Napa: The History, Icons, and Prestige

The evolution of the Napa Valley has truly been a story of tradition, change, and prestige. The history, vineyards, and producers have been instrumental in making Napa Valley one of the most famous wine making regions in the world.

Brief History of the Valley

The Napa we know today is vastly different from where it began.  Before the 1960s the “king” Cabernet Sauvignon wasn’t even the most planted in Napa.  In 1962, Robert Mondavi brought his knowledge of grapes and production from Bordeaux to California.  The Cabernet Sauvignon grape had officially arrived.  Other California vintners began to plant the same.  Following in the footsteps of Robert Mondavi, Joseph Heitz founded Heitz vineyards creating his winery in 1966, the same years as Robert Mondavi. This was quickly followed by several other quality conscious producers in the subsequent years like Caymus, Chappellet, Diamond Creek, Joseph Phelps, Shafer, and Stags Leap, who all planted Cabernet Sauvignon.  In the 1970s Napa Valley was making quality wines, but the reputation was not realized by the rest of the world.  The famous “Judgement of Paris” of 1976 would change all of this.  The notable winners from Napa were Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap.  The Chateau Montelena Chardonnay beat wines the likes of Domain Leflaive.  The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon defeated the wines the likes of Mouton Rothschild.  Time magazine published the results and the modern era for the California wine industry was in full bloom.  The Napa phenomenon was about to begin.

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Modern Transformation

Robert Parker is the main reason for the growth of intrigue and desire for Napa wines in the 1980s and 1990s.  His scoring of wines would begin to dictate demand and pricing for Napa wines.  As his reputation grew and his rating became more valued, he began to seek out his preferred kind of wines from the valley.  He called for more modern and thoughtful wine making.  He preferred more phenolically ripe fruit, lower yields, more selection, cleaner facilities, more French oak, and matching the right grapes with the right soil.  The vintners responded and evolved to fit Parker’s ideals.  The 1990s was a golden age for the valley.  These years brought a string of incredible vintages, more quality wine making, and expertise in viticulture.  Due to all of these factors, recent growth has been unprecedented.  In 1995 there were 944 estates in California and today there are over 4,000 in the state of California with over 400 in Napa alone.  The beloved Napa style became that of silky smooth tannins, powerful fruit, and a supple mouth-filling presence.  This style would be begin to seduce wine lovers around the world.

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Cult Wine

The cult wine phenomenon began during this modern transformation, as well.  The main driving factors for a cult wine are unparalleled growing sites, limited production, and off the chart scores by Parker.  Three pioneers of cult wine were Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, and Bryant Family.  The initial prices of these wines were reasonable.  In 1992 Screaming Eagle sold for $75, but today current release wines sell for $750.  This seemingly absurd price hike corresponded with the demands to taste and high scores from Robert Parker.   Another major player in the cult wine game is Bill Harlan.  In 1984, Harlan sought out to create quality similar to “first growth Bordeaux” in Napa Valley.  With this vision, a higher quality focus ascended onto the valley.  Most cult wineries lie in the Oakville AVA.  This appellation may be the most famous for Napa.  It is unique due to countless microclimates, soil types, and elevations.  Some question the legitimacy of paying hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine.  However one things is clear, Napa Valley will continue to be a much discussed and relevant wine region for years and years and years to come.

 

Reflections on Italy: Coming Full Circle

The day of the competition had arrived.  That morning our hotel lobby was filled to the brim with all the judges from all over the world. The bus drove us to Palazzo Maestri Cenate Sopra, which looked to be straight out of movie.  Besides the breathtaking surroundings, the thought of people respecting and honoring my opinion of a wine was profound.  I would be doing something I thought would take me years to have an opportunity to do.  More than anything, I was thrilled to be a part of the experience.

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Once inside the grand palazzo, I searched for my spot.  The room was filled with white linen topped tables complete with all the necessary judging accoutrements.  Each seat had three glasses, scoring sheets, pens, personal spittoons, and palate cleansing crackers neatly arranged in front.  Something about seeing the decorum and precision of the event made me find a certain resolve within myself.  I knew I could only put my best forward on this day.  I rounded a corner, to see my name staring back at me.  I hastened to take the seat I had anticipated sitting in for months.  I was positioned between an Italian gentleman and Swedish woman. The air was thick with a sense of readiness to analyze the beverage we all held so dear.  The white jacketed server stood to my side and poured me the first wine.  I picked up the glass.  I had done this so many times before, but something was different about this time.  It was as if I saw the colors more clearly, I sensed the aromas more deeply, and tasted the flavors more fully.  I examined wine after wine and gave the ratings I deemed appropriate.  Everything it took to get to this day was worth it.

