Book Review: Viticulture by Stephen Skelton MW

I recently finished reading Viticulture: An introduction to commercial grape growing for wine production by Stephen Skelton MW.  Like many of my friends, I assume your first response may be “Why?!?!”  Well, the book is recommended reading for WSET Diploma students, so way back in October  – well before I could even register for the Diploma –  I ordered it.  Anyone who knows me is probably not surprised by this fact.  However. . . I’m embarrassed to say that it took me until the end of January to finish Viticulture.  At 123 pages, this means that I averaged just about one page per day.  A fact I’m not particularly proud of.

Viticulture is one of the densest, most information-packed texts I’ve ever read (yep, this includes my three years at law school) which might help explain why I went through it at such a snail’s pace.  Another excuse explanation is that a lot of this stuff was new to me and I wanted to absorb it slowly.  My only other academic exposure to this particular subject has been (i) my WSET Level 3 course last Spring; and (ii) my current enrollment in Northwest Wine Academy’s Viticulture class with Sparkman Cellars’ winemaker, Linn Scott (who is incredibly knowledgeable and has an awesome ability to make the subject matter more interesting with tons of personal stories and experiences.)

Yet another reason why this book took awhile for me to get through is because, well, . . it deals with science.  Much to the disappointment of my metallurgical engineer-working, astronomy-loving Dad, I’ve just never taken to science ever since I got a D+ in Life Sciences in 7th grade (thanks a lot, Mr. Santner!).  Even today, it’s just much easier for me to memorize the 10 Crus of Beaujolais, or the 13 permitted grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, than for me to learn the different types of rootstocks or soil pH levels.

Even though Viticulture is a science textbook at heart, the author thankfully writes in a humane and comprehensible manner.  Overall, I found his writing style to be straightforward and educational, a fact that is greatly appreciated by those of us who are scientifically-impaired.  I also enjoyed the occasional personal anecdote or opinion – particularly on the topic of biodynamic viticulture.

Trellising Systems

What’s this book about?  The book covers everything from the annual cycle of the vine, to site selection, to canopy management.  As with most viticulture texts, several pages are dedicated to phylloxera, its history and its “solution” via rootstock development and grafting.  Viticulture digs deep (pun totally intended) into the various soil layers and their characteristics.  And there are two entire chapters on diseases, viruses and vineyard pests.  The author goes into such detail about these various insects, larvae and bugs that I found myself getting the heebie jeebies.  (Sidenote: surprisingly, the heeby jeeby is, in fact, NOT a vineyard pest – but the ever popular Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer is.)

Saint Joseph granite
Granite from the Northern Rhône

Who’s this book for?  This is neither a light, nor particularly fun, read.  So I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s just curious about viticulture and is looking for some general information.  Pick up The Oxford Companion to Wine or The Wine Bible instead.  Viticulture is way too intense and detailed for the lay person merely looking for a broad overview on the subject.

However, if you’re studying for a higher level wine certification, or working in the wine industry, or you’re my Dad, then this book is perfect for you.  Just give yourself plenty of time to digest the subject matter – this isn’t a Dan Brown page turner.

At this point, I have no idea whether this book covers more (let’s hope so!) or less than what I’ll need to know for my first WSET Diploma exam in June.  But I do know that having finished Viticulture I’ve gained a tremendous amount of knowledge on the subject that I simply didn’t have before, so for that Mr. Skelton, I thank you.  Viticulture will undoubtedly do wonders in helping me with my never-ending pursuit of wine education.  Now let’s just hope that I can do a little better than a D+ on the exam! 😉



I’m a Pacific Northwest wine girl.   Give me my Willamette Pinots and Walla Walla Syrahs all day long – they’re my woobie, my comfort zone, my home.  Outside of the United States, I have put a stake in the ground in France.  I’ve passed my French Wine Scholar exam, been inducted into the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, spent two weeks tasting in the French countryside, and stocked my wine fridge with more grower Champagne than I care to admit.

All of this brings me to Italy.

I don’t know much about Italian wines and I sure the hell am not comfortable with the ungodly number of DOCGs (74), DOCs (332) and IGTs (118). I mean, seriously, that is – to quote Hubs most eloquently – a “metric shit ton” of information for a single wine producing country. So to get me out of my comfort zone and expand my palate I took a deep breath and signed up for the Italian Wine Scholar exam.

