Category Archives: Wine Tasting

Event Review — The New Vintage at Taste Washington

After many years of only attending the Grand Tasting of Taste Washington, I decided to participate in some of the other events going on during Taste Washington weekend–the seminars and The New Vintage party.

While the Washington vs The World seminar was awesome, the New Vintage party was….less than stellar.

Is it a party, a tasting or a cattle call?

On the Taste Washington website, they describe The New Vintage at Fisher Pavillon ($80 a ticket) as an event to “See and be seen at this stylish soirée. Sample exquisite Washington wine and even discover new favorites as you chat with celebrity chefs and chow down on gourmet bites. Grab your closest friends and dance the night away, but don’t forget to pay a visit to the popular Rosé Lounge for a tasty glass of pink before the evening ends.”

In reality, it was an event to bump and be bumped into by other people as you try to make your way through the sea of humanity to a table to get a sample of wine or food. In many ways, it felt like a more scaled down version of the Taste Washington Grand Tasting. But instead of having the spacious CenturyLink event center, you had this large crowd of folks squeezed into a smaller event space at Fisher Pavilion.

Most of the strategies I talked about for dealing with the crowds at the Grand Tasting didn’t apply to The New Vintage because of how difficult it was to move around. Even if there was an empty table somewhere (which, with about a 1/5th of the wineries and restaurants compared to the Grand Tasting, wasn’t likely) you still had to literally fight, slip, slide, sneak, ope, excuse me, pardon, sorry your way to that table.

To give you a feel of the environment, this was a 30 second video I took about an hour into the event trying to move past the music stage and get to the Rosé Lounge. Note that my short 5’3 self is juggling my phone, wine glass and event brochure while trying to film this.

Good luck trying to “chat” with celebrity chefs as they were busy working their tails off to keep a steady stream of food going for the crowds. Ditto with winemakers but that is usually par for the course with these types of tastings as people always want to monopolize winemakers’ time.

Truthfully, the only people that were easy to talk to were the lonely guys at Voya Financial who were somewhat conveniently located by the stage. Before the music started, that was the only table in the event that didn’t have a mass of people in front of it.

This picture was taken just after the video where I had a clearing to raise my arms up and capture a better crowd shot.
The Rosé Lounge I was working towards is ahead in the corner.


And dancing? Ha! Maybe we could’ve gotten some mosh-pit action going on at best–though really the music provided by the synth pop duo Man Made Time wasn’t of the “moshing” vibe. Plus, where were you going to put your wine glasses while dancing?

The Positives

Just like at the Grand Tasting, there was good wine and good food to be discovered at The New Vintage. Below I list some of my favorite wines but among the food, I was blown away by the pork rillettes made by Brooke Williamson of the Hudson House on Redondo Beach. Compared to the Grand Tasting of Taste Washington which focuses on local restaurants, I appreciated that The New Vintage gave us a chance to try something new from this LA area chef.

The music was actually great. I never heard of Man Made Time before but their singer, Hillary Grace, has a gorgeous voice.

I also loved the concept of a “Rosé Lounge” (though, in reality, it was actually more of just a Rosé Table with only sparse seating nearby). I fought my way through the crowds several times to use that table as a palate cleanser and ended up finding several of my favorite wines of the evening. With Taste Washington weekend usually happening close to the beginning of Spring, having a prominent Rosé featuring event is a great idea and one that I would love to see expanded.

My Top 5 Wines from the Event

Even with the frustration and cattle call atmosphere, I still had a chance to discover some great wines. Here were are my 5 favorites.

Fantastic bubbles! And unlike the guy who was working the Domaine Ste Michelle booth, yelling for people to try his “champagne”, the folks at Karma where very professional and knowledgeable about their product.


1.) 2013 Karma Brut sparkling wine — Everytime I taste Karma’s bubbles, I become more and more impressed. They have long passed Argyle as the Northwest’s best sparkling wine producer and are giving Schramsberg in California a run for their money as the best in the United States. A blend of 49% Chardonnay, 48% Pinot noir and 3% Pinot Meunier, this vintage sparker spent 48 months aging on its lees, creating beautiful depth of toasted spice pear with a creamy, silky mousse. Truly a gem out in Lake Chelan.

2.) 2017 WIT Cellars Rosé — A blend of Tempranillo and Sangiovese that I believe was made in a saignée style. Lots of red wine character with strawberry and raspberry but bone dry with a long minerally finish. Impeccably made and well worth hunting for.

3.) 2017 Amelia Wynn Albarino — Beautiful high intensity aromatics of citrus and tropical fruit that I could smell as soon as it was poured into the glass. Very full-bodied for a white but with ample acidity and crispness. They also featured a Tempranillo rosé at the Rosé Lounge that was going toe to toe with WIT Cellars for the rosé of the night.

I also dug the schwag stickers from AniChe.


4.) 2017 AniChe Cellars Bombadil — a white Rhone blend of Grenache blanc, Picpoul and Viognier sourced from the Boushey vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Anyone who read my review of Gramercy’s Picpoul could probably guess how excited I was to hear about this blend–and sure enough it delivered. A lot more weighty than a varietal Picpoul with the dominant Grenache blanc and Viognier, this wine had a silky mouthfeel of apples and lemon custard. Great summertime white to pair with heartier cuisine.

5.) 2014 Gard Vaucluse — A very savory Rhone blend of 68% Syrah, 29% Grenache and 3% Viognier that had a mix of juicy blue fruit, floral and spice notes. This table was on the opposite corner of the Rosé Lounge and after tasting this huge wine I wanted to give my palate a break with some rosé. It took me over 10 minutes to navigate through the crowds to get to the other side of the room and I was still tasting this wine.

A white Cab Franc!


Honorable mention for the most geeky wine I tried at the event–2015 Ellensburg Canyon Winery White Cabernet Franc — Yes! A white Cab Franc! Sourced from Cox Canyon Vineyards, the grapes were whole cluster pressed right after harvest to produce this white wine. While it didn’t have all the evocative aromatics of red Washington Cabernet Francs that I adore so much, it was still a tasty white wine that I applaud Ellensburg Canyon Winery for trying their hand with. It reminded me of a more weighty and textured Italian Pinot grigio.

Another honorable mention to Ducleaux Cellars who featured several wines that impressed me–their One Night Stand rosé, Jordyn white Rhone blend and Anarchy red. The only reason they didn’t make my top 5 is because I honestly couldn’t figure out which of the three that I liked the best. Ducleaux, AniChe, WIT Cellars and Amelia Wynn were first time tastes for me and all four are wineries that I’m eagerly looking forward to discovering more about.

One of the empty winery tables that had already packed up and left by 9:17pm — with more than 40 minutes left in the event. But also look at all that space in the center. A better layout would have minimized the “moshing” and cattle call feel of the event.

Ways to Improve The New Vintage for Next Year

The first thing the event organizers need to do is nail down exactly what they want this event to be and then tailor the event space to serve that purpose. If they want it to be a party vibe with dancing and socializing then they need to move the tasting tables to the perimeter and leave a large clearing in the center for people to dance, mingle and socialize.

The organizers also need to make the hard decision of either A.) selling less tickets or B.) renting a bigger space.

Personally, I vote for selling less tickets as one of the other frustrating narratives of the night was how many food and winery tables closed up early because they ran out of stuff. It was a sad irony that by the time the crowds started to wane (around 9:20pm), and you could actually maneuver around more and hit the tables you missed, was when most of those tables were done for the night. One table I regret missing was the St. Germain/Trevari sparkling cocktail table. Located right near the entrance it was always swamped by people and I was hoping to have that cocktail be my nightcap before switching to water.

Pretty emblematic of the whole event. This photo of one of the restaurant tables was taken at 9:09 pm with almost an hour left to go.

As I mentioned above, it would also be nice if the organizers developed and expand the Rosé Lounge concept. It would be awesome to see it made into a true lounge setting that was roped off or somehow separate from the rest of the tasting with more seating and its own food pairing tables. This would offer a fantastic opportunity to truly explore the diversity of Washington State rosé–especially if they had separate tables within the lounge dedicated to different styles of rosés like the ones that Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan highlights in her book Rosé Wine–Blush, Crisp, Fruity and Rich.

I’ll keep an open mind for next year’s Taste Washington weekend and see if I hear about any changes to the format or venue for The New Vintage. But at this point I would say the event is certainly not worth the $80 to attend. Instead I would rather spend the extra $15 to get a general admission pass to one of the Taste Washington Grand Tasting days where you’ll have 5x as many food and wine options and a heck of a lot more room to enjoy the event.

