Thursday, December 24, 2009

For the True Love of Wine

Yesterday was a slightly abbreviated day of tasting as the Holidays draw near. But, that did not deter making a few stops at some places that I had not been to before. This venture was going to be one of true tradition as we had sights on the oldest winery in Napa, Charles Krug, (just outside St. Helena) run by the Peter Mondavi family...if nothing else, good for your wine trivia friends. After the usual lunch at the Rutherford Grill, my wife and I were off with our bellies full and prepared for the day.

As luck would have it, while we were tasting, Mr. Peter Mondavi, Sr. himself was at the tasting room with a friend. Now, this is one of the most iconic figures in Napa outside his now deceased brother, Robert Mondavi. At 95, Peter was moving around just fine and I wished I had been able to corral him for second to get a picture but he was busy with his friend. All I could muster up was a quick "hello" and praise about the wines I had just tasted. Charles Krug is making some surprisingly good wines these days combining a few great value wines with the usual high-end stars. My favorite among the value wines was the 2007 Zinfandel ($25). On the private reserve side, my two favorites were the 'Voltz' Cabernet ($80) and the 'X' Clone Reserve Cab ($100). All in all, a really nice job of bringing the wines to premiere status again.

Our second stop was at a small private winery, Allora Vineyards, owned and operated by the Klein family. Terry and Nancy Klein along with their children have created quite a slice of paradise here that any of us would aspire to. They live on the property with 10 acres of vineyards and create an enticing 'Tuscan' feel amongst the California landscape. We tasted in the cave below their house where all 1000 cases of production reside. It had all the elements of small, artisan style production along with the personal touch of being hosted by the family and Terry Klein himself and his daughter, Cortney. All the wines were as friendly and enjoyable as the hosts. We loved the Super Tuscan 'Cielo' ($40) and the 'Tresca' Cab/Cab Franc ($50). Terry and Cortney were very gracious spending a good amount of time with my wife and I telling all the stories about the wines, the backgrounds and some fun anecdotal bits about the famous artist, Margaret Keane, in creation of the 'Lusso' Cab ($100) label art.

Our last stop was a winery I was very familiar with, but had never had a chance to visit the tasting room, Ehlers Estate. This group has been know for its wines for quite a while, but arguably more known for its philanthropic efforts. They donate all proceeds to the Leducq Foundation that is 100% focused on research to fight cardiovascular diseases. They are also an organic vineyard and bio-dynamic farming estate. But, make no mistake, their wines are phenomenal and hard pressed to pick out a favorite. If had to pick my two that combine good value and early drinkability, it would be their Merlot ($45) and my personal favorite, their 'One-twenty Over Eighty' ($45) (i.e. perfect blood pressure numbers) Meritage red. However, for outright weight, complexity and well-structured big red, the '1886 Cab' ($95) is well worthy of cellaring for several years and the '05 I tasted had the 'WOW!' factor. The bottle design and overall package alone make this wine must-have. Along with an incredible historic structure for the tasting room and background, the staff (Mo & Scott) make this one the must visits when heading north past St. Helena.

Ahhh, just another day in wine country where the holidays seemed so distant only to realize it was Christmas Eve-Eve. Time to prepare for wrapping up 2009 and see what 2010 has to bring.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Napa's Quandary and Hidden Pinot Gem

Since I had some business to attend to in the actual town of Napa, I decided to spend a little time tooling around some of the downtown venues for wine tasting. Surprisingly, most people do not know that there are several tasting rooms downtown and it presents a dilemma for those wineries that have set up shop here. Most people that are visiting for the first time here (or several times for that matter) just buzz right on by Napa "proper" because once you hit the highway coming in from San Francisco, you never really notice 'Napa' off Hwy 29 and it is a bit of jog in to the actual town of Napa. Before you know it, you're down the road past the town and your next stop is Yountville where everyone stops.

Anyway, Napa has a bit to overcome unless you are actually staying in the town. Event then, most people head up Silverado Trail or Hwy. 29 where are the wineries reside. But, there are some hidden gems from a wine tasting standpoint and some very good wineries represented in town.

One of the great spots to leverage your tasting efforts is a little known historic building that was turned in to a collective tasting room called - Vintners Collective. They usually represent 16-20 wines that do not have their own tasting rooms and is a great place to try several featured wines in one spot.

There are also several tasting rooms scattered around the town including - Ceja & Whetstone along with Mason and Gustavo Thrace at the Oxbow Market just outside of downtown - that is more like the walk-up tasting bar type experience.

One stop that I was excited about was Robert Craig Winery. I had been very familiar with the brand from previous tasting experiences and always loved the wines. Bob Craig is also a very nice gentleman and has a very good reputation of consistency of fine winemaking here in Napa. They have a new tasting room a bit outside of town next to the River Terrace Inn and new Westin properties. The wines are phenomenal and definitely worth the visit whether in town or just passing through. My standout favorites are their Affnity, Howell Mt. Cab and Mount George wines, but enjoyed the entire lineup. Ask for Jeff Roman, the tasting room manager, and he'll take real good care of you when there. Look them up or stop by on your next is an easy diversion on your way up or down Silverado Trail and you'll be glad made the effort.

It was a short day and I hit a few other places on the way back home. One of note was a place that I have passed at least a dozen times and never stopping was the Silverado Trail Wine Studio custom crush facility that is home to Bighorn Cellars and Expression Wines. This unassuming studio is easy to miss, but don't. The Expression Wines are great and known for their mastery of Pinot Noir in both Napa/Sonoma and Oregon. Apprently they are also coming out with a big Bordeaux style red that is called Tetra Wine that I am anxious to try as well.

One last stop was to Stag's Leap Cellars just because it had been over 15 years since I had been there, but they were just finishing up a remodeling and were not quite finished. I quickly tasted a few wines but had to be on my way.

