Monday, December 31, 2007

2008 Wine "Resolutions"

Since most of us cannot keep our New Year's resolutions, or we've 'resolved' NOT to have resolutions in the first place, I thought I'd throw together a more poignant list of what it is I'd like to achieve with my wine savviness. Now this does not mean that I will not concoct some personal list of things I'd like to achieve in 2008...I actually like resolutions in the form of goals...but I do want to separate my wine category as there is so much to learn. So as I've learned more of what I actually don't know, I feel it appropriate to fill the gaps in my wine repertoire. Here goes...

1. Learn more about food and wine combining. I still think this is a hugely under-rated subject and most can benefit from learning good combinations.
2. Explore Australian wines more. The volume and variety coming out of Australia these days is growing rapidly and they are making some VERY interesting wines.
3. Visit a region that I have not been to yet. The top two on the list would be Tuscany or Bordeaux.
4. Revamp my wine cellar and drink the ones ready to go. Problem here is that I believe I have more wine that needs drinking than I have either friends or time...OK, not such a big problem.
5. Work more directly with wineries in reaching the general public. There is a huge opportunity for people to discover lesser-known great wines.
6. Drink a lot more Riesling and learn more about this noble grape. It is one of the most food-friendly grapes around and I've only scratched the surface of its potential.
7. Discover more of the great wines and values of Spain and Portugal. I love all the indigenous varietals there and it is truly one of the great up-and-coming regions in the world.
8. Go to more wine tastings. Just in my area, there are several stores/shops conducting really nice tastings that are a great way to discover wines that you would not normally encounter.
9. Drink more Champagne (sparkling wines). There is so much good "sparkly" being made all over the world now that I'd be very remiss not to try it more often.
10. Have more home wine parties. I love to entertain and introduce my friends and family to interesting wine and food experiences.

Now that I have put this in 'black and white' for all to see, I feel very compelled to stick to the plans I've set out for my wine adventures. As opposed to my personal goals that I generally keep to myself and stress out to make happen, these might be easier to achieve. At least in looking at this list above, I think it is safe to say that I'll have a hell of a lot more fun sticking to my wine resolutions than my personal ones.

Hmmm, maybe we're on to something here...actually make your resolutions something you enjoy doing...? OK, personal resolution #1 duly noted...9 more to go.

Best wishes to all for a great 2008!

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later,
Chief Wino

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bring on the bubbles...tiny bubbles.

Well before the New Year even starts, I've already decided what my first (of many I presume) resolutions will be - Drink more Champagne! Like many resolutions, I've said this before and did not stick to it and I am in such a deficit now that my tombstone should read - "lover of good women (my wife), wine and song...but did not drink enough Champagne damnit!"

So what will make 2008 any different? For starters, I have a new appreciation for sparkling wine and food combinations. I really had no idea that sparkling wine could pair so well with so many foods...especially seafood which I love as well. Second, I've discovered all the other regions that produce very good sparkling wine at very reasonable prices. Cava, Sekt, Asti/Spumante, Prosecco, Cremant along with all the domestic brands that are doing a very good job with sparklers these days. Lastly, more convenient availability on hand. I am committed to always having a bottle chilled and ready to go. In the past, I would only purchase for special occasions and then chill it appropriately. A small separate cooler for this will do the trick. (hey Santa, wink, wink, are you listening...?)

Now, back to the food and sparkling wine thing. To begin with the basics, realize that Champagne is wine, only bubblier, and should be paired appropriately. True Champagne can only come from the Champagne region in Northern France and all others fall in to other 'sparkling wine' categories by country as mentioned earlier. The three main grapes used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. (other countries use various indigenous grape varietals...but that's a whole other story). Blanc de Blancs (lighter body) is derived solely from the white grapes and Blanc de Noir (more weight) is from the Pinot Noir (dark) grape. Rose Champagne (my personal favorite) is mostly from the Pinot Noir grape with a touch of skin color imparted. Sidenote: Brut is drier than "Extra Dry" on labels and 'Vintage' Champagne is labeled with a year only in the years worthy of giving it this designation.

Some of the keys to sparkling wine going so well with food is its light alcohol and is balanced acidity. As with any food and wine combinations, you should pair the weight of the food with the weight of wine. In this case, the weight of the sparkly. Cava and Prosecco are lighter, and Rose and Vintage Champagne are heavier.

Here are some suggestions to pair with Champagne (sparkling wine):

Lighter-body - Cava, Sekt, Prosecco, Blanc de Blancs
- Salads, shellfish (crab/lobster/shrimp), oysters, sushi/sashimi, caviar, ceviche, Goda/Feta cheese

Fuller-bodied - Brut, Vintage, Rose
- roasted lighter meats (duck/poultry or ham), smoked seafoods, salmon, seafood salads/cocktail

Sweeter Champagnes or sparkling reds
- Chocolate, cake, cheesecake

That should give you a good start just in time for the holidays. Or, like me, commit to drinking more sparkling wine altogether, alone or with food.

Cheers! To a happy holiday and a very prosperous 2008!!

