Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sucking up to my teacher

About a month ago, I was privileged to be a judge at the Virginia Governor's Cup wine competition.  Now that the winners have been announced, I wanted to take a post to describe the tasting sheet we used.  It was designed by Jay Youmans, MW, my teacher for the WSET Diploma process.  At the risk of being a suckup, I liked it.

Tasting wine in a competition process is unique and very different from tasting in your living room, or even blind tasting under test conditions.  You have six wines in front of you that are probably the same grape, same region, and same vintage.  The basic taste is the same, for example, all merlot.  The tasting sheet doesn't ask to spend time going back and forth between a black raspberry and a blackberry descriptor.  It says, "yes, it's black fruit, let's move on."  The sheet is not about recognizing a wine, but evaluating it.  Are the flavors ripe?  What are the qualities of the tannins?  How much color got extracted?  We are expected to judge each wine individually, but when you are done, you get a really excellent look at what was possible with that bunch of fruit, and how close each individual winemaker got to that Platonic ideal.

So I encourage everyone to try this technique as a way to really jump forward in your trasting.  Get a bunch of wines, at least 6, from the same place and vintage.  Try to vary your purchases by price point, if you can. Have somebody else bag them and be critical!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A very brief review of a good book I jest finished, The Art and Business of Champagne, by Dan Ginsberg. Ginsberg was the only American ever to head up a Champagne house, and as a businessman in his own right, wrote a unique and excellent text on the wine. It was opinionated and passionate and well written. The descriptions of each village were excellent to the serious student of wine, but I doubt anyone needed vintage reports going back to the early 1900s.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Due Diligence

The blogosphere is atwitter about a recent case of possible fraud at Spectrum Auctions in London with Vanquish Wine Ltd..  The facts as I gather, are these: 13 lots of Domaine Romanee Conti were pulled on the eve of the auction because label irregularities had been alleged.  The problems were spotted by attorney Don Cornwell, a noted Burgundy collector and appear to have been consigned, through an intermediary, by  Rudy Kurniawan, who has been involved in the auction of several suspicious lots in years past (1, 2, 3). 

Most of the blog entries and news reports I have read focus on Mr. Kurniawan, with historical asides to the Harvey Rodenstock fiasco where an entire cottage industry of fake bottle production and sales destroyed many a reputation and jarred the faith we might like to have in the auction house industry.

The best post I read also brought me a story I had not heard before.  Mike Steinberger writes the WineDiarist, and he reports that in 2008,  bottles of Domaine Ponsot’s Clos St-Denis from 1945, 1949, 1959, 1962, 1966, and 1971 were pulled from auction because the night before, the Domaine's owner flew in to remind them that they didn't begin making Clos St-Denis until 1982!  Mr. Steinberger's takeaway from the most recent DRC flap is that interested parties on the internet keep auction houses honest. 

My takeaway is what the hell do those auction employees do for a living?  We aren't discussing the results of mass spectrometer readings or carbon dating of glass here, just looking at a few websites to find out a wine actually exists!  WTF?  "Hrm, lesee Chateu FirstGrowth, medium neck fill, cork a quarter-inch shorter than it should be, label written in what appears to be crayon...sounds good!"  If you guys want to earn your percentage, you might want to do just a little work.  It reminds me of people buying bonds after only looking at their Moody's rating.  ...and you know how many years of recession can be linked to that!

From my own collecting persepective, I worry about small ticket items that I might buy from internet houses.  If firms cannot be trusted to check into bottles worth $5000, do you think they're gonna bother with my $100 lots?  Food for thought, people.  Let's be careful out there.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Shout Out to K Vintners

I've often blogged about frequent disconnections between pricing and demand or pricing and quality.  This is one of those entries, but in a rather different way.  Charles Smith aka K Vintners is one of the superstars of the New World winemaking scene.  Indigenous yeasts, yields below 2 ton/acre, whole cluster fermentation, huge extraction, high pH...foot crushing for God's sake!  His wines are the real deal, from their inexpensive line of Charles Smith wines to their top cuvees.

Royal City is the product of the best fruit of the Stoneridge vineyard in Walla Walla, only about 4 barrels are made.  In the past four years, this fruit has received four 99 point ratings and one 98 from Robert Parker.  Now, we can quibble all day about rating systems and Parker's palate, but any way you slice it, that's a solid fantastic track record.

Last week I tried a bottle of the 2006.
A brooding monster of blueberries, blackberries, chocolate, spices, pepper, and tar. The more I smell and taste, the more descriptors I get - black olive, petrol, bacon fat, black cherries... The tannins are round and ripe, but huge. They combine with the acid to form a structure that handles all this fruit and flavor and manages to find elegance and awesome length. Wow.

Now to pricing.  First Growth Bordeaux don't get those kind of ratings and they cost $1000.  Charles Smith only costs $100, and he hasn't raised his price ever.  Mr. Smith, it's okay to make some money.  You've got the goods, it's okay.  Last month, I got my offer email and Royal City was listed at $120, but only a few hours later, another email notice reset the price back to $100.  I don't really want to pay more, but dude, it's worth it.  We won't complain.