Category Archives: Wine Industry

Wine Scoring Systems: What You Need to Know

The Scoring Systems

Three systems are most commonly used for wine scoring today: Robert Parker’s 100 Point System, UC Davis’ 20 point System and the Gold-Silver-Bronze Medal designations. So, let’s dive into each and understand their components, focus and determine their real-world reliability.

UC Davis & Medal Scoring Systems

Often, these two are tied together.

Medal System:

  • Gold-medal:     18.5–20.0 points – Outstanding quality
  • Silver-medal:   17.0–18.4 points – Excellent standard
  • Bronze-medal: 15.5–16.9 points – Very good wine for its class

UC Davis System:

  • 17 – 20  Outstanding
  • 13 – 16   Standard wines with no defect
  • 9 – 12     Commercially acceptable with no defect
  • 5 – 8       Below commercial acceptability
  • 1 – 5       Completely spoiled
  1. Appearance (2 points)
  2. Color (2 points)
  3. Aroma and Bouquet (4 points)
  4. Total Acidity (2 points)
  5. Sugar (1 point)
  6. Body (1 point)
  7. Flavor (2 point)
  8. Acescency (Bitterness) (2 points)
  9. Astringency (Tannin) (2 points)
  10. General Quality (2 points)

The glaring missing pieces are Balance, Complexity, Finish and Age-Ability. Without these factors, fine wine cannot accurately be judged. The UC Davis System has an inherent bias toward poor to mediocre wines. The problem is the potential for a 16 pt. score (bronze medal) for a typical Concord sweet wine, in comparison to a 16 pt. score for a mediocre Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter is eminently more drinkable, yet carries the same score. This system allows too much weight for components that would be assumed with fine wine, such as Appearance and Color and virtually none where fine wine shines, such as Balance, Age-ability, etc. This evens the playing field for amateur wines and narrows the gap between the professional and amateur wine categories. BEWARE of medal designations and UC Davis scoring. If you enjoy fine wines and in particular, if you collect Old World wines, this scoring system is not for you.

Parker’s 100 Point System

  • 50 Points for Showing Up 🙂
  • 5 Points for First Impression or Color
  • 15 Points for Aroma or Bouquet
  • 10 Points for Flavor
  • 10 Points for Finish
  • 10 Points for Aging Potential

OK, this has its problems too. Certainly not scientific, or very systematic, but it weighs the important characteristics of fine wines. This too is missing the balance and complexity components, but allows enough latitude to score (let’s say) a U.S. 1997 Robert Mondavi Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvigon versus a French 2000 Chateau La Gaffeliere. Something the UC Davis and Medal systems do not.

Frankly, this system will just not work for evaluating an amateur winemaker’s sweet 2017 Chambourcin (native hybrid grape), BECAUSE Old World style wine quality is in another category of its own. So far removed, that any 20 Point System equivalent would require adding decimal quantifiers (i.e. 19.1, 19.2, etc.) to attempt to make an equivalency work.


5/28/18 – I have had a few comments from those who follow my blog about not including the WSET “Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine”.  I have never seen this system used by a wine writer in their media product (although some components are similar to UC Davis system). I am not sure it would/could be a commercially viable solution. I would appreciate any feedback on this, though. I am sure there are some that are using it in the background and converting it to the more common scoring systems (WSET Graduates your thoughts?)


A ” Wine Judge Certification Program”

This year I had an interesting experience with a wine judge training/certification program (Wine Judge Certification Program – WJCP) run by the American Wine Society (AWS). There are very few programs like this, specifically certifying wine judges in the U.S.

This program introduced me to a whole new subset in the wine continuum: amateur winemakers, native grape species and fruit wines. It became very clear to me quickly, AWS has a significant piece of their membership focused on this area. In fact, they have changed the UC Davis scoring system to make it more internally friendly to these wines. I also found out, there are many wine competitions across the Eastern half of the U.S. specifically focused on these type of wines. Who knew!!

Full Disclosure: This focus seemed quite odd and I could never get my head around it. I did make the decision to stop investing in these classes and have since exited the program.

I had never seen a bottle of anything in this category, before these classes. My closest familiarity was the Mogen David Concord wine my parents drank over ice occasionally. Who knew there was a whole wine culture that focused on this type of wine. I still remember the worst hangover of my life from drinking 3 bottles of Annie Green Springs when I was a teenager. I suppose someone has to evaluate these wines, but using the same scoring system to evaluate an aged Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is nothing but tragic. What happened to the idea that wine and local cuisine is a match made in heaven? Certainly, not with these wines.

