In the 1965 musical, The Sound of Music, a smiling Captain Georg von Trapp tells his 16 year-old daughter Liesl, “No,” when she sheepishly asks him “I’d like to stay and have my first taste of Champagne.” I was barely a teenager when I saw the blue-eyed Liesl posing this question to her father, but this scene has always stayed with me. This was about the first time I had my first sip of Champagne as I stole a glass that my parents had poured. All I can remember is they smiled and toasted a lot when they drank it. What is it about Champagne? Its magic and allure, what does it mean to different people? Whether it merely tickles your nose or tantalizes the palate, everyone has a slightly different spin on one of the most iconic beverages in the world.
When I started as a young wine professional, I had heard so much about Dom Pérignon that I could not wait to try it. As my career grew, I went onto Krug Grande Cuvée, Bollinger Grande Année, Louis Roederer Cristal, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame and the like, but only as a member of the trade. My realistic budget keeps me at the non-vintage level.
The story of Champagne is enormous and complex. Long-time wine writer Ed McCarthy writes, “All great Prestige Cuveés demand 15 to 20 years of aging. Drink them young and you’re wasting your money.” While Mr. McCarthy can savor his old cellar treasures, we normal folks must make do with the beauty of non-vintage bruts and perhaps once in a while trek into the land of the sublime.
Non-vintage brut Champagne runs the show and defines each house’s style. I drink them fresh and zingy. If I am certain that the wine has just arrived then I may give it two to three years of bottle age. While I enjoy my red wines (cabernets, pinot noirs, zinfandels, red blends, etc.), I never get bored with a glass of Champagne. The aforementioned special offerings are wines that one must age. Over time, they will lose their vitality and gain incredible complexity that one can only experience from the terroir of Champagne, about an hour’s drive from Paris.
When Dom Pérignon is in its youth, it is elegant and refined. Generally not overtly yeasty, it is always enjoyable. As it ages, it changes and often becomes wonderfully complex and the rules of engagement change. Instead of merely toasting a great moment, the Champagne becomes a spectacular foil for the most imaginative chefs around the world. The 2004 Dom Pérignon is really fine and already shows core fruit, sweet earth and wild mushrooms in its flavors. Time will make this wine even better. I recommend patience of at least 10 years. When I was a teenager, I drank my first Champagne. Now as an old wine guy, I savor an old bottle just as I would aged Bordeaux, Burgundy or other classic still wines.
It was some time ago (circa 2003), in a dark place when I tasted my first Grüner. I had no idea (well maybe a little) of what this unusual white wine was about. Where was I? In some San Francisco Bay Area wine bar with a couple of somm friends as I recall. So what is it about Grüner that drives us wine folks crazy? The wine generally comes in a hock bottle, with its German and low-alcohol history, but the Austrian white wines are far different from their German counterparts. Can we talk Chardonnay here? I was reminded of this when I posed a facebook question and my friend Alison Smith Story of Story Wine Cellars brought this notion to my attention. I never could understand completely why Grüner Veltliner was so appealing but I did enjoy the wine’s fatness without the aid of oak or residual sugar. I am now thinking, could there be a similarity between Grüner Veltliner and un-oaked Chardonnay.
Recently I dined in San Francisco at Anchor & Hope with Franz Leth Jr. of Weingut Leth (now in their 3rd Generation of this family owned and operated winery). Pairing his Grüner Veltliners with the Crab Louis, heirloom beans, olives, butter lettuce, and rémoulade worked perfectly as Franz talked passionately about the winery’s south facing vineyards, just to the north of the Danube River. The discussion proved enlightening as he talked about how the vineyard site encouraged excellent ripeness and great acidity. I have hundreds of buried notes in my cellar on Austrian wines. I will re-visit them and get myself up to speed on what is currently going on in Austria.
Stay tuned as the Austrian wines, food matching and discussion I enjoyed with Franz materializes in more Grüners in my future. I have finally emerged from that dark place, a decade ago, and become an enlighten advocate of Austrian wines. Now when you think of Chardonnay and seafood you may need to spin the choice to Grüner Veltliner as an alternative.
One health question that I get more than any other—besides whether or not a wine contains sulfites—is whether or not wine is gluten free. The short answer is that yes, it is. The production of wine is inherently gluten free as the raw materials involved are grapes, and there is no wheat used in the growing or fermentation process.
As far as the production process, the only place—theoretically—where gluten may be used is in fining. The best fining agents are animal based products, the most common being egg whites, but I couldn’t find any winemakers that use wheat gluten in this capacity.
In regard to the aging process, the heads of some wine barrels can be sealed with a wheat paste; however, wax alternatives have been found to be less expensive, and offer a better seal. Tricia Thompson, a dietician who specializes in gluten free products recently commissioned tests of a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot. The results of the tests conducted on both wines came back showing fewer than 10ppm. According to the FDA, products that contain fewer than 20ppm are considered gluten free.
So, to sum up, for all intents and purposes there is no discernible gluten to be found in wine, making those who must or who choose to watch their gluten intake very happy!
*always check with your doctor as the final source of information.
I was barely a wine professional when I visited my first winery. The year was 1975; I had just started buying wines for my family market and been married for a year. Our Gallo representative set up a tour and tasting for me at Sebastiani Winery in the town of Sonoma. I was really excited but had no idea what to expect. My first experience exceeded my expectations. Why? I followed the rules, paid attention to the hospitality and enjoyed the ambiance of the area. Visiting wineries is more than just tasting wines at a bar; it can become a foray into the surrounding countryside. The Napa Valley is one of the most toured places in California. In 2012, Napa Tourist spending hit $1.4 billion. (Source: Napa Valley Register.com, April 26, 2013). Folks go beyond wineries – they enjoy landmarks, recreation and restaurants. The end result is an experience of memorable proportions.
What are the dos and don’ts for winery visits?
Planning is where it begins. With so many options, one must make the most of the opportunities. What is the most important? The wine, the vineyards, the restaurants in wine country, some scenic point, everyone in your party has a magic button. Once the basics have been covered, you are on your way to a grand time. In my 40 years as a wine pro, I have visited a lot of wineries and whether you are an everyday consumer or a well-schooled professional, I have learned that preparation is the key to enjoying and getting the most out of visiting a winery. While serendipity often occurs at wineries (i.e. OMG, the grapes are just coming in or the owner wants to bring an old wine that is not on the list for you to taste), planning provides the underlying structure to a successful winery visit.
DO be respectful
So now you have arrived at your destination? What now? If you are a walk in, understand that you and your party are guests and will most likely be taken care of by the winery’s hospitality team. If you made a reservation, as some wineries require, then the most important thing is to be on time or inform the team of any changes (you are late or the number in your party has changed). In this way winery and restaurant reservations are quite similar. You would not be 30 minutes late for a reservation at the French Laundry without calling them.
DO thoughtfully taste wines – remember, it’s not a bar.
DON’T be afraid to spit.
DON’T drive if you have had too much wine! Lots of great buses, drivers, taxis to get you home.
And finally… DO enjoy yourself It’s wine country after all.