Medium ruby with purple undertones. Toasty oak leads with deep aromas of spiced plum and cherry pie following neatly behind. A well tuned wine with tannins, acid, and body all providing punctual counterpoints. Tart cherry makes its way into the mid-palate, and the finish proves satisfying. Think cabin in the winter woods with log fire cracklin’. (MW, February 2017)
Medium ruby with youthful red fruits and Red Vine aromas giving way to a pinch of cardamom. The soft, mid-light palate has but a trace of tannin followed by moderate acidity. A no fuss, no frills wine. (MW, February 2017)
Perhaps you’ve recently had an “Aha!” wine—the swirl, sniff, and sip that paused the spinning world. Maybe you’ve long ago fallen down the wine rabbit hole, and then started following the wine event calendars at your local wine shops. Or maybe you have ten years of wine geekery under your belt, and have participated in a monthly wine tasting group for a few years, where you endeavor to explore a specific varietal or region each gathering.
Regardless of your experience level, take another step. Curiosity desires knowledge and experience. Below you’ll find a collection of next steps, starting with the simple and moving toward the advanced.
The sheer number of wine regions and styles overwhelms many new to wine. Now is the time to get your hands on one excellent wine book, ideally a thorough and approachable romp through the core regions and styles. Importantly, reading this solid primer provides enough information to make the next steps more comfortable and pleasurable.
Windows on the World by Kevin Zraly
The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil — Don’t let the title mislead. I find MacNeil’s writing creative and buoyant. Read all materials prefacing the wine regions, and then read a handful of core regions to whet your appetite. Move on to the next step before finishing the book.
Start seeking opportunities to taste 3-8 wines at a time. Tasting wines in isolation provides little insight. The connective and comparative judgments fall short when three weeks have passed between your two most recent glasses of Loire Sauvignon Blanc. Subscribe to a handful of local specialty wine shops’ newsletters. Most of them, at least the ones worth knowing, hold tastings either weekly or monthly. Whether it’s a flight of wines from around the world, or a comparative tasting of five Washington Syrahs, the experience will elevate your understanding of and pleasure with wine.
I can hear the moans. “Really?” Yes, really. Sitting down at a table with other wine curious individuals and a reputable teacher will take your understanding and appreciation to new heights. Depending upon the course provider, the costs need not be prohibitive.
Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) — provides 4 levels of study. Level 2 is a great place to start for anybody who has already endeavored in steps one and two above.
Research “wine schools” or “wine classes” in your area. Many cities have unique institutions serving their communities, some of which partner with broader institutions like WSET.
Wine Tasting Group
This step can arguably be placed anywhere in the process. However, I have found most who participate in wine tasting groups have at least participated in two of the three steps above, if not all. Having a grounding in winemaking, regions, and styles greatly enhances a groups ability to dig in to thoughtfully procured flights. Plus, where else do you meet a group of 8+ wine lovers who want to gather weekly or monthly to focus on the wines at hand?
Take another step forward. The beguiling bottles that await will not disappoint. It is often a rabbit hole experience, and a wholly more pleasurable one than what we’ve started experiencing since January 20th.
Medium ruby with Old World charm in the form of slate, dried herbs, fresh raspberry, and an echo of leather. With moderate alcohol, the medium-minus body gives way to firm, underripe tannins and a tart finish. (MW, January 2017)
Juicy and plush with plum and spiced blueberry. Fine, ripe tannins contain a gentle string of acidity through the chewy core. A dusting of cocoa powder adds to the palate. A crowd pleaser, though falling short on dimensionality. Drink now—2020. (MW, January 2017)
Varietal: Red Blend (Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Blaufrankisch, and Malbec)
Medium violet with compelling aromas of slate, spiced blueberry, anise, and mint followed by a wisp of smoked jerky, adding allure. With svelte body, a density of flavor persists, followed by unflagging, gravelly tannins. A stimulating experience. Still wound tightly. Drink now—2022+. (MW, December 2016)
Dense purple with glass staining power. Plush plum declaratively takes center-stage, while a hint of raspberry and graphite linger in the background. Medium-plus in body with medium acidity, and firm, fine-grained tannins. Black cherry and barrel spice on the palate give way to a slightly misaligned finish, with alcohol overstaying its welcome. (MW, December 2016)
“He walked in, pulled out a roll of hundreds, and flipped me two,” gnarled the no-nonsense owner of a boutique wine shop. He had been paid by the largest distributor in the state for bringing in ten cases of wine.
This is illegal.
In his case, a customer requested the cases for a special event—he had no intention of stacking* them in his store. In fact, he thought the wine was shit. He also didn’t know he’d get the payout. From the perspective of the conglomerate distributor, his purchase had triggered the payoff. Send in the man with the wad of Benjamins. Interestingly, Mr. Heavy Pockets is a separate employee than the distributor’s sales rep who typically services the shop.
Nestled on the edge of a wealthy, Midwest suburb, this one-man wine shop prides itself on small-production and high-quality wines. The owner doesn’t cower to the Powers. He simply received an unexpected, free date night, paid for by a customers large order, and mediocre taste.
As I walked out the door with my distributor’s sales rep, he said, “Yeah, I’ve heard it before. I’ve talked to some larger shops that say, “I’d love to stack your wine, but I can’t give up the $140 a month I get for that stack.” Both the winery that employs me and our distributor here can’t play this game. Both small and family-owned with honorable values statements, we wouldn’t dare, nor can we afford to dance this dance.
