Wine 101: The Proper Way to Taste (5 S’s)

This blog post is a summary of the first lesson I teach in all of my Wine 101 classes, and some may argue the most important…how to taste wine.

Now there are a thousand ways to taste wine, some proper and some improper. When I’m casually drinking wine, I typically observe no set method, at trade tastings the 5S method, and for formal evaluation I use the WSET approved tasting method (this is usually when I’m taking a test or studying for a test for the WSET). Why are there such formal ways to taste wine? Wine is made primarily to be enjoyed, and unfortunately sometimes during that enjoyment we forget to pay attention to whats actually going on in our mouth. Formal tasting methods help give us a structure about what we should be looking for and how our palette is reacting to a specific wine.

The 5S method is something I’ve used for quite some time. It’s been adapted from a number of articles on tasting methods, input from trade friends and partners, and adjustments I’ve made to make it easier. Simply just follow the 5 S’s…

1. See
Begin your evaluation by looking at (and through) the wine. I often hold my wine up to a white background and look for three key things: color and clarity. The color of the wine can give you an indication not only of what grape you are about to taste but the body of the wine, flavor, and sometimes even oak treatments. The clarity will alert you to any sediment in the wine.

2. Swirl
Swirling wine is not just something wine snobs do. It actually has a very clear purpose…to break apart the aroma molecules (by hitting them against the glass) so it is easier for us to identify those aromas in the wine.

3. Sniff
Someone once told me that everyone has a dominant nostril. I never believed it, until I tried it. My dominant nostril is my right. In this step take a sniff of the wine. Some take on long, deep sniff…others a few short ones. I play around with each wine until I can clearly identify some aromas. My beginners tip is to always shoot for the target, not the bulls-eye when identifying aromas. It is completely acceptable (at any level) to say ‘citrus fruits’ if you can identify if its lemon or lime. Try picking aroma categories: red fruit vs. black fruit, oak vs. spice, mineral vs. earth.

4. Sip
Here is the fun part. First, take a quick sip and then swallow (or spit) the wine immediately without thinking about it. This wakes up your palette and prepares it for the wine. After that, I issue you a challenge. Take a sip of the wine, swirl it around your mouth and pay attention to what happens in your mouth…for a full 30 seconds. Don’t speak, don’t think about anything else except that wine. Is your mouth watering from the acidity? Is the tip of your tongue awakened from the sweetness? Are you gums drying out from the tannins? After you’ve completed your 30 second test, take another sip and try to identify the flavors in the wine. Are they the same or different from the aromas you found?

5. Savor
This is the evaluation part of the tasting. How long is the finish (how long the entire flavor of the wine stays on your palette)? Did you like the wine? Would you buy it again? How much would you pay for it? How would you pair this with food?

Learning how to appropriately evaluate a wine is important for wine connoisseurs at any level.  After all, would you continue to buy a particular flavor of ice cream if you disliked it…correct? I’ve found the 5S method a good starting point for formal wine evaluation (and a relatively quick one). But for more detailed evaluations and resources, visit the links below.


The wine of all wines

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti

A tasting of DRC we attended this past month.

It’s getting close to spring in Naples, and that means one thing for us at Decanted…new releases. Yes, new releases in the spring! And not from the southern hemisphere. The spring brings about lots of excitement in the wine world, with some of the most sought after wineries releasing their newest vintages from California, Italy, and France. But one winery trumps all others…Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC for short) dates back to 1272 when the Abbey of Saint Vivant in Vosne acquired 1.8 hectares of vineyard in Burgundy, France. In 1631 it changed hands to the de Croonembourg family, who renamed it Romanée, they also acquired what was to be one of the most famous winery vineyards – La Tâche. After a bidding war in 1760 between the mistress of Louis XV of France and Louis Francois, prince of Conti (who won and changed the name to Romanee-Conti), the winery was seized during the revolution and auctioned off. The winning bidder sold it off again in 1869 to Jacques-Marie Duvault-Bloche who has built the Domaine into what it is today.

So what’s so special about DRC?
In France, everything is about the land and DRC is no different. Their vineyard holdings in Burgundy include some of the best: La Tache, Romanee-Conti, Richebourg, Romanee-St-Vivant, Grands Echezeaux, Echezeaux, and Montrachet. All of the vineyards are Grand Cru, the highest rank in Burgundy, indicating that they are among the best selections of land in the region for Pinot Noir growth. Of these, La Tache and Romanee-Conti are not only the most sought after from the winery, but some of the most coveted wines in the world. Both vineyards are monopoles.

