Do Scores Matter in the Wine World?

chadwick-pic-3This is an old topic that will really never go out of fashion. I think there should be constant discussion regarding wine scores since those factors that influence wine purchases are starting to change as Millennials, ages 21-34 become more influential. Stories about the producers, region, history and culture seem to be of greater importance to this group, and hence, scores may not be the only factor that younger drinkers are considering. But wines need to get on their radar first before they even attempt to research them. And that is where scores, whether they are taken at face value or not, can make someone at any age take the time to seek out particular wines.


Although there have been many notable great British (as well as many other great wine minds around the world ) critics who have helped to convey quality through scores, as an American, no one has had the impact that Robert Parker has had in establishing this system. It seems that either people love him or hate him, but no matter one’s personal opinion, I hope we can all agree that he was a game changer. He was a consumer, self taught, who decided to empower others while empowering himself. He created the 100 point system which helped consumers of all economic backgrounds make their own choices at retail stores and restaurants. This system became so popular and powerful because it was a system that was desperately needed in America, and eventually encouraged the US to become the vibrant wine drinking country it is today, but I know the system is not perfect and we are still evolving as a wine drinking country.

A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to try various wines from Chile and Argentina, as famous wine critic James Suckling brought the event “Great Wines of the Andes” to NYC, as well as to other major cities around the US. This event showcased wines that Suckling considered as the best out of the over 2000 wines he had tasted in Chile. This is where we get into controversial tropics with wine critics because some may rightly argue that certain amazing wines were left off this list, and bring up the valid point that this list is just one person’s opinion. But these are valid points for any list, or any critic or any recommendations for that matter. I try to think of these events/lists as an opportunity to discover new wines, or bring greater attention to wines that I know, instead of focusing on the wines that were missed if I were to make my own list.


chadwick-pic-1Because there were many producers in town, I had the chance to sit down with a few of them, taste their wines, and talk to them about what was currently exciting in their world. One great encounter, historical I would even say, was with the owner of Viña Errázuriz, Eduardo Chadwick. Chilean wine lovers will be very well acquainted with his winery which is credited with giving Chile some validity in the fine wine world.

100 Points

It would have already been a pleasure to meet him and taste current releases because I have admired his family winery, their accomplishments and wines for many years. But I was even more intrigued because one of his wines, the 2014 iconic Viñedo Chadwick, was given 100 points by James Suckling – the first 100 point Chilean wine. Again, going back to the main issue of points being one person’s opinion, even though it is a well experienced and educated opinion, but yes, I give it to you, it is still one person’s opinion. And so, if you are not a fan of Suckling’s taste, maybe the 100 points does not mean as much as a wine critic you do follow. But I would argue, in this case, that it is significant. It is significant because it will garner the attention for Chile that they so rightly deserve. Those who know their wines, their diversity, the elegance and intoxicating complexity that is possible from their top wines will say, “It is about damn time that we have a 100 point Chilean wine!”

I only had one hour to talk to Eduardo Chadwick and he spent 15 minutes talking about his family and their wines, while he spent the other 45 minutes talking about Chile and all the reasons why it is a great wine making country. He gave us a book called “The Berlin Tasting – Uncorking the Potential of Chile’s Terroir” that documented this famous tasting that placed not only his 2000 Viñedo Chadwick wine in first place but also went into detail about the glory of Chile.  He also expressed pride that many Chilean wines, from other producers, have high rankings in various blind tasting that have taken place around the world.

The Judgment of Paris

Hearing Chadwick’s pride in the Chilean contingent doing well in these blind tastings reminded me of how important The Judgment of Paris was to California producers. It was a blind tasting in 1976, in Paris, involving top wine critics – nine out of the eleven judges were French. Two Napa Valley wines received top marks for both white and red categories, beating out top producers from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The importance of this tasting was not to give the US bragging rights over France with regards to wine, but rather, it helped to legitimize a struggling region that had been considered a joke to the rest of the world. It still gives me chills when I talk to the old time producers from Napa Valley, who started in the 1970s, and they tell me that once the news broke out, about The Judgment of Paris, they were then able to get approvals for loans that were once denied. Napa Valley may have never become a world class wine area if it wasn’t for that one event.

Caballo Loco

caballo-loco-pic-1In the spirit of shining a light on the world class wines that Chile is producing, I would like to mention an unknown wine, certainly a lesser known one in the US: Caballo Loco, which means “Crazy Horse” in English. I met with their humble winemaker Brett Jackson – originally from New Zealand, who moved to Chile over 20 years ago – to taste his wild Caballo Loco wines. In the past, I have always thought of Chilean wines as being the reserved “safe” wines from South America, due to their restraint compared to wines from other South American countries, but the Caballo Loco wines were some of the most “savage” wines I have had from Chile.

The Caballo Loco wines had wild flavors while still having a backbone of the elegance one expects from the great wines of Chile. The wines are named after one of the owners whose nickname is Crazy Horse. Since Chileans are typically reserved people, evidently due to the idea that they are an isolated country because of the ocean on one side and the Andes Mountains on the other side, it is atypical to have such a free spirit. But he was the inspiration for their incredibly unique Caballo Loco Nº 16, which is described below, and it is the first time I have experienced such a wine. They are currently trying to get better distribution in the US and I hope Suckling’s “Great Wines of the Andes” events have helped them in this task.


When it comes to scores it is important to keep them in perspective. Scores are great opportunities to discover a new producer, whether it creates an impetus to try their highly scored wine or their other more affordable options, or just wines from the region, or in this case just premium wines from another country, such as Chile. In this way, 100 points can be valuable to everyone, if we also realize that those who haven’t achieved a high score can still be interesting wines to try as well.

chadwick-pic-4Eduardo Chadwick was understandably excited for his family’s wines. It was bittersweet because his late father is the one who allowed him to plant vineyards in 1992, over his beloved polo fields, since his father, a famous polo player, was retired from playing polo at the time – that vineyard would end up making this 100 point wine. Eduardo has not only honored his father’s memory through his determination and accomplishments of making fine wine using his family’s names, Errazuriz and Chadwick, but he brings great honor to all the forefathers, as well as foremothers, of Chile.

And if this particular 100 points get significantly more people to taste and read about Chilean wines, then yes, it does matter in my eyes.


Errazuriz Wines Tasted on September 27th, 2016

chadwick-pic-2-2014 Viñedo Chadwick, Puente Alto, Maipo Valley, Chile: Puente Alto in Maipo. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Only available in a case of three vertical wines: 1 each 2014, 2012, 2010. Previous vintage 2013 is available on the market for $212 according to Maipo Valley has one of the best reputations for big red wines in Chile with the Puento Alto region having the highest reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon. Many describe it as the ‘Bordeaux of South America’. The name of this wine honors Eduardo Chadwick’s father. The pure elegance of this wine was stunning with pretty notes of cassis, lilacs and a whiff of cigar box. From the first sip, the silky texture is simply breathtaking, as well as the long, pure and expressive finish.

-2013 Viña Errázuriz Don Maximiano, Aconcagua Valley, Chile ($62): 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec, 6% Carménère and 5% Petit Verdot. At one time, Errazuriz winery was mocked for planting vines in the Aconcagua Valley for the purpose of making fine wine due to the preconceived notion that it was too hot. Many of those critics did not take into account the moderating affects of the Andes Mountains, Pacific Ocean and Humboldt Current. They succeeded by becoming one of the most celebrated producers in Chile. Errazuriz is the family name from Eduardo Chadwick’s paternal grandmother’s side of the family – she was the grand niece of the founder.  A bigger wine than the Chadwick with muscular tannins and flavors of dried plums, black berries and a touch of rosemary. After a few hours of decanting, it showed more nuanced minerality and rounder tannins.

-2013 Viña Errázuriz Max Reserva Chardonnay, Aconcagua Valley, Chile ($14): 100% Chardonnay. 60% Malolatic fermentation. Wild yeasts. 10% New oak. I had this wine after the reds and I was happy I tried it. I used to have a prejudice against South American Chardonnay, but this one was a nice surprise, especially considering the price. Ripe white peach with sweet spice and nutty oak. It had a rich quality many Chardonnay lovers like yet it still had plenty of acidity to keep it lively.

Caballo Loco Wines Tasted on September 28th, 2016

-2013 Caballo Loco Grand Cru Apalta, Colchagua Valley, Chile (SRP $35): Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère. Apalta is identified as a Grand Cru vineyard in the Colchagua Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère and Cabernet Franc due to a longer growing season that helps to develop more aromatics. Deep color with ripe black currant fruit, a hint of thyme and firm yet fine tannins that give a nice structure to this wine.

 caballo-loco-pic-2-Caballo Loco Nº 16, Maipo, Apalta and Central Valleys, Chile (SRP $70): 50% Nº 15 and 50% 2011. This wine does not have a vintage because it is fractionally blended with the best barrels from various vintages. Because every year they use 50% of previously fractionally blended wines, they figure that there is still tiny portions from their first vintages of 1992 and 1994, as well as all the ones in between, in this blend.   Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Carménère are all the varieties in this blend. A multi-layered and dimensional wine with cedar infused plums, dried blackberries and fresh blood oranges that had an underlayer of coffee notes. A powerful wine with volume and tension that had a prolonged and flavorful finish. 








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Can’t We All Just Get Along – in the Wine World

locationsThere is so much turmoil in the Western World right now. Friends, family members, co-workers, etc. are fighting, insulting and breaking relationships possibly forever… and for what? A difference of opinion about what would make the world, France, UK or my home country, the US, a better place? All of us want the same thing, right? We just see things differently. I’m hopeful that once tempers cool down, all of us will realize that the best way to make things better is by compromising and coming together… and that insulting people will never make them compassionate to your situation.

But I understand… things are a little heated right now… I have certainly said things I wished I had never said… but that is the process of growing as a human being. All of us can only be hopeful that we will do better tomorrow.

Brand vs Family Winery

Talking about debating, how about that long, sometimes heated, debate of which is better, brands or family wineries? I am a wine geek and so many people think I would be against an obvious “brand”. Some may think that geeks are only attracted to obscure wines that have a complicated label, which few others can understand.

On the contrary, while I may geek out with the best of them and I certainly love well-established family wineries, I also love anything in the wine world that makes this beverage more accessible and fun for everyone. Nothing thrills me more than when I hear a long time beer or spirit drinker say that they found a wine that made them think that they could be a “wine drinker” too – and usually it is a well known brand that brings them to the wine side. I want the whole, appropriately aged, drinking world to connect to a libation that has truly changed my life a hundred times for the better. The only way to do that, on a large scale, is through a strong brand.

Dave Phinney

Dave Phinney is a man that understands the concept of a successful brand. Even though, at one time, he was just a lone wolf in Napa Valley, California, who decided to take the leap of starting his own wine company, Orin Swift Cellars in 1998, he eventually became a master branding genius. His main wine brand, The Prisoner, won many Americans over to be ultra premium wine drinkers. It is atypical to have a very talented winemaker be extremely talented at branding as well. But somehow he was able to channel that same creativity which gave him the talent to blend over 80 top vineyards and several grape varieties to create The Prisoner, to conceive of labels and a concept that would immediately connect and inspire people to seek out his wines.

