Archive for August, 2012


Smacked right in the nose.

Rich stewed cherries, sandalwood, sage and rosemary attack upon opening the bottle. This is not going to be shy. Fascinating that I can sense the acid on the nose with balsamic tones.

Pours translucent red-black. Certainly extracted, but crystalline filtered.

Ripe black cherry compote hits the palate but almost immediately gives way to that high-toned balsamic thing which carries through the finish. Faint touches of mushroom and wet earth lay in the undertones. Sage, sandalwood and vanilla spice the back-palate.

Silky in the mouth until the acid races across the back-palate and leaves velvety tannins in its wake.

With very few exceptions, no one is even trying to make this style of Pinot Noir in California, much less, Russian River Valley. It’s certainly extracted and sage-y (nothing new there), but the acid takes this to, at least, Willamette Valley territory if not Echezeaux. Makes me wonder why so many winemakers in CA insist on cramming Pinot Noir torte into their bottles when this kind of balance is possible.

Gorgeous. The finest California Pinot Noir I have had in years. Drinks beautifully on its own, but is pairable with nearly anything from fresh spinach salad to barbecued spare ribs. Greg La Follette is one to watch.

On Being “Big”

Big in size. Bigger in heart.

Reading this article from the San Fransisco Chronicle brought back a lot of the strong feelings I had for the boutique wine shop I managed until early this year. I loved that shop as a consumer for many years and then as its manager for four-and-a-half years. The one-on-one, first-name-basis personal interaction with a customers and autonomy to create a small environment to my vision is irreplaceable. It still has an important place in my heart and in my development as a wine professional.

But is small in size and scope necessarily the answer for providing the best service to customers? While that was once my closed-minded and ardent belief, I can now confidently say, “I think not!”.

Working for a fairly large store (albeit, an independently-owned single unit) over the last several months has dramatically changed my perspective. While speaking to a sales rep for a large distributor yesterday, I casually mentioned that big doesn’t mean impersonal with respect to distributors or retailers—our general experience as a consumer society has just skewed us into that perception. We have all had experiences ranging from sterile to downright inhuman in large retail environments, but if we really think about it, scale is not at the heart of those experiences. It’s all a matter of the intellectual, philosophical, and emotional investment of those who interact with customers every day.

I do believe that there is a “critical mass” point, however. Larger corporate retail entities do, typically, create a staff of uninvested drones largely due to poor wages, lack of managerial support, and fostering a feeling of expendability amongst its employees—particularly the front-line staff who have the most direct customer contact. A truly positive customer experience is very rare under such circumstances. Growing into a regional chain or larger almost always causes a disconnect between the original principles and mission of the founders and its satellites. It simply is not practical for the individualistic personality that created success to spread effectively to the employees of chain stores who have no real experience with those founding intangibles. Employee pride is always built on “feel” and not on a strict doctrine or delineated and enumerated employee manual.

However, making a broad generalization like “smaller is better” in retail wine is just silly. To me, it’s a matter of determining what constitutes “big” as a matter of consumer perception and at what point a retail owner comes to terms with what is “big enough”. Smaller only serves niches better. A large, independent store with an in-store ownership presence and employees chosen and nurtured for their personability and their unique skills has the potential to excel at serving the masses as well as specific niches. The key to meeting that potential is keeping the focus on the customers.

You’re a young professional who just started drinking wine and thinks that Cupcake Moscato is the greatest wine ever? That’s cool, for now.

You’re a sixty-something construction foreman who has always drunk Jack Daniels because that’s what your dad used to drink? That’s great, keep it real.

You’re a homemaker with kids who likes to sip on KJ Chardonnay throughout the day because it’s a known quantity that has never let you down? Whatever floats your boat.

You’re a college kid who only buys Natural Light for bang-for-the-buck or Pinnacle Whipped because it ingratiates you with the sorority sisters? Whatever gets you through the night, kid—there’s always tomorrow.

You’re a points-hound who refuses to shake the habit in the face of the constant internal struggle tha,t even if you don’t like a wine, it got 90+ points from Parker so it must be good therefore you must buy it and try to like it? Well, you are Einstein’s definition of insane: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. I don’t abide it, but I’m not likely to change your mind, so have at it—you and your money will soon be parted.

You’re a person who always wants in on the undervalued gems that only someone like me who tastes 50+ wines, beers, and spirits every week can let you in on? Let me show you.

You’re a consumer that wants to try new things but needs to be led by the hand by someone you feel you can trust to make a decision for you? I’m your man.

You’re a member of the rising class of Gen-X-ers and Gen-Y-ers who are into experiences and want to try as many different things as possible because the thrill of exploration is worth the pitfalls of ending up with something you don’t like? Atta boy!

See, my large store can serve you all wonderfully. And, with committed ownership, management, and staff, we will continue to try to improve our ability to serve you. Small enough to ensure direct customer interaction and encourage personal relationships. Big enough to make sure we never run out of KJ Chard and Natural Light but also so that we have more space for the off-beat, unusual, rare, and prestigious. In fact, one of the great benefits to being larger is being more comfortable with bringing in niche product that may not turn for a while because the high-turn product keeps everything afloat.

A large store does not have to sacrifice any of the things that makes a small store appealing. It just needs to be run by people who understand when big is “big enough“.

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale

Holder of a three year hit streak.

