How to Order Wine in a Restaurant


sommelierConfronting a wine list in a restaurant can be daunting—so many regions, varietals, and styles and so little information offered about what you’re getting. Even wine experts can be in the dark because no one has the time to become familiar with every producer in every region.

When I look over a wine list and nothing jumps out as something I must drink now, I choose the most off-beat wine I can find on the list, something unusual, unfamiliar and unexpected. After all, a sommelier chose to use up precious space by putting it on the list and likely had a reason for doing so. Because it’s unusual and unknown most people won’t order it so it’s not there because it’s a best seller. It’s likely on the list because the somm thinks it’s a great wine. Something about it is unique and worthy of attention, and she wants customers to try it.

Take a risk. It’s only wine.

Wine is Inexhaustible Which is Bad News for Brand Loyalty


win from around the worldMatt Brehony sure is bullish on the future of wine in the U.S. despite some evidence of lagging sales:

Millennials are changing the face of the wine world. And they’re doing a pretty kick-ass job of it.

Propelled by a thirst for authenticity and discovery, this new generation of drinkers is embracing both old-world traditions and experimental styles. They’re not just drinking more, they’re drinking better.

But he thinks wineries are not doing a great job of reaching millennials because they rely on antiquated tasting notes and stereotypes about lifestyle:

With a mass of curious new-comers on their doorstep, most of those trying to sell to them are doing so in the cryptic lingo of the wine aficionado—with promises of “bramble berries,” “old saddle leather” and “forest floor” as an attempt to start the conversation. While others, fueled by trends reports and superficial demographic data, are pursuing an opposite yet equally flawed strategy, of bending over backwards to show their audience how well their wine will fit into a mundane, millennial existence. (“You can pair it with pizza! You can take selfies with it!”)

Neither strategy is working all too well. While overall wine sales are growing, there is a concern about a lack of brand loyalty coming out of it. If you hang out with people in the booze business you’ll hear a lot of grumbling (sometimes with data to back it up) on how noncommittal many young consumers are.

His solution is for wineries and wine regions to improve the “brand experience”:

First you need a Story. A big, capital “S” Story that feeds all other stories. One that is unique, compelling and consistent. (If you have any doubts on how important this is, I urge you to check out THIS roundtable, where participants literally made comments like “Maybe if the story was more interesting I might have liked this wine more.”)

Once that Story is in place—be it in the form of a brand narrative, a purpose or positioning statement, or all of the above—you need an experience strategy that brings it to life for customers across a variety of touchpoints.

Hmm. I’m not sure what an “experience strategy” is. We’re told it’s “to translate the mystique of a place, its people and their passion into an all-encompassing experience”. It seems to me this is exactly what wineries already do if you visit their tasting room. Almost all have stories and they make sure you hear it when you saunter up to the bar. But of course you have to visit the winery or the wine region and talk to the people there to get a sense of the “mystique of a place”. It can’t be conveyed in the supermarket or wine shop and only inadequately on a website.

It seems to me this kind of advice is useless not only because it has already been implemented but because it is oblivious to the real attraction of wine.

The reason why people who get serious about wine don’t establish strong brand loyalties is because wine is inexhaustible. For every great wine you taste made by nice people with a compelling story, there is someone else around the corner who can offer you something different that is equally compelling. With wine regions and styles exploding around the world and experimentation upending traditions there is just no reason to keep drinking the same stuff.

Brand loyalties are for creatures of habit or for products showing rare quality for which straying from the familiar is often punished. Millennials are too young to have strong habits and quality wine is just no longer rare.

I’m way too old to be speaking for millennials, but if they really are “propelled by a thirst for authenticity and discovery” they’re probably not really going to be into brand loyalty no matter how hard you push it.

Wine Review: Michael David Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi 2014



freakshowMichael and David Phillips, 5th generation grape-growers from Lodi who started the winery in 1984, are known for their wild labels and memorable brand names like their 7 Deadly Zins. Freakshow is no exception; label shoppers will find it irresistible. But the juice is pretty good as well if you like big upfront fruit.

