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It’s been over a year since I’ve taken the time to write about the 20-something wine palate. Last I checked in, Millenials were mad for Malbec – but that was a while ago and, while I’m sure there are still plenty of 20-somethings throwing back these easy-drinkers from Argentina, there’s plenty more to catch everyone up on.

It’s only taken a year of writing this little wine blog but my friends have finally started to come around to being introduced to different wines that I bring around. And to actually go into wine stores on their own, ask questions, and spend a little money on a wine that they might actually enjoy. The biggest crowd pleaser? Without a doubt, Barbera.

Barbera is a grape indigenous to Piedmont in Northwestern Italy and it makes a wine that is notable for its big juicy fruit, high acidity, and low tannin. Unlike Malbecs from Argentina, which are also incredibly fruit forward, Barberas tend to show flavors of cherries and red plums and, because of the high acid, they are brighter and much more food-friendly. I have a theory that given these wines’ flavor profiles, easy drinkability, and food friendliness, they would easily be the next Malbec if not for their higher price tag. Wine directors around the city of New York have taken note, too, and begun to offer them widely and broadly on wine lists across the city as an affordable and accessible by-the-glass option. For the 20-something who is starting to get comfortable with their palate, maybe into a something a little heavier than their usual Pinot Noir but a little sick of rich chocolatey Malbec, Barbera is a brilliant choice.

Barbera is traditionally a wine of Piedmonte, but there are some truly wonderful examples coming out of Santa Barbara and also Amador County at the foot of the Sierra Foothills in California. Above, I’ve included my two clear favorites from this burgeoning region.

For the more adventurous 20-something wine drinker, I’ve found that another big hit is the Austrian grape, Blaufrankisch. Austrian wines, in general, have seen a pretty significant surge in popularity over the last year – with Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, and even St. Laurent starting to become a less rare sighting on wine lists and retail shelves. For the 20-something wine drinker who just doesn’t have a taste for Pinot Noir, Blaufrankisch is a great option – it’s light, has really bright acidity, and berry fruits like raspberries, blueberries, and a sophisticated hit of black pepper that makes the nose on this wine instantly recognizable. With just a touch of tannin, this is a good gateway wine into understanding the structure and complexity that tannin can bring to a wine – there’s no way that the average 20-something wine drinker is going to ever appreciate tannin if they’re smacked in the face with it. It has to be a gradual introduction and one that gets more aggressive over time, as the palate warms up to it. Blaufrankisch is another wine that my friends enjoyed so much that it drove them to their local wine shops in search of it.

As far as heavier reds go, I think that a lot of 20-somethings who have the money to spend are big into the reds from Chateneuf du Pape. The price of these spicy, earthy, and moderately tannic wines have fallen as the market has been flooded with more affordable bottles, and millenials are drawn to this very classic French wine. However, for those who have a taste for bigger reds that can’t quite afford to throw down $20 every time they want a bottle of wine, the reds of the Languedoc are a great place to go. Specifically, the red wines of Corbieres are popular and, generally, easy sellers. These are reds that have some of the spice, aggressive fruit, and earthiness that Chateneuf offers, but with softer tannins and a funkier character that is strangely appealing. The price tags on these wines are generally a little gentler on the wallet, too, with good bottles usually retailing for about $12/bottle.

In Corbieres, the main grape is Carignan, which is often supplemented with Syrah and Grenache. Carignan is the main culprit behing the funky character that sets the region’s reds apart. Meanwhile, in Chateuneuf du Pape, Grenache is king.

So, what about the whites you ask? Besides the Moscato craze sweeping the marketplace, there are plenty of other wines that are poised to be a big hit with the 20-something wine-drinking crowd. To start, I think that Rieslings are making a big impression on the 20-something wine drinker – especially with the shift towards the bone-dry style. If there’s one thing that Millienals never want to be, it’s uncool. And sweet Rieslings? They are the epitome of uncool. But dry Rieslings are delicious and 20-somethings are learning this slowly but definitely.

