Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Wine Journey: 1998 Alvaro Palacios L'Ermita

In my continuing quest to taste the wines identified as the Wines of the Decade (the best wines he tasted between 2000 and 2009) by Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara, I thought to taste the 1998 Alvaro Palacios L'Ermita as part of the celebration of International Grenache Day.  This post relates the experiences associated with that tasting.
L'Ermita is the flagship product of Alvaro Palacios, one of the pioneering young winemakers who accompanied René Barbier to Priorat to reclaim that region's winemaking traditions. In what has come to be known as the "Grattalops Project," these winemakers had separate vineyards but shared winemaking facilities in order to control costs and quality.  Palacios had an excellent winemaking pedigree prior to his involvement with Gratallops.  He was one of nine children born to the owner of Bodega Palacios Remondo, a respected Bodega in the Rioja Baja, had studied winemaking in Bordeaux, and had worked at Chateau Petrus for 2 years under the famed winemaker Jean Pierre Mouiex.

Palacios bought his first vineyard in Priorat -- Finca Dofi -- in 1990 and then found, and bought, L'Ermita in 1993.  L'Ermita, named for a small chapel at the top of the hill on which the vineyard lies, is a north-east facing, 2-hectare plot that sits between 400-500 meters elevation on a precipitous, well-drained, granite slope.  The steep hillside terraces, some only wide enough for one or two rows of vines, are populated by gnarled, head-pruned Garnacha vines which were all planted between 1900 and 1940.  Since 2000, Palacios, whose practices reflect his view that wines are "a transparent expression of the terroir," has been farming L'Ermita biodynamically.

The grapes for the wine are hand picked with teams making multiple passes through the vineyard to ensure that the best grapes are picked at the right time.  Prior to 2005, the finished wine contained 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, added to provide structure.  Since 2005 the wine has been 100% Garnacha.  The wine undergoes maceration for 25 days in oak vats and is then aged in 100% new French oak for 16 to 18 months.  The yield is approximately 10 hectoliters/hectare and annual production is 250 cases.

Andrew McNamara had identified the 1998 vintage of this wine as one of his wines of the decade and Robert Parker, in assigning it a score of 97, fawned over it thusly: "The blockbuster, opaque purple-colored 1998 L'Ermita exhibits ... copious quantities of sweet oak, a boatload of glycerin and superb blackberry, cassis, and cherry fruit that explodes on the mid-palate and in the finish."

I had the wine shipped into state by overnight delivery so that it would be a part of the Wine Barn celebration of Grenache Day. The details of the evening were covered in a prior post so I will limit myself herein to the circumstances surrounding the tasting of the L'Ermita.  The wine was taken from me when I arrived at the location and was placed into a brown paper bag as were all of the other wines.  The donated wines were

marked uniquely in order to differentiate them from each other as well as from the larger group of wines. I was able to identify the L'Ermita and, after my first encounter with it, it was impossible to dislodge me from my position at the tasting table.

The wine had a youthful appearance with some slight browning at the edges and showed blackfruit, cassis, cedarbox and vanilla on the nose.  The scents were so compelling that it took significant effort to transition from smelling to tasting.  The wine delivered on the palate with blackfruit, minerality, acidity, excellent balance, and a very long finish.  All elements of the wine were fully integrated and the youthful appearance and taste of the wine signaled even greater drinking pleasure down the road.

A definite homerun, as can be seen by the look of amazement on the face of Andrew Montoya, owner of The Wine Barn., as he removes the bag to reveal the identity of the wine.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Taste-Through of Casanova di Neri wines with Giacomo Neri

Stacole Fine Wines recently hosted Giacomo Neri, winemaker and owner of Casanova di Neri,  at its Boca Raton headquarters for a seminar and tasting of selected Casanova di Neri wines.  I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to this event and took full advantage of the opportunity to meet this respected winemaker and hear, directly from his lips, the story behind his wines.

Brunello di Montalcino has grown rapidly from its roots as a Biondi-Santi-family-introduced clone of Sangiovese Grosso.  Brunello became a DOC in 1966 and became the first red DOCG in 1980.  It has grown from 11 producers in 1968 to 300 producers today with over 2000 hectares currently under vine.  Legal requirements for Brunello include 5 years aging (6 years for Riserva) with a minimum of 2 years in wood and a minimum of 12.5% alcohol.  Stellar Brunello vintages include 1990, 1991, 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2004.

Casanova di Neri was founded by Giovanni Neri who bought the property in 1971.  The winery currently consists of 60 hectares divided among five vineyard sites: Fiesole, Pietradonice, Cerretalto, Podernuovo, and Le Cetine.  The estate is site-driven, using these five sites to produce three distinctive Brunellos, a Rosso di Montalcino, a Rosso di Casanova di Neri (called Rosso di Sant'Antimo outside the US), and a Cabernet Sauvignon. 

@wineontheway and I drove from Orlando to Boca for the event.  It was a wet, rainy Monday morning and we looked like drowned rats as we squelched into the lobby. We were early so Steve Sink took us on a tour of the Stacole warehouse.  The seminar was held in a mezzanine-level classroom with the tables running perpendicular to the speaker's table which was located at the west end of the room.  Giacomo, who was accompanied by Vittorio Marianecci, was introduced to the audience by Steve Sink of Stacole.

The entry-level Brunello is the White Label, a 100% Sanigovese which is crafted from 35-year-old vines and aged in Slavonic oak for approximately 45 months and in bottle for 6 months.  The 2005 vintage showed cherries, blackberries, violet, and graphite (from decommisioned Cerretalto grapes) on the nose.  Very elegant on the palate with good acidity and a long finish.  This wine can be drunk today but will be better in 10 years.