Unlike the French Wine Scholar exam in which I was studying – for the most part –  regions and grapes I at least had some degree of comfort with, with the IWS I feel like I’m starting from scratch.  Sure, I know about Dolcetto and Nebbiolo – but Freisa or Bosco?  Truth be told, before the IWS course I’d never even heard of these grapes!  Thankfully the good folks at the Wine Scholar Guild graciously indicated “need-to-know” areas in the textbook so I’m not cramming my brain with minor details that won’t be on the exam. IWS know this

My primary reasons for pursuing the IWS certification are twofold: (1) learn more about Italy in preparation for my WSET Diploma (starts in May!); and (2) get out of my comfort zone and expand my palate.  I definitely tend to gravitate towards Syrah and Pinot Noir with regularity . . . too much so to be honest.  If I can discover a few other go-to wines during my IWS studies, that would make all of these outlines and flashcards worthwhile (I think).  Also, by almost every conceivable measure Italy is the largest wine producing country in the world – so, you know, I probably ought to be conversant about their grapes!

Fortunately, early on in my IWS studies I “re-discovered” Barbera which was a little like seeing an old friend on your first day at a new school.  I’ve had it several times before, but always socially, never as part of my academic pursuits, which I honestly think makes me appreciate it even more.  It’s a classic, “everybody loves a comeback” grape.

While Barbera’s exact origin is unknown, it’s believed to have existed in the Monferrato region of Piemonte (Northwest Italy) since the 7th century.  So essentially, about a thousand years before Cabernet Sauvignon came into being!  Currently, Italy is home to almost 85% of the world’s Barbera plantings with approximately 52,600 total acres.  To put this into perspective, Italy’s Barbera production is roughly equivalent to every single grape grown in the entire state of Washington (see “metric shit ton” reference above).

Barbera used to be produced en masse and hailed as “the people’s wine”, with much of it being – to quote Miles – “quaffable, but far from transcendent.” Over the past 20+ years, Barbera has had a dramatic upgrade in its image and is no longer constantly playing second (or third) fiddle to other Italian red varietals. Producers are planting Barbera on more prized vineyard sites. Yields are being kept in check by careful pruning. And finally, to balance its crazy high acidity and diminished tannic structure, more producers are opting to age Barbera in smaller oak barrels as opposed to the traditional large neutral casks. This often results in a wine that has a layer of spicy complexity, mellowed acidity and a delicious combination of lively red fruit with vanilla notes.

When I was visiting my Dad during the holidays, we went on our traditional wine-tasting afternoon in the Red Mountain AVA (which he is fortunate enough to live practically next door to).  While at one of our favorites, I noticed an older vintage of Barbera on their shelves.  Knowing that there’s less than 100 acres of this grape grown in the entire state, I was curious what my home state’s version of this wine would taste like compared to the Italian classic.  Here are my thoughts:

Kiona BarberaKiona Vineyards 2010 Barbera, Red Mountain, WA.  14.5% abv. Medium ruby-garnet colored.  The aromatics make me think of a delicate Cabernet – red currants and an almost vegetal note (I tend to get this with a lot of Red Mountain wines).  This seriously smells like our friend Paul’s bourbon soaked cherries that he gave us a few years ago and we haven’t actually tried yet because I’m afraid I’ll be on my lips after having just one!  Lots of secondary and tertiary aromas here as well – spice, charred oak, coffee, sandalwood.  The wine is medium bodied and acidity is definitely pushing high.  There’s a little bit of heat from the alcohol, noticeable but not overwhelming.

Cantina del Pino 2015 Barbera, Barbera d’Alba, Italy. 14.% abv. Color here runs a little more ruby-purple.  This wine smells pretty – roses, black raspberries and cherries, pomegranate, but the aromatics are not nearly as strong or complex as the Kiona.  On the palate, lots of the same juicy fruits with round/smooth tannins.  This wine is very straightforward – it’s tasty, but there’s just not a lot going onBarbera d'Alba.

While I enjoyed both, I surprised myself by preferring the Red Mountain Barbera over the classic Barbera d’Alba.  The d’Alba was simple – very sour fruit driven with not a whole lot else going on.  Nonetheless, both tasted delicious with my pizza!  Barbera pairs wonderfully with a variety of foods – tomato based dishes like pasta or pizza, BBQ chicken or charcuterie.

Try it out for yourself – and check out the outline on Barbera!


Lake Chelan AVA

I’ve lived in Washington my entire life and yet I can count on a whopping two fingers the number of times that I’ve visited Lake Chelan – one of the most popular vacation destinations in the state. Both of these visits have been during the “offseason” of late October / early November. Granted, some wineries weren’t open during this time of year and it’s not nearly as enjoyable to sit outside and admire the gorgeous lake views when it’s 40 degrees as opposed to 80. But on the flip side, visiting during the offseason means far fewer crowds and shorter tasting room lines as the population plummets to 1/10th of the peak summer months.

