Studying wine without the experience of tasting it in real-world settings such as trade events and seminars is frustrating at best. One elegant solution, developed by author and educator Evan Goldstein, MS, and his business partner, Full Circle Wine Solutions CEO Limeng Stroh, has quickly become the gold standard of study tools for professionals and consumer enthusiasts.
I first learned of the Master the World (MTW) tasting kits in late 2018, when Goldstein and Stroh mounted a successful Indiegogo campaign to launch their company. The kits contain six screw capped, 187-milliliter bottles of wine selected by a panel of Master Sommeliers and access to both a proprietary online-tasting platform and live webinars led by Goldstein and his colleagues.
“While we had planned for a soft launch once we went live in January 2020, the pandemic accelerated that launch to hang on and grow,” says Goldstein. “[In] the new normal of structured tastings being relegated to the confines of your dining room table or living-room couch, we have seen an enthusiastic response from the trade and consumers alike.”
With travel severely restricted during the lockdown—limiting access to field research—keeping our tasting skills sharp has proven challenging. Here’s how three industry professionals are using their MTW kits to broaden their horizons.
Santa Cruz native Scott Thomasen is vice president of sales Mountain West, air, seas, and export markets for Vino del Sol, a regional importer of Argentine wine. “With a portfolio of 12 wineries, the kits help me understand other regions; they also keep me from becoming myopic and developing cellar palate,” he says, noting that two wines from the Vino del Sol portfolio are included in the kits for Argentina (as they were designed for blind tasting, we can’t disclose the labels here). “Most consumers aren’t aware of these wines, and it’s a great way to introduce them to these regions and producers.”
Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards 2020 Person of the Year Heidi Scheid can’t wait for her kit to arrive each month. Scheid, who is also the executive vice president of Scheid Vineyards in Monterey County, participates in a tasting group with friends and family members, but she says that it’s not structured enough for someone who wants to constantly keep learning about wine: “When you’re on your own, it can be very hit-or-miss, [but] these kits work on so many different levels.”
Scheid adds that she gets the most out of her kits when she’s tasting along with the live webinar: “The presenters are such gifted speakers, and they make the information very accessible.” Then, when she and her partner taste together, he gets to enjoy the wines and she gets to exercise what she’s learned by acting as his guide. She also has high praise for the kits’ slick design and packaging developed by Goldstein and Stroh.
Kat Thomas, yoga instructor and former wine education and training manager at The Hakkasan Group in Las Vegas, Nevada, is preparing for the Master Sommelier exam and using the MTW kits to replicate the conditions of sitting for the tasting portion. She points to the webinars and online tools—including a “Full Workout” blind-tasting mode for sensory evaluation and a “Quick Picks” mode that encourages tasters to try to guess what’s in their glass—that Goldstein offers with each kit as the biggest value-add: “You have an opportunity to self-check against the tasting notes of the presenters during the live webinar and use the online tool.”
Thomas is also using the kits to lead a private class of eager consumers through blind-tasting sessions, the objective of which is enjoyment. As she explains, “The kits are perfect for exploring on your own, but many consumers genuinely enjoy having a guide.”
No one needs a reason to drink Champagne but ringing out 2020 is certainly a good opportunity to reach for something beyond your sentimental favorite. In an effort to learn more about Billecart-Salmon’s Brut Sous Bois, I asked Mathieu Roland-Billecart for the inside scoop on this particular cuvée.
Mathieu Roland-Billecart is the seventh-generation of his family to oversee Billecart-Salmon. He took over the management of the family holding company and joined the supervisory board in 2013 and became CEO of the Group in 2019. He now manages all the activities of Champagne Billecart-Salmon, including the tasting committee that shapes and validates all the house’s vintages.
DPW – Brut Sous Bois which was first introduced to the U.S. market in 2011 has been compared to Burgundy on several occasions. What do you think of the comparison?
