Friday, February 27, 2015


Finca Sandoval owner and journalist Victor de la Serna and Carlos Falcó Fernandez de Córdova, Marquis de Griñon, presented a selection of two white and six red single estate wines yesterday at Absinthe in San Francisco that was well-attended by Bay area wine trade and media.

Grandes Pagos de Espana, or GPE, was formed in 2000 when a group of small-production single-estate producers from Old and New Castile gathered together to promote high-quality wines from individual producers rather than vast quantities of industrial blended wines, which Spain does very well. They founded “Great Growths of Castile,” or “Grandes Pagos de Castillo”, which became “Grandes Pagos de Espana” in 2003 to include all seventeen of Spain’s wine regions. GPE currently has 30 members.

At the same time, the Federal government introduced the DO Pago, or Vino de Pago, setting it atop DOCa, then Spain’s highest quality wine appellation. Spain has only two DOCa’s, Rioja, and Priorat. Ribera del Duero, home of Spain’s most famous wine, Vega Sicilia, was aggressively courted by the government to take DOCa status rather than the more typical process of producers petitioning for the status, but turned them down with the argument that their wine region and wines were already well-established and the new moniker would do nothing for them.

Both GPE and DO Pagos require the wines to come from estates perceived to be Spain’s best. DO Pagos wines may come from outside an established DO or DOCa, while GPE has no such requirements as it is a private group.

Perhaps feeling like a jilted lover after being turned down by Ribera del Duero, the Federal government saw an opportunity to expand the ranks of their upper end wine appellations. Just look at how quickly Italy ramped up to 74 DOCG’s. DO Pagos encourages renegades and non-traditional methods and grapes, similar to Italy’s IGT, a gateway into their DOC system – and dozen ‘s of those IGT’s are now DOCG, a ten year process. But Spain sent these non-traditional producers, from the four regions that have adapted DO Pagos – Castilla La Mancha, Aragon, Valencia and Navarra – straight to the top. These 13 DO Pagos are producing rich, fruit forward, supple, sleek international style wines that the market embraces, but they have very little to do with traditional Spanish wines.

I asked Victor de la Serna if GPE and DO Pagos were trying to align themselves, he replied, “We are a private club. Producers are more important than an appellation. DO Pagos is a Federal system but only four of our seventeen regions have adapted it. There are no DO Pagos in Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero or anywhere else that have been established as our best areas.”

According to the Wines From Spain USA website, Rioja producers may be interested. For reviews of the wines tasted, visit us at and click "Wine Reviews."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015



OCT-NOV  2014

Sustainable, organic, and biodynamic, known and discussed by the trade now as SOB, are three tiers of natural wine production. The health of the land, the plants, the animal and human community in and around the land, and the end-users are all taken into consideration.

Sustainable farming takes a serious look at reducing the carbon footprint so reductions in water use, power use, and more come into play. Restricting the speed of cars driving through the vineyards at Marimar Torres Winery in the Russian River Valley, or banning them altogether and using golf carts at Dominus in Napa Valley are two small steps in sustainable farming.

Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing was California’s first 3rd party sustainable category certification. The Wine Institute along with the California Association of Wine Grape Growers created the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CCSW-Certified) to “to enhance transparency, encourage statewide participation and advance the entire California wine industry toward best practices in environmental stewardship, conservation of natural resources and socially equitable business practices.” SIP, or Sustainability in Practice, was established in 2008 and is another 3rd party certification group popular with many wineries in the state. Benziger Winery went so far as to create its own sustainable certification. Chris Benziger states, “We created our own sustainability code so that we could ensure that all grapes used to make any of our wines met our standards of sustainable winegrowing. We wanted to be able to quickly assess each vineyard at the same level. We still third-party certify our estate vineyards using CCOF or Demeter Biodynamic certifications, and many of our growers choose to certify themselves with a third-party such as CCSW. Our “Farming for Flavors” program is often in addition to these.”

Organic wine, as defined in California, is made first from grapes grown without herbicides, pesticides or chemical soil amendments in the grape growing phase, and second, without the addition of sulfur dioxide solutions or sulfur salts (sulfites) in the wine making phase. California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) is the certifying body.

