It’s getting to that time of the year where I turn my attention to hosting wine, beer and spirit events. I am fortunate to have access to many different venues to host a variety of events. You may be a wine drinker, beer drinker or spirits drinker; no matter what, I will have something for you. Here is a quick look at what CRG has coming around the corner. Mark your calendars and get ready to have some fun!
Cinco de Mayo! Take your pick, head close to the border and have a party on the ocean next to the last pier in the western United States at Sea 180. Or stay urban, and head for another amazing view at Coasterra’s floating event center for tequila tasting and a margarita making contest.
MAY 15th: FRANCISCAN WINE DINNER
Join us at Vintana Wine + Dine as Chef Chris Barre, prepares a delicious meal with the wines from Fransican Estate in Napa Valley. Leading the dinner will be winemaker Marla Carol. Menu coming soon.
MAY 17th: DOWN UNDER WINE DINNER AT INDIGO GRILL
Join Deborah Scott as she wrangles with the wines from Australia and New Zealand. She will use her signature spice combinations to match with the exciting wines from down under. See what she can do with spicy Barossa Sparkling Shiraz, herbacious Sauvignon Blanc and unique whites and reds from ancient vines. Menu coming soon.
MAY 23rd: BONNY DOON WINE DINNER
Do you know who Randall Graham is? If not, then you need to. Randall Graham is the man behind Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz. He is one of California’s wine pioneers. He has led the movement for bio-dynamic wines. His ideas are a bit nutty and it fits his personality perfectly. Join us at 333 Pacific for a dinner with Bonny Doon. Menu to come soon.
May 24th: Balboa Park’s 150 th Anniversary Botanical Garden Dinner
This is the dinner of a lifetime. Close your eyes and transport your self to Balboa Park. You are sitting on the lawn in front of the Botanical Gardens, harpists are playing and Gloria Ferrer is serving Sparkling wines. Yes, this is all true. This dinner is put on by Chef Jonathon Hale from The Prado at Balboa Park to raise money for the Balboa Park’s conservatory. We are celebrating 150 years of Balboa Park’s Botanical Garden with an elegant outdoor extravaganza. BUY YOUR TICKETS NOW!
May 25th: SEA 180 LUAU
Can you believe that summer is already here? Just in time for our yearly Luau in Imperial Beach. There will be live music, fire dancers, roasted pig and plenty of wine and cocktails from Pernod Ricard.
MAY 25th: GREENBAR SPIRIT DINNER
Can’t make it to the South Bay? No worries, I have something for you in North County. Join Vintana Wine + Dine for a spirit dinner featuring the organic spirits from LA’s Greenbar distillery.
In this day in age everything comes so easy. If you want to know the capitol of Paraguay, you google it. To know when to use “capital” or “capitol” you go to dictionary.com. If you want to learn how to put up dry wall, you YouTube it. If you’re lost and need directions you WAZE it. If your kid breaks out with red bumps, you go to WebMD. No matter what you want to know the answers are at your finger tips.
Learning about wine is not quite the same. Sure you can go to Wine Folly and learn what it means when your white wine turns brown. Wikipedia will tell you the DNA of your favorite grapes. Each region has their own sophisticated web page describing in detail the history, terroir and climate of their region. Unfortunately, learning about wine is not the same as learning how to put up dry wall. You can acquire all the textbook knowledge online, but the real magic is in tasting. Here are my 6 tips on how to learn more about wine.
Drink French Wine! In order to really understand wines from the new world, you need to know where they came from. Most of the wines we see in the market today originated in France. The great thing about French wines, is that they are loaded with regulations. While conservatives might say regulations are bad for business, I say they are great for wine. It allows the consumer to know what the wine is like. French regions are subject to rules and regulations controlling grapes, viticulture and vinification. They are held to high standards. These standards were put into place so that wines will show the best expression of its grape and terroir. Once you understand French wines, France’s regions and regulation, then you are on your way to mastering wine.
You must experiment! Most wine drinkers like a certain style of wine, and drink the same style over and over. There are thousands of styles of wines in the world, and if you narrow your selections down to your personal preferences, then you hinder yourself from learning. Try everything, you don’t have to like it, but you should try it. You never know, it might turn out to be one of those Life cereal moments; “Mikey likes it!”
Join the Guild Somm. The Guild Somm is the most comprehensive up to date wine site on the internet. It is put together by the Court of Master Sommmeliers where they have a team of sommeliers constantly updating the information. It has a vast compendium of wine information along with podcasts, videos and an excellent forum. If you want to stay in touch, the Guild Somm is worth every little penny.
Join a tasting group. I can honestly say that this is one of the most valuable pieces of advice. I started my tasting group in 2009 and it is still going strong, we learn something new each time. This may be difficult to find. And for some people it can be a bit intimidating. However, if you are really dedicated in learning about wine, the tasting group will push you to the next level. Learning from your peers is priceless. If you login to the Guild Somm website there are forums where you can search for a tasting group in your area. If you are not interested in joining the Guild Somm, then invite friends over to the house. Have them bring a bottle of wine in a brown bag. Blind taste with them. Listen to how they describe the wine. Discuss the wine’s characteristics and quality. Finally reveal the wine and see what you might have learned from your blind tasting and the group’s feedback.
