Sunday, November 16, 2014

the gift wine

How I find the perfect gift wine for my customers

In the movie Red Obsession, a winemaker from Bordeaux says, “We need to please our customers, not impress them.” Great advice for anyone in our industry. In the case of a gift-wine, however, the challenge is doubled, because we need to please both the giver and their recipient.

When my customers ask for a gift wine I immediately create a mental flowchart. I play twenty questions with them, but in a nice, chatty way that does not (hopefully) feel like an interrogation.

Who is the recipient?
What I need to know is the relationship with the gift-giver - boss or superior, colleague, love-partner, love-partner wanna-be, friend, close friend, neighbour, hostess-gift, etc

What are the recipients tastes in wine? How knowledgeable are they about wine?

Sometime the giver knows nothing about the recipient. For example they are shopping for a secret Santa or they want a case of wine and gift bags on hand for unexpected people. In that situation I suggest wines based on the giver's taste. After all they may end up drinking it.

What is the occasion?
Under the tree? Company party? One on one? Why this is important is because the more generic, anonymous the occasion, the more generic, anonymous the gift. You don't need to learn some interesting story about the winemaker's wartime experience if the recipient will never know. At the same time, if the occasion is a Chanukah party, you might want to find an interesting Israeli wine.

Price, budget?
I always try to come in a bit below the customer's budget. Make them pleased. There is so much great wine at all price levels that surely we can find a wonderful gift for any budget.

Some general guidelines:
Red before white. Unfortunately we all still believe that Red is somehow more wine. Of course pick white if we know the recipient loves white. Sparkling can also be a great choice.

New world over old. Again unless we know otherwise, recipients will think they understand new world. However if the giver says that the recipient just got back from Greece, then go Greek!

Package – lots of great wines come with ugly labels. Don't pick them. Name names, you insist? Well, ok, Caronne Ste Gemme is a fantastic Bordeaux with a label your ten-year-old niece could improve upon with a desktop publishing program. Find wines with labels that are elegant and well-designed. Stay away from critter wines, unless the giver knows the recipients favourite is Little Penguin. Stay away from cute names, “ZinfreekinFastic,” unless you know the recipient goes that way.

Famous brands - “They just love Cakebread.” A smart move here is to find something similar but obscure, better priced and will exceed all expectations. Unless the recipient is a total brand-hog, you and the giver will be heroes.

In general stay conservative, go with the tried and true. But if you know the recipient is a bit open-minded and experimental you can find many fantastic crowd-pleasing wines from, for example, Spain or Portugal, for under $20.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sweet - the best wine in the world

Do you have a prejudice against sweet wines? You shouldn't. I am devoted to fighting this prejudice. 

Why do so many of us think we don't like sweet wines? My theory is this: When we just turned 18, or for some of us maybe a bit younger, we went on dates with people who tried to get us drunk. Invariably the drink of choice was cheap and sweet. The idea was not to be a connoisseur of wine, or even to really get to know us. The idea was to get to know our southern bits.

Of course we eventually matured, each at differing speeds. And we learned to drink mature drinks. We remember with embarrassment our immature experiences with immature, sweet wine. So we thought, ah, mature people drink dry wine. 

This was a mistake, I know now. We should have learned to date mature people.

Some of the greatest wines in the world, the longest lived, and the most expensive, are sweet. What is the secret to great sweet wines?  How do they avoid that heavy, syrupy, cloying, cheap taste? The secret, as in all wines, and perhaps all things, is balance. The sweetness must be balanced by acidity. The wine must lift in your palate, not weigh down. 

Often people ask me what wine is the very best? I try to avoid answering. I duck, I deak. I say, "It depends. Wine is situational. The best wine for the summer patio is different than the best wine for the fireplace on an autumn evening. The best wine for your wedding reception is different than the best for family dinner. The best wine depends on the situation, the people and, of course, your palate."

I speak the truth, but still, still I lie. 

Now the thoughtful questioner will ask a follow-up question - What is the best wine situation? What is the situation that is most important, that requires the greatest wine?

The answer, of course, is the love-trap. Think spider. Think web. 

Today over 30,000 commercial wineries around the world churn out new wines every year. How can there be a 'best'? How would anyone know, since no one could try them all?

In 1855 the French government tried to answer this very question. They ranked the wines of Bordeaux by 'Crus' (growths). Crus are like leagues. The list they made in 1855 lives today and has only been changed once. If the wine made the list it will say so on the bottle: "Grand Cru Classé en 1855."

Of course the list is controversial and people today argue about its relevance and composition and everything that wine people enjoy arguing over. At the top of the list is one wine that no one argues about - it was put in a league of its own. And it remains there today - the only "Superior First Growth." 

Chateau d'Yquem (eekem)

Yquem is sweet, comes in small bottles, is ridiculously expensive and can age up to one hundred years.

Before you die you really should try Yquem. Preferably with someone nice and mature. In the meantime please open your mind to the amazing sweet world of sweet wines.

