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Friday, September 28, 2012

Dressed to Impress?

I was reading an article this morning, written by someone that I know through friends.  It was about a topic unrelated to wine.  Based on the general idea of the article, it should have had absolutely nothing to do with materialism.  Yet somehow, most of the article was name-dropping expensive designer items - and that had nothing to do with the topic of the story.  After reading through it, I decided the only purpose of the name-dropping was to impress the readers.  I was not impressed.

Why was I not impressed?  Well, I like nice things, and I like having nice things.  But the reason I like having nice things is so that I can enjoy them.  I’m not at all concerned with what anyone else thinks of things that I have.  I love nice clothing and accessories.  I love good handbags.  While I hate buying shoes (yes, I really am a girl, I just hate shopping for shoes and I don’t know why), I do like having nice shoes.  And I really love having nice wine.  Some of those items, including some of the wines, are expensive.  But I firmly believe that the value of something is determined by how much the person will enjoy it.

If I determined how much I will spend on anything based upon how much it will impress others, I’d be wasting my time and money.  I determine something’s value based upon how much I’ll enjoy it, and the reasons for enjoying the item vary greatly.

Often I see photos of bottle labels and tasting notes posted to Facebook and Twitter.  I’m so happy for the people enjoying them, and I love reading their tasting notes, especially on the unique bottles.  I post photos of labels and tasting notes regularly to Facebook and Twitter.  I love sharing experiences with my family, friends, and acquaintances.  But the reason I buy the bottles is to enjoy them.  I don’t care if no one is impressed by them.  I think it’s pretty obvious that I feel this way, since 90% of the time the bottle is under $25.  I’m more excited to taste something relatively unknown, and I like saving the “big wines” for occasions - although sometimes I’ll randomly open something special just to make an occasion out of it.

Want to know what impresses me about wines?  When a label sends me to the wine encyclopedia.  Of course the “big wines” like Grand Cru and First Growths and vintage Champagne are wonderful.  But I think it’s pretty impressive to hunt down a Negrette or Coda di Volpe or Prie Blanc or Malvazija.  And those wines don’t have the monetary value that the big Bordeaux and Burgundies have.  But they’re special, too.

Last year I was at a master class with the Guild of Sommeliers.  The Master Sommelier presenting the wines spoke about the wines, the unique grapes, and the terroir of the region.  He also told us that he didn’t speak the language of the local people producing the wines, but he connected with them and was able to communicate anyway, because of the wines and foods shared with him by the locals.  He told us how humble the people and their wines may appear, but their skill, knowledge, and passion are different yet equal to that of their counterparts in better known wine regions with more expensive wines that are recognized worldwide.

Is there anything wrong with buying expensive wines and enjoying them?  Of course not!  Is there anything wrong with buying other expensive consumer goods?  No way - it’s great to have nice things!  But invest in the things that make the individual happy.  Don’t worry about the opinions of others.  If you feel the need to buy the expensive wines for the purpose of impressing others, you are likely to miss out on the cool off-beat wines that you’d enjoy, but enjoy for a completely different reason.

For me, the moral of the story is to enjoy and be happy.  Don’t worry about impressing others.  I’m impressing myself when I buy a “big wine,” but I also impress myself when I buy one of those exotic wines under $20 that with one sniff or sip brings me to a faraway place unknown to many - that is, after it first brings me to the wine encyclopedia.  

Classified Bordeaux - pricey and enjoyable

Salice Salentino - off-beat Italian wine, inexpensive and enjoyable

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Importance of Knowing What You Love and Why You Love It

Wine trends fascinate me.  I’m often curious as to why something becomes popular.  Is it because the price is right?  Or because of the style of the wine?  Or because of an article in Wine Spectator telling the people to drink it and like it?

I’m one to buck the trends.  I like to drink things that are unpopular.  Some of my favorite wine regions include Sud-Ouest, Campania, and some wines from Balkan regions, including Croatia and Montenegro.  I’m quite confident these wines won’t be popular for a while - not like Prosecco, Sancerre, and Mendoza Malbec, at least.

The thing I find interesting, however, is how many people place Burgundy at the top of their list, and what I wonder is, how many of those people “love” Burgundy for the right reasons?

