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Questionable Skills (part deux)...

Date: Wed, Sep 22, 2010 Wine Tasting

Another thoughtful and contemplative drawing about wine from Ted McCagg of Questionable Skills: Drawings by Ted McCagg, an illustrator and voice well worth listening to.

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Tasting Room Confessions

Date: Tue, Sep 21, 2010 Wine Tasting

A few years back, I visited a winery in southern Oregon and my host, an on-again, off-again wine industry veteran in his later years, was not happy to see me. It was clear when I walked in the doors that I wasn’t welcome, but I didn’t care. This was the last winery at the end of an afternoon of tasting. My first several stops had been miserable, and I was determined that this last one would redeem the trip. Even as the older gentleman glared at me with a look that clearly said “I have other things to do,” I resolved to sit in his tasting room until something magical happened. Like it or not, this man and I were going to find a meaningful way to connect over our shared passion for wine.

He condescended to make small talk as he began pouring. As minutes passed, I watched his glare begin to melt. An opening, I thought to myself. I tasted some more, sincerely complimented him on his wines and then slowly started to ask him about his story. We talked over the next hour or so about his experiences with wine, how he came to re-invent himself a few times and what wine meant to him and his family. By the time the tasting was over, I felt exhilarated. Not only had I found a way to connect with a man who clearly wanted nothing to do with me when we first met, but I learned so much about his life with wine and the passion and heartbreak that went into the wines I was now tasting. Not only had I overcome his initial iciness but, in doing so, had turned a potentially bad experience into a truly memorable one.

For me, wine is about the experience and, for most of us, there are few places to get a more hands-on experience than in a winery’s tasting room. But tasting room experiences can be hit or miss, with most misses coming either through a poor set-up at the winery or through our own misguided expectations as consumers. Thinking about all the things that can potentially go wrong when visiting a winery, I consulted people from both sides of the bar – wine tasters and those who pour for them – what makes for an ideal experience and what makes for a nightmare.

(Tasting room at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, CA – Buena Vista did not participate in the development of this story)

As consumers, my friends and I agreed on a few simple things we’re looking for from a wine tasting experience and the tasting room staff:
  • We want the winery staff to be nice to us and to accept us as a welcomed guest. Make us feel, if not important, at least an integral part of your day and the work you do.
  • We want to learn. Make sure your tasting room staff is well informed. Require that they spend time with the winemaker and the wines. Know the history of the winery and what makes you unique in the marketplace. The wine world is confusing and we love to be led through it, so equip your staff with the knowledge they need to both represent you well and put their personal spin on your wine.
  • We want to feel the romance and passion of wine. Get your staff excited about the opportunity to share your wines with the public. Your jobs are enviable to those of us slogging away in the corporate world – let us live vicariously through you for the 15 minutes we’re there. Passion can make up for a lot of shortcomings.
  • We want to actually taste the wine. If you’re not charging a tasting fee, pour as small a sample as you want. But, if you are charging for a taste, please put enough wine in the glass for us to capture the aromas and flavors. There’s no joy in paying money to be served a sample so small it’s next to impossible to capture the wine’s essence.
  • And, please, drop the pretension and condescension. People are smart and they will notice when you are speaking down to them. In today’s society, it’s next to impossible to quickly identify who is willing to spend money on your product and who is not, so don’t make assumptions about us. You may be sacrificing a potential lifetime customer.
In turn, wineries and tasting room staff pointed out a few things they would like the consumer to know:
  • We want guests to be nice to us. This one goes both ways. We’re human, just like you and want to interact. But, it’s hard to do that when you come to our winery loaded with pretension and condescension of your own. We’re smart enough to notice. And, when we do, your level of service will go down considerably.
  • We want you to have a good experience, but we have to work together to make that happen. If you want us to be engaged, you need to engage with us. Communication is two-way and we need your help. If you hear something you want to know more about or have specific questions about our wines, please ask.
  • We love explorers. Be open to new things and new types of wine when you come to the tasting room. Going to wineries should be about experience and exploration and we’re here to guide you through that. After all, you can’t find your next favorite wine if you’re only willing to taste the wine you already love.
  • We are not running a bar. Groups too often look at tasting rooms as a place to get drunk, especially as the day goes on. If you drink to excess, we will probably not engage with you as much as others; worst-case scenario, we will cut you off. That’s no fun for anyone. We don’t like doing it, but your behavior can seriously interrupt our business. Also, pouring for anyone who seems intoxicated is illegal in a tasting room, just like in a bar.
Whatever side of the tasting room equation you fall on, keep these points in mind the next time you pay a visit. Tasting room and winery visits are some of the most valuable and fun experiences in the wine world, so invest the effort to get the most out of it.

