Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Big Box Wine Retailers

Each sale of a heavily marketed branded wine from a supermarket is one less sale of a genuine terroir wine from an independent wine merchant.” -Jamie Goode aka The Wine Anorak

Happy holidays to my readers! Though I can only get away with saying that for another day or two!

This is the time of year for copious amounts of food, booze around of every corner, and lotsa parties. ‘Tis the season! December is a month where if you blink too fast, you might miss it. Time flies between work, office/client parties, family commitments, gift exchanges, potlucks, etc! Now is when you might find yourself with the need to purchase wine in quantity. Maybe you had a holiday party and you bought a couple mixed cases. Or maybe you need to buy a few bottles to give as gifts or to take to a party. You might be stocking up on bubbly for New Years Eve. The wine opportunities are endless in December. The question becomes, where do you get your wines for this gluttonous month? There are a few options (depending on where you live). These include: grocery stores, local wine shops, or big box retailers. This post will focus on big box wine retailers. They could include alcohol retailers such as BevMo! or Total Wine. Or they might include Costo, which is a big box retailer that carries wine. In my humble opinion, there are many problems with purchasing your wine at a big box retailer. I will highlight a couple issues below.

Problem #1: Big Box Retailers give a customer the illusion of choice

When you walk into a BBR (Big Box Retailer) you’re faced with wall to wall shelves of wine. So many choices you have! Or do you? I submit that you do not and that it’s an illusion-filled store of homogeneous wine. BBRs predominantly carry mass-produced wine, which is usually made by a commercial producer who purchases grapes en masse and makes wine on an industrial level. The wine has no sense of place (what we call terroir). More often than not, it is a “California Blend” or a “White Wine” or something of the like. If we’re talking about California wine at lower price points ($5-$10 retail), those wines will usually be chalk full of undesirable additives, chemicals, and/or preservatives, such as: commercial tannins, bentonite, flavor and color enhancing enzymes, carbon, synthetic polymers, and gum arabic. The wine is made to be approachable and pleasant (aka easy to drink). In wine geek terms, this means that the wine will be slightly sweet with a small amount of RS (residual sugar), have low tannins/acidity, and a lot of fruit on the nose and palate. Consequently, most all of these wines taste alike.

In essence, BBRs are warehouses of (generally) uninspiring, industrial wines. Note however, that BBRs carry high-end wines as well. These wines might be made well, however, they are still (usually) made in mass quantities. These are brands/labels that you see and recognize or that you would be proud to bring to a dinner party. Those wines also come with a cost. You can assume that a nice chunk of the price of that wine went to pay for their expensive wine-making facilities and towards the marketing of the brand.

Problem #2: Much of the price you pay is for the marketing of the wine, not the wine itself

With mass produced wine, part of the cost that you pay is the marketing budget. If you walk into a BBR and recognize a wine brand on the shelf, that has a cost associated with it. That company spent money to ensure that when you walked into the store, you would recognize their brand and purchase it. Some of these examples include: Yellowtail, Kenwood, Gallo, Blackstone, Sutter Home, Barefoot, etc.

Another cost is the promotion of the wine. Where is the wine placed in the store? At eye-level?  On an end cap?  Double exposed in the window and in an aisle? Many times the producer/distributor has to pay the BBR for desirable placement in their stores or in a print advertisement.

I don’t know about you, but when I spend $ on wine, I want it to be about the wine. I want to support someone who grows the grapes, who made the wine, and who believes in the art of wine-making. I want to support their livelihood.

I won’t share names, but I had a friend who worked (for a short time only) for a BBR. He was instructed to first ALWAYS recommend the wines that they direct imported. Forget if there was something else that worked better for what the customer wanted or that better fit within their budget. He had to be a puppet and recommend “their own” wines. So remember when I told you that you really don’t have more choices in places like this? This is what I mean. It’s an illusion.

This may seem like a bashing post on BBRs. In fact, it is not. This is my opinion on the shortcomings of shopping at a BBR. There are a lot of people who might live in small towns or who don’t have access to a local wine shop.  If you want to enjoy wine, you really don’t have a choice, and I understand that.  In that case, embrace the BBR. Be cautious with the “buy 3, get 1 free deals” or the recommendations from the staff. There is plenty of drinkable and enjoyable wine within those 4 walls….enjoy it, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

If you do have a choice, please support your local wine shop. They are everywhere….really, they are. Google it, check Yelp, post on Facebook, etc. I have been pleasantly surprised time and time again to find a wine shop in many small, unassuming towns across America. Those salespeople have no allegiance to any specific wineries, distributors, etc. The vendor reps aren’t going to give them free bottles for meeting sales goals, and they aren’t being held to a quota by upper management. The idea is that the selection in the store is pre-curated with only quality wines (note that quality does not mean expensive). The salespeople are truly there to help you and to demystify the process of purchasing wine.

Lastly, I want to quickly address the issue of price. A lot of people say that they shop at BBRs because it is cheaper. Is wine at a BBR really less expensive? Yes and no. Yes, many times you can find bottles cheaper at a BBR, than at an indy retail spot. BBRs may have paid less for the wine at wholesale (because of quantity discounts, which aren’t allowed in all states), and can thus offer better retail prices, promotions, etc.

I say: don’t buy those wines anyway! See above regarding mass produced wines. Yeah, you can probably get a bottle of Blackstone Merlot for $9 at Total Wine. But guess what, you can get a decent Italian Merlot at a local wine shop for maybe $11-$13. By doing that, you are probably supporting a smaller producer in Italy, who is making honest wines. And you’re supporting a small business in your community. Boom.

Happy New Year readers and thank you for allowing me to share my wine voice with you. I hope you have enjoyed my SOMMspirations…..wine inspirations from a sommelier.  Until 2016!!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Vintastic Voyage: Amador County and Los Olivos/Lompoc

Even though the month of October was filled with nonstop studying, I still managed to make some time to head to the local wine countries in the area. This is the beauty of California.....from pretty much about anywhere, you are usually no more than 2 hours from land under vine!  At first I thought I shouldn't spend these precious weekend hours away from my books and flash cards. Then I realized that getting out and tasting is as important as memorizing my flash cards.  I'm glad I did, as I explored two areas I was not familiar with.

Amador County
Amador is about 45 minutes Southeast of Sacramento. My husband and I were in the area visiting an old friend and her new family, and she wanted to show me their local wine country. Amador was beautiful. There are the typical rolling hills/vineyard views, but there is also a distinct outdoorsy feel. Almost as if you were not too far from a forest, or the mountains.  There are 40 wineries in the Amador area.   The area is known for Zinfanel and the Rhone varietals (Syrah and Grenache).  Lodi, the Zin capital, is not too far from Amador. We first stopped at a delightful little gourmet food spot called Andrae's Bakery. We picked up fresh sandwiches, sardines, and some sweets for lunch. They had a really nice selection of artisan food products to peruse through as well.

Our first stop was my favorite of the day, Andis Wines. Minimal/sustainable decor (versus the usually cluttered wine country tasting room).  A great selection of wines to taste. We were lucky, as we got to taste with one of the winemakers. A charming young guy from Kentucky.  We loved getting to know him and hear his story as to how he ended up in Amador. I found the wines approachable and enjoyable. Nothing too overly complex or sophisticated. And honestly, sometimes that's ok. I don't want to always have to work for my wine. Sometimes I just want something quaffable and tastes good.

Next up was Jeff Runquist Wines. The tasting room was really busy, as they were having some sort of a wine club event. Good wines here. Though nothing I opted to take home.   I find that if I am too distracted in a tasting room (i.e. with a big group of people, or the tasting room is busy on its own), that I have trouble really getting "into the zone" of tasting.  I feel distracted and unable to truly give my time to the wine.  In those times I just focus on the company that I am with, and try to not take the wines so seriously.

