Tag Archives: Wine Education

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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Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2c: Soil Types

“Voodoo Magic” in Wine?

Voodoo Juice

(Unrelated Copyrighted Trademark used to illustrate the idea)

Winemaking can be complex chemistry, artistic expression, or a mixture of the two, depending on the winery. That first “science-based” option is certainly the most accessible and also the reason so many winemakers have chemistry degrees. This approach (topic of the first piece in this series) utilizes empirical processes that have a direct, identifiable impact on the wine. Climate (topic of the previous piece in this series)  is another easy to recognize factor when tasting wine (with training), but these last two pieces in the series are about the “voodoo” in the wine: soil type and  vineyard management. I doubt many consumers would recognize the importance of this topic and most high-production bulk wineries rarely care, but for an estate winery under 50,000 cases of production… it is the key to differentiating an individual wine label . That is why you see so much maneuvering in the U.S. to establish new AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas). Winery owners are trying to attach special significance to the fruit source (vineyard location). Developing a unique wine profile is critical to marketing strategies for these producers. As a consumer, I am usually only interested in the “voodoo”, if I have visited that vineyard at the estate. Analysis of soil and vineyard management is just too dry a topic to review without some sort of personal connection. Does the appellation factor into your choice in wine? Do you look for “Rutherford”, or “Margaux” on the label, before you select your Cabernet Sauvignon/blend?

Soil Types

I am reasonably sure no one is interested in a chemistry primer on soil composition, so I will try to move this discussion towards general soil categories. These vineyard site characteristics can have recognizable effects on quality and flavor. Let’s bypass mineral composition and move directly to key factors affecting the vines. There are many different vineyard soil types: Silt, Sand, Loam, Clay, Gravel, etc. There are even more specific sub-types: Calcareous, Schist, Shale, etc. Although, these soils all have just a few tangible characteristics that have well-known effects on the vines.

Water Drainage and Free Organic Matter – Soils that do not drain well, or are too fertile produce horrible wine. When vines grow vigorously, the berries are larger, the juice after press is less concentrated and the resulting wine is one dimensional. Examples: Poor Soil – Loam, Silt. Better Soil – Gravel, Sand.

Soil pH – Basic soil (higher pH) is the key here – think regions like Champagne, Loire, West Paso Robles and other locations with calcareous soils high in calcium carbonate. All the anecdotal evidence for this shows basic soils produce acidic wine – a key component to the structure of quality wine. I won’t bore you with the theoretical chemistry, but evidence seems to confirm this idea. Better Soils – Calcareous, Chalk, Marl.

Soil Depth – An impermeable layer should not be less than 40″ below the surface for dry-farming of the vines (dry-farming should be the goal).

Water Retention – This may sound contradictory, but the best vineyard sites have both good drainage at the site AND good water retention in the soil. These characteristics exist and are excellent for dry-farming vineyards (no irrigation).

Varietal Soil Preferences

Interestingly, when specific varietals are grown in an area over long periods of time (decades+) successfully, the vines seem to adapt to the terroir. This optimization has never been formally studied, but general observations abound in the world wine community supporting this idea. Currently, vineyard root stock for each varietal is available in many slightly different clone options adapted to different climatic and soil conditions. The growers choice of which clone to plant can be a make, or break business decision. Areas like Burgundy, where Pinot Noir has been grown for more than 500 years, have allowed the vines to adapt naturally and you can tell the difference in quality.

Grape varietals often have their own soil preferences:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon produces the best wine when grown in Gravel and Volcanic soils.
  • Merlot produces the best wine when grown in Sandy Clay.
  • Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produces the best wine when grown in Chalky soils.

Some varietals seem to do well in many different soil types, but manifest radically different flavors:

  • Sauvignon Blanc has tropical fruit flavors when produced in Marlborough (New Zealand) and lemon and/or grapefruit flavors when produced in Napa Valley (California).
  • Zinfandel tends toward Strawberry flavors when from Dry Creek (Sonoma County), but can have strong jammy blackberry and blueberry notes when produced in West Paso Robles (Central California Coast).

