Want to Learn About Wine?

Everyone’s brain is different so to think that using the same approach to learning about wine is going to work for everyone is just wrong. This doesn’t mean that the various manifestos on how to taste wine are without merit; some work for some people and lord knows I’ve been guilty of pontificating over the years but the older I get the more I realize that there is no such thing as a one size fits all approach to education.


General Rules

Nearly all of these rules can be broken but most of time hold up and may give you a pretty good framework for analyzing wine.


  • Unfiltered wines are cloudy and might have sediment at the bottom. And? So? This means they often have a greater range of flavors because filtration strips a wine of some nuance. On the other hand, filtering also diminishes certain “flaws,” such a Brettanomyces that can make wine have animal or barnyard-like odors that not everyone is into, though some are. Personally, I’m cool with it in moderation but don’t like when it overpowers everything else. So, if it is not cloudy (and it is easier to tell with whites) it might seem a little “cleaner” but on the other hand have less complexity. Also, don’t freak out, the murky stuff in the bottle won’t hurt you.
  • Faster legs mean that there is either less alcohol or sugar because both are heavier components of wine. Wines that are high in alcohol or sugar have slower moving legs.
  • Darker wines, both red and white, might come from warmer climates and as such are somewhat more likely to have more alcohol and body. The converse is true of lighter colored wines. However, some grapes are inherently lighter (Pinot Noir) or darker (Syrah) than others. But if you were to have a Pinot Noir from Germany and compare it to one from Carneros, chances are the German would be have more of a pink hue because it is from a cooler location.
  • If a wine’s color is fading it could be older. Look at the rim, aka the meniscus. Holding your glass against a white surface is helpful. There is not an exact way to measure – two millimeters doesn’t mean ten years – as it depends on the grape and other factors. But, it will give you an indication if a wine is young, has some age or is very old.painting1


  • Your olifactory sense determines most of what you taste so pay attention to the nose and aerate your glass – with your wrist or a fancy contraption – to maximize the aromas.
  • You can’t smell acidity, it is more of a textural sensation, yet there are a few scents that could tell you if a wine is likely to be on the more acidic side. Apple cider, vinegar and nail polish remover aromas are signs that there is volatile acidity, which is usually but not always acetic acid. While some consider it a flaw, others embrace the complexity it brings to wines, and it is more prevalent in wines that undergo native fermentation.
  • If wine smells oxidized in a not so good way, meaning that all you notice is a vinegar-like aroma, it’s over the hill. Of course, we all have our threshold for the qualities that come with older wines but if nothing is there besides oxidative notes that are not a good sign.


  • It is amazing how much your taste buds can pick up and usually the problem is not having the vocabulary for what you are experiencing. That is one good reason to taste with other people.
  • If you want your palate to be super sharp, use green apples or lemons as a palate cleanser. The acid will open up your salivary glands. Crackers and bread that do not have much flavor (no sourdough) are ok but cheese, while delicious, is not going to improve your ability to taste wine.
  • Texturally, look out for acid, body and tannin. All wine is acidic but not equally so. If it makes your mouth water a lot it is a very high wine, simple. Alcohol adds body but if the wine is not balanced you’ll get what is called a “hot” sensation in your mouth that feels like alcohol-generated heat.Lipton_Kermit-630x422
  • If you are not sure how tannins feel, make strong black tea – not necessarily a fancy brand – Lipton will do – and take a few sips. The drying sensation on your gums and the roof of your mouth is the same you will get from wine tannins. Tannin comes from grapes skins and sometimes oak. Some see the benefit in the latter but I think it causes an unpleasant roughness. Some grapes are inherently more tannic than others. The thickness of the skins and surface ratio of the skin to pulp factor into this. However, wines that spend extended periods fermenting on their skins will have greater tannin. Tannin used to be the domain of reds only, more or less, but increasingly there are skin-fermented whites that are also called orange or amber wines because of their color.
  • The finish is the after taste. Ideally, you want a long, pleasant finish. If the wine tastes bad you don’t want it to leave a trace. A short finish is an indication of lesser quality. This does not mean the wine is bad. In fact, it could be an older wine that was once pretty fantastic but is beyond its prime. 

There is way more here than I planned to write and if you are still with me, you are either a relative, have insomnia or are truly part of the faithful in need of a good glass of wine…continuing…


Tips that might help

Reading what a variety of sources say about tasting wine is helpful but no one has the gospel and for everything that has been said, infinitely more valuable things that have been thought. So, if you want to learn about wine, what is the best framework to use when you taste?

  • Think about why you’re tasting. Are you trying to learn to be more analytical? If so a chart is helpful but keep in mind that while some people do better breaking categories down into subcategories, others work better in broad strokes.



Wine One Wine Two Wine Three





Wine One Wine Two Wine Three
Other Aromas

Lots of people find referencing wine flavor wheels such as this one from UC Davis are helpful.



  • Taste with other people. Really, even if you think they’re nitwits you’re likely to learn something.
  • Some things are universal. We all know, Steph Curry is the man. While everyone experiences wine differently, it is always helpful to begin the discussion at a point where there is likely to be agreement such as the general nature of the wine such as whether it is fruit driven, cloudy or has residual sugar.
  • Celebrate the differences. I never understood how anyone couldn’t like the Beatles until i listened to what a few people – who I think otherwise have good taste in music – had to say. It hasn’t changed my mind but I can see where they are coming from. 
  • Your sensory memory is a library. American oak often smells like dill and my grandmother used dill in her chicken soup so the first time I had a Rioja where I really notice the heavy use of American oak I thought, “Nanny’s chicken soup,” and this led me to dill.
  • Write down your tasting notes. This will help you remember your impressions. We’re all getting older and I think it is fair to say that our attention spans are not what they used to be before smart phones. However, use your device and I don’t mean just taking a picture. Jot down the name of the wine, at the least. 
  • Pick people’s brains. If you’re at a store or wine bar and are curious about production methods or anything else about the wine you’re drinking ask questions. Those of us in the business do not know everything all the time but it is our job to give you the best information we have and if we can, go and do a little research.
  • Go out of your comfort zone. You can start in the shallow end of the pool. The first question you should ask yourself when you try new wine is, “Do I like it?” If you do, why? Maybe it’s refreshing. Perhaps it’s floral. Whatever you seem to be latching on to, look for other wines that have the same quality but are different. If you keep doing this you’ll find that you’re tasting and learning a lot. For example, let’s say you enjoy Pinot Noir because it is light and fruity. Cool, try Beaujolais or another wine made from Gamay that has these qualities, too. You might find that Gamay is a bit more peppery than Pinot and you dig it. Syrah, which is often quite spicy, would be a good way to progress, and so on.
  • Cook. The best way to distinguish scent and flavor is by being around it and food has a never-ending supply of both. Play around with spices and to this end get a good spice rack. 
  • Don’t be scared aka who gives a shit. I think astrophysics is fascinating and would love to have a conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson or the ghost of Carl Sagan but my knowledge of this subject is seriously limited to what I read in the New York Times on Tuesdays, and half the time I don’t get it. A great way to learn about wine is through discussion. I’m always discovering through my students who theoretically know a lot less than I do so don’t let your lack of experience keep you from expressing yourself or listening to others who don’t know that much. I never judge my students on how much they seem to understand or their taste. I’m just happy that they are interested in learning about wine and the true test I’ve earned my keep is that they ask questions and want to keep drinking.

