Nov 072012
 

ExhaustedI can’t tell you how many people have told me that they want my job.   And two weeks ago, I was open to offers.  I started by flying to NY for the Simply Italian tastings.  That meant that I got up at 4:30 PDT to catch a flight to NY.  The next day I was up at 5:00 PDT to  race over to the NY Public Library to start getting the tastings organized.  Among other things, I introduced the first speaker, my old friend Riccardo Riccicurbastro from Franciacorta, and also give the last seminar, on the wines of the Veneto.  In between I was running upstairs (seminars) and down (grand tastings) as needed.  Did I mention that we were also organizing a film shoot for the wines of Friuli there?  That night, I was at A Voce for a magnificent dinner with the Grandi Marchi wineries—and back to the hotel around 11 p.m..

So far, so good, right?

Next day, up at the crack of dawn to catch an early flight back to California, so that I could get some work done and teach my class at Napa Valley College that evening.  The class ended at 9:30.  That was a long day.  And it was made even longer by the fact that I raced back to the airport after class to catch a red-eye leaving SFO at 11:45 pm for Chicago, so that we could do the whole Simply Italian event all over again in the Windy City.   I arrived at the Hotel Sax in Chicago at 6:30 a.m. and had a breakfast meeting.  And yes, we also did the video shoot in Chicago.  By the time I wrapped up the Veneto session, I was pretty darn tired.  And that’s when the Grand Tasting began.  Four hours later, all of it on my feet, and I was ready to clean up the ballroom, and take the film crew to dinner.  Steak, of course.  It was Chicago.

In bed by 10 p.m., and the next morning I was back at O’Hare to catch a flight to SFO and drive home.

Four days.  Four flights.  Almost 10,000 miles. Three cities, two seminars, two introductions, one night class, two Grand Tastings, three business dinners (and a breakfast), two video projects (including two interviews with me) and one red-eye.

I slept pretty well on Thursday night.

Jul 192012
 

Wine JudgingThe world of wine can seem quite glamorous – jaunting off to Italy or France to taste wines with some of the world’s most highly respected winemakers, enjoying dinners at top-rated restaurants and just generally basking in the glow of vaunted vineyards and scenic countryside. What’s not to like?

But, it can also be hard work. No, I’m not asking for sympathy (you can dismiss the violins); I know I live a “winederful” life. Yet, it’s not all truffles, roses and cherries.

Well, actually, that’s not entirely true either. In mid-May, I found myself tasting through hundreds of samples of Nebbiolo, a grape variety which is generally characterized by its aromas and flavors of truffles, roses and cherries. But, even with such a well regarded grape in my glass, it wasn’t as thrilling as you might expect.

On Monday morning, I was perched at a white-clothed table, fully set with five Riedel stems, a water glass, a bottle each of still and sparkling water and a bundle of breadsticks nestled in a napkin. This being my first visit to Alba in Piedmont, Italy for Nebbiolo Prima, I wasn’t sure what to expect next.

My fellow journalists were similarly seated while members of the Italian Sommelier Society, in crisp black uniforms, prepared bottles of wine on a central table. Each bottle was equally clothed in black with a bag pulled to the neck to hide the wine’s identity, designated only by a single number written in white.

After being given a small amount of wine with which to prepare (rinse) our glasses, the spectacle began. Tasting the wines poured in flights of five, we proceeded to taste a total of 67 wines. And, this wasn’t any ordinary tasting. These were the newest releases of Nebbiolo hailing from the DOCGs of Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo. In other words, VERY YOUNG, VERY TIGHT, VERY TANNIC, TEETH-STAINING Nebbiolo.

Taste, spit, taste, spit, taste, spit (with some notes scribbled in between each taste and spit session) continued for nearly three hours, punctuated only by the occasional gulp of water, bite of breadstick or enforced pause while you waited for someone to bring you an empty spit bucket. Very glamorous, no? After the 67th wine, we were excused for lunch and other activities, but the same procedure was repeated the next day.

Whereas Monday focused on Roero 2009, Roero Riserva 2008 and Barbaresco 2009, Tuesday concluded the 2009 Barbarescos and introduced the Barbaresco Riserva 2007s and Barolo 2008s. By Wednesday, it was all Barolo 2008, all the time, which continued into Thursday. Thursday also offered up a “pleasant” surprise with an additional 10 wines, bringing that day’s tally to 80 samples. Those last ten were a struggle, but I trudged through knowing that the producers of those ten wines weren’t to blame (and, thus, shouldn’t be penalized) for their placement in the tasting lineup. To say I had palate fatigue would be the understatement of the year – I had palate coma.

About a third of the way through the tasting on Friday, we shifted to Barolo Riserva 2006, concluding with a final count of 350 samples tasted over the five days (excluding those tasted outside of the formal proceedings). At this point, I was strongly considering moving my semi-annual dental appointment up a few weeks to be certain that I hadn’t sustained any permanent damage to my teeth.

