My Brain Lacks Balance, Finish

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment

spilling wine

I’ve always been a foodie. My father is proud to tell anyone who will listen that, as a baby, I wasn’t given traditional baby food. Instead, my parents would grind to a mash whatever they were having for supper, and that would be my meal. By six years old I was preparing my own food several times per week, and my favorite part of birthday celebrations was trying some sort of fancy new restaurant.

Not me

(Not me)

It could be that my father created a monster. As evidence, I can point to that time in junior high school when, as punishment for some now-forgotten crime, I had to stay home while everyone else went out to dinner. My father made me a ham sandwich on white bread and forbid me to to use the stove. Fair enough. Instead, I threw away the sandwich and reheated homemade frozen dumplings in the toaster oven. My daddy didn’t raise no fool.

Food has always been one of my greatest interests, comforts and pleasures. I can probably tell you about certain meals that would give other nights of primal satisfaction a run for the money. As such, I live to eat and to study the components that make a good dish great.

For me, wine (and certain creative spirits and cocktails, as well) is an extension of my love of food. Each vintage – like other types of spirit-sustaining sustenance – has a history, and that history informs the end result…even when it doesn’t live up to expectations – which, frankly, is one of the things that makes wine so exciting: There are never any guarantees of what you’re going to get. Wine is living, it’s dynamic. It changes. So do palates.

It is this last point that has been making me a little crazy these days.

I’ve gotten pretty serious about wine in the past year. In that time, I’ve gone from liking big, jammy fruit bombs to…liking big, jammy, fruit bombs – but feeling self-conscious about it. Conversations with a couple of super-cute sommeliers helped me begin to appreciate Old World wines for what they are, instead of simply writing them off as tasting like dusty old leather. Little by little, glass by glass – I’ve begun to really appreciate how a good wine will unfold over time, revealing more and more of itself like a patient and seductive siren, luring me to crash on the rocks of the really good stuff.

 2006 Antonio Caggiano Aglianico dell Irpinia Tari Campania

2006 Antonio Caggiano Aglianico dell Irpinia Tari Campania

Several dates with a hard-core wine geek introduced me to wines like Austrian St. Laurent, French Minervois, Italian Aglianico and a Romoritan/Menu Pineau blend whose very existence breaks wine-making law in France. One would think all of this exposure would be exciting, but now I’m even more confused – mainly because I’m not sure what I’m “supposed” to be teasing out, picking up and enjoying anymore; and with all of the new juice, I’m not even 100% sure I can tell the difference between the wines I know and the new ones that I don’t. Aside from the thrill of experiencing something new, I second-guess my dislike of the sharpness of the Aglianico, and I worry that because I found the Romoritan/Menu Pineau a little…meh…that maybe I lack sophistication, or that my foodie palate just isn’t as good at wine as I thought it was.

The more I learn, the more confusing it becomes. Descriptions like gooseberry, wet cat and tobacco leaf haunt me in my sleep and taunt me in tasting rooms. And while I might describe myself as a bit “nervy” and “racy,” I couldn’t begin to tell you what this means in terms of wine. I’ve also recently come to learn that there is a class of wine drinker that poo-poos those big, jammy, fruit bombs I love, specifically because they…have…flavor; there is even a Facebook page devoted to these “Anti-Flavor Wine Elites.” So wine isn’t supposed to have flavor? Wha? I certainly missed that chapter in my first Wine 101 lesson.

This is definitely a weird place to find myself. I’m not sure if I’ve started to overthink what I’m tasting – in the way I overthink practically everything else – and if this is one more thing to add to my list of nightly meditations. Or perhaps this is one of those transition times when I will come through with a more delicate palate and an expanded appreciation for all things edible. So I guess I’ll just keep drinking and trust that – like circumnavigating a white bread sandwich – eventually I’ll noodle my way into a far more appetizing, satisfying situation.

McManis: Valuable Friendships and Value-Priced Wine

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | Comments Off on McManis: Valuable Friendships and Value-Priced Wine

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I'll be gaining a new title this year. With the addition of these extra letters, what I permanently lose is snowy Midwestern Christmases where I giddily stuff myself full of bacon, cheese and mayonnaise hors d'eouvres; the two-parent home in which I always believed my child would be raised; and a loud group of flawed-but-funny family members who fight a lot but love each other even more than they disagree. So there are a lot of changes happening, but I recently realized that there is a constant in there, too: A very important bond with my sister-in-law old friend.

Remaining close with one's ex-husband's sister is actually a lot easier than you might think. I like to credit similar artistic notions, temperaments, philosophies about life, the universe and everything…and a mutual deep appreciation for good wine. Oh – and being broke. I guess that's also important, because lately we've done a whole bunch of bonding over that, too. So what wine does a poor divorcee bring to her equally strapped sister-in-law, to be enjoyed as they might've, back when they were younger, fabulous and slightly more liquid? Turns out it's a 2008 McManis Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, for about $9.99 a bottle.

2008 McManis Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

2008 McManis Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

The McManis – unlike certain aspects of a failed marriage and a bad economy – is very easy to swallow. It's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and a pinch of Petite Verdot, aged on new and used French and American Oak for 4-6 months. While not quite a fruit bomb, it is definitely a jammy Cabernet (take it or leave it). On the nose, it's all big, black fruit like fresh blackberry and stewed plum. I picked up chocolate on the nose, but on the palate that turned into vanilla and smoke. It's big and fruity through-and-through, so if California Cabs are your thing, this might be a worthwhile wine for you. Especially for the price, which is kept low because the fruit comes from Lodi, instead of one of the more expensive AVAs to the north.

As we all move through life, it's impossible to avoid the hailstorm of difficult decisions that leave us running for cover. People grow and change, circumstances shift, we often find ourselves finding ourselves due to some serious miscalculation of where we thought we'd be at a particular point in our lives. These things are hard. So I'm all for celebrating the easy decisions: Joy, bravery and love. Especially love. Love in whatever form you're lucky enough to find it, however long it lasts and wherever it takes you. Especially if the place it leads is crying with laughter over a cheap and delicious wine, with an ex-family member, who – despite no longer being related – feels more like a sister, now that we're “only” just friends.

