Tom's blog

Spanish tasting unveils some gems

Ola, Spain!  Last night I conducted a public wine tasting for 55 eager tasters and rediscovered some gems from a region that is relatively new to the wine world.

Grapes have been grown in this country since the year 875, but internal strife -- Spanish Civil War and World War II to name two -- has curtailed wine production and the export industry.  Not until the root louse phylloxera devastated French vineyards did Spanish wine gain a foothold in the European wine market. Even then it wasn't until the mid 1950s that we began to see more and more Spanish wines in our market. 

Today, there is no shortage of great values from the Iberian Peninsula. Rioja is the most well known (although it's one of the smallest regions), but mencia wines from Bierzo and albarino from Rias Baixas are being discovered.

I like to consider first the name of the importer. For instance, Eric Solomon, Jorge Ordonez and Steve Metzler select top wines that have become reliable go-to's. You can bank on their quality when faced with a sea of labels. Look on the back of the labels for their names.

Here are a few wines from the tasting that I loved:

Burgans Albarino Rias Baixas 2016 ($13)  Many albarinos are way too simple to match with food, but this gem -- made at the cooperative Martin Codax -- is round, layered and long in the finish. Tropical fruit and peach with balanced acidity.

Gotin de Risc Mencia Bierzo 2016 ($16). Very aromatic with violate and blackberry notes.

Montebuena Rioja 2015 ($13). What a steal. Full in body, it has copious raspberry and cherry flavors with a good dose of vanilla. It is made entirely from tempranillo grapes.

Bodegas Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha 2014 ($16).  I've been tasting this wine for years and it never fails to please. Very rich and forward in plum and blackberry fruit.  The heavy use of oak gives it a good dose of vanilla and leather, which may not appeal to everyone.


Misleading labels under attack

The Wine Origins Alliance is pursing federal legislation that will establish stronger regulations in wine labeling. It's about time.

The lobby's focus is on states that put their location on a wine - but get their grapes from another state.  It named Texas in a recent press release, but did not provide any specific examples.

This is hardly new or really that common. I remember Mark West once made pinot noir from grapes grown in Chile.It was very misleading because no where on the label did it say the wines for this inexpensive wine came from Chile. I don't understand why any reputable dealer would even attempt this ruse and it wasn't long before Mark West dropped the practice. However, meanwhile it's reputation was temporarily sullied.

In the European Union and Australia, wine region names are protected through a registry of geographical indications. In the United States, they are protected through well-established federal and state laws that protect American Viticultural Areas for the wine industry inside its borders. However, the U.S. permits the use of wine region names like Champagne, Chablis, Chianti, Port and Sherry on labels of wines that do not originate in those European regions.

The use of "champagne" and "chablis," once popular by EJ Gallo, has been a source of lawsuits by European producers. You don't see it that often anymore.

Napa's changing landscape

If you have read one of James Conaway's triologies or heard him speak on Napa Valley, you can't help but be moved. Conaway, who has been writing eloquently about the Napa wine industry since the mid 1980s, has more respect for the grape farmer whose family has been tilling soil for generations than he is for the magnate who pays big money to have someone else do it for him.  

Conaway has a term for the fly-ins: "lifestyle vintners." I like it. A lifestyle vintner is someone who has made a bundle in another field and who buys a winery without any idea how to make wine or even grow grapes. He -- often a movie star, a professional athlete, or a mega-millionaire who just sold a tech company -- hires winemakers and viticulturists to do the work and then plasters his name on the label, charges consumers $100 for a bottle of over-ripe cabernet to raise his cachet, and names the vineyards after his kids or grandkids. I saw the same thing in Virginia where millionaires wanted to look at vineyards from their country home. President Trump has such a place.

Conaway laments that the pioneering days of Napa Valley are long gone. Those farmers who came from Europe to plant some of the valley's first grapes are long dead -- and so are their ideals for the soil and environment. As mega-conglomerates -- Constellation, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, Treasury Wine Estates -- scarf up family-owned, small wineries, the goal of making good wine has been replaced by making good money. That's not true for every expansionist company, of course. Ernst and Julio Galo, for instance, were among the pioneers to plant vineyards in California. The brothers are long gone but their family remains in place and hellbent on expanding. 

