Are You a Wine Glass Snob?

When we moved to the Bay Area, I took a few cooking classes and Chef indulged our group, bringing in a Riedel representative to do a comparative wine glass tasting.  I was very skeptical that a glass could make any difference; however, the bonus of attending the seminar was it included 4 Riedel Vinum glasses.  I was hooked! 

The basic premise is that you take 4 glasses (a Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, an Oaked Chardonnay, and a Sauvignon Blanc) and you ‘sniff and taste test’ each of the varietal wines one at a time.  Beginning with the wine in the correct varietal glass, subsequently pouring it into the other glasses and re-tasting, the aromatics and flavors on the palate were clearly ‘best’ in the varietal glasses. I officially rose to the rank of ‘snob.’  Lucky for me, I was able to attend several of these ‘tastings’ and was always offered a greatly reduced price to purchase additional 4 glass sets.  And so, my collection began!

According to the Riedel website, ‘Different wine varieties have different characteristics and flavor profiles. The size and shape of whatever vessel you use – whether that’s a RIEDEL glass or plastic cup – will alter the way your senses perceive the wine.’  Riedel was the original pioneer in wine glass design, but other players have since entered the marketplace.  As a result of the general acceptance that certain shaped stemware is appropriate for specific varietals, there is now a trend and plenty of marketing for a universal wine glass – one glass to be used for any type of wine.  This idea mirrors the testing of candidates for the Master of Wine and WSET Diploma programs where all types of wines blind tasted are generally poured into Riedel Vinum Riesling stemware.  Obviously, a white wine glass!

There has been much written about which stemware is the best.  I have added links to articles written by other writers and scientists at the end of this blog for you to peruse at your leisure.  However, the following personal details helped me to decide what was best for me when shopping for stemware.

1.  Appearance:

The glass had to have a stem as I did not want to hold the glass by the bowl, warming the wine, or leaving fingerprints or smudges that I would have to look through.

The stem had to be tall enough that the glass looked elegant on the table and was easy to grasp as I reached over my dinner plate and utensils.

While taller is better, in my opinion, it had to be balanced with a base that was not easy to dump when bumped.

The stem and size of the bowl of the glass had to look and feel balanced.

The rim had to be relatively thin, not like a Libby wine glass from Target or a Mason jar!  More of a thin, cut edge rather than a rolled edge.

The glass or crystal had to be clear with no noticeable imperfections and thin enough to not distort the color of the liquid inside.

Every wine glass has a ‘feel’ in your hand and you must find your nirvana.

It had to look elegant.

2.  Cost and quantity:

How many stems are you purchasing and what is your budget or choke point?  For me, I was introduced to the Riedel Vinum Series and was able to purchase these at a very low price.  Therefore, I am fortunate to have Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Champagne glasses for 14 which I use for dinner parties.  You can generally find these for around $40 a stem.

For drinking while in the mountains, I use Spiegelau Salute Bordeaux stemware which is about ¾ of an inch taller than the Riedel but has the same, overall shape, for $10 a glass on Amazon.  They are a bargain in price, look great and have a thin rim (the brand is also owned by Riedel).

I have tried several of the ‘universal’ style stems (Zalto, Jancis Robinson, Gabriel Glas, etc.) and have recently purchased a couple of the Josephine No. 2 Universal stems created by Kurt Josef Zalto.  Priced at $80 – $95 each, these are not for the faint of heart.  I’m intrigued by how thin and lightweight they are but rather than purchasing for entertaining, I selected these for personal tasting.  Or, shall we say, I simply got sucked in!  However, I do like the aromatics of the wine from this glass and, curiously enough, Riedel now makes a stem that looks similar called Wine Wings! 

3.  Ease of Cleaning:

While we have broken our share of the Riedel glasses, our biggest losses have been from twisting the bowl one direction while holding on to the stem to dry.  That little twist can snap the stem from the bowl in a heartbeat!  Once we mastered that, using a thin, microfiber towel to dry and buff the glass is easy as the opening is a reasonable size.

A tiny opening would make drying a challenge, so be sure to pay attention to that parameter.

I have also placed the glasses in the dishwasher (I have an after-market glass rack that I can put in the bottom rack of my dishwasher) but quickly learned that you need to remove the stems after the wash cycle and hand dry the glasses to avoid spots.  As we all have different sized hands, etc., this is another personal parameter.

While these features do not consider every detail, it should serve to get you thinking about what you want and how you intend to use and clean them.  A tweet from Wine Folly ( also suggests that the diameter of the opening of the glass will greatly affect the way wine tastes.  ‘A 2 ½ inch opening makes red wine taste less aggressive with softer tannins and acidity.  Less than 2 ½ inches and red wine will be fresher, spicier with bolder tannins.’  Have fun trying various glasses and enjoy shopping whether it is for a tasting set, a universal glass, or a collection of glassware.  I really like the Riedel Vinum, am always pleased when drinking a Bordeaux from my $10 Spiegelau and will enjoy experimenting with the Josephine universal glass.  Find what is best for you!

 Am I a wine glass snob?  Probably!  If I am going to enjoy a nice wine, I want to have a great glass as, for me, it is part of the whole experience.  While these are parameters I used in choosing stemware, I am merely providing these to encourage you to try several glasses so you can decide what is important for your personal enjoyment as well as your wallet.

