Tag Archives: Karen MacNeil

A Toast to My Partner in Life and Wine

Today is my wedding anniversary. Six years. Though my wife and I have been together more than 14, we didn’t get the chance to make our relationship official until Washington State voters legalized gay marriage in 2012.

Wedding photo

Getting married by a winemaker on a copy of The Wine Bible.
Photo by Neil Enns of Dane Creek Photography.

The first day that the law took effect was December 9th. But we waited a couple days to have the impossible-to-forget wedding date of 12/12/12. It was short notice going from a whirlwind election night to planning a wedding in a few weeks. Neither of us wanted a huge wedding. We just wanted something simple.

Something that was “Us”.

We pondered our dilemma on Facebook where one of my good friends, Dave Butner, who founded Kaella Winery, mentioned that he was a certified wedding officiant.

At the time, he shared a space with another friend, Scott Greenberg of Convergence Zone Cellars, in the Woodinville Warehouse District. The tasting room was already decorated for the holidays and both Dave and Scott, along with their wives Nancy & Monica, were glad to host a small ceremony.

It was on!

We sent out our invites via Facebook and got catering from a local tapas restaurant. Our wedding wines were bottles from our cellar along with Kaella and Convergence Zone wines. The wedding cake came from Safeway, where I also picked up some Mumm Napa Cuvee ‘M’ sparklers because we wanted something with a touch of sweetness to go with the cake.

Then we were married, by a winemaker, with Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible.

Quintessential Us.

So much of my wine journey has been shaped by the love and support of my wife, Beth. It was with her, on a fateful trip to Disney’s Epcot Center, that I was fascinated by the different wines from the various country pavilions. She had been noticing my frustrations working retail management for an office supply store and encouraged me to explore this awakening love of wine.

Long neck Moët & Chandon bottle

She’ll even drink a “Longneck Moët” for me.

Each step, from signing up for the Certified Specialist in Wine (CSW) to attending winemaking school and pursuing the WSET diploma has been done with her gentle nudging. Even this blog wouldn’t exist without her standing behind me–not only providing the technical support but also keeping me on a writing schedule.

She also indulges my follies to explore weird trends like bourbon barrel aged and coffee-infused wines. Even if that means subjecting her to trying these wines as well. You know, for science.

But the best parts have been exploring the world with her. This has been an adventure that has included wine regions that I’d only dreamed about visiting before–Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany, Veneto, Santorini and others. While we do enjoy visiting museums and historical sites, she knows my heart gets beckoned by the vineyards. And so she is there with me, in the vines and across the table with a glass in hand.

Sharing every bottle, every moment, every step in this crazy journey of life.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

In a rut? Try these new grapes!

CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

We all get into ruts sometimes, especially during the heart of the January-February “Winter Blues” season. But ruts can be the perfect time to shake things up!

So how about trading out and swapping some of your same ole, same ole for something new? Here are 5 recommendations of geeky new grape varieties that are worth trying.

Do you like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay?

Try Pecorino!

According to Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Pecorino likely originated in the Marche region of eastern Italy where it is the dominant white grape of the Offida DOCG. The name comes from the Italian pecora for ‘sheep’ and is derived from anecdotal stories of sheepherders snacking on the grapes as they tended to their flocks. Other stores involve the sheep, themselves, breaking into vineyards to snack on the ripe grapes near harvest time.

Pecorino produces fragrant wines with citrus, apple and mineral notes that go fantastic with seafood (much like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay!). The wines are often light to medium body and can sometimes have delicate herbal notes (like the grassiness in a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc). Usually produced in stainless steel, some examples can see brief time in neutral oak that will add a little weight to the wine (like many Sauvignon blanc-based white Bordeauxs).

Do you like Pinot gris and dry Gewürztraminers?

Try Grüner Veltliner!

Photo taken by self as Agne27, on Wikimedia Commons

An Oregon Gruner Veltliner from the Willamette Valley.


We can also add fans of aged white Burgundies to the list too.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Grüner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape variety in Austria, representing more than a third of all vineyard plantings. Here is used to produce everything from light cafe wine, to weighty ageworthy whites to sparkling Sekt.