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later,
Chief Wino

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Wall of Wines

Here in California, we are fortunate enough to have the convenience of purchasing wine and liquor at the local grocer along with doing our regular shopping. I lived in Colorado for several years and was not only disappointed that grocers cannot sell wine, but you cannot even buy wine or liquor (or cars) on Sundays at all! Sacre bleu!! A travesty...but like everything else, you adapt and plan appropriately. I digress...back to my point...the wall of wines at the wine store or grocer...

So, here I am at the local Vons store, and I needed to buy a wine on the fly for certain dish that night. Off to the wine isle. Now keep in mind, Vons is one of the largest retailers of wine in the country and they do a pretty good job of stocking, displaying, and carrying some decent brands at very good prices. They've even done a good job of remodeling some stores here that really focus on wine sales and kiosk displays. At least, as much as you can do without a wine expert at the ready. But here's the rub; as I turned down the 'wine isle', I was met with a true wall of wines from one end of the store to the other. I mean, a real wall top to bottom, front to back, and the deep view isle like something you'd see out of a Alfred Hitchcock movie (Veritgo comes to mind).

I stepped back and thought, "Wow, how does the average consumer make a choice here? Where to even start?" With no help anywhere in sight, I began to think of a better way along with trying to get in to the mind of the consumer and their view of this dilemma. Uh oh, sometimes I hate my entrepreneurial I'm really in trouble...ugh!

So, here I am, frozen, staring at this wall of wines, looking up and down, right and left, in front of me and behind, thinking, staring, watching, wondering what's next. Then, it occurred to me that most people that go to the grocery store and buying, what else, (eureka!) food. Hmmm, food, wine, convenience, price, all in one place. There's got to be an opportunity here somewhere.

Here's my pitch. When I win the lottery and money is no longer a concern, (clutching my tickets right now...7,16,18,29,46 & 6), I want to present all these grocers with food & wine pairing kiosks to sit right in the middle of the wall of wines. I want to take all of my internet wine experience and bundle it all together to create the perfect virtual wine helper...let's call him 'Johnny' (i.e. Johnny on the spot). With these kiosks, you'd be able to type in "tuna caserole" and get a list of wine options right next to you to buy that will go with that dish. Type in "Merlot" and see dishes you can create to go with your favorite wine. Or, you can type in a variety of requests that involve wine, liquor, food or entertaining and get volumes of info and suggestions along with carefully selected partners to assist in the process. You could also make 'Johnny' available from home so that people could leisurely spend time and/or print out materials to carry while they shop. Point is, you've got a very captive audience and the possibilities are endless.

On second thought, maybe if I present these grocers this idea now, it WILL be like winning the lottery, only better odds. Now if I just had the ultra deep pockets to execute this myself in the first place...chicken or the egg? All right, everyone hold hands and let's pray for the following - 7, 16, 18, 29, 46 & 6.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wine List Blues.

OK, I'm on a mission to change all restaurants' wine lists to accommodate me (and my friends). I'll be selfish here and request that I am no longer left wondering what is best with my dish or if my guests will be happy with the wine I choose. Since I am usually the one that everyone hands the wine list over to the minute we sit down, I need more information from the 'expert' who put the list together. At the very least, give me some decent descriptions, a chef recommendation or two, some ratings, winemaker's notes and let me make somewhat of an informed decision.

This raises an interesting observation. If I even have trouble with the majority of the wine lists out there, how about the average person dining out with little knowledge of wine? In the sea of choices on a linear wine list, how do we choose? It becomes a guessing game at best. Unless swayed or compelled otherwise a certain way (by the rare resident Sommelier), most will opt for the tried and true brand name or strictly go by price leaving out some potentially great wines to try. I believe that restaurants have gotten lazy with their lists and are not only leaving the customer in a flux, but leaving money on the to speak.

Here's an example of how I feel a page should appear vs. the usual linear listing of wines and their prices:


Merlot (pronounced ‘merr-lo’) originates from Bordeaux region of France and is used both as blending grape and for single varietal wines. Merlot based wines usually have a medium body with hints of berry, plum and currant. It’s known for its softness, low acidity and light tannins which make it a very easy to drink wine. Merlot pairs well with grilled meats, duck, pork chops, veal and light pasta dishes.

►►Chef recommended menu pairings:
Ravioli alla Caprese, Penne Villa Capri, Pollo Parmigiana, Vitello alla Parmigiana, Filetto al Pepe Verde, Bocconcini di Manzo al Gorgonzola

Merlot Selections Region Price

2005 Fallbrook Reserve - Fallbrook, CA $21
95% Merlot, 5% Syrah
The ripe cherry flavors are complimented by the rich deep character of the North/Central Coast Merlot grapes, providing a distinct varietal fruit character with exceptional color and a smooth lingering finish.

2003 Martin Ray - Napa Valley, CA $36
96% Merlot, 4% Cabernet
A deep garnet color highlighted by aromas of ripe cherry, plum and a soft hint of vanilla. Bright, complex flavors of fresh cherry and strawberry are nicely rounded out by rich vanilla oak.

