Tag Archives: Champagne

Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

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

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

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

But man does it suck losing.

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

How to Play

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

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

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

Why the Somm Game works

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Ego Tax”

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

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

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

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

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

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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60 Second Wine Review — Louis Bouillot Extra Brut

A few quick thoughts on the Louis Bouillot Extra Brut Cremant de Bourgogne.

The Geekery

The sparkling wine house of Louis Bouillot was founded in 1877 in the Burgundy wine village of Nuits-Saint-Georges.

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that the house owns around 50 acres of vineyards but works with over 70 growers throughout the Côte d’Or as well as in the Côte Chalonnaise, the Mâconnais and Chablis.

Since 1997, the house has been a part of the Boisset Collection along with other notable Burgundian houses like Bouchard Aîné & Fils, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Ropiteau Frères and the California estates of Raymond Vineyards, Buena Vista Winery, DeLoach Vineyards and Lyeth Estate.

The Limited Edition Extra Brut is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Gamay and Aligoté. The wine spent 30 months aging on its lees (well above the 9 months minimum required for regular non-vintage Cremant de Bourgogne and 12 months required for NV Champagnes) before being bottled with a dosage of 6 g/l.

The Wine

High intensity nose. A mix of ripe apples and lemons with toasty pastry. There is also a white floral note that adds a sweet smelling element–honeysuckle?

Photo by Tomwsulcer. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-Zero

Perfect balance of apple fruit and toastiness in this dry sparkler.

On the palate, the apple notes come through the most and with the toastiness reminds me of a freshly baked apple turnover with some cinnamon spice. Noticeably dry I would have pegged the dosage more in the 3 g/l range. Impeccably well balanced with fresh lively acidity and silky smooth mousse. Long finish brings the lemon notes back with them being more zesty than fruity.

The Verdict

At around $20-25, this is a fantastic sparkling wine that would put many of the grocery store level NV Champagne brands in the $35-45 range to shame. I’ve long been a fan of Cremant de Bourgogne (and Louis Bouillot in particular–especially their rose sparkler) but this Extra Brut takes it to another level.

Being a limited edition, it will be hard to find but well worth the hunt.

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Product Review — SommSelect Blind Six

Master Sommelier Ian Cauble (of the movie Somm fame) has a unique subscription program designed to teach people how to blind taste better–the SommSelect Blind Six.

Each month for $199 you receive 6 bottles (3 whites and 3 reds) that are individually wrapped in black tissue paper. I decided to give the subscription a go. Below is my experience with my first month’s box (Spoiler alert if you haven’t done April’s wines) and my thoughts on if the subscription (and wines) are worth the cost.

What You Get

In the box, you’ll find 6 individually wrapped bottles numbered 1-6 as well as an envelop containing both instructions and an answer packet to reference after you’ve tasted the wines. The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was that they didn’t indicate on each bottle if they were red or white nor was there any info in the Blind Tasting Instruction Packet. The numbered stickers on each bottle are different colors but not with a consistent pattern to distinguish white versus red. I took a wager on the most logical set up being trying the 3 whites first so I went with trying bottles #1-3 which, happily, were all white.

In the instruction packet, Cauble gives tips on what to look for in each stage of the evaluation as well as what common “clues” often mean. These tips range from things that are fairly well known–like under Sight the tips about looking at the meniscus and how the color varies from the intensity of the core to the rim is a sign of age–to more interesting observations like his note under Nose & Palate that the aroma of dry bay leaf is common in Cabernet Sauvignon from moderately warm climate regions like Napa. While the former can often be found in discussions about blind tasting, the later is the kind of insight you usually only get first hand from someone with experience in blind tasting.

Likewise, the answer packet (which I’ll discuss below) also gives numerous precise details about things to look for in evaluating color and structure that you don’t readily find from other resources.

Tasting the White Flight

Using the Coravin on the white wine flight.

Cauble recommends having a neutral third party person open the wines and pour them into a decanter. While I clearly see the benefit of this approach–not the least of which is that splash decanting is probably the most underutilized tool in wine appreciation–I went a different route for three reasons.

1.) Neither my wife nor I wanted to miss out on the fun so we didn’t have a “neutral third party”
2.) I didn’t want to open up and waste 3 bottles of wine. [Note: Cauble does recommend doing the tastings as part of a multi-course dinner and with friends]
3.) I didn’t have 3 decanters of the same size and shape–which does make a difference
3.5) I also didn’t want to clean 3 decanters along with 6 wine glasses to be brutally honest

So we decided to break out the foil cutter and as carefully as possible use scissors to cut off the tip of the black tissue paper and remove the top of the capsule without seeing any identifying markings. Wine #3 was a screwcap so I just closed my eyes and twist. It felt like I was kid back at home trying to get something out of my parent’s closet while deliberately avoiding the corner where they kept the presents. Then we Coravin each bottle to pour out 2 samples of the cork-sealed wines.

Now other people might take the approach of just blind tasting one bottle a night and enjoying the wine with dinner or what not. It’s certainly an easier and less wasteful approach. However, we really wanted to compare the 3 together because we felt that it allowed us to go back and forth with contrasting color and aroma. It is also more conducive to the blind tasting format of formal examinations. The beauty of the Coravin is that it allows us to only pour two samples of each without pulling the cork and wasting the wine.

Wine #1

The most noticeable thing about this wine was the “onion peel” color with pink hues.