Although a fairly uneventful shorter day of tasting, I was glad to have made the stops I did in such short order. And, some good finds as well. All in a days "work"...

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Thursday, December 3, 2009

From Castle to Mountain

I finally made it to the infamous Napa Castle, or more technically named, Castello di Amorosa, just north of St. Helena. I'd heard about the extensive project many times and everyone had raved about it, but I was generally not all that interested as it seemed to fall in to the "touristy" category not for real oenophiles. I must say, I was impressed on many fronts.

In short, the castle was patterned after castles from 10th to 16th centuries and is an amazing piece of vision, construction and attention to detail 15 years in the making. Our guide, Kerry, was extremely knowledgeable, informative and organized in her presentation. She whisked us through the labyrinth of levels within the walls and through the myriad of cellars, cubbyholes and chambers finally arriving at our own private tasting room.

The wines were actually better than I had expected with so much attention to the aesthetics of the property and really enjoyed the entire experience. Two wines stood out most was the Gewurztraminer and the Super Tuscan blend. What was most impressive is their model to hold on to the wines in bottle longer than almost anyone giving the wine up to 4 years in bottle before release. Walls and walls of wines from the early 2000's still waiting for release...I'll be waiting.

Second was our visit to CADE on Howell Mt. This is one of Napa's newest properties and one of the most contemporary designs to come along in quite a while. The views are amazing and I really enjoy their wines. We tasted - '07 Sauvignon Blanc, '06 CADE Cuvee, and '06 Cab - along with some simple but delicious food pairings to go with each. DJ & Kent Nielsen are the resident chefs there and they have always done a great job in both presentation and attention to wine pairing. My favorite wine was definitely the straight Howell Mt. Cabernet.

Anyway, short week this time around with family in town...more to come next week!

Till the sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Touring the Parents

Since it is the holiday, I'll make this one short and sweet. Plus, I had the 'rents in town for Thanksgiving an it was more of a tour-day for them. However, that did not deter from a wonderful day out and about some places that I was already familiar with and people that I currently do business with.

Anyway, a full day of tasting and dining in the valley...

We started at O'Brien Estate and met with my friend Bart O'Brien the proprietor there. They are a super-friendly comfortable picnic style tasting in the heart of Oak Knoll district where you are right in the vineyards. They are known for their 'Seduction' wine that is a Bordeaux style red that is ultra-delicious.

We moved on to Auberge du Soleil Hotel on the east side of Rutherford for a quick lunch. If you've never been to Auberge, it is a must visit if for nothing else the views. But, the food is always amazing and I had one of the best mushroom soups I have ever had...and I do not love mushrooms! I recommend the "bar side" for convenient and easy fare.

Then on to ZD Winery for a quick stop before our 3p appointment. ZD does a great job with their base Chardonnay and they are also know for their super high-end solera-style red called Abacus ($450) that they have pioneered and been making for 12 years mixing previous vintages with current vintage productions.

Our 3pm appointment was at Paraduxx, a sister property of Duckhorn that does almost exclusively Zinfandel blends. It is unique in both presentation and style of tasting. It is a very contemporary designed facility that serves you in an outdoor lounge setting under giant oak tree amongst the property. My favorite was the Howell Mt. blend of 65% Zin and 35% Cab...super juicy and delicious.

After taking a few pictures at the French Laundry for the folks, we ventured over to the newest property in Yountville, the Bardessono Hotel for the best coffee in town. This is one of the most talked about places in town as it positioned itself as the ultra-green enviro stamp benchmark for hotels in the future. Fully sustainable and taking in to account everything "green" from top to bottom.

We ended up the day the Rutherford Grill as toted our wines in with the "no corkage" policy and enjoyed a always consistent dinner with our own wines from the day.

I wish a Happy Thanksgivng to all and may you enjoy the true meaning of what this holiday represents.

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Thursday, November 19, 2009

HIt the Mark Right Out of the Gate

Today is the first in what I hope will be an insightful series of weekly reports back on my ventures in wine country here in Napa and Sonoma. Let me state my goals here and then I will go on to report on my day.

I want to accomplish three primary things in doing these weekly outings on Wednesdays to have my followers tune in on Thursdays to see what transpired - 1) Showcase a new wine or winemaker that I discovered making something special that you will want to try, 2) Present real-time events, conversations or observations of what a day in touring wine country provides, 3) Give readers an "insiders" view of some anecdotal perspectives of what life in Napa Valley and beyond looks and feels like.

My first (reporting) day out yesterday did not disappoint in the least....

As with most 'tasting' days, you need a good meal in you to get started. My favorite spot (as is with most in the industry) is Rutherford Grill off Hwy 29 right next to BV Winery. I've made more connections and done more business there than anywhere else outside my office. There is always just such a buzz there and is the true melting pot for anyone in and around wine. As usual, I sat at the bar in between two people and just waited for conversations to flow as they most inevitably do. Without a corkage fee there, you always have someone that has brought something to the bar and it is always easy to solicit a quick sip or three.

I tried two wines there, '07 Silverado Zinfandel from a couple a guys who brought it in as part of their stop-over there and an '07 Anaba Carneros Pinot Noir. With my seared Ahi tuna salad, they actually both went quite well. I struck up a conversation with the girl next me, she was from Boston visiting her sister in Yountville, and she knew the valley decently along with some people in the industry. Our discussion was interesting from a consumer standpoint as we delved in to why people try new wines or are loyal to certain wines. Her view was that she liked to know or follow certain winemakers and when wineries changed winemakers. Since this has been fairly prolific as of late with winemakers doing so many alternative or personal projects, the movement has been more than ever and very tough to keep up with. I, of course, disclosed to her that in the Access Wine Club (AWC) catalog and website, we do a very good job of giving the winemaker their voice along with a link online to 'About the Winemaker' for each wine. She liked this feature a lot. After giving her and the other guys a copy of my catalog, I was ready to be on my way to venture out up-valley. Quick bit of business once again at "The Grill".

