Thursday, November 6, 2014

In Which Philosophies Clash

This week I was "fortunate" enough to taste a wine that has been lavished with a remarkable 96 points from the Robert Parker's Wine Advocate: Caymus Vineyards 2012 40th Anniversary Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Among'st other praises, the Advocate review included this enticing sentence, "Its dense purple/black color is followed by copious quantities of crème de cassis and blackberry fruit, silky tannins, a voluptuous texture and stunning purity as well as length." Accompanied by the claim that the wine will cellar well for 20 - 25 years.

I'm inclined to think that 20 - 25 years may be an overestimate on how long the wine is able to age since, by initial first taste, it's already atrocious. In the glass the color is pure, impossible, Platonic purple. The nose is of roasted and splintered barrel covered in melted Tootsie Roll and mint syrup. The fruit, much like the color, can best be described as purple. On the palate it is something of a harsh, burnt, mocha soup mixed with (the most complimentary thing I heard about it) Dimetapp. With a quality to cost ratio kept in mind, quite possibly the worst wine I've had all year.

All of this for a respectable $45 - $65 per bottle, depending where you are shopping. If you can find it for $48, then it comes out to a respectable two quality points per dollar spent.

My disgust with the cost and quality of this wine is equally as enthusiastic as the praise on the other side. So then one must wonder what would make me the arbiter of good taste or why is my opinion any more valid than the contrary? On its own, without dissent, it is a solitary choice leaving no other options to indicate its own positive or negative qualities. But with two contrasting opinions of enthusiastic wine drinkers a reader or drinker is given two diverging roads to take in the exploration of wine.

If, for example, you find the cost appropriate and agree with the virtues of mocha, creme de cassis, and a long vanilla finish on this 96 point wine, then by all means continue to follow the guidance laid forth by Robert Parker who wrote the review for the above wine. 

Although if you are in the other camp that finds this dreck to be an undrinkable, overpriced, alcoholic sludge inspired by real wine, then perhaps other guidance should be sought out. 

The important thing is to discover what you value in wine and find a way to express that to your merchant or sommelier to find ever more exciting and delicious wines. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Unfined, Unfiltered, Un-What?

After an exhausting few hours of climbing at the Philadelphia Rock Gym at East Falls and a super filling dinner at the Falls Taproom I was ready to finish the day in a comfortable chair with a glass of red wine a la Stanley from The Office. The wine settled upon is the one pictured here aside my editor Turnip, Domaine des Deux Puits 2012 Cotes Catalan Syrah

A pleasant wine with low tannins and aromatics that remind me of something between Celestial Seasoning's Red Zinger Tea and crushed raspberries. It's an easy wine to drink at the end of a long day, priced well at about $12, but not the kind of thing I'm going to cellar for ten years to break out at a wine dinner and rave about the developed bouquet. The juice itself is an everyday sort of wine, but what got me thinking was the sentence on the label that mentioned the wine being, "hand harvested at optimum ripeness to give a full, generous style of Syrah with no oak aging or filtration."

There are a few items in that sentence that would catch my eye if I was in an unfamiliar store trying to pick out a bottle. Now the bit about "... optimum ripeness," I tend to glaze over, because what wine would boast picking at anything else. 

You'll probably never see, "We pick two weeks after optimum ripeness to create something akin to a Denny's Blueberry Syrup." Although some folks do make that wine.

So that part can be ignored. The no oak aging is a nice piece of information, because to my tastes I don't usually like to see oak as the dominant flavor in the wine; whisk(e)y is one thing, but I generally prefer my wine to taste like fruit, herbs, and stones inspired by the vineyard in which it was grown. It's the "no filtration," part that catches my eye. But if you aren't familiar with the role of filtration, let alone the choice not to filter, then how would this help?

This is a wine making decision in which the philosophy of the winemaker begins to express itself. There are those that believe the act of fining (using a protein of some sort to clarify the wine), filtering (running a wine through filters), or cold-stabilizing (another conversation to come) ruin a wine's inherent flavors.

