Walla Walla Retrospective

Norm McKibben

Standing at the top of Les Collines Vineyard, one of the valued fruit sources in Walla Walla, with Norm McKibben, one of the important founders and developing forces of Walla Walla wine

As I’ve mentioned here before, some readers asked if I would compile some of the Instagram photos collections from intensive wine trips made on my @Hawk_Wakawaka account there, and share them here on my site to make the information more readily accessible. With that in mind, this week I’m sharing images from my trip this last summer to Walla Walla. (In the next few weeks reviews from the trip will also be appearing over at JancisRobinson.com.)

The first few days I spent with a group of journalists in preparation for the annual Celebrate Walla Walla event, last year focusing on Merlot. After the festivities were complete, I turned to four days of intensive wine visits digging into the particularities and history of the region. The following photos are a compilation of a few pics from the group travels and then more from the final four days. Together they show some of my activities from the trip and give a glimpse of the region.

Walla Walla Wine

Let’s do this…

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Myles Anderson

Myles Anderson helped found the Walla Walla Community College Center for Enology + Viticulture in 2000 after serving as part of the local wine industry since the 1970s + making home wine since 1978. “The first release of Merlot from Walla Walla was in 1981 by Leonetti Cellars. The first significant planting of Merlot was made in 1980. That was Seven Hills Vineyard. They call it the Old Block now. Leonetti + Seven Hills still make wine from it. […] In 2001, the Wine & Spirits Guide identified 12 Merlots from the United States that were the best of the best. Four came from Walla Walla. Each of them the fruit came from Seven Hills. […] Merlot from Walla Walla has had astonishing recognition and it’s been one you can count on.”

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Tero Estates

Seven Hills Winery

“We are standing here in the original Cabernet block in the area [Walla Walla]. The old Cab block was planted in 1980. The old Merlot block in 1982. 4 acres of each. This was the first commercial sized grower, the first intentional commercial size vineyard in the area. It was two farming families that had been out here for generations, mostly farming wheat. That took a lot of guts + vision because it wasn’t obvious back then putting in Bordeaux reds. It was quirky. Now here we are 20 years later + it works. There is a lot of knowledge now but back then there were only a few wineries but we have continued by relying on that same original cooperative nature.” – Casey McCellan owner-winemaker of Seven Hills Winery on the Oregon side of Walla Walla

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L’Ecole Ferguson Vineyard

Marty Clubb of L’Ecole stands in front of a wall of fractured basalt on the western edge of his 1500 ft elevation Ferguson Vineyard in the Oregon portion of Walla Walla. At the top right of this photo you can see a peek of where the vineyard starts + how shallow the wind blown Loess soils are on top of the basalt bedrock – a few inches to 2 ft in depth. “I was really nervous about planting here because these are very thin soils on top of fractured basalt. It is a rough growing environment but also extremely windy here. We planted those first rows to Syrah to help. Syrah can take the wind. Many of the wine regions of Washington are built on this series of ridges. They are the lifted buckles of compressed basalt from 15 million years ago. The younger soils are mostly worn off. If magma cools quickly the rock fractures. That is why we always say this is fractured basalt. If you look at this wall it is like a wall of tightly fit puzzle pieces. But what does basalt become when it breaks down? Oxidized red iron dirt. The vine roots can push inside because the basalt is fractured but also the movement from plate tectonics over millennia has created red dirt between the seams of the fractures. So the roots are digging between the fractures + accessing the soils from between the seams.” – Marty Clubb

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Woodward Canyon

Rick Small established Woodward Canyon, the 2nd winery in Walla Walla, in 1981. In the last 6 yrs he has planted the North Ridge blocks relying entirely on organic farming. He will make the 1st wines from the site this year. Thanks to the wind blown Loess + silty soils plus cold winters phylloxera has not come to the region. Less than 1% of vineyards are planted to rootstock. “If someone would have said 10 yrs ago that I could grow grapes organically out here I maybe would have argued with them a little bit. But now having done it for 10 yrs I think it’s possible. […] All of this Wente Chardonnay is own root but all of my Bordeaux reds are on rootstock. I think I need at least 10 yrs before I know anything [about how the rootstock is working]. I think climate change is going to be a bigger problem for any of us farmers than phylloxera or leaf role virus or anything like that.” – Rick Small

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Leonetti Cellars

Loess Soils

Walla Walla: the Loess is real (and all over my feet).

