Seven Things To Never Say in a Winery

I get it.

 The wine is (sometimes) free and usually generous in its offering.  The winery staff enlivens the taste with glad stories of the winery – or the wines – or the places their grapes grow.  

so many glasses… so little time.

After witnessing a few of the following behaviors first hand, or first nose, here’s a few gentle reminders, by way of their errant phrases overheard, or self-confessionally rendered, where wine tasting happens.

Plan your visit, plan to have a good time and do the winery and fellow tasters the favor of avoiding these phrases:

“Is this too much cologne/perfume?” – Yes.  If wine were a beverage as loud as a rock concert, or if our noses were as sensitive as a dog’s, your Boss or Chanel might not matter.  Let’s just agree that Axe exists to eliminate odor not enhance it.  Further, if wineries were nightclubs, it would be great to smell like a Dior, a Flowerbomb or Jimmy Choo – so far they’re not.

 Wine’s volume resembles background Jazz, especially the parts that make them both worth the listen.  Strong outside aromas, self-imposed or not affect the way the wine’s aromas are available to our poor noses.  Leave the strong stuff at home to smell the good stuff.

“I dressed this way to stop by the gym later.” – Wineries are certainly not places for fancy dress; work gets done there.  If you’ve ever had to extract a stiletto heel from a floor drain or sod from the stitching of your Berlutis, then you know that a vineyard or barrel room tour makes no apology to precious attire.  But do dress the part.  

Sloppy clothes, gym shorts, tennis wear distracts from the winery’s raison d’etre, even if it says Lululemon on the tag.  Besides, who goes to yoga drunk?  Wine tasters aren’t expecting to impress anyone else but they are dressing to be among people who are also out tasting wine.

Bonus Tip – “I think my aunt got red wine out of cashmere once”.If there is one skill I could teach young oenophiles, it would not be getting a cork out of a bottle.  YouTube is overrun with demonstrations.  But, the single best skill for winetasting remains the swirl.  Practice at home.  Put a few ounces of water in your wineglass, place it on the counter, rotate the base of the glass to swirl the liquid enough to coat the inside of the glass – without spilling it.  Try it clockwise – go back for counter-clockwise when you’ve mastered that.  Practice over the sink.  Swirl exuberantly. ALMOST spill in the sink.  With your new proficiency, explain to your friends that swirling is for temperature, oxidation and therefore all the expressive flavors in wine.  Really say “expressive”.  The Six P’s of Winery Visits: Proper Previous Practice Prevents Problematic Phrases.  Remember, practice at home first so that you are never heard to say anything resembling the phrase above.

“I didn’t think it would be so cold!” – Some wineries invite their guests in to the barrel and fermentation areas of the winery where the effects of temperature more drastically affect the character of the wine.  It may be 55 degrees in the cellar.  That’s a good thing.  It means that glass swirling you practiced will actually be able to do something.  Winery wear may best be layered, like the flavors in the wine.

“Which wines are made with beer?” –  Maybe there are no stupid questions, but even my 5 year old granddaughter knows wine is made with fruit and beer with “not-fruit”.  Spend at least a little time and attention knowing that you are going to taste wine, why it tastes that way and why there are no Wine IPA’s.

“Wow. Does this horse have diabetes?” Part 1 – Not every wine you taste will be to your taste. It’s supposed to be that way.  The wines you like will be easily distinguished by those you do not, but the words to describe those differences will come later, sometimes much later.  In the meantime, save the disparaging comments for anyplace besides the winery; if it’s truly that odd, they already know you won’t like it.

“Wow. Does this horse have diabetes?” Part 2 – So it’s ok, even respected, to spit out most of the wine you taste.  Especially if you are having 2 ounces each of the twelve wines the winery has on offer.  Don’t get me wrong; when I am tasting Harlan or Quilceda Creek, I am not spitting out the wine; yet neither am I gulping it.  But here’s the point.  Spitting the majority of the wines you taste permits you to remember the ones you liked.  If I am at one of a few tasting appointments for the day, spitting the wines let’s me taste them and continue before my knees buckle and the gentle fog of inebriation renders them all distressingly similar.  Perhaps even more important is that inebriation removes the ability to whisper.  At any volume, incriminating drunk phrases escape the lips faster than the wine one shouldn’t have swallowed.  I know.  I can only hope that winemaker forgot me sooner than I forget my shock at my outside voice inside.

