Tag Archives: Napa Valley

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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Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar

Every year as part of Taste Washington weekend, the Washington Wine Commission host several education seminars to highlight the unique terroir, wines and personalities of the Washington wine industry.

This year I participated in the Washington vs the World: Old World, New World, Our World seminar that was moderated by Doug Charles of Compass Wines. The event was presented as a blind tasting of 5 flights–each pairing a Washington wine with a counterpart from elsewhere in the world.

Featuring a panel of winemakers including Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of WT Vintners, Keith Johnson of Sleight of Hand and Anna Schafer Cohen of àMaurice Cellars as well as Damon Huard of Passing Time Winery and Sean Sullivan of Wine Enthusiast and The Washington Wine Report, the one and half hour event was a terrific opportunity to learn insights from the panel while honing your blind tasting skills with some world class wines.

Below are my notes from each of the flights followed by the reveal of what the wines were.

Flight 1

Wine 1: Opaque ruby with more red than blue hues. Medium-minus intensity nose–floral roses with red berries. Some oak spice.
On the palate–red cherry and currant. High acidity, medium-plus tannins. Little skeletal and thin. Short finish but the floral notes come back and seem promising. Feels like a young Cab that needs some time to flesh out. No minerality so likely New World. Cool climate Washington–Yakima/Walla Walla?

Wine 2: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #1. Little hazy so likely unfiltered. Medium-minus intensity–dark fruit but also a noticeable green note. Vanilla.

The sediment from wine #2. There was no sign of age so clearly this wine wasn’t filtered.

On the palate, the noticeable oak vanilla comes to the forefront but the green leafy notes are also there. Dark fruits but still not very defined, especially with the oak. Medium-plus acidity and high tannins that have a chalky grittiness to them. Some clove spice from the oak. Likely a Cab like wine #1 and it feels like a New World Napa with dark fruit and all the oak but the green notes are throwing me off. Napa Mountain AVAs? 2014 Walla Walla?

Flight 2

Wine 3: Opaque with more red than blue hues. Medium intensity nose. Chocolate covered cherries and spice.

On the palate, chocolate cover cherries still with blue floral notes (Cab Franc?) and a mix of oak baking spice and Asian cooking spice. A lot of layers to evolve. High acidity–very juicy cherries. Medium-plus tannins, very velvet. Some pencil graphite minerality on the long finish (Cab Franc x2?) Kinda Old Worldish but the chocolate covered cherries seem New World or a very modern Right Bank Bordeaux? Very lovely.

Wine 4: Opaque ruby with a little fuchsia hues. Pretty similar color depth to #3, just slightly different shades. Medium intensity nose with some floral and perfume nose. Vanilla blossoms. Smells like a Macy department store. Some blue fruits.

On the palate, the blue fruits–plums and blueberries–carry through and has noticeable oak. Medium-plus acidity and high grippy tannins. Seems very Cab-like with that big structure. No minerality and really short finish. Like wine #1 this seems a bit skeletal and young but I don’t think this one is as promising as #1. Washington BDX blend?

Flight 3

Wine 5: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. High intensity nose. Smokey tobacco and meatiness but also an earthy forest element. It smells like you’re hiking through the forest to get to a brisket BBQ.

On the palate, lots of dark fruit–black currant, black raspberry–but lots of smokey, meatiness too. Some leather. High acidity, high tannins. Big wine! Long finish with cigar notes. Taste like a Left Bank Bordeaux and Cote Rotie had a baby. Fantastic wine but I can’t think of a WA producer doing this.

Wine 6: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. A tad darker than #5. Medium-plus intensity nose. Dark fruits. Chocolate covered acai berries. Lovely blue floral notes.

On the palate, rich black fruits–black plums, black currants. Noticeable oak vanilla. Juicy medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Very well balanced. Long finish. Taste like a high-end Napa so high-end WA? Both of these are outstanding.

Flight 4

Wine 7: Opaque ruby with some blue hues. High intensity nose with leather and smoked meat. More intense than Wine #5! A little green olive tapenade on toasted bread. Grilled rosemary skews. Floral violets. Roasted coffee. Lots and lots of layers!

On the palate, blackberries and bacon. The roasted coffee notes come through as well as most of the bouquet. Medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Little back end heat. Long finish. Very Northern Rhone-like. Really delicious wine that I want more time with.

The panel for the seminar. (Left to Right)
Doug Charles, moderator
Casey McClellan, Seven Hills
Jeff-Lindsay-Thorsen, WT Vintners
Keith Johnson, Sleight of Hand
Damon Huard, Passing Time
Anna Schafer Cohen, àMaurice
Sean Sullivan, Wine Enthusiast


Wine 8: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #7. Medium-intensity nose. Almost shy compare to #7. Black fruits. Citrus-lime zest? (WA Syrah?) Medium acidity and medium tannins. High pH. Little rocky minerality on moderate finish. Warm climate New World. Seems like a Red Mountain Syrah. Reminds me a little of the Betz La Cote Rousse.

Flight 5

Wine 9: Clear ruby with red hues. First wine that I can see through. Medium-plus intensity nose. Roasted chicken herbs–thyme and sage. Some blue floral notes.

On the palate, a mix of red and dark fruits–cherries and berries–with the herbal and floral notes. High acidity. Medium-plus tannins. Little minerality on the moderate finish. Seems like a cool climate New World or Old World Rhone.

Wine 10: Clear pale ruby. Lighter than #9 but darker than a Pinot noir. High intensity aromatics with earthy notes and red fruits. Some bacon fat smokiness.

On the palate, all red fruits–cherries and tart cranberries. The smokey bacon fat also comes through (Syrah?). High acidity and medium-plus tannins but way more biting. Not as well balanced as #9 and coming across as more thin and skeletal. Short finish. Seems young.

