Book Review: Shadows in the Vineyard

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 07-29-2014

Sshadowsinthevineyardhadows in the Vineyard is the “true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine.” The author, Maximillian Potter, initially covered the story for Vanity Fair in May 2011. In his book, he digs deeper into the crime and peels back the personalities surrounding the attack on the vineyards of Romanée-Conti in 2010. It debuted today and is available at Barnes and Noble.

As I read, I found myself feeling almost guilty. I tend to choose books that cause a little struggle — they’re satisfying, yet not always pleasurable. Shadows in the Vineyard is not that kind of book. It’s admittedly easy to read and, for wine lovers and novices alike, a way to soak in Burgundy through another appreciative discoverer’s point of view. Turning the pages, I noticed that I was loosely involved in the drama of the contemporary crime, and I more wanted to hear how the pieces of history fit together, framed by the book’s romantic narrative.

Feeling that same allure, Potter explained to me, “Crime is what took me to Burgundy. The poetry is what brought me back.”

He’d first heard rumors about the crime on a trip to Napa in the summer of 2010, traveling with his wife and a good friend from undergrad, who had just started making wine in the area. At the time, Max couldn’t tell a Burgundy from a Bordeaux, and frankly didn’t care. However, after touring wine country, he started noticing that all the stories were the same – good people, making wine, and lots of passion. He had spent the last 20 years writing about topics that weren’t always fun to cover and was feeling burnt out, losing faith in humanity. He thought, “I have to find a way to profile these folks. This stuff will be my Prozac!”

His friend gave him the perfect lead: a rumor that someone had poisoned or tried to poison the wines of the most revered vineyard in the world, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

The resulting article and book are, in my opinion, remarkable in that they reveal not just the vulnerability of DRC itself, but really the vulnerability of the people and the culture of Burgundy. Burgundy is a place of subtlety, nuance, and quiet introspection. The wines and the place are beautiful, but what make it magical is what’s below the surface: the terroir, the complexity, the community, the history. Read the rest of this entry »

Creativity in Wine PR

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 07-17-2014


Complexity New Zealand’s Grapes on a Train

Scrolling through the inbox of a wine writer would be an enlightening experience for most wine industry PR professionals. A quick perusal would reveal that the standard PR toolkit relies on the following common tactics:

- press releases (yawn)
- requests to send samples
- invitations to large, walk-around tastings
- invitations to seminars, often called “master classes”
- invitations to dinners or lunches, sometimes with winemakers
- invitations to press trips

It’s hard for a message to stand out when every producer or trade group wants their press release shared, their “master class” filled, or their wines reviewed. So, what can PR do to make their efforts more memorable and effective?

I can think of two recent programs that have been particularly creative.

The first one was crazy and random. However, I still find myself talking to other attendees about it. Complexity New Zealand organized an event called “Grapes on a Train,” where a group of press and trade attendees took a scenic, 10-hour train ride to Montreal via the historic Adirondack train from Penn Station. Six winemakers joined us from New Zealand – Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty Wines, Brett Bermingham of Nautilus Estate, Ben Glover of Mud House Wines, Nick Picone of Villa Maria, Tim Health of Cloudy Bay, and Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef.

On board, we were handed wooden trays with stemless glasses (new ones for each seminar – I can’t imagine the logistics that went into organizing this event on a moving train). Attendees were then ushered through four seminars, which highlighted the variety and quality of New Zealand wines.


The event was brilliant in that it held a group of busy, easily-distracted writers and somms captive for the entire day. And it got all of us talking. Why had we all agreed to do this? Why were a bunch of New Zealand winemakers going to French Canadian Montreal? How did they get the budget to pull this off, including accommodations for the night in Montreal and flights back to New York in the morning?

It didn’t make sense. But somehow, it worked. The execution was flawless. Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Interview: Elena & Karoline Walch

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 06-27-2014

Karoline Walch, Elena Walch, and Julia Walch

Karoline Walch, Elena Walch, and Julia Walch

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Elena Walch and her daughter, Karoline Walch, proprietors and visionaries at Elena Walch in Alto Adige.

Born in Milan, Elena had been an architect before marrying into a winemaking family in 1985 and moving to the Alto Adige. When she first arrived, Elena says she “became famous in a quick way,” as there were not many women in architecture at that time.

To add to her new neighbors’ curiosity, she then transitioned out of architecture and began to overhaul and make changes at the family’s winery. “Twenty five years ago,” she says, “being a woman in winemaking was very ‘suspicious.”

