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Monday, September 11, 2017

The 300 - Chianti Classico

Chianti Classico celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2016.  To celebrate I tasted two of Ruffino’s both wines are named for the Duke of Aosta, (that’s him on the labels) who made Ruffino the official wine of the royal family after journeying across the Alps just to try them. Now that’s dedication. Like any defined wine region Chianti has many strict rules that govern the wine from there, such as Chianti Classico where wines must be aged for at least a year, be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese, have a maximum yield of 7.5 tons/hectare (just under 2.5 acres), so you’re yields are about three tons per acre, right in the middle of that sweet spot. Italian wine can be a little confusing, but know this - Chianti on a label is different than Chianti Classico. My focus here is classic Chianti.

The Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva ($24.99), first produced in 1927 is 80% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Fermentation, aided by racking and punch downs, took place in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats for 10 days, followed by another 10 days of maceration on the skins. The wine underwent secondary malolactic fermentation to enhance its texture, then was aged for 24 months in oak, stainless steel, and concrete vats. The Riserva Ducale spent an additional three months in bottle before release. So what’s in the bottle? There’s soft mild fruit, cherry, raspberry, rhubarb with savory tobacco, white pepper, and herbaceous underpinnings. The limited oak does not over power yet helps make this more round in the mouth, filling all the edges.

The 2011 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Riserva Gran Selezione ($40.99) was first made in 1947 is 80% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot fermented as separate lots. The wine was aged for about one year in traditional large, neutral oak Slovenian casks. After a year, the wine was transferred into small barriques for another 12 months. Neutral oak allowed the blend to fully integrate and develop a more elegant and complex flavor profile without being altered. The wine then spent four months in bottle to allow it to settle before release. With the Oro you’re immediately hit with classic Sangiovese, cherry, rhubarb, violet, cherry, and plum. There’s a light sweet vanilla that hugs the edges but allows the fruit to shine through.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

When the Moon Hits Your Eye – The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine

People think I'm Italian. I'm not. I’m something of a global mutt, but I do like to drink and write about Italian wines, and as a wine buyer, I’ve always had some cool Italian wines in my wine departments. For many people Italian wine is a confusing, convoluted subject. Just like France there are a myriad number of rules that govern what wines can be made with which grapes and what percentages, not to mention that some of the names are long, laborious, tongue twisters. Good for us that Dr. Wine has come out with yet another volume, the most comprehensive, about Italian wines. The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wines 2017, authored Daniele Cernilli, AKA Dr. Wine, breaks it all down. I recently had lunch with the Good Doctor in Santa Barbara, tasting through several Italian wines he was showcasing, and I can tell you firsthand, Doc knows his stuff. As a brief side note the eight wines he brought were terrific and I found two of them the 2016 Torre Rosazza Pinot Grigio, and the 2012 Velenosi Roggio del Filare (a blend of 70% Montepulciano and 30% Sangiovese) to both be exceptional.

Dr. Wine
The book is broken down by region, starting with Abruzzo and ending with Veneto. He discusses each region and gives specific detailed info on them, then lists the wineries as well as their best known wines, all rated by points, price and an overall star rating of the winery a, “historical evaluation based on the reliability and prestige of the winery.” As comprehensive as the book is, it is all text; you’re not getting pretty pictures and maps, sidebars of places to eat or anything else. You’re getting Italian wine. This also allows this tome to be so inexpensive for its size (over 500 pages). Every wine lover needs to know and understand the great wine regions of the world. Sure, this won’t make you an expert, but it will give clarity to Italy’s many growing regions and, better still, if you’re traveling in those regions, this will hone your visits to some of the best wineries they offer.

The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017
Published by MD Communications, Rome
581 pages/$20
Italian and English Versions

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Sacred and the Profane - Why Write About Wines You Cannot Try?

I am asked constantly about why I include tasting notes in articles I write about wines that most everyone will never be able to try, let alone afford. Valid question. For example at Champagne Bollinger in 2016 not only did I taste through an amazing lineup that included the highly regarded 1955 vintage, but also the 1928 and the 1914, and no, those are no longer on the market and you can't find them anywhere. Earlier this year I met with Rupert Symington and tasted through many of his Ports including the 1970 and 1980 Vintage Ports. In the last few weeks I sat down and tasted the 1975 Georges De Latour from BV and their 2013 Rarity - sold in magnum with only 1,500 bottles made (at $1,250 a magnum.)

I understand it is maddening for some people, but we are curious creatures. We possess a desire to know things; even things we have no intention of doing. It’s why we read about travel to places we probably will never visit, or watch TV specials about divers who uncover hidden treasures when we don't scuba dive, or look at our computer screens of images from far beyond space into distant galaxies where no human ever been.

