Category Archives: Shopping for Wine

Behind the Curtain

By The Wonderful Wizard of Oz / By L. Frank Baum; With Pictures by W.W. Denslow. Published: Chicago ; New York : G.M. Hill Co., 1900. - From the Library of Congress Online Catalog. The image page is here and the description page is here., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3090042Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator did a write up about the unique marketing approach of a new Oregon winery, Alit. With the pedigree of Evening Land Vineyard’s co-founder, Mark Tarlov, and winemaker Alban Debeaulieu, formerly of White Rose Estate, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Maison Joseph Drouhin, this new project was already guaranteed intrigue but, as Steiman notes, Alit upped the ante by releasing their Pinots for the absurdly low price of $27.45 a bottle.

Yeah, you read that right. $27.45 for a premium Oregon Pinot noir from one of the Evening Land guys and a former Drouhin winemaker?!?! Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

The idea behind Alit Wines is transparency with the winery’s website (and Wine Spectator article) going into great detail to describe how they break down the cost figures that brings them to charge $27.45 for a bottle of Pinot noir sourced from acclaimed vineyards in the Dundee Hills, McMinnville (including Momtazi Vineyard) and Eola-Amity Hills. The hope for Tarlov and Co. is that they’ll be rewarded for their transparency with consumers, empowered with the knowledge of the nuts and bolts cost of production, seeing the advantage of bypassing “the middlemen” and buying directly from the winery.

Alit's breakdown of the cost of wine. Credit: https://medium.com/@MarkTarlov

Alit’s breakdown of the cost of wine. Credit: https://medium.com/@MarkTarlov

On the surface this sounds like a solid strategy and I was intrigued enough to put in an order myself. Potentially great wine at a great price is always a plus and its exciting to think about what could happen if more premium wineries followed suited with this focus on transparency. But as both a consumer and as someone who has spent over a decade in the wine industry (both production and retail), I don’t see this as a yellow brick road leading to a revolution in wine pricing.

I also can’t escape the nagging feeling that instead of just empowering consumers, that this peek behind the curtain of production costs will have the same effect on consumers that Dorothy’s glimpse behind the curtain at the Wizard had on her. Yes, it is nice to see what’s behind the curtain but do you lose a bit of “magic” when everything doesn’t seem to be what you once thought it was? Are you going to enjoy as much that $60 Pinot you enjoyed before now that you can add up in the back of your mind that it may really only cost the winery around $15 to make?

Pay No Attention To The Conspicuous Consumption of Wine.

Wine is weird. On one hand, it is a consumable agricultural good just like any foodstuff. So drilling the price of a bottle of wine down to the price of the raw materials, labor and cost of production and transport sounds like a simple endeavor. Yet, wine is also much more than that and, especially in the United States, it can also be considered a Veblen good–an item whose price and value often drives demand, instead of just necessarily the demand driving the price.

This is a big reason why I doubt that you’ll see Alit’s marketing model being readily adopted by other wineries. Of course, nearly every winery in the world would wholeheartedly support encouraging consumers to buy most, if not all, their wines direct from the winery. Not only does it allow them to control the consumer’s experience, making sure that they are getting their wines in the best condition possible, it’s also how wineries make the most money. That last point is key. Look at the prices that you see at a winery’s tasting room and then compare them to what you would be paying at a typical retailer. Are you getting the savings of “cutting the middleman”?

Most likely not.

In the Wine Spectator article, Alit’s Tarlov explains that this is because wineries don’t want to hurt their distributor and retail partners by drastically undercutting them in price. There is certainly truth to this because the wheels of the wine industry are greased by trust and relationships. However, the one thing more valuable than relationships in the wine industry is the perception of your brand. This is why retailers sometimes get in trouble if they price a winery’s wine “too low”. It impacts the “brand”. Wineries are loathed to ever lower the prices of their wine because it can lower the prestige and value of the wine in the eyes of consumers.

A heart is not judged by how much you love; but a wine is judged by how much it is loved by others.

By Man vyi - Own work (own photo), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7907924

And men are judged by how they wear fanny packs


Consumers are weird. We all want a great deal, but not too good or there must be something wrong. The placebo effect is alive and well as our brains are hardwired to get more pleasure from things that we perceive as being more expensive and ergo more valuable.

Now as wine lovers, who presumably want to get the most for our money, what should we do? Do we just chuck it all out the window and drink Two Buck Chuck from here on out?

By Jeffrey Beall - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16607189

“Seriously??? 5 missed FG and 4 missed xp…costing us 2 games. Yeah…sounds like a keeper…”(11/29/2016) — Kyra Olson, author’s Facebook friend and Bengals fan since 1981


Let me ask a different question. If you’re a fan of American football, what is more appealing to you? Spending around $50 or less for a family of four to see a local high school football game or spending an average of around $131.93 per person to see a team like the Cincinnati Bengals play home games against the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills? No offense to the Bengals, Browns or Bills fans among my readers but there are certainly games where you can argue that maybe the high schoolers would field a better product for the money.

Now we can argue about the nuts and bolts of the talent and skills of football players, the quality of equipment, the stadium atmosphere and then craft metaphors about how that relates to vineyard terroir, winemakers, new oak barrels and such. But I think we can drill it down to a much more simple question: What experience gives you more pleasure?