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With a full day of judging in the books, the eating and real wine drinking could begin.  That afternoon when we were all together, I truly felt like one of them.  During the flurry of traditional antipasti and wine I made the acquaintance of a young man from Jerusalem.  I could tell Dror would be someone I would always be grateful for meeting.  He studied studying wine making in Milan and intended to return to home to pursue this.  Another person who always kept me smiling was my talented friend in wine from France, Denis.  His list of accolades would be enough to write a book.  What I loved most about Denis was his constant vibrant personality.  The day ended with a visit to a local winery, of course.  The evening held for us a final dinner to celebrate the success of the event.

The gala dinner was the height of fashion, elegance, and grace for the event.  We all returned to the palazzo where the judging had taken place.  The grand dining room was filled with beautiful people, conversations in countless languages, and a 5 course meal.  Wine was kept flowing with this crowd.  Being surrounded by new friends in that breathtaking setting was something I will always remember.

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After just 4 days, I felt as though I was more enriched than I had imagined I would be.  The best part about the trip was that not one portion stood out as the favorite.  The memorable aspect of the trip was how every small element came together to make the experience unforgettable.  In my opinion, this concept of harmony is what makes a truly fine wine.  The Cantoni’s gave me an enormous gift and my goal was to make sure I didn’t waste it.  The weekend could be summed up in one of the last interactions I had, before a car drove me back to Milan.  After saying countless goodbyes, I was reflecting on just what joy all of these people had brought me.  As I stood there, Yasuko wheeled her suitcase next to mine.  We exchanged good byes and she said this to me, “You made everyone so happy.”  To me those kind words represented the true meaning of my time in Italy.  My goal is to make other people’s lives better.  The fact that I am able to do this with wine will always be the cherry on top.

 

 

 

Reflections On Italy: Finding My Footing

The ride from the airport to the hotel revealed just how exhausted I was.  At the hotel, Yasuko and I were on a mission to nap and headed straight for the front desk.   Neither of us knew more than a few words of Italian.  I said, “Ciao… Kara Joseph” and hoped that would somehow be enough to check in.  It almost seemed too easy, as the receptionist handed me my white plastic room card.  We both deliriously made our way to our rooms.  I barreled through my hotel room door already feeling my eyes closing.  I went to turn on a few lights and no luck.  Did I really get the only the room in the hotel with all of the lights out of order? After another 5 minutes of tampering with every light switch, I gave into defeat.  I would need to be the girl who asked someone how to turn on the lights.  I motioned to the housekeeper for assistance and we only communicated with a form of sign language because neither of us spoke any of the other’s language.  She made the indication that she needed my key, which I thought was odd.  She inserted the key into a small opening right next to the front door.  Then, miraculously every light turned on.  I had only stayed in hostels and airbnbs the times I visited Europe.   European hotels were actually a novelty to me.  With that problem solved, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

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With a few hours of sleep and a refreshing shower, I felt like a new woman.  The rest of day was devoted to being guided around the sites of the surrounding areas.  If it was at all possible, I was even more thrilled to see what lie ahead as I  reached the elevator.  Another young girl was waiting to jump on.   Without hesitation, I asked if she was judge.  She could have thought I was completely crazy, but her contemplation of my English turned to a bright smile.  She spoke way more English than my Italian, but I could tell it would always be interesting to fully understand each other. That’s how I became friends with Eleonora, a winemaker from Sicily.  We both stepped off the elevator into a lobby filled with esteemed wine professionals.  All of these men and women simply had the look that they had done incredible things in their careers.  There I stood just starting out in wine.  This was the first moment I felt a tinge of being out of my league.  After that momentary flash of insecurity, I shook it off and resolved I had not come all of this way to be a wilting flower.  I put my head up and walked straight into the crowd.  Just like magic I was greeted with huge smiles and a woman handing out countless Italian chocolates.  Inga (a wine and gastronomy consultant from Latvia) will always be my hero for that perfect greeting.  Sometimes life rewards you for having a bit of bravery.

After a few more introductions, everyone sauntered toward a bus waiting to take us to the day’s adventures.  Welcoming everyone onto the bus was the one and only Sara Cantoni.  I was finally reunited with one of the people who made all of this possible for me.  I was ecstatic to be able to thank her profusely in person. On the bus, I found myself separated from my new friends and just at that moment a head popped up from the row in front of me.  That’s how I met Irene who was a wine writer/ sommelier from Siena.  I had explored Siena and Tuscany on my last visit to Italy.  This provided endless conversation.  Once again, I was able to talk with a truly special and interesting person.  I don’t know if it was the shared love of wine, the pleasure at being there, or just luck, but everyone I came to befriend was a true joy.

