Tag Archives: winesearcher.com

Wine Media Musings

Today the Wine Bloggers Conference announced it was renaming itself as the Wine Media Conference. In the official announcement, Allan Wright of Zephyr Conferences highlighted a panel discussion from Day 2 of this year’s conference where the question was asked “Is the Wine Bloggers Conference appropriately named?”

Wine Media Conference logo

Logo courtesy of https://www.winemediaconference.org/

It was the opinion of Tom Wark from the Fermentation Wine Blog that the conference wasn’t–which was a sentiment that the leadership of the conference has been harboring for sometime. As Wright explained in the announcement,

Blogging is simply one form of communication and the reality is almost all blogger attendees at the conference also engage in social media. Many also do other forms of wine writing, either for print magazines, online magazines, or wineries. Wine Media Conference more accurately reflects what our attendees do.

Just as importantly, the change to Wine Media Conference is designed to be more welcoming to those who do not blog but do communicate about wine. This includes social media influencers, non-blogging wine writers, and those who work in communications in the wine industry. — Allan Wright, 11/9/2018

The announcement was also made on the conference’s public Facebook group where I shared my own concerns–namely that I likely wouldn’t have originally signed up to attend something called a “Wine Media Conference.”

What is Wine Media?

Much like how a group of people can pick out different flavors and aromas in the same wine, the same word can have different connotations to various people. The dictionary definition of “media” offers one tasting note: “the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, that reach or influence people widely.”

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

Though I don’t know how influential those multiple copies of Wine Spectator where with those empty cocktail glasses.

The “reach or influence people widely” part is what resonates most with me and colors my view of “Wine Media”. Here I see an echelon of established publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Decanter, Wine Business Monthly or online mediums like SevenFifty Daily, VinePair and WineSearcher.com.

I see the work of notable critics and writers like Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, Vinous Media, JebDunnuck.com, Jeff Leve’s Wine Cellar Insider, JamesSuckling.com, Allen Meadows’ Burghound, etc.

And I do see some blogs in that realm such as Tom Wark’s Fermentation, Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak and Alder Yarrow’s Vinography. Though he is now a prominent writer for Wine Enthusiast, I would also add Sean Sullivan’s Washington Wine Report to that list as well.

But I certainly do not see myself in that ballpark.

As I think back to my apprehension of being a relatively new blogger attending my first conference this year, I know that even the idea of considering myself “Wine Media” would have been a non-starter for me.

I’m not “Wine Media”. I’m not Jancis Robinson. I haven’t been blogging for a decade-plus like Goode, Yarrow and Co. I’m a just a geek who sits at home drinking wine, reading wine books and writing about what excites me at a particular moment.

The idea of a “Wine Media Conference” would have seemed too exclusive to include me.

Inclusively Exclusive

In contrast, the idea of attending something called the “Wine Bloggers Conference” felt approachable and inviting. Being part of a community of wine bloggers felt attainable. It was my hope in attending that I could find other people like me that I could relate to. Much to my delight, I did.

One idea for future conferences would be to have the name tags note how many previous conferences a person has attended. That would be a great way to seek out more newbies or know who you should ask questions of.

One of the pleasant surprises for me while attending the conference was how many fellow conference newbies there were. I got a chance to meet folks like Noelle Harman (Outwines), Anne Keery (Aspiring Winos), Earle Dutton (Equality365) and more who, like me, were relatively new to wine blogging. It was immensely rewarding listening to their perspectives–their successes and stresses as well as the lessons and bumps they’ve learned along the way. Coupled with the tools and insights that I got from veteran bloggers and seminars, I know that I left the conference a better blogger than I was when I arrived.

It would have been unfortunate to miss that because of the limitations and exclusionary feel of the name “Wine Media”.

While all bloggers want to grow their readership–and will use things like social media to help expand their reach–the reality is that the vast majority of us will never come close to the dictionary media definition of widely reaching and influencing people.

And, honestly, not all of us may even want to be “influencers”–at least not in the sense that is in vogue today. Some of us may just want to have fun geeking and writing about wine.

Will those perspectives get smothered underneath the tarp of “Wine Media”?

The Need For “Fresh Blood” and Inclusion

Decanted screen shot

Many podcasters and videographers are still blogging their journey with wine–just via audio or visual mediums.
Also, most episodes usually include show notes (like this example from Decanted’s recent podcast) that are basically blog posts.

I understand the need to be inclusive–because the world of wine and wine communication is constantly expanding. Another great surprise from the conference was being introduced to some great new podcasts like the Weekly Wine Show and Decanted Podcast.

I wholeheartedly support the conference’s desire to see more participation from podcasters. The same with videographers as their work on YouTube is opening up a whole new realm for wine education. While I’m admittedly skeptical about the extent of influence that Instagram, Pinterest and other social media channels which limit context have, I eagerly want to learn more from individuals active in those venues about their experiences and insights that may abate that skepticism.

Plus, it seems like the conference has seen significant turnover in attendees. It makes sense that they would want to inject it with fresh blood.

A Bleeding of Wine Bloggers

Prior to the start of this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference, Tom Wark made several poignant observations about the waning interest and declining numbers in wine blogging. While 2018 saw a little bit of a bump, Wark noted how differently the list of attendees for this year’s conference has looked compared to years past.

Those of us who have been following and reading wine blogs since their start, we can look at a partial list of attendees at the upcoming conference and notice that no more than a small handful of those folks who started out blogging during the format’s peak time of interest are attending the conference. It’s understandable. On the one hand, many of these people no longer blog. Others may still be blogging, but no longer find interest in the conference. — Tom Wark, Fermentation Wine Blog, 9/10/2018

There hasn’t been much study into why we’ve seen a steady decline of interest in wine blogs–though David Morrison of The Wine Gourd has some thoughts and data. A lot of it does seem to be the changing landscape of wine communication.

