Learn About Wine

Paul Mas Chateau

(c) Courtesy of PaulMas.com

Earlier this year I decided to get a certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) to add to my credentials. I had mixed feelings about it because I believe wine knowledge is best gained by practical experience: I also knew that I had gaps in my knowledge that could be best addressed (initially) with a course or two.  My major gap was French wines.

I made the decision years ago to specialize in New World wines (what I call re-emerging markets*).  The reasons for my decision: 1) Napa, Sonoma and surrounding areas are my backyard; 2) I’m attracted to the Southern Hemisphere countries; 3) French wine knowledge is unfortunately yet irrefutably an affectation associated with wine snobs; and 4) I find mavericks more interesting than traditionalists.

In three months of classes, I got a crash course in French wine regions that required memorization to pass the test, their history of winemaking, a few cool anecdotes about monks and best of all, that there is an inkling of modernism in the French wine market and I must go there to fully understand it.  (I’ve been to Paris but that’s another story.)

Right after I graduated, Michelle McCue, a Burbank, CA publicist sent me three bottles of Paul Mas’ French wines to try.  Paul Mas, a recipient of many international accolades, could be the poster child for my point of view–take old vines, history, winemaking integrity, and deliver balanced, approachable wines that can be enjoyed now.  Go one step further (which he does) and print the grapes on the back label so wine lovers do not have to know every Château and region in France to know what’s in the bottle.  My review of his wines.


*My definition of re-emerging wine markets is regions that have hundreds of years of wine making history but are just now getting positive attention from the mainstream global wine market.

**The picture is Château de Conas in Pézanas where the Mas family still lives. It was originally built over 1,000 years ago.



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 Clos de Savignac


“It’s fine to say, I like this wine or I don’t, just be able to tell me why.”  New York Times Wine Critic, Eric Asimov

Wine professionals are taught the language of wine evaluation and a systematic approach to tasting. When I judge a wine (professionally or at my own table), I’ve found that I have two favorite questions, “is this wine balanced?” and “do I know I want another sip?”

Three French wines were recently sent to me to sample and they each passed my tests with flying colors. When I sniffed, swirled and sipped they continued to impress me with lovely smells, attractive flavors, and long finishes.  To me, that’s all that is required of a wine.

The bottles were from Jean-Claude Mas, a winemaker from Southern France whose family tended vines and made wine in the Languedoc region even before the French Revolution. (European wine history is pretty cool.)  The winery is Domaines Paul Mas.

Domaines Paul Mas is growing quickly under Jean-Claude’s leadership and at the time of this writing, I see ten different brands on the website.  The wines I tasted were all single vineyards; the links to the winemaker’s notes are below:

Domaines Paul Mas, Chateau Paul Mas – Clos de Savignac, Gres de Montpellier 2011  (A blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache.)

Domaines Paul Mas, Chateau Paul Mas - Malbec, Gardemiel Vineyard 2010

Domaines Paul Mas, Paul Mas Estates – Pinot Noir, St. Hilaire Vineyard

The literature sent to me included this quote, When consumers sip his wines, Jean-Claude’s goal is to create a moment of pure pleasure.  When I read that after I tasted these wines, I thought, wow, he nailed it.  In addition to insisting that his wine taste good, he is a proponent of premium quality from grape to bottle, environmental stewardship, modern equipment and incorporating New World innovation with century-old expertise. (Thank you Jean-Claude for listing the grapes on the back label!)

The distributor is Palm Bay and while the entire Domaines Paul Mas portfolio isn’t available in the states yet, you can give this article to your favorite wine store and tell them to order it.  I’m going to be sending this right over where I shop in Sonoma, Valley Wine Shack.



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Napa Valley Aldo's Vineyard, Biale Winery 030609

The producers of the 2013 Dominican University Global Wine Marketing Conference for University Professors asked me to talk about California’s wines so I decided to conduct a tasting from two unique wineries and discuss how each winery does their marketing.  The wineries were Cornerstone Cellars and Robert Biale Vineyards.  When Dominican’s Robbie Hayes recommended Robert Biale Winery, I realized that Biale wines would be ideal to illustrate something important to me, the story of Zinfandel.

In the wine world, especially among old world enthusiasts and academics, there is a great deal of interest about where vines originate and how they grow in different areas.  Observations and other business factors lead some people to want to pigeon hole a country with one grape which fails to reflect actual complexities of a wine region.  A well-known example of this is Malbec and Argentina.  I have found a tendency among folks from other countries, (often encouraged by wine writers and pundits) to think of  Zinfandel as California’s grape.  In my opinion, it’s counterintuitive to assign Zinfandel (or any one grape) to America, after all we are a nation made up of revolutionaries and individualists.  To be clear, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the name Zindandel is from America and California’s old growth vines is an interesting story.

Here is the information I shared with the professors about California Zinfandel as they tasted Robert Biale Vineyard’s 2011 Black Chicken Zinfandel.

Vintage Notes:  Another chilly and rainy spring, with cool and moderate summer and fall seasons.
Harvest Dates:  9/26
Alcohol:  15.8%
MSRP:  $42.00

Winemaking:  The fruit was hand-sorted first in the field then again at the winery. Open-top fermentation and punched down three times per day. Pressed to Burgundian oak – 25% new. Aged 14 months.

Winemaker’s Tasting Notes:  The 2011 is one gorgeous “Chicken” and is right on the money: lush and dark fruits of blackberry, berry pie, black cherry, white pepper, peppermint, molasses, Oreo cookie, turmeric, vanilla, clove and nutmeg. A mouthwetting snap of acidity balances the round and ripe fruit, and the thin-skinned Zinfandel tannins propel the wine into an elegant and impressive big Pinot Noir style. We expect that this Black Chicken has an optimal drinking range from 2013–2020.

Girl with a Glass Notes:  Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County is the most famous for producing excellent Zinfandel. (There are over 5,000 acres planted in that county.) Napa only has approx. 1,500 (bearing & non-bearing) acres, and while it has ancient vines, it’s over-shadowed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Biale is one of Napa’s “old vine specialists” along with Peterson, Carlisle, Ridge and Turley wineries.  Originally Napa’s vineyards were mostly field blends; some wineries still make their Zins from field blends, others, like Biale’s Black Chicken are 100% Zin but from different Napa vineyards. 

Best resource for following California Zinfandel is ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers)

Clearing up the Zinfandel Mystery.  Until only recently, Zinfandel was California’s “mystery grape” because its origins were unknown. In 1994, DNA fingerprinting confirmed that the Primitivo and Zinfandel grapes were genetically identical, however, it’s not a 100 percent match. There are clonal differences between the Zinfandel grown in California and the Primitivo in Italy. On wine labels, U.S. regulations require that Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately. Studies have also indicated that the grape used for making California Zinfandel did not originate in Italy, but migrated from another origin to various destinations that include Italy. Scientists know that the Zinfandel grape has a European origin. Although further research is required, all evidence to date points to Croatian grape varieties as the origin. The Zinfandel name, however, is truly American—the earliest and only documented use of the name is in America where a Boston nursery owner advertised Zinfandel for sale in 1832. (Source: Wine Institute)

Thank you to Napa Photographer Mary Steinbacher.

(Read my article about Biale & Marketing a Small Production Winery.)

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Back Porch

As part of Dominican University’s invitation-only inaugural Wine Marketing Conference, I was invited to speak on the topic, “Observations of a Wine Marketing Practitioner.” Since all of the other attendees were marketing professors from around the world, I thought it’d be opportune to conduct a tasting of local wines while speaking about wine marketing.  The professors tasted three wines, two from Robert Biale Vineyard and one from Cornerstone Cellars.*  (Read my article about Biale’s Zinfandel.)

Robert Biale Vineyards is a small production winery in Napa whose wines are mostly distributed through their club.  With this exclusivity, the keys to successful cultivation of fans is high-touch attention to each individual, a high degree of perceived value to belonging to the inner circle, and unique wines.

As sophisticated as the next winery in Napa, Biale conjointly creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere by greeting visitors (mostly wine club members, their guests, and soon-to-be-members) as if they are family.  When I was there, the “guests” were so comfortable in the tasting room and on the porch, I could not easily ascertain who worked there and who didn’t.  One enthusiastic woman was saying hello to Robert Biale and when he introduced us, she gushed, “This feels like my second home.” I have no idea who she was, but she chatted with the winery owner like an old friend.

Biale is doing a few things that some would call old-school; for instance, when you call the winery during business hours you never get a machine where you must punch a few numbers and hope you get to the right person, instead the phone is answered by an actual person in the tasting room who acknowledges and thanks you for calling Biale.  One thing that immediately caught my eye was a lovely printed newsletter available in the tasting room/greeting area.  With blogs and other digital media being so ubiquitous it’s unusual to see a nice print piece these days. Nevertheless, my reaction was positive; it didn’t seem outdated, it seemed purposeful and quite compelling to pick up and read. When I asked one of the partners Dave Pramuk about it, he confirmed that the newsletter complements their brand identity, causing people to slow down and enjoy reading about their favorite winery.  Personally, I found the writing and the presentation to be extremely well done and agree with Dave that it suits their brand and target market.

When a winery chooses to sell mostly direct-to-consumer (DTC), participating in winemaker dinners and reception events across the country are important. By visiting markets where there are pockets of supporters, wineries have the opportunity to further solidify their relationship with their fans as well as garner new fans (friends of their members).

Last of all, but certainly not least, it’s important that small production DTC wineries thoughtfully position their wine in the marketplace.  Biale’s wines are considered to be special for several reasons: they are making wine from old Zinfandel vines in Napa and they make Petite Sirah which is in itself rare (see my other articles about Petite Sirah). Biale also makes sure the wine is not easily available in retail markets but is available in select fine restaurants.  Lastly, the price point is competitive for Napa which makes entry into the Club easier for more people. Biale does submit its wines to critics such as the Wine Advocate and it gets glowing scores, but this strategy is secondary to creating raving fans who like the wine, the story and Biale’s high-touch personal atmosphere.




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Chile Cabernet Sauvignon

Many of us have a hobby.  I have friends who love deep sea fishing, searching for plants in the woods or doing puzzles. A hobby brings out childlike curiosity and pure enjoyment in a person.  It releases us from the mundane chores of life and noise of the day.

This wine’s unique label is like a map to understanding my wine hobby.  The brand name, Terroir Hunter could be a movie title.  The place is Alto Maipo, a higher elevation (Alto) wine growing region in Chile.  I see a local viticulturist in old boots, with a walking stick in his hand, exploring acres of dirt and rocks in the Andes.   He looks up at the side of a mountain and sees the outline of natural terraces caused by water draining through rocks and layers of sediment.  Just like the label, his footprints stop and he marks the spot in his mind, “this is the place I’ll plant Cabernet Sauvignon.” He can imagine a mature vineyard and smell the ripening grapes.   Years later, this bottle of wine is shipped across a continent to California, and his dream is shared with me.

Wine Enthusiast Magazine has a wonderful article about Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon. Reading about a region, or better yet, visiting, is part of a wine hobbyist’s activities.

Winemaker’s Notes: Undurrage TH Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is from Pirque, an area in Maipo Alto with an exalted reputation for excellent Cabernet Sauvignon.  This wine is made from a small lot that yields very little fruit. Grapes are carefully sorted to find only the best berries.  The wine underwent cold maceration under anaerobic conditions for five days.  Fermentation took place at 28° – 29°C for 14 days, with three to four daily pump-overs.  The wine was left on its lees and skins for an additional 12 days to further its structure.  It was then racked into French barrels, 25% new where the wine was aged for 14 months.

The 2011 vintage in Maipo, especially in Pirque is considered a cool vintage. The same was true in 2010, which was one of the best vintages in recent times. The sugar, tannin and acidity levels were in balance by the third week of April, only one week earlier than in 2010. 





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If you have ever been wine tasting, you have experienced tasting five wines in one sitting.  Now imagine this at every lunch and every dinner for eight days.  The trick of course is to not drink full glasses.  Eat small amounts and sip a bit of wine with each bite.  Wine writers don’t normally use dump buckets during meals but I have been in situations where I have left the table and dumped my glass if we have several wines to get through and I don’t like a wine enough to finish it.  I only have so much room for wine, food or alcohol and it’s better to admit it than not enjoy myself.

