The Fine Art of Spitting

Tim McDonald spits at SFIWC
Tim McDonald – an A+ Spitter at the ’09 SFIWC!

Now, in fairness, tasting six or eight 1-ounce wine samples doesn’t exactly strain one’s liver or raise one’s BAC to dangerous levels.  And the lack of spitters at public tastings is not unusual.  In fact, finding a high percentage of spitters at any wine gathering pretty much assures you it’s a trade tasting.  Those in the trade not only spit, we take pride in it.  Competitive pride.

I’d like to tell you I’m the most accurate wine spitter you’ll ever meet.  That’s what I’d like to tell you.  The truth is that in the realm of professional spitters I come in at, oh, maybe a C.

My limited spitting skills became painfully clear some years ago during a barrel tasting at Napa’s Swanson Winery.  Marco Capelli was their winemaker (now a consulting winemaker in Placerville) and our host for the tasting.   He started the tasting by placing a 5-Gallon plastic bucket in the center of the floor before pulling a barrel sample with the wine thief.  He dispensed a small taste into each of our glasses as he told us about the wine.  One by one, each of us sniffed, sipped and then, taking turns at the spit bucket, bowed our head so that spitting was a combination of gravity and our natural-born ability to dribble.

Then Marco stopped talking and took a small sip.  He performed the requisite swirl and swish, considered it for an instant, and then stood where he was as he let fly a solid, cylindrical stream of wine.  It was heard more than seen, hitting the bucket with such authority that not a single drop had enough nerve to defy the boundary of the bucket.  He was standing comfortably upright, a full four feet from the bucket.

Later, when I could pull him aside, I asked about his enviable spitting technique.  As I dabbed errant wine stains off my shirt, he explained the basics of spitting like a pro:

“First”, he said, “to taste a wine adequately you need far less than most would think – half an ounce is more than enough.  This small amount also helps maintain an accurate spit. When ready, simply pucker your lips and tighten your cheeks (note, your mouth cheeks).  Flatten your tongue so it seals up tight against the molars on each side, allowing the wine to collect between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  Then quickly force your tongue up towards your teeth.”

“After that it’s all about getting the right muscle control and pressure – just practice in the shower until you can maintain a solid stream of water that accurately hits the target.  I use my shower drain for target practice every morning.”

Well, I’ve been following his advice for a dozen years now, and I’m still not a Grade-A spitter.  But I can stand in the cellar with the best of them and issue forth a stream of sufficient force and accuracy so that I can avoid the heave-ho – one must exhibit sufficient spitting prowess to be worthy of tasting next to the winemaker.

And of course, one must also be able to say something insightful and intelligent about the wine.  But that’s a topic for another posting.

(Related reading – Jancis Robinson’s “How To Taste”, where you’ll find a one-page spitting tutorial buried amidst a mountain of other valuable material.)


Dave the Wine Merchant

A Whack on the Head

In launching a business, one gives up certain things. A salary. Family time. Sleep. This latter sacrifice caught up with me recenty. I’d had one of those “up at 5:30, drive 350 miles, attend meetings” sort of days.  And by late afternoon, perusing a wine publication at the local coffee shop seemed just the thing.

But staying awake was a struggle. I read a frustrating article in silent disagreement with the curmudgeonly writer. He seemed threatened by our evolving industry – “Why buy Syrah when you can get Cabernet for the same price?” he queried, followed by inflexible statements such as “Napa is the only source for great Cabernet” and “Those who shun Chardonnay forget it’s simply the greatest white wine on earth!” His hubris grew irksome. I closed my eyes in frustration. They were closed just for a moment, and then… BANG!

My head bounced on the table.

This tends to wake me up. And while I don’t recommend it as a regular form of inspiration, this whack on my head did bring a certain clarity to my silent debate…

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"I ONLY Drink (fill in the blank)"

It’s been said we learn a lot from our kids.  And sometimes we learn from the books we bought specifically to teach THEM something.  You see, I have a young daughter who, despite our best efforts raise a woman prepared for today’s world, wants nothing to do with anything that isn’t pink and glittery.

