Category Archives: Food Pairing

60 Second Wine Review — Ch. de la Perriere Brouilly

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Ch. de la Perriere Beaujolais cru from Brouilly.

The Geekery

Ch. de la Perriere is produced by the negociant house Jean-Claude Debeaune which is part of the Beaujolais empire of Georges DuBoeuf.

The wine is 100% Gamay sourced from the 11 hectare (27 acres) Brouilly estate of Luc and Arnaud Brac. The estate was first planted in 1631 by their ancestor, Antoine Brac.

Brouilly is the southernmost and largest of the 10 Crus of Beaujolais. It’s vineyards encompass the flatter land around the volcanic Mont Brouilly. Vineyards planted on the slopes of Mont Brouilly itself belong to the cru Côte de Brouilly.

In his book, Terroir, James Wilson notes that the soils of Brouilly, like all of the crus of Beaujolais are granite-based with a thin sandy layer of arène (from the Latin word for “arena”). The soils are on the acidic side but are mineral rich with magnesium, phosphorous and potassium.

But unique to the crus of Brouilly and Chiroubles is a white clay known as smectite–an expansive clay related to the wine fining agent bentonite. The presence of smectite enhances the cation-exchange and water-retention capabilities of the soil which can be particularly beneficial in warmer, early-ripening vintages like 2014.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Red fruits like cherry and candied raspberry. Subtle oak spice.

Photo by Theo Crazzolara. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Plenty of juicy red cherry and raspberry notes in this wine.

The red fruits carry through to the palate with high acidity making them very juicy but also a bit tart. Medium body fruit and ripe medium tannins offer some balance but don’t quite take off the edge. Moderate length finish ends on the mouthwatering fruit.

The Verdict

The acidity and structure of this Beaujolais definitely lends itself more to the table and food pairing than drinking on its own. Pairing this wine with something that can take advantage of its mouthwatering acidity (like a Thanksgiving spread) would be its best use.

At $15-18, it is a decent Beaujolais cru but nothing very wow-worthy.

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WBC18 Day 3 Quick Impressions

Picture of Brokenwood Semillon wine

A big selling point for next year’s WBC will be the chance to explore more Hunter Semillons.

I’m back home from the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla. Next year’s event will in the Hunter Valley in Australia and I’m very tempted!

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll get back to posting 60 Second Wine Reviews and Geek Notes as well as a new edition of Keeping Up With the Joneses of Burgundy.

I’ll also have some extended write-ups from the conference so keep your eyes open for those. Till then feel free to check out the previous posts in my WBC18 series:

WBC18 Day 2 Quick Impressions
WBC18 Day 1 Quick Impressions
Getting Ready (and a bit nervous) For WBC18!

On to Day 3!

Breakout Session — Advanced Strategies for Facebook and Instagram

My other options for the morning sessions were How to Seal the Deal with a Kick Ass Media Kit and How to Craft a Compelling Professional Pitch which seem to be heavily tilted towards seeking paid promotions from wineries. Since I have little interest in those kind of gigs, I opted for this seminar hosted by Carin Oliver of Angelsmith, Inc.

I haven’t figured out what I’m doing with Instagram yet. I like pretty pictures as much as the next person but I get bored easily with bottle porn. Tell me something about the wine or vineyard beyond just “Yum!” or “Beautiful!”.

Wine Bloggers Conference Agenda

The “How to Make Wineries Adore You” session also didn’t seem like my calling.

I was hoping that Oliver’s talk would show me the value of Instagram as well what’s the best use of Facebook. While she gave great insights on how Facebook treats blog and business pages, I quickly realized that her talk was geared towards “influencers” who want to make themselves marketable to wineries. Again, that’s not me.

Can Google Read? How your Writing Affects Your Rank in Google Search

This was an awesome session! John Cashman and Nancy Koziol (The Oethical Oenologist) of Digital Firefly Marketing gave a terrific presentation that was the most fruitful of the entire conference.

Around 2/3 of my traffic comes from search engines so I was eager to learn how that happens. Cashman and Koziol explained search engine optimization and the current understanding of how Google analyzes and ranks pages. But the best part was Koziol’s section on how to be a better writer and make your posts more readable.

You can check out the presentation yourself here!

Bubbles & Bites With Gloria Ferrer

The old adage that American wine drinkers “Talk dry but drink sweet” has a lot of truth to it. The sweet Bruts of Gloria Ferrer fit that bill very well.

It probably wasn’t the best idea to schedule this session after lunch but sommelier Sarah Tracey (The Lush Life) did a great job of pairing Gloria Ferrer sparklers with various nibbles.

