Friday, August 28, 2009

Back to wineSchool

Last Saturday at wineLIFE, we started our mailing list. We asked for people’s names, email addresses, and we asked them to write in what their favorite wine was. Some were very vague (red), while others were very specific (merlot, montepulciano), but the overall common thread of the day was made up of many requests for wine classes.

The Back to Wine School window looks really good - complete with marble notebooks, big number 2 pencils, wine text books and a real school desk (please, don’t ask me where we got it from!). Now, it seems, the theme will continue inside as I think hard about what classes to offer and how.

My first thoughts were to offer a set of themed series - five classes covering five of the major grape varieties, a series on different wine countries or regions, perhaps a three part look at red, white and sparkling wines. One thing was clear in my mind: I’m not sure a “wine 101” is the way to go. Of course, final decisions will be steered by the results of a poll I will conduct among the people who would be my students. But based on what I’ve seen so far, no one really needs to be treated like they have to go to a vinous version of Pre K. Wine savvy comes in all forms from those who know think they “don’t know anything about wine” but know enough to know they love Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay/Merlot, to those who love Italian wines, like Burgundy. All of this would strike the average wine connoisseur as very elementary, but to me, it means that consumers have a sense for what is out there, and know what they have enjoyed in the past and/or present, so it is time to take them to the next level so they can feel more confident navigating the world of wine.

Email me, please, with your thoughts on what wineLIFE wineSchool should cover. It will help me form a curriculum that is both valuable and enjoyable to all my future students!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Here's to a Deal!

Imagine my surprise to find Gnarly Head Old Vines Zinfandel 2007 from Lodi CA for a shockingly cheap $8.00 at the Wine Library in New Jersey last week! In my retail days back in 05 and 06, the store I was working as a buyer at, a store that definitely had the ability to take large quantities in to get the best price, was retailing this wine for somewhere in the $13.00 a bottle range. Seeing old Gnarly Head selling for under $10.00 served as a vivid reminder of the state of the wine market and how it, much like the housing market, is definitely in favor of buyers now!

Wine Spectator magazine reported earlier this year that for the first time in modern history, Americans purchased more Prosecco than they did Champagne for New Year’s Eve 2008. The US and Japan have historically been the Champagne region’s top markets for the good stuff that starts around $30.00 a bottle, and goes up for Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay champagnes), Vintage Champagne and Têtes de Cuvée (the top pop, such as Dom Perignon, which is Moët’s top wine and Louis Roederer’s Crystal) to well over $200.00 a bottle. It looks like we wised up, America, and our long honeymoon with Champagne and other high priced wine has come to an end as we realize that less expensive options will fit the bill with just as much festivity. Prosecco, Italy’s most jovial bubbly from Valdobbiadene in the north east, weighs in at a meager $10.00-$15.00 a bottle.

What does all this mean to you? It means that now more than ever, wine is financially accessible. The barriers of high prices are coming down quietly as retail and restaurant operators continue in their struggle to move all the stock they took on during last November and December and wholesalers are not able to clear their warehouses with new vintages coming online. There are lots of great deals around - wines that retailed 3 or 4 years ago above the $10.00 mark are coming down below $10.00, those that peaked at over $20.00 are coming closer to that $15.00 sweet spot.

My recommendation? Buy at around $15.00, but don’t be afraid to take a chance on stuff that is in the $10.00 range. Many shops will cut margins close to move an older vintage out. Reds vintage dated 2003 or later or whites from within the last 2-3 years are usually safe bets for everyday wine drinking, though the picture becomes a little more complex at the higher end. Restaurants won’t be as forgiving on price as they must maintain their caché and make their margins to cover much higher overhead. Nonetheless, I would fish in the $30.00-$50.00 a bottle pond on the wine list of a reputable place, and you will indeed find better deals on wine by the glass these days - sommeliers and bar managers seem to be pushing it below $10.00 a glass, as low as $6.00, in even the most chic neighborhoods.

Baileyanna, makers of boutique, single vineyard, sustainably grown Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah in the Edna Valley region of California, has the perfect formula for their high price points that traditionally started in the low $20.00’s and stretched close to the $50.00 mark, yet I found their 2007 Firepeak Vineyard Chardonnay at a shop in PA for a fabulous $9.99 a bottle - and it was really good!

Also, I always recommend connecting with the folks at your local shop - find someone who steers you in a direction you like with his or her recommendations. But make them stick to your price point - they will have lots of great options that you can enjoy inside your budget. That way, you can continue to live your wineLIFE without going broke!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Epiphany in a Glass

The thing that makes wine grapes so very intriguing is the fact that the wines they become can smell and taste like so many different things in the world - flours and fruit, vegetables and minerals, spices, fur, tar, cedar - the list goes on! No other fruit can claim this talent. In my wine drinking adolescence, I remember how often I’d hear people talk about “buttery” Chardonnay. I had no idea whatsoever what they were talking about. It was a time when I started to question the validity of all these colorful descriptors, started thinking that the aromas and flavors they were talking about were implied - I mean come on, you can’t really smell butter in a glass of wine?! Or for that matter berries, smoke, citrus fruit, tea leaves... stop the nonsense! And then the day arrived when I was sitting in a wine tasting with a glass of California Chardonnay in front of me, thinking to myself “what the heck am I going to write for a tasting note?” I picked the glass up by its stem, pointed my nose downward over the rim and inhaled - “I SMELL THE BUTTER!!” Yes, everyone turned and looked at me, but they all understood my elation - as a wine aficionado, I had arrived.

As my wine education progressed, I learned more about the naturally occurring chemical compounds that create these smells, such as pyrazines that make Sauvignon Blanc smell like green bell pepper (I remember that epiphany well in a glass of Sancerre - it is those same pyrazines that make green bell peppers taste like green bell peppers!), and the lactic acid that makes Chardonnay taste like butter (the same lactic acid that makes butter taste like butter - see the pattern forming?) Not that I had to learn all of these chemicals by name - not that anyone has to learn them. Happily, my epiphanies continue even today, as I discover new things through my many wine tasting (read: drinking) experiences.

Its fun as well to revisit the things that I have discovered in the past, like last night, enjoying a glass of J. Bookwalter’s Subplot No. 22. from Columbia Valley, WA (NV) at Sweet and Lowdown in the Lower East Side and I suddenly felt something hard click against my tooth. I was tickled to find wine diamonds, those tartrate crystals that sometimes form when wine is changing temperature, clinging to one side of my empty glass. They are not common anymore, as most wineries will cold stabilize the wines before releasing (the wines are chilled down to make the tartrates form, and then filtered out and bottled), but they are a naturally occurring phenomenon in wine, and I remember the first time I spotted them myself while tasting a Pinot Gris in one of my WSET lessons. A few years later, I was working in a retail wine shop in SoHo when a woman came in looking very displeased, complaining that there was glass in her wine. The feeling of the little crystal on my tongue took me back to that memory, and although she would not believe me when I tried to explain, I felt good at least that I could offer an explanation. What can I say? I guess one woman’s epiphany is another woman’s fright.

I’m looking forward to my next epiphany, though its becoming harder, as I have discovered so much already. Time to really get my feet stained!