Wine Club Review: Hola, Vinos

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | Comments Off on Wine Club Review: Hola, Vinos

On a recent crisp, spring afternoon I met Jess in her sunny apartment to hunker down and taste the latest wine shipment from Gourmet Monthly Wine Club (read more reviews at

Jess opened the box and set three bottles on the coffee table: A 2008 Carmen Rapel Valley Carmenere2008 Carmen Rapel Valley Carmenere, a 2008 Bodegas Gormaz Vina Gormaz Rueda, from Chile and Spain, respectively; and a 2005 Surfrider Red2005 Surfrider Red (Bordeaux blend/Meritage) from Rosenthal Estate Wines in Malibu. But that's pretty much all there is to say about that one.

2008 Carmen Carmenere

2008 Carmen Carmenere

I've written before about the Carmen Carmenere. It had a nose full of pepper and jam and a taste of lead pipe and salad. I wish I could speak more favorably, but – try as I might – I just couldn't bring myself to like this wine. Jess thought it was ok. She got the green pepper essence I kept complaining about but she didn't hate it as much as I did. So…there's that…ringing…endorsement.

The Rueda was good. It had a lovely, lovely aroma like muscadel (maybe?), peach and ripe grapefruit with undertones of lime. On the palette I picked up flowers and grapefruit, although I felt the wine was a little flabby. But good. It was flabby but grapefruity deliciousness, with a nice balance and mouthfeel.

But here's the thing: The Gourmet Monthly Wine Club tasting notes say that Carmen is “Chile's oldest wine brand,” and “South America's leading winery as well as its oldest.” Which makes me wonder, once again, if I need to find a different job. Apparently Wine & Spirits named Carmen “Top Winery of the Year” at least four times (according to the literature), and, I don't know, I guess I was supposed to really like this juice. I will say this: Even though I didn't love the wine, clearly there was a lot of thought that went into choosing it for the club.

Bodegas Gormaz Vina Gormaz Rueda

Bodegas Gormaz Vina Gormaz Rueda

Rueda is actually a Denominación de Origen (DO) in Spain, for the wines from the Community of Castile and Leon, located northwest of Madrid. The Verdejo grape has been grown in this region since the 11th Century, and is now one of Spain's most successful white grape varieties. In order to be labeled Rueda, a wine must contain 50% Verdejo, with the rest typically consisting of either Sauvignon Blanc or Viura – as in the Bodegas Gormaz Vina, which is 60% Verdejo and 40% Viura. Interesting stuff, and the Vina Gormaz was a good wine for introduction.

I have to admit that this was not my favorite overall shipment, but I don't believe it was for lack of quality in the wine. And, truthfully, sometimes we all pick up bottles of otherwise highly rated and glowingly reviewed wine that just doesn't please our palate. I think that's what happened here. In vino veritas…

Summer Sipping For Some Great Causes

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | Comments Off on Summer Sipping For Some Great Causes

One of my favorite things about the heady days of summer is the even more hedonistic nights. I grew up in the South, where the humid afternoons gave way to evenings which wrapped themselves like a warm blanket around bare skin. Serenaded by the sound of cicadas and bullfrogs, I spent countless evenings drunk on the electrifying summer air.

Out here in SoCal, what we lack in humidity and loud amphibians, we more than make up for in fiery hot festivals with their fair share of music, super-charged excitement and beautiful people dressed in small summer clothing. And these days, it isn’t just my joie de vivre that makes me tipsy; California boasts some of the best wine events around.

Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego

Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego

There are two festivals, in particular, that are circled in red on my schedule: The first is Rhythm & Vine (produced in association with World of Wine Events and Fast Forward Event Productions, known for the nationally acclaimed San Diego Wine & Food Festival). This is a music and wine festival benefiting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego. It’s worth the drive to spend the day eating amazing food from some of San Diego’s favorite restaurants, like Donovan’s Steak House and Truluck’s Seafood, Steak and Crab House. Breweries include Stone Brewing Company and La Jolla Brew House. Wineries such as Bridlewood Estate, Jake-Ryan Cellars and Pear Valley Vineyard will be pouring to raise money to keep kids off the streets and paired with mentors and life-long friends. The event also includes silent auctions and incredible live music. Tickets start at $75. Saturday, April 17, 2010.


4th Annual Valley Food and Wine Festival

The second event to get excited about is the 4th Annual Valley Food and Wine Festival. On Saturday, June 19, 2010, there will be over 100 different types of wine, beer and spirits mingling with tasty food and beautiful people in tony Calabasas, California. The $100 ticket not only gets you into what will be a fabulous, soon-to-sell-out event, but all proceeds benefit the Alzheimer’s Association. Even better, The Valley Food and Wine Festival is a “Green Event” – you’ll be tasting delicious chow, raising money for an amazing cause and doing it all without waste.

So get your summer groove on. Kick off the season with hot summer nights and cool, cool beverages – for a good cause! These events are out of town but definitely in touch. Bullfrogs cost extra.

Baby, You Can Drive Off With My Carmenere

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 3 Comments

If I have ever represented myself as anything other than a neophyte in this overwhelming world of fermented fruit juice – my bad. Let me assure you that I know I have a lot to learn.

Carmen sings the blues

Carmen sings the blues

For example, before my last Gourmet Monthly Wine Club arrival, I had never had CarmenereCarmenere. One of the bottles in the shipment was a 2008 Carmen Rapel Valley Carmenere from Chile. Excitement! A great opportunity to expand my horizons! Jess poured our glasses. We got comfortable and prepped ourselves for delving deeply into this new experience.




