Tag Archives: Blind tasting

Book Review — Drive Through Napa

The folks behind I Like This Grape were gracious enough to send me a copy of their latest book, Drive Through Napa: Your Ultimate Companion to Napa Valley’s Wines Regions.

Drive Through Napa cover

Photo courtesy of Naushad Huda, ILikeThisGrape.com

While working on a research project about the Stags Leap District, I had several opportunities to check out the eBook version written by Paul Hodgins and Naushad Huda with Kathy Lajvardi providing graphic design.

Below are a few thoughts about this modern primer on the most famous wine region in the United States.

The Background

Naushad Huda came up with the idea of Drive Through Napa after wandering,

“If Pharrell or Complex Magazine were to write a wine book, what would it look like? What would it sound like?”

Previously, Huda had founded the digital creative agency XTOPOLY that focused on interactive marketing. They worked on T-Mobile’s first mobile eCommerce site and created campaigns for several global companies including Vitamin Water, Nestle, Emirates Airlines, Nivea and Google. After merging XTOPOLY with the Finnish software company Vincit in 2017, Huda served as their Director of Strategy and Partnerships.

It was during this time that Huda, along with his wife Kathy Lajvardi, wanted to take a fresh approach to the traditional concept of a regional wine guide.  Lajvardi is an accomplished artist whose done graphics work for the Iron Man and Transformer movie trailers. Her photographs and paintings are also regularly featured in major art galleries.

Partnering with Paul Hodgins, a longtime writer for the Orange County Register and author of The Winemakers of Paso Robles with Julia Perez, the Drive Through Napa team embarked on their project with Millennials as a target audience.

The Book

With that Millennial-focus in mind, Drive Through Napa is designed to be easily digestible within a 1-hour read. One of the goals of the creative team was to avoid many of the cliches that they saw in other wine guides–such as endless photos of vineyards that all look the same. The main graphics in the book are maps and price-to-rating charts taken from data provided by Vivino.

Another focus of the book was to steer clear of being a “what to drink” guide. Instead, Drive Through Napa takes more of a high-level approach to exploring the 16 AVAs (or “neighborhoods”) in Napa with brief blurbs on climate, elevation, rainfall, soils as well as principal grapes and their characteristics.

SLD Screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Screenshot of winery listing for the Stags Leap AVA which also includes notable vineyards.

Each AVA section touches a bit on some of the history and key pioneers. They also include a listing of most all the wineries and many notable vineyards that call each region home.

A critical distinction between Drive Through Napa and other regional wine guides is that there is no contact information about these wineries. Nor are there any details about which wineries are open to visitors and if appointments are necessary.

I suspect part of the reason for this stems from the goal of not being a “what to drink” guide.

The book does include a note directing folks to check out each individual AVA associations’ website. However, they unfortunately don’t include what those websites are so folks will have to Google them.

In addition to the AVA chapters, the introduction of the book goes into some of the history of California wine and the role that Napa has played in bringing prominence to the state. It touches on the usual characters of the Catholic Church and early 19th-century pioneers but also devotes time to post-Prohibition figures like Brother Timothy Diener of the Christian Brothers and putting the “Mondavi Effect” into context.

Additionally, the intro chapters include a short glossary of essential wine terms used in the book and briefly touches on a few of the major California wine regions beyond Napa.

Things I really liked about the book.

Photo by Sarah Stierch. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0.

Burgundian winemaker and Raymond Vineyards owner Jean-Charles Boisset is one of several subjects interviewed for Drive Through Napa.

The team behind Drive Through Napa certainly achieved their goal in creating an approachable primer. There is brilliant simplicity in the graphics and design that makes it easy to digest even when a fair amount of information stray into technical viticultural details.

You don’t need to be a “wine geek” to pick up this book and find it useful. But if you are a geek, there is most certainly something in it for you as well.

My favorite part of Drive Through Napa was the interviews they included in several AVA chapters. Here Hodgins and Co. asked very pointed questions such as  “What effect does your region have on the grapes that are grown here?”, “What will we notice when tasting a wine from your AVA?” and What do people misunderstand about your AVA?”