The draw of Lake Chelan by the summer tourists is easily understood, with lots to see and do – and drink! Only a three hour car ride from Seattle to the west or Spokane from the east, it is easily accessible and makes for a (relatively) affordable weekend getaway. However, unlike other Washington AVAs that have built their tourism around an already thriving wine industry, Lake Chelan has done the opposite. Here, tourism was the area’s initial draw and wine has only recently been added as part of the region’s “to do” list. Likely much to the relief of summering parents watching Little Johnny cannonball off the dock yet again.

Lake Chelan is very new AVA (established in 2009) and is wholly contained within the larger Columbia Valley AVA.  Although grapes have been grown in this area since the late 1800s, the first truly modern, production vineyard unbelievably wasn’t planted until 1998 (ironically making this particular AVA too young to enjoy its own wines).  So really, “serious” grape growing in this region is still in its infancy – although I imagine that some old-timers might strenuously disagree with me on this point.

The lake itself is the AVA’s most unique attribute and is a major factor as to why wines from this area are unlike any others from Washington. Lake Chelan is the 3rd deepest lake in the United States (after Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe) and is a whopping 52 miles long! Which helps explain why the driving time between winery visits can seem like an eternity.

The lake moderates temperatures year-round: helping the region stay much cooler in the summer months than the rest of the Columbia Valley AVA (preserving acidity in its zippy whites), yet also extending the growing season so as to encourage ripening of its red varieties. Speaking as someone who spent her entire childhood in the Columbia Valley AVA, the heat of the summer months can be unbearable.

My most recent visit to Lake Chelan was in early November 2016 and I was thoroughly impressed with the whites of the area (especially Viognier). They’re bright and fruity, but maintain a weight and complexity that make them more than mere porch pounders to enjoy by the lake.

Unfortunately, the reds of Chelan left me underwhelmed, which I fully admit is a gross generalization based on a small sample size. Many I found to be altered too much by oak – with loads of mocha and toasty vanilla flavors that overpowered any varietal characteristics. Other reds were too thin, watery and lacking flavor and interest. Yes, I realize I sound like Goldilocks with my “too much” or “too little” whining. However, I have found over the years that young wine regions come along slowly (see in particular the Okanagan Valley region in British Columbia) and improve in an almost Darwinian fashion of winemaker trial and error as to what works and what doesn’t.  Chelan Estate Winery

With all of that said, I have an immense amount of respect for those in the region who are willing to experiment with different varieties and clones in Lake Chelan AVA. For instance, Pinot Noir doesn’t grow particularly well in Eastern Washington, and I just don’t know if my beloved home state has it in us to produce a great Pinot. But some winemakers (I’m looking at you Bob Broderick from Chelan Estate Winery) aren’t willing to accept this as gospel and are out to prove me wrong. Bob and others continue to work toward a grape that rivals its much celebrated Oregon brethren. Of course, I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong and would happily eat crow in so doing….I’ve heard it pairs very well with Pinot!

But until that time, here’s the outline on Lake Chelan.

Tasting Notes: Pinot Noir (Burgundy vs. Sonoma)

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written.  Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right?  But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

-Robin Williams to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting

I read a lot about wine – I mean, a lot. But learning about wine only by reading books reminds me of Robin Williams’s beautiful lakeside soliloquy in which he implores (a young) Matt Damon to go out and actually experience the world. And so it goes with wine – one of the best (and definitely most fun) ways to learn about wine is to taste it. However, this is a little different from drinking wine . . .

Tasting Notebook
Old Reliable: Tasting Notebook

To me, tasting wine means that I’m taking the time to actually evaluate it and assess all of its unique characteristics.  On the other hand, drinking wine means I’m just kicking back and enjoying it.  The differences between the two  are actually quite stark.  And while I do a good degree of both, when I’m really trying to expand my wine knowledge I sit down with my trusty tasting notebook and put pen to paper to capture my thoughts.

WSET Grid 1
WSET Level 3 Tasting Notes

Since I’ve been on the WSET path for the past year or so, my tasting notes generally follow their prescribed format – which I freely admit falls on the clinical side of evaluation. And while I completely agree with their premise that consistent and objective tasting notes are ideal for learning about wine, I’m never going to truly remember a wine based on notes like “medium+ acidity” or “clear, pale lemon.” For that reason I also like to add my own thoughts on the wine . . . where was I, what did it remind me of, what was I eating with it, etc.