Vineyard - Larkmead Vineyards

Estate Wineries Embracing Vineyard Variation

A few years ago the head winemaker Dan Petroski at Larkmead Vineyards offered the best explanation I have heard for optimization of variable growing conditions at a single vineyard site. In recent years, Larkmead has invested heavily in their belief that soils and micro-terroir make a difference in the quality of the wine. Their estate vineyards (108 acres planted) have been separated into 40+ separate vineyard blocks, some quite small (against typical industry thinking). Some of these vineyard sections were re-planted to change row direction and take advantage of improved sun orientation and drainage characteristics. The blocks were separated based on soil testing and observation to define clearly different growing conditions. Where this gets really interesting is their further investment in numerous smaller stainless steel fermentation tanks. For those who say terroir impact on wine is a fallacy, they need to taste the lot to lot differences side-by-side at an estate winery using this vineyard strategy. This system of wine production allows the winemaker to take advantage of distinctly different wines and offer them as separately bottled vineyard designate releases, or blend the individual blocks to achieve a better, more complex product.

My Previous Recommendations

Now, let’s put this information to use (remember the “voodoo”). In past pieces, I have suggested that certain growing regions tend to generally produce better quality over-all. Let’s explore a few reasons why…

Valley Floors (in the flood plain) – These locations tend to have a high percentage of silt, but not always. For example, the right bank of the Garonne River in Bordeaux has sandy clay soil (premier Merlot region in the world). Putting aside complex locations like Bordeaux and speaking in generalities, valley floor locations produce simpler wines that often are missing structure… especially when grown in warm climates, examples: Puglia, Italy or Inland Valleys, California. There are some interesting exceptions though. Certain varietals (like Tempranillo) can grow in these locations (i.e. Ribero del Duero) and thrive, but I would be careful if you are searching out quality. Know your varietals and their optimal growing regions, unless you are comfortable experimenting with hit, or miss results.

Mountain/Hill Sides – These locations tend to be virtually barren, with well-drained schist, slate, granitic (etc.) topsoils. In many cases, wine grapes are the only crop these soils can support. Again, this seems contradictory, but these regions can offer perfect conditions for many different wine grape varietals. Examples of Mountain/Hill type optimal growing regions: Syrah – Northern Rhone, Nebbiolo – Barolo, Riesling – Mosel, Cabernet Sauvignon – Spring Mountain.

Examples of a few optimal growing regions by varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley, Left Bank Bordeaux; Merlot – Right Bank Bordeaux, Spring Mountain; Pinot Noir – Burgundy, Willamette Valley; Syrah – Rhone Valley, Barossa Valley; Malbec – Mendoza, Riesling – Mosel, Chenin Blanc – Loire Valley, Swartland, Stellenbosch.

Magic-pot-witchcraft

The Voodoo

No one really knows for sure what specific chemical composition is changed due to these soil factors. Neither is it known the process by which these soils change the character of the wine, but I can tell you, a trained palate can taste wine blind and describe the type of terroir it originates from.

Next…

Is this topic never-ending? Yes! The potential for exploring variability in wine character is quite literally endless. Although, I will endeavor to finish this series in my next piece with an evaluation of Vineyard Management and its impact on wine.

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Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2b: Vineyard Location

Vineyard Influence on Wine Flavors and Structure

As I dive deeper into this, the rabbit hole takes me deeper and deeper… I must apologize again. Location is too big a topic to include a discussion of soil types in the same piece… So, it appears I will have a part 2a, 2b and 2c in this series on “Why Wines Taste Different”. For those of you staying with me on this, thanks for your patience and perseverance.

