Journey to Italy Day One, Two and Maybe Three

27 05 2010

May 25-26, 2010

Always one to cut things close, I decided that it would be no problem at all to roll three projects into one the last two weeks of May.  That’s not including a huge tasting of 115 Ribera del Duero wines earlier in the month and multiple other business such as the launch of the SF Chefs 2010 website and ticket sales and a few wine buff commitments.  Overall I knew I was making the month insane for myself but I can’t very often say no and surely I was not going to say no to a trip to Italy to visit Luce, Frescobaldi and Arnaldo Caprai.

So May 18 is really when my crazy journey began.  I packed two suitcases (more like lots of planning and then tossing everything into two bags and hoping for the best)  one which traveled with me and the other that my husband was going to exchange with me later in the week (Southwest doesn’t charge for two bags!  I flew Virgin America to LAX).  I flew into LAX where I picked up a rental car for my journey to the Inland Empire to judge the Los Angeles International Wine Competition (May 18-21), stay the weekend and run the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition (May 23-25).  Both were a blast and filled with lots of partying and great people, and luckily my husband helps me with spirits so I was able to see him again (and exchange bags) before heading off, same day as the end of the competition, to LAX for my flight to Munich/Florence.  I arrived at the airport at 4:30 for a 9 pm flight (way too early in my opinion) and was greeted by the fact that there is very little to do at LAX Int’l terminal.  Had a wedge salad and a beer at the Daily Grill, it was acceptable only because of the double power outlet next to me and a friendly waitress, but otherwise uneventful.  At least LAX has free wireless out there.  In true Chapa fashion more beers were had at the airport bar to allow for plane sleep.

I flew Lufthansa, suspiciously comfortable and easy despite the lack of seat pockets for my stuff.  I watched the Princess and the Frog (made me cry when the firefly died) with my meal, enjoyed some Nero d’Avola/Syrah and dozed off watching Up in the Air.  I found myself rudely awakened by a jerky guy who decided he wanted to wake up the plane by opening his window shade, but luckily another 45 minutes later they were serving breakfast (finished watching the movie, all movies are available at your leisure and can be stopped or fast forwarded which was cool) and we were almost there.  Despite my aisle seat and no neck pillow I awoke all chipper and happy, so of course there would need to be some type of crazy twist right?

Got to Munich, relatively easy deplaning and rechecking and then I walked into their gorgeous terminal complete with luxury cars on display and boutiques, Kiehls, Jo Malone and MAC right when you enter, got some free lotion to revive my dried out body and then went to the pharmacy where they had my favorite shower gel, Korres Basil Lemon, which I have been missing since I forgot to pack it a week ago.  Things were great, I grabbed a Weissbier (ya gotta when you are only in Germany for an hour.)  So things were clearly too good to be true.

My flight was completely cancelled due to equipment failure so they are routing me through Bologna and then taking me on a ground transfer to Florence.  Only adds another three or four hours to the trip, but at this point does that really matter?

I am trying not to let it get me and instead I am taking the opportunity to explore the airport.  Nothing like the smell of the duty free store to refresh you after a long trip, wish I had my perfume books on hand so I could do some investigating.  The good thing about this airport is they may not have wireless but they do have the Allianz Arena, a news lounge open to all passengers where you can visit news sites.  Although I couldn’t get onto my Earthlink webmail, but apparently they think that Facebook and Twitter qualify as “News”.  I was able to connect to my friends/family although at first it tried to bump me off.  The keyboard wasn’t so easy to type on with the y and z interchanged and so while they had Word Press too I opted to write this on my laptop instead.   The also bump you off after about 20 minutes, but there seem to be plenty of terminals.

Another great feature of this airport is multiple free coffee and tea stations!  Although I had vowed to wait until Italy for a coffee, I have to say that automatic machine makes a mean espresso macchiato, so despite the 14 hours of travel I am still relatively awake and hopeful that this is an adventure not a debaucle through Bologna.  See you in Firenze.

May 27, 2010 1:33 AM

Well I finally made it to Florence after more than 25 hours of travel.  I arrived in Bologna around 10:30 and had to wait about an hour for a bus to take us to Florence which took at least an hour.  Of course there was no one waiting so I had to grab a cab and get cash before I made it to my hotel, Grand Hotel Villa Medici, but luckily the hotel was still open (at about 1am) and very friendly and I came up to my room to find a delicious fruit bowl and a bottle of Frescobaldi Bubbles.  I quickly jumped into my bathing suit and ran down to the piscine (pool) and hopped into some pretty cold but invigorating water.  That along with the bubbles is washing all the worries of my travel away, but I have an early day tomorrow so I must crash ASAP.   Grand Hotel Villa Medici was a palace in the 1700s and now as part of SINA Fine Italian Hotels it meshes historical ambiance with contemporary comfort.

Shipments of Fools

4 11 2009

I have been doing quite a few wine reviews lately which, of course, is really fun.  Wine shows up at my door in shippers from around the state of California, usually (and rightfully) requiring an adult signature for delivery.  This requirement can be a slight hassle because that means that the samples need to be signed for and received while we are at home, and considering my hectic schedule and lack of any staff that is challenging sometimes.  But the worst that can happen is that the shipment heads off to the UPS or Fedex warehouse and I have to retrieve it.  No big deal to me since that means my neighbors aren’t drinking it!

That said, I have been noticing that the more samples I receive the more irritated I get.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE having wine to taste show up at my doorstep, but you have to understand that I just don’t pop open these bottles that arrive for sampling, instead I need to evaluate them critically, it’s just the right thing to do.  I cannot just open them for a night in front of the fire or give them away to a friend hoping to taste them at their dinner party.  They must be opened and tasted professionally, even if I go ahead and finish the remaining wine later on, and that only happens in rare occasions.  This may again seem like a silly “problem” to have, but all of a sudden you find that as a writer you end up on these lists receiving wines that you have not requested and are not necessarily your priority at that moment.  Because I do not write a focused wine review I gladly accept samples but I cannot assure the sender that their wine will ever be written up.  Its not really the wine that is the problem though, but its the whole issue of shipping.

