Category Archives: Wine Tasting

Getting Geeky with the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Champagne from the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

Krug Clos du Mesnil

While Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is known for multiple outstanding wines like Salon, Pierre Peters’ Les Chètillons, Jacques Selosses’ Les Carelles, Pertois Moriset, Pierre Moncuit, Robert Moncuit, Gimonnet-Gonet, J. L. Vergnon and others, the Krug Clos du Mesnil stands apart as one of the most iconic bottles of Champagne. It also tends to be among the most expensive.

At the end of this post, I’ll let you know if I think it’s worth the money.

The Background

Krug was founded in 1843 by Johann-Joseph Krug. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in their Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that Krug got his start working for Champagne Jacquesson beginning in 1834.

He eventually married the sister-in-law of Adolphe Jacquesson and rose to second in command of the Champagne house. But instead of staying, he ventured out on his own so that he could put into practice his philosophy of winemaking.

In 1969, his descendants sold the house to the French spirits company Remy-Cointreau but still maintained a vested interest in operations. In 1999, Remy-Cointreau sold it to LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) where it is today part of a vast portfolio of wines that includes Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot and Mercier as well as Clos des Lambrays, Château d’Yquem and Château Cheval Blanc.

However, members of the Krug family are still involved in production with 6th generation Olivier Krug being part of the tasting panel that selects the final blends of all the wines.

While Krug only owns around 50 acre of vines (with 70% of their grapes provided by long-term contract growers & co-operatives), the Champagne house has been steadily converting all their estate vineyards (like Clos du Mesnil) to organic viticulture.

Unique Winemaking
Photo by Tomas er. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The courtyard of Krug’s production facility in Reims with empty oak barrels that have been used for the primary fermentation of their Champagnes.

Krug is notable for conducting the primary fermentation of all its cuvees in 205 liter oak barrels. Tyson Stelzer notes in his Champagne Guide 2018-2019 that Krug buys all of their barrels new and then keeps them for up to 50 years. Sourced from Seguin Moreau and Taransaud, the average age of the house’s 4000+ barrels is around 20 years.

When the new barrels arrive they are “seasoned” for 3 years with the juice from the second and third pressing. This wine never makes it into any Krug Champagne and is instead sold off for distillation. All together the wine spends only a few weeks in oak due to Krug’s preference for warm and fast fermentations that produce richer flavors. The wine is then transferred to stainless steel tanks.

Oxidative Style

Like Alfred Gratien, Charles Heidsieck, Selosse, Bernard Bremont, Vilmart and Bollinger, Krug is known for its oxidative style of winemaking with less SO2 used. This style tends to emphasize a more broader palate with rounder flavors compared to the reductive winemaking style of houses like Salon, Taittinger, Laurent Perrier, Franck Bonville, Ruinart and Dom Perignon.

While common for many oxidative-style Champagnes, malolactic fermentation is never intentionally induced at Krug. However, it is also not actively suppressed either so it will happen in some lots. But, in general, Krug Champagnes tend to have high levels of malic acid and low pH which contributes to the wines’ legendary longevity.

The non-vintage Grande Cuvée comprises the bulk of Krug’s 650,000 bottle production with vintage Champagnes like the Clos du Mesnil, Clos du Ambonnay and Brut Vintage making up only around 10% of the house’s Champagnes. This scarcity is a big reason for the Champagnes’ high price tags.

The Production Team

Since 1998, the chef de cave of Krug has been Eric Lebel. He was previously the winemaker at De Venoge where he made the notable 1996 Louis XV Tête de Cuvée. His assistant and heir apparent, Julie Cavil, now personally oversees the production of Clos du Mesnil. She has been with Krug since 2006, joining after previously working harvests at Moët & Chandon.

Krug Champagne display box

The display box that the Clos du Mesnil comes package in.

The 2000 vintage of the Clos du Mesnil spent more than 11 years aging on its lees. Krug only produces the wine in exceptional vintages with around 10,000 to 12,000 bottles made. I could not find the exact dosage for this wine but the house style of Krug tends to be on the lower side with an average of 6 g/l. Another trademark of Krug is to use reserves of the same base wine as part of the finished Champagne’s dosage.

The story of the 1999 Clos du Mesnil is an interesting one. Initially set for release after 12 years of aging on the lees, complete with labels printed, the production team of Krug decided at the last minute not to release the wine at all. Instead the wine was uncorked, the bottles destroyed, and the 1999 Clos du Mesnil blended away into other wines.

The Vineyard

Clos du Mesnil is a tiny 1.84 ha (4.55 acre) vineyard located in the heart of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. A true clos, the vineyard is surrounded by walls that were erected in 1698. An inscription in the clos notes that vines were first planted around this time as well.

Photo by Tomas e. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Clos du Mesnil vineyard is located practically in the middle of the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

In the late 19th century, the plot was owned by Clos Tarin whose winemaker was Marcel Guillaume, brother-in-law to Eugène-Aimé Salon. Intrigued by the Champagne business, Salon joined his brother-in-law at Clos Tarin. As he worked the vines of Clos du Mesnil with Guillaume, Salon was inspired to start his own house.

Krug purchased the Clos du Mesnil vineyard in 1971 with the fruit originally destined for use in the Grande Cuvée. The quality of the 1979 vintage inspired the house to do a dedicated bottling that year which was released in 1986. Peter Liem notes in his book Champagne that Krug’s foray into vineyard-designated Champagne was a game-charger for an industry that has historically focused on blending from multiple sites.

The vineyard is divided into 5 to 6 parcels. With varying vine ages and exposures, harvest usually takes place over multiple days with some vintages taking up to 10 days to complete. In the winery, the lots are further subdivided into around 19 different fermentation. The wine is constantly tasted during the aging process with some lots declassified into different bottlings of Krug or wines destined for other LVMH Champagnes.

Behind the Scenes at Clos du Mesnil

Krug’s YouTube channel has several “behind the scenes” videos including this one published in 2014 about Clos du Mesnil. Featuring enologist Julie Cavil, you get a great feel for the vineyard and how much it is like a tiny garden in the middle of the village. It is believed that the site’s urban location adds to the ripeness of Chardonnay in Clos du Mesnil with heat radiating off the nearby buildings onto the vines.

The short (less than 2 minutes) video below also gives some great insights about the 2000 vintage  as well. That year saw hail storms devastate Le Mesnil-sur-Oger though Clos du Mesnil was spared.

