Tag Archives: Costco

The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews

Earlier this week The Seattle Times published an article about the top Costco Kirkland wines as selected by a local wine blogger.

Kirkland brand Champagne

One of the wines featured was the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne that I picked up for $19.99. Throughout the month of December, my wife and I like to open up a bottle of sparkling wine each night. That can get expensive with Champagne so we make sure to stock up on plenty of Proseccos, Cavas and Cremants.

Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the idea of trying a true Champagne for the price of a Crémant de Bourgogne.

Reading Owen Bargreen’s review of the wine intrigued me. The Champagne certainly had pedigree with fruit from the Grand Cru village of Verzenay. Also, unusual for Kirkland branded wines, the back label listed who actually made it as Manuel Janisson of the négociant firm Champagne Janisson.

“The Brut Champagne by Kirkland Signature is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier sourced from vineyards located in Verzenay. The wine starts off with lovely diatomaceous earth followed by lemon curd and brioche on the nose. The palate shows really nice citrus fruit with kumquat, lemon oil, sourdough bread and a light musty earth flavor. Dense and layered, this is a simply outstanding effort that is a one-of-a-kind value. Drink 2018-2024.” — Owen Bargreen as quoted by Tan Vinh for The Seattle Times 12/7/2018

Unfortunately my experience didn’t quite live up to that glowing review.
label of kirkland champagne

The back label of the Kirkland Brut Champagne.

I was originally planning to share my thoughts about the Kirkland Champagne as a 60 Second Review. But instead I think I need to talk about the risks of buying blindly on the recommendations of critics and wine writers.

At the end of this post I’ll give my take on the Kirkland Champagne. But I’ll blanket it with the same caveats that I’m going to discuss below.

First, let me say that this is not about bashing another blogger.

While I’m going to be disagreeing with a bit of Bargreen’s assessment of the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne, I’ve been a big fan of his work on the Washington Wine Blog.

Among some of my favorite posts have been his interviews with wine industry insiders like:

Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton
Benjamin Smith of Cadence
Jason Fox of Lagana Cellars
Master of Wine Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards
Brooke Robertson of Delmas
Nina Buty of Buty Winery

And many more.

Bargreen has a terrific sense of what’s happening in the world of wine–particularly in Washington. He seeks out the people who are shaping the scene and produces content that is well worth following.

My intent is not to quibble about differences in tasting notes. Taste is highly subjective and personal. From one taster to the next, you are just as likely to agree with someone as you are to disagree.

And that’s precisely the point.

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

This is especially true with professional critics. It doesn’t matter how esteemed their careers or opinions are. The tastes of critics like James Suckling (pictured) may be quite different than yours.

When you buy a wine based on a newspaper, magazine or blog review, you’re essentially gambling on how likely your tastes will align with the reviewers. And I’m not talking Somm Game gambling here. Because with written reviews (as opposed to personal recommendations from a sommelier or wine steward), you really are going out on a ledge.

The author of a wine review is writing solely from the perspective of their tastes and their opinions. They’re not standing in front of you, listening to you describe the kind of wines that you like or don’t like. They’re not acting like a sommelier or wine steward, piecing together clues to recommend something that they feel confident that you’re going to enjoy.

The reviewer may have a tremendous palate with lots of experience tasting a vast array of wines. But when it comes to recommendations published in articles, blogs, “Best of…” and “Top Whatever” lists, your tastes and your opinions do not enter the reviewer’s equation whatsoever.

Yet it is your wallet that is buying the wine. Plus, either your mouth or your kitchen drain is going to end up with the contents of that bottle.

When you buy off of reviews, what are the odds that you’re going to absolutely love the wine?

I would say about 25% or a quarter of the time. For another quarter, it’s likely to be a complete whiff.

But for the majority of the recommendations you buy, the results will be in the middle of don’t love, but don’t hate or what I call “Meh wines”.

Photo by Katy Warner from Orlando, FL, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD text

And then you got to figure out if it’s worth eating at McDonald’s again to redeem your small fry.

Getting a “Meh wine” is certainly not the end of the world.

It’s kind of like playing McDonald’s Monopoly where you pull off a tab and win a small fry. You didn’t lose per se, but you really didn’t win either. You essentially got a token of a prize and with a “Meh wine” you end up with a token of an experience–something drinkable but not much more.

Now ask yourself. How much money and time do you want to spend on “Meh wines”?

Can You Hedge Your Bets?

You most definitely can. But to do that, you need to think more like a bettor at the horse races.

1.) Do Your Homework. Admittedly, a good chunk of this is trial and error. The only way to increase your odds for successful drinking is to learn how your palate aligns with the reviewers. Paying attention to how many Hits/Misses/Mehs you get with a certain reviewer will key you in on if it’s worth the gamble. Even this is not absolute. There still may be wines that you don’t completely jive with. But, at the very least, you’ll be able to weed out more of the misses and the mehs.

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Though there is some truth to the old Will Rogers’ quote: “You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.”

2.) Pay Attention To The Jockeys–i.e. the wineries who made the wine. Often this is even better than betting on the horse. If you’ve had past experiences enjoying a winery’s wines, your bet just got a whole lot better. Because now you’re not really taking a blind recommendation from a reviewer but rather letting your own palate and experience have a say.

3.) Don’t Bet Big On An Unknown. Buying blindly on a review is never an occasion to buy a case. It doesn’t matter what high score or glowing review it got or how killer of a deal it looks like. It could still wind up being a colossal dud. You’re far better off taking a flyer on a single bottle to try first. Even though I really loved the idea of a $20 Champagne to drink all month, I am so grateful that I only spent $20 on the Kirkland Brut instead of a couple hundred.

