Mar 262013
 
UGC Tasting San Francisco

Photo Credit: Richard Jennings – Huffington Post

The Garden Court at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco began life nearly 140 years ago as an open-air courtyard where well-to-do guests could alight from their horse-drawn carriages. Modeled on the architecture of the Paris Opera House, the Palace enclosed the courtyard in 1904 and covered it with a glorious expanse of Belle Epoque stained glass. Today the Garden Court is a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch to hotel guests. But on January 18, 2013 the Garden Court is closed for a private event.

Twenty-four hours earlier, more than one hundred and ten owners and winemakers of the top chateaux in Bordeaux left their homes to drive to the airport, where they would catch a plane for London Heathrow. In all, between flights, connection times, and airport shuttles, they would be eighteen hours in transit before reaching the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, just in time for dinner on January 17th.

By eight o’clock the next morning the Garden Court is a flurry of activity. Fifty-five tables are draped with white linen and arranged throughout the room, each to be shared by two of the chateaux. The sequence must be matched exactly to the catalog, with each sub-region of Bordeaux in alphabetical order. The regions themselves follow a pattern: from Graves and Pessac-Leognan to St. Emilion and Pomerol, through the Médoc, and finally Sauternes. It’s a grand tour of France’s greatest wine region.

A team of sommeliers and wine students works its way around the room, carefully setting each place with a table sign for the chateau, a burgundy napkin, two wine glasses, a bottle of water, the name tag for the chateau owner, and a list of the trade and media who are planning to attend. Another team is breaking down three pallets of Bordeaux from the now-famous 2010 vintage, delivering the cases to the appropriate tables, and placing three bottles of red wine next to each winery sign. For those chateaux with white wine, only one bottle of it is put on the table; the rest are placed in ice in the bus tubs behind. Corks are pulled on two of the red bottles at each chateau, to allow the wine to breathe. Each table setting is exactly the same.

The tasting will begin at 1:00 p.m., and by 12:30 the room is perfect. A few chateau owners stop in briefly on their way to get a quick bite of lunch before the crowds arrive. A frantic text message arrives from Bordeaux:  one chateau owner’s flight was delayed, and she won’t arrive until after the tasting has started. She promises a couple of bottles of her Margaux to the sommelier who volunteers to pour for her until she arrives. There is no shortage of volunteers.

At 12:50 the chateau owners begin to arrive at the Garden Court. Outside, a crowd of more than 200 importers, distributors, restaurateurs, retailers and media have already registered and are anxiously waiting to get in. The last few chateau owners push their way through the crowd and take their positions at their tables.

At one o’clock, the members of the crowd walk briskly into the Garden Court, glasses in hand, and work their way around the tables. It’s a constant stream of traffic that won’t slow down for the four hours of the tasting. In all, more than 600 wine trade members attend the tasting, and there is rarely more than a minute or two when a chateau owner is not pouring a wine or talking to someone. Larger crowds gather at some of the more famous wines, but every chateau has its fans. During the last hour of the tasting, the crowd slowly lays siege to the Sauternes producers. At five o’clock, when the tasting ends, they are standing five or six deep at each of the five tables there.

By five-fifteen, the room is empty of both chateau owners and tasters. The hotel staff hurries in, clearing the tables of empty bottles, and replacing any stained linens. The chateau owners race to the bar, where they hope to get a quick bite to eat. A new set of wines arrives and is delivered to the tables.

At six o’clock, the consumer portion of the tasting begins, with another 300 people—top customers of a local retailer. Each chateau owner is back at his or her station for another two hours. Many follow that with a winemaker dinner at a local restaurant, and don’t fall into bed until midnight.

The next day they leave early for Los Angeles, where they pour at a consumer tasting for more than 2,000 people that afternoon. January 20th is a travel day to New York, followed by a trade tasting in the ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square on Monday, with more than 900 top trade in attendance. One hour later, the consumer tasting brings another 300 wine lovers into the hotel. Winemaker dinners fill more than twenty restaurants in Manhattan that night.

In Chicago, the legendary Drake Hotel has their staff set up the Gold Room the night before to make sure that everything goes smoothly. A malfunction in the fire sprinkler system soaks one end of the room in the middle of the night. The staff works through the night, and by 11:00 a.m., when a few Bordelais arrive to inspect, the room is flawless. The trade tasting packs the room to its limits for four hours, and an hour later the largest retailer in Chicago has 350 more customers march through the doors. There are winemaker dinners in Chicago as well.

