Should we call it a smackdown?
Blind Tasting and the Sommelier Showdown
One of the most difficult (and humbling) events in the wine word is called a blind tasting. This is where someone puts a glass (or two or six) of wine in front of you and says, “Okay…what is it?” You’re supposed to tell, just by seeing, sniffing, and sipping, the grape varietal, what country and region it’s from, and whether it’s an older or more recent vintage. It isn’t easy, and even the most experienced tasters sometimes get it wrong. (I happen to be terrible at it).
If you decide you want to be a sommelier, and you pursue an official certification in the field, the ability to taste blind – and nail the answers – is a major part of the final exam. So I was pleased to be invited to a new event staged by a wine boutique near me. They’re calling it the Sommelier Showdown. The idea is that every Tuesday afternoon through May and June, two wine directors from clubs and restaurants in the area go head to head and blind taste four wines, attempting to identify them. Paying guests taste along, and test their own skills against the pros.
The first Showdown was held on May 1, pitting two wine directors from local clubs and restaurants head to head. Along with those two experts, there were about 20 of us trying our luck at the two whites and two reds that were set before us.
There’s a method to this. First, a professional certifying organization like the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) gives you a document specifying the probable wine varietals and regions that are fair game for the test. For example, if they give you a Sauvignon Blanc, it will be either from the Loire Valley in France, or from New Zealand. They’re not trying to fool you with some almost-extinct varietal from an obscure region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Second, there’s an evaluation sheet (they call it a tasting grid) you fill out that classifies all the qualities of the wine you’re guessing at: color, fruit and non-fruit flavors, structure, like acidity and alcohol levels, and finally, your determination of the primary grape, where it comes from, and the type of climate. As if.
Well, as it turns out, the two wine managers didn’t get every single one right, but they did better than the rest of us. Anybody can do better than I.
Perfect Pinots -- Charming Chardonnays
Local Connection – World Class Wines
One day, many years ago, Joe Anderson’s and Mary DeWane’s careers intersected, and so did their lives. They met through their respective professions in the health care industry. In fact, Joe had built one of the foremost consulting firms in America, after his previous stint as the CEO of the state of Arizona and the Chair of the US government’s Medicaid committee.
Anyway, neither of them suspected that their lives would lead them into producing high quality Pinot Noir, and a love for Southwest Florida.
Let’s take the second item first. Mary’s brother Frank is the Archbishop of the Venice diocese, responsible for Catholic church activities and charities from Sarasota to Marco Island. That means that Joe and Mary spend a good deal of time in the area…and contribute generously to charitable causes. In February, they participated in (and donated to) the Naples Winter Wine Festival, offering their support to the myriad of charitable causes supported by the event.
The wines are another story. While many of today’s winery owners get born into it, since winemaking can be very much of a family business, people like Anderson and DeWayne get seduced.
“We started visiting California wine country in 2002,” Joe recollects. “We loved it, and went pretty crazy over Pinot Noir.” He sold his health care management company in 2007, and the couple finally had the (considerable) resources to actually buy a vineyard. “I bought 15 acres of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel vines near Santa Rosa,” he says. “Then, the DeLoach vineyards came on the market in 2005 and I couldn’t resist.”
The problem was, Anderson knew absolutely nothing about winemaking, so he hired winemaker Mike Sullivan from premium winery Hartford Court in January of 2006.
“Then we had to find a name,” he remembers. “We came up with ‘Benovia.’” It’s a combination of his father’s first name – Ben – and his mother’s maiden name, Novian.
Joe’s passion for Pinot Noir (known as the “heartbreak grape” because it’s so difficult to grow) led him to uproot some of the vineyards and replant them with more efficient spacing and higher quality clones. Then he discovered that vineyards are like potato chips and cats. You can’t have just one.
“That led us to buy 12 acres in the Sonoma Coast appellation,” Anderson recalls. “Different soil. Cooler climate. Perfect for a few other Pinot clones.” Still seduced, he bought the 40-acre horse ranch next to that vineyard.
While Anderson and his winemaker were cultivating tons of acres of grapes, they had no winery…and working in a custom crush facility was getting too inconvenient. So they built one in August of 2015, which now produces about 6000 cases a year. They offer 3 Chardonnays and 6 Pinot Noirs.
