Category Archives: Wine

Mastering Differences Between California Cabernet Blend & Barolo


I live in Vail Valley, Colorado. It’s a very special gastronomic community filled with creative chefs and talented sommeliers. We are blessed to count Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Vail Resorts‘ Mountain Dining Beverage Director, among the oenological dwellers of our valley. That means whenever I am in need of oenological wisdom, Sean is my “go-to” professional. Needless to say, his tireless support of local charities in planning and executing their fundraising dinners is a delight to witness.

While writing a chapter in my book “A Labor of Love: Wine Women of Piemonte,” I got I stuck on a question regarding the differences between California Cabernet Blends and Barolo. My ability to explain the differences leads me, an attorney, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line, “I know it when I see and taste it.” So who better to turn to than Sean for a more detailed explanation? No one in my universe is better at mastering differences between these two wines.

What I got was a 455 word education. And this is one education I definitely wanted to share. Sean graciously agreed to allow me to guest post his response to my question. I hope you enjoy the primer. I certainly did!


“How would you describe the difference between a California Cabernet Blend and Barolo?”

Sean Razee:

Immense differences exist between California Cabernet Blend and Barolo. These differences are apparent in the color, flavor profile and structure of the wines. Some differences are due to climate differences between California’s Napa Valley and the northwest Italian region of Piemonte (specifically the Langhe). Differences in vinification also make the wines distinct from one another.

California Cabernet Blend

I would describe a California Cabernet Blend (in youth) as a deep ruby color with black fruits (currant, plum, cherry).

There should be a whiff of green herbs (tobacco, mint) with dark chocolate and coffee. The oak on the wine is prominent, displaying new French oak barrels (smoke, toast, vanilla, baking spices). Earthiness is not prominent.

The structure of the wine is medium-plus to high tannin (silky) medium to medium-plus acidity, with medium-plus to high alcohol.

Cabernet is a thick-skinned grape of high color pigmentation. The vinification methods used in production extract large amounts of tannin from the skins. A fruity and a silky, smooth palate dominates the wine. The tannin in a California Cabernet Blend tends to be “fully ripe” which gives the wine’s tannin a silky feeling on the palate.


For Barolo (made from 100% Nebbiolo), the color is more garnet to light ruby with red fruits as opposed to black fruits (cherry, raspberry, pomegranate). The fruits are sometimes both ripe and dried (with some age). There can sometimes be notes of spice, anise, tar, leather, and balsamic. Notes of volatile acidity are common giving the wines a lifted, perfumey aroma. Some producers are using some new French barrels, adding the corresponding flavor profile of those barrels. However, the traditional production methods do not lend oak to the flavor profile.

Unlike a California Cabernet Blend, a Barolo might be bone dry, with high tannin, high acidity and medium-plus to high alcohol.

Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned grape with light color that contradicts the wine’s weight and aggressive tannin. It is highly aromatic and driven by non-fruit characters. Unlike the tannin in a California Cabernet Blend that possesses silkiness virtually upon release, the tannin in Barolo may need years to soften. This is historically why Barolo was required by law to age for many years before release. With today’s viticultural and vinification techniques though, this has changed a bit and Barolo is becoming much more approachable in its youth.

This last part of my Nebbiolo description (underlined) leads to why many people who like new world, California Cabernets do not like Barolo. For a person that wants a “smooth” wine, with high color, high extraction, high fruit content, high alcohol, silky tannins and some sweetness to the wine, Barolo is almost the antithesis of this model. Barolo is light colored, highly aromatic, is non-fruit driven, and has an aggressive tannin and acid profile.

– Sean Razee, Master Sommelier

Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining. Photo credit: Vail Resorts
Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining.
Photo credit: Vail Resorts

For more information on Sean Razee, please visit my profile of him, “Courting Sommelier Excellence.” 

Barolo from famed producer Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli.
Barolo from famed producer Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli. Photo Credit: Alisha Quinn Bosco
Schweiger Vineyards' "Dedication," an example of one of Napa Valley's distinctive California Cabernet Blends.
Schweiger Vineyards’ “Dedication,” an example of one of Napa Valley’s distinctive California Cabernet Blends. Photo credit: Schweiger Vineyards

Italian Wine Families’ Big Brother


Today, across wine regions of Europe, wine families are under the crushing weight of over-regulation. Big Brother is an unwanted participant in the wine industry, particularly in Italy.

Unlike large wineries that can afford the high cost of labor and hire dedicated administrative staff, small to medium size family-owned wineries struggle to tend to their vineyards, make wine and comply with the albatross of regulations from the European Union and Italy bureaucracy. Oh, did I mention trying also to raise a family and have a life?