We are creatures of habit, but more importantly we are creatures of curiosity. We want to feel like we are a part of something greater. I am part of a large wine community and I’m curious when my colleagues get to taste through Madeira from the late 1800s, or others are faced with a vertical of exclusive Napa Cabernets. I too drool over these experiences and I live vicariously through my friends who are wine writers, publishers, and sommeliers. Yes I am privy to some astonishing things, and many things I never get to try. Just because I will never drive a fancy high-performance vehicle doesn't mean I don't wonder what it might be like (I came close on the autobahn, but that was a rental car). It’s the same with wine.

So when it comes to the 2013 Kata Cabernet Sauvignon, the reality is most of you will never buy this at $165. Does that mean you’re not curious about it? Does it mean it should remain in the purview of the wealthy and exclusive? No, it should not. A little background: The fruit - 80% of which is Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% being Petite Sirah - comes from the Beckstoffer Bourn Vineyard in Saint Helena, which dates from 1872. Only 20 barrels of this were made.

It is as seductive, beguiling and moody as any wine I have come across. It offers typical Cabernet fruit (Napa typically provides rich dark berry fruit with secondary red fruit notes) but it is also wrapped in a cloak of noir-like elements - shadows and fog, light and dark, a sense of poetry, literally as Robert Louis Stevenson suggested, in the bottle. This is a wine to savor, one that transports you, carries you to another place, one that ignites the senses. Some wines do this. Most do not. The Kata Cab is truly a wonder. I hope that whatever opportunity comes your way - an amazing wine, a trip to faraway lands, coffee with an old friend - that you seize upon it. Our lives are often, at least partially, defined by these moments.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Catalina’s Cocktail – Buffalo Milk

There's always been talk about the buffalo that roam on Catalina Island, off California’s coast. No, they are not native to the Island, though that does sound romantic. 14 of them were brought over from Los Angeles for a film shoot in the 1920s, but like so many bit players they did not end up in the film. Also like bit players, they were left behind when the film wrapped and these 14 buffalo suddenly had a new home…on an island. So, what to do? Their numbers grew to about 500 at their peak and they were often in the downtown area of Avalon, at the beach licking the salt off the rocks and on the golf course. In fact, as local historian Michele Bestudik tells me, it used to be accepted that if your golf ball hit a buffalo patty during play, you were not penalized a stroke. So in Two Harbors, Catalina’s other port, in the mid 1970s, at the Harbor Reef Restaurant they came up with a drink to honor the buffalo and so Buffalo Milk was born. You can find it at Descanso Beach Club, as I did on a recent visit - 12 ounces of bliss for $12, as well as all over Avalon with some variation - some use real banana for example, others the liquid version of banana. Think of it as a White Russian smoothie and you get the idea. On a hot day this hits the spot and the concoction is well balanced with its various ingredients. Far too easy to drink (watch out for brain freeze) but wonderfully compelling, cooling and creamy, a few too many of these and you’ll be roaming with the buffalo. You won’t find this on the mainland, but you can make it at home. Here’s how.

Buffalo Milk
In blender add:
Half shot of Creme de Cocoa (dark or light)
Half shot of Kahlua (better still Patron Coffee Liqueur)
Half shot Creme de Banana
Full shot of vodka (I like Khortytsa from Ukraine, but Ketel One, and LA-based Loft & Bear would do nicely)
Add half and half, crushed ice and blend. Top with whipped cream and dust with nutmeg.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Apple of Your Eye: The Cider House-Rules

Wine, craft beer, artisanal spirits, and now cider is getting its spotlight. In her new book, Tasting Cider by Erin James and the magazine Cidercraft, James gives us the most comprehensive look at North American Cider. But cider is not a new trend. It’s an old drink, actually. As early as the 1620s the colonists were planting apple orchards for cider production and our Founding Fathers were all into cider including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin. Of course, cider is much older than its North American plantings, but this book focuses only on America and Canada.

There are at least 10,000, apple orchards in North America 7,500 of those in the U.S., cultivating over 200 varieties of apple, and James and her team provide a fairly comprehensive look at 100 ciders, be they dessert ciders, fruit infused ciders, hopped ciders, barrel aged, spiced and botanical additions to cider, and even what is known as perry - pear ciders. Though I have limited knowledge of ciders – I’ve written about some and brought some in to my wine department (including sidra from Spain, California ciders and a pretty cool rum barrel aged Canadian cider called “Prohibition” from Sea Cider), there is still much to learn (like that Johnny “Appleseed” was a real guy) and this book will flesh out what cider is all about. There are a multitude of profiles of cider makers both here in the US and Canada, 60 recipes for cocktails made with cider, and a whole section devoted to food pairings with ciders. So I recommend this as an addendum to wine, beer and spirits – a way to round out your knowledge and, hopefully inspire you to sample some ciders.