“Mary and I love Pinot,” says Anderson, “because it so profoundly reflects the places where it’s grown. And we’re very careful of the way we produce our wines. There’s no shortcut to quality.”
He says his career in the wine world has been a “heck of a run.” It’s hard to disagree.
Presented for your enjoyment – our latest discoveries and surprises.
Benovia La Pommeraie Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 ($48) – Concentrated aromas and flavors on the nose and palate, with pronounced citrus and white floral notes, sweet orange peel, cream, and a long minerally finish. WW 94
Benovia Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2015 ($48) – Partially aged in new French oak, this lushly textured Pinot Noir offers a nose of strawberry and spice, followed by flavors of red cherry, raspberry and mixed black fruit. The tannins are a bit pronounced, so this one needs a little time in the cellar. WW 92
Benovia Zinfandel Sonoma County 2015 ($43) – Winemaker Mike Smith kept this Zin in the barrel for a bit, achieving rich aromas of blackberry and spice. Full bodied and fruit forward, the blackberry and raspberry notes are up front on the palate. More restrained and elegant than typical California Zins. WW 93-94
Ask the Wine Whisperer
What is a “meritage” wine? -- Brett L., New York
“Meritage” is an American designation for red wines made with the traditional blend used in Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. However, it is a kind of a brand, trademarked by the Meritage Association which was formed in 1988. Only paying members of the association may use the term on their labels.
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Wine Ratings -- Pros vs. Amateurs
Are you a wine critic? Probably.
The wine world is a big place, and it churns with dozens of issues that drive people crazy. Of all the topics that are grounds for spirited (and sometimes bitter) debate, the issue of wine ratings is right at the top of the list. Do they matter? Do those point scores really steer less-knowledgeable consumers toward “better” wines? Are they fair? Accurate? Who does the ratings? Are they qualified?
Major national wine consumer magazines, such as Wine Spectator, Decanter, and Wine Enthusiast, have panels of editors who taste wines blind and bestow scores on them that will either propel the bottles to greatness (and elevated prices) or doom them to the bargain basket. There are independent critics, as well, such as Robert Parker, James Suckling, and Steven Tanzer, to name only a few. Consumers have turned to people like Parker and others for many years, hoping for guidance in their wine selections.
How are ratings determined? And what difference does it make if a Wine Spectator critic gives a wine 85 or 95 points? How legitimate are their critiques? To answer that, the news website Vox.com recently conducted a fascinating study that compared wine ratings by a wide group of critics to ratings of the same wines by normal ordinary people.
Who were those ordinary people? Vox.com researchers accessed thousands of reviews posted on a website called CellarTracker. Wine lovers and collectors subscribe to it so they can upload their purchases and track their bottle inventory. The site, established by former Microsoft group program manager Eric LeVine, allows members to post evaluations and reviews of the wines they drink, and, of course, assign point scores.
CellarTracker is important to this divisive issue because the research was no casual, anecdotal study. The Vox people developed complex algorithms, created detailed graphs and charts, and plotted the compared scores of over 10,000 wines given by professional wine writers against those of ordinary normal CellarTracker people (like me) who have a few hundred bottles in their houses.
Wine. It’s one of the largest food/beverage categories on the planet. And unlike breakfast cereal, for example, the range of prices is bewildering, if not staggering. You can pick up a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir for around $9, or a bottle of Pinot Noir from Burgundy for $300. And sometimes, the point scores assigned by critics will be scarily similar across price points. The fact is, many times there is little correlation between a wine’s price and the points it receives from influential critics.
An interesting point about when the write-ups and ratings are issued. A critic rates a wine from a barrel tasting, or when it’s first released. So if I look at a rating of a 2005 wine, the information is 10-12 years old. Somebody on CellarTracker may have tasted that same wine this year, so they’ll write about how it’s drinking today…not ten years ago.
It’s only recently, with the advent of the Internet, that casual wine drinkers and collectors have been able to voice – and publish – their opinions and reach a sizable audience. This has become extremely important in the restaurant industry – especially at restaurants that are known for their wine selection.
“The information is out there,” says Peter Hyzak, wine manager at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Florida. “Guests in the restaurant will scan our wine list, take out their cell phones, and do some research before they order.” He notes that guests scan online information for three reasons. “First is name recognition, which plays the biggest role in restaurant wine sales. Caymus is Caymus, and everybody knows that wine. Second is the vintage. People research the ratings of the vintage of a wine we’re offering. Having the best-rated vintage of any wine is absolutely imperative. And third is price. The retail prices of wines are easy to find on the Internet.”