Here's the thing: If you like licking lead pipes, you're going to totally love the metallic notes in this wine. It's big and jammy, so that might appeal to some. Anyone out there that has ever considered joining a facebook fan page in praise of green peppers is going to be oh-so-happy. Ecstatic, even. I referred to this wine as “salad in a bottle,” after my first sip, so that should get a whole bunch of salad drinking party people really stoked.

Oh, sweet mercy.

…just not my thing.

But what do I know, right? This was my first experience with Carmenere. Could be that the 08 Carmen is the gold standard and I just didn't have the good sense to know better.

It happens.

So when I visited my family in North Carolina a few weeks later, my sister-in-law took me to West End Wine Bar and I decided to do more research. And eat some olives. Because, man, I love me some olives.

But I digress.



I ordered a glass of 2008 PKNT “Silver Collection” Carmenere. The PKNT (pronounced “picante“) is also from Rapel Valley, Chile. And this time I loved the varietal. Black pepper and dark berries on the nose and palette. So delicious – and I'm generally not a huge fan of very peppery wines. Really, really enjoyed this one, though.

Good Carma?

Good Carma?

But when I returned to the Land of LaLa and attended a benefit to help Chile (and its devastated wine industry) at Pourtal Wine Bar, I again had a hard time enjoying this Bordeaux export that has since become a Chilean trademark. The 2008 Carma Carmenere from the Colchagua Valley was all tobacco and chocolate, purple berries and pepper. Not tastes I dislike in wine, but I definitely disliked them in this wine. I couldn't even finish my glass.

The thing is, though, that a quick Google search of “2008 Carma Carmenere” returns, like, a billion reviews (okay, more like 1,720 entries) – mostly positive – about this stuff. Wine writers, bloggers and merchants the world over all seem to think it's unquestionably, quaffably, yum.

Which brings me, full circle, back to where I began:

1. I have no pretenses, whatsoever, about knowing, really, anything at all

2. Over the course of this little journey, I tried three very different CarmenereCarmenere wines, two of which did not taste like green peppers and one of which did. I have it on the highest, cross-referenced and researched authority (albeit lacking a large test sample) that Carmenere should not taste like salad

The great thing about this varietal is that you can find well-reviewed Carmenere for well under $20. So don't take my word for it – give it a try. Carmenere is hugely popular right now, and Chile really needs the business. Then please share your comments! I'd love to get other opinions and see what the rest of the world drinks and thinks.

Wine 101: Back to Basics

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 2 Comments

wine 101Our goal, here at GrapeSmart, has always been to guide value-minded consumers through the somewhat treacherous labyrinth of cheap stuff to find the best wines out there under $25.

As a guide, I feel I’ve been a little remiss lately. Not that I don’t think it’s good to find value in the world’s most storied wine regions, but I think maybe some readers would benefit from going back to basics, the most basic basics, to make value Bordeaux – or any other wine, for that matter – maybe make a little more sense.

So let’s bring it all back to Square One:

1. Unless you’re drinking a “specialty” fruit wine, it’s just grapes in there. When people talk about tasting strawberries, blueberries, cat pee or saddle leather, none of those things are actually in the wine. The various scents/tastes come from the grapes, the place the grapes were grown/the way the grapes were grown (terroir) and the way the grapes were fermented. Some bouquet and taste elements such as wood, vanilla, coconut, etc come from the wooden barrels where some wines are aged. That’s basically it.

It’s the ju-ju of the wine making process that turns grapes on a vine into what winds up in the glass – in all its flavored glory. That alchemy of sunlight, water, grapes, growing conditions, craftsmanship and fermentation. It’s a natural wonder. And even though your wine might taste like grapefruit, there really isn’t any grapefruit in there – really.

2. Give it a swirl. No matter what you might be afraid of, it won’t make you French. What it will do is “wake up” the wine and allow the juice to release molecules to help you better smell and taste the wine, providing a more layered, richer overall experience. Go on – try it. If you feel self-conscious, we won’t watch.

3. Find some body to love. When we talk about “body,” we mean the structure of the wine and how it feels in your mouth. The combination of acid and sugar/alcohol. The tannins (that “puckery,” dry-mouth feeling you get with some red wines). The way it all comes together on your palate when you take a sip. Sometimes this is also referred to as the spine or the backbone but – like the aroma/bouquet/flavors I mentioned before – there are no actual bones in your juice. It’s just an expression.screw_wine

4. Enjoying a good screw [top] doesn’t make you cheap. There are a whole host of reasons why producers across the planet are choosing not to put a cork in it. It’s no longer just the bottom-dollar liquor store libations that are easy to open these days – even a couple of the nicer Napa Cabernets have screw tops now. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Some of the world’s finest Champagnes are fermented with the type of crown caps found on bottles of beer. Cork no longer equals class. So feel free to screw off with impunity.

5. When it comes to wine, location is everything. Except when it isn’t. Generally speaking, certain types of grapes have been grown in certain places [Europe] for a really, really, really long time. Sometimes these grapes are mixed (blended) with other grapes from the same vineyard or region, sometimes there is only a single type of grape (varietal) in the bottle, but – especially in places like France and Italy – the resulting wine is named for the place from which the wine comes. This is why you’re likely to run into a bunch of French Burgundy (and white French Burgundy, as well), but very few bottles labeled French Pinot Noir. In the Americas, Australia and other “New World” regions, wines tend to be labeled by what’s in the bottle. For example, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is wine that can come from anywhere in New Zealand, fermented from Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

spittoon6. Spitting or swallowing is a personal choice. Although it’s sort of strange to find so

much expectorating in an environment as typically rarefied as the wine world, there’s a very simple reason why people do it: To avoid getting drunk. If you choose to spit – baby, it’s all good. Or if you’d rather swallow, we won’t judge; just know that you won’t be able to taste for very long stretches – and you’ll probably want to make sure you have someone to drive you home.

Certainly I didn’t even scratch the surface of what there is to learn. And beware even the wine “expert” who claims to know it all. But everyone has to start somewhere, and these few intro bits should set you up to start you on your way – especially if you’d like to try attending a wine tasting.

