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Friday, July 26, 2013

A Letter to the Regulars

This isn’t the typical blog post - not that any of them are quite typical anymore - they range anywhere from tasting notes to fun anecdotes to a sort of wine philosophy.

No - today’s post is a letter to the people I often refer to as Lake Side Emotions’ “Friday regulars.”  Every Friday, I pour the wine tasting from afternoon until early evening.  And over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten to know many of the people who attend regularly.

Since I started working for AP Wine Imports, I’ve also been pouring tastings at other wine stores.  Sometimes those in-store tastings are lots of fun for me, and sometimes that’s definitely not the case.  Often, people in attendance at the other tastings take all kinds of liberties, or have no interest in the brief presentation I make about the wines I’m pouring, or just pretend I’m not even there.

Don’t get me wrong, any time I get to talk about wine is still fun for me.  But it’s not as much fun when no one is listening, or when they’re behaving badly.

Provence Rose’ tasting at Lake Side Emotions
to celebrate Bastille Day
So, I realize how lucky I am to see the “Friday regulars” every week and I notice that each time one of them walks in the door at my favorite wine boutique, Lake Side Emotions, I’m genuinely happy to see them.  I know we’ll be catching up on things other than wine, but now I also understand why so many other reps have no idea why I find pouring tastings, in general, to be a lot of fun.  It’s because the majority of my tastings are spent with you, our Friday regulars.  And while wine is fun for me, it’s also you who make it fun.

Often, at other tastings, I’m usually pouring French wines from the AP portfolio, and sometimes the wines are a bit offbeat.  Sometimes people don’t care to know anything about the products, and sometimes they just throw around statements like, “I don’t drink French wine,” “I don’t drink rose’,” “don’t you have any local wine?” and the like.

But not our Friday regulars.  I always appreciate the enthusiasm to try the wines we’re showing each week, and to hear me out on my little presentations - whether you’re that interested or not, I love it that you still let me go on about the wines for a moment.  And I love your feedback, when you tell me what you like or don’t like about the wines.  And I especially love it when you remember things we’ve poured at tastings in weeks prior.  Watching you enjoy wines you’ve never seen or heard of before, and trusting my descriptions enough to give the wines a chance, and of course bringing them home to enjoy or share with others - that makes it all worthwhile.

One of my favorite Friday tasting experiences happened over the course of two Fridays, last year.  One of the wines we poured was a Madiran - mostly Tannat with some Cabernet Franc.  It’s one of my favorites at Lake Side Emotions and I was excited to be showing it to anyone who was willing to listen and taste.  And I was a little surprised at the reception - nearly everyone loved the Madiran.  This is expecially exciting for me because anyone who knows me well knows that I have a major soft spot for the wines of Sud-Ouest, Tannat from Madiran in particular.  So watching so many people loving a wine that I connect well with, but isn’t mainstream, was fun.  And the following week, some regulars began to ask, “what was that really dark dry red you were pouring last week?  I want a few more bottles of it.”  The Madiran?  Really?  I was thrilled - they loved the Madiran!

So, I know that this is why I enjoy pouring tastings - because at most of my tastings, I’m fortunate enough to see our weekly tasters, our “Friday regulars,” and they’re the ones who make tastings so much fun for me.  Yes, it’s also the wine, but it’s the people who attend and listen and enjoy and come into the wine boutique not to judge the wines before tasting, but to have fun with us and try something new, and you are the ones who give me that three and a half hours each week to look forward to.

Thank you for that.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Everything Matters When Considering Terroir

I’m going to write some things in this blog post that may bother some of you.  But before you get angry with me for all the wrong reasons, I’d like you to think about why it makes sense.

I suppose I should start by asking if you’d order a salad for dinner at a renowned steakhouse, or chicken parmigiana at a sushi restaurant, or expect a diet coke or a beer at Starbucks - no, right?  Those things would make no sense.  Why would they make no sense?  Such options would be completely out of place.

Ok, now think of it this way - would you expect a Zinfandel to be produced in Mosel?  What about Albarino in Bordeaux?  Or Riesling in Rioja?  Or Blaufrankisch in Mendoza?

Would you blend Pinot Noir and Tannat?  Malbec and Gamay?  Falanghina and Gewurztraminer?

Do you want to know why I didn’t think so?  Because they don’t match.

Look at a basic Bordeaux blend, or a Loire or Alsace white blend, or a “GSM” from Rhone.  How about Super Tuscans?  Meritage?  The blends make sense.  The grapes are grown in regions that are known for those grapes.  But why are Merlot and Cabernet planted in Bordeaux and not in Rheingau?  Why is Sangiovese planted in Tuscany and not in Rias Baixas?  I’ll tell you why.

There’s this concept known as terroir.  It’s a concept labeled by the French, and in some cases, understood and respected by others around the world.  It’s something we believe encompasses the climate and soil and the wine’s overall “place of being” - and terroir plays an important role in the wine.  This is because certain grapes are suited to grow in certain climates and their vines are suited for certain soil types.  Sure, some of them can be pretty versatile, but after centuries, and in some cases millennia, winemakers around the world have been learning which grapes should grow where, and have perfected their craft, and this is what gives each wine producing region its characteristics best associated with their grapes, soil, and climate.