The Reveal
My favorite for each flight is highlighted with ***

Wine 1: 2012 àMaurice Cellars Artist Series Ivey Blend Columbia Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $43)***
Wine 2: 2013 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $213) Update: Sean Sullivan informed me that this was poured from a magnum which likely highlighted how young tasting and underwhelming this wine was.

Wine 3: 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $47)***
Wine 4: 2014 Seven Hills Winery Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $45)

Wine 5: 2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac (Wine Searcher Ave $114)***
Wine 6: 2015 Passing Time Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills (Winery price $80)

Wine 7: 2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $61)***
Wine 8: 2015 Glaetzer Wines Amon-Ra Shiraz Barossa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $75)

Wine 9: 2015 WT Vintners Rhone Blend Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley (Winery price $40)***
Wine 10: 2014 Sadie Family Columella Coastal Region (Wine Searcher Ave $107)

My Top 3 Wines of the Event

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard — WOW! This wine was so funky and character driven that I can still memorably taste it over 4 days later. I’m usually not that blown away by Sleight of Hand wines–finding them well made but often jammy and fading quickly–and while I don’t think this wine is necessarily built for the cellar, it certainly built to deliver loads of pleasure and layers of complexity over the next few years.

The Sleight of Hand Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard was my Wine of the Event.


2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac — I don’t know what kind of decanting this wine saw before the event but this wine was tasting exceptional for a young Pauillac–more so for a young Lynch Bages! I suspect it was opened earlier in the morning with the somm team pouring the glasses at least an hour before the event started–which is still a relatively brief amount of time for a top shelf Bordeaux. Update: I learned from Nick Davis of Medium Plus and the somm team at the seminar that the 2012 Lynch Bages was opened only 40 minutes before the event and poured 20 minutes prior to the tasting beginning. That only adds to how impressive the wine was showing.

The 2012 vintage in Bordeaux is not getting a lot of attention being bookend between the stellar 2009/10 and 2015/16 vintages. Like 2014, you hear Bordeaux lovers note that 2012 is much better than 2011 and 2013 but that almost seems like damning with faint praise. It’s clear that there is a lot of great value to be had in this vintage–compare the Wine Searcher Ave for 2010 Lynch Bages ($190) & 2015 ($142) to the $114 average for 2012–and if it is starting to deliver pleasure at a little over 5 years of age then it’s worth investing in as a “cellar defender” to enjoy while waiting for your 2009/10 and 2015/16 wines to age.

2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley — I was not expecting this result. During the blind tasting I was very intrigued by this wine and ultimately pegged it as a Right Bank Bordeaux made in a style along the veins of Valandraud, Fleur Cardinale, Monbousquet or Canon-la-Gaffelière. Never would have pegged it as a Napa Merlot! In hindsight the chocolate covered cherries should have been my clue but they were so well balanced by the acidity and minerality that it didn’t come across as “Napa sweet”. Well done Duckhorn!

An honorable mention goes to the 2015 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. I was very impressed with how how Napa-like it has become. I was already a fan of the winery and tried this 2015 as a barrel sample at last year’s release party where its potential was evident. Still, I wasn’t expecting it to be this good, this quickly. It was rather unfair to compare the Passing Time to the 2012 Lynch Bages which was so different and so fantastic in its own right. A better pairing would have been with the Joseph Phelps Insignia or any other high end Napa like Silver Oak, Caymus, Frank Family, Cakebread, etc and I have no doubt that the Passing Time would have came out on top for most tasters.

Things I Learned About Blind Tasting

Admittedly I was a tad concerned finding myself consistently liking the first wine in each tasting flight but I can’t think of any systematic reason that would lead to that result. The wines were all poured in advance and I cleared my palate with crackers and water between each so I have to chalk it all up to coincidence.

For the most part, the varietal character and identity of each flight stood out and I was fairly accurate in identifying them. The main outlier was the Merlot flight (#2) featuring the Duckhorn and Seven Hills Merlots. The Duckhorn was tripping some of my Cab Franc notes while the Seven Hills was exceptionally Cabernet Sauvignon-like so that led me to deduce Right Bank Bordeaux blend which was wrong but at least in the ballpark.

The more difficult task was trying to nail down the region and which was the Washington example versus the World example. Here I felt like I only solidly hit 2 of the 5 flights (Flight #1 and Flight #3–Cab and Cab-dominant blends) but that was mostly just by 50/50 luck–especially in Flight #1.

The WT Vintners Rhone blend from Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley is a tough wine to pin down in blind tasting because of its mix of Old/New World characteristics.

I was often tripped up by how “Old Worldish” many of the Washington wines were–especially the Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard in the Rocks District. In hindsight, this should have screamed “ROCKS!” to me much sooner. While technically Oregon, this sub-AVA of Walla Walla produces some of the most complex and interesting Syrahs being made in Washington. I commented from the audience that putting this Syrah in a blind tasting is a little evil because of how Old World and Cote Rotie-ish it is.

Another thing that makes Washington a bit difficult to peg down is how frequently “cool climate notes” like red fruit, juicy medium-plus acidity, bright floral perfumes and subtle herbal notes appear in wines that are actually grown in rather warm climates (especially compared to Old World regions like Bordeaux). This is largely because of the significant diurnal temperature variation in Eastern Washington that can swing as much as 40℉ from the high heat of the daytime to cool low temperatures of night. This allows Washington grapes to get fully ripe and develop some of those dark fruit notes but, especially in cooler areas like Boushey and Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima and parts of Walla Walla, also maintain ample acidity and some of those cool climate characteristics.

From a blind tasting perspective, I need to solidify in my mind that getting a wine with that mix of warm/cool climate characteristics should be a tip off that I’m dealing with a Washington wine.

Is it Worth it?

Hell yeah. While I wasn’t impressed at all with attending The New Vintage, I will certainly make an effort to attend future seminars at Taste Washington.

At $85 a ticket, this was one of the more expensive seminars with others being as low as $45 a ticket, but the experience (and tasting over $800 worth of wine) delivers more than enough value to merit the cost.

