This seems to be a recurring, if indirect, theme of a lot of the wine related blogs posts and online articles that I have come across lately and happens to be a topic which I have pondered on several occasions. First, I want you to consider your upper price point when buying wine on a regular basis. This would be the most expensive bottle you would consider buying on some sort of a regular basis and could be $5, $10, $20, or $50. I will not presume to say that someone’s personal number says anything about their knowledge of or enjoyment of wine, but it does say something. You can likely also imagine that there are people out there who think nothing of dropping $100, $150, or much much more per bottle every single time they drink wine. Personally, I think these types of people are missing out on everything the wine world has to offer and will never fully appreciate what they have in their glass. Generally speaking, however, it seems to me that if you are regularly willing to spend more money on the wine than you did on the food for a meal (at home or out), then you probably have some level of interest in wine as more than a method of inebriation. Once you have your number in mind, now think of the absolute most you can ever see yourself spending on a single bottle. This could be for your wedding, an anniversary, grandchild being born, end of the world, or any other event that you feel might coax your wallet open to have just the right thing for the occasion. Also, think about the specific reason(s) why you feel spending that amount of money would provide an experience more than anything lesser could.
For some people, I have to imagine that part or most of the allure of buying that pricey special bottle is simply the status of the thing, to be accepted by their peers or to prove how tasteful and sophisticated they are; for others, it might be something along the lines of knowing that you always have the best and are using price to guarantee that outcome. For me though (and many other devoted oenophiles), it has to be simply curiosity. I think the fact that I very rarely buy a second bottle of any wine (with few exceptions) helps to drive home this approach. In my eyes, I would rather gamble on something new and exciting (and potentially disappointing) then to play it safe and repeat a previous experience (even if delicious). To find out which of these camps you might fall into, consider the following questions:
The last time you splurged on an expensive bottle, what did you know about it before and after the purchase? Did you look into the history of the winery or particular region the wine was from? Were you aware if the wine was considered a good representation of a classic style or a more experimental bottling (e.g. classic Bordeaux v.s. Super Tuscan)?
Did you order the bottle at a restaurant with friends or did you drink it at home with your significant other? Did you display the bottle on your mantle or post pictures of it on Facebook until it was consumed?
Did you purchase the bottle, without any knowledge of the style or producer, because a critic gave the wine 98 points? Was the bottle the most expensive offering from the winery? Did you see a celebrity endorse or drink that particular wine on t.v. (or mention it in a rap song)?
So I’m being rather blatant here, but if you answered yes to anything in the first round of questions, you are probably the curious type like me. If you align more with the second group of questions, you probably have at least some part of you looking to impress other and declare your sophistication. If you fall into the last category, you want to be confident that what you are drinking is the creme de la creme. Chances are that you might answer yes to portions of each grouping, and that is certainly allowed, nothing is ever that black and white. I think it is good to think about your motivations though, in many aspects of life. I would be curious to know how the upper limit prices I asked you to think about above differ if grouped by motivation; whether status folks or the curious spend more. I certainly find that over the years, I have climbed the ladder so to say in that my upper price is probably quite a bit higher than it used to be. I guess that bodes well for the quality and value of wines I have tried.
And with that, I will apologize for the therapy session and give you two interesting tidbits:
-I passed my Society of Wine Educators CSW exam! I’ll be adding it to my business card. . . (psst. . . I work as an Engineer for an HVAC design company)
-A friend left me with a wax topped bottle of home-brewed Imperial IPA to cellar for a while and see what happened (that was over a year ago); I recently found that same bottle had blown open from my wine rack and spewed beer and wax all over my basement. . . how fun. I suppose I should drink what is left in the bottle.
