Category Archives: General

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.

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?

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

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.

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

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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Getting Ready (and a bit nervous) For WBC18!

Tomorrow morning I’m getting up bright and early to make the 5 hour drive to Walla Walla to attend my first Wine Bloggers Conference.

I have no clue what to expect.

I’ve been reading the Facebook page for the event and monitoring the blogs of fellow attendees to get an idea of what to look forward to.

I really liked fellow WBC-newbie Anne of Aspiring Winos post on her pre-conference prep and what she is hoping to get out of it. Not only does Anne’s post give me great packing reminders (note to self: don’t forget the portable battery!) but also encouraged me to sit down and think about what I hope to get out of this conference (see below).

Another hugely helpful post came courtesy of Noelle of Outwines who had her husband, and frequent conference attendee in the tax world, write up some super useful Conference Survival Tips. Lots of good stuff here and I eagerly look forward to meeting up with the Outwines duo to get the 411 on the secret bathroom locations that they’ve scouted out at the Marcus Whitman.

But probably the most thought provoking post came from Tom Wark of the Fermentation Wine Blog on why he is attending this year’s conference after a few years absence. After looking at GoogleTrend data highlighting the peak and subsequent wane in interest of wine blogging from 2010 to 2017, he made one observation that really struck me.

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Agne27

Yeah I used to be quite active on the Wikipedia Wine Project.


I was an avid reader of several wine blogs from 2007-2013 during the heart of my Wikipedia wine writing days. I didn’t take the jump into blogging back then since writing those wine articles on Wikipedia already gave me a geeky outlet. Plus I’ve never really cared about “attracting brands” or becoming “an influencer”.

Eventually the sexism and mind-numbing politics of Wikipedia finally got to me so I stepped away from writing completely. It took me several years to get the itch again. Instead of going back to Wikipedia, I decided to finally hunker down and get serious about blogging. But as I look at the landscape of current wine blogs as well as Twitter and Instagram, there is a part of me that wonders reading Wark’s nostalgia for those early conference years–did I missed out on these “glory days” of blogging?

Does someone like me–who would rather curl up with a wine book than pose with a bottle–really belong with today’s breed of social media influencers?

What Do I Want To Get Out Of This Conference?

With that back drop, here are my hopes for the next few days.

1.) Find my lost tribe of wine geeks. I know of a few that are out there which I looking forward to meeting. My hope is that I will find more.

2.) Learn about Sherry with the Lustau Sherry Wine Specialist Certification seminar on Thursday. This has always been a weak spot for me.

3.) Separate the wheat from the chaff with my Washington-centric bias. Looking at the attendee list, there is a good chunk of non-Washington wine people that will be attending and sampling lots of local Washington wine. I try hard not to have a “homer palate” but sometimes I can’t hide my unabashed love for Washington wine. I’m looking forward to hearing other perspectives.

4.) Figure out if I want to go to next year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Australia. I’ve always wanted to visit Australia and this conference could be the perfect reason to finally put those plans in action. Ultimately it will depend on if I feel like I get anything worthwhile out of attending this year’s event.

5.) Just have fun.

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It’s Raining Masters

UPDATE: Apparently there was evidence of cheating during the tasting portion and the results of that segment of this year’s Master Sommelier examination has been invalidated. All Masters who passes this year’s test will have to resit this exam.

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

Hallelujah?

Earlier this week the Court of Master Sommeliers announced an astonishing 24 new Master Sommeliers.

All together 56 individuals sat for the exams which is taken in three parts. This first is a theory examination that covers the wines and wine regions of the world. Candidates need to know wine laws and production methods as well as details about cigars, spirits and liqueurs. This is followed by Practical examination which includes demonstrating proper table service. Then finally a blind tasting of 6 wines in 25 minutes using the famous Grid Method of Deduction.

To pass, candidates must receive a score of at least 75% in all three parts. With this year’s bumper crop, we saw an incredible 42.8% pass rate.

That’s not bad for something that has been described as the World’s Toughest Test.

A Perfect Storm for a Windfall?

Last year the court announced 8 new Masters out of 58 candidates for a 13.7% pass rate.