MRB – If people mean it as a compliment then great! There are similarities in terms of grape varieties and terroirs to a certain extent with Champagne when you look from afar, but the two regions are quite distinct when you look at them closely in my opinion. I think where the comparison might come from is that the Brut Sous Bois is vinified in 15 year old Burgundian oak barrels, which give it additional structure and depth to a typical base NV Champagne. It is also the non-vintage we age the most on lees before release (c. nine years on lees for the current release) hence there is a richness to it that make it more of a gastronomy wine than a lighter champagne for an easy aperitif.
DPW – Brut Sous Bois has settled nicely into its very specific style niche and is competing easily with wines that are triple and more of its price. Would you say the wine represents the best quality for its style on the market?
MRB – I am biased perhaps but I certainly agree it is right up there and it is a must try for all wine lovers! With Brut Sous Bois, you have a non-vintage wine that is older than the majority of vintage champagne on the market, including in the prestige category. The blend also includes a majority of grand cru and premier cru so you have amazing quality for the price for those that are looking at a richer style of Champagne. It is also particularly well suited to be paired with food like poultry, mushrooms, (hard) cheeses, etc.
DPW – Although it’s not a direct comparison of style, there are oak-aged Blanc de Blancs receiving very high scores. Is it complexity from the composition of the blend that sets Brut Sous Bois apart or are there other points of differentiation that are more significant?
MRB – It is really a combination of factors that makes the Brut Sous Bois blend unique. It, of course, includes the three mains grapes which makes it different from a Blanc de Blancs but there are more technical differences that set it apart:
The selection of some of our best parcels are vinified in our oak barrels across Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay with a significant proportion of grand crus and premiers crus.
The fact we use barrels that are 15 years old on average give richness to the wine through the micro oxidation without making the wine overly marked by the taste of the barrels (that you can get with new barrels).
The very long ageing on lees (six/seven years minimum and c. nine years in the last release) allow the wine to gain additional complexity.
A balanced dosage – always decided by blind tasting with our tasting committee – to be able to have a balanced and harmonious tasting experience.
DPW – Given the percentages of Pinot noir and Meunier in the blend, are there any plans for a rosé?
MRB – No plans of that nature currently. Our Brut Rosé has a very distinct identity and we already have a very wide range with 12 cuvées, but never say never.
DPW – What vintage is the base wine for the current release of Brut Sous Bois?
MRB – Base year 2010 with c. 1/3 of reserve wine
DPW – Reviewers have commented that the oak influence has been dialed back from earlier vintages, please elaborate on that observation.
MRB – That’s correct, we have indeed ‘refined’ the style since the very first releases… the oak barrels are getting older, we have aged the wine more on lees, and adapted our selection of parcels to have more finesse. We constantly challenge ourselves to make better wines and we are not scared to adapt/change if we feel it delivers better quality. Whilst it is 100% vinified in barrels it is important this cuvée shares the full Billecart DNA: Finesse, elegance and balance.
DPW – I’ve read that this style relies on partial ML but the house is known for often blocking ML. If partial, why does this work better with the oak fermentation and aging regime?
MRB – For the house as a whole, there is nothing systematic about ML at Billecart-Salmon, we taste every tank after alcoholic fermentation and decide whether to do the ML based on the year, parcels, grape variety etc. hence the vast majority of the blends are partial ML.
Now if we are more specific about Brut Sous Bois, you are correct that because the chai of barrels tend to get more of the top parcels (that typically have greater power and depth), we tend to block (almost) all ML. This is to preserve the tension and freshness with a vinification method (barrels) that tend to bring more oxidation and we also know that the wines from the chai are very likely to end up in cuvées that we age more (Brut Sous Bois, Nicolas Francois, Louis Salmon etc.)
DPW – Is Billecart Salmon’s hallmark technique of double cold settling of particular importance to this style?
MRB – It is across the board, but I would not say this is more important for Brut Sous Bois than the other cuvées. The double cold settling combined with our cold fermentation is one of the main reasons our wines tend to have the finesse and elegance that is the signature of Billecart-Salmon.
A tipping point for the appreciation of smoky wines
Wildfire is certainly a factor of terroir. This unwelcome truth is bringing about a shift in the U.S. wine industry’s attitude toward the flavor of wine made from grapes that have been exposed to smoke.
