Wine “Rock Stars” Headline International Wine Festival

Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset, courtesy of the Napa Valley Register

Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset, courtesy of the Napa Valley Register

Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset are inarguably the best known wine couple in the world. Their stories, separately and together, are inspiring and magical. As a very private couple who are parents of young twin daughters, they rarely appear together at public events. So it is truly special that they agreed to serve as co-chairs of this year’s 25th anniversary Cincinnati International Wine Festival.
imageThe Festival’s story is very compelling, enough to ignite Gallo’s and Boisset’s interest in leading the event March 4-7. Twenty-five years ago, Festival founder Russ Wiles decided it was time for Cincinnati to “kick it up a notch” on exposure to fine wines, and to do something good for the community at the same time. Thus was born a tradition of doing good while doing well, which has become one of the Midwest’s largest annual wine events. Over the past 24 years, the Festival has donated over $4.2 million to more than 30 local charities through a combination of the March Festival events and the Russ Wiles Memorial Golf Tournament held annually in June.

Tradition is something that Gina Gallo’s family knows quite well. In Europe it is not unusual for a sixth or seventh generation family member to take over the family enterprise as winemaker. In the U.S., where according to Time Magazine the wine industry only began to “explode” in the early 1970s, it is unusual to have even a second generation take over winery operations, never mind a third. And though the majority of winery inheritors are male, it is increasingly common for daughters and granddaughters to take the helm. In the forward to Women of the Vine written in 2007 by Deborah Brenner, Gallo posits that “(t)he world of wine is neither a man’s world nor a woman’s…as we enter a true Golden Age for wines, women are increasingly visible as leaders in every aspect of winegrowing and winemaking.”

Gina is a granddaughter of the late Julio Gallo, and great-niece of Ernest Gallo, brothers who started E. & J. Gallo wines in 1933. After first studying viticulture and enology at University of California (Davis), Gina became winemaker in 1991 for the Signature Series at what is today called the Gallo Family Vineyards. Her brother Matt has grown the winery’s grapes during that same period. With more than 70 brands from nine countries, Gallo is the world’s largest family owned winery, the largest exporter of California wine, and the largest winery in the United States. From Brenner’s interview with Gina Gallo: “I create wine, I absolutely love it, but the thing I love best is that at the end of the day you put that bottle on the table with family and friends.”

Current Generation Gallo Family (photo courtesy of

Current Generation Gallo Family (photo courtesy of

Creating an unusual story in tradition-steeped France, Jean-Charles Boisset is a second-generation winemaker, equally enterprising with global reach. His parents, Jean-Claude and Claudine, founded Boisett Family Estates in 1961 in the prestifious Gevrey-Chambertin commune of Burgundy.  Today, Jean-Charles is the president of the Boisset Collection which, in addition to the original Jean-Claude Boisset label, includes nine California properties such as Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery and Napa’s Raymond Vineyards, ten French still wine brands, and four French sparkling (cremant) brands. All of the family’s estate properties in Burgundy and California are farmed using organic and Biodynamic practices. “The Boisset Collection unites the old and the new worlds of wine with its Franco-American spirit and wineries on two continents.” (

Jean-Charles Boisset (photo courtesy of

Jean-Charles Boisset (photo courtesy of

The power couple, who met in 2006 and married in 2009, are clearly masters of their universes on two continents. When in France, they live in the famous village of Vougeot where Jean-Charles grew up, and in California, home is the sprawling property in Yountville with a lofty view of the Napa Valley built for wine pioneer Robert Mondavi.

(photo credit Sonoma Magazine)

(photo credit Sonoma Magazine)

I can’t wait to meet Gallo and Boisset in person! If you share my enthusiasm, please join me at the Cincinnati International Wine Festival where more than 600 wines from over 100 countries will be featured. Gold, silver and bronze medal winners from a juried tasting will be presented at the Grand Tastings on Friday and Saturday March 6 & 7. Advance tickets are on sale online until March 1 for the co-chairs dinner, winery dinners around town at 10 fantastic restaurants, grand tastings and Saturday morning’s charity auction (which includes a luncheon).

It’s for a great cause, and you’ll have a blast!

Cincinnati International Wine Festival

Contains Sulfites

Consumer warning: this is a lengthy article debunking the myths and legends of sulfites.

Let me cut to the chase and provide dessert before the entrée: unless you are asthmatic or one of the 1% club of people who have a bone fide sulfite allergy, it is highly unlikely that sulfites are the cause of your hangover or any other ill effects from drinking wine.

I will make this hypothesis: you like high alcohol wines, you perhaps drink too much wine in one sitting, and/or you tend to mix types of alcohol (including types of wine) in the course of an evening or event. Gotcha! Those choices are the real culprits. Oh yes, and if you think that red wines cause extra problems because of sulfites, you should know that they tend to have lower levels than white or sweet wines. And your theory about European wines having fewer sulfites because you can drink them without ill effects? As a general notion, it’s just not true. Wine made in Tuscany and sold in Italy is the exact same wine that is exported to the U.S. There’s only one difference in the U.S.: the bottle has the required warning “Contains Sulfites” on the back label.


Intrigued? Read on.

