Tag Archives: Moscato

Want to know the next trends in wine? Follow your stomach

All across the globe, the wine industry is ringing in the new year with prognostications. Everyone has a crystal ball trying to nail down what the next big trends will be.
Sourced from the Library of Congress. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US expired

Some of these predictions bear fruit, while others are just throwing spaghetti at the wall. But in an industry where it takes vines at least three years to be productive and another 1 to 3 to get wine to the market, wineries and retailers need to be a step ahead of the trends.

The difference between success and failure in the wine industry is to be more proactive than you are reactive.

That is what makes trends and prediction articles worth reading–even if you have to take them with a grain of salt.

One recent article by Andy Young of The Shout, an online news service covering Australia, caught my eye. While written from an Aussie perspective, these predictions of Cellarmasters’ Joe Armstrong do hold intriguing relevance to the American market.

First up, Armstrong says that “Cava is the new Prosecco”.

“Our palates are getting fatigued with Prosecco’s fruit-forwardness, so Cava’s dry and biscuity characters are welcome flavours,” he said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019

It wasn’t so much the preference for Cava over Prosecco that surprised me. I’ve been bearish myself about the Prosecco market. I expect its bubble to soon burst as over-expansion and poor quality examples flood the market. Yet it’s not overproduction that has Armstrong and Young seeing Spanish Cava poaching Prosecco’s market share in Australia.

It’s a craving for something drier and less fruity.

Young and Armstrong also predict growth in rosé wine–particularly domestic rosé. But it is not wannabe influencers and #YesWayRosés hashtags that’s fueling its growth. Instead, domestic Aussie rosés are moving towards a style that has been a trademark of French rosé long before anyone made their first duckface on Instagram.

“Due to the popularity of French rosé, more Aussie rosés are being made in that typical, French dry and savoury style. The rise of domestic, dry rosé is a win for consumers as they are affordable and of great quality,” Armstrong said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019

Lanzavecchia Essentia

More people definitely need to get on the Italian wine wagon with wines like this crazy delicious Piemontese blend out drinking bottle more than twice its price.

Additionally, Armstrong sees Australian consumers gravitating towards wines coming out of Spain, Portugal and Italy–countries that have been popular picks with prognosticators in the US and UK as well. These folks also see in their crystal balls an uptick of interest in wines from European countries as part of what’s being dubbed “The Year Of The Curious Wine Drinker.”

Why?

Despite the vast diversity of grape varieties and terroirs, there is a common theme among these European wines.

They tend to be dry.
They tend to be savory.

Kind of like the food that we’re eating now.

Mama, this ain’t the Coca-Cola generation anymore

In the US, there is an old marketing adage that Americans “talk dry, but drink sweet.”

For many years, there has undoubtedly been truth to that saying. Mega-corps have sold millions of cases sneaking residual sugar into “dry wines.” But it’s not only faux dry wines that have caught Americans’ fancy. This country was also at the forefront of the recent Moscato boom that is just now starting to wane.

Photo from : The Ladies' home journal1948. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain with no known copyright restrictions

Margaret dear, you know that is shitty stemware to be serving your Sagrantino in.

And why is it waning?

For the same reason that Pepsi and Coke are seeing declining soda sales.

We’re moving away from sweeter flavors towards sourer (acidity), more exotic and savory ones.

Part of it is health consciousness–with the upcoming Generation Z being particularly “sugar conscious.”

But it is also driven by a desire for balance. (Sounds familiar?)

Food and wine, wine and food. Tomayto, Tomahto

In New World regions like Australia and the US, the association of wine and food hasn’t been as culturally ingrained as it has been in Europe. But that’s changing.

However, you don’t need to have wine with food to understand that our taste in cuisine goes hand in hand with our tastes in wine. When we craved sweet, boring dishes, we ate TV dinners and jello pops.  We drank with them Blue Nun, Riunite and high alcohol reds.

Now that our tastes are going more savory and exotic, what are we eating?

Mushrooms
Sourdough
Chickpeas
Grilled Meats
Cauliflower
Avocado toast
Dry-aged poultry and pork
Turmeric
Pumpkin

Among many other things.

The Takeaway

Wine doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The beverage that goes into our body has to appeal to the same eyes that see our food, the same noses that perceive aromas and flavors and the same taste buds that respond to umami, sour and sweet flavors.

Wineries that cater to the tastes of the past are going find themselves left in the past. You don’t need a canary to see that American (as well as Australian) tastes are changing.

Likewise, you don’t need a crystal ball to predict what the next big wine trends will be. You just need to follow your stomach.

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Getting Geeky with Conundrum Rose

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2016 Conundrum Rosé.

