Tag Archives: Caymus

Déjà Vu at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour

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

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

Déjà vu all over again

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

But come on? 75% repeats?

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

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

Groundhog Day at the Mirage

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

Highlighting all the same wineries featured in 2017 and 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral of the Story?

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

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

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

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

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

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

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

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

But man does it suck losing.

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

How to Play

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

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

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

Why the Somm Game works

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Ego Tax”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Somm Game in Action

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

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

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

Then I sit back and have fun.

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

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

Lago

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

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

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto. These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

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

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

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

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

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off because with nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!


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

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

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

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

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

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

Aureole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

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

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

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

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

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

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

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

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

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

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses but Kyran also brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

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

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.


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

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

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

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

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

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

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new. You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

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

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

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

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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington is one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants to visit. Each year they host a Champagne Gala that we love going to. Even when we’re not thrilled with the wines selected, we nonetheless always enjoy the exquisite food crafted by Executive Chef Kevin Rohr and a chance to try interesting food pairings.

Recently I got to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Stags’ Leap Winery with Assistant Winemaker Joanne “Jo” Wing.

The Background

I geeked out about some of the backstory of Stags’ Leap Winery in my 60 Second Review of their 2013 Napa Valley Merlot. With a long history dating back to the late 19th century, the winery is one of Napa’s most historic properties.

In California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube notes that the rise of the modern-era of Stags’ Leap Winery under Carl Doumani went hand in hand with the “Cabernet boom” of the 1970s that saw the notable Cabs of Burgess, Cakebread, Caymus, Clos du Val, Mount Eden, Mt. Veeder, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps hit the scene. It also saw the birth of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and decades-long legal intrigue.

The War of the Apostrophe” soon took off with Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (and winner of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris) suing Doumani–who promptly counter-sued.

The two men eventually settled their differences in the mid-1980s and released a special collaborative bottling between the two estates called Accord from the 1985 vintage to commemorate. The agreement was that Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would have the apostrophe to the left of the ‘s’ while Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery would have it to the right.

You could tell that the Treasury Wine Estate rep at the dinner wasn’t too happy about the apostrophe typo on the menu.

Around this time, the two wineries faced another challenge with other wineries in the area like Gary Andrus’ Pine Ridge Winery, Steltzner Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards and more wanting to use the Stags Leap name and petitioning for American Viticultural Area (AVA) approval under that name for the region. After more legal challenges, a compromise was struck for the name of the new AVA to be the Stags Leap District (SLD) sans apostrophe.

Today the winery is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a vast portfolio that includes 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead wines, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Ch. St Jean, Penfolds, Provenance, Hewitt Vineyard and more.

The current winemaker is Christophe Paubert who succeeded Robert Brittan when the later left Napa to make wine in Oregon at his own Brittan Vineyards and consult for wineries such as Winderlea.

A Bordeaux trained winemaker, Paubert has extensive experience working at such illustrious estates as the 2nd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Gruaud-Larose and the First Growth Sauternes estate of Chateau d’Yquem. Prior to joining Stags’ Leap in 2009, Paubert was the head winemaker for 4 years at Canoe Ridge Vineyards in Washington State.

Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing is a New Zealand native who started out at Indevin, one of New Zealand’s largest wine producers. She gained experience working harvest across the globe from Saintsbury in Napa to Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley of Australia as well as in Bordeaux before accepting a position at Stags’ Leap as a harvest enologist and working her way up to Asst. Winemaker.

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Viognier
Smoked sablefish with soft scrambled farm egg, ikura, chives and Chevre crostini with watermelon beet, grilled apricot, chili spice

I’m not a big beet person so I let my wife try the Chevre Crostini while I had the smoked sablefish with the ikura roe caviar. Both were smashing pairings with the Stags’ Leap Viognier with the wine being a particular revelation.

Sourced primarily from cooler climate vineyards in the Carneros AVA and Oak Knoll District, the Viognier had medium-plus intensity nose of orange blossoms and white peach notes.

On the palate, those white peach tree fruits carried through but also brought some tropical notes of passion-fruit and papaya. However this Viognier never came close to the tutti-fruity “Fruit Loop Cereal” style that unfortunately befalls many domestic Viogniers–especially those fermented and aged only in stainless steel. To avoid that pratfall, Paubert and Wing fermented the wine in neutral French oak barrels with weekly batonnage for 4 months. This very “Condrieu-style” approach produced a Viognier with textural weight and depth but with enough medium-plus acidity to keep it from being flabby or overly creamy.

The acidity also matched perfectly with the hors d’oeuvres, cutting through the “fishiness” of the sablefish and roe. My wife was particularly impressed at how well the acidity matched with the Chevre–the tangy goat cheese that often calls for high acid whites like Sauvignon blanc.

At $22-27, this is an outstanding Viognier with loads of personality and complexity that I would put on par with the àMaurice Viognier from Washington State as one of the stellar domestic examples of this variety.

The preserved kumquat vinaigrette on the salad were quite a treat.


First Course paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay
Spring Salad with Belgian endive, baby kale, avocado, marcona almonds, preserved kumquat vinaigrette

Sourced from the Carneros and Oak Knoll District, this Napa Chardonnay counters the stereotype of over-the-top, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. With 25% fermented and aged in new French oak, 50% in “seasoned” French oak and the rest in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay aimed for an elegant and food-friendly style.

The wine had a medium intensity nose with apple and citrus lime notes. A little subtle baking spice from the oak rims around the edge.

On the palate, the citrus notes came through the most and played off the baby kale and avocado very well. Medium-plus acidity maintained freshness and balanced the moderate creaminess in the wine. The clove oak spice and an almost marzipan nuttiness lingered on the moderate finish.

Overall, this was a very drinkable and pleasant Chardonnay that did hit the target for food-pairing. But, admittedly, at $25-30 it didn’t jump out as anything wow-worthy–especially following in the footsteps of the scrumptious Viognier. It’s a very well made California Chard but it is still one of hundreds of similar well-made and similarly priced California Chards.

The star of the night. I can still taste the braised short ribs and that delectable sauce.

Second Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Braised short ribs with seared sea scallops, morel mushrooms, chervil

From a food perspective, this was the winning course of the night. The braised short ribs melted in the mouth and had you dearly wishing you had more than just the bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and while I was skeptical with pairing them with a big Cab, the morel and au jus sauce from the short ribs offered just enough weight to carry the pairing.

As with other wines in the white label Napa Valley series, the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon includes some estate fruit but is mostly sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Joanne Wing noted that while Paubert likes the flexibility of having some fruit from warm climate sites like Calistoga, he’s far more excited about the fruit from the cooler southern reaches of Napa like Coombsville, Oak Knoll and Yountville.