For me, the experience and exercise of tasting the wines at this early stage in their development was a challenge. I did find wines I preferred more than others (and a few I outright disliked) and saw some patterns emerge among samples from the various vintages and communes. However, it was not nearly as instructive as the tastings that took place during our visits to the wineries or while dining at local restaurants with the winemakers themselves. Admittedly, these latter activities are more relaxing, but, more importantly, they bring the people and the place to life, which is what truly makes all of the days and days of wine and roses worthwhile.

Jun 152012
 
Virginia Vineyards

View from the top of Tranquility Vineyards, operated by 8 Chains North.

California is the de facto king (or queen) of U.S. wine regions, if by no other measurement than the sheer volume of wine the state produces and the quantity of wineries producing it. It is not, however, the nations only, nor is it the oldest wine region (commercially speaking). Long before the Mondavis, Beringers, and Sebastianis made California wine famous on the West Coast, there had been may attempts (and a few successes) at making wine on the East Coast.

The history of winemaking east of the Mississippi finds it’s origin in early colonial times. Thomas Jefferson was an acknowledged francophile and loved French wines. It’s well documented that he tried to plant his own vineyards at Monticello, but ultimately proved unsuccessful at the attempt. There were several reason, not least of which was the then unknown presence of Phylloxera in that particular part of the country.  Jefferson was not the only one to experiment with growing wine grapes in Virginia. As author Todd Kliman points out in his book The Wild Vine, Dr. Daniel Norton was ultimately successful at hybridizing grapes that could produce commercially viable wines. Since then, as a wine producing area, Virginia has proven to be an area where a little bit of luck and hard work can really pay off. Richard Leahy, in his recent book Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, documents the successes (and failures) of Virginia wine producers quite extensively.

Boxwood Winery

Boxwood Winery is one of the better producers of quality wines in Virginia.

So it was, this spring I found myself in the company of several dozen wine writers and bloggers at the 2012 edition of Taste Camp East in Northern Virginia, experiencing the region for myself. This had not been my first adventure to the area on a wine visit, but I was impressed none-the-less. They are making some really fine wine in Virginia. Like any region, there are hits and misses (Don’t let anyone try to tell you that all California wine producers are good). But, as a group, the quality of Virginia wines is good and continues to improve. My personal observation is that the area excels in producing distinctive wines from Viognier and Cabernet Franc, but they also make good wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, and Petit Manseng.

I was fortunate enough to have tasted over 100 different wines from Virginia. Of those, below are examples (in alphabetical order by winery) I felt were worth sharing. I’ve included very brief tasting notes with each, which definitely would not pass a WSET exam, but accurately reflect my thoughts at the time.

