Category Archives: Blind Tasting

60 Second Wine Review — La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904

A few quick thoughts about the 2007 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904.

The Geekery

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 wine

La Rioja Alta is one of the oldest wineries in Spain, founded in 1890 as Sociedad Vinícola de la Rioja Alta by five families in Rioja. The Gran Reserva 890 takes its name from this founding date. More than 125 years later, descendants of the original families are still involved in the winery.

The Gran Reserva 904 commemorates the year 1904 when Daniel Alfredo Ardanza y Sánchez merged his Ardanza winery with Sociedad Vinícola de la Rioja Alta. Very unusual for the period, the first president of the winery was a woman, Doña Saturnina García Cid y Gárate.

Along with López de Heredia, La Rioja Alta is considered one of the flag-bearers of classic, old-school Rioja with a style trademarked by extensive aging in American oak. It’s located across the road from López de Heredia in the Barrio de la Estación (Station Quarter) of Haro–not far from CVNE and Muga.

The 2007 Gran Reserva 904 is 90% Tempranillo sourced from 60+ year old vines and 10% Graciano. The wine spent 4 years aging in 100% neutral American oak barrels with 12,500 cases made.

The Wine

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

Plenty of cigar tobacco notes in this Rioja.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of fresh cigar tobacco with a dried minty edge. There are red fruit notes like cranberries and cherries as well. Maybe a little dill.

On the palate, the tobacco is still quite present but also brings a leathery component. High acidity is mouthwatering but makes the cherry notes taste fresh. Medium-plus tannins are ripe but pronounced. They hold up the medium-plus body of fruit very well. The most noticeable aspect of oak comes out on the long finish with lingering vanilla.

The Verdict

For wine students studying for blind tastings, there are few better bottles to be intimately familiar with than La Rioja Alta. It’s textbook with structure and nuances that hit every note.

At $50-60, it’s in a good spot now but has the legs to go on easily for another 10-15 years.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal

The wine world was rocked when the Court of Master Sommeliers announced this week that they were invalidating the results from the tasting portion of this year’s MS Exam. The Court found evidence that details about the blind tasting wines were divulged by a proctoring Master Sommelier. The fallout meant that 23 of the 24 new Master Sommeliers would have to retake the tasting portion. Only one new Master Sommelier, Morgan Harris who passed tasting the year before and just needed to pass service, kept his pin.

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48704137

When I wrote my post It’s Raining Masters about the shock over the huge number of new Master Sommeliers, I never expected this.

My first thought was that maybe the was getting “relatively” easier. At least, compared to the “wine savvy” of today’s somms and consumers . I say “relatively” easier because I sure and the heck couldn’t pass it. But it made sense that more people were taking and passing the exam because we are in a sort of “golden age” of wine knowledge right now. Just compare what the average wine enthusiast, much less the average sommelier, knows about wine today to what they did 30 or even 50 years ago.

But for the Master Somm exam, cheating never once crossed my mind. That may have been naive. This is likely not the first time it has happened. Anything worth attaining will be worth, in someone’s mind, risking it all to get.

Even if the collateral damage is devastating.

Updates

Update: WineSearcher.com posted a letter from the partner of one of the MS candidates impacted by the scandal. This letter includes another detail about how exactly the cheating may have occurred. I’ve added this new detail underneath the How Did the Court Find Out? section.

Update Part II:  WineSearcher.com  posted another great scoop October 24th about the fallout after the Court first announced the scandal. I’ve included a link and more details underneath the Who Did It? section.

Update Part III: On December 5th, the first of the 3 potential make up exams for the blind tasting portion was held in St. Louis. The results were released the next day and 6 of the 23 impacted candidates got their Master Sommelier certifications back. Their names are posted in the What’s Next? section.

Why Is This A Big Deal?

Until this year, only 274 people were Master Sommeliers. Popularized by the movie Somm, the amount of time, work and dedication required to take and pass the exam earned a mythos around the title.

Along with the Master of Wine exam, this is the pinnacle of the wine world. If you wanted to challenge yourself–if you wanted to be the best of the best–this was your goal.

But I think the most newsworthy part of this story is not the cheating (which, again, would be naive to assume doesn’t happen) but rather the dramatic move by the Court to invalidate the results and upend the lives of 23 people. Despite having evidence of which Master Sommelier led the cheating, they apparently don’t know who benefited from it.  Undoubtedly, the collateral damage includes innocent people.

Reading their stories is heartbreaking.

Several of the impacted candidates have shared their personal pain in private discussion groups like the GuildSomm discussion board (open to members only). Wine Spectator highlights one of those stories in an October 10th article.

“As a member of the first class in the Court’s illustrious history to be named, and subsequently, have an asterisk drawn next to the title we sacrificed so much to obtain, I offer a very earnest and valid question: What now? … What do I say to my employer who extended new benefits and responsibilities?” wrote Christopher Ramelb, one of the candidates and an employee of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, on the online message board for wine-education organization GuildSomm. “I feel so stupid and lost, as if the years of preparation and discipline, the stress of performing, and the jubilation of finally doing so, have been for nothing.” Wine Spectator, October 10th, 2018

In interviews given to the media, several candidates talked about the personal and financial toil (including tens of thousands of dollars) that studying for the exam has.

Now they have to do it all over again.

How Did the Court Find Out?

Frances Dinkelspiel of the Daily Beast reported that a lawyer contacted the Court of Master Sommeliers about impropriety that occurred during the last testing session. Neither the article nor the Court have divulged who the lawyer represented.

In the same Daily Beast article, Morgan Harris speculated that “Whoever was cheating must have confessed,”. If this was the case, then why are the other 22 (?) or so still under scrutiny?

Update

In his October 19th article “Somm Scandal: A Question of Integrity”, Don Kavanagh of WineSearcher.com posted a letter by Cameron Pilkey whose partner (Dan Pilkey?) was one of the 23 MS candidates impacted.

The letter included a very interesting detail about how the cheating may have occurred.

A member of the Board, the very same governing body that has made this decision, sent an email to a few select candidates the morning of the tasting portion of the exam with the subject line “heads up”, releasing the initials of two varietals in the flight. — Cameron Pilkey via WineSearcher.com

This letter seems to confirm the rumors that an email from the offending Master Sommelier was the avenue of the cheating. But it still hasn’t been released who or how many candidates received the email–though the plural indicates likely more than one recipient.

The detail of initials is also interesting to ponder. While the testable wines for the Master Sommelier exam is not public, Guild Somm has published a list of Probable Red and White wines for the Advance Sommelier exam. While not definitive, these lists are good starting points.

So what could the “helpful” initials have been?

CS, CF, PN?

CB, GV, PG, SB?

Speaking for myself, I often get in trouble with Cabernet Franc, Chenin blanc and Pinot gris with blind tasting. Knowing if any of those varieties were in the flight would have been of immense help.

Who Did It?

https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

Screen shot from Reggie Narito’s public blog.
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

The Court has not named the offending Master Sommelier–likely for legal reasons. Don Kavanagh and Robert Myers of WineSearcher.com believed they’ve uncovered it by comparing lists of current Master Sommeliers and noting that one sommelier–Regino “Reggie” Narito Jr.–has been removed from the Court’s membership roles.

It would be unfair to speculate beyond what has been publicly posted but reading Narito’s last blog entry from September 26th, 2018 only highlights the collateral damage of this scandal. Here he speaks of the journey, hardships and many failed attempts of 3 of the successful candidates who had their titles now stripped from them.

The story of Christopher Ramelb (previously quoted by Wine Spectator above) in particular really got me.

A soft spoken and deferential personality, he shuns the spotlight preferring to sit contently in the background while others bask in the spotlight. As his proctor for both the theory and tasting portions of his exam, his skill and professionalism really stood out for me and I was proud to be the one to present the good news of his passing. Upon hearing the news, it was not surprising to see him get very emotional, but it was for a different reason-he revealed to me that he lost his father on Christmas Eve last year and for over 9 months, he bottled up his emotions so he could give this exam a serious go. With the revelation that the test was now behind him, he began to cry uncontrollably, crumpling to his knees and sobbing, “I miss my dad so much”. — Reggie Narito, 9/26/2018

Update

Liza B. Zimmerman of WineSearcher.com interviewed a Master Sommelier about the scandal off the record but was able to publish some interesting details about what happened after the Court of Master Sommeliers announced the scandal on October 9th.

On October 10th, one of the impacted MS candidates, Justin Timset, sent a later to the Court. In it he names Reggie Narito as the MS who “broke the Court’s code of ethics”.  This was a day before WineSearcher.com released their article speculating that Narito was the disgraced MS.

Zimmerman’s article also notes that Narito’s then-employer, the distributor Young’s Market Company, only public comment on the scandal is to note that Narito’s Linkedin profile no longer list Young’s his place of employment. However, that maybe a duplicate or fake profile since another LinkedIn profile featuring the same picture that Narito uses on his blog still list VP of Fine Wine at Youngs Market Company as present employment.

Distributors’ Involvement?

The latest WineSearcher.com articles goes into the complex and murky influences that distributors may have on the MS exam.  Zimmerman quotes her inside source claiming that “The court has been infiltrated by distributors’ interest”.

