Category Archives: Wine Education

Climate Change and Wine

 

Not to minimize, or take away from the tragedy currently unfolding in Napa/Sonoma… our prayers go out to the families who are dealing with such terrible loss.

It is difficult to discuss causes this early, but I think all of us can easily recognize these fires are being worsened by very dry conditions. I have been talking to folks in the industry for months about the unseasonably hot and dry growing season this year and its impact, well before these fires added a horrible punctuation mark to the conversation. This should put the topic of climate change front and center in the minds of those in the wine industry – not just in the U.S., but globally…

Rising Trends

The long-term impact of global warming should have the largest effect on vineyard varietal selection. In the next 20 years will we see Napa/Sonoma start replanting vineyards to warm climate varietals? Will the vineyards start to look more like the Southern Rhone? In 20 years will Oregon/Washington State become the new Napa?

The short-term impact will be on harvest timing/strategies and winemaking. Before the fires, I saw a few CA winemakers chatting on Facebook about how the unusually hot harvest in 2017 might cause them to adjust their approach from past years. It will likely be the estate wineries that can be flexible and creative enough to weather this transition well (pun?).

Let’s start with a very important basic presumption: balanced wines are preferred and desirable. Napa moving to easy drinking Lodi Zinfandel style wines just doesn’t seem like an option to me. I have spoken to several winemakers over the past five years that are already experimenting with interesting techniques… These conversations have led me to realize that the steady trend toward more single vineyard wines and estate wineries is happening for many reasons beyond marketing strategies. Winemakers are reaching the conclusion that more control over the growing process is vital to the production of premium quality wines. These techniques may have a more far-reaching impact though: as options to minimize the effect of a warming climate…

How Can the Industry Adjust to Climate Change Now?

I am sure there are much smarter people out there with more training and great ideas on this topic, but this thought occurred to me recently…

Multiple Harvest Windows?

This strategy is basically, separating a vineyard into blocks and varying the harvest timing… requiring multiple harvest passes at different times in one vineyard. I can’t tell you how many other winemakers have told me this is a gimmicky, trendy technique and is a waste of time and money. I have tried to see the negative viewpoint, but the final consideration always comes back to the supporting science.

Before a winemaker can consider this alternative strategy, he/she has to either: be working for an estate winery, or have influence and control over the grower. I have talked to several winemakers/winegrowers who split harvest timing across several days/weeks to handle individual vineyard blocks separately. This can take advantage of rustic elements present in the fruit from earlier harvest vs. more advanced flavors/phenolic development from later harvest. Although, if the nights are not at least cool during Fall harvest season, good acidity levels will still be difficult to achieve. Earlier harvest can also control sugar in the must (fruit) and subsequent alcohol content in the wine. Some are taking this thinking a step further and investing in the equipment and resources to perform small-batch fermentation of each separately harvested block… to add complexity and balance via blending. In a world where Fall is becoming warmer, an interesting investigation might be whether earlier harvest in one block could help offset the impact of a more traditionally timed harvest in another?

Popular Wine Grape Varieties and Vineyard Location

The Bordeaux grape varieties that comprise the majority of red wine currently sold in the world (Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec & Carmenere), do not produce classic wine styles when grown in warmer climates. That doesn’t mean there aren’t varietals grown in warm climates that don’t produce structured, balanced wines… Syrah, Grenache, Aglianico, Tannat, Tempranillo (to name a few)… but to go down this path, the majority of the world’s vineyards ( from 35th to 45th parallels) would have to be replanted AND the world would have to be re-educated on which varietals to drink.

When grown in a warm climate, the most common wine grape varieties in the world, tend to produce simple, easier drinking wines that do not pair well with food. Regardless of the necessities driven by global warming, it is unlikely that consumers will accept new styles of wine simply because current vineyards are not planted in cooler climates.

Forest Fires, Vineyard Fires & Climate Change

There will never be a good approach to bringing these pieces together. Vineyards need to be starved of water and nutrients in a carefully controlled process to concentrate flavors and produce complex premium wines. Vineyards cannot be over-watered, which means they will always be “dry” by definition. As global warming continues, it will be critical to clear an open space around vineyards, so scrub and forest cannot easily transfer fire conditions by proximity. I can’t tell you how many vineyards in the mountains around Napa and Sonoma are nestled in and completely surrounded by forest. What makes for a beautiful setting, may cause a fire risk that is no longer acceptable. Any change along these lines could dramatically change the picturesque nature of wine country (California?) moving forward.

Change is a disruptor we all have difficulty contending with in many areas of our lives. It is likely wineries and wine enthusiasts alike will have to change expectations in coming years.

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Can You Trust a Wine Recommendation?

Everyone tastes wine differently. Although, I think it is important to note from where the recommendation is coming. A friend you drink with frequently and know what they enjoy? Sure. An attendant at a wine store? Not so much…

So, maybe you can trust friends, or family to make a reasonable recommendation, but can you trust your wine retailer? I attended a wine tasting hosted by Total Wine this evening and was so dumbfounded by the event, it seemed important to write about. See the brochure for the event below. Perhaps you have attended something similar at the Total Wine near you?

Wine Re-Sellers

A new store manager introduced herself and it seemed the intent of the event was to meet some of her higher volume customers. I purchase enough wine and spirits from the Total Wine near me to have earned a membership in the top tier of their Total Discovery club. This was a free event for a select group.