After making notes of a few wineries I passed to possibly hit on the way home (you always seem to pass a few that you say to yourself "ahh, I need to check them out...") I decided my first stop would be a winery "collective" tasting room just north of St. Helena called - A Dozen Vintners - where you get to try several wines from various 'artisan' style winemakers or smaller production wineries that do not have formal tasting rooms. The utilize these type of co-ops to be able to display their wines without the cost of running a tasting room themselves...there a few of these that have cropped up in the valley and are quite popular.

I spent quite a while there with the manager, Jack Wall, and we tasted through probably 12 wines while chatting about the state of the 'industry'. I was very fortunate in that no other customers came in this window and was able to spend quality time exploring some new exciting wines. The two standouts of the entire day were wines I had never heard about before; 2005 WaterMark Cabernet and 2004 Adams Ridge Cabernet. Both of these had what I refer to as the "WOW!" factor right off the bat.

2005 WaterMark is made by a pretty well-known winemaker, Phil Steinschriber, who is the winemaker for famed Diamond Creek Vineyards. No surprise here that I loved this wine. It is a Bordeaux style blend of Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot with rich black fruit properties and very approachable now but surely even better with time. And, at ~ $50, a real gem of wine that would be hard to beat at this price (only 434 cases made). I spoke to Phil briefly later that afternoon and if you want to get this wine, contact me directly at - - and I might be able to make a good deal for you directly...wink, wink.

2004 Adams Ridge Cabernet was also a superb wine that initially caught my eye with the beautiful drawing of their wine cave on the front of the label. As this is AWC's front catalog cover icon, I was immediately drawn to this bottle. Little did I know that what was inside was even more compelling. Primarily Cabernet with a little Merlot (5%) thrown in, it was richly Stag's Leap District style Cab that comes from two distinct vineyards, Stelzner and Rutherford Bench that have always produced great wine. Ronald & Susan Adams are the proprietors and the winemakers themselves and have done a tremendous job right out the gate. This is definitely one to watch and I cannot wait to meet them and explore their cave...maybe the cover for the next catalog...?

I then ventured further up-valley making a few quick business pit-stops and finally ending up at the Wine Garage in Calistoga. This is an interesting little shop where almost all the wines are at $25 or below. they also make their own wine label called - Garage Wine - that includes several varietals and blends from whites to reds all reasonably priced $10 and up. I actually picked up a couple of fun zin/petite sirah/tempranillo blend wines - '06 Fortitude ($20, by Etude wines) and '07 John Robert Eppler wine ($13).

All in all a very productive and revealing day with a couple of great discoveries. That is about all I could fit in to one day as I got a bit of a late start. It was time to start heading home, pick up a pizza at Tra Vigne Pizzaria, and enjoy the fruits of my labor when I got home wines in hand.

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino
twitter - Chief_Wino

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Chief Wino Hits the Trail...Literally

In getting back to the roots of why I came to Napa in the first place and what I actually enjoy most about living in wine country, I am going to (re)dedicate this Local Wino Whines Blog to my travels, trials and tribulations of exploring the Napa/Sonoma and beyond.

Every Wednesday, I will be out and about wine country mixing it up with wineries, winemakers, various tastings, favorite wine lunch spots and the like, reporting back on my day to post my findings every Thursday by noon. I will concentrate on new wine discoveries, but will also be reporting back on the "day-in-the-life" of what goes on in Napa/Sonoma from a true 'local wino' perspective.

So, starting this Thursday, come back to my blog and see the first Chief Wino Explores (CWE) report on what the day presented and what I discovered along the way. This will be a weekly insightful and fun ride for all to enjoy!

Chief Wino

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Return to Whining

One can only keep up so much theses days. Between tweeting, facebooking, blogging, spacing, and launching a new wine business - Access Wine Club - I have been very tardy on my own personal wine blog and my site. That being said, I've decided to use my Local Wino Whines forum to express shorter, more concise consumer views about wine and link my observations from the wine business side with the consumer side. More of a view from inside out that may be of some interest.

My goal is to be very to the point and approach certain subjects more directly as they occur from my primary focus now which is the Access Wine Club catalog and website venture.

So here goes...subject #1 - Social Networks and Wine.

There is obviously a lot of interest in Social Networking across all channels these days and it has become the latest Internet darling. It is a broad term very loosely used now since there are so many of these portals that have been developed, but there is a more technical term being thrown around referred to as a "viral-expansion loop". This is a fancy way of saying friends telling friends that tell other friends and so on that revolve around a common interest of sorts whether it is where they went to school, family, social clubs, activities or key interests and the such. The expansion and growth has been exponential, literally. Now, people are trying to find out how to capitalize on this (i.e. monetize) with the huge numbers we're dealing with.

I've created a wine group on Facebook, I tweet as much as I can, and I have a portal, a forum and website all revolving around wine. And now, we sell wine through some exclusive partnerships here in Napa. Although interest is high and the numbers can be 'fruitful', the buyers are still tough to identify. Just because there is a wine "interest", it does not mean that they are buyers.

In summation, wine is a very social commodity and there are big numbers to reach. The next step is to find what compels people to go from sharing their interests about wine online to actually becoming a buyer. Access Wine Club attempts to do this through offering specialty wines through some exclusive partnerships along with giving the (potential) consumer more thorough information about the wine, the background, the winemaker and the winery itself to create interest beyond just a rating or a couple of sentences about the wine.

So far so good...we just need to continue to expand the pockets and do our best to inform the consumer well enough to make comfortable decisions about their purchase when trying something new.

More to come...

Chief Wino

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Corkage vs. bottle vs. half-bottle vs. by-the-glass

Amongst many of my wine drinking friends and family, when we decide to go out to dinner, I am often left with the ongoing dilemma...bring a bottle and suffer the corkage fee or rely on the random offerings on the 'by the glass' (BTG) list which I know will be a limited version of what I really want or like. There are several factors that play in to this scenario and I'd like to lay out a few things to consider when faced with this potential quandary.