In 2016, there was a minuscule 4.7% pass rate as 3 out of 63 candidates successfully completed all 3 exams. The year prior, in 2015, 7 out of 63 passed for a 11% rate.

Now what those numbers don’t tell is how many individuals passed 1 or even 2 of the three exam components. These scores can be carried over to the next examination. Let’s say we have a candidate who passed the Theory examination in 2015 but failed Practical and Tasting. This candidate could then spend the next three consecutive years attempting to pass the remaining two.  After that, though, unsuccessful candidates will need to retake the whole exam.

It’s very likely that 2018 wasn’t the first rodeo for several of the 24 new Master Sommeliers. This could help explain why this year saw so many successful candidates.

The SOMM Effect?

The film also popularize the idea of blind tasting beyond just professionals.

One theory on the large class was that it was because more people were taking the exams. Credit is given  to the 2013 documentary film SOMM  for sparking interest in the field. This film followed the path of Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, DLynn Proctor and Brian McClintic as they took their examinations.

Wilson and McClintic would go on to pass all the Master Sommelier exams in February 2011, being 2 of 6 who passed out of 30 (20% pass rate). The following year, Cauble would earn his MS as part of a group of 7 out of 62 candidates taking the exam (11.2%).

In July 2013, only a few week after the film was released June 21st, 70 candidates sat for the MS exam with only one single person, Nick Hetzel from Sage at Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, passing (1.4%).

To even get an invite to take the Master Sommelier examination, candidates must first pass the Advanced Sommelier exam.  According to the Court of Master Sommeliers, this exam usually has a 25-30% pass rate. Before taking that exam, candidates need to have previously passed the Certified Sommelier exam. Additionally, the Court recommends at least 5 years practical experience as a sommelier in the service industry.

If there is a “SOMM bump”, it seems likely that 2018 is just the beginning of the swell.

Are we just getting “Wine Smarter”?

It’s possible that the “World’s Toughest Test” may not be as tough any more for a growing wine savvy community that is being spearheaded by wanderlust Millennials who aren’t afraid to branch out into the obscure, geeky and unknown.

This ain’t your daddy’s Duboeuf.

While previous generations of drinkers may not have strayed very far from the zones of Chianti and safety of Sangiovese, we now have regular wine drinkers (not just trained and studious sommeliers) waxing poetically about the difference between Nerello Mascalese grown on the volcanic soils of Mt. Etna and IGT Nero d’Avola.

Now a days if you are talking Beaujolais, you are far more likely to be talking about the crus than you are of Nouveau.

Blessed with a plethora of wine resources courtesy of the internet (like GuildSomm’s own fantastic website), it’s easier than ever for the curious wine lover to quench their thirst for some vino-knowledge.  Are we seeing a “trickle up” effect from this groundswell of knowledge?

As I mentioned in my post Playing the Somm Game in Vegas, the level of knowledge in the field has never been higher. As consumers get more savvy and adventurous, the sommeliers are upping their game.

Perhaps the windfall of new Master Sommeliers (249 and counting since 1969) and Masters of Wine (380 since 1953) means that we are collectively on a crescent of wine expertise that we haven’t observed before.

Or maybe the World’s Toughest Test needs to get tougher?

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Tracking the Tastemakers

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

I’m reminded of Austrian puppeteer Karin Schäfer often when I walk into a supermarket’s wine department.

Recently Wine Enthusiast released their Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers for 2018–a list highlighting the folks who are “… doing their part to lead the conversation and leave a lasting influence on the world of food and drink for generations to come.”

Admittedly lists like this usually illicit an eye roll response from me because of the feel of puffery that abounds in them. Often when I look more critically at these kinds of list, such as Social Vignerons’ 2018 Top 40+ Wine Influencers which I reviewed in my post Under the (Social Media) Influence, I find an absence of voices and views that actually do influence me to check out a new wine, winemaker or region.

Then there is the cynical part of me who looks at the world of wine through the jaded sunglasses of supermarket shelves dominated by mega-corporations and massive consolidation among distributors which leaves me feeling that the real “tastemakers” in the US sits on the boards of E&J Gallo, Constellation Brands, Diageo, Brown-Foreman, Beam Suntory, Treasury Wine Estates, AB InBev, Costco, Young’s Market Company, Republic National Distributing and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits.

