A Weekend in Las Vegas

Lotus of Siam
Last weekend, I was one of fourteen people invited to attend the International Sommelier Guild's Teacher Education Program (TEP). Half of the group was from Canada, and the rest from different locations across the United States. This is an instructional program that reviews all the policies, procedures and curriculum of the Guild, and is intended for those that want to become wine instructors. The sessions were conducted by Wayne Gotts (VP) and Roberta Belfry (Dean of Academics). Now before you leave this article, let me tell you up front, that I'm not going to bore you with the three day details of study and presentation. I wanted to share some of the wine experiences our group had.

It's been a while since I have been in Las Vegas, even though it is only a little over three hour away (the return trip took twice as long on a Sunday afternoon). When I walked in to the casino, my first thought was, "why are all these people smoking in the building"...not allowed in California. The second thought was, "I'm sure glad they have air conditioning", as it was 104 degrees at 8:30 at night.
After class on Friday night, ten of us ventured over to the Lotus of Siam restaurant. We had been tipped off that their wine menu was exceptional, and their prices were even better. We were not disappointed. As you can imagine, a group of Sommeliers is an interesting bunch. We started off the evening with a bottle of 2000 Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot (white Burgundy), followed by a 1997 Corton-Charlemagne (which is debatable as to whether it was corked or not...my feeling was that it was just old). By this time we sat down for dinner, and as is the case with large groups, we couldn't decide on how to order dinner, so we left it up to the restaurant. We asked the chef to put together a dinner for our group, and keep the cost around $15 to $20 per person. We were well fed, and the food was great. But, I digress...back to the wine....since this is a Thai restaurant, their selection of German Riesling was outstanding. There was some debate on Kabinett versus Spatslese, but in the end we ordered a 1999 Schloss Johannisberg and a 1985 Dr Loosen Bernkasteler Doctorberg. I've got to say that the Dr Loosen was an outstanding pairing with the Thai food, and the 1985 vintage was wonderful. Believe it or not, each persons' total cost for dinner and wine was $70 (that included tip, and the additional bottle of Champagne Louis de Sacy we had with appetizers).

Hung Nguyen
Now I know I probably lost some of you with the wines I was able to try, but hang in there. I'm sure that Saturday night's wine might be recognizable to most of you. On Saturday, we had our only organized dinner of the weekend, and met at the top of the Palms Casino, at Nove. We were greeted with a cucumber/tequila shot, that was very refreshing, and interesting, followed by Champagne and bottles of Brunello, and Prado Enea Muga Rioja. We had a great Italian dinner, with loads of appetizers, but the real fun was to come after dinner. We were told about this great wine shop that was located in the bottom floor of the Rio Casino. The Wine Cellar is managed by Hung Nguyen. He has the most amazing selection of wines I have ever seen in one place. To start, he has every bottle of Chateau d‘Yquem from 1855 to 1990 (one of only two full collections in the world). Hung invited us into the large cellar, and here we encountered bottles of Petrus, Chateau Lafite, Vega Sicilia "Unico", Sassacia, and Chateau Margeaux (not to mention the other thousands of bottles on hand). All of us chipped in some money and bought a bottle of 1999 Sassicaia, and 1995 Poggio Antico Riserva Brunello.

While the weekend was full of course study, presentations, learning, and a bit of stress...the evenings were filled with unbelievable experiences. Spending it with a group of Sommeliers, made it even more memorable. Did you know that Las Vegas has the highest concentration of Sommeliers of any city in the world? I can see why. I made some great new friends, and many of them will be heard from in the wine world. Oh, and for those who were wondering...yes, I completed the course, and am certified as a Wine Educator with the International Sommelier Guild. Now, we just need to find a location and people willing to learn, in the Inland Empire.

Wine Bottles

It’s probably not one of those things you really think about, but what was the color of the last wine bottle you opened? What shape was it? What size?  Have you ever wondered why the standard size bottle is 750ml.

Chianti "Fiasco" Bottle
Why the standard sized wine bottle is 750ml, is not entirely clear, it has simply evolved into the standard size by custom. You could argue that the old imperial bottle of one sixth of a gallon may have something to do with it, but it could also be that 750ml is just about the right amount for a meal for two. Two to three glasses per person in a bottle. There is a story that 750ml is the size of bottle that could be hand-blown with a single lung full of air. The bottom line is that no one is really sure.

Bordeaux bottle
The color of the glass used for wine bottles are also based on tradition, and can be used to identify the type of wine. Dark Green typically indicates a red wine, while light green is used for dry white wines. Clear, or amber glass is used for sweet white wines. In the Mosel and Alsace, this can be confusing, as wine bottles can be dark to light green, but others have traditionally used amber. Champagne has traditionally used dark to medium green, but Rosé champagnes are usually colorless or green. Clear bottles have recently become popular with white wine producers in many countries, most notably New Zealand. Most red wine worldwide is still bottled in green glass. In general, dark bottles protect wine from the damaging elements of light. Lighter bottles are meant for more immediate consumption.