The Wine

High intensity nose. This wine smells like freshly harvested raw honeycomb. There is also a spicy ginger element along with a subtle smokiness. It reminds me of an aged botrytized wine like Sauternes. But not quite as sweet smelling. As the Champagne warmed up a bit in the glass, grilled pear notes emerged.

Photo by Merdal at Turkish Wikipedia. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The raw honeycomb note of this Champagne is very intriguing.

On the palate, the ginger and pear notes carry through and bring a citrus tang as well. The raw honeycomb is also present but takes on more of a baked element like honey shortbread cookies. Racy vibrant acidity makes this Champagne feel very youthful and contributes a streak of salty minerality. Very silky and creamy mousse. Long finish lingers on the smokey, spicy botrytized notes.

The Verdict — Is it worth the money?

Right now the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil averages around $994 a bottle with some vintages, like the 1996, topping over $1800.

I had the opportunity to try this bottle as part of the Archetype Tasting series conducted by Medium Plus. Founded by Seattle sommelier Nick Davis, this tasting group allows participants (usually 8 to 10 people) to split the cost of an iconic wine. For this event, attendees contributed $100 each towards the cost of the Krug Clos du Mesnil as well as bringing another fun bottle of Champagne to analyze in an educational setting.

The event was well worth the $100 ($200 with my wife attending) and the add-on bottles to taste the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil along with the 2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, 2006 Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque, Frederic Savart ‘l’Ouverture’, Suenen Oiry Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Paul Bara and others Champagnes featured.

But would I spend around a $1000 to get another bottle or splurge for an older vintage?

Nope.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne

The person who brought this Champagne got a screaming good deal getting this for around $100.

Now I will confess that I was recovering from a cold this evening so my tasting impressions were probably a little skewed. But even at less than 100% I found myself much more wowed by how delicious the 2006 Taittinger Comtes (WS Ave $136) was. While the 2004 Comtes Rosé I had earlier this year was a tad disappointing, this 2006 Blanc de Blancs from Taittinger was lively and intense with a long minerally finish that I can still taste.

Sure, I will put the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil ahead of it in terms of depth and complexity but I wouldn’t put it nearly 10x ahead. Likewise, the Savart L’Ouverture (WS Ave $47) was an absolutely scrumptious bottle just oozing with character.

I’ll be honest, when we had an opportunity to revisit the Champagnes later in the night, including more of the Clos du Mesnil, I let my wife (who really loved the Clos) get my extra pour so I could enjoy more of the Taittinger and Savart. Since I was the one driving home, I had to prioritize what wines I was going to savor and those were my picks.

If the Krug Clos du Mesnil was more in the $300-400 range, I could see myself wanting to give it another shot. It’s not a disappointing wine at all. But it’s hard to justify the cost especially when there are other wines even in the Krug stable (like their super solid Grande Cuvée at around $200) that can give me just as much pleasure for a better price.

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Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano

Joe Wagner, with his Copper Cane Wines & Provision, has been one of the most successful wine producers of the 21st century. But that fame and success doesn’t shield him from the ire of lawmakers and Oregon wineries who feel he has been playing fast and loose with state and federal wine labeling laws.

Joe Wagner's Elouan

These producers, led by Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards, believe that Wagner’s wine labels confuse consumers and devalue the branding of Oregon. Wagner contends that he is being truthful about where the grapes are coming from and that his wines bring Oregon to the attention of more drinkers.

While the legal aspects of labeling will be debated and hashed out by government agencies (with so far Wagner and his labels losing the battle), I wanted to investigate the idea of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the image of the Oregon wine industry among consumers. To test that, I held a blind tasting featuring the offending Wagner wines against more traditional Oregon Pinot noirs.

I wanted to see if Wagner’s wines stood out and if there’s smoke behind this controversy erupting in Oregon.

The Background

Joe Wagner started his winemaking career with the establishment of Belle Glos in 2001. Focusing on vineyard designated Pinot noirs, Wagner was inspired by the wines of Kosta Browne and soon built Belle Glos into a 100,000 case production. In 2006, he introduced Meiomi–a unique Pinot noir with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and sometimes Grenache blended in.

By 2015, Meiomi was selling more than half a million cases a year. Wagner cashed in that success by selling the brand to Constellation Brands for $315 million. That sale allowed him to focus on his other brands–including Elouan which was founded in 2014 to highlight Oregon Pinot noir.

The Controversy and Current Rules for Oregon Wines

Elouan Reserve labeled as from the Rogue Valley.

Wagner makes all his Oregon wines (Elouan and the Willametter Journal) in California–primarily at Copper Cane’s Rutherford winery.  In interviews, Wagner has stated his reasoning for trucking the grapes down to California was to maintain quality control.

Compared to federal standards, the rules for labeling wines in Oregon are more restrictive. For instance, to have a wine varietally labeled from Oregon, it must be at least 90% of the stated variety. Federal laws only mandate 75%.

To list an AVA on an Oregon wine, it must contain at least 95% of fruit sourced from that AVA. Crucially, the wine must also be produced solely within the state of Oregon. While the federal standard for AVA designation is only 85%, like Oregon, Federal laws also dictate that a wine using an AVA needs to be “fully finished” in the state containing the AVA. However, it does allow wines to be finished in adjacent states if it labeled under a more generic state designation such as “Oregon”.

While the basic Elouan has Oregon listed as it designation, the reserve wine uses the Rogue Valley AVA. With the wine being “fully finished” in California, this does seem to be a clear violation of labeling usage. Likewise, the case packaging of Elouan makes reference to the Willamette Valley, Rogue and Umpqua Valley. For the Willametter Journal, the grape source is listed as the “Territory of Oregon” which is a fanciful term not currently recognized as an approved AVA. Additionally, Willamette is prominently highlighted in red ink on the label as if it was an AVA designation.

Mega Purple — Mega Illegal In Oregon

The Willametter Journal has the word “Willamette” highlighted on the label in bright red.

Another unique aspect of Oregon wine law noted by Jim Bernau, is the use of additives like Mega Purple, Ultra Red, Purple 8000 and Red 8000. These are illegal in Oregon since they are based on teinturier grapes like Rubired that are not currently grown at all in the state. Essentially, the law views the use of these color and mouthfeel enhancing additives as illegally blending in grapes grown elsewhere.

Wagner and Copper Cane’s representatives have denied using these additives. However, there is wide spread belief in the industry that they are used frequently in California–particularly for inexpensive Pinot noirs.

The Big Questions

In setting up the blind tasting, I wanted to look at three focus points that I’d hope would answer the overarching question of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the branding of the Oregon wine industry.

