Category Archives: Wine Tasting

Re-opening Winery Tasting Rooms — What would bring me back?

For a follow up to tasting rooms reopening, see “How NOT to Respond to a Guest’s Concerns About COVID

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek recently posted a poll asking if people were ready to go back to tasting rooms. While the plurality was raring to go, the majority of respondents to his question were a bit more reserved.

A small sample size, but what’s notable is that Haas was polling highly engaged wine lovers–the kind of folks who would actively follow the personal Twitter account of a winery owner. So if over 60% of people who are probably pretty passionate and geeky about wine are still a little iffy about rushing out to tasting rooms, how do you think everyone else feels?

I know how I feel, and it’s not the best news for wineries.

Like the rest of Haas’ respondents, I’m certainly in the highly engaged and passionate wine lover category. I adore traveling with some of the hardest parts of this pandemic for me being the cancellations of wine trips and events that I had planned for the year. Yes, I fully realize that this is a position of immense privilege. I know that many others have suffered and lost so much more than just missing out on wine tastings.

But my point is is that I should be part of that group that can’t wait for tasting rooms to reopen. Yet looking at Haas’ question, my instinct was to click “Not for a while.”

Mask on a painting image from Mucsi Márton. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Doesn’t this image just scream “Hey, let’s go visit some wineries!”?

My reasoning parallels my sentiments about shopping for wine. For me, wine is a source of joy and pleasure, so I want all my experiences with wine to reflect that. But while I love wine, I don’t need it.

Likewise, while I love visiting wineries and wine country, it’s never something that I absolutely need to do. Especially if the thought of doing so right now makes me wince.

Looking over all the different guidelines on opening tasting rooms from California, Oregon and Virginia is disheartening. There are so many hoops for wineries to jump through and, while they all have the best of intentions, none of them make me feel any better about visiting wineries.

Sure, these guidelines will undoubtedly keep the employees and me safe. I certainly appreciate that.

But they’re also going to add a lot more stress, rather than joy, to the experience.

Reading those guidelines, and even the well-meaning communications from wineries, has me picturing a tasting room visit going like this:

1.) Sitting in the parking lot waiting for my appointment because I’m always compulsively early.

But I can’t mill around the tasting room killing time like I usually do. And then being rushed at the end of the appointment to accommodate the much-needed sanitation and cleaning.

2.) Being greeted with smiling (?) tasting room staff in masks while also wearing my own mask.

Yes, I know it absolutely has to be this way for now, but that’s still such a glaring reminder that things are not normal. No matter how hard we try, it’s not easy to be happy and cheerful in a pandemic mask. You wear them out of solemn duty and necessity to protect yourself and others. And of all the mindsets to have when tasting wine and visiting wineries, solemn is certainly not at the top of anyone’s list.

3.) Receiving a laundry list of instructions–likely emailed before the tasting but also repeated in person as protocol–detailing precisely what we can and cannot do, where we can and cannot go.

Again, I understand why it has to be this way, but that doesn’t distract from the stress and fear of doing something wrong. Which is also not a stellar mindset to have when you’re supposed to be relaxing and doing something pleasurable.

4.) But, overall, having very limited interaction with the staff.

I know that this is for their safety as well as mine. But that interaction is so vital. It goes beyond just asking questions or getting tech notes on the wine. Tasting room staff are the face of a brand and reflects a winery’s personality and vibe. Wine is a social product–made and consumed by people. Losing that personal connection always diminishes the experience.

5.) Being acutely aware of the 6 ft+ spacing in all things–going to our tasting table, to the bathroom, to purchase bottles, etc.

This is a stress of everyday life now. While I have to tolerate it to get food essentials at the grocery store, going wine tasting is not essential. If it feels like a chore or ordeal, why do it?

That’s the ultimate question — if visiting tasting rooms feels more like an ordeal than a source of joy, why do it?

