Thursday, May 13, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 14

 "Experience is the name men give to their follies or their sorrows." Alfred de Musset, French romantic dramatist and poet

In episode 13, Marvin Shanken, owner and publisher of the Wine Spectator and I met a little unexpected antagonism in London and then spent a couple of days in Barbaresco and Barolo enjoying northern Italian food accompanied by the wines of Angelo Gaja.  Once back in the states, we continued to move the Spectator forward.

                                      Judging at Los Angeles International Wine Competition - Social Vignerons

Newspaper publishing is non-stop and it doesn't recognize business trips. Take a week off to visit Europe and stories are waiting for you when you return.  Such was the case when I got back to my desk, plus I knew we were planning for the first Wine Experience in New York and before then, I had a wine judging. 

Unlike today, where it seems like there is a wine competition every other week, in the early 1980s, there was only the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition.  It was a big event, held over three days at the fairgrounds in Pomona.  

The LA competition attracted judges from across the country and occasionally, from Europe.  There wasn't anything like it in the United States and European wine people were not yet interested in the concept of wine competitions.

Nathan Chroman, a Los Angeles attorney and part time wine consultant, ran the competition.  It was considered an honor to get a phone call from Nathan inviting you to come to Los Angeles to judge wine.  As a writer, it was a rare opportunity to taste and learn about hundreds of wines in a controlled setting, without having to buy the wines yourself.  

The roster of wine judges then included many recognizable members of the California wine community or folks associated with wine: Robert Lawrence Balzer (Los Angeles Times wine writer), Belle and Barney Rhodes (original owners of Martha's Vineyard in the Napa Valley), Dimitri Tchelistcheff (winemaker son of Beaulieu Vineyard's famous winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff), Peter Sichel (New York based head of the German wine family), Phil Posson ("father" of California sherry), Bob Thompson (noted wine book author), Darrell Corti (wine buyer for Corti Brothers and noted wine authority), Steve Mirassou (member of the Mirassou wine family), and many others, plus a collection of "friends of Nathan," aka wealthy wine savvy Southern California consumers, including a few members of the so-called "Wine Mafia."  

Bleary-eyed and hungry, for at least a cup of coffee, we filed into the tasting room at the fairgrounds in Pomona to face our assignments for the day.  Chroman announced the panel assignments and admonished the judges to be fair to the wines.  There were four judges to a panel and each judge had a tasting table, surrounded on three sides by curtains. A large can with a couple of inches of saw dust served as the spit bucket. 

Every year, Chroman invited a "guest" judge, someone prominent in the wine, food or hospitality industries that would add a little class while, hopefully, drum up publicity for the competition.  The wine boom of the seventies was past and newspapers and magazines were cooling to the idea of promoting wine competitions. 

In 1979, my second year as a judge at Los Angeles, Chroman invited a young New York restaurateur who just happened to have the hottest restaurant in Manhattan at that time.  It turns out the hapless guy didn't know much about about wine and even less about the workings of wine competitions.  

About midday, his panel mates were waiting at the caucus table to discuss a flight of wines and they looked over at their missing judge's cubicle and were surprised to see the errant judge with his head on the table and a bone dry spit bucket on the floor beside his chair.  No one had told the poor guy to spit not sip so after about six flights of 10 wines each, he was blitzed! 

Since this was my second year, I felt a little more at ease, even though I had never goten any feedback on my performance as a judge on Darrell Corti's panel the previous year.  Corti always tasted with Phil Posson, the recognized expert in California on fortified wines.  On the first morning, I arrived at my panel to see an array of California "dry" Sherries and thought, this must be a test for the new guy.  

                          The “We Hours”. On needing one another more than ever. | by Sherry McGuinn  | Medium

Corti quickly got introductions out of the way and we adjourned to our tasting cubicles, where I discovered how variable a line of fortified wines can be. 

But it was at the caucus table where I learned a lot about how fortified wine is made and in particular what makes a good California Sherry.  It was soon clear to me that Spanish Sherry is unique and as pleasant as California Sherry may be, it is not the real thing. And I also found out that I wasn't being tested.

