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Italian Wine Scholar: Tackling This Boot Was No Small Feat

Nobody likes a braggart or a know-it-all.  If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know I can’t stand this type of personality and have even created a WSET Irritation Scale to evaluate them.  (Yes, I’ve been told that sometimes I take things too far).

Unfortunately, we (mostly women) are often so fearful of looking too egotistical that we don’t celebrate our accomplishments.  We downplay our successes, or qualify them by saying something like “I’m just a good test taker” or “I can memorize facts, but don’t retain them very well.” (I’ve uttered both of these phrases many times over).  Why is it so difficult to say “hey – I’m really proud of myself, I did this: [fill in the blank here with your awesome accomplishment].”  (Hubs Note:  And yet you don’t have any problem telling my friends that you kicked my ass in law school).

I think we need to be better at sharing our wins and encouraging each other to do the same. So, with that, I’m going to give it a shot- here goes: I passed my Italian Wine Scholar exam with Highest Honors!  I studied my ass off for this certification and I am thrilled with my results.

IWS certificate

And, because I’d like to see others succeed, here are some tips that will hopefully help other students rock their Italian Wine Scholar Unit 2 exam (my Unit 1 exam tips can be found here):

1. Study the glossary!

There were several questions relating to these terms and I know I answered at least one of them incorrectly.  Now I will never forget that Baglio is the name for a Sicilian farmhouse.  (However, the degree to which this particular question relates to wine knowledge is debatable IMO . . .)

2. Memorize this equation: The percentage of the text dedicated to a region = the number of exam questions on that region.

This may seem obvious, but it will help you schedule your time more efficiently if you keep this in mind.  You’re better off focusing a majority of your studies on Toscana, Sicilia and Campania than knowing all the little nuances of Molise or Basilicata.  And besides – you can use my outlines as a good starting point for both of those regions! 😉

For me, I found it best to tackle a larger region over the course of a week and then follow this up with a day covering a smaller one.  Being able to knock out a more minor region in such a short period gave me a much needed sense of accomplishment when I felt I was dragging.  Which happened more than I’d hoped!

3.  Read the answers carefully!

I know most people say read the question carefully, and clearly you should do that too, but Calabria and Campania were both options for a few questions.   Maybe it’s just me, but throughout my Italian Wine Scholar studies I would get these two regions mixed up.  Make sure you know which one you’re talking about!

4. If you don’t know the answer, move on and come back to it.

You very well may find a clue to the answer in a later question or something might trigger your memory.  This happened to me with an exam question on Verdicchio – I skipped it and a question later in the exam helped me recall the answer.  And don’t stress out too much if you have to temporarily skip a question – having an open and relaxed mind will make it easier for you to recall the information you need. (If that sounds like Headspace to you – it is!  I always do a short meditation the day of an exam . . . consider that another study tip.)   (Hubs note:  With the dogs.   She meditates with the dogs.  I don’t even know how this is possible).

5.  Don’t underestimate Sardegna.

I left Sardegna until last and, frankly, didn’t spend much study time on this region.  I figured that since it was an island, and not even the most “important” one, that there wouldn’t be many exam questions related to it.  However, I should have heeded my own advice above regarding “size of the chapter = exam importance” because based on this theory – about 8% of the exam questions would be related to Sardegna.  And although I didn’t count, there probably did end up being somewhere between 7-9 questions on it.  Thankfully, I read and reviewed Sardegna the morning of the exam so I was able to at least recall specifics relating to the island’s grape varieties.

And finally, this is not really a “tip” but something to keep in mind throughout your studies: enjoy learning.  After over a year of being in the Italian Wine Scholar program, I am so thankful to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, Italy.  You don’t need a certificate or a pin to prove anything.  But if you have one – be proud of it.  I am!

 

Brunello di Montalcino: the Rembrandt of my Wine World

Early during the first quarter of my freshman year at college, I decided I wanted to major in art history.  I was a couple months into an Art History 101 class and could clearly envision my future as curator for some fabulous museum or gallery, or possibly work for one of the big auction houses like Christie’s.  Even though this was my first ever art history class – I just knew that this was what I was destined for.  I excitedly called my Dad to inform him of my plans – and after our brief discussion, I hightailed it to the business office to declare my major in Business Administration.

To this day, my art history classes remain some of my most favorite.  They made me look at the world like I hadn’t before – and in a way I haven’t since.  Starting with ancient art – from ornate Egyptian tombs to Greek architecture to Roman marble sculpture.  Then the Renaissance with the David and Mona Lisa.  Next came the utterly fascinating, over-the-top religious works of Bosch and El Greco.  My art history course worked its way through each era and I found myself in awe of them all . . . and then we got to the work of Rembrandt and – well, I didn’t like it.