4.) Spread Out Your Risk. Don’t bet it all on one wine. While I’m a huge supporter of trying new things, it’s always a good strategy to spread your bets out between long-shots mixed with a few favorites. Go ahead and take a chance on that new bottle, but also pick up something that is more of a sure bet just in case.

A Personal Note

Since I do reviews here on the blog, I hope all my readers take the above to heart and apply these strategies to my recommendations as well.

My favorite wines might only hit a 25% jackpot with you–or even less. Our tastes could be polar opposites and that is perfectly fine. My hope is that with the Geekery tidbits and other posts, you’re still finding resources that’ll help you find bottles you enjoy.

In the end, finding great wines that give you pleasure is the only thing that matters. Life is too short to drink “Meh wines”.

Now About That Kirkland Champagne

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

Lots of citrus notes in this Champagne but they’re more on the bitter green side like unripe pomelos.

Medium intensity nose. Definitely citrus driven but more bitter green citrus notes like unripe pomelo and Bergamot orange. Noticeable yeasty notes reminds me of raw Pillsbury buttermilk biscuit dough.

On the palate, those green citrus notes carry through but they fade pretty quickly. It’s definitely the dough notes that dominate but they taste much sweeter than the nose would have suggested. I couldn’t find the exact dosage but it’s certainly on the sweeter side of brut–likely 10-12 g/l.

The sweet dough with citrus flavors makes me think they were trying to go for the Veuve Clicquot style. However, the medium-plus acidity and moderate mousse has a tangy edge (like Bargreen’s sourdough) that doesn’t quite match the creamy mouthfeel that trademarks Veuve. The finish does have a hint of dustiness but is very short.

The Verdict

At $20, this isn’t a horrible wine. It’s definitely drinkable. If it’s aiming to be a budget Veuve Yellow Label for half the price then it’s not that far off. But it certainly tastes like a half-price “Meh” version of Veuve.

Levert Freres

While I might slightly give the nod to the regular Brut, the rose Cremant de Bourgogne from Levert Freres is also quite delicious for less than $20.

However, this is not “a one-of-a-kind value” by any stretch of the imagination.

There are so many stronger bottles of sparkling wines under $20–most notably the many available Cremants from Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire. These include wines like Levert Freres, Louis Bouillot, Albrecht, Gratien & Meyer and Champalou. Often these wines are aged as long as nonvintage Champagne (15 months) and many times much longer.

These Cremants may not have the magical “C-word” on the label like the Kirkland Brut but they are far more Champagne-like.

Then in the US, we have producers like Gruet, Jacqueline Leonne, Trevari and Roederer Estate who make very solid bottles in the $15-20 range. And, of course, Cava has some tremendous bangs for the buck with the Insito, Juve & Camps and Anna de Codorniu being highly reliable sparklers.

Champagne Dreams With a Budget-Friendly Reality

If you want to go Champagne, paying just a little bit more will give you huge quality dividends above the Kirkland Brut.

Bargreen’s article mentions the Feuillatte Blue Label that is often around $27-29 during holidays. Then there is the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial ($33-36), Petrois Moriset Cuvee ($30-33), Moutard Grand Cuvee ($30-33) Chanoine Frères Grande Reserve ($33-35), Montaudon Brut ($32-35), Pommery Brut Royal ($33-36) and Laurent Perrier La Cuvee ($33-36).

And if you really want a slightly cheaper Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top hits those notes better than the Kirkland Brut does in the $33-36 range.

I’m sure you can find even more under $40 Champagne or under $20 sparkling wine options checking out your local wine shop. Plus, you can talk with a wine steward and let them know what you like or don’t like.

That way you’re more likely to go home with a Secretariat, Justify or American Pharoah than you would betting on “Meh”.

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Geek Notes — Decanted Podcast Episode 4 with Lenny Redé on Shopping for Wine

With the holiday season upon us, lots of folks will be hitting their local grocery stores and wine shops looking for wines to serve and give as gifts. That makes this a great time to review the Decanted podcast episode featuring Lenny Redé and their tips for shopping for wine (47:41).

Decanted Podcast screen shot

Full disclosure: Lenny was one of my mentors at the Northwest Wine Academy and is a long time friend. Though I’m obviously biased, I sincerely feel he is one of the most brilliant and personable folks in the wine industry. He was also a participant at my recent Joe Wagner vs The Oregon Volcano tasting whose insights were extremely valuable. At the time of this interview he was with Esquin Wine and Spirits, but he’s now at New Seasons Market on Mercer Island.

While I try not to be promotional with this blog, I have no qualms saying that if you want to discover more about wine and your own personal tastes, go visit Lenny and chat him up. It will be well worth the trip.

The Background

I first became aware of the Decanted podcast at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference (now Wine Media Conference). While I didn’t get a chance to personally meet the duo behind the podcast, Dave Adams and Sandi Everingham, I heard from several of my fellow attendees that I needed to check them out (as well as the Weekly Wine Show which I reviewed last month).

A relatively new podcast, Decanted started earlier this year in February. Episodes are posted monthly with occasional shorter bonus shows in between. Most of the episodes tend to fall into the 30-60 minute range with the bonus shows usually being 10-15 minutes.

While the podcast has featured wines from the El Dorado AVA in California, Fraser Valley in British Columbia and most recently the Douro Valley of Portugal, the primary focus is on the hosts’ hometown Washington wine industry.