2003 Kenneth Volk - Paso Robles, CA $39
87% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc
This dark Merlot has aromas of anise seed, ripe berry, olive and cigar box spices. On the palate, the wine is tightly structured with moderately firm, persistent tannins.

2003 Hall - Napa Valley, CA 90/WS $48
100% Merlot
On the palate, expect generous briar fruit and black cherry with hints of spice, mocha and vanilla as smooth, subtle tannins round out the mid palate, leading to a long, lingering finish.

2003 Peju Estate Selection - Napa Valley, CA 91/WS $52
92% Merlot, 7% Cabernet, 1% Petit Verdot
Bright red color with aromas of red currant, vanilla, clove, raspberry, bing cherry, and freshly crushed sage. This Merlot is suave and finely textured, round and voluminous on the palate - with rich flavors of vanilla bean, cherry and currant.

Fun Wine Facts:

When wine makers refer to ‘Bordeaux style’ wines, they are referring to the use of at least three of the five main Bordeaux blending varietals which are – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.


In my opinion, this accomplishes many things. First of all, by giving some background to the varietal (Merlot in this case) it gives the customer some information about the grape beyond just what Merlot stands for in their minds. Second, it immediately gives them an idea of what goes best with the food and credibility from the Chef. Third, by using the winemaker's notes, it allows an opportunity to upsell the more expensive wines and/or insert ratings if they choose. Last, it brings to life the menu and gives an air of comfort to the reader/customer and can appeal to their palate more easily. Plus, you give the reader some wine tidbits that they may not already know and this lends to building more customer loyalty and good conversation.

So, let it be known from here on out, I am going to approach every restaurant I know or visit from now on to make these changes to their list. Truly, a journey of a thousand steps starts with one...coming soon to a restaurant near you.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Monday, November 19, 2007

Key Aroma 'Triggers'

Have you ever had a smell that came across you that almost magically took you way back to a lost memory or place? The smell of a perfume, wood burning embers, baby powder, petrol, freshly ground coffee, fresh baked cookies or even a new car can trigger various instant memories. In the world of wine, this can be a very useful tool if practiced correctly.

Back in one of my earlier wine classes, I clearly remember an instance when as we were doing our 'blind tastings' (i.e. when the varietal (grape) or wine is not revealed to you ahead of time) one of the students identified the nose of one particular wine as seemingly 'pepperoni-like' to her. After much of the class had a good chuckle about it, the instructor took this opportunity to point out that this was a prime moment to explore more of what was happening here. Spending some time with the student, it was uncovered that it happened to be a key trigger of the spicy/peppery flavors that often come from Zinfandel grapes/wine. Although pepperoni was a bit of stretch here, it was pointed out that for HER nose, it was a one of the definitive signs that this was a Zinfandel wine. From there on out, every time she got that 'pepperoni' nose, she always quickly identified the wine as Zinfandel. This applies primarily to single varietal (non-blended) wines, although once very well practiced, you can actually pick up these separate aromas in blends as well...but for now, stick to single varietals.

What I'd like to share is some of the key triggers I get when I "nose" certain wines. When doing several blind tastings, it helps immensely to have these triggers to quickly identify the varietal first and then continue on with the rest of the tasting evaluation. This is very individual and there are really no wrong answers here as long as it triggers the right grape used in production. Whatever you get that keys you in on the varietal is all that matters.

Here are a few of my triggers for wines that I drink regularly that take me to the varietal almost immediately:

Cabernet Sauvignon - green pepper mixed with leather

Merlot - soft red fruits

Syrah - vegetable garden

Pinot Noir
- red vines licorice/cherry mixed with straw floor (i.e. barnyard earthiness)

Zinfandel - alcoholic spice & pepper with black fruit

Port - cup of moist raisins

Sauvignon Blanc - floral green grass

Riesling - old fashioned sweet tarts or petrol (German)

Chardonnay - orchard fruit mixed with caramel (sometimes tropical)

This takes some practice to key in on your triggers for your nose, but it is a fun exercise. Although it is far from fool-proof, once you get a key identifier that you can definitively tag to a certain varietal, you'll be amazed at how much better you will do at blind tastings. In addition, it allows you to focus on the other components of the wine beyond the grape varietal as you go through the evaluation processes.

Start by having someone pour you a wine without having any idea what they are pouring and try to figure out what varietal it is. Also, at the local wine bar that does wine flights (usually 3-4 various wines), it is a good opportunity to have the server present them in a specific order blind to you without identifying the varietals first. When they have given you ample time, he can then reveal the varietals to see how you did. Once you get it down, you can show off to your friends at the next gathering...maybe even this Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Happy Holidays and enjoy!

Until the next sip..swirl ya' later.


Monday, November 12, 2007

"Perfect Pairings"

Ahhh, food & wine...I think one of the few reasons I even bother to eat these (busy) days is the possibility of uncorking a bottle of something new and exploring how well it goes with my dish. I know I am one of those few people (at least among my friends) that REALLY pays that much attention to what I eat with what I, wine or spirits. The other day I had to really convince someone that as much as they love their Cabs, it was not going to be their best choice with a lobster dinner they were considering...eeeesh! And, the other day while minding my own business as I ordered a nice Riesling with my spiced halibut dish, someone (thinking I was out of earshot) had the nerve to suggest that "anyone who still drinks white wine has not developed their palate yet for red wines". Wow, I could hardly believe my ears!!

