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

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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

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Barbera & Dolcetto

"Barbera is best known outside Italy for being Piedmont's second-best red grape after Nebbiolo ... Dolcetto is not as prestigious as Barbera or Nebbiolo...,"  "Oz Clarke's Encyclopedia of Grapes"

414 Barbera Grapes Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime
Barbera Vineyards

Make no mistake, Nebbiolo is Piedmont's best red grape, hands down.  But Italian red wine drinkers do not, and should not, live on Nebbiolo alone. There is more to Piedmontese wines than Nebbiolo.

There are Barbera and Dolcetto.  The former is a noteworthy red that has struggled for recognition, not because it doesn't deserve it, but because Nebbiolo is such a spotlight hog.  Barbera is berry-rich, with ample body and texture. Add aging in small oak barrels and Barbera takes on layers of dark fruits, plus a hint of exotic spice.  

Dolcetto, on the other hand, tastes more like ripe cherries, with bracing acidity and firm tannins.  Dolcetto has a lighter body and finishes with moderate fruit and a trace of anise.  A plate of pasta with red sauce is the perfect partner with a glass of Dolcetto.

Digression -- Although it may be splitting hairs, there are differences between licorice, anise and fennel.  All three smell and taste similar, but there are nuances that a wine taster should be aware.  Licorice is made from the juice of a root and is usually combined with other ingredients such as molasses.  Anise is a plant with a flavor more like fennel than licorice.  Fennel is also a plant, but in the same group as parsley.  The taste of fennel is more like anise than licorice.  The bottom line, then, is  most red wines smell more like anise than licorice. 

Barbera -- In the Piedmont, Barbera is more important than Dolcetto, for its versatility.  A strong characteristic of Barbera is its high natural acidity, which makes it a valuable red grape, especially in warm areas.  Ironically, the high acidity kept Barbera from being a big seller in American markets, because the wine did not appeal to American wine drinkers who were used to softer reds with ripe fruit flavors and moderate acidity.

Traditionally, Barbera was not oak aged in Piedmont.  Then, in the 1980s, a number of producers, led by Giacomo Bologna, released an oak-aged Barbera and the fight was on. The addition of oak changed the flavor profile of Barbera to more spice and rich dark fruits.  Traditionalists cried that this new wine was not a Piedmont Barbera, but the style stuck and today both oaked and non-oaked Barberas are made. 

The three most important DOCs for Barbera in Piedmont are Asti, Alba and Montferrato.  Vineyards sprawl across the hills in these areas, providing optimum conditions for the best Barbera in the region.

Elsewhere in Italy, Barbera is a popular variety in neighboring Lombardy, mainly in Oltrepo Pavese and can be found in Emilia-Romagna and Campania.  In South America, Barbera's high acidity proved valuable in the warmer parts of Argentina's Mendoza Valley, where growers struggle sometimes to raise acidity before ripeness gets out of hand.

Expect to pay between $20 and $30 a bottle for Italian Barbera, although a few special wines like Giacomo Bologna Bricco del Uccellone sells for $80.  At the other end of the price range is Fontanafredda Barbera, $15.  Other producers offering a Barbera: Bruno Giacosa, Scarpa, Vietti, Pio Cesare and G.D. Vajra.

293 Dolcetto Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime
Dolcetto Vineyard

Dolcetto -- In terms of natural acidity, Dolcetto is the polar opposite of Barbera.  Dolcetto is grown in the northwest part of Piedmont, mainly in  the provinces of Cuneo and Alba.

The flavors of Dolcetto are round and fruity, with relatively low acidity; the ideal foil for Piedmont's bigger reds, like Barbera.  Dolcetto's early-drinking profile allows wineries to offer customers an alternative to Barbera and Nebbiolo.  

In Italian, Dolcetto means "little sweet one," although most Dolcettos are dry, with a sweet fruit impression. Dolcetto is made to be drunk early, but those from the province of Dogliani are considered to be more complex and age worthy. 

Piemontese Dolcetto d'Albas are priced at $20 to $25, with the Mascarello at $51 and Giuseppe Rinaldi Dolcetto, $54. Other Dolcettos: G.D. Vajra, Pio Cesare, Luigi Einaudi, Bruno Giacosa, Vietti, Poderi Oddero and Fontannafedda.  

If variety truly is the spice of life, then next time you're thinking of buying a Nebbiolo-based red, spice up your wine life with a Barbera or Dolcetto.


Next Blog: My Life in Wine Episode 13

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Thursday, April 8, 2021

Deciphering Pinot Gris & Pinot Blanc

It was the Pinot grape that inspired Alexander Dumas to declare that the wines of the Cote d'Or (Burgundy) should be drunk kneeling and bareheaded.

