All Star Wine Line Up (Part 1)

                On a nondescript evening, on a nondescript Saturday, I was touching the necks of every wine bottle that was sticking out of each of the four wooden wine racks I owned. Each hold 44 bottles and the fat Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir bottles don’t fit. The magnums and doubles lay across the guest bedroom on the floor. I was looking for a specific bottle. I didn’t know which bottle, but one that was above average, not that inexpensive; but more or less impressive. Earlier in the week, A friend of mine, asked myself and another friend if we wanted to come to his place for dinner. He wanted to buy a few truffles and have truffle risotto and Barolo. A classic pairing. He would throw in some Kobe strip steaks as a deal sweetener. All of which, he was purchasing. Of course we were both going to attend, that was a no brainer. When someone offers this kind of meal, you happily oblige, but you also feel obligated to bring something nice. As I checked my collection I settled on a bottle of the 96 point 2004 Vall Llach, from Priorat, Spain. I had been carrying it around for a while and figured it was time. The meal offer came with one catch; that I make the truffle risotto, and we had to cook a piece of fish for my friend’s wife. No big deal.

                I arrived at my friends around happy hour. Shortly after, our other friend arrived. At this time, the first surprise was revealed. My host friend slipped into a story about how he bought the truffles off an unassuming, untrained employee at the grocery store, whom didn’t use the proper scale for the truffles. The kid used the normal vegetable scale available for the public’s use, to weigh the truffles. One truffle is so light that it doesn’t even register on this scale. Nor does two, or three. When they laid the fourth truffle on the scale, it jumped to around $12. At $799 per pound, four just slightly smaller than golf ball size truffles for $12 was a major coup. I was expecting only one, maybe two, and was going to just shave the whole thing on top of our risotto as I plated the dishes. Then the parade of wines we each brought to the table made their appearance.

                As we are all Champagne lovers, our host felt it necessary to break out of bottle of N/V Krug Champagne. They already knew what I brought as it sat on the table, but then he revealed his Barolo to pair with the truffle risotto, a bottle of 2000 Icardi. I had never had an Icardi anything before and was pretty excited for this. It made my Vall Llach look like a high school driving his father’s BMW to school. It was a nice car, but we know it’s your dads. Then it was our other friend’s turn, who had walked in the house with a small bag in hand only a few minutes prior. The lady of the house was unwrapping cheese and salami in another corner of the kitchen, but loved champagne and good wine as well, she just didn’t geek out like we did. He sat in a stool at the counter top and reached down into his little knapsack and pulled out a bottle of 1994 Dominus from the Napa Valley. I was floored, I was pretty sure this was a 100 point wine. We geeked out for a few minutes as we sipped on our Krug. He wasn’t done. Up next out of the magic bag of bottled grape juice was a bottle I instantly recognized; a bottle of 1988 Chateau Margaux. An average vintage in the region, but who cares. I’ve always had an affinity for the Margaux appellation thanks to my father’s love for it. The lineup was set, but not without a bottle of Vintage of Croft Port from the 90s to finish off the line up. The hardest part was determining the drinking order of the wines book ended but the Krug and Croft.

                The night slipped away without the slightest goodbye. Before we knew it, the bottles were empty, our bellies filled with Kobe beef and truffles, and our cheeks were flush with highly rated juice. The caloric intake was not worth trying to count. I had sent a text message to my father at some point during the night with a picture of the Margaux label. I didn’t see his response until I was getting into my car to head home many hours later, too late to respond. The next morning, I was up early with a headache. Sleeping in is not something I am able to do. My father knew that and rang my phone sometime just around 8am. He asked what the picture was for, and I began to tell him about the incredible line up, Kobe steaks, and truffles. He didn’t interrupt me during my marathon description, just a murmur here, and a grumble there. Finally I finished, and all he would say was, “You suck.” It was that moment I had an idea and I asked him to come down to Virginia to visit sans my mother for a boy’s weekend and we could cook and eat like the night I had prior. He agreed, and said, “Tell the boys to show up with the best, and I will cook.” They knew he was a Culinary Institute of America trained chef and were more than excited to impress my father. The stage was set for another throw down a handful of months later.

To Be Continued….

Recounting a Riesling Renegade

A little past a half a decade ago, a distributor I was buying from called me with an offer. She remembered I had a requested to host wine seminars for any traveling wine makers coming through town. My customers loved this kind of stuff. Fortunately, I was one of their biggest customers and probably would have been offered this meeting regardless of my request. One of the biggest names in German Riesling was coming to the area for a few short days, and I was offered an opportunity to host Dr. Ernst Loosen at my store for an evening. It was almost too good to be true. I probably sold 20 cases of his QbA juggernaut, Dr. L, every ten days or so, but also carried his single vineyard Riesling as well. All in all, our German section boasted about 100 different selections. I asked if I could set up a sit down seminar and have Dr. Ernst Loosen speak and host a guided tasting for 25 – 30 people. This was no problem.

I had met Dr. Ernst Loosen a year prior at luncheon at the Kennedy Center for the Perfuming Arts overlooking the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. There was a number of producers there, but it was centered on Riesling. I remember the second lunch course of three, a salmon dish tasting awful and overcooked. When they day of the seminar arrived, we were all excited in the wine shop. The class was sold out and I bought a ticket for a girl I had a crush on. She was a Riesling lover, and didn’t like much else as far as wine was concerned. My team had set up the area where we were having the class. We even had to rent more wine glasses, because the number of wines we were tasting was 10 in all. We were geared up to try his entire range of wines from the QbA, his Washington State partnership with Chateau Ste Michelle, the Blue Slate release, and different vintages from his single vineyard kabinett, spatlese, and auslese. I provided crackers as palate cleansers.

An hour before the event was to begin, my distributor arrived with Dr. Loosen. I reminded him that we had met before and he graciously agreed with me, but I knew didn’t remember me. He wore red framed glasses that would stick out on a normal person, but his hair dragged your eyes away from the glasses. It was long, curly, and poofed out. It reminded me of mad scientist minus the lab coat. He wore penny loafers, blue pants, a thin-breasted coat, and a scarf. To describe him as quintessentially European looking would be 100% appropriate. He dressed like the coach of a European futball club. I spent the rest of the time, making sure his PowerPoint presentation worked correctly, while my staff finished setting and greeting customers has they began to arrive.

Showtime. The class was full and murmuring, it was time to get rolling. I stepped in front of the class to give the housekeeping notes, run down the outline of the class, and introduce the key guest. I was normally fine with this and speaking in front of people wasn’t a big issue for me, but at that moment, I felt my face go flush, and the “um” river began to flow. Looking back, I know it was because my most important guest of honor, my crush, was sitting in the back of the class at a table with my some of my staff members who were not working but attending. I passed the class off to Dr. Loosen as quickly as possible and began to pour wines with my distributor. Dr. Loosen was speaking quietly, and had a deep German accent when he spoke English. I could tell people were having difficulty hearing in the back. I gestured for him to speak up. I’m not sure if he understood me. After about 25 minutes, we had moved through the first three wines. Dr. Loosen was about to come out of his shell. It is hard to recall what he said exactly, but with a few Rieslings down, his volume rose and smile grew. He began to make jokes and instead of a serious lecture, the class became more of a conversation about the wines. This is my favorite way to teach. Everyone began to relax and have a great time.

Two hours later, and two cases of wine emptied, the class was over. I offered an extra discount on the purchase of any wines tried that even and sold almost $2000 dollars of wine. The single vineyards weren’t cheap. I said goodbye to some of my regular customers and potential new regulars, my staff, and Dr. Loosen. He had a great time and invited me to visit Germany whenever I could. The offer sounded great. I still have never been to Germany. The last person to leave was the girl I had a crush on. She helped me clean up. It was getting late and I was now entering my 13th hour of work for the day. She wasn’t ready to go home. Mentally and physically I was ready to fall into bed, but she gave me a look and asked if I wanted to go get a drink afterwards, over to Bonefish which was less than a mile down the road. The sound of Bang Bang Tacos, a glass of Chardonnay or a Gin Martini, and a little more time with my crush was filling me with my second wind. Just a little more than a year later, I married this girl. 

Apologies

It has been almost a year since I have posted a blog here. I have been focused on Vinyl&Wine blogs and other work outside of this website. It is not my intention to let this slip, even though it has. For the next 10 week, I will have wine reviews featured at www.ediblefingerlakes.com every wednesday. They are features for wines that stood out as some of the best of the new vintage released this winter. My first one is already posted and features Wagner Vineyard. I will posted the review below, but please, visit the link above and check out the other features available. I promise a new blog is coming soon. 

Edible Blog - 2012 Wagner Caywood East Dry Riesling

By Nicholas Baldwin

The Caywood East vineyard site at Wagner is steep, comprised of gravel soil, at as of 2005, it has been entirely replanted with Riesling grapes. It is no surprise this single vineyard 2012 dry Riesling has won multiple gold medals and voted Best Dry Riesling at the Finger Lakes AVA Riesling Challenge.

Wagner produced just over 1000 cases of this Riesling. It has a pale lemon colored hue and perfumes of meyer lemon, vanilla bean, honeysuckle, tangerine peel, white peach, with subtle flinty mineral undertones. Upon the first sip, the high acidity attacks the palate from the sides, yet finishes pleasantly smooth. It only has 0.5% residual sugar left after fermentation, but that is just enough to keep this wine in perfect balance and remain delicate to the palate.

This first single vineyard release from Wagner shows off their versatility with Riesling. Their Caywood East Vineyard Dry Riesling will pair nicely with fresh local goat cheeses, heirloom tomato soup, vegetarian dishes, and light poultry and seafood dishes. For sale under $20 per bottle, this is a must try Finger Lakes Riesling. Add this to your collection and watch it evolve beautifully over the next 10 – 12 years. 

A Car Sideswiped My Lambchop

The sun is out and I am craving Greek food, and not what we Americans call a Greek salad and a Gyro. I am talking about a real authentic fully loaded table of dishes. My cravings have brought back wonderful memories of some of the best meals I’ve eaten in Greece, two of which happened on the same trip. One was my first full dinner in the middle of the streets of Nafplion where I was almost hit by every car that drove by, and the other was in the hills near Sparta atop of the peak in the olive groves.

