Appelation: Paso Robles AVA, Sub-Appelation of Central Coast AVA, California
Score: 92 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 17 pts. – 20 pt. Scale
Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase
This wine continues to improve with bottle age. Alcohol dominates the nose with blackberry and plum. The palate follows and adds black cherry. The fruit is very fresh and almost sweet, without residual sugar. Alcohol content is well integrated on the palate. There is high acidity and medium tannins. The finish is medium+ in length and very fruity. The fine-grained tannins provide a very soft mouth-feel after only six years in the bottle. This is a fairly balanced approach that could continue to improve in the next 3-4 years in the bottle. The last five Justin vintages (or so) have done a decent job of threading the needle between a New World taste, with an Old World sensibility. Still more fruit forward than I would prefer and the fruit over-powers any attempt at complexity.
The climate on the West side of Paso offers very hot days and cool nights. This area is much warmer than most of Napa Valley. These conditions can produce very rich, over-ripe and flabby cab sauv, if the producer is not careful. That is the reason this AVA has traditionally been viewed as a Southern Italy and Southern Rhone style growing region and the majority of vineyards are planted in hot climate varietals, like zin, syrah, grenache & mourvedre. Justin is one of the few Paso producers that has been able to produce quality cabs. The purity of fruit on the palate IMO is one of their hallmarks and I would guess, they are sorting the fruit heavily to achieve the correct fruit profile. Some Zin producers in Paso and Lodi actually sort to find the dried, raisin-like berries. This generates a more jammy wine profile. I would bet Justin does the opposite and drops all the raisins, opting for a fresher fruit profile. I need to visit their winemaker and discuss their process. I hope to be able to post an interview in the next year.
Appelation: Spring Mountain AVA, Sub-Appelation of Napa AVA, California
Score: 91 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 16 pts. – 20 pt. Scale
Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
I am always conflicted when judging these premium Napa cabs made to chase after a “cult” profile. So many American wine enthusiasts enjoy this style of wine, that I feel as if I am not being fair in my evaluation. If you have tasted Caymus, or Silver Oak, you have been introduced to the lower price point for this New World style of wine that can run upwards of $1,000/btl (Harlan Estate for example). These super fruity, high alcohol, smooth drinking red wines often struggle to get past the downside of over-ripe harvesting and winemaker manipulation. At the higher price-points, sometimes the producer succeeds, but more often not. If you would like to taste the premium Old World opposite, you could try Sassicaia from Bolgheri, Italy ($200/btl), or Pontet Canet from Bordeaux, France ($150/btl). I am not a big fan of the Napa new oak (vs. neutral oak) dominated wines. The richness in the fruit and texture is often achieved at the expense of the freshness of the fruit. My favorite vintages of these labels are the cooler ones, like 2011. The cooler vintages tend to either tone down the over-the-top profile, or they are unpleasant (like 2011 Shafer cab). It is bewildering for me, why so many hold this style of wine in such high esteem. I much prefer a clean, fresh, light to medium weight, under-manipulated Bordeaux-style wine over these any day. These labels often taste like the wine equivalent of a fruity rum cocktail to me.
Your impression of this wine will be very dependent on whether you have an Old World, or New World palate. The 7&8 estate vineyards are located at the highest point on Spring Mtn., but this wine doesn’t drink like a typical mountain fruit cab. The Pride Mountain vineyards are right next store, but proximity is where the similarity ends. If you enjoy this approach to winemaking, this bottle would probably merit a mid-90s score. The nose is full of alcohol, with little else. The fruit does not taste fresh and the new oak did not integrate well. This wine is still very fruit forward after 14 years aging in the bottle, with black currant, blackberry and black plum on the palate. The profile is fairly simple tho. Only a touch of dark chocolate on the mid-palate adds complexity. The wine has medium+ acidity and medium- tannin. The tannin has mostly resolved at this point and the wine is very smooth. The finish is medium length and tapers off leaving alcohol as the last impression. There is no noticeable residual sugar. This style of wine is off balance for me, with a texture and richness that approaches a stewed fruit profile. I can acknowledge that many wine enthusiasts will enjoy this wine, but in Napa, I much prefer aged Pride, or O’Shaughnessy mountain cabs instead. This has enough acidity to pair well with rich foods, but tended to overwhelm the steak my wife and I paired it with.