Conaway argues that grape farmer and Napa resident were once respectful and appreciative of one another. Today, however, residents are engaged in lawsuits and feuds with lifestyle vintners who want to raze forests to make room for more vineyards. Resources, particularly water, is in short supply but local zoning officials seem incapable of stopping this parade.

Conaway is very pessimistic about Napa's future because winery owners and zoning officials just don't know when to say "stop." He over-generalizes and incidentally denigrates conscious producers who despite their background practice responsible farming. However, there is no argument that the landscape has changed in Napa Valley and it isn't for the better. Conaway wants people to pause when they sip their next Napa wine.  Tasting wine should be a holistic experience that includes history, stewardship, responsibility and honesty. 

I get it.


Wine labels come alive with the dead

It doesn't take much to amuse me today. A stupid comic, a turn of phrase, a pun and even a good fart joke will make me laugh.  So, I find amusing the clever wine labels created by Living Wine Labels, an app that uses your phone's camera to animate a wine label.  Among those brands using the service are Australia's 19 Crimes and Last Wine Company's Walking Dead wines. Beringer and Chateau St. Jean also have versions.

2015 The Walking Dead Blood Red Blend front label.jpg

The Walking Dead, based on a comic strip, is one of today's most popular cable TV shows, so the time couldn't be more perfect for Last Wine Co. The "Blood Rd Blend" has an image of Sheriff Rick Grimes. Download the app, point your camera to the label, and the sheriff fights off the undead in a wine shop, The Cabernet Sauvignon has zombies breaking out of the label. Put the bottles side by side and you have a fight breaking out. The wines sell for about $19 a bottle.

19 Crimes was first with the augmented reality label. The labels are based loosely on British prisoners who were sent to an undeveloped Australia in the 18th century for committing one of 19 crimes. The rogues later became the colonists of Australia.  The inmates on the label come to life telling their story. The label has been download more than half a million times.



Bad weather likely to spur price increases

A combination of extremely hot and cold weather is expected to spur a dramatic price increase for 2017 European wines. The three countries most affected are Italy, France and Spain -- producers of some of the least expensive wines.

Frost damage has lead to a 40 percent reduction in Bordeaux -- the worst hit coming in merlot-dependent St. Emilion. Rioja in Spain and prosecco in Italy were also hard hit. Experts say prices will rise as much as 30 percent for the least expensive wines. 

Reported the Guardian, “We’ll start to see those [2017] wines coming to the market now and I think for higher volume, lower price wine you will see cost increases,” says Dan Jago, chief executive of high end wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd.

“Prices for things like pinot grigio or generic Spanish reds will rise by between 10% and 30% and it’s [a question of] how much of that retailers will pass on,” says Jago, who previously headed up the Tesco wine business. “Prosecco was very hard hit by frost, so there will be less of it and the price will go up.”

These weather patterns show the impact of climate change and are likely to continue, in my opinion. Regions once thought to have perfect climate are experiencing more challenging conditions.  Unfortunately, the prices of everyday wine for the masses are most impacted.

Producers of expensive wines, such as those in Bordeaux, may suck up some of the costs just to move their wines -- but price increases will not be avoided.

Wine and exercise

Now here's some medical advice we probably can follow: 2 glasses of wine and 15 minutes of exercise a day.

Dr. Claudia Kawas of the University of California says the secret to a long life is a combination of moderate alcohol and exercise. She adds keeping down your weight and drinking two cups of coffee daily -- another vice I can easily adapt.

Dr Claudia Kawas, of the University of California, who has spent 15 years studying people aged over 90, also recommended keeping weight down and drinking two cups of coffee a day.

Abacus: ZD's wonderful invention


For my 70th birthday, a friend brought over a 2006 Opus One. I decided to pair it with my lone bottle of ZD's Abacus, a wine that was given to me years ago by a mutual friend of ours. They were two outstanding wines -- the Opus was showing better but i always thought it was overrated. But the ZD was unique, albeit still evolving.

Abacus was an invention of ZD's winemakers who were enjoying aged cabernet sauvignon one day and wondered what would happened if they added the young fruit of a current vintage. This solera style of winemaking that blends vintages is common to Champagne but rarely found outside of that region. The one exception I'm familiar with is Marietta's Old Vine that is mostly zinfandel bottled without regard to vintage.

