Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Spotlight: Rhone Rangers Los Angeles Tasting & Seminar

Who are the Rhone Rangers?

Members are dedicated to promoting American Rhone wines. The Rhone Rangers was started in the mid-80s by a group of winemakers who wanted to make wines other than Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (two very popular wines of the day). In 1997 the organization was officially formed and now includes over 100 wineries and vineyards in California, Washington, Virginia, and Arizona.

As an event producer, I walk into events with a very watchful eye. Is the signage clear, does the flow of the room make sense, are the bathrooms easy to find?

The Rhone Rangers LA Tasting was very well laid out. Kudos to all involved in the planning, especially Big Red Marketing, the LA event coordinator. Upon arrival I was swiftly checked in as a member of the media and then whisked to the “Rhone-n-Pink” seminar. As described in the program: Moderated by wine expert Dan Fredman, the seminar will cover the art of crafting the popular pink wine, and feature six Rhone Ranger winemakers who will guide guests through their rosés. The wineries: Andrew Murray Vineyards, Bonny Doon Vineyard, Lone Madrone, Ranchero Cellars, Tercero Wines, and Vines on the Marycrest.

Talk about a broad range of styles. Oh, and Randall Graham is a bit of a wine celeb, in my opinion.

Wine #1
Andrew Murray Vineyards 2016 Esperance Rosé, Estate Grown $22
This was my favorite rosé of the day. It is made from 100% Cinsault and my tasting note simply states “stunning”.

Wine #2 
Ranchero Cellars 2016 Galaxie Rosé, Self Family Vineyard, $28
A very easy drinking rosé made from Carignan

Wine #3
Lone Madrone 2015 Mourvèdre Rose, $25
Dry farmed vineyards and made from direct press. A soft, feminine nose.

Wine #4
Tercero Wines 2016 Mourvèdre Rose, $30
Really enjoyed this guy. This wine is not served chilled. The grapes are foot stomped on their skins for 1 hour and then direct to press. The winemaker is not going after a specific color nor vintage consistency. A very unique savory/umami nose, but still a lot of fresh fruit.

Wine #5
Bonny Doon Vineyard 2013 Vin Gris Tuilé, $26
Hands down, the most interesting wine I tasted all day. The nose is super duper nutty with an oxidized feel to it. Randall suggested notes of curry, peanut, sherry, and citrus. According to him, this wine is the ultimate handsell. The color is brick pink with an orange hue. The wine is aged 9 months al fresco in demijohn.

Wine #6
Vines on the Marycrest 2015 Rose (Genache, Syrah, Mourvedre), $28
This is a rosé for food. A skirt steak salad, perhaps? A super spicy palate. Fun.

After the rosé seminar I enjoyed early access (for trade and media) to the Grand Tasting. Now, I'll have it be known that I am not much of a grand tasting kind of gal. I find large tasting events to be overwhelming, crowded, and not conducive to efficient and thoughtful tasting. If I do attend grand tastings I be sure to walk in with a plan. I research participating wineries before I arrive and get an idea of who I am interested in visiting. There is no way to visit every table and try every's not a contest. Here are a few of my highlights from the Grand Tasting:

Martian Ranch & Vineyard 2015 "Etheric" Clairette, $22
Wow, interesting, can't compare it to anything. Med + finish. Macadamia nuts but not oxidized.

Tercero Wines 2015 Cinsault, $40
Only 3 barrels made; dirt and meat notes, yet light in color.

Two Shepherds was my favorite winery of the day. I tried their 2014 Grenache Blanc, Saarloos Vineyard (native yeast fermentation with neutral barrels; a slight funk that I like) and their 2012 Pastoral Rouge, Sonoma, Red Blend (cool climate; my favorite red of the day; savory notes plus funk, umami, soy sauce).

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Mystery of Blind Tasting

As a wine student, the most frequent question I am asked is: how do you blind taste?

While I enjoy talking about blind tasting, I don't really enjoy doing it! Why? Because it's fucking hard.

It's interesting, people are fascinated by blind tasting wines.  A typical conversation goes like this:

Me: I'm a student of wine
Other person: oh, so does that mean you can guess what any wine is?
Me: <cue eye roll> no

To the layperson, blind tasting wines is a bit of a parlor trick.  My least favorite thing is when people shove a glass of wine in my face and say: if you know a lot about wine, what's this?  Sorry dude, that's not how it works.  We're at a bar, the lighting is shit, and this wine glass is as thick as my grandma’s bifocals.

To non-wine aficionados, this sounds like the most difficult part of wine school.  That, my friends, is a myth.  In my opinion, blind tasting is much easier than factual recall of wine topics.  And WSET statistics on pass rates for the Diploma program validate this. Unit 3 (Still Wines of the World) is the only unit of the Diploma in which the tasting exam and the theory exam are separate. The results are graded independently of each other. The tasting pass rate is much higher than the theory pass rate. For the time period of 2010-2016, on average, the theory pass rate was 40.8% and the tasting pass rate was 71.5%.  Blind tasting (especially when in an academic setting) is actually quite formulaic. 