Appelation: Barolo, Sub-Appelation of Piedmonte – Langhe, Italy
Score: 92 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 17 pts. – 20 pt. Scale
Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase
This is/was an Old World style Barolo. There are certain wine styles that are produced for extended bottle aging and Barolo leads this category. Don’t expect to purchase a classic Barolo and drink it in less than 10 yrs. I know for some this might sound bizarre, but nevertheless, it is the reality for this style of wine. This was not originally an overly expensive Barolo ($33/btl in 2011), so it was fun to see how this held-up. If you are thinking 14 years is a long time to wait for an experiment, I agree… but these are the kind of purchases that are the most satisfying… when they succeed. As a wine collector, I have developed my palate just for opportunities like this.
The drinking window for a traditional Barolo is usually 10-20 yrs from purchase. I popped this first bottle last night at 14 years and I enjoyed it very much, but for some, the tannin might still be too much. IMO, this wine is drinking really well right now, but another 3-5 years of bottle age and this Barolo will be positively singing. Decanted for an hour. Nose is very closed for a Barolo, just some alcohol, tar and red fruit. The palate is raspberry, black cherry and red plum, tar and a touch of wood. The fruit is really holding up nicely as the wine ages. Structure is superb: high acid with medium+ tannin. I enjoyed the mouthfeel. Tannin is integrated, but mouth-filling, rather than drying. It is missing the Barolo signature floral nose/palate and could use more complexity to add interest. The finish was lengthy with a touch of dark chocolate bitterness and tar to round it out. This is enjoyable to drink on its own, but especially with rich foods (red meats/red sauces), the high acidity will pair well.
This was a solid Classic Barolo and a real value (in retrospect). It was not in the top 3rd of Barolos I have tasted at any price, BUT it had truly classic Barolo flavors, was well made, held-up to bottle aging very well and is continuing to evolve. It could have had more complexity, but then again, it was not priced at the more typical $50-100/btl. I am impressed with what this producer achieved at this price.
Appelation: Knights Valley AVA, Sub-Appelation of Sonoma County AVA, California
Score: 91 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 16 pts. – 20 pt. Scale
Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase
Decanted for 30 mins. before serving. Nose is a bit muted. Touch of blackberry. Palate of fresh blackberry, black currant and black cherry. Missing a mid-palate – fairly simple profile. Moderate oak. Medium-plus finish of blackberry and a touch of dark chocolate, but nothing nuanced. Tannin is medium-minus, with medium acidity. Very soft mouthfeel, especially noticeable when drinking without food. Nicely aged lower cost NorCal Cab Sauv. Very enjoyable on its own, but with the bottle age, missing a little structure to stand up to the coffee rubbed prime rib we paired it with. This label is one of my favorite daily drinkers, but I would say – at 8 years in the bottle – a couple years too many. Won’t wow you, but solid value and very enjoyable.
Producer: Tenuta Fanti (previously Fanti San Felippo)
Appelation: Brunello di Montalcino
Varietal: Brunello (clone of Sangiovese)
Score: 94/100 – 100 pt scale, 18/20 – 20 pt scale
OK, we know Brunello IS Sangiovese, but wow, is it different. Not the flavors, but the texture, mouthfeel, tannin and finish.
Nose is full of alcohol, but you can make out the red/black cherry, leather and earth. Upon open, the alcohol is integrated and the palate is full of red and black cherry, this transitions to black plum as it continues to open. Mid-palate of leather and a bit of dark chocolate. A long finish that adds a herbal mint character. Tannins and acidity are high, even after 11 years in the bottle, but are somewhat muted and softening. Another 3-5 years and this wine will be exceptional. The tannin is finely textured and presenting a wonderful mouthfeel, not really silky… yet. The clarity and freshness of fruit is spectacular. This wine is clearly Old World Italian, a little lighter in weight and would be great either on its own, or accompanying a red sauce, or red meat entree. This Brunello is aging really well. I am looking forward to popping the next bottle in three years…
Non-chain restaurants are often family affairs and frequently – even with the best food – are the least profitable, poorest run category of business in the U.S. Why should you care? The strategic profitability of a restaurant can be a key indicator of the quality of the dining experience, not just the success of ownership. As a consumer, if you look for these ideas in action, you will find your favorite spots without much effort.