The last stop was Dobra Zemelja Winery, and what an interesting place that was. The tasting room was in a "cave" underground that was built by the former owners Milan and Victoria Matulich, of Croatia.  Milan was there in the tasting room, and we were lucky enough to have him guide us through the tasting. He was a great guy and we heard all kinds of stories of his colorful life. He grew up in Croatia, and my friend that I was with had spent some time in Croatia, as his father was in the military. The wines, on the other hand, were nothing to write home about, and at times, difficult to drink.  However, the focus was not on the wines.  It was in laughing and listening to Milan share his interesting life story!

Los Olivos/Lompoc
The next field trip was to the Los Olivos and Lompoc area. I went with a couple girlfriends of mine for a fun Saturday field trip, and the first stop was Andrew Murray Vineyards in Los Olivos where my one friend had to pick up a wine shipment of hers.  And let me tell you, their tasting room is stunning. We were lucky enough, as we got to taste in the private wine club area, which was beautiful. A clean, sleek aesthetic, yet it still had a comfortable living room feel.

Photo courtesy of : Andrew Murray Vineyards

We tasted quite a few wines there. I found them a bit hard to distinguish, and came to the conclusion that a lot of the wines were still too young to enjoy. They were a bit harsh and the tannins and acid were a bit out of whack. I predict that a good chunk of the wines we tasted could benefit from 2-5 years in the bottle.

Drinkability/ageability of wines, is something that I am slowly starting to understand and be able to apply in the real world. I used to determine the quality of a wine based solely on what I was tasting that day. What I have learned is that a key part of that assessment is "where is this wine in its life cycle today?" Is it too young to drink, just right, or is it past it's prime? If it is just right, will the wine improve with age in the bottle? Or is this the best it's going to get? If the wine is too young, when will be the prime time to drink it?

In addition to the wine tasting, we also did a truffle chocolate pairing that was delightful! The chocolates had some interesting flavors such as white chocolate rosewater and milk chocolate star anise.  I walked away from Andrew Murray with a bottle of 2013 Syrah Alisos Vineyard.  This was $36/bottle and only 400 cases were produced. My note was that this wine was a tannin bomb.  But I saw some potential for aging.  This wine is a cooler climate Syrah.  30% whole clusters were used in the fermenters, and a bit of Viognier is blended in.  This wine will hold in the cellar for a decade or more.

Choclate truffles paired with the wines

Our next stop was Industrial Eats in Buellton for lunch. I had gotten some recommendations from blogger friends who had eaten there when the Wine Bloggers Conference was in the area in 2014. It is exactly as it sounds...an industrial place too eat. A super cool aesthetic and plenty of seating, including a large communal table in the middle. We split a Margarita pizza and a Caesar salad that was to die for. Great food and good prices...I highly recommend it.

Industrial Eats, Buellton

Then we were off to the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  We were there on a Sunday, so quite a few of the tasting rooms were closed, which was a bummer. If you recall in an earlier blog post, I shared about Sashi Moorman (a Santa Barbara winemaker) who spoke to our class back in August. I loved his stories and values in regards to the wine business. He has his own winery in the area called Piedrasassi, and also makes wine for Stoplman Vineyards, both who have tasting rooms at the Ghetto.  Piedrasassi was closed, so we headed to Stoplman. One thing about the Ghetto is that it is a "no frills" kind of place. You literally feel like you are in an industrial/warehouse area that should not be open to the public.  The Lompoc Wine Ghetto is a community of urban winery tasting rooms in an industrial setting.  The first tasting room was opened in 2005 and now there are 26 tasting rooms onsite. It's not about hospitality there, it's about the wines. The gentleman who poured wines for us was a nice guy with a dry sense of humor. Stoplman had a range of very interesting wines in a no-frills setting. Unique blends and things such as a semi-carbonic Syrah and an unfiltered Rousanne. I would say that a good chunk of the wines we had here would greatly improve with bottle age. The tannins were a bit harsh and needed some time to mellow out. These were interesting wines...wines you have to work for. My friends didn't love the selection here...their palates are more accustomed to more approachable wines. And that is ok. The beauty about a wine country is that there is something for everyone. It's not about going to multiple tasting rooms and loving everything you try, it's about having an experience and seeing the multitude of wines that can be made in one area/region.

Our last stop was Ampelos Vineyard and Cellars, which was recommended by a cohort in my WSET class. They were the first biodynamic winery in the area. They definitely catered a bit more to the customers here. Multiple seating areas, a bar at which to taste, cheese/crackers available for sale, etc. The gals who worked there were cheery and had a decent amount of knowledge about the wines they were serving.

I hope you enjoyed this recap of my two most recent Vintastic Voyages.  Stay tuned for next week when I will discuss my opinions of Big Box Wine Retailers.  Right in time for Christmas!

Stoplman Vineyards at the Lompoc Wine Ghetto

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Please vote for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge!

Hello readers.  On Monday I published a post entitled "To Pair or Not to Pair, That is the Question".  This post was entered into the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge hosted by The Drunken Cyclist, a fellow wine blogger.  The topic is "pairing" and was selected by last month's winner, JVB Uncorked.  You can read his winning post HERE.

The instructions are simple:

1. Read my post HERE
2. Vote HERE
3. Wash, rinse, repeat!

Voting Begins: Tuesday December 8
Voting Ends: Monday December 14
Winner Announced: Tuesday December 15

Thank you for your support! Cheers!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

To Pair or Not to Pair, That is the Question #MWWC21

*This post is being entered in the Drunken Cyclist's Monthly Wine Writing Challenge. See more details here. The winner last month was Jim van Bergen of JVB Uncorked. He won with this post on the topic of “variety”.  Jim also selected the topic of “pairing” for this month’s challenge.  Enjoy!

**Please vote HERE!

“Pairing” is a very popular topic on wine blogs. This past month, every other blog seems to have a post on “Turkey Friendly Wines” or “Wines to Pair with your Thanksgiving Meal”, etc. Wine pairings are everywhere: wine pairing dinners at local restaurants, food pairing suggestions in an eblast from a local wine store, articles in food and wine magazines, etc. However, it is my belief that regular people don’t give two shits about wine pairings. This obviously does not include somms, people in the business, wine students, or aficionados. We (usually) do care. We understand how and why the Champagne brings out the briny, salty sea water in the oyster. We understand why a high acid pinot makes a nice foil to that piece of grilled salmon. When I dine out in my native Los Angeles, I love to read through the full food and wine menus to get a sense of what was going on in the minds of the chef and the somm when they created those menus. Why did they make the decisions they made? How do the wine selections complement the food and how can I maximize the relationship of the two (without breaking the bank)?

Newsflash: most people are more than happy to drink Yellowtail, Kenwood, Gallo, Blackstone, Sutter Home, Barefoot, etc. These all fall in that $5-$8/bottle sweet spot for grocery store wines. This, my friends, is most of America. They pop into the market to pick up fixins’ for dinner and grab the $7.99 bottle of red wine on the end cap of the wine aisle. Done. It was a 5-second decision that had nothing to do with how the wine would work with the fat content of the steak they were making. And I think that’s ok. I’m not gonna lose sleep over it. I’m not gonna hang my head in shame of my American wine-drinking brothers and sisters who ignore the ridiculous notion that food and wine must ALWAYS be consumed with the purpose of elevating the experience.

Everyone has a different experience with wine, and I can’t expect them all to be connoisseurs. That is one thing that I will call out some of my fellow wine bloggers and fellow wine students on: they focus too much on the high-end. Sure, good (and usually expensive) wine is awesome. There really is some insanely delicious stuff out there in the high-end market. But I find that the more people know about wine and study wine, they tend to leave behind the more “pedestrian” wines. There is something about drinking a light and refreshing Frascati out of a simple cup with a simple pasta dish while in Rome/Lazio. Or going over to a friends house for dinner and enjoying their favorite homemade comfort food dish with a cheap ass bottle of wine. Those are experiences and they are part of life. I don’t ever want to turn into that wine person who lambastes people’s choices of wine the second you leave their house, or who bad mouths their friend who served Cooks “Champagne” for their wedding toast. Wine is not as important to all people as it is to you. Get over it.