At the bottom of most bottles, there is an indentation. This is known as a punt (or kick-up). There is no consensus on the purpose of this, but the most likely explanation is that it is a tradition leftover from the days when wine bottles were hand blown. Hand blowing glass required the use of a pontil, a technique which left a “punt mark” (a word derived from “pontil”) on the base of the bottle. By indenting the point where the pontil was attached, the scar would not scratch the table or make the bottle unstable. This also had a function of making the bottle more stable, and less likely to tip over, if there was some imperfection in a flat bottomed bottle.

Rhine Bottle
Bottle shapes can also give you a clue as to what is inside, and once again are based on tradition. Bordeaux style wines come in straight-sided / high-shouldered bottles, with a pronounced punt. Port and Sherry bottles are similar. Burgundy and Rhone style wines come in tall bottles with sloping shoulders and a smaller punt. The wines of Germany (Rhine region) and Alsace come in narrow / tall bottles with little or no punt. Sparkling wines follow the Champagne tradition, and come in thick walled, wide bottles, with sloping shoulders, and a pronounced punt. Many of you will be familiar with the old traditional Chianti bottle, known as a “fiasco”. This is a round bottomed flask-like bottle nestled in a straw basket. These are usually seen only in the everyday Italian table wines, as most serious producers are using the Bordeaux style bottle. Obviously, there are other types of bottles out there, and a producer can create any type of special bottle with today’s glass making techniques. However, these are the traditional bottle styles.

Probably one of the more confusing issues is bottle size. The traditional bottle is 750ml, but there are many other choices, most of which are rarely seen by the average wine buyer.

Split/Piccolo/Pony -187 ml
Half-Bottle - 375 ml or one half of the standard bottle size.
Standard Bottle - 750 ml
Magnum – 1.5 liters or two bottles.
Double Magnum - 3.0 liters, or the equivalent of 4 standard bottles.
Jeroboam - There are two sizes of Jeroboams: the sparkling wine Jeroboam holds 4 bottles, or 3.0 liters: the still wine Jeroboam holds 6 regular bottles, or 4.5 liters.
Rehoboam - Champagne only - 4.5 liters or 6 bottles.
Imperial - 6 liters or the equivalent of 8 bottles. Bordeaux shaped bottle
Methuselah  - Same size as an Imperial (6 liters) but is a Burgundy-shaped bottle.
Salmanazar - 9.0 liters and holds 12 regular bottles.
Balthazar – 12.0 liters and holds 16 bottles.
Nebuchadnezzar – 15.0 liters and holds 20 bottles of wine.

Most of these are ancient names, derived from the names of kings mentioned in the Bible. They seem to have been fanciful creations, dreamed up by a someone, on the basis of the Biblical associations of jeroboam. Jeroboam, for example, was a king of Israel.

So, the next time someone presents you with a blind tasting, observe the bottle they are pouring from...it might just give you a clue as to what's inside.

Summer Wines

"Then followed that beautiful season...summer...Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood" - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Memories of my childhood summer include family barbecue, ice cream making, watermelons, family trips, hanging out with friends at the beach. Nowadays, I love to gather with friends by the lake. We might grill up some steaks or burgers, or may just sit and watch the sunset with some cheese and crackers. Either way, wine always finds its' way into the mix. So what makes a good summer wine?

My first thought is that during a warm summer evening, I really don't want anything too heavy, and would prefer to have something that is slightly chilled. But, being a Sommelier, I can't help but figure out the best wine to pair with the food at hand. When it comes to your own choices, reflect back on those childhood memories. Now I'm sure you weren't drinking wine in your childhood, but you might have been drinking a nice cool glass of lemonade, or a soda pop, or maybe even some Kool-Aid. Those beverages can give you clues to the types of wine that might excite you.

If lemonade was your choice, then think acidic wine. High acid wines are just as refreshing as that lemonade. These wines are typically white wines, and are served chilled. One of my favorite white wines is Riesling. I prefer the drier style that is found in Alsace, France, but have found some delicious dry wines in Germany too. Sauvigon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are two other wines that can make your mouth water on a summer evening. The acidity in white wines often taste like green apple or citrus. Acidic reds are a bit more challenging. How about Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, or Gamay? The acidity in reds can range from sour cherries to berry flavors. And, while many may disagree...I wouldn't be afraid to chill the reds too.

If soda was your beverage of choice, you may want to think sparkling wine. Not only do sparkling wines offer that refreshing effervescence, they also offer acidity, and a wide range of sweetness and fruitiness. But, you don't always have to go for a fully sparkling wine...try Moscato D'Asti...a frizzante (or semi sparkling) wine that is sweet. Or if you like a drier semi-sparkling wine, check out a Vinho Verde from Portugal. These are light bodied, dry, high acid, and wonderful on a hot evening.

For those Kool-Aid kids, go for those wines that have that strawberry, or berry flavors. This is where I think of some great Roses. I have a new appreciation for rose wine. If you look back a few months to my article on  rose versus white Zinfandel, you'll get some ideas. I have found some very good California roses either made from Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache, or Mourvedre. The big advantage that rose has over white and red wines is that it can be served with almost any type of food. It can be dry and acidic, or it can be semi-sweet and fruity. Find some rose, and give it a try.