Have a question? ASK! Always ask! Whether it’s at your local wine shop (Lord knows I’m forever bugging the guys near me), or by writing to Jess or me here at GrapeSmart. It’s easy to be intimidated, but – instead – just try to have fun. Salut!

Does it matter?

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wines from the Grocery Store | 2 Comments

“What is happening is American wine companies are buying bulk wine in France, Chile, Australia or wherever, shipping it back here and bottling it here under their own brand,” says Lewis Perdue, the author of

“People have no idea the wine they are drinking is cheap bulk import,” Perdue says.

Read the full article here

I guess my question is… does it really matter? My philosophy has always been, “Cheap wine is fine, as long as it tastes good.” I’m not partial to where it comes from. If I’m looking for a bargain, and you can get me cheaper wine from France or Chile where macroeconomics have more to do with wine pricing than brand recognition, I’m all for it!

I do care if the wineries are labeling it as coming from somewhere other than where they bought it, but I highly doubt they are since it would probably put them out of business.

What do you think?

P.S. Thanks to Julie Brosterman of @womenwine

for the heads-up on this piece!

A Really Rough Guide To Budget Bordeaux

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes, Great Wines Under $20, How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 2 Comments

wine tastingSeveral weeks ago, I had the exquisite pleasure of attending the 2007 Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux tasting in Los Angeles. For those who don’t speak French, “Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux” translates, roughly, as “The Incredibly Fancy Wines From the French Region of Bordeaux. You Can’t Afford Them. Don’t Even Bother.” Look it up.

There were over one hundred wineries pouring at the event. Representatives stood behind low tables covered in white tablecloths, ice buckets, bottles and business cards. In the center of one portion of the cavernous conference room were lovely banquets of fresh fruit, colorful cheeses and a variety of crackers to absorb a bit of the booze. Separate tables supported shiny silver spittoons. Guests in subdued attire slowly wandered from table to table, shmoozing, sipping, smiling, spitting.

The room was divided according to the regions of Bordeaux:

Graves (Pessac-Leognan, Sauternes and Barsac); Medoc (Saint Emilion, Pomerol, Listrac-Medoc, Moulis-en-Medoc,

Bordeaux AOC

Bordeaux AOC

Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estephe). For the purposes of this piece, I will not go into the history and importance of Bordeaux, because I cannot do the proper justice which many an expert has already done on the region, and I could not begin to match the authority of these historians.

I’ll simply provide some broad stokes.

Red Bordeaux (called Claret, in the UK), is the most widely produced wine type in this region (outnumbering white wine by about 10 to 1), and is generally made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. To round out the “Fab Five” of Bordeaux, Petit Verdot and Malbec are also permitted, although these are blended in less

frequently. While Carmenere is also authorized, this varietal is now difficult – if not impossible – to find in the area, since replanting never quite took hold after the Phylloxera epidemic of 1867.

As a very broad generalization, Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux’s second-most planted grape variety) dominates the blend in red wines produced in the Médoc and the rest of the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Typical top-quality Chateaux blends are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Merlot. This is typically referred to as the “Bordeaux Blend.” Merlot (Bordeaux’s most-planted grape variety) and to a lesser extent Cabernet Franc (third most planted variety) tend to predominate in Saint Emilion, Pomerol and the other right bank appellations. These Right Bank blends from top-quality Chateaux are typically 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc & 15% Cabernet Sauvignon (Oz Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes p. 129 Harcourt Books 2001 ISBN 0151007144)

Second in production is white Bordeaux, which is grown only in Graves and is mostly (exclusively, in the case of the sweet Sauternes), made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, with neither varietal making up more than ninety percent of the blend. Typical blends are usually 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Muscadelle is sometimes included, as well, to round out the flavor of the wine, although rarely – if ever – playing a predominant role. On occasion, one can find small amounts of Colombard and Ugni Blanc mixed in, as well.

For me, the greatest thing about the Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux tasting was the discovery of amazing Bordeaux whites – specifically from the Pessac-Leognan region. Each region in Bordeaux has its own terrior and as a result, the flavor profile of each wine differs noticeably from one parish to another. While I found most of the Bordeaux Blanc to be pretty special, it was the Pessac-Leognan whites that really took my breath away: Pure peachy-grapefruit refreshment. Silky smooth. Perfectly balanced (I mean perfectly). I cannot overstate how enamored I am of these velvety wines.

But while far, far below the sky-high prices of their darker brethren, bottles of white Bordeaux do not come cheap. What’s a value-minded vino-holic to do?

Luckily, there are several options:

  1. Don’t buy Grand Cru: Right after the Bordeaux tasting, I dove into research and trips to local wine shops, trying to recreate the magic of what I had sampled in that large conference room – minus the hefty price tag.
    Chateau Loudenne Blanc

    Chateau Loudenne Blanc

    What I eventually found was a 2006 Chateau Loudenne. While not from one of the premier Chateaux, this wine is so incredibly delicious that the sommelier at a recent celebratory dinner stopped to comment on our choice to bring it to the restaurant. He did this several times. And then helped himself to a small pour. With a nose of sweet almonds and a soft, velvety mouthfeel rich with grapefruit and lanolin, who needs to spend Grand Cru prices to experience a similar level of deliciousness? Especially when this beautiful bottle cost me only $20. Maybe $21. Let me say that one more time: Even the sommelier at a restaurant with 2 Michelin Stars stopped to praise this “value” wine. It really was remarkable, especially when you consider that bottles from up the road in this region run $80+. I can’t recommend the Chateau Loudenne more highly, but there are plenty of incredible Bordeaux wines out there that are selling for a comparative song, simply because they lack that coveted First, Second or Third Growth status. But if “Cru” matters to you, remember that there is a significant price difference between First and Second Growth (Premiers or 1er and Seconds or Deuxiemes Cru Classe), Second and Third Growth (Troisiemes), Third and Fourth Growth (Quatriemes), and Fourth and Fifth Growth (Cinquiemes). The cost plummets even more precipitously when you go from Fifth Growth down to Cru Bourgeois – which is the class from which the Loudenne comes – although the Cru Bourgeois designation was officially done away with in 2007. Any value vinophile worth his or her salt should simply find the wines classified Cru Bourgeois before ’07 and hunt these bad boys down*. You know you’ll be getting an absolutely incredible value for the money. But one shouldn’t place too much emphasis on growth classification; just because a wine is Second, Third, Fourth, Bourgeois, etc., does not mean it’s far inferior to Premier – especially as the quality of some of the First and Second Growths waxes and wanes over the years.