A lot of great wine to taste through.


The only slight criticism is the rush between tasting each wine and getting the panel and audience to start commenting on them. Especially being a blind tasting, I wanted more than just a minute or two to critically taste and evaluate the wine before I start hearing other people’s comments that may sway my assessment.

Granted, I’m sure I’m in the minority here as I could tell that for many other participants in the audience, tasting the wines and being able to ask questions of the panel was a bigger draw than getting a chance to sharpen their blind tasting skills. When you have 10 wines being presented over 90 minutes–and allotting time for questions about vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking style, etc–something got to give so I understand why the tasting time got the short shrift.

Still, it was an exceedingly worthwhile experience that I highly recommend for Washington wine lovers and wine geeks alike.

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Quilceda Creek Release Party

If you ask Washington wine lovers what are the “cult wines” of Washington–the Screaming Eagles, the Harlans or the Grace Family Vineyards of the state–one name that would be unanimously mentioned is Quilceda Creek.

With the mailing list long since closed, and a healthy waiting list to boot, my wife and I were lucky to get on the members list back in 2009. Each year we look forward to the release of the Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Below are some of my thoughts from this year’s release party.

But first, some geeking.

The Background

Quilceda Creek was founded in 1978 by Alex and Jeannette Golitzin. Alex’s maternal uncle was the legendary André Tchelistcheff who helped Golitzin secure vineyard sources and provided barrels from Beaulieu Vineyards. At the time of Quilceda’s founding, there were only around 12 wineries operating in Washington. In 1992, their son Paul joined the winery and today manages both vineyard operations and winemaking.

In addition to Tchelistcheff, the Golitzins can also count Prince Lev Sergeyevich (1845-1915/16) of the House of Golitsyn as another winemaking ancestor. Sergeyevich was the official winemaker to Czar Nicholas II with the sparkling wines produced at his Crimean winery, Novyi Svit, served at the Czar’s 1896 coronation. It is believed that Sergeyevich’s sparkling wines were the first “Champagne method” bubbles produced in Russia.

Quilceda Creek has received six perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate–for the 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2014 Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain. In 2011, the 2005 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was served by the White House for a state dinner with Chinese president Hu Jintao.

The winery has been featured several times on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including twice being named #2 wine–in 2006 for the 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and in 2015 for the 2012 edition of that wine.

The Vineyards

Photo by Williamborg. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain–which played an important role in the early wines of Quilceda Creek.


Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, notes that in the early years of Quilceda Creek, Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley was the primary source of fruit.

In the 1980s, the focus moved to Red Mountain with Kiona Vineyards providing the fruit for several highly acclaimed vintages. Eventually Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval and Mercer Ranch (now Champoux) were added to the stable.

Today, Quilceda Creek focuses almost exclusively on estate-own fruit, making four wines that are sourced from five vineyards.

In 1997, Quilceda Creek joined Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Bill Powers of Powers Winery/Badger Mountain to become partners in Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. First planted by the Mercer family in the 1970s, fruit from Champoux Vineyard has formed the backbone for nearly all of Quilceda Creek’s 100 pt wines. In 2014, when Paul and Judy Champoux decided to retire, the Golitzins purchased their interests in the vineyard.

The author with Paul Golitzin.


In 2006, they acquired a 4.5 acre parcel next to Champoux which they named Palengat after Jeannette Golitzin’s side of the family. Located on the south slope of Phinny Hill, the vineyard was planted between 1997-2002.

In 2001, the Golitzins partnered with Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard to plant a 17 acre estate vineyard, the Galitzine Vineyard, on Red Mountain next to Ciel du Cheval. The vineyard takes its name from an old spelling of the family’s surname and is planted exclusively to clone 8 Cabernet Sauvignon. Originally derived from 1893 cuttings taken from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, clone 8 is highly favored by acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

Planted in 2010, Lake Wallula Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills is 33 acres planted exclusively to Cabernet Sauvignon on a plateau overlooking the Columbia River.

The Wallula Vineyard near Kennewick was developed by the Den Hoed family in 1997 in partnership with Allen Shoup (now with Long Shadows Vintners).

The Wines

In addition to tasting and releasing the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend was also tasted.

2015 Columbia Valley Red Blend is a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot that was sourced from the Champoux, Galitzine, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. Essentially a “baby brother” to the flagship Cab and vineyard designated Galitzine and Palengat, the CVR is selected from declassified lots that have been aged in 100% new French oak 18-21 months.

The 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend (CVR) just wasn’t doing it for me at this tasting.


Medium intensity nose. Surprisingly shy as this wine is usually raring to go. Some dark fruits–blackberry and cassis–and noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through but become even less define than they were on the nose. Medium acidity and a bit of back-end alcohol heat contribute to the disjointed feeling with this wine. The medium-plus tannins are firm but do have a soft edge that adds some texture and pleasure to the mouthfeel. Moderate length finish of mostly heat and oak.

2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cab sourced from the Champoux, Lake Wallula, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. The wine was aged 20 months in 100% new French oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Rich dark fruits with razor sharp precision–black plums, blackberries and even blueberries. There is also a woodsy forest element that compliments the noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, a lot more of the vanilla and oak baking spice notes carry through–particularly cinnamon–that adds a “pie-filling” richness to the wine. However, the medium-plus acidity balances this hefty fruit exceptionally well to add elegance and freshness. High tannins are present but like the CVR have a soft edge that makes this very young Quilceda Cab surprisingly approachable now. You can very much feel the full bodied weight of its 15.2% alcohol but, unlike the CVR, there is no back-end heat tickling the throat. Still only a moderate length finish at this point but the lasting impression is the juicy, rich fruit.

The tasting and barrel room of Quilceda Creek in Snohomish.