If you are trying to make a $10 Cabernet Sauvignon from South Australia that tastes the same regardless of vintage, then you will generally fine and filter the hell out of that wine. But if you are trying to make a wine taking as few steps in the process as possible to deliberately adjust the final product, you might not fine or filter.

The advantage to fining and filtering is a consistent product that won't make any one nervous because of sediment in the bottle, but if one doesn't fine or filter a wine there's a greater chance the wine can throw sediment. Sediment is not going to hurt you, but if you don't know what it is, it could be rather alarming to find in your glass. 

Now for whatever series of reasons in my upbringing and life experience, I fall into the camp that believes too much fining, filtering, and cold stabilizing will remove flavors unnecessarily to make a consistent brand instead of a more (I know it's a loaded term) honest wine.  

"Honest wine" is a term I hesitate to use because in simply saying it that way it creates a stark dualism between honest and dishonest wines, which I don't think is a correct dualism to form. But in a time where the use of oak dust, chips, and staves are used in conjunction with processes like reverse osmosis and confectionery adjustment agents like Mega-purple, it's refreshing see terms like unfined or unfiltered on a label to give me a clue about where the winemaker is coming from.

For further reading on wine adjustment agents and Mega-purple, I turn you towards more informed individuals than I: Dan Berger and Keith Wallace on the subject.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Unfortunate Reputation of Sherry

Breaking through preconceived notions about wine is an onerous task, and the case in which I was reminded of this came about a few weeks ago when we did a tasting of Delgado Zuleta Sherries at the store. Tom George, the founder of Frontier Wine Imports, was good enough to lead us through a tasting and educational seminar about these wines from Jerez de la Frontera in Spain and we had some enthusiastic and interested tasters with us there that evening - which I was thrilled to see.

That being said we had a smaller crowd than if perhaps had we made it a focused tasting on other more popular Spanish wines (Rioja, Priorat, garnachas, etc). I would pose the question of why that might be, but a handful of anecdotal interactions have already answered it for me.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Sherry?

Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids doing shots of the cream stuff? An elderly relative who has a small glass of “sherry” from New York state that comes in a three litre jug? A shot of it in crab bisque? These are all essentially the answers that came up when I offered the idea of sitting through a sherry seminar to other employees and customers. A sample dialogue would go as follows:

Me: Would you like to taste and learn about sherry at a seminar we’re holding this week?
Almost Everybody: Sherry? Eww, no.
Me: When was the last time you actually tried Spanish sherry?
Almost Everybody: (Either) Hmm, I had it in soup once. (Or) Never.

I sure do hate travelling in Norway. Granted, I’ve never been there, but it sure is a terrible place to travel in... So you get my point. Here is a style of wine wholly unique unto itself that is reviled for nonspecific reasons. At this point I would go into the history of sherry, but that’s a lot of reading when I could simply link you to the wikipedia page for sherry if you really want a springboard to find more out about the wine and its history.

What I will say is that the wines were absolutely fascinating, seeing the difference between the Fino, Manzanilla, and Manzanilla Pasada was enlightening. Here you have essentially the same style of wine that is separated, respectively, by geography and length of aging. The flavors were marked by prominent acidity, a dry nuttiness, and the potential to pair well with salty fatty foods.
The also dry, but fuller bodied, Oloroso cried for grilled or smoked food. One taster wisely pointed out that heavily smoked foods, briskets and the like, often overwhelm and can be difficult to pair with wines, but the Oloroso had rich savory flavors that would act as a perfect foil. And even though the apparent ultimate good of wine is to be “dry & smooth” the sweet dessert sherries would be considered deserving of the word ambrosia.

If one approaches sherry with malbec or chardonnay on the brain, it’s easy to dismiss them based on flavor alone. But with an open mind and remembering to look at sherry within its own idiosyncratic framework there is a lot of interesting, and delicious, potential.

Conveniently you wouldn’t even have to go broke trying these wines; entry level Antonio Barbadillo starts around $10.99 per bottle and these Delgado Zuleta sherries that we tried are all on our shelves at $14.99.

