Category Archives: Wine Culture


When we think of wine in the U.S., the names of grapes generally come to mind, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay. In France, home to many of the grapes grown in the U.S., there is more of a geographical orientation with most wines being named for the region where the grapes are grown.

Consider Bordeaux, one of the world’s oldest and most legendary wine producing regions, highlighted in magenta on the map. There are five Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. In France, a Bordeaux wine is usually a combination of the two or more of these five grapes. This blending practice is occasionally used in the U.S. as well: if you stick to only the five Bordeaux grapes and pay a fee to the Meritage Society, you can label your wine a Meritage. Which, when pronounced correctly, rhymes with “heritage”.

Sterling Central Coast Meritage
Sterling Meritage containing all five Bordeaux grapes

More often, Bordeaux grapes are used in the U.S. to produce single varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In practice, even if the wine label lists just one grape, it’s common to blend in something else for smoothness or character. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, frequently contains a bit of Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Under the rules of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a bottle of wine can be called a varietal if it contains at least 75% of the grape listed on the label. If the primary grape constitutes less than 75% of the wine, you must call it a Meritage, a Red Blend or a Red Table Wine.

Pictured below are wines featuring four of the Bordeaux grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Not represented is Petit Verdot, which is rarely bottled as a single varietal, but instead is blended with other varietals to enhance the color and add tannins that improve aging.

Four Bordeaux wines

Of the four popular Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon gets the most respect. Most Cabs are big, complex wines made for drinkers with an evolved palate and they can command some of the highest prices in the wine world. If you win the lottery, consider seeking out a Screaming Eagle or a Colgin Cabernet. Think I’m joking? I recently saw a 2009 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon listed at $2095. Not for a case, not for a Jeroboam, the seller is asking $2095 for a single 750 ml bottle. If that seems a little over the top, but you want a reliably great Cab for a special occasion, consider Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley Cabernet, Sebastiani Cherryblock or something from Napa’s Stags Leap District. Better yet, go French and try a Premier Cru like Chateau Margaux or Chateau Lafite.

Merlot, on the other hand, has a reputation among critics for being a “beginner’s wine” with many producers avoiding bold flavors and tannins that might be off putting to someone unaccustomed to red wine. Paul Giamatti’s rant about his disdain for Merlot in the film Sideways didn’t help the grapes reputation, either. But in some cases, this reputation of mediocrity is undeserved. The Robert Sinskey Carneros Merlot seen in the photo is a fabulous wine, with complex flavors, a great balance and a beautiful finish.

Malbec has become popular in the U.S. in recent years, mostly owing to a dearth of excellent and affordable imports from the Mendoza region of Argentina. Cabernet Franc, like Petit Verdot, appears more often in blends than as a single varietal, but if you see a Cab Franc on the tasting menu at a winery give it go; it can be a real treat.

Stay tuned for our next post where we explore the wines of Burgundy.


If you’ve ordered wine in a fine restaurant, you may have interacted with the resident sommelier. In addition to employing their vast knowledge of all things wine to help their customers choose a great wine for the occasion, sommeliers typically hand pick the wine menu for the restaurant, manage the cellar and train the wait staff on wine related matters. Only recently have they begun to share the same status as celebrity chefs.

Becoming a sommelier is a serious undertaking. Structurally, it is similar to many trades where you attend school then take a certification exam for each level of expertise. It is generally accepted that there are four levels of sommelier-dom: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. At every level, students are instructed and tested in three categories: wine theory, tasting, and service. You must exhaustively study the history of wine, and you must to be able to identify by smell and taste any wine’s varietal and country of origin. And the service part: you must be able to defuse difficult customers.

The Master certification is governed worldwide by the Court of Master Sommeliers, while the lower three levels are governed by different organizations depending on country. In the U.S., sommelier certification is provided by the North American Sommelier Association. Yes, their initials spell NASA. Is it just a coincidence that the Culinary Institute of America has the initials CIA? What is it about food and beverage organizations sharing government acronyms?

Pictured below is the 2014 graduating sommelier class from the International Culinary Center in Silicon Valley. These students have two weeks after graduation to prepare for the Certified Sommelier Exam.

