This wine was classic Cali Chard with tropical fruit aromas on the nose–papaya and ripe honeydew melon–followed by a creamy, rich mouthfeel. But what keeps this from being a butter bomb was the elegance with medium-plus acidity that held up the weight of the malo and a minerally streak that you’re often hard pressed to find in many California Chardonnays. No one would ever mistake this wine for a white Burgundy, but fans of the more weightier examples from Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet could appreciate this wine for being a well-made example of a California benchmark.

Antinori 2013 Guado Al Tasso (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $86) A Super Tuscan blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this wine captures some of the savory herbalness of a nice Pauillac but with a lighter touch and riper tannins. It was a bit tight at this tasting and, like the 2014 Ornellaia noted in the previous blog entry, will need several years to show its stuffing.

Marchesi Fumanelli 2009 Octavius Riserva Amarone (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $173) This was another first-time find and it had me googling where in the US I could buy this wine. That’s always a good sign that something is heading towards my Top Ten list. This was a very spicy Amarone with some floral and earthy elements that smelled like you were hiking through a mint and clover field while carrying a bouquet of roses. The palate was very bold, almost decadent, with rich dark fruit flavors that tasted like a savory Christmas fruitcake. Every sip revealed something different with this wine unfurling on the tongue like chapters and verses of an exciting story. The balance between savory and rich was outstanding. Situated among tables next to a stunning list of top Amarone producers like Allegrini, Masi, Zenato and Bertani, Marchesi Fumanelli stood head over shoulders above them all.

Much like the Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero I talked about in Part I, I was left feeling that if this wine was this impressive based on a single taste, how much more pleasure could be discovered over the course of a whole bottle?


Mollydooker 2014 Carnival of Love McLaren Vale Shiraz (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $72) This winery has its legions of fans but much like smokey, peaty Islay Scotches, its a singular taste that either people love or find that its not really their cup of tea. Being a wine geek, I try to find the nuance of appeal in every wine and while the lush, over the top oak and fruity style of Mollydooker is usually not my cup of tea, I have found examples of their wines that I’ve been able to enjoy for their simple, hedonistic pleasures. But it is kind of like shooting with a bow and arrow at an apple that a circus clown is juggling. Sometimes you hit the apple and win the prize. Sometimes you miss and sometimes you impale the poor the clown.

This one was just a miss. It wasn’t horrible by any stretch of the imagination. It was just really, really, really, really oaky. In fact it was competing with the Orin Swift Abstract and Belle Glos Clarke & Telephone for most oaky wine at the tasting. Lots of sweet vanilla with more overt taste of toast instead of more subtle baking spice. Trying to get past the oak to venture for some fruit, I did feel a sense of richness and intense fruit on the palate but I was hard pressed to really identify what kind of fruit it was or pick up any other layer of complexity. While, in general, Mollydooker wines are often meant to be consumed young as their low acidity usually doesn’t bode well for cellaring, I find that giving them 4 to 5 years from vintage date allows the oak to temper itself a bit while letting some character show.


Ramos Pinto 30 year Tawny Port (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $85) Not too long ago, I did a tasting featuring the tawnys of Taylor-Fladgate where I absolutely adored the 30 year tawny. As phenomenal as that Taylor 30 was, I have to say that the Ramos Pinto ran laps around it. Wow, just wow. This may be one of the single best Tawny Ports that I’ve ever tasted and I would start putting it close to the 1970 Taylor and 1970 Fonseca vintage Ports as one of the best Ports, I’ve had. Period.

While I was extremely discipline in spitting throughout the evening, I swallowed and savored every drop of this wine. The nose was a beautiful blend of spice and hazelnuts. The palate introduced butterscotch and dried golden raisins. The mouthfeel was the star with a silkiness that seemed almost feather-light around the tip of the tongue but pulled you in with its richness and weight towards the mid-palate. The finish was the longest of the evening. Several minutes. In fact, I ended up savoring it for so long that I missed out on the 98 point rated Graham’s 2000 vintage port that was being emptied in glasses as I stood by the table still reveling in the Ramos Pinto 30. While I’m sure the Graham’s would have been wonderful, I think the sacrifice of being able to enjoy the Ramos longer was well worth it. Needless to say, this wine was one of my Top 10 of the night.

Rodney Strong 2012 Rockaway Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $74) If you mostly know of Rodney Strong for their low-end, chain-restaurant wines then this wine is an eye-opener. Much like Sbragia’s Monte Rosso I reviewed in the last post, it seems sinful to compare this Alexander Valley Cabernet to a Napa wine but I’d be damn if this wouldn’t fool me for a Silver Oak Napa (but still priced like their Alexander!). Though while the Silver Oak Napa usually needs 7 to 10 years to get to this level of complexity and drink-ability, this Rodney Strong Rockaway is already roaring on all cylinders.

The nose has a great mix of ripe black currant and plum with tobacco oak spice and cedar cigar box. The palate is powerful and fills up your entire mouth with seductive fruit but also has layers of savory meaty notes underneath. The oak is present but plays a supporting role while letting the fruit and power of the wine take center stage. This wine would be equally at ease paired with a juicy prime rib as it would be with an elegant lamb dish or just being savored by itself.

Torbreck 2013 Descendant Shiraz Barossa Valley (96 points. Wine Searcher average price $89) This wine was tussling with the Penfolds 2014 RWT, Two Hands 2014 Bella Garden and the Hickinbotham Clarendon 2013 Brooks Road for best Australian wine of the night. A co-ferment with 8% Viognier, this wine has an absolutely beautiful floral nose paired with vibrant berry fruit. Even though time is precious with just 3 hours to taste upwards of 244 wines, this was a wine that deliberately slows you down, encouraging you to spend several minutes just smelling and enjoying it.

When you finally do get to tasting it, the pay off is well worth it with it full-body but elegant mouthfeel that testifies to but also defies it 15.5% alcohol. Tasting blind, I would’ve peg it more around 14% because of how graceful it carries it heavy weight across the palate. Medium-plus acidity keeps the fruit fresh and invites your taste buds to water enough to pick up some of the black pepper and baking spices of cinnamon and nutmeg that wraps around the berry fruit. It’s a shame that Torbreck gets no where near the amount of attention that Penfolds or Mollydooker gets because this wine is certainly among Australia’s best.


K Vintners 2013 Royal City Syrah (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $129) Like Mollydooker, I find Charles Smith’s wines of K Vintners to be “hit or miss” for me with, thankfully, more hits than misses. But these are still wines that I will hardly ever buy “on faith” without tasting first because when they miss, they’re “impale the clown” kind of misses. Partly that’s because of K Vintner’s style which seems to favor high pH, very lush wines that can sometimes veer towards issues with volatile acidity and brettanomyces. I don’t mind a little brett because it can add complexity but VA is something that I’m personally hyper-sensitive about.

This 2013 Royal City had a smidgen of brett but was, thankfully, just in the gamey arena instead of the full-blown camping-in-the-horse-barn arena of brett. Also, thankfully, there was no overt signs of VA but the very dense and lush mouthfeel with medium-minus acidity doesn’t leave me optimistic that VA won’t make an appearance over time as the fruit fades with bottle age. The tannins are smooth, of course, and the fruit sweet and dark. It’s definitely a drink-now kind of wine that I’m sure will give many people much pleasure. It’s just not a wine that I would, personally, risk the clown for.

Well….maybe I’d risk that clown.

El Nido 2013 Jumilla (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $125) Much like Mollydooker and K Vintners, El Nido is about lush, decadence and lip smacking fruit. But while those wines were underwhelming, this wine was absolutely scrumptious. The nose gave off the siren song of rich, intensely concentrated dark fruit signaling a very fruity and full-bodied wine but the palate surprised with high, almost Bordeaux-like, acidity that added a splash of freshness to the fruit. It not only made your lips smack but your mouth water as well. It’s a big, big wine (probably the most full-bodied outside of the Amarones and Ports) but it had finesse to it that would open it up to more food-pairing possibilities than it lush co-horts. Of course, it was quite delicious still on its own.

