Category Archives: General

Sip or Spit — Looking at Wine Predictions for 2019

This time of year, a lot of smart folks in the beverage industry lay down their cards to predict what major trends can be expected next year. As with pop culture and sports, these articles are fun to read but you don’t want to put too much stock put in them. (I mean, come on, you really thought Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would sign during the Winter Meetings?)

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

Sip or Spit? How seriously should we take these wine predictions for 2019?

Of course, the value of such predictions rests in the quality of the source. I’ve always found the folks at Wine Intelligence, a UK consulting and research firm, to be sharp tacks. So I ascribe a little more weight to their assessments than I do other sources. Still, while there were some thing from their Five Predictions for 2019 worth sipping, there were others I certainly spat out.

1.) Alcohol intake will continue to fall in developed world markets (Spit with a little sipping)

As I noted in my article The Kids Will Probably Be Alright — Looking at Generation Z Trends, I don’t buy into the idea of Gen Z as the “teetotaler generation”. It is far too early and too small of a sample size to make that assessment. For Christ-sakes, 95% of them are still under 21! I surely hope that most of them are teetotaling right now.

However, I do think that the trend of “Drinking Less, But Better” that we’re seeing in the Millennial generation will continue with Generation Z. Alcohol is expensive and is full of calories. It’s clear that my generation, and likely the following one, have been adopting the mindset that if we’re going to spend the money and calories on something, it better be worth it.

Which is a good thing and something that should serve as a curb to the idea that moderate consumption of alcohol (like wine) is incompatible with a healthy lifestyle. That “incompatibility” seems to be the crux of the scare reports of Generation Z and Millennials turning away from alcohol.

From keg stands to Brose´
Photo by ProjectManhattan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Ramen–the lifeblood of the broke Millennial. Also a great pairing for under $15 Cru Beaujolais and Chenin blanc.

Yeah, we might be turning away from weekend keggers, cheap jug wine sangrias, Smirnoff and Fireball jello shots, but what we’re turning to is more mindful moderate drinking. Younger generations, like myself, are not drinking for the sake of drinking. We’re looking for something more than just a buzz.

Growing up in the age of technology and easy access to knowledge, we’re aware of the risks of binge drinking. But we’re also aware of the benefits of moderation. Plus, our “foodie” nature is far more incline than past generations to embrace the role of a glass of wine in enhancing the pleasure of even everyday meals—like ramen noodles.

So while bulk and mass producers may have reasons to worry about the upcoming generations, I don’t think quality minded producers need to fret as much.

2.) Overall knowledge levels about the details of wine and where it comes from will decline (Spit)

This prediction is based on Wine Intelligence’s 2018 US Portraits report of wine consumers. I don’t have an extra $3500 to buy the full report and dive deep into what methodology led to that conclusion, but on the surface this doesn’t pass the “sniff test”.

When you look at other observations and reporting, the level of wine knowledge among the average consumer has never been higher. For one, enrollments in wine certification programs have been booming. Google “Wine Appreciation Class” and you’ll get over 34 million hits, confessing to a wide interest among consumers to learn more.

This is something that I touched on in my article It’s Raining Masters, about the influx of successful Master Sommelier candidates. (This was before the cheating scandal broke) We are in the midst of a golden age of wine knowledge.

Yet, somehow, we’re getting “wine dumber”?

Even the post’s author, Richard Halstead, acknowledges the counter-intuitiveness of his prediction.

Over the past couple of years we have started to see an interesting and counterintuitive trend. More people in more markets around the world are saying they care about wine, that the category is important to them, that they take their time when buying wine – sentiments which we bundle up into a collective measure called “involvement”. At the same time, overall objective knowledge about the category – understanding of grape varieties, countries of origin, regions, and so on – has been in decline: people know fewer things about wine any more. — Richard Halstead, Wine Intelligence, 12/12/2018

One theory they propose is smartphone reliance. That does makes some sense and has been debated in other contexts before. There is also the idea that the globalization of wine has brought more stuff to the table for the average consumer to know about.

More to Discover, More to Learn, More to Enjoy
Photo taken my self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Once pursued only by the wine trade, now more and more wine lovers are signing up for advance certifications like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)

It’s no longer Napa, Champagne, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot grigio. Now we’ve got Coonawarra, Franciacorta, Fiano, Touriga Nacional, Chenin blanc and so much more.

I suppose when you consider how much more is out there to learn and explore, the average wine consumer’s “overall” grasp of details may go down.

But that is like comparing the “knowledge level” of a middle schooler with that of a college student. The former is exposed to far less. Of course, it is easier to “master” more of that knowledge within their little world. However, the later’s exposure to exponentially more gives the potential for even greater knowledge.

While I’m open to hearing more thoughts on the matter, there so much counter-intuitiveness about this prediction that I’ll remain skeptical now.

3.) Vegan wine will become a thing (Sip)

This I buy completely. It’s a topic that I explored earlier this year with my article What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines.

I have no doubt that we are going to see more wines labeled as “Vegan-friendly”. But I am concerned with the obsession over fining agents. Especially for people who adopt a Vegan-lifestyle for ethical reasons, it seems like a bigger quandary is to be had over viticultural practice like biodynamics that regularly employ the use of animal products. Furthermore, there are issues with what alternatives wineries may use to produce highly manipulated (though “Vegan-friendly”) wines.

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors. — What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines 2/25/2018

4.) Wine brands with sustained investment strategies will prosper at the expense of second-tier competitors (Sip)

Unfortunately, this is a sad reality of business. Branding often trumps quality and care. W. Blake Gray had a great article on Wine Searcher recently that highlights this as part of the Gloomy Outlook for Smaller Wineries.

Gray ended the article with a very ominous quote from Dale Stratton of Constellation Brands.

“The game is going to be stealing share,” Stratton said. “The pie is only as big as the pie is. The game is going to be stealing share from other places.”

Watch your pie, small wineries. Watch your pie. — W. Blake Gray, WineSearcher.com 12/7/2018

While not every winery can afford a fancy marketing department, it is imperative of every winery to focus on what makes them unique.