So that’s it, for now. In the meantime, there is fun filled fall of classes and tastings I have planned so check out THIS SCHEDULE and if you don’t live in the Bay Area, many stores offer tastings and classes for reasonable fees.










Could the Finger Lakes be the New World Loire?

Here me out, I will certainly get to this question. But first, mea culpa.

It’s rather pathetic that with as often as I am in New York I visited the Finger Lakes for the first time a couple of weeks ago. One can easily argue that this is one of last places you’d want to be in the winter but there are at least four months out of the year when the sheer beauty of the area is not dampened by temperatures unfit for someone who lives in California. Also, I have to admit that the trip was not planned in advance, not more than 24 hours, but conceived after other travel plans to the Catskills fell through. Now that I’ve completely endeared myself to just about everyone who lives and works in this part of New York, let’s move on.

From a geological standpoint, this region is fascinating and it is hardly surprising that the surrounding universities have renowned agriculture and science departments. Glacial lobes created the 11 lakes at the end of the last ice age, 17,000 years ago. Cayuga and Seneca are the largest and most of wineries are scattered around these two bodies of water. Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is based at the southern end of Cayuga and more than any other institution, it wields huge influence over the area. Seneca is bookended by Watkins Glen in the south You can go on a walking tour of the waterfalls in town. I didn’t, opting instead to catch up on sleep, but next time I’m in the area – and there will be a next time – it will be part of the agenda, for sure.

Geneva, home to Hobart and William Smith College, is at the northern tip. Seneca is the deepest lake in New York State and it very rarely freezes over. The eastern bank, locally known as the “banana belt,” is warmer and many consider it the best spot in the entire region for red grapes. Notably, Seneca’s southernmost vineyards are actually colder than those further north where the lake is deeper.

Researchers in the 1980’s found that the underlying bedrock was much more eroded than previously realized and that before, during and after the glacial periods it was filled in with sediment. Long, winding sand and gravel ridges known as “eskers” were also discovered underneath the lakes. Most of the region has what is called “Honeoye” soil, well draining loamy topsoil on top of limestone or shale.

If you haven’t already heard, Riesling is king of the whites; Cabernet Franc is the queen of the reds or something like that. Gewurztraminer does well here as does Chardonnay, which is used to make sparkling wines in addition to still. Pinot Noir and Gamay, grapes that also thrive in the Loire Valley, are well suited to the Finger Lakes terroir. Gruner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch are a little trendy. I tasted a few and as makes sense, the better producers seemed to have more of a handle on these grapes. Numerous hybrids are grown but they are usually reserved for the less expensive wines and seem to be falling out of favor. 

After a quick three-day trip, two hours which were wasted in a midnight traffic jam in New Jersey, I’m hardly an expert on the area but learned quite a bit. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about its similarities to the Loire Valley. Very few  producers are making wine that is on par with even the above average Loire vignerons yet I really do think the potential is here and not far from being realized. No one exemplifies this more than Bloomer Creek. 


Bloomer Creek Vineyard

Nearly everyone I met said that it is impossible to be organic or make natural wine in the Finger Lakes. However, Debra Bermingham and Kim Engle of Bloomer Creek Vineyard doth protest. If their wines didn’t have so much inherent purity and intricacy I’d just mention this as a point of interest and move on. Yet, that would be a massive disservice as this is one of the best producers in North America.

Engle and Bermingham planted their first vines 30 years ago, and they haven’t used herbicides or insecticides over the last 20. They made their first commercial wine in 1999 and since 2008 have used ambient yeast fermentation exclusively. There’s the dateline.

Located in Hector, a town on the east side of Seneca Lake, Bloomer Creek has a tasting room but it is way less commercial than the others and they have very limited hours. That is not to say they don’t welcome visitors but with just one employee they’re a bit short-handed.

Up until now all of the fruit has come from two adjacent vineyards on the west side of Cayuga Lake. The Auten Vineyard was planted first, 20 years ago, and is on shale while Morehouse Road is now 16 years old and is on limestone. They use Scott-Henry trellising, a split canopy system devised at the Henry Winery in Oregon that provides greater sun exposure and airflow.

Instead of chemicals, Bloomer Creek uses fish, seaweed, and compost preparations in the vineyards to help combat disease. A tractor mounted hydraulic hoe removes weeds and this is about as high tech as they get. Don’t expect to see sterile, neat rows either as buckwheat, rye and clover run wild. Copper and sulfur is applied to control fungus and mildew.

Bloomer Creek manually harvests all of its grapes and ferments in small lots, with blending coming later on. Most of the wines are not fined or filtered. The reds are hit with five to ten ppm of SO2 during fermentation and a touch of sulfur is added before bottling.

In 2012, they planted a new site, Barrow Vineyard, which means high rocky hill and burial mountain. Appropriately, Debra’s mother’s ashes were scattered around a cedar tree in the middle of this 12-acre plot; depending on how metaphysical you want to get, this vineyard is likely to have unique terroir. The view is stunning, not that there are any bad looks in the Finger Lakes, but as far as final resting places go, it is on par with the spooky spots on the California coastline or Central Park, at least in my book.

Debra Bermingham in Bloomer Creek's Barrow Vineyard

Debra Bermingham in Bloomer Creek’s Barrow Vineyard

Debra is also an artist. Her work has been featured at the DC Moore Gallery in Chelsea and currently, she has a show at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. I did not have a chance to meet Kim, but supposedly the picture of him on the website looking like a gentleman farmer is pre-hipster ironic. At any rate, both Debra and Kim seem to be pretty unconventional people and this spirit is apparent in the wines. 

They take issue with most of the other wineries who seem to think that you cannot make stable, delicious wines without playing god. While there might be a sense of isolation now, Debra is optimistic about the future of natural winemaking in the Finger Lakes. “Part of the excitement of being a pioneer is getting to be part of the history of what this area will be about.” I hope she’s right.

It turned out to be an epic tasting. Here are my notes.

Bloomer Creek Vineyard Pétillant Chardonnay, 2012, Finger Lakes AVA, ($24)

Hand harvested from 15-year-old vines, de-stemmed, crushed and fermented in 55-gallon stainless steel barrels for ten months. Unfined and unfiltered. 1% residual sugar, 11.5% alcohol

Petnats are all the rage at the moment in many places but not in the Finger Lakes, where most sparkling wines are méthode Champenoise or charmat. Nonetheless, this wine is what I expect from petnat – it’s straightforward and refreshing – with hints of apples and a clean finish.

