Tag Archives: GuildSomm

2018 SpitBucket Year in Review

I just returned from vacation and am working on my blogging calendar for 2019. As I plan my content goals for the year, I decided to take a look back at what I did in 2018.

TruthTeller and the Wine Fool at WBC18

Winemaker dinner with Chris Loeliger of TruthTeller Winery and the Wine Fool at the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference.
Going through my Google Photos, this one jumped out to me as an apt summary of 2018.

While I technically started this blog back in 2016, I didn’t dedicate myself to full-time writing until last year. I spent a good chunk of 2018 feeling my way through and figuring out what I enjoyed writing about–as well as what resonated with readers. I’m a bit shocked at how much my traffic and subscription rate has jumped over these past 12 months and am very humbled by the support.

So as I look back on 2018, I’m also going to share a few of my thoughts on what content I’ll be producing going forward. The primary purpose of this blog will always be to serve as a study tool as I work on my WSET Diploma. But I am an inquisitive geek and a slutty boozer so it’s hard not to write about other alcohols that catch my attention. They also seem to grab the attention of readers (and search engines) as my top posts by traffic reveal.

The 8 Most Read Posts on SpitBucket for 2018

1) Apothic Brew Wine Review — Published on April 8, 2018
2) What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal — Published on October 14, 2018
3) Johnnie Walker “White Walker” Limited Edition Scotch Review — Published on October 15, 2018
4) 60 Second Whiskey Review — Tullamore DEW Caribbean Rum Cask Finish — Published on March 9, 2018
5) Wine Clubs Done Right — Published on January 14, 2018
6) 60 Second Whiskey Review – Alexander Murray — Published on November 28, 2017
7) 60 Second Whiskey Reviews — Jameson Caskmates IPA edition — Published on January 20, 2018
8) Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures — Published on July 11, 2018

Some Thoughts
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

For several weeks after the MS scandal hits, folks were searching for details about Reggie Narito, the somm at the heart of the scandal
Screenshot from Narito’s public blog.
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

I’m quite surprised by how much traffic I still get on the Alexander Murray whiskey review. I wrote that piece back in 2017 and get weekly, if not daily, hits on it. While I’m not very familiar with search engine optimization (and only recently learned about how readability plays into SEO rankings), it’s clear that a lot of people are searching for info on this relatively obscure independent bottler.

Likewise, the eruption of the Master Sommelier scandal drew big interest from search engines. I also benefited from having my article picked up by various news aggregators like Wine Industry Insight and Flipboard. Admittedly, Flipboard is a platform (like Pinterest) that I still haven’t figured out. I plan on spending some time this year learning more about them.

My early January post about deciding to join the Tablas Creek wine club took off when Jason Haas wrote about it on the Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog. I was very shocked and honored that Haas would even read, much less seriously consider, the viewpoints of a random blogger. But as I learned in my continuing journey as a wine club member, this is just par for the course with the Tablas Creek team’s outstanding engagement of their customers.

It’s clear that they are continually striving to improve and actively want to hear from consumers. They’re not hiding out in some ivory tower or behind a moat-like tasting bar. The folks at Tablas Creek make wine because they enjoy it and want to share that joy with others. This is a big reason why they, along with Rabbit Ridge, are one of the few wineries on Twitter that are worth following.

It’s not all Champagne and Bordeaux

Working at grocery stores and wine shops, you learn quickly that the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t necessarily drink the same things you enjoy. You can respond to that in two ways–get stuck up and snobbish about it or try to understand what makes wines like Apothic Brew or its whiskey barrel aged brethren appealing.

Mamamango wine

The fluorescent glow of Mamamango in the glass was a bit weird.

I prefer to take the latter approach which is why you’ll find me researching the backstory of wines like Apothic Brew, Capriccio Bubbly Sangria, Mamamango, Blanc de Bleu and non-alcoholic wines with just as much attention as I do for my reviews of Petrus, Lynch-Bages, Giscours, Krug Clos du Mesnil, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque or Louis XV Rose.

Going forward, I will continue my exploration of new wine trends that emerge. While I am sincerely dreading the advent of cannabis wine, I will nonetheless try it–for science.

A Few of My Favorite Posts from 2018

These articles might not have gotten the search engine traffic that my whiskey and other wine posts did, but they were ones that I had fun writing. They’re also the posts that I think most convey who I am as a wine writer and my general approach to wine.

January

Snooty or Flute-y? — Published on January 13, 2018
Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit — Published on January 22, 2018
Don’t Be a Jackass and Blindly Listen to Bloggers — Published on January 25, 2018
Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne — Published on January 29, 2018
Cab is King but for how long? — Published on January 31, 2018

So apparently I was a bit feisty back in January (and drinking a lot of Champagne). While I’ve always had little tolerance for know-it-alls or folks who dish out bad advice–my language is usually not that stark.

Still, I stand by those words I wrote back then regarding the ridiculous assertations of so-called “wine prophets” and bloggers who aim to stir anxiety and doubt in newbie wine drinkers. These folks don’t do anything to improve the dialogue around wine or promote exploration. They deserve to be taken down a peg or two. And I sincerely hope that if I ever stray that far that someone will come along and knock me down as well.

February-March

Under the (Social Media) Influence — Published on February 13, 2018
What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines — Published on February 25, 2018
Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care? — Published on February 28, 2018
The Mastery of Bob Betz — Published on March 5, 2018
Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine — Published on March 8, 2018
The Legend of W.B. Bridgman — Published on March 31, 2018

As I mentioned in my note about the Apothic Brew review, being in the trenches in retail gives you a lot of insight that you don’t glean from wine books or blogs. The typical wine consumer thinks about wine in a completely different way than most wine writers. That experience fuels my skepticism about the true reach and influence of “influencers”.

I noted in a later post in November, What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?, that I never once had a customer come up to me on the floor with blog review or seeking a wine that they said they saw on Instagram and Twitter. Never. In contrast, nearly every day I had customers looking for a wine they had at a restaurant. When major newspapers or magazines came out with their yearly “Best of…” lists, they were also far more likely to bring people in than a blog or social media posting.

In October, I may have annoyed my fellow bloggers at the Wine Blogger Conference when I told a few winemakers that if I were running a winery, I would focus more on the influencers at national and regional publications as well as getting my wine on by-the-glass programs at restaurants. I would also enter every wine competition I could find because, even though these competitions really shouldn’t have the influence that they do, consumers respond to seeing shiny medals on bottles.

Putting the Pieces Together
Bob Betz and Louis Skinner

A highlight of my year was being invited to Betz Winery where I got a personal lesson on Washington State terroir by Bob Betz and head winemaker Louis Skinner.

Though the posts in March are genuinely some of my favorites. I love getting knee deep into the history of influential figures in wine. Wine lovers across the globe should know about people like Bob Betz, W.B. Bridgman and (in later articles) Martin Ray and Nathan Fay. The world of wine is a quilt with many people contributing to the stitches that keep it together. It’s easy to focus on the patches, but to understand the quiltwork, you have to look at the stitching.

My piece on Jancis Robinson, though, has a bit of a personal bent that goes beyond an academic profile. This one I keep prominently featured in my Author Bio because anyone wishing to understand who I am as a wine writer is well served by understanding the immeasurable influence that Jancis Robinson has had on my career.

April-June

Why I Don’t Use Scores — Published on April 4, 2018
Playing the Somm Game in Vegas — Published on May 7, 2018
Naked and Foolish — Published on May 21, 2018
Pink Washing in the Booze Industry for Pride Month — Published on June 24, 2018

Tokay Eccenzia from Lago

Still can’t get over the jackpot I scored playing the Somm Game when I was in Las Vegas this past May.
It pretty much made up for the disappointment of the 2018 Wine Spectator Grand Tour.

I also keep a link to Why I Don’t Use Scores in my bio as it is an indelible part of my approach to reviewing wine. I know I’m sacrificing traffic and backlinks by not providing magical numbers that wineries can tweet about or feature on their sites. Likewise, I’m sure many PR firms scan over postings like this that convey my love/hate relationship with reviews only to close their browser tab quickly. Frankly, I could care less.

Perhaps it’s privilege in that, with my wife’s career, I don’t need to make an income from writing. I don’t need to count on a steady stream of free wine samples for topics to write about. Truthfully, I prefer paying for the wine that I review or the events I attend because I feel that it gives me a better grounding in measuring their value.

I rate with my wallet instead of with scores because that is how most regular wine consumers judge wine. Did the bottle give you enough pleasure to merit its cost? Great, that’s was a good bottle for you. It doesn’t matter what points it got from a critic. Nor how many stars it had on an easily gameable rating system (Naked and Foolish).

While as a blogger this view is thoroughly self-defeating, I can’t ever see myself straying from the mantra of “Ignore the noise (i.e. bloggers like me) and trust your palate”. I’m not here to tell you what you should buy or how you should drink. I’m just geeking out over whatever is tickling my fancy at one particular moment in time.