What to Look For (restaurant owners are you listening?)
Does the restaurant/bar have a beverage specialty: craft cocktails, fine whiskies, different styles of beer, quality/value wine list? If you don’t enjoy alcoholic beverages, you can stop reading now. If you do, stick with me here…
If beverage sales is not at least 1/3 of a sit-down restaurant’s sales, you can bet they won’t be in business long. In training for restaurant financial management, 50% of revenue is the recommendation. If there is one thing I am sure of, the best loyalty builder is a successful beverage program. Where I see the serious consumer passion coming from is – their preferred beverage category: whisky, wine, beer, and/or craft cocktails. Yes, the investment can be sizable, but can a restaurant afford not to?
A Successful Beverage Program
It is irrelevant which category(ies) are chosen, the clientele will eventually find the restaurant, with a minimum of invested marketing dollars.
Training, Training, Training… employees who find their passion in the category should be identified and have them lead staff. ALL servers should be trained to have some familiarity with the beverage specialty of the house. Encourage passionate clients with knowledge of the category and have staff funnel them back to the lead. Inventory choices have to be smart for this category of clientele. Find both brands/labels popularly known AND uncommon brands consumers can explore. Inventory should be strategic, with a good/better/best approach and there should be at least a few value items in each quality category. Local alcohol distribution laws should be investigated and multiple sources should be used, if possible: winery/brewery direct, distributor, auctions, overstock re-sellers and local producers. Each state usually has more than one type of alcohol resale license. Most – except the 100% liquor license (bar) – are more reasonable in cost. Licensing options may open purchasing to more channels, provide more buying power and selection. Unfortunately in my state for example, by law, restaurants & bars have very few choices.
Take a minute to look for these services and specialty inventories. Ask about their availability. Notice the difference, when you find it. Praise the positive and provide constructive feedback on the negative. It is in your best interest. In some ways, your involvement can be a key to the success of your favorite spot. AND… most importantly, vote with your dollars. Try to limit your entertainment budget to the businesses that provide this kind of experience. My wife and I do.
Main course food is a very low-profit sales category for sit-down restaurants. Without volume, focusing on this is not a winning business model. As a consumer, who wants to join the herd? From the food category – starters, appetizers, sides and desserts can drive profits AND seriously enrich the customer food experience. Look for super yummy looking and creative menu items here. It is evidence of a well-run restaurant, a smart chef and the beginning of a great dining experience. A chef has much more lee-way to be really creative with these items, without breaking the bank on cost and can add experimental flavors that might not be acceptable to a portion of their clientele. On the staff side, owners need to find foodies for servers and have the chef train them to recommend flavors and pairings, not just dishes. Servers need to upsell the appetizers, sides and desserts. If you have ever had a server suggest specific menu items due to the flavors… it can really add to the dining experience, especially if you enjoy pairing food flavors with beverages.
Have you ordered a glass of wine while out and find it tastes a little strange? Did you send it back and request a glass from a new bottle? Or maybe, ordered a bottle, only to find it didn’t taste as it should? Now, you know why wine enthusiasts smell the cork upon opening a bottle… The first situation above is quite common, the latter is rare, but it does happen. I will mention the most common wine faults here, but the primary focus will be:
How to handle the decision to send the wine back.
The appropriate conversation to engage the server when sending wine back.
Quick Review of Common Wine Faults
These are the most common:
Overexposure of wine to air/oxygen. Oxidized wines lose brightness in both color and flavor. Red wine turns brownish-orange and can have a vinegar and/or caramelized (sometimes buttery) flavor. This is very common when you are served wine by the glass. Sometimes, a glass can be poured after days of storing an open bottle.