The Verdict

This tasting was a complete role reversal of the CVR and Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Usually it is very consistent that the CVR is happily ready to be consumed young while the Cab needs some cellar time to fully integrate and shed the baby fat of oak.

Though that “baby fat” of new oak is still present in the 2015 Columbia Cabernet Sauvignon, the precision of the fruit and elegance is striking right now. This is, by far, one of the best tasting new releases of the Columbia Valley Cab that I’ve had. While I’m still concerned with the high alcohol level, I’m very optimistic about how this wine will age and develop in the bottle.

While I was able to get this for the member’s price of $140, the Wine Searcher average for the 2015 is now $218. Putting this in context of similar priced Napa Valley wines like Opus One, Caymus Special Select, Pahlmeyer Proprietary, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Mondavi To Kalon and Dominus—there is no doubt that the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon belongs in that league and should probably be batting clean-up in that line-up.

Pallets of the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Even at the member’s $140 a bottle price, this is still over a million dollars worth of wine.

The CVR was $42 for members ($65 on Wine Searcher) and is usually one of the most screaming deals in wine. I would compare previous vintages of the CVR to $70-100 Napa wines like Silver Oak, Frank Family, Groth, Cakebread and Caymus and watch the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Red blend blow them out of the water.

But this 2015 vintage…I don’t know. It’s very possible that I got an awkward bottle or that the wine, itself, is just in an awkward phase of its development. It’s worth keeping an eye on but till then I would recommend the almost ironic advice of enjoying your 2015 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon now while waiting for the “baby brother” 2015 CVR to age.

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Flashback — Taste Washington 2017

The 2018 Taste Washington Event is nearing so I thought I would do a throwback post to some of the gems from last year’s Grand Tasting. I’ll also share my thoughts on if the cost of the tickets are worth it and tips on how to get the most out of your experience.

The Background

Taste Washington is the largest event in the state highlighting the food and wine of Washington. Now in its 21st year, the event will feature over 225 wineries and 65 restaurants as well as seminars and culinary exhibitions. It looks like VIP tickets are sold out at this point so the 2 Day Pass for General Admission (2-5:30pm) to the Taste Washington Grand Tasting is $145 while individual days are $95 a piece.

In addition to the Grand Tasting that will be Saturday & Sunday, March 24-25 from 1pm(VIP)/2pm-5:30pm at Century Link Field, Taste Washington will also feature:

Red & White Party at AQUA by El Gaucho–Thursday, March 22nd 7-10pm ($175)

Dinner and tasting featuring 91+ rated wines from àMaurice Cellars, Lauren Ashton Cellars, Fidélitas Wines, Leonetti Cellar, Guardian Cellars, Obelisco Estate Winery, L’Ecole No 41, Quilceda Creek, Passing Time Winery, Doubleback, Woodward Canyon Winery and more.

Taste Washington on the Farm–Friday, March 23rd 10am-3pm ($85-185)

Three different farm to table experiences with lunch and farm tours that people can choose from places like Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, Heyday Farm on Bainbridge Island and Finnriver Farm & Cidery in Chimacum, WA with featured wineries such as Matthews, Rolling Bay and Doubleback.


The New Vintage at Fisher Pavillon–Friday, March 23rd 7-10pm ($80)

Small bites by celebrity chefs, a Rosé Lounge, live music and dancing featuring the wines of Alexandria Nicole Cellars, Boudreaux Cellars, Browne Family Vineyards, DeLille Cellars, Hedges Family Estate, Mullan Road Cellars, Sinclair Estate Vineyards, TruthTeller Winery and more.

Taste and Savor Tour of Pike Place Market –Saturday, March 24th 9am ($80)

An early morning food tour through the historic Pike Place Market operated in conjunction with Savor Seattle.

Wine Seminars at Four Seasons Hotel Seattle Saturday & Sunday, March 24-25 10:30 to 12pm ($45-85)

Six seminars featuring writers, winemakers, growers, educators as well as Master Sommeliers (Chris Tanghe, Rebecca Fineman, Jackson Rohrbaugh, Greg Harrington) and Masters of Wine (Bob Betz, Mary Ewing-Mulligan) covering a variety of topics from blind tasting, single vineyard Syrahs, Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, Washington vs the World and more.

Each seminar features a tasting of 6 to 12 wines from producers like Savage Grace, Andrew Will, Gorman‘s Ashan Cellars, Avennia and Two Vintners as well as non-Washington comparative tastings from Mollydooker, Lynch-Bages, Joseph Phelps’ Insignia, Duckhorn and Glaetzer Wines’ Amon-Ra.

Sunday Brunch at Quality Athletics — Sunday, March 25th 10am-12:30pm ($75)

Music and two celebrities chefs host a brunch featuring bloody mary’s and brunch cocktails.


My Top 5 Wines from the 2017 Grand Tasting

Even with some hard core dedication, and using the extra hour VIP ticket, I was able to hit, at most, around 60 of the 600+ wines available for tasting. This is why trying to minimize the stress of the crowds and maximize the experience (see my tips below) is so important. You’re paying a decent chunk of change to attend the Grand Tasting and you want to leave the event with some great memories and new wine discoveries.

Still, out of those 60 or so wines, I tasted a lot of great juice. Here are five wines from last year’s tasting that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Aquilini 2014 Red Mountain blend — Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend made by Napa Valley rockstar Philippe Melka. I most certainly did not spit this one out. It was the run away Wine of the Event for me and got me to sign up for their mailing list. Tremendous structure, velvety fruit, fresh acidity and long finish. I would put this toe to toe with virtually any $100+ Napa wine. Unfortunately they don’t look to be pouring at this year’s event.

Cairdeas Winery 2014 Caislén an Pápa–a Chateauneuf du Pape style blend from Meek Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Beautiful balance of rich fruit and savory, spicy complexity. They will be pouring the 2015 vintage of this wine at this year’s event.