If you enjoy wine themed movies, then you might recognize instructor Ian Cauble on the far right. Cauble starred in the documentary film Somm, which tells the story of a group of young people preparing for the grueling Master Sommelier exam, which Forbes Magazine termed “the world’s toughest test”. Cauble and Alan Murray (far left) are among the elite group of just 214 Master Sommeliers in existence. Even though Australia has many renowned wineries, Murray is the only Aussie to become a Master Sommelier.

The film Somm is well worth watching if you have any interest in wine. It’s beautifully photographed, informative and suspenseful and the scenes are separated by entertaining shots of wine glasses being destroyed in creative ways. You’ll be amazed at not only the vast knowledge of professional sommeliers, but their ability to recognize and describe every nuance of the aroma and flavor of a glass of wine. In one scene, one the students insists that the varietals in his blind tasting are out of order. The Master Sommelier Instructor merely smells the wine in the one of the glasses and states with authority “they are in the correct order”.

Sommelier Graduates, International Culinary CenterIt is a noble, challenging and rewarding profession that was brought to my attention when I attended the Somm film premier at the Del Mar Theater in Santa Cruz.

Now all things sommelier have been brought closer to home; my stepdaughter Jillian Ritter is one of the aforementioned International Culinary Center graduates (pictured at right at graduation with two classmates).

During her studies, a considerable number of wines were “examined” at our kitchen table. Let’s all wish Jill good luck on her exam. [Update: Jill passed and is now a Level 2 Certified Sommelier.]

Stay tuned for an upcoming trip to one of the oldest wine growing regions of California, the Livermore Valley.

Tools of the Trade

Let’s say you’ve followed the sage advice of these columns, visited one of the many fine wineries featured herein and brought home a bottle of something special. Now what? First, you need to get the bottle open. While a few reputable wineries are using screw caps, most good wines still require a corkscrew.

My favorite is the classic stainless steel waiter’s corkscrew, also known as a wine key, shown at the bottom of the photo. It’s an effective and long lasting tool, with a sharp, durable screw and a fold out blade for foil cutting. It’s also lightweight and compact enough for travel. Because the blade is less than six centimeters long, it qualifies under the newly proposed TSA rules for carryon baggage.

The TSA used to confiscate corkscrews at security checkpoints, which were later sold in small lots on eBay. My wife has exploited this situation to acquire a fine collection. The shark-shaped corkscrew in the middle was liberated from a passenger returning from the Georgia Aquarium: the dorsal fin swings out to serve as a foil cutter. Feel free to hum the theme from Jaws while you open a bottle; we all know about the bond between wine and cinema.

On the left is another wine key, this one with a safer and more convenient foil cutter. This is the style preferred by many tasting room associates (aka “pour people”), who open many more bottles than us mortals.

Featured at the top of the photo is the “winged corkscrew” with two levers, or “wings” that extend as the screw is driven into the cork. This device is a bit bulky, but useful for anyone who doesn’t have the hand and wrist strength to wield a traditional wine key. The built-in beer bottle opener is a plus, but most “waiter style” keys can also remove bottle caps.

We complete our tour of openers with the ah-so, the device on the right with two thin, rigid steel blades that are designed to slide down opposite sides of the cork. With a gentle twist and pull, the cork is free and unharmed. The ah-so is highly recommended for older bottles of wine whose corks may disintegrate when a screw is driven down their center. The ah-so does require a bit of practice, lest the prongs simply force the cork further into the bottle.

If you want to see a vast collection of wine openers, pay a visit to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. Shown below is a sampling of their enormous display.

Now that we’ve mastered the task of bottle opening, we’ll need something to drink from.

Shown below are four wine glasses from Riedel, the venerable German glass maker. In a tasting room you would invariably start on the left with a white wine, but I’m going to break with convention. The style of glass is more important to the enjoyment of big red wines, so we’ll start on the right with a glass “optimized by German engineering” for Burgundian wines (think Pinot Noir). The shape is designed to direct the wine to the part of your tongue featuring the optimal taste buds for the enjoyment of Pinot. (I am not making this up!) Should we call it The Ultimate Drinking Machine? This glass allows your nose to get into the bowl where you can fully enjoy the tremendous “nose” that accompanies a good red. It also allows the wine to breathe better so that you can enjoy every nuance of its complexity sooner, making a good red wine more enjoyable.