I have only been to Greece twice in my life, and I dream of going back many more times. Flaming up saganaki at Greekfest for a few days at my familys church doesn’t even come close to being there. I flew into Athens, Greece for work a few years ago. I am not one of the lucky people who can sleep on a plane. I have an overactive brain most of the time and sleeping anywhere other than my own bed is nearly impossible. The flight was nine hours, overnight. We were greeted at the airport and quickly shuffled into our mini tour bus for the next few days, and headed south out of Greece for the Peloponnese. We crossed the Corinth Bridge and made our way to Skouras vineyards for a light Greek lunch and wine tasting. If I wasn’t exhausted by now, the food and wine weren’t any help. We then headed to check into our hotel in the beautiful city of Nafplion, Greece. It is an ancient city like everyplace in this part of the world with hilltop ruins and an island fort just off the shoreline. I was informed that it is a weekend getaway town for the rich Athenians, like Cape Cod or the Hamptons minus the million dollar sprawling estates. We had time to check into our rooms and do whatever for a few hours until we had to be ready for dinner. I didn’t dare lie down, because I knew it would be lights out. I decided to walk around the city and shoreline instead. A few hours later, we all slowly gathered together and made our way to dinner. It was a brisk ten minute walk from our hotel near the center of town. We walked the streets as if they were sidewalks; mopeds, and cars sporadically buzzed by us. We came to our restaurant situated directly at the corner of two main streets. Our table for about ten people was set up in the street, as close to the restaurant wall as possible. I was the last to sit and got the seat located almost in the intersection. Mind you, the streets are old cobblestone skinny streets, not four lane highways flooded with 3000 pound beasts. Wine was poured for us out of unlabeled bottles both red and white, and slowly, plates of food began to hit the table. There was side plates full of olives and feta, trays of lamb and beef, fish fresh out of the Mediterranean grilled and simply drizzled with olive oil and lemons. I can’t remember all the preparations, but it was served family style, which is the best way to serve Greek in my opinion. Nearly every few minutes, I would see ahead of me or hear from behind the hum of a car getting closer, and not discerningly slowing down. When you are trying to relax and enjoy a meal with the smell of the Mediterranean off in the distance, stressing about the pain of a small car sideswiping you doesn’t make things easy. The cars were only as far away from me as the distance from my elbow to fingertip. As everyone drank more wine, the jokes of me becoming a Greek hood ornament increased. Although, it was a nervous dining experience, I would do it over and over again, because the food was exceptional.

The next day we headed south again, making our way over the mountains, through Tripoli and on into Sparta. We eventually met up with friends who are olive growers. We visited their facility and they drove us in the back of pickup trucks high into the olive groves. I did learn that olive trees will only grow from seeds that have been digested by birds, and not simply planted in the ground. Yes, I thought it was weird as well. They set up a late lunch for us up on the pinnacle of one of their hills. We could see for miles. The vast landscape was spectacular. They put out a spread for lunch that was some of my favorites. There was a “real” Greek Salad which was simply, chopped tomatoes, feta, sesame seeds, and olive oil. They had a tray of spanakopita, kreatopita (like spanakopita, but made with meat instead of greens), cheeses, and of course olives. Now I have eaten a lot of spanakopita in my life, but the one they had tasted nothing like my mothers or grandmothers. I asked why and they said we make it with the greens from the groves, mostly dandelion and mustards. It was a great lunch and a view.

The Greeks no how to keep is simple and as I try to get through life a day at a time, I am learning that keeping it simple is the way to go. Now if I can only find some real Greek food right now. Opa!

Spot On: Bistro Du Coin

For many people dining alone is a scary idea. It has never bothered me in the past. I’ve always been able to amuse myself, strike up a good conversation with a bartender, or other loner patrons of an establishment. As a married man now, I am fortunate to have someone awesome I to dine with. Five years ago, I did a lot of dining alone, mostly, I was exploring Northern Virginia and Washington DC, because I had just moved there for work and really hadn’t made any good friends yet. On the recommendation of a sales representative I was buying wine from, I ventured to a spot in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington D.C. called Bistro Du Coin.

The neighborhood is a hip area with a lot of historic buildings, foreign embassies, boutique shops, and bars and restaurants. On the corner of Connecticut and S Street, you’ll find Bistro Du Coin. Like every place I ventured to, I would always pull up their website to view the menu and photos. This website was, and still is, not the greatest website I have seen. I resembles the old free websites I used to make in high school and college for the numerous bands I was in; in so many words, amateur. I didn’t let it bother me too much, because the word-of-mouth vouch my sales rep gave was glowing. I was told, the food was awesome and cheap, the wines are retail price and sometimes cheaper because the owner would forget how much he paid for cases years ago, and it is a neat place. As a Francophile, I love French wines and food. French bistros are my favorite places to eat. I would usually go into the DC on my day off of work which was the case for my first trip to Bistro Du Coin. I arrived mid-afternoon, between lunch and dinner. I prefer the late lunch on my day off if I go out to eat. I remember the scene vividly. The restaurant seems larger than it is because it has very high ceilings, and a tall back bar made of really old weathered wood. There is old French bric-a-brac all over the place and a ton of tables pushed pretty close together. There is a balcony that has more seating over the kitchen and overlooks the main dining room. The tables are small and chairs look old and weak and most of the tables had red and white table clothes on them. There are multiple disco balls that hang from the ceiling. You are reading that correctly, disco balls.   

I sat at the bar, my preferred choice. There was an older couple sitting along the wall finishing lunch and was being served coffee. A few servers were milling about and a man sat at the far end of the bar near the kitchen working on a laptop drinking a glass of wine. I would later find out he was the owner, Michel. The one tip I was given and told to look out for was the hand written daily/weekly wine specials written on paper hanging below a large spool of paper like you would see on the table at a doctor’s visit. You know the roll of uncomfortable paper they roll out for every new patient. On this paper is a special wine selection picked by owner Michel from the mountains of wine he has purchased over the years. I was told this is where I will find the best priced stuff and unique bottles. There was about a dozen or so wines on there. Some were fully labeled and specific, others just said a specific region of France with no producer. I don’t remember the producer, but I remember I ordered a glass of Chateaunuef-du-pape Blanc they were offered for $7. The whites from this region typically let grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Rousanne do all the heavy lifting. It was incredible with a nice golden hue and strong aromatics. As I sipped the wine, I pondered the wine menu. It had far too many visual errors for me, and different size fonts, different fonts, some pictures, but great pricing. I was already enjoying the ambiance to let the little things bother me. I decided to order the Foie Gras appetizer. I love Foie and most preparations I’ve enjoyed in the past had some sort of a fruit element to the dish. My favorite up until my visit to Bristo Du Coin was a Foie Gras over pineapple gnocchi and butter sauce. This one was more savory, seared and served over barley and an herbaceous brown sauce. It was new and far better than the typically sweeter preparations I was used to. Complimented by the glass of wine, things were looking good. A few more people had wondered in and seemed to be friends with the bartender. They sat a few seats away from me. I was taking my time today. I took the metro in from Northern Virginia and wasn’t worried about driving. I ordered a glass of red wine off the specials selection. They had simply written, Pommard, on the menu for $8 or $9. I love Burgundy wines and decided to take a chance. I had also ordered Tournedos Poele with a Roquefort cream sauce; steak frites. They had plenty of other choices that looked really good and I almost settled on a mussels preparations, but to me, steak frites is how I judge French bistros. The Pommard arrived and it turned out to be a Louis Jadot Pommard 2003. If you aren’t familiar with the region of Burgundy, their reds are mostly Pinot Noir, while Gamay is also grown in the south of Burgundy is regions like Beaujolais. I was very familiar with Louis Jadot and the 2003 vintage. It was a hot year all over Europe and ripened sugar levels to incredible levels making bigger juicier wines than they are typical. The wines of 2003 won’t be as long lived as more classic vintages, but makes and made for drinking at their peak. This Jadot was drinking well. It still had a griping structure and loads of plump fruit. It was going to be a nice match for the steak. The steak arrived and it was perfect. It wasn’t too big, there was a heap of frites and enough sauce in the accompanying boat for me to dip my frites in. By the end of the meal, I was completely stuffed and satisfied. The food and wine hit all their marks, and ambiance was great. It was a little hodge-podgy in some respects, but the Bistro was long lived, of course things will collect over the years. By the time I left, the proverbial hour of happy was upon the day and to say I didn’t leave happy would be a lie.

Where I live now, sadly there isn’t a true French Bistro. It is probably a good thing, because it would most likely just disappoint me. Washington D.C. is full of steak houses, ethnic spots, Cafes and Bistros. Big corporate money and government expenditures is usually what is being spent and prices can get out of hand really quickly in DC. It has become a mecca for great chefs and celebrity chefs these days. There are a few spots I’ve always enjoyed going that fly under the radar, Bistro Du Coin is by far my favorite. Despite eating meals at some seriously great spots in DC and around the world, Du Coin remains as the best. It probably has a lot to do with definite lack of pomp and circumstance, great food, and laid-back attitude they take. 

My Fathers Wine Cellar

One year ago today, my family and I lost my father to a disease called ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a muscular disease that occurs when for unexplained and unsolved reasons, muscles stop communicating with the brain. Think of a horror movie when a person tries to call for help, but they realize the phone lines have been cut by the antagonist rendering that person alone and helpless. Modern medicine has been working diligently to figure out this disease, but so far, very few steps forward have been made.

My father and I were pretty similar people, including out palates. Our taste buds aligned nicely with only a few exceptions, one of which was blue cheese. When I got into the wine business over a decade ago, we hadn't drunk many wines together. This was a new thing for us. I was living at home at the time, but moving out soon. I was still learning the trade and many wines were still very foreign to me. I had never heard of the regions of Margaux, Barossa, or Walla Walla, but as I came across them in the shop I was working at and tried wines from these regions, my father was the first person I told about them outside of work. He was a hotel and restaurant graduate, and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Needless to say, the man knew his way around the kitchen, food, and wine world. I had never heard him talk about wines much before that, it just wasn't the connection we had yet. We mostly spoke about hockey, music, and who was going to cut the grass. That was one of my chores growing up until the day he finally bought a riding lawnmower and magically, I rarely cut the grass again. He liked weaving back and forth on the John Deere. The biggest reason why I was able to excel quickly in the early years of my wine career was because of chats with my father. He was teaching me a lot whether he knew it or not. He never taught me through a classroom type situation, but through brief conversations that usually ended with him suggesting a region I should go check out in the wine shop, and to see what we sold, because he loved the wines from said region. He spoke about regions like Napa, Alsace, and his favorite region in Bordeaux, Margaux. I studied all of them and poured over maps. One day, while doing inventory at the wine shop, I came across a case of Chateau Margaux 2002. It wasn't a great year, fairly average, but priced accordingly. It wasn't out on display anywhere and was possibly forgotten about while buried under cases of many other wines. I came home and told my father about what I found. He was curious and ended up buying the entire case. I was excited and was eager to try it, but he said he wasn't going to open any. He said he would only on special occasions. Years went by, and he had opened them on special occasions, but none when I was around. My youngest sister had drank some more times than me. It wasn't until 2008 when I finally had my chance.

