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Vodka Blind Tasting, Guess Which Won?

Posted on February 14, 2018

Vodka: CRG Spirit Academy

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:

  • Aromas:
    • fruit / herbal / floral
    • medicinal / ethanol
  • Taste:
    • Clean / Dirty
    • Dry / Slightly Sweet
    • Smooth / Aggressive
    • Gentle / Powerful
    • Oily / Grainy / Soapy
    • Rich / Thin
    • Soft / Sharp / Burning
  • Finish:
    • 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. 



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The Best Drinks of 2017

Posted on December 21, 2017


Beverages that made me smile in 2017

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.

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.

Costa Tierra Red Blend

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.

La Fage Tessellae

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.

Hawkes Stone Cabernet

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.

casa noble repo

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.

Marevento Pinot Grigio

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.

Torbreck the Pict

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.

Resident Brewing Chasing Citra

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.

Los Javis Tobala

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.

Hibiki 21 yr

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.

Raul Perez Albarin

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.

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Don’t be a Samelier

Posted on September 12, 2017


(Article released for the Somm Con blog)

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.

sommcon 2017

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CRG Wine Month: Explore What You Love About Wine

Posted on August 18, 2017

CRG wine month

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.

Rose All Day

Wine and Dime


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.

Daou Wine Dinner

Stonestreet Dinner










blind wine diiner











Learning is always fun. No matter how much you know about wine, there is always more to learn. To help you get on your way, I am holding a class on how to pair wine with food. There is a catch, I will be serving only Australian Wines. If you haven’t heard what is going on down under, then you are in for a surprise. See what I am talking about here.


Food and wine pairing

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.



Running with the wines: Arinzano

Posted on August 14, 2017

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.

Arinzano Rose

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?

Manuela Louzada

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.

Team Arinzano

Team Arinzano!

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.

Arinzano vineyards

Northern mountains blocking sea moisture


rocky soils

rocky soils

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.

arinzano barrel room

Arinzano barrel

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.

running with the bulls

running with the bulls

dancing in pamplona

Dancing at 10 am in Pamplona

San Sebastian

San Sebastian where the Arinzano winds originate.

Pago Arinzano

The Arinzano Estate

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