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.

I Don’t Read Playboy For The Articles

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment
Two Great Things That Go Great Together

Two Great Things That Go Great Together

In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t read Playboy for the pictures, either. If I want to see well-lit T&A, I’m lucky enough to be able to step into my shower. You wouldn’t believe the money I don’t spend on internet porn.

I’m a big fan of Playboy for a reason that has nothing to do with literary merit or bouncy body parts. His name is Dan Dunn. He’s known as The Imbiber; he’s the spirits writer for Playboy and he just gave me a big ol’ box o’ booze to review.

Never stop believing in miracles, kids.

The only thing naked in this post will be my reviews. But don’t hold it against me. I promise I’m good and my wine rack is awesome (even in low light).

Campo Viejo Crianza Tempranillo 2006: From the world-renowned Rioja region of Spain comes an “old friend.” A blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Mazuelo, this deep, dark garnet wine has a golden rim in the glass and a nose of plum and cherry, ripe blackberry and vanilla. 12 months of barrel aging adds smooth vanilla on the palate and soft, ripe fruits like the cherry and blackberry you smell right out of the bottle. But this baby burns. It’s acidic; the initial velvet mouthfeel is replaced by a tinge of acid in the back of the throat. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it the first night. It felt rich, smooth. It went down easy. I didn’t enjoy it as much the next night. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t as good as the first time. And in my opinion, it should always be better the second time around.

Castello Monaci Piluna Primitivo 2007: Italian Primitivo is the genetic twin of the grape we know as Zinfandel.

Primo Primitivo

Primo Primitivo

Generally best consumed in the first 3 – 5 years after bottling, the longer Primitivo/Zinfandel ages in the bottle, the more that lush, jammy fruit taste diminishes.

Apparently for the Castello Monaci Piluna, now is a great time to drink the 2007.

Dark purple in the glass, with a nose of cherry, blackberry and blueberry (Jess actually called it blueberry pie). On the palate it’s all ripe black fruit deliciousness. Balanced, velvety mouthfeel. Medium tannins, medium finish. There was a slight burning on the way down, but just the slightest bit.

Antonio Galloni reviewed it for Parker:

The 2007 Primitivo Piluna flows from the glass with waves of dark red fruit. This generous, ripe wine should continue to drink well for at least another year or two. It is another incredibly delicious value-priced red from Castello Monaci.

Producer Notes:

The wine has broad, ripe black fruit and spice aromas, with notes of pepper, toasty vanilla and Mediterranean scrub. On the palate, the wine has a robust, concentrated character, a firm structure, and small black fruit and licorice notes on the aftertaste.

At around 11 bucks a bottle, this is a great buy.

Good stuff

Good stuff

Trapiche Broquel Chardonnay 2007: In doing research for this piece, I noticed that the importer used the word “international” to describe this wine and its packaging no less than 1 billion times (give or take a few). So I’m going to wager that they’re describing this wine as “international” to reassure potential buyers that it’s as good as Australian and Californian Chardonnay; maybe they’re afraid the average bear won’t buy a Chardonnay from Argentina. Could that be true? Do we use Argentina for their Malbec and rudely walk away from the rest?

If that’s the case, than shame on us. This wine is delightful. Lovely, golden straw in the glass. A nose of honey and apricot and peach. Flavors of green apple, honeysuckle, grass, muscat and apricot. It’s crisp but has backbone. A bit of bite, but – under the right circumstances – a bite isn’t bad. At $15 a bottle, it’s a little more than I’d want to spend, but if you find it on sale, go for it.

Producer Notes:

Tasting Notes: It is an elegant wine with intense scents of red apples, honey, and cinnamon [Ed: Cinnamon?! WTF?!]. Well-rounded flavors offer good body and a mild, harmonious finish.

Food Match: White meats, scallops, hard cheeses, fish, chicken, BBQ [Ed: And

left-over pumpkin cheesecake right out of the fridge, when you’re too lazy to make yourself lunch after spending an entire week cooking for Thanksgiving].

Those are my favorites from the free stuff I got; I raise a glass and toast. Here’s to women and wine. Here’s to Dan Dunn, The Imbiber. And here’s to the magazine that circuitously brought all of them together in this piece. Cheers!

BevMo! Mega Tasting Notes!