Local Washington Focus
Chris Upchurch

The Decanted interview with Chris Upchurch gave great insights on the origins of DeLille as well as Upchurch’s future plans for his own project.

Several of the episodes are inspired by local wine events that the hosts have attended such as the POUR Event of Urban Seattle Wineries (episode 1 with Bart Fawbush of Bartholomew Wines), Northwest Women Stars of Food & Wine (episode 5 with Lisa Packer of Warr-King Wines), Taste Washington (episode 8 with Chris Upchurch of DeLille and Upchurch Wines), The Sisters of the Vinifera Revolution (episode 11), Auction of Washington Wines (episode 15) and the Wine Bloggers Conference (episode 17 with Seth and Audrey Kitzke of Upsidedown Wines).

In addition to highlighting their favorite wines, Dave and Sandi of Decanted share their personal experiences and observations from attending these events. They also offer fantastic advice and practical pro-tips that wine lovers can use when attending events themselves.

A bit unusual for wine podcasts, the interviews are presented in a story-telling style with voice-over narration and background given by the hosts spliced in-between the answers of the guests. While I’m sure this adds quite a bit of work and editing, it enhances the value and professionalism of the podcast. Listening to the interviews feels like you’re watching a story feature on Dateline or 60 Minutes–with less murder and scandal, of course.

Fun Things I Learned and Enjoyed From This Podcast

(4:57) Great tip from Sandi about the value of being adventurous when shopping for wine instead of just getting the same ole, same ole. Dave follows this up with a tip about the importance of paying attention to vintages (especially for white wine) at grocery stores.

As a former wine steward for a major grocery chain (Safeway), I can attest to the truth of this. Often there are white wines that don’t sell very quickly. These wines would get old sitting on the shelf, losing freshness and flavor. While they might not be bad (and still considered “saleable”), they can definitely be past their peak. As a general rule of thumb, especially in grocery stores with white wines under $20, look for the youngest vintage to get the most for your money.

Tricks of the Trade

With endcaps, grocery stores are banking on you making a high margin impulse buy.

(7:50) One tip that I’m going to slightly disagree with is the advice to look for values on the endcaps. That’s not quite true. Again going back to my wine steward days, often these endcaps were paid displays bought by distributors or wineries with contracts negotiated at the corporate level. The grocery stores gets a sweet deal to promote these high volume wines in a high traffic location at the end of the aisle. While sometimes, they will pass the savings they’re getting onto the consumers, mostly these are high margin wines that just pad the store’s bottom line.

(8:32) Another tip that I’m going to disagree with is the advocacy for Vivino. This is just a personal misgiving but I’m highly suspicious of many of these crowd source review apps. They are extremely ripe for gaming–especially by large corporations with big marketing departments that want to promote positive rankings.

Just like with Yelp, companies are going to use these apps to influence consumers. But, unlike Yelp, many of these wine apps haven’t invested millions of dollars into dedicated fraud-detection teams and software algorithms to try to weed out the gaming. Also, these apps tend to revert back to the lowest common denominator with mass-produced and highly marketed wines rising to the top of the ratings while smaller family wineries often get overlooked.

But the idea of keeping your smartphone handy is not bad advice and I’m not completely against review sites.
Wine Searcher screen grab

The Wine-Searcher app is terrific for finding great deals. When I saw that my local wine shop had the Otis Kenyon Matchless Red at $20.99 (before coupon), I jumped on it because this bottle averages $29 at most retailers.

Personally, I think the most valuable app to have on your phone is Wine-Searcher. Not only do they tell you the average price of a wine (so you know if you’re getting a good deal or not) but they link to professional critic scores (which has their own pratfalls, I know) as well as the crowd sourced CellarTracker site.

While Cellar Tracker is also potentially game-able, the average user on that site tends not to be the typical buyers of mass-produced supermarket wines. This seems to make it less of a marketing target for corporations compared to Vivino. Also, you are more likely to have actual written reviews of the wines being rated (instead of vague and useless notes of “Yummy!”). These reviews tend to be much more helpful in figuring out if a wine matches your style.

(9:30) Dave and Sandi conduct a fun exercise of checking out the wine selection at places that don’t really have a wine focus. Well worth listening to see what they found at a Shell gas station, Walmart, Grocery Outlet and others.

Interview with Lenny Redé
Lenny at blind tasting

Lenny, center left, at my recent blind tasting battle pitting the Pinot noirs of Joe Wagner against several Oregon wines.

(19:30) The first part of the interview goes into Lenny’s background–including his work in the restaurant industry and time teaching at Le Cordon Bleu and the Northwest Wine Academy.

(24:30) One key distinction of local wine shops that Lenny highlights is that often the folks working at these small shops are the same people buying the wine. This is a big difference compared to grocery stores and large chains like Costco where the buying decisions are made by corporate buyers.

Essentially this means that when you walk into a small local shop, virtually every wine on the shelf is something that has been personally vetted. Someone tasted that wine and said, “Yes, this is a good wine that I want to bring into my store. This is a wine that I want to share with my customers.” That is a powerful endorsement and is world’s apart from the endcap displays at grocery stores that are there because a corporate buyer got cut a deal to feature them.

Don’t Be Afraid To Be Honest

(27:01) Another great piece of advice from Lenny is to never be afraid to tell the steward (or restaurant sommelier) your budget. The steward/somm’s goal is always to get you the best wine they can for that price point. This is advice that I regularly use myself when I play the Somm Game.