Monday, November 3, 2014

On elegance and wine writing

'Elegance' is one of the most overused words in wine writing – reviews as well as marketing. Such and such wine has elegance; that wine is filled with elegance; the winemaker puts elegance in the bottle. As if elegance were an ingredient to add or subtract. We can imagine some corporate panel sending memos down to the winery- "needs more elegance, increase elegance by a third." 

Sometimes elegance is used in wine writing as a kind of code word for the opposite of powerful. Let's say this year the grapes did not fully ripen because the weather was lousy or they picked too early or they over cropped. The resulting Cab turned out to be 13.5% alcohol and their usual offering at, say, 15%. The winemaker (or their marketing writers) will say, "this year our stellar Cabernet Sauvignon shows tremendous elegance." 

Tremendous. So any insipid, weak wine has elegance? Oy. Meaningless.

The masters offer a bit of help: Tom Stevenson in his Wine Encyclopedia defines elegance as "stylish, possessing finesse." Unfortunately he defines finesse as the characteristic that separates fine wine from the rest. So all fine wine has elegance. And we are back to meaningless.

In the Real World©, elegance is usually considered a quality of the feminine. A Chanel dress. Audrey Hepburn. Baccarat crystal.Timeless, classic and stylish. Bur can't men also be elegant? Can't elegance also be a quality of powerful men and powerful women?

In engineering, software design and mathematics, elegance is used to describe solutions that are simple, effective and without excess. Perhaps we can also think of elegance in wine that way - beautiful and delicious without being too much - simplicity without being simple.

Tasted both alone and at table, the 2012 Alphonse Mellot 'La Moussiére' completely charmed me and my dining partners. 'La Moussiére' from Sancerre in France is a wine of elegance – pleasing, graceful, nuanced yet deceptively simple.

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is the Italian spelling for Pinot Gris (the grey Pinot). Same grape, different spelling. But over time the spelling has come to indicate a stylistic difference – Pinot Grigio tends to be light, refreshing and crisp. Typical Pinot Grigio is inexpensive, simple and good for the patio or brunch with the 'girls.' I call it the 'Blue-haired California Grandmother' wine. Not an insult, my grandma, Emma, was one.

Pinot Gris, by contrast, tends to be richer and fuller – think melon versus citrus - and therefore, more 'serious' than Pinot Grigio.

Our dear wine-world is filled with such stereotypes .

Monday, March 17, 2014

demystifying vintage

Vintage. The word has a mystique, even a magic - good vintage, bad vintage. Vintage cars, vintage fashion. In many consumers' minds a vintage wine is a 'better' wine (whatever 'better' means). In some wine stores the vintage section is the good stuff.

To us wine-geeks, vintage is so part of our world and our language we don't think about how it can be confusing. We automatically just think, ah 2003, very hot in France. Wines are possibly forward, possibly stewed. Ah 2006 - great year in Spain.

Vintage means weather during the season that the grapes were growing. Not the year the wine was made or the year the wine was bottled. That's all - the weather. Why is weather important? It is important because the weather is different every year. A fine wine will reflect the difference. Not necessarily good or bad, but different. That is one of the pleasures of wine - it varies from year to year. You want same, you want absolute consistency? Drink Coors lite. Drink Pepsi.

How does the weather affect the wine? Can we tell the difference in our glass?

Yes. Here are a couple of simple examples to help you understand. Let's say it is late in the growing season. It is fall after a hot summer. The grapes are getting ripe and ready to be picked. The grapes are filled with flavours and sugars and acids. The skin of the grape is getting soft and pliable. Let's say there is a heavy rain just before harvest. The vine says to itself, "hurray, I am so thirsty." And it sucks as much of the rain into its roots as it can and sends the needed moisture up to the grapes. The grapes plump up with water.

The farmer says to himself, "darn, now I have to pick these grapes in the mud."

And when the grapes are made into wine, the wine now is more dilute, less intense. More of the wine is water, less is flavour. And the winemaker says to himself, "That year, that vintage, you can taste the rain in the wine." And he is quite literally correct.

Let's take another example. Let's say the growing season has been exceptionally warm. The grapes ripen very quickly. The grapes get very ripe and filled with so-sweet juice. If you go to the vineyard before the harvest and taste the grapes they are very sweet, perhaps ten times sweeter then table grapes you buy at Safeway. When the grapes are made into wine, the yeast is very happy. The yeast has lots of sugar to eat and to convert to alcohol. When the yeast is done, the wine has more alcohol than normal. More sugar means more alcohol. Later when you and I enjoy that wine, we feel the warmth of the alcohol in our chest as we swallow.

The winemaker say, "That year, that vintage you could feel the warmth of the sun in the wine." And he is quite literally correct.

So you can understand through these simple examples how weather affects what is in our glass. Now, what about this whole good year, bad year, business? How difficult is this wine drinking anyway? Does every wine drinker have to remember what are the good years for every wine growing region on earth?

