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Thickheaded Somms: Examining the neuroscience behind expert wine tasting

Among our many activities, wine professionals devote a considerable amount of time to perception, the state of being where we become aware of something through the senses.  According to Neuroenology author Gordon Shepard, wine tasting engages more of our brain than activities like complex math and listening to classical music. Given that activation is how we learn things and sharpen our cognitive skills, it’s no wonder that tasters who spend hours every day activating the neural systems involved in perception make something as difficult as blind tasting look so easy.

Shepherd, a Professor of Neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine, is primarily focused on biomechanics and how the physical act of tasting wine informs our perceptions. His perspective is the flip side of the focus most tasters place on the factors that influence the quality and style of a wine. His work has inspired several columns that have appeared here on the perception of color and how our brains create perceptions of aroma and taste. Anecdotally, I’ve seen firsthand that even a basic understanding of the mechanics of sensory physiology gives students an advantage as they learn to taste analytically and to work more objectively. 

In my own work with a group of adult wine enthusiasts — many of whom have had formal wine education and hold trade certifications — it’s the study of wine faults that opened the doors to a far greater understanding of wine quality and to the molecular world of volatile aromas. Researchers agree that individuals who are adept at naming wine flavor descriptors are better at visualizing and recalling the memories of aromas which, in turn, makes it possible to recognize wines they have tasted previously. Because wine’s distinct taste relies in a large part on volatile aroma compounds and not on molecules that provide nutrition, Shepherd posits that it’s possible for wine drinkers to concentrate exclusively on perceptual details of flavor.

Meanwhile, in a recent study that compared Master Sommeliers’ brains to those of a control group, researchers found that the sommeliers had a “thicker” sensory area. The sommeliers’ brains showed “specialization” in the olfactory and memory networks and these differences suggest that sensory training might result in enhancements in the brain well into adulthood.

When it comes to expanding your perception of wine faults, Jaime Goode’s book Flawless: Understanding Wine Faults is an excellent reference.  One of the most challenging aspects of studying the processes that ruin wine is bridging the world of academic research with the firsthand experiences of winemakers. This is something Goode does very effectively when discussing the complex topics of sulfur and oxidation. Flawless is one of the textbooks I require for the college wine faults classes I’m currently teaching and students like those mentioned above are finding it particularly helpful.  

The 19th-century English artist William Blake wrote “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”  (Fittingly, Blake’s feelings about mankind’s limited perception of the reality inspired another author, Aldous Huxley, to explore altered consciousness in his book The Doors of Perception.) Throughout history, however, wine’s effect on perception has been most closely tied to a phrase in Latin, in vino veritas, “in wine lies the truth.” Expert or not, most tasters are inclined to agree.

See pdf here –


A Home for “The Prisoner”

The Prisoner Wine Company takes up residence in Napa Valley

From the moment its first 385-case lot was labeled, The Prisoner has been an outlier in the California wine industry. A leading representative of the shift starting in the late 1990s from single-varietal wines to unconventional blends, the brand and its dark, brooding label served as an antidote to the brighter imagery gallivanting across bottles when The Prisoner made its debut in 2000.

Given its track record and staying power, The Prisoner has long been primed for a dedicated winery to accommodate its growth: Since being acquired in 2016, The Prisoner Wine Company’s portfolio has more than doubled its offerings from its original five labels.

Last month, the company formally put down roots at last at its new Napa Valley facility, located on Highway 29 just south of St. Helena. Transforming an existing structure – the former Franciscan Winery – on the property, San Francisco architect Matt Hollis imbued the 40,000-square-foot space with an industrial aesthetic featuring high ceilings, a mix of metal finishes, and an 8-by-57-foot skylight in The Makery, a collection of four light-filled studios for local artists and artisans.

For many of the design elements, Hollis and interior designer Richard Von Saal, a Napa Valley native, drew inspiration from the distinctive branding that spans the company’s portfolio. Their interpretation of the label for the Zinfandel-dominant blend Saldo, for example, can be seen in the red accents interspersed throughout the space.

