Riesling goes on World Tour

Wine regions of Germany.

As a young wine drinker, I was traumatized by my parent’s Riesling cellar. Hording their prizes for some decades resulted in many syrupy, oxidized bottles and completely ruining my palate for anything starting with “R”. Determined to give all things a second chance, I jumped at the chance to attend the Riesling & Co. World Tour tasting yesterday. Since my German wine knowledge is tiny to non-existent, I did a little reading up before my boss at Wine & Spirits, Luke Sykora, and I set out to taste.

The key to German wines is 85, according to Kevin Zraly, wine instructor and author of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. (A book that I just started working my way through and a great primer for anyone wanting to get their wine-on without being overwhelmed.) Here’s how he explains it:

  • 85% of German wines are white.
  • If a German wine label has a variety printed on it, the wine must contain 85% of that grape.
  • If a German wine label has a vintage printed on it, 85% of the wine must be from that vintage.

So, with the number “85” in my head and my cheat sheet in hand, I headed over to a chic, industrial space on Alabama Street in the Mission District of San Francisco where Wines of Germany hosted the tasting. Weingut Dr. Loosen was represented powerfully with their 2011 Ürzinger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese and 2006 Riesling Beerenauslese.

Important Fact: Riesling is the most widely planted grape in Germany.

Escherndorf, Germany

They say Germans are all about precision. I found they are also all about great acids, stone fruits, and a kiss of residual sugar. The Dr. Loosen wines demonstrated the careful balance between sweetness and acid that good Riesling achieves. I learned the word “Spätlese” signifies that the grapes were harvested late, which gives them more time to mature in the sun. Also a mark of quality, “Beerenauslese” describes a wine made from grapes that were berry selected. Imagine! Each little berry being picked for it’s precise ripeness. The product of these meticulous harvest practices are wines with amazingly strong acids and particular amalgamation of fall apples and Spanish spices.

Those impressive acids are important for the longevity of German Rieslings, as I later discovered when we tasted 2003 Domänenweingut Schloss Schönborn Riesling Kabinett that was still fresh and young with unique cheesy, spicy notes. The “chessy-ness” Luke attributed to age and more of a textural change than a scent. Other markers of age included buttery roundness and golden, but not brown, color on the 1994 Weingut G.A. Schneider Riesling Spätlese and 1989 Wiengut Brüder Dr. Becker Riesling Spätlese.

In roughly two hours, my Riesling horrors had begun to subside and now I know it’s not Riesling, it’s my parent’s cellaring habits that I have to avoid. For all you skeptics out there, my advice is keep trying everything and try it again. You never know how your palate is going to evolve.


Wine-ventures in Carneros!

Follow this post stream all day while I take a solo tour of a few Carneros wine spots.

1st Stop: Artesa Vineyards and Winery

Founded by a family of Spanish wine producers, it has sister wineries in Spain and Argentina. Elegant Chardonnay and grippy, gutsy Cabernet Sauv. Doesn’t hurt that the staff are attentive and knowledgeable, which is a great benefit as a solo explorer.


2nd Stop: Cuvaison

I hit their new tasting space in Carneros. (The original is located in Calistoga.) Cal, my tasting host, seated me in on a recycled aluminum chair in the expansive roll-back window of their two-year-old, green tasting room. Refreshing Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blanc are the signatures of Cuvaison. Incredibly beautiful spot, just remember, no picnics on ag land.


3rd Stop: Nicholson Ranch

This was my favorite stop. Lance, my tasting host, was a font of knowledge about the wines, industry, area, and general wine life. A beautiful, reasonably priced flight of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah was poured in individual glasses so I could return to each wine. The energy at Nicholson Ranch is the kind of energy that was present in California in the bloom of the 70s. Enthusiasm for the art and aesthetic of wine and not just the profits or the associated status symbols. This winery was not on my list, but I’m glad I Bouchaine was closed, otherwise I might never have stumbled upon it.


Bubbles on a Budget

A Valentine’s Day co-post by Melissa Haskin and Anneka Miller.


