Tag Archive 'wine tasting'

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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Learn About Wine Series #1

18 Bottle Fridge in my Office

Step 1: Preparing to Buy & Taste Wine

The number one thing you need to know about tasting wine is that you must create the conditions to taste the same wine as made by the winemaker. Wine, like an apple or milk let’s say, is derived from food therefore it changes depending on how it is stored and treated.  A piece of fruit left in your kid’s lunchbox for two weeks, turns brown and mushy.  You leave milk at room temperature, it turns sour.  A great winemaker, Chris Loxton, really brought this home to me one day.  We were standing in his barrel/tasting room, pre-tasting the wines that he would be pouring for guests that day. One bottle was slightly oxidated (cork didn’t fit right so air got in) but I doubt anyone except Chris would be able to tell. But he threw out the bottle with a serious look and remarked, “I want people to taste the wine I made.”

Like most of the people I know, my house didn’t have a special place to store wine.  I left it in an open air wine rack in the dining room and figured it was good enough.  After talking to Chris, I changed my mind. I wanted to taste what the winemaker intended as much as possible.  Just as milk needs to be kept at a particular temperature, wine needs to be kept at “cellar temperature” which averages 53-55° degrees.  Refrigerators are kept between 35-38° to avoid mold growing or turning it to ice (freezing). You may have heard that when tomatoes are refrigerated they break down and lose flavor, but you probably keep the tomatoes in the crisper anyway thinking what the heck they can’t be that different and I’ll eat them quickly.  Wine is not like that.  If you need scientific proof, I suggest reading Becca Yeaman’s blog, The Academic Wino.

You are going to have to splurge for a little wine refrigerator (or bigger if you want to follow my footsteps).  A 30 bottle fridge is pretty nice and not too much of a commitment.  An 18 bottle fridge is less than $200 USD and easy to find at your local store.  My husband got a great deal on a 75 bottle wine refrigerator that is stainless steel and black and looks great in my kitchen. It was a Christmas gift surprise.  And don’t hesitate to buy a dented or used one – you’ll be double-happy to know that you got this awesome fun item for a deal. Consider it insurance, if you are going to upgrade your wine knowledge, you can’t tie one hand behind your back by wondering if the wine was well-stored.  And don’t worry about it always being filled, I store Pellegrino in mine when there’s room.

First assignment: get a wine fridge.


Next up, the value of keeping track of what you drink and a really cool way to do it. We’ll start buying and tasting wine soon, I promise!


*This post is part of a series that I started on my Facebook page on September 25, 2012. I’m inviting folks  who want to learn a quick, fun and easy system for becoming wine savvy to follow in my footsteps as I learn about South African wine. Once you know the tricks, you can apply it to understanding wine from anywhere. Go to my facebook page to read the series’ introductory post.

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Pinot Noir

June 9 & 10, 2012 See ya there!

I don’t know. It’s the heartbreak grape. Difficult to vinify. For me, it’s a metaphor for the process of art. You struggle and suffer against seemingly insuperable microclimatic odds, and only when everything comes into a … perfect confluence can you really alchemize something transcendent. And it doesn’t happen often. But, forsaking money, and with no apparent concern for one’s well-being, like artists, true artists, Pinot vintners persevere for that one preternatural moment. Which, when imbibed, is then only but a memory, nothing really tangible, like a book, or a painting, or a movie, admittedly. But … unsurpassable in all other sensory delights in that one sublime, albeit ephemeral, moment.  Miles, from the play Sideways by Rex Picket (reprinted with permission)

The scene in the Sideways movie of Miles sitting on the porch in the late evening with an attractive Sommelier is forever etched in my memory.  His over-the-top musing was fascinating, like watching a train wreck. I wondered how can people be so silly in describing wine? Simultaneously I was intrigued about Pinot Noir.

What Rex wrote is true, it’s a delicate varietal and desires perfect conditions. I’ve written quite a lot about the grape including my Pinot Trio Tour in Germany, visiting oceanside Pinot vines in Chile, picking the winner at a Carneros Chef Smackdown pairing contest and more. I”m attending the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference because it’s in Oregon and I want to learn more about their Pinots.

Next up in my year of Pinot Noir is the 1st Annual Passport to Pinot Barrel tasting weekend, June 9 – 10, 2012 in the famous Russian River AVA. I highly recommend this event for Pinot Lovers. It will be super fun, educational and you will no doubt find some new favorites.  See you at the wineries!