So as direct winery to consumer sales are a constant source of controversy in the wine world, I thought I might expound on the topic a bit in a free-form sort of way (as per usual), chime in with my 2¢ on the topic, and provide some much-needed info for those of you out there that probably already stopped reading that don’t know what I am talking about. The good ol’ US of A regulates the sale of liquor and other intoxicating beverages through what is known as the 3-tier system. This requires, in most circumstances, that wineries (1st tier) sell their goods to distributors (2nd tier) who turn around and sell these to retailers (3rd tier) before the consumer (you and I) get to peruse the selection at our local Sam’s Club and bring the stuff home to drink. I’ll try not to bore you with the details, but add that this is the general outline of how things work nationwide. Individual states have some say in how this is carried out and the set-up from state to state can be drastically different. There are states wherein the government owns and operates all retail liquor establishments, limits where and how much booze can be purchased at a time, or allows some distributors to act as their owner retailers (loopholes abound). The moral of this story is that this entrenched 3-tier system means many things to many people, but is based in the aftermath of Prohibition and the fact that the government feels people need to be protected from themselves.
In 2005 the Supreme Court heard a case involving small wineries in both Michigan and New York (Granholm v. Heald) in which these states were allowing consumers to purchase and ship wine directly from wineries in state, but not from wineries located in other states. The court held that this practice was unconstitutional based on the commerce clause, which prohibits the picking of winners (in-state wineries) and losers (out-of-state wineries) by a government. Ultimately, it was ruled that states did have the power to prohibit or allow direct winery shipments, but would have to do so unilaterally without preference for any one state over another.
Retailers and distributors tend to fight very hard for the prohibition of direct sales and the reason is obvious. . . it takes power (and purportedly sales) away from them. Wineries (at least the quality minded ones) and consumers tend to side with allowing direct shipping because it increases competition on price and quality (more choices), and helps small boutique wineries stay afloat in an ocean of mass-produced plonk. Most distributors strongly tend toward carrying only wines of high production amounts because it is easier for them to make more money representing less individual wineries that way (read: more money for less work), which means that small production wineries can rarely get distribution (read: no money=out of business). Taking into account that the vast majority of wines in this country are consumed within hours of purchase, and that the shipping costs associated with buying wine from a winery, most people (myself included) are certainly going to their local reputable wine retailer for the lion’s share of the wine consumed.
Here is Ohio they do allow direct wine shipping, which is where the blessing and curse come in (I’ll try and tie this together). Ohio, among many other states, allow this shipping but make the red tape so difficult for this to happen that many wineries simply opt out of direct shipping to Ohio for fear of non-compliance citations. Those few, brave wineries that will weather the storm with me do bless me with a very much expanded choice of small production and high quality wines. Furthermore, many of these small production wineries are very much in demand and require that you stand in line (metaphorically of course) for a year or two before be afforded “dibs” on some of the goodies. The curse is that I simply cannot miss signing up to try many of these wineries and have gotten in pretty deep over the years. Add to the mix that each winery releases wines twice a year (in general) and if you fail to purchase at least one bottle. . . you may just be kicked out of line. To see how deep the rabbit hole goes, reference the following list of wineries which I am currently in line for; whether or not they have offered me anything:
-J. Rochioli, Williams-Selyem (see top photo), Arista (see right), Herman Story, Blackbird Vineyards, Jemrose, Kosta Browne, Scarecrow, Screaming Eagle, Turley, Martinelli, T.R. Elliott, Sea Smoke, Rhys, and Kistler. . . at least those are the ones I can remember.
Now if only retailers were allowed to order directly from wineries, we might have something workable. Of course the distributors will never let that happen. I certainly don’t order from all these wineries all of the time or I would be completely bankrupt, but it is always tempting. . . Now if you are dedicated enough to have made it through the whole post, I’m sure you have some thoughts on this issue. What lists are you on and what do you think ought to be changed (or maintained) about the 3-tier system?
