Wine Adventures

Ice Cubes in Wine

Ice Cubes in Wine

I once served as sommelier at an elaborate Christmas party given by a very wealthy couple.  They had retained me specifically to oversee the opening and decanting of an 18-liter bottle of Hermitage for which they had paid around $40,000.  We decanted and poured, and one of their guests threw about six ice cubes into his glass.  It was not my place to slap him silly, but I certainly had the urge.

To most of us wine lovers (if not all) the idea of putting ice in wine is a transgression punishable by excommunication or even death.  However, I owe the following insight to Letty Teague, who writes the wine column for the Wall Street Journal.  It is this.

To cool a wine down to drinkable temperature (especially a white straight off the shelf our out of the cellar), put about 4-5 ice cubes in the glass, pour the wine over, wait five seconds, and remove the cubes.  The wine will not be diluted in the slightest, and the temperature will be perfect.  Now I do that all the time.  Who’da thunk it?

Time to ask the Wine Whisperer

On another topic:  when I write my column for magazines and newspapers, I usually conclude by saying “Sample widely.  Write to me.”  While I have no way of knowing how widely my readers sample (hope you do…), some people actually do write.  Most of the queries pertain to wine appreciation or specific winegrowing regions, and they’re pretty interesting.  So we’ve decided that I’ll attempt to answer some of them in this public forum from time to time.  This is the first installment, but if you do have questions or puzzlements about wines, regions, labels, whatever, please do contact me and I’ll try to help.

How important is the vintage of a wine?
Barry C., Cape Coral
Vintage, the year shown on the bottle of most fine wines, reflects the year in which the grapes were picked.  This is important because wine grapes are an agricultural product, and weather conditions can have a significant effect on the wine.

 

The more expensive the wine, the more important the vintage.  Everyday wines (in the $10-$15 range) are made from grapes that come from several vineyards over a wide area.  (For example, if the label on a bottle says “California,” the grapes can come from anywhere in the state).  If the harvest is not so good in one place during a particular year, the producer will find better fruit somewhere else.  But if you’re buying wine from very specific regions or vineyards, it’s worth looking up the quality of that year’s harvest.

What is an “appellation?”
Sonia R., Estero
An appellation is a legally designated winegrowing region.  They are fairly large geographical areas divided into “subappellations” of various sizes  For example, if a bottle label says “Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley,” the grapes can come from anywhere in that area.  But Napa is divided into subregions such as Yountville, Rutherford, Diamond Mountain, etc.  And those may be further sectioned of into single vineyards or even blocks within vineyards.  A label might say, “Napa Valley Diamond Mountain Miss Lil’s Vineyard.”  Long story short, the more specific a wine is to a place, the finer – and more expensive – it’s likely to be.

Does the shape of a wine glass really make a difference?
Lou B., Bonita Springs
Absolutely.  Wine glasses are made in various shapes to accomplish certain purposes.  The deep broad bowl of a red wine glass, for instance, allows us to swirl the wine sufficiently to release the flavor and aroma components.  They narrow toward the top to channel those aromas to the nose.  And, since we taste flavors (sweet, salt, sour, and bitter) at different places on our tongues, different shapes direct what we drink to the right places.  A white wine glass may be a bit taller and narrower, because of the more delicate nature of the flavors and aromas. 

Why is wine stored in oak barrels?
Robert A., Fort Myers
Oak is to wine what spices and seasoning are to food.  When winemakers decide to ferment or store wine in oak barrels, they’re adding several important flavors and characteristics to the juice.  People write whole books on what oak does to wine, but basically the flavors that the juice soaks up from the barrel are determined by where the wood comes from (France and America supply most of the barrels used in winemaking), and how the barrels are toasted on the inside.  Wine barrels are made over flame, because heat makes the wood staves flexible so they can be bent into shape.  Winemakers order barrels with light to heavy toast, depending on the flavors they want to extract.  And then, of course, there’s the decision of how long to leave the wine in barrels.  Some Spanish wines stay in barrels for decades before they’re released.


How important is vintage info...really?

Before I grew up to become a wine "geek," I thought one of the most confusing things about wine appreciation was all that business about vintages.  Good years, bad years, even mediocre years... how can you keep all that information straight in your head, I used to wonder...and does it really matter anyway?  I’ve mused upon this topic once or twice before, but it won’t go away.