Go to school. Back when I got into wine, wine schools were hard to find. Today there are dozens. Many people learn better this way. I know I do. I’d much rather listen to a lecture, taste wine and ask questions than read a book. Each course has its specialty. Find the course that works best for you. WSET (Wine Spirit Education Trust or the Wine Smarties) is great if you are looking to get into retail, restaurant, wholesale or if you are just a novice. It covers the broad spectrum of wine from viticulture to describing wine. The Court of Master Sommeliers is great if you work in the restaurant industry. It focuses on theory, wine service and blind tasting. It is no so much a school but a certification entity. For everyday wine drinkers looking to get more acquainted with wine and possibly looking for a career in the wine industry, there are college classes available. In San Diego there are courses at San Diego State University where I teach 4 courses. You can go at your own pace. Then there are numerous online schools, some have live classes. The one I am familiar with is the Fox School of Wine in Utah. You can search online for wine classes in your area and you will come up with a great list. I recommend SDSU if in San Diego, I just know what they teach there. Maybe you don’t have the time to dedicate several weeks, then look out for my Prime Cru classes where you can come for a few hours and learn about a particular subject. A Sensory Master Class is coming in June, stay put.
Travel! This is the best part of learning about wine. There are wine regions all over the world. Each region has a unique approach to wine. You can smell, feel touch, and experience wine. Travelling is all fun and dandy when we vacation in excluded beaches, but traveling to a wine region is so much more rewarding. From San Diego there are endless regions in all directions. Take a weekend and explore south of the border, Baja wine. Or drive out to Santa Barbara and do the wine trail. If you’re looking for something a bit different take a drive out to Arizona and see what Maynard Keenan from Tool is up to. Or better yet, stay home and visit a local San Diego winery. No matter where you decide to go, first hand accounts of the region, grape and wine is so much more interesting than sitting in a class and hearing an instructor babble about wine.
You thought learning about wine would be difficult. It is actually pretty fun. Think about it, study online the maps and history, take a class at an accredited program, drink French wines, try all kinds of wines, meet new friends in a tasting group and travel around the world. Who would not want to make wine their hobby? Better yet, make it your job!
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Cohn Restaurant Group has 22 restaurants with liquor licenses, it is my job to set up a beverage program which fits each of the individual concepts. This day in age there are so many new spirits bombarding the market. Each one comes with a unique story, production method and taste. But for most, the label and package is the most important element. This is true of most spirits in the market whether they are new or old. Branding takes time and if it sticks, can result in high sales. The task of figuring out which spirit and which brand is best for each concept can be pretty daunting. So I decided to have the staff decide.
The secret to our success, is education. I try to keep the bar and service staff up to date and trained on the products we carry. For the past 6 weeks I hosted the CRG Spirit Academy. Each week I took one spirit, discussed the history and production methods. I then had brand ambassadors talk about the brands we serve. The staff asked questions and received more details on the individual products. We finished class by blind tasting the spirits in their perspective categories. The servers and bartenders rate each brand on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best. I then ask them to raise their hands for the spirits that received a 4 or 5. The spirit with the most votes in that category won the blind tasting and a spot on our bars.
I do it this way because labels and packages have so much control over how we expect the spirit to taste. By removing the label and package we are left with the innate virtue of the spirit. It no longer has an extra leg to stand on and is at its purist most naked form. The results were surprising. The spirit business is filled with big money, lots of advertising and government lobbying. In order for my restaurants to meet guest expectations, we need to have some brand awareness, but we should also find the best brands. The brands may not do well in the blind tasting, it does not mean that they will be taken off, it just gives the staff an alternative brand to sell.
Here is the list of the brands in order of the best brand per category. See Vodka Here.
#1 Uncle Vals Botanical
#5 Bombay Sapphire
#7 City Gin by Greenbar
#9 Bols Genevere
#10 Old Grove
I personally liked the Uncle Vals and the SipSmith. It seems as though the staff liked the columns still gins which produce a cleaner crisp juniper forward flavor. Where as the pot still gins have a bit of funk to them, which I really enjoy.
#1 Crusoe by Greenbar
#2 Bacardi Oakheart
#4 Three Sheets
#5 Captain Morgan
#1 Diplomatico – Venezuela
#2 Havannah Club – Puerto Rico
#3 Zaya – Trinidad & Tobago
#4 Appleton – Jamaica
#5 Flor de Cana – Nicaragua
We tasted white rums on there own to compare molasses base vs agricole, barrel aged and high proof. I really wanted to blind taste the rums which were aged and spiced. These give us a better idea of what the distillers are doing as far as ingredients. I agreed with the staff and felt that the Diplomatico was the most complex and delicious of the rums.