This occurs when wines are exposed to temps over 80 F for prolonged periods, or over 90 F for shorter periods. Cooked wines develop a jammy, sweet character that can taste like stewed fruit. This can be very common in places like Arizona, where I live. Wine must be stored under 70 F and away from light to remain in good condition after a few months. In places like AZ, this means storage in coolers during the Summer months. Some on-premise businesses turn their wine inventory quickly enough that room temp storage can be acceptable, but keep an eye out to determine if you plan to return.
When bottles experience high heat, the corks often leak, so you get a double hit from Oxidization AND Heat. This problem can sometimes be identified by inspecting the cork for wine stain to the very top.
Cork Taint or TCA
This was more common in years past. Technology has made it less so, but it still happens. TCA can have a taste/aroma similar to wet dog/newspaper. There are some that say 1/10 bottles with real cork closures will experience this. In my experience, it has been closer to 1/20 bottles.
This results from improperly handling the addition of sulfites to wine. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, but it is very common for winemakers to add sulfites as a preservative. When this is not handled correctly, it can cause burnt matchstick, rotten egg, or garlic flavors/odors. Biodynamic wines do not permit the addition of sulfites, if you are looking for sulfite-free wine.
This occurs when a small amount of residual sugar reactivates the yeast and adds carbonation to the wine. Some wine varieties are made purposely in this “frizzante” style, like Moscato d’Asti, but think of a Cabernet Sauvignon with bubbles…
This occurs when the winery and production areas are not kept clean. Certain of these faults can be part of the wine style, such as Brettanomyces. This adds that barnyard aroma to some wines and can become an acquired taste. There are additional “off” flavors and odors caused by other microbes too.
How to Handle the Decision
If you have identified any of these faults (or others), keep in mind, at most bars and restaurants they are serviced by distributors who will always take back winery faulted bottles. In the case of heat and oxidization, it is totally preventable and the management on-premise needs to know about the inventory storage problem. This issue is the primary reason mark-ups are so high for wine service. There are 4-5 6 oz. pours in a bottle. Some businesses try to recoup their entire profit in one glass purchased, others two. Either way, they are covered. Don’t accept odd tasting wine. If you can identify the fault, share it with the server. Let them know there is a solid reason for the return and they will have the information needed to deal with their supplier.
There is another discussion on the topic of returning wine, which I will address briefly. When the consumer doesn’t enjoy the wine selected… as the buyer, it is your job to engage the server and help them to understand what wine characteristics you enjoy. Although, sometimes the server does not have enough experience to assist, or they have not been trained to identify flavors/aromas in wine. This is the area where the decision has to be what you are comfortable with. Most restaurants and bars, will replace wines you don’t like, if you share your comments. At some establishments, this can turn into an argument and affect your service, so think twice about how you handle this scenario specifically.
How to Discuss the Return Request
Be confident in your identification of odd flavors/aromas and explain what you are experiencing. Share any clear evidence with the server, such as: the cork stained to the top for heat, or the horrible odor on the cork for TCA. I experience Oxidization Fault very frequently. I would say 1/5th to 1/3rd of all wine I order by the glass is oxidized and I almost always send it back. The restaurants/bars know when the bottle has been open too long. Any management worth their salt will mark their by-the-glass inventory with the date opened.
Where does the Responsibility Lie?
All small production wineries should be willing to replace bottles with faults caused by their production. The same applies to distributors and restaurants/bars for faults caused by their handling and storage. Be comfortable that there is always a mistake along the way that causes these issues and it is not your responsibility to suffer through dealing with it. Wine is a luxury item and producers, suppliers and servers should treat their service like it is a premium product.