The first release of Abacus was in 1999 and included cabernet sauvignon from the 1992 to 1998 vintages. They used about 15 percent of this inventory to make 200 cases -- I got one of the bottles of a three-bottle case that cost $1,500. The rest of the wine was saved for subsequent vintages. Each year they add some of the current vintage and on it goes. The wine is now in its 19th incarnation.

The wine is not cheap. Today you can find Abacus for about $700 a bottle. 

It was a beautifully textured wine with a remarkable echo of an aged wine and the exuberance of youthful fruit. I decanted it for an hour and it still seemed tight in the nose but broad on the palate with classic Napa Valley flavors. The fine tannins indicated that it was not fully mature.

What a wine.

Dave Phinney is now blending grapes across regions, so the conventions that once pervaded the wine industry are being destroyed. 

The oxidation creep in Burgundy

I've had a small collection of 2007 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne that I've been uncorking over the last two years. It is a remarkable wine with a beautiful blend of intensity and finesse -- a classic great burgundy.  But, I encountered a surprise earlier this year: the wine was badly -- I mean, badly -- oxidized. I uncorked another one and to my relief, it was fine.

So, was this bad bottle a one-off? When I posted my review on Cellarmaster, other collectors were quick to respond. One said these wines suffered from "premox" or premature oxidation. That sent me back to the internet where I discovered that indeed more and more burgundies were turning up with oxidation. 

Wine wines will eventually encounter oxidation if left unopened long enough. A cork just can't withstand shrinkage forever and air gets into the bottle. The wine turns brown and the flavors are more like sherry. But since the late 1990s, the oxidation has been occurring early in burgundies.  No one knows quite why, but it is a huge concern for those who have the bucks to cellar expensive grand crus.

To be fair, one needs to be able to identify a premox wine from one that is just aged. An old burgundy -- more than a decade old -- will have nutty, sherry-like character and that's just the beauty of aged wine. However, it should happen in great wines before age 10. That I tasted my 2007 Latour before and after told me that the flawed bottle had indeed turned.


Wine and chocolate is oh so sweet

Stories about pairing wine and chocolate abound as Valentine's Day nears. Frankly, I haven't been a fan of the match. I've heard some of my best wine-drinking friends orgasm over a piece of dark chocolate consumed with cabernet sauvignon. Yet, it's a match that can be enjoyed only after a mind-numbing quantity of wine.

I was recently asked to do a wine tasting event featuring chocolate and wine for a community in my home town. However much I dreaded the event, it was an eye-opening I eventually enjoyed. In short, I learned that chocolate of all kinds can be paired with wine -- as long as the wine is sweet.

The sugar content in chocolate needs to be pair with a sweet wine because tannin and acidity just don't marry well. Taken a step further, white chocolate doesn't contain any cacao, so it calls for a sweet wine wine. I poured a moscato d'Asti and it was a dream match.


Milk chocolate is probably the easiest match but you need something smooth to complement the butter in this chocolate. I chose a tawny port and it worked well, although I would have liked to have tried a ruby port. The tawny wasn't as sweet, which was what I was looking for.

Dark chocolate is the toughest match because it's bitter. I went for a heavier wine -- a late harvest zinfandel. It had the sweetness, the strong alcohol content and the density to confront the chocolate's bitterness.

So, yes, chocolate can be matched with wine. But, why? Perhaps it's the hedonistic experience you are looking for: both were consider aphrodisiacs. Both are healthy. Both even use the same yeasts. But, at the end of a meal when the chocolate is put on the table, who is looking for sweet wine?  At my table, most diners have had enough wine and are either coasting, drinking water or asking for coffee. 

Corks back in vogue

The cork industry has defied all odds in making a comeback as the preferred choice of bottle stoppers.

Sales of the tree bark plummeted in the 2000 decade as a result of a startling increase in corks tainted by trichloroanisole, more commonly known as TCA.  Several critics and producers predicted that cork will disappear from the marketplace as composite cork, screw-tops and other closures became a safer choice.

