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So You Want To Get Into the Wine Business? (How to Be a Wine Geek, Part IV: Interview with a Wine Retailer)

Vinted on May 2, 2008 binned in wine buying, wine how to
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HiYa! If you're new here, you may want to Sign Up to get all the latest wine coolness delivered to your virtual doorstep. I've also got short, easily-digestible mini wine reviews and some educational, entertaining wine vids. If you're looking to up your wine tasting IQ, check out my book How to Taste Like a Wine Geek: A practical guide to tasting, enjoying, and learning about the world's greatest beverage. Cheers!


Welcome to the next installment in the “How to Be a Wine Geek” series here at www.1Winedude.com!

Many wine lovers have toyed with the idea of one day breaking into the wine biz. That’s not just trying to jump into perceived (and relatively false) romantic cache factor of workin’ the vineyard and making wine. Some would like to take a different approach to turning their hobby into their livelihood – in a way that doesn’t involve the potential to run into farm animals on a daily basis.

I thought it would be enlightening to get a view on what it’s like to turn wine passion into wine profession. So I asked someone who has done it. Jill Bernheimer, owner of the on-line wine store and blog Domaine547, kindly agreed to give us her thoughts on ‘life behind the bottle’.

Jill has been featured in Entrepreneur magazine, and has garnered a reputation among the wine blogging community as someone who is not afraid to speak her mind. Another way of putting it, is that she’s not afraid to say publicly what the rest of us are thinking provately (thanks, Jill!).

Jill recently advised her customers to buy one of her wines from a competitor because it was able to offer a lower price than she could – an act that earned her mad props in the on-line community (and no doubt increased customer loyalty).

The interview results are a great insight into life in the wine industry. Enjoy…

1WD: Tell us a bit about your business. How did you get started? What made you chose to get into the wine biz?

Jill: I run a little wine shop that happens to be online only. It’s called domaine547, and the focus is on…well, on wines I like. I personally taste 98% of the wines that I bring in, and that way I can sell them without any hesitation.

The website itself is a bit curious, because the way you enter the store is through a blog… some people may not even realize there’s a store, but that’s intentional. I’m a soft-sell kind of gal, and I don’t want anybody to feel like anything is being forced upon them. If people discover the store, and if people want to shop there… then great.

1WD: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your business?

Jill: When I started the business just over a year ago, I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert on wine. That’s not to say I was without qualifications – I had my Intermediate certificate from the WSET, and lots of experience traveling, reading and drinking wine (and a moonlighting gig at a local wine shop). But my attitude and approach was as an enthusiast discovering wine alongside my customers and my readers.

I think the most rewarding thing is that, even with hundreds of more wines tasted, and much more knowledge about wine and experience in the wine business, my attitude has stayed pretty much the same: I’m like a kid in a candy store, just as excited about wine as I was when I made the transition from hobbyist to working in the trade. Of course, getting to taste wine everyday and meeting producers is great as well.

1WD: What’s the biggest P.I.T.A. about your business?

Jill: Shipping. On all levels…my hands are riddled with paper cuts from packing orders, and my head hurts from the intricacies of interstate alcohol shipping restrictions.

1WD: How do inter/intra-state wine laws impact your business?

Ugh. How do they NOT impact my business? There are lots of folks who say they’d order from me if it were legal, so I’d have to say that my volume is affected directly. Whether or not they’re just saying that? Well, I guess I won’t know until the laws change…

1WD: Beatles or Stones?

Jill: Hmmm, that’s a bit of a narrow world view. [Editors note: well, it is my blog, after all!]. But I’d have to go with Beatles more often than not, with the occasional Ruby Tuesday moment.

1WD: What’s the best wine & food combo that you’ve come across?

Jill: Sottocenere cheese with a Barbera d’Alba. This is going to sound pretentious, but they taste like they have some terroir in common. The cheese is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese infused with truffles and with an ash rind containing cinnamon and nutmeg spices. [Editors note: drooling is permitted.]

1WD: What’s your favorite wine in your portfolio?