He added that through the long process of mentoring a handful of students, wholesalers are also likely to do more than just taste with their hand-picked protégées. The relationship is likely to also have included expensive meals and other treats which can be put on the wholesalers’ expense accounts to curry favor with promising sommeliers who are also their customers.

Seeing your favorite handful of wine buyers through the difficult process of studying for the exam, and then having them successfully pass, makes these wholesalers look like superstars in the eyes of their employers. — Liza B. Zimmerman, WineSearcher.com 10/24/2018

What’s Next?

A few days ago, the Court of Master Sommeliers released their plans for retesting those impacted by the scandal.  First, the candidates who both passed and failed the tasting exam will have their exam fee refunded. Additionally, they will see their resitting fees waived as well. The Court will offer 3 opportunities over the course of the next year to retake the exam. Some candidates will receive travel assistance as well.

Many of the 23 people who passed tasting this year are not going to pass again–even if they deserve to. Spago Sommelier Cristie Norman gives a great analogy that sums up almost what a crapshoot blind tasting really is. So much of blind tasting is mental. These candidates are going to have an even bigger burden on their shoulders than they did at the first exam.

Approaching the blind tasting portion of the exam is like training for the Olympics: You have to be in shape. There are plenty of people who have passed tasting once and not been able to again. It depends on the time of day, your hormones, the humidity, even the altitude. When the exam was held in Aspen one year, multiple candidates complained that the change in elevation was affecting the way they tasted. Being asked to retest with your masters reputation on the line in conjunction with the sheer difficulty of the exam sounds like any wine professional’s nightmare. — Cristie Norman, Eater Magazine October 12th, 2018

Failing the retake will unfairly associate the candidates even more with the scandal. This is why it’s important to release the names of the cheaters.

Update

The first of the 3 make up exams has happened. All together 30 of the 54 individuals who took the tainted September exams resat for this round. While I haven’t be able to find out exactly how many of the 23 impacted candidates were part of this exam, it was announced on December 6 that six candidates passed.

Dana Gaiser of Lauber Imports in New York City, NY

Andrey Ivanov of Bliss Wine Imports in San Francisco, CA

Maximilian Kast of Broadbent Selections in Chapel Hill, NC

Douglas Kim of Picasso Las Vegas, NV

Steven McDonald of Pappas Brothers Steakhouse in Houston, TX

Mia Van de Water of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, NY

All six newly minted Master Sommeliers were among the 23 candidates impacted by this recent scandal.

Another Option?

It’s not surprising that most of the candidates are balking at the Court’s offer and “fighting back” in a letter shared with the Chicago Tribune.

Signed by 19 of the 23 impacted candidates, the letter calls for a full investigation into the individuals responsible.  Instead of making everyone retake the exam, the Court should seek exoneration of the innocent candidates. The Court’s actions “…effectively exonerates the guilty parties, and at the very least rewards their lack of moral courage.”

The Chicago Tribune doesn’t note who signed the letter–outside of naming Chicago-area candidates Jill Zimorski and Dan Pilkey. Nor does the Tribune divulged the 4 candidates whose names were absent.

Threads to Follow

Even though media outlets have been quoting comments from impacted candidates shared on the GuildSomm discussion boards, I would encourage interested readers to consider joining GuildSomm as a member to access the forums legitimately. Far beyond this scandal, GuildSomm membership offers numerous other benefits. From classes to articles, maps, tasting kit discounts and more–it’s worth wine geeks looking into.

This was a great article by Elaine Chukan Brown and I really liked Jancis Robinson’s explanation on how the Master of Wine Exam is different than the Master Sommelier exam.

Many members of the wine industry frequent the Wine Beserkers forum. While you should always be cautious about what is posted online, their discussion thread on the topic does at least provide another perspective.

Reddit’s r/Wine community also has had several threads on the scandal. However, given the more anonymous nature of Reddit, I would urge more caution in taking what you’ve read at facevalue.

SpitBucket’s Facebook page. Apart from the blog, I use SpitBucket’s Facebook page as a curated news feed. Here I post articles and blogs that I’m reading. I’ve been posting a lot of articles about this scandal and will post more as new details emerge.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — Santa Julia Torrontes (Tasted Blind)

A few quick thoughts on the 2017 Santa Julia Torrontes from Mendoza, Argentina.

The Geekery

Santa Julia is made by the Zuccardi family who founded their winery in the Maipú region of Mendoza in 1963. Julia, the wine’s namesake, is the granddaughter of founder Alberto Zuccardi.

The family originally sold wine in bulk to larger producers until a financial crisis in the 1980s saw many of those bottlers go out of business. At this point, the Zuccardis moved towards bottling their own production.

Today the Zuccardis produce 2.2 million cases of wine from 1001 ha (2474 acres). The family’s vineyards are primarily in the Santa Rosa and Uco Valley sub-regions of Mendoza with 180 ha (445 acres) still in Maipú.

The Santa Julia line was created in the 1990s to highlight the diversity of Argentine wine. While there is a Malbec made, the brand features Viognier, Pinot grigio, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Torrontes.

While the Zuccardis’ main Torrontes comes from the Salta region, the Santa Julia comes from the warmer Mendoza area. All the fruit for Santa Julia is sustainably farmed with several of the vineyards certified organic.

In addition to the Santa Julia and main Zuccardi brand, the family also produces wine under their Fusión label.

The Wine

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

Very fragrant orange blossom in this wine.

(Tasted blind as part of a Somm Select flight)

High intensity nose. Lots of orange blossoms and white peach notes. A little lychee and rose petal has me thinking Gewurztraminer.

On the palate, the wine is still fruit forward. No signs of minerality. Medium acidity and medium body. Slight oiliness on the mouthfeel. Maybe Albarino? Seems more New World. Short finish.

The Verdict

I ultimately went with an Oregon Gewurztraminer and was, of course, wrong. While the lychee and rose petal was on the nose, it didn’t carry through to the palate. Nor did it have the “spice” note that hints at Gertie.

At $10-14, the Santa Julia Torrontes won’t wow you with complexity but it is a tasty and refreshing drinker.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

WBC18 Day 2 Quick Impressions

Tom Wark (right speaking) of Fermentation Wine Blog and James Forsyth of Vinous/Delectable

Update: Check out my post Exploring the Cascade Valley at WBC18 about the wines featured at the lunch this day as well as my Day 3 overview for more details about the conference.

I’m darting away from the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference activities to jot down a few quick thoughts from yesterday’s events. To see my thoughts from Day 1 check out my post here as well as my pre-conference worryfest here.

While a lot of those fears ended up unfounded, Day 2 introduced quite a few meaty questions for me to gnaw on.

It seems like an unofficial theme for Day 2 was “Why Are You Blogging?” with the morning panel and keynote speaker prompting a lot of inward reflection. I will admit that this is a question that has been wrangling around my head for a while now and will probably be the source of much rumination on the long drive home tomorrow.

Wine Bloggers vs Wine Influencers (vs The World)

This panel, moderated by Thaddeus Buggs of The Minority Wine Report, featured James Forsyth of Vinous/Delectable, Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communications and Tom Wark of the Fermentation Wine Blog.

The aim of the panel was to distinguish what may separate a blogger from an influencer as well as how the future of social media and niche apps like Delectable could impact both.

I may write up a fuller review of this panel but there were three big takeaways that I got that really caught my attention.

1.) From Michael Wangbickler

Social media isn’t an alternative to blogging but it is another channel. While its ideal to utilize multiple channels, some are more tailored to certain audiences than others. For instance, Instagram seems to appeal more to image driven and younger generations while Facebook tends to cater to more lifestyle driven and older audiences. Twitter appeals to a diverse demographic that prefers one on one interactions.

Thaddeus Buggs (far left) of the Minority Wine Report and Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communication (left seated).

Questions for me to explore:

Who is my audience? This is something I will definitely be pondering more. I think I can eliminate the image driven side. I personally don’t view wine as an “image accessory” nor do I write like it is. To me, wine is about enjoyment rather than enhancing status or image.

I feel like my style caters more towards the wine student and general enthusiasts but who knows? Maybe you guys can help me with some thoughts in the comments.

2.) From Tom Wark

If you are going to blog then you should focus on something that you can be the champion of and commit to posting at least once a week, if not more. Don’t be a generalist. Be the go-to person for something.

Questions for me to explore:

What do I want to champion? Or maybe to put it another way, what drives my passion that can fuel a commitment to write steadily about a topic? This is a dozy for me to chomp on because I can’t really say that I have had a focus with this blog at all. I’ve definitely followed more the generalist approach, writing about whatever has tickled my fancy at a particular moment–even dipping my toes into the world of spirits and beer occasionally.

Do I need to hunker down and focus on something? What can I possible be the “go-to person” for? My initial instinct is to focus more on the wine student aspect and write about the info that I have been seeking out for my studies. In some ways that has always been an impetus for me in writing. Wine info is scattered across the internet and books and I initially started writing wine articles for Wikipedia as a way to consolidate and digest that info into one source.

Do I continue that path with things like my Keeping Up With The Joneses of Burgundy series, Bordeaux Futures and expanded research articles on figures like Martin Ray, Bob Betz, W.B. Bridgman, etc?