1) First and foremost, what IS the corkage fee or the stipulations of bringing your own wine? Many places have policies in place that waive corkage for every bottle purchased or the fees are such that it just does not make sense for the bottle your bringing. Sometimes, you can even order just a 'split' of wine to start and the corkage is waived. Obviously, you do not want to pay $20-$25 for a $30 bottle of wine or the like or if they charge full price for half-bottles.

2) Who and/or how many are you dining with? When you have a larger group or more than 4-6, you know there will be various dining decisions being made that greatly affect what you may want to bring if any. If everyone will agree to absorb the corkage fee, then bring something nice everyone will want to at least try and then let the rest order as they wish. Trying to please a lot of palates is challenging to say the least.

3) Do you have a good idea of the menu or style of food? I'm not hard-line fan of exact wines wine and food pairings, but I think it is an important consideration to overlook. For instance, if you are going to traditional French, strictly seafood or steak, or say a northern Italian type restaurants, you will want to pair appropriately. When I know I am going for that big fat traditional rib-eye steak dinner, I know exactly what type of wine I want to enjoy and the price-point is usually such that it warrants bringing my own even with the corkage fee.

4) Is the wine list available to view online? Many times you can preview what the current BTG list offers and see if it is something you can live with. I recently brought a half-bottle to new restaurant and the BTG glass list was quite good and had no reason to open what I brought...saved me the $15 on the half and was quite pleased with the wine along with trying something new that I really enjoyed.

5) How much will you be drinking? When my wife and I go out, sometimes she'll only have one glass and prefers to just order off the list for convenience sake. In addition, her tastes are different and may want the flexibility to order per the tastes of the evening. Here in CA you can re-cork and take it with you, but again, is it worth a couple of glasses on yourself? Also, if you are going somewhere afterward, you don't want to be lugging a bottle around or have an open bottle in the car.

6) Do you want to explore and try some new wines? When ordering BTG, you are almost assured you will be getting the latest from the industry. I have discovered some great wines that I would have not otherwise know about or tried. By committing to BTG, you will have the opportunity to "wing it" and try something new. Don't go for the 'ol standby that you know and like...experiment with something new or what the server recommends.

I may be over-thinking this scenario for most, but here in wine country, it is an ongoing saga. Plus, these days, I am trying to drink more from my cellar to save money and it gives me an opportunity (OK, excuse...) to break out some gems that just need to be drunk by now.

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Friday, May 22, 2009

Wine and...Poker?

I've written about many things directly involving wine subjects and the wine industry. I've even dabbled around the fringes of wine and included subjects like golf, travel, cruises, equipment, and tools to enjoy the trade. So, am I REALLY reaching this time to include a subject such as poker?

I don't think so, and here's why...

1. Good wines while playing poker. Whether at someone's house or at the local poker room, I've been know to uncork a nice bottle during the game and have a more relaxed session of the 'sport'. Quite frankly, there is a lot of down-time during the game and it helps pass the time while you're observing when out of the hands.

2. Dom Perignon and poker. A couple of years ago, I'm watching a taped version of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and a couple of old friends that ended up at the same table were getting reacquainted sharing "war stories" about their travels having a grand old time down memory lane. Not five minutes in to their banter, they order up a vintage bottle of Dom and toast to their reuniting and then share it with the entire table. Fine champagne and WSOP THAT is what I call a perfect pairing.

3. 2005 Caymus pre-release. A while back, a friend and I decided to meet up for an evening of poker at the card room. It was the first time we were playing together and I decided to have each of us bring a bottle of wine to enjoy while playing. At the time, he happened to be working at Caymus here in Napa and low-and-behold he shows up with an '05 Special Selection Cab ($175) from the tasting room that opened for a pre-release tasting. So here I am playing cards drinking one of the best wines from Napa before the general public even sees the wine. Plus, I ended up winning a couple hundred bucks...lucky me.

4. Michael Mondavi and Oberon wines. Premiere Napa Valley during February is one of the area's biggest overall weeks. It brings in (trade) people from all over the country to try Napa's finest concoctions especially produced from this event. It is a showcase week for the valley on all fronts. During this time, Michael Mondavi puts on a BBQ and poker event called "The Oberon Poker Challenge" at his Folio Wine Studio in Carneros. He limits the players to 100 and has sold out two years running. As I arrived to the scene to get my seat, I noticed several familiar faces both from the industry and the local cards games...all the usual suspects. Uhem, I finished 2nd outlasting all of my poker buddies and walked away with a few nice gift certificates along with a magnum of Oberon's premium Hillside Select Cab. Book me for next year.

5. Poker and wine tasting night. For a while, we had a group that was regularly meeting monthly where we would throw together a poker game and have everyone bring a certain varietal or vintage of wines. It included a nice variety of industry sales people, sommeliers, winemakers and retailers. We'd line the wines up on the counter, pop all the corks, doll out the chips and duke it out all night long in to the wee hours. It was a great way to try 10-12 different wines/styles that I would otherwise maybe miss while having a great time talking 'shop'. "Shuffle up and deal" never sounded or tasted so good.

6. Masters week and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Huh? Ok, bear with me here. Twice a year I like to combine a few of my favorite things collectively in one night. In April, it is my absolute favorite week, Masters Golf week. In the fall, it is when the Steelers play on Monday night football. Each of these occasions, I cook up my world famous (well, maybe only slightly regionally famous...) 'five-alarm' chili and have everyone bring wines that work well with spicy food/chili (we tend to lean heavy on the Zins here) while throwing down a poker game in the midst of it all. Golf, football, chili, wine and poker...the girls can't get away fast enough from these annual events.