Was his work groundbreaking?  Was he able to capture people in their daily lives like no artist had before? Was his work influential to countless others?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Is he considered by many to be the best painter that ever lived?  Absolutely.

I’m not debating these assertions – all I’m saying is that I personally didn’t care for his work.  (And for the record – I still don’t).  I thought it was dark and dreary.  He did a lot of self portraits that all ran together in my mind.  Nothing about his work spoke to me.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t want his work hanging in my house (Hubs Note:  Yeah…..that was never an option in the first place).  I’d rather have a calming Monet landscape or fun and colorful Matisse:

Right about now you might be asking “That’s all well and good, but WTF does Rembrandt have to do with Brunello di Montalcino?”

Patience . . . I’m getting there.

In the vast world of wine, there are certain wines that are considered to be “classics” or “benchmarks” of their respective varieties.  Wines such as Burgundy (Pinot Noir), Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc), Barolo (Nebbiolo),  and Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese).

Brunello di Montalcino (hereinafter “BdM”) is considered by many to be the highest quality and most pure expression of Sangiovese.  It’s been called Tuscany’s grandest wine zone by Jancis Robinson. It was one of Italy’s first DOCs (1966) and later one of its first DOCGs (1980).  To qualify as a DOC/DOCG, several hoops must be jumped through – such as establishing geographical boundaries, permitted grape varieties grown, and limitations on yields.  For a more detailed explanation of these terms – read this short article by a Master of Wine.

Unlike many other Tuscan wines, BdM is not a blend – it is made from 100% Sangiovese.  Specifically, the Brunello clone that is grown exclusively in the region.  BdM has the longest aging requirements in all of Italy: a minimum of four years (2 years in oak, 4 months in bottle) before it can be released to the public.  These wines are full bodied with high tannins and acidity, and very long lived.

BdM is held in high regard by enthusiasts, critics, students and collectors alike.  When a classic BdM is served – words like “majestic”, “elegant” and “oh holy shit this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” fall off tongues.  Except for mine – because I don’t like BdM (insert blasphemous gasps here).

Now before you members of the Brunello Brigade come after me with pitchforks, let me explain.  Like with Rembrandt, I’m NOT claiming that BdM is crap nor am I saying that I cannot appreciate BdM. What I am saying is that I, subjectively, don’t care for it.  I would love to find a BdM that changes my mind.  Believe me, I’ve tried!  Over the years, I’ve tasted many – particularly during my studies for the Italian Wine Scholar and at the recent Master class I attended led by Master Sommelier Peter Neptune  where we tasted 11 different BdMs.

Valdicava 1997That evening, the wines tasted ranged from a 2013 Camigliano BdM to a 1997 Valdicava BdM.  There were BdM from 2001 and 2010 – both highly rated vintages.  All 11 wines tasted were very high quality and from top producers such as Altesino, Donatella Cinelli Colombini and Salvioni.  I appreciated these wines, and was particularly amazed at how their structure held up over the years.

But did I like them?  No, not really.  Why?  Well, for starters the tannins were overwhelming.  They usually dominate in a BdM’s youth, but are still over prevalent (for me) in an aged BdM.  And even if I can get past the Hoover suctioning tannins, I don’t particularly enjoy the taste of BdM.  While I’m definitely not a juicy fruit bomb lover, the orange peel/medicinal cherry/tea leaf flavors I find in BdM aren’t appealing to me either.

And it’s not that I don’t like Italian wines.  I love Barbera, Aglianico, and Etna Rosso.  And I actually really enjoy Rosso di Montalcino – more than most Brunellos in fact.  Even though Rossos are usually from younger or “lesser” vineyards, have few restrictions on production (no oak aging required!) and are way less expensive.  I know this is like saying I’d prefer to wear Tory Burch shoes as opposed to Manolo Blahniks, or that I’d rather drive a Chevy truck than a Tesla – but both of these examples are also true (Hubs Note:  She drove a Chevy truck for a decade).

However, like a Rembrandt painting that I don’t want in my house, I don’t want a BdM in my glass.  I’d rather have a dozen other wines instead.  And on that note, I’m going to go pour myself a non-BdM and leave you with this awesome outline on Montalcino.

 

“And the Oscar Goes to”: Wine Masters Documentary

I’m a sucker for wine movies.  Fact or fiction, drama or documentary – if it’s even remotely related to the world of wine, sign me up.  However, even though I will watch most anything about wine – I’ll also know within ten minutes whether I’m going to keep watching it . . .