I have never tasted such a poor selection geared toward wine enthusiasts in one place. What kind of impression was the new manager trying to make? Either, she was never trained to select quality wines, or this event was used as an opportunity to push a bunch of awful wine with higher profit margins. Either way, a sad proposition. The previous manager at least included a few better wines in every event and made it worth attending. This was outright torture. I happen to overhear a customer asking how she could dislike so many of the wines and the attendant responded something like this: “These wines might not appeal to everyone. You should stretch your thinking to include other wine styles.” Oh my gosh, she was pulling the shame card. As if the poor, unsophisticated know-nothing wine drinker could just open their mind… and appreciate other “important” wine styles. The assumption is suggested that we are totally incapable of judging impartially what a “good” wine is. While this approach was nearly insulting, the idea is one I have used before in discussions with wine enthusiasts. That is… if the wines are actually selected to represent good examples of their region of origin. In this case, it was used as an excuse.

So, how does the average consumer investigate and select wines to purchase? Too often, you are stuck depending on recommendations from wine attendants that share a supposedly educated opinion regarding the quality of available wine carried in their inventory. So, what if these attendants are self-serving and recommend wines that they are told to promote? Perhaps at a higher profit? This is a clear betrayal of trust. This night, I heard memorized talking points taken from marketing pieces with very little relevance to the actual product. Do any of these wine educated people have a personal opinion?

The Wines

  •  Mailly – NV Champagne Grand Cru Delice
  • Albrecht – 2015 Pinot Gris
  • Amici – 2015 Chardonnay
  • Ceja – 2009 Pinot Noir
  • Ringland – 2014 Shiraz Barossa Valley
  • H to H – 2015 Chateauneuf du Pape
  • Truett Hurst – 2015 One Armed Man
  • Titus – 2014 Cabernet Suavignon Napa Valley

Wine Tasting Notes and Comments

Mailly – I have never tasted a Mailly Champagne I liked. This producer threw the time-honored Champagne flavor profiles out the window to make what they must think us crazy Americans will buy! Champagne should be clean and crisp and the bubbles should dance on your tongue. This was their Demi-Sec (slightly sweet) variety. The wine was thick and rich and cloyingly sweet. It had a strong bitter aftertaste. The typical yeasty smell of some champagnes was on the nose, but on the palate it seemed to add a buttery character to the wine. Save your money and buy some Mumm Cuvee instead, or spend a little extra to buy a Piper-Heidsieck Cuvee.

Albrecht – What happened to Albrecht Pinot Gris? My memory of their wines puts them in the same category as Trimbach for quality. Maybe it was this vintage? This was tasteless with no aroma. For a similar price, try a Trimbach PG instead.

Amici – This is a totally manipulated Chardonnay, with too much oak. There was a strong bitter flavor that often comes from a malolactic fermentation that did not go as planned. This is rich and buttery, but the fruit is not fresh and it should have had more acidity. Way down on my list. For less money, try the Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and experience a proper entry level oaked Chardonnay.

Ceja – The first reasonable quality wine of the night. This offered a fairly average representation of a typical Carneros Pinot Noir. I am not a big fan of all that fresh red cherry in these wines, but at least this one was pretty typical. Try Schug, or Acacia Carneros Pinot Noir instead for something a little more interesting at about the same price.

Ringland – Ugh, sweet medicinal cough syrup. ’nuff said.

H to H – The second of the two reasonable wines. This is a fair representation of a Chateauneuf du Pape and at this price point: a good effort. It misses the jammy fruit, tannins and acidic structure you would expect. On the other hand, it IS hard to find a good CDP for less than $40/btl.

Truett Hurst – We were told this wine was better than “The Prisoner” and once tasted, you will never go back. This “One Armed Man” tasted like it really needed the other arm. The wine tasted mostly like a cheap Paso or Lodi Zinfandel. The Prisoner blend doesn’t hit you in the face with the Zin and other varietals are added to bring tannins and acidity to the party. For a few dollars more, find The Prisoner on sale and enjoy.

Titus – I am not sure I can even put this in the average Napa cab category. This is over-oaked and manipulated to add a soft, smooth texture at the expense of the freshness of the fruit. A young Napa cab should have fresh fruit, high acidity and tannins. This wine was short on all the character that makes a Napa cab special. For near the same price, try the Baldacci Four Brothers Cab Sauv and taste what a Napa wine should be at this price.

What Can You Do?

Here is a simple suggestion: read the back of the bottle, or do a quick internet search at the winery website first… then ask the attendant their opinion. If what you are told is the same, run away as far and as fast as you can AND be suspicious if this bottle just happens to be their favorite. Try other shops/stores and look for someone who will give you their actual opinion. If it varies from what is printed on the bottle, you are in luck! Then, hopefully you get a follow-up question similar to: what do you like?, or what other wines do you already buy? There’s your evidence of a keeper, a wine attendant you can trust!

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Can You Identify Wines Matching Your Taste? Part 1 – Wine Without Food

2011-07-06-wine

Wine online has become such a gimmicky topic. Today, we have wine questionnaires that profess to tell us which wine we will prefer. If we like strong coffee, or bitter dark chocolate, we will enjoy this wine, or that… such bull. Many trained wine professionals choose to define wine styles by defining categories of wine. I will try something similar, but approach it from the opposite viewpoint: by categorizing wine enthusiast preferences. This two part series will break the issue apart into primary categories: those who enjoy wine by itself and those who prefer wine with food. This will be my opportunity to share a few observations with you from my experience.

With Food, or Not?

The first question your server in a restaurant should always ask is: “Will you be enjoying a beverage before, after, or with your meal tonight?” Next, “Beer, wine, cocktail?” For those answering wine with your meal, the final question should be: “to assist you with a wine selection, which dish(es) are you considering?” These questions are at the core of what a properly trained fine dining waiter/waitress does: pair food and wine… but not everyone in the U.S. drinks wine with food. So, unlike most Old World restaurants/bars, a U.S. wine service attendant has to think differently and broaden their mind to include clients that drink wine before, or after a meal, or those who drink wine like many beer drinkers: “I just want to go out today/tonight, hang-out and have a few.”