The Background

Conundrum is made by the Wagner family who founded Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley in 1971.

Along with Caymus and Conundrum, the Wagners have developed a portfolio of wine brands made by Chuck Wagner and his kids, Charlie and Jenny, including Mer Soleil, Old Cannery Row, Red Schooner, 1858 Wines and Emmolo.

Chuck’s other son, Joe Wagner, also makes several wines with Copper Cane Wine & Provisions including Belle Glos, Elouan, Tuli, Beran, Torial, Carne Humana, The Willametter, Napa Quilt and BÖEN.

With the Caymus Special Selection, the Wagners hold the distinction of being the only winery to produce a wine that has twice been named the number one wine on Wine Spectator’s yearly Top 100 list for the 1984 and 1990 vintages.

The Conundrum series of wines were introduced in 1989. That first wine was a white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, Viognier and Muscat Canelli/Moscato. Over the years the brand has expanded to include a red blend (primarily Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon), a sparkling wine (Pinot gris, Viognier, Muscat Canelli and Chenin blanc) and, since 2016, a rosé.

Vineyards and Production

The fruit for Conundrum are sourced throughout California. Vineyard sources over the years have included the North Coast wine regions of Napa and Solano County, the central coast areas of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Barbara County as well as the inland vineyards of Tulare County south of Fresno.

My Conundrum hat autographed by Chuck Wagner.

The wines are made in Monterey County by Chuck’s son Charlie with Jon Bolta assisting and overseeing the white wine production.

The 2016 Conundrum rosé is made from the Valdiguié grape sourced from Paso Robles.

It is not widely published how many cases of the rosé are produced but previous vintages of the Conundrum Red have topped 120,000 cases and nearly 90,000 cases for the white.

The Grape

The Valdiguié grape originated in Southwest France, likely in either the Tarn-et-Garonne or Lot-et-Garonne departments. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first documented mention of the grape, under the name of Valdiguier, appeared only in 1884 which leads to a few theories about Valdiguié’s origins.

One theory involves a landowner from the late 18th century in the village of Puylaroque in the Tarn-et-Garonne named Valdéguier who propagated different grape varieties in his courtyard garden. Another theory centers around a grower named Jean-Baptiste Valdiguié. In 1845, he had a vineyard in the hamlet of Tressens near Puylaroque where he may have propagated the grape.

Around this same time, in the neighboring department of Lot-et-Garonne, there was a vineyard worker named Guillaume Valdiguier who may have propagated Valdiguié from an abandon vineyard once owned by the Templiers monastery in Aujols.

Map created by קרלוס הגדול . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Garonne river (highlighted in box) flows through Southwest France and eventually meets up with the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux. It is likely that the Valdiguié grape originated somewhere in this area.

A parent-offspring relationship between Valdiguié and the nearly extinct Fronton grape Mérille of the Lot-et-Garonne has been suggested by ampelographers but so far has not been confirmed by DNA analysis. Prevalent in Southwest France in the 19th century until phylloxera, Mérille was once one of the minor blending grapes of Bordeaux.

In the early 20th century, Valdiguié’s tolerance to powdery mildew and reliable yields saw its plantings greatly expand. It reached a peak of 4,908 ha (12,128 acres) in 1958. But the grape eventually lost ground to other more popular plantings. By 2008, there were only 145 ha (358 acres) planted in Southwest France, Provence and the Languedoc.

Valdiguié in California

In California, growers misidentified Valdiguié as the Gamay grape of Beaujolais (Gamay noir). It’s productivity help the grape became a popular planting in the decades following Prohibition. Over 6000 acres of “Napa Gamay”  was planted by 1977. The grape was often fermented using the carbonic maceration method commonly used for Beaujolais Nouveau to produce fruity, easy drinking wines with moderate alcohol.

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

While Valdiguié is grown in several places in California, the fruit for the 2016 vintage of the Conundrum rosé was sourced from Paso Robles. Pictured is a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard from the region.

In 1980, the French ampelographer Pierre Galet noted that Napa Gamay was actually Valdiguié.  Napa Gamay is still officially recognized as a synonym for the variety. However, most producers today label their wines as Valdiguié.

As in France, acreage of Valdiguié began steadily dropping as other varieties earned greater focus and market share. As of 2017 there was 251 acres of the grape. Significant plantings can be found in Napa Valley, Suisan Valley, Solano County, Lodi, Redwood Valley, Paso Robles, Mendocino County, Monterey and the Madera AVA.

In the Calistoga AVA of Napa, the Frediani vineyard has old vine Valdiguié that were planted as early as 1935.