#2 El Tesoro
#3 Don Julio
#6 Casa Noble
#7 Olmeca Alto
During this class we tasted Blanco, Repo, Anejo, Extra Anejo, Espadin Mezcal, Reposado Mezcal and Barril Mezcal. Since there was so much tasted before the blind tasting began, I thought to limit the Tequila to some of the more popular brands in the restaurants. Personally, El Tesoro was my favorite. It had bitterness, balance and complexity whereas the Don Julio and Patron tasted sweet and glycerol to me. To each his own.
#1 Michter’s American Whiskey
#2 Highwest Double Rye
#3 James Pepper 1776 100 proof
#4 Templeton Rye
#5 Highwest Prairie Bourbon
#6 Bulliet Bourbon
#7 Woodford Reserve Bourbon
#8 Knob Creek Single Barrel 120 proof
#9 Russell’s Reserve 10 yr Bourbon
#10 Slow Hand 6 woods Whiskey
#11 Jim Beam Bonded Bourbon
#12 Wild Turkey Rye 101 proof
#13 Jack Daniels & Basil Hayden
#14 Old Overholt Rye
15 whiskies all at once is a lot of whisky! We looked to see which were balanced with grain and oak aromas, rated their intensity levels, looked for full mouth coating and long finish. I personally really liked the James Pepper 1776. It is crazy to see how much branding is done with whiskey and how little it has to do with quality.
Over the next six weeks I am hosting spirit training for the employees at the Cohn Restaurant Group, the CRG SPIRIT ACADEMY. I love teaching, because each time I learn something new. This past week we focused on Vodka. I discussed the difference between fermentation and distillation, how distillation began and why. And then gave a brief history of Vodka in Russia and it’s eventual success in the USA. After they sat through 45 minutes of me blabbing, some of our Vodka suppliers stood up and gave a 3 minute talk on their brand and what makes it so unique. Following their presentation we tasted 11 vodkas blind. The purpose to learn to use their own judgement on determining which vodka was best rather than seeing a label and having it influence their decision.
To condition their palates, I had them take a quick taste of rectified spirit, Everclear. This was to show what vodka is like before it gets watered down. They then smelled the heads from the still of a local vodka. Smelling the heads they were able to pick out the methanol, ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate and all the undesirable aromas one might find in cheap vodka. We then tasted our well Vodka, Svedka to give them an idea of why we use it and why it is one of the best values out there. Then the blind tasting began. They were asked to rate each vodka on a scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being the best. While tasting we were looking for the following criteria:
fruit / herbal / floral
medicinal / ethanol
Clean / Dirty
Dry / Slightly Sweet
Smooth / Aggressive
Gentle / Powerful
Oily / Grainy / Soapy
Rich / Thin
Soft / Sharp / Burning
short / medium / long
tip of tongue / mid palate / back palate
The best vodkas should have aromas of fruit, herbs or flowers or none at all, with low ethanol. They should taste clean, dry (no glycerin), smooth, gentle, rich but not viscous, soft and round hitting all parts of the tongue with a long clean finish.
We tasted Tito’s, Ketel One, Absolut, Grey Goose, Hangar One, Belvedere, Chopin, Ciroc, Fugu, Tru and Absolut Elyx. All different price ranges. Some are made of grains, wheat, grape, potato, rye, corn and even a little pomegranate. After tasting through each vodka and before revealing the names, I called out the number of each vodka in the order we tasted. If they gave it a score of 4 or 5 they were asked to raise their hand. I tallied the numbers of all the vodkas scoring a 4 or 5, the results were pretty interesting.
The results out of 11 Vodkas tasted by 50 people:
Hangar One had 25 votes
Absolut 12 votes
Belvedere 11 votes
Ciroc 9 votes
Tru & Chopin 7 votes
Grey Goose 5 votes
Ketel One, Fugu and Absolut Elyx tied with 3 votes
Tito’s 2 votes
At least they all received a score of 4 or 5 from someone.
Do you remember the end of 2016, everyone was complaining that it was the worst year ever? 2017 rolled in as an extension of 2016 keeping everyone on edge. 2017 has been a tough one to swallow if we consider the state of affairs in politics, social-economic issues, racial and immigration tensions and the threat of nuclear war. But I am a beverage guy and although I do think about these issues, I prefer to keep people’s mind on the good things in life, fermented beverages. If I look back there where quite a few beverages that made me smile in 2017. In fact 2017 was actually a pretty good year to swallow.
What was good in 2017 is not the best stuff you will ever have, but the memorable beverages which made me smile. This day in age, that’s all we can ask for, to drink stuff that makes us smile! I broke it down by month. These are my monthly highlights for 2017.