Yes, there will always be crowds at the Grand Tasting but at least that event never felt like a cattle call.

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Flashback — Taste Washington 2017

The 2018 Taste Washington Event is nearing so I thought I would do a throwback post to some of the gems from last year’s Grand Tasting. I’ll also share my thoughts on if the cost of the tickets are worth it and tips on how to get the most out of your experience.

The Background

Taste Washington is the largest event in the state highlighting the food and wine of Washington. Now in its 21st year, the event will feature over 225 wineries and 65 restaurants as well as seminars and culinary exhibitions. It looks like VIP tickets are sold out at this point so the 2 Day Pass for General Admission (2-5:30pm) to the Taste Washington Grand Tasting is $145 while individual days are $95 a piece.

In addition to the Grand Tasting that will be Saturday & Sunday, March 24-25 from 1pm(VIP)/2pm-5:30pm at Century Link Field, Taste Washington will also feature:

Red & White Party at AQUA by El Gaucho–Thursday, March 22nd 7-10pm ($175)

Dinner and tasting featuring 91+ rated wines from àMaurice Cellars, Lauren Ashton Cellars, Fidélitas Wines, Leonetti Cellar, Guardian Cellars, Obelisco Estate Winery, L’Ecole No 41, Quilceda Creek, Passing Time Winery, Doubleback, Woodward Canyon Winery and more.

Taste Washington on the Farm–Friday, March 23rd 10am-3pm ($85-185)

Three different farm to table experiences with lunch and farm tours that people can choose from places like Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, Heyday Farm on Bainbridge Island and Finnriver Farm & Cidery in Chimacum, WA with featured wineries such as Matthews, Rolling Bay and Doubleback.


The New Vintage at Fisher Pavillon–Friday, March 23rd 7-10pm ($80)

Small bites by celebrity chefs, a Rosé Lounge, live music and dancing featuring the wines of Alexandria Nicole Cellars, Boudreaux Cellars, Browne Family Vineyards, DeLille Cellars, Hedges Family Estate, Mullan Road Cellars, Sinclair Estate Vineyards, TruthTeller Winery and more.

Taste and Savor Tour of Pike Place Market –Saturday, March 24th 9am ($80)

An early morning food tour through the historic Pike Place Market operated in conjunction with Savor Seattle.

Wine Seminars at Four Seasons Hotel Seattle Saturday & Sunday, March 24-25 10:30 to 12pm ($45-85)

Six seminars featuring writers, winemakers, growers, educators as well as Master Sommeliers (Chris Tanghe, Rebecca Fineman, Jackson Rohrbaugh, Greg Harrington) and Masters of Wine (Bob Betz, Mary Ewing-Mulligan) covering a variety of topics from blind tasting, single vineyard Syrahs, Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, Washington vs the World and more.

Each seminar features a tasting of 6 to 12 wines from producers like Savage Grace, Andrew Will, Gorman‘s Ashan Cellars, Avennia and Two Vintners as well as non-Washington comparative tastings from Mollydooker, Lynch-Bages, Joseph Phelps’ Insignia, Duckhorn and Glaetzer Wines’ Amon-Ra.

Sunday Brunch at Quality Athletics — Sunday, March 25th 10am-12:30pm ($75)

Music and two celebrities chefs host a brunch featuring bloody mary’s and brunch cocktails.


My Top 5 Wines from the 2017 Grand Tasting

Even with some hard core dedication, and using the extra hour VIP ticket, I was able to hit, at most, around 60 of the 600+ wines available for tasting. This is why trying to minimize the stress of the crowds and maximize the experience (see my tips below) is so important. You’re paying a decent chunk of change to attend the Grand Tasting and you want to leave the event with some great memories and new wine discoveries.

Still, out of those 60 or so wines, I tasted a lot of great juice. Here are five wines from last year’s tasting that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Aquilini 2014 Red Mountain blend — Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend made by Napa Valley rockstar Philippe Melka. I most certainly did not spit this one out. It was the run away Wine of the Event for me and got me to sign up for their mailing list. Tremendous structure, velvety fruit, fresh acidity and long finish. I would put this toe to toe with virtually any $100+ Napa wine. Unfortunately they don’t look to be pouring at this year’s event.

Cairdeas Winery 2014 Caislén an Pápa–a Chateauneuf du Pape style blend from Meek Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Beautiful balance of rich fruit and savory, spicy complexity. They will be pouring the 2015 vintage of this wine at this year’s event.


Andrew Will 2014 Malbec — a known winery but you hardly ever see a varietal Malbec from them and this was scrumptious! Reminded me of a spicy Cabernet Franc. It doesn’t look like they will be pouring a Malbec this year though.

Cloudlift Cellars 2015 Lucy rosé of Cabernet Franc — In my tip section below I talk about making a point to periodically refresh your palate with bubbles, dry Rieslings and rosés. There are so many delicious reds that will wear you down and start tasting the same if you don’t give your palate a frequent jolt of crispness and acidity. It was this strategy that led me to discovering this beautiful rosé. Gorgeous nose and lively fruit. Best rosé at the event. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look they will be pouring a rosé this year. Update: In the comments below, Tom Stangeland of Cloudlift Cellars note that he will be pouring the new vintage of Lucy.

W.T. Vintners 2013 Les Collines Syrah — Seeing that Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of W.T. Vintners was going to be on the panel of the Washington vs the World Sunday Seminar, with his Boushey Vineyard Rhone blend being poured, pretty much sold me on attending that event. This Les Collines Syrah was spectacular and demonstrated everything that is knee-bendingly delicious about Washington Syrah–beautiful balance of rich yet mouthwatering fruit, high intensity and inviting aromatics with a long memorable finish. Looks like they will be pouring the 2014 vintage of this wine.

Is it Worth it?

General Admission, yes. VIP upcharge, no.

While I can’t speak for the seminars and other events, I’ve gone to the Grand Tasting six times and each time I had a blast attending. If it wasn’t for some scheduling conflicts, I would be attending the Grand Tasting again this year but, instead, I’m going to attend one of the seminars and the New Vintage party to see how those are.

The extensive list of wineries and restaurants that you can experience in one setting is a wine geek and foodie’s dream. But that said, it can be very frustrating with how crowded it quickly gets. I’ve sprung for the VIP (which was $210 for the 2-day pass/$165 per day) and even that first hour got aggravatingly crowded about 20 minutes in. The VIP is really not worth the extra $70–especially when you can get the two day General Admission pass ($145) for less than a single day VIP admission ($165).

Even the $95 for a single day General Admission which gives you 3 and half hours of the Grand Tasting is still a good deal with everything that you have a chance to taste and experience–especially if you follow some of my tips below.

Grand Tasting Tips

1.) Uber/Lyft or find a hotel close by. Believe me, even if you are extremely diligent about spitting (which is hard with the people crowding the tables and blocking the spit buckets) you will much prefer having someone else do the driving or walking back to your hotel after the tasting. For the spitters, bringing along a red solo cup is also not a bad idea.

2.) No wine is worth waiting in line for! Seriously, there are so many great wineries and new wines waiting to be discovered that it is pointless to wait around a crowded table to get a pour. You only have around 3-4 hours and you will find yourself getting irritated at the crowds. Tables like DeLille, Col Solare, Mark Ryan, Figgins, K Vintners, Long Shadows, Pepper Bridge, Upchurch and the like always draw crowds–and they certainly are outstanding wines–but they’re not worth stressing over.

Yes, the big name tables deserve the attention but sometimes your Wine of The Event is hidden away on a table everyone is passing by.


Periodically swing by and check the table but if its crowded, go somewhere else. Ditto with the food–which is why I’ve never bothered with the AQUA by El Gaucho oyster bar. There is always going to be some table, somewhere that doesn’t have a line. Check them out and you may end up discovering your new favorite wine or restaurant to try. The Aquilini I mentioned above as my Wine of the Event was just this scenario. No one was at this table and it was probably the best damn wine being poured.

3.) Along those lines above, make it a point to visit wineries you’ve never heard of. With more than 900 wineries, even the 200+ at Taste Washington is only a tiny slice of what the state has to offer. Sure, you have your favorites but they’re your favorites because you’ve already had them. Why spend $95 to $200+ to taste them again? When I attend, I aim for a 1 to 2 ratio–for every 1 known winery I taste at, I visit the tables of 2 new ones.