Beyond Conundrum, other notable producers of Valdiguié include Forlorn Hope and Driscoll Wine Co.’s vineyard designated wines from Frediani Vineyard, J. Lohr and the pétillant naturel (Pet-Nat) Valdiguié made by Cruse Wine Co. and Broc Cellars.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of cantaloupe fruit and subtle rind-like earthiness. There is also red fruit that isn’t as defined or dominant as that melon and rind note.

On the palate, the cantaloupe comes through with medium-plus acidity adding freshness. It is actually quite vibrant for a 2 year old rosé. The rind notes also carry through with a pithy, phenolic texture. Those phenols adds medium-minus bodied weight to this dry rosé but doesn’t stray to bitterness. The red fruit becomes a little more pronounced as strawberries but fades quickly with the finish.

The Verdict

At $18-22, you are paying a tad bit of a premium for the geeky variety. But it is not that out of line for the uniqueness and quality of the wine. I was expecting this wine to follow suit with the Conundrum White and Red and have noticeable residual sugar. Instead this rosé was distinctly dry and well made.

While many mass-produced rosés decline in quality after a year in bottle, the Conundrum rosé still has freshness and vibrancy. However, the short finish and nondescript red fruit does give away its age. If you have a bottle, I would recommend drinking it soon or look for a newer vintage.

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Birth Year Wine Myopics

Wine Enthusiast recently published a great article highlighting what wines from the recent 2015, 2016 and 2017 vintages are worth laying down in the cellar for 20+ years. They titled this article “A Guide to Finding Age-worthy Birth Year Wines.”

But for the moms and dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles who want to set aside a thoughtful birth year bottle to share with someone on their 21st birthday, you’re better off ignoring 97% of the advice Roger Morris gives you in this Wine Enthusiast article.

A well structured Bordeaux from Pauillac or Margaux?

A nutty, toasty vintage Champagne?

A savory, spicy Hermitage or Côtes-Rotie?

A big, robust Napa Cabernet Sauvignon?

A brooding and mouthwatering Barolo?

A complex and nuanced Burgundy?

Those are all great wines, no doubt, and examples from the 2015 & 2016 vintages, in particular, will be giving wine lovers pleasure for the next two plus decades. But before you plunk down some serious cash and invest in the proper storage conditions to take care of these wines, ask yourself one crucial question.

Do you think the person that you are saving this wine for is going to appreciate and enjoy this wine when they turn 21?

Let me re-phrase that question for you from another perspective.

What were you drinking when you turned 21?

Unless your last name is Moueix, Bezos or Gates, I’d probably call BS on you sipping Petrus at 21.

Petrus?
Giscours?
Opus One?
Silver Oak?
Jordan?
Quilceda Creek?
Beaucastel?
Domaine du Pégau?
Cristal?
Romanée-Saint-Vivant Grand Cru?
Joly Coulée de Serrant?

If you were then my hat’s off to you but I’ll be honest and admit that 21 years old me was drinking Boone’s Farm, Arbor Mist Blackberry Merlot and St. James Winery’s Velvet Red and Pink Catawba. And that was after 16 to 20 year old me had graduated from drinking Bud Light and whatever alcohol made its way to the various jello shots at the parties I attended as a kid. Oh, and I guess growing up in the church I had my fair share of Mogen David and Manischewitz Concord wine as well.

Being a gambling woman (only somewhat reformed), I would wager that the vast majority of you had similar early drinking experiences and palates that I did.

What reason is there for us to think that the next generation of 21-year-olds is going to be any different?

Is it Better for the Giver or the Receiver?

Even when I turned 30, I don’t know if I had the palate to fully appreciated this birth year wine.

The problem with articles like the Wine Enthusiast guide is that they are almost entirely driven by the perspective and palate of the person giving the wine. Yeah, folks like us are going to adore what a 2016 Lynch Bages, Gaja Sperss, Guigal La Mouline or Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon will taste like in 2037. At that point, these wines are going to have evocative bouquets of savory tobacco spice, dried herbs and other tertiary flavors with long, lingering and mouthwatering finishes.

But you know who is probably not going to like those wines at all?

My niece Elise.

At best, she would smile politely and acknowledge the gift. I’m sure at dinner she would take a sip or two, trying not to gag at the bitterness and acidity. I could see her swirling the wine a little in the glass, trying to imitate what the other adults at the table are doing, hoping that maybe somehow the air would magically transform the wine into a strawberry margarita.

I’m not going to put her through that dog and pony show. But I’m still squirreling away special wines to share with her and my other nieces and nephews when they turn 21.

However, it’s not Barolos, Napa Cabs or other age-worthy red wines.

