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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.*

What’s With All These Top 100s?

It’s that time of year…and no I do not mean the holiday season. It’s the time of year where we are bombarded with Top 100 lists of wines and beers from 2011. First there was Wine Spectator, then Wine Enthusiast, then a million wine bloggers….what’s next will Letterman come up with a top wine list?

In all honesty, I do read most of the Top 10/100 (pick a number) lists that come out every December. I’m interested to know what other industry members and journalists enjoyed over the last year, however I think the reason for producing these lists has become a bit misunderstood in the public the last few years.

What these lists are (on a very basic level) is a guide to what individual journalists and magazines felt was a well produced and appropriately priced wine. What they are not is buying guides. Wine is a product that is ever evolving and changing, and fortunately  (or unfortunately however you look at it) a Cabernet made from the To Kalon vineyard in 2007 may taste completely different in 2008. But that’s what makes this product so unique. These lists, produced at the end of a year often represent a summation of what was available for the previous eleven months. Most wines on the list (by the time its released) have been sold and moved on to the next vintage.

So what do I do with these top lists? I read them, looking for new wineries or up and coming regions that I may not have thought of. I try to pick out trends in the market and predict what regions are going to produce good quality wines in the next year. For example, if I notice that a lot of Spanish wines made the 2011 list I may search out those wines or regions in the next vintage.

What do you use the Top 100 Wine lists for? Is there one that you particularly prefer over another?

Wine Review: Hewitt Cabernet

Hewitt is not a new wine to us, but with a recent deal we’re offering on the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon I decided to revisit – and re-taste – this Napa big boy.

A closer look at Hewitt Vineyards

The vineyard that is now Hewitt was planted originally in 1880, it was one of the few that actually survived the Prohibition area and even one of the fewer that admits it did it by shipping grapes to home winemakers on the east coast (a not so technically legal practice). The property borders the original Ingelnook vineyard (now Rubicon Estate) in the Rutherford district of Napa, known for its high quality fruit and its signature ‘Rutherford dust.’ In 1962, William Hewitt – a former head of John Deer Company – from the daughter of the original vineyard owner. He immediately enlisted the help of his neighbor, Bealieau Vineyard’s winemaker, André Tchelistchef, to replant the site with Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2001, Hewitt produced its – and the vineyards – first single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

2006 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon

Hewitt produces only wine one each year – it’s single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.  The goal of the wine is to highlight the storied terrior the fruit comes from only the best fruit available.  Winemaker, Tom Rinaldi, says “I get to select the exact rows I want from our spectacular vineyard.” Qualified selection such as that comes at a price to pay – low production numbers. It is a limited edition wine with production often times in the 5,000 case range.  The 2006 exhibits flavors of red currant, rustic earth, sage, and licorice. The wine is full bodied with a full fruit flavor balanced with tannins that will help the wine to continue to develop until 2016.  Receiving a rating of 92 points, Wine Spectator calls it “Intense and full-blown, rich and concentrated, with a rustic, earthy edge to the dried currant, sage and underbrush notes.”

Winemaking practices

The wine begins with an extreme selection of only the best grapes in the vineyard. The wine is typically 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but at times other grapes are blended to add complexity and body.  The grapes are destemmed before crush so at least 30% of the fruit goes through full berry primary fermentation

Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006
Regularly $105, Sale $75.00 

California Rhone Rangers

I’ve discussed before how fabulous Rhone Valley wines are, and what great values they present in France.   But in recent years, we’ve been able to find those unique grapes and complex wines closer to home – in  California.

In Wine Spectator’s feature article this month, they discuss some of the best Rhone varietals coming out of California including Switchback Ridge Petite Sirah, Truchard Syrah, Lewis Syrah, and Rosenblum Petite Sirah – some great finds.  Syrah is definitely leading the production numbers and sales for this varietal but Petite Sirah and Grenache (my favorite) are not far behind.  And even in some hidden vineyards you can find small plots of Mourvèdre, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.  So here are my top three favorite wines from those non-Syrah California Rhones…

3.  Booker Proprietary White Blend, 2008
A relatively new find, a blend of 60% Rousanne and 40% Viognier…this wine displays the complexities which I love about Rhone whites.  Full bodied palettes with complex tree and tropical fruits balanced ever so slightly with oak.

2. T-Vine Grenache, 2007
Mmm Grenache how I love your spicy, fruit flavors.  But from Napa Valley?  This wine is made true to Napa and French style represnting the best qualities of the Grenache grape while also displaying the unique growing conditions of Napa – building wines for strength, power, and age.