Medium intensity nose with apple and citrus notes along with a white floral element that wasn’t very defined. There was also a subtle doughy element that made me think of raw pastry dough as opposed to something toasty like oak or Champagne.

On the palate the apple fruits came through much more than the citrus with a lot of weight and depth for a medium-plus bodied white wine. This wine had texture that filled the mouth which started my brain going towards Oregon Pinot gris. Medium acidity was enough to keep it fresh but not racy or citrusy like I associate with Italian Pinot grigio. No signs of new oak but that doughy element from the nose could have been from partial neutral oak. Moderate length finish ends with the lingering white flower notes that I still couldn’t quite pin point.

My guess: An Oregon Pinot gris in the $18-20 range. At this point in my practice I’m not going to focus on guessing age.
Turned out to be: 2016 Scarbolo Pinot grigio, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave: $14)

Wine #1 — Should have paid more attention to the color.


In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the color that comes from a practice of skin contact that is far more common in Italy than Oregon. I let the stereotype of “light, citrusy” supermarket Italian Pinot grigio sway me into thinking that this wine was too good and too weighty to come from Italy. Granted, living in the Pacific Northwest I’m naturally bias due to my greater familiarity with Oregon Pinot gris.

Also, (thanks to Cauble’s notes in the Answer Packet) I realized that I should have paid more attention to that “subtle doughy element” from the nose. In Cauble’s notes he describes “hints of peanut shells, stale beer” which plays along those lines of what I was picking up. It wasn’t Champagne biscuity or Muscadet leesy but there was something there that I now know I should look out for–particularly in higher end Italian Pinot grigio from regions like Friuli.

Wine #2

Light yellow color, almost watery with some green specks.

High intensity nose. Wow! This wine is screaming out the glass with lemon citrus (both fruit and zest) and the smell of concrete after rain.

On the palate, those citrus notes comes through but so does the stoniness. This wine is screaming minerality–like liquid stones in your mouth. There is also a sense of salinity in the wine that amplifies the minerality. Clearly I’m thinking Old World here but which grape? Medium-plus acid tilts me away from thinking Sauvignon blanc/Sancerre and more to Chardonnay/Chablis. Medium body with a long finish that lingers on those stoney notes. Very fantastic wine and my favorite of the flight.

Crazy good Petit Chablis. Minerality for days.


My guess: A village-level Chablis in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Agnes et Didier Dauvissat Petit Chablis, Burgundy, France (Wine Searcher Ave $17)

Outstanding wine and a scorcher of a deal for a Petit Chablis. I was even tempted into thinking this could be a Premier Cru instead of a village-level Chablis because of how vibrant it was. Ultimately I defaulted back to village level because, while it did jump out of the glass, my notes on the wine were still rather short. You expect more layers and complexity with a higher level Chablis. But still, an outstanding bottle and way above what a Petit Chablis typically delivers.

Wine #3

Moderate yellow. Definitely darker than #2 but not golden or anything that would hint at oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Spiced d’Anjou pear with LOTS of white pepper. I tried really hard not to jump to conclusions but this was screaming Gruner Veltliner right from the get-go.

On the palate the spiced pear carries through and is joined by some ripe apple notes. The ripeness of the apple and the pear had me wondering if this was maybe a warmer climate Gruner like from California or (Northwest bias again) Oregon. Medium-plus acidity and a sense of stoney river rocks ultimately brought me back to Old World and Austria. No signs of oak. Light bodied with a moderate finish that lingers on the white pepper spice.

My guess: An Austrian Gruner Veltliner in the $14-17 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Weingut Bauerl Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, Wachau, Austria (Wine Searcher Average $9)

Another crazy good value. Would be a killer glass pour at a restaurant.


While not “New Zealand Sauv. blanc easy”, this was definitely the easiest one in the entire Blind Six. Cauble promises to pick classic examples of each wine style and I don’t think he could have picked a more classic Gruner Veltliner than this.

Tasting the Red Flight

I had a bit of a ego boost with the white flight getting 3/3 grape varieties right and 1.5/3 with the regions–going to do a half point for that way over-performing Petit Chablis. However with the red flight my ego got thoroughly deflated.

My wife and I did the red flight tasting before a meal and decided to make a game of it. After we sampled and evaluated the wines, we compared each to our meal to see what was the best pairing. The “winning bottle” got the cork pulled to be finished with the rest of the meal. We really liked this game and think we’ll make it a staple moving forward with doing the Blind Six.

Wine #4

Light ruby color. Can read through it. Some fuschia hues.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very ripe Rainier cherries, cranberries with herbal notes–mint and fennel.

Those red fruits and herbal notes carry through but the cherries taste more richer on the palate than they smelled on the nose. Almost candied even. High acidity balances that richness and still keeps the fruit more red than black. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the wine feeling a little thin. Rather short finish ends on some spice notes that aren’t very defined though hint at being in the baking spice family (cinnamon, clove) suggesting partial new oak? Definitely thinking Old World Pinot with this.

Should have paid more attention to the fuschia hues and candied cherry notes.

My guess: A basic Bourgogne rouge (maybe Cote de Beaune-Villages?) in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorees Morgon, Beaujolais, France (Wine Searcher Ave $18)

My wife briefly suggested Gamay as a possibility but we dismissed it because the acids were too high–though in his notes Cauble rates the acidity of this wine as medium-plus. In hindsight, the “candied cherry” and the fuschia hues should have registered more.

Yeah, this was a total miss for me.

