SOMM, A Wine Film

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 06-20-2013

The wine world has been softly buzzing about the upcoming release of SOMM, an independent film that is written and directed by Jason Wise. The film provides an insider’s look at the extreme dedication and passion associated with the Master Sommelier Exam, one of the most grueling wine certifications. Only 201 people in the world have ever passed the exam (usually after repeated attempts), and SOMM chronicles the lives of four sommeliers who are in the final few weeks before their test date.

Dustin Wilson (MS) pours at the SOMM premiere while I wait my turn

New York got its first glimpse of SOMM during the premiere this past Monday at Christie’s. Dustin Wilson, one of the film’s main characters and current Wine Director at Eleven Madison Park, was there to provide commentary and answer questions. The screening was followed by a blind tasting of 12 red wines and 12 whites curated by 12 of New York’s top sommeliers, a tasting that was particularly humbling after watching the film. The after-party also featured one of Dustin’s own wines, Vallin, a lower alcohol Rhone-inspired white from Santa Barbara. The event was a lot of fun, but more importantly, the film was a worthwhile and engaging watch with appeal beyond the wine geek community.

SOMM debuts tomorrow, Friday, June 21, on iTunes and in theaters. Check it out. And you can find my own personal likes and critiques below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

A Curmudgeon’s Take on Tuscany

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 05-21-2013

The view from the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Vinci, Tuscany. From Wikimedia.

While living on either end of Tuscany — first to its immediate north in Bologna, and then just south in Rome — I found myself becoming increasingly anti-Tuscan.

I joked about the difficulty of finding a Florentine in Florence, and I rolled my eyes at friends’ stories about visiting “the cutest Tuscan hill town!”

My internal justifications went something like this: Chianti? The local, cheaper Sangiovese suited me just fine. Art? Why travel to see the David when I could walk to the Pieta? Food? Don’t get me started on Tuscan bread.

Now that I’ve disclosed my irrational prejudice against all things Tuscan, let’s talk Tuscan wine.

Italy has some iconic wines — think Barolo, Amarone, Pinot Grigio — but perhaps the most iconic of all is Chianti. Just mentioning the word conjures images of candlelit spaghetti dinners, checkered tablecloths, and mustachioed waiters singing “’O Sole Mio.”

Chianti likely became so famous because of its accessibility — it’s known for being affordable and easy-drinking, and it’s relatively easy to find. Its reputation has alternately peaked and plunged over the years. Today, Chianti’s wines can largely be divided into two categories: expensive, high-end bottlings that are often over-extracted and oaky, and cheap, insipid, mass-produced wine.

Admittedly, a few producers are still making terrific Chianti at a good price (e.g. Fontodi, Felsina, Monte Rotondo, and Querciabella), but they are relatively hard to find. I have had so many “blah” experiences with random Chianti bottles that I’ve mostly given it up.

As much as I’d love to use this as an excuse to write off Tuscan wines altogether, I’ll grudgingly admit that Tuscany’s terroir seems to be well-suited to making good wine. So I decided to search for a Chianti alternative.

The best-known Tuscan DOCG wines (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita, the top tier of Italian wine certifications) — Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Chianti Classico — are all made primarily with the Sangiovese grape, and showcase Sangiovese’s elegance and versatility. These wines are often good, even great, but the best are very expensive.

If Sangiovese is the key to great Tuscan wine, why not look beyond the famous appellations to find it at a better price point? Morellino di Scansano — also a Sangiovese-based Tuscan DOCG — fits the bill. It comes from the Maremma, an area south of Siena near the Tyrrhenian coast, about halfway between Rome and Florence. The region makes fresh, accessible wines that are usually priced between $15-$25.

Not much Morellino makes it to the US, but on the occasions I’ve tried it, I have been impressed. With my interest piqued, I jumped at the opportunity to attend a recent Morellino tasting in DC, co-hosted by the Consorzio Tutela Morellino di Scansano and Vigneto Communications.

Across the board, the Morellinos were simple but well-made, with tons of the bright red fruit that is typical of Maremma Sangiovese. A few winemakers used too much oak (to my taste), but even the oakier wines were preferable to many Chiantis I’ve had in their price range. These Sangioveses are meant to be drunk young; a wine to enjoy while ageing your Brunello.