So we stumbled upon (yes, I know my intros are long, but this is the set up for my point about wine – we’ll get there in a second!) a book we thought would help her understand the importance of balance, of diversity in choice – Priscilla And The Pink Planet, by Jocelyn Hobbie.

In a nutshell, Priscilla is an inquisitive little girl who lives on a planet where pink is the only color allowed, by decree of the Queen. But independent-minded Priscilla dreams of seeing other colors and blazes her own trail to do so. 

By the end of the story, she’s used some very adult psychology at a tea with the Queen to convince her that, while pink is CLEARLY the best color, hiding the other colors might not be in its best interest because "…it’s hard to tell that pink is the best without seeing all the rest.  If all the colors were out for the world to see, pink would look even pinker, don’t you agree?".  And of course, once the other colors were out of the proverbial bag, the Pink Planet became a more interesting place.

The Wine Angle (Finally)
I was talking with one of our club members recently, who was complaining about receiving a white wine in her club shipment.  "I only drink red", she haughtily explained, then finished with "Every sophisticated wine drinker knows that white wines are born hoping to grow up to be red."

And there I was.  Talking with the Queen of Red.

She’s not alone.  The ranks of the Red-only Royalty are so burgeoning that one concludes membership is not particularly exclusive.  In fact, admittance is easy – members must simply believe that red wine is the only wine worth drinking (even if it’s free).  The more extreme sect believes Cabernet to be the only wine worthy of their esteemed gullet.

I understand.  As I’ll write in my next post, I followed the Cabernet/Red wine infatuation path for years.  But then I tried red wines in Europe.  And I tried sparkling wines, in Europe.  And I tried WHITE wines and, yes, even PINK wines, in Europe.  And I loved them all.  And then I came back and tried the widest variety of Domestic wines I could find.

At first, I found that these new flavors made me love red wine all the more.  Then, over time, something funny happened.  I discovered that a big red wine over-powered everything I ate with it, while the floral, acidic white wines, the blush wines, and the softer reds (especially pinot!) tasted BETTER with food, and the food tasted better with them.  I was hooked.

And yes, I still love red wines, just not all the time.

The Wine Deal
And so, for those interested in sampling a broader spectrum of wines, we present the following recommendations:

White Wines:
For a great wine that complements our lighter International diets,
Marsanne is all too often overlooked.  Here we feature one from Buttonwood Farms in Santa Barbara County – where growing conditions strongly favor the Rhone varietals.  And for a full-bodied style of Sauvignon Blanc, we can recommend the anti-Kiwi alternative from Fiddlehead Cellars, now on sale for $27 – an age-worthy white wine that converts many "Red Royalty".

Blush Wines:
Blush wines aren’t just for picnics anymore!  Try the one from
Kalyra, made from Cabernet Franc – the predominant grape used in the delicious Loire Valley wines.  We have a flock of pink wines about to be released, and we’ll announce them here or through our email alerts (sign up here).

Light-Bodied Reds:
One of the more interesting wines I’ve seen in a while is a food-friendly wine, again from Buttonwood Farms, that is also from the Cabernet Franc grape.  Dubbed "
The Infant", the juice was left on the grape skins longer than one would for a pink wine, but not as long as one would for a full-bodied red.  A great spring wine.

As you might expect from us, no description of the "rainbow of wines" would be complete without pinot noir.  But there were so many to choose from in our store that I provide here a link to the entire
category for perusal by interested parties.  And yes, the category also includes Chardonnays – a vestige of my Burgundian classification habits.

As we progress up the scale of bigness, I hesitated to place Syrah before Bordeaux varietals, because so many of them are being made in bigger and brawnier styles.  So I’ve decided to
feature one here that hails from high-altitude, Central Coast vineyards that produce a softer, leaner style well suited to today’s foods.  It’s from rising-star winemaker David Corey, and is well worth checking out now, before the wines become so popular nobody can buy them anymore.