“Oh, am I in the way?” – Tasting room counters often host more people than can fit at them.  Once you and your group have your taste, move aside to enjoy the wine and let others or other groups up to bat.  Some of them may be unaccompanied wine writers who may have moved aside for your turn- who may be up for a conversation and maybe even help learn more about the wine than either of you knew.  And, it keeps the strain of jilted service away from the staff’s responsibility.

“How long is this tour?” – There seems to be one person in a group who could not care less about the winery, whether the charm of the alcohol has taken over(see above) or if someone just wants to get out of the ‘cold’(see above), there always seems to be someone who is more interested in the end of the tour than the way the sample in your glass arrived there.

Winemakers love to share why their liquid art studio produces unique art, don’t embarrass your friends by being the one who fails to get the point. 
With these reminders in hand, I hope to see you all out tasting wine, enjoying yourselves and making the world a better place for wine lovers and winemakers everywhere.  Please share this to make everyone’s wine world a little bit brighter!

A Tale of Two Champagnes: Roederer and Liebault-Regnie

It was the best of times. It was the most demanding of times. A recent foray through the region of Champagne demonstrated the prosperity and the divisions defining modern Champagne.

Liébart-Regnier makes what we Americans know as ‘grower Champagne’. The family has owned property and vineyard land for 8 generations, beginning to make their own wine in the late 1960’s. As a family, with a hired oenologist, they produce less than 60,000 bottles of Champagne every year across 10 styles or cuvées.

Alessandra Liébart-Regnier stands behind her crop in 2019.

Louis Roederer epitomizes a Champagne ‘house’, a conventional, large scale producer vinifying roughly 4 million bottles in a year across at least 9 styles or cuvées.

Aida presents the history and nobility of Louis Roederer and the family’s wines.

The great news for both of these produces is that demand for every level of Champagne’s price and production points is holding firm. The luxury drink market seems safe. Prices in Champagne for grapes, labor, machinery and bottles have not seen a dip in more than 6 years. The camps of itinerant workers harvesting the grapes have never looked as well-stocked with modern fifth wheel campers and the cars to pull them. It’s a good time to help pick grapes.

Motorized tractors lug the grapes up the steeper aspects of Champagne, but the picking is all human.

Despite positive cash flow, Champenoise are intrinsically nervous. Long production timelines, long distribution lines, sketchy growing conditions and fluid market conditions conspire to strain that same cash flow. Whether your winery is huge or tiny, large percentages are at stake every year.

Which may be why our hosts inquired after American tastes. The United States drinks the most Champagne, then Russia, then Britain – it has always been an export market symbolized in small ways like the anchor on labels of Veuve Clicquot. They are keen to know what we’re after.

An abundance of style.

Americans are pursuing both models for the time being. Louis Roederer makes capital-C Champagne, on the lighter side of texture and weight, with complexity, but with the comfortable, textbook, predictable demeanor. Open any bottle of Louis Roederer and I will happily drink it with you. While small producers make Champagne, as bubbly as any Grandes Marque, they know they cannot beat the large houses at their own game. So, they make capital-W wine.

Louis Roederer makes wine too, but the narrow scope of every large house’s wines is so narrow that they largely taste the same to most Americans.

Although they are very distinctive.

Small producers, growers, with the latitude and injunction to stand out, make distinctive drinks. Less predictable, yes. Less expensive, usually. Less quality, not usually. Less character, not by a mile, or a kilometer as it were.

Chandelier at Louis Roederer

Quick snapshots of the wines:
Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2012 was my favorite for the warm depth and range of the darker flavors for which Champagne is more than capable as it comes to room temperature. One of my companions preferred the Blanc de Blanc 2011 with its depth married to nervy minerality while the rest were enamored of the bright, brilliant and food-happy Rose 2013.

