Tag Archives: Jancis Robinson

Getting Geeky with Zweifel Zürcher Stadtwein Räuschling

I am going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about Zweifel’s 2014 Zürcher Stadtwein Räuschling from the Chillesteig vineyard in Höngg-Zurich.

Zweifel Swiss Rauchling wine

The Background

The Zweifel family founded their eponymous company in Höngg in 1898. Previously, the family were viticulturists who were growing vines since at least 1440. But hard economic times, as well as the devastation of phylloxera, encouraged Emil and Paul Zweifel to move into the wine and fruit juice trade.

In the 1960s, the family returned to viticulture with the planting of several vineyards. Today, in addition to selling wine from across the globe at their various wine shops, Zweifel makes private-label Swiss wine. The fruit for these wines is sourced from vineyards throughout northeast Switzerland–including several urban sites in Zurich.

In one such vineyard, Lattenberg along Lake Zurich, Zweifel help pioneer the plantings of Syrah and Sauvignon blanc in Switzerland.

Other varieties of Swiss wine that Zweifel produces include Pinot noir, Regent, Maréchal Foch, Léon Millot, Johanniter, Malbec, Cabernet Cubin, Scheurebe, Chardonnay, Garanoir and Riesling.

An Urban Vineyard in Zurich
Photo by Roland zh. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

A vineyard in Höngg snuck between housing development and the local church overlooking the Limmat river.

The Höngg quarter in the 10th district of Zurich has had a long history of viticulture with vines planted during the time of the Reformation. The most renown vineyard was Chillesteig planted on a sloping hillside along the Limmat river.

In the 1880s, problems took their toll on viticulture in the area with downy mildew and phylloxera devasting the vines. Aided by the industrialization and urban growth of Zurich, the last vines were grubbed up in 1942.

In 1968, Heinrich Zweifel, whose family has been in Höngg since the 14th century, started replanting the Chillesteig vineyard. His goal was to produce wine for his family’s wine shop. Today the 3.2 ha (8 acres) vineyard is planted to several varieties including Pinot noir/Clevner, Pinot gris, Cabernet Dorsa (a Cabernet Sauvignon x Dornfelder crossing), Prior, Riesling x Silvaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Räuschling.

Zweifel farms the vineyard sustainably under Suisse-Garantie ecological performance certification (ÖLN). Nando Oberli tends to the vines while Paul Gasser makes the wines at Zweifel’s Ellikon an der Thur winery in the Winterthur District.

The Grape

Photo from www.antiquariat-kunsthandel.de. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

The 1546 edition of Bock’s Kreutterbuch was one of the first documents to mention the cultivation of Räuschling.

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the origins of Räuschling date back to at least the Middle Ages.

Likely originating in the Rhine Valley, the first mention of the grape (under the synonym Drutsch) was in Hieronymus Bock‘s 1546 edition of Kreutterbuch (“plant book”). Here Bock describes it growing in the town of Landau in Rhineland-Palatinate.

By 1614, it was in the Franken region under the name of Reuschling. Local records in the area showed that producers were pulling up vines of Gouais blanc (Weißer Heunisch) in favor of Reuschling and another variety, Elbling.

The modern spelling of Räuschling emerges in the mid-18th century along with the synonym Zürirebe, meaning “grape of Zurich.” Over the next couple of centuries, plantings of Räuschling would gradually become more centralized around Zurich as vines disappeared from Germany and Alsace. Even in its stronghold of Northern Switzerland, the grape fell out of favor in the 20th century as more productive varieties like Müller-Thurgau took over.

By 2009, there was only 23 ha (57 acres) of Räuschling growing in Switzerland.  Most of these plantings are in the canton of Zurich.

Parentage and relationship to other grapes
Photo by Dr. Joachim Schmid, FG RZ, FA Geisenheim. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Gouais blanc is a parent vine of many varieties including Räuschling.

DNA analysis has suggested that Räuschling is a natural cross of Gouais blanc and Savagnin (Traminer). This would make it a full sibling of Aubin blanc and Petit Meslier as well as a half-sibling to Chardonnay, Gamay, Auxerrois, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Elbling, Aligoté, Chenin blanc, Colombard, Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch, Melon de Bourgogne, Knipperlé and Sacy.

Two of these half-siblings, Riesling and Knipperlé, are vines that plantings of Räuschling is sometimes confused for in old vineyards in Germany and Alsace.

The Wine

Note: This tasting note is from my June 2017 visit to Zurich.

Photo by Debra Roby - originally posted to Flickr as Meyer Lemon, CC BY 2.0,

Lots of citrus Meyer lemon notes in this wine.

Medium intensity nose. Meyer lemons with some white floral notes that aren’t very defined.

On the palate, those citrus lemon notes come through and are amplified by the high acidity. The medium body of the fruit helps balance the acid, keeping the wine tasting dry and crisp. There is a phenolic texture to the mouthfeel that reminds me a bit of a Muscadet from Melon de Bourgogne. However, there are no aromatic signs of lees contact. Nor is there any trace of oak. Moderate finish continues with the mouthwatering lemony notes.

The Verdict

This wine tasted like what you would get if a Muscadet and lighter French Sauvignon blanc (like a Saint-Bris) had a baby. The texture and mouthfeel make me think of Muscadet but the citrus and high acidity remind me of Sauvignon blanc.

However, it doesn’t have the minerality of a good Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine or a Loire Sauvignon blanc. But I can see this pairing with a lot of the same dishes (particularly shellfish). I can also see it being a nice change of pace from New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. It would especially appeal to folks who want less green notes or pungent tropical fruit.

For around $18-23 USD, I would still be quite interested in trying a new vintage of the Zweifel Räuschling. You are paying a bit of a premium for the novelty of the grape variety and small urban production. But you are paying a premium on virtually every wine in Zurich.

Still, if you happen to be in the area and want a taste of local flavor, it’s well worth exploring.

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Geek Notes — New Wine Books For February

January and February are the doldrums of winter. They don’t feature the festivities of December–only snow, freezing cold and dark gray days. It just plain sucks. But eventually March and spring will be on the horizon.

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

One of the trademark clues of Gruner Veltliner in a blind tasting is the presence of white pepper. This comes from the compound rotundone that forms naturally in the grapes.