Which Type of Drinker are YOU?

Wine produced in Europe in traditional Old World styles is specifically made to taste its best when paired with food. Although, there are many European wines made to drink without food today, all the traditional labels are meant to be food friendly. Keep this in mind, when you are searching out a new wine to try. How do you determine if your palate is geared to wine with food? If you are a “Foodie” that can appreciate nuanced, or bold vs. subtle flavors, or velvetty vs. silky textures, or enjoy sweet & salty together, or appreciate how acidity breaks through richness… if you are not drinking wine with food, you should give it a try. If you enjoy wine on its own, it is likely you experience alcoholic beverages differently than “Foodie” types. I believe there are two categories here. Those who: enjoy how wine (or alcoholic beverages) makes them feel, or those that focus on how it tastes.

All About the Wine Experience?

The focus on experiencing wine without food puts you in the “feel” category. When you prefer to enjoy a conversation over a glass of wine, relax with or without friends taking in atmosphere and enjoying social pursuits, you are unlikely to be a wine drinker overly concerned about structure in wine, or looking for complex/subtle flavors. In fact, many I have run into with this preference, find these types of wines annoying. This isn’t wrong, bad, or unsophisticated, it is just who you are – embrace it. It is probably the largest category of wine drinker in the U.S. It is OK to be all about finding good atmosphere and drinking straight-forward, easy-drinking wines. So, how do you find these wines and stay away from the others? Wine critics are unlikely to review lower-cost, simple wines. This is a serious missing piece in wine culture: professionals typically don’t review this category of wine. In my opinion, this is a contributor to many wine drinkers being turned-off by the supposed high-brow attitudes in the biz. Here are some mandatory descriptors for wines like this, if you can find a review:  low to medium acidity, little or no tannins and fruit-forward (fruity taste first).

All About the Taste?

A little more “complex” may be good for you. This kind of consumer should put a little effort into exploration, attend wine tastings and decide whether you enjoy the common categories of these flavors: earthy (dirt, bramble), mineral (crushed rock), funk (forest floor/manure), kerosene (petrol), herbal/spice (mint, pepper/cinnamon), vegetal (tobacco, tomato) and floral (violets, honeysuckle). For this category of drinker, the next two elements are most critical: residual sugar (sweetness) and high/low alcohol. The usual easy-drinking wine has at least some residual sugar and an average alcohol content in these ranges: reds 13-15%, whites 12-14%. These characteristics contribute to the description you may want to learn that ensures the wine will taste “good” to you. For example, this request to an attendant: “I prefer low acid, low tannin, fruit-forward wines that have some residual sugar and are easy-drinking.”

Suggested Wines

This category of consumer will likely enjoy these easy-to-find U.S. origin wines. Examples: Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine & Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandels, Apothic Red (sweet & buttery – if you like that), Meiomi Pinot Noir (rich style vs. other PN), Andrew Murray Tous Les Jours Syrah, Robert Hall Cuvee de Robles, Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast, Twisted & Chateau Souverain Chardonnays, Handley Anderson Valley Gewurtztraminer or Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling (for a little adventure) .

This is probably the best website on the net to find this type of wine reviewed: https://www.reversewinesnob.com/ . Enjoy!

Next up:

Part 2 – Wine with Food

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Wine Certifications MW, CWE, WSET and MS? Differences AND Why You Want To Know

Why Should a Wine Consumer Care?

You are attending a wine tasting, wine class, an attendant is recommending a wine at a restaurant, buying a wine at a shop, or deciding which vintage to pop from your cellar… If you are an average consumer and “Two Buck Chuck” (okay, probably $4 now) is your thing, please move on to the next article of interest. If wine selection is a bit more important to you read on…

Most wine enthusiasts are faced with these situations frequently and try to make sense of the value proposition. Do you trust recommendations? How could wine professionals understand what you enjoy? Should I pay $20 for a bottle, or maybe splurge and spend $30? What IS a quality wine and how does it taste different? Which food tastes better with which type of wine?

If you spend any time asking yourself these questions, you need to know the difference between these certifications. Well, why should you trust my explanation? If a certification helps to define my content here… I have trained formally, tested and passed the first two levels of Sommelier certifications. Strictly speaking, I am a certified Professional Sommelier. The next level is Advanced and then Master Sommellier. There are a little over 200 MS certified individuals in the world and just the Master test requires a 3 day commitment for the Theory, Service and Tasting sections. Even with a fair amount of experience, it would take me a year (or more) off work to study for that one! All of these certifications require much preparation and are quite an accomplishment. The failure rate for all of these tests is high.

What is a Master of Wine (MW)?

The certification body is the Institute of Masters of Wine and requires a research project and paper. This should give you an idea of the direction here. The path here is Stages 1,2 and 3, prior to the Master designation. An MW will KNOW virtually everything about all wines around the world: all varietals, how they are farmed, all individual world Terroir, vineyard strategies, winemaking techniques, wine taste variation, etc. Where do these people play in the industry? Usually, they work as technical consultants to media, wineries, publications, distributors and importers, etc. There is much to learn about wine from one of these individuals, IF they know how to teach it.

What is a Certified Wine Educator (CWE), or a WSET L4 certified Consultant?

