Drinking Outside the Box: 5 Northern Italian Wines to Check Out

In life, most of us tend to stick to our comfort zone.  The same route home.  Our favorite coffee mug in the morning.  Cozy sweats and re-runs of a show we’ve already binge watched a few times (I’m certain that I’ve seen every episode of Sex & the City at least four times).  And the same varietals in our glass of wine.  Even when ordering at a restaurant we’ve never been to before, or visiting a new wine store with endless options, we’ll probably choose something we know – rather than something we don’t.

Since I started studying for the Italian Wine Scholar exam a few months ago, I’ve come to realize how many grape varieties there are that I’ve never even heard of – let alone tried.  (Italy itself has at least 350 different native grapes!)  Hubs and I have gradually started working through some of these grapes – mostly to positive results!  Proving that when I allow myself to branch out beyond what I’m comfortable with – my frequent Pinot Noir or Washington state Syrah – I expand my palate and my mind, but also my wine cellar. 😉

So, I’m encouraging you to “drink outside the box” and try something new as well.  Next time you’re at a restaurant or wine store with a carefully curated Italian section (particularly from the North!) – nix the Nebbiolos, pass on the Pinot Grigios and Proseccos, and give one of the following wines a shot instead.  You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. 🙂

Map courtesy of the always awesome Wine Folly

Cortese/Gavi.  Cortese is the grape and Gavi the location in Southeast Piemonte where it’s been grown since at least the early 1600s.  Cortese performs particularly well in Gavi and throughout the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed immense success.  However, in the same manner that other popular things have been WAY overdone – the Real Housewives series (did we really need DC?), the zombie apocalypse, “Keep Calm and [fill in the blank]” – lots of producers jumped on the Gavi bandwagon and tons of meh wines were the result of this massive overproduction.  Thankfully, Gavi has recovered and was elevated to DOCG status in 1998 – Happy 20 year Anniversary Gavi!  Same year as me and Hubs. 🙂

Gavi DOCG wines must be made from 100% Cortese.  These wines are usually crisp and refreshing with minerality and a striking lemon zest character.  And while it’s best known for still wines, Gavi is also produced in a variety of sparkling styles as well.

The Gavi we had recently was from Broglia.  Impressively, the estate has records of its vineyards going back to 972!  The wine was slightly riper on the palate than I expected – with flavors of ripe apple and Meyer lemon along with Cortese’s trademark minerality.  Some wines from this region can be nice little porch pounders for the summertime (or 10 months out of the year down here in SoCal), but this one definitely had more complexity and depth.

Northern whites

Arneis.  This white grape is native to the Roero hills in Piemonte and was saved from near extinction in the 1960s by two prominent producers in the area: Vietti and Bruno Giacosa.  Today, in large part thanks to these two, plantings of Arneis are around 2,400 acres.  Arneis is a challenging grape to grow – it’s prone to poor and irregular yields and tends to drop acidity rapidly when approaching full ripeness – which often isn’t until late September.  So, it’s no surprise that “Arneis” in local dialect translates to “difficult personality.”

When in the right hands, Arneis produces fuller bodied wines that are subtly perfumed and complex with aromas/flavors of white flowers, stone fruit and pear.  The wines are typically fresh and floral and should be consumed within a few years of release.

We had an Arneis produced by one of its rescuers – Bruno Giacosa.  The wine was definitely delicate in the aromatic department, I was getting yellow fruit (apples, pears) and some floral notes.  On the palate it was zesty with a slightly bitter, but not unpleasantly so, finish.  This would pair amazingly with grilled fish or lighter/herbed pasta dishes.  Or a big ol’ pile of prosciutto.

Ruché.  This will undoubtedly be the most challenging of the five wines to find.  Ruché is a rare, aromatic red grape likely native to the town of Castagnole in Piemonte, where it has been grown for centuries.  Today, there are only around 250 total acres planted to this grape in Italy and it is rarely found elsewhere.

In 2010, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG became the first (and only!) delimited area dedicated entirely to the Ruché grape.  Wines from this DOCG must be made from at least 90% Ruché (with Barbera or Brachetto making up the balance).  Ruché based wines are typically intensely perfumed with aromas of roses, red fruit and spice.

I recently sampled a Ruché from Montalbera – an Italian producer hugely supportive of and dedicated to the grape.  The wine was one of the most unique wines I’ve ever had.  Incredibly pale in the glass, it looked like it should be delicate and subtle – yet it was anything but.  The wine was full of aromas of cherries, tea leaves, orange peel and spices with very prevalent acidity and tannins and a lengthy, bitter finish.  If you want to try something truly different, Ruché is your wine.

Lagrein.  (rhymes with “wine” – easy to remember!) This red grape is can be found predominantly in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Northeast Italy.  Lagrein is late ripening and needs significant warmth and sun to ripen fully – so it seems somewhat counterintuitive that it would be grown in an area that’s bumping up against the Italian Alps.  However, this region has 300 days of sunshine per year and a warm growing season, so Lagrein thrives – and it’s delicious!