My conclusion is that there's no better way to learn vintages than simply letting nature take its course:  Every year, trailing the calendar by a few months (Beaujolais Nouveau) to several years (Bordeaux, Chianti Classico Riserva), each new vintage comes through the pipeline, bringing its own surprises and teaching us its particular lessons through tasting.  If you live through a few vintages, you realize that you do have a lot of that info in your head.  Fortunately, magazines like Wine Spectatorpublish vintage charts that let you know how various winegrowing regions stack up against one another in any particular year.

But the question remains:  what is the place of vintage in wine appreciation?

1]  Vintage, the year shown on the bottle of most fine wines, reflects the year in which the grapes were picked. This is important because wine grapes are an agricultural product, and weather conditions can have a significant effect on the wine, whether it's vine-killing winter freeze, bud-killing spring frost, summer storms and hail, or rains at harvest time.  A year of perfect weather may yield exceptional wine, but not always.  Lots of sunny days and heat cause the fruit to become very ripe, but over-ripe grapes tend to make fat, lower-acid wines that lack elegance and balance.

2]  Weather is local.  One region's terrible vintage may be decent in another and excellent in a third.  A year that’s just so-so in Napa could be sensational in Bordeaux.  Even more specifically, a year that’s great in Napa may be not so great in Sonoma, just the other side of the mountains.


3]  Vintage quality is a generalization, and individual producers are important.  Some producers make excellent wines in "poor" vintages, and a few make stinkers in "can't miss" years.  Moreover, the storm or frost that devastated vines in one valley or village may have missed its neighbor just over the hill.  Even though really bad vintages are extremely rare, they do occur, and often individual producers will simply not make wine that year.  It hurts, but it happens.

4]  The more expensive the wine, the more important the vintage.  Everyday wines (in the $10-$15 range) are usually made from grapes that come from several vineyards over a wide area.  If they’re not so good in one place, the producer will find better ones somewhere else.  But if you’re buying wine from very specific regions or vineyards, it’s worth looking up the quality of the harvest in that particular year.

 

5]  Trust your own taste buds more than vintage charts, and remember that even wine professionals don't always agree.  An influential critic like Robert Parker is known to be partial to big, bold, highly extracted wines.  If he downgrades a particular vintage or wine because it doesn’t please his palate, that doesn’t mean we won’t like it.

The disagreements about vintages will go on forever, but if we remember a few basics, we’ll be able to find wines that we enjoy and appreciate, every year, at every price point.  Just sample widely, and try wines from many producers and regions.  You’ll find that some winemakers’ styles are more to your taste than others, and you’ll stick with them.

Drink more wine.  Write to me with questions.


Living it Up at the Eau Palm Beach

I’ve mentioned before that Southwest Florida is home to two of the top ten charity wine events in the country.  Well, the folks in Palm Beach were kind enough to invite wife Debi and me to the Palm Beach Wine Auction in late January, and it turns out they have their charity chops over there, just like we do.

Unlike the Naples and Fort Myers approach, which involves an afternoon outdoor event with grand tastings (lots of tasting), mingling, and somewhat frenetic auction activity, the Palm Beach event, spearheaded by a very civic-minded Ted Mandes, is a bit more sedate, but no less lively.  For one thing, it’s held in the evening, starting off with a Champagne reception (pouring Krug, no less) and a sit-down dinner at the Mar-a-Lago Club.  This mansion, known as the “Pearl of Palm Beach,” was once the cozy residence of Marjorie Merriweather Post, then Mrs. E.F. Hutton.  Is it spectacular?  Let’s just say it makes the Taj Mahal look like a trailer park.  It’s now owned as a private club by Donald Trump, and while we were enjoying our celebrity-chef dinner, The Donald himself strolled through the room, making a brief but memorable appearance.

The auction featured several highly-desirable lots of wine, as well as trips and other experiences.  Paddles waved wildly all evening, proceeds benefiting the programs at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, that offer music and cultural opportunities to underprivileged and underserved children throughout the county. 

When we were invited to the event, the organizers also offered to put us up for the night.  That term is a bit lame, because the putting up was at the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa.  It’s a beachfront former Ritz Carlton that was purchased by independent investors…and upgraded, if you can imagine such a thing.  Not easy to make a Ritz Carlton more posh than it already is, but these people succeeded.

Bye-bye Ritz.  Hello, Eau.