Jill: Without a doubt, the Rafael Palacios “As Sortes” Godello. It’s steep for a Spanish white – it crept up from about $32 in the 2005 vintage to $46 for the 2006. But it’s so good. A hint of lemon, nutiness, some wet stones, ever so slight oak, and some tingle on the tongue without the acidity hitting you over the head. Really delicious. I’d compare it to a Grand Cru Chablis, and from that perspective it’s much more reasonably priced. Funny thing is, I’m much more of a red wine drinker than a white wine drinker, but there is no hesitation with this response.

1WD: How many times gave you seen the film The Big Lebowski?

Jill: I’ve seen it from start to finish only a couple of times, but I’ve seen it in snippets many more. Favorite quote is definitely “I don’t roll on Shabbas.”

1WD: Where do you turn for help and inspiration? Any Trade publications, Blogs, web resources, support groups or Therapists you find particularly helpful?

Jill: I have RSS feeds to more than fifty wine blogs, but I’ve been falling behind on my reading lately. I have learned a tremendous amount from blogs like yours, Good Wine Under $20, Catavino, Good Grape, Wannabewino, Catie at Walla Walla…too many to really mention. I do enjoy Twitter more than other community web resources as it offers me a chance to talk with all of the aforementioned (except Jeff who refuses to tweet) in a more Instant Message, conversational mode.

1WD: Exactly how much does the band Rush totally rock?

Jill: Would you believe me if I told you I got “Exit, Stage Left” [Editor's note: Dude's all-time favorite album!!!] as my Afikomen prize when I was in the 3rd grade or so? I loved Tom Sawyer. But it pretty much started and ended there (and with the Geddy Lee collaboration with Bob and Doug McKenzie) [Editor's note: "Hey, 10 bucks is 10 bucks..."].

1WD: Any advice for budding wine enthusiasts?

Jill: Taste early and taste often.

1WD: Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Jill! One final question – Do these pants make me look fat?

Jill: There’s pretty much no right answer to this one! [Editor's note: I'm sorry... that answer is incorrect. The correct answer is "No, you look great! Did you cut your bangs?" But thanks for playing!]

Cheers!

What Makes a Wine Great? Maybe Not What You Think!

Vinted on April 30, 2008 binned in commentary, winemaking, zen wine

What makes a wine great?

I don’t mean great as in “pretty tasty, I like it, it’s got a nice beat and I can dance to it” great.

I mean eye-popping, life-changing, “the heavens opened ancient mythology style” great.

That’s a tough question, even for those of us in the wine biz, because so few of us have actually tasted a truly great wine.

I’m going to give you my view of what makes a wine great – and it’s probably not what you’d think.

But before I do that, I need to set the record straight about how I think greatness is judged in the first place…

Winemaking is more art than science. If you disagree with me on this one, then I invite you to read my previous post on the subject.

If you still disagree with me, then you might want to skip the rest of this article entirely, because the rest of this post will be drawing parallels between winemaking and art. For those of you who couldn’t stand art class, I apologize in advance!

Personal preference doesn’t matter. I don’t like pilsner beer. Does that mean that all pilsners are no good, or that they can never achieve greatness? I love the works of Picasso. Does that mean all of Picasso’s art is great? When you stop to think about it, it’s obvious that greatness has nothing to do with any one individual’s personal preferences (not matter how highly that individual might regard his/her own opinion…).

The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt seem watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates.

Collective preference does matter. The collective consciousness of a given society and its era in time does matter when it comes to greatness. This is borne out time and time again in art history – and in the annals of wine history as well. If you flip through the pages of Ancient Wine, or the superb Story of Wine, you will learn that the wine of the ancient Greeks and Romans likely would be too cloyingly sweet for our tastes today. The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt have seemed watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates. Times make the society; and societies make the collective decision on greatness.

Material matters – but not that much. Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different? Probably not. In wine, while some grapes (such as Concord) may never make truly great wine, it’s pure folly to discount any one of the “noble” grape varieties when it comes to greatness – all of them are capable of making a great wine. Unless you mixed them altogether. That would probably suck.