1.) Does Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stand out when compared to other, more “traditional” Oregon producers?

2.) If his wines do stand out, is this because of a signature winemaking style that overwhelms terroir? While we can’t prove if he is blending in other grape varieties (like he did with Meiomi) or using additives such as Mega Purple, a strong winemaking signature could give credence to the idea that his wines may “confuse” consumers about what Oregon Pinot noirs usually taste like.

3.) And finally, when compared side by side, what wines do people enjoy drinking?

The Tasting Format and Participants

Several of the folks who graciously offered their palates for the blind tasting.

To help with answering questions #2 and #3, I included 3 of Joe Wagner’s California wines in the lineup to go along with the 3 offending Oregon wines. While not part of the controversy, I thought the inclusion of Wagner’s popular California Pinot noirs could shed light on if he has a signature winemaking style that his Oregon wines would also demonstrate.

The Wagner Wines

2017 The Willametter Journal Oregon
2016 Elouan Oregon
2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley
2014 Belle Glos Diaryman Russian River Valley
2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley
2016 Tuli Sonoma County

Included in the tasting were 15 Oregon wines from other producers. Additionally, there was 1 wine from British Columbia–the 2016 Quill from Blue Grouse Estate–that a guest brought. While originally I wanted to limit this to just Wagner and Oregon wines, I thought the Quill could serve as an interesting control. Would it be pegged as an “outsider” or “Wagner wine”? Or would it slipped in seamlessly with the Oregon wines. If so, that could indicate that perhaps the distinctiveness of Oregon wines are not as clear cut.

Oregon wines featured:

2016 Erath Oregon
2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster
2015 Domaine Loubejac Selection de Barriques
2015 Citation, Willamette Valley
2014 Domaine Drouhin, Dundee Hills
2016 Stoller Estate Reserve
2013 Patton Valley Vineyards West Block
2014 Welsh Family Wines Bjornson Vineyards, Eola-Amity Hills
2011 Siltstone Guadalupe Vineyard, Dundee Hills
2016 Marshall Davis, Yamhill Carlton
2014 Noel Vineyard, Willamette Valley
2012 Colene Clemens Margo
2016 Ayoub Pinot Noir Memoirs Dundee Hills
2012 Cristom Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvée Willamette Valley
2009 Coelho Winery Pinot Noir Paciência Willamette Valley

The wines were all served blind with only myself knowing the identities. Since some of the Wagner wines like the Belle Glos and Elouan Reserve had visible wax capsules, I placed those wines along with random Oregon bottles in one of 8 different decanters.

While there was a handful of industry folks from the retail side, the vast majority of the participants were regular wine consumers.

The Results

More traditional Oregon wines like the Stoller Reserve, Patton Valley West Block and Marshall Davis were the runaway favorites of the tasting.

During the tasting, many participants began noticing a trend of some wines being noticeably darker and fruitier–especially compared to other wines. A couple wines even stained glasses in ways that usually aren’t expected of Pinot noir.

The conversation emerged that in order to “Pin the tail on the Wagner”, one needed to look for the least “Pinot-like” wines of the bunch. This would turn out to be a worthwhile strategy that several tasters adopted.

After the tasting I asked the participants to first pick out their favorite bottles. The results were overwhelming for Oregon with the 2016 Stoller Estate Reserve, 2016 Marshall Davis and 2013 Patton Valley West Block getting multiple votes. The BC wine, the Quill, also got some votes as a favorite with many tasters thinking it was an Oregon wine from areas like McMinnville.

But the surprise of the favorite reveal was the inclusion of one of the controversial Oregon Wagner wines–the 2017 Willametter Journal. While the wine was more lush than the others, tasters compared it favorably to warm vintage Oregon Pinot noirs from AVAs like Ribbon Ridge and Eola-Amity Hills.

Pin the Tail on the Wagners

With the Willametter Journal already revealed, the quest then moved to see if the tasters could identify the 5 remaining Wagner wines. It should be noted that several participants had the Willametter Journal pegged as a Wagner.

Voting on what was a Wagner wine.

In the end, the tasters identified all but one Wagner wine blind. The 2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley was the most obvious Wagner. It was near unanimously picked as being the least “Pinot noir-like” wine in the entire tasting. Several tasting notes alluded to a “root beer soda-like” quality and compared it to other grapes like Syrah and Zinfandel.

The only Wagner wine to escape detection was the 2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley. This one reminded a few tasters of Oregon wines from areas like Dundee and the Eola-Amity Hills.

Most surprising of all were two Oregon wines that were pegged by multiple tasters as Wagner wines–the 2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster made by Jim Bernau and the 2015 Citation made by Howard Rossbach who founded Firesteed Cellars. The 2016 Erath Oregon also got some votes for being a “Wagner wine” as well.

Takeaways

Both the Citation and Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster were popular picks as Wagner wines.

For the most part, Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stood out and tasted noticeably different compared to other Oregon Pinot noirs.

However, it is extremely interesting that the best selling Oregon wines (at least from a volume perspective)–the Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster and Erath–struck so many tasters as potentially being Wagners. While we didn’t have a bottle of Firesteed Cellars (recently sold to Vintage Wine Estates in 2017) in the tasting, the identification of Rossbach’s Citation as a potential Wagner goes along with that trend.

Together, those three wines (WVV, Erath and Firesteed) dominate restaurant wine lists and supermarket retail for Oregon wines. They’re popular wines that appeal to many consumers’ palates.

Likewise, Joe Wagner has built his success on producing wines that strike a cord with consumers–especially at restaurants and supermarket retail. While his style is distinctive, it is a style that sells. It’s also very telling that the Willametter Journal, one of the wines at the heart of the controversy, was selected as a favorite even as it was noted for being very different from the other Oregon wines.

However, overall, the Willametter Journal was an outlier. While wines like Stoller, Patton Valley and Marshall Davis might not sell at the volume of Wagner’s wines (or WVV, Erath and Firesteed for that matter), when tasted side by side–the vast majority of tasters went towards these more traditional-style Oregon Pinots.

Help or Hurt?

The Erath Oregon Pinot noir, now own by Ste Michelle Wine Estates, is made in a style that reminded quite a few tasters of Joe Wagner’s wines.

Now to the question of whether Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines help or hurt the image of Oregon wines among consumers.

The results are a mix-bag.

Does his wines represent Oregon? Definitely not at the top tier.

But at the entry-level? That’s a hazier question.

