How Not to Read a Wine Label

As I’ve mentioned many times, there is no consumer product that gives a buyer less information than a wine label.  On the front, you’ll see the name of the producer, maybe the grape varietal, alcohol content (more or less), and how much is in the bottle.  That’s about it.

But the back label? I’ve studied them extensively (not having much of a life on my own) and that’s a whole different story. Basically, I’ve divided them into two categories: the hype label and the help label. The hype label is much more common.

Actually, most bottles have two back labels, but one just tells you not to drink the wine if you’re planning to get pregnant and operate heavy machinery. I follow that caution to the letter. The other label, however, is where things get sticky.

The hype label is simply a paragraph of shamelessly promotional copy that tells you how great the wine is and why you should buy it at once. In my book, Secrets of the Wine Whisperer, I discuss this issue in exhilarating detail. Winemakers will write something about how their family harvests the grapes one by one from vines they have cherished for generations and how they weep with joy as they crush and blend the final product, blah, blah, blah. Tells you basically nothing about what might be in the bottle, or what to expect when you get it home and open it.

The help label, however, is much to be respected and sought after.  Winemakers who are smart enough to tell me what’s in the bottle will get my money first, every time.  At least let me know what the blend is, and if you’re really good you’ll give me the percentages of the Zinfandel, Counoise, Charbono, Aglianico and whatever else you threw in there.  Maybe you’ll let me know if the wine was aged in oak, what kind, and for how long, so I’ll get a little preview of what to look for as I swirl, sniff, and slurp.

But until I ordered a bottle of Laetitia Estate Pinot Noir 2011 at a local wine bistro the other night did I know to what heights a help label could be taken. I don’t peel off and save labels, but I saved this one. Eric Hickey, the winemaker, almost bludgeoned me with “Technical Details,” as he calls them, letting me know about the topography of the vineyard, the climate, growing season, soil composition, trellising technique, elevation, the ten (count ‘em) clones in the blend, and the composition of the oak barrels that were used in the 11 months of aging the wine.  Whew.

Maybe a little too much info for some, and maybe even too much for me. But I have to respect Eric for his philosophy of full disclosure. Too much is better than not enough.

Great Wine from Off the Beaten Track

Domaine Fond-Croze Rasteau 2010 — As dedicated wine bargain hunters, Debi and I realized long ago that some of the best buys are to be found in the more obscure (and therefore less famous) winegrowing areas. Like Vire Clesse in Burgundy, Yecla in Spain, and Rasteau in the southern Rhône.

In that same neighborhood, we’ve also enjoyed wines from Cairanne, Côtes du Ventoux, and other unlikely places. But this is about the Domaine Fond-Croze Rasteau 2010 that surprised us so pleasantly the other night.

A blend of 80% Grenache, and 10% each Syrah and Mourvedre, it’s a pretty typical profile for the area. However, the quality/price ratio is way up there, and this wine is drinking beautifully for as young as it is.

It looks huge in the glass: opaque and inky. But in the mouth, it’s round and not the least bit grabby on the back end. A little sweet, maybe, but that’s okay. The label says 12 months in new oak, and it shows, with overtones of vanilla, toast, and salty caramel. This is definitely not a fruit forward wine, with underbrush and all those other non-fruit flavors immediately evident, but there is some sweet blackberry way down deep, and nice roundness on the mid palate.

Though several critics have written that this wine is drinkable now through 2015, I’m thinking it’ll last longer than that.  Buy it by the case.

Secrets of the Wine Whisperer

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of my new book.

“Robert Mondavi just kissed me on both cheeks.”

Debi had been on her way up to the dais, because she wanted to ask Eric de Rothschild to sign the bottle of 1988 Lafite she’d bought that afternoon.  Now she was back, all a-flutter, with flushed face and rapid breath.

“Really.  He did.”  I wasn’t jealous.  Sure, Robert Mondavi was a bit older than me at the time, a lot richer, and a lot more famous, but okay.  Deb has long ago gotten tired of everybody telling her how much she looks like Shelley Long, so I can’t blame Bob for feeling the urge to plant one on her – two, actually – and besides, it’s not every day that one of the world’s most famous winemakers introduces himself with such Old World charm. Later, we found out that the double-cheek kiss was a Mondavian behavioral trademark.

That’s when it hit me.  What were we even doing in the same banquet room with Robert Mondavi, or with all those other legendary winemakers sitting up at the table of honor?  Here were the owners of the world’s oldest, most famous chateaux, internationally glamorous highly polished people, duchesses and marcheses, whose families had been making wine for six hundred years.  How the hell did we get here?

We were seated, that evening in late October, at a $300-a-head New York black tie wine gala with all these…peoplein the room. Rock stars of the wine world who live on inherited estates, fly Super First Class on Air France, and spend a week or two whenever they feel like it on the Costa Smerelda in Sardinia. Francis Ford Coppola was there, smoking a Cohiba the size of the Hindenburg.

Question was, what were we doing there?  Little old us. We weren’t anybody.  Sure, we knew a bit about wine, having spent the previous five or six years gloriously gliding down the slope into the obsession, but still. To be at this three-day wine event, we’d spent over five grand, which represented a significant percentage of our annual discretionary income, including registration fees, air fare, hotel, cab rides and such, not counting the accumulated capital we’d invested at some of the city’s most difficult restaurants.