Have a tasting room experience you'd like to share, from either side of the counter? Would love hear it...

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NOTE: this article originally appeared on Palate Press.

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1999 Fontanafredda Barolo Paiagallo La Villa

Date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010 Wine Tasting

Very interesting wine - cloudy and garnet in color from age, but still with so much life in it. Dark cherry, licorice, espresso and chocolate on the nose, with a touch of clove and sweet smoke on the palate. Can't say much for how this wine tasted on release, but sure feels like it's in its sweet spot right now. If you have any in your cellar, open soon. You won't regret it.

My rating: 90 / Outstanding

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2005 Domaine du Coulet (Matthieu Barret) Cornas Terrasses du Serre

Date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010 Wine Tasting

Kind of surprised by this wine, which is fitting since it came in a mystery case from Garagiste Wine. Still young and very tannic, but on the 2nd night smoothed out quite a bit. Even got a "hey, honey, check this out - pretty good" from my wife. You'd be shocked by how seldom that happens in our household. On the nose, big, bold dark berry fruit and earth, covered in a thick blanket of sweet and smokey maple bacon. Very nice acidity on the palate, with blackberry and cherry fruit, with a mouthful of grippy tannins. Very nice wine.

My rating: 90 / Outstanding

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NV J. Bookwalter Red Table Wine Lot #18

Date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010 Wine Tasting

The first Bookwalter I tasted and still my favorite, the Lot 18 was a great blend. It's brushing up against it's prime, with some of the fruit clearly fading away, but the structure and the balance still work. Quite a nice reminder of why I liked this wine to begin with, particularly since I haven't liked any of the Lots or Subplots since the 18.

My rating: 88 / Very good

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2007 Robert Craig Cabernet Sauvignon Affinity

Date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010 Wine Tasting

Didn't decant this wine at all - popped the cork, poured a glass and dove in. Stood up remarkably well under those conditions and, now, on night 2, it's turned into a very well balanced and structured wine. Somewhat of a typical, big California Cab, but very well rounded and silky, especially for a wine this young. Definitely worth a try, even at $48 a bottle., although, it is brushing right up against it's price point. I think if they decided to start selling this for over $50, my opinion would start to change, as there are so many quality players in the $50+ range.

My rating: 91 / Outstanding
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2003 Devitt Winery Cabernet Sauvignon

Date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010 Wine Tasting

Been running into some bum wines lately. I know I liked this wine when I first tried it, but, like an Italian wine I just pulled from the cellar, seems like it's outlived its prime. Weird for a Cab to do this so early, but the sediment is really high and the palate is just off, almost a little too acidic for what it is or should be. Too bad, but I still have very fond memories of visiting Devitt Winery and know that he is making good wines...I'll just remember to drink them faster the next time I get my hands on some.

My rating: 79 / Mediocre (to it's credit, it was probably flawed)

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2008 Buty Sémillon / Sauvignon Blanc

Date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010 Wine Tasting

Thought I had written a tasting note for this already, but apparently I had not. Buty is one of my favorite producers in the Northwest - great, interesting wines and very cool owners...can't ask for much more than that. This wine took my wife and I by surprise, in that it was far better than we even expected, given the sub-$20 price point. For me, this is not a hot summer day white, but more of a Fall white wine, when the days aren't cold yet, but starting to head that way. On the nose, it's warm and rich, with a creamy, broad mouthfeel, citrus and acid. Very nice blend.

My rating: 89 / Very good

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Interview: Eric LeVine of CellarTracker / GrapeStories (Part 2)

Date: Fri, Sep 10, 2010 Wine Tasting

If you missed Part 1 of my disccussion with Eric LeVine, you can find it here - it's a great look at how Eric first discovered wine. This, Part 2 in a series of 3, focuses on how
Eric then turned that interest in wine into a passion and a pursuit that still thrives today.


ERIC: As I was getting into wine [it took me a few more years to get settled], I discovered the Andrew Will's and the Leonetti's and the Woodward's, I was chasing whatever I could find anywhere. I found McCarthy & Schiering [in Seattle] early on, so I knew there was local stuff in the backyard and chased a lot of local stuff. I started chasing California and so I pretty quickly built up a couple hundred bottles of very new world stuff. I also still had a soft spot for Tuscany. I chased a bunch of ’97 Brunellos because it was right when we got back ][from our trip to Tuscany] that Wine Spectator went crazy about the ’97 Brunellos.