This is a complex topic, and I am keen to help simplify it. I cannot be the only reasonably well-educated wine-lover to get confused by the differences among sulfur, sulfur dioxide and sulfites, or about their health effects. Do they matter in the winemaking process? Sure, but why and how? Why is it that sulfites get blamed for many maladies and keep otherwise enthusiastic sippers away from vino?

For wine enthusiasts not terribly intrigued by the chemistry of wine, this analysis may be a bit of a rat-hole. But let’s level-set the chemistry backdrop.

Sulfur (or sulphur) is the tenth most abundant chemical element in the universe. Usually found in salt deposits, it is pale yellow, odorless and brittle. Because it existed naturally near volcanoes such as Pompeii, sulfur was known and used as a preservative in the winemaking process in ancient Roman times, but it was not officially named a chemical element until the 1770s.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) forms when fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil) are burned or sulfur-rich mineral ores (e.g., copper, zinc, lead, iron) are smelted. It can be deadly in high concentrations. Commercial SO2 is typically used as a bleaching agent, solvent, disinfectant and refrigerant. SO2 is also used to preserve fresh foods and as a preservative ingredient in processed foods such as jam, soda, canned soups and dried fruit.

dried fruit

Sulfite is a class of sulfur compounds. Because SO2 is one of the best known sulfur compounds, the terms “sulfur dioxide” and “sulfite” tend to be used interchangeably (and thus constitute the main source of consumer confusion).

To simplify things for the balance of this article, I am going to use primarily the compound name SO2 rather than the class name of sulfites. Please hang on to the truth that they are often used interchangeably (and at times incorrectly) in many references as one and the same.

Where does SO2 come from? Two sources: yeast and the winemaker. Some yeast is wild. It may be found in the vineyard on grapes and in the winemaking facility. Most commercial strains of yeast produce 10-30 ppm of SO2 during the normal process of alcoholic fermentation.

Why is SO2 added during the winemaking process? SO2 is considered to be the most important additive used in making wine. As author Jamie Goode describes it in the second edition of his book Wine Science, sulfur dioxide is the “chemical custodian” of wine. (I highly recommend this book as an excellent resource for both consumers and professionals, as it is written in a very approachable style.) SO2 acts a preservative in wine just as it does in solid food. It is both antimicrobial (kills bacteria and fungi) and antioxidant (inhibits the damaging effects of oxidation). The degree to which SO2 exists in finished wine is expressed as “parts per million” or ppm for short. (This is the exactly same liquid measure as milligrams per liter, or mg/l.)

Wine is inherently volatile due to many changes that occur from grape to glass. It can easily spoil from bacteria, turn to vinegar, or develop other faults during fermentation and aging. In Roman times, sulfur-based candles were burned in amphorae (aging vessels). This unnamed discovery stabilized and preserved the wines which were so popular two millennia ago. In modern times, winemakers employ a similar burning process, using SO2 to clean barrels. Sulfur dioxide is increasingly used to augment good cellar practices as part of a winery’s “housekeeping” regime to clean hoses, fermentation tanks, valves and other processing hardware.

When is SO2 added? SO2 is often added to protect and preserve the wine’s character, flavor and color. Among other things, it inhibits enzymes that cause browning, controls the balance of bacteria, controls wild yeasts from growing, helps to extract pigment making red wines “redder,” and prevents secondary fermentation in the bottle. The winemaker’s challenge is to use SO2 judiciously.

Sulfur dioxide can be added at four main stages in the winemaking process depending on the condition of the grapes and desired style of the finished wine:

  1. Arrival of fresh grapes to control wild yeasts and/or to protect the berries from disease as the surface is broken in the process of destemming and crushing the grapes.
  2. Beginning of alcoholic fermentation to prevent browning from oxidation and premature malolactic fermentation (MLF) for fruit-forward wine styles that are not intended to be barrel-aged.
  3. After MLF to achieve certain wine styles, and to preserve and stabilize the wine for barrel aging.
  4. Prior to bottling to support bottle aging.

How much SO2 is added, and why? What factors influence this decision? Two main factors influence how much SO2 should be added at any stage in the winemaking process to achieve antimicrobial and antioxidant goals. The proper conventional dose of SO2 is determined by a technical formula that maximizes the effects of SO2 in the context of alcohol by volume (abv) and pH level.

Alcohol by volume (abv) is the total percentage of ethanol (the type of alcohol in wine) expected in the finished wine. This measure matters because the higher the abv, the less SO2 protection is required. There is no longer a threat of secondary fermentation in the barrel or bottle, and ethanol enhances the bacteria-killing effects of SO2.

The pH scale, which ranges from 0-14, measures acidity (0-6) vs. alkalinity (8-14). Seven is considered neutral. The higher the pH, the more SO2 needs to be added to prevent MLF, Brettanomyces or other bacteria. Acidity (low pH) helps to keep those things under control.

While it may seem counterintuitive, for a quick pneumonic, remember these ratios. It is these ratios that matter.