As the wines roll in, the issues arise.  Opening, unpacking, removing my name from the boxes, stacking them who knows where.  Most of the wines shipped today are packed in styrofoam packaging.  While there are producers that use pressed recycled cardboard, which I really appreciate, there are still many that continue to use styrofoam.  Not only does this create larger shippers that cannot be broken down, but it also tends to break up during shipping, and upon opening the package I am attacked by tiny styrofoam balls that stick to my clothing, my hair and my terriers.  It’s bad for the environment and not fun at all.  I give these containers away, luckily, to friends or our local shipping store (they also willingly take peanuts and bubble wrap).  Unfortunately those friends and folks at those stores ship the boxes to other places where they are likely to become landfill.   I highly recommend that if you have these types of containers that you try to reuse them as much as you can, or ask wineries you work with to use reclaimed cardboard and molded paper boxes and inserts.  Some say they are recyclable, but that still means they need to make it into the right recyclable heap, and not blow down the street in the process.

Another environmental issue that has been irking me is heavy bottles.  Recently during a review I was struck by a couple of ridiculously heavy bottles, we are talking FOUR pound bottles (full).  Some of these came from producers that “claim” to be environmentally sensitive.  I weighed a “normal” bottle, the Heitz Trailside Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley and on my simple little bathroom scale it seemed about two pounds.  Now perhaps you may say that Heitz is “old school” and traditional in packaging, yet this seems like a reasonable alternative with the cost of fossil fuels and shipping today.  Bottles of this shape, height and weight have for more than centuries been able to withstand age, movement, dropping, even sitting at the bottom of the ocean.  My point is that the only reason to change your bottle to a heavier, taller, larger punted (the indentation on the bottom of the bottle) bottle is to increase the perception of quality.  While I understand that the reality is that consumer take interest in the packaging, I do not know how companies can truly justify the additional expense (which is then passed on to the consumer) and the effect this decision has on their energy profile.  This disconnect between the marketing and production in a winery has never ceased to amaze me.

The four pound bottle I tasted recently was from producers claiming to be sustainable or organically farmed.  So their vineyard manager is trying to closely manage how many passes they make through the vineyard on their tractor to manage their fossil fuel use, but they are adding basically doubling the weight of every case they ship, whether it is from Napa to SF or Sonoma to China.  I truly hope that producers will take a step back and reevaluate the importance of the “sexy” bottle.  Just think about the poor sommeliers that have to wield that heavy monster both alone and when moving full cases.  Most of these heavyweights are “cult” wines sold in six pack cases, increasing the amount of cardboard used, oh and the cardboard has to be thicker to support the added weight of the bottles.  Don’t get me started on the wooden cases, although I do have a penchant for saving those.  Saint-Gobin Containers Saint-Gobin is working hard to offer low weight bottles yet in the same classic bottle shapes in their ECO Series sold by Caliber WinePak.  Many of them do away with the punt thus using less glass and these bottles require less energy to produce, and less energy to ship both empty or full.  Wine Business Monthly has a great article on the issue  And a shout out to those branching out into boxes, plastic, and alternative packaging.  They may have some stigma yet to overcome, but they are doing the right thing.

Since I am getting all snippy, lets talk about alcohol levels of wines.  I have been more cognizant of them lately as I have become all too familiar with drinking too much of a really delicious yet deadly wine in terms of alcohol.  I understand the whole ripeness/flavor issue, sure, so that is a conversation for another day, but what is super irritating is the mere act of trying to find the alcohol percentage on the bottle.  While this is not always an accurate measurement of the actual alcohol in the bottle, it helps the consumer.  Despite that fact wineries have become very adept at hiding these numbers in weird foils, subtle colors and miniscule prints.  Yesterday as I tasted the Heitz Trailside I was so happy to see that the alcohol level on the was immediately evident, or at least for a “normal” person.  It was directly in the center of the label and good sized print, but there I was searching in all the sneaky places I am used to finding the alcohol listed, the back label, edges of the front, etc.  Heitz gets a gold star today!

Well, that’s enough for now.  I have to go and rearrange my collection of styrofoam shippers.


Napa Harvest

12 10 2009


Napa Valley in the heat of harvest is something very special.  The last few weeks I have been spending some time in the valley, for the Staglin Music Festival for Mental Health, and classes for the National Pork Board and last week for Mastering Wine I at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone in St. Helena at the northern end of the Napa Valley.  The valley is absolutely bustling with the excitement of harvest and grapes are not the only thing being harvested!

While fermentations simmer and the threat of a big storm in the Bay Area looms, the last few weeks have been balmy and downright cool, a very unusual harvest, but as I reported to my class last week, it really seems that the grapes know what is best and man just has to be paying enough attention to do the right thing.  I remember being awakened on the day of the Staglin Benefit for Mental Health to the sound of thunder (my WORD!) and raindrops, so unusual for the valley.  I had heard that veraison (the point at which grapes begin to turn color and ripen) had been early, but this was truly unique, to have an overcast cool day for this event had not happened in the nine years I had worked it.  Overall the season was cool and in the last week I heard from many vintners that Brix levels (level of sugar at harvest) are lower than normal but with exceptional maturity.  This means lower alcohols with just as much flavor!  (to read more about why go to  It just goes to show that sometimes the vines have forewarning as to when they should get their fruit ripe and hunker down for winter.  From what I hear many were spooked by the storm warning predicted for Tuesday and have harvested.  For Twitter updates head to @NVGrapegrowers to find out who is harvesting.