3.) From James Forysth

Niche apps like Delectable are ways that writers can build credibility and authority with publishing their reviews as well as get useful backlinks.

Questions for me to explore:

Eh? Reviews are something that will probably always have me conflicted. To be 100% brutally honest, I really don’t think anyone should give a flying flip about what I think about a wine. This is also why the idea of being “an influencer” never appealed to me. If you read my review and go out and buy a bottle of wine, you are spending your money and you will be the one drinking the bottle–so really only your opinion should matter.

This is why I very deliberately organize my reviews to have my opinion shoved down to the bottom. For me, the story of the wine and whatever cool or unique details I discover are far more important.

I will share my opinion on the relative value of the wine versus its cost only because I’ve spent probably way too much money on wine and have learned a few lessons the hard way. I say “relative value” because ultimately we each have to decide on our own if a wine is worth paying what the asking price is–like $2600+ for a bottle of Petrus. That’s a decision that I can never make for you–nor should you ever want me to.

The Wines of Rías Baixas

Master Sommelier Chris Tanghe

I was looking forward to this event moderated by Master Sommelier Chris Tanghe. Since I’ve joined the Somm Select Blind 6 subscription, Albarino has been a royal pain in the rear for me to pick out blind. I confuse it so often with several different wines–Oregon Pinot gris, California Viognier, Argentine Torrontes–that I haven’t honed in yet on what’s my blind spot with this variety.

My Albarino issue is probably fodder for a future post but, after trying 8 vastly different examples of the variety from the Spanish wine region of Rías Baixas, I now have at least one razor sharp tell-tale of the variety to look for.

Salinity.

Every single one has this very precise and vivid streak of salinity–even the examples that had a lot of oak influence. While the highly floral and perfume examples will still probably steer me towards Torrontes while the weightier examples will trip up me thinking about Pinot gris or Viognier depending on the fruit profiles, it may ultimately be the salt that leads me home.

Keynote Speaker — Lewis Perdue

Lewis Perdue has a long history in journalism and the wine industry–working for the Washington Post and founding Wine Business Monthly. He currently manages the website Wine Industry Insights which is most prominently known for its daily email News Fetch that is curated by Perdue and Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino).

The bulk of Perdue’s very excellent keynote was about the importance of bloggers building and maintaining trust with their audience. He made the very salient point that admist all the noise of traditional and digital media, ultimately the readers are buying into you and you have to demonstrate that you are worth their time and attention. A big part of that worth is your credibility.

From here Perdue highlighted several pratfalls that befall bloggers who seek out paid promotion opportunities from wineries (are they being upfront with their readers and the Federal Trade Commission?) and noted that the more “the sell” increases in your writings, the less credible you are.

Ultimately each blogger has to answer the question “Why are you blogging?” Are you trying to make money? Trying to inform? Trying to build a reputation?

So….why am I blogging?

I know I’ve very fortunate in that I don’t have to try and scrape together a living from blogging. My wife is a manager in the tech field which safely covers all our bills (especially the wine bills). Listening to Perdue’s keynote as well as comments from the panel earlier and the seminars I took on Day 3 of the Wine Bloggers Conference has only solidified in my mind that I really don’t want to bother at all with influencing/paid promotion junk.

Which probably takes my blog off of a lot of PR and wineries’ radars but oh well. If your winery is really interesting and doing cool stuff like Tablas Creek or Domaine Henri Gouges, I’ll probably find you eventually and be glad to spend my own money on your product.

I know that if it lives up to the hype, I’m going to have a heck of a lot more fun writing about it and telling others than if a winery came knocking on my digital door wanting me to tout some mass-produced Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Frankly if you ever see me writing multiple posts about some bulk brand, dear readers, don’t go and buy the wine. That’s my distress signal. I’ve been kidnap. Send help.

But back to Perdue’s question.

Why am I blogging? I suppose it is to build a reputation and establish credibility. I’ve always been a big believer in the mantra “Show, don’t tell.”

Yes, I’m working on my various certifications and I would like to someday be a Master of Wine but I really don’t want my credibility to rest on some initials. I’d rather get out there into the world and prove my mettle by letting my work speak for itself.

Credibility is extremely important to me which is why I’m an obsessive fact checker and like to litter my posts with frequent links and attributions to other worthwhile sources (something that gets Perdue’s seal of approval). I want to get it right and if I have it wrong, I want to learn where I erred so I can be better the next time.

Live Red Wine Blogging

This was crazy chaotic and I need to hurry up and wrap up this post so I can get to the next round for Whites & Rosé. While I tweeted and Instagram about a few things, the wines that are really worth a more in-depth review I will seek out bottles to purchase for a later post.

Out of the 10 wines I tried, the ones that I will definitely be seeking out are:

In fact, I already bought a bottle! Kind of made it easy with the Mansion Creek tasting room in the Marcus Whitman hotel.

Mansion Creek Cellars 2015 Red Dog — 70% Tinta Cão (hence the name), 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Grenache-Syrah. Super cool blend and great back story with the Iberian grape varieties.

Stone Hill 2015 Chambourcin — This wine made this Missouri girl super nostalgic but also super impressed. It was fairly early in the tasting event and I was spitting so I can’t blame palate fatigue but I don’t remember Missouri Chambourcin being this tasty.

Tertulia Cellars 2014 The Great Schism — This winery thoroughly impressed me at this past February’s tasting of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in Seattle. They poured the 2013 release of the Great Schism which ended up being my wine of the event and this 2014 was just as good. If you are a fan of savory and complex Rhones then this winery needs to be on your radar.

Mystery Wine Country Excursion — L’Ecole 41 and Woodward Canyon

Rick Small (left) of Woodward Canyon and Marty Chubb (right) of L’Ecole

I pulled the red ticket and boy did I score with my mystery location being jointly hosted by the crème de la crème of Washington wine. I can’t do the evening justice in a short blurb so I will save my thoughts for a future post.

But I will say that this event was the perfect fulfillment of my original expectation from my pre-conference post of wanting to hear other opinions from non-Washington bloggers about our local wines.

I really enjoyed listening to the perspectives of Las Vegas-based blogger Louisa from The Grape Geeks and Dallas-based Diane and Nathan Roberts of Positive Vines as they enjoyed these benchmark Washington wines.

I eagerly look forward to reading their write-up of the event (as well as Earle Dutton of Equality 365 who was my dining companion) and comparing notes.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes 9/25/2018 — New Wine Books for October

Fall is here which means shorter days but longer nights to spend curled up next to a great wine book. Here is a look at some of the upcoming October releases that I’m excited to get my hands on.

Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine by Simon J. Woolf (Hardcover release October 2nd)

This Two Vintners “OG” Gewürztraminer made in an orange wine style with extended maceration blew me away with how complex and delicious it was.

For many wine lovers, “orange wine” is the biggest wine trend that they’ve heard of but haven’t had the chance to try yet.

It’s tempting to call this a fad and chalk it up to Millennials’ latest fancy. But this is a really old winemaking style that has been around for as long as wine has been made. At its most simplest, orange wine is basically just white wine that has spent time in contact with grape skins. This exposes it more to oxygen than the modern method of quickly pressing white grapes and processing them anaerobically.

While a couple 2017 releases like Marissa A. Ross’s Wine. All the Time, Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron’s Natural Wine and Alice Feiring’s The Dirty Guide to Wine touched a little on orange wine, to the best of my knowledge, Amber Revolution is the first book devoted exclusively to the topic.

Judging by the recent popularity of the category, Woolf’s book is quite timely. Here he covers the history and production methods behind orange wines, as well as profiles 180 producers in 20 countries.

At this year’s Louis Roederer international Wine Writers’ Awards, Simon Woolf took home the Domaine Ott International Feature Writer of the Year award for his work at Meininger Wine Business International, Decanter and blog The Morning Claret.

Update:

On Instagram Simon Woolf had this advice for folks wanting to get a copy of his book. “Btw although in the US the book is only available from October, in Europe it can also be ordered direct from my site. Also for US customers, best to order direct from the publisher.”

Kevin Zraly Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: Revised, Updated & Expanded Edition by Kevin Zraly (Hardcover release October 16th)
Photo by tomasz przechlewski. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The new edition of Windows on the World likely will also touch on orange wine and the renaissance in Georgian winemaking of using Kvevri (Qvevri) amphora jars buried in the ground to ferment and age wine.

From the very first edition in 1985, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World books have been a benchmark standard in wine education.

In addition to his Windows on the World wine classes and books, Zraly has also authored the very useful wine texts The Ultimate Wine Companion: The Complete Guide to Understanding Wine by the World’s Foremost Wine Authorities and Red Wine: The Comprehensive Guide to the 50 Essential Varieties & Styles with Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (authors of Wines of California that I mentioned in last month’s Geek Notes).

Frequently updated, the Windows on the World series has grown to include a pronunciation guide (Kindle only), a tasting notebook and food pairing companion.

The current 2018 edition has been expanded to 432 pages (up from 384 pages in the 2016 edition). It includes more detailed coverage of South America, Australia, China and New Zealand with new maps and infographics.

