Learning About Wine Labels with Tricia Bump Davis

We caught up with Trica Bump Davis, general manager of Darms Lane Winery in Napa Valley, last spring. We were devastated when the video did not come out. But Davis’ discussion on learning about wine labels was so much fun, we couldn’t resist using the transcript. So here it is. With a wine label to look at.


Q – You are the general manager of Darms Lane

Davis – Yes. I am the gm, I am the general manager of Darms Lane. It’s actually my family’s business. My parents started just as investors in a vineyard in Napa Valley. And then over the course of time, their investment got bigger and bigger, and then they became the sole owners of our property. So just since 2000, it’s been in my family. And then I have two sisters, so my dad didn’t really have a choice on having a son run it because he only had girls.

Q – So what does a general manager do?

Davis – So my responsibilities… There’s not really any set specific things. I’m kind of responsible for everything. We have a vineyard manager who does our farming for us. So I manage that relationship. And then we have a winemaker that makes the wine, and I manage that as well. And then I also do all the not as fun stuff, like the compliance. I do compliance with the Federal government and then with all the states for all the licensing.

Q – What is compliance?

Davis – Compliance is just making sure… We’re making wine, which is an alcoholic beverage, so that complicates the process a little bit because the Federal government keeps track of and would like some excise tax from us so they want more information about what we’re making, and how much alcohol is in it, where it’s stored and all of those things. So there’s quite a bit of compliance that goes along with the winery.

Q – To switch directions, because you are dealing with an issue that a lot of people don’t understand – why labels are the way they are. And you’re dealing with that. Tell us about that and what everything means.

Davis – Every wine, when we go to bottle it, before we actually print the labels, we submit them to the Tax and Trade Bureau, which is the Federal government. And they look at a few specific characteristics on the label to make sure it’s within the law. So the things that they care about are the percentage of alcohol. They’ve switched it around. It used to always have to be on the front label, now it can actually be on the back label. And then where the wine comes from. That’s where they’re really really specific about when you put where the wine is from, it has to say… So if you say Napa Valley, it all has to be from Napa Valley. You can have a little bit of fruit from other places, but there’s different percentages, thresholds that we have to stay within for each of the items. So if it says cabernet sauvignon, then it needs to be 75 percent cabernet sauvignon. It can be a little bit of other things, but it needs to be at least 75 percent cabernet sauvignon. And then there’s a whole lot of other characteristics, like if you say estate grown. And on the back label there’s a statement that’s called… We call it the produced and bottled by statement. So that actually tells you a lot about specifics on the wine. So if it says produced and bottled by that means we made the wine, we produced it, so we made it into alcohol, and we bottled it all under our own permit. So you might see some that don’t say that and that may mean that the person maybe bought the wine from somebody else and put their name on it. So there’s a lot of different really, really technical things about the label that we don’t know about until you get into the business.

Q – Okay, what’s the point of putting all those technical things on the label if nobody knows what they are?

Davis –Well, industry professionals know, so if you’re working with wines in a restaurant, so a sommelier knows all of these legal requirements for a label, and then most wine shop owners know all of these technicalities, as well. So they can look at your label and know more about it than your average consumer. Your average consumer who walks up to a wine on the shelf and turns it around maybe isn’t going to know the little tiny details. But most professionals do.

Q – What’s the most important thing on the label for the consumer to understand?

Davis – I think the most important thing for the average consumer is to know, and it’s mostly based on preference because if I’m going to drink a pinot noir, if it’s a pinot noir and it just says California, then I don’t really know that much about where it specifically came from. But if I’m looking at a pinot noir and it came from the Russian River, or if I’m looking at a pinot noir and it came from Oregon, then as a consumer, I can start to see characteristics that are similar in those wines, and if I like them, I can go and seek those out. Once you start knowing what kind of variety of wine you like, then you can start to dive down into the detail of well, I like pinot noirs from Sonoma County, but maybe I don’t like them as much as I like Oregon pinot noirs or wines from other places. So it’s just a way of categorizing the wines within the specific variety.

Shannon Leary on Being a Winemaking Student

We spoke to Shannon Leary last November. She’s a winemaking student at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, and by now, soon to graduate. So when we heard about the Garagiste Festival‘s new scholarship program for Cal Poly winemaking students, we figured this would be a great opportunity to post our interview with Shannon. The transcript is below.