Recently, I was speaking to someone about a Pinot Noir.  I told her it was a Burgundy.  And she said she loves Burgundy, and wanted to know where it’s from, so I just said again that it’s a Burgundy, because I didn’t want to insult her by saying something obvious.  She asked me again where it was from, and if it might be French.  Yes, I responded.

I guess I’m just curious how someone can love Burgundy if the person doesn’t know anything about Burgundy.  It’s completely ok to love Pinot Noir and not know much about Burgundy, but to claim you love Burgundy and not know it’s a region in France, that just doesn’t make sense to me.

Lovely Burgundies

And then we have people who claim to love something like Burgundy, and take cheap shots at places like Bordeaux or Rhone.  A true wine lover with any respect for wine realizes that everyone has different taste.  You like Burgundy?  That’s cool.  I like Burgundy, too.  I also like Rhone.  And I love Bordeaux.  The thing I’d like to ask a lot of the people who are all about Burgundy is what exactly makes them “love” Burgundy so much.

I could easily tell anyone what I like about those three regions.  What do I like about Burgundy?  The wines are clean, and the grapes are permitted to show their identities - they’re terroir-driven and earthy, and the identities of the wines matter a great deal to me.  What do I like about Rhone?  Rhone makes some funky, attention-grabbing wines with a lot of character, and many of them are still relatively affordable.  What about Bordeaux?  Bordeaux is what I really love.  I love the structure, texture, aromas, and flavors of those wines.  The really spectacular ones are the wines that leave me speechless.  They’re majestic and unabashedly so.

I understand why any true wine lover would fall in love with Burgundy, for the reasons I named, and so many more.  Reasons to love any particular wine region can’t fit into a blog post, as there are far too many to name.  But while there are plenty of exceptions, including lots of enthusiasts and professionals that I know, I still find that a few too many people are saying that it’s all about Burgundy without justifying their so-called love for the region.  When I hear that many people saying the same thing and not backing it up with reasons or knowledge of what they claim to love, that tells me they’re just parroting what they’ve heard from someone else.

These past few months, I’ve heard so many people going on about Burgundy while barely scratching the surface of what Burgundy is all about - elegant, expressive, lovely, honest wines.

So - what’s your favorite region?  And more importantly - WHY is it your favorite?

I think what’s important to remember is that regardless of what we hear other people saying, it’s up to each individual wine drinker to determine what he/she likes in a wine, and embrace it.  Wine appreciation isn’t about being told what to like, or liking something just because it’s become popular.  It’s about finding what you connect with, and continuing to learn and enjoy.

After thinking a while about those who just repeat things they hear, and not knowing a thing about it, I thought of one of my favorite scenes in Seinfeld, which illustrates my point.

Jerry: So, we're going to make the post office pay for my new stereo, now?
Kramer: It's a write-off for them.
Jerry: How is it a write-off?
Kramer: They just write it off.
Jerry: Write it off what?
Kramer: Jerry, all these big companies, they write off everything.
Jerry: You don't even know what a write-off is.
Kramer: Do you?
Jerry: No, I don't.
Kramer: But they do - and they’re the ones writing it off.

“You don’t even know what a write-off is."

My point is, instead of just repeating what someone else says, it’s more practical to just find the wine that’s best for each individual wine drinker.  If you like Burgundy, know why.  If you like Bordeaux or Rhone, know why.  If you like something else, know why.  I know I’d be kind of embarrassed if I claimed something was my all-time favorite of anything, not just wine, and couldn’t give any reasons as to why it’s my favorite, due to lack of knowledge.  What’s the remedy?  Keep on tasting, enjoying, and learning.  And let’s do ourselves a favor - read fewer opinions and instead focus more on facts, as well as what we feel when we taste, and how well we connect with each wine.  When it comes to enjoying wine, ultimately the opinion that counts the most is your own.  But please make sure you can back it up!  And remember, it’s completely acceptable to prefer something less popular.  But if you’re one of those people who really loves Burgundy for all the right reasons - cheers to you, you have wonderful taste.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Wine and Special Occasions

I love special wines on special occasions.  I think most of us would agree we open special bottles on special occasions - birthdays, anniversaries, holidays - and it’s a great thing to do.  Sometimes I’ll poke around my wine racks when I know a special day is coming up, and I’ll think to myself, ah, that’s the perfect bottle for this occasion.