OK, if being king means you’re the biggest, I guess Cabernet is still the king of reds.  And while we offer some excellent
Bordeaux Varietals, our featured Big Red wine is the Nebbiolo from Benjamin Silver – another winemaker on the rise.  His Nebbiolo is very true to type, grown in conditions similar to those of the great wines of Northern Italy – Barolo and Barbaresco.

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Build Your Own Pinot – part 2 of 2

How would you go about making a world-class pinot noir?  This, of course, is a rhetorical question.  Creating a satisfying pinot requires years (lifetimes?) of experience in winemaking and viticulture.  The well-worn path to pinot failure is lined with the remains of those hoping to shorten the time-intensive process, then discovering their odds of success are only slightly better than winning the Lottery.

As with most things artistic, there are a thousand creative decisions that interact to determine the ultimate result.  Here is an overview of the choices you would have to make in producing your own, award-winning pinot:

Which vineyard location?
Few varietals reflect a sense of “place” as much as pinot – it is Terroir-Driven.  In selecting your vineyard, consider altitude, soil type (is it high or low vigor?), drainage, wind, average temperature by day-part, rainfall by season, and avg. hours of sunshine.  U.C. Davis recently held a conference on “Terroir”, with the day’s most memorable quote coming from <i>Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyards</i> (though as I write this it seems more appropriate to make that the other way around) who said “I’ve concluded that one lifetime is simply insufficient to learn how to produce terroir-driven wines”.

Which Root Stock?
This is relatively easy, as there are likely only a handful of viable rootstocks.  But if you have high-growth, vigorous soils you’ll get lackluster pinot.  So pick a low-vigor rootstock to reduce your crop yield (an activity known as “de-vigoring” the vines).  Two tons of fruit per acre is a reasonable goal, though some of the best pinots come from vines producing less than a ton per acre.  The increased intensity of the fruit from low-yielding vines is one of the primary reasons for the high price of pinot.

Which Pinot Clone?
This gets tougher – pinot has a highly unstable DNA structure that easily mutates.  To date, over 1,000 pinot clones have been documented, each producing pinot with slightly different characteristics, and which must be selected to grow and ripen most effectively in your chosen vineyard and on your rootstock.  Note, by contrast, the highly stable Cabernet Sauvignon vine has only a dozen identified clones. 

The truly curious find it helpful to know some pinot clones are named after the winery or vineyard that popularized them (Wente, Beringer, Martini, etc.) while others are numbered, with domestic clones being assigned numbers under 100 and French clones assigned numbers between 100 and 1,000. 

Which Trellising System?
Trellising, or “training”, the vines determines how much sun exposure the grapes will receive.  This decision requires that you balance freedom from the molds and diseases that threaten these temperamental grapes against the possibility of sunburn and.  Direct sun exposure also affects the grapes’ ripening speed and the flavor profile they produce. 

Etc. Etc. Etc.
Your list of creative choice goes on to include decisions on date of harvest , sorting technique, whether to de-stem prior to fermentation, cold stabilization prior to introducing yeast (or choice of natural yeast, if you have experimented enough to know your local yeasts are desirable), type of yeast if innoculating, length of maceration, to rack or not to rack, to filter or not to filter, type of oak barrels to use, degree of toast desired for the oak, and length of time in barrel.  Finally, how much do you want to spend on bottle, label and closure (cork or screwcap?)

This long and intimidating list of choices is being taken on by a growing number of small producers, many of whom are refugees from the increasingly large wine conglomerates whose accounting departments over-manage their artistic wine making process. 

Wines from these producers dominated the San Francisco Pinot Noir Shoot-out in March of ‘06.  This public event featured 40 pinots, each wrapped in foil and randomly assigned an identifier, then tasted in a blind format.  A panel of astute pinot experts had tasted over 200 pinots in order to select the 40 they thought the most worthy.  This format not only tests one’s palate, but allows an accurate calibration relative to that of others.  I am pleased to report that I discovered some great new pinots that day, and am in discussions with some of the producers to them to you.  Watch for them here.