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Walla Walla Community College Culinary Program

Walla Walla Merlot

Walla Walla Merlot? Here’s a tip: find the best in a cool year, wait 15 to 22 years + enjoy.

A photo posted by Hawk Wakawaka (@hawk_wakawaka) on

Heading Out on my Own

I found my Walla Walla rental car wrapped inside a Cracker Jack box.

A photo posted by Hawk Wakawaka (@hawk_wakawaka) on

Serra Padacci Vineyard

Cayuse Vineyard

Gramercy Cellars

Norm McKibben

Norm McKibben of Amavi + Pepperbridge wineries started working w + establishing vineyards in Walla Walla at the start of the 1990s. He quickly became one of the largest suppliers of grapes in the region also serving on the board of the region’s Wine Commission + as a founding member of the Oregon Wine Board. “I planted the first grapes at Pepperbridge in 1991. There were 40 acres [of grapevines] in the [Walla Walla] Valley at that time, including Pepperbridge. I was growing apples + decided to plant grapes. I planted on Whiskey Ridge [up in the hills outside of Walla Walla]. It didn’t work. Then I started planting grapes in the Valley at Pepperbridge. I sold grapes to a few wineries – Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole + Andrew Will on Vashon Island. There weren’t that many wineries here at the time. When their wines came out + said, Pepperbridge Vineyard, more people started calling asking for grapes + it grew from there. I didn’t plan it. It probably sounds silly but I learned the most from the vineyard [on Whiskey Ridge] I tore out because I called every expert I could. Everyone said, tear it out, but I got a lot of advice.”

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Seven Hills Wines


Model A Gathering

Somehow I happened into the middle a Walla Walla Model A show. Cool!

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Geeking out on site specificity vs blending w Waters Syrahs, Rhone white + red blends.

A photo posted by Hawk Wakawaka (@hawk_wakawaka) on

The Famous Camel

The Walla Walla Notebook

The Walla Walla Notebook: it’s every page full, folks. I’m pooped. Thank you to everyone for such an informative week!

A photo posted by Hawk Wakawaka (@hawk_wakawaka) on

Copyright 2016 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.


I am Yup’ik

ESPN.com has just shared an excellent short film, I am Yup’ik, about the importance of basketball in remote Alaska.

As some of you know I originate from Alaska. I grew up migrating between Anchorage in the winters to attend a mainstream school, and Naknek on the western coast in the summers to commercial fish for salmon. In the winters, villagers would fly into Anchorage for the basketball tournaments. It was our chance to see our relatives from throughout the state. My father and brother-in-law would also fly back to Naknek for the regional tournaments. They played on our cousin’s team.

For Alaska Natives, basketball isn’t just a sport. It’s a way of life. The western coast of Alaska thrives on basketball.

I am Yup’ik Includes glimpses of village life and the most insightful line I’ve seen anywhere explaining what it means to be Alaska Native. It captures a core principle I was raised with as an Aleut and Inupiat, and that is central to healthy Native life. As an Alaska Native your contribution is the most important aspect of who you are. Whatever you do, “You do it for the community. You do it for the elders. You do it for the ancestors.”

The following short film, I am Yup’ik, is one of the most insightful looks at Alaska Native life I’ve seen anywhere. Enjoy!

Great thanks to ESPN.com for sharing this movie, and to those that made the film. It was healing to see.

The OUP Blog & The Oxford Companion to Wine

The Oxford Companion to Wine

The Oxford University Press (OUP) officially released the 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine in mid-September. In celebration of the new edition, the OUP asked some of the contributors to write an article that relates to important new entries in the 4th edition. The articles touch on ideas found in the Companion while exploring them in a way distinct from actual Companion entries, and are shared weekly on the OUP blog.