Is a Picasso painting “greater” than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different?

Nature matters – and so does nurture. Old World winemakers will tell you that terroir – the nature and place from whence a grape came – is the determinant of whether or not the resulting wine can be great; the winemaker’s job is to interfere as little as possible with the natural process. New World winemakers will tell you that it is trough savvy vineyard practices and the use of modern technology in the wine cellar that greatness is achieved. They’re both right – start with a great pedigree, and finish with great care, and a wine may just achieve greatness.

So how can we measure a wine’s “greatness?”

In The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil offers 5 criteria that can be used to determine if a wine is great. Her take is as good as any other, so I’ll share a synopsis of it here:

  1. Distinct varietal character - a wine exemplifies the true characteristics of its grape(s)
  2. Integration – the wine’s components (alcohol, acidity, fruit, etc.) are harmonious
  3. Expressiveness – the aromas & flavors are clear & focused
  4. Complexity – like an artwork, the wine keeps you coming back, discovering more nuances each time
  5. Connectedness – the wine embodies qualities that link it to the specific place where it was made.

Not a bad list at all. I think it’s missing an important element, however. To me, the most important.

So I’d like to add something to Karen’s fantastic list: Great wine is like great art, or a peaceful meditation, or even a great life lived to its potential with humility and true grace.

Great wine is a Mystery.

By mystery, I don’t mean a problem to be rectified, a secret to be revealed, or a puzzle to be solved. I mean a Mystery like the seat of human consciousness in the brain, the origin of life, the feeling of love, and the nature of pure being.

Great wine is a true Mystery, because it is greater than the sum of its parts in a way that synthesizes our mental, physical, and spiritual selves; connecting us to ourselves, to each other, and to a place and time, and to the earth. The greater the wine, the less likely it is that any words will be capable of adequately describing the experience.


Great wine is a tiny miracle of the universe that cannot ever be fully explained.


Now, before you all start sending me lava lamps, crystals, or patchouli, remember the words of Albert Einstein – “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.

Which one would you pick?

Cheers!

(images: winefront.com.au, clevelandart.org, restaurantlacaravella.com, macedonian-heritage.gr)

Book Review: Noble Rot (A Bordeaux Wine Revolution)

Vinted on April 28, 2008 binned in wine books

Book Review – Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution by William Echikson

“…the soil of Yquem is like that of a Stradivarius”
- Lur Saluces

The second edition of the on-line Wine Book Club is being hosted by Tim over at the venerable Winecast.net blog. For more information on the WBC, or to jump on in and participate yourself in a book review, check out the official Wine Book Club website and the the Shelfari WBC reader group.

This time around, Tim has chosen Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution by William Echikson. The book is not short on accolades, having been a James Beard Foundation Award finalist. Echikson is also no slouch of a writer, having worked for Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and written a handful of other well-received books (on wine and other topics).

The Low Down
Noble Rot centers (for the most part) on the history (ancient and recent) of Chateau Yquem, the Sauternes-based makers of some of the sweetest, most expensive, and most intoxicating elixirs known to winemaking…


Similar to Hungary’s famous Tokaji, the sweet wines of Sauternes receive their special magic by virtue of the fungus Botrytis cinearea (aka noble rot). The fungus draws out the water and concentrates the juice left in the grapes while on the vine, and also imparts exotic hints of yeast to the final ultra-sweet wine. High in acidity and sugars, the wines of Yquem are typically capable of aging for decades, if not hundreds of years, while still retaining sweetness and fruity complexity.

Nature doesn’t always cooperate to provide the right environment year-on-year for noble rot – so sweet Yquem is not always produced in every vintage, and grape selection is a laborious (and therefore expensive) process.