Either on the deck under the stars or at The Nines Hotel with a rose petal turn down service, why is it always a bottle of sparkling wine?

It’s a tradition that goes back to the Roman conquest. But back then it wasn’t the champagne we know today. In the 1500s, the English first discovered that adding extra sugar to a bottle of wine and sealing it created an effervescing effect. It took another 100 years to perfect the technique.

Champagne, one French version of sparkling wine, became popular in the French court of Versailles. “Royalty loved the novelty of sparkling wine,” Kolleen M. Guy, associate professor and author told Life’s Little Mysteries. “It was said to have positive effects on women’s beauty and man’s wit.” King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour is quoted saying, “Champagne is the sole drink a woman who is careful of her beauty can drink. It makes you glow with no ugly flush. You can drink it all evening and still be beautiful when you awake the next morning.”

This light colored sparkler became popular throughout Europe and then the United States as a symbol of luxury and mark of celebration. “Champagne does this symbolically, but also visually, since it overflows in abundance and joy,” said Guy.

Sparkling wine isn’t limited to the famously expensive Champagnes. Mousseux and Cremant are two other French wines produced outside Champagne, France. The Spanish make Cava, the Germans make Sket, and the Italians make Prosecco. (The best way to piss off a wine snob is to call Barefoot sparkling brut, Champagne because not all bubbly’s are champagne.)

With all the glittering options, buying bubbles for your sweetheart doesn’t have to break the bank. We set out to find three good sparklers around $10.

We started with something light that has a classic Champagne feel, Blason de Bourgogne Crémant de Bourgogne. It is a well balanced sparkly, with a dry yet fruity finish. We could drink this with traditional spaghetti, fettuccine Alfredo, white fish such as sole, or tomato feta chicken. For a night out at a quality Italian eatery with a small corkage fee, we suggest Mazzi’s with this bottle in tow, or a bottle of Torre Oria Cava Rosado. Blushing pink with bright strawberry fruit, it pairs beautifully with 60% dark chocolate, and starts fresh on the front of the tongue and finishes dry on the back. Pasta a la Bolognese would be our dish of choice for this wine.

If a sweet wine is the way to your honey’s heart, Cupcake Vineyards Piemonte Moscato is a soft bubble that leaves notes of honeysuckle and orange blossom in your nose. Best standing alone, it’s a perfect start or finish to any evening. One thing to note is that this bottle requires a corkscrew, but we promise there’s bubbles, so be careful when opening.


For more information check out this visual history of champagne.

The Manifesto – Who should be teaching in this wine classroom?

Everyone's 100+ in our book! Site design from scorevolution.com.

There is a “scorevolution” happening. Well, it’s actually a score revolution. It would seem that all of the debate about wine scores is finally coming to a head in the form of the Score Revolution. Ignited by a group of Washington wine producers, the Score Revolution has taken to the web-waves and is gathering signatures on its digital manifesto. “Saving Place of Origin with Elegance.”

I stumbled on this phenomenon while finishing up my thesis conclusion. (I know this amorphous “thesis” thing keeps coming up, but it occupies a good portion of  my time and my brain right now.) The report I read in Wines & Vines September 2011 issue, characterized the movement as “quixotic,” and I couldn’t agree more.

The list of “revolutionaries” who have signed the manifesto include Randall Grahm, literary owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard, Kermit Lynch, wine importer of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, and Alan Kropf, editor-in-chief of Mutineer magazine. Almost 630 names and more than 130 wine related institutions are on the manifesto. The message board attached to the manifesto is running strong. So, perhaps it’s true.

“change is born from a single idea, an idea that begins with a murmer in the streets. grows into the infectious rabble of the people. and finally to the crescendo of a revolution.”