Tearing Down Fear

This is probably one of the most consistent rants I go on… Since I was in the wine trade for over a decade, compounded with the fact that I have lived in Manhattan for over 22 years, I have unfortunately seen a lot of fear with regards to wine. People are afraid of being judged…afraid of being embarrassed…simply afraid of wine. This is not good for the wine business or anyone who loves wine.

The artisanal spirit and craft beer companies are winning when it comes to making libations fun and accessible by inspiring confidence with drinkers. Okay, to be fair, they have bigger budgets since they are higher margin businesses, but even when it comes to the people selling them, in restaurants and retail stores, the image and branding of spirits and beers encourage those people hand-selling them to have more leeway to be playful with those products. I have witnessed too many awkward, painful encounters with those selling wine as well as with those buying it. I have devoted myself to tearing down elitism in the wine world and sharing my love for it that I hope is infectious to everyone.


I am happy to see that with Phinney’s new project, Locations, that he is not only using his creative talents to offer value wines that have great generosity, but that he will be able to  introduce other winemaking countries to a large US population.

The Locations wines are an innovative way that Phinney felt he could bring the wines of the world to the US audience. The story goes that after his 2010 harvest, Phinney was at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France and he saw a distinctive “F” sticker on a license plate, and it lit an idea for the labels that would lead him to making wines that expressed a country in a playful and easy to understand way.

These wines give some of the hints of that country, wrapped up in a comfortable US friendly package. They are blends from vineyards across each country, some of the vineyards coming from old vines, and that way he is able to sell wines with consistently good quality at an affordable price.

Sometimes, as wine geeks, we forget what wine is like for the rest of the non-geek world. It is a scary place when someone is forced to go outside of their comfort zone. That is where I hope we can all get along. Successful brands do not need to be the enemy of struggling family wineries. In fact, they could help to win more people to my favorite team – the wine team. Although each of us may disagree with the type of wine we want in our glass, I’m hopeful that all of us can sit back and enjoy drinking our wines together.


Tasting Notes for Locations wines from October 14th, 2016

locations-3-AR5 – Argentinian Red Wine (SRP $17.99): Blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Smoky, big and brooding red with lots of juicy cassis and manicured tannins.

locations-1-E4 – Spanish Red Wine (SRP $18.99): Blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Monastrell and Cariñena (Carignan). Opaque color with an explosion of black fruit, fresh leather and dried thyme on the finish. Savory, dusty Old World flavors with New World assurance.

locations-2-F4 – French Red Wine (SRP $18.99): Blend of Grenache, Syrah and assorted Bordeaux varietals. France is my “boo” wine country in a sense. I may love many wines from around the world, and I certainly have been obsessed with Italy lately, but I have traveled to France the most amount of times and it is a special place for me. This wine has inviting, fresh brambly fruit that could please conservatives and liberals alike, and a whisper of cedar with an under-layer of pencil shavings that has enough diversity to let everyone know they are invited to the party.


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Finding the Balance between Science and Sense of Place with Wine

fattoria-petrioloI like to spend one day a week going over all the wine samples I’ve been sent -and during this time of year, it is a lot of samples – in the hope that some will fill me with excitement and joy – over-delivering the goods so to speak.

A couple of wines from a producer that I never heard of until this time, Fattoria Petriolo, really struck me with sheer delight. The intense vitality of the couple of bottles I tried had generous, complex aromatics, delicious and intriguing flavors dancing on my palate. One was a 2013 Chianti DOCG Riserva and one a non-vintage Rosso Toscano… the wines were so impressive I immediately searched for them on Well, they are not on the US market, as far as I can see, and yes, lo and behold, the back labels are only in Italian.

Why did I allow them to send these samples to me?

I was curious about them because an email was sent to me by one of the winemakers explaining how the wines were made by two young winemakers (29 and 20 years old) – their website was fun and playful and I was initially slightly curious if their wines would display the same spirit. But what really made me pull the trigger and say, “Yeah, I need to try those wines!” was the idea that they were the only Italian winery chosen, along with five others, for the INNOYEAST project.


The INNOYEAST project lasted for two years (2009-2011) and was funded by the European Commission. It had such famous wineries such as Marqués de Riscal and Château La Pointe participating in it. This project helped to encourage producers, in various countries, to use the local yeasts living on their grapes in the vineyards and the walls of their winery to help their fermentations so that their wines may express a deeper meaning of sense of place.

Cultured Yeasts vs Indigenous Yeasts

I know all of you are so excited to have this debate, but don’t worry, I will keep this short for now and go into this very wine geeky discussion, in more detail, at a later time. But I’m sure many of you know that even though the general idea of indigenous, local, autochthonous yeasts (or whatever term floats your boat) would seem like a “natural” choice, there are many issues associated with using indigenous yeasts such as the increased possibility of a stuck fermentation. When a stuck fermentation happens there is a greater chance for microbiological spoilage, which may not be dangerous to drink, but it sure can be nasty to taste.

Cultured yeasts, aka inoculated yeasts, have a higher guarantee of completing fermentation decreasing the likelihood of stuck ferments. Also, different yeasts can add different aromatics and flavors, enhancing or diminishing certain qualities. Some people are afraid of GMO (genetically modified) yeasts because they think it will allow producers to make all wines taste the same.

“Terroir to me is a wild ferment”

This sort of conundrum, damned if you do use indigenous yeasts, damned if you don’t, is one that is debated and argued with vigor with extreme opinions one way or the other. Personally, I am not a dogmatic kind of person – I am always trying to find balance with the force.

I like to think back to my lunch with Ana Diogo-Draper, Director of Winemaking at Artesa Winery in Napa Valley, and her proclamation, “Terroir to me is a wild ferment”. She had just started experimenting with indigenous yeasts, and even though she has always been terrified, as any winemaker should be, of a stuck fermentation, her indigenous yeasts’ trials were so impressive, with incredible flavors and aromatics that she has never had before experienced, that she decided to take the risk of using indigenous yeasts (some call it a wild ferment) more and more. But she also explained that the key with this research project in the future, in which she will involve the University of California, Davis, is to find the “strong” yeasts that will avoid a stuck fermentation but add desired aromatics.

This is where the INNOYEAST project was important, as they helped wineries to isolate and select yeasts that were reliable during fermentation but also expressed the inherent character of the vineyards.

Taking a Risk

There are some risks not worth taking and quite frankly, some companies are able to take more risks than others due to their situation. Diogo-Draper emphasized that it would have been a real shame if she had never known the true potential of her wines. Also, it was great that this INNOYEAST project decided to take a risk on a lesser known winery, Fattoria Petriolo, because I don’t know if they could have done it on their own. Finally, I was happy that I took a risk in accepting wines that were not widely distributed in the US market because these Fattoria Petriolo wines were very exciting – it would have been a shame if I had missed out on this special experience.


Tasting Notes for Fattoria Petriolo from October 14th, 2016

-2013 Fattoria Petriolo Chianti Riserva DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 90% Sangiovese , 5% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Intense nose with aromas that grabbed me with purple flowers, mashed blackberry and wet clay that had a long, refined finish with more nuanced notes. Chewy tannins with an overall vibrancy to this wine that made my heart beat a little faster.

-Fattoria Petriolo, Venato, Rosso Toscano IGT: 50% Sangiovese and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This wine had more evident structure with grip on the palate, yet it was nicely balanced with ripe blueberry pie fruit and hints of some complexity with granite and earthy flavors. A bigger, more robust wine but still had a great vitality that makes it easy to drink another glass.









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Quality from All Points of View with Cecchi Wines

cecchi-pic-1I learned a new expression in Italian during my intimate lunch with the immensely charming Andrea Cecchi: “A Tutto Tondo”. While he was explaining his family’s philosophy of their wine business in Tuscany, first started in 1893 by Andrea’s great-grandfather, he said the best way to explain it was this phrase. He then drew a circle on a piece of paper and said it meant “quality from all points of view”.

Valuing Tradition While Seeing the Benefits of Newer Technology

Cecchi Winery is like many other well-established, quality minded producers, with their respect for keeping a style that was created by generations before them, yet they also understand the importance of modernization so they can keep a consistent quality year in and year out, which was impossible for previous generations.

It was fitting to have our discussion take place during the 300th Anniversary of Chianti Classico, since Cecchi has been one of the producers at the forefront of research to improve quality in this historic area. In collaboration with the University of Pisa Faculty of Agriculture and the University of Florence, Cecchi was one of the five estates that donated an acre of its own vineyards to the study of Sangiovese clones, and dedicated a portion of its winery in Castellina, Chianti to the producing of test wines.

Only as Strong as Its Community

One of the best ways Cecchi displays its commitment to old fashioned values with modern sensibilities is their idea of keeping water clean for the community. Wastewater is a big issue for wineries, with many dumping water used at the winery with a BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) of 2,000 mg/l and up to 10,000 mg/l in some cases.  As a point of reference, a human sewage registers around 150 to 300 mg/l. But what is BOD? BOD accounts for microbes living in waterways that will deprive other life of oxygen. This has become a great concern for California wineries over the past few years, yet Cecchi has had a longtime presence of innovative systems to treat this water and create healthy wetlands that benefit the already existing life.

Andrea said that his family business and the community is one, and one cannot prosper without the other. The saying “quality from all points of view” aka “A Tutto Tondo”  not only means that they are taking care of everything that influences the wine: vineyards, winery, etc… but in the true meaning, Andrea said that from everyone’s perspective it is quality because everyone benefits.

The World is a Smaller Place

cecchiEven though Andrea Cecchi was grounded in good old values, it was also nice to see him earnestly into social media, being a social media junkie myself. He believes in the internet as a way to impart the “A Tutto Tondo” philosophy, connecting with various people around the world in a positive way. At one time it was just the local community, or tourists, connected to a winery, but today, everyone can make a positive impact on other people’s lives through social media.

As we sat there with our conversation ranging from the early 1200s, to Facebook and Instagram, we were both so thrilled to learn from each other and to connect and grow as human beings. He told me how much he loved social media, even though he just started getting into it a few years ago, because he believes it keeps him young. And isn’t that the idea? To have centuries of experience while still feeling the excitement and enthusiasm that the best is yet to come.

While I walked down the streets of Manhattan, beaming from my energizing experience with Andrea Cecchi, I was filled with a great feeling that although we are currently on a bumpy ride as the world becomes a smaller place, the wealth of opportunities for everyone around the world to connect, improve and grow will make the turbulent ride of social media well worth it.


Tasting Notes for Cecchi Wines from September 21st, 2016

cecchi-pic-2Maremma is in the southwestern part of Tuscany, bordering the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas. The labels of the following two wines have a picture of a horse on it. Wild horses are common in this area and so it is an homage to these beautiful, free creatures. These horses also play a vital part in the culture of Tuscany with the Palio di Siena, an historical horse race held twice a year that has been celebrated for centuries. Siena, at one time, rivaled Florence’s claim to being Tuscany’s capital city; even though Florence eventually won that title, it is still a very special place that has preserved the wonderful history of this area with a walled city that does not allow cars within the center of town. It is a “must see” tourist’s stop if you are in the area. Even though Cecchi makes wines in various areas in Tuscany, their home is located in Siena, and so another reason the horses are significant.

-2014 La Mora Vermentino, Maremma Toscana DOC ($19): Majority Vermentino. Vermentino is the signature white grape of the island of Sardinia and it has a distinct white, stony minerality. It still has that mineral note in this Cecchi wine from Maremma but it has more fleshy peach which gives it more weight.