[ On a side note, I've often wondered who the first poor schlep was that decided to ferment the grapes affected by Botrytis. Like lobster, there is nothing appetizing about their appearance; that person must have been really, really desperate at the time - "I don't give a sh*t what they look like - throw them into the vat!"... ]

The result is an ultra-expensive, ultra-complex wine, from a Chateau with extreme cache factor (having been run by a single family of nobility for generations). Even at restaurants where it’s offered, Yquem doesn’t always make it onto the wine list.

With a big spender who doesn’t know anything about wine, putting a bottle of Château d’Yquem on the table is like giving a Porsche to a 16-year-old.” – Aaron Brown, Sommelier of L.A.’s Ortolan restaurant.

The term “noble rot” could also be applied to the nasty struggle for power within the ranks of Yquem itself, to which Echikson devotes a good portion of the book.

Most interesting for me in Noble Rot was how Echikson skillfully details the work ethic of love-him-or-hate-him wine critic Robert Parker. It’s fascinating to watch how a small parcel of Right Bank Bordeaux land, modern winemaking techniques, and a rising Parker score can take a Bordeaux family from near-poverty conditions to fame and fortune (as was the case for the makers of Valandraud), culminating in bad blood between business relations. As Jacques Thienpont (the force behind the similarly meteoric Le Pin) says in Noble Rot: “Life is like a river… You follow it and it takes you on a strange course.” Some stranger than others, no doubt.

Buy It or Skip It?
This is a tough call for me. The book is certainly well-written. But I struggled to understand the best audience to appreciate what the book has to offer. If you can put yourself in one (or more) of the following categories, then you’re liable to love Noble Rot and should probably buy it as soon as possible:
a) You love you some Bordeaux wine
b) You prefer your history shaken, & with a twist of gossip
c) You are in the wine industry.

Otherwise, you may enjoy it as a decent read – or you may wonder what all the fuss is about and why Echikson is spending so much time dealing with stuffy old EU nobles fighting each other over stylistic differences and the merits of class. “Just pass the damn Le Pin already!” you may find yourself shouting. So, I hesitate to recommend this book to the casual wine aficionado – there are more accessible (and equally interesting) reads out there for the budding wine lover.

I struggled to understand the best audience to appreciate what the book has to offer.

Lur Saluces (who heads Yquem) has said that “Yquem basically belongs to those whom love it and no matter from whence they come… it belongs to its admirers.”

In other words, it’s not for everybody. And neither is Noble Rot.

Cheers!

(images: amazon.com, antique-wine.com, och.free.fr)

Pouring Wine for One of The Greats (Guest Post)

Vinted on April 25, 2008 binned in guest posts

(images: allposters.com, ladv.org, vroma.org)

The following is a guest post from Jason Whiteside. Jason was previously a Sommelier & Wine Consultant on the Dutch/French Island of St. Martin, and was the original Wine Director of Cosimo Wine Bar in Malvern, PA. He is part of the Wine Educator staff at ChaddsFord Winery, and holds the Level 3 Advanced Certificate in Wine & Spirits (with Distinction) from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. He is a member of the Society of Wine Educators, holding their Certified Specialist of Wine qualification. Most importantly, he is my partner in crime over at 2WineDudes!


Lloyd Flatt’s Last Party

On February 22nd, a memorial party was held to celebrate the life of Lloyd Flatt. He was a very successful aerospace designer/consultant, and at one time had one of the largest wine collections in the world. His cellar and his wine buying strategies were the subject of an article in Wine Spectator. The wine parties he hosted were legendary, like the tasting of 115 different years of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, starting with the 1784 vintage. The wine world lost a major player and a great man when he passed away on January 29th.

I am by no means trying to write his obituary. One was published in Wine Spectator Online, and you can read it here if you would like. I never had the pleasure of knowing the man, never attended any of his lavish parties, except for the very last one that was held in his honor.