So when a few minutes into my first episode Marcel Guigal talked about how his father, winery founder Etienne, saw his family’s future on the steep hillsides of Côte-Rôtie, I knew that I was all-in on Wine Masters.  Wine Masters is a cinematic documentary series that aims to tell “the stories about terroir, taste and tradition through the experience of some of the most prestigious wine producing families from each wine region.”  Currently shooting their second season in Italy, with Spain already chosen for the third season, the producers plan to shoot a total of seven seasons for the series (fingers crossed for a Pacific Northwest season!)

The producer of Wine Masters, Klaas de Jong, provided me with a complimentary screening link to watch the first season of the series in exchange for an independent and honest review.  My thoughts are as follows (spoiler alert: I enjoyed the series so much that I ended purchasing it so I could watch in the future when my temporary link expired!).

The first season of Wine Masters covers five different wine regions in France: the Rhône, Loire, Alsace, Burgundy and Bordeaux.  In each episode, a local wine producing family is featured who share their winemaking stories – including their family’s history, plans for the future, unique styles of wine and challenges faced.  The series does an excellent job of taking wine regions that are rather intimidating (Burgundy and Bordeaux – I’m looking right at you two) and making them more approachable through these winemaking families. These are very recognizable names like Guigal, Trimbach and Drouhin.  Families who truly ARE Wine Masters.

Although each family is unique, a major overarching theme is the relationship between the generations and the passing of the baton from one to another.  This was probably my favorite part of the series – the interaction (and sometimes subtle conflict) between the traditional/formal older generation and the more experimental/innovative younger one.  While the younger generation is focused on issues like internet sales and online presence, the older concentrates on – as Bordeaux winemaker Hubert de Boüard de Laforest so eloquently puts it – “keeping the soul” of the winery.

One of the great things about Wine Masters is that in order to enjoy the series you don’t need to know anything about wine.  This is thanks in large part to two very important supporting roles featuring Tim Atkin and Jeannie Cho Lee. In fact, since this IS Oscar season, let’s just go ahead and give these two – and others – their awards…

Outwines Oscars

Live! From the Red Carpet – Outwines is proud to present the Wine Masters Oscars! 

Best Supporting Roles.

In addition to the winemaking families, two Masters of Wine are present in each episode to help guide the viewer along the way: Tim Atkin and Jeannie Cho Lee.

These two MWs help set the scene of each region by discussing its location, varieties grown, climate, food pairing (particularly interesting in the Alsace episode!) and more.  They also add various anecdotes throughout the series – my favorite being that Napoleon’s troops used to salute Le Montrachet when they went by the famed vineyard (who knew?!).

Tim and Jeannie’s commentary not only make the regions come to life a bit more, but they also explain concepts on a level that even a relative wine newbie can understand (Hubs can attest to this!).  From the myriad of soil types in Sancerre to the rather confusing sweetness levels of Alsatian Riesling,  the MWs do an excellent job of analyzing these issues in plain English.

Technical Awards.

The cinematography was absolutely gorgeous throughout the series.  I’ve only been to two of the five regions (Rhône & Burgundy), and the scenes very much reminded me of being there – particularly Côte-Rôtie. And for the three regions I’ve yet to visit, the producers did a VERY good job of making me want to go there.

Guigal vineyards
I stood right in front of Guigal’s vineyards in 2016!

The score was beautifully done as well.  For the majority of the series, it was a lovely, melodious part of the background.  Except for that one cooperage scene at Guigal – have your volume button on the remote handy for that one.

And now for some other Awards  . . . and yes, I realize these sound more like High School favorites than film categories:

Best dressed.  Marcel Guigal is the consummate gentleman.  Especially with his jaunty beret and suit jacket traipsing through his vineyards alongside his more casually dressed son, Philippe, who was sporting a Seattle Mariners baseball hat.  Which of course gets major props from this Washington native! 🙂

Best line.  Hubert de Boüard de Laforest on why Cabernet Franc makes up such a large percentage of their blends: “it makes your mind more happy.”

Most Athletic.  The entire Bourgeois Family.  There’s a scene where they’re tasting and evaluating their wines – and their beautifully accurate projectile spitting was flat-out impressive.  I still have to have a cup literally RIGHT in front of me, and even then there’s the occasional dribble.

Best Foreign Language.  Many of the older generation.  So unless you’re fluent in French, make sure to have your subtitles turned on so you understand what they’re saying (something I unfortunately figured out once I was well into my first episode).

Most Likely to Succeed.  Anne Trimbach.  Well aware of the challenges that Riesling has on markets due to lack of clarity as to how sweet the wine will be, Anne discusses implementing a “sweetness scale” on Trimbach bottles in the future.  Something like this will definitely help consumers embrace this often misunderstood variety.