If you don’t have a Fleming’s in your town, or have just not had dinner at this restaurant chain before, bear with me. I will try to provide some reference. Fleming’s is a high-end steakhouse, similar in style to Ruth’s Chris, but not quite as expensive. They have been running a four course wine dinner special (branded as the title of this review) paired with Wagner Family wines (Caymus label) and my wife and I decided to give it a try. There were two options: Earth – vegetarian and Fire – meat. We selected Fire. Our overall experience was one step down from true gourmet, but very enjoyable. This is the full detail.
Dish: BURRATA WITH NORTH ATLANTIC LOBSTER
Wine: 2018 SEA SUN, CHARDONNAY 90 pts. (100 pt. system) or 16 pts. (20 pt. system)
Wine Note: Sweet citrus nose with lemon-lime mousse on the palate. High acidity and a fair amount of oak. If you like stainless chardonnay, this is not your wine. My wife and I prefer Old World style oaked chardonnay, so the very fruit forward profile was a little out of character. Nice mouthfeel. I would guess, the winemaker allowed some extended lees contact. Enjoyable chard for our palates and the acidity paired very well with the burrata. Some aging potential, if you like to lay down your wines.
If you have never had burrata, it is a soft cheese a little like mozzarella in flavor, but creamy and richer. Love the stuff and the fresher, the better. This burrata was excellent, but it was the other components that were a little disappointing. The lobster did not seem really fresh (we ARE in land-locked AZ, I suppose) and needed to be poached in butter. Lobster flavor was a little off and weak. The parmesan cheese crisp flavor (on top) almost over-powered the more delicate burrata below. Still… pretty enjoyable and an excellent pairing with the acidic Chardonnay.
Dish: COCONUT-CRUSTED PORK BELLY
Wine: NV RED SCHOONER, MALBEC 89 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15.5 pts. (20 pt. system)
Wine Note: Fruity nose with a little burn from the alcohol. Palate is filled with red and black fruit – black plum, blackberry and boysenberry. Medium acidity and medium minus tannins. A touch of residual sugar. Lighter, smooth mouthfeel. Very easy drinking red with a bit of structure. Successful for the style of wine it was meant to be. Drink now, don’t hold.
The pork belly was very tasty and the grits were fabulous! Our restaurant added goat cheese, instead of cheddar (on the website) – fantastic idea. The vegetable medley included (not shown below) was seasoned with spicy chiles. I pushed my veggies aside, in order to really enjoy the grits. The fruity, sweet wine was needed to pair with the leftover spiciness from the veggies. Turned out to be a pretty fair wine pairing with the fat from the pork belly and spice.
Dish: FILET MIGNON & BONE MARROW
Wine: 2019 CAYMUS VINEYARDS, CABERNET SAUVIGNON – NAPA VALLEY 87 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15 pts. (20 pt. system)
Wine Note: OK, you Caymus fans out there, I get it. Easy drinking Cali cab, but I just can’t do it. There is so much oak, as the joke goes, I could set the dang wine on fire. Fruity nose, but lacking freshness due to the over-powering oak. Blackberry and black currant on the palate, with some dark chocolate in the middle. Medium minus tannin and medium acidity. Simple wine flavor profile. I am sorry, neither my wife, or I could finish this wine. Just not a good match for our palates.
The filet was seasoned well and perfectly prepared. I have had better bone marrow. It needed to have more of the fat rendered out. Altho I will say, the filet with a bit of bone marrow on top was a pretty tasty bite.
Dish: ORANGE OLIVE OIL CAKE
Wine: NV EMMOLO, SPARKLING – CALIFORNIA 89 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15.5 pts. (20 pt. system)
Wine Note: Citrus fruit on the nose. Palate of primarily lemon with a touch of tropical fruit. This is a cuvee style sparkling with a small amount of residual sugar. High acidity. Nice mouthfeel with a medium length finish to round it out. This could be more interesting with some bottle age. Has enough of a backbone to enjoy in 3-5 years.
If you have not had olive oil cake – no, it does not taste like olive oil, but it IS very moist. I have had the orange version before and this was quite good. The tart lemon coulis drizzled on the plate was a nice addition. The citrus flavor in the cake paired very nicely with the sparkling wine.