Graphic wall coverings reminiscent of vines reference cuttings, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon blend, while the intricate wire sculpture suspended over the center island of the gender-neutral bathroom echoes the label for Thorn, a Napa Valley Merlot blend. Reclaimed wood from the Bay Bridge is also cleverly utilized throughout the building.

As they explore the new winery, those familiar with the look and feel of The Prisoner Wine Company’s branding will find themselves immersed as never before in the company’s ethos. First-timers, meanwhile, will experience a stylish departure from Napa’s typical rough-luxe décor.

Meet the Makers

Beyond the large tasting lounge and the open-view exhibition kitchen, the center of the new facility has been configured into the aforementioned studio space called The Makery, where various pieces have been commissioned exclusively for the space.

Conceived to unite craftsmanship and wine appreciation, The Makery will offer several experiences to consumers that incorporate close interaction with the artists and their respective wares, which, according to Property Director Brigid Harris, are inspired by Napa Valley and The Prisoner Wine Company’s wines.

These guest immersions include The Makery Journey, a 75-minute tour of the vineyard and culinary garden that concludes with a tasting of five wines in The Makery. From Thursday through Sunday, the winery also hosts a food and wine pairing aptly named The Makery Experience, which spans 90 minutes and couples small bites prepared by Executive Chef Brett Young with limited-release wines.

The initial lineup of makers occupying The Makery includes designers Aplat and Carrie Saxl; sculptor Agelio Batle; Napa-based Amanda Wright Pottery; ceramicist Holly McVeigh of RBW Handmade; Melanie Abrantes Designs, which specializes in items made from cork and wood; and Soap Cauldron, an artisanal bath and skincare company.

Among the artisanal food offerings, meanwhile, are organic, hand-milled pastas from Joshua Felciano of Bayview Pasta; Wine Lover’s Jelly, which sources Napa Valley wines for its products; and Tsalt Seasoning, which crafts salts seasoned with various ingredients, including Prisoner Wine Company wines.

Read complete article here –

Golden Bordeaux: A triumph with popular snacks

Golden Bordeaux: A triumph with popular snacks

There are two basic, intentional approaches to food and wine pairing: mirroring the flavors and weight of a wine with similar foods resulting in what I like to call “a sublime experience” and contrasting pairings, a “high-risk, high-reward approach” that works the opposite ends of the flavor spectrum for maximum impact. As to which approach results in optimal enjoyment, that’s entirely up to the taster.

Such was the case during a recent #GoGoldenBordeaux tasting hosted by the wine-loving folks at Snooth and Mary Gorman-McAdams MW who provided a primer on the region and key insights in to the vintages and styles. The snack pack that was sent along with the eight wines listed below included a range of bold, spicy treats that provided immediate satisfaction and loads of inspiration for those participating in the virtual tasting. This is one pairing exercise that gave the contrasting approach a run for its money.

With thanks to everyone who participated, I’ve cherry picked some of the most inspired pairings from the comment thread to share here in addition to the snacks we all tasted. When you’re unexpectedly enjoying what you’re tasting, the chemistry behind the success of that experience suddenly becomes more interesting (as long as the explanation only lasts as long as the bite you’re contemplating) but instead of parsing molecules, I took the big picture approach.

I’ve compiled a simple bar graph that ranks the snacks by my perception of the two dominant flavor drivers – intensity of spice and saltiness (as other flavors like earthiness for beets and sweet potatoes and umami for jerkey and salami are more obvious) on a combined scale of one to five.  Not every taster would agree but this is a subjective exercise that we’re attempting to quantify.

Now for the wines. We had a representative tasting that included wines from the Sauternes, Cadillac, Loupiac and Sainte Croix du Mont AOPs:

Chateau Manos Cadillac 2016

Chateau Loupiac-Gaudiet 2016 

Chateau Lapinesse Sauternes 2016

Chateau Filhot Sauternes 2015 

Château la Rame Sainte Croix du Mont 2015

Chateau du Cros Loupiac 2014

Chateau Dauphine Rondillon Loupiac 2011

Castelnau de Suduiraut Sauternes 2006

The tension between sweet and savory emerged as a theme for the tasting. While many of the wines had freshness, the success of the pairings with these salty, spicy snacks didn’t rely on acidity per se. I’ve compiled a visual tasting note for each wine that represents a consensus on behalf of the tasters (number of times a descriptor was used etc.) of the main sensory attributes of the wine.  How’d I do?

We can see there are very clear differences in the flavor profiles of the wines and, based on the comments of the tasters, we can identify successful and likely to be successful mirrored and contrasting pairings. However, some of the umami-driven snacks like the spicy beef jerkey and the salami seemed to work universally for several tasters.  Let’s break it down.

Suggested pairings with the wines that were youthful and more fruit forward included:

Spicy cabbage salad

Jalapeno chicken chips

Sriracha cashews

Fried chicken

Chicken and waffles

Gorgonzola dolce latte

Goat cheese or gorgonzola cheesecake

Goat cheese crostini with apricot jam

Foie gras

Pork chops

Smoked wings glazed with mustard-maple sauce

Spicy beef jerkey

Calabrese salami

One taster observed that he far preferred “the younger wines (2015 and 2016) that showed more primary fruit and some notes of botrytis with food” and the older vintages (2006, 2011 and 2014) that had a higher percentage of savory (spicy, earthy, herbal, mineral, bready, nutty) as meditation wines.

The wines like Chateau du Cros Loupiac 2014 and Château la Rame Sainte Croix du Mont 2015 that bridged both fruit and savory seemed to be the most versatile. One taster suggested baked ham, something that would perfectly mirror both the sweet and savory umami notes while another went with truffled French fries for this style.

The snacks and suggested pairings for wines with a higher percentage of savory flavors (spicy, earthy, herbal, mineral, bready, nutty) included:

Sweet potato crackers

Beet crackers

Sriracha cashews

Jalapeno chicken chips (salt was off the chart for me here)

BLT dressed with sriracha mayonaise

Pulled pork sandwich

Crawfish etouffee

Fried sweet chili shrimp

Truffled goat cheese, truffles and mushrooms in general



Cinnamon toast

Roast turkey (it was Thanksgiving after all)

Butterscotch budino with salted caramel

Crème brûlée

The take away.  Much to my surprise, acidity and residual sugar the two drivers that typically spell success or failure for food pairings both seemed to take a back seat to the complexity and balance demonstrated by these wines.  I particularly liked the umami flavors with the savory wines and the heat with the more youthful and primary styles.

I hope you’re inspired by this extraordinary tasting experience.


Exploring North and South American terroirs

There’s a yin and yang to winegrowing in the Americas. As the vines in North America are stirring to life, the vineyards in South America are ready for harvest. As much as Chile and neighboring Argentina have in common with California – namely international grape varieties, plenty of sunshine and oftentimes similar aspects of terroirs – those similarities serve as a point of departure for differentiating the quality and style of New World wines.

To that effect, the stage was set at the Grill on The Alley in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood for a friendly competition between hemispheres. Joining me for a comparative tasting that spanned the depth and breadth of Viña Concha Y Toro’s North and South American portfolios were Italo Jofré, the company’s charismatic Santiago-based Fine Wine Export Manager, and a number of Chicago’s leading sommeliers and retailers.

Our first flight deconstructed the terroirs of two Chardonnays paired with appetizers and a classic Caesar salad followed by an in-depth look at two Pinot Noirs. The tasting then progressed through five monovarietal and Bordeaux blends paired with pan-seared salmon, chicken piccata and composed steak salad.

A Tale of Two Chardonnays

Just 14 miles from the Pacific coastline, the Quebrada Seca Vineyard in the Limarí region lies in what’s known as Chile’s costa (coastal) terroir on the western edge of the Atacama Desert. “This desert is the driest place on the planet,” said Joffre as he explained the terroir factors that create the Marqués de Casa Concha 2016 Chardonnay ($22). “The unique limestone soils of Limarí protect the acidity in the grapes resulting in very fresh wines.”

Given the arid nature of this cool, coastal region, the limestone-rich clay soils also help retain water for the Mendoza-clone Chardonnay vines that are planted on the north bank of the Limarí River.  Viña Concha Y Toro Technical Director Marcelo Papa presses whole clusters and sends just five percent of the wine through malolactic before it spends twelve months in neutral barrels.

