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After my class, my anticipation for the event grew exponentially; all quality Italian wines would be poured for the masses at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and I could not wait. I am not the biggest fan of large tastings (as I’ve alluded to this before in my Chateau Koivu article), being crowded out, mixed in with a majority that treat it as a time to furiously quaff rather than spit, trading the education for purely hedonistic delight. I could guarantee that a good-sized group of friends amassed from my tasting group and wine class would help ease my woes but nevertheless I was fearful of the tasting losing focus. My trusty group would also help me make sense of the overwhelming catalog of wines (red and white) after the big tannins decimated my taste buds and my teeth took on a darker shade of garnet. Oh yeah…this was Viva Vino!

The idyllic surroundings of the Skirball Center would play host to the tasting. A serene space that was a cross between modern and earthy, operating north of nearly all the bustle in LA, with ample space to allow a large group of people to comfortably taste and nosh. Just inside the venue, venders, vendors and importers had lined up tables, ready to showcase their products, introducing buyers and enthusiasts to assay wine that they might not encounter in any other setting. As the doors opened, people shuffled through, grabbing pens, booklets and glassware, beating paths to the nucleus of the tasting.

Once inside, our clique spotted our former teacher and consulted with him about which wine we should try first and if there was anything we shouldn’t miss. After accepting his advice, we made our way to our first producer—tasting the expressions of Sicily. We tried the Cyane—a hundred percent Muscato Bianco—Pollio Moscato di Siracusa DOC, the Solacium Moscato di Siracusa DOC before moving onto the reds like the Frederico IGT Sicilia Rosso which was a 100% Nero D’Avola. The Solacium Moscato stood out amongst its peers; it was crisp and lighter-bodied white, with a delicious nose of white flowers, Honeycrisp apples and some tropical fruits; it had a mouthfeel that packed moderate-plus acidity and a long, lingering finish. On the flip, the Nero D’Avola was fronting some cran-cherry notes in the nostrils and was totally dry, medium bodied red with moderate tannins and flavors of cherry, herbs, brush and some pepper on the buds.

We continued to Sardegna, moving through some Cannonau Di Sardegna with lots of cherry between sips and also some cocoa notes, but aside from the body being heavy, the finish was not as long as I would have wanted—at least on the three or four that I tasted. I was thankful for trying them all though. Our group leaped up to Piemonte in Northwest Italy, spending the most amount of time sampling an endless array of Barolos and Barbarescos, from various producers and sub-areas within the famous villages of the region.

Another standout for my palate was the noticeably brighter (ripe) cherry notes coming from the Eraldo Viberti Azienda Agricola 06 Barolo with medium acidity, soft, but ever-present tannins and a long finish that followed the nose and would not let go of the tongue; it showed well now. The wine felt young and decidedly fresh especially after tasting through countless austere examples that needed more age and would have benefitted by accompanying some Piemtonese cuisine.

Among all the Roero (Arneis), Valpolicella, Amarone, Sangiovese, Barolo and Barbaresco, my palate was thoroughly hammered. With the live band pumping out classic Italian tunes (at incredibly loud volume) and the wan lighting to make it incredibly difficult to see the real hue of the wine, the point of the tasting got away from me. I decided to close the complimentary notebook, sheath the pen, and just relax. Having friends to consult and laugh with during the tasting seemed to make all the difference because other aspects remained constant—the wines were not done justice, there were still a small amount of rude people, etc.—but in the end, it was not so much that Viva Vino became the new benchmark for wine events but rather an emphasis that it is imperative I travel to them with my friends. A lesson in self-discovery.

My inaugural wine and burger pairing took place in Brea this weekend with a couple of friends, two flasks and a plastic pitcher full of wine. I could not think of a more appropriate “burger joint” to kick off wine and burger tastings than Brea’s Best—where two Greek brothers own the establishment and have been producing fantastic hamburgers as well as other fine meals for quite some time. One of the brothers (Tom) is also an avid wine enthusiast. It has been a favorite restaurant of mine for twelve years. Brea's Best

My hypothesis was that American wines would drink best with American food. I was going to limit the tasting to strictly California however one Italian wine (a Barolo) found itself on the tasting menu. The wines were picked randomly since this tasting would govern our choices for the next time. The wines poured were: Reversanti (2005) Barolo, Peju Province Merlot (2004) and finally Thompkin 3rd Degree (2006).

