Tag Archives: Las Vegas

Déjà Vu at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour

Last month, I attended the Wine Spectator Grand Tour tasting at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

While I had a blast at the 2017 tasting (which I documented in my 3 part series that you can read here) I won’t be doing a series of articles on this year’s Grand Tour (apart from maybe a Top 10 post) because, frankly, I would be burning out the “cut and paste” keys on my laptop.

Déjà vu all over again

Out of the 244 wineries participating, an astonishing 184 of them (around 75%) were repeats from last year’s tastings.
Sure, wineries like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Ch. Haut-Brion, Penfolds, Casanova de Neri, Perrier-Jouët and K Vintners make a lot of great wine that are fun to try. It’s fine to have some “big ticket names” regularly featured to attract attention.

But come on? 75% repeats?

That’s crazy when you consider that Wine Spectator reviews around 17,000 wines a year—several thousand of which get 90+ points. Using their Advance Search option, I found over 1800 American, 1700 French, 300 Italian, 180 Spanish and 180 Australian wines from just the 2014 vintage alone with 90+ ratings.

Is it really that difficult to find more than 100 new wineries each year to feature at their marquee tasting event?

Groundhog Day at the Mirage

While some of the repeat wineries did pour at least a different wine than they did the year before (like Albert Bichot’s Domaine du Clos Frantin pouring the 2013 Clos du Vougeot Grand Cru this year after pouring the 2013 Vosne-Romanee Les Malconsorts Premier Cru last year), 66 of the wineries poured only a different vintage of the same wines they featured in 2017.

Highlighting all the same wineries featured in 2017 and 2018.

Now, yes, I suppose you could argue that there is some interest in seeing vintage variation–but that is only helpful if you are tasting both vintages side by side or happen to have meticulous notes on hand of your previous tasting to compare. Otherwise, it pretty much feels like you are tasting the same damn wine you tasted last year.

The big exception, though, was when wineries took an opportunity to dive into back vintages to give you a unique library tasting experience. This was the case of Domaine de Chevalier and Chateau La Nerthe who brought out their 1998 and 2008 vintages to pour. Rather than feel like you’re tasting “last year’s wine”, this gave you a chance to try something very different and both wines ended up being some of my favorites of the night.

However, probably the most egregious sin of the event was the 25 wineries (around a tenth of all the wines at the event) who poured the exact same wine they poured in 2017. Granted, that number does includes some NV wines that theoretically could be a “new batch” but that still doesn’t discount the unoriginality and boredom of seeing the same wine featured.

Seeing a 3 liter bottle of Tawny Port is impressive in any context, though.

Even Champagne producer Lanson was able to mix things up with pouring their Black Label NV this year after featuring their NV Extra Age Brut last year. Likewise, the Port house Graham’s brought their NV 20 Year Tawny Port this year while last year they had their 2000 vintage Port available.

Same Bat-Wine, Same Bat-Channel
Wineries that poured the exact same wine at each event.

Alvear Pedro Ximenez Montilla-Moriles Solera 1927 NV
Ch. Brown Pessac-Leognan 2014
Chateau Ste. Michelle Artist Series 2013
Croft Vintage Port 2011
Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rose NV
Ernie Els Signature Stellenbosch 2012
Fattoria di Felsina Toscana Fontalloro 2013
Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino 2012
Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2005
Henriot Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV
Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Small Block Reserve 2013
Montecillo Rioja Gran Reserva 2009
Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut NV
Mumm Napa Blanc de Blancs NV
Orin Swift Abstract 2015
Patz & Hall Pinot noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2014
Famille Perrin Gigondas Clos des Tourelles 2013
Ramos-Pinto 30 year Tawny Port NV
Recanati Carignan Judean Hills Wild Reserve 2014
Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva Baron de Chirel 2010
Louis Roederer Brut Champagne Premier NV
Taylor-Fladgate 20 year Tawny Port NV
Teso La Monja Toro Victorino 2013
Torres Priorat Salmos 2013
Trinchero Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Mario’s Vineyard 2013

Sneak Peak at the 2019 Wine Spectator Grand Tour pour list?

Trying a 5+ year aged Gruner was interesting. I much prefer that to tasting just the newer vintage of the same wine I had last year.

Below are the wineries that poured the same wine but a different vintage. The vintage they poured in 2017 is listed first followed by the wine featured at the 2018 event.

Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva (2010/2013)
Alion Ribera del Duero (2012/2010)
Allegrini Amarone (2012/2013)
Almaviva Puente Alto (2013/2014)
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura (2011/2012)
Barboursville Ocatagon (2012/2014)
Marchesi di Barolo Sarmassa Barolo (2012/2013)
Belle Glos Pinot noir Clark & Telephone (2014/2012)
Beringer Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2013/2014)
Brane-Cantenac Margaux (2010/2011)
Caiarossa Toscana (2011/2012)
Calon Segur St. Estephe (2003/2005)
Caparazo Brunello di Montalcino La Casa (2011/2012)
Carpineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva (2011/2012)
Casa Ferreirinha Douro Quinta da Leda (2014/2011)
Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova (2011/2012)
Castellare di Castellina Toscano I Sodi di San Niccolo (2012/2013)
Caymus Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon (2009/2014)
Pio Cesare Barolo (2012/2013)
Chalk Hill Chardonnay Chalk Hill (2014/2015)
Cheval des Andes Mendoza (2012/2013)
Domaine de Chevalier Pessac-Leognan (2010/1998)
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso (2010/2012)
Col Solare (2013/2009)
Colome Malbec Salta (2013/2015)
Craggy Range Pinot noir Martinborough Te Muna Road Vineyard (2013/2015)
Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva (2010/2011)
Damilano Barolo Cannubi (2012/2013)
Domaine Drouhin Pinot noir Dundee Hills Laurene (2013/2014)
Donnafugata Terre Siciliane Mille e Una Notte (2011/2012)
Elk Cove Pinot noir Yamhill-Carlton District Mount Richmond (2014/2015)
Ch. d’ Esclans Cotes de Provence Garrus rosé (2014/2015)
Livio Felluga Rosazzo Terre Alte (2013/2015)
Feudo Maccari Sicilia Saia (2013/2014)
Fonseca Vintage Port Guimaraens (2013/2015)
Fontodi Colli Della Toscana Centrale Flaccianello (2013/2014)
Frescobaldi Brunello di Montalcino Castelgiocondo (2011/2012)
Ktima Gerovassiliou Malagousia Epanomi (2015/2016)
Kaiken Malbec Mendoza Mai (2012/2013)
Laurenz V. Gruner Veltliner Trocken Kamptal Charming Reserve (2014/2012)
Leeuwin Chardonnay Margaret River Art Series (2013/2014)
Luce Della Vite Toscana Luce (2013/2014)
Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Villa Gemma (2007/2011)
Masi Amarone Costasera (2011/2012)
Masut Pinot noir Eagle Peak Vineyard (2014/2015)
Mazzei Maremma Toscana Tenuta Belguardo (2011/2013)
Mollydooker Shiraz Carnival of Love McLaren Vale (2014/2016)
Ch. La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee des Cadettes (2013/2009)
El Nido Jumilla (2013/2014)
Siro Pacenti Brunello di Montalcino Vecchie Vigne (2012/2013)
Pacific Rim Riesling Yakima Valley Solstice Vineyard (2014/2015)
Pichon-Lalande Pauillac (2011/2009)
Protos Ribera del Duero Reserva (2011/2012)
Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco (2012/2013)
Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico Riserva di Fizzano Gran Selezione (2012/2013)
Rust en Verde Stellenbosch (2013/2014)
Rutini Malbec Mendoza Apartado Gran (2010/2013)
Tenuta San Guido Toscana Guidalberto (2014/2015)
Vina Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Casa Real (2012/2013)
Vina Sena Aconcagua Valley (2013/2015)
Tenuta Sette Ponti Toscana Oreno (2014/2015)
Sterling Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve (2013/2014)
Ch. du Tertre Margaux (2011/2010)
Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino (2007/2010)
Quinta do Vale Meao Douro Meandro (2013/2014)
Walt Pinot noir Sta. Rita Hills Clos Pepe (2014/2015)

Moral of the Story?

Let’s not even get into the clear spit buckets that were featured on several tables.

Setting aside that around three quarters of the wineries were the same, the crux for me was the nearly 40% of the wines being either actual or near repeats with different vintages. Paying $225 to $325 a ticket (and up to $475 at the upcoming New York event in October)–not to mention travel and hotel costs–for that is pretty ridiculous.

While I would still say that the value of the wines being tasted and the breadth of the tasting makes the Wine Spectator Grand Tour worth it for a first time visitor, the experience of having so many repeats of wineries and wines dampers my enthusiasm for making this a yearly priority to attend.

I haven’t made up my mind about attending the 2019 or 2020 event but, at this rate, I feel like I’d rather find another reason to go to Vegas to play the Somm Game.

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.


Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto. These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off because with nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.


The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow! I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!


Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt! This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness. The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses but Kyran also brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.


With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new. You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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Top Ten Wines from 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

As we wrap up Spitbucket’s 3 part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour in Las Vegas, we come to our grand finale–my Top Ten Wines of the event. Of course this list is entirely limited and subjective. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, it is virtually impossible to try all 244 wines available in just 3 hours. While I thoroughly enjoyed the 68 wines that I did get to try, I undoubtedly missed out on several gems that may have found their way to this list.

Among the wines that I regrettably missed out on:

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2010 (94 pts. Wine Searcher average price $75)
Graham’s Vintage Port 2000 (98 pts. Wine Searcher average price $98)
Marques de Grinon Domino de Valdepusa Petit Verdot 2011 (93 pts. Wine Spectator list price $40)
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque 2007 (93 pts. Wine Searcher average price $143)
Recanti Judean Hills Wild Carignan Reserve 2014 (91 pts. Wine Searcher average price $48)
Anthonij Rupert Cabernet Franc 2009 (92 pts. Wine Searcher average price $77)
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 2012 (93 pts. Wine Searcher average price $227)

Now as for my Top 10 list, as frequent readers know I do have a bit of bias towards Bordeaux wines. While the geek in me seeks out tasty treats from across the globe, Bordeaux will always be my most enduring love in the world of wine. So it should not be a surprised that Bordeaux wines account for almost a third of this list with many of the other wines capturing my attention for their “Bordeaux-like” elegance and qualities. Again, this list is completely subjective.

My Top 10 wines of the night:

Adobe Road 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $175) Still the undoubted wine of the event. Even glancing over my list of missed opportunities, I don’t think any of them would have knocked this 228 case limited release from Adobe Road off the pedestal.

As I described in part 2, this wine was classic Napa but what set it far above its peers that I tasted was the fresh, lively acidity that gave sparks to tongue while the velvety soft and rich fruit was wrapping it up in a kiss. When you are “power-tasting” through a lot of great wine, you find that they start to meld together, making it hard to stand out. Especially in Napa where the check-list seems to be [x] Ripe dark fruit [x] Full-bodied [x] Soft but noticeable tannins and [x] Noticeable oak. It’s easy to check all those boxes and make a wine that will give immense pleasure when being enjoyed by itself.

But for a wine to stand out when it is being tasted along such illustrious wines as the 2009 Caymus Special Selection, 2012 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow, 2013 Alpha Omega Era, 2013 Beringer Private Reserve, 2012 Chimney Rock Elevage, 2013 Vine Cliff 16 Rows Oakville, 2005 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and 2013 Trinchero Mario’s Vineyard, it is going to be that freshness that hits you like a finger snap in front of your face, commanding your attention. None of the aforementioned wines were bad and, indeed, two of those wines also ended up making my Top 10 list. The 2013 Adobe Road Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon was just better.