Coming up next: My Top Ten Wines of the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

Wine Spectator Grand Tour 2017 Las Vegas (Part I)

The 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas was held at the Mirage on Saturday, May 6th


On May 6th, I had the opportunity to attend Wine Spectator’s Grand Tour at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Earlier in the day, the 143rd Kentucky Derby was held but for wine lovers like me, the real race that evening was trying to see how many of the 244 outstanding 90+ rated wines we could taste in three short hours.

I topped out at 68 wines with that involving making some hard decisions to miss areas that I would have loved to explore more like New Zealand and Piedmont. It also meant missing some of the wines that poured out quickly such as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 2012 Cask 23 which was gone about 2 hours into the event. Heading over to the Champagne side last also meant missing the Perrier Jouet’s 2007 Belle Epoque by about half an hour.

One of the observations I made during the evening was how many truly incredible wines only got 90 points. Historically, achieving 90 points from a reputable wine critic was considered a significant achievement for a wine but now it generates as much excitement in many consumers’ eyes as a baseball slugger who hits only 30 home runs a season. Yeah, Ted Williams’ 30 homers was a big deal back in 1951 but that would have him tied for 32nd and keeping company with folks like Kendry Morales, Jedd Gyorko and Curtis Granderson in 2016.

But Jedd’s got nothing on Teddy Ballgame’s “Blue Steel” action

You can partly blame the proliferation of wine critics and wine rating magazines but the truth is that the market is literally flooded with great wine. Advancement in technology and knowledge in both the vineyard and the winery means that consumers have access to more wine of very high quality than ever before. This abundance of choice often means that consumers who focus on critic scores start moving their eye balls higher up the 100 point scale, making wines with scores under 94 points hard press to catch some consumers’ attention.

That made me appreciate the beauty of the Wine Spectator‘s Grand Tour even more. This event, billed as a “United Nations of Wine”, showcased not only the breadth of quality around the globe but also, somewhat ironically, highlighted how much quality is not really defined by a number. While Wine Spectator makes its mark dishing out scores for wine, it was very telling that the vast majority of the 244 wines featured at their event had scores in the 90-93 point range, including 61 wines that scored a mere 90 points. Several of these were highly impressive including one that would make my Top 10 list by the end of the night.

That is why I’m going to start my three part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour with highlighting some of these Jedd Gyorko-scoring wines that are delivering Ted Williams-like quality.


Benovia 2014 La Pommeraie Russian River Pinot noir (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $59) This was my first time trying wine from this tiny Russian River winery and I was so impressed that I signed up for their mailing list. Beautiful high intensity aromatics that mixed floral and spice elements. The palate had medium-plus dark fruit notes which were well balanced with enough juicy medium-plus acidity to add elegance to the weight of the fruit. In an evening where I was comparing this wine side by side to other highly acclaimed Pinots such as the Belle Glos (2014 Clark & Telephone), Patz & Hall (2014 Hyde Vineyard) and even a Grand Cru Burgundy from Louis Latour (2014 Corton Grancey), this was the best Pinot noir of the night.

Clos Beauregard 2012 Pomerol (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $56) Another first time pleasure for me to try. While 2012 as a vintage is a far cry from the very heralded 2009-2010 or the upcoming 2015-2016, it is, in my opinion, a solid vintage that offers good bargains for Bordeaux enthusiasts who need “Cellar Defenders” that that can open up as younger wines while giving their 09/10s and 15/16s more time to age. This Beauregard from Pomerol fits that bill perfectly in offering soft, but full-bodied and structured, tannins with rich dark fruit with spice and chocolate on the finish.


Montecillo 2009 Gran Reserva Rioja (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $20) Probably one of the best values of the night. Savvy Rioja lovers have long known about Montecillo since it is one of the oldest estates in Rioja and has spent over 140 years making outstanding wines. This 2009 Gran Reserva most impressed me with how well it straddled the line between the modernist, more fruit-forward style of Rioja and the classic, more old-school and oak driven style. The Montecillo was clearly classic with tobacco and oak spice but it had a rich core of fruit that made the wine seem more fresh than a lot of old-school Gran Reservas tend to be. The event features a lot of great Riojas from producers like Muga (2009 Prado Enea), LAN (2012 Edicion Limitada), and CVNE (2010 Imperial Gran Reserva) but I would put the Montecillo second only to the 2007 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 for top Rioja of the evening.

Quinta do Vale Meao 2013 Meandro (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $21) This Portuguese wine is probably fighting head to head with the 2009 Montecillo Gran Reserva for best bargain of the night. Full bodied with chewy tannins and a long savory finish. Again, this will be no surprised to savvy wine geeks who have already been well aware of the outstanding value of dry red wines coming out of the Douro. Nor will this be a shock to Port lovers as the Olazabal Family’s Quinta do Vale Meão vintage Ports have been raking in critical acclaim for several years now. This wine is a blend of 35% Touriga Nacional, 34% Touriga Franca, 20% Tinta Roriz, 6% Tinta Barroca, 3% Tinto Cão and 2% Sousâo and is almost a “baby brother” to the Quinta do Vale Meão Tinto 2013 that earned 94 points from Wine Spectator and 95 points from Robert Parker. The 2011 version of that wine was #4 on the 2014 Wine Spectator Top 100 wines list. For a $20 wine, this wine punches WAY above its weight and out-shined many bottles that were 3 to 4x the price.


Emilio Moro 2011 Malleolus de Valderramiro Ribera del Duero (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $85) One of my Top 10 wines of the night. Absolutely stunning wine from one of the top estates in the Ribera del Duero. The nose smelled like dinner at an incredible restaurant with tons of savory meaty character mixed with fragrant Indian spices that can’t help but make your mouth water before taking a sip. The mouthfeel is velvety with oak and black plums mixed with medium-plus acidity that continues making your mouth water with lingering flavors of fruit and spice for a finish that was several minutes long. And that was just from a taste! I can only imagine how many more layers could unfurl if I had a chance to savor an entire bottle of this wine.

Montes 2012 Alpha M (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $64) Another great delivery from the Montes family of Chile. This is a Cabernet Sauvignon dominant Bordeaux blend with 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot which gave this wine a lot of tobacco spice and cedar cigar box notes on the nose. Very Bordeaux-like but it was paired with a palate of ripe, juicy black currant and black plum with a velvety mouthfeel closer to that of a nice Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.


S.A. Prum 2010 Wehlener Sonnenuhr GG Old Vine Dry Riesling (90 points. Wine Spectator list price $47) At the beginning of the tasting the Champagne and white wine tables where crushed as people, logically, sought to try those wines first before moving on to the big reds. In order to maximize the amount wines we could experience, my wife and I made the strategy decision to hit the reds first and then towards the end hit the whites with the Rieslings and Bubbles being palate cleansers. It was a risky strategy but this dry Riesling from S.A. Prum made it a smashing success. Intensely dry with lively acidity that scrubbed all the tannins and extract from the 40+ red wines we’ve had by then right off the palate. It was like a B12 shot for the palate and it awaken my taste buds to enjoy the vibrant stone fruit of white peach and almost salty minerality. Such vivacious life for a 7 year old Riesling that still could go on kicking for several more years!

Sbragia 2013 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points. Wine Spectator list price $65) From the legendary Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Moon Mountain district of Sonoma, it would be a sin to call this Cabernet “Napa-like”. Sure, it has the power of ripe black fruits of a great Oakville or Rutherford Cab but there is a freshness to this wine that I often find missing in Napa. It reminds me of an NFL linebacker who studied ballet. Power and grace. While the winery was founded Ed Sbragia, former head winemaker of Beringer, I learned that his son Adam now heads up winemaking duties. While I always enjoyed Ed’s wine, tasting this wine has me even more intrigued at what the future holds for Sbragia.