Andrew Will 2014 Malbec — a known winery but you hardly ever see a varietal Malbec from them and this was scrumptious! Reminded me of a spicy Cabernet Franc. It doesn’t look like they will be pouring a Malbec this year though.

Cloudlift Cellars 2015 Lucy rosé of Cabernet Franc — In my tip section below I talk about making a point to periodically refresh your palate with bubbles, dry Rieslings and rosés. There are so many delicious reds that will wear you down and start tasting the same if you don’t give your palate a frequent jolt of crispness and acidity. It was this strategy that led me to discovering this beautiful rosé. Gorgeous nose and lively fruit. Best rosé at the event. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look they will be pouring a rosé this year. Update: In the comments below, Tom Stangeland of Cloudlift Cellars note that he will be pouring the new vintage of Lucy.

W.T. Vintners 2013 Les Collines Syrah — Seeing that Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of W.T. Vintners was going to be on the panel of the Washington vs the World Sunday Seminar, with his Boushey Vineyard Rhone blend being poured, pretty much sold me on attending that event. This Les Collines Syrah was spectacular and demonstrated everything that is knee-bendingly delicious about Washington Syrah–beautiful balance of rich yet mouthwatering fruit, high intensity and inviting aromatics with a long memorable finish. Looks like they will be pouring the 2014 vintage of this wine.

Is it Worth it?

General Admission, yes. VIP upcharge, no.

While I can’t speak for the seminars and other events, I’ve gone to the Grand Tasting six times and each time I had a blast attending. If it wasn’t for some scheduling conflicts, I would be attending the Grand Tasting again this year but, instead, I’m going to attend one of the seminars and the New Vintage party to see how those are.

The extensive list of wineries and restaurants that you can experience in one setting is a wine geek and foodie’s dream. But that said, it can be very frustrating with how crowded it quickly gets. I’ve sprung for the VIP (which was $210 for the 2-day pass/$165 per day) and even that first hour got aggravatingly crowded about 20 minutes in. The VIP is really not worth the extra $70–especially when you can get the two day General Admission pass ($145) for less than a single day VIP admission ($165).

Even the $95 for a single day General Admission which gives you 3 and half hours of the Grand Tasting is still a good deal with everything that you have a chance to taste and experience–especially if you follow some of my tips below.

Grand Tasting Tips

1.) Uber/Lyft or find a hotel close by. Believe me, even if you are extremely diligent about spitting (which is hard with the people crowding the tables and blocking the spit buckets) you will much prefer having someone else do the driving or walking back to your hotel after the tasting. For the spitters, bringing along a red solo cup is also not a bad idea.

2.) No wine is worth waiting in line for! Seriously, there are so many great wineries and new wines waiting to be discovered that it is pointless to wait around a crowded table to get a pour. You only have around 3-4 hours and you will find yourself getting irritated at the crowds. Tables like DeLille, Col Solare, Mark Ryan, Figgins, K Vintners, Long Shadows, Pepper Bridge, Upchurch and the like always draw crowds–and they certainly are outstanding wines–but they’re not worth stressing over.

Yes, the big name tables deserve the attention but sometimes your Wine of The Event is hidden away on a table everyone is passing by.


Periodically swing by and check the table but if its crowded, go somewhere else. Ditto with the food–which is why I’ve never bothered with the AQUA by El Gaucho oyster bar. There is always going to be some table, somewhere that doesn’t have a line. Check them out and you may end up discovering your new favorite wine or restaurant to try. The Aquilini I mentioned above as my Wine of the Event was just this scenario. No one was at this table and it was probably the best damn wine being poured.

3.) Along those lines above, make it a point to visit wineries you’ve never heard of. With more than 900 wineries, even the 200+ at Taste Washington is only a tiny slice of what the state has to offer. Sure, you have your favorites but they’re your favorites because you’ve already had them. Why spend $95 to $200+ to taste them again? When I attend, I aim for a 1 to 2 ratio–for every 1 known winery I taste at, I visit the tables of 2 new ones.

4.) Visit the sparkling wine producers periodically to help refresh your palate. This year Karma Vineyards, Townshend Cellar, Treveri Cellars, Domaine Ste. Michelle and maybe Patterson Cellars will be pouring bubbles. Aim to visit one of these every 45 minutes or so to wake up your palate and keep it from getting fatigued. Likewise, producers of dry Rieslings and rosé are also great tables to visit frequently. A few names I spot from the winery list that look to be pouring these kinds of wines include Ancestry Cellars, Randolph Cellars, WIT Cellars, Balboa Winery, Locus Wines, Tunnel Hill Winery and Gard Vintners.

5.) Check out the featured vineyards and AVA tables. These tables are rarely crowded and offer fantastic opportunities to geek out and compare different wines made from similar terroirs.

6.) Enjoy the food! Yes, as wine geeks it’s tempting to think of the wine as always the star of the show but, truthfully, most years I feel like the food was the best part of the entire experience. It’s very fun to hit up a food table, grab some tasty bite and see what random, nearby wine table has a wine that may pair well with it. I can’t count how many amazing discoveries of food & wine pairing bliss I’ve encountered with this method. It truly completes the package of the Taste Washington Grand Tasting experience. Plus the food helps quite a bit with dealing with the alcohol.

Most importantly, have fun and stay safe!

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Petrus — The Super Bowl of Wine

I finally got a chance to try one of my bucket list wines–a bottle of 2006 Petrus from Pomerol. My wife and I originally bought it for our early December wedding anniversary but then I got a cold so we shelved that idea.

Then we were going to open it up for Christmas Eve and another cold hit. So we decided to hold off till we both were 100% healthy and fully on point with our tasting sensibilities before cracking into this baby. My tasting notes (and whether I think it is worth the cost) are below after a bit of geeking.

The Geekery

What makes Petrus, Petrus?