When Elena took the reins, Alto Adige was making a lot of red wine, namely Schiava. However, Elena started to plant more of the whites – at first, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Bianco. She also drastically lowered yields, made investments in different trellising, implemented higher density plantings, and began using high quality clones.

Over dinner with Elena and her daughter, Karoline (who manages U.S. marketing), their wines all showed beautifully. My favorite was the Pinot Bianco Kastelaz 2012, which comes from the steep hilly vineyards behind the local church. The wine is crisp and clean with depth and lovely floral notes. Elena says, “I find this wine more expressive than the Pinot Grigio, but it is not more loved. It’s like a hidden beauty.” Her Pinot Grigios (as recently called out by Lettie Teague) were also excellent and distinctive. Adding to Elena’s grape resume, she’s also been dubbed the “Queen of Gewürztraminer” by Gambero Rosso after accumulating so many bicchieri.

Get to know Elena and Karoline in the interview below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

Somm Secrets to Drinking French Wine

Posted by | Posted in Wine Events | Posted on 06-05-2014

Domaine La Bastide Corbières Blanc. (Credit: Aleksandra Sasha Arutyunova.)

Three sommeliers from Michelin-Star restaurants may not seem like the most likely trio to offer practical advice about drinking affordable French wine in New York City.

However, Bernie Sun, the beverage director at Jean-Georges Management; John Ragan, the wine director at Union Square Hospitality Group; and Pascaline Lepeltier, the beverage director at Rouge Tomate, recently joined Ray Isle of Food & Wine to do just that during a lively discussion at New York’s French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF).

The conversation was honest. Heard in the room, “Natural wines are overplayed. It’s an acquired taste and for me, I just never acquired that taste.” And quite informal. “When I plan a pairing, I put everything in my mouth – food and wine – and I just mush it around… I realize that’s not normal…”

Throughout the fun back-and-forth, we arrived at several useful tips to keep in mind when seeking out French wines:

Drink Corbières. And other “optional wines.”

If you look at the wine list and find a listing that’s a little unexpected — something that’s not from Bordeaux or Burgundy — take a closer look. “It should make you think: the somm doesn’t have to have this wine on the list,” says John Ragan, “The somm wants to have it on the list for a reason.”

These “optional wines” are good cues that you may get a good value or something interesting. For example, we tasted a Domaine La Bastide Corbières Blanc 2011 (SRP: $15.50). It’s a wine from a lesser-known region in the Languedoc-Roussillon and grown in an area that’s dominated by red wines (almost 95%). It was fresh and balanced with notes of sweet apple and lime blossom and really nice acidity.

For more on embracing the unknown at restaurants, check out David’s recent post on the topic.

Don’t be afraid of the cheapest wines.

These somms are tasting a lot of wine to select what will appear on their list; Bernie had tasted 75 wines earlier in the day. If a sommelier is tasting through, say 500 wines per month, many of which are in the $15 range, even the cheapest wine has been through a competitive, selective process to make the cut.

“People never take the cheap wine!” says Pascaline, “But the lowest-priced wines on my list are some of my best values.”

John agrees, “At lower price points, usually it’s not a money play, it’s a passion play. Something we really love.”

So try the “cheap” wine. It’s not a huge risk and you may find a new lifelong friend. Read the rest of this entry »

Expensive Competition at the 2014 Left Bank Bordeaux Cup

Posted by | Posted in Wine Events | Posted on 03-03-2014

Photo Credit: Coline Rohart – Consulate General of France in NYC

Contenders show their responses at the 2014 Left Bank Bordeaux Cup in NYC. Photo Credit: Coline Rohart, Consulate General of France.

With over 40 teams competing, the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup is one of the largest amateur wine competitions in the world. The event itself is a rather smart marketing ploy run by the Commanderie du Bontemps, “one of the oldest and largest wine brotherhoods in France.”

The competition pits teams of three students from top graduate schools against one another in major cities, then brings the regional winners together to vie in the Final Cup held at Château Lafite Rothschild in June. Contenders prepare for the Bordeaux battle by memorizing all things 1855 Classification, studying current events in Bordeaux, and tasting various classified and unclassified wines from the Left Bank . This year’s U.S. winners were the teams from Yale Law School and NYU Stern Business School.

While the concept itself is a pompous ordeal – I participated last year and was all too aware of the pretension – an event that encourages deliberate study of a wine region and inspires a new generation to explore it deserves support.

That said, I take a couple issues with the LBBC.