Well, maybe.  But there are other grapes that seek your attention and understanding. For example, there's Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, two grapes (and wines) that are in the same large pinot family, but couldn't be more different. 

Pierre Galet, the renown French ampelographer, says the pinot family has more than 1,000 clones, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot St. George. And while we can't list all 1,000 here, we can talk about Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. 

Both grapes have a French lineage: gris is French for gray and blanc means white. But here's where it gets fuzzy.  Pinot Gris is more purple than gray and the color of Pinot Blanc is yellow with a green tint, not white.  And, Pinot Blanc is a white mutation of Pinot Gris, which is, in fact, a whiter (or grayer) version of Pinot Noir. 

In France, most of the acreage devoted to Pinot Blanc is in Alsace, which as it happens, also is where you'll find most French Pinot Gris.  Until recently, for some unknown reason, Alsace Pinot Gris was called Tokay d'Alsace.  Problem is, there is a renown fortified wine in Hungary called Tokaj (Tokay in English), so the Hungarians appealed to the EU, forcing the Alsatians to change the name of their wine.                


Pinot Gris PNG and Pinot Gris Transparent Clipart Free Download. - CleanPNG  / KissPNG
Pinot Gris

Alsace Pinot Gris is one of the region's most important grapes, right behind Riesling and Gewurztraminer, while most Pinot Blanc is blended with Auxerrois, replacing Sylvaner, for a popular blend. However, in his reference book "Grape Varieties," Pierre Galet does not include Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris in the list of 36 "great " wine grapes.  Nor, for that matter does noted English wine writer Jancis Robinson mention either grape under Alsace or Italy, in her book "Vintage Timecharts."                             

Whites Grapes (Pinot Blanc) In The Vineyard, Croatia. Stock Photo, Picture  And Royalty Free Image. Image 62561442.
Pinot Blanc

As for Pinot Blanc, the grape is known by two names in Alsace: Pinot Blanc and Clevner or Klevner.  Alsatian winemakers like Pinot Blanc for sparkling Cremant d'Alsace.  And while Pinot Blanc is at home in Alsace, it is still associated with Burgundy and is allowed in wines labeled Borgogne Blanc and Macon, both more often associated with Chardonnay.                                                           

Unfortunately, that association has caused some confusion.  Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay look similar on the vine and have similar aromatics. Sorting out the two grapes also caused some confusion in northern Italy vineyards, where a lot of Pinot Bianco is grown.            

Digression -- In the late 1990s, one of the most successful importers of Italian wines was native Kiwi Neal Empson, who with his wife, Maria, owned Empson  USA.  I first met Neal in Italy when the northern wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia were setting sales records in the United States, especially for Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) and Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris).  Empson is a charming man with a dry wit and a sly smile. "When I first went to northern Italy to look at vineyards, I noticed that they were growing Pinot Blanc but calling it Chardonnay, the grapes were that close," he said with a sly smile, shaking his head.

The mix up in the vineyard eventually got sorted out, although it still takes a knowledgeable grower to tell the difference. Friuli and the surrounding region now export both a Chardonnay and a Pinot Bianco.

How close are the aromatics and flavors of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris?  Let's take a look.

Appearance -- In the glass, both wines are a golden yellow, with Pinot Blanc the lighter of the two.  Pinot Gris, especially with some bottle age, begins to look and taste like honey.  Depth of color, of course, is also dependent on whether the wine was fermented in oak or aged in oak. 

Aromatics -- Pinot Blanc can be bland, but the best have a subtle spicy note. Pinot Gris is more aggressive and complex on the nose, with honey, spice and traces of musky/funky notes.  Again, oak will make a difference in the aromatics. 

Flavor -- Pinot Blanc has a subtle, non-aggressive flavor with citrus and spicy accents.  Pinot Gris is more exotic and honeyed, with underlying spice. 

These sensory characteristics are for Alsace Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.  The same two varieties grown somewhere else will be different.  New Zealand Pinot Gris is intensely varietal, while California Pinot Blanc, especially oaked, is often mistaken for Chardonnay.

                                              PINOT GRIS

A few words on Oregon Pinot Gris.  In wine terms, Oregon got a bad rap for a long time for being a one-trick pony, that being Pinot Noir and little else.  For years there wasn't much interest in Oregon Chardonnay, although that has changed.  Both Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris seemed to adapt to Oregon's cool climate growing conditions. 

Buying Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris is easier than identifying them in the vineyard.  There are scores of both wines from Alsace wineries like Lucien Albrecht, Hugel, Zind Humbrecht, Dopff au Moulin, FE Trimbach and Schlumberger, priced between $22 and $96, the more expensive ones being special bottlings. 

California Pinot Gris from McMurray, Folie a Deux, La Crema, Hahn Family, Cline Cellars, Etude and Kendall-Jackson, to name but a few, range in price from $17 to $20. 

