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BlindA vintage change was the only thing different about the Luigi Buadana Chardonnay hailing from the Langhe in Piemonte that I sipped and spat at a Tuesday Chardonnay tasting, rediscovering a wine that had been good to me in the past. I had last tasted the 2010 vintage with the importer at my retail post, finding it particularly attractive for its freshness and bright flavor profile, before experiencing the latest release (2011) in a blind trial with my group.

Buadana It rounded the table cloaked in a double paper bag, deep in the lineup (number five of seven Chardonnay we would taste), that immediately struck me with its vibrancy of fruit on the nose and palate. Chardonnay isn’t an aromatic varietal, but this Italian white was bordering on medium-plus intensity with a youthful bouquet of lemon curd, citrus blossoms, tropical nuance and underlying salinity (mineral quality). From the perfume to the palate the wine was exciting and it made me break form, asking if the rest of the group was similarly affected. Met with a stoic response, I carried out penning my notes—possessing a medium body, medium alcohol (well integrated), medium-plus acidity, medium-plus flavor intensity that followed the tantalizing scent, carrying long (medium-plus finish) with its strong aromatic presence.

While we tasted many nice examples of Chardonnay, globetrotting from New to Old World benchmarks, I was astounded, again, by the quality and liveliness of Luigi Buadana’s Chardonnay. Best yet, was that it was in the blind tasting setting, free from influence of label or region, that the wine conveyed its merit. Hands down my favorite Chardonnay of the night.

I didn’t pay close attention to the invite before attending, and walked into the swanky west side digs of Mercato di Vetro, ready to taste a broad assortment of wines at a trade show last week. To my chagrin, it was a Cabernet only event. I wandered the gauntlet of fine red wines, oblivious on the first lap through the restaurant. Head in the clouds, wearing a curious look, until I gathered that the tasting would make it a big red day, and then finally got it. Oh!

Tables lined with broad-shouldered bottles sourced from Napa Valley and afar, flaunting tongue-shattering tannins and ripe fruits as far as I could see. I knew I would be lucky to make it through thirty wines before my tongue was caput. Picking a table at random I began my flight in Argentina and worked my way up to the sub-appellations of Napa Valley.

There were more than a few stellar Cabernets in the house like the polished Reynolds Family reds and the seductive tobacco-heavy reserva Cabernet from Bodega y Cavas de Weinert (definite blog fodder). I nerded out with that earthy Argentine Cab before coming to, with the final bottle of my tasting—a 2008 Brookman Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon—that was without an apparent dance partner.

Nobody to sing its praises, the dense seven-fifty was alone at an unmanned table. with an inspiring label depicting the western range of Mayacama Mountains and a big nose of blackberry, cherry, leather, vanilla and mocha seeping from the glass as I poured. Textbook! A luscious berry attack, balanced by its restrained oak and sumptuous weight on the tongue. The rich flavors stayed with me as I walked out the door.

Surprising and unexpected, I found myself fawning over more than the brunette (acting floor manager) who worked there, taking home a renewed appreciation for some affordable Napa Cabernet producers ($40-50), as well as a pleasant introduction to an Argentine dynamo. I wasn’t ready for the Cabernet tasting at the onset, but left happier because of it.

Improving one’s skills in the wine world means tasting more wines. On the advice of a wine rep/importer I created a tasting group modeled after his, with a smattering of different professionals from the far reaches of LA who shared the same desire to learn more. Connected through a friend, we were half buyers and half reps, we encamped around a table for a scheduled Tuesday night tasting.

The overarching benefit of a tasting group is exposure—not only an introduction to unfamiliar wines (hopefully), but connections and friendships that seem to transcend the gatherings. It was the entire package that made the idea of orchestrating a tasting group so alluring and I looked forward to hosting my own.

We were an eclectic group, representing some diverse portfolios in Los Angeles; the initial gathering was meant for us to find a way to conduct further tastings.