But if we’re already “bleeding out” wine bloggers, how effective will an infusion of new blood be if, instead of “clotting” the loss, we’re excluding new platelets? Will the number of other wine communicators who attend offset all the newbie wine bloggers who may now feel excluded?

That will be a challenge for Zephyr Conferences to tackle in their messaging and promotion of the newly renamed conference. Not everyone is going to share the same definition or “tasting note” of  what is welcomed as “wine media”.

Show, Don’t Tell

I don’t want this post to give the impression that I’m downplaying or denigrating the role of bloggers like myself. Nor am I saying that we’re necessarily inferior to traditional wine media. We’re still wine communicators but, the majority of us (myself included), are certainly far less established than the traditional wine media.

Photo by James Anderson. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Though sometimes you can have multi-platinum albums and still end up just being Nickelback.

It’s like the difference between a garage band and a rock star with multi-platinum albums. This is the crux of my apprehension with adopting the name of “Wine Media”.

While our “garage band” of wine bloggers are most definitely musicians like the rock stars of wine media, it feels far too presumptuous to claim the title of “rock star” on our own. This isn’t about talent or worth. It’s about proving yourself on the larger stage.

Someday I would love to be spoken of in the same breath as Allen Meadows, Tom Wark, Jamie Goode, Jancis Robinson, etc. But I would never place myself in that sentence. I need to earn my place in that peer class and pay my dues along the way.

The same day that the Wine Bloggers Conference had the panel asking the question about whether the conference was appropriately named, Lewis Perdue gave the keynote address. Stemming from his journalistic background of working at the Washington Post, Wine Business Monthly and now publishing Wine Industry Insight, a central theme of Perdue’s talk was about building trust with your readership–building credibility.

Building Credibility

This is what a musician does with every gig they play, every song they record. They don’t step out of the garage and onto the stage to tell the world that they’re a rock star. They go out and they prove it, paving the way for others to bestow that title on them.

As bloggers, we are building our credibility with every post. Some of us may be content to stay in the garage and play for family and friends. Others may want to move on to gigs that will take them to increasingly larger arenas.

Some of those bloggers may eventually become “rock stars” of wine media. But the path to that stage won’t be paved with telling the world that they’re “Wine Media”.

It will be by showing it.

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What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

Even if the collateral damage is devastating.

Updates

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

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

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

Why Is This A Big Deal?

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

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

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

Reading their stories is heartbreaking.

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

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

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

Now they have to do it all over again.

How Did the Court Find Out?

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

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

Update

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

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

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

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

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

So what could the “helpful” initials have been?

CS, CF, PN?

CB, GV, PG, SB?

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

Who Did It?

https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

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

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

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

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

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

Update

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

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

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

Distributors’ Involvement?

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

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

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

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

Update

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

Dana Gaiser of Lauber Imports in New York City, NY

Andrey Ivanov of Bliss Wine Imports in San Francisco, CA

Maximilian Kast of Broadbent Selections in Chapel Hill, NC

Douglas Kim of Picasso Las Vegas, NV

Steven McDonald of Pappas Brothers Steakhouse in Houston, TX

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

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

Another Option?

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

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

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

Threads to Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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Doubling Down On What’s Been Done Before

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

Andy Perdue of Wine Press Northwest says it time for Washington State wine producers to “double down” on Cabernet Sauvignon.

The state needs to focus, he says, much like how Oregon did several decades ago with Pinot noir.

Washington has proved it can grow several wine grape varieties very well, and in some ways this has hurt the industry, because the state hasn’t had a focus. Now, we can align ourselves with other Cab regions, including Bordeaux and Napa Valley. — Andy Perdue, 9/13/18

Now why in the hell would we want to do that?

Napa On My Mind — And The Minds Of Most Consumers

Yes, I know that Cab is still king and there is no doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon sales are still going strong. You can’t fault vineyards for planting Cabernet Sauvignon or wineries for producing it.

But what you can fault is the idea that we should start hoarding all our eggs into one Cab basket–especially a basket that is already dominated by one really large hen.

Look at any “Most Popular” list of American wines and you can easily see a stark theme.

Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant Wines of 2018.

I would definitely be impressed seeing a wine list with Woodward Canyon prominently featured.

Cakebread, Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Corison, Duckhorn, Faust, Frank Family, Heitz, Jordan, Justin, Louis M. Martini, Mount Veeder, Rodney Strong, Sequoia Grove, Silver Oak, St. Francis Winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Turnbull–all well known California Cabernet producers. Though, yes, Washington State does get a few nods with Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole 41 and Chateau Ste. Michelle (probably for their Riesling).

The Most Searched-For Cabernet Sauvignon on WineSearcher.com in 2017.

Screaming Eagle, Caymus, Scarecrow, Shafer, Dunn, Robert Mondavi and Silver Oak–all Napa Valley staples with only Penfolds 707 from Australia and Concha y Toro Don Melchor from Chile being outside Cabernets that cracked the list.

Vivino’s Top 20 Cabernet Sauvignon for Cab Day (which was apparently September 3rd)

Pretty much the same Napa-dominated list like the ones above with Quebrada De Macul’s Domus Aurea from Chile, Gramercy Cellars’ Lower East from Washington, Thelema Mountain Vineyards’s The Mint and Springfield Estate’s Whole Berry from South Africa sprinkled in for diversity.

This is not to say that Washington State can’t compete with California–in quality or in price. Lord knows we can and often exceedingly over deliver in both. Many years the state usually leads the pack in percentage of wines produced that receive 90+ scores from critics and often command a sizable chunk of year-end “Top 100” lists.

Photo a compilation of creative commons licensed images uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Perhaps the Washington State Wine Commission needs to get Steven Spurrier on the phone.

