Category Archives: General

Yeah, I’d Like To Know If I’m Drinking a Racist’s Wine

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

So I can stop drinking it.

Similarly, I’d want to know if I’m drinking a misogynist’s wine, an anti-semitic’s wine or a homophobe’s wine.

In short, I care about where my wine comes from and, frankly, the values and core being of the people behind it matter more to me than if they’re farming biodynamic or conventional, inoculating with yeast or doing native ferment, using sulfites, fining, filtering or any other minutia of wine that can stir wine folks into a tizzy debating over.

But here’s a thought that haunts me often when I open a bottle — How do I know?

It’s not like the back label is going to have a notice that this Nebbiolo “… pairs well with nativism and racial segregation.”

Outside of personally knowing the producer, a consumer’s only access behind the curtain is via the eyes and ears of wine writers and journalists. However, as Jon Bonné notes in his recent article for PUNCH, Why Is the Wine World So Un-Woke?, many folks in the wine industry are oft too willing to gloss over the gross and loathsome side of the industry as well as the people who populate it.

In particular, Bonné cites the example of Italian winemaker Fulvio Bressan who went on a racist Facebook tirade against Cécile Kyenge, a black female member of the Italian cabinet, calling her and other African-Italians monkeys and gorillas.

In response, critics and writers questioned whether they should continue reviewing Bressan’s wines. Along similar lines, restaurant critics are grappling with the dilemma of how to handle reviews of restaurants owned by men who have been accused of horrendous behavior in the fall out of the #MeToo Movement.

Photo by http://www.provincia.modena.it/. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

By the way, the amount of news article and blog posts covering the Bressan incident that just talked about his racist attack on a “black cabinet member” was equally disturbing. She has a name–Cécile Kyenge.

I say review them. But give me the dreadful details.

Every review of Bressan’s Schioppettino or Verudzzo should have a link to the screenshot of his attack on Kyenge as well as his response which consumers can use to evaluate how they personally feel about supporting his winery.

Just like knowing that a wine has biting tannins or noticeable brettanomyces, so too should wine lovers know if the wine they’re considering buying has the bitter stank of antipathy.

But “Gotcha Journalism” is of No Benefit Either

The opposite of glossing over and overlooking the ills of the industry is not to start going on a righteous rampage to root out all the folks behaving badly. Nor should we necessarily let one comment (which may have been taken out of context) write the entire chapter. The benefit of the doubt is not just for the benefit of the accused but for everyone’s benefit as well to get the full breadth of the story.

While I appreciate Maya Angelou’s famous quote “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”, I don’t think we should ever disregard humanity’s capacity to change and grow.

But when people associated with a winery reveal this unsavory side to their character, it should be noted and publicized just as much as a systematic problem in the winery with cork taint would be.

Oh Come On! It’s Just Wine!

I get this sentiment. I really do.

Living in a time that seems to get progressively more crazy with each passing day, it can be wonderful to escape into a world that is both simple in its pleasures and stimulating in its possibilities. With the pull of a cork, you can drown out the droning about tariffs and scandals, Brexit and borders.

When you look at a map of the vineyards of Burgundy while sipping a glass of Meursault, no one cares who you voted for. Sometimes at the family table, all you need is a good bottle of Cabernet to muse over and suddenly your relatives who were just at your throat moments prior about politics are now waxing poetically about that one trip they took to Napa many years ago. The way that wine can bring people together and push out the noise is truly beautiful and a much needed refuge in this day and age.

I’m not advocating that we need to shutter that safe haven. But I am saying that when the troublesome history and values of the people behind our favorite bottles comes to light that we recognize them for what they are–the wolf that is at the door to that safe haven.

Sure, we can ignore its howling and blissfully down another bottle. Eventually, though, we are going to have to step outside and that wolf–with its sharp teeth that has caused others so much pain–will still be there. Just because we haven’t been bitten ourselves doesn’t mean that our wound isn’t forthcoming.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

The Consequences of Not Caring Also Means Shittier Wine

When we stop caring about who makes our wine then we stop caring about a vital component and distinction that makes wine (and particularly great wine) unique–its story. Like from cradle to grave, the story of a bottle of wine starts in the vineyard and is shaped and molded by hundreds of hands with each leaving an indelible print.

The decisions that were made to hand harvest the grapes and which clusters to harvest went into the story of this wine.


As wine geeks, we obsesses over terroir and often only ascribe physical and natural influences to it–the soil, the climate, etc. But those physical hands are just as much a part of the nature of terroir and, in many ways, the part of the story that is most tangible to our own experiences with the wine.

When we have a bottle of wine, it is like a gift of the grower and the winemaker that they’ve nurtured and tended to for years which we willingly accept from them to put on our table, share with our family and take into our bodies.

Who we accept that gift from matters.

When we stop caring about the story, about the who, then we stop carrying about the context behind the wine’s creation which feeds into the corporatization and commodification of wine (another point that Bonné makes in his article). If there is no story and wine is just “booze” then it really doesn’t matter how the wine got on our table–whether by people or machine, mega-purple or manipulation.

This is how we get to the point where around 60% of the US wine market is controlled by 5 large companies.

This is how we get to the point where consumers walk into their local supermarket and find hundreds of wines made by these same handful of large companies–limiting our ability as consumers to have true choices in what we buy.

This is how we get to the point where people talk of the small family winery as if it is a myth while the real family wineries are out there busting their butts in the vineyard and cellar struggling to sustain themselves in an industry that has a lot of cards stacked against them.