It’s hard to make the argument that Wagner’s “hurting” Oregon when many of the most popular Oregon wines seem to appeal to the same palate his wines do. These wineries (like Willamette Valley Vineyards, Erath and Citation/Firesteed) may not be using the same techniques as Wagner but, whatever they are doing, they’re making easy-drinking and crowd pleasing wines that hit the same notes as Joe Wagner’s wines.

While I’m sure there are a few Oregon wine producers who would like to throw Joe Wagner into a volcano, I don’t think we can dismiss the likelihood that his wines (or similarly styled Pinots) will be the tipple of choice at the luau.

Regardless of how they’re labelled.

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Life Hack — How To Find A Good Bottle Of Wine

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

Food and wine pairing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck it, we’re going with Champagne.

But It Doesn’t Have To Be That Complicated

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

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

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

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

And more profoundly.

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

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

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

Better Than Visualizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitting a Moving Target

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

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

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

Or a video game with that damn mocking dog

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

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

Resources for more geeking

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Happening to the Fruit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It depends. On you.

When Is Your Peak Drinking Window?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Happening to the Structure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn From Other People’s Sacrifices

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

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

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

Lessons from Jancis Robinson

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

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

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


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

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

For me, the math is simple.

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

But….

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

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

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WBC18 Day 1 Quick Impressions

Getting ready to start Day 2 of the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference and my nervousness has subsided considerably.

It was really great meeting several bloggers who I’ve only known before as names on a screen. I’d love to give a particular shout out to Lisa Stephenson (Worldly Wino), Noelle Harman (Outwines), Anne Keery (Aspiring Winos), Maureen Blum (Mo Wino), Dwight Furrow (Edible Arts), Reggie Solomon (Wine Casual) and Margot Savell (Write For Wine) for being great geeking and drinking companions yesterday.

I also want to thank Nancy Croisier (Vino Social) who I’ve known outside of blogland but has done a lot to help me feel welcomed here at WBC.

Lustau’s Sherry Wine Specialist Certification Course

I will definitely be doing a full write-up in the next few weeks on this event. A big light bulb moment for me was realizing the similarities and overlap between Sherries and Scotches.

Both drinks mostly start out with a single main ingredient (Palomino grape and Malted Barley). Yes, there are some other minor grapes like Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez and Blended Scotches can have various grains like corn and rye but, for the most part, the reputation of both are built on these primary ingredients.

Many Scotches are aged in Oloroso Sherry casks which makes tasting the Lustau Don Nuno Oloroso Sherry a great education for Scotch fans. 

The diversity of styles that arise from those single ingredients begin early in the production process with pressing decisions with Sherries that dramatically impact mouthfeel while the shape of the still and angle of the lyne arm with Scotch will similarly have a pronounce influence on the resulting mouthfeel and body of the Scotch.

Then comes the ever important aging period with the environment, barrels and time leaving their indelible print. While the use of yeast seems to be more important to Bourbon producers than necessarily Scotch, you can still see an overlap with the presence or absence of Sherry’s famous Flor yeast. Though a better comparison on degree of influence may be more with water source.

You can also draw a parallel between the art and skill of blending for whiskies with the simplicity yet complex results of the solera system.

Welcome Reception Wine Tasting

Two big wine discoveries jumped out at the reception tasting–the wines of Mt. Beautiful in the Canterbury region of New Zealand and the Lugana DOC located at the south end of Lake Garda in Italy.

The 2016 Mt. Beautiful Pinot noir, in particular, was excellent and ended up being the best wine of the entire day (with the 2013 Mullan Road a close second). It reminded me of an excellent Oregon Pinot noir from the Eola-Amity Hills with its combination of freshness, dark fruit and a mix of floral and spice notes. I would have pegged it for a $35-40 bottle but the Wine Searcher Average for it is $26!

After tasting the Lugana wines, I want to explore more about its primarily grape Trebbiano di Soave–locally known as Turbiana. As I’ve discovered reading the work of my Vino-Crush Ian D’Agata, the Trebbiano group of grapes is a mix bag with a reputation that is often overshadowed by the blandness of Trebbiano Toscano (the Ugni blanc of Cognac) yet can produce some stellar wines such as Trebbiano d’Abruzzo made by its namesake variety.

That “mixed bag” feel also characterized my tasting of the Lugana wines with some of them being fresh and vibrant like a racy Verdicchio or complex and layered like a Vermentino while others were decidedly “meh”. That could be producer variation but I’d like to learn more about Turbiana and which side of the Trebbiano family tree this variety may fall on.

Mullan Road Winemaker’s Dinner

Dennis Cakebread of Mullan Road and Cakebread Cellars

It was very fun to meet Dennis Cakebread and learn about his plans for Mullan Road.  He doesn’t necessarily want it to go down the Cakebread path in Napa with a large portfolio of wines (including apparently a Syrah from the Suscol Springs Ranch Vineyard in Jamieson Canyon that I now eagerly want). Instead, he wants to keep this 3000 case label focused on being a Bordeaux-style blend.

I also found it interesting that instead of going the Duckhorn/Canvasback route of purchasing land in a notable AVA like Red Mountain, Cakebread is embracing the blending mentality with sourcing fruit from great vineyards like Seven Hills in Walla Walla, Stillwater Creek and the Lawrence Family’s Corfu Vineyard in the upcoming Royal Slope AVA.

They poured both the 2013 and 2015 vintages of Mullan Road (as well as a one-off bottling of extra Merlot from the 2013 vintage) and it is clear that Mullan Road is a wine that rewards patience. While I suspect the 2015 will eventually be the better bottle, it was still at least 2 to 3 years away from starting to hit it stride while the 2013 was just now entering a good place with a solid core of dark fruit, juicy medium-plus acidity but added spice and floral aromatics for complexity. I can see this 2013 continuing to deliver pleasure easily for another 7 to 10 years that more than merits its $40-45 price point.

The evening also featured an unexpected history lesson with a character actor re-enacting the story of Captain John Mullan and the military road he constructed to connect Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton in Montana on the banks of the Missouri River.

All in all, a great day. Here’s to Day 2 following suit!

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Déjà Vu at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour

Last month, I attended the Wine Spectator Grand Tour tasting at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

While I had a blast at the 2017 tasting (which I documented in my 3 part series that you can read here) I won’t be doing a series of articles on this year’s Grand Tour (apart from maybe a Top 10 post) because, frankly, I would be burning out the “cut and paste” keys on my laptop.

Déjà vu all over again

Out of the 244 wineries participating, an astonishing 184 of them (around 75%) were repeats from last year’s tastings.
Sure, wineries like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Ch. Haut-Brion, Penfolds, Casanova de Neri, Perrier-Jouët and K Vintners make a lot of great wine that are fun to try. It’s fine to have some “big ticket names” regularly featured to attract attention.