-2013 La Mora, Morellino di Scansano DOCG ($23): 90% Sangiovese with 10% other red grape varieties. If someone wants a wine that has a little bit of Old World charm with New World friendliness, that won’t break the bank, then you can’t go wrong with Morellino, and this is a delicious example with cassis and floral notes that are very generous.

Andrea Cecchi was touring the USA for various celebrations of the 300th Anniversary of Chianti Classico. In 1716 the Medici Grand Duke, Cosimo III, declared the boundaries of the Chianti wine growing region and established an organization to control wine production and to guard against fraud. Actually the trademark black rooster on the neck of Chianti Classico goes back to the rivalry between Siena and Florence. At one time, the area between these once separate republics was called “Chianti”. In the early 1200s, they decided to establish boundaries by releasing two roosters to meet in the middle of the Chianti area, and so the rooster has a long established connection to Chianti, as well as being part of the historical importance of that region.

The Cecchi winery is located in Castellino in Chianti, one of four municipalities entirely within the historical boundaries of the Black Rooster area – the black rooster being the one that won.

-2014 Chianti Classico “Storia di Famiglia”, Chianti Classico DOCG ($21): 90% Sangiovese with 10% other red grape varieties.  This wine was light and lively on the palate with a stronger floral note (violets) than the Morellino, and a touch a spice. A pretty wine.

Cecchi considers their Riserva di Famiglia to be their flagship wine.

-2013 Riserva di Famiglia, Chianti Classico DOCG ($41): 90% Sangiovese with 10% other red grape varieties. A more powerful wine that has rich flavors of plums and sweet fruit with an overall more complex nose – hints of fresh leather and cardamom spice. The tannins are more evident giving the wine a solid structure and drive. Even though it is drinking nicely now, with food, it will only get better over the next few years.





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The Elegant Side of Wines from Argentina

Many of us probably think of Argentina wines as being fruit forward, easy going wines that appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers. Argentina wine connoisseurs, however, know there is a lot more to this wine producing country than these types of wines. They know there are some seriously talented people, as well as high altitude vineyards, that can produce compelling wines that are stunning with their combination of concentration and overall elegance.

Pascual Toso


One of Pascual Toso most iconic wines: Magdalena

Since 1890, Bodegas y Viñedos Pascual Toso has been a leader in producing some of the best Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon wines in Argentina. Their distinctive labels conjure feelings and thoughts of Argentinian fine wine with those who are familiar with their top selection. I was very intrigued to talk to the relatively new Chief Winemaker, since 2015, Felipe Stahlschmidt. Felipe had already spent a decade working at the world famous Catena Zapata Winery in Argentina before his appointment at Pascual Toso.

When I met Felipe for lunch I was not surprised by his warmth, as many Argentinians have a reputation for being very open people, but I was certainly pleasantly surprised by his obsession for balance and a linear quality for all of the Pascual Toso wines. Of course, these wines are already known for their balance and elegance, but he felt strongly that one should never rest on their laurels and he was constantly working to maintain that elegance. He not only addressed climate change but also how each vintage could be different – true elegance was only kept by constant adjustments in reaction to the ever changing world around us.


Felipe Stahlschmidt

Felipe was originally the Vineyard Manager at Catena and he decided to go back to school to get a Master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology which allowed him to join the winemaking team. The importance of the vineyards has obviously never left him as he talked in detail about finding balance with the canopy of each vine – finding the ideal amount of leaves for the grapes and each year that formula would change. Also, he did not believe in a stagnant oak regime – oak treatment was determined by the various characteristics of each wine from each vintage. His philosophy of the maintenance of elegance was aligned with the Pascual Toso philosophy and so it made sense very quickly in our conversation why he was the ideal choice for them. Elegance was not something that was achieved and then automatically retained, it was a continual process that needed to be agile to unexpected occurrences year in and year out.

Ruca Malen

argentina-wine-pic-1This sense of elegance in wines from Argentina actually first popped into my head over six weeks ago. I attended a winemaker lunch with Bodega Ruca Malen that had the dual focus of not only dispelling the perception that Argentinian wines were only in the fruit forward, soft style but they also presented the idea that some of the elegant versions could pair with a diversity of cuisines. That day I took a journey with Winemaker Pablo Cuneo and Chef Lucas Bustos that was called The Andes Kitchen. Yes, there is the classic pairing of an Argentinian Malbec with beef dishes, but an eye opening tasting featuring squash, rabbit and osso buco was a fantastic way to show the pairing potential for these more restrained, graceful wines.


Chef Lucas Bustos and Winemaker Pablo Cuneo

Founded in 1998, Ruca Malen is a relatively new kid on the block. They have a more modern, youthful way of talking about Argentina with regards to them matching terroir driven wines with their terroir driven food which is served at their restaurant at the Ruca Malen winery. To them, food and wine, as well as a sense of origin, cannot be separated. There cannot be balance or elegance without always going back to the source of these wines. I can see that Ruca Malen is breathing new life in the food and wine scene in Argentina.



Salentein wines

And just when I thought I had gotten enough elegant surprises from Argentina, a few days ago I tasted a couple wines from Bodegas Salentein. This winery is a new kid as well being established in the late 1990s, yet it has a wealth of experience behind it. Jose “Pepe” Galante is the Chief Winemaker and considered the father of modern wine making in Argentina. Paul Hobbs is a Wine Consultant for Salentein, as well as for certain wines from Pascual Toso, and he recognized early on, despite the skeptics, the high quality wine potential in Argentina.

Jose Galante is known as a thoughtful, driven man that has never relaxed his constant focus on making fine wines that can compete with the top wines of the world. It is always a healthy attitude to be open to the new, ever-evolving world, but not at the sake of losing the core values that has helped create some of the iconic wines known among those who love wines from Argentina.

Struggle for Elegance


Stellar lineup of Pascual Toso wines

The struggle for elegance is a constant battle that one never wins. This idea brings me back to my conversation with Felipe Stahlschmidt, Chief Winemaker at Pascual Toso. He said that one of the things he loves most about his wife is that she is always brutally honest, and he would not have it any other way because he never wants to stop struggling for elegance – once you stop fighting the good fight then that glorious tension and linear shape that transcends an average Argentinian wine to a world class wine will cease to exist.

A Time for Discipline, A Time for Surrender

A couple decades ago, I had a conversation with a movement teacher who taught actors how to be graceful and elegant. The key was to practice over and over again to let go of those things that seemed awkward in one’s face and body while reinforcing those attributes that gave a feeling of grace – most people who have taken ballet probably know a thing or two about this type of physical work. But you do that work in advance so you can surrender to what happens in the moment allowing something authentic, real and exciting to happen.

There is no formula for elegance – it is a different type of struggle for each region, for each person. Elegance is not gifted to someone or something, it is a tremendous amount of work to achieve a sense of elegance, work that never ends. But within that work there are those moments where we just need to surrender to what life and mother nature has given us – being humble that there are greater forces out there. That is what I find most inspirational about quality minded winemakers – even though they know mother nature is greater than they, they never stop on the quest of trying to make a libation that helps to transform our life into something special and remarkable. And for that I thank them.


Ruca Malen Tasting Notes from August 22nd, 2016

Ruca Malen is located in Lujan de Cuyo which is situated in the upper Mendoza valley, and some of their vineyards are located in Luján de Cuyo which sits at altitudes of around 3280 ft. (1000 m) above sea level. Malbec in particular is successful in Luján de Cuyo as well as, shockingly, Petit Verdot.

-Ruca Malen Brut Sparkling Wine NV, Tupangato and Uco Valley, Mendoza ($27.99): 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay.  Bright cranberry fruit with lemon zest and a touch of roasted almonds.

-2015 Yauquen Torrontés, Salta ($12.99): 100% Torrontés. When you have blind tasted a lot of wines you are hopeful to be given certain hints which can lead you to a particular variety or place. I would always get Torrontés if it had a pronounced floral note on the nose yet lack of flavor with bitter finish on the palate. I would have not gotten this wine blind because the palate lived up to the pretty floral nose with juicy stone fruit and no bitterness on the finish. The winemaker Pablo Cuneo acknowledged that Torrontés was a difficult grape to grow and handle – great care was needed for a balanced wine.

-2014 Yauquen Malbec, Agrelo (Luján  de  Cuyo) and Uco Valley ($12.99): 100% Malbec. This wine had an easy going quality with lightly spiced notes and lively purple fruit and paired nicely with the carob dough stuffed with Malbec-braised rabbit from Chef Bustos. 

 argentina-wine-pic-1-2014 Ruca Malen Reserva Malbec, Agrelo (Luján  de  Cuyo) and Uco Valley ($18.99): 100% Malbec with 55% sourced from cooler, high-altitude sites in Uco Valley and 45% from Lujan de Cuyo. The Reserva was a significant step up in complexity and grace with violet aromas and a fine tannic structure. This wine showed its elegance paired with the subtle flavors of cured Angus beef.

-2013 Ruca Malen Reserva Petit Verdot, Agrelo, Luján  de  Cuyo ($18.99): 100% Petit Verdot. This was a lovely surprise as I had never had a Petit Verdot from Argentina. Dense blackcurrant flavors with a whiff of rose and well-knit tannins with a flavorful finish.

-2011 Kinien de Don Raúl ($75.00): 64% Malbec (Uco Valley), 15% Petit Verdot (Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo), 11% Cabernet Sauvignon (Uco Valley) and 10% Syrah (Anchoris, Luján de Cuyo). From the Mapuche language meaning “unique”, Kinien is produced from 100% estate-grown fruit. The final blend is aged in 90% new French oak and 10% American oak. A highly concentrated wine yet the fresh acidity keeps this wine charming. This wine has only a hint of vanilla and cinnamon with fresh blackberry and black pepper on the finish.


Pascual Toso Tasting Notes from September 16th, 2016 (pic of all the bottles)

Pascual Toso vineyards are located in Maipú, Mendoza in Argentina which is dominated by flat vineyards at high attitudes around 2600ft (800m) above sea level. This altitude sees intense sunlight during the day followed by cold nights that are cooled by alpine winds from the Andes Mountains.

 -Toso Brut NV ($12.99): 100% Chardonnay. Lots of marked acidity with a gentle apple flavor and noticeable minerality with a slightly creamy texture. Over delivers for price.

-2015 Estate Chardonnay ($13.99): 100% Chardonnay. These grapes are harvested twice, early harvest for acidity and later harvest for riper, more tropical fruit flavors. Enticing tropical flavors of pineapple with touch of spice yet backbone of acidity. A colorful lady who is sassy but never doubt for one minute that she is a class act.

 -2014 Estate Malbec ($13.99): 100% Malbec. This Malbec is all about the fruit expression with vibrant plum flavors and licorice pizzazz.

-2014 Reserva Malbec ($24.99): 100% Malbec. 80% American oak and 20% French oak. A step up in complexity and structure with hints of roasted coconut and vanilla bean with plenty of structure from discerning tannins.

-2013 Alta Malbec ($49.99): 100% Malbec. 100% French oak. Only 2000 cases made. Vines average around 60 years old and come from a single vineyard that is 10 acres (4 hectares) in size. A beautifully polished wine with tobacco leaf, violet and fine tannins that have a persistent and graceful finish.