Wine #5

Moderate ruby. Can still read through it but much darker than #1. Slight blue hues.

Medium intensity nose. Noticeable oak spice and vanilla. Black cherries and black berries.

On the palate, the oak still dominate with the dark fruit. Medium-plus acidity keeps it from being syrupy with medium tannins holding the structure well. Moderate length finish ends on the oak. This is screaming California Pinot.

While you probably wouldn’t suspect Syrah being blended in, it would be hard not to peg this as anything but a Cali Pinot.


My guess: A California Pinot noir in the $33-38 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Tyler Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, USA (Wine Searcher Ave $36)

This was, by far, the easiest one of the red flight and I was seriously close to taking a stab that it was Central Coast as well. It was very oak driven and didn’t have any of the elegance I associate with Sonoma Coast, Russian River or Carneros Pinot noir. It wasn’t bad at all (and it certainly not a huge Kosta Browne wannabe) but it definitely was as stereotypical “Post-Sideway Cali Pinot” as you can get.

Wine #6

Medium garnet with some rim variation that has an orange huge. Can’t read through the core.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dried roses and tarry tobacco spice. Some red fruits–cherries, pomegranate and cranberries. Also a little animal earthiness.

The red fruits carry through but aren’t as defined on the palate as they were on the nose. It’s the tarry tobacco and high tannins that dominate. Still just medium-plus body though with the alcohol weight. High acidity makes your mouth water and highlights tobacco spice notes and helps keep the floral rose petals from the nose alive. The animal earthiness become more defined and linger on the moderate finish.

This isn’t your “modernist” style Gaja, Antinori, Renieri or Banfi style Brunello. Tasting this made me realize that I need to look into more “old school” style producers.


My guess: A basic Barolo in the $40-45 range.
Turned out to be: 2012 Padelletti Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave $48)

Once again my wife had the suggestion that maybe this was Sangiovese–which we evaluated more critically this time. The orange hue and the cherry notes played along. But ultimately we thought that the high tannins and high acidity fit the profile of Nebbiolo/Barolo much more than Sangiovese. Turns out, our scale of “high” is apparently Ian Cauble’s medium-plus.

In hindsight, and after reading Cauble’s notes, I realize that I have vastly more experience with “modern” style Brunello producers than I do with some of the classic, old school style of Brunello that Cauble describes in the Padelletti. A big takeaway from this experience is that I need to branch out more in this area.

For dinner we were having Italian sausage with penne and red sauce so this was the “winning bottle” from a food pairing point of view though the Morgon with the fennel notes was a close second.

Ian’s Notes — aka Where You Went Wrong

It’s incredibly enlightening (and humbling) to read a Master Sommelier’s notes on a wine you just tasted. For each wine there are numerous “clues” in color, aroma and structure that Cauble points out that make perfect sense when you go back and revisit the wine.

Like how did I miss the crushed raspberries with the Morgon Beaujolais–one of the tell tale signs of Gamay? How did I not notice the fennel and orange peel from the Brunello?

Tasting a Pinot grigio and Gruner in a flight together really highlighted the similarities and differences between the two.

While there are going to be subjective differences (like the high/medium-plus ratings), overall there is immense insight to be gained in reviewing Cauble’s notes. Beyond just laying out all the clues that you may or may not have gotten, Cauble chimes in with tips about other “lateral wines” that blind tasters often confuse with each other.

For instance, Pinot grigio, Albarino and Gruner Veltliner are part of a trio of “neutral bitter varieties” that often trouble blind tasters. Cauble encourages you to look for a subtle sensation of “over-steeped green tea” at the back of the palate and front of the lips and then try to differentiate from there. Gruner will have the distinctive white pepper (and apparently daikon-raddish which I need to look for) while Albarino will have more canned peaches and Pinot grigio will have that “stale beer” and “peanut shell” element that I also need to start looking more for.

With the Morgon Beaujolais that I completely whiffed on, Cauble goes into brief detail about how different Cru Beaujolais are from the popular associations with Gamay and describes how they are commonly confused for Northern Rhone Syrahs and Loire Cabernet Franc from Chinon. While I, personally, didn’t confuse the Morgon for either of those two–I have a motivation now to actively compare good quality Cru Beaujolais with each.

In fact this is a suggestion that Cauble makes repeatedly throughout the tasting packet–if you have trouble with something then do comparison tastings (non-blind) with what you tasted and what you thought it was. This is another area where the Coravin becomes a valuable tool. The next night after we did the red flight, my wife and I grabbed a Beaune Montrevenots (a tad higher than Cote de Beaune-Village level) and compared it side by side to the Morgon. That was immensely educational (the candied cherry of the Beaujolais was even more pronounced compared to the tart cherry of the Beaune) and we plan to do the same with getting a Barolo to compare side by side with an old school Brunello.

Is it Worth it?

Depends.

If you are looking at it from a straight dollar value of the wine, then maybe not. At $199 for 6 bottles you expect an average wine value of around $33 a bottle. I don’t know how close this month’s box is to the norm but going off of Wine Searcher’s average prices (which is based on retail and not the wholesale that SommSelect is likely getting), I received $142 worth of wine for an average of $24 a bottle. Assuming that SommSelect is already making a healthy retail mark up, it’s fair to see how some subscribers might chaff at the hard numbers.