I was very lucky. Most of my early buying was crazy scattershot where I was buying tons of ones and twos everywhere. Lots of Washingtons. Lots of Californians. Syrahs and Cabs, Sangioveses. I found German Rieslings pretty early. I found a little bit of Piedmont. Then I found Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, found more Riesling [Austria and Alsace in addition to Germany]. My collection now is about 60+ % Bordeaux and the Rhone and a pretty even mix of left bank / right bank. Obviously, Bordeaux is broad so you have Cabernet-dominated wines, Merlot and Cab Franc dominated wines and so forth.

When I first started out, I was kind of buying everything in sight, trying to figure it out. Then, across 10 years, you’ve got your St-Estèphe’s and your Pauillac’s, and you’ve got your St Emilion’s and your Pomerol’s and they have different moods and different personalities. And some are good to drink young and some are good to drink old. It starts to make sense. I pretty quickly realized that I was way more jazzed about the old world than I was about the new world. I pretty aggressively tried to drink down the new world wines and had a brief Australian dalliance. Thankfully, only had about 4 or 5 cases. Big, big Shiraz stuff.

I found the Parker board and just started going crazy. If Parker gave a wine big points, I was going after it. It was probably only sort of 3 or 4 years, I hadn’t gotten too far in, and then found a great tasting group. I started tasting a lot more and gravitating more towards old world. Still kind of scatter shot, but as I really started to focus, I started to focus more on Bordeaux, on the Rhone, on Riesling. For Washington, I kind of shut off , found 5 or 6 producers and followed them. But, largely, and intentionally, chose to ignore the explosion that was going on here [in Washington]. 10 years ago, when I was getting into this, there were 50 or 60 wineries in the state, now there are about 600. I kind of settled in on Quilceda [Creek], Cadence, Betz, Ross Andrew.

Part of it also is that I’m glad I’m not a wine critic. The beauty of wine is that if you meet someone like a Bob Betz or you meet a Ross Mickel, you get to know someone and you taste a wine with them, whether it’s their wine or other wines, and you like them and you like their outlook on the wines. You can’t help but have their wines and associate them with their wines. I mean, you meet Ben Smith at Cadence, you go taste Ben’s wines…there’s some of Ben in that glass. It positively predisposes you towards the wine. I’m just glad I don’t have to separate myself from that. The whole notion of divorcing yourself from the winemaker, or any attachment you have, and having to be completely impartial, is just uninteresting to me…Don’t even get me going on wine criticism. The whole notion of “what is a great wine?” is really up to what someone wants in a wine.

To be continued...

One more round of good stuff to come from my conversation with Eric. Watch for my final post in the coming weeks.

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Cosentino, Warre and Croft...Tasting Notes From a Week Gone By

Date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 Wine Tasting

2005 Cosentino Winery Zinfandel CigarZin Still holding up - I was concerned that it may have already turned a corner, but turned out it's up for the fight. I'm still amazed by how thin the appearance is of this wine. I expect Zins to be much darker and harder to see through, but this almost comes across as a Pinot Noir. Definitely some tobacco on this wine, as promised by the name, with bright red fruit, cedar and new leather. Definitely starting to show signs of age and I'll be opening the other one I have sometime very soon. My rating: 87 / Very good

1999 Warre Porto Late Bottled Vintage I'm just not a ruby port fan. 've tried many of them and they all come up a bit empty. This one is no different. A perfectly nice ruby port, with dark berries, rhubarb, liqueur and medicinal / herbal notes, but just not to my liking. Too much stewed fruit and sugar, I think. But, I'm not going to spend much more time trying to figure out what I don't like about ruby's - just is what it is and there are far too many wines out there to get bogged down in trying to like one.

NV Croft Porto 10 Year Old Tawny Port Nice flavor profile with caramel, raisins, smoke and leather, but nothing fancy. A little thin for a tawny, especially since I gravitate more toward the 30 and 40 year tawny's, but, still not bad. Very long finish. My rating: 86 / Very good

2001 Domaine Pouderoux Maury Vendange Mise Tardive Grenache Blend Like cherry flavored cough syrup served on a bed of bitters, fresh mint and tar. Surprisingly tannic and probably be very nice paired with dark chocolate. My rating: 86 / Very Good

NV Emilio Lustau Jerez-Xérès-Sherry East India Solera
Palomino Fino and Pedro Ximénez Caramel, forest floor and coffee on the nose, with heavy molasses, prunes and candied orange on the palate. Still not sure what to make of Sherry. This one is amber in color and similar to a thin tawny port, but not as satisfying. Incredibly hot on the finish. My rating: 85 / good

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2009 Matthiasson Napa Valley White Wine

Date: Mon, Sep 6, 2010 Wine Tasting

It's no surprise to those who read this blog regularly that I am a huge fan of Matthiasson wine out of Napa Valley, CA (if you want to see how much, check out all the blog posts below that mention Matthiasson). I was first introduced to their wines at the 2009 Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma and the 2008 Napa Valley White Wine was the runaway hit of the weekend for me. That's saying a lot for me to put a white at the top of any list, especially a list that includes over 200 other wines we tasted that weekend.