-2014 Barrancas ($19.99): 60% Malbec and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% American oak. Firm structure and sweet spice, chocolate flavors yet the oak is seamlessly integrated. There is often confusion that all American oak is the same with regards to producing coarse tannins, but that is an incorrect general statement as some American oak, depending on place of origin and cooperage, will yield finer more sophisticated oak tannins.

-2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.99): 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 80% American and 20% French oak. Grapes come from Pascual Toso’s own vineyards, located in Las Barrancas, Maipú. Cassis and roasted cashews with an energetic finish.

-2014 Alta Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% French oak. Only 2000 cases. A rich wine with boysenberry and vanilla flower with a linear shape that helps it to keep its nobility.

-2013 Magdalena ($129.99): 80% Malbec and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% French oak. Only 300 cases. This wine incorporates Paul Hobbs’ (consultant for Pascual Toso) best 23 Oak Barrels selection of Malbec and is considered “his baby”. Nuanced raspberry and blueberry fruit with smoky espresso and dark chocolate notes that are held together with dignified tannins with a prodigious finish.

-2014 Alta Syrah ($49.99): 100% Syrah. 100% American oak. I thought Petit Verdot was my new favorite Argentinean wine but add Syrah to that list. Only 500 cases. Black cherry, Asian spice with a heady perfume that is still rolling around in my head as I write this…more muscular structure but still a gentleman.

-2014 Finca Pedregal ($73.99): 62% Cabernet Sauvignon and 38% Malbec. Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in American oak and Malbec aged in French oak. Only 300 cases. A wine with a pedigree as Pedegral is a single vineyard located in the highly regarded Barrancas sub-region. It is truly extraordinary and thrilling to taste a wine that can be highly dense and concentrated while balanced with bright flavors, distinctive minerality and a structure that has drive that carries along the long and expressive length.


Bodegas Salentein Tasting Notes from September 29th, 2016

This winery is located in the Uco Valley, as well as all of the grapes for the below wines came from this area. The Uco Valley is a well known wine-growing region of Mendoza, Argentina which is located an hour’s drive south from the city of Mendoza. Some of the altitudes for these vineyards exceed 3500 ft (1066 meters) above sea level.

 -2015 Reserve Chardonnay ($18.99): 100% Chardonnay. I have always had a slight prejudice against Chardonnay from Argentina, but the tasting that I had with these three producers offering this variety in a blend or as a varietal wine, sparkling or still, has really won me over with the idea that wonderful Chardonnay can be produced in Argentina. Also, this wine proves the idea that a really good wine, that offers complexity of flavors and sense of place, can be had once one goes beyond the $15 price point. This wine was showed best around 60 F (16 C) serving temperature. It had lemon blossom notes, a sense of chalky minerality, seemingly judicious oak and a zingy finish.

-2014 Reserve Malbec ($18.99): 100% Malbec. My favorite thing about this wine is the harmony that is created by the stewed plum fruit and smoky charred aromatics with a graceful texture and refreshing, sustained finish.

-2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.99): 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Rosemary, cassis, cigar box and graphite makes this an intriguing wine. Great value.


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Alsace Challenges Our Ideas about Riesling

alsace-all-winesMany years ago, when I was first learning about Alsace (region in North East corner of France), I learned three things: there are lots of different soil types, various grape varieties and mainly produce single variety wines. And I learned, generally, that each variety was meant to be planted in a particular soil. As many of us find out through time (with any topic), it takes a long time to gain a true understanding of a subject. In the beginning, we learn the sort of “CliffsNotes” of a topic – an abridged version. But in reality, well, not every variety needs to be coupled to one particular type of land.


It is great that Riesling has been getting some love lately, yet the love is still too little considering the pure awesomeness of this variety. It is a white grape variety, and so it is already fighting an uphill battle for prestige. Riesling can be many things, but it will never be a big, alcoholic wine – even though weight, body and type of acidity will certainly vary depending on vineyard, producer and vintage. Riesling typically makes racy, exhilarating wines that pair nicely with a diversity of cuisines. That is why Paul Grieco, former wine director/partner of Hearth restaurant in NYC, made 40% of the wine list there Riesling (even though it is an Italian restaurant) when he was still associated with it. He even started the now infamous “Summer of Riesling” campaign at his chain of Terroir wine bars. But he himself is still frustrated with the lack of popularity of this noble grape variety. Last year, at a wine seminar, he exclaimed, “Is this not the time for Riesling? Why is this still so g*ddamn hard?”

Alsace Riesling

But I have just as much frustration with not only the struggle to take Riesling more main stream, but also the still constant struggle for notoriety for Alsace Riesling wines even among Riesling enthusiasts. Of course, Germany and Austria are great classic Riesling producing countries, but somehow Alsace always gets tucked away in the corner, and in the end, it is the wine consumer, as well as the Riesling winelover, who ends up missing out. Well, to paraphrase Patrick Swayze, no one puts Alsace in the corner!

What makes Alsace Riesling special?

Even through Alsace is pretty far north, it receives a significant amount of sunshine as well as having the Vosges Mountains protect it from intense winds and rains – and so the wines get a lovely ripeness while keeping their zingy acidity. Also, going back to the idea of the assortment of soil types, another great point about Alsace is that they are not afraid to grow Riesling on what might be considered unorthodox soils in other areas. Alsace Rieslings are capable of expressing extraordinary notes that I would never associate with Riesling wines from other countries. Their wines keep me guessing and coming back for more.

Granite Soil

alsace-weinbachI was taught many, many years ago in wine class that the epitome of great Riesling wine was associated to slate soil. Now I love the Mosel as much as the next wine nerd, but there is not only one way to express greatness. I realized that the first time I had an Alsace Riesling from granite soil, such as the one I had recently, a 2013 Domaine Weinbach Riesling from the Grand Cru site “Schlossberg”. This site tends to have poor soils with low water retention which produces highly aromatic Rieslings. This was certainly true with this wine, with an intense floral nose, a touch of spice and exotic pineapple note.

Limestone Soil

alsace-agapeWell, even though granite and Riesling were always a well respected combination in the wine world, many may not know the magical combination of Riesling and limestone. Earlier this year, I went to a seminar led by John Winthrop Haeger, who wrote the book Riesling Rediscovered (a great reference book by the way), who not only told us why the combination is a fantastic one, but showed us through tasting us on sixteen Rieslings wines grown on predominately limestone soil. There have been studies that link high amounts of calcium, as present in limestone soil, to help retain acidity even late in the season; that means a producer can keep the grapes on the vine longer gaining more flavor. The 2011 Domaine Agapé Riesling from the limestone dominant Grand Cru site “Rosacker” had an incredible flinty minerality and crisp acidity while still having juicy lemon confit flavors on the palate and dried wild flowers on the finish.

Marl-Limestone-Sandstone Soil

alsace-kientzler2010 Domaine André Kientzler Riesling from the Grand Cru site “Osterberg”, which yes, has marl-limestone-sandstone soil, had an intense linear minerality – like a blade. This wine had a remarkable backbone of fierce acidity that made my mouth water and exhilarating flavors of lemon zest and wet stones on the finish. I did not want to look up the info on the particular vineyards until after I tasted it because I did not want to be influenced by what I read. Well, funny enough, in Riesling Rediscovered, Haeger said that the Osterberg site was, “powerful, with iron-fisted minerality”. Yeah, that definitely describes what I got from this Riesling that was grown in marl-limestone-sandstone soil.

Volcanic Soil 

alsace-zind-humbrechtI honestly have to admit that I have never thought of Riesling grown on volcanic soil, but it makes sense. The wines from the volcanic soil of Mount Etna, Sicily are hot! If you want to see a bunch of wine geeks in New York City lose it, just bring out some Mount Etna wines. But their recent popularity is well-deserved with their alluring aromatics that make one feel they could get lost for hours in those wines. Well, the same can be said for Riesling grown on volcanic soil. I was able to get that smoky, volcanic quality out of the 2014 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos St Urbain Grand Cru site “Rangen de Thann”. This wine had a great precision with pristine white peach fruit and again that incredible intoxicating smoky note. Wow! This should be the next wine that wine geeks lose their sh*t over.

Sometimes being Uncomfortable is Good

Riesling has an affinity for terroir, a specific type of place, and sometimes in our own dogma we forget that we cannot truly know it until we experience its transformation from a diversified selection of vineyards. The same can be said of Alsace – if you have had a couple of Alsace wines and you feel that they are not exciting, then I’m afraid that a couple of examples can never let you know how thrilling a wine region it can be.

All of us have our dogma to a certain degree, whether we like to admit it or not, and we do not want to be forced out of a certain mind set because it makes us uncomfortable. But if we are not willing to become uncomfortable then we became jaded, only mildly content with life. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be that way. I want to shake up my life, question everything I know all the time, and feel like each day is an adventure. And so, I invite you to drink Riesling from various soils and taste them side by side. Go out and try a wine region that you have given up on in the past. Have someone blind taste you on a combination of your favorite and least favorite wines – the results may surprise you… make you feel silly at first… but ultimately it will ideally make you wake up the next day giggling at the fact that life still has a lot more fun surprises in store for you.

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The Wines of Valpolicella, Italy are a Family Affair


Luigi Aldrighetti is sitting right across from me in the center of the table and his brother, Angelo, is at the end of the table. Photo Credit: Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella

 Sitting at a big wooden farmers table with Luigi Aldrighetti, the winemaker of Le Bignele in Valpolicella, and his family, I could not help but feel part of their clan. There we were, with Luigi’s daughter Silvia leading us through a wine lunch at their home (aka winery) that was adjacent to their vineyards. Silvia was fluent in English, unlike her father, so she was able to translate the conversation of her father to those of us on a press tour visiting the stunning area of Valipolicella in Verona, Italy.

After our tour of their winery’s appassimento room aka drying room, where the process of drying grapes for the area’s iconic wine Amarone takes place (Le Bignele uses the more traditional wood boxes), and a fun stroll in their vineyard, we sat down for a lovely luncheon prepared by Silvia’s mother. We had to quickly sit down once called since one of her dishes was risotto, and risotto waits for no one…but it was worth the rush as the texture of this risotto was the best I have ever experienced, and I have eaten a lot of risotto in my lifetime!

Silvia’s charming personality and beautifully spoken English made us feel right at home. I am still kicking myself that I did not take my own picture of this experience (I used a photo from someone else) , but I was living in the moment, enjoying my time with her family. Silvia’s uncle, Angelo, who was known to “live in the vineyards” made a last minute appearance. He was wearing a dirt covered tank top, with sweat on his brow, bowing his head as if he was embarrassed, and seeming as if he was asking if he could join the lunch in his work attire.  That was funny, because it was ideal for us to see that he looked like he actually did live in the vineyards. A quick banter began back and forth between the two brothers, Luigi – the winemaker, and Angelo – the vineyard manager, shortly after Angelo’s appearance mid-lunch. Luigi was frustrated that he had to put on a nice shirt for lunch while his brother was able to wear his work clothes. That banter turned into Luigi asking Angelo if they would be ready to harvest soon, with Angelo answering “two more weeks”. Luigi said it was always two weeks more than what he himself as the winemaker wanted. Of course this was all translated by Silvia, but even though I did not understand Luigi and Angelo’s words, I could see by their smiles and hear by their warm laughter that this was a conversation that they have had many times, and this is what they did – they were a true family winery.