Bloomer Creek Vineyard Pétillant Cabernet Franc, 2013, Finger Lakes AVA, ($28)

Hand harvested from 15 – 20-year-old vines grown on silty loam. Whole clusters and crushed grapes were fermented in 55-gallon stainless steel tanks for five months, transferred to bottle to finish fermentation, disgorged, splashed with a little SO2 and capped without fining or filtration, 12.1 alcohol

The Chardonnay petnat is a fine summer sipper, but I’d take the Cab Franc with me all the way through the fall and into the frigid Finger Lakes winter. Mineral driven with raspberries and a little spice, it goes where no other American Pétillant that I’ve tried has gone before. Seriously.

Tanzen is a German word, and Bloomer Creek uses it for its wines made from Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and the Edelzwicker.

Tanzen is a German word, and Bloomer Creek uses it for its wines made from Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and the Edelzwicker.

Tanzen Dame Dry Riesling, Auten Vineyard, Clone 10, 2013, Finger Lakes AVA ($28)

Hand harvested, fermented and aged in stainless steel barrels for five months, unfined, lightly filtered and has in total about 30 ppm of sulfur, 10.5% alcohol

This clone is a Martini Monte Rosso selection meaning it originated in the fairly new Moon Mountain AVA in Sonoma that is hardly a place where anyone would think to grow Riesling today. Go figure. Composed of grapes from a one-acre parcel planted in 2011, the fruit is young but the wine shows youthful promise. Roughly kabinett level in terms of sweetness, it is super refreshing with crunchy fruit, a touch of honey in the nose and a dry, vibrant and mouth-watering finish.

Tanzen Dame Dry Riesling, Auten Vineyard, Clone 10, 2nd Harvest, 2013, Finger Lakes AVA ($28)

Hand harvested, vinified in 55-gallon stainless steel barrels for eight months from both whole cluster fruit and crushed grapes, unfined, lightly filtered with about 30 ppm of total sulfur, 11.3% alcohol

The 2nd Harvest is roughly the equivalent to a spätlese, even though the residual sugar is under 1%. This wine was a little shy at first but as it sat in my glass, it started to undress, revealing its contours without showing a lot of flesh. Mineral driven with honey and stone fruits, it needs time for sure, but you can drink it now.

Tanzen Dame Dry Riesling Auten Vineyard, Clone 10, 2nd Harvest, 2012, Finger Lakes AVA ($40)

Hand harvested, vinified in 55-gallon stainless steel barrels for eight months from both whole cluster fruit and crushed grapes, unfined, lightly filtered with about 30 ppm of total sulfur, 11.3% alcohol

While 2012 was one of the warmest vintages in the Finger Lakes on record and this Riesling is hardly lacking acidity, it is not as svelt as the 2013. A little awkward at first, the fruit made a late appearance, in the form of green apples and after an hour or so it started to fill out.

Bloomer Creek Tanzen Dame Dry Gewurztraminer, 2013, Finger Lakes AVA ($20)

Hand harvested from 15 – 20-year-old vineyards on lima silty loam, destemmed, cold soaked for 48 hours, vinified in 55-gallon steel barrels for seven months, unfined and unfiltered. 12.3% alcohol

Two days of skin contact not only enhanced the already aromatic nature of this grape but also gave some texture to the wine. While not in your face, it is unmistakably Gewurz with unapologetic lychee and rose petal aromas yet it shows restraint on the palate and a good backbone of acidity.

Bloomer Creek Rose, Pinot Noir, 2013, Finger Lakes AVA ($20)

Using both whole clusters and crushed fruit, the rose was vinified in 55-gallon steel barrels for seven months at cellar temperature and bottled without fining or filtration. 12.1 alcohol

Some of fruit came from ungrafted 25 plus year old vines. That’s ancient for the Finger Lakes. Sadly, phylloxera has taken its toll, so Kim and Debra had to replant most of the Pinot Noir. The tighter clusters are reserved for the red wine while the other fruit is lightly pressed and turned into the rose. While this is a refreshing quaffer, it also has a little more going on than the standard picnic rose with floral notes and rose hip tea in the nose but I wouldn’t over analyze…just enjoy.

Bloomer Creek Pinot Noir, 2010, 2012, Finger Lakes AVA ($30)

Bloomer Creek’s sources its Pinot Noir from both the Auten and Morehouse Vineyards and contains some of the fruit from the oldest vines. Hand harvested, partially destemmed and fermented with whole clusters in one ton open top fermenters for two to three weeks at cellar temperature, stems were added back in during fermentation, left on its gross lees for ten to eleven months in French older French oak, blended and bottled unfined and unfiltered. 2010 – 12.6% alcohol, 2012 – 12.2% alcohol

I went back and forth between the ’10 and ’12. Tight at first, both opened up in the glass, but the ’10 jumped out ahead and the 2012 never quite caught up. Debra said that 2010 was “warm and glorious.” As a rule, Finger Lakes Pinot Noir is closer to German spätburgunder stylistically than West Coast Pinot Noir but I’d put Bloomer Creeks somewhere in between. The 2010 reminded me of McKinlay from Oregon with dried blueberries, cherries and floral overtones. The 2012 seems to be on its way there but is less developed.

Vin d’ete Cabernet Franc-Gamay, 2012, Finger Lakes AVA ($22)

Cabernet Franc 60%, Gamay 40%. Partial carbonic maceration with whole clusters added to crushed grapes in open top fermenters, aged in 60-gallon Hungarian oak and stainless steel barrels for ten months, unfined and unfiltered. 11.5% alcohol

When the sun does not shine down on Cabernet Franc – literally – Bloomer Creek makes Vin d’ete instead. In days gone by some would have called Vin d’ete a “wimpy wine” but now that lighter reds are having their day, I would expect to see this in natural wine bars, especially in New York. Brambly and bright, drink it lightly chilled.

Bloomer Creek Café Red, NV, Finger Lakes AVA ($17)

Cabernet Franc 75%, Corot Noir and Noiret 15%, Merlot 10%. Hand harvested, crushed and destemmed, two-week open top fermentation with the stems added back, aged in older French, American and Hungarian oak with its lees, unfined and unfiltered. $12

The Café Red is meant to be exactly what it says it is – an inexpensive, easy to drink bistro wine. Light and juicy with high toned fruit, this is Finger Lakes glou glou at its finest.

Bloomer Creek White Horse Red, 2010, Finger Lakes AVA ($45)

70% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot. Hand harvested, mechanically crushed, with stems and some whole clusters added back during fermentation, open top fermentation for two to three weeks, aged in older French oak barrels for one year on the gross lees, and bottled unfined and unfiltered. 12.5% alcohol

A night of Bordeaux debauchery with the ’82 Chateau Cheval Blanc as the centerpiece inspired Kim and Debra to make White Horse Red. It is notably earthier than the Cabernet Franc with leather and horsehide in the nose merged with black fruits and cocoa powder on the palate. A long, moderately tannic finish suggests it’s not taking a dive any time soon. My best guess is that it will hit a high point in five years, give or take, when it is about ten years old.