I wasn’t thrilled with the wines as the Gloria Ferrers were on the sweeter side of Brut with 12.2 g/l residual sugar (2010 Anniversary Cuvee $45) to 12.8 g/l (Rose $29). While the US and EU allows up to 15 g/l under the Brut category, in Champagne the limit is 12 g/l. Believe me, you can taste the difference.

Live White & Rosé Wine Blogging

I missed the Wine and Cheese Pairing with Cheeses of Europe and the Lightening Talks so I could finish yesterday’s Day 2 recap but I made it in time for the second round of chaotic blogging.

This style of blogging is still not my cup of tea but I was introduced to some awesome wines.

Amanda Barnes presenting the Garzon Albarino from Uruguay

Amanda Barnes of Around the World in 80 Harvests presenting the Garzón Albarino.

1.) Bodega Garzón 2017 Albarino — An Albarino from Uruguay! This was a first for me and I totally geeked out over the differences between this and the Albarinos I had the day before from Rías Baixas. The Garzón was crisp but more rich in the mouthfeel with riper fruit flavors. It also didn’t have the trademark salinity of the Galcian Albarinos.

2.) Dr. Loosen 2016 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling GG Alte Rebben — A super geeky old vine Riesling sourced from 100+ yr vines that are still planted on their own rootstock. Crisp and dry with only 6.9 g/l residual sugar, it was a welcomed contrast to the Gloria Ferrer “Brut” sparklers from earlier.

3.) Troon Vineyard 2017 Riesling — I actually got a “sneak peak” taste of this before the speed blogging which I really appreciated. This complex, orange wine-style Riesling merits way more attention than what could be given in 5 minutes. Sourced from biodynamically grown grapes in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, this wine spent 2 weeks macerating with its skins before being fermented dry and aged in neutral oak barrels. Lots of interesting flavors that I don’t regularly associate with Riesling like cumin and saffron with cantaloupe rind. Great texture and mouthfeel with a long finish.

Final Dinner Sponsored by Visit Walla Walla

The Truth Teller and the Wine Lunatic, together at last!

The last event of the conference was a dinner with Washington winemakers at each table. My table got to enjoy the company of Chris Loeliger of Truth Teller Winery and Tim Armstrong of Armstrong Family Winery.

With a more intimate setting, it was great hearing behind-the-scenes anecdotes about what it’s like starting a winery and the challenges that come with it. Of course, those great stories also came with great wines with the Truth Teller Right Bank Bordeaux-style blend Satire and Armstrong’s Cabernet Franc being my favorites. Look for some upcoming 60 Second Wine Reviews on both.

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.


Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto. These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off because with nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.


The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow! I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!


Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt! This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness. The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses but Kyran also brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.


With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new. You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington is one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants to visit. Each year they host a Champagne Gala that we love going to. Even when we’re not thrilled with the wines selected, we nonetheless always enjoy the exquisite food crafted by Executive Chef Kevin Rohr and a chance to try interesting food pairings.

Recently I got to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Stags’ Leap Winery with Assistant Winemaker Joanne “Jo” Wing.

The Background

I geeked out about some of the backstory of Stags’ Leap Winery in my 60 Second Review of their 2013 Napa Valley Merlot. With a long history dating back to the late 19th century, the winery is one of Napa’s most historic properties.

In California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube notes that the rise of the modern-era of Stags’ Leap Winery under Carl Doumani went hand in hand with the “Cabernet boom” of the 1970s that saw the notable Cabs of Burgess, Cakebread, Caymus, Clos du Val, Mount Eden, Mt. Veeder, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps hit the scene. It also saw the birth of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and decades-long legal intrigue.

The War of the Apostrophe” soon took off with Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (and winner of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris) suing Doumani–who promptly counter-sued.

The two men eventually settled their differences in the mid-1980s and released a special collaborative bottling between the two estates called Accord from the 1985 vintage to commemorate. The agreement was that Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would have the apostrophe to the left of the ‘s’ while Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery would have it to the right.

You could tell that the Treasury Wine Estate rep at the dinner wasn’t too happy about the apostrophe typo on the menu.

Around this time, the two wineries faced another challenge with other wineries in the area like Gary Andrus’ Pine Ridge Winery, Steltzner Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards and more wanting to use the Stags Leap name and petitioning for American Viticultural Area (AVA) approval under that name for the region. After more legal challenges, a compromise was struck for the name of the new AVA to be the Stags Leap District (SLD) sans apostrophe.

Today the winery is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a vast portfolio that includes 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead wines, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Ch. St Jean, Penfolds, Provenance, Hewitt Vineyard and more.