Pine Ridge Tasting Room sign

I do miss wine tastings terribly but…

Or at least, why go now? Why not wait until things eventually (hopefully?) settle with a vaccine and get back to at least semi-normalcy?

Of course, I want to support the wine industry–just like I want to support restaurants as well. I know that many small businesses are struggling and can’t wait for however many months it will take for things to actually settle. I get that.

I will still donate to relief charities, tip generously to delivery drivers and order wine and meals online. But I’m not going to spend my free time and money on joyless endeavors. And I seriously doubt that I’m alone in these sentiments.

Sure, there are going to be folks who are chomping at the bit to get back visiting wineries. But it remains to be seen how those folks feel after actually going through these “COVID experiences” and if they’ll return. They very well could end up joining the ranks of “Let’s wait and see” like the rest of us.

What can wineries do?

Robert Biale Black Chicken sign

Remember those carefree days when wayward black chickens were the worries of wine tastings?

I know this is an incredibly tough spot for wineries. There are no easy answers. But what I would recommend for wineries to keep in mind is that coaxing us back to the tasting room is going to take more than just reassurances about safety. That is undoubtedly important, but just as vital is the reassurance of joy–that this experience is going to be fun and not an ordeal.

While you won’t be able to recapture everything from what it was before, more than anything, an escape to wine country truly needs to feel like an escape. And, perhaps, with a little creativity, wineries may be able to come up with something even better.

Below are some things that would certainly make visiting a tasting room more appealing to me. I know that for many wineries, a lot of these ideas won’t be feasible. But, hopefully, they at least encourage some brainstorming.

And if you’re a winery already doing stuff like this, please let me know! Despite my reservations above, my heart still longs for a return to wine country. I’m also sure my readers would love to know what options they have.

My Ideal Covid Tasting Room Experience

1.) A waiting area that is not my car or out in the parking lot.

It could be a room with interesting art or things relating to the winery’s history. Even better is something outside, out in the vineyard. Just make it clearly designated and well known that here is where we are welcomed to wait (and relax!) till our appointment time. And speaking of vineyards…

2.) Patio tastings are nice, but more private tastings out in the vineyards are ideal.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be that fancy of a set-up. But for wineries with the space and means, I can definitely see many going down this path.

Just get me away from having to stress about the 6 feet thing with other guests and staff. Being greeted by one masked staff member who takes me to a set up in the vines would be much better. Out of sight, out of mind. Plus, it is even more of an enhanced experience that truly feels special and exciting.

I understand that these kinds of more intimate, isolated tastings will likely cost more. But if what’s promised is more compelling than the alternative, it’s worth paying.

3.) Give me some social interaction–even if it’s via an iPad.

This is going to be the most difficult because of safety concerns and regulations. But at least we have the tools to help soften the blow and sterility. As I’ve mentioned numerous times, everyone is getting more comfortable using digital platforms. Take advantage of that.

In my ideal covid tasting up in the vines, I see that masked staff member taking us to a set-up with pre-poured wines and an iPad. While enjoying the beauty, sights, sounds and smells all around us, we can tap on the iPad and be greeted by a truly smiling, unmasked face back in the tasting room. A real person, someone with a name and personality that we could interact with.

They could tell us a little about the wines and winery. Maybe even let us get up from our setting with the iPad and stroll along a delineated path in the vineyard as the staff guides us. Yeah, it’s basically a virtual wine tasting. But it’s going to be one of the least sucky virtual tastings ever because we’re actually out in the vines experiencing something genuinely unique and exciting.

That is something that stirs joy and gets the heart fluttering again at the thought of visiting tasting rooms.

That is worth putting on a mask and going to wine country.

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How Can We Make Virtual Wine Tastings Less Sucky?