Bloomer Creek Cabernet Franc, 2010, 2013, Finger Lakes AVA ($30)

Hand harvested from 16 – 25-year-old vines, partially destemmed and fermented with whole clusters in one ton open top fermenters for two to three weeks at cellar temperature, stems were added back in during fermentation, left on its gross lees for ten to eleven months in French older French oak, blended and bottled unfined, unfiltered and unsulfured. 2010 – 12.4% alcohol, 2012 – 12.6% alcohol

A lot of Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc smells like bell pepper and while I don’t mind that, Bloomer Creek’s is pleasantly different. If they can’t get the grapes as ripe as they would like they make Vin d’Ete instead. I tried the 2010, which was showing a ton of fruit – not in an obnoxious way – and a dash of black pepper next to the 2013, which had a matrix of spice, floral tones, blueberries and pepperoni. Both wines have a way to go but decanting should help if you lack patience.


Hermann J. Wiemer

Hermann J. Wiemer is one of the oldest wineries in the Finger Lakes. I’ve had their wines over the years – 25 to be exact – and have regarded them as the benchmark by which to judge others. Now, they are carried in California by Farm Wine Imports, an extremely discriminating company that has a strong preference for natural leaning wines. Compared to Bloomer Creek it might be a stretch to call Wiemer “natural” but when it comes to their growing and vinification practices, they are head and shoulders above nearly everyone else in the area.

Hermann J. Wiemer purchased a farm in Dundee in 1973 and planted the first vineyard on a shale plot in 1976, now known as the Hermann J. Wiemer or HJW Vineyard. From a winemaking family in the Mosel, Wiemer – the man – caught the bug early on and worked and studied viticulture and enology in Germany before immigrating to the United States in 1960. When he started his label, it was the 6th winery in the Finger Lakes.

Fred Merwarth, Wiemer’s assistant, and a friend of his from Cornell, Oskar Bynke, bought the property in 2003 and started moving in a sustainable direction. While they are not entirely chemical free, horse manure and cover crops are used instead of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, and spraying is kept to a minimum.

Today, the winery works with two other vineyards in addition to the original site: Magdalena and Josef. HJW has the coolest microclimate and even within the vineyard there is some variation. Last winter, some rows went down to -17 whiles others were a balmier -13. It has thin, gravelly topsoil on shale and is 800 feet above sea level.

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard Riesling, 2012

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard Riesling, 2012

Josef, named after Hermann’s father, which is closer to the lake is slightly warmer. First planted to Gewurztraminer in 1967, Wiemer actually grafted some of the older vines for the Taylor Wine Company in on this land in 1977, and he bought it in 1996. It has gravel topsoil on shale rock.

Magdalena, named after as you might have guessed, Hermann’s mother, is also near the lake but since it is further north it is yet warmer than Josef. A pretty big swath of grapes are planted including reds. Another major difference from the other vineyards is that it has limestone, not shale. Merwarth feels that this gives the Riesling a distinct fruit profile of lemon that eventually becomes more tropical. On the contrary, he’s noticed that Riesling from shale soil vineyards start out with a lime profile that turns into green apple.

The white wines undergo native ferments and starting this vintage the red wines will as well. Sulfur is added at the end of fermentation after filtration and before bottling. Merwarth told me that total SO2 never exceeds 100 ppm.

I started out with a dry Riesling flight and we went from there. Here are the highlights:

Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Magdalena Vineyard, 2013, Lake Seneca AVA ($36)

Hand harvested from 15 year old vines, whole cluster pressed, seven month cold fermentation, unfined and unfiltered, .8 residual sugar, 12.5% alcohol

Vibrant with tart, barely ripe peach and a long, clean finish, the aloof immaturity is part its charm but if you’re a Riesling nerd you might want to try this wine again in a few years when it grows up.

Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Magdalena Vineyard, 2014, Lake Seneca AVA ($36)

Hand harvested from 16-year-old vines, whole cluster pressed, seven-month cold fermentation, unfined and unfiltered.

The ’14 is really tightly wound but it has great acidity and intense minerality so I’d bet the farm I’ll never have it’s going to be great by the end of the decade.

Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling, Josef Vineyard, 2013, Lake Seneca AVA ($39)

Hand harvested, some vines going back to the 70’s, whole cluster pressed, seven month cold fermentation, unfined and unfiltered, 4.3 % residual sugar, 11% alcohol

The 2013 Josef has considerably more residual sugar than the Magdalena and is much flashier at the moment, exuding an array of stone fruits and minerals. It reminded me a bit of a southern Rheingau spätlese and considering that there is a lot of shale in that part of Germany, especially near the town of Nierstein, that makes complete sense.

Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling, 2014, Lake Seneca AVA ($18.50)

HJW Vineyard 65%, Josef Vineyard 23%, Magdalena Vineyard 12%. Hand harvested, whole cluster pressed, seven-month cold fermentation, unfined and unfiltered,09 residual sugar, 12% alcohol

Right now this vineyard blend is pretty exuberant with tropical, stone and citrus fruits, racy acidity, and a long, tangy finish. It should drink well through the end of the decade.

Hermann J. Wiemer Reserve Riesling, 2013, Lake Seneca AVA ($29)

HJW 46%, Josef 37%, Magdalena 17%. Hand harvested, whole cluster pressed, seven-month cold fermentation, unfined and unfiltered, .8 % residual sugar, 12.5% alcohol

The “Reserve” is made from the warmest sites in the three vineyards and is meant to be akin to a spätlese trocken. Minerally, with citrus and tart stone fruit, it is very old world…I’d probably place it somewhere on the Rhein if I had it blind. Ideally, stash away a few bottles somewhere cool and forget it’s there until Chelsea Clinton runs for president. 

Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling HJW, 2013, Lake Seneca AVA ($39)

Hand harvested from 38 year old vines, whole cluster pressed, seven month cold fermentation, unfined and unfiltered, .8 % residual sugar, 12.3% alcohol

Anyone who enjoys tart green apples will love how this wine is showing at the moment. The tightest of the dry Rieslings I tasted, it may also be among the longest-lived. The acidity is intense which in combination with a penetrating minerality gives it a crunchy, angular texture.

Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Gruner Veltliner, Josef Vineyard, 2014, Lake Seneca AVA ($36)

Hand harvested from three to five year old vines, whole cluster pressed, seven month cold fermentation, unfined and unfiltered, .05 residual sugar, 12% alcohol

HJW’s Gruner Veltliner is the most on target I’ve had from the Finger Lakes with plenty of acid, a touch of white peach and a feint note of bee pollen. Planted in 2008, 09 and 11, the vines are still maturing but all indications are that at Wiemer at least, Gruner is a keeper.

Hermann J. Wiemer Rosé Cuvee, NV, Lake Seneca AVA ($13.50)

Pinot Noir 60%, Cabernet Franc 20%, Chardonnay 20%. Saignée with barrel fermented Chardonnay, 11% alcohol

The “Cuvee” wines are cheap and cheerful and since that is what most people seem to want from rose, this wine will hit just about anyone’s spot.

