Tag Archives: Jancis Robinson

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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Geek Notes 10/28/2018 — New Wine Books for November

Let’s take a look at some new wine books coming out next month that are worth geeking out over.

Feel free to also take a gander at the titles profiled in previous months’ Geek Notes for October, September and August. With the holidays approaching, it’s never too early get ideas for great gifts.

Age Gets Better with Wine Third Edition by Richard Baxter. (Hardcover release November 1st, 2018)

Richard Baxter is a plastic surgeon who wrote his first edition of Age Gets Better with Wine back in, honestly, I don’t know.

The oldest date for the 1st edition I could find was in 2007 yet somehow the 2nd edition came out in 2002. My best guess is that the two years were probably switched by Amazon. However, the Google eBooks copy of the 2nd edition dates to 2009. So who knows?

Regardless, quite a bit has changed in our scientific understanding of wine so this 2018 revision will likely have a lot of new material.

This books intrigues me because of the objective approach it appears to take on the many conflicting studies about the role of wine and health. I’ve not had a chance to read either of the two previous editions but I think I’m going to pull the trigger on this one. Blogger Joey Casco of TheWineStalker.net had a great review of the second edition. Describing it as “a wine-science-history geek’s wet dream”, he posted a 2 minute review of the 2nd edition back in 2016.

What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime by Terry Theise. (Hardcover release November 6th, 2018)

Terry Theise is a phenomenal importer who has played a huge role in introducing Americans to the exciting world of Grower Champagne. Additionally, he’s done much to bring attention to the high quality production of small family estates in Germany and Austria.

If you want to learn more about his story, Levi Dalton of I’ll Drink To That! podcast had a fantastic interview with Theise back in 2015 (1:50:22 length).

Pierre Gerbais, a fantastic grower Champagne from the Côte des Bar. The fact that we can find a lot of these gems more easily in the US is because of the efforts of Terry Theise.

Theise’s previous work, Reading between the Wines, was a mix of manifesto and anthology taken from his years of writings for his import catalogs. Now part of the Skurnik portfolio, Theise still regularly writes about vintage years, producer profiles and numerous (often humorous) rants about the world of wine.

Frequently in his writings, Theise expounds on the question that is the title of his current release What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking? What makes a bottle of wine worth the money to procure and the time spent cellaring and savoring? What makes anything worth putting into your body or sharing as part of a moment with loved ones?

Rarely do wine drinkers really stop to think about the answers to those questions. I suspect that Theise’s book will give a lot of food for thought and be a great read.

Good, Better, Best Wines, 2nd Edition: A No-nonsense Guide to Popular Wines by Carolyn Evans Hammond. (Paperback release November 13th, 2018)

This is the updated edition to Hammond’s 2010 release that dived into the world of mass-produced bulk brands and supermarket wines. With the link to the first edition, you can “look inside” and get an idea about her approach and the type of wines being reviewed.

In many ways, I applaud her snob-free approach but I do wonder what audience she is aiming for? Many of the folks who buy the Lindeman’s, Kendall Jackson, Fetzer and Sutter Home wines she reviews aren’t necessarily the folks who purchase wine guides.

While Constellation Brands’ famous Project Genome study of wine buyers found that nearly 1/5th of wine consumers felt “overwhelmed”, these folks were far more likely to seek info on the spot at a retail store versus searching the internet or seeking out a published wine guide.

Likewise, the near third of consumers who fall into the combined categories of “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” are already buying their favorite mass produced wines being profiled here. It doesn’t seem likely that one writer’s opinion that Bulk Brand X is slightly better than Bulk Brand Y will sway many people.

Perhaps the 20% of Image Seekers and 12% of Enthusiasts who are more inclined to look at wine guides will be tempted but often these segments of consumers either eventually settle into “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” or move beyond the $15 & under category this book focuses on.

Good, Better and Less Snobby
Photo by Robbie Belmonte. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

You may not like them or drink them but there is no denying that Gallo has done a masterful job of marketing and selling Barefoot Wines.

However, I do see this book being a huge benefit to students pursuing certifications such as the WSET Diploma level which focuses on the business of wine in Unit 1. Often these students need a bit of an “anti-snobbery” jolt to realize that the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t drink the same kind of wines we do.