Note: This piece was mentioned in Meiningers Wine Business International’s April 15th, 2020 article “Can virtual wine tastings be saved?” by Robert Joseph

The last few weeks, I’ve been wrapping my head around the new abnormal. This has included indulging in the smorgasbord of virtual wine events that have sprung up everywhere. They’re fairly easy to find via social media and handy calendar pages. But while several events, such as Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb’s Lockdown Wine Quiz, have been terrific distractions, most of the virtual wine tastings held by wineries have been absolute duds.

Eduard Ritter - Wine tasting. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain

Which has really bummed me out.

I was very high on this idea. Virtual tastings seemed like an excellent way for wineries to stay connected while generating revenue with the sale of VT wines for the events.

While sommeliers, retailers and bloggers have also been hosting virtual wine tastings of their own, I focused on winery VTs to see how they were adapting to this platform. But after sitting in on numerous virtual tastings (or watching the post-broadcast YouTube recording) from wineries big and small, US, Australia, UK, France–one consistent theme emerged.

Most of these events are boring as hell.

I’ve not seen a winery publicize data from their virtual tastings. But for the ones that have conducted multiple events, I’m willing to bet that they’re already seeing a participation drop as we move from novelty to reality.

However, rather than scrap the idea altogether, we should take a critical look at where these events may be falling short.

Other writers, such as Antonio from Wine and Other Stories, have offered feedback and suggestions from a consumer’s POV. But I want to focus on how these virtual tastings are likely failing with their two main objectives (building connections & generating revenue)–and how we can reframe them to make them more effective.

It’s hard to make a connection when you’re missing the critical connecting link.

This is the Achilles’ heel of winery virtual wine tastings. They want to “bond” and connect with consumers over bottles of wine that the person on the other side of the screen probably doesn’t have. Even tastings that are tied to wine club shipments or special VT kits are hampered by limitations as most people don’t want to open up multiple bottles at once. And you certainly can’t bank on everyone having a Coravin at home.

Few things increase the “suckitude” of a virtual wine tasting more than listening to folks go on and on about a wine that you’re not tasting. It doesn’t feel like a chat or a connection. At best, it’s a wine review of something that you might be interested in buying in the future.

But consumers don’t want to devote much time and attention listening to wine reviews. Think of why digital-savvy wineries tend to keep their “About this Wine” video clips reasonably short. You lose people’s interest droning on about wines that they’re not tasting.

Sometimes, you even lose it while they are tasting.

The goal shouldn’t be to connect over the wine but to connect with the people.

Now we’re not going to abandon objective #2 (generate revenue) completely. But if wineries want to make virtual wine tastings a long term success then they have to divest from the “tasting” part that’s limiting their reach. Instead, we need to start thinking of these events as FaceTime Podcasts.

Every winery should make it a priority to check out Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink to That! podcast before they even think of doing another virtual wine tasting. These fireside chats with winemakers and other industry folks are chockful of best practices on how to maintain a wine lover’s interest for an hour (or more).

Many episodes of IDTT start with a special offer to buy a wine from the featured guest.
Levi Dalton I'll Drink to that

I haven’t yet hunted down a bottle of Hanno Zilliken’s Saarburger Rausch Riesling but this winery is still top of mind even 5 years after I first listened to this episode.

But that single wine is never the focus, nor are the chats ever bogged down with tasting notes and minutiae–even though they can get plenty geeky. Instead, Dalton keeps the attention on the person behind the wines. And it’s not just the stories or anecdotes that are superb. In the interactions between Dalton and his guests, you get a feel of their personality and presence. They become real and more than just a name or label.

There’s scarcely an episode of IDTT featuring a winemaker which doesn’t make me more interested in finding that producer’s wines. Even if I don’t immediately buy them, seeds have been planted that make their brands more likely to blossom, top-of-mind, when I see them on a wine list or retail shelf.

Before even tasting a drop of their wine, a connection has been forged.

Now think of combining that seed-planting with digital video and interactive platforms.

The advantage of a virtual wine tasting is that folks can see the winemaker interacting in real-time. They can ask questions and have them answered live on screen. That’s freaking cool and we should be excited about this potential.