Ch. du Tertre 2011 Margaux (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $42) A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot from the 5th growth estate in Margaux. In the “Intermission Years” of Bordeaux between 2009/2010 and 2015/2016, the 2011 vintage would probably rank just slightly ahead of 2013 for roughest of this very rough patch. But as I noted with my comment on the 2012 Clos Beauregard, there are still gems to be found but wine lovers need to be realistic. These are not wines to lay down in the cellar for decades. A wine like the 2011 du Tertre has character and personality with its woodsy and black tea notes on the nose. The medium body tannins with blueberries, dark cherry and truffles and medium-plus acidity would shine with dinner featuring game, mushrooms or a hearty stew.

Caiarossa 2011 Toscana (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $43) This is an exciting Italian wine project from Eric Albada Jelgersma, owner of the 3rd Growth Bordeaux estate Chateau Giscours and 5th Growth Chateau du Tertre. A blend of 30% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 22% Syrah and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon it is an unusual blend even by Bordeaux standards, much less something you would expect from Tuscany. But the Cabernet Franc and Syrah in this wine really sing with a mix of blackberry, violet and peppery spice. On the finish there is some intriguing dark chocolate and espresso notes that pop out. This is a wine tailor-made to impress wine geeks.

Ornellaia 2014 (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $168) I was shocked to see this wine as I didn’t even realized it was released yet! One of the classic Super Tuscans, this wine is a blend of 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 20% Petit Verdot and 14% Cabernet Franc. Huge, huge tobacco. There are many cigar bars in Vegas and this wine smelled like I walked into one. It has some interesting aspects but with the big, chewy tannins this wine needs a lot of time. If I had a bottle, I wouldn’t think of touching it for at least another 3-5 years but its best days are probably 10+ years away.

Volver 2014 La Mancha (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $16) For many New World wine lovers, shopping for European wines can be a scary proposition with so many unfamiliar names, labels and grape varieties. One of the easiest thing you can do is to start learning importer names. Flip the bottle around and look at the back label for names like Kermit Lynch, Becky Wasserman, Alfio Morconi, Frederick Wildman and, if you’re looking at Spanish wine, Jorge Ordonez. The gems he finds are outstanding such as this old vine, single vineyard Tempranillo that had gorgeous juicy red fruit with a medium-plus body that gave the wine elegance and finesse.

Coming up next: The Heavy Hitters and 94+ rated wines.

It’s time to catch on to Passing Time

Can a winery owned by a NFL Hall of Famer and a two-time Super Bowl winner with a winemaker who cut his teeth working with Chris Upchurch of DeLille be considered under-the-radar?

Just like NFL Scouts want to find undrafted or late round gems that eventually blossom into superstars, wine lovers are always on the look out for the wine gems that may be attainable now but could eventually blow up into something much more harder to find. In honor of the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft, I present to you one such potential gem–Passing Time.

Dan Marino and Damon Huard were teammates on the Miami Dolphins in the late 1990s. A long time wine-lover whose family had a history of making wine at home, Marino was eager to share his passion for Washington wine with the Yakima-born Huard whose great-grandfather grew Concord grapes in Grandview, Washington. From there a friendship and eventual business partnership was kindled. Partnering with winemaker Chris Peterson of Avennia, Passing Time was born with an inaugural release of a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Champoux and Discovery Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills and Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Dan Marino at the March 25th, 2017 Passing Time Release Party


This past March they released their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignons featuring separate bottlings sourced from the Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain and Walla Walla AVAs. Barrel samples of their upcoming 2015 vintage releases were also available. Tasting the wines next to each other at the release party was not only a fascinating reflection of terroir and grape variety but it garnered a nascent sense of being on the cusp on something big emerging. In many ways, tasting this third vintage release from Passing Time and watching the crowds, I couldn’t help but think of what it was like for the folks in the early 2000s tasting Quilceda Creek before that winery exploded with a string of 100 point scores that took the price of their Cabernets north of $130. Or the folks who discovered Cayuse in Walla Walla before you had to wait 6+ years on a waiting list just to get an opportunity to buy. Those wineries, founded in 1978 and 1997 respectively, are rightfully in the upper echelon of Washington wines today and while I won’t say that Passing Time is at that level yet, thinking about the potential of where this winery could be around its 39th and 20th anniversary is certainly intriguing.

On to the wines.

The 2014 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced equally from Champoux Vineyards and Discovery Vineyard. It also contains 5% Cabernet Franc from Champoux and 9% Merlot from Klipsun Vineyards on Red Mountain. (Under US wine laws, the wine only needs to contain 75% of the stated grape variety and 85% of wine sourced from the stated AVA)

This was far and away my favorite wine of the tasting. In fact, even counting the wonderful wines that I tasted later in the afternoon at Taste Washington from DeLille, Long Shadows, Upchurch, Andrew Will, Canvasback, Aquilini, Gorman, Betz, Col Solare, Pepper Bridge and Figgins, I would rank this 2014 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon as the single best thing that I tasted that entire day.

From the moment it was poured into the glass, the high intensity aromatics of blackberry, cassis and espresso started jumping out. With a little swirling, a floral element of rose petals and fresh vanilla bean emerged. The mouthfeel was juicy and silky with medium-plus acidity holding court with medium-plus tannins that carried the dark fruit and rich, dark chocolate flavors across the palate. The finish lingered for several minutes after swallowing with a mix of subtle smoke and the dustiness you get from really good, high percentage cacao chocolate. The wine was very full-bodied but also incredibly elegant and well balanced.

It’s the kind of wine that when it gets opened, it gets emptied far too quickly for something that you want to savor every drop of. Bring this to a party or share with friends at your own peril. They’ll absolutely love it but you’ll be lucky to get a glass out of it before its gone.

The 2014 Passing Time Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of 67% Cabernet Sauvignon from Sevens Hills Vineyard in the Rocks District of Walla Walla, 26% Cabernet from Pepper Bridge and 7% Merlot from Figgins Estate.

This wine had medium-plus aromatics, lots of red fruit notes of cherry and red currants with a smokey tobacco undertone that gave it almost a St. Julien Bordeaux-like appeal. The nose was a little deceptive because the mouthfeel was much more powerful with more dark fruit and chocolaty flavors that gave more family resemblance to the Horse Heaven Hills Cab. The tobacco notes on the nose seemed to morph more towards a smoked rosemary and hickory flavor that wrapped around the fruit on the palate and had me craving some Kansas City BBQ. Very intriguing but the higher acid and more firmer tannins compared to the Horse Heaven Hills showed the wine’s youth a lot more. The Walla Walla Cab was still very good but its one that seemed like it had more layers yet to show and would benefit from some time.

Note: Either the 2014 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon was not available for tasting or the release party was just too crowded for me to find where it was being poured. C’est la vie. I’ll just have to wait till I crack open a bottle from my allocation.

The 2015 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon barrel sample was composed of 59% Discovery Cabernet, 29% Champoux Cabernt, 4% Champoux Cabernet Franc and 8% Klipsun Merlot. Barrel samples are always hard to fairly evaluate but, like its bottled 2014 counter part, this one still captured the most of my attention. Dark fruit notes of black currant and black berries on the nose with a floral undertone. Medium plus acidity and tannins hold up its full bodied of fruit flavors that also bring some rich dark chocolate to the palate. On the finish, there is a mix of floral and spice notes that will surely emerge more with time. Nice, velvety mouthfeel for such a young wine.