  • 8 Chains North 2008 Furnace Mountain Red – coffee, blackberry, smoke, balanced acid, med+ tannin, long, good
  • 8 Chains North 2009 Furnace Mountain Red – red fruit, talc, oak, chocolate, med body, elevated acid, very good
  • Ankida Ridge 2010 Chardonnay – Fresh, barrel aged, some vanilla but mostly apple, full body, finishes flat, good
  • Ankida Ridge 2010 Pinot Noir – classic, underbrush, cherry cola, ripe tannins, long, very good
  • Annefield Vineyards 2010 Viognier – sweet-tart candy, off-dry, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2010 Viognier – perfume, phenolic, sweet mouth, full body, but great acid, very good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2002 Viognier – caramel, oxidized, fish sauce, lively, long finish, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2009 Cabernet Franc – bell pepper, leather, brett(horse), good fruit concentration, firm tannin, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2009 Octagon – blakberry, cola, sassafras, good fruit concentration, good acid, long, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2011 Rose – bright, fresh, great salmon color, a bit lean, but refreshing, good
  • Boxwood Winery 2007 Topiary – nice savory age character, chocolate, black olive, shiitake, black plum, nice depth, long finish, very good+
  • Boxwood Winery 2007 Boxwood- blackberry, earth, chocolate, dark cherry, decent mid-plate, dusty tannins, good length, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Trellis – deep berry, intense fruit character, a bit warm, long finish, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Topiary – earth, savory, smoky, good body, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Boxwood – fruit, firm, blackberry, spice, firm tannin, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2010 Viognier – honey, smoke, sweet entry, some RS, a bit bitter on finish, fresh, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2010 Jennifer’s Jambalaya – floral, fruit salad, fresh, lively, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2002 Reserve Merlot – cigar box, soy, savory, tobacco, great body, balanced acidity, long, outstanding
  • Breaux Vineyards 2011 Rose – strawberry, cherry, some sweetness, finishes dry, good acid, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc Reserve – deep color, black cherry, green bean, pencil lead, high extraction, a bit sweet, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon – cola, black cherry, cocoa, artichoke, hay, full body, high alc, better balanced than Franc, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2001 Nebbiolo – tar, roses, pencil shavings, crisp acid, soft tannins, cherry cola, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2002 Nebbilo – chocolate, cherries, cola, soy, leather, pepper, fuller body, soft tannins, balanced acid, medium, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2005 Nebbiolo – black pepper!, cola, cherry, leather, firm tannins, crisp acid, medium-long, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Nebbiolo (barrel sample) – wood shavings, cherries, cola, spicy, full body, high tannin, high acid, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2006 Soleil – apricot, lanolin, honey, beeswax, sweet, nutty, good acid, long, outstanding
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2010 Apple Wine – apples, cinnamon, off dry, unique, very good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2010 Amber Creek Chamborcin – cherry, leather, tart, good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2009 Hunters Run Red – earthy, plum, good acid, firm tannins, good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2008 Cello – lemonade, full body, sweet, very good
  • Gadino Cellars 2011 Pinot Grigio – fresh, slight floral, apple, crisp, dry, good
  • Gadino Cellars 2010 Cabernet Franc – boysenberry, blackberry, cola, nice structure, great acid, very good
  • Gadino Cellars 2009 Petit Verdot – dark berry, granite, good fruit conc, good acid, very good
  • Glass House Winery 2010 Viongier – tropical, strong phenolics, good acid, full body, good
  • Glass House Winery 2011 Pinot Gris – fruity, refreshing, great acid, long length, very good
  • Glass House Winery 2010 Barbera – Brett, dried berry, earth, savory, cherry, good
  • Glass House Twenty-first NV red wine – soil, nice fruit and acid, raisin on finish, good
  • Hume Vineyards 2011 Seyval Blanc – refreshing, grassy, gooseberry, good acid, dry, good
  • Hume Vineyards 2011 Viognier – fruit, refreshing, good acid, very good
  • Pearmund Cellars 2011 Petit Manseng – baked bread, vinous, sweet mouth, good acid, some phenolic, good
  • Pearmund Cellars 2009 Ameritage – savory, red berry, leather, good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Chardonnay – fresh, citrus, refreshing, bright, very good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Cabernet Franc – red cherry, cola, tart cherry, needs time, good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Meritage – plum, mint, cola, full body, good acid, med tannins, med finish, good+
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2011 Viognier – peach, sweet mouth, good acid, very good
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2009 Meritage – Red berry, pronounced, great concentration, great acid, long, very good
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve – big, bold, rich, red berry, warm, dark berry on finish, long, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2011 Sauvignon Blanc – fresh, lively, lemon, lime, ice acid, fresh finish, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Rose – earthy, smokey, strawberry, good avid, lacking some fruit on palate, good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Cabernet Franc – chocolate, cherry, tobacco, sweet entry, vanilla, bell pepper, pepper, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Meritage – black cherry, tobacco, cola, root beer, firm tannin, good acid, long, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2011 Petit Mansang – pineapple, lime, phenolic extrat, some RS, good
  • Tarara Winery 2011 Boneyard White – green, lean, lemon, lime, off dry, good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Leap XII – chocolate, cola, spice, pepper, tobacco, leather, full body, ripe tannin, long, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Cabernet Franc – sassafras, blackberry, bell pepper, chocolate, vanilla, smoke, med-plus body, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Boneyard Red- cherry, leather, dry, firm tannin, good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2011 Sauvignon Blanc – gooseberry, lime, great fruit conc, some sweetness, very good+
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2011 Viognier – tropical, apple, full body, good acid, especially on finish, refreshing, very good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2010 Vintners Reserve Meritage – bell pepper, red berry, spice, good avid, ripe tannin, long, very good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2010 Petit Verdot – earth, blackberry, plum, good acid, long, very good
  • Vint Hill Craft Winery 2010 Rose – chambercin, light, refreshing, sweet mouth, great acid, lovely, very good+
  • Vint Hill 2009 Chambourone – Amarone from Chambercin – raisin, full body, deep flavor, firm tannin, long, interesting
  • White Hall Vineyards 2011 Viognier – fresh, lively, floral, good phenolics, good body, decent acid, good
  • White Hall Vineyards 2010 Petite Verdot – smoky, dark berry, good fruit concentration, good acid, and long finish, very good

I suppose the true measurement of any wine region is whether or not one would go out of their way to seek out these wines. Would I? Definitely! Being that I live in California wine country, it’s unlikely that I will be able to find these wines on a local store shelf just yet, but many are available for purchase online. So, next time you are thinking of trying something new, reach for a bottle of wine from Virginia.