Medium-plus intensity with rich dark fruit–black currants, black plums, blackberries. This screams Napa Cab from the nose but it is not as overtly oak-driven as the norm with a little tobacco spice element.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through but there is a little earthy forest-floor element that emerges that adds some intrigue. Medium acidity adds juiciness to the fruit but not enough to be mouthwatering. The oak is a little more pronounced but is more spice driven than vanilla. The medium-plus tannins are still quite firm and young but are more tight than biting. Moderate length finish ends on the fruit which testifies to the youth of this wine.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

At $45-50, this is priced in lined with many of its Napa peers as a sort of “entry-level” Napa Cab. It’s hard to say it is a compelling value compared to what you can get for equivalent pricing from other regions like Washington and Paso Robles. Like the Chardonnay, I feel like this Cab is certainly well made but not blow-your-socks-off-you-must-find-it good partly because of the premium you are paying for the Napa name (and the winery’s history).

However, I do suspect that this wine could kick it up a couple notches with a few more years of bottle age that potentially could make it far more compelling.

Third Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap “The Investor” Red Blend
Piedmontese New York Steak with herb polenta, spring vegetables, blackberry demiglace

Admittedly, this was one of the few times I’ve been disappointed with a Daniel’s steak. Perhaps it was just this cut but I found it was in the weird position of being both too fatty and too dry and lacking flavor. The polenta and blackberry demi-glace were excellent though. But I found myself again wishing that the braised short ribs were the main course.

A unique blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, The Investor pays homage to former owner Horace Chase who made his fortune investing in gold and silver mines during the Gold Rush days of California. The Merlot and majority of the Petite Sirah come from estate fruit in the Stags Leap District and Oakville while the Cabernet and Malbec are sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley.

The medium-plus acidity and savory, herbal element of The Investor red blend definitely helped interject some much needed flavor into the Piedmontese New York steak.

Medium-plus nose with a mix of red and dark fruits–plums and currants. There is more overt oak vanilla on the nose of this wine than with the Cab but it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Underneath there is also a blue floral element that is not defined.

On the palate, the mix of fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity tilting the favor towards the red fruit. Some savory herbal and smokey notes join the party that dearly helps the food-pairing with the flavorless Piedmontese New York steak. The vanilla oak notes add a layer of velvety softness to the high tannins that still have a fair amount of gripe. Like the Cab, the moderate length finish ends on the youthful fruit.

At $50-60, The Investor intrigues me a lot more than the Napa Cabernet (and the Napa Merlot) because of the savory, smokey element and mouthwatering acidity. It’s still young and has some “baby fat” of oak that needs to be shed but this is a unique blend that could turn into something exceptionally good.

Dessert paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Chocolate torte with Devonshire cream, coconut crisp

While the chocolate torte was amazing and sinfully delicious and the wine outstanding, this was not a winning pairing. The wine was nowhere near sweet enough to balance with the torte.

While delicious on their own, the pairing of the chocolate torte with the Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah just didn’t do it for me.

Still, it was somewhat fitting to end the Stags’ Leap Winery dinner with the wine that truly epitomizes the estate. While the name “Stags Leap” is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap Winery was always a vanguard in cultivating and promoting Petite Sirah.

High intensity nose that started jumping out of the glass as soon as the waiter poured it. Blackberries and boysenberries with some peppery spice and violets.

On the palate, the first thing that hits you is the weight and richness of the wine with the full brunt of the dark fruits and high tannins. But there is an elegance with the juicy medium-plus acidity and fine balance that keeps the wine from being overbearing. On the moderate finish, there is some subtle dark chocolate notes that come out but not enough to make the food-pairing work. This was definitely a wine to savor on its own.

At $32-40, this is a more premium-priced Petite Sirah but it is well worth not only its price but also its reputation as the winery’s flagship. During this course, Jo told us about the Ne Cede Malis block of Prohibition-era vines that is a field blend of majority Petite Sirah with Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and up to 9 other varieties. The grapes are harvested together and co-fermented to produce a limited release bottling. I have to admit that if Stags’ Leap Winery’s mobile ordering website wasn’t so buggy and difficult to navigate, I would have purchased a bottle of the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (as well as several bottles of the Viognier) right then.

Overall Impressions

Attending this dinner left me wondering if Stags’ Leap Winery is a victim of its own name and location in Napa Valley. While the winery absolutely shined with its Viognier and Petite Sirah, their more typical Napa offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were just “ho-hum”.

I do appreciate that Treasury Wine Estates has let Paubert, Wing and Co. continue producing their more obscure bottlings but I have no doubt that the health of the winery’s bottom line depends on the case sales of the bread and butter Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. It’s where the money is–especially in Napa–and that is what they’re out to sell.

Yet after tasting their outstanding Viognier, scrumptious Petite Sirah and very character-driven Investor blend, its hard not to think about what more the winery could do with their talented winemaking team and unique approach if they didn’t have to live up to the name Stags’ Leap.

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Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar

Every year as part of Taste Washington weekend, the Washington Wine Commission host several education seminars to highlight the unique terroir, wines and personalities of the Washington wine industry.

This year I participated in the Washington vs the World: Old World, New World, Our World seminar that was moderated by Doug Charles of Compass Wines. The event was presented as a blind tasting of 5 flights–each pairing a Washington wine with a counterpart from elsewhere in the world.

Featuring a panel of winemakers including Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of WT Vintners, Keith Johnson of Sleight of Hand and Anna Schafer Cohen of àMaurice Cellars as well as Damon Huard of Passing Time Winery and Sean Sullivan of Wine Enthusiast and The Washington Wine Report, the one and half hour event was a terrific opportunity to learn insights from the panel while honing your blind tasting skills with some world class wines.

Below are my notes from each of the flights followed by the reveal of what the wines were.

Flight 1

Wine 1: Opaque ruby with more red than blue hues. Medium-minus intensity nose–floral roses with red berries. Some oak spice.
On the palate–red cherry and currant. High acidity, medium-plus tannins. Little skeletal and thin. Short finish but the floral notes come back and seem promising. Feels like a young Cab that needs some time to flesh out. No minerality so likely New World. Cool climate Washington–Yakima/Walla Walla?

Wine 2: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #1. Little hazy so likely unfiltered. Medium-minus intensity–dark fruit but also a noticeable green note. Vanilla.

The sediment from wine #2. There was no sign of age so clearly this wine wasn’t filtered.

On the palate, the noticeable oak vanilla comes to the forefront but the green leafy notes are also there. Dark fruits but still not very defined, especially with the oak. Medium-plus acidity and high tannins that have a chalky grittiness to them. Some clove spice from the oak. Likely a Cab like wine #1 and it feels like a New World Napa with dark fruit and all the oak but the green notes are throwing me off. Napa Mountain AVAs? 2014 Walla Walla?

Flight 2

Wine 3: Opaque with more red than blue hues. Medium intensity nose. Chocolate covered cherries and spice.

On the palate, chocolate cover cherries still with blue floral notes (Cab Franc?) and a mix of oak baking spice and Asian cooking spice. A lot of layers to evolve. High acidity–very juicy cherries. Medium-plus tannins, very velvet. Some pencil graphite minerality on the long finish (Cab Franc x2?) Kinda Old Worldish but the chocolate covered cherries seem New World or a very modern Right Bank Bordeaux? Very lovely.