Best Scene. Family dinner with the Drouhins where they open their bottling of a 1978 Grands Échezeaux.  Seeing some of the family member’s expressions of pure delight after sipping this wine is . . . well, delightful. They’re sharing a simple meal of cheese and bread with a bottle of wine that would cost well over $1,000 in today’s market.  Just enjoying an afternoon and each other’s company – and isn’t that what wine should be all about?

I’m already looking forward to seeing what Wine Masters has in store for their second season in Italy.  If you’re a fan of wine (if you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming the answer is yes!) – check out the Wine Masters documentary series.  To conclude, in the spirt of Sally Field on her Best Actress acceptance speech: you’ll like it, you’ll really like it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wine Education Classes: In Person vs. Self-Study

Last year, I took the first of two exams to obtain the Italian Wine Scholar (IWS) certification through the Wine Scholar Guild.  I’m scheduled to take the second exam in less than one week.  Before enrolling in the IWS program, Italy was my Achilles heel of the wine world.  But now that I’m nearing the end of the course, I can assuredly say that I have much better understanding of (and perhaps more importantly, appreciation for) Italian wines.

The Wine Scholar Guild gives students a couple of options for pursuing their Italian (or French, and soon to be Spain) Wine Scholar certifications.  The first is through independent study and the other is by attending a series of classes in person.  I did the first half (Northern Italy) through self-study.  For the Central/Southern portion of the certification, I attended a weekend intensive course last month with The Wine and Spirit Archive in Portland, Oregon.

So I’ve experienced the best (and worst) of both options.  And while I should be reviewing for my exam right now, instead I’m thinking about which route I preferred and would recommend to others pursuing one of these certifications – or really, any wine certification for that matter.  Some people (Hubs) might call this procrastinating . . .

Honestly, there’s no one size fits all for wine education.  It all depends on what you want to get out of the course – and how you, personally, study best.

Self- Study: Pros and Cons

The primary reason I opted for self-study for my first exam was, well, there were no classes offered anywhere near where we lived.  So, needless to say, that was a pretty easy decision to make.  Shortly after registering, I received the Northern Italy coursebook and access to the Wine Scholar Guild online materials – which includes webinars, quizzes and flashcards.  After that, I was on my own.

Besides being able to attend class in your jammies, here are some benefits to self-study:

You’re in charge!  With self-study, you get to move at your own pace, set your own schedule, and study sections in the order you choose.  As such, this option might appeal more to those of us who can be (ahem) Type A personalities.  For example, I jumped around instead of following the book chronologically.  I wanted to get an “easy” region out of the way first so I could find my groove, so I started with Liguria.   It’s a smaller region with only a handful of DOCs – plus I’ve actually visited Liguria, so I wasn’t starting with a completely blank slate.  Additionally, self-study allowed me to accommodate my rather wacky schedule last year – which included moving a thousand miles away from my beloved Washington state and starting my WSET Diploma studies.

Fewer distractions outside your control. In class, there are other students asking questions, requesting the instructor repeat something for the umpteenth time, telling personal stories, spilling wine, etc.  With self study, your focus is on you – nobody else.

However, my home situation is probably a lot different than most people’s.  Hubs is at work and I have a couple of old dogs who sleep all day.  That isn’t to say that both pups haven’t been wonderful study buddies. 🙂  But if you have a larger family, young kids, roommates, live in a noisy apartment, or have a husband who incessantly watches ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ at full volume – then an in-class experience might have fewer distractions for you.  (Hubs Note:  It’s one of the most intelligent shows on TV these days).

 

And now the downside of self-study . . .

Accountability and self motivation are necessities.  If you don’t have both of these, you probably won’t succeed with self-study.  I highly recommend creating a study schedule at the beginning of your course and sticking to it.  This should be realistic roadmap of what you need to accomplish before the test date and take into account anything you already have scheduled that might detract (or distract) from studying: travel, work, family commitments, etc.  You should plan to dedicate yourself to tackling a little bit (almost) every day – this exam is not something you can cram for.

Lack of Support System.  With self-study, you’re on an island.  You have your manual and online materials – but what if you have questions?  Or just want to check with someone to make sure you’re on the right track?  Or you want vent about how mind numbing it is that there are so many DOCs and sub-zones in Tuscany that sound the same: Montecarlo, Montecucco, Montalcino, Montalbano, Montespertoli – seriously?!

The Wine Scholar Guild has an online Instructor Q&A Forum – and from what I can tell, there is a pretty quick turnaround for responses.  However, it also appears that this isn’t used very frequently (the last post was almost four months ago).  With the in-class study route, you still have access to this Q&A Forum – plus your instructors from class as well as other students.  And sometimes, just knowing there’s a wider safety net is comforting – even if you don’t need it.