The Jumble and Ambiguity of Wine Scoring

If it hasn’t become clear yet, there is an enormous amount of confusion surrounding these scoring systems. So, how can we use them to choose wines to match our tastes? Personally, I ignore the 20 pt. and Medal Systems completely and I take the 100 pt. System scores with a grain of salt… unless I am familiar with the judges palate. For example, I have a pretty good idea of what these wine writers/judges rate highly: Parker, Suckling, Galloni and Tanzer. I can make a reasonable guess at quality from 100 pt. system scores generated by these wine writers.

So, what do you do? Well, if you are a fine wine drinker, I would surely ignore the 20 pt. and medal systems. From there, it is all homework. Get to know what your favorite wine writers tend to score highly, learn their palate a bit and use their scores to make your choices!

P.S.

If I could develop my own scoring system for the wines I drink, it would be a version of a 100 pt. system and look something like this:

  • 5 Points for First Impression or Color
  • 15 Points for Acidity
  • 10 Points for Tannin and its Texture/Mouth-Feel
  • 15 Points for Aroma or Bouquet
  • 10 Points for Flavor
  • 10 Points for Finish
  • 15 Points for Balance
  • 10 Points for Complexity (mid-palate & layered flavors)
  • 10 Points for Aging Potential

A red wine theoretically could have a perfect score of 100. White/rose wine with no tannin would have 90 as a perfect score. Without balance, complexity and aging potential, 35 points are lost! With this type of system you could easily get the point swing needed to separate amateur wines from bottle-aged fine wines.

Many of these components are too subjective to make it onto a judges sheet at an amateur wine competition. The focus there has to be on the basics: no faults, or objectionable components. How many people get to formally judge better wines anyway? Only a lucky few…

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Filed under Wine Collecting, Wine Critics, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Marketing, Wine Tasting

The Future of Wine Marketing?

Premium Branding and Targeted Marketing

Market Research

I try to spend time occasionally researching wine consumption and how those trends affect the industry. Along that line, a couple of media items came to my attention this week. This article published by Beverage Dynamics on current wine trends at – https://bit.ly/2JZ1cjp and the NPR Radio program regarding the history of Grey Goose brand Vodka and Jagermeister brand liqueur at – https://n.pr/2Fk3ZEg. Take a look for some background, or just follow along below. I will do my best to take you through the impressions this left with me that caused my view of wine marketing to veer in a very different direction.

2017 Wine Trends

This Beverage Dynamics piece lists:  the largest selling wine labels in U.S. by volume, their growth in the last year and the fastest growing labels coming up. So, I am reading through this piece and it occurs to me – with over a 600 bottle personal cellar, I don’t have one bottle of any of the labels mentioned. Not one! Why is that? I am sure some of these are decent daily-drinking wine. Not everything in our cellar is expensive wine. Why hadn’t I found one of these as a daily-drinker for my enjoyment? Had me thinking. Then I listened to this radio program…

Guerrilla Marketing & Beverage Industry

It appears Sidney Franks (of Grey Goose Vodka fame) was the original mastermind behind the concept of “guerrilla marketing” in the premium beverage business. Relative to the Jagermeister brand, he took a product enjoyed in the USA by old German guys, and gave it a new hip, young and fresh make-over. This very successful re-branding effort was accomplished by sending out young, trendy brand ambassadors to college bars to promote the product face-to-face. Wow! Grass-roots demand generation from the ground up! It is hard to believe such a simple idea built a brand in U.S. with over $500M+ in revenue.

Wine Marketing

Hang in there with me… So, I am thinking about the wine labels from the Beverage Dynamics piece and I realize, I can’t remember a single piece of advertising regarding these brands! Broadly distributed, high-volume labels don’t register on my radar. Not because I am a snob, just because these wines tend to be homogenized. All much alike – very drinkable, but without much character. I tend to tune out products that I don’t believe will be of interest… there it is: “will be of interest”. How does my brain decide what wine information should be filtered out? Even more interesting, what would it take to grab and hold my interest? Fodder for another piece down the road…

Wine Collectors

It took me over ten years to find a group of guys that collect classic premium wines in the Phoenix Metro area. It always struck me, why was that so difficult? What organization in the wine industry identifies the individual market segments and brings like-minded consumers together? I was thinking at least one producer would attempt to do this to promote their product and build demand. Nope. Nada. Nothing. How is that possible? I did find an organization a couple of years ago that I thought might be the answer: the American Wine Society, or AWS (http://www.americanwinesociety.org/). It didn’t work out at the time. The chapters in my area were focused on typical, easy drinking, lower price wines. After some investigation, I just lost interest. Then recently I ran into Jay Bileti (an officer at AWS) and he “listened”. The net result was gleaning out of the current membership a few folks whose interests leaned in this direction. Voila!, we had a wine collector’s tasting group. The point is: where is the industry involvement? It is becoming increasingly clear as the baby-boomer generation ages, marketing must become more focused, target specific price categories and connect with consumer interests. Implementing a little of that “Guerrilla” thinking and investing in filling this gap would have a huge impact on label/brand awareness. Add a few smart folks to the mix and you would have the next great Sidney Franks-like story in the wine business!