Biodynamic farming is natural farming at an extreme, taking into consideration phases of the moon and burying cow manure in cow horns to bring life and energy back to the soil, and then to the plant. According the the Milwaukee-based Biodynamic Association, “Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. Biodynamics was first developed in the early 1920s based on the spiritual insights and practical suggestions of the Austrian writer, educator and social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), whose philosophy is called “anthroposophy.” Today, the biodynamic movement encompasses thousands of successful gardens, farms, vineyards and agricultural operations of all kinds and sizes on all continents, in a wide variety of ecological and economic settings.”

Monday, February 16, 2015



feb-mARCH  2015

One night this past fall I was advising a group of bankers about wines and the topic of Old Vine Zinfandel came up. Though they had selected an Amador Zin, I couldn’t help but rave about the hidden treasures in Lodi, where growers have something special yet they don’t feel worthy. Things are changing, but for now, my advice is buy old vine Zins when they are offered as they are incredibly under-priced, and, if well-selected, beautifully balanced and excellent with food. Having your customers pay $20-36 retail or well under $100 at your restaurant for wines made with century vines is a winning formula for customer satisfaction and profitability.

A long-time favorite is the 2013 St. Amant Old Vine Zinfandel Mohr-Fry Ranch Lodi $24, a deep, dark, earthy and intense expression with a long, flavorful finish. I adore the sultry red raspberry, currant and red licorice notes of the nearly port-like 2011 Harney Lane Lizzy James Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi $35, sourced from a vineyard planted in 1904. The deep, rich 2012 Jessie’s Grove Westwind Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi $36 and the layered, complex 2011 Borra Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel Gill Creek Ranch Lodi $21 also represent this category of rich, ripe, and exquisitely balanced – owner Steve Borra’s  grandfather came to Lodi from Italy while winemaker Marcus Niggli came to Lodi from Switzerland. In fact across the board, the non-commercial wines of Lodi strike me as very much like warmer European wines. The secret is the long, gentle Mediterranean ripening season which allows sugars to rise leisurely, leaving an abundance of natural grape acidity which brings freshness and balance as well as longevity.

Somms in the know may be aware of the treasures of Lodi, but consumers are not. They see the bodacious babes, the big, showy, jammy, super-oaked and often perceptibly sweet versions that Lodi does so well at any chain store nationwide. This was one of the reasons behind “Lodi Natives”, a collaborative project with six winegrowers made available  last March. The idea is to showcase Lodi’s historic vineyards with native yeast fermentation and no new oak, letting the personality of these vineyards shine through.
The wines are, in order of recommended tasting,

2012 Maley Brothers Wegat Vineyard
2012 m2 Soucie Vineyard
2012 Macay Cellars Trulux Vineyard
2012 St. Amant Winery Marian’s Vineyard
2012 Fields Family Wines Century Block
2012 Macchia Wines Noma Ranch

Sold in 6-bottle wooden cases for $180 retail, this is an ideal way to showcase the new, terroir-driven Lodi zins. Offering a flight of all six is easy. The wines last for weeks open, untreated, with just the cork put back in the bottle.



Dec-JAN  2014/2015

Lovers of esoteric grapes have plenty to choose from in Italy. One of those grapes, however, is enjoying a popularity that puts it squarely in the ranks of Italy’s top reds. Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s prime red grape, is now in the country’s top five, joining Nebbiolo (Barolo), Sangiovese (Brunello), Corvina (Amarone), and Aglianico (Taurasi). It forms 50-70% of the blend of Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG in Ragusa, and is stunning on its own from the coastal village of Noto in Siracusa.

With inviting notes of black cherry, blueberry, violet and earth, Nero d’Avola is pleasing even to a New World palate, though it is generally much lighter in body. Oaked versions take on a sleek, supple character. Keep in mind the Italians drink wine with food, not as a cocktail, so even the ripest, oakiest wines have tart acidity and bitter notes. Here are my top picks:

Full and Powerful
2008 Planeta Santa Cecilia Noto DOC $35
-          This Bordeaux-like 100% Nero d’Avola has notes of cedar, cinnamon, carob, black cherry, raspberry, sundried tomato, green olive, leather and tobacco. It has ripe fruit, juicy acidity and firm tannins.

