Saturday, December 10, 2011

How sommeliers pick Zinfandel: seeking classic terroir

Zinfandel from 100 year old vine in Lodi, California
You don’t need flowers in your hair, just an enthusiasm for a wine grape.  Each year for over the past twenty years, some 7,000 to 8,000 Zinfandel lovers have flocked to San Francisco for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers’ Grand Tastings.  Clearly, if there is any one grape that personifies vinous love and power-to-the-people, Zinfandel is it. 

At the 2012 ZAP Grand Tasting taking place on January 28 at The Concourse, I will be leading a discussion entitled “Top Sommeliers Choices,” involving a panel of five of the Bay Area’s leading sommeliers.  There are wine geeks and there are sommeliers – pretty much one and the same, except for the fact that sommeliers make their living out of being geeks – and there is almost nothing a sommelier likes more in a wine than a strong sense of terroir.

What is terroir, and why should it matter to a Zinfandel lover?  From a sommelier’s perspective, expression of terroir is just as important as “varietal character” in a good Zinfandel because it helps us appreciate diversity rather than sameness.  

Yes, it is true:  terroir is one of those wine qualities that most people, even many wine professionals and so-called “experts,” have trouble distinguishing in wines; and so the most convenient thing for many of them to do is to deny it exists, or that it matters.  Especially when it comes to wines like Zinfandel, which often taste so strongly of the grape that qualities derived from geographic origins become neither here nor there.

Ancient vine, Soucie Vineyard, Lodi

But is this being fair to the grape?  For many of us in the restaurant trade, Zinfandel is as noble as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, or any variety of Vitis vinifera.  It makes unique and terrific tasting wines – and lord knows, sommeliers are into “unique” and “terrific” (hence the presence of wines from regions as far flung as Patagonia and Santorini, made from grapes as varied as Alicante Bouschet and Zweigelt, on our wine lists) – and as such, Zinfandel is far too good a wine to be judged strictly in terms of varietal qualities.

That terroir is part and parcel of wines from France, for instance, is never questioned by the cognoscente.  Fine French wines – the sort qualifying for specific appellation d’origine labels (rather than mass production ordinaire) – invariably do have a strong “sense of place,” which is essentially what terroir means:  sensory qualities, including aromas and flavors, that can be attributed directly to where a wine is grown (soil and topography, climate, the grapes utilized, and even the human influences associated with viticultural and vinification practices in a given place of origin).

The problem with ignoring terroir and appreciating Zinfandel only in terms of varietal character is that this approach is an affront to what truly makes wine special:  something that is grown and then crafted, not manufactured or churned out in monotonous droves.  When we relegate the best Zinfandels to narrowly defined varietal fruit qualities, we are placing more value on how well a wine ascribes to preconceived notions rather than on how it might surprise or regale us with distinct qualities of its own.

Put it another way:  if, to you, the ideal Zinfandel is Turley’s Hayne Vineyard Napa Valley Zinfandel, why buy anything but a Turley from Hayne?  If that’s what you think of Zinfandel, then you probably deserve to pay the price you have to pay just to drink a Turley Hayne, or to wait forever on a waiting list to get on their mailing list in order to buy Turley’s Hayne.  

Funny thing, though:  if you ask the Turley people themselves, they’ll tell you that they certainly don’t think their Hayne Zinfandel is the be-all and end-all.  They’ll tell you that their less opulent yet uniquely spiced Turley Dogpoint Zinfandel from Lodi is just as good or better.  They’ll also tell you that they love the compelling perfume of their Turley Duarte Zinfandel from Contra Costa County possibly even more, which is not to think any less of their sinewy, compact Turley Mead Ranch Zinfandel from Atlas Peak.

Zin classicist:  the late Aldo Biale

You see, real Zinfandel lovers don’t measure the value of a Zinfandel simply on the basis of an arbitrary conception of a “correct” Zinfandel.  They look for diversity in Zinfandels rather than the same ol’ same ol’ in Zinfandels:  sensory qualities tied directly to terroir related distinctions.  The people at Turley take Zinfandel so seriously, in fact, that they are practically oblivious to the notion that Zinfandel “quality” can be expressed in terms of 100 point scores or any other measurement of varietal scaling.  They are interested in growing and crafting good wine, not homogenized cartons of milk.

But sometimes, man, you can’t tell a stranger about rock ‘n roll, and that’s too bad:  more and more sommeliers could give a damn about how this or that critic is “rating” a Zinfandel.  We’re looking for interesting Zinfandels that taste great to us, not some pie-in-the-sky idea of what constitutes good Zinfandel.  And what tastes great to us is Zinfandels that taste of a place, not a grape.

Finally, there is the fact that the finest Zinfandels invariably come from California’s oldest vineyards, planted as long ago as the nineteenth century.  Vines that were planted over 100 years ago don’t survive unless they are well loved, and you don’t need to know exactly how to explicate the terroir in wines from these plantings to appreciate their significance.  All it takes is knowing that the best California Zinfandels are best appreciated for where they are grown, in the same way we appreciate all the finest wines of the world.

As usual, the choices of Zinfandels to taste at the 2012 ZAP Grand Tasting will run in the hundreds.  Thinking of boning up on classic Zinfandel terroirs in preparation for this?  There is a Historic Vineyard Society page at that is dedicated to preserving the identity and existence of vineyards originally planted in California prior to 1960 – for all intents and purposes, pure Zinfandel plantings or field mixes dominated by Zinfandel.

My advisory:  visit the HVS Web site and take a gander at the list of unique vineyards they are in the process of compiling, and you will be immediately struck by the wonderful diversity Zinfandel lovers really do have at their disposal.  We are so spoiled – especially by the good folks of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers!

California Zinfandel is too good a wine to be appreciated simply in terms as ignominious as varietal character.  In the best Zinfandels, sense of terroir is always there:  even if you can’t make out the sensory distinctions, it’s there in the quality – especially in the case of Zinfandels coming from historic plantings, which have endured precisely for that reason.

2011 Zin picker in Turley crew

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rewriting your wine list for fun & profit

