Diary of a Wine Importer, Chapter 1

So, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Starting a new wine importing business is much like going to the gynecologist. You thrust your wines out there in front of someone you don’t know, you shudder silently while they take their samples and then you wait, nervously, for what feels like years to get the results. They finally call or respond to your email to say that while they liked your selection, they could not find a space for them right now. It is a particular kind of rejection. When someone says they are not interested in carrying your wines, they are saying, quite literally, they do not like your taste. Do I have bad taste? Is my palate wimpy?

The waiting game

How will they react?

When I tell people I am a wine importer, they coo that it must be great to taste wine for a living and lament that they cannot travel so often for work. But it is really the same as any other entrepreneurial pursuit -the hours are long and solitary and you never know if the payoff will ever come. I believe in the wines I am trying to sell and love to tell the winemaker’s story since he or she is not here to tell it in person.  But the fact is, there are so many wines out there on the market now. American’s thirst for wine has grown up and their desire even for off-the-beaten-track varietals is there, but is there really room for another small wine importer? I have to believe there is.

The first person I tasted with was a family friend. We were tasting under the assumption that it was a market test in which to get feedback from an industry veteran, the family friend. I forgot my corkscrew. Then, with my borrowed corkscrew, my hands were trembling so much to get the first cork out that I broke it. I snapped that bad boy right in half. We tasted through the first few wines and I had forgotten to taste from lightest to full bodied so we started with a 14.5% powerhouse and ended with an albariño, with a mishmash of ABVs and styles in between. I had my perfectly calculated Excel prices prepared onto a pdf to which the family friend recommended that I either round up or round down because no retailer would know what to do with a $5.21 or $9.38 price point. What pricing tier was I going for?

I used to be a wine buyer for an online retailer in Europe. I was on the other side of the table and I personally did not like when the person with whom I was tasting talked incoherently about facts and figures. It distracted me from the analysis. In my inaugural tasting, the one I described earlier, I mostly kept quiet at first. But there were too many long silences between our swirling and gurgling. So instead of sitting terrified that he would hate everything, I shook my hands of their shakes and started to tell the stories of the wines he was trying.

When I feel that the tasting is going well.

When I feel that the tasting is going well.

I lived in Spain for a number of years and used to bike through wine country on the weekends. Often my partner and I would end up running into one of our winemaker friends and have lunch with them. Or we’d pop in for a barrel sample and be on our way. If we weren’t biking we were otherwise involved in the daily promotion of the local wine industry. These were the details that should move my wines to sell.

Most of the winemakers were working class farmers who just happened to be producing something that can be shipped halfway across the world and enjoyed for a $12 BTG promo. Of course, in between Ob/Gyn visits I was wise enough to look up BTG and discovered it meant by the glass and is one of the most widely used acronyms in the beverage industry. I am not even comfortable writing LOL in a text, but I guess if I want to sell wine I’d better get on board.

I am being selective. I have two tastings this week with two very important restaurants. I have eaten at these establishments and respect what they are doing. I can even imagine one or two of my wines on their list. If they want to talk BTG or distributor FOB, or TCA, or DOC, or OND I am game. If they ask about differences in vintage, I’ll be prepared. If they want to know where the winemaker spent his last vacation, I’ll make it up. I’ll offer suggestions for pairings with their star dishes. This time I will swallow my fears and not allow the silence as protagonist. The products do not sell themselves and I have to remind myself that I am representing my gals and guys back in Spain who would love to see their wines drunk so far afield as Portland, Ore.

It's too quiet...

It’s too quiet…

This is the first chapter of what I expect will be many. I figured I would have to do five or six tastings before I ever made a sale. So, until then, can you buy me a drink while I am still pre-revenue?

Five Things To Remember As A New Wine Importer:

  1. Always bring a corkscrew.
  2. You know your product better than anyone, so talk about it and sell it. Only iPhones sell themselves.
  3. It is hard to sell unknown regions. Try that much harder.
  4. Make clear what your philosophy is.
  5. Price matters. Get the best wine in your category for the best price.

Woodinville, The Evergreen State’s Answer to Napa

Washington State wines are killing it right now. If you want to talk about a single geographical area that can offer such disparate wines as a powerhouse cabernet sauvignon and a delicate chardonnay, this is it.

A few weeks ago I went to Taste Washington, the biggest gathering of Washington wineries and winemakers anywhere in the world. And this past Saturday I escaped up to Woodinville, just a 30-minute drive from downtown Seattle. Most of the state’s grapes are grown on the other side of the Cascade Mountains and some are trucked back west for winemaking.

