NZ SB: So Familiar, So Delicious

I thrive on variety. I’m obsessed with new experiences. I want to visit all the countries on Earth (at 115 now) I want to be conversant in all the major languages (at 6 now). So when it comes to wine, it’s no surprise that I prefer to try something new to something I’ve had before. The world of wine is huge, after all.

This bottle of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, was a gift bottle from our 4th “WineKnow” tasting. I wouldn’t have bought this bottle myself. Not because it isn’t excellent, but because I’ve had it so, so many times. When we lived in Australia, our go-to Sauvignon Blancs from NZ were Kim Crawford, Montana (Brancott), Nautilus and the now ubiquitous Cloudy Bay.

Was there a hole in the bottle? It sure got empty fast!

I sighed after swallowing the first gulp of the Kim Crawford SB. Like Proust’s famous madeleines, this wine whooshed me back in time. Vivid as yesterday, I remember sitting on our daybed in the sunroom on Yanko Ave, looking at the waves crashing on Bronte Beach and guzzling one or two NZ SBs while we read travel magazines and planned our 2.5-year round-the-world trip.

Everybody who loves wine knows the New Zealand “style” of SB: rasping acidity, tropical and citrus fruit flavors (unmistakable passion fruit and pineapple) at one end and thirst-slaking “green” flavors (cut grass, bell pepper, lime zest, and yes, cat pee) at the other end. So successful has this NZ SB flavor profile become that many of the “New World” winemakers strive to emulate it.

As a result, if I served a wine “beginner” a glass of good Sancerre and only told them that it was Sauvignon Blanc, I bet a lot of them would be disappointed. “I’ve had a lot better,” I could imagine them saying, recalling tropical abundance and tingling acidity.

Back to the Kim Crawford. My wife had a glass, and I had two. We both loved it. The next afternoon, I had two more glasses and it still tasted delicious. Considering the very affordable price (around $20) I must remember that in my quest for the “new”, it’s important sometimes to reach backward and refresh memories with a bottle of an old favorite.

Can OR Pinot Noir Age? Yup!

My wine collection is part investment, part experiment.

I want to understand HOW wines age by tasting them AS they age.

For more than a decade, I bought wine online (from big retailers or direct from the wineries) and stored them at a facility in Portland, Oregon. For years and years and years, I only made deposits – never withdrawals. Why? Because I was living in Asia. Shipment costs, questionable storage/transport and import tariffs on alcohol all made unfeasible for me to taste these wines I’d been buying.

In late 2018, I moved back to the USA (after 20 years in Asia!) and immediately started the experiment. I’ve got a LOT of Oregon Pinot Noir’s from 2008 and up. Do they age well? Or does the more fruit-forward style doom them to mediocrity with the passage of time?

Based on my experience so far, I can say the following with confidence: the best OR Pinot Noirs taste phenomenal, even a decade later. First, I tried two 2008 pinots side by side: the Beaux Freres Vineyard and an Archery Summit. Both are critically acclaimed wineries but the BF was my BFF. Later, when I briefly discussed my experiment with Roland Solles (winemaker at Argyle and ROCO), he smiled knowingly. (I’ve got some old ROCO somewhere in the pile of boxes so I can’t wait to see how Mr. Solles’ wines fared!)

Today, I’m trying the 2012 Walter Scott Cuvee Ruth from the Willamette Valley (13.6% ABV). Still medium purple in color, the wine smells fresh – crushed cherries and that telltale mustiness and earthiness of aged Pinot Noir. In the mouth, it feels light, with a tantalizing acidity. I bought 4 bottles of this upon release at US$30/bottle.

It’s very enjoyable. The length is provided by the cherries and the tongue-tingle. Considering the price and its age, it tastes fantastic.

My Wine Fridge’s Lazarus Act

I bought my Vinotemp, 150-bottle wine cabinet secondhand, for the ridiculously low price of US$300. The previous owner warned me that the WineMate refrigeration unit was starting to have some issues, but it was fall 2018 and I figured that the fridge would have no trouble keeping my wine at an acceptable temperature through fall and winter.

In fact, it had no trouble through spring. The weather in California has been so crappy (cold and wet) this year 2018/2019, that my unit was never really tested until late June. That’s when the temps inside the cabinet started climbing into the high 60s and the alarm bells literally started ringing.

