No, It’s Somm-Thing Else

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Not me.

So, you’re studying to become a sommelier?

Uh, no. Not exactly.

Since I started formal wine studies five years ago I’ve answered this question approximately seven gajillion times. At first it made me nuts, but I’ve gotten used to it. I know as well as most folks in the wine industry that the majority of people just don’t know that much about wine and the various roles that exist in the wine trade. The question, really, is an innocent one. And, with any open-minded inquiry there comes a chance to teach, to explain. Just last week I was asked again how I liked being a sommelier. Maybe I do need to explain myself.

So what am I doing with all these wine classes and examinations that I insist are so rigorous?

Well, when you change careers at 50 years of age, you need some credibility, something that tells your new colleagues that you actually know something, that you’ve earned your spot. When a prospective employer asks about your strengths, saying “I like to drink” isn’t going to carry the day. You have to have something more to offer. When I made the jump years ago from journalism and public relations to teaching high school English, I had a master’s degree in English, and many years of guiding other writers, editing articles, and overseeing complex productions. And if high school is anything, it’s a complex production. With wine, I needed at least a “degree,” if not some experience to offer.

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Bags of experience.

Soon after I started taking classes through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which is based in London, England (www.wsetglobal.com), I landed a job in a fine wine shop. Then it was off to the tasting room at a well-regarded winery in Napa. I started contributing articles to a number of newspapers, magazines, and online wine tourism sites. At the same time I was helping to host wine tastings, advising small collectors on their cellars, and answering a steady stream of questions from friends and relatives who had found themselves in a wine pickle at some restaurant or store. All of a sudden, after a few years, I realized I was building the credibility I thought I needed the wine classes to give me. So, I considered putting the books aside and diving whole-heartedly into the work. But I’m so close to the WSET Diploma that I realize I have to keep going, I have to see it through. Besides, to give up on something so challenging so close to completion is not the example I want to set for my children, even if they are young adults. So the work of learning continues.

But I’m still not studying to be a sommelier. Most folks have this image of sommeliers as snobby, self-serious intimidators who guard the wine vault at fancy restaurants, ready to beat back the rabble at every turn, who don’t miss a chance to turn up their nose or roll their eyes at any diner they consider their inferior. Which is to say everyone in the restaurant. Even though that character, for the most part, is disappearing from the American wine landscape, that’s the image many people still have. Friendly or fussy, the hard work of a sommelier, and running a busy restaurant’s wine program is absolutely hard work, holds little attraction for me. Giving up freelancing from home so I can work nights for someone else? I don’t think so.

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It’s work, but it’s fun work. Really fun work.

Now, there are those in the wine world who see programs like the WSET as a waste of time, who deride the “alphabet soup” that clutters the business cards of people who have gone through this or any number of other, often less well known, programs. (If you want to learn more about these programs and their certifications, here’s a good place to start: http://winefolly.com/review/guide-to-wine-education-courses/) These are folks who think that the only wine education that matters comes from experience. To be honest, they have a point. One can learn an awful lot from books and classwork, but in the end those efforts can only reward you so much. If you really want to learn wine, you have to stick your nose in a glass. You have to taste. And taste. And taste. Then you need to read, you need to ask questions of the more experienced, and, if possible, you need to travel to as many places, near and far, that produce wine. There is no substitute for legwork, or “stem work,” when it comes to learning about wine.

So, no, I’m not a sommelier. I don’t import wine, nor do I sell wine. I certainly don’t make wine. After years in journalism, public relations, and teaching, I know that I’m at my best when I’m writing or talking about something. My list of skills thins out pretty quickly after that. These days, I’m committed to writing and talking about wine, and in doing so I hope to help others learn more, drink more, and enjoy wine as much as I do. (Yeah, like that’s possible.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go open up some learning. I suggest you do the same.

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Legwork doesn’t get any better. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, France, has a wall to keep enthusiasts like yours truly out of their very valuable grapes. To my left, bolted onto the stone, is a sign in English and French  with a polite request for compliance. I didn’t get to walk in this vineyard, but I did get to glean some leftover fruit from the one next to it, which sounds pretty pedestrian but it remains a special memory from our days in Burgundy.

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It Must Be Refreshing!

In a talk at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone a few months back, noted British wine writer, Jancis Robinson MW, explained her top criteria for any wine she encounters: “It must be refreshing!”

Given that simple yet demanding yardstick, I think Robinson would have found a great deal to like about almost all the wines presented at a recent tasting of New Zealand sauvignon blanc in San Francisco. Arranged in celebration of Sauvignon Blanc Day 2015 by David Strada, marketing manager in the United States for New Zealand Winegrowers, the April 24 tasting spotlighted a number of wines that excel both in the glass and at the cash register. Following the informal walk-around tasting, attendees enjoyed a four-course meal courtesy of Farallon, the popular San Francisco restaurant, which highlighted even further the wines’ versatility and complexity.