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I adore downtown Napa; it has a lovely urban feel yet it is situated on the beautifully renovated Napa River Waterfront.  There are dozens of tasting rooms, modern classy hotels and historic B&B’s, fabulous restaurants, nightlife (like salsa dancing at Ceja’s or jazz at Silo’s ) and shopping all within walking distance. It’s a wonderful destination for a girls’ getaway, a romantic date or even a healing respite alone or with a good friend.

I drive to Napa from my home 25 country miles away through the rolling vineyards about twice a month. I have often wanted to stay overnight on the spur of the moment. I just learned that smart folks in downtown Napa have figured out how to make it easy for visitors to enjoy a spontaneous overnight stay – they’ve designed complimentary overnight kits.

The Do Napa Overnight Kit includes:

  • An overnight shirt for sleeping
  • Do Napa canvas tote bag
  • Brush, hair bands and a mirror
  • Contact lens case and saline
  • 29 Cosmetics face products for the ladies
  • Lip balm
  • Makeup remover
  • Woolite for delicates
  • Deodorant

The Kits will be available at select properties in the city of Napa that are members of Napa’s Tourism Improvement District while supplies last. Local bars, restaurants and the Napa Valley Welcome Center will also have information about the Overnight Kit to distribute to visitors. To check availability, visitors should inquire at the front desk or call ahead on the day of their visit. Downtown Napa’s website is a great place to get ideas for your trip and a list of lodgings. DoNapa.com


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MacPhail Winery, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County

MacPhail Winery, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County

Part 2.  Read the back story and meet the wine…

Interview with James MacPhail, Winemaker, MacPhail Family Winery 

When did you start making wine, what was your position and with whom?  I started making my own wine in 2001 (it was a Merlot).  I was working at Pelligrini at that time – and that’s where Merry Edwards was making her wine before she built her own place.  I worked for both producers doing everything and anything that was asked of me.  There really wasn’t a name for it.  I guess “cellar rat” is the closest thing.

When did you start your own label?  2002

When did you partner with Hess? If you mean when was I contacted to be the winemaker for Sequana, that would be in the spring of 07.   If you mean when did Hess and MacPhail Family Wines come together, that would be June of 2011.

 How did that come about?  For 2007, I was on the list to be interviewed for Sequana. I went over with 3 bottles of my Pinot – no resume – and met with Dave Guffy.  We hit it off.  I got a call the next day and was offered the position.  If you mean 2011, that happened at the Taste of Vail event with CEO Gary Bulger – over a beer.

What are your favorite things to do when you are not making wine?  Sleep in, be with my family, go places and relax and soak up the sun.  Swim.  Go out with friends and try new places.

Do you have any goals or dreams in the winemaking business that you have yet to meet? If so, what are they?  I’d love to make wine in Argentina, do more research about this business; I’d like to teach.  It’s a never-ending quest.

Thanks James (& Kerry!), I finally got the answers to my burning questions. Regarding Argentina, interesting…everyone knows it’s my favorite place in the world (besides home). 

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Winter Winelands, Sonoma

As part of my wine education, a few years ago, I spent 2 1/2 years visiting wineries, year-round, four days a week.  I loved talking to wine makers, owners and staff during the winter season.  During that time, and the 5 years before that, when I wasn’t studying, I was home (practicing pairing) so I rarely went to public wine events.

This year, Winter Winelands in Northern Sonoma County caught my attention. It’s one of my favorite wine regions, and although 6,000 people attend annually, the event is spread out over 30 miles including Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Healdsburg, Dry Creek Valley and even some tasting rooms in Santa Rosa. The possible combinations of itineraries is almost endless.

I’ve decided to visit some old favorites in Dry Creek Valley. I’ll miss a few folks over in the Russian River (like John Tyler) but I’m sure I’ll be inspired to come back another weekend to say hello.  My friend Herlinda and I will be in my little roadster starting at Bella Wine Vineyards & Wine Caves. It’s beautiful inside the caves with tasting stations throughout, the perfect escape when it’s chilly outside and the vineyards are bare and boring.  Warmed up, we’ll be ready to hit the red carpet at Dry Creek Vineyard where there are always good deals and a variety of wines to taste. (I’ll be looking for a new vintage of their dessert wine Soleil.)

Then off to a rare public opening of a secret winery that is usually appointment only. Note: Not on the Winelands list but tastings are complimentary for Wine Road participants. Only open Saturday, not Sunday.  From there, a drive up to Michel Schlumberger to see friends, it’s always a great place for a party (inside scoop that they will have some fabulous deals, the more you buy, the more you save).  Might end our day here but I’d love to stop by Merriam Vineyards to taste through their outstanding wines. Merriam’s also serving braised pork and grits. Yum!

Make your itinerary at Winter Wineland, The Wine Road.

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It’s important to stock up on white wine at the holidays.  Even though I advise sharing your favorites, this is one area where it’s also an opportunity to be a gracious host, prepared for guests that “don’t drink red” or drink only Chardonnay. And please don’t serve 2 Buck Chuck; you may like it but there are plenty of other inexpensive wines that say “I care” while not breaking your piggy bank.

Here’s a few of my favorite interesting white wines that I’ll share with my guests this holiday season.

2009 Glen Carlou Chardonnay Paarl South Africa Another Donald Hess gem, this Chardonnay is nicely balanced, not too acidic or tart and not too oaky. It goes with food and is also very enjoyable on it’s own. Just a beautiful example of what the Chardonnay grape can be. Since it’s from South Africa with only about 10,000 cases imported to the USA, it might be a new and pleasant discovery for your guests. (Tip: Usually $16, now on sale at wine.com)

2009 Haute Cabriere Franschhoek Chardonnay Pinot Noir South Africa 2009 was a great vintage for South African Chardonnay which may have something to do with this wine’s exceptionalness. It’s the only 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir blend that I’ve ever tasted so I can’t say if others are as wonderful or not. The Haute Cabriere is flavorful and balanced with a long finish. With low alcohol (12.5%), it’s food friendly or great on it’s own. (Tip: Use wine-searcher.com to find where to buy it.

2008 Leyda Chardonnay, Lot 5, Chile.  Just a little reminder that Chile makes some fine Chardonnay, this one is hard to find unfortunately.  The link above goes to my review earlier this year in Alana’s Wine Picks. (Tip: Look here for other ideas too.)

2006 Laurenz V Charming Gruner Veltliner, Austria  It’s minerally, rich and has a hint of well-balanced light pepper spice. I highly recommend trying it and sharing it, especially if you’re tired of the same old whites. (Tip: This is not a budget wine at $30 but it is comparable to buying a Napa Chardonnay and it has the fun factor of trying something new. The 2009 is the current vintage. For more information about where to find this wine, contact the good folks at Folio Wine.)


More holiday picks Red  & Sparkling.



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It’s my tradition to open a bottle of sparkling wine for the cooks at family events.  I am picky about my bubbly so when I find sparkling wine that is dry yet zesty and flavorful with tiny bubbles, I’m a happy girl.

The ultimate is No 21 from Jean Charles Boisset. This is a winery label to get to know and follow like a cult. I spent a few hours with JC and he leaves an indelible impression; even better, his wines rock. Everything you need to know about his wines and why they are radiant (a word he loves to use) can be gleaned by watching the über-enthusiasm in his video. Serve this wine and the story behind it for a real conversation starter. (Tip: JCB wines can be tasted in Healdsburg or in his private lounge in Napa. This sparkler is only $20. Buy his wines online.)

Dry sparkling rosé of Pinot Noir is a must have for the holidays.  2008 Schramsburg Brut Rosé  Schramsberg makes hand crafted, fine wines. This one is made from Sonoma and Marin Coastal Pinot Noir, and juiced up with warmer Carneros and Alexander Valley Pinot. (Tip: At $41 it’s worth it in my opinion and it’s still less expensive than the 2004 J Shram that I opened last New Year’s.  Here’s an article I wrote about Schramsberg.)

For Gloria Ferrer’s many fans, there’s a new limited edition wine,  Gloria Ferrer 2005 Anniversary Cuvée.  I attended a 2 day media tour and tasting recently and was struck by the lovely presentation of this wine. It was harvested in their 25th year (2005) and released 40 months later. (Tip: It’s only available in the tasting room (good excuse to visit) or online.)

For easy drinking, Chandon Brut Classic.  There are plenty of “grocery store” sparklers and everyone has their favorite.  For me, the Chandon Brut Classic doesn’t disappoint.  It’s under $25.  (Tip: If you want to try something new, Chandon has many other styles and flavors or you can use their recipes to make sparkling cocktails.)

More holiday picks White Wine  & Red.

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White Oak Winery

White Oak WInery

When I want a quiet wine tasting day, I go to Alexander Valley.  There’s something about it that encourages me to slow down, look at the scenery and linger at the wineries.  Visiting this area means you will taste many wines from Napa, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and other AVAs as well as the Alexander Valley.  It also means that each winery will be a special place unto itself–places that easily feel like a second home to guests.

1st Stop Jordan Estate (11:00 a.m.)