For the small winery competing against the big mega-corps, your “brand” is your story and all the tidbits that set you apart from the mass-produced wines that line supermarket shelves.

It’s simply not good enough just to make good wine. There are thousands of producers across the globe making wine as good, if not better, than yours. But what those wineries (and certainly what the big mega-corps) don’t have, is you and your story.

Finding ways to weave yourself into the narrative of your brand is only going to become more important for small wineries to succeed. That is one of the reasons why it is a shame that many wineries have abandoned or don’t know how to successfully use social media platforms like Twitter.

5.) A mainstream producer will introduce cannabis-infused wine (Sip and then toke)
Photo by Bogdan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Does cannabis have terroir? We’ll probably be discussing that over the next decade.

This is probably the surest bet that any prognosticator can make. For an industry that will happily dive into whiskey barrel aging and weird coffee-infused hybrid wines, you know that development is already well on its way towards releasing a cannabis-infused wine.

The only question is, who will be first? Gallo or Constellation Brands?

Gallo has been leading the way on a lot of these trends with their Apothic brand. They’re a solid contender and a likely choice. Part of the fun is guessing what they’ll call it. Apothic Blaze? Apothic Kush?

However, Constellation Brands does actually have its own investments in the cannabis industry to the tune of $4 billion.

I’d be more incline to wager on Constellation developing a stand-alone brand for cannabis-infused wine. But I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see them roll it out under an established label, like Robert Mondavi, to try to give this trend more legitimacy.

When that happens, be sure to pour one out for poor Robert spinning in his grave in St. Helena.

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A Toast to My Partner in Life and Wine

Today is my wedding anniversary. Six years. Though my wife and I have been together more than 14, we didn’t get the chance to make our relationship official until Washington State voters legalized gay marriage in 2012.

Wedding photo

Getting married by a winemaker on a copy of The Wine Bible.
Photo by Neil Enns of Dane Creek Photography.

The first day that the law took effect was December 9th. But we waited a couple days to have the impossible-to-forget wedding date of 12/12/12. It was short notice going from a whirlwind election night to planning a wedding in a few weeks. Neither of us wanted a huge wedding. We just wanted something simple.

Something that was “Us”.

We pondered our dilemma on Facebook where one of my good friends, Dave Butner, who founded Kaella Winery, mentioned that he was a certified wedding officiant.

At the time, he shared a space with another friend, Scott Greenberg of Convergence Zone Cellars, in the Woodinville Warehouse District. The tasting room was already decorated for the holidays and both Dave and Scott, along with their wives Nancy & Monica, were glad to host a small ceremony.

It was on!

We sent out our invites via Facebook and got catering from a local tapas restaurant. Our wedding wines were bottles from our cellar along with Kaella and Convergence Zone wines. The wedding cake came from Safeway, where I also picked up some Mumm Napa Cuvee ‘M’ sparklers because we wanted something with a touch of sweetness to go with the cake.

Then we were married, by a winemaker, with Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible.

Quintessential Us.

So much of my wine journey has been shaped by the love and support of my wife, Beth. It was with her, on a fateful trip to Disney’s Epcot Center, that I was fascinated by the different wines from the various country pavilions. She had been noticing my frustrations working retail management for an office supply store and encouraged me to explore this awakening love of wine.

Long neck Moët & Chandon bottle

She’ll even drink a “Longneck Moët” for me.

Each step, from signing up for the Certified Specialist in Wine (CSW) to attending winemaking school and pursuing the WSET diploma has been done with her gentle nudging. Even this blog wouldn’t exist without her standing behind me–not only providing the technical support but also keeping me on a writing schedule.

She also indulges my follies to explore weird trends like bourbon barrel aged and coffee-infused wines. Even if that means subjecting her to trying these wines as well. You know, for science.

But the best parts have been exploring the world with her. This has been an adventure that has included wine regions that I’d only dreamed about visiting before–Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany, Veneto, Santorini and others. While we do enjoy visiting museums and historical sites, she knows my heart gets beckoned by the vineyards. And so she is there with me, in the vines and across the table with a glass in hand.

Sharing every bottle, every moment, every step in this crazy journey of life.

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Life Hack — How To Find A Good Bottle Of Wine

If you Google “How to find a good bottle of wine”, you’ll get 690,000,000 results of all kinds of conflicting advice.

Food and wine pairing

From VinePair’s “9 Tricks To Find A Good, Cheap Bottle Of Wine”, Marie Claire’s “How to Choose Wine for Dummies” series to WikiHow’s How to Select a Bottle of Wine (with Pictures!) you’ll find a smattering of suggestions telling you to focus on everything from what wine region it comes from to the producer or the grape variety.

Some of the advice is useful (be adventurous). Some of it is ridiculous–like WikiHow’s bizarre suggestion that the best time to pick out a budget Cabernet Sauvignon is when you are on an airplane. (What?)

But even the best advice can be overwhelming–and wine geeks aren’t immune to those feelings. In fact, the more you think you know about wine, the more you start to doubt yourself when picking out bottles.

The stir fry is going to be a medium body dish with a little bit of a salty-smokey element with the pork. Let’s go with a cru Beaujolais for the body and acid/salt balance.

Oh but it’s also going to have a little spice. Maybe an Alsatian Pinot gris to temper the heat?

Or I could go with a barrel-fermented California Sauvignon blanc to keep the body matching and still play off the subtle smokey pork?

Ack, wait…the stir fry is going to have asparagus!

Fuck it, we’re going with Champagne.

But It Doesn’t Have To Be That Complicated

Granted the Billecart doesn’t need much help but my wife could make Cook’s taste good.

If you really want to know the one single “life hack” that will increase your odds of finding the best bottle of wine to enjoy, here it is.

Don’t focus on the wine. Focus on the people you’re sharing it with.