As Clive Coates notes in Grands Vins: The Finest Châteaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines, the phenomenon of Petrus as a cult wine for Bordeaux lovers is a relatively new creation. As recently as the post World War II years leading up to 1955, the wine merchant Avery’s of Bristol had exclusive rights to buy up virtually all available allocations of Petrus–which it usually did–but would struggle to find buyers.

While there is some evidence of winemaking at the estate dating back to the 1750s, the first recorded mention of Petrus can be found in the 1837 notebooks of the merchant house Tastet and Lawton. Here the estate was owned by the Arnaud family and considered the third best property in Pomerol behind Vieux Château Certan and Trotanoy. In pricing, it fetched far less than the top estates of the Medoc and only a third of the top estates of St. Emilion such as Ch. Belair. But its reputation for quality was soon to be discovered, as David Peppercorn noted in his work Bordeaux, when at the 1878 Paris Exhibition Petrus won a gold medal–becoming the first wine from Pomerol to earn such an achievement.

The fortune, and pricing of Petrus, began to change in the 1920s when then owner, M. Sabin-Douarre, began selling shares of Petrus to the proprietor of his favorite restaurant in Libourne, l’Hotel Loubat. Madame Loubat continued purchasing shares from Sabin-Douarre until she was the sole owner of the estate.

when my wife and I were in Bordeaux, we drove around for at least 40 minutes through Pomerol trying to find Petrus. We kept passing by it because it was so unassuming.

Stephen Brook notes, in The Complete Bordeaux, that at this point Petrus was being priced on par with the Second Growths of the Medoc but Mme. Loubat wanted everyone to know the high quality of Petrus and began demanding higher prices.

In 1943, she hired Jean-Pierre Moueix as the sole agent in charge of not only distribution of her wine but also production. Soon Petrus was never priced below the acclaimed Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ estate of Cheval Blanc and was beginning to rival the First Growths of the Medoc.

Moueix started out owning Ch. Fonroque in St. Emilion before beginning his négociant business–mostly to help sell his own estate wine. When Mme. Loubat passed away in 1961, she bequeathed Moueix a single share of Petrus while splitting the rest between her niece and nephew. Over the next few years, Moueix gradually bought out Loubat’s heirs and assumed full ownership of Petrus by 1969.

Today the Moueix family owns several estates in Bordeaux including Trotanoy, La Fleur-Pétrus, Hosanna, Latour à Pomerol, La Grave, Lafleur-Gazin and Ch. Lagrange in Pomerol; Ch. Bélair-Monange and Clos La Madeleine in St. Emilion as well as Dominus, Napanook, Othello and Ulysses in Napa Valley.

While historically Petrus has kept a small parcel of Cabernet Franc on the property, these vines have been gradually replaced with Merlot. The 2006 vintage I tasted was 100% Merlot.

Why So Expensive?

The grounds of Petrus with vineyards to the right. The weather was gorgeous the week we were there, with it only raining on our last night, so we didn’t get to experience the muddy clay sticking to our shoes.

Petrus certainly has distinctive and very unique terroir which wine writer Oz Clarke has described in his work Bordeaux as “…one of the muddiest, most clay-clogged pieces of land my shoes have ever had the ill luck to slither through.”

Petrus sits on a “button-hole” of this blue muddy clay which covers a subsoil of gravel that is followed underneath by a virtually impenetrable layer of hard iron-rich crasse de fer. The soil is around 40 million years old compared to the 1 million year old gravel soils surrounding the Pomerol plateau. The dense, hard smectite clay causes the vine to struggle as its roots cannot penetrate deep yet it does amply retain moisture that is invaluable during warm years and dry summer months when the risk of hydraulic stress is high. As Jeff Leve of The Wine Cellar Insider notes, there is no other wine producing region in the world that has this soil structure.

There is about 50 acres of this unique soil in Pomerol and while neighboring estates like Vieux Château Certan, La Fleur-Pétrus, La Conseillante and L’Evangile have some parcels featuring this terroir, Petrus is the only estate whose 28+ acres of vines are exclusively planted on it. Additionally, Petrus is located on the top of this gently sloping button-hole which allows for better drainage during wetter years.

The vines of Petrus are relatively old with some parcels dating back to 1952. The root system of other parcels are even older because after the 1956 frost that devastated the Right Bank, and killed nearly 2/3 of Petrus’ vines, Mme. Loubat refused to completely replant and instead attempted the untested technique of recépage where new vines were grafted onto the established root-stock. It was believed that these vines would only produce for a few vintages but decades later they are still viable.

I wasn’t brave enough to go up and touch the building.

The Moueix family spares no expense when it comes to tending the vines, with severe yield restrictions of 32 to a max of 45 hl/ha (3 tons an acre) with some years going as low as 17.5 hl/ha. In contrast, many well regarded estates frequently harvest at 60-70 hl/ha.

If inopportune rains hit close to harvest, Moueix will rent a helicopter to hover over the vines and dry them off. In 1992, they covered the entire vineyard in plastic sheeting to avoid excess moisture seeping into the ground, plumping up the berries and diluting flavors.

Like with top Sauternes, harvest is done at Petrus on a berry by berry basis with vineyard workers manually picking the individual grapes off the vines. These 100% de-stemmed berries are then hand sorted with an optical sorter joining the process only since the 2009 vintage.

After fermentation and malo, the wine is aged in 50% new French oak for 18-20 months before going through a rigorous selection process that narrows the barrels down to only the very best that will go into the final Grand Vin. Anything that doesn’t meet the grade is sold off as anonymous Pomerol. It’s every Bordeaux insider’s dream to figure out where these “discard barrels” of wine go.

This is where we ultimately get down to the biggest cost driver. In the end, only around 2,500 cases (30,000 bottles) of Petrus is made each year.

I honestly don’t think they will ever make gummy bears from Petrus like they do with the 5 million+ bottles of Dom Perignon.


Compare this to the 31,000+ cases of Ch. Latour, the 10,000+ cases of Opus One or even the 5 million+ bottles of Dom Perignon produced virtually every year and the scarcity means that so few people will ever get a chance to try this wine.