Ok, ok, ok. . . I have been mysteriously absent for quite some time now (see most recent post below, dated 4/7/12), but I will contend that it was all in the name of wine. Sometime around new years of this year I decided to try my hand at adding some oomph to and somehow quantifying my wine credentials, which up to this point has basically comprised drinking a lot and reading wine books. In January I did my part and joined the Society of Wine Educators and to commit to taking their Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam. As the website details, this is intended to be a self-study program that culminates in taking (and hopefully passing) their 100 question exam. The society was nice enough to produce a study guide from which all of the exam questions are taken, and they strongly recommend that you get this guide in order to study for the exam because they contend (and I can now agree) that the material covered takes a different angle on much of the material and focuses on certain things that may or may not be adequately covered in other materials.
Taken directly from their website, “The Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) Exam is a rigorous exam, which tests a candidate’s wine knowledge and mastery of key elements within the worlds of viticulture and wine production.” My method of study involved approximately 6 months of review of the study guide (with varying degrees of discipline) along with flashcards and some cross-training with other wine related books and materials. My wife deserves special thanks for putting up with me during this time and I became more and more eccentric throughout the process, demanding that we spend hours in coffee houses and that she “leave me alone” for long expanses of time so I could try and focus on the material without distraction. I will not try and put a number on the hours spent studying directly for this exam (as I am a constant student of wine), but let just say it was significant given that this is a hobby for me and probably rivals the amount of time I have spent studying for any other test I’ve ever taken. I took the exam at the Cleveland based American Wine School, which is the closest testing location to my Dayton, OH.
It should be noted that the results of this exam must be reviewed by the society directly and cannot be scored by the American Wine School or anyone else. Because of this, they give a rather lengthy time frame for getting the results back. . . Not sure if I can hold my breath for 6 weeks, but I will try. In the meantime, for anyone who is currently studying or planning on taking this exam for their certification, know that it is a very difficult exam. Being the enthusiastic and curious person I am, I thought I knew something before beginning to study. . . and in short I probably could’ve used another month or two to study. The study guide is around 250 pages long, and approximately 50% of the words in the book are in bold. You know, this is to indicate a term of particular importance, heh. This is the functional equivalent of highlighting every line in a book, it sort of loses its punch. The following are example of subject that my now mangled brain can remember from this particular version of the exam:
-% of wine required from the label vintage in a certified S. African wine.
-Which 3 AVAs lie in both Oregon and Washington?
-Chiavennasca is a synonym for what grape?
-U.S. Control states take what part in wine distribution?
-Styles and production characteristics of Madeira/Sherry/Port
-What wine region lies between the Vosge and the Rhine?
-Vin Doux Naturel is most like what other wine?
-What is the production breakdown of Maconnais (red/white/etc.)?
-What are the stylistic differences between Sancerre and Fume’ Blanc?
As you can see, pretty much anything is fair game. 100 questions in 1-hour tends to become a bit of a chore with an onslaught of questions like these. Belated wishes of luck will be accepted. I will update when I learn anything new. Until then, I hope to have the reviewing on this blog revved back up a bit. Cheers!
How useful are wine tasting notes to you?
Well, before we get too far, I do want to add the disclaimer that what is to follow in this post may very well hang me by my own noose, but it is all in the interest of bettering myself and my critique of wines on grapesrgreat.com.
What I mean is, if you read a review of wine that is say 3-6 sentences in length (which I find to be typical in “shelf talkers” found at grocery stores and wine shops as well as in widely read wine publications Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter, to name a few), what do you really take away from the blurb that helps you understand what is in the bottle? The implication here is not that tasting notes are not useful, but simply that in most cases I find that I tend to mentally erase 90% of what is said and only pick out the few descriptors that I may find appealing or offensive to my tastes. The following are real life examples of what I would describe as truly ridiculous descriptors of wine:
Shrimp shells, Gravenstein apples, Valrhona Chocolate, Sandalwood, Grandma’s purse, worn saddle leather, etc. just to name a few.
