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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.”

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!!!

Fall Flings and Favorites

So, readers, we’ve got some catching up to do. I’ve finally settled into fall and that means a change in my drinking habits. I’m waiting to bust out the big guns – the earthy ball-busters and powerhouse reds that I crave through the winter; California Cabs, spicy Syrahs, muscular Priorats and the like. Once I’ve started going down that path, and turned to the dark side, it’s hard to get back – so I’m biding my time with some in-betweeners.

That’s not to say, however, that the wines I’m drinking now are any less intoxicating than those lusty reds I’ll be cuddling up to when the snow starts falling. I’ve had quite a few infatuations this season that are exciting and delicious.

I’ve fallen head over heels with an Austrian wine called Blaufränkisch. Fresh berry flavors, bright acid, and delicious tannins make up the attributes that have me blushing every time I stumble upon a glass of this delightful wine. Did I mention that it’s insanely affordable at an average cost of $10 a bottle? Color me happy, folks. I’m also having a fling with another Austrian wine, St. Laurent – kind of like a male relative of that minx, Pinot Noir. With its sweet fruit, juicy tannins and ripe acidity this is a wine that seems fated for my Thanksgiving table – I have fantasies about sipping it alongside a plate piled high with turkey and cranberry sauce.

Recently, at the Savio Soares Fall Portfolio tasting in New York City, I tasted an example of each of these wines from a 100% Biodynamic producer called Pittnauer (the Blaufrankisch 2009, $9.99 and the St. Laurent Dorflagen 2009, $22.99). Savio Soares Selections is the importer of the moment in New York and Los Angeles. Savio, the owner, scours the world for small producers who make unique, delicious, and often biodynamic or natural wines. His wines are finding their way onto the wine lists and shelves of some of the city’s best restaurants and retailers (respectively, of course) and his portfolio is a wine geek’s paradise, filled with obscure varietals, regions, and producers.

I also have a big crush on the white wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. It started a couple months ago with a bottle of Les Deux Rives Corbieres Blanc 2010 that I received as a sample courtesy of Pasternak Imports. The wine retails for $11 and has a gorgeous nose of ripe fresh fruits like white peaches that follows up with a velvety full body with fresh acidity and a long intense finish. I couldn’t get enough. My next encounter with a Languedoc-Rousillon white was, again, at the Savio Soares tasting where I had the chance to taste Domaine Rivaton Blanc Bec Vin de France NV that retails for $16. This wine was made from a mixture of Carignan Blanc and Carignan Gris and had an amazingly rich port-ish nose, a sweet and lusciously full body that ended on a delightful savory note of toasty caramel corn.

I’ve been strangely drawn to these rich and toasty whites lately. Another favorite from the Savio tasting was a white from the Cotes du Rhone made up entirely of an obscure little grape called Bourboulenc from the producer Le Clos des Grillons. The wine, Cotes du Rhone Blanc 1901 2010 (retails for $16) seduced me with a nose of rich caramel and buttered popcorn and then delivered a lovely wine with nice acid and savory flavors. It was the wine-equivalent of a sweet/salty treat.

Lastly, I was sent some samples from a boutique winery in the Willamette Valley in Oregon called Seufert that had me smitten. I’m not alone, here either – the winery’s Jonah Vineyard Pinot Noir was just named one of the top 5 Willamette Valley wines to seek out by Travel+Liesure Magazine. Seufert makes its Pinot Noir from grapes grown in some of the best sites in Oregon and I had the pleasure of trying their Vista Hills Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA, Momtazi Vineyards in the McMinnville AVA (retails for $35 each), and my surprising personal favorite, a Willamette Valley AVA Pinot Noir called Pinotlicious (retails for $20). Almost more than I loved the wines was the fact that each wine came with a label on the back that gave a “snapshot” of the wine’s character and best food-pairings. Genius.

So now that we’re all caught up on my favorite Fall wines, I’ve got some exciting stuff that I’ll be posting over the next week or so. Look out for a roundup of wines that would be magnificent for your Thanksgiving Feast as well as a profile of The Noble Rot (and one of TONY’s “Wine Prophets), Johnny Cigar. In the meantime if you’re interested in getting your hands on any of the wines above, just plug ‘em into Wine-Searcher.com and see where you can pick ‘

Soo…after the freakish snowstorm of Saturday it hardly feels like fall. Weird weather aside, however, ’tis fall and, even spookier, ’tis Halloween!

It’s much too cold to dress up like a skanky firefighter this year, so  instead I got myself all gussied up as some sort of wine expert over on Refinery 29.

So head on over and check out the collection of perfect-for-fall wines that are all available around the city and even better (!) are all available for $15 bones or less. And in honor of Haloween they can be like scary zombie haunted bones.

 

 

 

On a cold rainy night last week I was introduced to the wines of Toro – incidentally, a very dry and warm winemaking region of Spain. Not only had the day’s rain dissipated into the kind of steady mist that makes you feel silly for hiding under an umbrella yet leaves you annoyingly wet without one – to make matters always worse, I had to navigate Times Square.