How up-to-date is your restaurant wine list?  More importantly, how efficient is it in generating the most important thing of all:  profit?
After writing wine lists in over thirty markets from Hawai`i to New York for over thirty years, and evaluating hundreds more while judging them for the nation’s leading restaurant wine magazine during the past ten years, I’d like to share a series of posts on what is being done in the most successful wine destination restaurants in the country.
But first – and you’ll have to forgive me for being a codger about this – some history.  I’d say that most wine lists today are still written in the old fashioned way:  you meet with distributors, you come up with a list, print the selections on pages of a book, and you’re in business.
Generally speaking, the standard markup during the past twenty, thirty years has been three-times.  So if you buy a bottle for $10, it’s sold for $30 on the wine list.  If you serve the same wine by the glass, you divide that $30 bottle by portion/pours:  because you can get five 5 oz. pours out of a 25.4 oz. bottle, you usually sell a 5 oz. pour for about $6/glass; you can only get four 6 oz. pours out of a 25.4 oz. bottle, so your markup for 6 oz. pours would be about $7.50.  Is this so hard?
Well, if you want to actually sell more wine than your competition, and while doing so become better known for the excellence of your wine program, these same ol’ standards and procedures are no longer enough.  So you seriously begin to consider things like tinkering with your markup.  The thinking is simple:  if I can lower the price of my bottle list and wines by the glass, can I not sell more wine than my competition and thereby become known as a great place to enjoy wine?
Yes and no.  The issue with selling wine for lower prices is that you still need to control your overall costs in order for the restaurant to make a profit; and if you can’t make a profit, then you can’t stay in business.  So if you reduce your wine markup to, say, just two times over cost (selling that bottle that costs $10 for just $20), that means that for every dollar in wine sales that you gross, you are netting only 50 cents; whereas if you stuck strictly to the three-times markup, you would have netted 67 cents for every dollar in wine sales.
Somehow and somewhere along the line a restaurant that runs a wine program with only two-times markup would have to make up for the 17% less revenue generated, which are the consequences of diverging from the traditional three-times markup.  The only other two major revenue centers that would allow you to do that are in food (you would need to increase menu prices) or labor (you would need to reduce labor).  Unfortunately, in this day and age it is suicidal for restaurants to increase food prices and lower labor costs for two reasons:
1.  Consumers are both more food-sophisticated and price-conscious than ever before (in other words, they are no dummies); and so if you’re selling your dishes for $5 to $15 more than your competition in order to make up for your lower wine markups, then either there better be something magical about your dishes or else people just won’t buy it.
2.  If anything, increased service has been the norm in today’s restaurants; i.e. more servers, more greeters at the door, more kitchen staff, more managers, and more overall skill (i.e. higher paid performers) at all levels – and so the last thing a competitive restaurant wants to do is reduce cost of labor.
So what are our options?  Back in the 1970s Kevin Zraly began to implement a markup system that essentially priced wines on a curve; lower cost wines marked up the highest and generating the highest revenue percentage, and higher priced wines marked up the lowest:
Bottle cost
% Cost
Bottle Price

To his credit, Zraly, and the success of Windows of the World where he served as Wine Director thirty years ago, made a positive impact on the industry by demonstrating a way to appeal to increasingly wine-conscious guests; and also by emphasizing the value of looking at markups not just in terms of cost but also in terms of actual dollar profit when sales of higher priced wines are increased.

I would venture to say that the most successful (from a combined business and sales perspective) “wine restaurants” in the industry today owe much of their basic formulation to Zraly’s progressive thought process, but have adjusted it to fit contemporary needs.  What has changed since Zraly started working in the seventies?
  • Average bottle sales in fine dining restaurants have risen dramatically from somewhere around $18-$28 in Zraly’s time to $35-$50 today ($50-$100 in many upscale restaurants and steakhouses). 
  • Percent of fine wine by the glass sales in relation to overall wine sales have also risen dramatically since Zraly’s days; from approximately 25%-30% in the days of plain “house wines” (remember the choice of “Burgundy, Chablis or Rosé?”) to approximately 55%-65% in most restaurants today. 
  • Average glass sales are closer to $8-$12 per glass (in the seventies it was to $2-$4). 
  • Wine sales have a much bigger impact on overall (i.e. all food and beverage) sales and costs than before.  In the seventies a restaurant could be considered successful if 12%-15% of overall sales was in wine, whereas today the industry norm is closer to 20%-25% (30%+ not a rarity in “wine destination” restaurants).
With these factors in mind, if we applied Zraly’s pricing system to an average ultra-premium wine sold in today’s fine dining restaurants and steakhouses – $35 by the bottle, and $9 by the glass – our average wine cost would easily exceed 50%.  As unacceptable as wine costs exceeding 50% were in seventies as it is today, most restaurants just can’t do that.
So how does Zraly’s sliding scale work out today?  Given the rising costs of doing any kind of business, markedly more conservatively.  Here is one model among the many that addresses the issue of increased glass sales and its impact on cost, and based upon a targeted overall wine cost of 31%-34%:
Wines by the Glass:
Bottle cost
% Cost
Bottle Price
Glass Price

Bottle List:
Bottle cost
% Cost
Bottle Price

In this scenario, sales of wine by the glass to overall wine sales is presumed to exceed 50%, and that guests have no gumption about spending an average of $9 to  $12 for a glass of wine.  By applying a slightly higher markup to wines by the glass, this type of progressive pricing also allows a restaurant to sell bottles at slightly higher costs.  Thirty years ago Zraly was concerned about the bulk of bottle lists ending up as nothing more than unsold “window dressing” – hence his radically curved markup system to bait value-conscious guests.  

Today, with so much emphasis on glass sales, American restaurants are in danger of the same syndrome, and so it makes sense to stimulate bottle sales by marking them up lower than wines by the glass.
Needless to say, every sommelier or wine program manager needs to tailor wine pricing to the needs of the individual restaurant balanced by specific needs of your market and guests.  It’s not just pricing that achieves that.  Among the many other crucial ways of achieving your sales and profit goals: 
  • Communication with distributors and suppliers all the way down to the winery level in order to achieve the pricing you need to make your costs while achieving your quality goals. 
  • Working harder on price-merchandising; that is, pricing wines according to what the market will bear rather than relying strictly upon formula (for instance, a Chardonnay may sell just as easily for $40 than for $35, whereas you may need to sell a Riesling for $30 rather than $35 to make it work for you). 
  • Selection of wines that differentiate you from the competition.
  • Selection of wines that match your foods – focusing on guests’ sensory experience, not just on “what sells.” 
  • Adding compelling descriptions to your wine list. 
  • Adding wine suggestions to your food menu (if you’ve never tried this, you’d be shocked by not just the positive response but also by the advantage of being able to direct sales of specific wines). 
  • Expanding glass pour options and/or “flights” (not just 5 or 6 ounces, but also 2 or 3 ounce pours). 
  • Applying weekly or even daily staff wine training. 
  • Last but not least, never underestimating your guests’ capacity for enjoying new wines (especially ones that better match your food while meeting your cost objectives).
Operational needs of restaurants may change little over time, but change in consumer preferences (i.e. your guests’ needs) can be easily observed on a daily basis.  That’s the beauty of the food and wine business; and if you’re willing to keep an open mind and make the necessary adjustments along the way, you will profit in more ways than one.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Praying for salvation: when will be rid of stinky corks?

Originally published in Sommelier Journal (January 2010):

The fall of 2009 was not a particularly kind on my longtime love/hate relationship with natural corks. It started with attendance an East Coast wine festival, where I was asked to judge 24 chardonnays. Two of them are badly corked, requiring second bottle pours.

Then I was in a tony Portland restaurant, watching its celebrated chef do his thing. Thinking that this calls for something special, I ordered an $80 red Burgundy. Of course, the bottle is badly corked; so I asked for a second, which I received only after tangling with the manager, who refused to believe that an idiot like me (whom she didn’t know from Adam) could tell what a corked wine was.

Then I fly home to Denver, I judged for a local wine festival. Out of some 100 wines (many of them undoubtedly finished with either screw caps or synthetic closures) landing on my table, two are badly corked; and a third one, mildly yet indubitably.

Think about it: if you ask most people in any part of the wine business what the current percentage of TCA tainted corks is, most of them will say less than 1% or 2% (obviously anybody’s guess). Yet drawing the logical conclusion from my recent spate of corked bottles, I’d venture to say that it’s a lot higher than we all think… or wish.

But is 4%-5% or even 1%-2% an acceptable failure rate? Heck no. Especially for us in the on-premise trade, where most of us follow the tradition of letting guests do their own tasting. For every hundred bottles that go out, neither four to five nor one to two ruined by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole is acceptable. That’s like saying it’s okay to be nice to 95% to 99% of our guests, and to the rest we say, “take a hike.”