Another myth about blind tasting is that it's all about calling the wine. Whether it's the grape, country, or region. Believe it or not, you could call all the wines incorrectly on a WSET Diploma tasting exam, and yet still pass the exam. The reason is that the bulk of points are granted for the assessments. The assessment of a wine starts with the appearance, then the nose, then the palate. The second part of the points come from the conclusions, which can include determining quality level, determining the grape, determining the region/country, and readiness for drinking. As a general rule, there are less conclusion points available than assessment points.  A breakdown of assessment points is below.  Note that I did not break down conclusion points, as those are not standardized and vary per flight.

Appearance: color (1 point) and intensity (1 point)

: intensity (1 point) and aroma descriptors (5 points)

Palate: level of dryness/sweetness (1 point), acid (1 point), alcohol (1 point), tannin level and nature (2 points; this category is for reds only), flavor intensity (1 point), body (1 point), flavor descriptors (4 points), and finish (1 point).

Here are examples of 2 tasting notes (assessment portion only) from my Unit 3 studies:

Tasting Note #1
This wine is a $20 Chablis, which is a white wine from Burgundy made from the Chardonnay grape

Appearance: This wine is pale lemon with golden hues.

Nose: This wine is clean with a medium intensity. Aroma characteristics include: citrus (lemon/lime), green apple, pear, wet stone, and dairy/cream.

Palate: This wine is dry with medium acid, medium flavor intensity, medium alcohol, and medium body. Flavor characteristics include: citrus (lemon/lime), white flower, green apple, pear, and a wet stone/minerality. The finish is medium.

Tasting note #2
This wine is a $13 Valpolicella Superiore, which is a red wine from the Veneto region in Italy. Predominant grapes are: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.

Appearance: The wine is deep ruby.

Nose: The wine is clean with a medium intensity. Aroma characteristics include: red fruit (cherry, raspberry, plum), vanilla, sweet spice (nutmeg and cinnamon), earthy/meaty notes, and dried flowers (violets).

Palate: On the palate the wine is dry with medium + acid, medium round tannins, medium body, medium alcohol, and medium flavor intensity. Flavor characteristics include: red fruit (sour cherry + raspberry), vanilla, sweet spice (nutmeg and cinnamon). The finish is medium.

How did I blind taste in preparation for my exam?

As I prepped for the rigorous tasting exam, I had to be smart about how I used the time I had.   After blind tasting for 6 months in preparation for the Unit 3 exam I narrowed it down to the following grapes that were most likely to appear on the tasting portion of the exam:

White: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Muscat, Viognier, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Albariño, and Semillon

Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Malbec, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Corvina, Mourvedre, Cabernet Franc

This list is not all-inclusive. Could I have gotten a Verdejo on the exam? Yes. But I found this list to be a good start.

As I write a tasting note, I cross grapes off the above list that the wine CAN'T be. This helps clear my mind and focus on the remaining grapes.

I like to start a flight by sniffing the wines side by side. Are we in the Old World (dusty notes, minerality, and restraint) or are we in the New World (fruit, assertiveness, and more fruit)?  The answer is not always so clear.  Then I go through my assessment of the appearance, nose, and palate. Sometimes I get ideas of what I am drinking as I progress, but I try not to get too committed. The danger is that you make an assumption early on and you start to write your notes to match what you think it is, versus what is actually in your glass.

Once I get through my assessments, I look at my list and see what grapes are remaining that I have not crossed off.  This is where I start to make my deductions.  If the flight is all wines of the same region, I try and pick out the one wine that is the "marker" (i.e. clear notes of tar and roses from a Barolo).   From the dozens of tasting groups we had, the goal is to commit some of these markers to memory.  The challenge is that it's not just memory in your head but also memory in your nose and on the palate.  On my exam we had a flight of 3 Merlot wines from various regions.  The marker for me was the one with insane pyrazines along with black (and some red) fruit.  This was the wine that grounded me in that flight.  A couple of weeks prior I had a wine from Chile that was super green (i.e. pyrazines) and it stuck.  From there I determined that the other wine was a Bordeaux (Merlot/Cab blend) and the third wine was from Napa.  I incorrectly called the wines Cabernet Sauvignon, but I feel pretty confident that I "passed" this flight as my tasting notes could (for the most part) still apply for Merlot.  Cabernet and Merlot have many similar aromas/flavors, so I'm sure I did pretty good on the assessments of nose/palate.  Also, I called all 3 regions correctly.  All in all, I felt the best about that flight.

If you've gotten this far on a tasting note for a flight, you've come a long way! This is when you have to bring it home with the conclusions, which could be a quality assessment or readiness for drinking, among others.

The thing with blind tasting is to not beat yourself up about it. Sure, if you are prepping for the MS or MW exam, beat yourself up. That shit is hard. Otherwise, do your best with the information you have, and practice, practice, practice.

Happy tasting!