These sauvignon blancs hailed almost entirely from the South Island appellation of Marlborough, with a couple of wines from the Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough regions on the North Island. While all unique, they shared many typical descriptors: floral, citrus, mineral, herbal, grassy, creamy. A few leaned towards tropical when it came to fruit flavors, but lemons and limes and grapefruit predominated. And, with little to no oak treatment on most of the wines, textures were crisp and precise. The quality of the wines, overall, was high, and the affordable pricing made them only more attractive.

Please take a look at the wines, along with some of my immediate impressions. Moving quickly at tastings like this I find I can’t, and don’t really want to, compose formal, structured tasting notes. Sometimes simpler is better. The last thing I want to do is create more questions than answers. What’s a gooseberry? Exactly. I don’t know either. What I want you to remember are images, and maybe a few key words. If you can’t recall the names of the wines, you can always show your local wine monger the pictures below. I encourage you to start looking for these wines, which are just the right thing as the season begins to warm. You, and your budget, can thank me later.

Glasses up. Get to work, writers!

Glasses up. Get to work, writers!

Seresin: Light in the mouth, relatively simple, moderate acid. $25 Sileni: Fresh flowers. Grapefruit. Refreshing acid, very good fruit. $14 The Silent

Seresin: Light in the mouth, relatively simple, moderate acid. $25
Sileni “The Straits”: Fresh flowers. Grapefruit. Refreshing acid, complex flavors, long finish. $14 “The Straits” was also an ideal accompaniment to a baby beet salad (w/ toasted almonds, red beet relish, and sherry vinaigrette) at lunch. One of the afternoon’s more impressive values.

Clos Henri: medium-plus body, earth on finish, good complexity. $24 Jackson Estate: Complex nose, bright fruit, with lemon/lime on palate. Medium acid. $17 Momo: Earthy nose, hints of musk, but with a perfumed finish. $12

Clos Henri: medium-plus body, earthy on finish, good complexity. $24
Jackson Estate: Complex nose, floral notes, bright fruit, with lemon/lime on palate. Medium acid. $17
Momo: Earthy nose, hints of musk, but with a perfumed finish. $12

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Spy Valley Envoy: Aromas of flowers and cream, a dusty minerality on the palate. Refreshing acid; complex. $22
Tiki: Classic profile, with loads of tart citrus and green apple flavors. Bracing acidity. $15
Trinity Hill: Citrus and tropical notes on nose and palate, excellent finish. $15

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Sorry for the blurry photo. The staffer responsible has been put on unpaid administrative leave. It won’t happen again.
Brancott Estate “Flight Song”: This brought out my Irish — “the green, green grass of home!” On the simpler side, with medium acid and a medium finish. If a friend says she likes the grassier NZ suav blancs, this is your go-to. $12
Brancott Estate: Toasty biscuit on nose; smooth mouthfeel, with tart, citrusy flavors. Medium acid, long finish. $9

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Craggy Range Te Muna Road: Most complex nose and palate of the entire lot; great structure, with fruit, acids, alcohol, and texture all in balance. Long finish. $16 (!) Paired nicely with the main dish of spring pea risotto, grilled Louisiana prawns, pea shoots, with aged balsamic. A versatile, delicious wine that plays way above its price point.

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Giesen: Bracing, zippy, classic profile, with plenty of mouthwatering acid. Great finish. $10
Huia: Savory notes, flinty, sleek mouthfeel, earthy on the finish. $18 (An hour later, opened quite a bit, adding hints of talc, shellfish, minerality).

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Sileni Cellar Selection: A fascinating nose, very clean and polished, with complex fruit flavors, racy finish. $11

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Wither Hills: Citrusy, green apples, hints of tropical fruit, creamy mouthfeel, great structure, long finish. $13 (!)

Three wines not pictured here are Hunky Dory, a tasty, but simple quaffer, $15; Nautilus, citrus flavors with a creamy mouthfeel, $17; and, Matua, simple, soft on the palate, medium acid, short finish, $10.

Also in the line-up this day were six sauvignon blancs from California. Placed at the end of the rotation, they were a jarring change in almost every way from the 20 wines that had preceded them. For me, personally, the clashing profiles cast the American wines, for the most part, in an inferior light. While one or two California labels had the bright acid and steely feel of the NZ wines, the rest came across as a bit flabby and not that interesting. The California wines also tended to carry higher price tags, which only strengthened the argument that, in the end, sauvignon blanc from New Zealand is an unbeatable value.

[Note: these wines are all under screw cap. As you can see, that is no longer, and hasn’t been for some time, an indication of quality. In the immortal words of Count Rugen, “Stop saying that!”]

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When In Spain… Notes From Jerez

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As some of you might recall, my daughter, Katie, is in Spain for the year as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant. As a part of the Fulbright program she is required to pursue a cultural education project, focusing on a particular aspect of life in Spain. Well, the apple must not fall very far from the tree because her project is to study the food and wine of Spain. Talk about a practical, and satisfying, immersion experience. She recently took a weekend trip to Sevilla with a fellow Fulbrighter. Together they spent a day in Jerez exploring that city’s greatest export. The following notes and pictures are Katie’s. This piece opens a new chapter in The Grape Belt‘s annals as she is the site’s inaugural guest blogger. Hope you enjoy her look at Jerez. Cheers!