As you drink through the holidays, here’s to enjoying your wine in a manner and vessel that suits your style. Hail to all the wine glass snobs out there!


The following links are to a couple of articles you might also find helpful in your search:

The 9 Best Wine Glasses for 2022 in Food & Wine Magazine:

Examining the Science Behind Wine Glass Shapes from SevenFiftyDaily:

What fun and delicious wines will grace your Thanksgiving table?

I am certainly looking forward to enjoying Thanksgiving Dinner with family and friends. However, I am going to change up the wine offerings this year. As the dishes served are standard Thanksgiving fare offered and anticipated as well as those family favorites, I do not want to mess with the menu or the family ‘food traditions.’

To keep it simple, I will be serving the following:

For the happy hour (before the serious eating commences):

Veuve Cliquot Demi Sec NV – this Champagne is lush on the palate and has enough sweetness to soften the acidity with just a touch of yeasty character. The mousse is lively and gives the champagne a delightful crispness not expected in a demi sec. The aromas and flavors evoke peach, caramel, pear, and Meyer lemon, which linger beautifully, and the finale is a long, pleasant finish. It is a delightful Champagne and will please both connoisseurs as well as those new to this style.

I recently purchased this at Total Wine & More for $65 for a 750ml bottle (with the ‘buy six’ discount). If you do not need a whole bottle, it is also available in a half bottle size ( Serving in a beautiful champagne flute or Grandma’s cut crystal will add elegance and scream festive! This beautiful wine is a combination of Pinot Noir, with Chardonnay, Meunier, and reserve wines from the cellar. It hails from the Champagne region of France.

At the table, I will be serving a white and a red wine:

Famille Hugel Classic Gewurztraminer 2019 (or slightly older) – this white wine beauty from the Alsace region of France is an aromatic variety that delivers tropical fruit, peach, pear, melon, honey, ginger and exhibits notable minerality. The wine is clean and fresh with a spicy element to complement all those savoy flavors present in Thanksgiving fare. It has great weight on the palate and offer low acidity, so it will not overpower the savory elements of your meal. If making a simple salad, you can also use this Gewurztraminer as the ‘acid’ part of your salad dressing, adding it to extra virgin olive oil and spices of your choice.

I recently tasted this in Alsace in the town of Riquewihr at the Hugel Family winery tasting room. You can purchase it easily through or at Raley’s markets. The price ranges from $23 to $26 per bottle.

Domaine Pardon Cuvee Hugo Fleurie 2020 – this is not the Noveau Beaujolais wine released on the 3rd Thursday in November each year. This is a serious Gamay wine crafted from the vineyards in the North of Beaujolais in the Cru of Fleurie (there are 10 Crus in Beaujolais making delicious wines). I recently paired this wine for an event where the driving element of the main dish was the spice, Saffron. It absolutely sang with the food, and I know it will do the same with your Thanksgiving meal. It has just enough tart raspberry and cranberry elements coupled with a spicy and earthy finish for all those delicious, crazy flavors in our American Thanksgiving extravaganza. While aromatic and flavorful, the wine offers a light to medium body and the acidity keeps the palate fresh and lively.

Often, Gamay from Beaujolais will rival Pinot Noir at about one-third the price. The wine does not have an overabundance of tannin, so it is a very versatile food wine. I purchased this at Total Wine & More for $23 (with the ‘buy six’ discount).

For dessert:

Dow’s 10 Year Tawny Port – while there are many amazing dessert type wines, after such a big meal with a menagerie of textures and flavors, and a glance at the dessert table which may include pumpkin, pecan, and apple pies, something with enough flavor and just rich enough will set the tone and finish your dinner. Dow’s port will not disappoint and will give just enough bang for the finale. The wine exhibits aromas and flavors of dried apricot, baked cherries, plum cake with a definite nutty characteristic. It is aged in oak barrels and is a blend of older wines that are an average of 10 years.

I have used this port wine for many events, and it is a bargain at around $30 a bottle. I found it at Save Mart, and Total Wine.

While there are many wines available that will give you a great pairing experience, I hope you will try one or more of these recommendations. Remember, there are no absolutes when pairing wine and food but many variables. Those include the food and the elements in the dish but most importantly, the people you love and are hoping to please.

Happy Thanksgiving!

While I’ve been missing in action, I completed the WSET Diploma in wine…

To all of you who knew I was undertaking the WSET Diploma in Wine (a journey that takes 2 to 3 years), I am humbled to announce that I received notice I had passed the final leg in my journey, D3 Still Wines of the World (also fondly know as ‘the Beast’). I can now proudly use the post nominal title of DipWSET.

I want to thank all of you that were kind enough to support me and to ask how things were going as I proceeded on this path as you all know how passionate I am about this. I also want to call out those of you who patiently listened as I stressed over giving the WSET what they wanted to hear in the weeks following the exam (it takes three months to receive results).

While this is amazing and I am very happy, at the end of the day, the best part is all the folks around the world that I met (generally on zoom due to Covid) and studied with. The material required to be studied is extensive but the plum was all the insights I garnered from all of you around the globe. My view of the wine industry, originally seen by me in the shadow of the Napa Valley, has forever been expanded, and the friendships I have gained are priceless!