But to the vast majority of American wine buying consumers (particularly of Cabernet Sauvignon) that hardly makes a dent in their Napa-centric worldview. Pretty much since the 1976 Judgment of Paris, Cabernet Sauvignon in the United States has been synonymous with Napa Valley, California.

Of course, I’m not saying that Washington should stop producing its bounty of delicious and highly acclaimed Cabs but why should we double down on chasing a horse that has already left the stable?

The Lessons Of Oregon

To bolster his case, Perdue points to the example of Oregon which has built its brand (quite successfully) on the quality and notoriety of its Pinot noir. It’s no shock that on that same Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant List that Oregon has a healthy showing with Adelsheim Vineyard, Argyle Winery, Cristom Vineyards, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Elk Cove Vineyards and King Estate representing the state–doubling the amount of wineries that Washington has featured.

Perdue would, presumably, attribute that success to Oregon’s seemingly singular focus on Pinot noir instead of the jack-of-all-trades approach that Washington State has taken in a modern history that is pretty close to the same age.

But what I don’t think Perdue has really taken into consideration is that Oregon started doubling down on Pinot long before Pinot noir was cool.

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

Pinot noir in early veraison at Cristom Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills

In his book Oregon Wine Country Stories Kenneth Friedenreich notes that many of Oregon’s early pioneers were thought to be crazy by their neighbors and bankers when they started planting Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1980s when French producers like the Drouhin family of Burgundy took notice that the state began getting some attention on the world’s stage.

Even then, Oregon Pinot noir was still a tough sell in the domestic US market.

 

It’s hard to discount the impact that the 2004 film Sideways had on the perception of Pinot noir. As David Adelsheim noted “There were two great grapes of America [Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay], and after ‘Sideways,’ there were three,” with the Oregon wine industry reaping the benefit of sustained sales ever since.

In the game of life, when Oregon wine producers were least expecting it, they rolled a ‘7’. But they could have just as easily crapped out.

Oregon was initially betting on a long shot–not a 2 to 1 favorite like Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s crazy to think that Washington could every get the same kind of payout.

How About Betting On What’s Exciting?

Seriously, if you are not on the Washington Cab Franc train than you are lagging behind my friend!

Earlier this week Sean Sullivan of Seattle Met and Wine Enthusiast published a fantastic list of “The 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington”.

Now while there are certainly Cabs included on this list–several of which, like Passing Time and Quilceda Creek, I wouldn’t dispute–there are several wines included that are truly, genuinely exciting.

2013 Leonetti Cellar Aglianico Serra Pedace Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yes, an Aglianico! From Leonetti!

2015 Spring Valley Vineyard Katherine Corkrum Estate Grown Cabernet Franc Walla Walla Valley

The 2012 vintage of this wine was one of the best wines being poured at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting in Seattle earlier this year.

2017 L’Ecole No. 41 Old Vines Chenin blanc Columbia Valley

I’m no stranger to hollering into the void about the charms and deliciousness of Washington Chenin blanc. I love that L’Ecole is highlighting “Old Vines” on this bottle. It shows that their faith in this wonderful variety isn’t a fly-by-night fancy.

2015 Two Vintners Cinsault Make Haste Yakima Valley

Cinsault has been on my radar since attending the Hospice du Rhone seminar highlighting South African Cinsault. Obviously Washington doesn’t have anywhere close the vine age or experience but Morgan Lee of Two Vintners is an incredibly talented winemaker so it will be fun to see what he could do with the grape.

2016 Savage Grace Côt Malbec Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

Michael Savage makes some of my favorite Cabernet Francs from the Two Blondes Vineyard and Copeland Vineyard. The Boushey Vineyard is one of the grand crus of Washington. All perfect ingredients for what is likely a very kick ass wine.

2017 Syncline Winery Picpoul Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

If you’re not drinking Picpoul, is it really worth drinking anything?

2012 MTR Productions Memory Found Syrah Walla Walla Valley

This Syrah, made by Matt Reynvaan (of Reynvaan Family Vineyards fame),  is practically treated like a Brunello di Montalcino. It sees two years of oak aging followed by 3 years of bottle aging before release. A fascinating project.

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yeah, yeah the Rocks District is technically Oregon. But since the wine consuming public is too myopically focused on Oregon Pinot noir,  Washingtonians can take credit for the insane depth and character that comes out of wines from this area. At the Taste Washington “Washington vs The World Seminar” this was the run away winner at an event that featured heavy hitters like Joseph Phelps Insignia, Lynch-Bages, Sadie Family, Amon-Ra and Duckhorn Merlot.

Lessons of Oregon part II

Another lesson from Oregon that’s often overlooked is the lack of attention given to other grapes grown in the state. This was a takeaway I had from Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories that I noted in my review with the fascinating possibilities of the Southern Oregon AVAs like the Umpqua, Rogue and Applegate Valleys or the shared Columbia Gorge AVA up north with Washington.

There are over 50 grape varieties grown in Oregon–yet we really only hear about 1 to 3 of them. Sure the producers in prime Pinot country with blessed vineyards on Jory and Willakenzie soils, have a good gig right now. But the countless small wineries in other areas of the state trying to promote and sell their non-Pinot wines are facing an uphill battle.

Now What?

Does Washington State really want to  be associated with just one grape variety? With more than 70 different grape varieties, why limit ourselves?

As a Washington wine lover that adores the bounty and bevy of fantastic wines like Viognier that can compete with great Condrieu, geeky Siegerrebe and Pinot noir from the Puget Sound, Counoise rosé that echoes the grape’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape heritage and robust Malbecs that gets your mouth watering with their savory, spicy complexity, I vote no.

If are going to double down on anything then we should double down on what makes Washington, Washington.

We’re the Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis of the American wine industry. We can do it all and we can do it very, very well.

