Tag Archives: California wine

Bottle Shock Redux: Missouri Wines Triumph in Blind Tasting

22 Jun

In yesterday night’s regional wine special and blind tasting on ‘The Local Show’ on Kansas City Public Television (KCPT), Belvoir Winery’s Plumeria and Stone Hill’s 2008 Norton received the most points in their white and red blind tasting sections.  What a great result! Both sections included competition from well respected Californian – Rodney Strong Vineyards – or awarded French wine makers – Baron Rothschild and Gerard Bertrand.  The ‘wild card’ randomly chosen wine – $3 chuck from Trader Joe’s – was cause for a bit of giggling and the five blind tasters from Belvoir customer Lucinda to former football star Eddie were chatty and articulate about he wines and their scoring.  Show hosts Nick Haines and Randy Mason lucidly knitted the show together and wine expert Doug Frost provided engaging commentary and explanation as to what was going on as the wine tasters responded and scored the various wines.  Emily Ghertner and Eric Mater produced the show with flair and calm (a good combination!)  and the editing job was great.  It was a lot of fun and hopefully helped to squeeze out some of the stigma against local wines and show that Midwest wines can rub shoulders with the best!  Hopefully we can have another round some time.

Here are the full points scores and wine descriptions courtesy of KCPT:

THE WHITES

A Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Bordeaux, France
THE WINE: Mouton Cadet Blanc, 2007 – $12.99 retail

From one of France’s legendary and most well known winemakers, a white blend of Sauvignon Blanc (40%), Semillon (50%) and Muscadelle (10%)

Total Score: 10

B Belvoir Winery, Liberty, Missouri
THE WINE: Plumeria – a blend of Traminette, Vignoles and Seyval – $18 at the winery

The wine is named after the owner, Dr John Bean’s, late wife’s favorite flower. The winery is located in an impressive Jacobethan Revival style building that was a former orphanage for the International Order of Odd Fellows.

Total Score: 21

C Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery, Basehor, Kansas
THE WINE: Seyval, Kansas Table Wine – $12.95 at winery and retail (only available in Kansas)

Holy-Field is a father and daughter team – Les and Michelle Meyer – who pride themselves on their canine ambassadors who feature on some of the wine labels. The dogs are: Vinnie, Bacchus, Corkie and Sinbad

Total Score: 17

D Charles Shaw Winery, Napa and Sonoma, California
THE WINE: Chardonnay, 2010 – $2.99 at Trader Joe’s grocery store

The wine is affectionately known as ‘two buck chuck’

Total Score: 11

E Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington State
THE WINE: Chardonnay, 2010, – $12.99 retail

A respected wine making region of the US. This winemaker is often in grocery stores and on restaurant wine lists in Kansas City.

Total Score: 18

THE REDS

A Rodney Strong Vineyards, Sonoma County
THE WINE: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006 – $17.99 retail

A California Sonoma red that is often seen in Kansas City grocery stores, liquor stores on on restaurant wine lists.

Total Score: 11

Jowler Creek, Platte County, Missouri
THE WINE: Chambourcin, 2010 – $19 at the winery and retail

Jowler Creek emphasize their sustainable vineyard practices. They use Olde English Babydoll sheep to control grass and weed growth.

Total Score: 4

C Stone Hill Winery, Hermann, Missouri
THE WINE: Norton, 2008 – $18.99 at the winery and retail

Stone Hill is Missouri’s second biggest winemaker producing 260,000 gallons of wine in 2011. They’ve been making Norton for decades. A Stone Hill Norton is thought to have won the prestigious award for best red wine “of all nations” at an international competition in Vienna in 1873.

Total Score: 21.5

D Gerard Bertrand, Languedoc Pic Saint Loup, Narbonne (Languedoc-Roussillon region, on the coast, south of Marseille) France
THE WINE: Grand Terroir, 2005 – $16.99

European Winery of the Year for 2012 in Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s annual Wine Star Awards. Wine Spectator magazine’s ‘Best Value Winery From France’ in 2008.