Thank you all…

A summer wine to enjoy!

I miss the ‘walk around’ consumer and industry tastings!

In Covid-19 times, wineries are selling you an abbreviated selection of their collection, complete with a login so you can taste along with the winemaker via Zoom.  It is fantastic that some methodology exists where at least we can taste; however, two to six wines from the same producer (and possibly the same vintage) with the winemaker extolling the virtues of his or her wines simply leaves me wanting more.  I want to taste other wines alongside so I can sense and taste the different expressions of a grape crafted by different producers.  I want to feel the wine on my palate and sense the acid, alcohol, and fruit elements.  I want to compare the wine with bottles from various regions.  I want to discover the gem. I want to be the judge and jury.

I sat out on our back patio last night and tasted three different white wines with a friend.  (I am studying for the WSET Level 4 Diploma and she is working on her CMS Certified.) We were tasting to cement in our minds what these wines present and to determine if they were good representations of the varietals and place.  I will admit that I drink a lot more red than white, but I have been looking for white wines for warm days (coming soon) that are light but flavorful enough to begin the evening.  Not to disparage any wine, I am searching for something other than a California Chardonnay or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, wines that seem to be at every party.  I want low alcohol and subtle flavors of fruit without the phenolic bitterness some white wines can present.

Our favorite of the night was the 2018 Trimbach Pinot Blanc from Alsace ($17.00).  The wine was pale lemon in color and, as I brought the glass to my nose, I was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected intensity of aromas.  Fresh lemon, subtle character of lemon pith, lime blossom, pear, a sense of ripe, juicy white peach with a hint of white pepper and wet stones.  The alcohol was medium (13%) and the acid subtle but tightly woven with the fruit elements, presenting a wine with pleasant and lingering aromas and flavors. 

Pinot Blanc hails from many regions but its best examples are from France’s Alsace, Germany’s Pfalz and Baden, Austria’s Wachau and in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli, and Lombardy winegrowing regions. It produces full-bodied whites with relatively high acidity, yeasty citrus and appley aromas and flavors and hints of spice. When aged, it can present lovely, honeyed tones. 

I really enjoyed this Pinot Blanc from Alsace, France, and will have fun crafting appetizers and light meals to enjoy with this gem.  Think soft cheeses with fresh, crusty bread, summer salads with creamy dressings (use some of the Pinot Blanc to make your own special dressing), and flaky fish dishes.  Who needs a ‘walk-around’ tasting?  Plan your own tasting so you and your guests can be the judge and jury!

For the love of (ruby) Port…

During these damp and chilly winter months, Port is a good beverage to enjoy while sitting in front of a roaring fire or to pair with a course of Stilton Cheese and almonds after dinner or ‘just because.’  It is one of my favorite fortified wines and crafted in varying styles and quality.  

The grapes are grown in steep vineyards that wind along the Douro River in Northern Portugal all the way East toward the Spanish border.  The soils are stony shist that split vertically (rather than the typical horizontal orientation) which enable the roots to reach deep in search of water (irrigation is only allowed in exceptional circumstances).   The slopes are incredibly steep (more than 30 per cent), which makes vineyard layout challenging, and are further limited by granite bedrock which is impenetrable. Granite surrounds the vineyards planted in the stony soil creating a natural barrier and preventing expansion.

Traditionally, the vines were grown on narrow terraces held in place by walls of dry rock.  Much labor is needed to maintain these walls and hand harvesting is necessary and expensive.  Most are now protected by UNESCO and cannot be converted to other layouts.  It is a beautiful sight to gaze upon these terraced vineyards from a patio along the Douro.  In the right light, the view is absolutely stunning with the reflections from the river.

3,423 Douro Valley Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

There are also terraces supported by steep earthen ramps that allow for small tractors, but erosion and growth of weeds on the ramps is problematic.  As these ramps are narrow and follow the contour of the hillsides along the winding Douro, a change in direction or dip in the hillside, can create different microclimates resulting in uneven ripening.

Vines can also be planted in vertical rows up the hillsides but are limited as hillsides above a 40% incline cannot support mechanization.  In Portugal today, it is difficult to find labor to be able to maintain the vineyards and for harvest.

While there are more than 100 grape varietals permitted in the production of Port, the focus is generally on five main grapes:

  • Touriga Franca – the most grown varietal
  • Touriga National – used for premium, long aged wines
  • Tinta Roriz – the Tempranillo grape in Spain (think Rioja)
  • Tinta Barroca – high yielding and earthy
  • Tinto Cao – high acidity and ability to age

Port is made by blending different varieties, vineyards, and field blends (vines of different varieties planted in a vineyard and fermented together).  Fruit from old vines is used in premium wines but some can be crafted from all old vine grapes.