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The afternoon was filled with being shuttled to breathtaking spot after breathtaking spot and discovering historical site after historical site.  The activities for the day involved exploring a fossil park (il Parco del Triassico a Cene), visiting a church (Santuario di S. Patrizio a Colzate), and being taken to a bird’s eye view of the city.  Not to mention, every new location greeted us with some kind of cookie or espresso.  My general observation was no gathering could occur unless there was food, alcohol, or espresso present.  The obvious preference was a combination of all three.  Italians know how to live.

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Throughout the afternoon, I was trying to determine if any fellow Americans were among the judges.  I spotted a potential American.  I could have been slightly more elegant with my question.   The question that flew out of my mouth was, “Are you an American?”  My witty question was met with an equally witty response in an obvious american accent, “What makes you think that?”  That’s how I became friends with Michael (an esteemed wine educator) from Philly.  Friendship was automatic and he had been on the judging scene for quite some time.  It was as though he knew everyone.  He became my guide and let me know who many of the fellow judges were.  The descriptions of the judges included accomplishments in the wine world that I was profoundly respectful of.  To be included in this group people was very humbling. Their accomplishments ignited an even greater desire in me to grow in the knowledge of wine.img_1098

The day ended with a dinner for all of the 83 judges from 27 different countries.  I had the chance to greet Sergio Cantoni during this dinner. He had the same smile and warmth I experienced when I first met him in Italy 5 months earlier.  After many thanks, we all settled into the dining room.  This is where it sank in how special this event was.  The evening was filled with locally made wines, delicious food, laughter, and combination of so many different cultures the likes of which I had never seen before.  To think I had boarded a plane from NYC the evening before was hard to believe.  After three hours, we all said our good evenings.  I made my way back to the room with with everything still sinking in.  The last thought to cross my mind as I drifted off was what a beautiful world this is.

 

Reflections on Italy: Getting There

I am just arriving back to the states after a whirlwind trip to Italy.  I had the chance to judge wines from 27 countries in the “Concorso Internazionale Emozioni dal Mondo: Merlot e Cabernet Insieme.” This was the first time I was invited to be a judge in an international competition.  In reflecting on everything that happened, I realize just how much I gained.  I acquired a deeper respect for wine, but an even greater love for people.  The best place to start with this story is at the very beginning.  The story leading up to the competition is the best introduction for the experience as a whole.  An experience like this makes me believe that everything good in life is connected to seizing opportunity and valuing people.  In thinking about everything that I happened,  I am reminded just how much life can give.

The beginning of the story actually started quite awhile ago in Napa Valley at Inglenook.  I was still living and working there, when a man and his son came into the tasting room from Italy.  At this same time, I was planning my trip to Europe to explore several wine regions before my move to New York.  The man I met was Sergio Cantoni and he was heavily involved in winemaking and a figurehead in promoting the wines of the Bergamo and Valpolicella.  I shared with him my interest in wine and that I would be in Italy soon.  He gave me a card and his son told me that he wanted to show me around some wineries and be my guide if I made it to Valpolicella.  His kindness and willingness to show me around encouraged me to make the arrangements to visit.  Subsequently, I made the travel plans and emailed him the day and time I would be at the Verona train station.  He emailed me that his daughter and himself would be there to take me around.  I was continuously stunned at the generosity he showed to someone he didn’t have to do anything for.  My trip could not arrive fast enough.

I was finally in Europe and the day for Valpolicella had arrived.  I took a train from Bologna to Verona to met with Sergio and his daughter.  I got off the train at Verona Station and only then realized this plan could have some hitches.  I had little cell service and nothing but a month old email from Sergio, confirming they would be there.  I had a brief moment of thinking he had forgotten, he isn’t coming, or this was too good to be true.  Next thing I knew, a white BMW pulled into the parking lot and two warm faces flagged me down.  This began my unforgettable day in Valpolicella.

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It was like being greeted by an old friend when I saw Sergio again.  I met Sara Cantoni and she had the same warmth and kindness of her Dad.  She acted as our translator.  We all hopped in the car and began driving through the majestic Verona and the vineyards of Valpolicella.  We all shared lunch, wine, and visited several wineries.  They answered all my questions and gave me so much real world knowledge about the region, wines, and culture.  I think my mouth may have been slightly open the whole time out of sheer disbelief at the opportunity I was being given.  I learned even more about just what Sergio and Sara did in the region.  They told me about a competition that they were responsible for organizing.  I gained a broad overview that the competition brought together wine professionals from around the world to judge wines from cabernet sauvignon and merlot from 27 different countries.  It seemed like such a prestigious event.

