Tag Archives: Identifying Wine

Keeping as Many Balls in the Air as Possible…Without losing One’s Own!

8 Jun

The title above is a quote from my business world. Specifically, from Abe Jacob, the Godfather of Theatrical Sound Design. He’s a mentor and friend, and the man who was not being satisfied as the sound mixer for Jimi Hendrix,  The Mamas and the Papas or the other 60’s acts he worked with. So he started designing sound for Broadway shows such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s quite famous in the small world of theatrical sound designers. (How does this relate to wine? I’m getting there!)


But today, Abe’s famous tongue-in-cheek quote, “What exactly does a sound designer do? (He/she) Keeps as many balls in the air without losing one’s own!” is quite apropos to me, as I struggle to complete a blog post I started some time ago whilst making  a living in a totally different industry, while tackling multiple projects simultaneously, and trying to be father, husband, techno-genius and wine director at the same time.

Today, the cherry on the sundae is that I have promised a group of friends a wine tasting, and I’m terrified that what I have planned won’t please everyone. While I know that ultimately it’s impossible to please everyone, I’ve got a great plan yet I keep second guessing my choices. At the same time, I have other friends, associates, and co-conspirators whom I know would LOVE to attend this get-together, but I can’t invite them as the group is already maxed out in size. So, too, is the wine. I thought I’d pick ten bottles to taste, which is about two more than most people can really handle at a tasting before their mind or taste buds explode and they just want to stop thinking about wine and enjoy something in their glass. Currently I’m at *15* bottles, and I have about three or four more I’d like to add! Ball after ball goes in the air. Knowing sooner or later, something is going to drop.

Agreeing to hold a tasting is the same as committing to teach a master class (something else I do in my professional “production” life). You might or might not know the level that each of your attendees has attained. They might not like what you serve, they might not understand what your goals are or why you are sharing these wines. You need to keep everyone engaged, and you have to accommodate all the levels of your students simultaneously, making sure everyone learns something that is appropriate to their own level. It’s not for the faint of heart, believe me.


In this tasting, the goals are simple yet expansive: to allow a varied group of people to taste a series of wines, to begin to understand and identify individual  grapes used for single grape and blended wines, and through the process of tasting, begin to understand the language of wine as well as to be able to understand the differences between a basic vin du table versus a well-crafted, world class vintage. I’m hoping the difference will be obvious, but that’s where the terror comes into play, long before anyone even mentions terroir. (You saw that joke coming a mile away, didn’t you?)   For the advanced oenophiles, it is a taste test and comparison in evolution of style, price point, as well as terroir. As designed, any level of wine drinker would enjoy the selection.

wine notes

What can I expect from this tasting? I sincerely hope that all my guests will:

1) Learn more about wine than they knew previously

2) Experience new wines they enjoy tremendously

3) Have a good time

4)  Retain their wits and manners

5) Refrain from drinking to excess.


Honestly, with all I have left to do on my platter, I’m happy that I was still able to use Abe’s quote. If life gets any tougher, I might have to amend it to juggling chainsaws or something I learned in the circus- which is a very different blog post for another time.

Because you were wondering, for my tasting I have selected wines that range in price from under $10 per bottle to almost $100 per bottle.  Choosing price point bottles and selecting flavor samples to match wine language is almost as difficult as figuring our what foods I can serve that will pair with all these wines and prepare in advance. I hope I can keep from changing my mind,  but ultimately rolling with the changes is part of what I’m good at, both personally and professionally. Maybe that’s why this is a challenge without being terrifying. 

No one ever said that life would be easy. If however,  you look at it the right way, then boy… is it fun! 

I lift my glass in a toast to you, fellow wine lovers. Here’s to opening a bottle and finding something you love inside it.


à votre santé!


A Rare Varietal from East of Italy

6 Mar

Exto Gredic Vineyard’s “Toh-Kai”  Quattro Mani, 2011. Dobrova, Slovenia. $12 at Astor Wines, 12.5% ABV.

The color is a cloudy, deep straw with apricot. Herbaceous nose with distinct note of petrol that does not dissipate with air. In the mouth, light tropical fruit and bold acidity match up in a battle for control of your tongue. Expansive minerality and some obvious heat. The petrol note found earlier is more bold, with a diesel fume effect on the back palate. Dry but lengthy finish. This biodynamic producer is near the Northeastern Italian border, and the grape varietal is tocai friulano.

