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Big House Wines

Date: Mon, Oct 26, 2009 Wine Tasting

Not sure why, but ever since moving to California, I've been attached to Big House Wines. Maybe it's the name. Maybe the interesting labels and graphics. Maybe the great pricing. Who knows. What I do know is that I've kept them on my list of wines to pick up when they're released and that list is pretty short for wine in the $10 or less category (I depend a lot on my friend Jason over at Jason's Wine Blog to let me know what's good in the $5 - $10 category).

Three wines from Big House today - the Pink, the White and the Red.

2008 Big House Pink
The usual caveat here - not a fan of pink wine (unless it's the Domaine Tempier or Blackbird Vineyards Arriviste) so keep that in mind. Overall, not too bad. Lots of strawberries, minerals and a touch of pear, this one is a very smooth, easy drinker. Not a bad Rosé, actually, especially for the price of $8.

Ken's Wine Guide has this to say about it: This very affordable bright strawberry colored wine opens with a mild cherry bouquet. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied and balanced. The flavor profile is a mineral infused spicy strawberry. The finish is dry and subtle. This easy to drink wine is very refreshing. It would be a good option on a hot summer day. Pair it with pork chop.

What you should do: Buy it, if you like

My rating: 85

2008 Big House White
Hadn't tried the Big House White until this tasting and although it's not the best white I've ever had, it's quite nice. A good blend of peach, pear and apricot, with mid-level acidity (but not as much as I expected). I found it to be a little hot on the finish, but the colder I tasted it, the less I picked up the alcohol, making this one reserved only for summer, straight out of the fridge or cooler.

Ken's Wine Guide says this: If you like refreshing summer white wines that have some ripe fruit flavors, then this white blend may be the wine for you. It opens with a very attractive and aromatic floral bouquet. On the palate, this wine is medium bodied, balanced, and shows a touch of sweetness. The flavor profile is a pleasant blend of ripe peach with hints of pear, light lime, and lychee. Overall it was very tasty. The finish is very refreshing. This very affordable white wine was my favorite from the Big House lineup. Enjoy it chilled this summer by the pool.

What you should do: Buy it. At $10, it's hard to lose on the Big House White. But, I would serve it nicely chilled, so that the alcohol doesn't come out to bite you.

My rating: 86

2007 Big House Red
This was the first Big House I tasted - the red. 4 years ago, I was impressed with the wine, something that stood out for under $10 and showed some complexity that I did not expect. Cherry, raspberry, vanilla and white pepper are all major players in this wine. Some heat on the back end, but not too much to make it unbearable. The acidity is just right and is what brings this wine to life. Definitely a good weekday burger or pizza wine.

Big House Wines has this to say about it: Each variety selected for this blend brings its individual characters and distinct personality: spiciness from the Syrah, cherry and raspberries from the Sangiovese and Barbera, blueberries from the Tannat, cassis from the Grenache and chocolate from Mourvèdre. A wonderful mix of the best each variety has to offer.

What you should do: Buy it. A great value at $9, this will no disappoint.

My rating: 87

NOTE: the Big House Wines were sent to me as a sample from the winery.

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Tandem Wines Chardonnay

Date: Sat, Oct 24, 2009 Wine Tasting

I was first introduced to Tandem Wines at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Napa this summer. At the time, I felt like they presented some very strong white wines, particularly the 2006 Tandem Manchester Ridge Chardonnay. After tasting wines for about two hours, it's often hard for one to shine through and make an impression on your palate, but this one did. Definitely one of the better whites at the conference.

So, when I received two new Chardonnay's from Tandem Wines a while back, I was excited to try them.

The first was the 2006 Tandem Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley. On the nose, I picked up grass, pear, minerals and copper. The nose was also reminiscent of an indoor swimming pool covered in lemon and honey. Now, that may sound gross to some of you and just flat out indecipherable to others, but, for me, a kid who grew up in swimming pools, it's always a little nostalgic to pick up a swimming pool smell. In the mouth, some vanilla, oak, lemon, sweet grapefruit and honey. This was a nice Chardonnay, with good acidity (just enough to balance the richness of the vanilla and oak) and a smooth, buttery finish.

Wine Spectator has this to say about it: Sleek, with a trim, modest band of citrus and pear notes shaded by toasty, creamy oak. Gains complexity on the finish. Drink now through 2011. 87

The second wine was the 2006 Tandem Sangiacamo Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley. A first, I thought I had accidentally poured from the same bottle, as it wasn't that much different than the Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay. Still lots of pear and grass, with a touch of peach - not as much swimming pool, but, still, remarkably similar to the Ritchie. I went back and checked the bottles and it was indeed the Sangiacamo that I had poured,, so, given that I tried both relatively quickly after pulling them from the refrigerator, I decided to let them sit a little and see if they showed some different colors.