Numerous studies have highlighted how our environment impacts our perception of taste. While most of these studies focused on impersonal things like the color of the room or ambient sounds, it’s not far off to assume that personal factors like the company we’re with is also going to impact our perceptions.

And more profoundly.

Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal recently shared with the Sydney Morning Herald his technique of changing the taste of things by visualizing different people he liked or disliked.

During lunch, he conducts an impromptu experiment, asking me to take a sip of my sake while picturing someone I love dearly. Then he says to try a sip while imagining someone I really dislike. The difference is marked – in the second there’s a bitter taste not apparent in the first. — Kerrie O’Brien, 11/9/2018

Other studies in the field of neurogastronomy have found evidence of a link between visualization and taste. For instance, if you look at images of things that are sweet, the next item you eat is more likely to be perceived as sweet. If you look at images of something bitter, you’re more likely to taste bitter, etc.

Better Than Visualizing

While Blumenthal’s “trick” is cute. We can take it a step further by actualizing. Why think about someone you love dearly, when you can have them sitting right across from you?

Wine is meant to be shared and even crappy wine has its charms when it’s enjoyed with good company. Have you ever had a tremendous wine at a restaurant or on vacation, only to bring home a bottle from the store and have it be “ho hum”? Sure, the ambiance of where you were played a role. But most likely you were at that nice restaurant or on vacation with someone you cared about–someone who made that experience better.

The next time you’re stressing out over which bottle to open for an occasion, put those worries at bay. Ultimately, wine is just grape juice. It came from the ground, went into the glass and will likely be gone in the morning.

But the people and experiences we have with it can live on for ages. Focus on that and enjoy the moment.

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What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?

I have a confession to make. While I’m no longer in the retail game, I spent over 7 years in it working as a grocery store wine steward and an associate at a major wine retailer. In that time working the floor and talking to thousands upon thousands of customers, I never once had a customer ask me for a wine they saw reviewed on a blog.

Photo by Jami (Wiki Ed). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Not once.

Oh I’ve had numerous people come in with Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list or a copy of award winners from local competitions like the Seattle Wine Awards. Local newspaper and magazine articles such as Andy Perdue’s Top Wines Under $30 and Sean Sullivan’s 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington also brought people in hunting.

But never once did I have a customer show me their phone with a wine review from a blog. Or an Instagram pic. Or a Twitter wine chat recommendation.

Never.

I share this confession because as I settle into full-time writing, I’m wondering “What is the point in doing wine reviews?”

Do Consumers Care?

Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, recently asked if we’ve “reached the end of wine criticism?” . He highlights a 2013 Laithwaites Wines Survey that shows only 9% of wine drinkers actively used wine reviews to make a decision. In fact, rather than being helpful, the majority of the 1000 wine drinkers surveyed found reviews to be of little use.

Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino) created a chart showing the results of the Laithwaites’ survey for Wine Industry Insight.

Wine Industry Insight Chart on how helpful reviews are

Chart made by Becca Yeamans-Irwin for Wine Industry Insight. Published 10/26/2018

When I step back and think about how I approach reviews as a consumer, I realize that I hardly use reviews at all.

Context or Empty Text?

It’s not that I don’t read reviews. I’m reading wine stuff all the time and pay for subscriptions to Decanter, JebDunnuck.com, Vinous Media, Burghound, Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages and others.

But I’m not reading any of those for reviews. If anything, these sites are like porn mags where I am actually just reading them for the articles.

When an article includes tasting notes with descriptors about bouquet, body, fruit, etc, my eyes gloss over them. Instead, I’m looking through the review for something unique or interesting about the wine–something about its story that is worth my attention.

When I was selecting sample reviews for my 2017 Bordeaux Futures posts, the ones I picked had added details about the vintage or chateaux such as if they had frost damage or how this wine compares to the style of years past, etc. While I often found the notes of critics like James Suckling to be virtually useless, other writers like Jane Anson of Decanter gave me the context I craved.

I also regularly read numerous bloggers who do wine reviews such as Jeff Leve’s The Wine Cellar Insider, Dwight Furrow’s Edible Arts, Dave Nershi’s Vino-Sphere, Tom Lee’s Zinfandel Chronicles and Robin Renken’s Crushed Grape Chronicles.

The writers and bloggers that give me context, I follow. The ones that just spew out tasting notes and numbers, I don’t even give a second thought to.

Here’s an example of a wine blogger I follow.

https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2018/10/16/wine-review-bonny-doon-syrah-bien-nacido-x-block-santa-maria-valley-2009/

While I was familiar with the Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, I didn’t know that it was the first cool-climate US vineyard to plant Syrah. This great tidbit adds context to Dwight Furrow’s review of the Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido X-Block.

Even if Furrow didn’t like the Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah, those added details about the wine intrigues me enough to want to try it.

It wasn’t his description of the wine, the “rich, smoked meat with mint highlights” or “luscious, peppery burst of fresh fruit”, that ultimately influenced me. Nor was it his 92 point score. There are many wines that have savory, meaty flavors and pepper notes. Likewise, the cliche “a dime a dozen” doesn’t even come close to expressing how many “92 point wines” there are out in the world.

But the story he shared about the wine–the uniqueness of the Bien Nacido vineyard and the framing of this as a “treasure of the past” that can be used to view Grahm’s new projects–gave me a reason to want to try this wine above all the other savory, meaty and peppery 92 pointers out there.

Why Do I Review Wines?

Being a blogger myself, these sentiments might be a bit of “biting the hand that feeds me”. I mean, shouldn’t I be banging the drum for more people to pay attention to wine reviews? I do, after all, even have a samples policy. Come on! Get with the program LeBeau!

But though I’ve been actively blogging for over a year, it’s hard for me to disengage from the mentality of a consumer and reader of blogs. Nor can I discount my experiences working in the industry. It is those experiences, and dealing with other consumers, that have made me hugely skeptical of the entire concept of “wine influencer”.

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

Lord knows that there are A LOT of stories that can be told about Randall Grahm and his wines.

However, I do think that wine writers have influence. But, as I mentioned with my example of Furrow’s review, it’s not in their tasting notes or numbers.