Lagrein makes up about only 8% of total grape plantings in Alto Adige and around 1,200 total acres.  There are also a few California wineries that produce a Lagrein (although I haven’t run across any of these yet).  Lagrein produces fuller bodied, rich, darkly colored wines with higher tannins and acidity and often a bitter finish. The wines are frequently packed with aromas of berry fruit, violets and a savory/meaty component.

We had a Lagrein from Castelfeder, which is located in Alto Adige. This wine was somewhat reminiscent of a Northern Rhône Syrah for me – violets, charred black fruits, smoked meat.  This was Hubs favorite of the two reds, probably because he’s obsessed with smoky anything since he recently purchased a new smoker. 🙂

Lambrusco.  Lambrusco hails from the Emilia-Romagna region and is essentially an umbrella term covering several distinct varieties all within the Lambrusco family.  Some of the more common ones you’re likely to see on a wine label are:

  • Lambrusco di Sorbara – produces the lightest version of Lambrusco and is considered to be the benchmark style
  • Lambrusco Salamino – the most widely planted of the Lambrusco varieties
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa – produces fuller bodied and more tannic wines

Unfortunately, most of the Lambrusco that is exported is sweet, characterless and mass-produced (kind of like my old college standby Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill – yes, dear reader, my introductory “wine” was Boone’s, please don’t judge me).  Classic Lambrusco wines are dry (or very slightly off-dry) with refreshing acidity, fizziness and flavors of bright red berries and spice.   To find this style of Lambrusco, your best bet is to look for DOC or DOP on the label – indicating that the wine was made according to stricter production standards and that the grapes come from a specific geographical area.  Other terms to look for include:

  • Secco, Amabile or Dolce – these mean dry, medium-sweet and sweet
  • Frizzante – lightly sparkling
  • Spumante – fully sparkling

LambruscoHubs and I sampled a few different styles of Lambrusco, ranging from a rather flat and nondescript juicy red wine, to a delicately effervescent wine with black cherries and spice, to an incredibly aromatic sparkler full of dried black fruits.  My favorite by far was the 3rd (the Medici Ermete) and it was incredibly delicious with our barbequed burgers!

So, let’s see . . . that’s 5 native Italian grapes down, only around 345 left to go! 😉

Oh – and I purchased the majority of these wines at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, CA (which I will be frequenting frequently because it’s the most awesome wine store EVER!!)  But if you’re having problems finding any of these, Hi-Time ships!

Gewürztraminer- and My Search for the Elusive Lychee

There are some wines that are said to be identifiable in a blind tasting based definitively on a single aromatic “tell”.  The theory is, if you smell X – the wine cannot be anything other than Y.  So, for example, if you get a distinct petrol aroma from a wine – you’re very likely drinking German Riesling.  (BTW – “petrol” is the Brits fancy name for gasoline).  Similarly, if you smell wet wool you’re almost certainly sipping Vouvray (Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley).  And if you’re getting lychee fruit on the nose – it’s said to be Gewürztraminer.

Now, I know what petrol and wet wool smell like – but lychee?  I’d never even heard of this fruit previously, let alone seen, smelled or tasted it.  And since you rarely run across a tasting note for Gewürztraminer without seeing “lychee” as a primary descriptor, I set out to find it and give it a taste test of my own.  (Note:  I do not plan on doing the same when I post on Sauvignon Blanc, where one of the most common descriptors is cat pee.)

Apparently finding lychees is easier said than done.  After searching for a few weeks at several grocery stores and smaller boutique markets in my area, I remained lycheeless.  One produce guy told me that they sometimes got lychee in stock, but not frequently.  Another said they didn’t have lychee but they did have white peaches.  I asked him if those smelled or tasted like lychee and his response was “no, not really.”  Mmmmkaaaaaaaaaaay – I’ll pass.

I’d finally given up all lychee hope and figured I’d just have to drink Gewürztraminer and remain in the dark about the mysterious fruit.  But then, what should appear before my very eyes  . . .


During one of my thrice weekly trips to the grocery store I spied it!  Hidden among the other “freak fruits” like Kiwano and Pepino Melons was a small selection of lychees.  I excitedly (seriously) scooped up some and raced home to taste them.

After first having to google how the hell to open the fruit, Hubs and I cracked the shell and dug into the lychee.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, it tasted like Gewürztraminer.  It was incredibly tart and sweet at the same time with a bold tropical and floral flavor.  It was intensely flavorful – almost obnoxiously so.  Which is basically how I feel about Gewürztraminer.