The current winemaker is Christophe Paubert who succeeded Robert Brittan when the later left Napa to make wine in Oregon at his own Brittan Vineyards and consult for wineries such as Winderlea.

A Bordeaux trained winemaker, Paubert has extensive experience working at such illustrious estates as the 2nd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Gruaud-Larose and the First Growth Sauternes estate of Chateau d’Yquem. Prior to joining Stags’ Leap in 2009, Paubert was the head winemaker for 4 years at Canoe Ridge Vineyards in Washington State.

Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing is a New Zealand native who started out at Indevin, one of New Zealand’s largest wine producers. She gained experience working harvest across the globe from Saintsbury in Napa to Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley of Australia as well as in Bordeaux before accepting a position at Stags’ Leap as a harvest enologist and working her way up to Asst. Winemaker.

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Viognier
Smoked sablefish with soft scrambled farm egg, ikura, chives and Chevre crostini with watermelon beet, grilled apricot, chili spice

I’m not a big beet person so I let my wife try the Chevre Crostini while I had the smoked sablefish with the ikura roe caviar. Both were smashing pairings with the Stags’ Leap Viognier with the wine being a particular revelation.

Sourced primarily from cooler climate vineyards in the Carneros AVA and Oak Knoll District, the Viognier had medium-plus intensity nose of orange blossoms and white peach notes.

On the palate, those white peach tree fruits carried through but also brought some tropical notes of passion-fruit and papaya. However this Viognier never came close to the tutti-fruity “Fruit Loop Cereal” style that unfortunately befalls many domestic Viogniers–especially those fermented and aged only in stainless steel. To avoid that pratfall, Paubert and Wing fermented the wine in neutral French oak barrels with weekly batonnage for 4 months. This very “Condrieu-style” approach produced a Viognier with textural weight and depth but with enough medium-plus acidity to keep it from being flabby or overly creamy.

The acidity also matched perfectly with the hors d’oeuvres, cutting through the “fishiness” of the sablefish and roe. My wife was particularly impressed at how well the acidity matched with the Chevre–the tangy goat cheese that often calls for high acid whites like Sauvignon blanc.

At $22-27, this is an outstanding Viognier with loads of personality and complexity that I would put on par with the àMaurice Viognier from Washington State as one of the stellar domestic examples of this variety.

The preserved kumquat vinaigrette on the salad were quite a treat.


First Course paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay
Spring Salad with Belgian endive, baby kale, avocado, marcona almonds, preserved kumquat vinaigrette

Sourced from the Carneros and Oak Knoll District, this Napa Chardonnay counters the stereotype of over-the-top, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. With 25% fermented and aged in new French oak, 50% in “seasoned” French oak and the rest in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay aimed for an elegant and food-friendly style.

The wine had a medium intensity nose with apple and citrus lime notes. A little subtle baking spice from the oak rims around the edge.

On the palate, the citrus notes came through the most and played off the baby kale and avocado very well. Medium-plus acidity maintained freshness and balanced the moderate creaminess in the wine. The clove oak spice and an almost marzipan nuttiness lingered on the moderate finish.

Overall, this was a very drinkable and pleasant Chardonnay that did hit the target for food-pairing. But, admittedly, at $25-30 it didn’t jump out as anything wow-worthy–especially following in the footsteps of the scrumptious Viognier. It’s a very well made California Chard but it is still one of hundreds of similar well-made and similarly priced California Chards.

The star of the night. I can still taste the braised short ribs and that delectable sauce.

Second Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Braised short ribs with seared sea scallops, morel mushrooms, chervil

From a food perspective, this was the winning course of the night. The braised short ribs melted in the mouth and had you dearly wishing you had more than just the bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and while I was skeptical with pairing them with a big Cab, the morel and au jus sauce from the short ribs offered just enough weight to carry the pairing.

As with other wines in the white label Napa Valley series, the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon includes some estate fruit but is mostly sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Joanne Wing noted that while Paubert likes the flexibility of having some fruit from warm climate sites like Calistoga, he’s far more excited about the fruit from the cooler southern reaches of Napa like Coombsville, Oak Knoll and Yountville.

Medium-plus intensity with rich dark fruit–black currants, black plums, blackberries. This screams Napa Cab from the nose but it is not as overtly oak-driven as the norm with a little tobacco spice element.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through but there is a little earthy forest-floor element that emerges that adds some intrigue. Medium acidity adds juiciness to the fruit but not enough to be mouthwatering. The oak is a little more pronounced but is more spice driven than vanilla. The medium-plus tannins are still quite firm and young but are more tight than biting. Moderate length finish ends on the fruit which testifies to the youth of this wine.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

At $45-50, this is priced in lined with many of its Napa peers as a sort of “entry-level” Napa Cab. It’s hard to say it is a compelling value compared to what you can get for equivalent pricing from other regions like Washington and Paso Robles. Like the Chardonnay, I feel like this Cab is certainly well made but not blow-your-socks-off-you-must-find-it good partly because of the premium you are paying for the Napa name (and the winery’s history).