First, the Commanderie cloaks the logic behind its scoring system. Participants have no idea how questions are weighted or how the blind tasting portion is scored. This is a problem, especially for a region that’s already viewed as cryptic and aloof.

Second, graduate students rarely have the resources to purchase pricey, classified growth Bordeaux. Rumors are circulating about how teams in other countries are being heavily sponsored and showered with classified growth wines. Securing similar support has been a struggle for teams in the United States.

Photo Credit: Coline Rohart – Consulate General of France in NYC

The Yale Law School team at the 2014 Left Bank Bordeaux Cup. Photo Credit: Coline Rohart.

I recently had a chance to talk to the winning team at Yale Law School, which is comprised of Laura Femino, Joseph Pomianowski, Webb Lyons, and Albert Pak. The group hopes that they can bring more awareness (and sponsorship) to the competition moving forward. In listening to them, I was  surprised at how much support they’ve already received. Kudos to the group for hustling and making it happen.

They were able to get a sponsorship last year from Sotheby’s Wine and they’ve retained their coach from Sotheby’s, Nicholas Jackson. Nick competed in the event a few years ago and was keen to “live vicariously through them” and help them train. Lisa Granik, a Yale alum and MW, has also been a critical mentor for the group. And finally, Mory’s, the Yale Club in New Haven, generously provided space and wine glasses for the team tastings.

When I asked specifically how the team financed tastings and how much they spent on wines. They said they “try to keep tastings to between $10-20 per person, so that no one is excluded for financial reasons.” They’ll attempt to split a bottle among 20 people with 1-ounce pours if necessary, which makes tasting the expensive wines a bit more feasible. However, getting 20 people together regularly is a challenge and often they’ll end up with just 10 people and only taste three wines at a time.

They work with their own limited budgets and the wine tastings that visiting Chateaux hold for students on campus. Of course, for the Yale team, the Sotheby’s sponsorship was also key to sourcing hard-to-find and finance wines, in addition to frequenting other New Haven wine shops.

When I asked  team members how they think their preparation stacks up to other competing schools, they were a bit envious of their British counterparts. “Our impression is that the teams from England have a real edge in their access to College wine cellars, and a more storied tradition to their teams, but we’re not complaining. We still like our chances.”


UPDATE (07/07/2014): Two months after posting this article, the Commanderie has since released a document, which explains how the competition is scored, to all schools participating in the LBBC. Great news.

Naked in the Vineyards in Cahors

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-13-2014

Spoiler alert: A winemaker in Cahors likes to run around his vineyards naked.

In my last post, I talked a little about the history of Cahors, a region that began planting vines 50 years before Christ. As I’d mentioned, when visiting Cahors, everything feels hearty and almost suspended in Medieval times. It doesn’t have the grand chateaux of Bordeaux and it doesn’t have the pretty, provincial charm of Burgundy. It’s an area defined by something tougher and older.

It’s hard to imagine a lot of reinvention and novelty coming out of a place that conjures up images of knights and castles. However, Cahors has had to reinvent itself more than once after having its vines bulldozed by phylloxera and then by frost.

To better understand how the wine industry of Cahors views itself today and where it wants to go into the future, I talked to three youthful, exciting winemakers in the region: Julien Ilbert of Chateau Combel La Serre; Fabien Jouves of Mas del Périé; and Arnaud Bladinières of Mas des étoiles.

Julien Ilbert

Julien Ilbert with his father

Fabien Jouves

Fabien Jouves

Arnaud Bladinières

See the interview below the fold, including the aforementioned spoiler! Read the rest of this entry »

Cahors: Home of the Black Wine

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-09-2014

Valentré Bridge in Cahors

Valentré Bridge in Cahors

Vines were planted in Cahors, France as early as 50 BC.

The wine, made primarily of deeply colored, highly tannic Malbec and Tannat, flourished and was well known in the 12th century as the “Black Wine.” Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of the wealthiest and most influential women of the High Middle Ages, and Henry II, King of England, chose to serve the wine at their wedding in 1152. In the late 1600s, Peter the Great was fond of the wine and demanded that Cahors be the communion wine in Orthodox churches across Russia.

It was the Bordeaux of the world before Bordeaux mattered.

The wine was historically successful largely because it transported well – the deep color and powerful tannic structure enabled it to survive the long journeys up to Bordeaux and England.

However, in 1865 the history of Cahors changed dramatically when phylloxera hit, wiping out the entire region in less than twelve years. Farmers, who had for generations relied on the wine trade for their prosperity, fled the area. Some moved to Argentina to begin replanting the grape, which had been brought over by French soil expert, Michel A. Pouget, in 1852. You’re welcome, Argentina.