The certification bodies here are the Society of Wine Educators and Wine & Spirits Education Trust. The path to CWE can be to study and test for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), or not. The path to WSET L4 typically goes through L1-L3. These are the most prestigious wine education organizations in the world and they certify as you might guess… the teachers of wine. Why is this distinction important? Think of these people as the educators. If you were to take a wine class, it would be good to have a teacher with one of these certs. It validates their level of knowledge and that they have been introduced to a methodology for teaching wine.

What is a Master Sommelier (MS)?

The most prestigious certifying body here is the Court of Master Sommeliers. I was certified by the International Sommeliers Guild (ISG). They are connected to the Food & Wine education programs at the Art Institutes in major cities in the U.S. In my case, the Phoenix Art Institute and we had the opportunity to work with the chef education program there for food pairing training. The path to MS is already described earlier in this article.

I have a real bias towards these people. The difference here is, you are trained on Theory, Tasting and SERVICE. Why is this different than the other certs? Yes, I was trained to understand how different varietals and styles TASTE and I was tasked to learn about wine production and growing, but the big difference here is the focus on FOOD and matching an individual palate. I was mentored to believe that there can be a difference in wine quality, but wine flavors only apply to an individual palate. There is no “bad tasting wine”, only wine flavors appreciated by different clients. I was trained to learn HOW to pair different flavors (both FOOD & WINE) with different clients and their perception of an enjoyable EXPERIENCE. In essence, this certification focuses on recognizing HOW & WHY people enjoy different foods and wines and how to build an experience that is tailored to an individual. Look for these certified attendants at RESTAURANTS. They will know their stuff and if you can get some one-on-one time, they will enhance your dining experience.

The Difference Based on Your Need

I think you will find this quick guide helpful and easily understandable. If you are taking a wine class, look for WSET and CWE certified individuals. If you have decided to start some sort of business in the wine industry, an MW as a consultant would be a good choice. If you are at a restaurant, a Sommelier on staff would be a good indication of the quality of their wine program. All of these individuals have a level of wine knowledge that can offer much to your personal wine experience, but there are differences as noted above. If you are participating in a wine tasting, any of these people could lead a group successfully with very interesting and rich content for you to enjoy.

So, keep an eye out and ask about certifications. There are a million so-called wine experts. In fact, some can be amazing. I have spent time with wine collectors that would blow you away. Although, if you want to be sure that your money is being spent wisely for classes, education, or dining… Look for the folks with formal training and certification testing. You will have a better chance of getting the most for your money and a much improved experience!

 

 

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Guide to Buying Wine at a Restaurant

Restaurant Wine Lists are intimidating, sometimes even for professionals. I know I feel pressure as the wine expert at the table to immediately grasp the entire wine library and recommend the best value and best paired selection with our meal(s). Here are a few suggestions:

Don’t Recognize Any Wines on the List?

If you don’t recognize a single wine on the list, the wine buyer is deliberately trying to:

  • Sell unknown garbage wines, because they do food… and beverage doesn’t matter (yes, I have met restaurateurs with this attitude)
  • Sell unknown wines you cannot price check with a wine app
  • Only listening to a distributor pushing unknown wineries producing cheap unknown wines that are priced to deliver ridiculous profits
  • Are true wine experts attempting to offer a broad selection from small boutique wineries from around the world that add interest to your wine discovery experience

How can you tell which situation you are dealing with? Ask to speak to the sommelier / wine steward / owner and ask him / her to give you a short explanation of their wine list and the wines they would recommend. You will be able to read the response… are they disinterested, don’t know their wines, can’t offer much background on the wines, or do they get excited about the opportunity to share their wine selection, have stories about the winemakers / wineries because they have visited them, ASK YOU ABOUT YOUR TASTE IN WINE, etc. It is likely you will know which kind of wine list you are dealing with pretty quickly. The bottom line is: if the list is not floating your boat… DRINK BEER, or HARD CIDER. This is especially true when eating spicy foods that do not pair well with wine.

Are the Wines Cheap Brands You Recognize?

This is the sign of a lazy beverage manager. Life is too short to drink bad wine. Again, I would drink beer, or hard cider.

Find a Wine Label You Know

Find a wine you know and buy at the store / shop at least occasionally and check the restaurant’s sell price. If it is twice the price per bottle (or less), you have found a manager / owner that is pricing wines fairly for the restaurant trade. For many of you, 100% mark-up may seem excessive, but there are justifications. If the wine is being served by the glass too, often a single glass is purchased and the balance of the wine is undrinkable after a day two. This makes it difficult to recover cost on the bottle. In addition, when wine is offered correctly, there is more investment in inventory than any other beverage type AND wine service when done correctly is labor intensive and requires higher cost employees. For the regular wine drinkers having familiarity with a few different brands, do what I do… pick a low, medium and high priced wine you know and check their sell price vs. the store bought price. I LIKE the restaurants that lower their profit percentage on higher priced wines as an incentive to up-sell and turn their wine inventory dollars.

Watch Out for Trendy Spots

I put extra scrutiny into my patronage at these restaurants. Are you getting interesting, imaginative wines and recommendations, or are the suggestions crazy, stupid, predictable and/or eye-poppingly expensive? Pay attention before you have had a few and it will be simple to assess. Of course, there are those establishments that are worth a visit just for the ambiance, or the people watching. I don’t expect much from these bars / restaurants, but do enjoy hanging out at these locations occasionally. Before you decide on a restaurant, you might want to include an assessment of your mood and add that into the selection process. It really does inform your approach to beverages: none, cocktails, beer, wine, etc.

Should You Stick With What You Know?