Now, I've had the distinct pleasure of tasting the 2009 Matthiasson Napa Valley White Wine and let me be the first to tell you that the 2009 is even better. It doesn't throw the 2008 out the window and stomp it in the dirt, but, with any wine, I expect each year to better than the last and Matthiasson does not disappoint with this new vintage. Both the 2008 and 2009 are blends of four varietals:
  • Sauvignon Blanc - 47% in 2008; 59% in 2009
  • Ribolla Gialla - 31% in 2008; 28% in 2009
  • Tocai Friulano - 3% in 20o8; 8% in 2009
  • Sémillon - 19% in 2008; 5% in 2009
When I first read the notes on the new blend, I was a bit worried as I thought the Sémillon added so much to the 2008 and, now, in the 2009 blend, it was deemphasized in favor of more Sauvignon Blanc. But, thankfully, there was nothing to worry about. The Sauvignon Blanc infusion is not of the New Zealand or California version, but more an old world, Sancerre feel. In Matthiasson's words: "This wine is our new world conception of a mythical ideal old-world wine...a California wine with a spiritual connection to Friuli, Italy, but also drawing inspiration from the great whites of the Loire, Graves, Alsace, the Rhone, old-school Napa...[t]his wine is an attempt at getting at the core of what white wine is all about, the archetypal 'white wine'"

This is a beautifully structured wine. Good, clean citrus notes, rich and broad mouthfeel, multiple layers, all supported by a perfect mineral base. No question I have a bit of a crush on this wine, but I do think it's for good reason. It is, simply put, one of the best whites I've tasted in years. You cannot lose with either the 2008 or 2009 and it's well worth trying to get at least one of each, if not more.

My rating: 93

What you should do: Find a way, at the very least, to taste this wine. Better yet, if you see it, buy it. It really is worth the effort.

Past Blog posts that reference Matthiasson:

NOTE: this wine was sent to me as a sample from Matthiasson.

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Late to the show...Email at last...

Date: Sat, Sep 4, 2010 Wine Tasting

Sometimes I amaze myself with how late to the show I can be. Take, for example, that I am user #80,911 on CellarTracker, and I now cannot imagine my wine life without it. But, better late than never, I guess. In the same spirit, after two years of blogging, I have finally added a way to subscribe to this blog via email. Again, late to the game, but, it's here now, so sign up if you'd like to get posts delivered to you as I go. You can find the sign-up box in the right navigation.

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Vin Santo, Sauternes and a Wounded Whispering Dove...Tasting Notes From a Week Gone By

Date: Thu, Sep 2, 2010 Wine Tasting

2002 Agricola San Felice Vin Santo del Chianti Classico Ever since honeymooning in Santorini, Greece, I've been a complete sucker for Vin Santo. (or Vino Santo, aka "Holy Wine"). I prefer Greek Vin Santo, by just a little bit, but this is a great example of an Italian Vin Santo that I would try again any time. Christmas spice, maple syrup, hazelnut and tea leaf, this wine is everything I look for in a Vin Santo. The nose reminds me of a slightly muted tawny port, with just enough complexity and sweetness. This one will stay on my list for a long time. My rating: 90 / Outstanding

2009 Abel Clément Vin de Pays de Vaucluse In my endless quest for Rosé I can drink (most of them I don't care for), who would have figured one would show up in the sub-$8 category? Crazy. This is a very simple Rosé, without much body or complexity, but the flavor is there and I would definitely drink this again. Outstanding QPR! My rating: 89 / Very good

NV Bodegas Hidalgo Amontillado La Gitana "Napoleon" Very tricky one with this wine. It's a sweet sherry on the nose, with a pronounced intensity of pine, eucalyptus, vanilla and nut; but, on the palate, this is dry, dry, dry...did I mention dry? Very high in acidity, with flavors of almond skins, popcorn and grass / hay. Very good quality for what it is, but, on its own, I DO NOT like this wine. One of the oddest wines I've ever tasted. I'm told it is exceptional with salty foods, particularly Spanish and Italian hams, as well as many Spanish tapas, so have reserved judgment on the final score. I can definitely see those pairing well and I'll try to check it out soon. This wine is odd enough that it deserves a 2nd chance.