Smoke melding into a chocolate background envelop very ripe black cherry aromas and hints of damp forest floor. The foundation of ripe almost prune-like aromas establish the wines dominant character giving it a dark almost brooding aspect on the nose.

The palate flavors initially reinforce the nose with fig and heavy dark chocolate with a slight woodiness appearing midpalate as the wine gathers momentum. The finish is a bit short, losing fruit quickly leaving soft, fine-grained, yet drying tannins in its wake. Round, full, and a bit heavy upfront, the midpalate refreshes with a nice caramel/cola seam providing some lift and lightening the moof before leaving a sandy impression in closing.

This classifies as a fruit bomb but it’s well made and shows some textural evolution. It’s more of a sipper than a food wine. A big barbecue sauce or grilled steaks would be fine. I served it with stuffed flank steak (Bavette de beouf farcie) but the rich, figgy, dried fruit seemed too imperious.

17 months in French oak.

For a family winery this is a huge operation producing over 600,000 cases per year, and their children now run the operation so it seems likely to stay in the family for awhile. That’s nice to see in an age of rapid consolidation in the wine business.

For all its brooding quality, this is not an angry Cab. It aims to be more easygoing. This piece by King Sunny Aide brings some sorely needed freshness and brightness to the experience. The elongated synth phrasing and repetitive percussion gives the wine length and evolution and brings out top notes.

Score: 90

Price: $20

Alc: 14.5%

Distinguishing Cheap Wine from Expensive Wine



cheap-vs-expensive-wine-300x216I suspect that most people who drink wine regularly think they are able to distinguish expensive wine from the cheap stuff. But there are numerous studies like this one that show the average wine consumer can’t do so in a blind tasting. This is not surprising. The relationship between wine quality and price is not straightforward—there is a loose correlation but with lots of exceptions. Price often has more to do with supply and demand than the intrinsic quality of the wine.

But more importantly, wine is a vague object, with features difficult to discern. The properties of fine wine are not simple sensations but involve judgments about complexity, finesse, and harmony that require the discernment of relationships between multiple sensations that experts and connoisseurs  spend years learning to appreciate.

It is strange that anyone would expect the average consumer to reliably identify quality wine. We don’t have that expectation in the arts or music. Most “average” art lovers prefer Kincade to Pollock, and Katie Perry is far more popular than Arvo Part. Enjoyment and quality are only loosely correlated.

So what’s the average wine consumer to do about this?

The good news is that learning to distinguish quality wine from cheap wine is really just a matter of gaining experience. So drink more wine. What’s so hard about that? But in fact it’s not just drinking more but drinking more thoughtfully that builds competence. Start paying more attention to what you drink and note the differences. Compare wines side by side and try to describe the nuances. If you’re on a budget that’s no problem. Start out with cheaper wines until you get good at detecting differences and then gradually move into higher price tiers keeping in mind that price isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality.

Or alternatively, just buy really expensive wine and don’t worry about it. Studies show the higher the price of a wine, the more we enjoy it. Even if you can’t tell good wine from bad  you will persuade yourself of the quality of the costly wine. Your pleasure will be based on an illusion rather than genuine quality but caring about reality is so, well, last year.

Budget Wine Review: Orleans Hill Red Blend “Cote Zero” California 2015


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orleans hillI’ve found the organic wine section of the supermarket to be a  reasonably good place to buy budget wines. There is no evidence organic wine tastes better than wine made from conventionally-grown grapes but I’ve found these organic producers (here, here, and here)  to be on the whole reliable. This wine, however, is an exception.

The nose shows bright red fruit but it has the raw, yeasty aroma of cheap wine. The palate hints at being juicy but is diluted with a bitter finish and almost no tannin. Oddly it seems low in acidity as well.  It’s light enough to play well with a variety of foods. It won’t ruin dinner but it is exceedingly ordinary. The name “Cote Zero” is a play on Cote du Rhone and zero sulfites.

It’s vegan too so there’s that.

Score: 81

Price: $10

Alc: 12.5%

You really can make a wine taste better by finding a piece of music that matches its mood. This lovely, light hearted track from Angelique Kidjo keeps your attention on the juice and not the bitter.