Light enough to go with shellfish or appetizers and enough acidity to pair with heavy sauces or creams. This would be a great wine to open at a summer BBQ and have people taste- I expect as many people would laud the flavors as would shy away, and doubt anyone would sit on the fence. This is one you’ll either love or hate, but at this low price, you can afford to taste a Slovenian treat and find out.



à votre santé!


‘Winter’ Whites, Saddle Leather, and Cat Urine

25 Feb

How often do you find yourself specifically choosing, or refusing, to use certain words when describing wine? We often select and refer to words that conjure up sense memory, but there are times I may select a word and find myself promptly removing it and choosing a different approach or descriptor. Several of my rarely-used descriptors originate from the stables: horses, saddle leather, horse sweat, manure, alfalfa pellets, oats, freshly plowed track soil, and variations on these.

Many of these words or phrases elicit negative connotations to me, hence my reluctance to use them. For example, the word “oily”  simply feels negative to me while in the right situation it might be an ideal quality, like a properly aged baseball glove or the expected phrase, “a well-oiled machine”. One of the things I find interesting is that the words may not have similar reactions from others. I actually find saddle leather and gun oil comforting odors, and I have seen people put their nose close and drink the smell in deeply from a leather jacket in the same way I inhale the scent from a luxurious red. Perhaps the odors of the American West oppose the ideas formed during my French wine education?

In recent weeks, I have tasted several new reds, several old reds, and a handful of various wines that I’m incorrectly calling “winter” whites. They are only winter white wines to me, when in warm weather I enjoy a glass of white regularly I tend to ignore them during the cold months and stay with heavier flavors such as single batch bourbons or single malt scotch as a cocktail before a glass of red wine served with dinner.

What words I use to describe the season in which I try a wine has nothing to do with the winemaker’s intention, and a phase like ‘gun oil’ or  ‘saddle leather’ might elicit a warm, fuzzy feeling to one reader and a negative image or memory from another. Interestingly, my intent in calling a wine a ‘winter white’ simply implies I enjoyed it out of my normal season for enjoying the grape, in the same way that I often ignore big, bold, complex cabs during the hotter months of the year, and YMMV.

My favorite descriptive word is “velvety” which I use for specific quality of odor and mouthfeel I’ve found in certain well-matured Bordeaux, while my least favorite descriptor is “cat urine“, which I’ve used unfortunately at tastings for some very high end Sauvignon Blancs. Tasting a vineyards’ $400/bottle premiere cru that has a strong odor of cat urine can be off-putting for many people. I knew something was amiss when I saw it was the only wine, and a white wine at that,  decanted at the  tasting!

If you’re not an avid reader of Robert Parker, you might not know about his glossary of wine terms, which can be a great reference.
What are your least or most favorite wine descriptors?

à votre santé!

My Favorite Cheap Wine

27 Oct

Part of my blog’s focus is to introduce my friends & readers not only to new wines to try, but also to great values and sometimes to great classics. Today I’m giving you what I’ve realized has become my go-to cheap bottle of wine.

“It can’t be,” you might be thinking. “JvB choosing ONE wine?”

Haha, No, not a chance. You’re absolutely right. It’s not one wine, it’s one manufacturer.

The Naked Grape is a label that I have come to trust for a really passable $6 bottle of wine. Better yet, they offer a cabernet sauvignon, a pinot noir, a malbec, a chardonnay, a pino grigio, and a moscato, all of which I’ve tried and enjoyed. The last two I have opened are the californian moscato, which has nice pear fruit up front with distinct orange flavor and a sweet tang to it, and the argentinian malbec, a plummy, spicy offering that rocked leftovers, chinese food, & mexican at $1.50 a glass. Really!


Check out their website here, which sadly demonstrates not a whole lot about this manufacturer. Demand your local shop carry this, like mine does. (Forest Hills residents, I get this at Mayfair Wine & Spirits on Union Turnpike. John carries all of these, right near the register.)

The coolest thing about The Naked Grape is (no, not the cutesy bottle color coding, that ranks third behind #1 value & #2 drinkable) that for 36 bucks you can have SIX different bottle of six different grapes and pair them for what they are with your meals, and then move up to something serious, or know a great cheap bottle of wine that will work beautifully with your meals.

