Tag Archives: Master Sommelier

Women, Wine and Twitter — Great Accounts To Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules for Inclusion

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

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

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

Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers

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

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

Jancis Robinson (@JancisRobinson)

The Beyoncé of Wine. Need I say more?

Sarah Abbott (@SarahAbbottMW)

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

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan MW (@JediWineMaster)

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

Elizabeth Gabay MW (@LizGabayMW)

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

Debra Meiburg MW (@DebraMeiburgMW)

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

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

Jeannie Cho Lee

Jeannie Cho Lee MW (@JeannieChoLee)

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

Pascaline Lepeltier (@plepeltier)

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

Wine Business and Marketing Mavens

Rebecca Hopkins (@beckhopkinswine)

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

Cathy Huyghe (@cathyhuyghe)

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

https://twitter.com/VinoSocialNancy

Screenshot of Nancy Croiser’s Vino Social Twitter page.

Nancy Croisier (@VinoSocialNancy)

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

Jessyca Lewis (@JessycaLewis)

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

Polly Hammond (@mme_hammond)

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

Melanie Ofenloch (@dallaswinechick)

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

Brilliant Women Winemakers and Winery Owners

Reka Haros (@RekaHaros)

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

Treveri blind bottles

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

Julie Grieb (@cuveetirage)

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

WOWSonoma (@wowsonoma)

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

Sarah Garrett  (@SerranoWine)

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

Lori Budd (@Dracaenawines)

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

Elizabeth Vianna (@ChimneyRockWine)

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

Kronos vineyard

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

Cathy Corison (@cathycorison)

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

Amelia Ceja (@AmeliaCeja)

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

Good Sources For Wine News and Other Perspectives

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

Esther Mobley (@Esther_mobley)

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

Jane Anson (@newbordeaux)

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

Kelli White's Napa book

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

Kelli Audrey White (@kelliwhitewine)

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

Felicity Carter (@FelicityCarter)

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

Becca Yeamans-Irwin (@TheAcademicWino)

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

Dorothy J. Gaiter (@winecouple)

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

Jill Barth (@jillbarth)

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

Michelle Williams (@Fiery01Red)

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

Liza Zimmerman (@LizaWineChick)

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

Lauren Mowery (@chasingthevine)

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

screenshot of Seven Fifty Daily's twitter page

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

Katherine Cole (@kcoleuncorked)

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

Wine Bloggers/Media Conference Discoveries

Noelle Harman (@outwinesblog)

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

Luciana Braz (@WineTalkGroup)

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

Nancy Koziol (@WriterNancy)

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

Amanda Barnes (@amanda_tweeter)

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

Mo Blum (@MoWino_com)

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

Crushed Grape Chronicles (@CrushGrapeChron)

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

Aspiring Winos (@aspiringwinos)

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

Cayuse En Cerise

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

Decanted Podcast (@DecantedPodcast)

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

Liz Barrett (@LizBChicago)

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

Diane Roberts (@Positive_Vines)

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

Drinky LaRue (@Winelover0227)

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

Wine Travel Eats (@winetraveleats)

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

Leeann Froese (@leeannwine)

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

Thea Dwelle (@Luscious_Lushes)

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

Margot Savell (@WriteforWine)

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

US-Focus Bloggers

Kirkland Wine Gal (@kirklandwinegal)

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

Amy Lieberfarb (@amylieberfarb)

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

Kathy Wiedemann's Twitter

Screenshot of Kathy Wiedemann’s Twitter page.

Kathy Wiedemann (@Virginia_Made)

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

Elaine Schoch (@thecarpetravel)

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

Jacqueline Coleman (@HistoryandWine)

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

Rupal Shankar (@Syrah_Queen)

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

Nancy Brazil (@MsPullThatCork)

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

The Swirling Dervish (@theswirlingderv)

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

Cathie Schafer (@SideHustleWino)

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

Bloggers Across The Globe

Elena Amigo (@sommenite)

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

Steph (@Winellennial)

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

Fran Marshall (@thefoodmarshall)

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

Travelling Corkscrew (@TravelCorkscrew)

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

Allison Wallace (@allison_wallace)

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

Kirsten MacLeod (@TheKirstenMac)

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

Savor the Harvest twitter page

Screenshot of Savor the Harvest’s Twitter page

Savor the Harvest (@savortheharvest)

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

Jacky Blisson (@JackyBlisson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wedding photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2018 SpitBucket Year in Review

I just returned from vacation and am working on my blogging calendar for 2019. As I plan my content goals for the year, I decided to take a look back at what I did in 2018.

TruthTeller and the Wine Fool at WBC18

Winemaker dinner with Chris Loeliger of TruthTeller Winery and the Wine Fool at the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference.
Going through my Google Photos, this one jumped out to me as an apt summary of 2018.

While I technically started this blog back in 2016, I didn’t dedicate myself to full-time writing until last year. I spent a good chunk of 2018 feeling my way through and figuring out what I enjoyed writing about–as well as what resonated with readers. I’m a bit shocked at how much my traffic and subscription rate has jumped over these past 12 months and am very humbled by the support.

So as I look back on 2018, I’m also going to share a few of my thoughts on what content I’ll be producing going forward. The primary purpose of this blog will always be to serve as a study tool as I work on my WSET Diploma. But I am an inquisitive geek and a slutty boozer so it’s hard not to write about other alcohols that catch my attention. They also seem to grab the attention of readers (and search engines) as my top posts by traffic reveal.

The 8 Most Read Posts on SpitBucket for 2018

1) Apothic Brew Wine Review — Published on April 8, 2018
2) What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal — Published on October 14, 2018
3) Johnnie Walker “White Walker” Limited Edition Scotch Review — Published on October 15, 2018
4) 60 Second Whiskey Review — Tullamore DEW Caribbean Rum Cask Finish — Published on March 9, 2018
5) Wine Clubs Done Right — Published on January 14, 2018
6) 60 Second Whiskey Review – Alexander Murray — Published on November 28, 2017
7) 60 Second Whiskey Reviews — Jameson Caskmates IPA edition — Published on January 20, 2018
8) Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures — Published on July 11, 2018

Some Thoughts
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

For several weeks after the MS scandal hits, folks were searching for details about Reggie Narito, the somm at the heart of the scandal
Screenshot from Narito’s public blog.
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

I’m quite surprised by how much traffic I still get on the Alexander Murray whiskey review. I wrote that piece back in 2017 and get weekly, if not daily, hits on it. While I’m not very familiar with search engine optimization (and only recently learned about how readability plays into SEO rankings), it’s clear that a lot of people are searching for info on this relatively obscure independent bottler.

Likewise, the eruption of the Master Sommelier scandal drew big interest from search engines. I also benefited from having my article picked up by various news aggregators like Wine Industry Insight and Flipboard. Admittedly, Flipboard is a platform (like Pinterest) that I still haven’t figured out. I plan on spending some time this year learning more about them.

My early January post about deciding to join the Tablas Creek wine club took off when Jason Haas wrote about it on the Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog. I was very shocked and honored that Haas would even read, much less seriously consider, the viewpoints of a random blogger. But as I learned in my continuing journey as a wine club member, this is just par for the course with the Tablas Creek team’s outstanding engagement of their customers.

It’s clear that they are continually striving to improve and actively want to hear from consumers. They’re not hiding out in some ivory tower or behind a moat-like tasting bar. The folks at Tablas Creek make wine because they enjoy it and want to share that joy with others. This is a big reason why they, along with Rabbit Ridge, are one of the few wineries on Twitter that are worth following.

It’s not all Champagne and Bordeaux

Working at grocery stores and wine shops, you learn quickly that the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t necessarily drink the same things you enjoy. You can respond to that in two ways–get stuck up and snobbish about it or try to understand what makes wines like Apothic Brew or its whiskey barrel aged brethren appealing.

Mamamango wine

The fluorescent glow of Mamamango in the glass was a bit weird.

I prefer to take the latter approach which is why you’ll find me researching the backstory of wines like Apothic Brew, Capriccio Bubbly Sangria, Mamamango, Blanc de Bleu and non-alcoholic wines with just as much attention as I do for my reviews of Petrus, Lynch-Bages, Giscours, Krug Clos du Mesnil, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque or Louis XV Rose.

Going forward, I will continue my exploration of new wine trends that emerge. While I am sincerely dreading the advent of cannabis wine, I will nonetheless try it–for science.

A Few of My Favorite Posts from 2018

These articles might not have gotten the search engine traffic that my whiskey and other wine posts did, but they were ones that I had fun writing. They’re also the posts that I think most convey who I am as a wine writer and my general approach to wine.