In the spirit of Riesling’s growing popularity in regions across the world, I’ve included here a sample from The Finger Lakes, Alsace, Washington, and the Mosel Region of Germany…all have distinct characteristics that speak to that all-elusive idea of terroir

I also think that Greek Whites are making some decent headway. Assyrtiko, once obscure, is slowly becoming a go-to white wine on many wine lists around the city, and I’ve had some other Greek whites that have just blown me away. These are wines to watch out for. Again, like with the dry Rieslings, these are usually whites with racy – if not downright aggressive – acidity that are crisp and clean, but offer nice fruit and some interesting flavors. Oak, I think, has become a faux-pas as far as 20-somethigns are concerned – an oaky white wine is too much something their mothers would drink and, thus, far too uncool.

The wine on the far left, the Alpha Estate Malgouzia, isn’t actually an Assyrtiko, but it is a wine I fell in love with recently. It has a vaguely minty marshmallow flavor and texture that make it endlessly intriguing from the first sip to the last. Coupled with a bracing acidity, it’s a wine that continues to pique my curiosity weeks after I’ve tried it.

Lastly, as far as whites go, I think that Sicilian whites are piggybacking on the huge surge in popularity of Sicilian reds, and we may start to see more of them. Just like with Assyrtiko and Riesling, Sicilian whites have zingy acidity and unusual flavors that range from orange blossom to stark minerality. They’re cool and weird and so far from what our parents ever liked that I think they’re bound to become strangely popular for such an obscure wine.

I think the biggest insight we can glean into the shifting trends in what 20-somethings are drinking is that younger wine drinkers like wines that have a “cool factor” – whether the grape or the place is a little obscure, a taste for high acidity, and, obviously, the price. If the average bottle is above $15, you can forget about it – you’re not going anywhere fast with this recession-battered crowd. I think, too, that, wines in general made with less oak and a lighter touch are becoming increasingly popular.  I think that two wines poised to make a big impression in the next year are Rioja – those that are made in a more traditional old-world style with restrained oak and less bombastic fruit, and Beaujolais – a wine I love dearly for its subtlety, delicacy, and lightness. We’ll come back around to those two, later. In the meantime, go drink what the cool kids are drinking and thank me later.

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Ya know, Spanish wine is a weird thing. Spain, as a nation, has more acreage devoted to wine production than any other country at 2.9 million acres. For some perspective, California only has a little more than 500,000 acres devoted to wine production and France, the world’s largest producer, squeezes its vast quantity of wine out of just under 2 million acres. And yet, while Spain has more land devoted to winemaking than anyone else, it is only the 3rd largest producer after France and Italy (first and second respectively).

I would also argue that we Americans tend to know less about Spanish wine than we do about other wines from abroad. Or at least that’s how I feel. Want me to tell you what grapes are grown in the Loire Valley versus the Cotes du Rhone? No problem… the answer rolls off my tongue, greased with confidence. Want me to tell you the difference between the wines of Piedmont and those grown in Alto Adige? Psh, please – what do I look like to you? Some sort of amateur?

Alright, tough guy – what are the differences between the grapes used in Ribera del Duero and Rioja? Ermm…umm….uh…I…. what? You know what the scariest part of that question is? It’s a trick question – the grapes are the same. Both regions use Tempranillo! I hear ya, you’re like, wait – what? Isn’t that what makes European wine so confusing? Because every region of every country uses different weird grapes that I don’t know how to pronounce properly?

That’s kind of the beauty of Spanish wine– in many ways it’s actually significantly less complicated than French or Italian wine. For example, while Spain does have its fair share of weird indigenous grapes and there are certain regions that use specific grapes rarely used anywhere else (like Mencia, only used in Galicia), there’s also a lot of continuity across wine regions in Spain that can offer a brilliant lesson in the effects of climate, geology, and geography on winemaking.

When it comes to Spanish red wine, bets are that whatever you’re drinking is comprised of Tempranillo, Garnacha, or a blend of the two. That’s a pretty wild generalization, but it’s also a good place to start. I owe it to Spain to do a full examination of all her wondrous wine regions, and to do it in the same fashion and with the same attention I’ve given to her sisters, France and Italy. But I’m not going to do it today. Because today, what I really want to talk about is Ribera del Duero.

A closeup of the Castille y Leon Wine Region of Spain

A couple months ago, I was invited to a tasting of the wines of Ribera del Duero and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had no clue what these wines were all about, but being the giant nerd that I am, I did my homework and a little research. I learned that Ribera del Duero was a wine-producing region located in the Castilla y Leon region. I also realized that the closest thing I’d tasted to a wine from Ribera del Duero were the wines of Toro – pretty much Ribera’s next-door neighbor. I also realized, quickly, that both Ribera del Duero and Toro produce wines from Tempranillo (though, in Toro they like to call it Tinta de Toro).

The famous castle of Castille y Leon

And then I was like, oh, hey! Tempranillo! I know that grape – that’s the stuff that’s in Rioja! Sweet, I got this. So Iwalked into the tasting expecting to experience the ball-busting powerhouse wines I associated with Toro and the flavors of chocolate, oak, and dark fruit that I associated with Rioja.

Boy, oh, boy was I wrong. Dead wrong. Like, leather pants in August wrong. I hardly even know where to start, so I guess I’ll start with the Vega Sicilia, one of the most highly-regarded and revered wineries in the world. It seemed a little unfair that my introduction to the wines of Ribera del Duero would be through the region’s and, indeed probably the country of Spain’s, most prized wine. I felt poised for disappointment because how on earth could this possibly be a fair entry to the wines of the region? It would have been like sipping a LaTour or Mouton Rothschild by way of introduction to Bordeaux. It’s just simply not done.

But I did it. And I was dumbfounded. As I sat and swirled my glass of this ridiculously expensive wine, expecting the heady masculine scent I associated with Rioja and Toro, I was absolutely disoriented by the scents of eucalyptus and roses that wafted up instead. What the hell was going on here? I sipped. The wine was smooth as velvet with soft firm tannins, an ethereal light body and an acidity that kept the whole thing aloft until it had slid, like silk, down my throat. That was the Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2006 –  the least prestigious of Vega Sicilia’s wines, being the one they produced every year. We still had the Vega Sicilia Unico Grand Reserva 2000 to go – a rare wine made only in the best vintages and in extremely limited amounts. This time the nose was all baked cherries with floral notes and some liquorice hovering around the edge along with a whiff of leather. This one had a little more weight to it, anchored by dusty tannins but still held aloft by an astringent herbal quality that kept it unbearably fresh. It wasn’t until you swallowed this velvety conconction that a faint streak of chocolate and earth rushed into your mouth. It was incredible. And so light.

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2006 on the left, Vega Sicilia Unico Grand Reserva 2000 on the right

I floated out of the seminar and into the elevator to be whisked down into the main tasting room. Surely, I thought, this was all some sort of gross misunderstanding. I must have missed something – these wines were so elegant, so fresh, so pretty! They were nothing like the rich, kick-you-around wines I was expecting from Toro or the warm, comforting give-you-a-hug wines of Rioja…there was more to this than I thought. And so I marched on.

The wines of Ribera del Duero have another thing in common with the wines of Rioja (besides the use of Tempranillo) in that they employ the same classification system whereby they are categorized according to the amount of time they’ve spent in oak:

Cosecha or Joven: These wines usually do not see any oak.  “Joven Roble” and “Joven Barrica” are aged for only three to six months in oak and released soon after harvest. As a result, they are fruity, vibrant, and meant to be consumed young.

Crianza: Aged two  years with a minimum of one year in oak barrels. These wines usually have well-balanced tannins with a medium-to-full body.

 Reserva: Aged three years, with a minimum one one year in oak barrels. After at least one year in oak barrels, Reserva wines are bottle-aged in winery cellars, producing wines that are ready to drink once they are released – they are more intense, richer, and have a longer finish.

Gran Riserva: Gran Riservas are wines that are only produced in the very best vintages. They are aged fro a minimum of five years, with a minimum of two years in oak barrels, followed by additional bottle aging. These are complex, structured, balanced, and the biggest examples of Ribera wines.