From Liébart-Regnier, the L’Instinct and L’Amelie provided the nearest bridge from conventional Champagne while the Arbane/Pinot Blanc/Petit Meslier blend was created from three lesser-known grapes allowed in Champagne and provided the unique, spicy, brilliant acidity and almond/brioche character at the “this is t for everyone” end of the spectrum. Open any of these wines, I will happily join you and we will have a memorable dinner!

A Tuscan Wine Experience: Antinori nel Chianti Classico

Sparking at the intersection of tradition and innovation…

Going on 50 years ago, the Marchese de Antinori rocked the Tuscan wine world by flouting tradition.
Today, innovation and tradition keep a rare and delicious correspondence in places like Antinori’s Chianti Classico estate; from the art to the architecture to the wine, it remains a distinctive place today.


Their international art resists definition – from spare biome globes to the spare rendition of the Resurrection on vinyl tarp to the 17th century oils and the line drawing miniatures of the Bacchae.
The building’s structure comes from three local materials: native oak, their Cortana steel/copper and the terra cotta. These comprise the voluminous 129,000 square foot, technologically advanced winery. Constructed into the side of a hill, it is nearly invisible, even from the air.


The Marchesi cultivates this balance of innovation and tradition as enthusiastically as his vineyards cultivate grapes balancing ripeness and acidity. The traditional grape varieties of Chianti alloy with international varieties in wines as diverse as the renowned Tignanello and the Chianti Classico. These foreigners lend bas relief of taste to the structure of the natives, a contrast that highlights the crisp acidity and lively (my guide called them ‘crunchy’) fruit and spice characters indicative of the region.


Yet, balance implies a simplistic quality, between ripeness and acidity or old and new or tradition and innovation; the deeper balance of dynamic elements winks out of these impressions from light, shadow and darkness.

Across Europe we celebrate the traditions of wine; we adhere to guarantee of the DOCg in Italy, entrusting their regulation to ensure the consistency of the next bottle, at least within the parameters of vintage. It has been this way for more than 100 years in Tuscany, less so in France but even longer in Spain, mainly to combat fraudulent copycats. Breaking these rules breaks faith, creates remarks. So in the celebration of the constancy of tradition, innovation always sparks attention.

Dynamism finds expression in the flexing terra cotta walls of the aging cellar, breathing with the seasons and the wine. It finds expression in the religious relics represented on modern materials adorning the aging room of the Vin Santo.

The massive winery appears as a topographical line from the air, a simple curve of architecture over vineyards from below, creating tension, space and wine where there was less before.

The place is like the wines, or vice versa.

This dynamism lives in the wines, new and old, light and concentrated, fresh and complex. The reds of Chianti mimic the best artistic tension; they pair with food to create something that was not there before.

What’s not to love here? The restaurant is mentioned by the Michelin guide, deservedly. The antique Tuscan art and terra cotta pieces adorn every architectural innovation. The hospitality is gracious and the wines express why the 12th century Baron Ricasoli thought this region deserved recognition and protection for its wine identity. For an authentic treat, try a bottle of Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva with some Wild Boar ravioli and Ragu!

The Community and Commandments of Taste

We taste from where we have lived. Each of us knows food differently because we come from different places, inhabit different spaces and have traveled off towards different horizons.  The contextual differences of everything from food choice to preparation methods to nationality influence diet – context defines diet.  Diet encourages discriminating – after all, we can’t eat it all.  Discriminating preference is taste, and it contains a few defensible universals:

  1. Taste forms from experience
  2. Taste anticipates
  3. “Taste” depends on what we smell
  4. Taste develops with attention
  5. Taste expresses individuality
  6. Taste exhibits culture
  7. Taste connects us
  8. Taste is our first religion

Taste tells the stories of ourselves.  Taste tells us the stories of our foods, our places and the combinations of ingredients and preparations that speak to us.  We change our grandmother’s recipes out of necessity or rebellion but always out of reaction to availability and the willingness to submit to the religion, or agnosticism, of the home kitchen.  Taste is the quintessential human trait.

