My Top 10 Wine Moments of 2019

It’s that time again – when we reflect back on a year that’s almost over. What was so special about the 2019 vintage?  For me, there were several things that made 2019 memorable . . .

Retweet by Eric Asimov

I peaked early this year – January 22nd to be exact – when I was retweeted by New York Times wine writer, Eric Asimov.  His first monthly “wine school” column of 2019 focused on three big brand, readily available, supermarket wines.  These wine selections of his caused quite the uproar on Twitter.  While some wine enthusiasts applauded his efforts to understand what appeals to the masses – others accused him of promoting these wines.

Eric Asimov retweet

This was Eric’s first “wine school” that I’d actively participated in and I wrote a post about the “assignment.”.  The results weren’t all that surprising to me, but his retweet of my post WAS.  This was my first real lesson in the power of social media – his single retweet led to a huge uptick in visits to my site (thank you Eric!)  Unfortunately, this didn’t translate to an increase in subscribers . . . I guess his wine school crowd isn’t particularly interested in outlines on the 1855 Classification or WSET Diploma study tips.

And interestingly, at least to me anyway, this was not my most viewed blog post of 2019 . ..

Stepping Into the Instagram Influencer Fray

For the first few months of 2019, I sat on the sidelines watching a longtime Instagrammer (aka Amarone) vent with regularity about the rise of “wine influencers.”  I understood his frustration, but disagreed with his methods – which consisted primarily of snarky memes and posts mocking these “influencers” (mostly attractive, younger women).  However, when Amarone decided to take a shot at me (together with my dead yellow Lab), well . . . the result led to my most viewed blog post of 2019.

Instagram

In fact, an entire hashtag movement was actually spawned because of Amarone and a few others (to be clear, not because of my post). #youcansipwithus is still going strong, but thankfully, the antagonists appear to have backed off a bit. I might revisit this issue sometime next year – to see what progress has been made (or not made).

Personally though, I made some progress in 2019 . . .

Finding My Groove on Instagram

In 2019, I found my Instagram niche.  I finally determined who my target audience was: people wanting to learn more about wine – including both serious wine students and curious consumers.  And also who my target audience was not: Jimmy Bigcellars with trophy bottles as well as the ChardonnYAY crowd.

Based on this, I decided to focus my content on wine studies and education – but I wanted to do this in a fun and engaging way.  So I started creating Instagram wine quizzes.  I’m a wine geek at heart (I mean, I prepare outlines on wine for shit’s sake!) and I genuinely enjoy producing this type of content.  Not only do the quizzes help me retain information better, but I’ve also connected with wine students from all over the world (Mumbai, Cape Town, London) – and have met several in person!  I really do get a tremendous amount of satisfaction hearing from other wine people that my quizzes or outlines have helped in some small part with their studies.

In addition to finding my own groove this year, I was also able to assist others with theirs as well . . .

Supporting Other Endeavors

I have a pact with myself to never agree to write about a product, class, person, wine, whatever that I don’t believe in.  For me, this means turning down certain collaborations – even if they’re offering payment.  However, there were a few opportunities that I jumped at the chance to participate in this year. Not surprisingly, they each had an element of wine education to them:

Cristie Norman launched a unique online wine course for beginners that is both highly educational and entertaining.  Wine Masters released two seasons of their documentary series focusing on winemaking families of France and Italy.  Snooth Media hosted a virtual wine tasting of Sweet Bordeaux wines. And I was thrilled to support each of these ventures – they were all genuinely educational and incredibly well-done.

Completing Half of the WSET Diploma

This past year I completed my third exam for the WSET Diploma – so I’m officially halfway done!  I have the Fortified Exam in less than one month (eek!) and then it’s complete focus on the dreaded Unit 3 Exam for the next five months.  And finally, the research paper which is due at the end of July.  So if all goes well, I should have the Diploma completed by August.

I had hoped to have 4 of the 6 units completed by now, but due to a change in scheduling at my school this didn’t happen.  The Tracy Flick in me was initially annoyed AF, but this WSET Diploma break actually turned out to be a good thing because it allowed me to pursue other things like:

Becoming an Italian Wine Scholar IWS certificate

I completed the Italian Wine Scholar course and passed with Highest Honors!  As I mentioned in a prior blog post, this venture took me quite a bit longer than anticipated, but was well worth the time and effort.  Not only do I have a much better grasp on Italy and its 20 different wine regions and umpteenthousand different grape varieties, but since I passed with such a high mark I also qualified to teach the course!  Which I started to do in 2019 . . .

Teaching Wine Courses

I have two of wonderful mentors up in the Pacific Northwest who gave me some incredible teaching opportunities this past year: Mimi Martin and Tanya Morningstar Darling.  I got my feet wet by leading sections of the Italian Wine Scholar course and WSET Level 2 – and have plans to wade in a bit further in 2020.  I still believe wine education is the direction I’m heading with my future wine career, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be certification courses only – because consumer focused classes are just as enjoyable . . .

Presenting Wine and World Views Seminar

Last year, Hubs was in a major bind when he was hosting a wine event at a fancy schmancy SoCal restaurant for some clients when the sommelier at the restaurant resigned just a few days prior to the event.  He asked me to fill-in at the last minute to speak about the wines being served and to lead the discussion with about 50 well traveled wine enthusiasts.

True confession: I’m not overly confident about my public speaking abilities – I get jittery and tend to talk too fast.  (Ok – truer confession: I sweat when I’m nervous!!).  Yes, I know this is ironic since I’m leaning towards wine education which requires speaking in front of others to some degree.  However, for reasons I’m still not entirely sure of (maybe my daily meditation practice, or gaining more confidence in my knowledge) – I really did nail this presentation.  And you know what else – I had a hell of a lot of fun doing it!  Maybe that’s the key: have fun and don’t worry so much about getting every little fact correct.  Give Tracy Flick the night off. 😉

I still have a ways to go before I get truly comfortable speaking in public – but thankfully, I’ve got a couple of very good examples to learn from . . .