Predictably enough, professional critics have consistently knocked ratings done by amateurs. They have no formal training, they maintain. They lack expertise.
Turns out not to be true. The correlation between wine ratings from the influential (and highly respected) Wine Advocate group of critics with the average scores given by CellarTracker members was surprisingly close. Some were even identical to the professional score.
However, the study revealed an even more startling fact. There was a much larger difference in the scores among the professional critics. In rating the same wine, prestigious wine writers were often three to four points apart in their evaluations.
So what can we learn from this? First, the study indicates that when enthusiasts like you and me rate wines, we agree with the experts a lot more than they agree with each other.
Just one more thing. There is virtually no correlation between the price of a wine and the ratings assigned by critics. Every month, this is proven by all the major consumer wine journals. The wines are tasted blind, so evaluators don’t know who makes the wine or what it sells for. Case in point: a recent issue of Wine Spectator listed tasting notes for a wide range of Spanish wines. One Ribera del Duero received 95 points and sold for $505 a bottle. Another received 94 points and sold for $30. Which would you buy?
Of course, the professional wine ratings do have a place. Wine shops always post ratings (when they’re good) for the bottles on the shelf. They do serve as a guide for wine buyers who are not all that knowledgeable
So, if you’re looking at a wine that you’re not familiar with, a rating by…someone…will give you at least a bit of guidance. Buy a bottle, take it home and try it. If you like it, go back and get some more.
Men and Women are Different
Boys and girls are different. So one of the topics that gets brought up continually in the wine world is how men and women approach, discuss, and experience wine. For some reason I keep coming back to this topic, and wrote about it in this space last year. However, the intrigue continues, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books and articles ruminating on this very topic. The ways women diverge from men in tasting and discussing are well worth another visit, and probably worth a book all by itself.
In today’s wine trade, women who anchor winemaking families devote themselves to not only making and marketing wine, but to forming groups for “discussing moderate wine consumption” and “its benefits in a healthy lifestyle.” They call themselves “Women For WineSense,” and work toward getting balanced consumer information placed on wine labels. Many of the members’ names appear on those very bottles: Margaret Duckhorn, Rosemary Cakebread, Annette Shafer, Susan Sokol-Blosser, Margrit Mondavi, and many more.
Some women make wine, some sell it. While the traditional image of a restaurant sommelier is almost exclusively masculine, the number of female somms has gone through the roof. Restaurant groups like Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group have several women in positions that are critical both for guest relations and sales.
And more and more women are making wine decisions…including at the restaurant table. Kristene Hansen noted in her blog that women who dine out may feel more comfortable and less intimidated discussing wine with a female sommelier. Hansen discovered another interesting point: men often order a pricier wine from a woman than they would from a man. If they’re trying to impress one woman, they want to impress them all.
The actual reasons why women perceive wine differently involve basic physiology and body chemistry. These differences are supported with studies done by geneticists, biologists, neurologists, and even sex researchers. In the introduction to her annual wine guide for women, French critic Isabel Forêt says, “women are more sensual, their breathing is different…they perceive aromas more subjectively. Wine is more than just a simple beverage, it is a combination of aromas that open in the mouth, offering an infinite number of sensations.” Women, she says have more olfactory sensitivity to perfumes, to the aromas of foods, to the scents of the home.
Women also approach the wine world with different attitudes and goals. This is clear in the hundreds of women’s wine clubs, tasting groups, business and social networks that have appeared through social media.
The About Us pages on these sites generally promote the social and comfort aspects of wine consumption, the meeting new people, networking, sharing, exchanging. In fact, female members of the international wine club Direct Cellars spontaneously formed their own sub-group within the organization and called themselves “The Women of DC.” They have a separate Facebook page, and interact with each other apart from the club’s many thousands of members.
Popular media has taken notice. There are more television series than ever that feature wine-loving women in leading roles, such as “The Good Wife,” and Connie Britton’s character in “Friday Night Lights.” Wine is a part of the lives of women such as Skyler White in “Breaking Bad,” and Claire Danes’ character on “Homeland.” That’s much different than the Cosmos that were so enthusiastically consumed by Carrie Bradshaw and her crew on “Sex and the City.”