The common theme among most of these that I find to add very little value and if anything help to propagate the snobbery that surrounds wine, is the unnecessary adjective in each instance. Gravenstein apples? How about apples? When did apple lose meaning enough to require further description? How many people have such a strong familiarity with this particular obscure variety of apple to immediately pull away additional knowledge of the associated wine than if “apple” was used alone? Similarly, “Asian Pear,” “Bing Cherry,” and “Thompson Seedless Grapes” could all be paired down (I was joking with Thompson. . . at least I haven’t seen it yet) to great efficiency and effect. Terms like “worn saddle leather” and “shrimp shells” are just literary tricks designed to make the writer feel like they are earning their paycheck. I also believe that terms like these work to alienate all types of wine drinkers who buy a bottle and expect to be punched with a flavor of Asian pears, only to find that they don’t pick out that particular flavor and immediate feel that their palate is unsophisticated or somehow inferior. Just know that the wine critic isn’t always right and no two people taste things the exact same way.
On the flip side of this coin, the type of the descriptors that I find particularly helpful (and I try to use in my own musings) are the more vague, broad sweeping terms that give more of a sense of the style of wine than any specific flavors I might find. Terms that describe the level of acidity, the fruit concentration, or the mouthfeel/body tend to give me enough information to basically know what I am getting into. Dark fruits versus red fruits (for red wines) is a good comparison to make because different wines from the same grape can go drastically different ways on this (California Pinot tends toward dark fruits whereas Burgundy Pinots tend to be brighter with red fruits). In addition, calling a wine bright or “high-toned” tends to accurately describe a high acid wine and luscious or flabby would generally describe low acidity (luscious = good, flabby = bad). A quality wine review should also mention the level and type of tannin in a wine. A harsh, hard to drink wine may be described as having “gripping” tannins whereas wines with low levels of tannin could be said to be soft, smooth, or drinkable (I do not like describing wines as drinkable, seems like a left-handed compliment). Once in a while, I will admit that I taste and wine and something strange immediate pops into my head (e.g. watermelon jolly ranchers, banana bread, lil’ Smokies, etc.) because, dang it, the wine tastes just exactly like that! When this happens, I feel compelled to share that with others because of the novelty of it. I would be remiss if I didn’t include these in my tasting notes, even though they may be of limited use to the readership. Let me know if you have any particular feelings on this topic or if you have come across any awesome descriptors of wine worth sharing. I also suggest you check out the now long gone www.winelibrarytv.com or www.dailygrape.com, as Gary V. is king of describing wines in such terms as “like Mr. T punching you with a velvet glove.” Cheers!
My wife took me out to a local modern Italian restaurant last night for my birthday. . . and what a lovely wife she is! The bottle we chose to pair with our dinner was a Piedmont Nebbiolo from Enzo Boglietti in Italy. The waitress was very knowledgeable and described as having the mouth feel and finesse of a Pinot Noir with the tannin structure of a Cabernet (read: grippier and more drying). While I am not aiming to do a formal review here, I have to say that she was spot on. Much darker in color and flavor than I was expecting, the tannins seemed to resolve very well after the bottle was open a half hour or so. It was a very pleasant wine to drink and paired perfectly with the Brie and apple flat-bread concoction we ate as an appetizer. The only downside was that we ended up taking about a third of the bottle home with us and drinking it 3 hours after opening, found it had fallen almost completely apart. Given the $25 retail price tag on this wine, I would definitely buy it again and I applaud the wait staff at Savona in Dayton for knowing what they are talking about. At the risk of sounding snobby, I find that way too many restaurants, even those touting their wine selection, are satisfied with the fact that the wait staff just push whatever wine they have the most of in-stock and have probably never even tried it and have no knowledge of the wine beyond what they can read off of the list or bottle. Did you know that Italian wines make up more of the foreign imports into the U.S. than any other country? Cheers!
My wife and I attended a tasting this weekend as our Valentine’s Day gift to each other. This was the second time we attended this particular tasting and find it to be an incredible value for the wines presented. The tasting is small featuring roughly 40-50 wines from all over (slightly USA-centric), with many different styles available. Below are some of my extremely brief notes on the more memorable wines of the evening (in no particular order):
2006 Coniglio Diamond Mountain Merlot ($40): It’s “merlot-ness” is apparent, but the structure and texture are impressive. 89 pts.