It was then that the Sangiacamo started to shine. It showed many of the same characteristics as the Ritchie, but displayed a richness that I hadn't tasted 15 minutes earlier, a kind of mellow sweetness. Not like the sweetness of a sweet wine, but more of a just-ripe fig or date-type sweetness. And, again, not too much, but just enough to balance the fruits and compliment the acidity nicely.

Wine Spectator has this to say about it: Intense and richly flavored, with tiers of honey, fig, melon and citrus flavors that turn elegant and spicy, gaining complexity on the finish, where the flavors fold together nicely. Drink now through 2011. 90

Bottom line is that these are both good, solid Chardonnays in their own right and I would definitely buy the Sangiacamo as it displays a bit more complexity than the Ritchie. That said, the 2006 Tandem Manchester Ridge Chardonnay Mendocino still haunts me from last summer. Not sure if it was the atmosphere of the Wine Bloggers Conference or the two hours of tasting that preceded the Manchester Ridge, but there was something about that wine that still stays with me.

What you should do: Tandem is doing some cool things and their winemaker - Greg LaFollete - is a strong one (look for a post on one of his Pinot Noirs coming soon). Pick up a bottle of anything they make if you can - it's definitely worth a try. And, they make enough varietals that you'll be able to experiment should they be to your taste.

My ratings: Ritchie: 87; Sangiacamo: 89

NOTE: the Tandem wines were sent to me as a sample from the winery.

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Caymus Vineyards 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Date: Mon, Oct 19, 2009 Wine Tasting

It's been a while since the last time I posted on this blog. Nothing intentional or even writer's block, just life throwing some very busy moments at me. But, the blog is something I do because I enjoy it, so am glad to be back at it.

And what a wine to start back with...the 2007 Caymus Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It's odd having lived in San Francisco for 4 years, but I've never tasted Caymus wine. A friend gave my wife and I a bottle of the 2000 Reserve Cabernet and we have yet to open it, saving it for a special occasion somewhere down the road. I've always heard good things and have wanted to try it, but somehow it just fell further down on my list than some others.

The good news is that this wine definitely delivers on what I've heard. It's a big, aromatic California Cabernet, with so many interesting elements. Over a period of about 15 minutes I picked up blackberry, chocolate, coffee, dark cherry, paprika and herbs on the nose. So many good things, it's hard to list them all. In the mouth, it's just as extravagant, but without as many spice and herb notes, mostly cherry, plum, dark berries and espresso. It's a 15% alcohol wine, but, even at that high level, it's an incredibly well balanced wine with very firm tannins, mild but good acidity and an incredibly long finish. Definitely still a little young, but deserving of the Caymus name. This is a fabulous wine and should have the stamina to peak at about 5 - 7 years...just decant it if you want to enjoy it now.

Wine Spectator has this to say about it: Ripe and fleshy, with rich plum, wild berry, spice and savory herb notes that are complex, full-bodied and expansive on the palate, ending with firm tannins and a dash of espresso. Drink now through 2016.

Gary Vaynerchuk also just recently had the 2007 Caymus on his show at Wine Library TV Episode #749. Gary's dad is on the video as well, which always turns up some funny moments.

What you should do: Buy it. This juice isn't cheap at about $60 a bottle, but that's what you can expect from Caymus at this point. What I will say is that Caymus is a very trusted name and if you're going to drop that kind of money on a bottle of wine, then this is one of the most tried and true brands in California.

My rating: 93, between Wine Spectator and Gary and his dad.

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Tips for winery tasting rooms - on my soapbox

Date: Fri, Sep 25, 2009 Wine Tasting

I've been in Napa the last few days and have visited a few tasting rooms. Some of those experiences were good, some very bland and a couple just plain miserable. Not miserable because I ended up with a bus-ful of tourists in pleated Khaki shorts and sock-less loafers, who ask far too many, well, not so profound questions, but miserable because of the way the tasting room staff approached me and my tasting experience.