Attending Master Classes with Masters

I’m fortunate to be taking my WSET Diploma classes from a Master Sommelier and auditing the French Wine Scholar course from a Master of Wine.  While they’re both incredibly knowledgeable individuals, they also have very different ways of approaching wine studies.  By learning from both of them, I feel like I’m getting the best blend of education and gaining a more thorough understanding of the wine world.

Master WinesThey each teach certification courses, but also focused tasting classes.  And since I have yet to find a tasting group in SoCal (a goal for 2020 – send me a note if you’ve got a lead for me!!), I attended as many of these Master Classes as I possibly could last year – including Brunello, Bollinger, aged Rieslings, Northern Rhône and Vintage Port.  I’m soaking up as much information as I can from these Masters – and some pretty damn good wine too.  Speaking of damn good wine . . .

Traveling to Walla Walla

This last “top wine moment of 2019” hasn’t actually happened yet, and I normally avoid setting my expectations too high but I think in this instance I’m safe.  Hubs and I are on our way to one of my favorite wine regions in the world – Walla Walla.  We’ll be spending my birthday and New Years Eve and Day there, partaking in some wine tasting, and … looking at some property while we are there.

While I’m not sure exactly what Walla Walla has in store for us this visit, I know that at least some part of this adventure will be a highlight of the year.  And, well, perhaps for many years to come!

Happy New Year to All!

 

 

 

Wine Masters Italy: 12 Days of Christmas

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post reviewing the first season of Wine Masters – a new documentary series focused on five French wine regions and winemaking families.    The first season was thoroughly enjoyable, cinematically breathtaking and highly educational.  So, when they asked if I would be willing to write an honest review of their second season on Italy, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

My review of their first season was written during film awards season, so of course I had to give it a bit of an Oscars theme.  Honestly, there was a little part of me that wondered if the Italian “sequel” by Wine Masters would be as good as their original.  In other words, would it be a Godfather II….or a Tron Legacy?

I needn’t have worried – Wine Masters Italy is about as Godfather II as you can get.  (Complete with beautiful Sicilian scenery . . . and locals!) 😉  The second season is on par, if not better, than the original season in France.

And since we’re now in the middle – quickly nearing the end – of the holiday season, I’m giving this post a bit of a 12 days of Christmas theme.  (I say “a bit of” because admittedly several of the days below are a stretch – so bare with me and don’t be a Grinch!)  Here are some highlights of Wine Masters Italy along with my own educational tidbits and new outlines (Merry Christmas to YOU!) 😉

It’s a good thing for you this is written and not a live video where you could hear me sing off key . . . without further ado – on the Twelfth Day of Christmas Wine Masters gave to me!

12 Percent of Production

Sicily is responsible for 12% of Italy’s total wine production.  Much of this production used to be bulk wine, but today there is more focus on quality – as Alberto Tasca discusses in Wine Masters’ Sicily episode. Richard Hemming MW (see 2nd day of Christmas below) describes Sicily as a relatively great bargain since this region doesn’t yet have the international reputation as some of the other wine regions of Italy.  The keyword being “yet” – it’s only a matter of time before this rather remote region is on the radar of wine lovers everywhere. For example – the Tasca family was recently named Wine Enthusiast’s “European Winery of the Year”!

11 Native Grapes

The number of native grapes in Italy is close to 350.  Thankfully, Wine Masters Italy narrows this down to 11 to discuss in detail.  At the end of the second season, viewers come away with a better, more thorough understanding of: Nebbiolo, Sangiovese (see 10th day of Christmas), Aglianico, Greco, Fiano, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara and Osleta.

10 Percent of Vines

Sangiovese is by far the most planted grape variety in Italy.  It represents 10% of all vine plantings, a total of about 177,000 acres, much of this located in Tuscany.  The Antinori family is highlighted in this episode and they do an excellent job of succinctly describing how Sangiovese can produce very different styles of wine depending on where the grapes are grown:

  • Chianti Classico – more fruity with approachable tannins
  • Brunello di Montalcino – a “supercharged Chianti” built to age (and sadly, one of the classic wines that I’m just not a fan of)
  • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – an in-between style that hasn’t reached the fame of either Chianti or Brunello

The Antinoris also stress that Sangiovese is a wine that is not designed for drinking by itself – it needs food.  In my experience, I’ve found this to be true about most Italian wines . . . or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to chow down on some Italian cheeses, cured meats and pasta.

Antinori Family
Piero Antinori and his daughters Albiera, Alessia and Allegra

9th Generation “Founding Father”

Antonio Mastroberardino is considered by much of wine world to be the founding father of Campania’s modern wine industry.  In the mid-1900s, after vineyards had been destroyed by phylloxera and the country was experiencing an economic crisis, the Italian government encouraged vignerons to plant (overly) productive grape varieties like Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano.  Antonio boldly ignored this request and instead decided to remain true to Campania’s heritage by replanting his family’s vineyards with indigenous varieties such as Aglianico, Greco and Fiano.

Today, Antonio’s son, Piero, carries on the Mastroberardino tradition and is featured in Wine Masters’ Campania episode.  International varieties make up a miniscule amount of plantings in Campania.  Instead, this region is proudly and uniquely focused on native grapes – thanks in large part to the efforts of Antonio.  And while these varieties may never have the same acclaim as international ones – as Piero so eloquently states – “the world doesn’t need another Cabernet Sauvignon.”  A statement I couldn’t agree more with.

8th Century Viticulture

One of the many things I find fascinating when studying Italy is the depth of their traditions.  They have traditions that go back centuries, sometimes millennia – like the alberello vine training still practiced in Sicily . . . which dates back to the 8th century!

Alberello vine training
Alberello vine training

As Richard Hemming explains, this low to the ground vine training system works well in a hot, arid region like Sicily because it helps shade the grapes from the sweltering sun.  It also helps varieties that need heat to ripen (like Nero d’Avola) because by keeping the grapes closer to the ground, they are also benefitting from the radiant heat.