Anne and Shannon were probably talking over each other, so it didn’t come out in the video, but Shannon did say that the male to female ratio among her classmates is evening out. That’s good news as far as we’re concerned. One other thing – it sounds a little obvious that Shannon would want to be a winemaker. However, what’s she’s talking about is the job title, not the activity. The winemaker is usually the head honcho at a winery, whereas other folks, who probably also have winemaking degrees, are often lab techs, assistant winemakers, etc.

Shannon – It’s exciting. It’s been a great four years and I’m excited to see what’s next.

Q – Have you got any job prospects yet or are you just barely tapping that?

Shannon – I ‘m just finishing up an internship, so I’m going to start looking into different options here in the next few months and see what’s out there.

Q – Is that scary or…

Shannon – Mostly exciting. There’s lots of good opportunity and different areas you can go to and different parts of the industry that you can get involved in.

Q – Is there more equity in the classroom environment between men and women?

Shannon –It’s the industry so far, with female mentors and people who are helping me get started in my career and I’ve been encouraged a lot in the past few years with my career. So I’m looking forward to it.

Q – Why do you think that is? That we’re finally starting to see that even out?

Shannon – I think women bring a lot of unique things to the table. In any career, for that matter. But just a different perspective, different capabilities. And I think it’s a great industry for everyone to be involved in. Very passionate, very charismatic. And I think anyone wants to be involved with that.

Q- What makes for a good wine education program in today’s industry?

Shannon – One of the things that I really love about Cal Poly is the hands on experience that you get. So we have internships that are part of our curriculum. Labs. All of our classes are based on practical winemaking. Learning how to get out there and be a part of the industry. So when we graduate, we’re ready to get going. And that’s what I really love about Cal Poly. Each program brings unique things to the table. But I’ve loved my experiences so far. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve had great professors and classmates.

Q – What got you interested in wine age 21?

Shannon –Um, I did not come from a winemaking family at all. What I was looking for in a career was an industry where there was people I was going to like to work with, and something new every year, and challenging. And the wine industry definitely has that. So it’s an ever-changing career, and like I said, the people are great to be around. Very warm, friendly people who are willing to help and everyone just wants to elevate the industry.

Q – And what are your goals?

Shannon –My goals. I’d love to be a winemaker, have my own label someday. I’m not sure exactly where that’s going to take me in the next few years here, but I’m open to the possibilities. We’ll see where it goes.

Q – All right.

Winemaker Dorothy Schuler, Part Two

SchulerWe first stumbled into Bodegas Paso Robles last summer on our vacation. The tiny tasting room in downtown Paso Robles was one of several that were open that Tuesday. We loved the wines, a wide selection of little known Spanish varieties, so of course we wanted to talk to winemaker and owner Dorothy Schuler.

Imagine our joy when we just happened by the tasting room last November and found Ms. Schuler there. Not only was she happy to talk to us, the interview transcript was such a blast, we couldn’t think of anything to cut. So we’re going to feature Ms. Schuler in three posts spread out over the next few weeks. The first one looked at how Schuler got started in the wine business. Today, Schuler talks about last fall’s harvest and screw caps versus corks.

Quick note of explanation – Schuler uses the term “corked” both as a reference to wines that have been bottled with cork closures and in one instance, as the nickname for a wine that has been spoiled by cork taint.

Q- How was harvest for you last year?

Schuler – Bizarre. Absolutely bizarre. And I don’t know if everybody is going to be honest, but if everybody were honest, they would say bizarre.

Q – How so?

Schuler – Well, early in a lot of ways, I mean, in a lot of ways, early. Everything came in and then everything sloooooooowed down to like an ooze for fermentation.   Now, this is not a bad thing, but sometimes they’re too long. It makes you crazy.

Q – Are you doing native ferments [i.e. using the yeast that’s naturally on the grapes rather than adding it]?

Schuler – No. Actually, I do a little bit. But not… I want a little more control. But this year, there was no control over anything. It was like, oh my god. It’s all weather in charge. You know the weather’s in charge, anyway. We like to pretend it’s not, but it really is.

Q – You have screw tops on your white wines and corks on your reds – why?