This is one of the many reasons I love wine – many times it is a family affair. I feel grateful each time one of these families invites me into their home to be given a snapshot of their way of life. As some of you know, I never had a “real” family in the conventional sense of the word. I was never able to connect with my biological parents or any blood that I could find. In the end, finding the truth of why this connection was not possible made me realize that I was better off not having those relationships. But I have always yearned…needed to feel part of something. I have always taken great joy seeing others have such a close family relationship, albeit complicated and never perfect.

The family connection that is part of a winery’s past, present and future has always intoxicated me more than the beverage itself. My recent trip to Valpolicella was filled with this strong sense that many of the producers had such roots. Some producers had deeper roots than others, yet they were all gleaming examples of why wines from such classical areas become such quintessential symbols for a particular style – because of the support of their related predecessors and descendants.

Family Wineries Not Afraid of Change

There are many family wineries that are still using old traditional methods in their vineyards and wineries. Even when the younger generation wants to incorporate more modern practices, it can be a struggle to get the older generation to agree with such changes. This may be frustrating, but please don’t let me give you the impression that older practices are necessarily bad. For example, Valpolicella’s iconic wine, Amarone, which is a big, bold, yet high acid and fresh wine, whose grapes were placed into traditionally wooden crates to dry, such as the ones Le Bignele uses, after harvest. The wooden crates are a great way to dry the grapes but because of practical reasons such as ease of cleaning, plastic crates have become more popular. And believe it or not, at one time they would have dried the grapes by holding up each bunch on stings – a timely and nowadays, cost prohibitive process that is rarely seen practiced. But since the plastic crate issue is more of the norm in Valpolicella, there are other ways they are pushing the envelope. One of them is the use of anfora.


Anfora vessels at Albino Armani winery.

An anfora (amphora) is a jar of ancient design, with a narrow neck, typically used to hold oil or wine. Aging wine in anfora has been a time honored tradition in the country of Georgia, one of the oldest wine regions in the world. It has also been practiced by some great producers, such as Gravner, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, another region in the North East of Italy. But as they like to say, what is old is new again, and some Valpolicella producers are breathing new life into this classic area.

Our first winery visit of this trip was to Albino Armani, which was a family that could date back their winemaking to 1607, which is why albino-armanithey place 1607 on their labels to commemorate such an impressive lineage. Their winery in Valpolicela is very modern with a breath taking tasting room that looked over the Marano commune of Valpolicella. They were using anfora, which I thought fitting considering its association with the ancient as well as cutting edge styles, and they were a winemaking family that had been around for over 400 years yet their facilities were state of the art. Their anfora wine was going to be used for a sparkling wine that would be considered outside the Valpolicella appellation but it was still a sign of their innovative mindset. That innovation expressed itself also through their DOC Valpolicella wines.


Pietro Zardini 2015 Amarone in anfora. Photo Credit: Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella

Later that same day it was perhaps serendipitous that we visited another winery that had a long family history yet was edgy with a youthful energy to play and experiment – Pietro Zardini. His lineage also went back to the early 17th Century with Leonardo Zardini, the founder of Pietro’s family, and he has sweet memories of spending most of his childhood with his grandfather Pietro, his namesake, in the vineyards and cellar. Those childhood recollections have shaped his winemaking to such a degree that he honors them by placing a picture of the Landini tractor that was passed down by his grandfather on a couple of his wine labels. He too was using anfora, but in this case for their 2015 Amarone which we were lucky enough to taste. It was wild, with notes and flavors that I can’t even describe. That same wild quality was found a little in the other wines that we tasted – Pietro Zardini, a wild man with a deep respect for those who have come before him.


The winemaker, Francesco Righetti, of the Monteci winery, talking to us with pure enthusiasm about their wines.

The next day we visited the Monteci winery which is owned by the Righetti family who started making wine in 1909. We spent our time with Francesco Righetti, family member and the winemaker. He was filled with enthusiasm to have us taste as much from tanks and barrels as from bottles, and showed variation in soils, vinification techniques and/or vintages. We tasted a 2015 Merlot wine in barrel that was made from grapes that were dried for four months. In 2011, Francesco interned at a winery in Saint-Émilion and is now determined to use traditional Valpolicella methods with the Merlot grape. It was absolutely delicious, rich and viscous yet with good structure and energy and extraordinary flavors that ranged from tar to tarragon. He was so excited to show us everything he could – I felt like a kid in a candy store running around with him and the group in the cellar, finding all the variant subtleties from the various vessels of wines. His wines expressed his enthusiasm and the nuance of subtlety that he seemed to be obsessed by.

Austrian Flavors

There were a couple of wineries with grand estates that hinted towards their Italian heritage being mixed with some Austrian ancestry from long ago.


Sorry I did not capture Maria Juditta, sitting at the far end, singing that enchanting Italian aria to us, but I was just swept away in the moment. Photo Credit: Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella

The Tenute Ugolini estate was certainly impressive in the scope and size of this antique colonial house. There were still Austrian touches of emblems here and there. Even though our guide, Maria Juditta (the niece of the eldest brother of three, Giambattista Ugolini, who took over the vineyards when his father died 20 years ago) pointed out the Austrian touches, she insisted that the family was as Italian as Italian could be. Their Italian-ness was certainly evident when she sang an Italian aria to us while we sat outside, drinking their lovely wines on their magnificent property. And for those who are into organic practices, it is nice to note that her uncle started to convert to organic back in 1996 and they have even started using less copper as a fungicide, which although allowed in organic farming is still toxic, using garlic instead. The passion for preserving nature was noted in the wines with Maria’s music bringing our tasting pleasure to the next level.


This is just one section of the magnificent Villa Mosconi property.

 Another grand estate we visited was Villa Mosconi which is where the Bertani family makes their Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve wines. Gaetano Bertani now runs the estate with his sons Giovanni and Guglielmo. It was Giovanni himself giving us the tour of the property, which was originally built in the 1500s. Through time it became a place for the arts and sciences. For example, in 1880, the winery became the subject of a report that documented their innovative vineyard and winery techniques. During the mid-1700 and 1800s, a well known Italian poet, Ippolito Pindemonte, described their vineyards as “dear to Bacchus” and that sentiment was enhanced by their main building being adorned with Olympian Gods. We passed one hall that had a piano that seemed out of the times of Mozart. The hint of Austrian flavor was there, with a touch of Greek gods and English gardening sensibilities of tranquil lakes, rolling lawns with classical temples and bridges.

A Timeless Family Style


Andrea Sartori talking us through a tasting of their wines.

Many in the US market probably know the Sartori producer. Their wines have good distribution throughout the US, and their label is one of the more recognizable Valpolicella labels. Andrea Sartori, President and great-grandson of the founder, talked us through an impressive tasting of their wines which showcased various projects that they were implementing to tailor their wines to express the individuality of the vineyard while respecting the wisdom passed down by centuries of Valpolicella producers. Their style is timeless and elegant, with the goal of bringing back those vineyard areas in Valpolicella that have been forgotten and neglected. Not only were the three Amarone wines we tasted that day (noted below) each uniquely superb in their own way while staying true to the classic style, their Valpolicella Classico Superiore “Montegradella”, selection of the best grapes coming from the Montegradella vineyard, had such a purity of fruit and gentle complexity that was astonishing for the lighter, and less seriously regarded, Valpolicella wines.

Feeling at Home

I have made peace with the idea that I will never know what it is like to have family that is blood, but I have realized through time that family is not always those that have a common gene pool. Even though it was not my lot in life to be part of a rich family tree, I love hearing about the history and lineage of others, and I certainly feel grateful when a family shares everything about their ancestry with me because for a brief moment, I feel I am part of something bigger than myself.  And I have to say, the Valpolicella family wineries, no matter the situation, made me feel that their home was my home and allowed me to share in the wealth of their glorious genealogy.


Tasting Notes from these winery visits:
Quick side note that Vapolicella wines are considered a lighter, more easy drinking wine, even though there are higher quality versions. Ripasso wines are more serious with it process including the adding of grape skins, from an Amarone or Recioto wine, to a Valpolicella wine allowing a second fermentation to create more body, alcohol, structure, aromatics and flavors. Both Amarone and Recioto wines are made from dried grapes yet Amarone is a seemingly dry wine and Recioto (less available on the market) is a sweet wine. Amarone is a big, bold wine typically ranging from 15-16% abv yet the blend of grapes it uses gives it high acidity, lots of structure and incredible intricacy – Recioto is more moderate in alcohol, sweet yet has just as many layers of flavors. These are generalizations that truly don’t represent the full range of the styles, so for those interested in more details about the Valpolicella DOC wines, please feel free to go to the Consortium for the Tutelage of Valpolicella DOC Wines website.

Le Bignele wines tasted on September 5th, 2016

2014 Le Bignele, Valpolicella Classico Superiore:  Good structure yet soft tannins with deep aromatics of black cherries.

-2013 Le Bignele, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso:  Stewed cherries and plums with a touch of dusty earth.

-2012 Le Bignele, Amarone Classico della Valpolicella: A savory wine with complex tar notes and sweet cherry in the background.


Albino Armani wines tasted on September 5th, 2016

-2014 Albino Armani, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Egle: Old vines of Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Cherry, spice, light and pretty.

-2013 Albino Armani, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso: Old vines of Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Dried cherries, blackberry, dried oregano, lots of acidity and structure.

-2012 Albino Armani, Recioto della Valpolicella: Corvina 70% and Rondinella 30%. Cherry jam with lush body and cinnamon spice.

-2010 Albino Armani, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG: Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. A very textural wine with evident tannins and lovely floral note.


Pietro Zardini wines tasted on September 5th, 2016

-2014 Pietro Zardini, Valpolicella Classico Superiore: Corvina 65%, Rondinella 25%, Molinara 10%. Velvety texture with fresh red cherries and reminiscent of a meadow.

-2012 Pietro Zardini, Austero, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso: Corvina 70%, Rondinella 20%, Molinara 5% and Croatina 5%. Smooth body with interesting hints of coffee and vanilla.

-2011 Pietro Zardini, Amarone della Valpolicella: Corvina 70%, Rondinella 20%, Molinara 5% and other 5%. Smoky espresso with exotic spice and a long finish.

-2009 Pietro Zardini, Amarone della Valpolicella, Riserva “Leone Zardini”: Corvina 70%, Rondinella 20%, Molinara 5% and Croatina 5%.  Lush with lots of flesh on the palate with cherry pie flavors and oak and spice giving it more depth and complexity. 2009 was a big, ripe vintage, while 2010 was more fresh and restained. This wine is named after Pietro Zardini’s father, Leone Zardini.

-2012 Pietro Zardini, Recioto della Valpolicella (sweet wine): Corvina 70%, Rondinella 20% and Molinara 10%. Residual sugar 130 g/l. Mulberry and raspberry preserves with a hint of underbrush which give it an interesting extra layer of complexity.


Monteci wines tasted on September 7th, 2016

-2015 Monteci, Valpolicella Classico: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Nice balance and purity of fresh raspberry fruit with a fresh, clean finish.

 -2013 Monteci, Valpolicella Classico Superiore: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. An exotic cardamom spice with sweet cherry fruit.

-2011 Monteci, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Violet and sandalwood notes with dried cherry flavor.