But that didn't happen. The cork industry -- based mostly in Portugual -- cleaned up its act and developed a more stable, reliable product. They also churned up the marketing.  As a result, export sales rose 30 percent between 2009 -- the low point -- and 2016, according to the Portuguese Cork Association.

I was thinking about these numbers the other day when I had to return a bottle of wine at a restaurant because it was badly corked.  It was the first time in years I detected a TCA-tainted wine in a restaurant. Even at home, where I open at least a case of wine a week, I have encountered a corked wine maybe once or twice in the last year. 

I doubt that New Zealand producers will switch from screw tops, but there are probably a number of U.S.  producers who will stick with cork for now. Consumers still like the romanticism of uncorking a wine for dinner.

Wine shipments on the rise

Shipments of wines from producer to consumer rose significantly in 2917, thus reinforcing consumer popularity of buying wine directly from a winemaker. According to wine industry data collection firm, Gomberg, Fredrikson Associates, sales rose 158 percent year over year. Direct to consumer wines now represent 10 percent of sales.

Much of the reason for the increase is that more states are allowing alcohol to be shipped across the state and across states. Until the last several years, it has been a felony in some states to ship wines from wine producing states such as California and Oregon. Now, people traveling to those wine-growing regions can ship home wines that are exclusively sold at the winery. 

I have argued long and hard that liberalizing these archaic laws would not harm distributors and retailers. Even though the sales of direct-to-consumer wines are up, so are general retails sales of wine. Not only was it prohibitively expense for small producers to adhere to the expensive three-tier system, but distributors didn't want to spend a lot of time on them. So, it's a win-win for consumers to join wine of the month clubs and ship home special wines during their visit to these regions.

No surprise: the states showing the largest increases in 2017 are: California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and Virginia. Tourism is a significant influence to wine sales -- something many winemakers have told me over the last several years. 

Old school Napa Valley cabernet sauvgnon

I was listening to a fascinating podcast -- Levi Dalton's "I'll Drink to That" -- about the evolution of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley. Dalton was interviewing Ray Coursen, founder of Elyse Winery, who has been around to see a lot of style changes.

Coursen said that in the old days growers couldn't get cabernet to ripen and had to plant vineyards too far south. Global warming has changed that and today the northern vineyards are producing more alcoholic wines. That and the increased use of new French oak barrels has created a new flavor profile.  In chardonnay, those coconut, clove and vanilla flavors come from the oak; in red wine, you taste vanilla, mocha, caramel, toffee and spice.

Coursen said that in 2000 he experimented with less oak influence and found his wines "old school Napa Valley." Only 60 percent of the wine was exposed to oak and part of it was put back into old barrels just to round off the flavors. In addition, Coursen kept the wine in bottle for another 18 months before it was released. 

I too enjoy wines less exposed to new barrels. They still have the tannins, although they are more fine, but the wines are approachable and unmasked. Classic.

I had just tasted through a bunch of Napa Valley cabernets, so it was interesting to see who was still putting all of their wine in new French oak. There weren't many -- in fact, most of the producers were exposing well under 50 percent of their wine to new oak.

We all want to know the same things

I've moderated a handful of tastings in recent weeks and welcome the opportunity to take the pulse of wine enthusiasts. If there is one thing I've learned, it's that people often have the same questions about wine.

-- Do sulfites give me headaches? No. Headaches are generally caused by one of several influences: you drank too much and dehydrated, there was a lot of sugar or tannin in the wine you so enjoyed, or there were a lot of histamines. Most commonly, it's all about dehydration. But, second, it's about the histamines that are naturally found in bacteria-fermented products, such as cheese and wine.  Red wine can have as much as 200 percent more histamines than white wine, hence many people say they get more headaches from drinking red wine.

-- How often can I keep an open bottle of wine? Every wine reacts different to air, but generally I keep wines no more than a couple of days. A wine bottle that is less than half filled is subject to a fast decline because of the amount of air in the bottle. The wines will last as long as a week if you pump the air out of the bottle with a device like the Vacuvin. Red wine can last longer if you store it in the refrigerator and then let it come back to room temperature.