4.) Visit the sparkling wine producers periodically to help refresh your palate. This year Karma Vineyards, Townshend Cellar, Treveri Cellars, Domaine Ste. Michelle and maybe Patterson Cellars will be pouring bubbles. Aim to visit one of these every 45 minutes or so to wake up your palate and keep it from getting fatigued. Likewise, producers of dry Rieslings and rosé are also great tables to visit frequently. A few names I spot from the winery list that look to be pouring these kinds of wines include Ancestry Cellars, Randolph Cellars, WIT Cellars, Balboa Winery, Locus Wines, Tunnel Hill Winery and Gard Vintners.

5.) Check out the featured vineyards and AVA tables. These tables are rarely crowded and offer fantastic opportunities to geek out and compare different wines made from similar terroirs.

6.) Enjoy the food! Yes, as wine geeks it’s tempting to think of the wine as always the star of the show but, truthfully, most years I feel like the food was the best part of the entire experience. It’s very fun to hit up a food table, grab some tasty bite and see what random, nearby wine table has a wine that may pair well with it. I can’t count how many amazing discoveries of food & wine pairing bliss I’ve encountered with this method. It truly completes the package of the Taste Washington Grand Tasting experience. Plus the food helps quite a bit with dealing with the alcohol.

Most importantly, have fun and stay safe!

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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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Walla Walla Musings

A few notes from the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting featuring 40 different Walla Walla wineries at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.

New (to me) Walla Walla Wineries that Impressed

With over 900 wineries, even the most avid Washington wine lover has a hard time trying to taste them all. Walla Walla, alone, is home to around 120 wineries so even this tasting provided only a slice of what the AVA has to offer. My strategy at events like this is to hit several new wineries that I’ve never tasted before revisiting old favorites.

Lagana Cellars— Poured 2 whites (Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay) and 2 reds (Syrah and Cabernet Franc) and while all 4 were solid, the reds were definitely a step above. The 2014 Minnick Hills Syrah was one of the few 2014 Syrahs that seemed to escape the reductiveness that (unfortunately) characterized several of their peers at this tasting and showed a beautiful mix of black fruit, mouthwatering acidity and spice. The 2015 Seven Hills Cabernet Franc demonstrated all the things that are beautiful about Washington Cabernet Franc (More on that below). It had vivacious, high intensity aromatics of violets and blackberry, medium-plus body with silky tannins.

Kontos Cellars— Poured 3 reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and blend) plus a bonus bottle blend named Beckett after the winemaker’s daughter. Founded by the sons of Cliff Kontos of Fort Walla Walla Cellars, the trademark seen throughout the Kontos wines was gorgeous aromatics and pitch perfect balance between oak, fruit, tannins and acidity. Even the two 2014 wines (Cab & Alatus blend) stood out but the star of the flight was the wine club member’s only release Beckett blend. A blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot and 8% Syrah, the 2013 Beckett showcased Kontos’s high intensity aromatics with a mix of red and black cherries, red floral notes and lots of savory spice.

I’m very glad that I didn’t miss this table.


Tertulia Cellars— Poured 3 reds (Rhone blend, Syrah and Cabernet Franc). This is a little of a cheat since Tertulia is not really a newbie. Founded in 2005, I did try some of their early releases several years ago and wasn’t that impressed. I figured after nearly 10 years, I should give them another shot and boy am I glad I did. The 2013 Riviera Galets “The Great Schism” Rhone blend was outstanding.

A blend of 50% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 7% Cinsault and 3% Mourvedre, this wine would do extremely well in a tasting of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Beautiful savory, meaty nose but with enough rich dark fruit to clue you in that it was a New World wine. This wine also had one of the longest finishes of the night. The 2014 Whistling Hills Syrah had some of the 2014 reductive notes but it blew off fairly quickly with some air. The 2015 Cabernet Franc, like the Lagana above, was delicious.

Other wineries that impressed me were Caprio Cellars (especially the 2015 Walla Walla Red), Solemn Cellars (especially the 2014 Pheasant Run Cabernet Sauvignon) and Vital Wines (especially the 2016 Rose).

Old Favorites that Shined

You can never go wrong with Woodward Canyon and their 2014 Artist Series is a worthy follow up to the 2013. The 2014 Old Vines also did very well. In fact, along with the 2014 wines that are noted throughout this post, Woodward Canyon seemed to be one of the few producers to have 2014 wines that weren’t showing any green or reductive notes. (More on that below)

Despite enjoying their estate red for several years, I actually never knew that Figgins produced an estate Riesling and it was fantastic! From the 2016 vintage, the Riesling is decidedly on the dry side and had all the gorgeous white flower, apple and apricot notes that Washington Riesling is known for. Truly a top shelf Riesling that would go toe to toe with the best of Alsace and the Mosel.

Anna Shafer of àMaurice continues to show why she is one of the best winemakers in the state working not only with her estate vineyards but also making a mouth-filling but elegant 2015 Boushey Vineyard Grenache and a 2016 Connor Lee Chardonnay that would tickle the taste buds of even the most ardent Meursault fan.

The Bledsoe Family rose was also very tasty.


Doubleback introduced their 2015 Flying B Cabernet Sauvignon. I got the first taste of a brand new bottle and I was highly impressed with how aromatic and flavorful it was for a pop and pour young Cab. While I enjoyed the regular flagship Doubleback Cabernet Sauvignon, I will say that for half the price the Flying B is giving it a run for the money. I would highly encourage folks to sit on the flagship Cab for 5-7 years from vintage date and drink the Flying B while it ages.

Geeky Grapes on Display

While Washington State and Walla Walla wineries are known for fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Riesling, it was fun seeing winemakers embrace more obscure varieties like Albariño (Adamant Cellars), Grenache blanc (The Walls) and Carménère.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that the Figgins family of Leonetti were likely the first to plant Carménère in the state with cuttings they got from Guenoc Winery in California. Those cuttings were eventually shared with Colvin Vineyards that produced the first varietal Carménère in Washington in 2001. Since then the grape’s acreage in the state has expanded with plantings in Alder Ridge Vineyard, Minnick Hills, Morrison Lane and Seven Hills Vineyard.

I tried to figure out what vineyard in the Wahluke Slope had Carménère but my question was brushed off because they wanted to “highlight the AVA and not the vineyard.”
Um….okay.


Among the numerous wineries featuring a Carménère at the tasting were Balboa/Beresan Winery, Drink Washington State (from Wahluke Slope), Reininger Winery and Skylite Cellars. I missed out on trying the Reininger but was fairly impressed with Drink Washington State’s offering. But admittedly at $26 you are paying for the uniqueness of the variety in Washington and, right now, it is hard to compete with some of the Carménère coming in from Chile that often delivers outstanding value under $15.

Probably the geekiest wine at the tasting was Foundry Vineyards’ Stainless Steel Chardonnay from the Columbia Gorge. A Chard? Geeky? It is when it has 6% Maria Gomes blended in. Also known as Fernão Pires, Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that this obscure Portuguese grape variety is actually the most widely planted white grape in Portugal with over 41,500 acres. It is believed to have originated in either the Bairrada DOC or in the Tejo region but it can be found throughout the country including in the Douro. In the US, though, it is quite the rare bird.

Pay Attention to Washington Cabernet Franc

Walter Clore encouraged the first plantings of Cabernet Franc in the mid-1970s as part of Washington State University’s experimental blocks. In 1985, Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima planted the grape which was used by Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery to produce the first varietal Cabernet Franc in 1991. Since then the grape has seen growth from 150 acres in 1993 to a peak of 1157 acres in 2006 only to decline to 685 acres by 2017.

Which is a crying shame because of how absolutely delicious Washington Cabernet Franc is!

The 2012 Spring Valley Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc was, hands down, one of the best wines in the entire tasting.


While Old World examples from places like Chinon and Saumur-Champigny in the Loire can be light to medium bodied and herbal with trademark pencil shaving notes, examples from Washington hold up to the weight and profile of the state’s best Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Here Cabernet Franc can develop perfumed blue floral aromatics with some subtle fresh forest floor earthiness that add layers. The dark raspberry and blueberry carry a juicy edge due to the grape’s natural acidity. With some age, a very enticing fresh ground coffee note often comes out–something that the 2012 Spring Valley Vineyards Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc was starting to develop.

Outside of Walla Walla, stellar examples of Washington Cabernet Franc include Chinook Wines, Barrister, Camaraderie, Matthews Cellars, Gamache Vineyards, Chatter Creek and Sheridan Vineyard’s Boss Block.