Altesino 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli (93 points. Wine Spectator list price $110) Outside of Burgundy and the Mosel, we usually don’t talk about individual vineyards in Europe the same way we do with American wines. There are certainly legendary vineyards in Europe, and single bottlings from those vineyards, but the names don’t easily roll off our tongues quite like To Kalon, Ciel du Cheval, Shea, Monte Bello, Red Willow, Sangiacomo, etc. However, you can make a fair argument (as James Suckling does here [subscription]) that the Montosoli vineyard owned by Altesino is one of the top vineyards in all of Montalcino. In fact, it was the very first vineyard to be bottled as a single cru of Brunello di Montalcino.

Despite being a very young Brunello (even for a warm vintage), this wine lived up to its lofty pedigree with an intoxicating bouquet of tobacco spice, orange peel, black cherry and savory leather. It had me picturing myself drinking an old-fashioned at a Victorian Explorer’s Club gathering. The palate brought more richness to the cherry notes with enough acidity to keep it juicy without being “bitey”. The tannins are still quite firm, again confessing its youth, but a silkiness emerges as you roll the wine around your tongue that holds much promise.

Emilio Moro 2011 Malleolus de Valderramiro Ribera del Duero (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $85) I am still a bit dumbfounded how this wine only got a mere 90 points from Wine Spectator. (As I was with several wines like this that I reviewed in the first part of the series.) While I can appreciate the palates and scores of critics like Thomas Matthews, its always important to formulate our own opinions on wine. While I try to avoid using the 100 point scale myself, with pegging wines down to just a number, I will say that this delicious wine from Emilio Moro far surpassed many 93-94 rated wines.

Heitz 2005 Martha’s Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (93 points. Wine Searcher average price $181) Like the Adobe Road Beckstoffer Georges III, Martha’s Vineyard located in Oakville is a legendary site for Cabernet Sauvignon. My adoration of this wine will again reveal my “Bordeaux-bias” a it had, by far, the most Bordeaux-like nose of all the Napa Cabs. Lots of savory herbal elements of what I like to call the “Chicken herbs” used for roasting–sage, thyme and particularly rosemary. The classic Martha’s Vineyard eucalyptus was also there but I was surprised with how much St.-Julien like cedar box and tobacco spice was also present.

The mouthfeel though was tried and true Napa with rich, almost Port-like dark fruit and Belgium dark chocolate undertones. The medium-plus acidity added enough freshness to balance the weight. The tannins were mostly velvety but they had a firm grip along the edge which hinted at how much more time this already 12-year old wine could go. While some of the eucalyptus and tobacco spice carried through to the palate, most of the savory Bordeaux-like notes on the nose were gone. In many ways it felt like I was drinking two different wines and that kept my interest.

Ramos Pinto 30 year Tawny Port (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $85) You can find my full review here. Again, simply a fabulous Port that is among the best I’ve ever had. If you can find it, its definitely worth grabbing and if you find it priced under a $100, grab two.

Ch. Pichon Longueville Lalande 2011 Pauillac (91 points. Wine Searcher average price $116) You can’t sugar-coat over how rough of a vintage that 2011 was. Spring was too hot and fraught with drought while summer was too cold with rains happening at the most inopportune times (if they happened at at all). Still, the blessings of modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge means that even in the roughest of vintages, wineries still have the skills and the tools to produce delicious wine.

Does this 2011 Pichon Lalande stack up to the 2010, 2009 or even the absolutely scrumptious 2005 (one of my all-time favs among all wines)? No. But neither does the 2011’s price tag of around $116 stack up to the price tags of those vintages–Wine Searcher average of $229, $204 and $152, respectively. That is the landscape of Bordeaux with every bottle and every vintage needing to be evaluate both on a curve and within the big picture.

So judging this 2011 among its vintage-peers, I was exceedingly impressed with how well it was drinking this evening. With 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot and 2% Petite Verdot, this wine had far more Cab than typical Pichon Lalande and with the characteristics of the vintage, I was expecting something that needed far more time. But this wine was ready to dance with a mix of black currant and red cherry fruit framed with the typical savory tobacco and cedar cigar box notes of a good Pauillac. The mouthfeel had a lot more noticeable vanilla oak notes than I would expect. Much as the vanilla works to coax early drinking approach-ability with New World wines, so here it was smoothing out the rough edges of youthful tannins. With a little dark chocolate and Christmas fruitcake spiciness on the finish, you end up with a delightful wine that has character and personality.

Marchesi Fumanelli 2009 Octavius Riserva Amarone (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $173) Another wine that took me by surprised as I reviewed in part 2. This wine may be more difficult to find in the United States but it is well worth the hunt for any wine lover of bold, brooding reds with layers of complexity.

Diamond Creek 2012 Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points. Wine Searcher average price $216) This was only my second encounter with Diamond Creek after previously trying a 2009 Volcanic Hill. That one experience coupled with reading Cellar Tracker reviews of their wines helped form my expectation that this was going to be similar to other Diamond Mountain Cabernets that I’ve had in the past (Wallis Family, Lokoya, Martin Ray and Von Strasser)–powerful, rich but with a lot of structure and firm tannins that need time to mellow.

While this 2012 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow certainly had the power and richness, I was taken back by how soft the tannins where. In a blind tasting, I would be completely fooled that this wasn’t something from Rutherford or Oakville. It was downright velvety with the opulent black fruit. On the nose there was some earthiness, like dusty crushed rocks with a tinge of smokiness, but it was no where near as herbal as I would have expected. This was another wine that I found myself excited at the thought of what enjoyment savoring a full bottle of this wine would bring.

Ch. Calon Segur 2003 (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $117) As I wrote in part 2, it is easy for Bordeaux lovers to dismiss the 2003 “heat wave” vintage (especially on the Left Bank) but wines like the 2003 Calon Segur shows that there were still many great wines made that year.

Ch. Lascombes 2010 Margaux (91 points. Wine Searcher average price $118) Oh you didn’t think I could get through this list without slipping in a 2010 Bordeaux, did you? Of course not. I especially couldn’t pass up tasting again and falling back in love with this wine from the 2nd Growth estate in Margaux. Since Dominique Befve took over in the early 2000s (after stints at l’Evangile in Pomerol and 10 years as Technical Director of Chateau Lafite), Chateau Lascombes has been going from strength to strength.