Schuler – Ummm, I think screw caps are great for freshness, and whites…. you know when you’re having a dinner party and you don’t have enough cold white and you go an put it in the freezer? And you forget about it? If you put a corked bottle of wine in there, that cork’s going to pop out and be all over your freezer and that screw cap is not going to do that. I don’t think they’re great for aging, though. I’m just not going there. As much as I hate to open a bottle of corked [spoiled] wine, I think the aging elements of a cork are just much better than a screw cap.

Q- Are you basing that on experience?

Schuler – And on drinking a lot of older wines. I’ve never had a wine that’s been under a screw cap for 25 years. I don’t know. I don’t think anybody’s had a wine that’s been in screw cap for 25 years. Pour me one and let’s talk about it when you’ve poured me one.

Q – But just to argue, you’re not going to get one that’s been in screw cap for 25 years unless you put one down for 25 years.

Schuler – I’m not going to put one down, but other people should be putting them down. The people who’ve eschewed corks and only do it screw caps but I don’t think they’re putting wines down, to be perfectly honest. I think the only people who are putting wines down are doing it in cork.

Q – It’d be interesting to see.

Schuler – I’d be interested. I’m drinking some wines right now out of the ’70s, the 80’s, reds. They’re like heaven, but they’re in cork.

Rusack Santa Catalina Island Wine A Nice Surprise

RusackWe weren’t looking for great wine when we visited Avalon over the holiday. But, dang it, we found Rusack Santa Catalina Island Wine and were quite pleased.

Michael had heard that Rusack, a winery in the Ballard Canyon AVA, near Solvang, California, had a vineyard on Catalina Island. Catalina, for most of us here in sunny So. Cal., is this very rustic island off the coast of Los Angeles. The town of Avalon, located on the southeast end of the island, used to be quite the high-end party spot back in the early part of the 20th Century, mostly because the Wrigley family owned a good chunk of the island and had an estate there. The Wrigley’s as in the chewing gum and Wrigley Field in Chicago.

When Anne first visited Avalon in the late 1970s, it was a kitschy, rather endearing little tourist trap and beach town. Not exactly a haven for wine geeks and foodies. We went this past Saturday because we were looking for something different to do for the holiday and found a really good deal on the boat fare to and from the island. It’s still somewhat kitschy, but the food offerings have improved immensely. We went to the Bluewater Grill (which turns out to be a small chain here in Southern California) for lunch and enjoyed shrimp and scallops with papardelle and fried jumbo shrimp, both well made. And the wine list was respectable, though not overly exciting.

But we did track down the Rusack’s Catalina offerings at CC Gallgher: The Art of Creative Living, which were served to us by Betty Martinez, lead server, at the bar/store. Martinez was a total delight and very helpful, serving us generous tastes of the Rusack 2012 Santa Catalina Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Michael picked up some new oak in the nose and finish of the zin, which was very well balanced for 14.5 percent alcohol (which is a little on the high side for wine). Anne liked that it was fruity without being jammy. The chardonnay had the lovely crispness of a wine fermented without any oak, with mineral and apple notes in the flavor. Michael noted that it could use some food to go with it, but it was still very good by itself.

Alas, these are not cheap wines. The zin goes for $75 and the chard for $60. Worth it? Well, that depends. But they are very good. And Martinez was just as gracious and fun as she could be. Although, she thought we were joking when we invited her to dinner.

The bottom line is that good wine can be found just about anywhere these days. The trick is to be open to the possibilities. Kind of like Geoff Rusack and Alison Wrigley Rusack, owners of the winery. They wanted to plant vines on Catalina for the fun of it, according to their website. “Little did we know then that the classic, cool-climate conditions and clay loam soils that exist there would make it a world-class site for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”

Winemaker Dorothy Schuler, Part One

Schuler women winemakers
Dorothy Schuler, winemaker and owner of Bodegas Paso Robles

We first stumbled into Bodegas Paso Robles last summer on our vacation. The tiny tasting room in downtown Paso Robles was one of several that were open that Tuesday. We loved the wines, so of course we wanted to talk to winemaker and owner Dorothy Schuler.