When doing tastings at home, I often enlist Hubs to be my personal wine steward and set me up with a blind tasting. This way, I don’t have any preconceived notions about what I’m tasting and can just do some “mindful drinking” of what’s in the glass in front of me.  Ideally, I taste a couple of wines side by side because it’s much easier for me to pick up differences (or similarities) when comparing wines as opposed to just tasting one wine in a vacuum.  As an added bonus, I then have the benefit of having TWO bottles to choose from after I’m done with my tasting.  🙂  I should also add that while my tasting “goal” is not necessarily to accurately identify each of the wines tasted blindly, the truth is I always smile when I do get them right (I imagine that’s the same for everyone!).

Recently I did such a tasting with two distinct Pinot Noirs (Old World vs. New World) when deciding which would pair best with my mom-in-law’s delicious Coq a Vin that she was preparing for a family dinner.  Sitting in my in-laws sunny, lush Southern California backyard I was joined by my father-in-law, “T-Bone”, for the tasting.  Yes, my 75 year-old father-in-law’s nickname is “T-Bone”…and yes, he’s as awesome and quirky as you might imagine (he once informed me that he stopped drinking Merlot because it is “too purple”).

Domaine Gille 2012 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru ‘Les Cailles’, Bourgogne. (13% abv)

  • Color: Pale ruby, tending towards garnet
  • Aromas: Roses that are just starting to wilt, cranberries, earthy cherries, fall leaves
  • Palate: Medium- body, medium+ acidity, medium- tannins.  Additional flavors of tea, spice and an almost cedar-like note.
  • My Thoughts: Very delicate wine – honestly, borderline too thin right now. I’m sure I opened this too early and it would’ve benefited from at least a few more years of age.  I guessed this was the Burgundy due to the color and dominate flavors of earth & spice with the fruit taking a backseat.  I liked this wine, but probably would’ve loved it in a few years.  And interestingly, out of the two Pinots, this was T-Bone’s favorite!  (Sidenote: One of my 2018 goals is to introduce my in-laws to new wines since they gravitate almost exclusively towards California Cabernets and Chardonnays).
  • Technical Bits: Domaine Gille has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1500s.  Their vines currently range from 45-80 years of age.  Soil is stony limestone.  All grapes are hand harvested.  Natural fermentation.  Aged for 18 months in oak (1/3 new).

Hanzell 2014 ‘Sebella’ Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California. (13.7% abv)

  • Color: Pale ruby, bright
  • Aromas: Fresh flowers, slightly sweet fruits – raspberries, red plum, hints of Dr. Pepper
  • Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium (close to medium+) tannins.  I’m picking up sweet cherries and some black pepper here too.
  • My Thoughts: This wine was brighter and more ruby colored, possibly indicating a younger wine. A definite sweetness here that the other wine didn’t have. With all the fresh, ripe fruit oozing out of the glass, I was confident this was the California Pinot.  And while I don’t usually go for wines with this degree of sweet fruit, this wine just smelled yummy . . . tasted it too.
  • Technical Bits: Hanzell Vineyards was founded in 1957 by James D. Zellerbach after he’d spent extensive time in Burgundy.  Focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Aged for 10 months in French oak (25% new).

The end result was that we drank both bottles with dinner so the pairing turned out to not be of much consequence – both were delicious!  And, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of the Sonoma Pinot and T-Bone’s of the Burgundy. 🙂

Valle d’Aosta

If diamonds are the prime example of the adage “good things come in small packages“, then Valle d’Aosta is a very close second.  The smallest wine region in Italy holds its own against its 19 regional counterparts (yes, even Barolo and Tuscany!).  Thanks in part to the presence of one very large mountain in the region, Valle d’Aosta’s unique climate and elevation produce flavors that are entirely distinguishable from others in this wine rich country.  Despite the comparison, if Hubs gets me a bottle of wine from Valle d’Aosta rather than a diamond for our upcoming 20th wedding anniversary, we’re going to have a very long talk.  

To start with, you’ll see a lot of French influence here which dates back to the 6th century when the region was conquered and became part of the Frankish Kingdom.  (Sidenote: Italy was continually getting its ass kicked back in those days by various invading barbaric tribes with, rather ironically, wussy sounding names like the Franks, Normans, & Lombards which sound like an accounting firm).  Today, Valle d’Aosta is bilingual – it’s the only French speaking Italian region and you’ll find several French varieties being grown here such as Pinot Noir and Gamay. 

