Archive for May, 2014


May 28, 2014

With the May long weekend now come and gone, many of us will be heading off to wine country in the next few months to check out our favourite wineries and their new releases.

But before you do, a few tips that will help you make the most of the experience!

The main one is to have at least a general strategy for your day (or days). By that, I mean:
• Are you going to a few specific wineries or just cruising? – This is important because not all wineries are open on the same days, or at all! The last thing you want is to plan your trip around certain destinations, only to turn up and find they are not open. A quick look at the winery’s website can avoid this problem.
• Are you looking to taste/buy specific wines, or just what is available? – The same argument applies here, but even more so! Many wineries don’t pour their best wines, both because they are the most expensive, and made in the lowest quantities. Also, what is available is often driven by the time of year. Early spring is great for newly released white wines, but don’t expect new reds – they come out later in the summer! Again, a quick check of the website (or a phone call) can help.
• Are you going to drink or spit? – No, this is not a disgusting question. If you plan to visit a number of wineries – and taste many of their wines – you should plan on spitting for a couple of reasons. First off, if you don’t, you will need a designated driver! It doesn’t take very long before those “little glasses of wine” build up and make you unsafe to drive. As well, the more you drink, the less you will be able to actually taste. A “drunk” wine taster doesn’t have a lot of skill!

Okay, so you have your strategy. But now you are at the first winery, and there are a range of wines to taste. What do you do?

Well, this is the easier part – taste what you want to taste!

The great thing about tasting at wineries is that you are in control of what you want to taste, particularly since you are probably paying a nominal fee to do so anyway. So don’t feel obligated to taste everything, or the style of wines you don’t like.

You should, however, taste whites before reds (if you are doing both). If you do the opposite, your taste buds may get overwhelmed, making it impossible to taste the more delicate white wines. And leave any sweet wines to the end. The extra sugar will make it very hard to go back to red or white wines!

Finally, what about any expectations about buying a bottle or two? People often ask me that, saying they feel guilty if they don’t buy after tasting. And, to be honest, I experience that as well.

But the best thing to do is – get over it! You know what you like (and don’t like) and what you think is worth buying (and not). Don’t be swayed by guilt or anything else to buy something you don’t want to buy.

The wineries don’t mind, by the way. The cost of the tastings – and the wines involved – is all factored into the overhead of the winery and, ultimately, the cost of the wine. While they certainly appreciate purchases, they will also not be insulted if you don’t buy anything.

Last, but not least, is the most important tip – have fun! Don’t be intimidated by “wine speak” or any “wine snobs”. Wine is supposed to be fun, and wine tasting even more fun. Taste as much as you like, buy if you want, but just have a good time.

Otherwise, why are you there in the first place?



May 21, 2014

I was in a wine store the other day looking for some wine for someone in my wine club. I knew exactly what I wanted – had seen that it was on the store’s website – but it quickly became evident that the wine wasn’t there. So I asked some advice.

And that is what generated the idea for this column.

The salesperson asked only how much I wanted to spend, and then quickly began to rattle off recommendations. She started with the most popular wineries, but they are the ones whose style of wines I don’t like much. When I referenced that, she just looked at me – and kept going. Finally, after a few minutes, I found a way to politely excuse myself from the store.

The point here wasn’t that the salesperson wasn’t trying to be helpful. It was – at least in my opinion – she was giving me the wrong kind of help.

When someone asks for wine advice, the first thing I always ask is – what style of wine do you like? Dry or sweet? Fruity or more herbal/woody? That then can lead me in the direction of wines that I think the person will like.

But what normally happens is the exact opposite. “This winery makes a great Cabernet, that winery makes a great Merlot”…that is what I hear. Nothing about what it tastes like, or whether that matches with what you like to drink.

For me, it is no problem – I know what I like, what is available, and I can just walk away. But for someone who is actually looking for advice, that person can – and usually probably does – walk out with something that he or she won’t like when it is opened.

So why don’t wine salespersons asked the right questions? I haven’t asked, but I bet it is lack of training. Or the fact that the so-called “big wineries” are the easiest to recommend, since they carry name recognition.

But if they really wanted to sell more wine – and have repeat customers – they would ask the simple question about style. And, assuming they knew the products they were selling, that would end up with a happy (and probably repeat) customer.

Last, but not least, is how do you take wine advice, whether you are a wine dweeb like me, or someone actually looking for it?

Politely, of course, is a good answer. It is never a good idea to insult anyone.

But it is also okay to ask questions and reply if what is recommended isn’t something you like. A good salesperson should respond to that (unfortunately mine didn’t in the example above).

The best way to respond to wine advice is the simplest – ask “what does it taste like?”. If the salesperson actually knows, he or she will tell you. If the salesperson doesn’t – or can’t – well, maybe it is time to find a different wine store!



May 14, 2014

I get this question all the time from people. Sometimes because they are intimidated by wine and want to gain confidence; sometimes because they are curious about different kinds of wines; and sometimes because they truly don’t know.

Regardless of the reason behind the question, though, the answers I give them are often quite different than what they expected! I say “answers” because there is more than one way to look at the definition of a good wine!