After historic fires in 2017, many winemakers in Oregon and Washington decided to embrace the volatile compounds associated with smoke exposure in grapes such as guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, which are released during fermentation.
While using techniques like whole-bunch pressing to minimize smokiness, they didn’t try to hide it entirely. Because these volatile phenols reside in grape skins, whites and rosés that are pressed off of the skins immediately after harvest carry less risk for taint.
Oregon producers take a new approach
Winemaker Darryl Joannides of Viola Wine Cellars in Portland made a lightly smoked Dolcetto rosé that was a hit at local wine bars. “We focused on making younger, fresher styles that we could get to market quickly,” he says. “If I’m faced with that situation again, I’m planning on making as much rosé as I possibly can.”
Teutonic Wine Company’s Barnaby Tuttle, meanwhile, produced a skin-contact Riesling that tested for high levels of guaiacol in a style he dubbed Rauchwein (a play on Rauchbier, or “smoked beer” in German). The resulting wine had a subtle smoky aroma, more texture than the average Riesling, and a mezcal-like finish.
In his 2019 book Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine, Jamie Goode characterizes smoke taint as an automatic fault. But it’s one winemakers are going to have to contend with, given the fourfold increase in forest fires in the Western U.S. since 1986 and the fact that, according to a recent article in The Lancet, the number of days per year of high bushfire risk in Australia is expected to increase as much as 70% by 2050.
Consumers enjoy smoked flavors
Consumers enjoy the flavor of smoke in many food and beverage products, including wine: When derived from the process of aging in toasted oak barrels, low levels of guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol are described positively as toast, smoke, char, and even camphor. But when they overwhelm a wine’s varietal character, they’re treated as a fault.
In the extreme, smoke-tainted wines are often described as smelling and tasting like a wet ashtray, medicine, or burnt bacon (which some of us admittedly enjoy). Sensory testing at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has shown that up to 20% of people cannot taste smoke flavors in wines that others find unpalatable. For the remaining 80%, the smoky phenols can go undetected until the wine comes in contact with the enzymes in their mouths, which break them down and release them.
To mirror or mitigate
It’s not possible for winemakers to eliminate the risk of producing a red wine that’s faulted by offensive phenols, but they can mitigate it through carbon filtering, reverse osmosis, and manufactured yeast strains. According to researchers at AWRI, oak treatments and tannin additions can also mask some of the effects of mild smoke exposure by amplifying the same compounds that are found in wood smoke, including lactones, eugenol, and guaiacol. Some of these also exist in certain grape varieties, like Syrah.
Anticipate more rosés, early-drinking reds, and even skin-contact whites as they seek to get the most out of high-quality fruit that might otherwise be destined for the bulk market due to smoke exposure.
The 2020 Wine Media Conference, August 20 – 23, may have been virtual this year but it was as robust as ever. My talk explored vodcasting, a catch-all term for prerecorded video segments that feature a host/s and guest/s designed to be published across several online outlets and social media platforms.
Vodcasting is where podcasting is headed. In July, Spotify announced that it added video content creation for its podcasters. Viola, they are now vodcasters. One of my favorite wine industry podcasts is Levi Dalton’s “I’ll Drink to That” but watching Levi record a podcast would be like watching paint dry. A vodcast needs to be visually compelling.
Superb vodcasting relies on the quality and reliability of your recording software and internet connection. By adopting a format for your vodcast that works towards the goal of ‘one and done’ and requires little or no editing, you can create media assets that have value and be prolific.
In my talk I covered basic technology and best practices however, I didn’t address looking your best on camera. You’ll find tons of tips out there on how to do that with the simplest being “Use the fix up my appearance-setting when you’re recording a vodcast on Zoom.”
The final questions is what to do with your content once you’ve created it. The 2020 Wine Media Conference offers plenty of guidance. There are sessions like those by Phil Pallen who breaks down Instagram, Scott Fish from 32 Digital dishing up straight talk about SEO strategies and Kelly Wagner offering social media savvy.
Optimizing the video and audio quality of your vodast
Wifi for all its splendid convenience can be unstable. When you’re recording a vodcast using your preferred video conferencing platform, use a wired Ethernet connection. If WiFi is your only option, work within 20 – 30 feet of your router which is referred to as the “overpowered” zone. Range extenders are handy but they don’t make your signal stronger, they simply extend it.
Bandwidth requirements for recording using video conferencing tools are a minimum of 6 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 10Mbps. If there are other users sharing your network, you’ll need 10Mbps to 20Mbps which provides enough ‘headroom’ for everyone’s traffic. For optimal video and audio quality, minimize the load on your network when recording a vodcast.
Clear the Decks
I’ve adopted a simple housekeeping routine for my computer prior to recording a vodcast or video conferencing which includes closing any applications that may be running in the background, closing open browser tabs and turning off notifications. I’ll usually have Powerpoint running to share slides but if the presentations are overly large and tend to lag, I’ll use a correctly-displayed pdf instead.
Low battery power will cause performance problems so always plug in. Typically, when battery power starts getting low, your laptop will prioritize processing and powering the screen over powering devices like webcams. If your CPU can’t keep power to your microphone and camera stable, the quality of your vodcast will suffer.
Audio and video conferencing via VOIP software requires a lot of processing power from your computer. It has to both encode and upload audio and video to the service you’re using in real time. This is heavy lifting for your machine so expect battery life to be brief.
The single most helpful tool I’ve added to my system is an externally- powered Universal Serial Bus (USB) hub. Every external device I own is connected to my computer by USB and my laptop just couldn’t power them all resulting in an unstable system that caused audio latency and frozen video. With the addition of an externally-powered hub, my set up is now very stable and my computer is freed up for running and recording using my video conferencing software of choice.
The Allure of High Definition
80% of US households have a High Definition television set and consumers are used to seeing High Definition video. As such, I consider this a priority for optimizing the quality of your vodcast.
My Logitech HD webcam C920 is mounted on my monitor at eye level and the dual microphones deliver clear stereo sound. The 16:9 aspect ratio means I can’t switch to standard format in some video conferencing platforms. The 16:9 aspect ratio requires a rather large green screen; mine is eight feet by seven feet to be exact. I’ve made a green screen that I can put up and take down in less than a minute and it’s been key to the polished, higher production value of the Planet Grape Wine Review vodcasts I produce and host.
Improving Audio Quality
When vodcasting I don’t want a visible microphone in the shot so getting the quality sound I need from my webcam is a bonus. If there’s unavoidable background noise, I’ll resort to earbuds that have a microphone. A low-profile desktop speaker like a Jabra is another option as well.
One of the easiest ways to get good audio is to record in a furnished room. My small office has a carpet and some soft furnishings but it’s my fleece green screen that works as an acoustic panel. If you have a space with a lot of hard surfaces, you can strategically position stand alone-acoustic panels to improve your sound quality.
As the host of a vodcast it’s absolutely key to get lighting right but it’s a lot harder when it comes to your guests. Even celebrities are frequently seen in video segments with less than ideal and truly unflattering lighting. My goal is consistency and I like the look of warm LED bulbs (3000K – 3400K) the best against lighter backgrounds. You can adjust the warmth of your adjustable but cool LEDs using a standard photography gel filter; Rosco Sun comes highly recommended.
Vodcasting Formats for Success
When you’re presenting virtually you lose any advantage you might otherwise have from being in person with your audience. Your content and the quality of your video recording must carry the day. As a writer, I’d rather spend my time writing a script than editing poor-quality video. In fact, the format that I enjoy using the most requires little or no editing. Most video conferencing platforms have some simple editing tools but the InShot video editing application comes in handy for on the fly-editing.
What: 15 to 30-minute hosted segments where winemakers describe the three wines that are being listed in the 2021 Slow Wine Guide.
Why: We could not make winery visits this year for the guide due to shelter in place restrictions and recording virtual visits was the ideal way to help promote the wineries participating in the guide now and in 2021. The recorded segments are a high-quality media asset that are currently being vodcast on several websites and social media platforms and will continue to be used through 2021.
How: The information gathering portion of the interview and any housekeeping is done upfront before I begin recording. I’m only recording the last 10 minutes of the Zoom conference call. By that time I’ve established a level of comfort with my guest and they’ve had a chance to rehearse some of their talking points.
I typically taste along in the background while the winemakers talk which gives me something to do and keeps them doing most of the talking. Using a consistent format means little or no editing on my part and allows me to produce more content. The recordings are uploaded to social media within minutes and archived both on the cloud and an external hard drive.
Vodcast Format#2 – Planet Grape Wine Review Vodcast Series
What: Two to 20-minute segments on seasonal wine and food topics targeted at the hospitality industry.
Why: We saw a demand for video content for the hospitality industry which looks underserved.
How: Segments are closely scripted for time management and to prioritize messaging. We typically record two or three at a time and use a green screen to help provide context for the topics and to add visual impact and a higher level of production value to the segments.
Our Premiere Napa vodcast has about 140 views which is very similar to Wine.com’s recorded segment featuring Frog’s Leap, Grgich Hills and Tablas Creek wineries. There’s plenty of opportunity to expand the online reach for these segments.
I’ve shown you two possible formats to use as a model for your own vodcast and offered some ideas about low-cost gear that performs well and will help insure that the quality of your recordings. The vodcasts that I’m producing and hosting are successful in terms of production value and a return on the investment in the amount of time required to produce and publish a valuable media asset. The sky’s the limit as to what you can do with your vodcast content once you’ve created it. Happy vodcasting.
In the search for alternative ways to control grape vine diseases while reducing the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides, a cadre of modern hybrids—second- and third-generation interspecific varieties— are demonstrating considerable promise in both the vineyard and the glass.
A team of researchers from universities in Trento and Udine in Italy and Geisenheim in Germany recently published a groundbreaking study of the 2013, 2015, and 2016 vintages of 16 disease-tolerant hybrids. It analyzed their lipids, volatile compounds (low-sulfur compounds and esters derived from fermentation), and non-volatile compounds (grape tannins, anthocyanins, and minerals) and compared the data to that of Vitis vinifera varieties.
Chemically, disease-tolerant and vinifera varieties are identical in terms of the types of compounds they contain, though the levels of some of those compounds vary. Hybrids have higher amounts of polyphenols and their tannins are typically lower (though more evident in some hybrids than in others).
Lower levels of anthocyanins (color pigments) were found to be the biggest differentiator between the hybrids and vinifera varieties, while vintage variability was identified as a significant factor in overall wine quality. Interestingly, low-volatile sulfur compounds contribute complex aromas like quince, truffles, and flint in disease-tolerant varieties but present as off-flavors in vinifera wines.
Among the white varieties studied were Muscaris and Souvignier Gris, created in 1987 and 1983, respectively, by German scientist Dr. Norbert Becker. Souvignier Gris, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Bronner, is a cultivar with a loose canopy and robust red-tinged skin that is compared to Pinot Gris; Muscaris, a Solaris and Yellow Muscatel hybrid, resists both mildew and frost to produce acidic white wines with intense nutmeg notes. Muscaris was approved in Austria as a Quality Wine Grape Variety in 2018.
Christof Winkler-Hermaden, who runs his family’s eponymous winery in the Vulkanland Steiermark region of Styria, started trialing Muscaris and Souvignier Gris ten years ago.
“Both are easy to cultivate,” he says. “We are spraying 85–100% less and seeing much better soil structure in these vineyards.”
Having vinified both varieties, Winkler-Hermaden notes that Souvignier Gris shows more complex aromatics than its reputation for being neutral suggests, evoking “a blend of Sauvignon Blanc (gooseberry, passion fruit); Riesling (apricot); and Pinot Gris (pear, classic Pinot Gris mist)”; it also boasts fresh, lively acidity that exhibits minerality very well. Depending on the climate, soil, and ripening potential of the vineyard, it can deliver a high-quality expression.
Winkler-Hermaden’s Muscaris vines are now in their 11th year, producing full-bodied wines that are similar to Pinot Blanc on the palate. “If picked at the right time, it exhibits aromatics of honeydew melon, lemons, grapefruit, and nutmeg,” he says. “We’ll be able to produce a Riedenwein [single-vineyard designate] with this variety in the future.”
Although he hasn’t vinified them, Winkler-Hermaden has tasted wines produced from two of the red varieties featured in the study, Carbernet Cortis (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon, Merzling, Zarya Severa, and Muscat Ottonel) and Carbernet Carbon (a Cabernet Sauvignon–Bronner hybrid). He compares them to Cabernet Franc, though he notes that “they are typically made with a lot of wood and the addition of tannins, which obscures their varietal character.”
Winkler-Hermaden—who is a member of the quality-obsessed producer consortium Steirische Terroir & Klassik Weingüter (STK)—adds that several of his colleagues in Styria are also trialing disease-resistant varieties, including fellow STK member Weingut Frauwallner, Kobatl, BIO-Weinbau Thünauer, and Ploder-Rosenberg.
When I first tasted the Valpolicella wines produced by Valentina Cubi in January of 2011, I was captivated. After visiting the organic estate a few times over the last decade and tasting the wines during the annual Amarone Anteprima events that are held every February in Verona, my appreciation has only deepened. This year the winery which is located in the Valpolicella Classica region of Fumane marks a key milestone celebrating a decade of organic certification.
The level of quality and beauty achieved in Cubi’s flagship Amarone Biologico Morar DOCG which was first released in 2016 represents far more than a return on an investment in organic certification. According to Valentina, “The first organic wine we bottled was Iperico, organic Valpolicella DOC, and that wine has traced our way.”
Winegrowing practices at the estate which was certified organic in 2010 include the use of vegetable compost or green manure that contains herbs to balance soil vitality and fertility while preventing imbalances. Cubi also incorporates biodynamic vineyard management practices as well with applications of 500P and 501 preparations to promote optimal vine health.
The ten-hectare estate is in Fumane, the northwestern-most region of Valpolicella Classica, and gets a moderating influence from Lake Garda just a few kilometers away. Vineyards are south and southeast-facing and planted on terraces from 170 to 350 metres on the slopes of the Lessini Mountains. Rocky, sandy, clay-based soils enable the estate to be farmed without irrigation.
Cubi began converting the estate to organic viticulture in 2007 and conducted her initial trials in the Ca ‘di Cozzi vineyard, near Verona. After which she converted the lower-elevation estate vineyards including Casterna, the vineyard behind the winery. This vineyard is Guyot trained and planted to permanent cover crops.
Prior to the initial conversion to organic which has occurred in two phases, the estate had been farmed conventionally in a way that Cubi describes as being “environmentally friendly.” She credits this with significantly reducing the stress on the vineyards during conversion something that has enabled them to preserve even their oldest vines planted in 1973 in the higher-elevation Monte Tenda cru.
According to Cubi, the second phase of organic conversion began in 2010 to bring the oldest vineyards which are planted to the estate’s highest elevations in to certified organic production by 2014.
Today the estate produces a portfolio of wines that range from the easy-drinking Iperico, the estate’s first organic release; Italbarro, a Valpolicella Superiore that spends one year in Slavonian oak; and Arusantico, a Ripasso named for the indigenous people who inhabited the Valpolicella region prior to Roman occupation.
The winery’s flagship, Morar, is an elegant, dry Amarone that is only released when deemed ready. Melioto, a Recioto, and Sin Cero, a sulfite-free natural wine, are only produced when the vintage conditions dictate. The estate produces between 45,000 and 70,000 bottles annually.
Cubi has been an advocate for organic farming in Valpolicella for more than a decade and her convictions have resulted in a marked improvement in the expression and vitality that I find in the wines. When I was visiting the region in 2018 for the Valpolicella Educators Program sponsored by the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, her wine Morar was among those presented in the blind tasting examination. It was like greeting a good friend after an absence and picking up immediately where you left off. Only better.
Congratulations, Valentina Cubi, and tanti auguri for another delicious vintage.