Off to a good start, two reps, unfamiliar to me, were the first to arrive at my apartment ahead of schedule. Wine in hand, we introduced ourselves and proceeded to open the bottles for our preliminary tasting. On hand we had half old world and half new world wines beginning with a 2009 Brezza Nebbiolo from Langhe, a 2007 Bussola Ca’ del Laito Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore, a 2004 Red Car Syrah “The Fight,” and a 2008 Mauritson RockPile “Buck Pasture” Red Wine as one member brought food to help ease along the Italian wines and satiated palates.

The five of us sat behind our Riedel stemware and got started. The Valpolicella was first on the chopping block. With a combination of primary red and black fruit the wine was still in infancy, but considered off a pop-n-pour, our first wine, coming from probably the most notable producer of the night, was showing well.

We left the Veneto, heading west to Piedmont to sample the 2009 Brezza Nebbiolo. As we swirled the medium deep ruby contents in our stemware vigorously, discussing the format of future tastings, we agreed upon blind tastings in a set category—like Riesling—and observing a price point ($25-$35). We sipped the red with the option of spitting.

Brezza was new to me; the Italian producer had been around since the end of the 19th century, cranking out an interesting assortment of wines. The bottle was youthful, dry on the palate with notes of red cherries atop savory undertones of herbs and fungi. The Nebbiolo exhibited medium-plus tannins (round), taut acidity and was medium-full while possessing a tightrope walker’s balance.

We stayed on the Brezza a little longer, extracting the most from the glass that was possible before auditioning the domestic reds of Sonoma County. We started with the 2004 “The Fight” Syrah. Dark garnet with little sign of aging in our glassware—no bricking detected on the rim of the wine. Developing on the nose with a lot of blueberry and blackberry up front, while dark chocolate, vanilla and some black pepper could be sniffed out on the tail end, the wine was dry on the tongue with an overabundance of rich fruit and spicy notes in the Syrah’s full frame. The Fight left us with a generous finish that would be hard to say was not enjoyable though not sufficiently nerdy as a developing St. Joseph from the Northern Rhône.

The final wine (the 2008 Mauritson Rockpile “Buck Pasture” Red Wine) was chock-full of fruit and wood spice and still in the early stages of maturation. Heavy-set but not without definition (full bodied but not flabby), it was a bold way to end the night.

After we finished tasting the Bordeaux blend from Mauritson we each made our way back to our personal favorites. The old world seemed to rule the roost that evening and we quickly drained the 750ml’s of the Brezza and Bussola.

Successful on multiple accounts, I took away a new appreciation for Brezza while getting to reacquaint myself with Bussola during our meeting. The domestic wines, especially the 2004 Red Car Syrah still had its legs about it (in terms of aging further) giving me an accurate snapshot for developing it more in the cellar. On a personal note, the tasting also introduced me to some new friends in the area. We ironed out the scheduling for our next meeting and found a rendezvous time one month away to resume. More to follow.

New Mexico was an astonishing place to visit… no amount of adjectives or Canon photographs is able to do it justice. What I observed from the plane, when I wasn’t nauseous from the bumpy descent, were vast plateaus, everywhere in the state, and virgin earth, untouched and unkempt—raw beauty. I found it surprising that a state like this could be inviting to a French vigneron who decided to lay it all down in the Land of Enchantment. On the second day of our visit to Albuquerque we were much closer to knowing some of the secrets behind the vision of the Gruet Winery.

We had it planned out fairly well.  The four of us would drive three hours southeast, not too far from our host’s home, heading into barren land, planted in vineyards. Just nature and us. Plans are fluid and fickle for travelers though, and I was called after touching down on Friday and informed that not many, if any at all, were permitted to see the actual vineyards, this by a spokesperson from the winery. Jaded from visiting too many well-manicured tasting rooms across California, I was disappointed that we flew to New Mexico to see a tasting room. I bit my lip, and accepted our emended itinerary. I relayed the plans to my group and we crossed our fingers for an insightful and illuminating tour of the winery.

Less than a ten-minute drive from our friend’s dwelling, we arrived at the winery, the inner-workings responsible for producing some of the finest sparklers within the United States.  Four in line, we spilled out of the car and filed into the tasting bar, a few minutes before the appointment. Greeted immediately, we let them know who we were—otherwise we had that look of four dudes ready to imbibe all the samples provided.