That said, these were exceptionally well curated wines that in nearly each case drank at a higher price point. If I went with the upper end of my price ranges for each wine (which, like how I score wines with my 60 Second Reviews, is mostly based on what price I feel would be a good value for this wine) that would be $180 for an average of $30 a bottle. Not ideal but not feeling like I’m getting ripped off either.

But the bigger value in the SommSelect Blind Six is truly with Cauble’s notes. For students seeking higher level certifications with WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers, there is a dearth of material out there when it comes to learning more about blind tasting. There are some online resources (and great podcasts) from GuildSomm and each program includes some material when you pay for courses. When it comes to wine books, Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is pretty much the only game in town.

Truthfully, for the most part, budding wine geeks are on their own in this arena.

If you are serious about wanting to be a good blind taster and are already investing thousands into seeking higher level certifications–this will probably be well worth it to you.


The benefit of the SommSelect Blind Six is that you can easily structure your own self-study program for blind tasting with essentially a Master Sommelier as your personal tutor. The examples that Cauble pick are truly classic and while you might disagree with some of his assessments, you can’t fault the logic and soundness of his conclusions.

But, most importantly, along with the individual wines you taste in the Blind Six, Cauble’s notes helps you pinpoint the strengths and weakness in your approach. With his suggestions of other things to taste and insight into his own personal approach, you can craft a game plan to tackle those weaknesses so you can become a better blind taster.

After one round of the Blind Six, I feel that, yes, it is undoubtedly worth it. Maybe not for the casual wine drinker but most definitely for the wine geek or ambitious wine professional who truly wants to get better at blind tasting.

I’ll continue to review each month’s box to not only track my own progress in blind tasting but to also see how the value/price per bottle ratio trends.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/15/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out Over

Photo by Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Here are a few wine books that I’m highly intrigued by with release dates in March and April.

Wine: A social and cultural history of the drink that changed our lives by Rod Phillips. Released March 13th, 2018.

Along with Huge Johnson’s Vintage, Rod Phillips’ A Short History of Wine is probably one of the best wine history books that I’ve read. He has a very engaging writing style that effortlessly weaves in stories and anecdotes with some hardcore geekdom. It looks like this book explores more of the cultural context behind the role that wine has played in historical events.

As an aside, while researching this I discovered that Phillips also wrote French Wine: A History which I’m adding to my wish list.

Wines of the Loire (Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards) by Benjamin Lewin. Released March 15th, 2018.

I’ve been intrigued by the books of Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin since I reviewed Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine. This looks to be a series that he is doing with editions on Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne and other regions that have been previously released. Since I’ll be visiting Burgundy in May, I went ahead and grabbed that book as well as his book on vintages to see if this is a series I want to invest more into.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Bethel Heights has always been one of my favorite Oregon wineries.

Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich. Release date April 9th, 2018.

Similar to the case with Washington that I noted in my review of Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines, there are not that many resources for learning more about Oregon wine. Could Friedenreich’s book fill in that gap? It sounds promising with 192 pages that will include AVA maps and profiles of wineries like Bethel Heights, Eyrie and Portland’s growing urban winery scene.

Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine by Jason Wilson. Release date April 24th, 2018.

This is probably the book that I’m most looking forward to geeking out over. I’ve heard good things about Wilson’s Boozehound and, as frequent readers know, I’m all over anything that involves obscure grapes.

I’ve kind of taken trying the 1,368 grape varieties that Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz have cataloged in Wine Grapes as the ultimate #WineGeekGoal so I’m interested to see how far down the obscure grape rabbit hole that Wilson has traveled.

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Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine

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

The world of wine has a long history of influential women.

It’s quite possible that the first “accidental winemakers” were women who were often responsible for gathering fruit and storing them in jars that would later start fermenting. Ancient cultures are awashed with stories of wine goddesses like Paget, Siduri and Renen-utet.

In more recent history, we have the notable widows of Champagne and the trailblazing women winemakers of California as well as numerous other women figures from across the globe.

But for me, and my journey in the world of wine, no woman in wine has been more influential than British Master of Wine and writer Jancis Robinson.

Independent Woman

Robinson studied mathematics and philosophy at St. Anne’s College of Oxford University, graduating with a Masters degree in 1971. Her original goal was to write about fashion but tasting a 1959 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses at Oxford enraptured her with the world of wine. In 1975, she accepted a position as an assistant editor for Wine & Spirit trade publication where she worked till 1980. During this time she began her studies for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust–earning the Rouyer-Guillet cup as the top Diploma student in 1978.

In 1983, she helped launched the The Wine Programme on British television which was the world’s first television series dedicated to the topic of wine.

Initially, the diploma level was the highest level that a person outside the wine trade could achieve but, in 1984, the Institute of Masters of Wine opened up the MW exams to non-trade personnel with Robinson being one of the first to take the exam. She passed on her first try–becoming the first non-trade professional, male or female, to earn the title. She was the 11th female Master of Wine, following in the footsteps of Sarah Morphew Stephen who was the first in 1970.

My very well loved and well used 3rd Edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

In 1990, Robinson became the wine correspondent for the Financial Times and, in 1994, was given the task of editing the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine. While managing a team of contributors that ballooned up to 167 by the time the 3rd edition came out in 2006, Robinson personally wrote more than a third of the almost 4000 entries. It has been described by The Washington Post as “the greatest wine book ever published.” In 2015, a 4th edition was released.

Irreplaceable

2006 was also the year that I discovered my own passion for wine–at Disney World’s Epcot Center of all places. Touring around the different food pavilions and sampling wine in their mocked up recreations of Italy, France and Germany, my 24 year old palate fell in love with the Valcklenberg Madonna Riesling. It wasn’t 1959 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses but that was enough to get me hooked and wanting to learn more.

I’ve had my geeky proclivities since I was child, reading for fun things like the Encyclopedia Britannica in my free time. I loved getting lost in what I called “red text journeys” where I started reading an entry, following one of the capitalized red text words to a subsequent entry and so forth till I hit a dead-end. Then I would pick another entry and start again.

It was at Barnes and Noble when I first laid eyes on the beauty that was the Oxford Companion to Wine. The new pages smelled divine and my eyes lit up as I saw all the different entries (and RED TEXT WORDS!) Here was my new Brittanica! Of course, I flipped straight to the Riesling entry which covered 3 pages.

Another well loved and well marked up tome.


Bringing it home, I starting following the red text words from Riesling to German History to Wild Vine to Phylloxera to Bordeaux and on along an endless ride that touched nearly every corner of the world of wine. The history entries and wine regions particularly enticed me as I saw a web connecting my fascination with history and geography to this continuing story about wine. It was a story that I wanted to put more in context which led me to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course.

Crazy In Love

It was about 2007 when I purchased the DVD series and companion book. I watched the 10 episodes with my wife but the book was all mine to mark up and annotate to my heart’s desire. Here I learned some of the nitty gritty details about tasting wine, deciphering wine labels as well as learning how grape varieties and place intertwined. From interviews Robinson had with people like Dominique Lafon, Lalou Bize Leroy, Didier Dagueneau and Randall Grahm, I learned more about the stories of the people behind the wine which made the time and effort they put into the bottle come to life for me.

It was also at this time that I slowly started moving away from the comfort of my sweet Rieslings to drier whites and then finally reds. How could I not? Watching Jancis enjoy and describe these wines made them too irresistible to not want to at least try! My “crush on wine” was becoming full blown love at this point and I started entertaining ideas of pursuing a career in wine.

I startled my wife when I opened the cover of the World Atlas of Wine and saw this.
She thought there might have been a spider!

In 2008, I left working retail management and dived head first into achieving my first certification with a Certified Specialist in Wine (CSW) from the Society of Wine Educators. That opened the door to working as a wine steward for a major grocery chain. Unfortunately that chain didn’t have much commitment to training and furthering the wine knowledge of its stewards but I didn’t despair. I had Jancis Robinson.

By this point my collection of her books had expanded to include Vines, Grapes & Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties and the 5th Edition of the World Atlas of Wine which caused me to audibly squeal with joy when I discovered the used copy I bought on Amazon came signed by both Robinson and co-author Hugh Johnson.

All the Single Grapes

I became an active contributor to Wikipedia’s Wine Project as User:Agne27 where I set about to substantially rewrite and expand many of Wikipedia’s wine articles–with my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine at my side. When Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz released their magnum opus of ampelography and geekdom, Wine Grapes, that became another immensely valuable tool. Until the sexism and politics of Wikipedia drove me away, I was pretty darn committed to creating a Wikipedia entry for all 1,368 grapes that Robinson and Co. enlivened my world with.

I don’t think there was a single article of the 1200+ I worked on for Wikipedia that didn’t reference one of Robinson’s works. In my opinion, she was the benchmark standard for reliability when it came to wine. While I found other wine authors and references, if there was ever a conflict of sources, I always went back to Robinson as the most authoritative word on the matter.

For the most part, I toiled away in the obscurity of crowd-sourcing–not really expecting any kind of recognition. But I have to admit that my heart did flutter a bit when I read a 2015 post by Jancis Robinson on her Purple Pages about What future for expertise? where she noted that she often finds the Oxford Companion cited at the bottom of Wikipedia articles.

I know that reference, in a post about the potential waning influence of true experts in this digital age, wasn’t exactly meant to be a compliment. But she noticed!

Though I always tried my best to rewrite and regurgitate into my own words what I learned, I do feel that my frequent citations of her work is a testament to the unpayable debt I have to her. I wanted people to see how often the Oxford Companion to Wine, Wine Grapes and her other works were cited because people who go to Wikipedia should know how much of this is tied back to her. I learned so much during those years and it all comes back to Jancis Robinson.

And I’m still learning from her. All you have to do is look at the word cloud at the bottom of this blog’s front page to see how large the font is for the Jancis Robinson tag. She is still my benchmark standard and, frankly, my hero. To me, she’s bigger than Beyoncé.

A growing collection. Each one as marked up, highlighted and wine stained as the next.

The 1500+ words in this post can never do justice in encapsulating all the many ways she has inspired and encouraged me in this journey. I can only dream of ever accomplishing a fraction of what she has done. But everything that I will end up accomplishing, anyone that I will ever inspire to fall in love with wine and thirst to learn more will be because of Jancis Robinson.

I’m working on the WSET diploma level and, someday, I hope to join Jancis in the ranks of 125+ female Masters of Wine. If I ever do get to that point and go to London to get my MW, you better believe that I will be packing my trusty 3rd Edition of the Oxford Companion of Wine.

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60 Second Wine Review– Aniello Blanco de Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Aniello Blanco de Pinot noir from Patagonia, Argentina.

The Geekery

Bodega Aniello was founded in 2010 by winemaker Santiago Bernasconi and a group of partners. Prior to founding Aniello, Bernasconi worked at Bodega NQN in Neuquen, Patagonia.