These are powerful tools to build strong connections with consumers. So why limit them to just people who already know your brand and have pre-bought your wine?

You want the reach and effectiveness of a podcast. The difference between a virtual wine tasting and a “FaceTime Podcast” is like fishing with a small hand net vs. a large casting one.

Cast with a bigger net. Broaden your web event’s topic.

By far, one of the better virtual wine tastings I watched was done by Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock Winery in the Stags Leap District. Now, yes, I am admittedly biased because I clearly adore Chimney Rock wines. But over the past few weeks, I’ve sat through at least a half-dozen virtual tastings, FB and IG live events done by other wineries I equally love that were thoroughly lackluster.

I want to highlight Chimney Rock’s tasting because it has both the inherent limitations of VTs (focus on a pre-sale kit of wines) as well as the tantalizing hints of what a good “FaceTime Podcast” could be like.

While talking about the four wines in front of her, Vianna kept dropping intriguing tidbits that spoke to broader topics about vintages, blending, aging wine, etc. While answering questions from the audience, more fertile themes emerged that could be their own dedicated topic for future events.

For example.

(6:33) Ying & Yang of blending hillside fruit vs. valley fruit

(8:06) The “Lazy Winemaker Vintages” of 2013, 2014, 2015

(17:34) When should I drink this wine?

(20:50) Why Cab is king

(21:50) Winemakers as interpreters instead of creators, aka “What happened in 2012”

(27:25) The 2011 vintage, aka “What would happen if Napa Valley had Bordeaux weather in a tough year.”

(40:04) White wines for red wine drinkers

All of these could be done inclusively while still prominently featuring a winery’s wines.

Picture promoting this kind of an event.

The 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages produced some spectacular wines in the Napa Valley. With droughts and Mother Nature doing a lot of the heavy lifting, these vintages are playfully nicknamed “The Lazy Winemaker Vintages.” Join us this Saturday, April 4th, with your favorite 2013-2015 Napa wine as our winemaker answers your questions and takes you through what made these years special. Don’t have a bottle handy? We’ve got you covered [link to store], but you can bring anything you like.

Throughout the event, you’re featuring your wines from those vintages but they’re more like “product placement” props. People are still seeing the labels and getting your insights on how the vintages shaped those wines. There’s plenty of seeds being planted to intrigue the consumer. However, because the focus is on the vintages, rather than those specific wines, the audience doesn’t feel left out or that the event isn’t relevant to them if they’re not tasting the exact same wine you are.

Also, your content becomes way more useful and searchable for people to discover down the road. A YouTube video with strong keywords in the title like “Why Cabernet Sauvignon is King in Napa Valley” is going to get a lot more views over the years than “Live Tasting Event April 4th” or “March Wine Club Shipment Live Event”.

Long term vs. short term thinking

seedling pic from Petr Smagin. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-4.0
The current en vogue of virtual wine tastings built around wine club shipments and VT kits might produce some short-term revenue. I don’t discount that that is incredibly important right now.

But their inherent limitations still mean that you’re fishing with a small net that’s not going to get much bigger. And you’re relying on those existing consumers to stay interested enough in the “virtual tasting” format to continue participating. While it’s too early to have any concrete data, the shelf life for VTs doesn’t seem very promising.

But the potential of these online tools is extremely promising. We just need to continue to innovate and experiment on how we use them.

The key to remember is that even when you’re not selling bottles, you’re still selling your brand. You’re selling your passion, personality and insights.

You’re planting seeds.

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Crappy Stemware–The Sweatpants of Wine

James Melendez, aka James the Wine Guy, recently published a terrific little rant about the quality of wine glasses used at many tasting events and restaurants.

Photo by The White House. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US Government

His post reminded me of one of my saddest wine moments. Several years ago, my wife accepted an offer at Amazon.  To celebrate, we went out to dinner with friends.