I think there is more to lose by not trying these wines than there is by avoiding them due to prejudice.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Somm - Doing for Wine Professionals as Sideways did for Pinot Noir

The word sommelier has been in the English lexicon since at least the early part of the twentieth century, if not prior to that, but the evolution of sommelier into ‘somm’ is a relatively recent development. The sommelier is the stodgy unpronounceable sibling to the hipper, and more relatable, monosyllabic somm. The somm as a figure has been made more prevalent and known outside of the wine wine industry by the recent documentary of the same title.
  As little as two years ago if I told someone I was in the business of wine they would most frequently say either one of two things, “That must be so much fun, you get to drink for work,” or, “oh, are you a summolyear?” And of course the response would either be, “It’s a job that has its perks,” because we don’t get to drink all day and it’s not always that fun, or “No, but I am an enthusiast.” Now I find that while pouring for casual public in-store tastings on a weekend afternoon, I think I’ve had at least one customer a week ask if I’ve seen Somm and whether or not I’m certified as one.
    This of course begs the question about the somm’s status as knowledge wielder and authority within the wine industry. Why does the somm have the popular backing as knowledge repository in the industry? One easy answer is that it offers quantifiability for the public and for those involved in an industry that is often a territorial pissing contest full of one-upsmanship. A small pin, received upon passing each level of testing, with what appears to be the disembodied head of Bacchus immediately allows those in the know to look around a room and rank their contemporaries. Take that with the sometimes mythic ability of blind tasting and you have a very sexy image; encyclopedic knowledge paired with comic book style super senses. So far no one has come up with a pin for someone who has travelled, worked, and tasted in all of the major wine regions in France or a pin for someone who has built a business and customer base on fine wine through thirty plus years of hard work. Despite the important role that passionate retailers and importers play in the wine world, it is often the somm that’s elevated in the newspapers and magazines.
It would seem up until this point that I don’t have a very high opinion of sommeliers, but that is simply not the case. I actually have great respect for sommeliers that take great amounts of personal time to increase knowledge about wine, cultivate a passionate wine list in concord with whomever is crafting the food menu, and make customers feel comfortable and well served. However, there are countless of knowledgeable retailers and importers that work long hard hours to do the same thing: provide for their customers.
It is also worth noting that for as many pompous somms that are out there who, instead of really listening to their customer, would rather give a litany of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that you should be perceiving there are at least twice as many know-nothing retailers who would rather compete in a nuclear arms race for the lowest price on Kendall-Jackson and Yellowtail just to collect a paycheck at the end of the week. These are a low bunch who treat wine as any other commodity, assuming that funny labels, points from wine publications, and rock bottom prices will replace knowledge and good customer service.
 Now why the reference to Sideways at the beginning? When that movie came out merlot sales began to lag and pinot noir sales shot up. Is this because of a fair inherent superiority of one grape over another? That’s probably a bigger debate for another time, but I would still say no. There are many examples of world class and rotgut bottlings of both grapes, but pinot noir had the good fortune of receiving positive press in a movie. Even with positive and negative examples of wine professionals, the recent documentary has continued to add weight to the notion that sommeliers are the leaders of the pack for all your wine needs - whether it’s fully deserving or not.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Back on the Horse

There comes a time in all of our lives that we are forced to reassess who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Leaving wine retail and entering wholesale has created one of those paradigm shift moments bringing me face to face with what wine, the business and drinking of, means to me. What helped me refocus a little was listening to interviews on where host, and pro sommelier, Levi Dalton interviews people in the wine world. Each conversation he has with an importer, a winemaker, authors, etc. illustrates the knowledge, passion, and tenacity necessary for each of their fields. So this forced me to think: why wine?
What is it about wine that has captivated my attention and that of so many others? I spent time thinking about this after listening to the interview with Peter Weygandt while I was running on some length of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System. I decided that, in a Kantian sort of way, I believe in wine because I think it can improve the quality of one’s life. I choose it for myself and thus I choose a world in which I think it should be important to others. Obviously wine is also an intoxicant that, if misused, has the ability to ruin the quality of one’s life as well. Anything taken to excess can be problematic, though. I respect the decisions of those who don’t drink wine, but the person who abstains from wine and instead consumes an equal amount of Mountain Dew, or mindlessly consumes case after case of Coors are not better for their substitutions. So what is it that I believe makes wine superior?
The maxim that wine is food is not a novel one, but it does illustrate a relevant point about what makes wine worthy of our attention. The amount of farmer’s markets, ethnic, artisan, and specialty shops that can be found with relative ease I take as evidence that there are people who are interested about where their food is coming from and put thought into what they consume.
Further examination into a food culture or, for the purposes of this essay, a bottle of wine forces inspection into just that: culture. Wine does not exist within a vacuum, but it instead exists because of where and when it is from. Examining wine forces the examination of geography, history, philosophy, language, literature, art, politics, science, agriculture, and an unnamed litany of other specific fields of interest.
Not to belabor a point, but this is why I believe wine has the potential to improve quality of life. It can help teach about the world around us and open our minds to all sorts of opportunities and experiences we might not expect. It may not be a new theme in this blog of mine, but I will continue to promote the idea that we should all learn a little more about the wine we’re drinking and to seek out the new and novel and learn about that as well.

