Friends, colleagues, and followers know I get irked by “Best of…” or “Top (pick a number) Wines/Restaurants.” The other thing that irks me is a heavily reliance on scores that goes something like this from my community newsletter regarding a Christmas wine tasting:
“_______ Liquors will present wines that have SCORED OVER 90 POINTS and are under $30 per bottle.” (Emphasis added)
Ok, I get the “under $30” part, but why oh why do I so often see “over 90 points” in advertisements? It’s a tasting, so can’t the liquor store curate some delicious wines that aren’t necessarily rated?
Now, before I get in trouble (again) with a certain executive editor, let me clarify that I am not dissing ratings…well, not exactly. All I am saying is that there is much more to discovering new wines than by relying solely on big scores. And let’s face it, wine is all about the experience, so why not begin that experience with your search for new vinous excitement in your life?
Back to the community newsletter invitation to taste.
Needless to say, whose ratings are we talking about in the first place? What about Italian wines that received Tre Bicchieri or 5 Grappoli from highly regarded Italian wine guides? Three glasses and five bunches of grapes carry a great deal of weight in Italy. Or what about wines like Nadia Curto‘s family’s Barolo Arborina 2014 that was just cited by Jancis Robinson in the Financial Times as one of her recommended wines for Christmas. I challenge journalists not to wait for a cold day in the Netherworld before you taste the Curto family’s wines, and those of other wineries — many of them run by women — flying below the radar.
Some producers may nail down well-deserved high scores for their top wines, but their entries further down the price list are often not scored. Don’t miss out on those! This is particularly so for Langhe Nebbiolo, Nebbiolo d’Alba, and Roero Nebbiolo, and Barbera, particularly in favorable vintages. And those are just some reds. Don’t miss the previously obscure Langhe Riesling or the incredible metodo classico bubbles coming from the region, particularly Alta Langa, I wrote about recently.
Ah, but the secrets that Piemonte holds for those who do not live by numbers alone.
Looking Beyond the Numbers
There are many up and coming producers who remain — for now — well under the radar. Wineries, like the Curto family of Annunziata in Barolo I mentioned above, never get rated because of some journalistic prejudices against the small wineries. I’ll let you in on a secret. Nadia Curto’s mamma is Adele Altare. Ring a bell? It should. The guiding hands of Nadia’s uncle up the hill and his charismatic, talented daughter can be found in these precious wines. If you check out the genealogy of Chapter 5 in my book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, you’ll find Adele’s name on the same generational line as Elio Altare, her little brother, and above her niece Silvia. Get my point?
My rule of thumb and advice I give to clients and readers: If you are unfamiliar with a region or wine, use ratings as a guidepost, but not as the end-all. Most of all, do some research on importers and find out which ones and are known for having a well balanced and high quality portfolio. Do they offer entry level wines of great producers like Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli in Barolo and Marchesi Di Gresy or only their superstars? Chances are you will be very happy with whatever wines these sorts of importers choose to fill precious shipping space in a container.
Treasure Trove of Resources
Not sure how to find out that information? Ask for guidance from your favorite search engine (which could be DuckDuckGo.com) and from the other reputable wine professionals in your life: your favorite bottle shop staff. In Colorado, my list of go-to importers includes (this is not an exhaustive list, only the ones I’ve dealt with and have a very high regard for): Dalla Terra (Brian Larky), Giuliana Imports (Steve Lewis), Old World Wine Company (Zach Locke), Vias Imports Limited (Chris Blacklidge), Winebow, Elite Brands, and Southern Wine and Spirits (Damon Ornowski).
In the Vail area, Jarrett Osborn, owner of Riverwalk Wine and Spirits has been a very good friend of Piemonte and has a great selection from across the world, and Cary Hogan at Avon Liquors, and Beverly DeMoss at Boone’s Wine and Spirits in Eagle are all very reliable sources. Again, not an exhaustive list as our valley has a great wine culture.
And then there’s John Rittmaster in Walnut Creek, CA. No, you don’t have to travel to the San Francisco Bay Area to take advantage of John’s vast wine knowledge that he so generously shares. All you have to do is seek him out at Prima Vini Wine Merchants and Restaurant and ask the oracle to help you find, source, and ship delicious wines from across the world. Easy peasy.
Want to go even further afield? There’s Davide Pasquero of Terroir Selection in the tiny Barbaresco denomination village of Treiso. Davide is a full-service resource and he can find you hard-to-get vintages as well as easy ones, too. Don’t let shipping costs scare you off from going straight to the source with someone like Davide.