We were going to a restaurant that had fantastic food but a pedestrian wine list so we brought along a bottle for corkage. That bottle was the 1997 Salon.

I was relatively young in my wine education at the time. So while I knew enough to recognize a crappy restaurant wine list, I was still too naive to realize that crappy wine list=crappy stemware. (Of course, I  know that a great wine list doesn’t always equate to great stemware.)

So we ended up drinking this fabulous bottle of Champagne from…this.

Champagne Salon crappy stemware

Yeah, it was pretty sad.

Needless to say, I certainly didn’t feel like I got my money’s worth. The Champagne was drinkable. But I honestly wonder if I would have gotten the same amount of pleasure drinking a Mimosa made from a Spanish Cava at that moment.

Later on, I would have the 1997 Salon again in much better stemware. The experience was worlds apart. I know that bottle variation and aging played some role in that but the stemware did too.

Now given how much we know about how the shape of the glass impact our perception of a wine, you have to wonder why so many wine events, restaurants and wineries settle for crappy stemware.

Yes, I know breakage is a concern.

But there has to be a trade-off in the cost of the wine glasses versus the cost of lost sales.

I don’t think every winery needs to invest in the top of the line Zaltos or Riedels. But there is plenty of decent stemware available in the $9-15 range that would be a considerable step up from these $2-5 goobers.

I enjoyed both of these but I only bought one bottle of the Greek white. And, honestly, I bought it more for the novelty than the quality.

The current release of the Portteus Viognier is around $15 a bottle. If better stemware helped this winery sell only a case more a month, that would be an extra $2160 in sales a year.

If we went with $15 glasses like these Schott Zwiesel Concerto Burgundy glasses (which would likely be cheaper buying wholesale in bulk), the winery would have to break 144 glasses to wipe out the revenue of those extra sales.

As someone who has dropped an entire dish rack of 25 glasses (only broke 18 of them!), I know that is possible. But not probable.

Putting your best foot forward

Tristeaum and Mauro Veglio

I bought way more than $15 worth of extra wine at these places.
Of course, the quality of the wine was there but the stemware allowed that quality to shine.

Wineries devote so much care and passion into making the best product they can. Why waste all that of by presenting your labor of love in anything but the best possible light?

In many ways, presenting your wines to consumers is like a job interview. You wouldn’t show up in sweatpants and expect a favorable response. Why do we think that presenting wine in “sweatpant stemware” makes any more favorable of an impression?

Treating your stemware as an afterthought is essentially sending the message that your wine is an afterthought as well.

And don’t get me started about wine events.

Horrible Total Wine glasses

My apologies to any winery that has ever had their wines poured for a wine class at Total Wine.

I know wineries can’t always control how their wine is presented at tasting events and wine classes. But as James points out in his piece, it is often cringe-worthy.

I spent over five years teaching wine classes for a major retail chain that makes billions in revenue each year. Along with providing a great consumer experience, a primary goal of these wine classes was to sell wine.

Yet, my former company gave me just about the cheapest, shittiest glassware possible to do that with. It made zero sense whatsoever. These glasses probably turned more people off on the wines being featured than they did anything else.

Sigh

It all comes back to the job interview analogy. You don’t necessarily need to wear a tailored suit or designer dress. But you sure and the hell don’t want to show up wearing sweatpants.

So, please, stop dressing your wines up in them.

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Stop Scaring the Newbies — A Look at the Wine Hierarchy of Needs

While I greatly enjoy his philosophical pondering on his Edible Arts blog , I couldn’t disagree more with Dwight Furrow’s recent post decrying “Bad Advice for Novice Wine Drinkers”. The offending guidance is to drink what you like because “If you like it, it is good”.

Furrow dislikes that approach because he feels it curbs a desire to learn more about wine and expand horizons.