Wine 4: Opaque ruby with a little fuchsia hues. Pretty similar color depth to #3, just slightly different shades. Medium intensity nose with some floral and perfume nose. Vanilla blossoms. Smells like a Macy department store. Some blue fruits.

On the palate, the blue fruits–plums and blueberries–carry through and has noticeable oak. Medium-plus acidity and high grippy tannins. Seems very Cab-like with that big structure. No minerality and really short finish. Like wine #1 this seems a bit skeletal and young but I don’t think this one is as promising as #1. Washington BDX blend?

Flight 3

Wine 5: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. High intensity nose. Smokey tobacco and meatiness but also an earthy forest element. It smells like you’re hiking through the forest to get to a brisket BBQ.

On the palate, lots of dark fruit–black currant, black raspberry–but lots of smokey, meatiness too. Some leather. High acidity, high tannins. Big wine! Long finish with cigar notes. Taste like a Left Bank Bordeaux and Cote Rotie had a baby. Fantastic wine but I can’t think of a WA producer doing this.

Wine 6: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. A tad darker than #5. Medium-plus intensity nose. Dark fruits. Chocolate covered acai berries. Lovely blue floral notes.

On the palate, rich black fruits–black plums, black currants. Noticeable oak vanilla. Juicy medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Very well balanced. Long finish. Taste like a high-end Napa so high-end WA? Both of these are outstanding.

Flight 4

Wine 7: Opaque ruby with some blue hues. High intensity nose with leather and smoked meat. More intense than Wine #5! A little green olive tapenade on toasted bread. Grilled rosemary skews. Floral violets. Roasted coffee. Lots and lots of layers!

On the palate, blackberries and bacon. The roasted coffee notes come through as well as most of the bouquet. Medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Little back end heat. Long finish. Very Northern Rhone-like. Really delicious wine that I want more time with.

The panel for the seminar. (Left to Right)
Doug Charles, moderator
Casey McClellan, Seven Hills
Jeff-Lindsay-Thorsen, WT Vintners
Keith Johnson, Sleight of Hand
Damon Huard, Passing Time
Anna Schafer Cohen, àMaurice
Sean Sullivan, Wine Enthusiast


Wine 8: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #7. Medium-intensity nose. Almost shy compare to #7. Black fruits. Citrus-lime zest? (WA Syrah?) Medium acidity and medium tannins. High pH. Little rocky minerality on moderate finish. Warm climate New World. Seems like a Red Mountain Syrah. Reminds me a little of the Betz La Cote Rousse.

Flight 5

Wine 9: Clear ruby with red hues. First wine that I can see through. Medium-plus intensity nose. Roasted chicken herbs–thyme and sage. Some blue floral notes.

On the palate, a mix of red and dark fruits–cherries and berries–with the herbal and floral notes. High acidity. Medium-plus tannins. Little minerality on the moderate finish. Seems like a cool climate New World or Old World Rhone.

Wine 10: Clear pale ruby. Lighter than #9 but darker than a Pinot noir. High intensity aromatics with earthy notes and red fruits. Some bacon fat smokiness.

On the palate, all red fruits–cherries and tart cranberries. The smokey bacon fat also comes through (Syrah?). High acidity and medium-plus tannins but way more biting. Not as well balanced as #9 and coming across as more thin and skeletal. Short finish. Seems young.

The Reveal
My favorite for each flight is highlighted with ***

Wine 1: 2012 àMaurice Cellars Artist Series Ivey Blend Columbia Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $43)***
Wine 2: 2013 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $213) Update: Sean Sullivan informed me that this was poured from a magnum which likely highlighted how young tasting and underwhelming this wine was.

Wine 3: 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $47)***
Wine 4: 2014 Seven Hills Winery Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $45)

Wine 5: 2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac (Wine Searcher Ave $114)***
Wine 6: 2015 Passing Time Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills (Winery price $80)

Wine 7: 2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $61)***
Wine 8: 2015 Glaetzer Wines Amon-Ra Shiraz Barossa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $75)

Wine 9: 2015 WT Vintners Rhone Blend Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley (Winery price $40)***
Wine 10: 2014 Sadie Family Columella Coastal Region (Wine Searcher Ave $107)

My Top 3 Wines of the Event

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard — WOW! This wine was so funky and character driven that I can still memorably taste it over 4 days later. I’m usually not that blown away by Sleight of Hand wines–finding them well made but often jammy and fading quickly–and while I don’t think this wine is necessarily built for the cellar, it certainly built to deliver loads of pleasure and layers of complexity over the next few years.

The Sleight of Hand Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard was my Wine of the Event.


2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac — I don’t know what kind of decanting this wine saw before the event but this wine was tasting exceptional for a young Pauillac–more so for a young Lynch Bages! I suspect it was opened earlier in the morning with the somm team pouring the glasses at least an hour before the event started–which is still a relatively brief amount of time for a top shelf Bordeaux. Update: I learned from Nick Davis of Medium Plus and the somm team at the seminar that the 2012 Lynch Bages was opened only 40 minutes before the event and poured 20 minutes prior to the tasting beginning. That only adds to how impressive the wine was showing.

The 2012 vintage in Bordeaux is not getting a lot of attention being bookend between the stellar 2009/10 and 2015/16 vintages. Like 2014, you hear Bordeaux lovers note that 2012 is much better than 2011 and 2013 but that almost seems like damning with faint praise. It’s clear that there is a lot of great value to be had in this vintage–compare the Wine Searcher Ave for 2010 Lynch Bages ($190) & 2015 ($142) to the $114 average for 2012–and if it is starting to deliver pleasure at a little over 5 years of age then it’s worth investing in as a “cellar defender” to enjoy while waiting for your 2009/10 and 2015/16 wines to age.

2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley — I was not expecting this result. During the blind tasting I was very intrigued by this wine and ultimately pegged it as a Right Bank Bordeaux made in a style along the veins of Valandraud, Fleur Cardinale, Monbousquet or Canon-la-Gaffelière. Never would have pegged it as a Napa Merlot! In hindsight the chocolate covered cherries should have been my clue but they were so well balanced by the acidity and minerality that it didn’t come across as “Napa sweet”. Well done Duckhorn!

An honorable mention goes to the 2015 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. I was very impressed with how how Napa-like it has become. I was already a fan of the winery and tried this 2015 as a barrel sample at last year’s release party where its potential was evident. Still, I wasn’t expecting it to be this good, this quickly. It was rather unfair to compare the Passing Time to the 2012 Lynch Bages which was so different and so fantastic in its own right. A better pairing would have been with the Joseph Phelps Insignia or any other high end Napa like Silver Oak, Caymus, Frank Family, Cakebread, etc and I have no doubt that the Passing Time would have came out on top for most tasters.

Things I Learned About Blind Tasting

Admittedly I was a tad concerned finding myself consistently liking the first wine in each tasting flight but I can’t think of any systematic reason that would lead to that result. The wines were all poured in advance and I cleared my palate with crackers and water between each so I have to chalk it all up to coincidence.

