Tag Archives: Jancis Robinson

Geek Notes — Champagne superlatives and exceptions (Part III) Why no Pinot in the Côte des Blancs?

We’ve covered the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne in parts I and II of this series. Now we turn our focus to the Côte des Blancs, the “hill of whites.”

Avize coat of arms image by infofiltrage. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Coat of Arms of the Grand Cru village of Avize. Note the color of the grapes.

It’s almost an understatement to say that this region is universally known for world-class Chardonnay. Of all the superlatives in Champagne, this is one you can absolutely take to the bank.

So pretty short article today, eh?

Well, not quite.

I’ve still got a few geeky tricks up my sleeve–including one notable exception. But more importantly, we’re going to look at the why behind the superlative.

Why Chardonnay? And why does no one talk about planting Pinot noir here? After all, it’s also a highly prized noble variety. So why is the entire Côte des Blancs region planted to 85% Chardonnay with only 7% Pinot noir?

To answer that, we need to cut deep as we look at the sub-regions of the Côte des Blancs.

Côte des Blancs (Heart of the region with the Grand Crus and all but one premier cru.)
Val du Petit Morin (The exception worth knowing about.)
Cote de Sézanne
Vitryat
Montgueux

That last one, Montgueux, is a bit of a wild card. I can see why it is officially grouped with the Côte des Blancs. But it’s in the Aube department, just west of Troyes. In comparison to the other subregions, Montgueux is 60 km away from Sézanne and over 100km away from Avize. So I’m going to put this one aside till Part IV.

Côte des Blancs map

Map of the Côte des Blancs from the UMC website

A couple more whetstones.

In Part I & II, I gave a few recommendations of helpful wine books and study tools. Today, I’ll add two more that I’ll be relying heavily on for this article.

Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste – This is the perfect companion to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine. While the latter goes into geeky encyclopedic detail, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste ties those details back to how they directly influence what ends up in your glass. Great book for blind tasting exams.

James E. Wilson’s Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines – Not going to lie. This is not a bedtime read. Well, it is if you want a melatonin boost. While chockful of tremendous insight, this is a very dense and technical book. You want to treat this more as an encyclopedia–looking up a particular region–rather than something you go cover to cover with. But if you want to sharpen your understanding of French wine regions, it’s worth a spot on your bookcase. (Especially with used copies on Amazon available for less than $10)

When you think of the Côte des Blancs, think about the Côte d’Or.

Butte de Saran photo by October Ends. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons underCC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the northern Grand Cru of Chouilly with the Butte de Saran in the background.

The Côte des Blancs is essentially Champagne’s extension of the Brie plateau (yes, like the cheese). Over time it has eroded and brought the deep chalky bedrock to the surface. Like the Côte d’Or, both the heart of the Côte des Blancs and Cote de Sézanne have east-facing slopes capped by forests with a fertile plain at the bottom.

This prime exposure is the first to receive warmth from the early morning sun. During the cold spring nights of flowering (after bud break), Chardonnay is most vulnerable as the earliest bloomer. It needs to get to that warmth quickly for successful pollination.

It’s a similar reason why growers in the Côte des Blancs avoid planting near the very top of the slope where there is more clay. The soils here are cooler and don’t heat up as quickly. Plus, being so close to the misty forest cap encourages wetter conditions that promote botrytis. As we covered in Part II, both Chardonnay and Pinot noir are quite sensitive to this ignoble rot.

Echoing back to Burgundy, we see that the most prized plantings of Chardonnay (notably the Grand Cru villages) in the Côte des Blancs are midslope. In the sparse areas where we do find Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, it’s usually the flatter, fertile plains that have deeper topsoils.

The Tiny Exceptions.

This is the case with the premier cru village of Vertus. While still 90% Chardonnay, the southern end of the village sees more clay and deeper topsoils as the slope flattens and turns westward. This encourages a little red grape planting with fruit from the village going to houses like Duval-Leroy, Larmandier-Bernier, Delamotte, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

The village of Grauves is also an interesting case. In his book, Champagne, Peter Liem argues that this premier cru should actually be part of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. Looking at a good wine map, you can easily see why. It’s on the other side of the forest cap from the rest of the Côte des Blancs villages–opposite Cramant and Avize. Here most all the vineyards face westward. While Chardonnay still dominates (92%), we see a tiny amount of Meunier (7%) and Pinot noir (1%) creep in.

Likewise, in Cuis–where vineyards make an almost 180 arch from Cramant and Chouilly to Grauves–we see a range of exposures that adds some variety to the plantings (4% red grapes). The home village of Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis is still thoroughly Chardonnay country as a fruit source for Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon.

This video (3:08) from Champagne Pierre Domi in Grauves has several great aerial drone shots of the area.

But why not more Pinot noir?

For years, plantings of Chardonnay have steadily increased. Part of this has been driven by market demand–particularly with the success of Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Another reason could be climate change with the search for more acidity and freshness.

So you could say, why bother planting Pinot noir when you have such great Chardonnay terroir?

But there are other viticultural reasons for the Côte des Blancs to flavor Chardonnay over Pinot noir. For one, despite the topographical similarities to the Côte d’Or (and Côte de Nuits), the soil is much chalkier in the Côte des Blancs. While Pinot noir likes chalk, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Chalk has many benefits, but it also has a significant negative.

It’s high calcium content and alkaline nature encourages reactions in the soil that make vital nutrients like iron and magnesium scarce. Both are needed for chlorophyll production and photosynthesis. A lack of these nutrients can lead to chlorosis–of which Pinot noir is particularly susceptible.

The effects of chlorosis can be seen in the yellowing of leaves due to lack of chlorophyll. Considering that all the sugars that go into ripening grapes come from the energy production of photosynthesis, this isn’t great for a wine region that often teeters on the edge of ripeness–especially with Pinot noir.

https://www.champagne-oudiette.com/en/01-the-terroir/

There is also more lignitic clay down in the Val du Petit Morin and Marne Valley.
This picture is from the website of Champagne Oudiette who has vineyards in both areas.

As James Wilson notes in Terroir, the “magical ingredient” to help balance these soils is lignite. In Champagne, lignitic clays are known as cendres noires or “black ashes.” Essentially compressed peat mixed with clay, the cendres noires helps hold these critical nutrients in the soil.

The Montagne de Reims, particularly around Bouzy and Ambonnay (which are home to quarries of cendres noires), naturally has more of this “magical ingredient.” While chlorosis can be an issue for Chardonnay as well–requiring the use of fertilizers or cendres noires to supplement the soil–the risk isn’t as grave.

However, there is one red grape stronghold in the Côte des Blancs.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Val du Petit Morin.

While still paced by Chardonnay (52%), this is the one area of the Côte des Blancs where you’ll find villages dominated by something else. If you have a good wine map (and read Part II of our series), you’ll see why.

Cutting between the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne, the Petit Morin is an east-west river that brings with it a fair amount of frost danger. Also, like the Marne, we see more diversity in soils with alluvial sand and clay joining the chalk party.

The Petit Morin also flows through the marshes of Saint-Gond–which played a key role in the First Battle of the Marne during World War I. Swampy marshland (and the threat of botrytis) frustrates Chardonnay and Pinot noir just as much as it frustrated the Germans.

Among the notable villages here:

Congy– (50% Pinot Meunier/28% Chardonnay) The home village of the renowned grower Ulysse Collin. This estate was one of the first to bring attention to the Val du Petit Morin.

Étréchy – The only premier cru outside of the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Neighboring both Vertus and Bergères-lès-Vertus (so away from the river), this follows the narrative of many of its 1er and Grand Cru peers by being 100% Chardonnay.

Villevenard – (53% Pinot Meunier/37% Chardonnay) Along with Sainte-Gemme in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite, Leuvrigny in the Rive Gauche and Courmas in the Vesle et Ardre of the Montagne de Reims, this autre cru is a source of Meunier for Krug. It’s also the home of Champagne Nominé Renard whose relatives help pioneer Champagne production in the village.

The video below (6:15) tells a little bit about their story with views of the vineyards starting at the 2:14 mark. You can see here how different the soils look compared to the heart of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Crus.