I called Vinotemp and they told me that Mr. Appliance was their service provider in Orange County. So I called Mr. Appliance and set up a house call for the following week.

With the “box” gone, my precious wine is warming up…

Their representative arrived on time and got straight to work. He took out the “box” (the refrigeration unit), opened it up and said “Gosh, this looks in really good shape! No sign of Freon leakage, no major corrosion on the pipes, evaporator and condensers look good. Based on that, my guess is that the compressor is the problem.” He ran a quick diagnostic and said “Yup, you’ve got a bad compressor.”

What happened next astounded me. Instead of trying to sell me on: 1) a full “box” replacement, or 2) expensive replacement parts direct from WineMate, he instead told me about other options that would deliver the same performance at a much, much lower price. And then he called around to a few parts suppliers and managed to find exactly what I needed.

For a total cost of <US$700, this man is going to take my “box”, install the new parts this afternoon, test it overnight on a similar wine cabinet and then deliver and install the refurbished “box” at my house. He told me that he was very confident that this would extend the life of my wine fridge by 10+ years.

This means I’m going to have an essentially “new” Vinotemp wine fridge for a total cost of US$1000. If I had to replace the whole thing it would cost >US$3000 new. I am so relieved. I’m so pumped!

WineKnow Tips:

  • Wine fridges are important – especially if you are storing expensive bottles. Heat, light and humidity kill wine.
  • But wine fridges are also ridiculously expensive: the margin these companies are making on them are ludicrous. Think about it: you can buy an actual fridge/freezer (which goes MUCH colder than a wine fridge) for a few hundred dollars.
  • The wine fridge folks get you to spend thousands of dollars by telling you: 1) that you’ll be sorry if you don’t, and 2) that the cost of the fridge over ten years is nothing compared to the cost of your precious bottles.
  • My advice is to look online for secondhand fridges. People are always selling them, either because they’re moving house and can’t be bothered, or because they’ve got so much wine now that they need to buy a bigger wine fridge.

WineKnow Tasting #4: GSM – The Southern Rhone & Beyond

We hosted our fourth “WineKnow” tasting event at our house in Laguna Beach last Saturday. About 35 people joined us on a beautiful evening! (We charge $35 per person and that just covers 10 wines X 3 bottles each + some money for groceries (we make homemade pizzas and gougeres and always have lots of cheeses and cold cuts available).

While the overarching goal was to have fun, get a bit drunk and enjoy conversations with friends old and new, there were two educational goals:

1) To understand why winemakers blend different grapes, such as the “GSM” blend pioneered in France’s southern Rhone Valley, and

2) To understand the price/quality hierarchy in the southern Rhone Valley

One-third of the way through the tasting, and it’s all smiles already!

In order to understand why the “GSM” blend works, we started by tasting three, single-variety wines. A “G” (Grenache = Garnacha) from Spain; an “S” (Syrah = Shiraz) from the Northern Rhone and an “M” (Mourvedre = Monastrell = Mataro) from Spain.

The Grenache (usually 60%+ of Southern Rhone red blends) delivers plush, red fruit. The Syrah darkens the blend and adds blackberries, a certain meatiness/smokiness/pepper and tannins. The Mourvedre (usually the smallest % of the three) is extremely dark and tannic. Together, the three grapes deliver a balanced wine that tastes complex and can age extremely well. I was hoping to create my own GSM by pouring these three wines together but all the bottles were empty!

10 “Curriculum” wines + 3 “Guest” wines

Next, we learned about the Rhone wine quality pyramid. Cotes du Rhone –> Cotes du Rhone Villages –> Cotes du Rhone Crus –> Chateauneuf du Papes/Gigondas/Vacqueyras. We tasted an easy and delicious Cotes du Rhone from E. Guigal at an excellent price (US$11 at Costco!). Next, we jumped up the pyramid a few levels to an E. Guigal Chateauneuf du Papes from a not great year (2013). But it still tasted great! (A reminder that good winemakers can produce good wines even in “bad” vintages.) Finally, we tasted a Gigondas from Chateau St. Cosme.

Preaching to the Choir

We finished the evening with three GSMs from abroad: two from the Barossa Valley in Australia and one from Paso Robles in the USA. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to take these last three out of the wine fridge, so they were too cold to enjoy fully. That said, everyone was pretty lit at that stage so no one minded.