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Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

Photo from the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions

In 1915, on the eve of Prohibition in the United States, there were over 1300 breweries across the country. Collectively, they produced around 60 million barrels. While the growing behemoths of Anheuser-Busch and Pabst Brewing Company had national scale, the vast majority of these breweries were small regional players.

In 1940, seven years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, that number of breweries was nearly halved to 684. Yet the country was still producing almost 55 million barrels. However, production and distribution was rapidly being consolidated around the big breweries.

By 1980, there were only 101 breweries in the United States cranking out nearly 200 million barrels. The ten largest breweries were responsible for nearly 94% of that.

This was the state of the beer industry on the eve of the Craft Beer Movement. And it truly was a movement–one spearheaded by folks who only wanted something different from the mass proliferation of American lagers.

Chanpuru — “Something Mixed”

I’ve been binge watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, trying to get through all eight seasons on Netflix before it leaves their listings on October 1st.

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

Also good to know that the Okinawan diet includes plenty of beer!

The Season 6 episode on Okinawa, introduced chanpuru. Bourdain described this as the Okinawan idea of eating something different every day and enjoying the richness of variety.

Considering that the Okinawa diet and lifestyle is legendary for promoting long life and contentment, this was certainly a concept that resonated with me–especially being part of a generation that is notoriously “…open to new experiences, new regions and new grape varieties.”

Which brings us back to Zinfandel and the lessons of craft beer.

The craft beer category in the United States has evolved to encompass envelop-pushing styles and new ideas. However, at the root of the movement was a desire of beer lovers to get back what was lost before Prohibition.  They wanted to reclaim the traditional styles and varieties of beers that existed before.  All across the country were unique brews that were influenced by local German, Austrian, Irish and Latin immigrant communities.

The majority of beer drinkers had “moved on” and were content with their mass-produced lagers. But a tiny segment of passionate beer lovers knew that this country’s brewing heritage was a worthwhile story to explore. If the big brewers weren’t going to explore it, then these beer lovers were going to take the mantle themselves.

They not only found their chanpuru but made it their own.

Heritage Vines — Heritage Wines

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

Zinfandel vineyard first planted in 1910 in Saratoga, California. Even the “young” 1976 vines are over 40 years old.

First introduced to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Zinfandel has always been an American wine with an immigrant’s story–likely coming to the US as a Croatian vine (now known to be Crljenak Kaštelanski/Tribidrag) that was part of an Austrian nursery collection.

Once the grape reached California, it was spread widely across the state–particularly by Italian immigrants who established numerous old vine vineyards in the North Coast that are still treasured today.

The Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy, the “Father of California Viticulture,” didn’t bring Zinfandel to the US. However, as Thomas Pinney notes in his A History of Wine in America, Volume 1, Haraszthy did much to propagate and promote the variety.

By 1888, Zinfandel was the most widely planted wine grape in California with around 34,000 acres. Even after Prohibition, Zinfandel still maintained significant plantings with Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin noting in Claret and Cabs that in the mid 20th century, Zinfandel far outpaced Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley with many Napa “clarets” actually being Zin-based.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Chardonnay (and in the 1990s Cab) eventually surpassed Zinfandel as the most widely planted variety in California. However, with over 44,000 acres, Zinfandel remains the third most widely planted grape in California.

A Sleeping Giant

Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars both serve on the board of the Historic Vineyard Society. Here they are giving a presentation on old vine vineyards at the 2018 Hospice du Rhone.

Interwoven within those 44,000+ acres are plots of old vine Zinfandel that are increasingly being highlighted by wine producers and organizations like the Historic Vineyard Society.

Scattered across the state of California–from Sonoma to Amador County, Lodi to Paso Robles, Santa Clara Valley to Cucamonga Valley–each of these old vine vineyards are planted with stories that span several decades. In the case of the Zinfandel vines in the Grandpere Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, those stories have been shared for nearly 150 years.

For a generation of consumers that crave experience and authenticity, connection and chanpuru–few wines can craft a better calling card for Millennial wine drinkers than Old Vine Zin (the real stuff, not the marketing fluff–which is fodder for another post).

But are Millennial drinkers interested?

Perhaps.

Two articles that came across my Twitter dash today provoked this post. In one, Mike Veseth (@MikeVeseth) examined trends in the US Wine Market highlighted by Nielsen data was reported in Wine Business Monthly. In the other, Winesearcher.com’s Liza B. Zimmerman wrote about the big takeaways from the recent Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry report.

I found it curious that this grocery store display of “Beginner’s Wines” under $20 didn’t feature any red wines–only Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling.

After noting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay’s sustained dominance in both case volume and sales value, Veseth was surprised to find that the number one variety regarding average bottle price in the United States was Zinfandel at $11.19 a bottle–beating out Pinot noir’s $10.43 average. Along with his surprise, Veseth expressed a desire to see more research into this development.

Of course, correlation does not imply causation and all that. But maybe there is a link between this and the  Millennial “frugal hedonist” described in Zimmerman’s WineSearcher.com piece.

While the under $9 category of wines is slumping, adventurous Millennial drinkers are branching out more into the $8-14 range. Like craft beer drinkers before, Millennial drinkers are willing to spend a little bit more. But it has to be something that appeals to their wanderlust hedonism and cravings for what new and interesting.

Few varieties offer a better (or more frugal) bang for the buck in quality than Zinfandel.

Yeah….I’ve been low on Merlot. But given these options, you really can’t blame me for heading over to the Zin aisle.

There is not a huge quality gap between an $8 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot noir and a $14 example. However, when you get to Zinfandel, there is a much more noticeable jump in quality. Try tasting a $8-9 Bogle and Seven Deadly Zins against $12-14 examples from the Sobon and Maggio-Reynolds families. Even relatively large wineries like Ravenswood, Klinker Brick and St. Francis make tremendous Zins in that range.