For geeks on a budget, there is one advantage of the frequent updates and releases. You can get used copies of previous editions of Windows on the World super cheap on Amazon. For instance, the 2012 edition is going for around $1.30 for the paperback version. While a tad outdated, at 352 pages it still covers the basics and the classic wine regions very well.

The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay (Hardcover release October 23rd)

This is probably the book that I’m most excited for because of the atlas’ focus on blind tasting. As the Amazon description notes:

“There are books that describe the geography of wine regions. And there are books that describe the way basic wines and grapes should taste. But there are no books that describe the intricacies of the way wines from various subregions, soils, and appellations should taste.”

Any wine student seeking higher level certifications through the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Wine Spirit & Education Trust should be intimately familiar with the wines on the Probable List of Examinable Red Grape Varieties, Examinable White Grape Varieties and the Certified Sommelier Examination Grape Varieties & Growing Regions.

All these wines will have distinctive profiles (typicity) with the examination board picking examples that demonstrate these distinctions well. Not only do you need to train yourself how to identify these wines, when you get to examinations like those of the Institute of Masters of Wine you will also have to explain why these distinct profiles exist (terroir, viticultural decisions, winemaking, etc).

Dearth of Blind Tasting Resources

There are not many resources out there tackling blind tasting and typicity from an examination point of view. Of course, there is  material from WSET and CMS that you get with classes but outside sources are hard to find.  Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting has been the closest I’ve found. But even that strays more into a “Windows on the World” type overview instead of getting into the nitty gritty details of teaching you to look for this while tasting a Chablis Grand Cru like Les Clos and this while tasting a Chablis Premier Cru like Montmains, etc.

I’ll be honest. At this point in my studies, all I can tell you is that they are both delicious.

Parr and Mackay’s book looks like it’s going to fill in that sorely needed niche–at least regarding terroir.

To understand the role of viticulture and winemaking decisions on the taste of wine, James Halliday and Hugh Johnson’s The Art and Science of Wine and Jamie Goode’s The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass are two of the best books I’ve found so far.

Vines and Vintages: A Taste of British Columbia’s Wine History by Luke Whittall (Paperback release October 30th, 2018)

I’m only about 3 to 6 hours away from the wine regions of the Okanagan and Vancouver Island. Yet, in all practicality, the wines of British Columbia might as well be from China. Here in the US, they are incredibly difficult to find. Even restaurants in Vancouver are far more likely to offer French, Australian and Californian labels instead of local BC wines.

While I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bordeaux varieties in BC, this 2016 Clos du Soleil Cab Franc/Cab Sauv rose from the Upper Bench of the South Similkameen Valley was quite tasty.

But every time I do eventually get my hands on wine from BC, I tend to enjoy them.  It’s clear that this is a growing industry. With the influence of climate change, it is only going to become more significant on the world’s wine stage. This is definitely an area worth exploring.

The few other books that I’ve came across dealing with BC wines have been a brief inclusion in Cole Danehower’s Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest and some of John Schreiner’s (a bit outdated) works The British Columbia Wine Companion (1997) and Chardonnay & Friends: Variety Wines of British Columbia (1999).

But with 370 pages, I can see Luke Whittall (already an established authority on BC wines with his blog and podcast at Wine Country BC) going into far more detail about the British Columbia wine scene and the remarkable growth it is has seen in the last 20 years.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Product Review — SommSelect Blind Six

Master Sommelier Ian Cauble (of the movie Somm fame) has a unique subscription program designed to teach people how to blind taste better–the SommSelect Blind Six.

Each month for $199 you receive 6 bottles (3 whites and 3 reds) that are individually wrapped in black tissue paper. I decided to give the subscription a go. Below is my experience with my first month’s box (Spoiler alert if you haven’t done April’s wines) and my thoughts on if the subscription (and wines) are worth the cost.

What You Get

In the box, you’ll find 6 individually wrapped bottles numbered 1-6 as well as an envelop containing both instructions and an answer packet to reference after you’ve tasted the wines. The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was that they didn’t indicate on each bottle if they were red or white nor was there any info in the Blind Tasting Instruction Packet. The numbered stickers on each bottle are different colors but not with a consistent pattern to distinguish white versus red. I took a wager on the most logical set up being trying the 3 whites first so I went with trying bottles #1-3 which, happily, were all white.

In the instruction packet, Cauble gives tips on what to look for in each stage of the evaluation as well as what common “clues” often mean. These tips range from things that are fairly well known–like under Sight the tips about looking at the meniscus and how the color varies from the intensity of the core to the rim is a sign of age–to more interesting observations like his note under Nose & Palate that the aroma of dry bay leaf is common in Cabernet Sauvignon from moderately warm climate regions like Napa. While the former can often be found in discussions about blind tasting, the later is the kind of insight you usually only get first hand from someone with experience in blind tasting.

Likewise, the answer packet (which I’ll discuss below) also gives numerous precise details about things to look for in evaluating color and structure that you don’t readily find from other resources.

Tasting the White Flight

Using the Coravin on the white wine flight.

Cauble recommends having a neutral third party person open the wines and pour them into a decanter. While I clearly see the benefit of this approach–not the least of which is that splash decanting is probably the most underutilized tool in wine appreciation–I went a different route for three reasons.

1.) Neither my wife nor I wanted to miss out on the fun so we didn’t have a “neutral third party”
2.) I didn’t want to open up and waste 3 bottles of wine. [Note: Cauble does recommend doing the tastings as part of a multi-course dinner and with friends]
3.) I didn’t have 3 decanters of the same size and shape–which does make a difference
3.5) I also didn’t want to clean 3 decanters along with 6 wine glasses to be brutally honest

So we decided to break out the foil cutter and as carefully as possible use scissors to cut off the tip of the black tissue paper and remove the top of the capsule without seeing any identifying markings. Wine #3 was a screwcap so I just closed my eyes and twist. It felt like I was kid back at home trying to get something out of my parent’s closet while deliberately avoiding the corner where they kept the presents. Then we Coravin each bottle to pour out 2 samples of the cork-sealed wines.

Now other people might take the approach of just blind tasting one bottle a night and enjoying the wine with dinner or what not. It’s certainly an easier and less wasteful approach. However, we really wanted to compare the 3 together because we felt that it allowed us to go back and forth with contrasting color and aroma. It is also more conducive to the blind tasting format of formal examinations. The beauty of the Coravin is that it allows us to only pour two samples of each without pulling the cork and wasting the wine.

Wine #1

The most noticeable thing about this wine was the “onion peel” color with pink hues.

Medium intensity nose with apple and citrus notes along with a white floral element that wasn’t very defined. There was also a subtle doughy element that made me think of raw pastry dough as opposed to something toasty like oak or Champagne.

On the palate the apple fruits came through much more than the citrus with a lot of weight and depth for a medium-plus bodied white wine. This wine had texture that filled the mouth which started my brain going towards Oregon Pinot gris. Medium acidity was enough to keep it fresh but not racy or citrusy like I associate with Italian Pinot grigio. No signs of new oak but that doughy element from the nose could have been from partial neutral oak. Moderate length finish ends with the lingering white flower notes that I still couldn’t quite pin point.

My guess: An Oregon Pinot gris in the $18-20 range. At this point in my practice I’m not going to focus on guessing age.
Turned out to be: 2016 Scarbolo Pinot grigio, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave: $14)

Wine #1 — Should have paid more attention to the color.

In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the color that comes from a practice of skin contact that is far more common in Italy than Oregon. I let the stereotype of “light, citrusy” supermarket Italian Pinot grigio sway me into thinking that this wine was too good and too weighty to come from Italy. Granted, living in the Pacific Northwest I’m naturally bias due to my greater familiarity with Oregon Pinot gris.

Also, (thanks to Cauble’s notes in the Answer Packet) I realized that I should have paid more attention to that “subtle doughy element” from the nose. In Cauble’s notes he describes “hints of peanut shells, stale beer” which plays along those lines of what I was picking up. It wasn’t Champagne biscuity or Muscadet leesy but there was something there that I now know I should look out for–particularly in higher end Italian Pinot grigio from regions like Friuli.

Wine #2

Light yellow color, almost watery with some green specks.

High intensity nose. Wow! This wine is screaming out the glass with lemon citrus (both fruit and zest) and the smell of concrete after rain.

On the palate, those citrus notes comes through but so does the stoniness. This wine is screaming minerality–like liquid stones in your mouth. There is also a sense of salinity in the wine that amplifies the minerality. Clearly I’m thinking Old World here but which grape? Medium-plus acid tilts me away from thinking Sauvignon blanc/Sancerre and more to Chardonnay/Chablis. Medium body with a long finish that lingers on those stoney notes. Very fantastic wine and my favorite of the flight.

Crazy good Petit Chablis. Minerality for days.

My guess: A village-level Chablis in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Agnes et Didier Dauvissat Petit Chablis, Burgundy, France (Wine Searcher Ave $17)

Outstanding wine and a scorcher of a deal for a Petit Chablis. I was even tempted into thinking this could be a Premier Cru instead of a village-level Chablis because of how vibrant it was. Ultimately I defaulted back to village level because, while it did jump out of the glass, my notes on the wine were still rather short. You expect more layers and complexity with a higher level Chablis. But still, an outstanding bottle and way above what a Petit Chablis typically delivers.