In general, Oregon Pinot Gris are priced a few dollars more than those from California.  Look for Elk Cove, King Estate, Montinore Estate,The Eyrie Vineyard, Erath, The Four Graces, Ponzi and Foris.

There is life after Chardonnay and now is the time to live it with a glass of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Next Blog:  Barbera & Dolcetto

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Thursday, April 1, 2021

How did you get into wine?

  Gabriel-Glas | Universal Wine Glasses - One Glass For All

"How did you get into wine?" is a question I hear a lot.  The H question fills most wine writers with dread, similar to the way we feel when someone asks, "What's your favorite wine?"

I know, I know, I should be a little more appreciative and a little less cranky, since, after all, I taste wine all day, travel a lot and eat fancy meals.  Well, not exactly, but I get the point.

People are sincere in their curiosity, but the H question begs a response in twenty-five words or less; they want the bottom line, not a long story.  So I thought I would take a stab at explaining how I got into wine without, hopefully, raising the boredom level too much. 

My earliest memory of wine in our house was my mother taking the occasional glass of Port because she thought it would "build my blood."  Mom's tipple was not Port from Portugal, but likely a deep ruby wine from New York's Finger Lakes, made from local grapes and fortified with brandy. 

After dinner, mom would relax a few minutes in her favorite chair, maybe smoke her one cigarette of the day, while savoring a small water glass of Port.  I pestered her for a taste, but she wouldn't allow it,  And she made sure that I understood that if I sneaked a taste while she was at work, she would know. But all was not lost.

In my neighborhood, outside Philadelphia, wine usually came out of a glass demijohn kept in someone's cellar. This all happened only about 10 years after the repeal of Prohibition and people were experimenting with home made wine, usually in the unfinished space under their house, locally referred to as a "cellar."  No one I knew had a "basement" in our neighborhood. 

But like many small provincial neighborhoods, there were secrets. One of those secrets a boyhood friend of mine shared with me was about his father's cache of home made wine in their cellar.  We used to sneak down there to see the bubbling liquid in a couple of large demijohns and the bottles of finished wine his father stacked on their sides in rows on the floor.  We were itching to pinch a  sample of this forbidden mysterious red liquid but had no idea how to get a cork out of the bottle.  And my friend said his father had warned him that the bottles were counted. 

So, even though I didn't know it then, my curiosity was growing about wine.  But I would have to wait for my epiphany to happen at a railroad station cafe in France. 

The French epiphany happened while I was on temporary assignment at an air base near Dijon.  Air Force food, even with French cooks, employed by the USAF, in the chow hall kitchen, lived up to its negative billing, so a colleague and I decided to have dinner in town at the train station cafe, which was reputed to be one of the best around.

It was a fortuitous choice because our waiter spoke English, knew something about wine and was only too happy to educate us in the finer pleasures of haute cuisine and good wine.  

What was the wine of my epiphany?  Well, my memory is a little ragged and it has been 65 years since that evening in France, but I think the wine was a Beaujolais.  Deeply colored and scented, packed with fruit, rich and smooth, the first sip of that wine was a revelation that stayed with me, even to this day. 

Back in Pennsylvania, and out of the Air Force, I thought about the life-lesson I had learned from my time in Europe...that life is so much more enjoyable with wine. 

Circumstances, mostly beyond my control, caused a gap in the advancement to my life in wine. The job market in Philadelphia in the late 1950s was not good, so after marrying, I re-enlisted in the Air Force.  That meant a separation from wine for about five years, but then I was assigned to Northern California and got my first taste of wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains, the South Bay and Santa Clara County. 

California varietal wines tasted different from those I had gotten used to in France and Germany.  It was a mind-expanding experience to discover that the Beaujolais of my epiphany was made from Gamay and the German wines I enjoyed at a Rhine wine festival were made from Sylvaner, or Riesling or maybe Muller-Thurgau.  And were the California Cabernet Sauvignons I tasted the same as Bordeaux?

From then on, my immersion in wine was gradual but steady.  After retiring from the Air Force, I eased into a second career as a wine writer, a job that took me around the world, learning about regional wines and how they are integral to the social and economic health of local communities. 

From about 1993 to the present, my knowledge of wine increased many fold both as a writer and wine judge and educator, as my wine avocation became my vocation. I began writing for magazines and newspapers and did stints as editor of the Wine Spectator and Wine and Spirits magazines. Starting as a rookie wine judge at the Los Angeles County Fair, I continued judging wine throughout the United States, Europe and Australia.  Finally, I taught in the Wine Studies program at Santa Rosa Junior College. 

And that is the not-so-short answer to how I got into wine.  

Next Blog:  Deciphering Pinot Blanc & Pinot Gris

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