While we’re popping vitamin D supplements and counting down the days till pitchers and catchers report, let’s take a look at a few new and upcoming wine books.

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Third Edition by Neel Burton (Paperback release February 3rd, 2019)

I own the original 2014 edition of Burton’s book that he did with James Flewellen. It is handy but, in all honesty, I’m not sure it’s correctly named.

What I had initially hoped for was a book that would teach you some of the tips and tricks to blind tasting. Like for instance, if you detect black or white pepper in a wine, you should know that is caused by the compound rotundone.

There are only a handful of grape varieties that contain this compound–most notably Syrah, Grüner Veltliner, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah and Schioppettino. Detecting this during a blind tasting flight is a huge clue. Furthermore, anecdotal and some scientific analysis has shown that cooler climates and vintages increase the concentration of rotundone and “pepperiness” of the wine. This can be another clue in nailing down wine region and vintage.

That was the kind of insight and details that I was hoping for with Burton and Flewellen’s book. You get a little but not quite to the extent I was looking for in a book marketing itself as a blind tasting guide. Instead, The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting tilts more to the “Guide to Wine” side offering a (very well done) overview of the major regions and wines of the world.

Chapter 4 does walk you through the blind tasting process and the Appendix gives a “crib sheet” of common flavors and structure which is very useful. But that’s about it.

However, I’m still buying this new edition
blind tasting crib sheets from Burton's book

Example of the blind tasting “crib sheets” in the appendix of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

That’s because it’s an excellent guide to wine that is similar to Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe. Burton’s book doesn’t list benchmark producers like Parr’s book does but they both highlight the distinction of terroir that shows up in the wines from various regions. They’re a bit like condensed versions (362 and 352 pages, respectively) of Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible (1008 pages) with a bit more focus on the taste profiles and terroir of each region.

I’ve gotten plenty of good use out of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting to make the new version a worthwhile investment. Plus, it is possible that this updated version will go more into those blind tasting details that I crave.

The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion by Janet Z. Wang (Hardcover released on January 24th, 2019)

Back in November, I highlighted Loren Mayshark’s Inside the Chinese Wine Industry which has been a great read. As I noted in that edition of Geek Notes, China is a significant player on the global wine market. While the interest of the industry has been mostly on their buying power, the large size and diverse terroir of mainland China offer exciting potential for production.

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

A bronze Gu, or ceremonial wine vessel, from the Shang Dynasty dating to the 12th or 11th century.

It is in the best interest of any wine student to start exploring Chinese wine. I recently got geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz and can’t wait to find more examples. In addition to Mayshark’s book, Suzanne Mustacich’s Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines has been highly informative as well.

But both of those were written by non-native writers. That is what make’s Janet Z. Wang’s Chinese Wine Renaissance intriguing. Wang spent her childhood in China before moving to the United Kingdom as a teenager. There she studied Chinese history and culture before developing an interest in wine while at Cambridge.

Now she runs her blog, Winepeek, and contributes to Decanter China. In between her writings, she teaches masterclasses on Chinese wine.

On her blog, she has a slideshow with wine tasting suggestions that gives a sneak peek into what her book covers. With a foreword and endorsement from Oz Clarke, I have a feeling that Wang’s book is going to become the benchmark reference for Chinese wine.

Decoding Spanish Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to the High Value, World Class Wines of Spain by Andrew Cullen and Ryan McNally (Paperback released on January 24th, 2019)

Kirkland brand Champagne

Now granted, Costco doesn’t sell many Cremants. This might explain why the Costco Wine Blog folks were so blown away by this $20 Champagne. But compared to many Cremant de Bourgogne and Alsace in the $15-20 range, it was fairly ho-hum.

Andrew Cullen is the founder of CostcoWineBlog.com that has been reviewing wines found at Costco stores for years. While I don’t always agree with their reviews (like my contrarian take on the Kirkland Champagne) I still find the site to be an enjoyable read.

Beyond the blog, Cullen has co-authored quick (around 100 pages or so) beginner wine guides to French, Italian and now Spanish wines. He also wrote the even quicker read Around the Wine World in 40 Pages: An Exploration Guide for the Beginning Wine Enthusiast.

While these books aren’t going to be helpful for Diploma students, they are great resources for folks taking WSET Level 1 and Level 2 as well as Certified Specialist of Wine exams. I particularly liked how Decoding Italian Wine went beyond just the big name Italian wine regions such as Chianti, Brunello and Barolo to get into under-the-radar areas like Carmignano, Gavi and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Plus for $9-10, the books are super cheap as well.

French Wines and Vineyards: And the Way to Find Them (Classic Reprint) by Cyrus Redding (Hardcover released on January 18th, 2019)

This is for my fellow hardcore geeks.

I am a sucker for reprints of classical texts. I especially adore ones featured in the bibliographies of seemingly every great wine history book. Such is the esteem that the British journalist Cyrus Redding holds among Masters of Wines like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates.

Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890, page 110 Artwork by Edward Linley Sambourne (January 4, 1844–August 3, 1910). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Redding passed in 1870 so he didn’t get a chance to witness the full scale of devastation on French vineyards caused by phylloxera.
This cartoon is from an 1890 magazine that describes the pest as “A True Gourmet” that targetted the best vineyards.

First published in 1860, French Wines and Vineyards gives a snapshot of the French wine industry in the mid 19th-century. Written just after the 1855 Bordeaux classification and only a few years before phylloxera would make its appearance in the Languedoc in 1863, Redding documents a hugely influential time in the history of French wines.

Pairing this book with a reading of the 19th-century chapters in Hugh Johnson’s Vintage and Rod Phillips’ French Wine: A History would be a fabulous idea for wine students wanting to understand this key period.

One additional tip. Hardcover editions of classic texts look nice on the shelf. But if you’re a frequent annotator like me then you probably want to go paperback. Forgotten Books released a paperback version of Redding’s work back in 2017 that you can get a new copy of for less than $12 right now.

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Getting Geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

I am going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out over my first ever Chinese wine–the 2012 Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz from the Shanxi province.

The Background

Mr. Chun-Keung Chan founded Grace Vineyards in 1997 with the help of his friend Sylvain Janvier, a native of Burgundy. Suzanne Mustacich notes in Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines that Chan and Janvier met during the former’s business dealings in France. At the time, Chan worked for the Chinese mineral trading and manufacturing firm Eastern Century.