But Napa Harvest is not just about grapes!  One of my favorite things to do whenever I am in the valley is to hit the LMR Rutherford Gardens.  Operated by Long Meadow Ranch they are a produce pavilion right in the heart of Rutherford, across the way from Grgich Hills Winery on Highway 29.  While known for great wine and free-range beef the bounty at the gardens is the produce, and although summer is high-season, I love their fall offerings.  They have a newsletter that you can sign up for if you are interested in knowing what is in season in advance, but I prefer to be surprised!  Recently they had amazing nobby potatoes, five varieties of garlic, zucchini, an abundance peppers and possibly the last of amazing heirloom tomatoes.  If you hit the stand at just the right time you may be able to get some eggs!  I was lucky recently and grabbed a set of pullets, small sized eggs, in pastel colors that would put any Easter basket to shame.  And they were $5 a dozen and delicious!  Plus Long Meadow Ranch makes great wine!  They also offer jeep tours of their vineyards and cattle ranches!


Further down valley I make another stop as I turn towards Sonoma onto 121 headed back to San Francisco, Stanly Lane Marketplace.  This country store has amazing coffee, they do a fabulous iced Americano that almost lasts until I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge.  They offer some foods and seasonal crafts from local artisans including adorable gourd art for Halloween.  Its a fun way to break up the drive.  They also sell used barrels and if you are lucky staves and barrel tops, which I am fond of (I make them into lazy susans).  In the same parking lot they have a farm stand offering produce from many Bay Area farms, and are nice enough to specify the origin of every piece of produce on its sign.  In the height of summer they usually have Brentwood corn and nice heirlooms, peaches and nectarines in season.  My favorite time of the year, though, is when they create their incredible field of pumpkins for Halloween.  It is awash in oranges but they also stock multiple heirloom squashes in an array of untraditional shapes and colors, at much cheaper prices than most markets.  Plentiful wheelbarrows are available for rides for the kids and the pumpkins.  Pigs are on view carousing over smashed gourds for the kids to watch (and smell).  This year I was super excited to see that they added a corn and sunflower maze to the scene.  At five o’clock as the sun was exhibiting a much different angle in the sky than usual, it really made it feel like fall.  Hurry!  These places shut down seasonally!

LMR Rutherford Gardens 1796 So. St. Helena Highway Rutherford

Stanly Lane Marketplace 3100 Golden Gate Drive Napa, at the corner of Stanly Lane and Hwy 121/12, Napa 707 253-7512

D&S Produce Stanly Lane Pumpkin Patch, at the corner of Stanly Lane and Hwy 121/12, Napa 707 480-4479

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 10-6pm, Saturday and Sunday 9-5pm


15th Annual Music Festival for Mental Health

18 09 2009

Last weekend I headed up to Napa to work a benefit.  Saturday September 12, 2009 Staglin Family Vineyard in Rutherford, CA held their 15th annual Music Festival for Mental Health.  Each year the Staglins hold a symposium to review research funded by past festivals and discuss new research, this year the Staglins announced the formation of IMHRO (International Mental Health Research Organization).  The symposium was followed by a reception with rare wines and food prepared this year by Douglas Keane of Cyrus Restaurant, a concert with Pat Benatar (next year Dwight Yoakam) and finally a gala dinner, this year hosted by Staffan Terje of San Francisco’s Perbacco.  This benefit has raised $95 million in the past 15 years!  I have worked this benefit for nine years as a volunteer sommelier and this year lead the team of sommeliers for the event. 


The Staglins were kind enough to arrange for the sommeliers to visit a series of wineries on Friday prior to the event.  We traipsed around the valley and were graciously hosted by some of the greatest Napa Valley producers.  Pure Luxury Transportation carted us around (yes in a limo, slightly embarrassing, but better not to drive, and they have other vehicles in their fleet; ask for Philip Alonso) definitely better than driving.  We hit Vineyard 29, Kuleto Estate, Revana (amazing!), and had a party complete with margaritas, just what you want after a day of tasting, and a selection of amazing wines from Tuck Beckstoffer, BOND and Harlan.  The evening was capped off by a delicious dinner prepared by Keiko Niccolini with wines hosted by Flowers Vineyard and Winery.  There may have been some dancing as we refreshed our memories with Pat Benetar tunes.

One of the highlights of the weekend is always the reception and walk around tasting in the Staglin caves featuring wines from some of the world’s best producers including multiple “cult” bottlings.  This year I had the opportunity to taste and pour the Screaming Eagle, usually one of the most hectic jobs.  This year I eked out as many pours as possible for the crowd, check out the mayhem on this video kindly taken by Stephanie Bailey at Jones Family.

Apart from the melee at the Screaming Eagle table there were plenty of other amazing wines on hand and because my pouring duties were fulfilled after an hour and ten minutes I had a chance to briefly taste some of the wines.  Favorite producers included Anomaly Vineyards, BOND, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Favia Erickson Winegrowers, Harlan Estate, Jonata, Jones Family Vineyards, Miner Oracle, and Skipstone. 

The tasting was followed by a concert with Pat Benatar and her husband Neil Giraldo.  Although I did not get to see the actual concert, she was amazing and can still really belt out those songs!  Dinner following looked delicious as the food prepared by the team from Perbacco looked and smelled identical to that they serve at the restaurant!  To prepare that for a banquet of 200 people is quite  a feat and this year’s meal was one of the most smooth and efficient I can remember!  Unfortunately the sommeliers were too busy keeping wine glasses full to taste the food, but famed vintner Abe Schoener of Scholium Project was prepping food for the volunteer team while we worked.  After the benefit dinner concluded we were able to enjoy great steaks (Browns Valley Market), romano beans (Lee Hudson’s garden), heirloom tomatoes, cheeses, sausages and tons of great wine that Garen Staglin pulled from his cellar for us, including Kongsgaard Chardonnay and of course some of Abe’s own wines.

Over the course of many years of working on this event I have learned a lot about mental health and am happy to see the advances that have been made in mental health research.  There is still much to do and the proceeds of this event make a tremendous impact due to the Staglin’s generosity and support from the community.  It was great to learn of a new public service announcment that will help to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.  This campaign was spearheaded by actress Glenn Close and a group called Bring Change 2 Mind.  This PSA features about twelve people with mental illness and their families and will be released in October.  I am very proud to say that Brandon Staglin and his parents were included in the filming.  Their openness is amazing and is the first step in helping the general public to understand mental illness better.  You can sign up to be notified when it is released by going to  Another way to help is to attend next years Music Festival and in the meantime you can toast mental health with a bottle of Staglin Salus Estate Chardonnay, the proceeds of this wine support mental health research.