My month of January is devoted to meeting with suppliers as I try to finalize our yearly program which goes into effect in April. These meeting consist of very little tasting as I had already tasted their products in December. These meetings are merely to finalize the details of our program. However, last year while talking with a beer distributor, Craft Beer Guild, they showed me a line of new tequilas which they had just begun distributing. I was very impressed. So January goes to Villa Lobos Blanco.
Distilled by Carlos Camarena at the same distillery as El Tesoro, Tequila Ocho and Tapatio. This Tequila is soft and round on the palate with aromas of green agave, lemon, earthy and sweet spices in the finish.
I am not doing this for the plug, but it was really exciting to make the second vintage of Costa Tierra, and it came out even better than the first vintage. Costa Tierra is the wine I blended with my team, Ashley Phillips, Luis Garcia and Tammy Wong in Baja. It is a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera. You can find this at many of the Cohn Restaurants.
A ripe medium body wine with red fruit flavors and juicy tannins.
I had two delicious wines this month. I tasted with a good friend of mine from San Francisco, Emily Wines MS who represents Skipstone Vineyards. The wines were big and delicious. However, they are not wines I can afford to drink all the time. So I decided to feature Jonata “Todos” Red Blend from Santa Ynez Valley. It too is expensive, but a bit less than Skipstone. I love wines from Santa Ynez Valley. I think they are some of the most balanced wines in California.
A blend of Bordeaux and Rhone red varietals all tied in with a touch of Viognier. Juicy black and red fruits, violets, coco, rich texture all coming together with sweet flavors of charred French oak.
During this month I was busy putting together the wine program for the new Bo Beau + Cache Restaurant. I was looking for inexpensive French wines I could serve by the glass for a budget minded neighborhood. I came across this wine from the Roussillon, it is what wine should be like. I really enjoyed the Carignan, however I ended up putting the Grenache Syrah blend on the menu. It made more sense the way the menu had come together.
Silky texture with cherry and bright fruit. fruity but at the same time rustic.
In May I took a trip to the Alexander Valley and participated in the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy. I met many winemakers from the valley and learned about the unique terroir and geology of the region. One wine stood out from the rest. The Hawkes Stone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I was so impressed with this wine I later used it as a sample in my California Wine class at SDSU to show the difference between Napa and Alexander Valley.
Another juicy wine with fruit flavors of cassis, black berry, wild flowers and all tied in with a savory herbal note. Very long finish.
Every 4 months I sit down with my team at Coasterra and select a single barrel from Casa Noble Tequila. Our good friend Lisa Hickson brings us several barrel samples. We taste each one side by side and see which barrel is best suited for our program. We look for two things, a tequila that makes a great sipper but also one that stands out in our Noble Margarita. It’s not easy. This June I found my favorite barrel to date, barrel #641.
A reposado with honey, sweet roasted agave, sweet oak spices, and melting tannins creating a smooth and long finish. And holds up in a margarita excellently.
This is a tough one. I spent July in Spain and Italy. I visited Arinzano Winery in Pamplona where I came across some of the best wines in the region of Navarra. The wine which stood out was the Arinzano Chardonnay. Who would have thunk that Spain made delicious Chardonnays. However, I must make another shameless plug for the Pinot Grigio a sourced while in Italy. Marevento is a Pinot Grigo from Delle Venezia and is an easy drinking crisp wine. It is not complex, but it can only be found at the Cohn Restaurant Group. This wine was sourced from a small family winery, Domus Vini who has been growing grapes since 900 ad. From one small family to another small family, this wine fit in perfectly at the Cohn Restaurant Group.
Red apple. Golden delicious apple, vibrant acidity and a perfect patio sipper.
In August I had the pleasure of sitting down for a blind tasting dinner with Matt Lane, VP of the Americas for Torbeck Vineyards. Matt sourced some of the best expressions of Rhone style wines in the world such as Grange, Cote Rotie and Sadie Family’s Columella and put them up against Torbreck wines . All were fantastic, but the wine that stood out was Torbeck “The Pict” Mourvdere from the Barossa Valley in Australia. It was a fantastic expression of a Rhone variety in the new world.
A beautiful aromatic wine with aromas of blue fruit, cocoa and violets. Super rich on the palate with woody, nutty finish brought together with lively acidity and mint on the back palate.
August and September were really tough. I tasted so much cool stuff. I actually think that Torbreck was at the end of July and not August, but that would mean I could not put my shameless plug from July. Other great swallows in August and September were You and Yours Gin, a local gin in downtown SD. I went to LA to taste Rieslings with Rudi Weist and had some stellar wines such as 2012 Siefersheimer Hollberg GC, Gunderloch Pettenthal GG 2016 and Sauer OVO Sylvaner. I had a $300 Tequila, Casa Dragones Joven and Silver. But I decided to list Resident Brewing Chasing Citra IPA. I love beer and drink probably more beer than anything else. I also like beer that is balanced and true to style. Their Perky Blonde is an excellent blonde, but the Chasing Citra is what I would order.