The slogan assumes that there is nothing beyond your merely liking something that accounts for its quality, nothing more to be discovered and nothing more to be enjoyed. Thus, if you endorse this claim you have no reason to recognize the limitations of what you like or search for something better. It is a shame to encourage such an attitude in novice wine drinkers. — Dwight Furrow, Bad Advice for Novice Wine Drinkers, 12/13/2018

Furrow errs in two regards here.

For one, there are a lot of drinkers who will never expand beyond simply drinking what they like. They will never develop a desire to want to learn more. Nor will they ever care to think about the quality of what they’re drinking. While that can be a shame, it’s only a shame to us–the Winos who want more from our wines.

We are the ones shedding the tears of shame at all the things we feel our fellow wine drinkers are missing–not the newbie that is happily content sipping on Apothic Brew.

The second area that Furrow overlooks is that of internal inertia or motivation. The novice drinkers who are destined to explore and expand their horizons will feel that inertia on their own. They don’t need “gentle coaxing”–especially not in the form of telling them that what they’re currently drinking is crap.

My outlook on this is shaped by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which we can adapt to the motivation and growth of wine drinkers.

Image source https://medium.com/@crypto_maven/bitcoin-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-7bf1be0a366c

Original image from Bitcoin & Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Drawing by Kenneth buddha Jeans with text added.

A Wine Hierarchy of Needs

Our motivations as wine drinkers are not that dissimilar from our motivations for everything else in life. There are basic needs that enjoying wine can fulfill as well as the potential for more emotional and intellectual satisfaction.

There are other benefits to viewing wine drinkers through Maslow’s pyramid. You get a sense for the breadth of each level. The Winos among us would love for everyone to get the same enjoyment with wine that we do. Yet, while we want to share our geeky connoisseurship, most people are going to plateau before that. Most wine drinkers find their needs met at other levels.

The problem comes when we try to put expectations and judgement on the motivations of people who are at these different levels. When we expect newbies who are driven by safety or physiological motivations to “know better” or at least want to know better, we’re not educating them. We’re not helping them to “master” their current level and potentially move on to the next.

If anything, we’re scaring them back to the comforts of what’s familiar and giving them little desire to want to associate with wine or “wine people”.

To really educate and appeal to wine drinkers at all levels, we need to understand where they are in their journey and what is motivating them.

Physiological – I want to drink wine with food or for my own pleasure.

This is where everyone starts–even Fred Dame, Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker. Everyone first approached wine as something to drink. We may have been introduced to it on the dinner table with family or in a red solo cup at party.

Photo by Arnaud 25. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Or as god knows what mixed into a sangria.

It was an accompaniment to something–whether it be a meal or a moment–and likely we did not give much thought to what was in the glass.

For a lot of people who drink wine, they will never go beyond this level. Wine will still be “foodstuff” to have at the table like it’s been in Europe for centuries. Or it will be “booze”, something to give a warm buzz that is more flavorful than beer and doesn’t hit as hard as a cocktail.

But there will be people who begin paying attention to what is in their glass. The first serious question that they’ll ask will be “Do I like this?”

Safety – I don’t want to buy something I’m not going to like.

When a wine drinkers starts to think about what they like and don’t like in wine, they become motivated by “safety”. They don’t want to waste their time, money or pleasure drinking things that they don’t enjoy.

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

The best education that sommeliers and wine stewards can give newbies at this level is help with language to explain what they like or don’t like in a wine.
This is NOT the level to be “educating” them on good tastes vs bad.

These drinkers might not have the language to explain what they like but they eventually notice patterns. They might not like the “bitterness” or “sour” flavors of tannins and acid. Instead, it could be the siren songs of residual sugar and “smoothness” that beckons them.

This is the stage where newbies often get the scorned advice to “drink what they like”. But the idea is not to stunt their growth or education. The idea is to keep them enjoying wine and to not get turned off or intimidated.

If we start trashing their tastes and enjoyment, we slam the door shut on the next level of motivation before the newbie even get’s a chance to peek inside.

