(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.
What do you love about wine? Is it the romanticism of drinking something that took a year to grow? Is it because it is a beverage balanced with alcohol, acidity and sweetness? Or maybe you love that each time you drink wine you learn something new? Whatever the reason maybe, we all have one. Some of you may not be in love yet. Hopefully, this month I can give you a reason to fall in love with wine.
I bring to you, CRG WINE MONTH. This September fall in love with wine. And for those of you who are already infatuated, its your chance to explore your feeling on a deeper level. CRG WINE MONTH is a celebration of all things wine. My restaurants are offering promotions and specials such as roses for $5 a glass, $.10 glasses of wine and deep discounts on bottles during SD Restaurant Week.
Food and wine lovers can experiment with thought out wine dinners. Georges Daou will be at C-Level sharing his Paso Robles wines while overlooking the SD harbor and paired with Deborah Scott’s creative dishes. In north county, experience wines from high elevation vineyards. Stonestreet Winery from Alexander Valley teams up with chef Steven Zurkey at 333 Pacific for a culinary experience in taste and elevation. I will be at Vintana Wine + Dine teaching how to blind taste, followed by a Blind Wine Dinner. You won’t know what you are drinking, but if you guess correctly you can win some fantastic prizes. Wine is meant to go with food, and I plan on celebrating this to its core.
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.
We cannot kick off a wine month without a festival. Whether you are looking for true love or a one night stand, The CRG Wine Festival is for everyone. Not only will we have live music, food, photo booths and wine tastings; but we are taking it to another level. There are interactive stations where you will get a chance to hone your skills and win tickets redeemable at the wine shop. Get your friends together and participate in Family Feud. You can visit the bind wine tasting table, blind grape tasting table or blind aroma table. Maybe you ‘d rather learn how to make wine or challenge yourself to blend my Baja wine, Costa Tierra. Afterwards, the wine shop will have wines for you to buy at ridiculously low prizes. I guarantee when September is done, you will be on cloud nine with wine.
I was invited by the folks at the Stoli Group to go to Navarra Spain for a visit of the Arinzano Estate. Senorio de Arinzano was purchased by Yuri Shefler, owner of Stoli vodka from the Chivite family in 2015. Yuri happened to vacation at Arinzano just outside the city of Pamplona and fell in love. He decided to do what any sane billionaire would do, he bought it. What! Vodka and wine? How could that ever work? What does a Russian vodka producer know about wine? Absolutely nothing! Guess what? It works.
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?
Manuel has been around. He spent many years with Moet Chandon and brought greatness to the Toro region with Numanthia Termanthia. He did not do it alone, he always had a solid team around him. I am not sure if it was his outgoing spirit, his pursuit for perfection or his generosity; but he was able to drag his sales and winemaking team to Arinzano with him. Bring a strong team together to a property where it is impossible to grow bad grapes, throw in a fat check book and you are bound to get some of the best wines in the world.
Arinzano is the first Vino de Pago in Northern Spain. A Vino de Pago is a classification given to unique estates which produce high quality wines outside the DO because of its soil, climate or terroir is so unique and cannot be matched elsewhere. Arinzano’s vineyards are devoted to mostly Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. It is nestled within hillsides facing North where a cooling wind blows continuously across the vineyards. The soils are of decomposed granite with limestone. A small mountain range to the North protect the Pago from moisture and humidity.
Manuel inherited an estate known for making incredible wines. He took the estate and perfected it. He changed canopy management on the Cabernet which removed the green pyrazine and increased the fruit flavors. He changed the barrel program and now uses a mixture of coopers. Each barrel brings a unique attribute to the final blend. He invested in moving winery walls and machinery so that wine making is clean and efficient. I am talking about millions of dollars invested with the sole purpose of producing world class wines.
What I learned from this trip is that wind, soil, vines and sun are not the only things important in making quality wine. What is equally as important is culture. The folks at Arinzano embrace this and made sure that we understood. Instead of staying at the winery and discussing viticulture and oenology, they also showed us how important the Navarra culture is to the wines at Arinzano. We spent the day in Pamplona. We watched the running of the bulls, sat through a bullfight and enjoyed an amazing local meal in a Michelin star restaurant. We danced with the people of Pamplona at 10 in the morning, we danced with them in the afternoon and continued dancing in the midnight hour. The culture is festive with a love for live. We also visited San Sebastian where we got to see where the locals vacation. More importantly we got to stand and look out at the vast ocean, feel the wind blow on our faces. The same wind which 150 km away is blowing on the vines at Arinzano. Great wines are made by great people, great cultures and great places. Arinzano is one of those wines.