Grüner Veltliner produces wines that have a mix of citrus and tree fruit notes (like Pinot gris) with a characteristic spicy note of white pepper (like Gewurz but a different spice). With age these wines take on a remarkable transformation with more weight and texture that is not that dissimilar to great white Burgundies.

Outside of it Austrian homeland, American wine lovers can find domestic examples being produced in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Virginia and Maryland.

Do you like Merlot and Grenache?

Try Mencía!

Actually, you can also tally this one down if you are a fan of Pinot noir and Cabernet Franc or even Gamay because Mencía is a very versatile grape that produces different styles based how it is grown and winemaking choices.

By SanchoPanzaXXI - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

Mencía grapes growing in the Ribeira Sacra DO of Spain

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, this very aromatic and fruit forward grape was once thought to be related to Grenache, Graciano and Cabernet Franc though DNA analysis has shown that there isn’t any relation.

But the similarities can been seen in Mencía wines that are fresh with ripe tannins and juicy fruit that can carry a tinge of herbal notes (a la Cabernet Franc). Like Gamay, some of these fruity wines are produced via carbonic maceration. However, when yields are kept low and Mencía sees some time in oak it can produce more dense, concentrated examples with ripe dark fruit and chocolate notes like Merlot.

Admittedly it is hard to know what style of Mencía you are getting with a particular bottle but the immense potential of deliciousness makes it worth exploring the whole spectrum!

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and spicy Zinfandels?

Try Touriga Nacional!

According to Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, while Touriga Nacional is most known for being the backbone of Portugal’s famous fortified Port wines, it also produces some of its best table wines that demonstrate great balance and aging ability.

As a dry red varietal Touriga Nacional crafts big full bodied tannic reds with intense color and mouth-filling juicy dark fruits (very much like Cabernet Sauvignon!). Its high aromatics can also bring a variety of spice notes that carry through to the palate, lingering towards a long finish (like your spicy Zins!).

Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Bauer Karl under CC-BY-3.0

Touriga Nacional from Wines of Portugal, i. V. Marie-Luise Bächle


Outside of Portugal, you can find domestic examples of Touriga Nacional from the Zinfandel hot beds of Lodi, Amador County and the Sierra Foothills as well as in Napa Valley, Georgia and Virginia.

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah?

Try Aglianico!

In their book Vino Italiano, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch describe young Aglianico wines as “… dark and feral, like the wolves that still roam the hills [in Basilicata].”

By Alexis Kreyder - L'Ampélographie (Viala et Vermorel), reproduced in

Aglianico from L’Ampélographie Viali i Vermorela


This grape produces big tannic wines with savory meatiness that can remind you of aged Cabernets and Rhone-style Syrahs. While it can develop even more layers of complexity with age, in its youth it still has charm and is worth seeking out by any big red wine fan.

Outside of Italy, there are domestic examples of Aglianco being produced in Paso Robles, Napa Valley, the Sierra Foothills and Amador County as well as in Texas and Virginia.

So seek out some of these obscure varieties and try something new! Life is too short to be in a rut of drinking just the same ole, same ole.

Cheers!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Jamie Goode is a tool

by Dezertscorpion on Wikimedia Commons released under PD-Self
So is Robert Parker.

And Jancis Robinson.

And Antonio Galloni, Allen Meadows, Michel Bettane, James Suckling, James Laube, Alice Feiring, Karen MacNeil, Tom Wark.

Tools.

Frankly, so am I. But rather than one of the nice Sears Craftsman or Ryobi tools from Lowes, I’m more of the extra Phillips-head screw driver you picked up at the dollar store on impulse. A tool stashed away at the bottom of a kitchen drawer but a tool none the less.

All wine writers are tools which is why I read Jamie Goode’s defense of wine criticism and expertise on Vine Pair, Wine Critics Matter Because Some Opinions Are Better Than Others, with great amusement. The source of Goode’s ire is the view that the musings of wine critics like him are merely personal opinions and, since everyone has an opinion, there is not enough due credit given to the value and experience of expert opinions like his.