When he sold his shares of Eastern Century in 1994, Chan inquired about purchasing a chateau in Bordeaux. But Janvier convinced him to explore the potential of viticulture in his home country. The two men hired French enologist Denis Boubals to scout for locations. Known as the “Apostle of Cabernet Sauvignon,” Boubals was famous for encouraging Languedoc wine producers to modernize. He promoted uprooting native cultivars in favor of the more fashionable varieties of Cab, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Merlot.

The Vineyard

Map by Shannon1. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Yellow River Basin with provinces noted.

Boubals identified 100 ha (247 acres) in the Yellow River Basin of Taigu County in the Shanxi Province as a potential vineyard site. Located on an arid loess plateau 2600 feet above sea level, the sandy loam soils near Jinzhong City provided good drainage. This allowed room for roots to burrow deep into the earth with ample tillage to bury the vines during harsh winters.

Shanxi’s inland location (nearly 600 km/373 miles from the coast) has a continental climate with cold winters and warm summers. Vineyards here experience a wide diurnal temperature variation between daytime highs and nighttime lows. This can help maintain acidity during heat spikes in the summer.

They planted 69 ha (171 acres) of eleven different grape varieties–including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Chenin blanc. Boubals sourced all the cuttings from France. The partners named their estate Yi Yuan in Chinese and Grace Vineyard in English.

By the estate’s 20th anniversary in 2017, Grace Vineyard had expanded to 200 ha (494 acres) of vines in Shanxi as well as additional parcels in neighboring Ningxia and Shaanxi provinces. The winery also works with several contract growers.

A Family-Owned Winery and a Growing Reputation

Photo by Nick Chan. Uplaoded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

The exterior of the Grace Vineyard estate.

At the time of Grace Vineyard’s founding, the majority of commercial wineries in China were government-owned entities or co-operatives. The large corporation Changyu based in the Shandong region dominated private enterprise.

In 2002, Chan passed the management of Grace Vineyard to his daughter, Judy, a 24-year-old recent graduate of the University of Michigan. She embarked on an ambitious business-plan that sidestepped the corporation controlled distribution networks in favor of direct-to-consumer sales to the growing Chinese middle class. Chan opened up several wine bars and boutique wine shops in major metropolitan areas that prominently featured Grace Vineyard wine.

Mustacich noted that Chan observed the reticence of Chinese consumers to ask questions that could potentially display ignorance. To combat these fears, she organized the wine bars and retail shops to emphasize education. Chan tailored these sites to be more intimate settings where consumers could freely explore.

As the reputation of Grace Vineyard wines grew domestically, they caught the attention of international critics such as Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. Soon major hotel groups like Peninsula and Shangri-La were featuring their wines. Cathay Pacific Airways, the flag carrier of Hong Kong, also began to promote Grace Vineyard wines on their flights.

Today, Grace Vineyard is considered the “role model” for Chinese boutique wineries as China grows in prominence on the world’s wine stage.

The Winemaking

Map by Pancrat. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Significant areas of grapevine production in China in the early 2000s. Grace Vineyard is in the Shanxi province, northeast of Ningxia, neighboring Hebei.

When the vines were nearing their first harvest, Chan and Janvier hired a Bordeaux winemaker, Gérard Colin. Before joining Grace Vineyard in 2000, Colin worked more than a decade for Chateau Teyssier in Saint-Emilion (before it bought by Jonathan Maltus in 1994). He then spent time at the Haut-Medoc estate of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Château Clarke.

Colin would make the first several vintages of Grace Vineyard, helping to pioneer serious viticulture in China. He eventually left in 2006 to join the new project of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) in the Shandong peninsula, CITIC-Lafite.

Colin was succeeded by Australian winemaker Ken Murchison who ushered in a period of exploration. He encouraged the plantings of unique varieties in China such as Aglianico, Marselan, Saperavi, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot noir and Syrah. He also helped Grace launch a sparkling wine project. A native of Victoria, with his own family vineyard in the Macedon Ranges, Murchison split time between working the northern hemisphere harvest at Grace and the southern hemisphere harvest in Australia.

When Murchison retired in 2016, he was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lee Yean Yean. Before joining Grace as a cellar hand in 2006, Yean worked in Australia at the Victoria wineries of Curly Flat and Brown Brothers.

The Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

Photo by Hahn Family Wines. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the central coast region of California.

Launched as an experimental batch in 2012 (along with an Aglianico and Marselan), the Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz was Grace Vineyard’s first significant departure from Bordeaux varieties. The series’ name comes from the founder’s first granddaughter, Anastasya.

The wine was aged for around one year in second-use oak barrels. Grace Vineyard’s initial release of the experimental wines was limited to 3000 bottles of each variety. Only a few dozen cases were exported.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Black pepper and red fruit like cherry and plums. There is a little noticeable oak spice such as cinnamon coupled with an undefined herbal element.

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

The black pepper spice, along with its juicy red fruits, is a defining feature of this Chinese Shiraz.

On the palate, the red-fruits carry through– mainly the cherries. Mouthwatering medium-plus acidity and soft, medium tannins balance the medium-bodied weight of the fruit. If it wasn’t for the black pepper and darker color, I could see myself wondering if this was actually a Pinot in a blind tasting. Moderate finish lingers on the mouthwatering red fruit.

The Verdict

For $25-35, you are paying a tad for the novelty of a Chinese wine. But taken on its own as a cool-climate Syrah, it does have enough character to make the price feel reasonable.

I would describe it as if a Syrah from a cool area (like the Russian River Valley or Santa Barbara County) and a regional Bourgogne Pinot noir had a baby. You can pick up some of the Syrah qualities. But the acidity and structure would lend me to treating it more like a Burgundy Pinot noir. Its best place to shine is on the table with food.

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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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Stop Scaring the Newbies — A Look at the Wine Hierarchy of Needs

While I greatly enjoy his philosophical pondering on his Edible Arts blog , I couldn’t disagree more with Dwight Furrow’s recent post decrying “Bad Advice for Novice Wine Drinkers”. The offending guidance is to drink what you like because “If you like it, it is good”.

Furrow dislikes that approach because he feels it curbs a desire to learn more about wine and expand horizons.