I might not walk into a wine shop with Furrow’s review on my phone, but the story of Bonny Doon’s Bien Nacido Syrah will resonate in my mind when I see the label or name on a wine list.

Even though I won’t remember the details of his tasting note at all, I will remember the story and context that Furrow shared about the wine.

THAT is the true influence of a wine writer.

These experiences are what shape my own 60 Second Reviews and how I expect readers to approach them.

To be brutally honest, folks could stop reading them after the Geekery section and make them 30 second reviews.

It’s that first section where I strive to give you something that either intrigues you about the wine or gives you a reason to think about it differently.

The tasting note that follows is mostly for my own edification. It’s there to force me to pay attention to what I’m tasting versus just drinking it. A lot of the language I use in those notes (like medium-plus acidity, firm tannins, etc) is language that I need to use for my blind tasting examinations. It’s not the same language that you are going to use when tasting the wine and my note is likely going to be quite different from yours in other ways as well. Wine is subjective and intensely personal.

Rating With My Wallet

The Verdict section, as I mentioned in my post Why I Don’t Use Scores, is my reconciliation of how I feel about the wine with what I paid for it.

I don’t expect to ever get many samples sent to me–and really, after the “hand biting” of this post, why would a PR firm want to? So the vast majority of wines I review will continue to be things that I bought with my own money from shops, wineries and restaurants.

Some things I’m going to feel really good about buying. Other wines are going to feel like I way overpaid for them. I’ll share that frank assessment because you’re likely not going to be getting samples sent to you either.

With every wine, it’s going to be your wallet and your taste buds that determine if it’s worth it. Not a tasting note, not a wine review and certainly not a numerical score.

That is why I don’t want to waste your time with empty text.

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Wine Media Musings

Today the Wine Bloggers Conference announced it was renaming itself as the Wine Media Conference. In the official announcement, Allan Wright of Zephyr Conferences highlighted a panel discussion from Day 2 of this year’s conference where the question was asked “Is the Wine Bloggers Conference appropriately named?”

Wine Media Conference logo

Logo courtesy of https://www.winemediaconference.org/

It was the opinion of Tom Wark from the Fermentation Wine Blog that the conference wasn’t–which was a sentiment that the leadership of the conference has been harboring for sometime. As Wright explained in the announcement,

Blogging is simply one form of communication and the reality is almost all blogger attendees at the conference also engage in social media. Many also do other forms of wine writing, either for print magazines, online magazines, or wineries. Wine Media Conference more accurately reflects what our attendees do.

Just as importantly, the change to Wine Media Conference is designed to be more welcoming to those who do not blog but do communicate about wine. This includes social media influencers, non-blogging wine writers, and those who work in communications in the wine industry. — Allan Wright, 11/9/2018

The announcement was also made on the conference’s public Facebook group where I shared my own concerns–namely that I likely wouldn’t have originally signed up to attend something called a “Wine Media Conference.”

What is Wine Media?

Much like how a group of people can pick out different flavors and aromas in the same wine, the same word can have different connotations to various people. The dictionary definition of “media” offers one tasting note: “the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, that reach or influence people widely.”

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

Though I don’t know how influential those multiple copies of Wine Spectator where with those empty cocktail glasses.

The “reach or influence people widely” part is what resonates most with me and colors my view of “Wine Media”. Here I see an echelon of established publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Decanter, Wine Business Monthly or online mediums like SevenFifty Daily, VinePair and WineSearcher.com.

I see the work of notable critics and writers like Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, Vinous Media, JebDunnuck.com, Jeff Leve’s Wine Cellar Insider, JamesSuckling.com, Allen Meadows’ Burghound, etc.

And I do see some blogs in that realm such as Tom Wark’s Fermentation, Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak and Alder Yarrow’s Vinography. Though he is now a prominent writer for Wine Enthusiast, I would also add Sean Sullivan’s Washington Wine Report to that list as well.

But I certainly do not see myself in that ballpark.

As I think back to my apprehension of being a relatively new blogger attending my first conference this year, I know that even the idea of considering myself “Wine Media” would have been a non-starter for me.

I’m not “Wine Media”. I’m not Jancis Robinson. I haven’t been blogging for a decade-plus like Goode, Yarrow and Co. I’m a just a geek who sits at home drinking wine, reading wine books and writing about what excites me at a particular moment.

The idea of a “Wine Media Conference” would have seemed too exclusive to include me.

Inclusively Exclusive

In contrast, the idea of attending something called the “Wine Bloggers Conference” felt approachable and inviting. Being part of a community of wine bloggers felt attainable. It was my hope in attending that I could find other people like me that I could relate to. Much to my delight, I did.

One idea for future conferences would be to have the name tags note how many previous conferences a person has attended. That would be a great way to seek out more newbies or know who you should ask questions of.

One of the pleasant surprises for me while attending the conference was how many fellow conference newbies there were. I got a chance to meet folks like Noelle Harman (Outwines), Anne Keery (Aspiring Winos), Earle Dutton (Equality365) and more who, like me, were relatively new to wine blogging. It was immensely rewarding listening to their perspectives–their successes and stresses as well as the lessons and bumps they’ve learned along the way. Coupled with the tools and insights that I got from veteran bloggers and seminars, I know that I left the conference a better blogger than I was when I arrived.

It would have been unfortunate to miss that because of the limitations and exclusionary feel of the name “Wine Media”.

While all bloggers want to grow their readership–and will use things like social media to help expand their reach–the reality is that the vast majority of us will never come close to the dictionary media definition of widely reaching and influencing people.

And, honestly, not all of us may even want to be “influencers”–at least not in the sense that is in vogue today. Some of us may just want to have fun geeking and writing about wine.

Will those perspectives get smothered underneath the tarp of “Wine Media”?

The Need For “Fresh Blood” and Inclusion

Decanted screen shot

Many podcasters and videographers are still blogging their journey with wine–just via audio or visual mediums.
Also, most episodes usually include show notes (like this example from Decanted’s recent podcast) that are basically blog posts.