The jump to $15-25 Zinfandels also offers exponentially higher quality than you find in Cabs, Merlot and Pinots. Offerings from wineries like Rosenblum, St. Amant, Seghesio, Truett Hurst, Carol Shelton, Ridge and Renwood are drenched in value.

Then when you start exploring the character-driven wines of single vineyard, old vine Zinfandels from producers like Turley, Bedrock, Carlisle, Bella, Robert Biale and the higher-end Ridge wines, you find heaps of wines in the $40-60 range that would blow most $100+ Napa Cabs out of the water.

Even Turley’s entry-level Juvenile Zin at $30-38 offers more character and complexity than a lot of Cabernets twice its price.

Zin-ful Thoughts Part II

Now I’m not saying that cheap, crappy Zin doesn’t exist.

If there is a dollar to be made and a brand to be mass produced, you know that one of the big mega-corps are going to capitalize on it.

Just look at what has happened to the craft beer segment which has become a feeding frenzy of acquisitions by the big beer firms trying to conquer the craft market by gobbling up brands like old European powers colonizing Africa and the New World. Just as beer drinkers have to be open-minded, but weary, so too should wine drinkers. They will always be well served by frequently asking who made the wine that is in their glass.

Still, these mass-produced (and sometimes “faux old vine”) Zins aren’t all bad. A mass-produced cheap Zin is on par with a mass-produced cheap Cab, Merlot or Pinot. If not better.

Above all, what I am saying is that there is a special heritage here in the United States with Zinfandel. It’s a heritage too valuable to be lost to the dust bin of history.

Just like craft beer drinkers reclaimed their heritage, we also have an opportunity to reclaim a bit of ours. We can stick with the same ole, same ole or add a little chanpuru to our drinking options.

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Naked and Foolish

Photo By Randy OHC - originally posted to Flickr as After the Tasting, CC BY 2.0It’s been a busy couple weeks for travel, so I missed the latest brew-ha on the Wine Twitterati.

This time it was over online UK wine retailer Naked Wines’ ad campaign on the “5 golden rules to choosing a good bottle of wine”.

The original post has since been made private, but Oliver Styles at WineSearcher.com and Joe Roberts at 1WineDude have good write-ups with details and the fall-out.

The brunt of the dust-up was over the insinuation that trusting “real customer reviews” (like those of CellarTracker, Vivino and, of course, featured on Naked Wines) is better than relying on medals awarded by wine competition or those of professional wine critics who “…need to seem useful, or they’ll be out of a job! So they invent trends and get paid to push you toward certain wines.”.

I’ve made my feelings about wine competitions known in my post Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care?.  I think Styles and Roberts more than ably dispel the notions that wine critics “create trends” to seem useful. Frankly, that idea is ludicrous.

Some of the most significant trends in wine today are the use of virtual/augmented reality labels like those pioneered by Treasury Wine Estates for their 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead and Beringer wines as well as can packaging for wine, bourbon barrel aging and wine-hybrid infusions like Apothic Brew. None of these are trends that professional wine critics would touch with a 10-foot poll–much less invent and “push.”

However, I do want to talk about the trusting “real customer reviews” part.  Is this is really a great idea?

Maybe? Because “wine people” aren’t normal.

I say that with the utmost affection as a self-proclaimed “wine geek” but it’s true. We’re not normal. Around 95%+ of wine drinkers just want to open up something tasty to drink or have with dinner. Yet, we “wine folks” obsess over the minutiae of minerality, typicity and terroir. We seek stories when regular wine drinkers just seek satisfaction. We desire depth and complexity when the average consumer wants value and consistency.

Photo by Petrovsky. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Some of us even taste with puppets. (Austrian performer Karin Schäfer)

We’re two different beasts. Considering that professional wine critics and writers surround themselves with wine for a living, it’s almost like we’re living on two different planets when you listen to “wine people” versus “wine drinkers” talk about wine.

Then you add in the inherent air of snobbery that permeates throughout the wine industry. It’s not hard to see how “regular people” can be inclined to ignore the critics in favor of the opinions of regular Joes and Janes like themselves.

I can sympathize with this view and touched on the value (or lack of value) of expert opinions in wine in my post Jamie Goode is a tool, so I’m not really going to get into a debate here about “Real People” vs. “Real Experts.”

Instead, I’m just going to lay naked my skepticism and cynicism about “crowd-based reviews” because of how easy it is for wineries and mega-corps to game and manipulate them–and, in general, how useless ratings tend to be.

Have Internet, Will Troll

There is a litany of online resources and stories about how businesses can game Yelp’s review system to improve their ratings and rankings.

The most common method is creating “fake reviews” which Yelp, being a multi-billion dollar company, dedicates millions of dollars in labor and technology resources to combat. But it still happens. Oh and never mind the potential ethical quandary with advertisers.

And it’s not just Yelp, but virtually every user-based review platform is susceptible to people playing games like TripAdvisor for restaurants and hotels or any online poll ever created.

Now ask yourself, do you think wine user-based review platforms like CellarTracker or Vivino have even a fraction of Yelp or TripAdvisor’s resources to combat gaming, rating manipulation or fake reviews?

Of course, they’re going to try their best, but the Internet will always be better. Any winery or mega-corporation with a little time/marketing budget/interns/desire can draft a plan to create enough accounts and reviews to drive the narrative they want to be told.

It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either

Confession time–I regularly use CellarTracker. I don’t post reviews there, but I’ll read the reviews of friends I know and sometimes use their feedback to make purchasing decisions. I’ll also use it gauge drinking windows of wines that I already own since the likelihood of a fake winery review saying “Yeah, you better wait 2-3 years before opening this up. It was super tight”–is pretty low.

