Tag Archives: Portuguese wine

Geek Notes — New Wine Books For December

I apologize for the delay in getting a new post up. This past week had a double wallop of holidays coupled with a nasty bout with the flu bug. But I’ve turned the corner on that just in time to take a peak at some intriguing new wine book releases.

Inside the Chinese Wine Industry: The Past, Present, and Future of Wine in China by Loren Mayshark (Paperback released on Nov. 7th, 2018)
Photo by Hiart. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

A porcelain wine jug from the early 15th century Ming dynasty.

There is no question that China is already a significant player on the global wine market. Its influence, particularly on pricing, is keenly felt in Bordeaux and Burgundy. As middle class consumption grows, industries like Australia have found the Chinese market to be extremely lucrative for their imports.

But for a country close to the same size as the United States, the potential for domestic production of Chinese wine is immense. The country has already surpassed Argentina, Chile and Australia to be the world’s 5th largest producer of wine.

As an author, Mayshark has a varied background with his previous works tackling the concept of death and the ills of higher education.

While only 174 pages, I suspect this will be a very research heavy book.  Mayshark looks to go deep into the history and culture of alcohol in China. I’m not expecting much terroir and viticultural details but this looks to be a solid intro to a country that is only going to gain prominence on the world’s wine scene.

Port and the Douro, 4th Edition by Richard Mayson (Paperback released on Nov. 26th, 2018)

Mayson’s first edition of Port and the Douro in 1999 quickly became one of the benchmark standards for understanding Port and the often overlooked dry wines of the Douro. Over the years, the text has grown from 320 pages to now 418 pages in the latest volume.

While the Port industry hasn’t quite seen a spike of interest in “Grower’s Port” like we’ve seen in Champagne, there has been more attention paid to vineyards in recent years. While still quite rare, single vineyard or single quinta Ports have been on the rise. In the preface to this latest release, Mayson notes this volume reflects that increased interest.

Though the big shipping houses still dominant, smaller Port producers are gaining traction. Another significant addition to Port and the Douro is an expanded chapter on producer profiles.

Acidity Management in Must and Wine by Volker Schneider and Sarah Troxell. (Hardcover to be released Dec. 17th, 2018)
VA still

Checking volatile acidity using a cash still during my winemaking studies at the Northwest Wine Academy.
If you want to see the still in action, Yakima Valley Community College has a great 9 minute video on it here.

This book is for hard core wine student and folks who are interested in making wine themselves.

When you are looking for winemaking texts, you have two extremes. There are the fairly simple books aimed towards home winemakers that go really light on the science (Jeff Cox’s From Vines to Wines and Jon Iverson’s Home Winemaking Step by Step are two of the better ones) or you have very dense enology textbooks like Roger Boulton’s Principles And Practices Of Winemaking.

There are not many books in the middle with Jamie Goode’s Wine Science being the closest that I’ve found.

Schneider and Troxell’s Acidity Management definitely looks to be more on the textbook side of the equation. However, looking at the pages available on Amazon’s “Look Inside” preview, I’m intrigued at how relatively digestible the science is. It’s tech heavy without being dense. I can see this being a great resource to understand more of the nitty gritty details of winemaking.

Wine Globalization: A New Comparative History edited by Kym Anderson and Vicente Pinilla. (Paperback to be released December 31st, 2018)

This book is high on my radar as I’m gearing up to tackle Unit 1 of the WSET Diploma on The Global Business of Wine. This will be my second go-around with this unit. I realize after my first attempt that a big weakness is how “US-centric” my understanding of the wine industry is.

Featuring over 20 different authors from a wide range of backgrounds, this 576 page anthology truly has a global scope. There are chapters covering traditional markets like France, Germany and the United Kingdom as well as emerging markets in Asia and South America.

Even better, the paperback edition is less than half the price of the hardback or Kindle edition.  I’m definitely going to jump on this before the price changes.

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

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

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

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

But man does it suck losing.

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

How to Play

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

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

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

Why the Somm Game works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Ego Tax”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Somm Game in Action

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

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

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

Then I sit back and have fun.

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

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

Lago

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

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

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto.

These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

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

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

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

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

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off.

With nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was just….wow!

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

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!

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

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

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

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

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

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

Aureole

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

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

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

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

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

But oh is it worth the hunt!

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

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

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

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

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

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

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

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

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

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

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

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

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

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses.

But, again, Kyran when above and beyond as he brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

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

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.

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

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

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

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

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

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

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new.