This a tough question. Is there a compelling reason not to pick a wine you have enjoyed previously? If you are anything like me, I often enjoy the adventure of selecting new wines, but only from restaurants that have a good wine list and with recommendations from knowledgeable attendants. This is why restaurants that do wine well are a strong draw for me… LISTENING RESTAURANT OWNERS?

Canvass Your Guests

If you are dining with friends / family chat about the beverages they enjoy. If you have wine in common, ask them about favorite brands, or what type of wines they enjoy. It is awkward when the wine hits the table and your choice is criticized.

The Choice

For all of us who are stuck with making the wine decision for the table, because either we are paying the check, or your guests are familiar with your wine knowledge… the bottom line is, you have to pick a bottle eventually. So, take a little advice from above, cross your fingers… and jump! With a little educated evaluation, it is likely to be a pretty good decision!

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Wine Buying Strategies for the Average Consumer

So, let’s say it is Friday and you are Mr./Ms. average wine consumer on your way home from work. You drop in to the grocery store for a few things and a bottle, or two, of wine for the weekend. Your tendency is probably to go to a brand label you know that has proven reasonable value in the $10-15/btl. range, like Yellow Tail, Cupcake, or Woodbridge. Now, let’s say this day you just got a raise, or your just feeling a little adventurous and decide your willing to up your budget to $20/btl. and you look at the 100′ long wall of wine in front of you… and you are totally lost! What do you do? Make a selection at random? by varietal? because you like the pretty label? If you are like me (before the wine training), I eventually gave up and rolled the dice, picking a bottle at random of a varietal I thought I enjoyed. Half the time, I struck-out and had to pour the bottle down the drain. It happened too often to stick to my pride and drink the awful bottle.

If this sounds familiar, just what can you do to be a little more realistic and have a better chance of selecting a bottle you will enjoy? This will require a little advance thought and a little time to walk through the process, but in the end, you will feel like your money is being better spent!

How do You Drink Wine?

Most importantly, think about how you drink wine: with food, or without. Food requires wines with more acidity to cut through and compliment fats, proteins and carbs. Acidity is the component that makes you salivate and a “bite” is usually felt near the back sides of the mouth and tongue. Easy drinking (less acidic) wines may be what you enjoy, but are best drunk on their own. For example, it is difficult to find a Malbec, or Red Zinfandel with good acidity. I am convinced this is the result of producers assuming people have discovered Malbec and Zin as simple, fruity wines that drink well without food. These varietals can present much more character, but aren’t often produced this way. In the end, wine is a business and if a producer doesn’t think they can sell a type of wine, they will simply choose not to produce it.

If you enjoy wine primarily accompanied with food, then one approach can be looking for regions that are known for producing primarily acidic wines, i.e. Chianti (Italy), White Burgundy (France), or White/Red Bordeaux (France).

Special Case: if you are a red meat eater, wines with high tannins should be your choice, as the tannins break-down the fats in the meat and clean your palate between bites. When your palate is cleared, it prepares your taste buds to appreciate the full flavor of the food with each bite. Tannins are the component that makes your mouth feel like Marlon Brando chewing on cotton balls for his next big scene in The Godfather. The cottony dryness is usually felt between the teeth and gums. These wines are fantastic paired with red meat. Examples would be: all Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian Sangiovese, French Red Bordeaux. Italian pasta dishes with red meat sauces are also good pairings for these types of wines.

Why Do You Drink Wine?

Do you drink wine for the appreciation of the flavor, or do you just enjoy relaxing with a bottle of wine after work? If you are the latter, just make an effort to learn the better quality growing regions and select something in your price range from one of these areas. In general, wine regions that are known for their quality, or have been growing wine for generations, tend to offer generally better wines. An example would be Napa Valley in the U.S., or Bolgheri in Italy. If you can find a $20 bottle of Cab Sauv from these areas, give it a shot…  it is more likely to be enjoyed, than a random Cab from Lodi, or Mendocino. If flavor is your thing, you are going to be one of those needing to put some effort into learning about wine regions, because that is the only real method for selecting wines by flavor profile.

If you are selecting wine to enjoy with friends, or at a restaurant… some of these same strategies can work. If you are lucky at the restaurant, you might get a server that actually knows something about wine, but in general think of these situations as opportunities to learn more about wine. I have written several more advanced posts on this site to help with a detailed approach to fine wine selection, if you are ready to dive in.

Cheers!

 

 

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50 Wines in 90 Minutes

Flemings-logo

Ultimate Speed Tasting

I joined a small group of wine enthusiasts this weekend at an unusual tasting event at a Fleming’s Restaurant in Chandler, AZ. The restaurant had three attendants pouring 50 wines for a group of 20-25 customers. The original email invitation offered 120 minutes for the tasting: roughly 2.5 minutes per bottle. I came prepared to give this a shot with full tasting notes… but on arrival, I learned we would have only 90 minutes to complete the task, or less than 2 minutes per bottle. OK, I am game :-\

The tasting started with an introduction by the restaurant’s wine director and these instructions: “You have 90 minutes to taste 50 wines. Each will be a measured 1 oz. pour. 50 oz. of wine is near two full bottles. Be careful. There are spit buckets at the corner of each table. Go!” I thought this might descend into disaster, but amazingly everyone remained responsible and were evaluating the wines, rather than drinking them. Kudos to the Phoenix wine community… this was a serious consumer event.