January

Snooty or Flute-y? — Published on January 13, 2018
Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit — Published on January 22, 2018
Don’t Be a Jackass and Blindly Listen to Bloggers — Published on January 25, 2018
Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne — Published on January 29, 2018
Cab is King but for how long? — Published on January 31, 2018

So apparently I was a bit feisty back in January (and drinking a lot of Champagne). While I’ve always had little tolerance for know-it-alls or folks who dish out bad advice–my language is usually not that stark.

Still, I stand by those words I wrote back then regarding the ridiculous assertations of so-called “wine prophets” and bloggers who aim to stir anxiety and doubt in newbie wine drinkers. These folks don’t do anything to improve the dialogue around wine or promote exploration. They deserve to be taken down a peg or two. And I sincerely hope that if I ever stray that far that someone will come along and knock me down as well.

February-March

Under the (Social Media) Influence — Published on February 13, 2018
What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines — Published on February 25, 2018
Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care? — Published on February 28, 2018
The Mastery of Bob Betz — Published on March 5, 2018
Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine — Published on March 8, 2018
The Legend of W.B. Bridgman — Published on March 31, 2018

As I mentioned in my note about the Apothic Brew review, being in the trenches in retail gives you a lot of insight that you don’t glean from wine books or blogs. The typical wine consumer thinks about wine in a completely different way than most wine writers. That experience fuels my skepticism about the true reach and influence of “influencers”.

I noted in a later post in November, What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?, that I never once had a customer come up to me on the floor with blog review or seeking a wine that they said they saw on Instagram and Twitter. Never. In contrast, nearly every day I had customers looking for a wine they had at a restaurant. When major newspapers or magazines came out with their yearly “Best of…” lists, they were also far more likely to bring people in than a blog or social media posting.

In October, I may have annoyed my fellow bloggers at the Wine Blogger Conference when I told a few winemakers that if I were running a winery, I would focus more on the influencers at national and regional publications as well as getting my wine on by-the-glass programs at restaurants. I would also enter every wine competition I could find because, even though these competitions really shouldn’t have the influence that they do, consumers respond to seeing shiny medals on bottles.

Putting the Pieces Together
Bob Betz and Louis Skinner

A highlight of my year was being invited to Betz Winery where I got a personal lesson on Washington State terroir by Bob Betz and head winemaker Louis Skinner.

Though the posts in March are genuinely some of my favorites. I love getting knee deep into the history of influential figures in wine. Wine lovers across the globe should know about people like Bob Betz, W.B. Bridgman and (in later articles) Martin Ray and Nathan Fay. The world of wine is a quilt with many people contributing to the stitches that keep it together. It’s easy to focus on the patches, but to understand the quiltwork, you have to look at the stitching.

My piece on Jancis Robinson, though, has a bit of a personal bent that goes beyond an academic profile. This one I keep prominently featured in my Author Bio because anyone wishing to understand who I am as a wine writer is well served by understanding the immeasurable influence that Jancis Robinson has had on my career.

April-June

Why I Don’t Use Scores — Published on April 4, 2018
Playing the Somm Game in Vegas — Published on May 7, 2018
Naked and Foolish — Published on May 21, 2018
Pink Washing in the Booze Industry for Pride Month — Published on June 24, 2018

Tokay Eccenzia from Lago

Still can’t get over the jackpot I scored playing the Somm Game when I was in Las Vegas this past May.
It pretty much made up for the disappointment of the 2018 Wine Spectator Grand Tour.

I also keep a link to Why I Don’t Use Scores in my bio as it is an indelible part of my approach to reviewing wine. I know I’m sacrificing traffic and backlinks by not providing magical numbers that wineries can tweet about or feature on their sites. Likewise, I’m sure many PR firms scan over postings like this that convey my love/hate relationship with reviews only to close their browser tab quickly. Frankly, I could care less.

Perhaps it’s privilege in that, with my wife’s career, I don’t need to make an income from writing. I don’t need to count on a steady stream of free wine samples for topics to write about. Truthfully, I prefer paying for the wine that I review or the events I attend because I feel that it gives me a better grounding in measuring their value.

I rate with my wallet instead of with scores because that is how most regular wine consumers judge wine. Did the bottle give you enough pleasure to merit its cost? Great, that’s was a good bottle for you. It doesn’t matter what points it got from a critic. Nor how many stars it had on an easily gameable rating system (Naked and Foolish).

While as a blogger this view is thoroughly self-defeating, I can’t ever see myself straying from the mantra of “Ignore the noise (i.e. bloggers like me) and trust your palate”. I’m not here to tell you what you should buy or how you should drink. I’m just geeking out over whatever is tickling my fancy at one particular moment in time.

September-October

Birth Year Wine Myopics — Published on September 6, 2018
Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine — Published on September 11, 2018
The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray — Published on September 29, 2018
The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials — Published on October 8, 2018
Race From The Bottom — How Should Wine Regions Break Into New Markets? — Published on October 25, 2018

A drum that I will continue to beat loudly in my writings is that the biggest threat to the wine industry over the next several years will be the “Boredom Factor” of the next generation. In 2019, Millennials will outnumber Baby Boomers as the largest demographic in the US. As I touched on back in my January post Cab is King but for how long? and in The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials, wineries are foolish to rest their laurels on the old-standbys of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Millennials crave new experiences and are notorious for getting bored quickly. We crave uniqueness and distinction. As the influence of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers fade from dominance, wineries are going to have to figure out how to stand out from the pack of “same ole, same ole.” The wineries and wine regions that aren’t planning for this (or, worse, doubling down on the old guard) are going to struggle mightily.

November
Wagner Pinots

Pitting these Joe Wagner wines against various Oregon Pinot noirs in a blind tasting yielded some surprising results.

Wine Media Musings — Published on November 9, 2018
Viva La Vida New Zealand — The Coldplay of the wine world? — Published on November 13, 2018
What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews? — Published on November 15, 2018
Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano — Published on November 30, 2018

While I’m coming around to the Wine Bloggers Conference’s name change to Wine Media Conference, I still hold a lot of the same sentiments I expressed in Wine Media Musings. The mantra Show, Don’t Tell is another one that I’m not likely to abandon. I see little need to puff up my credentials or try to claim a title of “Wine Media” for myself. I’m a writer. I’m a communicator. But ultimately it will be readers like you who decide what is Wine Media and what is just noise. My job is merely to put my head down, do my due diligence and work, and create content that will hopefully show that it’s credible and original.

December

The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews — Published on December 10, 2018
Stop Scaring the Newbies — A Look at the Wine Hierarchy of Needs — Published on December 16, 2018
Winery Tasting Notes Done Right — Published on December 17, 2018
Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith — Published on December 31, 2018

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

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

I’ll try to make a New Year’s resolution to stop writing about wine reviews for 2019. But I will say that posts like The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews have done a lot to solidify in my mind just what the hell I’m doing here. Even though I often draw on my experiences working retail, at restaurants and wineries for posts, at my core, I’m just a regular wine consumer like most of you. It’ll always be hard to separate from that mindset when I deal with wine reviews as well as winery tasting notes.

While there are aspects of those things that are undoubtedly helpful for consumers making buying decisions–a lot of it is also a heap of bullshit. (Sorry, must be a January-thing)

Finally, two of these year-end posts–the Wine Hierarchy of Needs and my piece on Nathan Fay–were my absolute favorites posts that I’ve written on this blog to date. It felt good to end the year on a high note.

My Favorite 60 Second Reviews of 2018

I went back and forth about whether or not I wanted to do a Top Wines of the Year post. Ultimately I decided against it for a few reasons. For one, I haven’t yet published my reviews on all the great wines I had last year–especially from the past three months. While I have my tasting notes written down, the Geekery sections take longer to do because I’m a stickler for research and fact-checking. I want to find multiple sources beyond just a winery’s website for details I publish. This means that many of the wines I review are ones that I might have had several days or weeks prior. (I do consider that when I make verdict calls relating to a wine’s aging potential or pratfalls.)

The second reason is that I don’t want this blog to be all about reviews. In general, I try to post reviews only around 2 to 3 times a week with the bulk of my articles being on other wine topics. For me, it will always be about the Geekery section. So while I will likely do 60 Second reviews in 2019 with the same frequency as last year, I may turn more of them into Getting Geeky with… posts.

With that said, this list below is not necessarily my favorite wines of the year (though many of them were excellent) but of the posts that I had the most fun researching for the Geekery section.
Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape

I learned a lot about Beaucastel’s approach to blending while researching this post.