I had been working my way through the industry and exploring better opportunities when I was giving a chance to interview for a position in Northern Virginia to become a retail wine manger for a large company. I flew down for the interview and tour. It was intimidating and I had to interview with four big time people for this company all at once. My tie and suit coat were feeling a little tight. Weeks went by and I hadn't heard anything. Soon it had been a month and then a few more weeks. It was the spring time now. It was on a Friday, and just after work. I had returned to my apartment with a friend. My roommate was home playing video games and we had each just cracked a beer. My phone rang and it was the human resources manager calling about my interview. I had gotten the job and the offer was fantastic. The first people I called were my mother and father to fill them in. My father said congratulations and now it is time for a bottle of Chateau Margaux. I hung up the phone and told my friend and roommate to hang out for a few hours and I would return. They didn't care, they were big gamers and probably didn't even notice I left. When I got to my parents’ house, my uncle was there, in from out of town. He is a wine geek as well and was really happy for me and happy this was the day he chose to stop over. Chateau Margaux was poured for all. I remember everything about that bottle. We drank it on my parent’s deck in the backyard. It was opaque purple, and had aromas of leather saddle, boysenberry, black cherry, Kalamata olive, and more. It kept changing every time I took a sniff. It was rich and tight at the same time. As far as first growth Bordeaux’s are concerned, it was still young. My father and I each sat at opposite heads of the patio table. We briefly talked about the job offer, and then the wine, then the conversation went down other roads. I wanted to chug the entire bottle of Margaux, but I couldn’t get past the first glass. I just kept smelling it.

Over the next five years, even though I had moved away and was well into my career, my father and I never missed an opportunity to open some of the best bottles we could get out hands on. We shared bottles like Vall Llach 2004, Chateau Angelus 2000, Chadwick 2000, Sassacaia 2001, and many more. Sadly, in late 2011, after testing for many other diseases that were quickly ruled out, the doctors came to the conclusion that he indeed had ALS. I admit, I knew nothing about the disease until the day I was told about the news. The first thing I did was get online and research what it was and what was going to happen. One thing became very clear to me, that this disease is the worst and life just isn’t fair sometimes. There is only one outcome to this progressively fast disease and it is terminal. The old adage that people don’t change is false. That day, I changed, for better or worse I don’t know, but I personally have not been the same. I doubt anyone who is diagnosed or caring for a person with ALS will every stay the same, but one thing is for certain, ALS does not change a person’s palate.  On the Christmas before my father’s eventual passing a month and half later, my father, the kitchen guru, was at it again. Despite being permanently saddled to his motorized chair and speaking through a computer which he typed his words into by moving his head, he was adamant that dinner was perfect. Eating had become a challenge for him and his foods were mostly being blended at this point. Some days he didn’t care, and some days he was stubborn about it. What he really wanted was the sauce for the meat to be perfect and he had me start making it nearly a week in advance. I roasted New Zealand veal bones that had been covered in tomato paste, and made a really rich veal stock that reduced down for days. My mother finished it at her house. When Christmas dinner finally came, I thought the sauce was awesome. My father said he liked it, but he was watching us like a hawk and probably saw us screw up a few times. He hadn't been drinking wines for a while at this point, but on that night, he wanted a little. I was all but happy to oblige. I had brought over a bottle of a 94 point, 2009 Beringer Knights Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I poured some into a tumbler and sat with him and held the glass while he drank little sips through a straw. It was hard for him to move his head and it took a lot of concentration for him to even swallow, but after his first sip, he slightly turned his head to me, faintly smiled, then looked back to his computer screen and type the word, “good.” Since we shared a common palate, I knew he really enjoyed it. It would end up being the last sip of wine he would ever have. For a man with a high end palate, I am glad he got to go out on a high end wine.

So far, it has been hard to write this blog. He passed away exactly a year ago today. It was hard to hear about upon his diagnosis, during, and this full year afterwards. I still think about certain bottles of wine we shared among other things and wonder why and how such an awful thing can happen to such a great person. My family has helped raise money for the hard working people and scientist searching for answers for this disease. We have a family donation site set up with the ALS Therapy development Institute in Massachusetts that you can find a link to below.  To date, with the help of family and friends, our family site “Tom’s Team” set up by my sister, has encouraged donations of over $13,000 dollars so far. Our goal is set at $20,000, but really, the goal is set at an unmarked amount until ALS is cured. Please, if you would like to learn more about this disease and how someone is diagnosed with ALS every 90 seconds, learn more about my family and father, or my fathers favorite wine, click the links below. Every little bit helps, even a small few dollars. 

ALS Therapy Development Institute

ALS TDI Tom's Team Donation Page

Chateau Margaux

Beringer Vineyards

The Power of Suggestion

I am not a psychologist, nor have I ever studied sociology, but when you spend a lot of time on the forefront of sales like I have, you tend to notice how people react to stimulus, excitement, and the power of suggestion. It has taught me how to interact and communicate with people and most importantly, how to honestly gain trust in people who are otherwise strangers visiting a retail establishment for ten or fifteen minutes every week or month.  

Why do we give our trust away so freely sometimes?  In the wine retail industry, we, as wine professionals, are titled in numerous ways; Sommelier, Wine Professional, Wine Experts, Masters of Wine, or if Apple sold wine, they would proclaim us Wine Genius’ (Just a little over-the-top with that one Apple). But what if all of those titles went away and all the experts, myself included were called, Wine Salesperson. It would never work on a retail level because of the negative connotation brought forth by shady car salesmen and guys selling snake oil potions city by city in the early days of a growing America. Although, on a corporate level, it is okay and a rather acceptable term to be referred to as such. I am a wine salesman for an Italian import company and deal directly with owners and wine buyers of retail wine and liquor establishments and restaurants. When I walk into a business, I am usually greeted with a smile and invited in for conversation. Many times, I run into competitors, but in this business, we are more so peers. We are all fighting for the best placement on shelves and to have our wines displayed prominently in the front of the store right where the customer walks in the building. When we are given the chance to display a wine in a “high velocity” space like that, we are hoping it is with a wine that is eye-catching. As a former manager of a retail wine store, I know how crucial label design and even the design of the cardboard cases they are packed in are relevant to having a gravitational pull on a wine shopper’s eye. Wineries and marketers are trying to invoke all of your senses in hopes to get you to purchase their bottle of wine over sometimes thousands of other selections in a wine shop.  You may be thinking to yourself right now that you are one of those people who buys wine based on the label design. Case in point, it worked on you. That one bottle isn’t all they are hoping you buy though. Sure the label got the bottle of wine into your basket, but it is the winemaker’s job to make a wine that you will want to buy over and over again. Things to be mindful of when buying a wine on your own (without help from a wine professional): Great packaging does in no way mean a wine will good or bad, but it does mean that the vineyard has spent extra time and usually money with the intent to make it appealing because they want you to try their wine. Where there is money for packaging, there is also money in the wine making process and they probably have great facilities to make their wine in. If they are putting in the time on marketing and packaging, you are at least going to get an average to above average wine. If that wine is in your budget, take it home, give it a try and let the wine do the rest.

If you’re lucky, sometimes when you walk into a store, they will be featuring a wine and pouring free samples, creating excitement about the wine. Who doesn’t love a free shot of wine in the morning! In-store wine tastings are crucial for a retails stores business. Most of the time, it is the store employees, those wine professionals doing the tastings, but where states allow it, many times you will the stores sales representative there pouring the wines. They are known as, vendor-promoted tastings. I am always surprised when I am doing a tasting and a customer does not take a free sample of a wine. Sure there are many reasons not to, but if you are there shopping for a wine and you have been browsing for a while, why not try a new wine? Try-before-you-buy, is like getting intentionally walked in a baseball game. You get a free base and get one step closer to making it home. Excitement is built when a large group gathers around a tasting station. As a pourer, I love it when I get mobbed with a bunch of customers all at the same time. The excitement is contagious and a customer will get the feeling that the wines will be good if everyone else like it. A customers excited suggests to another customers, that this wine is good. The wines are typically being poured for a few good reasons like; it is a new wine to the shop and they are simply just trying to promote it to get its name out and let the wine customers know that it is there. They could also be looking to sell through their current vintages to make room for new vintages or new wines. This does not mean a wine is bad, in fact, they make be trying to move a wine that may not have a long shelf life, like a pinot grigio, because they don’t want to let it slip through the cracks and make it into someone’s basket when it is too late. A wine shop may also be trying to promote a specific wine that they do make a good profit on. It is a business after all. In competitive markets across the states, where advertising and online sales are winning the battles, you may be surprised to learn that the mark-up on wine is not that high at all. On certain name brand wines, they may even be priced at cost or below as a lost liter. Regardless of the reason for the tasting, you can learn a lot of about a wine before you buy it just from a free tasting. You can at least be sure the taster has researched the wine and you are getting all true facts and of course, you will have tried the wine, if you don’t like it, move on. It is more than alright to say you don’t like it. It’s actually a nice way to get to know your local wine professional and let them learn your palate and the styles of wine you like. Believe it or not, your local wine professional thoroughly enjoys getting to know your palates and finding the “perfect” wine for you.

The power of suggestion one on one is an interesting relationship that evolves over time. There are a few kinds of customers a wine professional sees on a daily basis. Some customers are just simply happy with the purchasing the $8 and under wines and large bottle cheap spirits. Mostly, a wine professional will just have to point them in the right direction on their first visit and then never converse with them again afterwards. The wine learner is a person who likes wine, doesn’t want to spend too much on a bottle and usually stays in the $10-$15 price range. They are the ones to usually give up their trust rather quickly to a wine shops professionals with no hesitation, especially ones who don’t mind trying anything. Others will take a little nudging and deeper explanations of regions and grapes. The groups of people that will spend $25 or more on bottles of wine either come from money and don’t mind buying expensive because they can, or they are really into wine, I mean really into wine, and can get all geeked out over terms like “single vineyards,” or “small production,” or “futures pricing.” Wine professionals are trained to know how to deal with all types of customers and make suggestions based on your needs. Whether you need a wine as a gift, to go with dinner, or are a collector, a good wine shop will be able to give you great advice and guide you in the right direction. Keep in mind, it is still a business that needs to meet profit margins.

As margins on wines are low, many retailers with buying power (meaning multiple stores in multiple states) will have suppliers create wine labels to be sold solely at their stores with deals for large quantities. There is one retailer who has stores in states all across the country whose shelves are filled with nearly 50% of privately labeled wines. They tend to push those wines over name brand wines because they can make a higher margin on those wines, which is fine and many times the wines are good. If you have ever bought a wine and you can’t find it online or in a competitor’s store, there is a good chance it is a private label and that same wine has been sold off as dozens of privately labeled wines. My best recommendation is to make friends with your local wine monger and let them earn your trust. Take their suggestions, because after all, that is their job. If a suggestion doesn’t work, let them know. Go back and tell them why it didn’t and ask them to try again, know they will have a mission to find you the best wines that work for you. It make take a few visits, but along the way, your wine professional will learn your tastes and preferences. After a while, when a new wine comes into a shop and they try it, they will think of you when they realize it fits your palates. They will be waiting for you to visit again eager to show you their new finds.