The slogan assumes that there is nothing beyond your merely liking something that accounts for its quality, nothing more to be discovered and nothing more to be enjoyed. Thus, if you endorse this claim you have no reason to recognize the limitations of what you like or search for something better. It is a shame to encourage such an attitude in novice wine drinkers. — Dwight Furrow, Bad Advice for Novice Wine Drinkers, 12/13/2018

Furrow errs in two regards here.

For one, there are a lot of drinkers who will never expand beyond simply drinking what they like. They will never develop a desire to want to learn more. Nor will they ever care to think about the quality of what they’re drinking. While that can be a shame, it’s only a shame to us–the Winos who want more from our wines.

We are the ones shedding the tears of shame at all the things we feel our fellow wine drinkers are missing–not the newbie that is happily content sipping on Apothic Brew.

The second area that Furrow overlooks is that of internal inertia or motivation. The novice drinkers who are destined to explore and expand their horizons will feel that inertia on their own. They don’t need “gentle coaxing”–especially not in the form of telling them that what they’re currently drinking is crap.

My outlook on this is shaped by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which we can adapt to the motivation and growth of wine drinkers.

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

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

A Wine Hierarchy of Needs

Our motivations as wine drinkers are not that dissimilar from our motivations for everything else in life. There are basic needs that enjoying wine can fulfill as well as the potential for more emotional and intellectual satisfaction.

There are other benefits to viewing wine drinkers through Maslow’s pyramid. You get a sense for the breadth of each level. The Winos among us would love for everyone to get the same enjoyment with wine that we do. Yet, while we want to share our geeky connoisseurship, most people are going to plateau before that. Most wine drinkers find their needs met at other levels.

The problem comes when we try to put expectations and judgement on the motivations of people who are at these different levels. When we expect newbies who are driven by safety or physiological motivations to “know better” or at least want to know better, we’re not educating them. We’re not helping them to “master” their current level and potentially move on to the next.

If anything, we’re scaring them back to the comforts of what’s familiar and giving them little desire to want to associate with wine or “wine people”.

To really educate and appeal to wine drinkers at all levels, we need to understand where they are in their journey and what is motivating them.

Physiological – I want to drink wine with food or for my own pleasure.

This is where everyone starts–even Fred Dame, Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker. Everyone first approached wine as something to drink. We may have been introduced to it on the dinner table with family or in a red solo cup at party.

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

Or as god knows what mixed into a sangria.

It was an accompaniment to something–whether it be a meal or a moment–and likely we did not give much thought to what was in the glass.

For a lot of people who drink wine, they will never go beyond this level. Wine will still be “foodstuff” to have at the table like it’s been in Europe for centuries. Or it will be “booze”, something to give a warm buzz that is more flavorful than beer and doesn’t hit as hard as a cocktail.

But there will be people who begin paying attention to what is in their glass. The first serious question that they’ll ask will be “Do I like this?”

Safety – I don’t want to buy something I’m not going to like.

When a wine drinkers starts to think about what they like and don’t like in wine, they become motivated by “safety”. They don’t want to waste their time, money or pleasure drinking things that they don’t enjoy.

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

The best education that sommeliers and wine stewards can give newbies at this level is help with language to explain what they like or don’t like in a wine.
This is NOT the level to be “educating” them on good tastes vs bad.

These drinkers might not have the language to explain what they like but they eventually notice patterns. They might not like the “bitterness” or “sour” flavors of tannins and acid. Instead, it could be the siren songs of residual sugar and “smoothness” that beckons them.

This is the stage where newbies often get the scorned advice to “drink what they like”. But the idea is not to stunt their growth or education. The idea is to keep them enjoying wine and to not get turned off or intimidated.

If we start trashing their tastes and enjoyment, we slam the door shut on the next level of motivation before the newbie even get’s a chance to peek inside.

Belonging – I want to go wine tasting and travel to wineries with friends.
Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The tasting room not only gives wine drinkers a sense of social belonging, but also exposure to different wines that they may end up liking.

Wine is a social beverage. It brings people together. But it can also push people away.

If we scare newbie drinkers into doubting themselves–into thinking their tastes are bad–we send the message that they don’t belong. We give them no motivation to continue exploring.

Yet for the people that reach this stage, there is internal inertia that exposes them to other horizons. Wine drinkers that enjoy wine enough to want to share it end up meeting fellow wine lovers. They begin seeing a world beyond their own experiences. They’re introduced to other wines that people enjoy and, perhaps, find their own tastes broaden.

Most importantly, here is where the seeds of education that us Winos so desperately want to sow can finally be planted.

Esteem – I really want to learn more about wine.
Photo by GoodWineUnder20. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The motivation of esteem for wine lovers can lead them to want to attend wine classes and seek out various certifications.

This is where we get the audience of wine drinkers who can understand Furrow’s (very valid) point that “Discovery, learning, and insight ultimately depend on evaluation.

They begin to realize that there are quality distinctions between wine. There are reasons why a great Burgundy cru is more sought after than something like Meiomi or Mark West.

They might not at first recognize all the reasons behind those distinctions–terroir, viticulture and winemaking–but they at least have a sense of its existence.

These are the people that seek out blogs like Edible Arts and SpitBucket to read. However, while I’m sure Dwight would love to see his readership grow as much as I do, we can’t kid ourselves into thinking that this level of the pyramid is ever going to be as large as the preceding levels.

There will always be people whose motivation with wine “caps out” at other levels. There will always be people that find wine’s fulfillment of their physiological, safety and social belonging needs is enough.

And, honestly, that is perfectly fine.

Self-Actualization – Wino

I think that there is a fear that if “good quality” wine is not being appreciated by the masses, then these wines are going to be harder to find. There is some validity to that fear because wine is, after all, a business. Wineries need to sell wine to survive. For small family producers, especially, the quest to eek out a living is fraught with challenges.

Bob Betz

The realm of “Winos” is not limited to just sommeliers, stewards and bloggers.
There will always be high quality wine to enjoy made by Winos, like Bob Betz, who are motivated by a need to share their passion for wine.

I get that. This is why I pick up the same banner of education as so many sommeliers, wine stewards and bloggers like Dwight Furrow do. It’s part of being a “Wino”.

However, even though this tip of the pyramid reflects only a tiny segment of the masses, it is still populated by a lot of crazy folks. Folks who are willing to devote their lives to crafting high quality wine that they not only want to drink but also share.