For the most part, the varietal character and identity of each flight stood out and I was fairly accurate in identifying them. The main outlier was the Merlot flight (#2) featuring the Duckhorn and Seven Hills Merlots. The Duckhorn was tripping some of my Cab Franc notes while the Seven Hills was exceptionally Cabernet Sauvignon-like so that led me to deduce Right Bank Bordeaux blend which was wrong but at least in the ballpark.

The more difficult task was trying to nail down the region and which was the Washington example versus the World example. Here I felt like I only solidly hit 2 of the 5 flights (Flight #1 and Flight #3–Cab and Cab-dominant blends) but that was mostly just by 50/50 luck–especially in Flight #1.

The WT Vintners Rhone blend from Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley is a tough wine to pin down in blind tasting because of its mix of Old/New World characteristics.

I was often tripped up by how “Old Worldish” many of the Washington wines were–especially the Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard in the Rocks District. In hindsight, this should have screamed “ROCKS!” to me much sooner. While technically Oregon, this sub-AVA of Walla Walla produces some of the most complex and interesting Syrahs being made in Washington. I commented from the audience that putting this Syrah in a blind tasting is a little evil because of how Old World and Cote Rotie-ish it is.

Another thing that makes Washington a bit difficult to peg down is how frequently “cool climate notes” like red fruit, juicy medium-plus acidity, bright floral perfumes and subtle herbal notes appear in wines that are actually grown in rather warm climates (especially compared to Old World regions like Bordeaux). This is largely because of the significant diurnal temperature variation in Eastern Washington that can swing as much as 40℉ from the high heat of the daytime to cool low temperatures of night. This allows Washington grapes to get fully ripe and develop some of those dark fruit notes but, especially in cooler areas like Boushey and Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima and parts of Walla Walla, also maintain ample acidity and some of those cool climate characteristics.

From a blind tasting perspective, I need to solidify in my mind that getting a wine with that mix of warm/cool climate characteristics should be a tip off that I’m dealing with a Washington wine.

Is it Worth it?

Hell yeah. While I wasn’t impressed at all with attending The New Vintage, I will certainly make an effort to attend future seminars at Taste Washington.

At $85 a ticket, this was one of the more expensive seminars with others being as low as $45 a ticket, but the experience (and tasting over $800 worth of wine) delivers more than enough value to merit the cost.

A lot of great wine to taste through.


The only slight criticism is the rush between tasting each wine and getting the panel and audience to start commenting on them. Especially being a blind tasting, I wanted more than just a minute or two to critically taste and evaluate the wine before I start hearing other people’s comments that may sway my assessment.

Granted, I’m sure I’m in the minority here as I could tell that for many other participants in the audience, tasting the wines and being able to ask questions of the panel was a bigger draw than getting a chance to sharpen their blind tasting skills. When you have 10 wines being presented over 90 minutes–and allotting time for questions about vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking style, etc–something got to give so I understand why the tasting time got the short shrift.

Still, it was an exceedingly worthwhile experience that I highly recommend for Washington wine lovers and wine geeks alike.

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Quilceda Creek Release Party

If you ask Washington wine lovers what are the “cult wines” of Washington–the Screaming Eagles, the Harlans or the Grace Family Vineyards of the state–one name that would be unanimously mentioned is Quilceda Creek.

With the mailing list long since closed, and a healthy waiting list to boot, my wife and I were lucky to get on the members list back in 2009. Each year we look forward to the release of the Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Below are some of my thoughts from this year’s release party.

But first, some geeking.

The Background

Quilceda Creek was founded in 1978 by Alex and Jeannette Golitzin. Alex’s maternal uncle was the legendary André Tchelistcheff who helped Golitzin secure vineyard sources and provided barrels from Beaulieu Vineyards. At the time of Quilceda’s founding, there were only around 12 wineries operating in Washington. In 1992, their son Paul joined the winery and today manages both vineyard operations and winemaking.

In addition to Tchelistcheff, the Golitzins can also count Prince Lev Sergeyevich (1845-1915/16) of the House of Golitsyn as another winemaking ancestor. Sergeyevich was the official winemaker to Czar Nicholas II with the sparkling wines produced at his Crimean winery, Novyi Svit, served at the Czar’s 1896 coronation. It is believed that Sergeyevich’s sparkling wines were the first “Champagne method” bubbles produced in Russia.

Quilceda Creek has received six perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate–for the 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2014 Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain. In 2011, the 2005 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was served by the White House for a state dinner with Chinese president Hu Jintao.

The winery has been featured several times on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including twice being named #2 wine–in 2006 for the 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and in 2015 for the 2012 edition of that wine.

The Vineyards

Photo by Williamborg. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain–which played an important role in the early wines of Quilceda Creek.


Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, notes that in the early years of Quilceda Creek, Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley was the primary source of fruit.

In the 1980s, the focus moved to Red Mountain with Kiona Vineyards providing the fruit for several highly acclaimed vintages. Eventually Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval and Mercer Ranch (now Champoux) were added to the stable.

Today, Quilceda Creek focuses almost exclusively on estate-own fruit, making four wines that are sourced from five vineyards.

In 1997, Quilceda Creek joined Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Bill Powers of Powers Winery/Badger Mountain to become partners in Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. First planted by the Mercer family in the 1970s, fruit from Champoux Vineyard has formed the backbone for nearly all of Quilceda Creek’s 100 pt wines. In 2014, when Paul and Judy Champoux decided to retire, the Golitzins purchased their interests in the vineyard.

The author with Paul Golitzin.


In 2006, they acquired a 4.5 acre parcel next to Champoux which they named Palengat after Jeannette Golitzin’s side of the family. Located on the south slope of Phinny Hill, the vineyard was planted between 1997-2002.

In 2001, the Golitzins partnered with Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard to plant a 17 acre estate vineyard, the Galitzine Vineyard, on Red Mountain next to Ciel du Cheval. The vineyard takes its name from an old spelling of the family’s surname and is planted exclusively to clone 8 Cabernet Sauvignon. Originally derived from 1893 cuttings taken from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, clone 8 is highly favored by acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

Planted in 2010, Lake Wallula Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills is 33 acres planted exclusively to Cabernet Sauvignon on a plateau overlooking the Columbia River.

The Wallula Vineyard near Kennewick was developed by the Den Hoed family in 1997 in partnership with Allen Shoup (now with Long Shadows Vintners).

The Wines

In addition to tasting and releasing the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend was also tasted.

2015 Columbia Valley Red Blend is a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot that was sourced from the Champoux, Galitzine, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. Essentially a “baby brother” to the flagship Cab and vineyard designated Galitzine and Palengat, the CVR is selected from declassified lots that have been aged in 100% new French oak 18-21 months.

The 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend (CVR) just wasn’t doing it for me at this tasting.