-- Do aerators work? Yes. These clever devices that sit in the neck of a carafe or a glass expedite the breathing process that can come with decanting a wine for an hour or so. Generally, letting a wine breathe helps young or moderately old wine.  However, it is a gamble to decant a wine that is more than 20 years old -- the aromas and flavors can disappear in no time.

Those are just several of the many questions I get. 

Revisiting an old friend

When I first started to write about wine in the 1980s, I joined an elite assembly of trades people who tasted more than 100 Italian wines at a formal tasting in New York City. Leading the tasting was Carlos Mastroberardino, a young man who was the new generation of wine producers to make wine in Campania. At the time, this region wasn't as highly regarded as, say, the Piedmonte or even neighboring Tuscany. But the grape varieties that date back to Roman times were just as noble as nebbolio and sangiovese. Campania wines are more well regarded today.

I reunited with Carlos many years later while a cruise ship stopped near his Italian home. He met me in Amalfi where we dined on fish and sipped his new releases. I'm surprised I was able to get on the ship nearly 3 hours later.

So, I have an affection for these wines that perhaps is influenced by Carlos' hospitality, but also by the history behind the wines and the grape varieties that, thanks to Mastroberardino, are now grown outside of Pompeii.

The other day I was walked through a store and spotted a single bottle of a 1998 Mastroberardino Radici Riserva from Taurasi. It was $120, a retail price I've never paid for a wine. I lifted the bottle several times and put it back down. Then, with the encouragement of my wife ("just get it, for cryin' out loud!"), I bought it.

I have several younger vintages of this wine in my cellar but a 1998 still on the market was a rare find. We opened it that night and served it with rack of lamb. Wow, it was everything I imagined and still with tannin!  Black cherries, cassis, rust color to show its age, incredible aromatics and long finish.  It was worth every penny.

Alas, I looked on line and found that I could have ordered this wine for $70. 

Is there really an "old world" style?

Last night I led a hearty band of wine enthusiasts through a pretty exhausting comparison of old world and new world wines. It was far from comprehensive, but the selections provided the right platform to compare wines from the two worlds. The results even surprised me.

Old world wines -- principally from European countries -- tend to be more subtle, less alcoholic, higher in acid and more restrained. This is principally a result of a cooler climate that doesn't allow the grapes to ripen as well. But, the wines are also a product of tradition. Generations of old world producers have for centuries made wines for their villages and to accompany meals. The names of their villages -- not the grape variety -- is still the sole focus on their labels.

New world producers -- Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, etc. -- on the other hand, are more likely to use technology and science to produce wines in much warmer climates. The name of grape variety or the vineyard play a more important role on the label than the village where the grapes are grown. 

The differences can be found in the glass, as my tasting vividly proved. A sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley was clean, simple, medium bodied while a New Zealand sauvignon blanc was bold, stylish and grassy.

The red wines compared similarly. I liked the contrast between a Spanish monastrell and a California mourvedre (same grape). The Rioja monastrell was rustic with earthy, barnyard aromas, medium body and subtle spice and oak flavors. The Cline Mourvedre -- a perennial favorite of mine -- was fruit-forward with ripe cherry fruit flavors and more oak influences, such as spice, vanilla and even a dash of chocolate. The first would do better with food than the ripe and jammy Cline.

Two new world cabernet sauvignon blends -- Unanime from Argentina and Columbia Crest H3 from Washington state -- were classic contrasts to a simple Bordeaux blend from Chateau Fonseche.  The Bordeaux, made in a cooler climate, revealed black berry and currants while the other two had more black cherry flavors that come from a warmer climate. 

As the climate changes between wine-growing regions, the differences are becoming more subtle. But as winemakers travel between regions and learn from each other, so merges their wine-making techniques. Old world countries have been adopting new world practices, including an emphasis on organic farming. And, there is the risk of over-generalizing these differences.

Not to be underestimated is the desire of new world producers to back off its fruit-forward, highly extracted and alcoholic style. This was a style embraced by international wine critic Robert Parker Jr. who could break a producer who chose to ignore his high scores. But it also impressed American consumers who tend to like ripe, bold wines with a dash of residual sugar.

At the end of the tasting, one taster said the comparisons allowed her to better define the kinds of wine she likes. The next time she goes blindly into a wine shop or restaurant she can tell a merchant that she's looking for an old world wine that is more subtle and less ripe. That was music to my ears. It's not that she won't enjoy a New World wine, but she knows what her palate likes and she can intelligently describe it.