What About the Racist/Misogynist/Whatever Small Winery?

Like Fulvio Bressan?

It’s true that these are the folks most likely to get caught up airing dirty laundry on Facebook and Twitter compared to the slick corporate PR wineries. There is no magical ethos surrounding small family wineries that sets them apart in character from large corporate entities.

But what does set them apart is that the veneer of truth is much easier to see with these smaller wineries–even if that truth underneath is ugly. Undoubtedly these bad apples will be exposed but removing them makes the entire bushel more healthy and more appealing to dig through.

When people start caring about who makes their wine and the type of people they are, the entire industry has to step up their game–both in the quality of their wines and in the quality of their character.

To paraphrase the apocryphal Gandhi quote:

We should drink the wine that reflects the world we want to see.

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Amazon Prime Day Deals — Anything worthwhile for wine lovers?

Photo by Thomas photography. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0Today is Amazon Prime Day, a day that Amazon claims rivals Black Friday and Cyber Monday for buyers looking to get a good deal.

While there are some interesting buys, I’ve found that the pickings are often slim on deals targeting wine lovers.

Still it’s always worth taking a look to see if anything catches our eyes.

Oster Cordless Electric Wine Bottle Opener with Foil Cutter– Regularly $19.99, today $14.39 for Prime Members.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of electric bottle openers–preferring my old trusty double-hinged corkscrew or Rabbit-lever openers. My biggest complaint is how easy the electric bottle openers seem to burn out after a year or two of use. But for less than $15, even getting a year of use might not be that bad. So while this will be a pass for me, I can see this being a decent buy–especially for senior citizens or folks with arthritis that may have difficulties with other openers.

Coravin Model Limited Edition Wine Preservation System– Regularly $349.95, today $174.95 for Prime Members.

I paid around $300 for my old Coravin Model 1000 system three years ago so I will say that this is a very good deal. If my current Coravin wasn’t working perfectly fine, I would be very tempted because even though you can get the cheaper Coravin Model 1 for $199.99, that is a distinctly cheaper, less solidly built version than the regular Coravin.

There is a lot of marketing hype around the Coravin so I will be upfront with some of my real world experiences using it. There is the caveat that potentially the newer models have improved some of my grievances.

The author using her Coravin to pour a flight of white wines.


Cons:

Unless you spring for the $70 kit with the “fast pour” needle, pouring from the Coravin is SLOW!!! You eventually learn some tricks like tilting the bottle upwards and getting the feel right with hitting the gas but it will still take nearly 30 seconds to get a 5 oz pour.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of time but it definitely feels longer while your standing there holding the bottle and waiting for it to finally fill the glass. Compound this with doing a tasting featuring multiple bottles and the time adds up.

The first pour is always a little gassy and “spritzy”. It blows off and won’t impact most wine drinkers but if you are like me and use the Coravin system to help with studying for blind tasting exams, it can throw you off at first.

It doesn’t preserve the wine no where near as long as the marketing hype says it would. Instead of several months or years, realistically I feel like I can get 5 to 7 weeks with reds and 3 to 4 weeks with whites before I start noticing a change in flavor. It’s not like the wine is immediately bad or tasting oxidized but I certainly notice a distinct change that seems to exponentially increase with each revisiting after that point.

Pros:

Will Clos Saint-Jacques go with black garlic and salume pizza?
Let’s find out!


Even with only a few weeks worth of preservation, the Coravin is still a great tool to help you get the most out of your wine enjoyment. Instead of having to feel like you need to finish a bottle within a day or two, you can stretch it out over several glasses for days/weeks.

With dinner you can have different wines with each course, creating your own version of The Somm Game. Want to test out various pairings? Knock yourself out and pour two different wines to see what works best. If you and your spouse can’t agree on what wine to have with dinner, you can each have whatever you like.

And, most importantly to me, it truly is invaluable as a study tool for tasting exams. Want to taste the terroir differences of the crus of Barolo? Explore what makes “mountain fruit” of Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain so different than the Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Stags Leap District and valley floor of Napa? You can spend several hundreds of dollars getting examples of these wines and then have to face a decision.

Do you have a big tasting party with friends and open them all at once?
Do you open them up one at a time, take your notes and then try to compare them after the fact?

OR

You can use the Coravin and pour samples of all the different wines you want to compare and contrast and then revisit that tasting several times over the next few weeks.

That, for me, has always been the Coravin’s strongest selling point and the area where I know this tool has saved me the most money.

It’s not really drinking alone if the cat is home stemless wine glass, 15 oz.(cat) – Laser Etched — Regular $14.99, today $11.99 for Prime Members.

Yeah, this is pretty much sums up the kind of offers that Prime Day has for wine lovers. I’ve never felt compelled to spend $12 for a silly engraved wine glass but if that is your thing, you do you.

$5 off print books priced $20 or more

This deal doesn’t work for used books sold by 3rd party sellers which how I buy the vast majority of my wine books.

Many of my favorite wine books that I use frequently on this blog, I bought used from Amazon and paid only a fraction of their asking price.

Old or new, I really don’t need an excuse to buy more wine books.


Clive Coates’ Grands Vins: The Finest Châteaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines — Regularly $63.97, available Used for less than $10. Fabulous details on the history of Bordeaux estates used frequently in my Bordeaux Futures series.