This is where Drive Through Napa moves beyond just being an easily digestible primer on Napa Valley towards something that wine students will find immensely useful. In particular, I would encourage folks working on blind tasting exams to pay careful attention to the answers about AVA characteristics and their influence on the resulting wines.

The interview subjects have some serious pedigree.

Richie Allen, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking for Rombauer Vineyards (Carneros)
Taylor Martin, Managing Partner of Italics Winegrowers (Coombsville)
Dave Guffy, Director of Winemaking for The Hess Collection (Mt. Veeder)
Lorenzo Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards (Oak Knoll)
Celia Welch, consulting winemaker of Keever Vineyards and many others (Yountville)
Jon Emmerich, winemaker of Silverado Vineyards (Stags Leap District)
Jean Hoefliger, winemaker of Alpha Omega Winery (Atlas Peak)
Nicole Marchesi, winemaker of Far Niente Winery (Oakville)
Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker of Grgich Hills Estate (Rutherford)
Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Raymond Vineyards and many others (St. Helena)
Stuart Smith, owner and winemaker of Smith-Madrone Vineyards (Spring Mountain)
Danielle Cyrot, winemaker of CADE Winery (Howell Mountain)
Dawnine and Bill Dyer, owners and winemakers of Dyer Vineyard (Diamond Mountain)
Bo Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena (Calistoga)
Andy Erickson, consulting winemaker and owner of Favia (Napa Valley)

Things that were “Meh.”

Diamond Mountain screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Good luck trying to find those $30-40 Diamond Mountain wines. My best guess is that these are white wines and roses.

I found the Price-To-Rating charts to be pretty useless. Using Vivino’s 1 to 5-star ratings, Drive Through Napa featured a bar chart for most of the AVAs. Here they highlighted what the average score was of wines at various price points.

Spoiler alert: In every AVA but Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and Carneros, the wines with the highest ratings are the ones that cost $70+.

And really, the $70+ wines are still the highest rated segment even in those exceptions. They just happen to share the same rating as another price category.

I honestly don’t think a single person is going to be surprised at these charts.

I also do wish they did little more with the winery listings for each AVA. In particular, I think they should have found a way to signify which wineries had open tasting rooms, those that needed appointments and which ones that there is no way in hell you’re getting into.

I doubt including little icons (asterisk, smiley faces, etc.)  next to each name would have added much to reading time. Plus, even if they didn’t want to be a “What to Drink” guide, anyone that is buying this book is likely going to want to visit Napa. And they’re probably going to want to drink something.

Steering folks to the individual AVA associations is fine (though, again, would be helpful to have their web addresses in the book). But that one small change to the winery listing pages would have significantly enhanced the overall utility of Drive Through Napa.

The Verdict

While I was fortunate to receive my e-copy of Drive Through Napa as a sample, I would buy this book without question. For $18 paperback and $9.99 for Kindle, it more than delivers in content and usefulness.

In particular, I wished I had this book back when I worked at Total Wine and helped train their wine staff in my region. I would have recommended Drive Through Napa to every wine associate there, especially those studying for their California TWP certifications. Likewise, I can see this book being handy for sommeliers–especially with those interviews I mentioned above.

You can’t talk about American or Californian wines without talking about Napa. If you want to understand this famous wine region, Drive Through Napa is a great place to start.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Introducing the Mystery Grape Game

A lot of my writings the past few months have been focusing on wine business and marketing topics. That’s always been an interest of mine that I’ve enjoyed exploring. But it’s also an area that I need to stay up on as part of my WSET Diploma studies and eventual attempt towards getting a Master of Wine.

IG Mystery Grape clue James Busby

All the images used in this post will come from a recent Mystery Grape. Can you figure out the grape?

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust and the Institute of Masters of Wine were both founded by figures in the wine trade and while their certifications require a broad depth of knowledge on grape varieties, wine styles, regions, winemaking and viticulture–the nature of the business of wine is always in the backdrop.