No, I’m squirreling away Sauternes, Tokaji, German Rieslings, Vouvray Demi-Secs, vintage Ports and Madeira.

 

The Overlooked Majesty of Age-worthy Sweet Wines

To Roger Morris and Wine Enthusiast‘s credit, they do name drop a couple of these Birth Year worthy sweet wines in the article noting the quality of the 2016 vintage for German Rieslings and quoting Joe Campanale, owner/beverage director at Fausto in New York City on the potential of 2017 for vintage Port and Madeira. But the fact that these great wines got lip service at best (with others like Sauternes not even mentioned) is sadly reflective of the “Rodney Dangerfield-status” of sweet wines in general.

It’s a shame that cheap mass-market Moscato gives the category such a bad rap because well made Moscato d’Asti from high-quality producers like Mauro Sebaste are delicious wines.

In an age of Moscato Mania, Stella Rosa’s rapid ascent and the Capriccio Craze, the idea of enjoying sweet wines often gets a negative reaction from “wine people.”

This snobbish aversion to anything sweet persists even with many of the best selling “dry” red wines laden with residual sugar via the additions of Mega Purple or, in the case of wines like Meiomi Pinot noir, sneaking in sweet white grapes like Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Yet there is a reason why some of the most legendary wines throughout history have been sweet dessert wines.

They’re freaking delicious!

Plus, the presence of all that sugar coupled with acidity (Rieslings and Vouvray), fortification (Ports and Madeira) and Noble Rot (Sauternes, Tokaji and some German & Alsatian wines) gives these wines fantastic aging potential. The evolution of Sauternes, in particular, is a remarkable journey to follow as the fresh, youthful exuberance of tropical fruit give way to richer notes of honey, spice, caramel and crème brûlée.

The Beauty Of It All

When you look at the pros and cons of saving sweet dessert wines for future 21-year-olds versus the typical roll call of great red wines and dry Champagnes, there is no contest.

These dessert wines are wines that in 20 + years will not only have the complexity and nuance to appeal to seasoned wine drinkers. But for newly christened 21-year-olds these wines will be sweet and approachable with identifiable flavors of fruit, candy and honey.

I have one nephew and one niece born in 2008. However, I bought a couple of extra bottles of this Rieussec so I could crack into it a bit earlier. Purely for educational and research purposes, of course.

Sure, they may not “get” all the concepts of terroir, Botrytis, aging and vintage variation behind these wines. For them, each sip will probably taste the same while you’re likely going to see each sip unfurling another layer of flavor that has spent decades developing.

But you’re both going to still really enjoy those sips and are far more likely to share a celebratory moment that’s worth treasuring for many years to come.

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Hey Mama, Hey Mama, Hey Mamamango

While the history of the Muscat family of grapes dates back thousands of years, wine drinkers can be forgiven for thinking of “Moscato” as a relatively new wine.

With over 200 members, Jancis Robinson and her co-authors note in Wine Grapes that the Persians and ancient Egyptians may have been cultivating some Muscat varieties as early as 3000 BC.

Ancient Moscato

Greek and Roman writers like Pliny the Elder and Columella described vines (Anathelicon Moschaton and Apianae) that could’ve been Muscat. The authors noted that the grapes would attract bees (apis) to the vineyard. According to legend, Cleopatra’s favorite wine was the Muscat of Alexandria grape variety from Greece.

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is likely the oldest variety of Muscat. Over the course of the Middle Ages it spread from the Greek islands throughout Europe. Here it picked up numerous synonyms such as Muscatel (Spain), Muscateller (Germany), Sárga Muskotály (Hungary) and Moscato Bianco (Italy). In the New World, Muscat was responsible for the legendary 18th and 19th century dessert wines of Constantia in South Africa. Italian immigrants brought Muscat Canelli from Piedmont to the United States sometime in the 19th century.

Yet despite this long history, not many people outside of the cafes of Europe paid much attention to the variety until the early 21st century when rappers and hip-hop artists embraced the sweet, easy drinking style of low alcohol Moscato. By 2017, more than 27 million bottles of Moscato were being cranked out of Italy with 80% of it sent to the United States to be consumed by mostly millennial wine drinkers.

In the US, growers rushed to increase their own plantings of Muscat Canelli/Moscato to compete with the Italian wave as new brands constantly hit the market.

What’s old was new again.

Oh but could Cleopatra have ever imagined anything like Mamamango?

The Geekery

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

Mamamango is made up of 95% Moscato Bianco grapes.