2008 Tasca d’Almerita Rosso del Conte Contea di Sclafani DOC $70
-          First produced in the ‘60’s by Count Guiseppe Tasca, Rosso del Conte was one of the first serious, oak-aged Sicilian reds. Aged 18 months in barrique and another 12 months in bottle before release, this is truly an iconic wine. It has notes of cedar, vanilla, strawberry jam, tomato sauce, cumin, savory stewed meats, orange rind, red licorice, thyme, and lavender, and is elegant and well-structured with firm tannins and gentle balancing acidity.

2008 Donnafugata Mille e una Notte Contessa Entellina Rosso DOC $89
-          From the Rallo family’s Contessa Entellina clay and limestone based estate in South-western Sicily, this serious, barrique and bottle aged offering has notes of cassis, blackberry, cherry, orange rind, stewed tomato, zucchini, earth, mulch, tobacco, cigar box, heady, musky perfume (think Opium), new car, and leather furniture. It is elegant, complex, and has a long life ahead.

Medium-bodied & Spicy
2011 Planeta Cerasuola di Vittoria DOCG $30
-          This blend of 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato is widely available and a great introduction to the modern reds of Sicily. It is smoky with ripe dark berry, chocolate-covered cherry, Ghana dark chocolate , vanilla, cedar spice, Sumatra coffee, black licorice, fennel seed, braised meats, bacon, clove-studded orange and pork rind.

2011 Tenuta Rapitola Nero d’Avola Campo Reale Sicilia IGT $16
-          Complex and inviting with notes of raspberry, cherry compote, pomegranate, mandarin orange, sundried tomato, rhubarb, ragout, cinnamon red hots candy, red licorice, fennel seed, dark bitter chocolate, cigar box, cumin, dried leaves, and leather.

2011 Feudo Maccari Nero d’Avola Sicilia IGT $18
-          This strong, bold wine has notes of carob, black currant, Luxardo cherry cordial, Fernet Branca, Sabra liqueur, blood sausage, white pepper and nutmeg.  It is lighter on the palate than expected with it’s hefty 14.5% abv. Tannins and freshs acids interact nicely and the finish is long and earthy. 

2010 Valle Dell’Acate Cerasuola di Vittoria Classico DOCG $23
-          This blend of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Frappato is elegant and soft spoken with notes of cherry, stewed tomato, brown mushroom, pipe tobacco, black licorice, black tea leaves, oregano, sage, thyme, and fine black pepper dust. The structure is Bordeaux-like, with soft fine tannins and gentle but persistent acidity. Black raisin and fig dominate the finish. 

2009 Morgante Don Antonio Nero d’Avola Riserva Sicilia IGT $20
-          This deeply flavored Nero d’Avola has notes of carrot cake, zucchini bread, chocolate ganache, white chocolate, vanilla, cedar, juicy blackberry, cherry, strawberry jam, cherry cola, crumbled sage, mulch, wet garden, radicchio and arugula. It is round, supple, and creamy with an interplay of dark berry fruit and root beer on the palate.

Light and Elegant
2012 Cusumano Benuara Terre Siciliana IGT $18
-          Robust, full-bodied, and slightly chewy, with notes of sour cherry, fig, plum, earth, tar, button mushroom, turmeric, coriander seed, sesame seed, and celery.

2011 Masseria del Feudo il giglio Nero d’Avola Sicilia IGT $16.50
-          With notes of strawberry, cherry pie, Fanta orange soda, and creamsicle, this could initially be mistaken for a New World wine, yet distinct notes of tinder, moss, damp earth, and salami bring it home to Italy.



Oct-nov 2014 

Any student of Sardinian wine will discover that the island’s beloved Cannonau grape is actually Grenache, or Garnacha. The common thought was that Cannonau was Garnacha brought from Spain to the island of Sardinia 500 years ago. But seeds tested from archaeological ruins of Sardinian Nuraghes – megalithic fortresses from 4,000 years earlier than the Spanish occupation - prove otherwise.
On another find, an intact seed was tested and found to be Muristellu from the period of 1300 BC, a Sardinian autochthonous varietal known today as Monastrell in Spain, Mataró in Portugal and Mourvèdre in the south of France. Carignan may have also predated the Spaniards. According to Enzo Duscenne, Northern California/Nevada Regional Manager, Empson USA, 4,000 year-old seeds found in Sulcis were DNA tested and found to be what we call Carignan, or Carinena today. All of this supports the theory that these “Rhone” or “Spanish” grapes may have spread out from Sardinia, not the other way around. Locals claim these varieties had their roots here long before being exported to Spain and France when the island was part of the Kingdom of Aragon.
A detailed report in the Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology (2009) 84 (1) 65–71, Genetic relationships between Sardinian and Spanish viticulture: the
case of ‘Cannonau’ and ‘Garnacha’ by F. DE MATTIA, G. LOVICU, J. TARDAGUILA, F. GRASSI, S. IMAZIO, A. SCIENZA and M. LABRA,  says, “In Sardinia, the first documented reference to ‘Cannonau’ dates back to 1549 (Cherchi Paba, 1977). These historical documents suggest that ‘Garnacha’ and ‘Cannonau’ are extremely ancient varieties that were cultivated for many centuries in both Sardinia and Spain. Recent molecular analysis has revealed that several cultivars from the Iberian Peninsula display DNA chlorotypes that are compatible only with their having been derived from local wild grapevine populations (Grassi et al., 2003;Arroyo-Garcia et al., 2006).

Giuseppe “Beppe” CaViola, consulting winemaker of Sella & Mosca, one of the island’s pre-eminent wineries, says, “They found 3000-year old Cannonau seeds in Cagliari. It is not Grenache!” Dottore Sebastiano Rosa, stepson of Nicolo Incisa della Rochetta whose family owns Sassicaia, and who is partner with Santadi in Agricola Punica, a project that has resulted in Super Sardinian wines such as Barrua, a blend of old vine Carignano with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, concurs. “Seeds found in tombs from the Greek invasion were DNA tested and they were Cannonau. The Spaniards didn’t arrive until the last millenia.”



AUG-SEPT 2014 

At a private beach club in Ramatuelle, under the shade of pine, feet nestled into soft Provencal sand, I learned about wine in the best possible way. I observed a pack of playboys moving in on a bevy of beautiful women who were busy nibbling on seafood and sipping rosé. Nothing unusual here, or was there? Hmm. Wait a minute. The men were drinking pink too. As it turns out, everyone, including the pale, plump, far too scantily clad Northern Europeans, was in on the game. It was just what you drank. Then you took a nap.
What a great lesson that was, back in the Côte d'Azur. It made me realize that the French really didn’t know so much more about wine then us. They simply drank what everyone else did when everyone else did. It was summer, it was hot, and you drank rosé.
While coral was the color of most wines during Greek and Roman times, Provincia Romana, or today’s Provence, is still considered the rosé center of the world. Early Bordeaux, or Clairet, was pink and so was early Californian wine. But it wasn’t until a stuck fermentation that inspired the semi-sweet rosé of Zinfandel at Sutter Home did this pale beauty get its bad rap.
These days pink wine is taken much more seriously, especially when pressed directly after skin contact. Other production methods include saignee, or bleeding the tank, and blending white and red grapes, which is allowed and used in Champagne.
Rosé wines are still to fully sparkling, bone dry to decadently sweet, and are produced all over the world. From light, tart Provencal rosés to full-bodied, varietally-expressive New World choices, it may be time to think about expanding pink wine options beyond the warm summer months. In particular, Rosé Champagnes pair surprisingly well with meaty main courses such as lamb or duck breast.
Ken Kobré, Professor of Photojournalism at San Francisco State University, and creator of, is releasing a documentary later this year, called Rosé Rising. During the filming, I came across several rosés worth noting. Here they are, in categories created for easy placement on your menu. Some are easier to find than others, but they are all worth seeking out.

2012 The Seeker Rosé Cotes de Provence $16
2013 Chateau Routas Rosé Coteaux Varois en Provence $16
2013 Chateau Minuty M de Minuty Cotes de Provence $20
2013 Chateau d’Aqueria Rosé Tavel $20
2013 Fox Run Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir Finger Lakes New York $15
2013 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare Central Coast California $18           
2013 MacPhail Rose of Pinot Noir Sonoma County $22
2013 Hess Collection Small Block Series Syrah Rosé $22

Soft and Fruity
2013 Belleruche Cotes-du-Rhone Rosé $15
2012 Argus Rosato Napa Valley $18
2013 Everett Ridge Rosé Dry Creek Valley $18
2013 J Vineyards Vin Gris Russian River Valley $20

Softly Sweet Sparkling
Ca’Rosa Frizzante by Ca’Momi California $12
Fizz56 Brachetto Spumante Piedmont $20

Light Dry Sparkling
Lamberti Rosé Spumante Veneto $14
Bellenda Rosé Spumante Brut Veneto $16

Rich Dry Sparkling
2010 Schramsberg Brut Rosé North Coast $43
Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rosé Napa Valley $38
Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut Rosé Napa & Sonoma $50
Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé $48
Champagne Pierre Moncuit Brut Rosé Grand Cru $50
Champagne Taittinger Prestige Brut Rosé $80
Champagne Vilmart Cuvee Rubis Brut Rosé 1er Cru $85

Luxury Dry Sparkling
Champagne Krug Brut Rosé $380





During my almost 11-year tenure as Adjunct Instructor at the CIA’s Rudd Center for Professional Development in Napa Valley, I witnessed the birth of wine on tap. Wine Director Traci Dutton was an early adapter, offering a local Sauvignon Blanc on tap at $5 a glass. She was thrilled to pass along cost savings to her guests at the Greystone Restaurant. The same wine bottled sold for $8 to $9 per glass. Today, cost savings have all but vanished. The message is all about being green, clean, and efficient.

Chris Dearden, owner/winemaker of Dearden Wines, says, “From a winemaker’s standpoint, we love wine on tap as it provides a delicious glass of wine we get to the consumer in an extremely ‘green’ package. There is nothing to cause TCA or other off flavors, and it appeals to a broader and younger demographic which we are really trying to attract. Both coasts are embracing this format now, and as usual, it should pervade to the Midwest soon. I currently provide wines to New York, Maryland and California, and am working on Florida, which has just legalized kegged wines to be sold in that market.”

Jess Voss, owner of Jamber Wine Pub in San Francisco, adds, “I chose to do wine on tap because it makes so much sense for restaurants: having the benefit of a lower cost of waste from not having to throw away oxidized wine [serving wine by the glass means the wine can go bad before the whole bottle is sold]. It reduces our carbon footprint by eliminating bottles, corks and labels. Wine on tap makes life a lot easier for inventory and ordering; instead of having to keep track and store numerous bottles, we have 24 kegs.”

Dan Donahoe, co-founder and Chief Growth Officer of Free Flow Wines in Napa Valley, a large provider of wine in traditional metal kegs says, “Premium wine on tap as a category has exploded with growth over just the last 24 months. As more and more high-quality, respected wineries make their fine wines available in keg format across the US, the concept has been proven to work and offer operators and their customers a better glass of wine, every time.”

Metal kegs have to be returned, washed and refilled, adding cost and eating away at carbon footprint savings. Between this and the current drought in California, some producers are switching to “one ways,” such as the TORR Keg with a disposable bladder bag similar to those found in bag in box containers.

Wine on tap is not for everyone. An establishment must have volume and be able to “lock in” their selections until the kegs are empty. And they don’t translate as well into the more formal dining rooms. A small high-end restaurant wine buyer needs the flexibility and convenience of ordering wines by the bottle. Producers and buyers agree. Keg wine is here to stay. For freshness and convenience, wine on tap is a cutting-edge solution.

by Catherine Fallis, MS

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Wine and Dine Your Valentine

After New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day is the second worse night to dine out. Expectations are high, menus are fixed, everyone is rushed and stressed, and overall quality of food and experience is diminished. To make matters worse, this year it falls on a Saturday, already one of the busiest nights for many establishments. 

As the Beverage Director/Sommelier at Michael Mina's Aqua in San Francisco, I saw it all - celebrities, drunks, liars and cheats - along with genuinely nice, warm, and friendly guests. We were open for lunch and dinner, so I often pulled double shifts. I will never forget one Valentine's Day, when a winemaker had us put a ring in his then girlfriend's dessert. I was table-side when he proposed! Earlier that day, a regular business executive came in for lunch with his girlfriend. Then he came for dinner with his wife. Thankfully I didn't say, "So nice to see you again, sir."

Why deal with all of this chaos, mayhem, and madness? It is hard to relax, to slow down, to focus on each other with all this bad energy swirling around. What is a savvy somm or foodie to do? Stay in and prepare a sensual feast at home.

 Here are a few suggestions for a sensual feast at home.  

 Dress to Impress 
Wear fabrics that are soft to the touch, such as cashmere, lamb's wool, or silk. Don't overdo it with fragrance. The aromas of sensual foods mixed with your own natural pheromones should do the trick.

Set the Stage 
Use soft lighting and candlelight. Set out a single rose and a bowl of apples. Play soft, soothing romantic music from Chopin, Will Downing, Enya, Joao Gilberto, Diana Krall, Luis Miguel, or your favorite artist. Place large, overstuffed pillows in a semi-circle around platters of the following food and drink. 

Toasted almonds, pistachios, grapes, dates, fennel bits, truffled popcorn, oysters, or caviar 
Champagne Collet Brut Rose Ay France $59.99
or Cava, Prosecco, or Vinho Verde

Main Course
Risotto with truffles and Champagne, Lamb Chops, Steak au Poivre, Roasted Quail or Duck Confit
2010 Ruffino Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Riserva Ducale Oro $38
2013 Argus Pinot Noir Napa Valley Carneros $42
or Chambolle Musigny or Morey St. Denis from Burgundy, France, or Pinot Noir from Oregon or New Zealand

Mango slices, raspberries, candied orange slices, and Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate Syrup
2013 Bonny Doon Vinferno Arroyo Seco $24 (375ml)
2009 Dow's LBV Port $24 (750ml)

May the sensual pleasures of wine, food, and good living enrich your daily life.

© Copyright 2015 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Why Somms Love Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir, “peeno nwaahhr”, is a favorite of sommeliers and winemakers alike. Why? First of all, this noble red variety from France's Burgundy region makes an intensely flavored, complex, high acid wine with incredible longevity. As the climate gets warmer, the fruit becomes riper and more obvious, and the acid softens a bit. The net result in any case is a wine that will not overpower your meal. It is called the most sensuous of wines because of its enticing, sometimes earthy perfume and soft, round, silky, but still structured texture. 

Much of what is considered the best Champagne is Pinot Noir dominated. Beyond France, New Zealand, Oregon, and California have taken this grape variety to the stratosphere, though the style is much more fruit-forward as you would expect with warmer climates. The key for these new world producers is isolating the cooler microclimates such as Central Otago in New Zealand or Willamette Valley in Oregon, or those with extended growing seasons due to coastal fog or high elevations such as Santa Barbara, Santa Lucia Highlands, Carneros, Russian River Valley, and Mendocino in California.

Tip: Winemakers love Pinot Noir because it is so temperamental. They try to tame it and master it, but they cannot. It is impetuous and does what it wants. But when it is good, it is really good.

Pinot Noir is most enviable in its various interpretations as Red Burgundy. From the feminine Chambolle-Musigny to the exotic Richebourg, Pinot Noirs from this small area of France are the role models for the world. No other grape delivers a wine with such heady perfume, silky texture, and primal, earthy flavor. Generally the wines are light to medium bodied, light in color-one of the lightest red wines in the world is aged Domaine de la Romanee Conti (DRC), so the praising of dark inky color as a sign of quality certainly does not apply here. If a Pinot Noir is dark and inky, most likely it has been blended with another variety to achieve this popular, trendy characteristic.

