Feb 042014
 

Wine Reviews DroningRecently I was listening to Michael Krasny interview wine importer extraordinaire Kermit Lynch on the local Bay Area NPR radio affiliate. At the end of the interview Kermit took calls from listeners and one of the callers complained bitterly about wine reviews and how they describe wines in florid detail using terms that, according the caller, were complete nonsense. Kermit soft-pedaled his answer saying that yes, writers can sometimes go off the rails when describing wine and that yes, everyone’s palate is different so you can’t expect to agree on everything you read in wine reviews. But Lynch’s response made me pause because I’ve heard this complaint all too often; that wine descriptions are in some form or other nonsense and that wine writers frankly make things up. So I’d like to address this personally, even ecumenically, if you will.

Odds are wine writers as much as you may want to believe it are not making things up. Sure there may be the odd hallucination now and again but usually they’re simply trying to tell you what wine X, Y or Z smells and tastes like to them. Emphasis on THEM. Beyond that we often hear the phrase “everybody’s different” when it comes to wine and that is correct across the board. Here’s how we’re different. In short, here’s the deal:

We all have the same hardware in the form of our brain and neurology. But after that all bets are off. What’s different? Simple answer: everyone’s memories. So your take on Meyer Lemon is going to be different than my mine because my experience in the form of my internal pictures, movies, sounds and feelings associated with Meyer Lemon throughout my lifetime is unique and not yours. And while we may agree that there’s something sour and citrus-like in the wine we’re sharing we’re never going to share an identical experience collectively known as Meyer Lemon. You may think it smells more like pink grape fruit or a catcher’s mitt or a freshly painted garage door for that matter. Further, the wonderful bouquet of flowers I adore in a glass of glorious Grand Cru Alsace Gewurztraminer may utterly repel you because it’s entirely too close to that memory of your tragic drive-by at a Macy’s perfume counter at some point in the distant past. Personal likes and dislikes are important and those are based on memory too.

Context is also important. The how’s, who’s, why’s and when’s you taste/drink a wine collectively form the trump card in any wine experience. That magic bottle of whatever you enjoyed when your boyfriend proposed will forever be your favorite wine in the whole entire universe and just the mere thought of it will send you around the moon and back to that magic moment–until the divorce. Then it becomes the most cursed s#@*&% bottle of wine in the history of mankind. Yes, friends, context is important. Remember that.

Remember also that wine tasting is marginally about actually tasting. It’s primarily about SMELLING as smell accounts for over 85% of the sense of taste. So if you’re passing by the nose on your evening goblet of Cabernet going right in for the big slurp the proverbial cow is already out of the barn. In fact, the cow is so far out of the barn that it took your car to SFO and is now headed to Fiji. On your credit card. Moo.

That is to say olfactory memory is the most powerful form of memory we have because aromas from the glass or any other source go right up our nasal passages directly into the cerebral cortex. That means when such-and-such wine writer rambles on about how the pepper and herbal notes in a Chateauneuf-du-Pape remind him of the cassoulet his grandmother used to make when he was a kid during the holidays, guess what? It probably does and that means you shouldn’t wig out over said writer’s musings but should instead try to get to your own memories of pepper and savory herbs to better understand what the writer is trying to express about the wine. Hopefully the next time you taste the same wine or a similar wine you might experience them too unless, of course, you find something completely different. Because after all, it’s what the wines smells and tastes like to you that actually counts.

As for the sense of smell, we as a culture generally suck at olfactory memory. It’s not important to us so we don’t practice it and we’re not very good at it. Other than a smack-me-on-the-side-of-the-head tsunami of cow pasture, raw garlic or did somebody left the burner the gas stove on, we’re generally not tuned into the olfactory world. But there are definitely exceptions and those individuals usually tend to be in the perfume, wine and spirits worlds or other professions where one’s expertise is largely determined by smell memory. It’s not surprising then that when someone with a highly developed olfactory memory writes about their subject in depth it’s viewed with great suspicion.