Some People Shouldn’t Be in the Wine Business


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sommelierHere is another in a seemingly endless parade of articles seeking to dumb down wine for the poor, overwhelmed consumer. This guy thinks that although the wine obscurantists of yesteryear have been vanquished by Parker scores  and Cellar Tracker reviews, wine is still too complex for people to understand, and it’s all because wine experts are just showing off:

In the past wine knowledge was linked to class. This is why it lends itself so well to British comedy, which is often about social status….This link between class and wine knowledge began to unravel with the rise of American super critic Robert Parker in the 1980s. He not only pronounced in an authoritative fashion on wine but he scored them out of 100. Many decried this as philistinism, asking whether you would score a Velázquez or a lover, but wine buyers loved it because it simplified or seemed to simply wine. Armed with a bit of Parker, the average wine drinker could now begin to navigate his way around a wine list….In the 1990s and 2000s, the public became better informed and wine democratised. Supermarkets began selling classed growth Bordeaux off the back of Parker scores. With one super critic in place and good wine seemingly available everywhere, the professionals were losing their grip.

So being “better informed” means going to the wine shop  and buying whatever Parker says you should buy. I guess “better informed” means realizing that 90 is higher than 85. Moreover, today we have CellarTracker where members of the public can rate the wines they drink according to a similar scale, the use of which of course requires the very same skill of being able to count.

But alas apparently we are still being flummoxed by wine experts. The culprits nowadays are sommeliers who put obscure wines on restaurant menus for the sole purpose of showing off their superior taste and knowledge:

Something had to be done. The answer was “natural” wine. This was ostensibly a reaction against the sort of wine that Parker liked, powerful, oaky wines made in a Bordeaux-meets-California style. But just as important, the producers were obscure and you couldn’t buy the wines in Oddbins. A new generation of writers, sommeliers and merchants staked their claim as keepers of arcane knowledge….A further advantage of these wines from the perspective of the initiated is that some of them taste awful, but they are meant to taste like that. So when customers try to send them back, they can be put in their place with a “you just don’t get this wine, man.”

Have you every had a sommelier insult you with “you just don’t get this wine, man”? I haven’t. It’s not the best way to get a tip or to hang on to your job. And the one example he provides  of  an offending wine list  is perfectly intelligible to anyone with a modest knowledge of wine, with the name of the producer, region and varietal listed. The wines include a few lesser known varietals and regions along with more standard fare, but all from small producers—what’s wrong with that?

According to this article we are to believe that people don’t drink natural wines because they enjoy vintage variation or vineyard expression but because they’re just trying to show off. And people don’t prefer small, lesser-known producers or regions because they’re tired of the same 20-30 wineries appearing on every wine list. They’re just trying to impress. I guess if it’s not Cabernet or Chardonnay from Constellation it can’t be good.

Of course, as one might expect there is the inevitable throat clearing at the end that undermines his whole point.

I’m not saying that wine is straightforward. It is an immense subject and changing the whole time, you can now buy wines from Croatia, Georgia and Greece at Marks & Spencer. And most wine professionals do do their best to illuminate, but the truth is we don’t want people to find things too straightforward.

No kidding. This is why we need experts to help us keep up and we want to keep up because the proliferation of wine styles and regions is itself fascinating. If you don’t like that you’re in the wrong business.

And this travesty is posted on the website of Master of Wine who purports to be a wine educator. Sheesh.

Wine Review: Bookcliff Vineyards Crescendo Red Blend Colorado 2013



bookcliffBookcliff Vineyards is one of the better known wineries in Colorado, in part because several of their wines won awards at the 2016 Governer’s Cup. Tasting their wines is a bit of unfinished business for me; their winery and tasting room is in Boulder so they were not on my itinerary last year during our visit to Grand Junction on the Western slope where the grapes are grown.

So I ordered two bottles out of curiosity.