The Wine

So how was it? I knew that this was a wine that really should’ve been held onto for at least 15-20 years and, even then, given a good several hours of decanting. But this was more about sharing a moment with my wife so we popped it open when she got home and watched it evolve as we cooked and savored dinner.

Pop and pour–Medium intensity nose. Red fruits–plums, raspberry and a little earthy funk that is not defined but intriguing.

Palate has medium-plus acidity, very juicy and fresh, with medium tannins and medium-plus body. The red fruits carry through and then WHOA the mid-palate just jumps with an assortment of spice that I will need some time to piece out. Minute and half long finish right now.

After an hour and half in the decanter— Nose is now medium-plus intensity with the spice notes coming out more with a little herbal thyme. The fruit is also now a richer deeper dark fruit like Turkish fig with black currant.

Would St. Peter rob Paul to drink Petrus?

The palate is still juicy with medium-plus acidity. The spices are getting a little more defined–making me think of Asian cuisine with tamarind fruit, star anise, coriander seed and pink peppercorn.

After 3 hours–Still medium-plus intensity nose but a little tobacco spice has joined the party. Still has the mix of Asian spice with black currants and a smidgen of eucalyptus. Pretty remarkable how this keeps evolving. Truthfully, I can only imagine how much more evocative this would get if I had the patience and restraint to milk this out over several more hours.

The palate is still incredibly juicy with medium-plus acidity that only works against you trying to ration and be restrained as the mouthwatering makes you want to take another sip and then another. The tannins have gotten more velvety at this point. The finish has topped out at about 2 minutes with the cornucopia of spices being the last notes.

The Verdict

So is it worth $2600 (when I got it in November 2017) to now at $3000 a bottle?

Kinda.

It truly is a remarkable wine that enchants you as it continuously evolves in your glass. Not just hour by hour but sip by sip. It’s an experience that I’m quite pleased to have had but, at the same time, it is not necessarily an experience that I feel compelled to ever splurge on again.

As I mentioned in my reviews of the Samuel Adams’ Utopias and the Pappy Van Winkle 20 yr, a lot of the cost (and subsequent pleasure) for these Veblen goods often comes from the hunt to finally acquire them. For me, getting a chance to try a Petrus was a bucket list item–just as jumping out of an airplane and meeting Jancis Robinson are. It is always a thrill to check a bucket list item off.

My wife is a native Boston girl who was a season ticket holder during the crappy years. We finally went to Super Bowl in 2017 when the Pats played the Falcons.


I’ll also somewhat borrow an analogy from my Behind the Curtain post about wine pricing. In many ways, drinking a wine like Petrus is like attending the Super Bowl.

With only around 70,000 tickets for a single game each year, how many people in their lifetime get a chance to watch the game in person? How much of a premium do they pay for the privilege of watching a game that could very well suck (especially if their team loses)? And what are they paying for but really just a single night of an experience that is over after a few hours–much like a single bottle of wine?

Now compare that to how much you pay to attend a regular NFL playoff game, a regular season game, a college game or even your local Friday night high school game? Of course, you can argue about the supposed superior play of NFL players playing at the pinnacle of their profession but, likewise, you can argue about the supposed superior terroir of Petrus, craftsmanship of Pappy Van Winkle, uniqueness of Utopias, etc.

The truth of the matter is–no one needs to attend the Super Bowl just like no one needs to try Petrus. There are a lot of great football games at all different levels just like there are lots of great wines at all different price points. Whether or not it is “worth it” is purely about how much the experience means to you.

Admittedly, the first 3 quarters of Super Bowl LI sucked pretty hard to watch as a Pats fan.
The last quarter was totally worth it though.
The Petrus, meanwhile, gave me 3 hours of excellence.

For me, they were both worth it. After attending the Super Bowl once and tasting Petrus once, I treasure both experiences and am grateful that I had those opportunities.

I just don’t feel like I ever need to do either again. When I think of all the other things I could do for the same costs (travel, enjoy multiple bottles of Ch. Angelus, Ch. Palmer, etc), I am content to happily check those things off the bucket list and move on to the next experience.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/4/18 — Organic Viticulture and Aglianico

Image from L'Ampélographie (Viala et Vermorel), reproduced in
Here is what I’ve been reading in the world of wine today.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Organic Vineyard Share of National Vineyard Area in Selected Countries in 2016 from the American Association of Wine Economists (@wineecon) brought to my dash via Craig Camp (@CraigCamp)

It’s really interesting how much Europe (excluding Greece & Portugal) is taking the lead with organic viticulture. I wonder how much of it is in response to their soils being exhausted after centuries of agriculture or if there are other cultural dynamics at play here. I’m also curious why the US is lagging so much behind, only slightly better than China, Chile & Portugal.

Aglianico Connections in the Napa Valley by Jill Barth (@jillbarth) of L’Occasion brought to my dash via Jane Niemeyer (@always_ravenous).

Also have to give a hat tip to @always_ravenous for leading me to Savor the Harvest’s (@savortheharvest) Aglianico post Aglianico: A Southern Italian Gem #ItalianFWT.

I ADORE Aglianico and featured it in my post In a rut? Try these new grapes! as a great grape for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah drinkers to explore. I had a lot of fun geeking out to Barth’s post exploring a very unique Aglianico from Napa while Savor The Harvest’s description of a classic old school Aglianico del Vulture from Tenuta del Portale paired with Daube French Beef Stew over egg noodles had my mouth watering.

I wasn’t familiar with the Italian Food, Wine, Travel Group (#ItalianFWT) but this seems to be a monthly series that generates a lot of great posts and wine discussion. For wine geeks and foodies, this is definitely a group worth keeping an eye on. Next month’s topic is La Primavera e Verdicchio hosted by Culinary Cam (@Culinary_Cam).