Wine #3

Moderate yellow. Definitely darker than #2 but not golden or anything that would hint at oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Spiced d’Anjou pear with LOTS of white pepper. I tried really hard not to jump to conclusions but this was screaming Gruner Veltliner right from the get-go.

On the palate the spiced pear carries through and is joined by some ripe apple notes. The ripeness of the apple and the pear had me wondering if this was maybe a warmer climate Gruner like from California or (Northwest bias again) Oregon. Medium-plus acidity and a sense of stoney river rocks ultimately brought me back to Old World and Austria. No signs of oak. Light bodied with a moderate finish that lingers on the white pepper spice.

My guess: An Austrian Gruner Veltliner in the $14-17 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Weingut Bauerl Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, Wachau, Austria (Wine Searcher Average $9)

Another crazy good value. Would be a killer glass pour at a restaurant.

While not “New Zealand Sauv. blanc easy”, this was definitely the easiest one in the entire Blind Six. Cauble promises to pick classic examples of each wine style and I don’t think he could have picked a more classic Gruner Veltliner than this.

Tasting the Red Flight

I had a bit of a ego boost with the white flight getting 3/3 grape varieties right and 1.5/3 with the regions–going to do a half point for that way over-performing Petit Chablis. However with the red flight my ego got thoroughly deflated.

My wife and I did the red flight tasting before a meal and decided to make a game of it. After we sampled and evaluated the wines, we compared each to our meal to see what was the best pairing. The “winning bottle” got the cork pulled to be finished with the rest of the meal. We really liked this game and think we’ll make it a staple moving forward with doing the Blind Six.

Wine #4

Light ruby color. Can read through it. Some fuschia hues.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very ripe Rainier cherries, cranberries with herbal notes–mint and fennel.

Those red fruits and herbal notes carry through but the cherries taste more richer on the palate than they smelled on the nose. Almost candied even. High acidity balances that richness and still keeps the fruit more red than black. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the wine feeling a little thin. Rather short finish ends on some spice notes that aren’t very defined though hint at being in the baking spice family (cinnamon, clove) suggesting partial new oak? Definitely thinking Old World Pinot with this.

Should have paid more attention to the fuschia hues and candied cherry notes.

My guess: A basic Bourgogne rouge (maybe Cote de Beaune-Villages?) in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorees Morgon, Beaujolais, France (Wine Searcher Ave $18)

My wife briefly suggested Gamay as a possibility but we dismissed it because the acids were too high–though in his notes Cauble rates the acidity of this wine as medium-plus. In hindsight, the “candied cherry” and the fuschia hues should have registered more.

Yeah, this was a total miss for me.

Wine #5

Moderate ruby. Can still read through it but much darker than #1. Slight blue hues.

Medium intensity nose. Noticeable oak spice and vanilla. Black cherries and black berries.

On the palate, the oak still dominate with the dark fruit. Medium-plus acidity keeps it from being syrupy with medium tannins holding the structure well. Moderate length finish ends on the oak. This is screaming California Pinot.

While you probably wouldn’t suspect Syrah being blended in, it would be hard not to peg this as anything but a Cali Pinot.

My guess: A California Pinot noir in the $33-38 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Tyler Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, USA (Wine Searcher Ave $36)

This was, by far, the easiest one of the red flight and I was seriously close to taking a stab that it was Central Coast as well. It was very oak driven and didn’t have any of the elegance I associate with Sonoma Coast, Russian River or Carneros Pinot noir. It wasn’t bad at all (and it certainly not a huge Kosta Browne wannabe) but it definitely was as stereotypical “Post-Sideway Cali Pinot” as you can get.

Wine #6

Medium garnet with some rim variation that has an orange huge. Can’t read through the core.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dried roses and tarry tobacco spice. Some red fruits–cherries, pomegranate and cranberries. Also a little animal earthiness.

The red fruits carry through but aren’t as defined on the palate as they were on the nose. It’s the tarry tobacco and high tannins that dominate. Still just medium-plus body though with the alcohol weight. High acidity makes your mouth water and highlights tobacco spice notes and helps keep the floral rose petals from the nose alive. The animal earthiness become more defined and linger on the moderate finish.

This isn’t your “modernist” style Gaja, Antinori, Renieri or Banfi style Brunello. Tasting this made me realize that I need to look into more “old school” style producers.

My guess: A basic Barolo in the $40-45 range.
Turned out to be: 2012 Padelletti Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave $48)

Once again my wife had the suggestion that maybe this was Sangiovese–which we evaluated more critically this time. The orange hue and the cherry notes played along. But ultimately we thought that the high tannins and high acidity fit the profile of Nebbiolo/Barolo much more than Sangiovese. Turns out, our scale of “high” is apparently Ian Cauble’s medium-plus.

In hindsight, and after reading Cauble’s notes, I realize that I have vastly more experience with “modern” style Brunello producers than I do with some of the classic, old school style of Brunello that Cauble describes in the Padelletti. A big takeaway from this experience is that I need to branch out more in this area.

For dinner we were having Italian sausage with penne and red sauce so this was the “winning bottle” from a food pairing point of view though the Morgon with the fennel notes was a close second.

Ian’s Notes — aka Where You Went Wrong

It’s incredibly enlightening (and humbling) to read a Master Sommelier’s notes on a wine you just tasted. For each wine there are numerous “clues” in color, aroma and structure that Cauble points out that make perfect sense when you go back and revisit the wine.

Like how did I miss the crushed raspberries with the Morgon Beaujolais–one of the tell tale signs of Gamay? How did I not notice the fennel and orange peel from the Brunello?

Tasting a Pinot grigio and Gruner in a flight together really highlighted the similarities and differences between the two.

While there are going to be subjective differences (like the high/medium-plus ratings), overall there is immense insight to be gained in reviewing Cauble’s notes. Beyond just laying out all the clues that you may or may not have gotten, Cauble chimes in with tips about other “lateral wines” that blind tasters often confuse with each other.

For instance, Pinot grigio, Albarino and Gruner Veltliner are part of a trio of “neutral bitter varieties” that often trouble blind tasters. Cauble encourages you to look for a subtle sensation of “over-steeped green tea” at the back of the palate and front of the lips and then try to differentiate from there. Gruner will have the distinctive white pepper (and apparently daikon-raddish which I need to look for) while Albarino will have more canned peaches and Pinot grigio will have that “stale beer” and “peanut shell” element that I also need to start looking more for.

With the Morgon Beaujolais that I completely whiffed on, Cauble goes into brief detail about how different Cru Beaujolais are from the popular associations with Gamay and describes how they are commonly confused for Northern Rhone Syrahs and Loire Cabernet Franc from Chinon. While I, personally, didn’t confuse the Morgon for either of those two–I have a motivation now to actively compare good quality Cru Beaujolais with each.

In fact this is a suggestion that Cauble makes repeatedly throughout the tasting packet–if you have trouble with something then do comparison tastings (non-blind) with what you tasted and what you thought it was. This is another area where the Coravin becomes a valuable tool. The next night after we did the red flight, my wife and I grabbed a Beaune Montrevenots (a tad higher than Cote de Beaune-Village level) and compared it side by side to the Morgon. That was immensely educational (the candied cherry of the Beaujolais was even more pronounced compared to the tart cherry of the Beaune) and we plan to do the same with getting a Barolo to compare side by side with an old school Brunello.

Is it Worth it?

Depends.

If you are looking at it from a straight dollar value of the wine, then maybe not. At $199 for 6 bottles you expect an average wine value of around $33 a bottle. I don’t know how close this month’s box is to the norm but going off of Wine Searcher’s average prices (which is based on retail and not the wholesale that SommSelect is likely getting), I received $142 worth of wine for an average of $24 a bottle. Assuming that SommSelect is already making a healthy retail mark up, it’s fair to see how some subscribers might chaff at the hard numbers.

That said, these were exceptionally well curated wines that in nearly each case drank at a higher price point. If I went with the upper end of my price ranges for each wine (which, like how I score wines with my 60 Second Reviews, is mostly based on what price I feel would be a good value for this wine) that would be $180 for an average of $30 a bottle. Not ideal but not feeling like I’m getting ripped off either.

But the bigger value in the SommSelect Blind Six is truly with Cauble’s notes. For students seeking higher level certifications with WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers, there is a dearth of material out there when it comes to learning more about blind tasting. There are some online resources (and great podcasts) from GuildSomm and each program includes some material when you pay for courses. When it comes to wine books, Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is pretty much the only game in town.

Truthfully, for the most part, budding wine geeks are on their own in this arena.

If you are serious about wanting to be a good blind taster and are already investing thousands into seeking higher level certifications–this will probably be well worth it to you.

The benefit of the SommSelect Blind Six is that you can easily structure your own self-study program for blind tasting with essentially a Master Sommelier as your personal tutor. The examples that Cauble pick are truly classic and while you might disagree with some of his assessments, you can’t fault the logic and soundness of his conclusions.