Hermann J. Wiemer Gewurztraminer, 2013, Lake Seneca AVA ($25)

Josef and Magdalena Vineyards. Hand harvested from 20 – 47-year-old vines, whole cluster pressed, seven-month cold fermentation, unfined and unfiltered, 1.4% residual sugar, 12.5% alcohol

Partially sourced from the original plot planted in 1967, this is a delightful, perfectly balanced Gewurztraminer. Not too tart, not too sweet, it brims over with lychee, rose petals, apricots and citrus.

Hermann J. Wiemer Cabernet Franc, 2013, Seneca Lake AVA ($24.50)

Hand harvested from 10 – 15-year-old vines, ten months in older French oak punchdowns, fermented in 100 gallon lots, unfined and unfiltered, 13% alcohol

This cuvée is made from Magdalena fruit and purchased grapes from Seneca Lake. It has a classic black olive, roasted red pepper nose, with plum, berry fruit on the palate and a noticeable finish.

Hermann J. Wiemer Cabernet Franc Magdalena Vineyard, 2013, Seneca Lake AVA ($32)

Hand harvested, fermented in new and old French oak in 100 gallon lots, aged in Hungarian oak, unfined and unfiltered, 12.8% alcohol

A little disjointed at the moment, this single vineyard Cabernet Franc will undoubtedly come together as it has fruit, structure and balance, probably turning in a corner in three to five years.

Hermann J. Wiemer Cuvée Brut, 2011, Seneca Lake AVA ($32)

Chardonnay 65%, Pinot Noir 35%, HJW and Magdalena Vineyards. Hand harvested from 15 – 35-year-old vines, whole cluster pressed, cold fermentation, Méthode Champenoise, unfined and unfiltered, disgorged March 2014, 12% alcohol

The first HJW wine I ever tried was one of the sparklings though I’d be embellishing this story if I said I could remember which one. At any rate, I was young and dumb but remember thinking that it was much better than any of the sparkling wines being made in California at the time and pretty much, that still holds true. The Chardonnay comes from the coolest rows of the HJW Vineyard. Disgorged in January of this year, it has a yeasty, buttered brioche-like nose, with apple and almonds but in spite of the opulence, the acidity cuts the richness on the palate, and especially on the finish leaves an elegant mark.

Hermann J. Wiemer Blanc de Noir, 2011, Lake Seneca ($39)

Hand harvested, whole cluster pressed, cold fermentation, Méthode Champenoise, unfined and unfiltered

Composed entirely of Pinot Noir from Magdalena, Wiemer’s Blanc de Noir is a rare treat. Hyper minerally with traces of toasted almonds and cherries, it is pretty intense and requires more thought than the Brut, and probably food, too.

Hermann J. Wiemer Sauvignon Blanc Magdalena Vineyard, 2012 – BA, Seneca Lake AVA, ($52.50)

Hand harvested November 1 – 5, 2012, whole cluster pressed, cold fermentation, 17.4 residual sugar, 10.5% alcohol

Spicy, with lemon, pineapple and honey, this is a dessert wine I can drink in some quantity (meaning maybe a 2.5-ounce glass) as it has loads of acidity and finishes clean.

Wiemer Dessert Wines

Wiemer Dessert Wines

Hermann J. Wiemer Chardonnay Magdelena Vineyard, 2010 – BA, Seneca Lake AVA ($37)

Hand harvested November 1 – 5, 2010, whole cluster pressed, cold fermentation, 17.6% residual sugar, 10% alcohol

Superbly balanced with searing acidity, vanilla mint, apples and honey.

 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Magdalena Vineyard, 2012 – BA, Seneca Lake AVA, ($85)

Hand harvested November 12 – 15, 2012, whole cluster pressed, cold fermentation, 29.4 % residual sugar, 7.2% alcohol

Now we’re getting into the territory of dessert wine where I can’t really drink much more than a thimble full. However, I would relish every drop here. With ripe apricots, lychee, guava and honey, this is as much dessert as anyone should ever need.

Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Josef Vineyard, 2011 – TBA, Seneca Lake AVA, ($135)

Hand harvested November 1 – 8, 2011, whole cluster pressed, cold fermentation, 38.7% residual sugar, 7.1% alcohol

Though balanced, I could only have a few sips of this TBA. This said, if you like dessert wines, this is hedonistically luscious, with stone fruit compote, lychee and honey.



My information on Shaw is pretty scant. I stopped off here on the way to Wiemer for a quickie. The person in the tasting room was pretty new and did not have that much information about the wines and my email has gone unanswered. This much I can say; the vineyard was a bit of an unruly mess and that is a good thing. It’s alive! A host of grapes are grown with rows of Gewurztraminer not being more than 50 feet from the Cabernet. I’ve been told that Shaw is better known for its reds but I thought that the whites were showing better and that the Gewurztraminer stole the show.




Shaw Gewurztraminer, 2012, Finger Lakes AVA ($23)

This Gewurz hits all the high notes of the grape – lychee, rose petals, apricots and honey – but also has secondary characteristics of orange pekoe tea, spice and melon and a massive underlying minerality. How much did I like it? I plopped down $40 on a bottle of the orange wine made from the grapes in 2013 without tasting it first.

Shaw Gewurztraminer, Vin Rustique, 2013, Finger Lakes AVA $40

All of the 2013 Gewurztraminer grapes went towards making this orange wine and it is quite impressive. I threw it into a blind tasting of older orange wines last week and it was among the favorites, right up there with Vidopivec, Radikon, Gravner and Kabaj. It is even more tea-like than the 2012, texturally as well, with lychee, apricots, honey and spice. A little sweet but with ample acidity, this might verge into dessert wine territory for some but it would also go well with spicy food and stinky, salty cheese.



Ravines is generally considered one of the higher quality producers from the Finger Lakes and I would put them on my short list. I met Morton Hallgren who along with his wife, Lisa, made their first vintage wine in 2003. They follow the sustainable principles espoused at Cornell. Morton is more concerned about specific vineyards and with Argetsinger, Ravines has one of the most coveted in the Finger Lakes.

Ravines Riesling, Argetsinger Vineyard, 2012, Finger Lakes AVA ($30)

Hand harvested, whole cluster pressed, cold fermentation, lees stirring, fined and filtered, .3% residual sugar, 12.5% alcohol

Sam Argetsinger’s family planted this vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake more than 40 years ago and many of the original vines are still producing. It is composed of gravel on top of limestone and organic viticulture has been followed to a large extent.

Argetsinger, who was a friend of Hallgren’s, passed away in 2014 but Ravines is still working with the fruit and is the only winery sourcing from it. Minerally, with a hint of petrol in the nose, a firm chord of acidity and some richness on the palate, the pedigree is there but it needs more time, probably five years, before coming into its own.


Just to sum up, I really do believe that the Finger Lakes is one of the best areas in the world for Riesling. No, it’s not Germany but I’d venture to guess that if producers such as Bloomer Creek and Wiemer spread their influence, this region will be held in the same esteem as the Wachau and Alsace over time, maybe even Germany too. No doubt serious Gewuztraminer can be made here as well and Gruner Veltliner seems to have a future. On the red side, both Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir show incredible promise. Both of these grapes, especially the latter, serve in stark contrast to their West Coast compatriots with lighter body and more subtlety. Not least, the climate is right for both sparkling and dessert wines.