A citra hopped IPA with piney and citrus aromas, tangerine and melon on the palate finishing with just the right amount of bitterness.
Somm Con was right around the corner and I had to get ready for my Agave Seminar. I met with Jaime Mateo from Los Javis Distillery to look over the selections of Mezcals we were going to show at the seminar. I had tasted with Jaime before and this time was no different from the rest. Again the Mezcal which stood out was the Los Javis Tobala. The Tobala is a wild agave which grows in the high mountains of Oaxaca in among boulders and cracks in the hillsides. It can take up to 20 years to mature. And when it does, the piña remains small, like a basket ball with intense flavors.
Low smoke aromas, green agave, chilies, lemon and pepper. It is sweet on the front end and explosive in the back palate.
Well this is going to be tough. This was the month of Somm Con. I tasted so many great wines at Somm Con, this is a very difficult task. Wines like Torello 225 Cava de Paraje Calificada Brut nature 2013 and Freixenet Casa Sala Cava de Paraje Calificada Brut Nature 2007 which Marnie Old showed in her Cava seminar were definite stand outs. Brouilly Jean-Louis Dutraive Domaine de la Grand ‘Cour Vielles Vigne 2015 was delightful. The Albariño seminar with Jill Zimorski turned me on to Pazo Senorans Selección Anada 2009. Esteban’s Morale’s Derrumbas Blue Webber Mezcal from Zacatecas was also mind blowing. However, the best thing I swallowed was on my time off with Kevin Aarestad at the Aero Club. He bought us two glasses of Hibiki 17yr and Hibiki 21 yr Japanese whiskies. Although the 21 yr was more expensive and it had much more oak influence. I really enjoyed the 17 yr, it really showed the magic of Japanese whisky. That being said, it is not everyday you get taste to a 21 yr old Hibiki, so that is the best thing I swallowed in November.
Complex flavors of sherry, caramel, plum, apple and cedar. There are numbing tannins with sweet finish just aching for a cigar.
December 3rd was #SDSOMMDAY. #SDSOMMDAY is a day when many of the San Diego’s sommelier get together and share bottles. This year it was held at Juniper and Ivy. Thank you to Brandon Bohgosian for hosting us and Max Kogod for organizing this affair. As one might imagine there was great juice being poured that afternoon. However, in the midst of Burgundy, Etna and Riesling one wine blew me away. The Raul Perez Albarin Blanco from Northwest Spain in an area known as Tierra de Leon, was mind-blowing. Albarin Blanco is not Albariño, some believe that it could be closely related to Savagnin and was brought to Spain by French winemakers after the phylloxera attack at the end of the 19th century. This wine is special in that Raul Perez takes on a whole other approach to white wine production. After fermentation the wine spends 4-5 years under Flor (a film of yeast laying over the wine sealing it from oxygen commonly used in Sherry production). I’ll say it again, this wine was mind-blowing; it made me smile from ear to ear.
This wine was bright with acidity, funky on the nose and explosive on the palate with lingering flavors of citrus, herbal grassy notes, funky yeast and extremely long finish.
The beverage industry has changed dramatically and gets more complex each year. Sommeliers who went through testing 20 years ago had a very different experience than those testing today. It has forced young sommeliers to look past France and Italy and discover wines from Croatia, Brazil, and other nontraditional regions. Many sommeliers are up for the challenge and build programs that stand out from the rest. Others are not up for the challenge, and I call these somms sameliers.
In addition to not adapting to changes within the wine industry, sameliers have not adapted to the fact that wine now shares the dinner table with spirits and beer. I hear more guests asking questions about the milk punch or the hops used rather than the grape. Many more people are enjoying a cocktail or craft beer with their meals rather than a glass of wine.
Restaurants cannot afford to have a sommelier, a cicerone, a whisky expert, and a tequila aficionada walking from table to table recommending pairings. One person needs to do this job. The sommelier needs to diversify. He/she needs to explore much more than just new grape varieties and regions. It really is an easy transition, especially for those somms who love history. Wine, beer, and spirits share a long, intertwined and incestuous history.
What does a true sommelier look like? Take Master Sommelier Thomas Burke. He not only represents Chateau Margaux, but is also a certified cicerone. Master Sommelier Richard Betts not only makes old vine Australian Grenache, but helped grow the Mezcal category with Sombra. Steve Olson, aka Wine Geek, travels around the country enlightening bartenders, sommeliers, and distributors on the wonders of wine, beer, sake and spirits.
You can be a true sommelier too. Go out and make friends with brewers and distillers. Some might be just as resistant to change as the samelier. Regardless, give them a hug and maybe they will stop hiding behind their beards and embrace wine.
This year at Somm Con, enjoy learning about the wines from Central Europe, and blind tasting with the masters, but also go out and expand your boundaries by taking a spirit or beer course. Don’t be the samelier — diversify! You may find it fascinating.