Côte de Sézanne

Just about every wine book will describe the Côte de Sézanne as a “warmer, southern extension of the Côte des Blancs.” The region certainly upholds the Chardonnay banner with the grape accounting for more than 75% of plantings.

But most of those wine books are going to ignore the Val du Petit Morin mentioned above. And they’re certainly going to ignore the influence that the swampy Marais Saint-Gond has on the northern villages of the Côte de Sézanne. Here we see villages like Allemant and Broyes, which, while still Chardonnay dominant, have more diversity than the near monovarietal heart of the Côte des Blancs.

Even going south to the namesake autre cru of Sézanne, we see nearly a third of the vineyards devoted to red grapes. Here, further away from the Val du Petit Morin, we still have a fair amount of clay in the soil. This, combined with the warmer climate, shapes not only the Chardonnays of the Côte de Sézanne (riper, more tropical) but also paves the way for red grape plantings.

In the village of Montgenost, south of Sézanne, we get firmly back to Chardonnay country (94%). This is the home turf of the excellent grower Benoît Cocteaux. While the video below (2:12) is in French, it does have some great images of the area.

Vitryat

If the Côte de Sézanne is the southern extension of the Côte des Blancs, then the Vitryat is its southeastern arm. And it’s even more of a “mini-me” than the Sézannais.

Of the 15 autre crus here, four are 100% Chardonnay-Changy, Loisy-sur-Marne, Merlaut and Saint-Amand-sur-Fion. Another four have 99% of their vineyards exclusive to the grape with no village having less than 95% Chardonnay. Yeah, it’s pretty much a white-out here.

Among the teeniest, tiniest of exceptions worth noting are:

Glannes – 97% Chardonnay/3% Pinot noir with fruit going to Moët & Chandon.

Vanault-le-Châtel – 99.1% Chardonnay, 0.3% Pinot noir with 0.6% other (Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Arbane and/or Petit Meslier). Louis Roederer purchases fruit from here.

Vavray-le-Grand – 99% Chardonnay/1% Pinot noir. A source of fruit for Billecart-Salmon.

Takeaways

Montgueux photo by Superjuju10. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

The village of Montgueux (which we’ll cover in Part 4) shares the same Turonian era chalk as the Vitryat sub-region. Both are different from the Campanian chalk of the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne.


Even as the Côte des Blancs exhibits the supreme superlative in its Chardonnay-dominance, looking under the covers always reveals more.

But the biggest takeaway that I hope folks are getting from this series is that both the exceptions and superlatives make sense. The combination of soils, climate and topography lend themselves more to some grape varieties over the other.

This is the story of terroir. The problems come when we start thinking of regions as monolithic and accepting, prima facie, the butter knife narrative about them. Even when the superlatives are overwhelmingly true (i.e., the Côte des Blancs is known for outstanding Chardonnay), the reasons why cut deeper.

We’ll wrap up this series with a look at the Côte des Bar.

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Geek Notes — Champagne superlatives and exceptions (Part II) Vallée de la Marne

Welcome back! To get the lowdown on the series check out Part I where we explore the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims. In Part III and IV, we’ll check out the Côte des Blancs and the Aube/Côte des Bar.

As for today, we’re heading to the Vallée de la Marne.

Marne & Epernay postcard. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by G.Garitan under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Marne river flowing past Épernay in the early 20th century.

If you’re one of those folks who “know enough to be dangerous” about Champagne, you’ll peg the Vallée de la Marne as the Pinot Meunier corner of the holy triumvirate of Champagne. However, as we noted in part one, neatly pigeonholing these regions with a single variety cuts about as deep as a butter knife.

To really start to “get” Champagne, you have to move beyond the superlatives (and the BS of so-called “Champagne Masters”). This requires looking at legit sources but also getting your hands on detailed maps.

Having good wine maps is an absolute must for any wine student.

Yes, you can find some online. For today’s journey through the Vallée de la Marne, this interactive map from Château Loisel will be useful. But sometimes clicking between computer tabs is annoying compared to a physical map in front of you.

I mentioned the Louis Larmat maps yesterday. But let me give you two more excellent options.

Map from https://maisons-champagne.com/en/appellation/geographical-area/the-marne-valley/

Map of the Vallée de la Marne from the UMC website.
In the lower-right, you can see the start of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Cru village of Avize noted.

Benoît France’s Carte des Vin. This is an entire series covering French wine regions–including a detailed map on La Vallée de la Marne.

Unfortunately, these maps are mostly only available in France. However, I was able to buy several when I lived in the US through Amazon for around $11-13 each. You will still need to pay international shipping. But buying multiples at once helps offset that a little.

Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine is always a reliable resource. It will list many of the villages and show topographical details. The only negative is that it doesn’t highlight the 17 subregions within Champagne.

There are six in the Vallée de la Marne.

Grande Vallée de la Marne
Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite (Right, or northern, bank of the Marne)
Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche (Left bank of the river)
Côteaux Sud d’Épernay
Vallée de la Marne Ouest (Western valley)
Terroir de Condé

Across the 103 villages of the Vallée de la Marne, it’s no shock that Pinot Meunier reigns supreme. The grape accounts for nearly 60% of all plantings.

Marne river at Hautvillers photo by Dguendel. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-4.0

The Marne river meandering by the premier cru village of Hautvillers.

As with many river valleys, frost is always going to be a hazard as cold air sinks and follows the rivers. Compared to larger bodies of waters such as lakes or estuaries, the relatively narrow and low-lying Marne doesn’t moderate the climate as dramatically.

That means that drops in temperature during bud break can be devastating for a vintage. A perfect example of this was the 2012 vintage.

This risk is most severe for Pinot noir. It buds the earliest followed soon after by Chardonnay. Then several days later, Pinot Meunier hits bud break–often missing the worst of the frost.

As we saw with many of the exceptions in the Montagne de Reims, the threat of frost in river valleys tilts the favor towards Meunier. It also helps that the grape is a tad more resistant to botrytis than Pinot noir and Chardonnay. This and other mildews thrive in the damp, humid conditions encouraged by the morning fog following the river.

Finally, while there is limestone throughout the Vallée de la Marne, it’s more marl (mixed with sand and clay) rather than chalk. Pinot noir and Chardonnay can do very well in these kinds of soils. However, Pinot Meunier has shown more affinity for dealing with the combination of cooler soils and a cooler, wetter climate.

But, of course, there are always exceptions–none more prominent than the Grande Vallée de la Marne.

In many ways, the Grande Vallée should be thought of as the southern extension of the Montagne de Reims. Its two Grand Crus, Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne, share many similarities with its neighbors, Bouzy and Ambonnay.

Along with the “super premier cru” of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, these south-facing slopes produce powerful Pinot noirs with excellent aging potential. Notable vineyards here include Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos Saint-Hilaire and Bollinger’s Clos St.-Jacques & Clos Chaudes Terres (used for their Vieilles Vignes Françaises).

Jamie Goode has a fantastic short video (1:55) walking through the two Bollinger vineyards. One thing to notice is that the vines are trained to stakes and propagated by layering.

Compared to most of the Montagne de Reims, the vineyards here are slightly steeper. They’re also at lower altitudes as the land slopes towards the river. However, in contrast to most of the Vallée de la Marne west of Cumières (the unofficial end of the Grande Vallée), the climate is warmer here–tempering some of the frost risks.

Also, the topsoils are thinner with the influence of chalky bedrock more keenly felt. This is particularly true in the eastern premier cru village of Bisseuil, which is planted to majority Chardonnay (66%) and only 6% Pinot Meunier. These grapes go into the cuvées of many notable Champagne producers. Among them, AR Lenoble, Deutz, Mumm and Gonet-Médeville.

Though Chardonnay is mostly a backstage player in the Grande Vallée, the premier cru Dizy (37% Chardonnay) joins Bisseuil as notable exceptions. This is the home turf of Jacquesson with Perrier-Jouët and Roederer also getting grapes from here.

Across the Grande Vallée, Pinot noir reigns supreme.

It accounts for nearly 65% of all the plantings among the 12 villages of the region. Here Pinot Meunier is a distant third with only around 15% of vineyard land devoted to it.