Imagine our joy when we just happened by the tasting room last November and found Ms. Schuler there. Not only was she happy to talk to us, the interview transcript was such a blast, we couldn’t think of anything to cut. So we’re going to feature Ms. Schuler in three posts spread out over the next few weeks. This first one looks at how Schuler got started in the wine business.

Q – What got you into winemaking?

Schuler – My husband’s project. He took a job in England, working on the London Underground. He was going and I said, “Honey, what are we going to do with this? we have this money invested,” and he said, “Oh, sure, let’s run with it.” So I hired a guy [Allen Kinney] to teach me how to make wine. He’s actually coming for dinner tomorrow night. I worked with him about a year and a half. He taught me well. He told me, he said, “Dorothy, making wine is not rocket science.”

Q – It isn’t.

Schuler – No. It’s a feel. It is science but, you  know, it’s more than science and it’s more than a feel. And my father wanted me to be a scientist. My father is a scientist. So I have a heavy-duty science background. So I get the science. But it’s more than science.BodegasBottles

Q – Tell us more about the balance between the science and the feel.

Schuler – Well, it’s a very tricky thing. And I guess more women would talk to you about this than men. I don’t know. It’s our nature to understand the balance between the two, I think…. I did not go to school. I’ve got a lot of friends who went to Davis, female friends who went to Davis. I didn’t go to school for winemaking. I went to school for something totally different.

Q – What?

Schuler – I was a journalist, writer and editor. That was my life. Different world. However, I think if you work for a really, really big winery where you’re producing a huge amount of wine, you need to know all of that chemistry because you’re making wine in huge quantities and you have to monitor everything you can. And you can’t fuck anything up because if you do, it’s millions of dollars. And if you don’t know that stuff, it’s really easy to screw up. But when you’re making wine, like I do, for 2500 cases, it’s a different story. And it’s nice to know that. And it’s like I kind of drive the guys a little nuts, with how I know certain things, You need to know a lot of that, but you can make a little mistake and fix it.

Judy Starr on Growing Grapes

We met grape grower Judy Starr late last fall at the Paso Robles Garagiste Festival and really enjoyed talking to her about how she got started growing grapes. So fast forward to early this month, and we’re doing a bus tour of the Paso Robles region with the Cellarmasters home winemaking club. Our last stop was Starr Ranch Vineyard and Winery. Starr was not only there, she stayed open late for us, then poured while we sat around tables in her winery yard, overlooking the vines, as a soft breeze rustled the trees above us. One of our friends called it our nap for the day, it was so relaxing. And the wine was even more amazing. So amazing Anne blew the wine budget and then some buying several bottles.

So we highly recommend getting a glass of nice, crisp rose, then hauling it and your laptop outside under a tree somewhere and watching the below video. There’s a transcription underneath, too. Oh, and one quick note – most winemakers enjoy chatting with people and pouring their wines, but they really don’t like the sales part of it.

Judy Starr:

I began life 14 years ago as a vineyard. When I got here, I did not expect to have a label called Starr Ranch. I just wanted to grow fruit.

So, that’s where I started and I now know that’s a good place to start, because you’re sure of your grape supply and the quality of it from the beginning. So after I’d done that for a few years, I started my own little label. Because, after all, you’ve nurtured these grapes from the beginning, and then you take the next step.

Q – How did you start growing grapes?

Interesting question. Actually, it was sort of a… It wasn’t a mid-life crisis kind of a thing. But my children grew up and they did what they were supposed to do. They left home and got jobs. And so then I decided I had enough time and energy to do something interesting. And I wanted to grow something. I didn’t know at that point what it would be. I looked around for about for about four or five years and decided it would be wine grapes. Once I got to wine grapes, Paso [Robles] was pretty easy. It was 14 years ago and there were 33 wineries.

Q – Do you enjoy selling your wines?

Actually, I do enjoy selling the wine. Because it is an expression of what I put my time and energy into. I’m not the winemaker, as such, except if you believe that the wine is made in the vineyard. That’s my job. I care a lot about farming the fruit and producing excellent product. So if you have that, then the winemaking piece of it is easy. So I think for me, yes, the most fun is… is… seeing harvest every year. You put a lot of time and energy into it. A lot of work, a lot of hand work, a lot of people. Even when harvest approaches, you get this sense of anticipation that permeates everything. And it’s a very intangible sort of thing, but it’s certainly there when you farm.