  2. Don’t buy chateau-bottled Bordeaux: While there is very concentrated hoopla over several important Chateaux in the region, wine making in Bordeaux is not confined merely to grand properties where they grow and ferment their own. Like almost everywhere else in the world, Bordeaux also produces wines blended from several different properties – sometimes even the fancy ones – although you’d be hard-pressed to find this information on the label. This practice is actually borne of the age-old négociant (“merchant”) system – identical to the system that produces Cameron Hughes and Layer Cake Wines in the US. Winemakers source what they feel is some of the best fruit in the area and mix it to create their own special blend.
  3. Don’t buy “Bordeaux”: Instead, opt for the lesser-known appellations in the region, which are producing solid stuff at a fraction of what the classic parishes pull in. Look for appellations like Premières Côtes de Blaye, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Côtes de Francs, Côtes de Castillon, Cadillac, Côtes de Bourg, Fronsac and Montagne-St-Emilion. These are some of the “new” appellations, but they are all within the Bordeaux AOC. For potentially even bigger bargains, look for “Bordeaux blends” in regions entirely outside of Bordeaux – Like Loire, for example. Wines produced in other AOCs will not taste the same as the identical blend from Bordeaux, but there will be a similar and recognizable flavor profile you might really enjoy.
  4. Meet Meritage: The blends that produce Meritage are the classic Bordeaux mixtures, in varying proportions – made in America.

    The Meritage Association

From the website:

Meritage wines are provocative red or white wines crafted solely from specific “noble” Bordeaux grape varieties and are considered to be the very best wines of the vintage.

Meritage, pronounced like heritage, first appeared in the late 1980s after a group of American vintners joined forces to create a name for New World wines blended in the tradition of Bordeaux. The word was selected from more than 6,000 entries in an international contest. Meritage combines “merit,” reflecting the quality of the grapes, with “heritage,” which recognizes the centuries-old tradition of blending, long considered to be the highest form of the winemaker’s art.

While many bottles may contain the Bordeaux blend, only those that belong to the Meritage Alliance can use the name on the label. The Good: It’s generally really good wine at non-Bordeaux prices (although this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily value priced). The Bad: It isn’t true Bordeaux.

One final note: Good wine – whether it’s from Bordeaux or anywhere else in the world – is the wine that tastes good to you. I’ve spoken to several industry veterans who have had the good fortune of experiencing several of the most renowned and celebrated wines on the planet. In each case, these experts remembered some of the wines as being perfect and lovely and delicious and incredible…and some of them tasting like…well…crap. Undrinkable. They poured their – otherwise perfect – glasses down the sink. I spoke to one man who said he went to a special winery dinner where, unbeknown to the head sommelier, they switched the bottle of the 3- or 4-figure wine of the evening with a bottle of Charles Shaw. The sommelier’s reaction was tepid: He thought it was a pretty decent bottle of Two-Buck Chuck and that the “exceptional” wine was quite a disappointment.

My point is this: Bordeaux is known for producing some truly special wines – for people who like to drink Bordeaux. There are no points given for paying top dollar for something you don’t want to drink. A region or a designation only makes the wine better in the way that a designer label improves a pair of jeans: Perhaps it’s an indication of quality or a certain cut or style, but there are a lot of other factors that determine the right fit.

Have fun, try a bunch of stuff, and buy what suits you. Maybe that’s Chateau Lafite-Rothchild, or maybe it’s something with a pretty label and a small price tag you buy from Trader Joe’s. In the end, you are your own expert, and only you can determine what you like to drink and how much you’re willing to pay for it.

* Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels:

Exceptional AND value-priced, too

Exceptional AND value-priced, too

Château Chasse-Spleen (Moulis-en-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc)

Château Haut-Marbuzet (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Labegorce Zédé (Soussans, Margaux)
Château Ormes-de-Pez (Les) (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Pez (de) (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Phélan Ségur (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Potensac (Ordonnac, Médoc)
Château Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc)
Château Siran (Labarde, Margaux)

Why Social Media is Not the Solution to Selling More Expensive Wine

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 8 Comments

On February 16th, The New York Times published an interesting article titled “Try the Red: Napa Learns to Sell” that caught my attention thanks to Twitter. The main focus of the article relies on this assumption,

“…in 2009, sales of wines priced at $25 and above dropped 30 percent nationwide, according to Nielsen. While global wine sales increased, California wine shipments fell for the first time in 16 years. Searching for a way out of the crisis, many Napa wineries are increasingly pinning their hopes on direct-to-consumer sales.”

As someone working in the front-lines of direct-to-consumer sales of wine and 5 years of ecommerce experience at some of the Internet’s largest properties, I groaned a little. I didn’t really start groaning and moaning until the article started talking about Facebook and Twitter as a great shining beacon of hope for direct-to-consumer sales.

In particular, Rick Bakas, a man who makes his living via promoting Social Media services to wineries (and does a good job at it), was quoted as saying,

“Where wineries need to focus most is on signing up new wine club members through social media,” he said, “rather than rely on cementing relationships with tourists who drive up to the tasting room.”

I happen to know more than a little about this particular challenge as this is how I make a living, too. At the end of this post there’s a quick rundown on how I’ve acquired the expertise I have, and it ought to inform the comments I’m going to make about why Social Media is not the solution.