Wineries & Marketing Investment

The first simple idea would be for wine producers/marketing reps to reach out to consumer organizations like AWS. No, not the way it is done now, but to invest in surveying wine enthusiasts to identify consumer market segments, categorize interests, separate price categories, build palate profiles and associated taste models. THEN, provide services to connect individuals. The best marketing ideas build a COMMUNITY! This is where brand loyalty begins. Right now, none are willing to invest this way, because there is no vision for how to monetize it. This has to be the future for premium brand wine marketing as Boomers age. Just holding local wine tastings and wine dinners is not the full answer. I wonder, what would it take for a few producers to embrace this idea?

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Filed under Business, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Marketing

California Wine Has Been Changing

Sarcasm Seems Appropriate

Confession: I am a collector of wine. Hmmmm… Yep, the tone works. Lately, I am feeling like I need to apologize to wineries, retailers and distributors for collecting and storing their product. Maybe I need to start a Collector’s Anonymous group? Perhaps, I can develop a 12 step approach to curing my apparent illness and become famous. You may ask yourself, “Why haven’t I heard of this problem?” It has been camouflaged, lurking around the edges of changing demographics and trending demand.

These days, I am feeling the need to justify a collector’s version of wine appreciation. The majority of my wine inventory is 8-15 years old and some as much as 25. As my inventory ages, the enjoyment of complex, textured and elegant wine grows. This wine world I live in, is no longer fashionable to the industry crowd.

$$Another Impact of Changing Demographics$$

Let’s use Napa wineries as an example. 25-30 years ago most major Bordeaux style red wine producers in Napa (Beringer, Mondavi, Montelena, Jos Phelps, etc.) all were producing wines capable of aging 15-30 years (some more). After 2000, those drinking windows started moving and became 10-12 years. The next threshold was crossed about 2014. Now, many of the traditional Napa wines I drink have had drinking windows landing somewhere in a 5-8 year range. I now have to be careful NOT to hold these wines too long. It just goes against my grain to pop $100/btl wine in less than 5 years!

Why should the average wine consumer care? To produce earlier drinking red wines, the style usually requires more time in contact with new American oak, often are more extracted, higher in alcohol and less acidic. In short, easier drinking wines that are appealing to the younger, less experienced palate.

I am now thinking of canceling many of my California wine clubs and moving to more Bordeaux product. Even many Chianti, Chianti Classico and Brunello wineries have succumbed. Barolo and Barbaresco too, but those wines had aging windows of 25-50 years and are now landing at 10-25 years. I can live with that. Too many wineries are relenting to the economic pressure of appealing to the growing Millenial segment that is looking for drink-now wines, even in the luxury price range (over $50/btl). Caymus and Silver Oak are the well-known examples to reference in this category.

Old World Sensibility Matters

Balance, balance and more balance! All this extended cold soak and maceration and barrel aging in New American Oak, ugh! Many red wines are now so heavily extracted, they ruin all but the richest foods. Yes, oak makes the wine rounder and adds pleasing vanilla flavors… It also adds wood and butter in reds (like Chardonnay) and destroys the freshness of the fruit. If you enjoy wine with food, forget it. These wines are so round, they will not cut through accompanying food.

Thank goodness I still have Bordeaux to turn to. Fewer and fewer Napa wineries care about producing a structured, balanced red wine that can age. My wine buying days have not ended yet, just turned to 10 year old red Bordeaux from auction!

 

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Industry

The Zinfandel Dilemma

I attended a presentation today at the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference by a group of four Zin winery owners sponsored by ZAP (Zin Advocates & Producers) and heard this plea: we are serious winemakers producing serious wine, we deserve to be taken seriously! The session was titled “Zinfandel: Old and New.” I was expecting a serious discussion about old and new wine styles, but instead we heard the usual tired Zin topic: comparing old vs. young vine Zin. Not that this isn’t a viable topic, it has just been covered many times in many places and not really what these winemakers were passionate about. The ZAP moderator had to focus the discussion back on promoting the vineyards several times. This brings me to the reason for this commentary. I have seen it many times, when a winery doesn’t understand how best to develop a coordinated marketing plan, the focus is put on expression of place (terroir). There are definitely worse ideas, but Zinfandel in particular is a special case. Zinfandel has an identity problem first and foremost and if that isn’t addressed, all discussion of place is lost in the noise.