In my opinion, context is everything. For example, the other night I made a PB&J sandwich for dinner. Why? Because I was hungry, because I had nothing else in the house, and because I felt like it. I also drank a glass of bubbly with it. And it was fucking delightful. I didn’t consciously “pair” the sandwich to the bubbly (obviously). I just wanted both, and didn’t give a shit if it paired correctly or what people would think about it. On the other hand, I might cook a nice meal of chicken picatta on another night, and enjoy that with a creamy Carneros Chardonnay or a white Burgundy. Context.

The bottom line is that most of the time, I am NOT pairing my food and wine. Most of the time I eat what I want to eat and drink what I want to drink. Sometimes it’s just about what bottle we have open from last night and what protein is sitting on a plate defrosting in my fridge. It’s as simple as that.

Somehow this post ended up as a rant on some level...oops! But hey, sometimes you’ve gotta just voice your mind and live unabashedly. The more I learn about wine, the more I want to maintain my belief that Wine is Democratic. It is for everyone and meant to be enjoyed by everyone.

Monday, November 30, 2015

I'm Back!

I am writing this about 3 weeks after I completed a rigorous day of wine testing in early November. For the first time in a couple months, I feel like I have a life! Before the test I was studying 2 hours every day before work, any evenings I was free, and one full weekend day each week. And the crazy part is that you're studying an insane amount of information, and only a tiny piece of that information would appear on the exam.

The exam consisted of 3 separate tests covering two different units. Unit 1 is the Business of Wine and Spirits. The exam portion of that unit consisted of a case study in which you had to write a timed essay on the riveting topic of supplier/retailer relationships. The average pass rate of the case study over the last 5 years is 75%. Unit 5 is Sparkling Wine. There were two exams associated with that unit. One was a blind tasting of 3 sparkling wines. We are tasked to assess the wines using the SAT (Systematic Approach to Tasting) as well as to draw conclusions about the wines (i.e. what winemaking style was used, country of origin, grapes used, quality assessment, age, etc). I will say that we got lucky as hell. One of the wines was a sparkling red, which can only be one of two things: a Lambrusco or an Aussie sparkling Shiraz. Once you determine what wine you're working with (in our case it was the Shiraz) the tasting notes are a piece of cake. So I felt very strongly about that one. The other piece of the exam was 3 short essays. This is where all that studying came in. You spend tens of hours studying sparkling wines from around the world, yet only three highly specific topics are asked. Kinda crazy. Unit 5 has had an average pass rate of 80% over the last 5 years.

Studying for these exams was intense. For tasting study, it involved a lot of tasting groups with my classmates. This allows you to taste a large number of wines for a small price, versus buying the bottles individually. There would usually be 12-15 of us (there are 18 people in our class) tasting on a Sunday afternoon. We'd have our instructor or someone at our local wine shop pick out 12 sparkling wines. We'd brown bag them all and spend about an hour and a half tasting the wines on our own and writing our tasting notes. At the end, we'd do a grand reveal to see how we did, and then spend some time talking about the doozies or sharing how we got to our conclusions. The cost to taste the 12 wines was usually $20...not bad!

One of our tasting group lineups.

Study group in full effect.

We also did a couple study groups for the case study. We had the topic ahead of time (but not the exact questions), so we could talk about the history of supplier/retailer relationships, examples of good or bad relationships, and also share our resources.

Studying for the sparkling wine theory exam was more of an individual task. I spent hours reading our WSET study guide, reading prior exams, and reading the "Bubbly Bible", which is Tom Christie's Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine. As per usual, the Oxford Companion to Wine was sprinkled in as well! I started with flash cards on topics such as: the traditional method (i.e. pressing, riddling, second fermentation, etc), champagne regions, key producers, key regions, etc. As I got closer to the exam, I needed to see the information presented in a different way, so I took my flash cards and turned them into huge handwritten posters. The running joke was that our house started looking like the crazy guys house in A Beautiful Mind. It literally looked like a crazy person lived there with all my huge posters plastered on every wall! No joke, I started dreaming about Champagne pruning methods. It was intense.

Once the exams were over, I made the decision to take the month of November off from studying. My mind definitely needed a break. This is perfect timing because I love Fall/Winter and the Holidays, so it's a nice time to start to slow down and enjoy each day. In December I will spend time working on my Course Work Assignment, which is a research paper on the topic of wine brands. That is not due until the beginning of April. However in January we are starting up with Unit 4: Spirits, and it will be nice to have the bulk of my CWA research done and only have to focus on perfecting the draft in the new year. The Spirits exam comes up quickly in early March.

One funny thing that people kept asking me as I was studying this last month is: so are you drinking A LOT of wine? The answer is NO! In our tastings, we're not drinking, we're only tasting and spitting. And with as much studying about wine I was doing, the last thing I wanted to do was drink wine! When I'm reading about mineral contents of the soils of Champagne, fermentation temperatures, and the effects of uninoculated yeasts, all I could do to stay sane was drink a Cosmo. The studying does sometimes take out the romance out of the wine, which I think would make a great topic for a future post.

The next post coming up will be a recap of a couple Vintastic Voyages I took over the last couple months: Los Olivos up in the Santa Barbara area, and Amador County near Sacramento. Part of my goal as I work through this two year process of the WSET Diploma, is to become more familiar with the wine regions in my own backyard. Specifically throughout California.  Stay tuned as I take my studying out of the glass and into the vineyards!


Monday, October 5, 2015

It's Not You...It's Me

Getting Ready for a Sparkling Tasting Group
Hello readers!  As some of you may have noticed, my blogging has slowed down significantly over the last month or so.  I am coming up against one of the most challenging pieces of the Level 4 process.  On November 4, I have not one, but two exams that day.  The first exam will be an essay question/case study for Unit 1: The Business of Wine & Spirits.  In this exam I will have 65 minutes to write about 5-6 pages on a specific topic. The second exam will be on Unit 5: Sparkling Wine.  I will have 3 wines to blind taste and 3 short essay questions to answer. The short answers could be on ANY topic related to sparkling wine throughout the world, i.e. yeast autolysis, Vallee de la Marne, Cava, or blanc de blancs.  As you can see, I have a lot to cover in order to be prepared for that day!

I know the main purpose of this blog is for me to share my journey as I go through Level 4, however, I have decided that my studying takes precedence and I need to honor that time for this short window.  With a full-time job and studying, my schedule is packed!  Thank you for understanding.  My goal is to bring you relevant, interesting, and informative content, and I will get right back to that after November 4.  One post that I'd like to get up by the end of the year is a post about LA's Best Wine Shops. I have some gems that I'd love to share with you all!  Take care and wish me luck!!  Until November!

Continue to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, as I will be active!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Final Finger Lakes Recap

Day 2 at the Wine Bloggers Conference was also a whirlwind. Check out my post HERE for a rundown of Day 1. I am happy that I did allow myself some time to walk around and explore the town of Corning (see more HERE). I can’t reiterate what a charming and welcoming town it was. In my opinion, Corning was the PERFECT backdrop and host to #WBC15. Here are my most important takeaways from Day 2.

The first session I attended was “Digital Marketing for Wine Bloggers”, which was presented by Gary Nealon (co-founder of Wine Trail Adventures). This session had the most information packed into it. So much so that the presentation could easily have been 4 hours long and gone in depth into each point. One of the first nuggets he shared is that advertising is the least effective way to monetize a site. I have heard variances of this in my online research regarding blogs. Those who have blogs who are able to turn a good income with ads will disagree, but I feel that those people are fewer and far between. I have a full-time job and squeeze my WSET studying and my blogging on the side. I don’t feel that I have the time and energy to expend on trying to monetize my site (at the moment). My focus is to study and learn about wine, develop my writing skills, and craft my wine voice. In regards to social media, Gary shared that bloggers should focus on Periscope and Instagram. Facebook and Twitter still hold their place, but Instagram is the big boy in the room, and Periscope is growing by leaps and bounds.