Now, I have been privileged in my tastings - blogging does allow you access to some pretty cool experiences - so I may be tainted, but there is a base level of customer service that should be embraced by all wineries. For example, please do not do the following (all of this happened at one Napa winery, but I have chosen to exclude the name - it doesn't happen everywhere, but these things have happened enough that it's not just one winery's issue):
  • Don't sell me on every wine you have. I'm on the other side of the counter, talking to you, one person, throughout the whole tasting and when you tell me that the first wine is "beautiful," "gorgeous," "one of my favorites," "a real top seller" and on and on...and then proceed to tell me similar things for the next 6 wines, including 3 of which that are, by far, your favorites, it undercuts your credibility. I stop listening. I do not trust your opinion. Oh, and by the way, only one of those 6 wines was good, at least for my palette.
  • That one that was good? Remember that one? Well, that bottle at home wasn't nearly as good. Not sure what you did when you poured the tasting, but don't create an experience that can't be duplicated. Don't decant the wines then pour them back in the bottles or do anything else behind the scenes that make your wine taste better because I will not buy your wine again if I have a different experience at home.
  • And, to that point, please, please, please don't openly use aerators when you're pouring me samples. Whereas the "behind the scenes" technique above is, I guess, acceptable and several wineries do it, pouring your wine through an aerator at a tasting, in front of me, is flat out egregious. You take a bottle of what you're trying to sell me, sing its praises, then pour it through an aerator and tell me to swirl it for at least a minute before drinking. What that tells me is that (a) you don't trust that the wine is good enough on its own...(b) you don't trust me to make a discerning decision about what's good and real about the wine...(c) you're cheating right in front of me - I have several aerators at home and I love them for their ability to make a mediocre bottle of wine just that much better, but, you are selling your wine to me - stand behind it and let it win or lose on its own merits...or (d) all of the above.
  • Oh, and don't tell me to swirl it because it's cold and just came out of a different cellar than the rest. I have a pretty normal sense of touch and this wine was the same temperature as the others. Period.
  • Don't push me through as part of a group when I'm there by myself. I don't know these other people and I may taste at a different pace than them. Making me wait 5 minutes between tastes is not going to make me buy your wine simply by being in your winery longer. What you didn't know is that I just came from another winery where they recognized that I was not part of the bigger group, so they treated me to 3 of their reserve wines. I'm not even saying that these reserve wines were that much better than the rest of the tasting, but at least they made me feel special from the others by sneaking me some tastes of "the good stuff."
  • Don't assume just because I came to your winery in shorts, an old t-shirt and a dirty hat that I am not going to buy your wine (what can I say, my wife was at the house catching a nap and I snuck out wearing some grubby clothes). Treat me like everyone else - you never know.
And, finally, do not expect me back at your winery any time soon. All of the above equate to an experience that's not worth duplicating.

Okay, done with the diatribe...back to the wine in front of me. Let me know if you've had any similar experiences when you've been wine tasting.

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Quick fire wine review - Gainey Vineyards and Willakenzie

Date: Tue, Sep 22, 2009 Wine Tasting

It's always a little interesting doing quick fire wine reviews - not a lot of space to talk about many of the details of the wine, winery, winemaker, etc., but with so many wines in this world, sometimes it works to take just a quick look at the wines we taste. After all, it's all about the wine.

Two win
es for today - a Gainey Vineyard Riesling and a Willakenzie Estate Pinot Blanc, both of which I liked quite a bit. Not my favorite whites of the year, but they each had something unique to them. So, let's get on with it...

Gainey Vineyard 2008 Riesling Santa Ynez Valley
Riesling is always a hard one for me. I know without a doubt that I do not like sweet Riesling and I also know that even some dry Riesling is sweeter than I would like. So, it's a risky varietal for me. What I look for in a Riesling is citrus flavors, with good minerality and very dry. The Gainey Vineyard Riesling filled most of the bill. On the nose, there's the typical peach and apricots, with additional floral notes, a fairly typical Riesling nose. Tasting it, the wine came across slightly sweeter than I thought with peach, apricot, apple and light minerals, closing with mild acidity and a sweeter than preferred finish. Regardless, as far as Riesling's go, I was impressed.

What you should do:
If you are a Riesling fan, buy it. At around $14, it's a nice Riesling and definitely one to pull out of the cellar on a hot summer day. If I see it again, I will most definitely pick up a bottle.

My rating: 86

Estate 2008 Estate Grown Pinot Blanc Williamette Valley

I haven't had much Pinot Blanc in my days, mostly because I've just recently started to get more into white wines (thanks to my oldest sister insisting that I try and review more - turns out she may be on to something). One of the best Pinot Blancs I've tasted is the Michel Schlumberger 2008 Pinot Blanc - an amazing wine that I will not soon forget. The Willakenzie is not as memorable, but still a solid offering. Heavy on the lime juice, with peach, apricot, grapefruit and honey, this is an easy drinking wine. Very light in color, good mid-level acidity, this wine would be great paired with asian food or shellfish.

What you should do:
If you can find it at $15, buy it, maybe 2. At $20 suggested retail price, may be a little steep and competing with the Michel Schlumberger at $21, so up to you. I'm just sorry summer's coming to an end, as I will need to remember this one come hot weather again

rating: 87

NOTE: both of these wines were sent to me as samples.

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Clif Family Winery (Part 2)

Date: Fri, Sep 18, 2009 Wine Tasting

Part 2 in my installment of Clif Family Wines (Part I can be found at Clif Family Winery), this time focusing on a white (The Climber) and another red (Gary's Improv 2006 Syrah).

2007 The Climber White Wine Blend
The only one of the Clif Family wines that was a white wine turned out to be pretty tasty. All peach, pear and freshly cut grass on the nose, it wasn't anything complex, nor did I feel like it over-promised. In the mouth, the pear stuck around, but the peach and grass were replaced with grapefruit and minerals. Not a bad substitution by any means and this wine delivered more flavor than I actually thought it would. With a combination of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc and Muscat, this is very nicely balanced with good acidity.