A young lady came out of the office, introducing herself as Lori Anne. She would be our guide, gauging our interest in the recommended activities she had planned (strictly tasting or touring the facility). We chose the latter and were escorted outside. We began our tour by a small row of vines that were planted in front of the winery and used as a barometer of ripeness for harvest. As we rounded the corner making our way to the loading dock, to our surprise, they were already knee-deep in juice, in the middle of a crush, and expecting more wine any minute.

We pushed inside spying the gyropalette cocked at different angles in the background, riddling off the lees (dead yeast cells) from previous vintages. In our foreground we watched the free running juice be collected after its press into large steel tanks. Continuing the tour through the bottling line, we walked through the finished cases that I was accustomed to seeing arrive on our wine shop’s loading dock back in LA.

Finishing the circuit, we had a glimpse into the history of Gruet, framed photographs tracing the line back to Gilbert Gruet and his family. Between, cousins, nephews, daughters and sons—it was a near total family affair.

The four of us sidled up to the bar and were poured through the reserve flight; those sparkling wines that had been aged on the lees, adding complexity and character. Both 2007’s, Blanc and Rosé, were nuanced but fresh, combining slight nutty flavors with bright fruit.

While we were poured the 2003 Gruet Grande Reserve, Lori Anne imparted to us a rendition of how the family had arrived in New Mexico (found here) and where Laurent—current winemaker—oversaw the family winery moving into a more determined future. The Grande Reserve was a tribute to the patriarch of the family, emanating complex aromas and flavors of golden apple, lemon zest, toasted brioche and hazelnut. The mouth feel was broad, refined and yet focused with long lasting flavors that resonated long after I swallowed the final sip—a busman’s holiday for tasting since spitting would be in order for a longer tasting. We concluded by tasting the still wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah), though I wasn’t quick to move on from the attractively priced tête de cuvée, the Grande Reserve. The Syrah was an interesting trajectory on the future state of the winery.

The vision and chutzpah to start a sparkling wine house in New Mexico twenty-five years ago, let alone a successful one, is not lost on the visitor. A privileged look at the controlled madness of harvest, was enough to keep me from kvetching, and so I nearly forgot about the planned visit to the deliberately stressed out vines in the southern reaches of the state. We thanked our host and the winery for their hospitality. The visit had gone better than expected, cementing my admiration for truly great domestic sparkling wine in a state becoming more enchanting all the time.

Last week, on a Tuesday with the distinct flavor of summer I had plans to attend one of the most anticipated tastings on my calendar year—the Terry Theise portfolio tasting—unveiling the 2011 vintage offerings of Germany and Austria. This marked one year since I last stepped foot in Hatfield’s on Melrose. The distributors—Winewise—had traded settings, exchanging 90038 for the high profile 90211 zip code that encompassed Red Medicine, current vanguard of the Los Angeles culinary scene and event headquarters, to showcase the magnificent collection of wines.

Bearable traffic and parking relatively close at a metered spot, there was hardly any delay in my arrival. Coins to buy three hours worth of parking allowed me to trot down to the corner where South Gale Drive intersected with Wilshire Boulevard, arriving in my restaurant-best-duds and my camera slung tautly over my shoulder ready to check in. I grabbed a glass and entered a kinetic buzz. There was a healthy turnout, sommeliers, restaurant and retail buyers, bloggers and fellow tradesmen stood shoulder to shoulder huddled over bantam tables bearing ice troughs that held dozens of Rieslings, in the hopes of assessing the newest vintage.

German wines may not be consumer-friendly, with difficult names and even more confusing ripeness scales; it would be an understatement to say that these wines were not fully understood. I study German and Austrian wines regularly and I am still perplexed by their individuality. The difference between three separate Spätlese Rieslings, all hailing from the same blue slate soils and sharing an identical birth year can be staggering. What could I do to share my passion with the consumer? I made the rounds looking to answer that question.