September-October

Birth Year Wine Myopics — Published on September 6, 2018
Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine — Published on September 11, 2018
The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray — Published on September 29, 2018
The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials — Published on October 8, 2018
Race From The Bottom — How Should Wine Regions Break Into New Markets? — Published on October 25, 2018

A drum that I will continue to beat loudly in my writings is that the biggest threat to the wine industry over the next several years will be the “Boredom Factor” of the next generation. In 2019, Millennials will outnumber Baby Boomers as the largest demographic in the US. As I touched on back in my January post Cab is King but for how long? and in The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials, wineries are foolish to rest their laurels on the old-standbys of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Millennials crave new experiences and are notorious for getting bored quickly. We crave uniqueness and distinction. As the influence of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers fade from dominance, wineries are going to have to figure out how to stand out from the pack of “same ole, same ole.” The wineries and wine regions that aren’t planning for this (or, worse, doubling down on the old guard) are going to struggle mightily.

November
Wagner Pinots

Pitting these Joe Wagner wines against various Oregon Pinot noirs in a blind tasting yielded some surprising results.

Wine Media Musings — Published on November 9, 2018
Viva La Vida New Zealand — The Coldplay of the wine world? — Published on November 13, 2018
What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews? — Published on November 15, 2018
Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano — Published on November 30, 2018

While I’m coming around to the Wine Bloggers Conference’s name change to Wine Media Conference, I still hold a lot of the same sentiments I expressed in Wine Media Musings. The mantra Show, Don’t Tell is another one that I’m not likely to abandon. I see little need to puff up my credentials or try to claim a title of “Wine Media” for myself. I’m a writer. I’m a communicator. But ultimately it will be readers like you who decide what is Wine Media and what is just noise. My job is merely to put my head down, do my due diligence and work, and create content that will hopefully show that it’s credible and original.

December

The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews — Published on December 10, 2018
Stop Scaring the Newbies — A Look at the Wine Hierarchy of Needs — Published on December 16, 2018
Winery Tasting Notes Done Right — Published on December 17, 2018
Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith — Published on December 31, 2018

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

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

I’ll try to make a New Year’s resolution to stop writing about wine reviews for 2019. But I will say that posts like The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews have done a lot to solidify in my mind just what the hell I’m doing here. Even though I often draw on my experiences working retail, at restaurants and wineries for posts, at my core, I’m just a regular wine consumer like most of you. It’ll always be hard to separate from that mindset when I deal with wine reviews as well as winery tasting notes.

While there are aspects of those things that are undoubtedly helpful for consumers making buying decisions–a lot of it is also a heap of bullshit. (Sorry, must be a January-thing)

Finally, two of these year-end posts–the Wine Hierarchy of Needs and my piece on Nathan Fay–were my absolute favorites posts that I’ve written on this blog to date. It felt good to end the year on a high note.

My Favorite 60 Second Reviews of 2018

I went back and forth about whether or not I wanted to do a Top Wines of the Year post. Ultimately I decided against it for a few reasons. For one, I haven’t yet published my reviews on all the great wines I had last year–especially from the past three months. While I have my tasting notes written down, the Geekery sections take longer to do because I’m a stickler for research and fact-checking. I want to find multiple sources beyond just a winery’s website for details I publish. This means that many of the wines I review are ones that I might have had several days or weeks prior. (I do consider that when I make verdict calls relating to a wine’s aging potential or pratfalls.)

The second reason is that I don’t want this blog to be all about reviews. In general, I try to post reviews only around 2 to 3 times a week with the bulk of my articles being on other wine topics. For me, it will always be about the Geekery section. So while I will likely do 60 Second reviews in 2019 with the same frequency as last year, I may turn more of them into Getting Geeky with… posts.

With that said, this list below is not necessarily my favorite wines of the year (though many of them were excellent) but of the posts that I had the most fun researching for the Geekery section.
Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape

I learned a lot about Beaucastel’s approach to blending while researching this post.

Winderlea Shea Pinot noir — Published on January 29, 2018
Pierre Gerbais L’Originale — Published on January 31, 2018
Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny — Published on February 28, 2018
Guardian Newsprint Cabernet Sauvignon — Published on March 14, 2018
Gorman Evil Twin — Published on March 15, 2018
2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape — Published on April 9, 2018
2004 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant — Published on April 21, 2018
Domaine des Pins St. Amour Les Pierres — Published on April 23, 2018
WillaKenzie Pinot blanc — Published on May 8, 2018
2007 Efeste Final-Final — Published on August 22, 2018
Adobe Road Bavarian Lion Cabernet Sauvignon — Published on September 28, 2018
Ch. de la Perriere Brouilly — Published on October 9, 2018
DeLille 2015 Rose (Can Rosés Age?) — Published on October 17, 2018
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 — Published on November 17, 2018
Accordini Ripasso — Published on November 19, 2018

Speaking of Getting Geeky

Few posts convey the spirit and focus of SpitBucket more than my Getting Geeky and Geek Notes features. Here is where I get down and dirty with the type of material that wine students pursuing higher levels of wine certification should aim to master. They make up a good chunk of the 350+ posts that I’ve written so far so I will narrow this down to just my ten favorites of each from this past year.

Getting Geeky with Domaine du Grangeon Chatus — Published on February 18, 2018
Getting Geeky with Soaring Rooster Rose of Counoise — Published on March 7, 2018
Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul — Published on March 19, 2018
Getting Geeky with Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot — Published on April 6, 2018
Getting Geeky about Malbec — Published on April 17, 2018
Getting Geeky with Davenport Cellars Ciel du Cheval Rosé of Sangiovese — Published on August 4, 2018
Getting Geeky with Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre — Published on August 17, 2018
Getting Geeky with Otis Kenyon Roussanne — Published on August 25, 2018
Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot — Published on October 13, 2018
Getting Geeky with Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch — Published on October 21, 2018

Geek Notes

This section changed focus in the latter half of the year. Previously, I used Geek Notes as a curated news feed featuring interesting weblinks with added commentary. After attending the Wine Bloggers/Media Conference in October, I realized that I needed to come up with a game plan for my social media channels. I moved the curated new feed over to the SpitBucket Facebook page and refocused Geek Notes to highlight useful study aides like podcasts, maps, videos and books for wine students.

Out of all the features that I do on the blog, this is the area that I will be increasing the frequency of my postings the most for 2019.

Barolo Cru map

A section of the Grand Crus of Barolo map with the full version at http://www.jdemeven.cz/wine/Barolo_map.pdf

Killer Clos Vougeot Map — Published on January 9, 2018
I’ll Drink To That! Episode 331 Featuring Greg Harrington — Published on August 23, 2018
UK Wine Show Episode 111 with Ian D’Agata — Published on September 23, 2018
Super Cool Map of Barolo Crus — Published on September 30, 2018
Grape Radio Episode 391 Interview with Hubert de Boüard of Ch. Angélus — Published on October 10, 2018
Insider’s Peek Into Champagne — Published on November 7, 2018
Top Audiobooks on California Wine History — Published on November 11, 2018
Five Essential Books On Champagne — Published on December 5, 2018
The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast — Published on December 8, 2018
More Champagne with GuildSomm Podcast — Published on December 22, 2018

Additionally, in 2018 I launched my Keeping up with the Joneses in Burgundy series which dives into the family lineage and connection of Burgundy estates. I started with the Boillot family and have completed cheat sheets on the Morey, Gros, Coche and Leflaive families as well. I will definitely continue producing more of these posts over the next several months.

Wine Events of 2018 and Some Personal News

Last year I had the opportunity to attend many fun wine events. Some were great (like the Wine Bloggers/Media Conference and Hospice du Rhone) while others (like the most recent Wine Spectator Grand Tour and Taste Washington’s New Vintage) were a bit of a dud.

Morgan Twain-Peterson

Meeting Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock at the Hospice du Rhone was another highlight of the year for me.

Walla Walla Musings — Published on February 15, 2018
Quilceda Creek Release Party — Published on March 18, 2018
Event Review — The New Vintage at Taste Washington — Published on March 27, 2018
Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar — Published on March 29, 2018
Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner — Published on April 22, 2018
Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018 — Published on April 30, 2018
Déjà Vu at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour — Published on June 2, 2018
Getting Ready (and a bit nervous) For WBC18! — Published on October 3, 2018

My schedule of events for 2019 will be quite a bit different from last year. My wife and I are moving to Paris sometime in March as she takes on a new job opportunity in France. I will be making frequent trips back to the US to see family and work on a research project about the Stags Leap District AVA. But I’m not sure which events I’ll be able to attend–at least in the United States.

I do have my tickets already booked for the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley this October, so that is a definite. I will also be transferring my WSET Diploma course work to London for an online/intensive classroom block schedule. This will give me a chance to explore some of the various wine events going on that side of the pond. Stay tuned!

Bordeaux Futures Posts

2015 Ch. Margaux

While I’ll likely never score as great of a deal as I did for the 2015 Ch. Margaux, I’ll still be a regular buyer of Bordeaux futures.

I started my coverage of the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign on May 1st of last year with an examination of the offers on Ch. Palmer, Valandraud, Fombrauge and Haut-Batailley. I completed 15 more posts, covering the offers of 64 chateaux, before it got too late into the year for futures offers to be relevant.

While my post Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures was one of my most popular of the year, admittedly I’m not certain if I want to continue this series with coverage on the 2018 campaign. These posts take a considerable amount of time to research and write and, overall, they don’t seem to get much readership.