I understand the need to be inclusive–because the world of wine and wine communication is constantly expanding. Another great surprise from the conference was being introduced to some great new podcasts like the Weekly Wine Show and Decanted Podcast.

I wholeheartedly support the conference’s desire to see more participation from podcasters. The same with videographers as their work on YouTube is opening up a whole new realm for wine education. While I’m admittedly skeptical about the extent of influence that Instagram, Pinterest and other social media channels which limit context have, I eagerly want to learn more from individuals active in those venues about their experiences and insights that may abate that skepticism.

Plus, it seems like the conference has seen significant turnover in attendees. It makes sense that they would want to inject it with fresh blood.

A Bleeding of Wine Bloggers

Prior to the start of this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference, Tom Wark made several poignant observations about the waning interest and declining numbers in wine blogging. While 2018 saw a little bit of a bump, Wark noted how differently the list of attendees for this year’s conference has looked compared to years past.

Those of us who have been following and reading wine blogs since their start, we can look at a partial list of attendees at the upcoming conference and notice that no more than a small handful of those folks who started out blogging during the format’s peak time of interest are attending the conference. It’s understandable. On the one hand, many of these people no longer blog. Others may still be blogging, but no longer find interest in the conference. — Tom Wark, Fermentation Wine Blog, 9/10/2018

There hasn’t been much study into why we’ve seen a steady decline of interest in wine blogs–though David Morrison of The Wine Gourd has some thoughts and data. A lot of it does seem to be the changing landscape of wine communication.

But if we’re already “bleeding out” wine bloggers, how effective will an infusion of new blood be if, instead of “clotting” the loss, we’re excluding new platelets? Will the number of other wine communicators who attend offset all the newbie wine bloggers who may now feel excluded?

That will be a challenge for Zephyr Conferences to tackle in their messaging and promotion of the newly renamed conference. Not everyone is going to share the same definition or “tasting note” of  what is welcomed as “wine media”.

Show, Don’t Tell

I don’t want this post to give the impression that I’m downplaying or denigrating the role of bloggers like myself. Nor am I saying that we’re necessarily inferior to traditional wine media. We’re still wine communicators but, the majority of us (myself included), are certainly far less established than the traditional wine media.

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

Though sometimes you can have multi-platinum albums and still end up just being Nickelback.

It’s like the difference between a garage band and a rock star with multi-platinum albums. This is the crux of my apprehension with adopting the name of “Wine Media”.

While our “garage band” of wine bloggers are most definitely musicians like the rock stars of wine media, it feels far too presumptuous to claim the title of “rock star” on our own. This isn’t about talent or worth. It’s about proving yourself on the larger stage.

Someday I would love to be spoken of in the same breath as Allen Meadows, Tom Wark, Jamie Goode, Jancis Robinson, etc. But I would never place myself in that sentence. I need to earn my place in that peer class and pay my dues along the way.

The same day that the Wine Bloggers Conference had the panel asking the question about whether the conference was appropriately named, Lewis Perdue gave the keynote address. Stemming from his journalistic background of working at the Washington Post, Wine Business Monthly and now publishing Wine Industry Insight, a central theme of Perdue’s talk was about building trust with your readership–building credibility.

Building Credibility

This is what a musician does with every gig they play, every song they record. They don’t step out of the garage and onto the stage to tell the world that they’re a rock star. They go out and they prove it, paving the way for others to bestow that title on them.

As bloggers, we are building our credibility with every post. Some of us may be content to stay in the garage and play for family and friends. Others may want to move on to gigs that will take them to increasingly larger arenas.

Some of those bloggers may eventually become “rock stars” of wine media. But the path to that stage won’t be paved with telling the world that they’re “Wine Media”.

It will be by showing it.

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SpitBucket on Social Media

Photo by Today Testing. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0. Utilizes several derivatives that can be found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Social_Media_Strategy.jpg

Attending the Wine Bloggers Conference last month has given me a lot of food for thought about what I’d like to do with this blog and various social media channels. While I didn’t get everything that I’d hoped for from the Day 3 seminar “Advanced Strategies for Facebook and Instagram”, it did encourage me to think more critically about how I use those platforms and Twitter.

Ultimately I’ve decided that while all these channels work together, I want them to have different focuses apart from the blog. I’ll breakdown the differences below.

The Blog

At its core, this blog will is a study tool. As items in my personal life get settle, I will have more time to devote towards pursuing the WSET diploma. After finishing Unit 2, I hit a wall with the business unit but am ready now to start tackling the remaining units. I’m setting an ambitious (but hopefully realistic) goal of not only completing my diploma but getting accepted into the candidate program of the Institute of Masters of Wine by the time I turn 40. (I’m 36 now)

I mentioned in my last Geek Notes, that I use podcasts to reinforce the material I study in wine books. But the third leg of my learning stool is the application or regurgitation of that material in writing. As I work on different topics (like blind tasting, wine business and marketing, etc.), I will write posts applying the material I’ve learned.

Future Plans

I’ve got a bit of a backlog here.

A new tact that I will add to the blog in the next coming weeks with be more study tips and resources that I’ve found useful in my journey. These will be companions to my current Geek Notes series that highlights resources like wine books, podcasts and maps that are helpful to wine students. I also plan to increase the frequency of my book reviews as well.

I will still do wine reviews as part of my 60 Second and Getting Geeky series. While the WBC has encouraged me to develop a samples policy, the wines that I ultimately choose to review will be those that have a story or an educational bent to them (interesting winemaker, region, production method, grape variety, etc.).

Above all my goal with this blog is not to become an “influencer” that tells people what to buy but rather someone that simply encourages folks to get a little geeky about what they’re drinking and seek out the stories behind each bottle.

Facebook

I really do like the idea of creating winemaker trees of estates that have had several notable winemakers in their history. I’ll probably treat it a little similar to how I do my Keeping Up With the Joneses of Burgundy series.