In fact, it is this inclusion of the global business of wine that most separates WSET and MW certifications from those of the Court of Master Sommeliers–which focuses instead on service topics.

I’ll still be doing regular Geek Notes and other general wine features on the blog. But I’ve started to focus a lot of my geekiness over on the SpitBucket Instagram account where I’ve launched a Mystery Grape game using the IG story feature.

So what is it?

There’s really not much online in a game format to help high-level wine students. A lot of wine games are tailored more towards newbie wine lovers. For myself, I was looking for a game to help with both blind tasting as well as deep-level wine knowledge of grape varieties.

I didn’t find what I was looking for, so I created it.

IG Mystery grape straw bears

Be sure to look for secondary & tertiary aroma clues as well as primary notes.

Using photos featured on IG, I’ll post up to 10 clues relating to the identity of a particular wine grape. Players can answer by replying to the IG story or on a specific IG post that I do when the second batch of clues are live.

The next day I’ll highlight who got the correct answer first as well as other folks who got it right. I’ll also explain in the congratulation post many of the clues and often highlight a particular wine that exhibits a lot of the notable traits of the Mystery Grape.

It’s meant to be challenging.  For the first batch of clues, I’m aiming for WSET Diploma/Advance Sommelier level knowledge with easier WSET 2 & 3/Certified Sommelier clues coming towards the end.

If you don’t get it, that’s alright. A lot of folks won’t. But I guarantee that you will learn something regardless.

Below I’ll give you some tips as I explain the game.

Here’s How It Goes.

Monday through Friday I’ll launch the game with the first clue being a wine map. This is going to be our starting base and is often an area that folks will encounter blind tasting examples from.

I’m going to feature plenty of grapes that aren’t included in blind tastings, but I do regularly reference the Court of Master Sommeliers’ list of Probable Red Grape Varieties and Probable White Grape Varieties. If you’re a wine student and don’t already have those pages bookmarked, you should bookmark them now.

The next 3 to 4 clues will be aroma and flavor clues.
IG Mystery grape clue apple

It’s crazy how many white grape varieties have apples as a primary flavor.

Here is where I’m often going to get a little tricky because I’m not going to give you the dead-giveaway notes right away. I’m not going to post pictures of black currant, tobacco leaf, anise and cedar off the bat if I’m talking about Cabernet Sauvignon. Nor am I going to show you a map of Piedmont and then post pics of cherry, roses and tar for Nebbiolo.

Those items might come later on when I get to the WSET 2/3 level clues. But here I’m going to focus on some of the important but less obvious notes including young primary and secondary flavors as well as tertiary notes that come with age. I might also skip around the globe a bit. Many of these grapes are grown in multiple places and Diploma/Advance Sommelier candidates need to know those different notes.

However, the majority of the clues will pertain to the map region with other flavor notes being connected to regions that get brought up in subsequent clues.

Most of these clues will come from my own tasting notes of these grape varieties, but I will sometimes reference Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Rajat Parr’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste and the Oxford Companion to Wine.

The last clue (#6) of the first batch is usually a context clue.
IG mystery grape honey wax clue

This pic actually contained two clues that were fairly specific to a particular white Australian wine grape. It referenced both the nature of the grape and an unique aging note.

Many grapes within a wine region will have similar flavor profiles. I can have a map of France with notes of red plum, blackberry, tobacco, pepper and chocolate and it could refer to dozens of grapes. So I need to narrow the focus a bit. I’ll do that by tossing in a clue that is relatively specific to the Mystery Grape–such as that this grape can also be found in the Veneto, Abruzzo and Puglia regions as well. (If you have an idea of what grape I’m talking about, post it in the comments).

Almost all these context clues are going to come from Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes. For Italian wines, I also like using Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy. Both books are must haves for wine students.

Now sometimes from this first batch, there will still be multiple contenders even with the context clue. Folks can take a stab at it, trying to be first. It depends on how generous I’m feeling with what kind of feedback I’ll give you if you’re wrong. Sometimes you might just have to wait for the next batch of clues.