  • higher pH = lower acidity (which needs more added SO2)
  • lower pH = higher acidity (needs less added SO2)
  • higher alcohol (and drier wine) = less need for SO2
  • lower alcohol (and sweeter wine) = more need for SO2

White wines tend to be higher in acidity than red wines, so applying this ratio, they should require less SO2. But that’s not usually the case. They actually require more SO2 because they are prone to oxidation. The more color in the grape pigment, and the longer the period of maceration (contact with skins and stems), the less added SO2 is needed. In most cases, red wines do not even need to have SO2 added because they contain these natural antioxidants, but conventional winemakers may still add it as a precaution. Additionally, higher pH wines (alkaline) made from very ripe red fruit to enhance youthful drinkability are more susceptible to bacteria, thus may require excessively high levels of added SO2. Wines with higher levels of residual sugar need more SO2 to prevent secondary fermentation. The typical order from most-to-least use of SO2 is as follows: sweet white dessert wines, blush and semi-sweet white wines, dry white wines, and dry red wines.

What happens to SO2 during the winemaking process?

The basic formula for sulfur dioxide in wine is this: total SO2 = bound SO2+ free SO2.

When SO2 is added to wine, it is initially “free” to serve intended antimicrobial and antioxidant purposes. Over time, a portion of the SO2 binds (or dissolves) with other components of the wine and is becomes inactive, undetectable to most people except the small percentage who are genuinely sensitive. Some proportion of the SO2 evaporates as gas, but the unbound portion remains “free,” continuing to work as an antimicrobial and antioxidant agent. Of the total SO2 in finished wine, 50-90% tends to be bound. The remaining 10-50% is active, or free. It is the only portion of the original dose of SO2 still actively working in the wine, and is thus the component most likely to have a negative impact on sulfite-sensitive wine drinkers.

Labeling Laws and Consumer Protection

It’s a conundrum. Labels are frankly not helpful. But how would a consumer know any of this?

All bottles of wine sold in the U.S. with more than 10 ppm of SO2, regardless of country of origin, must be labeled “Contains Sulfites.” By now you should be quite clear that this information borders on irrelevance. All wines will have at least this level of SO2, whether naturally from yeasts or added by winemakers. It simply isn’t a helpful warning.

In the United States, the Food & Drug Administration discovered nearly 30 years ago that about 1% of the population is severely allergic to sulfites, and that about 5-10% of people who have asthma are prone to having adverse effects from sulfites. This prompted the health warning label “Contains Sulfites” starting in 1987.

Why you may ask? Other countries do not do this. For example, SO2 limits vary in the European Union according to type of wine, from 160 ppm for red wine to 400 ppm for sweet wine, but the EU does not require this information to be disclosed on bottles sold/purchased in the EU.

My recommendation is to create a worldwide standard for sulfite content and labeling requirements that actually achieve the intended goal of health protection and education for the consumer. The warning “Contain Sulfites” is neutered by so many misunderstandings of its meaning.

The Bottom Line

If you are one of the rare people with a known sulfite allergy, or if you suffer from asthma plus sulfite sensitivities, please be careful. If you are not certain, do check with a physician who understands the nuances of this type of allergy. Sulfite reactions induce symptoms such as hives, itching, swelling, nausea, diarrhea and low blood pressure. Headaches and hangovers are another matter.

Choosing your wines carefully is another option. If you are particularly sensitive, look for “no sulfites added” on the label. Know your winemaker and his/her practices. (Ask if you aren’t sure – many winemakers can tell you the amount of sulfur dioxide added or the total ppm of SO2 in the finished wine.) Organic wines typically limit SO2 to 110 ppm or less, a good option for people with sulfite sensitivities. Biodynamic wines go a step further, typically building on organic farming and winemaking practices. This class of “natural” wines is an interesting subject unto itself.

And get to know your wine merchant. There’s no substitute for good advice in buying wine.

For everybody else? Don’t drink too much, choose wines that have a low-to-moderate alcohol level, and don’t mix too many different types of alcohol. Don’t buy cheap wine that may have been heavily processed unless you know how the wine was made. If SO2 is an aromatic annoyance, decant and chill the wine before serving. Wines served at warmer temperatures tend to release their free SO2 compounds, which can also be mitigated by chilling and decanting.

In Pursuit of More Knowledge

For another angle on this topic, please read the Vino Ventures blog post from July 2013 “I Can’t Drink Wine. It Gives Me a Headache.” In coming weeks, there will be more posts about natural wine trends, an exploration of various types of wood and toasts used in barrels for aging, and other influences on the overall wine experience.

The references used for this post are primarily secondary based on quality original source material.

  1. Butzke, Christian. “Use of SO2 in High-pH Wines.” Purdue University Extension. March 2010.
  2. Good, Jamie. Wine Science: The Application of Science in Winemaking, Second Edition. Octopus Publishing Group Ltd (Mitchell Beazley), 2014.
  3. Henderson, Pat. “Sulfur Dioxide: Science Behind this Anti-microbial, Anti-oxidant, Wine Additive.” Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal. Jan/Feb 2009.
  4. Jancou, Pierre. “Sulphites in wine.” Undated.
  5. Miller, Mike. “How SO2 and pH are Linked.” Undated.
  6. Robinson, Jancis et al. Oxford Companion to Wine.
  7. “The Bottom Line on Sulfites in Wine.” January 15, 2014.

Photo credits: http://www.practical;;

Washington Wine Vanguards

A lively session at the 2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, hosted by Jon Bonne and Eric Asimov, inspired a maelstrom of chatter on social media and a verbal boxing match. The session frame was simple and elegant: introduce writers to California winemakers who are experimenting in a “back to the future” movement with old world grapes in new world settings. Reactions spewed all over the place, especially as they reached three and four degrees of separation from the actual event. Were all of the wines outstanding? Perhaps not. Were they all interesting, and an important lesson in exploring possibilities, absolutely!!