Winderlea Shea Pinot noir — Published on January 29, 2018
Pierre Gerbais L’Originale — Published on January 31, 2018
Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny — Published on February 28, 2018
Guardian Newsprint Cabernet Sauvignon — Published on March 14, 2018
Gorman Evil Twin — Published on March 15, 2018
2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape — Published on April 9, 2018
2004 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant — Published on April 21, 2018
Domaine des Pins St. Amour Les Pierres — Published on April 23, 2018
WillaKenzie Pinot blanc — Published on May 8, 2018
2007 Efeste Final-Final — Published on August 22, 2018
Adobe Road Bavarian Lion Cabernet Sauvignon — Published on September 28, 2018
Ch. de la Perriere Brouilly — Published on October 9, 2018
DeLille 2015 Rose (Can Rosés Age?) — Published on October 17, 2018
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 — Published on November 17, 2018
Accordini Ripasso — Published on November 19, 2018

Speaking of Getting Geeky

Few posts convey the spirit and focus of SpitBucket more than my Getting Geeky and Geek Notes features. Here is where I get down and dirty with the type of material that wine students pursuing higher levels of wine certification should aim to master. They make up a good chunk of the 350+ posts that I’ve written so far so I will narrow this down to just my ten favorites of each from this past year.

Getting Geeky with Domaine du Grangeon Chatus — Published on February 18, 2018
Getting Geeky with Soaring Rooster Rose of Counoise — Published on March 7, 2018
Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul — Published on March 19, 2018
Getting Geeky with Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot — Published on April 6, 2018
Getting Geeky about Malbec — Published on April 17, 2018
Getting Geeky with Davenport Cellars Ciel du Cheval Rosé of Sangiovese — Published on August 4, 2018
Getting Geeky with Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre — Published on August 17, 2018
Getting Geeky with Otis Kenyon Roussanne — Published on August 25, 2018
Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot — Published on October 13, 2018
Getting Geeky with Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch — Published on October 21, 2018

Geek Notes

This section changed focus in the latter half of the year. Previously, I used Geek Notes as a curated news feed featuring interesting weblinks with added commentary. After attending the Wine Bloggers/Media Conference in October, I realized that I needed to come up with a game plan for my social media channels. I moved the curated new feed over to the SpitBucket Facebook page and refocused Geek Notes to highlight useful study aides like podcasts, maps, videos and books for wine students.

Out of all the features that I do on the blog, this is the area that I will be increasing the frequency of my postings the most for 2019.

Barolo Cru map

A section of the Grand Crus of Barolo map with the full version at http://www.jdemeven.cz/wine/Barolo_map.pdf

Killer Clos Vougeot Map — Published on January 9, 2018
I’ll Drink To That! Episode 331 Featuring Greg Harrington — Published on August 23, 2018
UK Wine Show Episode 111 with Ian D’Agata — Published on September 23, 2018
Super Cool Map of Barolo Crus — Published on September 30, 2018
Grape Radio Episode 391 Interview with Hubert de Boüard of Ch. Angélus — Published on October 10, 2018
Insider’s Peek Into Champagne — Published on November 7, 2018
Top Audiobooks on California Wine History — Published on November 11, 2018
Five Essential Books On Champagne — Published on December 5, 2018
The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast — Published on December 8, 2018
More Champagne with GuildSomm Podcast — Published on December 22, 2018

Additionally, in 2018 I launched my Keeping up with the Joneses in Burgundy series which dives into the family lineage and connection of Burgundy estates. I started with the Boillot family and have completed cheat sheets on the Morey, Gros, Coche and Leflaive families as well. I will definitely continue producing more of these posts over the next several months.

Wine Events of 2018 and Some Personal News

Last year I had the opportunity to attend many fun wine events. Some were great (like the Wine Bloggers/Media Conference and Hospice du Rhone) while others (like the most recent Wine Spectator Grand Tour and Taste Washington’s New Vintage) were a bit of a dud.

Morgan Twain-Peterson

Meeting Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock at the Hospice du Rhone was another highlight of the year for me.

Walla Walla Musings — Published on February 15, 2018
Quilceda Creek Release Party — Published on March 18, 2018
Event Review — The New Vintage at Taste Washington — Published on March 27, 2018
Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar — Published on March 29, 2018
Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner — Published on April 22, 2018
Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018 — Published on April 30, 2018
Déjà Vu at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour — Published on June 2, 2018
Getting Ready (and a bit nervous) For WBC18! — Published on October 3, 2018

My schedule of events for 2019 will be quite a bit different from last year. My wife and I are moving to Paris sometime in March as she takes on a new job opportunity in France. I will be making frequent trips back to the US to see family and work on a research project about the Stags Leap District AVA. But I’m not sure which events I’ll be able to attend–at least in the United States.

I do have my tickets already booked for the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley this October, so that is a definite. I will also be transferring my WSET Diploma course work to London for an online/intensive classroom block schedule. This will give me a chance to explore some of the various wine events going on that side of the pond. Stay tuned!

Bordeaux Futures Posts

2015 Ch. Margaux

While I’ll likely never score as great of a deal as I did for the 2015 Ch. Margaux, I’ll still be a regular buyer of Bordeaux futures.

I started my coverage of the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign on May 1st of last year with an examination of the offers on Ch. Palmer, Valandraud, Fombrauge and Haut-Batailley. I completed 15 more posts, covering the offers of 64 chateaux, before it got too late into the year for futures offers to be relevant.

While my post Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures was one of my most popular of the year, admittedly I’m not certain if I want to continue this series with coverage on the 2018 campaign. These posts take a considerable amount of time to research and write and, overall, they don’t seem to get much readership.

But I will still be buying futures and doing this research on my own. I’ll likely do a modified version of the series in more of a summary format of the offers. I don’t need to necessarily repeat the geekery sections for each estate. I can shift that focus to individual Getting Geeky with... posts as I did for the 2007 Léoville Poyferré and 2008 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose.

However, if you were a fan of my coverage on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign, I would love to get some feedback in the comments below.

Book Reviews

One area that I want to make a commitment to work on is posting more book reviews of useful wine books. Last year I only completed four.

Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers by Robert Walters — Published on January 16, 2018
Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan — Published on January 27, 2018
Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Paul Gregutt — Published on March 15, 2018
Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich — Published on August 20, 2018

While these are a bit of work, they are a lot of fun to write. I’m such a bibliophile that few things give me more joy than a highlighter and a good wine book. Writing these reviews is a way for me to relieve the delight of discovery I had when I first read them. They’re also terrific learning tools as I inevitably pick up something new (as I did with Oregon Wine Country Stories) when I go back to the text to write a review.

I’m going to set a goal of posting at least one book review a month for 2019. Some of these may be new books but most will probably be old favorites that I feel are particularly of benefit for wine students. I also enjoy putting together the Geek Notes for the Five Essential Books On Champagne and will continue that this year with listings of essential books on Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italian Wine, Winemaking and more.

Onto 2019!

So that is my look back at 2018 and thoughts for this year. Thank you to everyone who has subscribed as well as follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I had a lot of fun last year and look forward to more geeking in 2019!

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What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

Even if the collateral damage is devastating.

Updates

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

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

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

Why Is This A Big Deal?

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

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

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

Reading their stories is heartbreaking.

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

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

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

Now they have to do it all over again.

How Did the Court Find Out?

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

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

Update

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

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

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

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

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

So what could the “helpful” initials have been?

CS, CF, PN?

CB, GV, PG, SB?

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

Who Did It?

https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

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

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

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

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

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

Update

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

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

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

Distributors’ Involvement?

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

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

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

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

Update

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

Dana Gaiser of Lauber Imports in New York City, NY

Andrey Ivanov of Bliss Wine Imports in San Francisco, CA

Maximilian Kast of Broadbent Selections in Chapel Hill, NC

Douglas Kim of Picasso Las Vegas, NV

Steven McDonald of Pappas Brothers Steakhouse in Houston, TX

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

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

Another Option?

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

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

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

Threads to Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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Geek Notes — Wine For Normal People Episode 84 Featuring Tuscan Wine Regions

Screenshot from the Wine For Normal People podcast

Outside of blog land, I frequently teach wine classes. As part of my usual prep routine whenever I have a class to write, I’ll fill my Overcast queue with wine podcasts relating to the class. I find that listening to podcasts while cleaning the house, working out at the gym and driving helps submerse me into the topic and compliments my book studies really well.

My usual sources for hardcore geekdom are Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That! (whose episode with Gramercy owner and Master Sommmelier Greg Harrington I featured in a previous Geek Notes) and the GuildSomm podcast hosted by Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth.

However, I’ll also frequently listen to Chris Scott’s The UK Wine Show, Heritage Radio Network’s In the Drink, Jim Duane’s podcast Inside Winemaking and the very first wine podcast that I started with–Grape Radio.

Two newly launched podcasts that are also in my rotation are Wine Enthusiast’s What We’re Tasting and James Halliday’s Wine Companion podcast.