Aromas and Flavors

1.) The Barolo from Reversanti (14% alcohol) smelled of anise and cherry—coating the palate fully, big yet smooth. Knowing that this wine pairs well with big meals I thought it had as good as any chance to be the favorite with a hamburger.

2.) The Peju Merlot (14.5% alcohol) from Napa was herbaceous with a tiny bit of vanilla on the nose and medium bodied on the tongue. I selected this wine because I was afraid of overpowering the hamburger with a tight Cabernet—I decided to take a slimmer approach and see if this wine could complement the hamburger.

3.) The Thompkin 3rd Degree (15.8%) from Santa Barbara had the brightest fruit flavor. The full-bodied Cote du Rhone via Santa Barbra was a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache that seemed to be the strongest of the three choices and could have the advantage when it came to taming the char of the patty.

When the burgers arrived we immediately grabbed our three plastic cups and began pouring the contents of our mobile containers. Since this was a new procedure we fumbled around a bit with procedure and lack of resources: Would we share cups? Should we eat inside?

We ate outside–far from the restaurant (since that is not an option) and we did share cups. We made various observations about the tasting and how each wine interacted with the burgers. The first and most obvious note was that the Peju Merlot was flattened by the burger—all the interesting flavors that were present on its own were absent with each bite of a burger.

Thompkin Cellars 3rd degree shined through the drippings from the patty and the char—as expected, vying for the desired perfect pair of the evening. Its ability to cut through the flavors and still retain all of them was astonishing.

The Barolo was enjoyable from start to finish—it only seemed to gather strength with the meal, enhancing the char. Both were better together and that is what I was looking for. I would not think to have a Barolo with a hamburger but in this case the flavors paired synergistically making it my favorite of the three wines poured.

The next pairing will be better executed—as we have a point of reference—we will be more confident when pouring. We remedied our cup situation by immediately going to Cost Plus to purchase some wine glasses (without stems). We have also deduced that California wine may not have the advantage when it comes to pairing with hamburgers. The Barolo by a nose.

Last Friday I attended an Italian tasting dubbed “An Offer You Cannot Refuse” which was posted as a tribute to some of the legendary Italian producers of wine including: Gaja, La Spinetta, Il Poggione and Conterno in addition to an over-the-top immersion into stereotypical Italy with The Godfather being played and an endless supply of Italian sandwiches to help mitigate the affects of Alcohol.

The hosts were the Learn About Wine group—run by Ian Blackburn and his team of well-trained enthusiasts who teach all people (anyone willing to pay) about wine and hold exclusive tastings, pouring some of the bigger names in any varietal.

There were twenty wines without identification to be tasted blindly and without the influence of price or Parker scores.  The goal was to choose a favorite from the lineup.

Among the list were all the B’s: Barolos, Brunellos and Barbarescos. There were also super Tuscans and more unusual non-Italian varietals (Bordeaux blends and other French grapes crafted by Italian winemakers).

During the blind tasting three or four wines stood out because of their balance and actions in the mouth like a long finish or possessing unusual flavors. A hefty amount of the wines unabashedly demonstrated their weight in acid and tannins. My teeth and tongue were ambushed—zinging.

After roughly thirty minutes of tasting, casual eating and a vote, the wines were unveiled. To the chagrin of many tasters they had not selected the bottles that retailed for $300.00; instead more approachable wines were favored. Some of the tasters were saddened by the news that their favorite selections of the evening would be very difficult to acquire due to their position on Wine Spectator’s Top 100s of the past.

My personal favorite, a Conterno Barbera d’ Alba Cascina Franeia 2006 ($40) not the most rare but a modest (relative to the list), wholehearted and food friendly wine exhibiting some subtle fruit and my favorite part—withheld the acid.

Though the event was a tad gimmicky, a remarkable roster made it hard to pass up.

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