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Our guided tour started late, but it’s Spain on a holiday so that wasn’t too surprising. What was surprising is that we had to wait outside in the courtyard and not in a tasting room or wine shop, which is typical of the other experiences I’ve had.

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The guide seemed to be knowledgeable enough, but she had a distracting, thick accent, which made understanding just about everything she said quite difficult. She also did not spend much time explaining sherry in general, how the process began, what the steps were, or how important sherry is in Jerez and the surrounding region.

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Luckily, I had done a quick read of some articles explaining sherry so I wasn’t completely lost, but the fact that she assumed we knew such things was quite presumptuous. I mean, I like being treated like a competent, intelligent adult, but this is one of those moments where I could have used a tutorial. The tour only lasted about 20 minutes and we rushed through the storehouses, but it was still incredible to walk among the barrels and smell the sherry. And, to experience the bodega with such a small group made for a much more intimate and therefore impressive experience.

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Then, it was straight to the tasting room, where we tasted eight sherries from dry to sweet. I have never tasted so much sherry before nor did I appreciate the range of aromas and flavors that sherry has to offer.

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There wasn’t much explanation of the type of sherry we were drinking as you would receive at a typical winery tasting, where the guide might remind you of the bottling, aging, and storage process before giving you a pour. Here, it was more of a “well, here’s the fino…do you like it?” This meant we spent most of the time reading the label to get some clues as to what we were supposed to be tasting in the sherry or what we might pair it with.

This sherry, our first, was dry, not long finish, fresh, light, smells oaky/almost buttery. Looks super clear with a hint of pink when held up to a white surface but from the side it looks more like a light hay.

This sherry, our first, was dry, with not a very long finish; fresh and light, with an oaky aroma and hints of butter. In the glass it is super clear with a hint of pink when held up to a white surface, but from the side it has more of a light hay color.

The tasting room hostess said this would be saltier and it is popular in Japan with sushi. Smells less buttery and the color is slightly darker. More tannic, pucker-feel in the mouth and definitely tastes of salt.

The tasting room hostess said this would be saltier than the Manzanilla and that it is popular in Japan as a pairing with sushi. This wine was less buttery on the nose, and the color is slightly darker. In the mouth it is more tannic, and, as the guide suggested, stronger saline flavors.

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This wine reminded me of the sherries my father has tried to introduce to me at home, and so was strangely familiar. It has a strong taste, more like a spirit, with less fruit flavors than the previous samples. Most of the flavor is up front, and the finish isn’t very long at all.

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This sherry is 20 percent alcohol, redder and darker  than the one before. A bit lighter with aromas, again, of maple and caramel, but sweeter and easier to drink, with more fruit. A darker wine in every way, but with lighter flavors,  almost like honey.

Amontillado has a dark, amber-like color. This sample smelled syrupy and sweet, like caramel or maple syrup.  Sarah said, “it tastes like lady whiskey.”

Amontillado has a dark, amber-like color. This sample smelled syrupy and sweet, like caramel or maple syrup. Sarah said, “it tastes like lady whiskey.”

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The color of this sherry is dark brown, and it smells like a fish market. Happily, it doesn’t taste like one. In fact,once you get it past your nose it has a super sweet taste— like candy, maybe a chocolate-orange bark, and has a creamy consistency. It’s easy to see how it might pair with a variety of cheeses.

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This sherry is one of Lustau’s most celebrated wines and has won many international awards. Really dark, almost coffee color. It reminds me of being in a hospital, with aromas that are sweet but slightly sterile. Sharper, with more noticeable alcohol on the palate. Both the consistency and flavors are super syrupy.

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As it’s being poured, you can see it comes out silently like molasses, and smells like a Ricola cough drop, with a sweet and sappy aroma; and, while the aromas remind me of a pine forest,  the wine looks like chocolate, and tastes like dried fruit, maybe raisins or figs. The finish is very long. Definitely good as a syrup over ice cream.

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I think Sarah and I both found the oloroso to be the easiest to drink and the mildest. The drier sherries were a bit too “alcohol-y,” whereas the sweeter sherries were so sweet and syrupy that I don’t think I could drink them on their own. I think our consensus on the sherry tasting was that it was a great experience and fun to try out, but I know I will not be ordering sherry at a bar or casually after a nice meal anytime soon. I think I’ll stick to unfortified wine for now.