What experience fills you with more sense of excitement and anticipation as you enter the stadium before the game? If you were given a gift of tickets, opening which set (to the HS game or the NFL one) would quicken your heart more? For most people, it’s the latter and that is a huge reason why seeing an NFL game is often 12x more expensive than seeing a high school football game–regardless of the end quality result on the field. The value of the product is judged by how much it is loved by others. With the typical NFL stadium holding around 70,000 spectators, there are quite a bit of people who are willing to pay top dollar to be one of the few who get to sit in those seats.

The same is true with a bottle of wine. For as solid and tasty that something like a $8-12 bottle of Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon can be, the level of excitement and anticipation of opening it up just can’t match up to opening something like a $60-68 bottle of DeLille Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon. There is the bare nuts and bolts value of the raw materials and cost of production but how do you quantify the value in that sense of excitement, anticipation and pleasure that comes from that? With only around 1,450 cases made each year of DeLille’s Four Flags, there are plenty of people who put high value on being one of the few who get to enjoy that sense of excitement and anticipation.

You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking (as we all are).

While I do applaud Mark Tarlov and the folks behind Alit for being bold with their marketing plan on transparency, I do think it creates an unfortunate impression that wine pricing is a simple affair. It’s not because wine isn’t simple and, more importantly, people aren’t simple. Just as in Oz, when the Wizard chastised the Cowardly lion for confusing courage with wisdom, we also shouldn’t confuse the value of our pleasure and enjoyment of wine with the nuts and bolts cost of things. Just as our perception of taste is personal, so too is our perception of value. A wine is good is if it is good for you and a wine is worth its price if it is worth it to you.

If an $8 Cabernet gives you pleasure and is worth $8 to you, Enjoy! If a $28 Pinot does the same, drink up! But, likewise, don’t devalue your pleasure and sense of the wine’s worth if your mouth drools with anticipation at pulling the cork out of a $60 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir. It’s your palate, your wallet and your pleasure.

And if paying around $131 to watch Mike Nugent miss fields goals and extra points gives you pleasure, well you can talk to my friend Kyra about that.

Whiskey and Wine

As I’ve admitted before, I can be a bit skeptical about newfangled wine trends but I always try to keep an open mind. So when I walk into stores and see big displays of Gallo’s Apothic Inferno (“A Wine With a Whiskey Soul” they say) supported with advertising campaigns featuring tatted up and vested hipster bartenders playing with fire, I know I need to try some wines aged in bourbon and whiskey barrels.

By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I love Woodford Reserve in my Old Fashioned, not necessarily in my wine.


But first, a little background

Henry H. Work’s 2014 book Wood, Whiskey and Wine gives a nice backstory on the love affair between wine and wood barrels that extend over two millenniums. He also goes into the sharing of barrel technology with other beverages like whiskeys and beers. I highly encourage folks interested in geeking out more about this topic to give it a look.

In the 17th century, the convenience and availability of excess Sherry barrels from the bustling Jerez to London trade led to a “happy accident” of Scotch makers discovering the rich dark fruit flavors and deeper color that Oloroso Sherry barrels impart on whiskey aged in them.

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

In recent decades, the concept of cask-finishing for whiskeys has expanded to include barrels that previously housed Port, Madeira, Sauternes, Amarone and even First Growth Bordeaux and premium Super Tuscan and Barolo producers.

Across the pond, American Bourbon and whiskey producers also discovered the interesting flavors and added complexity of aging in former wine barrels. Of course, Sherry and Port casks were popular choices but producers also branched out with California Chardonnay like Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer finish. Even winemakers started getting in on the gig, like Dave Phinney’s partnership with a distillery to create a Bourbon aged in barrels that formerly held his Orin Swift Napa Cabernet Mercury Head. (Not sure what the status of this project is after Phinney’s sale of Orin Swift to Gallo)

Whiskey Returns the Favor (maybe)

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

Perhaps taking a cue from the beer industry which has seen a huge explosion in popularity of barrel-aged beer, it may have been inevitable that we would see wine aged in whiskey barrels.

The first mentioned of a whiskey barrel aged wine that I could find was back in 2010 when a winemaker in Australia some how got his hands on Pappy Van Winkle Barrels to age his 2008 McLaren Vale Shiraz. What became of his Southern Belle Shiraz, or if you can still find it, I don’t know as there are scant tasting notes on the web. I do find it interesting that the 2010 article from Garden and Gun noted that the expected release price for the 2008 was $25 USD but the average price of the three vintages available on Wine-Searcher (2009, 2011 & 2013) is only $9. If any one has further details about this wine (or know of an earlier whiskey barrel-aged wine), let me know in the comments below.

As with most things in the wine industry, people usually don’t start paying attention to a trend until the big-money players get involved and that is what happened in 2016 when Pernod-Ricard (Jacob’s Creek), Constellation Brands (Robert Mondavi), Concha y Toro (Fetzer) and E. & J. Gallo (Apothic) released their whiskey barrel-aged wines.

Are these wines any good?

I was able to get my hands on 3 brands of whiskey barrel-aged wines–Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon, Barrelhouse Bourbon Red (made by Bruce and Kim Cunningham of AW Direct) and Apothic Inferno (aged in whiskey instead of Bourbon barrels). Tasting these wines with colleagues in the retail wine industry, I wanted to be as objective as possible so we decided to do this tasting blind and with a “ringer” of a popular dark red blend (which was the most recent hot trend in the industry till the whiskey-aged wines came barreling in). In this case, I chose Cloud Break Black Cloud from O’Neil Vintners.