7 Chianti Sub-Zones

According to Piero Antinori, the Chianti fiasco is “the symbol of Tuscan wine.”  This statement baffled me a bit because I think of the fiasco as something that came to symbolize cheap plonk wine you’d purchase at your local “Italian” restaurant that served unlimited salad and breadsticks (I DO love their breadsticks though!)  And as Sarah Heller MW asserts: “No bottle that can be used as a candle holder could ever have had anything amazing in it.” Chianti fiasco candle holder

The Chianti region produces about 100 million bottles annually.  Much of this is made by large producers within the value category – the resulting wine often being fairly boring.  However, the best wines from the Chianti region can usually be found in its seven sub-zones. For more information on these – check out my outline on Chianti.

6th Generation Ripasso

Wine Masters’ Veneto episode introduces us to Sandro Boscaini, the sixth generation winemaker at Masi, a family owned winery located in Valpolicella.  Over the years, Sandro has been instrumental in bringing international attention to the Valpolicella region located in western Veneto.  Perhaps most notably, in the 1960s he re-introduced and popularized a traditional winemaking technique known as “ripasso” which involves pouring freshly made Valpolicella wine through unpressed Amarone skins in order to increase body, color and alcohol.  The result is a wine that is somewhere in-between a light, easy-drinking Valpolicella and a rich and powerful Amarone – “the best of both worlds” according to Richard Hemming.

Sandro Boscaini
Sandro Boscaini tasting Valpolicella grapes

Valpolicella Ripasso DOC became its own DOC in 2010.  Today, many producers in the Valpolicella region have a ripasso style wine in their lineup – sometimes referring to this wine as a “baby Amarone.”  Just don’t use this term in front of the man who’s responsible for bringing this production method back in style: Sandro can’t stand this description.

5 Wine Regions

Italy is divided into 20 regions – each with its own, unique wine growing traditions.  When I studied for my Italian Wine Scholar certification, there were a handful of regions that represented a larger chunk of the textbooks and (not surprisingly) featured more prominently on the exams: Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany, Campania and Sicily.  These just so happen to be the five wine regions covered in the Wine Masters Italy series.

Having a thorough understanding of these five regions is paramount to succeeding in many wine certifications and I highly recommend the Wine Masters’ series for wine students of all levels.  It’s a beautiful way to wrap your brain around this country, and the stories of these five families are so much more interesting than memorizing a list of the DOCs.

4 Appellations

The Valpolicella region boasts four different major appellations. In addition to the Valpolicella Ripasso DOC (discussed in the 6th day of Christmas above), there is also Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and Valpolicella DOC.  The Wine Masters’ Veneto episode provides a terrific overview of the differences between these four appellations (plus the time lapsed Amarone production is fascinating to watch!) You can also check out my outline on Valpolicella.

3 Gaja Offspring 

Angelo Gaja began working for his family’s winery in 1961 (it had been founded 102 years earlier by his great-grandfather).  He and his three children – Gaia, Rosella and Giovanni – are the focus of the Wine Masters’ Piedmont episode.  Angelo notes that each generation has made its own mark on the winery, but always with a focus on the challenging Nebbiolo grape – which he admits isn’t “a blockbuster” or “opulent.”  His oldest daughter, Gaia, I think best explains the family’s loyalty for Nebbiolo by saying that it “allows the terroir to talk, it allows the vintage to talk” more so than other varieties.

And note: Angelo’s son, Giovanni, walks us through some of the family vineyards and discusses several concepts related to viticulture – more so than in any of the other Italian episodes.  So, if you’re wanting to dork out on dirt, Piedmont is the episode to tune into.

2 Masters of Wine

As in the French Wine Masters, the Italian series helps guide and educate the viewer with the addition of two Masters of Wine:  Richard Hemming and Sarah Heller.  They are a balance of entertainment and education, and each does an excellent job of explaining difficult concepts like why a producer would declassify their wine to a “lesser” appellation and the subtle differences in Chianti’s terroir.  I also appreciate their honesty on some of Italy’s shortcomings (like mass produced Prosecco and Pinot Grigio).  However, I could have done without their food pairing suggestions for Amarone . . . you’ll just have to watch it for yourself. :-/

One Unique Gift

So here we are – just a few days away from Christmas.  Even Amazon may not be able to deliver your gift on time at this point!  Before you pick up a crapshoot bottle of wine from the grocery store, I have a better suggestion: get the wine enthusiast in your life access to Wine Masters.  You know who else would enjoy this?  The travel lover, the foodie, the perpetual student, the history buff, and even the person who has everything and is such a pain in the ass to buy for (we ALL have one of these in our lives!)

I love this series and cannot wait to see what they do next.  In 2020, Wine Masters TV plans to add new content like a travel-focus series, short documentaries on influencial individuals in the wine world, and wine classes.  Plus Season 3 of Wine Masters will launch – this time in Spain!

So pour a glass of Nebbiolo, raise a toast to Jolly Old St. Nick, hit the play button on Wine Masters Italy, and sing along with me loudly and completely off key….

Twelve Percent of Production, Eleven Native Grapes, Ten Percent of Vines, Ninth Generation Founding Father, Eighth Century Viticulture, Seven Chianti Sub-Zones, Sixth Generation Ripasso, Five Wine Regions, Four Appellations, Three Gaja Offspring, Two Masters of Wine, and One Unique Gift!!”

Beats the hell out of a Partridge in a Pear Tree if you ask me (Pear wine is terrible!)  🙂   Happy Holidays everyone!

 

Note: I received a complimentary screening of Wine Masters second season in exchange for an independent and honest review.  All thoughts and opinions above are my own.

 

 

The Party Bus: Something to Beware . . . or Behold?

Anyone who has ever worked in a winery tasting room knows the drill.  A big ol’ party bus pulls up outside, a pile of people (let’s be honest – usually women) who have been imbibing all day stumble off, laughing raucously, snapping selfies or asking the driver to take yet another “quick picture” by the winery sign.  As the group approaches – the tasting room staff concocts excuses like “I gotta go run inventory” or “I think the Riesling needs another racking today.”  Anything that will get them out of the tasting room ASAP.

Beware the party bus.