Enough about Lychees – Let’s Talk about Grapes.  Gewürztraminer is grown all over the world – from Northeastern Italy, to my beloved Washington state, to New Zealand.  The name, not surprisingly, has German roots (“Gewürz” means spice in German), but in fact represents only a very small percentage of plantings in Germany (my research shows in the neighborhood of 1-5%). The most significant plantings of Gewürztraminer are in the Alsace region of France with approximately 8,000 acres planted to the grape.  And in Alsace, they drop the umlaut (and you, dear reader, can drop that little wine factoid at your next tasting to impress your friends and neighbors!).

Along with lychee, other aromas and flavors found in Gewürz are typically roses, honey, grapefruit, gingerbread and an assortment of exotic spices.  Gewürztraminer can be made in a variety of styles – from dry to sweet.  The latter are often labelled either “Vendanges Tardives” or “Selections de Grains Nobles” – both of which are late harvested grapes after the sugars have had additional time to concentrate on the vine.

Prior to my lychee hunt, I’d purchased a few bottles of Gewürztraminer and had Hubs blind pour me a tasting of the three.  Here are my condensed tasting notes – sans lychee descriptors because I hadn’t been able to find it yet! Bottles

Villa Wolf 2016 Gewürztraminer, Pfalz, Germany. (11.5% abv)

This wine was by far the lightest colored, lightest bodied and zippiest of the three.  It was the least like a “classic” Gewürztraminer should taste like – and it was my favorite. 🙂  Refreshing with lots of pink grapefruit, crisp minerality and citrus.  In general, the Pfalz region of Germany is known for producing lighter styled Gewürztraminer than Alsace.  Which is something I’ll keep in mind for the future . . .

Louis SIPP 2013 Nature’S Gewurztraminer, Alsace, France. (13% abv)

This Gewürz had a lot going on with rich aromas of honeysuckle, melon, salinity and spices.  I also thought I was getting smoke on the nose here – but this probably because Hubs was messing around outside with his new smoker and the windows were open (hmmm…I’m getting a very strong sense of hickory!!). :-/  Each time I smelled or sipped I’d find something else in the glass.  The wine was fuller bodied than the first with much lower acidity.  Based on the producer’s website the “Nature’S” wording on the label means that the wine was made from organically farmed grapes and certified by ECOCERT (one of the largest organic certification organizations in the world).  Overall, a very interesting wine.

Seppi Landmann 2013 Gewurztraminer Zinnkoepflé Grand Cru, Alsace, France. (13% abv)

This last wine was the ripest and richest of the three with big ol’ aromas of perfume, sandalwood, tropical fruits and crushed pine needles (which I thought was odd, but I was definitely smelling this!).  As a Grand Cru, this wine is theoretically at the top of the quality pyramid as these vineyard sites are recognized for their extraordinary terroirs.  There are 51 Grand Cru sites in Alsace, yet only around 4% of all Alsace wine produced is Grand Cru.  This Gewurz would undoubtedly be considered the “best” of the three – case in point: Wine Enthusiast gave it a 93.

However, it was personally my least favorite.  I could appreciate its complexity and ageability – at 5 years and going strong with intense aromas and flavors (note: most Gewürz are meant to drink within a few years).  But it just was not my style.  I prefer something a bit more crisp and restrained – which Gewürztraminer just isn’t ever going to be.

For more information about this grape – visit my outline on Gewurztraminer.


Sanders and Lychee
Hmmm . . . smells like Gewurztraminer!



5 Wine Podcasts Worth Tuning Into

I can’t remember exactly when I started listening to wine podcasts, but I know it’s been a couple of years – and I know that I have Hubs to thank for it.  For some time, he’d been falling asleep listening to one of his podcasts on sports or movies or music or whathaveyou and when I’d come to bed a couple hours later, I’d remove his headphones (because he’d once again fallen asleep with them on) and wonder what on earth fascinated him so much about these guys talking that he’d listen to them every night without fail.

When I finally asked him about his podcast fascination he said that there were podcasts about everything – and certainly some were out there about wine.  Wait….what?!?!?  We immediately set me up with a few – some of which are now defunct (where did you go Great Northwest Wine and Disgorged ?) – but many continue on.  So, in no particular order, here are 5 wine podcasts that I listen to regularly and, if you’re interested in wine, are definitely worth checking out:

I’ll Drink to That.

This is one of the longer running wine podcasts out there (it’s been going since 2012 – which is essentially the Paleozoic era by podcasting standards) and is hosted by Levi Dalton – a former sommelier (pronounced Levee like in the Led Zeppelin song – not Levi like in Strauss).  I’ll Drink to That claims to “get behind the scenes of the beverage business” – and it absolutely does so.  Levi talks to major players from all over the world in every facet of the wine industry – from authors to winemakers to restauranteurs.

My favorite podcast to-date is probably episode #315 in which he interviews Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible – and one of my wine heroes. 🙂  Even though I’d previously heard several other podcasters interview Karen, through Levi’s discussion with her I learned that she basically self-taughtilldrinktothaticonv2.1 herself to where she is today.  He really is amazing at getting new information from his guests.