Made by Arione Vini, Mamamango is a non-vintage blend of 95% Moscato Bianco grapes sourced from the communes of Castiglione Tinella in the province of Cuneo and Canelli in the province of Asti in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. However, the wine does not qualify for any DOC or DOCG designation like other Moscato wines because of the addition of 5% mango puree of unknown origin.

For fruit-based wines like Sangria from Spain and Portugal, European laws mandate that both the wine and fruit additives must be from the same country of origin. However, the laws are not clear if other “aromatized wine-based drinks” like Mamamango need to follow the same guidelines. Mangoes do grow in Sicily and southern Italy, but most European mangoes are sourced from Spain. Unfortunately the Mamamango website is very vague on details–in contrast to Canella which makes a Bellini sparkling cocktail from peach juice that they note is source from the Veneto and Romagna.

At around 65 grams of sugar per bottle, it certainly has a fair amount of sweetness and calories though it is only 6% alcohol. However, from the mango puree, one 5oz serving will give you nearly a third of your daily vitamin C requirements.

A little fizzy but not vegan-friendly

According to the website Barnivore, Mamamango uses animal based gelatins in the winemaking as a filtering agent to make the wine stable so Mamamango is not “vegan-friendly”.

Instead of a cork with a cage used in high pressure spumante-style sparkling wines like Cava, Prosecco and Champagne, the frizzante-style Mamamango is sealed with twist off closure.

Like many Moscatos, the wine is lightly sparkling in a frizzante-style and while, again, Arione is vague on details it is likely the wine is produced via tank fermentation with the natural carbon dioxide produced during the wine’s brief fermentation being trapped and bottled with the wine.

More fully sparkling spumante-style wines like Prosecco will have over 3 atmospheres of pressure. This a little more than a typical car tire. In Champagne, the wines can get up to 5-6 atmospheres. But frizzante wines like Mamamango will have only slight effervesce and pressure in the 1 to 2 atmosphere range.

The Wine

Mid-intensity nose. It really does smell like mangoes but you’ll hard pressed to pick up anything else. Maybe a smidgen of pineapple around the edges.

The strong mango notes carry through to the palate. The mouthfeel is smooth and creamy and surprisingly well-balanced. With more sugar than doux Champagne (and far less bubbles and carbonic acid to balance), I was expecting this to be more noticeably sweeter. Tasting the wine brings a tangy tickle on the tip of the tongue that suggest acidification. The winemaker probably needed to use a fair amount of tartaric acid to offset all that sugar.

The short finish ends on the mango fruitiness.

The Verdict

Photo by Midori. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated.

You could probably make at least 6 bottles worth of Mamamango with this cup of mango juice.

I try my best to approach new wine trends (like aging wine in whiskey barrels or blending with cold brew coffee) with an open mind but I must confess that I was expecting Mamamango to be sickly sweet.

But it honestly wasn’t that bad. While it’s not something that I would drink at home, I could enjoy a glass at a restaurant for brunch. It struck me essentially as a hipster’s mimosa–or at least the ready made “Hamburger Helper” version of one. It obviously needed a fair amount of manipulation and tweaking in the winery to get the recipe right. No one should buy this wine expecting a natural product.

Though tasting this wine made me wonder—why not make your own Mamamango?  All you would need is fresh mangoes or even mango puree that you can get from the store.

Compared to a bottle of Mamamango costing around $12-14, you can could buy a 15 oz bottle of Naked Juice Mighty Mango for around $3 and have enough mango goodness to make 12 bottles worth of Mamamango.

Put a quarter oz splash of the mango juice in the bottom of your glass. Then pour your favorite sparkler–Moscato, Prosecco, Cava–over it and boom! Homemade Mamamango that is fresher, cheaper, better tasting and with a heck of a lot less sugar and additives.

Now that is something that Cleopatra would’ve Instagram’d.

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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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Getting Geeky with Whidbey Island Siegerrebe

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2015 Whidbey Island Winery Siegerrebe from the Puget Sound AVA.

Full Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample.

The Background


I gave some of the backstory of Whidbey Island Winery in my 60 Second Review of their Pinot noir from Cultus Bay Vineyard. A pioneer on the Puget Sound island, today Whidbey Island Winery is known as the “grande dame” of Whidbey Island vineyards.

In addition to sourcing fruit from Whidbey Island, the winery also works with several vineyards in Eastern Washington including Crawford Vineyards in the Yakima Valley, Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain, Coyote Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills and Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Whidbey Island Siegerrebe comes from the Osenbach’s estate vineyard. First planted in 1986, the Osenbachs experimented with the grape along with Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner. The first vintage release of Siegerrebe was in 1991.