But I’m always on the lookout for more options so if you know of any other great wine podcasts worth checking out, post them in the comments below!

It was while working on an upcoming Italian wine class that I stumbled upon what is definitely going to be a new go-to resource for me–Elizabeth Schneider’s Wine for Normal People podcast.

A Little Background and Why You Should Listen Too

Anyone who shares a disheartening sigh while looking at wine displays virtually dominated by the same 3 big mega-corps is fighting the good fight in my book.

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Sommelier who hosts the podcasts with her husband, M.C. Ice. I’m sure there is a story behind the hubby’s stage name but I haven’t came across it yet while listening.

Outside of the podcast, she does speaking engagements, online classes and has an upcoming book Wine for Normal People: A Guide for Real People Who Like Wine, but Not the Snobbery That Goes with It slated for release in early 2019.

Her website also has a super user-friendly list of brands owned by big mega-corps that is worth book marking. As I found in compiling my own list of supermarket wines, this is no easy task to stay on top of so I wholeheartedly support Schneider’s efforts in promoting more knowledge and transparency in this area.

I must confess that when I first read the description of the Wine For Normal People podcast, I thought this would be a bit too beginner for me. It could still be a great podcast that benefits a lot of people who want to dip their toes into the world of wine but I was expecting it to be something more like an updated version of William Wilson’s Wine for Newbies podcast.

But what I quickly found after listening through a few episodes is that Schneider has a fantastic teaching style and approach to wine that serves up ample geeky goodness but balances it by presenting the topic in a digestible manner.

Even for folks like me who have fell down the rabbit hole of wine geekiness, listening to the podcast and paying attention to how she presents her topics is of huge benefit. When we live in a world with a billion+ wine drinkers, one thing that us hardcore wine geeks have to realize is that we really are the minority here. Not every wine drinker aspires to be a Master of Wine or Master Sommelier or even a wine geek. The passion and enthusiasm that drives us to learn more–and to share what we’ve learned–can often be a bit much for many wine drinkers and ends up driving them away back to the comforts of the same ole, same ole.

In the end it is all about balance which, like a good wine, I find well exhibited in the Wine For Normal People podcast.

Plus, there is still plenty of geeky nuggets in each episode like these things I noted in Episode 084 on Tuscan Wine Regions (35 minutes).

Photo by Rob & Lisa Meehan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards in Montalcino

Some Fun Things I Learned/Enjoyed From This Podcast

(3:36) I really liked Schneider’s answer to the question of if the French should feel threatened at all by the rise of Super Tuscans using Bordeaux varieties. She talks about the difference in French culture of “closing ranks” versus the in-fighting that you often see among Italian winemakers.

(7:06) Brunello is a relatively recent wine on the Italian wine scene with the particular Sangiovese Grosso clone isolated only in 1888. However, Schneider notes that winemakers as early as the 14th century were aware of the superior quality of wines in the Montalcino region.

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

The estate of Biondi-Santi pioneered the modern concept of Brunello di Montalcino.


(8:44) Very surprised to hear that only 4 vintages of Brunello were declared during the first 57 years of production after 1888. I definitely want to read more about this and why.

(11:55) This starts a really great discussion on the two zones of the Montalcino region–the northern and southern–with some very useful insights on the different wines produced in the different soil types. Nice tidbit on the winemaking approach of Silvio Nardi who own vineyards in both zones.

(15:24) The uniqueness of the Sangiovese based wines of Carmignano compared to Chianti. Often called “The Original Super Tuscan” due to its historical tradition of using Cabernet Sauvignon but Schneider also notes that Carmignano is distinct for growing Sangiovese on flatter lands whereas the grape usually thrives on higher elevation hillsides. Also of interest is that some Carmignano estates, like in Bolgheri, have Cabernet Sauvignon vines that were grafted from cuttings taken from Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.

(21:20) Going to have a slight disagreement with the podcast here. After talking about some of the reasons why Chianti has historically been “a hot mess” (quite true!), Schneider encourages people to not really bother taking a chance on Chianti and instead look for wines from the Chianti Classico zone. This isn’t bad advice per se, but it is one of the Magic Beans of Wine that I’ve never been a fan of promoting.

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

I won’t deny that Chianti’s bad rap is well earned but sometimes there is a needle of a gem within the haystack of fiascos. You have to trust that a good quality producer is not going to put their name on crap.


Yeah, there is lots of crappy Chianti out there. But there is also a lot of crappy Chianti Classico out there as well. Instead of focusing on the region (Chianti vs Chianti Classico), it really should be about the producer–which, to be fair, is a common theme that Schneider makes repeatedly in this podcast. Yet, for some reason, she seems to ignore that a good quality producer of Chianti Classico can also make a good quality Chianti. This Chianti may even be made from grapes grown in the Chianti Classico zone but declassified down to Chianti for various reasons–younger vines, less aging, wanting to have a more approachable and easy drinking bottle at a lower price point, etc.

Sure, the Chianti Classico from that same producer will be the superior bottle but that doesn’t discount the potential value in a bottle of well made Chianti from a reputable producer.

(22:59) Canaiolo nero use to be the main grape of Chianti until the 1870s. Very interesting! I would love to try a varietal Canaiolo.

(24:22) Oooh I love Schneider’s use of different varieties of roses as a vehicle for explaining the differences in Sangiovese’s clones. It’s not easy to explain clones but this metaphor is a good start.

(24:55) This starts a very useful overview of the different sub-areas within the Chianti Classico zone.

Photo by Viking59. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

While it’s not impossible to envision the Gamay of Beaujolais (pictured) growing in Tuscany, I would probably wager on this being a case of a weird Italian synonym for another variety,


(29:02) Very interesting to hear that some producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano have been grafting over to the Chianti Classico clone of Sangiovese–though Prugnolo Gentile still dominates. Also apparently Gamay can be blended in (29:23)!?! I wasn’t aware of Tuscan Gamay so I’m wondering if this is a synonym for another grape like Alicante? Will need to do some more research here.

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It’s Raining Masters

UPDATE: Apparently there was evidence of cheating during the tasting portion and the results of that segment of this year’s Master Sommelier examination has been invalidated. All Masters who passes this year’s test will have to resit this exam.

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

Hallelujah?

Earlier this week the Court of Master Sommeliers announced an astonishing 24 new Master Sommeliers.

All together 56 individuals sat for the exams which is taken in three parts. This first is a theory examination that covers the wines and wine regions of the world. Candidates need to know wine laws and production methods as well as details about cigars, spirits and liqueurs. This is followed by Practical examination which includes demonstrating proper table service. Then finally a blind tasting of 6 wines in 25 minutes using the famous Grid Method of Deduction.

To pass, candidates must receive a score of at least 75% in all three parts. With this year’s bumper crop, we saw an incredible 42.8% pass rate.

That’s not bad for something that has been described as the World’s Toughest Test.

A Perfect Storm for a Windfall?

Last year the court announced 8 new Masters out of 58 candidates for a 13.7% pass rate.

In 2016, there was a minuscule 4.7% pass rate as 3 out of 63 candidates successfully completed all 3 exams. The year prior, in 2015, 7 out of 63 passed for a 11% rate.

Now what those numbers don’t tell is how many individuals passed 1 or even 2 of the three exam components. These scores can be carried over to the next examination. Let’s say we have a candidate who passed the Theory examination in 2015 but failed Practical and Tasting. This candidate could then spend the next three consecutive years attempting to pass the remaining two.  After that, though, unsuccessful candidates will need to retake the whole exam.

It’s very likely that 2018 wasn’t the first rodeo for several of the 24 new Master Sommeliers. This could help explain why this year saw so many successful candidates.

The SOMM Effect?

The film also popularize the idea of blind tasting beyond just professionals.

One theory on the large class was that it was because more people were taking the exams. Credit is given  to the 2013 documentary film SOMM  for sparking interest in the field. This film followed the path of Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, DLynn Proctor and Brian McClintic as they took their examinations.

Wilson and McClintic would go on to pass all the Master Sommelier exams in February 2011, being 2 of 6 who passed out of 30 (20% pass rate). The following year, Cauble would earn his MS as part of a group of 7 out of 62 candidates taking the exam (11.2%).

In July 2013, only a few week after the film was released June 21st, 70 candidates sat for the MS exam with only one single person, Nick Hetzel from Sage at Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, passing (1.4%).

To even get an invite to take the Master Sommelier examination, candidates must first pass the Advanced Sommelier exam.  According to the Court of Master Sommeliers, this exam usually has a 25-30% pass rate. Before taking that exam, candidates need to have previously passed the Certified Sommelier exam. Additionally, the Court recommends at least 5 years practical experience as a sommelier in the service industry.