In-Class Experience: Pros and Cons

As I mentioned, I flew to Portland a few weeks ago to attend a weekend long intensive course for the second half of the IWS certification which focuses on Central and Southern Italy.  I was planning to continue with self-study, but after seeing that an in-class option was available and taught by two of my very favorite wine instructors – I knew I wanted to do this second part with them.

Mimi Martin was my WSET Level 3 instructor in 2017.  For Level 3, being able to connect the dots between many different concepts is imperative to passing the exam.  This wasn’t a memorize and regurgitate kind of thing – you needed to thoroughly understand the material and be able to explain your reasoning behind an answer.  In classes, Mimi broke down all the required text into manageable sized sections that made it easier to understand the details – as well as to see the big picture.  After passing Level 3 (with Distinction!) I started looking at wine in a whole new way – thanks in large part to Mimi.

I’d taken a couple classes with Tanya Morningstar Darling at Northwest Wine Academy when I lived in Washington.  She has such a unique way of approaching wine education – seriously, she sometimes makes me feel like I’m combining my wine studies with meditation.  Her teaching style eliminates much of the franticness of memorizing and cramming and leaves me with a true enjoyment of learning.  (Did that sound as Zen as I think it did?)  She recently started her own wine events and education business fittingly named Cellar Muse and if I’m ever back visiting while she has one of her classes in session, you can bet I’ll be there.

So, besides (hopefully!) having awesome instructors like I did, here are some other benefits to attending class in person:

Connecting with other students.  When you’re part of a class, there’s often a sense of “we’re all in this together!” type of thing.  You realize you’re not the only one frustrated or overwhelmed.  My recent IWS class happened to be one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever been in.  I got to know some wonderful people that I’d only “met” previously through social media and I also reconnected with a gal from my hometown that I’d known back in junior high.  She’s now a winemaker – what a small world.  I have no doubt that I’ll stay in touch with many of these future Italian Wine Scholars.

On the flipside, let’s be honest: you’re not always going to get a “dream class” of awesome students.  There are plenty of irritating or know-it-all wine students and it’s quite likely one or more may be in your class.  The degree to which they bother you depends on your tolerance level (undoubtedly higher than mine) and their specific behavior which, in my experience and to put in WSET terms, can range from:

  • Medium Minus: Mildly annoying – they chime in with every…single…little…aroma that they smell; to
  • Medium Plus: Rather obnoxious – they correct the instructor when she’s off by one kilometer on the distance between two villages in Burgundy; to
  • High: Infuriating, they claim to have passed the WSET Level 3 with Distinction without studying and condescendingly call the whole process “ridiculously easy.”  (Yes, I’ve mentioned him before . . . clearly he grinds my gears.  Thankfully, I’ve only “met” this type of student online).

Wine Tasting!  This is a HUGE plus with the in-class route.  You get to taste, evaluate and discuss a number of wines during class – which not only gives you a better overall sense of the region you’re currently studying, but also helps you continue to improve your tasting skills.  During my weekend intensive class, we tasted almost 50 different wines over 3 days!  Many of which I wouldn’t have been able to find in my area had I opted for self-study.

And now for the cons . . .

Intensity of Focus. These days, most of us aren’t used to sitting and focusing for hours at a time on our particular course of study.  Going the classroom route requires lots of both – particularly if you enroll in a weekend intensive class like I did.  My attention drifted off as the day went on as I started researching which food truck I was going to grab dinner at after class and how late Powell’s City of Books was open (FTR – 11pm).

My tasting notes also dropped in detail over the course of the day – from elaborate, several paragraph long descriptors of structure and aromas  to “deep ruby, cherry and balsamic” near the end of the day.  Plus my back hurt like hell.  If you’re under 35 – you won’t understand.  But someday you will.  Just trust me – it sucks.

Tangents and Rabbit Holes.  While in-class discussion can be interesting, it can sometimes be time consuming. For example, after reviewing the various biotypes of Sangiovese, my class got on the subject of clones.  Which, although educational, wasn’t particularly relevant to the class at hand.  And, after this discussion went down the proverbial rabbit hole, we ended up running out of time to thoroughly cover a few regions.

This invariably happens in every class, but is nonetheless frustrating if you’re not participating in the tangential discussion.  So, if you’re the one continuing to burrow down the rabbit hole – take into account your fellow students and whether they’d truly like to be joining you there, or whether it would be best if you followed up with the instructor on your own time.  Otherwise, you might end up on my WSET Irritation Scale above. 😉

And whether you’re opting for self-study or in-class, I’m hoping you’ll find these outlines on Marche and Basilicata helpful to your studies!  Best of Luck!!