Levi’s right-hand lady, Erin Scala, contributes interesting “warm-up” segments that often relate to the interviewee, but are sometimes just fascinating tidbits about wine – like why a typical wine bottle is 750ml (episode #325 for those of you who are curious!)

I’ll Drink to That is very good at getting the story behind the wine and humanizing the industry. Levi asks his guests pertinent questions and is adept at drawing them out (I swear he must have a background in journalism). And while it’s not as academic as some of the other podcasts, I always learn something listening to it.

Guild of Sommeliers.

With edge-of-your-seat topics like “Wine Chemistry” and “All About Yeast”, this podcast is likely to appeal more to true corkdorks such as myself (I mean, I publish a blog on wine outlines for Christ’s sake).  Even when dealing with nitty gritty subjects like these, host Geoff Kruth manages to direct the discussion at an understandable, and often entertaining level.


As a Master Sommelier, Geoff knows more than 99.99% of the audience, yet he has a terrific knack for getting his guests to essentially start with the basics for the benefit of any wine newbies who might be listening.   Like in the “Three Elements of White Wine Making” podcast, Geoff begins the interview with winemaker John Raytek by asking him: “if you were going to explain white winemaking to somebody that wasn’t a winemaker, contrasting it to the way red wine is made – how would you explain the basic process of how white wine is made?”  For those looking for something a little lighter than a discussion on sur lie aging – the blind tasting and year in review GuildSomm podcasts are more on the amusing side.

Geoff has been the primary host since the podcast began, but lately Chris Tanghe has been taking over some of the hosting duties.  Chris is based in the Seattle area – so I’m hoping his presence means more focus on wines from my beloved Pacific Northwest!

Wine for Normal People.

This was one of the very first podcasts I stumbled upon and it remains a favorite.  Hosted by Elizabeth Schneider and her mysterious husband MC Ice (“just a wine loving normal person”) the WFNP podcast is conversational, entertaining and educational.  Their banter is genuine and adorable – even when she talks over him (which I totally can relate to – just ask Hubs!)


WFNP covers a wide range of wine-related topics – regions, grapes, and news like how Brexit could effect the UK wine industry (episode #209) or the 2017 California wildfires (episode #203).  Elizabeth also regularly interviews people in the industry, and while the interviewees aren’t usually “heavy hitters” like in some of the other podcasts, they all have incredibly interesting stories and I’ve found myself seeking out their wines on many occasions after finishing a WFNP podcast.

When I was studying for my WSET Level 3, I listened to WFNP religiously.  I’d download an episode on whichever wine region I was currently focused on and listen while I was in the car.  As the host, Elizabeth does a wonderful job of laying out the big picture in an  easily understandable manner before then drilling down into the specifics.  And she even warns you when she’s about to “dork out” on something – which is usually when I turn the volume up, but if you’re less of a wine geek, this might be when you take a break to refill your glass. 😉

Weekly Wine Show.

I just recently started listening to this one.  It’s another husband and wife team – Tony and Betty Notto and they’ve been podcasting for just over two years.  Their style is generally a little more informative rather than conversational, and they cover various wine regions, grapes, and some of their wine travels.  They also usually have wine recommendations that relate to their weekly topic – and often these bottles are incredibly budget friendly. weekly wine show

If the Weekly Wine Show were a wine, I’d describe it as a bit more rustic than elegant.  This podcast isn’t as polished as some of the others I listen to and occasionally it sounds as if they’re reading straight from a script.  However, when they go “off script” (which seems to be more frequently recently – especially with their monthly “Wine in the News” episodes) I love it. Their enthusiasm and excitement for wine is just so freaking genuine.  There’s something truly endearing about them.  Plus, Betty’s voice reminds me of Winona Ryder. 🙂

I admire their commitment and dedication: they have done this podcast weekly since its inception (other podcasts are published monthly or quarterly – if a podcast is “published”).  Not an easy feat as (I believe) they both have full-time jobs and Betty recently pursued and received her WSET 2 Level certification.  I’m looking forward to seeing where these two go with their podcast in the future – and hopefully meeting them at the upcoming Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla.

The Wine Enthusiast Podcastwine enthus podcast

This podcast bounces around from wine to beer to spirits and beyond.  Various editors of the Wine Enthusiast magazine take turns with hosting duties and transcripts are posted on their website – which is helpful for Tracy Flick personas like me who want to double check that I’ve gotten all the information correctly.

I’m not sure how exactly to describe the “personality” of this podcast since it’s all over the board.  For example – their episodes have included: Connections between Wine and Cannabis, The Trials and Triumphs of Wine Education, and “Goddesses of the Grape” featuring women in the wine industry.  The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is like an eclectic blend made up of dozens of varieties where each sip is new and different.  There’s not really a common thread to it – other than wine.

I think I like this podcast because it reminds me of my blog . . . sort of all over the place.  But when you’re a true wine enthusiast – I think you’re enthusiastic about a lot of things related to wine.  It’s hard to limit yourself to just one or two aspects when you have so many paths to choose from and learn about.