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a "regular" red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a “regular” red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Here are my notes before the reveal:

Wine A- Sweet smelling on the nose. Very ruby port-like nose with figs and dark fruit. Some vanilla.
On the palate, rich fruit, very smooth but with noticeable RS. Yep, definitely very port-like with more overt oak spice flavors on the palate. Medium acidity. Medium-minus tannins.
My guess is that this is one of the bourbon barrels one. Drinkable, good for sweet(ish) red wine drinkers. Actually this may be an improvement over many of the “Dark” blends since the oak spice seems to add some complexity.

Wine B-This smells like a whiskey. But whiskey that smells like burnt rubber. Noticeably sweet nose. Roasted marshmallows and burnt flambe cherries. It smells like someone took a shot of cheap lightly peated whiskey, mixed with a really pungent Pinotage and then added it to someone’s Seagram 7 and Coke.
On the palate, Burnt rubber and roasted marshmallows. Medium-minus tannins and medium-minus acidity, maybe even low acidity. It’s no where near as sweet as I expected it to be based on the nose but I can’t tell if that is a positive or negative at this point.

Wine C- Much more subdued nose, medium-minus intensity but that may just be a scale down effect compared to Bag B. I don’t really smell any oak at all, just some subtle red fruit–red berries, maybe a little red plums.
On the palate, I can get some vanilla but it is still very mellow. Medium+plus acidity, actually has some good life to it. Definitely still red fruit. Medium tannins, very ripe and smooth.
My gut is telling me that this is the regular red blend but I’m a bit confused with the fruit being much more red than dark, knowing in the back of my mind that the “ringer” is one of the Dark Red styles. Whatever this is, its fairly enjoyable and with the medium plus acidity, can actually see this being a decent drinker and food pairing option.

Wine D- Medium nose. Still way more subdued than Bag B and less fragrant than Bag A. Much more overt vanilla on the nose. This has a bit of a “whiskeyness” to it but its not in your face. A little dark fruit but, again, subdued.
On the palate, this has some great texture. Medium+ acidity. Medium + tannins but very velvety and great full body. By far the most impressive mouthfeel. This feels like a decent $15-17 Cab. The flavors are very Cab-like as well, being more black currant with a little tobacco spice. The finish lingers with the vanilla and I do almost feel like I can taste a bit of roasted corn. Not enough to be weird but at this point I’m wondering if my palate is shot.

The Reveal and Final Thoughts

Bag A.) Cloud Break Black Cloud — (The Dark Red blend “ringer”) I was totally fooled on this. The ruby-port aspect had me thinking that THIS is what these Bourbon barrel-aged wines should taste like. Definitely a wine for the smooth, bold (but slightly sweet) red crowd. 3rd favorite of the group.

Bag B.) Apothic Inferno – As you could probably infer from my notes, this was my least favorite wine of the bunch. It certainly had the most in your face “whiskeyness” but, in my opinion, that didn’t add up to a pleasurable drinking experience in the slightest. Personally, I would rather drink any of the other examples in the Apothic stable (the regular red, Apothic Dark, Apothic Crush, etc) than the Inferno. It’s just not my style of wine at all.

Bag C.) Barrelhouse Bourbon Red – This pleasantly surprised me. It definitely wasn’t what I expected from this category. As I noted, I strongly thought this was just a regular red blend. Very solid and very drinkable. Probably the 2nd best of the whole bunch.

Bag D.) Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Age Cabernet Sauvignon – the clear winner of the group and a very solid wine. I don’t think this wine needs the marketing gimmick of the “bourbon barrel age” (neither does the Barrelhouse really) and could easily stand on its own as regular, every day drinker that would do well paired with food or at a party with a crowd.

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

So there you have it. It’s worth having an open mind and I would encourage all wine drinkers to give these wines a try and form their own opinions.

Some of these wines, like the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrelhouse Bourbon Red, are pretty solid and legit red wines. Others…..do have their own unique personality. I definitely recommend trying these wines side by side with either other whiskey barrel-aged wines or just general red blends. That is, by far, the best way to judge the character of these wines and see how they stake up against what you enjoy in red wine.

Cheers!

Tripping into Wine’s Loopholes

What if I told you that the Cabernet Sauvignon you were drinking was really a red blend with at least 6 other grapes in it? What if I told you that the bottle labeled as Pinot noir on your table was also a blend, but not necessarily a “red” one since it had Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay in it. Or how about that bottle of Napa Valley wine that you ordered at a restaurant in Texas which was actually made in Texas?

By W.carter - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The red pill pairs with Albarino while the blue one pairs with Pinot grigio

Now to some degree, none of this really matters because blissful ignorance is truly blissful if you are enjoying the wine that you’re drinking. That is the blue pill of wine and while it would make a boring blog post (and movie), everyone is welcome to take it. But if you want to know the truth and be a little bit more dangerous as a wine consumer, lets take the red pill and look at some of the loopholes in US wine laws.

Fighting Varietals (or not)

The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) provides a nice brochure with a breakdown of the minimum standards for a wine label in the US. Here we’ll note some key details.