But come on? 75% repeats?

That’s crazy when you consider that Wine Spectator reviews around 17,000 wines a year—several thousand of which get 90+ points. Using their Advance Search option, I found over 1800 American, 1700 French, 300 Italian, 180 Spanish and 180 Australian wines from just the 2014 vintage alone with 90+ ratings.

Is it really that difficult to find more than 100 new wineries each year to feature at their marquee tasting event?

Groundhog Day at the Mirage

While some of the repeat wineries did pour at least a different wine than they did the year before (like Albert Bichot’s Domaine du Clos Frantin pouring the 2013 Clos du Vougeot Grand Cru this year after pouring the 2013 Vosne-Romanee Les Malconsorts Premier Cru last year), 66 of the wineries poured only a different vintage of the same wines they featured in 2017.

Highlighting all the same wineries featured in 2017 and 2018.

Now, yes, I suppose you could argue that there is some interest in seeing vintage variation–but that is only helpful if you are tasting both vintages side by side or happen to have meticulous notes on hand of your previous tasting to compare. Otherwise, it pretty much feels like you are tasting the same damn wine you tasted last year.

The big exception, though, was when wineries took an opportunity to dive into back vintages to give you a unique library tasting experience. This was the case of Domaine de Chevalier and Chateau La Nerthe who brought out their 1998 and 2008 vintages to pour. Rather than feel like you’re tasting “last year’s wine”, this gave you a chance to try something very different and both wines ended up being some of my favorites of the night.

However, probably the most egregious sin of the event was the 25 wineries (around a tenth of all the wines at the event) who poured the exact same wine they poured in 2017. Granted, that number does includes some NV wines that theoretically could be a “new batch” but that still doesn’t discount the unoriginality and boredom of seeing the same wine featured.

Seeing a 3 liter bottle of Tawny Port is impressive in any context, though.

Even Champagne producer Lanson was able to mix things up with pouring their Black Label NV this year after featuring their NV Extra Age Brut last year. Likewise, the Port house Graham’s brought their NV 20 Year Tawny Port this year while last year they had their 2000 vintage Port available.

Same Bat-Wine, Same Bat-Channel
Wineries that poured the exact same wine at each event.

Alvear Pedro Ximenez Montilla-Moriles Solera 1927 NV
Ch. Brown Pessac-Leognan 2014
Chateau Ste. Michelle Artist Series 2013
Croft Vintage Port 2011
Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rose NV
Ernie Els Signature Stellenbosch 2012
Fattoria di Felsina Toscana Fontalloro 2013
Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino 2012
Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2005
Henriot Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV
Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Small Block Reserve 2013
Montecillo Rioja Gran Reserva 2009
Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut NV
Mumm Napa Blanc de Blancs NV
Orin Swift Abstract 2015
Patz & Hall Pinot noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2014
Famille Perrin Gigondas Clos des Tourelles 2013
Ramos-Pinto 30 year Tawny Port NV
Recanati Carignan Judean Hills Wild Reserve 2014
Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva Baron de Chirel 2010
Louis Roederer Brut Champagne Premier NV
Taylor-Fladgate 20 year Tawny Port NV
Teso La Monja Toro Victorino 2013
Torres Priorat Salmos 2013
Trinchero Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Mario’s Vineyard 2013

Sneak Peak at the 2019 Wine Spectator Grand Tour pour list?

Trying a 5+ year aged Gruner was interesting. I much prefer that to tasting just the newer vintage of the same wine I had last year.

Below are the wineries that poured the same wine but a different vintage. The vintage they poured in 2017 is listed first followed by the wine featured at the 2018 event.

Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva (2010/2013)
Alion Ribera del Duero (2012/2010)
Allegrini Amarone (2012/2013)
Almaviva Puente Alto (2013/2014)
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura (2011/2012)
Barboursville Ocatagon (2012/2014)
Marchesi di Barolo Sarmassa Barolo (2012/2013)
Belle Glos Pinot noir Clark & Telephone (2014/2012)
Beringer Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2013/2014)
Brane-Cantenac Margaux (2010/2011)
Caiarossa Toscana (2011/2012)
Calon Segur St. Estephe (2003/2005)
Caparazo Brunello di Montalcino La Casa (2011/2012)
Carpineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva (2011/2012)
Casa Ferreirinha Douro Quinta da Leda (2014/2011)
Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova (2011/2012)
Castellare di Castellina Toscano I Sodi di San Niccolo (2012/2013)
Caymus Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon (2009/2014)
Pio Cesare Barolo (2012/2013)
Chalk Hill Chardonnay Chalk Hill (2014/2015)
Cheval des Andes Mendoza (2012/2013)
Domaine de Chevalier Pessac-Leognan (2010/1998)
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso (2010/2012)
Col Solare (2013/2009)
Colome Malbec Salta (2013/2015)
Craggy Range Pinot noir Martinborough Te Muna Road Vineyard (2013/2015)
Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva (2010/2011)
Damilano Barolo Cannubi (2012/2013)
Domaine Drouhin Pinot noir Dundee Hills Laurene (2013/2014)
Donnafugata Terre Siciliane Mille e Una Notte (2011/2012)
Elk Cove Pinot noir Yamhill-Carlton District Mount Richmond (2014/2015)
Ch. d’ Esclans Cotes de Provence Garrus rosé (2014/2015)
Livio Felluga Rosazzo Terre Alte (2013/2015)
Feudo Maccari Sicilia Saia (2013/2014)
Fonseca Vintage Port Guimaraens (2013/2015)
Fontodi Colli Della Toscana Centrale Flaccianello (2013/2014)
Frescobaldi Brunello di Montalcino Castelgiocondo (2011/2012)
Ktima Gerovassiliou Malagousia Epanomi (2015/2016)
Kaiken Malbec Mendoza Mai (2012/2013)
Laurenz V. Gruner Veltliner Trocken Kamptal Charming Reserve (2014/2012)
Leeuwin Chardonnay Margaret River Art Series (2013/2014)
Luce Della Vite Toscana Luce (2013/2014)
Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Villa Gemma (2007/2011)
Masi Amarone Costasera (2011/2012)
Masut Pinot noir Eagle Peak Vineyard (2014/2015)
Mazzei Maremma Toscana Tenuta Belguardo (2011/2013)
Mollydooker Shiraz Carnival of Love McLaren Vale (2014/2016)
Ch. La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee des Cadettes (2013/2009)
El Nido Jumilla (2013/2014)
Siro Pacenti Brunello di Montalcino Vecchie Vigne (2012/2013)
Pacific Rim Riesling Yakima Valley Solstice Vineyard (2014/2015)
Pichon-Lalande Pauillac (2011/2009)
Protos Ribera del Duero Reserva (2011/2012)
Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco (2012/2013)
Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico Riserva di Fizzano Gran Selezione (2012/2013)
Rust en Verde Stellenbosch (2013/2014)
Rutini Malbec Mendoza Apartado Gran (2010/2013)
Tenuta San Guido Toscana Guidalberto (2014/2015)
Vina Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Casa Real (2012/2013)
Vina Sena Aconcagua Valley (2013/2015)
Tenuta Sette Ponti Toscana Oreno (2014/2015)
Sterling Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve (2013/2014)
Ch. du Tertre Margaux (2011/2010)
Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino (2007/2010)
Quinta do Vale Meao Douro Meandro (2013/2014)
Walt Pinot noir Sta. Rita Hills Clos Pepe (2014/2015)