So what’s our alternative? In recent years, of course, an increasing number of wineries have turned to screw caps. “I would like to thank you for attending this very hearfelt wake for the old stinker,” Randall Grahm is famously quoted to say, when dramatically announcing Bonny Doon’s transition from natural corks to Stelvin® capsules. Yet with all due respect: I hate serving screw capped wine in restaurants.

The artful doonster

As it were, I’ve also had more than ten vintages worth of experience with customized wines bottled for my restaurants, as well as labeled by my own name, under various types of synthetic closures, which once seemed like a capital idea. It wasn’t. You know there are serious issues when your staff is coming to you with corkscrews snapped clean through by stuck synthetics; or worse, when your wines are turning from deep red or pale straw to unseemly brick or brown within the first year. If anything needs to be buried, it’s the entire concept of fake “corks.”

But wait, all is not lost. Over the past year more and more vintners have been turned on to a new type of aggregate, cork based closure produced by DIAM, with natural particles treated by a proprietary CO2 process that eradicates TCA along with some 150 other unnecessary molecules and compounds (previous aggregates, produced through steam cleaning processes, have proven to be nearly as susceptible to TCA as natural corks).

Imagine that: a closure with all the grace and elasticity of natural cork, but with more exacting, consistently low OTR (Oxygen Transmission Rate) in the sizing – since unlike natural cork, aggregates do not have the nooks and crannies that cause wines to oxidize at unpredictable rates – plus none of the reduction issues (i.e. sulfide stink) associated with many of the less than artfully produced screw capped wines being thrust upon us today.

Among the producers who have turned to DIAM: various Jackson Family Wines, Kunde, Roessler, Consentino and Korbel in the U.S.; Chandon, Hugel, Trimbach, Duboeuf, Jadot and Bouchard in France; Taltarni and Tyrells in Australia.

Will DIAM type closures prove to be the sommelier’s salvation, while preserving the integrity of the industry and ecological balance of our cork forests? Because he is what he is, I asked this of Randall Grahm. The response: “I have learned to become a bit skeptical about new wine closure technology, which sometimes overpromises. (certainly the case with synthetic corks). It does seem likely that the TCA problem may have been solved with this new product.”

Yet ever the Kierkegaardian, Grahm will question into the night: “What is the ideal level of (DIAM’s) permeability? If you were serious about a vin de garde, would not the closer you got to 0 still seem ideal? How do these closures mechanically perform over time? Certainly, this is where Stelvin still has the edge… it has been studied over decades. Still, when I win the lottery, I hope to put all my wine in specially designed glass ampoule, to some day be opened with swords!”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

It's 3 AM, Is Your Wine List Answering the Call?

It’s 3:00 AM in the restaurant world. The economy is rattling our windows, costs are obliterating margins, and last year’s projections seem as hopeful as a bride without a first date. The first thing every savvy restaurateur does under these circumstances is not just batten down the hatches, rail in expenses, get focused on advertising and more aggressive with promotions, but also tighten up menus and wine lists.

Of course, everyone knows what a wine list is – the list of wines you can order in a restaurant. Yeah, right. Like “service” is someone taking your order without first saying hello, without telling you the specials or giving intelligent answers, slapping your dishes on the table in no particular order, forgetting to refill your water or to offer coffee, and then taking your money without saying thank you or goodbye.

What do consumers actually look for in a wine list? Seventeen years ago the nation’s most popular wine magazine actually put that question to its own readers – all predominantly strong wine and food lovers – in a multi-question poll. The results of three of those queries:

• 70% of those polled agreed that the “optimum length” of the ideal wine list should be only 20 to 50 selections. So why do many of us in the business still believe in the-bigger-the-better approach to wine lists?

• Responding to the question, “how useful is wine list information in choosing wine?” – 70% of this magazine’s readers described wine lists in the U.S. as “poor” or “fair.” Zero votes for “excellent,” and 9% voting for “good.” Ergo: even knowledgeable wine lovers believe that restaurant wine lists are just not informative enough.

• To the question, “how helpful are lists in matching food and wine?” – 77% rated wine lists as “poor” (mostly) or “fair.” With the rise of exponentially more food consciousness and culinary sophistication during the past seventeen years, do you think consumers today care less about wine and food matching than they did before? Not a chance.

Have things changed much since 1991? I guess. We are seeing more wine lists that address the issue of being more informative by adding descriptions and tidbits of information. We are also seeing a few wine lists that suggest food matches, and even some food menus that suggest wines for specific dishes.

But by and large, the restaurant industry is still generally afflicted by the notion that big wine lists (that is, those with anywhere from 200 to over 2000 selections) are better than small wine lists; whereas the vast majority of consumers probably aren’t impressed by that at all. All they are calling for is a wine list that makes more sense than hieroglyphics, that is more entertaining than a telephone book, and that has something to do with the dishes they are about to eat.

Does your wine list fit the bill? Let’s go through a check-list of some hard questions:

1. If your wine list is “big” (say, over 200 selections), is it big for a reason – like giving your guests multiple options of wines that you know taste magnificent with specific dishes on your menu? Or is it big for reasons that your average guests really don’t care about – like, because you enjoy tasting and buying lots of wine, or because you’ve read somewhere how good this or that wine is and what score it’s been given?

2. Do your selections actually differentiate you from your competition in the eyes of your guests, or are you going after the exact same wines found in every other restaurant, grocery or retail store down the street?

3. Like “Charlie the Tuna” in those old commercials, are you selecting wines that represent “good taste” or that actually “taste good?” That is, are your wines chosen to give you the highest percentage chance hearing your guests go, “Wow, that’s the best wine I’ve ever had!” Or are they chosen just to make you look good?

4. Are you writing descriptions for each (not just a few!) selection on your wine list to help your guests make decisions, and also to perk their interest, senses, and ultimately their thirst?

5. When you write your descriptions, are you being helpful by giving the information that guests actually need (i.e. is it dry or sweet; very sweet or slightly sweet; light or heavy; lots of oak, subtle in oak, or pure and fruity...?); or are you just providing long, half-hallucinatory, grocery list-like descriptions cribbed off distributors’ sales sheets (i.e. “grapefruit and apple with hints of leafy herbs, peaches and cream, and crispy, pan fried passionfruit”).

6. In your descriptions, are you throwing in other interesting tidbits to stimulate guest interest; like the name of the winemaker (if it’s a prestigious winemaker), the wine’s growing region, the significance of the growing region, or one or two dishes that taste absolutely wonderful with that wine?

7. In your wine list categories, are you being creative by dividing them up by taste (like “dry, full bodied whites” as opposed to “light, slightly sweet whites”), by food suggestions (“crisp, dry whites for oysters and shellfish,” or “big, full bodied reds for steaks”), by special interest (“organic & biodynamic whites,” “exotically scented European whites,” or “wild, wacky Southern Hemisphere reds”), or any which way you can to make your list uniquely interesting?

8. Are you still offering just a measley five or ten selections (or less than 10%, 20% of your selections) of wines by the glass despite the fact that in most restaurants today over 50% of wine sales are by the glass?

9. If you’ve found some truly unique and delicious wines that go great with some of your dishes, are offering them by the glass, or do you expect your guests to take giant leaps of faith and buy full bottles just on your say-so?

10. If you’ve found numerous truly unique and delicious wines, are you giving your guests the opportunity to have fun with them – like, the chance of tasting two or three next to each other with one dish, or at a bar just out of curiosity – by offering them by the glass in 2 or 3 ounce portions on top of 5 or 6 ounce “full” portions?

11. Are you tasting your staff on a regular basis (at least once a week) on all the new and exciting wines you’ve found in mandatory meetings in order to make sure every selection on your list counts (and also to make sure your hard work as a hunter of uniquely fine wines isn’t for nought)?

12. Are you testing your staff on a regular basis (at least once a month) to make sure they’re awake and taking notes during the wine meetings?

Do you query your staff – and even taste samples of prospective wines with them – to find out what your guests are really saying about the wines on your list; in order to not only make intelligent decisions but also to garner the maximum support of the people who are actually doing the selling and serving?

13. Are you standing pat, or are you continuously growing to keep up with the increasingly sophisticated tastes of your guests and the evolution of your menu; in order to keep yourself and your staff on your toes, and loving what you do?

14. Above all, are you bringing back the fun of wine to your guests, and taking pains not to insult their intelligence or underestimate their thirst for new and exciting wine experiences?

So how is your wine list answering the call as a recession buster? Or shall I say… ring, ring!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Case Study: Describing Wines by the Glass

For a chef-driven restaurant I opened in Memphis in 2007 it seemed appropriate to offer a wine list with just over 125 wine selections, some fifty of which were offered by the glass. Of those fifty glass selections, guests could choose a tasting of any three in a flight of 2 oz. portions for just $12. Just about all our glass selections were chosen specifically because we needed something to recommend with a particular dish, not because we felt we that had to have this or we had to have that. A sampling from the first page:

globally sourced dry whites

glass/ bottle

Burgãns, Albariño 2005 (Spain) $7/$28
The Albariño grape exudes fresh peach and lemony zest while screaming “crawfish”

Loimer, “Lois” Grüner Veltliner 2006 (Austria) $9 /$36
The Veltliner grape makes a medium-full, green apple/lemon-lime/edelweiss fresh, fragrant wine; and a terrific, alternative style “oyster” white

Kuentz-Bas, Riesling “Cuvée Tradition” 2004 (Alsace, France) $10/$40
Is dry Alsatian Riesling the greatest “food” wine in the world? Maybe, maybe not. The main thing is this wine's buoyant, silky fine texture and insanely delicious lime and peach intensity that embellish foods we love most (like our Tennessee chèvre)

Mason, Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (Napa Valley, California) $10/$40
Pungent, herby, melony fresh and pure style by winemaker Randy Mason

Feudi di San Gregorio, Falanghina 2004 (Campania, Italy) $11/$44
Falanghina is an ancient grape, but makes a wine that is thoroughly sleek, crisp, modern, with intimations of silk, anise, wild honey, stone fruits and soft shell crab

Minet, Pouilly-Fumé 2005 (Loire River, France) $12/$48
Pure, refined, dry French Sauvignon Blanc; zesty, flinty, flowing flavors

Kris, Pinot Grigio 2006 (Alto Adige, Italy) $9/$36
Scarlet Johannson in lace:
refreshingly pure, transparently tart

Heger, Pinot Gris 2005 (Baden, Germany) $12/$48
If you dig Pinot Grigio, you might consider “graduating” to Pinot Gris – same grape,
but more seriously scented, layered with minerals, light as air yet intensely flavorful

Is There a Place for Organic Wines on Upscale Restaurant Wine Lists?

 Domaine Tempier


By most accounts, right now certified organic foods make up less than 5% of supermarket sales across the country; but anyone with eyes and ears can see that no segment of the food market has enjoyed as dramatic a growth during the past ten years: by nearly 80% since 1997, developing into the $17.7 billion industry that it is today.

For many consumers, spending an extra dollar for a gallon of organic milk, or more than two dollars per pound more for organic chicken or tomatoes, is no longer an issue. Quality, in fact, plays far less a part in these decisions than pure health and environmental concerns. Very few consumers, of course, buy organics exclusively; but it’s estimated that nearly 60% of U.S. households now buy some organic items, and because of that grocers from Kroger and Harris Teeter to Fresh Market and Whole Foods are predicting at least 5% growth each year in the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, it would stand to reason that organic wines should make up at least 5% of sales in both retail stores and restaurants; but anyone with eyes and ears can clearly see this is not nearly the case. Whether or not, however, organics play a visible role on wine lists or store shelves, the producers themselves began to make moves towards that a good ten, fifteen years ago for the same reasons why consumers buy organically – for health and environmental concerns.

In California there are now some 12,000 acres of vineyards (almost 5% of the state’s total) certified by third party organizations like California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF), and there are nineteen wineries certified as producers of Organic Wines. It is also worth noting that well over 90% of vineyards up and down the West Coast are probably farmed sustainably, without any certification. The days of routine, rampant use of chemicals are long gone, and practices like cover cropping to establish organic mulching and foster beneficial insects, and canopy management to minimize mildewing and other diseases, have become pretty much standard practice.

There is a good chance, for instance, that you may have enjoyed many bottles of Frog’s Leap wines over the past ten, fifteen years without knowing that they are made from certified organic grapes. Winemaker/proprietor John Williams of Napa Valley’s Frog’s Leap is as blasé about the organic monikers as non-certified growers. Explaining why he has never marketed Frog’s Leap as “organic,” Williams says “my bottom line is wine quality, not the organic movement’s ‘save the world’ agenda… grapes from clean, healthy vines just make the best possible wine, and that’s what I’m after.”

Qualification for classification as “Organic Wine” – involving the total shunning of sulfites during the fermentation process or to stabilize wines at bottling – is another step Williams finds unnecessary. “Although we are constantly trying to use less, we just haven’t found wines made without sulfites that consistently excite us… nor do we find compelling evidence that the minute use of this natural ingredient should be troubling to anyone for reasons other than philosophical.”

While über-growths such as Spottswoode, Rubicon, and Araujo have gone through the rigorous three year certification process required by CCOF, numerous other highly lauded producers farm organically as a matter of course, not cause. Shafer, for instance, has long been a champion of sustainability and bio-diversity; but if a serious disease is detected, according to Doug Shafer, he reserves last resort options such as low-toxicity herbicides like Round-Up. Bruce Neyers’ home estate in Conn Valley (east of Rutherford in the Napa Valley AVA) has been farmed 100% organically since 1998, but the only reason his vineyard is not certified is because it borders a non-organic vineyard.

Up on Sonoma Mounain Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen also farms organically, but tells us he flatly refuses to seek certification because:
  • “In the case of severe mildew or rot pressure, there are no reliable organic remedies – this pressure is not normal, of course, but can happen in unusual weather conditions – and simply losing crop for adherence to organic principles is not an option for me.
  • “Organic has become a marketing concept.
  • “I don’t like the idea of getting commercial benefit for doing the right thing.
  • “Most importantly, sustainability is a far more significant and global statement of environmental concern than organic, and this is what we promote. Organic farming can, for example, use up a lot of fossil fuel or human health.”


Like organic foods twenty, thirty years ago, wines produced in organic, Biodynamic®, as well as vegan and sustainable fashions are emerging out of the fringe elements of commercial taste, and becoming more significant by the day. Like all wines, they give us pleasure as alcoholic beverages, make our food taste better, and sweeten our outlook on life. But exactly what, besides health and environmental issues, are the attributes that make these wines worth the attention of wine buyers and sommeliers in fine dining restaurants?

If anything, the supernova speed in which the world of wine has expanded in recent years has resulted in this: a boring, dreary sameness. Twenty years ago it was assembly line chardonnay and white zinfandel; fifteen years ago, industrialized merlot; and during the past decade or so, the proliferation of just-another-cabernet and syrah, shiraz, schmiraz… one after another, all tasting the same. Lord help us if this starts to happen with pinot noir.