It’s easily understandable then how the poetic meanderings/descriptions of wine writing can leave one puzzled, forlorn and even verklempt. This because wine has no inherent vocabulary leaving us wine professionals to borrow, often tragically, nomenclature from completely unrelated fields. Adjectives such as “murky,” “bold,” “dense,” and even something comical like “explosive” find their way into wine descriptions not to mention any number of fruits, herbs and spices (Road tar is among my favorites). But when you read that tasting a rare old vintage made some famous wine writer start weeping you should definitely have serious misgivings. I would.

Know that wine professionals taste a lot of wine as in potentially thousands of bottles a year. If someone is tasting that much, odds are they’re pretty good at it and they should also be proficient at communicating about it in a meaningful way even if they are limited to nomenclature that may seem like Martian to the novice. Keep in mind that this is tasting and not drinking. A professional tasting may sound like fun to you but it’s hard work requiring a hell of a lot of focus, concentration and inevitable palate fatigue. Still think it sounds fun? Imagine tasting 45 different coffees in 90 minutes, taking notes and then writing about the qualities of each one. I rest my case.

Finally, if the florid wine descriptions still give you agita consider giving wine writers a break. Even with the zillions of wine blogs and everyone pretending to be a wine expert these days there are more good writers than ever. Find one whose prose you can live with—even like—and follow them. Chances are their likes and dislikes are similar to yours. But above all remember that your palate—and what you like to drink—is the bottom line. Because after all, I made all this up.

Just kidding.

Jan 082014
 

Nomacorc select seriesUsed for centuries, natural cork is still among the most accepted closures, especially for wines that are meant to be aged. However, natural cork’s market dominance has been waning significantly over the past 13 years. Whereas approximately 95% of all wines were bottled under a cork or cork derivative in 1999, by 2012, that figure had dropped to 56%.

In fact, cork bashing has become a popular sport, with many people decrying the high failure rate of such corks, which result in corked wines. Admittedly, no one is happy when upon opening a bottle of wine it is found to be accompanied by a musty/wet dog smell. At that point, there is no other remedy than to simply pour the wine down the drain.

For some winemakers, the incidences of cork taint and bottle variation have proved to be too much to bear. At noted Savennières producer, Domaine des Baumard, Florent Baumard had had enough and began using the Stelvin closure (aka screw caps) in 2005 for all of his still wines, including those he expected consumers to hold/age for 6-7 years. Baumard claims that having made the switch helps him to sleep better at night, particularly because the closure permits more consistency among bottles.

Similarly, Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche starting experimenting with screw caps in 2002, having identified problems with TCA (the chemical responsible for cork taint) in 2001. Today, he offers his customers a choice of closure, with 75% of total sales bottled under screw cap. He admits that “we are breaking the rules,” but notes that with his experience, he won’t come back to promoting corks. “We love to feel young and healthy,” he says, “It is the same with wine,” stressing that screw caps keep wine fresher with more tension (read acidity). While the screw cap was not always my preferred bottle, a comparison tasting of his wines (one bottled with a screw cap and the other with a natural cork) proved his point.

Lines drawn in the sand

Not surprisingly, screw caps have been touted as the perfect alternative to natural cork, keeping the wine as fresh and fruity as the day it was bottled. But, such closures have predominantly been used for whites and rosés, which aren’t meant for aging. Early-adopters New Zealand and Australia have implemented screw caps across the board, but producers in many other countries have been reluctant to try them. Still others have outright refused to consider them as a viable option, essentially separating producers into two camps.

With this debate almost firmly centered on natural cork vs screw cap, faux corks have often been dismissed out of hand. But, it turns out that there are synthetic corks and then there are synthetic “corcs” – or, more precisely, Nomacorcs. Founded by Belgium businessman Gert Noël during the 1990s, Nomacorc produces a synthetic closure made from plastic foam. Nomacorc’s original goal was to eliminate cork taint; mission accomplished, it has now begun to focus on the integration of oxygen management with its new product line.