One of my favorite sessions was the Panel of the 2015 Wine Blog Winners. It was such a diverse group of people. You would think that if we’re talking about wine blogs, that the blogs would be similar OR that the people who wrote them would be similar. That was NOT the case. Probably the only thing they have in common is that they write a wine blog. Here is a quick nugget about each of the award-winning panelists.

**Chris Kassel of The Intoxicology Report shared something basic: have fun and let it flow. His viewership is mostly people who don’t know a lot about wine. In fact, the tagline on his website is “The Contra-Connoisseurs Guide to Wine, Beer, Spirits, & Other Things the World Got Right.”

**Jason, affectionately known as “Stub” pens Cork Envy. Cork Envy is a video blog whose viewers are mostly non-educated wine people.

**Meg Houston Maker is a writer at Maker’s Table. She started the blog to chronicle her food and wine journeys. According to Meg, her job is to bring the joy of this beautiful farmer product (wine). Wine, Meg said, is the jewel of the meal.  Well put.

**Will Fernandez is responsible for Vintage 2014. This is a crowdfunded project that follows a Santa Barbara vine from budbreak to bottling. The blog is a time capsule of that vintage, and he has now turned it into a documentary. What I found interesting, is that the documentary is broken down into 3 parts, and there are wines that are meant to be served between each part at the screenings.  In essence, this is an interactive wine film screening. Brilliant.

**Becca Yeamans is the Academic Wino. Becca writes about wine science (which might sound a little daunting to some), yet her site garners 7K-9K unique page views/month. Kudos to her….those are some great numbers.

The last WBC15 session I attended was the Live Rose/Red Wine Blogging. You might recall my post earlier about the Live White Wing Blogging. These are a ton of fun. We are all sat at round tables in groups, and the winemakers each spend 5 minutes at a table pouring and talking about the wine. Within that 5 minutes, we also have to taste the wine and post our tweets. Then the winemakers move to the next table, and the process continues. All in all, you taste 10 wines in 60 minutes. Below are my posts for that session. Enjoy!

Brianne Cohen ‏@SOMMspirations Aug 15

JR Dill Winery 2013 Cab Sauv green bell pepper on the nose. Lotsa tannins and black fruit. Re-visit in 5-8 yrs. #WBC15

@ssvny Saperavi grape. OG Georgia grape. Purple color and dirt/forest floor on the nose. Black fruit and inky. Viscous in my mouth. #WBC15

@foxrunvineyards dark berry on the nose (currant/blackberry). Lovin Lemberger here in #flx. #blackgrape #helloacid #WBC15

@VentosaVyds 2011 Cab Franc. "A reliable grape in this area. Be friends with the vines"#acid #tannins

@DamianiWine '12 cab franc a taste is worth 1000 words.pepper,cedar,blkberry on the http://nose. Love this.Elegant & integrated.#WBC15

@LamoreauxWine only unoaked cab franc.Fresh, light,the earth shows through.

@joshlikeswine described it as charming.I agree #WBC15

@Hazlitt1852 red blend.warm baking spices on the nose. Chocolate and jamminess on the palate. #WBC15 #tannins

@IdolRidge sparkling rose make from Noiret, a new hybrid. Bright strawberry. Forced carbonation. Interesting stuff here up in #flx! #WBC15

@SwedishHillWine '12 cab franc/Lemberger herbaceous nose. Unassuming yet straightforward. #wbc15

@AmericanaWine BacoNoir-French Amer hybrid unoaked. Smells like #flxwine and red fruit. An inviting red. #gateway #WBC15

The second I tasted that last wine, I grabbed my suitcase (which I had stashed in the corner of the ballroom) and wheeled right into a taxi to the airport. It was an incredible 2 days and taught me SO much. The Wine Bloggers Conference helped me get clarity on why I am doing a wine blog and allowed me to meet people who I admire and respect. Overall I left with a sense of gratitude that I am in a position where I am healthy, have a good career, and am doing something I LOVE...just because. Pursuing my wine studies and writing this blog is a privilege, and I am glad to have the opportunity.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

One Down, Five To Go!

Before I get to the final recap of my Wine Bloggers Conference trip to the Finger Lakes (post to follow on Tuesday!), I have some great news to share. I passed my first somm exam of the WSET Level 4 Diploma program! Over the course of 2 years, I have 6 exams to pass, corresponding to 6 different units. We began with Unit 2, which is viticulture and vinification, and this is the exam that I just passed. Currently we are working on both Unit 1 (The Business of Wine and Spirits) and Unit 5 (Sparkling Wines) concurrently. The exams for both units are on November 4. It will be a busy day of tests, and I will share more as my studies continue! Thank you readers for all the support and encouragement.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Wine Bloggers Conference: Day 1

Veraison at Chateau Frank

Happy Labor Day weekend to my SOMMspirations readers! I’m enjoying a long weekend filled with wedding festivities (congrats Jon and Mel!) and the beach!  Before I delve into my recap of Day 1 in the Finger Lakes, I’d like to give everyone an update on my WEST studies, as a lot has transpired in the last couple of weeks.

As you all know, I am currently enrolled in the WSET Diploma Level 4 program. It is a two year course that consists of A LOT of studying (600 hours over 2 years, to be exact) and a series of exams over 6 units of study. On August 23rd I took the first exam, a 100 question multiple choice format, with the subject being: viticulture (the growing of grapes), vinification (the making of wine), maturation, and bottling. I can report that it was a TOUGH test, which threw me a bit. This exam has an average pass rate of about 90%, so there is a good chance that I did pass. But I am not 100% certain that I did...fairly certain, yes...100% certain, no. I should have my results in about a week or so, and will share with everyone once they come in! Looking forward, I have a full day of exams coming up on November 3rd: a blind tasting of 3 sparkling wines, a long-essay case study (the topic has not been released yet), and a few short answer questions on sparkling wines. More info to follow!

Back to the Finger Lakes! To start Day 1, the Wine Bloggers Conference opened with Karen MacNeil as our keynote speaker. MacNeil, the author of The Wine Bible, is the most authoritative American woman in the world of wine. MacNeil is a very poised and confident speaker. She has a sense of calm and beauty about her that translates in everything she says. MacNeil imparted her words of wisdom to us bloggers, who soaked it up like little sponges. She urged us to think through our story and develop our own style. Voice, she said, is not as important as style. I am not in 100% agreement on this, as I think when you get started, your voice is something that needs to be developed and honed in on. As a blogger, I am still trying to define my voice in this wine blogging world. Simultaneously, I am working on maintaining a style as well, but for me, I find voice to be tantamount to style. She also told us to agonize over our writing. MacNeil is a perfectionist and this is not a secret. You can tell in the way she carries herself and in how she speaks (in person, as well as in her writing). Your writing will live out there in the world with MANY other pieces of work. With that many options for people to choose from, yours must be of quality. Also, you must tell your story, she said, don’t just write it. Anyone can write or recount a story, but not all can TELL a story. You must know wine deeply. Wine, she said, should never be stripped of its culture. For example, there is no way to understand Malbec, if you don’t understand tango. That sums up how I feel about wine. There is SOMETHING about wine that is more than just fermented grape juice in a bottle. Wine is a story and is constantly evolving.

The next session was an “Introduction to the Finger Lakes Wine Country” panel. The panelists included: Alan Lasko, a fruit crop physiologist from Cornell University, Christopher Bates, a somm, chef, and winemaker at Element Winery, and Fred Merwarth, the owner, winemaker, and vineyard manager at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard. This panel was particularly interesting to me because I knew almost nothing about the Finger Lakes to begin with. Some interesting facts I learned were that the Lakes exist because of ancient glaciation in the region, the lakes are very deep (Seneca Lakes at 650’ is the deepest), and that winemaking here is VERY difficult due to the climate, which can be extreme and unpredictable. The message that all the panelists conveyed was that those who come to the Finger Lakes to make wine, do so because they want to take on a challenge. Winemakers come to NY to become better winemakers, because it is not easy here. You have to work to make good wine here. Chris Bates, the only MS in the world who has presided over a kitchen, shared a strong message with us. He wants to get Finger Lakes wine out of the Finger Lakes. Most of the local wine is consumed here. The problem is that people outside of the NY do not know much about Finger Lakes wine because they are rarely exposed to it. His approach is to allocate a large chunk of NY wine to the state, but to also allocate a portion to other states so that people can get more experience with it.