Depending on where you live, of course, you can buy Starr’s wines from her Starr-Ranch.com website. And if you’re going to be in Los Angeles on July 11, you can go to the L.A. Garagiste Festival at the Wiltern Theatre

Cabernet Sauvignon, by Kimberlee Nicholls of Markham Vineyards

We met Kimberlee Nicholls, winemaker at Markham Vineyards, at a tasting put on by local KIMdoorpublic TV station KCET to celebrate the short TV series Vintage: Napa Valley 2012, which features Nicholls and fellow winemakers Marisa Taylor and Elizabeth Vianna (and, yes, Ms. Vianna, we will get to you). Nicholls was pouring the Markham cabernet sauvignon. We know, we make fun of all the snootiness surrounding Napa cabs. We didn’t know how much the Markham wines went for, so the price was definitely not influencing us. We were blown away – enough to cough up the $35-plus to buy another bottle. So who better to talk about the cabernet saubvignon grape than the woman who makes the one we love?

We did have to do this via email, however, which means that Nicholls pretty much wrote the post for us (thank you, Kimberlee)

1.) Cabernet sauvignon is everywhere! Why is that?

Cabernet Sauvignon is a very adaptable grape.  Budbreak is later than other varietals in the spring making it a better suited for locations with cold winters, frost concerns or high elevations.  With its thick skins and small berries set on loose clusters, Cabernet is more resistant to an occasional bit of unfavorable weather throughout the growing season.  It is a huge benefit that Cabernet is grown everywhere allowing us to further our knowledge of wines made from this fantastic grape.  There are more clonal selections (clones are individual variations of the grape, just like the different types of apples) of Cab than any other varietal, making for unlimited amounts of research available in practically every region of the world.  Ultimately this has helped all of us make informed vineyard planting decisions by being able to match soil type with specific weather conditions to successfully achieve our winemaking goals.

Markham Vineyards, St. Helena, Napa Valley
Markham Vineyards, St. Helena, Napa Valley

2.) Why is there such a range in prices on cab sauv?

As with any grape varietal, land value is always going to dictate a large part of the bottle price.  At Markham Vineyards, we produce our estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards purchased in the mid-70’s.  As you can imagine, land in Napa Valley was a bit less expensive than what you might find if you were looking to purchase a vineyard today.  Then you need to add in the planting, difficulty of farming, especially on hillsides, and the price continues to climb on that bottle of wine.  With its small clusters, Cabernet is not known for producing high yields and vineyard diligence is necessary to grow the best fruit.  In order to get Cab truly ripe, care must be taken in the vineyard to allow filtered light to each cluster which helps burn off the bell pepper character inherit to the varietal.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape/wine with a proven track record for age-ability.  When grown in the best locations, the tannins extracted from its skins require more aging than most other varietals.  It is why such great care is taken from the vineyard all the way along to the bottle.  Hand picking in the field and additional sorting as the fruit arrives at the winery must make the grape feel like a rock star, not to mention that it is the last thing to be picked demanding full attention as the closing act during harvest.  Cold soaking, specialized yeast treatment and extended maceration only further enhance the terroir or ‘sense of place’ that truly great Cabernet embodies.  Barrel aging layers more nuance (and cost, of course) to enhance the your wine as you patiently wait upwards of two years before finally blending and bottling your masterpiece.  But wait… there is still another several months up to an entire year as the wine rests in the bottle before it is ready to be released.  Cabernet is truly an investment in time that people rarely understand.  A winery may have as many as 3-4 entire Cabernet vintages in tank, barrel and bottle at any given time.

3.) If I see cab sauv on a label, what should I expect to find inside? (Flavors, colors – how do I know it’s a good one?)