A brave new (wine) world

The Select Series, which debuted in 2012, permits winemakers to choose one of four models, based on their desired level of oxygen ingress over time. For example, the Select 100 permits the ingress of 1.2 mg/L of O2 in 12 months, while the Select 500 permits the ingress of 3.0 mg/L of O2 over this same period. Straddling both sides of the aisle – freshness and ageability – this new type of closure opens up an interesting world of possibilities. Consequently, when considering which Select Series product will best meet their needs, a winery can develop an integrated strategy taking into account how long it will take to get the wine into the market, how long it will sit on the shelf and when the winemaker thinks that the wine will be ready to drink, potentially prolonging the shelf life, or hastening the development, of a given product.

Nomacorc now has 13% of the closure market worldwide, with 58% of Nielsen’s Top 500 SKUs closed with a Nomacorc product. While big wineries such as Gallo, Barefoot and Yellow Tail are large accounts for the company, the adoption of Nomacorc has not been limited to commercial brands. Eberle Winery’s winemaker, Ben Mayo has been a convert since he joined the winery in 2003. The Paso Robles producer switched entirely to Nomacorc in 2002, inclusive of its Reserve-level Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $75.00. Equally esteemed clients include the Willamette Valley’s Ken Wright Cellars and Alsatian producer Anne Boecklin among others.

But not everyone has embraced Nomacorc. The company recognizes that consumer perception of its products as being unnatural is its biggest challenge and has gone out of its way to emphasize its commitment to sustainability in all aspects of its business practices. Further, the Classic and Select Series Nomacorcs are 100% recyclable (with #4 plastics), while its newest product, Select Bio, claims to be the “world’s first zero carbon footprint closure.” Instead of being made from petroleum-based plastics, the raw materials for Select Bio are derived from plant-based polymers.

With Nomacorc’s new approach and younger consumers’ more ready acceptance of synthetics, it will be interesting to see how the supply side reacts to these changes. While natural cork’s supremacy has indeed eroded, its future remains unclear. Only time (and marketing dollars) will tell what we find at the top of the bottle standing between us and our wine.

Dec 132013
 
Regional Wines: Michael Wangbickler

Photo Credit: American Wine Society

Last month, I was graced with the opportunity of presenting a couple of seminars at the American Wine Society National Conference in Sandusky, Ohio. One of those presentations covered the subject of regional wine.

As I’ve previously stated on this blog, I’m the president of the Board of Directors for Drink Local Wine. It’s a group of folks who believe that wines from ANYWHERE in North America are worth a look and consideration when purchasing and drinking wine. So, my session focused on why we should give a fair shake to regional wineries and highlighted wines from six different producers, from six different states. This included regional wine from Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, New York, and Ohio. Oh yeah, and did I mention that we tasted each of them blind, so no one knew what they were actually tasting until I told them?

The reaction to the wines was very good. Most of them were quite impressive, and I had several attendees approach me later, letting me know how much they enjoyed the session and the wines. My ultimate goal was to open some eyes, and change some perceptions. I feel like more than a few of the people in the session walked away with a new-found appreciation for regional wine from places other than California, Oregon, and Washington. We’re changing perceptions, one wine enthusiast at a time.

Here is a copy of the slides from my session. Feel free to share them.

Oct 142013
 

 

Grapes on a Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

From walk-around wine tastings and dinners with winemakers to clever titles and cute comparisons, it’s challenging for wine public relations people to create something new and different for the press and trade. However, the folks at Complexity – New Zealand  have certainly succeeded with their Grapes on a Train event held in late September.

“All aboard!” came the shouts from the conductors as we assembled on the platform at New York Penn Station very early on a Sunday morning. We were about to embark on a unique journey, partially retracing the tracks of the famed 20th Century Limited.

Operated by the New York Central Railroad  from 1902 to 1967, the 20th Century Limited provided express service from New York to Chicago, making the journey in only 16 hours.  The passenger train was known for its high level of service, complete with its signature red carpet rolled out in the station platforms on either end. As journalists and sommeliers, we were similarly given the red carpet treatment when we entered the Hickory Creek train car, hooked up behind the regular Amtrak service to Montreal. This historic, Pullman car was part of the 20th Century Limited’s re-launch in 1948 and has now been restored to its former glory, used for private events held along Amtrak’s existing routes.