A monopole is a designation given to a vineyard when the vineyard is controlled and all wine is produced by one winery. This is extremely rare in France, especially Burgundy, due to Napoleonic inheritance laws that have been in place for centuries. According to the law, all property inheritance must be split equally between heirs. As you can imagine, some modern-day properties have now been split hundreds of times resulting in some parties owning single rows in a vineyard…hardly enough to produce a significant amount of wine. Once the wine reaches the production facility, modern technology is mixed with traditional methods using the best oak from the Troncais forests (France) for their barrels.

How do I get a bottle of DRC?
There are a few obstacles to being able to actually drink a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. The first being price. The recently released 2009 vintage (one of the best on record), starts at $1,000….for one bottle. We get a lot of questions about whether the wine is worth the price or not. I usually answer with the explanation of how special the land is, that I addressed in the previous paragraph AND the fact that there is not much of it…at all. Which leads to the second problem, the wine is highly allocated. Allocated is a term used in the wine industry for wineries that hand select who receives the wine. Selection is based on a various number of factors including purchase history and support of other brands that a winery owns. In my experience as a retailer, DRC is one of the only wineries in the world that has survived (and thrived) the recession and emerged with not only a strong allocation list, but lengthy waiting list. As in any industry, price is affected by supply and demand.

But if you are looking to get a bottle of DRC on your hands, now is the time. The wine of all wines is now in pre-order and a know a number of retailers (ourselves included 😉 ) who are in the process of selling their allocation now. And if you do get a bottle, call me.

Uncorked: Wine Business Update for March 14, 2012

Here’s whats happening in the wine world this week…

  • More good news for the economy, wine sales continue to rise with an 11% increase in sales in February 2012 over the previous year.
  • Pioneering winemaker, Ernest Van Asperen of Round Hill winery, passed away at the age of 96.
  • California’s 2011 crush totaled 3,874,146 tons, down 3 percent from the 2010 crush of 3,986,314 tons. The 2011 average price of all varieties reached a record high of $591.69, up 9 percent from 2010 and 3 percent above the previous record high set in 2009.
  • The most important wine region to New Yorkers isn’t Bordeaux, Tuscany or the Mosel. It’s New Jersey, where almost all the fine wine they drink is warehoused before being delivered to local stores and restaurants. An amendment before the New York Senate would end this practice, and require wines to be stored in-state for 48 hours. Small wholesalers are up in arms, claiming this is an attempt to drive them out of business by the state’s two biggest liquor distributors, Southern Wine & Spirits and Empire Merchants, who already have their storage facilities within state lines.
  • A certain wine blogger (uh-hum) celebrates their birthday…

Uncorked: Happenings in the Wine World

Here’s our weekly recap of what’s going on in the wine industry:

  • Mondavi rolls out its first new brand in 60 years. The Divining Rod, will include a 2010 Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay and a 2010 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, both priced at $17 per bottle.
  • Lady Gaga was spotted in Sonoma this past weekend dining at local spots including the Girl and the Fig (Sonoma) and Catelli’s Restaurant (Geyersville). Although she left the meat dress at home, her stiletto heels gave her away as a non Sonoma local.
  • A new study from Pennsylvania State University reveals that wine experts and critics may have a better sense of smell than most consumers. In the study, 110 wine experts had a greater sensitivity to a bitter smelling solution than 220 consumers.
  • A new study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine reveals that alcohol may prevent type-2 diabetes, especially in patients who are overweight.
  • The 2012 Miami South Beach Wine & Food Festival was held over the weekend and included visits from celebrities, Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri, and Masahuru Morimoto. For a full recap, click here.
  •  A recent Research & Markets report has added wines in Chile to its list of industries. Although wines in Chile have experienced a period of stagnation the last two years with troubles from earthquakes and crisis, the reporting agency expects to see exports increase over the next couple years.
  • The Chinese continue their love of Bordeaux, however this time they are showing their love by investing in entire estates. At least 15 individuals have bought out Bordeaux houses beginning in 2011. The new investment is likely a result of the increased consumption of Bordeaux wines in China (110% increase in 2011 alone), mainly by affluent Chinese.