If you have a wine podcast that you love – please let me know in the comments!  And be sure to subscribe to Outwines by clicking the button right over there   ———————–>



Lisboa: From Co-ops to Mom and Pops

There are some wine trends that are the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard (i.e. blue wine and celebrity wines come to mind – yes, Jon Bon Jovi I’m including you even though I had a mad crush on you 30+ years ago!).  But there are others that I can really get behind with the rest of the masses.  Right now, that trend seems to be Portuguese wine.  To clarify, I’m talking about wine from Portugal that isn’t Port – which has been a “trend” since the late 1600s.

Seriously, take a minute and open another window in your browser and Google “Portugal Wine Trend” or something of that ilk and you’ll see several articles pop up about the subject.  Portuguese dry wine is enjoying a serious resurgence right now, although to be fair, I’m not certain that it ever had an initial surge to begin with.

I’m admittedly quite unfamiliar with Portuguese wines, so when my local(ish) wine store LCA advertised a tasting and seminar on the wines of Portugal, I signed up immediately.  The evening was hosted by Quinta de Chocapalha – a truly family run operation.

Photo credit: Quinta de Chocapalha website

Alice and Paulo Tavares da Silva acquired the Quinta de Chocapalha estate and began their family’s operations 30 years ago (the business itself actually dates back to 1855). The estate’s vineyards are located in the hills of Alenquer, just northwest of Lisbon. Alice and Paulo soon discovered that the vines planted at the estate were primarily successful at one thing: producing high yields of rather poor quality grapes. After studying and speaking to local villagers about the region’s tradition and nature, they immediately set out to replant and regraft the 110 acres of vineyards to better reflect the estate’s terroir.  Today – the estate produces a wide variety of wines that include native Portuguese grapes as well as international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

The family’s youngest daughter, Sandra, began her role as winemaker in 2000. And their other daughter, Andrea, is the winery manager.  It was Andrea who led us through a tasting of 8 of her family’s wines – from an Arinto that tasted of citrus and sea spray to a Castelão that make me think of a bigger, more badass Beaujolais.  If you’ve never heard of these grapes before, you’re certainly not alone.  They are just a few of the over 250 (!!) traditional Portugese grape varieties.

After the tasting, I sat down with a glass of Chocapalha’s Arinto and did a little more digging into the Lisboa region:

Lisboa wine map
Map courtesy of Wine Folly – the best in the biz!

Lisboa is one of Portugal’s 14 wine regions.  Wines from the region are classified as Vinho Regional (“VR”) unless they meet the requirements of one of the smaller Denominação de Origem Controladas (“DOC”) discussed in more detail below.

The rules for making VR are much less stringent than those that govern DOC wines.  For example, a wine labeled “Lisboa” must be made from certain permitted grape varieties (of which there are over 90 to choose from) as well as meet certain minimum alcohol content requirements.  On the other hand, a wine labeled from the smaller “Bucelas DOC” has many more hoops to jump through.  First, the permitted grapes are much more limited: Bucelas wine must be made from at least 75% Arinto, and the balance can be made up of only a few other varieties.  The wine must have a minimum alcohol content of 10.5% and then there are additional restrictions on yield and planting density of vines. Finally, samples of the wine must be submitted to the local body controlling Bucelas’ wine industry, who will grant numbered seals of origin if it is determined that these wines have satisfied all the regulations of the DOC.

A wine labeled Vinho Regional does not mean that it is lower quality.  Many prestigious Portuguese wines are classified as Vinho Regional because the producer has chosen to use grape varieties that are not permitted for the local DOC, or decides use them in different proportions than the DOC regulations dictate.  The looser regulations for Vinho Regional give producers greater flexibility and permit them to produce more unique, individualized wines.

There are 9 DOCs within Lisboa.  In total, these account for only 6% of the region’s total wine production.  Some of the more well-known are:

  • Encostas d’Aire: the region’s largest DOC
  • Obidos: windy and cooler, known primarily for sparkling wines
  • Lourinhã: produces aguardente (aka brandy) as opposed to wine
  • Bucelas: dry whites only, must be at least 75% Arinto
  • Carcavelos: produces fortified wines that often resemble a tawny port.  Vineyard area in this DOC has been significantly diminished due to the capital’s expanding urban population.
  • Colares: production in this small DOC rarely exceeds 10,000 bottles (yes – that’s bottles, not cases!)  Sadly, this area’s saving grace from phylloxera devastation has also been its downfall.  The pest that destroyed nearly all European vineyards avoided Colares due to the area’s sandy soils (which phylloxera hates).  However, sandy soils mean beachfront property – and many old vines have been ripped up to make way for new homes with a view.

Lisboa releases a larger volume of wine than any other region in Portugal.  The vast majority is produced by larger co-ops which dominate the region.  However, in the past 15-20 years this has slowly been changing.  There has been a significant increase is smaller, ambitious estates (such as Quinta Chocapalha) that are proving that the area can produce good, quality wine.