The most amazing aspect of these wines though, especially for any drinker familiar with the wines of Rioja, is how absolutely and terrifically different they are. Even though these wines are made from the same grape in much the same manner, they couldn’t be more different.

vineyards in Ribera del Duero

The take away I had from this whole experience was that the wines of Ribera del Duero are incredibly fresh and elegant. Scattered among my tasting notes are phrases like “really light”, “lovely and floral”, “raspberries and violets”, “baked blueberries and cinnamon!” “so fresh”, and “herbal, stony, and juicy”.

One of the reasons that the wines of Ribera del Duero manifest the Tempranillo grape so differently is the region’s geography. Most of the vineyards of Ribera are planted between 2,500 and 2,800 feet above sea level with some vineyards planted even higher. The region’s elevation contributes to wildly fluxuating daytime/nighttime temperatures during the growing season that facilitate healthy ripening of the grapes by day and promote balanced acidity and aromatic complexity at night. The region is also fairly dry, contributing to consistent ripening and soil conditions that are near-perfect with limestone and chalk that help to give the wines structure. But mostly, it’s the region’s elevation that contributes to the unbelievably fresh character of these wines.

That said, while I can surely appreciate a wine that’s gonna kick me around a little bit (see: my love affair with Priorat) – I absolutely fell in love with the younger wines of Ribera del Duero because they were so pretty and bright and fresh. That’s not to say I didn’t like the Riservas and Grand Riservas I tasted – they are more complex, more elegant, and more serious grown-up wines. But, for me, the region’s real charms were on full display in the flirty and vivacious younger wines –the Jovens and the Crianzas. 

This time of year is especially perfect for these young wines of the Ribera del Duero. Here in New York, Spring has unfurled her flowers and tree branches and now turned a cold shoulder on the city – turning the sky gray and the air chilly again. And for this, the wines of Ribera del Duero – floral and pretty, but also substantial, are perfect. Take a look at some of my favorites below and, oh, did I mention that they’re also wildly affordable with a median price that lands somewhere between $10-$15/bottle? Yeah. You’re welcome.


D.O.5 Hispanobodegas, S.L.U 2010 Vina Gormaz: 
This joven is made from very old vines that lend a complexity and concentration to the wine that is pretty unreal. Fresh raspberries on the nose lead to a wine that has a tightly wound structure that carries the aromatics from the nose through to the palate.

Hacienda Ernestina Solano Roble 2010: This joven is light, fresh and has an absolutely gorgeous nose of flowers and fresh fruit.

Pagos de Valcerracin 2008: This Crianza was so different on the nose with notes of earth, tar and even a whiff  of petrol that made me think of Reisling. On the palate, however, the wine exploded into something floral with a sweet vanilla-laced flavor and sun-ripened blackberries.Blew me away!

Pasquera 2009 Tinto Pasquera: Baked strawberries on the nose and a scent of canned cranberry sauce. It’s juicy and really drinkable.

Bodegas y Vinedos Neo 2009 Sentido Cosecha: An unbelievable nose of baked blueberries and cinnamon leads to a wine that is light and spicy with amazing balance.

Bodegas Vizcarra 2008 Celia Crianza: More of that beautiful blueberries-and-violets scent on the nose that just makes your mouth water. It smells like berry pie and fresh flowers and on the palate is light and silky.

Carmelo Rodero 2005 Valtarrena: A single vineyard Reserva that was soft, spicy, sweet and incredibly fresh.

Adarezo 100% Unoaked Vina Villano: This wine was so refreshing it was like drinking juice – blueberries and raspberries jumped out of the glass, mingling with floral perfume. On the palate it had sparkling juicy acidity and tight tannins to hold it all up. Even, at the end, a faint trace of watermelon…just lovely.

Hijos de Antonio Barcelo 2007 Vina Mayor Crianza: Really light and floral with a lovely plummy character – absolutely delicious. Right next door to Vega Sicilia’s vineyards so the quality is pretty amazing.

 

 

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Interested in spending this rainy NYC weekend indoors strolling through one of the city’s largest and most expansive wine tastings? This weekend is the New York Wine Expo and, although it starts tonight, there’s still time to get your ticket!

Why bother? Because for $85 tonight (6-10 pm) or $95 tomorrow (2-6pm) you can taste as many wines as you want (or can – drunkies, I’m lookin’ at you) from ALL.OVER.THE.WORLD. Never tried a wine from Portugal? Interested in tasting your way through Italy from north to south? How about a trip around France’s most famed wine regions? Maybe you just want an opportunity to learn or pick up some tips…It’s all possible.

I’ll be there! And I’ll be tweeting the whole thing live – from the word on the latest trends, to insights from winemakers and drinkers alike, and any surprisingly stupendous sips I encounter along the way. Definitely tune in and follow me on twitter (@forgetburgundy) if you don’t already – I predict that as the night goes on and I get more wine in me, things will start to get interesting.

For more information, go the event’s website: http://www.wine-expos.com/Wine/NY/

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Ah, Valentines Day. I can’t believe it’s almost here already!  That most singularly reviled holiday amongst singletons and couples alike. Singletons get sad that they’re all alone while couples often buckle under the pressure of concocting the perfect day. No wonder it’s a holiday so often associated with that most luxurious quaff, Champagne – perhaps the most pleasant way to a quick buzz (amIright?). Read into it what you want (and surely one too many movies have used the euphimism of the exploding cork for certain, ahem, activities) but Champagne is certainly a wine that exudes romance; famously finicky and hard to make – yet endlessly indulgent and exceedingly delicious when done right. Just like any great relationship, right?

Whether you’re planning on serving Champagne with one of its famously aphrodisiac companions or sipping it with the gals while watching SATC reruns, I’ve rounded up 10 wonderful Champagnes and sparkling wines (because it can only be called Champagne if it’s actually from Champagne. Want to learn more about that? Click here.) available for your purchasing pleasure around NYC right this way on my very favorite fashion site, Refinery 29.

PS: Wanna learn all the nitty gritty that goes into Champagne? Head over to my blog post: “Champagne: So much more than a bubbly wine that’s fun to mispronounce”

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That’s right, I’m blatantly attempting to co-op some gooogle searches by making a OWS reference…but who can blame me? Tis the season, after all, and what are the holidays really good for if not being shameless? So anyways…

Tasting some gorgeous sparklers by candle ligh at Winston's Champagne Bar in NYC

There’s nothing more apropos of a celebration than the spectacular pop of opening a Champagne bottle and the effusive gush of bubbles that comes next. Although we may call it Champagne, in America at least, just as often as not, the sparkling stuff we’re toasting with isn’t Champagne at all – it’s a sparkling wine.

So, what’s the big deal? The French – the only ones who make true Champagne aren’t too keen on letting just any one borrow the name. True Champagnes are produced only from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and produced using the traditional méthode champenoise. But you knew all that, didn’t you, dear reader?

While Champagne may be the wine. that started it all, when it comes to sparkling wine, there are more options that are just as delicious and not nearly as expensive than ever before. Seeing as the holidays are quickly approaching and ‘tis the season for celebration, I’ve rounded up some great alternatives to the season’s favorite bubbly libation, Champagne.

Before we get started on some wonderful & affordable Champagne alternatives, if you want to try a great Champagne, try Taittinger Brut Prestige Rose NV ($50):  A gorgeous salmon color, this Rose features a toasty nose that has hints of burnt rubber and an extremely gorgeous fine bubble. On the palate, ripe berries and bright acidity make this a beautiful and delicious example of the best Champagne has to offer. 

*Note: Crémant is the indicator that the French came up with to connote sparkling wines from French regions other than Champagne, so anytime you see a wine labeled Crémant you’ll know you have a sparkler on your hands.

Crémant D’Alsace is the sparkling wine made in Alsace, France’s main Riesling-producing region. That said, these wines are often produced with – you guessed it! – Riesling, along with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. These sparklers are made using the same production method as Champagnes and can range from slightly sweet (demi-sec) to dry (brut) and extremely dry (extra brut). Cremant D’Alsace is usually considered a refreshing, floral, and crisp sparkling wine.