At the most basic level, the issue should be whether there is anything actually wrong with the wine. By that, I mean is it corked, in which case air has gotten into the bottle and caused the wine to oxidize and go “off”. If that is the case, you can often smell tea or burnt leaves, and taste little fruit flavours, or even vinegar. In the worst cases, this is easy to spot. But, unfortunately, it also happens – a lot – with wines by the glass in restaurants, as bottles have simply had the cork stuck back in them from the night before. I don’t know how many times I send back glasses and ask for a new bottle to be opened!

Another definition of a “good wine’ that I like to use is whether it tastes like the grape varietal – or varietals – that it is made from. This one is much trickier, and takes a lot more experience with wine.

Take Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. Typically, the flavours are black currants, supported by wood (usually oak and cedar). But here the style of the wine also comes into play. If it is Bordeaux style, for example, you will get less fruit and more wood. California and Australia, however, is usually the reverse. It’s not a right or wrong thing, just a question of style.

What I don’t consider “good’, however, is a Cabernet Sauvignon that doesn’t have any of these flavours. No fruit at all, for example, or flavours of strange herbs or spices. Not necessarily “off”, but not recognizable as a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Another answer to “what is a good wine” is the most controversial, because it relates to value. A relative term for sure, but value and “good” do have a relationship. For example, if I taste a wine I like and find out it is reasonably priced – for me, that means in the $20 range – that will influence whether I think it is good or not. Frankly, the cheaper it is, the better I may think it is, and vice versa. In fact, the more expensive it is, the more the chance I may dismiss it because of the lack of value.

The same thing even applies for wines out of my cellar, where I expect to pay more. A ten year old Chateauneuf du Pape that has aged beautifully, for example, is “good” if I paid $40 – $50 when I bought it. But if I taste one that was more expensive – but not any better – then I won’t think it is as good.

Last, and certainly not least, is that a good wine is a wine you think is good! Sounds simplistic, but it is a riff on something that a wine educator once told me – the best wine is the wine you like the best. In fact, you can throw out all of the above and just use this answer. Find a wine you like, and stick with it!


Naramata Bench Spring Release 2014 – More Great Wines Coming!

May 7, 2014

Last weekend the Naramata Bench Wineries Association was in town for its Annual Spring Release events. Held at the Four Seasons, both the Trade/Media event — and the public ‘Wine for Waves’ fundraising event in support of the Vancouver Aquarium – were very well done and provided a good glimpse into the new 2012 and 2013 wines (as well as an update on some of the 2011s).

I tweeted out most of my tasting notes, so won’t repeat them here. Instead, I will provide my overall thoughts.

The Vintages – 2013 whites and roses were very good, very ripe. That bodes well for the reds to come. The late released ‘12s were also very nice, although the ’11s were more of a mixed bag (but that was a tough vintage).

Best Overall Winery – LA Frenz No change here, and probably no surprise for those who follow BC wines. All 9 wines I tasted (3 reds, 5 whites, 1 sweet) were fabulous. Interestingly, LA Frenz was just awarded ‘Best Small Winery in North America’, and they once again showed why!

Best Surprises – Perseus Winery and Moraine. I knew about the former’s Merlot, but the Syrah and Cabernet Shiraz were also great. And all their wines are < $20. Moraine I had never tried before, but really liked their Malbec and Syrah.

Biggest Disappointments – I won't 'name names', but still too many wineries trying to make the 'big red wine'. End result is still huge wood and tannin, little or no fruit, big prices.

Best Reds Two of them were 2011s – the La Frenz Cabernet Sauvignon and the Laughing Stock Portfolio and Syrah. Amazingly ripe for the vintage, they were a joy to drink now but had 3 – 5 years in them. La Frenz wins on price ($28 vs $42 and $36 respectively at Laughing Stock). The best 2012s I tasted were the La Frenz regular and reserve Pinot Noirs (both super ripe black cherries, earth and spice), Perseus Syrah and Cabernet-Shiraz (the former a Rhone clone, with black pepper and cherries, the latter like an Aussie Shiraz; both $19.99!) and Moraine's Syrah and Malbec (both more fruit than wood, $23.50). Finally, Lang's '13 Marechal Foch was a revelation! Explosively ripe for a Foch, with meaty, berry flavours.

Best Roses Hillside and Monster were the best in the slightly off dry style (which I like the best). And kudos for pricing them at about $16.

Best Whites For new releases, I loved the '13s from La Frenz (Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier) and '12 Reserve Chardonnay. The former are super ripe but dry, bang on varietally, and stayed at $22 (but worth $5 – $10 more). The latter is a Beringer Reserve clone, with ripe, lush butterscotch citrus – at $29 it is less than half the price of its US cousin. Same with Howling Bluff's '13s, the Semillon (a new bottling) and Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc. The latter, in particular, is an amazing wine and together with the Pinot Gris (to be released in a few weeks) may be the best white wine bargains in BC. Finally, Poplar Grove's regular Chardonnay is nice Cali style wine for < $21.

Sweet – I ended the night with La Frenz's latest NV Tawny Port, and it was as gorgeous as ever.

In summary, another great event! Kudos to Tina Baird at the Society and the Four Seasons for hosting.