When we checked in, we were greeted by the resort’s Public Relations Manager, Nick Gold, who immediately ushered us into the sumptuous Angle restaurant where the hotel’s beverage manager and Chef Pete Morales forced us (I say forced us) to sample a variety of wines with specially-prepared food pairings.

We paired the sea scallops with Hansell “Sebella” Chardonnay.  The acidity of the wine was a perfect balance to the texture of the dish, and the characteristic lemon zest and minerality accented the lemon in the dish.  A typical example of the “lemon law.”

Next, Chef offered a  slice of pork belly, paired with Biggio Hamina Amity Vineyard Riesling from Oregon.  This was especially interesting, because the Riesling had a very pronounced petrol edge to it.  This fusel oil or petroleum component is not very common in Riesling, but it’s not unheard-of, either.  The dish needed that kind of edge to cut through and neutralize the fattiness of the pork belly.  Unusual, but very interesting.

Third, we were treated to a duck confit with Benovia Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley.  I met Joe Anderson from Benovia at the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest in February, and there’s a reason he’s been a signature vintner at that event.  The earthiness of the Pinot supported the smoky character of the broiled duck, each one enhancing the other.

The rainshower hot tub.

The morning after the event, we were further treated…to massages in the luxurious spa.  We had to drive all
the way back to Florida’s west coast afterwards, but we really didn’t want to.  Besides, the relaxation pool off the patio outside the spa has all these cute little rubber duckies floating it it.  We could have stayed forever.

Of course, no article would be complete without some new wine discoveries, so here they are.

Guigal Condrieu 2012 – Condrieu is probably the smallest, most obscure winegrowing region of France’s northern Rhône valley.  It’s a bit over 1,000 acres – which isn’t much – and the only grape they grow (the only grape) is viognier.  From this, they make a small quantity of highly aromatic white that, at its best, simply sings with flavor and aroma.  This is one of them.  There’s a nose of honeysuckle and an explosion of apricots on the palate.  Afterward, you’ll taste lemon, peaches, and lush tropical fruit, all carried on a frame of zippy minerality.  A bit of a splurge at around $55, but go ahead and treat yourself.

Cancello del Barone Barbaresco Riserva 2009 – From the Piedmont region in the north of Italy, this wine is made from the Nebbiolo grape, the same one used in Barolo.  The good news is that Barbaresco is usually not quite as expensive.  This wine offers a nose of forest, earth, and smoke, with black fruit flavors and firm tannins.  It’s about $23 and worth it.

Sample widely.  Email me with questions.  Cheers!


The Palm Beach Wine Auction Strikes it Rich

Not long ago, I wrote in this space about Florida's prominence in the field of charity wine events.  Two of America’s top ten festivals take place in Lee and Collier counties, raising millions for worthwhile causes all across Southwest Florida.

Turns out the folks over in Palm Beach run a close second in their charity wine efforts, too.  They were kind enough to invite wife Debi and me to the Palm Beach Wine Auction in late January, and it turns out they have their charity chops over there, just like we do.

Unlike our approach, which involves an afternoon outdoor event with grand tastings (lots of tasting), mingling, and somewhat frenetic auction activity, the Palm Beach event, spearheaded by a very civic-minded Ted Mandes, is a bit more sedate, but no less lively.  For one thing, it’s an evening event, starting off with a Champagne reception (pouring Krug, no less) and sit-down dinner at the Mar-a-Lago Club.  This mansion, known as the “Pearl of Palm Beach,” was once the cozy residence of Marjorie Merriweather Post, then Mrs. E.F. Hutton.  Is it spectacular?  Let’s just say it makes the Taj Mahal look like a trailer park.  It’s now owned as a private club by Donald Trump, and while we were enjoying our celebrity-chef dinner, The Donald himself strolled through the room, making a brief but memorable appearance.

The auction itself featured several highly-desirable lots of wine, as well as trips and other experiences.  Paddles waved wildly all evening, proceeds benefiting the programs at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, that offer music and cultural opportunities to underprivileged and underserved children throughout the county. 

When we were invited to the event, the organizers also offered to put us up for the night.  That term is a bit lame, because the putting up was at the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa.  It’s a beachfront former Ritz Carlton that was purchased by independent investors…and upgraded, if you can imagine such a thing.

When we checked in, we were greeted by the resort’s Public Relations Manager, Nick Gold, who immediately ushered us into the sumptuous restaurant where Beverage Manager Krystal Kinney and Chef Pete Morales forced us (I say forced us) to sample a variety of wines with specially-prepared food pairings.