The Grape

Heinz Scheu, son of the famous German grape breeder Georg Scheu, claimed that his father discovered Siegerrebe in 1929 from a spontaneous self-pollination of Madeleine Angevine. However, Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that DNA analysis has definitively shown that the grape is a crossing of Madeleine Angevine and Savagnin rose.

Siegerrebe (whose name roughly translates to “champion vine”) is one of several new grape varieties–along with with Scheurebe, Huxelrebe and Chancellor–that Scheu bred in his nearly 40 year career at the State Institute of Vine Breeding in Alzey, Rheinhessen.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 and released under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Siegerrebe grapes.

In 1948, German breeder Hans Breider used Siegerrebe to cross with Müller-Thurgau to create Ortega–named after the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Another German breeder, Johannes Zimmermann, crossed Siegerrebe with Villard blanc to create the table grape Rosetta in 1960.

Today there is only around 255 acres of Siegerrebe in its homeland of Germany–mostly in the Rheinhessen and Palatinate (Pfalz). Other countries with Siegerrebe include Denmark, Switzerland and in the Gloucestershire region of England.

Siegrrebe in the US

Siegerrebe was brought to the US in the 1980s when Gerard Bentryn of Bainbridge Island Winery became the first American winegrower to plant the variety. It was from these Bainbridge Island cuttings that the Osenbachs of Whidbey Island Winery planted their estate Siegerrebe.

Another Whidbey winery, Comforts of Whidbey, also produce Siegerrebe from cuttings they procured from Whidbey Island Winery. Other islands in the Puget Sound AVA are home to Siegerrebe plantings–most notably Lopez Island Vineyards and San Juan Vineyards.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of orange blossoms and pear drop candy.

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

Just a little too much pear drop candy note in this wine for my taste.

On the palate that pear drop candy note comes through and brings noticeable sweetness. The orange blossoms also carry over but, surprisingly, the flavors get even more floral in the mouth with rose petals and undefined white flowers joining in. This wine feels like you are drinking a glassful of petals.

Medium acidity gives some lift but I find myself wishing that it had just a bit more to help balance the sweetness. Moderate length finish ends with the pear candied note.

The Verdict

While I absolutely adored Whidbey Island’s Pinot noir, this Siegerrebe is a bit too sweet for my personal style. However, it is very character-driven with lovely floral elements that I can see fans of Moscato enjoying as an opportunity to trade out some of their same ole, same ole.

But at around $17-20, I do think wine drinkers are paying a little bit for the novelty of the grape. There are certainly more compelling values for off-dry whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

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Cab is King but for how long?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons from George Cattermole and the Gallery of Shakespeare illustrations, from celebrated works of art (1909).At a 2018 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium panel on Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the directors of winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Chris Munsell, shared a bit of advice that he learned from a marketing executive.

…for any wine to be successful, it need[s] to be of good quality, known by consumers and profitable for everyone involved. — Wines & Vines, Jan 29th, 2018.

Following that line of thought, it’s easy to see how Cabernet Sauvignon ticks off each box.

Cab’s ability to make high quality and age-worthy wines is legendary. It is relatively easy to grow in the vineyard and is very adaptable to a wide range of winemaking techniques. This adaptability increases the profitability of the grape. Winemakers can make virtually any style of Cab to fit consumers’ tastes at prices that still meet desired profit margins.

At the Unified panel mentioned above, Evan Schiff, the winemaker for Francis Ford Coppola Presents’ Diamond line, describes how Coppola can make consistent under $13 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards throughout California. They achieve this with enzymes that facilitate quick fermentation, oak barrel alternatives like chips and staves (as opposed to $400-1000 new barrels) and micro-oxygenation.

Meanwhile, in Napa County where a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes can cost anywhere from $6,829 to $59,375, producers seemingly have no problem selling high-end Napa Valley Cabernets for several hundreds of dollars.

The reason why Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively easy sell is because of the second point in Munsell’s advice. For consumers, it is a known quantity.
Photo by self, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as Agne27

One of the oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington State at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

In 2017, while off-premise sales of wine only grew by 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon out-paced that trend with 5% growth. This growth was across a variety of price points ranging from a 21% increase in sales of $4.50 (per 750ml) boxed wine to a 15% increase in sales of Cabernet Sauvignon over $25.

Cab is clearly King, but even the reigns of Sobhuza II and Louis XIV eventually came to an end. Looking to the horizon, it is not hard to find trends that, like Macbeth’s witches, whisper of toil and trouble in store for the monarch.

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Who seeks something unique and rare?

If you want to bet on the dethronement of Cab, you only need to look towards the first, second and third murderers of all things–Millennials. With over 75 million members (surpassing now the Baby Boomers), industries ignore this influential demographic at their peril.