Meunier slowly starts to creep up in importance the further west you go. Here the soils get cooler and clay-rich with more sand. In the premier cru of Champillon, Pinot Meunier accounts for 31% of plantings and is an important source for Moët & Chandon.

Likewise, in its neighbor to the west, Hautvillers (the historical home of Dom Perignon), Meunier also accounts for around a third of vineyards. Of course, Moët & Chandon sees a good chunk of Hautvillers’ grapes along with Veuve Clicquot, Roederer, Jacquesson and Joseph Perrier.

The vlogger Ben Slivka has a 2-minute video of the area taken from a vista point near Champagne G.Tribaut.

Côteaux Sud d’Épernay

Across the river from the Grande Vallée is the city of Epernay. The hills extending south and slightly west make up an interesting transition area between the Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs.

The chalky bedrock is closer to the surface, with far less sand than most of the Vallée de la Marne. However, there is considerably more clay (and less east-facing slopes) in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay than the Côte des Blancs. The area is slightly dominated by Pinot Meunier (45%), with Chardonnay close behind at 43%. The city of Épernay, itself, is an autre cru with considerable Chardonnay plantings (60%).

There is also quite a bit of rocky–even flinty-soil in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. This is particularly true around the premier cru village of Pierry which was the home of the influential monk, Frère Jean Oudart.

Dom Perignon likely spent his career trying to get rid of bubbles. However, his near-contemporary Oudart (who outlived Perignon by almost three decades) actually used liqueur de tirage (sugar and yeast mixture) to make his wines sparkle intentionally.

Except for Pierry, all the villages of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay are autre crus.

Les 7 by Laherte Frères

Another geeky cool thing about Laherte Frères’ Les 7 Champagne is that it’s made as a perpetual cuvee in a modified solera system.

However, there are many notable villages, including Chavot-Courcourt–home to one of Champagne’s most exciting wine estates, Laherte Frères.

While the plantings of Chavot-Courcourt are slightly tilted towards Pinot Meunier (51% to 44% Chardonnay), in Laherte Frères’ Les Clos vineyard, all seven Champagne grape varieties are planted. Here Aurélien Laherte uses Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier to blend with the traditional big three to make his Les 7 cuvée. This is another “Must Try” wine for any Champagne lover.

Further south, we get closer to the Côte des Blancs with thinner top soils leading to more chalky influences. Here we encounter a string of villages all paced by Chardonnay–Moslins (58%) Mancy (52%), Morangis (52%) and Monthelon (51%).

Going back towards the northwest, the soils get cooler with more marly-clay. We return to Meunier country in villages such as Saint-Martin-d’Ablois (80% Pinot Meunier) and Moussy (61% PM)–home to the acclaimed Meunier-specialist José Michel & Fils and a significant source of grapes for Deutz.

Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Rive Gauche

As we move west, the superlatives of the Vallée de la Marne being Pinot Meunier country becomes gospel. The cold, mostly clay, marl and sandy soils lend themselves considerably to the early-ripening Meunier. Accounting for more than 75% of plantings, it’s only slightly more dominant in the Rive Gauche than the Rive Droite (70%).

Because of its location, there are more north-facing slopes on the left bank of the Rive Gauche. Conversely, the right bank of the Rive Droite has mostly south-facing slopes. This topography plays into the narrative that the Meunier from the Rive Gauche tends to be fresher, with higher acidity.  In contrast, those from the Rive Droite are often broader and fruit-forward.

However, there are several valleys and folds along tributaries running into the Marne. This leads to a variety of exposures in each area. But with these tributaries comes more prevalence for damp morning fog. Along these narrow river valleys, the risk of botrytis-bunch rot increases. While Pinot Meunier is slightly less susceptible than Pinot noir and Chardonnay, it’s still a significant problem in the Marne Valley. The 2017 vintage is a good example of that.

Though not about Champagne, the Napa Valley Grape Growers has a great short video (3:30) about botrytis. While desirable for some wines, it usually wreaks havoc in the vineyard.

Since there are few exceptions in these areas, I’ll note some villages worth taking stock of.

Damery (Rive Droite) – Located just west of Cumières, Damery is on the border with the Grande Vallée. With over 400 ha of vines, it’s the largest wine-producing village in the Vallée de la Marne. Planted to 61% Meunier, Damery is an important source for many notable Champagne houses. Among them, AR Lenoble, Billecart-Salmon, Joseph Perrier, Taittinger, Roederer, Bollinger and Pol Roger.

Sainte-Gemme (Rive Droite) – With over 92% Pinot Meunier, this autre cru is one of Krug’s leading sources for the grape.

Mardeuil (Rive Gauche) – With 30% Chardonnay, this village has the highest proportion of the variety in the Rive Gauche. Henriot gets a good chunk of this fruit along with Moët & Chandon.

Festigny (Rive Gauche) – A solitary hill within a warm valley, this village reminds Peter Liem, author of Champagne, of the hill of Corton in Burgundy. While there is more chalk here than typical of the Marne, this area is still thoroughly dominated by Meunier (87%). Festigny is noted for its many old vine vineyards–particularly those of Michel Loriot’s Apollonis estate.

Gary Westby of K & L Wine Merchants visited Loriot in Festigny where he made the video below (1:12).

Vallée de la Marne Rive Ouest and the Terroir de Condé

We wrap up our overview of the Vallée de la Marne by looking at the westernmost vineyards in Champagne. I also include the Terroir de Condé here because it seems like the classification of villages is frequently merged between the two.

Saâcy-sur-Marne (Ouest) – One of only three authorized Champagne villages in the Seine-et-Marne department that borders Paris. In fact, Saâcy-sur-Marne is closer to Disneyland Paris (50km) than it is to Epernay (70km). Going this far west, the soils change–bringing up more chalk. Here, in this left bank village, Chardonnay dominates with 60%.

Connigis (Ouest) – This is the only village in the western Marne Valley where Pinot noir leads the way. It just scrapes by with 45% over Meunier (41%). On the left bank of the river, Connigis used to be considered part of the Terroir de Condé. Today, Moët & Chandon is a significant purchaser of grapes from this autre cru.

Trélou-sur-Marne – Like all of the (current) Terroir de Condé, this village is overwhelmingly planted to Pinot Meunier (72%). However, it’s worth a historical note as being the first place where phylloxera was found in the Marne. This right bank village also helps supply the behemoth 30+ million bottle production of Moët & Chandon.

Kristin Noelle Smith has an 8-part series on YouTube where she focuses on notable producers of Champagne.

In episode three on Moët & Chandon (26:35), Smith touches on the impact of phylloxera in Champagne.

Takeaways

Though the Marne flows westward, the best way to think of the Vallée de la Marne is as a river of Pinot Meunier that changes as you go east. In the west, it truly lives up to the superlative of Meunier-dominance. This is because of the influence of the river and abundance of cold, clay and sand-based soils. But as we go east, and the river widens by the city of Épernay, the story changes considerably.

The part that “forks” north, the Grande Vallée, shares similarities with the southern Montagne de Reims. Here the terroir takes on more of the characteristics of the Pinot noir-dominant Grand Crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay. Whereas the south fork of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay becomes gradually chalkier. This explains why you see more Chardonnay-dominant villages the closer you get to the Côte des Blancs.

Nailing these two big distinctions (as well as understanding why Meunier thrives in the Marne) is truly dangerous knowledge. Especially for your pocketbook!

So drink up and I’ll see you for part III on the Côte des Blancs!

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Salty Old White Men

I thought it was a hoax when I first read the anonymous letter Tom Wark published on his site.

Salt image from Mahdijiba. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Now I don’t think that Tom made it up. But it feels like whoever sent it to him was working overtime to come up with the most insane caricature of a feminist Natural Wine zealot they could muster. Right down to the over the top capitalization of “MANipulated” wines.

There’s no way that this could’ve been real, right?

It seems like someone made a New Year’s resolution to do more shit-stirring in 2020–digging up not only the Natural Wine debate but also a good, old fashion row of “cis white men are the root of all evil.”