In our rush to dismiss these wines, we often forget that there are reasons why things like Barefoot, Franzia and Apothic are top selling brands in the US.

I get it. They’re not my cup of tea either and I don’t vaguely hide my personal sentiments about them much on this blog.

But I do seek to understand them. This is why I give wines like Mamamanago, Apothic Brew, Capriccio and the like, just as much research and effort to figure them out as I do for Petrus and Cristal.

I see value in reading Carolyn Evans Hammond’s Good, Better, Best Wines as a window into the world of the “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” and what they are drinking. While I don’t think anyone will ever quite cracked the code of how to convince these drinkers to “trade out”, much less “trade up”, we’ll never come close if we don’t first understand where they’re starting from.

Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing edited by Jay McInerney. (Hardcover release November 13th, 2018)

I started geeking out over this book back in August when I was profiling Amira K. Makansi’s Literary Libations: What to Drink with What You Read.

Though he is the editor for this anthology, Jay McInerney has written several thoroughly entertaining wine books like Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar, A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine and The Juice: Vinous Veritas–not to mention several other highly acclaimed works outside of wine.

He does contribute a chapter to Wine Reads which includes over 20 pieces of fiction and non-fiction writings about wine. Other writers in the work includes Rex Pickett (of Sideways fame), A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker, an excerpt from Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, Jancis Robinson and more.

Just like with Makansi’s book, I can see this being the perfect companion for long flights or train rides.

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Getting Geeky With Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2016 Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch from Dauenhauer Farms in the Willamette Valley.

Full Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample. I also went to winemaking school with Dan Welsh of Welsh Family Wines at the Northwest Wine Academy.

The Background

Welsh Family Blaufränkisch wine

Dan Welsh and his wife, Wendy Davis, started Welsh Family Wines in 2014. A protege of Peter Bos from the Northwest Wine Academy, Welsh utilizes native yeast fermentation and minimalist winemaking to produce food-friendly wines.

Sourcing fruit from dry-farmed vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley, Welsh makes single vineyard designate wines from Armstrong Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Bjornson Vineyard and Eola Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills, Dell’Uccello Vineyard near Eugene as well as Dauenhauer Farms in Yamhill County.

The wines are made at the SE Wine Collective in Portland. Here Welsh Family Wines shares space and a tasting room with several other urban wineries such as Esper Cellars, Laelaps Wines, Stedt Winegrowers and Statera Cellars. Alumni wineries like Fullerton Wines, Vincent Wine Company and Bow & Arrow started out as part of the SE Wine Collective before moving on to their own facilities.

The 2016 vintage was the first release of Welsh’s Blaufränkisch from 30+ year old vines planted at Dauenhauer Farms. Multi-generation farmers, the Dauenhauers also produce a Lemberger/Blaufränkisch under their Hauer of the Dauen (Hour of the Dawn) label.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that several grape varieties have been known as “Fränkisch” since the Middle Ages. Distinct from Heunisch grapes believed to have originated from Hungary, these Fränkisch varieties were thought to be more noble grapes associated with wines of the Franconia region.

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

Blaufränkisch grapes growing in Germany.


The first written record of the name Blaufränkisch dates back to 1862 when the grape was presented at a exposition in Vienna. Later that century, the grape appeared in Germany under the synonyms Lemberger and Limberger. Both names seem to have Austrian origins and may indicate the villages where the grape was commonly associated with–Sankt Magdalena am Lemberg in Styria and Limburg (now part of Maissau) in Lower Austria.

DNA evidence has shown that Blaufränkisch has a parent-offspring relationship with the Heunisch grape Gouais blanc. It also crossed with Gouais blanc to produce Gamay noir. This suggests that the grape may have originated somewhere between Austria and Hungary though Dalmatia (in modern-day Croatia) is also a possibility. Here the grape is known as Borgonja (meaning Bourgogne) and Frankovka. However, the identification of these Croatian plantings with Blaufränkisch was only recently discovered so the grape’s history in this region is not fully known.

Beyond Gamay noir, Blaufränkisch has also sired several other varieties such as Zweigelt (with St. Laurent), Blauburger and Heroldrebe (with Blauer Portugieser), Cabernet Cubin and Cabernet Mitos (with Cabernet Sauvignon) and Acolon (with Dornfelder).