To be labeled as a single grape variety, you only need to have 75% of that grape- This is the fallacy of the grape varietal snobs who drink “only Cabernet Sauvignon” and think red blends are inferior wines made from the “left overs” or would never buy anything unless it says Merlot on the label. HA! Just kidding about that last one. The truth is that most of the red wines in the world are blends. Even if you want to discount many of the amazing European wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone, Tuscany, Valpolicella, Rioja, Douro, etc that have historically always been blends, you still have this huge 25% loophole in American “varietal” wines that US winemakers are all to happy to exploit.

My personal favorite of Ginny's wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her "Peanut butter & Chocolate" pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

My personal favorite of Ginny’s wines is the One-Armed Man which totally carries her “Peanut butter & Chocolate” pairing of Zin and Petite Sirah to rich, delicious perfection.

Why? Because blending helps them make potentially better wines. I remember listening to winemaker Ginny Lambrix of Zinfandel specialist Truett-Hurst talk about how she loves blending a little Petite Sirah with Zin because the rich plums, blackberry and pepper spice marries so well with the similar (but sometimes uneven with its ripening habits) flavors of Zinfandel. Of course, Zinfandel can make outstanding wines on its own and, yes, Petite Sirah can also make some great bottles. But, as Ginny described, putting the two together is like adding a little chocolate to peanut butter. Great by themselves but absolutely scrumptious together.

No one can discount that Joseph Wagner developed a recipe for Pinot noir that, literally, hit the sweet spot of American palates with blending in the white wine grapes of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay to add sweetness and make the wine more soft. Yet with that 25% “other grape buffer”, he (and now Constellation Brands) could still market Meiomi as a Pinot noir. While there are many incredible 100% Pinot noirs out there, its clear that the blended grapes have been vital to Meiomi’s smashing success and growth yet I don’t know if anyone can credibly argue that Meiomi would have been anywhere near as successful if it was marketed as a Red(ish) blend.

By Steph Laing CC BY 2.0

Only a true confectionery snob would say that the flour alone taste better than this blended creation.

Likewise, the Lohr family has built a very successful brand for Cabernet Sauvignon with their Seven Oaks label yet every single year they are just hitting that 75-76% minimum of Cab and rounding it out with other grapes. You have to give major props to the Lohrs for being transparent with their blends and tech data which is something that not many wineries do. You can tell that they’re proud of the wines they are making but you better believe that they are still making the business decision that they are going to sell more wine labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon than they would if it was labeled as a red blend.

That is my personal gripe about this loophole. I’m very pro-blend but disheartened that the reality of the wine business is that wineries are basically rewarded for hiding the fact that what they are truly making are blends dominated by a particular variety.

Now, of course, we should note that individual states can add their own conditions to tighten some of these laws. For instance, in Oregon a wine labeled as Pinot noir needs to be at least 90% of that grape. Though, curiously, 18 other grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) are “exempt” from these stricter wine laws so, hey, a loophole to a loophole!

Napa with a Twang

Another of the TTB’s bare minimums relate to the use of wine regions or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on the bottle:

To have an AVA listed, only 85% of the grapes needed to be sourced from that region— Napa grapes are expensive with the average price of a ton being over $4300 in 2015. To put that in perspective, 1 ton equals about 2 barrels or 50 cases of wine. This is just the base grape costs and speaks nothing to the cost of labor, winemaking equipment, barrels (new French oak barrels can cost over $3000 each), packaging and marketing. This is one of the reasons why it is hard to find Cabernet from Napa under $20. Unless……

You turn some corners. With your grape truck. On the roads between Napa and neighboring counties.

When you go next door to Sonoma County, the cost for grapes is closer to $2400 a ton with Lake County clocking in at around $1600 a ton. And in the southern Central Valley around Fresno, you can get a ton of grapes for around $300. So clearly there is some financial incentive in offsetting the cost of production for your bottle of “Napa Valley wine” with that 15% loophole of grapes grown elsewhere.

But is it really still “Napa” or, at least, what a consumer would expect from a Napa Valley wine? That’s an interesting question but this loophole goes far deeper when you realize that that 15% could include grapes from places like Texas and Georgia. I’m not kidding y’all.

Big Tex portion of pic from By Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)Email the author: David R. TribbleAlso see my personal gallery at Google Picasa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

To be fair, I think Napa stole the idea of erecting big signs from Texas first.

The TTB is currently holding a comment period over a particular loophole that allows a winery to buy fruit from outside their state, truck it into their state and maybe even blend it with local fruit, but still label it under the AVA where the 85%+ of the fruit came from as long as they only sell it within their home state. So, yes, a winery in Texas can buy Napa Valley fruit and potentially blend in 15% of Texas fruit and still sell it as a Napa Valley wine to the wine shops and restaurants of Texas.

The comment period for discussion over this particular loophole will run till December 7th, 2016. For those who like to indulge in some not-so-light reading, you can take a look at the diverse perspectives of people who are both for closing the loophole and against it.

I’m going to bet on the law being changed and this loophole closed, if only because of the big money involved with the Napa brand itself. But, as we’ve learned, there are still plenty of other loopholes to trip over. Maybe its best for all of us to sit back and chase down the blue pills while enjoying our $20 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.

Can Wine in a Can really take off?