 -2010 Monteci, Amarone della Valpolicella: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Red apple peel, cured meats and tobacco. Very complex and intriguing.


Tenute Ugolini wines tasted on September 5th, 2016

All the wines come from specific designated areas: the grapes from Il Pozzetto (Fumane) are used for Valpolicella Classico, the grapes from Colle San Michele (Bure alto) are used for Valpolicella Classico Superiore, the grapes from Monte Solane (San Giorgio di Valpolicella) are used for Valpolicella Ripasso, the grapes from Valle Alta (Fumane) are used for Amarone Classico della Valpolicella and for Recioto della Valpolicella are used the grapes from Valle Lena.

-2015 Tenuta Ugolini, Valpolicella Classico, Il Pozzetto: Corvina Gentile, Corvina Grossa, Rondinella, Molinara, Croatina and Ancellotta. A wine that was as pretty as the voice of the niece, Maria Juditta, who sang to us during our visit. Rosebud aromas and light body on the palate of the wine. Maria’s uncle, Giambattista Ugolini, said this is the most difficult wine to make because you cannot use age or oak to correct it.

-2013 Tenuta Ugolini, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, San Michele: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and the Oseleta. Refined notes with strawberry and pepper notes.

-2013 Tenuta Ugolini, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso, Monte Solane: The only grape used in the production of this wine is the ‘Corvina Gentile’. Black peppercorns, cloves and stewed strawberries. Comes from a vineyard at the highest elevation that is allowed for this designation.

-2012 Tenuta Ugolini, Amarone della Valpolicella, Valle Alta: Corvina Gentile, Corvina Grossa, Rondinella and Oseleta. This is their flagship wine. Cherry liqueur with cinnamon and nutmeg and smoky notes that hint at old volcanic rock soil.

 -2012 Tenuta Ugolini, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso, Monte Solane: The only grape used in the production of this wine is the ‘Corvina Gentile’, like its 2013 sibling. This 2012 was more herbaceous than 2013 with overall more earthy notes.

-2013 Tenuta Ugolini, Recioto della Valpolicella, Valle Lena (sweet wine): Corvina Gentile, Corvina Grossa, Rondinella and Oseleta. Silky texture, elegant with sweet chocolate cherry flavors…still tight and so needs more time or a few hours decanting.


Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve wines tasted on September 8th, 2016

-2014 Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve, Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso:. Corvina 75%, Rondinella 10% and Corvinone 15%. Blueberry muffin, licorice and spicy finish with a velvety texture and bright acidity.

-2010 Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve, Amarone della Valpolicella: Corvina 75%, Rondinella 10% and Corvinone 15%. Rose petal with black berry and a wonderful overall elegance to this Amarone.


Sartori di Verona wines tasted on September 6th, 2016

-2012 Sartori di Verona, Valpolicella Classico Superiore “Montegradella”: 45% Corvina, 30% Corvinone, 20% Rondinella, 5% Croatina. Selection of the best grape bunches coming from the “Montegradella” vineyard estate. Pure cassis notes with juicy flavors and touch of sage.

-2011 Sartori di Verona, Valpolicella Classico Superiore “I Saltari”: 60% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 10% Croatina, 10% Corvinone. “I Saltari winery” is a project by Colognola & Sartori wineries. The aim is to continue to improve viticulture, winemaking and production of fame in the province of Verona also including a revaluation and restructuring of small wine producing areas. Very savory with BBQ smoke with intense black cherry and round tannins with nice flesh on the palate.

-2010 Sartori di Verona, Amarone della Valpolicella “Reius”: 50% Corvina Veronese 30% Corvinone, 15% Rondinella and 5% Cabernet  Shimmering ruby. From clay, calcareous soils. Rich on the nose with raisins and lilacs yet bright and light on the palate.

-2009 Sartori di Verona, Amarone della Valpolicella “Corte Bra”: In a more Bordeaux type bottle 50% Corvina Veronese, 30% Corvinone, 15% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta. Only the best grapes are used for the production of the “Corte Bra” wine. Brambly berries with dried thyme on the nose yet lush, big, tannic with blackberry jam. This wine will be long lived. 2009 was a bigger, riper vintage.

 -2009 Sartori di Verona, Amarone della Valpolicella “I Saltari”: This does not have the richness or density of the Corte Bra but it does have a lovely refinement and structure that may be more appealing to those who want more subtlety in their Amarone.




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Trusting my Wine Palate in Lodi, California

Lodi Pic 1Many can, and have, argued that you are able to truly know the wines of a certain place just by drinking them all the time. I think that is true to a certain extent, but there are places lacking a prestigious reputation, even though they make wines that are worthy of prestigious praise, and so, we may never experience the best, or at least, all that a particular place has to offer in the world of wine. And so, sometimes we make unfair generalizations of a wine producing area’s potential for quality, when in fact we are completely ignorant of their aptitude for great wine. That can even affect us trusting our own palate, causing us to give a wine the thumbs down with stereotypical snide comments for no reason.


Lodi is a two hour drive from San Francisco, without traffic, but in reality it is probably a longer ride to get there. It is considered the “Zinfandel Capital of the World” but when I visited there a few weeks ago, it seemed that I had tasted more grape varieties than I have ever tasted from one American Viticultural Area  (AVA aka appellation). And so, how did such a diverse wine region that is so close to one of the most famous international cities in the world become known for only Zinfandel?  And not only that, but one particular style of Zinfandel, especially considering the plethora of styles of Zin that exist in Lodi.

Many of us may associate White Zinfandel, the popular craze that started in the 1970s,  in the US, to the general California area, with Lodi being, as well as California at one time, unfairly summed up with one broad paint stroke of making quaffable, entry level wines.

The Paris Wine Tasting in 1976, aka Judgment of Paris, changed the world’s perception of Napa wines. Bank loans that were once denied were enthusiastically given to the struggling wine producers in Napa after they won that competition, and eventually Sonoma benefited from not only a close proximity to Napa, but also a desire to have another AVA with a cooler climate that could make Pinot Noir and more linear Chardonnay wines.

Lodi had struggled for many more decades after Napa’s victory in 1976, and hence they did not have the funds or the reputation to help bring investment into the area until pretty recently. And even though they are making incredibly interesting wines, with some of them being straight out jaw dropping, still their wines are way under valued when you see the prices. I’m talking about having a Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon that is rich, complex, structured and still energetic until the last drop going for 15 bucks…. and if you buy two bottles the price goes down to 12 bucks a bottle. Say what?!

And by the way, I was talking about the Cab Sauv from Langetwins Winery, if you want to see if you can find it on

Even though these are the cards that they were dealt, it doesn’t mean they have to be content with them.

History of Grape Growing and Wine Making in Lodi

Lodi Pic 2Our first seminar was an ideal one to kick off the Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi. The Mayor of Lodi, Mark Chandler, and former Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission (1991-2011) was the moderator. It is telling to see that the Mayor was involved with wine in some way, shape or form; it is telling of how much grape growing and winemaking means to the Lodi community. On the panel there were three wineries represented: Michael-David Winery, Bokisch Vineyards and Langetwins Winery.

Michael-David Winery

You may have never heard of Michael-David Winery, but I bet you have heard of some of their wines such as 7 Deadly Zins or their newest success Freakshow. Kevin Phillips, Vice President of Operations at Michael-David Winery, talked about his family’s business starting with his grandfather, a farmer, who grew produce and eventually with Kevin’s father, sold produce at farmers’ markets all over California, as well as neighboring states. They started the produce stands in the 1970s and making wine in the mid 1980s, and their wine was only initially sold directly through their market stand. Through time they would sell most of their grapes to other wineries, since they lacked the infrastructure to sell wine themselves beyond their little market stand in Lodi.

Well, as life has a tendency to direct one where they should be instead of where they think they should be, the Michael-David Winery, originally named Phillips Vineyards, was given a nice settlement from Phillips Wine & Spirits in Minnesota during a legal agreement that would have them change their name to something else, and so they used both the first names of Kevin’s dad and uncle, respectively Michael and David.

With that twist of fate, they decided to create brands that would be accessible to wine lovers around the world, and so their first, 7 Deadly Zins, was born. They went from producing 500 cases of this wine in 2000 jumping to 10,000 cases the next year in 2001.

The more fun brands they created using the delicious juice from Lodi, the more their sales grew. In 2015 they sold a total of 650,000 cases and they have 2016 sales projected anywhere from 700,000 to 775,000 cases. They work with many growers in Lodi to fulfill these orders, but what is funny is that even though people may enjoy these wines for their incredible value, as well as their memorable labels, they probably don’t know they are from Lodi. They may not even know about Lodi as a quality wine region.

Brands vs Boutique Wineries

I think many wine nerds like to criticize wine “brands”. Many times we think of them as being created by soulless companies that do not make distinctive wines with a sense of place. Actually, some huge corporations buy family properties, keep the family and original workers, but they update equipment and packaging to help them with consistency and sales. Some big wine companies certainly achieve this better than others. But what is interesting about the Michael-David Winery is that it was started by a family of farmers who were given an opportunity to expand, and through creativity, sweat, blood and tears they became a successful wine producer. It is rare to have such success, and now their wines can be found in every state in the union of the US, as well as 33 countries.

And so it was nice to hear about a family who had created successful brands while still owning the whole company as a family. The best brands are inclusive wines that reach out with a warm hello to everyone, no matter their status in life. Conversely, boutique wineries would love to reach out to a wide audience, yet they do not have the resources and so they depend on word of mouth.

Starstruck in Lodi Again

Lodi Pic 3I thought this contrast of brands vs boutique wineries in Lodi was vividly displayed in the new book about Lodi Wine Country called Starstruck in Lodi Again. It is an entertaining, and at times, raw look at this unique area. The author, Chris Kassel, conducted many interviews throughout the Lodi area and in his own words about the intent of the book, “It is a compendium of charismatics, a potpourri of personalities, a variety of viewpoints, and when it comes to success, nobody does it alone.”

Kassel talked to David Phillips, one of the owners of Michael-David Winery and uncle to the aforementioned Kevin Phillips, and describes him as “down-home cuddly in a salt-of-the-earth –farmer sort of way” and makes the point that he is not an imposing person himself even though his reputation and portfolio certainly seems imposing. Phillips’s exuberance to proclaim Lodi as the greatest place on earth was evident in the chapter devoted to his wine company. And so, even though they are big, they are still Lodi, part of a place, part of a community.

One chapter in the book, a couple of chapters preceding the one about Phillips, focused on a tiny, niche winery with a winemaker from Switzerland who did not get into wine until he was thirty. I actually sat at a table during the Wine Bloggers Conference gala dinner with this winemaker, Markus Niggli, who talked over dinner about the warm welcome he felt from Lodi as a foreigner.

Lodi Pic 4Well, I was curious to taste his wines, how “atypical” could they be for a region that makes such oddities as 100% Touriga Nacional, and so I thought he wouldn’t pour anything I hadn’t had before… well, Mr. Niggli served me up with a wine made from Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Bacchus grape varieties! It was their 2014 Markus Nimmo which I enjoyed eating with my crow that night. The wine was edgy, yet inviting, with flinty minerality, floral and spicy notes and acidity that made my mouth water yet it was not too fierce or sharp – and all for only 22 American dollars.