7. The WSOP. The World Series of Poker is the penultimate poker event. I have been trying to qualify for the main event for over three years only to fall short by either a card or two or a bad beat or so at the wrong time. I have told myself that if I cannot qualify on my own volition, I do not deserve to play in the 'big show' plunking down the $10k it costs for a seat. I have vowed though that if (when) I make it to the main event (I have played in a couple of the early WSOP prelim events) I will break open something from cellar that is quite special and share it with my table. I do not normally drink while playing serious poker, but here just enough to calm the nerves and salute the moment.

8. Murphy-Goode Winery. Some of you might be aware of the new correspondent position/PR drive that this winery is doing dubbed "A Really Goode Job". M-G has done a great job in making this a widely talked about 'dream job' for a "Lifestyle Correspondent". When the article was published in the SF Chronicle a few weeks ago outlining the qualifications that they are looking for, oddly enough they included poker and liar's dice as a preference. Apparently their winemaker has quite the affinity for these games and is a seasoned poker player himself. Who knew!

Being in Napa now for while, my ultimate goal is to put together a huge weekend event that involves a celebrity golf tournament, casino night, poker tournament, wine auction and charity fund raiser that will be known as the valley's "event of the year" to look forward to. I am in the process of putting all the 'players' together to make this happen for 2010.

In the meantime, I'll be exploring more ways to combine all of my passions surrounding wine and bringing together the people and places to make it happen.

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Food & Wine Pairing Extraordinaire

Living here in Napa (Yountville) there are certain extreme luxuries that are abound that you realize you will either rarely or never be able to experience. Whether it be the Napa Valley Wine Auction, Mustard Festival private winemaker dinners, Auberge du Soleil, CIA/Greystone, Screaming Eagle wine, etc., or, for purposes of this post, the French Laundry (FL) restaurant.

When we first rolled in to Yountville a year ago, home of several great restaurants including the aforementioned, my wife had always heard how amazing this experience was. Given the nature of fine French dining, I was not overwhelmingly excited about it at many levels. My response to her was always the same, "OK, when we win the lottery, I'll take you there." FYI, dinners there regularly run $500+ per person and a $50 per bottle corkage fee. Little did I know, one of the benefits of living in Yountville was that once a year, they hold a 'lottery' for all residents to be able to dine at the FL at the original opening (1989) prices of $49 per person and waived corkage fees for your own wines. Cut to the chase...we won the drawing and went to our scheduled locals' night this past Monday night.

For any of those that have either had the experience there or know much about it, it is ranked as one of the top-10 restaurants in the world and under the guidance of renowned chef Thomas Keller. It's been known for several innovations in food presentation along with as many as 22 courses or more in a single seating lasting over 4 hours. Although, from its subdued exterior, it is quite the unassuming place tucked in the northern part of town in an old wooden 'house' of sorts. Ours was an abbreviated night with only a dozen courses or so lasting about 3 hours total. I came prepared and was going to "milk" it for all its worth even at the $49 price.

I began, of course, by planning my series of wines for the night. Not knowing the exact items being served or when, I took a bit of logical approach in how French dining of this sort usually plays out. I decided to go with safe bets in this order - Rose Champagne, Dry Riesling, and a vintage Bordeaux. This built in enough flexibility for various dishes while at the same time giving me the range I wanted to have a fulfilling night of wines.

Here's my reasoning: Bubbles always work to begin the night sipping as an appertif to get the taste buds going and with most intro-type leading appetizers. Riesling is most versatile with French foods that are rich, creamy or savory and/or with shellfish. And, Bordeaux would be perfect if they serve some sort of lamb or savory pork dish as the main. If fish was one of the mains, the Riesling would sub very well also.

So here's the brief summary of how it went down:

Overall, the place is quite small and fairly unassuming. The grounds are pleasant and nicely landscaped with a quaint courtyard area that is a good place to start with the Champagne. Nothing fancy to sit on either...older cushioned wooden chairs. There is no bar area inside and they do not serve hard alcohol at all. We had our Rose Champagne as our appertif and waited for our table. Couldn't help but think I should be 'twittering' the moment.

Once inside, I was surprised once again at the simplicity of the decor and the surroundings. One small room of 6-7 tables for the main dining and a couple of smaller rooms upstairs. It quickly became clear that this was going to be about the service experience and the food presentations.

The Rose Champagne took us through the first couple of courses before we opened a dry Alsace Riesling with one of their signature dishes - the truffle custard egg. This is an egg (gutted shell) that is cut open at the top 1/4 and filled with some of the most decadent infused truffle custard drizzled with truffle oil that rivaled (OK, exceeded) any Foie Gras I've ever had.

Then we had their version of a "caesar salad" that was a small lobster tail with a lemon infused butter cream along side a compressed seared romaine lettuce bundle (all of 2 inches big). Luckily, our neighbor table was friends of ours and they shared their own sauvignon blanc with us that made a perfect pair for the dish. On to the main courses...

By this time, we had gotten to red wine territory and the '85 Lynch Bages Bordeaux I brought was finally unveiled. It had been decanting in the back room for over two hours by now and it has been a while since I was that excited about a wine from my cellar. With the upcoming pork and lamb dishes, I knew I had made the right choice.

The most appropriate pairing was the lamb as they had orchestrated it in to 4 'bite-size' styles (loin, shank, chop & braised) within one plate. All worked harmoniously with the Bordeaux which definitely came alive with the food. Not sure if I know of too many better pairings all things considered.

The night ended with a concoction of cheeses and desserts that culminated in to an incredible selection of decadent chocolates and truffles to go with our 20-year tawny ports.

A total of almost four hours from our arrival not only was it "check please", but the proverbial wheel barrel was needed to get us out of there as we closed the place down. Not so much from the amount of food by any means, but just the overall saturation of the night. Needless to say, the next day was a bit rough.

Kudos to the entire Laundry team and their ability to make a normal setting outrageously special. Whatever you've heard, it is truly an experience of a lifetime. Now, at full prices...I'll get back to you on that.