Poggio Nibbiale "Tommaso"

My favorite wine of the night was made by Elke and Nikolaus Buchheim at Poggio Nibbiale. Their son was pouring, and he gave me a brief rundown of the estate: his German parents bought the land in 1998, and now have 11 hectares of vines, mostly Sangiovese. They practice organic viticulture (but are not certified) and rely on spontaneous fermentation by ambient yeasts. Only one of their wines was available to taste, the 2008 “Tommaso” Morellino di Scansano Riserva DOCG, which was surprisingly fresh and juicy considering its eighteen months of barrel age. Red berries, cedar, tobacco and cherries dominated the palate. I’m a convert.

Another highlight was Poggio Argentiera. They are one of a handful of wineries who use the grape Ciliegiolo in their Morellino blends, which adds a burst of cherry to the Sangiovese. Of their two Morellinos on offer, I preferred the 2012 “Bellamarsilia” DOCG, which is 85% Sangiovese and 15% Ciliegiolo. It showed pure red fruit and had a backbone of dusty tannins, and would be perfect with some Tuscan salami and pecorino cheese. The second wine was their 2010 “Capatosta” DOCG, which has 5% Alicante in the blend. The addition of the Alicante, along with a longer oak regimen, made for a much darker and stiffer wine than the “Bellamarsilia.” This wine shows potential, but needs time for its tannins to soften and integrate.

Tenuta Pietramora di Collefagiano "Petramora"

Rounding out my favorite producers was was Tenuta Pietramora di Collefagiano. The estate was bought and replanted by its current owners in 1999, and is certified organic. The wine on offer was their 2010 “Petramora” Morellino di Scansano DOCG, which is 85% Sangiovese and 15% Merlot. The Merlot (I was skeptical) distinguished this wine by contributing a pleasant meatiness not found in the other Morellinos. It was a big wine at 14.5% alcohol, but the weight was nicely balanced by Sangiovese’s characteristic acidity.

My takeaway?

While my anti-Tuscan feelings haven’t completely disappeared, they’ve softened considerably — I really enjoyed these wines. They were exactly what I was looking for in a Chianti alternative. These Morellinos were bright, fresh expressions of Sangiovese, from grower-producers whose winesemphasize both their terroir and their own personal style.

Morellino di Scansano was granted DOCG status only six years ago. And a recent flood of investment — including purchases by Tuscan heavyweights Banfi and Frescobaldi — means that the region is developing rapidly. As a result, I suspect we will soon see more Morellino in the United States. This is great news for me, since I’m too much of a curmudgeon to enjoy it at the source.

Reassessing Australian Wine

Posted by | Posted in Commentary, Wine Reviews | Posted on 01-07-2013

A vineyard in the Hunter Valley. From Wikimedia.

It almost seems as though the Australian wine market has become the modern equivalent of the tulip craze. Sales have drastically decreased – from 2010 to 2011, sales of Australian wine within the United States dropped 19%.

Aussies regularly tell me, though, that the Australian consumed in the United States is not what’s consumed at home.

To explore that assertion, I explored the Langton’s Guide, which is generally regarded as Australia’s top rater of domestic wines (much like Gambero Rosso in Italy). While there are some familiar names, the Langton’s Guide is dominated by wines that are either difficult to come across in the States or completely nonexistent.

Part of the problem is Australia’s general brand perception in the United States. When customers come into Binny’s Beverage Depot (where I work as a wine specialist) asking for funny names and labels, I invariably send them to the Australian section. They’ll undoubtedly find what they’re looking for – and won’t have to spend much.

Australia recognizes this challenge. In a conversation with the BBC, Christina Tulloch of Tulloch Wines noted that her company doesn’t even export wine to Britain or the United States, instead focusing exclusively on Asia. The reason? “What we have in Asia that we don’t have in the UK and USA is this preconceived notion that Australian wine is cheap and cheerful.”

In the United States, Australian wine has become defined by brands like Yellow Tail, Little Penguin, Marquis Phillips, and Molly Dooker — overblown, over fruity, overripe, and under $20.