GuildSomm has an awesome podcast about dry wine from Portugal (Sandra Tavares is featured in an interview about halfway through).  And if you’d like more information on this region specifically – check out my outline on Lisboa – and why you’re at it, don’t forget to follow my blog (the button on the right!).







WSET Diploma Unit 2: Grades and other Bits ‘n Bobs

50%?  That’s an F.

-My Dad whenever I told him that I’d halfway finished something

Growing up, I heard the above relatively frequently from my Dad.  Usually, it was regarding one of my household chores that I’d completed somewhat, but not fully.  Often, this was mowing the lawn.  It’s been 20-some years since I set foot in my childhood home, but in my mind the lawn was roughly equivalent to the 153 square blocks that constitute Central Park in New York.  In actuality, it was 1/4 an acre (I just Zillowed it).

Nonetheless, I could never seem to complete the mowing of our lawn in a single day.  I’d do the front, and maybe part of the back, before throwing in the towel and promising that I’d finish up the following day.  “I did half of it!” I’d tell my Dad . . . and then he’d come back at me with some variation of his zinger “Half?  That’s an F.”

The first time I said this to Hubs it was in response to him saying he’d done “half the laundry” – which really means just moving the wet stuff from the washer into the dryer. He replied “no it’s not, 50% is a C.”  We had a nice long debate over this until he came around to my way of thinking . . . but had he been British – he would’ve had a point.

British Grading System.  I recently started pursuing my Diploma through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET).  When I found out their grading scale for exams, I was a bit surprised (more on that later).  Since the WSET is based in the UK, I did a little research on the country’s grading system as a whole.  Turns out – it is VERY different from the US.  (I promise I get to the wine portion of this entry shortly, but humor me for just a moment…)

As a rough guide, here’s how a Bachelor’s Degree in the UK would shake out: (and yes, I’m spelling it honoUrs because we’re talking about the Brits!)

  • First-class honours – typically 70% or higher
  • Second-class honours, upper division – typically 60 – 69%
  • Second-class honours, lower division – typically 50 – 59%
  • Third-class honours – typically 40 – 49%
  • Without honours – awarded an ordinary degree, sometimes known as a “pass”.

I am gobsmacked by this.  Does this mean that a bloke with a 35% gets a Bachelor’s degree from University and graduates with the rest of his mates?  If so – that’s a bit barmy.  (“Use ‘gobsmacked’ in blog entry” is officially checked off the bucket list!)

Anyhoo – onto wine specifics:

WSET Grading Scale.  The WSET somewhat follows the general UK system – here’s their grade range:

  • 75% and Above – Pass with Distinction
  • 65% – 74.9% – Pass with Merit
  • 55% – 64.9% – Pass
  • 45% – 54.9% – Fail
  • Below 44.9% – Fail Unclassified (read: you REALLY fucked up here)

So essentially, I need to get a 55% to pass each of my Diploma exams.  I haven’t mentioned this to my Dad yet, but I know exactly what he’d say.

I had some difficulties finding information on overall pass rates for the various Diploma Units – but the dreaded Unit 3 has a pass rate hovering around 50%Other sources put it closer to 32%.  Unit 3 is likely the reason why there are only 9,441 individuals in the world who have the WSET Diploma certification. And likely why this Unit is the last one tackled by most candidates.  (FYI: Unit 3 covers “Light Wines of the World” – which essentially means all wines in the world except for Sparkling and Fortified Wines as these are covered in other Units.   From what I’ve heard, it’s recommended that Diploma students take the Oxford Companion to Wine and put it to memory – because basically everything in that 900+ page tome is fair game on the Unit 3 exam.)

Believe me, I’m not knocking the material – I’m already studying a ton and there is a LOT of information to digest and learn/memorize. And I’m only taking the “easy” Unit right now!

And since we’re having a chin wag about grading scales (I could just keep going with this British slang!), for the record here are how a couple other wine certification programs rank their exams:

  • The Wine Scholar Guild (who runs the French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Scholar, etc. programs): Passing grade is 75%. Candidates scoring 85-90 pass with Honors. Candidates scoring 91-100 pass with Highest Honors.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers: 60%. It doesn’t appear that there are honors or merit – just pass/fail.

Ok, enough about obsessing about the grades before I get the collywobbles (last one, I promise!).  Here’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks:

Unit 2 – Where it All Begins.  Yes, the entire program starts at Unit 2 rather than Unit 1 – just accept this as fact and move on (I’ve done the research and don’t have an answer).  Unit 2 covers “Wine Production” – so, basically all things Viti and Vini (aka viticulture and vinification).  This actually makes sense as it gives candidates a good foundation for the rest of the Diploma Units (which include Fortified Wines, Sparkling Wines & Global Wine Business). The Unit 2 exam is 100 multiple choice questions which I’ll have 90 minutes to complete.