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

Chief Wino

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Are You Drinking Now...?

Now that we have the first quarter of the year behind us, the new president completing his first 100 days, the stock market making a slight comeback, and general consensus easing back in to the hope for the not too distant future, where have your wine dollars gone and where are the headed?

I'd like to present a few concepts and options for both the casual drinker and the dabbling collector that now is the time to spread your wings within the world of wine.

Exploration of alternative domestically produced varietals. This is a great time look at not only more economic types of wines, but to expand beyond the mainstream or comfort zone of what you have always drunk. Instead of typical Chardonnay, Merlot, Zins & Cabs that most are used to, expand your horizons. Look at different wines such as various types of Rose's or whites like Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon and reds such as Carmenere, Mourvedre, Malbec, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Cab Franc and general red blends that are done quite well here. Not only are they generally cheaper, but provide for delicious alternatives for your buds and are great food or seasonal wines.

Discovery of new wine regions. Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Australia are doing a fine job of not only the classic varietals, but some of the above mentioned as well. You get a much better "bang for the buck" overall without sacrificing quality. And these days, they are quite readily available at your local wine shop or grocer.

Buying by the case. When you find either a wine you love or one of your favorite wines on sale, buy a case as your everyday go-to wine. Saves on gas to the store and makes those decisions just that much easier day-to-day.

Join a wine club. When you know a producer that makes several styles of wines you like at reasonable prices, join their club and enjoy the benefits of membership. You generally get 20-30% off most wines and often can be presented additional deals that cover most of the extra shipping costs.

Make good friends with a local wine shop owner. Nothing more valuable than personal relationship with someone that can turn you on to the wines you love, but can also secure good deals for you to buy in bulk if needed. Often times you can also have the opportunity to 'try before you buy' with regular local wine tasting events. Plus, they get special promotions or overstock wines on the cheap that they can give you the inside scoop on.

Make your own wine. Believe it or not, this process has been made much more available at reasonable costs to do right out of your garage. And, I have to tell you, if you have some good sources and/or creativity, you can make some decent wine. it may not be the wine you wine a gold medal with, but can be comparable to what you'd spend in $7-$15 range for at the store.

Drink your cellar. Let's face it, if you are a collector of any decent size, you will not drink all of your wines and you probably have several wines that are past their peak. I highly suggest looking at any CA cabs or Merlots past 7 years old and popping the cork. There are a few exceptions, but if you're like me, I have dozens of wines that need to be opened asap.

So, leap out of your comfort zone and get moving. Next time you're tempted to buy that Chardonnay or Cab off the shelf, explore the other regions of the store with some help and you'll be pleasantly surprised about the myriad of options before you.

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Wine Marketing 2.0

I recently attended a wine industry "Direct to Consumer" (DTC) symposium conducted by a consulting group here in Napa for wineries and tasting rooms. It was the first of its kind here for me and I believe only the second or third year that they have conducted such an event. The marketers came out in droves all very eager to find the next big thing in direct marketing (DM) for their brands or wine clubs to consumers. I was curious to rate the 'state of the union' of DM within this industry. I learned a few things and had a few surprises...but it was mostly a review of things I had been practicing for years and additions to my to-do list. But even still, all good stuff.

Now, keep in mind, I enter in a bit cynical in that I come from some of the most sophisticated and long-standing DMers of all, the catalog industry. I spent almost 15 years running my own catalog company and then consulting for some premium brand catalogers from back in the early 90's till recent (ooooh, I'm dating/aging myself here aren't I...?). However, this is what drew me to Napa and the wine industry...the opportunity to make a big difference AND introduce some of these tools to a trade category I love. It is wrought with opportunities.

Here is a summary of the most outstanding observation items from the show:

1. Social Networking. If you not in this space, you better get there quickly or it will blow right by you. Wine individuals, wine groups, sales websites, restaurants and wineries are all jumping in head first...some more diligently than others. This isn't new by any means, but the urgency to have a real presence here and the level in which you participate is. The clear message was also that you either enter this space and keep it current/relevant or don't enter at all.

2. Customer Data. Whether data capture or data-mining, you better have a good handle of what to do with the customers in your database or wine club. This is probably the most glaring distance from the catalog industry as few wineries know exactly what to do with their customer files to both maximize their communication channels with them or keep it current and updated/clean. There was some talk of a wine data alliance of sorts (which has been prolifically used in the catalog industry for well over a decade), but there were mostly "deer in the headlights" reactions to such a thing for the wine industry. Share names...? We wouldn't dare... our cusomters are unique and ONLY buy my wine for sure! Uh, yeah, OK.

3. Sales & Customer Data Analysis. The term 'RFM' was only mentioned once in all my seminars and discussions with other marketers...even then only briefed over. This is the data 'Holy Grail' standard with catalogers and is really only a base of which to begin looking at your customers and their activity/buying tendencies. It is a basic ranking system that stands for; Recency - how recent have your customers been active or made purchases, Frequency - how often your customers are purchasing from you, and Monetary - how much your customers are spending with you. This information is critical to know who, how, when, where and how much to communicate to your customers. The analysis and segmentation can get as complex as you want from there.

4. Customer Touchpoints. Just recognizing how many times or the opportunities in which your customer will be exposed to your product or brand is the first step. You'd be surprised how many of these opportunities get missed to either promote residual sales, get referrals, drive visitor center/wine tasting traffic, update data, or survey customers. This is one of the crowning points of DM in that you get to directly control your brand presentation at all of these points if you choose.

5. "Always On Economy". I loved this term from the CEO of Snooth, and it exemplifies the current status of both technology and the power of social networking. It refers to the level at which the customer is always 'watching' and you better be putting your best foot forward at all times. The old saying, "It is 10 times more difficult to acquire a customer than to retain one" could not be more prevalent than now. Your brand is only as good as its last memory of the customer. You get few chances to make up for a bad experience or poor exposure...there are just too many (better) choices for consumers now.