Chateau Ste. Michelle

Chateau Ste. Michelle

These operations coupled with the satellite tasting rooms of wineries in the eastern or southern part of the state make Woodinville a top destination for bridal shower debauchery. You’ll see more plaid, facial hair and dark wood than in a Portland coffee house. It is not exactly the day clubbing and chauffeured town car experience like in Napa where you feel like you’ve stumbled onto the set of a Town & Country shoot.  There it can be intimidating to ask questions. In Washington, the winemakers are more accesible, often stopping by the tasting rooms at midday to pour wine and answer questions. It must be the surrounding evergreen forests attracting people who like clean air and avoid pretense.

But don’t mistake that the wines aren’t serious -they are. The Columbia Gorge, Yakima Valley, Tri-Cities, Walla Walla Valley and parts of the Cascade Valley fall right on the 46° north latitude, which also crosses over Bordeaux. The winemakers in these areas feel a certain sense of responsibility for this shared parallel. It is not by accident that their best known creations are Bordeaux blends. Some wineries even specialize in Right Bank (merlot dominated) or Left Bank (cabernet sauvignon dominated).

But The fire and ice geological makeup leaves a distinctively Washington mark on the blends. Tasting room associates are well versed in the Missoula Floods phenomenon. In this catastrophic event, glacier barriers burst and water came barreling through the Washington plains leaving layers of glacial silt. Silt is the ideal particle size to regulate water supply at the rootstock level. The regulation tends to work in tandem with the hot, dry Washington summers that taper off quickly starting in September.

Mark Ryan Winery, Woodinville

Mark Ryan Winery, Woodinville

Chateau Ste. Michelle was the first to set up shop in 1976 when Woodinville was still just a logging and farming community. The Chateau is today the biggest producer of riesling and their wine shop includes a whole section devoted strictly to this varietal.

Just east of the Chateau, down NE 145th St., you’ll find the Hollywood Winery District. Between this and theWarehouse Winery District, there is a higher concentration of tasting rooms than nearly any other place in the country. The Hollywood area is made up of upscale outdoor cottage-style outlets with over 40 tasting rooms and eateries. The Warehouse District is more industrial, but you can try several wineries from different AVAs in one go. There are over 100 tasting experiences in the area.

And, all around there are spots to stop, pull over and pick lavender, try great food, see goats, pick up fresh produce or take a shot of whiskey. There are several spirits distilleries in the neighborhood.

Wines Tasted:

  • Woodward Cannon Washington State Chardonnay (Walla Walla AVA) – Lemon curd, spice, toasted hazelnut, restrained oak, though still quite present
  • Mark Ryan Winery Long Haul – Whoa! What! Plush blackberry and blue fruit. Toasty nuts and oak; silky and vibrant. Rising star Washington winemaker. Also look for The Dissident (64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot), Lonely Heart (90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot), Wild Eyed (100% Syrah), Viognier (100% Viognier), and Crazy Mary (79% Mourvedre, 21% Syrah). Consistently scores in the mid 90s and had two Triumph motorbikes inside the tasting room. Need I say more?
  • Fidélitas 2012 Red Mountain Merlot– Slate, ripe tannin, white pepper, chewy cherry candy, medium acidity, earth
  • Fidélitas 2011 Champoux Vineyard Horse Heaven Hills Merlot- colder vintage so more acidity than previous, great structure, rich cassis, less earth than above, very fragrant, medium acidity, no slate, cherry color with bright ruby rim

What Do You Get When Five Master Sommeliers Walk Into A Room…

A lot of chummy restaurant-industry inside jokes and a load of tips for blind tasting.

At Taste Washington this last weekend in Seattle, the event I was most looking forward to was the blind tasting with five Master Sommeliers. The Four Seasons set us up in a grand ballroom overlooking the Puget Sound. Presiding over the tasting was Greg Harrington, MS of Gramercy Cellars who said that being a winemaker is much like being a pilot. The latter not having to act unless the plane is going down and the former not having to interject unless the harvest is problematic and the wine needs some manipulation to be put back on course. He must take a hands-off approach to winemaking.

Tasting with the Masters 1

Panelists included: Thomas Price, MS now at Jackson Family Fine Wines with whom I chatted at the end. Matt Stamp, MS, an educator, a.k.a. The Smart One, of the Guild of Sommeliers who punctuated each tasting comment with a detail that only serious wine nerds would appreciate. Rob Bigelow, MS of Château Ste Michelle Wine Estates, the biggest producer of riesling in the world. And, John Ragan, MS of the Union Square Hospitality Group (Gramercy Tavern, The Modern).