What were we doing there? And where did all that wine in our house come from? What were we doing there?  In our previous life, we went to the beach on vacation, watched the water all day, did a little snorkeling, maybe, strolled at night, ate cheap. But over the past five years we had lurched (perhaps stumbled is the more appropriate term) into the wine life.  We lost friends who didn’t enjoy wine, and made new friends who did.  And all our vacations, all our dinner reservations, most of our recreational activities, and a truly frightening amount of our mutual income revolved around vineyard visits, treks to Tuscany, wine tastings, wine auctions, wine shopping, and other insane quests that will be dealt with more extensively later on.

So as we sat in that banquet room, we gazed at each other, at the expensive bottles on the table before us, and asked ourselves again:  what the hell happened to us?

Who makes this stuff? And where can I get more?

A little while ago, Debi and I bought a few hundred bottles from a friend who was thinning out his cellar.  Among the treasures was a single bottle of Tay Cabernet 1993.  It was from “Tayland Cellars” in St. Helena, and while we’re pretty familiar with many (but by no means all) Napa wineries, this was one we’d never heard of.

After we opened and (really) enjoyed the wine – more about that below – we wanted more, so  I tried to do some research on the winery. Good luck on that.  It either doesn’t exist, or the winemaker (Bruce Scotland) has a puckish sense of humor.

You can Google the hell out of “Tayland Cellars” and you won’t find any primary website. You will, however discover all you ever wanted to know about a London restaurant called Mien Tay.  I did, however, manage to glean some information from secondary sources, such as blogs, Wine Searcher, and a few online stores.  But apparently the winery itself exists in some parallel dimension, and to make things even more enigmatic, Bruce produces wines under a bewildering variety of brand names and labels.  He’s having too much fun.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of what I discovered, especially since I Googled “Bruce Scotland” and got a ton of information about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, and the Scottish rebellion. I’ve seen “Braveheart” about six times, so none of that did me any good.  But apparently Bruce Scotland is a winemaker who traces his influences back to his friendship with the legendary Randy Dunn.  Not a bad guy to have as a winemaking mentor.  Scotland bought his fruit from Andy Beckstoffer’s George III vineyard (also not a bad way to go), and produced only a few hundred cases in each vintage in the mid Nineties.  Too bad.

Can’t find any label images, even though Cellar tracker shows that members own a total of 126 bottles.

So if anyone can tell me more about this winemaker and his wines, or if Bruce himself manages to see this, I’d love to have a chat with him. Seems a shame to make such great wine and then disappear.

Now, on to what he puts in the bottle.

For a 20-year-old Cabernet, the 1993 was in remarkably good shape. Brightly colored in the glass, it didn’t offer too much on the nose at first, and on the palate it had an unmistakable flavor profile of Bordeaux:  earth, smoke, cedar, barnyard, black plum, currant. Very old world in style.

The mouthfeel was medium-bodied, and a bit light for a California Cabernet. No fruit bomb, that’s for sure…a lot more stylish. The tannins were round and soft, and even though the wine had been in the bottle for 20 years, there was plenty of structure and “grab” left in the glass. My only criticism is that there was only one bottle of it.

Wish I knew more….

Sampling Another WOTY

In 2007, Wine Spectator named Two Hands Bella’s Garden Shiraz 2005 as their #5 Wine of the Year (we call ’em WOTYs).

Getting your wine in the Top 100 is ego-building enough, but once you’re in the Top 10, everybody wants your juice, and if stores were charging $30 for it the day before the list was announced, they’re charging $50 the day after.  And getting it.

We were lucky enough to find that we already had some of this in our cellar, and decided it was time to pop one and give it a try. The Two Hands winery has a special place in our hearts, because on our last trip to Australia, it was possibly one of the top two tastings we experienced. When you go to the tasting room, a low stone building off a nearly-paved road, they sit you down, give you a plate of meats and cheeses, and force you to taste every single wine they make.  Delightful.

The Two Hands tasting room

The 2005 Bella’s Garden is a deep lavender-purple in the glass with heavy aromas of sandalwood, blueberry, oak, toast, and violets. It’s a big, round, generous wine, as most Aussie Shirazes are, but it has more elegance, so you don’t get smacked in the face with the flavors as hard as you might expect.

Cousin David Lazer and winemaker Michael Twelftree at the Wine Experience

On the palate, the aromas mentioned above come through as flavors. Though I’ve never eaten a violet, the floral savor was definitely there. At 14.8% alcohol, it was a bit hot out of the bottle, but calmed down after some time in the glass. Should’ve decanted it.

This is one that will live for a long time. We drank it at 8 years after the vintage, but if we can keep our hands off it long enough (willpower, where are you?), I’m going to give it another five. Great stuff.

Break Out the WOTYs!

As most wine lovers know, every November Wine Spectator magazine publishes a list of their Top 100 Wines of the Year. We call them WOTYs. And every year when the list comes out, we run to the cellar or closet where we keep our stash and look to see if we’re lucky enough to have any of them.

No use running out and trying to buy them once the list is published, because, as I write in my book Secrets of the Wine Whisperer, wine store owners have already been up all night raising the prices of anything they have in stock that made the cut.

But the other night, we cracked a precious WOTY bottle:  the 2003 Pontet Canet Pauillac, which was the magazine’s #39 Wine of the Year in 2006.  And I took down my special Helicium tasting glass to give it a slurp.

Dark ruby in the glass, it had a brilliant translucence around the edges…very alive in color.  The nose made me think of India ink and dark black fruit, along with that unmistakable aroma that tells even the most uninitiated “this is a Bordeaux.”  Best of all, it’s Kosher…which I didn’t know until I started writing this.  Should have looked at the label a bit more closely.

Right out of the bottle, there were hints of tar, smoke, and leather on the midpalate, with a bit of heat that dissipated after a little while. The tannins softened a bit, too, with time.  I’m going to decant the next bottle…in about five years.

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