Now, I realize there are few absolutes here and the old "white with white meat" and "red with red meat" monikers are a bit antiquated as well. It can be confusing and complex at best sometimes. However, I would like to propose a few of what I call 'perfect pairings' for those who may want to experiment/expand their tastes or try areas that otherwise might go unexplored. These are by no means complete and leave plenty of room for experimentation (alternatives), but a good place to start. Also, a lot has to do with the sauces/spices used that can change the entire complexion of the dish, so, take it with a, uh, "grain of salt" to speak...

So, here goes...

Food/Dish + Wine Pairing

Rib Eye Steak Cabernet Sauvignon
Rack of Lamb Bordeaux/Syrah
Pork Loin Chateauneuf du Pape
Roasted meats/stews Tempranillo
Grilled meats/onion Malbec
Buttery whitefish/lobster Chardonnay
Grilled Salmon Pinot Noir
Herb Crusted Halibut Pinot Gris
Spicy/Asian Riesling (Spatlese/Auslese)
Chili/Pizza Zinfandel
Sushi/Oysters/Caviar Champagne
Red Sauce pasta Chianti
Creme Brule Sauternes/white dessert
Rich Chocolate Port
Mexican food Gewurztraminer (or beer if yo must)
Goat Cheese Sauvignon Blanc
Blue Cheese Cabernet Sauvignon

Well, this ought to give you a good place to start or at least something to think about. Try some of these and write back your comments and/or what you may have found different about your experience. As I mentioned, there are actually few absolutes (but please, no tannic reds with Lobster...), and there are a lot of variables to consider. The most general of advice is to try and match the 'weight' of the dish to the 'weight' of the wine. Light and delicate food rarely goes well with big robust wines and vice-versa.

Next time out at your favorite restaurant or making a dish at home, take a moment to consider all the flavors you are going to encounter and then try to match accordingly...ask questions, look stuff up on the net, post on forums, etc. There is a lot of info out there on the subject. Although there is no perfect science, you will find that the right pairing can make a big difference in the enhancement of the food or experience. Believe me, when you find that "perfect pairing" for your palate, you will know...and, you'll be hooked on the 'methods to the madness' to make it happen again.

Good luck and happy pairing.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Wow, talk about a wine experience...

Last night, the wife and I decided to get together with another couple to try out a new "Bistro and Wine Bar" (name to be withheld), we'll call it 'V' for now. We had peeked in to this place previously while in the area, looked at the menu, the wine list, the ambiance, and decided it looked very promising to check out...boy, did we get an experience to remember.

Keep in mind, I go to these places with the thought of doing reviews for my site and forum. I present my cards to the server/manager/owner and let them know upfront who I am and why I am there. This usually works out quite well in our favor as things get attended to more diligently.

Let's start the sequence of events:

We arrived to a fairly empty restaurant and got the seats of our choice. Very nice atmosphere, well lit and well dressed in the theme they had presented. Overall a really nice setting. It took a while to get a server and order our pre-meal problem as we were getting settled and perusing the wine list. Lots of Italian selections and a decent 'wines by the glass' list. We finally got our cocktails and inquired about a few items and ordered a bottle to start. This is when the fun began...

The first bottle we ordered was an Ornellaia Super Tuscan blend (they're lower end bottling) at ~ $60. After a while, the server shows up with an alternative bottle (of which I did not recognize) because they were out of what we ordered. We held off on it, went back to the list and tried to find a better substitute and then asked to talk to the resident Sommelier or manager. The server squirmed a bit and made a few excuses in reference to this, mentioned the word "turnover" changes, but said the GM would help us. He finally shows up with two bottles for us to try, highly recommends one, Lucente Tuscan blend. Fine, we agree and he pops it open for us to try. Initially, my first two thoughts were green acid with very little fruit to be found. I understand Italian wines need to breathe, but I was guessing this was not going to get there with any length of time we had at this sitting...back to the drawing board.

So, I review the wines by the glass list, and discover an Antinori sangiovese blend that I have had before, and decide to play it somewhat safer here. The GM shows up with a different glass, the lowest end blend they have, stating they are out of the Antinori, and to try this as a substitute. It was horrendous and the worst of the lot so far...made the Lucente taste like a fruit bomb comparatively. Another visit back to the list...back to good 'ol dependable CA wines. I quickly spot a 2002 Sienna by Ferrari-Carano, and say "sold!" let's do it. She shows up with a 2005 (three years off), and we punt...again, back to the list.

After discussing with the group, we decided to stick to a dependable Merlot, Rodney Strong...nothing special, but consistent and in our price point for the evening. After a few minutes, the server sheepishly returns saying they are out of the Rodney Strong, but presented a Sterling Merlot that she heard us also discussing. At this point, it is at a comical stage and surprisingly, we are being fairly good natured in our frustrations...and the server is totally embarrassed. We agree on this quickly and just want a frigging glass of wine for God's sake! I take a quick glance at the bottle, see a '2004 Reserve' name on the dark label (hmm...?), but just wave it off in complete dismay of what has transpired and amongst the chatter at the table of the farce we are encountering.