I don’t get all giddy about seasonal beer releases like some people. I appreciate some seasonals and make a casual effort to try some products every year (RJ Rockers Son of a Peach, Southern Tier Choklat, Tröegs Nugget Nectar, and The Bruery’s holiday release to name a few), but I don’t get frothy in anticipation of anything. The one seasonal category that has been the most polarizing for many and most inconsistent in my view is Fall pumpkin beers. There is a glut of production—just about every US brewery makes one or, at least one (or thirteen)—and they range from a small number of exceptionally good to mostly uninspired to several downright horrible. When done right, a pumpkin beer can be magical. It’s just that it is so rarely done right.

The primary problem with pumpkin beers is that they typically lack any hint of, you know…pumpkin. Most are flat amber ales with little to no character at all, or spice bombs laden with so much cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove that they’re like licking a spilled Yuengling lager off of a bakery’s spice rack. But where’s the pumpkin? The issue for most brewers is that, like any fruited beer, it requires a ridiculous amount of pumpkin to flavor a beer. This is a huge cost-benefit concern going in and, generally speaking, the pumpkin seems to get cut back before brewing even begins. Note to brewers: if the cost of pumpkin is too prohibitive to effectively impart its flavor into your beer while keeping the shelf price attractive, please don’t make the beer. Make another fall seasonal style that you can control more effectively and try wow us beer geeks with something new, fresh, and, most importantly, well executed.

Another issue is providing enough malt backbone to support the strong flavors of the spice while helping lift the delicate pumpkin flavors. This is critical to me but, apparently, not to many breweries. If you are going to attempt to use sacks of spice in a beer, that beer sure as heck better have enough malt body to at least round out the edges. Too many pumpkin beers are light and over-carbonated which only heightens the bitterness aspect of baking spices. The bitterness from cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and clove is not the same as those from Chinook, Warrior, Saaz, or Simcoe hops. I have tasted so many pumpkin beers that reveal an attempt to use the hard-edged, burnt flavors of these spices as IBU builders. But they just don’t work the same way and taste terrible when used in excess. Balance.

One beer that gets this right is Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale. While there are flavor and density variations from year-to-year, this is one of the most qualitatively consistent pumpkin beers in production. What is surprising is that this is accomplished with one of the “biggest” pumpkin beers produced (generally, very rich, full-flavored, and not alcohol-shy). I rank this up there with Southern Tier’s Pumpking and Cape Ann’s Fisherman’s Brew Imperial Pumpkin Stout as the most rewarding pumpkin beers every year (of those available in the state of Maryland).

2012 Schalfly Pumpkin Ale
Dark amber in color with a visibly creamy body and minimal head upon pour. The clove and nutmeg are aggressive on the nose to the point of almost scaring me away (but I know better). This is where it gets good: the front-palate is sweet and spicy with caramel, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove building to a crescendo on the mid-palate. Then the sweet malts take over allowing the pumpkin—yes, actual freaking pumpkin—flavors to rise through the very delicately bittered back-palate. The mouthfeel on the whole is a kind of creamy/chewy that is evocative of pumpkin pie filling. The richness along with the 8% alcohol make this a  one-and-done 12 oz. pour, but, it is an extremely pleasurable one worthy of a long session of savoring.


The bottle is empty. That counts for something, right?

It’s hard for me not to like Mr. Thackrey as a renegade intellect in this industry—his philosophy is very much in line with mine right down to the rambling and often self-contradictory nature (for more long-winded details from the man himself, look here). When a wine-maker is as outspoken about the balance of place, fruit, and the craft/art/alchemy of wine-making (while minimizing the importance of each of those individually), the expectation is that those elements should present themselves obviously and indelibly as specific to that wine-maker. The problem is, I’ve never thought he has achieved that as well as others who aren’t as obsessed with the idea. Perhaps this is a “can’t see the forest for the trees” situation for him and/or me.

I have always consumed his wines with ambivalence. Sure, they’re generally pretty good, but are they successful at conveying what he wishes them to? I hope not, because, while it is a stated goal, I can’t imagine that all he is shooting for is simple pleasure. Otherwise, why chose such curious vineyard sites and such esoteric grape varieties? When creating a broad non-vintage blend like Pleiades (which varies in composition every year) wherein fruit is sourced from various sites, nearly all that remains is a sense of wine-maker’s influence—there is no balance of place, fruit, and craft.  This is in line with his belief in the indelible imprint of the wine-maker on his wine even in the least interventionist manner of production. But it steers towards his obsession being reduced to self-importance (intentional or not).

Oh, well. He would ultimately say something like, “all that matters is what is in the glass now”, anyway. So here’s what is in mine:

Pleiades XX
Light-to-medium-bodied strawberry-and-clay red. Clearly a good amount of Sangiovese and Pinot Noir in the blend but, also, a good bit of aroma-lifiting and spicy Viognier in there to lighten the whole thing. Served just right at about 60° F which allows the lightness of body to shine. It is nice the way the Viognier lifts the dominant floral Sangiovese, spiciness of the Pinot Noir/Zinfandel, and the touch of earthy Mourvédre, but I would have liked some mid-palate acid to call me back to the glass. Juicy strawberry and ripe cherry fruit with undertones of earthy spice and a surprisingly dominant salinity. Tasty and easy-drinking if a bit lacking in the vibrancy expected of such a blend. The fruit-sweetness countered the spicy heat of my basic chili spot-on. Got the wife and me tipsy, so it worked as expected in that regard. Not particularly “special”, but certainly very drinkable and pleasant and will find plenty of enthusiastic drinkers. Drink now—do not wait, as it is just barely clinging to its peak.


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