One last idea...if you are hand cracking that tub of homemade ice cream, think dessert wine topping. I find that PX Sherry and vanilla ice cream are a crowd pleaser, and if chocolate ice cream is your choice, try a little Brachetto D'Aqui with your scoop.

So, enjoy the summer. Pour some great wines. Enjoy the time with your family and friends, as long as you can...at least for those of us living in the mountains...we're only a few months away from our next shovel of snow (my local mountain friends will hate that comment!).

Desert Wines

No, I did not spell the title of this weeks article incorrectly. This is actually a story about wine tasting in the desert. You see, last week, my wife and I took a road trip to Laughlin Air Force Base, in Del Rio, Texas. Our son graduated from pilot training, and earned his pilot wings. I must say that driving from California to Texas, there isn't much change in the scenery. Once you hit Palm Springs, it's 1,200 miles of desert, Highway Patrol cars, and Border Patrol stops. So, to break up the drive, we stopped at a few wineries along the way.

Coronado Vineyards
Our first wine stop was in Willcox, Arizona. We drove through the town, saw some winery signs, but soon discovered that Mondays are not the prime day for wine tasting in the town of Willcox. Most were closed. As we headed out of town, we made one more attempt and stopped at Coronado Vineyards. While it was over 100 degrees outside, the tasting room and gift shop were pleasantly cool. Only two other people were in the tasting room, and for $6, we tasted 12 of the 20 wines they were pouring. Coronado Vineyards serves wines from their own vineyard, as well as wines from St Clair Wines and Pillsbury Wine Company. Coronado Vineyards has been around for just under 5 years, and is located at about 4,000 feet in elevation. It's amazing that grapes can grow in this heat, but I was told that they have very cool nights (for Arizona), and the vines do go dormant in the winter. Our host told us that last winter, they even fell to 5 degrees below zero.  The wines ranged from sweet to dry, and from white to rose and red. Their tasting room is adjacent to the gift shop, and a large dining room. We were told they offer wine pairing dinners on certain weekends, and they get large turnouts. Those of you who follow my articles know that I don't rate wines, or evaluate tasting notes (I think tasting is a personal experience, and only you can decide if you like the wine you are tasting), but I will tell you that I purchased their newest releases: Voodoux (Chenin Blanc / French Colombard) and Two Heads Red (Cabernet Sauvignon / Sangioveseis), as well as a bottle of St Clair Tawny Port. Prices ranged from $10 to $17, and $26 for the port which is packaged in a ceramic bottle.

Luna Rossa Winery
At the suggestion of our host at Coronado Vineyards, we next stopped in the town of Deming, New Mexico. By this time, the temperature was well over 100 degrees outside. We found Luna Rossa Winery along the south side of Interstate 10. It was late in the afternoon, and we still needed to get to El Paso Texas, but had to stop. We were the only people in the tasting room, and our host was the sister-in-law of the winemaker. The large tasting room and gift shop are an extension of the winery. We hadn't had anything to eat in a while, so we were invited to bring in our cheese and crackers, and sit right there at the counter, and taste wine and eat cheese in the air conditioned building. The conversation turned to the vineyards. I had mentioned that the only other New Mexico wine I had tried was Gruet Sparkling Wine, and we were told that Gruet sources their Chardonnay grapes from the vineyards located just behind the building. What was really interesting was all the Italian grape varieties they were producing. As it turns out, the winemaker/owner is from Fruili, in Northern Italy. I bought some of their gold medal winning Nini (a blend of Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese and Refosco).

Val Verde Winery
After arriving in Del Rio, Texas, our son took us to the Val Verde Winery (the oldest winery in Texas). We were offered a brief tour, and history review of the winery before moving into the small tasting room. I had tried one Val Verde wine before, their Lenior (also known as Black Spanish). We were offered a small taste of each of their 10 wines. Tastings cost (with tax) $6.47 per person. We purchased their Sierra Madre (a blend of Cabernet, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese), then wandered through the small vineyard, located just behind the winery. The location of the winery is in one of the nicest areas we saw in Del Rio. Lots of history here, and worth the stop.

St. Clair Winery
Lastly, on our way back to California, we made a quick stop at the largest winery in New Mexico: St. Clair Winery. We pulled up to the large grassy area in front of the main building and walked into a large gift shop and tasting room. Here, we encountered the most people we had seen at any winery on our trip. We were offered a free tasting of a few wines of our choice, and ended up purchasing the D.H. Lescombes Syrah (the namesake of the winemaker). St. Clair is producing over 85,000 cases of 30 different varieties under the St Clair, D.H. Lescombes, and Blue Teal names.

So next time you are driving along Interstate 10, make sure to stop and try these unique desert wines. They can, and do, grow grapes in this heat, and the quality just might surprise you! Next time I drive this route, I plan on hitting a few other wineries, and also stop at one of the many pecan orchards along the way. And, remember, if you do stop...taste the wine, don't drink and drive