Here’s the short answer about how it’s all a numbers game that doesn’t add up and then I’ll go into detail:

  1. It’s really hard (and takes a long time) for a brand to grow a huge, meaningful, Twitter or Facebook following.
  2. There are too many brands competing for consumers’ limited attention online to gain real online market share.
  3. Consumers are still skeptical of buying things online that they can’t experience first. Especially so with wine.
  4. There are MANY fewer people buying wine over $25 per bottle than under.

And the full(er) explanation for those of you who are interested, strap yourself in for a long ride:

  1. Meaningful Twitter & Facebook Followings
    There’s a difference between building a following that includes people who are genuinely interested in most of what you have to say or are selling and creating an enormous flock of people who are willing to commit to sometimes seeing your messages amongst the thousands of other messages they get every day or week. This is the part where social media falls down most aggressively, all on its own. The reality of all those social media connections is that when you send messages out to your Twitter and Facebook flocks, only a portion of those people will ever see your message, and a really teeny tiny portion of those who do, will act. That really teeny tiny portion might generously be 1% of those of who see your message. That means that to get 100 new sales, you’d need 10,000 people to see your message. Let’s be generous and say that 25% of people who are in your flock actually saw your message… that means that you’d need 40,000 people in your flock to generate 100 new sales. I wonder how long it took Rick to build up 40,000+ followers on twitter, but I bet it wasn’t fast enough to turn a winery around in a single fiscal year.
  2. Capturing Market Share
    The NYTimes article mentions this:

    “Distributors, they say, pay attention only to their biggest accounts, while small independent wineries, which predominate in Napa Valley, have to figure out ways to promote themselves.”

    If you think more than a handful of consumers are going to be more receptive to promotional information from small independent wineries than Distributors you’re mistaken. Distributors benefit from knowing about all of the wineries, even if they don’t carry/promote them. Their opportunities are in making fantastic deals with huge beverage companies and in finding “The Next Big Thing” which probably includes independent wineries poised for commercial success. So the Distributors have a vested interest in finding the best small independent wineries—consumers, on the other hand, do not.

    Small independent wineries are competing for consumers’ attention amongst all of the other brands in all of the other goods & services industries out there, on top of the consumers’ other personal interests which include oh, I don’t know, the rest of their lives, making ends meet, keeping up with friends and family, etc. Bottom line is: As a consumer, a no-name winery I’ve never heard of is not going to get my attention without a referral from someone I know and trust (a very small group of people and companies to be sure).

  3. Purchasing Wine Online
    The percentage of current online wine sales is somewhere in the 5-10% of all wine sold in the US. [This is not fact, but anecdotal data based on conversations with many other people in different areas of the Trade.]

    There are reasons this number is so small and it has much more to do with how people buy wine today than it does with people’s online shopping behavior. I spend a lot of time talking to consumers about wine (every chance I get pretty much) because they’re not in the wine industry and they don’t think the world practically revolves around wine like I do. Most people I’ve talked to buy a bottle or two of wine at the grocery store, buy six bottles at a time at places like BevMo! and World Market, or are given wine as a gift when guests come over for dinner. Most of them talk about how their friend or family member told them about some great wine that they loved and they can’t wait to tell me about it, too. Most of them can’t conceive of buying a case of wine, much less buying a case of wine online. A case of wine is a financial commitment… and people don’t like to commit to things they don’t know.

    Most online wine-buying behavior is people who are reordering something they already know they love or gift-giving. A reasonable percentage of people who are buying wine online are wine enthusiasts who don’t have access to a good wine store or are too busy to physically hunt down the latest treasure they’ve read about somewhere. A small percentage of people buying wine online are buying winery-direct because that’s the only way to get those wines—and I mean small.

    The wine industry seems to be hoping that the Gen-Y whippersnappers who are so comfortable with the Internet and computers will just switch their buying habits to online because it’s not as awkward to them. As one of the Gen-Y elders with a healthy household income, a 12-year online shopping habit, and 5+ years working in ecommerce, I’m no more likely to start buying my wine online than you are… because I want to taste it first. I want to know what I’m buying before I shell out money for 3 or more bottles (which is how retailers want me to buy it online because it makes it cheaper and easier for them to ship it to me).

    If returning wine online were easy, say as easy as returning 3-6 pairs of shoes that don’t fit properly, I might consider it. Unfortunately though, once I open a bottle, I can’t return it. And let’s say I order three, open one and don’t like it… it’s still not easy to return the other two. THIS is why consumer behavior around buying wine online is unlikely to change anytime soon.

  4. The Wine Price Pyramid
    Who's Buying Wine at What Price Points

    Who's Buying Wine at What Price Points

    While a great deal of wine by volume and by revenue is sold at the over-$25 per bottle price point in the United States, I perceive that growth market to be limited. The people who are already spending $25 and up for a bottle of wine LOVE wine. They drink it every day, they order bottles in restaurants, they have subscriptions to Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate, they have personal wine cellars, and wine is a passion for them. In a recession, there aren’t going to be a lot of people “moving up” to this level of wine-consumption. This recession in particular is teaching us all a lesson about not living beyond our means (I hope) and that luxuries are for people who live luxurious lifestyles… the rest of us need to focus on value and quality and getting our money’s worth because there’s less money to go around.

    Before the recession most Americans couldn’t conceive of buying a bottle of wine at the grocery store that costs more than $25. Today, the chatter is all about wines under $15 or even under $10. That’s where the growth market is. You can sell 10x more wine to “the average consumer” because there are so many more of them. Would you rather get 10 new customers who spend $500 per year ($5,000) or 100 new customers who spend $100 per year ($10,000)? The math should be easy, even with the lower profit margins in the cheaper wines.

  5. Wine Clubs
    You know when I join wine clubs? When I’m standing in a tasting room, buzzed and happy and really wanting to take this fantastic wine-tasting trip home with me in a bottle to be relived whenever I feel like popping a cork. The trouble is, I have to love most of what I’ve tasted to join your wine club. Not just one bottle that was great… but several. Every wine Fiddlehead Cellars makes is outstanding, so we joined their wine club. We were blown away by the 10 wines we tasted at Stolpman Vineyards so we joined their wine club. My favorite Rose is a Grenache Rose made by Beckmen Vineyards and I’ll drive 2 hours to Santa Barbara wine country to buy 3 bottles, but I won’t join their wine club because I was unimpressed by the rest of what I tried.