Medium intensity nose. Surprisingly shy as this wine is usually raring to go. Some dark fruits–blackberry and cassis–and noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through but become even less define than they were on the nose. Medium acidity and a bit of back-end alcohol heat contribute to the disjointed feeling with this wine. The medium-plus tannins are firm but do have a soft edge that adds some texture and pleasure to the mouthfeel. Moderate length finish of mostly heat and oak.

2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cab sourced from the Champoux, Lake Wallula, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. The wine was aged 20 months in 100% new French oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Rich dark fruits with razor sharp precision–black plums, blackberries and even blueberries. There is also a woodsy forest element that compliments the noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, a lot more of the vanilla and oak baking spice notes carry through–particularly cinnamon–that adds a “pie-filling” richness to the wine. However, the medium-plus acidity balances this hefty fruit exceptionally well to add elegance and freshness. High tannins are present but like the CVR have a soft edge that makes this very young Quilceda Cab surprisingly approachable now. You can very much feel the full bodied weight of its 15.2% alcohol but, unlike the CVR, there is no back-end heat tickling the throat. Still only a moderate length finish at this point but the lasting impression is the juicy, rich fruit.

The tasting and barrel room of Quilceda Creek in Snohomish.


The Verdict

This tasting was a complete role reversal of the CVR and Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Usually it is very consistent that the CVR is happily ready to be consumed young while the Cab needs some cellar time to fully integrate and shed the baby fat of oak.

Though that “baby fat” of new oak is still present in the 2015 Columbia Cabernet Sauvignon, the precision of the fruit and elegance is striking right now. This is, by far, one of the best tasting new releases of the Columbia Valley Cab that I’ve had. While I’m still concerned with the high alcohol level, I’m very optimistic about how this wine will age and develop in the bottle.

While I was able to get this for the member’s price of $140, the Wine Searcher average for the 2015 is now $218. Putting this in context of similar priced Napa Valley wines like Opus One, Caymus Special Select, Pahlmeyer Proprietary, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Mondavi To Kalon and Dominus—there is no doubt that the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon belongs in that league and should probably be batting clean-up in that line-up.

Pallets of the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Even at the member’s $140 a bottle price, this is still over a million dollars worth of wine.

The CVR was $42 for members ($65 on Wine Searcher) and is usually one of the most screaming deals in wine. I would compare previous vintages of the CVR to $70-100 Napa wines like Silver Oak, Frank Family, Groth, Cakebread and Caymus and watch the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Red blend blow them out of the water.

But this 2015 vintage…I don’t know. It’s very possible that I got an awkward bottle or that the wine, itself, is just in an awkward phase of its development. It’s worth keeping an eye on but till then I would recommend the almost ironic advice of enjoying your 2015 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon now while waiting for the “baby brother” 2015 CVR to age.

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Product Review — Restaurant Crystal Clean Wine Glass Cleaner

A few thoughts on the Restaurant Crystal Clean: Professional Wine Glass Cleaning Liquid by The Mill River Company.

Product Specs

Made from all natural plant-derived ingredients that are 100% biodegradable, the bottle notes that the cleaner is also hypoallergenic and has not been tested on animals.

The Mill River Company’s website claims that it is used by over 200 wineries including Ridge, Clos du Val, Gary Farrell, Pina Vineyards, Caymus, Araujo Estate, Bonny Doon, Jordan, Ovid (do they even have a tasting room?) and numerous restaurants and wine bars.

A 16 oz bottle runs about $28 dollars on Amazon. It claims that because it’s “ultra concentrated”, it is more cost effective than other cleaners with one bottle able to clean 2200+ glasses at the cost of less than 1 penny per glass.

How to Use

One drop, scrub and rinse with hot water.

The directions say that it can be used as a rinse aid in dishwashers but I don’t trust my dishwasher with my wine glasses so I explored the hand wash option.

The instruction said to squirt a drop in a glass, wash with a soft sponge or cotton scrubber and rinse with hot water. One drop did get it nice and soapy but after the rinse with hot water, I had water spots and streaks that I needed to polish off.

I tried it with cold water and while it looked cleaner at first, after the glass dried I had fewer streaks but I still needed to get the polishing rag out.

Soaking in cold water before rinsing in cold water.


The bottle gave instructions on how to make a squirt bottle glass cleaner by mixing 1.5 oz into a gallon of cold water. I decided to try that ratio in my sink and let the glasses soak in the solution before cleaning them and rinsing in cold water. That turned out to be the winning recipe as the glasses came out brilliantly perfect.

The Verdict

I suspect that the laundry list of wineries, restaurants and wine bars that are using Restaurant Crystal Clean are using it as a rinse aid with an industrial dishwasher designed for wine glasses and it probably works really well.

The difference between doing one drop with hot water rinse (left) and the soaking in cold water in the sink (right).

While I am pleased with the results after soaking the glasses in the cold water solution, I’m very skeptical that I’m going to get 2200+ glasses worth of cleaning from the 16 oz bottle. Perhaps doing the one drop per glass and letting it soak in cold water will get me more mileage but I suspect that I will end up experimenting more with the soaking trick but with a scaled down ratio from the 1.5 oz/gallon.

However, after hosting a few wine tasting parties where I had a couple dozen dirty glasses and a few decanters that needed to be clean, the sink trick worked really well. The glasses do come out spotless and streak free with no traces of soap or odor. It may work out more realistically to costing 5-10 cents per glass but that is, for me, an acceptable cost to have perfectly cleaned wine glasses.

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60 Second Wine Review — Emmolo Sauvignon blanc

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Emmolo Sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley.

The Geekery

Emmolo is made by Jenny Wagner, daughter of Chuck Wagner of Caymus fame. The winery was founded by her mother, Cheryl Emmolo, in 1994 where she got the “pick of the litter” from her parent’s vineyard on Mee Lane in Rutherford. For years the Emmolos sold most of this fruit to wineries like The Hess Collection, Robert Mondavi Winery and Villa Mt. Eden.

Emmolo’s roots in Napa Valley date back to the 1920s when Salvatore Emmolo started a rootstock nursery in Rutherford. He built a winery on the property in 1934 which Jenny uses to make Emmolo wines today. The first vintages were made by Cheryl with the help of Ric Forman. Jenny took over in 2014, however, she had been working with her mother for several vintages so the 2011 Merlot and 2012 Sauvignon blanc are considered her first releases.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity. A bit surprised at how fragrant it is for 5 year California Sauvignon blanc. A mix of floral and tree fruits like apple and peaches.

On the palate, those tree fruit notes come through, particularly the apple but you can tell the age as the fruit taste more rich than fresh. The wine has medium acidity with weight on the palate, almost like a Chardonnay that has spent time in a neutral oak barrel. Not quite creamy but heavy. On the finish some citrus notes like pomelo pop out.

Photo by High Contrast. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

Apple fruit dominants but the pomelo note on the finish adds complexity


The Verdict

It’s clear that this Sauvignon blanc is on the wane of its life but it was still quite enjoyable. As noted in the review above, the aromatics are inviting and impressive.