What you should do: Buy it. At $14 a bottle through the winery, this white is tasty enough that I'd go out and grab a couple for any hot summer days that are left. I really enjoyed the fruit and the acidity and the Clif Family Wines have a cool story to go along with the wines. But, I wouldn't pair it with a Clif Bar just yet.

My rating: 87

Gary's Improv 2006 Napa Valley Syrah
Overall, this was my least favorite of the Clif Family Wines that I tasted. The fruit was there with blueberry and raspberry, along with some interesting fig, chocolate and licorice components. But, in the end, the heat was a little too much for me, with a lot of burn on the back end of the finish. I tried it several times, even decanting some to see if I could mellow it out a little bit, but it was still too hot for my taste. The one thing I did not do was pair with any food, which sometimes helps mask or compliment the heat enough to subdue it, so that may make a difference. Kind of a bummer for me, because I really like the Clif Family Wines overall, but this one was just too hot for my taste.

What you should do: Don't buy it. I gave "buy it" recommendations to the other three Clif Family wines - the Climber White Wine Blend above, the Climber Red Wine Blend and the Kit's Killer Cab Cabernet Sauvignon - but at $35, I would wait until the 2007 is released to see if the balance is better and the heat has been brought under control.

My rating: 85

NOTE: the Clif Family wines were sent to me as a sample from the winery.

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Fattoria Poggiopiano Rosso Di Sera Toscana 2004

Date: Thu, Sep 17, 2009 Wine Tasting

Just returned from our best meal yet in Italy and probably one of our best meals ever (well, at least in the top ten) at a restaurant called Cibreo in Florence.

Frommers describes it as: "There's no pasta and no grilled meat -- can this be Tuscany? Rest assured that while Benedetta Vitale and Fabio Picchi's culinary creations are a bit out of the ordinary, most are based on antique recipes...where the elegance is in the substance of the food and the service, not in surface appearances. Waiters pull up a chair to explain the list of daily specials...[and] all the food is spectacular."

For our dinner, we had polenta, pumpkin soup and ricotta and potato flan with ragu to start...then chicken and ricotta meatballs and beef stew for our main course...followed by three different chocolate desserts, one of which the waiter brought simply because he thought it was better than the two we ordered...and he was right. Unbelievable meal - truly a foodie's delight.

To go along with such a great meal, I picked a wine with the sommelier that I wanted to pair well with the beef stew and he suggested the Fattoria Poggippano Rosso Di Sera Toscana 2004, a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Colorino. Huh? Colorino? Sound like a 1950's food dye? Well, not far off. Wikipedia describes it as follows:

Colorino is a red Italian wine grape planted primarily in Tuscany. The grape is known for its deep dark coloring and is used primarily as a coloring agent in red blends. In the history of Chianti it played a minor role, mostly for its affinity and use to the governo winemaking technique. Like Canaiolo, Colorino did not rot easily while going through the partial drying process to later be added to the fermenting grape must. However the grape did not provide the same level of fruit and softening effect that Canaiolo did and fell out of favor. In the late 1980s, there was a surge of interest in the variety among Tuscan winemakers who saw in this local grape variety similarity to the role Petite Verdot plays in Bordeaux blends. Colorino was planted and used to add darker colors and structure from phenolic compounds in the grape's thick skin without the overpowering aromatics that Cabernet Sauvignon could add. This enthusiasm was short lived and by the turn of the 21st century Colorino returned once again to a minor role in Tuscan wines.

Always nice to learn about a new varietal, but not sure how much influence it actually had in the blend. The wine was incredibly dark, which would go along with Colorino's ability to act as a coloring agent, and my suspicion is that it helped round out and balance the Sangiovese, but not sure. I definitely need to research this a bit more. Regardless, this was a beautiful Tuscan wine. As I mentioned, I ordered it to pair with the beef stew, but it was a great wine from first sip, well before the main course. Extremely well balanced, with dark berries, coffee and hint of maple syrup and rich spice, this wine is the best I've tasted yet in Italy.

And here's the most interesting part (at least for me)...If I let my wine sit for a few minutes, it became better balanced, gentler and more silky. Once I swirled it, it became hot, tannic and angry. Now, this can happen with most wines, but the transformation was much more pronounced on this wine than I've seen in others. It's as if all th wine wanted to do was sit back and unfold, no pressure, no worries. The second I asked it to do something it didn't want, it let me know and became a different and lesser wine. It really did feel pissed off when riled up. A true lesson in letting wine develop as it needs to, no matter what you think is right for it.

Wine Spectator had this to say about it: Loads of blackberry and cedar, with hints of coffee. Big, full-bodied and rich, yet silky and wonderfully textured. Loads going on. Gorgeous. 91.