Last but not least: these are all really decent, well-made vin du tables worth serving, but if you don’t like one, it’s less than the cost of a glass at the restaurant, so who cares? You can always toss it, use it in the sauce, or serve it to a drunken guest after they’ve had your good stuff, right?

à votre santé!

A Way To Identify Smells In Your Wine!

28 Sep

Many of my friends and wine associates have challenges in identifying wine aromas. This is a fun article that describes a wonderful approach to expanding your sense and ability to smell and describe wine!

A link to the article is here, and the text follows. Ross Szabo does a great job. Enjoy, and follow his work on Huffington Post!


A Fun Way to Discover Wine Aromas With Items Already in Your Kitchen 

By Ross Szabo

As a person who rarely even selects which wine to drink when I am out for dinner, I am definitely a novice when it comes to properly identifying wine aromas. I can’t tell you how many times I have put my nose over a glass and guessed, purely out of embarrassment. When tasting in the past, everyone’s nose seemed better than mine, like they had an inside secret I would never know. I felt like I had some kind of impairment that would never be cured.

A large part of the problem was that I wasn’t in touch with my senses enough to know what words to use to verbalize the scents wafting past my face. When I don’t feel like I have words to describe what seems so commonplace to others, like most people in this situation I feel stupid and hesitant to speak up. However, all that changed with one simple exercise that anyone can do at home! This isn’t a wine infomercial. I promise.

My wife, Heidi, and I were guided through a wonderful lesson on how to smell wines by a sommelier in Mendoza, Argentina, Mariana Onofri. She made the process really comfortable. She said, “Scents are one of the basic building blocks of wine tasting. People say they don’t know about wine and feel inhibited. Wine is about enjoyment. My goal is to help people understand what they are tasting to enhance that enjoyment.”

Here are the three simple steps to properly identifying aromas. You can even use them to throw a party.

1. It’s important to include a variety of different whites and reds during this exercise. We had six glasses of wine for each person, including Torrontes, Chardonnay, Rose, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. During our aroma ID session with Mariana, we smelled and tasted each wine one at a time. The first sniff should always be done before swirling the wine to preserve the purity. This exercise is to learn the scents, so it’s important not to drink all of the wine, as you will be smelling and tasting them again. As we smelled each wine, I expressed to Heidi my lifelong frustration with not knowing how to describe the odors. Then the magic happened.

2. We took a break from smelling the wines and played a game. There were 16 ingredients placed into individual short, black, opaque wine glasses. At home you could use coffee mugs, or small plastic cups — just as long as you cannot see what’s inside. We passed around the glasses and wrote down what we smelled in each of them.

When we couldn’t identify exactly what was in the glass, it helped to write down memories the scents evoked. For example, Heidi’s answers consisted of ocean, grass, Christmas and other familiar memories from her life. For me, Chardonnay smelled like fresh pancakes from my childhood, but I was actually identifying the buttery nature of the varietal. Smell often triggers memories. If they do, you should write down that feeling. The important thing is that this exercise is not about being correct, it’s about becoming more in touch with your senses and references from your world.

After writing down our thoughts, Mariana told us the answers, and the hidden scents came alive one by one. The ingredients were green olives, orange, honey, chamomile, fruit jam, pepper seasoning, butter, lemon, vanilla, red pepper, pineapple, black licorice, green pepper, caramel, cinnamon and apple. We kept score to see who had correctly identified the most items. You can come up with a fun punishment for the person who has the lowest amount of correct answers.

3. The next step was to go back to the wines and smell them again. For me the bouquet of smells came alive from every glass. Because we had taken the time to identify the individual aromas earlier, it all clicked for me now as I smelled the wines. I finally felt like I was part of the club that could identify different aromas of wines, instead of just looking around the room and trying to fit in or giving up on the idea of ever having this skill. Being comfortable with the words to describe the smells has changed my entire wine tasting experience.

It’s easy, and a lot of fun, to replicate this process at home. Invite some of your friends over and have each of them bring a different wine. There will always be cheaters trying to see what is in the hidden cups. Try to discourage them, as it is so much more important to be identifying with your own experience, rather than “the right” answer. You’ll be amazed at how well the sniffing experiment works.

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