What do you love about wine? Is it the romanticism of drinking something that took a year to grow? Is it because it is a beverage balanced with alcohol, acidity and sweetness? Or maybe you love that each time you drink wine you learn something new? Whatever the reason maybe, we all have one. Some of you may not be in love yet. Hopefully, this month I can give you a reason to fall in love with wine.
I bring to you, CRG WINE MONTH. This September fall in love with wine. And for those of you who are already infatuated, its your chance to explore your feeling on a deeper level. CRG WINE MONTH is a celebration of all things wine. My restaurants are offering promotions and specials such as roses for $5 a glass, $.10 glasses of wine and deep discounts on bottles during SD Restaurant Week.
Food and wine lovers can experiment with thought out wine dinners. Georges Daou will be at C-Level sharing his Paso Robles wines while overlooking the SD harbor and paired with Deborah Scott’s creative dishes. In north county, experience wines from high elevation vineyards. Stonestreet Winery from Alexander Valley teams up with chef Steven Zurkey at 333 Pacific for a culinary experience in taste and elevation. I will be at Vintana Wine + Dine teaching how to blind taste, followed by a Blind Wine Dinner. You won’t know what you are drinking, but if you guess correctly you can win some fantastic prizes. Wine is meant to go with food, and I plan on celebrating this to its core.
We cannot kick off a wine month without a festival. Whether you are looking for true love or a one night stand, The CRG Wine Festival is for everyone. Not only will we have live music, food, photo booths and wine tastings; but we are taking it to another level. There are interactive stations where you will get a chance to hone your skills and win tickets redeemable at the wine shop. Get your friends together and participate in Family Feud. You can visit the bind wine tasting table, blind grape tasting table or blind aroma table. Maybe you ‘d rather learn how to make wine or challenge yourself to blend my Baja wine, Costa Tierra. Afterwards, the wine shop will have wines for you to buy at ridiculously low prizes. I guarantee when September is done, you will be on cloud nine with wine.
I was invited by the folks at the Stoli Group to go to Navarra Spain for a visit of the Arinzano Estate. Senorio de Arinzano was purchased by Yuri Shefler, owner of Stoli vodka from the Chivite family in 2015. Yuri happened to vacation at Arinzano just outside the city of Pamplona and fell in love. He decided to do what any sane billionaire would do, he bought it. What! Vodka and wine? How could that ever work? What does a Russian vodka producer know about wine? Absolutely nothing! Guess what? It works.
Can’t have enough rose, especially in a place like this.
The smartest business people in the world know how to invest, the most successful surround themselves with experts and let them do the hands on work. This is exactly what Yuri did. Yuri hired Manuel Louzada, the man behind Numanthia as chief winemaker and CEO. Most importantly, he gave him carte blanch to “make Arinzano great again”. Manuel is probably the most well known and respected winemakers in Spain. While Yuri was shopping around for side projects, he came across an equally as prestigious winery on the other side of the world, Achaval Ferer in Argentina. Manuel took control of this project as well. The vodka tycoon left Manuel in charge of two of the most important wine estates in the world. What do you suppose Manuel did?
The enthusiastic Manuel Louzada with Cabernet wine maker, Miguel tasting us through old vintages of Arinzano.
Manuel has been around. He spent many years with Moet Chandon and brought greatness to the Toro region with Numanthia Termanthia. He did not do it alone, he always had a solid team around him. I am not sure if it was his outgoing spirit, his pursuit for perfection or his generosity; but he was able to drag his sales and winemaking team to Arinzano with him. Bring a strong team together to a property where it is impossible to grow bad grapes, throw in a fat check book and you are bound to get some of the best wines in the world.
Arinzano is the first Vino de Pago in Northern Spain. A Vino de Pago is a classification given to unique estates which produce high quality wines outside the DO because of its soil, climate or terroir is so unique and cannot be matched elsewhere. Arinzano’s vineyards are devoted to mostly Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. It is nestled within hillsides facing North where a cooling wind blows continuously across the vineyards. The soils are of decomposed granite with limestone. A small mountain range to the North protect the Pago from moisture and humidity.
Northern mountains blocking sea moisture
Manuel inherited an estate known for making incredible wines. He took the estate and perfected it. He changed canopy management on the Cabernet which removed the green pyrazine and increased the fruit flavors. He changed the barrel program and now uses a mixture of coopers. Each barrel brings a unique attribute to the final blend. He invested in moving winery walls and machinery so that wine making is clean and efficient. I am talking about millions of dollars invested with the sole purpose of producing world class wines.
What I learned from this trip is that wind, soil, vines and sun are not the only things important in making quality wine. What is equally as important is culture. The folks at Arinzano embrace this and made sure that we understood. Instead of staying at the winery and discussing viticulture and oenology, they also showed us how important the Navarra culture is to the wines at Arinzano. We spent the day in Pamplona. We watched the running of the bulls, sat through a bullfight and enjoyed an amazing local meal in a Michelin star restaurant. We danced with the people of Pamplona at 10 in the morning, we danced with them in the afternoon and continued dancing in the midnight hour. The culture is festive with a love for live. We also visited San Sebastian where we got to see where the locals vacation. More importantly we got to stand and look out at the vast ocean, feel the wind blow on our faces. The same wind which 150 km away is blowing on the vines at Arinzano. Great wines are made by great people, great cultures and great places. Arinzano is one of those wines.