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Sadly, the day came to an end and they took me back to the train station where we exchanged big hugs and I couldn’t thank them enough.  As I was turning to go, Sara let me know that they wanted me to return to be a judge in the competition.  For some reason, I didn’t take her that seriously.  I, of course, said I would love to (who wouldn’t) and waved goodbye.  I thought to myself what a dream that would be to return in October to be a part of it, but it seemed so uncertain and out of reach.  I boarded the train still on a cloud.

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The next few months following my European adventure were filled with moving and getting settled into New York.  There were so many other thoughts about my new life.  I was kept busy by continuing to work with, study, and write about wine.  Italy was almost out of my mind completely.  However, one day in the summer I received an email from Consorzio Tutela Valcalepio.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  This organization was inviting to host me as a judge for 12th International Oenological Competition “Emozioni dal Mondo: Merlot e Cabernet Insieme.  It felt as though all my studying, all my travels, and all my passion had built up to this event.  In my mind, I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I would always regret it if I let anything stand in the way.  My mind was already made up and my answer was a huge yes.  All I had to do was be at JFK airport on October 12th.  I was going to be there no matter what.

The journey to Italy began with a direct flight from JFK to Milan last Wednesday night.  It almost didn’t feel real returning to Italy after such a short time.   I really had no idea what to expect once I arrived.  Generally, every time I go to Europe I spend hours organizing transportation, tickets, accommodations, and everything in between, but this time everything was planned out for me.  So, I resolved to give up the reigns and just let this experience guide me wherever it wanted me to go.

The 8 hour flight was not without its eventful moments.  It was one of my smoothest flights, due to the flight attendant having a heavy hand with the complimentary wine.  While on the plane, I spent time reviewing my wine notecards and the flight attendant took notice.  There was a slight health scare on the plane and an announcement came over the speakers for a doctor.  To my surprise, the flight attendant rushed over to me and asked if I would be willing to offer assistance.  I let her know I probably wouldn’t be of much help, since I was a sommelier.  The notecards threw her off and she thought I was a doctor.  The passenger was completely fine and my section then knew who to turn to for any wine emergencies.  As soon as the wheels hit the tarmac, a rush of excitement shot through me.

I practically floated off the plane and briskly walked to make it past customs.  I thought it was safe to take a quick pit stop to the bathroom, since the line was fairly short.  Five minutes later I headed back to line to see it nearly tripled and at a stand still. My jaw dropped and I began to think I may never leave the airport.  I trudged all the way to the back of the horrendous line and prepared to wait.  I resolved to not let this be a negative start to the trip.  I mentioned to the girl next to me, “5 minutes ago there was no line, worst bathroom decision ever.”  We both laughed, while still thinking we are going to be here forever.  Then, I whipped out my notecards to do a bit more studying.   They were always a conversation starter and the same girl next to me asked what I was studying.  This began the conversation that got us through the 45-minute wait.  She happened to be living in New York, as well.  It goes to show you can gain a friend and a lot of laughs even in the most annoying of situations.

Adaora and I made it through customs and it was on to the main event.  I was told a driver would be waiting to take me to the hotel.  First off, the thought of having a driver waiting for me was something I didn’t mind.  I headed to the exit and it must have been easy to spot the young, tall, american.   A man named Franco  whisked me away to the car to take me to Bergamo.  I shared the ride with a fellow judge, who had just arrived from Japan.  Yasuko was a wine journalist and this was her second time back to this competition.  The car ride was filled questions and conversation.  My age, energy, and comments were very intriguing to her.  We discussed many things and the most important being the love of wine.  Having three different cultures come together and interact was foreshadowing for what I was about to experience.  The car pulled into the hotel and I could tell I was in for quite the ride.

Debunking Wine Myths

The fatter and slower moving the legs the higher quality the wine.

The legs of a wine don’t indicate quality or sweetness level.  First, it is important to understand that the legs of wine are what appear on the sides of glass when a wine is swirled. The wine comes in contact with different portions of the glass and then falls to the base of the glass once again. What are left over on the sides of the glass are legs. The legs are representing how much alcohol is in the wine. If the legs have color, they are called stained. This happens when grapes come from warmer climates or when winemakers use color extraction techniques when they make the wine. The true explanation of where the legs come from is all about science. Legs are created from the relationship between the evaporation of alcohol and surface tension of water. Alcohol evaporates more quickly than water and because of water’s high surface tension we can clearly see liquid on the sides of the glass. Thus, the more alcohol the more slowly moving and fat “legs” we can observe.
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Very old wines need to breathe or aerate for hours after opening. 