If there is a “SOMM bump”, it seems likely that 2018 is just the beginning of the swell.

Are we just getting “Wine Smarter”?

It’s possible that the “World’s Toughest Test” may not be as tough any more for a growing wine savvy community that is being spearheaded by wanderlust Millennials who aren’t afraid to branch out into the obscure, geeky and unknown.

This ain’t your daddy’s Duboeuf.

While previous generations of drinkers may not have strayed very far from the zones of Chianti and safety of Sangiovese, we now have regular wine drinkers (not just trained and studious sommeliers) waxing poetically about the difference between Nerello Mascalese grown on the volcanic soils of Mt. Etna and IGT Nero d’Avola.

Now a days if you are talking Beaujolais, you are far more likely to be talking about the crus than you are of Nouveau.

Blessed with a plethora of wine resources courtesy of the internet (like GuildSomm’s own fantastic website), it’s easier than ever for the curious wine lover to quench their thirst for some vino-knowledge.  Are we seeing a “trickle up” effect from this groundswell of knowledge?

As I mentioned in my post Playing the Somm Game in Vegas, the level of knowledge in the field has never been higher. As consumers get more savvy and adventurous, the sommeliers are upping their game.

Perhaps the windfall of new Master Sommeliers (249 and counting since 1969) and Masters of Wine (380 since 1953) means that we are collectively on a crescent of wine expertise that we haven’t observed before.

Or maybe the World’s Toughest Test needs to get tougher?

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Geek Notes — I’ll Drink To That! Episode 331 Featuring Greg Harrington

Screenshot from I’ll Drink To That! channel on SoundCloud.

As part of our celebration of Washington Wine Month in August, I’m reviewing some of the resources that folks can use to learn more about Washington State wine.

For this edition of Geek Notes, I’m encouraging readers to check out Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That! podcast episode 331 featuring Washington winemaker and Master Sommelier Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla. To listen to the full podcast on Sound Cloud click here.

The first half of the 2 hour podcast covers Harrington’s pre-Washington story including his path to Master Sommelier and his experience working with Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Joyce Goldstein and Stephen Hanson as well as the Vegas wine scene during his time developing the wine program at the Bellagio. That later segment in particular includes several intriguing anecdotes about opening up the Bellagio with 150 cases of 1982 Petrus (Wine Searcher Average $5,835 a bottle now) that was completely sold out within 6 months (43:27 mark) as well as how wine comps are handled for high rollers. (Yeah, I think I’ll just be content playing my Somm Game in Vegas)

Harrington also makes some great points about how his experience working in restaurants taught him how to run a business (a “MBA in a box”) (1:48:32 mark) with skills that he still uses in his winery today.

The whole episode is well worth a listen but at around the 1:10:00 mark, Dalton and Harrington turn their attention to the Washington side of his story.

Some Washington-related items I learned from this podcast.

(1:16:40) While Harrington bought at a really good time in the mid 2000s, he still thinks there is about 10 years (from 2017) left where buying vineyards in Walla Walla is still a good financial decision.

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

While Grenache has huge potential and promise in Washington State, we still have a long way to go before we can reap the benefit of old vine plantings like this Grenache vineyard at Charles Melton Winery in South Australia.

(1:19:42) Harrington thinks Grenache offers a lot of potential but the freeze of 1984 killed nearly all of the Grenache that was previously planted in the state so the grape is being rethought now with new plantings in new locations.

(1:20:25) Whites in Washington don’t seem to excite Harrington as much as the reds though he is intrigued at the potential of the Columbia Gorge for white wines like Sauvignon blanc and even unique varieties like Trousseau gris and Fiano. Very interesting commentary especially considering how delicious Gramercy Picpoul is.

(1:22:43) The “blessing and curse” of Washington is its long growing season with Harrington noting that Syrah could be harvested in some vintages anywhere from September 1st to November 1st, producing a wide variance of style in the same year. Harrington notes that Gramercy is usually among the first in all their contract vineyards to pick Syrah.

Located on the eastern edges of the Walla Walla Valley, the Forgotten Hills Vineyard is very cool climate site that is usually harvested later in the season.


(1:23:50) A really great explanation of the frost issues that can impact Walla Walla as well as what actually happens to the vine when it is damaged by frost. Super geeky and one of my favorites tidbits from the podcast.

(1:25:30) “Syrah likes a view” with Harrington preferring higher altitude vineyards above 1300 feet including the Les Collines Vineyard.

(1:26:17) Harrington talks about both the positives (the aromatics) and negatives (too high pH) of fruit from the Rocks District. He prefers to use Syrah from here as “salt & pepper” seasoning for blends.

(1:27:03) He is also a big fan of Red Willow Syrah and considers that vineyard to be one of the premiere areas in the state for the grape.

(1:28:19) The benefit of fermenting with the stems with Syrah and answering the myth about using “green stems”. Really informative section! From here the podcast gets into a lot of geeky winemaking stuff about dealing with reduction, volatile acidity and native fermentation that isn’t necessarily Washington-centric but definitely worth listening to.

(1:34:33) Dalton asks Harrington if Syrah from Washington is less reductive than Syrah grown elsewhere. Harrington gives a very interesting answer and notes that perhaps the fact that Washington vineyards and wineries here tend to use less sulfur treatments on the grapes and in winemaking could play a role. He also notes that all of Gramercy’s estate vineyards are organic.

(1:38:40) Harrington thinks the drinking curve for Washington Syrahs starts at around 5 years from vintage date while Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be more approachable younger after around 2 years in the bottle. He also feels that Washington Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be soft and needing tannin.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The warm climate, steep aspect and poor sandy soil of the Alder Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills seems to be particularly well suited for Mourvedre.

(1:42:01) Among Washington vintages, Harrington is very high on the 2007 and 2010 vintage as among the best in Washington. Both 2010 and 2011 were very Old World-style vintages. 2012 was a great Cabernet Sauvignon vintage but not as much for Syrah.

(1:43:26) Harrington is high on Mourvedre in Washington but it needs to be planted in spots warmer than areas like the Rocks District in Oregon. He cites Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Alder Ridge as promising vineyards for the grape.

(1:45:50) Dalton asks how often Washington winemakers look to the Old World for inspiration with Harrington encouraging more winemakers to explore the classic wines of the Old World.

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Getting Geeky with Rubus Barossa Shiraz

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2014 Rubus Shiraz from the Barossa.

The Background

Rubus is a negociant label of the importing firm Kysela Pere et Fils that was founded by Master Sommelier Fran Kysela.

Prior to earning his MS in 1989 and starting his firm in 1994, Kysela previously worked for California wineries Fetzer and Gallo as well as importers Kermit Lynch and Weygandt-Metzler. In his more than 40 years in the wine business, Fran Kysela has earned numerous awards including 2013 Importer of the Year from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

His wine import portfolio represents over 200 producers, including notable wineries such as Abeja, Accordini Igino, Alain Jaume, Avennia, Bressia, Bonny Doon, Buty, Betz, Chakana, Cholila Ranch, Clos de Sixte, Domaine Mordoree, Finca Sobreno, Gravas, Hahn, Jip Jip Rocks, La Petite Frog, Levendi, Long Shadows, Loring, Maipe, Marcassin, Mas Sinen, Maysara, Milton Park, Montebuena, Mt. Monster, Pago de Carraovejas, Palacio de Bornos, Paradigm, Patton Valley, Poggio Nardone, Quilceda Creek, Rebuli, Reverdy, Rinaldi, Segries, St. James Winery, Tamarack, Thorn Clarke, Tiza, Tres Ojos, Valminor and Vinsacro among many others.

The first wine released under the Rubus label was in 1997 with 1200 cases of an Amador County Zinfandel. Since then the brand has expanded to include Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Chardonnay from Colchagua Valley in Chile, Pinot noir from the Waipara Valley in New Zealand, Prieto Picudo from Tierra de León in Spain, a Grenache-based Vin Gris from Corbières in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France as well as a Shiraz from the Barossa of South Australia.

All the wines bottled under the Rubus label are personally selected by Fran Kysela.

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

While the oak used for the Rubus Shiraz was entirely American, for half the barrels the staves were sent to France to be seasoned (air dried) and coopered in the French style.

The 2014 Rubus Shiraz was only the third release of a Shiraz from Kysela. A co-ferment of 98% Shiraz with 2% Viognier, the wine was aged 12 months in 100% American oak with half the barrels being seasoned and coopered in France. Around 2,000 cases were produced.

Instead of being labeled as the Geographical Indication (GI) of Barossa Valley, the 2014 Rubus is labeled as being from simply “Barossa” which Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen note in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide means that fruit from neighboring Eden Valley could have been blended in. Conversely, if a wine is labeled as being from the “Barossa Valley” then only 100% Barossa Valley fruit could be used.