The wines that I tasted were perfect examples of why we need tiny little wineries like them. As much as the big boys can deliver the goods that most people want, it is the smaller guys (and girls) who can offer something different for those who are tired of the same old, same old. But since their marketing budgets are almost nonexistent, we have to do a little bit of homework to find them, or at least get lucky enough to have them cross our paths.

Bokisch Vineyards

Okay, so getting back to the panel of the seminar, there was another innovator in Lodi. Markus Bokisch, Owner/CEO/Vigneron at Bokisch Vineyards, whose love for Spain developed from not only ancestral connections, but also from his time there, spent making wine. Their Albariño and Tempranillo wines certainly made many of us take notice. Bokisch started his winery in 2000 and he was the first to bring in varieties from Spain, but keeping the Lodi spirit, they gifted these varieties to the University of California and Foundation of Plant Services to make them available to other producers free of charge.


Lodi Pic 5Our final panelist was Aaron Lange, Vineyard Manger of Langetwins Winery and Vice Chair California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG), who shared the great story about the owners of Langetwins (his father and uncle) being twins. Fate would have it that I would have the pleasure to meet each of the owners’ daughters when I had dinner there with other wine bloggers. It was funny that I ended up there because I picked the name The Clone Wars, since all the intimate winery dinners were a secret with only a code name to identify the groups, and the clones represented the twins. Many of you probably know I picked it because of my insane love for Star Wars. We had a great dinner at the Langetwins winery and discovered their fantastic 2014 Nero d’Avola, as well as their $12 Cabernet Sauvignon that I mentioned earlier.

But again, the love for Lodi, the diversity, the great quality and the commitment to stay together as a community was echoed by Aaron Lange. He spoke about the revolutionary Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing with passion. It is California’s first third party accredited program. He said that it made Lodi producers all “cousins” in the sense that they are all trying to make high quality wines with as few negative impacts as possible, all while increasing positive impacts.

Kevin Phillips, of Michael-David Winery, said that he believed so much in the Lodi Rules program that he not only converted all of his vineyards to be certified, but he made it mandatory for all the vineyards he sources from to be certified as well. He increased the price he paid for his suppliers’ grapes to compensate for the extra cost they had to incur to be eligible for certification.

Not Trusting Our Own Judgment

The eye opening trip to Lodi Wine Country made me think about the following questions: Why we do not trust our own judgment? Why do we not trust what is in our own backyard? It took the approval of French judges to convince us to believe in Napa, but while that was a great thing, there are still other great wine growing areas that are being ignored because a more well established wine making country has not yet given its approval.

I don’t think it is an American thing to not trust our own judgment, I think it is a human thing. Because even though France and Italy may be two of the most established wine producing countries, they themselves have their own wine critics and writers ignoring many of their own lesser known wine regions due to the lack of historical acclaim.

For someone like myself, who loves to travel the world, the trip to Lodi made me want to know more about America, more about every nook and cranny of my home country. It made me thing about what I have missed out on. Now I am committed to tasting my next Lodi Zinfandel in New York City, and instead of feeling peer pressure to say that it is not my kind of wine because it’s too big, I will stop and actually taste the damn wine, and if it is one of the better ones then I will say, “Wow, nice structure, subtle and perfectly balanced.” And I will take the jeers because I want to trust my own palate.


At the Wine Bloggers Conference there were a couple of sessions called Speed Tasting. We bloggers sit at tables while producers from the area rotate around and  taste us on one of their wines as they tell us about their winery. It is a great way to taste and tweet about wines that are not always so well known, as well as discover producers that we, as bloggers, may want to follow up with later. Here are a couple quick notes about the wines I tasted. All wines are from Lodi, California unless noted.

Speed Tasting of White & Rosé Wines:

Oak Ridge Winery OZV Rosé: (Blend of Zinfandel and Chardonnay) Oldest family winery in Lodi; notes of rosehips & strawberry – pretty in pink

-2014 Peirano Estate Chardonnay: Vineyards around since 1890s – touch of oak & golden apple for only 15 bucks

-2001 Lucas Chardonnay: 2001 Chardonnay from their library – nutty, smoky minerality with bright fruit

 -2015 Harney Lane, Lodi, Albariño: Juicy peach, spice, refreshing – summer in a bottle

 -2015 Bokisch Vineyards, Terra Alta Vineyard, Albariño: Lovin’ the Albariño in Lodi: fruit, saline and zingy finish

2015 Langetwins Sangiovese Rosé: Lilacs, sour cherry and crisp acidity!

2015 d’Art Hand Crafted Wines, White Barbera: Father and daughter wine team with Dad’s artwork on the label. My first white Barbera and won’t be my last – love the texture

-2015 Michael David Winery, Sauvignon Blanc: All about acidity and minerality with pure fruit expression – my mouth is watering

-2015 Trione Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County: Grass, bright and completely refreshing! Great when it is hot

-2015 Klinker Brick Rosé: (Carignane, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache) Delicate, cherry blossoms with good energy

Speed Tasting of Red Wines:

-2014 The Federalist Zinfandel: Delicious wine with plum pie and sweet spice notes with overall brightness

-2013 Windburn’s Pinot Noir Sta Rita Hills: Earthy, more Burgundian-style, complex & elegant

-2013 Corner 103 Zinfandel, Sonoma County: Rich, decadent Zin with stawberry jam and lush texture

-2012 Brie Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel: Beautifully balanced with wild stawberry flavor and fresh acidity

-2012 Trione Winery Henry’s Blend, Alexander Valley: Bordeaux blend that has pristine fruit with lots of structure, best of Old and New World

-2013 Peirano Winery Old Vine Zinfandel “The Immortal Zin”: 100 year old vines with great Lodi pepper note

-2013 Klinker Brick Farrah Syrah: Grandaughter poured the wine that her grandpa named after her – stunning wine with pretty floral notes and black berry fruit – and only 20 bucks

-2013 Abundance Wine Carignane: (Blend 90% Carignane & 10% Petite Sirah fresh, savory & intoxicating)

-2014 Oak Ridge Winery OVZ Zinfandel: (Blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah) Lots of jammy notes yet the wine is still fresh with good acidity and energy on the palate

-2014 Oak Ridge Winery Lodi Estates Cabernet Sauvignon: Powerful with an explosion of blueberry and mocha notes yet it has a nice backbone of tannic structure to keep it exciting to the last drop

-2013 Harney Lane Lizzy James Old Vine Zinfandel: Beautiful restraint on this wine which is simply lovely

And we grab a Cabernet Franc at the last minute from Lodi!
-2013 Michael-David Winery Inkblot Cabernet Franc:
Who would think an area known for Zinfandel could ever make good Cabernet Franc.. but one thing I learned is that Lodi is a vast, diverse place that has more vines planted than Oregon and Washington State combined….. this Cabernet Franc has red cherry fruit with dried herbs and a touch of earth


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A Truth in the Vineyards Tells Us about Our Own Truth

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One of Ironstone Vineyards properties in the Sierra Foothills AVA in California

I am always amazed at how many things are connected to wine. How it not only inspires me but helps me on my quest to live a better, more fulfilling life. A specific instance of this happened during a post conference excursion from the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. As there were several choices, I took the one going to Ironstone Vineyards Winery, located in Murphys, which is located about an hour east of Lodi, California, this year’s location for the Conference itself.

Murphys, California, located in Calaveras county, is part of the Sierra Foothills AVA. It is referred to as the “Queen of the Sierra” and some have referred to it as “The next Napa (Valley).” Even though we only saw the Ironstone property and just a few of their vineyards, their property alone made an incredible impression with their remarkable amphitheatre, lake side park, museum and wine caverns. Quickly it became apparent why we were going to spend the whole day and evening there – there was so much to see and experience!

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Steve Millier (left), Director of Winemaking, and Craig Rous (right), the Director of Operations & Planning for Bear Creek Winery

But it was a small remark that was made when we were in the vineyards with Steve Millier, Director of Winemaking, and Craig Rous, the Director of Operations & Planning for Bear Creek Winery (which is also owned by the Kautz family who own Ironstone Vineyards) which got my attention. The remark had to do with their trellising system for their vineyards and they simply said that they preferred a quad lateral trellising system for their grape vines. Sometimes they would need to use a bi-lateral system (you may have heard its other name “California Sprawl”) but they did not like using the VSP system (Vertical Shoot Positioning).

The Truth about Viticulture

Ironstone post 3rd pic

Chris Storm (third from left), Vititculturist of Vino Farms, talking during The Truth about Viticulture session

Don’t worry, I won’t make this post all about the ins and outs of canopy management. But I found this comment interesting due to the fact that just a few days earlier, during The Truth about Viticulture session of the Wine Bloggers Conference, a local Lodi Viticulturist said in regards to VSP, “That’s the worst system in the world.”

Wow! I wish he would have told us how he really felt. Hehehehe…

But seriously, I appreciate that kind of passion, and he was certainly telling his truth which was formed by his experiences and personal opinions. This truth came from Chris Storm, Vititculturist of Vino Farms, which owns or manages many of the vineyards in Lodi.

The topic of dispelling myths about Lodi came up and he associated myths with pet peeves. His major pet peeve in his own words was, “perception is driving too many decisions and not objective reasoning.”

Perception vs Objective Reasoning

That is when he said that VSP was the worst system possible, especially for Lodi’s Mediterranean climate. But I got the feeling that he was not happy about VSP being in any vineyard in the world. He said that he has struggled dealing with winemakers who taste with their eyes and not with their mouths. He was referring to some winemakers wanting to see a vineyard look a certain way: high and tight – Vertical Shoot Positioning is very clean in appearance. The aforementioned things, though, do not always translate into quality grapes, which ultimately are needed for quality wines.


He made the point that VSP takes an open canopy and “smashes” it all together. He related the leaves of the vines to solar panels, and that we would never point the panels vertically to the sun, but rather lay them flat to get the most sun exposure possible. He further made his point by saying that in this situation, the leaves would form many layers, and in the third and innermost layer there would be leaves that were no longer photosynthesizing because they were not getting proper light, which means they are not helping out the plant and they are instead just sucking out nutrients and becoming a parasite of sorts – take but does not give in return.

And let’s not get into lack of aeration. Have you ever grown a tomato plant in your apartment and allowed the stems and leaves to get really bushy? Did you then stick your hand in the plant to try to find a tomato? Well, I did, and all I found was mildew and rotten tomatoes! Obviously, we were not doing such a great job with canopy management with our tomato plant….

Ironstone Vineyards

Ironstone post 4th pic

Craig Rous showing us one of Ironstone Vineyards bi-lateral trellised Verdelho vines and comparing it to VSP, as well as the mainly quad lateral trellised vines in this vineyard

While touring one of Ironstone’s vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, I told Craig Rous what was said about VSP during the Conference.  He got a kick out of the whole rant -personally, he did agree with many of Storm’s points, but he also made a point to say that he has seen some other vineyard growers make it work in Lodi. He said that they had to do more work with canopy management, such as plucking leaves, and of course its success depends on variety type, vigor of soil and how much breeze and sunlight is available in any given plot. And there are many other variables for each situation that I could not cover in this one post.

Rous did think it was interesting that someone from Vino Farms was now saying they were against VSP, when at one time, they were an advocate for this trellising system. Chris Storm did mention that VSP was once said to be the ideal management choice for Lodi, as well as most of California. They were following what their more established Bordeaux brothers and sisters were doing in their own region (although their VSP systems are typically lower to the ground) thinking it would be ideal for Lodi as well. It has just taken time for California, and more specifically Lodi and the Sierra Foothills, to find their own way.