Eager for a drink after my damp and frenzied rush through the worst four blocks of Manhattan,  I was none too happy to find myself settled into the corner of a retro-chic red leather booth at The Lambs Club. It was my first time attending a winemaker’s dinner, and this was a much more intimate affair that the one I’d imagined. There were only seven of us seated around the table: the winemaker, Manuel Louzada of Numanthia, the lovely publicist who had arranged the dinner, an executive from Moet Hennessy (the company that owns Numanthia), three other journalists, and little old me.

It’s no wonder that we were introduced to Numanthia by way of its charming winemaker, Louzada. Born and raised in Portugal to a family that had been making wine for generations, Louzada likes to tell people that winemaking is in his blood. His is an interesting career path for a wine maker – he started off making Port, which in Louzada’s own words is all about the sheer power of nature, before moving to Argentina to work in sparkling wines – which, he said, are all about delicacy and detail.

When Moet Hennessy purchased the Numanthia label in 2006, the company invited Louzada to Spain to be the winemaker for their newest property and he fell instantly in love with the small region of Toro. The Estates & Wines division of MH is interesting all on its own; a collection of small wineries that span four continents from Napa to New Zealand. Because all of the wineries in the division are located in “New World” locations (also in Australia and Argentina), I had to ask – why Numanthia? Why Toro, Spain?

The answer was that MH snapped up properties in burgeoning wine regions – places they believed would yield unexpectedly great wines and were on their way to becoming the “next big wine region.” Also interesting, I thought, coming from such a large and globally recognized company, was the focus on smaller-scale production and the attention to detail that Louzada expressed. Several times the words artisinal  and hand crafted popped up when Louzada discussed his wines.

At the time of his move to Toro,  Louzada said he had little idea of the region’s potential or history. In fact, Toro is an ancient wine making region located in the northeast near the Castille-Leon region of Spain, just across the Douro River from the Portuguese border. In an interesting turn of fate, Louzada said that the Portuguese had a habit of looking out towards the sea rather than in towards their own country and that in a way, moving to Toro was bringing Louzada full-circle and back to his roots.

Toro is a region with a fascinating history; it is said that Columbus took Toro wine with him on his journey to America in 1492 because its immense structure and body made it suitable to survive long journeys. Though the vineyards of Numanthia don’t yield vines quite that old, there are 150-200 year old vines still growing in the area. These Toro vines are a rare and direct link to the wines of Europe before the phylloxera plague of the late 19th century destroyed about two thirds of the continent’s vineyards. The region is largely made up of a sandy soil that kept the Phylloxera at bay and protected the vines from the devastating plague.

The only red grape grown and used to make wine in Toro is called Tinta de Toro. The wines of the region are known as massive and powerful red wines and Louzada regailed us with stories of painfully losing his sense of taste for weeks after he had conducted barrel tastings of his first vintage –the tannins of the wine were so powerful. Louzada, with his background in sparkling wines and his penchant for detail set out to create wines that maintained the freshness of the fruit while using the tannins inherent to the grapes to sustain them and give body and structure.

Louzada said time and again throughout the dinner that his goal was to balance the concentration and intensity of the wines with elegance. He was inspired, he said, by the tastes he found in the vineyards themselves and aimed to give an impression of each vintage. The terroir of the region, Louzada said, was so massive and so concentrated that it had to be reigned in.

The first wine we tasted was the yet-to-be-released 2009 Termes. According to Louzada that year was riper, slightly warmer, and made a lighter and fruitier wine that was suitable for drinking now. This was not the first time I’d heard this from winemakers (remember the 2009 Bordeaux that could have been a fruit-bomb California Cab?).  In the glass, the wine was gorgeous and dark, the nose had the slightly sweet smell of toasted oak, liquourice and a whiff of eucalyptus. The wine was paired with a beef carpaccio drizzled with a fruity olive oil that had an amazing conversation with the wine – the olive oil’s musky and melony flavors brought out the fruit in the wine and the wine spoke back with echos of olives and dust.

It was really amazing, and when we all nodded in pleasure, proclaiming that we liked the wine, Louzada gave a shy boy “aw shucks” shrug that couldn’t have been more endearing.

Next up, we drank the 2007 Numanthia, which smelled like wet dirt, earth and cherries. This wine had big tannins and tasted of leather, coffee, and toasted oak. Paired with succulent medallions of veal, the wine’s unctuous flavors spoke to the sweet gaminess of the meat.

Last on our tour of Numanthia was the 2008 Teremanthia with a nose of baked blackberries that made it seem heavy and dark until it arrived on the palate where it was plush with dark fruit but supported by lots of tannin.  That was the wine, Louzada claimed, the stars had aligned to make.

While we drank each of these wines, Louzada emphasized that he was driven by his desire to achieve balance. Louzada wanted his wines to, he said, seduce in the nose and pleasure on the palate – making him a sort of oenophile’s Casanova. By the end of the dinner we’d all fallen in love with Louzada’s wines – rich, complex, powerful and elegant.

After last week’s tasting, I can see why all eyes are on Toro as Spain’s next big region – though I’m wary that just anyone should try to coax a wine with mass appeal from the region’s sandy soils. Indeed, this must be a region that  is as challenging for the vines as it is for the winemaker who tries to tame them. A winemaker looking to conquer the wines of Toro must have just the right blend of pioneer and perfectionist – such as can be found in Numathia’s Louzada.

My “Why Wine?” Story

As I’ve delved deeper into the wine world, I’m constantly asked why it is that I’m so passionate about wine or how it is that I got to be such a wine geek at only 24. The question’s not so off-base when you consider that most very serious wine professionals are much older than I am now when they even started becoming interested in wine.

For me, the answer is complicated and the foundations for my passion can be found in unlikely places. A big part of my love for wine comes from growing up in Los Angeles, a surprising start for a story like mine.

When I think about Los Angeles, I can’t help but to think of one of my favorite places there – a certain turnout on Mulholland Drive that looks out across the L.A. basin towards the sea. At night, the basin is awash with sizzling orange lights – millions of street lamps – that cast a rancid glow over the entire scene. This little spot, tucked into the westerly side of the Santa Monica Mountains is brushed by a dry desert wind that is as natural as the orange glow is artificial. It’s a place of utmost contradiction – a place where an ancient breath, as simple and old as the mountains, mingles with the lights of a glittering wasteland.

I grew up in a small, wealthy enclave of Los Angeles tucked into a series of bluffs on the coast.  I don’t, for a minute, take for granted my charmed upbringing – a childhood awash with sea breezes and tramping through the chaparral that came so close, and so wild, right up against the backs of property lines. Along the bluffs that hang over the Pacific Ocean where I grew up racing through the stalks of wild fennel, its even possible to find views that afford a glimpse of how the coast must have looked when first seen by enterprising human eyes.


I live with these two conflicting images of Los Angeles; that of a sea of orange lights abutting the sudden darkness of the ocean and the wild beauty that still lingers, clinging to the bluffs on which I grew up.

Sometimes, when I think about the word “terroir” I think of bottling up all these little memories – the vivid striking ones that have stuck with me. I think of the smell of dusty eucalyptus and wild fennel. I think of a sea breeze raked through a wild hillside and mingling with the scents of sweet pollen and dried leaves. It’s all steeped in water scooped up from a spring rainstorm, gently tinged with the smell of wet asphalt.

And then there’s my strange craving for history. Growing up in a city where the past is daily demolished, swept away, and replaced with something new leaves a certain kind of nostalgia in its place. It’s a respect for old things borne out of awe that they’ve survived. It leaves you with an inclination to find history in obscure places like the wind coming down the mountain or the view from a bluff.

Living under the shadow of Hollywood, those nine white letters that sit high above the city and hold such power over the people who live there, has left me acutely sensitive to fakeness and instilled a preference for authenticity. It could have gone either way – I could have been drawn, enticed, and enchanted by the dream those letters represent, but I wasn’t.

Instead, somewhere in between the freeways, strip malls, and rolling housing developments I was completely entranced by a terraced and landscaped hill on which still stand dozens of mature fruit trees and wild berry brambles. That hill rose behind a house my family moved into when I was about ten years old.

That hillside awakened something visceral in me – a connection to the earth that has haunted me since. One summer’s harvest of peaches left me spellbound; plums offered proof that nature is sometimes best left to her own devices. Handfuls of sun-warmed blackberries were revelatory – and the apples? To bite into one of those little orbs was to understand why Eve could not resist. Everything I picked from a tree in our backyard tasted so much more like itself I was surprised I even recognized it.

Eventually we moved and I took to wandering the stalls of the farmers market, searching for the scents of that hillside, while my mother complained about the dearth of parking on Sundays.

When I graduated high school, more than I wanted to see the grand cities of Europe, I dreamed of visiting the Italian countryside – of eating local rustic food and wandering through olive groves and vineyards. So, my father took me to Tuscany where, for the first time, I tasted wine while looking out over the ancient gnarled vines that had produced it.

That is a quality of wine that endlessly fascinates me – wine’s unique ability to capture the essence of a place, or a season, or even a feeling and to convey it through taste. And just like the place from whence a wine comes, the wine – even trapped in a bottle, continues to shift and change slowly over time. You’ll often hear the notion that wine is a living breathing thing, and that’s true to an extent. But it’s also a moment, an impression, bottled and preserved. Wine’s connection to the land it came from is undeniable and that connection, for me, is irresistible.

So while there is no way for me to visit my memories of home except by closing my eyes and remembering, every time I take a sip of wine I’m gleaning some insight into the moments that produced it. I close my eyes and think about the vineyards the grapes came from, the smells that drifted over the vats of crushed grapes as they fermented, and the things that grew in the soil around the vines, imbuing each grape cluster with a tinge of memory.

That connection between the land, its own particular set of memories and impressions and the stuff in my glass is enthralling and exciting. Every bottle of wine is different, yes, but every sip of every glass is different, too. While there is an element of preservation in wine, there’s also the energy of change and chance that comes with every bottle. A glass of wine is a direct link to the place it came from and a unique impression of a moment – what could be more delicious than to taste the direct distillation of some wonderful place?