I get it.  I empathize with tasting room staff when it comes to party busses.  Often these groups are loud, take up a lot of room, don’t listen when you’re describing the oak aging regime of your reserve Chardonnay, and if you haven’t been drinking with them all day – they’re pretty fucking annoying.  (Come to think of it – even if you HAVE been drinking with them all day you might feel this way).

Party Bus 1
I spy a party bus!

Instagram is full of snarky memes mocking these groups – how they all dress alike, traipse through vineyards or sit on barrels for “content”, and know next to nothing about wine. But before you write them all off as obnoxious wine newbies who just want free tastings – allow me to give you a little insight inside the bus.

Splits on the party bus
I might have regretted this later

Once a year for the past fifteen years, I’ve been a member of one such party bus.  I have engaged in typical party bus behavior like doing splits in my jeans while listening to Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’ and making smoochy faces to countless winery dogs (this IS typical – isn’t it?).  I have also partaken in some not-so-typical party bus behavior like talking with tasting room staff about concrete fermentation, the recent spread of phylloxera in my Beloved Washington state and pending AVA applications.

Me with Bud Cooper
Bud is thrilled to see me!

Now, I realize that there are some party bus groups that try to get out of paying tasting fees, or steal glassware, or puke in the dump bucket.  However, I think of these groups like corked wine.  They don’t occur regularly (maybe between 2-5% of the time) and you wouldn’t write off all wine just because you had one that was flawed – would you?

If we’re going to stick with wine analogies (Hubs hates these!) – my party bus is a mixed case.  While the other gals are not nearly as nerdy about wine as I am, many are better traveled (Mendoza, Sicily – two wine regions on my bucket list!).  One can pronounce French labelling terms like nobody’s business.  And some own easily twice as many bottles as I do – and belong to a lot more wine clubs as well.

My most recent Gals Wine Weekend trip took us to one of my favorite wine regions – Walla Walla.  This year, I kept a close eye on how we were treated by tasting room staff. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised – there were a number of wineries who behold the party bus!  Two in particular are worth a quick mention . . .

Neil Patrick Harris Sleight of Hand Cellars
NPH – wine label model and wine club member!

It’s almost not fair to compare other wineries to Sleight of Hand Cellars.  They are a Grand Cru of fun tasting rooms – I mean, they have a magician for fuck’s sake!  They were our first stop of the day and Traci and her tasting room staff set the bar pretty high – they were welcoming and FUN.  Where else can you select an old-school, vinyl album to be played during your tasting, get your picture taken in a photo booth, all under the watchful eye of Neil Patrick Harris (his face graces the label of their Bordeaux style blend).  Just like their eclectic album selection, Sleight of Hand’s wines are a wide range – from a zippy Riesling to a funky Syrah.

Our last stop of the day was The Walls who were welcoming and waiting for us. (I usually feel for the staff at our last stop because we are past our peak by this point.)  We sipped through several of their wines – favorites were ‘Lip Stinger’ white Rhone blend and Gaspard Syrah.  Our host gave us the entertaining backstory on the name of the winery (a play on the Washington State Penitentiary located a few miles away) as well as their ever-prevalent cartoon illustration – Stanley Groovy.  One of the students in the first WSET class I taught is currently the hospitality manager and we all got in on this lovely photo together before walking out with several cases. Party Bus 2

It Pays to Behold the Party Bus – Literally.

According to a recent wine industry report, Direct to Consumer (DTC) sales account for over 60% of an average family winery’s revenue.  The biggest DTC channels are wine clubs and tasting rooms.  And unfortunately, consumers are visiting fewer tasting rooms when they travel to wine country – often seeking out just a couple of their favorite spots, or wineries providing the best experiences.

Tip for tasting room staff: honestly, with party bus groups, often it’s not about how good your wine is – it’s how you treat us.  Over the years we’ve had a number of awesome experiences at wineries who produce good, but not mind-blowing, wines.  However – because of how fantastic the staff were to us and their welcoming attitude – we’ve bought bottles, signed up for club memberships, recommended them to others, put them on our social media, and been repeat visitors.

On the other hand, if we’re treated condescendingly or there’s an unwelcome attitude – we don’t buy.  Even if the wine is good.  This happened only once on our most recent trip, and interestingly it was a winery whose wines I really enjoy.  Unfortunately, the staff didn’t crack a smile our entire visit, gave an incredibly curt answer to the common question “how did [insert winery] get its name?” and made us feel like we were an imposition in his fairly empty tasting room. Not surprisingly – we walked out empty handed.

I’ve worked at a wine store, and I know that sometimes you just don’t feel like dealing with a large, boisterous group of wine tasters.  But as a member of a party bus, I also know that we’re not usually asking for much.  Your wine doesn’t have to have a big score, or win a bunch of local awards, or be certified and blessed by any organic or biodynamic organization.  We will not remember these things!  But we WILL remember Susie at Two Mountain Winery and Neil (and Bud!) at Cooper Wine Company because they were excited to have us in their tasting room and went above and beyond to make us feel welcome.

And on a personal note, since I moved away from my Beloved Washington state last year – I’ve come to realize how important this party bus group is to me.  It’s hard to find women who support each other, who cheer each other on instead of compete with one another, and with whom you can just be your silly-ass self.  Like I said – this group is 15 years strong.  I hope we keep going . . . because I plan on attempting my splits well into my 60s.  Won’t THAT be something to be behold? 😉

Party Bus 6
Party Bus – Vintage 2019

 

Sweet Bordeaux: A Delicious Way to Slow Down and Savor the Holidays

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in my first virtual wine tasting with Snooth media.  When they reached out to me about the theme of the tasting – the sweet wines of Bordeaux – I was thrilled.  I have a soft spot (or should I say “sweet spot”?) for these wines.  They are some of the most labor intensive wines produced in the world – and, unfortunately, some of the most misunderstood.

Sweet wines aren’t very popular with the modern day wine consumer.  Perhaps its because we had a bad experience with a “sweet wine” early in our drinking days (I’m looking at you Boone’s Farm).  Or perhaps its because we erroneously associate “sweet” with a drink that’s overly sugary and cloying.