I thought I knew Aussie wine. I knew that it wasn’t only that wine with a yellow Aboriginal drawing of a kangaroo and boomerang. Isn’t it high quality Shiraz/Cab blends from Barossa Valley? The wines are big fruit bombs, right? Or maybe austere Clare Valley Rieslings. They are light, fresh, petrol and lime driven, right? My perception of Australian wine was turned upside down after the James Busby Travel trip I took in October. I felt like Doctor Strange entering Kamar-Taj for the first time. What I thought I knew slapped me on the palate and turned my olfactory bulb inside out. Here is what Australian wine is all about!
Cool Climate Terroir
Bill Downing makes some of the best wines in Australia. His wines are all about terroir, wines made in the vineyard. Most of his fruit is sourced from specific bio-dynamic growers. His approach to making wine is not making it, but letting it become what it intended to be. It is a hands-off approach resulting in unique mind-blowing wines. Bill believes terroir is much more than just growing grapes in a particular soil type, but it is about the people, the climate, the animals and plants in that place which influence the wines.Winemakers in the Mornington Pennisula struggle with cool wet weather. Pinot Noir does extremely well. With a minimal approach, whole berry and cluster ferments, they make wines that are aromatic and elegant. Story and Garagiste Vineyards source grapes throughout the Mornington and the Grampians. Best part of cool climates is the ability to make sparkling wine. And I am not talking about Sparkling Shiraz, but proper method Champenoise with Pinot and Chardonnay.
The Yarra Valley
The Yarra is located in Victoria and divided into the lower Yarra and the upper Yarra. The region was once planted with grapes to make sparkling wines, today we find some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be found here. Yarra Chardonnay is unique and coming into its own. Tim Wildman gave 12 reasons why Yarra Chardonnay stands out: cooler sites, early picking, better clones, hand harvesting, whole bunch press, smaller ferments, old oak to mature, larger oak formats, no batonage, do not force malo, use of screw caps, sulfites are set in vineyard and natural winemakers are looking for textural Chardonnay. The Yarra is home to some of the best wines in Australia, DeBotoli, Luc Lambert, Gembrook, Mac Forbes, Giant Steps, Yarra Yering and many more.
Sarah Crowe, winemaker for Yarra Yering
Winemaker Mac Forbes standing in Denton Vineyard
A little friend in the Gembrook vineyards.
High Quality Dessert Wines
The first wines made in Australia were ports. The tradition goes back almost 200 years. As modern wine-making techniques began to develop, more and more wineries began creating dry still wines. Today there are a handful of wineries still focusing on their family traditions. Many of these are in the Rutherglen and Barossa Valley. Muscat is the grape most commonly used. Wineries such as All Saints, Campbell’s and Seppeltsfield pride themselves on fortified dessert wines of high quality. Today, some young winemakers are looking back and experimenting with fortified wines with a natural twist.
Solera System and large format barrels at All Saints.
Campbell’s Solera Muscat
Drinking my birth year port at Seppeltsfield
Natural winemaker Cole of Adelina in Clare Valley sharing Amphora Sherry.
Old vines is a loose term. In some places it can be a 10 to 20 year old vine. California may have 50 year old vines. France might have some 70 so years old. Both of these regions were devastated with phylloxera. Australia has been phylloxera free due to it’s isolation from the rest of the world and sandy soils. Some areas like the Yarra Valley are under threat, phylloxera has started showing up. However, in places such as the Barossa. McLaren Vale and Grampians there wines being produces from vines which were planted on the 1840′-60’s. This old plant material produces very little juice, but the little it does produce is heavenly. If California calls wines from vines planted in the 80’s old vines, then Australia should call them ancient vines. Stand out wineries producing old vine wines are Tahbilk, Darenberg, Best’s, Langmeil, Cirillo, Penfold’s and Yangarra.
Mixed planting of old vines at Best’s in the Great Western.
Old Vine Pinot Meunier planted in 1868
Marco Cirillo showing off his Grenache basket pruned vines planted in 1850.
Langmeil Shiraz vines planted in the Barossa in 1843
Bio-dynamics & Natural Wine Movement
If there is one thing that stood out for me in Australia was to see how far ahead the Aussies are in regards of organic viticulture and natural wine-making. You may have experienced natural wines from different regions in the world, but what many forget is that in order for a natural wine to succeed in the glass, its process needs to begin in the vineyard. Most of the young winemakers in Australia have embraced this concept. Their wines are not faulty, but fresh and bursting with acidity. Winemakers from all over Australia are fed up with flabby fruit juice called wines and are in search of structure. The Adelaide Hills are filled with garage winemakers producing some of the best Pinot Noirs on the planet. Their hands off approach to wine-making is best seen in their big reds, where the alcohol and fruit does not over power the pristine acidity and ripe fruit.