Lascombes is a little unique in that the fair amount of clay in the soils of their vineyards around the communes of Cantenac, Soussans and Margaux, allows them to grow more Merlot than you would expect for a highly classified Medoc estate. In 2010 that translated to a blend that was dominated by Merlot with 55% followed by 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. While many of its 2010 Cab-dominated Left Bank peers still need ample time in the cellar, this Lascombes is following the path of Angelus, Canon-La-Gaffelière, Pavie-Macquin and Le Dome in being one of the best drinking 2010s right now on the market.

The nose has swirls of black licorice spice with smokey espresso that give way to black currant and Turkish figs. The tannins on the mouthfeel are silky with the same black fruits on the nose being wrapped with even more smoke and now chocolate espresso flavors. The finish is long and lingering, giving ample pleasure but making you soon crave another sip. While most 2009/2010 prices are in the stratosphere, this is still an absolute steal for how much this wine over-delivers.

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Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas (Part 2)


First things, if you haven’t checked out the first entry in Spitbucket’s 3 part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas, head there now. You will find a lot of a great wines that often get passed over as score hounds hunt for the wines with the blockbuster ratings.

While the wines featured in Part I were described as Ted Williams wines, the wines that I’m featuring now are more the Joe Dimaggios. They got the big scores and married Marilyn Monroe (or MaryAnn Worobiec) so of course they garnered the bulk of attendees’ attention. Out of the 244 wines, there were 25 wines that received scores 94+ available for tasting, headlined by two Vintage Ports–the 98 point rated Graham’s 2000 and 97 pt Croft 2011.

I got a chance to try several of them and while there were many delicious treats that made my Top Ten list, there were also a few that were just “meh”. It’s good to remember that while Joe did get Marilyn–so did Arthur Miller.


Adobe Road 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $175) Hands down, my wine of the night. Tiny production wine from a single block of Cabernet Sauvignon in the legendary Beckstoffer Georges III vineyard in Rutherford. The highly sought after fruit from this vineyard is prized by a “Who’s Who” of high-end California wineries like Caymus, Alpha Omega, Chateau Boswell, Duckhorn, Staglin, Hunnicutt, Myriad, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Provenance, Robert Craig, Sojurn and Schrader. This example from Adobe Road delivers in spades.

High intensity aromatics of black currant, blackberry with floral elements and a mixture of baking and Asian spices. I spent several minutes just smelling my glass before taking sip because the bouquet was so intoxicating alluring. The mouthfeel was classic Napa–silky smooth tannins that added weight and depth to the palate but wrapped around your tongue like kiss. But unlike a few of the other high scoring wines, this is not a fruit bomb. The acidity was still medium-plus to keep the fruit lively and fresh with the ability to age in the cellar for several more years. However, it is at such a fantastically delicious spot now, I don’t know if anyone lucky enough to get their hands on one of these bottles will want to wait. Just a perfect combination of power, balance and elegance.

Ch. Calon Segur 2003 Saint Estephe (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $117) Another wine that made my Top 10 list. The 2003 vintage often sends a shudder down the spines of European wine lovers because it was a “heat wave” vintage. Indeed, a staggering number of people died from the heat and, while nowhere near as tragic as the loss of human life, grapevines also suffered. But the axiom that “Good wine is made even in bad vintages” is still aptly true. You just have to be more selective and look for the gems that had the kismet of the right terroir and right winemaking touch for the vintage. The 2003 Calon Segur is a perfect case in point.

Located in St. Estephe, the Third Growth estate of Calon Segur is the most northern of the classified growth in the Medoc. While the soils have the typical Medocian mixture of gravel and sand, you also find a far amount of clay. This coupled with the overall coolness of its northernly location, gives you soils that were more apt to retain the limited, precious amount of water needed to weather the heat. Then you add a winemaking style of Calon Segur that (was then) focused on lower alcohol but brawny wines that prized acidity and structure, and you have a wine with a fighting chance to not only be good but maybe even great.

It was a long term bet but one that paid off exceptionally well for the 2003 Calon Segur. The wine had a floral, spicy nose with a delicate touch of fruit that almost smelled like a great red Burgundy. The palate, though, was very Bordeaux–almost full-bodied with velvety tannins that had no greeness or bite. The spice from the nose carried through as a mixture of tobacco and baking spices that complimented the juicy, ripe dark fruits which still had plenty of acidity and life. This wine easily has several more years that it could go on but it is at a great point right now and an absolute bargain at this price. I would put this toe to toe with Bordeaux from the more heralded 2005 vintage in the $170-200 range.

Croft 2011 Vintage Port (97 points. Wine Searcher average price $81) This was the highest rated wine that I got to try that night and it came from the highly acclaimed 2011 vintage. This is a vintage that is often compared to the great vintages of the 1970s as well as 1963 and 1945. However, the thing to keep in mind with vintage Port is that after a few brief years of youthful exuberance following release, these wines tend to “shut down” and enter their quiet phase or “awkward adolescence” that can last for several years or even a decade plus. The trade off is that when these wines re-emerge from that “dumb phase”, they are even more outstanding and mind-blowing. You need the patience of a grasshopper to reap the beauty of a butterfly.

I go through that tangent because, sadly, this Croft has entered that awkward adolescence. This is a fate rapidly befalling upon its 2011 peers with the Cockburn and Graham’s that I’ve tried in the last year likewise being a bit underwhelming despite their pedigrees and potential. What does a “quiet vintage Port” taste like? Well in the case of the Croft it was very muted on the nose, red fruit and that was about it. On the palate, instead of being focused or concentrated, it was a rather clumsy hodgepodge of undistinguished fruit flavors and sweetness. I have no doubt that the potential to live up to its lofty score is there but it is clear that this wine was tasting exponentially better 2-3 years ago when it was being reviewed and that its best years is still much further down the road.