The second wine is the Tenuto Nuova, a 100% Sangiovese made from 35-year-old vines sited in the Fiesole vineyard.  Maceration and fermentation for this wine takes 25 days after which it is aged for 29 months in French 500L tonneaus and then in bottle for 18 months.  The quality of this wine is reflected in the fact that the 2001 vintage was designated as the 2006 Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator.  This is a Brunello with great character.  It is hand-harvested and fermented in open tanks.  The 2005 vintage showed rosemary on the nose and was rich and full on the palate.  This wine will require 10 years of cellaring.

Cerretalto is a 100% Sangiovese drawn from a vineyard of the same name located at 750-900 feet elevation.  Maceration and fermentation takes 20 days and the wine is aged for 30 months in French barrique and bottle-aged for 30 months.  This wine is produced only in the years when the grape quality is outstanding.  The winery produces 25 hectoliters/acre from the 13-acre vineyard.  Giacomo described this wine as having a "big personality" and being an "emotional wine" which "needs a lot of attention."  The '05 Cerretalto exhibited graphite on the nose and was rich and long on the palate with hints of blackberry, licorice, and vanilla.  This is a long-lived wine.

The Pietradonice is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pietradonice vineyard.  The wine is macerated and aged for 15-18 days, aged in small French oak barrels for 18 months, and then bottle-aged for an additional 18 months. Giacomo said that 2006 was a great vintage in Montalcino and that that was reflected in the '06 Pietradonice.  The soil where the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown has a high onyx content and this shows as a marked minerality in the wine.  The wine exhibited dark black fruit, earth, a metallic minerality, round mouthfeel, and a long finish.  Gioacomo feels that this wine will be ready to drink in 7-10 years.

The Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Casanova di Neri are both Sangiovese wines built for approachability.  The Rosso di Casanova di Neri is, according to Giacomo, blended with Colorino (10%) to give a violet florality on the nose and soft tannins to the structure.  The 2008 vintage showed violet and cherries and exhibited good balance.  The initial attack was underwhelming but the wine showed good weight and finished well. According to Giacomo, the wine was good now but would be even better in three years and would pair well with foods such as cheese, pasta, and meat.

The event was fully subscribed and the earnestness and passion for his craft was very evident in every aspect of Giacomo's actions.  He consistently referred to himself as just a farmer, self-deprecatingly, I am sure, but boy what excellent produce this farmer brings to the market.

It was raining cats and dogs outside but for 2 hours that day we were in a veritable wine oasis listening to the siren song of the one of the great Montalcino winemakers.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Journée Mondiale du Grenache at the Wine Barn

A group of devoted Grenache enthusiasts descended upon the Wine Barn this past Friday to partake in a blind tasting of Grenache-based wines culled from the very list of the wines tasted at the International Grenache Symposium held this past June at La Verriere in the hamlet of Crestet in the southern Rhone Valley.

The Wine Barn had selected 12 bottles, representing a variety of styles and countries of origin, and a few participants provided additional "blind" bottles to further up the ante. The lineup featured wines from France, Spain, Australia, and the United States and  ranged in age from the 2000 vintage to the 2008 vintage. With the added wine contributions, the wines tasted ranged in age from 15 years old to current vintages.

While the International Grenache Day festivities did not seem to garner the same volume of tweets and posts as those for #Cabernet Day and, more recently, #Bubbly Day, there was considerable global enthusiasm as was evident in the number of locations contributing tweets, the buzz leading up to the event, as well as through information disseminated in preparation for the tasting events (A list of wines and background information from the 1st Annual Grenache Symposium, a primer on the grape, and "activation ideas" for the event, were all made available.).

On a somewhat surprising note, several tasters found many of the wines tasted that night to be remarkably similiar. The jammy red fruit, tar, and herbaceous flavors of the grenache shone through, be it from a 2000 Domaine de la Solitude Barberini Chateauneuf du Pape to a 2006 Torbreck The Steading, and a 2005 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant to a 2007 Alto Moncayo. Also holding true across the tasting was the high-octane nature of grenache, with alcohol levels at or above 14.5% being commonplace.

Some of the real treats came with the wines donated by the participants. These wines included the 1995 Domaine Santa Duc Prestige des Hautes Garrigues Gigondas, the 1998 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape, the 1998 Alvaro Palacios L'Ermita Priorat, and the 2001 Domaine de Pagau Cuvee Reservee Chateauneuf du Pape. All four of these wines were among the crowd favorities, particularly the L'Ermita, which exhibited such a depth of flavor, balance, and finesse that a few tasters were convinced that it had to be a Napa Valley Cabernet.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Montsant DO

Garnacha (as Grenache is called in Spain; Garnatxa in Catalan) is the most widely planted varietal in Spain and some of the most powerful representations of this wine issue from the old vines of Priorat.  These low-yield, bush vines grow on steep, slate-laden (llicorella) soils and produce big, bold red wines.  Almost surrounding the vineyards of Priorat, and also blessed with old Garnacha and Carignan vines, lie the lower-altitude vineyards of Montsant DO.

A subzone of the Tarragona region until it attained DO status in 2001, Montsant is comprised of 2000 hectares of vineyards yielding 7 million liters of wine annually.  The reds from the region can be almost as powerful as the Priorat reds (they are sometimes called "the poor man's Priorat") but, mirroring the trend in Priorat, are also being blended with Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon to soften and add complexity to the wines.