But that wouldn’t make a very exciting list now would it? Plus, I’m sure the puppeteers that are heading the decision-making at these companies would prefer to keep their strings hidden.

A Taste of Vox Populi

While the geek in me would love to see more people get excited about Pét-Nat sparklers and wines made from unique grape varieties like Trousseau, Fiano, Touriga Nacional, Pošip, Xinomavro and others, I know I’m in the minority.

So I sit by and shake my head as people go nuts over wines aged in bourbon barrels, mixed with cold brew coffee, Frosé cocktails, blue wine or silly packaging with “living labels”–the quality of the contents inside the bottle be damned.

Can’t argue with success even if it is not your cup of tea.


Even trends that start out on a craft level soon get co-opt and commercialized like how making cider from red-fleshed heritage apples became the latest rosé trend. The rye whiskey heritage that pre-dates the Revolution is now “marketable” with the big boys like Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Jim Beam hopping on the rye wagon and expanding their portfolios. Patron and Jose Cuervo have their eyes set on the Mezcal market.

And let’s not even get started with what’s become of the sour beer and hazy IPA segments.

But c’est la vie.

If there is a dollar to be made in the beverage industry, somebody will be there to make it.

In vino veritas

Like wine, there is truth in innovation and if history has taught us anything over the course the 10,000+ years that humans have been consuming alcohol it is that we do like a little variety in our tipple–even if that variety is pumpkin spiced flavored.

Photo by Stephen Witherden. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Y’all know its only a matter of time till Apothic PSL comes out, right?


To that extent, I’ll set aside my cynicism to look at Wine Enthusiast’s list and highlight for you some of the folks whose stories I’ve found spark just a bit of hope in my world weary heart.

Maggie Campbell – President/Head Distiller, Privateer Rum; Board of Directors Vice President, American Craft Spirits Association

A female head distiller who has a WSET diploma and is pursuing a Master of Wine certification? Badass! My wife is from the Peabody/Salem, Massachusetts area which is a short drive from Privateer Rum in Ipswich so the next time we’re visiting family back east, I’m definitely putting this distillery on my “Must Visit” list.

Paul Elliot — Founder, Loft & Bear

In all honesty, the vodka industry has been something of a joke the last couple decades with flavors and marketing holding more sway than quality and craftsmanship. I have to tip my hat to the small craft distilleries who try their best to forge a living in this category. While the whiskey, gin, rum and tequila categories have their Goliaths, those mediums at least give the Davids a few rocks of opporunities to differentiate themselves with their ingredients and aging. That’s a tougher task in the craft vodka segment.

Kudos to Elliot and Loft & Bear which not only wants to stand out from the pack but also wants to give back through their charity commitments.

Jim Fischer and Jenny Mosbacher — Co-winemakers, Fossil & Fawn

Photo by  Cornischong . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Admit it. You can see Treasury Wine Estates coming out with a “Living Amphora” series of Natural Wines at some point.

While I haven’t always been enthralled with the quality of natural wines, I do respect the commitment and passion behind the people who make them. I haven’t had a chance to try Fossil & Fawn yet but, being Pacific Northwest neighbors, I’ll certainly make an effort to seek them out when I’m in the Portland area.

But, and I’m going to let my cynicism slip in here, I do think that the moment when the Natural Wine Movement has made it will be when wineries like Fossil & Fawn start getting gobbled up by mega-corps like Constellation Brands (a la AB InBev’s mad buying spree of craft brewers).

It will be both a sad and triumphant time for the Natural Wine Movement but I’ll raise a glass and hope that folks like Fischer & Mosbacher still stay part of La Résistance and can make a healthy living doing so.

Maya Dalla Valle – Director, Dalla Valle Vineyards

Dalle Valle has been one of the few Napa “cult wines” that I’ve believed have been worth the hype. It is heartening to see the vineyards still stay in the family and that rather than resting on her name, Maya has gone out into the world to gain real experience at wineries across the globe.