Such comparisons are invaluable in understanding that geography and technology between continents have great influence in taste.

The Shark still hitting them

I recently met up with Morgan Norman, the daughter of Australian golf legend Greg Norman. She was in Naples, FL, to attend one of The Shark's iconic shoot-outs but also there to talk about her father's wine. 

Although her father could make some pretty expensive wines to sell to his well-heeled friends, he has instead chosen a course that puts wine into the hands of duffers. Most of his wine -- made in Australian, New Zealand and the United States -- sells for $14 a bottle. And it's good.

For more, see my column on another page.


Getting started in 2018 on the right foot

At the start of every year I exhort my readers to get out of their comfort zones and drink something besides chardonnay and merlot. And, I remind myself too.  All of us have our favorites and when pushed, we fall  back on them much too often. Such a shame when the market is flush with wines from so many countries and with obscure grape varieties that deliver new flavors.

I at least got the year off on the right foot by heading to local stores in search of something different. I stopped first at a store that sells only organic wines -- those made without the use of sulpites, pesticides, herbicides, fungacides and any other nasti-cides. Frankly, I don't see how such a store will survive -- it just opened -- but perhaps I'm underestimating the interest in natural wines.

Organic notwithstanding, I was stunned by the 2015 Domaine Vaceron Sancerre ($35). Unlike so many uninspiring sancerres I've tasted, this one was full-bodied, lush in texture and long in finish. I couldn't stop at one glass.  Was the quality a direct result of organic farming -- or was it a gifted winemaker's skills?

I was also impressed with the organic 2014 Chateau Ste Anne ($42) from Bandol. I can't remember the last time I had a rouge from Bandol. Score a big one on the "something different" meter.

Stopping at another store, a merchant recommended the Passi di Orma from the village of Castagneto Carducci in Bolgheri. Like the super Tuscan wines made east of this relatively new Italian region, it is a delicious blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Although these are traditional Bordeaux grapes, it was interesting to taste them grown in a different terroir.  This is a region I have forgotten, but one to watch -- another victory for my new year's resolution.

On a quest to find more gems from the Roussillon and other southern French regions, I bought the Caladroy "Les Schistes" ($16) and the Ollieux Romanis "Classique" ($17) from Corbieres. I haven't tried them yet, but I'm excited.

And that's the whole point.  I look forward to trying a new wine, which is far different than beginning a meal with a mass-produced wine that tastes like so many others in its category.

Look around: there are plenty of unique wines just waiting to be discovered.

Ringing in the year with champagne memories

At this time of the year I can't help but think of the people of Champagne. I always wonder how they celebrate the new year -- surely they drink champagne year-round, so what's the special drink to ring in the new year? Probably vintage champagne.

If you have been to Champagne, you know the pride of the champenois -- and their formality. Every time I've been there my hosts have greeted me in suit coats. That's so totally unlike winemakers from Burgundy and most of southern France. Perhaps because the local quaff is associated with wealth and culture, they feel the need to be a bit more formal.

Remi Krug

Remi Krug

My favorite memory is that of Remi Krug, who with his older brother Henri was the fifth generation to make Krug champagne. Henri died in 2013 at age 75 and passed the baton onto his younger brother, Remi, in 2001.  The company was bought by LVMH in 1999.

My wife and I tasted champagne, including the ultra-expensive tete-de-cuvee Clos du Mesnil, in Epernay and then drove with Remi behind the wheel to Charles Boyer's Les Crayeres for lunch. Les Crayeres is a three-star Michelin restaurant and when Krug walked in, everyone paid attention. I don't think there has ever been a more stellar moment in my wine career -- eating lunch with Remi Krug at an expensive restaurant and drinking more Clos du Mesnil.

Krug champagne is special because it ages its wine in small oak casks -- most other houses age it in stainless steel. Krug also holds the champagne in bottles for as long as 8 years before it is released. This is a more expensive process and hence Krug wines can cost more than $300 a bottle. But the champagnes are more complex than your average non-vintage brut.