The 2015 Passing Time Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon barrel sample was composed of 97% Cabernet Sauvignon from Klipsun and 3% Cabernet Franc from Bacchus Vineyard. This was a beast of a wine with a brooding nose of rich, almost liqueur like, black currant with a savory herbal and spicy undertone. On the palate it is quite powerful with the rich dark fruit being more precise–still currant dominated but also with some black plum to compliment. The acid on this one seems lower, more medium, but it might just be because both the fruit and the tannins are much higher compared to the Horse Heaven sample. Just a big, big wine that will need some time.

The 2015 Passing Time Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon barrel sample was 100% Cabernet with 64% sourced from Seven Hills and 36% from Pepper Bridge. This was the most floral and perfumed on the nose of all the barrel samples but also the most tight on the palate. The nose had some beautiful violets and blue berries aromas that had me checking the tech sheet multiple times just to make sure that there wasn’t any Cabernet Franc in the blend. The oak seemed the most present on this one as well with a lot of baking spices such as clove and nutmeg appearing on both the nose and on the palate. The acidity was medium plus with the tannins on the high side. On the palate, you could sense the core of dark fruit but it was so tightly wound that it didn’t want to give up its layers. I found this one very intriguing though and wouldn’t be shocked if the 2015 Walla Walla wine ends up being my favorite at next year’s release party.

Right now Passing Time wines are available on their website for $75 dollars each with a minimum 3 bottle purchase. Some of the 2014s are making their way to select retailers mostly in the Seattle area. The key words are “right now”. While I can’t predict when these wines will sky-rocket in price or eventually become a “Mailing list only” winery with a lengthy years-long waiting list, I can certainly envision a future where that will be the case.

My advice is to get some of these wines and formulate your own opinion on them while they’re still playing under their “rookie contract”. Judging from the crowds at the March 25th, 2017 release party, it’s certainly not going to be long before Passing Time moves from being savvy Washington wine-insiders’ hot pick to being one of the wines that every lover of great Cabs are going to want to grab.

A Tasting of Taylor Fladgate Tawny

A flight of Taylor Fladgate Tawny

Russell’s in Bothell, Washington is always a great stop for wine lovers and foodies. The Northwest-focused menu updates regularly with fresh seasonal ingredients and the wine list is always top notch. On a recent visit there, I finished the evening with a flight of aged Tawnys from Taylor Fladgate–10, 20, 30 and 40 year. It was a very interesting and eye opening experience trying each one side by side.

The 10 year Tawny retails for around $23-28 for a standard 750ml bottle. As the “entry-level” aged tawny, it is very solid with a medium plus intensity nose that is a mix of dried tropical and red fruit, some chocolate and nuttiness. What’s most impressive is the balance in the mouthfeel between the concentrated richness of the vanilla nuttiness with the overall lightness of the fruit and easy drink-ability. As a fortified wine with 20% ABV, you really shouldn’t drink more than a small glass or two in a sitting but this tawny is just so darn yummy that I can see it being a dangerous friend.

The 20 year Tawny retails for around $42-50. This one had more spice on the nose but for most purposes was virtually interchangeable with the 10 year. Smooth, elegant mouthfeel with nuttiness and dried fruit. Maybe a smidge longer of a finish but, again, pretty minor jump in quality from the 10 year to this. If anything, tasting the 20 year next to the 10 encouraged me to be even more impressed with how solid the 10 year is.

Not old enough yet to run for President but would make a mighty fine Senator


The 30 year Tawny retails for around $120-150. This was the class of the flight and was utterly amazing with high intensity aromatics of dried red fruit, marzipan, orange blossoms, marinated cherry and black licorice spice. Every sniff brought out something different and I was struck by the myriad of layers and different types of aromas that was popping out. The palate more than held its own with an incredibly smooth, silky vanilla mouthfeel and a long finish of caramel cream brulee that you could still taste even two minutes after swallowing. Like with the other Taylors, I was most impressed with the balance of rich intensity with elegance and finesse.

The 40 year Tawny retails for around $170-200. This was enjoyable but as good as the 30 year was, it was hard for this one not to be overshadowed even though the freshness and richness of the deep red fruit was impressive for its age. The 40 year simply tasted like a much younger wine, which is both good and bad with Port. It had charm with how much life it had but when the overall complexity of aromas and length of the finish that you expect to be heighten in an older wine pales in comparison to the 30 year, it hard to justify the jump in cost. Simply put, you expect an older port to taste like it has had the benefit of more years aging than its younger comrades and this 40 year didn’t deliver that.

Tasting through the flight, the repeated theme of the younger Port out-delivering its older brother was apparent. While the 20 and 40 years weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, they were simply out shined by how much more bang for the buck that the 10 and 30 offered in comparison. It’s a solid lesson that is always worth being mindful of when shopping for wine. As we looked Behind the Curtain of wine pricing in a previous post, the pricing of wine is never a cut and dry subject.

The nature of Port wine production is very cost and time intensive that requires a premium for older wines. (Richard Mayson’s recent book on Port offers some great insight about the process) The expected trade off for that premium is presumed to be more complexity and more “wowness” but it might not be to an exponential degree of something like the 20 year being twice as good as 10 year and the 40 year being 4x as good as the 10, etc. There is still some charm in drinking a wine like the 40 year that is old enough to run for President of the United States (and maybe do a better job) but each consumer will have to decide if that charm and novelty is worth the cost.

A Toast to Joy and Pain

On Thursday, December 1st, 2016 I had a fabulous opportunity to attend the 9th Annual Champagne Gala held by Schwartz Brothers Restaurants at Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington. The event featured Champagnes from the portfolio of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) paired with a multi-course dinner prepared by Chef Kevin Rohr.
Daniel's Champagne Gala
The Champagne portfolio of LVMH is a literal “Who’s Who” of Champagne with names that are staples on restaurant wine lists and retailer shelves like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Ruinart and Krug. This event was a great chance to revisit several of these wines but what most excited me was geeking out over the food pairings.

Overall, it was a marvelous evening with some pairings absolutely singing though some were painfully kind of “meh”. But even then, we still had Champagne. Below is a rundown of my thoughts from the tasting.

Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with Moët & Chandon Impérial Ice
Treasure Cove oysters with duck fat braised leeks and Pancetta crisp, Green Goddess deviled egg with red onion pickle, caper and crispy Parmesan

This was one of the pairings that most intrigued me before the event. I’ve had the Ice Impérial before as a summertime cocktail by itself or paired with lightly sweet desserts such as shortcake with berries and cream but never with very savory appetizers. The Moët Ice Impérial labels itself as the first Champagne crafted to be served with ice but what always distinguished it for me was its noticeable sweetness due to the 45 grams per liter (g/l) dosage that puts it squarely in the Demi-Sec category of sweetness. To put this in context, the typical brut Champagne has anywhere from 0-12 g/l with the “sweet end” of brut being the equivalent to roughly 3 sugar cubes. The Ice Impérial has nearly 4 times that.

But the pairing worked. Sort of.

Moët Ice Impérial paired with Green Goddess Deviled Egg

Moët Ice Impérial paired with Green Goddess Deviled Egg


I’m a bit gun shy with oysters so I focused on the deviled eggs while a friend and coworker was my guinea pig for testing the oyster pairing. As you may see in the picture, instead of ice our Champagne was served with frozen pieces of fruit (cantaloupe or honeydew) with a rosemary skewer. While the rosemary was highly fragrant, and indeed too overpowering for some guests, it was also the bridge the pairing needed to work. Together the earthy floral elements of the rosemary played off the earthy and savory notes of the mayonnaise, caper and tarragon of the green goddess deviled eggs, letting the sweeter elements of the Champagne counter the saltier parts of the dish. For my friend, there was similar success with how the rosemary bridged the briny, earthier elements of the oyster with the Champagne.

In the interest of science (purely), we requested a second glass of the Ice Impérial without the fruit and rosemary and tried each pairing again. Completely different. The sweetness of the Champagne was more overt and distracting, particularly with the more subtle flavors of the deviled eggs and oysters. The joy of surprise in how well the rosemary tied things together was replaced with the pain of something too sweet for the dish.