 

I have a horrible habit of thinking it’s hilarious to pronounce Champagne like “Champ-Ag-Nee.” Regardless of how you want to say it, Champagne is weird stuff. At its most interesting, Champagne is a product of sheer ingenuity – of centuries of curious tinkering, trial, and error. At its most expensive, Champagne is one of the most successful tales of marketing in the history of food and beverage. And at its most refined, Champagne is the stuff of delirious gustatory delight and celebration.

So, what exactly is Champagne?

Champagne is a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir grapes that are grown exclusively in the Champagne region of France.

Queue the sound effect of tires coming to a screeching haltPinot Noir? But that’s a red grape! And Champagne is white!

Not exactly – the skins of the Pinot Noir grape (and the Pinot Meunier grape for that matter) are most definitely red but(!) the juice of the grape is actually white. If you separate the juice from the skin early in the wine making process, you’re left with the makings of a white wine.

Champagnes made from only Pinot Noir grapes or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are called Blanc de Noirs (literally translates to “white from red”). Similarly, Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes is called a Blanc de Blanc (white from white). In a similarly confusing fashion, most Champagne is made from a mixture of grapes harvested in different years (usually marked N.V.). However, if a particular year (aka vintage) proves to be exceptional, under the laws of the powers that be, a Champagne Vintage may be produced that contains grapes exclusively from that one year.

Pretty Champagne vines in Fall

In Europe, where they are much stricter about these things, not only must a wine called Champagne be made from grapes grown within this small region, but that wine must also be produced by a specific and traditional method (here in America, we’re not so particular – you can slap “Champagne” on a $5 bottle of Andre. God bless America!). This method requires that the effervescence, or bubbles, in Champagne be produced by a second fermentation in the bottle.

This means that, to start, Champagne is made just like any other wine – the grapes are harvested and thrown into a fermentation tank along with some yeast. The yeast converts the natural sugar present in the grapes into alcohol and voila! A wine is born. To make that wine into Champagne, it is poured directly into the bottle along with some extra sugar (called dosage), some more yeast and set aside to age for a minimum of 1.5 years or 15 months. During those years when a vintage is declared (a year when the harvest is exceptional), bottles must be allowed to age for twice as long – for a minimum of three years.

Merci, Madame Clicquot!

For a long time, because yeast and sugar were introduced directly into the bottle, Champagne was a cloudy wine – it had all kinds of fun particulates floating around! It was the infamous Widow Clicquot (of Veuve Clicquot) who introduced the use of something called a riddling table (a table that holds Champagne bottles upside down so that the sediment from secondary fermentation settled into the neck of the bottle and made it easier to draw off) that was used to produce the sparkling clear Champagne we know and love today.

Notice: A guy all decked out in formal top hat and tails and an elegant evening-gown clad lady.

So, if Champagne is such a specific wine why do we have a habit of calling any old sparkling wine Champagne? This is where we get into a case study of brilliant marketing. Even before it came to resemble the stuff we drink today, Champagne had long been treasured by European royalty and French aristocracy and imbibed at official ceremonies and celebrations. The method champenoise wasn’t introduced until around 1700 (and, coincidentally, not in Champagne but probably somewhere in the Languedoc region). Before the method was introduced to the winemakers of the region, Champagne was imbibed as a still wine, and often only during celebratory occasions – it was, even back then, the good stuff you busted out for company. Champagne, then, was always a wine associated with luxury, prestige, and celebration.

During the 1800’s Champagne houses and producers took advantage of their product’s rarified past and began marketing it to the burgeoning middle class at home and abroad. Take a look at any old Champagne ad (if you don’t already have a poster up on your wall) and you’ll see the instant appeal.. Needless to say, the Champagne industry did gangbusters.

However that success was not built entirely on marketing a lifestyle – Champagne is amazing stuff. The range of styles; from delicate, floral and dreamy to biscuity and savory younger varieties to the rich and complex mature examples make Champagne exactly the kind of indulgence that pairs perfectly with just about any occasion.

So, to review:

A true Champagne may only be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes grown within the Champagne appellation and subjected to the traditional and specific method of secondary in-bottle fermentation

Methode Champoinese is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced. Sparkling wines that are made in other regions may indicate that they were produced in this same fashion. If you see a sparkling wine that has Methode Champoinese or Methode traditionelle on the label, it just means that the wine was made using the same technique as Champagne – with the secondary in-bottle fermentation and aging.

Blanc de Blancs is Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. You may see other sparkling wines that are called Blanc de Blancs – and they may be made from white grapes other than Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs is Champagne made from either 100% Pinot Noir or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. You may see other sparkling wines that identify themselves as Blanc de Noirs – this just mean’s they’re made from red grapes, not that they’re Champagne.

Vintage : A Vintage Champagne means that all of the grapes used to make the wine (regardless of varietal) were harvested in the same year and that that year produced an exceptional harvest. A Vintage Champagne also means that the wine was aged for at least 3 years in the bottle. If you see N.V. on a Champagne label, it means that the wine was not produced as a Vintage and could have been made from grapes from different years.