Moral of the Story?

Let’s not even get into the clear spit buckets that were featured on several tables.

Setting aside that around three quarters of the wineries were the same, the crux for me was the nearly 40% of the wines being either actual or near repeats with different vintages. Paying $225 to $325 a ticket (and up to $475 at the upcoming New York event in October)–not to mention travel and hotel costs–for that is pretty ridiculous.

While I would still say that the value of the wines being tasted and the breadth of the tasting makes the Wine Spectator Grand Tour worth it for a first time visitor, the experience of having so many repeats of wineries and wines dampers my enthusiasm for making this a yearly priority to attend.

I haven’t made up my mind about attending the 2019 or 2020 event but, at this rate, I feel like I’d rather find another reason to go to Vegas to play the Somm Game.

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.

Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto.

These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off.

With nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.

The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow!

I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!

Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt!

This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses.

But, again, Kyran when above and beyond as he brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.

With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new.

You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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Cinsault — The Black Prince of South Africa

As promised in my summary post about the 2018 Hospice du Rhône Weekend, I’ll tackle each of the four seminars with their own posts beginning with the first seminar on Friday — South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance.

I’m hard-pressed to narrow down which of the four seminars were my absolute favorite but, without a doubt, this seminar was the most eye-opening. In my Quick Take on Day 1, I commented how neither Cinsault nor South Africa tends to be on the radar of most US consumers. The trade organization WOSA (Wines of South Africa) reported in 2016 that the US receives only 3% of the wine exported from South Africa. In 2014, when US sales of wine (both domestic and exported) were around 370 million cases, wines from South Africa accounted for less than 0.33% of those sales.

But after attending this seminar moderated by Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast and reading about my friend Adrienne’s wine adventures drinking South African wines in Nambia, it’s clear that South Africa is a wine producer worth paying attention to—not the least of which for the country’s treasure trove of old vine Cinsault.

The seminar featured 9 Cinsaults and Cinsault-dominant blends from 7 producers with winemakers Tremayne Smith (The Blacksmith Wines), Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines), Danie Steytler (Kaapzicht Wine Estate) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis) on the panel.

I will get into my tasting notes on the individual wines in the moment but first some geeking about Cinsault.

Cinsault: The Mediterranean “Pinot noir”?

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that the earliest recorded mention of Cinsault was under the synonym ‘Marroquin’ in 1600 by the French writer Olivier de Serres. The modern spelling ‘Cinsault’ emerged in the 1880s as a likely derivative from ‘Sinsâou’ that was used in the Hérault department along the Mediterranean coast as early as 1829.

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

Cinsault growing in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

DNA analysis suggest this area is the probable birthplace of Cinsault due to its close genetic relationship to the Piquepoul varieties and the potential parent-offspring relationship with Rivairenc (Aspiran), the very old Languedoc grape.

Today some of the oldest vines of Cinsault in the Languedoc date back to 1900. While Cinsault suffered the same post-WW II image problem here it did in South Africa, it is also benefiting from renewed interest in the variety with even acclaimed Burgundian producers like Anne Gros (of the notable Vosne-Romanée family) and her husband Jean-Paul Tollot tending to 50+ year old vines in Minervois.

Outside of France, the grape is found in the Puglia region of Italy where it is known as Ottavianello and must make up a minimum of 85% of the red blends in the Ostuni DOC. In Morocco it is the most widely planted grape variety but that is largely because Cinsault is also a popular table grape variety.

Chateau Musar has long championed the grape variety in Lebanon, frequently blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Washington State, Paul Gregutt describes wines made from Cinsault as like a “good Beaujolais” and notes in Washington Wines that it can be found in Walla Walla in the Morrison Lane and Minnick Vineyards as well as in the Horse Heaven Hills at Alder Ridge.

Cinsault in South Africa

Tim James in Wines of the New South Africa notes that Cinsault was introduced to South Africa in the 1880s and quickly became a popular planting. By 1909, it was the most widely planted red grape variety and the third most popular grape after Greengrape (Semillon) and Muscat.

Originally known as “Hermitage” until the mid-1930s, Cinsault would eventually account for as much as a third of all vineyard plantings in South Africa and was used to make everything from dry reds to sweet fortified wines to even brandy. The rise in popularity of Chenin blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon after World War II would eventually signal the grape’s decline throughout rest of the 20th century but even as its popularity wane it was still frequently used as a blending grape to add perfume and acidity to some of the country’s top Cabernet Sauvignon.

By 2008, Cinsault accounted for around a tenth of all vineyards in South Africa with notable plantings in Paarl, Breedekloof and the ward of Malmesbury in Swartland. Roughly translated to “The Black Land” in reference to the renosterbos (“rhino bush”) shrubs that dot the landscape, it is somewhat poetic that old vine vineyards of the Black Prince in Swartland would be the source of some of the most delicious Cinsault at the seminar.

Seminar Wines

Most of these wines are limited releases and hard to find in the United States. But they are well worth the hunt if you can get them.

Color of the The Blacksmith Barebones. Note how you can read through the core to see the text underneath.


2017 The Blacksmith Barebones, W.O. Paarl (Wine Searcher Average $24)
Medium intensity nose with black cherry and fresh uncured tobacco.

On the palate, those black cherry notes come through and are quite juicy and fresh with medium-plus acidity. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the “Beaujolais” quality of the wine making it very pleasant and enjoyable with a moderate finish.