Observations & Comments

This was a major journey into masochism. I have been to wine tastings with this number of wines before, but always with near twice the time per bottle and while seated at a table. This wine tasting was characterized by service upon request and no place to sit. I would find it difficult to suggest attending one of these Fleming’s 100 Tasting Events, unless you are either a wine journalist, or just ignore the challenge of sampling the entire list. I tasted a large number of wines in a very short time and if you have no experience with preventing palate fatigue, the sheer quantity can make everything taste the same half-way through. The wine list was quite diverse representing many different varietals, countries and styles. In my opinion, a large percentage on this list were not premium category wines, but six were worthy of taking note as either a step above, or a great value. Navigating lengthy restaurant wine lists can be daunting and this is only HALF of this Fleming’s offering. It is a shame, I found less than one in five that I would go out of my way to order. I hope my readers will find this lengthy article helpful, especially those who enjoy Fleming’s Restaurants as my wife and I do.

Event Wine List

(full wine descriptions shortened in the interest of brevity)

Sparkling – White/Rose/Red

  • Mionetto Prosecco Extra Dry NV – Italy
  • Jean-Charles Boisset JCB Brut #21 NV  – France
  • Distinguished Vineyards Sophora NV – New Zealand
  • Banfi Rosa Regale Acqui NV – Italy

Still Whites

  • 2014 Loosen Brothers Mosel Riesling – Germany
  • 2014 Jean Baptiste Gunderloch Riesling Kabinett – Germany

From here, I realized I was already in trouble on time and stopped asking for the vintage information…

  • Vinedos Santa Lucia Sauvignon Blanc – Chile
  • Hess Family Bodega Colome Torrontes – Chile
  • Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand
  • Maso Canali Pinot Grigio – Italy
  • Coppola Virginia Dare Two Arrowhead Viognier-Roussanne – Paso Robles, CA
  • Flat Rock Cellars Chardonnay – Canada
  • Taken Complicated Chardonnay – Sonoma County, CA
  • Meiomi Chardonnay Santa Barbara-Monterrey Counties Blend – Sonoma Coast, CA
  • Kendall Jackson Chardonnay Vintner’s Selection – CA
  • De Loach Chardonnay La Reine – Sonoma Coast, CA
  • Glen Carlou Chardonnay – South Africa
  • Franciscan Estate Chardonnay – Napa Valley, CA

Still Reds

  • Wine by Joe Pinot Noir – Willamette Valley, OR
  • Mark West Pinot Noir – CA
  • Jean-Claude Boisset Bourgogne Rouge – Burgundy, France
  • Rodney Strong Russian River Pinot Noir – Sonoma Valley, CA
  • Cambria Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley Clone 4 – Santa Barbara County, CA
  • Calista Edna Valley Pinot Noir – San Luis Obispo County, CA
  • Bertoldi Gran Passione Rosso – Italy
  • Bodegas Bagordi Navardia Red Blend – Spain
  • Pascual Toso Malbec – Argentina
  • Ziobaffa Toscano Rosso Organic – Italy
  • Michel Gassier Cercius Rhone Red Blend – France

If you have had it with this wine listing just skip to the bottom for my ABBREVIATED notes

  • Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia Red Blend – Portugal
  • Saldo Zinfandel – CA
  • Red Diamond Merlot – Washngton State
  • Chateau Haut-Colombier Bordeaux Style Blend – France
  • Duckhorn Merlot – Napa Valley, CA
  • Lidio Carraro Serra Caucha Agnus Red Blend – Brazil
  • Greg Norman Cabernet -Merlot – Australia
  • Trefethen Double T Bordeaux Style Blend – Napa Valley, CA
  • Gundlach-Bundschu Mountain Cuvee Red Blend – Sonoma County, CA
  • Paraduxx Propietary Red Blend – Napa Valley, CA
  • Treana Red – Paso Robles, CA
  • 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon – Washington State
  • Liberated Cabernet Sauvignon – Sonoma County, CA
  • Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon – Argentina
  • Chateau St. Michelle Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon – Washington State
  • Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley, CA
  • Round Pond Kith & Kin Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley, CA
  • Hall Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley, CA
  • Justin Cabernet Sauvignon – Paso Robles, CA
  • Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley – Sonoma County, CA
  • Yardstick Cabernet Sauvignon Ruth’s Reach – Napa Valley, CA

Highlights of the Tasting Notes

Notable Wines

Top Three Whites

Jean Baptiste Gunderloch Riesling – Acceptable German Riesling. More red apple on the palate, than stone fruit (peach, apricot, etc.), but crisp and refreshing. At around $17/btl market price, decent value too. For the same price though, I would recommend the U.S. made Chateau St. Michelle Eroica Riesling first.

Maso Canali Pinot Grigio – Second best white of the evening. A crisp mouth-feel with high acidity. Lemon citrus palate with a lingering finish. Nice balanced profile. Would be great as a before dinner sipper, or with white cream sauces.

Coppola Virginia Dare Two Arrowhead Viognier-Roussanne – Best white wine of the night! Beautiful soft mouth-feel with high acidity. The wine was fruit forward, without being sweet, or overpowering. Citrus palate with a beautiful floral lingering finish. Missing the bitterness of some Roussanne wines. Great for food and on its own.

Top Three Reds

Justin Cabernet Sauvignon – This is my go-to restaurant wine, when there is a weak wine list. It is distributed almost everywhere and usually easy to find. Not like a traditional big Napa Cab, but fruit forward, balanced and with high acidity. Nice food wine that can accompany most fine dining dishes.

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon – Medium priced Napa Cab at around $45/btl. market price. Gives you most of what you are looking for from Napa, at an easier to manage price-point.

Round Pond Kith & Kin Cabernet Sauvignon – I enjoy most Round Pond wines, but being exposed to only their ultra-premium wines, I had not seen a sub-$50/btl. of wine from this producer. This was the best Cab Sauv of the night and has a market price of only $30/btl.! Tremendous value! Round Pond’s focus on mouth-feel, is a primary method I use for differentiating top wines. This was a fruit-forward, balanced wine, with high acidity and great mouth-feel. Look for this wine. I will be running out and grabbing some myself.