We craft those stories from the desire to identify with some things and not with others.  The New World of ingredients offered us a way out of the tyranny of our forebears and we took it.  Europeans discovered potatoes, tomatoes and pasta in other lands – made them Italian in their combination of gnocchi and Primavera, exported them to the rest of Europe and the New World as representations of Italy.

The examples of the adoption of ingredients, preparations and foodstuffs are just one of the examples of the topics covered in this website.  We will travel to the source, to the center of diversity when possible to pry open the histories that have brought us to the edges where we may leap off again.

Which wine region has not made wine that reflects its place?  Which cultures do not identify themselves with the produce of their homeland?   Further, how do we read a menu like it was the story of a restaurant’s identity, and in what community of restaurants does it fit successfully?  What does it say about its community?

Aside from the principles of taste above, we explore the obvious greatness of taste in restaurants, books, wineries, cookbooks, distilleries and breweries the world over.  In every one we will find the comfort and the ridiculous of the local culture – that is, we will see ourselves.

Read on and comment if you like, dear reader, and we can begin the conversations that develop taste – proving we admire the beauty around us in many of its forms – and more every day.

1. Taste forms from experience

We like what we know, or more precisely, we prefer it.  Red licorice tastes nothing like black licorice, yet they are shaped the same way, textured the same way and referred to by only color difference.  Nonetheless, the experience of each tastes as different as horehound and apples.  If Mom or Dad provided lots of vegetables on the table for dinner, chances are you have a taste for many different vegetables.  Same for music.  Should your household have played Rock and Roll, you knew Elvis, The Rolling Stones and Sammy Hagar; if they played classical music, you knew Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, the veritable vegetables of a musical diet.  In experience, there is not a correct teacher, but a constant awareness that helps us prefer what we know, or think we know. In this, taste is memory itself.

2. Taste prejudges

My childhood was one of red licorice.  That is, I had never been exposed to black licorice.  In the anticipation of my first bite of the black version, I was hoping for something sickly sweet, maybe root beer or vanilla-esque in its impressions to match the sickly sweet chemically formulated berry-esque impressions of what I knew.  It could have been the paragon of black licorice and I still would have left it behind.  The bastards that stir raisins into Chocolate Chip cookie dough inspire similar cynicism and angst.  Expectation prestiges preference.  Disappointment colors judgment, and more importantly, long-term memory – to which smell is intimately linked.

 

3. Taste is really smell

In an ironic twist, our tongue plays the dumb organ while our nose translates thousands of impressions.  Our tongues are reputed to taste four things (but to be fair, the tongue also gets temperature and texture and others, even if some of those are the “chemical” temperatures of habanero or menthol.  “Our tongues are dumb” does not mean our noses are smart, but that they are more sensitive and highly impressionable to the two paragraphs above.  In a meaningful twist for pairing food with wine, our noses are personal/subjective while our tongues remain more universal/objective.  Tongues are nationalities, noses are fingerprints.  Like any good cannibal can relate, we all taste the same, but we all smell our own way.

4. Taste develops with attention

Do you live to eat or eat to live?  The question often posed by poor souls who believe attention to taste is the devil’s work.  If it were possible to disagree more, I don’t know how.  Being able to discern nuance in flavor does not make one ungrateful for nutriment but able to see the beauty, nay workmanship, in well-grown examples.  One version of this attention to the details of taste is documented in the voluminous wine tasting notes kept by 1000’s of aficionados on CellarTracker.com or the monumental tasting notes of a Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker.  It’s a way of remembering and honoring that which is worth attention.  The best part is that the ability to pay closer attention grows organically from the first attentions.  Some of us quietly keep our tasting notes in random journals and tasting sheets as they come, but also in our heads.  No matter how the reminders are there; reminders and testaments to the level of detail that separates one wine from another or one apple from another or one Jackson Pollack from another.   This discernment exudes value, perhaps the basis for being called paying attention.  At the risk of sounding maudlin, taste behaves like love, once spent, one earns the capacity for more.   The more aware of taste, the more taste-full one becomes – be it in art, perfume, food, music or emotion.