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 4 Comments
The GrapeSmart gals and their pimp-for-the-day, Wilfred Wong

The GrapeSmart gals and their pimp-for-the-day, Wilfred Wong

BevMo!, a beverage superstore local to California and Arizona, recently opened its 100th store, and Jess, Mitch and I trekked all the way to Rolling Hills Estates to help them celebrate (see Bordeaux Wines That Won’t Break The Bank). The expansive wine, beer and spirits “mega-tasting” was probably an incentive…

Armed with vinoculture literature and a solid breakfast, we descended on the event – determined to taste as much as possible before passing out. Or until they closed up shop at 5pm. So we started at the most likely place: The ticket booth.

Our $15 tax-deductible entrance fee went straight to Boys and Girls Clubs of the South Bay, and gave us 10 tasting tickets. Jess and I looked at our notes, looked at each other and promptly decided to buy 10 more tickets to split between us. We were handed a reusable 6-bottle wine carrier, a commemorative BevMo! glass and a shiny new wine key, then headed into the fray.

Before I talk about our tastings, I thought I’d share some important bits of info we quickly learned about these types of events:

1) Don’t buy extra tickets in advance. At this tasting there were several wineries at each tasting station but only one ticket was requested per table. So one ticket could buy as many as 10 tastings, depending on who was crowding into the area. And by the time the place was packed, tables weren’t even taking tickets anymore. Go back and buy extras as needed, but don’t stock up in the beginning.

2) Wear a hat.

3) Come sober.

(The last one is probably a given, but I thought I’d throw it out there, just in case)

And now that that’s out of the way, here is a list of our favorite pours and the ones we would’ve preferred to pass up:


Silver is golden

Silver is golden

Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay 2007: This unwooded Chardonnay is made from grapes grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County and is aged in concrete tanks (which are made in Burgundy). It contains no malolactic fermentation and never touches oak. A beautiful light straw color in the glass, it has a lovely nose of grass, stone fruit (peaches, apples), and bright flavors of pineapple and citrus. It comes with a screw top!

Altocedro Reserva Malbec 2007: Rated as #47 of the “Top 100 Wines” in Wine Spectator, this Argentinian delight is a rich, dark purple in the glass, with a nose of grapes (!), oak, cherry and earthiness. On the palate it’s big and lush and oaky, with flavors of bright, dark fruit. This was definitely one of the stand-outs of the day. I should note, however, that it was only the Reserva that blew us away. The Ano Cero and Desnudos Malbecs didn’t do much to impress.

Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel 2006: This old clone Zinfandel is rich and robust and bursting with flavors of blackberry, black cherry, raspberry and vanilla. I’m already a big fan of Rosenblum’s more value-priced vinos, but this one really stands out and I think it’s worth the steeper price. Grown in Lake Sonoma in the upper Dry Creek Valley.

Trefethen Chardonnay 2006: Bright, light yellow in the glass, with aromas of pear, lemon and honeysuckle. Great balanced flavors of pear, lemon and vanilla. This is a nice, full, creamy white and has become one of our favorites in this price range.

Le yum!

Le yum!

Joseph Perrier Cuvee Josephine: Have you ever taken a sip of champagne that was so delicious it made you smile? The perfect amount of tiny bubbles tickling your tongue through the perfect balance of aroma and taste and mouth feel? Apple-y, citrus-y, peachy, vanilla and caramel deliciousness cascading over every tastebud and gracefully slipping down your throat? If you answered “no” to any of the above, than you need to find an occasion to try this remarkable champagne. Those French really know what they’re doing.


Roth Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006: You know how we’ve said that Alexander Valley Cabernet is across-the-board delicious? Yeah…well…we can also admit when we’re wrong. This is a blend of 76% Cab Sav, 19% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc. The color is 100% gorgeous. The nose is scrumptious chocolate cherry. The flavor is…well…bland. Slightly tannic. Unimpressive. And at $30 – $40 a bottle, I need more for my money.

Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005: Hailing from Healdsburg, California, Lancaster is a family-owned winery and was at the same tasting table as Roth. In the glass, this wine is gorgeous and dark, with a nose of cherry and coffee. Smooth, rich mouthfeel. Coffee flavors. Very tannic. Fussy. However, in their defense, I learned in my research that Wine Enthusiast doesn’t feel this wine will reach its full potential until 10 years of bottle aging. Currently between $55 – $70 per bottle, that’s the chance you’d have to take.