Uncorked: Happenings in the Wine World

Here’s a recap of the week’s happenings and news in the wine industry:

  • This Saturday, February 25th, is “Open That Bottle Night.” The night has been designated for those of us who have been holding on to a bottle for that ‘special occasion’ which has never come. So make Saturday your ‘special occasion,’ wander into your cellar and open that bottle and drink it!
  • Skinnygirl, Bethanney Frankel, one of the biggest drinks industry success stories in 2011 expands to wine next month. She will introduce three low-calorie California wines priced at $15 each: a red blend made primarily with Syrah, a white blend made primarily from Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, and a rosé blend featuring Grenache and Syrah. Each of the 2011 vintage wines will check in at 12 percent alcohol and 100 calories per 5-ounce serving.
  • It wasn’t that long ago that Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) displaced Sauvignon Blanc as the second most popular white wine variety in the United States. Now Sauvignon Blanc has ceded its third place status to fast-growing Muscat wines. Chardonnay remains by far the best-selling wine, red or white. Muscat’s market share has grown by almost 85% in the last year.
  • University of California, Irvine Extension recently announced “The Great American Wine and Food Revolution”, a six-week online course from April 2 to May 13. With the proliferation of ethnic cuisine and cross-cultural combinations, such as Mexican/Korean or Japanese/French, and unusual “gastro-fusion” dishes that are finding their way into the mainstream society, acclaimed wine expert and course instructor Marlene Rossman will show course participants how to identify mutual elements that create the perfect pairing of wine and food.


Wineries to Watch: The Scholium Project

Scholium Project

Owner of Scholium Project, Abe Schoener, celebrating a win at our 2010 Throwdown.

Last week we hosted our Cult California Wine Throwdown featuring owner/winemaker of The Scholium Project, Abe Schoener. We have had the pleasure of getting to know Abe and his unique wines over the last couple years and have come to appreciate his truly unique approaches to the winemaking process.

The Scholium Project represents an experimental and educational approach to wine. Abe approaches each wine as a project, trying to emulate those in the industry whose methods and wines he admires.

Abe’s background begins at the famed Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars where he interned during a sabbatical from teaching at St. John’s College. While at Stag’s Leap, Abe worked with John Kongsgaard. After Stag’s Leap he continued to work with John at Luna Cellars, then White Rock Vineyards. In 2005, he made his first Scholium selections: Naucratis and Cena Trimalchinos.

Scholium wines are all sourced fruit from the best vineyards for the specific grape varietals in each wine. Grapes often found in the wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cinsault on the red side. And white varietals including Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer.

The Scholium Project offers a large array of wines to explore, each one is not for everyone but they are all wines to challenge your thinking and evaluation of what your mind thinks a ‘standard’ style of each grape is. We always say that the Scholium wines can make red drinkers love white and white lovers drink reds.

Our favorites? With this winery, you can have a favorite. But must tries include: Bricco Bebelico, Choepheroi, Gardens of Babylon (awesome!) , Prince in His Caves (a red drinker’s white).

Wineries to Watch: Tamber Bey Vineyards

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Barry Waite purchased his Yountville Ranch in 1999 for the primary purpose of raising his beloved horses. The name is after his first two Arabian endurance horses, Tamborina and Bayamo. But the fertile Yountville land called to him and before long he was planting grapes alongside the pastures, the Deux Chevaux Vineyards. He teamed up with winemaker Thomas Brown for his inaugural vintage and has been rocking since then. Brown has an impressive background in the wine industry including a little project known as Schraeder ($350/bottle).

Thomas Brown brought on “apprentice,” Mike Smith to help with the production of Tamber Bey. Smith is no slouch though, he has worked for a number of labels including Myriad. Barry later added a property in Oakville where they have been making a single vineyard Cabernet. The Tamber Bey wines overachieve given the price/quality ratio. Barry has strived to keep his price points reasonable, since this is not his primary business. These wines are under the radar and not submitted to press for ratings, relying on more word of mouth and delivering a high quality product. They make 3 wines: 2 from the Yountville and one from Oakville, all 100% estate wines.

Our favorites from Tamber Bey include: Tamber Bey Deux Chevaux Cabernet, Tamber Bey Deux Chevaux Rabicano, Tamber Bey Oakville Estate Cabernet.

Wineries to Watch: Shafer Vineyards

Shafer Vineyards

A view of the Hillside Select Vineyard from our trip to Shafer this past Fall.

Doug Shafer was in town a couple weeks ago and I had the pleasure of having an intimate lunch meeting with him. Doug moved to Napa when he was 17 and like most caught the “wine bug.” From there he went to UC Davis and shortly thereafter began making wine with his dad, John. They have become an iconic Napa Valley team and set a bar for others in the Valley when it comes to consistent, quality wine.

Doug, who was the winemaker, mentioned the wine became much better once Elias took over in the mid 1990s. Doug recruited the Elias out of UC Davis in 1984 as the assistant winemaker for his first and only job in the wine business.