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Wine Geek Notes 2/28/18 — Interesting Tweets & Burg Vintages

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

Here’s what I’ve been reading today in the world of wine.

Odds & Ends from Twitter

Some interesting weblinks from Twitter that are worth the read.

Smelling Terroir: A New Study Suggests People Can Smell the Difference Between Wines Solely Based on Terroir (but can we, really?) from the Academic Wino (@TheAcademicWino)
Very cool read about a 2016 study that showed that both experts and non-experts were able to smell the difference between wines grown in two different terroirs. Becca looks a little more in-depth at the study to question if it’s really the terroir differences they are smelling or something else.

new maps & saturday afternoon in the meursault sunshine from Bill Nanson (@billnanson) at the Burgundy Report with the tweet coming across my dash via @RealWineGuru
I’m a bit of a map geek (as evidence by my geek out over this Clos Vougeout map) so I absolutely squealed at the discovery of these incredibly detailed Beaujolais cru maps. Also some lovely pictures of Meursault that had me daydreaming about sipping on a Les Charmes.

So you want to be a wine judge by Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans (@SJEvansMW) courtesy of @WSETglobal
As noted in yesterday’s Wine Geek Notes, I’ve been doing a lot of research on Wine Competitions and this article from Sarah Jane Evans added another perspective. One of the questions that I’ve been debating in my head is “Who benefits from Wine Competitions–the winery or the consumer?” which Evans answers rather bluntly “Remember that ultimately you are doing the judging for the winemaker and brandowner.”

Photo by Marianne Casamance. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

Plant more Chenin!!!! The author screams into the void.


Wine of the Week: Lang & Reed, 2016 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc from Peg Melnik (@pegmelnik) at The Press Democrat with the tweet coming across my dash via @jncorcoran1
The subheader is what hooked me: “What happened to chenin blanc in California?” I have a soft spot for Chenin and have bemoaned the lack of interest of it in Washington State so I was similarly disheartened to read the staggering stat of how 3000 acres of Chenin blanc in Napa in 1980 has shrank down to just 14 acres today.

Burg’in Around

For my 60 Second Review of the 2013 Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny I did some background research on the estate and 2013 vintage that had me stumbling across a few nifty links.

Pearl of Burgundy YouTube Channel
Features well produced short 2-4 minute videos from several Burgundian producers. While the Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot vid is what initially caught me, I also enjoyed the videos from Domaine Henri Gouges, Domaine Lamarche and Domaine Grivot. By this point I was hitting the subscribe button for the channel.

2013 burgundy – the fairy-tale vintage? from Master of Wine Jancis Robinson (@JancisRobinson)
Always some of my favorite vintage write-ups. Great summary at the bottom of the article about the big issues facing 2013 but I also like how she explores the potential similarities (and differences) between 2013 and 1996 that also segue into comparing 2012 to 1998/1988.

The 2013 Red Burgundies: Fascinating and Challenging (Paywall) by Stephen Tanzer (@StephenTanzer1) on Vinous.
Tanzer takes a slightly more pessimistic outlook on 2013 and goes into more details about the challenges that the Côte de Beaune, in particular, had.

A Vintage Viewpoint…(2013, 2012, 2011…) from Bill Nanson at the Burgundy Report.
A nice little one page summary of the 2013 vintage in comparison to the 2012 and 2011 vintages.

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What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

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

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.


1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin) Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein) Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons) Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons). Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans) Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle) historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

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

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.


One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle but the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite, a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

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

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine where their cell walls (which are about 30% positively charged proteins) can adsorb many polyphenols and compounds that can cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars–causing spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining with the PVPP binding to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle and creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

While wineries can avoid using animal products in the winery, there is a question of whether wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards are truly “vegan-friendly”. This is because several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

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

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

There is also the question of whether the increased presence of insects in healthy and vibrant vineyards that eschew the use of chemicals can make a wine less vegan-friendly due to the higher incidence of insects as MOG (material other than grapes) getting caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

With the concerns of high insect MOG, biodynamic viticulture and organic animal-derived fertilizers, is it possible that the vineyards that can produce the most “vegan-friendly” wines are really the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides (no insect MOG there) and chemical fertilizers? Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.


Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions that eschews the use of animal products. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals and the impact on the environment that using animal products have. It’s also not my wish to stress out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

But I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries that utilize viticulture and winemaking practices that may not align with the ethical and environmental concerns of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

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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 as 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 with the use of 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 fairly 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 seen 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 powerful 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 are seeing 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 interesting.

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 that savvy vineyard owners and wineries are 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, we can see 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” as a key component in mass-produced red blends (or a Pinot noir-enhancer) but varietal examples from producers in Clarksburg, Lodi, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara could offer consumers intriguing and characterful wines.

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

Among white wines, we see a similar pattern even 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

While Chardonnay still rules by Cabernet Sauvignon’s side, we have upstarts like the Spanish variety Albariño (≈ 107% growth) and Portuguese grape Verdelho (≈ 75%) seeing significant increase in plantings. As with the reds, the interest in Italian white varieties is growing with Vermentino seeing around a 287% growth in plantings and the combine stable of Muscat grapes (led by Moscato bianco) more than doubling 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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In a rut? Try these new grapes!

CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Do you like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay?

Try Pecorino!

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

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

Do you like Pinot gris and dry Gewürztraminers?

Try Grüner Veltliner!

Photo taken by self as Agne27, on Wikimedia Commons

An Oregon Gruner Veltliner from the Willamette Valley.


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

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

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

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

Do you like Merlot and Grenache?

Try Mencía!

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

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

Mencía grapes growing in the Ribeira Sacra DO of Spain

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

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

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

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and spicy Zinfandels?

Try Touriga Nacional!

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

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

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

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


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

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah?

Try Aglianico!

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

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

Aglianico from L’Ampélographie Viali i Vermorela


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

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

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

Cheers!

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