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Three Wine Tasting Sins

15 September 2017

At a charming little tasting room I recently visited in the Pacific Northwest, I found myself feeling quite irritable, despite the good quality of the wines. To be fair, the woman pouring was new and nervous and just doing her best. But the three sins that she committed during the tasting have been committed time and time again by wine representatives far more experienced than she.

With the annual Wine Bloggers Conference fast approaching, it seemed an opportune moment to describe these three behaviors, since they happen with some regularity at each conference. Wine presenters, I assure you that I’m not the only one irritated by the experiences below.

Most egregious: Feeding me tasting notes

I get it — you’re excited about the wine, and perhaps you even made it. Perhaps you worked really hard to develop its complexity, and it makes sense that after putting all that work into the wine, you want me to appreciate its nuances. Sales representatives, too, doubtless feel motivated to make sure I don’t miss the rich blackberry fruit or the tobacco on the finish or whatever. Or if you’re new to the game, it makes sense that you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, and that you can pick out gooseberry notes with the best of them.

Don’t do it. Let the wine speak for itself. If, before I’ve tasted the wine, I’m told that it exhibits notes of pears and lime and oak, it’s awfully difficult to get that out of my head and decide for myself what it tastes like. And I really want to decide for myself. I’m happy to discuss what the wine is like after I’ve tasted it and made some notes. In fact, I love doing exactly that. But getting a tasting note in advance of tasting makes my job that much harder.

Yes.

Almost as bad: Talking while I’m tasting.

To be clear, I have no problem with wine presenters talking to other people near me while I’m tasting. Chat away! But please don’t talk to me.

I’ve only been writing this blog since 2011, and I still need to concentrate if I’m going to write anything useful about a wine’s character in my notebook. If you’re trying to give me facts about the vinification or the terroir while the wine is in my mouth (or worse, telling me what it tastes like), you can count on me not retaining a word you say. Sometimes people even ask me questions before I’ve had a chance to spit the wine out, and I’m never sure how they expect me to answer. If I’m going to appreciate the wine and all its flavor nuances, I need to focus on it for a moment.

Spitting brings me to my third wine tasting sin: Providing poorly designed spit buckets.

Those of you fortunate enough to swallow most of the wine that ends up in your mouth may wonder what on earth I’m talking about. When tasting wine, I spit almost all of it out. It sounds disgusting, and perhaps even disrespectful to the wine, and I admit it is a little of the former. But if I visit, say, three wineries in a day, and swallow all those little tastes, I’ll be drunk, and I don’t like that feeling anymore. At the Wine Bloggers Conference, if I swallowed all I tasted over the course of a day, I’d be killed!

No.

Spit buckets are a necessary evil in all tasting rooms and at wine tasting events. Unfortunately, all too often, the spit buckets provided are simply buckets. This is a huge irritation of mine at the Wine Blogger Conference in particular. It doesn’t take long for a bucket to become full enough for it to splash back, however careful the spitter. And it is unquestionably disgusting to be splashed by a spit bucket. A simple, standard bucket is not enough.

On a recent trip to en primeur week in Bordeaux, my American companions and I remarked on the uniformly well-designed and sometimes even attractive spit buckets available at every tasting. Each had a concave top of one sort or another covering the bucket, with one or more small holes leading to the receptacle. Splash-back was never a problem. I even dared to wear a white shirt one day. These buckets need not be expensive, like the barrel-shaped model above. I’ve seen plastic versions that work beautifully.

I have to think that some of you have other wine tasting pet peeves, either as tasters or wine presenters. What behaviors drive you bonkers? Let me know!

Not Your Usual Holiday Meal Wine Pairings

24 November 2015

Christmas TreeThis season, banal lists of the best wines to pair with your holiday feast clog the internet. Riesling and Pinot Noir rank among the usual favorites, and indeed, fine Riesling and carefully crafted Pinot will work beautifully with your turkey and stuffing. But fine Riesling and carefully crafted Pinot don’t tend to come cheap. The most exciting Rieslings imported from Germany, Austria and the Alsace usually cost more than $20 a bottle, and excellent Pinot Noir from almost anywhere costs the same (or more) because the variety is one of the wine world’s finickiest.