Valle d’Aosta may be the smallest Italian region, but it contains Europe’s largest mountain – Monte Bianco (aka “Mont Blanc” as it’s known in French – which is also the name of an insanely expensive pen that your rich uncle gets you for graduating college but then you lose two weeks later when moving out of your crappy apartment…all hypothetically of course).  Monte Bianco not only adds to the gorgeous scenery of the area, but importantly blocks the clouds and provides a rainshadow effect to the region, making Valle d’Aosta drier and sunnier – and a better place for grapes to thrive.   

The majority of wine produced in Valle d’Aosta is high quality, DOC wine.  Co-operativesCork (a business arrangement in which a number of growers “pool” their grapes together) are prominent and account for approximately 75% of the production in the region.  However, an increasing number of growers have started to bottle their own wines and have banded together to form an association that helps them achieve this goal – often through use of shared machinery or equipment.  This association of independent growers is known as “Viticulteur Encaveur” – a term that appears on a wine label or cork produced by a member. 

Although many local grape varieties were lost to phylloxera, there are still ten unique and indigenous varieties grown in Valle d’Aosta including Prié Blanc, Fumin and Petit Rouge.  If you haven’t heard of any of these, you’re not alone – I hadn’t either until I started studying this region!

I recently tried a Prié Blanc produced from grapes grown in the highest elevation vineyard site in Europe (1,200 meters above sea level, or 3/4 of a mile up to us non-metric Americans).  Not many grape varieties can survive at this elevation, but neither can phylloxera . . . these vines are some of the very few in Italy that were entirely untouched by the pest. 


Pavese 2015 Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, Valle d’Aosta, Italy. 12% abv.  Very pale lemon colored with bright aromatics of lemon, wet stone and a hint of white flowers.  On the palate – holy acidity I feel like I’m drinking Lemonhead candies.  Tons of lemon and minerality and electric acidity.  Overall, this wine is fairly simple, refreshing – but not overly complex or interesting. $35.

If you’re interested in learning more – here’s the outline on Valle d’Aosta!


Test 2

Five Vines Wine Bar

SELRES_21091176-a06d-4f96-b587-c5341b1953bdSELRES_03e5df0e-6667-46ab-8697-e6b2e959a150SELRES_2c3de0e7-0457-49a4-a347-56cdf2b85e3cAfter a busy day of driving around SoCal, we needed a rest (plus it was almost cocktail hour).  Luckily, Five Vines Wine Bar came up on a search for wine bars located nearby.  We had the place practically to ourselves when we arrived shortly after 4pm, but it was hopping with locals when we left a few hours later.SELRES_2c3de0e7-0457-49a4-a347-56cdf2b85e3cSELRES_03e5df0e-6667-46ab-8697-e6b2e959a150SELRES_21091176-a06d-4f96-b587-c5341b1953bd

Located in heart of San Juan Capistrano, Five Vines is named for the family of five who own the bar.  We met Suzy (aka “Vine #2”) who was a terrific hostess. She and another gal handled the front of house expertly, we never had an empty glass on our table.

Five Vines offers over 5o different options by the glass (6oz), taste (2oz) or bottle – with most bottle prices under $50.  California heavy list, but I was happy to see a few wines from my beloved home state of Washington (Seven Hills, Nine Hats and Stone Cap), along with a smattering of Italian and French wines.  A few sparklers and dessert wines round out the list.

For flights, you can choose from one of their house designed flights (with cutesy names like “Mischievous Malbecs” or “Chillaxed Chardonnays”), or you can put together your own from any of the wines on their list.  They also have a “Flying Blind” flight where they’ll pour you three red wines, and if you guess the varietals correctly you get the tasting for free and your picture posted on their Facebook page – something I’d definitely consider trying down the line sometime.

In continuing my personal “California Adventure” of acquiring a greater appreciation and knowledge of the state’s wines, I ordered a flight of three Golden State whites:

  • Barlow 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. Nice citrus and grapefruit, lower acidity than usual for this varietal.
  • Victor Hugo 2015 Viognier, Paso Robles.  The best of the three with lush peach aromas, but also distinctly smelled of Pillsbury crescent rolls.
  • Saracina 2016 Unoaked Chardonnay, Mendocino County. This didn’t taste completely unoaked to me, definitely had some baking spice notes.

Hubs tried a Riesling from Marin County that was positively teeming with petrol aromas, followed by a Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills.  He liked the Pinot but I thought it came across as thin and tight – and while I would love to be similarly described, not exactly what I’m looking for in my wine. 😉

Also have to give serious props to their playlist – our good friend The White Buffalo’s song came up on the rotation!

Overall – a comfy, unpretentious wine bar with solid, but not over-the-top, service.  I’d definitely go back for the personalized flights so I can practice my blind tasting and to have another crack at the Mormor cheese ball – a secret family recipe