 

New York Times Wine School: The Homework Everyone is Talking About

For the past almost five years, Eric Asimov has taught New York Times readers about wine in his monthly “Wine School” column.  His virtual classroom works as follows: first, a monthly “theme” is announced  – which has ranged from Chablis to Cava to Rosso di Montalcino.  Asimov suggests a few bottles related to the theme for readers to try out on their own over the next few weeks and class participants are encouraged to leave a comment online about their thoughts on the selected wines. Then, in the following month’s column, Asimov provides a more detailed explanation of the varieties or regions selected, as well as summarizes readers’ impressions of the wines.

When we subscribed to the New York Times, I followed this column religiously.  However, I was always a lurker . . . until now.

nyt articlesLast month, when Asimov announced the lineup for January’s Wine School, a Twitter storm ensued. There was an initial shock surrounding Asimov’s wine selections – which I find understandable. Past Wine Schools have focused on more narrow, identifiable wine regions and wines made by smaller, quality conscious producers. These three wines are mass-produced, readily available almost anywhere and are the antithesis of artisan winemaking. Unfortunately, since I started writing this post, several of these tweets have been deleted – perhaps their authors had second thoughts.  While I won’t quote these deleted comments, I’ll give you the gist of the debate:

Immediately following was some debate as to whether Asimov, by suggesting these wines for an upcoming Wine School, was in essence promoting these wines. This led to a lot of discussion as to what constitutes “promotion”.  The headline reads: “Our Critic Wants You to Try These Supermarket Wines” which, ok, if we’re splitting hairs, does sound like a promotion to me, but not necessarily a recommendation. There’s a difference.

The larger Twitter threads debated why Asimov was even suggesting these wines in the first place.

Some people applauded his effort arguing that it’s useful to have an understanding of what makes these wines appealing to consumers. I fall into this camp. These are three of the most popular wines in the U.S. market! I’d like to have a better idea of where the average consumer is coming from.

However, others didn’t see the point of the exercise.  Just because these wines are being compared to the McDonald’s and Starbucks of the wine world, why is it important to taste them? (For the record, I occasionally eat McDonald’s and drink Starbucks religiously, yet don’t touch these wines with a ten foot pole).

Asimov defended his selections saying that:

If you only eat hamburgers made by dedicated artisans, you begin to believe they are the norm. But if you try what sells by the millions, perhaps you will better understand the hard work and dedication of the craftspeople.

I see his point. But to really appreciate the good stuff, do we have to try the bad stuff?  For example, I don’t need to be crammed into a middle seat in coach between two manspreaders with little junior kicking the back of my seat to know that first class is better – I can pretty much figure that one out on my own.

The comment that really hit home with me though, was former LA Times food editor Russ Parsons’:

I think some people are more comfortable critiquing them without having to actually taste them.

Ouch.  If we’re being honest here, I fall into this “some people” category that Parsons’ is referring to.  So in order to extricate myself from this minor quagmire, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and taste these three wines.

Grocery wines.JPG
Asimov’s supermarket triumvirate!  And yes, the irony of turning my nose up at mass produced wine but not thinking twice about bagged Caesar is not lost on me.

I headed out to purchase my school supplies – making sure they were buried deep in the bottom of my grocery cart.  Does the fact that I was a bit embarrassed to be buying these wines make me a wine snob?  (Hubs’ Note:  Yes.)

Once I was back at home, I had Hubs pour me four wines blind. Now, you may be asking: why four and not just the three required for school? No, it’s not because I’m an overachiever or trying to get some extra credit.  My reasoning was that I wanted to have a wine in the mix that was from a smaller, artisan producer. Not only was I curious if I’d be able to identify this wine out of the four (let’s fucking hope so!), but I also wanted to discern what made it distinctive from the rest. What makes mass produced wines taste, well . . . mass produced?

The fourth wine I selected was Kevin White Winery’s 2013 ‘Heritage’ Red Blend from the Yakima Valley in Washington state – a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Merlot.  Only 169 cases were produced and as you can see from the detailed tech sheet, lots of hands-on craftsmanship went into the production of this wine – from harvest timing decisions to manual punch downs to aging in 40% new French oak barrels.

The following is a summary of my tasting notes and the corresponding wines are revealed at the end of this post.  Without jumping ahead, I’m curious which of you readers can identify which wine goes with which note:

Wine #1:  Prevalent aromatics of dark floral, smoke, charred black cherries and raspberries. The fruit definitely has a burnt characteristic to it. On the palate – a touch of sweetness – like fruit leather and raspberry jam. The fruit is very ripe and plush, medium acidity and ripe, smooth tannins. The finish is fairly lengthy and sweet – reminds me of cherry cola.