The next part of the day was one of my favorites. We had an opportunity to taste 10 local Finger Lakes wines (all whites) in 60 minutes and live blog/tweet about them. You can imagine that we had some pressure on us. For one, we had such little time to taste, collect our thoughts, and to post. Also, we had to do this with the winemakers standing in front of us! We were all seated at round tables with our wine glasses and ipads ready. One winemaker started at each table and we had a total of 5 minutes to: hear about the wine, pour the wine, and tweet about the wine. Once the 5 minutes ended, the winemakers rotated tables.  It was a wine whirlwind, yet I loved every minute! Here is one of my tweets from that session:

Brianne Cohen ‏@SOMMspirations Aug 14
Starting with @DrFrankWine. Riesling Cremant. Dry bready nose. Green apple and white flowers. A nice Wednesday night bubbly. #wbc15

In case you thought that was the end of the day, you’re wrong! We still had a Finger Lakes excursion on the agenda. A bank of buses met us at the hotel and we had to jump on board one of them to find out where we were headed. Every bus had a different itinerary, which we did not know ahead of time. I was lucky, because in my opinion, I hopped on the best bus! We headed to a couple Keuka Lake wineries including Chateau Frank and the Pleasant Valley Wine Co. We first stopped at the sparkling winemaking facilities of the Frank family, Chateau Frank. Dr. Konstantin Frank was a Ukranian immigrant with a PhD in viticulture who came to the US in the early 50s. Dr. Frank is credited as one of the first people to successfully grow vitis vinifera grapes in the NE United States. We received a private tour by Fred Frank (Konstantin’s grandson) who now runs the family business. It was an incredible experience as we were in the private areas where the Chateau sparklings are made, in a beautiful building that is over 100 years old. We also had the opportunity to meet Fred’s daughter, Meghan, who is poised to take over the business as the 4th generation winemaker in the family. While there we enjoyed some sparklings from Chateau Frank, Ravine’s Wine Cellars, and Heron Hill Winery; all while overlooking the beautiful Keuka Lake at sunset. The setting was idyllic. I even walked over the vines and saw a lovely example of veraison in full effect (see picture above).
Riddling at Chateau Frank

View of Keuka Lake from Chateau Frank

The afternoon was complete once we made our way to Pleasant Valley Wine Company (aka Great Western Winery). Fun fact: Pleasant Valley Wine Co. is the oldest bonded winery in the United States, and their stone buildings onsite are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We had a very memorable dinner at the estate in a beautiful, old cellar room. Our dinner was served and paired with wines from Dr. Frank and Ravine’s. It was a lovely evening as we were all seated with local winemakers and winery representatives and were able to get very intimate with the wine and hear even more about the Finger Lakes region. Overall, it was a very special trip and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to explore the Finger Lakes region, if only for a few hours. The love of the region by the winemakers is palpable. Finger Lakes is making honest, regional wines, and I am more than happy to support them!
Great Western Winery Champagne upon arrival!

Stay tunes for my next post, which will document Day 2 of my Finger Lakes trip to the Wine Bloggers Conference. Have a wonderful Labor Day!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Farewell Finger Lakes!

Keuka Lake
If an award was given for the most shit done in 48 hours, I might win! Well, me and the 200 other bloggers who descended on the Finger Lakes wine region of New York this past weekend for the Annual Wine Bloggers Conference. I was only able to attend two full days of the event, due to another pre-planned trip that cut this trip short, but of the 48 hours I spent in the Finger Lakes, approximately 30 of those hours were spent tasting, engaging in wine education, enjoying food & wine pairings, and networking. I am flippin' exhausted as I sit on this flight from DTW (Detroit) to LAX (this is a bit delayed, as I flew home on Saturday night). I'm actually a bit WINEd out, dare I say. And consequently, I'm having a margarita in defiance!!

First things first, there was no hazing or getting jumped into the group as I predicted in my earlier post! I was "forced" to brand my body with a winery tattoo at an UNofficial after party, but that ain't no thang! KIDDING.....it was a temporary tattoo from Solena Estates. They were tasting some LOVELY wines in a private suite along with Hyland Estates. All kidding aside, I was welcomed with open arms by every single person I met. What a great group of people! It's ironic that as bloggers and social media mavens, we can all sit with our faces in our phones, iPads, and laptops MUCH of the time getting work done, taking notes, generating content, or engaging with our audiences, yet we are all able to look up and connect with the person sitting next to us and actually have some fun and engaging conversations. This is a STELLAR group of people, and I am honored to be in their company.
Solena Estates vino and tattoo!
We were in the Finger Lakes wine region, but Ground Zero for the conference was the Radisson in Corning, NY. Can I tell you something? Corning is one of the most adorable and quaint towns I have ever visited in the U.S. It is a modest town of 11,000 residents and they all welcomed us with open arms. The "main drag" in Corning is Market Street, which is about 5-6 blocks long. Pretty much anything one needs could be found on this street! I grabbed early morning coffee and breakfast at Soul Full Cup Coffee House, took home some local wines from the Bottles & Corks wine shop, and brought back an amazing coconut balsamic vinegar from the Crystal City Olive Oil. That stuff is going to be KILLER drizzled over grilled prawns and basmati rice! We also had a reception at the Rockwell Museum that showcased American art, while we simultaneously enjoyed a local folk band and sampled many different wines from New York State. It was a very well curated event. Shoutout to Emily at the museum, who I met and shared a bit with me about the Rockwell! I missed the two trips to the Corning Museum of Glass, which apparently is the highlight of the town! Did you know that most of the glass used for TVs and smart phones in the U.S. is from Corning?? Who knew!?!
Centerway Square in Corning, NY

I wanted to share with my readers this little taste of what my last couple of days have been about. Over the next week or so, I will organize my thoughts (and catch up on my sleep) in order to prepare a couple posts for the blog. I want to thoughtfully share with you my overall thoughts on the Finger Lakes as a wine region, and also share with you about our excursion to the wineries themselves and our visit to the actual lakes.

Before I go, let's acknowledge and thank rest of the sponsors of WBC15. In THIS pre-conference post I thanked the Elite and Grand sponsors. Below are the remaining sponsors. With their support, Citizen Bloggers like myself can afford to attend this conference.

Premier Sponsors-Jordan Winery, Keuka Lake Wine Trail, Villa Trasqua, Beverage Trade Network, Crunchmaster, Montefalco Consortium, Salton Winery, Wines of South Africa, The Tasting Panel, Coravin, Lodi Wine, I Love New York

Event Sponsors-Lieb Cellars, Wines of Ontario, Spirited Shipper, Wine Trail Adventures, nomacorc, Brix Chocolate

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Greetings from Finger Lakes!

Greetings from Corning, New York! After a long day of travel, I have arrived at the Wine Bloggers Conference. Now, I am a newbie as this is my first WBC and let's hope I don't need get jumped in or hazed! Since I landed, I will be busy busy busy in breakout sessions, wine tastings, keynote speeches, winemaker dinners, networking opportunities, etc. Below is a sneak peek into my schedule over the next 48 hours:

Thursday August 13

7pm-9pm Registration & Welcome Reception at the Riverfont Centennial Park (Keuka Lake Wine Trail tastes, small plates from local restaurants, and live music)

Here is a sneak peak at the beautiful sunset in Corning today.  This was my view as I walked to the opening reception.  Gorgeous.

