SF Wine Blog

Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.


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Less tasting, more drinking. Less descriptors, more emotion.

There are few things I dislike more in the wine world than the infatuation with tasting notes. It seems like every aspiring wine fan wants to sniff, swirl, taste their way to identifying “hints of cassis,” “leather,” or “barnyard” in their glass. Take for example this article in the New York Times, where the writer (a self-described wine novice) notes that by the end of his time in Napa, he was “sensing cherry, and a note of cinnamon” in his wine and described that as “progress.”

My dislike of tasting notes isn’t just limited to the obscure references to “stewed figs,” which my friend David White excoriated in a recent post. It’s the overall fascination new wine drinkers have with the parlor game of spewing out descriptors every time they pick up a glass of wine.

My advice to folks interested in learning more about wine: stop glorifying the need to identify what part of the produce section you can identify in a wine, and focus on identifying and seeking out wines that excite you.

Now, I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I can see why wine aficionados use tasting notes to differentiate between wines so they can remember what they had or to be able to exchange ideas about different wines, different regions, etc. I even understand why avid cooks might find these types of tasting notes helpful so they can be thoughtful about food and wine pairings. So yes –there’s a time and a place for the traditional tasting note.

But even the most experienced drinker, even the wine professional, when drinking wine, has an emotional reaction to it, and that is more relevant in some ways than a lengthy list of descriptors.

Before I delve into that theory, I want to point out why I emphasized “drinking” in the last paragraph. My fourth grade teacher was fond of saying, “There’s a time for work, and there’s a time for play.” Tasting is work. It involves sipping and analyzing. Drinking is different. Drinking is play. It’s pleasure. It’s sitting back, pulling the cork, and maybe pulling a few more just ‘cause. And, while I have absolutely no data to back up this claim, I would venture to guess that the vast majority of wines consumed (whether it be your supermarket wine or the trophy bottles) are drunk, not tasted.

So let’s get back to the emotional reaction to wine. Even the most studied wine professional enjoys wine at a very base, emotional level. You can see it in their facial expression when they take a sip. You might even notice some certain head movements, a slight lifting of the chin or raising of an eyebrow, to signal that the wine surprised them in some way.

The more animated drinkers might have a more obvious physical reaction to wine. During a trip through France in 2012, Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts from Arnot-Roberts picked up the “side fist pump” as a signal for wines they enjoyed. This sign language caught on in certain circles.

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Hardy Wallace, who tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve, has a certain little chicken wing thing he does when he has an exciting wine, which sometimes evolves into a full-out running man/cabbage patch hybrid.

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(photo from DirtySouth Wine Flickr Page).

Peoples’ reaction to great wine can sometimes be surprising. Earlier this year, I had a group of friends over for dinner, all folks involved in the production or sale of wine. There were at least two bottles per person open on the table by the time we moved on to the main course. Let’s just say we were all “happy,” conversation was flowing, and the decibel level rising. My friend Max breaks out a bottle of 1990 Peter Lauer Riesling Sekt, and we each pour ourselves out a glass, raise a toast, take a sip, and fall silent. The wine was that spectacular. There were no words.

We all have our little thing we do that’s just a pure, emotional reaction to something we enjoy. Embrace that. Make that your tasting note. Focus on identifying and seeking out what wines bring that out in you. That (more than the number or creativity of the descriptors you can spit out) shows you truly can appreciate wine.


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ZAP Ticket Giveaway

Raise your hand if you like free stuff.

Oh, sorry:  had to put my hands down to keep typing.

We’re  excited to announce a ticket give away for the upcoming ZAP Zinfandel Festival (January 27-29, 2011).  We have a pair of tix to the Thursday Night Good Eats & Zin Pairing event, and two pairs of tix for the Saturday Grand Tasting.  Here’s a run down of the events:

THURSDAY GOOD EATS & ZIN PAIRING EVENT: Zin-focused wineries pair up with restaurants and food purveyors to offer a spectacular evening of gluttonous fun.  Thermidor, A-16, Town Hall will be there serving up the grub, and wine legends like Ridge and Grgich Hills will be pouring the juice along with talented new comers like Bedrock Wine–and that’s just to name a few.  Check out the full line up here.  Tix usually go for $100 a piece.  January 27, 2011 from 6pm – 9pm at Fort Mason

SATURDAY GRAND TASTING: Year in, year out, this is one of the best attended wine events in the city, bringing together close to 200 wineries that bottle up Cali’s signature varietal.  I’m particularly excited that Bedrock, Brown Estate, Carlisle, Ridge, Turley, and Valdez will all be in the house.  Tix usually go for $70 a piece.  More info here.  January 29, 2011 from 2pm-5pm at Fort Mason.

There are two ways to win:

1.  BECOME AN SFWINE EMAIL SUBSCRIBER: Check out that lil’ “Sign me up!” button to the right of your screen, click on it, and receive email updates on new blog entries on our site.  All subscribers as of 12:01a.m. on Tuesday, January 25 will be given one entry into our raffle.  Tell your friends to subscribe too (just make sure they’re willing to give you their extra ticket if they win the drawing!)

2.  SUBMIT A COMMENT: Derek and I will be writing short posts about memorable wine from this past year.  Tell us about your favorite wine moment by leaving a comment (along with your email address) and you’ll be entered to win a pair of tix.