However, I do suspect that this wine could kick it up a couple notches with a few more years of bottle age that potentially could make it far more compelling.

Third Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap “The Investor” Red Blend
Piedmontese New York Steak with herb polenta, spring vegetables, blackberry demiglace

Admittedly, this was one of the few times I’ve been disappointed with a Daniel’s steak. Perhaps it was just this cut but I found it was in the weird position of being both too fatty and too dry and lacking flavor. The polenta and blackberry demi-glace were excellent though. But I found myself again wishing that the braised short ribs were the main course.

A unique blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, The Investor pays homage to former owner Horace Chase who made his fortune investing in gold and silver mines during the Gold Rush days of California. The Merlot and majority of the Petite Sirah come from estate fruit in the Stags Leap District and Oakville while the Cabernet and Malbec are sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley.

The medium-plus acidity and savory, herbal element of The Investor red blend definitely helped interject some much needed flavor into the Piedmontese New York steak.

Medium-plus nose with a mix of red and dark fruits–plums and currants. There is more overt oak vanilla on the nose of this wine than with the Cab but it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Underneath there is also a blue floral element that is not defined.

On the palate, the mix of fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity tilting the favor towards the red fruit. Some savory herbal and smokey notes join the party that dearly helps the food-pairing with the flavorless Piedmontese New York steak. The vanilla oak notes add a layer of velvety softness to the high tannins that still have a fair amount of gripe. Like the Cab, the moderate length finish ends on the youthful fruit.

At $50-60, The Investor intrigues me a lot more than the Napa Cabernet (and the Napa Merlot) because of the savory, smokey element and mouthwatering acidity. It’s still young and has some “baby fat” of oak that needs to be shed but this is a unique blend that could turn into something exceptionally good.

Dessert paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Chocolate torte with Devonshire cream, coconut crisp

While the chocolate torte was amazing and sinfully delicious and the wine outstanding, this was not a winning pairing. The wine was nowhere near sweet enough to balance with the torte.

While delicious on their own, the pairing of the chocolate torte with the Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah just didn’t do it for me.

Still, it was somewhat fitting to end the Stags’ Leap Winery dinner with the wine that truly epitomizes the estate. While the name “Stags Leap” is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap Winery was always a vanguard in cultivating and promoting Petite Sirah.

High intensity nose that started jumping out of the glass as soon as the waiter poured it. Blackberries and boysenberries with some peppery spice and violets.

On the palate, the first thing that hits you is the weight and richness of the wine with the full brunt of the dark fruits and high tannins. But there is an elegance with the juicy medium-plus acidity and fine balance that keeps the wine from being overbearing. On the moderate finish, there is some subtle dark chocolate notes that come out but not enough to make the food-pairing work. This was definitely a wine to savor on its own.

At $32-40, this is a more premium-priced Petite Sirah but it is well worth not only its price but also its reputation as the winery’s flagship. During this course, Jo told us about the Ne Cede Malis block of Prohibition-era vines that is a field blend of majority Petite Sirah with Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and up to 9 other varieties. The grapes are harvested together and co-fermented to produce a limited release bottling. I have to admit that if Stags’ Leap Winery’s mobile ordering website wasn’t so buggy and difficult to navigate, I would have purchased a bottle of the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (as well as several bottles of the Viognier) right then.

Overall Impressions

Attending this dinner left me wondering if Stags’ Leap Winery is a victim of its own name and location in Napa Valley. While the winery absolutely shined with its Viognier and Petite Sirah, their more typical Napa offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were just “ho-hum”.

I do appreciate that Treasury Wine Estates has let Paubert, Wing and Co. continue producing their more obscure bottlings but I have no doubt that the health of the winery’s bottom line depends on the case sales of the bread and butter Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. It’s where the money is–especially in Napa–and that is what they’re out to sell.

Yet after tasting their outstanding Viognier, scrumptious Petite Sirah and very character-driven Investor blend, its hard not to think about what more the winery could do with their talented winemaking team and unique approach if they didn’t have to live up to the name Stags’ Leap.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/4/18 — Organic Viticulture and Aglianico

Image from L'Ampélographie (Viala et Vermorel), reproduced in
Here is what I’ve been reading in the world of wine today.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Organic Vineyard Share of National Vineyard Area in Selected Countries in 2016 from the American Association of Wine Economists (@wineecon) brought to my dash via Craig Camp (@CraigCamp)

It’s really interesting how much Europe (excluding Greece & Portugal) is taking the lead with organic viticulture. I wonder how much of it is in response to their soils being exhausted after centuries of agriculture or if there are other cultural dynamics at play here. I’m also curious why the US is lagging so much behind, only slightly better than China, Chile & Portugal.