(31:06) Sandi asks Lenny what happens when he makes a recommendation that backfires and what wine drinkers should do. Lenny notes all the different variables involved that can impact people’s tastes and how they experience a wine. All great points but one thing I wished he touched on was the need of consumers to be honest about recommendations they didn’t like.

A steward’s goal is to build a relationship with their guests. In many ways they are detectives trying to figure out your tastes. Every clue you can give them from what you absolutely loved and, especially, what wines didn’t appeal to you is immensely valuable. They’re human and taste is personal. A steward may misinterpret some of your clues and recommend a bottle that just doesn’t work. That is perfectly okay and most good wine shops will gladly accept that return. But they’re going to want to get their next recommendation right on the money so let them know what didn’t work.

Where To Find Value and Quality
Four Graces Pinot blanc

I’ll need to check out Lenny’s recommendation of Left Coast Cellar’s Pinot blanc but I wholeheartedly agree with him that Oregon Pinot blanc is delicious!

(35:55) Lenny is asked about some fun alternatives to common wines like buttery Chards. He makes several great recommendations here including checking out the fantastic Pinot blancs coming out of Oregon.

(41:30) Dave asks Lenny his thoughts on the best budget wines out there, especially under $20. He gives some great background on how the Washington wine industry is different from California and where people can find great value here. Lenny also highlights some of the deals with private labels and second labels from established producers–or “happy hour wines” as he calls them.

(44:40) Lenny is very excited at the quality of white wines coming out of Washington and encourages people to look at the Ancient Lakes area. Among reds, Malbec and Cabernet Franc are high on his list. Yes! Another person on the Washington Cab Franc train.

Final Thoughts

My favorite thing about the Decanted podcast is the “real world” perspective of Dave & Sandi. They approach the tasting events they attend and their interviews in much the same way that most regular, normal wine lovers would. When you get knee deep in the wine world, it is so easy to get caught up in a “bubble” that skews your perceptions. It’s particularly easy to get a bit jaded while looking at the world through the lens of wine being a business.

But at its heart, wine is fun. Wine is inspiring and discovering it is an adventure. The folks at Decanted get that and allow their listeners to get caught up in their own fun and adventure of discovering wine.

Crowds at the New Vintage

Seriously, always scope out a “home base” first thing at a tasting before the crowds hit.
I wished I had taken Decanted’s advice when I attended The New Vintage this year.

However, Decanted is still rooted in the realism of what every day wine drinkers experience hunting for good bottles at reasonable prices–as well as dealing with some of the more frustrating aspects of attending wine events (crowds, palate fatigue, etc). The pro-tips they give on how to maximize your enjoyment at these events and when visiting tasting rooms is solid advice that comes from their own personal experience.

Going Forward

As a young podcast, I hope they continue with their narrative story telling and sharing their experiences at wine events. They seem to have a good pulse on what’s happening and which events are worth attending so, selfishly, I would love to hear in their podcasts about future plans and upcoming events they are planning to attend. That would be a great heads up for tastings that I’d want to check out myself.

One constructive suggestion I have is regarding the audio music that plays during their narrative voice overs. Admittedly I don’t know if it is because of my podcast player (Overcast) but sometimes the music is a bit too loud and competes for attention with their narration.

But that is a small thing and overall I enthusiastically recommend folks check out the Decanted podcast!

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Tracking the Tastemakers

Photo by Petrovsky. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

I’m reminded of Austrian puppeteer Karin Schäfer often when I walk into a supermarket’s wine department.

Recently Wine Enthusiast released their Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers for 2018–a list highlighting the folks who are “… doing their part to lead the conversation and leave a lasting influence on the world of food and drink for generations to come.”

Admittedly lists like this usually illicit an eye roll response from me because of the feel of puffery that abounds in them. Often when I look more critically at these kinds of list, such as Social Vignerons’ 2018 Top 40+ Wine Influencers which I reviewed in my post Under the (Social Media) Influence, I find an absence of voices and views that actually do influence me to check out a new wine, winemaker or region.

Then there is the cynical part of me who looks at the world of wine through the jaded sunglasses of supermarket shelves dominated by mega-corporations and massive consolidation among distributors which leaves me feeling that the real “tastemakers” in the US sits on the boards of E&J Gallo, Constellation Brands, Diageo, Brown-Foreman, Beam Suntory, Treasury Wine Estates, AB InBev, Costco, Young’s Market Company, Republic National Distributing and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits.

But that wouldn’t make a very exciting list now would it? Plus, I’m sure the puppeteers that are heading the decision-making at these companies would prefer to keep their strings hidden.

A Taste of Vox Populi

While the geek in me would love to see more people get excited about Pét-Nat sparklers and wines made from unique grape varieties like Trousseau, Fiano, Touriga Nacional, Pošip, Xinomavro and others, I know I’m in the minority.

So I sit by and shake my head as people go nuts over wines aged in bourbon barrels, mixed with cold brew coffee, Frosé cocktails, blue wine or silly packaging with “living labels”–the quality of the contents inside the bottle be damned.

Can’t argue with success even if it is not your cup of tea.


Even trends that start out on a craft level soon get co-opt and commercialized like how making cider from red-fleshed heritage apples became the latest rosé trend. The rye whiskey heritage that pre-dates the Revolution is now “marketable” with the big boys like Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Jim Beam hopping on the rye wagon and expanding their portfolios. Patron and Jose Cuervo have their eyes set on the Mezcal market.

And let’s not even get started with what’s become of the sour beer and hazy IPA segments.

But c’est la vie.

If there is a dollar to be made in the beverage industry, somebody will be there to make it.