Reserve your spot for the Winery Tour & Tasting, available Monday – Saturday.  If you’ve been to the Dry Creek Valley with it’s modest and farm-like wineries, Jordan may seem a bit stuffy from appearances.  But don’t be fooled, the owners and staff are some of the most warmhearted, welcoming and just plain nice people in the industry.  They make one Cabernet Sauvignon and one Chardonnay every year.  While I always enjoy whatever they are pouring, the library wines (older vintages) whisper to me as soon as I walk into the library.  I also wish I could just live in the kitchen with their full-time Chef who makes gorgeously presented small bites to go with the wines. John Jordan continues his parents’ desire to share an estate experience with visitors.  I highly recommend joining their Estate Rewards program.  It is the only way you’ll get an invitation to private events and be able to stay in one of the amazing suites. Tip: Jordan wines are found in many restaurants and retail shops around the world.

2nd Stop Jim Town Store (12:30 pm)

Enjoy the brief drive up-valley to the only place to eat in the area.  You can’t miss the vintage building with an old faded-red truck parked next door.  Tip: It’s a small ordering area so if you peek at the current menu online, you’ll be prepared to order exactly what tickles your fancy.  And take your time, Jim Town has a wine country gift shop, lots of goodies in the cold case (I recommend the uber-rich chocolate pudding) and a wine shop.  Although you can eat in the indoor/outdoor colorful dining area behind the store, I recommend you move on over to your 3rd stop for a more private setting.

3rd Stop White Oak Winery (1:00 pm)

I suggest picnicking at White Oak because the wines are fantastic with food, very reasonably priced and high quality and there are several varietals so you’ll be able to get something to please everyone.  For whites, they make a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay, both from the Russian River AVA.  For reds, they make a Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and a Cab/Merlot from Napa grapes and a Zinfandel and a Bordeaux blend from Alexander Valley grapes.  I find White Oak’s wines to be made in an elegant style yet refreshingly accessible.  The staff is friendly, accommodating and will make you feel welcome.  Call ahead if you have a large party to reserve a picnic spot.

4th Stop Robert Young Estate Winery (2:30 pm)

Drive across the pretty valley enjoying photo opportunities along the way until you see a two-story white farmhouse and white barn.  You’ll be drawn to the house, but alas, that’s not the tasting room.  Pass the flowers and antique farm equipment and enter the intimate tasting room.  You will immediately feel welcome by the staff and most likely make new friends with other guests.  The wines are surrounded by ribbons and awards and you’ll enjoy several Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons and an Estate Merlot–whatever they have on hand. They make about 5,000-7,000 cases a year, so visiting may be a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to taste these exceptional wines.  There is a 3,000 sq ft’ cave on the property and you may be able to get an impromptu tour if they aren’t busy; otherwise, make a tour appointment.  However, just hanging out, tasting the wines and casually chatting with the staff is really all you need to enjoy the estate.  Ask lots of questions, they have a great story!

Back to Healdsburg (4:00ish)

You’ve just enjoyed a kick-back day in Alexander Valley and perhaps you’re not quite ready for a brief siesta before dinner.  I suggest one more stop in town at Hawley Tasting Room & Gallery in downtown Healdsburg across the street from Fideaux, the dog & cat gift shop. Hawley wines are consistently some of the best I’ve ever tasted and the tasting room is open daily until 6:00 pm.

PS: My favorite place to stay in Healdsburg.  My favorite place to eat.

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White Oak Vineyards & Winery

White Oak Winery

The pretty Alexander Valley tucked into Sonoma County’s northern corner is quite different from its famous neighbors, Dry Creek Valley (filled with Zinfandel pursuers) and Russian River Valley (teaming with Pinot Noir collectors). There is a hidden, quiet, unassuming quality to the area.  Perhaps this is because the main road is dotted with occasional signs and driveways and most of the wineries are hidden from view.  It’s also a monoculture grape-growing region, so a big part of the area’s appeal is being surrounded by rows and rows of vineyards.

It”s easy and pleasant to get around this unhurried and uncrowded area, yet it’s also an ideal place to enjoy open-air transportation.  Unless you have your own convertible, your choices are a horse-drawn Wine Carriage or a customized Land-Rover called the Vine Rover.

The Wine Carriage takes you through the vineyards and includes a barrel tasting & cave tour at Alexander Valley Vineyards, guided tours, premium tastings and a gourmet picnic and tasting at White Oak Vineyards & Winery, Hannah Winery, or Soda Rock Winery.

Vine Rover Tours offers customized tours, VIP tastings, friendly and knowledgeable guides.  And because I’m a guide with Vine Rover Tours, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorite wineries.

To book Vine Rover Tours, call Jay (707) 838-1405.  For the Wine Carriage call Bret at (707) 849-8989. Both are available year-round as weather permits.

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