Jésus Guillén — Owner/Winemaker, Guillén Family Wines; Winemaker, White Rose Estate

The last few times I’ve had White Rose wines from the Dundee Hills, I’ve been impressed. Learning about Guillén’s story gives me reason to explore these wines more as well as his own family estate wines.

The windmill that is featured on many of the Long Meadow Ranch wines is still holding the fort on their Mayacamas property overlooking Rutherford.


Chris Hall — Proprietor/Chief Operating Officer, Long Meadow Ranch

Long Meadow Ranch has been one of my favorite Napa estates for a while. Such an under the radar gem with a great winemaking pedigree that began with the legendary Cathy Corison and now features Ashley Heisey (previously of Far Niente and Opus One), Stéphane Vivier (previously of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s owners’ California project–Hyde de Villaine) and Justin Carr (previously of Cakebread, Rudd and Hourglass).

But visiting the estate a couple years ago as well as their delicious farm-to-table restaurant really hit home for me the Hall family’s commitment to sustainability and the environment.

Jonathan Hajdu — Winemaker, Covenant Wines

I’m not Jewish but I’ve listened to many Jewish friends over the years lament about the poor selection and quality level of many kosher wines–especially those that are mevushal which are flash pasteurized so they can be handled by non-Jews.

While I know that there are quality minded producers in Israel and abroad making kosher wines, their small productions and the hurdles of importation limits their access to US consumers. Being based in Napa and Sonoma, Covenant Wines does have the potential to fill in a sorely needed niche. It never hurts when you have fruit sources like Rudd’s Oakville Estate and Mt. Veeder vineyards!

Their limited production will make them hard to find outside the Pacific Northwest but if you get an opportunity to try Trout’s VITAL wines, take it.

Ashley Trout — Owner/Winemaker, Brook & Bull Cellars; Head Winemaker, Vital Wines

I’ve been a fan of Ashley Trout since her first project, Flying Trout Wines which is now owned by TERO estates. Recently I was really impressed with her VITAL rosé at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting earlier this year which I documented in my Walla Walla Musings post.

The entire VITAL project is super cool and worth supporting with all the profits from the wine label going to the SOS Clinic of Walla Walla that provides healthcare for under-served members of the community–including many vineyard workers and their families.

I was wondering why Ashley Trout was pictured in her Wine Enthusiast photo op drinking Duckhorn wine until I read that she is married to Brian Rudin the winemaker of Duckhorn’s Red Mountain project, Canvasback. They have two kids who have likely inherited some really good winemaking genes.

Katarina Martinez — Owner/Head Brewer, Lineup Brewing

While no industry is immune, the beer industry has had a lot of light shined recently on the rampant sexism that women working in the industry face. There is even a website called Beer & Sexism which documents stories of women brewers and employees with experiences that range from mild (but thoroughly annoying) mansplaining to severe sexual harassment.

There is no universal blessing bestowed on women that means they’re going to make better beer but with women brewers representing only around 10% of the industry, its worth going out your way to support the underdog.

While it will probably be tough to find the New York-based Lineup Brewing on the West Coast, I’ll keep an eye out for Martinez’s brews.

Krista Scruggs — Vigneronne, Zafa Wines

This entry had me raising an eye brow and going “Whoa!”. Scruggs with her Vermont-based Zafa Wines is experimenting with co-fermenting wine grapes with farmed and forage apples as a sort of a wine-cider hybrid project that sounds crazy cool.

I have no idea how easy her stuff is to find but its worth the search to find what Scruggs describes on her website as “JUST FUCKING FERMENTED JUICE FROM RESPONSIBLY FARMED LIVING FRUIT.

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen — Winemaker/Co-owner, W.T. Vintners/Raconteur Wine Company; Wine Director, RN74

I don’t hide my affections for W.T. Vintners’s wines like their delicious rosé and very Old Worldish 2015 Boushey Vineyard Rhone blend that beat out (for me) the 2014 Sadie Family Columella (which was nearly 3x the price) at this year’s Washington vs World Blind Tasting Event. Plus, the food and wine experience at RN 74 in Seattle is second to none.