I’ll be honest. I’m a skeptic about canned wine. I look at the craft beer industry where you have numerous benefits of using cans over bottles yet because of negative associations with cheap canned beers, craft brewers have been trudging through decades of getting consumers to (slowly) start seeing the light.

Why would wineries want to dip their toes in that fight? Especially when the wine industry still hasn’t gotten our $hit fully together about screw caps and boxed wines. Yes, wine consumers of the world are slowly coming around to those things as well but is it really the best marketing idea to open up another battlefield theater against consumers’ perceptions with wine in a can?

Apparently it is. According to Nielsen data reported this summer sales of canned wine jumped last year from $6.4 million to $14.5 million with sales in 2016 expected to be even higher. I guess maybe I should start looking for some good canned wine to pair with my crow?

The gold color straw made me feel fancier

The gold color straw made me feel fancier


I know one brand of can wines that I would consider for that pairing would be River Road Vineyards’ We Are California Chardonnay and red blend. Despite my skepticism, I will have to say that the Chardonnay was really, really tasty and quite fitting for sitting out in the vineyard on a warm August evening. I appreciated how cold, crisp and refreshing the can kept the white wine and, yes, my tasting note for this can included the word “delicious” more than a couple times. I could easily picture myself lounging in a floating pool chair, sipping this Chard or sneaking a can of this wine into a church picnic as I may have done a few times with cans of Coppola’s Sophia sparkling wine back in my younger days.

I assume that crow would taste better barbecued so I would probably pair that with the We Are Sonoma red blend. But this is where I’ll also admit that my skepticism is more than just objective wine marketing ponderings. It’s also personal because, to me, the red does taste different in the can as opposed to pouring it in the glass. In the glass, I find this wine very fruity with black cherry and a little floral pepper spice (like fresh pink peppercorns). I don’t know what the exact blend of this wine is but it reminds of Pinot noir and Zinfandel. Sipping it straight from the can, I lose the floral and pepper spice though I can still enjoy the smoothness and dark fruit.

But I want the whole package. I want the aromatics to go with the flavor and mouthfeel. For me, the marketing appeal of canned wines with their grab and go, toss in the backpack style is lost. I still need to find room in that backpack for glassware–just like I would for a bottle of wine or a box wine. So what’s the point?

Yes, there have been times that we've all been the guy up the top. But usually that is only during emergencies or Thanksgiving.

Yes, there have been times that we’ve all been the guy up the top. But usually that is only during emergencies or Thanksgiving.


It’s not snobbishness, it’s about pleasure. The science is well known about how intimately connected our sense of smell and taste is. It is also well known how the exposure of oxygen (decanting or letting the wine “breath”) can positively impact the wine. You don’t need a fancy decanter or aerator for simple everyday drinking wine but even the small amount of agitation and aeration from pouring a wine into glass helps the wine open up a little more. Sipping a wine straight from a can doesn’t give me that.

So, yes, I’m a still skeptic but I’m a reasonably open minded skeptic. I will try a canned wine from a high quality producer like River Road and, as I found with their We Are California cans, will admit when I’m pleasantly surprised at how delicious they are.

Though I still don’t think that wineries have figured out how to market to folks like me. What is the real benefit for me to make wine in a can a regular purchase? Sure, there are certainly occasions (like camping, float trips, etc) where a canned wine is assuredly more convenient than lugging around a bottle or box wine.

But, for those occasions, why don’t I just buy beer?

The Magic Beans of Wine

One of my favorite links that I check almost daily is the news article aggregate of Wine Business Monthly. It’s a nice one page purview of what’s going on in the wine world. On one visit to the site, my eyes fell upon the click-bait title 10 Words To Look Out For On Affordable Wine Bottles. I clicked on the article and clicked and clicked and clicked some more (The Drink Business loves the slideshow format) and now my head hurts.

Sometimes it is a journey to find a good bottle of wine

Sometimes it is a journey to find a good bottle of wine

To save you the clicking, here are the 10 magical words (or, more accurately, phrases) that Business Insider and Jörn Kleinhans, owner of the The Sommelier Company, promise are almost silver bullets to help you bag high quality wine at affordable prices.

1.) ‘Classico’ on a Chianti
2.) ‘Riserva’ on Italian wines like Barolo or Chianti
3.) ‘Gran Reserva’ on a Rioja
4.) ‘Old Vine’ on a Spanish Grenache or California Zinfandel
5.) ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on a Bordeaux
6.) ‘Meritage’ on a California Cabernet Sauvignon
7.) ‘Trocken’ on a Riesling
8.) ‘Premier Cru’ on Burgundy
9.) ‘Cru’ on a Beaujolais
10.) ‘Grand Vin’ on a Bordeaux (Bordeaux Geeks who really want a belly laugh should just jump to this slide right now)

The issue is not that these are “silly words” or that there are not any benefits in learning what certain key phrases mean on wine labels. Quite the opposite. These are actually extremely helpful words and phrases that would be in Chapter One of any wine book titled How to Know Just Enough to Be Dangerous. However, it is beyond ludicrous to present these words as the secret code crackers that help you “navigate your way to an exceptional bottle of wine.”

I understand how alluring the thought is of magical words that only the wily and the wise know which, when whispered to you, opens up the gate to all the gems hidden in plain sight on wine shelves and wine lists. But there are no “magical words” in the world of wine and peddling a list like this as click bait to readers is like selling magic beans to Jack.