5. Taste expresses individuality

I don’t wear the same clothes you do; I don’t listen to “your” music or paint my toenails the same color(s).  My experience, expectation, ability to discern and remember those discernments causes me to choose a different response to a song on Pandora that reflects more closely who I am.  My taste reflects me and projects me – or at least the me I think I am.  We express ourselves in our language, our pets, our cars, our kindnesses and everything in which we are presented with a choice.  Where we don’t get a choice, we bounce off and move on.   Defining one’s taste happens progressively whether that taste is in baseball teams, books, cars or lovers.  It happens in one’s hairstyle, speech patterns and topics of conversation.  Messy hides it; tidy highlights it.

6. Taste exhibits culture

It is for a more philosophical place than this to decide which of these two principles of taste should have preceded the other.  Does the individual come first or does the culture that begat the person?    The tradition in which one grows and matures shapes one’s taste more than any other single influence.  Strapping wrestlers from the first Olympiad favored beef as a staple of the diet for the intensity it provided their muscles during their competitions.  Buddhists do not value wrestlers in the same way.   Taste exhibits tradition; the culture of one’s region that we cannot help but absorb – like a dialect or inflection in one’s speech that alters when emigrating.  This absorption and identification with various sets of contexts piece together the set of personal preferences and refinements we call taste.

7. Taste connects us

In the items and topics of our taste, we find others who share these preferences.  Knowing each other alters our taste, we each influence the other. In that community of two, there becomes a community of four and so on which continues to expand.  We can see the influence upon our friends and our family, witness their influence upon us.

We meet someone who collects the same comic books or likes the same film director and we bond to them more quickly.  We see each other dress in ways which attract or repel, invite or shield purely through style, color, material and context.

On the most base level, though it’s called taste, it is no more than chemical interaction and our ability to perceive it, even chemically and pre-consciously.  There are researchers who believe that the experience of this taste begins before we are born.  From a 2013 paper, Early Influences on the development of food preferences, Ventura and Worobey write, “The ability to perceive flavors begins in utero with the development and early functioning of the gustatory and olfactory systems. Because both amniotic fluid and breast milk contain molecules derived from the mother’s diet, learning about flavors in foods begins in the womb…”   Mom craved foods for us.  Whether we like those cravings today is up to dispute, but we influenced taste.

8. Taste is our first religion

And a primal one it is.  Religion, the word, draws its roots from the Latin.  The main root of the word forms from lig as in ligament, preceded by re- and finished with the state of being suffix -ion The state of being linked back. Religion connotes a faith in an organized and formal set of beliefs.  Do chefs and sommeliers behave this way in their restaurants?  (Yes.)  Before we can indulge the idea of organized religion like Christianity or Islam(much less their incessant variants), we know if we will eat carrots, hummus, figs or McDonald’s chicken nuggets.  We have a range of experience in taste from which we are offered, repulsed or attracted; we may indeed like other foods in the order of pickled beets or perhaps haggis yet have no exposure against which to test our taste.  In that which we have experienced firstpalate, empirical truth it becomes.  Taste is our first fundamentalism against which we are loathe to rebel, until rebellion means heroing progress, advancing sophistication or championing the places we want to go.  

Life delights in life.

William Blake offered, “Life delights in life.” We could simply amend it to summarize our experiences. “Taste delights in taste.” Thank you for reading, here’s to finding more more easily.

How to Become a Sommelier

It’s harder and easier than you think.

It’s harder and easier than you think.

Organolepts are people who use their sense of taste and smell to help navigate an industry. Coffee uses them. Perfumiers hire them. The FDA uses them to assess the impact of oil spills on the taste of seafood. If you do it for ice cream, you have the lowest life expectancy of all organolept careers. Cicerones do it for beer, Sommeliers do it for wine.