I downloaded and played with Vivino a few times (and still have the app on my phone), but the amount of eye-rollingly bad 3.5-4.0 rated wines has dismayed me of its usefulness. I do agree with The Wine Daily though that most of the wines with meager ratings (like 2.5 or less) tend to bear out.

But I’ve had tons of truly stellar wines in that “no man’s land” rating of 2.6 to 3.4. Yet these wines are often overlooked because 3.5 is the “new 90 points”. This is one of the many reasons why I eschew the use of numerical ratings and instead evaluate wines on value.

And then there are 29,000+ people with different tastes in wine.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way (that I know of) on apps like Vivino to personalize ratings and filter out people who give high scores to wines you don’t enjoy.

Even when we let the masses of “regular wine drinkers” indulge in their inner Robert Parkers, we still end up with the same pratfalls that we get with professional critics. Good wine still gets overlooked if it doesn’t achieve some magical number.

That’s not democracy, that’s duplicity.

Moral of the Story — Trust yourself

The only fail-safe method of buying wine is to accept that there isn’t a fail-safe. A highly rated wine (regardless of who or what is giving the rating) is not a guarantee of anything. It’s kind of like finding out Santa isn’t real, I know, but instead of despairing, this instead should be freeing. Life is about trying new things and if you’re not beholden to rankings or ratings, then you have a whole world of wine in front you to explore.

Sure, a review or word of mouth recommendation may have steered you towards that path. That’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that. But ultimately in deciding that this new thing was now a personal favorite you didn’t default back to their judgment. Instead, you made up your mind that this was something wonderful that you wanted to experience again.

The One Universal Truth

Here’s one universal truth to cling to–everything, and I mean everything, that you ever fell in love with started at one point as something you hadn’t tried yet.

Your favorite experience, food, musician, movie and, yes, wine began at some point as something new to try. The only way you ever discovered these joys and pleasures was by putting a foot forward and taking a chance.

That is why you shouldn’t be afraid to branch out and try something that hasn’t been reviewed or doesn’t have the magical 90+ points/3.5 ratings. Whether one critic or a 1000 internet strangers reviewed the wine, none of them are going to have the same palate as you. And not a single one is going to be giving you their wallet to make the purchase.

Everything always falls back to you and that is why you, and only you, are the best judge of what you should be drinking.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/6/18 — Reverse French Paradox, Damaged Wines and Washington Vineyards

Photo by Alec Vuijlsteke. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

In France, is wine still a national treasure? Or is it a health risk? by James McAuley at The Washington Post. Brought to my dash via Eric Orange of LocalWineEvents.com (@worldwineevents)

Apparently the health minister of the country that gave us the French Paradox is railing against the consumption of any type of alcohol, including wine, touting the bold statement that “’In moderation’ shouldn’t be used anymore”. Yikes! Needless to say French vignerons (and the French President) aren’t pleased.

Personally, I think that while we shouldn’t sugarcoat the negative impacts of alcohol consumption, I firmly believe that “In Moderation” is a vital outlook for all things in life–including wine.

Damaged Wines to Hit the Market by W. Blake Gray (@wblakegray) for WineSearcher.com (@WineSearcher). Brought to my dash via Rabbit Ridge Winery (@RabbitRidgeWine).

Kind of like with used cars, wine buyers should be mindful of the possibility of hurricane, flood and fire damage wines hitting the market. Gray gives a lot of great tips from expert Maureen Downey (@moevino) on what to keep an eye out for. I found this quote from Gray the most helpful.

Photo by Mario Fornasari from Ferrara, Italy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

I would probably give wines that survive an earthquake a few weeks to recover from the “bottle shock” as well.

It’s important to note that heat-damaged wine is not immediately ruined. Heat affects the tannin structure of wine in unpredictable ways.

Some wines might even taste better shortly after being exposed to heat, but they will not last long in the cellar. Downey said when she knows she has a heat-damaged wine, sometimes she shrugs her shoulders, drinks it and wonders what it might have been if properly stored.

— W. Blake Gray, March 6th, 2018

This is a takeaway you can use even if you have the unfortunate incident of “wine trapped in a hot trunk” during the summer. Accept that you probably lost some positive attributes. Give it at least a week to settle from the shock and plan to drink it soon. While miracles do exist and potentially the wine could still age and give pleasure, it’s better to err on the side of caution and enjoy it sooner rather than later.

Taste Washington Wine Month

While doing some research for my 60 Second Review of the Gifford Hirlinger Malbec, I stumbled across the very cool website Everyvine.com! I haven’t fully explored the site yet but I totally geeked out on their vineyard search feature.

Here is a detailed Google Map image of 102.55 acres of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Here’s Owen Roe’s Outlook Vineyard.

Here’s Pepper Bridge Vineyard.

You can zoom in on particular blocks and see where the different varieties are planted, get details about climate, topography and soils. Lots of fun stuff!

Washington wine grape 2017 harvest down by 16 percent by Andy Perdue (@GreatNWWine) for Great Northwest Wine. Brought to my dash via WinesNorthwest (@WinesNorthwest).

The headline sounds more jarring than it really is. Yes, the 2017 harvest was down but it was down compared to the record setting 2016 harvest that was the largest in Washington State history. Even Perdue notes in the 2nd paragraph that 2017 still tied 2014 for the second largest harvest in state history.

In a tweet reply, Lagana Cellars from Walla Walla (@LaganaCellars) highlights this and also gives some great insight about the vintage.

BTW, if you are not following Lagana Cellars on Twitter, you should. Like Rabbit Ridge Winery that I linked to above, I find lots of great content and behind-the-scene perspective from these winery accounts. They have great social media people running them. If you are in Washington, definitely check out Lagana’s wines as well. They were one of the stand-outs at my recent Walla Walla tasting. Haven’t had Rabbit Ridge yet but I’m sure I’ll rectify that in April when I’m down in Paso Robles.