Blaufränkisch in Europe.

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

Lemberger vines growing in Württemberg, Germany.


In Austria, Blaufränkisch is the second most widely planted red grape variety after its offspring Zweigelt with 3,340 ha (8,250 acres) as of 2008. Covering 6% of Austria’s vineyards, most of these plantings are found in the Burgenland region.

Most German examples of Lemberger/Limberger are found in Württemberg (part of the historic Franconia region). There were 1,729 ha (4,272 acres) of the grape planted in Germany as of 2009.

The 8000 ha (19,770 acres) of Hungarian Kékfrankos, the local translation of “Blue Frank”, are scattered throughout the country. Sopron, bordering Austria, is particularly well known for the grape as well as Kunság. In Eger, Kékfrankos is a primary grape in the region’s famous “Bull’s Blood” wine of Egri Bikavér.

Prior to the discovery of Borgonja as Blaufränkisch, Croatian plantings of Frankovka accounted for 2.7% of the country’s vineyard.

Blaufränkisch in the US.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that Dr. Walter Clore pioneered planting of Lemberger in Washington State in the 1960s and 1970s. Sourced from cuttings in British Columbia, Clore thought the grape had the potential to be Washington’s answer to California Zinfandel.

Photo source https://cahnrs.wsu.edu/blog/2007/04/a-brief-history-of-washington-wine-walter-clore-washington-wine-history-part-1/

Dr. Walter Clore, the “Father of Washington Wine” and pioneer of Lemberger in the state. Photo courtesy of WSU’s A Brief History of Washington Wine.


In those early years, the grape was mostly used in blends and port-style wines. Kiona Vineyards released the first commercial example of Lemberger in the United States in 1980. Under Clore’s influence, Thomas Pinney notes in “A History of Wine in America, Volume 2”, the grape became something of a “Washington specialty”.

While consulting for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ Columbia Crest winery, California winemaker Jed Steele discovered Washington Lemberger. He eventually partnered with the winery to make his Shooting Star Blue Franc.

Lemberger hit a high point of popularity with 230 acres in 2002. But in recent years the variety has seen a steep decline with only 54 acres in production as of 2017. Today, some of the oldest plantings are found on Red Mountain at Kiona and Ciel du Cheval.

In Oregon, there is not enough plantings of Lemberger/Blaufränkisch to merit inclusion on the state’s acreage report. Outside of the Pacific Northwest there are some plantings in Lodi, New Mexico, New York, Michigan and Ohio.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. A mix of red fruits–cherries and raspberry–with floral notes like carnations. With air some forest floor earthiness comes out. Little to no oak influence except for maybe some slight allspice baking notes.

On the palate, those red fruits carry through and are amplified with high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The acidity also brings out black pepper spice and makes the forest floor earthiness seem more fresh. Soft medium tannins balance the medium-minus body weight of the wine very well. The moderate finish lingers on the red fruit.

The Verdict

Photo by 	Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lots of juicy red cherry notes in this wine.

This is a very Pinot noir-like Blaufränkisch that is very different from the Washington Lembergers I’m familiar with from Kiona and Alexandria Nicole. Those wines tend to have a much bigger body with dark blackberry fruit and more noticeable oak influences.

The lightness of the body, ample acidity and spice notes are certainly closer to Austrian examples of the grape. Though the fruit in Austrian Blaufränkisch tends to be more on the black fruit side of the spectrum than this very red-fruited Oregon wine.

As this was my very first Oregon Blaufränkisch, I can’t say if this is typical of how the grape responds to Oregon terroir. My gut is that it is because the Pinot comparisons are inescapable.

The best way to describe this wine would be if an “old school” Oregon Pinot noir (like Rollin Soles’ ROCO) and a Cru Beaujolais (like a Côte de Brouilly) had a baby.

While it is enjoyable on its own (especially if served slightly chilled on a warm day), the best place for this wine is on the table with food. Here its mouthwatering acidity and interplay of fruit & spice can shine with a wide assortment of dishes. At $20, this would be a terrific bottle to think about for Thanksgiving.

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What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

Even if the collateral damage is devastating.

Updates

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

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

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

Why Is This A Big Deal?

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

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

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

Reading their stories is heartbreaking.