Once the grapes are harvested, they are taken to the winery, placed in Lagares (large, shallow tanks generally made of granite) for fermenting and extraction.  The process of extraction is accomplished by various methods including:

  • Traditional foot treading (preferred as human feet do not split the seeds allowing bitter phenolics into the must)
  • Mechanical Lagares with silicon ‘feet’
  • Pumping over (a method to keep the ‘cap’ wet but not as effective at extraction as foot treading – human or mechanical)
  • Punching down the ‘cap’ with stainless steel pistons
  • Auto vinification in stainless steel (like pumping over mechanically but electricity not required; less effective and generally used for lighter color and lighter bodied wines)

The wine is then drained off the skins and fortified to 19 – 22% abv which stops fermentation (yeast cannot live above 16.5% alcohol).  The spirit used for fortification is aguardente which can add character and flavor to the wine.

Maturation begins in the Douro where the wine spends its first year.  Historically, the maturing wine was sent to Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Oporto for further ageing; however, with the increase in tourism, some producers have built well insulated, humidity-controlled lodges in the vineyard areas.

While a ruby port can become a tawny, a tawny port can never be a ruby!  Therefore, we will explore red wine, or unoxidized wine employing protective winemaking practices, on its journey to becoming Port wine. 

Grape growing is just a form of farming and dependent upon the weather during the growing season, the canopy management techniques employed and the final ripeness of the grapes.  The quality of base wine and the form of maturation will ultimately determine the style, quality, and price of the finished wine. 

  • Ruby Port – is produced using protective winemaking techniques to retain the primary fruit flavors in the wine.  It is medium bodied, has medium tannins, red and black fruit characteristics, and is aged for a maximum of three years.   It is a blend of more than one year (non-vintage) and has a consistent taste from year to year.  The wines generally have simple fruits aromas/flavors and may exhibit a slightly harsh alcohol character.  Some examples of ruby ports are Cockburn’s Fine Ruby, Graham’s Fine Ruby Port, Porto Valdouro Ruby Port, and Fonseca Bin 27.
  • Reserve Ruby Port – higher quality than Ruby Port and must be tasted and approved by the IVDP’s tasting panel.  They are generally more concentrated and of higher quality and price than a basic Ruby Port.  Some examples of Reserve Ruby Ports are: Sandeman Founders Reserve Port, Quinta Das Carvalhas Ruby Port Reserva, and Croft Reserve Ruby Port.
  • Crusted Port – this is a non-vintage wine that has been aged in wood for two years before bottling.  The wine is not fined or filtered and thus leaves a ‘crust’ to form in the bottle over time.  This was created to provide a full-bodied, traditional style that emulates vintage port but at a lower price point.  It does need to be decanted before serving.  The bottling date must appear on the label and while it can be released any time after bottling, after three years of bottle age it can include the term ‘bottle matured’ on the label.  Some examples of Crusted Port are Dow’s Crusted Port, Smith Woodhouse Crusted Port and Niepoort Porto Crusted.
  • Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) – produced from a single year which must be bottled between four to six years after harvest.  While a vintage product, it is not the same quality as a Vintage Port.  LBV ports have been aged and bottled ready to drink, are filtered and can be drunk without decanting.  Some examples of LBV ports are Quinta das Carvalhas and Taylor Fladgate.
  • Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) ‘Unfiltered’ – while an extension of the LBV, these wines are not filtered before bottling and tend to be fuller bodied. It will state ‘unfiltered’ on the label.  Additionally, if bottled after four to five years and then held for at least three years in bottle before release, the bottle will be labeled with ‘bottle matured.’ These are a step up from LBV and can taste similar in style to young vintage port.  Some examples are: Warre’s Late Bottled Vintage Port Bottle Matured and Niepoort LBV 2015 Unfiltered.
  • Single Quinta Port – when the weather has not been suitable to produce grapes of sufficient quality, a producer will not make a vintage Port.  Instead, they may choose to produce a Single Quinta Port, which is wine from one vintage, grown on the Port house’s finest single vineyard estate (quinta).  Some examples of Single Quinta Port are: Sandeman Quinta do Seixo Port Cima Corgo 2013 and Symington Family Estates Quinta do Vesuvio Port 2003.
  • Vintage Port – wines from one ‘declared’ vintage where grapes and resulting wine are of exceptional quality.  Producers must register their intention to release a vintage port in the second year after harvest and the wine must be approved by the IVDP tasting panel.   In their youth, they are deep in color and full bodied with high levels of tannins and pronounced intensity of black fruits and floral notes.  Over time, the wines develop flavors of dried fruits, nuts, and the alcohol and tannins integrate.  Some examples of Vintage Port are Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2014, Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 2017, and Graham’s Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2017.

So many wonderful Port style wines to try!  You can taste the progression of flavors and intensity from Ruby to Vintage, and there is something for everyone to enjoy no matter your style preference or the size of your purse.  Ruby style ports will not last more than a couple of days once opened and a bit longer if you put them into the refrigerator.  While a 750ml bottle may be a bit too much to consume quickly, why not try a ‘split’ (375ml) if you are thinking LBV or Vintage.  It is a great way to enjoy that Port in front of a roaring fire or after dinner.

What sweet, fortified wine are you serving with Christmas dessert?

As I am a first generation American with Hungarian heritage, I generally serve the highly sought after Tokaji wine, famous for its sweet, fruity, and acidic character.  It is such an interesting grape!  It is thick skinned but, as it ripens, the skins stretch and thin allowing the sunlight to penetrate, increasing the concentration of sugar.  The sweetness level can vary depending upon how much residual sugar the winemaker decides to leave in the wine, how botrytized the grapes become and how the wine is ultimately blended.  The sweetness is measured in ‘Puttonyos’ on a scale from 1 to 6 which is noted on the label.  The most common is 5 Puttonyos.