The estate owns two vineyards, both in the Mainque district in the upper Río Negro region of Patagonia with the main estate planted in 1998 to Pinot noir, Merlot and Malbec. Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen note in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere that the climate of this area is much cooler than Mendoza with the soils here a mix of clay and sandy loam. The second vineyard includes blocks of Trousseau that were planted in 1932 and own-rooted Malbec planted in 1947. All the vineyards are sustainably farmed.

The Blanco de Pinot noir is produced by gently pressing and minimizing skin contact of the red Pinot noir grape (similar to what is done in Champagne). The wine is fermented in concrete eggs with a mix of native and inoculated yeast. Around 10% of the wine is aged for 5 months in French oak barrels.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity on the nose. Very muted. A little tree fruit like peach and apple.

Photo by National Fruit Collection, Brogdale. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under Open Government Licence v2.0.

Little bit of earthy apple notes in this wine.

On the palate, the tree fruits comes through but have an earthier element to it–like bruised apple that suggest a little bit of oxidation. Medium-plus acidity gives some life. The wine has a bit of weight to the mouthfeel and a lot of phenolic texture which is surprising giving the little skin contact it had. There is a subtle spice element that is not very defined that comes out on the short finish.

The Verdict

Despite being a core component of many Champagnes, white Pinot noirs are fairly rare and interesting to try. In a blind tasting I can see myself thinking this is maybe a Pinot blanc or a less aromatic and spicy Grüner Veltliner.

At around $17-20, you are paying more for the novelty than the quality.

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Beaver State Bubbly

I’m a bit of a bubble fiend. I love drinking sparkling wine. I love talking about it.

Easily at least half of the wine reviews I post here are about bubbles and when I get new sparkling related wine books like Bursting Bubbles, I eagerly devour them.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve watched with excitement the growth of the Oregon sparkling wine industry that Forbes.com contributor Joseph V. Micallef highlighted in a recent post.

The founding father of Oregon Bubbles is Rollin Soles who started Argyle Winery in Dundee in 1987. His venture had a lot of all-star firepower backing it with Australian winemaking legend Brian Croser (the 2004 Decanter Man of the Year) and Christian Bizot, then owner of the Champagne House Bollinger.

In 2001, Argyle became part of Lion Nathan corporation with their US branch spinning off in 2012 to become Distinguished Vineyards. Now Argyle is part of a portfolio of brands that includes MacRostie, Wither Hills and The Counselor. In 2013, Soles stepped away from the winery to focus on his brand ROCO that he founded with his wife, Corby Stonebraker-Soles.

While I’ve enjoyed Argyle since Soles left, I must confess that I haven’t been as wowed by the winery’s offerings in recent years. Part of it could be the increase in competition as wine shops have been bringing in more sub $25 Crémants from Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire that way over deliver on value. While years ago, Argyle’s basic brut at $20 stood out from the pack, now it is just middle of the road with even sparkling wines from New Mexico like Gruet and Jacqueline Leonne delivering delicious value in the under $15 category. Still, the 1998 Argyle Extended Triage remains one of my all time favorite wines.

But times change and winemakers move on, which is why I was very excited to try Soles’ new ‘RMS’ sparkling wine project at The Herbfarm’s holiday dinner series “The Holly & The Ivy”. While it didn’t reach the level of that 98 Extended Triage, the 2014 RMS Brut did remind me of all the things I missed about Argyle.

Not a bad way to start off a 9 course meal.


Around 66% Pinot noir with the remainder Chardonnay, the wine had high intensity aromatics of spiced pear wrapped in a toasty pastry crust. Those notes carried through to a creamy but powerful mouthfeel not that dissimilar to Charles Heidsieck. It also reminded me of Pol Roger where the weighty flavors are balanced by fresh citrus notes and racy minerality that give lift to the wine. An incredibly well-made sparkler that would probably continue to age even in the bottle under cork. It is certainly well worth the $65 winery price.

What Makes Oregon Bubbles Special?

In his Forbes post, Micallef quotes Tony Soter on how the “sweet spot” of Oregon’s cool-but-not-too-cool climate gives its an advantage over both warmer California and cooler Champagne.

“[In Oregon you have] … a generosity of fruit that is expressive of the grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) reaching a high level of maturity while still maintaining an admirable level of acidity, finesse and elegance critical to sparkling wine. [While] … in California, the weather is too warm, forcing a premature picking to minimize excessive alcohol at the expense of the nuance and delicacy of fully developed grapes.” — Tony Soter, as quoted on Forbes.com January 19th, 2018

Far from being an “Oregon-homer”, Soter’s opinion on the differences between Oregon and California’s terroir is backed by his 30 plus years of experience working at some of the best names in California wine like Chappellet, Araujo, Shafer, Spottswoode and Dalle Valle.

The stats on Oregon’s favorable “goldilocks position” also bares out according to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s Wine Atlas. While Champagne sits along the 49th parallel and averages a daily growing season temperature of 58.4°F, Napa Valley (home of Schramsberg, Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa, etc) sits on the 38th parallel averaging growing season temperatures of 66.8°F. The Willamette Valley is nestled right in the middle of that on the 45th parallel with average growing season temps of 60.6°F.

Photo by Hahn Family Wines. Released on Wikimedia Commons via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

In addition to losing acidity, if you wait too long to harvest your grapes in warm climates you risk “baking out” the more delicate and complex flavors. This produces over ripe and dried fruit notes that the French call ‘sur maturité’. For many California sparkling wine producers, its a Catch-22.