Given its remarkable history, the 20th Century Limited has been prominently featured in books and Broadway we well as movies, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.Thankfully, instead of being greeted by villains and spies, the group was welcomed aboard by winemakers from some of New Zealand’s top wineries.

Upon departure, we headed north past beautiful views of the Hudson River and fall foliage on our way to Canada. But, while the scenery was stunning, our true itinerary was New Zealand, as the winemakers presented several seminars with guided tastings.

The seminars were led by the winemakers, all members of the Complexity-New Zealand consortium. This portfolio crosses wine regions and emphasizes New Zealand’s high quality wines, with membership currently limited to 17 producers.   We kicked off the day with a general introduction to New Zealand – its history, its culture, its people and its land. With the stage set, we then moved onto the varietally-focused tastings.

Wines on the Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

 

Sauvignon Blanc with Brett Bermingham, Winemaker of Nautilus Estate and Tim Heath, Winemaker at Cloudy Bay
It’s nearly impossible to speak about New Zealand wine without mentioning Sauvignon Blanc as the grape that put New Zealand on the world stage. However, the discussion centered on the diversity of Sauvignon Blanc, looking at differences among grapes grown on gravels compared to those grown on clays as well as among the Wairau and Awatere Valleys situated within the greater Marlborough region. In this regard, clay soils provide more herbal/green notes and less tropical fruit. As New Zealand producers become more experienced and their vines become more mature, it is expected that more sophisticated styles of Sauvignon Blanc will be seen in the future. Among the most interesting wines tasted in this session (and perhaps of the entire event) was a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from 1996, which showed that although these wines are best enjoyed in their youth, they can provide complex aromas and flavors with age. Among the younger wines, I really liked the Mud House “The Woolshed” Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Aromatics Seminar with Rudi Bauer, Winemaker of Quartz Reef and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Less well known than Sauvignon Blanc, the aromatic white varieties of New Zealand can be traced back to the 1980s when Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris were first planted. Rudi suggested that these varieties were more about purity of varietal expression than about winemaking, additionally emphasizing the link between aromatics and acidity. Rudi acknowledged that you don’t always know what you are getting from Pinot Gris, but with Riesling, the standard of quality is better. He felt that the reason Pinot Gris was way behind Riesling in its development was that the initial stock had come from Geisenheim, when the focus was on quantity, not quality. As progress is made, alcohol levels are coming down as are sugar levels. Consequently, Pinot Gris wines are becoming more food friendly to support cuisine along with a trend toward longer time spent on the lees, resulting in wines with more richness and texture. My favorite wine of the session was the Mt. Difficulty Pinot Gris 2012 , Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand.

Pinot Noir with Matt Dicey, General Manager and Winemaker of Mt. Difficulty Wines and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Although Matt admitted that Burgundy is a reference point for Pinot Noir, he also emphasized the word, Tūrangawaewae, which is Maori for “where we stand,” an indigenous concept similar to that of terroir. Building on this aspect, he mentioned the regional and vineyard differences as well as the increased exposure to UV light in New Zealand as compared to vineyards in the northern hemisphere. Moreover, Central Otago fruit is credited with delivering darker fruit flavors, while Marlborough is generally more savory in style. With wines from both of these regions, the session tasting provided further confirmation of this diversity. My favorite was the Villa Maria Taylors Pass Pinot Noir 2010, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah with Nick Picone, Senior Winemaker of Villa Maria Estate
Nick referred to the wines in his session as “hidden gems,” suggesting that most people know a whole lot less about these wines than others from New Zealand. Turning first to Chardonnay, he noted that premium NZ Chardonnay is typically hand picked, whole bunch pressed and barrel fermented with good freshness and a purity of fruit. Wines from the warmer north are picked earlier and at lower sugars, while wines from the cooler south with have more lime and citrus notes, with intense minerality in those from Central Otago. When discussing Bordeaux style wines, which are best associated with Hawkes Bay, Nick attributed the turning point for this region to the establishment of the Gimblett Gravels. Finally, he spoke of New Zealand Syrah, which he described as being closer to the Rhône Valley in style than to Australia, despite the geographic proximity. I was impressed with the Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2009, Auckland, New Zealand.