2003 Whispering Dove Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Stags Leap District Past its prime and not drinkable, at least this bottle. I guess I'll check it again tomorrow night and see where it's gone, just in case. Night #2 - same thing. My rating: FLAWED

2001 Castelnau de Suduiraut Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc Blend. Tangerine, dried apricots and roasted orange peel on an intense nose, followed by honey, apricot and sweet mold on the palate. Sweet and syrupy, with a secondary layer of medium acidity. This is a complex wine, with so many distinctive layers. My rating: 92 / Outstanding

2009 Elio Perrone Moscato d'Asti Sourgal Roses, peaches, honey and a touch of men's musk on the nose, with slight bubbles on a peach, honey, lemon palate. Not too complex, just incredibly nice flavor. Sweet, so careful what you pair it with. My rating: 88 / Very Good

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Interview: Eric LeVine of CellarTracker / GrapeStories

Date: Wed, Sep 1, 2010 Wine Tasting

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Eric LeVine, who most people know as the founder of CellarTracker (now GrapeStories).

Most of what I’ve seen and read about Eric has been specifically about that – the incredible website he’s developed that’s proven to be a critical part of thousands of people's wine lives, including my own. So, I wanted to talk to Eric about something else. Basically, how it all started for him. Not the business, but his love for wine - what sparked it for him, what are some of his favorite wines, etc.?

And, what better way to do that than to sit on the porch sharing wine. I came with a bottle of 2007 21 Grams out of Walla Walla and he brought a fantastic 1994 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. Both great wines to kick off an equally amazing evening.

What I discovered early on in our conversation is that Eric's passion for wine is completely authentic. This is not strictly wine cellar tracking or business, Eric feels wine. When you sit with him, you can tell from the excitement in his voice how much wine means to him. In other words, he is absolutely the real deal.

We talked for several hours and I have yet to transcribe the majority of our conversation, but, in the first five minutes of going through the tape, I was reminded of why I enjoyed that evening so much, sitting on the deck, with Eric and a few great bottles of wine, learning more about how he got into this crazy passion that he and I share.

I’ll let him tell you a little more about it…

Wine was always something I’d enjoyed and it was sort of one of those things that always was on my list - someday I’m going to learn about this. Call it a bucket list or whatever. It was like at some point when I have the time, I want to get in and figure out that wine thing because it’s pretty cool.

My dad was…I found out in later life…always into wine. I remember having the Wine Spectator around in the ‘80’s and 90’s and we would always have wine at dinner and I’d get to taste, but in hindsight, what I learned, was that he wasn’t drinking anything particularly special for the most part. I remember a few wines really stuck out. I think it was after my Bar Mitzvah, we’d gone to what was like the old school restaurant in Boston called Locke-Ober and I remember getting a bottle of Sauternes with dessert. The first time you taste a botritised wine, you’re kind of like “whoa." It’s very unique.

I also remember him ordering a white burgundy off a wine list [for my birthday] and I didn’t really understand it was just Chardonnay, but it was delicious. So, a few bottles stand out, but mostly wine was there and I’ve always enjoyed it and it was something that I’ve always wanted to learn about, but it was yet another thing to deal with in a life where I was too busy.

Wine finally caught up with me when my wife and I took a bicycling trip to Tuscany in 1999. And on the second night of the trip, they had a local merchant come in from Sienna and he put four wines down in front of us. They were a Chianti, a Chianti Classico Riserva, a Vino Noble and a Brunello de Montalcino. This was pre-wine awareness for me, so I don’t know producers or vintages., but, for whatever reason, I remember the appellations.

They went through the wines, we tasted them, there were cheeses and a nice little guy with a beautiful little accent and a sunset in Tuscany and on and on…and then what stuck out for me, for the engineering brain, was that he basically explained that these were the same thing, that they were all Sangiovese or clones of it, just different sun, different hills, different oak. This one’s from over there and this one’s from over there and this one’s from right here. We were in Castellina-in-Chianti and he would just point. Everything was 20 to 30 miles away and it was just different oak, different sun, different clones and so four things that were basically the same were completely distinct and it just blew my mind.

In engineering speak, it was a bit flip moment.

I came back and decided, alright, I was getting into wine. That just pushed me over the edge. The whole week was also so fun because we’re in Tuscany, biking around and all the towns are on hilltops, so you’re finishing all your days biking with a climb. Come dinnertime, you’re ready for food and lots of Tuscan wine.

That week of riding around and eating and drinking, I came home ready to get into wine. That was '99.

To be continued...

Lots more good stuff to come from my conversation with Eric. Watch for a few more posts in the coming weeks.

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