Tasting with the Masters 2

We got 12 wines, six from Washington and six comparative wines from around the world. Each MS would evaluate two wines at a time starting with the visual. Blind tasting sharpens your analytical skills. It disciplines a serious wine student and pushes us to categorize wine. Do judge a book by its cover. The color, the shades, the tones and the glints can begin to tell us something about its provenance and winemaking. The masters  said that they all have different ways of approaching a blind tasting, but they agreed that it is an exercise in deductive reasoning. Ah yes, the ole process of elimination. I passed many high school multiple choice exams based on process of elimination.

Tasting with the Masters 3


  • After giving the wine a vigorous spin in the glass, take note. Are the tears thick and viscous? It has more alcohol and/or sugar –> Wine probably comes from a warmer climate. Are the tears thin and pale? Sugar and alcohol will not be protagonists in this wine –> Wine comes from a cooler climate or high elevation. Mr. Bigelow pointed out that color in the tears themselves indicate a thick skin.
  • Give it another swirl, tip it down over some white background with text, look. Can you see the text clearly through the deepest part of the glass? You can see it clearly –> Grape had a thin skin, . You cannot see it at all, color is deep –> Grape skin was thick due possibly to a warmer or windy climate. It needed the thickness to protect itself from the elements.
  • If you see brown edges in a red wine, the wine spent some time in oak.
  • If you see green glints in a white wine, mentally start browsing your cool climate varietals.
  • If the color is deep, consider that the color is extracted by lots of skin contact. Where in the world could this style of winemaking happen?


  • This is where you can develop 90% of the blind tasting analysis.
  • All masters agreed, first determine the intensity then the fruit. Is the aroma come out of the glass and hitting you in the face? If yes, then it is a highly aromatic varietal. If not, eliminate all aromatic wines like riesling or albariño.
  • Give the glass another swirl and pick out the fruit. Here the masters agreed that it is a bit ridiculous to try and list 75 characteristics at once. Instead, think warmth. Citrus? Stone fruit? Tropical? And within those broad categories, are they underripe lemon peel or candied Meyer lemon zest? Again, the conclusions will point us to warm or cool climates.
  • Check out any secondary aromas like herbal, floral or mineral. Here we can start to think about Old World or New World. Old World styles are more earthy with more minerality. The latter style stresses fruit and winemaking like use of oak (unless you are in Rioja where coconutty American oak dominates then all bets are off).


  • Is there consistency between what you see, what you smell and what you taste? Then it is a well made wine.
  • As it goes down, think about if the fruit is fresh or has “seen the sun” as one master put a jammy wine. Is the thick jamminess balanced by tannin and acidity?
  • Old world wines finish sour/tart
  • New World wines finish sweet
  • American oak hits the back of the mouth and French oak is a softer, all over mouth feel.
  • Always taste twice.

Tasting with the Masters 4

Wines Tasted:

  1. Tempus, 2013 Riesling Evergreen Vineyard Ancient Lakes and Darting 2012 Riesling Kabinett Trocken Pfalz. Master guessed Rhineland. I’d give him credit for being within 60 miles of actual place.
  2. L’Ecole no. 41, 2013 Chardonnay Columbia Valley and Liocco 2012 Chardonnay Russian River Valley
  3. Dumas Station 2012 Merlot Walla Walla and Chateau de Chantegrive 2009 Merlot Graves. Lots of pencil shavings. Graves = pencil shavings.
  4.  Sparkman, 2012 Stella Mae Red Wine Columbia Valley and Yalumba The Signature 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz Barossa. Master said Coonawarra but let’s not split hairs. I thought California so I was not even in the right hemisphere.
  5. Passing Time, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills and Stag’s Leap Bordeaux Blend. Wet potter’s clay said it all.
  6. EFESTE, 2012 Jolie Bouche Syrah Yakima Valley and Nicolas Perrin 2011 Côte-Rôtie. The Rhône Valley brought out the worst of the somms. No consensus could be reached. Chaos!

In conclusion, I must hang out with more Master Sommeliers.

Tasting with the Masters 5

10 Things They Should Tell You Before You Move To Spain

I have lived in Madrid, Salamanca, Zamora and now Valladolid. I came here in my early 20s on a whim to learn Spanish and to try to conquer some personal fears, namely, like being in a new place surrounded by people I didn’t know. With a single backpack and zero knowledge of Spanish, I raced along trying to get ahead of the learning curve. Eight years later, I am still afraid of everything, but now I feel brave, like I have the tools to deal with any situation.  And I’ve learned that you can’t control curiosity and that’s not a bad thing.

After much back and forth, I’ve compiled an essential list of things that you should know before leaving to live like a local in Spain. Some of the below are Spanish-specific, like their quizzical nature; and, some are universal like respecting those differences which you can’t explain.

1. Spaniards stroll about at the same time of day for indeterminate amounts of time with absolutely no destination in mind. My parents came to visit me once in Zamora. On Saturdays and Sundays at 7 o’clock the streets were flooded with people. My dad asked where everyone was going as the stores were closed. “This is their thing. They might walk to the park or down to the cathedral and back stopping every 50 feet to chat with friends”, I told him. Its meant to aid in digestion after the long sobremesa. What you should do: Avoid this high-traffic time at all costs!


2. You’ll have to take a stance on bullfighting. And since we don’t live in an Ernest Hemingway novel, you are probably already against it. Or at least you will be after you go to a bullfight. It’s brutal and inhumane, and I keep those thoughts to myself when people ask what I think. It has already been banned in Catalunya, but in Castile and Leon, where I live, it is a national pastime. What you should do: It is always a balancing act respecting a cultural tradition while being firmly against it. You can say you understand the history and then go home and donate to the Humane Society.

3. The food and wine is out-of-control good and cheap. The big cities are more expensive, sure. But you can get an excellent pressed cappuccino, butter croissant with ham and cheese and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice for €2.70 (£2, $3) in my town. At the market, try spending more than €20 at a time for a week’s worth of beautiful, seasonal pesticide-free fruit and vegetables. You can’t. And you can drink world-class wine for €3 per glass. What you should do: I think this one is obvious. Get your hands on as much cured ham, lechazo, and revuelto de boletus as possible and invite a friend to share a bottle.

Animals Eating animated GIF

4. People will be talking about you all the time. The Spanish are a super-curious bunch. As soon as you get established in a new apartment, your neighbors will know who you are in no time. That circle will get bigger the smaller the town is in which you live. In villages, someone you have never seen before will approach you and ask you how the [insert event] was the other day even though you are sure you have never seen them before in your life. Even if they don’t engage you in conversation, believe me, they know you and that’s why they are whispering and looking your way. What you should do: Get out there and socialize! Your jarring friendliness will be received as arrogance or superficiality, but don’t take it personally. And, once you’re in, you’re in for life, so keep plugging away at it.

5. They have one of the most efficient metro systems in the world, but you can only pay certain bills on certain days of the week at certain hours. The European Union funded Spanish freeways and modernized the infrastructure, but other parts of Spanish society are still very old-school. In the case of paying bills, most only accept payment at the bank (at specific banks, by the way) on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Also, your residency is assigned according to the province or municipality where you live. You have to register with the local city hall when you move to a new province or potentially be fined. What you should do: Register yourself at the local city hall and sign up for automatic bill pay, obviously. Do people still go to their local branch?!

6. Corruption is alive and well. And people are angry about it. You can’t believe how brash the corruptors are, from the rampant creation of slush funds to stealing from public accounts. There’s no bribing of the civil guard when they go to give you a speeding ticket, but you do get a sense of the system when you walk into any government building to do business and over half the staff is out having a leisurely coffee hour, or shopping, or what are they doing? There is plenty of corruption in America and other parts of the world, but there the perpetrators generally go cowering into the shadows when they are discovered. Generally, but certainly not always. What you should do: Expect to wait when it comes to bureaucracy. On the plus side, most civil servants are helpful, despite the bad press.


7. Spaniards will party until late and will still able to get to work. I’ve always managed to surround myself here with people who have a strong work ethic even if it takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff. The younger generations coming up now are smarter and better prepared than ever before and in the cities long lunches are frowned upon or are being eliminated altogether. It is true that Spanish productivity is lower than other European nations, but that could be improved with a more flexible labour market…and less partying until late. What you should do: Recognize that a lot of deals get done over long meals and cocktail hours, which are essential in Spanish business. But don’t be fooled, you might not be used to this rhythm and you can wiggle out early if need be.

8. If you are cold they’ll say you have the flu, if you are hungry they’ll say you are malnourished and if you don’t clutch your bag tight, it will surely get knicked right out from under your nose, they’ll say. The Spanish are classic fatalists. Someone’s future somewhere may have a silver lining, but it is not anyone they know. This attitude of impending doom haunts them in little ways like learning a foreign language (They claim to be terrible linguists, when they speak fluently), or bigger things like foreign diplomacy (Rajoy vs. Merkel). Most of Spain suffered greatly during the Spanish Civl War and beyond. The modern-day worries are rooted in grave moments in their history. What you should do: If someone suggests you have the flu, go ahead and eat that delicious homemade chicken soup they just brought over.

9.  You will say “see you later” to everyone and “enjoy” to complete strangers in restaurants. In Spain you will quickly learn to say “hasta luego” to everyone from the bank teller (see #5) to your fishmonger. It’ll start to sound more like “atalogo” the thousandth and one time you say it. If you embellish the parting phrase with a good dose of “vale” (okay) and “venga” (that’s great), they’ll mistake you for a local for sure. And nothing beats the lunch-hour camaraderie like walking into a dining room, smiling, and saying, “qué aproveche” as you walk by each table. I can’t imagine walking into a restaurant in San Francisco and announcing, “May your meal be delightful!” But again, that’s Spain. What you should do: Learn those two phrases and embrace them immediately.