But I will still be buying futures and doing this research on my own. I’ll likely do a modified version of the series in more of a summary format of the offers. I don’t need to necessarily repeat the geekery sections for each estate. I can shift that focus to individual Getting Geeky with... posts as I did for the 2007 Léoville Poyferré and 2008 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose.

However, if you were a fan of my coverage on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign, I would love to get some feedback in the comments below.

Book Reviews

One area that I want to make a commitment to work on is posting more book reviews of useful wine books. Last year I only completed four.

Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers by Robert Walters — Published on January 16, 2018
Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan — Published on January 27, 2018
Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Paul Gregutt — Published on March 15, 2018
Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich — Published on August 20, 2018

While these are a bit of work, they are a lot of fun to write. I’m such a bibliophile that few things give me more joy than a highlighter and a good wine book. Writing these reviews is a way for me to relieve the delight of discovery I had when I first read them. They’re also terrific learning tools as I inevitably pick up something new (as I did with Oregon Wine Country Stories) when I go back to the text to write a review.

I’m going to set a goal of posting at least one book review a month for 2019. Some of these may be new books but most will probably be old favorites that I feel are particularly of benefit for wine students. I also enjoy putting together the Geek Notes for the Five Essential Books On Champagne and will continue that this year with listings of essential books on Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italian Wine, Winemaking and more.

Onto 2019!

So that is my look back at 2018 and thoughts for this year. Thank you to everyone who has subscribed as well as follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I had a lot of fun last year and look forward to more geeking in 2019!

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Geek Notes — More Champagne with GuildSomm Podcast

This is the second part of our Geek Notes review of the GuildSomm podcasts with Ruinart’s chef de cave Frédéric Panaiotis. To catch up on the first segment, check out Geek Notes — The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast.

GuildSomm podcast

In that post I also highlight why listening to podcasts is an extremely valuable tool for wine students. But not all podcasts are created equal or are worth your time. There have been many podcasts that I’ve picked up only to unsubscribe after a couple of episodes. Sometimes it is the overall production value that steers me away–noticeable mouth breathing, weird audio jumps between loud voices and whispers, distracting background music, etc. But usually, it is because of a lack of credibility in the content and people producing the podcast.

The world of wine is constantly changing and there is a lot of material to cover. Any podcast that is worth its salt needs to be backed up with solid research and commitment to accuracy.

One of the best wine podcasts, in that regard, is the GuildSomm podcast founded by Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth.

Some Background

Kruth founded GuildSomm in 2009 as a nonprofit that promotes education and development opportunities for sommeliers and other wine professionals. Though many people who aspire to be Master Sommeliers join and utilize the website’s materials, GuildSomm is not a part of the Court Of Master Sommeliers.

Podcasts, videos and recent articles are available to anyone for free on the website. However, access to the forums, study guides, maps, master classes and in-depth training material on topics like blind tasting require membership. For wine industry folks, the fee is $100 a year while for non-industry wine lovers it is $150.

Fun Things I Learned From This Podcast

Ruinart Champagne

Ruinart’s non-vintage blanc de blancs and rose.

Like the previous podcast, this episode (44:54) features a highly informative interview with Ruinart’s Frédéric Panaiotis. But the second half is a discussion with the acclaimed grower-producer Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters.

(1:29) The podcast starts with a description of the Montagne de Reims region of Champagne. This area, south of the city of Reims, has a unique horseshoe shape.

The topography creates a diversity of exposures in nearly all orientations (south, east, north, west, etc). This makes it hard to generalize the style of wines from its several villages–including 10 Grand Cru (Ambonnay, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Puisieulx, Sillery, Tours-sur-Marne, Verzenay and Verzy).

Panaiotis gives a nice overview here but for anyone wanting to really dive deep into this diverse terroir, I very highly recommend Peter Liem’s Champagne, one of my 5 essential books on Champagne.

(2:00) Panaiotis does note, however, that the northern side of the Montagne de Reims (which includes the Grand Cru villages of Mailly, Sillery, Verzy and Verzenay) produces wines with more fresh acidity that have great aging potential.

Chardonnay From the Heart of Pinot-country
By Map data (c) OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA• derived via osm download geofabrik.de and osm2pgsql, OpenStreetMap contributors.• Data for landuse: OSM - derived wor CC BY 2.0,

The village of Sillery is located southeast of Reims and north of the Grand Crus of Mailly, Verzenay and Verzy.

(2:23) Even though the Montagne de Reims is known for Pinot noir, the eastern villages (mostly premier cru) are esteemed for the quality of their Chardonnay. Panaiotis describes how the gentle eastern exposure of these villages is similar to the Cote d’Or’s east-facing escarpment. Ruinart uses a lot of this fruit for their blanc de blancs Champagne.

(3:49) Sillery is the only Grand Cru of the Montagne de Reims that has more Chardonnay than Pinot noir.

(5:37) Kruth asks Panaiotis how much of Ruinart’s Chardonnay comes from the Montagne de Reims. It is around 30%.

(5:52) Instead of keeping the juice from different villages separate, Ruinart blends the wines regionally. The reason for this is logistics and the need to fill up tanks quickly. As I noted in the last Geek Notes on the process of Champagne, this is a significant divergence in the mindset of small growers versus big houses.

An Overview of Vintages

(8:26) Kruth asks about the recent vintages of Champagne. 2007 was a Chardonnay year while rain took a toll on Pinot noir and Meunier. In contrast, 2008 was more of a Pinot year. 2009 was a warmer year producing more rounder wines. While Panaiotis doesn’t elaborate, I’m curious if he was insinuating that he’s not expecting the 2009s to age as long as other vintages. But the trade-off could be more approach-ability when younger.

(9:36) 2010 is similar to 2007 in being a Chardonnay year. Panaiotis seems high on this year for Ruinart Champagnes. He compares it to 2002 regarding power but with more freshness and expects it to be a benchmark year. However, also like 2007, this was more of a difficult year for the Pinots.

Chardonnay Years vs Pinot Years
Photo from INRA, Jean Weber. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Chardonnay harvest in the village of Festigny (an Autre cru) in the Vallée de la Marne.

While it is a bit simplistic to think of years as Chardonnay years or Pinot years, it is a good starting point. Each of the major houses has a distinctive “house style” that tends to lean more on one grape variety or the other. Of course, they are going to try to make the best Champagne they can every year. But it is worthwhile to make a mental note of which years tend to favor a particular house style–especially if you are thinking about splurging for a prestige cuvee.

For instance, other Chardonnay-dominated houses like Ruinart include Perrier-Jouët, Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier and, of course, blanc de blancs specialists like Salon.

Pinot dominated houses include Lanson, Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm, Nicolas Feuillatte, Champagne Mailly, Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon.

(10:11) 2011 was a tough vintage all around because of rain and botrytis infection. There will likely not be many vintage Champagnes produced. 2012 was a puzzling vintage for Panaiotis because the grapes came in so healthy yet the base wine didn’t live up to his exception to make great a prestige cuvee for Ruinart. He suspects that the year will be better for Pinot dominated producers.

The Wrath of the Drosophila suzukii
By Martin Cooper from Ipswich, UK - Spotted-wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii) male, CC BY 2.0,

The spotted wing Drosophila suzukii wrecked a lot of havoc throughout Europe during the 2014 vintage.

(11:12) 2013 was an easy year with good wines produced. Meanwhile, 2014 had a lot of rot issues caused by an invasion of a Japanese fruit fly that devastated many vineyards (particularly the Pinots). This hit not only Champagne in 2014 but also Germany, Rhône and Burgundy.

However, the fly had issues “seeing” white grapes so the vintage wasn’t as bad for Chardonnay. Still, Panaiotis describes it mostly as a “non-vintage year”.

(12:12) 2015 was a good year but one characterized by drought and low-nitrogen levels in the must. For Ruinart, 2016 was a non-vintage year but Panaiotis notes that some producers like Villamart will be making very good 2016 vintage Champagnes.

(12:35) The 2017 vintage will be interesting because of how mature the grapes were harvested, even though they were picked relatively early. This is a vintage where the impact of global warming will be felt. The year is tilting towards a Chardonnay year (with the Pinots having some rot issues) but will be good for non-vintages.

The Importance of Primary Fermentation
Photo by Alberto Vaccaro. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Temperature control during primary fermentation is vitally important in maintaining freshness in Champagne. Here in one of the fermenting rooms of Moët & Chandon each tank is outfitted with a cooling jacket.

(14:10) The conversation switches to fermentation. There is a little overlap with the last podcast in the discussion of things like reductive winemaking.

(17:29) Kruth gives a great analogy of how the effects of the first fermentation get amplified in the secondary fermentation of Champagne. This is a really important point to understand because so often this fermentation gets overlooked because it isn’t the step that produces the “magic” of the bubbles. Yet, a Champagne is only as good as its base ingredient–the vin clair.

(18:13) The reasoning above is why Panaiotis is not a fan of using oak in the first fermentation at Ruinart. However, for other producers like Krug, the “amplification” of those flavors is a house style.

(19:24) One unique thing that Panaiotis mentions in his parting comment is that for the 2010 vintage, Ruinart switched to sealing the wine for the secondary fermentation with cork instead of the traditional crown cap. This is an exciting trend that is getting a lot of attention of late. The idea is that cork allows for better interaction with oxygen and the yeast but there seem to be other benefits as well–including more reductive flavors (!?) Certainly something I want to investigate more.

