Tasting Notes: Useful, Yet Harmful?

Have you ever read the back label of a bottle of wine and been more confused than before you picked that bottle up?  Ever read a wine magazine tasting note or review and said,"What are you smoking, and can I have some?"!  As a sommelier, I've talked to many people who get so confused or turned off by these, that they just end up asking for a "house" wine, or forego the grape altogether and grab a beer.  So what's the deal with all the big, exotic words used to describe these wines and how do you know you'll like them?  Here's a guy's eye view to what to expect:

Most of the questions I get regarding this subject sound something like this: "so does this wine really have cherries in it?" or,"do they really make that wine with blackberries and plums?".  Follow this tasting note from Wine Spectator about Etienne Guigal's 2006 Côtes du Rhône (CDR):

"A textbook version, with mesquite and tobacco weaving through a core of crushed plum and blackberry fruit.  A licorice edge frames the lightly grippy finish." 

If I take a look at this through the eyes of a wine novice, I would have a hard time figuring out what's going on.  How do they flavor this wine and is it made with all those fruits?  Well, the first thing to remember is almost every wine you see in reviews and shops/stores are made solely out of grapes (some are made with other fruits, but it will always be stated on the front label).  These reviews and "tasting notes" are simply that: an expert telling you what flavors they pick up through smell and taste of particular wines. 

Wines are fermented fruit juice, with most wines available to us made of grapes.  A large number of factors influence how the finished wine tastes when it reaches your palate: how the grapes lived their summer life, how they were fed (fertilized), what kind of weather they experienced, what pests, molds, funghi they encountered, how they were aged, was oak used, etc.  The vineyard, farmer, and winemaker have the biggest impact on the finished product.  You should also be weary of your vendor and how the wines were stored.  Many factors can also affect a wine after it's in the bottle as well: light, temperature variation, vibration and moisture.

Once you come to learn these few facts, you shouldn't be intimidated- just use the tasting notes as a guide to find what kind of wines you like.  Some wines are described to taste like gooseberries, figs, black tea, raisins, graphite, etc.  Just because this reviewer picked up these notes does not mean you will and it also doesn't mean you will pick up totally different notes.  But if you don't think you'd like any of those flavors, move to the next wine.  You can also laugh (like I do!) at some of the descriptors.  I've found Kenya AA coffee, shiso leaf, briar, crème fraiche, Pastis, acacia blossom, maduro tobacco and quince paste to name a few.  I've also seen other funny references like loamy edge, cocoa tinged toast, broad-shouldered, providing undercarriage and smoldering finishes.  Sometimes the descriptors are almost as entertaining as the wine!

Also, if you're a beer guy, don't think that tasting notes are only for the wines.  One of my favorite sites, Beer Advocate, gives taste descriptors, beer reviews and tasting notes to almost any beer on the market.  Plus, many of the descriptors can sound just as hawty tawty as wine ones. 

So just be aware of the reviews, but the most important thing to do is to make your own- and enjoy!

Holiday Event Planning at Your Service!

The holidays can be alot of fun, but they can also be stressful.  Picking out the right venue, caterers, beverages, pairings, etc. can make or break your event.  Fortunately, there is a solution: contact the Windy City Wine Guy!  Anything is possible, from finding the right spot for your corporate holiday party, to finding the right wines to pair with each catered selection, or even purchasing the right beverage for your baked ham dinner. 

Need a professional sommelier onhand for a wine tasting or to help entertain your guests?  I have over ten years combined experience as both a mixologist and sommelier, and have paired beverages with everything from caviar to cupcakes.  Santa Claus may be over three weeks away, but the Windy City Wine Guy can help anytime!

Contact me anytime:  windycitywineguy@gmail.com

And the Winner Is...

img_1181Chicago's Best Palate 2009.  Four reputable sommeliers.  Three wines, blind tasted.  About thirty guests in attendance, blind tasting the same wines.  The pressure was on!

This event was held yesterday at the Hotel Sax Crimson Lounge.  Our sommeliers were up for quite a challenge- as a sommelier myself I was almost jealous!  Not only would the winner receive the title, but also a gift pack donated by event wine sponsor, Terlato Wines International.  This gift pack was comprised of the three-bottle Terlato "Peak Series" (Angel's Peak, Devil's Peak, and Cardinal's Peak), all excellent Napa Valley Bordeaux blends.  On to the tasting!