This Madeira flight at RN74 featuring (left to right) a 1988 Malmsey, 1976 Terrantez and a 1948 Bual (!!!) is among my Top 10 lifetime wine moments for sure.


That said, I’m still a bit skeptical at how much influence winemakers and sommeliers have in the bigger scheme of the industry. Yeah, they can make great wine and put together a great list but for the majority of wine drinkers who are picking up a bottle of wine at the grocery store or Costco to take home for dinner, they’re more apt to be swayed by fancy packaging than by “terroir-driven, single-vineyard wines.”

Sorry, my cynicism is leaking out again.

Kelli White — Senior Staff Writer, GuildSomm

For me, personally, I will have to say that Kelli White has been the one figure on this list who has actually influenced my tastes and approach to wine. Over the last year since I’ve discovered her work on GuildSomm, she has become one of my favorite wine writers.

I’ve learned so much from her with this just being a small sampling of some of her outstanding work.

The Devastator: Phylloxera Vastatrix & The Remaking of the World of Wine

The Evolution of American Oak

Photo by εγώ. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under free licenses.

The root of my Xinomavro obsession of late.

Gods & Heroes: Xinomavro in Northern Greece

Brettanomyces: Science & Context

Major Maladies of the Vine

The GuildSomm website is worth bookmarking just for her articles alone.

Hannibal ad portas

These next listings are probably the most realistic inclusions on Wine Enthusiast’s list because these folks actually have the position and power to influence the market in substantial ways.

Neil Bernardi – Vice President of Winemaking, Duckhorn Wine Company; General Manager, Kosta Browne

Duckhorn has grown immensely from it founding as a small Napa winery by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. It’s becoming a large mega-corp in its own right with a portfolio of brands that includes Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration, Decoy, Canvasback, Calera and Kosta Browne. This is a story not that far off from that of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates which started as a small Washington winery and now has a portfolio that includes more than 26 brands like 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Erath, Borne of Fire, Northstar, Spring Valley Vineyards, Conn Creek, Patz & Hall and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Duckhorn’s growth is on a steep trajectory and I don’t see their strings of acquisitions slowing down. A big question, especially as they acquire more vineyards and contracts, is whether they will continue to keep their brand holdings in the upper premium range or expand more of their value offerings like Decoy.

Katie Jackson — Vice President of Sustainability and External Affairs, Jackson Family Wines

Photo by 	Jim G. uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards outside Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Center in Santa Rosa.

Yeah, Jackson Family Wines is huge with over 30 brands in California (including La Crema, Siduri, Brewer-Clifton, Byron, Cambria, Freemark Abbey, Cardinale and Copain), a growing presence in Oregon (buying Penner-Ash and Willakenzie among others) as well as wineries across the globe. They make (and have no problem selling) more than 3 million cases a year of their Vintner Reserve Chardonnay.

That translates to a lot of influence and sway in the industry so it is heartening to read about Katie Jackson’s effort to promote sustainability across her family’s empire including the public release of sustainability reports. Just a few days ago it was announced that more than three-quarters of the company’s vineyards (which includes 12,000 acres under the Kendall-Jackson label alone) are certified sustainable.

That’s a significant needle mover that will certainly have a long term impact on not only the wine industry but on the health of the environment as a whole. While I can often be dour on large wine companies, I have to sincerely applaud Katie Jackson and the Jackson family for these efforts.

Maybe there is hope for my cynical heart yet.

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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. However, the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

Bentonite and Yeast Fining
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.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite. This is 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.

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.  The cell walls of the yeast contain about 30% positively charged proteins. These can then adsorb many polyphenols and compounds which 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. This would cause spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP and Other Methods

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. This is because the PVPP also binds 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. This also 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

Are wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards truly “vegan-friendly”? 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.

PETA Approved?
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.

What about the presence of insects in healthy and vibrant organic vineyards? Does that makes a wine less “Vegan-friendly”? Eschewing the use of chemicals often means more insects as MOG (material other than grapes). Absent expensive sorting these bugs can get 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?

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.

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. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals.  I also share their concerns about the environment animal products have. It’s not my wish to stress-out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries.  Often the viticulture and winemaking practices they use may not align with the ideals 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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