I thought I knew Aussie wine. I knew that it wasn’t only that wine with a yellow Aboriginal drawing of a kangaroo and boomerang. Isn’t it high quality Shiraz/Cab blends from Barossa Valley? The wines are big fruit bombs, right? Or maybe austere Clare Valley Rieslings. They are light, fresh, petrol and lime driven, right? My perception of Australian wine was turned upside down after the James Busby Travel trip I took in October. I felt like Doctor Strange entering Kamar-Taj for the first time. What I thought I knew slapped me on the palate and turned my olfactory bulb inside out. Here is what Australian wine is all about!
Cool Climate Terroir
Bill Downing makes some of the best wines in Australia. His wines are all about terroir, wines made in the vineyard. Most of his fruit is sourced from specific bio-dynamic growers. His approach to making wine is not making it, but letting it become what it intended to be. It is a hands-off approach resulting in unique mind-blowing wines. Bill believes terroir is much more than just growing grapes in a particular soil type, but it is about the people, the climate, the animals and plants in that place which influence the wines.Winemakers in the Mornington Pennisula struggle with cool wet weather. Pinot Noir does extremely well. With a minimal approach, whole berry and cluster ferments, they make wines that are aromatic and elegant. Story and Garagiste Vineyards source grapes throughout the Mornington and the Grampians. Best part of cool climates is the ability to make sparkling wine. And I am not talking about Sparkling Shiraz, but proper method Champenoise with Pinot and Chardonnay.
The Yarra Valley
The Yarra is located in Victoria and divided into the lower Yarra and the upper Yarra. The region was once planted with grapes to make sparkling wines, today we find some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be found here. Yarra Chardonnay is unique and coming into its own. Tim Wildman gave 12 reasons why Yarra Chardonnay stands out: cooler sites, early picking, better clones, hand harvesting, whole bunch press, smaller ferments, old oak to mature, larger oak formats, no batonage, do not force malo, use of screw caps, sulfites are set in vineyard and natural winemakers are looking for textural Chardonnay. The Yarra is home to some of the best wines in Australia, DeBotoli, Luc Lambert, Gembrook, Mac Forbes, Giant Steps, Yarra Yering and many more.
High Quality Dessert Wines
The first wines made in Australia were ports. The tradition goes back almost 200 years. As modern wine-making techniques began to develop, more and more wineries began creating dry still wines. Today there are a handful of wineries still focusing on their family traditions. Many of these are in the Rutherglen and Barossa Valley. Muscat is the grape most commonly used. Wineries such as All Saints, Campbell’s and Seppeltsfield pride themselves on fortified dessert wines of high quality. Today, some young winemakers are looking back and experimenting with fortified wines with a natural twist.
Old vines is a loose term. In some places it can be a 10 to 20 year old vine. California may have 50 year old vines. France might have some 70 so years old. Both of these regions were devastated with phylloxera. Australia has been phylloxera free due to it’s isolation from the rest of the world and sandy soils. Some areas like the Yarra Valley are under threat, phylloxera has started showing up. However, in places such as the Barossa. McLaren Vale and Grampians there wines being produces from vines which were planted on the 1840′-60’s. This old plant material produces very little juice, but the little it does produce is heavenly. If California calls wines from vines planted in the 80’s old vines, then Australia should call them ancient vines. Stand out wineries producing old vine wines are Tahbilk, Darenberg, Best’s, Langmeil, Cirillo, Penfold’s and Yangarra.
Bio-dynamics & Natural Wine Movement
If there is one thing that stood out for me in Australia was to see how far ahead the Aussies are in regards of organic viticulture and natural wine-making. You may have experienced natural wines from different regions in the world, but what many forget is that in order for a natural wine to succeed in the glass, its process needs to begin in the vineyard. Most of the young winemakers in Australia have embraced this concept. Their wines are not faulty, but fresh and bursting with acidity. Winemakers from all over Australia are fed up with flabby fruit juice called wines and are in search of structure. The Adelaide Hills are filled with garage winemakers producing some of the best Pinot Noirs on the planet. Their hands off approach to wine-making is best seen in their big reds, where the alcohol and fruit does not over power the pristine acidity and ripe fruit.