Tasting Cider
288 Pages
$19.95 Paperback

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Coming At You Like a Dark Horse

As a wine writer I’m fortunate to have tasted many incredible wines including expensive bottles as well as rare and unavailable - most recently Bollinger 1914 Champagne, Dow 1970 Vintage Port, 1975 Georges de Latour, etc. But wine is not just for the elite, the few who can afford it (well, to be honest, some of it is), it is a beverage, an agricultural product that is meant to be consumed, which is why just over 90% of all wine is consumed the day it is purchased. The majority of wines are inexpensive and a small majority of those are inexpensive but really good for the price. Case in point – DarkHorse 2016 Rose’. Though mass produced, Dark Horse is a blend of 48% Grenache, 16% Barbera, 13% Pinot Gris, 12% Tempranillo, and 11% “other varieties,” and it offers strawberry, and plum, Bing cherry, with a wisp of smoked paprika, and lime meringue. It’s not a complex wine, but not all wines are meant to be complex, just like not every burger you get is the mist killer burger ever. So this summer, may you get to sample some cool wines you may not typically have the chance to do, but may you also find wines like Dark Horse, which can be in your stable of weekly wines to drink at home.
ORIGIN: California
PRICE: $9/ 750ML

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Do Not Wine Alone: How PR and Winery Associations Improve Your Brand

The author (L) moderating a panel discussion on wine in Santa Rosa
Bill Gates once said, “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.” But does winery PR equate to return on investment?

With more than 8,000 wineries in the US alone can a winery stand out showcasing their wine and their story by hiring a winery PR firm? In our current age of free “immediate PR” via social media, is paying for winery PR becoming obsolete? To begin with, there are long standing traditional codes of conduct about how alcoholic beverages are advertised in the US and in 1972 The Wine Institute (TWI) developed a code of conduct. “Adhering to the Ad Code is a requirement of Wine Institute membership and members agree to comply,” says Gladys Horiuchi of TWI. The code states in part: “We have a right to advertise and promote our wines to consumers of legal drinking age. Along with this right comes the responsibility to market our wines in a responsible and appropriate manner. Wine advertising shall not: Use music, language, gestures, cartoon characters, or depictions, images, figures, or objects that are popular predominantly with children or otherwise specifically associated with or directed toward those below the legal drinking age, including the use of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.” So forget Santa drinking Sauvignon Blanc while the Easter Bunny binges on Bordeaux, you’ve still got to get your message out.

(L to R: Tim McDonald, Kimberly Charles and Sam Folsom)
Many wineries simply do not have an operating budget to pay a public relations firm. Medium sized houses certainly have more financial flexibility, but often the focus is putting earned money back into the wines. The top tier houses like Gallo, Bollinger, Treasury Wine Estates, for example, certainly have the capital but still no one likes to part with hard earned cash. And even though social media can be “free” it still requires guidance.

Like most wine PR firms Colangelo Partners, with offices in San Francisco and New York, focuses on four essential ideas according to Juliana Colangelo, West Coast Director and Senior Account Executive:
1. Media Relations: pitching writers’ stories about national and regional brands.
2. Events: Anything from small winemaker seminars to 500+ person trade and media shows.
3. Trade Relations: Sharing wines with sommeliers, beverage directors, bartenders, importers, distributors.
4. Marketing: Building websites, designing social media campaigns, TV, print, radio, etc.

Put another way, “Features, scores, awards, and accolades,” as Tim McDonald of Wine Spoken Here suggests. “Above all, we are storytellers,” says Sam Folsom founder of Folsom + Associates, based in San Francisco. “We help with positioning and message development. We write up backgrounder, bios, vineyard profiles, create targeted media lists for trade, consumer/wine, lifestyle, travel, and business.” And there’s more. As Kimberly Charles of Charles Communication suggests, “There’s also media training, speech writing, partnership marketing, special event creation and production, web content and strategy, benchmark tastings, video content.” And the list goes on.

Paying a PR firm means wineries expect tangible results - everyone wants ROI. But how is that measured? “By targeting specific audiences for localized campaigns and programs, we are able to see incremental lifts in sales in any given market where we focus our efforts,” says Senior Director of PR at Gallo, Kristina Kelley. And diversity of media outlets is crucial whether you are large or small. “We reach out to scoring publications with our luxury wines as the readership for those outlets are actively engaged in that category,” Kelley notes. “For a broader demographic, we take a different approach to the outlets we actively engage as the consumer base of products like Apothic, and Barefoot are more interested in an authentic experience that can be shared via social sites like Instagram and Facebook.” And as Kelley suggests, “We think podcasts are an increasingly valuable opportunity to reach a heavily engaged new audience.”