To my great delight, I discovered that the innovative and entrepreneurial winemaker movement is alive and well in Washington State. Seattle is the host location for the 38th annual conference of the Society of Wine Educators. So what to do upon arrival from Cincinnati? Take a short walk to the Purple Cafe & Wine Bar for some Washington wines!

Washington Vanguard Wine Flight - Purple Cafe & Wine Bar, Seattle WA

Washington Vanguard Wine Flight – Purple Cafe & Wine Bar, Seattle WA

Purple Cafe & Wine Bar is well known in the Seattle area (4 locations) for its extensive wine list, and especially for featured flights of wine. My selection, “Washington Vanguards,” included Gruner Veltliner, Aligote and Picpoul paired with a citrusy, floral and suitably acidic Humboldt Fog goat cheese. All three winemakers have been in business less than a decade, quite remarkably surviving the economic downturn during 2008-09. All three wines were vintage 2013.

W. T. Vintners was founded in Woodinville in 2007 by three families, the Whites (two generations) and Thorsens. Winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen is also wine director at the San Francisco-based Mina/Paar restaurant RN74 in Seattle. In addition to stints working vineyards in New Zealand, Burgundy and the Pacific Northwest, Jeff won the 2008 Pacific Northwest Super-Regional Best Young Sommelier Competition and competed as a finalist in the national competition hosted by La Chaine des Rotisseurs International Food & Wine Society (of which I am a member).

Gruner Veltliner is one of four wines made by W. T. Vintners, a notable exception since the other three are Rhone varieties. From the red volcanic/clay loamy soals of Underwood Mountain Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA, the 2013 Gruner was fermented in both stainless and neutral oak. In a blind tasting, this wine could easily have been mistaken for an Austrian gem from Wachau. Notes of green apple, meyer lemon, underripe peach, nectarine, distinct minerality and a spicy vegetal note paired perfectly with the Humboldt Fog cheese.

The Bartholomew Winery is a self-described “Seattle urban winery” launched in 2007 by Bart and Chona Fawbush. With no formal training or experience in the wine business, the Fawbushes decided in 2004 to own a winery. Although this maiden attempt didn’t work out, they applied their learning to create the new winery operation in 2007 followed by a tasting room and wine club in 2010. The fruit for their Aligote — better known as the second white wine of Burgundy (if it is known at all) — came from the Upland Vineyard in Snipes Mountain, a sub-AVA of the Columbia Valley region.

Only 145 cases were made of the 2013 Aligote. On its own, the wine was a juicy melange of stone-fruit aromas and flavors tinged with a hint of melon and chalky limestone. It was tasty, but seemed to call out for a food partner. Indeed, the cheese lifted the flavors of the wine to a new level, luring thoughts of how this particular Aligote might work with other pairing options.

Gramercy Cellars was founded in 2005 by Greg Harrington, MS, and his wife Pam to specialize in Rhone and Bordeaux varieties. Greg is Seattle Magazine’s 2014 Winemaker of the Year. The Harringtons both grow and source fruit. They were buying fruit from a grower who had a small plot of Picpoul on the edge of a larger planting of Grenache. They decided to give the Picpoul a try before grubbing up the vines to plant more Grenache. The Picpoul plants had been imported from Chateau Beaucastel by Tablas Creek (based in Paso Robles). Perhaps if they had known how spectacular the result would be, the Harringtons might have given that plot a second try! Instead, the 2013 Picpoul will be Grammercy Cellars’ only vintage. So sad…

In Greg Harrington’s own words, the “Picpoul is an acid monster” — so true, and totally to my taste — with aromas and flavors of “lemon, lime, grapefruit, mineral, brine, white flowers and green herb.” The Humboldt Fog cheese actually moderated the acidity in the wine, another perfect match.

Imitation is the finest form of flattery…

Sublime. That exquisite moment when the first nibble of a perfectly prepared dish melds in layers of flavor with the first sip of a gorgeous wine. It’s an art, and yet a science, the joyful experience of pairing wine with food.

Few chefs can resist the temptation to tart up a dish with multiple ingredients of herbs, spices, rubs, sauces, fruit, salt, sweet and more. Their theory seems to be that more is better. I disagree. Less is more, especially if what you have in mind to do is showcase a particular style of wine with a dish to create that magical sensation that echoes the marriage between them.

Chef Jeremy Luers gets this point. He landed as executive chef at The Presidents Room at The Phoenix, which reopened in May after a five-year hiatus to sit out the economic recession and await the renaissance of nearby Over-The-Rhine. He’s cooked in many kitchens, in Cincinnati and New York, but now Chef Luers is in charge. After a stint at 1215 Wine Bar, Daniel Souder joined the team as wine and beverage director. On the ides of July, Luers and Souder were joined by Master Sommelier Matt Citriglia for a five-course German wine dinner.

Chef Jeremy Luers and Matt Citriglia, MS, join forces to create a perfectly paired German wine dinner.

Chef Jeremy Luers and Matt Citriglia, MS, join forces to create a perfectly paired German wine dinner.