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Other observations:
People in Jerez drink sherry at bars instead of a glass of wine or beer. Walking through the streets you see great numbers of locals out on terraces and eating in the plazas and everyone is drinking sherry. We arrived in Jerez on a holiday so it was even more pronounced, but we did wander down this one alley lined with bars and there were families and couples, old people and young people, sitting on stools in the alleyway and it seemed as though everyone was having a glass of sherry and some tapas. It felt like what must be a quintessential Jerez experience. Sarah and I both joined in and ordered a glass of sherry (I ordered fino and she ordered the house oloroso that came out of an unlabeled glass bottle looking like moonshine) to fit in with the locals. I wish I had just gotten a glass of wine because I struggled sipping down another sherry after our tasting, but it was worth it to be part of the Jerez experience.   — by Katie Riley

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To Love Wine Means To Love Learning

For the past three years I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to attend the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Now in its 11th year, the symposium, held at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena, brings together writers at all levels of the global wine trade, from the famous to those just getting started. Along with industry representatives, local winemakers, and publishing leaders, writers spend four days discussing current editorial trends, the state of the wine industry, both domestic and global, and sharpening their analytical and writing skills with a variety of classroom and tasting sessions.

This year’s symposium featured U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Jancis Robinson, the first female and first non-industry member to earn the prestigious Master of Wine designation. Robinson, one of the world’s premier wine writers and critics, led several tasting sessions and discussion panels, and made herself accessible to conference attendees at every turn.

It’s said that good writing not only tells but shows. With that in mind, let’s emphasize the show. Below is a collection of images from the symposium for you to enjoy. So, grab a glass of wine and let’s head to Napa!

Our first order of business on Day One was a chance to get "Down and Dirty" at Raymond Vineyards in Rutherford. Here, Julia Case, Dong Li, and I find out if we are going to fit within the Raymond framework.

Our first item of business on Day One was a chance to get “Down and Dirty” at Raymond Vineyards in Rutherford. Here, Julie Case, Dong Li, and I find out if we are going to fit within the Raymond framework.

I love working outdoors on projects that require me to carry a glass of delicious wine wherever I go. Tamara makes sure we all have the proper tools for our wok among the vines.

I love working outdoors on projects that require me to carry a glass of delicious wine wherever I go. Staff member Tamara Stanfill makes sure we all have the proper tools for our work among the vines.

Joe Papendick, head gardner at Raymond, begins to explain the finer points of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic farming, and why compost is so damn beautiful.

Joe Papendick, head gardener at Raymond, explains the general elements of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic farming, and why compost is so damn beautiful.

Is it just me, or do things look a bit clearer when glimpsed through a glass of wine?

Is it just me, or do things look a bit clearer when glimpsed through a glass of wine? Okay, I guess it’s just me.

As we found out, over and over again, Raymond is not your typical Napa winery. Their hands-on approach, for example, is a bit different than that found in other tasting rooms.

As we found out, over and over again, Raymond is not your typical Napa winery. Their hands-on approach, for example, is a bit different than that found in other tasting rooms.

Given that many wineries in the valley were preparing for parties held in conjunction with the annual Premiere Napa Valley events, I couldn't tell what displays were gala decorations or, simply, Raymond being Raymond.

Given that many wineries in the valley were preparing for parties held in conjunction with the annual Premiere Napa Valley events, I couldn’t tell what displays were gala decorations or, simply, Raymond being Raymond.

The Red Room, one of valley's celebrated and unique private tasting room. My fellow WWS attendees and I were treated there to a private tasting hosted by Stephanie Putnam, Raymond's winemaker, and Jean-Charles Boisset, the winery's owner and most vigorous promoter.

The Red Room, one of Napa Valley’s most celebrated private tasting rooms. The three of us were treated there to a private tasting hosted by Stephanie Putnam, Raymond’s winemaker, and Jean-Charles Boisset, the winery’s owner/proprietor  and its most vigorous promoter. The Raymond wines, across the board, are restrained and elegant, an intentional marriage of French and California styles.

The symposium's first full day was dedicated to the craft of writing, as well as current publication trends in the industry. The day got underway with a smart, and often funny, keynote address by U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins (2001-2003), titled "There Stands the Glass: Description and Story."

The symposium’s first full day was dedicated to the craft of writing, as well as current publication trends in the industry. The day got underway with a smart, and often funny, keynote address by U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins (2001-2003), titled “There Stands the Glass: Description and Story.”

One of the surprising bits of information came from this "word cloud" that shows Bordeaux dominating in the numbers of stories found in wine publications. This is despite the fact of Bordeaux's steady drop recently in market share and influence. The interesting stories about developments in the wine world can be found in many of the other regions, which, clearly are still being ignored.

One of the many surprising bits of information came from this “word cloud” that shows Bordeaux dominating in the number of stories found in wine publications. This is despite the fact of Bordeaux’s steady drop in recent years in both market share and influence. The interesting stories about developments in the wine world can be found in many of the other, small-type regions, which, clearly, are still being somewhat overlooked.

One of the great benefits of attending the symposium is the wide range of Napa wine we are served at various events. Every year I come across a few producers I've never heard of, or bottles I'd never be able to obtain on my own. And the meals at Meadowood, as one attendee said, "the best conference food you'll ever see." I concur.