The biggest misconception here is the difference between decanting and aerating. To decant primarily means to separate clean wine from sediment (product of oxidation in the bottle) in an old bottle of wine. Aerating on the other hand is meant to purposefully expose wine to oxygen. This oxygen helps the wine release more aroma, smooth possible rough tannin, and create more unison in the elements of the wine. So, old wines have been penetrated with small amount of oxygen through the years and will have achieved a smooth feel, complex aromas, and balance. These kinds of wines are meant to be decanted to remove sediment. However, prolonged aeration of old wines could lead to too much oxygen and destroy everything that was achieved through aging. Essentially the wine could fall apart.
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Screw caps always indicate lesser quality wines. 

In the 80s and 90s screw caps only topped the cheapest and least quality of bottles. However, with proper research and advocacy by New Zealand and Australia there is a greater acceptance of screw caps. The main difference between corks and screw caps is that screw caps don’t allow any oxygen. That makes them ideal for bottles meant to be drunk young and that don’t benefit from oxygen. So, it’s not a quality concern, but rather a question of timing of drinking the bottle.

Now you are ready to take on all the “experts” who make these false claims.  Keep enjoying all of the wines of the world and demystifying this beautiful beverage!

 

The Ever Intimidating Wine Aisle

 

The wine aisle can be considered the scariest place in the supermarket.  There are bottles with different languages, sizes, shapes, and many don’t even say the grape variety.  This can make things harder when all you want to do is a grab a bottle of wine for dinner.  There are two easy ways to become a master of wine department.  One is to have a simple understanding of how labels for wine from different parts of the world work.  The other is to have an idea of the kind of wine you want before you go into the store, so you aren’t overwhelmed at the hundreds of bottles staring back at you.

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Wine labels can make or break anyone’s comprehension of wine.  For instance, a bottle of Robert Mondavi Cabernet says, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2011.  However, just down the row, there is a bottle Chateau Margaux that says Bordeaux, 2011, and no mention of grape variety.  The most important thing to understand is that bottles from the new world (California, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina) and bottles from the old world (France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Portugal) are labeled with different objectives in mind.  The new world wines are all about simplicity and briefly highlight where the grapes are grown, the variety, and the vintage with little additional info.  The labels typically have a more unique and eye catching design on the label, as well. The old world wines have labels that heavily highlight SPECIFICALLY WHERE the grapes are grown, the vintage, and additional info (age of the vines, where the wine was bottled, more vineyard location info, info about sweetness level, and other facts that must be translated) with no mention of grape variety.  Reading these labels can sometimes feel like reading a book.  However, the easiest way to combat the information gap is simply downloading a wine app called Delectable.  This app allows you to just scan the bottle and learn the information that the bottle label is lacking.  Here are a few label clarifications to get you started.  Bottles with Bordeaux on the label are from France and typically feature Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon,and Cab Franc grape varieties with different proportions depending on the producer.  Chianti is in Tuscany and a wine produced using the Sangiovese grape. Rioja is in Spain and a wine produced using the Tempranillo grape.  Burgundy is in France and a wine produced using the Pinot Noir grape.  Simply knowing there is a deeper meaning to old world wine labels will help build the base for a better understanding.

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The easiest way to walk the wine aisle is to simply know what kind of wine you want before you enter the store.  If you you have a general country or grape variety in mind, you can walk down the aisle with a purpose.  The aisles are typically divided between countries and then grape variety within that country.  For instance, you know you want a Pinot Noir from Oregon.  You can just saunter past the oceans of wine looking for U.S.A or New World Pinot (this will be the typical organization.)  Once you are here, you will probably have a few options at different prices and this is also where the Delectable App can come in handy again.  You can scan a few bottles and compare tasting notes to see which one suits your fancy.  You can confidently choose your wine and people will think you own the place.

Aside from understanding labels and having a clear idea of what you want, the best advice is to just have fun with choosing a wine.  If you are not sure what you want, try to pick a wine you have never tried before.  When you bring the wine home, do a bit of research to understand the area the wine is coming from and what grape variety it is.  By doing this “experimental” wine buying, you will gain wine knowledge without putting aside too much extra time.  All in all, wine should never be scary.  Any bottle you pick out and share with others can never be bad.  Cheers to savvy wine shopping!