1.  Scholium Project Androkteinos, 2007
“An – drok – i – nose,” that’s my closest phonetic spelling for the pronunciation of the name of the wine.  If you haven’t had one of Abe Schroener’s wines…well I guess you haven’t been reading our blog!  Abe’s wines are big, bold, unique and mysterious.  It’s something you have to figure out our your own – I could tell you, but that would take away the experience!  (Here’s a hint – this one’s Syrah).

Wine Review: Cougar Crest Cabernet Franc

When the word Cabernet is uttered most people immediately assume the reference is to Cabernet Sauvignon. But there’s another Cabernet, the father to Cabernet Sauvignon if you will…Cabernet Franc.

Cougar Crest Tasting Room

Cougar Crest Tasting Room

Often found in Bordeaux or Bordeaux style blends from other regions of the world, Cabernet Franc is mostly used as a blending grape with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It is one of the two parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon (Sauvignon Blanc being the other) and is lighter in style. Depending on the region it is grown in, it can have a peppery aroma with nodes of tobacco, raspberries, cassis and coffee. There are only a few areas of the world where it is made into a 100% varietal wine, the oldest being the Loire Valley in France and mostly recently the United States in Washington, California, and even North Carolina.

I have personally always been a fan of Cabernet Franc but it can be a challenging grape for others to wrap their heads around. One of the wines that turned me onto 100% Cabernet Franc was Cougar Crest’s Cabernet Franc from Walla Walla, Washington.

The 2006 vintage was one of the better vintages yet. Established in 2001, Cougar Crest is a small winery in one of the smallest wine regions in Washington – Walla Walla. Owners Deborah and David Hansen have been growing grapes for years in the appellation and selling them to other wineries in the area. Moving into winemaking, they established a winery and tasting room near the Walla Walla airport and produced 900 cases the first year.

The 2006 Cabernet Franc displays ripe fruit when first opened with dark cherries, chocolate, tobacco and coffee. The wine develops as air is exposed to it and displays different flavors and aromas throughout the course of the night. The tannins actually come through further down the line as it starts to show more pepper, dried currant, herbs, and mocha with a silky, buttery like finish. It is the perfect wine to pair with heavier dishes…steak or even traditional heavy Italian cuisines.

It’s no secret this wine is great, check out the ratings. We personally give it 2 1/2 stars on our 3 star scale.


  • 92 points, Wine Spectator
  • 2009 Double Gold, Florida International
  • 2009 Double Gold, International Eastern

Wine Review: Orin Swift’s The Prisoner 2008

Dave Phinney’s story is one of the most unique and admirable in today’s wine industry.  After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in Political Science, Phinney began pursuing his team by working harvest at the Robert Mondavi winery.  The next year he began Orin Swift Cellars with just two tons of purchased Zinfandel grapes.

Orin Swift has now become one of the top, if not the top, cult wineries in Napa.  Their flagship wine, The Prisoner, which made the winery famous has recently been sold to the mother company of Quintessa.  We are anxious to see what happens to the brand and the blend as the winery goes through some big changes the next couple of years.

However, we are now reviewing 2008.  Which we found to be a fantastic vintage for The Prisoner, one of our favorites.  The wine is composed of 46% Zinfandel, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, 10% Petit Sirah, 2% Charbono, and 1% Grenache.  The wine is a deep dark garnet hue.  On the nose hint at cherry, vanilla and new oak.

The flavors and mouth feel of The Prisoner is what really gives this wine its character and personality.  Round and soft on the front palette, dark berries and a slight caramel taste fill your mouth.  A perfect touch of acid rounds out the wine and leads into the very soft and supple tannins on the finish.  For a soft wine, the finish is long with the perfect balance of dryness and fruit.  One of Phinney’s best vintages to date.

Decanted’s Wine Rating:  2.75 glasses

The other guys ratings:
92 points, Wine Spectator
90 points, Wine Advocate (Robert Parker)

Buy Orin Swift’s 2008 The Prisoner
$35 at, 10% discount on a case.

The Mollydooker Shake

Mollydooker "The Boxer"

There are so many gadgets these days to decant your wine.  You can use a Vinturi ($40), Soiree ($20), Decanter ($20 – $500), and now you can even shake (Free) your wine.  Although I think there is a need and purpose for each of the above contraptions, this new concept of shaking is most intriguing.

Can you shake all wine?  Well you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  I reserve the shaking process for one particular brand who has created the Mollydooker Shake.

Mollydooker is an Australian winery developed by husband and wife team, Sarah and Sparky Marquis.  Both nationally renowned in the own projects, the pair left their jobs in 2005 to fully focus on their own winery.  Since the launch Mollydooker has received great press and some fantastic reviews from wine critics around the world, most notably Robert Parker.  Mollydooker produces a breadth of Shiraz, Verdelho, Cabernet, and various Blends.

So what is the Mollydooker Shake?

