Tag Archives: wine list

The Real Influencers of the Wine World

Earlier this month, the Drinks Insight Network published their top ten influential wine experts in the beverage industry. They highlighted 10 Twitter accounts with 17,000-245,000 followers and a ranking of at least 54 on GlobalData’s “influencer score”.

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

Yes, that is Kevin Bacon.

I follow all these accounts on Twitter and it’s not a bad recommendation to check them out. But I only actively interact and read 2-3 of them–Jamie Goode (@jamiegoode), Robert Joseph (@robertjoseph) and Ken Alawine (@alawine). I follow Goode and Joseph for their engaging dialogue about wine topics while Alawine’s feed is a nice diversion of fun memes and infographics.

I don’t think I’ve ever been influenced to buy a wine mentioned by any of them.

And I’m an active social media user who is already motivated to seek out wine stuff.

If I’m so minorly influenced by the most prominent influencers, then what kind of influence do these folks (as well as other influencers/bloggers) really have on the typical wine consumer?

Do You Want The Brutal Truth? 

Very little.

I know this post is not going to make me friends among my fellow bloggers or “influencers”. But I can’t forget about my past life before I really started blogging. In addition to several years working wine retail, I studied winemaking at the Northwest Wine Academy with thoughts of one day opening up my own winery.

Bottling wine

One of my favorite photos from winemaking school. Featured here is my mentor, Peter Bos.

While I’ve moved on from that goal, I still have many friends who work at or own wineries in the Pacific Northwest. When I talk to them about my experiences working in the trenches selling wines like theirs, I’m not going to bullshit them.

I know how tough it is for a small winery to compete in a saturated market. With time and money scarce, I’m not going to encourage my friends to waste either chasing the favor of “influencers”–especially if it’s not really going to help them sell wine.

Yeah, this is a self-defeating post for a blogger to write. Oh well. But I will share with you the same advice I give my winemaker friends. While this is, of course, anecdotal, it’s drawn from my years of helping tens of thousands of consumers while working as a wine steward at a major grocery store chain and a big-box retailer.

It’s also the advice that I would put into practice myself if I started my own winery. There are real influencers out there that drive people to a store looking for wines. But few of them would rank an “influencer score”.

The #1 Influencer — Friends and Family

In over seven years working on the floor, I’ve never had a customer come in with a blog post, Instagram or tweet on their phone looking for a wine. Again, anecdotal, but that is the stark truth.

However, every single day I would have multiple customers come in looking for a wine that a friend or family member recommended to them. These personal recommendations are, by far, the most valuable currency in the industry—and not just in wine.

Of course, friends and family are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can consider some social media influence from outside sources. But the reach of a blogger or “influencer” is going to be indirect and weaken with each link away from that personal connection.

The Bacon number of wine

A Few Good Men and some Sleepers

Essentially if we want to “Kevin Bacon” this, your best influencers are going to be the folks with a Bacon number of 1. When you start getting 2 steps or more removed from the consumer, the amount of influence dwindles considerably.

Advice for Wineries

Remember, keep your eye on the Bacon.

Personal recommendations from friends and family are more valuable than 90+ points from a famous critic. Wineries should seek these recommendations out every bit as aggressively as they court a high score.

Many wineries allow wine club members to bring guests to the tasting room for free. But I can’t think of many who do “friends and family” wine club events. Most events allow their members to bring only a single guest who is usually going to be a spouse.

How does that help you grow your clientele list? Think about expanding that allowance to 3-4 guests as well as promotions that reward current customers for referrals.

#2 Restaurant By-The-Glass Programs

While Millennials tend to be more adventurous than previous generations, there is always a risk in accepting a recommendation. For many, the risk of paying $7-20 for a glass pour of wine at a restaurant is more appealing than spending $25+ for a full bottle at a store.

After personal recommendations from friends and family, the second biggest driver of consumers to my wine shops was the desire to find something they had at a restaurant. Once in a while, a customer would be seeking something they ordered a bottle of but the vast majority of the time it was something they had from the BTG list.

Advice for Wineries
Photo by Iwona Erskine-Kellie. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

There is a reason why the big mega-corps focus so heavily on their on-premise accounts.

Getting on restaurant wine lists should always be a priority for small wineries. In many ways, it is the perfect setting for people to have their first experience with your wine–with great food and great company.