With each course, it became more and more clear that this collaboration was electric. Chef Luers developed the menu first, sharing intimate details of the ingredients for each simple but elegant course with Matt Citriglia. With clear flavor profiles in mind, knowing that most wine enthusiasts don’t really understand German wines, Matt selected wines he knew would draw out the essence of every dish’s distinct personality. The connection was palpable.

In a fun lesson supported by excellent educational materials for the wine educators, beverage directors and somms in the room, Matt walked through the science of food and wine complementarity — the importance of matching residual sugar, fruitiness, texture, body — and he chipped away at unfortunate American misperceptions about cloyingly sweet German whites wines. Dispelling a common myth: “Historically, Germany has always produced and consumed dry wine.” Yet international export markets continue to clamor for sweet wines. Not this crowd!!

This was a very special wine dinner, but Cincinnati diners, do not despair! The Choucroute Garnie Royale, a famous Alsatian recipe for preparing deeply flavored sauerkraut with a selection of sausages (plus spareribs and pork belly in this case), is on the regular Presidents Room menu. This dish was paired beautifully with a single-vineyard Pfeffingen Riesling from the Pfalz region. I can’t wait to go back.

Scallop Crudo with Silvaner; Sweet Corn Agnolotti with Pinot Blanc; and for dessert, Cambozola Cheesecake with a Scheurebe BA

Scallop Crudo with Silvaner; Sweet Corn Agnolotti with Pinot Blanc; and for dessert, Cambozola Cheesecake with a Scheurebe BA

Visit The Presidents Room at The Phoenix, 812 Race St. Call (513) 721-2260 for reservations Wednesday through Saturday.

Sassy Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc
A group of 10 Cincinnati women who are wine lovers have enthusiastically embraced the “wine school” challenge issued three months ago by Eric Asimov and The New York Times. The gatherings are so popular that husbands and friends have clamored to expand “Femmes du Vins” to “Femmes et Hommes du Vins.”

After a safe start with red Bordeaux, followed by a surprising theme of Cru Beaujolais, the third class featured a personal favorite: Sancerre. A beautiful hilltown capping the eastern edge of the Loire Valley, Sancerre is arguably the spiritual home of Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are aromatic, with recognizable yet distinctive chalky and mineral notes, typically light and refreshing, pleasing alone or with food, and an absolute point of passion for people who love wine with an acidic tinge.

Since all of us original “Femmes du Vins” like to color outside the lines, we couldn’t help but expand class boundaries. Our favorite wine of the evening was a white Bordeaux, which ties as #1 spiritual home for Sauvignon Blanc even though it is always blended with Semillon (and at times Muscadelle). But since Sauvignon Blanc is grown everywhere in the world, to varying degrees of success, we felt compelled to explore New World selections as well.

Sancerre is at the eastern edge of the Loire Valley.

Sancerre is at the eastern edge of the Loire Valley.

Sancerre is a compact, action-packed appellation, not even 10k wide and barely that long. Fourteen villages and three hamlets have the right to use the appellation name. Three key vineyard areas distinguished by type of soil surround the main village of Sancerre. Given the amount of global information one must remember for certifiable wine geekery, these three sub-areas of Sancerre are not necessarily memorable. But they are important, so here we go. Chene Marchand, in the village of Bue, produces a refined style of Sancerre owing to mineral-laden soil of limestone and pebbles. Montes Damnes, in the village of Chavignol, offers a broader, more full-bodied style of wine. “Terres blanches,” a white soil mixture of clay and limestone known as Kimmeridgian marl, is the distinctive influence here. The third region, Menetreol, is known for sturdy, steely age-worthy wines made from vines grown in silex (flint, clay) soil. A distinctive “gunflint” essence is known as pierre a fusil in French.

Tasting notes for four selections of Sancerre tasted in order from lowest (12.5%) to highest (13%) alcohol content:

Gerard Boulay (2012) produces wines in Chavignol. In the Times article “Listening to Sancerre Tell its Story,” it was Eric Asimov’s favorite. We liked it too, declaring it a nice, drinkable sipper of a rather indistinct international style. But we didn’t think it was classic Sancerre, and found it to be less food-friendly than other selections. Chalk, citrus and herbal notes were restrained; a bit of honey on the nose and melon on the palate; tertiary aromas of white flowers. 12.5% abv

Domaine Andre Neveu (“Le Manoir” 2011, not on the Times list) is also produced in Chavignol. It offered up distinct chalky aromas reminiscent of Savenniere and Chenin Blanc in the middle Loire Valley. One year older than our other selections, the Neveu wine had more body and less acidity, and perhaps a little residual sugar, with green notes of asparagus and gooseberry skin. With food, especially goat cheese but even with asparagus quiche, the wine’s acidity came into even greater balance. 12.5% abv

Robert Parker calls Franck & Jean-Francois Bailly one of Sancerre’s best producers. Making wines since early 20th century, the family owns vineyards in all three of Sancerre’s premier vineyard areas. The (2012) was all about big citrus, green dried herbs. It was very fresh (but not grassy), and relatively low acidity. In the ultimate test of goat cheese vs. asparagus, the Humboldt Fog cheese definitely won! 13% abv

Lucien Crochet La Croix du Roy (2012) was an interesting selection, very full-bodied, owing in part to terroir and in part to style (unfined and unfiltered). Sourced from several parcels, the cuvee is described by Rosenthal Wine Merchant as the most masculine of Lucien Crochet’s Sancerre selections. On the palate, the wine was rich and round, a hint of spices (clove and jalapeno pepper). Although it decidedly failed the asparagus test, the wine was perfect with a lemony dish of shrimp and cannellini beans. 13% abv