After arriving in Montreal, we stopped at the hotel to freshen up before heading to an evening BBQ, held at a rented house in the Mont-Royal neighborhood. From the home’s rooftop, we could see the Olympic Park, but the fall weather pushed most of us inside where we proceeded to enjoy a delicious meal accompanied by an enormous selection of wines. Having been to New Zealand several years ago, I was especially pleased to see wines from Amisfield, Ata Rangi and Te Kairanga, all places we visited (and tasted at) on our trip.

The next morning, it was off to the airport for the flight home, packed with luggage and great memories of a fun and festive virtual visit to New Zealand.

Oct 102013
 

Log onto Local Wine Events on any given day and a long list of wine tastings, seminars and similar events will appear. But, if you really want to learn about a wine region, the best introduction is to truly immerse yourself in it.

Aside from scheduling the requisite vineyard visits in Bordeaux, visitors to the region also have the opportunity to take classes in the heart of the city at a number of different places, which cater to varying levels of knowledge.

L’Ecole du Vin
The most logical place to start is l’Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux (Bordeaux Wine School), which is run by the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) and conveniently housed at Maison du vin de Bordeaux. The Bordeaux Wine School offers introductory seminars as well as in-depth workshops.

In the two-hour, Introduction to Bordeaux Wines class, students are presented with a general overview of Bordeaux, inclusive of climate, soils, grape varieties and wine production, followed by a guided tasting of a dry white wine, two red wines and a sweet white wine. These classes are scheduled from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM on Mondays through Saturdays (€35/person) and are a perfect way to begin the day and establish a good baseline of regional knowledge.

l'Ecole du Vin

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

A more intensive option, geared for wine professionals, is a three-day long program that incorporates lectures at the Maison du Vin and structured vineyard visits. The School’s intermediate offerings generally encompass two days, inclusive of seminars, tastings and a meal. Participation in these more advanced programs start at €350/person and often requires prerequisite knowledge and experience.

Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery
At Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery, enomatic machines span nearly the entire store, which claims to be “the only place in the world where you can taste the top 50 Grand Crus Classes.” Open Monday through Saturday from 11:00 AM – 8:00 PM, visitors can simply choose to purchase a tasting card (minimum €25 +€3 deposit) and taste through a variety of samples.

Bordeaux Enomatic

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

However, tasting workshops are offered on Tuesdays from 7:30-8:30 PM for €35/person, with private tastings arranged for groups at a similar fee. This basic option includes a tasting of two to three Grand Cru wines, with the theme changing monthly. On our visit, we tasted a dry white from Pessac-Léognan and two reds – an older Left Bank wine and a young Right Bank wine. The store also presents a First Growths Workshop that features three First Growths and costs €85/person.

Millésima 
Another interesting and equally educational option is leading Bordeaux wine merchant, Millésima. Millésima’s premises date to 1840 and are home to over 2 million bottles of Bordeaux. The merchant offers 30-minute guided cellar visits to its vast warehouses and its “Imperial Library,” which houses over 10,000 large format bottles of top Bordeaux wines.

Bordeaux Warehouse

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

In addition to taking the tour, visitors can choose to participate in one of seven tutored tastings, presented in French, English, German or Spanish. Tasting sessions are by appointment only and start at €100/person, depending on the type of tasting selected and the time of day (evenings and weekends are more expensive than weekday visits). The introductory Initiation to the Wines of Bordeaux guides participants through a dry white (Château Latour Martillac 2007 Graves Pessac-Léognan blanc Cru classé), a Right Bank red (Château Grand Corbin Manuel 2005 Saint Emilion Grand cru) and a Left Bank red (Château Peyrabon 2005 Haut-Médoc Cru bourgeois).

Among the more complex (and pricier options) are a horizontal tasting of 1998 Right Bank wines and a horizontal tasting of wines from the vaunted 2000 vintage. And, if guests want to purchase any of the wines they’ve seen or tasted, Millésima’s on-site shop offers 400 wines and is open weekdays from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM.