Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Colorado Wine Deserves a Seat at the Adults' Table

This past weekend, I hosted a blind wine tasting with a dual theme. The first half of the tasting was devoted to pinot noir. This portion was divided into two flights, one for old-world style wines and a second for bolder new-world style wines. As we had five bottles for the new world flight and only three for the old-world flight, I decided to put a Colorado pinot noir into the first flight. In a lineup that included two Grand Cru Burgundies and a famous Oregon pinot noir, the Colorado wine showed its high quality but also showed that Colorado still has a long way to go to make world-class pinot noir.

The second half was an open category in which people brought a special bottle that wasn't pinot noir. There was a syrah flight, a Brunello di Montalcino flight and a Bordeaux-style flight. In the syrah flight, I slipped in a Colorado syrah with two other high-pedigree syrahs. One bottle was a California syrah that Robert Parker, Jr. rated 100 pts for a previous vintage. The other was a twenty year-old syrah from France's Rhône Valley that Robert Parker, Jr. did rate 100 points when it was released! The Colorado syrah not only showed very well compared to these two famous wines, it was also voted as wine of the flight by more than half of my guests. One of the guests who had attended a previous tasting was jokingly horrified that he enjoyed the lowly Colorado wine more than the two famous syrahs! While not everyone preferred the Colorado syrah and these results may not be replicable, this just goes to show that points don't necessarily correspond to individual preferences, and that Colorado wines can sit at the table with the 'adults' of the wine world!

Below are my brief notes from the two flights that included Colorado wines. They are not as descriptive as my notes usually are as I didn't not spend as much time with each wine as I normally do.

Flight One, Old-World style Pinots (single blind):

Wine 1: Lovely cloves, leather and spice. Did not benefit from a decant but it keeps getting better in the glass. Excellent Dominique Laurent, Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru, 1998 Group Wine of the Flight (WOTF)-tie

Wine 2: Intense aromas and flavors of fresh flowers and strawberries. Very smooth and it clearly stands out as different from the other three. Excellent Domaine Serene, Grace Vineyard, Willamette Valley, 2004

Wine 3: Muted nose, especially compared #2. Very light, but nice palate. A good wine but clearly outclassed by the others in the flight. Very Good Jack Rabbit Hill, M&N, Colorado, 2006

Wine 4: A peer to #1, but with a bit more body and less finesse. Cloves, leather and mushrooms. Excellent Domaine Louis Latour, Chateau Corton Grancey, Corton Grand Cru, 1996 Group WOTF-tie

Flight Three, Syrah (single blind):

Wine 1: Good complexity and depth of flavors. Black fruits with a slight spiciness. Very smooth with fine tannins. Very Good/Excellent Boulder Creek Winery, Colorado, 2008 Group WOTF

Wine 2: Big dark and brooding. Massive tannins hide the dark fruit. This wine is big and closed! Needs plenty of time in the bottle or a long decant. Good Donelan, Cuvée Christine, 2008

Wine 3: This wine is clearly in different league than the other two and is hard to compare it to them. Very complex, but sour cherries are what stand out. Long finish and obviously something special. While this is without a doubt a world-class wine, I preferred the youth and freshness of Wine 1 slightly to this wine. Excellent M. Chapoutier, Cote-Rotie, "La Mordoree," 1991

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hype of 2009

With most of the big name wine critics such as Robert Parker, James Suckling and James Molesworth (well not all the big names as Joe Roberts was in South America) heading to Bordeaux recently to taste the much hyped 2010 vintage barrel samples, I thought that it was time to try the previous "vintage of the century" from one year prior. Both 2009 Bordeaux and Beaujolais were even more critically acclaimed than initial prognostications of Bordeaux 2010. Driven by demand in China, the top chateaus of Bordeaux have reached record prices to go with the record scores. Robert Parker gave 2009 Beaujolais its best vintage rating ever, at 97 pts. Parker even had to add asterisks to his scores indicate that the 2009 Bordeaux wines were some of the best Bordeaux he had ever tried. It seems obvious that almost any of these wines should be exceptional!

However, most regular consumers, including myself, will never drink those top Bordeaux wines lauded by these elite critics. Beaujolais is another story. While many people probably think of the colorful bottles of Noveau that hit the shelves every November, top Beaujolais are more economically accessible than even moderately priced Bordeaux. To see what all the hype was about with the 2009 vintage in these two regions, I headed to my local liquor store to buy one bottle of each type.