Next to the Burgundian is the Riedel Bordeaux (that’s Cabernet and Merlot to you and me). This is another fine glass worthy of investment, but if you’re on a budget you don’t need the Burgundian and the Bordeaux; either will suffice.

The glass to the left of the Bordeaux is made for Chardonnay, directing the wine to a different area of your tongue. Whites don’t taste any better to me in this glass than they do in the ”giveaway” winery logo glasses, so unless you’re entertaining the boss or your rich uncle, you might want to skip the deluxe Chardonnay stemware.

The leftmost glass is a stemless style intended for whites. It’s compact, modern and less likely to be knocked over. There is also a stemless red version, but the bowl is so large as to be difficult to grip for non-NBA stars.

If you don’t finish your bottle, you’ll likely want to save it for the next day. If the cork didn’t expand too much when it came out of the bottle, you can always shove it back in. The boss will be impressed. Or you can use this opportunity to purchase yet more gadgetry for your favorite hobby. Stoppers come in so many shapes and sizes that there is surely one for every occasion and taste. Shown below is a sampling of our collection. My personal favorite: the black one second from the right. It seals nicely, is easy to clean and is compact enough at I don’t fear running out of headroom when putting an open bottle of Chardonnay back in the fridge.

If you’re wondering where to purchase a good corkscrew or other tool of the trade (other than eBay) I recommend Wine Enthusiast for internet sales, or a BevMo retail store. Winery gift shops often have nice items as well that can double as a souvenirs of your trip. Just check with the TSA before heading through security or my wife may end up with your new corkscrew.

Next month we’re vacationing in Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and the Santa Ynez Valley, so please check back for more wine fun. 


Wine and the Movies

With that title, you might be expecting a story about taking a flask to a theater, or which wine pairs best with Casablanca (Bogart’s characters would likely prefer whiskey or gin). In fact, we’ll be exploring several aspects of the long relationship between wine and filmmaking.

Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola owns two wineries, including the historic Inglenook estate in Napa Valley, which was purchased with the proceeds from The Godfather and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a beautiful chateau to visit and the wines are exemplary. Like most Napa establishments, they focus on Chardonnay and big Cabernets.

The list of current actors who own wineries or vineyards includes Kyle MacLachlan (Pursued by Bear, Washington State), Dan Aykroyd (Aykroyd, Ontario), Antonio Banderas (Anta Banderas, Spain), Emilio Estevez (Casa Dumetz, Malibu) and Fess Parker. Parker’s vineyard in Foxen Canyon, near Santa Barbara, is worth a visit. The Pinot Noir and Syrah are excellent and the tasting room features wine glasses with a coon skin cap etched onto them. For those too young to remember, Fess Parker played Davy Crocket, an early 19th century American wilderness man who wore a raccoon skin cap.

Wine itself can be prominent in film, but sometimes it just drops in for a cameo, as in two of my favorite Roy Scheider films. In Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stars as an NYC grad student whose life is consumed by his studies and marathon training. When his worldly brother (Scheider) visits with a great French Bordeaux in hand, he searches the kitchen for wine glasses before settling on two water glasses of questionable cleanliness.

Marathon Man Wine Scene

The tables are turned on Scheider’s character Chief Brody in Jaws, the 1975 Spielberg thriller. This time it is he who disrespects a fine bottle of Burgundy that shark expert Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) has brought for dinner. Brody, severely stressed after losing a second citizen to a shark attack, grabs the freshly opened bottle, fills a tall glass and starts gulping as Hooper attempts to protest “you should really let that breathe”

Wine takes center stage in Sideways, the Alexander Paine comedy about the last romp of a groom and his oenophile buddy who takes him tasting, and adventuring, around Foxen Canyon and the Santa Ynez Valley. They even stop at Fess Parker. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are terrific in this film, so if you haven’t seen it and you like wine and laughs, put it in your Netflix queue.

Another great film that is wholly about wine is Bottle Shock, the story of Chateau Montelena’s improbable victory in the “Judgment of Paris”, a 1976 international wine competition that helped propel Napa to the forefront of the wine universe. Bonus points: it stars Chris Pine, who played young Captain Kirk in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

There is much more to this story than we can fit in these pages, so you’ll have to continue the journey through wine and film on your own. Bon voyage.