But one thing about organic and Biodynamic® wines: there is a tendency towards uniqueness rather than sameness. When you grow and make wine from the premise of exerting the least amount of intervention that might blur the distinctions of grape and site, you almost cannot help but produce something different, almost every time. And if there is anything a highly competitive restaurant wine buyer or sommelier is concerned about, it is finding wines of truly unique qualities, reflective of grape and terroir, that differentiates his or her restaurant.

Commonly used "cover crop mowers" in organic vineyards


So to the question of whether there is a place for organic wines in upscale restaurants: whether you realize it or not, organics already play an important role in fine dining wine lists because many of the world’s finest winemakers already produce their wine that way.

If anything, what organic and Biodynamic® wines lack in the vast majority of upscale restaurants is identification as such: organically conscious restaurant guests can hardly appreciate a wine’s organic-ness when most restaurants still do not bother to include descriptions on their wine lists. It’s still a rare wine list that tells you if a wine is dry or sweet, light or heavy, let alone organic, Biodynamic® or vegan.

The first steps to take towards merchandising to organic-conscious restaurant guests, then, are:

1. Group organic as well as Biodynamic® and vegan wines into their own wine list categories

2. Take a pro-active stance towards sourcing and placing organic, Biodynamic® and vegan wines on your wine list; particularly those of the quality and style that meet your standards, price points and culinary needs.

3. Do your sourcing based upon an intelligent measure of your clientele (if, for instance, a large number of your guests are indeed high percentage organic food consumers – particularly those who buy from upscale retail stores like Whole Foods, Balducci’s, or Dean & Deluca – then it would make sense to put a stronger emphasis on high quality organic wines).

4. When listing organics, it would behoove you to explicate the basic distinctions among the various, often overlapping categories.

Re the point #4, these are the basic categories under which most organic wines fall:

Wines Made From Organic Grapes

These are wines made from grapes farmed completely without the use of pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers, soil fumigants, or other chemicals. In the U.S. certified organic grapes must meet standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program. In California even stricter standards are set by California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF); stipulating requirements such as no bio-engineering or iodizing radiation, and encouraging the use of composting, cover cropping and beneficial insects.

In France, and 79 other countries other than the U.S., an estimated 70% of the organic certification is administered by ECOCERT. In Italy, organically grown wines are labeled with the designation Viticoltura Biologica; and in Spain, Agricultura Ecologica. In Oregon, organically grown wines come with the seals of Oregon Tilth; in Washington St. the seals will say WSDA Certified Organic. In New Zealand, the leading certififying organization is Bio-Gro, and in Australia it is Australian Certified Organic.

Organic Wines

In the U.S., Organic Wines must not only be made from 100% organically grown grapes, they must also be vinified totally without the use of added sulfites. The USDA’s NOP (National Organic Program) specifies that even naturally occurring sulfites (found in every wine, organic or not) must be under 10 parts per million.

Wines Made From Biodynamic® Grapes
Biodynamic® wines are not only farmed organically, they must meet even higher standards of sustainability by following specified preparations that help connect the “dynamic” relationship between everything in the universe, biological and spiritual. Most of these principles are based upon the homeopathic farming methods established by an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s; and today, certified internationally by The Worldwide Demeter Association (in the U.S., by Demeter USA; and in France, by Biodyvin). While many aspects of biodynamic viticulture (like the burying of manure stuffed cow horns in the vineyard) might seem a little loony, contemporary proponents are very comfortable with most of its practicalities; such as use of on-site produced compost and manure, the emphasis on ecosystem diversity, incorporation of animal life, and even cultivation according to “natural” cycles (i.e. solar and lunar calendars).

Biodynamic® Wines
Biodynamic® Wines must be made from Biodynamic® Grapes, while meeting higher standards of vinification defined primarily by use of natural (rather than cultured) yeasts, zero additives (like sugar, tannin and acid “adjustments,” and bacteria to start malolactic fermentation), and restricted use of sulfites at bottling (for dry wines, less than 100 parts per million).

Vegan Wines

Wines meeting vegan standards must be vinified without the use of animal products; particularly filtering and fining agents such as egg whites, casein (a milk protein used to soften wine), gelatin (removes bitter phenolics) and isinglass (derived from fish swimbladders). Instead, vegan wines are typically clarified by non-animal products like bentonite clay.


In years past, most of the organic and biodynamic wines restaurateurs have deemed worthy of inclusion on fine dining wine lists have been European: all-time classics like Domaine Tempier in Bandol, Zind-Humbrecht and Domaine Ostertag in Alsace, Château de Beaucastel, Domaine de Solitude and M. Chapoutier in the Rhône Valley, Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc, the controversial “Gang of Five” of Beaujolais’ grand crus, the incredible Domaine Leflaive and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy… and more, much more.

During the past year (2008) I have been making a concerted effort to taste as many organic, Biodynamic® and vegan wines as possible, and have found even more of very good to exceptional quality by producers who, if not nearly as well known as Frog’s Leap let alone DRC, are certainly as good and worthy as the non-organic brands commonly found on wine lists. Wines that I, for one, would drink anytime, any day, anywhere:

Frog’s Leap, Rutherford/Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (California; organic grapes)
Ceágo, Clear Lake Sauvignon Blanc (California; Biodynamic®)
Quivira, Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc (California; Biodynamic®)
Saracina, Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc (California; organic grapes)
Patianna, Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc (California; Biodynamic®)
Gamble Vineyard Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (California; organic grapes)
Holmes, Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand; organic grapes)
Pircas Negras, Torrontés (Argentina; organic grapes, vegan)
Double L Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands, California; organic grapes)
Paul Dolan, Mendocino Chardonnay (California; organic grapes)
Frog’s Leap, Chardonnay (Napa Valley, California; organic grapes)
Del Bondio, Napa Valley Chardonnay (California; organic grapes)
Sky Saddle,
Harms Vineyard Napa Valley Chardonnay (California; Biodynamic®)
Porter-Bass, Russian River Valley Chardonnay (California; Biodynamic®)
Cowhorn, Viognier (Applegate Valley, Oregon; Biodynamic®)
Bonny Doon,
Le Cigare Blanc (Arroyo Seco, California; Biodynamic®)
King Estate,
Domaine Pinot Gris (Oregon; organic grapes0
Domaine Leflaive, Macon-Verze (France; Biodynamic®)
Pierre Morey, Meursault (France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre (Loire River, France; organic grapes)
Francois Chidaine, Montlouis
Clos du Breuil (Loire River, France; organic grapes)
Nicolas Joly, Savennierès
Les Clos Sacres (Loire River, France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, Vouvray (Loire River, France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Ostertag, Pinot Blanc
Barriques (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Zind-Humbrecht, Pinot Gris (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Alois Lageder,
Benefizium Porer Pinot Grigio (Alto-Adige, Italy; Biodynamic®)
Meinklang, Grüner Veltliner (Austria; Biodynamic®)
Marcel Deiss,
Engelgarten (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Dirling, Riesling (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Pacific Rim,
Organic Riesling (Columbia Valley; organic grapes)
Pacific Rim,
Wallula Vineyard Biodynamic® Riesling (Columbia Valley; Biodynamic®)
Marc Kreydenweiss, Gewürztraminer (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Emiliana Natura, Gewürztraminer (Valle Cachapoal, Chile; organic grapes)
Ca’ del Solo, Muscat (California; Biodynamic®)