Placement on the BTG list is even more valuable than being on the general wine list. The intimidation factor is less while the openness to explore is greater. Of course, well-run programs will have talented sommeliers that can hand sell the entire list. However, there are very few consumers (like me) who indulge in things like playing the Somm Game.

Plus, for those consumers who are open to recommendations, the odds are better for your wine getting a BTG recommendation from the sommelier than getting one of your bottles recommended from the full list. Think about it. You’re competing against a dozen or so options by-the-glass versus potentially hundreds of bottle options.

I know competition for placement in these programs is high and brings a lot of challenges. But I firmly believe that the effort pays more dividends than chasing online influencers.

#3 First-Hand Winery Experience

While the influencers above drove more people to my shops, this is the area where wineries most control their destinies. Of course, the quality of your wine should be of paramount importance but second only to that should be the type of experience guests get in your tasting rooms.

Photo by Georg Botz. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

I know the sight of a “Bridesmaid Brigade” fills tasting rooms with dread. But they are all prospective customers, even if they don’t buy jack on that first visit.

Living so close to Woodinville Wine Country and within driving distance of all the major wine regions in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen the best and worst of tasting room experiences. I’ve also heard on the floor, from consumers, the best and worst as well.

The best experiences give people a reason to be excited about a winery. Often people visit 2-4 wineries on a trip, so the goal should be to stand out positively. Every tasting room is going to be pouring wine. That’s old hat. The memorable wineries are the ones that give their guests something more than just booze.

Advice for Wineries

I can not emphasize enough the importance of making sure you have a great staff working your tasting rooms. Pay the good ones well and work like hell to retain that talent. They are truly the difference between bringing home the bacon or burning it to a crisp.

I can’t count how many times I recommended a wine only to have a customer recount a bad tasting room experience that they (or friends and family) had. Even if it was several years ago when the winery was owned by someone else, it was a non-starter.

If I started a winery, I would take this Maya Angelou quote and frame it in my tasting room.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. — Maya Angelou

#4 Published Media “Best of…” lists and Wine Competition Awards

My last retail holiday season was 2017 but I remember it quite well. This is when all the “Top Wines of the Year” and “Best of….” lists come out. It seems like every newspaper and magazine publishes some year-end compendium.

For retailers, these lists are both blessings and a royal pain in the ass. They’re easy sales because consumers come in ready to buy and you can fill their basket in 3 to 5 minutes—that is, if you happen to have the exact wine and vintages. The pain in the ass comes from nearly all these lists featuring wines of limited availability (sometimes even winery-only) or from a vintage long sold out.

Advice for Wineries
Photo by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-4.0

Customers coming into a wine shop with an actual print copy of a wine magazine is becoming rarer and rarer.

I ranked this one #4 but it could have easily been #5. The influence of traditional print media is certainly fading. When I first got into retail, I would almost weekly have customers coming in with the latest copy of Wine Spectator or the local newspaper critic’s column. Now it seems mostly concentrated on these year-end lists.

I’ve also noticed that the clientele that actively uses these lists skew older as well. Again, only anecdotal, but I suspect that the influence of these media sources will only continue to wane with the growing prominence of Millennials and Generation Z in the market.

Likewise, I see less excitement and influence surrounding wine competitions every year. But there is still some fight in the old girl. Personally, I don’t think they should have much any influence but people like shiny things. Wine competitions dish out lots and lots of shiny things.

For my own winery, I would still be entering competitions and sending samples out to the traditional print media. However, I wouldn’t put all my eggs in these baskets and focus more on the top #1-3 influencers above.

But you ultimately can’t discount the easy sales that a winery can get with prominent list placement. Nor can you downplay the influence that even a silly bronze medal sticker has in making a wine stand out on the shelf.

#5 Wine Apps

Wine apps with Yelp-like rating systems are another thing that I think shouldn’t hold much influence–but they do. As I described in my post Naked and Foolish, I think these apps are incredibly gameable and ripe for misuse.

My apprehensions aside, I realize that wine consumers (particularly the younger set) are downloading and using them. It’s not yet a considerable quantity, hence my #5 ranking, but it is growing. Before I left retail, I would see maybe a handful of customers a week whipping out their phones and scanning bottles to see how many “stars” something got. I can only expect that number to increase.