The Montsant vineyards sit at elevations ranging between 1500 and 2000 feet and while they share some of the slate soil characteristic of Priorat (3000 feet), limestone, sand, and clay soils are also thrown into the mix.  The climate is Mediterranean with some continental influences.  Summers are dry with annual rainfall (most of it occurring in the autumn) of about 650 mm.  Significant day/night temperature differentials, especially during the grape-ripening season, results in good sugar creation during the daylight hours and acid retention at night.

Wines sold under the Montsant DO carry a quality guarantee label on the bottle which signifies that the wine has successfully negotiated a two-part quality test.  The initial quality test is conducted by the Catalan Vine and Wine Institute (INCAVI) which seeks to ensure that alcohol, acidity, and sulfite levels fall within the DO parameters.  The second test is a blind tasting carried out by a team comprised of INCAVI technicians and Montsant winemakers wherein the visual, aromatic, taste, and back-palate properties of the wine are examined.

You could not go wrong by trying a Montsant wine for Interantional Grenache Day.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Wine Barn's tribute to Grenache, "the unsung hero of the red wine world"

The Wine Barn (@thewinebarn, will celebrate International Grenache Day by hosting 18 customers for a tasting of 12 Grenache/Grenache-based wines on Friday, September 24th at 6:00 pm.  International Grenache day will be celebrated all over the world and, by hosting this tasting, The Wine Barn will be extending the Orlando area's string of robust participation in these national/global varietal-celebration events.

The theme for the celebration has been set by the Grenache Association but The Wine Barn also wanted to honor the work done by the organizers and delegates at the Grenache Symposium by following in their footsteps.  At the Symposium, the delegates had tasted a wide range of Grenache/Grenache-based wines from a variety of regions.  Most of the wines were of recent vintage but the delegates were also treated to an old Grenache in the form of a 1952 Chateau de la Gardine, a 100% Grenache.  The Wine Barn tasting will follow this theme.

Most of the wines for the tasting will be drawn from the Symposium tasting catalog and all of the major Grenache-producing areas will be represented.  No 1952 Chateau de la Gardines are available on the market (the ones tasted by the Grenache Symposium delegates were donated by the Chateau) but a suitable old Grenache will be included to match up to the structure of the Symposium tasting. 

The Wine Barn tasting will be blind. The cost of participation is $25 which includes a selection of charcuterie and cheeses.  Tasting participants will have a chance to share with other celebrants around the world through the magic of Twitter. 

Don't forget to wear your loud-colored shirt.

International Grenache Day: New House of the Pope

Dating back to at least 1157, vineyards have been planted in southeastern France (see location at right) along the Rhone River. Records dating back that far indicate that Geoffrey, the Bishop of Avignon, planted vines and personally managed his own estate in his fief in Chateauneuf.

By the 1300s, Pope Clement V, the former Archbishop of Bordeaux, had planted additional vineyards in the area around the town of Avignon, but it was not until the papacy of John XXII from 1316 to 1334 that the wines from the region began to gain their reputation. John XXII made certain that wine from Chateauneuf was regularly supplied to the Papal residence. He also is responsible for the first appellation in the history of Chateauneuf, originally known as Vin du Pape and that was later to become Chateauneuf-du-Pape. John XXII also built the papal residence in Avignon.
Little is known regarding the particular vines that were originally planted, although there is mention of Counoise being a gift to the region from Spain to Pope Urban V (1362-1370). The wines of Chateauneuf were known for their superior quality and sold for 33% more than the general wines of the region. The reputation grew and, over time, the wines were transported by land and sea to the major cities of Europe and later America.

The region (extending from the city of Orange to the city of Avignon along the east bank of the Rhone) prospered for several hundred years until the 1860s when phylloxera decimated the vineyards. By that time there were records of 13 varietals planted in the vineyards in and around Avignon. These varietals are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Muscardin, Cournoise, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Roussanne, Terret Noir, Picardan, and Vaccarese.

The Chateauneuf du Pape region languished as it struggled to rebound from the destruction of the vineyards by phylloxera and, up until the time of World War I, the majority of the wine was shipped to Burgundy as vin de médecine to be added to Burgundy wine to bolster the finicky Pinot Noir wines.

The wines that were labeled as Chateauneuf du Pape were plagued by fraud, as other areas sought to profit from the area’s long-held reputation. Appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) rules (Chateauneuf du Pape was the first region with such rules) were developed by Baron Le Roy, owner of Château Fortia, that regulated the varietal make up of the wines, as well as the crop yields and alcohol levels, as many of the grapes yield thin and insipid wines at high crop levels. The Chateauneuf appellation has the highest minimum alcohol content of any appellation in France - 12.5%. However, most Chateauneuf du Papes nowadays don't have a problem in reaching 14% alcohol.

The original AOC rules (1923) allowed 10 varietals, but were soon expanded to the 13 noted above. That said, almost all of the red wines from Chateauneuf du Pape are dominated by Grenache.

Based on 2004 statistics, Grenache covers more than 72% of the 3,100 hectares (7,600 acres), followed by Syrah with a 10.5% coverage and Mourvedre at 7%. Grenache is particularly suited to the terroir of Chateauneuf du Pape, as it loves the heat and full sun in the Mediterranean climate. The soils in the north of the region are characterized by the galets roulés, round quartz pebbles and stones over red clays, although soils farther removed from the Rhone are more sand than clay-based, and more gravelly toward Avignon. The stones tend to trap the heat of the sun during the day and radiate that heat at night, keeping the vineyards warmer in the evening and accelerating the ripening process.