The group leaves early the next morning to fly to Washington, DC, for a consumer and trade tasting in the nation’s capital, followed by Toronto and Montreal in the next two days. The following day they fly home, via Heathrow, into the winter weather of France.

The trip lasts ten days and visits seven cities, with two of the days dedicated to transatlantic flights. More than 2,500 people attend the trade tastings, as well as another 3,000 at the consumer events, not including the more than fifty winemaker dinners.

Sixteen days later, one hundred and five chateau owners fly to China.

Mar 182013
 

FacepalmIf you’re going to stage a blind tasting (or any other type of event, for that matter), you should do it right or not at all. Veuve Ambal’s Battle of the Bubbles left a bad taste in my mouth and it had nothing to do with the wine.

Members of the press were invited to “an exceptional and unique blind tasting of sparkling wines from Bugundy…” It turned out to be quite exceptional – exceptionally poorly run. Unfortunately, an event that held such promise became a lesson in too much and too few at all the wrong times.

After explaining that the wine was produced in the same manner as that of Champagne (Méthode Traditionnelle), the invitation posed the question, “Are you ready to challenge your expectations about Champagne and be amazed by a sparkling wine from Burgundy?” I was suitably intrigued and looked forward to the challenge. Would I be able to spot the Burgundian sparkler among its Champagne colleagues? I wasn’t sure, but I was curious to find out.

When I arrived I found only a few colleagues assembled, but, over the next 20 minutes it became extremely crowded. Relegated to the bar area in the front of the restaurant (the remainder of the restaurant was off-limits as the staff prepared for that night’s dinner service), there was insufficient room to move.  And, quite a few folks were obliged to stand. [Maybe they thought it was a Battle of the Bands?] So, we kicked off the event with too little space and too many people. Not an auspicious start, but I continued to keep an open mind.

After sitting around waiting for the masses, we were eventually formally welcomed and the event’s format was clarified. Each participant would receive a single flute, go up to the bar and have the first sample poured for them, at which point, they would taste the wine, before asking for the second blind sample. Everyone had been given a card on which to rank their preferences from 1 to 5 (with 1 being one’s favorite and 5 the least favorite).

Attendees were further advised that their rankings would be tabulated, with the results and all of the wines’ identities to be revealed via e-mail a few days later. [Another pet peeve was the misspelling of Nicolas Feuillatte in that e-mail, but I digress.]

The format itself posed its own problems; chief among them was too few glasses. Allocating each person with a single glass meant that we didn’t have the opportunity to truly comparison taste. Even when taking careful tasting notes, it is always preferable to be able to taste all of the wines together to be able to fully evaluate the nuances among them. [A point which is presumably important if the event is intended for people to rank the wines against one another!]

Even more egregious was the choice of stemware. The flutes were not at all conducive to evaluative tasting. Their hollow stems potentially caused people to warm the wine unintentionally simply by holding the glass. Moreover, the pours were quite small, which while not a complaint on its own, meant that most of the wine sat in the narrow stem instead of the glass’ bowl, making it extremely challenging to adequately assess the wines’ aromas. [Again, an important point unless I am I missing something here?]

Additionally, getting out from my table was simply impossible and even my colleague, who graciously schlepped from the bar to the table and back again, had difficulty getting past people without bumping into them or spilling wine. On occasion, we did luck out when the proprietor of the winery walked around with the next sample and poured at the tables, saving us from having to negotiate the crowds, but this was haphazard at best.

Equally haphazard was the passing of hors d’oeuvres. The event was held at Petrossian, a high-end New York restaurant known for caviar. While I know there is significant debate in some circles about whether Champagne (or similar sparkling wines) and caviar really are a match made in heaven, I was more than prepared to do some field research. But while servers were seen with trays of smoked salmon, caviar blinis and caviar mousse, after visiting our table once or twice, were never heard from again. Consequently, we each had a single taste of the three different canapés and I think we were the lucky ones. As veteran journalists, we didn’t expect a full meal (and certainly not one of caviar), but thought it was really strange to host the event at this particular venue if too little food would be served. [Perhaps we could at least have had some neutral crackers or bread on the table to cleanse our palates in between tasting?]

A few days later the e-mail arrived and I was quite surprised by the results, which placed Veuve Cliquot first, followed by the Veuve Ambal. While my table may not have been a representation of the total group, none of us had spoken favorably about the (then unknown) sample of Veuve Ambal. In fact, I had it dead last in my line-up. But, frankly, the results weren’t really a concern.