Second Batch of Clues

Clues 7-10 will be more context clues hitting on history, wine styles and additional regions that our Mystery Grape is associated with. These often will tie back to the first batch of clues in some way.

And these clues will be easier–including more WSET 3 knowledge with at least clue 10 going down to WSET 2/Certified Sommelier/Certified Specialist of Wine level.

IG Mystery Grape Israeli wine.

Admittedly this was a little hard for a Clue 9, but it was something that googling would give the answer away to.

At the launch of the second batch of clues, I will do a separate Instagram post that will also go out on the SpitBucket Twitter account highlighting a particular clue and letting folks know if someone has already guessed correctly.

Timing

I’ve been testing this game over the last month and found that I have players in the US, Europe and Australia.  That pretty much makes a perfect time impossible. So I’m going to err on the sake of my sanity and go with the timing that works best for my schedule.

I’m in Paris so I will launch the game with the first batch of clues between 11 am to Noon CET. That will be 5-6am New York, 2-3am Seattle and 7-8 pm Sydney.

I know that kind of sucks for the Americans. But take solace in knowing that the first batch of clues is usually difficult enough that the Mystery Grape is often not solved until the second batch is posted.

The second batch will be released between 6-9 pm Paris time. That will be Noon-3 pm New York, 9 am to Noon Seattle and 2-5 am Sydney. Here is where it kind of sucks for the Australians but there have been some savvy Australians who have gotten the Mystery Grape with the first batch.

Again, my apologies that outside of Europeans, there is always going to be time zone issues for someone. But, hey, in the end, it’s all about having fun and learning something. The IG stories last up to 24 hours before they’re deleted so anyone can play at any time.

The best way to approach it is to set a personal goal of trying to guess the grape with as few clues as possible. Then try to beat your best the next day.

A Few More Tips

IG Mystery Grape saffron

At first blush you might think this is a clue for a blue floral note. But the other clues are referencing a white grape.
However, look at the user name from the image @saffron.tabuma. That and clicking on the image to look at the tags, should help you realize that this is saffron. This note come out in certain white wines that have been “influenced” by something.

If you don’t understand a clue, it’s always a good idea to click on the picture and go to the original image page. Often the caption and #hashtags will give more context. I’m very deliberate in which image I choose and usually I will select images with specific hashtags.

Plus, sometimes the image I select is from an album of pictures taken by the Instagram user. I don’t consider those other album photos when I choose the clue image. But I have seen many times where they provide insight into wine regions that the Mystery Grape is associated with. Plus, they are usually cool images to look at too.

It’s okay to Google. Especially with the second batch, there is almost always a google-able detail that will lead you to the Mystery Grape. It’s not cheating if it helps you learn something.

Don’t expect the obvious, but also don’t overthink it. Yes, this game is meant to be challenging. But sometimes your gut from the first batch of clues turns out to be right. The same thing often happens with blind tasting. You never want to lock yourself in on one answer too early before you’ve fully evaluated the wine. However, you should always take note of what your gut instinct was.

Intrigued?

You can head over to Instagram now to take a look at today’s game. There you will also see posts from several of the last few games featuring grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malvasia, Grolleau, Zinfandel, Pinot blanc, Rondo, Petit Verdot, Pinotage, Albarino and more.

You will see both “clue posts” as well as bottle pic congratulation posts. Those latter posts will explain many of the clues along with a featured wine made of the Mystery Grape.

BTW, how did you do?

Could you guess the French grape with some Italian flirting that I used as an example in the “Clue 6” section? Or how about the previous Mystery Grape referenced in the article’s images? Let me know in the comments below.

Happy Geeking!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

It’s Raining Masters

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

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

Hallelujah?

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

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

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

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

A Perfect Storm for a Windfall?

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

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

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

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

The SOMM Effect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we just getting “Wine Smarter”?

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

This ain’t your daddy’s Duboeuf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Amazon Prime Day Deals — Anything worthwhile for wine lovers?