One of our first-timers to these WineKnow events told me “This is the best wine-tasting I’ve ever done! I can’t believe how much I’ve learned.” Stop it! I’m blushing.

Lovely Ladies…but wait, is that WATER?

I’ll post more of my detailed notes for this tasting later, as well as the specific list of wines we tasted. WineKnow #5 is either going to be “The Killer B’s of Italy” (Barolo + Brunello) or “The Wild Wines of Portugal.”

Be a WineKnow

I didn’t know anything about wine. How could I? My parents were teetotalers, and underage kids drank cheap beer, not snooty wine.

After college, my first job was at an investment bank in Chicago. That’s when my lack of wine knowledge (WineKnow) began to irritate me. If I went on a date, I felt hopeless when I scanned the restaurant wine list and made my selection based on price. At a client event, the sommeliers took advantage of my ignorance by steering me towards overpriced wines.

Preaching to the WineKnows at our “Summer Whites” Tasting

So I started reading. A lot. Zraly’s “Windows on the World” wine course, MacNeil’s “Wine Bible,” Decanter and Wine Spectator magazines and so much more.

I also started drinking. A lot. I found the pace of wine drinking enjoyable (not too drunk too fast, not too sober too long). I found the myriad styles of wine exciting. But most importantly, I discovered that understanding wine wasn’t that hard.

All that reading and drinking has transformed me into a “wine expert.” I’m not a Master of Wine or Certified Sommelier. I haven’t taken any tests. But I have tasted thousands of wines, toured dozens of wine regions and geeked-out like crazy.

I’m here to offer you shortcuts. To teach you a few little things that vastly expand your comfort in the wine world. My mantra is simple:

“Making better-informed and more adventurous wine buyers and drinkers.”

Rombauer 2015 Carneros Chardonnay

What a treat when a “mystery bottle” is actually kinda famous!

I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy this, so it must have been a gift bottle brought during our first WineKnow Chardonnay tasting.

This is a highly-respected producer. But I’m not much of a fan of Californian Chardonnays. Even the wines that retailers tell me have a light touch on the oak aging taste like butter bombs to me. Even the unoaked Calfornia Chardonnays still taste vanilla/butterscotch rich due to malolactic fermentation and high grape ripeness.

OK, so this wine was good. I’d even say it was great – for the style. It had been so long since I’d drunk a CA Chardy that I didn’t mind the flavor profile. And admittedly, this bottle had a lot less overt oakiness then so many of the other ones.


  • There is nothing inherently oaky or buttery about Chardonnay grapes.
  • All that oak, butter, vanilla and butterscotch comes from winemaker decisions, chiefly: 1) how much new (especially American) oak the wine ages in, and 2) whether the second, malolactic fermentation was done
  • I keep reading in wine magazines that Californian winemakers have turned away from the rich, buttery styles but I don’t know what they are talking about. It’s still almost impossible to find an unoaked Chardonnay that tastes anything like Chablis
  • Any CA Chardy you buy from a supermarket will almost certainly be in this style: rich (high alcohol), oaky, buttery. Think about some of the names! Buttercream, Butter etc.

Podere La Villa – Giacomo Toscana IGT (2014)

I drank this wine on my 46th birthday (January 31, if you’d like to send a bottle next year!) Unfortunately, my enjoyment of this delicious Italian Merlot was spoiled by a trip to the emergency room. Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled into a patch of poison oak while hiking. It took a month for me to be able to walk normally!

This is a 100% Merlot from Tuscany crafted by the daughter and son-in-law of the late, great Giacomo Taschis, Ilaria. He died in 2016, not long after this wine from his daughter was released. Only 1,900 bottles of this wine were produced (their Merlot acreage isn’t that big) and I got a CASE!

Giacomo was an oenologist who became known as “The Father of Super-Tuscans” and for having kick-started the quality renaissance in Italian wine in the 1960s and 1970s. Some say he brought French style and techniques to antiquated Italian winemaking.

He worked with Piero Antinori and helped develop Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia.┬áHe later helped in both Sicily (Donnafugata) and in Sardinia. Basically, this guy “dragged Italian wine kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” as Jancis Robinson wrote.
Decanter’s “Man of the Year” in 2012

Giacomo Toscana IGT Podere La Villa 2015 (750ML) zoom

*** My tasting notes

Lovely. Dark purple, nose of blackberry and cedar. Medium-heavy in the mouth, the alcohol levels were in the middle of the range for Merlots at 14.5%. Plush black fruits. Going to love tasting the remaining bottles over the next few years!