At the Walla Walla tasting, in addition to the Spring Valley example that was a contender for Wine of The Show, other tremendous Cabernet Francs were showcased by Lagana Cellars (2015 Seven Hills), Tamarack Cellars (2015 Columbia Valley), Tertulia Cellars (2015 Elevation), Tranche (2013 Walla Walla), March Cellars (2016 Columbia Valley) and Walla Walla Vintners (2015 Columbia Valley)

What happened in 2014?

Along with Woodward Canyon, Kontos produced the cleanest and best tasting 2014 reds I encountered at the tasting.


The most baffling aspect of the Walla Walla tasting was how many 2014 reds were disappointing. Despite widely being considered a very good year in Washington State and Walla Walla, in particular, several wines from even big name and highly acclaimed producers showed green pyrazine or reductive notes. One winery had massive volatile acidity (VA) issues with their 2014s. With many wineries also featuring 2013 and 2015 reds, sometimes even of the same wine as their 2014, the shortcomings in the 2014s stuck out like a sore thumb.

And it wasn’t very consistent with one winery’s 2014s being green while another winery’s 2014 example of the same variety would instead have the closed aromas of reduced wines or (at worst with at least 2 examples) the burnt rubber aroma of mercaptans. While the reductive issues are minimized with getting some air into the wine (like with decanting), the green notes don’t go away. I can’t figure a reason why there would be so many green notes in what was a very warm vintage.

As far as I can tell there were no reports of millerandage or coulure which can promote uneven ripeness and hidden green berries inside clusters of varieties like Grenache, Merlot and Malbec. Plus, it was the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrahs that were more likely to show green notes. My only theory is that with it being such a large vintage perhaps some vineyards were over-cropped? But given the pedigree of the producers, I feel like that is unlikely.

I honestly don’t know. As noted above, there were still 2014s that were drinking well (and I certainly didn’t get a chance to taste every single one that was being poured) so I encourage consumers not to avoid the vintage but be aware that there is some inconsistency. I’m just reporting on a trend that I observed during this one tasting event.

My Top 5 Wines of the Event

The 2016 Figgins Estate Riesling was an absolute gem.

There were plenty of outstanding wines featured at the 2018 Walla Walla Wine Tasting at McCaw Hall that give me reasons to be excited about the future of the Walla Walla wine industry. This region is well worth exploring at your local wine shops and restaurants. Even with my reservations about many 2014 wines, there were numerous wines poured that I could very enthusiastically recommend. But my top 5 overall were:

1.) 2013 Tertulia Riviera Galets
2.) 2012 Spring Valley Vineyards Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc
3.) 2013 Kontos Cellars Beckett
4.) 2015 Abeja Merlot
5.) 2016 Figgins Estate Riesling

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Whiskey and Wine Revisited

In 2016, I dipped my toes into exploring the strange trend of wine aged in whiskey barrels with my original Whiskey and Wine post.

In that post I did a blind tasting featuring 3 barrel aged wines and one regular red wine ringer thrown in. While I thought this fad would quickly fade, it looks like it has only picked up steam with new entries on the market.

I decided to investigate a little more with another blind tasting of as many different barrel aged wines that I could find. (Results below)

I got bottles of the Apothic Inferno, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrelhouse Red featured in the last blind tasting as well as new bottlings from Mondavi of a bourbon barrel aged Chardonnay (I’m not kidding) and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Barrelhouse. I found new examples from Cooper & Thief, 1000 Stories, Big Six Wines, Stave & Steel and Paso Ranches. For a twist, I also added the 19 Crimes The Uprising that was actually aged in rum barrels.

I tried to find bottles of The Federalist’s Bourbon barrel aged Zinfandel, Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz and 1000 Stories “half batch” Petite Sirah but to no avail.

So What’s The Deal?

Why are so many producers jumping on this bandwagon?

On Twitter, wine and lifestyle blogger Duane Pemberton (@Winefoot) had an interesting take.

A similar sentiment was shared on Facebook from one of my winemaking friends, Alan, who noted that the charcoal from the heavy toast of the bourbon barrels could function as a fining agent for wines with quality issues like bad odors.

Now considering that many of the mega-corporations behind these wines like Gallo (Apothic), Constellation Brands (Mondavi & Cooper & Thief), The Wine Group (Stave & Steel) and Concha y Toro/Fetzer (1000 Stories) process millions of tons of grapes for huge portfolios of brands, this actually makes brilliant business sense.

Even in the very best of vintages, you are always going to have some fruit that is less than stellar–often from massively over-cropped vineyards that aren’t planted in the most ideal terroir. Rather than funnel that fruit to some of your discount brands like Gallo’s Barefoot, Constellation’s Vendange and The Wine Group’s Almaden, you can put these wines in a whiskey barrel for a couple months and charge a $5-10 premium–or in the case of Cooper & Thief, $30 a bottle!

Trying to Keep An Open Mind

Bourbon Standards

In this tasting, I wanted to explore how much of the whiskey barrel influence is noticeable in the wine. In the last blind tasting, one of things that jumped out for me is that the Mondavi Cab and Barrelhouse red didn’t really come across as “Whiskey-like” and were drinkable just fine as bold red wines. Meanwhile the Apothic Inferno did scream WHISKEY but it came across more like a painful screech.

To facilitate that exploration, I poured some examples of “Bourbon Standards” that the tasting panel could smell for reference (and drink after the tasting if needed!). My Bourbon Standards were:

Larceny — From Heaven Hill Distillery. A “fruity sweet” Bourbon with noticeable oak spice.

Jim Beam — Old standard from Beam-Suntory. A light Bourbon with floral and spice notes.

Two Stars — A wheated Bourbon from Sazerac. It’s kind of like if Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark had a baby, this would be it. Caramel and spice with honey and fruit.

Bulleit — Made now at Four Roses Distillery. Sweet vanilla and citrus.

The Wines

Apothic Inferno & Cooper & Thief

Apothic Inferno — ($13) Made by Gallo. Unknown red blend. This wine is unique in that it only spent 60 days in whiskey barrels (as opposed to bourbon barrels) while most of the other reds spent 90 days. 15.9% ABV

Cooper & Thief — ($30) Made by Constellation under the helm of Jeff Kasavan, the former director of winemaking for Vendange. I did appreciate that this was the only red blend that gave its blend composition with 38% Merlot, 37% Syrah, 11% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% “other red grapes”. The wine was aged for 90 days and had the highest ABV of all the wines tasted with 17%. This wine was also unique in that it was from the 2014 vintage while all the other reds (with the exception of the 19 Crimes) were from the 2015 vintage.

Barrelhouse — ($13-14) Made by Bruce and Kim Cunningham of AW Direct. A Cabernet Sauvignon and unknown Red Blend aged 90 days in bourbon barrels. Both of these wines were unique in that they had the lowest alcohol levels in the tasting with only 13.2% while most of the other wines were over 15%.

Big Six — ($15 each) Made by god knows who. The back label says it is from King City, California which means that it could be a Constellation brand or it could be made at a custom crush facility like The Monterey Wine Company. They offer a Cabernet Sauvignon, unknown Red Blend and Zinfandel aged 90 days in bourbon barrels with ABVs ranging from 15.1% (Red blend) to 15.5% (Zinfandel).

Paso Ranches Zinfandel — ($20) Made by Ginnie Lambrix at Truett Hurst. While most wines were labeled as multi-regional “California”, this wine is sourced from the more limited Paso Robles AVA. Aged 90 days with a 16.8% ABV.

Robert Mondavi — ($12 each) Made by Constellation Brands. A Cabernet Sauvignon aged 90 days and a Chardonnay aged for 60 days with both wines having an ABV of 14.5%. Like the Paso Ranches, these wines were sourced from the more limited Monterrey County region.

Stave & Steel Cabernet Sauvignon — ($17) Made by The Wine Group. This wine was unique in that it was aged the longest of all the wines with 4 months. Like the Barrelhouse, this wine had a more moderate alcohol of 13.5%

Got only crickets from them on Twitter as well.


1000 Stories Zinfandel — ($17) Made by Fetzer which is owned by Concha y Toro. This was one of the first wineries in the US to release a bourbon barrel aged wine back in 2014 with winemaker Bob Blue claiming that he’s been aging wine in old whiskey barrels since the 1980s. This was the only wine that I could not figure out how long it was aged with the bottle or website giving no indication. The ABV was 15.6%

19 Crimes — ($8) Made by Treasury Estates with wine sourced from SE Australia. Unknown red blend that was aged 30 days in rum barrels with 15% ABV. This was the youngest wine featured in the tasting coming from the 2016 vintage.