At the end of it all, I did discover that I have a preference for Moet & Chandon’s Imperial Brut, but would be nearly as pleased with Taittinger Brut. And, I’m still waiting to conduct that caviar-Champagne tasting research should anyone need a volunteer! I might even be willing to re-taste the Veuve Ambal under more conducive circumstances, but I will definitely think twice about attending any future battles.

Mar 142013
 
DLW Conference

Photo Credit: Christian Schiller

The morning program is set for the fifth annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland on April 13, 2013.

The conference will open for registration at 8:00 am with light refreshments and a continental breakfast. The following sessions will begin at 9:00 am.

Session 1

9:00 am – 9:45 am

Creating Maryland’s Wine Identity

The history of Maryland wine from the 1940s to the present, which grapes grow well here and where, and what styles of wine are prospering.

Moderator: Richard Leahy, author, Beyond Jefferson’s Vines.

Panelists: Marguerite Thomas, author, Touring East Coast Wine Country; Robert Deford, owner, Boordy Vineyards; Dr. Joe Fiola, Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, University of Maryland.

 

Session 2

10:00 am – 10:45 am

Drinking Local

Does locavore mean locapour? Do Marylanders appreciate their home-grown wine, and if not, how to get the message out.

Moderator: Dave McIntyre, Washington Post wine columnist, Drink Local Wine co-founder.

Panelists: Jerry Pellegrino, chef, Waterfront Kitchen; Jade Ostner, Director of Events, Maryland Wineries Association; Al Spoler, co-host, Cellar Notes/Radio Kitchen, WYPR Radio.

 

Session 3

11:00 – 11:45 am

Maryland’s New Guard

Who is setting the quality standard for Maryland wine today? What new grapes, trends or wine regions will we be following in the years to come?

Moderator: Kevin Atticks, executive director, Maryland Wineries Association.

Panelists: Ed Boyce, founder, Black Ankle Vineyards; Tom Shelton, owner and winemaker, Bordeleau Vineyards & Winery; Dave Collins, co-owner, Big Cork Vineyards.

An elegant lunch using fresh, local Maryland ingredients paired with select Maryland wines will follow the morning sessions.

Registration for the full conference is $125 and includes a continental breakfast; entry to all sessions; lunch with paired tasting of Maryland wine; and the Grand Tasting of Maryland Wines and Twitter Taste-off. Tickets are also available for the Grand Tasting only for $40.

To attend the conference, you may visit http://www.marylandwine.org/dlwc13 to register and find out more information.

Mar 052013
 

Drink Maryland WineI’ve been involved in Drink Local Wine since it’s inception several years ago, and am now President of the Board of Directors.

Drink Local Wine is an organization founded on the principal that there are great wines to be found everywhere, not just in the best known regions. A non-profit organization, the DLW mission is to promote the wines of these lesser known regions throughout the United States and Canada.  The brainchild of Washington Post writer Dave McIntyre and Jeff Siegel, who writes the Wine Curmudgeon blog, the organization holds two major events each year — a conference spotlighting regional wine and Regional Wine Week.

DLW will hold its fifth annual conference in about six weeks in Baltimore, focusing on Maryland wine. The state’s industry is one of the fastest growing in the country, and its 61 wineries are almost 50 percent more than in 2010.

The state’s four growing regions allow it to produce a variety of wines, including the classic European varietals but also some that are distinctly New World in style. The Maryland Winery Association is the conference’s primary sponsor.

Panels of speakers will discuss the winemaking region’s history, challenges, trends and more in three (possibly four) morning seminars. Then an elegant lunch with local ingredients will be paired with select Maryland wines.

In the afternoon, we taste through the state’s portfolio of wines and report our findings to the world via the unique feature of DLW conferences, the Grand Tasting and Twitter Taste-Off. Over 20 of Maryland’s most award-winning wineries will be participating in the fifth annual Twitter Taste-off at The Warehouse at Camden Yards. It’s a chance to sip, tweet, and tell the world about Maryland wine. Participants will taste a wide variety of Maryland’s most desired wines, and report their experiences to the world.

Tickets are on sale for the conference; you may register by visiting the DLW page on the Maryland Wine Association website.

The conference will take place on April 13th at the Tremont Suites Hotel in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. You can find more information here.

 

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