Category Archives: Wine Cellar

The Legacy of Fine Wine Culture

Is there a “Right” Atmosphere to Enjoy Wine?

I received my Somm training from a mentor that still firmly believed a profession in wine was a “calling”. I have worked hard to train my palate and learn the wine regions of the world to pass that crazy test. After all the work though, I still can’t agree with the formal atmosphere surrounding much of the fine dining wine service industry. Is the defining U.S. wine experience a stuffy, formal affair? Why is there social stigma, or a nervousness regarding wine selection in restaurants? Wine knowledge in the trade should be a tool that facilitates the comfort and enjoyment of clients… instead of a blunt instrument that adds to the discomfort.

julia-louis-dreyfus-wine

Seen the Mollydooker Shake?

I was having dinner with business associates at an Italian restaurant last month and I was asked to order a bottle for the table with a budget of around $60. Unfortunately, the restaurant had a poor Italian wine selection, so I chose the 2014 Beringer Knight’s Valley Cabernet, usually a pretty solid selection (quality vineyard and a track record for value). This vintage was not as easy drinking as past releases, so I asked everyone to bear with me and I put my thumb over the top of the bottle and proceeded to give it a vigorous shake! Everyone got a kick out of it and we proceeded to drink a moderately softer wine. WARNING I am about to suggest a completely inappropriate wine faux pas… (if this will torture your sensibilities, please skip to the next paragraph) …say you run up against a tightly wound Chianti, or young red Bordeaux, or maybe a 100% Petit Verdot… picture pouring the bottle into a blender. I suggested this approach at the restaurant and everyone immediately started laughing and vowed to do this the next time they had guests over. (Disclaimer here: this is NOT meant for fine wine. It would be better to age these wines for another few years, rather than throw them in the blender). Check out this link: Mollydooker Shake. Young Mollydooker wines can be very high in tannin. A nice stiff shake can do wonders to soften any highly structured wine.

Is Wine Fun?

Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to a wine enthusiast’s home for a wine dinner with four other couples. Very expensive, quality aged wines were being served. Out of the blue, one guest suggests we go around the table and have each person share an impromptu personal tasting note for each wine being served. Really? Afterwards, I overhear comments about a previous wine party my wife and I hosted and the numerous wine-ignorant guests in attendance. That day I made myself a promise, I would always try to help others relax around wine and make the experience comfortable and unpretentious. I have become a reverse wine snob.

I am thoroughly embarrassed by trained professionals in the industry who feel it is necessary to overwhelm a client with their wine knowledge and lecture on the importance of selecting… just the right wine. When an attendant at a winery tasting room, or a Somm at a fine dining restaurant approaches me, I am usually faced with one of two types:

  • An under-trained wine steward who has not tasted their own wine inventory
  • A pretentious jerk, who wants to tell me which wines I should prefer

I am not sure which is worse? I hate to tell people I am formally trained… then, they either get defensive, or are intimidated and clam-up. When I am dining out at an establishment with a large cellar, I always search the lesser known “nooks-and-crannies” for the best value. Most of the time, I get annoyed looks, but all with me have a great time. I was at Cowboy Ciao (Scottsdale, AZ) dining with an associate last year (GREAT wine cellar, by the way). From previous discussions, I knew he preferred big, highly structured Napa Cabs. I asked him if he had ever tried Aglianico? I suggested to him, I could find a really enjoyable bottle of Aglianico there for under $40/btl. I got a serious look of disbelief. We proceeded to run the waitress ragged… I selected three different bottles that had spent time in their cellar – one was a 2006, I believe. It took our server 20 minutes working with the wine steward to track down one of these bottles (she was a good sport)! I had them decant the wine… AND he thoroughly enjoyed it! Fine wine doesn’t have to cost $125/btl and be called Caymus, or Silver Oak. Servers should encourage more discovery. Their clients would enjoy the broader wine experience.

Who decided that wine was not supposed to be fun?

