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!