2005 Coniglio Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): The merlot had more guts, but this certainly delivers Napa Cabernet character for the price point. 88 pts.
2008 Frank Family Vineyards Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($50): Tasted side by with the Coniglios and on this night, this one stood above the rest. Dark fruits and some herbal notes with good structure and smooth tannins. 90 pts.
2008 Justin Isosceles ($59): Definitely a crowd pleaser, but it tastes like they left in a good helping of residual sugar. In a big sturdy wine like this, I am skeptical when they taste sweet because “rs” (residual sugar) tends to be used like make-up to disguise an otherwise unimpressive wine; still great. 91 pts.
2008 Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta ($84): Even the snootiest of wine aficionados would have to admit that this wine is well made and delivers the goods on a silver platter. In a tasting of 40+ wines, I tend to pour out a lot to limit my intake, but I took the time to savor this one. 91+ pts.
Non-vintage Justin Obtuse Port ($29): This Cabernet based fortified wine was surprisingly and pleasantly un-sweet. Some toasty character, but I would suggest eating dessert with it. It is a bit much to take all alone. 87 pts.
Chocolate Shop ($11): This is not wine. No score. Tastes like tootsie rolls.
2008 Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel ($18): OMG! May be the best Zinfandel I’ve ever tasted for the money. Dark brooding fruits and perfect balance and complexity, For The Win! 91 pts.
2009 Klinker Brick Farrah’s Syrah ($18): Also very good, but the Zin stole my heart this time. Definitely a worthwhile value Syrah. 89 pts.
2007 Spring Valley Vineyards “Frederick” ($47): Cabernet Sauvignon. Comes across as very young (read: bright and tannic) but with a ton of potential. Needs cellar time, probably 3-4 years. The brightness and good acidic backbone remind me of a Barolo. 90+ pts.
2006 Col Salare ($62): Cabernet Sauvignon. Darker and more luscious than the Spring Valley, but didn’t ring my bell quite as well. 89+ pts.
2009 Erath Estate Pinot Noir ($33): Good representation of Oregon Pinot Noir; more delicate than many from California but retains good concentration and length of flavors. 88 pts.
2007 Franciscan “Stylus” ($45): They claimed this is normally a $100 bottle, and it is very good; I just don’t know about a whole $100 of my hard-earned dollars. Certainly worth $45 for a nice home-cooked meal in a few years. 90+ pts.
2009 Beringer Knights Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($56): A lot of regular wine drinkers might not even be aware that Beringer makes some higher end wines, but this one is a blockbuster. If you love the inviting structured fruit, well-integrated oak, and a future full of complexity, then Sonoma Cabernet may be right in your wheelhouse. Sort of brambly and young now, but I would say buy 2 and drink one now and one in 8 years. 92+ pts.
2007 Sbragia Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($28): After tasting this wine, I would have guessed it to be in the $50-60 range. When I found out it was under $30, I was fairly floored. This is another wonderful Sonoma Cab; consider it a younger brother to the Beringer. 89 pts.
2009 Bodegas Penalba Lopez Ribera Del Duero Finca Torremilanos ($15): You could easily enjoy this wine and finish the bottle in the time it would take you to pronounce the name. Good complexity and full of flavor for this price point. 88 pts.
2009 Hope Family Wines Treana Red Wine ($30): The label on this bottle is sort of goofy looking, but I was surprised at the quality. Well made Cab blend that drinks just fine all by itself, or would perfectly compliment any manner of hearty dishes. 89 pts.
2006 Steltzner Stags Leap Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($80): This wine is dynamite, but at the same time hard to appreciate at this point. When a wine is built for greatness (high extraction, a fair amount of oak, high tannins, etc.) it will be in relative balance throughout its life, meaning that no single aspect will stick out no matter when you drink it. At this point, however, all of the flavors seem sort of simplistic and muted. I would give this one 10 years at least and I can almost guarantee that it will blossom into a sexy seductress of a wine. 91+ pts. now, could be 94-96 pts. given that you pop it at the right moment.