Cabernet Sauvignon typically has a deep, garnet color.  Color is your first indication on any wine and the color will let you gauge the concentration and/or age of the Cab in your glass.  Cabernet an expressive wine, it allows you to taste the place where it was grown, exactly how it was made and even to guess at its age.  An older wine may have a bit of crystal on both the cork and shoulder of the bottle.  These tartrates occur naturally as wines ages, tannins and acid soften and fall out of the wine, allowing for delicate floral and caramel aromas to dance in your glass.  Young Cab tends to be chewy, full of intensity and often makes your teeth black.  Many prefer to age Cabernet, giving it time to settle down and drinking around 8 years from the vintage shown on the bottle. mrkkimnicholls300dpi

When you open your bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, spend time to focus on the clues it is providing.  Can you smell and taste mineral notes from the chalky soil in which it was grown?  Was it from an especially warm vintage and overflowing with jammy, blackberry fruit?  Or maybe it was grown in a colder climate, full of earth and brooding darkness throughout.  Was there a eucalyptus tree in the vineyard where the Cabernet was grown because you taste mint?  Is it dark and chewy or supple, like a velvet glove on your palate?  What type of barrels did the winemaker use, does it have more vanilla, toasty oak or was it smoky with mocha and roasted coffee character?  Can you smell hint of violets from the Petit Verdot or the Cabernet Franc that was blended in?  By sharing the experience with a friend, you can not only enhance your experience but develop your vocabulary.  Wine should make you relax, add friends and a bit of food to magically transform all your wines into lasting memories!

And there you have it. Yum!

Nicole Pope Talks Oxidation and Pinot Noir

It’s another winemaker video – this time featuring Nicole Pope, winemaker for Stolo Family Vineyards, where she works with her husband, Lucas Pope, who is the vineyard consultant for the company, located in Cambria, California. Our conversation with Ms. Pope kind of went all over the place, but we had a grand time and hope you do, too.

We’re including the transcription from the video because we totally get that not everyone can or wants to sit through a video.
I’m Nicole Pope, with Stolo Family Vineyards
Q- How long have you been there?
Three years now?
Q- How long have you been making wine?
Almost 10 years?
Q- How prominent were women in the industry when you started?
There were some women who had started in the ‘80s, as like… There were not very many women. When I came along, I went to Cal Poly and I studied biology. The viticulture program was just starting out. I actually ended up working, the first winery that I worked for was run by a woman. She was the head winemaker and the CEO
Q (Turns out that was not just any woman…) You worked with Eileen Crane at Domaine Carneros?
She’s a very powerful woman. And she really took… She started the winery there. So it was really interesting to learn from her. She knows everything about sparkling wine. And just to see how she runs the place. I never felt like “I’m a girl, I can’t, I don’t do something. We were all… It didn’t matter.
Q- You say you like working with Pinot Noir. Everybody calls it the heartbreak grape, but
Yeah. It’s kind of what I started out working with. Cool climate grapes. I started out working in Carneros and Arroyo Grande Valley, Edna Valley, and now out in Cambria. So Pinot Noir grows best out there in the fog. Once you figure out how to work with it and you just understand oxidation and things like that and preventing it.
Q What is oxidation?
Wine can be oxidized very easily and it kind of depends on the stage. When it’s fermenting, it needs oxygen. The yeast need oxygen to grow healthily and convert sugar to alcohol. But once wine is in the aging process, once it’s in barrel, you want to keep it topped up [i.e. keeping the container full]. You don’t want a lot of head space. When you’re racking {moving the wine from one container to another to get rid of schmutz and other icky stuff], you don’t want to be mixing in a lot of air. And certain varieties can use some, but pinot noir usually can’t. So you want to prevent oxidation because it just oxidizes quicker. And you get the flavors of oxidation. It just becomes more pruney or even like bruised apple, those kind of flavors. And you ruin the freshness of the wine.

Broadly Speaking at the L.A. Wine Fest

We’re kind of sticking our necks out here on the objectivity thing. So in the interests of full disclosure, Michael will be pouring wines at this event, representing the Cellarmasters Los Angeles home winemaking club (to which we belong). Michael, in his capacity as archivist for the City of Los Angeles, also works with festival founder Joel Fisher as members of the Los Angeles City Historical Society. We’re also, hopefully, getting press passes to the event. Oh, and two of the wineries pouring in the Boutique Tent are from friends of ours.

New LAWF logo-TENTHIf you happen to be in Los Angeles and at loose ends this weekend (May 30 and 31), you may want to check out the LAWineFest, running from 1 to 5 p.m. both days. If you’re not in L.A., but have been hearing about a wine festival or tasting event near you and are wondering if it’s really worth the (often) steep ticket price, read on.