A list of Italian wine industry regulatory bodies that can at a moment’s notice conduct snap inspections on the wineries include:

  • CCIAA Camera di Commercio (Chamber of commerce)
  • Provincia Ufficio Ispettorato Agrario (Provincial office of agricultural inspection)
  • Regione Assessorato Agricoltura (Regional department of agriculture)
  • Valoritalia – Ente Certificatore (DOC, DOCG, IGA, etc)
  • ASL (Unità Sanitaria Locale) (Local health department)
  • NAS (Nuclea anti-Sofisticazioni dei Carabinieri) (Anti-adulturation police)
  • ICQRF (Ufficio Repressione Frodi) (Fraud office)
  • Dognana (Customs)
  • Corpo Forestale dello Stato (State forestry department)
  • Guardia di Finanza (think IRS!)
  • Agenzia delle Entrate (Inland revenue – again, think IRS!)

It doesn’t matter if regulators arrive in the midst of time-critical work in the vineyards or cellars.  Nothing takes priority over the controllers. Although like Mother Nature the government requires immediate attention, the latter can be quite unreasonable if its needs are not met.

Labor is extremely expensive in Italy.  Family owned  wineries and restaurants have been forced to reduce staff. Volunteer labor – once part of the cultural beauty of the Italian harvest – is strictly forbidden. If you happen to be in Piemonte during the harvest and  see helicopters flying overhead, it’s not National Geographic taking photos, but the government’s labor controllers. They compare the work sheets of farmers with aerial photos. If the numbers in the latter are greater than the numbers reported, crushing fines are imposed on the farmers. The result? Wine family members must be able to attend to all demands of the winery both internally and externally. And I haven’t even mentioned the market demands they must tend to in order to sell their wines.

I have to wonder how an industry that has been around since before the Romans could survive without governmental regulations. But it did. With no sign of a halt to the expansion of European Union and Italian government regulations, let’s hope the industry – particularly the artisanal family wineries – can survive the suffocating weight of bureaucracy.

Note: For an interesting discussion on the history of wine regulation in Europe, read “On the History and Political Economy of Wine Regulations in Europe” by Giulia Meloni and Johan F.M. Swinnen

Courting Sommelier Excellence

Sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers, helping diners discover the perfect match for a chef’s creation from candidates presented on a restaurant’s wine list.
Digging into their gustatory toolboxes of aromas and tastes accumulated from years of tasting repetition and a vast wine knowledge, sommeliers can create happy marriages between wine and food, transforming an otherwise mundane process of eating into joyful gastronomic adventures. Add to that an intriguing story or two about the wine’s origins or its producer, sommeliers can work magic converting liquid in a glass from a mere drink into to something to savor and remember. The wine comes alive as its tastes and aromas become part of the diner’s own catalogue of dining memories.

The seeds of the profession sprouted in 14th century England. Sommeliers had humble beginnings as wine procurers for royalty and the aristocracy. Although the job description of a sommelier has evolved over time, sommeliers are still humble servants. At least that’s philosophy of one of the world’s most respected wine education organizations, the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Personally – and I’m stepping out on Captain Hook’s plank here – I find the mystique, pop culture and wealth that’s part of the wine industry increasingly breeds an attitude that isn’t always synergistic with the concept of service. Ok, let’s just say it as it is. Some of the industry’s newer members – sommeliers, bottle shop employees and wine reps included – are wine snobs. I said “some,” not all, so don’t get frazzled. I venture to say that I doubt I’m alone in my observation. I even hear it from winemakers whose wines grace the upper echelons of many top restaurants’ wine lists. It baffles them that some of those on the far end of the chain of commerce don’t share their own humility. Many with lesser knowledge – most notably the ones buying the product – often feel intimidated. Certainly not a way to cultivate wine appreciation.

But through the expanding popularity and reach of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ certification program, the humble, agrarian beginnings of wine increasingly are reflected in the service demeanor of sommeliers responsible for connecting the last link in the chain between producer and consumer. If Mensa had a wine and spirits subgroup, it would count amongst its members Master Sommeliers whose years of grueling studies and training helped them reach the rarefied air of the world’s top wine professionals.

Master Sommelier Fred Dame, founder of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers
Master Sommelier Fred Dame, founder of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers Photo Credit: Court of Master Sommeliers

If I haven’t gone off the end of the plank yet and you’re still with me, I’d like to introduce you to a wine genius with whom I’ve also had the pleasure of working with on a wonderful epicurean fundraising event for the Roundup River Ranch camp for seriously ill children. Master Sommelier Sean Razee.

Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining. Photo credit: Vail Resorts
Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining.
Photo credit: Vail Resorts

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing this tall, quiet humblest of humble sommeliers who resides in Vail Valley.  I’m working on my certification – Level II – to enhance my ability to tell winemakers’ and wine professionals’ stories, so I decided to write about the experience in the certification program. Sean helped me round the corners and smooth the edges of my article.

I interviewed Sean about his own journey to the pinnacle of the wine industry. The interview unearthed some fascinating insights and raised my level of appreciation of sommeliers’ role in connecting vintners with consumers.

As of November 2014, 220 professionals earned the title Master Sommelier since the first exam in London in 1969. One hundred forty of those Masters earned their title in North America. In case you’re a statistics geek, 119 are men and 21 are women. Colorado is home to 12 Master Sommeliers. Sean Razee is one of those 12.

In his first words of his intriguing article in Aspen Peak Magazine, journalist Douglas Brown states, “Aspen boasts more master sommeliers per capita than any other city in the US.” Not a surprising statistic based on Aspen’s prowess as the Rocky Mountain culinary capital which hosts one of the nation’s best food and wine festivals each June. Another reason is Aspen is home to a temple of epicurean pleasures – The Little Nell – and home to an oracle of wine that professionals from all over the world seek. More about him in a minute. For several decades, Colorado has been a Mecca for aspiring sommeliers and where Sean reached a fork in his career path that lead him to the Court of Master Sommeliers’ program.

Like so many who follow the same path Sean discovered in Colorado, wine culture was not a part of his upbringing in California. In the mid-1990s, Sean finished his studies in food science at Long Beach State University. Many believe – myself included – that wine is bottled poetry, art, literature and spirituality. So it’s no surprise Sean relished studying language, art and religion in university and continues expanding his knowledge today. Soon after receiving his degree, however, serendipity directed Sean’s career steps to the wine world.

Sean’s interest in wine blossomed during wine country adventures with friends. Sean admitted, “I didn’t know what I was drinking, but I loved the experience and wanted to learn more.” His quest for knowledge took Sean to Colorado for the winter of 1996-1997 when he worked at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek. It was there his discovery of the “all-encompassing aspect of wine in the restaurant setting” nudged him closer to the wine industry.

One season turned into another and soon Sean’s expanding experience and responsibilities at Beano’s led him to explore wine career options. Using his background in food science as a springboard, it made sense to apply to UC Davis’ graduate oenology program. Fate, however, had different plans for him.

In 2002, Sean became wine director at Spago’s in the newly opened Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. The job prompted him to defer his oenology studies a few years. Not surprisingly, Sean never made it to UC Davis. He discovered another wine industry career path existed. Although he already had many years of experience under his belt, Sean wanted formal training and certification. Enter Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher.

Many who now hold the esteemed title “Master Sommelier” and the two levels of certification below it owe their success to Jay Fletcher. Like Sean, Jay didn’t make a beeline to sommelier training. However, in London in 1996, after nearly 15 years of working his way up the restaurant industry ladder in Aspen and arduous studies, Jay received his Master Sommelier Certification, becoming the 30th American to achieve the distinctive title. The Madison, Wisconsin native who once hitchhiked his way to Colorado – as friend Ilan Baril recently wrote in The Juice, “to ski, hang out with a good-looking woman and have a drink or two” – then became a sought-after sage who drew aspiring sommeliers from across the globe to Aspen.

Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher (left) and Master Sommelier Wayne Belding. Photo Credit: Court of Master Sommeliers
Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher (left) and Master Sommelier Wayne Belding.
Photo Credit: Court of Master Sommeliers

The timing was perfect. Sean wanted to pursue certification with the Court and Jay’s work educating candidates was beginning. Sean told me he chose the Court’s program because of its international recognition as the fastest growing wine certification program in America and that a service component comprises one-third of the exam. “You need to be able to talk about the wine and serve it properly,” Sean said.

Wine tools are as precious to sommeliers as sharp knives are to chefs. Photo Credit: Sergio Howland
Wine tools are as precious to sommeliers as sharp knives are to chefs.
Photo Credit: Sergio Howland

Sean began making frequent trips to Aspen to taste wines with Jay and absorb the knowledge he graciously shared. The experience brought him in contact with other masters’ candidates. By 2006, Sean took the grueling, three-part masters’ exam.