In the 4th edition, I wrote a new entry on the impact social media has had in the world of wine (as well as two others – a new one on “Sustainability,” and a complete update on “Information Technology”). As a result, the OUP editors asked if I would write an article on Social Media for their site. It posted today. Here’s a look…

Wine & Social Media

Social Media

Can Instagram really sell wine? The answer is, yes, though perhaps indirectly.

In recent years the advent of social media, considered to be the second stage of the Internet’s evolution – the Web 2.0, has not only created an explosion of user-generated content but also the decline of expert run media. It’s a change that has led to the near demise of print media, the decline of the publishing industry more broadly, and a revolution in what it means to sell wine.

Social media has dramatically changed how information is shared. Wine experts and consumers alike now more often share information about wine via social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and wine blogsNielsen studies show that Internet users spend more time on social media sites than any other type of Internet site. This has changed the way news is shared, and even what consumers see as relevant information. As a result, consumers today are swayed far more by the influence of their online peers rather than expert authority. It’s led (among other things) to fewer permanent wine critic positions.

Prior to social media, readers and consumers turned to industrial media sources, and established wine critics for expert opinion. There was no access to the mass of information freely available today online. Expert opinion, then, was communicated via…

To read the rest of this article, head on over to the OUP site, where it appears free. Here’s the link: http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/wine-social-media/#sthash.L3OZN1AR.dpuf

Brown Bag Wine Tasting

As some of you know, I’m a fan of William Shatner‘s OraTV show Brown Bag Wine Tasting. It’s a perfect way to make wine accessible, fun, and bite sized – by channeling it through shorter segments that are a lot about personality.

Last season, Shatner interviewed all sorts of quirky folks from juggling clowns, to a sober marijuana dealer that had never tasted wine, to famous Hollywood actors.

This season, he’s brought the wine world into the heart of his wine show. He’s interviewed Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor of Food & Wine.

Ray Isle and William Shatner are both a ton of fun on camera so this is sure to be a good pairing.

Check it out!

For the complete episode: http://goo.gl/sEIHC8

Excited to see the new episodes!




Saveur Celebrates


Saveur Magazine, one of the nation’s top food publications, hosts an annual celebration of the top food and drinks blogs putting forth categories from Best Baking & Desserts to Best New Voice. This year they also celebrated drinks through multiple selections including Best Beer Coverage, Best Spirits or Cocktail Coverage, and Best Wine Coverage.

It’s fantastic to discover new sites each year through Saveur‘s blog award finalists. I’m excited too by the caliber of sites throughout this year’s selections.

In Best Wine Coverage six sites were selected, including my own. Here’s the link to vote: http://www.saveur.com/content/blog-awards-2015-vote

It’s so much fun to be named with these five people for wine as I feel as though we’re out their together in some virtual world having an ongoing party, enjoying each other’s favorite wines. They’re each people I already enjoy sharing such time with in person, or look forward to getting to know.

Here’s a brief look at each of the five other nominated sites, and what I appreciate about their work. Part of what I enjoy about blogs in general is that as you go in depth in the subject matter, you also form a virtual relationship with the writer. That couldn’t be more true than with Saveur‘s six wine blog selections. We’re a quite varied, while passionate bunch.

If you don’t know these sites already, you should! Check them out. Links are included below. The order here reflects the order Saveur used on their own voting page here: http://www.saveur.com/content/blog-awards-2015-vote

1. The Feiring Line

The Feiring Line

banner from The Feiring Line website

Alice Feiring proves to be one of wine’s greatest champions for less interventionist winemaking, alongside organic and biodynamic farming practices. Her work writing about wine has brought her around the world seeking examples of such technique, leading to two published books and another on the way celebrating her perspective in wine. As a result, she is also one of the most ready tasters of anyone for such wines, and has channeled her experience into a 9 per year newsletter looking closer at her favorite examples. On The Feiring LineAlice shares of the moment interviews and insights into producers such as recent examples like a 25 year vertical tasting of Corison Cabernet held in NYC, her reflection on the work of the recently passed Burgundy legend, Anne Claude Leflaive, or previously breaking news such as the trial of French vigneron Oliver Cousin. If you want to know more about the world of less interventionist wine, while gaining perspective on the people behind them, and falling in love with Alice’s decided and clear perspective, her site can guide you. Her newsletter is even better.

Here’s the link to The Feiring Line: http://www.alicefeiring.com

Here’s more info on her newsletter: http://www.alicefeiring.com/newsletter

2. Not Drinking Poison in Paris

Not Drinking Poison in Paris

banner from the not drinking poison in paris website

Having previously served as a sommelier, Aaron Ayscough now lives in Paris working in the world of fashion (so cool). His love for wine continues though and he has used his site Not Drinking Poison in Paris to champion the world of natural wine in France while also reporting on the arc of change he’s seen in the drinks’ scene in his new home city. Aaron’s simultaneously smart and clear writing has garnered him a dedicated following. His goals with the blog are to share the other side of the city – where people on vacation might not see, where movies never show – celebrating the drinks’ professionals devoted to what they do, and the work that gets them there, while also writing in depth profiles of producers he loves to love. My understanding is that Aaron is also working on a collection of essays for book publication. Keep an eye out for it. His writing is worth following.

Here’s the link to Not Drinking Poison in Parishttp://notdrinkingpoison.blogspot.com

For more on Aaron: http://imbibemagazine.com/qa-with-aaron-ayscough-of-not-drinking-poison-in-paris/

3. Wine. All the Time. 

Wine all the Time

banner from the Wine. all the time website

A little bit sexy, a little bit fun, a little bit all about wine, Marissa A. Ross brings together her background in comedy writing with her views on wine and a touch of the indulgence that helps make LA (where she lives) what we love – sunny, fashion, wine bottle selfies. With that combination, Marissa offers a uniquely friendly west coast perspective in her wine drinking commitments. Her site, Wine. all the time, also delivers wine insight from the perspective of a lifestyle blogger. That is, it’s not just reviews of wine. It’s reviews of wine in context – the context of how the wine makes you feel as well as how Marissa found it in the first place. With that we also get to glimpse behind the scenes of her travels (recently to Napa, for example), how she feels about her age, and what holidays, kissing, or gifts mean to her.

To check out Wine. all the time.http://www.wine-allthetime.com

For more about Marissa: http://marissaaross.com

4. Jameson Fink – Wine Without Worry

Wine Without Worry

banner from Jameson Fink – Wine Without Worry website

Bringing together his background in wine retail and wine service with a sense of playful insight in his writing, Jameson Fink knows how to reach what the consumer wants. His work on Jameson Fink – Wine Without Worry has brought him all over the world exploring the current trends of regions globally, while also launching him into editorial positions leading wine content in multiple top sites on the web. It’s his sense of insightful accessibility that drives his site’s devoted following – he knows a lot about wine and delivers that through jovial recommendation. To add another layer, Jameson has also taken forays into interviewing artists and creatives deepening his explorations in wine with thoughts from photographers, food afficianados, musicians and more. He also hosts a regular podcast series covering topics ranging from wines for summer, to wine with bbq, and in depth producer interviews. Jameson is the go-to blogger for Washington wine.

Check out Jameson Fink – Wine Without Worryhttp://jamesonfink.com

For his podcast: https://soundcloud.com/jameson-fink

5. Vinography: a wine blog


banner from Vinography: a wine blog website

Having began his site Vinography in 2004, Alder Yarrow has been blogging about wine almost longer than anyone else on the internet. His work has followed the evolving wine scene of California, as well as the restaurant scene of his home city, San Francisco, while also keeping up with wines around the globe. Indeed his site is as likely to host an in depth profile on a California producer as it is a wine tasting of the Douro Boys in Portugal, or one of the lead vigneron of France. He also keeps his readers updated on wine events happening in the Bay Area, and reports on the industry’s current news. In other words, his site is an impressive all arounder. In addition to his writing at Vinography, Alder writes a monthly column on American wine (looking primarily at California) for JancisRobinson.com. Recently his new book The Essence of Wine was named one of The New York Times top wine books of 2014.

To check out Vinographyhttp://www.vinography.com

To learn more about The Essence of Winehttp://www.vinography.com/essence_of_wine.html

6. Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews

Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews

banner from Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews website

Since you’re already here, I’ll spare you the summation of my own site. YOU’RE READING IT, silly.

In case you want to check out a bit more about me though…

To read more about my views on writing versus drawing about wine: http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/S=0/news/entry/elaine-chukan-brown-wins-frank-prial-fellowship

To learn more about how I fell in love with wine: http://imbibemagazine.com/interview-with-elaine-chukan-brown/

Vote Wine!

The Saveur awards are not only that fun virtual party where we all hang out drinking each other’s favorite wines (I’ve brought champagne from Bereche and Prevost, as well as Pinot Meunier from Eyrie and Best’s Great Western).

The awards are also a chance for you to get to know new websites worth reading. The other five featured here are among the best you will find anywhere on the web, so check them out to find more to enjoy about wine.

Now is your chance to vote wine. All six of us finalists would love you to pop on over to Saveur and vote wine! With these six sites you can’t lose.

Here’s the link: http://www.saveur.com/content/blog-awards-2015-vote


Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

W20Group.com Acquires VinTank 

W20 Group has acquired VinTank, the wine tech leader in social media analysis and communication. The purchase was just announced this morning.

“W2O is known for their analytics work. They can take a brand, look at all the social media data, identify that brand’s audience, and identify what they like so you can advertise smarter, and even predict future sales.” Paul Mabray, CEO and co-founder of VinTank, explains. “VinTank lets you communicate with them in real time. It completes the circle.”

Working with major brands such as Verizon, Intel, Red Bull, and Warner Bros., W20 Group has won multiple innovation awards for their work.

In purchasing VinTank, W20 Group gains unique technology that allows them to incorporate the next step in brand building. With VinTank software, W20 Group customers will be able to not only better understand their audience, but now also connect directly across social media platforms.

The acquisition proves significant for multiple reasons – This type of sale of a wine technology company is unprecedented. By combining the resources of W2O Group with the data of VinTank the insights into the wine industry to be gained should be monumental. The ability to communicate directly with customers that VinTank offers W2O Group will have reverberations far beyond wine.

Successful Wine Technology

This is the first time a company from completely outside the wine industry has purchased a wine technology company. VinTank effectively created software for the wine industry that can scale beyond the wine industry.

VinTank’s success in wine technology is unique. The wine industry proves to be one of the most difficult industries within which to successfully advance social media technologies due to the industry’s own resistance to such change, and most winery’s limited financial resources.

“I’m really grateful for the challenge of building this kind of technology within the wine industry.” Mabray says. “There was this sense of banging my head against the wall but that eventually gave insight into what we needed to do.”

Wine tech success stories are few. While many such companies have launched, very few have succeeded. Successful examples include Ship Compliant, Wine Direct, and VinTank itself.

Gary Vaynerchuck stands as another clear leader in wine technology, thanks to his early success with the Wine Library video series. However, it is significant to point out that Vaynerchuck’s current success is largely thanks to his quickly stepping outside the confines of wine itself.

What makes VinTank significant beyond the wine industry? 

“We’d already made software to work beyond wine,” Mabray explains. “But as a self funded company we needed to stay focused on wine so our attention wasn’t divided. Now the development conversation can expand and prove what the software can do both in and outside of wine.”

VinTank’s power beyond the wine industry rests first in how brands can communicate directly with customers. It also depends on VinTanks ease of use.