Seated hors d’oeuvre paired with Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut
Pan-seared prawn & scallop with crispy herbed risotto cake, wild mushroom bisque

Among “wine people”, Veuve (particularly the ubiquitous Yellow Label) often gets a bad rap due to its mass production (10 to 12 million bottles a year) and McDonaldization style of marketing (i.e. If people see it everywhere, it will be the first thing they think of when they think of Champagne). However, you can not argue with the brand’s smashing success, especially in the US where Veuve Clicquot easily sells more than 4 million bottles of those 10-12 million produced each year.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut with pan-seared scallops and prawn

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut with pan-seared scallops and prawn

You also can’t argue with the fact that it is a tasty bubbly that is incredibly easy to pair with food. The creamy mouthfeel of the mousse and subtle nuttiness played perfectly with the creamy mushroom bisque and risotto cake while the citrus fruits that dominate the Champagne’s profile were well suited for bringing out the mouthwatering flavors of the prawn and buttery delicious scallops. This pairing worked and I’m sure it was the best wine/food combo of the evening for a fair amount of the people in the room.

Both my coworker and another guest at our table aptly summed up the essence of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut when they noted that “Veuve is always good, but never great.” and that “It’s always consistent which, when you don’t know what to bring to someone’s house, is comforting.” They’re both completely correct. Veuve is consistently good and while, sure, most “wine people” can easily rattle off dozens of other better Champagnes that you can get for the same $40-60 price (including 100% Grand Crus) for Veuve, we can also just as easily rattle off dozen of Champagnes (including other “popular brands”) that are no where near as consistent as Veuve. So unless you have a sommelier or retail wine steward to point you in the direction of those Champagnes that are more likely to reach for “greatness”, you will rarely go wrong grabbing that ole familiar bottle of Yellow Label.

Salad paired with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs
Seared loin of lamb with Bibb lettuce, grilled radicchio and minted ranch drizzle

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs with seared loin of lamb

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs with seared loin of lamb


The brand ambassador for LVMH who joined us this evening succinctly described the house of Ruinart as the “best prestige house that most people haven’t heard of” and that is regretfully true. Founded in 1729, Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house still in operation and it seems like it has spent its nearly three centuries of excellence in a shadow of obscurity. Even sitting in the LVMH line up for this event with the likes of Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon, I’m sure most people who looked at the pairing menu for the evening found their eyes glazing past the two bottles from a house named after the other 17th century Benedictine monk associated with Champagne.

But I won’t mince words here, the wines of Ruinart are fantastic and while I have not yet had the opportunity to try the house prestige vintage cuvée, Dom Ruinart, I would legitimately rank Ruinart’s NV Blanc de Blancs on the same level as the prestige cuvées of Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Mailly Les Échansons, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque and Bollinger La Grande Année. Those are all tremendous Champagnes but, at around $70-80 a bottle, the Ruinart can easily send all of them packing.

It starts with the bouquet of the Ruinart. As soon as the waiter poured the wine in the glass, from a good 15 inches away, my nose was tickled by the gorgeous white flowers and fresh, ripe peach fragrance–like someone picked a peach right off the tree and sliced it in front of you. On the palate, the peach is still there but is joined by apple and honey with a subtle pastry dough aspect. While I sometimes find Blanc de Blancs to be overly linear and simple, the complexity of this bottle is off the charts with every sniff and every sip bringing up something difference.

And the pairing, oh yes, there was food there too. Right. The lamb was phenomenal, melt in your mouth good and cooked perfectly. I love the steak at Daniel’s Broiler (and the next course certainly didn’t disappoint), but the lamb was the star of the evening. It will certainly give me a mountain of incentive on my next visit to bypass Daniel’s gorgeous steaks for whatever their lamb offering is. If you’re in the Seattle area, put this on your list of Must-Have meals.

But, alas, the pairing didn’t work out as well. While charming and elegant, the Ruinart was too light for the lamb and the radicchio overwhelmed it. I found myself wishing that this wine was paired with either of the two appetizer courses because, for as interesting as the rosemary twist with the Ice Impérial was and as admirable as the Veuve served the seafood course, the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs would have taken both of those pairings to soaring heights that neither of those first two Champagnes could achieve.

Entrée paired with Krug Grand Cuvée
USDA Prime New York strip steak with smashed cauliflower, foie gras butter and baby vegetables

When I first laid eyes on the menu and saw this pairing, the words “pure hedonism” crossed my mind. Krug is a powerful, penetrating Champagne that is both savored and sparred with on the palate so seeing it paired with foie gras butter dressed around an elegant yet forcefully flavorful New York strip steak prepared in Daniel’s 1800° broiler seemed tailor-made for perfection.

Krug Grand Cuvee paired with New York strip steak

Krug Grand Cuvee paired with New York strip steak

Krug is very unique in its intentionally oxidative winemaking style with fermentation in old 205 liter casks that impart lots of tawny-port style notes of hazelnuts and marzipan. While most non-vintage Champagnes are blends of around 3 to 5 vintages, Krug is always a blend of 10 or more vintage with some of the reserve wine being used coming from vintages that were harvested 20 years ago. Every release is crafted from a palette of around 120 different wines in a process that is not that dissimilar to how the great wines of Bordeaux are made. Krug is a prestige cuvée in every sense of both the words “prestige” and “cuvée”.

The pairing certain lived up the hype. Magnificent. The brawny, muscular nature of Krug with it brioche and ripe, rich fruit flavors held up to the weight and power of the steak. Somewhat surprisingly though, the part of the course that most sang with the wine was actually the earthy flavors of the smashed cauliflower. As a child I hated cauliflower but, as an adult, I think I will be enjoying it much more if I can keep pairing it good Champagne. I might not be able to afford to do that with Krug but I could probably swing a bottle of some of the “baby Krugs” of Bernard Bremont and Bollinger from time to time.

Dessert paired with Ruinart Rosé
Chocolate mousse cake with Moët crème anglaise

In someways it seemed fitting that the two pairings that I was most skeptical/intrigued about where the bookends to the meal. Whereas I was nervous that the Ice Impérial was too sweet for the appetizers, my concern with the Ruinart Rosé was that it was not going to be anywhere near sweet enough to hold up to the rich chocolate mousse. While I ended up pleasantly surprised with the M. Night Shyamalan-style rosemary twist that I didn’t see coming with the appetizer course, dessert ended up being much more The Happening than The Sixth Sense.

Ruinart Rosé and chocolate mousse

Ruinart Rosé and chocolate mousse


The cake was lovely–gorgeously rich and decadent. Too rich and too decadent to come anywhere close to finishing. The wine was likewise spectacular, with beautiful floral, cherry and blood orange aromas. Not as intensely aromatic as the Blanc de Blancs but still heralding its presence in the glass before the wine even comes close to your nose. The nice creamy mouthfeel gives it weight and presence. Though not quite as weighty as Tsarine or Veuve Clicquot roses, I think the Ruinart’s elegance more than supplements it weight.

Apart, the two items were fantastic but together this pairing was nearly as painful as watching Mark Wahlberg trying to emote sincerity when he ask the plants to kindly not kill him. The imbalance in sweetness and weight was just too much and I would have been more intrigued with how something like the Moët Ice Impérial Rosé could have went with the cake, especially with the regular Ice Impérial used as a base for the crème anglaise. But then that would have meant sacrificing another chance to enjoy the Ruinart Rosé. So I’ll gladly take the trade off of having my cake and (separately) Champagne too.