These are the people who don’t get into winemaking to make a fortune selling to the masses.

Instead, these winemakers do it because once you reach the motivation of “Self-Actualization”, of realizing who you are and what you’re passionate about, the next step of “Transcendence” is about sharing that part of you and positively impacting others.

Let the newbies drink what they like and let them grow if they want to.

But it’s okay if they don’t grow. It’s okay if they’re happy and content with where they are and what they are drinking.

Rather than fretting, give a toast, instead, to the joy of every wine drinker getting their needs met.

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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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What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?

I have a confession to make. While I’m no longer in the retail game, I spent over 7 years in it working as a grocery store wine steward and an associate at a major wine retailer. In that time working the floor and talking to thousands upon thousands of customers, I never once had a customer ask me for a wine they saw reviewed on a blog.

Photo by Jami (Wiki Ed). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Not once.

Oh I’ve had numerous people come in with Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list or a copy of award winners from local competitions like the Seattle Wine Awards. Local newspaper and magazine articles such as Andy Perdue’s Top Wines Under $30 and Sean Sullivan’s 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington also brought people in hunting.

But never once did I have a customer show me their phone with a wine review from a blog. Or an Instagram pic. Or a Twitter wine chat recommendation.

Never.

I share this confession because as I settle into full-time writing, I’m wondering “What is the point in doing wine reviews?”

Do Consumers Care?

Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, recently asked if we’ve “reached the end of wine criticism?” . He highlights a 2013 Laithwaites Wines Survey that shows only 9% of wine drinkers actively used wine reviews to make a decision. In fact, rather than being helpful, the majority of the 1000 wine drinkers surveyed found reviews to be of little use.

Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino) created a chart showing the results of the Laithwaites’ survey for Wine Industry Insight.

Wine Industry Insight Chart on how helpful reviews are

Chart made by Becca Yeamans-Irwin for Wine Industry Insight. Published 10/26/2018

When I step back and think about how I approach reviews as a consumer, I realize that I hardly use reviews at all.

Context or Empty Text?

It’s not that I don’t read reviews. I’m reading wine stuff all the time and pay for subscriptions to Decanter, JebDunnuck.com, Vinous Media, Burghound, Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages and others.

But I’m not reading any of those for reviews. If anything, these sites are like porn mags where I am actually just reading them for the articles.

When an article includes tasting notes with descriptors about bouquet, body, fruit, etc, my eyes gloss over them. Instead, I’m looking through the review for something unique or interesting about the wine–something about its story that is worth my attention.

When I was selecting sample reviews for my 2017 Bordeaux Futures posts, the ones I picked had added details about the vintage or chateaux such as if they had frost damage or how this wine compares to the style of years past, etc. While I often found the notes of critics like James Suckling to be virtually useless, other writers like Jane Anson of Decanter gave me the context I craved.

I also regularly read numerous bloggers who do wine reviews such as Jeff Leve’s The Wine Cellar Insider, Dwight Furrow’s Edible Arts, Dave Nershi’s Vino-Sphere, Tom Lee’s Zinfandel Chronicles and Robin Renken’s Crushed Grape Chronicles.

The writers and bloggers that give me context, I follow. The ones that just spew out tasting notes and numbers, I don’t even give a second thought to.

Here’s an example of a wine blogger I follow.

https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2018/10/16/wine-review-bonny-doon-syrah-bien-nacido-x-block-santa-maria-valley-2009/

While I was familiar with the Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, I didn’t know that it was the first cool-climate US vineyard to plant Syrah. This great tidbit adds context to Dwight Furrow’s review of the Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido X-Block.

Even if Furrow didn’t like the Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah, those added details about the wine intrigues me enough to want to try it.

It wasn’t his description of the wine, the “rich, smoked meat with mint highlights” or “luscious, peppery burst of fresh fruit”, that ultimately influenced me. Nor was it his 92 point score. There are many wines that have savory, meaty flavors and pepper notes. Likewise, the cliche “a dime a dozen” doesn’t even come close to expressing how many “92 point wines” there are out in the world.

But the story he shared about the wine–the uniqueness of the Bien Nacido vineyard and the framing of this as a “treasure of the past” that can be used to view Grahm’s new projects–gave me a reason to want to try this wine above all the other savory, meaty and peppery 92 pointers out there.

Why Do I Review Wines?

Being a blogger myself, these sentiments might be a bit of “biting the hand that feeds me”. I mean, shouldn’t I be banging the drum for more people to pay attention to wine reviews? I do, after all, even have a samples policy. Come on! Get with the program LeBeau!

But though I’ve been actively blogging for over a year, it’s hard for me to disengage from the mentality of a consumer and reader of blogs. Nor can I discount my experiences working in the industry. It is those experiences, and dealing with other consumers, that have made me hugely skeptical of the entire concept of “wine influencer”.

Photo by Naotake Murayama. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lord knows that there are A LOT of stories that can be told about Randall Grahm and his wines.

However, I do think that wine writers have influence. But, as I mentioned with my example of Furrow’s review, it’s not in their tasting notes or numbers.

I might not walk into a wine shop with Furrow’s review on my phone, but the story of Bonny Doon’s Bien Nacido Syrah will resonate in my mind when I see the label or name on a wine list.

Even though I won’t remember the details of his tasting note at all, I will remember the story and context that Furrow shared about the wine.

THAT is the true influence of a wine writer.

These experiences are what shape my own 60 Second Reviews and how I expect readers to approach them.

To be brutally honest, folks could stop reading them after the Geekery section and make them 30 second reviews.

It’s that first section where I strive to give you something that either intrigues you about the wine or gives you a reason to think about it differently.

The tasting note that follows is mostly for my own edification. It’s there to force me to pay attention to what I’m tasting versus just drinking it. A lot of the language I use in those notes (like medium-plus acidity, firm tannins, etc) is language that I need to use for my blind tasting examinations. It’s not the same language that you are going to use when tasting the wine and my note is likely going to be quite different from yours in other ways as well. Wine is subjective and intensely personal.

Rating With My Wallet

The Verdict section, as I mentioned in my post Why I Don’t Use Scores, is my reconciliation of how I feel about the wine with what I paid for it.

I don’t expect to ever get many samples sent to me–and really, after the “hand biting” of this post, why would a PR firm want to? So the vast majority of wines I review will continue to be things that I bought with my own money from shops, wineries and restaurants.