… an Obligatory Aside About Thanksgiving Wine

What should you drink for Thanksgiving? Whatever you damn well please! If you want to try new and novel, do it. If you want to stick to the old tried and true, that’s fine too. The holiday is about enjoying yourself and trying not to let family or travel drive you too crazy. So even though I think we should always seek out new wine, I’ll leave that up to you this week as time is spent with loved ones.

What I’m having though will be something along the lines of:

  • Domaine de la Pepiere 2010 Clos des Briords Muscadet, never a bad idea in my opinion
  • Who wants Vouvray?.
  • If I’m in a Greek sort of mood, maybe DioFili 2009 Xinomavro.
  • Perhaps some grignolino or ruche from northern Italy?
  • Dominique Piron’s Cru Beaujolais (I haven’t decided on the cru or the vintage yet.)
  • A late bottle vintage port will appear somewhere during the meal.
  • Maybe some hard cider if I see anything interesting.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

You are not Allergic to Sulfites

Have you ever experienced a headache, or another type of odd negative reaction, soon after wine consumption or the morning after? I have. This happens when I am either dehydrated or, as a an error in judgement, over consume. It doesn't happen frequently, but it does happen. Those are the two reasons I have found that most commonly lead to a feeling of physical unpleasantness. Another causal theory I have caught wind of indicates the sulfites found in wine. If someone suggests this as the cause to your wine related unpleasantness you should, in my professional opinion, tell whomever made the suggestion to stop talking. Stop talking immediately unless they happen to be your allergist or your doctor.

There is a great amount of misunderstanding regarding sulfur dioxide, or sulfites, in wine and I am not exactly positive where this idea first began. I do have inklings, rumblings, and guesses as to where it began, but I hesitate to say with certainty what event caused sulfite aversion. The myth that sulfites are deleterious is out there in the half informed cultural consciousness. One indication to a lack in understanding is 24 seconds into the video on the main page of a sulfite free brand called Our Daily Red where one of the discussions leaders begins by issuing this caveat: “I don’t condone wine drinking as something healthy to do, period.”

I don’t believe in modern medicine or anesthesia, period. My name is Dr. Dingleberry and I’ll be performing your appendectomy.

While I was employed in retail, a young lady who had recently finished reading a book titled “Skinny Bitch” approached me looking for wine without sulfites because apparently drinking wine without sulfites won’t make you fat; this at least was what she gathered from it.

I haven’t read it and would hate to misrepresent a self-help book titled “Skinny Bitch.”

In responding to her query, I made the mistake of trying to explain calorie intake versus calorie output as a way to avoid becoming overweight. She quickly lost interest and decided to buy flavored Bacardi instead - I doubt she bought it for its ayurvedic qualities. If you are also interested in becoming a Skinny Bitch, I recommend following the advice on their website. And I quote, “Stop being a moron and start getting skinny.”