Total Score: 14

E Charles Shaw Winery, Napa and Sonoma, California
THE WINE: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 – $2.99 at Trader Joe’s grocery store

The wine is affectionately known as ‘two buck chuck’

Total Score: 20

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Midwest Wines vs The Rest of the World

20 Jun

Tomorrow, Thursday June 21st from 730pm on Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) it’s the battle of the grape.  Two blind tastings, one for reds and another for whites, will determine if wines from Missouri and Kansas can compare with the best wine making regions in the world.   The show also tackles the issue of why most restaurants in Kansas City (and in cities all over MO and KS) are happy to serve local food, but don’t serve local wines.  The blind tastings will help determine if the preference for Californian, French and other international wines is actually fair and based on quality and customer preferences, or just a result of inertia, snobbery, ignorance – or all three.

White paper bags look quite classy don’t you think?

Surely if French and Californian wines are so good and the local wines so poor, the blind tasters will prefer those? The restaurants will be proved right afterall…but if MO and KS wines do well hopefully it will be a small wake-up call to consumers and restaurants alike.

So tune in to KCPT on tomorrow! Or come to Belvoir Winery in Liberty where we’ll be watching the show.

Lucinda, Stretch and Katie Van Luchene rehearse raising their numbers

I tried hard to make this a fair contest.  The five reds and five whites in each tasting cost between $12 and $20 retail, except for a ‘wild card’ that could cost anything.  Two of the wines in each red or white tasting are from MO or KS, one is from California, one from France  and one that ‘wild card’ that could be from anywhere.

The basis of prejudice against MO and KS wines is often based on their tendency to be sweet.  People seem to think that sweet is all the Midwest does well and discount the quality dry stuff that has emerged and is emerging all over the place.  This tasting will be meeting Californian and French wines on their own terms: all the reds competing are dry and all the whites are dry or semi-dry.

I was also conscious of how the order in which the bottles would be tasted could confer an advantage.  It is probably not ideal to be the first wine tasted, or the last.  The order of the tasting was determined by me reaching blindly into a case where I’d place the bottles and pulling the bottles out, lottery style, one by one.

The bottles were placed in white paper bags and each labelled with a letter – A to E.

From left to right: Nick Haines, KCPT host, Stretch, Lucinda, Stephen Molloy, Katie Van Luchene, Eddie Kennison and Doug Frost.

The 5 blind tasters were chosen to be widely representative of wine lovers and to be fun – there’s a mixture of celebrities (Eddie Kennison and Stretch), wine and food experts (Stephen Molloy and Katie Van Luchene) and Lucinda, a young woman and regular customer at Belvoir winery, chosen to represent ‘normal’ people (possibly like you?).  They all like a wide range of wines.  Overseeing them and to offer his analysis, wine brain and expert, Doug Frost.

The blind tasters are not comparing the wines to each other, they’re just making a very simple judgement: how much do they like each wine and why? In other words, how does the wine they’re blind tasting compare to their idea of the perfect white or red?  They mark each one with 1 to 5 points, 1 being ‘not to my taste or ‘I don’t like it’, up to 5, which means ‘excellent ‘ or ‘I love it’.

So tune in! Will this be a humiliation for the Midwest wine industry?  Or will this be a case of Bottle Shock and a humbling experience for  French and California? Find out on Thursday at 730pm…

Missouri’s Norton Workshop Revealed

22 May

For the last four years, the Missouri Wine Technical Group’s Norton Workshops have taken place behind closed doors with no media present and no in-depth media coverage.  For the first time, the newly elected President of the Technical Group, Jacob Holman, winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, has agreed to talk to Regional Wine Taster in detail about the workshops and about what happened at the latest one held last Tuesday.

The Norton workshops take place at least once a year and invite winemakers from across Missouri and the Midwest to share their issues and knowledge to help improve the quality of their wines.  Winemakers bring unfinished and problem Norton wines for a blind tasting followed by constructive criticism.  The initiative was started in 2008 by the newly founded Technical Group based on the idea of one of its members, New Zealander, Andrew Meggitt, winemaker for St James Winery, who brought the concept from his home country.  At last Tuesday’s workshop, thirty winemakers representing ten wineries attended to blind taste and discuss ten different Norton wines.