Jun 042012
 

As most guys will tell you (or at least those less well endowed), bigger isn’t always better. This is true. Take, for example, Danish potatoes. These pint-sized spuds are much more flavorful than their super-sized Idaho cousins. But, the converse shouldn’t be that big is necessarily evil. In coordinating wine selections for a New Zealand-themed event, my client wanted to shy away from the Villa Maria option I proposed feeling that it, “…seems like a large operation that gets grapes from wherever available.” I quickly assured him that, while yes, Villa Maria is a large company; it is at the forefront of pushing sustainable viticulture in the region.

In fact, having spent more than three hours with their head viticulturist driving from vineyard to vineyard to vineyard, many of which they do own, but also many they don’t, the message was loud and clear. They are getting the growers with whom they contract to implement better, more sustainable, practices in the vineyard.  And, closer to home, they are implementing organic practices in nearly a third of their owned sites.

Even before this visit, I have always liked Villa Maria. I’m not sure what first drew me to the brand, but (aside from the obvious observation that I liked the wines), they won my heart with their reliability, providing wines that are consistently good value and both varietally and regionally correct. If you’re looking for a Sancerre look-alike you’re out of luck, but if you want a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – they deliver. This latter point is especially important to a wine educator often sourcing class wines sight unseen (or rather, more worrisome, untasted). Consequently, I often feature the aforementioned wine in my Savvy about Sauvignon Blanc class.

With this favorable brand experience, I was thrilled to be introduced to Villa Maria’s owner, George Fistonich, at a trade tasting in September 2010. Meeting Sir George (he was knighted in 2009) for the first time, he was full of grace and warmth. Not only did he seem equally pleased to meet me, but, upon learning that we would be visiting his home country a few months later, invited us to come stay at his place (admittedly he knew that I was a wine educator and not just a general wine consumer, but still, I was both touched and impressed).

In this circumstance, his “place” was the company’s Marlborough-based winery, which includes a lovely guest apartment located atop the tasting room, complete with a combination washer-dryer (which we somehow managed to overflow our first night) and a cook’s kitchen outfitted with nearly everything we might want. Arriving on a Sunday night as the only guests in the multi-roomed unit, we chose the largest room for ourselves and enjoyed having space in which to spread out. (Sometimes, bigger actually can be better.)

I haven’t asked George Fistonich his opinion on whether size matters, but I can tell you that he probably never expected his venture to grow to such proportions when he first leased two hectares back in 1961. Now, with vineyards located throughout New Zealand’s numerous regions and three wineries (the two others are in Auckland and Hawkes Bay) one might say he is at the head of a full-fledged empire.

Although George was not present at his Marlborough estate during our sojourn, our paths crossed again the following year. This time I had the pleasure of sitting next to him during a lunch held in celebration of his 50th vintage. We talked about a lot of things, including wine, of course, but, he was not as one-dimensional as that. And, we obviously discussed my trip to New Zealand and my impressions of his country.

About half-way through lunch, George made a few remarks. Among other statements, George was keen to announce to all assembled that the flight to New Zealand was quite easy – suggesting that one board a plane on the west coast, have dinner, and then go to sleep, awakening in time for breakfast and an early arrival in the capital city of Auckland. [I think he may have also suggested the use of sleeping pills, but having just had an extremely negative experience in that regard —inclusive of fainting onto a fellow passenger while attempting to access the loo— I’ll suggest that you simply rely on a glass of New Zealand wine (presuming you’re flying Air New Zealand) and a pair of eyeshades.]

Returning to my side, George resumed our conversation, which now turned to travel. Adding to his aerial advice, George admitted that flying first class was relatively new to him and that he had previously helped to ease the discomfort of sitting in coach by using the meditative techniques he had studied years ago. Of course, he didn’t seem to have any complaints about the much roomier seats he now enjoys, proving once again that bigger may not always be better, but it certainly isn’t bad.

Apr 112012
 

VinTank WISMIThis week VinTank released their Wine Industry Social Media Index. For those of you unfamiliar with VinTank, they are a software company that provides social intelligence for the wine industry. In laymen’s terms, they help wineries see who is talking about them and why, and gives them the tools to make it easier for them to engage with wine drinkers. The Social Media Index is their foray into helping wineries judge how well they are communicating through social channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

So what?

Well, the wine industry generally lags behind the rest of the business world in connecting with the people who actually drink the wine they are selling. There are several factors why this is, but mostly it has to do with the fact that most wineries are still family owned and they just don’t have the resources (time or money) to spend on social platforms. The Social Media Index gives a glimpse into which wineries are doing it best and which have room to improve. This is great for the consumer because I believe that this will encourage more wineries to invest more in their social media marketing programs, providing a richer online experience and helping consumers connect with their brands.

Time will tell whether wineries actually take advantage of this potentially valuable resource.