What are sulfites you might wonder by this point? Sulfur dioxide is an anti oxidant and disinfectant used for sanitation of facilities and preservation of wine for storage and shipping. Before its complete properties were fully understood sulfur wicks were burnt and used to keep mold from growing inside of soon to be filled wine barrels. The important word above is preservation. Wholesale representatives for companies that distribute two of the larger no-sulfite-added wines said the winery guarantee was three months to two years without sulfites. Some of the best wines I’ve ever had used sulfites and also happened to be anywhere from two to twenty years old.

Sulfite use is not restricted to fermented beverage, either. Sulfites can be found, often in greater quantity than found in wine, in the following products:


The following foods and drugs MAY contain sulfites, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Remember to check the product label.

Food Category
Type of Food
Alcoholic Beverages
Beer, cocktail mixes, wine, and wine coolers
Baked Goods
Cookies, crackers, mixes with dried fruits or vegetables, pie crust, pizza crust, quiche crust, and flour tortillas
Beverage Bases
Dried citrus fruit beverage mixes
Condiments and Relishes
Horseradish, onion and pickle relishes, pickles, olives, salad dressing mixes, and wine vinegar
Confections and Frostings
Brown, raw, powdered or white sugar derived from sugar beets
Modified Dairy Products
Filled milk (a specially prepared skim milk in which vegetable oils, rather than animal fats, are added to increase its fat content)
Antiemetics (taken to prevent nausea), cardiovascular drugs, antibiotics, tranquilizers, intravenous muscle relaxants, analgesics (painkillers), anesthetics, steroids and nebulized bronchodilator solutions (used for treatment of asthma)
Fish and Shellfish
Canned clams; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried shrimp; frozen lobster; scallops; dried cod
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
Sulfite use banned (except for fresh potatoes)
Gelatins, Puddings, and Fillings
Fruit fillings, flavored and unflavored gelatin, and pectin jelling agents
Grain Products and Pastas
Cornstarch, modified food starch, spinach pasta, gravies, hominy, breadings, batters, noodle/rice mixes
Jams and Jellies
Jams and jellies
Nuts and Nut Products
Shredded coconut
Plant Protein Products
Canned, bottled, or frozen fruit juices (including lemon, lime, grape, and apple); dried fruit; canned, bottled, or frozen dietetic fruit or fruit juices; maraschino cherries and glazed fruit
Processed Vegetables
Vegetable juice, canned vegetables (including potatoes), pickled vegetables (including sauerkraut), dried vegetables, instant mashed potatoes, frozen potatoes, potato salad
Snack Foods
Dried fruit snacks, trail mixes, filled crackers
Soups and Soup Mixes
Canned seafood soups, dried soup mixes
Sweet Sauces, Toppings
Corn syrup, maple syrup, fruit toppings, and high-fructose syrups such as corn syrup and pancake syrup
Instant tea, liquid tea concentrates

 That helpful list came from the FDA via a study at the University of Florida where they found that sulfite allergies afflict a rough number of the US population:

Although literature lists a range of figures as to what percent of the population is affected, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that one out of a hundred people is sulfite-sensitive, and of that group 5% have asthma. Another source states that 5% of asthmatics are sulfite sensitive, compared to only 1% of the nonasthmatic population (Knodel, 1997), while another source estimates that up to 500,000 (or less than .05% of the population) sulfite-sensitive individuals live in the United States (Lester, 1995).”

The FDA estimates that 1 out of 100 people is sulfite sensitive. 1% of the population. It’s not a very large percent.

So let’s run down a quick checklist:

1. Have you had an adverse reaction to the items in the above table: 
Yes____ No____
2. Have you had a sulfite allergy tested by an allergist: Yes____ No____

If you answered yes to these questions you are allergic to sulfites. If you answered no to these questions, you are probably not allergic to sulfites. There are, however, a number of other contributing chemical factors to wine that come from grapes, vines, yeast, bugs, critters, soil, bacteria, and etc., that could in theory cause some sort of negative reaction. And let us not forget hydration and over consumption.

Chances are, though, that it is not the sulfites.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Stop Once a Year Champagne Buying!

 Picture yourself on New Year’s eve at three in the afternoon, I know it’s early for such thinking, but bear with me. You will be heading to a party in about four hours and are obliged to pick up a bottle of Champagne and you know your host/hostess loves the Champagne with the yellow label, or perhaps the one with ornate flowers on the bottle. You may be doing this alongside a dozen other people looking for a Champagne with a yellow label, or perhaps they are looking for the one with the ornate flowers on the bottle.