Aglianico Connections in the Napa Valley by Jill Barth (@jillbarth) of L’Occasion brought to my dash via Jane Niemeyer (@always_ravenous).

Also have to give a hat tip to @always_ravenous for leading me to Savor the Harvest’s (@savortheharvest) Aglianico post Aglianico: A Southern Italian Gem #ItalianFWT.

I ADORE Aglianico and featured it in my post In a rut? Try these new grapes! as a great grape for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah drinkers to explore. I had a lot of fun geeking out to Barth’s post exploring a very unique Aglianico from Napa while Savor The Harvest’s description of a classic old school Aglianico del Vulture from Tenuta del Portale paired with Daube French Beef Stew over egg noodles had my mouth watering.

I wasn’t familiar with the Italian Food, Wine, Travel Group (#ItalianFWT) but this seems to be a monthly series that generates a lot of great posts and wine discussion. For wine geeks and foodies, this is definitely a group worth keeping an eye on. Next month’s topic is La Primavera e Verdicchio hosted by Culinary Cam (@Culinary_Cam).

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Dancing with Goliath


“You buy the big houses for the name, you buy the growers for the wine.”

In my post Cristal Clarity, I featured the quote above while discussing the dichotomy in the world of Champagne between the mega-corp négociant houses and the small grower producers. As I sat down for dinner at Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue for their 10th Annual Champagne Gala, that quote began ringing in my ears from the moment the staff handed me my “long neck” of Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial.

For the second straight year, Daniel’s Broiler partnered with LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) for their annual gala. From listening to other attendees, a few years ago the gala was also LVMH-centric with the wines of Veuve Clicquot featured and it sounds like the very first Champagne Gala at Daniel’s was also based around Moët & Chandon.

It seems that LVMH dominants the attention of Daniel’s wine team as much as it dominants the global Champagne market.

Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial “long necks”
Treasure cove oysters with salmon roe, chili, ginger and chives. Crostinis with brown-butter scallions, wild mushrooms and ricotta.

This….was an interesting experience. I know the use of Champagne flutes is going out of fashion but being told that this was the “hot new trend” in drinking bubbles struck myself (and I suspect most of the room) as quite odd.

Trying to “smell” the long neck Moët & Chandon


The Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial is a non-vintage blend made up of more than 100 different wines with 20-30% being “reserve wines” from older vintages. The blend varies from batch to batch and will usually have 30-40% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 20-30% Chardonnay. I was quite surprised to learn from the LVMH brand ambassador, Coventry Fallows, that the dosage for the Brut Imperial has been lowered over the years to 9 g/l. That is still on the “sweeter side” of Brut but it is an improvement over the 12 g/l that skirted the line between Brut and Extra Dry and a huge change from the 20 g/l dosage of their White Star label that was once a staple on the US market but has since been discontinued.

I think Garth Brooks sang a song about this.


While we were sipping our long necks and pairing them with the oysters and wild mushroom crostini, it was hard not to notice how utterly nondescript and indistinct the Brut Imperial was. It could have been a Cava, a Crémant or a Prosecco and no one would’ve fluttered an eye. It could have even been a sparkling wine in a can and still deliver the same neutral experience.

I asked my table mates if, instead of the Moët, they were sipping the Coppola Sofia California sparkler, would they have noticed a difference? Everyone said no which I think is a big crux for Moët and why this marketing gimmick is missing the mark. The Brut Imperial Champagne, itself, is nothing spectacular and memorable and it kind of feels like LVMH is getting bored with the brand that they crank out around 30 million bottles a year of.

Is the message that LVMH truly wants to send with these “long neck Moëts” is that Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial is the Bud Light of the Champagne world?

I wonder if this will fit into a bottle of Bud Light?


First utilized by Moët for the 2015 Golden Globes, it appears that LVMH is trying their darnedest to make “fetch happen” with sipper tops on 187 ml splits. As a hugely successful multinational conglomerate, LVMH’s branding is closely associated with luxury (with many of their Champagnes like Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon needing that association as part of their branding) which makes it a bit humorous that they’re marketing their wine by making you feel like you’re drinking a beer.

But hey… it’s Champagne! And its gold colored so you’re being both chic and avant-garde at the same time! There’s that, I guess.