Spending years on a wine sales floor, I had developed many relationships with customers whose trust I earned and palates I learned. One couples children began to call me Uncle Nick every time the family came in shopping for wine. This was the part of I loved about the job, finding wines that matched perfectly for customers. The role in the customer/ employee relationship evolved from salesman to friend. The wine industry, like all retail industries, uses the power of suggestion to entice the buying spirit. From the colors of labels to free samples, but at the end of the day each individual palate is completely different, so let the wine shop earn your trust and let them work for you, but remember, your open mind and honest feedback is pertinent along this journey to make it a successful one. Many of my customers were shocked when I suggested wines from smaller regions like Greece, Lebanon, and Portugal for them and their laudable enjoyment was what I truly relished in. Let the professional guide your education.

Day in the Life of a Wine Shop Manager: Prosecco Mountain

Warning: Below imagine isn't for weak stomachs.

It was a pretty typical Wednesday afternoon in April, just before Easter. The wine shop wasn’t particularly busy and the daily vendors had pretty much come and gone for the day. I would normally only receive a few shipments on Wednesday, from a few of the mid-size distributors. I had arrived to work in the later portion of the morning, because I was scheduled to teach a wine seminar at night. I run a light staff on Wednesday. My morning employee had left and there was one other employee on the floor with me with another on the schedule to work in the shop til close.

 I spent most of the afternoon getting ready for the class, picking out wines and getting them chilled, making corrections and additions to my presentation, making sure all the glassware was cleaned and polished, and gathering the rest of the supplies needed. My final delivery arrived, and it was a midsize order. It did include the wine I had been waiting for all day, because I was going to be building a big display of Prosecco for the springtime and Easter holiday. The space I was going to put it the display had already been cleared out and swept. In Virginia, most of the distributors employed merchandisers; the people who are paid to follow the delivery truck routes and stock all the wine they had just delivered. It is a great system for wine shop employees, because it saves them from having to do a lot of back-breaking work. I sent the driver on his way and my impatience got the best of me. I didn’t want to wait for the merchandiser to arrive. I never like having big empty gaps in the shop, and I preferred to build new displays by myself, simply because I usually had a vision for the way I wanted it to look. It was really not a big deal, except I was dressed up a little nicer than normal for the class I was going to be teaching later. I took my tie off and rolled up the sleeves and began building a mountain of Prosecco. It was coming together pretty quickly and then my ascent to the summit of Prosecco Mountain came to a screeching halt.

With only a few cases left to stack, it happened, crash! The bottom flaps of the case of sparkling wine I was carrying gave out and twelve bottles of Prosecco crashed against the floor exploding into hundreds of pieces, sending glass and wine everywhere. My nice dress pants were covered in wine and my shoes, drenched in juice. It is one of those moments every wine shop employee has in their lifetime, you just always hope it isn’t big and isn’t on a busy holiday or weekend. My closing employee had just arrived. She and my full time employee on duty had a nice laugh at my expense. Together we began to clean up the mess and finish building the display. After we finished, my leg still felt wet. I thought it was strange, because I had dried off my pants already. I did it a second time, but this time when I was rubbing my pant leg with paper towel, I felt a sharp pain on my shin. Then I noticed that my pant leg had an almost unnoticeable hairline rip in them at the same spot where the pain was coming from.  I pulled up my pant leg and quickly realized that this was not good. The entire front of my leg was cover in blood and my sock that I thought was soaked in Prosecco, was actually catching all the blood running down my leg. My first thought was, “great, I like these pants,” then “Shit, this hurts.” I filled out an accident report and drove myself to urgent care. Urgent care was about ten minute away and the pain was getting worse and almost unbearable. By now, it was about 4:45pm and I was scheduled to teach at 6:30pm. When I arrived, they took me right back to a bed and I think I spoke to three nurses, before a doctor even came into my room, all of them shopped in my store and wanted to talk about wine.  The doctor finally came in and brought me a Percocet for the pain. I briefly thought about not taking it because I had to teach, but my leg really hurt.  I had taken Percocet before when I had my wisdom teach pulled and it didn’t get me high or loopy, so I figured, it will probably just help my leg pain a little. She pulled a piece of glass out of my shin bone that was about the size of a dime. She told me I was lucky it didn’t hit a major artery that runs close to my wound, I would be in major trouble then. Then she gave me two options. She could stitch up the wound, but because of its placement on the shin, she didn’t think it would hold, especially if I am on my feet all day. The other option that she recommended was to staple my cut together. For deep cuts on the shin bone and skull, staples are the preferred method, but putting them in is the more painfully option. I have had stitches before and they were pretty easy to take, how bad could staples really be? I told her the staples were fine and I really needed to get back to work. She told me I should just go home and lay off the leg for the evening; unfortunately, it was too late to cancel the class. It was almost 6pm. Because I chose staples, I only needed three. Now, when she put the first staple in, I thought I was prepared, but she had to bunch up my skin that was already in searing pain, and then, with her evil doctor stapler, snap! snap! snap! I don’t want to sound like a wuss, but I don’t ever want to do that again. It was awful and felt like pieced my skin with a nail they had pulled out of a well-lit fire pit. She gave me another Percocet for later that evening if I needed it and sent me on my way.

I walked back into work a few minutes before 6:30pm and my amazing staff had set up the class for me. One employee stayed late and was planning to start off the class for me in case I didn’t get back in time. None of the student knew anything had happened and that the last few hours were a painful scramble, until about half way through the class when my walk had turned into a limp and was getting worse. Finally, one of my regular students raised his hand and asked, “Are you alright?” I hadn’t really noticed I was limping because I was pretty focused on the material. I gave in and explained what had just transpired and we all had a big laugh about it. The class digression at this point had turned into a group therapy session with lots of wine. I pulled up a seat with my group of about fifteen people and we all discussed old battle wounds and stitch stories. They had all forgotten they were in the store to learn about wine. I grabbed all the bottles of wine and passed them around to everyone and they helped themselves and we chatted about them if they wanted to, but mostly just enjoyed them.

I never attempted to reach the summit or Prosecco Mountain again. Someday, I will climb it and I concur its barrage flying bubbles and glass shrapnel. 

No Sleep Til Brooklyn Oenology

Earlier this week, I took an overnight trip to New York City for a business meeting. I could have flown in for the day and hopped right back on a plane to come home, but I stayed with visit with my best friend who lives in Brooklyn, NY. We decided to visit a place I had wanted to visit for a long time, but had just never had the opportunity, Brooklyn Oenology. It is a winery that produces New York state wines from mainly Long Island, but also other various regions of the state like the Finger Lakes for their riesling. The venue was charming but slow on a dark, rainy Tuesday evening. At least it was happy hour when we got there. I didn’t know what to expect to see, but it was set up more like a bar meets a coffee house and gift shop boutique.  It had a tasting menu with eleven currant releases by them and just as many to taste from other vineyards across the state, many of which I had tried before. But we were there to taste Brooklyn Oenology’s wines.  We sampled a number of wines and there was one clear stand out of the bunch, the 2010 Merlot North Fork. The tasting sheet describes it as follows: complex, with lively flavors of dark currant and blackberry, with highlights of chocolate, savory spices, and black pepper, finishing with a subtle touch of vanilla. A blend of 96% merlot and 4% petit verdot, it’s a deep, rich, dimensional wine that’s great with food. I really can’t disagree with much written on their tasting sheet, except for black pepper, but palates vary. My friend even described the nose to have a smell like the permanent markers he sniffed when he was a kid; I am thinking he sniffed too many permanent makers as a kid. I picked up strong vanilla notes and a savory note I couldn’t put my finger on. It was a great visit.

I have always been a fan of Long Island merlot, from producers like Macari, Pellegrini, Bedell, and Wölffer. Perched near the same latitude as Bordeaux, the Long Island soils and temperature make for fantastic red wines. Merlot tends to be a late ripening red grape and the Long Island air temperature is controlled by the surrounding waters. As the air temperatures cools, the warmer summer waters around the Island keep the vineyards a few degrees warmer thwarting off impending frosts just long enough to ripen reds like merlot into perfection.

Researchers believe merlot is the offspring of cabernet franc and first noted in Bordeaux around 1784. The term merlot is the Occitan word for blackbird. The name was thought to have been given because of its dark color; or that blackbirds loved to feed on them in the southern French vineyards. The merlot grape itself has come a long way from the vineyards of Bordeaux and France. In fact, the life span of the grape thus far reminds me a little of rock & roll singer Elvis Presley. When it was first brought to the new world, it became a widely planted grape for churches, house wines, and widespread commercial use. It took to California soils well and commonly produced 100% varietal wines, along with adding its aid to red Bordeaux blends. Its popularity was rising, and rising quickly. In the 1980s, Merlot almost single handedly created the explosion of Washington state viticulture making the state a world class player.  It gained more popularity among consumers in Australia, South America, and other new world regions into the 1990s, but unfortunately, with the explosion of popularity, a large majority of wines began to sink in quality. They became fat and flabby wines, extra ripe and jammy. As palates began to become more sophisticated in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the demand for merlot was waning while production was still high. It had reached its tipping point. Growers began to rip up merlot vines for more demanded varietals like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. A lot of people will say that the coffin was nailed shut for merlot with the release of the critically-acclaimed movie Sideways, that bashed the existence of merlot and sang the overwhelming praises of pinot noir. Fortunately for us, a few regions and brave winemakers, never lost hope and continued on producing Merlot. Today, even after the final blow to its popularity, good bottles are still being made and now in the 2010’s it is on the rise yet again.

Washington state may still remain king of merlot as far as new world merlots are concerned, but smaller regions like Long Island, NY, and southern Chile are producing big, firm, austere, and sophisticated merlots. If you are on the east coast like me and you haven’t tried any Long Island merlot, do yourself a favor and give it a try if you can find when where you are. If you don’t see them on the shelf at your local wine retailer, ask them to find you one and special order it, that can and they will. I used to do it all the time for my customers in Virginia. If you are in Brooklyn do stop by Brooklyn Oenology to sample some wines. They wines are great, people were genuinely nice, funny, and can talk wine with you. They also serve local whiskies, cheeses, and pickles! I love NY. 