Every winery seeks to advance their message but unless that message is strategic it can get lost. Folsom + Associates has been in the wine PR game for over 30 years. “A PR firm can directly help sales when it generates a review or accolade that can be used as a selling tool in a sales presentation to distributors or accounts and when it prompts a consumer to buy,” says Sam Folsom. “Such credible, third party reviews have the added weight of implied endorsement – more so than a paid advertisement. More broadly, a well-executed public relations program can help build brand awareness and shape trade and consumer mindsets - which directly affects sales.” And sales are the name of the game. “A client often only sees a small part of the effort that goes into getting coverage, especially in a very competitive field,” suggests Kimberly Charles. “I think the most misunderstood part of the PR world is that it is often sacrificed first when a company is having financial challenges. That is often the time that you need an experienced communicator to help navigate misconceptions and to be sure it's you telling your story, not other parties.” The hard data? “Media impressions are vital to brand building and what we in PR actually accomplish is storytelling and ink procurement over time,” says Tim McDonald. “Sales sustainability, new distribution, and healthy depletions rely on PR to be successful in the long term.”

Joe Roberts of 1 Wine Dude educating wineries
But say you’re a small winery with extremely limited or no budget. What can you do? Obviously, word of mouth is important, as is the social media landscape. Facebook, for example, has some 50 million business accounts, and every winery should have an active account. But it’s less about the number of likes and shares and more about actively engaging with people who contact you. A Facebook “like” does not equate to a wine sale, it’s that simple and if that’s your goal, you’ll be sadly disappointed. As a wine writer however I can tell you that wines I’ve written about for national publications as well as a single Tweet have indeed translated to physical sales, but that is never a guarantee. However it’s not all that cut and dried and with limited money, what can you do with social media? “The problem with most wine brands is that if you tell them to, say, evaluate what percent of their customers respond to social, and dial-in a percentage of their media budget in accordance with that, they look at you like you have three heads and then don't do anything on social at all,” say Joe Roberts, of 1 Wine Dude who has innately understood the nuances of how social media is crucial, and one of the top wine bloggers on the planet. “If wineries do social the right way, then the money spent engaging with the bigger influencers online will almost certainly be very cost-effective,” he tells me.  But he’s also an advocate of balance between traditional media and social media. “Magazine features have a ton of value, though it will be shorter-lived. Social engagement will have less overt value, but it will be ‘sticky’ and will provide benefits for a long time with respect to Internet searches on your brand.” But even he acknowledges that many people have a hard time adapting to new PR methods. “I often start my speaking gigs by telling wine brands that they could have avoided hiring me if they'd listened to what I told them four years ago for free, which was to use social media to take control of their brand messaging. Wineries are used to being a few layers removed from consumers in one sense, especially in the USA being in 3-tier alcohol distribution system, so they willingly cede there power to influencers like me, in the hopes that we will tell their stories for them. But in another sense, they are great at dealing with consumers, from the tasting room side of things; and those same exact skills can be used to create and control their brand message on social media channels, so they can take some of that power back for low cost.” Linda Parker Sanpei of Parker Sanpei in San Luis Obispo agrees. “All social media has an audience, there’s a younger audience for Instagram, and a little bit older one for Facebook. It's a complicated wheel but it all equals PR. And we have to look at all opportunities be that interstitials on YouTube or a feature in a glossy magazine.”

Linda Parker Sanpei in her clients' (Allegretto Resort) wine room
And there is yet another avenue for PR via local wine trade associations. The Washington State Wine Commission, for example, runs a social media account across three main platforms - Facebook, Twitter and Instagram representing all 900 of their wineries and 350 growers. “Through these channels, we educate and engage, share photos and links about wine education, promote the Washington State wine industry and what makes it unique, including information about our AVAs and vineyards,” says Averyl Dunn, Communications Manager, Washington State Wine. Additionally, the Commission trains wineries so they can “use their own platforms the loudest,” Dunn says. And this is where many wineries fall short, not utilizing their association, or not comprehending the magnitude of social media to begin with. As evidence of this, Dunn provided me with the following growth in their profile with data from January – March/2017.
·         gained 7,452 new fans
·         interacted with 47K unique people
·         content reached 1.2 million people
·         content was seen/impressions 1.8 million times

·         gained 881 new followers
·         650+ people engaged
·         interacted with Twitter followers 5K times

·         gained over 1K new followers
·         engaged over 23K times

PR is a numbers game and there is no one correct way to accomplish your goals. What is needed is help – help to create a voice, build public opinion and increase brand loyalty, not to mention a willingness to be adaptable and learn new tricks, but also to be fearless. That is accomplished in a myriad number of ways – but you need to act. Bottom line? As Tim McDonald says, “The brands with the most friends win...we help brands make friends.”