10. Spain will be in your heart long after you leave it. In fact, I’ve tried to leave it at least twice and I keep getting pulled back. The most remarkable thing is the way that family plays such a central role in society. The aunts and uncles of my significant other will always call to ask me how I am feeling if they get word I am ill, and his immediate family will text me to congratulate me on a successful exam. The whole family is incredibly respectful, and ultimately, very curious about where I am from and what I am about.  The economic crisis in Spain has been an upheaval, but thankfully Spain still has its greatest resource: its people,…and all those delicious little tapas from around the country. What you should do: Take a trip to this country of contrasts, if you can. Visit regions as disparate as Galicia and Andalucía and Castile and Leon and the Basque Country to really get a sense of it. And, “Buen provecho!”

Lar de Paula Merus 2010

Wine is clear with a medium intensity. Medium ruby color with cherry rim. Cherry pie and a touch of nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla in the nose and ripe redcurrant, plum and raspberry on the palate. The finish is medium and the tannins soft and sweet, not mouth-drying with light minerality and earth that is typical of Rioja Alavesa. We enjoyed this red with steamed vegetables, cured lomo and a few slices of parmesan. At 13.5% alcohol, it won’t knock you out but it will put you down for a nice long siesta. From Lar de Paula winery. 100% tempranillo.

IMG_3849 IMG_3850

Divina Proporción Winery To Join With Harris Wine Merchant

I am excited to announce that the Toro winery will join me in sending tasting samples to Oregon this spring in the hopes of selling many bottles to eager Spanish oenophiles. I have added their wine and viticulture information to the Harris Wine site that is, hopefully, just days away from launching.

Máximo and his brother Juan take care of the vines and at harvest employ 15-kilo crates for hand picking. The grapes are hand-selected when they arrive at the winery. All their wines spend some in oak but Máximo does not want to emphasize oak in his wines. The oak, and some malolactic aging in oak, is meant to clean and stabilize; it marks the confluence of fruit, structure and acidity with the most minimal exposure to oxygen through pores in the staves. Ripe forest fruits, caramel and lactic notes dominate each wine to varying degrees. You’ll experience long finishes and brilliant purple shades.

Thank you Máximo and Yovana for your hospitality and the fine wine. You can get to know them and their winery here.

Divina Proporcion vines

Estate vines just after winter pruning.

Yovona and Maximo

Yovana and Máximo trying to keep warm at the entrance to their winery.

Maximo and Vanessa

Me and Máximo barrel tasting the 2014 vintage.

Divina Proporcion bottles

Gorgeous labels by local artist. Just know that what’s inside is as beautiful as what’s outside. The wine and the labels are a labor of love.


10 Things You Should Know Before Starting to Date Someone Who Loves Wine

This post is inspired by a recent the kitchn post about romance with a foodie. In my case, the protagonist is wine, not food.  My significant other enjoys drinking a nice glass of wine and will sometimes tell me what he smells, but he doesn’t want to join me as I work my way through the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine, for which I can’t blame him.

It is hard for wine lovers to go out into the real world and behave like someone who could just as easily order red as white. It is harder if the restaurant wine list includes ALL the producers of a lieu-dit in the Côte d’Or that you’ve only ever read about in Wine Spectator. And if there is a sommelier or the wait staff is well-informed? Game over. We’ll be here all night. And your partner needs to understand that.

I’ve written the below list for anyone starting a relationship with a wine lover. There are some things they should know.


1. You will be taking a corkscrew with you where ever you go. It does not matter if it is a long weekend getaway to the beach or the delivery of cookies to a neighbor’s house. Your wine lover never knows when the opportunity will arise to try that one wine he or she has only dreamed about. The worst thing is to be faced with that bottle and no way to remove the cork. Better pack two.  And a notebook for scribbling tasting notes might not be far behind, either.

2. You should schedule ‘no-drinking nights’ as soon as possible and stick to them. It is not to be a buzzkill, but consuming wine, an alcoholic beverage, is fun until you can’t remember the last evening you spent without a glass of wine or two in your hand. It is generally supported that a glass of red wine a day is a great antioxidant and can protect against heart disease, but it is a hop, skip, and a jump over to headaches, grogginess and more. Anyway, it tastes so much better if you have waited all week to pop the cork on that new sample!