Day in the Life of a Wine Shop Manager: George Taber Visit

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There are a handful of significant days throughout the year for wine shops. Some shops put more importance on them then others, but the more festive days are: Beaujolais Nouveau release day in November, Bastille Day, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, etc.  As in any line of business, the necessity to elevate yourself over your competitors is obvious. Wine shops will try many different techniques to get you in the door to try and secure your business. Warehouse sales, private events, educational classes, and visits from important industry people are very popular methods of attraction. I had tried them all with success and also so-so results. Educational classes were the most popular and I loved teaching them. I did have visits scheduled from many winery owners and wine makers; some did private seminars for customers. They were always sold out. Some of my personal favorite guests were Dr. Ernst Loosen from Germany, Scott Osborn from Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes, Brooks Williams from Zaca Mesa Vineyards in Santa Barbara, and Leonardo LaCascio, the legendary owner of Winebow Importers. My favorite visitor was an author and historical icon in the world of wine.

 In the spring of 2011 I received a phone call from a good friend of mine and director of wine operations for the company to which I was employed. We spoke all the time, and most of the time our calls were about sports and music. He is a ridiculous Pearl Jam fan and always asked me to go to concerts with him. This phone call was different though. Years earlier I had traveled to Italy with him and he had remembered a conversation we had about the book Judgment Of Paris by George Taber. It was about the historic 1976 Paris tasting that revolutionized the entire wine industry from that day forward. Taber was the only journalist to attend the event. He wrote for Time Magazine at the time. I normally cannot finish a book in a sitting for a few days, but I had taken it with me on a trip to NYC and read it cover to cover on the train trip back from NYC to upstate NY. I was fascinated with the story and the way Taber told the entire back story of each major winemaker involved in making the winning wines. He told how they came to be in the wine business, family history and emigration from their home countries during times of unrest. All of the individual stories connected at the end of the book when the wines were entered into the 1976 tasting. My friend said, “You’re a fan of George Taber right?” Of course I was, but he knew that already. He then then told me that George and his wife were driving back home to New Jersey and were going to be going through my area and were willing to make a stop to do a book signing a few months from then.  I was excited. There had been book signings in my store before with people like Paula Deen and Corbin Bernsen, yes Corbin Bernsen, but none of those had anything to do with me or the wine shop. They were always a big to-do and great for sales. Now, I knew a wine writer whose first account of the event was more than thirty years old wouldn’t be a huge draw, but I was a fan none the less and excited. With the recent release of the Hollywood hit movie Bottle Shock only a year or two old at the time, which was a cinematic portrayal of one of the wineries involved in the 1976 tasting and Taber’s book, maybe we would have a good showing. I told my colleague that I would gladly host the event.

Now fast forward to the day of the event. I had set up a nice meet and greet with George Taber. He did not know what we were going to be to doing and most likely thought it was going to be just him sitting at a table with a few curious folks talking to him. My corporate team had sent us a few cases of two of his books, Judgment of Paris, and his newest release, A Toast to Bargain Wines; about sixty books of each. We had stanchioned off a decent size area of the wine shop and set Taber up with a table, chair, sharpie, and a bottle of water. I also ordered in five cases of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay to serve along with a cheese and charcuterie grazing station. All customers purchasing one of Taber’s books were invited to stay and try and the wine, snack, and mingle. It was an evening event and we took the late afternoon to set up. My desk was near the entrance to the wine shop and right on time, George and his wife walked into the shop. He introduced them and his wife quickly left to go shopping in the store for a few hours, which I thought was cute. George and I talked for a while. Even though I had many questions I wanted to ask him, I was a little star struck and just tried to act cool and professional, like it was no big deal. I showed him around and gave him a rundown of how we planned the evening to go. Admittedly, I let George know that because the event was essentially free and we didn’t sell tickets, I wasn’t sure how many people were going to attend. He was extremely nice and was happy with whatever the turnout would be.  

The evening went off without a hitch. People began to show up before the scheduled start time of the signing, buying books, wine, and talking to George. Many of them were regular students of mine and there were many that I didn’t recognize. We were busy from start to finish and we even sold out of his books before the event was over.  The Chateau Montelena was drinking fantastic and we almost sold all that I had brought in for the event to my surprise, it isn’t a cheap Chardonnay, about $40 a bottle.  When the event was all said and done, I spoke with George and he said it was the best book signing he had done in a long time. I felt happy to hear that, because I didn’t want to disappoint a legend.

Without George Taber, would new world wines be where they are today? Most likely they would be and would be achieving success as they are today.  But in 1976, they had no chance and no sightlines to a prosperous future; Taber gave them that with his history article in Time Magazine, which he later turned in his book Judgment of Paris. Today a bottle of the winning California wines are on display in the Smithsonian as part of true American history. Sometimes we don’t really know when we are making history or a bystander of something historical; George Taber got to do both.

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 “Last week in Paris, at a formal wine tasting organized by Spurrier, the unthinkable happened: California defeated all Gaul.”

~ George Taber, Judgment of Paris, Time Magazine, June 7, 1976

Historic Soils

As a Francophile, I have a deep respect for the wines, foods, and traditions of France. There is no region of wine I haven't explored, or old french cookbook I haven't stared at for hours, learning all I can, like a jack of all trades. Over the past dozen centuries, France has been developed a sense of self and place among the super powers of the world. Around 1050 a.d., the first crusaders left Jerusalem and made it into France; almost to Paris. The Holy Roman expansion at its greatest expanse completely covered the area we call France today and most of Europe.  In 1189 a.d., the third crusade made it through France and through Paris returning by ship by way of the Atlantic passed Portugal and back through the Mediterranean and to home. This began to create religious differences and early division of lands which become the forefront for the modern day borders of Europe today. The Roman Empire brought with it culture and industry from architecture and art, to farming, including grape growing and winemaking. In 1309, the Catholic headquarters moved to the rural sleepy town of Avignon on the Rhone River and stayed there for almost 70 years. This was known as the Avignon Exile. A French pope was elected, along with 5 other during this time, and created turmoil throughout the church when it moved back to Rome. This time period was called the Great Schism. After many major wars between kings, Germanic tribes, religious sects, and current super powers during WWI & WWII, France has always been a battle site, and a disputed land.  Over ten centuries have passed, and France played a crucial role in the development on Europe. A lot of people would argue that France was merely just a stepping ground and never really rose to power during any major events throughout history, but it was their simplistic ideals and drive to maintain a consistent way of life that I personally appreciate.  If there is one area where France is and always will be a major world super power, it is in wine making. Land, vines, and method have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries and command some of the highest prices on today’s market, and also some incredible bargains.  During WWII, the city of Champagne was completely destroyed and in ruins. The German Nazis stole all the champagne they could find and trampled through vineyards. Grape growers still find WWII artifacts in the soil today. After the war, families showed their determination to get back to their simply way of life, tradition, and they rebuilt the city and replanted their vineyards. A vine will produce fantastic grapes through vigor. They need to fight for sun, water, and nutrients. The beaten soils of France are the best in the world for their strong storybook vines.

I have realized that I like traditions. They are something to look forward to in an otherwise mundane world. Over the years as I grew further into the wine business, a tradition developed between my uncle, father, and me on Christmas Eve.  Even though some years we all haven’t been there, we had a small tradition between us. We all have the very similar palates for wine and prefer deep reds. My father loved Bordeaux and Burgundies. My uncle likes California Zinfandels and Chateaunuef-Du-Pape. I prefer Bordeaux and Rhone wines. Our palates are all connected by French wines. My family always has a fantastic Christmas Eve party with great food, and the whole extended family. The wine would be flowing, but for the three of us, we would always have a special bottle that would be hidden away in the corner or in a cupboard.  Sadly, my father passed away this year and wouldn’t be around to share the yearly secret bottle with us.  As my uncle lives out of state now and had to fly in, so I assumed he wouldn’t have brought anything with him, which would be completely acceptable. I actually wasn’t going to bring anything over this year, because it didn’t really feel the same without my father, but with some last minute reconsideration and a nudge from a friend, I headed to my cellar to begin digging.

I decided on a bottle of Bordeaux. I pulled out a bottle of 2005 Domaine de Chevalier Grand Cru Classe from the region of Pessac Leognan. I knew this 2005 would be drinking early, but I decided if I wanted to do this, I was going to go big. Christmas Eve was a blast and my friend who gave me a nudge came over to spend some time with the family as well. I gave him the third spot we had opening for in our little trilogy of wine geeks. The wine was amazing as expected. I have had many vintages of Chevalier before, and this was right up there with the best of them. The current market collect anyways from $85 - $125 a bottle right now. It was rich, and perfectly balanced between tannins and acidity.  The wine could definitely age longer, but it was drinking quite well right now.  The French definitely got this one right!

Just like the French kept tradition and culture alive throughout tumultuous centuries, maybe we should all look within and realize that traditions are good. On bad days, they can give you something to look forward to. On good days, then they just add fuel to your excited fires.  Whether it is a special bottle of wine created by historic soil, or whatever you make it, keep tradition alive

2005 Domaine De Chevalier, me and my beautiful wife Erin

Chateau Ah-Ha

When I was 21 years old I was working at the local wine and spirits shop. It was, and still is one of the largest shops in my home town of Rochester, NY. I was taking music production classes at a community college in the Finger Lakes at this time. I was had this fantastic vision of producing hit rock n’ roll records for the rest of my life, hanging out with bands, and playing guitar in my own famous band. As unsure as my parents were about this goal, they were supportive. I was having fun with it and was playing with a band at the time.  While all this was going on, there was a chain reaction of events taking place behind the scenes of the music industry. In 1999, the online file-sharing program Napster hit, and dozens of other subsequent programs just like it took to the web. This was a catalyst to the end of big music and all the corporate money being handed out left and right to bands, producers, engineers, A&R reps, promoters, and many more. Since music was now being traded freely without money exchanging hands, the writing was on the wall. I will admit I participated in the acquisition of desired music file too.  I was helping to dig the grave for my very own goals of being in the business of music.

I still had my job at the wine and spirits store.  I wasn’t much into wine when I was 21. I was new to drinking and stuck to beer and whiskey. I didn’t drink in high school at parties or most of my freshman year of college. Not that I shunned the experience, my collective group of friends and I were just into doing other things and none of us were of age anyways. It wasn’t a big deal to me. We were going to concerts a few times a week, playing video games, or watching movies like Zoolander and Super Troopers over and over again. At work, I was doing my best to work hard and keep the shelves stocked. I was learning a lot about spirits and wine at the time, but it was purely book knowledge. I had no real back catalog of tasting notes from world wines yet, nor did I care at the time. I remember one afternoon in the spring of 2003 as my music dreams were fading away and I was just going through the motions at school, I was heard a knock on the window of the office of the wine shops owner.  In the front of the store, he had his office with mirror windows, like a police officer’s sunglasses from the movies. I looked around to see who else was around and I was the only one in that area building a display of Franzia boxed wine. Through the window I heard his muffled voice say, “Nick, get in here.” I knew he was up there with a few people and one of them was a sales representative I knew. I walked into the office where the owner was tasting a lineup of wines. There was a sales representative I knew in there and another gentleman I didn’t. He said, “Grab a glass and join us.” I left the office and quickly headed to the back kitchen area where the glasses were and grabbed a couple of glasses and went back to the office. I had tasted wines in their before for staff tastings, but I was never called in on my own to sit and sip with winery reps and owner. I was nervous, because my wine knowledge was very limited and all I could wish for was to sit, taste, and watch the big boys talk from the corner. I knew I would have no real substantial input to any kind of conversation they were going to have about the wines being tasted. I sat down and the owner said, “Nick, try these wines, they are too good to miss. This is (insert forgotten name here) from Chateau Montelena.”