Of the two wines I tasted, the most impressive was their blend of Syrah, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Souzao called Crescendo (2013). This is a gorgeous, soul-stirring wine. Intriguing notes of cinnamon and coriander with floral highlights mix with dark and red berry fruit to yield a nose of some complexity and depth. The palate is rich and luscious with full bodied mocha permeating the layers of dark fruit. A slightly angular edginess gives the wine lift introducing a medium length, radiant finish that brings together concentrated spice notes with fruit that persists until the end in a grand finale.  Toasted oak plays a subtle supporting role and do the softly resonating tannins. This is a very satisfying wine and quite unique with Syrah and Petite Verdot forming an unusual marriage that seems made in heaven. Large and dimensional while remaining winsome and captivating, it’s too bad Valentine’s Day is past.

The 2013 Ensemble, a Bordeaux-style blend was one of the award winners but only the 2014 (47% Merlot and 45% Cabernet Sauvignon),  is now available. Vintage variation is significant in Colorado and perhaps the 2013 was meritorious but I found the 2014 disappointing. Dark plum laced with substantial coffee aromas dominate the nose with pencil lead and dusty earth in the background. The medium bodied palate shows more coffee and spice but they quickly give way to bracing, lemon-tart acidity which leaps out of the midpalate and takes over the experience. The wine has vitality and a core of juicy fruit but sour notes are unrelenting causing the finish to fall apart. Between excessive oak and sour acidity, I wanted a firmer fruit anchor from this blend. But at the reasonable price of $20 it offers good value if you prefer this style.  86 pts.

The Crescendo really does have one, and oh does it sing with this rendition of He Loves Me by Jill Scott

Score: 90

Price: $38

Alc: 13.5%

Budget Wine Review: Line 39 Petite Sirah California 2014



line 39Aromas of blueberry pie, damp leaves sprinkled with dust and pencil lead, and hints of meat give a voluptuous first impression with dark chocolate emerging on the palate.

For Petite Sirah this is remarkably smooth and luscious, a very unusual expression of this varietal. Velvet and medium weight are not traditional descriptors for Petite Sirah but they fit here, and the persistent, drying tannins on the medium length finish are never grippy. The wine is very linear and does not have the structure that fans of Petite Sirah expect. But if you enjoy supermarket-style Merlot and you’re looking for a change this will ring your bell. Great QPR and a wine so rich, comforting and polished you’ll want to curl up in front of a fireplace with an R&B ballad like Aaliyah’s At Your Best.

Score: 88

Price: $11

Alc: 13.5%

Cabernet Envy is Bad for the Soul and Bad for the Industry


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big bottleTwo articles caught my eye recently about storied wines that are getting hard to sell. Several Italian restaurants in New York and Chicago report declining sales of Chianti as Super Tuscans and riper wines from emerging regions in Southern Italy gain in popularity. But the cited explanation for the decline is a conundrum. Some say it’s because customers prefer softer, riper wines with less acidity that are easy to drink. Others claim that Chianti has adapted to this new style by adding soft, easy-drinking Cabernet and Merlot to the blend and has lost its traditional appeal. Can they both be right?

Along the same lines, California Syrah was booming in the 1990’s but has now fallen on hard times with many wineries abandoning the grape because consumers won’t buy it. Here, the explanation seems a bit more straightforward:

Statewide, we all witnessed the Syrah boom of the 1990s,” says viticulturist Greg Adams, winemaker for Baker Lane Vineyards in west Sonoma County. “A planting frenzy was ignited by a few quality-focused producers, and being a high-bearing variety, every farmer seemed like they needed to get in on the Syrah gold rush before their neighbors did, only to spark an unsustainable growth of a relatively marginal grape variety….The way this translated into the marketplace was with an ocean of average, overripe Syrah, which ended up being discounted due to an unmarketable oversupply,” says Adams.

There is a common theme here isn’t there? Consumers demanding more ripeness and bigger flavor. Wineries chasing the latest trend give it to them. But then the consumers get bored because over-ripe wines are, well, boring and so they lose interest.

You can blame the wine industry for chasing a fast buck but that would be like blaming lions for being predators. The real problem is consumers who think every wine should taste like Cabernet, and then wonder why they get bored when every wine tastes like Cabernet.

Wine drinking is like portfolio management—diversify!


*Yes. I know Cheval Blanc (pictured) is elegant Cab Franc and Merlot but I liked the picture.