As would be expected, in Spain, Cava producer, Segura Viudas served sparkling wines with meals.  I’ve always enjoyed sparkling wines but I rarely served them with meals.  I was serving sparkling wine only when it was the main event.  I would pair appetizers with it, but the food was chosen to complement the wine. With our hosts, I had the opportunity to taste sparkling rosé and white wines with various courses and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. The wines are light, refreshing and lower in alcohol.  I learned that the right (dry not sweet) Cava pairs quite well with various foods. There’s a special bubbly stopper that you can buy to keep an open bottle fresh.

I am still a habitual still wine person preferring lower alcohol white wines and well-balanced reds (if a red has higher alcohol, as long as I can’t taste it, I don’t mind). During my tripSegura Viudas Creu de Lavit was served at most meals.  It’s a still white wine made from a Spanish grape called Xarel-lo.  It’s imported to the states and part of their excellent Heredad Collection.

On a side note, while I expected to be happy when a still red wine was served, I found that it made me much sleepier than the other wines.  My trip to Spain has fundamentally changed my perspective on pairing wine and food, what a surprise!




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304 Tapas

I just made up the number 304, but I think it could be the number of “tapas” I ate in 8 days in Spain.  The very first night, our host, Toni, who is a marketing and p.r. guy for Freixenet, explained to our group that a few pre-selected tapas would be served and then if we wanted we could have a main course.  We had to decide before we saw the tapas and thank goodness I had declined the main course.  Each of us was served three tapas the size of the pictures above.  Five courses (3 tapas, main and dessert) was the smallest meal we had the entire trip.

The pictures above are not from that meal, I picked each one for different reasons.

Spanish Style Prawns over rice.  I’m not even sure if calling these “prawns” is correct.  I looked on this website to find the name but still not sure.  This type of dish was on many menus…very common and delish.

Fresh Pea Soup.  This is one course of a 9 course meal and while all of the courses were delectable, I was quite taken with the pure freshness of the peas. It reminded me of what chefs in California are all trying to achieve–farm to table freshness.

Arugula and Tomatoes over Linguini.  This was my “main dish” in a three course meal I enjoyed following a Spanish guitar concert at Church of Santa Ana in Barcelona. I booked the concert and dinner for the Saturday night I was on my own in Barcelona. I chose this picture to share how easy it is to enjoy fabulous flavors in a healthy meal. It was dressed with Balsamic vinegar and oil. (Spanish olive oil is my favorite, I suggest looking for olive oil from the Siurana region.)

Blue Cheese Stuffed Pancake. This was a simple dish that was more about flavor than presentation. I took a picture because I appreciated that the chef didn’t feel compelled to serve only “pretty” dishes. I loved the flavor and would like to learn how to make it.

Vanilla Ice Cream on Berries.  We were served ice cream on fruit at several meals. I like a small, fresh and refreshing dessert.  Funny thing, often this was the first dessert course followed but yet another one!

Our pairings included lots of young Cavas and white wine which I will write about in another post.






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When I return from a wine trip, I arrive with hundreds of pictures, fabulous memories to digest and various ideas about how to share the experience with others.  Whether for business or pleasure, travel is part of my pleasurable life. My life at home is enhanced by the opportunity to plan a trip, fly away and to live among another culture for a few weeks. Working in the wine and food world gives me the opportunity to discover and learn about those subjects around the world.

On my own, I have other interests that I indulge.  It has become my habit to read literary fiction about the place I am visiting.  This time, a few weeks before my trip, I picked up a book called, Driving Over Lemons, An Optimist in Spain by Chris Stewart (a former drummer for the band Genesis).  It’s about an English guy (Stewart) and his wife who buy a derelict farm in the mountains of Southern Spain. His book did exactly what I like, it gave me a good sense of a place.  I didn’t go to that part of Spain of course, but it doesn’t matter, the idea of reading literature before I travel is to get a glimpse of a culture in an honest and entertaining way.  The premise of cultural opposites (English and Andalusian) learning about each other is perfect. I just learned that Chris has turned this book into a trilogy, so I’m excited to immerse myself in his world again.