Barrel Tasting

Those who like wine tasting are accustomed to the routine: six or eight bottles are lined up on a counter; the tasting room associate (aka pour person) explains a bit about each wine as you’re sampling. The wines you taste are available for purchase and are often sold in stores and restaurants. The winemaker, on the other hand, has a different experience. After the wine has gone into the barrel (or a stainless steel vat if it is to be “unoaked”) the progress is gauged by taking barrel samples. There’s simply no other way to know how the wine is progressing and when it has aged enough to bottle.

Occasionally, a winemaker will invite a few friends and customers to stop by for barrel tasting, as did Jim Schultze of Windy Oaks Vineyards on October 30. Upon arrival, I bypassed the other guests, who were “bottle tasting” and grazing on Corralitos Market venison sausages, and snuck into the barrel room. Frequent readers of this column know that this is my way of getting some good photos and a little inside information. As luck would have it, Jim was drawing a liter of his best estate Pinot Noir from a French oak barrel.

When a winemaker is drawing a sample for himself, he normally employs a long glass tube with a rubber bulb at the end that resembles an oversized turkey baster. When you need enough for guests, you siphon the wine into a flask using a long, clear tube. The apparatus resembles something college kids might use at a party; at least that’s what I’ve heard.

Barrel tasting gives you a good idea what the wine will taste like after the aging process is complete, but also provides the experience of tasting something a bit “unfinished”. Windy Oaks produces exemplary estate Pinot Noirs, and I’m pleased to report that this one is coming along nicely.

If you visit Windy Oaks, be sure to take a walk through the vineyards to the top of the hill where you’ll enjoy a commanding view of the Monterey Bay. It’s the next best thing to Dijon, and a lot closer. If you come in October, the vines may even be sporting Halloween outfits.

That’s netting, of course, to keep the birds from stealing the fruit. If you’re thinking that the harvest should have been in September or early October, you are correct. Because we had a cool, foggy summer in 2011, the Chardonnay grapes were still on the vines. Jim assured me that these are the last unpicked Chardonnay grapes in California.

If you get a chance to do some barrel tasting, I highly recommend it for the “inside experience” it provides. And if the opportunity is accompanied by a trek through the vineyard and a hilltop view, it will be a memorable experience.




Behind the Bar

If you are a sports fan near my age, and I won’t tell you what that is, you might recall a sportswriter named George Plimpton. George felt that it wasn’t enough just to cover professional sports; if you really wanted to understand the game, you had to see it from the inside. So one season Plimpton trained with the Detroit Lions as a backup quarterback, and then wrote his most famous work, Paper Lion.

A few weeks ago my friend Mary Kay Alfaro, co-owner of Alfaro Family Vineyards, inquired if I would be interested in helping out for a couple hours in her tasting room. An image of Plimpton immediately came to mind, but without the danger of getting sacked by 300 pound linemen, so I agreed.

If you are a regular reader you know that I always treat the folks behind the bar with respect, but I had no idea of the difficulty until I tried it myself. Sure, I can wield a corkscrew, and I know the difference between a chardonnay and a pinot noir. But like a quarterback, the pour person has to keep track of everything that’s going on. We poured seven wines that day, in a specific order, so you have to remember who’s had what. You also keep track of who has paid for their tasting and who is in the wine club (they taste free).

Amidst the pouring, you get asked a lot of questions, ranging from detailed ones from veteran wine enthusiasts to basic ones like “why is white wine white and red wine red?” At what elevation is the wine grown? What is the sugar content when the grapes are picked? Who designs your labels? Can I try the Lindsay Paige again? What’s the discount on a case? Every question must be answered as patiently and accurately as possible; this isn’t a computer store or a car lot where you can just make stuff up.

Luckily, a more experienced “tasting room associate” was there to run the cash register; that might have pushed me over the edge. Like George Plimpton, I survived the experience, a little wiser and with some stories to tell. Mary Kay thanked me graciously and even offered to pay me. I was happy to return home with material for a column and a nearly full bottle of Garys’ (the one I’m opening in the photo), which was payment enough.