Advice for Wineries
Wine Searcher screen grab

While not necessarily a rating app itself, I often saw consumers on the floor using WineSearcher to check prices and critic scores.

While I doubt that wine apps would ever supplant the top 3 influencers, it is nonetheless a Bacon number 1 influencer that shouldn’t be ignored.

At the very least, I would recommend that wineries download these apps and pay attention to what scores their wines are getting from consumers. For small wineries that aren’t likely to get many inputs, it is probably not a bad idea to upload nice pictures of your labels. That way when someone is searching for your wines they can find them more easily.

I would avoid the temptation to add your own ratings and take part in the easy gaming of these apps. But that’s just me.

#?? Recommendations of Wine Stewards/Sommeliers

As a steward on the floor with face-to-face contact with consumers, I carried a Bacon number of 1. But how influential I truly was depended on a lot of factors. This makes it difficult to give a blanket ranking on how influential stewards (and in the same vein, sommeliers) really are.

For customers that I interacted with often and built a relationship, my influence would be only behind that of the #1 influencer–family and friends. I earned trust by learning their palates and backing up my recommendations with my knowledge.

But more broadly, my influence probably fell in the #3-5 range depending on the consumer’s personality (i.e. willingness to seek out a recommendation) as well as their past experiences with other stewards and wine shops. It’s very easy for a consumer to feel burned by a bad recommendation that they received one time, from one person, and then be skeptical about any recommendations they get–from anyone.

The hiring prowess and training programs of a wine shop/restaurant have an immeasurable impact on how influential their stewards and somms will be.

Advice for Wineries
Picture with Jean Triaud of Ch. Gloria

A pic from my retail days where I had a chance to meet Jean Triaud, the grandson of Ch. Gloria’s founder Henri Martin.
Trying the wine was nice, but I was able to introduce many more consumers to Ch. Gloria’s wines through the stories and insights that Jean shared.

After family and friends, wine stewards and sommeliers have the potential to be the second most potent influencer selling your wine. I would give the nod to a winery’s own tasting room staff vis-à-vis, but when you add up how many people visit your tasting room versus the numbers that visit wine shops and restaurants, the potential is higher with the latter.

It is undoubtedly in a winery’s best interests to influence these influencers. These are the folks that are in the trenches presenting your wine to consumers. They have the potential to move far more cases of your wine than a blogger like me ever will do.

But it is not just about getting wine stewards and sommeliers to try your wines. Keep in mind that they’re likely getting samples, trips and other perks from dozens upon dozens of other wineries.

You need to sell them on what makes your winery unique and distinctive, just like you do to a consumer face-to-face. Successful wineries reach out to wine stewards and sommeliers and give them tools (great stories, behind-the-scenes insights, etc.) that they can share to the thousands of consumers they interact with yearly.

I’m not saying that bloggers and social media influencers have zero influence, though.

I don’t want to come across as slamming my fellow bloggers or denigrating their efforts. I know we’re all working hard to make original and useful content that people will want to read. Believe me; I feel the same flutter of excitement and gratification looking at page views and subscription numbers as you do.

But the truth is, is that we are, at best, Bacon number 2s when it comes to the true reach of our influence. We have some influence, but it is quite limited.

We can contribute content that shows up on Google searches when an already engaged and intrigued consumer looks for more info on a wine. Indeed, this is the area where we probably exert the most influence which is why creating original and compelling content is critical.

But that audience of actively engaged consumers is still relatively small. And those prospective consumers needs to be initially “engaged” by something else before they start searching–often by things in the Bacon number 1 realm like sommeliers and wine stewards.

Photo from Renee Comet of the National Cancer Institute. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-author

Engage bacon is by far the most influential bacon.

Now bloggers and social media influencers can certainly influence those sommeliers and wine stewards. Stepping back and thinking about my retail days, I most certainly read blogs and got intrigued by wines.

However, when I step back further and look at the blogging and “wine influencer” scene–when I look at what I’m doing–I realize that we are mostly just influencing ourselves.

Spend any amount of time scanning the comments and likes on Instagram of notable wine influencers and you start seeing a pattern. Take a look at the retweets and replies on Twitter as well as the various #winechat hashtags and you see a similar pattern.

It’s the same people talking to each other.