What you should do: BUY IT! And invite me over. Doesn't seem real easy to find in the US, but there are many mentions of it on the internet and it's definitely worth seeking out. This is a great wine to have in your cellar.

My rating: 92. I'm going to one-up Wine Spectator - I really liked this wine.

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Grapes of Tuscany

Date: Wed, Sep 16, 2009 Wine Tasting

Rolling through Tuscany today, we were able to get a couple cool glimpses of the grapes of the region.

Not sure what varietal this is, but these look pretty close to ready (let me know if you know what they are).

Down the rows of the grapes above - great fruit all the way up.

This guy is clearly carrying precious cargo and I was more than happy to follow him at a snail's pace...

Grapes growing on the property - untended and completely unused...a shame really.

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Avignonesi 2006 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG

Date: Tue, Sep 15, 2009 Wine Tasting

Tuscania - a small walled city northwest of Rome and the setting for many posts to come…

No, this is not the start of my new book, just a phenomenal episode in my life, a time to sit back and reflect on what’s important in life. And, as all the day-to-day worries wash away and I look out over the countryside from our beautiful country house (rented, of course), a few permanent and essential things still stay in my mind – family, friends, a sense of awe in this world and, of course, wine. After all, what would a visit to Italy be like without wine? I shudder to think, honestly.

Have only been in Italy a few days and haven’t tasted too many wines as we’ve been trying to get our bearings and recover from the red-eye flight out of San Francisco. But, we picked up some wines at the local store that I’m excited to taste – 2007 Vermentino Maremma Toscana and 2006 Bonacchi Rosso di Montalcino. The funny thing about these wines is, and I have to be honest here, I have no idea what they’re going to be like. For all I know, I could have bought the wines that are the Italian version of Thunderbird or Boones Farm, although somehow I don’t think that’s the case (I wonder if Italian’s have even heard of fortified wine…).

To set the stage, my Italian wine knowledge is fairly limited. I know I like most Italian wines, but am torn when it comes to Nebiollo and Chianti....and that’s about it. So, you can look at this one of two ways. The first is that most of what I’m going to taste in Italy will be new to me, with very few preconceptions or thoughts about what the wine “should” be or taste like. A pretty pure experience, actually. The second is that anyone reading these blog posts that knows a lot about Italian wines will either be sickened by my lack of knowledge or compelled to comment and let me know the error of my ways. I’m hoping the latter will be the case…but, if not, I’m okay with going into a wine region pretty unknowledgeable. Wine is discovery and this trip is all about discovering new wines in a setting that provides a new look at culture, beauty and those parts of me that get lost in the day-to-day ups and downs of the world (sorry, had to wax poetic there for a minute – I am in Italy, after all).

I’ll get to the Vermentino and Bonacchi in a later post, but wanted to tell you about a wine we had at dinner last night. First off, the dinner was amazing…a small pizzeria / trattoria in Tuscania starting with a rustic antipasto (meats, cheese, bruschetta, peppers, etc.), then on to a pasta dish (my wife ordered one of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted) and finally a tournado filet. A beautiful spread, one that came close to overcoming our embarrassment at not knowing enough Italian to order efficiently (at one point near the start of the meal, I thought they were going to call over the whole kitchen staff and even people off the street to make sure we ordered correctly – comical, to be sure).

With the dinner, we had a 2006 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The first thing I noticed is that the alcohol level was relatively low, at 13.5%. I’m not sure I buy into the argument from old world wine people that high alcohol is always bad, but I will say that whenever I have a lower alcohol wine – like this Montepulciano or something like Chateau Plince – I always seem to savor it just a little more than I do a wine with lots of alcohol. There’s no heat on the back end, just a focus on the juice.

This was one of those wines. Spectacular with all three courses of the meal and very well balanced, with medium body and a blend of blackberry, earth and espresso. A healthy does of acidity (the pucker factor is pretty high on this wine, but it allowed it to cut nicely through all the rich pasta and meats of the meal) and a very long finish, this is a wine that I will most certainly try to either seek out when I get back home or buy some of when I’m here. Overall, a great first Italian wine experience (well, at least the first Italian wine tasted in Italy).

What you should do: Buy it. Cost us about 20 euros at the restaurant, so probably about $15 – 20 at retail in the US. This one is on my list of keepers from Italy (always nice to go 1-for-1).

My rating: 89

Note: Most of the time we’re in Italy, we’ll be in areas that don’t have internet access, so will update when I can, maybe even after I return, but will do my best to keep the updates coming.

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Whole Foods - Interview with Doug Bell, global wine buyer for Whole Foods (part 2)

Date: Thu, Sep 10, 2009 Wine Tasting

On to Part 2 of my interview with Doug Bell, global wine co-buyer at Whole Foods (to see the first post, you can go to Whole Foods - Interview with Doug Bell, global wine buyer for Whole Foods (part 1))

RJ: What wines are going to be hot next year?

I think Prosecco will remain very hot, simply due to the price of champagne. Champagne imports are down something like 40% globally right now. Will we see lower prices on their end? Perhaps. I expect to see a bunch of deep deals this holiday on the big brands. When everything went to hell in a hand basket in September and October of last year, I think it really caught these champagne importers off-guard. No one expected it to happen so suddenly. There’s a lot of champagne right now.

All sparkling wines – Cava, Prosecco, the bulk French sparkling – they’re going to be popular.
Chardonnay is going to remain strong. Pinot Noir is going to remain super strong. South America is going to continue its growth curve. I think it’s up something like 30% as a category this year in the US. That’s not going to stop. The wines down there are such good values.

You’re a wino – what are you buying now?

Good question. I have a cellar full of wines that I feel like may no longer fit my palette – it’s definitely changing. Lots of big, chewy reds, California and Washington big reds. But, I’m starting to gravitate a lot more toward some European wines. Some of the Sancerre you guys carry I think are really great. I've never really thought of myself as a white wine drinker, but I’ve tasted a few lately that I think are amazing. Matthiasson is one of them. Bonny Doon is making some really nice whites right now. For me, every six months or so, my taste seems to turn over a little bit.

You know what we’re also seeing? We’ve seen this over the last 12 months or so…our shopper wants authenticity. They want to know where the wine they’re drinking came from, they want to know what grapes are in it. I’m talking about the $10 - $20 range here. They want to know the history of it. They’re very inquisitive.

You don’t think about wine as being really a food product, but with the peanut recalls this past year, beef recalls, salmonella, things like that – I don’t know about you, but it’s made me a lot more conscious of what I buy and what I eat. I think it’s the same thing for wine too - the consumer wants to know more.

You’re tasting all kinds of wine and I’m sure you taste some wines that really impress and become a customer favorite and you want to buy up all of it. How do you manage the quality of the wine when you want to get as much volume out of the winemaker as possible?

DB: When we create or develop a brand, we have a flavor profile we look for that’s appropriate to the point of origin where the product comes from. For instance, we’re launching an organic wine called Pisato. It’s made for us, Geof and I did the blend in Italy last year, product’s coming to market now, we make our commitment for a number of cases for a 12-month period and that’s it basically.

RJ: So, you’re going back next year and determining if that’s the blend you want?


RJ: That’s a pretty hands-on model.

Yeah, we’re very hands on. That’s what we do. The thing with the Pisato line is it’s organic, there isn’t a lot of organic Italian wine out there for $11. It’s the first we’ve found that has the quality that’s fit for Whole Foods. I actually tried it again Thursday in Austin with our marketing team and it is scrumptious. These wines rock. Should be in the stores in September.

Been fun talking to you, Doug. Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap it up?

We see wine as part of every meal. Wine deserves to be on the table just as much as a salad. At least in Geof and my eyes. It’s a beverage that’s been enjoyed with food for years. We sell good food, we should sell good wine. We have this goal to be the destination wine shop – it just happens to be in a grocery store. We got Wine Retailer of the Year in 2007 from Wine Enthusiast and that was a pretty good validation of our mission to date.

What do you want consumers to walk away with when they’re in the wine section of a Whole Foods?

That they got good customer service, that perhaps through our signage they learned a little something and that they’re happy with the bottle they bought when they get home. They consider it a good value. It was authentic. The flavor profile was good. Just an overall satisfying experience.

What are you looking to in the years ahead to make that even a little bit better?

We’re beginning to start a program of vendor profiles so we can start to tell even more of a story to our customers. Who made this wine? How long have they been in business? Overall, it’s kind of hard to say. Things change in this economic environment – they just change. We just want them to be happy when they come in the store and when they leave the store.

When is your next Top Ten?

Holiday. November and December. We do our two promos the same time every year. June / July and November / December.

When will those come out?

Our stores tend to put them out the last week of October.

And that's the end of the interview. Hope you all enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed talking to Doug.
I will be reviewing the 2009 Whole Foods Holiday Top Ten list, so stay tuned for those posts coming in the Fall.

One final note - thanks, Doug, for being a great interviewee and for sharing as much as you did. Look forward to interacting more in the future and seeing what wines you're throwing our way this Holiday.

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Whole Foods - Interview with Doug Bell, global wine buyer for Whole Foods (part 1)

Date: Mon, Sep 7, 2009 Wine Tasting

I recently had the privilege of talking to Doug Bell, the Global Wine Co-Buyer at Whole Foods. Besides being a great guy, our conversation helped me understand more about how Whole Foods approaches their wine buying and the hands-on approach they take to bringing both quality and value to their offering. Hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

I've broken the interview out into two parts, so stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon.

The interview...

RJ: Do you do all the wine buying on your own?