Interview With Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters

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

The chalky limestone of Champagne A fascinating produced at the same time as the White Cliff of Dover.

(20:50) As the interview switches to Peters, the focus shifts to the terroir of the Côte des Blancs. The origins of the region’s soils are similar to the Montagne de Reims–the ancient sea that birthed the Paris Basin as well as the White Cliffs of Dover.

However, the biggest difference between the two regions is the depth of the topsoil with the soil being much thinner in the Côte des Blancs. This is one of the reasons why Chardonnay is favored here since it can deal with shallow top soils easier than Pinot noir.

(22:59) Another comparison between the Côte des Blancs and the Cote d’Or with its north-south band of vineyards that face east. But here Peters points out the favor-ability of east-facing slopes–the gentle early morning heat of the sun instead of the harsher late afternoon heat that hits others exposures.

This is helpful in slowing down the maturation of Chardonnay which can risk losing elegance and flavor if it ripens too much, too quickly.

(23:54) Echoing again some of the sentiments of Frédéric Panaiotis in the first half, Peters calls out the specialness of Chardonnay from the eastern villages of the Montagne de Reims–particularly the Premier Cru villages of Trépail and Villers-Marmery.

The links to the villages above go to one of my favorite blogs on Champagnes. Each profile also includes a list of growers who produce Champagnes from these villages. These will be high on my list of Champagnes to seek out.

The Four Seasons of the Côte des Blancs

(24:21) Kruth asks for an overview of the different villages of the Côte des Blancs. Peters responds with a very poetic comparison of the personality of the main villages to the four seasons. Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is winter, producing tight Champagnes that can be austere in their youth. This is caused by, in Peters’ opinion, the soft and dry chalk that accentuates the wine’s sharp minerality.

Photo by Szeder László. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Grand Cru village of Oger is on flatter land and at a lower altitude than neighboring Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

While Oger has the same soil profile as Le Mesnil, it is a little flatter and lower in altitude. This creates an amphitheater that warms up the micro-climate of the village, producing softer and rounder wines. Peters equates the style of wine from here to spring with an elegant and feminine character.

Avize is also lower altitude with the best sites located on flat terrain. It has a little deeper topsoil with some clay mixed with the chalk. This is unique compared to the other Côte des Blancs villages because it has a higher concentration of organic material in the soil. This produces a richer, juicer more citrus-style of Chardonnay that Peters equate to summer.

Photo by Szeder László. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Vineyards in Cramant tend to have an “oilier” chalk that produces creamier style Champagnes.

Cramant is a little higher than Avize in altitude with an “oilier” style of chalk as opposed to the soft and dry chalk of Le Mesnil. This lends itself towards creamier and more approachable Champagnes. Along with the hazelnut and sweet baking spices that they tend to produce, this profile reminds Peters of autumn.

Viticulture and Climate Change

(29:45) Kruth asks about what differences in viticulture that are seen in the Côte des Blancs compared to other regions of Champagne. Peters notes that his personal approach is a little different than his neighbors. One of his priorities is to minimize compaction of the thin topsoil by limiting the amount of disturbance it sees.

For instance, he cultivates grasses between his vines but doesn’t plow it in. The one exception is in Avize, with its deeper topsoil, which can take some light plowing. However, he is also mindful of the character of a vintage with rainier years sometimes requiring a different approach.

Adapting to Change
By Igor Zemljič (IgorvonLenart at sl.wikipedia) - Transferred from sl.wikipedia, Public Domain

While Chardonnay has adjusted to rising temperature, riper Pinot Meunier grapes can create problems with tighter clusters that are more prone to botrytis.

(31:45) Peters notes that Chardonnay growers in the Côte des Blancs have been relatively lucky with a string of good quality and easy vintages. Meanwhile, Pinot producers (particularly Meunier) have had to be on their toes a lot more with the weather change.

One of the challenges for Pinot Meunier that Peters highlights is that the warmer weather is producing bigger, riper berries. While this might seem beneficial on the surface, the stems are not getting any bigger. Therefore, the Pinot Meunier clusters are getting tighter and more compact which increases the risk of botrytis rot, especially in rainy vintages.

(33:09) Chalk is a winemaker’s best friend because of how well it regulates the climate–especially excessive water during rainier vintages. But it also retains water well during drought years. Likewise, the soil is able to deal with hot vintages by absorbing heat and then slowly releasing it later in the night so that the vine is not overwhelmed.

(33:40) Peters notes that over the years, he has seen the major houses gradually increasing the amount of Chardonnay they use due to the grape’s ability to better weather climate change.

A Contrast of Vintages

(34:08) Kruth asks for Peters thoughts on particular vintages. He highlights a few that he thinks are interesting–2013 and 2017.

The 2013 vintage was a long growing season with 104 days of maturation. This allowed the grapes to get perfectly ripe without being excessively mature. In contrast, 2017 was very hot which caused a spike in sugars. Peters noted that growers had to start picking their grapes after 87 days to avoid high alcohol.

However, Peters feels that many of these early harvesters didn’t taste their grapes with the resulting wines still having unripe flavors. He waited till 91 days to get some more maturity. He feels that 2017 is the first vintage that the Champenois really had to face the reality of climate change.

Grand Marque vs Grower
Paul Bara Champagne

Paul Bara, one of the first grower producers to gain traction in the US.

(37:35) The conversation moves to the general impression of grower-producers, especially in the sommelier community. Kruth wonders if it has now become a marketing wedge like Red States vs Blue States, Grand Marque vs. Grower, etc. He particularly calls out sommeliers who only feature grower Champagnes on their wine lists.

Peters response gives some interesting food for thought and is well worth a listen. He does see benefits of the big houses but notes they have some issues. While grower Champagne answer some of those issues, Peters is not a fan of the idea that merely because something is a grower that it must be good.

(40:45) A really interesting discussion follows Kruth describing the “trick of oxidation” that he feels that some growers utilized to make up for the lack of aging and use of reserve wines. He contrasts this with the long, slow reductive aging of many great Champagnes. This is particularly fascinating in the context of Chardonnay-dominant producers because of how much affinity Chardonnay has for reductive winemaking and how awry it can get without a careful hand if treated oxidatively.

A very thought-provoking conversation to end the podcast on.

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Geek Notes — The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast

Back in 2013, GuildSomm did a fantastic podcast with Frédéric Panaiotis (39:33) of the Champagne house Ruinart about how Champagne is made. They followed it up with another interview with Panaiotis this year on Champagne (44:54) that also featured Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters.

Guildsomm podcast screen

Both shows are chock-full of awesome behind-the-scenes insights about Champagne that are well worth listening to. I’m going to break down the 2013 episode here first and then devote another Geek Notes to the second interview.

But after doing multiple Geek Note reviews of various podcasts (like Grape Radio’s interview with Hubert de Boüard of Ch. Angélus, UK Wine Show episode with Ian D’Agata about Italian wine grapes, Wine For Normal People’s episode on Tuscan wine regions and I’ll Drink To That! interview with Greg Harrington on Washington wine), I realize that I should take a moment to explain the objective of these posts.

Highlighting Learning Tools That I Use

As I mentioned in my post SpitBucket on Social Media, the purpose of my Geek Notes features are to highlight valuable resources for wine students pursuing various certifications.

Wine podcasts are a big focus for me because I think they’re often extremely underutilized. It’s easy for wine students to bury their heads in books and create flash cards. But we shouldn’t discount that nearly a third of individuals are auditory learners. Furthermore, for the 65% who are visual learners, exposing ourselves to audio avenues helps reinforce the material that we’re learning.

However, most people are actually a mix of multiple learning styles so the best approach is to also incorporate kinesthetic (hands-on) learning as well.

This is essentially what I’m doing for myself with these Geek Note reviews of podcasts. I’m primarily a visual learner so I’m always diving into one wine book or another. But when I’m going deep on a topic, I supplement that book learning by listening to related podcasts.

When I come across a podcast with useful information, I go back to listen to it a second time. This time, I take notes. It’s like recording your class lectures back in college. You spend class time actually listening to the instructor and absorbing the material first without distracting scribbling and note taking. But then you solidify the material in your mind by going back to the recorded lecture for notes.

A little bit of a review element.

While I’ll include timestamps, I don’t really intend for these posts to be transcriptions. If I’m doing a review of a podcast, it’s because I feel that it is sincerely worth listening to. There will often be contextual tidbits and stories featured in these episodes that I won’t mention or fully address. You can get more out of these Geek Notes by checking out the podcasts for yourself after reading these posts.

For newer podcasts like my recent reviews of the Decanted podcast and the Weekly Wine Show, I’ll spend more time giving background about the podcast and why I think they’re worth subscribing to.

In many ways, great wine podcasts are like stellar reference books like The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine and The Wine Bible. They provide you with an entire library of wine knowledge that you can digest one entry at a time.

In the next Geek Notes, I’ll give a little background about GuildSomm but, right now, let’s dive right into their podcast interview with Frédéric Panaiotis on making Champagne.

Fun Things I Learned From This Podcast

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

Statue of Dom Thierry Ruinart (1657-1709) outside the Champagne house Ruinart in Reims.