Vineyard Location

Varietals

This topic has everything to do with the individual varietal. If you want to find the best wines, a big part of the answer is in the vineyard location. Learning to differentiate the common warm climate varietals from the cool climate varietals is important:

Cabernet-Sauvignon-Grapes

(Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes)

Warm Climate Reds 

Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot, Sangiovese

Viognier grapes

(Viognier Grapes)

Warm Climate Whites

Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot noir Grapes

(Pinot Noir Grapes)

Cool Climate Reds

Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Merlot

riesling-wine-grapes

(Riesling Grapes)

Cool Climate Whites

Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino, Pinot Gris, Glera, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer

Climate Affect on Wine Character

There are many more varietals in each category, but these are frequently seen in single varietal formats and are the most common. Notice that Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah are listed as both. These four are the most versatile wine varietals in the world. They can make quality wines in both warm and cool climates, but keep in mind the flavors and textures are totally different when grown in the different locations. Warm climate Merlot has less acidity/tannins and can be beautifully soft, or horribly flabby. Warm climate Chardonnay usually has less acidity and tends towards simple citrus flavors. Most warm climate Sauv Blanc tastes like fresh mown grass mixed with lemonade to me, but others enjoy it. Warm climate Syrah is another story… warm climate locations are better when moderated by a Mediterranean climate, but these areas can produce killer wines. Cool Climate locations can produce exceptionally complex Syrah, but sometimes are a little weak on fruit flavors, so are often mixed with Viognier to enhance approachability. I enjoy these wines tremendously.

What to Look For?

Spring Mtn Vineyard

(Spring Mountain Vineyard)

Inland Locations at Higher Elevation

(roughly 2,000-4,000 feet)

For example, try the top of Spring Mountain AVA and Howell Mountain AVA in Napa Valley. You will find bold wines with a pleasant blend of acidity, tannins and alcohol there. In the hands of an expert winemaker, these vineyards can produce a wonderful, fully developed mid-palate. Haven’t heard the terms “attack”, “mid-palate”, or “finish”? Drop me a line and I will write a piece explaining these wine characteristics!

Mosel Vineyard

(Mosel Vineyard)

Steep Vineyard Sites

These sites stress the vines and drain them very effectively. The berries are usually smaller and the fruit (and resulting wines) always have more intense flavors. These vineyards are everywhere, just keep an eye out. The opposite holds true, be careful with wines made from valley floor fruit. If not managed carefully, these vineyards can become bulk wine territory! The most extreme examples lie in the Mosel Region in Germany.

Langhe_vineyard

(Langhe Vineyard)

Inland Foggy Locations

Remember those Cool Climate varietals… if there is enough sunshine to fully ripen the berries at these sites, WATCH OUT! These wines are amazingly good. These vineyards can produce complex, fruit forward wines with high acidity. Watch your vintages with these producers. In cooler years, these wines can be very rustic, and/or thin. U.S. Examples: Santa Rita / Santa Maria AVA, or Russian River AVA.

Finger-Lakes-vineyard

(Finger Lakes Vineyard)

Inland Locations Adjacent to Large Lakes

Often, cold winter climates can support vineyards in these areas. The lakes moderate the low temps at night during bud-break and harvest (Spring & Fall). Depending on the amount of sun, these vineyards can produce fresh, brisk white wines, or a well-balanced lighter style of red wine. U.S. Examples: Lake County AVA or Finger Lakes AVA.

Sonma coast Vineyard

(Sonoma Coast Vineyard)

Coastal Locations

These sites can produce excellent, or horrible fruit from vineyard to vineyard. The best sites don’t get a lot of rain and are watered by the dew and fog. In addition, higher elevation sites adjacent to the coastline are an advantage. The elevation offers more time above the morning foggy conditions to ripen the fruit and destroy the potential mildew. These vineyards will not produce easy drinking wines, but if you like complex flavors (sometimes unusual) and good structure, try a few of these and find out if they are for you. U.S. Examples – Sonoma Coast AVA.