Some things I’m going to feel really good about buying. Other wines are going to feel like I way overpaid for them. I’ll share that frank assessment because you’re likely not going to be getting samples sent to you either.

With every wine, it’s going to be your wallet and your taste buds that determine if it’s worth it. Not a tasting note, not a wine review and certainly not a numerical score.

That is why I don’t want to waste your time with empty text.

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Wine Media Musings

Today the Wine Bloggers Conference announced it was renaming itself as the Wine Media Conference. In the official announcement, Allan Wright of Zephyr Conferences highlighted a panel discussion from Day 2 of this year’s conference where the question was asked “Is the Wine Bloggers Conference appropriately named?”

Wine Media Conference logo

Logo courtesy of https://www.winemediaconference.org/

It was the opinion of Tom Wark from the Fermentation Wine Blog that the conference wasn’t–which was a sentiment that the leadership of the conference has been harboring for sometime. As Wright explained in the announcement,

Blogging is simply one form of communication and the reality is almost all blogger attendees at the conference also engage in social media. Many also do other forms of wine writing, either for print magazines, online magazines, or wineries. Wine Media Conference more accurately reflects what our attendees do.

Just as importantly, the change to Wine Media Conference is designed to be more welcoming to those who do not blog but do communicate about wine. This includes social media influencers, non-blogging wine writers, and those who work in communications in the wine industry. — Allan Wright, 11/9/2018

The announcement was also made on the conference’s public Facebook group where I shared my own concerns–namely that I likely wouldn’t have originally signed up to attend something called a “Wine Media Conference.”

What is Wine Media?

Much like how a group of people can pick out different flavors and aromas in the same wine, the same word can have different connotations to various people. The dictionary definition of “media” offers one tasting note: “the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, that reach or influence people widely.”

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

Though I don’t know how influential those multiple copies of Wine Spectator where with those empty cocktail glasses.

The “reach or influence people widely” part is what resonates most with me and colors my view of “Wine Media”. Here I see an echelon of established publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Decanter, Wine Business Monthly or online mediums like SevenFifty Daily, VinePair and WineSearcher.com.

I see the work of notable critics and writers like Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, Vinous Media, JebDunnuck.com, Jeff Leve’s Wine Cellar Insider, JamesSuckling.com, Allen Meadows’ Burghound, etc.

And I do see some blogs in that realm such as Tom Wark’s Fermentation, Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak and Alder Yarrow’s Vinography. Though he is now a prominent writer for Wine Enthusiast, I would also add Sean Sullivan’s Washington Wine Report to that list as well.

But I certainly do not see myself in that ballpark.

As I think back to my apprehension of being a relatively new blogger attending my first conference this year, I know that even the idea of considering myself “Wine Media” would have been a non-starter for me.

I’m not “Wine Media”. I’m not Jancis Robinson. I haven’t been blogging for a decade-plus like Goode, Yarrow and Co. I’m a just a geek who sits at home drinking wine, reading wine books and writing about what excites me at a particular moment.

The idea of a “Wine Media Conference” would have seemed too exclusive to include me.

Inclusively Exclusive

In contrast, the idea of attending something called the “Wine Bloggers Conference” felt approachable and inviting. Being part of a community of wine bloggers felt attainable. It was my hope in attending that I could find other people like me that I could relate to. Much to my delight, I did.

One idea for future conferences would be to have the name tags note how many previous conferences a person has attended. That would be a great way to seek out more newbies or know who you should ask questions of.

One of the pleasant surprises for me while attending the conference was how many fellow conference newbies there were. I got a chance to meet folks like Noelle Harman (Outwines), Anne Keery (Aspiring Winos), Earle Dutton (Equality365) and more who, like me, were relatively new to wine blogging. It was immensely rewarding listening to their perspectives–their successes and stresses as well as the lessons and bumps they’ve learned along the way. Coupled with the tools and insights that I got from veteran bloggers and seminars, I know that I left the conference a better blogger than I was when I arrived.

It would have been unfortunate to miss that because of the limitations and exclusionary feel of the name “Wine Media”.

While all bloggers want to grow their readership–and will use things like social media to help expand their reach–the reality is that the vast majority of us will never come close to the dictionary media definition of widely reaching and influencing people.

And, honestly, not all of us may even want to be “influencers”–at least not in the sense that is in vogue today. Some of us may just want to have fun geeking and writing about wine.

Will those perspectives get smothered underneath the tarp of “Wine Media”?

The Need For “Fresh Blood” and Inclusion

Decanted screen shot

Many podcasters and videographers are still blogging their journey with wine–just via audio or visual mediums.
Also, most episodes usually include show notes (like this example from Decanted’s recent podcast) that are basically blog posts.

I understand the need to be inclusive–because the world of wine and wine communication is constantly expanding. Another great surprise from the conference was being introduced to some great new podcasts like the Weekly Wine Show and Decanted Podcast.

I wholeheartedly support the conference’s desire to see more participation from podcasters. The same with videographers as their work on YouTube is opening up a whole new realm for wine education. While I’m admittedly skeptical about the extent of influence that Instagram, Pinterest and other social media channels which limit context have, I eagerly want to learn more from individuals active in those venues about their experiences and insights that may abate that skepticism.

Plus, it seems like the conference has seen significant turnover in attendees. It makes sense that they would want to inject it with fresh blood.

A Bleeding of Wine Bloggers

Prior to the start of this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference, Tom Wark made several poignant observations about the waning interest and declining numbers in wine blogging. While 2018 saw a little bit of a bump, Wark noted how differently the list of attendees for this year’s conference has looked compared to years past.

Those of us who have been following and reading wine blogs since their start, we can look at a partial list of attendees at the upcoming conference and notice that no more than a small handful of those folks who started out blogging during the format’s peak time of interest are attending the conference. It’s understandable. On the one hand, many of these people no longer blog. Others may still be blogging, but no longer find interest in the conference. — Tom Wark, Fermentation Wine Blog, 9/10/2018

There hasn’t been much study into why we’ve seen a steady decline of interest in wine blogs–though David Morrison of The Wine Gourd has some thoughts and data. A lot of it does seem to be the changing landscape of wine communication.

