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My year in wine, the summary

27 Dec

So 2011 was a bit of an important year for me, wine-wise because I

• Joined the Boston Sommelier Society after a whole lot of trepidation about not working in the industry for reals
• Got a subscription to Wine Spectator and didn’t open a damn issue
• Took the Australian Wine Immersion Program course.
• Started working with a startup wine site (more about this at some later point when appropriate)
• Tried Penfolds Grange
• Tried Nicolas Joly
• Spent about $2800 on wine
• Met Jean-Luc Thunevin
• Housed 150 bottles in my apartment
• Passed the CSW exam.
• Checked out Virginia’s vineyards
• Got my own personalized wino tour of Austin
• Led about two dozen wine tours in Boston for my new part-time job with City Wine Tours
• Had a bunch of fun with Red White Boston
• Tasted over 400 wines.

All that kept me busy, for sure. So expect a bunch of back-filled posts one of these days.


Booze review: High West 36th Vote

12 Sep

Bottled Manhattans

Bottles like this used to sell snake oil.

So the Gin Savant and I were browsing the wares of one of our fave booze pimps when the proprietor pulled us aside excitedly to show us the limited number of bottles of High West’s 36th Vote bottled Manhattans in stock. The name comes from the deciding vote to end Prohibition cast by–wait for it–Utah. Yeah. Osmondromneyville*. Go figure.

Here’s the basic gist of bottled or casked cocktails. You take all the ingredients of a cocktail–in this case, vermouth, whiskey and bitters–throw them in a cask, let it age, bottle it, and voila, sell it to the market for an exorbitant price: $55. Yeah, you read that right.

Proponents of this fad say it creates a maturing effect like wine: things mellow out like a fine Bordeaux. It’s easy to sip, more refined, and some other blather that I’m not buying. Yeah, well, Bordeaux often comes out of the cask kicking and screaming in all its tannic glory, and it’s the bottle-aging that calms it down.

Mnahattans are not supposed to go down your gullet as smooth as Hawaiian Punch or Hi-C. You are not supposed to chug them. It’s supposed to be a melange of flavors and intensities. It’s supposed to go down harsh and bitter on you, like a bored housewife in a Cheever story giving a blowjob with teeth as the protagonist ruminates on the existential hell of the suburbs and wishes he were Joe DiMaggio or something. There was no edge to this. There was nothing grabbing us, because this thing was too smooth and bland. All the elements tasted the same. Like liquid wood. And what, I ask, is the point of that?

We ended up throwing in more bitters, three-week-old past-its-prime red vermouth, and a shot of some other whiskey to make it taste better. If you need training wheels on your cocktails, this stuff is for you.

But for $55–yep, you still read that right–you can damn well buy your own Old Overholt ($12), Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth ($6), bitters of choice ($18) and maraschino cherries ($4 at the packie) to make big-boy-and-girl Manhattans and still have a crap ton of money left over, unless you are a total cocktail prick connoisseur and get Luxardo maraschino cherries. The only thing you don’t get is the awesome old-school apothecary bottle, which was the only thing we saved. The Gin Savant’s got it in his head to make bathtub gin and he wants something pretty to put it in.
*I’m going to digress a sec. Utah and booze: let me tell you a story–10+ years ago, I drove cross-country with an acquaintance moving to San Francisco. We stopped for the evening in Wendover, which is this casino town split on the Nevada/Utah border. My friend and I were toodling around the casino and she wanted a picture of herself pretending to play the twenty-five foot tall slot machine. Before the flash even faded away, we were set upon by a fat goon squad. Long epic shitstorm story short, we got questioned and carded and questioned some more before they let us go, film still intact. Why? Because the Mormon faithful don’t want to be photographed drinking and, Moroni forbid, gambling. They get kinda touchy that way.

My take on opportunities and challenges for the Australian wine industry (if anyone cares.)

20 Aug

A lot of you know Aussie wines were my first loves, so this subject is near to my liver, oops, heart. The Guild of Sommeliers held a essay competition for members for an Australian educational enrichment program. I didn’t get the trip, but hey, I got a blog post!
+ + +

The past few years have not been easy for the Australian wine industry in general. The success of mass-produced wine and status of Yellowtail as the number one imported wine in the US have given rise to a perception solely based on cheap, over-engineered bulk wine that even the recent years of drought cannot entirely erase—-or export in toto with success.

The Australian dollar’s parity with the U.S. dollar now negates Australia’s price-to-quality advantage even on higher-prestige names. The challenge lies in negotiating a middle path that keeps both extremes of the industry—-both small vineyards and large brands—-producing and profitable. By shifting the public’s awareness from $10 and under wines to higher $15 to $45 ranges, Americans will eventually realize that there is greater variety—-and reward—-to Brand Australia.

In addition, Australia’s flagship wines—-easy drinking yet bold Shiraz, heavily oaked Chardonnay—-are out of favor currently with American palates. Being able to point to a specific region can also lessen the challenge to educate consumers about the flavor profiles and nuances of critical but misunderstood or lower-profile wines such as Riesling and Semillon. The latter may be an easier sell then the former, given the unfortunate mark that budget European Riesling has left on American tastes over the decades.

It could be argued that Australia’s current perception problem has deeper roots than simply agricultural ones, stemming back to Australia’s worldwide pop culture juggernaut in the 1980s fueled by entertainment exports such as Men at Work, Air Supply, The Thorn Birds, and of course, Crocodile Dundee. Boomers and Gen Xers have indelible, iconic–and erroneous– ideas of Australia as a casual, beach-going, laid-back, bushwhacking, Foster’s Beer-swilling, Vegemite-snacking society where both the men and the women are tough and proficient in knife-throwing.

Millennial consumers have less need for “retraining” than their parents and grandparents. They have fewer touchstones and perceptions of larger-than-life Australian culture and personalities to set aside. And given this generation’s propensity to forge their own paths earlier in life and take more risks, the ability for the Australian wine industry to present them with images of younger winemaking stars such as Ben Glaetzer and Anna Pooley could resound very deeply.

Given that Americans are now more concerned than ever with where their food products come from, there may be potential for the Australian wine industry to position its wine as a complement to the locavore movement. Affluent consumers who are inclined to pay more for organic apples from New Zealand at Whole Foods Market, or shares of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, are more willing to pay premium prices for goods of higher perceived quality and benefits, as well as experiment and try both new varietals and wine regions. This may especially be effective in areas where local wine is sub-par or the viticulture industry nascent.

The strategy to demarcate regionally-specific wines can also assuage Americans’ aversion for surprise. The similarities between the two nations as former British colonies establish an instant kinship. Australia is on the other side of the world, but in many ways, it is as close as Canada. That Australia is also the most significant English-speaking wine producing nation after the U.S. would instill a level of high level of comfort in consumers who avoid the French wine sections of their purveyors because they confuse Cotes du Rhone with Cote de Beaune or think Chablis is an actual grape variety. This is where education engenders loyal consumers. When consumers feel empowered enough to confidently make purchases themselves based on regions they have begun to trust and appreciate, they will often stick to what they know and venture out slowly.

Those who tell stories for a living know the advice that “if you want to write about or depict the universal, you must be specific.” Put in other words, consumers will find something identifiable in organic or market-driven narratives if they themselves can recognize something in them about themselves.

Americans have a soft spot for underdogs. And Australia is home to some of the harshest, most difficult winemaking conditions on Earth. The story of winemaking there is an epic one of surviving and thriving against the immutable forces of nature and carving out beauty and bounty. The end of the story—the bottled, finished product—are in their own ways miraculous, poetically mad things: manifestations of devotion, sheer determination to succeed in harmony with (and often despite) nature.

For the American wine-consuming public, there are still epic stories for Australia to tell.

Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone 2008

1 Oct

Legend has it that a pope in the 1100s or thereabouts –back when popes weren’t especially religious or pious or celibate–sent a lackey on ahead to locate the best wine in Italy. Said lackey, upon finding the best, would mark the door of the establishment with “est” (it’s here?). One certain purveyor was so good, the lackey was moved to paroxysms of chalking the door.Ecco Est.

Est certainly inexpensive. Est very drinkable for 12.5% abv. Est had a pleasant-enough oily texture, tasting of grapefruit, lemon, wet wool and a tenacious weight on the tongue that slid into an acorn-like finish.

Est the best? Nest.

Verdict: My notes say “like a commuter on a train, drink it and don’t think twice.” No, I wasn’t drunk. That was my rather pretentious way of saying that, like a commuter who travels the same route every day and looks through the same things every day going elsewhere, that’s the experience of this wine.

Bin Ends, $9