One of the great benefits of attending the symposium is the wide range of Napa wines we are served at various events. Every year I come across a few producers I’ve never heard of, or bottles I’d never be able to obtain on my own. And the meals at Meadowood are, as one attendee said, “the best conference food you’ll ever find.” No argument here.

Can't have lunch on a sunny California day without a few fine whites to enjoy. More than a few attendees did their best to taste through all the whites and reds before lunch hour ended and we were called to our next session.

Can’t have lunch on a sunny California day without a few fine whites to enjoy. A number of attendees did their best to taste through all the whites and reds before lunch hour ended and we, er, I mean, they were called to the next session.

Most of the sessions at the symposium are quite educational, and the best ones, like the best wine articles, have a personal story or context. In this grouping, Karen MacNeil, author of the bestselling The Wine Bible, facilitated a panel comprising members of the Chappellet and Venge families, important threads in the fabric of the Napa Valley for three generations. We heard their stories and tasted some of their fine wines. Hands-on learning doesn't get too much better.

Most of the sessions at the symposium are quite educational, and the best ones, like the best wine articles, have a personal story or context. In this grouping, Karen MacNeil, author of the bestselling The Wine Bible, facilitated a panel comprising members of the Chappellet and Venge families, important threads in the fabric of the Napa Valley for three generations. We heard their stories and tasted some of their fine wines. Hands-on learning doesn’t get too much better. (Unfortunately, none of my photos of the speakers were uniformly flattering, and so I decided to let everyone retain their dignity.)

Several sessions focused on the changes in magazine publishing as the emphasis on digital content and delivery continues to grow. In this general audience presentation, moderated by Betsy Andrews of Departures.com, Joe Czerwinski, managing editor, Wine Enthusiast; Davina Baum, director of digital content, Afar.com; and, Kristin Tice Studeman, contributing editor, Style.com, all offered insights into their current practices and where they think digital publishing might be heading in coming years. One thing was clear: the genie of digital publishing is not going back in the bottle.

Several sessions focused on the changes in magazine publishing as the emphasis on digital content and delivery continues to grow. In this general audience presentation, moderated by Betsy Andrews of Departures.com, Joe Czerwinski, managing editor, Wine Enthusiast; Davina Baum, director of digital content, Afar.com; and, Kristin Tice Studeman, contributing editor, Style.com, all offered insights into their current practices and where they think digital publishing might be headed in coming years. One thing was clear: the genie of digital publishing is not going back in the bottle.

There's quite a bit of wine at this gathering. When morning comes around, and the going gets tough, the tough get going. And it's almost always with a cup of coffee in hand.

There’s quite a bit of wine consumed at this gathering. When morning comes around, and the going gets tough, the tough get going. And it’s almost always with a cup of coffee in hand.

Day Three was dedicated to career development and discernment, always an important topic in a field where making a living is never less than challenging. We started with a panel discussion led by Evan Goldstein, MS, who elicited some pearls of experiential wisdom from three of the brightest stars in today's wine industry: Andrea Robinson, MS; Jancis Robinson, MW; and, Karen MacNeil. Together they offered more than enough for their listeners to chew on.

Day Three was dedicated to career development and discernment, always an important topic in a field where making a living is never less than challenging. We started with a panel discussion led by Evan Goldstein, MS, who elicited pearls of experiential wisdom from three of the brightest stars in wine today: from left, Andrea Robinson, MS; Jancis Robinson, MW; and, Karen MacNeil. Together they gave their listeners plenty to think about.

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Our day at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (CIA) is a special day for all attendees, year after year. Every element of service provided is exceptional, and some more than others. The set-ups for our large tastings are always impressive.

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This tasting, “From Barrel to Bottle to Cellar — Exploring Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at Different Ages and Stages,” was both instructional and fun. Discussion of these wines was candid and energized. Led by Jancis Robinson, there was little consensus among attendees about the selected wines, proving once again that wine is, in the end, a truly personal experience.

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The wines were, from left, Louis Martini, Chimney Rock, Araujo, and Staglin. Despite its common market status, the Martini (1995, 2005, 2013) held its own. The Chimney Rock (1996, 2005, 2013) was the most consistently structured and viable. The first two vintages of the Araujo (1993, 2000, 2012) were gone, with little value to be had; the 1993 split the room with some attendees trying unsuccessfully to defend the brown sludge most found in their glass. The final wine, Staglin (1996, 2003, 2013) was big and sturdy in the final two vintages; the ’96 was fading but still interesting and worth enjoying.

Will Lyons, a Londoner who writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal led a tasting session, with Joe Czerwinski from Wine Enthusiast magazine, on Napa Valley sauvignon blanc. Emphasis was placed on composition of various styles of tasting notes. The wines ranged from a simple $20 bottling all the way to a triple figure, oak-aged production.