If you want to indulge in your inner Coachella hipster, you can purchase your own Moët sipper top on Amazon and, of course, can find Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial at virtually any wine shop, grocery store or gas station.

However, considering that you can get four 187 ml Sofia cans for the same price as one Moët Brut Imperial split (minus the $8 “long neck adapter”) and still have the same amount of care-free fun drinking your bubbles like beer, I think I’m going to pass. I’ve always been more of a SXSW girl anyways.

Seated hors d’oeuvre paired with Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut 2008
Seared scallops and prawns with tangerine-saffron cream, fresh herbs and vol-au-vent.

The highlight of the event was the expertise offered by LVMH Brand Ambassador Coventry Fallows who was a wealth of knowledge and is very skilled at presenting the wines she represents. It was unfortunate, however, that rather than give her more time to offer more in-depth and detailed information about each wine to the group as a whole, her presentation was shorten for each wine to just a few moments with her working the room, going from table to table with the overall noise of surrounding tables drowning out her answers to the various questions presented.


But, from the little bit that I was able to gleam from her in those brief moments, I learned that the general philosophy of Moët & Chandon is that “Bigger is Better” and that, in addition to being a significant négociant buyer of fruit, they are also the largest vineyard owner in Champagne and are constantly seeking out more quality land to add to their holdings. This is encouraging because as we discovered with the wines of Roederer, the more direct house control of the process from grape to glass, the more likely you are to get a high quality and character driven product.

With those thoughts in mind, I was eager to try the 2008 Vintage Brut which represents only around 5% of the house’s production and is made entirely from estate-owned fruit.

The 2008 Moët & Chandon Brut is a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 37% Pinot noir and 23% Pinot Meunier. It was aged 7 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 5 g/l that is the lowest among the entire Moët line. Much of the fruit sourced for the wine comes from Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards that have been declassified from the Dom Perignon range.

The wine had medium minus intensity on the nose with some candied hazelnut and spice pear notes. On the palate, the pear seemed to go away and was replaced by more appley-notes while the candied hazelnuts become more pastry dough–like a nut-filled apple strudel. The finish was quite short.

And the Vintage Brut is a huge step up from drinking beer.


The mouthfeel was the star with smooth, silky bubbles that showed great balance between the acidity and the low dosage. The reason why so many Champagnes veer towards the “sweeter side of Brut” is because sugar is the magic pill when it comes to insuring a smooth and velvety soft mouthfeel that is so desirable–especially for the American market. It takes high quality fruit and skilled winemaking to accomplish similar results without the crutch of sugar so I will certainly give Moët’s chef de cave Benoit Gouez his due credit for his craftsmanship and balance with this Champagne.

However, there are plenty of well crafted and well balanced Champagnes (including many 100% Grand Crus) that can be found for around $40-55, far less than the $65-70 that the Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut usually commands. On the other hand, as a “baby Dom”, it actually is a better value when compared to spending $130-150 for some of the less-exciting vintages of Dom Perignon. (More on that below)

For me, the food provided by Daniel’s head chef Kevin Rohr was far more exciting with the scallops being perfectly pan-seared and fresh. The tangerine-saffron cream added a delightful twist of flavor that seemed both light and rich. The prawns were more hit and miss with half the table having no issue but the other half describing a “chlorine” and overly fishy taste to them that suggest there may have been some bad ones in the batch.

Salad paired with Moët & Chandon Rosé Impérial
Crisped duck breast with butter lettuce, Laura Chenel’s chèvre, pink peppercorns and pomegranate glacé.

Another tidbit from Ms. Fellows was that the house style of Moët is that of “Freshness and Crispness”. Perhaps no other wine showcased that emphasis more than the Rosé Impérial.


The Rosé Impérial is a non-vintage blend like the Brut Imperial with the percentage of grapes in the blend varying from batch to batch. The blend is usually around 40-50% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 10-20% Chardonnay with the rose coloring come from the addition of 20% blend of red Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier wine. Like the Brut Imperial, the dosage is 9 g/l with around 20-30% of reserve wine to help insure consistency.

The wine had a medium-plus intensity nose with cherry aromas and fresh red apple peels. Outside of the 2004 Dom Perignon, it had the best nose of the night. The palate carried that lively freshness through with the apple peel being the strongest note but with some strawberry notes joining the cherry on the finish. The one major slight, which was an unfortunate shared trait among all the wines of the evening, was the incredibly short finish that completely disappears mere moments after swallowing.

At around $50-55, you are still paying a premium for it being a rosé (and the Moët name) but, in hindsight of the evening, the Rosé Impérial is one of the better values in the entire Moët portfolio.