You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

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

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

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

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Walla Walla Musings

A few notes from the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting featuring 40 different Walla Walla wineries at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.

New (to me) Walla Walla Wineries that Impressed

With over 900 wineries, even the most avid Washington wine lover has a hard time trying to taste them all. Walla Walla, alone, is home to around 120 wineries so even this tasting provided only a slice of what the AVA has to offer. My strategy at events like this is to hit several new wineries that I’ve never tasted before revisiting old favorites.

Lagana Cellars— Poured 2 whites (Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay) and 2 reds (Syrah and Cabernet Franc) and while all 4 were solid, the reds were definitely a step above. The 2014 Minnick Hills Syrah was one of the few 2014 Syrahs that seemed to escape the reductiveness that (unfortunately) characterized several of their peers at this tasting and showed a beautiful mix of black fruit, mouthwatering acidity and spice. The 2015 Seven Hills Cabernet Franc demonstrated all the things that are beautiful about Washington Cabernet Franc (More on that below). It had vivacious, high intensity aromatics of violets and blackberry, medium-plus body with silky tannins.

Kontos Cellars— Poured 3 reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and blend) plus a bonus bottle blend named Beckett after the winemaker’s daughter. Founded by the sons of Cliff Kontos of Fort Walla Walla Cellars, the trademark seen throughout the Kontos wines was gorgeous aromatics and pitch perfect balance between oak, fruit, tannins and acidity. Even the two 2014 wines (Cab & Alatus blend) stood out but the star of the flight was the wine club member’s only release Beckett blend. A blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot and 8% Syrah, the 2013 Beckett showcased Kontos’s high intensity aromatics with a mix of red and black cherries, red floral notes and lots of savory spice.

I’m very glad that I didn’t miss this table.


Tertulia Cellars— Poured 3 reds (Rhone blend, Syrah and Cabernet Franc). This is a little of a cheat since Tertulia is not really a newbie. Founded in 2005, I did try some of their early releases several years ago and wasn’t that impressed. I figured after nearly 10 years, I should give them another shot and boy am I glad I did. The 2013 Riviera Galets “The Great Schism” Rhone blend was outstanding.

A blend of 50% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 7% Cinsault and 3% Mourvedre, this wine would do extremely well in a tasting of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Beautiful savory, meaty nose but with enough rich dark fruit to clue you in that it was a New World wine. This wine also had one of the longest finishes of the night. The 2014 Whistling Hills Syrah had some of the 2014 reductive notes but it blew off fairly quickly with some air. The 2015 Cabernet Franc, like the Lagana above, was delicious.

Other wineries that impressed me were Caprio Cellars (especially the 2015 Walla Walla Red), Solemn Cellars (especially the 2014 Pheasant Run Cabernet Sauvignon) and Vital Wines (especially the 2016 Rose).

Old Favorites that Shined

You can never go wrong with Woodward Canyon and their 2014 Artist Series is a worthy follow up to the 2013. The 2014 Old Vines also did very well. In fact, along with the 2014 wines that are noted throughout this post, Woodward Canyon seemed to be one of the few producers to have 2014 wines that weren’t showing any green or reductive notes. (More on that below)

Despite enjoying their estate red for several years, I actually never knew that Figgins produced an estate Riesling and it was fantastic! From the 2016 vintage, the Riesling is decidedly on the dry side and had all the gorgeous white flower, apple and apricot notes that Washington Riesling is known for. Truly a top shelf Riesling that would go toe to toe with the best of Alsace and the Mosel.

Anna Shafer of àMaurice continues to show why she is one of the best winemakers in the state working not only with her estate vineyards but also making a mouth-filling but elegant 2015 Boushey Vineyard Grenache and a 2016 Connor Lee Chardonnay that would tickle the taste buds of even the most ardent Meursault fan.

The Bledsoe Family rose was also very tasty.


Doubleback introduced their 2015 Flying B Cabernet Sauvignon. I got the first taste of a brand new bottle and I was highly impressed with how aromatic and flavorful it was for a pop and pour young Cab. While I enjoyed the regular flagship Doubleback Cabernet Sauvignon, I will say that for half the price the Flying B is giving it a run for the money. I would highly encourage folks to sit on the flagship Cab for 5-7 years from vintage date and drink the Flying B while it ages.