Maybe some regions are too warm to grow particular grapes.  Maybe some are too damp.  Maybe the soil is too rocky or dry for certain vines, but not for others.

But when you taste a wine, it’s that story it tells, that makes it what it is.  What’s its story?  Where’s it from, what grapes were used, what was the weather that year, what’s the soil like?  When tasting, some of those questions can be answered by allowing the wine to tell its own story.

And what happens if the wrong grapes are grown in a region?  Well, the wine won’t be the best possible representation of that grape type.  And it certainly won’t be a proper representation of what we expect from that growing region.

And think of this - what if grapes that have nothing to do with each other are suddenly blended together?  Believe me, the result can be quite awful.  Without mentioning any names, I tasted a few years ago a white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer - at least I’m pretty sure that was the blend.  It was among the worst white blends I’ve ever tasted.  And my friend who was with me that evening, who is not in the wine industry and at the time had very little experience, was also very disappointed (read: repulsed) by the wine.

It was at that moment that I explained to someone for the first time why grapes from Bordeaux, Chardonnay, Loire, Rhone, and Alsace probably shouldn’t all be used in the same blend.  Why? she asked - well, they don’t really match.  It’s something that I’m guessing wouldn’t happen very often in the Old World wine regions.  See, the people who produce wine in the Old World regions have learned through generations upon generations of labor and research and dedication that some things work well together and some things don’t.  As James May (see Oz & James’ Big Wine Adventure) would call it - it’s a “wine fact” - and it certainly makes sense to me.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable challenging ancient winemaking rituals and beliefs.  Especially when they’re tried and true.

What I’m saying is - if you see wine grapes from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, etc., all being grown within a few miles of each other, in the same wine region - I think you should be at least a bit suspicious.  Think of it this way - those Old World regions aren’t even divided into countries - they’re divided into regions inside of each country, and each region is divided into subregions, communes, and it even matters which vineyard on a property has been the location for the grapes in question.  It really is that specific, and if you don’t believe me, read up on a place like Burgundy.  It really does matter how the soil drains on that side of the property, or which direction the sunlight comes from, or where breezes come from.  Everything matters when considering terroir.  Don’t take my word for it - take it from the people who have been producing the best wines in the world for centuries.

My advice - if you want a good example of a particular grape, buy from the region where the grape originates.  Odds are, the wine will show best and will be able to tell its story.  You’ll get a better idea of its identity as it was intended.  And you might (read: probably) even pay less than for its counterpart from a place where it shouldn’t be produced.  And another bit of advice is to read up a little on important, major wine producing regions and find out which grapes should be blended together - like Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre or Cabernet/Merlot.  If you see a blend that doesn’t line up with very basic guidelines for grapes that work well together, you might think twice about buying that blend.

I’m not saying that a Riesling vine will shrivel up and die immediately in Rhone, or that Durif won’t survive a day in Burgundy, but it won’t be a proper example of what it is.  Don’t ask the sushi chef for rigatoni alla vodka.  Don’t ask the fish monger for cannoli.  You know why - no one has to tell you.  Do yourself a favor before investing in a wine for the wrong reasons - the right reasons to buy a wine include enjoying it, pairing it with the right dish, and experiencing the grapes from the regions where they grow best.  Read up a bit on traditional wine grapes and their regions.  Don’t just buy wine produced at that place up the road because it’s that place up the road.  Buy what’s good, because you’ll enjoy it.  Understand what you’re drinking and let the wine speak to you.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Team Player or Individual?

They say that if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.

There’s also a Beatles song that tells us we can get by with a little help from our friends.

Which do you agree with?

Team players on a personal or professional level often assist in bringing something to fruition.  And being a team player is a great thing - a team player tends to work very well with others, and playing a strong supportive role can be quite important to a team’s success.

But what about the individual who accomplishes so much alone?  This person gets it all done, and gets it done well.  The person plans a result and lays out the plan to arrive at this result, and makes it happen.  It may be the case that this person doesn’t work well with others, or perhaps he/she is simply determined to get the job done on his/her own terms, time, etc., without the assistance (or possibly hindrance) of others.  Not exactly a team player - wouldn’t you agree?

Wonderful Bordeaux blends
Which would you rather be?  Do you like the concept of sharing responsibilities, making for a lower risk undertaking, but the end result showing the characteristics of all who are involved?  Or do you prefer having your name, and your name alone, on a project?  It’s your own project, with all the details planned and executed solely by you.  Everything about the project demonstrates your very own identity - there’s no mistaking it for someone else’s work.  It’s definitely all yours.

With wine grapes, we’ve got blends, and varietal wines that are made from just one grape type.  I’m not saying you need to have a preference - I certainly don’t prefer one over the other.  But both have their virtues.