In vino veritas

Like wine, there is truth in innovation and if history has taught us anything over the course the 10,000+ years that humans have been consuming alcohol it is that we do like a little variety in our tipple–even if that variety is pumpkin spiced flavored.

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

Y’all know its only a matter of time till Apothic PSL comes out, right?


To that extent, I’ll set aside my cynicism to look at Wine Enthusiast’s list and highlight for you some of the folks whose stories I’ve found spark just a bit of hope in my world weary heart.

Maggie Campbell – President/Head Distiller, Privateer Rum; Board of Directors Vice President, American Craft Spirits Association

A female head distiller who has a WSET diploma and is pursuing a Master of Wine certification? Badass! My wife is from the Peabody/Salem, Massachusetts area which is a short drive from Privateer Rum in Ipswich so the next time we’re visiting family back east, I’m definitely putting this distillery on my “Must Visit” list.

Paul Elliot — Founder, Loft & Bear

In all honesty, the vodka industry has been something of a joke the last couple decades with flavors and marketing holding more sway than quality and craftsmanship. I have to tip my hat to the small craft distilleries who try their best to forge a living in this category. While the whiskey, gin, rum and tequila categories have their Goliaths, those mediums at least give the Davids a few rocks of opporunities to differentiate themselves with their ingredients and aging. That’s a tougher task in the craft vodka segment.

Kudos to Elliot and Loft & Bear which not only wants to stand out from the pack but also wants to give back through their charity commitments.

Jim Fischer and Jenny Mosbacher — Co-winemakers, Fossil & Fawn

Photo by  Cornischong . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Admit it. You can see Treasury Wine Estates coming out with a “Living Amphora” series of Natural Wines at some point.

While I haven’t always been enthralled with the quality of natural wines, I do respect the commitment and passion behind the people who make them. I haven’t had a chance to try Fossil & Fawn yet but, being Pacific Northwest neighbors, I’ll certainly make an effort to seek them out when I’m in the Portland area.

But, and I’m going to let my cynicism slip in here, I do think that the moment when the Natural Wine Movement has made it will be when wineries like Fossil & Fawn start getting gobbled up by mega-corps like Constellation Brands (a la AB InBev’s mad buying spree of craft brewers).

It will be both a sad and triumphant time for the Natural Wine Movement but I’ll raise a glass and hope that folks like Fischer & Mosbacher still stay part of La Résistance and can make a healthy living doing so.

Maya Dalla Valle – Director, Dalla Valle Vineyards

Dalle Valle has been one of the few Napa “cult wines” that I’ve believed have been worth the hype. It is heartening to see the vineyards still stay in the family and that rather than resting on her name, Maya has gone out into the world to gain real experience at wineries across the globe.

Jésus Guillén — Owner/Winemaker, Guillén Family Wines; Winemaker, White Rose Estate

The last few times I’ve had White Rose wines from the Dundee Hills, I’ve been impressed. Learning about Guillén’s story gives me reason to explore these wines more as well as his own family estate wines.

The windmill that is featured on many of the Long Meadow Ranch wines is still holding the fort on their Mayacamas property overlooking Rutherford.


Chris Hall — Proprietor/Chief Operating Officer, Long Meadow Ranch

Long Meadow Ranch has been one of my favorite Napa estates for a while. Such an under the radar gem with a great winemaking pedigree that began with the legendary Cathy Corison and now features Ashley Heisey (previously of Far Niente and Opus One), Stéphane Vivier (previously of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s owners’ California project–Hyde de Villaine) and Justin Carr (previously of Cakebread, Rudd and Hourglass).

But visiting the estate a couple years ago as well as their delicious farm-to-table restaurant really hit home for me the Hall family’s commitment to sustainability and the environment.

Jonathan Hajdu — Winemaker, Covenant Wines

I’m not Jewish but I’ve listened to many Jewish friends over the years lament about the poor selection and quality level of many kosher wines–especially those that are mevushal which are flash pasteurized so they can be handled by non-Jews.

While I know that there are quality minded producers in Israel and abroad making kosher wines, their small productions and the hurdles of importation limits their access to US consumers. Being based in Napa and Sonoma, Covenant Wines does have the potential to fill in a sorely needed niche. It never hurts when you have fruit sources like Rudd’s Oakville Estate and Mt. Veeder vineyards!

Their limited production will make them hard to find outside the Pacific Northwest but if you get an opportunity to try Trout’s VITAL wines, take it.

Ashley Trout — Owner/Winemaker, Brook & Bull Cellars; Head Winemaker, Vital Wines

I’ve been a fan of Ashley Trout since her first project, Flying Trout Wines which is now owned by TERO estates. Recently I was really impressed with her VITAL rosé at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting earlier this year which I documented in my Walla Walla Musings post.

The entire VITAL project is super cool and worth supporting with all the profits from the wine label going to the SOS Clinic of Walla Walla that provides healthcare for under-served members of the community–including many vineyard workers and their families.

I was wondering why Ashley Trout was pictured in her Wine Enthusiast photo op drinking Duckhorn wine until I read that she is married to Brian Rudin the winemaker of Duckhorn’s Red Mountain project, Canvasback. They have two kids who have likely inherited some really good winemaking genes.

Katarina Martinez — Owner/Head Brewer, Lineup Brewing

While no industry is immune, the beer industry has had a lot of light shined recently on the rampant sexism that women working in the industry face. There is even a website called Beer & Sexism which documents stories of women brewers and employees with experiences that range from mild (but thoroughly annoying) mansplaining to severe sexual harassment.