Next Wine Vacation

I hope at least some of you have tried a wine vacation. If you haven’t, you should. Very few experiences provide better food and drink, more inviting scenery, or more romantic atmosphere… but they can be fun too! Napa is always the ultimate U.S. wine experience, but it is expensive and can be a bit stuffy. For something on the more fun side, try the Central California Coast, Oregon, or East Washington state. Ask around once you arrive and seek out the less pretentious, relaxed tasting venues. If you want an interesting experience, try Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles, CA. Hit them during one of their events in particular and be prepared to have a rockin’ good time!

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Filed under Restaurant, Sommelier, Wine Cellar, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Why Holding a Bottle of Wine is Worth the Wait…

Wait

How Long Does the Average Person Hold a Bottle of Wine?

There is a significant amount of conflicting survey data on this topic, but erring on the side of caution… well over 90% of all wine in the U.S. is drunk within a week of purchase. Since more red wine is drunk than white in the U.S. and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular varietal, it is a shame more wine enthusiasts don’t experiment with aging at least a few bottles.

I have seen other figures thrown around that affect this thinking, i.e. 95% of all wine is made to drink within a year of purchase. As a percentage of all wine produced, this may be close to the truth, but as a percentage of all wine labels, it is significantly off the mark. As usual, the 80/20 rule roughly applies here… much less than 20% of the companies producing wine in the U.S. produce over 80% of the wine by volume, but this still leaves plenty of room for the many thousands of wineries producing under 10,000 cases per year that comprise a large percentage of the selection we see at the local wine shop, or grocery store.

So, many of the red wine labels you see at your local wine retailer over (let’s say) $15 USD/btl are likely to be candidates for at least 3-5 years of bottle age.

The Dividing Line

Why should wine consumers care? Who should be holding wine? Think of it these ways:

  • If you are a foodie, drink wine with meals and prefer wine that accompanies a dish well…
  • If you pay attention to different varietals, vintages and/or wine regions, you obviously recognize and appreciate different wine profiles…
  • If you recognize structure in wine (tannin, acidity, phenolics)…
  • If poorly balanced, bad wine gives you a headache and you try to be aware…
  • If texture (mouth-feel) in wine (silky, soft, plush, velvetty characteristics) is something you seek out…

You should own at least a 30 bottle wine fridge!

What Makes Aged Wines More Enjoyable

When the appropriate wines are chosen, age improves wine. Which wines are appropriate for aging? Any wine with multiple structural components… enough tannin (cotton feeling on gums), acidity (stimulates saliva) , phenolics (depth of flavor), fruit and/or sweetness (sugar) is a potential candidate. Most of us can usually identify these general categories. Though, the additional analysis that can make a significant difference is the balance between these components. Here is a brief look at how each of these components may evolve in an aged wine:

Sweetness (sugar)

  • Can add a nutty character to aged whites such as Sauternes, or Sparkling and an apricot character to German Riesling
  • Improve viscosity (richness/thickness) in all sweet wines

Alcohol

Percentage of alcohol never changes in the life of a bottle of wine, but it can become more integrated and less noticeable. Although, I have rarely seen it.

Phenolics (depth of flavor)

Working with wines that are heavily extracted, or made from over-ripe fruit is hit, or miss for a winemaker. This is an area where age can have a dramatic effect, sometimes adding layers of textures or flavors. A higher level of phenolics often accompanies over-ripe fruit, which can be lower in acidity. This lower level can effect the “vibrancy” of the wine, in other words – eliminating freshness, allowing candied flavors and eliminating “bite”.

Fruit

In reasonably balanced wines (get into that later), fruit flavors almost always diminish over time. Most of the exceptions to this rule have come from California in my experience, but in general, this rule does apply. I drank a 1993 Beringer Reserve Cab Sauv last year that was wonderfully fruit-forward after 22 years in the bottle!

Acidity

High acidity in a wine is critical to successful aging, but winemakers walk a fine line with this component:

  • Too much acidity and the wine is sharp, unpleasant and feels like it is burning a hole in your stomach
  • Too little and wine tastes “flabby”, grape-juice-like and will not pair with food

Tannin

This is the astringent character found in red wines and the primary change agent. Tannin can be harsh, grainy, fine, mouth-filling, etc. The character of tannin in wine can be affected by varietal type, terroir, vintage variation, the amount of stems and skins used in the maceration stage and more. Red wines with no tannin rarely age well and the maturing of this component is the key to enjoying soft, silky, round, or velvetty red wines when aged.

