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Georgia (Sangiovese) On My Mind (Dispatch From The 2014 Critics Challenge)

Vinted on June 26, 2014 binned in crowd pleaser wines, kick-ass wines, on the road, wine review

No, you didn’t see one of these selections coming, okay?

Don’t even try it. No one, least of all me, would buy it for even a second.

This Summer, I once again had the pleasure of judging at the Critics Challenge in (stay classy) San Diego, my second stint as a judge there. A more well-executed U.S. wine competition you’re unlikely to encounter, and the judging panels boast some impressive collective credentials. Before I get into the two most memorable (for me) wines coming out of this year’s incarnation of the event (full results are here), I should give you a quick primer on how Critics Challenge works.

The judges are paid (well… duh), and for two days each is given a series of wine flights organized by category and tasted blind (residual sugar, grape variety, and category are known, in some cases vintage as well). The judges work in pairs, awarding (or denying) medals as they deem appropriate, and each wine is officially awarded the highest of the two medals determined by the pair of judges. The assumption, of course, is that as judges we all know what the hell we’re doing.

For 2014, I was fortunate enough to be paired of with writer and educator Deb Parker Wong, someone for whom the term “consummate professional” was invented, and a judge with a methodically brilliant tasting approach. I’ll stop here before this turns into a Deb valentine, but I feel compelled to add that Deb also possesses the rare and uncanny ability to double the elegance quotient of any room into which she walks (since I possess the equally rare and uncanny ability to halve a room’s elegance quotient, our judging table vicinity essentially remained elegance neutral)…

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Obscure Grapes, Dry British Humor, And Not-So-Dry Weather (Tasting And Recording At Philly’s Jet Wine Bar)

Vinted on June 12, 2014 binned in 1WineDude Radio, crowd pleaser wines, wine review

On a (very, very, monsoon-season-like) wet day in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, I spent some time in the basement of Philly’s Jet Wine Bar on South Street, being interviewed for a podcast by owner (and archeologist – she was about to embark on a multi-stop tour taking her to Italy, Scotland, and Iraq) Jill Weber and Brit-turned-PA-local Philip Silverstone.

We had a good time, recording two shows that you should now be able to check out now over at Phil’s website, talking wine and my first booze love, craft beer. The wine portion is embedded below for your listening convenience, peeps. The Time Out With Phillip Silverstone show can be heard anytime and anywhere worldwide via the free TuneIn Radio app or at TuneIn.com (search for Phillip Silverstone)

Jet is a freakin’ cool, cool place for a wine geek. Jill prides herself on championing the obscure, and it is for sure the obscure that gets championed at Jet. Let me put it this way: when I visited, some of the more recognizable grape variety names on her list were Ribolla Gialla, Trebbiano, and Bonarda. She had included selections from Morocco and Turkey. It was a wine geek’s wet dream, in multiple senses of the phrase. The food at Jet is also pretty tasty, so if you’re South Street bound and want a break from hoagies, beer and cheesesteaks, you’d do well to check it out.

Talking Wine on Time Out With Phillip Silverstone

Jill pulled out a few interesting selections for us to taste during recording that day, and I’d like to introduce you to each of those, all of which run about $15 a pop (suck it, you Joe-only-reviews-crazy-expensive-wines whiney-pants complainers!)…

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There’s A Wild Man In My Head (Cayuse Recent Releases)

Vinted on June 5, 2014 binned in elegant wines, kick-ass wines, on the road, wine review

“And I’m
Not sorry for
The things I’ve said
There’s a wild man in my head
There’s a wild man
In my head”

- Morrissey, “I’m Not Sorry”

Christophe Baron, the short, edgy, high-energy force behind Walla Walla’s controversial Cayuse, is sniffing dirt. And – in a very thick French accent that betrays his Charly-sur-Marne heritage and belies his nearly twenty-year stint in the Pacific Northwest – he’s imploring me to do the same.

“C’mon! You’ve come all this way to Cayuse! You’ve got to SMELL IT!!!”

Just moments before, a burly and beautiful Belgian draft horse was turning over this soil (in a vineyard named, for obvious reasons, “Horse Power”), so I am less than totally enthusiastic about the possibility of getting horse shit up my nostrils. But this guy’s energy is such that he makes me seem calm, so I acquiesce (as if I had a choice). These newer plantings were “designed for the horse,” Baron explains, with three-feet between the rows. “With the horse, you can’t rush it, you can’t force it. But the texture of the soil is like couscous… This is the reason why I’m here.”

Spend any appreciable time with Baron and you will not only sniff horse-powered dirt, you will hear impassioned proclamations such as “I am not a winemaker;” “Let’s all take off our clothes and get naked;” “There are a lot of things about Biodynamics you cannot quantify… you cannot quantify the smile on a beautiful woman;” “I’m like a dealer, I sell pleasure… liquid pleeeeeasuuuuuure;” and “no pictures on Facebook!” not all of which you might fully understand or be able to distinguish as serious or jovial.

But there’s one thing that is easy to understand: why Baron’s wines are controversial. Garnering stratospheric scores from The Wine Advocate and skyrocketing in secondary market prices after release, Cayuse offerings can be stunning, odd takes on Rhone-styled reds; often demanding, beguiling, and off-putting all at the same time. If you’ve ever watched a movie – or read a novel – that seems brilliant but has disturbing scenes in it, the kind of scenes that haunt you later but without which the central themes of the work wouldn’t be nearly as powerful, then you’ve got an idea of what it’s like to come face to face with Cayuse’s juice.

To understand these take-no-prisoners wines, you need to understand the background of the take-no-prisoners Baron, and Walla Walla’s take-no-prisoners geographical landscape…

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Enthralled With Pinot Noir (Thralls Family Cellars Recent Releases)

Vinted on May 29, 2014 binned in elegant wines, overachiever wines, wine review

It’s funny (as in “refreshingly interesting,” and not as in “ha-ha, I almost peed my pants!” or “ewww, well… that’s weird) how success in the wine business keeps getting redefined and reinvented.

To wit: by now, we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re seeing wine lovers migrate from the online wine world into viable writing and winemaking careers, but for whatever reason the Hardy-Wallace-type stories still seem oddly out of place in the wine biz. Oh, wait, it’s for “whatever” reason; the reason is that the wine world is still woefully behind on understanding that the online world is populated by actual human beings with actual passions, talents, and funding. Okay, whatever.

We can add another online-wine-wonk-to-promising-offline-wine-producer story to that growing lineup: that of Ed Thralls, who recently sent me samples of his personal project, Thralls Family Cellars.

A refugee from the east-coast (Atlanta) financial tech industry, Thralls was blogging and tweeting at the handle @WineTonite for some time, all the while building up real-world wine chops through an internship at Holdredge Wines, a stint in the Viticulture & Enology program at UC-Davis, and completion of the Certified Specialist of Wine qualification.

The result of Ed’s foray into personal wine branding is tiny quantities of Pinot Noir juice crafted from grapes purchased from interesting spots in Northern California, with an eye towards clonal selection, light use of new French oak, dollops of whole cluster and unfiltered processing, and generally trying to get the results under 14% abv. It’s Pinot that is promising – and elegant – enough that Thralls’ efforts probably ought to be considered for a seat at the “cool kids” table of In Pursuit Of Balance (and similar modern temples to the anti-largeness Pinot crowd; hey, I’m not complaining, I dig both styles)…

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