Bianca Bosker and the Cork Dork book

cork dork bianca bosker book

I've been reading the book "Cork Dork: A Wine-Fuelled Journey into the Art of Sommeliers and the Science of Taste" by Bianca Bosker over the last few days whilst trapped on a plane.

In a very entertaining style, Bianca writes about her journey from tech journalist knowing nothing about wine, to cellar rat,  to passing the Certified Sommelier Exam, overseen by the Court of Master Sommeliers (which leads to the Advanced Sommelier Examination and to the pinnacle of Master Sommelier Diploma Examination). 

The Certified Sommelier Examination is a one-day test with three separate sections: deductive tasting, theory, and practical service. In order to pass the examination, candidates must achieve a minimum 60% score in each section. Successful candidates will receive a pin signifying their certification as a sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Deductive Tasting Examination: Utilising the Court of Master Sommelier Deductive Tasting Method, candidates must describe and identify four wines (two white and two red) to the best of their ability. This is a written tasting that must be completed in 30 minutes. 

Theory Examination: The theory examination tests candidates' knowledge and understanding of the world of wine, beverage, and the sommelier trade. The test consists of multiple choice, short answer, simple math, and matching questions. Candidates must complete the 45-question examination within 35 minutes.

Service Practical Examination: The practical service examination approximates a real restaurant environment, and candidates are expected to demonstrate salesmanship and knowledge while performing a variety of tableside tasks. Candidates may be asked to open still or sparkling wines, to recommend cocktails or spirits, to discuss food and wine paring options, and to generally show their abilities as a restaurant sommelier. 

Important principles of service according to top sommeliers: smile, maintain eye contact, no sudden movements, don't lean, don't slouch, don't look stiff, don't point, no names, don't touch the table, face, hair and certainly not the guest, polish the glasses, don't touch anything but the glass stem, don't let the glasses tinkle, don't pour men before women, don't put an ice bucket on the table, offer the cork, pour hosts before guests, make sure everyone gets the same amount of the pour, don't pick up glasses to pour, don't empty the bottle the first time around, don't pour from the left, don't walk clockwise, state the name of the wine and vintage before pouring etc. etc.

Bianca Bosker cork dork

In Bianca's book she explores many of the controversies in wine:

  • Are expensive wines really worth the money and the disconnect between the price of topend wines to their actual quality
  • The hedonism around the wine scene in a city like New York
  • The science behind the production of bulk wines
  • The identification and exploitation of high worth customers in top end restaurants by sommeliers
  • The inappropriate and out of date standards expected by the Court of Master Sommeliers which insist on service/knowledge for visitors to Michelin star restaurants, not everyday wine drinkers
  • The lengths that some people will go to as they strive to become Masters of wine (as shown by the movie Somm) - endless blind tastings, change in lifestyles, impacts on their relationships with partners and family etc. Described as "little old men trapped in twentysomethings' bodies. In addition to dressing like they've raided Jay Gatsby's closet, they spend much of their time thinking about the past, mulling over the traditions of a five-hundred-year-old chateau, or mooning over a particularly warm spring 30 years ago."
  • The bullshit around wine e.g. use of French language terms in service and the descriptors for wine during tasting (most of which seemed to be derived from a herd behaviour)

As someone who loves wine and has visited many of the great wine producing areas around from the world from Napa to Burgundy, I agree with many of Bianca's sentiments.  Though I have to say I have much less acumen in wine tasting that she acquired over the last few years.  I guess in somm speak, I'd be described as a "civilian".

Many sommeliers seem to live on a different planet of drinking and recommending super premium wines in many cases priced at hundreds of dollars a bottle in top restaurants in cities where money flows with abandon. Getting money of PX, personne extraordinaire (restaurant code for "spends dough") is the key requirement, professionalism seems a secondary consideration. Check out Victoria in the book!

Another depressing side effect of capitalism and perfectly matched to the lurid stories of the "Wolf of Wall Street", Lehman Brothers and so on.

I think I'll stay a wine civilian! A great read if you're into wine, educational and entertaining. Buy Bianca's book.

Wine Spectator Magazine announces top 10 wines of 2017

wine spectator top 10 wines 2017

Wine Spectator magazine has just released its top ten wines of 2017. Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard 2014 gets the number one spot. Unfortunately, around a $100 a bottle.

The 2004 movie Sideways famously derided Merlot and bigged up Pinot Noir. Like Pinot, because Merlot grapes have a thin skin it can be damaged by rain or excess moisture or be prone to poor fruit set in Spring.

Duckhorn Vineyards was founded in Napa Valley in 1976, first vintage 1978 and Merlot has been its speciality from the beginning. The winery is located off the Silverado Trail north of St. Helena in the Napa Valley.

San Francisco socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit owned the site in the late-19th century and planted the original palms. But for Margaret and Dan Duckhorn, Three Palms was the anchor that helped them build one of Napa Valley’s most accomplished wineries.