Brut, Extra Brut, Sec, and Demi Sec are all terms that are commonly found on Champagne labels as well as on the labels of other sparkling wines. Brut indicates a dry wine; Extra Brut means, incidentally, extra dry; Sec means sweeter than Brut but still on the dry side; Demi Sec is used to indicate a sweet sparkling wine.

Next week, I’ll be looking at sparkling wines other than Champagne – Prosecco, Cava, Cremant, and New World sparklers. Stay tuned!

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a blind tasting class at New York Vintners in Tribecca. The tasting was hosted by the venerable Bob Millman, whose company, Executive Wine Seminars (doesn’t that just sound so professional and serious?), has been hosting big deal wine tastings since 1981.

  New York Vintners is a pretty cool little spot – upon first inspection it just looks like a hipper-than-your-grandma’s wine shop. But take a closer look and you’ll notice that there’s a whole second half to the store – a space devoted entirely to wine education and tastings.

The store employs their own chef who hosts classes revolving around food and wine pairings and also caters the private dinners and tastings offered. Being that the store is relatively close to Wall Street, they get their fair share of banking big wigs and hedge fund guys coming through to nibble on expensive food and gulp big-deal wines.

In fact, New York Vintner’s owner, Shane Benson, was a Wall Street guy himself, once upon a time.  But we’ll get to him later.

I really wasn’t sure what I was getting into heading into last night’s tasting. I was a little bit intimidated by Bob Millman and thought I was headed right into a lions’ den of pretentious swirling, sniffing, and declarative statements regarding obscure bouquets and flavors. Happily, I was dead wrong. Instead of being greeted by a bunch of guys wearing monocles with slicked hair and ascots, I was greeted by a glass of Gruet Blanc de Noirs (sparkling wine) from New Mexico.

The tables were occupied by groups of single ladies, couples, and me. In line for the bathroom one half of a couple commended me for being “brave” and coming on my own. That’s a post for another day.

The tasting was what Bob called “double blind” – we had no idea what wines were being served except that there would be three whites and three reds. Before we dove into the white wines, which sat winking before us, Bob gave a quick presentation on how to approach tasting a wine. The quick and dirty of the presentation was this:

Appearance: Clarity & Intensity. For white wines, this meant taking a look at each glass and noting how intense the color was. Bob pointed out that the deepest, most golden of the wines was made from the ripest grapes. Ripe grapes, Bob went on to tell us, usually means more sugar and lower acid. For red wines, however, color can be a decent indicator of age (wines change color as they get very old – almost always to a brick or orangeish color) varietal (some grapes are naturally much darker – like Syrah) and tannin since the color is derived from the juice’s contact with the skins and tannin comes from the skins.

Aroma: Bob talked about swirling wine and why we do it – to bring up the bouquet. He also taught us a little technique that can come in handy if a wine has a “shy” bouquet (ie not easily detected). If a wine just refuses to open up he suggested swirling the wine with a hand over the top, then releasing your hand just as you stick your nose in the glass. This technique, Bob offered, can help whip up and then trap the odiferous vapors. I’m skeptical of how much this would help seeing as I’m not sure I believe that vapors magically appear by swirling – you need heat for vapors!

Palate: To discuss the “taste” of a wine, Bob gave us a few factors to consider:

Sweetness: A big part of wine is the result of converting sugar into alcohol. Residual sugar will show up in a wine when the wine maker stops this process from completing all the way (leaving some sugar behind) or when the wine maker adds sugar to a wine after the fact. Usually when we’re talking sweetness, we’re talking desert wines.

            Acid: Bob Millman is a self-professed “acid freak” and most serious wine drinkers would agree that acid is super important. When a wine has low acid it can seem sleepy or dull. But a wine with enough acid is awake and alive.

            Tannin: Tannin comes from grape skin – which is why you don’t usually find a lot of it in white wines. Tannin is also, for that same reason, the factor that keeps a lot of wine drinkers away from red wines. Tannin can be rough and unpleasant or it can lend structure and body to a wine. Bob used the anecdote that the French love to drink their wines young and tannic (sometimes I like to think of these as wines that kick your ass), the British like their wines old and soft (tannin breaks down with age), and the American’s just like their wine.

            Alcohol: Up until the 1980’s most wines had a respectable 11-12 1/2 % alcohol. Queue Global Warming and you’ve got wines weighing in with a hefty 13-14%. All that alcohol contributes body and(!) gets you drunker.

            Body: Here’s a tricky one. When you talk about body, what you’re really talking about is how much of your palate the wine hits before it disappears. Some wines only really hit the tip of your tongue before they vanish – these are super light bodied wines. Some wines will linger through, hit the middle of your mouth (mid-palate and usually middle body) before saying Au Revoir! But a big, full bodied wine will fill up your whole mouth, and then linger after you’ve swallowed.

            Flavors: Everyone gets different flavors from different wines. Next….

            Finish: Once you’ve swallowed a wine, how long does it linger? Does it give out and vanish right away? Does it leave a watery after taste? Or does it hang out and stay a while in your mouth?