Renwood Grandmere Zinfandel 2006: Boy, I really wanted to like this wine. The owner was at the tasting. He was incredibly enthusiastic. His winery is “Green Friendly,” which is a term he coined to describe the beautiful environmental protections he practices in his business. The grapes for this Zin are grown in the “oldest known Zinfandel vineyards in America.” Honest-to-blog, I really, really wanted to like this wine. But I didn’t. The color was super light. The scent and taste were very strawberry. It was incredibly tannic. It wasn’t very good. In fact, I couldn’t even drink it. Maybe that makes me a bad person. I’m sorry. I tried.

Parcel Thirty-One Zinfandel 2007: The Wine Whore has an interest in the topic of why some varietals don’t work for him, but he just keeps tasting them anyway because you never know when your palate will change or you’ll find one you DO like. There are three wine-growing areas that I feel this way about… Monterey, Lodi, and Mendocino County. And this Zinfandel, from Victory, was yet another example of how the wines from those areas don’t work for me. This was thin and light (Zinfandels should have body and finish!) with no appreciable flavor qualities beyond “red wine.” {Sad face goes here}

To wrap up… Wine Tasting Events are fun! Bring a friend and come prepared. And don’t forget to take notes or you’ll forget EVERYTHING. Oh, and don’t go shopping at a wine store while you’re drunk… the next day Jess looked in the wine box and the following conversation ensued:

Jess: “I bought those?!”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No, actually, those are wines I either like or have wanted to try.”
Mitch: “I guess it’s a good thing that even when you’re drunk you know what you like!”

The Other Mother’s Little Helper…

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wines from the Grocery Store | Comments Off on The Other Mother’s Little Helper…

Editor's note: This post was written on Mother's Day

target winesThis morning I received the greatest gift a mother could get: My preschooler slept in. This bit of amazingness allowed me the opportunity to wash dishes and scrub the toilet. It's Mother's Day not Miracle Day – these things aren't gonna clean themselves.

And so it went until I found myself at Target.

Let me be clear: Normally, I do not buy wine from household discount retailers! But I was there anyway, my son was in tow and I wasn't about to drag him to another store, so I made the best of it.

And, actually, “making the best of it” was surprisingly easy.

As one would expect, Target has an incredibly small selection. The store where I was shopping carried fewer brands than my local grocery store. But, that being said, there was actually an okay selection of decent wineries, with prices starting at around $6 for a Barefoot Merlot and going all the way to $32 for a  2006 Stags Leap Merlot. Also on the shelves was a 2007  Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio  for $10, a 2007 Hess Chardonay for $11, a 2007 J Lohr Cab Sav for $14, and Moet & Chandon White Star Champagne for $37. Honestly, I was really just expecting a box of good ol' Ernest and Julio Gallo.

I decided on a 2006 Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel. I happen to be a huge fan of Ravenswood Zin, and this one ravens_wood_vintners_zinfandel_2006was even on sale! $6.99 marked down from $9.99.

I'm used to seeing these wines start at around $12 and go up from there. But lately I've noticed a preponderance of 2006 Ravenswood Zins on the market between $6 and $10, and I've wondered if 2006 was a bad year for them.

I think so. Probably.

The normally rich, mellow body seemed sharp and sour in this bottle – it tasted very, very “young.” Perhaps it would've been improved by more time to breathe, although the bottle was open for almost an hour before I could settle down and enjoy my first glass. It was still a delicious wine, but this one – the bottle of wine I bought on sale at Target, let me remind you – didn't possess the depth and deliciousness I've come to expect from a winery that's widely known to produce some of the best Zins on the market in the under $25 range.

This, of course, did not stop me from drinking the whole bottle. Happy Mother's Day to me!

My take-away from all of this? 1) If a solid wine suddenly sells for far below its average retail price, there is probably a reason. Go for something known to be scrumptious on the less expensive side (stay tuned for that piece). Just because the winery is well-known for higher-end varietals, doesn't mean their budget-priced products will be worth their salt 2) Target never stops proving its usefulness, and 3) It's really hard to explain a cheap wine hangover to a four year-old.