The Judging Circuit

6 05 2009

img_7465Judging season is upon us and I have been busy judging wines, but wine competitions have come under fire lately.  LA Times writer Jerry Hirsch helped propogate the bad press by calling attention to a study conducted by retired Humboldt State professor Robert Hodgson .  It’s not new to challenge the process, but this recent four year study claims that only 10% of judges could consistently judge a wine when tasted multiple times.  This is not unusual information, most of us know that if you are presented three samples of which two are identical, but you are told that there is a difference among all three that it is almost unheard of to call out that two are the same.  Your brain creates distinction amongst the samples.  I have not seen the proof created to validate Hodgson’s claims, but I wonder about the parameters, were all the wines identical in temperature?  Were all judges tested in this way?  Were other competitions evaluated?  What time of day were the samples presented?  What about order error or the wines placed before the identical samples, this can have a dramatic effect on how that sample might taste.  There are many variables to be considered.

Frankly I am not convinced about this study until I can read the brief and fully understand the methodology.  I am saddened that at a time where so many in this industry are struggling an attack on judgings would hit.  Judgings can really help sell wine.   While Professor Hodgson says, “Consumers should have a healthy skepticism about the medals awarded to wines from the various competitions,”  I believe there is nothing about a competition that makes it less useful or less accurate than the recommendations of a retailer, magazine or other wine critic. In fact I believe panels of judges can actually be more fair than one individual’s palate no matter how critically acclaimed. 

Most critics judge open label while almost all competitions are 100 percent blind, ie the judges may have information as to the variety or the vintage and in rare instances price or origin, but they are not swayed by the label or by the reputation of the producer. Judging panels are usually diverse including winemakers, educators, retail and restaurant buyers, salespeople, writers and sometimes even consumers. The diversity of the panel allows for checks and balances while a writer that tastes for a review gives you only the impression of one palate.

Granted, judgings are varied in the quality of the judges and their prestige, so I generally try to evaluate which judgings are worth doing.  Consumers might think to do the same thing, just as Parker may appeal to some while Tanzer appeals to others, perhaps consumers can gauge the competitions that seem to fit with their general palate preferences. 

On a personal level I gauge which competitions are most enjoyable and that is usually a reflection of the calibre of judges and the sense of camaraderie amongst them. That said there are judgings that are of course well respected that I have not been invited to. Not only do judgings offer a source of information for consumer buying and give wineries medals to tout and display, but they are a great resource for wine buyers- many use them to find out what wines they like without prejudice.  One of the ways I became more versed in wines of the world was wine competitions.  Sometimes you might get a chance to try wines you would never choose to open like fruit wines, hybrids or varieties you might not normally gravitate towards.  Judging with more experienced tasters is the best way to hone your palate, especially if you have the benefit of trying a type of wine that is their specialty.  It is extremely eye-opening to evaluate wines fairly even if they are of a style of which you are not normally fond. 

Most competitions treat the wines as a group amongst themselves, for example a gold medal Syrah doesn’t need to be the best Syrah you have ever had, it’s more like a county fair judging of livestock, how does the wine match up compared to the other wines entered.  I have never tasted the wines he makes, but Hodgson claims that he conducted this study because wines he entered into competitions sometimes won gold medals and other times won nothing.  All I can say is a girl might win a crown at her home town beauty pageant but that doesn’t make her Miss America.  It all depends on the competition. img_4640




Dallas Morning News Competition (February)

When time allows I like to take in some of the local culture.  The days I was in Dallas the King Tut exhibition was in town so I was able to visit that with my friend Joel Butler, MW.  Over thew weekend we were comfortably housed at the lovely Hotel Adolphus.

Dining experiences included York Street, an amazing but tiny restaurant in an unusual location (6047 Lewis) with my friends Dr. Bob Small (he makes Dr. Bob’s Handcrafted Ice Cream try the Strawberries with Sour Cream & Brown Sugar) and Drew Hendricks of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.  The next night was a walkaround tasting of last year’s winning wines with some of the area’s top restaurants.  Particularly notable was the White Seaweed Salad from Tei-An, so I joined Drew and our friends Meghan and Brandan there.  We had the Omakase (tasting) menu including the phenomenal pairing of buckwheat tea with a truffled risotto.  I also thought the soba course with egg was incredible.  Tei-An 1722 Routh Street, Suite 110 Dallas, TX 75201 214 220-2828

National Women’s Wine Competition (March)

In Santa Rosa the National Women’s Wine Competition offered a unique opportunity to interact with some of the most amazing women in the industry.  We hit some local dining spots such as Syrah Bistro 205 Fifth Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95401 707 568-4002 and of course Willi’s Wine Bar 4404 Old Redwood Highway Santa Rosa, CA 95403 707 526-3096

San Diego International Wine Competition

Part of my love of competitions is visiting fun places!  The luxury of staying at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego can’t be beat.  Add to that a visit to Old Town San Diego (missed that this time).  I did make it to the amazing San Diego Zoo ( where I had the chance to see BABY meerkats.  That’s right BABY MEERKATS!!  (I love meerkats almost as much as wine.)  Let me tell you though, the pandas were pretty BORING.  I also ate at El Indio a fun Mexican restaurant and tortilla factory near the airport just off N I-5 (exit Washington Street and proceed north) at 3685 India Street (619) 299-0333.  It was founded in 1940.  Really good chips and taquitos (they claim they first coined the word taquito.)  We also enjoyed two meals at the Yard House, one of the better chain restaurants with an unending selection of beers on tap.  They carded me too, twice!  Made me feel great.  The gala dinner was a blast as Robert Whitley was kind enough to allow me to sing two of my songs acapella for the group to raise cash donations for Camp Oliver.   Hmm, maybe they were paying me to STOP singing?!  One of the highlights of this judging was an amazing little day glow pink wine that I thought tasted EXACTLY like Tootsie Rolls.  While fruit wines are a unique and often scoffed at judging category there was also an amazing little strawberry wine (Saint James Winery $8.99), but this “Tootsie Roll” wine was astounding.  Let’s just say that I would have been able to suck that stuff down as a Freshman in college.  It was from Trout Springs Winery and called Afternoon Delight ($19.99).  We sent it to sweepstakes so that everyone could taste it!

Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition (formerly called Los Angeles County Fair Wines of the World Competition) Wine Judging May 27-29, 2009/Spirits June 1-2, 2009

Held in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Fair Association I have to admit this is my favorite competition of all.  The number and calibre of judges is amazing.  We also all know how to have a really great time.  I may hold some bias as I am the Chair of the spirits side of the competition.  The ability to judge with such an esteemed group cannot be beat.  I learned my judging skills due to the amazing help and guidance from the best on the circuit, Don Galleano, Gary Eberle, Mitch Cosentino, Darrell Corti, Dan Berger and many others.  Plus judges are often invited back to attend the Los Angeles County Fair in September where they teach consumers directly about the products they judged.  This cannot be beat, plus you get to eat fried twinkies and sno cones and watch pig races and see baby animals.  And Dr. Bob runs it so there is always ice cream!  And Tequila!  YAY!

San Francisco International (June)

The San Francisco International judging is another fun event held annually by Anthony Dias Blue.  There is a friendly rivalry between the SF competition and the LA, but Andy still keeps inviting me back, I am honored.  He and his crew of judges are some of the funnest (I know that is not a word) in the biz.  We have been known to judge hard and party hard!  There has been occasional karaoke…enough said.

Iconic Importers: How to Buy Great Wine Every Time

27 02 2009

A day rarely goes by when someone doesn’t ask me, “What’s your favorite (fill in the blank with a wine type)?”  What should I be buying?  Even my mother will often call me up and say, “Well, we are having lamb chops and a salad, what should we buy.”  Usually this leaves me blank wondering what to say since what is available here in San Francisco is not usually available across the country, prices vary, stock varies, it usually ends up annoying me leaving me to respond, “Call me when you get to the store” and then the tedious back and forth listing of wines…

“Well they have Stag’s Leap!”

“Mom, is that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars?  or Winery?”

“Stag’s L_eaaa_p it says.”

“But is it WINE CELLARS or WINERY!?”

“What’s the difference?”

“There’s a difference.”

“Well it says Pine Ridge Stag’s Leap.”


So you can see that it is much easier to give buyers tools that will work whether or not I am available by cell phone!

That’s not to say I blame her, the world of wine is super complicated!  Sometimes I am overwhelmed, and there has been more than once that I have been somewhat desperate in a less than optimal retail store where the quality offerings are few and far between, so I resort to a very simple technique that I think is very reliable!  I merely try to hone in on a variety or style of wine I would like to drink (i.e. Riesling, Pinot Noir, Italian, Spanish) and if I am not familiar with the brand then spin the bottles around and look to see who imports the wine.

An importer is someone who goes through all the procedures to get a wine from its country of origin to the USA.  It then often passes through a distributor and on to a restaurant or retailer before it ends up on your table or in your cellar.  The importer’s job is much more difficult than just dealing with customs, shipping and the like.  More reputable importers take great care and time deciding what they are going to import.  If you want to know the very latest information about any wine region ask an importer that works with wines from that area and undoubtedly they have the most recent and pertinent information.  Ask them where to eat in the tiny towns in those regions and they know.  The best fine-tune their offerings bringing in the best wines they can get.  There is always a great deal of rapport between winemakers and their importers, and while there is a fine line between importers that change styles of wine to suit their constituents and those that merely suggest what styles are doing well in the states, they have their pulse on exactly what is going on in any region they represent.

As you get to know your favorite wine regions and wine styles, you will find which importers suit your tastebuds.  It’s kind of like deciding whether you like to listen to Parker or Tanzer, Decanter or Wine Spectator, or your favorite sommelier.  These importers often have distinct palates and you might see those reflected in their “books”, but if they are one thing they are consistent!

So the next time you are stranded in the wine store and cannot find something to take to a party or drink with dinner, flip those bottles around and get to know your importers, you will be taken on an amazing journey of flavor and discovery!

Here is my “short list” of some of my favorite importers.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, please comment by listing your favorites!  I may seem to be gushing, but I really want you to know how much these guys mean to me!

Terry Theise

Terry and his cronies visit Austria, Germany and Champagne at least annually to find the very best of the best. He doesn’t merely bring in all wines that his producers make, but he finds the creme de la creme and uses his leverage to fight for as many cases as he possibly can.  Terry has made AMAZING progress in making a name for Riesling in the US, without his efforts we would not see the Riesling Revival as we have in recent years.  He is a friend to his producers, sommeliers and retailers acting as the liaison adeptly with both expertise and humility.  Although he believes that Chardonnay shouldn’t be grown anywhere other than Burgundy or Champagne and is a little militant about that, he is firm in his convictions and has 100% faith in each and every wine he imports.  Add to that his amazing catalogs, all available to read online, that include an amazing wealth of knowledge offered in an incredibly down to earth and fun manner.  You can read all about his latest escapades, the latest vintages, the producers, and Terry’s unique perspective on just about everything.  Including the Horny Funk Brothers, and if that doesn’t make you want to tune in what does?  I would be remiss to not add that Skurnik also works with my former boss and wonderful Burgundy afficionado Daniel Johnnes!