Grenache in Chateauneuf du Pape produces a spicy sweet juice that can have a jammy consistency when it is fully ripened. The wines tend to be soft, but often have a high alcohol content. Syrah is typically blended to provide a depth of color and black pepper spice, while Mourvedre adds refinement and backbone to the wine. Some estates produce 100% Grenache wines, while a few producers insist on using at least a token amount of all thirteen permitted varieties in their blend. The only estate that grows all thirteen varieties and uses them consistently in their wine is Château de Beaucastel.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wines are often described as having strawberry or raspberry flavors with earthy and/or gamy overtones and hints of tar and leather. A common aroma descriptor given to these wines is that of garrigue, so named for the low scrubby vegetation that grows along the Mediterranean coast. The best explanations of this aroma vary from dried Herbs de Provence to the aroma of broken twigs and leaves one smells while walking through the woods.

Historically, much of the wine was considered tough and tannic in their youth and requiring of at least 4 to 5 years of bottle age to mellow, but they did tend to keep their rich spiciness over time. Since Robert Parker began reviewing the wines of Chateauneuf in the 1980s, there has been a trend toward the wines being more approachable at bottling to appeal to a broader commercial audience. Unfortunately for fans of the wines, this trend towards a more fruit-driven, approachable style has also corresponded with a four-fold increase in prices in the past 10 years.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Genesis and Management of International Grenache Day

These #Wine days are coming fast and furious.  As soon as you put one to bed, and gathered up the empty bottles and photographs, the next one is upon you.  Since I have been following these events, I have participated in #PinotNoir Smackdown, #Cabernet Day, and #Bubbly Day.  And now, hard on the heels of #Bubbly Day, comes International Grenache Day -- or G-Day as it is alternatively called (I am not sure that the identity crisis of the Grenache grape is solved by also referring to International Grenache Day as G-Day.). Being good sports (and avid wine drinkers), we here at Wine -- The View From Orlando will assist in promoting and celebrating this event.  But first, a little about the genesis of G-Day.

Apparently a number of Grenache insiders were concerned that the varietal was not getting the respect that it deserved.  The grape makes great wine but is generally buried in the blends of the Rhone and Priorat and has fallen far behind its Burgundy and Bordeaux counterparts in terms of name recognition.  To help address this situation, a number of Grenache leading lights organized a Grenache Symposium which was held at Crestet, France from June 4 - 6, 2010.  The Symposium, led by Stephen Spurrier (of Judgement of Paris fame) and Michel Bettane, attracted 250 participants from 23 countries.  Activities included presentations, workshops, and tastings of over 300 Grenaches from 12 countries.

The key conclusions of the Symposium were:
  • It was time to elevate the Grenache grape to noble status
  • Great Grenaches happen in the vineyard
  • Grenache can be paired with a wide variety of food (not only spicy stuff)
  • Old Grenache vines should be protected.
One of the key action items coming out of the Symposium was the designation of September 24, 2010 as International Grenache Day and attendees pledged to enlist wineries/wine shops/writers in the promotion/celebration of this day across the world.  The Australian delegation proposed that participants in International Grenache Day activities wear loud and colorful shirts to "further amplify the event."

Since the conclusion of the Symposium, the Grenache Association has: launched a website with the tagline Grenache: Unsung Hero of the Red Wine World;  issued a press release describing International Grenache Day; developed and released a Grenache primer; developed and released Grenache food pairing notes; and developed a flyer which participating institutions can use to promote International Grenache Day.  The Grenache Symposium website also provides a mechanism to allow participants to utilize Google maps to graphically illustrate the location where their event will be held.

As part of our contribution to the promotion of the grape and International G-Day, we will be developing and posting articles on the instances of the grape in different geographical areas.  Our next two posts will cover Grenache in Chateauneuf du Pape and Priorat.  We will also report on any Grenache Day activities that are planned in the metro-Orlando area.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wine Vault Wednesdays at Dexter's of Winter Park

Last Evening (September 15), Dexter's of Winter Park kicked off Wine Vault Wednesdays, a weekly event that will be held at the restaurant from 5:00 - 10:00 pm and promises: a "cutting-edge wine list" with pricing set between that of retail shops and restaurants; a special menu; and owner Dexter Richardson serving as sommelier for the evening.  I stopped in at Dexter's for this inaugural effort and, while there, had a chance to chat with Dexter about the event.

Dexter started in the wine business in 1981 working with the Wine Warehouse on Fairbanks Avenue.  He opened the first Dexter's at a 900 sq. ft. structure next to the 7-11 on Park Avenue and served wine-by-the- glass, pasta, and soups to customers who found the locale attractive as a hang-out spot (Dexter attributes this to the personality of the staff.).  In 1988 he moved to Fairbanks and opened as a wine bar.  They were the "non-burger, non-smoking, non-liquor place."  Dexter had a very talented team at Fairbanks to include John Hoffmeister and John Washburn as bartenders and Tim Veran running the wineshop (Tom Pence was also a part of this Fairbanks team.).  The success at this location resulted in them outgrowing it and moving to New England Avenue in 1993.

During the Park Avenue and Fairbanks Avenue days, Dexter's was known for its wines.  When Tim Veran left, it hurt the business.  After unsuccessfully trying to replace him, and seeing the number of retail competitors (including Tim) grow, Dexter thought to build out the retail side of the business.  Something that he has done successfully.  He has, however, always retained his love of wine and the wine industry and is now in a place where he can re-engage and share his expertise and passion with his customers in a purpose-crafted setting.  Hence the Wine Vault Wednesday event.