Once we were all well-versed in the proper tasting technique, we got to actually downing some vino. I, of course, was playing a little game with myself trying to guess the varietals of each wine. I lost. Like, seriously – lost. But! To be fair, the sommelier snuck in a really obscure white wine from Sicily made from a varietal so obscure (Inzolia) that he’d only heard of it for the first time the week before (it was a super light and racy white wine that was so acidic it was almost briny). I don’t even count that one.  We also tasted an oaky Cotes du Rhone Blanc (Viognier, Roussane & Marsanne blend) and a gorgeous Verdejo from North-Central Spain.

As for the reds, we tasted a Rosso di Montalcino (made entirely from Sangiovese – the oak should’ve given it away! Damn!) that I thought was either Beaujolais or, perhaps, a Dolcetto. We followed that up with a 2009 Bordeaux (a super ripe vintage that tricked even Bob into thinking we were sipping on a fruit-bomb California Cab) and my personal favorite – a 100% Syrah from the Rhone that was unctuous on the nose (comments from the peanut gallery: “It smells like dank dirty ass!”) and just gorgeous on the palate. I thought it was a Nebbiolo because of the barnyard-and-tar aroma. Wrong. Again. Lastly, we were surprised with a fourth wine when the winemaker showed up near the end of the tasting and threw his wine into the mix. This last wine was a real treat – an elegant, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend from South Africa that we were all happy to have tacked on to the end.

The tasting over, I tucked into a conversation with some of the people sitting around me while the staff poured the leftovers for anyone who wanted them. Usually, I’d be embarrassed to admit that I was one of the last two people to leave, but I was rewarded with a glass of an unbearably delicious Barbera d’Alba (you know how I love me some d’Alba anything!) and a great conversation with the owner, Shane.

Wearing a rediculous tye-dyed shirt (I warned him I’d have to give him shit about the shirt), Shane told me his story – how he went from culinary school to Wall Street (seriously, you’d never think it from the tye-dye) to owning New York Vintners. We talked about how the wine world is exploding, that people should drink what they like (even if its $3 wine from Trader Joes), and how we can’t wait to see wine snobbery fly out the window. Both Bob and Shane told me that the Blind Tasting class was their favorite class because it was a great way to introduce people to the right way to thinking about wine. Freed from expectations, people could approach each wine with the simple question of, “Do I like it and why or why not?” – which is exactly how everyone should find the wine they love.

Shane and his team have built a super friendly, relaxed, and fun space to taste and learn about wine. Especially if you’re interested in the relationship between food and wine, I’d head over to their website and take a look at the classes. Many of the people I talked to at the tasting had already been to three or four classes and had come back for this one. At $50 a pop for at least three glasses of wine and food, it’s a real value and a great way to spend an evening.

            Psst….! PS. Keep an eye out for a post coming up about Champagne & Sparkling wines and a fall wines roundup I’m working on! Cheers!


            Look, I totally get it. I’m not so jaded and sophisticated that I don’t understand the appeal of going to a wine tasting for the “free booze” but if that’s why you’re thinking of attending a wine tasting you might want to think again.

Wine tastings are a great opportunity to try a lot of different wines – maybe a lot of different wines that you’d never have the chance to try again! And yes, they can also be an occasion for lots of drinking on the cheap…a $15 dollar ticket to what is basically an open bar? I hear ya! You’re like, “where do I sign up?!”

And while I’m all about pushing aside staid conventions and having fun with wine, a wine tasting is no place to get wasted. You’ve got to think about it from the point of view of the people hosting and working the event – sure, they know you’re there because you might leave drunk, but they’re also there hoping to introduce their product and perhaps do some business.

If you don't pace yourself, you could look like this.


            Ok, enough with the semi-lecturing and onto the good stuff….

Do a walk around before you start tasting. Grab your tasting glass from the front and do a quick round of the room. Realistically, you’re not going to get a chance to try everything so make a mental note of the tables that have wines you’re really interested and hit those first – before you get too buzzed to remember any of your tasting notes.

Rinse your glass between tables. You walk into the room and you do your scan and you see a bottle of club soda or soda water on every table and you’re like, “Gee, that’s so nice that they’ve put something out for the people who came here and don’t drink!”. Yeah, no. The seltzer is for rinsing out your glass between tables.

Generally, you should rinse your glass if you’re going from reds to whites (or visa versa) at the same table, or even if you’re switching between totally different varietals from pour to pour (from a Cabernet Sauvignon to a Pinot Noir for example) so the flavors don’t get muddied. It’s up to you how often you rinse your glass – some people do it after every pour and some wait until they’re switching colors or tables. You want to pour in a small amount of the soda water (sometimes its just plain old regular water), swirl it around, and pour it into the spitting bucket. If anyone sees you drinking this water, it will be a dead giveaway that you’re a newbie! Generally they’ll provide ice water or water bottles at a tasting that are for drinking.