Geeky Grapes on Display

While Washington State and Walla Walla wineries are known for fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Riesling, it was fun seeing winemakers embrace more obscure varieties like Albariño (Adamant Cellars), Grenache blanc (The Walls) and Carménère.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that the Figgins family of Leonetti were likely the first to plant Carménère in the state with cuttings they got from Guenoc Winery in California. Those cuttings were eventually shared with Colvin Vineyards that produced the first varietal Carménère in Washington in 2001. Since then the grape’s acreage in the state has expanded with plantings in Alder Ridge Vineyard, Minnick Hills, Morrison Lane and Seven Hills Vineyard.

I tried to figure out what vineyard in the Wahluke Slope had Carménère but my question was brushed off because they wanted to “highlight the AVA and not the vineyard.”
Um….okay.


Among the numerous wineries featuring a Carménère at the tasting were Balboa/Beresan Winery, Drink Washington State (from Wahluke Slope), Reininger Winery and Skylite Cellars. I missed out on trying the Reininger but was fairly impressed with Drink Washington State’s offering. But admittedly at $26 you are paying for the uniqueness of the variety in Washington and, right now, it is hard to compete with some of the Carménère coming in from Chile that often delivers outstanding value under $15.

Probably the geekiest wine at the tasting was Foundry Vineyards’ Stainless Steel Chardonnay from the Columbia Gorge. A Chard? Geeky? It is when it has 6% Maria Gomes blended in. Also known as Fernão Pires, Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that this obscure Portuguese grape variety is actually the most widely planted white grape in Portugal with over 41,500 acres. It is believed to have originated in either the Bairrada DOC or in the Tejo region but it can be found throughout the country including in the Douro. In the US, though, it is quite the rare bird.

Pay Attention to Washington Cabernet Franc

Walter Clore encouraged the first plantings of Cabernet Franc in the mid-1970s as part of Washington State University’s experimental blocks. In 1985, Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima planted the grape which was used by Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery to produce the first varietal Cabernet Franc in 1991. Since then the grape has seen growth from 150 acres in 1993 to a peak of 1157 acres in 2006 only to decline to 685 acres by 2017.

Which is a crying shame because of how absolutely delicious Washington Cabernet Franc is!

The 2012 Spring Valley Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc was, hands down, one of the best wines in the entire tasting.


While Old World examples from places like Chinon and Saumur-Champigny in the Loire can be light to medium bodied and herbal with trademark pencil shaving notes, examples from Washington hold up to the weight and profile of the state’s best Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Here Cabernet Franc can develop perfumed blue floral aromatics with some subtle fresh forest floor earthiness that add layers. The dark raspberry and blueberry carry a juicy edge due to the grape’s natural acidity. With some age, a very enticing fresh ground coffee note often comes out–something that the 2012 Spring Valley Vineyards Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc was starting to develop.

Outside of Walla Walla, stellar examples of Washington Cabernet Franc include Chinook Wines, Barrister, Camaraderie, Matthews Cellars, Gamache Vineyards, Chatter Creek and Sheridan Vineyard’s Boss Block.

At the Walla Walla tasting, in addition to the Spring Valley example that was a contender for Wine of The Show, other tremendous Cabernet Francs were showcased by Lagana Cellars (2015 Seven Hills), Tamarack Cellars (2015 Columbia Valley), Tertulia Cellars (2015 Elevation), Tranche (2013 Walla Walla), March Cellars (2016 Columbia Valley) and Walla Walla Vintners (2015 Columbia Valley)

What happened in 2014?

Along with Woodward Canyon, Kontos produced the cleanest and best tasting 2014 reds I encountered at the tasting.


The most baffling aspect of the Walla Walla tasting was how many 2014 reds were disappointing. Despite widely being considered a very good year in Washington State and Walla Walla, in particular, several wines from even big name and highly acclaimed producers showed green pyrazine or reductive notes. One winery had massive volatile acidity (VA) issues with their 2014s. With many wineries also featuring 2013 and 2015 reds, sometimes even of the same wine as their 2014, the shortcomings in the 2014s stuck out like a sore thumb.

And it wasn’t very consistent with one winery’s 2014s being green while another winery’s 2014 example of the same variety would instead have the closed aromas of reduced wines or (at worst with at least 2 examples) the burnt rubber aroma of mercaptans. While the reductive issues are minimized with getting some air into the wine (like with decanting), the green notes don’t go away. I can’t figure a reason why there would be so many green notes in what was a very warm vintage.

As far as I can tell there were no reports of millerandage or coulure which can promote uneven ripeness and hidden green berries inside clusters of varieties like Grenache, Merlot and Malbec. Plus, it was the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrahs that were more likely to show green notes. My only theory is that with it being such a large vintage perhaps some vineyards were over-cropped? But given the pedigree of the producers, I feel like that is unlikely.