Friday August 14
9:30am-10:30am Keynote Speaker (Karen MacNeil: author of The Wine Bible)
10:30am-11:30am Introduction to the Finger Lakes Wine Country panel
11:30am-1:30pm lunch and Expo
1:30pm-2:30pm Wine Discovery Session (Riesling-King of the Finger Lakes) & Tasting
2:45pm-3:45pm Wine Tasting with LIVE blogging and tweeting (it's like speed dating, but for wine! 10 winemakers have 5 minutes each to pour and tell us about their wine; we are expected to live tweet as we taste!)
4:15pm-9pm Finger Lakes Tasting Excursion (we'll be hopping on buses and spending 5 hours exploring the Finger Lakes Region)
9pm Wines of New York! Tasting and Reception at the Rockwell Museum (New York wines, sweet treats, live music, and art)
11pm Jordan Winery After Hours

Saturday August 15
9:15am-10:15am Breakout Session TBD
10:30am-11:30am Breakout Session TBD
11:30am-1pm Lunch with the Seneca Lake Winery Association
1:15pm-2:15pm Wine Discovery Session: Wines Across the Andes
2:30pm-3:30pm Panel with the 2015 Wine Blogger Award Winners
3:30pm-4:30pm Wine Tasting with LIVE Blogging and Tweeting
6pm flight back to LA!

LOTS of fun stuff...I'm exhausted just looking at it. And I know you're wondering how does one go about drinking so much wine in one day and not be totally drunk! When you are tasting this much wine, you're doing just that....tasting. No one in their right mind is going to actually swallow/drink the wine throughout the day. We'll be sipping the wines, swirling them in our mouths, and then spitting. I know to some, this is sacrilege, but 'tis the life of a somm!

Watch my social media feeds over the next 48 hours for sneak peeks into the conference, updates, and fun pictures. You can sign up to follow SOMMspirations on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest to the right! Upon my return to LA, stay tuned for a two-part recap of the conference. I'll have lots of fun information, tips, pictures, and tasting notes to share!

Before I go, let's acknowledge and thank some of the sponsors of WBC15. With their support, Citizen Bloggers like myself can afford to attend this conference.  Thank you!

Elite-Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, Corning Enterprises, and Elmira Corning Regional Airport 

Grand-Seneca Lake Winery Association, Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, The Corning Museum of Glass, Banfi Vinters, Montes Winery, Kaiken Winery, Ribera y Rueda, Wordpress.com, Wines of Alsace, Corning's Gaffer District, The Rockwell Museum, New York's Finger Lakes Region, Bottlenotes, Ribera del Duero and Rueda, New York State, SCIDA.

Off to bed for the night!  It's well pass midnight here in Corning and I have a FULL day tomorrow.  As you already know!

Monday, August 10, 2015


Why does wine give me a headache? Why does my tongue tickle when I drink red wine? These are a couple of the questions that I hear over and over. When I used to work at a wine bar, I heard the “headache” question incessantly. I am lucky enough to not have these #WINEPROBLEMS, but I want to address them for those that do.

First of all, let’s be real, most “wine” headaches are really just alcohol headaches. As we all know, our body has to metabolize alcohol. We feel great when we drink in moderation, make sure that we consume enough water, and eat a full meal. There is nothing better than waking up after a night out and feeling great. You were smart….like a real adult...balanced your alcohol consumption with water and did not make the novice mistake of forgetting to eat. <high five!> I chuckle inside when I hear someone tell me that wine gives them a headache. I ask how much they drank and they’ll say something like “oh, I had 5 glasses, but I drank a lot of water”. Ok, so you drank an entire bottle of wine to yourself and you wonder why the hell you have a headache?? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to come to the conclusion that you drank too much. I’d say the good majority of people who say “wine gives me a headache”, were really just drunk and have a hangover or an overhang (my term for the hangover before you even go to bed).

Aside from that, here are some other reasons why wine MIGHT make you feel crappy.

Wine is an allergen. An allergen is a substance that can cause allergic reactions. The big 8 in the food allergy world include: wheat, soy, nuts, shellfish, fish, peanuts, eggs, and milk. However, virtually any ingested substance is capable of giving someone an allergic reaction, and that includes wine. In conjunction with allergens, we discuss histamines. A histamine is a chemical found naturally in foods that can be released when you have an allergic reaction and can cause itching, sneezing, or wheezing. If you get an itchy throat or a tickle in your throat when you drink wine, this could be why. It (usually) doesn’t mean that you can’t drink wine at all, just that you need to consume in moderation. Also, pay attention to what type of wine gives you this reaction. It may be just red wines.

Another culprit for headaches from wine can be tannins. Tannins are found in the skin, seeds, and stalks of a grape as well as in the oak barrels used during fermentation and maturation. Tannins are what gives body and color to a red wine. Note that there are no tannins in white wines (unless they were aged in oak). A tannic wine gives you a drying sensation in your mouth. Another way to “feel” tannins is to do this fun experiment with tea. Brew a cup of black tea. Take the tea bag out of the cup and let it cool a bit. Insert the tea bag in your mouth and push down a bit and remove the bag. Your mouth should feel VERY dry as if the saliva was sucked out of it. THAT drying sensation that you feel are tannins. Brewed tea leaves are VERY high in tannins.

Sugar. We all remember being inexperienced drinkers when we were young and throwing back all those nasty sugary drinks in massive quantities. The combination of too much alcohol and sugar can definitely give you a headache. So maybe you’re new to drinking wines and only like sweet wines (i.e. a sweet Riesling, Moscato, or other dessert wines)? You can bet your bottom dollar that if you drink a lot of sweet wine, a headache is in your future. Also, very inexpensive table wines tend to have additional sugar and other additives added to the wine. This is both to please the “sweet” palate of many Americans and also to aid in fermentation if inferior grapes were used to begin with.  So if you find yourself drinking a lot of really, really cheap wines (i.e. Franzia boxed wine, jug wines, $5 and under wines, etc), chances are there is a decent amount of residual sugar (and other gross crappy additives) in those wines, which could be causing your headaches.

Lastly, I’d like to debunk the myth that sulfites can cause headaches. Yes, sulfites are an allergen (refer to the allergen paragraph above) and can cause a stuffy nose and allergic reactions, BUT, they don’t cause headaches. ALL wines contain sulfites, whether they are naturally occurring, added manually, or both. And for the record, a can of tuna or a package of dried fruit contains a lot more sulfites than are in a bottle of wine. If you are a severe asthmatic, then you need to be careful with sulfites, but for the rest of us, sulfites are rarely a problem.

Hopefully this post helped to answer some of your questions about #WINEPROBLEMS. Remember, drink in moderation and drink a glass of water in between every glass of wine. Yes, you’ll go to the bathroom a lot, but you’ll feel good and have no headache or hangover!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Up Your Wine Game: How do Bubbles Get in Bubbly?

Most people can wrap their heads around how alcohol is made. It’s a simple fermentation process. Yeast converts sugar (i.e. grape juice) into alcohol (i.e. wine). Bada-bing, bada-boom, you have yourself some vino. If we’re talking about spirits, a distillation process happens after the fermentation, but that’s a different blog entry!

I have always LOVED bubbly. All kinds of bubbly: serious champagnes, nutty Cavas, or fruit-forward Prosecco. Team bubbly all the way. As a novice wine drinker a few years back, I did always wonder how the hell the bubbles got into the bubbly and how the bottles literally didn’t explode from the pressure. Well, here are the steps to get bubbles in bubbly. What I’m going to explain to you is the “traditional method” or the “methode champenoise”. This style is used in Champagne, Cremants in France, and with Cavas from Spain.

Step 1: a still, dry base wine is made (usually in stainless steel tanks) as described above (fermentation: yeast converts sugar into alcohol). If you were just making regular non-sparkling wine, you’d be done. This is the basic process that is done day in and day out to make still wine.

Step 2: That wine is then bottled. After the wine is put in the bottle, additional sugar and yeast (i.e. the liquer de tirage) is added for a second fermentation to take place IN the bottle. A closure is added to the bottle. The 2nd fermentation creates carbon dioxide (CO2) inside the bottle as the yeast is eating the sugar. This CO2 has nowhere to go and essentially carbonates the wine and creates bubbles!