Now, when I say ‘sweet’, I do not want you to think of sweet as in cloying, grocery store, birthday cake icing.  It is a sweet wine, for sure, but with a backbone of acidity that makes the wine bright and lively on the palate with a hint of minerality.  The elevated acidity is the key to a wine with great balance.

Stylistically, Tokaji shows apricot, orange zest and honey on a core of earth and minerality. I love to serve this with an Almond Tart topped with Mascarpone.  It is a true gift from the vineyard.  The Royal Tokaji Wine Company makes a splendid product, generally found in 500 ml bottles (vs. the standard 750 ml size), and the price ranges from $45 to $70 depending upon vintage.

Sauternes is another excellent choice.  It too is a sweet wine, rich and honeyed on the palate and shows a bit more fruit than the Tokaji wine. Foggy condition in the region (Sauternes is south of the city of Bordeaux along the Garonne River) can create the perfect conditions for the growth of Botrytis, a mold that pulls water from the grapes, causing them to shrivel on the vine (think raisins) and gives the wine its signature richness.  The grapes have concentrated sugars and flavors which result in sweet, intensely flavored wines.

Stylistically, Sauternes have notes of apricots, honey, and peaches but with a slightly nutty element.  Foie gras is a classic match for these beautiful wines.  While the most famous producer is Chateau Y’quem (price point of $200+ at the least expensive), Chateau Suduiraut is a favorite of mine and more modestly priced (generally in the $50 to $75 range depending upon vintage) and always seem to please.

Port is another all-time favorite and probably better recognized in the mainstream wine drinking community.  It is crafted in varying styles and quality.  The grapes are grown in steep vineyards that wind along the Douro River in Northern Portugal all the way East toward the Spanish border.  Once the grapes are harvested, they are taken to the winery, placed in Lagares (large, shallow tanks made of granite) for fermenting and extraction.   This is accomplished by the traditional process of ‘foot treading’ which extracts color, tannin, and flavors from the grapes.  Using the human foot prevents the breaking of seeds which can impart bitter tannins into the must.  This practice is still used by some premium and super premium port producers, although modern lagares have been created that use silicon feet to replicate the traditional human foot treading.

The wine is fortified which stops fermentation and it spends its first year in the Douro.  The maturing wine is transported (once upon a time in boats on the Douro) to Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Oporto for further ageing.  Many styles of port are crafted from a simple Ruby or Tawny port (no vintage or age indication on the label) to high quality Vintage/Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) ports to Tawny Ports/Colheita with an indication of age and celebrating their oxidative life in the barrel. 

This year, we will be enjoying a 20 Year Graham’s Tawny Port with our Christmas dessert.  This tawny wine was aged in neutral wooden barrels called ‘pipes’ which allows controlled exposure to oxygen for a period of time so the alcohol integrates. The once fresh fruit aromas and flavors take on dried fruit characteristics and oxidative aromas, bringing enticing aromas and flavors of caramel and nuts to the wine.  

While the bottle is labeled as aged for 20 years, this does not mean the minimum age of the wine in the blend is at least 20 years old.  A 20 Year Tawny Port is made up of wines younger and older than the specified age.  In reality, the wine is tasted by a panel within the IVDP (the governing body that supervises wine producers in the region) and this organization does a taste test to ensure the wine has characteristics indicative of a wine that age to be labeled as such.

Because I could not wait, I decided to taste the wine before serving at Christmas and as anticipated, this is a particularly good wine.  Although port has high alcohol, the generous primary stone fruit aromas/flavors of plum and apricot and the tertiary elements of caramel, raisins, nuts, orange peel with a hint of cinnamon, are expressive and show incredibly good balance and an elevated palate intensity just short of pronounced.  The acidity is juicy and complements the soft tannins ending in a complex ripe/dried fruit and smooth finish.  I know this is going to be a very tasty accompaniment to the homemade Rum Bundt Cake! 

Whatever you choose to serve at your Christmas dinner (and there are Sherry, Madeira, and Vin Doux Natural wines out there that I have not touched upon), have some fun in choosing, be adventuresome, and celebrate good food, family, and friends. 

Here is to a wonderful and COVID-19-free 2021.

Merry Christmas!

Everyone loves a puppy…

It is no secret that charities are hurting in 2020 with no ability to host their typical fundraising events.  Near and dear to my heart is the Humane Society of Truckee Tahoe at who lovingly care for homeless pets and make finding them forever homes their mission.  The annual Black Tie and Tails gala, their main annual income generating event, had to be cancelled due to Covid-19.  A real blow to an organization that depends upon donation dollars.

Not only do we love supporting this worthwhile organization, but the gala was sorely missed by our ‘bubble’ of friends, so we decided to take matters into our own hands.  Crafting an evening of wine, food and friends, where everyone dressed to the nines, cooked a fabulous dish to share and provided appropriate wines to pair, we celebrated the Humane Society’s efforts with a bit of a catch.  Each attendee was asked to donate a minimum amount per person (in addition to their food and wine contributions for the evening) and some gave much more, sweetening the pot by finding ‘matching’ contributions from their employers. 