(0:52) Prior to joining Ruinart, Frédéric Panaiotis also previously worked for Veuve Clicquot, the CIVC as well as the California sparkling wine producer Scharffenberger in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino.

(3:16) Historically, the CIVC used to set one general ban des vendanges for the region. This is the first day that grapes can be legally harvested. Now there are multiple ban des vendanges based not only on the village but also on the individual grape variety. And apparently rootstock in some cases too.

For instance, in the Grand Cru village of Mailly for the 2018 vintage they were allowed to start picking Pinot Meunier on August 25th. However, for Chardonnay and Pinot noir (which the village is most noted for), growers had to wait till August 27th.

I’m curious about the ban des vendanges for other grape varieties–Fromenteau/Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Petite Meslier and Petite Arbanne. I couldn’t find the answer online but I’ll keep looking.

BTW, August start dates were historically unusual in Champagne but are now becoming much more commonplace. This recent 2018 vintage was the fifth year since 2003 to begin in August.

(5:45) You can get a special allowance from the CIVC to harvest earlier. According to Panaiotis, this may be needed if you are harvesting from a really young vineyard of 3 years or were hit by spring frost which drastically reduced yields. Apparently with less clusters to focus on, the vine will accelerate ripening.

That strikes me a bit curious because wouldn’t the same logic apply to old vines which also produce lower yields. Wouldn’t they also ripen faster? Need to research this more.

Harvest Brix and Ripeness
Photo by ADT Marne. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Chardonnay grapes harvested in the village of Vertus.

(6:21) Panaiotis notes that the Champenois usually aim to harvest grapes at around 10% potential alcohol which is about 18-19° Brix. Compare this to typical still wine production where producers want to harvest Chardonnay more at 20-23° Brix and Pinot noir around 25-27°. But, keep in mind, the secondary fermentation of Champagne (where sugar and yeast are added) adds more alcohol to the finish wine. Most Champagnes finish with an ABV in the 12-12.5% range.

(8:00) A big distinction that GuildSomm’s Geoff Kruth and Panaiotis note about Champagne is that even at these low brix levels, the grapes are still ripe. Panaiotis gives the example of the 1988 vintage which was picked at many estates at around 9.2% potential alcohol (17.5° Brix) in a year that was a late harvest for Champagne. This vintage is still highly regarded for its richness and longevity. Yet harvesting something at so low of a brix level in most any other wine region would produce wines abundant in green, unripe flavors.

This is a quandary that sparkling wine producers from warmer climates like California and Spain have to deal with because acidity is also at play. Not only is it hard to get desired ripeness with such low brix but you need to harvest your grapes with ample acidity. While improvements in viticulture and planting in cooler vineyard sites have helped, historically producers from warm regions have needed to harvest the grapes at lower ripeness levels in order to have enough acid to make their sparkling wines.

The Controversial 1996 Vintage

(8:55) In contrast to 1988, Panaiotis describes the 1996 as an “unripe” year even though the grapes were harvested at 10.5% potential alcohol (20° Brix). This is intriguing because there is a lot of controversy going on now about the 1996 vintage which Jancis Robinson aptly explains in one of her Financial Times articles.

When the 1996 Champagnes were first released, many Champagne lovers were enthralled. That year was pegged as one of the top vintages of the 20th century. I will admit that, even though I’ve been extremely underwhelmed by their recent offerings, the 1996 Dom Perignon was one of the greatest wines that I’ve tried in my lifetime. But I had that wine soon after release and it seems that as the 1996s across the board have aged, more and more people are re-evaluating how good that vintage really was.

Challenges of Big Houses
Photo by Alberto Vaccaro. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

By law, Champagne grapes have to be harvested whole cluster and by hand.

(9:20) Here Panaiotis talks about the challenges that big houses have versus small growers with harvest–particularly with red grapes like Pinot noir. Because the goal in Champagne most often with Pinot is to make a white wine, time is of the essence as soon as you remove the cluster from the vine. You don’t want any “cold soak” color extraction taking place in the pick bin. With Chardonnay, avoiding oxidation of the juice is also a concern for many houses.

But what do you do when you are a large house whose winery is maybe several miles away from the many vineyards you source from? Well worth listening to see how Ruinart responds to this challenge.

(10:30) Machine harvesting is forbidden in Champagne. Part of the reason is because machine harvesters can only harvest individual berries. They do this by using beater bars to separate the berries from clusters on the vine. If you’re curious, this short (2:18) ad video for a mechanical harvester gives a great inside view into how these harvesters work. Panaiotis thinks that even if someone developed a machine that could somehow harvest grapes whole cluster that it would still probably be outlawed.

Pressing Details
Photo by davitydave. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

A modern bladder press.

(11:54) Panaiotis estimates that among the various presses used in Champagne, about half are modern bladder presses with the rest being the traditional Coquard basket press. Piper-Heidsieck has a quick 1 minute video of the Coquard press in action with Pinot noir. Note how the juice, even with the whole clusters, is already being tinted with color. And, yes, leaves and other MOG often gets thrown into these large batches.

(12:15) In Panaiotis’ opinion, 70-80% of the resulting quality of the wine comes from the pressing process. This is an interesting departure from the opinion that a lot of the quality of Champagne comes from the blending and time aging on the lees. From here he goes into a great description of the different cuts (cuvée and taille) that are separated in the pressing process. To explain this he uses a comparison that you can do in a vineyard while sampling a single grape berry.

(14:47) At Ruinart, Panaiotis likes using the taille for their non-vintage Champagnes. Here these cuts add roundness and fruitiness but there is a trade-off in decreased aging potential. In contrast, Ruinart’s vintage wines are almost all cuvée juice since the lower phenolics in this first cut is less prone to oxidation.

This makes me curious about the pressing philosophy of Champagne houses that value more oxidative styles like Krug.

Fermenting as separate lots or as regional blends

(16:10) When Kruth asks how Champagne producers keep the juice from different villages and vineyards separate, Panaiotis explains some of the logistical problems of that. While it is ideal to keep different villages separate, it may take you several days to receive enough lots from those villages to eventually fill an entire tank. That reality favors blending more regionally–like all the Côte des Blancs villages together.

I suspect this is more of an issue for large Champagne houses who presumably have very large tanks with several thousand liter capacities that need to be filled. Additionally, with so many contract growers there is probably a fair amount of variability in what kind of yield you can expect each year from different villages/vineyards, etc. In contrast, smaller growers who have been tending their own vines for generations probably know more precisely what they are getting and accordingly have smaller tanks that are easier to fill up and keep separate.

Another key point specific to Ruinart is that their house’s style is very reductive. If the tanks aren’t filled quickly, there is a risk of the juice oxidizing before fermentation takes off.

Style Differences

(17:14) At Ruinart, they aim for very clean and neutral flavors in their base wines. Along with wanting to avoid oxidation, they use sulfur on the juice to also knock back wild yeast so that they can inoculate with cultured yeast. Kruth notes that the impact of wild or native ferment produces flavors that get amplified during the secondary fermentation, something Panaiotis wants to avoid at Ruinart.

Lanson champagne

Lanson is another house that has historically avoided malolactic fermentation but has recently been experimenting with MLF on a few lots.

(19:30) Panaiotis likes the round mouthfeel that comes from initiating malolactic fermentation in the Champagnes of Ruinart. This is a stylistic decision relating to different Champagne house styles. Some producers, most notably Gosset, historically avoid malolactic fermentation so they can maintain natural acidity and aging potential. But the trade-off is mouthfeel and softness with even Gosset experimenting with having some batches going through MLF.

(20:24) A very interesting discussion on the different philosophy of using reserve wines in the blends of non-vintage Champagnes. Panaiotis describes the impact of using older versus young reserve wines on the resulting style of Champagne. He notes that Ruinart’s precise style favors using younger reserve wines while houses with a more mature style like Charles Heidsieck prefer using older reserve wines of up to 10 years of age.

Secondary Fermentation Issues

(24:18) Probably my biggest surprise was learning about the issues of calcium tartrates in Champagne. If wineries don’t remove these unstable tartrates via cold stabilization, there will be excessive foaming during disgorgement. Worst, this foaming could happen when the wine is opened by consumers–creating a mess. I always thought it was more about aesthetics with consumers mistaking the tartrate crystals for shards of glass.

(25:47) Another completely new thing I learned was that the actual length of time of the secondary fermentation is about 6 to 8 weeks. I always thought it was much quicker like primary fermentation which usually takes several days to a couple weeks. Panaiotis does note that as soon as 3 days after bottling you can start to see the dead lees collecting in the bottle.

(26:52) Panaiotis reveals that recent studies of the Champagne process is showing that oxygen intake through the crown cap or cork is just as impactful on the resulting flavor of the wine as autolysis is.

Oxidative vs Reductive
Bollinger Grande Annee

Bollinger Champagnes have been traditionally associated with an oxidative style of winemaking.

(28:22) Panaiotis goes into an in-depth discussion of oxidative versus reductive winemaking. He details many of the decisions that he has to make throughout the process to promote Ruinart’s reductive style including the unique technique of jetting. Here winemakers add a little bit of water or nitrogen (and sometimes sulfur) to the wine before corking to promote foaming that pushes out the oxygen. This short video (0:52) is in French but shows the process well.