She opens the wine for us to try, and it is quite nice, soft, good fruit, but pretty big for a Merlot. She pours all of us a glass and everyone agrees the we have finally found the holy grail for the evening. As I take another sip, something seems a bit awry. It has a bit of 'greenness' to it and some familiar flavors that seem a bit off for Merlot. I go back to the bottle to inspect it more closely and see that it is actually a 2004 Reserve Cabernet! Big OOOPS!! Then it triggers that they do not make a Reserve Merlot and I immediately go back to the list and see that it is over $150 compared to the Merlot at $49...UGH!!! We call the server back over and point out the problem, she is completely frazzled by this point and just assures us that it will be taken care of some how. We assure her that after all that has transpired, we are certain things will be taken care of as well.

To wrap it up, the Cab was fine and worked well for the dinner. They only charged us for the Merlot price and all in all they were pretty good about it. I feel they could have done more given the circumstances, but we all felt that they had dug such a deep hole that they were just going to cut their losses on us. Sad thing is, the food was really good and aside from the wine debacle, it was a nice place.

The silver lining is that I spoke to the GM afterwards and we agreed he needed some help with his wine presentations and list/inventory. We agreed to have lunch and talk about how I can help them out. For that matter, who better than one that has gone through the experience as I did from the customer perspective. I think we'll return when I have my hands in the business a while and can go with confidence that the wines I order from the list are the ones I'll get at the table (I know that is a lot to ask...uhem). Case closed.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Size (and shape) Does Matter to Wine

I've always been intrigued with the various shapes and sizes bottles of wine and champagne are produced or chosen by winemakers. Pinot Noir has its own shape with a slightly skinnier neck and more bulbous lower half. Riesling has its thinner and taller overall distinguishing shape. Port and Sherry have their distinct shapes as well. Even Chardonnay bottles have their own bottle shape with is what most would consider a 'normal' style of what wine bottles look like. And of course, Champagne bottles are mostly thick and shapely to exude a sexiness to its overall allure. Most of these shapes come from century old traditions of the local regions.

One of the lesser known bottle idiosyncrasies are the actual number of "official" sizes that are manufactured for producers. Interestingly enough, there is quite the exotic history behind the naming of these bottles and the level of sizes they encompass.

The are listed in the following order according to size/volume (liters):

Name/No. Equiv. Bottles
Standard (.75) 1
Magnum (1.5) 2
Jeroboam (3) 4
Rehoboam (4.5) 6
Methuselah (6) 8
Salmanazar (9) 12
Balthazar (12) 16
Nebuchadnezzar (15) 20
Melchior (18) 24
Solomon (20) 28*
Primat (27) 36*
Melchizedek (30) 40*

* Technically correct, but rarely used or referred to in the wine business.

Now, most of these names came from Biblical references to ruling kings, character names or other major (political) figures of the time. I'll run through a few of my favorites...

Methuselah - literally means "man of dart" (?), but more interestingly, he was known as the oldest person whose age is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible at 969 years. He was believed to eclipse Adam, who was stated to have lived 930 years. Genesis 5:27 states, "And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died" Genesis 5:5 states, "So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years, and he died." Oddly enough, he was believed to have died at the time of the 'great flood'.

Balthazar - one of the three kings that brought gifts to baby Jesus. He was believed to be of African descent and the only 'person of color' mentioned at that time.

Nebuchadnezzar - name of several reigning kings of Babylonia.

Rehoboam - was a king of the ancient Kingdom of Judah, succeeding his father Solomon. His grandfather was David. He was the third king of the House of David and the first of the Kingdom of Judah. His mother was Naamah "the Ammonitess." His name means he who enlarges the people.

So, the next time you are out at a restaurant and you see that big bottle sitting on display, you'll have a much greater appreciation for its history and the stories that come along with it. Plus, you might be able to share your new found knowledge with the staff, and surprise them as most do not know the origin or history of these somewhat exorbitant displays.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Tasting Notes Fundamentals

Lots of my friends ask me how I got in to wine and are often curious about how difficult it is to go through formal training/classes to learn more about wine. My almost always canned response to them is, "I've only learned how much I DON'T really know and how far I still HAVE to go...". One simple thing that amazes most novices is how I go through the tasting process (sight, swirl, sniff, sip) and/or how overwhelming it seems when they read tasting notes from 'experts' that go through a bevy of complicated terms or nuances in evaluating a wine.

To the average person, they could not in their wildest imagination think of coming up with descriptive words like - taut, chewy, loamy, or fleshy - along with describing flavors such as - dried figs, leather, cedar, wet stone, or mint - in some nice liquid in a glass we call wine.

Admittedly, I even sometimes have problems with the lengths some go in fancy descriptions that you know can only come from someone who has done this thousands of times and has all of these words in their mental Rolodex and quick recall capacities. I mean who REALLY knows what 'loamy' even means? It's actually easier than you may think...