6. The New Economy. Hard to deny this at any level. The actual number of wine purchases is not down, but the category level of buying is. Luxury brands obviously taking the biggest hit here and wines in the $10- $20 space are rocketing with one of the fastest growing groups of buyers being the "millennials" (Gen Y) in their mid to late 20's. Liquor has almost always been viewed as 'recession-proof', and wine follows suit here for the most part. But, the everyday wines (commonly refered to as "Wednesday night" wines) are definitely falling in to the under-$20 category. Plus, women seem to be the biggest buyers here.

7. Food & Wine Pairings. One the best terms I heard throughout the conference was "home base phenomenon" referring to more people staying and dining/drinking at home rather than going out. This in turn creates more demand and interest in food and wine pairings or recipes that people can relate to and perform at home. This falls in to the 'added value' category that wineries can provide for their customers in their regular communications to their base.

8. Communications To Base Customers. How's that for a segue? This is not only the type of communication to customers but the frequency. Oddly, most are not communicating with customers enough with the consensus recommending at least once per month via email and 4-6 other times with direct mail or other marketing pieces. No surprise here.

9. Customer Relationship Management (CRM). This was big buzz-word with catalogers almost 10 years ago and wineries are just now realizing that this requires a true dedicated diligent effort. They discussed the three 'R's' - Relationship (building), Relevance (product/offer), Results (reading). It is way more about just keeping your good customers happy, it is truly about all of the above items I've touched on combined in to one big effort to create a real relationship with your customer and listening to their needs well beyond what type of wine they drink or buy. This also links back to the social networking aspect of getting more involved with people on an 'intimate' level and leveraging their circles of influence.

Well, 9 out of 10 ain't bad, I'll stop here...I could go on and on with this, but don't want to give up all my trade secrets at once. ;-} There is so much more to be addressed, but as usual, it comes down to prioritizing, resources, and the ability to execute programs fully.

In the end, it is kind of like breaking most comfort zones or habits people get in to...recognizing the problems/deficiencies first and then identifying a starting point then methodically working from top to bottom with the resources you have.

Best of luck and as always...

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

Chief Wino

Sunday, February 8, 2009

THE First Major Napa Social Party of '09

Silver Oak just had their first big event since they rebuilt their facilities after the fire a couple of years ago destroyed everything. It was their 2004 vintage release party...and definitely more of a party than a true wine event. After fighting the throngs of crowds just to get near the front gates, I quickly realized this really wasn't so much about the wine as it was just the place to be, or, 'see and be seen' as the saying goes. I would argue to bet that 80% of the crowd couldn't name two of the varietals that make up the wine or any clue as to the makeup of the wine at all...or really even cared. Hey, it was Silver Oak for goodness, music, wine flowing freely (although it took forever to get measly pour of wine), pretty women, lots of guys, beautiful weather...what more do you need?

Well, for me, that was all fine...but I am much more inclined to pay more attention to a wine experience...maybe learn something, taste a vertical, listen to the wine maker, sit through a class about the vineyards/ know, an enriching experience of some sort. I am not sure the "cattle call" that this was is really my "cup to tea"...or in this case, my glass of wine. Maybe I'm just getting old or I'm just tired of fighting the masses when it comes to a wine 'party'. There were estimated 4,000 people that came through the gate that day...whew!

Here are a few items I'd rather see or experience when I go to winery release party or things I observe from a professional standpoint:

1. More information about the wine. There was really no direction or information about what we were tasting. Just wait in a long line to get your 2-3 ounce pour and then stand in line for 20-30 min. to get a bite of something to go with it. By the time you got your food, your glass was empty and you had to fight the crowd again...ugh! (Revised: To their credit, there were information tables and info sheets, but amongst the big crowds they could have easily been overlooked)

2. Comparative tasting of other vintages. OK, we're tasting the 2004. What was different about it over the past couple of years? How did stand up to other vintages? What was the blend for that year and why? I'd be willing to pay a little extra just to do a flight of say '02, '03, '04. Maybe they were just too focused on the '04, but then again, they did very little to provide info on it either.

3. Sell the wine more. They just assumed you knew how and/or where to purchase it. Again, there was very little direction about pricing or packages or what type of provision there was for the release party if any. I was never approached or suggested to buy the wine at any time. I'm sure they did OK with sales, but I can tell you, far less than they could have.

4. A welcome packet, brochure or map talking about what it was that I was experiencing. If it were my first time at one of these, I'd have been completely lost. I would not have known that there was also their TwoMey Merlot and their '99 vintage they were tasting in other areas. Nor was their a map or description depicting the 'story' of Silver Oak, family, or reference to the fire that forced them to rebuild this beautiful facility. I did finally find a map from someone after I asked, but they were not readily handed out when you first got there.

5. Very little personal interaction with the 'staff' of Silver Oak. You could tell that everyone with a Silver Oak shirt on was just trying to keep head above water to keep up with the massive crowds. Lots of activity and little direction.

6. No data capture of the party-goers. Nowhere did they allow anywhere to get some information about the patrons...4,000 of them! What a captive audience that got to experience your 'front door' first hand, and not one attempt gather my info. This amazes me, but I guess when you're Silver Oak, you do not need more people on your list...everyone knows you and loves you.

7. No materials to take back with me. They provided nothing to tempt me to visit them again or look them up online if I indeed had a great experience. Even just a small note card on the 2004 vintage with some details about it and contact info to follow up if I wish.

8. Nothing about their 'sister' property in Alexander Valley. I guess the focus was on the Napa property, and they had their own separate party up there. But, I actually really like the Alexander Valley wine and some reference to it would have been appropriate.