 I would love to write a very long post detailing the week I spent with my hosts from Segura Viudas and the two days I added in Barcelona, but like most bloggers, I have a job (as an independent Communications Specialist for wineries) and a family, so as soon as I land, my responsibilities compete with my writing time. My webmaster, Erin, and I are working on GirlwithaGlass 3.0, so one day soon I’ll have some cool app installed that will show you a slideshow with my notes. But for now, in the interest of time, I’ve chosen some pictures that instantly remind me of my experience of Spain which I will post with a few sentences each.  It’s the only way to get the job done and perhaps I’ll learn how to write less, too.  I hope you enjoy! Please comment or write to me if you are so inspired.

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I had no idea that Northern Spain was so fabulous until Segura Viudas, a wine company owned by Freixenet, Inc. invited me to visit as their guest.  The first thing I learned is I landed in Catalonia; (also spelled Catalunya) an autonomous community within Spain.  Catalonia has it’s own language, customs and culture.  According to our hosts, Catalans speak Catalan and Spanish and many also speak English and French.  Catalonia’s history is fascinating, dating back to pre-Roman times.  As is my custom, I added a few personal days to the trip so I could see some sites.  I was especially interested in Barcelona’s  History Museum because in the basement there are Roman remains of the city of Barcino (Barcelona today) including a wine making area. (I’ll be publishing a post about that soon.)

Segura Viudas makes some of the best sparkling wines in the world. They use the traditional Méthode Champenoise, which means they make it the same way they do in Champagne, France. In Spain, sparkling wine is called Cava, which is a controlled protection term referring to sparkling wine made in the traditional method from a specific region in Spain.  The winery building, located in the major grape growing region, Penedès, dates back to the 11th century. It’s last life prior to becoming a winery was that of a masia, a traditional Catalan country house.  I enjoyed the feeling of being in an ancient home (albeit the size of a palace).  Don Manual Segura Vallejo started making wine there in the 1950′s but did not market his wines until 1969.  One of his three sons, Manuel Segura Viudas was responsible for managing the winery.  Manuel’s high standards and interest in hiring top experts in grape growing, winemaking and technology has paid off for Segura Viudas which has been well-known for decades for impressive attention to detail and innovation.  

I was lucky to meet the head winemaker, Gabriel Suberviola Ripa who has held the position since 1998.  I’ve met many winemakers and the best ones, like Gabriel, instantly share an unbridled enthusiasm for talking about grapes, harvest, vintages and enjoyment of the final product.  Our small group had two days of classes ending in a blending exercise where we tried to emulate or best Gabriel’s blend.  Gabriel was the judge and I was very happy to receive third place, behind two well-seasoned wine buyers.  Gabriel’s philosophy is in alignment with my own: 1) “…wines should be less concentrated and more refined, subtle and drinkable. (2)…aromatic wines are more highly favorable…but don’t let aromatics become excessively sharp. (3) …the wine world needs to use understandable language…people shouldn’t need a degree in oenology to understand what we are talking about!”

On that note, go enjoy some Segura Viudas wine.  They are lovely, well-priced and pair well with food.  (Look for posts soon about our multi-course paired meals!)




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What’s the best way to learn about wine?

I am currently enrolled in a Wines and Spirits Trust certification course, it costs hundreds of dollars, requires me to drive to San Francisco every week for six weeks and I have to memorize lots of information and then take a test.  It’s a lot of hard work but when I finish I should be able to look at almost any bottle of wine and tell you about its terroir and likely flavor profile.

Up to this point, I have learned everything I know through firsthand experience, traveling and tasting, interviewing winemakers and growers and absorbing as much as I could from Andrea Immer Robinson’s original Food Network TV programs and books by Chefs and Sommeliers. 

One of today’s new stars is Madeline Puckett, a poised, smart and entertaining wine educator with a free online video wine course.  Writer Clinton Stark described Madeline as “…a bit of a slinky goth siren, her voice like Ellen Barken.” You’ll enjoy her easy-going short videos and learn the way I did, the easy and fun way! Find her on You Tube or at Wine Folly.

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