Paul Dolan, Mendocino Zinfandel (California; organic grapes)
Quivira, Wine Creek Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley, California; Biodynamic®)
Tres Sabores, Napa Valley Zinfandel (California; organic grapes)
Ceágo, Redwood Valley Camp
Masuit Merlot (California; Biodynamic®)
Freemark Abbey,
Sycamore Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (California; Biodynamic®)
Casa Barranca,
Arts & Crafts Red (Central Coast, California; organic wine)
Robert Sinskey Vineyards,
Marcien (California; Biodynamic®)
Neal Family,
Wykoff Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Neal Family,
Fifteen-Forty Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Neal Family,
Second Chance Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Frog’s Leap, Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Tres Sabores,
Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Rubicon Estate, Napa Valley (California; organic grapes)
Clos Roche Blanche,
Touraine Cabernet (Loire Valley, France; organic grapes)
Nuevo Mundo, Cabernet/Carmènére
Reserva (Maipo Valley, Chile; organic grapes, vegan)
Pircas Negras, Malbec (Famatina Valley, Argentina; organic, vegan)
Organic Vintners, Mendocino Pinot Noir (California; organic grapes; vegan)
Casa Barranca,
Laetitia Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir (California; organic grapes)
Alma Rosa,
La Encantada Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir (California; organic)
Brick House,
Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Bergström Vineyard Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Bergstöm, Bergström de Lancellotti Vineyard Pinot Noir (Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (Oregon; organic grapes)
Cooper Mountain,
5 Elements Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon; Biodynamic®)
Cooper Mountain,
Life Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon; organic wine, Biodynamic® grapes)
Jamsheed Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Estate Cuvée Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Delara Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Alois Lageder,
Krafuss Pinot Noir (Italy; organic grapes)
Joseph Drouhin, Chorey-Les-Beaune (France; organic grapes)
Marcel Deiss,
Burlenberg (Alsace; Pinot Noir; Biodynamic®)
Weingut Michlits, Pinot Noir (Burgenland/Osterreich, Austria; Biodynamic®)
Kawarau Estate, Central Otago Pinot Noir (New Zealand; organic grapes)
San Vito, Chianti (Toscana, Italy; organic grapes, vegan)
Badia a Coltibuono, Chianti Classico Riserva (Italy; organic grapes)
Meinklang, Zweigelt (Austria; biodynamic)
Clos Abella, Priorat Porrera (Spain; organic grapes)
Organic Vintners, Tinto (La Mancha, Spain; organic grapes, vegan)
Bodegas Iranzo,
Vertvs Tempranillo (Spain; organic grapes)
Mas Estela,
Quindals (Emporda, Spain; organic grapes)
M. Chapoutier, Crozes Hermitage Les Meysonnieres (Rhone Valley, France; Biodynamic®)
Tadpole Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Bloodstone Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Uncut Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Ventura, Syrah (Lontué Valley, Chile; organic, vegan)
Emiliana Novas, Limited Selection Carménère-Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley, Chile; organic grapes; vegan)
Emiliana Coyam, Los Robles Estate (Colchagua Valley, Chile; Biodynamic®; vegan)
Emiliana,, Los Robles Estate (Colchagua Valley, Chile; Biodynamic®; vegan)
Beckmen Vineyards, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley, California; Biodynamic®)
Beckmen Vineyards, Santa Ynez Valley
Purisima (California; Biodynamic®)
Jean-Paul Thévenet, Morgon Vieilles Vignes (Grand Cru de Beaujolais, France; organic grapes)
Domaine Tempier, Bandol Cuvée Classique (Provence, France; organic grapes)
Domaine de Villaneuve, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhone Valley, France; organic grapes)
Marc Kreydenweiss,
Perrières (Costières de Nîmes/Rhone Valley, France; Biodynamic®)

Elizabeth ROSE, Napa Valley Pinot Noir Rosé (California; organic grapes)

Pizzolato, Prosecco (Italy; organic grapes)
Jeriko Estate, Mendocino Brut (California; organic grapes)
Domaine Carneros, Brut (California; organic grapes)

What Are Sommeliers for, If Not for Training?

It means taking a hefty cut in pay, but I've decided to accept the position of God of Wine (New Yorker)

Professional sommeliers represent such an investment on the part of serious "wine restaurants" that they are compelled to perform far more duties than simply serving, ordering and restocking wine.

Many of them are compelled to assist or even stand in for everyone from SAs and food runners to mâitre d's and floor managers, book banquets and large parties, conceive and execute special events, write newsletters, open and close restaurants, and even run back to the kitchen when someone on the line keels over. It's the nature of the beast: as costs rise and management salaries are crunched, the "sommelier" is either the first to go, or the easiest one to call on for double or triple duties. Tell me about it.

But where the modern day sommelier can most effectively prove his or her worth is in the area of staff wine and food training. After all, with specialized knowledge of both wine and the food components matching wine comes a responsibility: to share that knowledge, and make direct impact on sales, profits, and the critical success of the restaurant.

As one of those quasi-manager/sommeliers I've been teaching wine sales in restaurants for over thirty years. I know everyone, of course, has their own approach, and I've observed many other magnificent restaurant wine trainers with incredible records of success to prove it. Based upon all that, here are the ten basic steps to the way I approach staff training:

1. Begin by passing out a basic wine "primer" (if you haven't composed one yourself, you can assign a book), requiring them to read it, and tell them they will be tested.

2. Start your own training addressing the "language" of wine sales by teaching and tasting the staff on the basic sensory components of wine (dry, sweet, full, light, tart, soft, oaky, fruity, and all the important variations of grapes and aromas).

3. Progress by teaching/tasting them on how the basic sensory components interact with food (concepts like similarity, contrast, and physical textures); preferably, of course, with sample dishes.

4. Administer that basic "primer" test you threatened them with earlier, and make them take it over and over again until they pass 100%.

5. Once that minimal comfort level is met, introduce staff to the world of wines (grapes, countries, AVAs, terroirs, winemakers styles, etc.), one wine at a time, slowly-but-surely (you cannot rush this part... it goes on forever).

6. Yes, during each wine training meeting (preferably at least weekly), you always discuss the basic selling points of each wine, the profile of guests who will most likely appreciate each wine (a big Cabernet for longtime big wine connoisseurs, a Cornas for Francophiles, Gruner Veltliner for guests ordering oysters or fish in vinaigrette, Riesling for the first-time wine drinker, etc.), and basic methodology of sales (basically, when and how to volunteer the wine information that you have to share). It's simple. After you taste each wine, you ask your staff, what makes this wine special... how do we sell it... who would be turned on by it... what dishes would it be ideal with?

7. Assign individual research papers (one page reports, a copy for each team member, are fine) to staff on a specific subject, to be presented to the rest of staff at the start of each wine training meeting.

8. Ultimately, during each meeting, you should also be encouraging participation from staff (don't make meetings one-way discussions!); allowing them to share particular sales experiences with each other, personal experiences of wines they've enjoyed outside of work (or wines tasted in other restaurants), and even their opinions about the best wines for certain foods and guests.

9. Test, test, and re-test at least several times a year (enthusiastic staffs love the challenge anyway).

10. Finally, when opportunities to attend distributor/supplier wine tastings come up, you need to encourage your staff to not only attend, but also to report back their findings (i.e. recommendations for the wine list). If you can't attend a tasting, you should assign people to attend "for you." If you really want to know how to get staff to be not just competent but also personally invested in your restaurant and wine program, this final step is the way to go.

In any case, I've developed many sharp, enthusiastic, ambitious wine buyer/managers from virtually "nothing" (i.e. kids fresh out of high school) over the years by following this methodology. Hope it helps you establish your own!