Kistler 2013 Hudson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $80) Combine one of California’s top Chardonnay producer with a legendary Chardonnay vineyard and you are sure to have a winning combination. This wine was classic Cali Chard with tropical fruit aromas on the nose–papaya and ripe honeydew melon–followed by a creamy, rich mouthfeel. But what keeps this from being a butter bomb was the elegance with medium-plus acidity that held up the weight of the malo and a minerally streak that you’re often hard pressed to find in many California Chardonnays. No one would ever mistake this wine for a white Burgundy, but fans of the more weightier examples from Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet could appreciate this wine for being a well-made example of a California benchmark.

Antinori 2013 Guado Al Tasso (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $86) A Super Tuscan blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this wine captures some of the savory herbalness of a nice Pauillac but with a lighter touch and riper tannins. It was a bit tight at this tasting and, like the 2014 Ornellaia noted in the previous blog entry, will need several years to show its stuffing.

Marchesi Fumanelli 2009 Octavius Riserva Amarone (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $173) This was another first-time find and it had me googling where in the US I could buy this wine. That’s always a good sign that something is heading towards my Top Ten list. This was a very spicy Amarone with some floral and earthy elements that smelled like you were hiking through a mint and clover field while carrying a bouquet of roses. The palate was very bold, almost decadent, with rich dark fruit flavors that tasted like a savory Christmas fruitcake. Every sip revealed something different with this wine unfurling on the tongue like chapters and verses of an exciting story. The balance between savory and rich was outstanding. Situated among tables next to a stunning list of top Amarone producers like Allegrini, Masi, Zenato and Bertani, Marchesi Fumanelli stood head over shoulders above them all.

Much like the Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero I talked about in Part I, I was left feeling that if this wine was this impressive based on a single taste, how much more pleasure could be discovered over the course of a whole bottle?


Mollydooker 2014 Carnival of Love McLaren Vale Shiraz (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $72) This winery has its legions of fans but much like smokey, peaty Islay Scotches, its a singular taste that either people love or find that its not really their cup of tea. Being a wine geek, I try to find the nuance of appeal in every wine and while the lush, over the top oak and fruity style of Mollydooker is usually not my cup of tea, I have found examples of their wines that I’ve been able to enjoy for their simple, hedonistic pleasures. But it is kind of like shooting with a bow and arrow at an apple that a circus clown is juggling. Sometimes you hit the apple and win the prize. Sometimes you miss and sometimes you impale the poor the clown.

This one was just a miss. It wasn’t horrible by any stretch of the imagination. It was just really, really, really, really oaky. In fact it was competing with the Orin Swift Abstract and Belle Glos Clarke & Telephone for most oaky wine at the tasting. Lots of sweet vanilla with more overt taste of toast instead of more subtle baking spice. Trying to get past the oak to venture for some fruit, I did feel a sense of richness and intense fruit on the palate but I was hard pressed to really identify what kind of fruit it was or pick up any other layer of complexity. While, in general, Mollydooker wines are often meant to be consumed young as their low acidity usually doesn’t bode well for cellaring, I find that giving them 4 to 5 years from vintage date allows the oak to temper itself a bit while letting some character show.


Ramos Pinto 30 year Tawny Port (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $85) Not too long ago, I did a tasting featuring the tawnys of Taylor-Fladgate where I absolutely adored the 30 year tawny. As phenomenal as that Taylor 30 was, I have to say that the Ramos Pinto ran laps around it. Wow, just wow. This may be one of the single best Tawny Ports that I’ve ever tasted and I would start putting it close to the 1970 Taylor and 1970 Fonseca vintage Ports as one of the best Ports, I’ve had. Period.

While I was extremely discipline in spitting throughout the evening, I swallowed and savored every drop of this wine. The nose was a beautiful blend of spice and hazelnuts. The palate introduced butterscotch and dried golden raisins. The mouthfeel was the star with a silkiness that seemed almost feather-light around the tip of the tongue but pulled you in with its richness and weight towards the mid-palate. The finish was the longest of the evening. Several minutes. In fact, I ended up savoring it for so long that I missed out on the 98 point rated Graham’s 2000 vintage port that was being emptied in glasses as I stood by the table still reveling in the Ramos Pinto 30. While I’m sure the Graham’s would have been wonderful, I think the sacrifice of being able to enjoy the Ramos longer was well worth it. Needless to say, this wine was one of my Top 10 of the night.

Rodney Strong 2012 Rockaway Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $74) If you mostly know of Rodney Strong for their low-end, chain-restaurant wines then this wine is an eye-opener. Much like Sbragia’s Monte Rosso I reviewed in the last post, it seems sinful to compare this Alexander Valley Cabernet to a Napa wine but I’d be damn if this wouldn’t fool me for a Silver Oak Napa (but still priced like their Alexander!). Though while the Silver Oak Napa usually needs 7 to 10 years to get to this level of complexity and drink-ability, this Rodney Strong Rockaway is already roaring on all cylinders.

The nose has a great mix of ripe black currant and plum with tobacco oak spice and cedar cigar box. The palate is powerful and fills up your entire mouth with seductive fruit but also has layers of savory meaty notes underneath. The oak is present but plays a supporting role while letting the fruit and power of the wine take center stage. This wine would be equally at ease paired with a juicy prime rib as it would be with an elegant lamb dish or just being savored by itself.

Torbreck 2013 Descendant Shiraz Barossa Valley (96 points. Wine Searcher average price $89) This wine was tussling with the Penfolds 2014 RWT, Two Hands 2014 Bella Garden and the Hickinbotham Clarendon 2013 Brooks Road for best Australian wine of the night. A co-ferment with 8% Viognier, this wine has an absolutely beautiful floral nose paired with vibrant berry fruit. Even though time is precious with just 3 hours to taste upwards of 244 wines, this was a wine that deliberately slows you down, encouraging you to spend several minutes just smelling and enjoying it.