All of this brings me back to the question, could the Finger Lakes be the New World Loire? I would say absolutely yes. If you enjoy cool climate wines – bubbles, reds, whites with varying levels of sweetness and the enjoyable rose – don’t over look this incredibly beautiful area in New York State and if you collect wine on a limited budget, this region should most definitely be on your radar. 










Hearth Coffee Roasters: The Castro’s Best Wine Bar

One of my besties, who shall go by the name of “Uncle Nanco,” has been vigilantly watching the proliferation of coffee “places”* throughout the Castro. We thought that perhaps we should try them all on the same day, and follow it up with a double shot of Xanax.

At any rate, I rarely touch the stuff, unless I’m having trouble breathing and can’t find my inhaler with this morning being one of those occasions (caffeine is a bronchodilator). Instead of going to the Castro Coffee Company, an old neighborhood staple, treating myself to Réveille or lazily ordering from Weaver’s, which has an outpost at my gym, I threw caution to the wind and rolled into Hearth on 17th Street. 

The pastries looked a bit more appetizing than say, Starbucks, so my initial impression was fairly favorable. But then I noticed they had wine so not expecting to see anything I’d even put in a sauce – for all the coffee in the Castro there is a dearth of decent wine with Frances being the lone on premise exception – I checked out the shelves only to find “Kharaktêr,” a delicious, hyper natural but not overly funky Loire Valley Chenin Blanc from Nathalie Gaubicher/Domaine le Briseau.

Domaine le Briseau Kharactêr

Domaine le Briseau Kharactêr

As is true of all Briseau’s wines, the holy trinity of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides has no place in the vineyards. Also, Gaubicher’s wines go through native ferments exclusively and sulfur additions are kept to a minimum.

Full disclosure, my friend Josh is the California importer and Louis/Dressner Selections, who are very old friends, carry it in the rest of the country but relationships aside, the wine is well worth $14 a glass. 

Additionally there were a few wines from other top importers as well as local stars, Dashe Cellars and Donkey & Goat. I finally got around to ordering a coffee only to discover this place closes early, even by San Francisco standards, 6 pm on Monday and Tuesday and 8 pm the rest of the week. It’s too bad because as a Castro resident, I would so make it my evening office. However, there is some talk of extending the hours.

At any rate, the coffee was good enough – what do I know, I’m happy with Duncan Donuts – it opened up my airways and has kept me awake but the fact that someone** at Hearth actually cares about serving wine that has integrity makes me think that much more of the place and way more likely to give them my business, for wine and as needed, coffee, in the future.

Hearth Coffee Roasters, 3985 17th Street, San Francisco

* As far as I’m concerned, “coffee shops” in the true NY meaning they are not.

** As it turns out, D.C. Looney, who is soon to re-open The Punchdown in Oakland, chose the wines that have been served at Hearth since it opened. However, owner, Ariana Akbar, plans on continuing down this path as she admitted that natural leaning wines are what she prefers to drink. Hallelujah.  




Eye Candy

I used to be suspicious of wine labels that were basically not much more than eye candy. And, anytime I’d hear people say that they purchased wine because they liked the label I could feel my eyes involuntarily roll. Because winemakers who were serious about the juice inside the bottle would not be caught dead with a label that in any way deflected attention from the wine itself, I could be pretty certain that while a boring label might not mean good an artistic one most of the time meant yuck.Dashe Cellars

Enter Dashe Cellars. In 1996, when Mike and Anne Dashe started their venture, they told the designer they wanted a label that was kind of surrealistic and showed her some Chagall paintings to use as guidance. Anne described them as going on a journey. Knowing that Anne was from Riec sur Belon, a fishing village in Brittany, and Mike was from Tarzana, she came up with a fish with a monkey on its back. The Dashe’s had to tweak it in 1999 and changed the name on the label from “Dashe Cellars” to “Dashe,” but it has otherwise remained the same.

Mas del Perie "You Fuck My Wine"

Mas del Perie “You Fuck My Wine”

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a lot of French wine labels with all sorts of things from explicit sexual acts that you won’t find here because they would never get the approval of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Trade Bureau, to images from 1980’s video games. Usually, these wines are Vin de France, which replaced Vin de Table in 2010. You can read more about that here but in a nutshell, as AOC boards have shunned wines for not being “typical,” or up to the supposed standard, rejected producers have taken matters into their own hands, bottling their wines as VDF and giving them irreverent labels. Fabien Jouves “You Fuck My Wine” is a glaring example of this though mostly in the name.

Montevertine "Le Pergole Torte"

Montevertine “Le Pergole Torte”

Artistic wine labels are not new to France, as anyone who is familiar with Chateau Mouton Rothchild knows. Since 1945, Mouton has commissioned famous painters from Picasso to Keith Haring to create its labels. Montevertine in Italy uses watercolors of women’s face by Alberto Manfredi on its flagship, “Le Pergola Torte.” In California, Sine Qua Non has had different labels made for all of its wines since its first vintage in 1994. All three of these producers are expensive and highly respected, so artistry on the bottle has never been a stigma. Yet for more modest wines, attention-grabbing labels have been viewed with skepticism by many of my comrades, until now. So what’s changed?

'12 Jolie Laide Trousseau Gris

’12 Jolie Laide Trousseau Gris

Instead of regarding more creative labels as gimmicky or déclassé, newer generations of winemakers look at it as a way to define their identity and distinguish their wines. “There’s a lot of great wine out there now and how are you going to differentiate yourself from other wines that are pretty fucking good?” says Scott Schultz, whose Jolie Laide wines have some of the most original labels you’ll find on the shelves. When Scott started Jolie Laide he went simple, with a clean black and white font but in 2013 he switched to beautiful hand drawings of naked women that surprisingly enough, were green-lighted by the ATTB.

Jolie Laide Grenache/Syrah 2012

Jolie Laide Grenache/Syrah 2012

In 2014, he changed the motif again, this time opting for images of mounted butterflies. For him, a wine changes with every vintage so the label should as well. “I like a lot of different types of art. People need change. The big companies try to make them the same, but we should celebrate that they are different every year.”

The current releases, the 2014 Pinot Gris, 2014 Trousseau Gris and 2013 Grenache/Syrah, have images of daguerreotypes that he got through the Library of Congress. He matched them up with a gothic font and while they are no doubt a little creepy, they are also tasteful and show that thought was put into the label, which might lead the consumer to think the same about the wine itself. Granted I know Jolie Laide’s wines and have had numerous conversations with Scott about his labels so I have insights to the packaging that most people don’t but I’m still impressed with his ability to come up with innovative labels every year that are anything but tacky.

Jolie Laide Daguerreotypes

Jolie Laide Daguerreotypes

Besides Dashe and Jolie Laide, other very good California producers including Dirty & Rowdy, Hobo Wine Company and Lang & Reed have gone in a similar direction. And as said, there are many wine labels in Europe that are striking.