DB: I share my role with a gentleman named Geof Ryan. He and I do the buying,. We split the duties because there are just too many vendors out there for one person to handle.

RJ: I find it fascinating how much you guys have to look at. How do you think about getting those wines that are unique and special to Whole Foods, but also catering to such a mainstream audience?

DB: We buy from very large suppliers like Constellation Brands and Diageo. You know, the big guys. But we also deal with very, very small suppliers like Chris Condos and Richard Bruno, who are really a two-man operation that run Vinum Cellars, based out of Sonoma. A two-man operation.

We also work with Jamey Whetstone. He owns the Manifesto! Brand. That’s like a three-man operation. He and his wife pretty much run the whole show. So, when we’re looking at wines for a national program, if you look at the Summer Top Ten, for instance, we had some big players in there like Penfolds, Gabbiano – both of those are Fosters products and Fosters is a huge company – and then again, we had the Chenin Viognier from Vinum
and the Manifesto! from Jamey Whetstone. We had the V-Solo Verdejo, that was made for us by a gentleman named Michael Hutchinson, who imports for Ole Imports – it’s a very small operation, a three-man operation.

When we do a program, we look for the comfort brands like the Kunoonga and we obviously throw some control label or private label products in there like the Presto. That’s ours, we made that. The Muller Bunny Riesling, that’s ours, we also made that.

RJ: When you say “we made that,” what does that mean?

DB: We blended it, we ma
de it.

RJ: How many of your wines are like that?

DB: We’ve got about 30,000 SKUs in our system. Granted, all of those aren’t active, but we have about 90 – 100 private or control label products at any given time in our stores.

RJ: I didn’t know you were actually that involved in the blending and the winemaking.

DB: Yeah, yeah…we do it all.

So, what’s your background, retail or winemaking?

DB: Retail. I’ve been doing this my whole life. It’s all I know. I started working at a packaged goods store in college on summer and holidays when I was home from school. And it just stuck.

RJ: How long have you been at Whole Foods?

DB: I’ve been with Whole Foods – they bought the company I used to work with – so I guess I’ve been with Whole Foods about 9 years.

RJ: And have you been in the wine department the whole time?

DB: Yeah.

RJ: One thing I really like about Whole Foods wine offering is the quality you bring to the table for the price, particularly given the perception of Whole Foods as an expensive store. How do you think about that?

DB: We’ve been trying to dispel that “whole paycheck” thing. You know how that really originated? There was a writer for the Washington Post and we opened a store there on P Street, which is in central DC. She and her husband went to the store when we opened it and they were just blown away, nothing like that had ever been in DC before. They went to the store and a week later her husband went there and he called his wife to ask what they needed and she said watch it, don’t spend your whole paycheck there.

It’s not that we’re so expensive, it’s just that we have so many good things to buy. We spent the last year - and if you look at any blogs, or anything on the internet - we’re trying everything we can to dispel that rumor. And if you go into our stores and you look at like items versus Safeway or Albertsons or Kroger’s, we’re about the same price.

RJ: I always seem to find a "bargain" in the wine department, more often than I do in other departments at Whole Foods. When you configure your Top Ten lists, what are you looking for in terms of what you want to deliver to the consumers – is it price, is it quality? Both?

DB: Obviously quality first. I would say value in the category second. Always quality and taste first. If it’s a $10 bottle of Shiraz, it better taste like a $10 bottle of Shiraz.

You look for variety too. Our shopper is not your Safeway shopper, although we share the same shoppers, obviously, we share shoppers with Costco and Cost Plus and Trader’s…our shoppers will try something new. They really like to try new things. But, at the same time, they also like their comfort brands.

For instance, the Biokult Gruner Veltliner, that was the third best seller in our promo this summer. Gruner! Who the hell knows what Gruner is? Our customers know. It’s kind of funny. Geof and I were just dumbfounded – third best seller…that sold more than Chianti.

RJ: I learned about Gruner through Whole Foods and I feel like you guys have pushed that harder than anyone.

DB: We look as a company – and the wine department mimics this as well – we like to create trends. Geof and I are buying for 2011. What’s going to be hot in 2011? Right now, we see this big push, nationally as well as globally, toward price wines - $3.99, $4.99, $5.99. We’ve got those in our stores for that shopper. We’ve also got shoppers who will try something new like Gruner. We think what’s gonna be hot next year. We think we already know. We already bought for next year.

My next question for Doug was what he thinks is going to be "hot" next year. Stay tuned for Part 2 of my interview...coming soon.

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Owen Roe Winery - Bonus Round

Date: Sun, Sep 6, 2009 Wine Tasting

Add ImageThis, the final installment of the Owen Roe Winery series, will feature two wines - Sharecroppers Cabernet Sauvignon and Abbott's Table (thanks to Jason and Jeff for pushing me to include these). Overall, a great tasting of the Owen Roe wines, with 7 of the 8 wines tasted making it on to my "buy again" list (unfortunately, the 2007 Owen Roe Pinot Noir Eola - Amity Hills will not be making it back to my dinner table). Bottom line is that Owen Roe Winery is making some very nice wines that you should definitely try if you have not done so already.