When you finally do get to tasting it, the pay off is well worth it with it full-body but elegant mouthfeel that testifies to but also defies it 15.5% alcohol. Tasting blind, I would’ve peg it more around 14% because of how graceful it carries it heavy weight across the palate. Medium-plus acidity keeps the fruit fresh and invites your taste buds to water enough to pick up some of the black pepper and baking spices of cinnamon and nutmeg that wraps around the berry fruit. It’s a shame that Torbreck gets no where near the amount of attention that Penfolds or Mollydooker gets because this wine is certainly among Australia’s best.


K Vintners 2013 Royal City Syrah (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $129) Like Mollydooker, I find Charles Smith’s wines of K Vintners to be “hit or miss” for me with, thankfully, more hits than misses. But these are still wines that I will hardly ever buy “on faith” without tasting first because when they miss, they’re “impale the clown” kind of misses. Partly that’s because of K Vintner’s style which seems to favor high pH, very lush wines that can sometimes veer towards issues with volatile acidity and brettanomyces. I don’t mind a little brett because it can add complexity but VA is something that I’m personally hyper-sensitive about.

This 2013 Royal City had a smidgen of brett but was, thankfully, just in the gamey arena instead of the full-blown camping-in-the-horse-barn arena of brett. Also, thankfully, there was no overt signs of VA but the very dense and lush mouthfeel with medium-minus acidity doesn’t leave me optimistic that VA won’t make an appearance over time as the fruit fades with bottle age. The tannins are smooth, of course, and the fruit sweet and dark. It’s definitely a drink-now kind of wine that I’m sure will give many people much pleasure. It’s just not a wine that I would, personally, risk the clown for.

Well….maybe I’d risk that clown.

El Nido 2013 Jumilla (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $125) Much like Mollydooker and K Vintners, El Nido is about lush, decadence and lip smacking fruit. But while those wines were underwhelming, this wine was absolutely scrumptious. The nose gave off the siren song of rich, intensely concentrated dark fruit signaling a very fruity and full-bodied wine but the palate surprised with high, almost Bordeaux-like, acidity that added a splash of freshness to the fruit. It not only made your lips smack but your mouth water as well. It’s a big, big wine (probably the most full-bodied outside of the Amarones and Ports) but it had finesse to it that would open it up to more food-pairing possibilities than it lush co-horts. Of course, it was quite delicious still on its own.

Coming up next: My Top Ten Wines of the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

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Wine Spectator Grand Tour 2017 Las Vegas (Part I)

The 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas was held at the Mirage on Saturday, May 6th


On May 6th, I had the opportunity to attend Wine Spectator’s Grand Tour at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Earlier in the day, the 143rd Kentucky Derby was held but for wine lovers like me, the real race that evening was trying to see how many of the 244 outstanding 90+ rated wines we could taste in three short hours.

I topped out at 68 wines with that involving making some hard decisions to miss areas that I would have loved to explore more like New Zealand and Piedmont. It also meant missing some of the wines that poured out quickly such as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 2012 Cask 23 which was gone about 2 hours into the event. Heading over to the Champagne side last also meant missing the Perrier Jouet’s 2007 Belle Epoque by about half an hour.

One of the observations I made during the evening was how many truly incredible wines only got 90 points. Historically, achieving 90 points from a reputable wine critic was considered a significant achievement for a wine but now it generates as much excitement in many consumers’ eyes as a baseball slugger who hits only 30 home runs a season. Yeah, Ted Williams’ 30 homers was a big deal back in 1951 but that would have him tied for 32nd and keeping company with folks like Kendry Morales, Jedd Gyorko and Curtis Granderson in 2016.

You can partly blame the proliferation of wine critics and wine rating magazines but the truth is that the market is literally flooded with great wine. Advancement in technology and knowledge in both the vineyard and the winery means that consumers have access to more wine of very high quality than ever before. This abundance of choice often means that consumers who focus on critic scores start moving their eye balls higher up the 100 point scale, making wines with scores under 94 points hard press to catch some consumers’ attention.

But Jedd’s got nothing on Teddy Ballgame’s “Blue Steel” action

That made me appreciate the beauty of the Wine Spectator‘s Grand Tour even more. This event, billed as a “United Nations of Wine”, showcased not only the breadth of quality around the globe but also, somewhat ironically, highlighted how much quality is not really defined by a number. While Wine Spectator makes its mark dishing out scores for wine, it was very telling that the vast majority of the 244 wines featured at their event had scores in the 90-93 point range, including 61 wines that scored a mere 90 points. Several of these were highly impressive including one that would make my Top 10 list by the end of the night.

That is why I’m going to start my three part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour with highlighting some of these Jedd Gyorko-scoring wines that are delivering Ted Williams-like quality.


Benovia 2014 La Pommeraie Russian River Pinot noir (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $59) This was my first time trying wine from this tiny Russian River winery and I was so impressed that I signed up for their mailing list.

Beautiful high intensity aromatics that mixed floral and spice elements. The palate had medium-plus dark fruit notes which were well balanced with enough juicy medium-plus acidity to add elegance to the weight of the fruit. In an evening where I was comparing this wine side by side to other highly acclaimed Pinots such as the Belle Glos (2014 Clark & Telephone), Patz & Hall (2014 Hyde Vineyard) and even a Grand Cru Burgundy from Louis Latour (2014 Corton Grancey), this was the best Pinot noir of the night.

Clos Beauregard 2012 Pomerol (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $56) Another first time pleasure for me to try. While 2012 as a vintage is a far cry from the very heralded 2009-2010 or the upcoming 2015-2016, it is, in my opinion, a solid vintage that offers good bargains for Bordeaux enthusiasts who need “Cellar Defenders” that that can open up as younger wines while giving their 09/10s and 15/16s more time to age. This Beauregard from Pomerol fits that bill perfectly in offering soft, but full-bodied and structured, tannins with rich dark fruit with spice and chocolate on the finish.

Montecillo 2009 Gran Reserva Rioja (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $20) Probably one of the best values of the night. Savvy Rioja lovers have long known about Montecillo since it is one of the oldest estates in Rioja and has spent over 140 years making outstanding wines. This 2009 Gran Reserva most impressed me with how well it straddled the line between the modernist, more fruit-forward style of Rioja and the classic, more old-school and oak driven style.