And now for the white Bordeaux and three New World selections in the order we decided to taste them, again based on stated alcohol content:

Geisen (2012) is a large producer of New Zealand wines. Although the winery is physically located in Canterbury, southwest of Christchurch, the grapes for this wine are from Marlborough which is broadly considered to be the best growing region for Sauvignon Blanc and perhaps the world’s second spiritual home for the grape. We thought this wine was typical for inexpensive New Zealand SB. It had a strong, pungent nose — over-the-top ripe grapefruit, green pepper and gooseberry skin. There was no real depth to the body or finish. 12.5% abv

Steenburg (2012) is one of the most important wineries in the Constantia region of South Africa just south of Cape Town. It was part of the original farm developed by South Africa’s first governor, Simon van der Stel, in 1865. This very special bottle was transported to Cincinnati in December 2013 by a dear friend who is South African. Unfortunately, the bottle was off, having experienced a bit of reduction, so we were not able to evaluate it. Having visited this winery myself in October 2013, however, I can attest that the winemaker blends several parcels from the estate to achieve an interesting and delicious mix of classic flavors ranging from flinty to gooseberry to tropical fruit. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find in the U.S.

Andre Lurton “Chateau La Louviere” (2010) was an exquisite wine, showing clearly the ways in which Semillon (10%) contributes to Sauvignon Blanc at its finest. From the Graves region of Bordeaux, this complex wine exhibited honeysuckle, acacia flowers, beeswax — crisp citrus, floral and mineral notes. 13.5% abv (This bottle was approximately $50, but Lurton also makes delicious lower priced wines from Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers including Chateau Bonnet, which also contains a component of Muscadelle for further flavor experimentation.)

David Coffaro (2012) started out growing grapes for Gallo, and in 1994 decided to start making wine himself. Vineyards are located in the Dry Creek area of Sonoma, CA. Coffaro is experimenting with Italian and obscure French grape varieties, generating a diverse array of wines. This SB offering was “flabby” — too much body, not enough acidity. It was a pleasant enough, varietally correct, wine with notes of grapefruit rind and a hint of candied ginger. abv 13.6%


Selection of goat cheese, asparagus quiche, salmon & scallop cakes, shrimp & cannellini beans

Selection of goat cheese, asparagus quiche, salmon & scallop cakes, shrimp & cannellini beans

A selection of goat cheeses will always be a hit with Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere in the world. Although we were not able to locate Chavignol for our class, the most famous goat cheese of the Loire Valley is one of several important French cheese appellations.

Quiche made with fresh asparagus and peas, diced tomatoes, Gruyere cheese and fresh thyme is a great pairing to offer lessons in what works (and doesn’t!). The egg base of the quiche worked well with the more acidic wines, not so well with the ones that were more full-bodied. The same was true of the asparagus and peas. The Gruyere cheese and thyme worked well across all selections.

Salmon and scallop cakes, colorfully dotted with yellow and red peppers, were excellent with all selections. A home-made green goddess style sauce was a true enhancement with the more full-bodied wines.

Shrimp and cannellini beans, tossed in a mixture of lemon, garlic, olive oil and thyme, also worked well with all of the wines. At least one ingredient of this dish found an accentuating flavor match with every wine.

Never underestimate the power of a host (or guest) to add an element of surprise that makes the wine and food experience even more memorable. Guenter Matthews, pictured below, is a talented organist who regaled our tasting group with a rousing concert on his own organ in his own home!!

Top L: Guenter Matthews with World Atlas of Wine; Bethanie Butcher turning pages for organist Guenter Matthews; the Sancerre tasting group.

Top L: Guenter Matthews with World Atlas of Wine; Bethanie Butcher turning pages for organist Guenter Matthews; the Sancerre tasting group.

With great affection for wine (and the readers of Vino Ventures), from the Femmes du Vins: Kathy Merchant, Amy Neyer, Laura Landoll, Mary Horn, Laura Ginn, Bethanie Butcher, Joanna Argus Kirkendall Susan Zaunbrecher, Jodi Geiser and Reeta Brendamour (plus Guenter Matthews and Don Zaunbrecher)

Photo credits: Sauvignon Blanc, Wine Folly; Map of Loire Valley,; food images,,,

Taste of Premiere Napa Valley

Map of Napa Valley courtesy of

Map of Napa Valley courtesy of

Fair warning to readers: this is a long piece including lists/descriptions of 36 wines.

There are a bewildering number of wineries to choose from in Napa Valley. They fit neatly together like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, aligned in tightly woven vineyard ribbons lacing Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, along the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains. It’s no small wonder that it takes work – joyful as it may be! – to understand the scope of this complex and diverse American Viticultural Area (AVA or appellation) covering less ground than 1/8 of Bordeaux.

Betting on the notion that a better-educated wine trade would help consumers sort through Napa’s prolific bounty, Napa Valley Vintners Association (NVV) created Premiere Napa Valley nearly two decades ago. As the Premiere event got legs, NVV added events for wine educators and sommeliers. Each year, the wine trade descends upon Napa Valley in droves during the third week in February to revel in all that is glorious about Napa Valley.