The area set aside within Dexter's for the event was at the north end of the restaurant, between the bar and the wine vault.  The opening-day crowd was not overwhelming but included some serious wine drinkers.

Attendees were presented with a 3-page wine menu and a two-item specials menu upon accessing the area.  The wine list had an impressive array (Scarecrow, Hundred Acre Ark, Insignia, ...) of featured wines for the day on the first page with "vault" wines listed on the two following pages.  The prices, as advertised, were very attractive vis a vis restaurant prices.  The specials menu featured a Beef Tenderloin Wellington and a Grilled Chimichurri Black Grouper.  And there was Dexter, flitting between the vault and customer pods, urging you to get a whiff of this or a taste of that.

A group of us pulled two high-tops together and tried to see how much of a dent we could place in Dexter's stock.  The picture below shows some of the wines we bought and drank. 

The 1995 Marcassin was brought out by Dexter who was a little concerned that its best days might be behind it  (It drank pretty well early on but began to fade with the passage of time.).

I like the concept that Dexter has pulled together and I think that the setting is absolutely perfect for it.  The pricing should allow him to attract people who are tired of paying the exorbitant markups that restaurants extract from people who are not disposed to taking their own wines to a restaurant.  The food was excellent (I had the Grouper) and if the price/quality ratio is maintained will be a huge draw for this event.  Check it out when you have a chance.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Confluence of #Bubbly Day and A Wine Journey

Yesterday (September 14) was designated #Bubbly Day and wine drinkers were asked to mark this day by drinking their favorite bubbly and sharing their experience with others around the world via Twitter.  This online aspect of #Bubbly Day was hosted by @Atlantawineguy.

From the launch of this website I have been engaged in a quest to taste the 115 wines designated by Master Sommelier Andrew MacNamara as his Wines of the Decade.  I opted to do a #Bubbly Day-Wine Journey mashup by tasting one of Wine Journey champagnes on #Bubbly Day and selected for this purpose the 1988 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill.  I did not have this wine in my cellar and had to procure it online from Benchmark Group.  I had them overnight the wine to me and installed it in my cellar to await its pleasurable sacrifice.

Pol Roger was founded in 1849 and today has approximately 87 hectares of vines in and around Epernay.  The company's line of champagnes include three non-vintage cuvees -- Brut Reserve, Rich, and Pure -- and three vintage cuvees -- Brut Vintage, Brut Rose, and Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill.  The non-vintagre cuvees are all made with equal parts Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay while the Brut vintages are 40% Chardonnay and 60% Pinot Noir.  The mix of grapes for the Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill is not publicized.  The Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill was named after that great man, who happened to be both a friend and loyal customer of the Pol Rogers.  According to, the cuvee was made in a style preferred by Sir Winston, "... robust, full-bodied, relatively mature and dominated by Pinot Noir which contributes firmness and backbone complemented by the ethereal elegance of Chardonnay."

I had invited the members of the Antonio's Tasting Group to join me at The Imperial on #Bubbly day and we had 11 people show.

The picture below shows our champagne lineup.  We started with a Veuve Clicquot and never looked back.  With every bottle we opened I issued

 a "Big-Bird" tweet.  We were monitoring Twitterfall to gage the action that was ongoing elsewhere and noted a few retweets of our tweets and a query from @Atlantawineguy about the Sir Winston Churchill.

The Sir Winston Churchill was the last bottle opened and everyone stayed around for that event.  This wine was worth the wait.  It had tight bubbles, apple-pear notes, a certain breadiness, walnuts, good acidity and a long finish.  We had drunk a lot of very good champagne that evening but this was clearly the cream of the crop.

A good night was had by all.  We had the satisfaction of drinking locally while participating globally.  We could get to like this.

Monday, September 13, 2010

#Cabernet Day Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical -- The Wines

In celebration of #Cabernet Day on September 2, 2010, hosted a Shafer Hillside Select 12-vintage (1994-2005) tasting at Luma on Park.  In recent posts I reported on the "back story," the event setup, and the tasting leader's (Andrew McNamara) opening remarks.  In this post I report on the actual tasting of the wines.

The process Andrew employed for the tasting was inclusive and engaging.  For each vintage, the attendees were asked to raise their glasses, say cheers, and clink glasses with as many fellow attendees as possible.  Upon completing this ritual we: examined the color of the wine; covered the top of the glass with the palm of one hand while swirling the glass with the other hand; smelled the wine; and, finally, tasted it.  He asked for group input on our observations after out assessments of color, smell, and taste.  He spoke at great length on a wide range of topics, especially between vintages, to slow down the pace of the tasting and combat tannin buildup in the mouths of the attendees.  The tasting began with the 2005 and proceeded in the order shown.

2005 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine had a deep ruby color and presented dark, ripe blackcherries, mocha, coffee bean, cinnamon, anise, charred earth, and graphite on the nose.  The wine showed good weight, acid, tannin and fruit on the palate and had a smooth, long finish.  Andrew indicated that 2005 had been a very good vintage in Napa.  It was slightly cooler than 2004 and had had lower yields.