While our dinner group was small and in a private home, those that could not attend generously donated to sweeten the pot.  In the end, we managed to have a mid-November celebration of food, friends (both furry and human) and were safe inside our ‘social bubble.’   And yes, as a group of wine and food lovers, it was a fabulous night of wonderful food and delicious wines!

I won’t disclose the names of these ‘angels’ or the amounts contributed, but our small gathering provided a nice contribution of $ 6,100 which was then combined with generous corporate matches totaling $ 2,850 for a grand total of $ 8,950.

 I will put out the challenge to have some fun being an organization’s ‘angel’ in these dark times.  While currently we are all under the SIP order once again, Zoom is still out there and we are all looking for some fun and distraction.  Be creative and generous in any way you can.   Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for a return to normal in 2021.


Navigating the World of Bubbles…

Do you feel special when someone hands you a glass of bubbly wine in a pretty flute?  It is festive and fun…and totally confusing when you are tasked with the job of purchasing sparkling wine for a holiday party, dinner or just because.  To make your selection easier, let us look at some sparkling wine basics to enable you to buy with a measure of confidence.

First, you are asked to buy ‘Champagne’ because that term is just like every tissue is called a ‘Kleenex.’ To cull the herd of production styles of wine, we will limit this to sparkling wine crafted by the time honored ‘traditional method’ (there is also sparkling wine made by tank method – Prosecco, for example – and others by infusing with carbonation, but, these, in my opinion, while less expensive, can be less satisfying products).

While still wine is made by vintage (whatever the growing year gives you is what goes into the bottle), sparkling wine is made by formula.  Using the traditional method of production, winemaking begins with just ripe grapes that are fermented and a base wine made from that vintage.  Each sparkling house will have many iterations of base wines (varying vintages, different vineyard sites, high vs. low elevation grown fruit, different blends, etc.) and will use these to craft their house style base wine each year.  This base wine is then put into bottles (the same bottles that the sparkling wine is later sold) along with the tirage (sugar and yeast, yeast nutrients and a clarification agent) for the secondary fermentation.  The amount of sugar added at this step depends upon the degree of effervescence required and is what creates those lovely bubbles in the glass.

The bottles are sealed with crown caps (like beer bottle caps), placed on their sides to wait for fermentation to complete, and then the winemaker chooses if the wines will age on the lees and for what length of time.  If Cava is being produced, a minimum of 9 months is required but more typical is 15 to 18 months at which point the effects of autolysis becomes detectable.  (Autolysis is the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells which adds the yeasty, bread dough, brioche, hazelnut character and a creamy texture.) The length of time depends upon the style of sparkling (fresh fruit vs. lees-aged character) but autolysis can continue for 4 to 5 years and has been known to last for 10 years.  That certainly adds to the cost of that special bottle!

After ageing on the lees, the bottles, stored on their sides, are riddled (turned toward the vertical so that the lees flocculate and eventually end up in a mass in the neck of the bottle), the necks are cooled, crown caps removed and the frozen chunks of yeast are ejected.  Dosage is added (a mixture of wine and sugar) and this step will dictate the sweetness of the final wine.  A cork, wire muzzle and metal capsule are then put in place.

As you can see, a ‘traditional method’ sparkling wine is not like buying a bottle of Pepsi or Coca Cola, products that are the same each production.  The choices made during winemaking such as varietals used, tirage, dosage, lees ageing, and additions have a direct impact on the character of the wine.

If you are looking to purchase a ‘traditional method’ sparkling wine, you might find the following choices (this is not all inclusive but representative of what you might find on your wine shop shelves or local grocer):

  • Champagne – from France and the region of Champagne made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, the Champagne varietals (Note:  you might also find ‘California Champagne’ but it’s not from France and the allowed usage of the term is the result of an oversight when a treaty was signed years ago)
  • Crémant – French sparkling wine made by the traditional method from varietals typically grown in the region of production (Alsace, Burgundy, Loire, Bordeaux, Jura, Die, Limoux, Savoie).  This can include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, etc., depending on the area
  • Cava – Spanish sparkling wine made using Macabeo, Parrallada, Xarel-lo and Chardonnay varietals
  • Sparkling Wine from USA – made in many states and from various varietals
  • Franciacorta – Italy – made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varietals
  • Cap Classique – South Africa – made from Champagne varietals, Chenin Blanc, and Pinotage
  • Sparkling Wine from Tasmania – from Australia using Champagne varietals

If you decide upon the area of Champagne (or the pretty bottle), you need to check the style.  The most notable choices:

  • NV – non vintage which is sparkling made from a few vintages and represents the style of the house
  • Vintage – 100% from the vintage and can be house style or a unique blend
  • Rosé – a blend of red and white grapes
  • Blanc de Blancs – only white grapes used
  • Blanc de Noirs – white sparkling from red fruit with a fuller body

For French Champagne, you may also see:

  • Grand Cru – all grapes are within the vineyards of Grand Cru Villages
  • Premier Cru – all grapes from within Premier Cru Villages
  • Prestige Cuvee – the producer’s top wine which can be NV or Vintage

Note:  be aware that ALL houses within these Cru Villages can call their Champagne a Grand or Premier Cru even if they are not a premium producer.  It is simply a designation which is hooked to the village of production and not a guarantee of quality.