Distinct from the main blog, the SpitBucket Facebook page is news focused. It combines the original idea of “Geek Notes” with a curated news feed.

Everyday I’m combing through blogs and news sites to find something interesting and new to learn. On the Facebook page, I post the items that I found were most worth my time reading.

In someways these are “mini-blog posts” as I will usually add other relevant details or thoughts I have on topic. A few FB posts may end up inspiring more fully fleshed out posts on the main blog. But, for the most part, the majority of the material on the Facebook page will be different from the content that appears on the blog or other social media channels.

Twitter

I explored the value of Twitter from a winery’s perspective in my post The Winery Twitter Dance but I think a lot of those sentiments can apply to bloggers too.

Twitter is about immediacy and engagement. With the SpitBucket Twitter handle, you’re talking to me personally. While I’ll keep my political and sports related viewpoints contained to my private Twitter account, there is a whole world of wine and beverage topics worth chatting about.

I haven’t yet participated in the various online #hashtag tasting groups but now that I have a lot more free time, I can see that happening.

Instagram

One of my biggest chuckles from the Wine Bloggers Conference came when another blogger told me that she thought I posted too much on Instagram. I found that humorous because, admittedly, Instagram is probably the channel that I’ve always been least active on.

Personally, I find things like this new cork made from sugar cane (guaranteed TCA free) that L’Ecole is using for their Semillon to be much more interesting than pictures of me posing with random bottles.

I’ve tried a few different approaches with the SpitBucket Instagram account but going forward I plan to focus more on posting from tasting events and travels to different regions. This will mean posting less frequently though I hope it will mean providing content with more context.

Outside of a Caribbean cruise in January and attending the next Wine Bloggers Conference in the Hunter Valley of Australia, I haven’t finalized my travel plans for next year. While I think I will skip the next Wine Spectator Grand Tour, the wife and I are still intrigued about attending the 2019 Hospice du Rhone in the Rhone Valley.

We’re also likely to take smaller wine tasting trips to southern Oregon, Napa & Sonoma, Eastern Washington as well as back home to Missouri wine country as well. I will use Instagram to highlight interesting discoveries from those trips.

Feel free to check out and subscribe to the various channels above. Also share your comments below on what content you’d like to see.

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Playing the Cellar Lottery — When Should You Open Up That Bottle?

Someone in South Carolina last month won $1.537 billion playing the Mega Millions lottery.

Photo by Lieutenant Ramathorn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

At the peak of the frenzy, retailers were selling 12,700 tickets a minute. It reached a point where so many people were playing, that experts estimated that all possible 302,575,350 combinations of numbers were likely claimed before the jackpot was finally won.

I didn’t get a ticket. Though I used to be quite a gambler in my younger days, now my risky activities involve more playing the Somm Game in Vegas and maybe putting a few dollars down on my St. Louis Cardinals, Blues and Mizzou Tigers.

Besides, I’m playing the lottery virtually every time I pull a bottle out from my cellar.

Sometimes I hit the jackpot and open up a wine at a point when it perfectly fits my palate. Other times it may be too young and “Meh-y”. Worst of all is when it is far past its peak time for giving me pleasure.

It’s always a gamble but, like a good gambler, I try to hedge my bets. With a little knowledge, you can too.

Hitting a Moving Target

The first thing we need to do is understand what is happening to a wine as it ages. While it looks simple on the surface, a bottle of wine is a living chemistry lab with an endless progression of reactions taking place between acids, phenols, flavor precursors, alcohol compounds and the like. It is estimated that there is anywhere from 800 to over a 1000 different chemical compounds in a typical bottle of wine.

All of these compounds will react differently to the unique environment of wine that is majority water (which we remember from high school chemistry is “the universal solvent”) as well as alcohol–which is also a pretty darn good solvent itself. Then you add in the potential reductive reactions (especially with screw caps) and slight oxidative reactions (especially with cork) and you have a whole cooking pot of change that is constantly happening to that bottle of wine sitting in your cellar.

Photo by tympsy. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Or a video game with that damn mocking dog

In many ways, it’s like a story that is constantly having a new chapter being written. That can be exciting as with each page you turn–each month or year you wait–you never quite know what’s going to happen next.

In other ways, it’s like a carnival game with the moving duck targets that you’re trying to hit to win a prize. Those can be fun or immensely frustrating.

Resources for more geeking

I don’t want to bog you down too much with the geeky science at this point. However, for those who do want to understand more about the chemical compounds in wine and how they change over time here are my three favorite wine science books on the topic.

Starting with the least technical (and easiest to read) to the uber-hardcore tome of wine science geekdom:

The Art and Science of Wine by James Halliday and Hugh Johnson. A tad outdated (2007) but this text covers the basics really well. The last section “In the Bottle” deals with the components of wine with a chapter specifically dedicated to what happens as a wine ages (“The Changes of Age”).

The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode. There is a reason why Jamie is one of my favorite tools. He’s a brilliant writer who can distill complex science into more digestible nuggets for those of us who do not have a PhD. Like with Halliday and Johnson’s book, this will also spend a significant amount of time talking about the science behind viticulture and winemaking but in section 3, “Our Interaction With Wine”, he gets into how the changes happening to wine (as well as the environment of tasting) impact our perception of a wine’s components. This is very important because so much of knowing when to open a bottle of wine will depend on knowing when’s it good for you–something I’ll discuss more about below.

Wine Science: Principles and Applications by Ronald S. Jackson. This was one of my textbooks when I went to winemaking school so I won’t sugar coat how technical and dense it is. This is definitely not something you can read from cover to cover like with the first two books above. But if you really want to dive deep into the chemistry, there is no better resource out there. If you come from a non-scientific background, I do also recommend picking up some of the “For Dummies” refresher books like Chemistry Essentials and Organic Chemistry. Silly titles aside, those books certainly helped this Liberal Arts major understand and appreciate Jackson’s insights a whole lot more.

That said, I’m going to condense here some of what I’ve learned from those books above as well as my own experiences (and mistakes) in figuring out when to open a bottle.