Today is Amazon Prime Day, a day that Amazon claims rivals Black Friday and Cyber Monday for buyers looking to get a good deal.

Photo by Thomas photography. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

While there are some interesting buys, I’ve found that the pickings are often slim on deals targeting wine lovers.

Still it’s always worth taking a look to see if anything catches our eyes.

Oster Cordless Electric Wine Bottle Opener with Foil Cutter– Regularly $19.99, today $14.39 for Prime Members.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of electric bottle openers–preferring my old trusty double-hinged corkscrew or Rabbit-lever openers. My biggest complaint is how easy the electric bottle openers seem to burn out after a year or two of use. But for less than $15, even getting a year of use might not be that bad. So while this will be a pass for me, I can see this being a decent buy–especially for senior citizens or folks with arthritis that may have difficulties with other openers.

Coravin Model Limited Edition Wine Preservation System– Regularly $349.95, today $174.95 for Prime Members.

I paid around $300 for my old Coravin Model 1000 system three years ago so I will say that this is a very good deal. If my current Coravin wasn’t working perfectly fine, I would be very tempted because even though you can get the cheaper Coravin Model 1 for $199.99, that is a distinctly cheaper, less solidly built version than the regular Coravin.

There is a lot of marketing hype around the Coravin so I will be upfront with some of my real world experiences using it. There is the caveat that potentially the newer models have improved some of my grievances.

Cons:

The author using her Coravin to pour a flight of white wines.

Unless you spring for the $70 kit with the “fast pour” needle, pouring from the Coravin is SLOW!!! You eventually learn some tricks like tilting the bottle upwards and getting the feel right with hitting the gas but it will still take nearly 30 seconds to get a 5 oz pour.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of time but it definitely feels longer while your standing there holding the bottle and waiting for it to finally fill the glass. Compound this with doing a tasting featuring multiple bottles and the time adds up.

The first pour is always a little gassy and “spritzy”. It blows off and won’t impact most wine drinkers but if you are like me and use the Coravin system to help with studying for blind tasting exams, it can throw you off at first.

It doesn’t preserve the wine no where near as long as the marketing hype says it would. Instead of several months or years, realistically I feel like I can get 5 to 7 weeks with reds and 3 to 4 weeks with whites before I start noticing a change in flavor. It’s not like the wine is immediately bad or tasting oxidized but I certainly notice a distinct change that seems to exponentially increase with each revisiting after that point.

Pros:

Will Clos Saint-Jacques go with black garlic and salume pizza?
Let’s find out!

Even with only a few weeks worth of preservation, the Coravin is still a great tool to help you get the most out of your wine enjoyment. Instead of having to feel like you need to finish a bottle within a day or two, you can stretch it out over several glasses for days/weeks.

With dinner you can have different wines with each course, creating your own version of The Somm Game. Want to test out various pairings? Knock yourself out and pour two different wines to see what works best. If you and your spouse can’t agree on what wine to have with dinner, you can each have whatever you like.

And, most importantly to me, it truly is invaluable as a study tool for tasting exams. Want to taste the terroir differences of the crus of Barolo? Explore what makes “mountain fruit” of Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain so different than the Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Stags Leap District and valley floor of Napa? You can spend several hundreds of dollars getting examples of these wines and then have to face a decision.

Do you have a big tasting party with friends and open them all at once?
Do you open them up one at a time, take your notes and then try to compare them after the fact?

OR

You can use the Coravin and pour samples of all the different wines you want to compare and contrast and then revisit that tasting several times over the next few weeks.

That, for me, has always been the Coravin’s strongest selling point and the area where I know this tool has saved me the most money.

It’s not really drinking alone if the cat is home stemless wine glass, 15 oz.(cat) – Laser Etched — Regular $14.99, today $11.99 for Prime Members.

Yeah, this is pretty much sums up the kind of offers that Prime Day has for wine lovers. I’ve never felt compelled to spend $12 for a silly engraved wine glass but if that is your thing, you do you.