Finally, how dry, or sweet of a sparkling wine are you looking for?  It seems that a great majority of the offerings are BRUT which means they are anywhere from zero to 12 g/L.  These will taste dry to slightly off dry but not have a lot of sweetness showing, especially if the wine has spent time on the lees.  In my experience, BRUT is what is most often purchased.  If a bit more sweetness and roundness is desired, the EXTRA BRUT category is a step up providing 12 to 17 g/L.

If you decide upon a Crémant, you will definitely reduce the cost of the bottle and open yourself up to an interesting world of sparkling wine made from different varietals, although still French.  Note that Alsace, Loire, and Burgundy are the main and the most famous regions.  I am particularly a fan of Crémant d’Loire as I enjoy the Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc present in the mix of varietals. 

While impossible to sing the virtues of all the many choices, the following are wines I recently used for a sparkling educational tasting along with food pairings:

Campo Viejo Gran Reserva Cava – Spain – Manchego Cheese, Marcona Almonds, Olives and Crusty Bread/Crackers

Champalou Brut Vouvray (Loire) Crémant – France – Gruyere, Salami, French Bread

Mumm Napa Brut Reserve Sparkling – USA – Crab and Shrimp Bisque

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley Sparkling – USA – Lobster Mac ‘n Cheese

Nicolas Feuillatte Reserve Exclusive Brut Champagne – France – Triple Cream Brie with Crostini

Martini & Rossi Asti Sparkling – Italy – Biscotti with Yogurt Covered Almonds

All of these wines are made by the Traditional Method except for the Asti which is made by the Asti Method, a variation of the tank method, which was a fun and surprising way to end the tasting with a bit of sweetness. 

So, if you feel special when someone hands you a glass of bubbly wine in a pretty flute, try exploring the vast world of bubbles.  Unless you are simply looking to add orange juice (think Prosecco) to the glass, get out there and enjoy navigating the world of bubbles! 

Natural and Organic and Clean (Wine), Oh My!

By:  Claire L. Torbeck, Certified Sommelier

Just like Dorothy and her cohorts in the Wizard of Oz, there is a lot of chatter about the virtues of these wine ‘styles.’  Are these just marketing terms to capture our discretionary wine dollars or is there real substance and value?

First, let us look at a bit of history. Once upon a time, vineyards were planted, fertilized, and protected by using manure and other animal by-products. After World War II, the focus was on growing food rather than on the production of munitions. It began the age of science in winemaking which served to give people the illusion that everything could be controlled, and perfect wines could be crafted.  That is, until the realization that using a lot of chemicals for any type of food production was not a good thing, for the health of the people or for the environment.

While the ‘natural wine movement’ began in Beaujolais around the 1950s, it was in the 1970s that the Gang of Four, took up the torch of the natural wine movement where old vines are prized, synthetic herbicides and pesticides are not used, harvest is late, grapes are sorted rigorously to remove all but the healthiest grapes, with minimal additions of sulfur dioxide (or none at all) and disdaining chaptalization.  (While all this sounds fantastic, it was also when the marketing of Nouveau Beaujolais began in an attempt to invigorate wine sales.)

By 2005, consumers’ tastes were changing, and organic products entered the marketplace.  People shopped at farmers’ markets, drank craft beer, ate heirloom tomatoes at farm-to-table restaurants and were concerned with the reports of lab created yeasts, grapes doused in weed killer and huge conglomerates being in charge of the products and produce they were eating.  The natural wine movement fit in with the urban appetite for movements that evoked a slower, more earthbound past.  ‘Natural’ wine is, in fact, very trendy today. 

So, what is natural wine? Natural wine has no ’legal’ definition and the use of the term is not managed by any regulatory body (while France has formally recognized natural wine, it is approved for a three-year trial period and the term ‘natural’ cannot be used).  For natural winemaking, the grapes must be organically or biodynamically farmed which requires following a long list of rules and paying for costly certification.  If lab created chemicals are not utilized, there is an expectation that this is natural, pure and the end-product superior. This vagueness is part of what has allowed natural wine to become a cultural phenomenon. However, the product can be cloudy, fizzy and have VA (volatile acidity) along with other off aromas due to using indigenous yeast for fermentation. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my…that seems to be part of the allure of natural wine!

Organic wine is a bit trickier.  First, farming organically is regulated, there are annual fees to be organically certified, and various regulatory bodies exist around the world.  You can farm organically and not be certified which many growers and wineries choose to do because of costs. I certainly respect those growers that are farming organically as doing so is being kind to our planet which is a noble cause.

To be ‘organic’ is not just a result of vineyard practices.  Once the grapes arrive at the winery, there are a list of accepted practices that must be followed to be considered organic.  These include:

– fermentation with indigenous yeasts as natural yeasts are part of the terroir

– no water additions to dilute the sugars which result in high alcohol wines (Note: the practice is legal in California for commercial production)

– no enzymes (commercial enzymes are commonly used to improve extraction and aromatic profile of a wine while also accelerating the winemaking process

– no additives such as tannin, coloring (Mega Purple), yeast nutrients; sulfur dioxide is not used or is used in moderation

– no filtration or fining

– malolactic fermentation happens naturally rather than the typical practice of added bacteria

 to name some of the practices.  Whew! A lot to keep up with!