And, frankly, as both a feminist and wine geek who loves the excitement of natural wines, the sentiments of Wark’s anonymous commentator pisses me off.

Because it doesn’t do jack to move the conversation forward.

Before I go on, I should confess a bias since Tom Wark did write a very positive review of this site. But I’m not writing this post to come to Tom’s defense. What concerns me more is how daft diatribes like those of his anonymous writer distract from important discussions that the industry needs to have.

The wine world has diversity issues. That’s indisputable. It’s gotten better but–particularly in the realm of wine writing–it’s still largely the domaine of heterosexual, cis white males.

I’ve got bookcases full of wine books that are more than 80% authored by old white dudes. Pulling out some of my favorite books written by female authors, I could barely fill one shelf. And a good chunk of that is from Jancis Robinson.

Everywhere I go in my wine journey; I’m following the echos and opinions of old white men. When I’m researching a new region or wine, my first introduction is almost always through the lens of someone who sees and tastes the world quite differently than I do.

Wine books

A tale of two bookshelves. There are a lot more shelves that look like the top image than there are of the bottom.

And I at least have the privilege of sharing the same western Caucasian heritage as most of these writers.

I can’t imagine what it is like for POC and folks from non-western countries wadding through tasting notes, analogies and descriptors that are entirely foreign to their own.

Pardon Taguzu, a sommelier from Zimbabwe, made this point well noting, “I never grew up eating gooseberries, so I will never taste that in a wine.” For folks like Taguzu, they’re more likely to pick up the flavor of tsubvu in a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon than they would blackcurrant.

In blind tasting exams, mango and other tropical fruits are standard notes you look for in New World Viogniers. But how helpful is that for an Indian wine lover from a country with over 1500 species of mangos?

Think of all that we lose, as a wine community, when we’re not hearing these diverse voices.

We need these other voices to add depth and inclusiveness to the narrative of wine.

But acknowledging that craving for diversity doesn’t mean we have to demonize the old white men who came before. We don’t need to burn chairs to add more places to the table.

Oz Clarke image from Colin1661music. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Oz Clarke, salt bae

Tossing aside the contributions of folks like Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, Matt Kramer and their ilk is like tossing the salt from your cabinet. It’s not going to make you a better cook. Nor will losing these voices make the world of wine any richer.

Yes, it’s a seasoning that certainly needs to be limited in our diets. Lord knows that too much of salty old white men running amok leads to groanworthy sexism. But those are the ills of using a shovel when a dash will do.

While the flavor of wine writing is enhanced by bringing in more curry, cayenne, ginger and sage, we shouldn’t denigrate the role that salty old white men have had in preserving this passion.

Even though we certainly can (and should) scale back on the amount of salt taking up space on our bookshelves–you can’t replace it. Their opinions and insights still have value next to all the other seasonings that enliven our understanding of wine.

We need to build bigger spice racks, not “Fuck the Salt”.

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Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re secondary notes in this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

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Wine Influencers and Thinking Like a Consumer

I’m working my way through Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass where I just finished Chapter 17 on editing. I adore the advice that Gaiman gives here on the importance of looking at your work through the eyes of the reader.

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

When he finishes a draft, Gaiman sets it aside for a week or so. Then he returns to as if he’s never seen it before in his life. He brings with him all the expectations that he would have as a reader–to be entertained or enlightened and wanting to follow a good story that makes sense with no dangling loose ends.

Often in his first draft reading, he’ll find many unsatisfying marks that he’ll annotate for Gaiman the author to later revisit. It might be a character that Gaiman the reader wanted to learn more about or a battle whose descriptions felt far too truncated to immerse himself into the story.

I love the simplicity of that advice. Yet, I don’t doubt that it’s difficult to follow through on. Beyond the troubles of divesting yourself emotionally from something you’ve created, there’s also the challenge of “forgetting” all the knowledge you take for granted.

I see these same difficulties when it comes to wine marketing where we rarely stop and think like a consumer.

Now I’m not talking about market research and consumer studies.

Photo by Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD Van Vechten

Do note that you don’t need to take off your shirt for this exercise. Though, seriously, DAMN… Marlon Brando.

I’m talking about walking into a store or sitting in front of a restaurant wine list and looking at it like you don’t work in the industry at all. Think Marlon Brando-ing instead of branding.

I’m talking about asking the question “What influences me?” and “How do I decide?” in those situations as if you were a regular consumer.

By doing that, by taking fresh eyes to a marketing dilemma, there are many insights to gleam that are not going to be measured by metrics. To win consumers’ hearts and wallets, you have to first get into their heads.

So what influences you?

When you’re standing in the wine aisle or staring at a wine list, are you recalling wines that you saw random bottle porn shots of while scrolling through your Instagram feed?

Are you remembering wines recommended by any of Global Data’s Top 10 Wine Influencers, Social Vigneron’s Top 40+ Wine Influencers of 2018 or the Beverage Trade Network’s “Top Wine Influencers In 2019 You Need to Pay Attention To“?

Well, you might be. But if you’re truly channeling your inner Marlon or Meryl Streep, the odds of these influencers actually influencing most regular consumers are fairly low.

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

Pretty much any list of top influencers should prominently feature the Beyoncé of Wine.

Even among some of the genuinely notable influencers on those lists like Jancis Robinson, Jamie Goode, Robert Joseph, Fiona Beckett, Alder Yarrow, Karen MacNeil, etc., the extent of their influence is felt far more on wine industry folks than consumers.

Yes, there is a segment of highly engaged consumers who subscribe to wine magazines, read wine blogs, comment on forums and follow influencers on social media. But even in the wettest of winery owners’ dreams, this segment is rarely ever more than a minority of wine consumers.

How do I decide?

Go back to that wall of wine. Pick up that wine list and look at them again as a consumer. How would you decide?

Depending on your mood and the occasion, you’re likely going to do a couple of things.

1.) Go with what you know or at least what you see everywhere (i.e., the McDonald’s/Starbucks wines that dominate supermarkets)

The Bacon number of wine

The Bacon Numbers of Wine Influence.
The further you are away from the consumer, the less influential you will be.

2.) Phone a friend or ask the wine steward and sommelier for advice (Folks with Bacon numbers of 1 in the Wine Influence Sphere)

3.) Google “Best wine for blah” or pick the most interesting label or wine name and Google it to see if it’s not plonk.

And here, with this last option, do we find where wine influencers can actually make a difference.

Influencers aren’t helping you at the beginning of the consumer journey, but near the end.

Every marketing student has seen the familiar consumer journey map documenting the path from brand awareness/familiarity to consideration and then purchase with hopefully loyalty/advocacy coming soon after. The reality is not that linear, but it’s a solid starting point.

The problem with the wine industry’s relationship with influencers is that we’re often thinking more like marketers instead of consumers. It’s easy to assume if we see influencers work in other sectors such beauty, fashion and tech with generating brand awareness then that is how they’re going to work with wine.

But wine is not like beauty, fashion or tech. Consumers aren’t scrolling through social media feeds and blogs looking for something to “inspire” them to drink. Again, step back and put yourself in a consumer’s shoes. Think about how you shop for things–what catches your attention on impulse versus something that you deliberately look for.

If you want a better comparison with wine, think about taking a vacation.

Yes, sometimes the inspiration to travel can come as an impulse. A picture or a story of an exotic location can come out of the blue to capture your imagination. But more often you have a general sense of where you’d like to go–if not a particular place in mind.

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

Somewhere with a lot of feral cats…

Somewhere warm.

Or somewhere not too expensive.

Somewhere with great food, great history or great beaches.

Somewhere….blah.

And then what do you do? You start Googling about your somewheres until eventually you find just the right “where” that fits your mood and occasion.

Wine consumers do the same thing.

I can’t tell you how many times on the sales floor I witnessed a consumer break out their phone and start googling. Of course, I was trying my best to be their in-person influencer but, for whatever reason, some customers just want to ford ahead on their own. However, it’s not really on their own because they still want some sanctification of their choice.

So they turn to the almighty influencer of Google to see what comes up. Sometimes they’ll have a particular place/wine in mind–like a Napa Cab or a German Riesling. Sometimes it’s more generic like “Best wine to pair with risotto” or “Best red blend under $20”.