Currently, VinTank software pinpoints social media mentions for specific wine brands giving their customers the ability to identify who is talking about them, as well as the opportunity to communicate with those customers directly. Even more importantly, it allows you to communicate with those customers in real time.

If someone mentions a wine brand on Instagram, via the VinTank app that winery can respond in Instagram. Same with Twitter, Facebook, Delectable, blog platforms, and more.

Part of what makes VinTank so easy is that to have these conversations, wine brands don’t have to be logged into every social media platform. Instead, they can communicate across any of them from within the VinTank app.

Now imagine that same capability for any brand in any industry, not just wine.

In an age where customers more than ever want to feel directly connected, VinTank technology makes communicating directly with those customers possible. It also makes the noisy chaos of social media understandable.

As significant as the VinTank acquisition is for industry in general, it promises to change the wine industry as well.

The Next Step: Analysis

“We have the largest set of data on wine consumers in the industry,” Mabray points out. VinTank analyzes one million social media conversations about wine per day and has now for years. “I’ve always wanted to dig into that data but haven’t had the money to hire analysts. W2O already has data analysts in house.”

The insights into the wine industry made possible by this merger are unprecedented.

“We will be able to do things like predict variety popularity before a boom,” Mabray explains. “We will be able to predict leading regions, varieties, and brands based on social media interaction.”

Such analysis will also give insight into key influencers – the people that impact wine sales and increase interest in particular wines just by talking about them.

VinTank already has the ability to identify who the influencers are, and the impact of their message through how it spreads online. With W20 analysis, VinTank will also be able to predict new influencers before they happen.

Imagine companies being able to use such insight to connect with those influencers directly.

The Power of Influence

Part of what VinTank technology has already helped make clear is how influence in social media operates.

“We look at people that might not have a huge audience,” Mabray explains, “but whose audience listens tightly to what that person says.”

An individual with a small number of followers on social media could have more impact than someone with a much higher number of followers when at least two elements are in place – followers trust and act based on what the individual says, and the followers also influence others.

The point is simple – “Who influences the influencers?” Mabray points out. “We can identify not only who the key influencers are, but also who influences the influencers in microwaves from the side. Someone might be a key influencer, but who has direct lines to him or her” and influences his or her decisions?

The importance of such insight is crucial in the world of social media where key influencers might not even be known critics, but instead simply people that speak up about certain subjects like wine.

The Future of VinTank: A Commitment to the Wine Industry 

“W2O is committed to the wine industry, and we’re committed to staying,” Mabray explains. “James and I both live here [in Napa] with our families. We’re not going anywhere.”

While W2O Group is not a wine company, their purchase of VinTank includes a commitment to the wine industry. Indeed, VinTank has been looked at by other companies but part of what convinced VinTank to accept an offer from the W2O Group is its ongoing commitment to the wine industry.

What W2O offers the wine industry is greater resources. “They’re a company with resources, and they’re dedicating those to the wine industry.” Mabray explains. “We can now expand our work for the wine industry.”

VinTank’s Napa office will remain open.

VinTank CEO Paul Mabray will lead the business side of W2O Group’s software division for data driven engagement. VinTank CTO James Jory will lead the technology side of the same division.

“We’re essentially two sides of the same coin,” Mabray says. “We come together.”


To read more on the VinTank acquisition:

The official press release: http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150330005194/en/W2O-Group-Acquires-VinTank-Social-Engagement-CRM#.VRlDRVz4vFK

VinTank’s own blog post about it: http://www.vintank.com/2015/03/the-next-chapter/

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

I Rosati di deGusto Salento a Lazise per l’anteprima Chiaretto Bardolino

Earlier this month I traveled to Garda Lake in Italy’s Veneto to attend the Bardolino Anteprima. My main focus for the event, however, was in tasting the current releases of Rosati.

This year’s Anteprima brought a celebration of rosé made from Indigenous Italian varietals. With this in mind Chiaretto, from the Bardolino region’s grape Corvina, was poured. The Bardolino Consortium also invited the winemakers of Salento Rosato, rosé from Puglia’s Negroamaro. We were lucky enough to taste all of the current releases of both Salento Rosato and Chiaretto.

Italian media, I Move Puglia.TV, attended the Bardolino Anteprima and interviewed journalists on their impression of the wines. After finishing the comprehensive rosati tastings, they asked me to describe both wines — first the Salento, and then Chiaretto.

Here’s the interview.

Thank you to Francesca Angelozzi and Gianluca Lubelli for including me.

For more from I Move Puglia.TV check out their over view video here, with links to the other interviews: http://www.imovepuglia.tv/video/308-i-rosati-di-degusto-salento-a-lazise-per-l-anteprima-chiaretto-bardolino

Writing as Writers

selfishly stolen from Michael Alberty who no doubt selfishly thieved it from someone elseLast week wine writers and editors from around the world flew to Napa Valley for the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium to learn together how to better our work as writers.

We were urged by Dave McIntrye, wine writer of the The Washington Post, to remember that wine is the adjective that modifies the noun writer. Our job first is to write well.

Will Lyons of the Wall Street Journal urged, “If you want to keep your writing fresh, you need to read widely.” Then, continuing, he chided lightly, “keep your writing fresh, enthusiastic, and bright, but that will only get you so far. You also have to research.”

Writing About Wine

Turning specifically to our work as writers of wine, S. Irene Virbila, food critic and wine reviewer of The Los Angeles Times, pushed into the personal, advising us, “find a way to go back to that emotional core when you first discovered wine. Give people that experience somehow.”

For Virbila, one way to accomplish that is to consider that we “have a relationship with wine. It is not the same with every sip.” (Cathy Huyghe explores this idea in her review of a fictitious good wine below.)

As lovers of wine, that relationship is no small piece. Our love of wine pulls us back again and again, elongating those moments of our nose in the glass. We can deliver that intimacy to our readers but go too far and our work becomes too precious.

Considering her work writing for a general audience in a daily newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, Virbila reminded us to “never forget how many people never think about wine.” In a position like that of a newspaper wine writer, she explained that we are asked to “convince a wider audience why they should even be interested in wine.”

Remembering Relevance

Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, reminded us at the end of his keynote speech that for writing about wine to be accessible to that broader audience we must remove it from its privileged lifestyle.

Wine becomes relevant when we take it out of the wealth and comfort of the finest wine country, and return it to the tables of any home.

To explicate, Collins (half joking) pointed to the most relevant of writing, the obituary. “I know obituaries very well,” he said, “better than wine.” His point, ultimately, “break that circle. Reach a non specialist audience.”

The Billy Collins Writing Challenge

Finally, Collins presented the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium with a writing challenge. The point was to generate quality writing while also making fun of our own conventions.

The assignment? He invited every attendee (there were 50 of us, along with 20 or so speakers and coaches) to write an over-the-top wine review for an imaginary wine in one or both of two categories.

(1) A good review for a wine that gives “spiritual transcendence,” is “orgasmic,” and “life transforming.”

(2) A bad review for “an absolutely damning” wine “demeaning to your spirit”

At the end of the week he selected both a 1st and 2nd place winner for each category. Here they are.

Over the Top Wine Reviews

Billy Collins Writing Challenge Bad Asseswinners of the Billy Collins Writing Challenge
from left: me, Fred Swan, Billy Collins, Kort van Bronkhorst, Cathy Huyghe

Second Place: the Good Wine, Cathy Huyghe

In the glass, there is a nuance of color. On the nose, it evolves as time passes. It’s meant to. It’s meant to breathe, and expand and contract, and stretch its legs. There is something on the nose that rings a bell in my memory. In the mouth, it has something to say. It takes a stand. It has an opinion, and it is not afraid to say it. Sometimes it wants the spotlight — it earns it, and deserves it. But, over time, it takes a step back too, to self-deprecate, to tease, to hide, to beguile, to make me want to come back for more. And every time I do come back, every sip, is different. That too is how it’s meant to be. It leaves me with a taste in my mouth of, “Oh.” And “Oh. Yes, I get it.”