Will Lyons, a Londoner who writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal, led a tasting session, with Joe Czerwinski from Wine Enthusiast, on Napa Valley sauvignon blanc. Emphasis was placed on composition of various styles of tasting notes. The wines ranged from a simple $20 bottling all the way to a triple figure, complex, oak-aged production.

The job of a good wine writer is finding something special to say. Simple analyses of several wines that taste confusingly similar does nothing for ones reader. Making the wine come alive is the writer's job.

The job of the wine writer is to find something special to say without sounding exclusive or elitist. Also, simple analyses of several wines that taste confusingly similar does nothing for the reader. Making the wine come alive, by informing, entertaining, or educating, is the writer’s goal, and a constant challenge.

The highlight of the week is the Fellowship Dinner, which attendees share with local winemakers who have each sponsored an established or budding wine writer who has proven themselves worthy of the support. To start the celebration this year, sparkling wines from a number of Napa producers were poured. To no one's surprise, the wines flowed freely.

The highlight of the week is the Fellowship Dinner, which attendees share with local winemakers who have provided scholarships to both established and budding wine writers who have proven themselves worthy of the support. To start the celebration this year, sparkling wines from a number of Napa producers were poured. Predictably, the wines flowed freely.

Dining at Meadowood, whether a simple meal in the Grill or several gourmet courses at an event like the symposium, is always a special treat. Impeccable presentation and service are axiomatic. And, having fifteen wines from some of Napa's finest producers to enjoy with the meal is a treat nonpareil.

Dining at Meadowood, whether a simple meal in the Grill or several gourmet courses at an event like the symposium, is always a special treat. Impeccable presentation and service are axiomatic. And, having fifteen wines from some of Napa’s finest producers to enjoy with the meal is a treat nonpareil.

The three whites offered, while tasty, didn't really shine until the cheese course at the end of the meal. The middle row, for the most part, stole the show, as a unit. Overall, not a clunker in the group, most of the wines showed beautifully. My top wines were Seavey, Shafer, and Mondavi. But the contest was a close one all around. Okay, I'll be honest -- I really had no use for the Hourglass malbec. Just didn't do it for me.

The three whites offered, while tasty, didn’t really shine until the cheese course at the end of the meal. The middle row, as a unit, stole the show. Overall, not a clunker in the group, and most of the wines showed beautifully. My top wines were Seavey, Shafer, and Mondavi. But the contest was a close one all around. Okay, I’ll be honest — I really had no use for the Hourglass malbec. Just didn’t do it for me.

Until next year. Cheers!

Until next year… Cheers!

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Please Pay Attention

DSC_0575_4If you’ve enjoyed wine for any period of time, and I don’t mean the past several hours or days, you know that there is more pleasure to be had the more attention you pay to what’s in your glass. For many would-be wine lovers, learning how to be more mindful when it comes to wine can be a tricky thing. My fellow wine writer, Lauren Mowery, recently wrote a smart piece for both the Village Voice and her blog, Chasing the Vine on this exact subject. I don’t normally post other people’s work here on The Grape Belt, but Lauren explains the best ways to get the most from your wine so succinctly that I just had to share it. I’m confident that if you are able to bring even a few of the focus points she suggests to your next good glass of wine, you’ll find that entirely new paths to pleasure will open in front of you.

Remember when your parents and teachers told you to pay attention? They weren’t trying to badger you. They were trying to prepare you for the wonderful world of wine. Cheers!

http://chasingthevine.com/2015/01/17/mindful-drinking-will-make-your-wine-taste-better/

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Look Both Ways Before Crossing

The past year was filled with so many wonderful moments and even more delicious wines that it is impossible to count them all. Before uncorking 2015, I thought it would be worthwhile to mention some things that stood out in 2014, and offer a few modest, obtainable goals for the new year.

DSC_0069The visit my wife and I made late in 2013 to Champagne opened our eyes to a world beyond the big labels. During the past year we dipped our toes steadily deeper into the bubble pond, which only solidified our growing understanding that there is real excitement to be found away from the tried and true Grand Marques (the big names that almost all wine lovers know) that dominate the Champagne industry. We had been fans of Agrapart for some time, but in the past year, we also came to enjoy Jean Milan, G. Tribaut, Laherte Freres, Monthuys, Lallier, Gaston Chiquet, Pierre Peters, and several others. I have no reason to believe that the coming year won’t be as good or even better, as we continue our research into the sparkling wines of Champagne, France.

DSC_0778Another eye-opener in 2014 was my formal introduction to the wines of Santa Barbara County. I had enjoyed a few wines from that area over the years, but really had no coherent understanding of the producers in that part of California, much less any real idea of what the area was capable of. That all changed in July when I headed south to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference there, and then, at the invitation of Sao Anash of Muse Management, a local wine industry guru, I stayed for another week and received a memorable crash course in the region. Over the course of five days I raced from one terrific tasting appointment to another, meeting winemakers and winery owners in every corner of the county. Each day was filled with surprises and epiphanies. From the pinot noirs of Sta. Rita Hills to the syrahs of Ballard Canyon, and everything else in between, I came to believe, during this all-together too brief of a time, that Santa Barbara County and its collection of distinctive AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are America’s next great wine region. I plan on doing everything possible in the coming year to learn as much as I can about those areas and the great wines being produced there.