2004 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine did not present much on the nose initially.  When tasted, tannins were dominant.  The wine was all oak, graphite, and tannin with very little fruit.  There was a definite spiciness, a definitive hallmark, according to Andrew, of Shafer Hillside Select.  This wine was closed and Andrew recommended revisiting it again in five years.  This wine was the product of a warm vintage, a year in which most wineries produced flashy, forward wines designed to be drunk young.  This wine, in Andrew's view, shows that higher-quality wines of this vintage should not be drunk young.

2003 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine was more open on the palate than the two preceding wines.  It was jammy and fruity with tones of graphite, tobacco, and vanilla.  It was less intense and less complex than either the '04 or '05 but had more developed flavors and aromas.  This wine is approachable now and should be drunk before the '04 and '05.

2001 Shafer Hillside Select -- Andrew described the 2001 as an extraordinary vintage.  The wine had a definite floral element with lavender and violet notes.  There were elements of sour fruit and graphite but, beyond that, the wine was not very forthcoming.  On the palate it showed great structure and depth.  Andrew said that it was less powerful than when he last tasted it approximately three years ago, evidence of what he called a "mellowing out" of the wine.  He sees the wine as being "in the throes of adolescence" and requiring a lot more development time. (This is one of my Wine Journey wines.)

2002 Shafer Hillside Select -- Andrew described this wine as the "most massive wine on the table" and passed it over initially to assess the 2001.  When we returned to this wine, he exhorted us to study it carefully.  The wine exhibited black fruits, licorice, and a round, full mouth feel.  It showed great weight and power without appearing heavy.  Andrew described this as the greatest Shafer Hillside Select ever made and one of the greatest wines ever made in California.  He feels that, of American wines, only the 2001 Harlan approaches the level of balance exhibited by this wine.  The wine is still a baby and will continue to evolve and improve over the next 20 years.  (This is one of my Wine Journey wines.)

2000 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine showed cedar, tobacco, and other secondary characteristics.  This wine is approaching maturity but its structure is still evident.  While 2000 was widely viewed as a bad year for Napa, Andrew feels that Shafer made a good product for this vintage.

At this point in the tasting, Andrew paused for us to reflect on the wines that had gone before. Andrew queried the attendees as to their preferences up to that point and the consensus was 2002 followed by 2001.  It was felt that both the 2000 and 2003 could be drunk now while the 2001, 2004, and 2002 should be approached in that order.

We turned to the final six wines and, given the press of time and the extent to which folks were enjoying themselves and their tasting partners, the previously described tasting process was modified. To begin with, we skipped the 1999 and tasted the 1998 and 1997 comparatively.

1998 and 1997 Shafer Hillside Select -- According to Andrew, the 1997 had been an incredibly hyped vintage, one viewed as the vintage of the century in Napa.  All of the wines in the vintage received great scores from the reviewers.  Doug Shafer, according to Andrew, has tried to convince him that the '97 Hillside Select is in a dumb stage but he is moreso convinced after our tasting that the wine is "done."This was a 100-point wine and it is acidic and shows no fruit today.  The problem with this wine was that it was not balanced from the beginning (Andrew does see the Heitz Martha's Vineyard, BV George Latour, and Dominus from this vintage performing admirably.).  The 1998 Hillside Select, on the other hand, was an El Nino vintage, with a low-yield harvest, but is outperforming the 1997.  It has a slightly vegetal note (which he finds alluring), and a definitively longer finish.

1999 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine had been viewed as the second coming of the 1997 Shafer Hillside Select.  It had incredible tannins, flavor, and intensity in its youth.  A dark, rich, extracted wine which exhibits earth, leather, and graphite.  Rather than the 1997, Andrew sees the 1999 as an older parallel of the 2001, with similar structure, fruit profile, and tannins.

1996, 1995, and 1994 Shafer Hillside Select -- By this time the attendees were becoming difficult to control (actually that had been going on for awhile).  They were buzzed; they were enjoying their neighbors; the night had already been a success.  They just wanted to bask in the glow of having participated in an event as spectacular as this.  They did not want to discuss the wine broadly anymore.  They wanted to tell Andrew what a great person he was.  How much they appreciated his parents for bringing him into the world; and suchlike.  Meanwhile, we are sitting with what I knew to be three great Hillside Selects, waiting patiently for us to administer the coup de grace.  Andrew told the group how unique and incredibly special it was to taste all three of these wines together.  The 1996 was an extraordinary vintage, he said, which overshadowed the 1995.  In a previous tasting note I have described the 1994 as manifesting cigarbox, leather, graphite, stewed plums, black olive, tar, espresso, sandalwood, barnyard, and cedar.

The tasting was over but no one wanted to leave.   We all trooped upstairs and continued the good vibes and wines over dinner at Luma.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Effective Twitter use for the Wine Retailer/Bar

As Rick Bakas points out in his book (Quick Bites: 75 Savory Tips for Social Media Success), the high-value use of social media is as a brand-building tool.  That is, brand building, rather than selling.  Far too many of you perceive Twitter as an advertising platform and spend the entire day blaring out the latest and greatest offers.  Such use of Twitter puts you at risk of being tagged a spammer, will not work to enlist anyone to assist you, and will seriously retard the quality and quantity of your followers. In this post I advance some pointers for the small wine retailer/bar on the use of Twitter to advance their business goals.

To use Twitter optimally, you will first have to understand/determine your brand and the message that it conveys.  For example, in the Orlando market, Tim's Wine Market's brand is as a scholarly, knowledge-oriented purveyor of value wines., on the other hand, is about experiences, experts, and events.  Those brands, built up in the real world, has to be leveraged into the social environment and the brand owner has to enlist other social media players to help promulgate that message.  If people are afraid to look at the embeds in your tweets, for fear that it is another hawking notice, the battle is lost.