Of course we should never judge a book by its cover. Ultimately, you’re drinking the wine, not the paper glued to the bottle, but it’s good to know that more of that eye candy has some pretty good substance inside. 


Robinot Jasnières 2007

Robinot Jasnières 2007

Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc

Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc

Lo-Fi Wines "33 1/3"

Lo-Fi Wines “33 1/3”

'12 Dirty & Rowdy Semillon

’12 Dirty & Rowdy Semillon

Farmers Jane White

Farmers Jane White


Carlotta Cellars Aubrey 2011

Carlotta Cellars Aubrey 2011

Dufour Bulles de Comptoir #3

Dufour Bulles de Comptoir #3

Succes Vinicola El Mentider

Succes Vinicola El Mentider

Succes Vinicola Cuca De Llum

Succes Vinicola Cuca De Llum

Wine Lexicon Additions

Every year the Oxford Dictionary, as well as similar loquacious tomes, adds new words to the English language. Some of the most recent ones include “vape,[1]“amazeballs [2]” and a personal favorite, “douchebaggery[3].” However, when it comes to wine, they are behind. Here are a few I use pretty frequently in case you are not sure what I’m talking about sometimes. 

Come Fuck Me Wine: noun A specific wine that is used as an excuse or ploy to seduce someone.

Ex. “Hey, don’t you want to come over, watch some movies and drink this ’85 Emidio Pepe with me, Lucy baby?”

In this case, the Emidio Pepe in the question is a CFMW. I’m sure you get it; pick your example.

Enoslob: noun A person who opens a lot of bottles and uses multiple glasses but doesn’t clean up after him/herself in the process.

Ex. “Jesus Christ, that enoslob went out to dinner and left me with a massive mess to deal with after the tasting.”

Enoslop: noun Someone who turns into a sloppy drunk from drinking wine.

Ex. “Wow, Ethel was super polluted on Sunday, she could barely say her name. What an enoslop.”

It can be made into an adjective by adding “py” at the end.

Ex. “Ricky was so enosloppy last night that he could barely order an Uber.”

Swamp Water: noun A derogative term for a wine that is so flawed that it smells and tastes like it originated in a swamp.

Ex. “I’m all about a little funk but that stuff is swamp water.”

Wine Anti-social: 1) noun/adverb Someone who gets very quiet when he/she drinks wine.

Ex. “Everyone had a lot to say at the sherry tasting but not Ethel; she was wine anti-social.”

2) adj A person who does not enjoy socializing in a wine oriented setting or with people who talk incessantly about wine. Here’s a real life example.

“No, I’m not going to the tasting at Ruby tomorrow, I’m pretty wine anti-social.” Or:

“I can’t deal with Fred’s babbling tonight, I’m feeling too wine anti-social.”

Wine Nazi: This can be prefixed with “natural wine Nazi,” or changed to a more specific type of fanaticism such as “oak Nazi.” It refers to someone who is dogmatic, maybe even narrow-minded about a particular attribute of wine. He/she is often incapable of being objectively critical and may be taking a stance just for the sake of creating an argument.

Ex. “Ricky is such a sulphur Nazi that he thinks can smell it in Lapierre.[4]

However, it is not always meant in a disparaging context.

Ex. “Fred is such a sulphur Nazi, there is no way he’d buy that if it had more than ten parts per million.”

Wine Stupid adj A person who buys a lot of shitty expensive wine. We all know people like this. No need to cite an example. OK, here’s one:

“That wine stupid dude just spent $250 a bottle on Napa Cab made from six year old vines fermented in 100% new oak.”

These are just a few. More to come. If you have any of your own, please do share.



[1] “To inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device.”

[2] “Extremely good or impressive.”

[3]Obnoxious or contemptible behavior.”

[4] Marcel Lapierre is a famous producer in Beaujolais who did not add SO2 to his wines. He passed away in 2012 and his son, Mathieu, is making the wine, without sulphur.




In Conversation with Julia Weinberg, Delectable/Mossik Cellars

Monday, June 1, 6:30 – 8 pm

@ Ruby Wine

1419 18th Street, SF

Nearly all of my wine friends – industry or not – use Delectable. Not only does it have a massive database but also, users can share their wine experiences with their followers. Since I’m still trying to wrap my own head around it, I invited Julia Weinberg, who leads creative development and industry relations at Delectable, to join me in a conversation about this ever popular wine app and why I should be using it. Several wines Julia makes under the Mossik Cellars label will lubricate the discussion. I tried the Cabernet Franc once before and it tasted like Chinon so even if you know less about Delectable than I do, the wines in themselves should be worth it. 

$25. RSVP to info@thevinguard.com

Selling to Chains

Anyone who knows me knows this much: I never get to the airport early but last week I was pretty anxious to get out of town, so I found myself at SFO (San Francisco Int’l Airport) with an hour and a half to kill before take-off. With a stack of old New Yorkers in my bag, I opted to forego the usual trashy magazine browsing and instead see what was new at Napa Farms Market. After cruising by the cheeses, I entered the shared border with Vino Volo, an airport wine bar chain based in San Francisco. It was here that I noticed something a little surprising: Pacalet Nuits-Saint-Georges.Trashy Mags

Philippe Pacalet makes some of the most unique wines in Burgundy – love them or not – and this precious juice is fairly scarce. When his wines first hit our shores a lot of buyers were afraid to carry them because they were so different.[i] You were and still are most likely to see them in places with a penchant for natural wines or Burgundy specialists.

Vino Volo’s national sourcing manager selects a lot of the same wines for all of its locations so it is not a venue where I would have expected to find small production, naturally made wines from Europe. While it’s not all about Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, I wouldn’t say its wine list is pushing the envelope. So what was Pacalet doing at SFO, or putting it another way, is it a bad thing that Pacalet, and a few others of a similar ilk, are now available through Vino Volo? And, not to equate Vino Volo with box retailers, but there was also a Pacalet sighting at Costco in San Francisco last year (although the California importer, Return to Terroir, did not sell it to them), but why should anyone mind?

Yet, buyers at boutique wine shops, wine bars and restaurants can get pretty perturbed when they hear about allocated wines they’ve supported for several vintages turning up at chains, especially discounters (which being an airport retailer, Vino Volo most certainly is not).

There are a few sides to this. If you pride yourself on carrying artisan wines that are only available for niche retailers, and then something you’ve been working with for a couple of years shows up on the shelves in a less discerning venue, it can put your reputation at risk, not to mention the producer’s.

This is one of the reasons why Aran Healy, who owns Ruby Wine, does not work with distributors who sell to Whole Foods, his biggest competitor in Potrero Hill. Healy believes that while Whole Foods does a good job selecting wine for a grocery store it is not providing its customers with the education they need to appreciate most of the wines he carries, which are 99% organic and made with minimal intervention. “With these wines they need to be talked about and shared and explained with the customers and I have a firm belief that not all wines should be taken off the shelf without knowing something about them.”