To simplify a bit, I've pulled basic tasting notes from my Sommelier class that might help you get started in evaluating a wine. Below are the foundations upon which we did all of our tasting notes:

Appearance (clarity, intensity, color, rim vs. core color)

Nose (condition, intensity, development (age), fruit character, bouquet)

Palate (sweetness, acidity, tannin, fruit intensity, alcohol, length of finish)

Conclusions (Quality, maturity, opinion)


2004 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay
Appearance: clear, med. intensity, straw/gold color, watery rim
Nose: clean, med. intensity, youthful, floral bouquet, orchard fruit elements with med. oak
Palate: dry, med+ acid, well balanced, clean fruit, notes of butter/oak, clean balanced finish, med. alcohol
Conclusions: good/high quality, new world youthfulness, drink now

A couple of tips to remember when just getting started:

1) There are few (if any) absolutes and your experience should be very individual. Rarely any "wrong" answers here...your nose/palate gets what it gets.
2) It takes a lot of practice. Start by just being more present to wine and what it offers. Begin by utilizing the 4 S's (sight, swirl, sniff, sip) with each glass.
3) Read other reviews. To get the hang of it, take some time to read reviewers that you like and how they go about their descriptions. Wine Spectator has a ton of these in the back of each magazine and does a good job in their reviews online.
4) Spend time in the produce section. One the best tips I ever got was to spend a few extra minutes in the produce/fruit section of the store and smell each fruit to help distinguish and train my olfactory senses. Close your eyes and make mental notes of what you're smelling so you can recall these when in the presence of your glass of wine.
5) Don't worry about long, drawn-out descriptions. Just describe what you are getting out of it, follow the systematic approach, and get to where you can say a couple of things about each category (above).
6) Share. The best way is to do this with someone and compare what each of you get from the wine. It helps to hear what others get from the same wine and get you thinking beyond your own experience.

Try this out when you start doing your tastings, you'll have fun as you see yourself get better, it becomes easier and begins to enhance the whole experience. Enjoy!

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!


Monday, October 29, 2007

Buying Wine Online - Part 2

I've previously examined some of the reasons why I believe people buy wine (see my earlier 'Buying Wine Online' - Part 1) or actually selling, as in this particular case. I also touched on the fact that it is a very small percentage of what I think is a huge market potential for selling wines online now that some of the laws have opened up to customer direct shipping. The market is there, the need is there, but companies have not adapted some basic principles of direct marketing and/or familiar with a consumer direct approach. In addition, there are a lot of new players (wineries) that just do not have the experience in selling direct and have yet to put the resources in place to properly handle this new approach. Aside from a few consummate marketers, the majority of the sites selling wine have a "give it a rating, a picture/description, throw it online and it will sell" attitude that falls way short of what savvy buyers are looking for.

I'd like to present a few ideas of how companies or wineries could do a much better job for the potential customers and sell a lot more wine in the process:

1) Price/value. This is so obvious, but still so overlooked. There is absolutely no incentive whatsoever for me to buy a wine online, pay the extra shipping, and wait for it to arrive, if I am not saving at LEAST $1 or $2 per bottle on a case. Especially in the states that allow grocers to carry wines, mainstream labels are almost always cheaper than you can find anywhere online. It is very hard to compete in the mass markets for these wines. Here's a concept - do the homework and price wines in order to sell at volume and show the savings to the consumer. Yes, it may be below what "retail" should be, but it just plain has to make fiscal sense and be clearly spelled out to the buyer. Offer single bottle or mixed case pricing that is a true value.

2) Reasons to try a wine. One of my biggest pet-peeves is just a long linear list of wines with a rating and a brief description of the wines I may or may not be familiar with. Like I will just magically want to spend $20 - $30 to try something new because Spectator or Parker gave it a 91 rating. Mmmmmm, not so much. Spend time giving the wine a story (personalize it), talk to the customer for what types of flavors/tastes they might encounter (in lay person form), present occasions where it might go well (perfect pre/post-meal quaffing, mixed parties, holidays), give food recommendations (perfect with...), compare it to other types of wines they might like (if you like bold fruity merlots...), and present user reviews from others that liked the wine (even if manufactured a bit).

3) Shipping costs. I can, without a doubt, assure you that this is one of online customers least favorite things to encounter. I ran a catalog business for 10 years, and after trying numerous offers to entice customers, the #1 overwhelming winner in comparison tests was 'Free Shipping'. Even when the "% Off" offer was actually saving them MORE money, they chose free shipping. Arrange your pricing and back-end shipping so that you can ease this burden to the consumer. Give options that allow the consumer to upgrade shipping if needed, but in general, make it a non-issue.

4) Wine & Food pairings. Let's face it, most of the wine bought is usually going to end up around some sort of food or occasion. The vast majority of sites totally drop the ball, miss the boat, are lazy, or whatever, in taking this approach. If I run across a wine that intrigues me (i.e. you've done a good job in perking my interests up (see #2 above)), you can seal the deal much quicker if you include what this wine would be ideally paired with, food-wise. I guarantee that if I am planning a big party or dinner and looking for that "perfect pairing", and I run across a wine that meets my food criteria, I am far more likely to give it a try.