What’s Happening to the Fruit?

When most people think of wine, they think of fruit. Therefore, it’s vitally important to understand what is happening to the fruit as a wine ages.

A good way to start is to think about cherries and the different flavors of its various forms.

Collage of photos from Wikimedia Commons from (L to R) George Chernilevsky released under PD-self; rebecca small released under CC-BY-2.0; Geoff released under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A young wine can taste like freshly picked cherries.
With some age, the cherries flavors get richer and more integrated with the secondary notes of wine.
Gradually the fruit will fade till you’re left with the dried remnants.

Young wines (like say an Oregon Pinot noir) will have the vibrant taste of its primary fruit flavors–such a cherries picked right from the tree. Combined with the wine’s acidity, these cherry flavors with taste fresh and even juicy. But they can also be quite simple because the freshness of the fruit dominants. Think about eating ripe cherries. While delicious, there isn’t much else going on.

With a little age (like 5 to 10 years for that Oregon Pinot noir), the fruit gets deeper and richer in flavor. Think of more canned cherries that you would use to make a cherry pie. The wine will also have time to integrate more with the secondary flavors of the wine that originated during the fermentation and maturation. This often includes oak flavors like the “baking spices” that French oak impart–cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, etc. These additional flavors add more layers of complexity. The fruit is still present. It’s just not as fresh and vibrant tasting as it once was.

Older wines with more age will see the fruit progressively fading. The flavors will start tasting like dried cherries as earthy and more savory tertiary flavors emerge. In the case of our Oregon Pinot, this could be forest floor, mushroom or even dried flowers and herbal notes. Eventually these tertiary flavors will completely overwhelm the faint remnants of dried cherries notes. When that happens will depend on the producer’s style, terroir and vintage characteristics. For me, I tend to notice the Oregon Pinots in my cellar go completely tertiary after 15 or so years.

Now…is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It depends. On you.

When Is Your Peak Drinking Window?

While nearly ever critic in the world will toss out “peak drinking windows” with their scores, that info is utterly useless if you’re not sure what you like.

Some people like lots of earthy, savory tertiary notes. That’s perfect and often the tail end of these critic’s windows will take those folks right through that sweet spot.

Other people might want more fruit and find those very aged wines to be disappointing. That’s also perfect because they may want to start opening up their bottles at the beginning of those windows or even a little before.

For me, I tend to like my wines just on the wane of the “pie filling fruit” stage when some of the tertiary notes are emerging but the wine still has a solid core of fruit. Going back to Oregon Pinots, I often find that between 7 to 12 years is my perfect window. However, in warm vintages, like 2009 and 2012, I’ve noticed an accelerated curve with many wines hitting my sweet spot starting at 5 years of age from vintage.

And sometimes it might not ever live up to James Suckling’s 96 point scores.

BTW, while we’re talking about critics. Keep in mind that when many professional critics give their scores out for wine, they are rating the wine based on how they think a wine is going to taste at its peak (i.e. during that window)–not necessarily how the wine is tasting right now. That’s the critic’s cover if that 96 point wine you’re buying based on the high score doesn’t live up to the hype. But even then, a critic’s “peak window” still might not match yours.

What’s Happening to the Structure?

Now fruit is just one component of the wine that’s impacted by aging. Often with bigger reds like Bordeaux varieties, a primary motivation for cellaring is to give the wine time to allow the structure of tannins and acid to soften.

A good way to picture this is to think of the “bite” of firm tannins and acid as like a triangle with sharp edges. Below is a diagram that I recently used for a class I taught on Bordeaux wines based on my experiences of cellaring and drinking Bordeaux.

As the wine ages, some of the structure will soften but it won’t completely go away.
Also, as we discussed above, the core of fruit will still progressively fade.

The “softening” comes from the polymerization of the tannins as they link up with each to get bigger. These larger molecules tend to feel less aggressive on the palate. Think of it like adding tennis balls to round out the sharp edges of the corners of our triangle. The tannins are still there (as is the acid) but you feel their affects differently.

Eventually the wine will reach a point where it can’t get any softer. The triangle will never completely become a circle. That last bastion of a wine’s structure will not only be defended by the remaining soldiers of tannins but also by its acidity–which never goes away. While richer and deep fruit flavors (as well as complimentary flavors from esters) can help mask acidity during a wine’s prime, an aged wine will eventually start to taste more acidic and tart as that fruit fades.

However, that acidity will amplify the savoriness of tertiary flavors so, again, this all comes back to knowing what style of wine gives you the most pleasure. More fruity? More savory? Somewhere in the middle?

Learn From Other People’s Sacrifices

While critic’s drinking windows have some value, the very best resource on deciding when to open a wine are sites like Cellar Tracker.

Here you can track the progression of a wine through the impressions of other people who are sacrificing their bottles to Bacchus. Pay attention to the notes. Are they still talking about lots of fruit character? Big tannins? Or are the notes littered more with savory tertiary descriptors?

Now, yes, these folks will likely have different palates than you which is going to color their impressions. How they describe a wine yesterday might not be the same as how you would describe it today. But it is another data point that you can use to determine if it’s worth pulling the cork.

Lessons from Jancis Robinson

I have evolved my own theory that overall, vastly more wine is drunk too old than too young. — Jancis Robinson, November 26th, 2004

Jancis’ advice is even more valuable now than it was 14 years ago. In that time, we’ve seen quite a bit of change in the wine industry–including our ideas about cellar-ability. Part of it is the culture of impatience and desire for immediate gratification. Wineries know that they often don’t get a second chance at a first impression so a lot of effort takes place in the vineyard and the winery towards producing wines that are enjoyable soon after release.

We’re not even talking about whites and roses either.


Those efforts sometimes do involve a trade-off with a wine’s potential to age. The simple truth is, not many are being made to age anymore. In fact, some estimate that as much as 98% of the wine made today should be consumed within 3 to 5 years of the vintage date.