Beginning at the first table, I tasted through twenty-four different trocken Rieslings, bereft of residual sugars, leaving only minerals and the essence of stone fruits in their wake. I rounded thirty-seven wines in a heartbeat, trying my best to keep in line with the wine buyers of the Wine Exchange who tasted with celerity.

I sojourned to the Rüdesheim vineyards, of the Rhinegau, where Tobias Fiebrandt poured eight variations under the Leitz label. I drafted behind the swift pace of my running mates (those two buyers) and tasted the delectable lineup at my own leisure. My palate was pleasantly shocked to a variance of dry to off-dry levels of fruits, minerals and faint herbal notes. My deference for Riesling, no matter how commercially unsuccessful, was dwarfed by our German liaison, inked earnestly with his Riesling tattoo.

From the Leitz table, I transitioned into a heavy assortment of Kabinett wines. With mouth-searing acidity I was particularly drawn to the Jakob Schneider Kabinett Riesling, along with the softer and more attractive Spreitzer Oestricher Lechen Riesling Kabinett (I wasn’t kidding about the difficulty of the names).

I whipped through seventy-four wines before I landed at the manned tables of two different Mosel producers, with German representatives behind the brand standing by to acquaint me with their unique offerings. Selbach-Oster bowled me over with more than one example but I nerded out over the halbtrocken, or officially, the Zeltlinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken. Affording a blend of summer stone fruits that had been rinsed in a zesty lemon juice and spearmint cocktail that was balanced by a nice weight in the mouth and an unrelenting finish. Next door, it was time to taste Meulenhof before departing for the wines of Saar and concluding with the Nahe.

There were too many sterling examples, in all ranges, starring my pricelist repeatedly since there was nearly a winner in every third bottle. After about one hundred and forty Rieslings I took a break, excusing myself from the tight gauntlet of Rieslings. I snacked on a smattering of treats and slugged some water to alleviate the palate before I would even entertain the Austrian flight.

My tongue recovered and I turned the page in my packet (pricelist) ready to begin sifting through the assorted Grüner Veltliner. Unlike the German portion of the tasting, by the time I made it to Austria the crowd was thinning and I found more elbowroom to swig, spit and note comfortably. I would unscrew the majority of the tops, pouring through the miscellaneous wines. Among the similar characteristics there were a few clear favorites; those Austrian whites that showed more finesse in the palate, with notes of celery and cabbage leaves, aspirin and hints of green fruits as they sloshed over my tongue. Between Kremstal and Kamptal I found my favorites, with producers like Nigl and Hirsch surging ahead of their brethren for their drinkability and definition.

After roughly twenty Grüner, I continued to the following stations, each representing three individual producers, two more from Kamptal—Schloss Gobelsburg and Willi Bründlmayer—and the last, for my purposes was Nikolaihof from Wachau. In addition to Grüner Veltliner each of the three producers were showing their Austrian Rieslings—those lithe beauties.

A memory came fleeting when I tasted the Willi Bründlmayer lineup. I had served older vintages of those wines  at the restaurant for a foie festival at the hest of my superiors at Wilshire. It all made sense to me when I put the stemware to my lips.

Palate fatigue had set in around 180 wines, so any tasting notes I scribbled after that would be dubious. I was impressed with the Austrian leg of the tasting this year, something that failed to grab my attention last time… perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind then. I closed my price guide, trying best to remember the question I had asked myself before I had entered at the head of the queue. After seeing a man literally wearing a tattoo that read Riesling, someone with a serious conviction for the grape, I knew that there was a lot more that I could do. The easiest thing though, would be to let people taste them—the rest would naturally fall in place. I thanked the host and my rep, departing for my metered spot before time expired and I journeyed home with flavors that were still sounding loudly, replete with everything I love about summer.

I didn’t know it at the start, but my day would take on a particularly English hue from morning to night last week. Between my liquid education in the morning and my burger at Ye Olde King’s Head Pub for dinner, everything was hinting at the old country. It wasn’t intentional but it might have been destiny as I was about to audition another highly recommended sandwich.