The words “pay to play” get thrown around frequently in the wine world. In the age of wine distribution mergers, the game keeps getting scarier for the thousands of small to medium-sized wine producers. You want your wines on certain shelves and restaurant wine lists, get ready to pay. While not always Benjamins, money flows to these accounts circuitously. And we’ve only talked about distributors.
Over the past week, Wine Spectator released their “Top 10 Wines of 2016” through a countdown. Seeing the producers on the list from my region, and having tasted hundreds of 2014 Willamette Valley wines, I have a tough time believing these producers landed on the Top 10 by merit of the juice alone. In fact, Wine Spectator doesn’t even deny the non-blind nature of the picks. While most of the industry uses the term “X factor” to describe a thrilling bouquet or texture that carries something unique and sublime, here Wine Spectator directly states something quite different:
“Then when you take the bag off, that’s where the X Factor comes in. Is it a new domain, new producer, great value? What is it about the wine—that’s the back story that adds to the excitement.” Senior Editor James Molesworth, Wine Spectator
And of course, how did these wines receive their high scores in the first place? Plenty furrow their brows at the correlation between advertising dollars spent and scores received. Here I do not levy my claim at Wine Spectator alone, nor do I levy it at all publications. None the less, plenty of room to wonder.
While none of this news should surprise us in the 21st century, it should still unnerve us. And if you want to settle those nerves, go find that honest suburban shop owner and ask him what he recommends. It is the path to better wine and a better world, locally and globally.
*Stacking = to stack multiple cases of the same wine to prominently display it, typically reserved for the $15 and under category in medium to large wine, beer, and liquor stores.
I have a bias. I’ve long held this inclination, but have recently worked to expand my awareness. New in . . . sight has affirmed my bias—no more shame.
I care way more about the aromatics of a wine than any other factor. From the nose we can gauge nuance, complexity, layers, intrigue, depth, density, purity, specific aromas. . . you get the point. However, as a rather new industry-insider, many around me have emphasized the importance of wine’s texture and mouthfeel. Why? Points and the general public.
I submit wines for my employer (a producer of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) to nearly all of the major wine publications for review and a score. Conversations with winemakers, PR/Marketing specialists, and other industry insiders, in conjunction with a close following of the scoring publications, has undeniably confirmed the value of a wine’s texture, weight, and presence on the palate. Palate increases points—most want a suavely-textured wine.
I, however, put much less emphasis on mouthfeel when judging a wine. And after months of refocusing on texture, weight, tannins, acidity, and their interaction, the last two weeks have jilted my new practice. I recently caught the bug that gave my wife Pneumonia. While spared the clogged lungs, my head has suffered the consequences mightily, and so has my sense of smell. I’ve spent two nights at my WSET Level 3 in Wine course unable to smell the Pommard, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Côte-Rôtie wines tasted during the sessions. Zero smell. “Alright, a new chance to focus my energy on the palate,” I consoled myself.
Wine is simply alcohol without our sense of smell. Yes, I could and did focus on these other factors while sick, but I could have instead drunk orange juice to play with acid, or whole milk to experience weight. Hell, combine the two—it wouldn’t have mattered. Smell makes wine the knee-buckling elixir that has captivated our minds for millennia. While not the only factor that makes a wine great, smell is primary.
If you, like the publication editors and reviewers, value a wine’s density and texture, more power to you. I’m going to keep swirling and sticking my nose in the glass, because I revel in the rapture of this rabbit hole.
Three wines. Each providing a thumbprint and insight into a winemaker’s style. All under one roof. A tour of the Willamette Valley typically provides the curious connoisseur an experience with Pinot Noir, soils and AVA variations, winemaking style, and brand image. The preeminent role of site, however, leaves the taster wondering what effect the winemaker had in comparison to the plot of land and farming that raised the grapes.
Enter Bella Vida Vineyard. Located in the rust-hued hills of Dundee, the motherland of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Bella Vida contracts three noteworthy Willamette winemakers to each craft a Pinot Noir that highlights this site and the essence of their winemaking style. As a 26 acre vineyard, each winemaker works with very similar fruit tended by the same vineyard manager. This culminates in a memorable and deeply informative tasting experience.
In the middle of the tasting, owner Steve Whiteside poured a trio of 2012 vintage wines from his three winemakers—Jacques Tardy of Torii Mor, Jay Sommers of J. Christopher, and Brian O’Donnel of Belle Pente. Each wine demonstrates that winemaking impacts our experience with a wine profoundly.
2012 Bella Vida Tardy Pinot Noir
Pure ruby in color, lifted aromas of red cherry and spice leave no doubt that this is Dundee Hills wine. In the background, a hint of mushroom adds intrigue. With lithe body, medium-plus acidity, and a finish that carries memories, this wine will clearly benefit from aging. I have a bottle in my cellar to investigate. Excellent.
2012 Bella Vida J. Christopher Pinot Noir
A darker-hued wine with a blue rim, this wine leans into the darker fruits with spiced blueberry melding with tilled earth. A balanced wine all around. While my least favorite of the three wines, it undoubtedly sings of Pinot Noir while holding its head high. Delightful.
2012 Bella Vida O’Donnell Pinot Noir
Minimalist winemaking creates a suave-textured wine with black cherry, bramble, and floral kisses. My tasting crew unanimously declared this their favorite, in large part due to the mouthfeel. Excellent.
With production at about 150 cases for each of these wines, visitors to the valley will likely never touch these gems unless they visit the vineyard personally. The opportunity to taste the decision-making and ethos of each winemaker will captivate any wine enthusiast. The fact that the fruit hails from such a stunning site—both visually and viticulturally—makes this a must visit tasting room on your next trip.