Bartholomew Broadbent

I remember when I met Bartholomew Broadbent I was fresh from NYC and full of dreams of becoming an MW (Master of Wine).  Bartholomew is the son of one of my idols Michael Broadbent, Master of Wine, and I recall that when I ran into Bartholomew at the Balboa Cafe in the Marina District of San Francisco I was star struck.  My husband didn’t initially get it, because B seems like such a “normal” guy, but I explained that talking to him was for me like my husband having a heart to heart with Michael Jordan.  Over the years I have come to understand that Bartholomew has the easy care and humility that is requisite in a true wine professional.  He is cheeky and fun and doesn’t take himself too seriously except when it comes to his producers.  Bartholomew is always generous with his time and his producers are as well, I have met many of them and they are always easily accessible and the wines are absolutely unique.  The fun part of Broadbent Selections is that they have producers representing all corners of the globe, from Aresti in Chile, Spy Valley in New Zealand, Vilafonte and Warwick in South Africa, and Weinert in Argentina, that just scratches the surface!  Some of the more special producers, in my humble opinion, are the amazing wines (both Ports and Portuguese “table wines” for lack of a better term) from Quinta do Crasto in the Douro and the amazing wines of Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar in Lebanon, they never fail to please both in terms of flavor and of the amazing history that goes along with them.  And don’t forget to try Broadbent’s own Madeira and delicious Vinho Verde. 

Brian Larky

Got Italian?  Ask Larky.  Not only does he know EVERYBODY in the US and Italy, he selects some of the greatest wines around.  Specializing in Italian wines, Brian takes great care to make sure that both his producers and his staff truly understand each others’ world.  He is not afraid to bring the entire staff to Italy to meet his producers and additionally makes sure that his producers are willing to travel to the US to insure that there is a huge interaction of knowledge, camaraderie and a very clear company focus.  His producers are so tight that the sixteen work together voting on any interested new contenders.  With this extremely loyal group (Larky has never lost a producer), his staff truly knows the ins and outs of every product and the producer gets to see how each product is received on the market in person.  This results in great admiration and enjoyment of their wines by the US public.

Rudi Wiest

Now, don’t get me wrong here, Rudi is not the only great importer of German wines, but I think this is clearly his strong suit.  Recently Rudi held a tasting at Jardiniere restaurant in San Francisco where he wasn’t content to just showcase  his current releases but decided (rightly) that it was vital to show how these white wines age!!  I was astonished to hear the comments from sommeliers invited saying, “wow, this Riesling can really age!”  (Granted the wines he showed were phenomenal)  This reminded me that sommeliers are always learning.  That means that by raiding the cellar, Rudi is educating the buyer.  Rudi is again a humble soul despite his great achievements.  He brings in some of the most incredible wines and never bats an eye.  And to our friend that did not know Riesling can age, he was gracious and very polite but instructive.  Without him we would have much less to smile about.

Jorge Ordonez

Jorge Ordonez has done for Spanish wines what Ferran Adria of El Bulli has done for Spanish cuisine.  He has made the most unheard of corners of Spain some of the greatest highlights and has created a Renaissance in Spain’s most traditional regions.  I will drink ANYTHING with a Jorge label on it, no matter where it comes from, because despite all my studies I know that Jorge knows the corners of Spain better than I do.  Perhaps I am partial due to the time that Jorge joined me at my home with some of Spain’s best producers for an after party, but he cannot be stopped.  From the most elite and coveted “cult” wines from Spain (by the way this is a relatively new phenomenon created by Jorge, CULT wines from SPAIN?) to the value wines he brings to us at seemingly impossible prices he has the market cornered.  Granted, there are some great Spanish importers out there, but Jorge is like a hound dog sniffing out the forgotten or newest, greatest find and not only brings the wines to the US but brings the winemakers here.  He even takes our best sommeliers on the famed “death march” so that they can really understand the products and get the lay of the land.  It’s amazing that no one else has really understood the impact of educating the “front line” until recently.  Jorge has known that this formula works for years.  His wines are always great and have kept me company on many a night far from home!

Vermouth? Really?

10 12 2008
Most folks see vermouth as that dusty bottle on the back bar that bartenders pretend to add to their martini, but vermouth has been totally underestimated! Vermouth is an aromatized wine, a lightly fortified wine with added botanicals. It can be either red or white.  The recipe is closely guarded by each vermouth producer, the formula for Martini & Rossi dates back to 1863 and there are as many as forty botanicals in each of their vermouth styles.  Martini & Rossi also does not pasteurize their vermouth, but only lightly filters it.  Martini & Rossi is also well known for its Asti Spumante, a charmat method sparkling wine from the town of Asti in Piedmont.  Made from Moscato and at about 7.5% alcohol it’s a lively floral white sparkler. 

My first wine trip was in fall of 1993.  I was just out of college and was fortunate enough to be invited on a trip to Piedmont by Carlo Petrini and Slow Food.  This was before most of us even knew of the Slow Food movement.  We were extremely lucky, the ten of us, as we had the chance to visit multiple producers and basically live in Piedmont for 21 days.  It was towards the end of our trip when we were told we were going to go to Martini & Rossi, producer of Asti Spumate and Vermouth.  Now I had heard of Martini & Rossi before, seen it on bars all over the place, and I have to admit I was a bit jaded by this point in the trip.  We had tasted unbelievable Barolos and Barbarescos from Ceretto, Chiarlo, Vietti, and many many more.  We had had dinner with Angelo Gaja, who said “The women will sit next to ME!”  We had been wined and dined and had eaten more meat braised in wine than anyone could imagine.  Brats that we were, we were tired and irritated to have to drive out of our comfort zone for this visit.