I have judged at Los Angeles for a number of years and noticed that every year one or more odd wines would be entered.  Every year, a Southern California winery entered a green mint-flavored wine that became known by the judges as "Scope," since it looked and tasted like the popular mouthwash.  

"Scope" was always awarded an Honorable Mention, even though most of the judges did not like it as a wine.  Honorable Mention was an award unique to the Los Angeles competition.  But by awarding a wine an Honorable Mention, judges could identify the wine, since only the names of winning wines were released.

I could write a book about my experiences as a wine judge, but it's time to move on. In the next episode of "My Life in Wine," I recount the entertaining happens of the first Wine Spectator Wine Experience, held at Windows on the World in New York. 


Next Blog: Savoring Soave

Contact me at


Thursday, May 6, 2021

Cote de Beaune

"Wine is the intellectual part of the meal."  Alexander Dumas

 In the last edition of this blog I wrote about comprehending Chablis, a Chardonnay made in a part of Burgundy separated by 60 miles from the main part of Burgundy in the Cote de Beaune, which is also known for Chardonnay. 

At the heart of Burgundy is the Cote d'Or, a narrow band of celebrated vineyards, running roughly from Dijon in the north to Chagny in the south, a distance of about 35 miles.  The Cote d'Or (Golden Slope) is divided into the Cote d'Nuits, known for red wines made from Pinot Noir and the Cote de Beaune, famous both for Pinot Noirs and white wines made from Chardonnay. 

The city of Beaune is the capital of Burgundy, although the political capital is in Dijon.  It has been that way since the area was settled as a Roman camp. A Beaune landmark is the Hospice de Beaune, a Middle Age charity hospital that serves today as the site for the famous auction of Burgundy wines, held annually at vintage.

The first merchant houses were founded in the 18th century.  Today, the names Bouchard, Jadot, Drouhin and Latour are synonymous with great Burgundy.

Sponsored image
Hospice de Beaune

South of the city of Beaune, is where the Cote de Beaune really starts.  First is Pommard, then Volnay and Monthelie.  Three of the most vaunted names for white Burgundy -- Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet -- follow.  Santaney is the most major southern wine town.

Digression -- Burgundians would think it strange to mention the grape in the region's wines.  Unlike California where it is common for wines to be labeled by the grape name, most French wines (Alsace is an exemption) are identified by a place name, such as the Cote de Beaune. 

The nature of French wine making is to discuss the various component parts of a wine, of which the grape is but one component part of a specific terroir.

Puligny and Chassagne are two communes that wisely added the name of the most famous Chardonnay vineyard in the world, Le Montrachet, to the commune name: Puligny-Montrachet.  The reputation of the coveted Le Montrachet is far greater  than the size (20 acres) of the vineyard.  Some observers maintain the Chardonnay rooted in limestone is key to the depth and complexity of Montrachet. 

There are four other top-end Chardonnays with Montrachet attached to their names: Batard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet and the rarely seen Criots-Batard-Montrachet.

Soil is an important factor in distinguishing the red wines of the Cote de Nuits and those of the Cote de Beaune.  In general, soils in the north are richer, redder and with more iron, while those further south are lighter and with more sand than iron. This difference means that Cote de Beaune reds are medium in body and more likely to be at their peak in less than 10 years, while Cote de Nuits reds are richer, with more body, structure and aging potential. 

There is a great deal of variation in the fermentation and aging of Cote de Beaune reds.  Some producers prefer a long maceration with added stems, while others go for a shorter maceration with a little or no stems. 

Resting the fermented wines in barrel for one year is the general rule, but the time in wood can be up to 18 months. There's also the type of oak to consider, plus the cooper and how much to toast the barrels.  Finally, the question is to fine and filter or not. The main reason not to fine and filter is the belief that the practice reduces the flavor and aging potential of the wine.