“Well, Jack, and where are you off to?” said the man.

“I’m going to market to sell our cow there.”

“Oh, you look the proper sort of chap to sell cows,” said the man. “I wonder if you know how many beans make five.”

“Two in each hand and one in your mouth,” says Jack, as sharp as a needle.

“Right you are,” says the man, “and here they are, the very beans themselves,” he went on, pulling out of his pocket a number of strange-looking beans. “As you are so sharp,” says he, “I don’t mind doing a swap with you — your cow for these beans.”

“Go along,” says Jack. “Wouldn’t you like it?”

“Ah! You don’t know what these beans are,” said the man. “If you plant them overnight, by morning they grow right up to the sky.”

“Really?” said Jack. “You don’t say so.”

“Yes, that is so. And if it doesn’t turn out to be true you can have your cow back.”

Now those who remember their childhood tales will know that those beans were, indeed, magical and the old man wasn’t necessarily lying. Planting the beans did produce a stalk that grew straight up to the sky. He just forgot to tell Jack about a few giant details that ended up causing, you could say, a few problems for the lad.

The same is true with this list. Jörn Kleinhans, the wine expert behind the list, isn’t necessarily lying in that knowing these phrases will be helpful in selecting good bottles of wine but he’s overselling it in his simplicity (i.e. “Wine that is only labeled Chianti is usually not very good. If you see ‘Chianti Classico,’ that is always a good wine.”) and leaving out some giant details that could end up leading you to A LOT of not-so-enjoyable bottles of wine.

Moral of the Story (TL;DR version)
Don’t be fooled by the promise and simplicity of magic beans. There’s ALWAYS more to the story. If you’re happy with that, you can stop reading now and start surfing Netflix for Jim Henson’s adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story. But if you want to plant these magic beans, we can take a deeper look at this list and mine out the key details that will give you a better chance of finding the right wine for you the next time you’re at a wine shop or looking at a restaurant’s wine list.

1.)‘Classico’ on a Chianti
The assumption: “Wine that is only labeled Chianti is usually not very good. If you see ‘Chianti Classico,’ that is always a good wine.”

Err….no: Chianti Classico is just a region like Napa Valley and just as there are “good” Napa Valley wines, there are also “bad” Napa Valley wines. The same is true with Chianti Classico. Looking for a region alone on the label is never a winning strategy. Now, yes, there are some slightly more restrictive laws regarding yields, aging and blending (such as the fact that white wine grapes are no longer permitted in Chianti Classico). And, yes, you can make a fair argument that the “terroir” of the “Classico” zone of Chianti is better than the larger Chianti area–just like you could make a fair argument that the terroir of the Rutherford AVA is better than the larger Napa Valley AVA.

BUT… good producers make good wines in a variety of terroirs and many of those more restrictive laws of Chianti Classico, such as lower yields and not using white grapes in the blend, are followed by quality minded producers in the greater Chianti area anyways. In fact, from many producers you’ll see offerings of both a Chianti and a Chianti Classico. The difference will often not be in the quality of the grapes and winemaking but rather in the use of oak and aging with the Chianti bottling often being more fresh and fruit driven, meant to be consumed younger and usually with food. That’s not a bad thing if that is what you want.

What you should do instead: Ask about the producer. Again, good producers make good wine and they rest their reputation on every bottle that is labeled with their name–whether it be on a Chianti or a Chianti Classico. If you are just looking for a fresh and easy drinking Chianti to go with a dinner, you don’t necessarily need to spring a couple extra dollars more for the Classico if a good producer’s Chianti is available.

2.) ‘Riserva’ on Italian wines like Barolo or Chianti
The assumption: “This term indicates the winery has full confidence this wine has high potential and shows their best quality. Since the term is regulated in Italy, a riserva is always better than a non-riserva and is an important word to look for in Italian wines.”

Err….no: I’m going to do a shout out here for one of my favorite wine books, Peter Saunder’s Wine Label Language. Published in 2004, it does need to be updated in a few places but for the most part it does an awesome job of telling you exactly what the regulations are for different wines. In the picture below we see what distinguishes a Barolo Riserva from a regular Barolo.
img_9454
The difference is age before release. Yes, you can follow the logic that a winery will save their best plots and best barrels for the wines that they proudly will label as a “Riserva”. But that certainly doesn’t mean that if you are standing in front of two bottles, say a 2011 Barolo and a 2010 Barolo Riserva, that the 2010 Riserva will be the better bottle, right now. In fact, often its not. Often the reason why Riservas get more age is because they need it and may need even more aging beyond the release.

What you should do instead: Ask which wine is drinking better now. When making a wine purchasing decision, your focus should never be on getting the categorically “best bottle” (by whatever vague or subjective standard) but rather on getting the best bottle for you at that moment. That 2011 Barolo which was from a very good year may be at a point in its life where it will give you more pleasure drinking it now than the 2010 Riserva even though 2010 was an outstanding year. And remember, producer matters too. A good producer’s non-Riserva can easily beat a sub-par producer’s Riserva even in classic vintages.

3.) ‘Gran Reserva’ on a Rioja
The assumption: “… you’re always looking for, without exception, the Gran Reserva,” says Kleinhans. “It means this wine has a strong oak flavour, the hallmark flavour of Rioja. It also guarantees this wine has been aged in oak for two years or more, and an additional three years in the bottle.”