DSC_0372The last big wine excitements for us came in September during a three-day hop to Oporto and Vila Nova de Gaia on the banks of Portugal’s Douro River. The first surprise for us was just how much Mary, up until now no big fan of fortified wines, ended up loving the tawny, ruby, and vintage ports we sampled. She was prepared to be a good teammate and try whatever I tried, but she was completely unprepared for the persuasive, almost seductive moments so many wines offered her. Similarly, we both were reminded in powerful ways of the tremendous progress Portugal has made in recent years with their light (unfortified) wines. From casual lunches to formal dinners, we ran across white, pink, and red wines from all over Portugal that were not only complex, modern, and well made, but also appealing to the most frugal of wine lovers. If you are looking for a new wine region to explore in the coming year, you could do worse than a deep dive into the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula. The year will end before you’ve even scratched the surface.

Despite having had such a rewarding wine year, there are ways to improve; areas for growth are never in short supply. So, as 2015 gets underway, here are a couple of things that Mary and I hope to focus on.

DSC_0545The first goal is to drink more globally. We began our wine journey years ago sampling everything we could from anywhere on the planet. In recent years, as I’ve gotten busier with wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and made more friends in the California wine world, our cellar has begun to reflect these developments. Right now, our cellar is uncomfortably unbalanced, with 75% of our holdings hailing from the Golden State. Clearly, changes are necessary. So, starting with our next purchase, we will revisit favorite areas such as the Rhone and Italy (yes, all of it!), and say a cheerful hello to our new friends like New Zealand and Greece. Along the way we’ll learn about wines from Croatia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria. We might even catch up with the wines from Chile and Argentina, which we’ve ignored for way too long. Of course we can never know enough about New York State, the Pacific Northwest, Virginia, the Niagara Peninsula, or the wines from western Canada’s Okanagan Valley. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us but we’re not afraid.

Wine Chaos plus Lucky 009What I am a bit afraid of, however, is the other goal we’ve set, which is to reduce our intake so we can reach the sports goals we’ve set for ourselves. The trick to success will be a commitment to focus, to being more discriminating with what and how much we drink. Ideally, we will not only diversify our buying and consumption, but we will appreciate even more what’s in our glasses. You know, on those occasions when those glasses are actually filled and on the table.

Wine Blog - 200If I could offer a prayer for the new year, it would have to be this: Sweet Baby Jesus, help us drink all the wine we should. Do not let us make the mistake of not drinking enough. Help us to do our part. To fail in that regard would be a sin, a sin for which no forgiveness is possible.

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We’ve Got People Coming Over — Help!!

DSC_0135In the last few weeks, I’ve had more than one person ask for help with planning their holiday parties. They want to serve wine. They want to serve decent wine, but they don’t want to go broke. Or, they don’t want to serve expensive, high quality wines because they know that at a party very few people even pay attention. What, they ask, should they do.

Happily, you can serve wine a notch or two above pure plonk without needing a second mortgage. Every month the major wine mags are filled with notes and reviews of wines that are affordable and often play above their price points. If you need to start shopping for an upcoming party, or just want to be well-stocked as the holidays approach, the wines I’ve listed below are a reliable place to start. Cheers!

Whites

$12 2013 Charles & Charles Chardonnay (Washington) – “Polished, creamy and refreshingly balanced, with tobacco-accented pineapple and coconut flavors that come together smoothly and linger well.” (WS)

$14 2012 Foris Chardonnay (Rogue Valley) – “A directly appealing wine with notes of apple, toast and melon. It’s fresh in feel, medium bodied with a good sense of balance throughout and a lingering finish.” (WE)

$14 2013 Knapp Barrel Reserve Chardonnay (Finger Lakes) – “Tense and high-toned, with a lemony lift and a citrusy sharpness of tone and texture, this wine gathers some breadth and complexity from a satisfying leesiness in its flavors. The finish is bright, precise, mouthwatering. Chill it for cocktail hour, or a plate of shrimp on ice.” (W&S)

$10 2012 Stonecap Chardonnay (Columbia Valley)– “Tight and focused, with juicy pear and grapefruit flavors playing against hints of spice, lingering on the finish.” (WS)

$11 Bergevin Lane Linen Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – “Light and expressive, with pretty pear and cream flavors set on a try, tautly balanced frame finishing with an open texture.” (WS)

$11 2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – “Sleek and refreshing, this offers pineapple and grapefruit flavors on a lively frame, persisting nicely.” (WS)

$14 2013 Waterbrook Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – “Light and refreshing, with grapefruit and floral flavors singing brightly and lingering well.” (WS)

$10 2013 14 Hands Pinot Grigio (Washington) – “Light and refreshing with tangy pear and lime flavors on a sleek frame.” (WS)