Anyway, I had a good time with friends, got to see some industry acquaintances, check out the new facility, do some great people watching and try the wine. I cannot say if I was the 'average' customer I'd be overwhelmed in to spending $100 a bottle on that particular vintage, but it was a decent enough event for my $30 entry. It was a pleasant day in the sun with my wife and friends and hey, I got two more Silver Oak glasses to take with me to replace the ones that were broken years back. Now THAT's the true "silver lining" to the whole experience...well worth it, eh?!

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

2009 - Time to Explore...More

One of my personal goals this year was to get a nice digital camera and begin shooting my own version of Napa Valley and the local areas. Well, after a very good referral from a photographer friend of mine, I'm off and running with my new gadget.

One of things I've quickly noticed is that you immediately become more observant about your surroundings...looking for any opportunity to shoot a good shot. I've gotten up early to catch a sunrise, taken the camera in the car on the way to work, taken it along while walking the dog, and pretty much looking at the vineyards much more diligently than ever before.

The Vineyards

There is a strange beauty in the depleted vineyards right now. The vines are being pruned back and the mustard flower is almost in full-bloom weaving its way throughout the land. Where the vines were once canopied and fully green, all the greenery is now on the valley floor and hills contrasting with the barren stalks of vines...almost giving it a sinister look to the vineyards.

Another observance is the the quicker assessment of the age of the vines. You can easily discern the young, newly planted 'skinny' vines along with the thicker, more robust aged trunks that denote its length of time in the ground. After being here for while, you can actually spot the 20+ year-old vines pretty easily in one glance.

The Land

The geology here is also pretty amazing. I had a tasting with a winemaker friend of mine that was a geologist in his former life. He now owns a vineyard up on Diamond Mountain (one of my favorite sub-appellations here) and he gave a quick lesson as we were standing atop the mountain area looking down at the valley floor. He said this area is so unique in that it comprises three primary topographies/landscape formations - 1) Volcanic, 2) Glacial, and 3) Tectonic. This was all "greek" to me, but when you look around, you can actually see these type geological activities results across the landscape.

The Seasons

Then there is the seasons as it relates to the sun. As you observe the path of the sun at different times of the year, you begin to notice how it affects the vines in various ways. As the sun goes from East to West and/or lower and higher during the seasons, you see that there is somewhat of a science to how the vines are laid out. some run North to South or East to West (or vise-versa) depending on their location in the valley or across a hilltop.mountain. This is no accident and when you talk to growers or vineyard mangers, you realize there is deep philosophy mixed with wine science that goes in to the entire process.

It never fails to blow me away when I really sit and write or think about these special things about 'wine country'. I love it here. These are just a few quick observations and I'm sure much more to come as I begin to explore this region and beyond start to train my new photographic eye.

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!


Saturday, January 3, 2009

My 2009 Wine Goals

Every new year I do goals, not resolutions. I've never really liked the idea of "resolutions" per-se...they always sounded to me like exposed past mistakes or failures attempting to turn in to a new positive movement of some sort...blah blah blah. Anyway, I do several 'categories' of goals - personal, business, family, etc. - and this year, I'm adding a new category, wine.

I never have really thought of doing 'wine' goals until now. Now, that I am living in wine country and working within the wine industry, I think it is more appropriate. I have a new position in the industry working for a high-profile premium winery that has solidified my presence here and staying in Napa Valley for a while. I couldn't be more pleased with starting 2009 in this manner.

Now for the goes:

1. Drink/open the wines in my collection that are probably near or past their prime. Believe it or not, this is no easy task. I have several 80's and 90's California reds that just plain need to be opened and drank asap. I see a "drink it or dump it" party in the near future.

2. Expand my collection to include more French, Italian and German varietals. 90% of my collection is CA red. This is primarily because when I collected a lot early on, I just flat out did not know what I was doing and made the common mistake more amateurs make. Through my wine training I've learned that regions like Piedmonte, Tuscany, Barolo, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone Alsace, Mosel, Rheingau, etc. and the such provide for much more interesting wines to age.

3. Try more wines from Spain, Argentina, Chile and Portugal. Not only do these wines provide for some incredible values, the wine quality has surprised many experts in a very short time.

4. Join a dynamic wine club (or two). It's been over 5 years since I was a member of a wine club...and I miss this immensely. Only this time around instead of joining only from one winery, I am going to mix it up and try to include a club that exposes me to new varietals from around the world that I may not normally find on my own.

5. Take some more wine classes and possibly finish my 3rd level Sommelier training. The biggest thing I've learned in my training so far is how much I actually do not know. It is truly an endless vat of information that one can only hope to grasp a small percentage of within a keen area of interest.

6. Learn more about wine making. This is probably the area of least knowledge in my wine arsenal. Aside from constantly asking questions and observing about the process from winemakers I have met and/or worked with, I'd love to some day actually make a batch of my own wine.

7. Travel to new wine country/region. This one is pretty simple...Italy (Tuscany & Piedmonte). It has been on the radar for several years and it just needs to happen sooner than later.

8. Add more features on my personal wine website, I have had this site for over a year and have several new cool ideas/features I want to add to it...much more to come soon.

9. Work a wine harvest season. Now that I am working directly with a winery, I am very excited about working in the middle of a harvest (Aug. - Oct.). The amount of activity during this time is unparalleled and there is so much to learn. Lots of extra hours, but well worth it.

10. Keep up with my wine blog writing more regularly. Ideally, every week. But knowing what type of work schedule I am probably going to be dealing with, a more realistic goal is bi-weekly. I'll leave it at 2-4 times a month I will try and write about something new...I will have more 'material' to work with being more involved, so maybe I can make it happen.

So, there's my top-10. A great start already to the that is. On New Year's eve, we did open three decades of wine spanning the 80's to 2005, I've updated my blog (here), I bought some Riesling and Piedmonte wines, made a 'date' with a winemaker to learn more about the processes and joining a local wine club this week that spans the about that vacation to Italy...better talk to my new employer soon.

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

Chief Wino