Bill Nanson’s The Finest Wines of Burgundy: A Guide to the Best Producers of the Côte D’Or and Their Wines — Regularly $29.26, available Used for less than $10. Very valuable in my Keeping Up with the Joneses of Burgundy series.

Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine, 7th Edition — Regularly $42.78, available Used for less than $10. Benchmark standard for wine maps.

Of course, for new releases there are not many used options so this coupon deal could be use for several of the titles featured in previous Geek Notes that are over $20.

From JunePractical Field Guide to Grape Growing and Vine Physiology by Daniel Schuster, Laura Bernini and Andrea Paoletti. $40

From MarchWine: A social and cultural history of the drink that changed our lives by Rod Phillips. $34.95 and Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich. $29.99 hardcover.

If you come across any deals that I missed, post them in the comments below.

Happy shopping!

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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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What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.


1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin) Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein) Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons) Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons). Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans) Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle) historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.


One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle but the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite, a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine where their cell walls (which are about 30% positively charged proteins) can adsorb many polyphenols and compounds that can cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars–causing spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining with the PVPP binding to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle and creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

While wineries can avoid using animal products in the winery, there is a question of whether wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards are truly “vegan-friendly”. This is because several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

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

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

There is also the question of whether the increased presence of insects in healthy and vibrant vineyards that eschew the use of chemicals can make a wine less vegan-friendly due to the higher incidence of insects as MOG (material other than grapes) getting caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

With the concerns of high insect MOG, biodynamic viticulture and organic animal-derived fertilizers, is it possible that the vineyards that can produce the most “vegan-friendly” wines are really the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides (no insect MOG there) and chemical 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.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.


Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions that eschews the use of animal products. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals and the impact on the environment that using animal products have. It’s also not my wish to stress out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

But I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries that utilize viticulture and winemaking practices that may not align with the ethical and environmental concerns of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

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Product Review — Restaurant Crystal Clean Wine Glass Cleaner

A few thoughts on the Restaurant Crystal Clean: Professional Wine Glass Cleaning Liquid by The Mill River Company.

Product Specs

Made from all natural plant-derived ingredients that are 100% biodegradable, the bottle notes that the cleaner is also hypoallergenic and has not been tested on animals.

The Mill River Company’s website claims that it is used by over 200 wineries including Ridge, Clos du Val, Gary Farrell, Pina Vineyards, Caymus, Araujo Estate, Bonny Doon, Jordan, Ovid (do they even have a tasting room?) and numerous restaurants and wine bars.

A 16 oz bottle runs about $28 dollars on Amazon. It claims that because it’s “ultra concentrated”, it is more cost effective than other cleaners with one bottle able to clean 2200+ glasses at the cost of less than 1 penny per glass.

How to Use

One drop, scrub and rinse with hot water.

The directions say that it can be used as a rinse aid in dishwashers but I don’t trust my dishwasher with my wine glasses so I explored the hand wash option.

The instruction said to squirt a drop in a glass, wash with a soft sponge or cotton scrubber and rinse with hot water. One drop did get it nice and soapy but after the rinse with hot water, I had water spots and streaks that I needed to polish off.

I tried it with cold water and while it looked cleaner at first, after the glass dried I had fewer streaks but I still needed to get the polishing rag out.

Soaking in cold water before rinsing in cold water.


The bottle gave instructions on how to make a squirt bottle glass cleaner by mixing 1.5 oz into a gallon of cold water. I decided to try that ratio in my sink and let the glasses soak in the solution before cleaning them and rinsing in cold water. That turned out to be the winning recipe as the glasses came out brilliantly perfect.

The Verdict

I suspect that the laundry list of wineries, restaurants and wine bars that are using Restaurant Crystal Clean are using it as a rinse aid with an industrial dishwasher designed for wine glasses and it probably works really well.

The difference between doing one drop with hot water rinse (left) and the soaking in cold water in the sink (right).

While I am pleased with the results after soaking the glasses in the cold water solution, I’m very skeptical that I’m going to get 2200+ glasses worth of cleaning from the 16 oz bottle. Perhaps doing the one drop per glass and letting it soak in cold water will get me more mileage but I suspect that I will end up experimenting more with the soaking trick but with a scaled down ratio from the 1.5 oz/gallon.

However, after hosting a few wine tasting parties where I had a couple dozen dirty glasses and a few decanters that needed to be clean, the sink trick worked really well. The glasses do come out spotless and streak free with no traces of soap or odor. It may work out more realistically to costing 5-10 cents per glass but that is, for me, an acceptable cost to have perfectly cleaned wine glasses.

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Under the (Social Media) Influence

Photo from U.S. Department of Agriculture. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-2.0Social Vignerons just published their list of the 2018 Top 40+ Wine Influencers: Who to Follow on Social Media? that is worth taking a gander at.

The value in gauging “influence” is always going to be imprecise. You can base it on the number of followers that one has on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but that metric is easily gamed with purchased followers, bots and other “tricks”. Digital influence metrics like Klout scores have their own issues with Social Vignerons noting that they stopped using Klout for their rankings because changes in social media platforms have made the score less relevant.

What are Social Media Influencers?

A common definition of a Social Media Influencer is “an individual who has the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of his/her authority, knowledge, position or relationship with his/her audience.” These include celebrities, recognized experts in a field, journalists, bloggers and “microinfluencers” who are regular people with a sizable social media following within a particular niche.

Marketers value these influencers because they believe that they can deliver on the 3 Pillars of Influences–Reach, Resonance and Relevance–to steer potential customers towards their brands.