As I mentioned in the intro, the overall event was marvelous and an evening I would gladly live over many times over. Yes, there were pairings that fell flat but that was according to my taste and my palate and it certainly didn’t preclude the rest of my party (and I’m sure the rest of the room) from enjoying every delicious dish and drop of Champagne. In fact, you can say that it is the beauty of Champagne itself that almost guaranteed the success of the evening because even when Champagne is “bad”, it is still very, very good.

As the evening was wrapping up, Jeremy Paget the Director of National Accounts On Premise for Southern Wine and Spirits in the Seattle area, which distributes the LVMH portfolio in this market, offered an Irish toast that summed up the evening quite well.

A toast to joy and pain,

May all your joys be pure joys, and all your pain be Champagne.

Cheers!

Running Out of Stones (and Glaciers) in the Age of Climate Change

By the year 2100, some of the most exciting wines being made could be Scottish Pinot grigio and Suffolk Syrah. Such is the (potential) reality of climate change predicted by professors from the University College of London in a study commissioned by wine merchant Laithwaite’s. While the English sparkling wine industry has already seen some benefits from changing climates, an expected increase in global temperatures of 2° Celsius (3.6° F) and more rain could mean a dramatically new landscape for both wine lovers and producers.

Image Credit: Laithwaites

Image Credit: Laithwaites


But at a cost.

For every climate change “winner”, there are also losers as traditional and well established wine regions have to grapple not only with changing vintage patterns but also the changing dynamics of consumer tastes and fashion. It’s no secret that consumers’ tastes have been trending towards riper, more fruit-forward wines that are either sweeter in sugar or “bolder” in flavor and alcohol for some time now.

While there are still fans of lower alcohol, less fruit-driven wines, it’s hard for those kind of wine drinkers to not feel like their taste and preferences are being relegated to the Stone Age of the wine industry. As we start seeing strings of highly acclaimed “blockbuster vintages” being bolstered by warmer climates, it may be more than just the wine map that has to change in this new age of wine drinking.

Would you like a little acid for your Riesling?

http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=177266

Dr. Monika Christmann. Credit: Jim Gordon, Wines and Vines


In Germany, producers are enjoying a “boon” of riper vintages but are finding themselves in the unique position of being a country known for bracingly acidic and vibrant Rieslings now needing to acidify their wines. A recent Wines and Vines article on the 62nd German Winegrowers Congress in Stuttgart, included comments from the keynote address of Dr. Monika Christmann of Geisenheim University .

Dr. Christmann noted that producers are finding themselves at a crossroads of either letting the impact of climate change steer the style of wines in their region towards a different direction or adapting new methods afforded by modern technology to help maintain the “traditional styles” historically associated with their wines albeit sometimes through very non-traditional means like reverse osmosis, crossflow filtration and the use of additives.

While the issue of climate change and the trend towards fruit-forward, high alcohol wines certainly vexes the hoi polloi of wine writers and “taste makers”, you can complete that trifecta of ire with the battle of modern winemaking that embraces the use of technology versus natural wine which eschews it use.

There are pros and cons to both sides but if the thought of German winemakers needing to add acid to their Rieslings horrifies you, then you may have some sympathies with natural wine enthusiasts who would argue that if you have to “manipulate” your German Riesling to taste like what a German Riesling is expected to taste like, is it still really a German Riesling?

On the other hand, though, if the thought of tasting a German Riesling that is indistinguishable from the tropical, lush, high alcohol flavors of a New World Viognier gives you pause then you may find comfort in this quote from Dr. Christmann.

“The Stone Age did not end because there were no stones left,” she said, but because early humans moved on when they discovered how to work with a better technology: metal.

What is the Greenlandic translation of Vinho Verde?

We may not run out of stones in the world of wine, but an unquestionable consequence of climate change is that something is going to get left behind as the industry and consumers adapt to the changing reality of the world around us. We may have to give up “tradition” and expectations of what certain wines from certain regions should taste like. We may have to open our minds to the possibility of new styles and new fashions. We may gain new knowledge and introduction to fantastic terroirs and see the birth of new classics but we may also have to mourn the loss of old favorites and classics. There will be conflict and there will be battles over the soul of wine. There will be change and there will be costs that the wine industry will have to bear.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37582061

Seriously, if you haven’t seen this film yet, go watch it now.


But in the bigger picture, beyond the scope of wine, will be the tremendous costs that the whole of humanity will bear. Perhaps as we ponder the changing wine map, we also shouldn’t forget that the world is losing things like our glaciers at a frightening clip. Reading the warning of scientists about climate change and watching brilliant, but sobering, documentaries like Chasing Ice is enough to drive anyone to drink.

Though maybe we could pass on the Scottish Pinot grigio.

Behind the Curtain

By The Wonderful Wizard of Oz / By L. Frank Baum; With Pictures by W.W. Denslow. Published: Chicago ; New York : G.M. Hill Co., 1900. - From the Library of Congress Online Catalog. The image page is here and the description page is here., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3090042Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator did a write up about the unique marketing approach of a new Oregon winery, Alit. With the pedigree of Evening Land Vineyard’s co-founder, Mark Tarlov, and winemaker Alban Debeaulieu, formerly of White Rose Estate, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Maison Joseph Drouhin, this new project was already guaranteed intrigue but, as Steiman notes, Alit upped the ante by releasing their Pinots for the absurdly low price of $27.45 a bottle.

Yeah, you read that right. $27.45 for a premium Oregon Pinot noir from one of the Evening Land guys and a former Drouhin winemaker?!?! Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

The idea behind Alit Wines is transparency with the winery’s website (and Wine Spectator article) going into great detail to describe how they break down the cost figures that brings them to charge $27.45 for a bottle of Pinot noir sourced from acclaimed vineyards in the Dundee Hills, McMinnville (including Momtazi Vineyard) and Eola-Amity Hills. The hope for Tarlov and Co. is that they’ll be rewarded for their transparency with consumers, empowered with the knowledge of the nuts and bolts cost of production, seeing the advantage of bypassing “the middlemen” and buying directly from the winery.

Alit's breakdown of the cost of wine. Credit: https://medium.com/@MarkTarlov

Alit’s breakdown of the cost of wine. Credit: https://medium.com/@MarkTarlov

On the surface this sounds like a solid strategy and I was intrigued enough to put in an order myself. Potentially great wine at a great price is always a plus and its exciting to think about what could happen if more premium wineries followed suited with this focus on transparency. But as both a consumer and as someone who has spent over a decade in the wine industry (both production and retail), I don’t see this as a yellow brick road leading to a revolution in wine pricing.

I also can’t escape the nagging feeling that instead of just empowering consumers, that this peek behind the curtain of production costs will have the same effect on consumers that Dorothy’s glimpse behind the curtain at the Wizard had on her. Yes, it is nice to see what’s behind the curtain but do you lose a bit of “magic” when everything doesn’t seem to be what you once thought it was? Are you going to enjoy as much that $60 Pinot you enjoyed before now that you can add up in the back of your mind that it may really only cost the winery around $15 to make?

Pay No Attention To The Conspicuous Consumption of Wine.

Wine is weird. On one hand, it is a consumable agricultural good just like any foodstuff. So drilling the price of a bottle of wine down to the price of the raw materials, labor and cost of production and transport sounds like a simple endeavor. Yet, wine is also much more than that and, especially in the United States, it can also be considered a Veblen good–an item whose price and value often drives demand, instead of just necessarily the demand driving the price.

This is a big reason why I doubt that you’ll see Alit’s marketing model being readily adopted by other wineries. Of course, nearly every winery in the world would wholeheartedly support encouraging consumers to buy most, if not all, their wines direct from the winery. Not only does it allow them to control the consumer’s experience, making sure that they are getting their wines in the best condition possible, it’s also how wineries make the most money. That last point is key. Look at the prices that you see at a winery’s tasting room and then compare them to what you would be paying at a typical retailer. Are you getting the savings of “cutting the middleman”?

Most likely not.