On to the wines for this bonus round...

Owen Roe 2007 Sharecropper's Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

The Northwest-wine.com website has this to say about it: Owen Roe Sharecroppers Cabernet 07 has smoky blackberry and dark cherry aromas that leap out, signaling the showiness of this young Cabernet. Packed with juicy black fruit flavors--especially cassis--this is a big mouthful of Cab, with dried herbs and earth on the slightly chewy finish. David O'Reilly strikes again: great value, great wine.

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, David O'reilly describes this as a very concentrated wine with flavors of cassis, blackberry, and a hint of juniper. The yield was down for the 2006 vintage, meaning less wine, but a more concentrated wine. Made from Elerding and Alderdale Vineyards in the Yalkima Valley, there's also a bit of Red Willow Vineyard fruit in the wine. The wine is ready to drink, and David says: "It will blow you away".

I had never actually had this Owen Roe wine before. Getting so stuck in Ex Umbris and Abbott's Table over the years, I think this one had fallen off my radar. In the end, though, I only liked it, but didn't love it. It's a nice effort, with good dark berry fruit and a decent balance, but it didn't "blow me away" as David suggests. For under $20, it's a nice Washington Cabernet to have on hand, but, for me it's just not that memorable.

What you should do: Put it at the bottom of your Owen Roe wine list and if you happen to see the Sharecroppers Pinot Noir, buy that instead.

My rating: 85

Owen Roe 2008 Abbott's Table

Northwest-wine.com has this to say about it: Owen Roe Abbot's Table 2008 - Abbot's Table 2008 is the perfect example of a "smooth" wine. Velvety, lush, round flavors glide over your taste buds. The Zinfandel and Sangiovese provide the backbone and show in the lingering finish of sweets plums, raspberries and cherries.

More than a third of the 08 Abbot's is Bordeaux varietals - the deep cassis and black cherry flavors are a perfect complement to the fresh, bright red fruits. There's a meaty complexity to the finish that adds even more character to an already outstanding value table wine.

Upon release, the 2008 is better than the 2007 and just might be the best Abbot's Table yet.

On the nose, I get black cherry, bacon, cedar and young, wet tree branches, evolving in the mouth into black cherry, tobacco and smoke. A pretty complex wine for the price (sub $20), the '08 Abbott's Table brings with it a very nice mix of new world and old world. Long silky finish and mid-acidity, just enough to keep it interesting.

What you should do: Buy it! This is a great sub-$20 bottle of wine. I have a few more in my cellar and will definitely buy others when those run out.

My rating: 88

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K Vintners The Creator 2006

Date: Sun, Aug 30, 2009 Wine Tasting

I'm not always sure what to make of Charles Smith, the winemaker at K Vintners in Walla Walla, Washington. If I taste his wines on their own, most of them are quite good. He's a pioneer in Washington wines and definitely has played his part in getting Washington recognized around the world as a leading producer of wines (he just recently received 100 points for his 2006 Royal City Syrah). He's also one of the most passionate winemakers I've seen in a long time. All that comes together to make the K offering one of the most intriguing in the Northwest.

But, he also feels a little scattered to me. I find myself confused by how many offerings he has (18 current releases for K Vineyards and 11 current releases for Charles Smith Wines) and what I really should be trying of his wines. I have a fair amount in my cellar, from The Creator to The Boy to K-Syrah to Boom Boom Syrah, but, to be honest, I limit my purchasing because I just don't know enough about what the true stars in his collection are and what are mere wines.

Wine Spectator seems to think that The Creator is one of his stars, giving it a rating of 91. They say this about it: Dark and chewy, this is dense with blackberry, currant and tar flavors, glowing and pulsing against a layer of smoky tannins. Shows a lot of life. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Best from 2011 through 2018. 365 cases made.

For me, I get the blackberry, both on the nose and in the mouth, but on the nose I also pick up a lot of black pepper and some red meat. The blackberry exploded in my mouth, along with plum and currant - this is a big, fruity wine. Well balanced, with surprisingly good acidity, but a little hot on the finish. I really like the blend - 67% Cabernet Sauvignon (En Cerise), 33% Syrah (Morrison Lane). Charles definitely captures the distinct elements of both and I'm on a huge Washington Syrah kick right now - for me, hands down, the best Syrah's in the world.

What you should do: Buy it. This is a great wine from K Vintners and representative of both Washington wines and Charles Smiths wines.

My rating: 89

As for Charles himself, I've included a link to Charles Smith on YouTube - an interview done by Winefoot.com. Enjoy! Would love to know what you think.

Charles Smith on YouTube

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