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

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

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

Now they have to do it all over again.

How Did the Court Find Out?

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

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

Update

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

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

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

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

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

So what could the “helpful” initials have been?

CS, CF, PN?

CB, GV, PG, SB?

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

Who Did It?

https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

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

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

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

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

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

Update

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

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

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

Distributors’ Involvement?

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

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

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

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

Update

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

Dana Gaiser of Lauber Imports in New York City, NY

Andrey Ivanov of Bliss Wine Imports in San Francisco, CA

Maximilian Kast of Broadbent Selections in Chapel Hill, NC

Douglas Kim of Picasso Las Vegas, NV

Steven McDonald of Pappas Brothers Steakhouse in Houston, TX

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

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

Another Option?

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

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

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

Threads to Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot from Paso Robles.

The Background

Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Erich Russell founded Rabbit Ridge winery in 1981 in Healdsburg, Sonoma. Originally a home winemaker in San Diego, Russell’s wines caught the attention of the winemaking team at Chateau St. Jean who offered him a position. From there he spent time at Simi and Belvedere Winery before starting out on his own.

Over the years, Rabbit Ridge has earned numerous accolades and acclaim. They’ve had 3 wines featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. Connoisseur’s Guide named Russell it’s “Winemaker of the Year” in 1998. Wine writer Jay McInerney noted in his 2002 work Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar that if you wanted to guarantee yourself a good bottle of Zinfandel, seek out the “R wineries” of Rafanelli, Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenbloom, Renwood and Rabbit Ridge.

In 2001, the winery moved to the central coast of California. Here, the Russell family planted 200 acres on the west side of Paso Robles. Today the winery produces around 10,000 cases from their sustainably farmed fruit.

Rabbit Ridge is a family operation from top to bottom with Erich and Joanne Russell running the estate with their daughter, Sarah Fleming Garrett, and her husband Brice. In addition to working at Rabbit Ridge, the Garretts also have their own label, Serrano Wine, that was launched in 2018 in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles. According to Barnivore, all the Rabbit Ridge wines are “vegan friendly” with only bentonite and yeast fining used.

The 2011 Petit Verdot is sourced from estate fruit with a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon blended in.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Petit Verdot was in Bordeaux in 1736. However, the grape may not have originated there. Ampelograhical evidence of similar varieties suggest that Petit Verdot may have been a domesticated wild vine that originated somewhere in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department south of Bordeaux on the border with Spain.

Photo by Eric 先魁 Hwang. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Petit Verdot grapes growing in Portugal.

The name Petit Verdot references the small berries with thick skins that produce green (French vert) and acidic flavors if the grape doesn’t ripen fully. A very late-ripening variety, Petit Verdot is often harvested several days or even a couple weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite contributing deep color and spiciness to blends, the risk of not fully ripening caused Petit Verdot’s plantings in Bordeaux to sharply decline in the 20th century to around 338 ha (835 acres) in 1988. However, global warming has sparked renewed interest with a jump to 526 ha (1300 acres) by 2009. Mostly grown on the Left Bank, classified estates that have notable plantings of Petit Verdot include Ch. Margaux and Palmer in Margaux, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, Léoville Poyferré in St. Julien and La Lagune in the Haut-Medoc.

Petit Verdot in the US

Varietal versions of Petit Verdot have always commanded a premium in the United States. The reason has been because of limited supply and planting compared to other varieties. Matt Kramer notes in his 2004 book New California Wine that while a ton of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon would average around $3,921 and Pinot noir $2,191, Petit Verdot usually cost around $4,915 a ton to harvest.

Today, there are 2,897 acres of Petit Verdot planted throughout California with Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles being the home for a majority of those plantings.

Outside of California, the grape can be found in Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and Washington State. In Canada, it is also grown in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Petit Verdot leaf growing at the Hedges Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Red Willow Vineyard pioneered Petit Verdot in Washington State in the mid-1980s. Here Master of Wine David Lake encouraged Mike Sauer to plant UCD clone-1 Petit Verdot in his Yakima Valley vineyard. However, as Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines, those early plantings failed and the blocks had to replanted with new clones in 1991.