“Balance”

Determining balance is one of the KEY evaluations made by a wine professional. Evaluating young, fine wines upon release for potential ageability requires experience to determine whether to expect greatness, or just another so-so vintage… but that shouldn’t stop the average wine enthusiast. The average consumer rarely has the opportunity to evaluate $100 – $1,000 USD/btl wine. The decision should be simply: do you think this wine will taste better in five years? Often, when faced with this simpler evaluation, my answer is YES!

The most common, but misguided statement in the wine industry is: “Give this wine time in the bottle. It will come together!” This is rarely the case.  A wine may “close”, or “open” over time (release, or hide its character), but if it is too sweet, or has too much acidity upon release, time in the bottle is unlikely to change that. The one exception is tannin, which will always soften over time. This is due to a chemical reaction that creates a sediment in the bottle that can be filtered out when poured. Always filter, when pouring a red wine older than five years. The sediment resulting from resolved tannin is not pleasant to drink.

My Wine Cellar and Yours

I store over 500 bottles of wine in environmentally controlled cellars. I rarely drink wine younger than five years, unless I am dining out. I now find it difficult to drink both:

  • Harsh, young wines
  • Easy drinking – flabby, no tannin, no acid wines

Try setting aside a few better bottles for special occasions. Use the information above to choose the right wines and enjoy unique, amazing wines. As you gain experience, you will find age can improve wine you never considered for aging, like Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauternes and many sparkling wines (especially Champagne).

I wish you much good wine shared with many good friends!

“Age appears best in four things: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.” ― Francis Bacon

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Making #Wines to Drink Now, or Cellar?

The sun barely illuminates the land under a thick fog of red smoke as seen from Highway 97 just south of Okanogan Friday August 21, 2015.

What a crazy week to have scheduled a wine tasting adventure in Washington State! Forest fires everywhere! The entire state is one big campfire… Flying into Spokane, we descended through a wall of billowing smoke. Driving down to Walla Walla the smoke cleared somewhat.

Later this week, my wife and I will be joining trade tastings and interviewing winemakers, but today we wanted to relax and stop at a couple of wineries of interest – as wine tourists. We stopped in first at K Vintners and then Five Star Cellars today and two interesting questions came to light: (tasting notes coming in future posts)

  1. Should winemakers be producing wine to drink now, versus wines to bottle age?
  2. Does making wine specifically to be drunk with food play well in the broader U.S. market?

I will tackle the first question now and the second in a follow-up piece.

Drink Now?

I was floored today. These were two respected Walla Walla producers recognized by critics and neither was focusing on structured wines more capable of aging in your cellar.

K Vintners

After one tasting experience, I am quite sure I could recognize any of their wines blind. This is not meant to suggest I did not enjoy a few of these wines, but more to emphasize their singular dimension. All of the wines are quite clearly made in a single style, utilizing similar techniques: noticeable French oak, high to very high acidity, very light and a minimum of mouth-feel, minimal finish, low to medium tannins and fruit forward.

Five Star Cellars

We tasted two vintages of their flagship wine, a Bordeaux blend called “Stellar”. The 2008 was good, showing high acidity, medium tannins and a palate of plum, blackberry, apple pie spice, graphite and touch of earthy minerality… but the 2009 was so much better, similar to the 2008 – but adding higher tannins and a fuller mouth-feel. The owner David Huse actually apologized for the additional structure. After a few minutes of conversation, it was obvious he believed their goal was to make easy drinking wines and that 2009 just didn’t fit into that focus.