We couldn’t have been more wrong, and man was I humbled.  The property was exceptional.  They had an amazing wine museum, but best of all, before we knew what was happening, we were ushered in to a wood paneled room complete with a full bar.  Before our eyes appeared aperitifs, and one of these was vermouth.  Vermouth both red and white, can be a delicious start to a meal.  The pleasant bitterness piques the palate and prepares it for food.  We were immediately put in a better mood and became much more comfortable after sipping these drinks.  Then we were escorted into a gorgeous dining room where we were served the most incredible Fontina cheese soup, called Fonduta.  It was covered in white truffles and ladled into our bowls from a large tureen.  As I gawked at the many white truffles floating in my bowl out of nowhere appeared a gentleman with white gloves and epaulettes who proceeded to shave MORE white truffle into my bowl.  I waited an embarassingly long time until I realized that he would continue shaving until I asked him to stop, so, somewhat reluctantly, I asked him to cease shaving.  After lunch and a delicious Bricco del Uccelone Barbera, they served us one of the most ethereal wines on earth, Asti Spumante.  While we had tried many Moscato d’Asti along our route, a less bubbly version, this was my first real Asti Spumante.  The effusive aromas of white grapes and flowers filled the glass and the low alcohol enabled us to drink it very easily.  The fully sparkling nature of the wine again cleansed our palates.  Just when we thought it was all over, another door opened and we were brought back to the bar/study to relax with Port and after lunch drinks.  

The lesson learned was that sometimes what may seem at first mundane can be extremely pleasurable in the proper context.  The experience taught me to be humble in everything I do and to refrain from generalizations or assumptions that are unmerited.  So I urge you to go and toast humility with a Martini & Rossi Vermouth or their Asti Spumante, and remember how wonderful they can be.

Martini & Rossi Rosso with Orange

In a rocks glass pour some Martini and Rossi Rosso and add a splash of Orange Juice.  Seems simple, and it is, but it’s extremely refreshing and gets the palate excited for food.  For the holidays try variations such as adding some nutmeg, orange peel or spices.

Martini & Rossi Celebrity Crush

I tasted this at the Martini & Rossi Andy Warhol Martini Factory Party at Tales of the Cocktail.  1 & 1/2 parts Martini & Rossi Rosso vermouth, 2 parts cranberry juice, 3/4 part simple syrup, 6 raspberries, 12 fresh rosemary needles.  Muddle raspberry, rosemary and syrup in a shaker, add ice, vermouth and cranberry juice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with rosemary sprig skewer with raspberries.

A Drink is Not a Drink

19 10 2008

I’m often asked to speak about wine and health which is ironic, I am the first to admit that my career does not always bring with it the most healthy drinking patterns.  But who hasn’t underestimated their consumption to their doctor…

But lately I have been thinking a lot about healthy drinking.  It’s said that a glass of wine for women or two for men can be healthful, whether for combatting the common cold, decreasing bad cholesterol, or relieving stress.  And some of us may partake of more than that, but it’s a good guideline.  Lately I have been more and more aware of the percentage alcohol in what I am drinking, it didn’t take too many times of imbibing left-over samples for me to become more cautious.

I an also very aware of how alcohol impairs my ability to drive, and I am very conscious of the amount I am drinking if I have my car with me.  Many times I have left my car overnight rather than risk it.

So you are wondering, well what’s the point?  Well, even those of us that are incredibly cautious can be surprised by the alcohol levels in certain wines nowadays.  I am not going to rant and rave about rising alcohol in California (although it’s happening here and in Europe too) but for those of you that are not in the business, I did want to remind you that it’s important to track not how many drinks you have had in how many hours, but the percentage of alcohol that is in your bloodstream.  This is vital in determining whether you are within the legal limitations in your state (or country, France has in recent years made their BAC limit 0.04!).  This can be very difficult to estimate especially because it depends on the absorption rate (whether you have eaten or are on medication can make a great difference), your weight and specifically percentage of body fat, your gender (women generally metabolize alcohol more slowly than men) and other factors.

To add to the complexity of the calculation add in the percentage alcohol and portion size of what you are consuming!  There’s a great difference between a 6 ounce glass of 13% alcohol wine and an 8 ounce glass of 14.5% wine.  In the UK, for example, there are clear guidelines for measured pours of beer, wine and spirits, so you generally know what to expect with serving size.  In the US we don’t have such standards, and those BAC charts or converters usually estimate a standard glass of wine as 5-6 ounces, and most assume that glass is 13% alcohol.  Alcohol levels of 13% are rare today and add to that the amount stated on the label can vary and wines between 7 and 14% alcohol can merely be labeled “Table Wine”.  Take a look next time you are in the store buying a bottle and you will be surprised.  I am doing a review of some California wines and the alcohols of ALL range from 14.3% (lowest) to 15%!

I also found a helpful formula on the Virgina Tech website, it can help you estimate “standard drinks” see link below.

6 ounce glass of 13% alcohol wine 1.56 standard drinks (8 ounces 2.08) 

6 ounce glass of 14% alcohol wine 1.68 standard drinks (8 ounces 2.24)

6 ounce glass of 15% alcohol wine 1.8 standard drinks (8 ounces 2.4)

I’m not against higher alcohol wines, but keep these factors in mind, and maybe think about drinking some of those with a designated driver or in front of the fire at home.  I remember one day leaving the McDonald’s drive through with my mother and then four year old brother Omar.  As she sipped her Coke he screamed “MOM!  You shouldn’t drink and drive!”  He’s right!

Staglin Benefit for Mental Health

16 09 2008

This past weekend my husband Michael and I headed up to Napa Valley to work as sommeliers at the Staglin Benefit for Mental Health. It ‘s amazing that it has been about eight years now that we have worked this amazing event, even including the 2001 benefit when many couldn’t get to California due to 9/11.

The event starts with a symposium where some of the nation’s leading professionals discuss progress from last year and what the future holds for mental health research in the coming years followed by an amazing tasting in the Staglin caves of some of California’s most prestigious cult wines. This is a once of a lifetime chance to taste all those bottles that the collectors are hoarding in their cellars, Harlan, Bond, Abreu, Screaming Eagle and tons of the “new guard” cult wines, Gargiulo, Sloan, Scarecrow, etc. Sometimes the least familiar names are those that are the best wines of the tasting! I heard great comments from those that came to my table, I was pouring Sloan.

This incredible tasting was followed by a concert by the Pointer Sisters on the property and then a four course dinner with food prepared by Mark Dommen of One Market Restaurant.

Over the past 14 years the Staglins have been able to donate $30 million to mental health research and the most amazing thing is that there are tangible results, their generosity never ceases to amaze me.