This is not a new complaint with many critics such as Jancis Robinson commenting on how the proliferation of smartphones and websites like Wikipedia and CellarTracker creates an arena where the esteemed opinion of a Master of Wine like hers has to fight for attention. Even outside of wine, many commentators have noted a general apathy towards “expert opinions” with anti-intellectualism being a full-fledged cultural movement in the West.

In this day and age since everyone has an opinion, everyone is an expert. It’s no wonder that this modern arena of ideas is terrifying for folks who have devoted years of time, patience and labor into building a well of experience and expertise in their trade.

But what should be the response of the beleaguered experts who find themselves shouting into the void of crowd-sourced expertise?

Show, don’t tell.

I suppose the opinion from the god of wine, Bacchus, would be better than most. But only on wine. Not sure how much I would trust his opinion on fashion.

Jamie Goode is quite right in that there is immense value in the writings and opinions of wine experts like him. But it is not because he’s a pontiff, whose opinion and superior palate is blessed to be better than that of us regular joes.

It’s because he’s a tool. A tool that been honed and tested over time to produce reliable and dependable results. The value in wine critics like Jamie Goode is not in their opinion, itself, but in the background story and context that they can bring. When the average wine drinker is limited to the extent of their wallet and options at the local liquor store, a critic that can take them into the vineyard and winery offers a lens to the world of wine that can’t be gleamed from Wikipedia or in the pages of a new wine book.

This was a conclusion that Jancis Robinson, herself, came to during her existential pondering on the state of wine writing today.

But could it also have something to do with the fact that, even in this era of the citizen critic, my 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle might just be regarded as worth something? — Jancis Robinson, The Financial Times September 4th, 2015

Jamie Goode is wrong in that his opinion, or final pronouncements on wine, is better. No one really cares if he picks up apricots and quince aromas or finds a wine to be exceptionally well balanced. Opinions are just the holiday wrapping around the package. Some packages are more skillfully wrapped than others. But really anyone with some tape and paper can wrap a package or deliver an opinion about wine.

Give a monkey a typewriter…. and he will be able to wrap Christmas gifts better than me.

The value in Jamie Goode’s expertise comes in what’s inside the package.

There his readers can unpack his years of observations and experience, following winemakers and wine regions as they emerge and evolve, gaining from him a perspective and tools that will ultimately help them get more pleasure out of finding and drinking new wines.

The value in anyone’s opinion peters out when the subjectivity of taste comes in. What might be a fabulous wine to one person could be just “meh” or even downright awful to another. Wine drinkers do not need wine experts to tell them what is good. Instead, show us why you think its good.

Show us the story behind the wine. Show us the care in the vineyard or winery that shaped the wine’s journey from grape to glass. Show us where this fits in the big picture of the world of wine and maybe, just maybe, our opinion of the wine’s greatness will eventually fall in line with the “better” expert opinion.

Show, don’t tell.

Because wine writers are tools, not pontiffs.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Brave New Burgs (Part 1)

One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Pop quiz, wine geeks.

1.) What is the white grape of Burgundy?

If you know enough to be dangerous with a restaurant wine list or in a wine shop, then you probably didn’t hesitate to answer “Chardonnay”.

And for the most part, you’d be right.

But also a little wrong.

Some of the best “intro to wine” texts around like Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course and Madeline Puckette’s Wine Folly will teach you that it is easy to start getting a grasp of Burgundy.

Just remember that there is only two grapes–Pinot noir and Chardonnay.

It’s a reflex condition to think with Burgundy that if its red, it’s Pinot noir. If it’s white, then Chardonnay. Sure, everything else about Burgundy with it’s 100 appellations and intricate classification system of 23 regional AOCs, 44 villages, 33 Grand Crus, 585 Premier Crus and countless named lieu dits is enough to make your head spin—but it’s easy to nail the grape varieties. Right?

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A Sauvignon blanc produced less than 20 km from the heart of Chablis’ Grand Cru

I started working on the Wine Scholar Guild‘s Bourgogne Master Level Program lead by Don Kinnan with the desire to get more comfortable with Burgundy. But it wasn’t long before I found myself diving head-first into a rabbit hole that would shake me out of my comfort zone but introduce me to a world far more exciting than the one I began studying.