At around $20, I’m quite satisfied with this Emmolo Sauvignon blanc and would certainly be open to trying newer vintages. If you have a bottle of the 2012, it’s worth opening up and enjoying now but I probably wouldn’t hold onto it for more than another year or two.

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Book Reviews — Rosé Wine

A few thoughts on Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan.

Overview

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan earned her Master of Wine in 2008, becoming the 4th woman in the United States to achieve such a distinction. In the introduction of Rosé Wine, she describes the difficulties in finding resources on rosé while she was studying for her MW and with rosé growing in popularity (particularly in the US), this book fills a niche.

The book is broken into 3 sections with 10 chapters. The first part, “Getting Started”, covers the basics of making and tasting rosé and concludes with Chapter 3’s presentation of Simonetti-Bryan’s 10 question Rosé Quiz. This quiz, which features questions asking about coffee habits and whether you put lemon juice on your green beans, aims to identify what style of rosé you may enjoy based on your tolerance of bitter, sweet and sour components as well as alcohol heat.

The next section of the book goes into the world of rosés with chapters 4 through 7 detailing the four broad categories of rosés–Blush wines which emphasize sweetness, Crisp wines which emphasize acidity, Fruity wines which emphasize fruit and Rich wines which emphasize body, alcohol and deep color. In each section, Simonetti-Bryan gives specific wine recommendations that exhibit these particular styles and food pairing options for them.

The last section, covering chapters 8 through 10, is titled “Resources” and includes more in-depth food pairing guidelines as well as a pronunciation guide and checklist for the wines featured throughout the book.

Some Things I Learned

I must confess that when I picked up this tiny (6.5 x 8 inch) book, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, come on, it’s about rosé! Outside of knowing which grapes grow in which wine region that makes rosé, how much is there to really know about it?

But y’all….

From Wikimedia Commons, taken by self and uploaded as Agne27

And truthfully, it’s often easier to find rose Cava in the US than Spanish rosados.

I got schooled by the Jedi Wine Master.

The first eye-opener for me came on page 2 when I learned that after France, Spain is the second leading producer of rosé. Spain?!? I know they make a significant quantity of wine but I would have surely pegged the US as #2 for rosé production–especially since we drink so much of it. But then, my US-centric experience is at play when I can find dozens of American rosé examples but only a handful of Spanish rosados on restaurant wine lists and store shelves–a Muga here, a Marques De Caceres there.

In Chapter 1 on “Making Rosé”, I geeked out on the varietal characteristics of the grapes. As someone who is toiling away on the WSET Diploma level, it’s helpful to know little blind tasting hints such as looking for herbal notes like oregano in Sangiovese, the raspberry flavors in Syrah rosés and how Mencía can come across like Malbec but with more blackberry, violet and spicy flavors.

I also never realized how much co-fermentation of white and red grapes was done in rosé winemaking. Typically when you think of co-ferments, you think of notable examples like Syrah and Viognier in Côte-Rôtie and field blends. But littered throughout Rosé Wine are examples that Simonetti-Bryan highlights from regions like Vinho Verde (10 different red and white grapes can be used), Veneto (the Prosecco grape Glera with red grape varieties), Rioja (Viura and Tempranillo) and Tavel.

I was also surprised to learn that Pink Moscato is usually made with blending red wine to white Muscat blanc wine. I always thought it was made from one of the countless red skin variations of the Muscat grape.

In Chapter 2 on “Tasting Rosé”, Simonetti-Bryan’s explanation of picking up flavors via your retronasal cavity is one of the best I’ve ever came across. She asks you to think about how you can taste food that you ate hours ago when you burp and that is bloody brilliant. Gross, but brilliant and I’m totally going to steal that the next time I have to explain retronasal olfaction.

Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book

Here Simonetti-Bryan gives a smorgasbord of options with each rosé style getting 15 to 22 recommendations of specific wines to try. I found a couple dozen that excited me but I’m going to limit this list to the top 5 that interested me the most.

Domaines Ott Clos Mireille Côtes de Provence Rosé (Crisp style) – I can’t imagine myself paying nearly $50 for a rosé but Simonetti-Bryan’s description of this wine having a long slow fermentation, spending 8 to 12 months in vats, makes this very fascinating.

Domaine la Rabiotte Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence (Crisp) – At around $13, this is more in my wheel house for rosé and the description of this wine’s minerally acidity cutting through the fat of pulled pork had my mouth watering just thinking about it.

By jean-louis Zimmermann - Flickr: vin

Very intrigued to explore the rosés of Tavel more

Conundrum Rosé (Crisp) – Made by the Wagner family of Caymus fame, this rosé is made from the uber geeky Valdigué grape. That right off the bat had me interested but then Simonetti-Bryan notes that the grapes are apparently “rolled” for 3 hours before pressing. Rolled? I’ve never heard of that before. By hand? By machine? In a tumbler barrel? I’m intensely curious.

Domaine Clarence Dillon Clarendelle Rosé (Fruity style) – Made by the Dillon family of Ch. Haut-Brion fame, a sub $20 Bordeaux rosé made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc sounds delicious. I’d also like to see how the time spent aging on the lees impacts mouthfeel.

Château de Ségriès Tavel (Rich style) – Located across the Rhône river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Tavel AOC specializes in producing deeply colored and fuller bodied rosés. I also liked Simonetti-Bryan’s tidbit that this AOC only produces around 500,000 cases a year–which she compared to Barefoot’s annual production of 17 million cases. With all the food pairing tips she gives for matching rich, robust rosés with heartier fare, I think I’ve found a way to enjoy rosés in winter.

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

Unfortunately Simonetti-Bryan didn’t include an appendix of notes or reference section in Rosé Wine so I didn’t get as many recommendations for future reading materials as I have from other wine books (like Bursting Bubbles). She does name drop a few potentials in the book–including two in the Introduction as she recounts a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant humorously telling a Master of Wine that “rosés are not wine”.

Benjamin Lewin’s Wine Myths & Reality (I wonder if he tackles the “rosés are not wine” myth here)

Benjamin Lewin’s Wines of France

But I was so impressed with Rosé Wine that, when I was finished, I went to Amazon to look up other books from Simonetti-Bryan that I could add to my reading list.

The One Minute Wine Master: Discover 10 Wines You’ll Like in 60 Seconds or Less

With Master Chef Ken Arnone, Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food and Wine

Final Thoughts

As I noted above, I wasn’t expecting much from this book–a quick read and maybe a takeaway or two–but I ended up burning through a highlighter. The fact that Simonetti-Bryan could jam so many usefully nuggets of info, and present it so unassumingly, is a huge testament to her skill as a teacher. Throughout reading Rosé Wine, I found myself continually surprised and presented with new ways of thinking about something.

While I initially eye-rolled at the Rosé Quiz and usually chafe at such over-simplification of people’s tastes (like I hate coffee and spicy food but love bitter dark chocolate and spicy, tannic, full-bodied reds), I was thoroughly impressed with her explanation of her methods and will have to admit that she nailed me as a Crisp rosé girl and my wife as Fruity rosé fan. While on the surface it seemed overly simple, the thinking and methodology behind it was solid.