Burgundy grand cru: small volume, high prices | BKWine Magazine |
A typical Burgundy barrel cellar

Digression -- Prior to bottling, a winemaker ponders whether or not to fine and filter the wine.  Fining is a process aimed at clarifying the wine by using an agent such as egg whites or bentonite clay as a coagulant, causing microscopic particles to fall out of the wine, thus keeping it from turning hazy.  Filtering is a process for removing solid particles, such as yeast cells, from a wine.  Generally speaking, fining is gentler on a wine than filtering, making filtering a more controversial practice in the cellar.

Why am I going into wine making detail?  Because when you're  staring at a shelf lined with red Burgundies, it's important to know that stylistically, there are differences between a Clos de Vougeot  (Cote de Nuits) and a Volnay Callerets (Cote de Beaune).   Vougeot is dense and robust when young, but with bottle age, develops a refined earthiness.  On the other hand, Volnay is lighter with less finesse, becoming fruitier and more robust with age.

Prices for Cote de Beaune wines vary widely.  At the low end there's a standard Santaney, $30, while a Clos de Cortons Grand Cru will cost you $230.  Other prices: Beaune 1er Cru, $38 to $50; Pommard 1er Cru, $190; Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru, $40 to $60, Clos Vougeot, $480.

What foods to serve with Cote de Beaune Burgundy is always a matter of personal taste. The classic match with red Burgundy is game birds.  A more practical choice might be a lightly seasoned beef stew made with the same wine.  With white Burgundy, the classic match is fish or a lightly sauced chicken.  Whatever your choice, save your best bottle for the table and use a lesser wine for the recipe, such as a Volnay or Cote de Beaune, rather than the Volnay Callerets. 


Next blog:  My Life in Wine Episode 14

Contact me at


Thursday, April 29, 2021

Comprehending Chablis

"To a lover of Chardonnay wines, the grape variety announces itself as unmistakably as the theme of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  No other white grape has a more complex aroma. No other white wine has a more welcome caress as it lingers on the palate." Eleanor McCrea, California vintner


Summer is not far off and that means it's time to lighten up.  Your wine choices, that is.  For those of you that have been drinking white wine throughout the year, take a bow.  Otherwise, consider chilling down a bottle of Chablis.

Chablis is the original no-oak Chardonnay.  Unlike white Burgundy, traditional Chablis is (mostly) unoaked, making Chablis a great summer sipper or with the kind of light foods that seem to be right with warmer weather.   

The region of Chablis, in northeast France, is part of Burgundy, although it is about 60 miles from the main part of Burgundy.  In fact, Chablis is closer to Champagne than it is to the rest of Burgundy. 

Geography aside, the vineyards of Chablis grow only Chardonnay, the same white grape of the Cote de Beaune sector of Burgundy and, in fact, the same white grape of Champagne. 

First-Taste Guide to Chablis | Burgundy Wine | Opening a Bottle
A little chapel on a hill in Chablis

In 1938, the Chablis appellation was separated into four classes.  At the top is Grand Cru Chablis, made from seven named vineyards, such as Les Clos, Les Preuses, Vaudes, all grouped on a slope near the small town of Chablis. Next is Premier Cru Chablis, with 40 named vineyards.  Then, come those wines identified simply as Chablis, followed by Petit Chablis.  

Although this ranking is assured by law, it is important to remember that quality and value vary up and down the ranks, with Petit Chablis sometimes offering higher quality for the money, then say, a Premier Cru.

Digression -- One of the disadvantages of the French Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) wine laws could be described as the unfortunate reality of exclusion.  For example, two vineyards may only be separated by a road, but a number of factors, with soil composition usually the most important, determines that one vineyard is Premier Cru and another not.  Further, the owners of the seven Grand Cru vineyards, by virtue of their AOC status and not quality (although the Grand Cru wines are of high quality), may ask a premium price for their wines.

For comparison, here are the prices for the three levels of Chablis from the noted producer William Fevre:  Chablis, $30; Premier Cru "Montre de Tonnerre," $70;  Grand Cru Vaudesir, $150.  Petit Chablis from an array of wineries is about  $18-$20, while older Grand Crus can get up to $600.                         