I honestly don’t know. As noted above, there were still 2014s that were drinking well (and I certainly didn’t get a chance to taste every single one that was being poured) so I encourage consumers not to avoid the vintage but be aware that there is some inconsistency. I’m just reporting on a trend that I observed during this one tasting event.

My Top 5 Wines of the Event

The 2016 Figgins Estate Riesling was an absolute gem.

There were plenty of outstanding wines featured at the 2018 Walla Walla Wine Tasting at McCaw Hall that give me reasons to be excited about the future of the Walla Walla wine industry. This region is well worth exploring at your local wine shops and restaurants. Even with my reservations about many 2014 wines, there were numerous wines poured that I could very enthusiastically recommend. But my top 5 overall were:

1.) 2013 Tertulia Riviera Galets
2.) 2012 Spring Valley Vineyards Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc
3.) 2013 Kontos Cellars Beckett
4.) 2015 Abeja Merlot
5.) 2016 Figgins Estate Riesling

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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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Trading Out instead of Trading Up


Seven Fifty Daily reposted an old Jon Bonné article from October about Do Wine Drinkers Really Trade Up?

This is a question that regularly percolates in the wine industry, occasionally bubbling over. Bonné gives lip service to (but doesn’t link) the New York Times op-ed by Bianca Bosker Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine that created a firestorm last year. The op-ed was an excerpt from her book, Cork Dork, which, likewise produced some interesting reactions.

The gist of Bosker’s take is that wine industry folks shouldn’t turn their noses up at so-called “cheap wine” because there is actually quality in these bottles, even if there isn’t terroir. To add seasoning to her opinion, she includes a quote from no less of an esteem source than that of Master of Wine Jancis Robinson.

“It is one of the ironies of the wine market today, that just as the price differential between cheapest and most expensive bottles is greater than ever before, the difference in quality between these two extremes is probably narrower than it has ever been.” — Jancis Robinson as quoted in the NYT March 17th, 2017.

This narrowing in the quality gap has come via technological advances and winemaker “tricks”, several of which Bosker list in her op-ed, like the use of the “cure-all” Mega-Purple, toasted oak chips, liquid oak tannins and fining agents like Ova-Pure and gelatin.

Still despite these mass manipulations, Bosker contended that these technological advances had help “democratize decent wine.”

Needless to say, many folks disagreed with Bosker, few more passionately than natural wine evangelist Alice Feiring in her post to Embrace the “Snobs.” Don’t Drink Cheap(ened) Wine. But my favorite rebuttal had to be from Alder Yarrow of Vinography.

By M.Minderhoud - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I think Ronald would want to have a few words with Alder.

“[Bosker’s argument] is the wine equivalent of saying that McDonalds deserves the affection and respect of food critics and gourmets the world over for having engineered such tasty eats that can be sold at prices everyone can afford.” Alder Yarrow, Vinography March 23rd, 2017

Some certainly defended Bosker’s view with most of those defenses centered around the idea that these cheap democratized wines introduce people to a less intimidating world of wine. A world that they may eventually trade up from for “better wine”–whatever that may be.

“She seems to share the view that mass-marketed, everyday wines eventually will lead a person introduced to wine through them to step up to more challenging wines. This perception isn’t without precedent.

I have a hunch that industrial wines will prompt neophytes who find that they enjoy wine to search for wines that have more to say.” — Mike Dunne, Sacramento Bee April 11th, 2017

And this is where we get back to the concept of “Trading Up”

Many people in the wine industry are unconvinced that this phenomenon exist. While the Bonné article above tries to paint some nuances around the concept, you will find many writers who doubt that people ever really trade up and instead think that the reason why we are seeing an increase in “premiumization” is simply because older 4 liter box wine drinkers are dying off while newer Millennial drinkers are starting right off the bat with a little more pricier $7-10 wines. In the article linked above, The Wine Curmudgeon expresses skepticism that a Bogle or Rodney Strong drinker would ever “trade up” to a Silver Oak.

Bonné also notes that there is a significant segment of wine drinkers that are risk and change adverse, pointing to Constellation Brands’ Project Genome study that found around 40% of consumers prefer to stick with drinking the same ole thing they drink everyday.

British wine writer Guy Woodward, in another Seven Fifty Daily article, quoted a buying manager at the UK grocery chain Morrisons flat out saying that his customers aren’t interested in trading up, being quite content with their £5 (around $7) bottles.