As Allen Meadows, the Burghound, is fond of saying–Burgundy is “the land of exceptions”.

It wasn’t long before the first exceptions started blowing in like the north wind across the Yonne. Here, in the land of Chablis, we have the Auxerrois where grapes like Sauvignon blanc run wild in Saint-Bris and Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet) in Vézelay.

However, the exceptions aren’t limited to obscure villages in the northern backwoods of Burgundy. Instead, in the heart of the Côte-d’Or we have the curious case of Pinot Gouges.

In the 1930s, Henri Gouges was inspecting his vineyards in the Nuits-St-Georges premier cru monopole of Clos des Porrets. He noticed that one of his red Pinot noir vines was producing white grape clusters. Intrigued, Gourge took cuttings from the vine and planted them in the NSG premier cru vineyard of La Perrières. His grandchildren still cultivate this “Pinot blanc” though instead of labeling it as that grape, the Gouges family describe Pinot Gouges as “Pinot noir that lost their color“. Regardless of what the vines are called–the fact still remains that in the middle of Chardonnay land, we have an exciting and distinctively non-Chardonnay white Burgundy being produced from a premier cru vineyard.

My notes on the Pinot Gouges “The color looks like a regular white Burg with some oak influence. On the nose, tree fruits of apples and pears but there is a lot of spice here–not oak spice but rather exotic spices.
On the palate there is a lot of weight and texture–things that would make me think of oak except for the complete absence of oak flavors. There is no vanilla, cinnamon, clove, allspice, etc.”


Now while it is technically illegal to plant Pinot blanc in most of the Côte d’Or (though, again, there are exceptions), several producers still tend to legacy vines. Inspired by bottles of Pinot blanc from the 1960s that aged remarkably well, Domaine Méo-Camuzet sourced Pinot blanc vines from Alsace to plant in their Clos St Philibert vineyard in Flagey-Echézeaux. The wine produced from these vines is blended with Chardonnay and classified under Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits AOC (as opposed to a village level Vosne-Romanée).

Then there is the case of Pinot Beurot (Pinot gris), the sneaky pink-skinned mutation of Pinot noir that can sometimes find itself interspersed among Pinot noir vines. Not content to just be an interloper, the grape plays a starring role in wines like Domaine Comte Senard Aloxe-Corton blanc that is 100% Pinot Beurot as well Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils Les Grands Poisots sourced from a parcel of Pinot Beurot first planted in the Volnay vineyard in 1958. Not legally permitted to be called a Volnay, the wine is labeled under the basic regional Bourgogne appellation. Likewise, in the famed white wine vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet, Domaine Guillemard-Clerc has a little less than an acre of Pinot Beurot which goes into it regional Bourgogne blanc. In the Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune AOC, Domaine Guillemard-Pothier à Meloisey also produces a Pinot Beurot.

My notes on the Cave de Genouilly Aligote “As if a Sauvignon blanc and an unoaked Chardonnay had a baby. Great mouthfeel with weight. Smooth but fresh.”


And this is not even getting into the more widely known exception of Aligoté which has its own AOC and has earned the affection of a literal “Who’s Who” of legendary Burgundy producers like Aubert de Villaine, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Marquis d’Angerville and Michel Lafarge. Domaine Ponsot takes the love affair a step further to make premier cru level Aligoté in the Morey-St-Denis monopole of Clos des Monts Luisants.

The faith in these producers to devote precious terroir to this obscure grape is a testament that there is something interesting about Aligoté that makes it stand out in the Chardonnay-saturated world of Burgundy. It’s high acidity enchants with racy and mouthwatering appeal that is balanced by a weighty mid-palate that gives a sense of lemon custard richness which can charm even the most traditional white Burgundy lover.

There is no doubt that Burgundy is home to some of the greatest expressions of Chardonnay. However, for the wine geeks conditioned to merely think White Burgundy=Chardonnay, there is brave new world of exciting white Burgs waiting to be discovered.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!