In the Wine Spectator article, Alit’s Tarlov explains that this is because wineries don’t want to hurt their distributor and retail partners by drastically undercutting them in price. There is certainly truth to this because the wheels of the wine industry are greased by trust and relationships. However, the one thing more valuable than relationships in the wine industry is the perception of your brand. This is why retailers sometimes get in trouble if they price a winery’s wine “too low”. It impacts the “brand”. Wineries are loathed to ever lower the prices of their wine because it can lower the prestige and value of the wine in the eyes of consumers.

A heart is not judged by how much you love; but a wine is judged by how much it is loved by others.

By Man vyi - Own work (own photo), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7907924

And men are judged by how they wear fanny packs


Consumers are weird. We all want a great deal, but not too good or there must be something wrong. The placebo effect is alive and well as our brains are hardwired to get more pleasure from things that we perceive as being more expensive and ergo more valuable.

Now as wine lovers, who presumably want to get the most for our money, what should we do? Do we just chuck it all out the window and drink Two Buck Chuck from here on out?

By Jeffrey Beall - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16607189

“Seriously??? 5 missed FG and 4 missed xp…costing us 2 games. Yeah…sounds like a keeper…”(11/29/2016) — Kyra Olson, author’s Facebook friend and Bengals fan since 1981


Let me ask a different question. If you’re a fan of American football, what is more appealing to you? Spending around $50 or less for a family of four to see a local high school football game or spending an average of around $131.93 per person to see a team like the Cincinnati Bengals play home games against the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills? No offense to the Bengals, Browns or Bills fans among my readers but there are certainly games where you can argue that maybe the high schoolers would field a better product for the money.

Now we can argue about the nuts and bolts of the talent and skills of football players, the quality of equipment, the stadium atmosphere and then craft metaphors about how that relates to vineyard terroir, winemakers, new oak barrels and such. But I think we can drill it down to a much more simple question: What experience gives you more pleasure?

What experience fills you with more sense of excitement and anticipation as you enter the stadium before the game? If you were given a gift of tickets, opening which set (to the HS game or the NFL one) would quicken your heart more? For most people, it’s the latter and that is a huge reason why seeing an NFL game is often 12x more expensive than seeing a high school football game–regardless of the end quality result on the field. The value of the product is judged by how much it is loved by others. With the typical NFL stadium holding around 70,000 spectators, there are quite a bit of people who are willing to pay top dollar to be one of the few who get to sit in those seats.

The same is true with a bottle of wine. For as solid and tasty that something like a $8-12 bottle of Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon can be, the level of excitement and anticipation of opening it up just can’t match up to opening something like a $60-68 bottle of DeLille Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon. There is the bare nuts and bolts value of the raw materials and cost of production but how do you quantify the value in that sense of excitement, anticipation and pleasure that comes from that? With only around 1,450 cases made each year of DeLille’s Four Flags, there are plenty of people who put high value on being one of the few who get to enjoy that sense of excitement and anticipation.

You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking (as we all are).

While I do applaud Mark Tarlov and the folks behind Alit for being bold with their marketing plan on transparency, I do think it creates an unfortunate impression that wine pricing is a simple affair. It’s not because wine isn’t simple and, more importantly, people aren’t simple. Just as in Oz, when the Wizard chastised the Cowardly lion for confusing courage with wisdom, we also shouldn’t confuse the value of our pleasure and enjoyment of wine with the nuts and bolts cost of things. Just as our perception of taste is personal, so too is our perception of value. A wine is good is if it is good for you and a wine is worth its price if it is worth it to you.

If an $8 Cabernet gives you pleasure and is worth $8 to you, Enjoy! If a $28 Pinot does the same, drink up! But, likewise, don’t devalue your pleasure and sense of the wine’s worth if your mouth drools with anticipation at pulling the cork out of a $60 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir. It’s your palate, your wallet and your pleasure.

And if paying around $131 to watch Mike Nugent miss fields goals and extra points gives you pleasure, well you can talk to my friend Kyra about that.

A Bordeaux palette

Quick question: What is the point of blending?

The tried and true “wine geek” response would usually go off into one or two directions. You can talk about the history of Bordeaux (and other European wine regions) where planting a variety of grapes that bud and ripen at different points was a type of insurance policy against the pratfalls of nature that varies from vintage to vintage. The more poetic direction will talk of an artist painting a picture with each grape variety being a different color on their palette. Instead of just dealing with one color (one grape variety), the winemaker seeks to paint a more vividly engaging portrait of a wine with more colors at his or her disposal.
By Danyghi - Own work, Public Domain,

Now let me ask you: What is a “Bordeaux blend”?

If you’re quick with Google and quicker with a cork screw then you are probably mentally rattling off in your head a list of red and white grape varieties that are typically used to make wine in Bordeaux.

It’s right but it’s also wrong.

One of my most eye-opening experience during my travels to Bordeaux was the realization of how far-reaching the concept of blending is in Bordeaux. It is so much more than just blending grape varieties. Let me give you the example of Chateau Haut-Bages-Liberal, a 5th growth estate in Pauillac. On the 30 hectares of the estate scattered around the villages of Bages and Pauillac, they grow just two grape varieties–Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. So the blend each year should be pretty simple right? Grab a few beakers and graduated cylinders and see which ratio of Cab to Merlot works the best.

Not quite.

I'm sure the plot of Haut-Bages-Liberal that stands in the shadow of the tower of neighboring Chateau Latour gets LOTS of special attention

I’m sure the plot of Haut-Bages-Liberal that stands in the shadow of the tower of neighboring Chateau Latour gets LOTS of special attention


You see much like the Burgundians, the Bordelais invest deeply into knowing each individual plot of soil–it’s strengths, weakness and quirks. This is knowledge that is acquired over decades, if not hundreds of years. For an estate like Ch. Haut-Bages-Liberal that has been around since the mid 18th century, this accumulation of knowledge and experience has led them to subdivide their vineyards into 42 different plots.

While we are on a steep learning curve here in New World wine regions like Washington and California, we have gotten to the point where we are also seeing different personalities emerge from different blocks. When identified, these blocks may be farmed and harvested differently than the rest of the vineyard. On wine labels, we see heralded blocks like Sheridan’s Block One Cabernet, Schweiger Vineyards’ Legacy Block, Rochioli West Block Pinot noir, etc.

At the Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe estate of Fleur-Cardinale, they give each plot a name that captures the "personality" of that plot.

At the Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe estate of Fleur-Cardinale, they give each plot a name that captures the “personality” of that plot.


But at most estates in Bordeaux, each and every one of those plots are treated as a “heralded block” and given its own unique attention. They will be fermented separately. Some in cement. Some in stainless steel. Some in big oak vats. Some in small oak barrels. Some plots will be split into a couple different types of vessels. In several estates I visited, I was taken back at how many custom made cement tanks I saw with odd (but precise) volume sizes like 21.6 hL, 23.9 hL, 58.2 hL, 61.9 hL, etc. It eventually dawned on me that each of these tanks were designed and made for a specific plot.

The plots are still kept separate even after fermentation when they are transferred to barrel with most estates using the product of 4 to 9 different coopers. Each barrel adds it own “coloring” to the palate–some add more creaminess, some add more spice, others heighten the attack of the wine up front while another barrel may push it more to the mid palate.

An assortment of the unique fermentation vessels used at various Bordeaux estates.

An assortment of the unique fermentation vessels used at various Bordeaux estates.


All this means is that when the time comes to make the final blend of the Grand Vin (and subsequent second and even 3rd wine) the winemaker is not dealing with a color palette of just “the five grapes of the Bordeaux blend” but rather a palette with a kaleidoscope of color from as many as a hundred (or more) different lots that have each taken their own unique path from vineyard to the bottle.