Lastly, there are few regions in the world which make wine from sacred sites. We can say that the vineyards of La Tache or DRC in Burgundy are sacred since they were once owned by the church. We might throw Elqui in the high desert in Chile as being sacred, however I haven’t had wines from there that taste sacred. I came across one of the most interesting vineyards in the world, the Bindi vineyard in the Macedon ranges on the slopes of Mt. Gisborne in Victoria. Upon our arrival to the winery there were herds of kangaroos chilling and watching us approach as if they were guarding their sacred land. The soils are composed of quartz and rocky earth. There was a sense of serenity in the vineyard. At dinner our group bonded when we discussed what brought us into the world of wine. This sharing was magical. But to top it off the wines were outstanding. We tasted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from 1991 to 2015, and each wine was divine. This has got to be one of the most memorable tastings of my life.
To learn more about my journey in Australia visit THE BUSBY TRAVEL JOURNAL.
I have taught at San Diego State University’s Business of Wine Program for several years. During my California Wine Intensive course, I always talk about reading the back label of a wine to have a better understanding of how involved in the production was the winery. Was it “cellared and bottled by”, “produced and bottled by” or “estate grown, produced & bottled by”? They get a kick out of seeing how many labels we see in the market place which have very little to do with growing grapes or even making the wine. The TTB mandates that the front label displays the type of grapes, where they come from, when harvested and the alcohol level. On the back label they tell us how much involvement the winery had in the production process. However, the back label omits something very important; what was added during production.
Why is wine so different from other consumer goods? Why isn’t wine held to the same requirements other packaged goods must adhere? There are two sides to this argument. Wine makers would have to change labels every vintage. The additives and additions change from vintage to vintage. Most of the additives added are harmless. Stricter labeling laws would result in higher priced wines. On the other side of the argument, people want to know what is in the bottle. Were there any additives or flavorings added to the product? In the mind of most people, wine is a natural product and it is what it is, fermented grape juice aged in oak. Only if that was the truth. Unfortunately, most wines are full of additives. Granted most additives are there to improve the wine.
In 1987 wineries were forced to mention the use of sulfites, people magically developed headaches and allergies and blamed sulfites. Sulfites have always been in wine to prevent bacteria growth. Amounts used vary from region to region and producer to producer. When it became required to list on the label, people’s buying habits changed. Most did not care, but others whom were more sensitive, started to look at bottles to see if the wine contained sulfites. I guess we can say they became wiser consumers. Of course we know that the headaches are alcohol related and not so much from sulfites. Funny thing is even though alcohol level is on the label, most do not read it. They would rather blame chemicals for their discomfort.
Consumers are very worried about ingesting non conventional chemicals. Most consumers have no idea what goes into a bottle of wine. Just when they were trying to get our heads around sulfites, here are some other additives we may see in wine: yeasts, tannins, bentonite, dried fish bladder, gelatins, egg whites, sugar, tartaric acid, malic acid, lactic acid, calcium carbonate, acetaldehyde, dimethyl dicarbonate, mega purple, oak chips, pvpp, potassium sorbate and the list goes on. Many of these additives might seem familiar since they are in a lot of our packaged foods. We have become used to reading the back of labels and are okay when we see the word “calcium” or “potassium”, we don’t bat an eye. But mega purple? This is why I don’t buy Velveta cheese it has apocarotenal coloring. Some of these additives help stabilize wines and are an important part of wine making. However, others are there to modify wine or rather, improve poor quality wines. Kind of like the coloring added to Velveta, used to improve the color of poor quality cheese stuff.
Worst case scenario is when the two buck chucks of the world use fining agents that release arsenic into the wines. How many people would still buy a $2 wine if the label said “some ingredients are known to cause cancer” and in bold letters arsenic. Safe or unsafe, consumers have the right to know what is in the bottle. I think its time for full disclosure in the wine industry. Let people make wiser decisions when buying wines. Hold wine companies accountable for trying to sell us swill by modifying with additives and slapping on an eye-catching label. It would also make producers of expensive wines focus on production in the vineyards and not the laboratory.
In my opinion if it is served in a package, then let us know what is in the package. We have a right to know. I don’t care if you modify the wine so that it fits a certain flavor profile, but let us know you are doing it. Otherwise we will think that Pinot Noir is supposed to be purple. Hopefully one day we can read the back label and know who, when, where and how the wine was produced. Where do you stand on this?