But something occurred to me recently - the wine is there, whether I have a special occasion or not.  The wine doesn’t care what day it is - it’s going to peak at some point, whether I have a special day picked or not.  That means that I’ll be saving a good bottle and perhaps go past its peak time because I might be more concerned with opening it at a particular time instead of when the wine tells me it’s ready.

That leads me to this thought - what if the wine itself is the special occasion?  Sure, we like to save bottles and tag them for special days.  But why can’t the opening of the bottle make it the occasion?  Why not plan around opening the bottle?  A wine coming of age, especially a bottle that we’ve been waiting for, is indeed a special occasion.

I’ve got several special aged bottles that need to be opened soon.  I do have a birthday coming up in a couple of months, and Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t far off, but I have a lot more than just 3 bottles that are ready to be opened this autumn/winter.  So I’ve decided that with some of them, I’ll be celebrating opening the bottle.  It won’t be a birthday or holiday.  Opening and experiencing the wine is quite special enough, and worth celebrating in some way.  Those bottles can make any day a special occasion.

2000 Chateau Clerc Milon Pauillac - for a special occasion

Monday, September 17, 2012

Some Things Really Do Improve With Age

Call me crazy, but I think the wines speak to us.

It all starts when we look at the label, and try to find out something about that bottle before deciding to take it home.  When it’s time to enjoy it (and each bottle is ready at a different moment, because wine is a living thing, and each is different from the next, much the way people mature and grow at different rates), anyway - when it’s time to enjoy and experience it, we look at it in the decanter or glass.  What does it look like?  What does that tell us?  Color, viscosity, clarity - what do we learn?  And then the aromas and flavors tell us about the wine, as does the texture.  Is it simple or complex?  Is it youthful or mature?  Has it been tampered with, or is it freely telling us about its terroir, its own identity - are the grapes permitted to speak for themselves, mature on their own, and reach their full potential, to become the best wine they can be?

Well, when I think of the more masculine wines, the ones that are big reds with stronger traits and characteristics, I feel like in my life/wine rack Cabernet and Nebbiolo have vied for that top spot, and Malbec has sort of been the “other guy” - Cabernet and Nebbiolo based wines are quite solid and tend to mature well, while Malbec just recently burst onto the scene these past few years, grabbing everyone’s attention with its rich sunkissed fruitiness, dark coloring, and interesting labels, from a New World wine region - more modern and youthful.

Cabernet based wines, those of the Left Bank of Bordeaux and from California, are often ageworthy - depending on acidity, tannin, etc.  They’re very much like a person, in that they mature over time, and have the potential for great success, as we wait in hope and with great expectations for these wines.  Sometimes we’re disappointed and sometimes the wines develop into something truly amazing.  If we’re patient and we wait, they might just mature into something great.

And then there’s Nebbiolo - the grape from the Piemonte region in Italy that is used for making the highly regarded Barolo and Barbaresco wines.  Out of the fog come these young wines.  They’re so tannic and not quite enjoyable in their youth, and their aromas and flavors are reminiscent of tar.  The point is, we need to wait for them to mature, because they’re not only ageworthy, or capable of aging well in the bottle - they’re intended for aging.  We can’t really enjoy them when they’re so young, because they’re off-balance due to such high tannin, and it takes years for the wines to come into focus and become all they were intended to be.