The Blind Tasting

To be as objective as possible, especially with some of the wines like the Cooper & Thief having very distinctive bottles, I brown bagged the wines and had my wife pour the wines in another room. We also “splash decanted” all the wines (with the exception of the Chardonnay) to clear off any reductive notes.

After trying the Chardonnay non-blind, my wife would randomly select an unmarked bag, label it A through L and poured the wines in 6 flights of 2 wines each. We then evaluated the wines and gave each a score on a scale of 1-10. Below is a summary of some of our notes, scores and rankings with the reveal to follow. My friend Pete contributed the colorful “personification” of the wines in his tasting notes. The wine price ranges are from my own notes.

To keep our palates as fresh as possible we had plenty of water and crackers throughout the tasting. And boy did our poor little spit bucket get a work out, needing to be emptied after every other flight. But even with spitting, it was clear that we were absorbing some of the high alcohol levels. After 6 reds, we also paused for a break to refresh our palates with some sparkling wine.

Mondavi Chardonnay (Scores 4, 7, 6, 5.5, 4 = 26.5 for 7th place) Vanilla, butterscotch, canned cream corn & tropical fruit like warm pinneapple. More rum barrel influence than bourbon. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range

Wine A (Scores 6, 7.5, 6, 7, 6 = 32.5 for 3rd place) Baby powder and baking spice. Noticeable Mega-Purple influence. Maybe a Zin or Petite Sirah. Minimal oak influence. Some burnt char. Kind of like the girl you met at the carnival, take for a ride but don’t buy her cotton candy. Drinks like something in the $10-12 range.

Many wines were very dark and opaque.


Wine B (Scores 2, 3, 4, 2, 2 = 13 for 11th place) Very sweet. Lots of vanilla. Noticeable oak spice and barrel influence. Little rubber. More rye whiskey than bourbon. Taste like oxidize plum wine. Very bitter and diesel fuelish. Reminds me of a Neil Diamond groupie. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range.

Wine C (Scores 7, 7, 7, 7, 3 = 31 for 5th place) Smells like a ruby port or Valpolicella ripasso. Some wintergreen mint and spice. Cherry and toasted marshmellow. Noticeable barrel influence. Reminds me of Karen from Mean Girls. Drinks like something in the $10-12 range.

Wine D (Scores 3, 4.5, 5, 2, 2 = 16.5 for 10th place) Very sweet, almost syrup. Burnt creme brulee. Burnt rubber. Toasted coconut. Rum soaked cherries. The color is like Hot Topic purple hair dye. Super short finish which is actually a godsend. If this wine was a person, her name would be Chauncey. Drinks like something in the $5-6 range.

Wine E (Scores 6, 7, 6, 8, 7 = 34 for 2nd place) Raspberry and vanilla. Graham cracker crust. Not as sweet as others. Very potpourri and floral. Really nice nose! Smells like the Jim Beam. Little Shetland pony earthiness. High heat and noticeable alcohol. Reminds me of the guy who is really ugly but you like him anyways. Drinks like something in the $14-16 range.

Wine F (Scores 3.5, 5.5, 4, 5, 5 = 22 for 8th place) Toasted marshmellows. Noticeably tannic like a Cab. Raspberry and black currants. Not much barrel influence. This wine seems very robotic. Drinks like something in the $12-14 range.

That spit bucket rarely left my side during this tasting.

Wine G (Scores 6.5, 7, 3, 6.5, 6 = 27 for 6th place) Tons of baking spice. Very noticeable oak. Reminds me of a Paso Zin. Lots of black pepper–makes my nose itch. Slightly sweet vanilla. Most complex nose so far. Would be a really good wine if it wasn’t so sweet. Reminds me of a Great Depression era dad. Drinks like a $14-16 wine.

Wine H (Scores 2, 3, 3, 1, 2 = 11 for 13th last place) Burnt rubber tires. Smells very boozy. Fuel. Taste like really bad Seagram’s 7. Cheap plastic and char like someone set knockoff Crocs shoes on fire. Reminds me of Peter Griffin. Drinks like something in the $7-8 range.

Wine I (Scores 7.5, 6.5, 7, 8, 7 = 36 for 1st place) Dark fruit and pepper spice. Turkish fig. Juicy acidity. Not as sweet. Round mouthfeel and very smooth. Creamy like butterscotch. Not much barrel influence. Reminds me of a sociopath that you don’t know if they want to cuddle with you or cut your throat. Drinks like something in the $14-16 range.

Wine J (Scores 4, 4, 3, 4, 3 = 19 for 9th place) Marshmellow fluff. Caramel. Very sweet. Smells like a crappy Manhattan with cherry. Seems like a boozy Zin. Not horrible but still bad. Not much barrel influence at all. Reminds me of children. Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

The tasting sheets.

Wine K (Scores 7, 6.5, 8, 4, 6 = 31.5 for 4th place) Big & rich. Juicy cherries. Sweet but not overly so. Little pepper spice. Very easy drinking. Something I would actually drink. Not much barrel influence. Makes me think of the “I’ve got a Moon Ma” guy. (author’s note: I have no idea what Pete is referring to here. This is my best guess.) Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

Wine L (Scores 1, 4, 2, 4, 1 = 12 for 12th place) Stewed plums and burnt rubber. Lots of tannins and acid. The worst thing I’ve had in my mouth all week. Pretty horrible. Long unpleasant finish. Reminds me of Sloth from The Goonies. Drinks like a $10-12 wine.

The Reveal

After tallying up the scores, we revealed the wines. In order from best tasting to worst tasting of the barrel aged wines:

The closeness in style and rankings of the 3 Big Six wines were surprising.

1st Place: Barrelhouse Red (Bag I)
2nd Place: Stave & Steel Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag E)
3rd Place: Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag A)
Big Six Zinfandel (Bag K)
Big Six Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag C)
Big Six Red Blend (Bag G)
Mondavi Chardonnay (non-blind)
Barrelhouse Cabernet Sauvignon (Bag F)
19 Crimes The Uprising (Bag J)
Cooper & Thief (Bag D)
Paso Ranches Zinfandel (Bag B)
1000 Stories Zinfandel (Bag L)
Last Place: Apothic Inferno (Bag H)

Final Thoughts

One clear trend that jumped out was that the top three wines had moderate alcohol (13.2% with the Barrelhouse to 14.5% with the Mondavi). Overall these wines tasted better balance and had the least amount of the off-putting burnt rubber and diesel fuel note which tended to come out in the worst performing wines like the Apothic Inferno (15.9%), Cooper & Thief (17%), 1000 Stories Zin (15.6%) and Paso Ranches Zin (16.8%).

Another trend that emerged that was similar to the previous tasting (which had the Barrelhouse Red and Mondavi Cab also doing very well) is that the most enjoyable wines were the ones with the least overt whiskey barrel influence. This was true even with the 2nd place finish of the Stave & Steel that was the wine that spent the most time in barrel at 4 months. That is a testament to the skill of the winemaker where the whiskey barrel is used as a supporting character to add some nuance of spice and vanilla instead of taking over the show.

Comparing the 4 month aged Stave & Steel to the 2 month aged Apothic Inferno is rather startling because even with a shorter amount of barrel time the Apothic seemed to absorb the worst characteristics from the whiskey barrel with the burnt rubber and plastic. The 19 Crimes that only spent 30 days in rum barrels didn’t show much barrel influence at all.

It also appears that, in general, Cabernet Sauvignon takes better to the barrel aging compared to Zinfandel though the Big Six Zinfandel did fairly well to earn a 4th place finish. The most difficult task for winemakers is to try and reign in the sweetness. Several of these wines had notes like Wine G (the Big Six red blend that is probably Zin dominant) that they would actually be decent wines if they were just a bit less sweet.

One last take away (which is true of most wines) is that price is not an indicator of quality. Three of the worst performing wines were among the 4 most expensive with the $17 1000 Stories Zin, $20 Paso Ranches Zin and the $30 Cooper & Thief. In fact, the Cooper & Thief tasted so cheap that I pegged it as a $5-6 wine. It is very clear that you are paying for the unique bottle and fancy website with this wine.

Only the $17 Stave & Steel that came in 2nd held its own in the tasting to merit its price though the Barrelhouse Red at $13 and Mondavi Cab at $12 offer better value.

It’s clear that this trend is not going away anytime soon. If you’re curious, these wines are worth exploring but be aware that they vary considerably in style, alcohol and sweetness. Grab a few bottles and form your own opinion.

But take my advice and have some good ole fashion real whiskey on standby. Those “bourbon standards” certainly came in handy after the tasting.

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Non-Alcoholic Wine — Because sometimes you have to

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

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

How do you get Non-Alcoholic wine?