Often it’s a particular wine that caught their eye or even a double-checking of what the wine steward or sommelier recommended. You know, just to be sure.

This is the consideration stage of the consumer journey.

Photo from Nick Nijhuis. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Wine blogs and most non-consumer social media (i.e., influencer posts) are most effective when you’ve got the consumer already considering your wine.

This is where the consumer is looking to buy. They already have an awareness of “Brand Wine” and even a vague familiarity of what they want. But they’re honing their choice down to a particular wine and looking for something to verify that they’re making the right selection.

Often winery websites will show up on these Google searches. They might be clicked so wineries shouldn’t overlook how valuable this experience is. However, let’s again step back and think about this as a consumer. If you’re looking for an unbias confirmation, you’re probably going to skip the winery website.

Instead, you’re going to look for links that seem to be objective and knowledgable. And you’re probably going to find a lot of sites belonging to wine influencers. (Hopefully, those influencers are upfront and ethical about noting wines received as samples.)

This is why it’s absolutely vital for wineries to be paying attention to what kind of content shows up on these “consideration searches.”

A Winery’s #1 Influencer Metric — What kind of content are they producing?

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

Smartphones are the new Wine Spectator.

And where does it show up on Google rankings of search terms that my consumer might actually be googling?

The entire marketing community is waking up to the fact that influencers’ engagement metrics and followers are hugely gameable. I honestly don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface with the extent of fraud that is going on in the influencer community.

However, the marketers who are telling wineries to invest in micro-influencers aren’t necessarily blowing smoke up the bum. Though I would be very wary of the ones who don’t strongly advocate thoroughly checking out and doing research on an influencer they’re partnering with. But a massive part of that research should be spent on looking at the quality of the content that the influencer is producing. Metrics can be gamed, but good content stands on its own.

But wait, Amber, aren’t you one of these so-called influencers?

Eh, maybe. I dunno.

Yeah, I have a samples policy and will write posts about wines and tasting I’ve received. But I don’t buy into the “influencer lifestyle” and have no problems being blunt about that.

That’s because I tend to think more like a consumer and winery owner instead of a blogger/influencer.

Internship days photo

Ah, yes. Internship days. The boss didn’t want to pay to use a sorting table but wasn’t happy about the number of jacks that were coming out of the crusher/destemmer.
So he stationed the interns underneath the crusher bin to pick out jacks while grapes rained down on us.
I swear I rung at least a 375ml of juice out from my hoodie.

While I’ve studied wine marketing in school and continue to study it with my WSET Diploma studies, a considerable part of my outlook stems from years working in the trenches of wine retail. I didn’t cut my teeth in conference rooms telling wineries what will help sell their wines. Instead, I spent it on the floor actually selling wine and learning first hand what consumers responded to and what they didn’t.

But, as I noted in my bio, I also worked at wineries and gave a lot of thought to starting a winery.

My wife also studied winemaking and while we’re finding that the technology sector pays significantly more, the idea of “a retirement winery” somewhere down the road is still on the table. Only I know that running a winery is not really retirement but a heck of a lot of work. Making wine is the easy part. Selling it is the challenge.

So when I write posts like this, I’m not just sharing sentiments earned through my studies and experience. This is the advice that I’m taking to heart and what I will do when it’s my money, my brand and my success on the line.

And here’s exactly how I would approach partnering with influencers.

1.) I would Google, Bing and Yahoo the shit out of my winery’s name and any phrases that would be tangentially related to my wines. Brainstorm away with things “Best Cab under X”, “New York wines to try”, “Best wine to go with toasted ravioli”, “Dry Creek Zinfandel”, “Sustainable Sangiovese”, etc.

2.) Note which wine writers and bloggers show up in results on those queries. While search engine optimization is its own Pandora’s box to figure out, it’s never a bad place to start with influencers who are already trending on pages 1 and 2 of relevant search terms.

3.) Check out the sites, look at the quality of their content–particularly with how they show up on mobile phones. Again, think through the eyes of a consumer who is likely going to be doing their Googling in stores and restaurants. Also, note that search rankings are often different on mobile versus desktops with sites like Google favoring mobile-optimized websites on mobile devices with a higher ranking. (Oh, clear your cookies/go incognito with your searches for more accurate results too!)

I would also do searches on Instagram and Twitter under relevant hashtags. Make sure to check out what kind of cross-platform content your potential influencer partner creates here as well.

Now I’ll freely admit that I’m not acing all these things here on SpitBucket.

But I’m not writing this for my benefit as a blogger.

Instead, I’m taking Neil Gaiman’s advice and looking at this through the eyes of the reader–which these days on SpitBucket is mostly wine industry folks. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll spare you the pandering and BS.

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Cellar Palate Fatigue

One of the wine Facebook accounts I follow posted an interesting question on their page. If you’re at a restaurant that features your wine, would you order it?

Photo By IDS.photos from Tiverton, UK - Time for dinner, CC BY-SA 2.0

Even though the page is public, I’m not going to link it here because several of the replies from industry folks I respect was downright disheartening. Reading the thread left me scratching my head and going “Why?”

It makes sense for importers and distributor reps to order wines from their large portfolios. They need to know how these wines taste and often don’t get a chance to visit every winery they represent. However, as a consumer, it’s something that I would hate to see my favorite winemakers and winery owners do.

Lord knows that they have plenty of opportunities to try their wines at the winery and tasting events. With a  few small exceptions, ordering their own stuff at a restaurant is either egotism running amok or an invitation for a bad case of cellar palate.

What is Cellar Palate?

Painting by Adolf Humborg (1847–1921). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-Art (PD-old-70)

The original masters of cellar palate. Granted, it didn’t hurt them much, but that is one of the perks of having a near monopoly.

Jancis Robinson describes cellar palate as “what happens when a wine producer becomes too acclimatised to their own wines or those of their neighbours.” 

Robinson’s piece gives several excellent examples of how cellar palate on a regional level has adversely impacted the wine industry.

But I’m not here to talk about regional cellar palate or a homogeny of styles from an area. Instead, I want to point out the poor form and foolishness of any winemaker or winery owner to regularly buy their wines when dining out on their own.

That is because cellar palate is a self-inflicted wound that is easily avoided. Yet why do wineries keep stabbing themselves in the back?

A winemaker’s palate is like a knife.

Its usefulness is limited by how properly aligned and sharp it is. Professional chefs hone their knives with steel every time before they use them. They also never let their knives go too long without sharpening.

Photo By U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 3rd Class Derrick M. Ingle. - This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 031204-N-1711I-001

I thought about taking a stab at a metaphor for high-acids white here.

A winemaker or winery owner who only regularly drinks their own wine is keeping their honing steel in the block and the sharpener at the store.

They’re letting their palates become dull and desensitized to both the beauty and frailty in their winemaking.

That might not immediately hinder them if they’re producing tasty wine that sells. But eventually, in a competitive market, every style goes out of fashion. A dull palate leads to senses that aren’t sharp enough to pick up on those cues.

Ambitious winemakers and forward thinking winery owners should always be honing their palates.

They should always be trying what else is out there. New grapes, new regions, new styles. Every chance and every opportunity–especially when they are dining out.

Yeah, it’s great that this restaurant features your wine. But it’s not only your wine that they’re featuring.  Paying attention to what the sommeliers and beverage directors are selecting to go with their cuisine is valuable intel that is literally right in front of you. Take advantage of that.

Even if you are just ordering your neighbor’s wine down the road, it’s still better than ordering your own wine. You’re at least honing your blade, if not sharpening it by trying something radically different.

Now, yes, there are always exceptions.

Photo By Sarah Stierch - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

And, of course, at sponsored winemaker’s dinners.

I’m not talking about a blanket ban on a winery ever ordering their wines. There are situations–such as when you are taking a distributor rep, media or new client to dinner–that merits ordering your wine. Then it’s educational because these people need to be trying these wines if they are to sell them or understand the winery.

But the key here is that the wine is ordered for the guests’ benefit and not for the winery’s ego.