Harvests in California for sparkling wine regularly taking place in early August while in Oregon it doesn’t start till September. In Champagne, which wine authors like Robert Walters in Bursting Bubbles claim often harvest too early and too unripe, harvest typically begins late August and early September. Many high quality grower producers in Champagne harvest later into September.

The timing of harvest is key because you want ample acidity for sparkling wine production which you can risk losing if the grapes hang too long on the vine. But at the same time unripe grapes can give bland and uninteresting flavors. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in their Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that having ripe grapes is absolutely essential for high quality sparkling wine.

Photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives. Released on Wikimedia Commons under Oregon Historical County Records Guide public use

In the Willamette Valley, daytime highs in July in the low 80s (°F) can drop to the low 50s (°F) at night.

Like Washington State, Oregon also benefits from having drastic diurnal temperature variations during the growing season where temperatures can drop at night 30-40 degrees from day time highs, letting the vine literally “chill out” and retain fresh acidity.

This extends the growing season, allowing the grapes to hang longer on the vine, developing riper flavors while still maintaining that vital acidity.

Oregon Sparkling Wine Producers to Seek Out

Micallef notes that there is around 40 producers making sparkling wine in Oregon. While most of the production is small and limited to sales at the winery’s tasting room or wine club, there are some producers with ambitious aims.

One that is mentioned in the Forbes article is Radiant Sparkling Wine Company that was founded in McMinnville by Andrew Davis, a protege of Rollin Soles. After 8 years at Argyle, Davis founded his company to serve essentially as a mobile méthode champenoise facility, traveling to wineries with his sparkling wine equipment and technical know-how to help winemakers turn their base wines into bubbles.

Among the wineries that Davis has worked with includes Adelsheim, Anne Amie, Brooks, Ponzi, Raptor Ridge, Sokol Blosser, Stoller, Trisaetum and Willamette Valley Vineyards. In 2017, Davis helped create over 20,000 cases of Oregon sparkling wine to add to the 25,000 cases that Argyle produces yearly.

The Stoller rose sparkler more than held its own in a line-up of impressive bubbles.

One of these wines that I’ve recently had the opportunity to try was the Stoller 2014 Legacy LaRue’s Brut Rosé. The 25% Chardonnay and 75% Pinot noir base saw 10 months aging in neutral French oak before bottling and secondary fermentation. The wine spent 2 years on the lees prior to disgorgement with around 275 cases produced.

The LaRue rosé had a beautiful medium plus intensity nose of fresh cherry and strawberries. But what most intrigued me was the tinge of citrus blood orange that framed the red fruit notes. On the palate, the wine added another depth of flavor with some spicy and mineral notes.

I had this wine only about a couple weeks after I had the Louis Roederer 2011 Brut Rosé that I described in my post Cristal Clarity. We had another bottle of the Roederer rose opened with the Stoller and it was quite impressive how the Stoller showed in comparison. While it was more on the delicate and minerally side versus the fruitier Roederer, the Stoller clearly won out with much more vivid aromatics and longer finish that didn’t fade as fast as the Roederer. Considering that the Stoller LaRue is $65 while the Roederer is around $70 and you have some substantial value.

For a relatively young sparkling wine industry that just reached 30 years, the future looks exciting for wine geeks wanting to explore Oregon bubbles.

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A look ahead to 2018

On Bloomberg, Elin McCoy (of The Emperor of Wine fame) shared her thoughts on what wine trends will be the stories of 2018. She makes a few interesting predictions that are worth pondering.

1.) Big bottles will be huge

McCoy predicts sales in large format wines will continue to grow in 2018, citing the UK retailer Majestic’s enthusiasm for the category with sales of large format wines up nearly 400% in 2017. While among collectors, magnums have always held fondness for their ability to age more gracefully, the trend towards large format wines grew even in the “in the moment” rosé category.

Beside, why have a mag of one rose when you can have 6?


I have to admit that I’m a bit skeptical of this trend namely because of other trends that are happening in the important Millennial demographic such as drinking less overall and when they do drink, not overdoing it. Downing a mag of rosé doesn’t seem to have long term appeal.

We are also likely to see a backlash to the “Generation Waste” trend among Millennials. One of the drivers in the growing “meal kit” industry that is popular among Millennials is the potential for less food waste with each kit being exactly portioned for 2 to 4 users. The potential waste in opening up a large format makes that trend seem even less appealing so I would wager more on single-serve wine packaging gaining traction than large formats in 2018.

2.) The year’s hot spot will be Spain

I’m on board with this prediction and I will add Portugal with its wealth of indigenous grape varieties to the watchlist. Now granted, wine experts have been making these predictions for a couple years. But hey, we’ve got The Bachelorette’s go ahead now. Enloquece, amigos!

3.) Climate change is heating up

Though no one is talking about Swiss whiskey….yet.


This is something I talked about last year with my post Running Out of Stones (and Glaciers) in the Age of Climate Change. The changing map of wine being driven by climate change is both frightening and exciting for wine lovers.

As much as the Japanese have taken the whiskey world by storm, could they do the same with Pinot noir from the north island of Hokkaido? Perhaps, but again we have to question at what cost?

4.) You’ll be buying more wine online

This one is up in the air for me. If Amazon can’t make a go out of selling wine online, who can? Certainly not Wine.com which has horrendous customer service.