I can see the full-bodied weight of this Counoise rosé from Washington pairing well with heavier fare.

I was also impressed with how Rosé Wine encouraged me to rethink my food pairing approach with rosés. I’m so nearsighted about matching weight to weight (light bodied rosé with lighter fare) that it was surprising for me to see Simonetti-Bryan’s recommendations of lamb with a Merlot and Malbec rosé from New Zealand, rich octopus with a Tuscan rosato and beef brisket with a Cabernet Franc rosé from Israel. None of those pairings would have been my first instinct for those dishes or wines but after reading Rosé Wine, I see how they make sense.

And I honestly can’t wait to try them.

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Top Ten Wines from 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

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

Among the wines that I regrettably missed out on:

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

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

My Top 10 wines of the night:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas (Part 2)


First things, if you haven’t checked out the first entry in Spitbucket’s 3 part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas, head there now. You will find a lot of a great wines that often get passed over as score hounds hunt for the wines with the blockbuster ratings.

While the wines featured in Part I were described as Ted Williams wines, the wines that I’m featuring now are more the Joe Dimaggios. They got the big scores and married Marilyn Monroe (or MaryAnn Worobiec) so of course they garnered the bulk of attendees’ attention. Out of the 244 wines, there were 25 wines that received scores 94+ available for tasting, headlined by two Vintage Ports–the 98 point rated Graham’s 2000 and 97 pt Croft 2011.

I got a chance to try several of them and while there were many delicious treats that made my Top Ten list, there were also a few that were just “meh”. It’s good to remember that while Joe did get Marilyn–so did Arthur Miller.


Adobe Road 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $175) Hands down, my wine of the night. Tiny production wine from a single block of Cabernet Sauvignon in the legendary Beckstoffer Georges III vineyard in Rutherford. The highly sought after fruit from this vineyard is prized by a “Who’s Who” of high-end California wineries like Caymus, Alpha Omega, Chateau Boswell, Duckhorn, Staglin, Hunnicutt, Myriad, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Provenance, Robert Craig, Sojurn and Schrader. This example from Adobe Road delivers in spades.

High intensity aromatics of black currant, blackberry with floral elements and a mixture of baking and Asian spices. I spent several minutes just smelling my glass before taking sip because the bouquet was so intoxicating alluring. The mouthfeel was classic Napa–silky smooth tannins that added weight and depth to the palate but wrapped around your tongue like kiss. But unlike a few of the other high scoring wines, this is not a fruit bomb. The acidity was still medium-plus to keep the fruit lively and fresh with the ability to age in the cellar for several more years. However, it is at such a fantastically delicious spot now, I don’t know if anyone lucky enough to get their hands on one of these bottles will want to wait. Just a perfect combination of power, balance and elegance.

Ch. Calon Segur 2003 Saint Estephe (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $117) Another wine that made my Top 10 list. The 2003 vintage often sends a shudder down the spines of European wine lovers because it was a “heat wave” vintage. Indeed, a staggering number of people died from the heat and, while nowhere near as tragic as the loss of human life, grapevines also suffered. But the axiom that “Good wine is made even in bad vintages” is still aptly true. You just have to be more selective and look for the gems that had the kismet of the right terroir and right winemaking touch for the vintage. The 2003 Calon Segur is a perfect case in point.

Located in St. Estephe, the Third Growth estate of Calon Segur is the most northern of the classified growth in the Medoc. While the soils have the typical Medocian mixture of gravel and sand, you also find a far amount of clay. This coupled with the overall coolness of its northernly location, gives you soils that were more apt to retain the limited, precious amount of water needed to weather the heat. Then you add a winemaking style of Calon Segur that (was then) focused on lower alcohol but brawny wines that prized acidity and structure, and you have a wine with a fighting chance to not only be good but maybe even great.

It was a long term bet but one that paid off exceptionally well for the 2003 Calon Segur. The wine had a floral, spicy nose with a delicate touch of fruit that almost smelled like a great red Burgundy. The palate, though, was very Bordeaux–almost full-bodied with velvety tannins that had no greeness or bite. The spice from the nose carried through as a mixture of tobacco and baking spices that complimented the juicy, ripe dark fruits which still had plenty of acidity and life. This wine easily has several more years that it could go on but it is at a great point right now and an absolute bargain at this price. I would put this toe to toe with Bordeaux from the more heralded 2005 vintage in the $170-200 range.

Croft 2011 Vintage Port (97 points. Wine Searcher average price $81) This was the highest rated wine that I got to try that night and it came from the highly acclaimed 2011 vintage. This is a vintage that is often compared to the great vintages of the 1970s as well as 1963 and 1945. However, the thing to keep in mind with vintage Port is that after a few brief years of youthful exuberance following release, these wines tend to “shut down” and enter their quiet phase or “awkward adolescence” that can last for several years or even a decade plus. The trade off is that when these wines re-emerge from that “dumb phase”, they are even more outstanding and mind-blowing. You need the patience of a grasshopper to reap the beauty of a butterfly.

I go through that tangent because, sadly, this Croft has entered that awkward adolescence. This is a fate rapidly befalling upon its 2011 peers with the Cockburn and Graham’s that I’ve tried in the last year likewise being a bit underwhelming despite their pedigrees and potential. What does a “quiet vintage Port” taste like? Well in the case of the Croft it was very muted on the nose, red fruit and that was about it. On the palate, instead of being focused or concentrated, it was a rather clumsy hodgepodge of undistinguished fruit flavors and sweetness. I have no doubt that the potential to live up to its lofty score is there but it is clear that this wine was tasting exponentially better 2-3 years ago when it was being reviewed and that its best years is still much further down the road.

Kistler 2013 Hudson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $80) Combine one of California’s top Chardonnay producer with a legendary Chardonnay vineyard and you are sure to have a winning combination. This wine was classic Cali Chard with tropical fruit aromas on the nose–papaya and ripe honeydew melon–followed by a creamy, rich mouthfeel. But what keeps this from being a butter bomb was the elegance with medium-plus acidity that held up the weight of the malo and a minerally streak that you’re often hard pressed to find in many California Chardonnays. No one would ever mistake this wine for a white Burgundy, but fans of the more weightier examples from Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet could appreciate this wine for being a well-made example of a California benchmark.

Antinori 2013 Guado Al Tasso (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $86) A Super Tuscan blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this wine captures some of the savory herbalness of a nice Pauillac but with a lighter touch and riper tannins. It was a bit tight at this tasting and, like the 2014 Ornellaia noted in the previous blog entry, will need several years to show its stuffing.