But if we’re already “bleeding out” wine bloggers, how effective will an infusion of new blood be if, instead of “clotting” the loss, we’re excluding new platelets? Will the number of other wine communicators who attend offset all the newbie wine bloggers who may now feel excluded?

That will be a challenge for Zephyr Conferences to tackle in their messaging and promotion of the newly renamed conference. Not everyone is going to share the same definition or “tasting note” of  what is welcomed as “wine media”.

Show, Don’t Tell

I don’t want this post to give the impression that I’m downplaying or denigrating the role of bloggers like myself. Nor am I saying that we’re necessarily inferior to traditional wine media. We’re still wine communicators but, the majority of us (myself included), are certainly far less established than the traditional wine media.

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

Though sometimes you can have multi-platinum albums and still end up just being Nickelback.

It’s like the difference between a garage band and a rock star with multi-platinum albums. This is the crux of my apprehension with adopting the name of “Wine Media”.

While our “garage band” of wine bloggers are most definitely musicians like the rock stars of wine media, it feels far too presumptuous to claim the title of “rock star” on our own. This isn’t about talent or worth. It’s about proving yourself on the larger stage.

Someday I would love to be spoken of in the same breath as Allen Meadows, Tom Wark, Jamie Goode, Jancis Robinson, etc. But I would never place myself in that sentence. I need to earn my place in that peer class and pay my dues along the way.

The same day that the Wine Bloggers Conference had the panel asking the question about whether the conference was appropriately named, Lewis Perdue gave the keynote address. Stemming from his journalistic background of working at the Washington Post, Wine Business Monthly and now publishing Wine Industry Insight, a central theme of Perdue’s talk was about building trust with your readership–building credibility.

Building Credibility

This is what a musician does with every gig they play, every song they record. They don’t step out of the garage and onto the stage to tell the world that they’re a rock star. They go out and they prove it, paving the way for others to bestow that title on them.

As bloggers, we are building our credibility with every post. Some of us may be content to stay in the garage and play for family and friends. Others may want to move on to gigs that will take them to increasingly larger arenas.

Some of those bloggers may eventually become “rock stars” of wine media. But the path to that stage won’t be paved with telling the world that they’re “Wine Media”.

It will be by showing it.

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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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Playing the Cellar Lottery — When Should You Open Up That Bottle?

Someone in South Carolina last month won $1.537 billion playing the Mega Millions lottery.

Photo by Lieutenant Ramathorn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

At the peak of the frenzy, retailers were selling 12,700 tickets a minute. It reached a point where so many people were playing, that experts estimated that all possible 302,575,350 combinations of numbers were likely claimed before the jackpot was finally won.

I didn’t get a ticket. Though I used to be quite a gambler in my younger days, now my risky activities involve more playing the Somm Game in Vegas and maybe putting a few dollars down on my St. Louis Cardinals, Blues and Mizzou Tigers.

Besides, I’m playing the lottery virtually every time I pull a bottle out from my cellar.

Sometimes I hit the jackpot and open up a wine at a point when it perfectly fits my palate. Other times it may be too young and “Meh-y”. Worst of all is when it is far past its peak time for giving me pleasure.

It’s always a gamble but, like a good gambler, I try to hedge my bets. With a little knowledge, you can too.

Hitting a Moving Target

The first thing we need to do is understand what is happening to a wine as it ages. While it looks simple on the surface, a bottle of wine is a living chemistry lab with an endless progression of reactions taking place between acids, phenols, flavor precursors, alcohol compounds and the like. It is estimated that there is anywhere from 800 to over a 1000 different chemical compounds in a typical bottle of wine.

All of these compounds will react differently to the unique environment of wine that is majority water (which we remember from high school chemistry is “the universal solvent”) as well as alcohol–which is also a pretty darn good solvent itself. Then you add in the potential reductive reactions (especially with screw caps) and slight oxidative reactions (especially with cork) and you have a whole cooking pot of change that is constantly happening to that bottle of wine sitting in your cellar.

Photo by tympsy. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Or a video game with that damn mocking dog

In many ways, it’s like a story that is constantly having a new chapter being written. That can be exciting as with each page you turn–each month or year you wait–you never quite know what’s going to happen next.

In other ways, it’s like a carnival game with the moving duck targets that you’re trying to hit to win a prize. Those can be fun or immensely frustrating.

Resources for more geeking

I don’t want to bog you down too much with the geeky science at this point. However, for those who do want to understand more about the chemical compounds in wine and how they change over time here are my three favorite wine science books on the topic.

Starting with the least technical (and easiest to read) to the uber-hardcore tome of wine science geekdom:

The Art and Science of Wine by James Halliday and Hugh Johnson. A tad outdated (2007) but this text covers the basics really well. The last section “In the Bottle” deals with the components of wine with a chapter specifically dedicated to what happens as a wine ages (“The Changes of Age”).

The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode. There is a reason why Jamie is one of my favorite tools. He’s a brilliant writer who can distill complex science into more digestible nuggets for those of us who do not have a PhD. Like with Halliday and Johnson’s book, this will also spend a significant amount of time talking about the science behind viticulture and winemaking but in section 3, “Our Interaction With Wine”, he gets into how the changes happening to wine (as well as the environment of tasting) impact our perception of a wine’s components. This is very important because so much of knowing when to open a bottle of wine will depend on knowing when’s it good for you–something I’ll discuss more about below.

Wine Science: Principles and Applications by Ronald S. Jackson. This was one of my textbooks when I went to winemaking school so I won’t sugar coat how technical and dense it is. This is definitely not something you can read from cover to cover like with the first two books above. But if you really want to dive deep into the chemistry, there is no better resource out there. If you come from a non-scientific background, I do also recommend picking up some of the “For Dummies” refresher books like Chemistry Essentials and Organic Chemistry. Silly titles aside, those books certainly helped this Liberal Arts major understand and appreciate Jackson’s insights a whole lot more.

That said, I’m going to condense here some of what I’ve learned from those books above as well as my own experiences (and mistakes) in figuring out when to open a bottle.

What’s Happening to the Fruit?

When most people think of wine, they think of fruit. Therefore, it’s vitally important to understand what is happening to the fruit as a wine ages.

A good way to start is to think about cherries and the different flavors of its various forms.