Belonging – I want to go wine tasting and travel to wineries with friends.
Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The tasting room not only gives wine drinkers a sense of social belonging, but also exposure to different wines that they may end up liking.

Wine is a social beverage. It brings people together. But it can also push people away.

If we scare newbie drinkers into doubting themselves–into thinking their tastes are bad–we send the message that they don’t belong. We give them no motivation to continue exploring.

Yet for the people that reach this stage, there is internal inertia that exposes them to other horizons. Wine drinkers that enjoy wine enough to want to share it end up meeting fellow wine lovers. They begin seeing a world beyond their own experiences. They’re introduced to other wines that people enjoy and, perhaps, find their own tastes broaden.

Most importantly, here is where the seeds of education that us Winos so desperately want to sow can finally be planted.

Esteem – I really want to learn more about wine.
Photo by GoodWineUnder20. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The motivation of esteem for wine lovers can lead them to want to attend wine classes and seek out various certifications.

This is where we get the audience of wine drinkers who can understand Furrow’s (very valid) point that “Discovery, learning, and insight ultimately depend on evaluation.

They begin to realize that there are quality distinctions between wine. There are reasons why a great Burgundy cru is more sought after than something like Meiomi or Mark West.

They might not at first recognize all the reasons behind those distinctions–terroir, viticulture and winemaking–but they at least have a sense of its existence.

These are the people that seek out blogs like Edible Arts and SpitBucket to read. However, while I’m sure Dwight would love to see his readership grow as much as I do, we can’t kid ourselves into thinking that this level of the pyramid is ever going to be as large as the preceding levels.

There will always be people whose motivation with wine “caps out” at other levels. There will always be people that find wine’s fulfillment of their physiological, safety and social belonging needs is enough.

And, honestly, that is perfectly fine.

Self-Actualization – Wino

I think that there is a fear that if “good quality” wine is not being appreciated by the masses, then these wines are going to be harder to find. There is some validity to that fear because wine is, after all, a business. Wineries need to sell wine to survive. For small family producers, especially, the quest to eek out a living is fraught with challenges.

Bob Betz

The realm of “Winos” is not limited to just sommeliers, stewards and bloggers.
There will always be high quality wine to enjoy made by Winos, like Bob Betz, who are motivated by a need to share their passion for wine.

I get that. This is why I pick up the same banner of education as so many sommeliers, wine stewards and bloggers like Dwight Furrow do. It’s part of being a “Wino”.

However, even though this tip of the pyramid reflects only a tiny segment of the masses, it is still populated by a lot of crazy folks. Folks who are willing to devote their lives to crafting high quality wine that they not only want to drink but also share.

These are the people who don’t get into winemaking to make a fortune selling to the masses.

Instead, these winemakers do it because once you reach the motivation of “Self-Actualization”, of realizing who you are and what you’re passionate about, the next step of “Transcendence” is about sharing that part of you and positively impacting others.

Let the newbies drink what they like and let them grow if they want to.

But it’s okay if they don’t grow. It’s okay if they’re happy and content with where they are and what they are drinking.

Rather than fretting, give a toast, instead, to the joy of every wine drinker getting their needs met.

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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 previously 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.
Indeed, wineries like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Haut-Brion, Penfolds, Casanova de Neri, Perrier-Jouët and K Vintners make a lot of great wines that are fun to try. It’s certainly okay 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 Advanced 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 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 include 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 certainly interesting. I much prefer that to taste 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)

Still going….

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)

But wait! There’ more….of the same

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)

Yawn

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?

Above all that, I haven’t even mentioned the clear spit buckets that were also featured on several tables.

Besides having around three-quarters of the wineries be the same, the crux for me was the nearly 40% of the wines being either actual or near repeats with different vintages. That’s not worth paying $225 to $325 a ticket (and up to $475 at the upcoming New York event in October). Then you add travel and hotel costs and it gets 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.

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

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