Social Media Influences in the Wine Industry

Still got a lot of mileage and worthwhile info out of these books though.

In many ways, the use of social media in wine marketing and sales is Star Trek territory. Wineries and marketing firm are exploring strange new worlds where the old rules often don’t apply.

When I was working on my Wine Marketing & Sales degree at the Northwest Wine Academy and the Wine Business unit of the WSET Diploma Level, many of my wine business textbooks (such as Liz Thach’s Wine Marketing & Sales, Moulton & Lapsley’s Successful Wine Marketing and Brostrom’s The Business of Wine) gave scant to no mention of how to utilize social media–though Thach, Olsen and Wagner are releasing a 3rd Edition of Wine Marketing and Sales in May 2018 that may tackle the subject.

However, at the core of Marketing 101 is that to be successful you need to reach new customers so even if wineries have to learn how to utilize social media influencers via trial and error, it is still an endeavor worth taking. That is why lists like Social Vigneron’s Top Wine Influencers is worth looking into but it’s also worth thinking about critically as well.

What Influences Me?

As a married millennial adult with no kids and plenty of disposable income, I’m squarely in the cross hairs for many wine businesses. I also understand that I am influence-able and will spend money on new wines, travel to new wine regions, attend wine events, etc based on interactions I have on social media. That is why I’m selective about the sources I follow because in order for a social media influencer to fulfill the 3 Pillars of Influence and “reach” me they need to demonstrate Resonance and Relevance.

Resonance — Are you creating new content that excites me? I’m a wine geek. I want to read about and be exposed to new wines, wineries and regions. Sure, your opinion can be helpful in adding color but everyone has an opinion. I need more than just that.

Some social media influencers don’t create new content but merely “retweet” or “repost” content created by others. That can be useful to some degree, especially if you are bringing to my attention something that I may have missed. But I often end up following and paying more attention to the original content creator than I do to the reposter.

And speaking of reposting, PLEASE don’t repost the exact same thing multiple times a day! Once, maybe twice, is fine after several hour intervals to hit online audiences that are active at different parts of the day but few things get me hitting the ‘Unfollow’ button quicker than seeing the same post tweeted out three times within a single hour.

Relevance — Be credible (i.e. “know your shit”) and be on topic. The first is easy. I’m not going to follow an account that passes off blatant errors and marketing crap as fact–like Champagne Masters and Their Bull Shit. The article that inspired that post came across my timeline via Food & Wine magazine and while I will give them a mulligan, I have no interest whatsoever in following any of the author’s social media platforms. But if Food & Wine keeps publishing shoddy pieces like that then they will no long reach me as a willing audience.

The second part of staying on topic is a little more gray. While I know we are all humans who lead multi-faceted lives, if you are going to be a Wine Social Media Influencer, be a Wine Social Media Influencer. A few comments here or there about trending topics is par for the course but too many off-topic posts about politics, TV shows or posts about your pets gets boring really quickly. The beauty of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is that we can create multiple accounts to engage our varied interests. The short of it is this–I’m following you for your wine content which is the area you are most able to influence me so focus on that area instead of off-topic stuff.

My Social Media Wine Influencers

Looking at Social Vigneron’s list, I saw many wine influencers that I already followed but more than half were individuals that I never heard of. I started following several of them but if I find that I’m not getting any Resonance or Relevance, I will unfollow them and move on.

Among the ones on the list that I currently follow and have certainly influenced me include:

I am one of 267,000 that belong to the J-Hive.


Jancis RobinsonThe Beyoncé of Wine, IMO.
Decanter Magazine
Tim Atkin
Jamie Goode — One of my favorite tools
Chris Kissack
Wine Folly
Wine Spectator
Wine Enthusiast
Vinepair
Alder Yarrow
Jon Thorsen

The common theme with all of the above (besides that they clearly “know their shit”) is that they are content creators who regularly produce interesting content that I want to consume. Other content creators not included on Social Vigneron’s list that I follow include:

The Academic Wino
Mike Veseth – The Wine Economist
W. Blake Gray
Terrorist
Jeff Leve — The Wine Cellar Insider
PalateXposure
Wine Business Monthly

Perhaps these lists will be updated to include some of the new names I discovered from Social Vigneron’s Top 40+. Just like with trying a new wine, I’m open minded and hoping to be pleased. But if I’m not finding what I get very compelling, I have no qualms spitting it out.

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Product Review — Thermo Pro TP60 Temperature & Humidity Monitor

Like most wine lovers, I keep a fair amount of wine at home. While I rent space at an offsite wine storage facility (if you’re interested, Eastside Wine Storage which is great) for my really good wines, I still want to make sure that the wines I keep at home are stored reasonably well.

I noticed that the temperature in my garage here in the Seattle area stayed fairly consistent even in summer and I began using that. But with the heat wave of this past summer, I wanted to track the conditions in my little “home cellar” more closely so I purchased from Amazon a Thermo Pro TP60 Digital Thermometer/Humidity Monitor for $18.

Background On Wine Storage

Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion To Wine notes that the four most important considerations for wine storage are temperature, humidity, light (avoiding both halogen and UV) and security. I will also add that you generally want to avoid vibrations as well which is why storing wine above the refrigerator and in many poorly made wine fridges is not ideal.

While for short term storage, temperatures that don’t stray too much towards 77°F (25°C) are acceptable with long term storage (and high quality wine) you want temperatures ideally in the 50-59°F (10-15°C) range.