But, headline and tweets aside, the big reason I linked to the Perdue article above was this fascinating little nugget about Riesling.

Riesling fell to 33,000 tons from 41,300. This is widely viewed as a market correction by Chateau Ste. Michelle, the world’s largest Riesling producer.

Whoa! When Chateau Ste. Michelle is pulling up Riesling vines, something is going on. I kind of get the idea of “market correction” but it doesn’t feel like we’re at a market saturation point for Riesling. If anything, I would think we’re getting close to being over saturated with Cabernet Sauvignon but Cab is Still King and still being planted like crazy.

This thing with Riesling is something worth exploring a little more. This year’s Riesling Rendezvous is in Australia with the event coming back to Chateau Ste. Michelle in 2019. I wonder if we’ll have more clarity about this “market correction” by then.

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Geeking out with Taupenot-Merme Gevrey-Chambertin Bel Air

Going to need more than 60 seconds to geek out over the 2009 Domaine Taupenot-Merme Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Bel Air.

The Background

Domaine Taupenot-Merme is a 7th generation family estate based in Morey St.-Denis ran by siblings Romain and Virginie. The estate covers 32 acres in both the Côtes de Nuits and Côtes de Beaune including plots in the Grand Cru vineyards of Charmes-Chambertin, Mazoyères-Chambertin (Taupenot-Merme being one of the few estates to bottle these Grand Crus separately), Clos de Lambrays (the only other estate outside of the eponymous clos to own a piece of this Morey-St-Denis Grand Cru) and Corton in the Le Rognet climat.

According to Bruce Sanderson of Wine Spectator, until 1988 the estate did all their vine propagation and rootstock grafting in house, carefully selecting massale clones from their best vines. Since 2001, all the vineyards have been farmed organically.

For winemaking, the grapes get around 10 days cold soaking before fermentation with the estate using wild, indigenous cultures for both primary and malolactic fermentation. Fermentation is done in stainless steel with a mixture of punch downs and pump overs before the wines are transferred to barrel where they see 12-15 months aging before spending their last 3 months in tank prior to bottling. The amount of new oak each wine receives varies, ranging from 25% for village level to 40% for Grand Crus. Premier Cru wines, like the Gevrey-Chambertin Bel Air, usually see about 30% new oak. The wines are bottled without any fining or filtering.

The Vineyard

https://www.winescholarguild.org/programs/bourgogne-master-level-program/bourgogne-master-level-program.html

The Premier Cru vineyard of Bel Air surrounded by the Grand Crus of Gevrey Chambertain.
The pink line highlights the up-slope part of the vineyard that is village level.
Photo taken from screenshot of The Wine Scholar Guild’s Master Burgundy Course.

The Bel Air vineyard is located in an enviable position up-slope of the esteemed Grand Cru Chambertin-Clos de Bèze with 6.6 acres classified as Premier Cru.

The high altitude vines and rocky, oolithic limestone-rich soils tend to do particularly well in warm vintages (like 2009) where it can maintain fresh acidity. The vines are at the same altitude as much of the Grand Cru of Ruchottes-Chambertain and parts of Latricières-Chambertin but Bel Air is much more heavily shaded by forests and sits on a steeper slope which impacts the amount of direct sunlight the vines receive. Though the most heavily shaded plots are not permitted to Premier Cru classification but rather village level Gevrey-Chambertin.

As with a lot of Burgundy, it is hard to know exactly how many growers own pieces of a particular vineyard. Matt Kramer’s 1990 book Making Sense of Burgundy, list 11 owners with the family of Jean-Claude Boisset owning the largest segments with 1.5 acres. Domaine Taupenot-Merme’s 0.9 acre holdings in the Premier Cru were mostly planted in 1973 and produce around 205 cases of wine.

On WineSearcher.com, you can find several offerings of Bel Air Gevrey-Chambertin from producers like Domaine de la Vougeraie (ave price $73), Philippe Pacalet (ave price $123) and Domaine Philippe Charlopin-Parizot (ave price $79).

The Wine

Photo by Nissy-KITAQ. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The floral earthy component of this wines makes you feel like you are walking through a botanical forest.

Medium intensity with pop and pour. A mix of red and dark fruits with a tinge of sweet baking spices like cinnamon and allspice. Tossed in a decanter and after an hour, WOW! The aromatics jack it up to high intensity with the fruit becoming more defined as a mix of dark plums and red cherries. The spice is also more pronounced and is joined with a floral earthy component, like walking through a botanical forest.

On the palate there is silkiness to the mouthfeel with the ripe tannins but medium-plus acidity keeps it feeling very fresh. The fruit carries through but the spice notes get a little more quiet as the floral earthy notes come to the forefront and linger for a very long finish.

The Verdict

This is a wine with a lot of layers and while it was drinking gorgeously, I can’t help but feel like I opened it up too young. It probably has the legs to keep on developing for another 5-7 years easily.

The wine is averaging around $108 on WineSearcher.com but I was able to pick it up at a local wine shop for $90. That is a screaming deal for how scrumptious this Burg is drinking and I’m sincerely regretting not buying more. Even at $108, it is a very compelling bottle and one of those wines that screams “Yes, this is what high quality Burgundy is about!”

If you can find this bottle, nab it.

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Wine Clubs Done Right

It all started with a tweet.

Terret noir!?!

I was only familiar with this grape as one of the obscure little brother varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For some added geekiness, courtesy of Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the noir is a color mutation of the Terret grape with blanc and gris versions as well. Apparently, in the 1950s, Terret gris was the most widely planted grape variety in the Languedoc with over 20,000 acres!