Step 3: During this time period yeast autolysis takes place. Yeast autolysis is when the dead yeast cells (i.e. lees) breakdown in the wine. These dead yeast cells impart what are called autolytic flavors. This is pretty much what makes Champagne taste like Champagne. The flavors include: yeastiness, toasty flavors, biscuit flavors, and doughiness. The length of time the wine is spent sur lie (i.e. resting on the lees) is determined by how much of these autolytic flavors the winemaker desires. It can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few years!

Step 4: next is the riddling of the wine. The bottle is slowly moved from a horizontal to a tilted vertical position. This moves the sediment to the top of the bottle. This process can be done manually or by machine.

The bottles have to be manually turned

Step 5: Disgorgement follows in which the neck of the bottle is submerged in cold brine to freeze it. The closure is removed and that frozen sediment piece pops out.

Frozen Sediment
Frozen Sediment post-disgorgement

Step 6: A dosage (or a liquer de expedition) is added back to the bottle. This is a small amount of base wine and sugar. The amount of dosage added determines the level of sweetness of the wine. The bottle is then sealed with a sparking wine closure (including the wire cage) so that the contents are under pressure until that cork is popped.

So the next time you're at a cocktail party and Champagne is served, you can share with everyone how bubbles get in bubbly.  Answer: it's due to the 2nd fermentation in which CO2 is generated in the bottle and cannot escape.  The result: bubbles.  Voila, you just upped your wine game!

Fun Fact: On a bottle of sparkling wine, how many times does the wire cage have to be turned you get it off?  Answer: Six…..always six turns.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Vintastic Voyage: Cinque Terre, Italy

View from the Cinque Terre Hike
A few short years ago I visited Italy with my then boyfriend, Aaron, and a couple of friends, Sakura and Gio. I planned the whole trip start to finish, which was a whirlwind trip that included visits to: Rome, Rimini, Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence, and Chianti Classico in Tuscany. Today I’m going to tell you about the Cinque Terre (CT) portion of our trip. When we went to CT, I hadn’t heard much about it. A couple friends on Facebook said it was a “not to miss” spot, but otherwise, we didn’t know what to expect. I decided to take a chance and add CT to our itinerary, and boy am I glad that we did. CT is on the Northwest coast of Italy in the Liguria region. Cinque Terre actually means “5 lands” and is named such, as it is made up of 5 distinct villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The villages are connected via train. You can also boat to each town or take an arduous hike on the cliffsides through each town.

We arrived in CT in the village of Monterosso and stayed at a quaint place called Manuel’s Guesthouse. Manuel lives in this house, and rents out the other rooms to tourists visiting CT. It was adorable. You had to go up about 150 stairs (everything in CT is built on a cliff) to get there. They had a lovely communal patio overlooking the Mediterranean, and I don’t think we paid more than 100-120 euros per night.

The cuisine in CT is outrageously delicious. If you don’t like seafood, you’re pretty much screwed. Like most Italian places, they are big believers in eating and drinking the local bounty. We found a wonderful restaurant called Ristorante Ciak. Ciak is the name of the chef, who we watched one morning cooking in his restaurant kitchen. According to his website, every morning he harvests fruits/veggies from his garden and shops in the local market to get the best of the day’s ingredients. He has a popeye outfit that he wears while he cooks. From the street you can look into the window of the kitchen (there’s no glass) and see Ciak cooking up a storm. A couple of local cats even sit in the window and wait for him to throw them each an anchovy to enjoy!

Patient kitty in front of Ristorante Ciak
The local cuisine that CT is known for includes: anchovies, seafood, pesto, and focaccia bread. Here is some of the food we enjoyed at Ciak and at other local CT spots.

Seafood Risotto

Seafood Fritto Misto

Focaccia with Onion and Herbs
The day following our arrival, we decided to take the famous Cinque Terre hike. You essentially hike through the cliffs and go from city to city. It is about 7 miles or so and is quite arduous in the Summertime sun/heat. By the time you reach the end, you just take the train back to where you started and pretty much collapse for the night.

The hike was a tough one. Not because it was particularly “difficult” on the scale of hikes, but because we went during the midday sun in the hot month of August. Plus, I don’t even think we brought enough water…..definitely amateurs.  Along the hike, we saw some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life. The picture at the top of my post is a view from the hike: gorgeous Mediterranean waters and the distinct colorful towns of Cinque Terre.

In addition to lots of local foods, Cinque Terre is known for wine. Cinque Terre actually has DOC status. DOC stands for: Denominazione di Origine Controllata. DOC is one of 3 quality levels that is assigned to Italian food and wines that guarantees that the food or wine product is in fact from that specific region and of a certain quality. Some DOCs or DOCGs also give restrictions for how the wine can be made (i.e. the wine has to sit on oak for “x” amount of time or the wine can only be made with certain grape varietals). DOCG is the most strict, then DOC, and then IGT.

Terraced vines in Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre DOC is known for crisp, light, refreshing white wines. The DOC was assigned in 1973. All Cinque Terre DOC wines must be made from these three grape varietals: Bosco, Albarola, and/or Vermentino. They are best drunk with the local cuisine. How about some fried anchovies? Or a plate of pesto pasta? The Cinque Terre DOC wines have notes of green apple and hay and a distinct minerality that coastal vines give. The minerality comes from the marine influences in the soil. This large body of water is a big influencer in what gives Cinque Terre wines their flavor.  Also, because Cinque Terre is built up on a cliff, and so are the vines, the ocean water continually sprays the coast and that includes the vines. The vines are built on steep cliffs and sometimes terraced so as to allow easier access to them. Because of the steep orientation, all labor in regards to the grapes (i.e. harvesting, pruning, etc) needs to be done by hand.

Back to our story. We’re on the hike, between two towns and we see an old white-haired man in the distance. He’s got longish white hair and looks a bit weathered (because of his age and because he presumably spends a lot of time outside and in the sun). If I lived here I would too. He approaches us and speaks not a lick of English, but does introduce himself as Angelo.  He waves us along, and we follow him. Why not? There aren’t serial killers along the Italian Riviera, right? We walk a bit and before we know it, we are entering his patio area where he has a long table and a couple of benches. He makes us hold on for a second and brings out an old, rustic board with a loaf of what looks like fresh bread, a clear bottle of white wine with no label, and some modest, small tumbler glasses.

Leading to Angelo's Patio
View of Angelo's house from his patio
Fresh bread and wine!
A much needed break from the Cinque Terre hike
We then realized that he wanted us to take a load off and enjoy this snack. He was the sweetest guy and kept talking to us in Italian, and we didn’t understand a word the other one said. We did appreciatively enjoy the break though. It fueled us to finish off our hike with a fun memory of a story. Stuff like that doesn’t happen every day. But in my head, as I romanticize Italy, yes, yes it does…….but only in Italy.

Grapes above us in a pergola on Angelo's property

Monday, July 27, 2015

Up Your Wine Game: Cork v Screw Cap

I get asked about screw caps A LOT. If a wine has a screw cap, does it mean that the wine is cheap? Crappy? Should I steer clear of screw caps? Is cork better? My answer is that it usually does not matter if your wine has a screw cap or a cork. Here is a quick 101 Lesson on Wine Closures:

Natural Cork: Cork is the traditional closure found on a bottle of wine. Cork stoppers are made from the bark of a cork oak tree. As a general rule, the cork industry is considered sustainable and a cork stopper is considered the most environmentally friendly of all the stopper options. The trees do not have to be cut down or killed in order to harvest the cork. The cork is literally stripped from the outside of the bark of the tree. It then grows back and the process is repeated every few years. Cork closures are romanticized in the wine industry as opposed to screw caps. People look at a cork on a wine and get all warm and fuzzy inside. The wine opener has to be pulled out and the age-old process of opening a bottle of wine must commence. The downside of cork is that a bottle can get “corked”. Most people have heard this term, but don’t exactly know what it means. A wine that is “corked” or has the presence of “cork taint” means that there is TCA (which is a mold or fungus) present in the wine.  A corked wine smells like wet cardboard. A wine gets “corked” when mold enters the wine’s environment. It can happen one of three ways: mold can get in the winemaking equipment, mold can get in the oak barrel, or mold can get in the crevices of the cork, as cork is a porous, natural material.