There is also an educational benefit to a winemaker or winery owner ordering an older library vintage of their wine that is featured on a list. Not only will this be a good check-up of how the wine is aging but it can also demonstrate how a particular restaurant is storing their wines.

But what is not a good reason is the ludicrous idea that a winery ordering their own wines is “showing support to an account.”

Oh, give me a break.

You support your accounts by making high-quality wine that their patrons are going to want to order. You support them by marketing your wines effectively and getting the word out about where consumers can find them (when the law allows that).

And you support your accounts by offering samples and training for their staffs. That’s a great time to open up and taste your wine. But paying restaurant mark-up on your own wine to artificially inflate sales is not “supporting your accounts.”

It’s either ego or foolishness. Either way, it’s a habit that quality-minded wineries should cut out.

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Women, Wine and Twitter — Great Accounts To Follow

In my early Twitter days, I would pretty much follow anyone with “wine” in their bio–wineries, writers, news sites and other personalities. But I’ve gotten far more selective over the years as I started to view my Twitter feed as a tool.

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

I’m on here nearly every day looking for new content to devour. Above all, I want to find engaging conversations that encourage me to think more deeply about my sentiments on wine. Admittedly, I don’t always find that amidst the noise and other rubbish that can populate the site.

However, in the waning hours of International Women’s Day, I wanted to highlight the accounts that are written by women which do provide me the intriguing content and conversations I crave.

While this may appear to be fairly exhaustive, it’s far from it. I created a list on the SpitBucket Twitter page titled “Women Wine Twitter” which features many more accounts.

I’m always looking to add more so if you know of someone that I missed, add their names in the comments below.

Rules for Inclusion

The women listed below are accounts that I follow myself. As I noted above, I try to be somewhat selective in my follows. My criteria for following is dependent on an account being active, engaging and mostly wine focused.

I understand how outside life can get in the way. But I have little interest in following an account that only tweets once or twice a month if that. Even more important than activity, though, is the quality of the content. I want to get something out of the accounts I follow–whether that be learning something new about wine, an inspiration for a post or a reason to think about things in a different way.

All of the accounts listed below deliver on those criteria and are well worth following.

Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers

Sadly not too many Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers are really active on Twitter. Quite a few fall into the “tweet every once in a while” mindset and it seems like most Master Sommeliers have migrated over to Instagram.

But the ones below are a few notable exceptions that I’ve found.

Jancis Robinson (@JancisRobinson)

The Beyoncé of Wine. Need I say more?

Sarah Abbott (@SarahAbbottMW)

Sarah is a Master of Wine who posts reasonably regularly about various tastings she’s attending, MW affairs, timely news articles as well as posts from her Swirl Wine Group blog.

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan MW (@JediWineMaster)

By far, the coolest wine name on Twitter. And it’s a moniker that Simonetti-Bryan certainly lives up to as evidenced by her tweets and fabulous Rosé Wine wine book (which I reviewed here).

Elizabeth Gabay MW (@LizGabayMW)

One of the foremost authorities on rosé wine, I also get quite a bit of insight into the European market and politics from following her Twitter feed. Recently, she was in the Canary Islands where she posted a great pic of the many old-school styles of vine trellising still used on the Spanish islands.

Debra Meiburg MW (@DebraMeiburgMW)

Debra is an Asian-based Master of Wine who comments on various aspects of the wine industry. Her Twitter feed is always an excellent source for keen insights such as the quotes she pulled from Laura Catena’s recent seminar in Hong King.

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

Jeannie Cho Lee

Jeannie Cho Lee MW (@JeannieChoLee)

The first Asian Master of Wine, Jeannie is a frequent contributor to Decanter and the Robb Report. While her Twitter feed has its fair share of bottle porn, I appreciate that she adds some context and details to describe all the fabulous wine she is drinking. It’s always nice to know that your sentiment on Cristal is shared by a Master of Wine.

Pascaline Lepeltier (@plepeltier)

Along with Alice Feiring, Pascaline authored the Dirty Guide to Wine and is a big advocate of Natural Wine. She is also an evangelist for the wines of her native Loire Valley including the incredibly underrated Chenin blanc grape. Bringing more attention to Chenin is a mission that I can certainly get behind!

Wine Business and Marketing Mavens

Rebecca Hopkins (@beckhopkinswine)

Rebecca is a long time industry vet who frequently comments and retweets articles about important happenings in the industry. A native Australian, she’ll often tweet about some of the silly ways that Australian wines and other beverages are marketed.

Cathy Huyghe (@cathyhuyghe)

The co-founder of Enolytics, many of Cathy’s tweets (as well as her articles for Forbes and other publication) are business and data-driven. I particularly like the way that she tends to cut through the noise to show unique perspectives about hot-button wine topics such as her post in January about diversity in the wine business.

https://twitter.com/VinoSocialNancy

Screenshot of Nancy Croiser’s Vino Social Twitter page.

Nancy Croisier (@VinoSocialNancy)

Nancy is a long time marketing specialist who runs Vino Social which helps wineries better utilize social media. Her mission is one close to my heart and such a vital component in regaining the lost storytelling of wine. Needless to say, her Twitter feed is a master class in savvy social media use and is well worth following for anyone in the wine business.

Jessyca Lewis (@JessycaLewis)

Jessyca is a wine educator with a business and marketing focus. Every other Monday she hosts interviews and moderates conversations about wine marketing topics under the #winemktmonday hashtag. For anyone wanting to learn more about the business, particularly in the US, this is a must-follow.

Polly Hammond (@mme_hammond)

Along with Reka Haros and Felicity Carter (mentioned below), Polly usually gets tagged and contributes to really informative and interesting wine conversations on Twitter. It makes sense way given her background in the marketing world running 5forests in New Zealand.

Melanie Ofenloch (@dallaswinechick)

A professional marketing consultant in the Dallas area, Melanie is a fixture at many tasting events where she interacts with industry folks such as Anne Bousquet from Domaine Bousquet. Her Twitter feed features a lot of pics and her thoughts from these events as well as useful retweets of interesting wine articles.

Brilliant Women Winemakers and Winery Owners

Reka Haros (@RekaHaros)

Reka owns Sfriso Winery with her husband in the Treviso region of Venice. But she has a background in marketing and advertising which gives her great insights as well. She contributes to some of the best Twitter convos happening in the wine industry (IMO). Like this recent thread about a Harvard Business Review article on wine consumers that was stirring up controversy.

Treveri blind bottles

Don’t be misled by the bling display bottles, there is some seriously good sparkling wine being made here.

Julie Grieb (@cuveetirage)

Julie owns the Washington State sparkling wine producer Treveri with her husband and is an alum of Sonoma University Wine Business Management program. While a lot of her tweets, understandably, focus on sparkling wine (including highlighting the super cool single-vineyard Pinot Meunier bottling from Alfred Gratien) she also participates in a lot of fun win convos.

WOWSonoma (@wowsonoma)

This Twitter account highlights women-owned wineries in Sonoma. But their tweets often extend beyond Sonoma including a directory of women-owned wineries across the US.

Sarah Garrett  (@SerranoWine)

I’ve mentioned Sarah on the blog before because of her skillful marketing to Millennials. Together with her husband Brice, they run a winery down in Paso Robles that specializes in Rhone varieties. Their Twitter feed gives great behind-the-scenes insights into all the hard work that goes into maintaining a vineyard and running a winery.

Lori Budd (@Dracaenawines)

With her husband Michael, Lori runs Dracaena Wines in Paso Robles. While their wines have won many awards, so has her blog which has expanded to a podcast that features interviews with winemakers and other industry folks. She was also the spark plug behind the development of Cabernet Franc Day.

Elizabeth Vianna (@ChimneyRockWine)

I may get an opportunity to meet Elizabeth in early May when I do an interview tour with producers of the Stags Leap District AVA. I’ll be completely honest; it will be tough not to fangirl out if that happens. She is such a tremendous winemaker who injects a lot of personality into her wines that can also be seen on her twitter feed like in this behind-the-scenes post from a UC-Davis seminar conducted by Dr. Linda Bisson (another rockstar).

Kronos vineyard

The Kronos vineyard outside Corison’s tasting room in St. Helena.