The Montecillo was clearly classic with tobacco and oak spice but it had a rich core of fruit that made the wine seem more fresh than a lot of old-school Gran Reservas tend to be. The event features a lot of great Riojas from producers like Muga (2009 Prado Enea), LAN (2012 Edicion Limitada), and CVNE (2010 Imperial Gran Reserva) but I would put the Montecillo second only to the 2007 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 for top Rioja of the evening.

Quinta do Vale Meao 2013 Meandro (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $21) This Portuguese wine is probably fighting head to head with the 2009 Montecillo Gran Reserva for best bargain of the night. Full bodied with chewy tannins and a long savory finish. Again, this will be no surprised to savvy wine geeks who have already been well aware of the outstanding value of dry red wines coming out of the Douro. Nor will this be a shock to Port lovers as the Olazabal Family’s Quinta do Vale Meão vintage Ports have been raking in critical acclaim for several years now.

This wine is a blend of 35% Touriga Nacional, 34% Touriga Franca, 20% Tinta Roriz, 6% Tinta Barroca, 3% Tinto Cão and 2% Sousâo and is almost a “baby brother” to the Quinta do Vale Meão Tinto 2013 that earned 94 points from Wine Spectator and 95 points from Robert Parker. The 2011 version of that wine was #4 on the 2014 Wine Spectator Top 100 wines list. For a $20 wine, this wine punches WAY above its weight and out-shined many bottles that were 3 to 4x the price.

Emilio Moro 2011 Malleolus de Valderramiro Ribera del Duero (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $85) One of my Top 10 wines of the night. Absolutely stunning wine from one of the top estates in the Ribera del Duero. The nose smelled like dinner at an incredible restaurant with tons of savory meaty character mixed with fragrant Indian spices that can’t help but make your mouth water before taking a sip.

The mouthfeel is velvety with oak and black plums mixed with medium-plus acidity that continues making your mouth water with lingering flavors of fruit and spice for a finish that was several minutes long. And that was just from a taste! I can only imagine how many more layers could unfurl if I had a chance to savor an entire bottle of this wine.

Montes 2012 Alpha M (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $64) Another great delivery from the Montes family of Chile. This is a Cabernet Sauvignon dominant Bordeaux blend with 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot which gave this wine a lot of tobacco spice and cedar cigar box notes on the nose. Very Bordeaux-like but it was paired with a palate of ripe, juicy black currant and black plum with a velvety mouthfeel closer to that of a nice Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.


S.A. Prum 2010 Wehlener Sonnenuhr GG Old Vine Dry Riesling (90 points. Wine Spectator list price $47) At the beginning of the tasting the Champagne and white wine tables where crushed as people, logically, sought to try those wines first before moving on to the big reds. In order to maximize the amount wines we could experience, my wife and I made the strategy decision to hit the reds first and then towards the end hit the whites with the Rieslings and Bubbles being palate cleansers. It was a risky strategy but this dry Riesling from S.A. Prum made it a smashing success. Intensely dry with lively acidity that scrubbed all the tannins and extract from the 40+ red wines we’ve had by then right off the palate. It was like a B12 shot for the palate and it awaken my taste buds to enjoy the vibrant stone fruit of white peach and almost salty minerality. Such vivacious life for a 7 year old Riesling that still could go on kicking for several more years!

Sbragia 2013 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points. Wine Spectator list price $65) From the legendary Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Moon Mountain district of Sonoma, it would be a sin to call this Cabernet “Napa-like”. Sure, it has the power of ripe black fruits of a great Oakville or Rutherford Cab but there is a freshness to this wine that I often find missing in Napa. It reminds me of an NFL linebacker who studied ballet. Power and grace. While the winery was founded Ed Sbragia, former head winemaker of Beringer, I learned that his son Adam now heads up winemaking duties. While I always enjoyed Ed’s wine, tasting this wine has me even more intrigued at what the future holds for Sbragia.

Ch. du Tertre 2011 Margaux (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $42) A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot from the 5th growth estate in Margaux. In the “Intermission Years” of Bordeaux between 2009/2010 and 2015/2016, the 2011 vintage would probably rank just slightly ahead of 2013 for roughest of this very rough patch. But as I noted with my comment on the 2012 Clos Beauregard, there are still gems to be found but wine lovers need to be realistic. These are not wines to lay down in the cellar for decades. A wine like the 2011 du Tertre has character and personality with its woodsy and black tea notes on the nose. The medium body tannins with blueberries, dark cherry and truffles and medium-plus acidity would shine with dinner featuring game, mushrooms or a hearty stew.

Caiarossa 2011 Toscana (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $43) This is an exciting Italian wine project from Eric Albada Jelgersma, owner of the 3rd Growth Bordeaux estate Chateau Giscours and 5th Growth Chateau du Tertre. A blend of 30% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 22% Syrah and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon it is an unusual blend even by Bordeaux standards, much less something you would expect from Tuscany. But the Cabernet Franc and Syrah in this wine really sing with a mix of blackberry, violet and peppery spice. On the finish there is some intriguing dark chocolate and espresso notes that pop out. This is a wine tailor-made to impress wine geeks.

Ornellaia 2014 (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $168) I was shocked to see this wine as I didn’t even realized it was released yet! One of the classic Super Tuscans, this wine is a blend of 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 20% Petit Verdot and 14% Cabernet Franc. Huge, huge tobacco. There are many cigar bars in Vegas and this wine smelled like I walked into one. It has some interesting aspects but with the big, chewy tannins this wine needs a lot of time. If I had a bottle, I wouldn’t think of touching it for at least another 3-5 years but its best days are probably 10+ years away.

Volver 2014 La Mancha (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $16) For many New World wine lovers, shopping for European wines can be a scary proposition with so many unfamiliar names, labels and grape varieties. One of the easiest thing you can do is to start learning importer names. Flip the bottle around and look at the back label for names like Kermit Lynch, Becky Wasserman, Alfio Morconi, Frederick Wildman and, if you’re looking at Spanish wine, Jorge Ordonez. The gems he finds are outstanding such as this old vine, single vineyard Tempranillo that had gorgeous juicy red fruit with a medium-plus body that gave the wine elegance and finesse.