Whether you love sun-kissed “big fruit” or more restrained old-world styles of wine, enjoy this delicious sip of Napa Valley taken February 20-22, 2014!

The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers was founded a decade ago by some of the country’s leading food and wine writers in partnership with NVV, The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and the Meadowood resort. Each year, generous Napa Valley vintners sponsor fellowships for 12-15 writers chosen by an independent panel of judges. The warm companionship between winemaking and wine writing is celebrated during a special dinner at Meadowood on the eve of Premiere weekend.

Symposium for Professional Wine Writers Fellows Dinner at Meadowood

Symposium for Professional Wine Writers Fellows Dinner at Meadowood

2004 vintage wines shared by sponsoring wineries at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

2004 vintage wines shared by sponsoring wineries at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

Because this was the Symposium’s 10th anniversary, each sponsoring winemaker provided a 2004 library wine. One can only hope that some of these 15 wines are waiting patiently in your cellar! But don’t despair – the fellowship sponsors are among Napa Valley’s finest winemakers, so enjoy their more recent vintages available in the market. [alpha winery listing, AVA, grape]

1. BOND “Vecina,” Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
2. Chimney Rock Winery “Elevage,” Stags Leap District, Red Blend
3. Far Niente, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
4. The Hess Collection Winery, Mt. Veeder, Cabernet Sauvignon
5. Hourglass, St. Helena, Cabernet Sauvignon (2010)
6. Mount Veeder Winery Reserve, Napa Valley, Red Blend
7. PEJU Reserve, Rutherford, Cabernet Franc
8. Plumpjack Winery Estate, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
9. Raymond Vineyards “Generations,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
10. Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
11. Saintsbury, Los Carneros, Chardonnay
12. Shafer Vineyards “Hillside Select,” Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon
13. Silverado Vineyards “SOLO,” Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon
14. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “CASK 23,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
15. Tres Sabores, Rutherford, Zinfandel

So is it hardship duty for the trade to taste wine at 9:00 am? Perhaps. I read more than one Tweet and Facebook post pondering the state of our collective health. “Sip, swish and spit” skills are mandatory.

The Premiere weekend launched into high gear on Friday morning with a very special tasting opportunity. A multi-vintage perspective included young wines from 2009, 2010 and 2011. A retrospective tasting of library wines from 1984, 1994 and 2004 offered the rare opportunity to experience vintages chosen for decennial rhythm rather than ratings. Most of the library wines were Cabernet Sauvignon (or Cab-predominant blends). Looking back, the top professional raters gave the 1984 vintage a 92-94 score (with differing views on whether this vintage is likely past its peak, so give it a try); 95-97 for the 1994 vintage (definitely drink now); and 91-95 for 2004 (drink now or hold).

It was impossible to do justice to all 39 young and library wines in the allotted two hours, so of the 26 library wines I tasted, these were my top five:

1984 Sterling Vineyards Reserve Merlot was quite washed out in color, but the fresh aroma was medium+ with plenty of fruit; soft tannins, medium+ body and intensity; a balanced wine. Hurry up!

1994 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was fresh and clean; nice complexity of vibrant black fruit, violets and brown baking spices from oak influence; soft tannins, long finish. Drink now.

1994 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon presented a soft copper tinge in the glass, but despite a slight overtone of alcohol on the nose, on the palate the wine was soft and complex with notes of cedar along with dark fruits. Drink now.

2004 ERBA Merlot was characterized by a very long finish, a pleasant quaffable wine with velvety tannins and medium+ intensity of aromas and flavors. Drink now.

2004 Corison Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was clearly young and fresh compared to the older library wines, but definitely a balanced wine with well-integrated tannins; complex red and black fruits, medium+ intensity. Drink now or hold.

Tim Mondavi, Continuum winery, and Kathy Merchant at the Pritchard Hill Premiere Preview Party

Tim Mondavi, Continuum winery, and Kathy Merchant at the Pritchard Hill Premiere Preview Party

Premiere Preview Parties moved into high gear at about noon and carried on into early evening with sneak peeks of the 2012 vintage wines that would be auctioned the following day. (Please stay tuned for an in-depth look at wines from four of Napa Valley’s 16 AVAs tasted during preview parties: Oak Knoll, Pritchard Hill, Spring Mountain and Stags Leap.)

On Saturday morning, the Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Tasting and Auction event machinery worked smoothly to transport hundreds of people from remote parking to The Culinary Institute at Greystone and get them checked in for the barrel tasting and auction. On the second floor, 225 stations were ready to roll for the brisk three-hour marathon tasting of 2012 barrel samples, already being touted as “very good to excellent” vintage overall. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

Premiere Napa Valley 2012 barrel tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone

Premiere Napa Valley 2012 barrel tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone

First, a bonus note about my permanent “best of show.” Keever Vineyards, owned since 2003 by Bill and Olga Keever and their children Jason and Ashley, has been a favorite wine of mine for many years. Their winemaker Celia Welch is a rock star in Napa Valley. Often impatient for that “drink now” moment to arrive, I have managed to preserve a Keever library of wines from 2006-2009. Growing in popularity, their 2010 vintage sold out in three months, but it is possible to taste the 2011 vintage at the winery in advance of release and get on the list for annual wine allocations.