Alpacas in the bio-dynamic vineyards of Gemtree in McLaren Vale
The bull horn filled with fertilizer, essential in biodynamic farming
One of the best wines I tasted in Australia, Ochota Barrels.
A line up of natural wines in the Basket Range in the Adelaide Hills.
Lastly, there are few regions in the world which make wine from sacred sites. We can say that the vineyards of La Tache or DRC in Burgundy are sacred since they were once owned by the church. We might throw Elqui in the high desert in Chile as being sacred, however I haven’t had wines from there that taste sacred. I came across one of the most interesting vineyards in the world, the Bindi vineyard in the Macedon ranges on the slopes of Mt. Gisborne in Victoria. Upon our arrival to the winery there were herds of kangaroos chilling and watching us approach as if they were guarding their sacred land. The soils are composed of quartz and rocky earth. There was a sense of serenity in the vineyard. At dinner our group bonded when we discussed what brought us into the world of wine. This sharing was magical. But to top it off the wines were outstanding. We tasted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from 1991 to 2015, and each wine was divine. This has got to be one of the most memorable tastings of my life.
Walking through the quartz vineyard with winemaker, Michael Dhillon
I have taught at San Diego State University’s Business of Wine Program for several years. During my California Wine Intensive course, I always talk about reading the back label of a wine to have a better understanding of how involved in the production was the winery. Was it “cellared and bottled by”, “produced and bottled by” or “estate grown, produced & bottled by”? They get a kick out of seeing how many labels we see in the market place which have very little to do with growing grapes or even making the wine. The TTB mandates that the front label displays the type of grapes, where they come from, when harvested and the alcohol level. On the back label they tell us how much involvement the winery had in the production process. However, the back label omits something very important; what was added during production.
Why is wine so different from other consumer goods? Why isn’t wine held to the same requirements other packaged goods must adhere? There are two sides to this argument. Wine makers would have to change labels every vintage. The additives and additions change from vintage to vintage. Most of the additives added are harmless. Stricter labeling laws would result in higher priced wines. On the other side of the argument, people want to know what is in the bottle. Were there any additives or flavorings added to the product? In the mind of most people, wine is a natural product and it is what it is, fermented grape juice aged in oak. Only if that was the truth. Unfortunately, most wines are full of additives. Granted most additives are there to improve the wine.
In 1987 wineries were forced to mention the use of sulfites, people magically developed headaches and allergies and blamed sulfites. Sulfites have always been in wine to prevent bacteria growth. Amounts used vary from region to region and producer to producer. When it became required to list on the lable, people’s buying habits changed. Most did not care, but others whom were more sensitive, started to look at bottles to see if the wine contained sulfites. I guess we can say they became wiser consumers. Of course we know that the headaches are alcohol related and not so much from sulfites. Funny thing is even though alcohol level is on the label, most do not read it. They would rather blame chemicals for their discomfort.
Consumers are very worried about ingesting non conventional chemicals. Most consumers have no idea what goes into a bottle of wine. Just when they were trying to get our heads around sulfites, here are some other additives we may see in wine: yeasts, tannins, bentonite, dried fish bladder, gelatins, egg whites, sugar, tartaric acid, malic acid, lactic acid, calcium carbonate, acetaldehyde, dimethyl dicarbonate, mega purple, oak chips, pvpp, potassium sorbate and the list goes on. Many of these additives might seem familiar since they are in a lot of our packaged foods. We have become used to reading the back of labels and are okay when we see the word “calcium” or “potassium”, we don’t bat an eye. But mega purple? This is why I don’t buy Velveta cheese it has apocarotenal coloring. Some of these additives help stabilize wines and are an important part of wine making. However, others are there to modify wine or rather, improve poor quality wines. Kind of like the coloring added to Velveta, used to improve the color of poor quality cheese stuff.
Worst case scenario is when the two buck chucks of the world use fining agents that release arsenic into the wines. How many people would still buy a $2 wine if the label said “some ingredients are known to cause cancer” and in bold letters arsenic. Safe or unsafe, consumers have the right to know what is in the bottle. I think its time for full disclosure in the wine industry. Let people make wiser decisions when buying wines. Hold wine companies accountable for trying to sell us swill by modifying with additives and slapping on an eye-catching label. It would also make producers of expensive wines focus on production in the vineyards and not the laboratory.
In my opinion if it is served in a package, then let us know what is in the package. We have a right to know. I don’t care if you modify the wine so that it fits a certain flavor profile, but let us know you are doing it. Otherwise we will think that Pinot Noir is supposed to be purple. Hopefully one day we can read the back label and know who, when, where and how the wine was produced. Where do you stand on this?