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

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

The Line-up

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

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


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

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

The Verdict

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

Both of these were surprisingly good.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Don’t Be a Jackass and Blindly Listen to Bloggers

A very well loved and well used tome.

Including yours truly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bull shit.

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

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


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

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

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

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

3. “What percentage malo is this wine?”

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

Bull shit.

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

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

What?

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

No, Karen. I can’t. At least not yet.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submitted without comment or judgement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wine-Twitteracy in still life.


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

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

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

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

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

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Snooty or Flute-y?

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski. Release under CC-BY-SA-2.0 on Wikimedia CommonsDid you ring in the New Years with a flute of bubbles?

You uncouth swine!

Don’t you know that all the cool kids are ditching flutes in favor of regular wine glasses? As Margareth Henriquez, president of Champagne Krug, describes it, drinking your bubbly from flutes is like going to a concert with ear plugs and should only be used for “…bad Champagne, sorbet or gazpacho.”

Oh my!

Obviously, a few folks had some dissenting opinions on this anti-flute craze, most notably Jameson Fink of Wine Enthusiast who wrote an impassioned defense of the unfashionable flute, bringing some scientific expertise for back-up.

It’s a fairly good defense with the strongest argument, in my opinion, coming from David Gire, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s psychology department. Gire notes how important visionary aesthetics are to enjoyment and how they can psychologically impact our perception of flavor. As Fink points out, even the most ardent anti-flutists can’t discount the visual appeal that flutes have with their cascading beads of bubbles.

Now for me, I take a pragmatic approach. I’ll drink my bubbles from a variety of vessels and see what I like. So far, my runaway favorite has been the Luigi Bormioli Wine Styles Pink Wine Glass. You can see it in use for many of my sparkling wine reviews such as for the Paringa Sparkling Shiraz and Deligeroy Cremant de Loire.

I’ll also use a traditional flute like in my reviews of the Levert Freres Cremant de Bourgogne, Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top and Segura Viudas Cavas. And I will do like the cool kids sometimes in using a regular ole wine glass such as with the De Venoge Princes Blanc de Noirs.

The Bormioli pink wine glass has become my go-to because it combines the best of both worlds. I get a wider opening that allows the aromatics to come out but it is sufficiently narrow to showcase the bubbles.

You can see the difference in bubbles between the 3 types of glasses – the Bormioli pink wine glass, a flute and a regular wine glass.

For the most part, I agree with Fink that the visual spectacle of the bubbles is key to enjoyment. While there are advocates in the wine industry (such as Robert Walters in his book Bursting Bubbles) that argue that focusing on the “bubbles” in Champagne takes away from appreciation and evaluation of it as a “real wine”, I’m not on that boat. In their opinion, a great Champagne is one that you could completely degas and it would stand on it own. The trend away from flutes (so they say) helps highlight the “realness” of great Champagne.

There may be truth to that but, dammit, I like my bubbles!

My go-to bubbles glass, the Luigi Bormioli pink wine glass

However, I can’t completely join Fink on the dark side of Flute Apologetics because, in my own anecdotal experience, I don’t get as much life and depth from my bubbles when I’m nosing them through the narrow opening of a flute. In fact, a friend of mine of who read my lackluster reviews for the 2004 and 2006 vintages of Dom Perignon at Daniel’s Champagne Gala, urged me to try them again in a regular wine glass because, in his view, the “yeasty depth of Dom never shows well in a flute.” He probably has a point.

So I like my compromise Bormioli glasses but I’ll certainly keep on experimenting.

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Cristal Clarity


On November 29th, Esquin Wine Merchants in Seattle hosted a tasting featuring the Champagnes of Louis Roederer. The event featured 7 wines that was highlighted by a sampling of the newly released 2009 Cristal and curated by Roederer brand ambassador Cynthia Challacombe and Esquin’s Arnie Millan.

It was a wonderful evening of trying some truly outstanding Champagnes. I left the event not only with several bottles but also with two important lessons learned.

1.) The Roederer vintage Brut and Blanc de Blancs are some of the best bang for the bucks not only in the Roederer portfolio but also among all premium Champagne.

2.) Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to open their Cristal too soon.

The Geekery

There is a big dichotomy in the world of Champagne between the huge mega-corp producers like Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), which produces tens of millions of cases across its various brands like Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Moët and Chandon, Krug, Ruinart and Mercier, and smaller growers and producers.

While the wines of huge négociant houses like those of the LVMH stable aren’t bad, some, like Ruinart, in particular, are outstanding, it is a fair argument that sometimes the produce of these Goliaths can lack some of the character, heart and excitement of what you can find in the Champagnes of smaller growers. I say sometimes because magnificent wines can be found in many different incarnations–including in the cloths of Goliaths–but there is a reason why the marketing of the big mega-corps is more about the image and the brand than it is about the story of the vineyards and the people behind it.

As a sommelier friend of mine once aptly noted, “You buy the big houses for the name, you buy the growers for the wine.”

That said, while the house of Louis Roederer and its MTV-ready prestige cuvee of Cristal is often grouped as one of the big Goliaths, I can’t help but admire the twinkle of a “grower’s soul” that peaks out underneath the glitzy exterior of these wines.

The Champagnes tasted


Founded in 1733, the house is still family owned with Frédéric Rouzaud, great-grandson of Camille Olry-Roederer, being the 7th generation of the Roederer-Rouzaud family to run the estate. While officially a négociant, Louis Roederer owns a substantial amount of vineyards including nearly 600 acres of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards that supply the vast majority of their needs. I was very pleasantly surprised to hear from brand ambassador Cynthia Challacombe that the only Champagne that Roederer uses purchased grapes for are for its entry-level non-vintage Brut Premier and even that is 70% estate fruit.

While Roederer does make around 3 million bottles of Champagne a year (or 250,000 cases), that doesn’t even crack the top 10 in production/sales in the Champagne region–lagging behind not only Pommery and Piper-Heidsieck but also far behind the 48 million bottles combined produced by the LVMH mega-Goliaths of Moët and Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

This relatively small scale of production and majority control of grapes allows Roederer to be more hands on throughout the winemaking process from grape to bottle. This can also be seen in the house’s push towards converting eventually all of its vineyards to biodynamic viticulture. By 2012, they were Champagne’s largest biodynamic grower with around 160 acres (65 ha) being farmed under the system. Ms. Challacombe noted that the estate is now 41% biodynamic (around 246 acres) with the rest still being farmed organically and sustainably.

The Wines
Prices listed were the event pricing for the evening at Esquin.


NV Brut Premier- ($49) A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier that is aged 3 years on the lees and bottled with 9-12 g/l dosage. Considering that the minimum aging requirement for non-vintage Champagne is only 15 months on the lees, it is admirable that Roederer holds their entry-level non-vintage to the same minimum of 3 years aging that is expected of vintage Champagnes.

The extended aging does pay off with a medium-plus intensity nose with aromas of tree fruit, candied ginger and apple pastry tart. On the palate, the mouthfeel is round and smooth with more apple notes coming out. It’s a tasty Champagne but my qualm is with how quickly the flavors fade and how short the finish is. I was expecting more persistence on the palate with how aromatic the nose was. For a sub $50 Champagne it is solid but I wouldn’t pay above that price.

2009 Brut Nature (Philippe Starck edition)- ($79) A blend of 66% Pinot noir/Pinot Meunier and 33% Chardonnay that is aged 5 years on the lees and bottled with no dosage. Sourced from a single vineyard in the village of Cumières in the Montagne de Reims, with a label designed by French designer Philippe Starck, this wine stands out from the rest of the Roederer line-up in both aesthetics and in profile. With its zero dosage and intense acidity, this was a sharply controversial wine at the tasting with many people not preferring this style.


I, on the other hand, absolutely adored this wine. It was by far the most mineral-driven and complex wine of the evening. High intensity aromatics of spiced pears, white flowers coupled with Turkish figs and graham cracker crust. On the palate, another chapter of the story unfolds with apple peels, water chestnuts and white pepper all backed by a bracing streak of rocky minerality. Even after the glass was empty, you could still smell the intense aromatics of the Champagne inside the glass. Stunning wine. It’s not for everyone but, for someone like me, it is a remarkable value for how much complexity it delivers.

2010 Blanc de Blancs- ($79) 100% Chardonnay from declassified vines in the Grand Cru villages of the Côte des Blancs, particularly Avize, that are usually allocated for Cristal. The wine is aged 5 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Again going above and beyond the minimum aging for a vintage Champagne (3 years), the Blanc de Blancs is treated like a Tête de cuvée and, in many ways, this bottle of Champagne outshines many houses’ Tête de cuvée–even Roederers!