The Eau Palm Beach Spa -- Jacuzzi with a Rainshower

Then it was off to the auction, handled capably by Michael Troise, retired Auction Director for NY Wines/Christie's Fine and Rare Wine Department.  As I mentioned, everyone was in cocktail attire and sitting down for dinner, so the proceedings were much less raucous than we’re used to on this side of the state.  At the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Festival, there are volunteer “funmakers” who romp through the crowd ringing bells and yelling, challenging the bidders to up the ante.  At the Mar-a-Lago, the event is conducted on a somewhat more demure, but no less profitable, level.  Since its inception, the Palm Beach Wine Auction has raised over $2 million for the cultural outreach programs mentioned above.

So.  To each his own.  There are legions of philanthropic, dedicated, generous people on both coasts of Florida.  Some conduct their charity wine events in shouts, others in whispers.  But the results are always impressive…and worthwhile.

Of course, no article would be complete without some new wine discoveries, so here they are.

Guigal Condrieu 2012 – Condrieu is probably the smallest, most obscure winegrowing region of France’s northern Rhône valley.  It’s a bit over 1,000 acres – which isn’t much – and the only grape they grow (the only grape) is viognier.  From this, they make a small quantity of highly aromatic white that, at its best, simply sings with flavor and aroma.  This is one of them.  There’s a nose of honeysuckle and an explosion of apricots on the palate.  Afterward, you’ll taste lemon, peaches, and lush tropical fruit, all carried on a frame of zippy minerality.  A bit of a splurge at around $55, but go ahead and treat yourself.

Cancello del Barone Barbaresco Riserva 2009 – From the Piedmont region in the north of Italy, this wine is made from the Nebbiolo grape, the same one used in Barolo.  The good news is that Barbaresco is usually not quite as expensive.  This wine offers a nose of forest, earth, and smoke, with black fruit flavors and firm tannins.  It’s about $23 and worth it.

Sample widely.  Email us with questions.  Cheers!


The Wine Auction World

Palm Beach Auction Sets New Standard

In Florida, the winter season offers one charity event after another, from November through April.  All of them benefit a range of worthwhile causes, but in the past few years, our area, and South Florida in general, has become noted worldwide for one particular type of charity event – the wine auction.

As many of us know, the Naples Winter Wine Festival skyrocketed to prominence many years ago, thanks to the astounding generosity of its attendees, who bid on not only bottles rare and precious wines, but also on experiences like a shot at a bit part on “Desperate Housewives,” or a trip into outer space on Virgin Galactic. 

Right up there as well is the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, which comes close to matching the Naples soiree in the amount of money it raises for the Children’s Hospital and other charities throughout the five-county area.  Last year, it was ranked #4 in the nation, according to Wine Spectator magazine.

And then, there’s Palm Beach.  Now in its 8th year, it’s held at the Mar-a-Lago Club and offers more than 40 lots of wines and spirits, plus over-the-top travel experiences.  The title sponsor is Louis XIII, a cognac so expensive it should be served with eyedroppers.

Many of the events hold a pre-auction reception of some sort.  At the Southwest Florida WWF.  Prior to the auction, invited vintners, like Chris and Pauline Tilley of V Madrone Wines in St. Helena, pour their very best stuff, make new friends, and contribute to the overall elevation of mood.

In Palm Beach, the evening auction is preceded by a five-course dinner featuring “sublime fare from a who's who of award-winning chefs,” including Philip Bollhoefer of the OMNI Asheville/Grove Park Inn and Joshua Hasho, from the OMNI Denver/Interlocken Resort & Spa.  According to event chair Ted Mandes, “We’re excited about the quality of the auction lots, and especially excited about the food and wine pairings.”

They should be excited about their auctioneer, too.  It’s Michael Troise, retired Auction Director for NY Wines/Christie's Fine and Rare Wine Department.  He probably knows his stuff.

Michael Troise

All of the events include more than just the dinners and auctions.  There are “wine down” events (a sort of after-auction after-party), brunch the next day, pre-event dinners, like the White Truffle Dinner sponsored by Tiffany & Co. Palm Beach, held last December…the list goes on.

So if you’re ready to party with a purpose, and support education, children’s charities, at-risk youth, and other important causes, welcome to the winter season in South Florida.  


Wine Ratings. Lesson Learned.

By
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.


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