But, I can’t help being a little cynical about this manifesto against wine scores. I completely agree with the arguments made and the sentiment that’s driving it, but beyond adding one’s name to the growing list, the manifesto doesn’t lay out any real plan for rendering scores irrelevant. Like Millenarian movement, it espouses the change its writers want to see, but doesn’t mention action. Maybe the authors purpose was more to start a conversation about the issue using the wide wine world to spread it. But, we’ve been having the conversation for years. In my four short years in the industry, the conversation has never stopped.

I can’t help thinking that wine scores will continue to shape wine sales until parties such as those who’ve agreed with this digital pledge, agree to some action. Wine scores, after all, form the base of many a strong marketing plan. They’re a tool for the industry as much as an annoyance. No one can tell me they don’t help sell wine. An endless cycle of contributions from willing winemakers and republication by giddy marketing managers just serves to reinforce their messages and tell consumers that these wine writer/critics are good sources of wine advice.

I propose a return to a utopian time when winemakers and viticulturists were the teachers in the wine classroom. A time when wine buyers and merchants were the keepers of knowledge that they dole out in information rich paragraphs. No numbers. No clusters. No stars. Just patience and appreciation. To get to this “mythical” land, the industry is going to have to give up those wine samples they send habitually. They’re going to have to give up including tasting “Tweets” and bold numbers in their marketing brochures, and use other methods to build up their customer base. What about affordable educational events instead of dripping with drink soirees that the average consumer can never afford? I like the idea of creating an environment where the guest feels like one of the family. My most memorable tasting experiences in France happened in the front living room of a proprietor’s house. Getting wine producers to sign a manifesto like that would be revolutionary indeed.

The “natural” wine movement


The great marketing genius of shelf tags on display.

Pulling back from the haze of my thesis work, (well, forced back by a dead laptop battery) I turned to my Longreads app and pulled up an interesting piece Mike Steinberger, previously of Slate.com’s wine column, posted on his blog. The “natural wine movement” was the subject. Whispers of this so called “movement” had reached me when I was immersed in wine instead of academics. It always struck me as more of a catch phrase, a product of marketing than an actual wine production ideology. The current debate seems to suggest otherwise.

Steinberger’s post is in response to a column Eric Asimov wrote for The New York Times about the flying criticism. It’s odd to read two wine writers I respect highly attack each other with such “vitriol” about something that probably originated as an advertising slogan.

My research focus for the last four months or so has been the dynamic relationship between the wine industry and the media, and from what I can see the slogan “natural wine” serves the same purpose as the wine score: to sell wine! Both are subject to great, passionate debate. And, undoubtably both impact wine production in their own way.

Steinberger made his best point when he quoted himself in Slate magazine: “Winemakers are the ultimate pragmatists and empiricists. Most who work in a ‘natural’ way are doing so not to be fashionable or politically correct, but because they think it produces better results. And as any competent vintner will tell you, winemaking can’t be reduced to a recipe, and process alone doesn’t account for quality. The fact that so much of the conversation about natural wines is being driven by nonpractitioners makes it hard to assign it much weight.” I agree with him completely. My unofficial wine training has taken place thus far in the “school of David Lett.” A true “natural” viticulturist and enologist. Though I doubt he ever advertised himself or his wines as such.

I had the good fortune to meet Eric Asimov at the International Pinot noir Celebration this last summer and he explained to me what he felt the function, if you will, of a wine writer was, “not just rating wines and telling people what to drink, but making people think about wine. Consider where it comes from, from whom it comes, why it is as it is, why it costs what it costs, and all the politics, the economics, the history, and the culture of wine.” Which, I will argue, he was doing when he wrote his column in the first place. Not to point fingers necessarily, but to bring the debate to the attention of his audience.

Perhaps I missed the point of both articles, but what I find most curious is the amount of serious attention being given to a label. I’m no expert in marketing; however, it’s my experience that if you can’t explain your label to your consumer market in 2 sentences or less, you’re not going to sell any of your wine. So, if the critics could be quelled with one thought, it may be this: it doesn’t matter if the “natural” winemaker can explain what he’s doing, unless he wants to use that moniker to sell wine, and if he does, than that’s where the rubber really hits the road.