This false impression has distorted the Australian wine market in the United States.

A few years ago, I would regularly see customers buying Australian wines over $20. These days, though, it’s very difficult to sell such wines. While the economic downturn may be partly responsible for this trend, I haven’t noticed a similar dip in other high-end wines from around the world.

I will fully admit to not completely enjoying most of the Australian wines I’ve tried in the past few years. While there was a point during which I greatly enjoyed big Australian wines, my palate has shifted – huge fruit with low acidity just doesn’t provide me much joy any more.

Still, I’ve known that there are good wines out there that would speak of Australia. Australian reds should show more ripeness than would expect from wines elsewhere in the world. This can be attractive when the wines don’t come off as over the top.

Recently, I attended a trade tasting in Chicago where several different producers were pouring. There were some familiar names — Yalumba, Henschke, and Jim Barry, to name a few – and some new ones, like Vasse Felix and Giaconda Warner.

This tasting was a very nice look at some Australian wines that, on the whole, weren’t overdone. While it was a bit of a mixed bag, there were some really good wines that I’d certainly enjoy having again. It was valuable to taste through many wines that I typically wouldn’t get the chance to drink, or even think of drinking.

Below are notes on all the wines I tasted at this event. Note that I didn’t get to the Yalumba: Read the rest of this entry »

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Pay-For-Play?

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 12-19-2012


Within hours of this weekend’s bombshell editorial from Palate Press about copyright infringement by Canadian wine writer Natalie MacLean, a new scandal broke.

“[We have] unearthed new allegations of unethical behavior by the well-known wine writer,” wrote Gary Thomas and David Honig, Palate Press’ wine review editor and publisher, respectively.

“Online comments as well as social media reaction to that story brought to light new information that outlines a ‘pay-for-play’ policy by MacLean in which she requires wineries to purchase a subscription to her online wine review pages before she will review the wines,” they continued.

Those online comments inspired dozens of reactions. Many were quite harsh.

“If she charges for sample submission,” wrote British wine writer Jamie Goode, “then that’s horridly parasitic behavior. It gives honest wine writers a bad name.”

Goode followed up with a more nuanced reaction on his blog, and admitted in an email exchange with me that pay-for-play wine criticism is a thornier issue than it seems at first blush.

“I realize it is a complicated situation, and that some reviewers in New Zealand charge wineries for reviews, but I think it has the danger of being exploitative,” he wrote. “As writers we exist in a delicate place in our relationships with wineries. We already cost them quite a bit in terms of hospitality and samples, and to add on to that some sort of fee seems a bit parasitical.”

Charging a winery to review its wines is unusual, to be sure. But calling such fees “parasitical” while cheerily accepting free meals and free trips seems arbitrary and even hypocritical.

The problem with MacLean’s alleged pay-for-play policy is the lack of transparency — not the policy itself.

Consider Goode. I followed his recent trip to Alsace (part 1; part 2), eagerly reading his notes on wines like Hugel’s Gentil. Assuming the trip to Alsace was a press junket, why, exactly, is that so different from charging a winery a fee to review its wines? Couldn’t one argue that the latter is actually much more economical for a winery — especially if the winery’s only goal is to get a review?

Or, for a better comparison to MacLean’s “horridly parasitic” pay-for-play policy, consider Robert Whitley, publisher of Wine Review Online. Whitley writes a nationally syndicated for Creators, a monthly column for Reuters, and hosts an online radio show.

He’s also the director of four international wine competitions — Critics Challenge, Sommelier Challenge, Winemaker Challenge, and San Diego International Wine Competition. All charge an entry fee of $75 or more for each bottle submitted.

Why are wine competitions so different? Sure, those fees are typically used to cover the event’s expenses — things like judges’ travel and honorariums, food, support staff, and other logistics. But at the end of the day, wineries are shelling out cash in exchange for a critic’s review.

Plus, Whitley frequently praises the wines that win his competitions without disclosing that the producers were forced to pay a steep fee to garner his attention.

It’s also important to note that reviewing wines isn’t a costless endeavor. Read the rest of this entry »