Blind tasting is a difficult challenge, even for the most fine tuned palate.  It takes good senses- sight, smell, taste.  But it img_11531also takes a bit of knowledge and deductive reasoning.  By using your senses, you can rule out certain varietals and wine regions in the world, while narrowing down the your choices.

Our sommeliers and guests had twenty minutes to narrow down their choices, and try to score points in a number of areas like varietal (grape variety, ie. Merlot), location (which included country, region, appelation, and bonus points for producer), and vintage (year the grapes were harvested).  After that time, the sommeliers revealed their picks and how they narrowed them down.  It was very informative, and I believe our guests learned alot.

Next, it was time to reveal the wines:

  1. 2007 Michel Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage "La Petite Ruche" Blanc.  It is comprised of 100% Marsanne, a grape grown in the Rhone Valley

  2. 2006 Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino.  A medium bodied red made from Sangiovese, grown around Montalcino in Tuscany.

  3. 2004 Rust en Vrede Shiraz.  A full bodied red made close to Stellenbosch, in the West Cape province of South Africa.

We were finally about to find our winners and give out the prizes.  By a narrow margin, Scott Tyree of Tyree Wine styree1Consulting is the winner of Chicago's Best Palate 2009!  Congratulations!  Also, congratulations goes out to our Amatuer Audience Best Palate Winner, Addie Braun, who went away with two wines donated img_1196by Eno, a sparkling rose made by M. Lawrence, and a Pinot Noir made by J. Wilkes.  We also had a winner of a gift certificate for Eno/Intercontinental Hotel for picking our winning sommelier.  Fun, drink, knowledge, and prizes- a win-win situation for all!

I want to thank our audience for attending, our sommeliers- Scott Tyree, Michael Taylor of the Italian Village, Alain Njike of Park 52, and Lucas Henning of C-House, my partner Theresa Carter- The Local Tourist, Terlato Wines International, Eno and the Intercontinental Hotel, and the Hotel Sax. 

I invited many Chicago sommeliers, and will invite many more next year- looking forward to having some female representation, as this city has some of the best in the world.  Can't wait for 2010!

What is a Sommelier?

Most Chicago restaurants employ some form of sommelier(s) to help guests with beverages, mainly wine, as well as pairings.  But most consumers do not know exactly what a sommelier is or what they do.  Since the Windy City Wine Guy is a sommelier and has been in the Chicago restaurant scene for quite some time, I have decided to give you the scoop.

 A sommelier (somm), as defined in the dictionary, is "A restaurant employee who orders and maintains the wines sold in the restaurant and usually has extensive knowledge about wine and food pairings."  This used to, and recently has expanded to include other beverages, including beer, sake, spirits, and non-alcoholics. 

According to my experience, this definition barely scrapes the surface of a sommelier's responsibilities!  A somm is in charge of every beverage a restaurant carries- from teas to liqueurs.  And this should be done in congruence with the chef, menu, and theme.  The somm is also in charge of everything pertaining to the beverages: storage, glassware, equipment, cleanliness, inventory, budget, sales figures and projections, promotions, and implementation of staff wine/bev education- if the staff doesn't know about the product, how can they work with it?!

There is also the issue of "floor time".  This is when the restaurant is open, and much of the somm's time is taken up attending to the guests and aiding waitstaff.  This is possibly THE most important function- the guest comes first!  There is no ego, no snobbery, and no cheap sales tactics.  Your best somm's can speak with any guest, get to what they want, and surpass satisfaction.  Some guests may be looking for the best wines, some may be looking for the best value- READ and RELATE to the guests.  If a somm can do all this, they will instill trust in themselves and the restaurant while winning over the guest.

It should also be known that a sommelier can learn through study, On the Job Training, and/or classes.  You can be both a sommelier through job title and a sommelier through certification (though not necessary).  The certifications are great to have, and each gained are accreditations and accomplishments, but nothing beats experience.  If you have the time and are interested in becoming certified, I found that both the Court of Master Sommeliers and International Sommelier Guild are reputable and worthy.

(Image courtesy of flickr)