Collage of photos from Wikimedia Commons from (L to R) George Chernilevsky released under PD-self; rebecca small released under CC-BY-2.0; Geoff released under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A young wine can taste like freshly picked cherries.
With some age, the cherries flavors get richer and more integrated with the secondary notes of wine.
Gradually the fruit will fade till you’re left with the dried remnants.

Young wines (like say an Oregon Pinot noir) will have the vibrant taste of its primary fruit flavors–such a cherries picked right from the tree. Combined with the wine’s acidity, these cherry flavors with taste fresh and even juicy. But they can also be quite simple because the freshness of the fruit dominants. Think about eating ripe cherries. While delicious, there isn’t much else going on.

With a little age (like 5 to 10 years for that Oregon Pinot noir), the fruit gets deeper and richer in flavor. Think of more canned cherries that you would use to make a cherry pie. The wine will also have time to integrate more with the secondary flavors of the wine that originated during the fermentation and maturation. This often includes oak flavors like the “baking spices” that French oak impart–cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, etc. These additional flavors add more layers of complexity. The fruit is still present. It’s just not as fresh and vibrant tasting as it once was.

Older wines with more age will see the fruit progressively fading. The flavors will start tasting like dried cherries as earthy and more savory tertiary flavors emerge. In the case of our Oregon Pinot, this could be forest floor, mushroom or even dried flowers and herbal notes. Eventually these tertiary flavors will completely overwhelm the faint remnants of dried cherries notes. When that happens will depend on the producer’s style, terroir and vintage characteristics. For me, I tend to notice the Oregon Pinots in my cellar go completely tertiary after 15 or so years.

Now…is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It depends. On you.

When Is Your Peak Drinking Window?

While nearly ever critic in the world will toss out “peak drinking windows” with their scores, that info is utterly useless if you’re not sure what you like.

Some people like lots of earthy, savory tertiary notes. That’s perfect and often the tail end of these critic’s windows will take those folks right through that sweet spot.

Other people might want more fruit and find those very aged wines to be disappointing. That’s also perfect because they may want to start opening up their bottles at the beginning of those windows or even a little before.

For me, I tend to like my wines just on the wane of the “pie filling fruit” stage when some of the tertiary notes are emerging but the wine still has a solid core of fruit. Going back to Oregon Pinots, I often find that between 7 to 12 years is my perfect window. However, in warm vintages, like 2009 and 2012, I’ve noticed an accelerated curve with many wines hitting my sweet spot starting at 5 years of age from vintage.

And sometimes it might not ever live up to James Suckling’s 96 point scores.

BTW, while we’re talking about critics. Keep in mind that when many professional critics give their scores out for wine, they are rating the wine based on how they think a wine is going to taste at its peak (i.e. during that window)–not necessarily how the wine is tasting right now. That’s the critic’s cover if that 96 point wine you’re buying based on the high score doesn’t live up to the hype. But even then, a critic’s “peak window” still might not match yours.

What’s Happening to the Structure?

Now fruit is just one component of the wine that’s impacted by aging. Often with bigger reds like Bordeaux varieties, a primary motivation for cellaring is to give the wine time to allow the structure of tannins and acid to soften.

A good way to picture this is to think of the “bite” of firm tannins and acid as like a triangle with sharp edges. Below is a diagram that I recently used for a class I taught on Bordeaux wines based on my experiences of cellaring and drinking Bordeaux.

As the wine ages, some of the structure will soften but it won’t completely go away.
Also, as we discussed above, the core of fruit will still progressively fade.

The “softening” comes from the polymerization of the tannins as they link up with each to get bigger. These larger molecules tend to feel less aggressive on the palate. Think of it like adding tennis balls to round out the sharp edges of the corners of our triangle. The tannins are still there (as is the acid) but you feel their affects differently.

Eventually the wine will reach a point where it can’t get any softer. The triangle will never completely become a circle. That last bastion of a wine’s structure will not only be defended by the remaining soldiers of tannins but also by its acidity–which never goes away. While richer and deep fruit flavors (as well as complimentary flavors from esters) can help mask acidity during a wine’s prime, an aged wine will eventually start to taste more acidic and tart as that fruit fades.

However, that acidity will amplify the savoriness of tertiary flavors so, again, this all comes back to knowing what style of wine gives you the most pleasure. More fruity? More savory? Somewhere in the middle?

Learn From Other People’s Sacrifices

While critic’s drinking windows have some value, the very best resource on deciding when to open a wine are sites like Cellar Tracker.

Here you can track the progression of a wine through the impressions of other people who are sacrificing their bottles to Bacchus. Pay attention to the notes. Are they still talking about lots of fruit character? Big tannins? Or are the notes littered more with savory tertiary descriptors?

Now, yes, these folks will likely have different palates than you which is going to color their impressions. How they describe a wine yesterday might not be the same as how you would describe it today. But it is another data point that you can use to determine if it’s worth pulling the cork.

Lessons from Jancis Robinson

I have evolved my own theory that overall, vastly more wine is drunk too old than too young. — Jancis Robinson, November 26th, 2004

Jancis’ advice is even more valuable now than it was 14 years ago. In that time, we’ve seen quite a bit of change in the wine industry–including our ideas about cellar-ability. Part of it is the culture of impatience and desire for immediate gratification. Wineries know that they often don’t get a second chance at a first impression so a lot of effort takes place in the vineyard and the winery towards producing wines that are enjoyable soon after release.

We’re not even talking about whites and roses either.


Those efforts sometimes do involve a trade-off with a wine’s potential to age. The simple truth is, not many are being made to age anymore. In fact, some estimate that as much as 98% of the wine made today should be consumed within 3 to 5 years of the vintage date.

Now keep in mind, the vast majority of the world’s wines are made to be daily drinkers under $20 so that 3 to 5 year estimate is not that drastic. But even for more expensive bottles that you may be saving for a special occasion, I would encourage you to think about opening it up sooner rather than later.

For me, the math is simple.

If you open up a bottle too soon, there is still the potential that you could find another bottle to open later. Yes, you may have to do some hunting and pay a little bit of a premium but that potential still exist. Plus, you are still likely to get some pleasure from that bottle even if it wasn’t “quite ready”.

But….

If you open up a bottle too late, when the wine is far past the point of giving you pleasure, you’re screwed. All that time and all that investment went for nil.

There’s always a gamble when aging wine but, ultimately, it’s best to cash out when you’re ahead.

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