Essentially a “baby Cristal”, the medium plus intensity nose is extremely floral and fresh. It smells like Spring time with a neighbor baking cookies next door and the warm air bringing you a waft of that aroma intermingling with flowers and fresh cut grass. On the palate, the floral notes continue with an incredibly satiny mouthfeel that actually feels like you are drinking flower petals. The cookie notes on the nose morph into more brioche on the palate, still serving as a back drop to the overwhelming floral notes. Liquid lillies. Considering that this wine outshone the $200+ Cristal, and easily puts many other $100+ Champagnes to shame, this wine is an absolute steal for its quality level.

Tasting Sheet


2011 Brut Rosé- ($67) A blend of 63% Pinot noir and 37% Chardonnay that is aged 4 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. For the rosé color, both short maceration and blending with red Pinot noir wine is used. The keynote of “freshness” being part of the Roederer house style strikes through with this rosé taking me back to Plant City, Florida outside Tampa for their Strawberry Festival held every March.

Medium intensity on the nose with fresh strawberries and an intriguing streak of basil as well. Unfortunately the aroma fades rather quickly which made it a bit of a let down following the downright intoxicating bouquets of the Brut Nature and Blanc de Blancs. The mouthfeel is smooth and well balanced with the strawberry and basil notes carrying through. But, again, it fades with a short finish. There is always a bit of a premium when it comes to the pricing of rosés but this one is a bit of a stretch for delivering quality that matches its near $70 price point.

2008 Vintage Brut- ($70) A blend of 70% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay that is aged 4 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Like the Blanc de Blancs, this Champagne also gets some of the declassified lots (presumably Pinot noir) that are allocated for Cristal as well as being sourced from it owns dedicated estate vineyards in the Grand Cru villages of Verzy and Verzenay.

Medium plus intensity nose that was only bested by the 2009 Brut Nature for best nose of the night. Cream puff pastry and hazelnuts. What was most enthralling was how it evolved over the short sample tasting to show the many different stages of making cream puff pastry from the fresh dough to baking the golden puffs and filling them. The freshness of the cream is also quite noticeable on the nose and carries its way to the palate where it is met by a little orange zest.


The mouthfeel was knee-bendingly silky, bested again only by one other wine–the 2010 Blanc de Blancs. Between the nose and mouthfeel, this Champagne was as close to a complete package as you could get and overall was my wine of the night. At around $70, this is an absolute steal that should leap frog on any Champagne lover’s purchasing list many, many Champagnes that are much more expensive.

NV Carte Blanche Demi-Sec- ($44) A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier that is aged 3 years on the lees and bottled with 38 g/l dosage. As any sommelier or retailer who inwardly cringes when consumers request dry Brut bubbles to be served with their sweet wedding cake will tell you–the Demi-Sec category of sparklers is often woefully overlooked. I truly think it is because most people haven’t experience these wines and have painted a picture in their mind of wines that taste much more overtly sweet than they actually do.

The key to demi-sec wines is balance and the Roederer Carte Blanche is one of the most exquisitely balanced demi-sec bubbles that I’ve ever had. Medium intensity note redolent of fresh peaches with apple pastry tart mixed in. Focusing on the tip of your tongue, you can pick up the sweetness but it is so subtle and balanced by the acidity and bubbles that I would wager that even many experienced tasters would think it was more in the 12-17 g/l Extra Dry category than a Demi-Sec. Many Proseccos taste far sweeter than this elegant and exceptionally well made Champagne.


Unlike the premium pricing for rosés, this under-the-radar category is exceptionally undervalued with the Roederer Carte Blanche being a screaming good deal for under $60 much less under $45.

2009 Cristal ($232) A blend of 60% Pinot noir and 40% Chardonnay that is aged 6 years on the lees and bottled with 8 g/l dosage. Sourced exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards in the villages of Avize, Aÿ, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Verzenay and Verzy this is the crème de la crème of the Roederer portfolio. It’s a wine with a legendary history that was created for Russian royalty and is featured in music videos, movies and the Instagram pics of anyone wanting to show off. It elicits “oohs and ahs” whenever it is brought out. It truly is one of the Champagne world’s top prestige cuvees.

It’s also one of its most disappointing.

To be fair, this is because Cristal’s Veblen and “bling-worthy” status encourages people to pop and pour them almost as soon as they hit the market. Despite wine writers and Champagne lovers repeatedly urging people to hold onto their Cristals, these wines are often opened far too young. As Antonio Galloni of Vinous noted in his survey of Cristals from 1979-2002, this behavior is “… ironic, if not downright tragic, considering Cristal is a wine that starts peaking around age 15-20, and that can last much longer under ideal storage conditions.”

Now my experience with Cristal is no where near as extensive as Galloni’s but the opportunities I’ve had to taste of now four different vintages of Cristal (the 2004, 2006 and 2009 soon after release and the 1994 when it was 12 years of age) have followed a consistent pattern. The newly release Cristal Champagnes that I tried when they were 6 to 8 years old were very underwhelming with my tasting notes littered with descriptors of “short” and “simple”. While the 1994, which was still relatively too young and from a rather sub-par vintage, was vastly more intriguing and has ranked as one of the best wines that I’ve ever had.

This 2009 Cristal, while undoubtedly well made and with immense potential, ranked only above the entry NV Brut Premier in its showing at the tasting. And that’s not an indictment on the wine. It’s just a reality of tasting a wine that is miles away from it peak drinking window.


But it is not like the wine was undrinkable. It was just exceedingly simple. Medium minus intensity nose with vague floral and tree fruit notes. Some slight pink peppercorn. Its strongest attribute at the moment is the mouthfeel that shows hint of the silky flower petal texture you with get the Blanc de Blancs. In fact, the whole profile of Cristal is its litany of hints.

It has hints of the nose of the 2008 Vintage Brut.
It has hints of the mouthfeel of the 2010 Blanc de Blancs.
It has hints of the complexity of the 2009 Brut Nature.

If you could combine those 3 Champagnes into one bottle, and tell folks that it was Cristal, you would have legions of happy Champagne drinkers who would gladly shell out $200+ and feel like they’re getting more than their money’s worth. But, instead, you have a bottle that is drinking at this moment on par with what you can get from the Roederer house already for between $49 (NV Brut Premier) and $67 (2011 Brut rosé).

It truly is about this moment.

But, again, the 2009 Cristal is not a bad wine and I’m not saying that this is a wine that you shouldn’t buy if you have the money and inclination. I’m just saying that this isn’t a wine that you should open right now. The pedigree is there. The terroir is there. The care and dedication of the Champagne house is there. But if you are going to invest the money and your personal pleasure into getting a spectacular bottle of Champagne than you have to have patience and/or be willing to splurge for the premium of an aged example of Cristal that has been properly cellared.

Otherwise, do yourself a favor and save a boatload of cash by checking out some of the far less heralded and less “bling-worthy” bottles of vintage Champagnes from Roederer. There is truly some spectacular stuff coming out this house that over deliver on pleasure.

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Top Ten Wines from 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

As we wrap up Spitbucket’s 3 part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour in Las Vegas, we come to our grand finale–my Top Ten Wines of the event. Of course this list is entirely limited and subjective. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, it is virtually impossible to try all 244 wines available in just 3 hours. While I thoroughly enjoyed the 68 wines that I did get to try, I undoubtedly missed out on several gems that may have found their way to this list.

Among the wines that I regrettably missed out on:

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2010 (94 pts. Wine Searcher average price $75)
Graham’s Vintage Port 2000 (98 pts. Wine Searcher average price $98)
Marques de Grinon Domino de Valdepusa Petit Verdot 2011 (93 pts. Wine Spectator list price $40)
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque 2007 (93 pts. Wine Searcher average price $143)
Recanti Judean Hills Wild Carignan Reserve 2014 (91 pts. Wine Searcher average price $48)
Anthonij Rupert Cabernet Franc 2009 (92 pts. Wine Searcher average price $77)
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 2012 (93 pts. Wine Searcher average price $227)

Now as for my Top 10 list, as frequent readers know I do have a bit of bias towards Bordeaux wines. While the geek in me seeks out tasty treats from across the globe, Bordeaux will always be my most enduring love in the world of wine. So it should not be a surprised that Bordeaux wines account for almost a third of this list with many of the other wines capturing my attention for their “Bordeaux-like” elegance and qualities. Again, this list is completely subjective.