Brand-building is targetted at the existing customer base as well as potentials.  To ensure that the message is getting to your existing customers, every effort must be made to enlist them as online "followers" (You should also be following them in order to collect information that could help focus your message.). In addition to your existing customers, you should be following your distributors, as many wineries as possible, and key wine-industry influencers on both Twitter and Facebook.  Such action will provide you with relevant, timely, and unfiltered information about events along your supply chain and the opportunity to tweet this information forward if you so desired.

As you initiate your interaction, keep in mind that you are a business and are attempting to build a business brand.  Tweeting about personal exploits and experiences do not necessarily advance your cause and, in some cases, may contribute in a negative fashion.  You should be retweeting articles, press releases, expert commentaries, and blog posts which you deem of value.  If the wine Twittersphere perceives value in your interactions, they will retweet and/or engage you in dialogue. 

You should use the vehicle to communicate important business events such as upcoming tastings, winemaker visits, winery visits, and extra-ordinary offers.  There is a lot of social interplay on Twitter.  As a business, do not get involved.  If you would like to get involved in this light-hearted banter, get a separate personal account that is unassociated with the logo and brand that you are trying to build online.

The repeated presence of your business name in the Twittersphere brings attention in and of itself and builds name recognition.  The items which you choose to put forward, and which others aid you in disseminating through their retweets, then serve as brand-builders on a go-forward basis.  Your existing customers will perceive value in having you involved in wine-related dialogue with a broad array of entities drawn from across the globe, while potentials customers are more likely to do business with you online/offline if they recognize your brand based on online views/interactions.

Keeping up with Twitter has benefits but requires a time investment.  Twitter is not your core business and, if not managed carefully, can squeeze out other tasks.  Be judicious in your use of the medium during the course of the business day and ensure that its use does not imperil the completion of core functions.  If multiple individuals are working in the business, one individual should be tasked with Twitter responsibilities in order to ensure a consistent message to the outside world.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical -- McNamara's Opening Remarks

And the words came up from the cellar to Gigi Chilvers who had been holding back the assembled masses in the Luma bar.  And Gigi spake the words and the words were "Thou shalt go down." And go down they did.  Into the Cellar at Luma to partake of the fruit of Shafer's labor: 12 successive years of Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon.

The stairway to the cellar is L-shaped, going in a northerly direction initially and then making a sharp left turn before dead-ending at a north-south passageway after four or five steps.  A right turn leads to a heavy glass door which opens into the finely appointed cellar.  As attendees came across the threshold, they were greeted by an imposing array of Shafer Hillside Select bottles to the left and, ahead, white-berobed tables supporting a shimmering array of glasses each bearing a precise allotment of its homage to Bacchus.  Upon hearing that there were no pre-assigned seats, attendees spread out to occupy the preferred territory from which each would be mounting his/her assault on the best that Shafer had to offer.  The seats at the tables closest to the door filled first while later arrivals, and bullies, worked their way towards the back row.

The attendees were a mix of "power drinkers" and wine lovers.  The Antonio's Tasting Group was well represented as was Circa and Dexter's (by the owners), and ABC (two Wine Consultants).  There were about 10 women at the tasting.

Once everyone had taken their places, Adam made a brief opening statement and then turned the floor over to Andrew McNamara.  His was a virtuoso performance.  He exhibited great wit, exuberance, enthusiasm, and breadth of knowledge over the course of a two-hour tour which spanned not only the matter at hand, but also a broad array of wine-related topics to include wine ratings, acids, balance, beer, oak, and suchlike.

In his opening remarks, Andrew noted that this tasting was truly an extraordinary event.  He had, he said, tasted each of these wines at least three of four times but never all together like this.  He had tasted every Shafer Hillside Select vintage going back to the 1983 vintage and felt that the wines were "fantastic" and "extraordinary."  Given the pedigree and quantity of wines on offer at the tasting, he felt that it could have easily been priced at $400 to $500 and thought it remarkable that attendees were only being charged $150 for the opportunity to participate.

Andrew noted that there were originally eight Napa Valley cult wines: Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family Vineyards, Colgin, Dalle Valle Maya, Grace Family Vineyards, Heitz Martha's Vineyard,  and Shafer Hillside Select.  Shafer, according to Andrew, is definitively one of the greatest wines made in America today and is his single favorite vineyard in the country.  Shafer Hillside is a product of Stags Leap District which, according to Andrew, is one of the most distinct areas in Napa Valley.  The Hillside Select wine is a product of a harsh growing environment characterized by volcanic soil and bedrock.  Located on the east side of the valley, the Hillside grapes benefit from the warming afternoon temperatures generated by the setting sun.

Andrew has worked with Kevin Zraly in the past and considers him one of the most brilliant wine educators around.   For this tasting he was going to be following Zraly's approach of going through the wines methodically with time taken between each wine.  This would allow each wine to be shown as it tastes and not comparatively vis a vis the preceding or following wine.  Shafer is a heavily tannic wine and, if rushed through, would yield a mouthful of tannins for the intrepid taster.  Andrew expected that, as the tasting progressed, the group would be able to see the terroir characteristics -- which is what Shafer is all about -- and how the wine evolves and changes over time.

Let the tasting begin.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical -- Event Setup

#Cabernet Day was a 24-hour, worldwide celebration of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet-dominated blends held on Thursday, September 2nd.'s contribution to this celebration was to host a 12-vintage (1994-2005) tasting of the renowned Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon.  In a previous post, I covered the "back story" of the tasting.  In this post I will detail the event setup.