$5 off print books priced $20 or more

This deal doesn’t work for used books sold by 3rd party sellers which how I buy the vast majority of my wine books.

Many of my favorite wine books that I use frequently on this blog, I bought used from Amazon and paid only a fraction of their asking price.

Old or new, I really don’t need an excuse to buy more wine books.

Clive Coates’ Grands Vins: The Finest Châteaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines — Regularly $63.97, available Used for less than $10. Fabulous details on the history of Bordeaux estates used frequently in my Bordeaux Futures series.

Bill Nanson’s The Finest Wines of Burgundy: A Guide to the Best Producers of the Côte D’Or and Their Wines — Regularly $29.26, available Used for less than $10. Very valuable in my Keeping Up with the Joneses of Burgundy series.

Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine, 7th Edition — Regularly $42.78, available Used for less than $10. Benchmark standard for wine maps.

Of course, for new releases there are not many used options so this coupon deal could be use for several of the titles featured in previous Geek Notes that are over $20.

From JunePractical Field Guide to Grape Growing and Vine Physiology by Daniel Schuster, Laura Bernini and Andrea Paoletti. $40

From MarchWine: A social and cultural history of the drink that changed our lives by Rod Phillips. $34.95 and Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich. $29.99 hardcover.

If you come across any deals that I missed, post them in the comments below.

Happy shopping!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Apothic Brew Wine Review

Last night I did a very mean thing.

I had several friends (wine industry folks, connoisseurs and newbie/casual wine drinkers) over for a blind tasting of Cabs and Cab-dominant blinds. While I forewarned them that I was going to toss a few “ringers” into each group like another grape varietal and a cheap under $10 Cabernet Sauvignon, I didn’t warn them about this.

I didn’t tell them that I was going to subject them to Gallo’s latest limited release–Apothic Brew.

But as with my exploration of the trend of aging wine in whiskey barrels, I wanted to get as much objective feedback as I could. Let’s face it, it’s hard to approach something like cold-brew infused wine without any preconceptions. You are either going to have a visceral nauseating reaction to the idea or squeal in delight at the possibilities.

While certainly not perfect (or academic), I figured my 27 friends from various backgrounds, age groups and wine experiences were good guinea pigs to give Apothic Brew a somewhat fair shake. The results of the tasting are down below but first some geeking.

The Background

According to Gallo’s marketing, the idea of Apothic Brew came to winemaker Deb Juergenson last year while working the long hours of harvest where she frequently enjoyed staying caffeinated with cold brew coffee. Noticing the similarities between the flavors of red wine and cold brew, Juergenson decided to experiment with infusing the two. Lo and behold, only 5 to 6 short months later Apothic Brew was released on the market in time for April Fool’s Day.

Cute story but I sincerely doubt it played out like that.

Photo by Sage Ross. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

From 2015 to 2017, sales of cold brew have grown by 430%

Gallo is one of America’s most successful companies selling more than 80 million cases of wine a year with nearly $5 billion dollars in revenue. They also have one of the largest and most savvy marketing departments in the industry.

There is no way that this (non-vintage BTW) Apothic Brew wasn’t being laboratory crafted, tested and developed for years.

It’s very likely that the market analysts at Gallo spotted early on the emerging cold brew trend that really took off in 2015 but has certainly been around longer as well as millennial wine drinkers openness to try new things and saw an opportunity.

E.J. Schultz noted in Ad Age in a 2013 interview with Stephanie Gallo, V.P. of Marketing E. & J. Gallo Winery, that “Unlike previous generations, young adults will try anything, including wine served over ice, from a screw-top bottle or even out of a box.”