The name didn’t mean anything to me. There was a chardonnay, and a few Cabernets open. I started with the chardonnay. I tasted it and then tasted it again. I was asked what I thought and I said in complete naivety, with a grin, “Taste like French to me.” You see, I had no clue Chateau Montelena was NOT a french wine, but a Napa Valley wine, or its historic past.  The winery representative said I must have a great palate, because they modeled their Chardonnay after Meurseult-Charmes Burgundy. This put me in a tough spot. First off, I quickly realized when I looked at the bottle that the wine was from California and my comment which was meant to be slightly humorous, just happen to hit the mark. I was really nervous now, because I knew I couldn’t back up that statement with any other knowledge.  I sat back and let our sales rep pour me their Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and I spouted off some standard stock Cab descriptors and again drifted back out of the conversation. Then we tried an older vintage of the estate grown cab from 1995. It was then my life in the wine took on a whole new meaning. I took a sip and in my head, my conscience said, “holy shit.” This wine tasted like no other red wine I had ever tried up to this point. I could taste things I had never tasted in wines before, the stock descriptors were over shadowed by notes of olive brine and cedar wood, and the tannins were fired with pinpoint accuracy at my tongue. This was my Ah-ha moment. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. I asked for another taste and all I could do was smell the glass. The aromatics kept changing. I would take a sniff, sit back and imagine what I smelled. I would repeat this multiple times with different outcomes each time.  

I left the office and finished out my shift and headed home. I lived with my parents at the time. My father was a food and wine man. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America and loved great wines. I told him what I tried and I remember his reaction peak with interest and a look of jealousy. Of course he knew what wine I was talking about.  We talked about the wine and I could see my excitement was fueling his. We had a great night.  With my music goals fading and my new spark for wine, the writing was on the wall. I made wine my career choice and kept music as my hobby. Though my early years in school seem to be all wasted, without it, I may have never worked in the wine and spirits shop and never tasted the 1995 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and never entered this business which I adore deeply. 

Day in the Life of a Wine Shop Manager: Leap of Terror 2

During the summer doldrums any job dishes out, sometimes odd things happen. Whether it’s brought on by surprise, boredom, or pure cabin fever insanity, people tend to lose it a little. This lunchtime tale surprised me and others; and got my adrenaline racing at Mach 3 one sleepy summer day at work.

Like most summer mornings at work, I was woken up while the sun was still sleeping by our small dogs looking for food. It was about 5:30am when I started my day with my normal routine: dogs, small snack or just coffee, shower, dress, crate dogs, and off to work as the sun was rising. It was a Tuesday. On Tuesday I had to be to work by 7:00am to receive one of my larger orders for the week from a company that sold all the big production labels like Kendall-Jackson, Beringer, Sutter Home, etc.  The large quantity deals, high velocity bottles that really didn’t make me a lot of money.  As usual, the driver was already at the store waiting for me and had most of the delivery pulled from the truck and set to be checked in. The process usually takes about 30 minutes.  It was around this time that a few other distributors would show up, some with deliveries, and some to write orders for a later delivery date. Though I was never to be busy with customer service on a Tuesday morning, I was busy with housekeeping and vendor relations. Around 10am one of my full time employees would arrive and take over most of the receiving duties from me while I caught up on emails and meetings with my management, the boring stuff. All in all, the day was going as normal. I probably could have done it with my eyes blindfolded. Around 11-11:30, I would always feel rumbles in my belly. It was like clockwork. I would usually have a snack of crackers or something that I kept in the back for a quick nibble, but I was all out. I went and got myself a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee.

I was allotted 30 minutes to 1 hour for lunch. I never took that long, because I eat quickly and I get bored just sitting away from the shop for lunch. I always kept a pristine backroom that wasn’t overflowing with extra cases of wine and other hodge-podge found in storage rooms. That kind of a backroom drove me insane. You could eat off the shelves in the storage room and I usually did (I used paper plates). I had a window out to the shop and could keep an eye on everything. Frequently, employees and vendors would come into the storage room to get some wine for the shelves or the customers, we would chat a second, then they would be on their way back out to the floor. This is still a very typical Tuesday. On this day, any sort of a normal lunch was about to disappear out of the back room as fast as the Looney Toons Road Runner.

A merchandiser (someone paid by the distribution company to come to the store and restock their products) was in the backroom while I was eating my breakfast sandwich. He is a very nice guy.  He stands about 5’8” and is a bit larger in the mid-section than me. He is a black man and had a love for funky jazz like myself, so we always talked about it. As we were making small talk, he was pulling a few cases to his cart and opening them to be restocked. As he opened one of them, one of my biggest fears presented itself to me. At first, I didn’t see what had happened, but there it was, headed straight for me. The merchandiser opened the case and in a split second like he was moonwalking with both feet at the same and had the agility of a ballerina, launched backwards about three feet. I froze, watched, and laughed at his jump.  Big guys like him don’t normally move like that. I don’t remember what I said to him, but my laughter quickly turned to fear when he pointed to floor and I saw a snake slithering right at my feet. It was only about 1’-2’ in length, but I didn’t care. It was a freakin’ snake! My two major fears in life are undertow and the deep ocean, and snakes. I don’t understand snakes at all. They move with no arms or legs, its madness. Just as the merchandiser leapt backwards, I leapt upwards and onto the very same shelf I was eating my sandwich off of. The snake continued right underneath me and under the shelving unit. We both jumped out to the center of the room and ran out of the backroom in a panic. My full time employee was there and saw us both burst out of the storage room and came running. He is a country guy and is accustomed to seeing snakes. To him, the whole situation was laughable. The snake jumped out of a case of wine that had made its way up from Argentina. It was a brown and black snake and moved quickly. My employee and another vendor grabbed the broom and an empty wine case and headed in to catch it. The merchandiser and I stood outside peering in through the window. The snake had balled itself up into a corner underneath the shelving unit. It took only a few minutes to catch the snake in the box. No one could identify what type of snake it was. I wouldn’t even look into the box, because I had already seen it jump out of one. The snake was a straight baller.

 They took the snake outside to the side of the store where there was a creek and swampy area next to route 29 in Virginia. We all had a laugh about it, most of it at the expense of me and the merchandiser.  We’ll never know if it was a poisonous snake or just a simple garden dweller, but it was a tough snake to live in that wine case for who knows how long. It took a slow ship from Argentina, through ports and customs. Dropped in a distribution warehouse where it sat until it was time for delivery. I ordered it and it sat with me until we were ready to open it. I can only imagine it was in the case for weeks to months and was still alive and probably really hungry and angry.  I respect the toughness of that quick sneaky creep, but all I know if that ‘Snake Catcher’ was not part of my job description. Insert your favorite Launrence Fishburne quote here.

Sorry, there was no video footage of this. I would  have loved to show you a snapshot of it.  

Day in the Life of a Wine Shop Manager: Leap of Terror 1

Fair warning, this wine blog will have no specific wine talk today. 

When you are born and raised in upstate NY like me, you don't experience too many natural disasters first hand. Sure we have our fair share of heavy snows, but the state is well equipped to deal with it. 

I had moved to Virginia for work in 2008. For the most part, Northern Virginia is obnoxiously hot and humid in the summer time and fairly easy during the winter. The few times it would snow with any accumulation, the region would shut right down and take an slide (pun intended) into a snowy panic. It would last for 24 - 48 hours, then most of the snow would melt away as you are left to complaints about normal daily traffic. That was life in VA for almost four years, until August 23, 2011 around 2:00pm.

That was a Tuesday. A typical boring day for me in the wine shop. I was mostly receiving and placing orders for the week. It was typically hot August day. When I woke up that morning I had no clue I would experience the most terrifying moments in my life. Many of you will remember that on that day, a 5.6 Magnitude earthquake would strike the region. The epicenter was about 30 miles from the wine shop. I was sitting at my desk out in the shop talking to a vendor. There wasn't too many customers at the time and all in all, it was quiet. I had a desk chair on wheels. At 1:51pm, we heard a low tone seemingly click on. I thought it was one of the large air conditioning units switching on across the store. Then all of the sudden my chair, with me in it, starter creeping away from its original spot. Did I mention I was still sitting in it?! Then the sound exponentially grew louder and louder and louder. My blood pressure was climbing higher and higher and higher. It sounded as if a large truck and trailer were headed straight through the wall. The lights were shaking, shelves were moving, and what customers and staff were in the building were running straight towards me. My desk was near the entrance and exit. The sound was unbearable. The shop was just around 10,000 square feet and with over 2,400 selections of wine. Multiple that by time 12 bottles of each on the shelf and not including floor displays and back stock, that is around 50,000 bottles of wine. Now imagine the EARTH moving below it all. The bottles clanking on each other were so loud, you couldn't even hear the person yelling to you from only a few steps away. It was at this moment that I said, "screw this, i'm outta here!" In one motion I placed a hand on my desk and leap over it side-saddle, and with two large steps, I was out of the building. I haven't ever moved that fast my entire life. All I could think about was the roof caving in and crushing everyone inside. Almost as soon as I made it outside, the shaking stopped. My heart took a few more seconds to steady down. Now I had to go and look for the aftermath of destruction inside. I envisioned a sea of red wine flowing through multiple isles and under shelves, but as luck would have it, not a single bottle fell over. There were hundreds of bottles hanging off the shelves ready to leap off with just another millisecond of shaking, but fortunately, nothing. We spent the next hour readjusting the wine bottles, but it was about all the fun I needed for the day. click below here for the specific earthquake facts. The USGS website has become a favorite site of mine. I was on it today which sparked me to write this very blog. 

http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eqinthenews/2011/se082311a/#summary

In the hours to follow, I was getting points and playful snickers from fellow co-workers. One them even came up to me and said, "afraid of earthquakes are we now?" I knew something was up. Turns out, my leap of terror was caught on camera on the stores security camera. I saw it and laughed it off. I was definitely kind of a sissy for a few seconds, but if the sky came crumbling down that day, I would have been in the clear. I have added the still frame from the camera shot. Enjoy it. 

