Wine Adventures

Wine Ratings. Lesson Learned.

The Wine Whisperer

Let’s face it…when you’re in a wine shop looking at an unfamiliar bottle, trying to make a buying decision, the ratings matter.  Maybe you look them up on your smartphone, or maybe the store has posted the ratings on the shelf tags.  They’ll do that as long as somebody has given the wine more than about 86 points.

Most of us, if we don’t know the particular producer or varietal we’re considering, will be at least a little nudged toward (or away from) buying the wine because some magazine or independent critic gave it this many or that many points. 

Doing that can be a mistake, and can steer you away from some interesting discoveries.

Example:  Last December, a dinner guest brought us a bottle of Domaine de la Vougeraie “Les Evocelles” Gevrey-Chambertin.  We weren’t familiar with the producer, and we don’t drink all that much Burgundy (can’t afford it) so we sat on it for a while, and opened it one night in the middle of March.  We even pulled out our special Riedel Pinot Noir glasses for the occasion.

At first sip, Debi and I looked at each other with eyes wide and said, “We gotta get some more of this.”  It was stunning.  Aromas of earth and game wafted up from the glass, dark fruit, layer upon layer of flavors that convinced us (as if we needed convincing) that there ain’t nothing like a good Burgundy.  In truth, it almost brought tears to our eyes.  The last time that happened was when we tasted the 2001 Chateau d’Yquem at the Wine Experience a few years back.

So Debi immediately ran out and bought the last three bottles the store had.  And I, geek that I am, decided to look up the wine on one of the most popular rating sites.  They gave the stuff 83 points! Eighty-three points?  We’d never buy an 83-point wine.  To both of our relatively experienced palates, we were drinking a 94-95 pointer, maybe a bit better, even.  The critics at the magazine apparently sampled and rated the wine with eyes much drier than ours. 

Certainly, if I had discovered the wine in the store and looked it up with my ratings app, I never would have bought it.  Sixty dollars for an 83-point wine?  There are higher-rated wines for a lot less money,  and we pretty much know which ones they are.

Lesson learned, right?  Sample widely and decide for yourself.  The ratings are a hint at relative quality, but if you treat them like Holy Writ, you might be missing a lot of great juice.  Maybe it’s just better not to know.

Best Wines of South Beach 2014

The Wine Whisperer

The South Beach Wine and Food Festival – always one of our favorites – was held the weekend of February 21.  As is customary, we attended the trade tasting on Friday, and, as is customary, it was completely mobbed.

Unlike traditional wine tastings, the SoBe event takes place in two huge tents set up directly on the beach, and includes spirits and food.  The food part is nice, because many restaurants and purveyors give out sensational samples.  The liquor part?  Well, let’s just say that a lot of people started feeling really good, really fast.  Things were loud and crowded.

When you have the opportunity to taste through fifty or a hundred wines in an afternoon, your critical facilities go south pretty quickly.  Of course, being professionals, we spit most of it, but after three hours we still got a bit fuzzy.  But it’s my philosophy that if you taste so many wines and three or four of them stand out, those are the ones you want to buy.

My note-taking capacity was limited, but I did manage to pop some cell phone shots of the bottles that impressed me the most.  These are the wines I’ll be looking for over the next month or so.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

Andrew Geoffrey Cabernet Sauvignon – From Peter Thompson’s gorgeous vineyard high atop Diamond Mountain.  You can’t beat the wine…or the view.

Debi Greenfield with winemaker Peter Thompson from Andrew Geoffrey
(and Denise Bernardi in the background)

Tenuta Sassoregale Sangiovese Maremma – Sweet fruit and earth with a nice balance of acidity.  A pizza/pasta wine for sure.

Villa Maria Dry Riesling – This winery is one of my go-to’s for Sauvignon Blanc, and the Riesling was a lovely surprise.  I’ll be looking for this one.

Farnese Edizione Cinque Autoctoni – Encased in the world’s heaviest bottle, this “five vines” Bordeaux blend is big and luscious.  We drank through a case of it last year, and can’t wait to do it again.

Grgich Hills Estate Fumé Blanc – Though it was probably Robert Mondavi who came up with the idea of “Fume Blanc,” the Grgich people have taken it to a new level.  Dry, fruity, and delicious.

Fontanafredda Briccotondo Barbera – The Fontanafredda family was one of the pioneers of modern Italian wine in the 19th Century.  They haven’t lost their touch.

Jean-Luc Colombo “Les Abielles” Côtes du Rhône – I’ve always been a fan of this producer’s style.  His La Louvee is a special favorite, and this lower-priced version isn’t far behind.

Jordan Chardonnay – This was the surprise of the day.  We’ve downed plenty of Jordan Cab, but never knew that they were this good with Chardonnay.  We’ll be laying in a couple of cases of this, too.

How to enjoy ALL the flavors and aromas of your favorite wines.

I know you've been in the company of wine geeks who swirl, sniff, sip and spit, saying arcane things like, "I'm getting some crushed black cherry on the nose, and a bit of eucalyptus...there's dried leaves and forest floor on the palate, with some black tobacco on the finish."