The spitting thing. I can’t spit in public. I just can’t – its gross and, inevitably, I either spit with too much force and get splashed by the disgusting bucket juice or I don’t spit hard enough and it dribbles down my chin (embarrassing) or down onto my shirt (more embarrassing). So, what’s a very small girl with an average tolerance and 11 tables to go supposed to do?! I limit myself to a two-sip per pour – and often only end up taking one. Sometimes its enough to get the gist of a wine from one long taste – letting it spend more time than usual swishing around my mouth before swallowing – and sometimes I need a small second taste. Don’t feel compelled to finish every pour. I can’t stress this enough! You will not insult anyone if you simply pour out the remainder of your taste into the bucket. If anything it will show that you know you have to pace yourself and you’ll get some major tasting cred. And if any of the other guests give you a hard time for pouring out the wine they’re probably just embarrassed that they’ve been choking down a lot of wine they didn’t particularly care for. That said, if you do get a pour of something you love it is more than acceptable to not only finish the pour but ask for a second one while you move to the next table.

Keeping track. I’m old fashioned – I like to bring a small notebook and pen with me to write down the names of any wines that I loved. If you have an iPhone or a crackberry it is more than ok to bust it out and type the name of the wines you liked into it. You can also ask the pourers if they have any info to take away with you – most of the time they’ll be armed with press releases or some kind of info.

Be polite. The people pouring the wines are there because it is their job. I shouldn’t even have to say it but, say “please” and “thank you.” Also, try not to make this face if you hate a wine:

Asking questions. Alright, here’s where things get tricky. As you’ve learned here…we Americans are used to seeing our varietals right where we can see ‘em – printed clearly and neatly on the label. Unfortunately, things get complicated when you go abroad – particularly to France, Spain, or Italy. Damn those foreigners!

So, here’s where all those nifty maps I’ve made come in handy (click here and here). Most of the time when you’re being poured a French wine, the wine will go by the name of the area where it is from. Knowing which grapes are grown where can be helpful in knowing what grapes are in your glass. (Bordeaux has a traditional mix of five grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot while anything labeled “Burgundy” is strictly Pinot Noir. Seriously – just look at my old post!).

It is perfectly reasonable to ask the pourer what grapes or varietals (same thing, fancier word) are in the wine but you’ll be showing yourself off  as a newbie and, really, when it comes to French wine, the grapes are not the point – the terroir is the point.

If you’re tasting an Italian wine, things can get tricky since some go by their grape name (Dolcetto, Valpolicella, Nero d’Avola) and some go by their place name (Chianti – which is made from Sangiovese for example). Emphasis is more on grapes and less on terroir for Italian wines, but Italian wines are also much more prone to include obscure hyper-local varietals that you (or I) have never heard of. So you can ask…just prepare your best poker face when you have no idea what the guy’s talking about.

Here are some better questions to ask if you want to know more about the wine you’re drinking:

How many vineyards are the grapes sourced from? (Often if the grapes are sourced from a single vineyard or less than a few, this is a good sign)

What is the area like where the grapes were grown? What kind of soil? (This is a great way to learn more about how geography influences wine as you’re tasting it!)

How many bottles are produced each year? (A smaller amount produced and the more focus the winemaker can give each individual vintage).

What is in here that gives the wine it’s color/nose/backbone/smoky taste? (Is there something unusual or striking about the wine? Asking why it’s there and identifying something that is unique about a wine will impress everyone!)

Where can I buy this wine? (If you love a wine, ask where you can find it!)

So, that’s all I got for navigating a wine tasting. To sum up:

            • If you’re going to get drunk, don’t go.

            • Don’t feel compelled to finish every pour and don’t feel pressured to try something you have no interest in! Just say no thank you and ask to try what you want to try!

            • If you don’t want to spit in public, just commit yourself to a one or two sip maximum and pour out what’s left without feeling badly.

            • Pay attention and take notes if you want to remember something.

            • Ask questions that have answers you actually care about or would understand. There’s no point in asking “what grapes are in this?” if you have no idea what it means that a wine is blended from Roussane and Viognier. On the other hand, ask “what varietals are typically found in wines from this region?” and you’ll sound so much more informed.

            • Enjoy! Talk to strangers and be polite when they like the worst wine you tasted the whole night. Nobody likes a snob. Oh, and I leave you with this picture…which is just…weird: 

           

Notes from the field

So, one of the things I’ve been trying to do lately is actually get out there and spend some more time in the wine world. All of this is, of course, in the name of bringing you more snarky commentary and helpful advice.  One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by trying to attend more wine tastings and let me tell you – boy, it is a jungle out there.

Just this past week I went to two very different tastings (I know, tough life, right?) – the first was Garnet Wines (one of NYC’s most beloved wine shops) First Annual Fall Harvest Wine Tasting on the Upper East Side. Despite what Gossip Girl would have you believe, while there is a small portion of the UES that is inhabited by glamorous rich people, there are also a lot of old people and “young professionals” (bankers, finance guys, lawyers, and the Tory-Burch-clad girls who love them).