Conclusion

Valley floor locations almost always produce easier drinking softer wines, especially when located in warmer climates. These are not my kind of wines, but I recognize that many consumers enjoy this style. Each to their own, but at least with this information, you can understand what influences how these wines taste. If you are willing to evaluate your preferences and find the vineyard locations that match your palate for each varietal, it will enrich your wine experience (find my preferences below).

Vineyard Locations I Prefer (a few)

Chardonnay – Burgundy AOC, Champagne AOC, Mendocino AVA, Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills AVA, Russian River AVA

Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough Appellation, Sancerre AOC

Chenin Blanc – Vouvray AOC, Stellenbosch and Swartland Appellations

Merlot – Right Bank Bordeaux AOC, Spring Mountain AVA, Walla Walla AVA

Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley AVA, Left Bank Bordeaux AOC, Bolgheri Superiore IGT, Maipo Valley Appellation

Syrah – Southern and Northern Cotes du Rhone AOC, Paso Robles AVA, Walla Walla AVA, Barossa Valley Appellation

Pinot Noir – Burgundy AOC, Willamette Valley AVA, Santa Rita Hills AVA

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Passion and the Human Endeavor

Life Speaking
I recognized long ago that I am a little different.  I work hard to find passion in all the major endeavors in my life.  Without it, I am lost, unfulfilled, totally aimless.  The marketing and business development fields can be cold and calculated, but I am unable to function this way.  When I craft a message, it must resonate with me FIRST, then appeal to the market… being able to enthusiastically engage with clients, groups, an audience… comes from inside and passion is the key driver.  Often I am terribly misunderstood by co-workers and clients, thinking I am a hard-charging, aggressive businessman.  I am truly just passionate about what I do.  I BELIEVE strongly in a well-crafted point of view with an associated message.  This relates to both my career and my pastimes.

Why Start a Blog?

I have a PASSION for FINE wines.  No, not the less expensive stuff that I and so many other people drink daily/weekly, but the wine that reflects the talent and/or art of the maker and evokes emotion when enjoyed.  I am a formally trained and certified Sommelier (some test that was, whew!).  Hopefully – with the knowledge to investigate effectively topics within the industry that are relevant and interesting.  So, please join me on this journey, as I delve into the wine industry and try to capture the stories of the people and their vision behind the labels.
very-controlling-person-new-yorker-cartoon

Finding an Audience

When starting a Public Blog, most choose to write about a pastime, or profession, but just as important as choosing the topic – is deciding the context.  Will the audience, or writer drive the content?  Can a writer control the direction?  Am I being a control freak by tailoring an approach to topics I find interesting?  When I first started this blog a few years ago, I thought it would be written for the average consumer and I would “bring wine education to the masses”, but I soon realized I was developing an audience among industry professionals and a large percentage were from outside the U.S.  So, as the readership grows, I have re-assessed and decided to step with both feet into wine writing with a different purpose in mind.  I am writing now for a range of readers beyond the casual wine drinker: Wine Enthusiasts, Wine Collectors, Winery Managers, Wine Distribution, Tasting Room Attendants, Somms, Wait Staff, Chefs and someday perhaps Winemakers.  If the typical wine drinker finds the deeper dive of interest too, then so be it.

The Message

In keeping with the audience, moving forward, this site will focus on the wines and wineries associated with the top 10-20% of consumer dollars spent on bottles over $20USD.  For anyone who has read a few of my posts, it is fairly obvious that is where my interest lies.  So, I am just aligning the blog more closely with my interests and hoping the readership continues to grow and finds the content worthy of the time spent reading it.

Thank YOU

I appreciate all of you that have stopped by this site in the past year, or two and found something of interest.  It is difficult to feel justified as a writer, unless someone is reading your words.  I can accept that committing to this direction for the blog may not have the potential to find the largest audience, but it DOES follow my passion.  A trade-off that seems well-made…

HAPPY HOLIDAYS and BEST WISHES FOR A HAPPY, HEALTHY NEW YEAR!

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