No we don't. We can break out of the good-bad paradigm and remember that vintage just means different. One of the characteristics of fine wine is the vintage variation. There is very good news on the good year/ bad year front. And as a smart consumer you can use the good year/bad year mystique to your advantage.

The good news it thanks to climate change and advances in vineyard and winemaking technology, there really are no truly bad years anymore. We only have good years and better years. Remember vintage just means different, not good or bad.

Now, a lot of people in the wine industry and the wine press spend a lot of time declaring this vintage is good or bad and rating vintages and so affecting the price of wines. Here is how to use this to your advantage. If the wine press declares that such and such a year was a good year in such and such a region, two things will be true - first the prices of all wines from that region will tend to go up. Second, the quality of all the wines also tend to go up. As the saying goes, a high tide lifts all boats.

Now, if the press declares that the vintage was poor, two other things tend to be true - first the prices of all wines from that region tend to not go up. But the great producers will still make great wine. The wine from the top producers should be different then usual, but the great producers, with skill and experience, will still make wonderful wines.

How to use this to your advantage? In the good years buy the lower producer. In the bad years buy the great producers. You will save lots of money and still drink fantastic wines.

Let's get away from the whole good/bad mystique of the vintage. Let's enjoy the nuance and differences that different years offer.

© 2014 Wine Wisdom

Sunday, March 2, 2014

oscar night - wine and the movies reviews

Capsule reviews of recent movies that have wine as a central focus. 

Sideways 2004 Director Alexander Payne
For some reason many people in the wine industry do not like Sideways, referring to it obliquely as “That Movie.” I love it – buddy movie, road trip movie and the wine information is reasonably accurate.

Wine Wisdom Rating 
movie – classic
wine accuracy - great

Bottle Shock 2008 Director Randall Miller
Dramatic re-enactment of the 1976 Judgement of Paris that put California on the world wine map. Wildley inaccurate, but has some lovely shots of vineyards. If you are interested in the Judgment of Paris, the history of California wine and want to be entertained, read Judgement of Paris by George Taber. One of few wine books written by a writer.

Wine Wisdom Rating 
movie – bleh
wine accuracy - bleh minus

Mondovino 2004 Director Jonothan Nossiter
Documentary on the globalization of the wine industry with appearances by virtually every major player in the wine game, and their vineyard dogs. No Michael Moore, Nossiter manages to be polemic without obnoxiously injecting himself into the film. Nossiter lets the wine-makers, critics, importers and consultants speak and slowly they reveal the undercurrents of fascism and racism in our business.

Wine Wisdom Rating 
movie – fantastic, if you are into documentaries
wine accuracy – spot on

Note - Mondovino is very hard to find. If interested let's arrange a viewing.

A Good Year 2006 Director Ridley Scott
Romantic comedy with Russell Crowe. Follows the chick-flick conventions fairly closely and then you realize you care about the characters and it is a good movie.

Wine Wisdom Rating 
movie – worth a watch
wine accuracy – well, not so much

French Kiss 1995 Director Lawrence Kasden
Romantic comedy with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. Well crafted genre flick with marvelous performances by the leads. Ignore the weak plot and set-up and you will enjoy

Wine Wisdom Rating 
movie – worth a watch
wine accuracy – good enough

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In wine is truth and, perhaps, wisdom

The Romans said, “In vino, veritas;” in wine is truth. And almost all ancient cultures have similar expressions. This idea can be found in the earliest hebrew texts, in ancient China, in Persia and elsewhere. The simple meaning is wine loosens the tongue so the truth is spoken. Other meanings can be found, meanings that touch on the truth of an amazing product that requires no manufacture, that arises naturally from the spontaneous fermentation of broken grape bunches. There is truth, also, in the tremendous power of transformation as symbolized in the transformation of juice into wine, and the transformation in us when we drink it.

This blog, hopefully, will examine these truths, and perhaps find other truths from wine.

But the search for truth will not be the primary objective of this blog. I will also attempt to pursue wisdom, the application of truth to create value. What is the difference between truth and wisdom? These are words. That is truth. But words can be words of hate or healing, strife or encouragement. This blog will seek wisdom through wine, as well as pleasure, entertainment, education and a bit of escape.

Is it pompous and arrogant to even suggest a relationship between an alcoholic beverage and wisdom? What makes wine so special? Is it a beverage amongst beverages? One choice amongst several? Would you like a glass of wine or beer or coffee?

These are also questions I hope this blog will explore.

What is the wisdom I hope to discover and share?

I am looking for the wisdom of relationships. Wine engenders relationship as no other drink or product. It is hard to drink wine alone (I realize some readers will disagree). Wine encourages relationships amongst people; it encourages relationships between us and the earth; and between us and lands and people and even times far away.

We live in an age of isolation, of alienation, of separation. Our loneliness can approach existential proportions. Anything that encourages community, connection and relationship has got to be a good thing, n'est pas?

If these topics interest you, see Tom Harpur's Wine and Spirituality,