Gradually the vines of Cahors were replanted only to be wiped out again by frost in 1956. To provide context as to the magnitude of this destruction, in the 1800s, the region was planted with 60,000 hectares of vine; at present, plantings amount to around 4,000 hectares.

Walking around the city of Cahors today, you feel like you’ve been picked up and plopped back into the medieval times. Like its wines, it has a marked hearty and resilient character. You’ll find old stone buildings, a spectacular medieval bridge, and giant doors on building facades, where the horse carts used to be stored.

Read the rest of this entry »

Photos from South Africa

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 11-18-2013

October was a busy travel month for Terroirist. As you may have seen, David was in Rioja and I visited South Africa.

My trip was organized by Wines of South Africa. Along with a few other journalists and a group of sommeliers, we visited several regions over 10 days before the trip culminated in the Wines of South Africa Sommelier World Cup in Paarl.

I’ll have more interviews and posts to follow (the first interview was posted Friday), but in the meantime, you can check out my photos from the trip on Facebook. While you’re there, please “like” Terroirist too!






Weekly Interview: Eben Sadie

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 11-15-2013

IMG_7113Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Eben Sadie of The Sadie Family based in the Swartland of South Africa.

Eben has traveled around the world, working in vineyards in Germany, Austria, Italy, Burgundy, and Oregon before returning to South Africa in 1998 to work at the Spice Route. In 1999, he started his own independent production under the Sadie Family label.

If you’ve ever met or even read about Eben, you know he’s a character. He’s fun-loving and seems to have a slightly mischievous and rebellious side. As you chat with him, he’ll probably bring up his love of surfing and he’ll likely drop a few casual f-bombs in conversation.

He’s also intensely ambitious, competent, and focused with a visionary plan for the wines he makes in the Swartland. He truly believes in old vines, in farming, and in respecting the earth. During my visit, I had a chance to try his Skerpioen, Columella, and Palladius. All of them were really freaking good. The Palladius was the only bottle I bought in South Africa and brought back with me.

At $50 and up, his wines retail at a price that’s higher than many of his peers in South Africa, which he attributes to the lower yielding old vines. They can also be tough to find in the U.S., which reportedly only sees 5-10% of Sadie Family’s ~3,500 case production.

Check out our interview with Eben below the fold. And if you’re interested, you can also hear him talk about the importance of old vines from a recording I took on my walk with him around the vineyards in South Africa last month. Read the rest of this entry »

The Story on Australian Wine

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 11-11-2013

Michael Twelftree from Two Hands Wines

The Australian wine industry has seen some tough times, to say the least. Following the surge of Yellow Tail and the soon after success of expensive, highly rated fruit bombs from Barossa, the industry is now grappling to find its footing.

Yellow Tail is attempting to stay relevant through new product launches. “You don’t want Shiraz? We’ll make Moscato! Sangria!”

Those pricier Parker darlings are now out of vogue with consumers, who (for now) seem to prefer Argentinian Malbecs.

And Australian wine companies, which for the last decade simply rode the wave of Shiraz’s success, are now doing things like taking $160 million write-downs and literally dumping excess inventory down the drain. And to layer on another blow, that same company is facing expensive legal action from its shareholders, who are angry that they didn’t know about the impairment earlier. What a mess.

As a wine writer, I have been reading what’s in the press about the state of Australian wine. Most articles fall into three camps: (1) Australian Wine is Doomed; (2) There is Hope for Australian Wine (e.g., cool climate wines are hot, not just in Australia, but all over); and (3) ____ is the New Australian Shiraz (insert grape/region in the blank. Hint: it’s usually Tempranillo).

However, the coverage has been overall pretty defensive in tone and, as a member of the media, I hadn’t heard much about Australian wines directly.

So when I learned that Michael Twelftree of Two Hands Wines was stopping through in New York, I was eager to meet with him and hear his take on the current plight of Australia.

His thoughts reiterate some of what Jancis Robinson said in her interview with David. Australia needs to focus on regionality and subregionality; Australia needs to think beyond Shiraz to other grapes like Grenache and Riesling; Australia needs to continue listening and getting out into the market; and finally, the success of Australian wine rests on the shoulders of smaller, quality wines brands. Interestingly, Michael wasn’t too keen on the work of Wines of Australia and thought that the producers themselves needed to step up and market themselves, working from the vineyards backward.

Our lunchtime conversation is below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »