IPNC Central Otago Pinot Noir Seminar

At the recent International Pinot Noir Celebration I led an afternoon University of Pinot seminar on Central Otago Pinot Noir. Winemakers Lucie Lawrence of Aurum Wines, Duncan Forsyth of Mount Edward, and Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock were also present. Each presented one of their own wines and helped me present four other wines from the region as well. We decided to present six wines that offered investigative pairs into the history, soils and elevation, vintage variation, and stylistic range of the region. As the region is still quite young the seminar was meant to offer an exploration of Pinot from the area, rather than a definitive, conclusive view.

These six wines from Wild Irishman, Rippon, Aurum, Quartz Reef, Mount Edward, and Prophet’s Rock were from five vintages – 2010 to 2014. After designing the seminar in this way, we then added an additional wine from Doctor’s Flat in order to bring greater depth to the investigation of elevation.

The first two wines from the Wild Irishman and Rippon opened the conversation offering touchstones to the origins of Pinot Noir in Central Otago (To read more on this early history of Central Otago: Ann Pinckney, Alan Brady, Rippon.) as well as a look at two of the cooler sub-zones of the region.

Two wines from the 2012 vintage – Aurum and Quartz Reef – allowed us to consider sub-regional diversity and vintage as the two wines have similar levels of whole cluster, are grown at essentially similar elevations, and yet quite different soil types from two different sub-zones. Aurum and Mount Edward served as another pair – the two wines are from very close proximity but quite different vintages as well as differing fermentation choices.

Quartz Reef and Prophet’s Rock became another pair. They are from quite close proximity but very different elevations, which also means differing soil conditions. Finally, Prophet’s Rock and Doctor’s Flat are from differing sub-zones but both from higher elevation sites.

Following are notes on the wines, their vintages, and the stylistic choices of their winemakers.

The line up … @ipnc_pinot

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The 2014 vintage was a relatively even growing season – a bit on the cooler side without being cold. The moderate and steady temperatures are reflected generally in the wines, offering tannin structure in good balance to the flavor presence, while also showing less abundant tannin than the previous vintage. 2014 Pinots from Central Otago are generally good wines without quite as much structure to age as the 2013 and 2015 vintages.

Wild Irishman Macushla Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago 13.5%

Owner-winemaker Alan Brady makes his Wild Irishman Macushla Pinot Noir from what seems to be the highest elevation vineyard in Central Otago, and is certainly the highest elevation site in the Gibbston area. While he also does a Three Colleens cuvee from the same vineyard, the Macushla he holds longer in barrel allowing 16 months of aging before bottling. The result is finer, more resolved tannin well integrated with the flavor and body of the wine. Gibbston Valley as a growing sub-zone is among the coolest portions of Central Otago with harvest times significantly later than the more central areas of Lowburn, Pisa, Bannockburn, or Bendigo. The cooler, higher elevation temperatures of this site showcase one of the hallmarks of Gibbston’s flavor profile – alpine herbs with aromatics and flavors that come with very fine leaves that still somehow carry concentration with subtlety. The Macushla Pinot is entirely de-stemmed.

Tasting: The 2014 Macushla shows the lightness and lift of Gibbston Valley with the understanding to avoid over extraction in a region and vintage that could otherwise lead to rough tannin and an imbalanced wine. Notes of dried herbs and dried roses with a savory persistence set alongside dark purple fruits on the midpalate and light hints of cedar. Nice structural focus on supple tannin washed through with glittering acidity set in good balance to the fruit. Persistent mineral line of palate stimulating sapidity through a long finish. Mouthwatering, fresh, flavorful and light footed. There is a nice sense of depth and energy with insight at the heart of this wine. It carries a purity that shows the confidence of a winemaker in his site – no need to over extract or obscure the fruit the site gives you when you trust the vines. A pleasure to taste. Only two barrels produced.

In general, the 2013 vintage in Central Otago brings ample tannin for aging, while also creating wines that need decanting. From the best producers that extra step reveals a wealth of subtlety. Spring conditions created a challenging start to the year but temperatures became more even later in the growing season, and most especially in the weeks leading to harvest. Avoiding extreme temperatures, the vintage shows wines with good flavor and structure both in good balance.

Rippon “Rippon” Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago 13%

The Mills family regard their Rippon bottling of Pinot Noir as the voice of the farm. Treated as a self-contained and self-sustaining farm, they view Rippon as the equivalent of a lieu diet with the winery, Rippon, being named after the Rippon lieu dit, rather than the other way around. That is, this particular bottling should be understood as an expression of the Rippon farm made by the Rippon winery, thus the double inclusion of the name Rippon on the label. Winemaker Nick Mills includes whole cluster in the fermentation only from vines he feels are adapted well enough to the site to express what he calls the noble phenolics of the place. The older vines that are well adjusted to the place’s unique growing conditions, he feels include distinctive, expressive, and pleasing phenolic matter that benefits rather than obscures the final wine. In order to determine which vines would count as ready in this way he relies on tasting both seed and stems. When there is a positive physical response to chewing this portion of the vine material it is included in the fermentation. When there is instead an experience of astringency or bitterness, the stems are disregarded. The Rippon Rippon Pinot Noir tends to be around 30% stem inclusion, and includes wine from all portions of the Rippon vineyards including both the original vine sites beside Lake Wanaka as well as some of the younger vines from the upper blocks of the property. The Wanaka area is one of the coldest sub-zones of Central Otago and Rippon has proven to be one of the few successful growing area within it as its vineyards are moderated by the neighboring lake helping it to avoid the most extreme frosts (though the site does not escape frost). It also never reaches extreme heat.

Tasting: Hints of cocoa and cedar on the nose are followed by chewy but firm tannin on the palate though these broaden and open with air. Flavors of cocoa, gunmetal and a mix of dark fruits – black plum skin, fresh black currant, and a squeeze of fresh blackberry – but the wine is more about earthy, woodsy (as in forest and dried grasses) notes than fruit. Through the finish firm, dark resinous notes appear from use of stem – these also recede and further integrate with air and are not unpleasant even when more apparent. There is a pleasing depth and natural concentration here coupled with a fresh, purity of energy that feels distinctive of site. With air, chalky tannin marries to that fresh, high tone acidity of the region for a long finish. This wine is quite young and would do well with decanting before serving, and some time in cellar.

Warm (not at all hot) temperatures opened the 2012 vintage and carried the remainder of the season. While much of the rest of New Zealand had a genuinely challenging year, Central Otago’s continental location protected it. The warm and even growing conditions created wines with succulent flavor and often more supple, silky tannin. It is generally a seductive vintage offering elegant Pinot Noir that also retains the structural integrity for plenty of depth and age-ability.

Aurum Mathilde Pinot Noir 2012 Central Otago 13%

The Aurum estate grows along the shores of Lake Dunstan in the Lowburn-Pisa intersection. Sitting directly beside the lake, Aurum hosts moderate temperatures with the lake helping to keep it from suffering from either too much heat or severe cold. Growing from wind blown loess soils of decomposed schist common to the lower elevation sites of the region, Aurum Pinots tend to have the finer, textured tannin and pleasantly bright red flavors common to sandy and loess soils. Aurum winemaker Lucie Lawrence likes to focus on exploring texture as a way to bring complexity to her wines whether that be in Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris. In Pinot Noir she makes three cuvees from the family-owned vineyard. The estate Pinot is entirely destemmed and meant to offer a pure expression of site. She also makes a 100% whole cluster fermentation Pinot, the Madeline, which is both delicious and instructive to drink. As the wine is made full whole cluster, while at the same time with minimal handling, the tannin of the wine is ample while also succulent and perfumed. The wine needs time in bottle and air upon opening and is well worth it. The Mathilde is made as what Lawrence describes as a more sophisticated, grown-up expression of the estate, focusing on particular clones from the site as well as about 25% whole cluster inclusion.

Tasting: Very lightly minty, lightly cedar, rose and red fruit aromatics lift from the glass and carry into the palate where subtle accents of dark chocolate mint and a lightly resinous accent also appear. Perfumed throughout, the palate is mouthwatering and lengthy with supple tannin that turns pleasantly dry through the ultra long finish. Flavor fills the mouth while remaining elegant and restrained, carried on a lifted and energetic palate. The structure and overall presentation are at the same time textural and spindly, characteristic of its site and lighter, windblown soils. The wine opens significantly with air and should be decanted to fully enjoy. It is also especially lovely alongside food.

Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2012 Central Otago 14%

Quartz Reef was the first to develop vineyard land in the Bendigo growing area of Central Otago. Owner-winemaker Rudi Bauer recognized the growing potential of the sub-region and worked with the owner of the Bendigo sheep station to establish the necessary infrastructure for vineyards to enter the area. He was the first to plant there, and selected a moderately sloped site with rolling flats below to plant and farm biodynamically. The Pinot from the site is also used to make some of the best sparkling wine of the country with the vintage sparkling being a particular stand out. Bauer should be properly regarded as one of the fore fathers of the region – not a total pioneer in the sense of being the first to grow and make wine but nevertheless one of the first truly professional winemakers, and by now also one of the, if not the, longest standing professional winemaker in the region. His work helped elevate the quality of winemaking in the area while also helping to grow the overall wine culture. Bauer’s focus on camaraderie, information sharing, and global perspective are definitive of Central Otago’s wine community.

Tasting: Light cedar notes open the aromatics but disappear moving into the palate where red fruit flavors of candied cherries, pomegranate and candied rose petal come to the fore. There is a profound mineral line here that is both savory and glittering carrying the wine along with its bright while diffuse, high tone acidity through an ultra long finish. This wine carries the generous flavor and succulence of the vintage while showing a pleasing combination of lifted frame and depth. I especially like the distinctive presence of the rocky, silica charge of the sub-zone. Pleasing depth of spice characteristic of the subregion and accents of light tar that are a pleasure here. Hints of chocolate mint appear on the finish. Impressive structure well balanced to the fruit that entirely avoids being overbearing and shows the winemakers understanding of his site. This wine will age forever.

The 2011 vintage was more varied than those that followed it. Beginning rather warm, vine growth took a jump start in the spring pointing to what seemed like it would be a swift and early season. Within a month, however, conditions changed leading to cold temperatures and ample wind. Growth slowed bringing potential harvest back to a more standard timeframe. As harvest approach, the final weeks regained enough warmth to ripen the fruit. Wines from the region tend to be rather varied in 2011. Warmer sub-zones tended to do best from the 2011 harvest as they were able to harness plenty of temperature for flavor development and structural balance while also capturing the freshness and focus of the cool stretch.

Mount Edward Morrison Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago 13.5%

Mount Edward farms several sites in differing sub-zones of Central Otago. The Morrison vineyard grows from the flats near the shores of Lake Dunstan, reaching up a slopeside overlooking the region. As a result there is ample diversity to the site. Sitting in the Lowburn-Pisa intersection, the Morrison Vineyard hosts warmer temperatures for the region (relatively speaking – that is in no way to call this site overly warm or anything even remotely resembling hot temperatures) while remaining moderate. To put that another way, it is more moderate and even than the Gibbston Valley or Wanaka areas, while not quite as warm as Bannockburn. Winemaker Duncan Forsythe likes to make single vineyard cuvees from his various sites in years that warrant it, while blending across sites for his main estate cuvee. He also experiments with varying degrees of whole cluster inclusion depending on vintage.

Tasting: Aromatics of dark chocolate mint and wet herbs carry into the palate alongside dark fruits accented by sweet, late summer blossoms and a finish of wet tobacco. Lots of palate presence here housed in savory, chewy tannin washed through with acidity. A touch of heat peppers the finish but the wine stays juicy all the way through to close. There are ample while supple tannins here well-balanced by acidity that carries into a long finish. This Morrison Vineyard shows off the advantages of a warmer site (relatively speaking – this is still a very cool climate after all) in a cold vintage bringing depth of flavor and plenty of acidity while still avoiding green notes or the problems of under-ripeness. The whole cluster here avoids any sort of aggressive tannin while at the same time creating a wine of amplitude. Be sure to serve at cellar temperature.

Relatively even temperatures and weather conditions throughout the 2010 vintage also hosted just a touch more, still even, warmth in the later portions of the growing season. Wines tend to bring a combination of flavor, flesh, and structure with plenty of subtlety and depth from the best producers.

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Noir 2010 Central Otago 13.9%

Growing on one of the highest glacial terraces in Central Otago, Prophet’s Rock benefits from the unique soil structure resulting from the older soils of these upper terraces. Sitting at around 1250 ft elevation, schist top soil turns to light clay – formed from the fine particles of eroded schist simply due to soil age – with layers of chalk. In effect, both soil drainage and pH are unique for the site and the tannin profile and mouthfeel prove unique for the resulting wines as well. Sitting on a moderately steep slope, the vineyard tends to avoid the worst of the region’s potential frost, though due to its higher elevation it can still be harvested quite late in cooler vintages. Winemaker Paul Pujol has experimented with stem inclusion from this site but feels the vineyard’s wines ultimately are best revealed without it. He has also done a lot to reduce extraction as much as possible keeping the cap wet through fermentation while only doing one punch down through the entire length of fermentation and no pump overs.

Tasting: A pleasing balance of pure red fruits and flowers carrying depth of spice and a mineral-earthy accent carried by chalky tannin washed with acidity. Shows the amplitude and breadth of its vintage as well as the pure, bright while diffuse, high tone acidity of Central Otago. Deftly puts its broader structure alongside balancing fruit and a persistent mineral component that carries through the long finish. This wine needs to be decanted upon opening as there is a wealth of subtlety and evolution in the glass that reveals itself with air. A healthy respect for both site and vintage shows here. Most of all this wine is about subtlety – there is a lovely purity, clarity, and intelligence to this wine that is well wed to its deliciousness.

Bonus Wine

After having designed the seminar around the previous six wines we decided to add one additional wine, the Doctor’s Flat Pinot Noir, as it brings an additional layer of insight to the exploration by giving another high elevation reference to the tasting. The above information on the 2014 vintage is of course also relevant to this particular Doctor’s Flat wine.

Doctor’s Flat Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago 13.5%

Doctor’s Flat stands on the top terrace of the Bannockburn area of Central Otago. It’s a unique site as it sits more exposed to wind and its cooling effect than much of the rest of the subregion where the most famous vineyards are more protected in the curve of hillsides that hug around a bay of Lake Dunstan. Sitting a little over 900 ft in elevation, the site grows not on the oldest glacial terrace of the region, but on one of the older ones. The schist parent material, then, is more decomposed to include more available mineral nutrients in the subsoils with some light clay occurring from the fine decomposed particles as well as small amounts of chalk. The combination of cooler temperatures with wind exposure and decomposed soils tend to lead to smaller yields with red fruit notes from this site, as well as chalky tannin. Owner-winemaker Steve Davies likes to play with some stem inclusion, though he has been exploring how much since his first vintage. Today he tends to hover around 30% stem inclusion.

Tasting: With 30% whole bunch underlying this wine hints of stem inclusion in the form of minty-cedar notes lift from the nose and also hover in the center of the palate. Tasting the wine multiple times over half a year it is also clear that the stems are continuing to integrate. Currently they bring a fresh top note to the nose, while at the same time carrying a kind of secondary mid-note – think of it as the sort of two tone experience enjoyed from just roasted green hatch chiles. The chiles first reveal that wispy green breath-of-fresh air lift that fills the nose and are quickly followed by almost-caramelized dark tones from the roasting that fill the aromatics at a lower register. The same carries into the mouth where fresh red fruits burst across the palate, carried by pleasantly chalky tannin, a mix of savory cocoa and Mexican spices, and a long mouthwatering finish.

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Hawke’s Bay

on the way to visit Bilancia VIneyard in Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay hosted the Classic Reds Symposium last month, as well as a day in the area’s subzones of Bridge Pa and Gimblett Gravels, immediately following the Pinot Noir NZ event. The organization of the Classic Reds Symposium impressed me.

Producers in the region were quite willing to offer an honest presentation of their wines and discuss appropriate critique of their quality as well. Additionally, it was bold for the Symposium to immediately follow the Pinot Noir NZ event, even if that makes sense in terms of tasting order by palate weight. It’s a rather easy move, generally speaking, for a wine critic to like Pinot Noir these days – the variety’s lighter general weight and style is on trend compared to naturally fuller framed or more structured wines that so readily receive criticism these days. So, to follow an event of a popular wine type with a less celebrated weight category is a bit of a brave move. I felt the tasting of both Cabernet Sauvignon blends and Syrah wines from New Zealand, as shown at the Classic Reds Symposium, was among one of the more insightful tastings in which I’ve been able to participate. It is a rare thing to find a region so willing to be open to that level of discussion and it speaks well to their long term commitment to quality. By the end of the Symposium I felt genuinely excited for the quality of wines coming out of Hawke’s Bay and especially for where it feels the region is headed. Vineyards there have reached stable vine age and the winemakers are genuinely committed to incremental improvement. There are good wines from the region today and we are going to keep seeing better wines in the years to come as well.

The day following, where we tasted from Bridge Pa and Gimblett Gravels, was also fascinating and well done. The regional vintners’ groups came up with truly creative ways to show us the character and growing conditions of their regions. Their techniques are shown in the following photos, as shared at the time via Instagram.

❤️#Repost @somm_arthurhon ・・・ Afternoon #selfie #winenz #hawkesbaywine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa

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About to take off with Jen. #nzwine #hawkesbaywine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa

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One of the original 1982 Syrah vines rescued and planted own rooted by Allen Limmer here in Stonecroft Vineyard, now known as the MS clone or Mass Selection. The MS is believed to be the selection originally brought to New Zealand by James Busby, more famously known as the father of viticulture in Australia. The variety seems to have been throughout vine regions of New Zealand beginning with Busby’s arrival in the 1840s. Thanks to Prohibition it was greatly diminished and almost completely lost until in 1982 Limmer rescued the last canes of it in the country and brought it to what is now known as the Gimblett Gravels subregion of Hawke’s Bay. These vines as the mother block for the country. As other clones have been brought to the country vintners have experimented with the new selections but many say they return again to the MS. #nzwine #hawkesbaywine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa

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Pinot Noir NZ

the curly girl and lipstick club, aka the best club

Our travels through New Zealand revolved around the Pinot Noir NZ event – a three day extravaganza focused primarily on Pinot Noir with wine professionals from 20 countries, wine lovers from all over the world, and New Zealand’s top winemakers from across the country. The event occurs every four years and while it celebrates wine it also offers truly Kiwi hospitality and talent. It honestly was the most well planned and gracefully executed wine event I have ever attended and it was not only an honor to attend but also to speak. The organizers asked if I would give the closing address looking specifically at the question of future communication while also tying together threads and themes from across the three days. Duncan Forsyth, who extended the invitation to me, asked if I would use it as an opportunity to inspire people to really dig in and commit passionately to whatever their projects – winemaking or otherwise. (If you want to see my talk you can watch it or read the transcript here. If you have any interest though you should really check out those given by others across the three days. There were incredible speakers present from across all aspects of the wine industry including internationally known celebrities. The keynotes from the first and third days are available here.) In truth though the event was utterly inspiring for me as well. The caliber of talent we were surrounded by professionally was mind blowing and best of all the entire time was full of truly good and caring people. Here’s a look at the festivities in photos as shared to Instagram at the time.


New Zealand is one of the only countries in the world that has established a shared healthy relationship between its First Nations Maori people and the subsequent settlers. While my Indigenous heritage serves as the foundation of who I am it is largely unseen in a US context where recognition of Native American communities is essentially non existent. To be asked then to be part of a Maori welcoming ceremony to open Pinot Noir NZ 2017 was not only a huge honor but also overwhelming. After the initial arrival and greeting portions of the ceremony I sat on stage with Dame Anne Salmond seated beside me at my left and Jancis Robinson at my right as we progressed through a series of Maori blessings and songs honoring our ancestors, our land and each other. The depth of gratitude for the experience is more than I could explain. Thank you to Pinot Noir NZ for making it possible. #nzwine #pinotnoirnz @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa @pinotnoirnz Thank you to @yrmom_safoodie for the photo.

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Marcel Giesen discusses how the Sta Rita Hills defines greatness through simultaneous persistence and reinventing itself. How greatness in Pinot comes from farming that respects the land, and that quality from the right site will come in time “with unwavering passion and commitment” in a relationship “between land and winegrower of humility and honesty” over time. From the choice of essentially any two Pinots in the world Marcel selected the Au Bon Climat 2005 Larmes de Grappe Pinot Noir from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard and the Domaine de la Cote 2014 Bloom’s Field describing both as exemplary cases of balance, power, finesse, purity, complexity length and authenticity. “Power isn’t size. It’s persistence. There should be sinew, movement, aliveness, energy.” #nzwine #sashimoorman @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa @pinotnoirnz Excited, humbled and impressed to see one of the regions I love most – the Sta Rita Hills and Santa Barbara County – and two wines I have great admiration for showcased into such a prestigious international tasting. @rajatparr @sashimoorman @sbcwinelady

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Ken Ohishi MW from Japan shares how a Kyoto temple built in 1397, also a Unesco World Heritage site, represents a Japanese world view of balance while discussing too how understatement, purity, clarity, humility and harmony serve as the markers of greatness in Pinot Noir. He compares great Pinot Noir to the attributes of premium drinking water, not in the sense of being watery but in the sense of carrying transparency, pure clean aroma and flavor, smoothness never asserting itself too strongly instead with a sense of silence and understatement. For Ken silence is not absolute but instead closer to the experience of sitting in a quiet room with only the quiet, steady tick tock of a single clock. The simple experience of the clock helps define the time and space of the silence. The temple too gives insight into the balance of wine. The pure stillness of the pond showing an almost perfect reflection of the temple that even so is not the actual temple – the water expands what we experience and balances it without increasing the literal substance, weight or detail of the actual temple. It instead reverberates in an understated while still complex image of the original expanding our experience of the majesty of the structure. #nzwine #pinotnoirnz @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa @pinotnoirnz Wonderfully insightful and perspective shifting discussion.

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What Makes an Outstanding Guest Experience? 

apologies for my absurdly blurry photo. The session itself was unbelievably clear!

Wivi Central Coast hosted a session considering the question what makes an outstanding guest experience, looking primarily at how tasting rooms at wineries can offer exceptional hospitality. The discussion was led by Barbara Talbott of Glen Larkin Advisors and moderated by Morgen McLaughlin, the executive director of the Santa Barbara Vintners. Previously, Barbara helped build the Four Seasons brand defining its exceptional focus on service and hospitality. She has since turned to consulting, speaking and writing about how to translate such experience to direct-to-consumer brands. Her ability to share a depth of insight through clear examples and tips for the attendees was impressive.

In making sense of the guest experience, Barbara suggests thinking of it in relation to three primary stages of experience. Doing so helps you define how you want to uniquely approach each stage of the guest’s time with you in the tasting room. The three stages are the Arrival, the Tuning In, and the Closing Experience. In thinking of each of these stages you can ask what you want to define that stage of the guest’s time with you. Answering that question can be guided by thinking of your job in the tasting room as providing hospitality with a purpose. The wine is a very important part of it but as direct-to-consumer sales have increased more and more the wine has become simply a vehicle for creating a larger interaction. The question is to ask what you want to offer.

In determining what you want to offer, Barbara says, be authentic, be real. She emphasizes that hospitality is offering a memorable experience. Consumers know what is real and what is genuine and in today’s market that is what people are looking for. It is also what will make them want to invest in your brand to return again or join a wine club. She explains that, “Hospitality is knowing just a few things. It is knowing who we are and what we want to offer.” Seamless hospitality comes from understanding our own values, interests, and strengths and how we want to offer those to the guest. Her favorite expression of this idea is the known saying, we should be who we are because everyone else is taken.

The goal in defining your experience in the tasting room is answering this is who and what we are, and this is what we are offering in just a few words. As one of several examples she mentioned, the Sonoma winery Gundlach Bundschu, affectionately called GunBun in the region, uses the simple statement, “Come slow down with us.” In one phrase they have delivered a picture of what their guest experience is all about. GunBun comes from the idea that “we take our wines seriously but ourselves not so much.” The guest experience they offer is unpretentious, friendly and family oriented, also hosting a regular music festival as the head of the winery today loves music. The choice to integrate music into their winery experience reflects what the family cares about.

A second example Barbara listed was Scribe, just around the corner from GunBun. There the brothers behind Scribe refer to their experience as a visit to “our farm.” The experience reflects their own background growing up on a farm, gives a sense of spending time in nature, and is defined by being leisurely, outdoors, and at the same time with a lot of interaction with host. It is a very beautiful while also simple, rural experience. Barbara then went on to describe an experience at Nicholson Ranch winery. There everything is grown and made on site, and the family has chosen to create a true estate experience offering in depth exploration of the soils and vineyards, or a relaxed tasting alongside the vineyard, or a sit down tasting inside.  The owner-winemaker is often there pouring the wine. In each case, the experience is one of being next to the winery/vineyard and in that way part of where the wine being tasted originates. Finally, Barbara referenced Domaine Chandon. There the signature experience revolves around sharing with people the process of making methode traditionelle sparkling wine while enjoying the wine made there. In this way, Barbara offered four distinct examples that were each shaped by the wineries answering what they can uniquely offer.

In deciding what it is your winery can uniquely offer Barbara suggests thinking about a few simple tips. In a few words, what is the feeling of the experience that you want to stand for. How do you want to bring it to life for the guest. Do you want to offer a place to relax? A place to borrow the rural lifestyle? To travel vicariously? To deepen wine knowledge? She points out these are all things one can offer beyond a mere wine tasting while the guest is tasting wine. In designing a tasting room and the experience offered there, there are numerous decisions that must be made from what kind of music will be played, to how the space will be designed or decorated, to whether or not food will be offered and if so what kind. She clarifies that if you know what feel you want to bring to life for the guest all of these other questions can be answered much more easily.

Another key point to answer is what exceptional basics do you want to offer – what things in your guest experience do you want to do really well?

Finally, she emphasized the importance of visual elements within the tasting room, be they photographs, videos, or maps, as examples. She suggested that visual elements should be present in the tasting room but that the key is to make sure they are authentic to the winery and the people there. Once they are in the tasting room then they can be used to connect visitors virtually to the experience and the place, and referred to throughout the tasting as a means to do that.

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WiVi Central Coast

Phil Markert speaking at WiVi Central Coast 2017

Wine Business Monthly hosted a day long conference yesterday on winemaking and viticulture WiVi here in Paso Robles. The day included a series of sessions on all aspects of the wine industry. In vineyard care there were sessions on canopy management or vine diseases. In the cellar they looked at managing phenolics and then later focused in on winemaking choices in Pinot noir. For hospitality side there were sessions on creating a unique customer experience and then later tips on managing the tasting room. Krush radio, 92.5 fm, was even on site all day doing live on-air interviews with some of the speakers. Mixed throughout the day were also tasting trials focused in on winemaker experiments with side-by-side tastings looking at the effect of particular techniques in contrast to others.

One of the seminars that was particularly exciting to hear was a presentation by Phil Markert who spoke on trends in wine sales through the retail sector. Phil oversees wine and liquor sales for the retail grocery conglomerate Albertsons/Vons/Pavillions overseeing all of Southern California. Prior to the sale of Safeway to the larger group he was a Vice President for that company overseeing merchandising for non-perishables (that is, wine sales here too). He has been in wine buying for these stores for over 30 years, 22 of which he has been buying in Southern California, and 8 years buying nationally. As Phil explained, the wine sections of these grocery stores are managed essentially as a wine store that happens to be within a grocery store. Phil has taken a brilliant approach at building connections between these Southern California locations and wineries, as well as with winemakers and restaurants. He shared a wealth of insight on both actual sales trends happening regionally and nationally, and on tips for promoting sales that benefit all sectors.

Phil Markert at WiVi

As Phil explained, the health of the wine business in Southern California is strong. There has been an $85 million increase in wine sales, an 18% 2 year bump (dude. That’s huge.). The stores within the Albertsons/Vons/Pavillions group are organized individually, while still interconnected nationally, in order to promote connections to the local community both through events and offers specific to the local community, and also through the promotion of local products. For this approach to work effectively, he said, stores need to be managed by local districts in which stores share general trends and locale. In the case of wine this strongly benefits regional wineries. In the Paso Robles store, for example, of the 50 top selling items 42 are from Paso Robles. He has seen a huge trend towards local products in stores across the country. The interest in local wine purchases in Sonoma, for example, even outpaces that of Paso.

In designing the buying strategy for wine, Phil described the core guiding principles. As part of these guiding principles, they had to define what it means for a product to be local. First of all, the product must come from within a relevant radius of distance to the store. But, in this sense there are two different senses of local – the broad definition is simply within the state, so in our case, California. Second is what they call hyper-local, referring to products ultra close to the actual store – within 5 miles, 20 miles, 30 miles, etc. Secondly, for the product to count as local it has to illicit an emotional response where the customer feels as though the product is part of their identity, or part of the regional identity, or almost as if the product belongs to them somehow. He further commented that for the millennial customer there is a strong interest in knowing where the product comes from, who makes it, and if it has a unique history or legacy. Most of all, the customers’ sense of bond or connection with the product or company drives sales. In selecting brands to feature, then, the wine sections of the grocery store like to look for wineries that have an intimate connection with the community through community activities, donations, partnership, etc.

In current retail trends, the focus on localization has been the most effective strategy for promoting retail sales. While there are overarching trends across the country, markets more strongly show micro-trends that demand local management and planning. Phil clarified that in tracking these in wine sales he actually turns to the sommelier community as a predictor for forming trends. By looking at wine lists from restaurants within the neighborhood or town (depending on size of the area) surrounding the store he has been able to predict appropriate buying strategies. Later in the Q&A we also discussed the role sommeliers have as table side educators and guides for customers who are already known to have the expendable income to spend on wine and how this drives sales outside the restaurant as well. (Restaurant goers are already a self-selected group of people willing to spend money on food and beverages.) What this means for wineries too, then, is that if they can penetrate the restaurant market of their extended community they can naturally increase their customer-interest base for retail or DTC sales as well.

In looking at specific trends happening more broadly – there has been a huge increase on sales for premium splits, 375 ml bottles. He believes this is primarily driven by two buying sectors. Millennial are more experimental in their buying habits wanting to try both premium and oddball wines. The 375 ml bottle allows experimentation more readily than a full-size bottle. The Boomer population has also been buying more premium splits. Currently around 60% of the Boomer population is single, so they are buying more premium splits to drink on their own. He said there is also an increase in sales for 375s in picnic communities.

At the same time, there is an increase in sales for premium magnums. To make this economically feasible the wine sections of the grocery stores are focusing primarily on magnums that are $75 or less. They have also seen an increase in wine sales sold in tetra packs, or cans.

At the same time that local sales are increasing, there is also an increased interest in international wines. For the Millennial population this supports the interest in experimentation. For the Boomer population, international wines are still associated with premium branding.

In terms of overall styles, rather than regionality, there has been a massive increase in interest in crisp, clean whites, higher acid rosés, and to some degree also fresher reds (though more especially high acid whites and rosés). The increase in retail trends in these styles of wine, Phil explains, was predicted in the restaurant sector first by tracking the increasing interest in these categories from the sommelier community. Importantly rosé sales have become a year round phenomenon. There were significant rosé sales for Thanksgiving, as well as Valentine’s Day, for example. In the last 52 weeks alone there has been a 292% sales increase in rosé alone. (DID YOU SEE THAT MAKE SURE YOU SAW THAT BECAUSE WHOA.) The greatest increase has been in French rosé but there has been a proportional increase in local rosé sales as well.

(As an interesting side note: the increase in retail sales of rosé happily correlates with production trends happening in California as well. There has been a steady increase on wineries making rosé, though I don’t have those numbers – this point came up from conversations later in the day. It is a happy coincidence this turns out to be true as there is also need for this increased interest. The increase in red blotch in vineyards through the state has led to more producers picking for rosé, for example, as well. Red blotch impacts leaves more severely later in the season making it more difficult to ripen red varieties. By picking early before the leaves are as impacted growers can guarantee they are able to use the grapes and simply make another style of wine from it instead, rosé instead of red. This is not insignificant, however. Rosé is usually not sold for the same price as red so there is still economic loss in this solution though not as severe as simply being unable to harvest.)

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Pinot Noir NZ 2017

Every four years winemakers from across New Zealand put together a three day event celebrating Pinot Noir. This year, Pinot Noir NZ 2017 took place in its host city of Wellington bringing together around 1000 guests total from 20 countries, including top wine professionals from each of those 20 countries, the best winemakers from around New Zealand and eager wine lovers from all over the world as well. Morning sessions focused on a series of talks and seminars, and after lunch (each designed by one of the top chefs of New Zealand or Australia), afternoons brought well-focused regional walk around tastings. By the end of the three days we’d heard from speakers that included some of the brightest in the New Zealand wine industry and a number of the world’s top wine professionals as well. In the evenings top chefs from New Zealand and Australia would serve dinner.

Pinot Noir NZ was truly one of the best wine events I have ever attended. It was impressively designed around a central theme that allowed for both focused and dynamic discussion considering the value of wine from multiple angles. There were technical seminars as well as more philosophical ones; tasting panels meant to make us reconsider how we experience wine and others that asked us to explore our own views of wine quality. The three days were designed around the Maori notion of Tūrangawaewae, a concept that captures the importance of place in how we gain, recognize, and gather our strength. Each of the three days then took a different theme for better understanding the value of Tūrangawaewae. I’ll be writing more about Tūrangawaewae later this week.

Day 1 revolved around the theme of Explore and opened with a Maori welcoming ceremony. International speakers for Pinot Noir NZ were asked to be part of the group being received by the local Maori tribes, and so to also participate in the ceremony on stage with the Maori elders and other tribes people. I was a speaker in this year’s Pinot Noir NZ, and so was asked to be part of the opening ceremony, to be a delegate received and greeted by the local Maori. It was an overwhelming and special experience. It was hard to believe the honor, that I was being asked to be part of such a sacred ceremony. The rest of the first day focused on speeches about the meaning, import and relevance to our thinking of wine in Tūrangawaewae, and then turned to understanding the value of each of the country’s growing regions before we then went to the regional tastings.

Day 2 considered the notion of Embrace and focused on tasting panels that gave us the chance to continue the conversation with wines there to help deepen the conversation. An international panel of wine experts selected wines and shared their views of greatness. The diversity of perspectives thanks to the international nature of the panel was inspiring. We were then put to a sound tasting by Jo Burzynska where Pinot noir was matched to different types of music as we explored how the varying sound types had very real impact on our tasting ability.

On Day 3 the focus was on how to Evolve and included a series of talks that asked where we are headed as not only as members of the wine community but also more broadly (wine lovers are always also part of the world at large after all), and so with that in mind, how to move forward. I was asked to give the closing speech for day 3 speaking to the question of future communication while also tying together threads from across the three days.

A number of people asked that once it was available I share my speech and its transcript here. So, now that I have both I am posting them as requested. Thank you to all of you that asked for this. I very much appreciate it.

As I mentioned, my speech refers to the conversations from across all three days of the event. Much of what is referenced will make sense in context. But to clarify a few things – the speech names a number of speakers from earlier in day 3 and references points they raised – Maynard James Keenan, Sam Neill, and Jancis Robinson are all mentioned. A few of them had also been joking about the relevance of their astrological signs, which is why I begin with explaining mine. I also mention Marcel Giesen, who spoke as part of the panel on greatness on day 2, and Nick Mills who spoke as part of the opening consideration of Tūrangawaewae on day 1. Also, on day 1, Rachel Tualelei, Ropata Taylor, and Dame Anne Salmond spoke on the history of the Maori, which is referenced near the beginning of my speech without naming them. In the beginning I refer to First Nations peoples. I am using that phrase to address the idea of first people to any particular region more generally. Such people are often referred to as indigenous (which I do also say here) but in some cases, such as the Maori of New Zealand, the people are not indigenous to that land but nevertheless were the first people of that land. I am using the phrase in that sense. In Canada, for example, the term First Nations has a more specific reference to a particular group there in Canada so I mention that here to clarify I am using the phrase more broadly. It is apparent in the context of the speech.

The other speeches shared online are also worth watching. The people named above whose speeches are available online I have linked to  – click on their name and it will take you to the video of their talk. The link to all available speeches (including regional overview videos from the event) are available here: 

Thank you most especially to the board of Pinot Noir NZ for inviting me to speak, and to Rachael Fletcher for so seamlessly guiding everything, to Mike Bennie for suggesting me, and to David Strada for inviting me to New Zealand. Thank you to James Tidwell and David Keck for so patiently letting me talk through aspects of my talk before hand. Your friendship makes all the difference.

Here is the video of the speech. It’s transcript immediately follows it.

Day 3 Elaine Chukan Brown from Pinot Noir NZ on Vimeo.

Future Communication: Pinot Noir NZ
Elaine Chukan Brown

So I want to get out of the way right away that I am a Tiger in the Chinese zodiac. That’s the terrestrial parallel to Maynard’s Dragon – totally tenacious, claws the shit out of everything to get where it’s going, full commitment, looks good in stripes. Right?

I’m also a double Virgo. Virgos are known for devotion. They’re defined by love, and most especially service. So, whatever they do, they do out of love, and total commitment to excellence. But then I have a Sagittarius moon, which means that whatever I do, I do with my hair on my fire, and I thank my daughter for making sure that it looks like it is.

It is an incredible honor to be part of an event that so completely honors and speaks from the position of the First Nations people of the country that’s hosting it. As some of you know, I am Inuit from Alaska, and the terrible truth is that First Nations in the United States are barely even recognized for still existing. And so I live my daily life interacting with people unable to see who I am. And so to be here, and to have been asked to be part of the opening ceremony, finding connection, communion, companionship between the First Nations people of New Zealand and all of us that are here to speak about Pinot noir, and all of the other wonderful things we’ve been speaking about, was completely overwhelming.

But in acknowledgement of that, I wish to introduce myself to you as I would if I was speaking with my Native community in Alaska. I actually called my mother yesterday to ask for permission to speak today, and for permission to say my Native name, which in Alaskan communities is private, as a way of sort of preserving what’s most valued for us. Obviously, I’m not going to worry about it if I’m crying, so you’ll just all have to deal with it.

My maternal great-grandparents are Paul and Anna Chukan of Bristol Bay, Alaska. My grandparents are Gordon and Anisha McCormick. My paternal great-grandparents are Stephen and Amelia Ivanoff, of Norton Sound, Alaska. My grandmother is Emily Ivanoff Ticasuk Brown. My parents are Mel and Katherine Brown. I am Unangan and Iñupiaq. That is Aleut and Inuit from Alaska. My name is Elaine Chukan Arnaqiaq Brown. My daughter is Rachel Marie Williams.

For indigenous peoples across the planet, our ancestors, our people, define who we are. I am my ancestors. But also for indigenous peoples across the planet, what are ancestors are is our land, the place from which we come. So to speak with you today is overwhelming because I bring them with me.

My great-grandfather, I was lucky enough to know growing up, and he was born at a time, in a place so remote, that he saw the first waves of outside people enter his region. And he would tell me stories about the first time he saw someone from China, the first time he saw a black person, the first time he heard a radio, the first time electricity appeared in the region. When the wars came. His region was part of the front lines of World War II, which of course brought more outsiders.

As an indigenous person in Alaska, he was denied the rights of citizenship until the second half of the last century, when Alaska finally became a state. And especially in light of Jancis’s insight about recent global politics, what I would like to offer – I hadn’t expected to – but what I would like to offer is the recognition of the strength, the resilience, and the incredible transforming power that he took to every aspect of his life. And if you could imagine a life lived, to survive such radical transformation as I just mentioned …

As a quick side note, to get across how bad-ass this man I grew up with was – he actually killed a bear with a spruce tree that he cut down, cut the bows off, and made a sharp tip on because he lived in Alaska at a time before guns. Totally hardcore.

But anyway, my point being – imagine a person that could remain utterly true to himself, utterly clear in his values, utterly persistent and determined that in all of that change of which he had no control of, he would be the best version of himself, and he would do it for the sake of his people and his family, and generations of people he would never meet.

I want to speak briefly about a kind of indigenous ethics that’s implied in what I’m saying, because I think it really ties in to a lot of the values that have been expressed here: notions of sustainability; the wonderful talk we heard here on the first day from Nick at Rippon and that experience of trying to honor the land and instill value across generations. For indigenous peoples, for myself being here today, my most central project, regardless of anything else I am doing, my most central project is to act in a way that loves people I will never meet so that I may honor those that made my life possible.

Some of you have heard this in terms of thinking in seven generations. We thank seven generations back whose lives brought us here, by acting for the sake of seven generations forward, many of whom we’ll never know.

When I asked my mom permission to speak with you today, she emphasized the point that she can’t help but think of my great-grandfather, who raised her, and that there’s a sense in which I’ve brought him here – a man who grew up so differently than everyone here. He’s come to New Zealand now. And speaking to Sam’s point about the unlikely, how incredibly unlikely is it for all of you to have to listen to an Inuit woman from Alaska talk about her great-grandfather in the middle of a Pinot noir conference.

But the unlikelihood runs far deeper than that. It’s unlikely that he even lived long enough to make my life possible. We heard on the first day about the struggles of the Maori people. It’s a struggle that is utterly consistent with indigenous peoples all over the planet. And the idea that any First Nations are still alive and vibrantly breathing and clearly present here with all of you is a miracle. And so for me, in thinking how do I love my future descendants and honor those who came before me, that’s what I carry in everything I do. It is a miracle that I am here, and it is no thanks to me that that is true, and it is little thanks to me that anything I have done might have significance. It is totally, absolutely, because of the miracle of people that worked so hard to be resilient.

And what I want to offer is that this is a gift that any of us can have. I am profoundly aware of it because of my particular heritage and background and the way that I was raised, but part of what we’ve been talking about and part of what this whole program has so intensely tried to instill in each of us is that we have to fucking care about what we do, right? And what’s to come. And again, it’s because of caring for people that we will never meet. And the way that we can do that is to seek in every single step excellence in what we do.

Just like Marcel said yesterday, “Quality comes slowly over time, a step at a time.” And this morning we heard – I can’t remember now who said it – but the idea that perfection is a lot of little steps done well. That’s what I’m speaking to. We all have that opportunity.

In terms of how that shows up, I want to speak briefly – some of you heard yesterday, I apologize, but I am a recovering philosopher, and again, like alcoholism you deal with it every day. So, I wanted to use that as a background that I have to just very briefly speak about the idea of expertise because part of the struggle, I think, we face now in a world that is so full of uncertainty is this grief for the loss of the expert. Any of us in this room, because we’re of drinking age, were born into a time where the expert guided how the world moved, and decisions were made very much in a top-down model. People devoted themselves to intricate, thorough-going study, and that information would trickle out to the rest of us. So it was very much a top-down, triangular model.

And what’s happened now is the proliferation of information, thanks to the Internet and Jancis is largely to blame for us wine-lovers, right, through so many brilliant reference books. With that proliferation of information, that triangle has flattened and spread. And we’ve created a kind of horizontaling of information sharing. And, with that, it becomes very difficult to see where the expert remains.

This will tie back to the bear hunting and things like that, by the way, just so you know …

So in this grief of loss of the expert, it’s unclear what the expert’s role is anymore. And so briefly, I just wanted to ask – what is an expert? Clearly the accessed information, even the creation of information as we study the world and learn more about it is paramount there. But with this proliferation of information, there’s a way in which that’s kind of the part we’ve lost. Everyone has access to a database, so a lot of the questions you hear about the loss of the expert come back to, “Well why do I need that person? I can look it up on Google.”

But what remains is an intimacy with the information, an understanding – how do I interpret this? How do I recognize what’s valuable? How do I know it’s pertinent to now, to what I need to know now? And so that sense of intimacy we still desperately need from experts; we see all sorts of political bad decisions happening and it’s because people don’t know how to interpret properly the kind of information that they are being inundated with. We still need that kind of help. But part of what goes along with this – the way people become experts that are relevant is that we trust them. They’re reliable. We believe them. What they say makes sense. We feel a connection.

Now studies of Millennial consumer groups done recently have shown interesting buying patterns. And I’m actually not interested in talking about Millennials, except that I think because of when they were born, they come onto the scene as this shift from triangle to horizontal is happening. And so they’re, in a way, the purest expression of the impact of that change in information society.

So what we’ve seen studying Millennials’ consumer habits and interests is that advertising has almost no effect. Millennial populations, again, in these surveys, have said only one percent of the respondents actually make a purchase based on advertising that they see, whether it’s on television, or in print, or online. Instead, what they’re doing is turning to companions, to actual people around. And they’re doing this very much online, through various online sources – blogs, and various types of social media.

But when you dig deeper into this, and this links back to the other points I’ve been making – when you dig deeper into this, what you find is that what they’re searching for is intimacy and connection. And it is that that makes people respond. And it is from that that leads to people changing their minds, finding what they care about, learning to recognize who they are, and making purchases as well.

This obviously is relevant to a lot of the people in the room who are vintners, and are interested in figuring out how the heck to get people to buy a bottle of their wine. Well, it’s not advertising, which respondents said feels as if they’re being sold something. It’s too pat. It’s too formulaic. And it feels like being tricked or manipulated. And so instead what they’re responding to is someone they feel a connection to, that they can trust and believe, and think, “Oh, I recognize something of myself in them; if they like it, I must too.”

And so what’s happened is that we’ve come into a very peculiar time, where our own individual particularity, our very specific commitments, the exact thing we care about, and the ways that we express those things, are the most relevant in terms of how we recognize who we want to believe, what we want to buy, how we want to communicate.

Duncan actually asked me to speak on future communication. There is no one in this room that knows what this means, and so I worked through it in this way: what I want to suggest is that the future of communication starts in what I’m describing. We desperately still need people to risk the life of the expert; to commit so thoroughly to what they do that their life and its legacy, as Maynard referenced, reverberates beyond them to people they will never meet. Some currently alive now, and others that simply come down the road, generations away. We desperately need that.

But what I’m suggesting is that we all have the opportunity to do that now. Everyone in this room can choose that life. Nick is so fortunate, as he expressed on Tuesday, to have been born into a circumstance like his at Rippon, and he’s doing an incredible job at honoring that, and carrying that forward. And that is fantastic to see. But very many of us don’t have that situation, right. So what do we do? How do we translate that model into something we can claim?

And what I’m saying is that if we recognize that we’re all looking, now, in the midst of this chaotic world, with this mass proliferation of information that we all struggle to interpret, we recognize that we’re looking for communication, connection, and intimacy. And we seek to act in excellence, to cultivate that in very small ways, in every little moment that we do – and share that openly. We can’t expect that benefits of the old top-down model anymore; reverence doesn’t come in the way it used to, for those of us who give ourselves to lifelong projects. Many people get attention very quickly, right? But connection and intimacy is greater than that. And the satisfaction instead comes from knowing that in committing to that excellence and acting from service, our effect can reverberate out in ways we cannot even predict.

With that in mind, I really want to thank David Strada for inviting me to New Zealand. It’s been a remarkable trip. I know Mike Bennie was kind enough to kind of pester Duncan and Ben about me, and I really appreciate that, too. But most of all, I thank Duncan and Ben for inviting me to speak today.

You have allowed me to bring my family here, and to make real something that my great-grandfather was open enough to know not in any specific way could happen, but that if he did well by his family, by his people, and in every act he took, that those that came after him could surpass anything he imagined, and arrive eventually, on a country he barely knew was real.

What I’m describing might seem a little alien, perhaps. But I just want to ask each of us to consider very simple questions, and to ask them of ourselves again and again and again, and even sometimes every step: what do you want to love? How can you be of service today? How will you exemplify excellence in any small thing you do?

Thank you.

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The Innovation & Quality Conference 

Cyril Penn opening IQ

The annual IQ (Innovation & Quality) Conference happened in St Helena last week bringing together wineries from all over the Western United States with suppliers of cork, barrels, screw caps, and other materials needed in making wine. Central to the conference is a trials tasting tent in which vintners from the West coast United States share winemaking trials – the results, the insights gained, any pertinent data, and the wines themselves to taste. Trials range from side-by-side experiments on cellar techniques such as differing lengths of extended maceration alongside straight to press wines from the same fruit, or extended aging in different types of vessels, to vineyard trials such as side-by-side clonal tastings on Pinot noir, or side-by-side tastings of the same clone grown in different soil types. If you time it right, you can spend the whole day just attending a series of trial tastings of this sort.

In addition to the trials tent there are also a series of discussion sessions, some with wine to illustrate, some without. The sessions are great because as hard core wine-geek-fest as the tasting trials are, hearing the most current innovations in wine technology or knowledge from the world’s top experts on whatever the particular matter is just does not get old. I got to attend both a session on the most current advances in cork quality as well as a session on tracking phenolic make up in Cabernet Sauvignon from the vineyard into the winery and through to bottling. It was awesome.

Advances in Cork Quality

Miguel Cabral of Amorim Cork

The Cork Quality session was rather mind blowing. In the last two years two cork suppliers – Amorim Cork and Cork Supply USA – have developed technology that has made it possible for them to release natural cork guaranteed to be TCA free. The implications of that advancement alone are mind boggling for the global wine industry. The technology is equally impressive.

Miguel Cabral of Amorim Cork came from Portugal to present to attendees about their ND Tech system. Corks guaranteed to be TCA free thanks to ND Tech are now available in the United States. Producers of premium wines in the United States have begun bottling wines with the guaranteed corks. From what I heard wines from both the 2014 and 2015 vintages have been bottled using the ND Tech corks depending on the vintner’s aging regime prior to bottling. Three producers – Jennifer Williams of Arrow & Branch, Jennifer Rue of Invisible Hand Winemaking, and Andy Erickson of Favia Wines – each have bottled some wines with the ND Tech guaranteed corks. The session included a winemaker panel of these three producers giving their thoughts briefly on the advantages of natural cork over other closure types, while David Ramey of Ramey Wines also spoke in favor of DIAM. Some of his thoughts are included here in the final section on Implications of the new guaranteed corks.

Greg Hirson of Cork Supply USA shared information about their DS100+ system, which is also able to produce corks guaranteed to be free of TCA.

TCA Studies

Peter Weber of the Cork Quality Council spoke briefly about advances in cork quality, sharing our current knowledge of TCA in preparation for us to then hear the most current innovations as seen in ND Tech and DS100+.

As Peter explained, TCA in cork is one of the issues in the wine industry that we know the most about thanks largely to on going research done by ETS. The original, groundbreaking study on TCA was done 18 years ago. Results from that original study transformed how we dealt with cork and led to massive reductions in instances of TCA in wine.

Prior to that 18-year old study, understanding of TCA testing was a simple binary system. Cork was recognized as either good or bad but most testing was done prior to the cork getting wet. Such tests were based entirely on human nose detection so recognition of the chemical was extremely limited and unreliable. An entirely new method of testing TCA was developed as a result of the 18-year old study that led to a huge leap in accuracy. Additionally, we learned more insight on the relationship between cork and wine, better realizing how TCA was released into wine specifically because it had gotten wet – that is, it is not enough to check a dry cork as TCA is released over time from the cork becoming wet – which transformed our understanding of quality control in the bottling and storage process as well.

Since 2001 new quality control programs on cork production and use have been in place leading to TCA levels today being 96% lower than they were in 2001. (Again, mind blowing.)

Peter clarified too that in studies on cork quality TCA is understood as a specific chemical contaminant in cork. In a general wine context many wine professionals refer to cork taint in general as TCA, when in actuality there are other forms of cork taint besides TCA. Other types of cork taint more generally depend on cork cleanliness rather than the specific chemical presence of TCA. High quality cork producers, then, implement cork steaming procedures that can remove other forms of cork taint while preserving the cork’s structural integrity. TCA cannot be removed in this way, however, and instead TCA infected corks must simply be discarded from use in wine and instead used for other purposes such as cork tile or board.

ND Tech

Miguel Cabral of Amorim presented their ND Tech system, which has already begun supplying guaranteed corks to the United States wine market. As Miguel clarified, most recent work on improving cork quality has revolved around eliminating TCA. For vintners, TCA serves as ground zero in storage issues. The goal is to eliminate it in cork so that more sophisticated aspects of cork quality can be studied instead. Both Miguel and Greg Hirson of Cork Supply USA, for example, agreed that now that they have successfully created technology to eliminate concerns of TCA in cork research, resources can now be directed to our better understanding oxygen transfer rates of cork in order to also better understand wine aging.

The ND Tech system has been developed over several years using equipment that tests each individual cork for TCA. Today, ND Tech equipment is able to verifiably guarantee that TCA levels in any particular cork are below 0.5 nanograms per liter. Human ability to detect TCA has a threshold of 2 nanograms per liter. So, ND Tech effectively guarantees any screened corks will have no detectable TCA.

To guarantee the ND Tech system’s effectiveness Amorim created several internal cross-checking procedures but they also had the system sent internationally so it could be verified by third-party studies. Both the Australian Wine Institute and Hochschule Geisenheim University found the system to be 100% effective.

Currently, in 2017, ND Tech is able to screen 42 million corks per year. That number will continue to increase as the testing rate is dependent only on the number of ND Tech screening machines they have in place.


Greg Hirson, the Director of Tech Services for Cork Supply USA, shared the technology behind their DS100+ system, which also tests corks to guarantee they will be TCA free. The DS100+ technology is utterly distinct from that of ND Tech but both have the same final result of guaranteed corks with TCA levels below 0.5 nanograms per liter.

The DS100+ technology was finalized slightly later than ND Tech and so currently Cork Supply USA is able to verify 20 million corks per year. Again, that number will increase as it depends only on the number of machines they have in place.

Greg did a great job at helping to make sense of what it means to say that any single cork will have less than 0.5 nanograms per liter. He walked us through extensive calculations to ultimately show that 0.5 nanograms per liter of TCA in any one cork is actually equivalent to being able to guarantee there will be not even a single fruit fly in a 40 acre vineyard. Did you catch that? NOT EVEN A SINGLE FRUIT FLY IN A 40 ACRE VINEYARD. (AGAIN, MIND BLOWING.) Even more impressively though, it is also equivalent to being able to screen for and eliminate that metaphorical fruit fly in less than 20 seconds, as the DS100+ technology works that quickly.


While screw cap made huge improvements in the world of wine in terms of radically reducing TCA, and certainly in eliminating TCA caused by closure, screw cap closures also have their own issues including bottle reduction and changes in aging from lack of oxygen exchange. It isn’t always ideal for a wine to barely evolve for years in bottle. Various adjustments in screw cap technology have been made to address these issues.

Synthetic or conglomerate corks are also a reasonable option in many cases. Since the focus of the session was on guaranteed natural corks there was not extensive consideration of synthetic corks. However, the winemaker panel did include some consideration of DIAM corks. David Ramey explained that he has done his own winery trials considering screw caps, vino lock glass closures, a range of synthetic cork types, various natural corks and DIAM. Today he uses all DIAM type closures across his wines, adjusting the DIAM quality level to quality needs for wine type. As he explained, in his view, OTR, or oxygen exchange rate, is the most important part of cork (or closure) quality as it allows proper aging of wines. When a bad cork prevents a wine from reaching its full aging potential we tend to treat it as if the wine has gone bad, when in reality it is that the wine had a bad closure. The inconsistent density and structure of natural cork works against standardizing expectations for such a closure. DIAM, on the other hand, is made to deliver expected levels of structural integrity and so OTR can be better expected as well. While David admits DIAM may not be the only solution he turns to in the long run, currently he has found it to be the best option.

For those reliant on natural corks, it isn’t clear that every wine needs a cork guaranteed to be free of TCA. Different wine types and different wine markets have very different needs. It might make more sense for wines bottled to drink the same year they are released to be bottled under screw cap, for example. Or, it might simply make sense for less expensive wines to be bottled under standard cork. The risk of small portions of TCA might be economically reasonable on less expensive wine.

Guaranteed TCA free cork does, however, make a lot of sense for premium wines expected to sell at higher prices. Public perception still prefers cork for fine wines, for example. Additionally, premium wines tend to be made from more structural varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo that benefit from oxygen exchange in bottle loosely speaking. Additional cost (which, unfortunately, I don’t have the details on for these corks) can be more readily absorbed in premium wines and there is also far more to lose from a bad cork on expensive wines even if it is a relatively low percentage of TCA. Additionally, such producers gain the advantage of eliminating the cost of back up bottles when sending samples to distributors or writers.

Post update: the article has been edited to add additional comments on reasons to consider DIAM cork. 

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Kyle Stewart of the Cultured Cup

Kyle Stewart of the Cultured Cup

Integral to Texsom International Wine Awards (TIWA) is the Sommelier Retreat. Top sommeliers from across North America are invited to help serve TIWA writing tasting notes for award winning wines, and also doing clean up throughout the competition and after, while attending the accompanying Sommelier Retreat. Integral to their experience though is an educational and training component where they are able to work with mentors from the sommelier community to develop their writing skills, do tasting exams with Master Sommeliers, and take a series of seminars on aspects of the wine, beverage, food, and hospitality industry with experts in their field. Seminars range from the business side of restaurant wine programs to English Sparkling Wines (taught this year by the venerable Laura Rhys MS from Britain) to this year a seminar on Tea from a Certified Tea Specialist, Kyle Stewart. I led a seminar for the Sommelier Retreat this year as well on Arizona wines. As a result, I was invited to sit in and attend this year’s other sessions. The tea seminar was fascinating and fantastic. (I unfortunately arrived too late to attend Laura’s English sparkling wine course but I heard it was excellent as well.)

Kyle became excited by tea decades ago when he realized it helped focus his attention and he enjoyed the complexity of flavors. Soon after he pursued the Certified Tea Specialist designation from the Speciality Tea Institute and has since become an avid tea advocate running his own coffee and tea business, the Cultured Cup, and also leading seminars on tea, while staying up to date via trips to tea regions and regular tea tastings. He compares the process very much to what we do in wine and by the end of the seminar the parallels were obvious. Just as we study and research the fine tuned aspects of wine growing and production tea can be studied. The picking techniques, growing styles, and varietal complexity of the tea plant greatly resembles what we find in wine. It turns out tasting tea is rather similar as well.

Pu’er, a brick of Chinese tea

As Kyle explained, tea has a 5000 year history. In its origin the drink was used medicinally as a tonic. The early uses of the plant arose in China where people took and steeped pieces of it directly so that the beverage included a rather bitter element. In Burma the leaves were also used as food and the tradition continues today in a Burmese Tea Salad. Kyle said that the first time he enjoyed the dish he loved the flavors so much he ate two back to back and then did not sleep for two days. By eating the entire leaf in that way he absorbed higher levels of caffeine as well. Eventually when people began to process the leaves of the plant they were also able to hone its flavors and structure in the cup leading to it becoming a social beverage enjoyed for pleasure.

Once tea became a more popular drink it also became an exchange commodity. It grew only in certain parts of China however and also is rather delicate to transport so ways to make it safe for travel had to develop. The Pu’er (shown above) is an early form of such ingenuity. The leaves were compressed into a quite firm brick of tea that could then be broken into smaller pieces and steeped. The entire Pu’er can make around 150 cups, and the compressed leaves are even strong enough that they can be steeped multiple times (leading to far more cups than the standard). Such bricks were carried around the Tea and Horse Road (which essentially overlaid the more well-known Silk Road) and used for trade. The Tea and Horse Road gets its name from the quite literal trade of Chinese Tea bricks for Tibetan Horses. From what we know, 10 to 13 bricks of tea could fetch 1 Tibetan horse.

As Kyle clarified, tea is a type of infusion made from a very particular plant. Though the word is used rather loosely today, in actuality tea refers only to a drink infused from dried, crushed leaves of the camelia sinensis plant. Beverages infused from other plants such as rooibos, mint, ginger or other flowers, herbs, or spices properly speaking are infusions or, for the French, tiasne, but not tea.

Camelia sinensis has two major varieties. The Chinese variety is known as camelia sinensis sinensis, has a smaller leaf and does better when brewed at comparatively cooler temperatures. He brews any of these cultivars at 175 degrees F. Darjeeling, of course, is an example.

The Indian variety is known as camelia sinensis assamica and has impressively large elephant ear sized leaves. 1000 year old tea trees still exist today. They are considered a cultural treasure that are not used for producing tea today but would have served emperors in their prime.

Just like wine, tea plants adapt to their environment and, as a result, these two varieties have produced hundreds of different cultivars with unique flavor and structure. The differences also lead to very specific cultivation techniques as well as specific plucking methods for making the tea itself in various styles. As Kyle explained, the quality and flavor of specific teas depends on three key elements: the growing conditions of the plant with vintage variation even being a crucial aspect of fine teas, the care in how the leaves are plucked, and the way in which the plant is processed. Amazingly, the weather 1 to 2 weeks prior to the tree being plucked is the most critical time period for impacting flavor. Excessive rain in this time, for example, can overly dilute the flavors leading to imbalanced tea.

side by side tea tasting

There are five major categories of tea as well as one more utterly rare one. The very finest teas in the world can actually fetch as much as $30,000 per kilo. The five major categories include (progressing in order of intensity and processing complexity, loosely speaking) White, Green, Oolong, Black, and Dark, of which Pu’er (shown above) is a type. Additionally, Yellow tea is distinct from these five, however it is so uncommon it is rarely discussed. In his life Kyle said he’s only had Yellow tea once or twice. It has the most complex processing of the types of tea and is quite expensive.

White tea (shown at the top in the image above – if you’re on a mobile the image sometimes shifts. In that case it is to the right of the green tea) has the simplest processing method. The leaves and leaf buds are gathered – White peony includes both leaves and buds, for example, while Ying Chen includes only leaf buds (which are essentially young leaves), not more developed leaves. It takes 4000 buds to create one pound of tea, and all must be hand plucked so it is quite expensive. How and what is plucked determines the style of white tea. Leaves or leaf buds are then air dried on a screen and no shaping of the leaves occurs. Without shaping there is no cellular breakage, which also prevents any oxidation from happening. As a result, white tea is the lightest in flavor with a tendency towards floral aromas, and the highest in anti-oxidants. Kyle recommends steeping white tea with 175 degree F water for about 3 minutes as the tea is delicate and one wants to capture the nuances of the leaf.

Green tea (shown left above) has specific leaf plucking patterns for different green tea types. The leaves from the variety behind green tea are very stiff and crackle readily so the leaves are set out to wilt after plucking to soften them up, much like the way lettuce leaves wilt when left to air after harvest. Once the leaves have softened they can be moved into shape without breakage. Once leaves are shaped into the appropriate form for the style of green tea the leaf is immediately heated to keep it from oxidizing. This step is crucial as oxidation is an important part of what distinguishes green from black tea. In the heating process, Chinese green tea is ironed or pressed to a hot surface while Japanese green tea is steamed. In comparison, Chinese green tea tends to show nuttier flavors while Japanese green tea is all about umami and vegetal notes. With the delicacy of green tea it should be steeped in a similar fashion to white tea – with 175 degree F water for around 3 minutes.

Oolong tea lets the tea leaves oxidize anywhere from 10 to 95%. The little bit not oxidized lends an additional flavor complexity to the tea in comparison to black tea, which is fully oxidized. The tea master determines when to stop oxidation by aroma and feel of the leaf in relation to the style desired. With the dance of oxidized and unoxidized notes Oolong tea can be quite floral. The intentional oxidation releases quite different aromas from the plant such that an Oolong can be full of natural fruits and flower notes, even tasting exactly like peaches, for example, without any added flavors. Oolong tea can be hot or cold brewed. For hot brewing (shown right above – or, across from the green tea) Oolong he recommends using 195 degree F water for 4 minutes. Cold brewing (shown bottom above – or, left from the green tea), he clarifies, requires more leaves but since the leaves are not extracted in the same way by heat they can be steeped repeatedly and reveal more pretty, uplifted flavors. Ultimately, then, cold brewed Oolong ends up being more economical as well.

Dark tea includes an additional step of fermentation. The method arose from the need to safely transport the beverage at a time when temperature and shelf controls were not possible as they are today. By fermenting the leaf the shelf quality remains consistent. Such teas are generally sold as bricks, such as the image above, or formed cake. Pu’er is one type of dark tea that originates from a specific area of the Yunnan province and is so recognized because it is aged in specific caves of its region, which impart characteristics to the tea much like the limestone caves of Roquefort inform the cheese of that region.

Kyle additionally recommends that filtered water is best used for making fine teas. The mineral content of tap water tends to overpower the more delicate flavors of a high quality tea so that even just a Brita filter improves the flavor. He cautions though that one should not use distilled water.

Interestingly, Kyle has worked with wine specialists to lead wine and tea tastings where in some cases wine and tea pairings are done such as green Kukicha stem tea paired alongside a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example. He also though suggests that teas can be an appropriate palate cleanser through serious wine tastings as they not only shift the palate but also refocus the mind.

Additionally he points out the playfulness and import of serving vessels. Cold brewed teas can be served in aperitif and cocktail glasses quite nicely to elevate the experience. Finer examples of Oolong teas do nicely in smaller porcelain. Part of the tea experience that he values is that power of being in the moment present with the full range of sensory experience as well as the steeping process.

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Texsom IWA

Opening Texsom IWA with a palate calibration exercise – two top award wines from last year
photo from June Rodil MS

The last two days have been spent judging wines from around the world for the annual Texsom International Wine Awards (TIWA). The event brings top tasters from across the planet together to judge global wines. It’s one of my favorite events of the year as the way the tasting panels are designed is a hugely educational experience and the caliber of tasters in the room is mind boggling. There is no other event that brings together such a high concentration of distinguished wine professionals from all aspects of the wine industry. In addition to the wine judges the wine service is handled by top sommeliers and buyers from all over North America. It’s one of those events where essentially every person that walks by stirs a jolt of recognition and high regard for what they’ve accomplished in their careers. Even better, everyone here seems to recognize the import of our being here – that we are surrounded by the best in field for the wine world to respectfully review and award wines from across both hemispheres – and to be genuinely grateful for the opportunity. Event meals are such an awesome chance to hang out and catch up with each other.

TIWA originates out of the Dallas Morning News Awards started in 1985 by Rebecca Murphy. Rebecca did a remarkable job building an internationally recognized wine award program after first focusing on wines of the United States. For the first 14 years of the event the competition provided a kind of seedy and growth opportunity for producers all over the country as she included top tasters from the US wine well respected by the nation’s wine professionals. Eventually the program expanded to assess global wines. The event became an opportunity not only to award top wines but also for tasters to gain greater insight into regions around the world.

Around a decade ago Texsom founders James Tidwell and Drew Hendrix began working with Rebecca to shift the Dallas Awards to Texsom management, relaunching it as Texsom IWA four years ago.

This year the Awards received a record number of entries with 3581 wines from 28 countries and 25 US states. The selections included classic regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Rioja as well as newer categories like Mexico or Texas wines. The price range of wines submitted went from as little as $2.99 all the way to $700 with the average price being between $32 to $36.

Wine judging is handled by four-judge panels focused on discussion to achieve consensus. By creating panels of four judges final decisions can never be reduced to a swing vote and instead judging panels discuss their assessment before the final award is determined. The discussion is one of my favorite parts of being a judge for TIWA. Judges are also encouraged to set aside wines that they want to allow more time for so that they can be more carefully assessed. What I learn not only about my fellow judges’ views of wines but also about my own tasting process and preferences from the discussion is both fascinating and irreplaceable. All wines are tasted blind by category so that we are given the wine appellation, grape type or blend and vintage, but we never know the price or producer. Because of the care that goes into discussing assessments as well as the caliber of judges present wines that are otherwise rarely entered in competitions make it into TIWA.

Tasting at TIWA is also a unique opportunity to get to know a regions’ overall profile and quality as judges are often give the position of tasting wines from across an entire area. Though individual producers aren’t known, since wines are all tasted blind, tasting through an entire category and region can do a lot to educate a judge on the state of wines in a specific part of the world. Tasting here has led me to further investigate wines from an area after in a way I wouldn’t have known to do otherwise.

After the completion of TIWA judging the Sommelier team stays on for an educational component focused on learning more effective wine writing handled through both a writing seminar and then writing the actual tasting notes for TIWA award winning wines, and then a series of seminars on various topics from the wine, beverage, food and service world. This year, for example, I am leading a seminar on Arizona wine. We just finished a super fascinating class on tea.

If you want to see this year’s list of judges you can check them out here:

This year’s serving sommeliers can be seen here:

Results for this year’s award winning wines will be announced by Texsom IWA later this Spring. Keep an eye out for them on their website:

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A Conversation with Jancis Robinson and Alder Yarrow

Last night UC Davis hosted a conversation between Jancis Robinson and Alder Yarrow in celebration of her donating her papers, tasting notes, notebooks, photographs, etc from across her wine writing career back to 1976 to their wine library. Warren Winiarski helped fund work with the acquisition. Alder was invited to interview Jancis about her work, her various preferences (she likes skim milk while her husband Nick prefers whole, for example), and how the wine industry has changed.

The hour long conversation was followed by Q&A from the audience, which included one of my favorite moments from the evening as it showed Jancis’s brilliant, quick, dry wit.

An audience member asked her jokingly what wine would best pair with meatloaf, and she quickly responded, “Do you mean audible or edible?” Once he figured out her joke and confirmed he meant edible meatloaf rather than that he was having the (overly dramatic) rockstar to dinner, she suggested that a good California Zinfandel (and then again confirmed a good one) would do the job nicely.

The entire conversation was more than engaging as she is a natural on stage with a talent for making the whole room feel as if they are hanging out with her, and Alder did an excellent job at using their easy rapport to guide the conversation, though in truth Jancis needs little guiding. She readily answered questions with complexity and depth. Alder would then bring her to a new level of inquiry while also helping us to see her more personal side along the way.

Esther Mobley wrote up the celebration in today’s SF Chronicle so I don’t want to give away too much more detail about the conversation itself. Esther did an excellent job sharing many of those insights. I’ll include the link below. What I do want to say though is how much I appreciated the ways the conversation showed Jancis’s thoughtfulness. She’s a reflective and curious thinker and the audience was given glimpse of that through Alder’s interview.

During the Q&A, she answered a question from the audience asking what she looks for in selecting the writers on her website. He wanted to know what she believes they all have in common as, the audience member pointed out, her columnists have quite distinct voices from each other yet all work together in contribution to her site. She thought for a moment. Then said she believed everyone that works for are rather independent thinkers, not easily swayed by trends, and also a bit inclined to bend over backwards for the undiscovered. Traits I admire in anyone. It also highlights how much her work is about supporting that sort of genuine curiosity.

Her support for it goes beyond her own website. I have seen Jancis go out of her way to encourage other writers as well. When Esther Mobley first debuted at the SF Chronicle, for example, Jancis made sure to reshare Esther’s first article online and welcome her to her new position. It appears perhaps a small boost but one that at the same time has important significance. She’s a supporter of hard workers comparatively earlier in their careers.

Esther’s article on Jancis’s contribution to the UC Davis Wine Library is well worth reading and hits on many of the interesting points from yesterday’s conversation I have not mentioned here. Here’s the link.

[Incidentally, that is likely behind paywall.]

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