3. Wine pairings are real and your partner will be that much more into you if you participate in the fun. They do amplify or soften the food you are eating. And they are not what they used to be. Red wine with meat and white wine with fish is passé. Americans are drinking quality wine in large numbers now (just surpassed the French in terms of volume) and our gastronomy is farm fresh. Have a hand in trying a new pairing, either select the wine or prepare the dish.

4. Wine selection takes time. Have you got a half an hour while your partner inquires with the guy in the wine department about every square acre of Chambolle-Musigny? Didn’t think so. Head over to the produce department and start planning for dinner…for the week. If the selection is for a holiday or special dinner, you might as well stay at home.

5. Brunello is a local sangiovese clone and Barbaresco a nebbiolo – they’re not medieval Italian princes. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll learn things like this through the course of your relationship. Some of it will be useful, most of it won’t. In no time you’ll be rolling terroir off the tip of your tongue and wonder when your French got so good.

For some reason, it usually coincides that a wine lover will also be a (nerdy) intellectual for whom all the wine facts in the world won’t be enough. And this person will be able to tell you a tasting note from 1999 or remember the first time they tried a grand cru, but they can’t recall what they had for dinner last night. Selective wine memory, it’s very scientific.


6. The best gift you can give is wine-related. It might be a humble Central Valley blend or a splurgier, well-researched, vintage foreign import. Also, there are wine books, wine tastings and the never-fail wine country retreat. Remember, for an oenophile the pursuit is lifelong and they can never learn enough.

7. A big part of your partner’s disposable income will be spent on wine. And it may be more than they’d like to admit. Set parameters, especially if there is a shared bank account. Then accept that you will be introduced to more wines from South America than you can imagine and new clothes and other ‘material items’ will be forgone for it. Even if you have no couch to sit on or plate to eat off of, there will be a healthy stock of wine around to ‘drink now’ or ‘for laying down’.

8. Vacations will have a certain wine theme. And I don’t mean that you’ll take a bottle of Spätlese Riesling with you on that beach trip. But that you’ll actually be going to the Mosel on a five-day river cruise during which you will meet with the winemaker and tour the vineyards up and down the terraces. There you will learn about another winemaker in another Weinbaugebiete who only makes Kabinetts, whom you’ll make plans to visit. And this is only Germany. Wait until you get to Australia.

hot air balloon

9. There will be spitting, purple teeth, swishing, and swirling. There is lots of swirling and nosing in wine connoisseurship. It is constant. They probably swirl unconsciously out of habit and likely have a particular style. Just let it go, they’ll never stop swirling for you.

And now you can also start holding the glass at the stem. It does not make you a snob, it serves two purposes: a. wine should be served and consumed at an ideal temperature. If you are cupping the glass, you are driving up the temperature of the liquid inside and nobody likes warm rosé; and, b. If you sprayed perfume and your wrist is so close to the rim of the glass that you can’t smell the wine, it takes some of the joy of discovering aromas in the wine.

10. Life is too short to drink bad wine. And there is so much competition for your wine budget these days that you don’t need to drink bad or even mediocre wine. Congratulations you found someone who enjoys one of life’s small pleasures, embrace them. Salud!

You have to try these! 4 Port wines for 2015

I am stealing an idea forthright from the brilliant NYT wine critic Eric Asimov. I’ve been following his Wine School series since it was initiated last year. Mr. Asimov introduces a topic, anything from Champagne to St.-Joseph and then readers buy the wines he recommends and are invited to comment.  In a follow-up article, he shares readers’ tasting notes and includes an expert analysis of the wine along with food pairings. It is a reading club of sorts, but with booze, and I love it.

I am going to try it with Harris Wine Merchant. In my own edition, you will all of course be able to purchase the recommended wines on my website…just as soon as it launches mid-February.

Today’s lesson in booze begins with Port wine. Port wine has mystified. Is it a spirit? A wine? How can there be so many styles? For centuries it has been a part of British culture: Port and Stilton. Port and Cigars. Half the lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia are English names. The Americans are catching up even if it is as a mixer on a Brooklyn cocktail menu. Slow but steady, we know a good thing when we drink it. In fact, port is due to overtake sherry by 2020.

To get us started I selected the following four port styles. If you can’t find the exact brand, it is not a problem, but try the different styles to understand the full range. I’ll post a write up toward the end of February with an Asimovesque follow up. Below the selections is a brief primer on port wine.