However, Devon Broglie, MS, the Associate Global Beverage Buyer for Whole Foods, argues that the Whole Foods wine departments do provide knowledge and education. “Our specialists pride themselves on being intimately familiar with every wine they carry, with the same pride and integrity that an owner of a wine shop would. I think that is what is unique about Whole Foods. They are engaged with the products they sell.”

Even among small retailers, it is not a black and white issue. Like Ruby, Lou Wine Shop & Tastings in Los Angeles specializes in natural wines. For owner, Lou Amdur, It makes him “uncomfortable” to hear from wine reps about other venues that are carrying the same wines “but,” he also acknowledges, “that’s a function of my own vulnerabilities. I cling, pathetically, to the fairytale that I’m special, that everyone is a star, even while knowing full well that I did not grow the wine, and I am simply a conduit, a middleman.”

So what is wrong with making wines – no matter how esoteric or unconventional – accessible to more people than the usual suspects of wine geeks in urban areas? As an importer or distributor are you not doing your client, the winemaker, a disservice if you don’t try to expand their market?

Also, while several merchants might have been supportive of a winery when it first hit the market, does that mean that they should perpetually be allowed to have the same quantity they received in past vintages, when the demand has grown?

Pacalet Nuits-Saint-George

Pacalet Nuits-Saint-George

Richard Aspillera, the Associate Manager at Vino Volo at SFO, discovered Pacalet through friends in the wine industry. Since each location can fill “open slots” at its discretion, he got in touch with Return to Terroir and brought some of their wines into the bar. “We strive to find small production, natural, organic and sustainable wines that get people excited to bring home with them. We can’t speak for our other locations, but we do find that our customers are looking for wines that fulfill that criteria.” And, he sees where this trend is growing. “Customers are more informed today than ever, and they do come back looking for these particular selections at our store.”

“If a chain can make a good business case for selling natural wine, more power to them,” Amdur says, yet he admits, “I do see natural wines that I work with on close out at a chain or online retailer, and I know these wines are delicious, sound, and not faulty, so my only thought is that the venue didn’t know what to do with that wine.”

Echoing a similar sentiment, Healy says, “I’m all for natural wine being available for everyone, but with wines that are made of a certain caliber, there has got to be a little more discretion.” Not familiar with Vino Volo, he doesn’t feel he can comment on whether or not it is a good fit for the wines he buys but what irks him is when he sees natural wines going to venues that look upon them as trophy wines rather than appreciating them for the painstaking efforts that went into their creation. And, taking this a step further, Healy would say that is not doing a service to the winemaker at all but a sign of disrespect.

But, not all boutique wine store buyers agree. “It doesn’t bother me at all as a retailer knowing the same wine is at K&L or somewhere else for a dollar less because I know how hard it is for the producers to sell their wine in general,” says Ian Becker, the Wine Director for The Absinthe Group, which owns Arlequin Wine Merchant.

Arlequin Wine Merchant

Arlequin Wine Merchant

And this brings up pricing, which is another concern because large retailers and chains with hefty buying power can undercut smaller shops. Becker continues, “I used to be concerned and think you don’t want to have supermarket wines in your store but then I’d go to Whole Foods and see the same wines from Beaune (Beaune Imports) and Kermit (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant) and wonder why the pricing was lower than ours but over time I realized we’re not really competing with them because we offer a different kind of service.”

As is true of Ruby and Lou, Arlequin’s customers have the more intimate experience of a top-notch wine shop with proper storage, experienced staff and not least, the opportunity to taste or drink a glass of wine while they shop.

There is not a right or wrong, just opinions and beliefs that influence the way people do business with suppliers and choose wines for their stores. Having traveled and worked with Healy, I know how much effort he has put into making Ruby a premier wine shop, in the way that Amdur has with Lou, Becker has with Arlequin and countless other wine merchants have over time. I can also appreciate, first hand, how frustrating it can be when as a buyer you take a risk and put a lot of effort into working with something esoteric or cutting edge, only to find that they are then placed nearby with a competitor, especially one that you may not feel shares your standards. But, I also applaud Aspillera for broadening Vino Volo beyond the “same old.” The suppliers are in the middle of this, so I’ve asked a few of them for their thoughts.



Nadia Dmitriw, Partner, Joli Vin Imports

“When we start a relationship with a new producer in France and choose to represent their wines half way across the world in California, that person’s individual story is just as important and interesting to us as how the grapes are farmed, how the wine is made and how the wine tastes. We have a natural affinity with shops that share that philosophy and will help us communicate that information to the consumer. And, as Aran Healy points out, in some cases, taking an esoteric wine home without being informed about it can ultimately be a disservice to the producer, the wine, and the consumer.

That said, we also work with many wines that are quite simply well made, delicious wines (that also happen to be smaller production and farmed organically and made with minimal intervention) and they can be completely enjoyed on their own, independent of whether someone is familiar with the back-story or not. And for those wines, I do see potential benefits of working with larger retailers who could help us gain a wider audience while providing more and better choices to that audience.”


Josh Eubank, Proprietor, Percy Selections

“With respect to the broader question of compatibility of artisan winemakers with big box stores (or chain grocers), I think it comes down to a political choice. I would propose that the way value is produced by a small, family-owned winery is fundamentally different than a corporate chain like Whole Foods. Which is to say that for most artisan vignerons, the price of a bottle is a direct reflection of the cost of land and labor power.

Politically speaking, it makes more sense for these type of wines to be purveyed by independent and decentralized cavistes than by conglomerates of investors.”


Matthew Plympton, Partner, Revel Wine

“It is a fine line that we as wine sellers walk when it comes to who we sell wine to. I certainly don’t want to jeopardize our own relationship with these boutique shops in SF, but we need to find more outlets for where we sell these wines as the producers’ case productions grow.

While we rely heavily on the Ordinaires and Ruby Wines of the region to get producers like Lo-Fi, Roark, Forlorn Hope up and running, at some point we need more supporters, especially at retail, for diversification of the market. Since there aren’t any natural wine shops outside of urban areas like SF, Oakland and LA we need to look to companies like Whole Foods and VinoVolo to help with getting the wines in front of consumers who may not even know those shops exist.”


Raphael Knapp, Proprietor, Return to Terroir

“I did have doubts when one of our reps told me about the possibility to sell to Vino Volo because it was not a traditional client for us. I made the decision to sell for several reasons.

1) I don’t believe in preaching only to the choir. Keeping the best wines to a small list of happy few is nonsense to me.

2)The buyer came to us with an interest in natural wines. I decided to reward his passion for natural wines. We need more ambassadors of natural wines to make our world better, not less.

3) We made sure that the wine wasn’t going to be discounted. We are very strict with that policy and have cut off clients who didn’t respect our rules.

4) People always complain about the lack of choices at airports. Wouldn’t be great if you could find some of your favorite natural wines at the airport, instead of the usual ocean of mediocrity?”




[i] Pacalet’s red wines are whole cluster fermented, a method that is much more common in Beaujolais, where he is from, than in Burgundy.