Sweet Bordeaux wines are naturally sweet and balanced with a refreshing acidity.  To develop these natural sugars, grapes require a very specific type of environment that only a few areas of the world can provide.  Taking into account all the time and effort that goes into production, sweet Bordeaux wines are also an incredible value – not one of the bottles we received was over $40.

These wines are incredibly versatile and can be enjoyed with, or without, food. Instead of the usual sparkling wine, sweet Bordeaux wines would be a unique and memorable way to welcome your holiday guests. These wines are delicious with a wide range of foods – try them with spicy dishes as the sweetness tends to balance some of the heat.  And they’re perfect for “Thanksgiving halftime” – after dinner is done, but before dessert is served.

The virtual tasting was hosted by Snooth Media and Master of Wine Jean K. Reilly. The text feed and video of the tasting can be found here.  But before I go over my tasting notes, let’s take a brief look at Bordeaux – its history, varieties grown and why they’re able to produce such delicious sweet wines.

Bordeaux: A Bit of Background.

In 1453, at the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War (fun fact: actually 116 years), the French reclaimed the Bordeaux region from the British.  Shortly thereafter they began exporting wine to the Netherlands.  The Dutch quickly became Bordeaux’s dominant trading partner – but they wanted white wine and sweet whites, as opposed to the red “claret” that had been so popular with the British for centuries.

From 1670 to the 1970s, Bordeaux produced more white wine than red.  Today, however, red wine accounts for about 90% of Bordeaux production.  Sweet wine production is decreasing due to falling consumer demand for this style.

Bordeaux sweet wines are produced from three grape varieties:

  • Sémillon – usually dominates the blend, but its acreage is shrinking due to the decreasing popularity of sweet wines. Sémillon adds notes of tropical fruit, honey, apricot and nectarine as well as a lanolin-like texture.
  • Sauvignon Blanc – provides zesty notes of citrus and grapefruit and refreshing acidity.
  • Muscadelle – a small percentage of this variety (5% or less) is added to sweet wines to boost aromatics.

The overall climate of Bordeaux is maritime – it is strongly influenced by several bodies of water including the Atlantic Ocean, the Gironde Estuary, and the Dordogne and Garonne rivers.  The region receives an abundance of rainfall (about 35 inches annually).  Bordeaux’s sweet wine AOCs are clustered in one specific area within the region.  And there’s a noble reason for this.

The most desired sweet wines are produced from grapes that have been affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea – aka, “noble rot”.  Noble rot requires specific conditions to develop: (1) fully ripe grapes, and (2) humid, misty mornings followed by sunny, dry afternoons.

In Bordeaux, at the confluence of the Ciron and Garonne rivers, cold water mingles with warm to create morning mists.  The warmth of the region’s afternoon sun burns off this mist and keeps noble rot from developing into grey rot (which is the evil stepsibling of noble rot – it can destroy crops).  The noble rot fungus grows on the grapes and penetrates the skins – feeding off of water, sugar and acids inside the berry.  During this process, water content is reduced by half while acids, sugars and flavors are concentrated.

Hand harvesting these nobly rotted grapes can extend over a period of 4-8 weeks and requires multiple passes through the vineyards.  As a general rule, one vine’s worth of botrytized grapes results in 1-3 glasses of wine.  Botrytized grapes have ten times (!!) the normal number of aromatic compounds – resulting in wines with intense aromas of pineapple, honey, apricot and dried fruit.

Bordeaux: The Tasting.

We tasted through 11 (!) bottles of sweet Bordeaux during the virtual tasting.  Many are available in the United States and would be lovely wines to serve, share or gift during the holidays. Seven of these bottles come in a handy 375mL size – and I think this is key to winning over new consumers. It’s challenging to commit to purchasing a standard sized bottle of something you’re not familiar with or unsure of whether or not you’ll like.  Below are my tasting notes as well as prices and bottle sizes.

Disclaimer: All wines below were provided as media samples for the Snooth Virtual Tasting. Tasting notes and opinions are my own. Virtual tasting

1. Château de Marsan 2017 Bordeaux Moelleux, 11% abv (not currently imported)
80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Surprised me that this is only 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Tastes like pink grapefruit with dash of sugar sprinkled on top. Has herbal qualities that the other wines don’t seem to have. Acidity is a bit lower too – and just a touch of sweetness. Pleasant and easy-drinking.

2. Château Majoureau 2018 Côtes de Bordeaux Saint-Macaire Doux, 12% abv (not currently imported)
90% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Aromas are fairly faint, and a bit more floral and spicy than honeyed fruit. On the palate – apples and spice, reminds me of a thick, rich apple cider. Compared to the other wines in the lineup, this wine is rather simple. Makes me wonder if it’s a bit too young at this point?

3.  Château de Marsan 2015 Premiéres Côtes de Bordeaux Moelleux, 12% abv ($40) 80% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadelle
Notes: Ripe tropical fruits – mango and pineapple. Crisp acidity balances out the sweetness (the acidity actually seemed to fade after the glass had been sitting out and warming up – so my advice is to drink fast or pour less in your glass!). Lengthy, spicy finish.

4. Château des Arroucats 2017 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, 13.5% abv ($14)
92% Semillon, 8% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Honeysuckle, beeswax and spiced pear.  I want to say this is almost gravelly . . . so I’m going to: this is gravelly!  Rich and luscious but with great acidity.  Spicy finish.  I had to go back and double check the price on this one – what an insane value!! This is in my top 3 of the lineup.

Top 3 Golden Bordeaux
My 3 Favorites! 🙂

 

5. Château Loupiac Gaudiet 2016 Loupiac, 13% abv ($17/375mL)
Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Gorgeous golden color, aromas of honey, candied ginger, orange marmalade. Fuller bodied with an oily texture. Slightly nutty on the palate with flavors of hazelnuts and apricots. Bright acidity balances out the sweetness. This is also one of my favorites of the lineup – balanced, complex, lengthy finish – and delicious!

6. Château Ségur du Cros 2018 Loupiac, 13.5% abv (not currently imported)
85% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadelle
Notes: Milder aromas – but wow on the palate! Intensely flavorful and loaded with tropical fruits like mango and pineapple. Super fruity, balanced by refreshing acidity, with some candied ginger emerging as it warmed up in the glass.