Maybe the industry should count its blessings that Millennials are even buying $7-10 wines and just cross our fingers that the next batch of wine drinkers in Generation Z start out their wine journey in the $10-15 range?

Or we can stop talking about “Trading Up” and start talking about “Trading Out”.

A major hang up in the “Should we love ‘cheap wine’ debate?” is the focus on the word “cheap”– which means different things to different people. For some, it means the type of mass manipulated wines that Bosker describes from her visit to Treasury Wine Estates. For others, cheap just means…cheap. This is especially true when you are talking about a Millennial generation of wine drinkers saddled with student loans and a lower wage economy. It is a victory for the wine industry when a Millennial reaches for that $7-10 wine instead of a six-pack of craft beer.

By Jami430 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, on Wikimedia  Commons

I mean, seriously, we could get about 7 meals of avocado toast for the price of one bottle of Silver Oak.

But for “natural wine advocates” like Alice Feiring who want wine drinkers to take their wine seriously and folks, like me, who despair at supermarkets monopolized by brands made by the same handful of mega-corps like Constellation, Treasury and Gallo, perhaps the potential of the Millennial market offers the perfect solution to our woes.

Going back to Alder Yarrow’s Vinography post, he references a Bosker rebuttal from Troon Vineyard’s general manager Craig Camp, that aptly notes the abundance of inexpensive but non-industrialize wine on the market. These include under $20 wines made in Beaujolais, the Cote du Rhone, Languedoc, Spain, Portugal, etc. Heck, you can even find tasty wines from these regions under $10. Now you might not find these in a grocery store, but they exist and often just down the road from the grocery at your local wine shop.

But how do we get drinkers to seek out these wines?

I think it is best to start small and encourage wine drinkers to get in the habit of “trading out” which simply means trying something new. Even if you are still shopping at your convenient grocery store looking at the litany of industrialize wines–try a new one. Sure, grab a bottle of your regular “go-to” but also grab something else. Just one bottle of something you never had before. Try it. If you hate it, you still have your ole trusty.

Why? Because drinking the same wine over and over again is like eating the same food. To echo back to Yarrow’s quote, you wouldn’t eat at Mcdonald’s everyday, why would you want to drink the same thing everyday?

So let’s say you try something different but in the same grape or from the same wine region. That’s a good start but it is still like limiting yourself to just one type of cuisine (Italian, Chinese, Indian, pizza, etc). Now granted, you can have a fair amount of pleasure exploring all the delicious possibilities of pizzas or Indian cuisine, just like you could have exploring all the delicious possibilities of the Riesling grape or the wines of Washington State. But you have even more potential for more pleasure when you trade out your standby cuisine for a chance to try something different–like Moroccan food or stuffed portobello mushrooms.

So many Cru Beaujolais….which incidentally goes great with both pizza and Indian food.

Encouraging the wanderlust and sense of adventure that Millennials have demonstrated, is the best path for wine industry folks promoting alternatives to industrialized wines. Yeah, mass produced and mass manipulated wines are probably going to be the starting point for a lot of wine drinkers. Bosker is quite right in that their accessibility and approachabilty has helped democratize wine.

But stop stressing if people reach for bottles of 19 Crimes or Apothic. Instead, keep encouraging them to “trade out” at least one of those bottles for something, anything different.

Perhaps if they keep trading out and exploring new wines, they may eventually find themselves on the wine industry’s holy path of “trading up” into more esteemed quality wine. But even if they don’t end up trading up to a higher price tier of wine, at least their journey is going to be a heck of a lot more interesting than just eating at McDonalds.

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A look ahead to 2018

On Bloomberg, Elin McCoy (of The Emperor of Wine fame) shared her thoughts on what wine trends will be the stories of 2018. She makes a few interesting predictions that are worth pondering.

1.) Big bottles will be huge

McCoy predicts sales in large format wines will continue to grow in 2018, citing the UK retailer Majestic’s enthusiasm for the category with sales of large format wines up nearly 400% in 2017. While among collectors, magnums have always held fondness for their ability to age more gracefully, the trend towards large format wines grew even in the “in the moment” rosé category.

Beside, why have a mag of one rose when you can have 6?


I have to admit that I’m a bit skeptical of this trend namely because of other trends that are happening in the important Millennial demographic such as drinking less overall and when they do drink, not overdoing it. Downing a mag of rosé doesn’t seem to have long term appeal.

We are also likely to see a backlash to the “Generation Waste” trend among Millennials. One of the drivers in the growing “meal kit” industry that is popular among Millennials is the potential for less food waste with each kit being exactly portioned for 2 to 4 users. The potential waste in opening up a large format makes that trend seem even less appealing so I would wager more on single-serve wine packaging gaining traction than large formats in 2018.