David Litt of Berkeley Science Review lists a dozen careers in food sensory analysis, and none of those jobs involve thirsty guests, standards of affability, twitchy managers, alcohol consumption or arcane knowledge of Italian labeling laws. “Tasting Panel Associate” has training requirements that are nowhere near as arduous as a Sommelier certification.

But, in truth, there are 6 relatively simple steps to becoming a Sommelier:

  1. TASTE – spit. Taste again. Spit again. Professionals spit because it concentrates experience without the fog of alcohol. If a professional tasting only had 10 wines offering an ounce each, one might make it swallowing the alcohol. The last professional tasting I attended had 48 wines; one would have had the equivalent of a bottle by the 24th wine – and as for remembering the last 5, impossible. Professionals endearingly compare it to fishing; we practice catch-and-release. PRO HINT: practice attention on the first, second and final taste impressions each wine carries – and notice if these change over the space of time the wine is being tasted.
Taste often.

2. TAKE NOTES – Even if it is one line of 8-10 words for each wine, it sticks the impression in the memory far better than no written notation of the wine. “Sour black cherry jam on toast” will bring the experience of that wine back to you quickly. Will your words work for others? Not at first – and that’s ok. Will you look like a dork at the tasting bar? Maybe, but you will have a far better idea of the wines’ applications, nuances and value than those who do not. PRO HINT: step aside while note-taking so that others may taste also.

A structured system will be easier to compare wine to wine.

COMPARE NOTES – Tasting in a group is the most efficient way to learn insights into wine’s impressions. If you are sipping your bottle of Cheval Blanc 1961 out of a styrofoam cup alone in a greasy diner, you can take notes and compare them to any one of a number of publications, websites like CellarTracker.com or WineSearcher.com to triangulate a rounder, more complete “taste-picture” of the wine than any one taster could ever accomplish. There are more sublime ways to taste old Merlot-based wine than aside a cheeseburger and onion rings and your tasting companions can help find them. PRO HINT: when reading a publication’s reviews, keep in mind if the review is formed by one individual or a committee for calibrating your opinion in relation to theirs.

Miles’ despair. (Sideways – Fox/Searchlight)

4. TRAVEL – By now, there are favorite wines in your repertoire. Go to the vineyard. Shake the hand of the winegrower. Taste the wines again in situ. Are they the same? Discriminate your own perceptions of the differences. Stand in the vineyard and just soak it in, the views, the smells, the somewhereness of it all. Well-made wine will remind you of the place, bringing it full circle and leave you wondering why more wines don’t do that. PRO HINT: Every offer to taste an older wine from the winery’s cellar is a huge compliment. It will offer unparalleled perspective to how their wines develop in bouquet, intensity, complexity and general appeal.

Irrigation lines, pruning techniques and climate are hard to understand from a book.

5. SHARE/TEACH – Just like comparing notes, teaching makes you vulnerable to learning more by pointing out the “taste topography” of a wine or taste combination. Other people will taste differently and share with you. Get a job doing it; this is the ultimate way of sharing. A job in a restaurant, bottle shop or tasting room is the fastest way to curate your own experience and expertise. Further, local community colleges, libraries and restaurants welcome an organizer to lead a wine experience. Even if you just learned the material, you will be ahead of the class. PRO HINT: Be aware of alternate spellings and pronunciations of wine grapes or regions, i.e. – Piedmont is Piemonte as easily.

Coeur d’Alene Cellars teaches local restaurant staff the finer points of wine.

6. REPEAT – The cycle is repeated by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine the world over. Taste, take notes, compare, travel and share. Each cycle has a broader reach than the last time around. PRO HINT: The secret 7th step is to ENJOY.

Taste, take notes, compare notes, travel, share, do it again and ENJOY!

Every cycle gets larger and more inclusive, able to talk to more people more easily about deeper segments of wine. The next best reward is to earn the confidence of a diner with enough speed to choose their dinner wine for them. The absolute best is when they return to have you do it again.

Do you have a story about becoming a Somm? Did I miss any steps?