In Walla Walla, the Figgins family of Leonetti planted Petit Verdot at the Spring Valley Vineyard.  Today Petit Verdot is still a significant component of their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Other early plantings of Petit Verdot in the 1990s took place at the Mill Creek Upland vineyard in Walla Walla, Destiny Ridge in Horse Heaven Hills and Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. As of 2017, there were 254 acres of Petit Verdot in Washington State.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Brambly fruit like elderberry and boysenberry with some blue floral notes and forest floor earthiness. With a little air some tobacco spice and a distinct streak of graphite pencil lead emerges. The nose reminds me a bit of Cabernet Franc.

On the palate those dark brambly fruits carry through. The wine has full-bodied weight but I wouldn’t have guessed a 14.8% alcohol. There is no back-end heat or jammy fruit. Moderate oak contributes some baking spice but doesn’t play much of a role. Medium-plus acidity gives the fruit freshness and balances well with the ripe, high tannins. This wine is mouth-filling and mouthwatering. Moderate length finish brings back the spice and minerally graphite notes.

Some Personal Thoughts

I have to confess a bias of sorts. Stories like that of the Russells and Rabbit Ridge fuel and sustain my love for the world of wine. It’s so easy to get lost in the doldrums of supermarket shelves dominated by portfolio of brands owned by a handful of mega-corps that you lose sight of what wine is really supposed to be about. Wines like this remind me of why I geek out about wine.

The 2014 Rabbit Ridge sparkling Pinot noir Brut was also really tasty as well. Look for a 60 Second Review of this wine in December.

I’ve been following Rabbit Ridge Winery on Twitter and highlighted them in my article The Winery Twitter Dance as one the best winery Twitter account worth following. While I don’t know the Russells personally, it’s hard not to feel like I do because of all the great behind the scene tidbits that they share about the hard work and joys that comes with managing a small family winery. Likewise with the Serrano Wine Twitter, you feel like you are with the Garretts on their journey in launching a new winery from the ground up.

For folks like the Russells, the wine that you open up to share on your table with family and friends isn’t just a brand. It’s their life work and the result of hours upon hours of toil, and gallons upon gallons of sweat, spent over every step of the process. From first putting the vines into the ground to finally the cork in the bottle, they’re putting a part of themselves into each wine.

When you share their wines, you’re not sharing something thought up during a marketing department’s brainstorming session and tested on focus groups. Instead, you’re sharing something that was dreamed up by person who looked out at a vineyard or into a great glass of wine and thought “I could do this. I should do this.” and tested that dream over and over again on their own table–with their own family and friends.

The Verdict

I opened this bottle of 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot with higher expectations than I do for a commodity brand.  And I certainly savored that it lived up to those expectations. At $20 (yes, $20 for a varietal Petit Verdot!), this wine has character and complexity that opens up even more in a decanter over the course of dinner.

No, it’s not a jammy, hedonistic red like many Paso wines can be. Its best role is definitely on the table where its acidity and structure can shine with food. But it is a bottle way over delivers for the price and worth trying.

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Getting Geeky with Lang & Reed Chenin blanc

This post was inspired by Outwines’ Noelle Harman’s great post on the Loire and South African Chenins made by the husband-wife team of Vincent & Tania Carême. That post and her reviews are well worth a look along with her super geeky and super useful study outline on the Chenin blanc grape (part of a continuing series she does).

With this still being California Wine Month, I’m going to add my advocacy for the overlooked and underappreciated Chenin by highlighting Lang & Reed’s 2015 example from Napa Valley.

The Background

Lang & Reed was founded in 1995 by Tracey & John Skupny. After previous stints at Caymus, Clos Du Val and Niebaum-Coppola, John and his wife Tracey (previously of Spottswoode) wanted to work with their favorite grape varieties from the Loire Valley–Cabernet Franc and Chenin blanc.

Named after their children, Reed & Jerzy Lang, Lang & Reed Wine Company work with fruit primarily from the Anderson Valley of Mendocino and Napa Valley.

The 2015 Chenin blanc is sourced 100% from the cooler Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley from a vineyard near the Napa River. The grapes were whole cluster pressed with the wine fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. The Chenin was then transferred completely to barrel where it was aged 4 months with weekly batonnage stirring of the lees. Around 185 cases were produced.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Chenin blanc, under the synonym Plant d’Anjou, dates back to 1496 in the Loire Valley. Here the wine was grown at Chateau Chenonceau owned by Thomas Bohier. It is believed that Bohier then propogated the variety which eventually took on the name Chenin from Chenonceau.