Jacob Holman, President, Missouri Wine Technical Group and winemaker, Les Bourgeois Vineyards. The vineyard’s restaurant is in the background

Regional Wine Taster: Can you explain exactly what goes on at your Norton Workshops?

Jacob Holman:  What we do is three workshops a year, each focusing on a varietal and because of Norton’s importance to the Midwest, we always include it every year. We’ve also done Chambourcin, Vignoles, Lambruscas, Concord and Catawba.  The way our workshops function is you submit wine – we prefer it to be an unfinished wine, not in the bottle – and we will flight those wines and sit down and taste them blind and then we break up into groups of six to eight.  Everyone will evaluate the wines on their own and then you go around the table and your nominated scribe will take the group’s collective evaluation and then the moderator will call on that group to say what they think of wine 1A, or whatever it is. Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is “outed” and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.

RWT: In most industries, it’s hard to picture competitors critiquing each other’s products in order to help improve them.  What is it about the Midwest wine industry that allows for such cooperation?

JH: I think most people in the industry recognize that the quality of Midwest wines hinges on our knowledge and this is a good way for small wineries to sit in the same room with bigger guys who have gone through this sort of stuff. I learn something every time even though I work for one of the bigger wineries.  The basic idea is that while there might be reasons that one Norton is better than another, there’s no reason to have flawed wine. I think that within the Midwest we recognize that and are willing to help each other out and also recognize that we are a growing industry and this sort of thing helps us to compete with California wines, Oregon wines and all those other ones in the grocery store.  Overall we need to have a perspective that is good for Missouri as a whole.

“Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is ‘outed’ and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.”

RWT: How unique is this workshop? Do forums like this exist in other parts of the United States?

JH: When we started this four years ago I couldn’t find any similar workshops but there are a lot of attempts and failures from State Associations.  There are quality assurance programs that haven’t typically been very successful and those state programs are exclusive with a board of winemakers, sommeliers and retailers who will put a stamp of approval on the wine.  So if you’re a winemaker and you don’t know enough and you fail to get that stamp, that’s a black mark against you. We’re not about that, we’re about education and helping winemakers make better wines. I haven’t found a lot of this kind of cooperation in other US regions.  We’ve had a lot of, “Gee I wish we had this in our state!”  And that is something we would foster if it got big enough, for example an Illinois or a Kansas technical group, because we work with a lot of the same varietals.  That’s kind of a dream of mine, but for now it’s Midwest wines.

RWT: At the workshop you tasted unfinished and problem Nortons. What Norton problems usually come up?

JH: They can include, for example, your tank not being topped, meaning not full – so your SO2 levels will be low – that causes your wine to oxidize. To solve this I would go to an extreme and tell people that if you have 350 gallons and you only have a 300 gallon tank, fill up the 300 gallon tank, even if it means throwing the 50 gallons away. That issue applies to all wines.  As far as Norton goes in particular, today we had a speaker talk about oak management, that’s something not specific to Norton but it does have a problem with it.  Norton’s tannin structure is light, there’s not a lot of natural tannin that comes in the fruit, so it’s important to manage your tannins and manage your oak which provide tannins to be able to stabilize your color and make a bolder wine style that is agreeable.

RWT: Winemakers often say that Norton is a hard wine to make.  At these workshops do you ever advise people that they should make something easier like Chambourcin?

JH: No I would never recommend that people not make Norton, just because of its clout within the state.  I would always advise that it is very tricky to deal with and you may not want to make Norton as your first wine ever, but at the same time it is manageable. I have learned a few tricks here and there and that’s what I would tell people, as opposed to discouraging them from trying to make it.

RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method? (see: Missouri’s Les Bourgeois Vineyards Profile)

JH: Oh I do a lot of different things that are not typically standard! To deal with the pH problem, I know that Norton has a high acidity so I will actually acidify Norton.  After fermentation I will drop the pH down to a microbial management level.  The higher the pH the more chance you have of a spoilage organism surviving so you’re really the safest with your preservatives if it’s around a lower level.  Even though I have to add acid to make that happen – and the wine will be relatively undrinkable for a few months! – I will maintain that pH and therefore maintain my sulfur level to where I don’t have to worry nearly so much about spoilage.  When I finish the wine I will change it back to a higher pH and drop that acidity out because once it is sterile filtered and in the bottle, in theory, you don’t have to worry about spoilage organisms anymore.

“RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method?”

RWT: In this workshop do you ever disagree about whether a wine has a problem or not and the nature of that problem?

JH: Typically, if a wine is a problem wine there won’t be a disagreement about that but a lot of the time there’ll be disagreement on what that problem is. So if I think its high T.A. (total acidity) or V.A. (volatile acidity) somebody else might think it’s a sulfide problem for example.  And sometimes the wine’s off and we don’t necessarily know why.

RWT: Are you finding after four years of workshops that the Norton wines you’re tasting now are having fewer, less serious faults?

JH: The people who attend the workshops and take them seriously have made huge improvements in what they do and how they do things and their wines have definitely got better. However, it is a work in progress and will take years.  I’ve only had one person get really irritated with the workshop and say that they weren’t coming back! I take a certain amount of pride in that too because winemaking is something you put all your time and heart into and as long as you stay in your winery your wine can seem fine! But once you get out there and start comparing apples to apples sometimes you realize you have a problem.  That’s hard for people to stomach but for the most part everybody’s really taken on the suggestions, gone home and the next year worked on things and it’s really made a difference.

RWT: With the unfinished wines you tasted today was there anything that that surprised you particularly?  Or that was notably different to previous workshops?

Norton vines at Les Bourgeois vineyard

JH: Mmmm no. I think there were fewer flaws in general than there have been in past workshops.  We had one guy who bought this one barrel in that wasn’t the same as his other twenty barrels and he don’t know exactly what was going on. He gave us a rundown and we were able to maybe figure out what the problem was.

RWT: What did you bring to the workshop?

JH: The wine I submitted today, there’s no flaw to it, it was an unfinished 2011.  It is very green and I wanted to see what people thought of it as far as what I could do to finish it a little better. So I bought it in and it was well received and the criticisms were along the lines of the wine being green, very young and having a lot of potential but needing a lot of time, maybe a little more oak and maybe a little more structure.  Those are all things that I can do between now and when the wine is released.

RWT: How long could you age that Norton for and have it sitting in barrels so you can manipulate it?

JH:  I think everybody agrees that you have anywhere from two to ten years to age a bottle of Norton – it’s not like a Cabernet that has the tannins to hold up – so we typically will do anywhere from 12 to 24 months in barrel and then release it and I think that is relatively standard within the industry.

RWT: Is there a difference between the technical skills and equipment you need to make a Norton, as opposed to another wine variety?

JH: As far as equipment, no, as far as skills, yes, I would say that. I’m not trying to promote Norton here but I have worked with vinifera and it is much easier to deal with. You don’t have the problems that you have with the Norton and I think that goes all the way from growing that grape to the finish.

RWT: What did the tasting today indicate about the progress of your endeavors to improve the Norton and what still needs to be worked on?

JH:  Well, as far as the progress goes for the Missouri Wine Technical Group I was very happy with the way things went today. I was also happy with the wine quality in general but I really believe that if we had more wineries represented (note: there were 10 represented and Jacob would like that boosted to about 30) then I think everyone could benefit a little more, so that’s the goal of the group, to get more membership and get more attendance.

Norton vines in my backyard

RWT: During four years of your Technical Group, what new varietals are you seeing more of?

JH: Well, we do experimental cultivar tasting through the University of Missouri in Columbia and some people are biting on that and there are some grapevines that are being planted that haven’t always been planted but I don’t think it’s a mad rush to do so…

RWT: Which ones?

JH: The best example I can think of off the top of my head would be Valvin muscat, a muscat cross that’s able to be grown in the Midwest. I’ve noticed a lot of people growing that and we actually had some interest in that today as the next Workshop but I don’t think we will because there’s probably not enough people making wine out of it yet . As far as consumers go, from what I hear in the tasting room and from what I see people buying, Vignoles is something that I think Missouri has a handle on and now people ask for it by varietal, more so than anything else apart from Norton.

RWT: The fact that people are actually asking for their local grapes by name, that must be quite pleasing?

JH: Yes it is.  This is something that has only happened recently, within my short career over the last 12 to 13 years.  When I started, no-one ever asked for Norton or Vignoles by name, it was all, you know, “Let me have your sweet white,” or, “Let me have your dry red,” but I believe that’s changing to some extent.

RWT:  Thanks very much for your time President Holman! 

JH: Ha! Ha! No problem, I hope you got what you need.

Interview with Todd Kliman, author of The Wild Vine

29 Mar

Here’s the video interview with Todd Kilman about his book The Wild Vine and its “untold story of American wine”.  As explained in the previous posting, Todd wanted to be incognito, so that’s why there’s a little too much of me early in the interview.  Also, I didn’t follow-up the first question and clarify what exactly Todd was doing and how he got hooked on the Norton grape.  Todd got hooked on the Norton when he was drinking wine with friends during the fifth consecutive night of a blackout in Washington DC.  Here’s how he tells what happened in The Wild Vine:

“Whether it was the lateness of the  hour, the subtle power of the wine, the sense of being at the mercy of the elements, my drunkenness, or all of these things working on me at once, I can’t say, but it was as if what I was drinking was an embodiment of the moment, the mystery, a correlative to our primal condition.  It was dark, it was earthy; there was something wild, something alive, in the glass.

I had seldom tasted this earthiness in California wines.  I did taste it in European wines…but the Norton was bigger than most of those wines…

The conversation had moved on by this time, to talk of other meals, of movies, of how long we could live without our modern comforts, but I hadn’t moved on.  I was still thinking about the Norton.”  (page 8, The Wild Vine, Todd Kliman)

An appropriate teaser for the full interview.  Here it is:

Midwest Wine Conference: The Grape Chemist Part I

15 Feb

Rich DeScenzo is a microbiologist with ETS Laboratories in St Helena, California and a grape chemistry expert.  Rich has spent a decade researching grape genomics (examining the DNA sequences of grapes) molecular diagnostic methods and fermentation.  I was attracted to the ETS booth on the trade show not by Dr DeScenzo’s scientific pedigree, but instead by a large plastic scorpion, the mascot for one of their diagnostic technologies.   As he poked the scorpion, Rich told me that ETS is the biggest independent wine laboratory in the United States with about 45 employees who do the microbiological analysis for almost 90% of the domestic wine industry.  Their aim is to prevent microbial spoilage at the grape, bottling or beyond stages of the wine production chain, what Rich describes as “full spectrum analysis.”  The good doctor was lively and entertaining as he explained the microbiological problems that can occur during the wine making process.  Here’s the first part of our conversation.

Richard DeScenzo, Microbiology Group Leader, ETS Laboratories

Danny: So if I’m a Midwest grape called the Norton and I’m not tasting too great…?

Rich:  I’ve just tasted two very nice Nortons thank you! One had a little bit of Brettanomyces in it, but not bad.  I tasted one yesterday too that had a little of what I might call a microbial funk in it.

Danny: Is that what produces that inside of an artichoke can taste?

Rich:  Well there are lots of different ones.   I’m the microbiologist so I’m very tuned into microbial spoilage and that’s what we focus on trying to help people prevent and we have all the diagnostic tools.  I gave a talk yesterday (Friday 10th February) at 830am, it was the first talk early in the morning…

Danny: Nice to get it out-of-the-way?