Marchesi Fumanelli 2009 Octavius Riserva Amarone (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $173) This was another first-time find and it had me googling where in the US I could buy this wine. That’s always a good sign that something is heading towards my Top Ten list. This was a very spicy Amarone with some floral and earthy elements that smelled like you were hiking through a mint and clover field while carrying a bouquet of roses. The palate was very bold, almost decadent, with rich dark fruit flavors that tasted like a savory Christmas fruitcake. Every sip revealed something different with this wine unfurling on the tongue like chapters and verses of an exciting story. The balance between savory and rich was outstanding. Situated among tables next to a stunning list of top Amarone producers like Allegrini, Masi, Zenato and Bertani, Marchesi Fumanelli stood head over shoulders above them all.

Much like the Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero I talked about in Part I, I was left feeling that if this wine was this impressive based on a single taste, how much more pleasure could be discovered over the course of a whole bottle?


Mollydooker 2014 Carnival of Love McLaren Vale Shiraz (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $72) This winery has its legions of fans but much like smokey, peaty Islay Scotches, its a singular taste that either people love or find that its not really their cup of tea. Being a wine geek, I try to find the nuance of appeal in every wine and while the lush, over the top oak and fruity style of Mollydooker is usually not my cup of tea, I have found examples of their wines that I’ve been able to enjoy for their simple, hedonistic pleasures. But it is kind of like shooting with a bow and arrow at an apple that a circus clown is juggling. Sometimes you hit the apple and win the prize. Sometimes you miss and sometimes you impale the poor the clown.

This one was just a miss. It wasn’t horrible by any stretch of the imagination. It was just really, really, really, really oaky. In fact it was competing with the Orin Swift Abstract and Belle Glos Clarke & Telephone for most oaky wine at the tasting. Lots of sweet vanilla with more overt taste of toast instead of more subtle baking spice. Trying to get past the oak to venture for some fruit, I did feel a sense of richness and intense fruit on the palate but I was hard pressed to really identify what kind of fruit it was or pick up any other layer of complexity. While, in general, Mollydooker wines are often meant to be consumed young as their low acidity usually doesn’t bode well for cellaring, I find that giving them 4 to 5 years from vintage date allows the oak to temper itself a bit while letting some character show.


Ramos Pinto 30 year Tawny Port (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $85) Not too long ago, I did a tasting featuring the tawnys of Taylor-Fladgate where I absolutely adored the 30 year tawny. As phenomenal as that Taylor 30 was, I have to say that the Ramos Pinto ran laps around it. Wow, just wow. This may be one of the single best Tawny Ports that I’ve ever tasted and I would start putting it close to the 1970 Taylor and 1970 Fonseca vintage Ports as one of the best Ports, I’ve had. Period.

While I was extremely discipline in spitting throughout the evening, I swallowed and savored every drop of this wine. The nose was a beautiful blend of spice and hazelnuts. The palate introduced butterscotch and dried golden raisins. The mouthfeel was the star with a silkiness that seemed almost feather-light around the tip of the tongue but pulled you in with its richness and weight towards the mid-palate. The finish was the longest of the evening. Several minutes. In fact, I ended up savoring it for so long that I missed out on the 98 point rated Graham’s 2000 vintage port that was being emptied in glasses as I stood by the table still reveling in the Ramos Pinto 30. While I’m sure the Graham’s would have been wonderful, I think the sacrifice of being able to enjoy the Ramos longer was well worth it. Needless to say, this wine was one of my Top 10 of the night.

Rodney Strong 2012 Rockaway Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $74) If you mostly know of Rodney Strong for their low-end, chain-restaurant wines then this wine is an eye-opener. Much like Sbragia’s Monte Rosso I reviewed in the last post, it seems sinful to compare this Alexander Valley Cabernet to a Napa wine but I’d be damn if this wouldn’t fool me for a Silver Oak Napa (but still priced like their Alexander!). Though while the Silver Oak Napa usually needs 7 to 10 years to get to this level of complexity and drink-ability, this Rodney Strong Rockaway is already roaring on all cylinders.

The nose has a great mix of ripe black currant and plum with tobacco oak spice and cedar cigar box. The palate is powerful and fills up your entire mouth with seductive fruit but also has layers of savory meaty notes underneath. The oak is present but plays a supporting role while letting the fruit and power of the wine take center stage. This wine would be equally at ease paired with a juicy prime rib as it would be with an elegant lamb dish or just being savored by itself.

Torbreck 2013 Descendant Shiraz Barossa Valley (96 points. Wine Searcher average price $89) This wine was tussling with the Penfolds 2014 RWT, Two Hands 2014 Bella Garden and the Hickinbotham Clarendon 2013 Brooks Road for best Australian wine of the night. A co-ferment with 8% Viognier, this wine has an absolutely beautiful floral nose paired with vibrant berry fruit. Even though time is precious with just 3 hours to taste upwards of 244 wines, this was a wine that deliberately slows you down, encouraging you to spend several minutes just smelling and enjoying it.

When you finally do get to tasting it, the pay off is well worth it with it full-body but elegant mouthfeel that testifies to but also defies it 15.5% alcohol. Tasting blind, I would’ve peg it more around 14% because of how graceful it carries it heavy weight across the palate. Medium-plus acidity keeps the fruit fresh and invites your taste buds to water enough to pick up some of the black pepper and baking spices of cinnamon and nutmeg that wraps around the berry fruit. It’s a shame that Torbreck gets no where near the amount of attention that Penfolds or Mollydooker gets because this wine is certainly among Australia’s best.


K Vintners 2013 Royal City Syrah (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $129) Like Mollydooker, I find Charles Smith’s wines of K Vintners to be “hit or miss” for me with, thankfully, more hits than misses. But these are still wines that I will hardly ever buy “on faith” without tasting first because when they miss, they’re “impale the clown” kind of misses. Partly that’s because of K Vintner’s style which seems to favor high pH, very lush wines that can sometimes veer towards issues with volatile acidity and brettanomyces. I don’t mind a little brett because it can add complexity but VA is something that I’m personally hyper-sensitive about.

This 2013 Royal City had a smidgen of brett but was, thankfully, just in the gamey arena instead of the full-blown camping-in-the-horse-barn arena of brett. Also, thankfully, there was no overt signs of VA but the very dense and lush mouthfeel with medium-minus acidity doesn’t leave me optimistic that VA won’t make an appearance over time as the fruit fades with bottle age. The tannins are smooth, of course, and the fruit sweet and dark. It’s definitely a drink-now kind of wine that I’m sure will give many people much pleasure. It’s just not a wine that I would, personally, risk the clown for.

Well….maybe I’d risk that clown.

El Nido 2013 Jumilla (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $125) Much like Mollydooker and K Vintners, El Nido is about lush, decadence and lip smacking fruit. But while those wines were underwhelming, this wine was absolutely scrumptious. The nose gave off the siren song of rich, intensely concentrated dark fruit signaling a very fruity and full-bodied wine but the palate surprised with high, almost Bordeaux-like, acidity that added a splash of freshness to the fruit. It not only made your lips smack but your mouth water as well. It’s a big, big wine (probably the most full-bodied outside of the Amarones and Ports) but it had finesse to it that would open it up to more food-pairing possibilities than it lush co-horts. Of course, it was quite delicious still on its own.

Coming up next: My Top Ten Wines of the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

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