                       684 Chablis Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime

What is the difference between Grand Cru, Premier Cru and standard Chablis?   More importantly, are the differences worth the steep price increases?  Good questions, so let's take a closer look.  

Terroir and price are the main factors that determine the status of a vineyard. Based on such stable factors as soil and grape variety, a determination is made for Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Chablis. That is, if the combination of the Chardonnay grape and soil composition produce a complex wine of depth, complexity and potential, that vineyard may be designated as Grand Cru. Anything less will likely be Premier Cru.

That, of course, is a very simplified explanation. There are other determining factors besides grape and soil, foremost being money. A case in point is the Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, in 1973, using his position, power and money to convince authorities that, Ch. Mouton-Rothschild deserved to be elevated from a Second Growth to a First Growth in the 1855 Classification of Medoc wines.  

Traditionally, Chablis has been made without the benefit of oak. However,  in the late 20th century, a group of Chablis winemakers, notably Regnard, Louis Michel and others, decided that a modest touch of oak brings an extra dimension to their wines without masking the characteristic crisp acidity and the subtle mineral aspect that distinguishes Chablis

The Non-Chablis "Chablis"-- Back in the day, it was not uncommon for large California wineries to trade on French, German and Italian wine and  place names like "Burgundy" and "Chablis," "Rhine" and "Chianti."  Usually, the wines were generic blends of lesser varieties such as Alicante and Colombard.  California "Chablis" was often a blend of Colombard and Chenin Blanc.

The practice of using European wine names has mostly disappeared, but it might be interesting to conclude with a short commentary from nearly 50 years ago by Leon Adams, often considered "The Dean" of American wine writers, in his seminal "Wines of America," about the use of "Chablis" by two of California's largest wineries.

 "A puzzling consequence of generic labeling is that American vintners, being individuals, have never agreed on just what the semi-generic European names mean. (American) Chablis is mostly white and burgundies are red (unless labeled white), but these wines can range in taste all the way from bone dry to semi-sweet, depending upon which American winery makes them. I wonder how the citizens of the small Burgundian town of Chablis, world-famed solely for its dry white wine, must have felt when they first learned in 1965 that Gallo of California had begun labeling one of its two rose wines as 'pink chablis,' and soon afterward when the Italian Swiss Colony introduced a red wine labeled 'ruby chablis.'" 

The choice is yours.  Select Chablis at any level, depending on your budget, or go for a crisp Chardonnay from Washington state and Oregon, or an unoaked Chardonnay from California's cooler regions like Mendocino's Anderson Valley, Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara County.

Next Blog: Cote de Beaune

Contact me at

Thursday, April 22, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 13

 "Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain, with grammar and nonsense and learning. Good liquor, I stoutly maintain, gives genius a better discerning."  Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer

In Episode 12, I furthered my education in wine as editor of the Wine Spectator, a job that involved recruiting new writers, including an outspoken Master of Wine and a computer software salesman with a passion for the wines of Bordeaux.

From my earliest days with the "Wine Spectator," the paper's small staff was holed up in a converted cottage in San Diego.  Not long after I was hired, the lease was about to run out and the Spectator's owner, Marvin Shanken, didn't want to renew it, so it was time to move. 

For a short time, we found offices in an industrial park on the north side of the city.  I didn't know it then, but the move was temporary as plans were being hatched for the big move to San Francisco.  It also came as news that Marvin had decided to launch the first Wine Experience and that he and I were to travel to Europe to visit some important wine people, with a stop in London to meet our competition. 

In the early 1980s, the narrow world of wine writing and publishing was limited and generally acknowledged to be dominated by the British wine writer establishment.  "Wine" was the first major wine magazine. Published in London, "Wine" featured a small group of noted English wine writers that included Hugh Johnson, Pamela Vandyke Price, Michael Broadbent, Christopher Fielden and Clive Coates.  Eventually, "Wine" ceased publishing and was later replaced by "Decanter."