Price Point, Wine Quality and Structure

I get it. Wineries have to sell their wine and in case you haven’t seen the numbers, somewhere between (depending on the study) 80 to 95% of all wines purchased in the U.S. are drunk within a week of purchase. Since we are throwing out statistics, how about this:  90% of all bottles purchased in the U.S. cost less than $12 USD. The wines we were tasting today all retailed for $40-$70/btl. Where am I going with this? Are these wineries correct in thinking that the majority of wine drinkers spending over $12/btl. want drink now, easy drinking wines? I have spent the last 20 years listening to feedback from wine enthusiasts and while very few are looking for the other end of the spectrum – rustic, cheap Chianti style wines, MOST do prefer red wines with good structure. How else could Napa Valley be able to sell so much Cabernet Sauvignon at an average price of $64.77/btl (2014 Wines & Vines) direct-to-consumer? It is certainly not because these wines are easy drinkers!

Winemaker’s View?

So how does the winemaker feel about this issue? I ask this question during interviews all the time. The answer too often is: “business sometimes dictates we make a wine for broad appeal”. At some wineries, this discussion is a non-issue. The winemaker makes a wine profile focused on quality in the classic sense and they find their market. Others I have interviewed, spend time with their customers and really understand the product their clientele wants… and then there are those that “think” they know what the average consumer wants. The perceived pressure to produce easy drinking wines in the U.S. is huge. For large volume wineries over 50,000 cases of production this discussion is irrelevant, but for the 60% of wineries in the U.S. that produce less than 5,000 cases, it is THE discussion to have. There is a place for all styles of wine in the market. My surprise came from visiting recognized, critically acclaimed wineries with this kind of thinking.

Wolf howling

Howling at the Moon!

If there is one thing I can definitively take exception to in the industry, it is this idea that wine enthusiasts (spending more than $12/btl) want flavor in red wines and don’t care about structure. Okay, I agree there are not many folks like me in the U.S. who will maintain a large enough cellar to buy young structured red wines and regularly drink 5-10 year old vintages. At the risk of boring readers by saying this again: STRUCTURE is what differentiates good wine! Red wine can taste like black, red, or blue fruit, have earthy minerality, or even exotic flavors like tobacco and tar, but these matter little without the primary structural components: Acidity, Alcohol, Tannins, Phenolic Development, Mouth-Feel (texture) and Balance. When wines are missing any of these elements, they can be unpleasant to drink, or more commonly – just boring.

Tasting note for the Five Star Cellars 2009 Stellar (Bordeaux Blend) that was supposedly not as “good” as the 2008:

The nose hints at the level of extraction with blackberry, plum and currant fruits, a touch of alcohol, fresh tobacco and earth. The palate follows with a dense fruit-forward attack that is very lively in the mouth, with high acidity and high tannins.  The vanilla comes through from the oak, but doesn’t overpower. The tannins have a plush, granular texture producing a big mouth-filling wine with a very long finish. This wine is fast approaching its optimal drinking window of 2016-2018. It is only missing a defined mid-palate… a 91 score without. This would have earned a 94-95 score with more complexity.

A grand effort by a small Washington State winery. I sincerely hope they change their focus to making more wines like this…

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Cellar, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Can You Justify Spending on Premium Wines?

Okay, I know there aren’t many wine drinkers out there that maintain a diverse cellar of bottle-aged wines, but for those of you who do, and invest in the spendy, premium wines… how do YOU justify it?

Which Wines Are in Your Cellar?

2/3 of my cellar is made up of moderately priced red and white wines of good value.  The other 1/3 is reserved for more expensive, special red wines.  So, just what constitutes a “special” wine worthy of a premium price? It has taken me 20 years of collecting wine and an evolving palate to finally arrive at a couple of answers.  My justifications for spending $75+ on a bottle of wine are:

1. Wines that have structure, balance, texture, be complex, BUT ALSO be accessible in no more than 5 years, and be able to age (AND improve) for 10 years or more from the vintage date (yes, even Barolo).