Err….no: OMG NO! I’ll save for another blog post about the changing style of Rioja but most wine folks nowadays would say that the Reserva level (minimum 1 year in oak, 2 year in bottle before release) is more indicative of a winery’s “style” and consumers are flocking towards the fresher and more fruit forward styles of a lot of Crianzas (minimum 1 year in oak, 1 year in bottle) and Jovens (only a few months, if any, in oak).

What you should do instead: Pick the style that you enjoy. If you like oak, more dried fruit, spice and earthier flavors, then by all means, grab a Gran Reserva Rioja. There are definitely some great examples out there. But if that is not the style you like, then someone telling you that “without exception” you’re not getting the right bottle if it is not a Gran Reserva is dead wrong. The wines of Rioja are not monochromatic and I dearly pray that anyone who has so been lead astray with such horrible advice will give Rioja another chance and seek out some of the exceptionally well made Crianzas and Reservas out there.

4.) ‘Old Vine’ on a Spanish Grenache or California Zinfandel
The assumption: “The older a vine is, the smaller the grapes are and the more concentrated and jammy the flavour will be.”

Err….no: Well….kinda. Older vines have better means of naturally regulating the yield (smaller yield, not necessarily smaller grapes) and there is some relationship between yield and wine quality–though it isn’t so cut and dry.

One of my personal favorite Old Vine Zins is St. Amant Marian's Vineyard from Lodi. Assistant Winemaker Joel Ohmart (pictured with me) says that these vines, planted in 1901, still produce around 3.5 tons/acre of outstandingly spicy fruit.

One of my personal favorite Old Vine Zins is St. Amant Marian’s Vineyard from Lodi. Assistant Winemaker Joel Ohmart (pictured with me) says that these vines, planted in 1901, still produce around 3.5 tons/acre of outstandingly spicy fruit.

The problem is that the term “Old Vine” isn’t regulated anywhere. It could be applied to a 20 year old vines just as easily as 100+ year old vines. It could also be used to refer to a wine that may have been 60% sourced from 40+ year old vines with the rest supplied by 10-20 year old vines. It’s truly up to the producer (or marketing department) to decide what the term means.

What you should do instead: Ask about the producer. Find out the story about the wine and look for a vineyard name. Truly “Old Vine” wines will have a story behind them and a vineyard whose name the producers are usually quite proud to put on the label. Plus, in the US, vineyard designated wines DO have regulations that they need to follow in order to use the vineyard’s name on the bottle which includes having 95% of the wine sourced from just that vineyard.

5.) ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on a Bordeaux
The assumption: “Those are the chateaus not allowed into the Grand Cru classification 150 years ago. Several outstanding chateaus were left aside, and nowadays these wines not labeled Grand Cru, but Cru Bourgeois, you can get at a great value. It’s the level right under the Grand Cru level people are paying thousands for.”

Err….no: Simply put, the Cru Bourgeois system is a mess. This will certainly be a fodder for another blog post in the future but the key thing that you should know right now is that the term “Cru Bourgeois” has been so diluted and devalued that many of the best estates in Bordeaux that could use the term, such as Chateau Lanessan, Ch. Chasse-Spleen and Ch. Sociando-Mallet, etc. have declined to do so.

What you should do instead: Ask about the producer. Are you noticing a theme? While there are certainly lots of outstanding values in Bordeaux beyond the fabled 1855 Classification, there is no magic silver bullet term that is going to make those values jump out at you. You can either figure it out by trial and error (which following this Cru Bourgeois magic bean would lead to a lot of the latter) or you can ask people who have already done the trial and error themselves.

6.) ‘Meritage’ on a California Cabernet Sauvignon
The assumption:“Relatively simple, but Meritage is a marriage of words between “merit” and “heritage,” and you’ll only ever find it on Bordeaux-style wines from California.”

You can even get a Meritage made in Canada, such as this one from Burrowing Owl in the Okanagan region of British Columbia

You can even get a Meritage made in Canada, such as this one from Burrowing Owl in the Okanagan region of British Columbia

Err….no: So. Much. Wrong. First I would encourage you to check out the Meritage Alliance page where you’ll find out that, No, California is not the only place that you’ll find “Meritage” wines from. Oh yes, there are Meritages being produced across the United States in places like Washington State, Virginia, Missouri and even Rhode Island. Also, a Meritage doesn’t even need to have any Cabernet Sauvignon in it. You can make a “Right Bank Bordeaux-style” Meritage of Merlot and Cabernet Franc or you could make a Carménère-Malbec blend (which sounds really cool) and call it a Meritage.

However, the main reason why this magic bean is bad advice is that the term Meritage is appearing less and less often on wine labels. That’s not because wineries are not making Bordeaux-style wines anymore but rather because fewer wineries are seeing the need to pay a group like the Meritage Alliance membership dues and trademark fees to use the term ‘Meritage’ when they can just come up with a proprietary name and sell it as a red blend.

What you should do instead: Walk into the Red Blend aisle or flip to that page in the wine list and, you guessed it, ask about the producer.

7.) ‘Trocken’ on a Riesling
The assumption: “In the US we often enjoy drier wines, and the Germans have a word for it: trocken,” Kleinhans says.