The Origins of Syrah

In Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, co-authored by Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, it is noted that the origins of Syrah have been proven to be distinctly French despite myths attributing its origins to the Persian city of Shiraz in modern-day Iran.

Map from Rhône-Alpes map.png on Wikimedia Commons created by Utilisateur:Rinaldum. Derivations done by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

With Mondeuse Blanche native to the Savoie region (#4) and Dureza originating from the Ardèche (#1), it is likely that the cross-pollination that created Syrah happened somewhere in the Isère (#3) where Dureza is known to have reached.
The Drôme department (#2) includes the Northern Rhone wine region of Hermitage where there are written accounts of Syrah being grown here by at least the 1780s.

DNA analysis conducted in 1998 by Dr. Carole Meredith and others at UC-Davis have shown the parents of Syrah to be the Savoie wine grape Mondeuse blanche and the Ardèche variety Dureza. Both grapes were at one time cultivated in the department of Isère, southeast of Lyon, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region with ampelographers speculating that this was the likely area that Syrah originated in.

Further research by José Vouillamoz has shown a potential parent-offspring relationship between Syrah’s parent Dureza and the Pinot grape meaning that potentially Pinot noir could be a grandparent variety to Syrah.

Additional research into the origins of Viognier has shown a parent-offspring relationship with Syrah’s other parent, Mondeuse blanche, and Viognier though it is not yet clear which variety is the parent and which is the offspring–partly because the other potential parent of Viognier hasn’t been identified yet. This means that Viognier could be either a half-sibling or a grandparent to Syrah.

Aussie Shiraz vs French Syrah

Syrah was first brought to Australia in 1832 by viticulturalist and “father of Australian wine” James Busby as part of a collection of 75 different grapevine varieties from Europe. Known initially as Hermitage and then Scyras it was first planted in New South Wales before spreading westward.

Today it is the most widely planted variety in Australia, accounting for around 45% of the yearly harvest. It is planted across the country with the Barossa Valley known for having some of the oldest vineyards of Shiraz in the world–including many pre-phylloxera plantings on their own rootstock.

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

The Barossa Valley

Among these old vine Shiraz plantings include Langmeil’s 1843 vineyard in Tanunda and Turkey Flat’s 1847 parcel planted by Johann August Frederick Fiedler. In neighboring Eden Valley, Henschke’s Hill of Grace has Shiraz plantings dating back to the 1860s.

Pioneered by German Lutheran settlers from Prussia and Silesia (in modern-day Poland), the Barossa Valley is home to numerous 6th generation family wine growers. Often traditionally aged in American oak, the style of Shiraz here is characterized by James Halliday in his Wine Atlas of Australia as “…lush, velvety and mouthfilling with flavors in the black cherry to blackberry spectrum, the tannins ripe and soft.”

The soils in the Barossa are mostly sandy and clay loam which will have varying water-retaining abilities in the hot Australian sun depending on the percentage and type of clay. This tends to produce concentrated wines with lower acidity and higher pH that contributes to the powerful and lush dark fruit typical of Aussie Shiraz.

In contrast, the mainly granite and schist-based soils of the Northern Rhone (particularly in Côte-Rôtie) produces wines that John Livingstone-Learmonth notes in The Wines of the Northern Rhône tend to be “… less intensely coloured–red rather than black–and much more sinewed. Their fruit is more stone and pebbly in texture, their tannins more upright and raw at the outset. Pepper tones are drier and more evident…”

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity. Noticeable oak with coconut and cinnamon. Certainly dark fruit like black cherries but there also seems to be some faint red fruit like red plums on the edges. Red flowers like dahlias add some intrigue.

Photo by Dinkum. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

While the oak and dark fruits certainly play a prominent role in this wine, I was very intrigued by some of the layers of potential complexity suggested by the red floral notes like dahlias on the nose.

On the palate the oak is still quite pronounced with creamy vanilla mouthfeel and dark chocolate joining the party. However, medium-plus acidity does add enough freshness and a mouthwatering component to keep this from being jammy. The ripe medium-plus tannins are soft but well structured holding up the full-bodied fruit. On the moderate-length finish there is a subtle herbal note (maybe eucalyptus) that isn’t quite defined but does add some complexity.

The Verdict

Overall, I wouldn’t describe this as a stereotypical “Big, bombastic Aussie Shiraz” that seems to dominant the shelves of the American market. No one would ever confuse this for something from Mollydooker or Glaetzer.

While definitely oaky and fruit-forward, this is a little more in the Penfolds style with an element of elegance and additional layers that I suspect could become even more complex with a few more years of bottle age. With its juicy acidity and structured tannins, I can easily see this going another 3 to 4 years in delivering ample pleasure.

At $20-25, this is a well-made Shiraz that would certainly appeal to many New World drinkers who like their wines fruity and ripe but not sweet or jammy.

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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”

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.

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!

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.

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.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

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, again, Kyran when above and beyond as he 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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Product Review — SommSelect Blind Six

Master Sommelier Ian Cauble (of the movie Somm fame) has a unique subscription program designed to teach people how to blind taste better–the SommSelect Blind Six.

Each month for $199 you receive 6 bottles (3 whites and 3 reds) that are individually wrapped in black tissue paper. I decided to give the subscription a go. Below is my experience with my first month’s box (Spoiler alert if you haven’t done April’s wines) and my thoughts on if the subscription (and wines) are worth the cost.

What You Get

In the box, you’ll find 6 individually wrapped bottles numbered 1-6 as well as an envelop containing both instructions and an answer packet to reference after you’ve tasted the wines. The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was that they didn’t indicate on each bottle if they were red or white nor was there any info in the Blind Tasting Instruction Packet. The numbered stickers on each bottle are different colors but not with a consistent pattern to distinguish white versus red. I took a wager on the most logical set up being trying the 3 whites first so I went with trying bottles #1-3 which, happily, were all white.

In the instruction packet, Cauble gives tips on what to look for in each stage of the evaluation as well as what common “clues” often mean. These tips range from things that are fairly well known–like under Sight the tips about looking at the meniscus and how the color varies from the intensity of the core to the rim is a sign of age–to more interesting observations like his note under Nose & Palate that the aroma of dry bay leaf is common in Cabernet Sauvignon from moderately warm climate regions like Napa. While the former can often be found in discussions about blind tasting, the later is the kind of insight you usually only get first hand from someone with experience in blind tasting.

Likewise, the answer packet (which I’ll discuss below) also gives numerous precise details about things to look for in evaluating color and structure that you don’t readily find from other resources.

Tasting the White Flight

Using the Coravin on the white wine flight.

Cauble recommends having a neutral third party person open the wines and pour them into a decanter. While I clearly see the benefit of this approach–not the least of which is that splash decanting is probably the most underutilized tool in wine appreciation–I went a different route for three reasons.

1.) Neither my wife nor I wanted to miss out on the fun so we didn’t have a “neutral third party”
2.) I didn’t want to open up and waste 3 bottles of wine. [Note: Cauble does recommend doing the tastings as part of a multi-course dinner and with friends]
3.) I didn’t have 3 decanters of the same size and shape–which does make a difference
3.5) I also didn’t want to clean 3 decanters along with 6 wine glasses to be brutally honest

So we decided to break out the foil cutter and as carefully as possible use scissors to cut off the tip of the black tissue paper and remove the top of the capsule without seeing any identifying markings. Wine #3 was a screwcap so I just closed my eyes and twist. It felt like I was kid back at home trying to get something out of my parent’s closet while deliberately avoiding the corner where they kept the presents. Then we Coravin each bottle to pour out 2 samples of the cork-sealed wines.

Now other people might take the approach of just blind tasting one bottle a night and enjoying the wine with dinner or what not. It’s certainly an easier and less wasteful approach. However, we really wanted to compare the 3 together because we felt that it allowed us to go back and forth with contrasting color and aroma. It is also more conducive to the blind tasting format of formal examinations. The beauty of the Coravin is that it allows us to only pour two samples of each without pulling the cork and wasting the wine.

Wine #1

The most noticeable thing about this wine was the “onion peel” color with pink hues.

Medium intensity nose with apple and citrus notes along with a white floral element that wasn’t very defined. There was also a subtle doughy element that made me think of raw pastry dough as opposed to something toasty like oak or Champagne.

On the palate the apple fruits came through much more than the citrus with a lot of weight and depth for a medium-plus bodied white wine. This wine had texture that filled the mouth which started my brain going towards Oregon Pinot gris. Medium acidity was enough to keep it fresh but not racy or citrusy like I associate with Italian Pinot grigio. No signs of new oak but that doughy element from the nose could have been from partial neutral oak. Moderate length finish ends with the lingering white flower notes that I still couldn’t quite pin point.