Take Bordeaux blend wines.  Bordeaux are generally made up of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.  Sometimes, there are also small amounts of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and even Carmenere.  That’s quite a team, and those teams of grapes tend to produce some truly outstanding wines.  But each of those grapes is perfectly capable of standing alone on its own.  In a blend, there will be complexity and depth and hopefully great balance, but no single grape type characterizes the blend.

The same applies to Rhone style blends - generally made up of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, but often include small amounts of Cinsault and Carignan as well.  Again, much like Bordeaux grapes, each of those grapes is capable of standing alone, but they also work well as a team.

Red Burgundy - Pinot Noir - some of the greats
And then there’s a grape like Pinot Noir.  Take a look at a bottle labeled “Burgundy,” or better still, “Bourgogne Rouge,” or anything of the like.  Red Burgundies are made from Pinot Noir.  There’s very little guesswork involved - it’s Pinot Noir, and we know it.  We know what to expect, in a sense.  And when we open the bottle and observe the wine by looking at it, and taking note of the aromas and flavors and textures, it’s safe to say that it’s Pinot Noir.  That’s because Pinot Noir stands alone.  Pinot Noir is not a team player, but rather an individual, and quite a successful individual at that.  Pinot Noir gets the job done alone, and oftentimes, Pinot Noir, particularly from Burgundy, are among the most expressive red wines to be found.  A properly executed red Burgundy tells the story of the grape, the soil composition, the oak used, and what the weather was like that particular vintage.  With minimal intervention from the winemaker, Pinot Noir is free to take its own path and result in something great, and there’s no mistaking it for anything else.  Sure, it may be a higher risk wine due to the nature of the grape and the fact that the outcome could be affected positively or negatively quite easily as everything depends on the Pinot Noir, but isn’t it worth it?  Of course it is!  And the result is a great Pinot Noir wine.  Growing and producing great Pinot Noir requires so much determination, patience, care, and even a bit of faith, but in the end, certainly it’s worthwhile, and once you’ve tasted a great Burgundy...well, just go and try some Burgundy and fall in love with Pinot Noir.

So if you’re a good team player, surely you’re quite valuable to plenty of people - you work well with others, you hold up your end of the responsibilities, and you come together to plan and bring about a good result.

But if you’re a loner like Pinot Noir, and you prefer to work as an individual, that’s something to be very proud of too.  May your risks pay off, may your identity be known, and may the fruit of your endeavors be everything you’ve hoped it would be.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Love for the Small Producers

When I drive around Long Island to do business with my accounts, I’m forced to spend a lot of alone time in the car, hours and hours of alone time, and when I commute to the office in the city, my ride on the Long Island Railroad is 2 hours each way.  So let’s just say that I have to spend a lot of time by myself on account of work - and when I’m not reading, listening to my ipod, or practicing French with the Pimsleur discs in the car, I get to do quite a lot of thinking.

And while I love reading and listening to music and learning French, I think time alone is best occupied with thinking.  Sometimes I’m even quite surprised by the thoughts I arrive at when I’m alone, and how those thoughts translate into productivity.

Obviously, among many thoughts that I have, wine is among the most often to pop into my mind, especially when I’m alone.  I think about wines I’ve had, wines I want to have, anything pertaining to wine, really.  

But one of the things that I think about - well, I’m not sure how to describe it, but it’s part of the love and respect I have for the wine and all who are involved in it.  A few months back, I was speaking to a young winemaker around my own age, from France.  He was telling me so many wonderful things about his family’s vineyards and winery.  But when he spoke about his favorite of their vineyards - by no means the most prestigious of their holdings, but rather the most ancient, cultivated by his ancestors, I could see the pride and emotion in his eyes and hear it in his voice.  It wasn’t the premier cru - it was the vieilles vignes.

I understand that not everyone has the same feeling about wine, just as no two people have the same feeling about anything in particular, but there’s truly something to be said for the passion and dedication and diligence shown by many people in the industry.  And while I have great respect and admiration for lots of them - sommeliers, retailers, importers, etc., those who I believe deserve the highest degree of admiration are the grape growers and winemakers themselves.

And I also understand and revere what goes into those that are considered the most important wines in the world - those from Bordeaux and other parts of France, some from Tuscany and Piemonte and Veneto, Rioja, Mosel, and Napa - I understand that it’s taken centuries of perfecting the art of grape growing and winemaking to achieve such greatness.  But while those wines deserve special treatment, special glasses and decanters and everything that goes with the special experience of opening bottles that we’ve only read about and dreamed about for so long, I believe that the wines produced by those who may not have the same financial resources, the same extravagant facilities, the same advantages - their wines should be treated just as specially.

Think of the time, money, effort, and emotion that goes into making wine.  For some, it’s a constant struggle of depending on the weather, fewer employees, less technology - wouldn’t you agree those wines and their makers deserve special treatment too?  Shouldn’t we bring out the good glasses and the good decanter and give attention to those wines too?  Their wines might just be among the most pure, in some instances.

Please support the vignerons independants and small producers - not simply by buying their wines, both from abroad and on the local level, but also by giving those wines the attention they deserve and the respect that their makers have earned.