Now go forward and ask one of the clerks where the Champagne is, suffer through while they wearily inquire as to if you want true Champagne from France or sparkling wine. They will be wearily asking this because they have spent the previous six hours providing "Sutter House / Barefeet California Moscato" to people asking for Champagne. Now if you specify true French Champagne, your eager salesperson’s eyes will light up, and then you may watch this brief moment of elation fade from said clerk’s face as you say, “I think it has a yellow label.” They will point you to the wine you seek, try and suggest a few other things you’ve never heard of on the way, and then slink back to the warehouse dejectedly when you depart with the same Champagne the last six customers that hour have left with. You’ll be out $50 and there’s a very good chance you’ll see at least one or two other bottles of the same wine at your party. But when midnight rolls around you get your 5oz of a fifty dollar bottle wine, you can continue to wonder what the fuss is about Champagne.

Don’t let this happen to you, for the love of god, don’t let it happen.

So why bring up this scenario in the dead heat of summer right around the beginning of August? Because this will give you plenty of time to try a handful of sparkling wines before December 31st, save some money in the long run, and enjoy a whole host of new wines.

The most interesting sparkling wine I’ve had recently is the one pictured above, Les Granges Paquenesses. It was a Brut Chardonnay cremant du Jura retailing for $20 and, in my opinion, vastly more delicious and interesting than the last Moet I had. This is not to say the Moet I had was bad, however, economically speaking, I would have been much happier with two bottles of Les Granges rather than one bottle of Moet. Like other main stream wine producers, big Champagne houses consistently make generally good quality wine from year to year and that is fine, although it also creates a problem. Consistency and the luxury image of each brand become more important than creating an interesting product at a reasonable price... hey, Aunt Jemima always tastes the same too.

Now since it is only the beginning of August, here’s your chance to find a really good sparkling wine that may not be immediately recognized at your New Year’s party. However, if you are more concerned with how you look walking in the door with a recognizable label, you needn't read further.

Step 1: Don’t think of sparkling wines as only a celebratory beverage, treat them like you would any other wine. Instead of waiting for a special occasion or meal, open your bottle of bubbly with a few friends on a weekend afternoon over grilled cheese. Try it with anything battered and fried, seriously, fried chicken and Cava for example; bubbles are a great way to lighten up fat in food. Open a bottle of drier style Lambrusco with grill pizza after mowing the lawn, it’s damn refreshing. (Although she enjoys Lambrusco, Beth says she is happy not to have to mow the lawn now that we live in an apartment.)

Step 2: Try a few different price points, places, and styles. When sparkling wine comes from parts of France that aren’t Champagne you will often see them labeled as Cremant du Jura, Cremant d’Alsace, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de... you get the idea. There are lightly sparkling wines from Italy labeled frizzante that don’t have the full carbonation of regular bubblies; one example is Garofoli’s Guelfo Verde which is topped with a beer bottle top and blends local verdicchio with better-known chardonnay. Or stick with Champagne, but ask whoever you trust locally for wine selection about “Grower Champagnes.”

Step 3: Keep an open mind. Try sparkling wines from places you’ve never heard of, perhaps grapes you’ve never heard of as well. Try them in colors you’ve never tasted before, they come in white, red, and rose with each of these colors having both dry and sweet versions. And don’t write off all the dry ones or all the sweet ones because you think you don’t like dry or sweet wine.

In this world of craft beer, farm to table restaurants, and local farmer’s markets maybe it couldn't hurt to approach bubbly with a similar approach. After all, Francois Chidaine’s Sparkling wine from Montlouis is produced in quantities of fewer than 8000 cases a year and many of Theirry Theise’s Grower Champagnes don’t make more than 5,000 - 6,000 per year. With the big Champagne houses making quantities of wine in the range of 500,000 - 2,000,000 cases of wine a year, they won’t go hungry if you try some smaller producers or lesser known sparkling wines.

Now go forth and explore!