(31:10) Kruth asks for example of major houses who follow the different styles. Panaiotis notes that along with Ruinart, Laurent Perrier, Mumm, Pierre Gimonnet, Pierre Moncuit and Pierre Peters are on the reductive side while Bollinger, Krug, Jacquesson and Jacques Selosse are on the oxidative side. He also notes that Pinot noir favors the more oxidative style. Interestingly, most of the houses he mentions that favor a reductive style tend to be Chardonnay dominant.

(37:40) Panaiotis notes that the CIVC legally limits how many grapes negociants can buy each year. While he didn’t seem completely certain, he estimates that the limit is a maximum of 30% above the equivalent of your previous year’s sales. I’m guessing the CIVC sets these rules to prevent stockpiling? But there is no law on the amount of land you can own. Another tidbit from Panaiotis, growers can buy up 5% of their grapes and still be considered a grower producer.

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Geek Notes — Insider’s Peek Into Champagne

I came across two great videos (≈ 10 min) on YouTube that share an insider’s peek into Champagne production. Both of these videos give a perspective that you don’t often find in wine books.

The first one is produced by GuildSomm. They have an excellent YouTube channel that is well worth subscribing to. Most of their videos are in the 10 to 12 minute range with the longest, on the wines of Burgundy, being almost 22 minutes.

The production quality is top notch with beautiful cinematography that really give you a feel for a region. Each episode is also jammed pack with useful historical details and insights from producers. Below the video I’ll highlight my notes from this Dec 27, 2016 episode on The Wines of Champagne.

Notes From The Wines of Champagne

(1:59) Charles Philipponnat of Philipponnat talks a little about the distinction of the sub-region of the Grande Vallée de la Marne from the greater Vallée de la Marne. Most wine books (and even the beginning of this video) treat the entire Vallée de la Marne as a monolith–Peter Leim’s Champagne: The Essential Guide being one of the few exceptions.

But the terroir (and wines produced here) are remarkably different. The Grand Vallée is dominated by Pinot noir with south facing slopes bordering the north side of the Marne river. Heading west through the rest of the Vallée de la Marne, the vineyards flank both sides of the river. Here Pinot Meunier is the main variety with these western sites being more frost prone as well.

(2:52) Rudolph Peters of Pierre Peters highlights the similarities between the Côte des Blancs and Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Both have east facing slopes with abundant limestone that Chardonnay thrives in. Great close up shots of the vineyard soils where you can see the seashell fossils.

(4:00) The narrator, Tai Ricci, goes into the history of the 1910/11 Champagne Riots with some terrific photographs from the period. This part definitely has an old-school “History Channel” feel to it. Anyone wanting to learn more about the riots and issues behind it, I highly recommend Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. Hugh Johnson also covers it quite a bit in his all around excellent wine history book Vintage: The Story of Wine.

Grand Cru and Growers
 Jean Fannière Grand Cru Champagne

If the wine is 100% sourced from grapes grown in Grand Cru villages, like this Champagne Varnier Fannière’s Jean Fannière, the words “Grand Cru” can appear on the bottle.

(5:46) The difference in Grand Cru designations between Burgundy and Champagne are highlighted here.  Whereas in Burgundy the vineyards are classified, in Champagne it is the village. While there are over 300 villages in Champagne, only 17 villages are designated as Grand Cru.  If they were using the Champagne model in Burgundy, then villages like Vosne-Romanee, Puligny-Montrachet, Chambolle-Musigny would be “Grand Cru”. Then you would have villages like Santenay, St. Aubin and Marsannay designated as Premier Cru and so forth.

It’s not likely that Champagne will ever adopt the Burgundian model of having vineyards individually classified. However, there are certainly notable vineyards with “Grand Cru” reputations. Vineyards like Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay, Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Franck Bonville’s Belles Voyes, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos St-Hilaire and Pierre Peters’ Les Chêtillons have a long history of acclaim. Additionally, Peter Leim’s book lists numerous single vineyard bottlings from nearly ever major Grand Cru and Premier Cru village. While some of these certainly can get pricey, I found several on Wine Searcher in the $50-70 range.

(6:48) The topic moves to the difference between Grower Champagnes versus the big negociant houses. Here Rudolph Peters highlights some of the advantages and disadvantages for both. As I noted in my review of Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles, while I definitely get more excited about Grower Champagnes and their more terroir driven expressions, I don’t agree with the idea that blended Champagnes (like what the negociant houses do) are inferior.

In fact, I think the master blenders of the major houses have remarkable skills and winemaking talents. It’s just that the proliferation of a “house style” can get repetitive and boring. They may be really delicious the first or second time you have it, but by the third time you have a bottle of something like the Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, you begin feeling like you’re just drinking the same ole, same ole over and over again.

But that’s kind of the point.

Like an army of clones…or the Borg.
You will be assemblage! La résistance est futile!

It’s certainly a successful business model (much like McDonald’s) but it’s one that I get easily bored with—as I was at last year’s Champagne Gala at Daniel’s that was headlined by two vintages of Dom Perignon.

While there were some differences between the two vintages (with the 2004 being far superior to the 2006) neither of the bottles were any more distinctive or exciting than the other Moët & Chandon wines with the NV Rosé Impérial being the best Champagne of the evening.

Sparkling Wine Making From the Wine & Spirit Education Trust

This video was uploaded on Nov 21, 2012 by YouTube user McWilliamsWinesVideo who hasn’t uploaded anything else in nearly 6 years. I strongly suspect this was a sloppily edited recording of video series in the 1980s produced by First Growth Productions for the Wine & Spirit Education (WSET).

I tried to find the original broadcast on the WSET website but to no avail. Nor could I find an online presence for First Growth Productions either. WSET does have its own YouTube channel for their 3 Minute Wine School videos taught by Masters of Wine Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin. While it hasn’t been updated in over 2 years, the 21 videos featured do have a lot of great content worth viewing.

The quality of this video is no where close to that of the GuildSomm video above. But the illustrations and up close view of the winemaking process used in Champagne has a lot of value.

My Notes From Sparkling Wine Making

(1:46) A discussion and illustration of the transfer method. This is how most 187ml airline splits are made but apparently was quite popular for Australian sparkling wines when this video was produced.

(2:28) Here the video switches to Champagne where they note that the grapes are often harvested in October. Boy has global warming changed that! This year’s harvest started on the 20th of August and was the fifth harvest since 2003 to start in August. And several vintages, like the very stellar 2015 vintage, have started the first week of September.

(3:45) A little subtle dissing of the Aube which is not out of line for the mindset of this time period. The Aubois led the Champagne Riots highlighted in the GuildSomm video when they were threatened with expulsion from the Champagne zone. It’s only recently that a wave of high quality grower producers from the Côte des Bar sub-region of the Aube have turned this into one of the most exciting regions in Champagne.

A crazy delicious blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay.
It’s a hunt to find this unicorn but will certainly be worth it if you can score a bottle!

Producers like Pierre Gerbais, Cédric Bouchard, Vouette et Sorbée, Jacques Lassaigne, Marie-Courtin, Nathalie Falmet, Drappier and more are making outstanding bubbles. I’m still trying to hunt down another bottle of Pierre Gerbais’ L’Originale (100% Pinot blanc) and the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs that I had while playing the Somm Game in Vegas is a strong contender for my Wine of The Year.

Seriously, if you love Champagne, you need to start looking for bottles from the Côte des Bar and Aube.

Getting Into The Nitty-Gritty

(3:52) A really good demonstration of the traditional pressing process in large wooden basket presses. Champagne’s wine laws strictly regulate the press yields. Producers can use only the first 100 liters of juice from every 160 kgs of grapes they press. The first 80 of these liters (the cuvée) are highly values as the best quality. The next 20 liters are the taille. This is often used for producing fruity, aromatic wines that are meant to be consumed young.

(4:45) The video doesn’t explain why but says that the houses who ferment their wines in oak prefer casks from Hungary. Will need to research this more. Wines and Vines has a pretty in-depth article about Hungarian oak (though doesn’t mentioned Champagne houses using them) while the home-winemaking site MoreWine! has a simple breakdown of the difference between French, American and Hungarian oaks.

(6:54) This is probably the best segment of the entire video. A fantastic explanation and illustration of riddling. At the 7:15 mark  they show an illustration of the two different types of sediments that form during the autolysis process. Again, this is something that wine books rarely draw out and explain. But learning about these two different types of sediment (heavy & sticky vs light & dusty) helps explain why the riddling process needs to be so methodical.

Enjoy the videos! If you find these Geek Notes breakdowns helpful, post a comment below!

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What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal

The wine world was rocked when the Court of Master Sommeliers announced this week that they were invalidating the results from the tasting portion of this year’s MS Exam. The Court found evidence that details about the blind tasting wines were divulged by a proctoring Master Sommelier. The fallout meant that 23 of the 24 new Master Sommeliers would have to retake the tasting portion. Only one new Master Sommelier, Morgan Harris who passed tasting the year before and just needed to pass service, kept his pin.

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48704137

When I wrote my post It’s Raining Masters about the shock over the huge number of new Master Sommeliers, I never expected this.