And let’s be honest. If you’re buying wine for a Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah meal, you’re likely buying it for relatives who may or may not especially care what’s in their glasses. Even if you have the means, it seems a shame to pour expensive wine for Aunt Susie who just wants to get buzzed to dull the feelings of resentment and anxiety that surface at every party at which Grandma is present.

On the other hand, it’s considered impolite, alas, to drink expensive wine while simultaneously serving your guests the cheap stuff. Holiday parties therefore require something inexpensive but delicious. You can find inexpensive Riesling and Pinot Noir, to be sure, but you’re likely to be disappointed on both counts.

If you’re willing to deviate a bit from the beaten track, you can find all sorts of exciting, reasonably priced options to serve with that turkey, ham, goose or turkey-shaped tofu mold. Bring the list below to your wine shop, and you’ll surely find at least one example of each sparkling, white and red recommendation.

 

SPARKLING

Dr. Loosen Sparkling RieslingRiesling Sekt: Cheap Sekt from Germany can be made from who knows what from who knows where, but Riesling Sekt is 100% German Riesling. Dr. Loosen makes a delightful example with just a hint of sweetness, but any Riesling Sekt you find in the U.S. is likely to work well.

Cava: The least expensive versions of this ubiquitous Spanish sparkler can have unappealingly large bubbles. Stick to Cava in the $13 to $16 per bottle price range, and/or Cava including an international grape such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in the blend. If in doubt, ask a wine store employee for the Cava in your price range with the smallest bubbles.

Prosecco: This northern Italian bubbly is hardly a secret, and so much of it is bland and one-note. There are notable exceptions, however. Seek out Proseccos with the word “Valdobbiadene” or “Conegliano” on the label — they tend to have the most character.

Kir Royale: For this cocktail composed of sparkling wine and crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), it’s traditional to use Crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy. But really, just about any dry (brut) sparkling wine will do, because the cassis covers over a lot of imperfections, including big bubbles and lack of complexity. I like a ratio of about 1/6 crème de cassis to sparkling wine, but add more if the guest has a sweet tooth or if the bubbly is particularly cheap.

 

WHITE WINE

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-BrisDry Furmint: I was lucky enough to find a couple of bottles of this exotic and spicy Hungarian white wine at a new shop down the block. This grape features most prominently in Tokaji, one of the world’s greatest dessert wines, on par with Sauternes. Hungarian winemakers have now started to realize the great potential of dry Furmint as well, but unfortunately, they can be hard to find. If you do spot one, snap it up: It’s likely to be a sensational value for the money.

Saint-Bris: I’ve only had one example of this unusual Sauvignon Blanc from Burgundy, a region known almost exclusively for Chardonnay, but it was one of the best values for the money I’ve tasted. Elegant, floral, tart and great with food. Who would ever expect to find such bang for the buck in Burgundy, of all places?

Rhône-style white blends: Whether from the Rhône Valley or elsewhere, white Rhône blends have an appealing richness matched with food-friendly acidity that make them ideal for a hearty turkey dinner. Look for wines including Marsanne and/or Roussane in the blend.

Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige: Pinot Grigio is the grape all wine geeks love to hate. It tastes almost invariably insipid and wan, and pairs well only with Wonder Bread-mayonnaise sandwiches. The great exception to this rule is Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, a high-altitude region north of Venice on Italy’s border with Austria. These Pinot Grigios are anything but boring. Expect ripe fruit and impressively focus. Pinot Grigios from Friuli can also be interesting, but at all costs, avoid those from the Veneto.