2.) The year’s hot spot will be Spain

I’m on board with this prediction and I will add Portugal with its wealth of indigenous grape varieties to the watchlist. Now granted, wine experts have been making these predictions for a couple years. But hey, we’ve got The Bachelorette’s go ahead now. Enloquece, amigos!

3.) Climate change is heating up

Though no one is talking about Swiss whiskey….yet.


This is something I talked about last year with my post Running Out of Stones (and Glaciers) in the Age of Climate Change. The changing map of wine being driven by climate change is both frightening and exciting for wine lovers.

As much as the Japanese have taken the whiskey world by storm, could they do the same with Pinot noir from the north island of Hokkaido? Perhaps, but again we have to question at what cost?

4.) You’ll be buying more wine online

This one is up in the air for me. If Amazon can’t make a go out of selling wine online, who can? Certainly not Wine.com which has horrendous customer service.

Though considering most of these wines are $2-3 higher on Vivino than they are at my local wine store, maybe free shipping isn’t that great of a deal?


I hit the “fool me twice” wall with Wine.com this past holiday season. I previously had a poor experience with getting a order with them but thought I would give Wine.com another try.

I ordered wine in November for a Champagne tasting event on December 17th, figuring that giving them more than 3 weeks would be adequate time. After weeks of poor communication, promises of status updates that never came, I got frustrated enough to cancel the order and have washed my hands of ever shopping with Wine.com again.

Still, I’ve had positive online experience with retailers such as JJ Buckley and utilizing in-store pick up with some local Washington State retailers. I will confess to being intrigued with Vivino’s Amazon Prime type offering of free shipping with a $47 annual membership.

I’ll keep my opinion of online wine shopping fluid at this point.

5.) The fizz sector will keep broadening

“I enjoy cooking with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food…” — Julia Child (or W.C. Fields depending on the source)


McCoy notes that consumers can expect the price of Prosecco to rise in 2018 thanks to some troublesome harvests in northeast Italy. But even if consumers move away from Prosecco, increase interest in Spanish Cavas and French Crémants will more than fill the gap.

With this I fully agree as this is another Millennial driven trend that has several factors going for it. Beyond viewing bubbles as an everyday beverage (as opposed to just something for celebration), the cocktail culture among Millennials has saw a renaissance of not only classic favorites like Aperol Spritz and Kir Royale but also new rifts that give Millennials a reason to always have a bottle of bubbly in the fridge.

6.) The “luxury experience” way to taste wine

While most estates here are “reservation only”, I will say that one of my favorite visits in Bordeaux was to the very non-luxurious “Shackteau” of Marie-Laure Lurton’s Château La Tour de Bessan


This trend saddens me because it is also tied into wineries moving away from offering free tastings. That is fodder for another post but, personally, I believe that the more “exclusive” and limited that wineries make their tasting experience, the more narrow their customer base gets.

While I understand the desire to discourage “Bridesmaid Brigades” that swoop into tasting rooms, guzzle up the free booze and leave without buying anything, I ultimately think wineries are better off encouraging folks to come in off the street and give their wines a try versus making their potential customer decide, right off the bat, if this unknown winery is worth paying whatever tasting fee is being asked.

Even among known and established wineries, I fret that the trend towards “reservation only” and luxury experience tasting is only going to push more wine into the realm of the “1%” and away from the experiences of regular consumers.

7.) The rise of robots in the poshest vineyards

Oh Lord have mercy if Elon Musk ever fixes his attention on the wine world. This is another area that is both exciting and frightening for wine lovers. On one hand, it is indisputable that advances in knowledge and technology in the vineyards and winery have led to this present glory age of exceptional wine quality. Even in the worst of vintages, it is still possible to make good (if not great) wine.

“Modern” old-school technology at Ch. Valandraud in St. Emilion.


But, again, at what cost? Increases in technology have certainly added more tools to the winemaker’s tool belt but at what point do these tools stop being tools and start being more cosmetic manipulation?

Machines can help make better wine but, if you reduce the human element, can it really be great wine? How much of the “terroir” or story of the wine do we lose when we remove more of the human actors?

Of course, one driver of this trend that shouldn’t be overlooked is the increasing labor shortages in major wine regions. Perhaps the move towards technology could be one necessitated out of survival.

Either way, 2018 will be another interesting year of changes and development in the wine world. Drink up!

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