 

 Leap of Terror

Leap of Terror

Smithsonian & The Mysterious Fourth Floor

There is a science to selling. In fact there have been many books released on this very topic. I have read a few; all filled with great information about consumers, showroom displays, and mindset. When I was in the retail business, I used a few things I learned as far as making displays and signage are concerned, but many other things I tended to just disregard because I’ve always had a belief in having genuine kindness, thoughtful approach, and honesty with customers and friends worked best for me. Being in the wine business for the majority of my working career, I have been invited to attend a lot of cool events and dinners. While living in Virginia, I received an invitation to a wine tasting set up by the Rhone Rangers out of California who are dedicated to the advancement of Rhone varietals in California. This was a two part event and the latter was a tasting at a high end DC restaurant of some fantastic California vineyards specializing in Rhone grapes. The first part was a lecture and demonstration with Mr. George Riedel himself at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Now if you live in Northern Virginia (NOVA), you know the traffic is only slightly better than having a deadly disease or being on a plane 30,000 feet high when the engines give out. It isn’t fun at any time of the day. To make the 20 mile trek into the Washington DC was always a question of “do I really want to give up most of my day for XYZ, or stay home?” Only three things really got me to head down town and they were tickets to see the Washington Capitals play, when relatives were in town and wanted to see the sites, or when there was a really good offer to go eat at an amazing restaurant. Everything else, pretty much got the brushed off. The lecture with George Riedel started at 1pm and it was on a Wednesday. I typically took off on Wednesdays, so I decided to go and see what the hype was about. My friend Paul was with me, another wine geek and business lifer. We knew we were going to get a set of Riedel glasses out of it, so that was a plus. We arrived at the museum, which in case you didn’t know, has free admission and always packed with tourist. I had been there before with guests from out of town. We asked the front desk clerk where to go and she sent us through a maze of galleries to a back elevator. The instructions seemed easy enough, but walking through a museum isn’t easy when your attention is constantly being pulled from side to side to look at neat exhibits and awkward tourists. We found the elevator only because we began to follow another group of people who looked like they were only putting up with the crowds for free Riedel glasses like us. We made it to the elevator. Our directive was to head to the fourth floor. Well, that would have been fine but the elevator buttons only went to three. We went up to three and got off and looked around. There was nothing going on, just offices. Finally, we asked for help and a man said, “Floor four? Why do you need to get there?” he questioned like we were trying to break into the CIA. “You’re not allowed up there,” he said. Then he paused then laughed and said, “C’mon I’ll take you there.” Irritated, we followed him back onto the elevator we just got on and instead of pressing the button for three, he pressed three and held it down until the elevator began to rise past all indicated lights and buttons on the elevator panel. That would have been a nice piece of information to have Front Desk clerk! Finally we had arrived to a large classroom and there was already about 50 – 75 people seated and packets of information and glasses set out in front.

The lecture began with some a welcoming and a housekeeping statement from some nameless folks who probably aren’t paid enough to do all the leg work for events like this one. George began to speak and he was interesting, but only for a while. I’ll freely admit that I lost track of his lecture about ten minutes in. Maybe it was the strain of getting into the DC, or my wasted attention span at the downstairs exhibits, but I tried, I really did. After about 25 minutes of speaking, his henchmen began to pour wines into the four glasses in front of us. They had set out for each of us one each Riedel Vinum Series Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Pinot Noir glass. We tasted four wines. The first wine we were poured was a chardonnay and it was poured into all four glasses to do comparisons. We did this four times each with a proper wine for each glass and we tasted through them individually and as a group, then took polls (by raise of hand) as to which glass everyone preferred each wine out of. For the most part, the majority of the group of seasoned wine professionals sided with the proper glass. With 100% honest, I will tell you that I couldn’t truly taste too much of a difference between the Cabernet, Syrah, and Chard glasses. They were also, very similar in shape, just different size bowls. The Pinot Noir glass was the only different one with a tulip/flared lip. This design was meant to let the wine attack your whole palate at once instead of a direct pour to the center of your tongue. George was a fantastic salesman. He was promoting the craftsmen and scientific design out of his glassware like no other. Think about it, if he could sell us, the professionals, on his product, then we could promote it to our customers in wine shops and restaurants. It made sense to me and based on the comments I was hearing from the group, they had bought it. We were given boxes for each of the glasses we tasted from and a bag and were allowed to keep each one to use at home. I currently have three of them. My chardonnay glass became a casualty of war with the floor one evening when my wife and I had a large group of friends over who all brought a large group of wines. I mainly use the Pinot Noir glass, because I did notice a difference and really thought it opens the bright bouquet of each wine I pour in it. I am a bouquet guy; I love the smells of wine.

Though, I really am neither here nor there on specifically designed varietal wine glasses, I won’t badmouth the product. They are nice glasses and if you can afford them, they look great. I use the Pinot Noir glass. It works for me. The others were misses, but may be great for you. I appreciate the salesmanship George Riedel gave when going through the tasting and he was able to draw my attention back into the game that afternoon. Paul and I left for the large tasting of California wines and before we knew it, it was zero hour to hell traffic leaving the city. If we left before the tasting we would have been okay getting back, but now the hour travel time just turned into two and half hours on a crowded metro with expensive wine glasses and a head coming on. Sigh.

 

Little Old Ladies

I’ve been to Italy twice in my life. On each trip, I’ve witnessed the matriarch of a family shine and emerge happy for the first time in many years. Both had suffered the loss of a husband. My first trip was a Christmas gift from my grandmother to her entire immediate clan of 15 people including her.

She bought tickets to a Greek Isle cruise departing from Venice to a stop in Bari on the heel of Italy’s boot before our ship steamed across the Adriatic Sea to Greece. This was a trip my grandmother and grandfather had always wanted to do with the family, but were waiting until my cousins, sisters, and I was the appropriate age. Sadly, my grandfather was not able to make it on the trip. He passed away in 1995. I will spare you all the details of this trip and keep them between my family members and me, but I will say, whenever we are all together, the memories from this trip resurface in laughter and smiles from ear to ear. My grandmother, despite a few hiccups with her room on the cruise ship, came out of her shell and had some laughs and smiles.

 I was working for a wine and spirits shop when we left for this trip. I was a few years into the business and at the bottom rung of my career in wine. I was aware of the wine from Italy, but not in detail. The extent of my Venetian wine knowledge was predominately Pinot Grigio centric. We had a few evenings in Venice before our Costa Cruise line was set to embark. My sisters, cousins, and I pretty much ran the city after 6pm when all of the day tourist emptied back out of the canals to the main lands. The streets were quiet and pleasant, and the gondolas were tied up for the night. “Prosecco and Soave” was our mantra for the trip. It was pretty much all we drank as far as wine was concerned.  We would all sit down for dinner and would each order our own bottles of the Soave. It would really throw off our Italian waiters. Who cares, we were having fun and weren’t driving home. Nearly 10 years later, Soave still holds a special place on my palate and is one of my favorite white wines to drink, even though any given wine shop will have only one or two on the shelf. Soave is a wine region around the city of Verona, a bit north of Venice. It is made of the grape called Garganega. It is a light to medium style white and has bright acid notes, flavors of citrus to pears, and from single vineyards and be very pronounced in body and depth. If you have a local wine shop heavy on Italian specialties, ask them for assistance picking out a good one. This was a trip I will never forget.

On my second trip to Italy, I headed to Tuscany. This was a very wine educational trip for me personally. Everyone touts France as the hardest wine country to learn, but for me it has always been Italy. France came pretty easy for me. It isn’t until you walk the vines and countryside of Italy that you understand the artistry of the land and people. Between the hills of San Gimignano and Siena, Italy is the Cecchi family estate, nestled alongside the hills, at Villa Cerna. We arrived there after sampling wines at Castello Montaudo for dinner. As we were driving up to the estate, we were told that dinner was prepared by “Mama Cecchi,” the surviving matriarch of the family. The Cecchi wine estates began in 1893 by Luigi Cecchi. It is currently operated by his grandchildren, Cesare and Andrea. Cesare was at dinner with us and his mother was letting us into her home where she has had no guests in the prior four years when her husband passed away. It was pretty special to be allowed into this 120 year estate built of stone and by hand. It was dimly lit with a lot of candles, and Mama Cecchi was inside the entrance to greet us and after a few words before she shuffled off back into her kitchen to finish dinner. I peeked into the kitchen, which was behind a curtain, and it was no bigger than a kitchen a small one bedroom apartment. There was one other person in the kitchen with her. We drank wine and snacked of local cheeses and salami. The highlight of food was her homemade ribolita which Mama Cecchi had started in the days prior. It is a Tuscan-kale, white bean, and day old bread soup. I’ve had soups like it since then, but nothing really compares to hers. I don’t really remember what the rest of the meal was. There was salad, pasta, and a beef dish. I just remember it all tasting fantastic and hitting the spot. As dinner started, Cesare went to down to the wine cellar of the estate and grabbed three magnums of estate grown Chianti classic from 1988, they were unlabeled and covered in dust. He said it wasn’t what he planned on opening, but they were the last three bottles, and it just felt right that night.  I don’t believe the bottles had ever been disturbed since they were first cellared. The wine was brilliant. This 100% Sangiovese wine was popping with acidity and the tannins had not dissipated one bit. There was loads of blueberry, raspberry, and cedary notes. It was a special wine and a special visit. To this day, I have never tasted a Chianti Classico that even rivals that wine. Maybe it was the setting and the great food, but hopefully I will find one in the near future.

Mama Cecchi’s smile that night was reminiscent of my grandmother’s smiles from five years earlier in Italy. I felt very fortunate to be a part of two groups coming together to be a part of a family matriarch’s joy. 

Shared Stories

Good Morning.

I've been on this website for a little while this morning making some updates. You may have noticed some changes to the homepage. I would like to hear from you now. I would like to hear your wine stories and wine questions. If you would like to reach out to me via the connect page on this site, please do so. With permission, I would respond to your wine questions and shared stories on this blog. You can remain anonymous if you wish. Or if you just want to share a wine story you wish to have posted on this blog, just send it over. 

I look forward to reading and answering you questions. 

Have a fantastic day!

Blau is the new black

I have an affinity for the unknown and obscure. This fact holds true for nearly all things of interest to me; music, art, you name it. It doesn’t mean I shun anything popular; I just get excited when I discover something so fantastic, great, and new to me. The same holds true for wine and specific grapes varietals. Unlike the “Alexander the Grapes” of wine varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which can virtually be grown anywhere and make a decent local style, some grapes just get lost in translation when trying to conquer the world. Case in point: Blaufränkisch.