There is no universal blessing bestowed on women that means they’re going to make better beer but with women brewers representing only around 10% of the industry, its worth going out your way to support the underdog.

While it will probably be tough to find the New York-based Lineup Brewing on the West Coast, I’ll keep an eye out for Martinez’s brews.

Krista Scruggs — Vigneronne, Zafa Wines

This entry had me raising an eye brow and going “Whoa!”. Scruggs with her Vermont-based Zafa Wines is experimenting with co-fermenting wine grapes with farmed and forage apples as a sort of a wine-cider hybrid project that sounds crazy cool.

I have no idea how easy her stuff is to find but its worth the search to find what Scruggs describes on her website as “JUST FUCKING FERMENTED JUICE FROM RESPONSIBLY FARMED LIVING FRUIT.

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen — Winemaker/Co-owner, W.T. Vintners/Raconteur Wine Company; Wine Director, RN74

I don’t hide my affections for W.T. Vintners’s wines like their delicious rosé and very Old Worldish 2015 Boushey Vineyard Rhone blend that beat out (for me) the 2014 Sadie Family Columella (which was nearly 3x the price) at this year’s Washington vs World Blind Tasting Event. Plus, the food and wine experience at RN 74 in Seattle is second to none.

This Madeira flight at RN74 featuring (left to right) a 1988 Malmsey, 1976 Terrantez and a 1948 Bual (!!!) is among my Top 10 lifetime wine moments for sure.


That said, I’m still a bit skeptical at how much influence winemakers and sommeliers have in the bigger scheme of the industry. Yeah, they can make great wine and put together a great list but for the majority of wine drinkers who are picking up a bottle of wine at the grocery store or Costco to take home for dinner, they’re more apt to be swayed by fancy packaging than by “terroir-driven, single-vineyard wines.”

Sorry, my cynicism is leaking out again.

Kelli White — Senior Staff Writer, GuildSomm

For me, personally, I will have to say that Kelli White has been the one figure on this list who has actually influenced my tastes and approach to wine. Over the last year since I’ve discovered her work on GuildSomm, she has become one of my favorite wine writers.

I’ve learned so much from her with this just being a small sampling of some of her outstanding work.

The Devastator: Phylloxera Vastatrix & The Remaking of the World of Wine

The Evolution of American Oak

Photo by εγώ. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under free licenses.

The root of my Xinomavro obsession of late.

Gods & Heroes: Xinomavro in Northern Greece

Brettanomyces: Science & Context

Major Maladies of the Vine

The GuildSomm website is worth bookmarking just for her articles alone.

Hannibal ad portas

These next listings are probably the most realistic inclusions on Wine Enthusiast’s list because these folks actually have the position and power to influence the market in substantial ways.

Neil Bernardi – Vice President of Winemaking, Duckhorn Wine Company; General Manager, Kosta Browne

Duckhorn has grown immensely from it founding as a small Napa winery by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. It’s becoming a large mega-corp in its own right with a portfolio of brands that includes Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration, Decoy, Canvasback, Calera and Kosta Browne. This is a story not that far off from that of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates which started as a small Washington winery and now has a portfolio that includes more than 26 brands like 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Erath, Borne of Fire, Northstar, Spring Valley Vineyards, Conn Creek, Patz & Hall and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Duckhorn’s growth is on a steep trajectory and I don’t see their strings of acquisitions slowing down. A big question, especially as they acquire more vineyards and contracts, is whether they will continue to keep their brand holdings in the upper premium range or expand more of their value offerings like Decoy.

Katie Jackson — Vice President of Sustainability and External Affairs, Jackson Family Wines

Photo by 	Jim G. uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards outside Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Center in Santa Rosa.

Yeah, Jackson Family Wines is huge with over 30 brands in California (including La Crema, Siduri, Brewer-Clifton, Byron, Cambria, Freemark Abbey, Cardinale and Copain), a growing presence in Oregon (buying Penner-Ash and Willakenzie among others) as well as wineries across the globe. They make (and have no problem selling) more than 3 million cases a year of their Vintner Reserve Chardonnay.

That translates to a lot of influence and sway in the industry so it is heartening to read about Katie Jackson’s effort to promote sustainability across her family’s empire including the public release of sustainability reports. Just a few days ago it was announced that more than three-quarters of the company’s vineyards (which includes 12,000 acres under the Kendall-Jackson label alone) are certified sustainable.

That’s a significant needle mover that will certainly have a long term impact on not only the wine industry but on the health of the environment as a whole. While I can often be dour on large wine companies, I have to sincerely applaud Katie Jackson and the Jackson family for these efforts.

Maybe there is hope for my cynical heart yet.

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Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne

By Joseph Faverot - [1], Public Domain, on Wikimedia CommonsLast week I got into a bit of a tizzy over some ridiculous things posted by a so-called “Wine Prophet” on how to become a “Champagne Master.” See Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit for all the fun and giggles.

But despite the many failings of Jonathan Cristaldi’s post, he did dish out one excellent piece of advice. To learn more about Champagne, you have to start popping bottles. I want to expand on that and offer a few tidbits for budding Champagne geeks.

I’m not going to promise to make you a “Champagne Master”–because that is a lifelong pursuit–but I will promise not to steer you towards looking like a buffoon regurgitating nonsense about Marie Antoinette pimping for a Champagne house that wasn’t founded till 40+ years after her death.

Deal? Alright, let’s have some fun.

1.) Start Popping Bottles!