Final tip (almost there folks). Restaurants with creative wine lists can be a great source of wines that will wow friends and family around your table anytime of year. Again, in the Vail area my two favorites for always having a great selection of wines that aren’t on everyone’s lists are vin48 Restaurant Wine Bar and Zino Ristorante (Italian wines, especially). Greg Eynon has a knack for finding the most obscure, delicious wines for his tome of a wine list. Giuseppe Bosco at Zino provides a wine list filled with great choices of Italian (and American wines) that are not the usual suspects. If the wines are on their list, they are obtainable in the state…provided they or their savvy guests haven’t bought all the importers’ stock.
The bottom line is you might want to use scores as a roadmap when you’re in new vinous territory, but it pays to get off the interstate highways and drive along the backroads and talk to some of the people along the way to find some treasures.
Ok, enough with the metaphors.
Whatever you end up with, enjoy it and raise a glass to all who toil in the vineyards, cellars, and retail establishments to get these wines to you.
Buon Natale, tutti!
Now my question:
HAVE YOUR OWN TIPS YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE, PARTICULARLY YOUR FAVORITE WINERIES OR SUPPLIERS WHEREVER YOU ARE ON THE PLANET? PLEASE SHARE IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.
I’m now in the heart of the Langhe until the beginning of my 20th year of over 30 visits to Piemonte that included one successfully published book on the region’s wine families.
Thanksgiving morning, while sipping my morning cappuccino and visiting cyberspace, I came upon several articles about Thanksgiving wine advice. Although the holiday has come and gone, there is still a lot of merry to be made before the clock strikes midnight on December 31st. Being in Piemonte, I couldn’t help but share some of my own suggestions and some shopping tips for your vinous companions this holiday season.
Wine is an experience, not merely a beverage, so my tip for any meal is to serve wines with stories behind them (of course I would say that). Make the wine producers and their terroir part of the meal conversation by telling their stories. There are lots of them out there in cyberspace (and in my book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte). Or, even better, you could visit their wineries with me and meet the wine families on a Labor of Love tour. Talking about them and their labor of love certainly beats the heck out talking politics at the table (or anywhere else).
In our Colorado high country home, we don’t pair wine with food. The opposite. First we choose the wines we want to drink and then figure out what to cook. More often than not, those wines are from Piemonte, Sicily, or Valais Switzerland. Since I’m in Piemonte for the holidays, let’s go with some of my thoughts on those wines.
Twinkle Twinkle, Little Sparkler
My go-to sparklers I love are Metodo Classico bubbles from Piemonte (aka classical style…think Champagne, not Prosecco…please). I particularly like Ettore Germano Alta Langa, Deltetto Spumante Brut or Extra Brut (try the Brut Rosé – 50/50 Nebbiolo/Pinot Noir), and Contratto For England Pas Dose. Can’t go wrong with any of those. If you can find it in the States, Marchesi Alfieri Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir) is an excellent choice for your holiday bubbles.
Whatever you choose, please don’t think the word “spumante” is not associated with quality wines. Far from it. Spumante merely means “sparkling wines” in Italian. Personally, I believe the Asti Spumante commercials of Christmases past put a damper on today’s efforts to market spumante in America. Sad because there is some excellent Asti Spumanti out there.
Bottom line, each type of bubbles has its place.
Not all Rieslings Are Created Sweet
Regarding Riesling. Nails on a chalkboard when people say to me “Riesling is too sweet for my taste.” Trocken (dry) Riesling is NOT sweet. So please, taste one from Piemonte because as far as I’ve experienced, they are all dry. My particular favorites are Ettore Germano “Herzu,” G. D. Vajra “Petracine,” and Cà del Baio Riesling Langhe Bianco DOC.
For a great primer on Riesling (and all other varietals), visit Wine Folly or buy the book by the same name. Sidebar: this book makes a great Christmas present for the oenophile in your life. I look forward to the day when Madeline adds Piemonte to the list of regions where one can find dry Riesling. Hint.
The Little Rascal
Arneis is more than a white wine. It’s also the name of my dog who, like the meaning of his name, is a rascal. When I began spending more time back in the States in the early part of the millennium, Arneis — the wine — was hard to find. It is now readily available across the U.S. At the risk of upsetting my Langhe producer friends, I am partial to the Roero Arneis. To my palate, sand makes for a better Arneis and there is much of it to be found in the soil of the Roero north of Langhe across the Tanaro River.
Fortunately there is a wide range of Arneis producers exporting to America. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say there are many importers in the States who got wise to the grape’s appeal and are importing it. Whichever way you look at it, there are some great Roero Arneis choices of different styles to be found in the U.S., such as Deltetto, Matteo Correggia, Monchiero-Carbone, Negro, Malvirà, and Vietti.