There’s a study guide for Unit 2 provided by WSET and everything on the exam will come from this text.  So, I’m madly highlighting and outlining and trying to tackle a little bit each day.  WSET books

I’ve heard through the grapevine (pun seriously NOT intended but I decided to keep it in) that Unit 2 is used to “weed out” individuals who may not be ready to pursue the full Diploma.  Basically, if you can’t pass a multiple-choice exam where the answer is somewhere in front of you, you may want to rethink whether you’re ready to continue on to other Units (please don’t let me regret typing that last sentence).

My Unit 2 Class – Neptune School of Wine. My in-class sessions for Unit 2 were held on 3 consecutive Saturdays (approximately 6 hours per day).  Other WSET providers have different schedules – some meet for 10 weeks for 2.5 hours each session (International Wine Center in NYC) or there’s a (super) intensive weekend where you go all day Saturday and Sunday (Napa Valley Wine Academy).  I think my classes hit the goldilocks spot for me and was just right.  Now I’ve got 5+ weeks to self study before my exam on June 30th.

There were a total of 3 students (aka candidates in WSET lingo) in my Unit 2 class.  All ladies. 🙂  This was quite a change from my WSET Level 3 class where there were around 20 of us – and split fairly evenly between guys and gals.  With 3 students, there’s no hiding in the back of class (which is where I normally plant myself).  And there’s no ability to abstain from participating (which is also what I normally do).  So I was front and center – and I never thought I’d say this but . . .  it was kinda awesome.

Our instructor, Peter Neptune MS, is a wealth of knowledge and experience.  These classes were essentially getting one-on-one tutorials from a Master Sommelier – something that most wine enthusiasts would pay a shit-ton of money for.  In my previous wine classes, I didn’t often speak up for fear of sounding stupid or being wrong.  And I sure as hell didn’t want to sound like the the jackass who “corrected” my FWS instructor as to the distance between two areas in Burgundy when she said it was 13km (he annoyingly chimed in “ahhhh, I think it’s more like 12km.”)  Seriously – don’t be that guy.  Nobody likes that guy.

That All Sounds Fine & Dandy – But Did You Get to Drink Wine in Class? Even though there isn’t a tasting component to Unit 2, we did go through a fair amount of tastings in class to get a better grasp of the WSET method of writing tasting notes (aka the Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine in WSET lingo).  The examiners want their notes done in a specific manner and the best way to do this is practice, practice, practice! 🙂

I enlist Hubs to blind pour me wine a couple of times a week.  However, I usually know which wines he’s pouring – just not the order.  Which is not the same as true blind tasting where you have NO idea what’s in the glass in front of you.  Going through this with Peter in class was eye-opening – and the results not completely surprising to me:

– I’m much stronger at French wines then Italian wines.

– I need to work on picking up oak aromas – in wines besides the typical California Chardonnay where it all but hits you upside the head.

– Expand my palate – move beyond Pinot Noir and Syrah.  Try to get my hands on some aged wines.

– Stop second guessing myself and trust my gut (and my nose, and my taste buds).

Thankfully, WSET is more concerned with you identifying characteristics of the wine (aromas, structure, quality) then they are with you identifying the actual wine itself.  I think you only get 1 point for correctly identifying the wine.  Although, of course, many people – including myself – often focus on this.

I feel fortunate to have been in such a small class because it really boosted my confidence and made me realize that I know more than I think I do.  But – there’s still a lot more that I don’t know. 🙂  So, back to the books and I’ll post an update on my WSET journey after my Unit 2 exam!  Keep your fingers crossed for me!  Cheerio!





What About Bob (Betz)?

When I first sat down to write about Bob Betz, one of the most revered winemakers in Washington state, I knew early on that I would end up writing a lengthy tome about this Pacific Northwest icon. So, in the interest of brevity (somewhat), I’ll narrow it down and give you what I believe to be the 10 Things You Should Know About Bob Betz.

1. He is officially – and unofficially – a Master of Wine. Bob Betz is one of 370 individuals in the world who holds a Master of Wine (MW) degree. Many in the wine industry (myself included) believe that the MW designation is the most respected title in the world of wine. Bob achieved this in 1998 and received two additional awards upon successfully completing the program: the Villa Maria Award for the highest scores on the viticultural exam, and the Robert Mondavi Award for the highest overall score in all theory exams.

2. He helped put Washington wine on the world wine map . . . In 1975 – when there were only eight wineries in Washington (there are now over 900!) – Bob was hired at Chateau Ste. Michelle. He was employed at the winery for 28 years, working in nearly every division of the company, before retiring in 2003 as Vice President of Winemaking Research.  Chateau Ste. Michelle is now the second-largest premium American wine brand sold in the United States, trailing only California’s Kendall Jackson.