7.  Château La Rame 2016 Sainte-Croix-Du-Mont, 13% abv ($30/375mL)
75% Sémillon, 25% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Delicious aromas of peach nectar, honeysuckle, nuts, and orange marmalade. On the palate – quite viscous and a warming sensation (makes me feel like this is more than 13% abv, but still in balance). Long finish with a dash of spice at the end. One of my favorites!

8. Château du Cros 2016 Loupiac, 13.5% abv ($21/375mL)
90% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: this wine smelled off/funky ☹  So, since the bottle was faulty, I won’t opine on the wine.

9. Château Costeau 2016 Cadillac, 13.5% abv ($18)
Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc
Notes
: Medium gold color.  On the nose there’s spice, ginger, toasted nuts and orange peel.  And even though this descriptor is frowned upon – I’d call this sweet wine more masculine, almost smoky.

10. Château Dauphiné-Rondillon 2009 Loupiac, 13.5% abv ($23/375mL)
80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc
Notes: Medium gold color.  Loads of tertiary aromas like caramel and hazelnuts. Holy moly this is luscious!! Rich, full bodied.  I’m getting some oak on this too – like burnt toast. Acidity is slightly diminished (understandable – this is 10 years old). Like most old wines, I can appreciate this – but it’s not my favorite. I prefer the younger, fresher styles (Hubs IS a whopping 7 months younger than me after all!) 😉

Aged BDX cork11. Château du Pavillon 2002 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, 13% abv (not currently imported) 80% Semillon, 18% Sauvignon Blanc, 2% Muscadelle
Check out the aged cork on this one!  Tertiary aromas of caramel, nuts and graham cracker.  (And am I imagining marshmallow crème aromas because of the graham cracker?!)  The nose on this is just delicious. Similar flavors on the palate – with some expected diminished acidity from ageing.

As mentioned earlier, one vine of botrytized grapes produces only 1-3 glasses of wine.  There is so much time, energy and effort that go into producing just ONE bottle of sweet Bordeaux.  Likewise, there is a lot of time, energy and effort expended by most people during the holidays.  We stress out to find the perfect gift, to cook a delicious meal, to be the consummate hostess or to attend the umpteenth obligatory holiday party.

What if instead of madly running around and fighting traffic (or fighting family members), we took some time to just leisurely enjoy a wine that simply can’t be rushed. These wines are produced slowly – the development of noble rot and weeks of hand harvesting cannot be hurried along.  They take their sweet time. 😉 Bordeaux sweet wines are a perfect way to slow down, and savor, your holidays.

Law School v. WSET Diploma: Advice From My Younger Self

Recently, I received an annual periodical from my alma mater – Gonzaga University School of Law (Go Zags!!). It’s always fun for me to flip through this and see what’s changed (the new Dean now looks my age!), and what hasn’t (20+ years later and some of my favorite professors are still there).

But what really caught my eye in this issue was this: Law and Wine

Gonzaga Law School is developing a certificate program for future attorneys where they can specialize in the business, management and legal aspects of the wine industry. My first thought was: where the hell was this program when I chose tax law?! And my second: how can I get involved in this program?

There will most certainly be a future blog post after I learn more about the Gonzaga Wine Institute. How fortuitous would it be to somehow combine my history with this particular law school together with my (hopefully future) career in wine?

It’s probably not surprising that the article got me reminiscing about my law school days. I don’t think I’ve ever studied that hard in my life! That is, until I began my wine studies. When I compare these two experiences – I see several similarities, but some pretty remarkable differences as well. And I think my 25 year old self would have some things to say about how I’m approaching my wine studies.

Study Materials: Books v. Internet

Prior to law school, I don’t think I truly understood how to study. The hours upon hours of reading, note taking, outline making, bluebook exams, etc. I attended law school from 1995-1998, before smartphones and just at the cusp of the internet for the masses. As a result, the vast majority of my research was done the old fashioned way – in the law library physically pulling books off shelves. Research took time and effort. And when I finally found the answer, it usually stuck with me because there had been a bit of a journey to get there.

Law books and Internet
My study materials: 1995 v. 2019

Today, information is so (or should I say too?) readily available. If I forget which Beaujolais producers make up “the Gang of Four” – I just need to quickly google it to find the answer. And then usually, just as quickly, I’ll forget at least one of the four.

Now – this might be in part because my brain is 25 years older than it was in law school. But I suspect that it’s also because information is so readily available that we don’t have to put forth much effort.  One of my wine instructors encourages us students to “develop a yearning for the answer.” When you have a question, don’t look it up right away!  Instead, go deep in your brain and try to figure it out first. This is such a wonderful way of practicing memory recall, but very challenging to do when answers are at the tips of our fingers 24/7.

Study Methods: Outlines v. Outlines + Flashcards + Podcasts + Online Study Groups + et. al

Just as I did in law school, I’m studying my ass off for the WSET Diploma. It was in law school that I started putting together outlines as my primary study tool – a very standard practice for the incoming first year law student. Outlining was a way for me to put all the legal gobbledygook into a language and format that I could understand. Now, I’m doing the same for wine.

But in addition my outlines, for wine study I’m also creating flashcards on my iPhone to carry everywhere with me, and listening to podcasts about wine in my spare time, and participating in online wine study groups, and running thrice weekly wine quizzes on Instagram. I’m beginning to wonder if all these study outlets are necessary – or helpful.

Outlines v. Chaos
Study Methods: Clean & Focused v. CHAOS!!

My focus is being pulled in a dozen different directions with wine studies. During law school, I didn’t have all these options. As a result, I think it was easier to concentrate: I read my textbooks, made my outlines, and then memorized the hell out of them. And I ended up graduating near the top of my class.

Sidebar on study groups. A popular study aid for many people are study groups – which were prolific during law school. The handful of times I “participated” in one, there was always someone who dominated the group. So, I found them to be more adversarial than educational.  But maybe that’s law school – we were in training to be on opposing sides.