“The bright fruit of this unoaked Chardonnay took us by surprise,” said Nancy Sabatini, Director of Wine Education and Sales for Mainstreet Wines & Spirits just outside Chicago. “There was consensus around the table that it was more Burgundian in style with freshness and vibrant flavors of green apple and ripe lemon.”

Limarí has now become Chile’s go-to terroir for Chardonnay and the riper styles have been readily compared to Northern California sites near the Russian River. In Mendocino’s Samel Valley, a narrow, five-mile long valley that was formed as a flood plain of the Russian River, Bonterra’s The Roost single vineyard 2016 Chardonnay ($39.99) is sourced from the biodynamic Blue Heron Ranch vineyard. Sited between the Russian River and a Blue Heron nature preserve, the vineyard lies 50 miles from the coast and sees a significant diurnal swing of as much as 50 degrees during the growing season.  Dijon and Wente Chardonnay clones are planted to alluvial Riverine soils and the Hopland series of sandy loam over Franciscan bedrock of sandstone and shale.

Read the full article here – TouroftheAmericasSJ122018

Fifty Years of Secco Bertani Amarone

When winemaker Andrea Lonardi took the stage at September’s Full Circle Beverage Conference in San Francisco to present a tasting of Bertani Amarone Classico, he had what amounted to a Sommelier Justice League by his side: Master Sommeliers Brian Cronin, Tim Gaiser and Peter Granoff, all of whom provided perspective and humor as they tasted through 50 years of Bertani winemaking prowess.

Born and raised in a vine-growing Veronese family, Lonardi began his tenure at Bertani in 2012. Although he didn’t personally make any of the wines that were tasted during the masterclass — the 2008 Amarone was bottled in 2016 — the pride he showed while presenting them was rather paternal. “The wines we are making today will be presented by another winemaker 50 years from now,” he told attendees.

The Birth of Bertani Amarone

Being both modern and ancient, Amarone is a paradoxical style; its rising popularity and commercialization in the 1950s gave the Valpolicella region a wine of true cult status; one that holds its own next to ageworthy Barolos and Brunellos.

Despite the well-worn anecdotes about the “accidental” discovery of the style, Lonardi contests that it was made quite intentionally at Bertani and, as such, the winery is the birthplace of the style. Amarone was first produced by Bertani after they purchased the Tenuta Novare estate in the heart of Valpolicella Classica in 1958. While the label has never changed, Londari credits climate with driving changes in wine style. “Climate change is a positive for the Valpolicella region,” said Lonardi. “But, I’m missing some of the traditional ‘greenness’ in the wines.”

Read the full article here – Bertani50122018

The breath of life

Oxidation is a garden-variety wine fault, one that’s easily recognized and, thankfully, rarely encountered in most commercial wines that are filtered and sulfured before they hit the shelves. Thanks in large part to the modern, reductive school of winemaking – one that follows the “less is more” rule of thumb, commercial wines are more likely to suffer from various forms of reduction rather than from oxidation.

When I’m tasting and evaluating wine for quality and style, wines that demonstrate a liveliness always seem to stand out. I know them when I taste them, they seem to be innervated by some intrinsic quality that’s not listed on any tasting rubric I’ve ever encountered. It’s more than acidity alone. Simply put, they seem “alive.”

Until now I’ve never attributed that superlative quality to anything in particular: it could be ideal vintage conditions, a particular approach to farming or type of soil, or more likely the whole (meaning the totality of the terroir) being greater than the sum of its parts.  Research is ongoing but until we find and demonstrate a direct link between soil and finished wine quality, attempts to quantify the influence these microbiomes have on wine is mere conjecture.

Read the full article here Breathoflife101118


Vinexpo Explorer shines global spotlight on Sonoma County, Calif.

Two years ago, the Bordeaux-based trade show Vinexpo, which now exhibits in Hong Kong, New York, and (soon) Paris, broadened its horizons and began touring with groups of influential buyers and press to lesser-known wine regions globally. The mobile version of the show, Vinexpo Explorer, was launched in Vienna last year, and organizers selected Sonoma County, Calif., as its 2018 destination.