   Bridge During Golden Hour

Digression -- Following the "Judgement in Paris," interest in wine in the United States took off like a shot.  It was the 1980s and things were moving fast.  Wine writing in America had entered a "Golden Age," with every major metropolitan newspaper sporting a wine column and wine features were showing up in popular food, home and fashion magazines.  Subscriptions to so-called "buff"magazines were must-haves for wine drinkers.  One of the first was "Grand Cru," published in Chicago, that only lasted for a few issues.  Before the "Wine Spectator," there was Los Angeles-based "Wine World," and "Vintage," from New York.   Also, the national wine lovers organization, "Les Amis du Vin" had its own magazine and there was a variety of private wine newsletters like "California Grapevine."

Having a London meet-and-greet with our English counterparts sounded like a good idea to Marvin Shanken.  And so, one evening a guarded group of invited English writers came to Nick Lander's (the husband of wine writer Jancis Robinson) restaurant in Covent Garden to sip wine, nibble hors d'oeuvres and meet the Yanks. 

Even though the English writers tended to stay in their own little clutches, mostly avoiding conversations with us, the evening went well and was mostly civil.  Until, Tony Lord, a "Decanter" editor blurted out, more to me than to Marvin, "What the fuck are you doing here?"  

I was so stunned by Lord's crude explosive greeting, that I didn't know what to say.  We were being snubbed at our own reception!  Fortunately, Jancis Robinson, the "unofficial host" stepped in and explained to Lord why we were on his turf, as it were. 

Later, one of the English writers with a noticeable dislike of  Australians, whispered to me that Tony Lord is a "bore and he drinks too much."  Back in my hotel room, recapping the evening, I quietly laughed to myself thinking, how ironic that Lord, an Aussie, was asking Marvin and me, Americans, what we were doing in London.

Whatever, the next day, we caught a flight to Milan, Italy, for a trip to Barbaresco and Barolo. Marvin got behind the wheel of a rental car, because, as I discovered later, he was a white-knuckle passenger when someone else is driving the car.

Gaja Barbaresco 2017 |
Gaja Barbaresco

We were in Barbaresco to visit Angelo Gaja, a solid supporter of the "Spectator"  and a friendly hospitable man.  Gaja's wines, and later the man himself, were becoming favorites in America and growing in demand.  After some driving around, we found the winery in the village of Barbaresco.  Angelo greeted us like errant cousins who had gone to America.  We had a nice tour and a taste of Gaja wines, then Angelo said he had made reservations at a restaurant in the hills and that he would collect us at our hotel. 

It had already started to get dark when Angelo pulled up to the hotel in a shiny dark blue Mercedes station wagon.  I mention the brand of the car because in those days it was customary for northern Italian winemakers to drive either a dark blue Lancia or Alpha Romeo.  But then, as the wine world was learning, Angelo Gaja was not your ordinary Italian winemaker. 

We sped away from the hotel, weaving along the narrow twisting hillside roads.  Marvin was in the passenger seat with one hand gripping the door arm rest and the other holding tightly to the dashboard.  Angelo was having fun, all the while grinning from ear to ear and trying to engage Marvin in conversation. 

Unfortunately, the name of the restaurant in the Barbaresco hills where we ate that night is lost to me after all these years, but I do remember it being a family affair - mama in the kitchen, papa working the dining room and an adult son handling cleanup and washing dishes.  

More importantly, the food was memorable, especially paired with Gaja wines, and it kept coming. The whole experience was a revelation, but the northern Italian food was so different to the heavier red-sauced Italian food I was used to growing up in the Philadelphia area.  

We made it back to our hotel, full of food and wine, but better for our experience in the Piedmont hills.  Next stop, the Milan airport and the flight home, Marvin to New York and me to San Diego. 

In the next episode (No. 14), we gear up for the first Wine Spectator Wine Experience in the World Trade Center, and I travel to Pomona to judge wines at the Los Angeles County Fair, an experience that had me staring at an array of California Sherries at eight o'clock in the morning. 


Next Blog: Comprehending Chablis

Contact me at