Anyways, the tasting was (not surprisingly) mostly populated with respectable looking older     people – the kind of people whose kids I would probably be friends with – and younger guys in yellow sailboat ties. The whole point of the event was to go and try a whole bunch of wines that the store was selling – you could place an order for bottles and cases as you walked around and sipped. It would be fair to say that I, being a female under 30 and the only person in the room wearing skinny jeans and also not in any kind of financial position to buy loads of wine, was the odd man (erm..woman?) out in the room. Nevertheless, I drank some awesome wine and passed a pleasant evening tasting and talking with strangers.

Last night’s wine tasting was a horse of a whole different color. I ventured out to Brooklyn for Second Glass’s Wine Riot. I’ve been talking the event up on this site because, in full disclosure, I’ve known the company’s founder and CEO, Morgan First, since high school and I think the concept behind their company is pretty awesome. This time around the crowd was way younger – mostly people in their 20’s and 30’s, there was music being pumped into the room, plastic stemless wine glasses instead of the usual suspects, and an air of giddy excitement.

These two very different wine tasting experiences placed side-by-side offer an interesting view of how the wine world is changing. The Garnet Wine tasting was far more traditional and so was the audience – the younger people at this tasting were the kind that were suddenly coming into respectability and felt compelled to grow up and learn about wine because that’s what you do!

At another party (this time I freeloaded off of some friends – cheers!) earlier in the week, I talked to a (straight!) Marc Jacobs lookalike about how he’d gotten into whisky as he’d approached 30 exactly because it was something he thought he should know about. When I asked about wine he said that it was something that he thought he’d come around to when he was approaching 40. 40!

The young people at Wine Riot were there because it was an event for them as much as it was about the wine – they were happy to be wandering around sipping wine all night instead of taking shots because the atmosphere was just as amenable to sipping a Jack and Coke as a Barbaresco from Piedmont.

Wine Riot was much more about bringing wine into a space and attitude that young people are familiar with than bringing young people into the “wine world” and the result was total success!

So my take away is this:

1. I’m gonna work on a post about how to attend a wine tasting without looking like an idiot 

2. There is no reason why young people shouldn’t be drinking more wine but the reason they’re not is because it’s still put up on this ridiculous shelf that a lot of people think you’re not supposed to reach until you’re 40 (40?!!).

3. I will continue to work tirelessly to correct the wrongs inherent in #2.

Lastly, what’s the point of going to these wine tastings if I can’t share with you some delicious new finds, right? Below is a list of my favorite wines from both of the tastings – cheers!

Chateau de Paraza Minervois 2009, $9.99: This wine from the Garnet tasting just about ran away with my heart. It is a simple bistro wine – a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre from the Languedoc region that was delightfully savory. It actually kind of tasted like stew and, more specifically, the carrots that you slice through like butter –  so rich.

Segura Viudas Brut Cava, $10: For $10, this is an amazing wine. It’d be no less delicious at $50/bottle.  With the teensiest amount of sugar (7g in a 750 ml bottle – that’s like…nothing!), this is a rich and full-flavored sparkler with an elegant bubble, notes of ripe apples, pears, and almonds.

St. Francis Winery Red Splash 2008, $15: I’ll be honest, this was one of the last wines I tasted at Wine Riot so I don’t remember a ton about it except going back for seconds because it was really yummy. What I can recall is a juicy, rich red wine that drank easily and satisfied.

Au bon Climat Chardonnay, $16: I was really skeptic about this one – I’ve really tried to like Chardonnay, guys, really, I have. But, at the end of the day, I have to admit that it’s just not my favorite. This wine blew my mind – it had just the right amount of slightly toasty oak – lending it a smokey richness that gave way to notes of hazelnuts and pears.

Austin Hope Trouble Maker (Paso Robles, CA), $20: A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Petit Sirah, and Mourvedre, this wine is so-named because, according to the guy pouring it, “It’s lots of trouble to make!” Indeed, the wine is made from grapes from three different vintages (2008, 2009, and 2010).  Besides being weird, it was also really delicious.

David Bruce Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir , $25: I think I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am not the biggest Pinot Noir fan – usually its just too light. But, the PN’s I do love are usually from Sonoma Coast or Santa Barbara and this one is no exception. David Bruce also makes a really good Petit Sirah worth checking out.

2009 Hauner Hiera Salina, $18: This was my absolute, hands-down, favorite from the Garnet Wines Tasting. My tasting notes read: “Wet earth, raspberries OMG”. The nose is where the wet earth comes in and it tastes very rustic until about mid-palette when it explodes into flavors of ripe raspberries. To die for.

Arlaux Pere & Fils Champagne Brut 2009, $36.99: A tiny producer in Champagne that, after one sip, will have you saying, “Veuve wha -?”. With a beautiful floral nose, the first taste is a really lovely “grapey” taste that tapers off into delicate notes of sweet almonds.

2009 Domaine Michel Bouzereau Beaune 1er Cru Les Vignes Franches, $70: Ok, this one is a stretch. BUT! It’s from Burgundy! And it had the most amazing perfume – seriously, like sticking your nose into a bouquet of roses and violets. And the wine was slightly effervescent on my tongue and had really nice savory quality to it that gave it substance.