$14 2013 Erath Pinot Gris (Oregon) – “This brisk gris is zippy and bright, with scents of green apple and orange blossoms. Its flavors shift to lime, . . . with a mild salty tang that suggests pairing it with roasted clams.” (W&S)

$15 2013 Red Hawk Pinot Gris (Eola-Amity Hills) – “This is a good, rich, leesy, and immediately appealing wine, with great texture and a fine mix of melon, apricot and peach flavors. For the price it’s hard to find a better Pinot Gris.” (WE)

$12 2013 Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Evergreen Riesling (Columbia Valley) – “Crisp and sleek, with juicy, expansive nectarine and peach flavors that play against citrusy acidity, finishing with zing and a sense of softness that lets the finish keep singing.” (WS)

$10 2013 Mercer Canyons Riesling (Yakima Valley) — “Scents of lime and passion fruit give way to rippling, high-toned peach flavors, . . . . It offers some complexity in an inexpensive package, proving a nice foil for pad thai.” (W&S)

$15 2013 L’Ecole No. 41 Semillon (Columbia Valley) — “Light and refreshing, this white offers flavors of tangerine peel and grapefruit that pick up a creamy fig note as the finish lingers.” (WS)

$10 2013 McManis California Viognier (California) — “…this viognier is a steal: ripe and warming but rich enough to hold the heat in check, fragrant with jasmine and apricot scents, lasting on an apricot-skin grip that turns earthy at the end. Pour it with grilled fish or roasted king trumpet mushrooms. “(W&S)

$10 14 Hands Moscato (Columbia Valley) — “Varietally spot-on with a scent of pine fronds and rose petals, this medium-sweet white has a hefty pineapple ripeness, and a brisk, balanced finish.” (W&S)

IMG_0088Reds

$12 2012 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) – “Polished, plush and vibrant, with a core of plum and black currant fruit welling up seductively against hints of sweet spices and cream. The finish lingers beautifully.” (WS)

$13 2012 Snoqualamie Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) – “A dense, focused, and expressive red, with black olive-and-mineral-accented current and plum fruit that’s nicely restrained and shepherded into the velvet-textured finish. Lingers beautifully.” (WS)

$12 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle Grand Estates Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Velvety, focused and generous, with black cherry and coffee flavors, hinting at dark chocolate as the finish extends.” (WS)

$12 2012 14 Hands Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Fresh and expressive, a bit raw yet juicy, with black currant and blueberry flavors shaded with notes of toast and peach fuzz as the finish persists.” (WS)

$11 2011 Castle Rock Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Smooth and generous, supple, velvety and expressive, weaving a minty herbal note through a harmonious blend of blackberry, cherry and spice flavors.” (WS)

$12 2012 Charles Smith The Velvet Devil Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Polished, supple and expressive, with well-modulated blueberry and spice flavors that slide easily into a long and well-defined finish. Has deft balance, richness and depth.” (WS)

$15 2012 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon (Horse Heaven Hills) – “Dark and spicy, billowing with plum, currant and white chocolate flavors, picking up pear and white tea notes as the finish lingers with refinement. The tannins are submerged.” (WS)

$11 2012 Hogue Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Fresh and vibrant, with lively acidity to balance the rich blueberry pie and spice flavors, hinting at black pepper as the creamy finish lingers.” (WS)

$15 2011 Seven Falls Merlot (Wahluke Slope) – “Spicy, expressive, detailed and focused, offering white pepper and floral overtones to the raspberry and white chocolate core, lingering easily against fine tannins.” (WS)

$14 2011 Waterbrook Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Light and tangy, with tobacco and coffee overtones to the black cherry and tangy balsamic flavors, lingering with persistence. Offers presence and refinement.” (WS)

$15 2013 Charles Smith Boom Boom! Syrah (Columbia Valley) – “Fresh, lively and sleek, with red berry, raspberry and spice box flavors in a neat package, lingering expressively.” (WS)

$12 2012 Bogle Petite Sirah (California) – “Wild berry flavors are ripe, fresh and juicy, with cedar, herb and red licorice overtones and chewy tannins.” (WS)

$11 2013 McManis Petite Sirah (California) – “Beyond the dark chocolate and wood smoke notes of this wine’s oak, there’s plenty of bright, firm petite sirah fruit. With grilled meat, the oak will recede and the fruit will shine.” (W&S)

$11 2013 McManis Pinot Noir (California) – “This marries black cherry flavors with barrel spice in a chewy structure that’s bold rather than delicate. Chill it slightly for grilled bratwurst.” (W&S)

$15 2012 Windy Bay Pinot Noir (Oregon) – “Soft and lilting in its scents of cedar and turf, this wine has a chewy density, lending depth to the dark cherry flavors. Its abundant grippy tannins will cut into beef stroganoff.” (W&S)

Key: WE — Wine Enthusiast; WS — Wine Spectator; W&S — Wine & Spirits

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