But, most importantly, along with the individual wines you taste in the Blind Six, Cauble’s notes helps you pinpoint the strengths and weakness in your approach. With his suggestions of other things to taste and insight into his own personal approach, you can craft a game plan to tackle those weaknesses so you can become a better blind taster.

After one round of the Blind Six, I feel that, yes, it is undoubtedly worth it. Maybe not for the casual wine drinker but most definitely for the wine geek or ambitious wine professional who truly wants to get better at blind tasting.

I’ll continue to review each month’s box to not only track my own progress in blind tasting but to also see how the value/price per bottle ratio trends.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar

Every year as part of Taste Washington weekend, the Washington Wine Commission host several education seminars to highlight the unique terroir, wines and personalities of the Washington wine industry.

This year I participated in the Washington vs the World: Old World, New World, Our World seminar that was moderated by Doug Charles of Compass Wines. The event was presented as a blind tasting of 5 flights–each pairing a Washington wine with a counterpart from elsewhere in the world.

Featuring a panel of winemakers including Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of WT Vintners, Keith Johnson of Sleight of Hand and Anna Schafer Cohen of àMaurice Cellars as well as Damon Huard of Passing Time Winery and Sean Sullivan of Wine Enthusiast and The Washington Wine Report, the one and half hour event was a terrific opportunity to learn insights from the panel while honing your blind tasting skills with some world class wines.

Below are my notes from each of the flights followed by the reveal of what the wines were.

Flight 1

Wine 1: Opaque ruby with more red than blue hues. Medium-minus intensity nose–floral roses with red berries. Some oak spice.
On the palate–red cherry and currant. High acidity, medium-plus tannins. Little skeletal and thin. Short finish but the floral notes come back and seem promising. Feels like a young Cab that needs some time to flesh out. No minerality so likely New World. Cool climate Washington–Yakima/Walla Walla?

Wine 2: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #1. Little hazy so likely unfiltered. Medium-minus intensity–dark fruit but also a noticeable green note. Vanilla.

The sediment from wine #2. There was no sign of age so clearly this wine wasn’t filtered.

On the palate, the noticeable oak vanilla comes to the forefront but the green leafy notes are also there. Dark fruits but still not very defined, especially with the oak. Medium-plus acidity and high tannins that have a chalky grittiness to them. Some clove spice from the oak. Likely a Cab like wine #1 and it feels like a New World Napa with dark fruit and all the oak but the green notes are throwing me off. Napa Mountain AVAs? 2014 Walla Walla?

Flight 2

Wine 3: Opaque with more red than blue hues. Medium intensity nose. Chocolate covered cherries and spice.

On the palate, chocolate cover cherries still with blue floral notes (Cab Franc?) and a mix of oak baking spice and Asian cooking spice. A lot of layers to evolve. High acidity–very juicy cherries. Medium-plus tannins, very velvet. Some pencil graphite minerality on the long finish (Cab Franc x2?) Kinda Old Worldish but the chocolate covered cherries seem New World or a very modern Right Bank Bordeaux? Very lovely.

Wine 4: Opaque ruby with a little fuchsia hues. Pretty similar color depth to #3, just slightly different shades. Medium intensity nose with some floral and perfume nose. Vanilla blossoms. Smells like a Macy department store. Some blue fruits.

On the palate, the blue fruits–plums and blueberries–carry through and has noticeable oak. Medium-plus acidity and high grippy tannins. Seems very Cab-like with that big structure. No minerality and really short finish. Like wine #1 this seems a bit skeletal and young but I don’t think this one is as promising as #1. Washington BDX blend?

Flight 3

Wine 5: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. High intensity nose. Smokey tobacco and meatiness but also an earthy forest element. It smells like you’re hiking through the forest to get to a brisket BBQ.

On the palate, lots of dark fruit–black currant, black raspberry–but lots of smokey, meatiness too. Some leather. High acidity, high tannins. Big wine! Long finish with cigar notes. Taste like a Left Bank Bordeaux and Cote Rotie had a baby. Fantastic wine but I can’t think of a WA producer doing this.

Wine 6: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. A tad darker than #5. Medium-plus intensity nose. Dark fruits. Chocolate covered acai berries. Lovely blue floral notes.

On the palate, rich black fruits–black plums, black currants. Noticeable oak vanilla. Juicy medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Very well balanced. Long finish. Taste like a high-end Napa so high-end WA? Both of these are outstanding.

Flight 4

Wine 7: Opaque ruby with some blue hues. High intensity nose with leather and smoked meat. More intense than Wine #5! A little green olive tapenade on toasted bread. Grilled rosemary skews. Floral violets. Roasted coffee. Lots and lots of layers!

On the palate, blackberries and bacon. The roasted coffee notes come through as well as most of the bouquet. Medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Little back end heat. Long finish. Very Northern Rhone-like. Really delicious wine that I want more time with.

The panel for the seminar. (Left to Right)
Doug Charles, moderator
Casey McClellan, Seven Hills
Jeff-Lindsay-Thorsen, WT Vintners
Keith Johnson, Sleight of Hand
Damon Huard, Passing Time
Anna Schafer Cohen, àMaurice
Sean Sullivan, Wine Enthusiast


Wine 8: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #7. Medium-intensity nose. Almost shy compare to #7. Black fruits. Citrus-lime zest? (WA Syrah?) Medium acidity and medium tannins. High pH. Little rocky minerality on moderate finish. Warm climate New World. Seems like a Red Mountain Syrah. Reminds me a little of the Betz La Cote Rousse.

Flight 5

Wine 9: Clear ruby with red hues. First wine that I can see through. Medium-plus intensity nose. Roasted chicken herbs–thyme and sage. Some blue floral notes.

On the palate, a mix of red and dark fruits–cherries and berries–with the herbal and floral notes. High acidity. Medium-plus tannins. Little minerality on the moderate finish. Seems like a cool climate New World or Old World Rhone.

Wine 10: Clear pale ruby. Lighter than #9 but darker than a Pinot noir. High intensity aromatics with earthy notes and red fruits. Some bacon fat smokiness.

On the palate, all red fruits–cherries and tart cranberries. The smokey bacon fat also comes through (Syrah?). High acidity and medium-plus tannins but way more biting. Not as well balanced as #9 and coming across as more thin and skeletal. Short finish. Seems young.

The Reveal
My favorite for each flight is highlighted with ***

Wine 1: 2012 àMaurice Cellars Artist Series Ivey Blend Columbia Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $43)***
Wine 2: 2013 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $213) Update: Sean Sullivan informed me that this was poured from a magnum which likely highlighted how young tasting and underwhelming this wine was.

Wine 3: 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $47)***
Wine 4: 2014 Seven Hills Winery Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $45)

Wine 5: 2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac (Wine Searcher Ave $114)***
Wine 6: 2015 Passing Time Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills (Winery price $80)

Wine 7: 2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $61)***
Wine 8: 2015 Glaetzer Wines Amon-Ra Shiraz Barossa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $75)

Wine 9: 2015 WT Vintners Rhone Blend Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley (Winery price $40)***
Wine 10: 2014 Sadie Family Columella Coastal Region (Wine Searcher Ave $107)

My Top 3 Wines of the Event

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard — WOW! This wine was so funky and character driven that I can still memorably taste it over 4 days later. I’m usually not that blown away by Sleight of Hand wines–finding them well made but often jammy and fading quickly–and while I don’t think this wine is necessarily built for the cellar, it certainly built to deliver loads of pleasure and layers of complexity over the next few years.

The Sleight of Hand Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard was my Wine of the Event.


2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac — I don’t know what kind of decanting this wine saw before the event but this wine was tasting exceptional for a young Pauillac–more so for a young Lynch Bages! I suspect it was opened earlier in the morning with the somm team pouring the glasses at least an hour before the event started–which is still a relatively brief amount of time for a top shelf Bordeaux. Update: I learned from Nick Davis of Medium Plus and the somm team at the seminar that the 2012 Lynch Bages was opened only 40 minutes before the event and poured 20 minutes prior to the tasting beginning. That only adds to how impressive the wine was showing.

The 2012 vintage in Bordeaux is not getting a lot of attention being bookend between the stellar 2009/10 and 2015/16 vintages. Like 2014, you hear Bordeaux lovers note that 2012 is much better than 2011 and 2013 but that almost seems like damning with faint praise. It’s clear that there is a lot of great value to be had in this vintage–compare the Wine Searcher Ave for 2010 Lynch Bages ($190) & 2015 ($142) to the $114 average for 2012–and if it is starting to deliver pleasure at a little over 5 years of age then it’s worth investing in as a “cellar defender” to enjoy while waiting for your 2009/10 and 2015/16 wines to age.

2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley — I was not expecting this result. During the blind tasting I was very intrigued by this wine and ultimately pegged it as a Right Bank Bordeaux made in a style along the veins of Valandraud, Fleur Cardinale, Monbousquet or Canon-la-Gaffelière. Never would have pegged it as a Napa Merlot! In hindsight the chocolate covered cherries should have been my clue but they were so well balanced by the acidity and minerality that it didn’t come across as “Napa sweet”. Well done Duckhorn!