So, to be clear, organic wine is made from grapes which are grown according to the principles of organic farming. Having ‘certified organic’ on a wine label only speaks to the farming.  There is no organization that guarantees or oversees the actual winemaking function (and even the French ‘certification’ only speaks to the amount of Sulphur in the wine).

Finally, the marketing concept of ‘clean’ wine (vs. ‘unclean’ wine?) is the latest addition to this stable of special wine category styles.  To name a few companies touting ‘clean’ wine: Good Clean Wine which ‘pairs with a healthy lifestyle’; the Wonderful Wine Company, which offers ‘wellness without deprivation’; and Scout and Cellar, a multi-level marketing company that boasts ‘clean-crafted wine’ with hopes to ‘disrupt the wine industry and do better for the planet.’  Wineries do not have to list ingredients on their labels. As a result, these opportunists are fearmongering, seeking to make a profit by claiming other wineries are using harmful chemicals in their production.  So why don’t wineries list ingredients?  Because winemaking is not an industrial process with a standard recipe that you can replicate every vintage.  Winemaking decisions change each vintage and it would be costly to make changes to labels every year.

According to Jamie Goode PhD, wine writer and author of wine textbooks, ‘you can’t grow grapes from Vitis vinifera without spraying eight to 14 times a year. The problem is mildew and then, at the end of the growing season, rot. One of wine’s paradoxes is that the most prized, expensive grapes come from regions prone to fungal diseaseswhich can only be treated with commercial pesticides or, for organic growers, applications of copper sulfate. It is all about the concentration,’ says Goode, adding: ‘there are strict regulations concerning their use and concerning residue levels that are permitted. Wine is one of the most regulated and safe products there is.’

‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ and ‘Clean’ (wine), Oh My!  I am off to see the Wizard to see if he can shed any light on this controversial subject!

Virtual tasting via Zoom….what’s in your glass?

With SIP and not being able to wander the wine aisles, what are you buying and what are you drinking?

Personally, I love strolling the aisles in the ‘candy store’ (AKA wine shop) and touching the merchandise. It’s frustrating not being able to do so as I do a lot of reading and I always feel as if I hit the jackpot when I stumble upon a wine I have been reading about.  It’s the thrill of a treasure hunt with an unexpected silver lining. 

By using Zoom as a way of sharing a glass of wine (or a cocktail), we have been labeling our chats as a ‘virtual wine tasting.’  That puts the pressure on me to try and choose a wine to ‘share’ that will be agreeable to a broad range of palates while not losing sight of the fact that there will not be a meal to accompany the offering.  And, oh by the way, we are really using this time to ‘catch up’ with each other and actually see a human.

I could list many producers that are crafting very nice wines, and can do so over time, but today I want to introduce you to Chateau de Saint Cosme.  This is a winery in the Southern Rhone area of France that makes many different wines from various AOPs.

Imagine…an ancient estate purchased in 1570 with grape vines already on the property.  A chateau is soon constructed over the existing cellars which contained perfectly preserved Gallo-Roman fermentation vats.  The Barruol family and their ancestors have been vignerons at the property for 14 generations.

The actual property is in Gigondas with the beautiful Dentelles de Montmirail as a backdrop.  While the vines from the property surrounding the Chateau are used for their Gigondas wine, the Chateau also produces wines from Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, St. Joseph and Châteauneuf-Du- Pape, to name just a few of their offerings.

As with many producers, the Barruol family wear many producer hats.  First, as an Estate where they grow the grapes and produce the wine.  However, they also source grapes from other growers and produce wine under the Saint Cosme (vs. the Chateau de Saint Cosme) label. 

The Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2018 is an affordable and accessible offering that hits all the ‘good quality’ targets.  While it is labeled as a Cotes du Rhone wine (which generally would mean it is a GSM blend = Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), this wine is 100% Syrah.  That is very appealing to me as generally, to get a 100% Syrah wine, you need to move up into the Northern Rhone at a much higher price point.  The grapes for this bottling were sourced from the right bank of the Rhone in the Gard area as well as the left bank in Vinsobres from a higher elevation.

The core of the wine is purple with aromas of violets, black cherry, black pepper and black olives.  It is medium plus in body with well-integrated, silky tannins and a very long finish.  I found it pleasant for quaffing but know how wonderful this wine is with lamb chops with rosemary and garlic mashed potatoes.

For you ‘score hounds’, the critic community agrees.  Robert Parker 90 points, Wine Enthusiast 91 points and James Suckling 91 points.

I purchased for $15 and have seen it priced in the $14 – 20 range.

While I have spotlighted just one offering from this Chateau and at the accessible rung of the marketing ladder, they are producing quality wines in all areas.  The point I am hoping to make = find a quality producer and try various wines across that brand.  Some will be accessible as this Cotes du Rhone, some with be in a stretch category that you might purchase only for special occasions and others you may never buy because of the price point.  However, in a good vintage year, you can often find wines from these producers that over-deliver quality at a reasonable price.  It is also fun to have a story to tell about the wine and winery.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tasting…stay safe out there!