Dan Duckhorn had been inspired to make Merlot after a trip in the mid-1970s to Bordeaux, where he was impressed by the grape’s approachability in comparison to the sometimes tannic characteristics of its sister Bordeaux variety Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The Duckhorns sold a controlling interest to GI Partners in 2007, a private equity firm based in Menlo Park, California in a deal that valued their Duckhorn Wine Company at $250 million. GI Partners has subsequently invested $70 million in estate vineyard purchases, including the acquisition of Three Palms in 2015. 

In 2016 Duckhorn another equity investment group, TSG Consumer Partners bought the winery. It also owns the namesake winery, Duckhorn Wine Co. as well as Goldeneye, Migration, Decoy, Paradux, Canvasback and Calera.

Three Palms site is in one of the warmer areas in the Napa Valley, located just south of the town of Calistoga, whereas Merlot is typically grown in cooler conditions. The area has rocky volcanic soils formed by an alluvial fan that forces the vines to set down deep roots, resulting in a greater concentration of flavours in the grapes. This warm and rocky terroir can cause stress to the wines caused by lack of water which needs careful drip irrigation.

The 2014 Three Palms is actually a blend: 86 percent Merlot, 8 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 percent Malbec and 2 percent Petit Verdot. All the fruit for the wine comes from the 83-acre vineyard, 50 acres of which are planted to Merlot. It was aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 75 percent of which were new. 

Tasting Note: A powerful red, with concentrated flavors of red plum, cherry and boysenberry that are layered with plenty of rich spice and mineral accents. Touches of slate and cardamom make for a complex finish. Drink now through 2023—Kim Marcus

Self serving wine critics, magazines and the gulf between everyday drinkers

I love wine and of course I read magazines like Wine Spectator and Decanter. But the more I taste wine, speak to winemakers and read these publications I realise the huge gulf between what regular "non-expert" wine drinkers want and what critics are recommending. 

Decanter is a good publication but many of its regionl or country specific articles recommending certain wines by Masters of Wine are seriously premium priced or not even readily available . Don't get me wrong I am happy to spend good money on fine wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. However, my recent wine tasting visits to Piedmont, Valpolicella, Thermenregion Austria and lately Baden in Germany makes me realise that many famous "brands" are seriously over priced. The worst culprits are California, Burgundy and Bordeaux as high value individuals bid the price of land and bottles up to crazy levels. With Asian buyers now heavily into wine auctions and even buying vineyards, its becoming tougher and tougher to buy "cult wines" for the man or woman in the street.

In the last couple of weeks I was fortunate to have a bottle of Ridge Monte Bello 2012 (£75 for 375ml half bottle - Hedonism Wines, London) from California's Santa Cruz Mountains and Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2011 from Spain's Ribera Del Duero region. Even better to drink the Valbuena in Plaça Reial off the La Rambla in Barcelona thanks to a friendly waiter who opened it for me and sampled it (I bought at the local and excellent Torres wine store on Carrer Nou de la Rambla, 25. Price 99 euros). 

The Ridge 2012 was a 50th anniversary bottling and it has been described by the winemaker as a "super vintage". It was rich, velvety smooth with blackberry, cassis and blackcurrant. Nice balance of acidity, tannin and fruit (apparently the most acidic vintage since 1992).  Lovely long finish.

The Valbuena was a big rich red like the Ridge. Definitely more alcoholic 14.5% in the warm and dry 2011 Ribera Del Duero versus 13.5% for cooler climate Ridge. It certainly had plenty of black fruit on the nose and palate and was actually a little spicy like a shiraz. Nicely balanced soft tannins and a long complex finish.

But was Ridge worth the equivalent of £150 ($200) a bottle and Vega Sicilia 99 euors ($117)? They were both great wines and a real treat to have tried them, but I have drunk many wines at the $20-30 range which were just as pleasant, if less iconic than these two wineries. 

Many critics score wines with high tannin and acidity with top marks and they are great after years to soften these tannins in the cellar. Some wine critics like Robert Parker or their counterparts love the big, rich Cabernet Sauvignons of the USA. So winemakers try to produce wines that appeal to this group to achieve high scores and high sales. With so much competition, a low Decanter/Parker/Wine Spectator score can be a deadly blow for a winery.

Unfortunately most wine drinkers want to drink the wines we buy fairly quickly. 10 years in a cellar is really not practical, especially as many don't even have a suitable storage area and certainly not a cellar. Keeping wine under stairs or in the garage or god forbid in a kitchen means temperature fluctuations and the best wines whilst made to be stored will be ruined. There's no point laying down a top Margaux Grand Cru or Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru when the location is 20 degrees centigrade and in the sunshine half the day!