Barolo - Nebbiolo - showing its brickish rim

And then one day, we can sense the bottle of Nebbiolo is ready - much the way a sophisticated, attractive gentleman may catch my eye when before that he may have looked like any other guy.  The Nebbiolo wine is opened, and into the decanter he goes.  He’s not that normal color of a youthful wine.  No, he’s light in color with a bright orange rim - quite flashy and attractive actually, like a very good looking man with the touch of grey.  We might not even recognize him, since the last time anyone saw him, he was so different in appearance, and hadn’t grown into his features yet.  He’s not that wildly youthful spirit like Malbec, or fortunate to be looking and feeling so good like Cabernet at a similar age.  No, Nebbiolo is at his very best when he’s aged.  He’s seasoned now, after all those years.  He’s complex, with so many layers to discover, from years of maturing.  The fruits, spices, flowers, herbs, and the earthiness, and the perfect balance of characteristics and textures make this quite a wonderful wine.  This wine is definitely best when aged.  I think it is then, when Nebbiolo is showing its radiant color, and its sophistication and complexity, after aging and maturing, that it tells me, “I’m no longer a boy.  I’m a man now.  I’ve reached my full potential.  I’m mature, seasoned, and fully prepared to show you a great experience, in a way that only I know how.  This is what I was intended for.”

Fairly young Barolo - Nebbiolo

Aging Barbaresco - Nebbiolo

I suppose I shouldn’t wonder why the man with the touch of grey, the man who has good taste, good sense, and is fully aware of himself is so attractive and irresistible.  I think to myself, there’s no need for pushing a wine, or a person, or anything else, to maturity, before the right time.  They make these tools for aging the wine in a matter of moments.  What sense does that make?  It’s like expecting the dashing grey hair and worldliness from a teenager, instead of someone much older.  It doesn’t make sense to me.


Yes, the youthfulness of a ripe flavorful wine like Malbec can be fun.  Yes, it can be exciting to watch and wait for Cabernet to mature fully and see how it turns out.  But what is it about Nebbiolo that’s so wonderful?  To me, it’s that Nebbiolo was intended to be the most exciting one at such an age, and that it usually comes through on its promise.  It’s the flashiest, most beautiful and complex red wine at that age.  And when Nebbiolo - upon maturity - comes calling, of course I answer yes.  I love it when Nebbiolo speaks to me.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Current Vintages in Wine Shops

Imagine you’re a fashion designer.  You design beautiful clothing, and your company sells the clothing to many different stores.  Some stores are good at selling it, even if it’s a bit pricey, because they know it’s good quality, and they know how to display it properly.  At the end of the season, all the clothing you sold to the good shops is sold and the customers are happy.  Now imagine a few years later, you happen upon another shop, and you go in, and find that same outfit you designed a few years prior.  It hasn’t moved, and it’s been sitting in the direct sunlight and now it’s faded and ruined.  If someone finally buys it, they won’t look so good in it.  You wouldn’t want someone wearing it like that, and you’re disappointed to see that it’s still sitting there, long past the time when it was in style.

There are a lot of wine shops that buy a lot of wine.  Sometimes they buy certain wines in bulk to get special discounts.  I can understand that.  And I’m not talking about a discount on 5 cases.  I’m talking about a discount on 50 cases.  But what’s troubling is going into a wine shop and seeing the same vintage of that wine available for a few too many years.  Obviously it hasn’t moved.  And what’s also troubling to me is when a wine hasn’t been stored at a shop under the proper conditions - temperature, dryness/humidity, and away from sunlight, or setting the bottle at the correct angle for the sake of the cork or sediment.

If I were a vintner, I’d be disappointed to see how lots of wines are left to turn strange in some wine shops.  The vintner wants his/her wines to show well and for the customers to enjoy it.  I’m quite sure they don’t want people opening the bottles past their prime, and the customers to drink spoiled wine.  That’s a bad reflection - but people might think it’s a bad reflection on the winery.  In fact, it’s probably a bad reflection on the shop that failed to store the wine properly and sell it when it was supposed to be enjoyed.

Jancis Robinson has noted that approximately the top 10% of all red wine and the top 5% of all white wine are capable of aging to the point of being more enjoyable after 5 years, as opposed to after 1 year.  Think about that for a moment.  This means that most wines are ready for consumption within the first year after release.  So if you see wines much older than that, sitting on the shelves of wine shops, perhaps think twice.  If so few wines are intended for aging, what are they doing in those shops?  They won’t be as enjoyable if they’re past their prime, but if a shop bought more than it could sell, perhaps for the sake of a discount on a tremendous amount of wine, or to make matters even worse, failed to store it properly, that wine might not be fit for consumption.