Err….no: Actually, the common knowledge in the wine industry is that Americans “talk dry but drink sweet” (another future blog post topic). This is why wines like Apothic Red and Menage a Trois are so popular. Even with with noticeable sweetness, they are marketed as just “red wines” which most people assume are always “dry”. It’s also how Meiomi Pinot noir, with Riesling and Gewurztraminer blended in, became a $315 million dollar success. It was a subtly “sweet-ish” Pinot noir that Americans could happily guzzle down without even knowing that there was any residual sugar in the wine.

What you should do instead: Enjoy what you like! (Another reoccurring theme here) If you like sweet wines, wonderful! If you like Apothic, Menage a Trois and Meiomi, that’s fantastic. If you don’t, that’s fine too. There’s plenty out there for everyone. You don’t have to seek out a dry, trocken Riesling just because someone is telling you that is the better wine. Besides, one of the reasons why Riesling is the darling of sommeliers is that the interplay of the wine’s natural sweetness with its lively acidity is magical with food pairing. So knock yourself out.

8.) ‘Premier Cru’ on Burgundy
The assumption: ““With some luck you will find one under $25 and know with confidence you have a single vineyard, highly classified Burgundy rather than a lesser level,” Kleinhans says.”

Err….no: This magic bean isn’t horrible advice. But, again, it’s incomplete. For one, you can have a blend of multiple Premier Cru (or 1er cru) vineyards and still have it labeled as Premier Cru. Second, it is actually getting harder and harder to find good Premier Cru Burgundies under $25.

What you should do instead: The better bet for value is to look more for “Village-level” bottles from areas like Mercurey or even regional Bourgogne levels from outstanding producers. As the mantra goes, good producers make good wine. This will always be your safest bet.

9.) ‘Cru’ on a Beaujolais
The assumption:“These other so-called Cru Beaujolais, you know under $25 that you found a Beaujolais that is as serious and as good as many of the great red Burgundies.”

Err….no: I love Cru Beaujolais but I would never compare these to the “great red Burgundies”. That’s not the point of them as they are made from two different grapes. The Gamay grape used in Beaujolais lends itself better to fresh, floral and slightly spicy wine styles that can pair with a variety of food dishes. The Pinot noir of the “great red Burgundies” tend to show its best with more spice and earthy complexity that pair with heartier dishes.

What you should do instead: So, yes, discover Cru Beaujolais. They are so much better than Beaujolais Nouveau which is, sadly, the extent of most people’s experience with Beaujolais. But don’t try to paint them as something that they’re are not. It’s like appreciating the skill and talents of George Clooney without trying to paint him as Laurence Olivier. They both have their charms but they’re different.

10.) ‘Grand Vin’ on a Bordeaux
The assumption: “The best berries of every vintage are selected into this wine — it’s not one of the leftover sell-offs. This is important because in many years in France, the lesser berries are very disappointing. Sometimes the Grand Vin is very expensive, but you can get many under $25.”

Some estates, like the First Growth Chateau Margaux, even make a "Third Wine" which in exceptional vintages like 2010 can be outstanding values. I was very excited to see this wine on the list of Goodman's Steakhouse in London.

Some estates, like the First Growth Chateau Margaux, even make a “Third Wine” which in exceptional vintages like 2010 can be outstanding values. I was very excited to see this wine on the list of Goodman’s Steakhouse in London.

Err….no: Why in the world would they use a bottle of Chateau Latour (average retail price $792 a bottle) to illustrate this point, I have no clue. This slide kind of seems like it wants to be a continuation of the Cru Bourgeois tidbit from #5 but is even less useful. Yes, the Grand Vin is a producer’s “top wine” but that tells you nothing about the quality of the producer themselves.

What you should do instead: Ironically, the “leftover sell offs” that Kleinhans poo poos is often a great value. Rather than “sell off” the grapes, many high quality producers will make a Second Wine from lots that have been declassified. Different producers have different guidelines but the basic idea behind a producer doing this is that they only want to make a limited quantity of the Grand Vin, of which they want to be extremely selective in making sure that only the cream of the crop is used. This doesn’t meant that the declassified lots are “very disappointing”, they’re just not the very best. These second wines are still being sourced from many of the same vineyards and terroir of the Grand Vin and handled with the same amount of exceptional care and skill.

It’s like the difference between getting a ‘A+’ on the report card in school versus a ‘B+’. They’re both very good grades, just one’s better. While mom and dad may have given out $5 for each “A” on the report card and $3 for each “B” so too do we see a difference in the pricing between the top tier Grand Vin and the top value Second Wine. For example, the 2010 Chateau Margaux (incredible wine, incredible vintage) earned numerous 100 point accolades and averages for over a $1000 a bottle. The second wine, the 2010 Pavillon Rouge, also earned lovely accolades such as 96 points from James Suckling and a pair of 94 points from Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. That wine retails for an average around $195 a bottle. But, again, this is where knowing the producer is key if you want to get the best value. In many cases the second wine of an outstanding producer, for less price, is better than the Grand Vin of a sub-par one.

Moral of the Story (Part II)
There are no “silver bullets” or “magical words” that will pick out for you the best bottle for the money each and every time, only magic beans that give you part of the story. If you really want to increase your odds of getting the right bottle for you, the best thing you can do is simply ask about the wine–get more of the story. Whether it is a restaurant sommelier or a store retail clerk, ask them what they think about the wine and how it matches up with the kind of wines that you personally enjoy.