2009 Grand Bateau, Bordeaux

This blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon is as entry level of a Bordeaux as one can get. At under $10 retail, this type of Bordeaux is what most consumers will have experience with. Not to be confused with Chateau Beychevelle, the classified chateau in St. Julien, as this bottle is adorned with an image of the same boat that adorns the grand vin. Unfortunately, this wine does not approach the quality of such a wine and isn't even listed on the Beychevelle website. It is a dark, almost beet-like purple color and smells very grapey, no doubt because it is so young, but I also smell notes of blackberries and cocoa powder. It is even less complex once you taste it. I struggled, but associated flavors of dark chocolate and tobacco with this wine, but can only describe it as little more than tannic purple water. I will definitely have to move up the ladder with my next 2009 Bordeaux purchase.12.5% abv Purchased $10. Fair/Average (tasted 2/24/11)

2009 Domaine du Vissoux, Cuvée Traditionnelle vielles-vignes, Beaujolais

This Gamay is more than a step up from your quaffable Beaujolais Noveau. While it is a dark crimson in color, it has very light cranberry and strawberry aromas behind the powerful floral bouquet. There is also a hint of earthiness on the nose that is almost Pinot Noir-like. In the mouth it is tart. Cranberries, tart strawberries and even lemons dominate. The earthiness is still present will a bit of mushrooms showing through. While a bit tart (which should fade with some bottle age) this wine is tasty. I look forward to trying more 2009 Beaujolais.11.5% abv Purchased $16. Good/Very Good (tasted 2/26/11)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wine Credentials

A few days ago I was looking at my website statistics and two thoughts came to mind. The first was, why are my Blogger statistics and my Google Analytics statistics so different? They are both run by Google so it is only reasonable to assume that they measure the same data. I wishfully trust the Blogger statistics as they show about 900 visitors per month over the past three months, whereas Google claims that I've had only about 300 visitors per month over the same time. I'm not going to discuss this thought, but if you would like to continue reading about this conundrum, go check out Steve Heimoff's post on a very similar question from January. However, while looking at these statistics I noticed that many my most popular posts were about my experience with the Society of Wine Educator's certification program that I went through. I then realized that I had not posted about my results. And with the interesting conversation over on Twitter a few weeks ago with Lenn Thompson, Joe Roberts, Steve Paulo and Joe Herrig, I thought I should report on my results and discuss other wine certification options. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for you, Mr. Roberts posted an excellent vlog about wine certifications over at 1WineDude.com. So here, I attempt to put into written word, without plagiarizing, what the amateur-gone-pro has done via multimedia.

As Joe Roberts said in his video, there are only three widely recognized wine certifications programs. These are, in no particular order, the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) and the Society of Wine Educators (SWE). Each has a different purpose, audience and variety of levels. If you are thinking about obtaining one or more of these credentials, think about why you want a certification. Do you need a certification for a job? Are you an enthusiastic consumer that just wants to have a structured environment in which to further your wine knowledge? Are you looking for instant credibility for your winery or wine blog?

I'll be honest and admit what most other bloggers won't and say that part (not most) of my desire to obtain a certification was to have a bit of credibility for my new wine blog (yes, the one you are currently reading). However, most of my motivation involved my two paying jobs. I work in the wine industry as a part-time staff member of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. I thought having a some type of credential would help me in my work with Colorado's winemakers and grape growers. Turns out not many of them are familiar with or a care about highfalutin wine certifications. However, my other job is as an adjunct instructor at my alma mater (and current school for my Ph.D. work), the University of Denver (DU). I currently teach a sequence of environmental science courses but secretly (or maybe not so secretly) desire to teach a Geography of Wine course. Degrees and credentials are important in the field of education and a wine-related certification may go a long way to convince the powers that be to let me create a wine course. Thus, the obvious choice of certification would be offered by the aptly named Society of Wine Educators. For this reason, I decided to embark on the journey to become a Certified Wine Educator (CWE).

The first stop on this journey was to become a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW). This certification is based on the results of a 100-question multiple-choice exam and "recognizes a high standard of academic wine knowledge and the mastery of key elements within the world of wine and vine as determined by a team of wine industry educators." As I explained in previous posts, I purchased the 214-page SWE CSW Study Guide, access to the online SWE wine academy and browsed through my collection of wine books on loan from the DU library. I studied for about six weeks before I was scheduled to take the exam here in Denver. After the exam, I waited another six weeks for the results and was proud that I passed with a score of 91/100. While I would not call the exam easy, I would say that the 75% passing level could be achieved by most people with a moderate amount of wine knowledge and lack of test anxiety.

The next level of wine certification from SWE is the CWE. From what I can tell, this entails a much greater level of knowledge and ability. While a shorter multiple-choice exam is still part of the process, an essay question, a varietal wine identification tasting, a wine components and imbalances tasting, a wine presentation skills demonstration AND proof of responsible alcohol service certification (such as TiPS) are required. This level of assessment "recognizes a fluid ability to draw comparisons and recognize contrast within and between the various wine regions, grape varieties and wine styles of the world from both a theoretical and practical standpoint." When you see CWE next to someone's name, you should expect to meet a person with excellent knowledge about wine and the ability to educate others about it. One my 2011 goals is to complete the CWE certification (along with hoping they offer an exam in Denver!).

For those of you in the service part of the industry, the Court of Master Sommeliers might be more appropriate. The ultimate credential offered by this organization might be the most well-known wine credential in the United States. The focus of this program is not only on academic knowledge but also on professional wine service. Yet, before one becomes a Master Sommelier three other levels must be achieved. The first, the Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam, is "given over a two day period with candidates receiving intensive review, instruction and training by a team of Master Sommeliers on wines and spirits knowledge, proper wine service, and blind tasting." This program is concluded with a 70-question multiple-question theory exam with only a 60% score needed for passing. The second level exam consists of a blind tasting of two wines, a written theory examination, and a practical service examination. Again, the required score to pass this level, and obtain the Certified Sommelier designation, is 60%. If a candidate has passed both the Introductory and Certified Sommelier exams, and has at least five years of wine service experience, he or she may apply for the Advanced Sommelier Course. Three days of intensive lectures by Master Sommeliers are followed by a two-day exam in which candidates must present practical wine service, a written theory exam and a blind tasting of six wines. Candidates pass this level with a minimum score of 60% on each of these three sections. At this point, candidates may be invited to take the Master Sommelier exam. This final assessment is similar to the Advanced exam except that the theory section is oral and the passing grade is 75% on all three sections. Once this is achieved, the title of Master Sommelier is bestowed. Only 180 individuals in the world can lay claim to this title.

Perhaps most prestigious credential in the world is given by the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) based in the U.K. However, the unofficial feeder program for those wishing to become a Master of Wine (MW) is the WSET, also U.K.-based. Again, the WSET has a variety of levels of qualification. The entry level, 1-day Foundation Certificate provides basic wine knowledge. A total of 70% correct on the 30-question multiple-choice exam is required to achieve this level. The level 2 Intermediate Certificate in Wine and Spirits provides vocational training and is assessed with a 50-question mutliple-choice exam, with a mark of 55% considered passing. The third level, Advanced Certificate in Wine and Spirits, is a more detailed program that requires a 55% grade on a 50-question multiple-choice exam, two essay questions and a blind tasting of two wines. The fourth level, Diploma in Wine and Spirits, is the WSET's flagship qualification and is considered a stepping stone to the MW credential. This program is divided into 6 units and participants must pass each unit with a minimum score of 55%. After obtaining this distinction one should have "expert knowledge of the principal wines and spirits of the world combined with commercial factors and a thorough system for the professional evaluation of wines." After earning the WSET Diploma, the IMW offers the MW program that "promotes a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding wine at the highest level" that only 288 others have achieved.

Finally, groups like the International Wine Guild, the International Sommelier Guild and even Wine Spectator and Robert Parker's Wine Advocate are offering their own wine certification programs. While these programs provide a structured learning environment that may suit your needs, they are in a different league than credentials from the big four mentioned above. Like with all things, a savvy consumer will consider bang for the buck, so if you are interested in earning a wine credential, do yourself a favor and do some research. Go to each organization's website. Ask people with credentials what they think. If you're going to be spending your hard-earned money and valuable time on these post-nominals, find the program that is best for you.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What grape did you say?

The wine world revolves around a few well-known grape varieties. Most people know the grapes cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay. When one thinks of the world's most famous wine regions, they usually produce one or more of these grapes. Colorado is no different. Merlot, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are Colorado's most widely planted grapes, closely followed by syrah and cabernet franc. While many excellent wines are produced from these traditional vinifera cultivars, Colorado also produces interesting wines from lesser-known grapes. Two that I have enjoyed this past week used some of these lesser-known grape varieties.

Among these lesser-known varieties include Vitis vinifera and French-American hybrids. While most people know the names of the top few grape cultivars, there are hundreds of other varieties of the traditional winemaking grape species. Usually limited to the regions in which they are native, these grapes often yield  unique and high-quality wines but remain difficult to sell due to their hard to pronounce names. On the other hand, hybrid grape varieties have a bastardized reputation. Vinifera cultivars have been crossbred with other grapes species that have traits which allow them to be cultivated in cold or other marginal grape-growing regions. While they often have a poor reputation, Cornell University and other viticultural research institutions have experimented with and released cultivars that lack the negative enological characteristics and highlight the positive viticultural traits that make these grapes interesting options for wineries.

Lemberger, the vinifera grape cultivar also known as Blaufränkisch in Austria, has found a home in Colorado. The German name (Lemberger) for this grape is derived from its importation from Lemberg, in what was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but is now Slovenia. While it is the second-most planted red grape in Austria today, Lemberger is also found in small amounts in Germany, Washington State and New York State, in addition to Colorado.

Even less common than elusive vinifera grapes, hybrids have been bred by viticulturalists to combine the pleasing flavors of Vitis vinifera with the climate-hardy and disease-resistant native American and Asiatic grape species. Hybrids such as Baco Noir, Marechal Foch and Vidal Blanc have been a part of the northeastern U.S. wine industry for decades. Foch is a inter-specific hybrid containing Vitis vinifera, Vitis raparia and Vitis rupestris heritages, that is starting to find its place in Colorado. Foch was developed in Alsace, France by Ferdinand Foch. Another hybrid found in Colorado, Corot Noir (formerly NY70) was developed by Bruce Reisch at Cornell University. While consumers may be hesitant to buy wines with lesser-known grapes, some wineries have gotten past this preconception by giving these wines fanciful names.

Carlson Vineyards of Palisade, CO opened their doors in 1988. Situated in the Grand Valley AVA, Carlson Vineyards holds the fourth-oldest winery license in the state. Carlson has fun giving their wines names inspired by local themes – like Tyrannosaurus Red and Prairie Dog Blush. The T-Red Lemberger refers to the discovery of dinosaur bones in the Grand Valley in the early 1900s. While people may not know what Lemberger is, they can easily recognize the short-armed dinosaur raising his glass on the colorful label.

Jack Rabbit Hill is another winery making use of non-traditional grapes. Located just west of the West Elks AVA on Redlands Mesa at 6200 feet above sea level, Jack Rabbit Hill makes organic and biodynamic wines from their 70-acre farm. All of their estate wines are Demeter-certified biodynamic and organic, and their non-estate wines are single-vineyard bottlings made from certified organic grapes. While most of their wines are varietally labeled, their amalgamation of estate vinifera and hybrid grapes is simply called Barn Red. The name evokes images rolling farmland and red barns with fresh and pure ingredients

2009 Carlson Vineyards Tyrannosaurus Red, Grand Valley, Colorado

This unique wine is crafted from 100% Colorado-grown Lemberger from the Grand Valley AVA. This quaffable red is almost Beaujolais-like with very fruity and bubblegum-like aromas. Showing a light-bodied fruitiness, with light tannins and a slight pepperiness, this wine is an interesting, easy-drinking wine that that should be added to your summer drinking list. 14.4% abv Gift from family $13. Good (tasted 3/5/11)

2008 Jack Rabbit Hill Barn Red, Colorado Red Wine

This blend of malbec, marechal foch, petit verdot, cabernet franc and NY70 (corot noir) uses two French-American hybrids; Marechal Foch and Corot Noir. Grown on Jack Rabbit Hill, at approximately 6200 ft of elevation, near the small town of Hotchkiss, this collection of grapes leads to an inky purple wine that yield interesting aromas that include dark fruit and a slight pepperiness. On the palate, the wine is lighter than one would guess based on the color. It is earthy, but with black and blue fruit flavors combined with smooth tannins and a long finish. All I can say is yum! 13.5% abv Purchased $16. Good/Very Good (tasted 3/8/11)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The true wine dichotomy

In his recent New York Times column, and subsequent blog post, Eric Asimov boiled the choices for describing wine down to two words: sweet and savory. Asimov declares that many tasting notes "only succeed in making wines incomprehensible" and suggests using one of those two words to describe all wines. While he is being overly simplistic in his descriptive efficiency, he is also has the dichotomy wrong. If wine descriptions are to be reduced to two choices, a better dichotomy for the consumer is whether the wine is worthy of buying or not.

As people experience sweetness and savoriness in different ways, and if two broad categories are able to "explain more about the essence of any bottle than the most florid, detailed analogies ever could," what better categories are there than saying a wine is worth your hard earned money? After all, that really is the reason for all the descriptive words, badges and scores thrown around by every critic, writer, journalist, blogger and wine guru these days.

Many consumers have a mental rubric into which they input all those data just to compute the binary purchase decision (to buy or not to buy?). Why don't all tasting notes tell consumers whether they should buy a wine or not? The answer may or may not surprise you. It is because wine is a complex and dynamic product. I don't mean so complex that consumers can't understand it, but complex in the sense that tastes, preferences and circumstances are varied and change over time. They change as both a person's palate and wine's characteristics evolve. If wine description is stripped to its simplest elements as Asimov attempts to do, then the discourse and individual choice that it evokes will be lost.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Backstage Pass

Barrel tasting is an exciting experience for wine lovers. It is a behind the scenes look at the winemaker's craft. Barrel tasting is like a backstage pass that allows you to look at the set list before the band takes the stage. But what if the lead singer asked you what you thought? How cool would it be to have a say in the outcome of the performance? Unfortunately, bands and winemakers don't often seek advice from their customers. However, at Boulder Creek Winery, wine club members actually get a say in what goes into the bottle! I've highlighted the process behind this unique opportunity in an article on Palate Press.