During a recent visit to Baden in Germany, I tasted very tannic wines which are basically undrinkable now. Yet they command high prices. I have noted that the premium wines I have sampled e.g. Ridge and Opus One have great complexity and a long finish but you pay heavily for the famous brand. Lots and lots of wine makers around the world are producing similarly complex wines for much less, especially in unfashionable regions. For example I tasted amazing Austrian Pinot Noir and St. Laurent for less than 20 euros a bottle!

Most wine drinkers spend $5-10 a bottle which is too low given excise duty and other taxes. But expecting punters to buy $30-50 bottles is a "bridge too far". I wish the critics and magazines realised that many wine drinkers have a moderate budget at best and want to drink wines in the near term so stop encouraging wine makers to focus on the cellaring market. Great for their profits when you give them 95 points, but us mortals want to avoid a mortgage to buy them!

See additional blog article:

More about Vega Sicilia and Valbuena 5°

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2011

Bodegas Vega Sicilia is a winery located in the Ribera del Duero Denominacion de Origen in Valladolid, Castilla y León in the North of Spain. It was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who planted various grapes from the Bordeaux wine region of France, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vega Sicilia is particularly well known for its super premium Único wine.

The winery describes Valbuena as follows:  

"is the purest expression of the Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) in Vega Sicilia. Tinto Fino is clearly the predominant wine in the assemblage of the varieties that make up this magnificent wine. The other variety used is Merlot, which is added to a greater or lesser extent depending on the vintage.

The Valbuena Tempranillo is obtained from plots located on gentle concave slopes that descend from the wasteland. Those soils are made up of material that was eroded and accumulated as colluvial on the lower slopes, developing a high profile soil, with a specific important evolution with the formation of a deep calcic horizon.

Fermentation at a controlled temperature with native yeast in stainless steel tanks. Malolactic fermentation also takes place in stainless steel.

After fermentation, it is aged for five years, between wood and in the bottle, which is why it is called Valbuena 5º. French and American wood, new and used 225-litre barrels, 20,000 litre vats, a long and complex process for a great wine."

2011 was a very warm and ripe vintage in the Ribera Del Duero area, and the challenge for the winemaker was to keep the freshness of wine and avoid over ripeness and too much alcohol (it was still 14.5%).

More about Ridge and Monte Bello

Ridge Monte 2012.JPG

Ridge Vineyards is a California winery specialising in top of the range Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay wines and it produces wine at two winery locations in northern California. The original winery facilities are located at an elevation of 2,300 feet (700 m) on Monte Bello Ridge in unincorporated Santa Clara County in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, south of Los Altos, California and west of Cupertino, California. The other Ridge winery facilities are at Lytton Springs in the Dry Creek Valley AVA of Sonoma County. Ridge Vineyard's 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon achieved international fame for its fifth-place finish in the 1976 "Judgement of Paris" wine tasting.

In 1886, high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the initial plantings of the Monte Bello estate vineyard were set out, and winery construction begun. A first vintage from the young vines followed in 1892. During Prohibition (1920-1933), the vineyard was not fully maintained; some vines survived into the late 30’s, but by the 1940s they were effectively abandoned. Eight acres of cabernet sauvignon were replanted in 1949. These were the source of the first Ridge Monte Bello (1962). Since then, the historic vineyards on the ridge have gradually been replanted.

The 2012 Monte Bello has 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot. 2012 was a very dry year and a bit tricky for the wine maker which meant less Cabernet Sauvignon than normal in the blend. Tannins were easy to extract, less maturation and came out of fermenter in 5-6 days rather than usual 7-10 days. 16 months in 100% new oak barrels. 

New U.K. store focusing on English wines - Neighbourly Grape

With the decline of the British Pound against the Euro and other major currencies over the last year or so, U.K. wine drinkers have been seeking an alternative to their Claret and Super Tuscans.

A few years ago no one would have mentioned English wine in knowledgeable circles, but now things have changed. A combination of climate change and better wine making has meant that several English wine producers are making top quality white and sparkling wines. Decent reds are a little way off, but vineyard like Denbies in Surrey are planting Pinot Noir for the first time. 

taittinger kent vineyard

Earlier in 2017 one of France’s most prestigious champagne brands, Taittinger, announces a big investment in the limestone slopes of Kent. 

Taittinger has chosen a vineyard near the Kent village of Chilham as the site for its vines, with the first bottle due to be on sale in 2023.

The wine from Chilean will be called Domaine Evremond, named after Charles de Saint-Évremond, the French writer who helped introduce 17th century London to champagne.

There are now over 500 wine producers in the UK and they will plant a record 1 million vines in 2017/2018, allowing production  to increase by around 2 million bottles a year. 

Neighbourly grape logo
Neighbourly grape shop dorking

So it was with no real surprise that I came across Neighbourly Grape in St. Martins Walk in Dorking, Surrey. The shop and associated website specialises in English wine. Well worth a visit to meet the nice owners!