We talked with Sara Fisher Chapin, who works alongside her father and festival founder and CEO Joel Fisher to run the LAWineFest. This is the 10th year for the festival, and it is quite the undertaking.Sara3

“It is a full year of work to make something of this scale,” Chapin said.

Festivals vary in size and scope. The LAWineFest is featuring over 60 wineries from all over the world, and over 5,000 people are expected to show up at the Raleigh Studios (5300 Melrose Ave. Hollywood) over the two days. Chapin said the best reason for attending a festival is because you can try a lot of very different wines without having to buy lots of different bottles.

“It’s a safe environment to explore and learn,” Chapin said. “It’s the equivalent of a survey. You can go broad.”

The idea is that because you’ve already paid for the tastings up front, you can afford to taste something that, maybe, you wouldn’t want to buy as a bottle or as a glass in a pricey restaurant. Better yet, you don’t have to feel obligated to like everything. Or even to drink all the wine in your glass, even if you do like it.crowd20131

“Don’t be embarrassed to dump out the wine if you’ve had enough of a taste,” Chapin said. “No one’s feelings are going to get hurt. Everyone respects that there are different tastes and palates.”

And we’d also like to add that no one is going to assume that you didn’t like a wine because you dumped out half the taste or spit your taste out into a spit cup. That’s because professional tasters do exactly that so they don’t get blitzed while tasting. Chapin pointed out that you also don’t need to taste every single wine from every single winery.

“Pace yourself. Hydrate. Take advantage of the yummy food trucks,” she said.

The LAWineFest will feature talks on wine, food and wine pairings and other entertainment on the festival stage, which Chapin said, will make it easier to take a break. Some other fun features of this particular festival include being able to buy wines from the various wineries through Drizly, a web delivery service for alcoholic beverages. In addition, if you have an iPhone, you can load up the Quini app (they still don’t have the Android version, grumble, grumble) and not only rate the wines you taste, but vote for your faves and they’ll announce the winners on Sunday, which is actually pretty cool.

Tickets for this festival are $85/$160 per couple. Add another $20 onto your ticket and you can visit the Boutique Wine Garden. These are small boutique wineries that don’t produce more than 1,500 cases of wine a year. Note, our friends at Old Oak Winery and Vinemark will be pouring there.

“Come ready to explore,” Chapin said. And she’s dead on about that one.

About Viognier with Morgan Clendenen

Winemaker Morgan Clendenen, used by permission
Winemaker Morgan Clendenen, used by permission

When we decided to do a class on viognier, there was really only one person we thought of it to discuss it: Morgan Clendenen, owner and winemaker at Cold Heaven Cellars. In addition to her signature syrah and lovely pinot noirs, she makes awesome viogniers, delicious wines with beautifully balanced fruit and acids.

Clendenen has been making wine since 1996.

“I was in sales and marketing for a distributor in North Carolina,” she said. Then she married Jim Clendenen, who went on to found Au Bon Climat. The couple has since divorced, but her marriage did start her new career. “That is what got me into winemaking. Like Jim, I learned hands on.”

Viognier (pronounced vee-oh-nyay) is a white wine grape commonly known as one of the varietals grown in France’s Rhône Valley.

“It was originally brought in from Yugoslavia by the Romans,” Clendenen said.

But as the centuries passed, the grape became less and less popular and almost became extinct until 1965, when there were only 30 acres planted. Since then, the grape has come back slowly, with the Clendenens planting the grape in Santa Barbara County in 1998.

“It’s interesting – when I first started out, it was a hard sell,” Morgan Clendenen said. Part of the problem is that with California’s warm climate, the grapes would get very ripe and the resulting wine was high in alcohol, unctuous and cloying. “So viognier got a bad rap.”

viognier from Cold Heaven
Viognier from Cold Heaven

But Clendenen persevered and started working on making viognier with more acidity, which increased its popularity.

When you’re looking at a bottle, be aware that the wine could be fairly heavy. However, a good viognier usually features apricot, peach, honey, toasted nuts and vanilla in its flavor profile. Clendenen recommends serving it cold with Japanese and Mexican foods – anything with a little spice or heat.

“You have your classic pairings like scallops and white fish and the richer things like lobster,” she said. “But the ultimate pairing, in my opinion tends to be goat cheese. Goat cheese and viognier is like peas and carrots.”