Dining Experience and Rating
In general, this was a serious white tablecloth experience. Great service from our waiter, she was friendly and engaging. One of the managers stopped by twice to check in on us. I felt like there was a genuine interest in making sure the experience was enjoyable. I felt a bit rushed tho. This is the kind of meal that takes time to work your way through. I understand they want to turn tables, but for this kind of bill, you expect the time to have an experience. I would score the experience at a 92/100, or a 2 of 3 star equivalent. The meal was very good (especially the steak), but could have been better and the service was really excellent.
At the risk of upsetting every wine critic/judge out there, I set out to create a wine scoring system that matched my view of fine wine. I will include this scoring template at the end of the article, for those that might be like-minded. Email me if you would like a self-calculating spreadsheet copy.
After pro Sommelier training (where scoring was discouraged), I was exposed to the WSET scoring method and wine judging courses. Both used a variation of the UC Davis 20 Point Scoring System. I was shocked how these systems were unable to separate amateur from premium wines effectively. In these classes, we scored fruit wines (cherry, blueberry, strawberry, etc.) and vitis labrusca wines (Concord, Chambourcin, Catawba, etc.). These wines were near undrinkable for me and were being given the same scores as mediocre Cali Cabernet. The methodology and scoring systems taught in these classes were intended to be appropriate for both amateur and fine wines. Although, away from class these same people would explain the intent of these systems was to score wines based on a comparison of LIKE wines. This is not how I understood the training and it is likely the public views this scoring similarly. This experience motivated me to build a scoring system that is weighted properly and could be used to provide comparatively accurate scores for amateur, professional AND fine wines, without a bias.
The Evaluation Criteria
First, it was necessary to determine what separates fine wine, from other wines. In that evaluation, I arrived at the following characteristics that are under-represented in the UC Davis System: Balance, Complexity, Finish and Aging Potential. All of these measures are intended to be scored in the UC Davis “Quality” category, but to make the scores more comparatively accurate, I decided these characteristics needed their own point categories. I then looked at what seemed to be weighted incorrectly in the UC Davis System and arrived at: Clarity, Color and Acidity. Four of twenty points for clarity and color is 20% of the score. This is weighted too heavily towards mediocre wines. Acidity was only 5% of the score – not weighted heavily enough. I realized, if I reduced the points for clarity and color, increased points for acidity and added balance, complexity, finish and aging potential categories… I might be able to devise a scoring system that could properly measure a Concord wine (for example) and build an appropriate score against say… an aged Bordeaux Gran Cru.
A Wine Scoring Template
Now I was ready to put my scoring template together. I realized that many media outlets still use the old Robert Parker 100 pt system and decided to add it to my template. I wanted to help both systems arrive at a roughly equivalent score. I realized this could only be done, if I started the 100 pt score at 50, instead of 0. You will see what I mean below. The closer the wine came to the premium category, the better my 100 pt method seemed to arrive at an accurate score. It was the opposite with my 20 pt method, albeit much closer to reality than the UC Davis 20 pt method.
After the long explanation, here is my effort to build a scoring system that can evaluate both a poor blueberry wine and a Gran Cru Bordeaux – with the same template – done accurately and with a logical systematic approach.
In the past, my Somm training won out and I tried not to add scores to my tasting notes. In retrospect, I think this was mostly due to being uncomfortable with the systems available. I intend to use my scoring template moving forward and hopefully develop consistency and comparative accuracy across my tasting notes.
I would be very interested in other opinions regarding both the thinking that drove this creative process AND the relative accuracy using this scoring system. I am also open to modifying aspects, if the changes fit within the logic model used to build it. Please feel free to leave your comments on this page. Thanks!
Trained, certified sommelier. Wine writer/blogger. Wine collector with extensive wine travel. Working with the wine industry as a part-time consultant. Providing cellar management and procurement strategies, wine training & education, beverage business planning and marketing to the trade. Enjoy my tasting notes and blog at - www.coolclimatewine.net, my professional profile at: www.linkedin.com/in/douglasjlevin, my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/TheDOCG, or my Twitter feed at @douglasjlevin.