Coming up next: The Heavy Hitters and 94+ rated wines.

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Practice makes Super Human

The CBS station in Las Vegas posted a report about scientists studying Vegas somms as part of Alzheimer’s research. They interviewed the wine director of Mandalay Bay, Harley Carbery, and threw this effusive praise his way:

Harley Carbery has developed an almost super human sense of smell over the years.

Let's be honest though, the flying Wine Angels are the real Super Humans

Let’s be honest though, the flying Wine Angels are the real Super Humans

Now I have no doubt that Carbery is a sommelier with an excellent palate and sense of smell. My wife and I have stayed at Mandalay Bay a couple times and we’ve loved the wine and spirits selections at their casino bars and restaurants. Aureole, in particular, is a must visit for any food and wine lover. But Carbery is not “almost super human”. He’s a professional who has put in the time and effort to be very good at his job.

He’s like the nurse who has spent hours practicing on dummies (and willing friends & family members–sometimes one and the same) at finding the vein to draw blood or set up an IV painlessly. The chef who has cracked many, many eggs in their career and can flip an omelet with pitch perfect perfection every time. The software engineer who can look at lines and lines of code and spot almost in an instance where the bug is. The concert pianist who has devoted thousands of hours of practice time towards letting the beauty of Chopin glide seemingly effortlessly from their fingers. Harley Carbery is like Yadier Molina, who has practically perfected the art of managing pitchers and catching by never settling and always striving to get better.

Not sure how much practice Yadi's tattoo artist had before doing that neck tat

Not sure how much practice Yadi’s tattoo artist had before doing that neck tat

Yes, there is certainly an element of natural-born talent but even the greatest athletes and musicians in the world will tell you that is only a small fraction of what made them great. But let’s also be frank here, smelling and analyzing wine is not playing Chopin nor is it trying to do a full back twisting salto on the balance beam. (You go Simone!) It’s a skill, yes, but it’s a skill that is built up more through practice than through the fortunate blessings of innate talent. Also, if we want to get into the nitty gritty, most women have a leg up on some one like Harley Carbery through genetics that tend to favor women’s sense of smell over men.

The point of this is not to bring some one like Harley Carbery down to human level, but rather to point you towards the path that you could take to be “almost super human” yourself. The quote near the bottom of the article from Dr. Sarah Banks of Cleveland Clinic Center for Brain Health, sums up this path really well.

“… sort of stopping to smell the roses a little bit, to enjoy life to think about your sensory experiences,”

No, not that Brett.

No, not that Brett.

Don’t just smell the roses. Smell everything. Smell the spices in your spice cabinet. Smell the different plants in your neighborhood as you take a walk. Smell the linens at Bed, Bath & Beyond–ideally when the employees aren’t looking. Don’t make it weird. Smell the room when you first walk in. Even the bathroom. (Hola Brett!) Just smell and spend a few brief seconds thinking about what you are smelling. (Emphasis on brief sometimes more than others)

But don’t over think it. Trying to “correctly” identify what you’re smelling is not necessarily the point and when we take this exercise over to the world of wine, this becomes the biggest pratfall for a lot of people. Yes, there may be a tasting note or other people around you waxing poetically about anise, nutmeg, cassis, thyme and Nicaragua Maduro wrapped tobacco and you’re not getting any of that. That’s FINE! Just focus on you and what you are getting. If all you’re getting in the wine is Red Vines black licorice, blackberries and Swisher Sweets, then your redneck description of 2005 Lynch Bages is just as on target as the wino next to you.

And by your redneck description of 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages, I mean my redneck description of 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages. I'm projecting here.

And by your redneck description of 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages, I mean my redneck description of 2005 Chateau Lynch Bages. I’m projecting here.

One of the best exercises that I ever did in my wine training was during a Sensory Evaluation class at the Northwest Wine Academy taught by the simply fabulous Regina Daigneault. Using an aroma infusion method that she learned from the equally fabulous Dr. Ann Noble of UC-Davis, inventor of the Wine Aroma Wheel–which is 7 shades of awesome BTW, Reg put in front of us several glasses of a neutral white wine that had one dominant aroma infused in it. She told the class, right off the bat, don’t try to immediately identify it. Just think about it because our entire perception of aromas are tied to particular memories of when we encountered that smell. If you can tap into that memory, you’ll be able to more easily recognize that smell.

However, sometimes our memories are like witnesses on Law & Order–we often add our unique spin to them. But since we are just drinking wine and not trying to solve a murder with Fred Thompson breathing down our backs, that’s perfectly fine. For instance, during that exercise one of the glasses of wine made me think of pot and hippies. It had this mix of herbal, medicinal and floral notes that made me think of incense and hemp products. Turns out that the aroma in that particular glass was cardamon. For whatever reason, that connection in my brain interprets the aroma of cardamon in wine with my memories of “pot and hippies” (Hey, I live in Seattle!). Now, I’ve got that aroma note down solid and can easily pick it out of wine. If I’m swirling a glass and it makes me think I’m in Eugene, Oregon or at a Rasta shop then boom I know I’ve got cardamon.

Some people hear Morgan Freeman's voice as the voice of God. I often hear this man's voice when I'm smelling wine

Some people hear Morgan Freeman’s voice as the voice of God. I often hear this man’s voice when I’m smelling wine “Look Amber! It’s cardamon!”
And now you will too.

Truly the more off the wall the memory and connection you make, the better it is for you to retain it. So spaz out and smell the world. You don’t have to aspire to reach the level of someone like Harley Carbery who is at one of the pinnacles of his profession. But there is still benefit for all of us in practicing towards becoming an “almost Super Human” smeller. Not only will you get a lot more out of your wine drinking, as recent studies have shown your vino homework may also help ward off diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Happy smelling!

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