While it’s a mistake to overly generalize with such a large cohort, one consistent theme that has emerged is that Millennials tend to value experiences over material goods. In the wine industry, we see this play out in Millennial wine drinkers’ “curiosity” about unique grape varieties and unheralded regions. Instead of seeking out the high scoring Cult Cabs and status symbols that beckoned previous generations, Millennials often thirst for something different, something exciting.

A report by Master of Wine Matt Deller notes that 65% of Millennial drinkers in his Wine Access study actively sought out “unusual wines and vintages.” And while the buying power for Millennials currently lags behind Generation X and Baby Boomers, Millennials have a desire to spend more.

With this context in mind, some interesting trends stand out when you look at the acreage reports of vineyard plantings in California.

Of course, Cabernet Sauvignon still commands a significant chunk of acreage with 90,782 acres of vines in 2016. That is around a 26% increase from 2008 and is a testament to the healthy market that exists for Cabernet. But looking a little deeper we see savvy vineyard owners and wineries anticipating the adventurous appetites of Millennial drinkers.

How does Teroldego pair with newt eyes and frog toes?
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

During that same 2008-2016 period, there is impressive growth in Italian grape varieties in California like Aglianico (≈ 63% growth), Montepulciano (≈ 77%) and Primitivo (≈ 233%). Even the obscure northeastern Italian grape of Teroldego from Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol is getting in on the action with an astounding growth of nearly 731%.

The vast majority of these new Teroldego plantings occurred in 2014 & 2016 with huge producers like Bogle Vineyards, Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo Winery and Trinchero Family Estates behind most of the plantings in the Central Valley of California. It looks like the grape is being groomed to be the “new Petite Sirah”. It likely will be a key component in mass-produced red blends or a Pinot noir-enhancer. However, varietal examples from producers in Clarksburg, Lodi, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara could offer consumers attractive and characterful wines.

Beyond the second wave of Cal-Ital varieties, Cabernet is seeing growing competition from its Bordeaux stable-mates.  We see increase plantings in Malbec (≈ 130% growth) and Petit Verdot (≈ 62%) as well as the Uruguayan favorite Tannat (≈ 132%).

 

Among white wines, we see a similar pattern.

Though Chardonnay still accounts for over 94,000 acres in California–an increase of around 13% from 2008.

If she was around today, it’s likely that Lady Macbeth would be drinking Moscato… or Rombauer Chard
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

Chardonnay still rules by Cabernet Sauvignon’s side. However, we have upstarts like the Spanish variety Albariño (≈ 107% growth) and Portuguese grape Verdelho (≈ 75%) seeing a significant increase in plantings.

As with the reds, the interest in Italian white varieties is growing.  Vermentino is seeing around a 287% growth in plantings. Plus, the combined stable of Muscat grapes (led by Moscato bianco) more than doubled their acreage in 8 years.

There is no question that Cabernet Sauvignon bears a charmed life. It makes delicious wines that delight both wine drinkers’ palates and wineries’ bottom lines. But the fickle and ever-changing tastes of the wine world means that even the greatest of kings have reigns that are just brief candles.

While Cab’s light is not likely to go out anytime soon, perhaps the king should watch out for his shadows.

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Non-Alcoholic Wine — Because sometimes you have to

When a friend of mine was pregnant, we threw her a baby shower. We figured that if Mama couldn’t drink, then neither would we. So we hit the local liquor store to buy an assortment of non-alcoholic wines to give them a taste test to see which, if any, were actually tolerable.

Much to our surprise, we actually found them to be not that bad. Well except for one that was just hideous.

How do you get Non-Alcoholic wine?


Wine Folly gives a good breakdown, complete with illustrations on the process, but essentially non-alcoholic wine starts out as regular, alcoholic wine with the alcohol later removed. This process is not 100% exact which is why these wines can’t be sold to minors (and why we didn’t let our mama-to-be have any). If you look carefully, you will see that the labels note that they contain less that 0.05 or 1% alcohol. Technically, these are “alcohol removed” wines rather than non-alcoholic wines.

The two most popular methods to remove the alcohol are reverse osmosis (used by Ariel and Sutter Home Fre with the later using a spinning cone for the process) and vacuum distillation (used by St. Regis).

The Line-up

Sutter Home Fre is made by Trinchero Family Estates. In addition to Sutter Home, Trinchero also makes Menage a Trois, Charles & Charles, A3 wines, Bandit, Joel Gott, Sycamore Lane and many more. In the Sutter Home Fre brand they make a non-alcoholic sparkling wine, Chardonnay, Moscato, White Zinfandel, Merlot and Red blend. We were able to taste all but the Moscato and White zin.