2009 Cellar Cal Pla Mas D’en Compte Porrera Black Slate Priorat ($20): For the price, this is the clear winner of the evening. It smells like a bowl of roses and is perfectly balanced on the palate with a finish that goes on for days. Imagine eating a bowl of black cherries in a cedar lined closet with a bouquet of flowers in your hand and you’re half way there. 92 pts.
2005 Rocche Costamagna Barolo ($29): For thirty dollars, this had a lot of the good character of a Barolo. The trouble is, I can’t tell if it is just too young or if it might not have the stuffing necessary to outlive the tannins and the fruit and spice will die before it smooths out. 88 pts.
2009 Chateau Foria Chateauneuf Du Pape ($40): Another stand out wine of the evening. I actually re-tasted this one at the end of the night to relive the wonderfully integrated oak and vanilla character along with the spice box and leather character that is beginning to become apparent. Harmony in a glass. 92 pts.
2007 Viader ($100): This wine is way too young to even say much about. The couple next to us were gushing about it, but I felt it to be extremely tight and muted at this point. I can tell it is well made by the balance and good acidity, but not much else can be said at this point. 90+ pts.
2007 Dare by Viader ($45): This wine is so named to help people remember how to pronounce Viader ;). Meant to be the baby brother of the namesake above, this one is much more approachable at this point with more resolved tannins and secondary flavors and aromas. Certainly a good Cab for the price and prestige. 90 pts.
2009 Chateau La Croix De Berney Puisseguin-St. Emilion Bordeaux ($20): Sorry to end on a down note, but this wine seemed sort of grapey and one-dimensional to me. Would probably be a good Tuesday night pizza wine. 86 pts.
That pretty much wraps it up. The good news is that if you live in Ohio, there are currently distributors with these wines available, so feel free to ask for them at your local wine shop if you feel so inclined. Cheers to my longest post to date (congrats if you made it this far), and Happy Valentine’s Day!
P.S. I type this as my lovely wife prepares a home-cooked meal of scallops fettucine alfredo :)
I have a few quick reviews jotted down at wine shop tastings and other such events where I didn’t exactly take the time to mull over the details. I tasted these wines probably over the last 6 months or so. I present them here in an unedited format for your enjoyment:
The following are from a Coturri Winery Tasting:
Rose’ – Great acidity w/ grapefruit and pear. 89 pts.
06′ Pinot Jewell Vineyards – Dark and jammy. Doesn’t taste like a Pinot but good. 88 pts.
Merlot – Drinkable. 85 pts.
Sandocino – Pretty awesome, blueberries and smoke. Great balance but tannins need time to resolve. 90 pts.
Petit Sirah – Licorice, black cherry, and Swedish Fish. Oaky, delicious. 89 pts.
Primitivo – Stinky and smoky. Cola and black raspberries. (no score given)
Other odds and ends from various tastings:
08′ Sineann Pinot, $38 – Smells jammy, little lake water with oak on top. Some cherries, alcohol apparent. Overdone. 86+ pts.
07′ Federalist Zinfandel, $29 – Aromatically challenged. Some zin character comes through with a punch of fruit. Slightly muddled. 87+ pts.
03′ Ridge Del Carlo – Big earthy nose. Slightly browning at the edge of the glass. Smells incredible and you can tell it has some age. Big mouthfeel, very elegant and well-balanced in its bigness. Still a little cloying. Truckloads of fruit and complexity in the mid-palate. Some pepper and mint. (no score given)
07′ Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet, $70 – Aroma is very big and concentrated with an oak blanket. Currants and blueberries with an herbal quality. Bright acidity, very well-balanced. Lots of tannin, but has lots of everything. Will be fantastic. 92+ pts.
Hope you enjoyed the uncut, unrated wine reviews. I apologize for any grammatical atrocities. Cheers!