Cathy Corison (@cathycorison)

So I actually did fangirl out when I met Cathy. I couldn’t help it. She is such a legend in the industry and one of the kindest, most humble voices you will ever meet. Her feed is not only worth following for her insights but also links to great articles like this write-up on Elaine Chukan Brown (a marvelous wine writer worth following as well @hawk_wakawaka).

Amelia Ceja (@AmeliaCeja)

Pioneering owner of the Napa Valley winery Ceja in Carneros. She is the first and only Mexican-American woman to own a winery, earning honors at the Smithsonian.

Good Sources For Wine News and Other Perspectives

Anyone that follows the SpitBucket Facebook page knows that I’m a news junkie. If you’ve ever wondered where I get many of the articles I post and comment on, it’s from the feeds of these ladies below.

Esther Mobley (@Esther_mobley)

As the wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Esther holds a lot of sway in the California wine industry. But what I love is that she doesn’t lord over her domain with a pen but instead looks for the humanity behind each story such as her incredibly thought-provoking piece on migrant female workers’ role in the California wine industry. More recently, she wrote a very touching tribute to the late Stags Leap District icon, John Shafer.

Jane Anson (@newbordeaux)

Jane is the lead Bordeaux writer for Decanter and, frankly, I think she is the best Bordeaux reviewer currently in the business. When I was reviewing Bordeaux Futures offers for the 2017 campaign, I found her detailed reports and honest assessment of this uneven vintage to be the most informative and useful. While there are a lot of great writers on Bordeaux, if you want to only follow one–follow Jane.

Kelli White's Napa book

My Christmas present last year was Kelli White’s 1255 page tome on Napa Valley. It’s a beauty!

Kelli Audrey White (@kelliwhitewine)

One of the lead writers on GuildSomm, her articles are can’t miss reads. The amount of background research and details that she puts into her work is inspirational. Simply put, I want to be Kelli White when I grow up.

Felicity Carter (@FelicityCarter)

The editor-in-chief of Meininger’s Wine Business International, Felicity Carter is one of the most influential women in wine. I can only imagine how jammed pack her schedule must be but she still manages to find time to contribute to many thoroughly engaging wine conversations on Twitter. In fact, it was one of her tweets that inspired my Wine & Politics — Strange Bedfellows or Drinking Buddies? post.

Becca Yeamans-Irwin (@TheAcademicWino)

Along with Lewis Perdue, Becca curates the daily wine news fetch for Wine Business Insight. On her blog, her posts aptly take an academic bent focusing on scientific studies and literature related to the beverage industry–such as this review of social media use on Facebook by wineries in Sicily.

Dorothy J. Gaiter (@winecouple)

With her husband, John Brecher, Dottie wrote the Wall Street Journal’s wine column for 12 years and is still producing outstanding content on her Grape Collective site. She also pioneered “Open That Bottle Night” which has even been immortalized on Jeopardy!

Jill Barth (@jillbarth)

Jill’s work is featured in Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, Forbes and USA Today. Her Twitter feed is a smorgasbord of highly informative news articles from many different sources–as well as many different topics like this uber geeky piece on the genetic history of yeast strains used in beer.

Michelle Williams (@Fiery01Red)

In addition to her Rockin Red Blog, Michelle also writes for Snooth, Forbes and other publications. Like most great writers, her Twitter feed is very well-curated with links and retweets to many interesting articles as well as her own work.

Liza Zimmerman (@LizaWineChick)

A longtime writer and wine educator, Liza brings a wealth of experience and insight to her writings. On sites like WineSearcher.com and Forbes, she often gets inside scoops and valuable interviews on leading wine topics–like the recent MS scandal.

Lauren Mowery (@chasingthevine)

Lauren is an MW student who also contributes to Wine Enthusiast, USA Today, Forbes and other publications. You’ll often find her posts being retweeted and circulated around the Twitter-sphere. Among her many great articles was this recent interview with Nicole Salengo, winemaker for Berryessa Gap Vineyards.

screenshot of Seven Fifty Daily's twitter page

I’m shocked at how few people are following Seven Fifty Daily’s Twitter feed right now.
There is some seriously good stuff being published here.

Katherine Cole (@kcoleuncorked)

A leading voice on Seven Fifty Daily, Katherine wrote a tremendous piece on legendary French wine importer Martine Saunier that is a must read any time of the year. But it particularly fits for Women’s History Month. Seven Fifty Daily is becoming one of the top resources for compelling content and Katherine (along with editor-in-chief Erica Duecy @ericaduecy) is a big reason why.

Wine Bloggers/Media Conference Discoveries

Noelle Harman (@outwinesblog)

Noelle is a fellow WSET Diploma student who chronicles her journey on her Twitter feed and blog, Outwines. The name comes from the terrific outlines of major wine regions and wine styles that she has created for her exams–which she freely provides for anyone to use. Without a doubt, one of the best things that any wine student can do is to bookmark that page I just linked and incorporate these outlines into your studies.

Luciana Braz (@WineTalkGroup)

I met Luciana at the Wine Bloggers Conference and love following her feed which includes pictures and videos from her travels and dining. But instead of just posting boring old bottle porn, she includes fun stuff like this Madeira Wine Tower that I would probably have the same expression as she does here upon seeing.

Nancy Koziol (@WriterNancy)

Nancy gave the best and most informative presentation of WBC18 about the importance of good writing and how it affects your Google traffic. That talk and her follow-up correspondence with me has helped me immensely in becoming a better writer. If you are a long time reader, you may have noticed the change in my writing from early October 2018 to after. A considerable part of that is because of Nancy.

Amanda Barnes (@amanda_tweeter)

Amanda is a Southern Hemisphere-based wine writer who also gave another great presentation at WBC18. Her account is a must follow to gain insights on dreadfully underreported areas of wine. Especially with wine students, it is so easy to get so Euro and USA-focused that you overlook the cool stuff that is happening in places like Uruguay.

Mo Blum (@MoWino_com)

While I’ve not had the privilege of trying her dishes, Mo looks to be a fabulous cook and she frequently posts about her creations and wine pairings. She’s recently branched out into publishing short cooking tips videos on how to use wine in your cooking that are hugely informative.

Crushed Grape Chronicles (@CrushGrapeChron)

Robin Renken runs the Crushed Grape Chronicles blog with her husband, Michael. They not only post great content that seeks out the backstory of wine but their Twitter feed is a source for fun articles from a variety of publications.

Aspiring Winos (@aspiringwinos)

While Anne is a bit more active in her Unique Gifter account (@UGifter), she posts fun stuff about her and her husband, Jeff’s, journey in learning more about wine.

Cayuse En Cerise

I also have to admire Sandi’s wine picking skills. At my “free-for-all” cellar clean out party last month she nailed it with this 2012 Cayuse En Cerise.

Decanted Podcast (@DecantedPodcast)

Sandi Everingham is one half of this podcasting team that I not only follow on Twitter but subscribe to on Overcast as well. Back in December, I did a review of the Decanted Podcast. What particularly impressed me was how well intuned that Sandi and Dave were in the happenings of the Washington wine scene. That savvy come through in their tweets as well as their podcast.

Liz Barrett (@LizBChicago)

Along with the incredibly charming Odd Bacchus, Liz frequently posts hilarious video wine reviews on a broad range of topics. One recent one that I liked was a blind tasting of musician-related wineries like Sting’s Il Palagio and Constellation Brands’ Dreaming Tree which features Dave Matthews lyrics on its labels.

Diane Roberts (@Positive_Vines)

A Dallas-based blogger, Diane’s posts feature not only great photos and insights from her travels but also a lot of fun stuff about her experiences in the Texas wine and beverage scene.

Drinky LaRue (@Winelover0227)

If you’re looking for the joie de vivre of wine, check out Drinky’s Twitter feed and blog. At its core, wine is about sharing great times and great memories with friends which Drinky does in her posts, retweets and convos. She also brings you to some terrific tasting events she attends that may make you feel a wee bit jealous.

Wine Travel Eats (@winetraveleats)

With her partner David and frequent blog contributor Wendy Baune (@GrnLakeGirl), Amber produces excellent content and gorgeous photos on her Wine Travel Eats and companion sites.  She covers a broad spectrum of topics. One recent favorite was her post on Sherry wine.