Second Place: the Bad Wine, Elaine Chukan Brown

Reeper Vineyards 2013 “Chariot” Sauvignon Blanc – pungent presentation of sea cucumber, grandma’s feet, and the dust from Shakespeare’s first edition. 14.5% $120

First Place: the Bad Wine, Fred Swan

It starts with a cringe-inducing, sphincter-puckering screech of rusty iron on rusty iron. Then comes impact: a sudden, heavy blow to the mouth. There’s the taste of blood and gravel, the feel of shattered glass on the tongue. Burning diesel, overturned soil and the pungent earthiness of one hundred pairs of pants filled by panic assault the nose. One’s throat burns and, eye’s watering, victims drag themselves along the floor looking for safety and water. The 2009 Chateau de Plonk is a a Bordelaise train wreck. 65 points.

First Place: the Good Wine, Kort van Bronkhorst

Toasted Head Cannabis Sauvignon

Oh Em Gee. This is a mind-blowing wine! Wooooooo! In the glass, it’s like a magenta kaleidoscope of shimmering, uh, wineness. On the nose, it reeks (and I mean that in a good way) of stoned fruits and wet earth. And if ever a wine was herbaceous, it’s this one. In the mouth, it turned my tongue into Playland at the Beach. Especially the Fun House. Yeah. Wow. Look at my head in that mirror! And Dudes, you really must pair this wine with food. Lots and lots of food. Like especially Taquitos, and Cheese Puffs, and that Munchie Pack that Jack in the Box serves after 11pm. Awright awright awright! Best of all, it’s only $4.20 a bottle, but I highly recommend getting a magnum so you can pass it around at your next party.


Thank you to Cathy, Fred, and Kort for letting me share their pieces here.

Funny thing. It occurs to me only now that Kort and I both wrote about Sauvignon though with entirely opposite reactions. Cheers!

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Happy Holidays from Jr & I

with Jrwith Jr this spring

It’s time to take my end of year break here on Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews. I’ll be slowing down my time on social media as well, only occasionally sharing updates from work elsewhere. You can still reach me by email.

In the meantime, I’ll be tidying up other work projects, and most importantly spending time with my little family — Jr, and our dear pets.

My heart goes out to those grieving the loss of loved ones this holiday season. My thoughts are with all of us as we face the unrest that comes with important change. May we each find our way forward to peace.

See you in 2015!


I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air…. A riot is the language of the unheard.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In recognition of the mourning our nation continues to face after the Ferguson verdict, this week’s column has been postponed until next week.

May we all find within ourselves the courage, calm, and compassion needed to face these challenges honestly, and move forward for positive, equitable change.

My best to everyone who is enjoying time with family and friends during the holiday this week here in the United States.


Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For those looking for ways to help, here are a few donation sites that can assist people in Ferguson.

Schools are closed right now in Ferguson. Donate to the Ferguson Public Library, which has remained open for area children. Every bit helps. http://ferguson.lib.mo.us/

Schools in the region suffer massive under-funding. Though schools are closed this week in the midst of the turmoil, they reopen after the holiday. Choose from a range of classroom projects to assist area teachers. http://www.donorschoose.org/help-right-now-in-ferguson?id=20522545&active=true

The Foodbank has greatly increased its aid in the Ferguson area to help people particularly affected by the events of this week. To learn more, visit the St Louis Food Bank website, and to donate write “Ferguson” in the comments section of your donation. http://stlfoodbank.org/

For those looking for more information on the reality of the situation, excellent, very real coverage can be found by Antonio French on Twitter. He is live tweeting events from Ferguson, while also retweeting information from others worth following. https://twitter.com/AntonioFrench



Help small business bakery & shop looted during the Ferguson riots continue and rebuild: Natalie’s Cakes & More. http://www.gofundme.com/NataliesCakesnMore