As noted in my previous post, the event was being held in the Luma on Park Cellar.  The initial plan was to have the attendees sitting in a large, u-shaped configuration with the open end of the "u" adjacent to a large-screen TV which was ensconced in the west wall of the cellar.  Once the number of attendees surpassed 35, that seating configuration had to be jettisoned and a total of six circular tables, each sitting seven, was used instead.

The wines were carefully transported between and Luma by a very nervous Adam Chilvers.  Luma had provided the tables and flowing white tablecloths so once the wines were safely deposited in the staging area, Adam, John Allport, and Erin Allport began the task of laying out the table mats and placing glasses in each dated circle; 42 table mats and 504 glasses.

In addition to the tables, the Cellar was equipped with a banquette at the rear -- used, in this case, for extra glasses and staff wines -- as well as a countertop below the TV which was used as the staging area for the wines.

John began opening bottles at around 5:15 pm and did some preliminary analysis of the contents to ensure that the wines were not flawed.  The serious factory production did not begin, however, until Andrew McNamara arrived.  He arrived with a burst of energy and began issuing directions regarding pouring order and then began to open and taste through the wines.  Based on his preference (remember, he was the event leader), the wines were to be poured youngest first (2005) from bottom right to top left (1994), with the result being that the youngest wines would have the longest pre-event exposure to oxygen.

While opening the wines, Andrew noted that some of the corks in the older vintages had disintegrated but the wines did not appear to be compromised.  Three of the wines  -- a 1994, a 1995, and a 1999 -- were deemed to be corked.  Because the final bottle count had taken such an eventuality into consideration, attendees were not adversely affected by the loss of these bottles.

The event had been slated to begin at 6:00 pm but the sheer volume of wine to be poured rendered that infeasible.  Even with assistance from Derek (Luma) and Carter Nixon (Stacole), the extreme care that was required to ensure that the right vintage was poured into the right glass (and no one wanted to be the person to drop a bottle) rendered the process slower than anyone had envisioned.  Guests were shepherded into the Luma bar -- a nicer place to wait out a delay can not be found in Orlando -- until the final touches were put in place and the doors were thrown open.  The below posterity photo was taken just prior to the guests being welcomed down.  From left to right, Adam Chilvers, Andrew McNamara, Erin Allport, the author, and Carter Nixon.

The guests were ushered in.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical -- The Back Story

The #Cabernet Day Shafer Hillside Select 12-vintage vertical tasting generated a lot of excitement from its inception but a number of things had to fall into place in order to ensure that the final product matched up to the excitement in the air.  Over the next few posts I will cover the activities leading up to the tasting, the actual tasting, and the perspectives of selected attendees.  This post will cover pre-event activities. wanted to do something significant for #Cabernet Day and, after considering a number of ideas, decided on a Shafer Hillside Select vertical; a 12-vintage vertical no less, beginning with 1994 and ending with 2005.  John Allport, of Augustan Wine Imports -- the local Shafer distributor -- was approached with the idea and he agreed to provide whatever assistance was necessary.  He also volunteered to speak with Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara, currently head sommelier at Premier Beverage, to see if he could be enlisted to lead the tasting.  An affirmative response to this request was received in short order.

The second major decision that had to be made was the actual location for the event.  The first thought was Luma on Park as it had the large cellar downstairs which not only had the seating capacity, but also had electronic equipment which would allow us to access the internet and participate in the online celebration of #Cabernet Day.

Luma management was approached and was so excited by the concept that they offered to donate the space.  This was a significant concession as there is normally a $1000.00 minimum charge to book that space.

The next decision points were the number of attendees and what they should be charged.  The initial plan called for 25 attendees with a cost of $150.00 for participation.  Once the event was publicized, however, it quickly became apparent that a lot more than 25 people wanted to attend.  The final number of paying attendees was 42.  Once the headcount went north of 25, the number of bottles required needed to be adjusted upward.  After discussions with McNamara, it was decided that three bottles of each vintage would be required (a total of 36 bottles).

The wines were procured from local collectors with high-quality storage as well as online retailers with excellent reputations in the area of provenance.  The wines were collected at well in advance of the event and were stored standing up so that sediments would collect in the bottom of the bottle.  Thirty-six Shafer Hillside Select bottles standing together sure is a sight to see.

The event was shaping up to be a great treat for attendees.  Not only would they be tasting the 12 most recent vintages of the greatest American wine of today, they were also going to be walked through the tasting by one of the most electric and engaging Master Sommeliers in the business today and they were getting what appeared to be good value for their money.  Based on the lowest prices on, the total value of the wines that were tasted was $9147.00.  When combined with the 500 glasses needed for the tasting (another $2000.00) and the $1000.00 for the room (cost avoided), the cost (excluding printing costs) per attendee was $289.00.

The final requirement was for a set of literature that would carry through the tone of elegance set by the choices of wine, venue, and tasting leader.  The first order of business was a place mat which would have space for all of the vintages being tasted and would identify by year where each vintage was located on the mat.  Further, created a four-page booklet which contained Robert Parker's tasting notes for each of the vintages.

John Allport was instrumental in obtaining a a rich-looking, black-colored, spiral-bound document titled Shafer Owner's Manual which was placed on each table along with the Parker notes and a flyer titled Shafer: The Hillside Select Story.

The stage was now set for the actual event.