My guess: An Oregon Pinot gris in the $18-20 range. At this point in my practice I’m not going to focus on guessing age.
Turned out to be: 2016 Scarbolo Pinot grigio, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave: $14)

Wine #1 — Should have paid more attention to the color.

In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the color that comes from a practice of skin contact that is far more common in Italy than Oregon. I let the stereotype of “light, citrusy” supermarket Italian Pinot grigio sway me into thinking that this wine was too good and too weighty to come from Italy. Granted, living in the Pacific Northwest I’m naturally bias due to my greater familiarity with Oregon Pinot gris.

Also, (thanks to Cauble’s notes in the Answer Packet) I realized that I should have paid more attention to that “subtle doughy element” from the nose. In Cauble’s notes he describes “hints of peanut shells, stale beer” which plays along those lines of what I was picking up. It wasn’t Champagne biscuity or Muscadet leesy but there was something there that I now know I should look out for–particularly in higher end Italian Pinot grigio from regions like Friuli.

Wine #2

Light yellow color, almost watery with some green specks.

High intensity nose. Wow! This wine is screaming out the glass with lemon citrus (both fruit and zest) and the smell of concrete after rain.

On the palate, those citrus notes comes through but so does the stoniness. This wine is screaming minerality–like liquid stones in your mouth. There is also a sense of salinity in the wine that amplifies the minerality. Clearly I’m thinking Old World here but which grape? Medium-plus acid tilts me away from thinking Sauvignon blanc/Sancerre and more to Chardonnay/Chablis. Medium body with a long finish that lingers on those stoney notes. Very fantastic wine and my favorite of the flight.

Crazy good Petit Chablis. Minerality for days.

My guess: A village-level Chablis in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Agnes et Didier Dauvissat Petit Chablis, Burgundy, France (Wine Searcher Ave $17)

Outstanding wine and a scorcher of a deal for a Petit Chablis. I was even tempted into thinking this could be a Premier Cru instead of a village-level Chablis because of how vibrant it was. Ultimately I defaulted back to village level because, while it did jump out of the glass, my notes on the wine were still rather short. You expect more layers and complexity with a higher level Chablis. But still, an outstanding bottle and way above what a Petit Chablis typically delivers.

Wine #3

Moderate yellow. Definitely darker than #2 but not golden or anything that would hint at oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Spiced d’Anjou pear with LOTS of white pepper. I tried really hard not to jump to conclusions but this was screaming Gruner Veltliner right from the get-go.

On the palate the spiced pear carries through and is joined by some ripe apple notes. The ripeness of the apple and the pear had me wondering if this was maybe a warmer climate Gruner like from California or (Northwest bias again) Oregon. Medium-plus acidity and a sense of stoney river rocks ultimately brought me back to Old World and Austria. No signs of oak. Light bodied with a moderate finish that lingers on the white pepper spice.

My guess: An Austrian Gruner Veltliner in the $14-17 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Weingut Bauerl Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, Wachau, Austria (Wine Searcher Average $9)

Another crazy good value. Would be a killer glass pour at a restaurant.

While not “New Zealand Sauv. blanc easy”, this was definitely the easiest one in the entire Blind Six. Cauble promises to pick classic examples of each wine style and I don’t think he could have picked a more classic Gruner Veltliner than this.

Tasting the Red Flight

I had a bit of a ego boost with the white flight getting 3/3 grape varieties right and 1.5/3 with the regions–going to do a half point for that way over-performing Petit Chablis. However with the red flight my ego got thoroughly deflated.

My wife and I did the red flight tasting before a meal and decided to make a game of it. After we sampled and evaluated the wines, we compared each to our meal to see what was the best pairing. The “winning bottle” got the cork pulled to be finished with the rest of the meal. We really liked this game and think we’ll make it a staple moving forward with doing the Blind Six.

Wine #4

Light ruby color. Can read through it. Some fuschia hues.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very ripe Rainier cherries, cranberries with herbal notes–mint and fennel.

Those red fruits and herbal notes carry through but the cherries taste more richer on the palate than they smelled on the nose. Almost candied even. High acidity balances that richness and still keeps the fruit more red than black. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the wine feeling a little thin. Rather short finish ends on some spice notes that aren’t very defined though hint at being in the baking spice family (cinnamon, clove) suggesting partial new oak? Definitely thinking Old World Pinot with this.

Should have paid more attention to the fuschia hues and candied cherry notes.

My guess: A basic Bourgogne rouge (maybe Cote de Beaune-Villages?) in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorees Morgon, Beaujolais, France (Wine Searcher Ave $18)

My wife briefly suggested Gamay as a possibility but we dismissed it because the acids were too high–though in his notes Cauble rates the acidity of this wine as medium-plus. In hindsight, the “candied cherry” and the fuschia hues should have registered more.

Yeah, this was a total miss for me.

Wine #5

Moderate ruby. Can still read through it but much darker than #1. Slight blue hues.

Medium intensity nose. Noticeable oak spice and vanilla. Black cherries and black berries.

On the palate, the oak still dominate with the dark fruit. Medium-plus acidity keeps it from being syrupy with medium tannins holding the structure well. Moderate length finish ends on the oak. This is screaming California Pinot.

While you probably wouldn’t suspect Syrah being blended in, it would be hard not to peg this as anything but a Cali Pinot.

My guess: A California Pinot noir in the $33-38 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Tyler Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, USA (Wine Searcher Ave $36)

This was, by far, the easiest one of the red flight and I was seriously close to taking a stab that it was Central Coast as well. It was very oak driven and didn’t have any of the elegance I associate with Sonoma Coast, Russian River or Carneros Pinot noir. It wasn’t bad at all (and it certainly not a huge Kosta Browne wannabe) but it definitely was as stereotypical “Post-Sideway Cali Pinot” as you can get.

Wine #6

Medium garnet with some rim variation that has an orange huge. Can’t read through the core.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dried roses and tarry tobacco spice. Some red fruits–cherries, pomegranate and cranberries. Also a little animal earthiness.

The red fruits carry through but aren’t as defined on the palate as they were on the nose. It’s the tarry tobacco and high tannins that dominate. Still just medium-plus body though with the alcohol weight. High acidity makes your mouth water and highlights tobacco spice notes and helps keep the floral rose petals from the nose alive. The animal earthiness become more defined and linger on the moderate finish.

This isn’t your “modernist” style Gaja, Antinori, Renieri or Banfi style Brunello. Tasting this made me realize that I need to look into more “old school” style producers.

My guess: A basic Barolo in the $40-45 range.
Turned out to be: 2012 Padelletti Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave $48)

Once again my wife had the suggestion that maybe this was Sangiovese–which we evaluated more critically this time. The orange hue and the cherry notes played along. But ultimately we thought that the high tannins and high acidity fit the profile of Nebbiolo/Barolo much more than Sangiovese. Turns out, our scale of “high” is apparently Ian Cauble’s medium-plus.

In hindsight, and after reading Cauble’s notes, I realize that I have vastly more experience with “modern” style Brunello producers than I do with some of the classic, old school style of Brunello that Cauble describes in the Padelletti. A big takeaway from this experience is that I need to branch out more in this area.

For dinner we were having Italian sausage with penne and red sauce so this was the “winning bottle” from a food pairing point of view though the Morgon with the fennel notes was a close second.

Ian’s Notes — aka Where You Went Wrong

It’s incredibly enlightening (and humbling) to read a Master Sommelier’s notes on a wine you just tasted. For each wine there are numerous “clues” in color, aroma and structure that Cauble points out that make perfect sense when you go back and revisit the wine.

Like how did I miss the crushed raspberries with the Morgon Beaujolais–one of the tell tale signs of Gamay? How did I not notice the fennel and orange peel from the Brunello?

Tasting a Pinot grigio and Gruner in a flight together really highlighted the similarities and differences between the two.

While there are going to be subjective differences (like the high/medium-plus ratings), overall there is immense insight to be gained in reviewing Cauble’s notes. Beyond just laying out all the clues that you may or may not have gotten, Cauble chimes in with tips about other “lateral wines” that blind tasters often confuse with each other.

For instance, Pinot grigio, Albarino and Gruner Veltliner are part of a trio of “neutral bitter varieties” that often trouble blind tasters. Cauble encourages you to look for a subtle sensation of “over-steeped green tea” at the back of the palate and front of the lips and then try to differentiate from there. Gruner will have the distinctive white pepper (and apparently daikon-raddish which I need to look for) while Albarino will have more canned peaches and Pinot grigio will have that “stale beer” and “peanut shell” element that I also need to start looking more for.