Wine #2: Aromas here are very dried floral and very perfume-y. On the first sip, this is fucking nasty oh holy hell (yes – I did write exactly this). tasting noteI feel like I just swallowed Grandma’s perfume. There’s absolutely no structure to this liquid – there’s barely any body, acidity or tannin.  What there IS unfortunately, is a lingering disgusting finish.

Wine #3: This wine has the most pleasant aromatics of the group so far: dark red berries, bramble/earthiness, sandalwood and a hint of smoke. Nice structure on the palate – medium+ bodied, medium+ acidity, tannins are well-integrated and fine grained.  The fruit is ripe black plum and cherry with some baking spices/clove.

Wine #4: The aromas here are also very pleasant: black cherries, dark plum, oak spice/clove and smoke. On the palate, fuller bodied and definitely some heat. Acidity plays a supporting role (at best) as the higher tannins are distractedly coarse and drying. Intensely flavorful reminiscent of roasted coffee beans, black cherries and bittersweet chocolate. Finishes hot.

The Wines Revealed!

Wine #1: Meiomi 2016 Pinot Noir, Monterey County (60%), Santa Barbara County (23%) and Sonoma County (17%), 13.7% abv ($20).

My Thoughts: Although I thought this was the Meiomi, this wasn’t because it tasted anything like most Pinot Noir.  It’s too sweet and completely lacking any semblance of earth, spice or savoriness – characteristics that you’d normally expect from this variety.  If a Meiomi lover were to try a Pinot from somewhere like Burgundy or Oregon, I can understand why they may not like it because these taste nothing like Meoimi.  These wines actually embody the variety.

Wine #2: Apothic Red 2016 Winemaker’s Blend, California 13.5% abv ($11).

My Thoughts: I know I’m supposed to be diplomatic on these type of things, but diplomacy only goes so far.  The fact is this doesn’t even taste like wine.  What on earth are they putting in this wine to make it taste this way??  Never mind, I don’t want to know.  Undrinkable.

kevin whiteWine #3: Kevin White Winery 2013 ‘Heritage’ DuBrul Vineyard, Yakima Valley 14.4% ($35).

My Thoughts: With its complex, wide range of aromas and flavors and balanced structure – this wine completely stood out from the rest of the lineup.  And unlike the other wines, everything was in harmony.  There wasn’t any one element (sweet ripe fruit, grandma’s perfume or big bold tannins) that dominated and overwhelmed.  This wine is by far the most balanced of the group, has the longest finish and, for me, is the most enjoyable to drink.

Wine #4: The Prisoner 2017 Napa Valley 15.2% abv ($45).

My Thoughts: The tannins aren’t well integrated and the alcohol is out of balance as well.  This is a big wine and is certainly the most in-your-face of the group.  Not my personal favorite, but on this one – I can totally understand its mass appeal.  Especially by those whose preferences lean towards big, bold Napa Cabs.  However, at close to $50/bottle, I do think this wine is overpriced for what you get and you’re primarily paying for its brand-name popularity.

So to go back to what some of the Twitterati mentioned, what was the point of the exercise?  After all that, was I better able to understand why these wines are so popular?

As someone who started her wine journey with many (many) bottles of overly oaky/vanilla bean Sutter Home Chardonnay, the answer is yes.  (Hubs’ Note:  She forgot to mention that she actually started with Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill before “graduating” to Sutter Home).  All three of these “supermarket wines” had a large degree of sweetness, ripe fruit and flavors of mocha/coffee/chocolate (either from oak aging – or most likely, oak powder).  These flavors are, to a lot of consumers, yummy and comforting.  And years ago, these were the characteristics I was looking for in a wine.

But today, I’m interested in wines with more earthiness, acidity and often an overall delicacy.  Wines like Beaujolais, Northern Rhône Syrah, or an Oregon Pinot Noir.  Wines that, to the “average consumer”, might be considered too “weak” or “earthy” for their palates.

I attribute this change in my palate to  two things: curiosity and education.  First, I was willing to try wines outside of my sweet/ripe/juicy comfort zone.  Then, after trying these wines, I wanted to learn more about them.  And the more I learned about wine, the more curious I’ve become about new regions, new varieties, new production methods, etc.  It’s a vicious, never-ending cycle – and I am loving every minute of it.

Truth be told, I enjoyed this homework assignment – even if I didn’t enjoy the wines themselves.  Like Asimov said in his first Wine School column: One of the great pleasures of wine is that your education never ends.