    Sometimes, when I’m feeling generous, I might be someone a 3-month subscription to a wine club from or the Wine of the Month Club. Maybe life’s getting too busy and I just want the wine delivered to my house at a good price, then I’ll look at the Wall Street Journal Wine Club or Zagat’s new Wine Club. This is consumer behavior, folks. Only your fanatical fans will join your wine club for a meaningful length of time. The rest who join last, on average, 4-6 months or 2-3 shipments whichever comes first. And the rest of us won’t join at all.

    I’ll reiterate here because it’s important: I make a living selling wine club subscriptions… and I don’t think increasing wine club sales is the way to grow your winery’s business. And incidentally, I don’t think Social Media is a way to meaningfully increase wine club sales either.

Okay… so I’ve blown holes in ecommerce and social media as a growth opportunity for wineries. Do I have any solutions or am I just a critic blathering on? Yes, I have solutions!

  • Wineries should take a hint from the fashion industry (the similarities are practically limitless) and go “High-Low.” Do you produce wines at $30 and up? Come up with a line of wines, made by the same winemaker so they carry the same reputation, and sell them at the under $15 price-point in mass-market settings. Introduce new consumers to your brand and create a following who, when they can afford it, will upgrade to your more expensive wines. Many wineries already do this: Ravenswood, Mondavi, Stag’s Leap, etc. come to mind.
  • Still taking a hint from the fashion industry, go “Private Label.” This has been a BIG hit for many winemakers and vineyards with brands like Cameron Hughes, 90+ Cellars, Oriel, and even Bob Lindquist who’s making wine under the label VINTJS at Trader Joe’s. Reaching a broader audience where they’re already shopping is a great way to expand your revenue channels.
  • Incentivize your wine clubs better. The wine geeks want access to special events because they’re saving their pennies for trips to Napa and Bordeaux, but the rest of us want a reason to join your wine clubs, too. We’re already getting discounts on your wines, but maybe I’d join your club if you offered me discounts to other wineries in a “collective.” So by joining the St Supery wine club (which I’d like to do some day) I could also get discounts and new-release information for Rombauer and PlumpJack, too. You’ll get increased brand-exposure (from Rombauer and PlumpJack’s fans) and you’ll get more subscriptions because there’s more in it for the consumer.
  • Invest in focus groups and user testing. Build your brand’s reputation around consumers who have blind-tasted your wine, liked it, and are willing to say so on your website, in non-industry publications, and disclose that they’re not being paid as spokesmen so other consumers can trust them. Let’s face it, most people talking about wine are paid to do so and are immediately lest trustworthy because of it.
  • Host wine-tasting events in major geographical locations and bring the wine-tasting experience to consumers where it’s convenient for them. Parties are cheap and drunk people buy a lot of wine. It’s a low-risk and fun way to find about your wines.

Then publicize all of that via Social Media… which is what it’s for. Getting the word out (as opposed to driving direct sales).

My Background & Qualifications for this Rant

While working in Product Management, User Experience, and Search at, the largest and most successful comparison shopping engine, I learned an inordinate amount about people’s online shopping behaviors, some about their offline shopping behaviors, and the web-marketing channel known as Cost-per-Click advertising (or CPC). I also learned how to test consumer behavior using actual shopping data as they were/are among the very best at it.

Later, I ran Product Management at Social Shopping hopeful Here I delved deeply into determining the power of user recommendations for generating demand that generates sales for, typically, high-end products. I learned a great deal more about online business models like Cost-per-Impression Advertising (or CPM) and Performance Marketing (Cost-per-Acquisition, or CPA). Unlike CPC and CPM models, when you’re working in the CPA business model, you get conversion data. For those of you whom I haven’t bored right off the site, CONVERSION DATA = ACTUAL SALES.

Currently I run a property called As you might imagine, we review wine clubs and rate them. Because wine taste preferences are so subjective, we don’t rate the taste of the wine and whether or not you’ll like the wine, we rate whether or not the wine club is delivering good value for your monthly subscription. Among all of the wine clubs we’ve reviewed to date, only one is from a single wine producer, and it’s not a winery, it’s Oriel wines who has engaged an innovative business model to capture wine consumers’ attention.

Getting Better at Blind Tastings

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 5 Comments

I’m going to let you in on a deep, dark secret – one that has been burning inside the most hidden recesses of my soul: I can’t identify different red wines, based on taste alone.

Yeah, I know. And sometimes I leave the dirty dishes in the sink overnight, too. Sue me.

But this secret bothers me and I have vowed to do better, so the other night I made a move to change my life. I drove over to BottleRock – Culver City, and told my-favorite-waiter-who-never-gives-me-discounts-even-when-I-flirt-like-a-crazy-girl, Byron, to line up some reds and let me puzzle through their mysteries. I also ordered a grilled cheese sandwich.

Cute little British Byron said he’d help me out and help me out he did! After disappearing for a few minutes, he returned to my table with four glasses containing two-ounce pours, and lined them up on a diagonal. Byron gave me instructions on the order in which to try each taste, and then bounced merrily away like some benevolent spirits pixie, tending to the thirsty masses.

Out came my notebook and down the hatch went the first wine.

The strong blast of alcohol heat clued me in that what I was drinking was young. The nose contained lots of delicious

Taste test

Taste test

plum and raspberry and cherry. It tasted of rich, ripe red fruit but felt a little oily. It had a medium body and a short finish. I thought it was a Cabernet.

My next taste smelled like a combination of dill, fennel and cherry – but was very pleasant, despite the somewhat odd-sounding mix. On the palate this wine was floral and herbaceous and really lovely, with definite strawberry notes and high – but not overwhelming – acid. It was a little thin, but ended up being my second-favorite pour. I noted that this wine was probably a Shiraz.