5) Wine bundles/packages. People like easy decisions. When you can bundle things as a package that is perceived as a great value, you get their attention. You can also offer various things to appeal to a variety of occasions or tastes. Bundle things by a party occasion, a food occasion, seasonal option, varietals, countries/regions, 'sampler' packages, price, etc. The options are numerous and people just like things that have been well thought out for them.

6) Educate. I know this might come as a shock, but not everyone knows what a Bordeaux blend, Rhone style, Meritage, or Sauternes is. Most probably do not know that Pinot Noir is Burgundy's grape or that Burgundy even makes white wine! The reality is, 90% of the potential market stays with the mainstream varietals - Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir (only because of the movie Sideways), and Shiraz (pfoooey, Yellowtail) - without venturing to some of the lesser known great wines (and values). There are very easy ways to educate (without confusing) the customer that there are some great wines to try outside their comfort zone. People in general want to learn about wines they're buying/trying, and with the vast amount of info online that is available for this, I am amazed more do not do a better job informing customers more.

7) Customer service. This could be an entire subject on its own. But what I can tell you is that if you cannot be immediately responsive to customer needs, you will not be a player very long in the business. This cannot be an 'OK' area for businesses, it has to be exceptional. Customers are getting more and more demanding and will not tolerate poor customer service at any level. I am blown away how many times I can still not get a real person on the phone when I have a simple question during my purchase. One of the most underutilized features in this industry is the "Live Online Help" option available to companies they can employ. Let's face it, almost more than any other industry, the wine market is challenging (at best) in its presentation. People need a lot of help and are just not readily getting it.

8) Personalization. This one hits home with me the most as I really enjoy going to the local wine shop, browsing, looking at labels, seeing what's new, talking to the owner, getting recommendations, finding hidden treasures, etc. The online market can never duplicate this experience, but they could sure try better. If someone could really step up, spend the money and try to create a 'virtual' store of sorts, I think they'd be on to something. If at the very least, do the little things to personalize the experience more - remember the visitor, past purchases, ask for input, live help, give shopping options, tips, wine & food pairing, post latest deals, etc.

9) Offer exclusives. Companies should work more closely with wineries/distributors in offering some more exclusive labels that customers cannot get anywhere else. There are a lot of great wines that end up only going to wine club members or only available at the wineries. People like have access to things that no one else has, price becomes much less of a concern in these instances.

That about summarizes it and gets a lot off my chest. I realize this talks to industry more than consumers, but it affects consumers directly. This can assist in voicing their opinions and help put expectations more in line.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!


Friday, October 26, 2007

Buying Wine Online - Part 1

So, I recently read that approximately only 1% - 2% of all wine sales come from online sources, with heading the pack at ~ $34 mil in sales. Also, California accounts for a whopping 46% of all online wine sales. Interestingly enough, high-end wines (i.e. greater than $20) accounted for 93% of all sales...WOW!

Although these may seem to be somewhat a significant numbers, it occurred to me that something is askew with this market. Then I began to explore my own online buying patterns and quickly discerned that I rarely, if ever, buy wine online. And, have little interest to change this or do so anytime soon. Hmmmm........

Now, I consider myself fairly schooled about my wines (just enough to be dangerous) why am I not buying online? Is the general lay public more likely to purchase wine online and my little knowledge about the market actually keeps me going to the local wine shop instead? What are the main reasons someone would even prefer to purchase wine online over the local market or wine shop? What are people buying in the first place? The data out there for this is scarce at best, and only presents some estimations of why people buy wine online.

Here's my theory in (random) top-10 form:

1) Availability. Often times, people cannot find certain wines in their area and can easily plug a brand in to a search engine and quickly access multiple places to purchase a hard-to-find wine. They are willing to pay the extra sometimes for the sheer availability of a brand.
2) Value. People that know what they want, compared prices, and how much they are willing to pay for a certain brand, can often find deals online that justify the extra shipping expense. A pure money decision for prudent shoppers.
3) Convenience. Certain people just do not have time to spend at the local wine shop or staring at the wall of wines trying to decide which one they'll like. They're willing to 'roll the dice' a bit for the convenience of point and click shopping and trust the basic rating system to carry them through. Plus, a lot of times you have more information about the wines than at the local grocer or market.
4) Referrals. Either they got directly referred to a wine or online store from someone who has had a good experience, and trust the source for making the leap to purchase online. Enough of the fear factor has been removed to get them to act.
5) Wine Clubs. I personally believe this is a very strong source of a lot of wine sales online. It provides convenience, variety, value and trust altogether that these wines have been chosen for a good reason. However, this is not always the case and can lead to suspect wines ending up your way...uhem...unknowingly.
6) Wine Auctions. My personal favorite, but not for weak at heart (or market dabblers). You really have to know your stuff here and be willing to do your research as well. Not to mention, sometimes deep pockets. However, you can pick up some great deals if you REALLY know what you are looking for.
7) Food & Wine pairing sites. Several sites that do a decent job of food and wine pairing will often suggest specific wine(s) to go with the recommendation or recipes described, and then have the ability to purchase that wine directly. (I actually like this...more on this later)
8) The strict ratings buyer. These are buyers that hold ratings (or they're favorite critic) to a premium, and whatever is rated at 'x' or above is gospel.
9) The Wine Spectator (WS) effect. This usually comes about when WS comes out with its Top 100 list and people rush to buy the latest and greatest value or rated wine from this list so they can claim, "You know, this one was 24 in the WS Top 100...blah, blah, blah..."
10) The Lucky 20-something states. You're lucky enough to be in one of the U.S. states where you can legally ship wine. This opens up more avenues to buy directly from wineries or sites. I think at last count, it was in and around 26, but I am never sure about this as it changes often.