Argentine Chardonnay: Expensive Californian and French Chardonnays are outstanding, if you can afford them. Argentina also makes some standout Chardonnays, but because Malbec is the grape everyone thinks of, Argentine Chardonnay can be a stellar value.

 

RED WINE

Argentine Malbec or Pinot Noir: There are a lot of cheap Malbecs on the market, and you can go that route, but if you invest a little more and keep to the $12 to $15 range, your palate will reap great rewards. Even Aunt Susie is worth the upgrade. I’ve also noticed a smattering of Patagonian Pinot Noirs on American shelves, and these can be a very fine value for the money, too. Look for Pinot from Neuquén or Río Negro.

Lapostolle's Single-Vineyard Carmeneres

Lapostolle’s Single-Vineyard Carmenères

Carmenère: Chile’s signature grape, a formerly obscure Bordeaux variety nearly extinct in its birth home, can produce supple and richly fruity reds of great character. Again, you can find cheap examples, but if you keep to the $12 to $18 range, you’ll quite likely strike gold. Ever more single-vineyard examples showcase the beauty of Chilean terroir.

Beaujolais: Beaujolais Nouveau used to be a fun, simple and inexpensive red released around this time of year that made for an ideal Thanksgiving choice. Now it’s a marketing juggernaut, and I’ve seen prices reach dangerously close to $20 a bottle, which is lunacy for such a wine. Opt instead for a heftier Beaujolais-Villages, or better yet, a Cru Beaujolais from one of 10 specific villages in the area. My favorite for the money is Morgon.

Nero d’Avola: This red grape encountered most frequently in Sicilian wines tends to have big cherry fruit and rustic spice without overpowering tannins. That makes it a fine choice for a hearty poultry-focused feast. Again, you can find examples for $9 or $10, and you might even get lucky with such a bottle, but keeping between $12 and $15 is safer.

Grenache: A cheerful grape variety, Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) produces fruity, soft reds that don’t tend to be especially tannic. I’ve got a couple of old-vine Garnachas from near Toledo that I’m itching to open on Thanksgiving.

St. Laurent from Austria: If you can find some bottles of this sexy red from Austria, you win the prize. Not nearly enough bottles of this dark, velvety descendant of Pinot Noir make it to the U.S. Any of these would be a delight, but the only one I’ve managed to purchase myself is Sattler’s.

 

Saint-Emilion Grands Crus ClassesDAMN THE TORPEDOES

If you feel like splurging on your holiday guests but don’t want to serve the obvious, opt for white Pessac-Léognan, redolent of rich tropical fruit, and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, a sumptuous Merlot-driven wine full of rich cherry fruit and mocha. A Grower Champagne or a top-quality Franciacorta would make for an ideal aperitif.

 

If your wine shop doesn’t have at least some examples of the wines listed above, well, you need to find a new wine shop. I wish you much merriment this season, and holidays filled with delicious and wallet-friendly drinking!

Ice Bucket Challenge (With Sparkling Wine, Of Course)

26 August 2014

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Last weekend two people challenged me to this ice bucket ordeal, in which one either donates to the ALS Association (or another charity) or dumps a bucket full of ice water over one’s head.

I elected to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project, which assists veterans injured on the battlefield once they return home. It’s one of the worthiest causes I know.

You can see my video here, in which I put an ice bucket to proper, civilized use.

Drinking Wine Because It’s Fun?

7 September 2013
Sometimes drinking the unusual and the obscure gets a little scary.

Sometimes drinking the unusual and the obscure gets a little scary.

Writing a blog about unusual wines, spirits and cocktails is great fun. I have a venue in which to share my opinions, I attend delightful events like the Wine Bloggers Conference, I get free samples from time to time, and every great once in a while, I’ll receive an invitation to visit some romantic place to learn about the wines or spirits produced there. I take great joy in these experiences, and I’m not planning on giving them up any time soon.