The Courage for Truth

Steve Millier and Craig Rous both agreed that while they did not use VSP in their vineyards, they could understand why many other vineyards still did. A commercial vineyard has a lifespan of around 30 years, and replanting a vineyard sooner than that would cost a fortune – money that many struggling vineyard owners do not have the luxury of spending.

I’m sure it was a big deal when Vino Farms (and many others) started to question a trellising system that was a huge part of how many locals grew their grapes. It is like when you are faced with certain unpleasant confrontational truths in your life, and you say to yourself, “Do I up-heave my whole existence for a chance at a better life or do I keep the status quo and not rock the boat?” We can only try to realize our own truths, not knowing if others will find it beneficial or helpful, and be satisfied simply with the fact that we are being true to our own selves.

Ironstone post 5th pic

One of the many lakeside views on the Ironstone Vineyards property

The sentiment of being true to oneself was most evident when John Kautz, Chairman of Kautz Family Vineyards and owner of Ironstone Vineyards, was leading our tour of his magnificent property of Ironstone.  At one point, a few people, who were seemingly repeat visitors and had seen Kautz on multiple occasions while enjoying tastings and the beautiful lakes and scenery, approached him and asked if he was with a group of friends that day. He told them he was leading a tour. They were surprised and asked him if he worked at Ironstone Vineyards, to which he humbly said that he owned the place and was walking with a bunch of wine bloggers. I could hear them squeal with joy, “We never knew you were the owner!” It made me smile, because he seemed like he just loved seeing people enjoy the place and he would happily talk to them as just another wine lover, never bringing much attention to the fact that he actually was the owner.

It made me think – Mr. Kautz has figured out the truth of who he was a long time ago. He was someone who wanted to create things and places that brought joy to people and he was happy enough to sit back and watch people have the time of their lives.


Vertical Tasting of Ironestone Vineyards Wines on August 14th, 2016

Reserve Rous Old Vine Zinfandel

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Their Zinfandel grapes come from the 10 acre (4 hectares), 105 year old Rous Vineyard, owned and managed by Craig Rous. His vineyard is found in the heart of the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. The tasting showed me that Lodi Zinfandel was not as ripe or lush as Paso Robles and tended to have more structure, which is not better or worse, just noticeably different. It is mind-boggling that the current vintage is only USD$35. Wow! That is what happens when perception does not fit reality, and in this case, this wine is highly undervalued.

-2010: Rich blackberry fruit, violets, spice, dried herbs, lots of flesh on the palate yet still fresh and bright

-2012: Chocolate covered cherries mixed with earthy and savory notes

-2013: Bright notes of plums and strawberries with a more noticeable acidity

-2014: Dried herbs with blueberry pie and firmer tannins than the other wines

Reserve Cabernet Franc

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They wanted to show us how they could not only grow Cabernet Franc, but how their version ages as well.

Their Cabernet Franc vineyard is 2400 ft. (732 meters) above sea level.  The grapes are estate-grown at their Hay Station Ranch vineyard, in the Sierra Foothills, with warm days and cool evenings. Soil is granite mixed with volcanic sediment and red clay. Grapes have been grown in the Sierra Foothills for 150 years.

Steve Millier, Director of Winemaking, said that Cabernet Franc was always the last grape to be picked, even after Cabernet Sauvignon. He said, “Cabernet Franc wants to be out there watching everyone get done first, and when they’re all done it may decide to come in. No matter what kind of season you had it is always a battle right at the very end.”

-2000: Tomato leaf, blackcurrant with pretty floral notes; nice energy to this wine, a refined and elegant finish

-2005: Wet forest floor, lilacs and fresh raspberry with a linear shape

-2008: Riper flavors of raspberry jam and richer body

-2010: A lot more tannins than previously tasted vintages with dark cherry notes, seems like this has a long way to go

-2013: A full body with sweet red fruit and cocoa powder laced throughout

Again, price is always a factor, and it is unbelievable that they sell the current 2013 vintage for only USD$28


Ironstone post 8th pic

Our evening concluded with an incredible meal by, prepared by Chef Jimmy Sadegi, using local produce and pairing it with various Ironstone wines. I do have to note one interesting wine made with a grape called Symphony, which is a Californian crossing of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris, developed in 1948 (but not commercially released until 1982) by the late Harold Olmo, professor of viticulture at the University of California, Davis. Symphony is a white grape that is actually harvested later than many of the reds to get the aromatics just right.

2014 Obsession Symphony: Moderately perfumed nose with juicy peach flavors and for only USD$12 it is a uniquely fun white wine to have any day during the week







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Wine Lessons from China

Outside of Forbidden City

Entrance to the Forbidden City

Recently, my partner in crime and I traveled to Beijing, China for holiday (or as we say in the US, ‘for vacation’). You may have seen a couple of the over 500 pictures I placed on the internet. We are always looking to expand our minds and hearts with different experiences. And the biggest wine lesson that I walked away with is, in the quest to gain as much information and taste as much wine as possible, that I should always make time for those long conversations… not only with people in the wine business, but also locals. I was able to have some in-depth conversations with both trade and non-trade and I walked away having a deeper respect and understanding of the Chinese market.


It seems generalizations are a necessary evil. I cannot out right blame someone for making generalizations since I have used them myself. Whether it is a style of wine or wine consumers from a certain area of the world, it seems to be the most assured way to get people to walk away with any bit of information, as a long and thorough explanation always ends up being too much information to digest. But it becomes dangerous when we use quick sound bites that are more for the purpose of making ourselves look clever instead of passing on valuable information. I always have to remind myself to qualify a statement when talking about a particular market. Most of my experiences are seen through the lens of the New York City market; my trips to other places are relatively brief, and so it is always a good reminder that it is impossible to completely know another place unless one has lived there for several years.


China makes no bones about it not having the same long wine drinking culture as European countries. As an American, I appreciate many of the missteps a country can make when it is a neophyte to wine, as we were primarily a whiskey and beer drinking country not that long ago. But saying generalizations such as a “whole country does not have taste”, “can only appreciate brands” or “does not have the potential to become a well-respected wine making country” is simply unfair to make as dogma.


I think it is absurd to say any area of the world, let alone a large, vast and diverse country such as China, does not have taste. I have had the privilege of talking to people from various backgrounds in China, some in the wine business and some not, some who have lived and traveled the world and some who have never been beyond China’s borders. Whether I was tasting wine or tea, or eating food, there was always a discussion of the various subtle nuances of what we were drinking and eating, even to the point where my own senses were elevated. We are all limited by our own environment and need to expand our horizons.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

There has been a movement within the wine trade in Asia to use descriptors that correlate to the common flavors that a particular Asian country finds to be in the staple diet of their people. Young Chinese people in the wine trade seem to be well traveled, well educated and able to know the needs of their local markets better than foreigners who sometimes try to force their own terminology and culture onto a people, who not only have a rich culture of their own, but who may help to revolutionize the future of the wine world.




Does any country have the right to criticize another country for being attracted to brands?

Wine brands are important everywhere. The wine consuming public does not have the time to get a PhD in wine so they are dependent on those things they trust – it may be a salesperson at a store, a recommendation from a friend or most often a trusted brand. Names like Kendal Jackson and Gallo are trusted names within the American market. The majority of wine sales in the UK are through the large supermarket chains that mainly carry large brands since they require volume and consistency. French wine brand JP Chenet saw a significant increase in sales when they placed an image of their famously shaped bottle on their bag-in-box in Sweden.

And yes, there are the much covered, highly expensive fine wines that have been bought by Chinese consumers. But in the fine wine world, and I used to work for one of the top fine wine retailers in Manhattan, there is a market segment in many international cities around the world that are willing to pay large amounts of money for an assurance of “saving face”. I have met Americans who bought wines for large amounts of money because they did not want to embarrass themselves around wealthy friends and/or colleagues.

I understand, as being a middle class person myself, the frustration of certain wines that were once affordable are now price prohibitive – with the fortunate exception of being able to taste them for free as a wine writer. But to blame price increases on one country seems unfair. Some of my colleagues who work in the well-established London market say the need for fine wine “brands” to help one give the impression of being cultured is prevalent there as well.

China as a Wine Making Country

I cannot speak too much to this idea and it seems even the Chinese themselves are not 100% sure of the potential of China. Because the wine consumption in China has drastically increased in such a short amount of time practices such as using bulk wine from Australia, France and Chile to help blend with Chinese wine has created a perception that China is incapable of making quality wines.

But this is an issue for any up and coming wine making country. California was not always seen as a premium wine making area and through time, with a little luck that helped to bring investment and international acclaim to the state, it has become a world class wine making region. Before that time there was a prejudice of the area as being a place with a bunch of hicks who knew nothing about wine and were toiling simply to make subpar juice.

During one of my nights out with some very wine knowledgeable locals in the biz, I had the opportunity to taste a wine blind. I guess I should have guessed it was from China, but since these particular people I was having dinner with seemed to like European wines, I went a different route with my guessing. The wine was rich and ripe with various layers of earthy notes that suggested an Old World country that had a warm climate. The tannins were evident yet well integrated and so I thought it was a high quality Portuguese, non-fortified, red table wine that had moderate alcohol, beautiful fruit and contrasting textural qualities.

Did I overthink it? Yeah, I think so. Should I have just looked at the situation and said it was a Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon? Yep, you are right again.

2012 Zhen Ge Cabernet SauvignonIt was a 2012 Zhen Ge Cabernet Sauvignon, and the first time I had a Chinese wine that was within the low to mid premium price range (188 RMB equivalent USD$28) as I had only experience with entry level and fine wine (Grace Vineyard). It was made with grapes that 100% came from China in the Ningxia province which has a continental climate ranging 80F (27C) to an annual average minimum of 7F (−14C). Cooler climate than I would have guessed.

But was it an unusually warm vintage? Who knows their Ningxia vintages?

Some at the table said they did not care for the green character in the wine. I have to admit I personally got very little green character, and the small hint I did get I very much enjoyed and thought it helped balanced a strong fruit character in the wine. But that is one of the greatest things about wine – we all have our own personal tastes.

Local Chinese wine experts do debate whether Ningxia is the best province for the government to place its hopes. Other provinces could be more promising such as the southwest province of Yunnan. But what Ningxia shows us is that quality wine can be made in China and perhaps, with further experimentation with other varieties and techniques in the vineyards and wineries, it could become a top region. Also, China is just starting to place a focus on making quality wine and so it is only the beginning

The Ultimate Lesson

I think the ultimate lesson is that while we may have our generalizations, we have to also, at the same time, admit our limited knowledge and experience of areas outside of our residences. There are many things, even to its own highly educated wine experts, that are unknown about China. Maybe that is what scares us; we do not know what is going to happen.

The Exit to the Forbidden City

Exit to the Forbidden City

Fear is everywhere these days as globalization starts to change the daily lives of many people around the world. There are those who want to fight it. Blame it for all our problems. Try to hold on to the past because we are afraid that there will be a power shift that will not be in our favor.

The world is changing. No one can stop that and either we move together with grace, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses each of us possess, or we fight tooth and nail with a bitter heart and a closed mind as the world changes around us.


I am happy to move with grace together.





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