The majority of the reds were easy drinking. With a few exceptions, these were average wines that could accompany a steak capably. Although, I will have to say, this growing movement toward red blends WITH residual sugar (i.e. Apothic style) is hard for me to handle.

There was a group of better than average red wines: Duckhorn Merlot, Susana Balbo Cab Sauv, Chateau St. Michelle Indian Wells Cab Sauv. Here are two wines worth considering that may not be on your radar:

Michel Gassier Cercius – Nice Rhone red blend. Fruit forward with good acidity and a reasonable price. If you enjoy Southern Rhone style red wines, this represents the region capably.

Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia – Wow, I like Touriga Nacional based Portuguese wines! Unfortunately, this is the premier varietal in Portugal and can be pricey. This was a nice find. For under $20/btl market, you get much of what makes this varietal great at a reasonable price. If you haven’t tried wines from Portugal yet, this would be a quality entry level option.

Bottom of the Barrel

All of the sparkling was barely drinkable.

Mionetto Prosecco – Mionetto is a well respected Valdobbiadene producer and my wife and I had tried to visit the winery when we were in Italy a few years ago… but our schedule did not allow. If this wine is any indication, I did not miss anything. I read about the “Prosecco Revolution” everywhere on the wine scene these days, but have yet to try one that approaches quality Champagne, or even quality California sparkling. Another bust.

Banfi Rosa Regale Acqui – Thought a sparkling red might be interesting, like a decent Lambrusco. Wow, this was horrible. Sweet beyond belief, with cotton candy and strawberry hard candy flavors. Don’t be tempted, you will toss it in the planter next to your table.

Loosen Brothers Mosel Riesling – I have tried many Loosen Brothers Rieslings that have been excellent. This was a real disappointment. It was missing the crisp acidity that defines a quality Mosel Riesling. It wasn’t horrible, but I guess it made the list as a let-down from a quality producer.

The Sauvgnon Blancs and Torrontes were unpleasant. The Sauv Blancs were particularly grassy.

There was not a single Chardonnay that stood out on this list, in either the stainless steel, or oaked styles. The oaked Chardonnays were so woody, they could have been used as fuel for a fire.

The Pinot Noirs were not notable. The best of the bunch was the Rodney Strong: very drinkable, with some complexity at $18/btl market – a reasonable value. It is difficult to find good Pinot Noir anywhere in the world under $20USD/btl.

Several red wines were favorites of the group, but with enough residual sugar to make it to the bottom of my list: Gran Passione Rosso, Treana Red and Oberon Cab Sauv. Not my thing.

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Watching a California AVA Change its Identity

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There is a small group of pioneering winemakers taking the leap of faith (with some encouragement) to embrace a different approach to Lodi winemaking. They offer limited production premium wines and are fashioning a new identity for the region.

The brilliance of the vision is in the marketing. Wine collectors and enthusiasts follow winemakers and vineyards… it is the dirty secret most wineries would rather not acknowledge. Strong distribution, labels, shelf-talkers, shelf space and displays draw the average consumer. So, when you talk premium wine, what describes successful marketing? …Rock Star winemakers and masterfully managed vineyards. Examples on the vineyard side: I am always looking for single vineyard designate wines from Beckstoffer, Bien Nacido and Stolpman vineyard sites at below market prices. Same applies to winemakers like: Foley, Hobbs, Grahm, Lindquist, Smith, Ramey, Petroski, etc. (too many favorites to list). I am always looking…

The Lodi Native Project

This project was the original brain-child of Randy Caparoso (see bio here: Randy Caparoso), but it’s success depended on the execution of a group of winemakers who embraced the challenge. At its core, the project represents a winemaking philosophy, but the goal is much broader and ambitious. It includes a group of winemakers (Layne Montgomery-M2, Stuart Spencer-St. Amant, Ryan Sherman-Fields Family, Mike McCay-McCay Cellars, Tim Holdener-Macchia and Chad Joseph-Maley Brothers) that individually agreed to release 100-250 cases per vintage of Lodi AVA vineyard designate wines under a set of rules that require non-interventionist winemaking. The parameters include: all natural wild yeast (no inoculation), no additives (i.e. acidification), no filtering, all neutral oak in aging, etc. The heritage vineyard sites (see historic vineyards here: Heritage Vineyard Society) include: Marian’s Vineyard, Schmiedt Ranch Vineyard, Soucie Vineyard, Stampede Vineyard, TruLux Vineyard and Wegat Vineyard. These are all “Old Vine” vineyard sites (see Lodi Native vineyard info here: Lodi Native About).

Why is this Special?

This project represents the re-making of an AVA. There will always be bulk fruit and wine produced out of Lodi AVA, but this effort is showcasing why/how Lodi can be different and have at least a small footprint on the premium wine scene. What does Lodi Native bring to the wine world we do not already have? These are quality, terroir-driven, food friendly Zinfandel based wines at reasonable prices. I have not tasted other Zins quite like these. The previously recognized quality Zin producers, like Seghesio and Ridge are very different. Go Lodi Native! Your team has added diversity to the world of wine…

The Impact

Lodi has a large number of Heritage designate Old Vine Vineyard sites. Many were planted with their own root system (not spliced onto alternative root stock). Lodi is fortunate to have sandy-loam soils at some sites where phyloxera cannot survive. The native root systems on these 90-120 year old vines do seem to have an effect on the character of the wine. Many of these vineyards yield only 2-3 tons of fruit per acre, without intervention. These self-regulating vines seem to have “learned” how to contribute to yield management on their own.