Blaufränkisch did not officially appear until 1862 when it was introduced at a viticulture exposition in Vienna, Austria, but its geneology traces it back hundreds of years before that into lower Styria and Dalmatia. Under the guise of multiple names, Blaufränkisch is grown all over Eastern Europe. Austria leads these countries in production and quality. In Austria, Blaufränkisch is the second most widely planted red grapes behind Zwiegelt. During WWII, most of the Austrian vineyards were destroyed and all bottled wine was stolen by the German Nazis.

In 2009 I traveled to Austria to visit the many wine regions this beautiful country has to offer, except I went in January, and it wasn’t too beautiful. It was freezing and lonely out in the countryside. I visited great wineries and vineyards such as Netzl, Mienklieng, Hillinger, Steindorfer, Anton Bauer, Strauss, and Stienenger vast caves. Among of the fantastic Grüner Veltliners, Rieslings, and Zwiegelts, the Blaufränkisch took me by surprise. It wasn’t until we had dinner with the legendary Leo Hillinger at his winery on our first evening that I was blown away by such a powerful red, and it came out of the frozen grounds just on the other side of the wall from the exact room was drinking it in . This wine was rich, spicy, brooding, gripping, and eccentric much like the proprietor, Leo Hillinger himself. Leo is a type of man that just has a gravitational pull about him. All eyes and attention slowly turned to him when he walks into a room. With blonde hair, fit physique, and funny nose, he resembles Owen Wilson as a 24/7 gym rat. He had a confidence and obvious love for his wine. Normally I would be turned off by someone with this much bravado, and almost arrogance, but his wine held up and I was on my 40th hour with no sleep and 4th winery of the day. I may have been a little delirious and tired, but my palate was shockingly awake. It is no secret my favorite grape is Syrah, and for a Syrah lover, the Blaufränkisch is a fantastic substitute. It carries the same attitude and fruit flavors, with a little bit of a peppery punch. I tried many other Blaufränkisch bottles on the trip, even a vertical with a great four course dinner with Anton Bauer paired with a slow cooked braised beef cheek course. That was a meal to remember. I don’t think I remember trying a bad wine at all in Austria.

It wasn’t until this past weekend that I tried a bottle of similar power to the Hillinger, and it was made in my own backyard, well close to it. As Austria is considered a cool climate region and focuses on grapes that can grow well in the climate like Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and Pinot Noir, so is the Finger Lakes regions of upstate New York.

My wife and I had family guests in from out of town and when they are here, we love to visit the wine trails in the Finger Lakes. We chose to visit Seneca Lake on this trip. I have been to nearly all the wineries in the area, but there is one that I had just never stopped at and not for any real reason good or bad, it just always was skipped, Red Tail Ridge Winery and Vineyard. It is a great looking estate with only 35 acres and a focus on small batch production. Their website says the focus on small batch is to ensure personal touch and quality over quantity, which is commendable. I was able to try their 2011 Red Tail Ridge Martini Family Vineyards Blaufränkisch from their obscure red varietal series (as labeled). Only 408 cases were produced. Upon my first sniff I was slightly intrigued with hints of pepper and stewed plums. It tasted even better and was very reminiscent of the Blaufränkisch I tried in its native lands of Austria. It had great tannic structure, acidity from the cool climate growing region, and loaded with herbaceous and blue and black fruit flavors. I was extremely surprised and happy that this wine exists. I of course bought a bottle and am eager to open. Too bad I can’t reproduce the beef cheek dish I had in Austria.

It is always great to try and experience the terrain a grape is grown in and under the vigor that a vine has to go through to create such great fruit. From harsh weather to wars as in Austria’s case, the history and traditions are still alive and bursting at the seams. It is apparent that some of the quality has been spilling out into the new world and even in my backyard, the Finger Lakes wine region of New York. 

Leo Hillinger and his Blaufrankisch

Blood of Hercules

I love country of blue and white, Greece. In fact the Greek flag is represented by 9 stripes of blue and white said to be the 9 Muses, who are the goddesses of art and civilization.  My bloodline travels back to Greece on my mother’s side. I do have distant relatives who still live there in the small Peloponnesian town of Niata. Despite having traveled to Greece twice, I have never met them. With such breath-taking landscapes, history, and food, what is there not to love about it?

On my second trip to Greece, I was fortunate enough to go for work. It was paid for, and I was paid to go! Imagine my surprise when my boss told me I was going. It was definitely one of my happiest days of the job ever. We flew over in the month of May and landed in Athens. From there we got right into our chariots and headed south to the Peloponnese. We stopped at the Corinth Canal for photos, to stretch our legs, and regroup after a long flight from Newark, NJ. We were headed to the town of Napflion where we were going to be staying for the night. Along the way we stopped to visit the vineyards of Skouras. Skouras was established in 1986 in Pyrgela, Argos by George Skouras. George trained in Dijon, France. George became a pioneer and was the first winemaker to begin to blend Greece’s indigenous grapes with the more worldly-common grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon. His first and now flagship wine he made was called Megas Oenos. It is comprised of mostly St. George (Aghiorghitiko) and Cabernet Sauvignon.

In Greece, St. George is also known as the “Blood of Hercules.” It is one of the most noble of red grapes in Greece and produces some of the best full bodied, world class wines the world knows today. As of 2012, it is the most widely planted grape in Greece and predominately region of Nemea, which is where Skouras is located. In the area around Metsovo it is used to make a common table wine called Katoi. St George can be soft and supple to tannic and brooding. It usually spends time in oak and benefits from the barrel-aging. Winemakers will use the blood of Hercules to make rosé wines as well. My visit to Skouras was my first introduction to this grape. We were given a tour and brought downstairs into their barrel room which was lined with endless rows of barrels stacked high, filled to the max with mainly reds, and a few chardonnays.

We sat down for a group lunch with an assortment of typical Greek foods. Being the Greek guy on the trip, a few of my colleagues kept asking me “what’s this?” or “how do you pronounce that?” We went through a great tasting of their whole line up of wines and ended with a few vintages of the Skouras Megas Oenos. Most people prejudge greek wine, which is too bad, because some of their complex reds and whites being produced now can hold to some of the best bordeaux’s, supertuscans, and California cabs. The Megas Oenos is one of those wines.

It is rich and gripping. The tannins are tight down the center of the tongue and on the cheeks, with a noticeable perfect balance of acidity of the sides of the tongue. It didn’t taste hot and the aromas were laced with beautiful notes of cherry, cedar wood, herbs, and plums. It got more pronounced the longer it sat in my glass. The back vintages began to show notes of blue fruit and a strangely-charming waft of sea brine.  For a typical retail price of $20-$25, I would buy four of these over one bottle of a fantastic $100 California Cabernet any day of the week.

The rest of the trip was stellar, we drove through Tripoli to visit a cheese maker and sampled some of the best barrel aged feta, kefolatiri, and kasseri cheese the Peloponnese has to offer. Ate lunch at the peak of a giant hilltop olive grove, ate a traditional Greek supper prepared by the local towns people just for us just south of Sparta, ate the heads off whole fish fresh out of the Mediterrannean, and stood on the Acropolis with thousands of other tourist. We drank amazing st. george, roditis, and malagousia wine all along the way.

If you ever had the chance to a wine made of St. George, I highly recommend it. Like us Greeks, you too will then have the Blood of Hercules in you. 

Vintage Things

I have a tendency to lean a little towards old things. Whether it is old music, old traditions, or old people, I believe there is more story to things that have seen the years pass by. I am an avid collector of old first-pressing vinyl records. I like vintage furniture, and my pride and joy, my 1972 Vintage Gibson/ Electra Hollow Body Tobacco Sunburst Guitar. Over the years, I have found that my love for old wines can vary. 

In the pursuit of my Diploma from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, years of service in the industry, and gathering with friends, I have been fortunate enough to really dive into what it means to try vintage wines. On my top 5 "old wine" list, two of them are Vintage Champagnes. You may not have even thought about a sparkling being in the top 5 right off the bat, but it is true. They are de Venoge Grand Vin des Princes 1993 and Pommery Louis 1989. 

A number of years ago I would began to have my friends over to play Texas Hold 'em. It wasn't anything formal in the sense of a poker tournament and the cards almost became second to the selection of beverages my friends would bring over. Most of my friends that played worked in the business with me. I believe the wine selection was really elevated one game when my friend Paul brought a cult classic O'Shaunnessey Cabernet Sauvignon from California. I am a fair guy, so I would match whatever was brought over. I believe I opened a 2004 Vall Llach from Spain. One game, I had got my hands on the bottle of '93 de Venoge. I opened it and it was dramatically special. It had such great notes of caramel pecans, mushrooms, and baked apples. The mousse was smooth. Another friend brought a few truffles over that night and we paired the Champagne with truffle honey toasts. My goodness was that straight from heaven. I looked the Venoge up the Wine Spectator rating and it got a 90+ points, but I feel if they knew the longevity it held, it would have received a few more points. I'll never forget this wine and the clearly distinct flavors and long finish it had. 

The 1989 Pommery Louie was another special night. My father had flown down to VA for a "boys weekend."  He was a huge fan of all things food and wine and would continually become jealous of my oenophile adventures. After months of jealous phone calls, I simply asked him to come down and join me. It was a quick answer, yes. My father was a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America. My friends knew that and had always wanted a meal prepared by him. A few months later, the weekend had come and my friends were ready with hands full of old vintage wines, and I had sourced all the ingredients my father needed for a fantastic 3 course meal. He made a seasonal skate wing dish, a veal roulade stuffed with fennel and foie gras, and for dessert, classic creme brulee. The shining wine stars of the evening were a 1982 Leoville Barton, 1937 Rivesaltes (dessert), and the first wine we drank, the Pommery. For a Champagne that was 21 years old, I wasn't positive what we may find. Holy smokes did this wine hold up over time. The bubbles were still very aggressive and showed no signs of falling flat. The acidity was lively and I could have drank a full case of this wine all night. It had flavors of candied lemon, pear tarts, toasty vanilla brioche, and hints of savory earth tones. This bottle of wine sealed the deal for me, my favorite wines are aged vintage champagnes. They are harder to come by now, so I have started the long term process of buying current vintages and will let them sit in my cellar for 20 years or more. 

That was a fantastic dinner and a fantastic weekend with my father. A year later he was diagnosed with ALS, and just over another year later, he passed away in February of 2013. Today is his birthday, November 11, Veterans Day. He would have been 58 today. That isn't old, but my father was a fantastic vintage himself.  I miss him dearly. I was fortunate enough to share some great wines, food, and laughs with him and I will remember them all. 

Miss you Biggie, Happy Birthday...  

Pommery Louie 1989 was rated 95 pts & De Venoge 1993 was rated 90+ pts