3. and conversely helped bring the world of wine to Washington. One of Bob’s many roles while at Chateau Ste. Michelle was Managing Director of Col Solare. Established in 1995, Col Solare is a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori created to “produce a Washington wine with an Italian soul”. While Chateau Ste. Michelle recently turned 50 – a big achievement in the Washington wine world – the Antinori family has been making wine for over 625 years!

Col Solare
View from Col Solare on Red Mountain, Washington

One of the most coveted items at the Auction of Washington Wines – the annual charitable gala recognizing the best and brightest in the industry – is a trip to Italy with Bob and his wife Cathy.  If you guessed that experiencing the Antinori family’s iconic estates firsthand with a Master is on my bucket list, you would be right!

4. There were a few paths not chosen in his life . . . Bob has a degree in Zoology from the University of Washington. He was also accepted into medical school in 1980, but (thankfully!) had already been bitten by the wine bug by this time and opted to stay on that course. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he has said that he hopes he’s helped make people “healthy in a different way”. 😉

5. before he forged his own. Betz Family Winery – established in 1997 by Bob and Cathy – was the product of a worldwide expedition that began decades earlier.  In the early 1970’s the two spent a year in Europe visiting the wineries, estates and  vineyards of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria learning the European “culture of wine” . The Betz’s first production yielded 150 cases. Today, the winery produces around 5,250 cases per year.  Over the years with Bob at the helm, Betz Family Winery amassed several awards, to name just a few:

• Betz Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 was named Washington’s Number One Wine of the Year by the Seattle Times wine critic, Paul Gregutt
• Bob was named Sunset Magazine’s Winemaker of the Year in 2007
• 2010 Pere de Famille was ranked #6 in the World in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Cellar Selections

Additionally, Betz Family Wines have received consistent 90+ Points from Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast. Betz lineup

6. Bob is particular about where his fruit comes from . . .  Betz Family Winery gets its grapes from the same rows in the same vineyards every year from some of Washington’s top wine growers. Bob believes there’s a huge, fundamental difference between grape growers and wine growers. He says that a grape grower “looks at the grape as the end point in their work.” On the other hand, a wine grower “looks at the grape as a transitional point between the land and the table.”

Some of the wine growers/vineyards Bob works with include: Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow in the Yakima Valley; Ciel du Cheval, Kiona and Klipsun on Red Mountain; and Harrison Hill and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

7. which results in an understated style of winemaking. Bob is big on keeping tannins in check.  Instead of pumping the juice from the grapes like many other Washington wineries, he uses gravity.  He designed a small funnel on top of the fermenter and gravity drops the juice into it. His winery also uses the punch down method during fermentation rather than pump over – a key differentiator that comes across in the bottle.  Additionally, Bob uses mostly French oak barrels for aging (he found the American barrels “too coarse”) and less new oak than he used to in order to diminish the “woody impression” in his wines. His prefers to age his Rhône blends in entirely neutral barrels.

8. He’s leaving his legacy in good hands. When they decided it was time to find a new owner/caretaker for their winery – Bob & Cathy had suitors from around the world for Betz Family Winery. In the final bidding process, they had narrowed it down to two major Napa Valley wineries and one couple. They went with the couple. 🙂 In 2011, Bob & Cathy sold Betz Family Winery to Steve and Bridgit Griessel.  The Griessels are incredibly warm and friendly people – much like Bob & Cathy.  And while they are committed to keeping the Betz heritage alive, they are also taking the winery on some exciting new directions – like a Chenin Blanc from their native South Africa!

Bob remained on as head winemaker until 2016 when he passed that torch to Louis Skinner. He remains involved in his namesake winery as Consulting Winemaker and is still a familiar friendly face at the winery’s semi-annual wine club release events!

9. Bob remains a Washington wine icon and dynamo. Last year, Bob returned to Col Solare as Consulting Winemaker.  He’s also a frequent panelist at Washington wine seminars – most recently “Blind Tasting Bootcamp with the Masters” at this year’s Taste Washington. And he’s on the Board of the Auction of Washington Wines – the fifth largest charity wine auction in the United States.

10. If this wine thing doesn’t work out for him – he has a future in Hollywood. Bob makes an appearance in “Somm: Into the Bottle”, the follow-up documentary to the well known 2012 movie “Somm”. At about the 42 minute mark, he discusses the wide range of grapes grown in Washington – from Cabernet Sauvignon to Riesling.  He asserts that we (I might live in SoCal now, but I can still say “we”!) have challenged the notion that certain varieties have to be grown in only certain places.

I lied. There’s one more thing I think that everyone should know about Bob Betz. I believe it was wine writer Andy Perdue who referred to Bob as “a true gentleman of the wine industry” and I couldn’t agree more. I have never heard a negative or unkind word said about him.  He is incredibly well respected, likable and eager to help others as they forge their own path.  In what can be a competitive industry with bottom line results, he stands out as a winemaker – scratch that, as a person – to aspire to.


Bob pic
Photo credit: Great Northwest Wine