I hope you will consider attending next year, or a donation.

Thank you to Shari, Garen, Shannon and Brandon!

The Work With

22 08 2008

The Work With

The wine sales industry has many strange idiosyncrasies and weird business practices.  It cannot be likened to any other industry and typical business protocol does not apply.

For example, when a sales representative calls on an account, a restaurateur or retailer, to attempt to make an appointment, schedule a lunch, invite them to a special dinner with a leading vintner (gratis of course), there is absolutely no obligation for that call to be returned.

In the event that an appointment is made there is actually no real obligation to “make good” on that meeting by attending.  There is no real reason that the buyer needs to be on time.  During the meeting the buyer will continually be interrupted by deliveries and the like.  Sometimes instead of an appointment “the cattle call” is implemented where the buyer has the representatives wait in an informal line while they deal with other business, they are seen first come first served, but sometimes breaks are taken for lunch, etc. and there is no guarantee that the rep will get their 10 minutes with the buyer at all that day.

The wine sales job takes hours of time, follow-up, driving in circles making repeat calls, stalking, spending tons of time and money eating and drinking at the establishment, whatever it takes to cultivate a copacetic working relationship, or even the mere normal decorum of any other professional business transaction.

There is another weird anomaly in the wine business called “The Work With”  You may also hear it referred to as “The Drive With”, or in its negative context as “The Milk Run”.  If you hear about “The Blitz” that signifies multiple “Work Withs.”  The reason for the existence of “The Work With” stems from US laws created when rescinding Prohibition, all wines must be sold from a producer to a wholesaler to an account (retail or restaurant) in what is called the Three Tier System.  Generally, these wholesalers are relatively few in number, and despite consolidation the producers are more numerous.  Even large producers and brands can get lost in the portfolio of a large distributor and need extra attention, so they send in their staff to enforce a focus on their brands by doing, you got it, Work Withs.

I think folks on both sides of the Work With would agree that a Ride With is one of the most awkward social interactions possible.

Imagine… a random person that you’ve never met and possibly have never even spoken to, arrives in their own car at your hotel in a strange city to take you around the town.  Didn’t your mother ever tell you never to get in cars with strangers?  This is worse than a blind date.  You get in and take off on the road with who knows who.   It could be a spunky young woman, a sixty year old man, sales reps run the gamut of all walks of life.  There are generally the obligatory comments about the state of the vehicle, “I’m just borrowing this truck from my husband who’s a contractor, don’t worry about the huge crack in the windshield, that happened this morning.”  “Don’t put your stuff on the back seat, my son spilled his milk all over there last week and it is a bit gross.”  I am so sorry, my dog was in here and he just sheds everywhere.

Now wholesale reps, please bear with me, there are plenty of you who are absolutely normal, organized and productive, but generally you are the ones that move up to management quickly and don’t need to go on Work Withs.  That’s why I have never ridden with you.

Generally the conversation starts with small talk, “Hi, I’m Julie, thank you so much for your time.  We have a really full day.”  Or, “Hi, I’m Fred.  I have to apologize, you see there’s a winemaker in town, most buyers are super busy doing inventory and my cat was sick last week so I have been having a hell of a time finding appointments, but I figure we can pop into a few places, it should be a great day.”  Then they rattle off a slew of accounts that are planned visits (most of which will never actually show up or will shush you away because they don’t want to taste.)

You talk about their kids, your kids, or your lack of kids, your pets, where you’ve lived, etc.  It is excruciating.  Imagine your worst blind date ever, because this is not going anywhere.  Occasionally you’ll find a really great match-up that you click with immediately, which can be fun.  This happened to me when after three horrible Work Withs I got in the car with the rep and said, “Look, no offense to you personally, but I just cannot take one more minute of small talk, so if you don’t have anything interesting to say can we just get through this day without it.”  She and I immediately got along and had tons to talk about.  This is a rare occurrence.

You’ll sit together at lunch, which is usually easier as you can talk about food, the weather, etc.  Hopefully they will pull out their computer and put in some orders to take up some time.  But then all too soon it’s back to the car.  You hop in and out with heavy bags laden with wines to show to the buyers.  When you enter the door of the account you immediately become close buddies, friends even, which is hilarious.

But the best is when you get someone really dysfunctional.  For example, as you’re driving along you realize that you are playing the role of “driver’s ed instructor”, slamming your foot down at every intersection as they are gabbing on their Blackberry.  Very close to reaching for the wheel as they careen towards the median while browsing through their account list (in 10 point font), stretching to find a place for you to go for your next visit.  Turning to tell you their life story while staring at you.

You can attempt the tried and true tactics of faking phone calls, texting, mad emailing, even writing Thank You notes while in the car, but to no avail.  You’re trapped.

You will inevitably hear about their most secret indiscretions, “This is between us but…”  You must understand that most salespeople lead an otherwise solitary existence, working from home, alone most of the day, dining alone, visiting accounts alone, so this is their (and your) chance to break out.  Ironically most of these folks are otherwise very social people.  At any rate, while you’re careening toward the median they’ll be discussing their recent affair with the brand manager of a certain winery and how they got married but he disappeared for a few weeks so she gave away his samples and the relationship surprisingly ended on a bad note.

The driving deteriorates once you start heading out to “hit a few accounts” after the rep has exhausted the possibility of tasting with any more buyers.  You have a few cocktails at bars while she tells you about her recent bout with E. coli.  He may have his dogs in the car.  You may go to get an oil change, pick up dry cleaning, go to the bank or hang out in his back yard while he checks his email.

Hopefully the day will end early when she goes to pick up her kids at 4:30, you’ll wait in the car with her until 5:15 and then she will drop you at your next account to take a cab to your hotel.  Or even worse it may end around 11pm when after a long dinner and many wines later you enjoy the tenuous drive home.

But that’s the nature of the wine sales business, so if you think you can handle it, even enjoy it, go right ahead.  I can’t wait to see you after your first Work With.