Jackson Family Wines CEO Rick Tigner, who sits on the Vinexpo supervisory board, led the effort to bring the group to California, and the two-day showcase, produced by the Sonoma County Vintners, took place September 23 through 25. Events included a welcome reception at Buena Vista Winery, an industry update and global tasting presented by the Wine Institute, masterclasses at the Wine Spectator Learning Center at Sonoma State University, and myriad winery visits and dinners. Buyers also met one-on-one with wineries during fast-paced, “speed tasting” sessions.

Fresh Insights

Vinexpo Explorer presented the gathering of wine buyers and press from 27 countries with an opportunity to take a deep dive into the region and its terroir, personality, and the myriad wine styles produced in Sonoma County. Spirited interviewed some of these buyers, most of whom were first-time visitors to the region, to gather their firsthand impressions of Sonoma County wines.

What surprised Andrew Keaveney, wine buyer for Pembroke Wines (an importer, distributor, and retailer in Dublin, Ireland), was his discovery that, “It’s not just chardonnay!” Keaveney, who was on the hunt for ultra-premium cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, already sells Schug Carneros Estate wines; he met with that winery along with Ramey Wine CellarsMacMurray Ranch andFrey Vineyards during the speed tasting sessions. With California wines making up 10 to 15 percent of Pembroke’s portfolio, Keaveney’s clientele can be price sensitive, he says, but sales of mid-range imports are performing well. He sees growing interest in Sonoma County when compared to even five years ago.

Heiko Schimeczek is director of fine wine at Carl Tesdorpf, a Hamburg, Germany-based retailer with a second shop in Lubeck. Currently, his company’s website lists only five selections from California, but it caters to an active online wine club of 2,000 members. “We’ve sold Ridge Vineyards and Littorai Wines for 15 years and are specifically looking for Sonoma County crus,” says Schimeczek, who was particularly keen on Vérité, the cabernet franc-dominant Bordeaux blend from winemaker Pierre Seillan, which has achieved cult status.

In contrast to the growing interest in organic and biodynamic wines in the U.S., Schimeczek was matter of fact in saying sustainable production practices are not a factor in ultra-premium and luxury purchase decisions. During the speed tasting session, he was particularly impressed with the quality of Senses Wines and the diversity across the county’s 18 distinct AVAs. “The German market is under the impression that California only produces commercial wines,” he says. “I believe we’ll see growth in demand for California wine—and Sonoma County wine, in particular—when there’s more focus on fine wine.”

Schimeczek pointed to moderate price points as the most challenging for the retailer, as it’s difficult for California to compete with France and Italy at €35 for Bordeaux-style blends. As such, he focuses on sourcing entry-level and luxury wines.

Patrick Andriessen is a wine buyer for Colruyt Group, a “values-driven, family-owned business that’s Germany’s number one wine retailer.” With 5 percent of Germany’s retail wine market, Colruyt owns 550 wine shops and serves both on- and off-premise accounts as well as a robust online wine club. Asked for his general impressions about California wine, Andriessen didn’t mince words: “[Producers] here live in a dream. The domestic market in California is very strong and prices, in general, are high. However, you can invest for quality.” This was his first visit to Sonoma County, and he was favorably impressed with overall wine quality. “The wines were clean and American in style—fruit driven with volume and alcohol—with oak being dominant in many, although less so than 10 years ago.”

According to Andriessen, who’s been with Colruyt for three years, the company has tried several times over the past decade to succeed with California imports; he quickly cites four attempts that dwindled when interest faded due to high cost. And though online wines sales in Germany are growing, he says, the channel is still in its infancy. In Andriessen’s perspective, due to the pressure to compete with online pricing, an online-only model isn’t sustainable. However, the company is placing more emphasis on e-commerce sales, where €30 would be the average price point.

At Dimatique Fine Wines in Jakarta, Indonesia, National Key Account Manager Anastasia Dewi Maweikere works with an impressive portfolio of ultra-premium and luxury brands. “Sonoma County wines are suitable for our market, and demand is growing,” she says. Given her country’s 90 percent import tax though, like Schimeczek, she sees market demand for entry-level wines destined for on-premise accounts and little price resistance in the luxury tier. She was delighted with the quality and style of the wines she tasted during meetings with Donelan Family WinesKosta-Brown WineryMauritson WinesSilver Oak Cellars, and St. Francis Winery & Vineyards.

Caribbean buyer Marian De Vertenil represents Vintage Imports in Trinidad and Tobago, a family-owned business founded in 1996 to serve a wholesale market that was both limited and overpriced. The company sells wholesale and retail, with Burgundy wines being 30 to 40 percent of its business. “Trinidad is very price-driven and Tobago not at all,” says De Vertenil. She was impressed with the wines she tasted from Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, Alexander Valley Winery, and Seghesio Family Vineyards, calling them “excellent.”

Zinfandel impresses

Sonoma County zinfandel was the variety that took several buyers and Sydney, Australia-based journalist and educator Peter Bourne by surprise. “I began working with California wines as a retailer in the 1980s, and I always thought of zinfandel as a rustic, robust variety,” he says. “The zinfandel wines I’ve tasted during this trip turned my head.”

He was also delighted to find consistency and very high quality across several vintages of pinot noir, saying, “Pinot noir is the variety that’s attracted the Australian market back to California—and to Oregon, as well.” When asked to compare Sonoma County to a region in Australia, Bourne aligned it with the Mornington Peninsula, largely due to maritime influence and varietal diversity.

Canadian Rob Nellis is founder of, a newly launched e-commerce site developed with sommeliers and chefs in mind. A Wine & Spirit Education Trust educator at Vendange Institute in Ottawa, Nellis discovered a work-around to the restrictive import regulations imposed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). According to Nellis, five cases of any given wine can bypass the lab tests and long wait times that larger shipments would otherwise spend in customs. When asked about the punitive import duties imposed by LCBO, Nellis, who’s shopping for ultra-premium wines, says, “Above $70 per bottle it simply doesn’t matter.”

“The Russian River Valley AVA has a stronger reputation in the UK fine wine market than Sonoma County as a whole,” says Patrick Schmitt, director of the London-based trade publication The Drinks Business. He also pointed to Seillan’s 2012 Vérité as a wake-up call, describing it as extraordinary. “If asked to name my desert island wine region, I’d have to go with Sonoma County,” he says. Schmitt was clearly smitten with his discoveries and, in particular, noted the wines made by David Ramey.

London-based Sarah Knowles, MW, wine buyer for the Wine Society, a members-only wine club that buys direct and imports, visits the California market every other year. With the Wine Society list focused on Old World regions, Sarah still has a lot of flexibility in making selections for the 25 percent of the list that’s devoted to New World producers.

Taipei, Taiwan resident and owner of Whitetable International, Powell Yang, who, like the majority of buyers, is also an importer, distributor, and retailer, had the final word: “Currently, 15 percent of our portfolio is devoted to wines from California, and we see that percentage growing.” Yang has adopted an event-driven model and hosts blind tastings and dinners to showcase and sell ultra-premium and luxury wines. With Burgundy wines accounting for 60 percent of sales, he was scouting for pinot noir wines above $75. “We’re not seeing much movement in the first growths, and I attribute that price sensitivity to websites like WineSearcher,” he says. “Consumers are now looking to pay a global average price for that caliber of wine, which makes it tough to compete.”

Yang lived in Napa Valley for several years before returning to Taiwan in 2009. During the speed tasting session, he met with Cruse Wine Co.Arista WineryMarcassin Wine Co., Senses Wines, and Three Sticks Wines, looking for wines that can demonstrate to his skeptical clientele that California wines have the ability to age.

As his 2012 Vérité was receiving rave reviews during a final dinner, winemaker Seillan spoke eloquently about his decision to make wine in Alexander Valley. “There’s no limit to the discovery in Sonoma County, a place where we can make the best wine in the world. We’re not competing with or copying Bordeaux, we’re transmitting the message of the terroir.” As a self-professed “servant of the soil,” his remarks struck an emotional chord with the global wine-buying audience, for whom expression of place is clearly a priority.

Until next time

As the Vinexpo Explorers gathered before their final dinner together of the trip, Beaujolais was announced as the location Vinexpo Explorer 2019, slated for late September.

Cabernet with a twist

The practice of finishing whiskey in wine barrels has been around since the 1860s, when scotch producers first utilized Sherry butts as a means of transporting their spirits. But, the tables have now turned and winemakers like James Foster of Stave & Steel currently seek out whiskey barrels – Kentucky bourbon barrels, specifically – as an alternative oak-aging regime for its wines.

This approach is hardly new: By the 1970s, Scotch producers had switched almost entirely from Sherry butts to bourbon barrels. They had also started experimenting with still-wine barrel finishes, although the practice didn’t become an established part of the single-malt market until 2004.  A short decade later, the first whiskey barrel-finished wines – primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Shiraz – hit the shelves.

While wine barrels can add fruitiness, body and even sweetness to whiskeys, it’s what bourbon casks can add to wine that intrigued Stave & Steel’s Foster. Foster who is Senior Director of Super Premium Wine for Livermore, Calif-based The Wine Group selected “freshly dumped” Kentucky bourbon barrels and ran trials with a number of different grape varieties before settling on Cabernet Sauvignon. Stave & Steel is California appellated and Foster sourced from sites in Paso Robles, Lodi and Clarksburg for the 2016 release.

“Even just a few drops of bourbon will kill a glass of wine,” said Foster who knew barrels were the key to achieving the style he was seeking. “There’s a tremendous amount of flavor left in these once used new oak barrels,” he said.  Early entries in the whiskey barrel-aged wine category met with some resistance largely because the flavors were really no different from wines that spent longer periods in standard oak barrels.  After a series of trials, Foster avoided that pitfall and dialed in the right length of time the wine should spend being aged. “There’s definitely a recipe that produces a wine with drinkability and Stave & Steel spends about four months in barrel,” he said.

To determine his ideal wine style, he spent time blind tasting through the category where he saw a wide range of styles – from weak to swamped by bourbon and with many wines unbalanced to alcohol.  “I start with a lower alcohol red wine because we’ll see a .5 to one percent increase in alcohol from even a very brief time in barrel.”  The resulting wine is crafted in a style that appeals to tolerant tasters – those who enjoy rich, round, bold but balanced flavors – many of whom are women.

As to why consumers find a bourbon barrel-aged wine so appealing, the bourbon category itself provides some answers. Since 2010 American enthusiasm for bourbon has grown by leaps and bounds; growth that is largely attributed to the renaissance of cocktail culture and Millennials who are keenly interested in home entertaining and amateur mixology.

With the female demographic of whiskey’s consumer base growing much faster than the male, the industry is scrambling to appeal to female consumers with flavored whiskey products. As such, whiskey flavored-wine is a natural fit for women who want bolder flavors.

According to Foster, what sets Stave & Steel apart is the fact that its 100 percent bourbon barrel aged which isn’t the case for brands that may rely on only a small percent of barrel-aged wine in their blend. This technique contributes aromas of vanilla, caramel, smoke and some wood tannins that add more structure to the wine. Vanilla is one of America’s favorite aromas and flavors. It’s one we never seem to tire of and it’s the biggest draw for lovers of oak aromas and flavors in wine.

Because it spends less time in barrel, there’s plenty of primary fruit like macerated cherries, dark plums and ripe blackberries apparent along with secondary notes of umami and brown spices. Quite intentionally it’s difficult to detect any burn from alcohol although the boost the wines gets from the barrel seems to amplify and extend the finish.

A native of Eufaula, Alabama, the picturesque town depicted in the movie Sweet Home Alabama, Foster grew up on the Roseland Plantation and spent his summers in California working alongside his father in a winery. As Head Winemaker at Concannon, Foster also oversees winemaking at historic winery in Livermore and knows his way around a Cabernet Sauvignon vine.  With an estimated 80 percent of California’s 90,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted to the Concannon Cabernet clones 7, 8 and 11 they form the backbone of the Cabernet industry in California.

Considering Foster’s upbringing, it’s no coincidence that he feels completely at home aging a Cabernet Sauvignon in a bourbon barrel. “I’ve made wine all over the world and I think there’s plenty of room for experimentation,” said Foster. “Bourbon barrel aging is a twist that can reinvent premium Cabernet Sauvignon.”




Big data supports expert wine tasters

In the course of developing software for predicting consumer wine preferences, a Houston-based start up, VineSleuth, shed new light on the abilities of expert wine tasters and the validity of blind tasting assessments. Contrary to popular belief, the company’s VineSleuth metrics, which are based on the work of Chief Science Officer Michael Tompkins and his team, reveal that tasters can consistently identify aroma and flavor characteristics in blind wine evaluations.

“We have extensive experimental data which support that expert evaluators have the capacity to precisely identify wine characteristics in blind repeat samples,” said Tompkins whose work spans thirteen years in the field of numerical methods. “During the course of our experiments, our vetted evaluators repeat sample characteristics about 90% of the time,” he says.

Michael Tompkins

VineSleuth’s data directly confronts the popular misconception that consistent sensory evaluation of wine is a random occurrence. In developing an algorithm designed to help consumers make wine selections based on personal preference, the company has established a benchmark based on the results of its top-performing tasters (including this author) and intends to use those data to vet future tasters who participate in ongoing research and product  development.


Amy Gross

CEO and co-founder Amy Gross stepped forward with the company’s findings in advance of a beta release of the Wine4.Me smartphone application, wine ranking engine and website in response to several blog posts which inferred a general lack of expert repeatability based on a study conducted by winery owner Robert Hodgson and published in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2009. Hodgson’s study which calls to light the inconsistencies between wine competition results has been widely misinterpreted casting doubt on the abilities of highly-trained wine professionals including those who participated in VineSleuth’s research.

The relevance of Hodgson’s 2009 study-one that relies on highly subjective data and the work of evaluators who are not equally qualified to the task-has been called into question by VineSleuth’s findings. “Just because panelists in wine competitions can’t repeat results doesn’t mean that individual experts are not able to repeatedly identify a wine’s aroma and flavor characteristics and their intensities in blind samples,” said Tompkins, who relied on experimental and statistical methodologies used in the field of sensory science as the basis for VineSleuth’s data acquisition and analyses. “We’re confident that our methodology is statistically valid and we’re eager to see it applied,” says Tompkins.


A tranquil moment with Didier Depond

In a rare tête-a-tête, The SOMM Journal joined Didier Depond, President of the Champagne houses Salon and Delamotte, for an effervescent lunch featuring their current releases at San Francisco’s Piperade.

We began with the superbly chalky 2008 Delamotte, which hails from just six Grand Cru villages. The 100 percent Blanc de Blanc brims with texture and ripe golden apple notes, and after observing the intensity of fruit on the mid-palate, I queried Depond on the risk climate change poses to the houses’ iconic style. He was quite circumspect in his response: “The culture of the vineyards in Champagne relies on balance, and we will balance them with this shift.”

Despite more extreme weather events like the freak hailstorms earlier this year, warming temperatures in this marginal growing region may in fact work to the advantage of Champagne producers. Addressing the elephant in the room, we discussed the hotly debated expansion of the Champagne AOP area by an additional 5 percent. “Historically, these approved areas were under vine,” Depond said. “And, despite what you’ve read, there is only minor dissent among the members of the CIVC [Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne]. I’m really very pleased.” The additional area gives the AOP some breathing room, as demand and supply previously ran neck and neck.

Depond and I then tasted the 2007 Salon: The wine exudes liquid minerals at first taste, showing notes of fresh dough and caramelized salted butter—described by Depond as “caramel au beurre salé”— with a thread of delicate white peach. There’s a singular sensation in the mouth that leaves lemon and lime zest clinging to the lips, lengthening an innervated finish. “The wine was decanted and held at temperature,” said Depond, who advocates for letting Salon catch its breath for up to two hours before service.

Caught off guard, I questioned his decision to forgo most of the bubbles, but he persisted and pointed out that I described the wine as “innervated” despite it being almost tranquil in the glass. “It was a very high compliment indeed when [Domaine de la Romanee-Conti co-director] Aubert de Villaine observed that we had made a very fine Burgundy,” he added.

Well-known as a man of his word, Depond says the 2008 Salon—a relatively small vintage produced only in magnum—will release in late 2019 after both of his highly allocated brands made their way to the fine dining scene in Malaysia earlier this year. Find the pdf here Depond Aug-Sept2018pdf