It is an art form in the most literal sense. While there are many outstanding New World producers of “Bordeaux-style” blends, I really have not come across a producer who takes the concept of blending to quite the degree of the Bordelais. It is so much more than just blending grape varieties. It truly is about expanding the palette to include not only more colors but more shades of those different colors.

It’s all part of the tricks of the trade that have seen the Bordelais dazzle the palates of wine drinkers for centuries.

Whiskey and Wine

As I’ve admitted before, I can be a bit skeptical about newfangled wine trends but I always try to keep an open mind. So when I walk into stores and see big displays of Gallo’s Apothic Inferno (“A Wine With a Whiskey Soul” they say) supported with advertising campaigns featuring tatted up and vested hipster bartenders playing with fire, I know I need to try some wines aged in bourbon and whiskey barrels.

By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I love Woodford Reserve in my Old Fashioned, not necessarily in my wine.


But first, a little background

Henry H. Work’s 2014 book Wood, Whiskey and Wine gives a nice backstory on the love affair between wine and wood barrels that extend over two millenniums. He also goes into the sharing of barrel technology with other beverages like whiskeys and beers. I highly encourage folks interested in geeking out more about this topic to give it a look.

In the 17th century, the convenience and availability of excess Sherry barrels from the bustling Jerez to London trade led to a “happy accident” of Scotch makers discovering the rich dark fruit flavors and deeper color that Oloroso Sherry barrels impart on whiskey aged in them.

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

In recent decades, the concept of cask-finishing for whiskeys has expanded to include barrels that previously housed Port, Madeira, Sauternes, Amarone and even First Growth Bordeaux and premium Super Tuscan and Barolo producers.

Across the pond, American Bourbon and whiskey producers also discovered the interesting flavors and added complexity of aging in former wine barrels. Of course, Sherry and Port casks were popular choices but producers also branched out with California Chardonnay like Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer finish. Even winemakers started getting in on the gig, like Dave Phinney’s partnership with a distillery to create a Bourbon aged in barrels that formerly held his Orin Swift Napa Cabernet Mercury Head. (Not sure what the status of this project is after Phinney’s sale of Orin Swift to Gallo)

Whiskey Returns the Favor (maybe)

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

Perhaps taking a cue from the beer industry which has seen a huge explosion in popularity of barrel-aged beer, it may have been inevitable that we would see wine aged in whiskey barrels.

The first mentioned of a whiskey barrel aged wine that I could find was back in 2010 when a winemaker in Australia some how got his hands on Pappy Van Winkle Barrels to age his 2008 McLaren Vale Shiraz. What became of his Southern Belle Shiraz, or if you can still find it, I don’t know as there are scant tasting notes on the web. I do find it interesting that the 2010 article from Garden and Gun noted that the expected release price for the 2008 was $25 USD but the average price of the three vintages available on Wine-Searcher (2009, 2011 & 2013) is only $9. If any one has further details about this wine (or know of an earlier whiskey barrel-aged wine), let me know in the comments below.

As with most things in the wine industry, people usually don’t start paying attention to a trend until the big-money players get involved and that is what happened in 2016 when Pernod-Ricard (Jacob’s Creek), Constellation Brands (Robert Mondavi), Concha y Toro (Fetzer) and E. & J. Gallo (Apothic) released their whiskey barrel-aged wines.

Are these wines any good?

I was able to get my hands on 3 brands of whiskey barrel-aged wines–Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon, Barrelhouse Bourbon Red (made by Bruce and Kim Cunningham of AW Direct) and Apothic Inferno (aged in whiskey instead of Bourbon barrels). Tasting these wines with colleagues in the retail wine industry, I wanted to be as objective as possible so we decided to do this tasting blind and with a “ringer” of a popular dark red blend (which was the most recent hot trend in the industry till the whiskey-aged wines came barreling in). In this case, I chose Cloud Break Black Cloud from O’Neil Vintners.

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a "regular" red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a “regular” red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Here are my notes before the reveal:

Wine A- Sweet smelling on the nose. Very ruby port-like nose with figs and dark fruit. Some vanilla.
On the palate, rich fruit, very smooth but with noticeable RS. Yep, definitely very port-like with more overt oak spice flavors on the palate. Medium acidity. Medium-minus tannins.
My guess is that this is one of the bourbon barrels one. Drinkable, good for sweet(ish) red wine drinkers. Actually this may be an improvement over many of the “Dark” blends since the oak spice seems to add some complexity.

Wine B-This smells like a whiskey. But whiskey that smells like burnt rubber. Noticeably sweet nose. Roasted marshmallows and burnt flambe cherries. It smells like someone took a shot of cheap lightly peated whiskey, mixed with a really pungent Pinotage and then added it to someone’s Seagram 7 and Coke.
On the palate, Burnt rubber and roasted marshmallows. Medium-minus tannins and medium-minus acidity, maybe even low acidity. It’s no where near as sweet as I expected it to be based on the nose but I can’t tell if that is a positive or negative at this point.

Wine C- Much more subdued nose, medium-minus intensity but that may just be a scale down effect compared to Bag B. I don’t really smell any oak at all, just some subtle red fruit–red berries, maybe a little red plums.
On the palate, I can get some vanilla but it is still very mellow. Medium+plus acidity, actually has some good life to it. Definitely still red fruit. Medium tannins, very ripe and smooth.
My gut is telling me that this is the regular red blend but I’m a bit confused with the fruit being much more red than dark, knowing in the back of my mind that the “ringer” is one of the Dark Red styles. Whatever this is, its fairly enjoyable and with the medium plus acidity, can actually see this being a decent drinker and food pairing option.

Wine D- Medium nose. Still way more subdued than Bag B and less fragrant than Bag A. Much more overt vanilla on the nose. This has a bit of a “whiskeyness” to it but its not in your face. A little dark fruit but, again, subdued.
On the palate, this has some great texture. Medium+ acidity. Medium + tannins but very velvety and great full body. By far the most impressive mouthfeel. This feels like a decent $15-17 Cab. The flavors are very Cab-like as well, being more black currant with a little tobacco spice. The finish lingers with the vanilla and I do almost feel like I can taste a bit of roasted corn. Not enough to be weird but at this point I’m wondering if my palate is shot.

The Reveal and Final Thoughts

Bag A.) Cloud Break Black Cloud — (The Dark Red blend “ringer”) I was totally fooled on this. The ruby-port aspect had me thinking that THIS is what these Bourbon barrel-aged wines should taste like. Definitely a wine for the smooth, bold (but slightly sweet) red crowd. 3rd favorite of the group.

Bag B.) Apothic Inferno – As you could probably infer from my notes, this was my least favorite wine of the bunch. It certainly had the most in your face “whiskeyness” but, in my opinion, that didn’t add up to a pleasurable drinking experience in the slightest. Personally, I would rather drink any of the other examples in the Apothic stable (the regular red, Apothic Dark, Apothic Crush, etc) than the Inferno. It’s just not my style of wine at all.

Bag C.) Barrelhouse Bourbon Red – This pleasantly surprised me. It definitely wasn’t what I expected from this category. As I noted, I strongly thought this was just a regular red blend. Very solid and very drinkable. Probably the 2nd best of the whole bunch.

Bag D.) Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Age Cabernet Sauvignon – the clear winner of the group and a very solid wine. I don’t think this wine needs the marketing gimmick of the “bourbon barrel age” (neither does the Barrelhouse really) and could easily stand on its own as regular, every day drinker that would do well paired with food or at a party with a crowd.

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

So there you have it. It’s worth having an open mind and I would encourage all wine drinkers to give these wines a try and form their own opinions.

Some of these wines, like the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrelhouse Bourbon Red, are pretty solid and legit red wines. Others…..do have their own unique personality. I definitely recommend trying these wines side by side with either other whiskey barrel-aged wines or just general red blends. That is, by far, the best way to judge the character of these wines and see how they stake up against what you enjoy in red wine.

Cheers!