Wine number three was big and jammy. It smelled and tasted like cough syrup, but not in a super sweet way. Again, I picked up some dill on the nose, but on the palate it was mostly cherry. This pour was huge and hot, but contained smooth tannins. “I’m picking up tannins,” thought I, “so this is probably a Cab!” I decided I had been wrong about the first wine and crossed the varietal off my notes. I told you I have no idea what I’m doing.

The final pour had a nose of plum, a little hay and a bit of petrol, so when I tasted it, I was incredibly surprised at how smooth and delicious it was. This wine was massive, with a silky mouthfeel and flavors of delicious plum. It was a little hot, but all of these wines seemed to need age or decanting. This was another favorite. I decided it was a Pinot Noir, because I like making stuff up.

Wine consumed, sandwich finished, Bryan sprang back to my table and took a look at my notes. To his credit, he didn’t laugh at me at all – not even once – which is why I love him, even though I always have to pay full price.

MacMurray Pinot Noir

MacMurray Pinot Noir

The first wine, the one jotted in my notes as Cab Sav (?) turned out to be Pinot Noir – a 2007 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir (about $17 per bottle) from the Central Coast of California, in fact. Duh. (Super delicious)

My second tasting was not a Shiraz, as I had thought, but a Zinfandel – a 2006 Puccioni Zin from the Dry Creek Valley, in Sonoma County, California ($28). I love Zinfandel; it’s one of my favorite varietals. And apparently I can’t tell a Zinfandel from a hole in the ground. Or from a Shiraz. Man, I’ve got some catching up to do.

Wine three – the one I so wisely guessed was a Cabernet based on the tannins – was a 2005 Robert Keenan Winery Merlot (about $35 per bottle). A big Merlot, mind you, but still not Cab.

Keenan Merlot

Keenan Merlot

Finally, wine four was a 2006 Josh Cellars Amber Knolls Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley (about $15 a bottle). If you know anything about wine, you know that Cabernet Sauvignon is not really the same as Pinot Noir. Oops.

So how did I get all of these wrong? More important, what should I remember for next time?

Let’s start with Pinot Noir:

Pinots tend to be lighter in body, but are often complex and aromatic. New World Pinot Noir is more fruit-driven than Old World Pinot Noir, but I find that this is – in general – a given for all New World vs Old World wines. Pinot also possesses a more earthy character, often containing notes of mushroom/truffle, smoke, spice, tea or floral perfume. I only picked up on the heavy fruit in my Pinot pour, which pinned this as a New World wine. In my defense, I did register its lighter body, too, but I didn’t sense a trace of earthiness. But maybe that’s my bad.


Zinfandel grapes


Because of the huge variation in alcohol from one Zin to another (anywhere from 13% to over 18%), this wine presents a very diverse flavor profile. The term “jammy” is pretty popular as a description, since Zinfandel tends to possess big, concentrated blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry and/or black cherry fruits. But often woven within the chewy flavors are hints of black pepper, clove, anise and herbs. The more alcohol, the bigger and more concentrated the Zin. These are the “monster Zinfandels” you may have heard about. However, these 16%+ alcohol heavy hitters lack balance and acidity, and therefore don’t pair well with food. In the taste that I tried at BottleRock, I detected some of the herbs in the wine. Also, this must have been a lower alcohol Zin because I didn’t get drunk found the pour to be thin and high in acid.

By contrast…


Syrah/Shiraz grapes

Syrah/Shiraz grapes

Are big, bold, bad (in a good way) motor scooters. Despite having two different names, these are actually the same grape. It’s also known as Hermitage, but that name is a protected French designation (like Champagne). Australian and South African producers call the wine Shiraz. If it comes from France, the United States, Argentina or Chile, it’s labeled Syrah.

These wines display firm, smooth tannins, and are medium-to full-bodied. Huge black cherry, blackberry and plum fruits are common, but so are more exotic notes of bell pepper, black pepper, spices, licorice, lavender, chocolate, vanilla bean, smoked meats and musk. If you remember, I found the wine I described as Shiraz to be herbaceous (not spicy) and thin. See where I went wrong?

Merlot grapes

Merlot grapes


Merlot can be soft and mellow or big and bold. Obviously, the tasting notes will be different, depending on the heft of the wine.

In general, Merlot presents with fruit-forward black fruits like blackberry and plum and blueberry. It can also contain cherry and currant. It is also common to pick up floral flavors and stronger notes like cocoa, black pepper, clove, caramel, bay leaf, green peppercorn, green olive or bell pepper. With a bigger Merlot, you might find yourself chewing through smoke, tar, coffee, leather, cedar or cigar box. Milder Merlot will be more floral, with toasty tastes of vanilla and coconut and sweet wood. It is also worth mentioning that, although usually on the softer side, Merlot can be tannic – especially bigger Merlot. This might be why I got my pour confused with Cab Sav.

Cabernet Sauvignon:

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

“The noblest of all grapes,” “the king of red wine grapes,” the darling of collectors and connoisseurs, Cabernet Sauvignon contains the most tannins of any other wine – love it or hate it – which makes this the best wine around for aging. Cabs can present a similar set of flavors as Merlot, although Cab Sav is not as sweet and soft as Sideways-maligned Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon ranges from medium-to full-bodied and the tannins support all that plummy, berry fruit. Depending on the way it’s aged, Cabernet Sauvignon can also be rich, warm and spicy on the palate, with notes of vanilla or tobacco, warm spice and sometimes leather, toast or tar. Some fancy folks talk of pyrazine, which is a green pepper or sometimes asparagus-like flavor imparted from under-ripe grapes. This is not a wine fault, and is often attributed to growing influences.

The fact that I thought this pour was a Pinot is proof that I need to drink more.

Maybe I’ll do this with another blind tasting at BottleRock and a full glass of the MacMurray Pinot Noir to start.