Current vintage

That used to happen to me quite often - I’d buy a bottle and when I opened it, I realized it was long past peak time.  The fruitiness might taste completely dried out, or the wine might taste like vinegar, or raisins, or however it wasn’t supposed to taste when the vintner created it - it’s expired.  I’m much more conscious of that now since I have a lot more experience than I used to, and I shop in places that keep current vintages, or store ageworthy wines correctly.  You wouldn’t buy the faded clothing sitting on a shelf too long.  You wouldn’t buy something in the supermarket that’s long past its expiration date.  So why buy expired wine?

Current vintage

I respect the shops that buy when they believe they can sell in the proper window of time, and the shops that make sure they’re storing the wine correctly.  Those are the places I’d rather shop.  Shops are an important part of a wine’s journey - it’s how many of us are connected with the wines we’ll enjoy.  And I believe shopkeepers have a duty to make sure consumers are getting the wine when it’s ready to be enjoyed, and to store them correctly.  Please consider giving your business to those shops - they’re the ones making the best effort and putting what matters first.

Monday, September 10, 2012

“Mood Drinking"

I’m what I like to call a “mood drinker” - I pick wines based on my mood and take it from there - for sipping, or choosing what I’m going to eat, or what I’ll be doing with the day or evening.  I plan it around my mood, and the first thing I choose based on my mood is what wine I’ll be drinking.

But one of the most important things to me that works in unison with a person’s mood is music.  I keep playlists in my laptop based on different genres of music, but instead of labeling them “jazz,” classical,” “rock,” etc., I have them labeled according to grape type.  That probably sounds strange, and perhaps it is, but after trial and error over the past few years, it’s very obvious that Chardonnay won’t pair with Claudio Villa (I need Chianti for that), Pinot Noir doesn’t pair with Metallica, and Champagne absolutely will not pair with Glen Hansard.  (In fact, Glen Hansard’s music seems to be almost impossible for me to pair a wine to thus far.)

It was no surprise to me that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay seem to go nicely with jazz.  Their smooth, classy characteristics seem to mirror jazz.  Sauvignon Blanc seems to be most enjoyable with equally bright and happy surroundings.  The biggest shock came when I was preparing dinner one evening and sipping a good Bordeaux, when The Who began playing on my laptop, and I realized somehow that Cabernet and rock are perfect together.  It’s hard to explain, but it just felt right.

But “mood drinking” can be obvious in some instances.  I’ll bet that very few people would want to drink a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc by the fireplace on a winter evening.  And I don’t think too many people drink Barolo at barbecues and pool parties.  Some pairings are just so clear - bigger reds during the cooler months, crisp whites in the summer.  Special bottles on special occasions, casual familiar wines for weeknight sipping.

And then there are times when it’s just more fun to listen to one type of music over the others.  I keep Italian, French, Spanish, and Brazilian music available for when I’m in such a mood, usually when cooking.  Claudio Villa is perfect with Chianti while I’m working on homemade ravioli or gnocchi.  And certain wines, like particular foods or types of music, are best enjoyed in the company of others, while others are best for an evening alone.  I, for one, will not drink bubbles when I’m alone.  It just doesn’t feel right and I can’t seem to enjoy it.  But an off-beat red that puts me in a wine geek frame of mind and sends me to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine for some serious research - well, dinner companions wouldn’t want to wait for me to research a strange grape or region, so I’d rather do that when I’m sipping alone.

It’s actually a lot of fun to put some thought into that kind of pairing, but often it requires no planning, because a mood can spontaneously determine what we’re up for - the wine, the food, the music, and anything else.  And spontaneous can be really fun.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Which is Best? You Decide.

Too often I get asked this question - “What’s the best wine?”  As tempted as I am to answer with one of my favorites, or one of the world’s favorites, I stop myself, because there’s no right answer to that in terms of grape, region, or producer.  The answer is, in my opinion, that the best wine is the one each individual wine drinker best connects with.  And often, that can take a lot of searching and tasting.

Think of it this way.