Try: Domaine Agape Cremant D’Alsace NV ($19)

Crémant de Limoux: Limoux is a region in the south west of France and the main grape of the region is an obscure varietal called Mauzac, but another local varietal called Blanquette along with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are also grown here. Some believe that Limoux is the birthplace of the méthode champenoise – stumbled upon by monks in the 16th century. These sparklers tend to show the biscuity, herbal, and yeasty flavors that drive some Champagne lovers wild.

Try: Domaine J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux Brut Les Graimenous 2008 ($18)

 Blanquette de Limoux: Produced from the same grapes in the same region as Crémant de Limoux, these wines are set apart by a restriction on the percentage of Mauzac that must be used (90%). The other 10% can be Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, or a mixture of both. Mauzac lends these wines a distinctive taste of apple and spices (very cider-ish), and sometimes aromas of fresh cut grass.

Try: Antech Blanquette de Limoux Grande Reserve Brut ($15)

Crémant De Jura: Jura is a small region located along France’s border with Switzerland and is known for making a unique style of oxidized white wine that have a distinct taste and orange hue. White and rosé wines can be produced from local obscure grapes Poulsard and Trousseau and also Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. These sparklers often have a musky aroma with flavors of ripe peaches and orange peel.

Try: Philippe Bornard Cremant De Jura NV  ($22.99)

Crémant de Loire (aka Vouvray Brut): Vouvray is the name of the region most commonly associated with sparkling wines from France’s Loire Valley, but the region also produces still wines. Either way, these wines are made from Chenin Blanc, a grape with naturally high acidity – making it great for pairing with food. The wines produced from this grape also have a sweetness followed up by characteristic minerality. Sparkling wines from the Loire Valley are often especially aromatic and beloved for their honeyed floral perfume.

Try: Bouvet Brut NV ($12) – This non-vintage sparkler made from 80% Chenin Blanc and 20% Chardonnay comes from the second oldest winery in the Loire Valley. It has a very buttery and yeasty nose that comes from having been made in the methode champoinese. On the palate there is bright acidity and sweet minerality balanced by notes of lime and citric peel.

Prosecco: This Italian bubbly has only become more popular as a Champagne substitute and for good reason – it’s very affordable and makes a light crisp sparkling wine. Prosecco is made from a grape that goes by the same name and is not made in the same way as Champagne; its secondary fermentation usually takes place in steel tanks rather than in-bottle.

Try: Caposaldo Prosecco ($12) – This Prosecco is always made to order so it’s unbelievably fresh! With a nose of bubblegum, this sparkler has the kind of clean palate that boasts flavors of pears and a slight minerality that would make it a perfect appertif. Slightly sweet and with a creamy bubble, this is a lovely little wine.

Asti: Another Italian sparkler, Asti is a sparkling wine made throughout the northern region of Piedmont. Made using the same technique as Prosecco, rather than with the méthode champenoise, Asti is produced from the Moscato Bianco grape. Speaking of Moscato, Moscato d’Asti is made in the same region (Asti) from the same grape, but is only slightly sparkling (frizzante) and tends to have less alcohol. Both, however, are sweeter wines that tend to have a very floral bouquet, and flavors of ripe peaches, nectarines, and apricots that are balanced by high acidity.

Try: Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2010 ($15): Honey and white flowers on the nose are followed up by sweet ripe peaches on the palate and held up by enough acidity to keep the sweetness from becoming cloying. Delicious!

Cava: Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine that is made using the same technique as Champagne using the traditional macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo grapes. Cava, like Champagne, can range in style from very dry (brut nature) to sweet and is a great celebratory sparkler that is usually very crisp and refreshing.

Try: Poema Rosado NV ($11) –  This Rose is a very deep blush – almost ruby colored. With a nose of tar and roses, it’s easy to tell at once that this is not your ordinary rose. On the palate are flavors of bright red fruits like cherries and raspberries, a juicy acidity, and the slightest sweetness.

Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year to you all! I leave you with this:

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Photo Courtesty of Katie Sokoler, colormekatie.blogspot.com

Jonny Cigar, one part performer to two parts wine geek, is the self-appointed master sommelier behind the city’s coolest underground wine salon, The Noble Rot.

Cigar’s impact on the New York City wine scene has been palpable; he was recently proclaimed one of the city’s new wine prophets by Time Out New York. He says it is crucial to point out that he has no official wine education – but he has studied performance and theater.

“I went to school for performance. What the hell am I doing?” Cigar said of his initial thoughts on receiving the news that he’d been named a “wine prophet.”

Cigar’s flair for the dramatic extends from his name (he was born Jonathan Cristaldi), to his bespoke three-piece suits and penchant for bow ties. At Noble Rot events, Cigar is known for his habit of introducing the evening’s theme and wines through dramatic readings, soliloquys and even the stray Frank Sinatra impersonation.

Meeting over tea on a chilly fall afternoon in the West Village, Cigar was in one of his signature three-piece suits with matching tie and pocket square – folded just so. Cigar has an easy grin and a mixture of sophisticated confidence – emphasized, perhaps, by his sense of style – and an endearingly goofy sense of humor that makes it easy to believe he’s a theater kid at heart.

“I should be a drama dork somewhere researching history for some big Broadway production getting paid big money to do that and instead I’m drinking and drinking professionally!”

The Noble Rot has come a long way since its first event. A few years ago, armed with not much more than a budding interest in wine and a mailing list from his performance art residencies at various downtown theaters, Jonny Cigar set out to hold a tasting of the best wines available for $10 or under. He found a

Photo Courtesty of Katie Sokoler, colormekatie.blogspot.com

rooftop, got together some friends to play music and make food and voila! The Noble Rot was born.

Cigar’s budding interest in wine sprouted, Cigar said, when he started drinking wine with the man who would become his father-in-law.

“My wife’s father is a serious collector of Burgundy and Bordeaux and old Italian wines – Brunellos and Barolos. So he would open up all this crazy stuff, I mean he doesn’t like to drink anything that’s not at least 20 years old, and so I’m dinking these wines and I didn’t know anything about them but I know there’s something special.”

His future father-in-law gave him a copy of a book called The Billionaire’s Vinegar about a wine fraud scandal that tore through the fine-wine collecting circle of the 80s and 90s. Cigar devoured the book in a single plane ride and found himself fascinated by the whole world and especially by the stories of extravagant vertical and horizontal tastings of first growth Bordeaux.

“I just thought, ‘This is very cool!’ I was really involved in the supper club scene and I thought, ‘I’m gonna start a supper club about wine so I can learn while doing it with a group of fun interesting people,’” Cigar said. “And it was sort of enlightening – we had a bunch of food and had a blast and we sort of took off from there.”

Time Out New York’s proclamation came just days before Cigar returned to New York City from a five-month trip to Napa that he’d taken in the wake of a professional break with his previous Noble Rot business partner.

“We tried really hard to hash out a business plan and in doing so we realized we had a lot of differences so we split ways,” Cigar said. “It came at a good time.”

Cigar seized the opportunity to get out of town and regroup.

“So I thought I will go west and look for gold!” Cigar riffed before taking a serious note. “The whole idea was to get an education, to completely immerse myself, and to get in from the ground up.”

Preparing for his move to Napa, Cigar set out to find work in a tasting room or a cellar and convinced himself he’d be spending most of his time knocking on doors and looking for work. Cigar caught a lucky break, however, when a new Sonoma winery called Ram’s Gate hired him to help launch their brand.

The Napa Valley, for all of the wine-fueled romanticism that surrounds it, is still very much farmer’s country and Cigar soon found his sartorial inclinations out of step with the community.

“I was the only guy in the whole valley wearing three piece suits,” he said. “I’d walk into the bank and people would get nervous because they didn’t know what to think, it was like ‘Oh god, whats this guy?! Whats he doing?’”