Pretty much you can stop reading now. I’m serious. Just try something, anything. Better still if it is something you haven’t had or even heard of before. Pop it open and see what you think.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to master anything so take that as a personal challenge to start getting your drink on. Well actually that 10,000-hour thing has been debunked, but mama didn’t raise a quitter.

Though seriously, if you want to make your tasting exploration more fruitful, here are some tips.

Make friends with your local wine shop folks

They pretty much live and breath the wines they stock. They know their inventory. The good ones also have a passion to share their love and knowledge with others. Admittedly not every shop is great but go in, look around, ask questions and see if you find a good fit. Finding a great local wine shop with folks whose opinions you trust is worth its weight in gold for a wine lover. Once you’ve found that, the door is open for you to discover a lot of fantastic bottles that will only enrich your explorations.

Learn the differences between négociant houses, grower-producers and co-operatives
On Wikimedia Commons under PD-US from United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.05590.

Online retailers can be helpful as well but sometimes it’s good to have a face to put with a bottle.

In Champagne, you can often find on the label a long number with abbreviations that denote what type of producer made the Champagne.

NMnégociant manipulant, who buy fruit (or even pre-made wine) from growers. These are the big houses (like the LVMH stable of Moët & Chandon & Veuve Clicquot) that make nearly 80% of all Champagne produced. These Champagnes aren’t bad at all. Most are rather outstanding.

But the key to know is that while there are around 19,000 growers, the Champagne market is thoroughly dominated by several large négociant houses. Chances are if you go into a store (especially a grocery store or Costco), these wines are likely going to be your only options. You should certainly try these wines. However, it’s worth the leg work to find the whole wide world of Champagne that exists beyond these big names. This is a huge reason why making friends at the local wine shop (who often stock smaller producers) is a great idea.

But here is where it gets exciting.

RMrécoltant manipulant, who make wine only from their own estate fruit. These are your “Grower Champagnes” and while being a small producer, alone, is not a guarantee of quality, exploring the wines of small producers is like checking out the small mom & pop restaurants in a city instead of only eating at the big chain restaurants. You can find a lot of gems among the little guys who toil in obscurity.

CMcoopérative-manipulant, who pool together the resources of a group of growers under one brand. This is kind of the middle ground between true Grower Champagne and the big négociant houses. Some of these co-ops are small and based around a single village (like Champagne Mailly) while others cover the entire region (like Nicolas Feuillatte which includes 5000 growers and is one of the top producers in Champagne). Some of these are easier to find than others, but they are still worth exploring so you can learn about the larger picture of Champagne.

An example of a négociant (NM on left) and grower (RM on right) label.

Pay attention to sweetness and house style

While “Brut” is going to be the most common sweetness level you see, no two bottles of Brut are going to be the same. That is because a bottle of Brut can have anywhere from Zero to up to 12 grams per liter of sugar. Twelve grams is essentially 3 cubes of sugar. Then, almost counter-intuitively, wines labeled as “Extra Dry” are going to actually be a little sweeter than Brut. (It’s a long story)

By Kici, Released on Wikimedia Commons under public domain

Though to be fair, if they served Champagne at McDonald’s, I would probably eat there more often. It is one of the best pairings with french fries.

This is important to note because while Champagne houses often won’t tell you the dosage (amount of sugar added at bottling) of their Bruts, with enough tasting, you can start to discern the general “house style” of a brand.

For instance, the notable Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label” is tailor-made for the sweet tooth US market and will always be on the “sweeter side of Brut” (9-12 g/l). While houses such as Billecart-Salmon usually go for a drier style with dosages of 7 g/l or less. If you have these two wines side by side (and focus on the tip of your tongue), you will notice the difference in sweetness and house style.

The idea of house style (which is best exhibited in each brand’s non-vintage cuvee) is for the consumer to get a consistent experience with every bottle. It’s the same goal of McDonald’s to have every Big Mac taste the same no matter where you are or when you buy it. All the dominant négociant houses have a trademark style and some will be more to your taste than others.

Explore the Grand Crus and vineyard designated bottles

While Champagne is not quite like Burgundy with the focus on terroir and the idea that different plots of land exhibit different personalities, the region is still home to an abundance of unique vineyards and terroir. You can best explore this through bottles made from single designated vineyards. However, these can be expensive and exceedingly hard to find.

Quite a bit easier to find (especially at a good wine shop) are Grand Cru Champagnes that are made exclusively from the fruit of 17 particular villages. There are over 300 villages in Champagne but over time the vineyards of these 17 villages showed themselves to produce the highest quality and most consistent wines. All the top prestige cuvees in Champagne prominently feature fruit from these villages.

To be labeled as a Grand Cru, the Champagne has to be 100% sourced only from a Grand Cru village. It could be a blend of several Grand Cru villages but if a single village is featured on the front of the label (like Bouzy, Mailly, Avize, Ambonnay, etc) then it has to be only from that village. Since the production of the Grand Cru villages represents less than 10% of all the grapes grown in Champagne, you would expect them to be somewhat pricey. That’s not the case. Many small growers have inherited their Grand Cru vineyards through generations of their families and can produce 100% Grand Cru Champagnes for the same price as your basic Champagnes from the big négociant house.

Well worth the hunt

They may be a little harder to find than the big négociant houses, but Grand Cru Champagnes from producers like Pierre Peters, Franck Bonville, Pierre Moncuitt, Petrois-Moriset, Pierre Paillard and more can be had in the $40-60 range.

While not as terroir-driven as single vineyard wines, tasting some of the single-village Grand Crus offers a tremendous opportunity to learn about the unique personality of different villages in Champagne and is well worth the time of any Champagne lover to explore.