2019 Wine Goals: Now THESE are Resolutions I can Keep!

In addition to being timely – which I still clearly need to work on – I made several resolutions for 2019. Not surprisingly, many are wine related. And while these might be more enjoyable to accomplish than my other annual goals (such as running “x” miles by year end, eating more greens, and limiting my screen time) they are by no means a slam dunk.

Find more daily drinkers. I want to find more (enjoyable!) wines in the $20 and under range.  So, this means purchasing less Champagne, Oregon Pinot and Northern Rhône Syrah – and more from undervalued wine regions like the Loire Valley, Chile and Portugal. It also means exploring some obscure varietals that don’t command the prices of many popular, international varieties – so hello Pinotage, Zweigelt, and Godello!

rosso di montalcinoA producer’s entry level or a region’s “second wine” can also be great daily drinker values.  I recently had a Rosso di Montalcino – considered to be the first example of a “second wine” concept in Italy.  The Rosso di Montalcino zone of production is exactly the same as the more prestigious Brunello di Montalcino.  However, Rosso di Montalcino is released earlier – so these wines are more fruit forward, easygoing and approachable than Brunello.  There is also no mandatory oak aging requirement and the price tag is usually much lower.  This one was full of floral and bright red fruit aromas, paired deliciously with lasagna and was under $20.

Stop waiting for special occasions to open up the good stuff! While I don’t have too many “daily drinkers” in my collection at the moment, I do have a number of bottles that I feel warrant some type of major event in order to justify opening them.  By no means am I bottle-bragging – I’ll never have that type of cellar – but bottles like Gramercy Reserve Cabernets and Syrahs, Quilceda Creek, Tignanello, Sassicaia, and wines from our travels to the Rhône and Burgundy have a more special place in my heart.  Oh yeah, and I would probably add to that list the Pol Roger ‘Winston Churchill’ that I might have just ordered.

These wines aren’t something I usually open on a Tuesday night to pair with my comfort food dishes . . . but – why not? Why not make a mundane Tuesday eve (sorry Tuesdays, I honestly don’t mean to pick on you) a little less so? What exactly am I waiting for?  I plan to change this in the coming year and open some of these “special occasion” wines when it is in fact NOT a special occasion.  Because as Maya said to Miles in the movie Sideways: the day you open a ‘61 Cheval Blanc… that’s the special occasion.

Keep up the Studying.  As I’ve said before, I’m not pursuing wine certifications so that I can end up having an alphabet soup of letters after my name.  I simply love learning about wine and am more disciplined about it if I have some structure .  Otherwise, I tend to dive deep into a series of rabbit holes that I struggle to get out of – such as trying to figure out the 65 soil types of the Ancient Lakes AVA and who are the 80+ owners of Vougeot.  You know, important need-to-know shit.

wset logo
I love that the WSET logo is a female!

In 2019, I’m hoping to obtain my Italian Wine Scholar certification (results expected in February!), get through at least 4 of the 6 Units of the WSET Diploma, and perhaps pursue another Wine Scholar Guild Master Level Course.  I’m leaning towards their Bordeaux course since this region is quickly replacing Italy as my “Achilles’ heel.” (Sidenote: I know that I will be afflicted with this “ailment” throughout my entire wine studying life . . . which is one of the reasons I love doing what I do.  There will ALWAYS be something to learn!)

Improve my tasting notes.  I think of this goal as kind of a “mindful drinking” type of thing. Basically, I need to pay more attention to what’s in my glass.  Sitting down and focusing on a wine’s aromas, structure, and quality helps immensely with the whole study process.  And as I continue to pursue the WSET Diploma, I should get to the level where I’m able to write a tasting note that meets an examiner’s criteria in my sleep.

I’m not a huge fan of publishing tasting notes – I think they’re boring and ubiquitous, so I won’t be doing that (did I just hear a collective sigh of relief?).  But I do have a beautiful tasting notebook for me to keep track of my thoughts.  I just need to bring it out more often – at least a couple times a week.

tasting notebooks
My tasting notebooks over the years

Have FUN with wine.  If I allow it to, studying wine can dominate my life.  It’s currently the focus of my school, upcoming travels, and honestly, quite a bit of my social activity.  I don’t want to get so caught up in the study of wine that I forget to enjoy it. Sometimes, I need to just have a glass and drink it – not analyze it (fortunately, this is Hubs’ strong suit!).

So on THAT note, I’m going to sign off, finish that daily drinker bottle of Rosso di Montalcino and binge watch last season’s Better Call Saul!

Cheers to a delicious 2019!!