My first thought was that maybe the was getting “relatively” easier. At least, compared to the “wine savvy” of today’s somms and consumers . I say “relatively” easier because I sure and the heck couldn’t pass it. But it made sense that more people were taking and passing the exam because we are in a sort of “golden age” of wine knowledge right now. Just compare what the average wine enthusiast, much less the average sommelier, knows about wine today to what they did 30 or even 50 years ago.

But for the Master Somm exam, cheating never once crossed my mind. That may have been naive. This is likely not the first time it has happened. Anything worth attaining will be worth, in someone’s mind, risking it all to get.

Even if the collateral damage is devastating.

Updates

Update: WineSearcher.com posted a letter from the partner of one of the MS candidates impacted by the scandal. This letter includes another detail about how exactly the cheating may have occurred. I’ve added this new detail underneath the How Did the Court Find Out? section.

Update Part II:  WineSearcher.com  posted another great scoop October 24th about the fallout after the Court first announced the scandal. I’ve included a link and more details underneath the Who Did It? section.

Update Part III: On December 5th, the first of the 3 potential make up exams for the blind tasting portion was held in St. Louis. The results were released the next day and 6 of the 23 impacted candidates got their Master Sommelier certifications back. Their names are posted in the What’s Next? section.

Update Part IV: As we’re nearing the 1 year anniversary of the scandal, Newsy’s Uncorked did an investigation into the fall-out of the Court’s decision which includes exclusive interviews from two of the impacted candidates. The video is posted in a new Aftermath section down below. 

Why Is This A Big Deal?

Until this year, only 274 people were Master Sommeliers. Popularized by the movie Somm, the amount of time, work and dedication required to take and pass the exam earned a mythos around the title.

Along with the Master of Wine exam, this is the pinnacle of the wine world. If you wanted to challenge yourself–if you wanted to be the best of the best–this was your goal.

But I think the most newsworthy part of this story is not the cheating (which, again, would be naive to assume doesn’t happen) but rather the dramatic move by the Court to invalidate the results and upend the lives of 23 people. Despite having evidence of which Master Sommelier led the cheating, they apparently don’t know who benefited from it.  Undoubtedly, the collateral damage includes innocent people.

Reading their stories is heartbreaking.

Several of the impacted candidates have shared their personal pain in private discussion groups like the GuildSomm discussion board (open to members only). Wine Spectator highlights one of those stories in an October 10th article.

“As a member of the first class in the Court’s illustrious history to be named, and subsequently, have an asterisk drawn next to the title we sacrificed so much to obtain, I offer a very earnest and valid question: What now? … What do I say to my employer who extended new benefits and responsibilities?” wrote Christopher Ramelb, one of the candidates and an employee of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, on the online message board for wine-education organization GuildSomm. “I feel so stupid and lost, as if the years of preparation and discipline, the stress of performing, and the jubilation of finally doing so, have been for nothing.” Wine Spectator, October 10th, 2018

In interviews given to the media, several candidates talked about the personal and financial toil (including tens of thousands of dollars) that studying for the exam has.

Now they have to do it all over again.

How Did the Court Find Out?

Frances Dinkelspiel of the Daily Beast reported that a lawyer contacted the Court of Master Sommeliers about impropriety that occurred during the last testing session. Neither the article nor the Court have divulged who the lawyer represented.

In the same Daily Beast article, Morgan Harris speculated that “Whoever was cheating must have confessed,”. If this was the case, then why are the other 22 (?) or so still under scrutiny?

Update

In his October 19th article “Somm Scandal: A Question of Integrity”, Don Kavanagh of WineSearcher.com posted a letter by Cameron Pilkey whose partner (Dan Pilkey?) was one of the 23 MS candidates impacted.

The letter included a very interesting detail about how the cheating may have occurred.

A member of the Board, the very same governing body that has made this decision, sent an email to a few select candidates the morning of the tasting portion of the exam with the subject line “heads up”, releasing the initials of two varietals in the flight. — Cameron Pilkey via WineSearcher.com

This letter seems to confirm the rumors that an email from the offending Master Sommelier was the avenue of the cheating. But it still hasn’t been released who or how many candidates received the email–though the plural indicates likely more than one recipient.

The detail of initials is also interesting to ponder. While the testable wines for the Master Sommelier exam is not public, Guild Somm has published a list of Probable Red and White wines for the Advance Sommelier exam. While not definitive, these lists are good starting points.

So what could the “helpful” initials have been?

CS, CF, PN?

CB, GV, PG, SB?

Speaking for myself, I often get in trouble with Cabernet Franc, Chenin blanc and Pinot gris with blind tasting. Knowing if any of those varieties were in the flight would have been of immense help.

Who Did It?

https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

Screen shot from Reggie Narito’s public blog.
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

The Court has not named the offending Master Sommelier–likely for legal reasons. Don Kavanagh and Robert Myers of WineSearcher.com believed they’ve uncovered it by comparing lists of current Master Sommeliers and noting that one sommelier–Regino “Reggie” Narito Jr.–has been removed from the Court’s membership roles.

It would be unfair to speculate beyond what has been publicly posted but reading Narito’s last blog entry from September 26th, 2018 only highlights the collateral damage of this scandal. Here he speaks of the journey, hardships and many failed attempts of 3 of the successful candidates who had their titles now stripped from them.

The story of Christopher Ramelb (previously quoted by Wine Spectator above) in particular really got me.

A soft spoken and deferential personality, he shuns the spotlight preferring to sit contently in the background while others bask in the spotlight. As his proctor for both the theory and tasting portions of his exam, his skill and professionalism really stood out for me and I was proud to be the one to present the good news of his passing. Upon hearing the news, it was not surprising to see him get very emotional, but it was for a different reason-he revealed to me that he lost his father on Christmas Eve last year and for over 9 months, he bottled up his emotions so he could give this exam a serious go. With the revelation that the test was now behind him, he began to cry uncontrollably, crumpling to his knees and sobbing, “I miss my dad so much”. — Reggie Narito, 9/26/2018

Update

Liza B. Zimmerman of WineSearcher.com interviewed a Master Sommelier about the scandal off the record but was able to publish some interesting details about what happened after the Court of Master Sommeliers announced the scandal on October 9th.

On October 10th, one of the impacted MS candidates, Justin Timset, sent a later to the Court. In it he names Reggie Narito as the MS who “broke the Court’s code of ethics”.  This was a day before WineSearcher.com released their article speculating that Narito was the disgraced MS.

Zimmerman’s article also notes that Narito’s then-employer, the distributor Young’s Market Company, only public comment on the scandal is to note that Narito’s Linkedin profile no longer list Young’s his place of employment. However, that maybe a duplicate or fake profile since another LinkedIn profile featuring the same picture that Narito uses on his blog still list VP of Fine Wine at Youngs Market Company as present employment.

Distributors’ Involvement?

The latest WineSearcher.com articles goes into the complex and murky influences that distributors may have on the MS exam.  Zimmerman quotes her inside source claiming that “The court has been infiltrated by distributors’ interest”.

He added that through the long process of mentoring a handful of students, wholesalers are also likely to do more than just taste with their hand-picked protégées. The relationship is likely to also have included expensive meals and other treats which can be put on the wholesalers’ expense accounts to curry favor with promising sommeliers who are also their customers.

Seeing your favorite handful of wine buyers through the difficult process of studying for the exam, and then having them successfully pass, makes these wholesalers look like superstars in the eyes of their employers. — Liza B. Zimmerman, WineSearcher.com 10/24/2018

What’s Next?

A few days ago, the Court of Master Sommeliers released their plans for retesting those impacted by the scandal.  First, the candidates who both passed and failed the tasting exam will have their exam fee refunded. Additionally, they will see their resitting fees waived as well. The Court will offer 3 opportunities over the course of the next year to retake the exam. Some candidates will receive travel assistance as well.

Many of the 23 people who passed tasting this year are not going to pass again–even if they deserve to. Spago Sommelier Cristie Norman gives a great analogy that sums up almost what a crapshoot blind tasting really is. So much of blind tasting is mental. These candidates are going to have an even bigger burden on their shoulders than they did at the first exam.

Approaching the blind tasting portion of the exam is like training for the Olympics: You have to be in shape. There are plenty of people who have passed tasting once and not been able to again. It depends on the time of day, your hormones, the humidity, even the altitude. When the exam was held in Aspen one year, multiple candidates complained that the change in elevation was affecting the way they tasted. Being asked to retest with your masters reputation on the line in conjunction with the sheer difficulty of the exam sounds like any wine professional’s nightmare. — Cristie Norman, Eater Magazine October 12th, 2018

Failing the retake will unfairly associate the candidates even more with the scandal. This is why it’s important to release the names of the cheaters.

Update

The first of the 3 make up exams has happened. All together 30 of the 54 individuals who took the tainted September exams resat for this round. While I haven’t be able to find out exactly how many of the 23 impacted candidates were part of this exam, it was announced on December 6 that six candidates passed.

Dana Gaiser of Lauber Imports in New York City, NY

Andrey Ivanov of Bliss Wine Imports in San Francisco, CA

Maximilian Kast of Broadbent Selections in Chapel Hill, NC

Douglas Kim of Picasso Las Vegas, NV

Steven McDonald of Pappas Brothers Steakhouse in Houston, TX

Mia Van de Water of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, NY

All six newly minted Master Sommeliers were among the 23 candidates impacted by this recent scandal.