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Quote of the day:
"How can a few notes of music, some paint on canvas, mere juice of grapes fermented with yeast, have the power to lift the human spirit? No one can explain this; it is the mystery of art."
– Unknown

"Questions answered. Answers questioned." All about Pinot (1 of 2)

“So why would somebody choose cane pruning, given all the labor involved?” I asked Webster. Perched on a hillside vineyard hundreds of feet above the valley floor, we were ignoring a view in favor of the task at hand. Stepping from vine to vine, we’d select the two best grapevine canes, trim off the rest, and tie the strongest one to the trellis, reaching horizontally towards the neighboring vine. Finally, if we succeeded without breaking the cane, the second “back up” cane was cut off, leaving a single “cane trained” vine.

“Cane training is more labor intensive, and can only be afforded when the wine’s price supports the cost” Webster explained, “Cane training involves either two canes extended in opposite directions from the trunk or in more densely planted vineyards, a single cane extended towards the neighboring vine.”

Webster is a partner in a small Pinot Noir producer – the kind we like to discover and support. Some such producers tend vineyards owned by others in order to assure their grape quality – sort of a modern version of share cropping, but more equitable. My wife and I had spoken with the partners many times as we passed this vineyard, but this time I’d offered to help with the manual labor in exchange for some knowledge.

Webster continued, “By training a new cane each year instead of simply growing canes from a permanent cordon, or trained branch, the new growth is less likely to be diseased, and we feel it produces better quality fruit (Illustrations). Of course, such decisions are driven by the style of pinot you have in mind and the results of experiments in your own vineyard – each pinot vineyard responds a bit differently to each decision you make…”

This is but one example of why wine drinkers find pinot so alluring – it responds differently to so many conditions, from the vineyard to the glass. As such, the number of decisions an artisinal producer can make is constantly increasing, and their combined affect on the wine is like no other.

Mirroring the fervor of the producers they adore, true pinot lovers are constantly driven to seek “the next great producer”. Old-time pinot lovers look on the wine’s recent popularity with some dismay, feeling as if the whole world has discovered their great little hobby and made it more difficult to acquire their treasures. But newbies and veterans alike agree that our pinot selection service is useful. We take our responsibility seriously, tasting new pinots almost daily on behalf of our subscribers. Here are some new releases we are proud to introduce:

New Releases!

  • Roessler Cellars, 2004 La Brisa Pinot Noir still just $28.
    This lovely wine from cool Sonoma Coast vineyards was a sell-out hit when we introduced the 2003, and we wouldn’t have this allocation of the 2004 if I hadn’t called and bugged the winery for more. The original release date for the ’04 was this summer and when I learned it had been moved up by four months “because it’s tasting so great now”, I wondered if it was the cash-flow talking. But pulling a bottle from our precious allocation quickly qualmed my cynicism – I should have known the Roesslers wouldn’t release a wine that wasn’t great! An amazing price from this reliable pinot-only producer. I haven’t seen production numbers for this new release, but the ’03 produced less than 600 cases.
  • Casa Baranca 2004 Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills (Organic) $30 (“Miles’ Selection” subscribers will see this wine in April shipments!)
    I first tasted this wine at the 2006 Pinot Noir Shootout in March – a blind tasting of 40 Pinots selected from 230+ entrants. My notes said "Likely expensive and highly popular. Opulent, with mouth-watering sweet-tart cherries, pleasantly integrated sweet spices and a touch of gaminess. Nice acidity!" I was pleased to see that this wine was in fact, NOT expensive, as pinot goes! But I do believe my intuition was right about it becoming popular – time will tell. Just 350 cases produced!


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    Quote of the Week:
    "Small and mid-size wineries are driving the changes in California wine. They are the market innovators…"
    Vic Motto, Wine Industry Consultant