The Next Big Thing
Paola Grasso of Cà del Baio said to me today, “Timorasso is the next big thing in Piemonte.” She’s savvy, with a keen eye for developments in the market and judging from the growing interest in the grape from journalists and importers, she is no doubt onto something.
This past week I visited Elisa Semino of La Colombera in Colli Tortonesi in the far southeastern corner of Piemonte. It was love at first sip for me. I dream of her Timorasso! Hard to imagine that before the 1980s, many Timorasso vineyards fell victim to the popularity of Cortese. Vintners ripped out Timorasso vines and replaced them with the high demand grape from which Gavi is made. Now, vintners like Elisa and her brilliant mentor, Walter Massa, are ushering in the renaissance of the Colli Tortonesi’s signature wine. Sadly, it’s what’s happening today with Dolcetto, so the rebirth of this superstar gives me hope that the trend of ripping out the Dolcetto vines in favor of Nebbiolo and hazelnuts will end.
Lots of great articles can be found online about Timorasso. I can’t wait to add this precious white wine to my cellar back in Colorado.
A Red for All Tables
A great go to red for nearly every meal is Barbera. Whether bearing the names of Alba, Asti, or Monferrato, Barbera is a versatile red and high quality bottles at great prices from a myriad of producers can be found everywhere. Some of my favorite wineries for Barbera d’Alba are Chiara Boschis – E. Pira e Figli, Elio Altare (now in the hands of his charismatic daughter Silvia), Punset, Cigliuti, Mauro Molino, Paolo Scavino, Matteo Correggia, Monchiero-Carbone, and Albino Rocca (the Gepin is a particular favorite of mine). For Barbera d’Asti, look for Marchesi Alfieri’s queen of their portfolio, Alfiera, and their La Tota named for the last Marchesa of Alfieri, Adele.
This list is far from exhaustive! Check out the Table of Contents of Labor of Lovesince producers like Cantina Marsaglia make a delicious Barbera, but you’ll have to visit them in Castellinaldo d’Alba since their wines are not available in the States.
King of the Table
Of course, the big daddy of Piemonte’s vineyards is Nebbiolo and the two wines consisting of 100% of the noble grape: Barolo and Barbaresco. A wonderful selection of these wines is available in the States, but since I live in Colorado I’ll list some of the producers well represented there: Ca’ del Baio (Barbaresco), Chiara Boschis (Barolo), Elio Altare (Barolo), Paolo Scavino (Barolo), Oddero (Barolo), Albino Rocca (Barbaresco), Cigliuti (Barbaresco), Mauro Molino (Barolo), Marchesi di Grésy (Barbaresco), GD Vajra (Barolo), Cantina Gigi Rosso (Barolo), Punset (Barbaresco), Cascina delle Rose (Barbaresco), Cantina del Pino (Barbaresco), Gaja, (Barolo and Barbaresco), Marchesi di Barolo (Barolo and Barbaresco), and Sottimano (Barbaresco). This is NOT an exhaustive list and there are many more that I enjoy, but these are readily available in Colorado, except for Cascina delle Rose…sadly so…but their USA presence is growing.
As an aside, each one of these wineries produces fabulous Barbera as well.
The Nebbiolo of Langhe is the best known, but the grape also flourishes in Roero and in Alto Piemonte. Each of the Arneis producers listed above makes excellent Roero Nebbiolo, including Matteo Correggia, the winery bearing the name of the late Roero visionary who believed in the grape’s potential in the terroir of Roero. His belief in Roero Nebbiolo was well-founded. Gattinerra in Alto Piemonte is home to Lorella Antoniollo and her family’s winery. If you haven’t tried the Alto Piemonte Nebbioli, treat yourself to some from this excellent winery.
Not in the market for the higher prices of Barolo and Barbaresco, but love Nebbiolo? Look for declassified versions of the grape, such as Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba from any the producers I’m mentioned and in my table of contents. You will not be disappointed with the gems coming out of Piemonte’s Nebbiolo vineyards whether they sport the DOCG label or not. If a producer is known for her or his Barolo or Barbaresco, their other Nebbiolo wines deserve a place on your table. Currently, our house red is Albino Rocca “Rosso di Rocca” Langhe Nebbiolo 2017. Excellent wine and a particularly good value for money.
Hint, can’t find these wines at your favorite bottle shop? See below at the end of the post two names of great wine sleuths who can source just about anything.