2017 The Blacksmith Prince of Bones, W.O. Swartland (No WS listing. At the seminar, Lauren Buzzeo priced it at $45)
Medium-plus intensity nose with lots of blue floral notes to go with the black cherry and tobacco notes exhibited by the Barebones.

On the palate, those fresh uncured tobacco notes from the nose change to more cured tobacco spice–not that dissimilar from Bordeaux wines. Medium-plus acidity maintains the juiciness of the cherry fruit with medium-plus tannins contributing to the medium-plus body of the wine. Long finish ends on the spicy note and mouthwatering fruit. Outstanding wine and probably my favorite of the tasting.

2017 Sadie Family Pofadder, W.O. Swartland (WS Average for 2016 vintage $42)
Medium-minus intensity nose. Light raspberry and some herbal notes. With some air a slight watermelon note (both flesh and rind) come out which is intriguing.

On the palate, the fruit flavors are similarly light. High acidity and chalky medium-plus tannins contribute to a thin and skeletal feel of the wine. Very short finish brings an earthy element that is hard to make out.

2017 Craven Wines Cinsault, W.O. Stellenbosch (WS Average $14 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $55)
Medium intensity nose with red cherry, rose petals and fresh forest earthiness.

On the palate, the earthy element becomes a little more herbal but also brings a savory black pepper spice note. High acidity and medium-plus tannins are balanced a bit better with the fruit than the Sadie Pofadder so the wine feels more firm and structured rather than thin and skeletal. Seems young but promising.

The Badenhorst Ramnasgras from Swartland was fantastic.


2016 A.A. Badenhorst Cinsault Ramnasgras, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $38)
Medium-plus intensity with black cherry notes and lots of spice and meatiness. A mix of Burgundian and Rhone notes on the nose that had my mouth watering before even taking a sip.

On the palate, the cherry and spice carries through with the mouthwatering continuing with the medium-plus acidity. High tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit of the wine really well and contribute to this wine feeling like a meal in itself. Another favorite.

2016 Kaapzicht Cinsault 1952, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $31)
Medium intensity nose with an intriguing mix of cherry pie spices and leather.

The Kaapzicht 1952. Note how much darker this wine is in the core.


On the palate, those cherry pie notes come through with a toasty graham cracker crust character as well. Juicy medium-plus and ripe medium-plus tannins gives the wine great structure and mouthfeel. Long finish keeps with the cherry pie note with some cured tobacco spice joining the party. Very delicious.

2015 Kaapzicht Cinsault Skuinberg, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $79)
Medium-minus intensity nose. A mix of minty menthol and coffee espresso with some undefined red fruits.

On the palate, the red fruits become more defined as cherry and raspberry but the menthol and espresso dominant. Like the 1952, the medium-plus acidity and tannins give the wine exceptional balance and structure. I just don’t know if I’m a fan of this flavor profile as much.

2015 Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault, W.O. Franschhoek (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $103)
Medium-plus intensity nose with black raspberry and blackberry notes. There is also a minty element here but it smells more like fresh mint leaves rather than menthol.

The black fruits carry through on the palate with the minty notes being more subdued. In their place some of that Bordeaux-style tobacco spice emerges which gives the wine a savory element with the medium-plus acidity. Medium-plus tannins balances out the full bodied weight of the fruit. Long finish lingers on the spice. Really well made wine.

2015 Silwervis Cinsault, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $26 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $50)
Medium intensity nose with coffee and cherry notes. With some air, a little floral mint and fresh tobacco leaf comes out.

On the palate, the coffee notes dominant with fruit present but struggling to emerge. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins have firm edges to them. Even though this one of the oldest wines at the tastings, it felt really young. Intriguing though.

Takeaways

Cinsault’s diversity is a joy for food pairing but a nightmare for blind tasting.

As I reviewed my notes I saw some patterns emerging (cherry and tobacco) but many of those notes overlap with styles familiar to Burgundy, Beaujolais and lighter Bordeaux. A few examples even hit some of those savory meaty notes of a Rhone. Still, this diversity is exciting because here we have a wine that can be anything from a great picnic & BBQ sipper to something savory and complex that can hold up to robust dishes.

While two of my favorites (The Blacksmith’s Prince of Bones and A.A. Badenhorst’s Ramnagras) were from the Swartland–along with the intriguing but young tasting Silwervis–it was hard to pinpoint terroir characteristics. Considering how much I’ve liked other wines from these producers, I wonder how much of it is more producer style verses the region?

But a big takeaway, and one that the moderator and panelists frequently referred to, was the importance of older vines for Cinsault. The vine lends itself easily to overproduction and with its thin skins can be prone to producing thin flavors. While that may work for bulk rosé, it’s not ideal for making character driven wines.

With over 1600 acres of Cinsault vines over 20 years old (and many of the wines featured in this tasting coming from 40+ year old vineyards), South Africa does have a good bounty of older vines to work with. The really lovely Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault from Franschhoek was sourced from South Africa’s 2nd oldest red wine vineyard from vines that are 91+ years old. You can taste the added complexity and concentration from these older vines.

Remarkable stuff that is, again, well worth the hunt to find.

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Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018

The BBQ prep for the closing dinner.

Just got back home from a wonderful weekend down in Paso Robles attending the 2018 Hospice du Rhône. This was my first time attending the event and I can tell you that my wife and I are already making plans to attend the 2020 event April 23rd-25th.

To be honest, we are even thinking about attending the 2019 event in the Rhône Valley.

We purchased two weekend passes at $995 each which got us:

4 seminars featuring 9-11 wines each including many wines with limited releases and very small production.
Two lunches (a Rosé lunch on Day 1 and Live Auction lunch on Day 2)
An Opening and Closing Tasting featuring hundreds of wines with each tasting having a different theme (older vintages for Day 1 and newer vintages for Day 2) so each day had different wines to try.
Farewell dinner and BBQ

As you can probably garner from the first paragraph, my wife and I left the event feeling that the cost of the weekend pass was more than worth it for the experience we got. So I’ll share some of my favorite geeky moments, top wines and the two slight negatives that put a damper on an otherwise stellar event.

I’ll save my reviews of the 4 seminars (South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance, A 6th Generation Crusade in the Barossa Valley, Lost and Found: Old Vine Rhônes Across California, The Majesty of Guigal) for their own individual posts because there was a lot of great stuff from each to unpack.

Top 3 Geek Moments

Meeting two Masters of Wine in Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards and Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. I got a chance to talk to Billo about the possibilities of Walla Walla hosting a future Hospice du Rhone (would be incredibly exciting!) and with Morgan it was hard not to be charmed with his unabashed geekiness for old vine vineyards in California.