I also dined with Claude Taittinger at Chateau de la Marguertterie, a castle used primarily for fetes and receptions. Like Krug, he too was immaculately dressed and so proper my wife and I had a hard time relaxing even after a few glasses of Comtes de Champagnes rose.

Alexandre Chartogne

Alexandre Chartogne

One of y fondest memories was that of Chartogne-Taillet in the little village of Merfy. We had stopped there because the Chartogne family was one of the first to make grower champagnes. Instead of selling their grapes to a cooperative or a producer, the family had decided to make their own. This was in the early 1990s and the movement was just getting started. Phillippe Chartogne and his wife warmly greeted us in his house and showed us the garage where he made his wines. Half way through the interview, his two kids came in from school and we decided to leave. He was disappointed that we weren't staying for dinner, but we had other appointments. The hospitality was unbelievable and today his wines rank among our favorites.

By the way, one of the kids -- Alexandre -- is now the winemaker.

Great memories and I'll be toasting them on New Year's Eve.

Resolutions to ponder -- with wine

The fast-approaching new year gives me time to think about what I want to do. There is only so much I can control, but wine plays such a big role in my life that I need to chart a course that will open my mind to new ideas and challenges. Here are five resolutions we all need to follow:

  • Just say no to bad wine. Too many times I'm asked about someone's favorite wine and to be nice I just shell out a gratuitous compliment. But we need to be more honest about wines we don't like. It could be Chateau Petrus that makes you pale or it could be Menage a Trois. What you like and what I like are probably seas apart. But my preferences shouldn't be yours. Don't follow the herd and laud a wine that has earned high scores. If you don't like it, say it. And don't apologize.
  • Drink champagne year-round. Champagne prices have come down so that you can afford to drink the real thing out of season -- season being the last two months of the year. You don't even have to wait for something to celebrate -- life is celebration. Drink champagne in February or July and you'll think of something to celebrate.
  • Book a trip to California. Napa has been ravaged by fires, but they are still making wine there. In fact, damage to wineries and vineyards has been vastly overestimated. Unfortunately, people have canceled trips. Help them out and enjoy everything Napa has to offer.
  • Think out of the box. I've done tastings that get people out of their chardonnay/merlot boxes. I introduce them to gruner-veltliner, albarino, beaujolais, charbono, roussanne, and other grape varieties that deliver new flavors. With all the wine on the market, why should we be stuck on the same old grape varieties? Let's get out of our comfort zones.
  • Think more about wine and learn. Are you thinking about the wine you are drinking, or just working on a buzz? Spend more time swirling the wine in the glass, taking in its aromas and pondering over its flavors. Maybe you can't identify much, but at least try. Read a book on tasting or attend a tasting and learn what to look for. It's not hard: most pinot noirs taste like cherries; zinfandel reminds you of plums and blackberries; syrah is strawberries; chardonnay is tropical fruit and apples; pinot grigio is peach and apricots. Think about these descriptors and see if you taste them. Go on line and find out what the winemaker tastes and smells in his wine.

Now, get out there and taste!


Duckhorn's neighbors benefit too

I was perusing the wines of an upscale wine shop in my community and couldn't help but overhear a conversation a wholesale salesperson was having with the shop's wine buyer.  His mission was to sell a particular merlot, whose name I did not catch. While they both sipped the wine, the salesperson said, "It is made from property right next to Duckhorn's Three Palms vineyard. You know, the one that got Wine Spectator's number one wine of the year award?"

I was amused. Chances are he never pointed that out before the award was granted earlier this year. But, being a good salesperson, he was gong to use whatever trick he could to sell this merlot. And Duckhorn's newfound fame had coattails to ride.

Does proximity make a difference? If a particular vineyard makes a  great wine, does that mean the one adjacent to it do just as well? I mean, how different could the soil be?

It could be a lot different. One vineyard could be on a slope and the other at the bottom of a hill where the soil is very different. They could have different sun exposures and micro-climates. Even beyond the weather and soil, a  winemaker has great influence over a wine's character. The path from crush to bottle is often winding and how a winemaker uses the techniques available to him trumps terroir. 

For centuries, Bordeaux and Burgundy producers have tried to ride the fame of their prestigious neighbors, but wise buyers know there is more to making a good wine than having a good neighbor.