Who knew? But now there are only around 257 acres of Terret gris left with approximately 3500 and 460 acres of Terret blanc and noir respectively.  I was excited to read about Tablas Creek’s version of this obscure grape. I visited Tablas Creek several years ago where I geeked out over their nursery of Rhone varieties, taking many leaf and vine pictures that I uploaded to Wikipedia (as Agne27). I’ve always been impressed with Tablas Creek’s effort to introduced new varieties to the American consumer.

So I tweeted my enthusiasm and went to Tablas Creek’s website to see what they had available.

Petit Manseng! Clairette blanche! Picardan! and, of course, Terret noir. But there was a catch—beyond many of them being sold out. Most of these uber geeky bottlings were limited to members of Tablas Creek’s wine clubs.

Instead of being bummed, my reaction was to appreciate the brilliance and good business sense. My biggest gripes about wine clubs, and why I join very few of them, is that they rarely offer compelling value.

What makes a wine club appealing to join?

Wine industry folks talk ad infinitum about how to improve wine clubs to encourage more sign-ups. It is no secret that the financial stability of consistent wine club sales is essential to many small wineries’ bottom line. With so many things competing for a consumer’s wallet, how does a winery entice folks to join?

Well for me, my decision to ultimately sign up for the Tablas Creek wine club was driven by three factors.

1.) How easy can I get your wines at home?
Photo taken by myself (as Agne27) on Wikimedia Commons

I live a little closer to Beaucastel in Seattle at around 8600km than Tablas Creek is to their partner estate. But I have no problem finding bottles of Ch. Beaucastel.

This is a big reason why I don’t join the wine clubs of many Washington (especially those in Woodinville) and Oregon wineries. Living in Seattle with an abundance of wine shops and tasting rooms close by, I can get most any wine I want from these local wineries. Yes, getting a 10-25% discount and invitation to “members only” events is nice but what is more appealing is access and exclusivity. This is where I tip my hat to Tablas Creek for their impressive selection of “Members Only” wines.

This created value in my mind because I wanted access to these wines. I want to try a Terret noir. I want a varietal Picardin. Even if I lived right next store to Tablas Creek, I still couldn’t get these wines easily if I wasn’t a member. That’s a strong incentive for a wine consumer like me.

Yes, I know plenty of my local Washington and Oregon wineries have “Members Only” bottlings, but very, very few of those wineries put them front and center on their wine shop page or highlight them as much as they should. And, truthfully, many of these “Members Only” bottlings are not that exciting compared to what the winery is already producing.

More than “Members Only”

A special one barrel “Members Only” blend? Um, okay that could be great but your regular red blend that I can buy is pretty darn good so why should I buy the whole cow and join your club when I’m already happy with the chocolate milk?

Now a three bottle “Members Only” set of the same grape variety but from 3 different clones, three different vineyards or 3 different kinds of oak barrels–THAT’S intriguing. That is not something I can regularly get from yours or any other winery. That’s something with compelling value and exclusivity.

In the case of Tablas Creek, I would have to do a fair amount of hunting on WineSearcher.com to find a bottle of Terret noir. While I can get their Esprit de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas blends at local wine shops, with these obscure varietal bottlings their wine club provides a chance to get something above and beyond their typical retail offering.

That’s intriguing. That’s worth buying the cow.

2.) How many bottles am I committing myself to?

But to be honest, I don’t really want a whole damn cow.

Frankly, I’m a bit of a slutty boozer that likes to play the field with many different types of wines and alcoholic beverages. Just peruse the archives of this “wine blog,” and you will see. For every couple of wine-related posts I do, I’m just as likely to post about a whiskey like the Edradour 10 year or a beer like the Bourbon County series from Goose Island.

I want to commit, but I’m truly only faithful to my wife.

That is why flexibility with wine clubs is so vital. Here, again, I’ll tip my hat to Tablas Creek for offering options of 6, 12 and 24 bottle commitments. Each tier has its ancillary perks, letting consumers pick just how much cow they want to bring home. Starting with a six-bottle a year commitment is not going to tie down my wine racks.

But I decided to go with the 12 bottle VINsider tier because A.) I saw 12 bottles on their shop page alone that I want to drink and B.) It seemed like having “Shipment wines specially selected by our winemakers” increased my odds of getting the geeky bottles I want.

3.) How likely is the style of wine going to change?

Though I do wonder what happened to this potted Grenache blanc vine. Is it still chilling outside the tasting room? Or did it grow up to be a big boy vine in the vineyard?


In our tumultuous era of mergers and winery acquisitions by big mega-corps, there is always a chance that your favorite winery is going to sell out. That potentially could mean a new style of wine driven more by focus groups rather than a focus on terroir. While I know that doesn’t matter to everyone, it matters to me and how I spend my money. Sometimes it is not even an acquisition that changes a style but rather a winemaker moving on with the new winemaker doing things just a little bit too different for your taste.

As a newbie wine lover, I learned this lesson the hard way when I first moved to Washington State in 2004. I fell in love with the wines of David Lake at Columbia Winery and joined their club. Failing health caused Lake to retire in 2006 with him passing away in 2009. Of course, you can’t blame the winery or David for that but the style of the new winemaker, Kerry Norton, just wasn’t to my taste. It took a year’s worth of unexciting wine club shipments for us to finally realize that the style had changed and wasn’t coming back, leading us to quit the club. This was before Gallo later bought Columbia and took it even further away from David Lake’s style.

Change happens. I get it. But if I’m going to invest in a wine club, I want to wager on one that I’m confident that I’ll be liking their wines for a while.

Looking at Tablas Creek’s website, I got a lot of comfort seeing the continuity of their leadership, viticulture and winemaking team. Many of the same people that were making those delicious wines I tried on my visit in 2012 are still there six years later.

That makes Tablas Creek feel like a solid bet of being a winery that I’m going to enjoy being part of their wine club.

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