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The Most Expensive Bottle of Wine In The World

The average price for a bottle of wine is 10 to 25 dollars (for your everyday wine lover) and maybe 75 to 100 dollars to splurge on a bottle.  A normal person would get dizzy if you told them some people easily spend 1,000 dollars on a bottle of wine.  However, what if I told you someone paid 230,692 dollars for a single 750 ml bottle of wine?  This bottle was an 1869 Chateau Lafite Rothschild and this wine came from Bordeaux.  It made history, when it sold at an auction in Hong Kong for this almost unimaginable sum.  What is even more interesting is the logic behind how a wine could ever reach this price.  Beyond the hoopla of this price, it can be enlightening to discover what factors contribute to the price of wine.

The fact that “grape juice” could cost more than 100 dollars baffles some people.  What these people don’t quite understand are the factors that go into determining the price of a bottle.  It all starts with where the grapes are grown.  The sites that give grapes the most character, expression, and an “impossible to replicate” quality will always come with a high price tag.  Areas like this include, Mosel Valley, Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux to name a few. Then, the costs of all of the vineyard management and man power for harvesting the highest quality grapes adds up.  However, this is just the beginning.  Next, the producers can choose to invest in the technology of sorting/destemming the grapes to prepare them for fermentation.  Only now are the grapes ready to be fermented.  With this comes additional investment.  Winemakers can choose from a wide array of vessels from stainless steel tank, to concrete egg, to large French oak barrels (these can cost up to 20,000 dollars.)  Next, the wines with the highest price tags see years in oak barrels.  Depending on the quality of the barrel, wine makers can spend up to 1,500 dollars per barrel (and will need A LOT of barrels to make a decent amount of wine.)  As the saying goes, “time is money” and this is true with wine.  The longer the wine spends in the barrel the longer the winery is investing in the wine and the price rises.  At long last, the wine is ready for the bottling and corking.  You guessed it, the price goes up again.  These are measurable investments that dictate the price of a wine, but there are also considerations not as tangible.

It is clear to see that price is heavily reflected in the place and how much is invested in creating the finest wine possible.  Now, there are additional factors that can send the price through the roof.  Bottle age, producer prestige, and limited supply all come together to tack some zeroes onto the price.  One might think it is absurd to keep raising the price of an “old bottle.”  The value in an “old bottle” is that all the work of aging and creating a more complex and integrated wine has been done for you.  You can just drink away without putting in the time.  Prestige is the reputation and following certain producers have gained throughout the ages.  For instance, Domain de la Romannee-Conti, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Screaming Eagle, Harlan, and Dom Perignon are all highly-regarded as some of the best producers in the world.  There may be better wines, but this name admiration affects price.  Finally, the fact that highly sought after wines can become extinct makes them all the more desirable.  The “last” of anything (especially wine) can create astronomical price tags.

This particular bottle of 1869 Chateau Lafite Rothschild combines the highest end of every factor that could create a premium priced wine.  This Chateau is classified as a First Growth, which is the highest title given to only 4 other chateaus in Bordeaux.  This wine was made from pre-phylloxera (purer than grafted vines) vines and with no expense spared in the winemaking/aging.  Even better, it has been delicately aging at the chateau for over a century.  It still may seem absurd, but combine the highest quality vineyards, winemaking practices, aging, the title of Bordeaux First Growth Chateau, the last bottle of its kind, man’s endless fascination, and an obsession to have the “best,” and the price tag will be 230,692 dollars.  Cheers and may the company surrounding your wine make it feel worth 230,692 dollars!!!

 

Wait, Chianti Isn’t A Grape?

“Wait, Chianti isn’t a grape?” This is a question asked by many people.  I even asked it when I first began learning about wine.  What this question boils down to is how old world wine regions (France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria) and new world wine regions (U.S, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand) label their bottles.  The names and labels producers from certain famous regions use for their wines creates confusion.  It’s easy to think of it like this, new world regions label mostly by grape variety.  Because of this, you have a clear idea if you are drinking Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Sauvignon Blanc.  However, in old world regions there is a greater emphasis on WHERE the grapes are coming from and an assumption you will know what grape variety the wine is made from.   There are certain names and styles of wines that are particularly misunderstood.  A simple general understanding of these misconceptions will put you on your wine A game.

There are wine key words that many people don’t realize they are misusing.  However, because of past believed reputations and not wanting to ask “silly questions” many people going on believing false facts.  Chianti, Champagne, and Chablis are words that have had the most blatant misuse in the past.  Let’s start first with what these words are sometimes thought to mean.  Then, we can dispel the confusion.