Rich: Yeah, yeah! There were about 30 people and they came for a microbiology talk.  Historically people have looked at microbiology as regards the wine industry as a forensics tool, in other words, if something goes wrong you call the microbiologist, for example  if the wine starts smelling.  We have the tools now that we can prevent spoilage because we can detect the organisms long before they spoil the wine.  Overall I’ve tasted a number of wines here and I was very pleasantly surprised at some very nice wines.  There are some that have some problems but it doesn’t matter if it’s a Norton or a Cabernet from Napa, you still have problems in the wine.

Danny:  So people come to you when they have a problem but are you able to tinker with things in the wine?

Rich: We’re able to tell them what caused the problem.  If we catch it before it’s a problem that’s really the power we have and what we’re seeing is a gradual shift in the industry towards pre-emptive screening instead of forensic analysis.  Now with the chemistry side, the chemistry is the standard, you need to follow things, you need to know, where are my sugar levels? Is sugar dropping? Is all the sugar gone?  Is my fermentation complete?  Or malolactic fermentation, is it complete?  That type of thing.  There’s a great deal of science behind this and what’s interesting, really interesting, is that people who want to have the fewest touches on the wine, the very purest, minimal impact, those are the people who benefit most from having all the information.  If you’re one of the large manufacturers and you’re adding lots of SO2 and you filter and then you sterile filter in bottling, maybe you don’t need to know as much, because it’s more like an industrial wine production, but for the folks who are really trying to do as little as possible then the more technology they use and the more helpful it is.

Danny: Is there a typical problem that wineries just starting out come to you with?

Rich:  I think the biggest problems early on revolve around sanitation, and not sanitation in a way that there is anything that could possibly harm anyone, but sanitation and not understanding the difference between say cleaning something and then sterilizing or sanitizing it.  So a lot of times they end up making a wine which is a nice wine and then they go to the bottle and some microbes, bacteria or yeast get into the bottle and they spoil the wine.  That’s what we’ve had a lot of comments about  in the context that, maybe in the first few years a winery doesn’t have a lot of natural microbial inhabitants, but over time you start building up these populations in your winery, your house strains, and then you can get bugs in there that can cause a problem in the wine.

Danny: Gosh!

Rich: And so that’s probably for the startups, other than the basics people need to know.  Invariably they start having problems with microbial spoilage, that’s usually the big one, either that or oxidation, that’s the other big issue.

Danny:  Can there be a fine line between the job a microbiologist like you and the task of a winemaker?

Rich: No! We’re completely different.  For winemakers, their job is to keep the right microbes in and keep the bad ones out, but there’s so much more to it all in the decisions during the process, like when to harvest the grapes, how to manage the canopies, what crop load on the grapes, what yeast they select, what bacteria, what oak, what toast level.  These are decisions they make along the way and we don’t really influence any of that, what we do is work specifically on the chemistry of the wine and then prevent microbial spoilage.

This is the first part of a two-part interview.  In the second – and arguably more interesting part – Rich gives his views on Midwest wines and the future of the industry.  Part II will be posted very soon.

Kansas Wine Causes Bottle Shock

11 Jan

In a video interview with Regional Wine Taster, Michelle Meyer, owner of Holy-Field Vineyard, tells how a Californian wine connoisseur was gifted a bottle of their Holy-Field Late Harvest Vignoles dessert wine and took it to a blind tasting where it faced the best bottles his wine friends had to offer, including a Dom Perignon, a Chateau Mouton Rothschild and high-end Californian wines.   Against this classy opposition, Holy-Field’s dessert wine was the hit of the tasting!  Michelle says the Californian wine fans were “tickled” when the Kansas identity of the wine was revealed and they regarded it as the one everyone wanted to top.

Michelle says the response from these wine fans underlines the  US public’s growing interest in trying regional wines.  “I think for a lot of people regionality is becoming more important and as that happens they’re pleasantly surprised to find something outside the traditional wine regions, ” Michelle says.

Perhaps today, some Kansas and Missouri wines stand in relation to Californian wines, how three decades ago Californian wines stood in relation to French wines (like that Judgement of Paris 1976).   Maybe Missouri and Kansas wines could use a few more ‘bottle shocks’ like this to help both their reputation and challenge the wine status quo.