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

Chenin blanc grapes with botrytis growing in Saint Cyr en Bourg in the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire Valley.

The name “Chenin” itself first appears in François Rabelais’ 1534 work Gargantua. A native of Touraine, Rabelais describes both a Chenin wine and a Vin Pineau with Gros Pineau being a common synonym of Chenin blanc in Touraine for many centuries.

It is possible that the name Chenin came from the monastery of Montchenin in Touraine. Another theory is that the name is derived from the French word chien, meaning dog, and could refer to the affinity of dogs to eat the the grapes off the vine.

Recent DNA analysis has shown a parent-offspring relationship between Savagnin and Chenin blanc with Savagnin being the likely parent. This would make Chenin blanc a half or full sibling of Sauvignon blanc, Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Grüner Veltliner, Verdelho, Siegerrebe and the Trousseau varieties.

Through its relationship with Sauvignon blanc, Chenin is then an aunt/uncle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

At some point, Chenin blanc naturally crossed with Gouais blanc (mother vine of Chardonnay) to produce several varieties like Colombard, Meslier-Saint-François and Balzac.

In South Africa, the grape was crossed with Trebbiano Toscano/Ugni blanc to produce Chenel.

Chenin Blanc Today

Photo by 	JPS68. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Chenin blanc is also grown in the French colony of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Here is a harvest of Chenin blanc grapes in the town of Cilaos.

From a high point of 16,594 ha (41,005 acres) of vines in 1958, plantings of Chenin blanc in France have sharply declined over the years to just 9,828 ha (24,286 acres) in 2008–representing around 1.2% of France’s vineyards.

It is mostly found in the Anjou-Touraine region of the Loire Valley where it is used in the sparkling wines of Cremant de Loire and Vouvray. Also in Vouvray it can be used to produce dry to demi-sec still wines while in the AOC of Bonnezeaux, Montlouis and Quarts de Chaume it is used exclusively for late harvest sweet examples that may have some botrytis influence. In Savennières it is used exclusively for minerally dry wines with notable ageability.

Outside of the Loire it can also be found in the Languedoc where it can make up to 40% of the blend for Cremant de Limoux with Mauzac blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot noir.

Chenin blanc has been historically known as “Steen” in South Africa where it has accounted for as much as a third of all white wine produced in the country. By 2008 there were 18,852 ha (46,584 acres) of the vine representing 18.6% of all South African plantings. It is grown throughout South Africa but is more widely found in Paarl, Malmesbury and Olifants River. In recent years the variety has seen a renaissance of high quality production by producers in the Swartland and Stellenbosch.

From an area so blessed to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, the Chappellet Molly’s Cuvee Chenin blanc from Pritchard Hill is jaw-droppingly good.


In California there is 4,790 acres of Chenin blanc planted throughout the state as of 2017–nearly 2/3 of the acreage that was in production in 2010 (7,223 acres). Notable plantings can be found in the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, Chappellet Vineyard on Pritchard Hill in Napa, Santa Maria Valley, Lodi, Paso Robles, Alexander Valley and Mendocino County.

Like California, Washington State has also seen a notable drop in plantings of Chenin blanc in recent years going from 600 acres in 1993 to just 67 acres by 2017.

The Wine

High intensity nose–yellow peach and white flowers. There is also some honeycomb and fresh straw notes that come out more as the wine warms in the glass.

On the palate the peach notes come through and adds a spiced pear element. There is noticeable texture and weight on the mouthfeel but I would still place the body as just medium. Medium-plus acidity adds a mouthwatering element and a little saline minerality as well. Long finish still carries the fruit but brings back some of the straw notes from the nose.

The Verdict

The 2015 Lang & Reed Chenin blanc from Napa Valley is, hands down, one of the most delicious domestic Chenin blancs that I’ve had the opportunity to try–second only to Chappellet’s example. While not quite Savennières level, at $25-30 it still delivers plenty of complexity that outshines many California Chardonnays and other white wines in that price range.

At nearly 3 years, it is still quite youthful and I can see this wine continuing to give pleasure for at least another 3-4 years.

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