Synthetic Cork: There is also a synthetic cork made of plastic compounds that looks almost like a real cork. This material is not porous and therefore the possibility of having a “corked” wine is significantly reduced. The downside is the use of plastic and chemicals to make them. Some would say synthetic corks are not the most eco-friendly option. I don’t necessarily seek to avoid a synthetic cork (meaning that it’s not going to stop me from buying a bottle of wine), but it’s not something I like. Who wants plastics and chemicals all up in their wine?

Screw Cap: Aluminum screw caps are becoming more and more common. Aussie and NZ winemakers were the first to use them in quantity, and now you see them in more and more (usually New World) wines. Screw caps are great because they prevent oxygen from getting in contact with your wine. A screw cap will preserve the freshness and the the nose (i.e. the aromatics) of the wine, but it will not allow a wine to mature or continue to age in the bottle. So essentially, if a winemaker bottled and sealed a wine with a screw cap today, July 27, 2015, what the wine tastes like today, it will taste like forever. The screw cork will pretty much suspend the wine the moment it is sealed, and allow you to enjoy that exact wine (as it tasted that day) for much longer than a regular cork. The downside to screw caps is that they could subject the wine to reduction. Reduction is caused by the wines lack of contact with oxygen. Screw caps are obviously not porous, so they do not allow oxygen to pass to the wine. Reduced wine smells like sweaty onions or socks (no bueno) and is especially common in New World wines with screw caps. Decanting can help with slightly reduced wines.

My problem is that so many wines get better in the bottle, as wines are living, breathing things. That time in bottle allows the secondary and tertiary aromas to come through, which adds complexity and interest to the wine. If you’ve ever had an aged Bordeaux or a 20 year old Rioja that smelled like cigars and a musty basement, those were most certainly not screw capped wines. I advocate for the use of screw caps in wines that are deemed “drink now”.  Wines that you are not going to cellar or hold on to for an extended period of time. Your clean, crisp whites, roses, and light, fruity reds are perfect examples of wines that would be just fine under screw caps.

At the end of the day, how many of us are seriously cellaring our wines or buying bottles that we need to hold on to? Like I mentioned in a previous post, most wines that people buy are consumed within 1 hour after purchase. If that is the case with you, the closure is not of utmost importance. But now you have the knowledge to make an informed decision. If you bought a Cuisinart wine fridge and want to stock it or maybe a friend just bought a house and has a mini-cellar that they’d like to fill up, you know to not buy any wines with a screw cap. You’ll be buying a wine that you want to age a bit, and hence you need a cork closure.  But otherwise, eat, drink, and be merry!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Vintastic Voyage: Valle de Guadalupe

Vines in the Valle de Guadalupe

About a month ago, my husband and I were going on a staycation to San Diego for the night. It was Thursday and we were getting on the road the next morning. That day at work I read this article in the LA Times. It suggested a few different road trips from LA and one suggestion was the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja Mexico. Before I knew it, we had booked an AirBnB condo in Ensenada (for $55!), purchased Mexican car insurance, and were off on an adventure! Those who know me know that I don’t do things on a whim. Luckily I have a husband who does, and he frequently takes me along for the ride!

We spent a wonderful night at the Sofia Hotel just outside of the Gaslamp in San Diego on Friday night. It reminded me of a Kimpton Hotel with fun and kitschy details and a yoga class in the morning. We also had an INCREDIBLE dinner at Bottega Americano. It is a beautiful Italian restaurant and market in the Gaslamp; very similar to the Eataly concept. We shared a cheese plate, a whole grilled branzino, and a lovely pasta dish. It was simply delightful.

We woke up early on Saturday morning and headed for the border. Getting into Mexico was a piece of cake. We paid a toll and we were off! The first pleasant surprise was how absolutely stunning the Pacific coastline is as you head down Baja. I mean, gorgeous bright blue waters...I felt like we were in Cabo.

Pacific Coast heading South in Baja

First stop, Puerto Nuevo for a lobster lunch! This town is known for lobster. There are casual restaurants lining the waterfront, with lots of shopping as well. For US$20 they do a whole grilled Pacific lobster with drawn butter, rice, beans, and tortillas. Just glorious.

As always in Mexico, the shopping is wonderful. I bought some beautiful handpainted serving pieces for the kitchen and Aaron bought some delicious homemade almond tequila. To get to the Valle de Guadalupe wine country, from the border you head South about 30 minutes, then you veer inland another 15 minutes, and voila, wine!

Let’s get one thing straight, you’re not coming here for world class wines. The wine country is still new, but it does have potential. As a whole in the Valle de Guadalupe, they make good, honest wines that are easy to enjoy. A couple of the wineries have been there for about 15-20 years (including Santo Tomas Winery, one of the firsts), but most of them are just a few years old (less than 10 years actually). In 2004, Hugo D’Acosta (of Santo Tomas) opened a non-profit winemaking school and crush operation in Baja called La Escuelita. The goal was for the new vineyards to use La Escuelita for their vinification. This alleviated them from having to build winemaking facilities up front. They could focus on securing land, planting vines, and growing grapes. Then eventually they could build their own winemaking facilities and take the knowledge they learned at La Escuelita to make their own wine. The school was built in an eco-friendly way, and many sustainable tenets still apply. Everything there gets recycled, even the materials used to build the school.

Our first stop was Clos de Tres Cantos. This was a wonderful first experience on our Baja wine trip. The grounds are absolutely gorgeous. I had trouble capturing the beauty with my iPhone, so just take my word for it. Everything felt “of the earth”.  Overall, along the Ruta del Vino, that is a common feeling. We are in a desert climate and terrain. Aside from the blue waters, the colors you predominantly see are orange, brown, and red in the soils, hills, and rocks. All the wineries utilize those colors and seem to be built into the ground with a sustainable feel. Clos de Tres Cantos is no different. It sits up on a tall hill and the facilities feel like they were built into the mountain. Very respectful to the earth. At Clos, we met Joaquin, the owner. He is a philosopher and a former professor/lawyer from Mexico city. An incredibly interesting guy to talk to. Their goal is to be a 100% sustainable operation. They modeled their winery after a monastery, hence the heavy use of stone in their decor.

L to R: pourer for the tasting, Joaquin, Maria, myself, and Aaron (my hubby)
Joaquin even had one of his associates take a few of us on small tour of their facilities. They are going to start making wine on-site very soon (until then, they are using La Escuelita). The entire winemaking operation is underground. Check out these brand new stainless steel tanks still in their plastic wrap! Note the different colored bottles in the wall. Everything is built with the earth in mind and to moderate temperatures. The green bottles are placed to allow morning light to come in, clear bottles for daylight, and yellow bottles for afternoon light. Two of the wines that we enjoyed were Duda (Carignan and Mourvedre) and Tu Mismo (a red blend).

 In contrast to this amazingly personal experience we had at Tres Cantos, we then headed to Las Nubes, which is one of the largest wineries in the area. It was a much more impersonal feel, but the view and setting were stunning. You can tell that no expense was spared in the building of this place.

Two of the wines we enjoyed were a white called “Kuiiy” (a Sauv Blanc and Chard blend) and a red called “Cumulus” (a Garnacha Carinena, and Tempranillo blend). 

Overall, this was a wonderful trip and one I HIGHLY recommend if you are already in the San Diego/LA/Orange County area. I didn't even touch upon the NEW Tijuana, yes, the NEW Tijuana.  Would you believe me if I told you that there are 2 Michelin-rated chefs with restaurants in TJ?  And that there is also a vibrant culinary scene in Ensenada and in the Valle de Guadalupe.  I'm serious when I say this, RUN to Baja and enjoy wine country!  If you're in SoCal, you’re only 2-3 hours away from a beautiful and friendly wine region in another country. So grab your passports and take a Vintastic Voyage south of the border!