[Oh, and zin fans:  K&L Wines is touting a pretty serious deal on a 2006 Rosenblum St. Peters Church Vyd (Sonoma County) Zin.  You can read their review here.  This bottle usually goes for $50, and is being sold for $19.99].


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So Many Wines, So Little Time

(or, Tips for Navigating a Wine Festival)

Written by Derek Mims

Family Winemakers Tasting 8/22/2010

Walking into a large-scale wine event can be both amazing and overwhelming.  As I walked into the Family Winemakers tasting at Fort Mason back in August, I was confronted by a huge warehouse-size space containing tables from over 325 wineries!  The picture I took from the balcony will give you some idea of the scope of the event.  Also realize that each winery was pouring, on average, 4-5 different wines.  That’s a lot of tasting to do!  Of course, that’s way more wines than you could sample over a few days, much less in the few hours of the event.  Next week’s Top 100 Tasting is going to provide a similar conundrum: What’s an oenophile to do?

My first tip is “Have a plan.”  It doesn’t have to be formal, and of course there will be diversions and digressions, but have some idea of how you’re going to attack this behemoth.  Many times, the website of the event will list the wineries that are scheduled to be present, and often the list will include which wines they will be pouring.

Maybe you’ve heard of some specific wineries and want to be sure to try their products.  Perhaps you want to taste as many different Syrahs as possible, allowing you to compare wines of a single varietal.  Or maybe you want to seek out more unique varietals you’ve never tried before, so you look for tables offering things like Verdelho, Arneis, Counoise, and Lagrein (all of which were available at Family Winemakers, by the way).

Continuing the theme of pre-planning, the second tip is to be sure your body is ready for a lot of wine!  That means eating a decent meal before the tasting event, and drinking a lot of water before, during and after it, as well.

Now for the third tip, and this is important: “Don’t be afraid to spit!”  There’s no way to get the most out of the event if you consume everything you taste.  I’m not saying you should spit everything; you’re there to have fun, and as long as you’re not driving, a little buzz isn’t a bad thing.  But it’s WAY too easy to get too drunk too fast, and then you’re not only missing out on tasting more delicious wines, you may also find yourself spending too much time in the bathroom or parking lot.  I’ve seen this happen (to other people, of course), and it’s not fun.

So, what is the approved etiquette here?  Well, don’t just tell the server to give you a small pour; that would mean cheating yourself out of fully experiencing the sight and smell of the wine in your glass, as well as an opportunity for a second taste.  So go with a standard pour.  The wine professionals at these events fully expect people to spit, and they will not take it as a critique of their wine.  So, after you’ve swished the wine around your mouth a few times, politely spit it into a separate cup (often provided at these things) or into a nearby dump bucket (almost always provided at these things).

When you find a wine you really like (or just feel like you need refreshment) that’s the time to polish off a glass.  Most pourers will be happy to give you a second taste of something, especially when you express how excellent it is.

Okay, last one: “Have fun!”  This might seem obvious, but too often I’ve run into people at tasting events who are too concerned with sticking to their exact plan or too anxious to show off how much they know that they miss out on opportunities to try new things, meet new people, and learn something new!  So don’t feel like you have to try all the whites before any of the reds, and keep an eye out for wineries or labels that might interest you.  And realize that, yes, your teeth are just as purple as everyone else’s!


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Wine Events: A look ahead to Jan. 2010

With everyone getting ready for the holidays, there’s a drop in the number of wine-related activities over the next couple of weeks.  But this will gives us all some time to rest up before January sweeps in with a slew of wine sippin’ events.  Here’s a look ahead to the new year.

Happy Holidays!

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Sat.-Sun., Jan. 16-17: Russian River Valley’s Winter Wineland (Sonoma)
1pm – 5pm
Multiple Wineries

$40 for both days/ $30 Sun. only

I love the Russian River Valley – rolling hills, beautiful farm land, and–oh yeah–great wine. Lots of the areas pinot and zin producers (including some up in the Dry Creek Valley) are participating.   Many places will be pouring new releases and library wines.

Buy your tickets in advance (before Jan. 11) by going here.

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K&L Wine Merchants

Sun., Jan. 17:  K&L’s Fete du Bourdeaux (FiDi, SF)
One Market Restaurant
San Francisco, CA

$199/person

Tasting followed by dinner, and featuring some amazing producers.  This ain’t a cheap event, but its a really impressive line up, if you can swing it.  Special guests:  Anthony Barton of Langoa- and Léoville-Barton, Jean-Bernard Delmas and Nicolas Glumineau of Montrose, and Jean Charles Cazes of Lynch-Bages. THIS EVENT WILL SELL OUT.

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Thurs.-Sat., Jan. 28-30:  ZAP 19th Annual Zinfandel Festival (Fort Mason, SF)
Fort Mason
San Francisco, CA

Multiple events; Saturday’s Zin tasting is $59 (in advance)

The premier event in the country for those who choose to live in Zin.  Multiple events each day, with the grand tasting (featuring over 250 wineries) being held on Saturday.  Hint:  buy your tickets early, and show up as soon as the gates open for the grand tasting.

A few producers I’m always happy to see:  Acorn, Orin Swift, Ridge, Turley

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