However, Cigar had no intention of trading in his custom-tailored jackets for overalls and, eventually, his sleek suiting helped to land him another job.

Cigar, dressed down in jacket & jeans, in Napa

Near the end of his two-month gig with Ram’s Gate, Cigar was invited to an event at a little known but beloved boutique winery owned by the Swanson family (yes, the Swanson family of frozen TV Dinners fortune).  The Swanson Vineyards & Winery hosts three by-appointment-only tastings a day in their tasting room, which they call the Salon, styled after the swanky Parisian salons of the 18th century, with intellectual discourse over good food and wine.

Cigar met the Swanson family patriarch, Clarke Swanson, decked out in a double-breasted suit at one of these events, and they hit it off immediately. Soon after, Cigar began hosting appointments in the Salon at the winery. When he wasn’t reciting passages of The Great Gatsby or serenading wine tasters, Cigar was doing grueling but, he said, fulfilling cellar work for another winery, Alpha Omega.

Having returned to New York City with a whole new appreciation of the winemaking process, and enlightened by his experiences in Napa Valley, Cigar has big plans for The Noble Rot.

“I’ve realized that I like a smaller more intimate group. I want our events to become a place for people to really come and learn about wine, and not only learn but experience something new,” Cigar said. “And also to be a conduit for people [who are] looking for hard-to-find awesome boutique wines – I want to be the place for that.”

Cigar’s first Noble Rot event since he returned to New York, a 2011 Harvest Party to “celebrate this year’s harvest from set to crush,” was an opportunity for Cigar to share his favorite stories and insights from working in Napa.

He greeted all of his guests that night with a glass of Cava – saying that the Spanish sparkling wine was a tribute to the Mexican workers who did much of the harvest’s work. Coming from anyone except the endearingly sincere Cigar, this could have been a gaffe but bravely wearing two paisley patterns that somehow meshed, Cigar pulled the whole thing off with charm to spare.

Once the small group assembled, Cigar regaled the small crowd with his favorite harvest stories while pouring wines from the wineries he worked for in Napa (Swanson Family Vineyards & Alpha Omega). When it was time to eat, he’d brought in The Brothers Green, a fraternal duo who run the same supper club circuit as Cigar, for a feast of tacos – another homage to the migrant workers and the end-of-day meals he ate with them.

Cigar plans to keep hosting events for The Noble Rot but is thinking of retooling The Noble Rot so that it’s membership only. He went on to say that he wanted to work his way into making The Noble Rot into a tiered membership, like a wine club.

“But the greatest wine club on the face of the earth,” Cigar said with confidence and a not a hint of histrionics.

Jonny Cigar’s Wine Picks:

I had to ask, what is he drinking these days?

“I’m big into Syrah right now – I just feel like it’s starting to turn crisp and cold and I love a good robust Syrah from California,” said Cigar.

I also asked Cigar, in honor of his recent trip to Napa to give me his five favorite California wines of the moment. Here’s what he had to say:

 Robert Foley Vineyards: “A wine I could drink all the time anytime is The Griffin. It is such a heartwarming delicious wine that’s got these subtle chocolate notes that are just outrageous.”

Covenant Wines: “A really outrageously delicious wine. Jeff Morgan is the winemaker and not only does he make a kosher wine, but it’s the best kosher wine on planet earth (according to Robert Parker).”

Pinot Noir from Carneros: “I have become a huge fan. I recently discovered Saxon Brown and Flowers makes a good Pinot, too.”

Ram’s Gate: “They are producing elegant wines with superb structure, aromas and will age beautifully

Gemstone: “ I had the opportunity to taste this wine right before leaving and I would say that its one of my favorite wines now.  So good.”

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Head right this way for Vine Talk’s Thanksgiving Wine Picks penned by yours truly! Instead of the usual suspects (Champagne, Beaujolais Nouveau, Pinot Noir, ect.) why not go for something off the beaten path? Picks include some of my new crushes, Blaufrankisch, Cremant de Limoux, and Courbieres Blanc.

Got questions on a specific pairing? Want more suggestions? Leave me some comments and…

Enjoy!!!

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