My Top 10 wines of the night:

Adobe Road 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $175) Still the undoubted wine of the event. Even glancing over my list of missed opportunities, I don’t think any of them would have knocked this 228 case limited release from Adobe Road off the pedestal.

As I described in part 2, this wine was classic Napa but what set it far above its peers that I tasted was the fresh, lively acidity that gave sparks to tongue while the velvety soft and rich fruit was wrapping it up in a kiss. When you are “power-tasting” through a lot of great wine, you find that they start to meld together, making it hard to stand out. Especially in Napa where the check-list seems to be [x] Ripe dark fruit [x] Full-bodied [x] Soft but noticeable tannins and [x] Noticeable oak. It’s easy to check all those boxes and make a wine that will give immense pleasure when being enjoyed by itself.

But for a wine to stand out when it is being tasted along such illustrious wines as the 2009 Caymus Special Selection, 2012 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow, 2013 Alpha Omega Era, 2013 Beringer Private Reserve, 2012 Chimney Rock Elevage, 2013 Vine Cliff 16 Rows Oakville, 2005 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and 2013 Trinchero Mario’s Vineyard, it is going to be that freshness that hits you like a finger snap in front of your face, commanding your attention. None of the aforementioned wines were bad and, indeed, two of those wines also ended up making my Top 10 list. The 2013 Adobe Road Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon was just better.

Altesino 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli (93 points. Wine Spectator list price $110) Outside of Burgundy and the Mosel, we usually don’t talk about individual vineyards in Europe the same way we do with American wines. There are certainly legendary vineyards in Europe, and single bottlings from those vineyards, but the names don’t easily roll off our tongues quite like To Kalon, Ciel du Cheval, Shea, Monte Bello, Red Willow, Sangiacomo, etc. However, you can make a fair argument (as James Suckling does here [subscription]) that the Montosoli vineyard owned by Altesino is one of the top vineyards in all of Montalcino. In fact, it was the very first vineyard to be bottled as a single cru of Brunello di Montalcino.

Despite being a very young Brunello (even for a warm vintage), this wine lived up to its lofty pedigree with an intoxicating bouquet of tobacco spice, orange peel, black cherry and savory leather. It had me picturing myself drinking an old-fashioned at a Victorian Explorer’s Club gathering. The palate brought more richness to the cherry notes with enough acidity to keep it juicy without being “bitey”. The tannins are still quite firm, again confessing its youth, but a silkiness emerges as you roll the wine around your tongue that holds much promise.

Emilio Moro 2011 Malleolus de Valderramiro Ribera del Duero (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $85) I am still a bit dumbfounded how this wine only got a mere 90 points from Wine Spectator. (As I was with several wines like this that I reviewed in the first part of the series.) While I can appreciate the palates and scores of critics like Thomas Matthews, its always important to formulate our own opinions on wine. While I try to avoid using the 100 point scale myself, with pegging wines down to just a number, I will say that this delicious wine from Emilio Moro far surpassed many 93-94 rated wines.

Heitz 2005 Martha’s Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (93 points. Wine Searcher average price $181) Like the Adobe Road Beckstoffer Georges III, Martha’s Vineyard located in Oakville is a legendary site for Cabernet Sauvignon. My adoration of this wine will again reveal my “Bordeaux-bias” a it had, by far, the most Bordeaux-like nose of all the Napa Cabs. Lots of savory herbal elements of what I like to call the “Chicken herbs” used for roasting–sage, thyme and particularly rosemary. The classic Martha’s Vineyard eucalyptus was also there but I was surprised with how much St.-Julien like cedar box and tobacco spice was also present.

The mouthfeel though was tried and true Napa with rich, almost Port-like dark fruit and Belgium dark chocolate undertones. The medium-plus acidity added enough freshness to balance the weight. The tannins were mostly velvety but they had a firm grip along the edge which hinted at how much more time this already 12-year old wine could go. While some of the eucalyptus and tobacco spice carried through to the palate, most of the savory Bordeaux-like notes on the nose were gone. In many ways it felt like I was drinking two different wines and that kept my interest.

Ramos Pinto 30 year Tawny Port (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $85) You can find my full review here. Again, simply a fabulous Port that is among the best I’ve ever had. If you can find it, its definitely worth grabbing and if you find it priced under a $100, grab two.

Ch. Pichon Longueville Lalande 2011 Pauillac (91 points. Wine Searcher average price $116) You can’t sugar-coat over how rough of a vintage that 2011 was. Spring was too hot and fraught with drought while summer was too cold with rains happening at the most inopportune times (if they happened at at all). Still, the blessings of modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge means that even in the roughest of vintages, wineries still have the skills and the tools to produce delicious wine.

Does this 2011 Pichon Lalande stack up to the 2010, 2009 or even the absolutely scrumptious 2005 (one of my all-time favs among all wines)? No. But neither does the 2011’s price tag of around $116 stack up to the price tags of those vintages–Wine Searcher average of $229, $204 and $152, respectively. That is the landscape of Bordeaux with every bottle and every vintage needing to be evaluate both on a curve and within the big picture.

So judging this 2011 among its vintage-peers, I was exceedingly impressed with how well it was drinking this evening. With 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot and 2% Petite Verdot, this wine had far more Cab than typical Pichon Lalande and with the characteristics of the vintage, I was expecting something that needed far more time. But this wine was ready to dance with a mix of black currant and red cherry fruit framed with the typical savory tobacco and cedar cigar box notes of a good Pauillac. The mouthfeel had a lot more noticeable vanilla oak notes than I would expect. Much as the vanilla works to coax early drinking approach-ability with New World wines, so here it was smoothing out the rough edges of youthful tannins. With a little dark chocolate and Christmas fruitcake spiciness on the finish, you end up with a delightful wine that has character and personality.

Marchesi Fumanelli 2009 Octavius Riserva Amarone (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $173) Another wine that took me by surprised as I reviewed in part 2. This wine may be more difficult to find in the United States but it is well worth the hunt for any wine lover of bold, brooding reds with layers of complexity.

Diamond Creek 2012 Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points. Wine Searcher average price $216) This was only my second encounter with Diamond Creek after previously trying a 2009 Volcanic Hill. That one experience coupled with reading Cellar Tracker reviews of their wines helped form my expectation that this was going to be similar to other Diamond Mountain Cabernets that I’ve had in the past (Wallis Family, Lokoya, Martin Ray and Von Strasser)–powerful, rich but with a lot of structure and firm tannins that need time to mellow.

While this 2012 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow certainly had the power and richness, I was taken back by how soft the tannins where. In a blind tasting, I would be completely fooled that this wasn’t something from Rutherford or Oakville. It was downright velvety with the opulent black fruit. On the nose there was some earthiness, like dusty crushed rocks with a tinge of smokiness, but it was no where near as herbal as I would have expected. This was another wine that I found myself excited at the thought of what enjoyment savoring a full bottle of this wine would bring.

Ch. Calon Segur 2003 (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $117) As I wrote in part 2, it is easy for Bordeaux lovers to dismiss the 2003 “heat wave” vintage (especially on the Left Bank) but wines like the 2003 Calon Segur shows that there were still many great wines made that year.

Ch. Lascombes 2010 Margaux (91 points. Wine Searcher average price $118) Oh you didn’t think I could get through this list without slipping in a 2010 Bordeaux, did you? Of course not. I especially couldn’t pass up tasting again and falling back in love with this wine from the 2nd Growth estate in Margaux. Since Dominique Befve took over in the early 2000s (after stints at l’Evangile in Pomerol and 10 years as Technical Director of Chateau Lafite), Chateau Lascombes has been going from strength to strength.

Lascombes is a little unique in that the fair amount of clay in the soils of their vineyards around the communes of Cantenac, Soussans and Margaux, allows them to grow more Merlot than you would expect for a highly classified Medoc estate. In 2010 that translated to a blend that was dominated by Merlot with 55% followed by 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. While many of its 2010 Cab-dominated Left Bank peers still need ample time in the cellar, this Lascombes is following the path of Angelus, Canon-La-Gaffelière, Pavie-Macquin and Le Dome in being one of the best drinking 2010s right now on the market.

The nose has swirls of black licorice spice with smokey espresso that give way to black currant and Turkish figs. The tannins on the mouthfeel are silky with the same black fruits on the nose being wrapped with even more smoke and now chocolate espresso flavors. The finish is long and lingering, giving ample pleasure but making you soon crave another sip. While most 2009/2010 prices are in the stratosphere, this is still an absolute steal for how much this wine over-delivers.

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