If you ask many people, they would say Chianti is a grape variety, coming from Italy, and the wine bottle seen inside a straw basket.  Here is the real Chianti.  It is a red wine made from the Sangiovese grape, coming from the Chianti region within Tuscany in Italy, and no longer a slave to the fiasco or “straw basket” it was once famously associated with.  For a long time, cheaper mass produced Chianti was imported to the U.S in these straw baskets and that’s how its reputation was cemented.  However, now there are many examples of beautiful Sangiovese based wines coming from the Chianti region in the U.S. (fiasco not included.)

Not all sparkling wine is Champagne.  This statement sometimes comes as a great shock to people who have thought this all of there lives.  Similar to Chianti, Champagne is a region and not a grape or style of wine.  Champagne is a region in the northern area of France.  This region is about 100 hundred miles east of Paris.  The only time a sparkling wine is Champagne is if it is made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or Meunier grapes, made in the Champagne region, and made using a particular method native to the region.  The method is called the traditional method and it involves a second fermentation in the bottle to achieve the bubbles and other various steps to create a true champagne.  So, if you are drinking a sparkling wine from California it’s not Champagne.  All in all, not all wines that sparkle are Champagne.

The 70s brought loads of large glass bottles of neutral white wine called “Chablis.”  This misuse of the name Chablis led to many people believing it to be a cheap white wine.  Thankfully producers no longer label cheap white wine from neutral grapes as Chablis.  Better yet, there are many great examples of true Chablis in the U.S.  Much like Champagne and Chianti, Chablis is not a grape.  Rather, Chablis is a region in northern Burgundy that specializes in the Chardonnay grape.  The wines labeled Chablis are 100% Chardonnay and have a lean, crisp, savory, mineral quality with tart apple, pear, and citrus fruits.  The wine is a pure expression of the Chardonnay grape and lets the terroir of the region shine through.  If you have never tried a “real” Chablis, it is a must.

Now, you won’t fall victim to the misuse of these words.  Once again, knowledge makes enjoying wine all the more fun.  Happy Tasting!!!

 

 

 

The 1%

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No, we aren’t going to get into a political debate about the richest in society.   We are talking about the percentage of wines that are meant for aging.  Of all the wines produced in the world, only about 1% are suitable to be aged.  This is because a wine’s level of sugar, acid, and tannin all determine if it will succeed in aging.  Not only these factors, but where the grapes are grown, the winemaking practices, and the aging practices influence if wines can stand the test of time. The biggest mysteries and misconceptions around aging wine are why it is even done, what is happening with age, how you go about aging wine, and which wines can age.

Wine is very much alive and because of this, it will change over time.  So, why take a perfectly good wine and hide it away for 10 or more years? The aging changes that occur in the wine bring it more complexity, smoothness, and a more interesting variety of flavors and aromas.  The corks sealing the wine in the bottle are porous.  This porous nature allows for slight amounts of oxygen to penetrate the wine slowly over time.  By introducing this oxygen to the wine, chemical changes occur with the wine’s composition.

There are essentially three elements of wine that change due to the aging process. The aromas (after aging now called bouquet), flavors, and mouth feel. The aromas change because the esters that create aromas are going through a chemical change.  The small amounts of oxygen creeping in from the cork are doing this. Instead of fresh fruit, flowers, and herbs/spices, we start to smell dried fruit/flowers, and crushed herbs/spices. The flavors are going to be changing in the same way and will match the bouquet. The mouth feel is the balance of all of the structural elements of the wine. Mainly referring to tannin and acid. The tannin is going to experience a change. The phenolic compounds (fancy word for tannin) start to break apart and “fall” out of the wine. This process makes the wine feel more smooth and less grippy/rough.  This process is called polymerization.  Whip that word out, if you really want to impress your friends!

We know what aging does, but how to do it without ruining the bottle is the key. The best way to figure this out is to think what can ruin wine. The villains to wine are heat, uv light, excess motion, and too much oxygen. With this in mind, it becomes pretty simple to protect your wine. Cellars are ideal for aging wine.  However, if cash is tight and you just want to find a place that meets these requirements, there are guidelines to follow.  Look for a place with a temp of about 55 to 65 degrees (honestly just make sure there is air conditioning), a spot where bottles won’t be moving around, away from light, and the bottling laying on the side with the wine touching the cork to avoid too much oxygen. It’s really that simple. There are some pretty extravagant misconceptions about turning bottles and paying 1000s of dollars to age wine “perfectly.” If you stick to these tips, you will have just as fine aged wine as any old millionaire out there.