2.) Great Reading Resources

Truthfully, you can just follow the advice of the first step and live a life of happy, bubbly contentment. You don’t need book knowledge to enjoy Champagne–just an explorer’s soul and willingness to try something new. But when you want to geek out and expand your experience, it is helpful to have robust and reliable resources. There are tons of great wine books dealing with Champagne and sparkling wine but a few of my favorites include:

A few favs

The Five Essential Books On Champagne, Plus One For the Wine Prophet

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan’s Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine — The benchmark reference book written by the foremost authorities on all things that sparkle.

Peter Liem’s Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set] — This set ramps up the geek factor and dives deeper into the nitty-gritty details of Champagne. The companion maps that shows vineyards and crus of the region are enough to make any Bubble Head squeal.

David White’s But First, Champagne — A very fresh and modern approach to learning about Champagne. It essentially takes the Christie’s Encyclopedia and Peter Liem’s opus and boils it down to a more digestible compendium.

Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles — Thought-provoking and a different perspective. You can read my full review of the book here.

Don & Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times — One of my favorite books, period. Brilliantly written work of historical non-fiction about the people who made Champagne, Champagne. If you ever wondered what was the big deal about people calling everything that has bubbles “champagne,” read this book about what the Champenois endured throughout their history and you will have a newfound respect for what the word “Champagne” means.

Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies — A little outdated but a quick read that covers the basics very well. I suspect that if the “Wine Prophet” read this book, he wouldn’t have had as many difficulties understanding the differences between vintage and non-vintage Champagnes.

3.) Next Level Geekery

As I said in the intro, the pursuit of Champagne Mastery is a lifelong passion and you never stop learning. Beyond the advice given above, some avenues for even more in-depth exploration includes:

The Wine Scholar Guild Champagne Master-Level course — I’ve taken the WSG Bordeaux and Burgundy Master courses and can’t rave enough about the online programs they have. Taught by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine, the level of instruction and attention to detail is top notch. They also offer immersion tours to the region.

Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages — This Master of Wine is one of the most reliable sources for information and tasting notes on all kinds of wine but particularly for Champagne.

Allen Meadow’s Burghound — While Burgundy is Meadow’s particular focus, he does devote a lot of time reviewing and commenting on Champagne and, like Robinson, is a very reliable source. But the caveat for all critics is to view them as tools, rather than pontiffs.

Visit Wineries
By Webmasterlescordeliers - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

If you get a chance to riddle, it will be enjoyable for the first couple of minutes. Then you realize how hard of a job it is.

Even if you can’t visit Champagne itself, chances are you are probably near some producer, somewhere who is making sparkling wine.

Throughout the world, producers making bubbly. From African wineries in Morocco, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa; Asian wineries in China and India; to more well known sparkling wine producing countries in Australia, Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom and Eastern Europe–the possibilities are near endless.

Even in your own backyard

In the United States, there is not only a vibrant sparkling wine industry in the traditional west coast regions of California, Oregon (Beaver State Bubbly) and Washington State but also New Mexico, Missouri, New York, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Colorado and more.

While they may not be doing the “traditional method,” there is still benefit to visiting and tasting at these estates. At small wineries where the person pouring could be the owner or winemaker themselves. These experiences can give you an opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see the work that happens in the vineyard and winery. As beautiful of a resource that books and classes are, there is no substitute for first-hand experience.

So have fun and keep exploring!

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60 Second Whiskey Review – Alexander Murray

Some quick thoughts on a few Scotch whiskeys from independent bottler Alexander Murray.

The Geekery

Founded by Scottish native Steve Lipp in 2004, Alexander Murray is a notable source behind many of the private label Scotches found at Costco (Kirkland Signature) and Total Wine & More (Ainsley Brae).


The Whiskeys

The 20 yr Glentauchers is a really light and elegant, floral “breakfast Scotch”. Something between a Glen Moray and Glenfiddich style. Around $150 a bottle which is a bit high for this light style, in my opinion.

The 23 yr Allt-a-Bhaine (used by Chivas in their high end blends) has a good balance of malt with light peat–sort of a more powerful Oban. A lot of layers and complexity with a long smooth finished. Around $150 a bottle which is an outstanding value for a 23 year that easily outclasses many 21 yr whiskeys in the $200+ range.

The 21 year Braes of Glenlivet is a bit shy on the nose but had good weight on the palate. Nothing like regular Glenlivet. Rather more like a Fine Oak Macallan. Around $180 a bottle which is a little too much for my taste.

The 19 year Cask Strength Linkwood is a much spicier and more powerful driven Scotch then typical Linkwood. I strongly suspect Sherry casks. This is like a Macallan 18 yr but with way more depth and power. It holds it proof really well for a smooth finish that doesn’t need to be watered down. Around $150 a bottle which is an outstanding value especially considered the Macallan 18 is around $230.

The 26 yr Bunnahabhain is very savory and meaty. More in a Mortlach or Glenfarclas style than anything I tasted from Bunnahabhain. Something to contemplate over while rolling it around your tongue. Around $290 a bottle which is a bit steep but I can’t deny the uniqueness of this expression of Bunnahabhain.

The 28 yr Cask Strength Bunnahabhain is classic Old School Bunnahabhain before they started adding more peat. A touch of peat but it’s all about the beautiful dried fruit, fresh cereals and long, subtle spice on the finish. Very smooth for a cask strength. Around $320 a bottle which is certainly because of its age. It’s a very tasty whiskey that delivers a lot of pleasure but you’re going to pay a premium for it.

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