Thus far for wine studies, I’ve been a single variety. I’d love to find a tasting group that’s supportive, yet challenging. But unfortunately, like in law school, there are quite high yields of “know-it-alls” and egos in the wine study world.

Exams: IRAC Method v. SAT Method

 

IRAC v. SAT

Similar to how the Systematic Approach to Tasting method becomes second nature after time for WSET students – in law school, we had ingrained in our brains the IRAC method. IRAC stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion – and this is how we law students were to address almost every single exam question. For example, you’re given the following fact pattern:

Sommelier Sam hates Jimmy Bigcellar.  One night, Jimmy comes into Sam’s restaurant with a bottle of DRC from his cellar. Sam takes the wine in the back of the restaurant, decants it, and then brings it out to pour for Jimmy and his guests. Jimmy gushes enthusiastically about the wine and rambles on about how there’s no comparison to the iconic DRC.

After the dinner (and after seeing that Jimmy has left a barely 10% tip) Sam bring the FULL DRC bottle back out to Jimmy. He waves an empty bottle of Apothic Red in Jimmy’s face – because THIS is what he actually poured for Jimmy! Sam merciless mocks Jimmy about how stupid he is for not realizing he was drinking such inferior wine. Jimmy is mortified and embarrassed in front of his friends.

What is Jimmy’s cause of action against Sam?

Law students would then go through the IRAC method to answer this question – looking something like this:

Issue: Did Sam commit the tortious act of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED)?

Rule: IIED requires extreme or outrageous conduct that intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress.

Analysis and Conclusion: Here is where you’d apply the rule to the facts (i.e. was Sam’s conduct extreme?) add in any mitigating circumstances (i.e. Jimmy is an egomanic, a poor tipper and deserved it), and then conclude whether or not Sam is liable for IIED.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: I’m no longer a practicing attorney and I have no idea whether this would be a cause of action or not. That part of my brain has long since departed. However, I guarantee you that I would know the difference between a DRC and an Apothic Red.

Final Hurdle: Bar Exam v. Unit 3 Exam

The end goal of a law student is passing the bar exam. The end goal for a Diploma student is passing the six Diploma Units – with Unit 3 being the biggest hurdle.

I took the Washington state bar exam in the summer of 1998. We’d just moved to the Seattle area and spent most of that summer in a bar review class and studying. Oh, and planning our wedding in a city I was new to with no family nearby. And starting my career at a downtown megafirm.

The day of the bar exam, I remember being a bit nervous. But I also knew that I’d studied as best I could to prepare for it: 3 years of school, a couple of legal internships, an intense bar review course, and hours of self study. Any jitters I had went away once the exam started – because my confidence kicked in. I wrote my heart out (hardly anybody typed their exams back then!) and I didn’t second guess myself.

You don’t see what your “grade” is on the bar exam, just pass or fail. I passed. And I practiced tax law for almost 10 years.

So far, my Diploma exams have been a different experience. And no, I’m not just talking about the tasting portion (which unfortunately WASN’T part of the bar exam).  My confidence level simply isn’t as high – I second guess whether I’ve studied enough, or studied the right things. During my exams, I’m jittery to the point of uncontrollable hand shaking (seriously!). And when I’m finished, I worry whether I’ve answered the questions as thoroughly as possible.

This is where my younger self is getting annoyed with me and finally stepping in with her well worn Doc Martens.

Student: 25 year old v. 46 year old

Law school me and IWS me
My law student self v. my Italian Wine Scholar self

We’ve all heard the question: “Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?”  But I’ve never heard the flipside: “What advice would your younger self give you today?”

Well, my 25 year old self is telling me to calm the (expletive) down, pour myself a glass of Sutter Home Chardonnay, turn on Friends and just enjoy the evening.  (One thing that my 46 year old self has in common with my 25 year old self is that we both have a mouth like a trucker.)

I think I’ll take her advice (except for the wine). And this is the Friends episode that I’ll start with:

Friends pivot

I need a Pivot Strategy.

I’m going to change how I approach my wine studies. I’m scattered and spreading myself too thin amongst several study methods and aids. I rely too heavily on looking up an answer quickly instead of relying on myself and what I’ve already learned. My outlines are becoming regurgitations of the entire materials as opposed to concise summaries. And I’m studying WAY too much . . . because I do a little here, and a little there, and am constantly distracted by the phone and social media.

My next Diploma unit is Fortified Wines of the World. Class is in a couple of weeks, and our exam is in mid-January. I’m implementing my Pivot Strategy for this unit. Less study time – but more focused. Going back to concise outlines as my primary study tool. Tuning out distractions.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

But right now, I’m listening to my 25 year old self’s advice and going to just enjoy the evening. So – I’m heading out for beers with my law school boyfriend, aka Hubs.

 

How I Spent my Summer Vacation (aka My Diploma Study “Break”)

The sun is setting earlier, there’s a slight chill in the evening air, and the first week of football is underway.  It’s time to go back to school . . . and I am more than ready.

I’ve been on a study break from the WSET Diploma for the past several months.  My last exam was in March for the Unit 1 case study and my next Unit, Fortified Wines of the World, doesn’t start until November 23rd!  By that time, I will have had a gap of EIGHT MONTHS.

Even though I haven’t been working on the Diploma this summer, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been studying or learning more about wine.  So, if any of you other wine students find yourself with an unplanned “study break” – here are some suggestions on how best to spend it, and still enjoy your time off:

Teaching.

There’s an old adage that says the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.  (There’s also a saying that “those who can’t do, teach” – but I think that’s arrogant BS, so I’m going to ignore that one.)

In June, I started teaching WSET Level 2 courses as well as the Italian Wine Scholar certification.  Quite honestly, I spent more time preparing for teaching these classes than I did when I was actually a student in these courses myself!  There’s an additional layer of stress because it’s not just you counting on you, there’s a classroom full of students counting on you.  Thankfully, all that preparation benefitted not only the students – but me too!  I have a better grasp on Franciacorta, Bardolino, and German wine laws now having explained them to others. (Well, German wine laws are still confusing AF . . . )

If you don’t have the opportunity to teach a certification course, do a consumer level class at a local wine store, or host a wine tasting with friends, or see if you can lead a course at a community college.  Hell – I poured some oaked Cali Chardonnay to compare with a Chablis and had a mini-class in my house with my Hubs and our friend.  Doesn’t matter where or how you do it – the lightbulbs will still go off for your students and you’ll still gain a better understanding of the subject matter you’re talking about.

class-at-home.jpg
Two of my favorite students!!