My favorite sport is horseback riding.  I learned to ride when I was very young, and always had horses.  Before choosing my last horse, I tried 16 different horses.  They were all different breeds, different ages, they had different abilities and talents, and all looked very different from each other.  It took nearly half a year to choose the right one.  And then I met Roy - a 9 year old Canadian Thoroughbred, dark brown, with just the look and abilities I was hoping for.  After we determined he was healthy and skilled, Roy became my horse, and at our very first competition together, we were champion.  A lot of the other horses I had tried before Roy were attractive and talented, but they weren’t quite right for me - I wasn’t connecting with them.  Roy and I connected immediately, and we made a great team.

Roy and me at the Hampton Classic

It’s the same with lots of things.  We choose the music we like, based on how well we connect with it, how it moves us; the same goes for art - we connect with certain types of art and they appeal to us, and other forms of art can be hanging on a wall in a museum and we walk right past it, because it does not reach out to us and interest us.  Yet someone else can walk right up to it and feel exactly what the artist was feeling at the time it was created.

That’s how it is with wine.  There are some you might connect with, and some that leave no impression at all.  That’s one of the things I love about blind tasting - I have no idea exactly what’s in my glass, and if I like it or if I don’t is based completely on how I perceive the wine.  There are no Robert Parker scores or labels to distract or influence me, there’s nothing to prove - all that matters is whether I like the wine, or I don’t.  (And what’s even more interesting to me is that on any given day, my mood might make me choose something different than I would the following day.)

2009 Domaine Chevalier Ladoix

From the past year, I can remember which wines touched me the most - a few Super Tuscans at Gambero Rosso last winter, a few Bordeaux, a couple of Burgundies from two different producers, a Vouvray Sec, one particular Champagne, a Sauternes, and most of the rest were those mysterious and relatively inexpensive wines from Southwest France.  The wines were all different grapes, from all different regions, different styles, and different price ranges.  But I connected so well with those particular wines.  Someone else might not connect with all or any of them.  But at those moments, when I tasted those wines, those were the ones I best connected with.

2010 Domaine Le Capitaine Vouvray Sec

So, are those the best wines?  Some of them might be.  But I feel that way because I connected with them.  Everyone is entitled to their own favorites, and hopefully those wines are “favorites” because the individual wine drinker connected with those particular wines.  Wine magazines and other resources can be useful, but never let a wine writer or anyone else tell you which your favorite should be.  Continue to taste, and find the wines that reach out to you the best.  There are so many to choose from, so we can be sure that there’s something for everybody.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


It’s been just about a year since I went to that Guild of Sommeliers master class on Sud-Ouest, the wines of Southwest France, which I’ve referenced countless times in the blog since then.I’m generally a traditional sort of person with traditional preferences, and I’ve always had a great love for good wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Loire, and some of the better-known regions of France, not to mention my love for traditional wine of Italy, Spain, and Germany.

And then I attended the class on Southwest French wines.  We went into a room in the lower level of Morton’s Steakhouse in New York, and already the room was filled with exotic wine aromas.  The whites were exciting, and the reds were amazing, and the dessert wine was stunning.  All were fascinating and unique, but it was more than that, something I can’t quite identify, but I connected so well with them, and since then, I’ve been hunting down more wines from Sud-Ouest and familiarizing myself and my palate with a wine region that seems more mysterious than the others.

A few nights ago, I opened the 2009 Domaine Etienne Brana “Ohitza” Irouleguy.  Vineyards in Irouleguy are within the Basque area, very near Spain.  The wine is 80% Tannat and 20% Cabernet Franc.  Interestingly, it’s very different from wines from the nearby Madiran made up of exactly the same quotient of the same grapes.  I told you wines from Southwest are mysterious!  It has a very deep red color and it’s quite expressive and terroir-driven, with characteristics of mostly red fruit and some dark berry and plum as well, and spice, pepper, somewhat subdued wood notes, and a lot of earthiness and some indications of saline notes, quite possibly from its vicinity to the Atlantic ocean.  The wine has bright acidity and nice structure, a smooth and clean feel, and a long unique finish.

In the $20-$30 range, this wine is worth buying and tasting for the unique experience alone, but it’s just so aromatic and delicious that for me, it’s a good value, even nearing $30.

I did come across some more wines from Sud-Ouest so now that the weather will be transitioning into cooler evenings, I’ll have more of a desire to open that type of wine.