  • Most Europe labels its wines by region. Within that region, only certain grapes are allowed. So Tuscany is mostly about Sangiovese – BY LAW.
  • The “Super Tuscans” are massively popular Italian wines made from international grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah) and often blended with Sangiovese.
  • Since they’re not following the rules, these winemakers are forced to indicate their wine as IGT (Italian for ‘typical of this region’) which doesn’t sound very high-end at all.
  • But no matter. Wines like Tignanello and Sassicaia are global superstars.

2016 Belleruche Cotes du Rhone Rose by M. Chapoutier

I love French rose. Light pink or salmon-colored, slightly savory from the limited red grape skin contact, utterly refreshing.

I love the Southern Rhone (Chateauneuf du Papes, Gigondas, Vacqueyras etc.)

I trust anything made by Michael Chapoutier.

This Cote du Rhone rose hits all three!

My wife found this bottle at World Markets for something like $6! As you can see, it got destroyed over a lunch of beet salad.

WineKnow Facts:

  • Rose wines are NOT normally a blend of white and red wines.
  • In fact, they are almost always made from exclusively red grapes!
  • Confused? Keep in mind that almost all grapes have white/clear juice.
  • The difference with rose wines (and red wines) is that grape skin contact is kept limited. So you get a bit of red and a bit of tannins but with the freshness and acidity of a good white!
  • Rose is hugely popular globally. And it comes in all sorts of colors. However, I can’t stand the bright red ones that smell like strawberry Kool-Aid.
  • No, given me roses from the South of France, Cote du Rhones or Provence! There the wines are usually very pale pink or salmon-colored, with light red fruit and a certain savoriness that pairs perfectly with salads, fish, shellfish.
  • Since this is a Cote du Rhone, the grapes that went into this wine are almost certainly Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and a bit of Mourvedre.
  • But rose can really be made with any red grapes!

Millier – White Wine Blend (Lodi)

I love “mystery” white blends. They are so much fun to taste blind and guess the mix!

The success of the “Conundrum” label has shown that you don’t have to reveal everything. If the wine tastes great, consumers don’t need to know what grapes went into it.

This is another wine from my introductory case.

The grapey grapeness was a giveaway that Moscato was a key part of the blend. The floral nose had me thinking southern Rhone white variety – but I didn’t guess Viognier. I totally missed the Chardonnay. I thought there might be Chenin Blanc in there instead.

Anyway, this is a nice white blend with a unique nose, a perception of sweetness and a somewhat bitter, almondy finish. I enjoyed it. It doesn’t taste like everything else, thank God.

Medium acidity means it wouldn’t be a great throw-in-the-Igloo-cooler summer wine. But would be an awesome seafood wine.

I love “secret” blends. It’s so much fun to try to guess which grapes are in there!

Ana Diogo-Draper Amador Tempranillo 2017

*** My review and rating from

Love the label! Looks like Spanish/Portguese tiles.


“Was pretty skeptical of Tempranillo in the USA. Love the wines of Rioja and Toro. But figured that the winemaker would “pump up the volume” (like Americans are wont to do) on the wine and lose the typicity.

Instead, my wife and I both enjoyed it tremendously. Medium bodied, bright red fruit (imo a bit fruitier than the typical Spanish tempranillo but that’s just fine) and pretty classic tobacco aromas. Very smooth tannins too. 

Lovely wine enjoyed with portobello mushroom ‘steaks.'”

WineKnow Facts:

  • If it’s red and it’s from Spain, chances are that it’s made from Tempranillo grapes.
  • If it’s red and it’s from the Rioja, Ribero del Duero or Toro regions of Spain, it’s either 100% or mostly Tempranillo.
  • In Portugal, Tempranillo is called Tinta Roriz. It’s one of the primary reds of Portugal and one of three primary reds blended in Port
  • Tempranillo makes wines that are bright ruby (NOT dark purple/black), medium-weight and fairly fruity with high acidity. I think they taste similar to Chianti wines (which are made with Sangiovese grapes). However, I’d say that Chiantis tend to have a bit more tannins and have more of a cherry fruit flavors.