Now, truthfully, that is great because this is a community that abounds with terrific friendships. One of the most edifying results of attending the Wine Bloggers Conference was meeting fellow bloggers that I could geek out with.

But we can’t mistake shared passion for influence.
Photo by J.Dncsn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Non-engaged bacon.
This is how I view my blog posts. They’re an ingredient that needs to be “cooked” before its sweet aroma influences anyone.

Wineries that invest hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars sending out samples to influencers are not getting their money’s worth. Especially compared to the return on investment they could get focusing on the Top 3 influencers I noted above.

Preaching to the choir will never bring people off the streets and into the pews. And getting people off the streets to check out wines is the whole point of marketing. It’s what wineries need to do in order to survive.

That is why when my good friends with wineries approach me about sampling their wines for review, I’ll accept them–but I’m not going to mislead them about my “influence.” I know that there are better ways that they could be spending their time and money.

And sharing that might be my real influence.

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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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A Tasting of Taylor Fladgate Tawny

A flight of Taylor Fladgate Tawny

Russell’s in Bothell, Washington is always a great stop for wine lovers and foodies. The Northwest-focused menu updates regularly with fresh seasonal ingredients and the wine list is always top notch. On a recent visit there, I finished the evening with a flight of aged Tawnys from Taylor Fladgate–10, 20, 30 and 40 year. It was a very interesting and eye opening experience trying each one side by side.

The 10 year Tawny retails for around $23-28 for a standard 750ml bottle. As the “entry-level” aged tawny, it is very solid with a medium plus intensity nose that is a mix of dried tropical and red fruit, some chocolate and nuttiness. What’s most impressive is the balance in the mouthfeel between the concentrated richness of the vanilla nuttiness with the overall lightness of the fruit and easy drink-ability. As a fortified wine with 20% ABV, you really shouldn’t drink more than a small glass or two in a sitting but this tawny is just so darn yummy that I can see it being a dangerous friend.

The 20 year Tawny retails for around $42-50. This one had more spice on the nose but for most purposes was virtually interchangeable with the 10 year. Smooth, elegant mouthfeel with nuttiness and dried fruit. Maybe a smidge longer of a finish but, again, pretty minor jump in quality from the 10 year to this. If anything, tasting the 20 year next to the 10 encouraged me to be even more impressed with how solid the 10 year is.

Not old enough yet to run for President but would make a mighty fine Senator


The 30 year Tawny retails for around $120-150. This was the class of the flight and was utterly amazing with high intensity aromatics of dried red fruit, marzipan, orange blossoms, marinated cherry and black licorice spice. Every sniff brought out something different and I was struck by the myriad of layers and different types of aromas that was popping out. The palate more than held its own with an incredibly smooth, silky vanilla mouthfeel and a long finish of caramel cream brulee that you could still taste even two minutes after swallowing. Like with the other Taylors, I was most impressed with the balance of rich intensity with elegance and finesse.

The 40 year Tawny retails for around $170-200. This was enjoyable but as good as the 30 year was, it was hard for this one not to be overshadowed even though the freshness and richness of the deep red fruit was impressive for its age. The 40 year simply tasted like a much younger wine, which is both good and bad with Port. It had charm with how much life it had but when the overall complexity of aromas and length of the finish that you expect to be heighten in an older wine pales in comparison to the 30 year, it hard to justify the jump in cost. Simply put, you expect an older port to taste like it has had the benefit of more years aging than its younger comrades and this 40 year didn’t deliver that.

Tasting through the flight, the repeated theme of the younger Port out-delivering its older brother was apparent. While the 20 and 40 years weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, they were simply out shined by how much more bang for the buck that the 10 and 30 offered in comparison. It’s a solid lesson that is always worth being mindful of when shopping for wine. As we looked Behind the Curtain of wine pricing in a previous post, the pricing of wine is never a cut and dry subject.

The nature of Port wine production is very cost and time intensive that requires a premium for older wines. (Richard Mayson’s recent book on Port offers some great insight about the process) The expected trade off for that premium is presumed to be more complexity and more “wowness” but it might not be to an exponential degree of something like the 20 year being twice as good as 10 year and the 40 year being 4x as good as the 10, etc. There is still some charm in drinking a wine like the 40 year that is old enough to run for President of the United States (and maybe do a better job) but each consumer will have to decide if that charm and novelty is worth the cost.

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