Red Zinfandel Wine & Consumer Perception

Zinfandel is the most manipulated wine grape on the planet. It is made in so many styles, you really have no idea what to expect every time you open a bottle from an unfamiliar producer. In contrast, when I pop Bordeaux/Meritage, Burgundy, or Rhône style wines, regardless of where they are made, I have a rough idea of what I will be tasting. That is a serious problem. If ZAP is trying to bring Zin into the premium space, they should be focusing on this issue. Collectors and restarauteurs need to have a point of reference. It must be quite difficult to build a marketing plan around a wine profile that is not generally familiar. Does the marketplace need some sort of generally accepted Zin style indicators?

So, here we go… my attempt to address this challenge:

RICH Zinfandel – Characterized by winemaking technique aimed at broad general appeal and high volume production. Usually driven by ideas like: whole cluster vacuum fermentation to add extraction and big fruit flavors, extended cold soak for more extraction, late harvest to accentuate over-ripe and raisiny fruit flavors and optical sorting to isolate late harvest raisins to make a concentrated must used to fortify larger batch production. Good examples would be Lodi and Paso Robles producers chasing the jammy Zin profile.

WARM CLIMATE Zinfandel – These would be producers in warm climate areas with a fine wine sensibility. Using Guyot trellising and vertical shoot positioning to build a Bordeaux style approach to Zin. This type of winemaking in these locations makes what I would call Zin with finesse. Not overly fruit-forward with low tannins and medium to medium-high acidity, often shooting for soft wines with good mouthfeel. Napa and Dry Creek Zin producers would be the example here.

COOL CLIMATE Zinfandel – These producers are trying to build a leaner style Zin with medium to high tannins and high to very high acidity. Often traditionalists, these estate vineyards are usually head-trained and laid out with more space 8’x8’ or 8’x12’ between the vines building a large cluster approach to fruit production. Zin tends to always drive fruity flavor profiles, so growing in a location with just enough sun and warmth to ripen the fruit seems to work. This is probably a “truer” expression of Zin for you purists and builds a wine much better for pairing with food. Producers from Amador and El Dorado Counties and Russian River are examples in this category.

Zinfandel BLEND – This is the newest idea in the industry and popularized by the very successful release of “The Prisoner” by Orin Swift orginally. Zinfandel as a varietal has broken through the stigma and become a more common blending grape. Several producers in Paso Robles have begun using Zin to add a fruit-forward and aromatic character in lieu of the traditional Grenache found in most Rhone blends. I find the result quite interesting. Try an example of a red blend with Zinfandel in the mix. When done well, these wines can be fruit-forward, acidic, tannic and have great mouthfeel all at once.

 Wine Tasting Session

2015 Terra d’Oro Deaver Vineyard – Mildly fruit-forward and slightly sour. Much like a Chianti without the structure. Some complexity would add interest. Medium acidity and tannins.

2015 Cedarville Vineyard Zinfandel – A fruit-forward nose and palate with black cherry and strawberry. A light mid-palate and finish of bitter dark chocolate. Medium-high acidity and medium-high tannins. This had a nice aromatic nose. Nice effort that maintains the integrity of the Zin profile, while offering a structured food-friendly approach.

2015 Proulx Zinfandel – A strong red fruit profile with a brambly note and a dominating nail polish character on the nose. Medium-high acidity and medium tannins.

2015 Limerick Lane Wines 1910 Block – This is loosely a Zinfandel “field blend”. More blackberry than the other wines tasted here (more black vs. red fruit). The enhanced black fruit is likely due to the other red varietals planted in this vineyard. There was a brambly character that added a pleasant complexity. High acidity and medium tannins.

Cool Climate Zinfandel

These four wines were grown in areas where at least the evenings are quite cool and the fruit is often picked a little earlier than other California Zin producers. These wine profiles were deliberately built to offer a more classic style of red wine with good structure and to pair well with food. Think food pairings like poultry, or pork – in particular, a Thanksgiving meal sort of sensibility.

Zinfandel Marketing

How do YOU feel about Zinfandel? It can be made in a very serious wine style, but is not often thought of this way. Marketing is critical for the producers in this style. It was mentioned in the session that these producers were not successfully selling into the Midwest and East Coast markets. The answer has to be an organization like ZAP that could develop a product identity well understood by the wine community.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Lodi, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Sonoma County, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes, Zinfandel

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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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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Filed under Food Pairing, Restaurant, Sommelier, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting

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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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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