I started the day on “random,” having The Kinks be the first and last thing I heard as I ended my morning iTunes session before departing for my WSET course. I walked out the door with Preservation Act 1 in my hands, planning to learn the most about sweet wines and spirits. In my car I loaded the disc and not even three songs in I was at the Wine House ready to begin my five-hour class.

The WSET is an internationally recognized course that offers comprehensive education in wine and spirits. English in origin, the program affords participants/students the opportunity to master the finer parts of retailing, history and service while peppering Power Point slides with foreign spellings (flavours, ageing, etc.) and specific information as one works their way up, graduating, eventually, to the level of MW or Master of Wine. 

We sampled Eiswein, then transitioned into different types of Sherry (Fino and Oloroso) and Port as the first half of the course drew to a close. Back from the lunch we began the spirits portion where I became familiar with the different methods of distilling spirits, their origins and base materials. We tasted through Cognac, Scotch and ended on the truly English spirit Gin to feel the gist of the various methods in creating the spirits and recognizing the base ingredients in their taste, as we finished for the day.

With “Cricket” playing in the background, I was off to the English pub in Santa Monica. I was instructed to purchase a Crunchie next door for the barman (Raul), an insider’s tip by a friend before entering Ye Olde King’s Head. I was looking for “Raul” on arrival, but he had left a few hours before. The Crunchie would not be for naught. I met up with three friends at the back bar (“Bulldog Bar”), ordering a pint of Fullers London Pride; I fell in with them rather than having my druthers… wine.

Not too long after working on our brews we ordered. While others were inclined to go English, I avoided the bangers and mash, requesting the burger.

When the food hit the bar, I captured a few shots under dramatic lighting. It looked deceptive, a tad sloppy but I reserved judgment for my first few bites. The burger was also bigger than I’d anticipated. The meat was cooked to a flawless medium, but the texture of the patty was packed too tightly for it to be hand formed. The accompaniment, though disheveled in presentation, rescued the burger. The crunch of the raw red onion and the ripe tomato added a little depth to the under-seasoned patty. It definitely didn’t measure up to what I was hoping for. Serves me right for going domestic at an English pub.

My friends were happier with their selections and we all left full but this was another case of going in with elevated expectations. They weren’t met. I headed home to the sweet tune of “Sitting in the Midday Sun,” capping my average burger experience with a honeycomb treat. The chocolate bar and The Kinks helped me rebound from the unrealistic demands I placed on a pub that might be a better place to take in a traditional meal, a pint of beer, loft a dart or catch a game, rather than find the city’s best burger.

In the penthouse of Peterson’s Automotive Museum buyers were treated to an exquisite Italian tasting last week. The Dalla Terra portfolio showcases some of my favorite Italian wines and their trade tasting had proprietors of the estates pouring their own selections for all in attendance. Better still, the billing was conveniently located a stone throw from my apartment and I happened to have a small opening (under an hour) in my schedule free between my retail post and the restaurant. I accepted the invitation from my Chambers and Chambers rep with wide-eyed enthusiasm as the stars were aligning.

I pulled up to the automotive museum around 1:50pm; early enough to get reasonable street parking and to not be swamped when making the rounds from table to table. After I checked in and grabbed a glass I prioritized the tables from the wines I sold to those I wished to. At first I tried to keep the tastings succinct, shimmying down the line in hopes of powering through the wines of Piemonte with a stop at Marchesi di Grésy. I realized quickly that it would be difficult to maximize my time when the owner/winemaker was pouring. I was encouraged to slow down, listening to anecdotes of school days in Italy while having Mr. di Grésy explain his single vineyard sites and their unique attributes. Small groups of buyers, sommeliers and representatives’ of Chambers and Chambers (hosts in conjunction with Dalla Terra) drew near, pitching their ears forward to absorb the arcane information. It would be the most informative session for many of us, unless you had been to the wineries.