Both Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis highlight lots of “Mocktail” recipes on their websites that are worth checking out.

St. Regis is a Canadian brand produced by I-D Foods Corporation. The wines are made in Europe with the Cabernet Sauvignon coming from Spain, the sparkling Brut from France and the Chardonnay and Shiraz rose from the south of France. They also make a sparkling Kir Royal from France that we did not get a chance to taste.

Ariel is owned by J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines with their website claiming that they are sourcing their fruit from the same 3700 acres of vineyards used by J. Lohr in the Central Coast of California. They also claim to be the “World Best Dealcoholized Wine” with the website touting a gold medal won more than 30 years ago at the 1986 Los Angeles County Fair that saw their Ariel Blanc competing against alcoholic wines. While they make a non-alcoholic Chardonnay, we only had an opportunity to try the Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Verdict

First off, with all these wines you can certainly tell that they aren’t the real deal. Besides the muted aromas, the biggest giveaway is the mouthfeel with all the wines tasting very watery and light. The one exceptions were the two bubbles which I’ll discuss below.

Both of these were surprisingly good.

In tasting through the wines, the “house style” of the two brands that we had multiple examples of–Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis–quickly became apparent. The Sutter Home Fre was the sweeter of the two but not sugary sweet. In fact, they reminded several of us of the low-sugar kids fruit juices that you get at places like Whole Foods such as Honest Kids. In fact, the similarity of the Sutter Home Fre wines to the Honest Kids fruit juices were quite remarkable since none of the Fre wines had any real “winey” notes like oak. Even though these wines tasted like “healthy kids fruit juices”, I would never recommend letting kids try them.

The St. Regis wines tasted drier and more wine-like but they also tasted noticeably manipulated with the use of oak chips. Both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon smelled like “real” Cab and Chard but they smelled like real examples of mass commercialized under $10 wines made by large volume producers like Trinchero and J. Lohr which was a bit ironic.

So not a fan of the Ariel.

 

The worst of the bunch, by a loooooooooooooooooong ways was the “World’s Best Dealcoholized Wine” Ariel. It tasted like stewed fruit cooked in plastic Croc shoes. I had to (unfortunately) revisit it several times to try and discern if the bottle was flawed but it didn’t tick off any of the typical wine fault red flags. I couldn’t detect volatile acidity (VA) and overt oxidation notes that typically go with “stewed fruit” flavors–like if the wine had been exposed to excessive heat such as being in the trunk of a car. Plus the cork and bottle looked fine with no bulging or seepage.

While the plastic Croc notes seem in line with some of the 4-ethylphenol (4-EP) “band-aid” Brett aromas, it definitely was more plastic shoe than band-aid. The wine also didn’t have the mustiness associated with TCA. Though the threshold for determining cork taint is heavily influenced by alcohol content so who knows if the reduced alcohol was doing something weird.

The one wine from this tasting that I would encourage people to avoid.

Ultimately, I can’t completely say that the Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon was flawed or not but I can say that this particular bottle was one of the worst things I’ve ever tried. If this was a blind tasting, I would have pegged it as a really bad and light bodied Pinotage–and that would have been the nicest thing I could say about it.

Perhaps, again, it was just this one bottle but the 2 star rating and reviews on Amazon hint that perhaps it wasn’t. A 2008 review on CNET described a tasting of the Ariel thusly:

There were three reds, including a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot, that were so weak and tasteless they were essentially undrinkable. The same was true of the Chardonnay. — Steve Tobak, August 23rd, 2008, CNet

Looks like not much has changed since 2008 since I would also describe the Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon as ‘undrinkable’.

In Summary

But, happily, that was the only one. While the other wines certainly weren’t spectacular, they were definitely drinkable and it really all comes down to personal preference. If you want something on the Honest Kids’ fruit juice side, go with the Sutter Home Fre. If you want something more “wine-like” (i.e. oaky) then go with the St. Regis.

But the stars of the show were the two non-alcoholic sparklers. Both the Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis Brut were actually quite drinkable and pleasant. They essentially tasted like drier versions of Martinelli’s sparkling apple ciders. The bubbles followed the trend of the house styles for each producer. The Sutter Home Fre was slightly sweeter and more “Martinelli-like” while the St. Regis was drier and more “wine-like” with even a bit of toastiness.

If I was having a party, I would happily buy both sparklers as a non-alcoholic options for adults. As for the others, I would be interested in exploring some of the mocktail recipes found on their sites. They weren’t bad on their own (except for the Ariel) but not anything I would be eager to try again.

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