Tasting.

Many people who aren’t in the wine industry think that studying wine means “you get to drink wine all day.”  Nope.  Tasting wine is not the same thing as drinking wine.

Tasting wine requires getting as close to examination conditions as you possibly can.  Sit down with your notebook, compare a couple/few wines against each other (blind is best), and write out your notes exactly how you would for the WSET, CMS, etc. in whatever timeframe you’d be permitted under the exam.  And – SPIT for shit’s sake!

Chardonnay comparisonOnce you’ve reached your conclusions – reveal the wines.  And don’t focus so much on whether you got them right or not!!  Pay more attention to the WHY.  Why did you think the Cabernet Sauvignon was from Napa instead of Bordeaux?  Why did you call Chablis instead of Sancerre?  Learn from your mistakes.  And then taste again the next day.  And the next.

Take advantage of your study break to not have to focus on a specific region or variety. Try wines from various regions, styles, and price ranges.  Although – be wary of the $3 Chardonnay.  Just . . . trust me (or visit my archived stories on Instagram).

Traveling.

Visiting and exploring a region yourself is one of the best ways to learn about wine.  By experiencing something firsthand, as opposed to simply reading about it in a textbook, you’re much more likely to retain – and comprehend – this information.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a limited amount of wine travel these past few months – limited to just the North Fork of Long Island and my beloved Washington state.  (So, I’ll be sure to nail the .0007% of the Diploma exam that covers those regions.)  This old guy is a big reason why I haven’t gotten out of the house more. Linus

Life gets in the way of studying sometimes . . . but life is more important.  Soon enough, Hubs and I will be back on the road and in the skies to explore more wine regions.  Bottom line: If you have the means to travel to further your studies, and you don’t have an old dog with separation anxiety who gets up half a dozen times a night – DO IT.

Social Media. 

Yes – I’m honestly suggesting spending time on social media to further your wine knowledge.  But there are caveats: like drinking, keep it in balance and try different outlets.  And if you’re truly wishing to expand your studies, just like constantly consuming crap wine affects your palate, following crap accounts affects your mind (and sometimes makes you concerned for the future of humanity – but that’s another blog post).  Here are a few suggestions for consuming “higher quality” social media:

Facebook.  Search for “wine study” and you’ll find several groups that you can join.  Most require you to answer a couple of questions before they’ll approve you (what certification you’re studying, where you’re studying, etc.)  I’m a member of a few wine study groups and while there are definitely some obnoxious know-it-alls, most of the group members are supportive and encouraging.

Twitter.  Hubs can attest to the fact that I fought joining Twitter for the longest time, but once I caved, I realized he was right (don’t tell him I said this!).  Twitter is a seriously awesome platform for wine!

There are several Twitter chats that revolve around wine.  UK Wine Hour is my favorite for covering global wine matters and Wining Hour Chat is fun for just getting to know others in the wine community.  With these, jump right in and introduce yourself!

Additionally, I’ve found a number of wine accounts on Twitter who discuss and debate a wide range of issues in the wine world – Jamie Goode, Paul Mabray and Felicity Carter to name just a few.  With these, it’s not as easy (for me at least) to jump right in, so I tend to watch from the sidelines.  Nonetheless, these discussions give me new perspectives and make me think about wine in a different way.

Instagram.  Let’s be honest: this can be a challenging platform for informative wine accounts.  It’s also time consuming to sift through all the wine lifestyle accounts to find people that focus on wine education as opposed to selfies with bottles.

I post quizzes 2-3 times a week in my stories on my Outwines account.  And there are several other accounts that post wine quizzes on a regular basis – my favorites include Spitbucket, Grapegrind, and bin412pgh.  There are also accounts like Wineterroir and Wine.by.Alex who post tasting notes in more of a WSET format that are helpful for wine studies.

Listen to Podcasts. 

In addition to those mentioned in my post from last year, I’ve also discovered several new (to me!) podcasts that have been helpful with my studies.  VinePair discusses current – and often controversial – issues in the drinks business.  Matthew’s World of Wine and Drink provides educational overviews of various wine regions, grape varieties and viticulture and winemaking terms.  And the UK Wine Show covers more global issues with informative interviews with members of the worldwide beverage industry.

Pursue Other Courses or Certifications.

Just because you’re on a study break from one school, doesn’t mean that another isn’t in session.  As I mentioned in a prior post, I strongly suggest not overlapping your certification studies – it just gets too damn confusing and complicated.  However, if you have a study gap, this can be a perfect time to pursue a different certification.

During this past summer, I took the Bordeaux Master Level course through the Wine Scholar Guild. Bordeaux studyThere are several of these specialized, higher level programs available for various French wine regions (and rumor has it the WSG is planning to have similar, focused courses for Italian regions as well).  The Master Level courses are entirely self-study with a detailed text and access to the Wine Scholar Guild’s online webinars and other materials.

These programs are incredibly deep dives into the regions – way more information and detail than you’re likely to need for any WSET course – including the Diploma.  So my hope is that when it comes to studying the Bordeaux and Rhône sections of the dreaded Diploma Unit 3 that I’ll only need to do a cursory review since I’ve taken both of these Master Level courses through the WSG.  I’ll keep you posted on how that theory works out. 😉

So as the summer is winding down (or HAS wound down, depending on where you live), I’m gearing back up to study for the second half of the Diploma.  The Fortified Wines Unit is next – class is in November, exam in January.  Then Unit 3 classes take up most of January and February, exam in May.  Finally, I’ve got the research paper which is due at the end of July.  I’m wondering if I’ll be kicking myself for leaving that one to the end . . . stay tuned.