Composing Menus for Winemaker Dinners

For many years I worked with chefs with limited repertoires, imagination and desire, yet we managed to create some decent wine menus anyway by following the most basic principles of food and wine matching.

Conceiving and executing new dishes for specific components in wines is the more difficult but by far most satisfying way to build a food and wine menu. Whereas there will always be a limited number of wines to choose for a dish, the combination of ingredients and techniques that can go into an originally conceived dish are virtually endless. You’ll always get a better match when you create a dish specifically for a wine rather than choose a wine for a ready-made dish.

Case study: in 1992 we hosted legendary winemaker Tony Soter in two of our restaurants; Soter acclaimed for his Etude Wines, as well as for his work as the original consulting winemaker at Spottswoode in Napa Valley.

The Soter winemaker dinners presented us with a unique opportunity because the menus for each of these dinners were planned by two different chefs: chef/owner Roy Yamaguchi in one restaurant, and his longtime chef de cuisine Gordon Hopkins in the other. As I always did during the thirteen years that I worked with both of them, I followed these two rules of thumb every sommelier or wine manager needs to do when working with a chef (no matter how wine savvy the chef):

1. Begin by putting everything down on paper -- beginning with the order of service and all the basic components of each wine -- which will give your chef the opportunity to visualize the makeup and direction of the courses.

2. Based upon the wine components and basic principles of similarity and contrast, list as many food related ideas and dish suggestions as possible in order to give your chef the widest possible latitude in which to apply his/her personal style and creativity.

Further details, utilizing the Soter/Etude/Spottswoode scenario:


Step one in the planning of every winemaker dinner is listing the wines in your projected order of service. Although the traditionally accepted order is white wines before reds, lighter before full, and dry before sweet, keep in mind that the actual palate is not necessarily constrained as such as long as each course’s food and wine match is in harmony and balance. David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson deserve a lot of credit for establishing this premise in their classic book, Red Wine with Fish (Simon & Schuster 1989).

In any case, for our particular dinner with Tony Soter we decided to follow a conventional pattern:

1st: Spottswoode, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 1990

2nd: Etude, Carneros Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988

3rd: Etude, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1989; Spottswoode, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1988

4th (dessert): Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Sémillon 1989


Step two is isolating the basic taste sensations, tactile qualities, and aroma/flavor components of each wine; and based upon that, drawing up your matching food ideas utilizing the principles of similarities and contrast. The ideal method is to break everything down on paper for your chef; allowing him to take the bits and pieces that stimulate his own thought process, and referencing them with his own culinary mental library. For the Soter dinners, these are parameters I outlined for the chefs:

1. Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc

Description: Bone dry white; medium body (not light, not heavy); perceptively crisp, medium acidity (lightly tart); fine, smooth (silky) texture; fresh fruit fragrances of melon and citrus; lighter aromatic nuances of green grass and vanillin oak

Suggested dishes: Mildly spiced, summery sweet shellfish appetizer (i.e. shrimp, scallops, crab, etc.)

Similar ingredients: Mildly acidic fruits (tomato, lime, lemon, grapefruit, pomegranate); mildly acidic cheese (Chèvre or Feta); leafy green herbs (oregano, thyme, parsley, tarragon); pungent herbs (chive, cilantro Mexican mint marigold, lemon grass, kaffir lime); vegetal components (olives, bell peppers); very mild vinegars (if balanced with wine’s acidity)

Contrasting ingredients: Vine ripened tomatoes (lomi lomi or concasée); sweet Maui onions (in moderation); moderate spice (restrained use of chili or chiles); aromatics (mild curries, mustards, tumeric, achiote)

Extremes to avoid: Heavy cream or butter (will make wine taste thin and acidic); high salt (brining) or soy

2. Etude, Pinot Noirs

Descriptions: Lush, round, fleshy, succulent California style reds; medium body (not light, not heavy); moderate (towards low) acidity; rounded, soft tannin (but filling); black cherry perfume (fruit quality flavor over layered tannin); tinge of peppermint spice and warm, smoky/vanilla oakiness

Suggested dishes: Salad using smoked meat (beef, duck or quail), or smoked seafood course (salmon, calamari, tako), or modified cioppino (meaty fish, mussels, clams, octopus)

Similar ingredients: Wild berries or cherry; baby greens (very tender, mildly peppery); mild caramelization of meats; smoky notes (re grilling or charring)

Contrasting ingredients: Mushrooms, onions (especially pearl or caramelized); sausages (fresh or mildly cured); alliums (shallots, garlic, green onion); spices (cinnamon, clove, cumin, nutmeg, celery); mild (like Big Island) goat cheese; mustards

Extremes to avoid: Sharp vinegars (winy balsamics only in moderation); salty/sharp cheeses (blue, Feta, etc.); more lethal herbs (dill, cilantro)

Etude, Cabernet Sauvignon & Spottswoode, Cabernet Sauvignon

Descriptions: Two chunky, black toned, hefty, dry red wines; full body; low acidity; full, generous tannin (rounded, but almost palate drying at the core); combination of flesh and muscle in texture; deeply aromatic blackberry/cassis-like aromas (black cherry nuances); rich, charred oak, faintly minty and green olive/pepper aromas/flavors

Suggested dishes: Lamb with a twist (in pot-a-feu, garlic sausage, or combined with sweetbreads or white beans), or marinated loins or wood grilled chops stuffed with olives or soft ripened cheese, or fanciful “lamb sandwich” (Napoleon style utilizing offal, couscous, semolina, crusted polenta, etc.)

Similar ingredients: Wood smoke; natural reductions (concentrated without sweetness); wild berries; bell peppers (plays off wines’ herbal notes); smoked green chiles; olives; peppercorn, walnut, hazelnut (tannin neutralizers); eggplant, mustards; deep, aged cheeses (Cheddars, Manchego, Gouda, Parmigiano, etc.)

Contrasting ingredients: Earthy vegetables (fungus, beets, alliums, garlic); scented herbs (mint, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, mint); tomatoes, stewed or in nage (stripped of sugar, acid); double or triple crème cheeses (in moderation)

Extremes to avoid: Salty blue-veined cheeses; immature (ammonia-like) Chèvre and Brie; pervasive herbs, spices (dill, cilantro, ginger, kaffir,); sun dried fruits or tomatoes (too sweet/tart); sharp leafy vegetables (spinach, sorrel, napa cabbage); stinging dried chilies, powders or curries

4. Topaz, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon

Description: Sweet (approximately 10% residual sugar) dessert wine; full body (not delicate, about 13% alcohol); elevated, lip smacking balancing acidity; long, viscous (high glycerol), silky smooth texture; concentrated fig and honey-like aromas/flavors; underlying green grassy and apricot-like fragrances

Suggested dish: Creamy dessert with fresh fruit

Similar ingredients: Sweet/moderately tart fruits (berries, cherry); creams (custards) or crème fraiche; honey and fruit liqueurs (moderation)

Contrasting ingredients: Mild dessert spices (vanilla, nutmeg, almond, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, anise); citrus (i.e. lemon as flavoring, not dominant fruit); fresh mints


As you may have surmised, the interesting part of this exercise is that we had two chefs following the same parameters with the same wines, who ending up preparing prepare two different dinners on two consecutive nights. Here’s how it went:

Roy Yamaguchi’s Menu:

Kahuku Shrimp with Crispy Spinach & Spicy Lemon Grass Curry
Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc 1990

House Cured Duck Salad with Caramelized Pearl Onions & Shallot Sauce
Etude, Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988

Napoleon of Lamb with Sweetbread Spring Roll & Roasted Beet Sauce
Spottswoode, Cabernet Sauvignon 1989

Compote of Poached Bing Cherry with Kirsch Crème Fraiche
Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon 1989

Gordon Hopkins’ Menu:

Herbed Soft Shell Crab Salad with Roasted Corn & Black Bean Salsa in Red Pepper Vinaigrette
Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc 1990

Spicy Cioppino with Seafood Sausage, Crispy Squid, White Beans & Pizza Crusts
Etude, Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988

Braised Lamb Shanks in Natural Juices, with Black Figs & Couscous
Etude, Cabernet Sauvignon 1989

Napoleon of Almond Wafers with Wild Berries & Lemon Vanilla Bean Sauce
Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon 1989

Although he always described himself as an Euro-Asian style chef, for winemaker dinners Yamaguchi typically exerted restraint on his Asian side, giving a classical sense of balance to his dishes through technique as much as seamlessly woven ingredients.