An honorable mention goes to the 2015 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. I was very impressed with how how Napa-like it has become. I was already a fan of the winery and tried this 2015 as a barrel sample at last year’s release party where its potential was evident. Still, I wasn’t expecting it to be this good, this quickly. It was rather unfair to compare the Passing Time to the 2012 Lynch Bages which was so different and so fantastic in its own right. A better pairing would have been with the Joseph Phelps Insignia or any other high end Napa like Silver Oak, Caymus, Frank Family, Cakebread, etc and I have no doubt that the Passing Time would have came out on top for most tasters.

Things I Learned About Blind Tasting

Admittedly I was a tad concerned finding myself consistently liking the first wine in each tasting flight but I can’t think of any systematic reason that would lead to that result. The wines were all poured in advance and I cleared my palate with crackers and water between each so I have to chalk it all up to coincidence.

For the most part, the varietal character and identity of each flight stood out and I was fairly accurate in identifying them. The main outlier was the Merlot flight (#2) featuring the Duckhorn and Seven Hills Merlots. The Duckhorn was tripping some of my Cab Franc notes while the Seven Hills was exceptionally Cabernet Sauvignon-like so that led me to deduce Right Bank Bordeaux blend which was wrong but at least in the ballpark.

The more difficult task was trying to nail down the region and which was the Washington example versus the World example. Here I felt like I only solidly hit 2 of the 5 flights (Flight #1 and Flight #3–Cab and Cab-dominant blends) but that was mostly just by 50/50 luck–especially in Flight #1.

The WT Vintners Rhone blend from Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley is a tough wine to pin down in blind tasting because of its mix of Old/New World characteristics.

I was often tripped up by how “Old Worldish” many of the Washington wines were–especially the Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard in the Rocks District. In hindsight, this should have screamed “ROCKS!” to me much sooner. While technically Oregon, this sub-AVA of Walla Walla produces some of the most complex and interesting Syrahs being made in Washington. I commented from the audience that putting this Syrah in a blind tasting is a little evil because of how Old World and Cote Rotie-ish it is.

Another thing that makes Washington a bit difficult to peg down is how frequently “cool climate notes” like red fruit, juicy medium-plus acidity, bright floral perfumes and subtle herbal notes appear in wines that are actually grown in rather warm climates (especially compared to Old World regions like Bordeaux). This is largely because of the significant diurnal temperature variation in Eastern Washington that can swing as much as 40℉ from the high heat of the daytime to cool low temperatures of night. This allows Washington grapes to get fully ripe and develop some of those dark fruit notes but, especially in cooler areas like Boushey and Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima and parts of Walla Walla, also maintain ample acidity and some of those cool climate characteristics.

From a blind tasting perspective, I need to solidify in my mind that getting a wine with that mix of warm/cool climate characteristics should be a tip off that I’m dealing with a Washington wine.

Is it Worth it?

Hell yeah. While I wasn’t impressed at all with attending The New Vintage, I will certainly make an effort to attend future seminars at Taste Washington.

At $85 a ticket, this was one of the more expensive seminars with others being as low as $45 a ticket, but the experience (and tasting over $800 worth of wine) delivers more than enough value to merit the cost.

A lot of great wine to taste through.


The only slight criticism is the rush between tasting each wine and getting the panel and audience to start commenting on them. Especially being a blind tasting, I wanted more than just a minute or two to critically taste and evaluate the wine before I start hearing other people’s comments that may sway my assessment.

Granted, I’m sure I’m in the minority here as I could tell that for many other participants in the audience, tasting the wines and being able to ask questions of the panel was a bigger draw than getting a chance to sharpen their blind tasting skills. When you have 10 wines being presented over 90 minutes–and allotting time for questions about vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking style, etc–something got to give so I understand why the tasting time got the short shrift.

Still, it was an exceedingly worthwhile experience that I highly recommend for Washington wine lovers and wine geeks alike.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Whiskey and Wine Revisited

In 2016, I dipped my toes into exploring the strange trend of wine aged in whiskey barrels with my original Whiskey and Wine post.

In that post I did a blind tasting featuring 3 barrel aged wines and one regular red wine ringer thrown in. While I thought this fad would quickly fade, it looks like it has only picked up steam with new entries on the market.

I decided to investigate a little more with another blind tasting of as many different barrel aged wines that I could find. (Results below)

I got bottles of the Apothic Inferno, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrelhouse Red featured in the last blind tasting as well as new bottlings from Mondavi of a bourbon barrel aged Chardonnay (I’m not kidding) and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Barrelhouse. I found new examples from Cooper & Thief, 1000 Stories, Big Six Wines, Stave & Steel and Paso Ranches. For a twist, I also added the 19 Crimes The Uprising that was actually aged in rum barrels.

I tried to find bottles of The Federalist’s Bourbon barrel aged Zinfandel, Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz and 1000 Stories “half batch” Petite Sirah but to no avail.

So What’s The Deal?

Why are so many producers jumping on this bandwagon?

On Twitter, wine and lifestyle blogger Duane Pemberton (@Winefoot) had an interesting take.

A similar sentiment was shared on Facebook from one of my winemaking friends, Alan, who noted that the charcoal from the heavy toast of the bourbon barrels could function as a fining agent for wines with quality issues like bad odors.

Now considering that many of the mega-corporations behind these wines like Gallo (Apothic), Constellation Brands (Mondavi & Cooper & Thief), The Wine Group (Stave & Steel) and Concha y Toro/Fetzer (1000 Stories) process millions of tons of grapes for huge portfolios of brands, this actually makes brilliant business sense.

Even in the very best of vintages, you are always going to have some fruit that is less than stellar–often from massively over-cropped vineyards that aren’t planted in the most ideal terroir. Rather than funnel that fruit to some of your discount brands like Gallo’s Barefoot, Constellation’s Vendange and The Wine Group’s Almaden, you can put these wines in a whiskey barrel for a couple months and charge a $5-10 premium–or in the case of Cooper & Thief, $30 a bottle!

Trying to Keep An Open Mind

Bourbon Standards

In this tasting, I wanted to explore how much of the whiskey barrel influence is noticeable in the wine. In the last blind tasting, one of things that jumped out for me is that the Mondavi Cab and Barrelhouse red didn’t really come across as “Whiskey-like” and were drinkable just fine as bold red wines. Meanwhile the Apothic Inferno did scream WHISKEY but it came across more like a painful screech.

To facilitate that exploration, I poured some examples of “Bourbon Standards” that the tasting panel could smell for reference (and drink after the tasting if needed!). My Bourbon Standards were:

Larceny — From Heaven Hill Distillery. A “fruity sweet” Bourbon with noticeable oak spice.

Jim Beam — Old standard from Beam-Suntory. A light Bourbon with floral and spice notes.

Two Stars — A wheated Bourbon from Sazerac. It’s kind of like if Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark had a baby, this would be it. Caramel and spice with honey and fruit.

Bulleit — Made now at Four Roses Distillery. Sweet vanilla and citrus.

The Wines

Apothic Inferno & Cooper & Thief

Apothic Inferno — ($13) Made by Gallo. Unknown red blend. This wine is unique in that it only spent 60 days in whiskey barrels (as opposed to bourbon barrels) while most of the other reds spent 90 days. 15.9% ABV

Cooper & Thief — ($30) Made by Constellation under the helm of Jeff Kasavan, the former director of winemaking for Vendange. I did appreciate that this was the only red blend that gave its blend composition with 38% Merlot, 37% Syrah, 11% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% “other red grapes”. The wine was aged for 90 days and had the highest ABV of all the wines tasted with 17%. This wine was also unique in that it was from the 2014 vintage while all the other reds (with the exception of the 19 Crimes) were from the 2015 vintage.

Barrelhouse — ($13-14) Made by Bruce and Kim Cunningham of AW Direct. A Cabernet Sauvignon and unknown Red Blend aged 90 days in bourbon barrels. Both of these wines were unique in that they had the lowest alcohol levels in the tasting with only 13.2% while most of the other wines were over 15%.

Big Six — ($15 each) Made by god knows who. The back label says it is from King City, California which means that it could be a Constellation brand or it could be made at a custom crush facility like The Monterey Wine Company. They offer a Cabernet Sauvignon, unknown Red Blend and Zinfandel aged 90 days in bourbon barrels with ABVs ranging from 15.1% (Red blend) to 15.5% (Zinfandel).

Paso Ranches Zinfandel — ($20) Made by Ginnie Lambrix at Truett Hurst. While most wines were labeled as multi-regional “California”, this wine is sourced from the more limited Paso Robles AVA. Aged 90 days with a 16.8% ABV.

Robert Mondavi — ($12 each) Made by Constellation Brands. A Cabernet Sauvignon aged 90 days and a Chardonnay aged for 60 days with both wines having an ABV of 14.5%. Like the Paso Ranches, these wines were sourced from the more limited Monterrey County region.

Stave & Steel Cabernet Sauvignon — ($17) Made by The Wine Group. This wine was unique in that it was aged the longest of all the wines with 4 months. Like the Barrelhouse, this wine had a more moderate alcohol of 13.5%

Got only crickets from them on Twitter as well.