So here are some suggestions for your next white tablecloth dining experience. First, don’t be surprised when your sommelier is a well-educated, well-traveled woman who knows the wine world from top to bottom. Second, servers have learned to not automatically offer the wine list to the man at the table. There’s an excellent chance that a discriminating and wine-savvy woman will be making the selection.
My tasting panel’s favorites this week include:
Salentin Malbec Reserve Valle de Uco 2014 ($19) – Smooth and quite approachable for a full-bodied wine. Bright fruit, minerality with notes of plum and dark cherry. WW 88
Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2016 ($13) – This wine will go with just about any food you like. Pronounced leather and cedar on the nose, with a firm spine of strawberry and watermelon flavor. Since it’s 100% Cabernet, it tastes just like the big red version, only much lighter – and pinker. WW 88 firstname.lastname@example.org
Contrade Negroamaro Puglia 2015 ($10) –The Negroamaro grape is characteristic in Puglia, which is the heel of the Italian boot. Deep ruby color offering a nose of dark flowers and honey. Interesting flavors of warm cherry, blueberry, and cocoa. Just a bit on the sweet side. WW 89
The Riedels Rock
It’s All in the Glass
I confess that I don’t need a lesson in how the type of glass affects the taste of wine. Debi and I have been to enough tastings, and sipped from dozens of different glasses. Plus, at the Wine Experience a few years ago, Georg and Maximilian Riedel demonstrated the difference to about 1500 of us. We tasted a wine out of a plastic cup, then out of several differently-shaped Riedel glasses, and the variation in the aromas and flavors was obvious to everyone in the room.
So the glass makes a difference – and quite often a major one.
The Riedel name has been synonymous with fine wine glasses since the 1750s. (By the way, it rhymes with “needle.”) In 1973, Claus Riedel (the 9th generation of the glassmaking family) introduced the “Sommelier Series,” the first mouth-blown glasses made to pair wines with a specific bowl shape. He was also the first designer to discover that the bouquet and flavors of a wine were affected by the shape of the bowl.
The company conducts extensive research to determine what shapes are best for different wines. Company President Georg Riedel told me that the process involves “a series of trial and error tastings,” something I’d very much like to participate in. “Working with winemakers and sommeliers, we tweak the bowl shape and rim diameter to deliver wine in a fashion that best accentuates the properties of the given varietal on the taster’s palate,” he says. “Within each glassware series, there are shapes for the world’s major wine varietals, including bowl shapes for new world and old world wines.”
Georg (L) and Maximilian Riedel
Anyone who buys and uses Riedel glasses soon discovers one thing about this company’s glassware – it’s hilariously fragile. My mother-in-law once dropped an ice cube into one of them, and it went all the way through and out the bottom. I told that to Georg.
“Riedel is known for creating some of the thinnest glasses on the market,” he responded. “But we make numerous glassware lines that stand up to everyday wear and tear, both for home enjoyment and professional hospitality use.”
Another breakthrough that Riedel is known for is the “O” series of glasses. These have the correct bowl shape for wine, but are stemless. We’ve found them to be excellent for traveling, and they’re dishwasher safe.
Mr. Riedel also explained to me the process behind finding the perfect glass shape for different wine varietals. “My son Maximilian and I conduct extensive workshops before a varietal-specific shape can make it to market. We follow the Bauhaus principle: form follows function.”
But surely, differences in the way individuals experience a certain wine must play a part? “Yes,” says Georg Riedel. “There is a degree of individuality to each person’s interpretation of a wine, but most sensory responses are directly affected by the vessel. This doesn’t erase personal preference; there are those who simply prefer Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon. But we firmly believe that each varietal will taste its absolute best when served in a Riedel glass.”
At our house, we conduct numerous side-by-side tastings. Every night, in fact. It’s hard to disagree with Georg.
For this week’s recommendations, we sampled the following wines out of Riedel glasses.
Marina Cvetic Merlot Terre Aquilane 2010 ($40) – We’re big fans of Italian Merlot, because they generally make it in a richer, more concentrated style – like this one. Dark ruby color, smoke, leather, dark cherry and chocolate on the nose, and rich currant and leather notes on the midpalate. Soft mouthfeel with round, pleasant tannins Great with or without food. WS 91-92
Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Rosé 2014 ($13) – This Italian rose is great for summer sipping, with flavors of black cherry, violets, and lilac. Light and easy-drinking. WW 89