Writing a blog about unusual wines, spirits and cocktails has had a number of unintended consequences, however. The focus on the unusual eliminates all sorts of delicious things. Much to my bewilderment and consternation, I found myself turning down free samples of wine from a top Burgundy producer, because Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays don’t exactly count as obscure. The resourceful marketing representative understood the situation, and offered to send me free samples of some Indian wine instead. I have nothing against wine from India, but let’s be honest here — something unfortunate has happened to a person who turns down free samples of fine Burgundy in exchange for bottles from subcontinental parts unknown.

My wine rack has also become problematic. It used to represent a sort of buffet from which I could pick and choose any bottle at any time. Now there are strict divisions. On three of the shelves are bottles I want to eventually write blog posts about, and on one of the shelves (actually, only half a shelf at this point) are bottles I can open at leisure. Basically, if I want to open a bottle from my collection, I better be prepared to also open my notebook.

And this is the unexpected thing that happens when you turn a vice into a job. That vice slowly and surely starts to feel a lot less like a fun indulgence and a lot more like work. I did it with my 9 to 5 job as well. I used to take great pleasure in exploring as many different places as possible on my vacations, visiting perhaps five different cities on a 12-day trip. It boggles my mind how much like work that now seems. Instead, I look forward to staying in a cottage for a week, avoiding fancy restaurants and concierges and valets. Just reading my book and hiking and cooking and cuddling.

I realize that this is not the sort of situation that engenders a flood of sympathy. These “problems” are not problems. Coptic Christians have problems. Gay Russians have problems. Syrians have problems. What I have is an extremely fortunate and extremely unusual situation. I did what you’re supposed to do — work at what you love. But what people tend to leave out of that story is that what you love then becomes work.

I still haven’t quite figured out how to reconcile that issue, but this week, I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to a cottage in Wisconsin, I’m going to leave my internet connection behind, and I’m going to leave any thoughts of a planned itinerary behind as well. What I am bringing with me is a Central Coast Pinot Noir, a California Cabernet, a Washington State Merlot and a number of wines already discussed on this blog. Drinking wine and not taking notes? Now that’s starting to sound like a vacation!

See you in a week. Cheers!

Tasting With Tony

27 July 2013
The author and Anthony Terlato (right) at Tangley Oaks

The author and Anthony Terlato (right) at Tangley Oaks

Some people envy wine writers because of all the delicious wines they get to taste, and I certainly love that part of the job. But just as much, if not more, I love the people who I meet along the way. People who love wine, I find, tend to love life, and spending time with them is invariably a pleasure.

I recently made my way to Tangley Oaks, a Tudor-style mansion that serves as the headquarters of Terlato Wines, a major importer and winemaker. According to its website, one in ten bottles of wine over $14 in the U.S. is marketed by Terlato. This company became so influential due in large part to the efforts of Anthony Terlato, who Wine Enthusiast named “Man of the Year” in 2003, noting that he changed the way Americans drink.

And so he did, importing one of the very first Pinot Grigios on the market (Santa Margherita) and introducing American wine drinkers to the joys of Sicilian wines. Now also an owner of wineries, Terlato never compromises on quality, choosing to raise prices when necessary rather than market an inferior product. This philosophy helped increase the sophistication of the American wine palate, which in turn lead to the generally wine-savvy culture we enjoy today.

It was fascinating to meet such an important figure in American wine history, but what made tasting this tasting such a delight was the obvious enthusiasm Terlato had for these wines. Here is a person who has tasted thousands upon thousands of fine wines over the course of his career, and yet each wine we tried excited him. “This is a beautiful wine,” he would say, or “This I love, love, love.” Other bottles brought up memories of the winemakers: “M____ is brilliant, but he’s a brat — he’s an adult delinquent!”

As delicious as the wines we tasted were (more on them in a future post), it was the company that made this tasting truly memorable. The afternoon with Anthony Terlato reminded me of why I love wine in the first place. However many you drink over the years, quality wines don’t become boring. The evocative aromas and flavors of a well-crafted wine somehow never lose the power to stir the emotions.

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