With humidity, you don’t want a storage area too damp where mold could proliferate but you also don’t want it too dry where the corks dry out and promote oxidation. The most ideal relative humidity for wine storage is between 55-75% with Robinson encouraging folks to aim closer to the 75% range. A best practice, especially if you don’t have ideal humidity is to store your wines on their side where the wine is in contact with the cork to keep it moist.

The tiny blue screw driver really is adorable.

Product Specs and Set-Up

The Thermo Pro TP60 came with the outdoor transmitter and indoor receiver and 4 AAA batteries. It also came with a little screw driver to access the battery slot on the transmitter. Both devices took 2 AAA a piece.

The outdoor transmitter in the garage


The outdoor transmitter is water proof and can withstand temperatures ranging from -58°F to 158°F and humidity between 10% to 99%. All well within the scope of my garage/wine cellar. It has a built in wall mount but I found it sits perfectly fine on one of my wine racks.

The indoor receiver has similar specs as the outdoor transmitter. On the back you can toggle between Celsius and Fahrenheit. The unit will record the maximum and minimum temperature and humidity readings which you can access by pressing the max/min button on the back. You can also clear these readings by pressing and holding that button.

The system can accommodate up to 3 different transmitters with the receiver being able to toggle between the three up to a range of 200 feet. I’m keeping the receiver on my dinning room wine bar which is less than 20 feet from the transmitter in the garage.

The back of the indoor receiver.

After putting the batteries in, you need to keep the two units close together so they can sync up which can take at least 3 minutes. We initially had issues getting the units to sync and had to repeatedly hold the Channel/Sync button on the back of the indoor receiver multiple times to get it to finally work.

After it is synchronized, the outdoor transmitter can be moved to its desire location where it will send data to the indoor receiver. On the indoor receiver you can also get readings of the current indoor temperature and humidity as well.

Even after we got the device synchronized, it acted a little wonky giving us bizarre readings like the “outdoor” temp was 73°F. This being winter in Seattle, I knew that wasn’t right and suspected that it was giving us the indoor temp. After about 10 minutes or so it seemed to have self corrected and has been working perfectly fine for the last several weeks.

Verdict

My favorite feature is the recording of max & min readings as well as the little arrows that appear to the side of the temperature and humidity that shows how those measurements are trending. If I’m away on business I know that I can clear the history before my trip and then review it when I get back to see if any heat spikes occurred while I was gone.


I always knew that Seattle was fairly humid but I was actually surprised at how relatively low the humidity in my garage was with readings regularly in the 60-65% range. Still within the “acceptable” range for wine storage but as we enter our drier summers, it will be another thing for me to keep an eye on. While I regularly keep my good bottles on their side, watching these humidity readings is more incentive to make sure I stay on top of that.

So far I feel like the $18 for the Thermo Pro TP60 has been money well spent for the peace of mind of knowing exactly what kind of conditions my wines are being kept in–especially when I’m storing bottles here that are regularly more than $18 each. Few things are more frustrating in life than opening up a faulted bottle but having that bottle be faulted because of something you did (or didn’t do) certainly tops that.

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Cab is King but for how long?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons from George Cattermole and the  Gallery of Shakespeare illustrations, from celebrated works of art (1909). At a 2018 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium panel on Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the directors of winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Chris Munsell, shared a bit of advice that he learned from a marketing executive.

…for any wine to be successful, it need[s] to be of good quality, known by consumers and profitable for everyone involved. — Wines & Vines, Jan 29th, 2018.

Following that line of thought, it’s easy to see how Cabernet Sauvignon ticks off each box.

Cab’s ability to make high quality and age-worthy wines is legendary. It is relatively easy to grow in the vineyard and is very adaptable to a wide range of winemaking techniques. This adaptability increases the profitability of the grape as winemakers can make virtually any style of Cab to fit consumers’ tastes at prices that still meet desired profit margins.

At the Unified panel mentioned above, Evan Schiff, the winemaker for Francis Ford Coppola Presents’ Diamond line, describes how Coppola can make consistent under $13 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards throughout California with the use of enzymes that facilitate quick fermentation, oak barrel alternatives like chips and staves (as opposed to $400-1000 new barrels) and micro-oxygenation.

Meanwhile, in Napa County where a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes can cost anywhere from $6,829 to $59,375, producers seemingly have no problem selling high end Napa Valley Cabernets for several hundreds of dollars.

The reason why Cabernet Sauvignon is a fairly easy sell is because of the second point in Munsell’s advice. For consumers, it is a known quantity.

Photo by self, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as Agne27

One of the oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington State at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

In 2017, while off-premise sales of wine only grew by 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon out-paced that trend with 5% growth. This growth was seen across a variety of price points ranging from a 21% increase in sales of $4.50 (per 750ml) boxed wine to a 15% increase in sales of Cabernet Sauvignon over $25.

Cab is clearly King but even the reigns of Sobhuza II and Louis XIV eventually came to an end. Looking to the horizon, it is not hard to find trends that, like Macbeth’s witches, whisper of toil and trouble in store for the monarch.

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Who seeks something unique and rare?

If you want to bet on the dethronement of Cab, you only need to look towards the first, second and third murderers of all things–Millennials. With over 75 million members (surpassing now the Baby Boomers), industries ignore this powerful demographic at their peril.

While it’s a mistake to overly generalize with such a large cohort, one consistent theme that has emerged is that Millennials tend to value experiences over material goods. In the wine industry, we are seeing this play out in Millennial wine drinkers’ “curiosity” about unique grape varieties and unheralded regions. Instead of seeking out the high scoring Cult Cabs and status symbols that beckoned previous generations, Millennials often thirst for something different, something interesting.

A report by Master of Wine Matt Deller notes that 65% of Millennial drinkers in his Wine Access study actively sought out “unusual wines and vintages”. And while the buying power for Millennials currently lags behind Generation X and Baby Boomers, Millennials have a desire to spend more.

With this context in mind, some interesting trends stand out when you look at the acreage reports of vineyard plantings in California.

Of course Cabernet Sauvignon still commands a significant chunk of acreage with 90,782 acres of vines in 2016. That is around a 26% increase from 2008 and is a testament to the healthy market that exists for Cabernet. But looking a little deeper we see that savvy vineyard owners and wineries are anticipating the adventurous appetites of Millennial drinkers.

How does Teroldego pair with newt eyes and frog toes?
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

During that same 2008-2016 period, we can see impressive growth in Italian grape varieties in California like Aglianico (≈ 63% growth), Montepulciano (≈ 77%) and Primitivo (≈ 233%). Even the obscure northeastern Italian grape of Teroldego from Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol is getting in on the action with an astounding growth of nearly 731%.

The vast majority of these new Teroldego plantings occurred in 2014 & 2016 with huge producers like Bogle Vineyards, Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo Winery and Trinchero Family Estates behind most of the plantings in the Central Valley of California. It looks like the grape is being groomed to be the “new Petite Sirah” as a key component in mass-produced red blends (or a Pinot noir-enhancer) but varietal examples from producers in Clarksburg, Lodi, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara could offer consumers intriguing and characterful wines.

Beyond the second wave of Cal-Ital varieties, Cabernet is seeing growing competition from its Bordeaux stable-mates of Malbec (≈ 130% growth) and Petit Verdot (≈ 62%) as well as the Uruguayan favorite Tannat (≈ 132%).

Among white wines, we see a similar pattern even though Chardonnay still accounts for over 94,000 acres in California–an increase of around 13% from 2008.

If she was around today, it’s likely that Lady Macbeth would be drinking Moscato… or Rombauer Chard
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

While Chardonnay still rules by Cabernet Sauvignon’s side, we have upstarts like the Spanish variety Albariño (≈ 107% growth) and Portuguese grape Verdelho (≈ 75%) seeing significant increase in plantings. As with the reds, the interest in Italian white varieties is growing with Vermentino seeing around a 287% growth in plantings and the combine stable of Muscat grapes (led by Moscato bianco) more than doubling their acreage in 8 years.

There is no question that Cabernet Sauvignon bears a charmed life. It makes delicious wines that delight both wine drinkers’ palates and wineries’ bottom lines. But the fickle and ever-changing tastes of the wine world means that even the greatest of kings have reigns that are just brief candles.

While Cab’s light is not likely to go out anytime soon, perhaps the king should watch out for his shadows.

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Non-Alcoholic Wine — Because sometimes you have to

When a friend of mine was pregnant, we threw her a baby shower. We figured that if Mama couldn’t drink, then neither would we. So we hit the local liquor store to buy an assortment of non-alcoholic wines to give them a taste test to see which, if any, were actually tolerable.

Much to our surprise, we actually found them to be not that bad. Well except for one that was just hideous.

How do you get Non-Alcoholic wine?

Wine Folly gives a good breakdown, complete with illustrations on the process, but essentially non-alcoholic wine starts out as regular, alcoholic wine with the alcohol later removed. This process is not 100% exact which is why these wines can’t be sold to minors (and why we didn’t let our mama-to-be have any). If you look carefully, you will see that the labels note that they contain less that 0.05 or 1% alcohol. Technically, these are “alcohol removed” wines rather than non-alcoholic wines.

The two most popular methods to remove the alcohol are reverse osmosis (used by Ariel and Sutter Home Fre with the later using a spinning cone for the process) and vacuum distillation (used by St. Regis).

The Line-up

Sutter Home Fre is made by Trinchero Family Estates. In addition to Sutter Home, Trinchero also makes Menage a Trois, Charles & Charles, A3 wines, Bandit, Joel Gott, Sycamore Lane and many more. In the Sutter Home Fre brand they make a non-alcoholic sparkling wine, Chardonnay, Moscato, White Zinfandel, Merlot and Red blend. We were able to taste all but the Moscato and White zin.

Both Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis highlight lots of “Mocktail” recipes on their websites that are worth checking out.


St. Regis is a Canadian brand produced by I-D Foods Corporation. The wines are made in Europe with the Cabernet Sauvignon coming from Spain, the sparkling Brut from France and the Chardonnay and Shiraz rose from the south of France. They also make a sparkling Kir Royal from France that we did not get a chance to taste.

Ariel is owned by J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines with their website claiming that they are sourcing their fruit from the same 3700 acres of vineyards used by J. Lohr in the Central Coast of California. They also claim to be the “World Best Dealcoholized Wine” with the website touting a gold medal won more than 30 years ago at the 1986 Los Angeles County Fair that saw their Ariel Blanc competing against alcoholic wines. While they make a non-alcoholic Chardonnay, we only had an opportunity to try the Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Verdict

First off, with all these wines you can certainly tell that they aren’t the real deal. Besides the muted aromas, the biggest giveaway is the mouthfeel with all the wines tasting very watery and light. The one exceptions were the two bubbles which I’ll discuss below.

Both of these were surprisingly good.


In tasting through the wines, the “house style” of the two brands that we had multiple examples of–Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis–quickly became apparent. The Sutter Home Fre was the sweeter of the two but not sugary sweet. In fact, they reminded several of us of the low-sugar kids fruit juices that you get at places like Whole Foods such as Honest Kids. In fact, the similarity of the Sutter Home Fre wines to the Honest Kids fruit juices were quite remarkable since none of the Fre wines had any real “winey” notes like oak. Even though these wines tasted like “healthy kids fruit juices”, I would never recommend letting kids try them.

The St. Regis wines tasted drier and more wine-like but they also tasted noticeably manipulated with the use of oak chips. Both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon smelled like “real” Cab and Chard but they smelled like real examples of mass commercialized under $10 wines made by large volume producers like Trinchero and J. Lohr which was a bit ironic.

The worst of the bunch, by a loooooooooooooooooong ways was the “World’s Best Dealcoholized Wine” Ariel. It tasted like stewed fruit cooked in plastic Croc shoes. I had to (unfortunately) revisit it several times to try and discern if the bottle was flawed but it didn’t tick off any of the typical wine fault red flags. I couldn’t detect volatile acidity (VA) and overt oxidation notes that typically go with “stewed fruit” flavors–like if the wine had been exposed to excessive heat such as being in the trunk of a car. Plus the cork and bottle looked fine with no bulging or seepage.

While the plastic Croc notes seem in line with some of the 4-ethylphenol (4-EP) “band-aid” Brett aromas, it definitely was more plastic shoe than band-aid. The wine also didn’t have the mustiness associated with TCA. Though the threshold for determining cork taint is heavily influenced by alcohol content so who knows if the reduced alcohol was doing something weird.

The one wine from this tasting that I would encourage people to avoid.

Ultimately, I can’t completely say that the Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon was flawed or not but I can say that this particular bottle was one of the worst things I’ve ever tried. If this was a blind tasting, I would have pegged it as a really bad and light bodied Pinotage–and that would have been the nicest thing I could say about it.

Perhaps, again, it was just this one bottle but the 2 star rating and reviews on Amazon hint that perhaps it wasn’t. A 2008 review on CNET described a tasting of the Ariel thusly:

There were three reds, including a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot, that were so weak and tasteless they were essentially undrinkable. The same was true of the Chardonnay. — Steve Tobak, August 23rd, 2008, CNet

Looks like not much has changed since 2008 since I would also describe the Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon as ‘undrinkable’.

But, happily, that was the only one. While the other wines certainly weren’t spectacular, they were definitely drinkable and it really all comes down to personal preference. If you want something on the Honest Kids’ fruit juice side, go with the Sutter Home Fre. If you want something more “wine-like” (i.e. oaky) then go with the St. Regis.

But the stars of the show were the two non-alcoholic sparklers. Both the Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis Brut were actually quite drinkable and pleasant. They essentially tasted like drier versions of Martinelli’s sparkling apple ciders. The bubbles followed the trend of the house styles for each producer with the Sutter Home Fre being slightly sweeter and more “Martinelli-like” while the St. Regis was drier and more “wine-like” with even a bit of toastiness.

If I was having a party and wanted a non-alcoholic option for adults, both sparklers are something that I would happily purchase and provide for my guests. As for the others, I would be interested in exploring some of the mocktail recipes found on their sites. They weren’t bad on their own (except for the Ariel, of course) but not anything I would be eager to try again.

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Don’t Be a Jackass and Blindly Listen to Bloggers

A very well loved and well used tome.

Including yours truly.

Because frankly there is a lot of silly stuff everywhere. Case in point: Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit.

However, that doesn’t mean you should hide in a cave, clinging to your old worn out and marked up copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine. As with trying new wines, its always worth exploring different opinions and voices. But remember, just like with wine, you don’t have to swallow everything.

Sometimes it’s good to spit, like with some of the advice that Barri Segal is giving in their Cheat Sheet article titled Things You Should Never Say at a Wine Tasting.

The article starts out with some good advice about using wine tasting events as a chance to try new things and includes worthwhile tidbits about not assuming that only women drink rosés, not chastising people for using spit buckets or trying to pour your own servings. Some of Segal’s advice is certainly worth swallowing. But there is also a lot worth spitting out.

So let’s grab a spit bucket and take a gander at Segal’s most “spittable advice”. I’m going to be using Segal’s numbering which gets a little weird with multiple #7s and #10s.

2. “Which type of barrel was this wine aged in?”

For this entry, Segal is referencing Kris Chislett’s post on Blog Your Wine titled Pretentious Things to Say at a Wine Tasting, Should You Want to which was written as satire under the “Funny” category. But Segal takes the idea that you shouldn’t ask what kind of barrel is used to make a wine because all that matters is if the wine taste good.

Bull shit.

By Gerard Prins - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,on Wikimedia Commons

Now if you start asking which particular forest the barrel wood came from….


The point of wine tasting is to learn what you like. One of the things that is helpful in discovering your tastes is noticing patterns.

You may notice that you like wines with sweet vanilla and coconut flavors. Chances are those are wines were aged in American oak barrels. You may notice that you like more subtle baking spices like cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. Most likely those were wines aged in French oak barrels. You may end up liking something that has only a little bit of those oak flavors. For you, knowing that the winemaker is only aging part of their wines in new oak (which gives the most intense flavors) and part in neutral oak barrels (barrels that have be used 3 or more times) is helpful knowledge.

And that is not even talking about wines aged in whiskey barrels which have very distinctive taste characteristics.

So ask away! Anyone representing a winery at these events should have this information available.

3. “What percentage malo is this wine?”

This entry was segue from the last “faux pas” with the notation that it is “A totally idiotic question”.

Bull shit.

Segal also took this one from Chislett’s piece where Chislett notes:

“If someone at a wine tasting asks me “What percentage malo did this wine go through?”, I’ll normally respond with “Can’t you tell by tasting it?”

What?

Again, I know Chislett’s piece is satire but this is like hearing a song on the radio and asking who sings it only to be told “Can’t you tell by hearing it?”

No, Karen. I can’t. At least not yet.

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Warrant Officer 4 Seth Rossman. - http://www.news.navy.mil/view_single.asp?id=9384, Public Domain, on Wikimedia Commons

It’s Britney, bitch!
No wait…I mean it’s 2/3 malo aged in new French oak with 1/3 kept apart in stainless steel.
Bitch.


The point of asking is to learn and just as you may eventually catch on and recognize a particular singer’s voice, you can also learn to taste malo in wine. While even Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers probably can’t nail exact percentages of malolactic fermentation used in various buttery Chardonnays, after enough tasting you can start to get a sense if a wine was made fully malo or just partially.

It all comes back to finding patterns and learning about what you like. To do that, you need to ask questions and it is ridiculous when bloggers shame people into thinking that their questions are idiotic.

5. “I can taste the terroir in this wine”

Alright, I’ll concede that this statement can come across in certain circumstances as pompous. But so is shaming people who may have just learned about the term terroir and are excited to explore how it relates to wine.

One of the most exhilarating moments in many people’s wine journey is that light bulb “Aha!” when you taste the differences between wines made from the same grape, by the same winemaker, in the same vintage but from two different vineyards. On the surface it seems like there is no logical reason why these two wines taste different but they do and that difference is terroir. Having that light bulb go off often ignites a passion in wine lovers that encourages them to keep exploring, keep looking under the surface to figure out why these wines they adore taste the way they do.

It’s why Burgundy exists and why vineyard designated wines are often a winery’s top cuvee.

This “faux pas” also comes from Chrislett who I suspect is not being as satirical when he says:

Personally I believe that terrior plays a major role in the overall flavor of the grapes once they reach the winery, but from that point on it’s all in the hands of the winemaker. For that reason, you could also say: “…mmm, you can really taste the wine-maker in this wine!”

To which I would say, “Yes, Karen. I can. In the oak barrels they use and the amount of malo.”

7. “I’ll buy the bottle with the cool label” (or rather 7c)

Submitted without comment or judgement.

I know this chafes a lot sommeliers and retailers to hear but, for me, as long as it doesn’t include the word “only” then I’m cool.

Let’s face it, standing in front of a literal wall of wine at a store is intimidating. There are so many choices. While you would hope that there is a knowledgeable wine associate nearby that could help guide a consumer to a great bottle, sometimes there isn’t.

I would much rather have someone have a label catch their eye that gives them a reason to try it then to have them fall back to just drinking their same ole, same ole. If they take it home and it sucks (like, admittedly, many gimmicky labeled wines often do), then lesson learned and there is no reason to buy that wine again. They can move on to something new. If the wine shop they’re buying from is really awesome, they may be able to even take that sucky wine back and exchange it for something else that catches their eye.

Bottom line, if you are always trying new things–regardless of the reason why the bottle interests you–then you are on the right path. I’m not going to shame you or make you feel bad for liking a cool label but I will always encourage you to be open to trying things with sucky labels. Sometimes those are the best wines.

8. “What is Robert Parker’s rating for this wine?”

This is another thing that, admittedly, does make wine professionals inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) roll their eyes. That is because the number one mantra in the wine industry is that taste is personal and just because a wine critic loves or loathes something doesn’t mean it’s going to match your opinion. And, really, in the end all that matters is your opinion because you are the one who is putting it in your mouth.

Photo by Vinnie4568 . Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Wine-Twitteracy in still life.


But what these eye-rolling wine pros often forget is that Robert Parker, like Jamie Goode, is a tool. Especially for newbie wine drinkers who are still learning what their personal taste is, it’s helpful to hear an expert’s opinion on a wine. But the key is to make sure the newbie drinker knows that it is perfectly fine to disagree with the experts.

In fact, the most ideal approach for those newbies is to notice how their own tastes calibrate with the experts with certain wines. They may find that they really jive with Parker’s opinions on Rhone-style wines but find his opinions on Napa Cabs completely off from theirs. That’s fantastic and it sharpens the effectiveness of using that tool.

But just as our tool boxes at home aren’t limited to just a single screw driver, so too, should we be open to the usefulness of having a variety of tools and opinions at our disposal. You might find that Jancis Robinson’s opinion on Napa Cabernets fits your taste more. Even better, you might find the tastes of your local wine shop employee and yours go hand in hand.

Truly the best advice that any wine lover can take to heart is to keep tasting and to keep asking questions. There really are no rules or right way or wrong way to go about it. It’s your time, your money, your mouth. So own that and take your own path.

But you are completely welcome to spit all that I just said right into the bucket. In fact, I couldn’t be more proud if you did.

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