Wine writers who attended the Symposium were asked by NVV to taste 14 randomly selected wines, choose a favorite, and write a note about the wine and/or winemaker. These notes will be compiled and published soon in the St. Helena Star.

In the meantime, here are my notes on the top five 2012 barrel samples from Lots 113-126, along with a list of the other wines, all in order of personal preference:

1. Robert Keenan Winery (Spring Mountain) took a unique twist for Premiere Napa Valley with a mouth-watering “A Nod to History” Zinfandel blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc (10% each) as well as whiffs of Carignane and Alicante. Aged primarily in neutral oak, this special heritage blend offered bright cherry and raspberry notes. Nils Venge, consulting winemaker. [Lot 120]

2. Harbison Estate Wines (Oakville) “The Trail” Cabernet Sauvignon. Owned by Joe and Pat Harbison, the new winery produced its first vintage in 2008. Already receiving top scores from Wine Advocate – 96 points for the 2011 and a tentative score of 100 points for the 2012 – Harbison wines look to be on the way to cult status, but still under $200. Even in its youth, the barrel sample was refined and elegant with an even finish across the palate. He said: “anybody can make a big ass wine.” She said: “it takes finesse to go with food.” Russell Bevan, winemaker. [Lot 121]

Joe and Pat Harbison of Harbison Wine Estate

Joe and Pat Harbison of Harbison Wine Estate

3. Paradigm Winery (Oakville) Cabernet Sauvignon is small-production (5,000 cases). One third of the property’s 55 acres of grapes are used to make Paradigm wine, and the rest of the fruit is sold to Nickle and Nickle. With delicate floral and herbal aromas yielding to rich fruit and earthy flavors, this wine strikes a balance between feminine and masculine styles; long aging potential. Heidi Peterson Barrett, winemaker. [Lot 119]

4. Ehlers Estate (St. Helena) “Block 4” Cabernet Sauvignon is a spicy wine with beautiful, soft tannins. Ehlers Estate wines are generally 75% new French oak, though winemaker Kevin Morrisey may shift some of the juice to neutral barrels to avoid excessive oak influence. [Lot 115]

5. Barbour Wines (St. Helena) “Man Cave Blend” Cabernet Sauvignon. A perfect specimen of “medium plus” intensity wine in every regard – color, aroma, body and aging potential. Owner Jim Barber says his wine style is “whatever Celia says” about the fruit each year. Celia Welch, winemaker. [Lot 122]

6. Frias Family Vineyard (St. Helena) Cabernet Sauvignon. Todd Heth, winemaker. [Lot 113]

7. Erba Mountainside Vineyards (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon. Luc Morlet, winemaker. [Lot 118]

8. Cakebread Cellars (Napa Valley) “Suscol Springs and Arroyo Creek Vineyards” Cabernet Sauvignon. Julianne Laks, winemaker. [Lot 124]

9. Neal Family Vineyards (Rutherford) Chardonnay. Gove Celio, director of winemaking. [Lot 114]

10. Aloft Wine (Howell Mountain) Cabernet Sauvignon. Angelina Mondavi and Thomas Brown, winemakers. [Lot 117]

11. Rocca Family Vineyards (Yountville) “Row 57 Old Vines” Cabernet Sauvignon. Paul Colantuoni, winemaker. [Lot 116]

12. Purlieu Wines (St. Helena) “Cachere Cabernet Sauvignon. Julien Fayard, winemaker. [Lot 123]

13. Hewitt Vineyard & Provenance Vineyards (Rutherford) “Cab Meets Cab Franc” Red Wine. Chris Cooney and Tom Rinaldi, winemakers. [Lot 125]

14. Vineyard 29 (St. Helena) “St. Helena Special” Cabernet Sauvignon. Philippe Melka, winemaker. [Lot 126]

Robert M. Parker Advocates for Civility in Wine Writing

Robert Parker chatting with wine writers after addressing the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

Robert Parker chatting with wine writers after addressing the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

Videos, verbatims and viscissitudes have been flying through the blogosphere from many of the wine writers who attended last week’s annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers held at Meadowood in Napa Valley. For your reading pleasure, I recommend posts by Alder Yarrow (Vinography), David White (Terroirist), Fred Swan (Norcalwine), Richard Jennings (RJonWine), Bill Ward (Decant This) and others who will no doubt weigh in on the conversation in coming days and weeks.

Despite significant physical challenges owing to recent back and knee surgeries, and literally on his way to China to help educate the newest wine frontier, Parker spent a full hour engaging in dialogue with fellow wine writers. Throughout the exchange, he pleaded for greater civility in wine writing and criticism. It was perhaps not surprising. Arguably one of the most important wine writers in the past 30 years — if not the most important — Parker has been an obvious and easy target, the object of much vitriol in the press.

His point was a simple one: it’s okay to disagree, but with civility. “Wine is something that brings people together” — or should, he argues. Parker encouraged original wine writing, noting that much of what is written for social media is derivative. “The idea of giving content away is crazy when people are willing to pay for informed, independent perspective. People do want to read tasting notes. They want to read a description, some kind of guidepost about what you think even if you don’t agree.”

He acknowledged that the world of wine, and of wine writing, is very competitive and invites criticism that unfortunately veers into incivility. Even so, Parker advises wine writers for whom he wishes great success to “stand up for what you believe in. Live and let live. Don’t worry about the fallout.”