Leeann Froese (@leeannwine)

As co-owner of Town Hall Brands in Vancouver, British Columbia, Leeann brings a lot of marketing savvy and insights to her posts. She’s one of my go-to sources on what is happening in the BC wine scene.

Thea Dwelle (@Luscious_Lushes)

Thea was an icon at the WBC and it was easy to see why. She has been producing great content on her blog for years which she frequently posts on her Twitter feed–like this recent revisiting on her exploration of the Mencia grape in the Bierzo region of Spain.

Margot Savell (@WriteforWine)

Margot is one of the original Washington wine bloggers that I’ve been following for more than ten years. While she is a fixture in the Washington wine scene, she posts about a variety of wine topic including all the fun discoveries she is currently having on her Australian tour.

US-Focus Bloggers

Kirkland Wine Gal (@kirklandwinegal)

A Pacific Northwest blogger, a lot of Kirkland Wine Gal’s tweets are Washington focused–including this fun Buzzfeed-like quiz from Woodinville Wine Country about “What Woodinville Wine Are You?”. Apparently, I’m Cabernet Sauvignon which will make a handful of readers chuckle.

Amy Lieberfarb (@amylieberfarb)

Amy is a Sonoma-based blogger who gets tagged in many great wine conversations, particularly under the #sonomachat hashtag. These convos feature fun back and forth chats about food and wine pairing as well as some gorgeous photos of wine country life. She also posts and retweets a lot of helpful wine articles.

Kathy Wiedemann's Twitter

Screenshot of Kathy Wiedemann’s Twitter page.

Kathy Wiedemann (@Virginia_Made)

A passionate advocate for the wines of Virginia, Kathy’s Twitter feed is a great introduction and inspiration to learn more about the wines of Thomas Jefferson’s home state. But even beyond Virginia wine, Kathy is a frequent instigator and contributor to a lot of engaging wine convos including this recent one on Orange wine.

Elaine Schoch (@thecarpetravel)

Elaine is a Denver-based travel writer who runs Carpe Travel. Here she publishes unique content about exciting places including one on the growing New Mexico wine industry.

Jacqueline Coleman (@HistoryandWine)

Jacqueline has another great Twitter handle and her posts often combine her love of history and wine like this recent link to an article on the Coravin blog about the origins of the Grenache grape.

Rupal Shankar (@Syrah_Queen)

Another great Twitter handle but Rupal tweets about more than just Syrah. A recent fav of mine was her post about Nero d’Avola in Sicily.

Nancy Brazil (@MsPullThatCork)

In addition to running her blog, Nancy is a big reader of wine articles from across the globe and posts the best content she finds–including a fantastic piece from Wine Enthusiast about notable first among women in the wine industry.

The Swirling Dervish (@theswirlingderv)

Lauren Walsh is another WSET Diploma student that is a geek after my own heart. Not only does she create great content but I love when she shares tidbits about unique wines she comes across like this white (yes, white!) Cabernet Franc.

Cathie Schafer (@SideHustleWino)

This is another Twitter handle that makes me smile when I see it appear in my news feed. Cathie has a keen eye for interesting wine reviews and photos that she retweets. She also produces fun articles like this recent write-up of the Santa Cruz Pinot noir that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle served at their wedding.

Bloggers Across The Globe

Elena Amigo (@sommenite)

Elena looks to be an Argentine-based sommelier as many of her tweets (often in Spanish) are about wine reviews and producers in Argentina. But she also has a good following list and will often retweet articles from other accounts that I might otherwise miss on my dash.

Steph (@Winellennial)

Steph is a London-based blogger who seeks out and posts lots of great wine news articles. A recent favorite of mine that her feed brought to my attention was a post about winemakers in Chile training dogs on how to sniff out TCA in new corks.

Fran Marshall (@thefoodmarshall)

Fran is an Australian based blogger that brings a great perspective on Southern Hemisphere wines. She’ll post about wines that she’s drinking and retweet fun stuff from wineries she follows like this mesmerizing cascade of Shiraz berries from Clonkilla.

Travelling Corkscrew (@TravelCorkscrew)

Casey at Travelling Corkscrew is an Aussie blogger who I’m glad to be following.  This is one of the few ways that I get to learn about all the fantastic, small production Australian wines that rarely make their way to the US. She also brought to my attention the existence of National Drink Wine With Your Cat Week.

Allison Wallace (@allison_wallace)

A Canadian blogger, Allison’s Twitter feed is another terrific source for retweets and links to interesting articles. She’ll also do posts from her blog such as her recent interview with Mari Womack of Damsel Cellars, a fantastic female winemaker from Washington State.

Kirsten MacLeod (@TheKirstenMac)

Kirsten is a WSET Diploma student based in London that takes a global perspective to wine in her tweets and retweets. One article that she recently brought to my dash was Miquel Hudin’s piece on the follies of blind tasting Priorat wines.

Savor the Harvest twitter page

Screenshot of Savor the Harvest’s Twitter page

Savor the Harvest (@savortheharvest)

Lynn, with her partner Mark, is based in Bordeaux and writes about their experiences in one of the benchmark wine regions of the world. In addition to wine, she also post and retweet fun food articles like this interesting piece about cocoa butter.

Jacky Blisson (@JackyBlisson)

Jacky is a Montreal-based MW candidate and wine educator. She posts on a variety of topics, including links to her YouTube wine education channel.

Folks you’re probably already following but are still worth a mention

Lettie Teague (@LettieTeague1) — Wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Ella Lister (@EllaLister) — Founder of Wine Lister.

Maureen Downey (@moevino) — The foremost expert on wine fraud.

Cathrine Todd (@damewine) — At nearly 22,000 tweets and comments, one of the most prolific voices in the Wine Twittersphere.

Kelly Mitchell (@KellyMitchell) — With over 21,500 tweets, the Wine Siren is not that far off either from Dame Wine and contributes quite a bit to the wine convos on Twitter.

Boozychef (@boozychef) — But with almost 250,000 tweets, it is clearly Boozychef’s world and we’re just living in it.

Wedding photo

Getting married with the Wine Bible.
Photo by Neil Enns of Dane Creek Photography.

Karen MacNeil (@KarenMacNeilCo) — The author of THE Wine Bible–which I actually got married with. Seriously!

Meg Maker (@megmaker) — Founder of the Terroir Review.

Tia Butts (@WineInkByTia) — Napa-based wine communicator and host of Farmers Fresh Hour on KVON 1440 am

Fiona Beckett (@winematcher) — Decanter contributor and host of the Batonnage podcast.

Natalie MacLean (@NatalieMacLean) — Longtime wine pro and manager of her eponymous site.

Joanie Metivier (@Joaniemetivier) — Creator of the Wine Regions Coloring Book.

Amy Corron Power (@WineWonkette) — Photojournalist and editor of Another Wine Blog.

Leslie Sbrocco (@lesliesbrocco) — Bay Area-based wine communicator featured on many television shows and publications.

Wine Harlots (@WineHarlots) — A wine site with a humous bent run by Nannette Eaton.

Alice Feiring (@alicefeiring) — Leading Natural Wine advocate and author of numerous wine books.

Elizabeth Schneider (@NormalWine) — Host of the Wine for Normal People podcast which I review here.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown (@LisaPBMW) — Editor-in-chief of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

Madeline Puckette (@WineFolly) — Founder of the wine education site Wine Folly.

Who did I miss? Be sure to comment below on who you think is worth following!

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Getting Geeky with Zweifel Zürcher Stadtwein Räuschling

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

Zweifel Swiss Rauchling wine

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wine

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

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

Lots of citrus Meyer lemon notes in this wine.

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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

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

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Geek Notes — New Wine Books For February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirkland brand Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is for my fellow hardcore geeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

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

The Background

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

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

The Vineyard

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

The Yellow River Basin with provinces noted.

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

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

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

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

A Family-Owned Winery and a Growing Reputation

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

The exterior of the Grace Vineyard estate.

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

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

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

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

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

The Winemaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

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

Syrah grapes growing in the central coast region of California.

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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