John Alban, Morgan Twain-Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua at the old vine seminar.

Which along those lines….

Having the light bulb flick on about the treasure of old vine field blends. Some of the most exciting wines at the event were old vine field blends featuring a hodge podge of grapes like Mataro (Mourvedre), Syrah, Peloursin, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Trousseau noir, Grenache, Mondeuse, Alicante Bouchet and the like inter-planted and fermented together. In an industry dominated by monoculture and mono-varietal wines, the character of these field blends like Carlisle’s Two Acres and Bedrock’s Gibson Ranch are off the charts.

And no one is intentionally planting field blends right now. This truly is a treasure of the past when farmers, rather than viticulturists, just kind of did their thing and let what would grow, grow. That kind of proposition is way too risky today but that only heightens the importance of saving these old vineyards and supporting the wineries who source fruit from them.

As a Millennial, the character and stories behind field blend plantings is the perfect antidote to the mind-numbing boredom of the “same old, same old”. Millennials are changing the wine industry with their craving for new experiences and new things as well as authenticity–which an old vine field blend delivers in spades. It’s why I’m skeptical that Cabernet Sauvignon will continue it dominance and why I don’t think Merlot’s downturn is just because of a movie.

Potek Winery’s Mormann Vineyard Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills.
Great wine but Potek’s labels are WAAAAAAY too busy. Admittedly in a wine shop I wouldn’t even give them a second look because they’re so hard to read.

Though speaking of that movie…

Screw Pinot. Let’s start drinking Santa Barbara County Rhônes. I mentioned this in my quick take on Day 1 and day 2 only reaffirmed how special these cool climate Rhônes are. I’ll also add the Russian River Valley of Sonoma because not only can you find Carlisle’s Two Acre gem there but I was also thoroughly impressed with the wines from MacLaren.

Top 10 (non-seminar) Wines of the Event

When you have wines like a 2005 Guigal La Turque being poured at the seminars, it would be easy to fill up this list with nothing but seminar wines. But there were a lot of fantastic wines poured at the Opening and Closing tastings so here are 10 of my favorites in no particular order.

2016 Jada Hell’s Kitchen Paso Robles — It was actually hard to narrow down just one of the Jada wines to put on this list because every single one of them were stellar. This one was very full bodied and hedonistic with rich dark fruit, velvety smooth mouthfeel and a long finish with dark chocolate notes.

2016 Louis Cheze Condrieu Pagus Luminis — Crisp but mouthfilling. Lots of fresh tree fruit notes–apricots and peaches–with some stony minerality.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to try Saxum, I’m actually far more excited about the wines being made by their assistant, Don Burns, with his wife Claudia at their Turtle Rock Winery.

2016 CR Graybehl The Grenachista Alder Springs Grenache Mendocino County — I guess I could add this to my cool-climate Rhône discoveries. Like Jada, this was a hard one to narrow down because I loved everything from this producer. The Alder Springs had a particular vivacious mouthfeel of juicy blackberries with some spice and floral notes.

2012 Turtle Rock Willow’s Cuvee Paso Robles — Made by the assistant winemaker of Saxum. Truthfully, I liked these better than the Saxum wines I tried. Very floral with a mix of red and dark fruit. One of the best noses of the night.

2012 Dos Cabezas Wineworks El Campo Sonoita Arizona — One of the surprises of the event. A Tempranillo-Mourvedre blend from Arizona that tasted like a spicy Ribera del Duero and juicy Jumilla had a baby. Very impressive.

2008 Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah Santa Barbara County — Winners across the board from Kunin. Great mix of dark fruit and earthy forest floor. Very long finish. These were wines I wished I had more time to savor.

2012 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape — This hit my perfect catnip style of savory, meaty undertones wrapped around a core of juicy, mouthwatering fruit. Such a treat to have and I suspect that the 2015 will be even better with a few more years.

2007 Carlisle James Berry Syrah Paso Robles — All in all, Carlisle probably made my favorite wines of the entire event. I can still taste the 2016 Two Acres from the old vine seminar but this James Berry was a close second. Still very lively with dark fruit, mouthwatering medium-plus acid and some spicy minerality on the finish.

A 100% Cinsault pet-nat was not only geeky good but also a palate savior.
Would really love to see more sparkling wines like this at future Hospice du Rhone events.


2017 The Blacksmith The Bloodline Cinsault Pet-Nat Darling W.O. South Africa — This was much needed salvation for the palate (see below) but it would have been a treat to try under any circumstance. Super geeky Cinsault pet-nat, this wine had a huge nose of orange blossoms and cherries that jumped out of the glass.

2005 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage — This wine wasn’t part of any featured tasting and was certainly an unexpected treat that someone brought to the Live Auction lunch on Day 2. This was my first Chave and my lord! Still quite young and powerful for its age with layers of red fruit, savory Asian spices and a long finish of smokey BBQ notes.

Palate Fatigue and a little clicky culture

While overall the event was fantastic, there were two things that stuck out as minor negatives. One was the absence of sparkling wines which are the guardian angels of the palate at tastings like these. As readers of my flashback review of the 2017 Taste Washington know, periodically taking a break from big, heavy reds with some palate cleansing bubbles is a must if you’re going to maximize your tasting experience.

There were a few producers pouring some roses and crisp white wines which helped but it was disappointing not to see more sparkling examples. I know that the Rhône is not particularly well known for bubbles but there is the Clairette de Die and Saint-Péray AOCs producing sparkling wine and Australia has a good tradition of making sparkling Shiraz. I’m sure there are also examples from New World producers experimenting with sparkling Viognier and other varieties. It would be great to give these wines more visibility and they would be absolute god sends during the big tastings.

While some of the “clickiness” at lunch was disheartening, the gracious couple who shared this wine from their table gave me an amazing thrill that was a joy to try.


The second negative was how “clicky” the culture among the attendees were–especially at the lunches. It’s wonderful that the Hospice du Rhône is in its 22nd year and it’s clear that there are many people who have been attending this event regularly. But for a “newbie”, it felt hard at times to break into the crowd.

Again, this was most felt at the lunches where several times seats and entire tables were reserved not by official organizers but other attendees who didn’t seem to have any interest in interacting with people who weren’t part of their local scene.

But there were certainly more than enough gracious attendees who were welcoming and approachable (as well as the organizers themselves like John and Lorraine Alban, Vicki Carroll and Faith Wells) to make the event exceedingly enjoyable and well worth attending again.

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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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