With the successful launching of limited release editions of Apothic Crush and Apothic Dark (which later became year-round offerings) as well as Apothic Inferno, Gallo is following a popular recipe of crafting a finely tuned marketing campaign based around the latest wine trends and the “limited availability” of their new wine. As Christine Jagher, director of marketing at E. & J. Gallo, describes in a recent interview:

“We will often tease their release to get our loyal followers excited for what’s to come,” Jagher says. “If we can catch their attention at the right time, they will already be searching for a new item by the time it hits the shelves. They will also be likely to help spread the word among their friends and family.” — as quoted to Andrew Kaplan for Seven Fifty Daily, September 27, 2017

That said, it’s hard to find any concrete details about the wine itself. The label lacks a vintage year and only notes an alcohol percentage of 13.5%. But the bottle says zilch about what’s inside. The original Apothic Blend is based on Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Apothic Crush is a blend of primarily Pinot noir and Petite Sirah so really this wine could be made of just about anything.

It’s a mystery how exactly the wine was “infused” with the flavors of cold brew.  Is it even real coffee? Was a new oak chip/Mega Purple  additive created?

While typical cold brew coffee has around about 26 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce compared to 27 milligrams for a standard hot brew coffee, Danielle Tullo of Cosmopolitan notes that Apothic Brew has less caffeine than a standard cup of decaf.

The Blind Tasting

I deliberately placed the wine at the very end of each tasting group. My primary purpose was to make sure that the coffee notes in the wine didn’t wreck my friends’ palates. I wasn’t exactly having the Apothic Brew “compete” with the other wines. My friends knew that there were ringers (a cheap under $10 Cab and a completely different grape). So they were at least expecting something in the $7-15 Apothic price range in the group.

By the time each group got to the last wine, there were vocal and immediate reactions of “Whoa” and “What the hell is this?”.

Some examples of the blind tasting notes on the Apothic Brew from people of various backgrounds–including wine industry folks, casual drinkers and wine newbies.

The most common descriptor was “not horrible but not good”.  Quite a few wondered if I slipped in a non-wine ringer like watered down Kahlua or a “weird stout beer” with another popular guess being a cheap under $10 Cab with Zinfandel blended in.

While “coffee” was obviously the most common tasting note descriptor, the next common descriptors were tannic and tart.

My (non-blind) Notes

Tasting before the blind tasting, I found it had a high intensity nose of coffee. Rather than cold brew it smelled more like a can of Folgers coffee grounds. The coffee really overwhelmed the bouquet, making it very one-dimensional.

On the palate, the coffee certainly carried through but at least some fruit emerged with red cherry notes. Medium acidity offered decent balance to keep it from tasting flabby but it didn’t taste very fresh either. Medium tannins had a chalkiness to them. Coupled with the very thin fruit, the wine felt a little skeletal. Noticeable back-end heat suggested the alcohol is probably higher than the 13.5% listed. However,  the body was definitely medium rather than full. The finish dies pretty quickly.

The Aftermath

A “Red Russian” invented by my friend with a 1:1 ratio of Apothic Brew to milk served over ice.

After the tasting, one of my friends had the idea to add milk and ice to Apothic Brew to make a “Red Russian” cocktail. It was actually kind of tasty! Certainly weaker and tarter than a true White Russian with Kahlua, but drinkable and an interesting riff on the cocktail.

We also experimented with treating the Apothic Brew like a mulled wine by heating it up. We didn’t have mulling spices or dried fruit to add sweetness though. Overall, I would say this experiment was far less successful than the Red Russian. The coffee notes became more pronounced but so did the tartness and thinness with a bitter aftertaste.

Surprisingly, the Apothic Brew tasted better the next day. It actually smelled and tasted more like cold brew with some chocolate notes emerging to add flavor.

Should You Buy It?

While the Red Russian was the best, I was surprised at how much better the Apothic Brew tasted the next day–even out of a plastic cup.

I think the descriptions “watered down Kahlua” and “not horrible but not good” are probably the most apt. The Apothic Brew is certainly different but it’s not disgusting.

The wine’s definitely targeting cold brew fans more than wine drinkers. However, it does have potential for experimentation with wine-based cocktails (a la the Red Russian).

Ideally for its quality level, the Apothic Brew should be priced more inline with the $7-9 regular Apothic Red Blend or the $8-10 “hard cold brews” in the market but expect to pay a premium for its marketing budget with the wine priced in the $14-18 range.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!