Now keep in mind, the vast majority of the world’s wines are made to be daily drinkers under $20 so that 3 to 5 year estimate is not that drastic. But even for more expensive bottles that you may be saving for a special occasion, I would encourage you to think about opening it up sooner rather than later.

For me, the math is simple.

If you open up a bottle too soon, there is still the potential that you could find another bottle to open later. Yes, you may have to do some hunting and pay a little bit of a premium but that potential still exist. Plus, you are still likely to get some pleasure from that bottle even if it wasn’t “quite ready”.

But….

If you open up a bottle too late, when the wine is far past the point of giving you pleasure, you’re screwed. All that time and all that investment went for nil.

There’s always a gamble when aging wine but, ultimately, it’s best to cash out when you’re ahead.

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The Kids Will Probably Be Alright — Looking at Generation Z Trends

Yesterday, Wine Industry Insight posted an interesting chart taken from the Wall Street Journal about risk behavior among Generation Z high schoolers.

charts showing generation z risk behaviors

Screenshot from Wine Industry Insight 10/18/2018 sourced from the Wall Street Journal article “Gen Z Is Coming to Your Office. Get Ready to Adapt.” 9/6/2018

On the surface, this looks great. Members of Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010, report that many have not tried alcohol, sex or gotten a driver’s license while in high school.  Of course, this is all “self-reported”–by teenagers, no less. So how much stock do we want to put in this? I know back in high school I wasn’t keen to divulge to strange adults everything I was up to.

The Wall Street Journal is extrapolating that Generation Z is showing itself to be highly risk-averse.  Wine Industry Insight takes that a step further. They speculates that because of this, Gen Z might be “poor prospects” for the beverage industry.

What?

Since the majority of Generation Z are not yet legal drinking age, there isn’t much data on their alcohol consumption. There certainly are the breathless headlines touting that these 8 to 23 years olds are embracing teetotalism and expect to be more sober than Millennials who are now in their late 20s and 30s complete with college debt, jobs, mortgages and families.

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

Many cities are seeing less drivers overall and more people choosing alternative transportation like bicycling. Why would we not assume that Generation Z is a part of this change?

I’m glad the kids aren’t spiking their kool-aid with Stoli and Ketel One while having risky sex.

But I do think it is way too early to be sounding the alarm about the prospects of Generation Z. I’m mean, who knows if the driver’s license thing is even related to “risk aversion”. Could this be more about environmental conscience and using public transportation?

These kids are still figuring out who they are as people and a generation. The picture of their prospects is far from clear.

Didn’t we learn this with my generation?

In one of my older wine business books, Wine Marketing: A Practical Guide by C. Michael Hall and Richard Mitchell (2007), the thinking back then was that Millennials would follow a similar path as Baby Boomers with their wine consumption and buying habits.

While Millennials have followed Boomers in liking to drink a lot of wine, we definitely “reinvented” the game with our love of unique varieties and styles as well as shunning of many of the old standbys of status and critic scores. We also tend to be more diverse than Boomers in our alcoholic tastes beyond just wine as I noted in my recent post about the wine industry’s upcoming reckoning with Millennials.

Does Risk Aversion Predict Future Alcohol Trends?

It seems like this is the heart of Wine Industry Insight‘s view about the poor prospects of Generation Z. Now I fully acknowledge that Lewis Perdue has way more experience and insight in this segment than I will ever hope to achieve. But this seems like such an odd correlation—especially since Millennials, ourselves, are notoriously “risk averse” especially with our finances.

Diving back into my wine business books, I tried to find more details about the connection between risk aversion and alcohol consumption. The only written commentary seemed to focus on how willing consumers are to stray from tried and true brands and varieties versus branching out to try new things.

Searching online there are studies comparing alcohol demand and risk preference with a lot of these noting that economic factors and income play a role as well. Whatever connection there is between risk & alcohol–it’s clear that it’s extremely multi-faceted.

Maybe Generation Z Wants More Than Getting Drunk and Laid?

Business Insider’s noted in a February 2018 article that 16 to 22 year olds surveyed “don’t think drinking is that cool anymore.” I think that is very telling and actually really good for the wine industry–at least the quality over quantity minded segment.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Would it really be a bad thing if Generation Z skipped the whole “White Zin/Pink Moscato” phase?

There’s nothing cool or interesting about drinking just to get drunk. Alcohol, like food, is meant to compliment life. Not only is it a social lubricant but it is a bridge to history and culture. That’s hard to appreciate hammered. It may have taken Millennials, Generation X and Boomers longer to realize it but globally we are seeing trends where consumers across the board are “drinking less, but better.”

It’s clear that Generation Z, like Millennials, are more value and economic conscience. We don’t have a lot of money, so we want to get more out of it. Why waste hard earn cash just to get wasted?

Yet, that doesn’t mean that alcohol has to be avoided. Being risk-averse to wasting money on silly expenditures doesn’t mean the door is shut on wine, beer and liquor being part of a normal, vibrant lifestyle.

It just means that you have to get something more from the experience. More than perhaps what big brand, mass-produced corporations have been used to delivering.

Meaningful Consumption

Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a generation where meaningful consumption takes over from mindless consumption. You can make the same connection when it comes to sex and relationships. Many of us have to learn it the hard way that no amount of physical contact can replace the depth of a meaningful touch from someone you care about.

Photo by Stilfehler. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Top sheets really are pretty useless.

I’m not going to say that I can predict how Generation Z is going to turn out and what impact they will have on the beverage industry. But I honestly don’t see anything in these very early data points suggest that the industry, as a whole, needs to worry. Maybe the big mega-corps but they already need to shake things up or the Millennial world-killers will do them in like we’ve apparently done to mayonnaise, napkins and top sheets on beds.

If anything, I feel optimistic hoping that the kids today are starting out a little wiser and world weary than my generation and others before. Life is too short to waste time on silly things. Everything we bring in to our lives, and everything we consume, should add richness and value to it.

If the kids are catching on to that a little sooner than most, good for them.

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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.

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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.

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