Now for dessert. Amongst the “sweet” choices there are the sweeter versions such Passito made from grapes dried before vinification and there are the light (5.5% alcohol), bubbly ones such as Moscato d’Asti. There was a time when Moscato d’Asti was the wine the Savoy royals sought and Monferrato eclipsed Barolo as the epicenter of Piemonte wine. Before there was the King of Wines (Barolo, according to many), there was the Queen of Wines. Those from the Monferrato region are very special. My two favorites are Cà d’Gal (not available in Colorado – yet), particularly Alessandro Boido’s old vine Moscato, and Marenco Scrapona (available in Colorado from Vias). Passito Bric du Liun from Deltetto is 100% Arneis and is equally comfortable as a pairing for foie gras at the beginning of a festive meal as it is at the end with dolce. I’m a fan of Brachetto d’Acqui from Marenco and their two passiti – Moscato and Brachetto. Save a bottle of Moscato for your “day after” breakfast. Marenco’s Scrapona is often on our table for summer Sunday brunch.
And for the Tummy
We can’t forget my favorite digestivo, Barolo Chinato. The much-loved end to a great meal is gaining popularity in the States…finally…but still hard to find. My May 2018 Labor of Love tour guests of wine educators from Sheral Schowe’s Wasatch Academy of Wine finished most every meal with Chinato. The experts know about the delights of this prized digestivo.
Wine Searcher says it best in their concise description of this complex digestive with pharmacological roots:
“[An] aromatic beverage differs to the ‘classic’ Barolo through its production method, which involves the infusion of Barolo wine with China Calissaya bark (quinine bark, translated in Italian as china, hence the wine’s name chinato). Up to 21 other herbs and spices, including rhubarb roots, gentian, orange peels, cloves and cardamom seeds, are also added to the mix. This process is a slow maceration at room temperature for around eight weeks. The aromatized wine is then fortified to 16% alcohol and matured in small barrels for up to one year.
This Barolo wine is generally characterized by its bittersweet aromas and lingering, smooth aftertaste. It is usually consumed as an after-dinner drink, either as a dessert wine or a digestif. It is also considered an excellent accompaniment to dark chocolate, or it can be served as an aperitif with soda and ice (similar to sweet vermouth).”
So if that tickles your fancy — and it should — go forth and seek out brands such as Cocchi, G.D. Vajra, and, of course, Cappellano, the family of the 19th century creator of this unusually delicious drink, pharmacist Giuseppe Cappellano.
But That’s Not All
I’ve only touched on most commonly known varietals of the Piemonte vinous landscape, and one up-and-coming superstar, Timorasso. There is a long list on other varietals you should try this holiday season, such as Pelaverga, Ruché, Freisa, and Erbaluce, to name but a few. Exploration is fun, especially when it comes to a region like Piemonte with such an expansive choice of varietals.
Remember, it’s all about the experience. Discovery is a wonderful experience!
Colorado: Here are a few of the importers working in Colorado that I can highly recommend: Giuliana Imports, Old World Wines, Dalla Terra, Indigenous, and Vias. All have some great choices. Don’t just read the front label on the wine bottle. The back label tells you a great deal about the wine and who’s behind, including the importer. Importers like these take great care in choosing the producers they represent. You can’t go wrong with any of their names on the bottle.
Beyond (and in) Colorado: One of the best sources I’ve found for wine from Piemonte (and most anywhere else) is John Rittmaster at Prima Vini Wine Merchants in Walnut Creek, CA. Not only does John do dynamite wine events in his shop and next door restaurant Prima, he can find just about anything at competitive prices. Do yourself a favor and get on his mailing list so you don’t miss any great deals and events.
Straight from the Source: This tip is for oenophiles across the globe. If you want a gastronome’s dream bike tour, join Davide Pasquero of Terroir Selection in wine countries across Europe, particularly in his home region of Piemonte. If you want Piemonte wines straight from the source — particularly up-and-coming producers — Davide is the expert for you. His personal relationships with producers, passion, and great depth of wine knowledge makes him a perfect source for discerning oenophiles looking for just the right wines. Piemonte is not his only region of expertise. Checkout his website for more regions he covers. Pretty much everywhere. Like John Rittmaster, Davide is a wine sleuth. If he can’t find it, it’s probably not available anywhere.
What started out as a quick Facebook post morphed into something bigger. It always does when I start talking about my beloved second home, Piemonte. I hope I’ve given you some helpful, not too technical, tips for wine choices this holiday season…and beyond.
Whatever you choose, you really can’t go wrong if you invite the wine producers into your home vis-à-vis their wines and the stories behind their labels. Vinous companions for your holiday celebrations should not be limited to those you know. It’s a great time to meet new vintners through their labor of love.
Now, onward to the Christmas Holidays. Buon Natale!
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?”
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.
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?
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.