We know what happens to the wine, how to achieve this transformation, but how on earth do you know what bottles to age. That’s the trick. You go to all this time and trouble to age a special bottle of wine to find ten years later it is vinegar. This is because we are dealing with the 1%. There are traits that only certain wines have that make it an aging candidate. The biggest things that change are aromas, flavors, and tannin. So, we want a wine that will have enough of these elements in order to have the gain complexity instead of just falling apart. Here is an example. You have a cheaply made bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough enclosed with a screw cap. You have a no expense spared full bodied, tannic, and powerful Cabernet blend from Bordeaux with a traditional cork.  The Sauv Blanc most likely won’t have enough sugar or acid to stand up to steady oxygenation.  Essentially the wine will fall apart before gaining any positive change of flavor/aroma.  Not to mention, the screw cap will most likely let too much air into the wine and cause more rapid oxidation.  Long story short, drink that wine now.  The high quality Cab blend from Bordeaux is the perfect candidate.  This wine is produced in an area where the climate, vineyard, winemaking, and aging practices all come together to produce a wine that has a lot of tannin, acid, and phenolic compounds.  Because of this, the wine can see 20 and up years of age and receive the benefits of aging.

So, there is no more need to be intimidated by aging wine.  Find an appropriate spot, lay a few nicer bottles of wine down for awhile, and really see what wine can be capable of.  Happy aging and happy tasting!

 

Old Faithful: Cabernet Sauvignon

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The bold, the flavorful, the distinguished, and the famous.  These are several titles commonly associated with Cabernet Sauvignon.  If you think of any notable grape growing region in the world, you can be assured they will be making wine from this grape.  This is the number one planted grape variety in the world.  The lesser known fact is how this variety came about.  The “king of grapes” comes from the crossing of a white grape and a red grape.  The Sauvignon Blanc grape and Cabernet Franc grape were crossed and thus we have Cabernet Sauvignon.  The birth of this grape occurred in Bordeaux, France.  All of the genetic traits of this grape make it ideal to grow all over the world.  The smaller size of the berry, the thick skin, the ability of the wines to age, the distinct flavors/aromas, and resistance to disease allow this grape to be a smash hit all over the world.

The grape has plantings in the areas we would most expect (California, Bordeaux, Spain, South America, and Australia) and those we would not immediately think of (Italy, China, Lebanon, and Israel.)  Cab does not change dramatically based on where it is grown.  So, the color will undoubtedly be a deep purple or ruby.  There will be powerful aromas of blackcurrant, crème de cassis, black cherry, violets, cedar, tobacco, and sweet spices.  When you drink the wine, there will be flavors of black fruits, tobacco, herb, spices, and vanilla.

I personally will never forget my introduction to this wine.  Also, it is the first one I ever thought I knew anything about.  I will always remember my mom’s comparison of the “watery” pinot noir to this “real” wine.  It’s the grape variety my parents thought me the 5 S’s of wine (Sight, Smell, Sip, Swirl, Savor) with. Then, it became the wine with which I would artfully recite my 5 S’s to anyone who would listen in college.  I even lived along side acre after acre of this beautiful grape in Napa Valley.

The real key to this grape’s success is its ability to be whatever you want it to be.  In its youth, a Cabernet Sauvignon can be intense, mouth filling, fruit forward, and bold.  With some age, wines show more dried fruits, smooth tannin, and complex flavors through years in the bottle (next week’s topic will be what aging wine actually is.)  Some other main characteristics have to do with the ripening of the grape and its love of oak.  When you talk about ripening it has to do with how much sugar was developed in the grape before it was picked.  If the levels of sugar at ripening are lower, the Cab will have an unmistakable “green” (green pepper, vegetal) quality to it.  However, if picked later, wines have a jammy fruit quality.  Cabernet Sauvignon and oak aging go together like Fourth of July and apple pie.  This relationship between oak and Cab lead to the toasty, vanilla, and the sweetly spiced perfume of the finished wines.

All in All, this is probably the first grape name new wine drinkers hear of.  The grape can essentially be found anywhere grapes can be grown.  Cab has an aroma and taste that is recognizable and reliable.  Now for the homework, try to compare Cabernet Sauvignon from a few different regions around the world.  Experiment with younger and older vintages Cabernet Sauvignon. Try a 2013 vintage and then try to obtain a 2005 vintage.   Explore this grape first hand, because that is truly the best way to learn.  Happy Tasting!!!

P.S. Stay tuned to meet the the person I share a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with this week…