  1. Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port
  2. Warre’s Heritage Ruby Port
  3. Dow’s 1991 Vintage Port
  4. Ferreira’s Branco Lágrima

Red grapes (mainly touriga nacional, tinta barroca, touriga franca, and tinta roriz):

  • Influenced more by cask ageing: a.k.a. wood ports are fruit-forward and full bodied to mellow and rich. Casks do not impart oak aromas to port as in still wines. Purpose of aging in cask is to allow a broad surface for micro-oxygenation to happen and encourage the oxidative, nutty aromas we associate with some ports.
    • Ruby styles
      • Ruby port: vinified for immediate consumption after bottling. The youngest port, ruby is a blend of wines between three to five years. Look for primary, red berry fruit-forward aromas and youthful ruby color. Great for poaching pears or a port reduction.
      • Reserva/premium ruby port: a sturdier ruby with more color and depth from the blending of several vintages (average ages five to seven years). Has replaced “vintage character” name as it is a misnomer having no character in common with vintage port. Classic pairing, port and Stilton, is meant for this fresh, fruity red port to accompany the blue-veined stinker.
      • Late Bottled Vintage ports: as the name infers, from a single harvest, bottled within four to six years of harvest. Aged in large oak tonnels that at 40+ years, the barrels do not impart any oak.
        • filtered (and fined) LBV port: to be drunk upon release. Easier to handle as no decanting is necessary, but may lose their luster as wines start to die when their food (sediment) is removed.
        • unfiltered LBV port: can be laid down for five to 20 years or consumed right away. Expect depth like in an authentic vintage port.

Warre's Heritage Ruby Port

Taylor'S LBV


  • Tawny styles:
    • Tawny port: This is for your Cohiba-smoking set. We learned a ruby port is fresh and fruity. A tawny has a nutty aroma and an amber or, ah hah, tawny tone from longer oxidation. The French enjoy this style as a before-dinner libation in the afternoon. The Brits take it in the evening after the meal with dessert or cheese. The Americans mix it with everything and drink it anytime.
    • Aged indicated tawny (10-, 20-, 30-, 40-year-old): Like sticking your head into a bag of great trail mix with toasted almonds, dried figs, exotic spice and caramel. They are easy to drink and sweet but with high acidity. And much less heady than a vintage port. It has more spirit complexity the longer it ages. The number of years listed on the label is the average age of the blend. Focus should be on the characteristics of the age indicated. These are wines that would likely have been vintage ports had they been harvested in a declared year; very high quality. Mind the date of bottling as these won’t keep forever. Surprisingly, once opened, should be consumed within a few days as freshness turns to staleness. Best served chilled.
    • Colheitas: a tawny port, made with grapes from a single year (colheita). Expect characteristics of classic tawny with nuances from stated year’s harvest. Label will include date of harvest. Best served chilled.

Influenced more by bottle ageing: wine starts in oak and then is quickly bottling without filtration. Don’t be capricious, this beverage can’t start to be appreciated until 20 and 30 years after bottling.

  • Vintage styles:
    • Vintage Port: crème de la crème of port wine. Aged in wood for two or three years and bottled unfiltered so that the solids can percipitate and the taste and aromas can continue to set up in bottle. Only made in years when harvest is declared excellent after a perfect growing season by the IVDP (see below) and shipper’s determine that quantity matches demand. These ports come along about 2.5 times in a decade. Should be aged for minimum 30 years and once opened, recommended to enjoy within 24-48 hours. Bottoms up!
    • Single Quinta port: brilliant scheme to sell top-quality port in undeclared years. All grapes from a single parcel (quinta) are aged two or three years and then bottled without filtration.
    • Crusted Ports: meant to attract vintage port fans though beware as it is not a vintage port. A crust or sediment is deposited into the bottle as these wines are not usually filtered before bottling. Will go on the market only three years after bottling. For a full-bodied, dark red port wine at a great value, look no further.
    • Garrafeira: Try saying that three times fast. These ports are aged for a minimum SEVEN years in glass demi-johns. My generation will have to look up glass demi-john here. These bad boys then clean up their act by decanting heavily and are rebottled back into 750 ml bottles. There is a lot of paperwork involved; the label must include the date of harvest, date wine was transferred to demi-john, and date wine goes into its new, smaller receptacle.


White grapes (mainly gouveio, malvasia fina, and viosinho)– the mashing of juice to skins, known as maceration, from white grapes during fermentation is kept to a minimum. Great for cocktail wizardry or served simply with a splash of tonic over ice. The dry version (seco) is actually quite sweet and meio seco is sweeter than sweet. Straw color with intense lusciousness layered with white stone fruit. For below port wine, the viscosity of high glycerol content inspires the name lágrima for tears that run down the side of the glass.

Straw color with intense lusciousness layered with white stone fruit. The viscosity of high glycerol content inspires the name lágrima for tears that run down the side of the glass. Quirky fact: Quality classifications of port wine were created to control surplus. The very official Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (Douro Port Wine Institute, or IVDP) gives points based on 12 physical attributes like gradient, site, and aspect of the parcel. If the winery in a given year cannot accumulate enough points, they receive an F and are allowed only minimum quotas to make fortified wine. Those qualifying with an A or B score have much more flexibility and are granted permission to fortify greater quantities of must.  If only the rest of the world were so organized.