The toughest part of producing great wines year after year is vintage variation; great wineries make adjustments since a major component to any winemaking process is weather (which we all know is unpredictable). In off vintages grapes are sold off in bulk; possibly ending up in some $10 Napa Valley Cabernet. In great vintages, prices escalate.

When talking recent vintages with Doug, his comments were:

2008: A fantastic vintage, reminiscent of 2006 with great fruit forward wines. It was very underrated from living in the shadow of 2007, which was equally great but produced a much different style of wine.
2009: Very reminiscent of 2007, producing wines of intensity and structure for some age.
2010: Challenging vintage but has resulted in some good wines, the yields will just be much lower.
2011: This was the most challenging vintage Doug has seen since he started making the wine for Shafer. Lots of grapes were sold off in bulk. The vintage will still produce quality wines, but production will be way down. It’s extremely important to buy from an excellent producer in challenging vintages.

Shafer’s selections include Red Mountain Chardonnay, Merlot, One Point Five Cabernet, Relentless Syrah (our personal favorite), and their flagship…Hillside Select Cabernet. We get a lot of inquires about Hillside Select, the best way to get it? Get on our waiting list now! (It doesn’t help to support Shafer’s other wines as well…)

What are you cooking for the Big Game?

Killer Sausage Sliders

Chili … seen it. Wings … been there, done that. Hoagies or subs … boring! Serve something unique and may I just say delicious for the big game this weekend! Chorizo Sliders with whole grain mustard and Pork/Apple Sliders with caramelized onions. You will be such a big hit.

Oh and if you’re wondering what to serve to drink, here are our suggestions (all 83% off for case of 24): Ace Pear Cider, Leffe Blonde Beer, Anderson Valley Poleeko Gold Pale Ale and Cigar City Jai Alai IPA.

Chorizo Sliders
1 lb chorizo, removed from casing
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
¼ cup whole grain mustard
12-18 dill pickle chips
6 dinner rolls, cut in half

Preheat cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.  Add oil. Form ground chorizo into 6 small burgers.  Add to the preheated skillet and cook 4-5 minutes per side.

While sliders are cooking, lightly toast dinner rolls. Split mustard between all 6 rolls, adding a little bit to both halves. When sliders are cooked, add one burger to each bottom half of roll, top with 2 or 3 pickles (your choice) and top half of roll. Press down lightly to bring it all together. 

Pork and Apple Sliders
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 lb pork sausage, removed from casing
½ gala apple, cut into ½ inch chunks
6 slider or dinner rolls

Add butter to a non-stick skillet over medium low heat. Add onion.  Cook for 5-7 minutes until softened and translucent.  Stir in honey and vinegar. Reduce heat to low and cook until completely browned, 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While onions cook, add sausage to a large bowl. Gently mix in apple chunks until well combined. Form into 6 small burgers. Add sliders to same cast iron skillet, still over medium-high heat.  Cook 4-5 minutes per side.

While sliders are cooking, again lightly toast rolls. When sliders are cooked, add one per dinner roll, top with onions.

The Wine Ratings Business…Is a Business?

It’s been reported over recent days that Jay Miller from the Wine Advocate charges wineries a fee in order for him to visit the winery and review their wines. (Key shock and disbelief). A group in Spain has published a list of preparation needs for Miller’s visit to a select number of wineries. Preparation ‘needs’ include a 200 – 300 euro fee per wine tasted and a 1,000 euro fee for each visit to a single winery.

While many in the wine world may act like this is a shock and failure to the wine rating system, it should not be that surprising. After all the wine ratings business, has become well a big business. And who’s to blame? Me, you, the wineries…but mainly me and you. As retailers and consumers, we’ve become reliant on letting someone else tell us what’s good and bad in a wine. There are wines that are sold everyday (thousands of them) based on a rating from someone like Miller or Wine Spectator alone. It’s not uncommon that a purchaser may not even know who the producer is of wine, where its from, or even what’s in it! Unfortunately, some wineries and retailers have taken notice of that trend and have maybe even adjusted the flavor or structure of their wine in search of a better score. And so has increased the power of the wine critic.

But for those of us who search out wineries for ourselves, form our own opinions (and maybe even yes use the ratings and critic reviews as a resource to help develop those opinions), the news of Miller’s fees and ultimately him stepping down from The Wine Advocate doesn’t come us a shock. Wine is a business of passion, but it is still a business. Fees will be paid, advertisements will be placed, and lots of us (myself included) will go on selling wine and (shock and disgust!) may even make a profit.

*Sidenote: In terms of The Wine Advocate, they pride themselves on being one of the most ethic journalistic sources in the business, and this is something that we have found very true on behalf on their staff. A link to their entire ethics policy can be found here.*