At Mollydooker, the Marquis’ make their wine in a specific manner.  Infusing Nitrogen in the wine making process, they are able to skip the process of adding sulfites in order to preserve the wine and prevent oxidation (For more about sulfites in wine click here).  However, the nitrogen tends to flatten the round fruit flavors in the wines making the shake necessary.  Here’s how you do it…

1. Open the bottle and pour half a glass (so the wine just hits the top of the shoulder of the bottle).

2.  Reseal the bottle (All Mollydookers come with a screw cap).

3.  Flip the bottle over and shake like hell.  If you really want to do it Dooker style, use your left hand (Mollydooker is Aussie for Lefty).

4.  You’ll see little bubbles rise to the top of the bottle (this is the Nitrogen).  Put the bottle back down and open to release the bottle.

5.  Pour yourself a glass!

Although skeptical at first, I have done the Dooker shake multiple times now and it has never failed.  Sure you can also decant these wines, but why wait?  The Shake takes a matter of minutes…decanting a bit longer.  Still don’t believe it?  Reserve that half glass of wine you first poured and compare it to  the glass after the shake, I guarantee you’ll notice a difference.

Start Shaking

Mollydooker “The Boxer” 2008
100% Shiraz
McLaren Vale, Australia
91 Points Wine Advocate & Wine Spectator (Best Buy)

To read more about Mollydooker and the shake, click here.

A Case for the Case

With the increasing popularity of wine over the last twenty years or so we’ve seen prices rising and rising and rising.  Wineries have responded to buying anxiety by reducing the case size of wine from twelve to six to even three and four in some cases.  The question is as a wine buyer does this reduce my anxiety?  Well, yes for that brief millisecond when I see the ‘case’ price…but I’m immediately brought back to reality when I see in big bold letters ‘4 PK.’

In the newest issue of Wine Spectator, James Laube (one of the oldest contributors and  my favorite) discusses the Ever Shrinking Case Size of wine.  He explores that this shrinking case size is influencing consumer behavior and increasing reluctance t0 a case of wine.  With the number of options in the wine world, it is hard to commit yourself to buy twelve bottles of the same wine.  What if you don’t like it?  Better question what if your wife/husband doesn’t like it?  Al and I used to struggle with these questions before the opening of Decanted and still have an occasional dispute when we bring home our weekly case (yes, I said weekly) and he has it loaded up wine I’m not thrilled about.

But I’m under the belief that you really need to have four bottles of a particular wine in order to truly appreciate it and understand it.  Does that mean you need four bottles of every wine you come across…no.  I’m speaking specifically towards building a collection or appreciating a premium wine.  One of the things I love about wine is its adaptability. Not only does it change over time, but it changes in regards to its place, company, and food pairings.  There are so many factors that go into whether a wine is ‘good’ or not beyond just the grapes and winemaking process.  I’ve had my recent favorite bottle of wine…Moschioni Rosso Celtico…twice now.  I loved it once, but also loved the people I was drinking it with.  The second time it didn’t taste as great…but the people weren’t exactly tons of fun either.

So here’s my case for the case…a top three of reasons why I still believe in buying by the dozen.

1.  Um case discount? I may be frugal but I’m always looking for a discount.   Best part about this is it allows me to buy wines that might have been out of my price range.  For example, if my budget is $20 a bottle on average, a 10% discount allows me to increase that to $22…doesn’t sound like a lot, but it could be the difference between a good wine and a great wine.

2.  How long will this bottle age? I get this question all the time, and to be honest I’m not sure.  Neither is Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, or even the winery.  Unfortunately there is no science to  discovering the perfect maturity of a wine.  It’s influenced by a number of different factors including transportation and storing conditions, bottling procedures, temperature and a whole lot of other stuff I don’t understand.  So here’s our answer to that question and our case for at least four bottles of any wine you plan on cellaring. Open one bottle up five years after release…see how it is.  Still tight?  Age it for another five.  Open it up and its perfect…great drink the other two bottles, if not cellar again and keep testing.

*Special Note* Do read up on the expected maturity of the wine first, certain wines age longer than others and you may need to adjust the above timeline.  The winery the best resource, but if you can’t get an answer there – we like

3.  Going Green. Is buying a case of wine vs. one bottle better for the environment?  It might not seem to make a difference, but when you add up all the factors that go into that case…like driving to and from the wine store twelve times vs. one….I seem to think this might be an earth friendly approach for us winos.  Would I like to see my customers smiling faces twelve times a month?  Of course, but consolidating your trip not only saves gas and unfriendly emissions but helps me save on bags, paper, energy and lets me consolidate my orders passing those earth saving activities on to my suppliers.

So is this the demise of the case as James Laube predicts?  I think not, I believe in the case and know it will rebound.  If you are interested in Laube’s article, please click here or read it in the April issue of Wine Spectator (page 35).