A friend of his family asked if I would help pour wine at his memorial party, held at the Belle Haven Country club in Alexandria, VA I was honored to be asked and I quickly agreed. My role was simple enough; I would be pouring wine for 200 guests, from special Imperial bottles (6 liters, or equivalent to 8 standard bottles) from Mr. Flatt’s extraordinary and world famous collection…

Serving wine from bottles of that size and with considerable age presents its own set of challenges. The bottles are heavy and cumbersome, they have oversized, aged corks (which are every bit as finicky as regular-sized, old corks), and these wines were full of sediment. Days before the party I felt anxiety creep over me; I had been entrusted with some extraordinarily valuable wine and I wanted the service to go perfectly. I called on a friend, Melissa Monosoff, DWS, the newly appointed Sommelier for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who supported me with guidance and reassurance. Then the big evening arrived.

The first wine of the night was the famed second growth, Chateau Gruaud-Larose, from 1979. The wine was delicate, and had an elegant perfume, though I couldn’t help but think it was slightly on the decline. The second wine was a Pomerol, a 1994 L’Eglise Clinet. Wine in large format bottles age more slowly than wine in standard bottles, and this wine was still had the tannic tightness of youth. Over time, it softened a bit, revealing a concentrated nose of red fruits, but I couldn’t help thinking that this wine was opened slightly ahead of it’s time.

“Early on, this was the best Bordeaux I have ever tasted.”

The really famous wines were served next. 1981 Lafite-Rothschild was pure Burgundy-like finesse; red currants, sour cherries, and powdered minerals exploded out of the glass, the acidity was refreshing and pure and the finish seemed to go on for moments. Next was the 1981 Mouton-Rothschild. This was the first cork to give me serious trouble. The worm of my corkscrew pulled straight through the crumbly middle, without the cork moving at all. I saved myself with an ‘Ah-so’ opener, and all was well. In my opinion, this was the wine of the night. This wine was fully developed, yet it still had a powerful concentration of fruit, spiced up by secondary aromas of cedar, leather, and sandalwood. If there was a downside to this wine, it was only that it seemed to fade a little faster than the others. But early on, this was the best Bordeaux I have ever tasted.

Next was a famous Third Growth from Margaux, Chateaux Palmer 1981. At this point in the evening there was a large crowd around me, and the Palmer cork refused to cooperate. It was a planked cork, which meant it was actually three separate pieces of cork bonded together to make one large piece, and it didn’t hold up. Countless guests watched as this ‘wine expert’ they brought in especially for the party pulverized the brittle cork. Ultimately, I did extract the largest remaining piece with my trusted ‘Ah-so,’ to a small applause. Many people called this as the wine of the night (although I think these people just waited too long to try the Mouton). It possessed the elegance of the Lafite, along with a sweet spice and cherry fruitiness, like red licorice. It was certainly my second favorite wine of the evening.

Lastly, we returned from where we had started: back to Chateau Gruaud-Larose, although this time the vintage was 1989. Much more youthful than the ’79 we started with, I found this wine to be still developing. It was in a strange phase, at once enjoyable to drink but somehow slightly disjointed. If you own an Imperial of ’89 Cht. Gruaud-Larose, I’d suggest giving it another 5 years or so before you open it.


“If somehow I represent a new generation of oenophile (with point scores, the internet, and countless books at our disposal), then I feel very privileged to have participated in celebrating the life of a man who was in a class of his own in a different generation.”

The official party ended around 8PM. There were more wines from the collection that were going to be tasted at an after-party in a suite at a nearby hotel. I was invited to go, and part of me wanted to (they were opening a Methuselah of Montrachet, among others), but I chose not to. This man’s family and friends were as much grieving as they were celebrating, and even though his son had invited me to the after-party, I still felt like too much of an outsider to attend.

I felt the need to write this down, as it will probably always stand out in my life’s lists of awe-inspiring wine events. Both the wines I got to try and the stories I heard bridged me to a different time; a time in which people threw top-hat parties and danced to bands and sipped on the finest wines in the world. If somehow I represent a new generation of oenophile (with point scores, the internet, and countless books at our disposal), then I feel very privileged to have participated in celebrating the life of a man who was in a class of his own in a different generation. He collected wine the hard way, using his own palate and judgment, and by all accounts he shared his collection graciously. I feel privileged to have brushed up against his life, even though he was already gone.

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