1000 Stories Zinfandel — ($17) Made by Fetzer which is owned by Concha y Toro. This was one of the first wineries in the US to release a bourbon barrel aged wine back in 2014 with winemaker Bob Blue claiming that he’s been aging wine in old whiskey barrels since the 1980s. This was the only wine that I could not figure out how long it was aged with the bottle or website giving no indication. The ABV was 15.6%

19 Crimes — ($8) Made by Treasury Estates with wine sourced from SE Australia. Unknown red blend that was aged 30 days in rum barrels with 15% ABV. This was the youngest wine featured in the tasting coming from the 2016 vintage.

The Blind Tasting

To be as objective as possible, especially with some of the wines like the Cooper & Thief having very distinctive bottles, I brown bagged the wines and had my wife pour the wines in another room. We also “splash decanted” all the wines (with the exception of the Chardonnay) to clear off any reductive notes.

After trying the Chardonnay non-blind, my wife would randomly select an unmarked bag, label it A through L and poured the wines in 6 flights of 2 wines each. We then evaluated the wines and gave each a score on a scale of 1-10. Below is a summary of some of our notes, scores and rankings with the reveal to follow. My friend Pete contributed the colorful “personification” of the wines in his tasting notes. The wine price ranges are from my own notes.

To keep our palates as fresh as possible we had plenty of water and crackers throughout the tasting. And boy did our poor little spit bucket get a work out, needing to be emptied after every other flight. But even with spitting, it was clear that we were absorbing some of the high alcohol levels. After 6 reds, we also paused for a break to refresh our palates with some sparkling wine.

Mondavi Chardonnay (Scores 4, 7, 6, 5.5, 4 = 26.5 for 7th place) Vanilla, butterscotch, canned cream corn & tropical fruit like warm pinneapple. More rum barrel influence than bourbon. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range

Wine A (Scores 6, 7.5, 6, 7, 6 = 32.5 for 3rd place) Baby powder and baking spice. Noticeable Mega-Purple influence. Maybe a Zin or Petite Sirah. Minimal oak influence. Some burnt char. Kind of like the girl you met at the carnival, take for a ride but don’t buy her cotton candy. Drinks like something in the $10-12 range.

Many wines were very dark and opaque.


Wine B (Scores 2, 3, 4, 2, 2 = 13 for 11th place) Very sweet. Lots of vanilla. Noticeable oak spice and barrel influence. Little rubber. More rye whiskey than bourbon. Taste like oxidize plum wine. Very bitter and diesel fuelish. Reminds me of a Neil Diamond groupie. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range.

Wine C (Scores 7, 7, 7, 7, 3 = 31 for 5th place) Smells like a ruby port or Valpolicella ripasso. Some wintergreen mint and spice. Cherry and toasted marshmellow. Noticeable barrel influence. Reminds me of Karen from Mean Girls. Drinks like something in the $10-12 range.

Wine D (Scores 3, 4.5, 5, 2, 2 = 16.5 for 10th place) Very sweet, almost syrup. Burnt creme brulee. Burnt rubber. Toasted coconut. Rum soaked cherries. The color is like Hot Topic purple hair dye. Super short finish which is actually a godsend. If this wine was a person, her name would be Chauncey. Drinks like something in the $5-6 range.

Wine E (Scores 6, 7, 6, 8, 7 = 34 for 2nd place) Raspberry and vanilla. Graham cracker crust. Not as sweet as others. Very potpourri and floral. Really nice nose! Smells like the Jim Beam. Little Shetland pony earthiness. High heat and noticeable alcohol. Reminds me of the guy who is really ugly but you like him anyways. Drinks like something in the $14-16 range.

Wine F (Scores 3.5, 5.5, 4, 5, 5 = 22 for 8th place) Toasted marshmellows. Noticeably tannic like a Cab. Raspberry and black currants. Not much barrel influence. This wine seems very robotic. Drinks like something in the $12-14 range.

That spit bucket rarely left my side during this tasting.

Wine G (Scores 6.5, 7, 3, 6.5, 6 = 27 for 6th place) Tons of baking spice. Very noticeable oak. Reminds me of a Paso Zin. Lots of black pepper–makes my nose itch. Slightly sweet vanilla. Most complex nose so far. Would be a really good wine if it wasn’t so sweet. Reminds me of a Great Depression era dad. Drinks like a $14-16 wine.

Wine H (Scores 2, 3, 3, 1, 2 = 11 for 13th last place) Burnt rubber tires. Smells very boozy. Fuel. Taste like really bad Seagram’s 7. Cheap plastic and char like someone set knockoff Crocs shoes on fire. Reminds me of Peter Griffin. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range.

Wine I (Scores 7.5, 6.5, 7, 8, 7 = 36 for 1st place) Dark fruit and pepper spice. Turkish fig. Juicy acidity. Not as sweet. Round mouthfeel and very smooth. Creamy like butterscotch. Not much barrel influence. Reminds me of a sociopath that you don’t know if they want to cuddle with you or cut your throat. Drinks like something in the $14-16 range.

Wine J (Scores 4, 4, 3, 4, 3 = 19 for 9th place) Marshmellow fluff. Caramel. Very sweet. Smells like a crappy Manhattan with cherry. Seems like a boozy Zin. Not horrible but still bad. Not much barrel influence at all. Reminds me of children. Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

The tasting sheets.

Wine K (Scores 7, 6.5, 8, 4, 6 = 31.5 for 4th place) Big & rich. Juicy cherries. Sweet but not overly so. Little pepper spice. Very easy drinking. Something I would actually drink. Not much barrel influence. Makes me think of the “I’ve got a Moon Ma” guy. (author’s note: I have no idea what Pete is referring to here. This is my best guess.) Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

Wine L (Scores 1, 4, 2, 4, 1 = 12 for 12th place) Stewed plums and burnt rubber. Lots of tannins and acid. The worst thing I’ve had in my mouth all week. Pretty horrible. Long unpleasant finish. Reminds me of Sloth from The Goonies. Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

The Reveal

After tallying up the scores, we revealed the wines. In order from best tasting to worst tasting of the barrel aged wines:

The closeness in style and rankings of the 3 Big Six wines were surprising.

1st Place: Barrelhouse Red (Bag I)
2nd Place: Stave & Steel Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag E)
3rd Place: Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag A)
Big Six Zinfandel (Bag K)
Big Six Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag C)
Big Six Red Blend (Bag G)
Mondavi Chardonnay (non-blind)
Barrelhouse Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag F)
19 Crimes The Uprising (Bag J)
Cooper & Thief (Bag D)
Paso Ranches Zinfandel (Bag B)
1000 Stories Zinfandel (Bag L)
Last Place: Apothic Inferno (Bag H)

Final Thoughts

One clear trend that jumped out was that the top three wines had moderate alcohol (13.2% with the Barrelhouse to 14.5% with the Mondavi). Overall these wines tasted better balance and had the least amount of the off-putting burnt rubber and diesel fuel note which tended to come out in the worst performing wines like the Apothic Inferno (15.9%), Cooper & Thief (17%), 1000 Stories Zin (15.6%) and Paso Ranches Zin (16.8%).

Another trend that emerged that was similar to the previous tasting (which had the Barrelhouse Red and Mondavi Cab also doing very well) is that the most enjoyable wines were the ones with the least overt whiskey barrel influence. This was true even with the 2nd place finish of the Stave & Steel that was the wine that spent the most time in barrel at 4 months. That is a testament to the skill of the winemaker where the whiskey barrel is used as a supporting character to add some nuance of spice and vanilla instead of taking over the show.

Comparing the 4 month aged Stave & Steel to the 2 month aged Apothic Inferno is rather startling because even with a shorter amount of barrel time the Apothic seemed to absorb the worst characteristics from the whiskey barrel with the burnt rubber and plastic. The 19 Crimes that only spent 30 days in rum barrels didn’t show much barrel influence at all.

It also appears that, in general, Cabernet Sauvignon takes better to the barrel aging compared to Zinfandel though the Big Six Zinfandel did fairly well to earn a 4th place finish. The most difficult task for winemakers is to try and reign in the sweetness. Several of these wines had notes like Wine G (the Big Six red blend that is probably Zin dominant) that they would actually be decent wines if they were just a bit less sweet.

One last take away (which is true of most wines) is that price is not an indicator of quality. Three of the worst performing wines were among the 4 most expensive with the $17 1000 Stories Zin, $20 Paso Ranches Zin and the $30 Cooper & Thief. In fact, the Cooper & Thief tasted so cheap that I pegged it as a $5-6 wine. It is very clear that you are paying for the unique bottle and fancy website with this wine.

Only the $17 Stave & Steel that came in 2nd held its own in the tasting to merit its price though the Barrelhouse Red at $13 and Mondavi Cab at $12 offer better value.

It’s clear that this trend is not going away anytime soon. If you’re curious, these wines are worth exploring but be aware that they vary considerably in style, alcohol and sweetness. Grab a few bottles and form your own opinion.

But take my advice and have some good ole fashion real whiskey on standby. Those “bourbon standards” certainly came in handy after the tasting.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Whiskey and Wine

Author’s note: For an updated tasting that featured 13 whiskey/rum barrel aged wines check out the post Whiskey and Wine Revisited.

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.

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.

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

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)

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.

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker


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.

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.

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)


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!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!