Bollinger and other top Champagnes are another exquisite interpretations of Pinot Noir, all raspberry and lace. New Zealand produces brilliant, acid-balanced versions, as do producers such as Coldstream Hills in Yarra Valley – Victoria, Australia. In the USA, styles include fruity, juicy, and bright versions from the Willamette Valley, Oregon, as well as in cool climate producing areas in California including Mendocino, Russian River Valley and Los Carneros, overlapping Napa and Sonoma counties. Fuller, rounder, deeper styles are found in areas where the effect of hot sun is moderated by cooler morning and evening temperatures from coastal fog or higher elevations, giving a longer growing season and the potential for increased flavor development. These areas include the Santa Lucia Highlands - Monterey, in the North Central Coast, especially those from Gary Pisoni, and some of the longest lived and exotic versions from Bien Nacido, Santa Maria Valley, and the Santa Rita Hills, all of Santa Barbara in the South Central Coast.

Planet Grape recommends:

2011 Bethel Heights Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Willamette Valley Oregon $32, 89 points
- This zesty, smoky wine has notes of sour cherry, oolong tea and Dr. Pepper.

2012 Stoller Family Estate Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Willamette Valley Oregon $25, 95 points
 - Soft and inviting with notes of wild strawberry and pink rose. A delicate beauty.

2012 Paul Dolan Pinot Noir Potter Valley Mendocino California $30, 90 points
 - Soft, sexy, ripe, and romantic light bodied and dry red.

2012 Masut Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir Mendocino County California $40, 92 points
 - This soft, fruity and earthy Pinot Noir has notes of cherry cola, milk chocolate, dried herbs and sundried tomatoes.

2013 Argus Pinot Noir Napa Valley Carneros California $42, 98 points
 - Ben and Jerry Cherry Garcia bombshell. Rich, silky palate. A diamond in the rough.

2012 Frank Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Carneros California $35, 92 points
 - Sweet ripe berry bowl with a delicate finish. 

2012 Fog Crest Estate Pinot Noir Russian River Valley California $55, 91 points
 - This small-lot Pinot Noir is classic RussianRiverValley with notes of sassafras, dried herbs, ripe cherry and cherry cola.

2012 Ron Rubin Pinot Noir Green Valley of Russian River Valley $35, 94 points
 - This cool climate Pinot Noir is like a fine young Chambolle Musigny – delicate, elegant, feminine, and slightly earthy.

2011 Trione Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley California $37, 97 points
 - Deep, bold, muscular almost but soft as silk from a winemaker that is going to be famous.

2012 Niner Wine Estate Pinot Noir Edna Valley California $35, 94 points
 - Earth and spice keep things interesting on this lovely Central Coast Pinot Noir.

2010 Blair Estate Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco California $35, 90 points
 - Richly fruity and lavishly oaky, this is a gorgeous CentralCoast selection.

2011 Wairau River Pinot Noir Marlborough New Zealand $14, 87 points
- Light cherry, wild strawberry, and vanilla notes make this a lovely aperitif wine.

2012 Morgon “Cote du Py” Vielles Vignes Cru Beaujolais France $24, 92 points
 - Here is one of the secret values in French red wine – soft, smoky, and sexy like Pinot Noir but always in the mood.

© Copyright 2015 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Origins of the Sommelier

The word “sommelier”, or wine waiter, may have stemmed from the old French words “sommerier”, “somier”, and “bête de somme”. In this old French language, a “bête de somme” was a “beast of burden” and the “sommelier” was its herdsman. Later, the word became more specialized and referred to the official responsible for the transport of the French Royalty's baggage when they traveled (1316). During the reign of Louis XIV, the sommelier was the official in charge of the transport of baggage when the court moved. In the household of a great lord, he was the official who chose the wines, table settings and desserts. The sommelier used his tastevin, a silver saucer on a thick silver chain worn around the neck, to check his lord’s wine for poison. He also checked the food. If the sommelier died, his Master would avoid the meal.

Tip:  Somalia is a country in Africa. Try this. Say “summer.”  Switch the “r” for an “l” and say “summel.” Then, “Yay, the wine is here!  “Summel-yay!”