Another Option?

It’s not surprising that most of the candidates are balking at the Court’s offer and “fighting back” in a letter shared with the Chicago Tribune.

Signed by 19 of the 23 impacted candidates, the letter calls for a full investigation into the individuals responsible.  Instead of making everyone retake the exam, the Court should seek exoneration of the innocent candidates. The Court’s actions “…effectively exonerates the guilty parties, and at the very least rewards their lack of moral courage.”

The Chicago Tribune doesn’t note who signed the letter–outside of naming Chicago-area candidates Jill Zimorski and Dan Pilkey. Nor does the Tribune divulged the 4 candidates whose names were absent.

Aftermath

Almost a year later, there are still lots of unanswered questions about the scandal. More of the impacted candidates have begun to speak out including Australian sommelier Jane Lopes who wrote a deeply personal op-ed about the toll that the scandal took on her and why she decided not to resit.

Jill Zimorski and Dan Pilkey also sat down for exclusive interviews with Newsy’s Uncorked to share their side of the story as well as the shocking lack of follow up by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Threads to Follow

Even though media outlets have been quoting comments from impacted candidates shared on the GuildSomm discussion boards, I would encourage interested readers to consider joining GuildSomm as a member to access the forums legitimately. Far beyond this scandal, GuildSomm membership offers numerous other benefits. From classes to articles, maps, tasting kit discounts and more–it’s worth wine geeks looking into.

This was a great article by Elaine Chukan Brown and I really liked Jancis Robinson’s explanation on how the Master of Wine Exam is different than the Master Sommelier exam.

Many members of the wine industry frequent the Wine Beserkers forum. While you should always be cautious about what is posted online, their discussion thread on the topic does at least provide another perspective.

Reddit’s r/Wine community also has had several threads on the scandal. However, given the more anonymous nature of Reddit, I would urge more caution in taking what you’ve read at facevalue.

SpitBucket’s Facebook page. Apart from the blog, I use SpitBucket’s Facebook page as a curated news feed. Here I post articles and blogs that I’m reading. I’ve been posting a lot of articles about this scandal and will post more as new details emerge.

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Geek Notes — Wine For Normal People Episode 84 Featuring Tuscan Wine Regions

Screenshot from the Wine For Normal People podcast

Outside of blog land, I frequently teach wine classes. As part of my usual prep routine whenever I have a class to write, I’ll fill my Overcast queue with wine podcasts relating to the class. I find that listening to podcasts while cleaning the house, working out at the gym and driving helps submerse me into the topic and compliments my book studies really well.

My usual sources for hardcore geekdom are Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That! (whose episode with Gramercy owner and Master Sommmelier Greg Harrington I featured in a previous Geek Notes) and the GuildSomm podcast hosted by Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth.

However, I’ll also frequently listen to Chris Scott’s The UK Wine Show, Heritage Radio Network’s In the Drink, Jim Duane’s podcast Inside Winemaking and the very first wine podcast that I started with–Grape Radio.

Two newly launched podcasts that are also in my rotation are Wine Enthusiast’s What We’re Tasting and James Halliday’s Wine Companion podcast.

But I’m always on the lookout for more options so if you know of any other great wine podcasts worth checking out, post them in the comments below!

It was while working on an upcoming Italian wine class that I stumbled upon what is definitely going to be a new go-to resource for me–Elizabeth Schneider’s Wine for Normal People podcast.

A Little Background and Why You Should Listen Too

Anyone who shares a disheartening sigh while looking at wine displays virtually dominated by the same 3 big mega-corps is fighting the good fight in my book.

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Sommelier who hosts the podcasts with her husband, M.C. Ice. I’m sure there is a story behind the hubby’s stage name but I haven’t came across it yet while listening.

Outside of the podcast, she does speaking engagements, online classes and has an upcoming book Wine for Normal People: A Guide for Real People Who Like Wine, but Not the Snobbery That Goes with It slated for release in early 2019.

Her website also has a super user-friendly list of brands owned by big mega-corps that is worth book marking. As I found in compiling my own list of supermarket wines, this is no easy task to stay on top of so I wholeheartedly support Schneider’s efforts in promoting more knowledge and transparency in this area.

I must confess that when I first read the description of the Wine For Normal People podcast, I thought this would be a bit too beginner for me. It could still be a great podcast that benefits a lot of people who want to dip their toes into the world of wine but I was expecting it to be something more like an updated version of William Wilson’s Wine for Newbies podcast.

But what I quickly found after listening through a few episodes is that Schneider has a fantastic teaching style and approach to wine that serves up ample geeky goodness but balances it by presenting the topic in a digestible manner.

Even for folks like me who have fell down the rabbit hole of wine geekiness, listening to the podcast and paying attention to how she presents her topics is of huge benefit. When we live in a world with a billion+ wine drinkers, one thing that us hardcore wine geeks have to realize is that we really are the minority here. Not every wine drinker aspires to be a Master of Wine or Master Sommelier or even a wine geek. The passion and enthusiasm that drives us to learn more–and to share what we’ve learned–can often be a bit much for many wine drinkers and ends up driving them away back to the comforts of the same ole, same ole.

In the end it is all about balance which, like a good wine, I find well exhibited in the Wine For Normal People podcast.

Plus, there is still plenty of geeky nuggets in each episode like these things I noted in Episode 084 on Tuscan Wine Regions (35 minutes).

Photo by Rob & Lisa Meehan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards in Montalcino

Some Fun Things I Learned/Enjoyed From This Podcast

(3:36) I really liked Schneider’s answer to the question of if the French should feel threatened at all by the rise of Super Tuscans using Bordeaux varieties. She talks about the difference in French culture of “closing ranks” versus the in-fighting that you often see among Italian winemakers.

(7:06) Brunello is a relatively recent wine on the Italian wine scene with the particular Sangiovese Grosso clone isolated only in 1888. However, Schneider notes that winemakers as early as the 14th century were aware of the superior quality of wines in the Montalcino region.

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

The estate of Biondi-Santi pioneered the modern concept of Brunello di Montalcino.


(8:44) Very surprised to hear that only 4 vintages of Brunello were declared during the first 57 years of production after 1888. I definitely want to read more about this and why.

(11:55) This starts a really great discussion on the two zones of the Montalcino region–the northern and southern–with some very useful insights on the different wines produced in the different soil types. Nice tidbit on the winemaking approach of Silvio Nardi who own vineyards in both zones.

(15:24) The uniqueness of the Sangiovese based wines of Carmignano compared to Chianti. Often called “The Original Super Tuscan” due to its historical tradition of using Cabernet Sauvignon but Schneider also notes that Carmignano is distinct for growing Sangiovese on flatter lands whereas the grape usually thrives on higher elevation hillsides. Also of interest is that some Carmignano estates, like in Bolgheri, have Cabernet Sauvignon vines that were grafted from cuttings taken from Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.

(21:20) Going to have a slight disagreement with the podcast here. After talking about some of the reasons why Chianti has historically been “a hot mess” (quite true!), Schneider encourages people to not really bother taking a chance on Chianti and instead look for wines from the Chianti Classico zone. This isn’t bad advice per se, but it is one of the Magic Beans of Wine that I’ve never been a fan of promoting.

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

I won’t deny that Chianti’s bad rap is well earned but sometimes there is a needle of a gem within the haystack of fiascos. You have to trust that a good quality producer is not going to put their name on crap.


Yeah, there is lots of crappy Chianti out there. But there is also a lot of crappy Chianti Classico out there as well. Instead of focusing on the region (Chianti vs Chianti Classico), it really should be about the producer–which, to be fair, is a common theme that Schneider makes repeatedly in this podcast. Yet, for some reason, she seems to ignore that a good quality producer of Chianti Classico can also make a good quality Chianti. This Chianti may even be made from grapes grown in the Chianti Classico zone but declassified down to Chianti for various reasons–younger vines, less aging, wanting to have a more approachable and easy drinking bottle at a lower price point, etc.

Sure, the Chianti Classico from that same producer will be the superior bottle but that doesn’t discount the potential value in a bottle of well made Chianti from a reputable producer.

(22:59) Canaiolo nero use to be the main grape of Chianti until the 1870s. Very interesting! I would love to try a varietal Canaiolo.

(24:22) Oooh I love Schneider’s use of different varieties of roses as a vehicle for explaining the differences in Sangiovese’s clones. It’s not easy to explain clones but this metaphor is a good start.

(24:55) This starts a very useful overview of the different sub-areas within the Chianti Classico zone.

Photo by Viking59. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

While it’s not impossible to envision the Gamay of Beaujolais (pictured) growing in Tuscany, I would probably wager on this being a case of a weird Italian synonym for another variety,


(29:02) Very interesting to hear that some producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano have been grafting over to the Chianti Classico clone of Sangiovese–though Prugnolo Gentile still dominates. Also apparently Gamay can be blended in (29:23)!?! I wasn’t aware of Tuscan Gamay so I’m wondering if this is a synonym for another grape like Alicante? Will need to do some more research here.

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It’s Raining Masters

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

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

Hallelujah?

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

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

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

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

A Perfect Storm for a Windfall?

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

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

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

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

The SOMM Effect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we just getting “Wine Smarter”?

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

This ain’t your daddy’s Duboeuf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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