I abandoned the idea of tasting through the hall with the fraction of time I had remaining, and tried to apply my best strategy for “tannin management” as I tasted the majority of wines I sold. I scanned the tables until I spotted another familiar bottle: Badia A Coltibuono from Tuscany. I walked through the lineup of wines, tasting the difference between exclusively Sangiovese based wines rather than those hailing from the Chianti Classico region (which in this case, were a blend of Sangiovese and Caniaolo) that I was accustomed to. Also on the agenda was a bottle of 1999 Chianti Classico Riserva which provided a snapshot of a how a wine with such bright acidity was able to age.

A little further in I stopped caring about tasting notes, and tried to focus on the particulars of what each owner was saying. At no stage was this more important than my brief time with Luca Currado of Vietti. To differentiate the many Barbera that the owner and winemaker would be pouring, I latched on tightly to his every word as he poured. Letting another intimate group of us in on what the differences were between Asti and Alba, as well as being schooled on the single vineyards that made up each bottle. I cruised through the Barolo “Castiglione” and Barbaresco “Masseria” until my mouth was coated with red fruits and Rose petals and my gums cried uncle.

I made a few more stops around the room, tasting Boroli, Maseria Li Veli, and Tenuta Sant’Antonio before ending on a reprise, trying the sweeter offerings from the same producers. One of the most fascinating wines was the Chinato Barolo from Boroli. It was incredibly herbaceous and armed with that quinine kick which was probably one of the most memorable things I tasted on the year. Shortly thereafter, I traded glasses and moved to the pioneer of Moscato. The winemaker/owner Paolo Saracco manned the table for Saracco wines, insisting that I begin by trying his Monferrato—a DOC in 1994, tucked in the Southwest corner of Piemonte—Pinot Noir before moving on to his two vintages of Moscato d’Asti. The Pinot showed textbook characteristics but it was the Moscato d’Asti that swept me away. Refreshing, low alcohol and a great blend of fruit and herbal nuance that left me with the perfect exit note.

Through it all, my only regret was not having enough time to taste all the wines, I picked and chose mostly the stuff I sold to gain more familiarity with the house style of the producers as well as receiving a wonderful download of information from the source. My time was over in an instant but this event, like the Chinato, was memorable and will go down as one of my favorites in a busy year.

There are a lot of perks that come with being a wine specialist, from samples to trade shows, the constant exposure and immersion in the industry makes the whole job unreal at times. On occasion, I am even fortunate enough to have private tastings, as I was most recently when invited to a Duckhorn event. Duckhorn has always intrigued me with their recognizable labels limned with drakes and hens, of all different breeds, to show off the anseriformes in their various environments—the pairings of art and wine at work here. In addition to the artwork, I was always curious about the contents but never really felt that it was practical to buy a bottle of pricey Cabernet Sauvignon (though that is changing) for over sixty-five dollars. Since I am unable to routinely purchase a bottle of their wine, I jumped at the chance to taste a fraction of their flock to uncover the mysteries and see if the contents matched their packaging.

Gathered there, we (the specialists for our stores) were asked if we knew about the brand or had any exposure. Most everyone had tasted at least one offering from the winery, I was the black swan. Fourteen wines were poured (110 remain, for the countdown followers) and each came with a breakdown, depending on the label, like Duckhorn vs. Decoy or the Migration vs. Paraduxx. After the philosophies were shared, and winemaking practices were dutifully expounded, we tasted the following:

2010 Decoy Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

2010 Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

2010 Decoy Napa Valley Chardonnay

2009 Migration Russian River Valley Chardonnay

2008 Migration Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Decoy Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Merlot

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Red Wine

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

2009 Decoy Sonoma County Zinfandel

2008 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red Wine

2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot

2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

After tasting through a few of the white wines it was nice to finally crack the code on the Decoy and Duckhorn debate, beginning to understand their relation to each other. Decoy is the pure varietal, where Duckhorn takes an old world approach to varietals by blending in the requisite amount (by law) of the named varietal and divvying up the remaining grapes with other Bordeaux varietals. By the time I had the Pinot Noir raised, I was beginning to understand the allure of this brand, seeing the wines for more than a comfort label. Honestly though, I preferred some of the Decoy wines over the more coveted Duckhorn Vineyards wines. In no case was that truer than the Merlot; the Decoy Merlot was one of my favorite wines for its mouth feel, exhibiting chalky tannins in a manner similar to my favorite Carmenères, where the Duckhorn Merlot fell in that bigger, homogenous style that Napa knows so well. Decoy Merlot’s character on the palate was better than the classic flavors of ripe red plum, currants and spice, giving the wine a leg up—for my money— on the Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot.