These sites represent a valuable asset to the local wine community, having as much to do with quality winemaking, as the historical significance they hold. The importance of these vineyards was not recognized until roughly ten years ago, but it was Randy’s vision that made them commercially viable, and it was the winemakers’ commitment to showcasing the uniqueness that brought the project together.

Lodi Native has given a voice to the different nature of this AVA. Maybe Randy guessed at what could happen if the winemakers pulled it off, but I don’t think any of them understood what it would mean to building a local wine identity… beyond bulk wine grape production. These wines are very good in a serious classic sense and are terroir driven. They offer structure and balance, something missing from much of the rest of the AVA and they definitely belong in the category of premium wines. They offer a delicate finesse, focusing on soft mouth-feel, floral nose/palate and age-ability.

Value

If you are a wine enthusiast, you owe it to yourself to seek out these wines. They are the beginning of the emergence of the classic Lodi AVA and the value is solid.

More on Lodi Native Wines to come…

 

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Winery Profits, Vineyard Management and Winemaking

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Future of Lodi AVA

This has been an illuminating couple of days at #WBC16. I think I have an initial feel for a few of the major issues facing the Lodi AVA. First, the wine industry potential here has no limit. The terroir is capable of producing interesting enough wines to support a solid run at the premium wines category, but the local farming culture is actively impeding progress.

Multi-generational wine growing families dominate large swathes of the region, bringing a focus on farming science to the local wine industry identity. I spoke with a large sampling of wineries here and almost all ownership either originally started as growers, still have a fruit supply contract, or have a family history in farming. This is an AVA where large production wineries dominate the local economy with bulk wine and large production labels in the $10-20/btl price range. There is a clear local perception of Lodi’s current market position, but a few have a vision for the future and entry into the premium and ultra-premium categories… where double digit growth in the industry lies. The cost per ton of bulk wine grapes sold for volume production has been stagnant here, whereas the cost of quality fruit for small production labels has been rising. Some here with a head for business and a marketing sensibility, see the profit potential in a change of approach.

These factors are just the background for the Lodi discussion. The real issue is the identity crisis being caused by conflict between farming science and premium winemaking philosophies. Fruit production concerns here, not the winemakers approach, are driving the final product. Napa, Sonoma and parts of the Central Coast have already moved past this barrier. These other regions have developed production environments where the winemaker’s vision is effectively incorporated into the vineyard management strategy. This evolution has not reached Lodi yet and the battle for the identity of Lodi AVA is solidly underway.

Winemaking Strategies and Vineyard Management

I attended a short panel discussion during the conference that was focused on viticulture in the area. The ideas expressed… were hard to believe. In a world where Lodi is striving to be relevant in the premium wine category, this one discussion put the region back a decade. The panel asserted that quality wine could be produced from vineyards managed to deliver 10-12 tons of fruit per acre. One of the individuals on the panel was adamant! I wrote an article last year related to a similar topic that applies: Is a Trained Palate Necessary to Produce Fine Wine? I was referring to winemakers in the piece, but it can also apply to vineyard managers as well. I have tasted wines comparatively from fruit harvested at 2 tons, 4 tons and 6 tons/acre. There is a very noticeable difference. As a common theme across all Napa/Sonoma winemakers I have interviewed – none of these wineries sourced fruit from vineyards producing over 5 tons/acre. So, this panel is telling me Lodi vineyards can produce quality fruit at 10-12 tons/acre… AND dropping fruit does not increase concentration of flavors?

Team Commitment to Quality

In the premium and ultra-premium categories today there are many techniques in use that have an impact on vineyard management strategy. The goal is to enhance structure, balance and complexity in the final product. Here are a few:

  • Multi-Pass and Small Block Harvesting
  • Small Lot Fermentation and Blending
  • Extended COLD – Soak, Maceration and Fermentation.

I explained some of these techniques in a previous blog post at: Why Do Wines Taste So Different? These represent winemaker driven strategies and are the hallmark of an ultra-premium mindset. Very few of these techniques are in use currently in Lodi. The changes required in vineyard operations to adopt these methods is not consistent with a farming driven approach to wine growing. If winery operations teams can’t move thinking in this direction, bulk wine growing will continue to dominate the region.

Profitability and Perceptions of Success

How do Lodi wine professionals measure success in the wine industry? Does that vision conflict with profitability?

It is clear to me, many of these Lodi wine growers measure their success by their ability to produce reasonable quality at the highest yields. Profitably producing fruit under a 10 year contract with Gallo at $600-800/ton is the picture of that success. My imagination is just not captured by what it takes to be profitable producing 500,000 cases of wine. There is definitely more than one approach to running a profitable winery, but from the wine service perspective, achieving high quality and acclaim is the definition. That quality has typically come from single vineyard designate, estate wine production. I think there are many students of winery operations that could deliver quality at 3-5,000 cases… and struggle to make a profit. What is truly impressive is a 10-25,000 case winery developing demand at a premium price point and driving healthy profits! Notable success in the Wine Industry should be measured by producing highly acclaimed premium and ultra-premium wines, while delivering a serious return on investment.

Is Change Necessary in Lodi?

Is the agricultural flavor of the local area what defines Lodi? Yes. Can the local industry be profitable with offering fruit by the ton, bulk wine and $10-20/btl wines? Yes. Will the area draw attention from the wine trade around the world and move producers here into the premium and ultra-premium categories? Resoundingly – no. What is the future of Lodi wine production? I guess, we will all wait and see…

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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.

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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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