I always loved, however, Hopkins’ aggressive, oft-times challenging or unorthodox matches; particularly in his mildly spiced cioppino (in its execution, the scented morsels of seafood sat in a pasta bowl over a small puddle of concentrated broth) and his visions of Morocco (the fragrantly brown spiced lamb was particularly luscious with sleek, oak spiced, dried fruit-like concentration of the Etude Cabernet).

In both dinners, the chefs amplified the crisp yet creamy textured, melony scented dimensions of the Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc by striking notes of similarity with the grape’s intrinsically herbal, acidic nature: the lemon grass in Yamaguchi’s shrimp, and the mildly vinegary, red peppers and crusted green herbs in Hopkins’ soft shell crab salad. By layering dishes to match a wine’s nuances, you can push forth its most flattering qualities while drawing attention to its complexity.

Contrast, on the other hand, is an approach fraught with risk, but which can raise a match to exhilarating heights. Re the mildly salty and acidic tastes of Yamaguchi’s house cured duck salad in a jus-laced vinaigrette: surely, not to be expected for a basically low acid, dry red wine (the Etude Pinot Noirs) with a modicum of bitter tannin. But because the wines are in themselves balanced (Soter always places lush, almost sweet fruit qualities above the tannin in his red winemaking style), and because Yamaguchi deftly balances salt and acidity with sweetness (caramelized onions), earthy flavors (shallots, oils and duck stock), and moderate bitterness (use of young, leafy mesclun leaves), the sum total of the course comes up fresh, lively, and enervating.

This is why when crafting dishes for wine, you need to always go back to the first principle of wine and food matching: just like good cooking involves a balancing of ingredients and technique, good wine/food matching involves focusing on how specific components in wines interact and achieve a sense of balance and harmony with specific components in dishes.

And the key to that, of course, is making sure that you start off with a wine that is balanced and a dish that is balanced, before going on to create a dish and a wine that are balanced together with multiple dimensions of similarity and contrast.


There are many old standby, tried-and-true wine and food matches, as well as a number of others reflecting more contemporary style dining, all based upon the basic, commonsense principles of similarity and contrast in food and wine matching. As food and wine for thought, a few interesting examples:

  • Full bodied, dry, richly flavorful white wines (like Chardonnay and Viognier) with meatier “other white” meats (like pork, veal and chicken) in richly flavorful sauces
  • White wines with zesty acidity (i.e. Sauvignon Blanc) with foods with matching degrees of acidity (like salads in mildly sharp vinaigrettes, or cheeses like Chèvre)
  • Slightly sweet yet zesty white wines (like German Rieslings) with seafoods prepared with slightly sweet, sour, salty, and even spicy-hot sauces and ingredients (since sugar in wine and as a food ingredient brings contrasting balance to spicy, salty or acidic sensations)
  • Soft red wines (like Pinot Noir and Beaujolais) with soft but full flavored red fish (like salmon and tuna)
  • Zesty, pungent, earthy/foresty red wines (like Chianti Classico and Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany) with zesty, Italian influenced dishes (use of pasta, tomato, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and resiny herbs like oregano and rosemary)
  • High tannin reds (like a youthful Cabernet Sauvignon) with slight bitterness or astringency with red meats prepared with slightly bitter peppercorns, vegetables, or char from wood grilling
  • Bright, zesty, sweetly fruit scented red wines (like red Zinfandel and Syrah) with fatty meats in zesty, sweet or even spicy sauces and marinades (re barbecued or even teriyaki style beef or pork ribs)
  • Big, herbaceous, minty or cedary Cabernet Sauvignon based reds (from France’s Bordeaux, California or Australia) with red meats in sauces reduced with aromatic green herbs (mint, thyme, sage, etc.)
  • Smoky, toasty, aggressively oaked wines (like many Chardonnays, and most ultrapremium reds) with white or red meats that are aggressively grilled, roasted or wood-smoked
  • Sweet, high acid, intensely fruity “late harvest” whites with sweet desserts made with fruits retaining natural fruit acidity (berries and stone fruits peach and pear)
  • Sweet, full bodied wines (fortified reds like Port and Banyuls from France, or golden colored Sauternes from France) contrasting with salty blue cheeses (like Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Maytag Blue)
  • Sweet, full bodied fortified reds (like Port and Banyuls) with bitter/sweet chocolate desserts

Common Wine Accents (and How to Apply Them)

Although as Americans, probably none of us (including me) are as good as we should be about placement of correct accents in European wine related words, there’s really no excuse. It’s as important as spelling potato as potato, not potatoe (according to a certain former Vice President, who also once said "I stand behind all the misstatements I've ever made").

Let’s put it another way: if you are serious about your wine program, then you’re serious about your spelling of European wine names and terms with their customary accents.

So first, utilizing most Microsoft Word/Windows applications, the quickest ways (apart from usage of Symbols in the Insert toolbar) of applying the most common accents:

CTR + ', the letter

á, é, í, ó, ú
Á, É, Í, Ó, Ú

CTR + `(accent grave), the letter

à, è, ì, ò, ù
À, È, Ì, Ò, Ù

CTR + SHIFT + ^(caret), the letter

â, ê, î, ô, û
Â, Ê, Î, Ô, Û

CTR + SHIFT + :(colon), the letter

ä, ë, ï, ö, ü, ÿ
Ä, Ë, Ï, Ö¸Ü, Ÿ

CTR + SHIFT + ~(tilde), the letter

ã, ñ, õ
Ã, Ñ, Õ

CTR + , (comma), c or C

ç, Ç

Here are some common (and maybe not so commonly seen) wine names and terms in need of correct accents:


Comte de Vogüé
Crémant de Bourgogne
Dom Pérignon
Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe
Fumé Blanc
Grand Cru Classé
Méthode Champenoise
Pedro Ximénez
Sélection de Grains Nobles


Beaux Frères
Clos de Bèze
La Louvière
Les Folatières
Les Perrières
Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
père et fils


Côte de Beaune
Côte de Brouilly
Côte de Nuits
Côte d’Or
La Tâche
Rhône Valley
tête de cuvée


Comte de Vogüé
Deidesheimer Leinhöhle
Forster Kirchenstück
Grüner Veltliner
Maximum Grünhauser
Moët & Chandon
Piesporter Goldtröpchen
Quälitatswein mit Prädikat
Rüdesheimer Berg
Schloss Schönborn
Ürziger Würzgarten
Weingut Künstler
Weingut Mönchhof
Wiltinger Hölle


Tinto Cão