Porto, Portugal

It is hard to think about imbibing at the start of the new year. Pockets are lighter, or empty, and your body is saying, “More, really?” As people with jobs that don’t include tasting wine and developing recipes embark resolutely on new diets and workout regimens, those working in the food and wine industry typically spend these first few weeks of the year thinking about what will be the next big thing in the coming year.

I took advantage of a long weekend and hopped over to Porto to see what is new in port wine. Safe to say that not much has changed in two hundred and fifty years. The legend goes that a wine merchant from Liverpool sent his sons in 1678 to Portugal in search of wine. They stumbled upon a monastery above the Douro river in the village of Lamego. Here monks added brandy to the wine during fermentation rather than after. Previously, traders stabilized the wine with a spirit before shipment to London. The early importers realized that not only was the wine preserved from spoilage in transit, but it tasted better than traditional table wine.

All port boats for tourists

Old port boats for tourists to admire only. Are not in use.

Port is a fascinating beverage that takes a rustic version of brandy, called aquardente in Portuguese, and adds it to the must, killing the yeasts and thereby arresting the fermentation. Sugar remains and is balanced by tannin, alcohol and a range of aromas in ruby to vintage ports. This tannin and alcohol along with a decent acidity, make vintage ports some of the longest lived wines in the world. Ferreira has a vintage port from 1815 that was recently auctioned. As Stephan, our Ferreira guide, said, “You only invite your best friends over that night…and vintage port should be consumed within 48 hours.”

The wine used to make port comes from the Douro Valley. D.O.C. Douro is one of the oldest quality regions anywhere in the world having been established in 1756, just five years after the establishment of the first Port winery Ferreira, which we visited. Yields in the Douro are among the lowest in the world with just 500 to 750 g per vine or 1.5 kg from newer, 20 years or more vines. The most common grapes are touriga nacional, tinta barroca, touriga franca, tinta roriz, and tinto cão for red port and gouveio, malvasia and viosinho for white port.

Tour at Ferreira port cave

Tour at Ferreira port cave

The grapes are grown upstream, east of Porto in the valley where their flavor phenols develop rich berry character the further east you go and the more extreme the climate becomes. At the Spanish border, temperatures regularly exceed 35°F in the summer. Many ports are then sent downstream to age in the caves across the river from Porto in an enclave called Vila Nova de Gaia, where all the port lodges can be found. On a beautiful albeit cold January morning, it was a nice place to be. After all, Wine Spectator gave the 2014 Wine of the Year title to Dow’s vintage port 2011.

Harvest in Rioja Alavesa, Lunch at Marqués de Riscal

D.O. Rioja is strewn across three out of 17 of Spain’s Autonomous Communities: La Rioja, the Basque Country, and Navarra. Since the inceptions of the regulating board of D.O. Rioja in 1925 there have been very few, if any, changes made to the three distinct viticultural areas that are known as the following three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and the protagonist to this post, the Rioja Alavesa. The Alavesa is the smallest of the three in terms of land under vine, some 12,934 hectares. The Alavesa belongs to the Basque Country’s Álava county and when criss crossing the D.O. Rioja, you will often pass through the Basque Country into La Rioja and back again without realizing.

Historically, the wine from different corners of the D.O. has been blended to make a common Rioja wine that is medium bodied with medium tannin, red and black berry fruit aromas, decent acidity, and the most salient trait, oak and more oak, usually from American forests therefore explaining the high toast, coconut, and vanilla notes on the nose.

Vineyards changing colors on road to Elciego, Spain

Vineyards changing colors on road to Elciego, Spain

As Rioja wines have gained international recognition over the years there has been a more accelerated movement toward single-vineyard bottlings. Bodegueros of the Alavesa are leading this because vineyards are already divided into small plots, often terraced as they move up the hill toward the base of the Cantabrian Mountains. The soils are poor calcareous clay that have good water retention but poor drainage. This may have worked against the growers this season as there were heavy rains in the second half of harvest that did not let up and so pickers had grapes with lower fruit concentrations. These soils are good at maintaining a constant low temperature, which can be a double-edged sword. If the fruit cannot ripen by the end of the season, the harvest is in trouble. Assuming the fruit ripens “on time”, then the acidity levels will usually be high.

Vine density is low due to reduced nutrients in the soil. The continental climate is heavily influenced by the Atlantic fronts that bring a lot of moisture, though the most severe weather is blocked by the Cantabrian Mountains. Alavesa has many superb wineries producing the fulliest-bodied versions of tempranillo. Other red varieties permitted in the D.O. are garnacha, graciano, mazuelo and maturana tinta.