So there you have it. Next time I will talk about why I believe the system is missing the boat with online wine sales and provide a few ideas of how to better capitalize on the huge market potential in years to come.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Response to question on aging wines

I recently had to respond to a question from our forum re: "where to start in looking at wines capable of aging 10-30 years for a special family tradition occasion for the last current sibling/family member standing...?" At first, I thought this a fairly straightforward question, but as I began to explore the possibilities, I quickly realized there was a lot more to it.

My initial response was as follows:

Very interesting question and predicament. The quick answer to the question is, yes, aging is very feasible for this time period and not uncommon to accommodate with current wines on the market.

There are two major factors in deciding which wine to choose - 1) The vintage rating and 2) The winery/estate producer. The next big question to consider is where it will be stored protectively over this period of time.

The other suggestion would be to maybe look at purchasing 6-12 bottles that can be 'tested' along the way and track its progress in aging. When the 'last man standing' is left to finish off the lot, he can finish in tribute to those that had tasted with him along the way.

1) The vintage. If you are looking for something that can stand the test of time, you'll need to go with a red that has a very high overall vintage rating. Off the top of my head, you should look at the following: France - Bordeaux 2000 for sure, possibly '03 or the recent banner '05 vintage, Burgundy 2005. Italy - Piedmont 2000 or Super Tuscan (Tuscany) 2001. All of these have shown to be age-worthy and 10-30 years is no problem. Once you narrow down the region/wine of choice, look at the rating for those particular vintages for each one before deciding.

2) The winery/producer. For this grand occasion, I would recommend staying with "First Growths" or Premiere Cru estates that have a track record of producing banner wines in banner years worthy of long-term aging. For Bordeaux, that would be the 5 following Chateaus: Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Haut Brion, Latour, and Mouton-Rothschild. However, there are several others that are equally revered such as - Palmer, Petrus, Le Pin, Lynch-Bages, Chevel-blanc, just to name a few. For Burgundy (if you like Pinot Noir), again stay with the Grand Cru (highest in Burgundy) estates. There are so many to choose, but personally, I'd stay with either a Cotes de Nuits or Cotes de Beaune areas. More specifically, Vosne-Romanee (Conti) or Gevrey-Chambertin. Someone with specific Burgundy experience may be better to help you here. For Italy, stay with the super-Tuscans (i.e. blends) with names like Antinori, Sassacaia, Gaja or a few others from the Bolgheri area.

You can find many other opinions on this and welcome to do so. Some may even wonder why I left out some CA wines, but for this occasion, I feel you need to stay with tradition, and France or Italy will keep you in that.

The bigger concern is where you plan to store this. I would immediately recommend finding a reputable storage facility in your area that you know will be around for a while and/or at least have the ability to move the wines properly. Do not think that someone's dark closet is "ok" for this.

Also, if you do decide to go this route, I'd recommend going with an online auction site that can give you a seal of authenticity with your purchase. I use and to find some good deals if you're patient.

Personally, if price were no concern, I'd go with the following:

6 bottles of 2000 Chateau Latour (100 rating) at ~ $1500 per bottle. Taste one every 5 years or so on a special occasion leaving one for the final tasting.

If I really had to do it myself, I'd go with a case (12) of a second growth that got a really high rating that is drinking well now through the next 20 or so years. For instance, a case of 2000 Chateau l'Angelus (rated 97), would run you about $2500 (or $200/bottle) and you could have a lot of fun with it over the next 20 years together leaving one or two for the last man.

Fun question and exercise...thanks for the inquiry and let me know what you end up with.

There are several opinions on this subject and I have definitely gone the more conservative route in trying to give this gentleman good basic advice with mainstream results. The reality is, proportionately there really are only a few wines that fall in to the category of long-term aging. And, as mentioned, I did not go with any CA wines mainly because of the occasion, more than the aging quality of CA wine. I do believe there are some CA wines that fall in to this category, but they are few and far between as well. Opus One and Harlan come to mind...

I think the important point to take from this exercise is that the single most important element in making this decision is the vintage where the quality (and harmony) of the fruit, the tannins, sugar, acid and ability to blend freely are at the discretion of the winemaker. Even the great names struggle to make an age-worthy wine in 'off-vintages'.

We will be publishing a world vintage quick reference chart on our site when we launch Phase II in early Nov. 2007. Keep an eye for this and I'll be writing a piece on 'last 10 year vintages' specifically when this debuts.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later!

James M.
Chief Wino