Again, the food was excellent with the pairing enhancing the wine. The pomegranate glacé with pink peppercorns were immensely charming and complimented the sense of freshness of the rosé with the tanginess of the chèvre cheese adding some length to the short finish of the wine. Even though it was certainly not “crispy” by any definition, the duck was beautifully cooked and juicy.

Entrée paired with 2004 and 2006 vintages of Dom Pérignon
USDA Prime beef tenderloin with butter-poached North Atlantic lobster tail, green risotto and Béarnaise sauce.

While technically part of Moët & Chandon, LVMH prefers for people to think of Dom Perignon as its own house and entity. Indeed, its production is distinct from the rest of the Moët lineup with its own chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, overseeing production. Like the man himself, the wine has been the subject of many myths and breathless soliloquies.

Some of the hype is richly deserved with many bottles of Dom Perignon being ranked as some of the greatest wines ever made.

For myself, personally, the 1996 Dom Perignon will always hold a warm spot in my heart as a magical wine that made the light bulb flick on for me about the beauty that wine offers. In many ways, I’m always comparing every wine I taste to that sublimely perfect bottle of 1996 Dom which may be why I’ve been so dishearten watching (and tasting) the changing style of Dom Perignon.

Of course the change started happening long before my magical 1996, but at some point Moët & Chandon made the decision that Dom Perignon was going to be marketed as more of a brand and lifestyle rather than necessarily as a wine. When you no longer have to sell something based on just the intrinsic quality of the wine, you are no longer limited in how many bottles you can produce. Though notoriously secretive about exact production figures, as of 2013 estimates were that around 5 million bottles of Dom Perignon are produced each vintage.

If Daniel’s runs out of ideas for future Champagne Gala events, we know there will always be plenty of Dom available.

While I’m sure they are having no problems selling those 5 million bottles each year (especially since the excess production has allowed the price to drop from $200-240 to around $130-150) perhaps it is no surprise that companies are finding plenty of Dom Perignon available to make gummie bears with.

The concept of “Vintage Champagne” was originally centered around the idea of a special bottling made only in exceptional vintages, but we are now seeing more and more vintages of Dom Perignon declared with 13 of the 41 vintages made between 1921 and 2006 coming after 1990. There are upcoming plans to release a 2008 & 2009 vintages as well. The increase in declared vintages is credited to global warming producing better vintages but, in comparison, Champagne Salon has only released 8 vintages since 1990. And in the years that they do declare a vintage, Salon only makes around 60,000 bottles.

The trade-off, of course, is fewer gummie bears.

That said, while Dom Perignon is clearly no longer one of the top prestige cuvees in the world. It is still a good Champagne, sourced from Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in Aÿ, Avize, Bouzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Chouilly, Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, that can deliver adequate pleasure in the $100+ range so I enjoyed the opportunity to try two vintages side-by-side.

Double fisting Dom

The 2004 vintage is a blend of 52% Pinot noir and 48% Chardonnay with a dosage of 6 g/l. The exact details for the 2006 Dom Perignon weren’t given out at the dinner (and I couldn’t find them online) but I suspect the dosage is similar and Robert Parker has described the 2006 as more Chardonnay dominate. Each vintage of Dom Perignon is now released in three tranches called Plenitudes with the first (or regular) release of Dom being P1 that is released after the Champagne has spent 8 years aging on the lees.

My wife was originally annoyed about the uneven pours of the two Doms (2004 on left, 2006 on right) until she tasted them and realize she wasn’t missing much with not getting more 2006.


The second release of each vintage (P2) will see 16 years aging on the lees with the final plenitude (P3) being released after 21 years. While I have not had the privilege of trying a P2 or P3 release, there has only been 19 and 4 releases respectively, I will confess to being intrigued at their potential though admittedly not terribly excited to spend the $360-1600 to purchase a bottle.

The 2004 had medium plus intensity aromatics that was actually quite inviting. It had an intriguing mix of tropical fruit and spice that had me thinking of the grilled cinnamon rubbed pineapple you get from a Brazilian steakhouse. There was also a fresh cedar and tobacco box component that takes you to a cigar humidor. These are usually notes I associated with a nice red Bordeaux so I thoroughly enjoyed the extra complexity it gave to the Champagne.

Unfortunately not all these notes carried through to the palate which tasted more butterscotch like a Werther’s Original. The mouthfeel was still fresh, keeping with the house style, and while the finish was longer than any of the other Champagnes, it was still regrettably short. The finish did introduce, though, a spiced pear component that I found intriguing if not fleeting.

Both the rose and 2008 vintage overshadowed the 2006 Dom Perignon.


It paired very well with the beef tenderloin and, particularly, the lobster and Béarnaise sauce. Overall, the 2004 would be a wine that I would be content with for around $130-150 though certainly more thrilled with if I paid closer to $80-100.

The 2006, on the other hand, was pretty disappointing. I will give it the benefit of the doubt that it is a young release, and like with the Cristal, probably would benefit from more bottle age. You could also argue that it wasn’t benefiting from being compared next to the superior 2004 Dom Perignon (though technically the vintages themselves were of similar quality). But to be quite frank, the 2006 Dom Perignon lagged behind even the 2008 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut.

The nose was the most shy of the night with medium minus intensity. Some faint citrus peel and toasted coconut flakes. Very light and indistinct. It could have been served as a long neck beer like the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial and it might not have made a difference. To the wine’s credit, those faint notes did carry through to the palate and added a praline pastry quality that seemed more buttery when paired with the lobster. The finish, following the chorus of the evening, was fleeting.

Dessert paired with Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial
Champagne-poached pear with vanilla pot de crème and spicy glazed pistachios.

The Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial is the house’s demi-sec offering and like with Roederer’s Carte Blanche is a tasty little gem that shows how overlooked the demi-sec category is. Following the pattern of the other wines of Moët & Chandon, this non-vintage Champagne is a Pinot dominant blend that includes 20-30% reserve wines. The exact composition varies but is usually around 40-50% Pinot noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier and 10-20% Chardonnay. The dosage is 45 g/l or 4.5% residual sugar. To put that in context, that is just slightly less sweet than a late harvest Riesling like the 2015 Chateau Ste. Michelle Harvest Select that had 47 g/l residual sugar.

But balance is the name of the game and you can not underestimate the ability of the acidity and bubbles to offer an exceptional counter to the sweetness. Even though I compared the dosage to the sweetness level of the CSM Harvest Select Riesling, truth be told, I would reckon that most people who tasted the Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial side by side with something like the 2015 Eroica Riesling (a relatively dry Riesling with great acidity and 11.8 g/l of residual sugar) would feel that the Riesling was sweeter.

The wine had medium intensity with candied oranges and fresh white peaches. Those notes carried through to the palate with the candied oranges morphing more into an apricot note. Next to the 2004 Dom Perignon, this had a tad longer finish than the other Moët wines which was a pleasant way to end the evening. While it didn’t jive with the raspberry sauce used in the dessert, it did very well with the vanilla pot de crème. While there are other demi-secs in the $45-55 range that have impressed me more, this was still a very solidly made Champagne with great balance that should be placed near the top of the Moët & Chandon portfolio.

Overall Impressions

At the beginning of the event, Shawna Anderson, regional sales manager for Moët Hennessy USA, talked about the difference between the wines of the big houses like Moët & Chandon and grower producers. She said that with growers you never know what you get but with houses like Moët you get a consistent experience each time. And she’s right.

While I’m sure most readers can gleam my transparent affinity for hand crafted wine by smaller grower producers, I do not discount that there are sub-par and disappointing wines made by small growers. I also do not discount that large houses are built upon decades of sustained excellence that lay the bedrock of their growth. Likewise, I can’t argue that houses like Moët & Chandon are not consistent.

But then…. so is McDonald’s.

Outside of the 2006 Dom Perignon, I wasn’t disappointed with any of the wines featured at the Champagne Gala. Though I could certainly name at least a half dozen other Champagnes at lower or equivalent prices to the Moët & Chandon line up (some by big houses, some by smaller growers) that out performed the Champagnes of Moët & Chandon in delivering character and complexity, I can’t say that any of these wines are bad and not deserving to be purchased and enjoyed by people wanting a reason to celebrate.

It’s perfectly fine if you want to go dancing with Goliath. But folks should be clear that what they’re paying for in seeking the privilege of that dance is not necessarily for the quality in the bottle but, rather, for the name on the label.

For a review of last year’s Champagne gala see A Toast to Joy and Pain.

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A Toast to Joy and Pain

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

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

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

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

But the pairing worked. Sort of.

Moët Ice Impérial paired with Green Goddess Deviled Egg

Moët Ice Impérial paired with Green Goddess Deviled Egg


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

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

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

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

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut with pan-seared scallops and prawn

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut with pan-seared scallops and prawn

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

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

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

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs with seared loin of lamb

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs with seared loin of lamb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krug Grand Cuvee paired with New York strip steak

Krug Grand Cuvee paired with New York strip steak

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

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

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

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

Ruinart Rosé and chocolate mousse

Ruinart Rosé and chocolate mousse

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

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

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

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

A toast to joy and pain,

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

Cheers!

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