By the end of the fourteen wines I felt better acquainted with the style, more confident in recommending these wines and demystified as to what lay beneath the feathers. I am not sure if I would want the wine for my stocking stuffer, yet I can see why they are a go-to for so many of my customers and why they deserve a shot with many holiday dinners.

Bacon fat, olive brine, truffle and any number of other complementary flavors make Syrah a pairing fascination of mine. It’s got spunk and has always been high on my list of wines to probe; less esoteric than some of my other highly ranked wines but more charming than most, with unabashedly out-there odors and its ability to pair with such a wide variety of food, there is little to dislike about this genuine varietal. I love the grape so much that I decided to make it the focus of my first group tasting (a new group) last week, to explore further terroir and the producer’s techniques—a scholastic approach to each wine than regularly figures in my other tasting group.

There were three of us—a manageable cadre—with no distractions, just three separate bottles of wine, glassware and our notes. Three bottles from three different continents (Australia, North America and Europe) between us: 2009 Tyrell’s Single Vineyard Steven’s Shiraz (#158), 2008 Moulin de la Gardette Gigondas (#157) and K Vintner’s “Cougar Hills” Syrah (#156). Though the Gigondas was primarily Grenache—as mandated by the AOC—we thought it would be fun to see how Syrah behaved when asked to play a supporting role.

We began the night with the Gigondas, listening to a succinct presentation about the wine and the region before dissecting the bottle before us. The coloring was ruby with light to medium depth in the glass. The complex bouquet of white pepper, mushroom, leather, red berries and Gorgonzola cheese had my mouth watering before I brought the Grenache-heavy blend to my lips and dabbed a tongue. I took my first sip, swooshing vigorously and expecting a lot, instead, I was alarmed by the paucity of discernible flavors; faint red fruit, moderate drying tannins, medium body and a surprisingly short finish. We were all shocked, the wine’s gorgeous bouquet translated to a truncated note—we were grasping for all that we could on that first bottle but we were left with a vanishing act. It was not a fair portrayal of Syrah so we detoured to the Pacific Northwest.

Moving on to Washington State, I gave a little talk on Walla Walla Valley—with its loess soils, dry (an average of 12 inches of rain) climate and more about the history of the AVA before discussing Charles Smith. We took a look at the wine; the “Cougar Hills” Syrah possessed a deep garnet hue in the glass. On the nose there was a decidedly meaty quality to it, with notes of bacon, barbequed meats and dark fruits. With just one sip the wine was definitely big, armed with mouth-jarring flavors of roasted coffee, blackberry, grilled meat, smoke and chocolate. The smoky Syrah from Washington State had a good hefty structure, moderate acidity, a nice not overbearing compliment (sic) of oak and a long finish that made us all but forget the previous wine.

The last bottle on the table had begun its life in the Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest growing region, an area close to Sydney, famous for its examples of Semillon and Shiraz that grow in the well-drained red clay loam in the upper and lower parts of the valley. We poured Tyrell’s Single Vineyard Shiraz that was a composite of ruby and garnet in the stemware. The wine was powerfully aromatic with notes of red cherry, vanilla and worn leather. It was bursting with bright red fruit balanced by lightly drying tannins, moderate acidity and a long simple finish. The Shiraz did not showcase enough complexity on the palate to warrant a first place finish (if we were judging) but the unembellished style was done well and though singular, it was not without breadth.

I was impressed by the many suits of Syrah, from the darker, smokier impressions to brighter expressions of fruit—Syrah could do it all. I knew this going in to the tasting but it was nice to have it reaffirmed. Next time (and in the near future), I might limit the Syrah tasting to strictly Northern Rhône exemplars because Côte-Rôtie has eluded me to this point in my wine career.