With the Morgon Beaujolais that I completely whiffed on, Cauble goes into brief detail about how different Cru Beaujolais are from the popular associations with Gamay and describes how they are commonly confused for Northern Rhone Syrahs and Loire Cabernet Franc from Chinon. While I, personally, didn’t confuse the Morgon for either of those two–I have a motivation now to actively compare good quality Cru Beaujolais with each.

In fact this is a suggestion that Cauble makes repeatedly throughout the tasting packet–if you have trouble with something then do comparison tastings (non-blind) with what you tasted and what you thought it was. This is another area where the Coravin becomes a valuable tool. The next night after we did the red flight, my wife and I grabbed a Beaune Montrevenots (a tad higher than Cote de Beaune-Village level) and compared it side by side to the Morgon. That was immensely educational (the candied cherry of the Beaujolais was even more pronounced compared to the tart cherry of the Beaune) and we plan to do the same with getting a Barolo to compare side by side with an old school Brunello.

Is it Worth it?

Depends.

If you are looking at it from a straight dollar value of the wine, then maybe not. At $199 for 6 bottles you expect an average wine value of around $33 a bottle. I don’t know how close this month’s box is to the norm but going off of Wine Searcher’s average prices (which is based on retail and not the wholesale that SommSelect is likely getting), I received $142 worth of wine for an average of $24 a bottle. Assuming that SommSelect is already making a healthy retail mark up, it’s fair to see how some subscribers might chaff at the hard numbers.

That said, these were exceptionally well curated wines that in nearly each case drank at a higher price point. If I went with the upper end of my price ranges for each wine (which, like how I score wines with my 60 Second Reviews, is mostly based on what price I feel would be a good value for this wine) that would be $180 for an average of $30 a bottle. Not ideal but not feeling like I’m getting ripped off either.

But the bigger value in the SommSelect Blind Six is truly with Cauble’s notes. For students seeking higher level certifications with WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers, there is a dearth of material out there when it comes to learning more about blind tasting. There are some online resources (and great podcasts) from GuildSomm and each program includes some material when you pay for courses. When it comes to wine books, Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is pretty much the only game in town.

Truthfully, for the most part, budding wine geeks are on their own in this arena.

If you are serious about wanting to be a good blind taster and are already investing thousands into seeking higher level certifications–this will probably be well worth it to you.

The benefit of the SommSelect Blind Six is that you can easily structure your own self-study program for blind tasting with essentially a Master Sommelier as your personal tutor. The examples that Cauble pick are truly classic and while you might disagree with some of his assessments, you can’t fault the logic and soundness of his conclusions.

But, most importantly, along with the individual wines you taste in the Blind Six, Cauble’s notes helps you pinpoint the strengths and weakness in your approach. With his suggestions of other things to taste and insight into his own personal approach, you can craft a game plan to tackle those weaknesses so you can become a better blind taster.

After one round of the Blind Six, I feel that, yes, it is undoubtedly worth it. Maybe not for the casual wine drinker but most definitely for the wine geek or ambitious wine professional who truly wants to get better at blind tasting.

I’ll continue to review each month’s box to not only track my own progress in blind tasting but to also see how the value/price per bottle ratio trends.

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Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2015 Gramercy Picpoul from Walla Walla.

The Background

Gramercy Cellars was founded in 2005 by Master Sommelier Greg Harrington and his wife, Pam. Prior to starting a winery, Harrington managed wine programs for restaurants owned by Joyce Goldstein (Square One in San Francisco), Emeril Lagasse, Stephen Hanson and Wolfgang Puck (Spago). At the time that Harrington passed his MS exam in 1996, he was 26 and the youngest person to have achieved that honor.

According to Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, while sommelier-turned-winemaker is somewhat common in California and other parts of the world, Harrington was the first to traverse that path in Washington State.

In 2006, Gramercy started a partnership with Jamie Brown of Waters Winery that eventually led to the development of Wines of Substance (later sold to Charles Smith) and 21 Grams (now owned by Doug Roskelley and Mike Tembreull, owners of TERO Estates and Flying Trout Wines).

In 2008, Harrington was named by Seattle Magazine as “Best New Winemaker in Washington” and followed that up in 2014 as the magazine’s “Winemaker of the Year“.

Along with Harrington, the wines of Gramercy Cellars are made by Brandon Moss who joined the winery in 2009 after stints at King Estate in Oregon, Indevin in New Zealand and Waters in Walla Walla.

Drawing from Ampélographie Viala et Vermorel. Uploaded by JPS68 via photoshop to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Picpoul blanc grapes by Viala et Vermorel


Gramercy started making Picpoul in 2013 because the variety was a favorite of Pam Harrington. That first vintage came from Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley from a block that was scheduled to be uprooted and planted over to Grenache. The cuttings were sourced from Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles from original vines at Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Subsequent vintages of Gramercy Picpoul have been sourced from Los Oídos Vineyards located in the Blue Mountains of Walla Walla which are managed by Ken Hart and sustainably farmed. In addition to managing Los Oídos, Hart was also involved in the planting of Ash Hollow, Nicholas Cole, Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills East vineyards and today helps manage the vineyards of Abeja, àMaurice, Dunham and Walla Walla Vintners.

The Grape

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the first mention of Picpoul (or Piquepoul) was of the black skin variant in 1384 near Toulouse in the Occitanie region that borders Spain. The name is believed to have been derived from the Oc dialect words picapol or picpol which loosely translates to a “place with a peak” and may refer to the cliff-side vineyards where the grape was planted.

The first account that explicitly described the white skin mutation of Picpoul was in 1667. There is also a pink-skin Picpoul gris that is nearly extinct. All three color variants are part of the 22 grapes that are authorized to be grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

A Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc.


In 2009, there was over 3500 acres of Picpoul blanc planted in France–mostly in the Languedoc area where it is the notable variety of Picpoul de Pinet–the largest white wine producing AOC in the Languedoc. The grape is valued in the white wines of the Languedoc and Provence for its high acidity and lemon, floral aromatics.

In the United States, Tablas Creek was the first to plant Picpoul blanc in 2000. In California, Tablas Creek has noted that the variety is early budding but late ripening and tends to produce rich tropical fruits along with its trademark “lip stinging” acidity. Several producers in Paso Robles will occasional produce bottlings of Picpoul blanc including–Adelaida Cellars, Denner Winery, Derby Wine Estates, Halter Ranch, Lone Madrone, Bending Branch Winery and Broc Cellars.

Outside of Paso Robles, the grape can also be found in Calaveras County where Twisted Oak Winery and Forlorn Hope make varietal examples as well as in the Arroyo Seco AVA of Monterrey County which supplies Picpoul for Bonny Doon. In Arizona, Cimarron Vineyard in Cochise County is growing Picpoul blanc for Sand-Reckoner Winery and in the McLaren Vale of Australia, Picpoul blanc has been produced by Coriole Vineyards since 2015.

In Washington, outside of the Los Oídos Vineyards supplying Gramercy, the grape is being grown at Boushey Vineyards, Corliss Estate’s Blue Mountain Vineyard in Walla Walla and at Tanjuli Winery’s estate vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Wine

Photo by Vegan Feast Catering. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The lemon custard aromatics and creaminess of this 2015 Gramercy Picpoul is just one of the many complex layers to this wine.

High intensity nose. There is a lot going on here. Initially it starts out very floral and lemony with subtle pastry crust like a lemon custard tart. Underneath the lemon zest is some dusty gravel mineral notes. In a blind tasting, this would have my brain start thinking white Bordeaux. There is also a white floral note in the background that is not very defined.

But on the palate the wine switches gears and starts getting more tree fruit oriented with spicy d’Anjou pears and the floral notes morphing more into lemon verbena. The custard note from the nose carries through adding a richness to the mouthfeel–creamy but not buttery like a California Chardonnay. Even with this weighty creaminess the high acidity is quite present, offering exquisite balance and freshness. The gravel mineral notes come through and have a “crushed rock” element that is almost electric. The long finish brings a subtle hint of hazelnut that would have me wondering in a blind tasting if this was a village level Meursault.

The Verdict

Incredibly complex wine that jumps out of the glass and leaves a lasting impression on the palate. At around $20 bucks this is an absolute steal for all that this wine delivers.

But even if you can’t find a bottle of Gramercy’s Picpoul, do yourself a favor and find any bottle of Picpoul to try. If you are looking to trade out from your same ole, same ole Sauvignon blanc and Pinot gris, this grape is perfect.

Picpoul has the freshness and zip of a great Sauvignon blanc but with some of the spice of Gruner Veltliner and depth of a well made Chardonnay. Examples from Picpoul de Pinet can be had for $10-13 and are often far superior to what you usually find among Sauvignon blanc, Pinot gris/grigio and Chardonnay in the under $15 category.

This is definitely a grape that should be high on any wine geek’s list to try.

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