Given this is one of the most demanding exams in the wine world with a meager passage rate of 8%, candidates have three years from the first attempt to successfully complete all three sections. For Sean, he passed service in his first attempt. Mind you, this isn’t “open a bottle and pour some wine” sort of service exam. It’s even more difficult than that on the Level II exam. To give you an idea, take the most difficult service scenarios imaginable, make them even worse, and you might have the degree of herculean service difficulty that candidates have to master to be Masters.

Two years later, Sean passed the remaining two sections – theory and blind tasting – in Healdsburg, California. With his wife Jennifer and daughter Noelle present, in 2008 Sean proudly received his well-deserved title, Master Sommelier.

It didn’t take long before Sean, like Jay before him, became immersed in the opportunity to educate certification aspirants. Today, as director of Vail Resorts’ Mountain Dining beverage program, Sean no longer has many opportunities to “work the floor” and be that last link between winemaker and consumer, but he does stay active in his mentoring of certification candidates.

Sommeliers help chefs pair wines and then set up well-polished wine glasses, open and taste bottles of fine wine as prelude to an wine tasting dinner. Fine wines like Chiara Boschis' E. Pira e  Figli 2009 Barolo Via Nuovo deserve attention and tender loving care when serving.
Planning wine dinners takes a great deal of preparation. Sommeliers help chefs meticulously pair wines. They  set up well-polished wine glasses, open and taste bottles of fine wine as prelude to a wine tasting dinner. Fine wines like Chiara Boschis’ E. Pira e Figli 2009 Barolo Via Nuovo deserve attention and tender loving care when serving. Photo Credit – Alisha Quinn Bosco

In conclusion, I asked Sean to share with me some of his insights he conveys to his protégés.

The Court’s mission, in Sean’s opinion, is to (1) educate sommeliers, (2) create standards of service and (3) “impart humility.” There’s that humility component again, something no doubt difficult to maintain in the heady world of wine. But Sean credits his own humble roots to keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.

The program requires candidates to learn a wide breath of information that often goes far beyond one’s focus and interests. Perhaps amassing knowledge of little known wine regions isn’t as sexy as zeroing in on Bordeaux and Bourgogne, but it’s what makes Masters’ expertise so special. Sean sees this as a way to achieve a high level of broad wine knowledge thereby creating well-rounded wine and spirits professionals.

The cellar at Il Centro in Priocca d'Alba Italy is lovingly tended by father and son sommelier team Enrico and Giampiero Cordero.
The cellar at Il Centro in Priocca d’Alba Italy is lovingly tended by father and son sommelier team Enrico and Giampiero Cordero.

Sean’s own personal mission is to mentor candidates, “impart humility” and help them develop their own skills.

One of the most interesting insights I gleaned from Sean was his perspective on wine as part of everyday life. Yes, there are “icon wines” that are rare treasures, but he respects wine as an agricultural product that in so many cultures is “a grocery that sits on the table during meals and becomes part of daily life.”

Like Sean, I admire the farmer-winemakers who toil in the vineyards, bring the grapes home safely and then perform alchemical magic in their cellars. They bear the greatest risk, but have the lowest margins in the chain of commerce between their vines and consumers’ glasses. In the northern hemisphere, theirs are stories of hailstorms in August, of frost in early May, of rain on the grapes in October. Disproportionately more than anyone else in the chain of vinous commerce, wine producers bear the burden of volatile currency markets, energy cost spikes and economic crashes.

It’s that final link where Sean Razee speaks for the producers, adding a heightened level of appreciation and understanding of the precious liquid he pours. Whether he’s serving a humble bottle of a lower priced wine on his list or a treasure from Vosne-Romanée, Sean cherishes the vintners’ stories he happily shares with clients. He’s a golden link, a humble representative of the producers in that long chain between vineyard and glass as he makes happy marriages between food and wine.

I have no idea how far I’ll get in my quest for Level II certification. There are huge challenges awaiting my 57-year-old nose in the blind tasting and my arthritic hands when confronted with opening and serving a bottle of champagne in the service exam. But I have to admit, the trip down the path to the exam has already brought me a greater understanding of and appreciation for the men and women who insure winemakers do not toil in vain to create vinous magic. Sommeliers, I’ve discovered through knowing Sean and learning from Jay in my Level I class, are great historians. Every time they pour a glass of wine and tell its back story, they honor the winemakers and keep the magic alive. Yes, sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers and theirs is a labor of love. 

Photo Credit: Sergio Howland
Photo Credit: Sergio Howland