That doesn’t mean the wine will be in its prime drinking window then, just that I can enjoy it and then look forward to another beautiful experience down the road.  Enjoying wines this way, requires a purchase of several bottles of a wine, per vintage.  I will rarely do this until a producer has proven a good match for my palate and been consistent with quality vintages, year over year.  Although, sometimes you just know from drinking a wine… and I say “drink”, not taste.  This has happened too many times… Tasting Room Attendant hits you with attitude, goes on and on about the wine and presses you to purchase his/her amazing $100 (speaking of Napa here) bottle.  Then, you are hit with a 1 oz. pour!  Who needs a direct relationship with a winery, when you are treated like that!  With a good experience, enjoyable wine and the right value, I will become a year-over-year customer and they can start thinking of me as a revenue source for years to come…

2. Wines that my family and friends enjoy.

An example in this category for me is expensive champagne.  Not what I personally would spend big dollars on, but I really enjoy sharing good bubbly with friends who appreciate it!

Overview

IMHO, the holy grail of wine is the 1st category.  Examples for me would be vintages of Barolo, Southern & Northern Rhone (also CA “Rhone Style”) and mountain fruit Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (Veeder, Spring, Diamond & Howell).  Yeah, I know… no classified growth Bordeaux & cru Burgundy included.  I have not tasted Bordeaux meeting that criteria under $75/btl. AND other regions bring the same level of enjoyment for $50.  ENTRY LEVEL Burgundy STARTS at $50/btl and I just don’t enjoy pinot noir enough to explore that varietal for that kind of money.  My Oregon Pinot is just fine thank you.  I have Bordeaux and Burgundy in my cellar, but just to provide a representative collection, and it skews my average bottle price more than I would like.  I know many of you DO spend that $150+/btl for Bordeaux and Burgundy.  I wonder, how do you justify devoting the disproportionate percentage of your wine budget?

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Filed under Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, Northern Rhone, Southern Rhone, Spring Mountain, Wine Cellar, Wine Collecting, Wine Tasting

Managing a Personal Wine Collection

Years back I realized… once the number of bottles you lay down exceeds your ability to remember them, one of two things will happen:

  1. Curse your aging brain and struggle on

  2. Give in and realize there must be a better way

WHY Manage Stored Wine?

Initially, I was too proud to give-in and track my wine. After the issue bubbled to the surface (added sparkling to my cellar 🙂 ) it became clear, not having the ability to generate a list, or establish drinking windows, significantly affected our enjoyment of the wine. It doesn’t matter whether you drink wine daily, or just on the weekend. You will begin to realize (as I did), managing your wine inventory is a key component to maximizing your investment and enhancing your wine experience. So, the next step is to go totally overboard (like the crazy person I am) and put the program together.

Pick Your App/Software

I settled on CellarTracker. That has turned out to be a good decision. I highly recommend this cloud-based app, not just for cellar management, but for the tasting notes and the community too.

Separate the Inventory to be Bottle-Aged

So you disturb this wine as little as possible.

Identify the lower-priced daily-drinkers and rack separately

You will go through this wine quickly enough. It will not require a controlled environment.

Calculate your annual consumption of bottle-aged wines

Let’s round your hypothetical collection to 100 bottles (insert your own quantity). One possibility – assume you drink a nice bottle every other weekend, or round to 25 btls/yr. Purchase your wines to be bottle aged separately from those for drinking now. In this scenario, simply buy 25 bottles for aging every year… this assumes that every wine has the same aging capacity. The annual number of bottles is important. Knowing your number will save you money down the road, when competitively shopping your purchases. Don’t forget to add wine to your calculation and include a party, or two and a few dinners with friends and wine…

Wine Purchases Should be Planned

Plan Purchases so groupings of your aged wine will be constantly maturing and ready to drink

I can’t think of a better reason to diversify your cellar with Red Blends, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, etc. These varietals (depending on winemaker’s style) typically bottle age at different rates. If you can’t wait the 3-4 years it takes to develop your own collection of 5+ year old aged wines, supplement your buying with older vintages from auction sites (like WinBid.com, WineCommune.com, Hart-Davis Hart), or you can ensure provenance by buying from well-known brokers (like Benchmark).

OK, I am outed. I am a real wine geek.

Just to let you know, these are some of the same basic strategies needed for managing a commercial wine cellar. Coming down the pike… more posts on: Why cellar wine? and Wine Buying Strategies (in states where laws allow).

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