And I know you've stood there thinking, "What the hell are they talking about?

Well, there's actually something to all this...and it's easy to learn.  Just start to recognize the five major flavor components of wine, and you'll be making some astute tasting observations of your own.  Watch the new video to learn more!

About Corkage and Unpleasantness

Sticky subject.  Many fine dining restaurants allow guests to bring their own wines and charge a corkage fee that can range anywhere from $10 (nice) to $100 (ouch).  Some will allow only wines (or vintages) they don’t have on their lists, or limit the number of bottles they allow guests to bring.  Others, however, dig in their heels and do not allow any outside wine.  No way, no how.

That’s a mistake.

My good friend and wine buddy, Miles Grant, recently had a very discouraging experience at Il Mulino in New York, and it didn’t have to happen.  Many patrons of high-end restaurants are wine collectors (like Miles, who has a killer collection) and would like to enjoy special bottles at special dinners.  Second, when restaurant personnel are stubborn and inflexible on the issue they create ill will and bad publicity that can spread far beyond the initial incident…not to mention the potential loss of good customers.

Of course, some restaurants, like Il Mulino have enough business that pissing off a few good customers doesn’t matter to them.  Many wine lovers simply don’t go to restaurants that are not wine friendly.

Miles describes what happened in the letter he wrote to the restaurant owners after his “encounter” with their corkage policy a few weeks ago.

Dear John and the Managers and Owners of Il Mulino,

This email discusses my great disappointment at not being able to open my special bottle of wine which I brought to your restaurant on Monday night October 21.

Before explaining my recent experience, I want to let you know that I’ve been dining at your original Il Mulino for over 20 years.  During that time, although I live in San Diego, CA, I’m sure I’ve dined with you at least 15 maybe 20 times.  I’ve told everyone I know, I was born and raised in Queens, that the food at Il Mulino is the best Italian food in the world, not just NY, not just the U.S. but the world, including Italy. I love your food.  Always have and always will.

I am a very serious wine collector.  I was in NY attending the Wine Experience, a three day wine event at the Marriott Marquis put on by the Wine Spectator (owned by Marvin Shanken).  My wine friends, from all over the country, bring our best wine to NY to share during the festivities.

On Monday, October 21, I dined with my friend Kevin Kinsella and his girlfriend Paten Hughes.  Kevin happens to own a winery in Sonoma County called Kinsella Estates; they make a killer Cab, probably the best Cab made in Sonoma County.  Kevin and Paten live in SoHo and dine out almost every night.

I wanted to do something special for Kevin, so I brought a 2001 Araujo Syrah to dinner.  Araujo only makes Syrah in some vintages and their production is tiny, maybe a few hundred cases of Syrah.  The wine, when aged is incredible.  Drinking the 2001 now is an experience.

We had a 9:30 pm reservation on a Monday night.  The restaurant was almost empty when we arrived. The waiter said we couldn’t open our wine.  I begged.  I offered to pay a $100 corkage fee.  This is a very special bottle that I wanted to share with my very special friends.  The waiter refused saying it was company policy.  Kevin and I said it made no sense because the restaurant will make $100 profit by letting us open our bottle or will make not one penny on booze as we were not going to buy any alcohol in light of your policy.

While I love your food, wine is a very important part of my life.  I always bring wine with me to restaurants.  Not to save money but to drink what I want to drink, which is great wine that is properly aged.  Restaurants rarely have great wine that is also old.  Most bottles in most restaurants are simply too young to really be enjoyed.

So, I ask you, why not change your policy?  Charge a $50 or $75 corkage fee?  Limit the number of bottles?  Don’t allow wine brought in that you have on the wine list?  But, if you don’t change your policy, neither Kevin, nor I, nor any of my wine friends, who feel the same way about this as I do, will ever again dine at any of your restaurants (as good as the food is, there are other great Italian restaurants where we can bring in our wine).  I truly hope you re-consider so that we can continue to enjoy your great food.

Thank you.

P.S. We called the restaurant to try get the names and email addresses of owners and managers of Il Mulino, but the person answering the phone refused to provide this information so we’re sendi
ng this email just to the email addresses mentioned on your website

So it’s up to us wine lovers/collectors/enthusiasts to help restaurants like Il Mulino, Daniel Boulud, and others understand that having some sort of corkage policy, however limited, would gain them more in good will and memorable dining experiences than it would cost them in dollars.

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Secrets of the Wine Whisperer is the story of an innocent couple's descent into the joy, fulfillment (and expense) of the wine world.  Since I'm not in the wine business, we came to the wine world as complete newbies...until someone poured us the Glass That Did It.  In my experience, everyone who gets geeky about wine has a similar epiphany.  Somebody gives you a glass of something, shows you how to swirl and sniff, and -- holey moley! -- you never knew anything could taste like that.

As I write in the book, for us it was a glass of 1993 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc.  We were instantly transformed.  So Secrets  is part memoir, part musing, and part interesting information on everything to do with wine, its consumption, appreciation, and yes, there's the expense, too.

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