Today’s sommelier has slightly improved working conditions. There is very little threat of being poisoned, not by food anyway, but perhaps by over-consumption of alcohol. Tuxedos and tastevins are still out there, but today’s sommelier, even in the most formal dining room, is more likely to wear a suit and keep the silver tasting cup in a side pocket. Today’s sommelier is also more likely than ever before to be female, and young. In general they are humble and hospitable, but watch out for the snobs. They are still out there.

Reality:  Sommeliers many times double as floor managers, closing several nights per week, even in the sommelier mecca of Las Vegas.

What does a sommelier do? Primarily there to help guests select wine, make sure it is sound, and then to keep glasses full throughout the meal, a top notch sommelier such as Master Sommelier, for example, or a Concours Mondiale champ is also expected to be able to answer questions about production methods of wines and spirits, international wine laws, wine regions, grape varieties, and the harmony of food and wine. Service and salesmanship skills of waters, liqueurs, brandies, ports, and cigars are also required. A good sommelier is a showman or woman when out on the floor; the act of decanting a bottle of wine, for example, or sabering a bottle of Champagne (opening with a sword), adds an air of drama to the theater of dining. Good sommeliers understand that the dining room is a theater, and that “the dance," the meal service, must go smoothly no matter how frantic things may be in the back.

Your job is so cool! Yeah right. Behind the scenes, sommeliers know that things are not quite as glamorous. In the back of the house, or the part of the restaurant diners don’t see, a sommelier may have to trek through fish guts, meat byproducts, water, puddles of bleach, parking garages, rain, sleet, or snow, to get to their cellars. Once they get there, they may have to inhale just to turn around, or to squeeze through an aisle. The typical restaurant wine cellar is an afterthought, and is makeshift at best. Ideal size, shelving, temperature, humidity, and lighting are pipe dreams for most sommeliers.

Often the sommelier must navigate through the combat zone-the kitchen, making hairpin turns with arms laden with bottles sometimes costing thousands of dollars, or go up and down what we called “the stairs of death”, slippery metal stairs with slippery railings, that were also traversed by underpaid and under-appreciated dishwashers swinging red hot 50 pound metal pots or worse, knives.
Before service, there are many chores. Sommeliers evaluate wine daily, looking for value and menu compatibility. They meet with vendors and place orders. They receive and stock the wines, lifting cases and climbing up and down stairs and sometimes ladders to place the bottles in their racks. They take physical inventory regularly, oversee staff training, and are responsible for running a profitable wine program. Off duty, they read stacks of trade and consumer publications, occasionally visit wine regions, and try new foods and wines while checking their competitors and, at the same time, honing their palates and pairing skills.

Myth:  Sommeliers get a percentage of the gratuity you leave. This is rarely the case. What they do get is a modest base salary and then a percentage of the wine sales. If you want to thank your sommelier, give them the golden handshake.

Establishments that feel wine is an integral component of their program will invest in a wine program with passionate leadership. If an establishment wants to garner a wine award, it will be necessary to spend money in both inventory and someone whose primary function is to manage it, sell it, and train the staff. Beth von Benz, former Wine Director at New York City’s Judson Grill, says, “It is imperative to have a qualified wine person on the floor. The modern customer is more sophisticated with wine, than they were in the past. They expect to find a qualified wine person on the floor in a good restaurant. With an increasing emphasis on international wines, many from obscure areas or from little-known producers, a guest needs help navigating through a list, or a gentle suggestion on an unfamiliar wine that might be a delightful pairing with the restaurant's cuisine.”

Some restaurants, such as Alain Ducasse in NYC, his place in Monaco, Le Louis XV, or Aureole in Las Vegas, have teams of sommeliers. Because these establishments fully support a strong wine program, they are excellent environments for expanding one’s palate and trying new wines.
Sommeliers are a passionate bunch. They are not highly paid, but they love their medium. Embrace the skills, talent, enthusiasm and knowledge of the sommelier the next time you are fortunate enough to be in the company of one. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

© Copyright 2015 Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, Planet Grape LLC. All Rights Reserved.