Though considering most of these wines are $2-3 higher on Vivino than they are at my local wine store, maybe free shipping isn’t that great of a deal?


I hit the “fool me twice” wall with Wine.com this past holiday season. I previously had a poor experience with getting a order with them but thought I would give Wine.com another try.

I ordered wine in November for a Champagne tasting event on December 17th, figuring that giving them more than 3 weeks would be adequate time. After weeks of poor communication, promises of status updates that never came, I got frustrated enough to cancel the order and have washed my hands of ever shopping with Wine.com again.

Still, I’ve had positive online experience with retailers such as JJ Buckley and utilizing in-store pick up with some local Washington State retailers. I will confess to being intrigued with Vivino’s Amazon Prime type offering of free shipping with a $47 annual membership.

I’ll keep my opinion of online wine shopping fluid at this point.

5.) The fizz sector will keep broadening

“I enjoy cooking with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food…” — Julia Child (or W.C. Fields depending on the source)


McCoy notes that consumers can expect the price of Prosecco to rise in 2018 thanks to some troublesome harvests in northeast Italy. But even if consumers move away from Prosecco, increase interest in Spanish Cavas and French Crémants will more than fill the gap.

With this I fully agree as this is another Millennial driven trend that has several factors going for it. Beyond viewing bubbles as an everyday beverage (as opposed to just something for celebration), the cocktail culture among Millennials has saw a renaissance of not only classic favorites like Aperol Spritz and Kir Royale but also new rifts that give Millennials a reason to always have a bottle of bubbly in the fridge.

6.) The “luxury experience” way to taste wine

While most estates here are “reservation only”, I will say that one of my favorite visits in Bordeaux was to the very non-luxurious “Shackteau” of Marie-Laure Lurton’s Château La Tour de Bessan


This trend saddens me because it is also tied into wineries moving away from offering free tastings. That is fodder for another post but, personally, I believe that the more “exclusive” and limited that wineries make their tasting experience, the more narrow their customer base gets.

While I understand the desire to discourage “Bridesmaid Brigades” that swoop into tasting rooms, guzzle up the free booze and leave without buying anything, I ultimately think wineries are better off encouraging folks to come in off the street and give their wines a try versus making their potential customer decide, right off the bat, if this unknown winery is worth paying whatever tasting fee is being asked.

Even among known and established wineries, I fret that the trend towards “reservation only” and luxury experience tasting is only going to push more wine into the realm of the “1%” and away from the experiences of regular consumers.

7.) The rise of robots in the poshest vineyards

Oh Lord have mercy if Elon Musk ever fixes his attention on the wine world. This is another area that is both exciting and frightening for wine lovers. On one hand, it is indisputable that advances in knowledge and technology in the vineyards and winery have led to this present glory age of exceptional wine quality. Even in the worst of vintages, it is still possible to make good (if not great) wine.

“Modern” old-school technology at Ch. Valandraud in St. Emilion.


But, again, at what cost? Increases in technology have certainly added more tools to the winemaker’s tool belt but at what point do these tools stop being tools and start being more cosmetic manipulation?

Machines can help make better wine but, if you reduce the human element, can it really be great wine? How much of the “terroir” or story of the wine do we lose when we remove more of the human actors?

Of course, one driver of this trend that shouldn’t be overlooked is the increasing labor shortages in major wine regions. Perhaps the move towards technology could be one necessitated out of survival.

Either way, 2018 will be another interesting year of changes and development in the wine world. Drink up!

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Product Review – Perfect Pop


One of my favorite (and clearly apocryphal) quotes about Champagne is attributed to Oscar Wilde.

“The sound of Champagne opening is like a content woman’s sigh.”

While I’m skeptical as to the breadth of Wilde’s experience with content women sighing, I nonetheless love the sentiment behind the quote that the art in opening up Champagne and other sparkling wine is not in the POP but, rather, in keeping it to just a gentle hiss so as not to lose the beautiful aromas and bubbles.

As the holidays approach, more and more folks are reaching for a bottle of bubbles to spread some holiday cheer. While there are many tutorials online about how to open a bottle of sparkling wine, there will always come a time when the pesky cork just doesn’t want to come out. Outside of reaching for a sabre, what do you do?


I put one tool that is out on the market to the test – the Perfect Pop Champagne Opener– available from Amazon right now for $5.99 and eligible for Prime shipping.

I tested it out on the 2013 Levert Frères Crémant de Bourgogne Brut that I recently reviewed.

I had difficulties at first in putting the tool over the cork with the cage attached and getting it to line up straight. It wasn’t until I removed the cage that I could get the device to feel securely fit.

Instructions for the Perfect Pop


Once I got it on, it took awhile for me to feel comfortable getting a grip on it to turn with the bottle tilted at a 45° degree angle. This is because while usually you wrap your hand around the side of the cork like you are holding the ends of a jump rope, and twist the bottle not the cork, this device requires you to get your palm more over the top with your fingers in the groves to twist the cork itself.

So it is a bit awkward to get the hang of at first.


But it works.

The “pop” is a bit louder than the ideal open. It’s sounds more like a busy mother’s “Oops!” when the baby food on the spoon misses it target. Still, very little aromatics and bubbles get lost. Despite the awkwardness at the beginning, by the second usage I was able to get the device on, twist and have the bottle open in less than 7 seconds. Most importantly, I could do this without the soreness and redness on my hands from struggling with the cork.

That’s a winner in my book and well worth the $6.

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