Whether subtlety and adventure meet to rough you up for your own good or are completely absent, everything transpiring on that busy cross section of streets between La Brea and Vine in Hollywood, is titillating, perhaps obnoxiously so. I rarely drive through it, vexed by certain gridlock, and, I feel less inclined to make it a destination outside of burgers safaris (because hamburgers, like most big game, know no boundaries), due to the huge mass of people reverberating in that congested space. But, as fate would have it, in that nexus of clamor and excitement, an ethereal buzz was brewing, less overt, sure to be overlooked on most radars—a Champagne tasting at the Roosevelt Hotel. I was fortunate to be invited to the Winewise Champagne tasting, by the distributors of undoubtedly some of the finest RM’s (récoltant-manipulants)—Farmer’s fizz—in the world.

I looked forward to the tasting, clearing my schedule months in advance so that there would be no way to miss this holy experience. There were esteemed guests in attendance, winemakers, and family representatives of the boutique houses, such as: Didier Gimmonet, Laetitia Billiot, Etienne Goutorbe, Arnauld Margaine and Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy. These ambassadors would be pouring their stock and enlightening the buyers, bloggers and sommeliers as to its worth, as they would circuit the tables; eighty-eight sparkling wines were available for tasting, including some alternatives to Champagne, like bubbles from Greece, Germany and Spain.

I made my foray a little later than the start time, not quite breaking the tape, but fashionably (thirty minutes) late to hide my kid-in-a-candy-store mien. I checked in with the gracious and benevolent host of the affair—Hiram Simon—and quickly armed myself with a packet of information and stemware. The vibe was electric and tastefully casual. Like the Riesling tasting earlier in the year, some of the tables were self-serve while others were attended—even if we are “professionals”, one could presume a unanimous decision to pour liberally with the Vilmart et Cie Champagne.

I rounded the tables slowly, allowing my palate to fully receive the information, as it would undulate from flute to flute. I made it to Pierre Peters, early on, one of many standouts, with a favorable amount of toast, respectful acidity and a luscious combination of dough, mineral and fruit.

I savored my time at each table, paying scrupulous attention to each bottle of chilled Champagne. In what seemed like no time I had gone through the first forty wines, arriving at an assortment of Gaston Chiquet wines—Special Club and all. I was eager to try my first Special Club (Club Trésors de Champagne) wine, which stands as an argument for terroir amongst 26 top-growing récoltant-manipulants.

Beginning with Chiquet then Gimonnet and finally tasting through Hébrart’s Special Club they were a rare treat for me, each bottle unique in mouth feel and structure.

As I tasted through an exquisite flight of wines from A. Margaine and René Geoffroy, it hit me that though a lot of the flavors were overlapping up to this point in the tasting, the texture of most of the wines was changing dramatically. The similarity of tastes could be ascribed to any number of factors, but the most striking differences came from the encépagement (composition of the blend), some were identical, comprised of only Chardonnay, or blending the same percentages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—and the weight and structure… and yet each had a different feel to them. I recognized that this was a monumental breakthrough for me; my tasting notes in the past were often littered with the same adjectives and especially the same accolades but this time I found myself scribbling in new descriptors, writing sentences about how certain wines behaved. The composition-plus-weight-and-structure on the palate was paramount in differentiating all of the quality wines that were being poured as well as adding a serious dimension to my notes because I am not often forced to pay attention to this coupled aspect as I was here, although in hindsight, my other tastings had been leading me here.

The constant rhythm of texture played steadily up to Vilmart—a requisite manned station—this table had some breath-taking examples of bubbles and I was lucky enough to taste the prized “Coeur de Cuvée” before that bottle had run empty.

I had an earned palate fatigue by the end of the eighty-eight wines, but I was comfortable with it, knowing that the experience that I had gained and the intimacy of the tasting reached the zenith for an event of this kind. While Hollywood danced to another tune over the star-studded pavement, with people lining up to take photos with Shrek and Marilyn Monroe impersonators as I exited the hotel, I was spiritualized after having attended the numinous showing of sparkling wines. Divine.

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