Get to know Vineration wine scout Brian Seel in 7 questions.
What are your favorite varietals?
I love spicy reds and aromatic whites like Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Chenin Blanc, and Riesling. I can find a great wine from any category, but I personally love these varietals because most over-deliver on quality for the price.
How many wineries have you visited?
Nearest I can count: 230 total
Which wine clubs do you personally belong to?
Robert Young Estate, Williams Selyem, A Tribute to Grace, Carlisle, MacLaren
What is the greatest wine you’ve ever had?
I can’t name just one! Among my all-time favorites: 2012 Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir, 2008 Lindaflor Malbec, 2000 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013 Craggy Range Le Sol, 1979 Smith Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013 Lagier Meredith Syrah
What's the best food & wine pairing?
A dry or off-dry riesling with Thai curry is the ultimate pairing! The riesling's fruit flavors really complement the curry's kaffir lime, Thai basil, and coconut flavors. The wine's high acidity helps cut the spiciness and refreshes your palate.
Do you have a favorite wine memory?
One moment is really special: The grape stomping competition at the 2017 Sonoma Vintage Festival. Lindsay and I entered the competition when she was 5 weeks from Georgia's due date. The goal is to crush the most juice possible out of a barrel of grapes with your bare feet! We didn't win, but it was a quintessentially fun, local, and messy wine country experience.
What is the world's most beautiful vineyard?
Rippon Vineyard in Wanaka, New Zealand is astoundingly breathtaking. The winery is perched above the gentle sloping Tinker’s Field vineyard which rolls into the sapphire waters of the eponymous Lake Wanaka. The far side of the lake is bulwarked by the aptly named Minaret Peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park. The juxtaposition of sloped vineyard rows, shimmering lake, and snow-capped monoliths is a majestic formula which commands wonderment. It’s a place that any poet-laureate would dream of immortalizing in verse.
The Historic Vineyard Society hosted their largest-ever tasting at San Francisco's Press Club wine bar on Saturday, April 21. Thirty producers were present, both stalwarts and upstarts of the California wine scene. In the past HVS has hosted vineyard tours and dinners, but this year, they wanted to involve more producers, said HVS president Mike Officer.
The initial attraction for attending this event was the opportunity to taste 76 wines from some of California's most venerable vineyards and respected winemakers. The real reward was that a sub-level existed to this event: it was an in-depth study in terroir through a de-facto horizontal tasting. Among dozens of vineyards represented, multiple expressions of Wirz, Evangelho, Bechtold, Besson, and Mancini vineyards were poured by multiple producers. For a wine geek, there was no better chance to examine the nuances in winemaking than at this HVS event.
With 215 official attendees, the wood-paneled basement bar was stuffy. During the core of the event, I had to muscle through the crowd to get a pour, and limited table space made diligent note-taking a challenge. But popularity is a good problem to have. I hope HVS continues to host special events like this more frequently.
Of the 53 wines I tasted, here are the highlights.
Arnot Roberts 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Montecillo Vineyard, Moon Mountain District - Tobacco, bell pepper, gravel, subtle cassis, high but balanced acid, killer structure, tight but pleasant tannins. It's very old world style Cab; a beautiful wine that expresses terroir. - 10
Birichino 2015 Besson Grenache - Owner John Locke told me this includes some whole cluster fruit that was apassamiento dried for tannin concentration. It's a really lovely wine, big fresh red fruit up front, light stemmy tannins, and very complex on the palate. Among several Besson grenaches I've had, this is one of the most interesting. - 9
Calder 2015 Mendocino Carignane, Rivera Vineyard - Calder owner/winemaker Rory Williams told me this Carignane is grown behind a cemetery in Ukiah! Dark red fruit, medium plus acid, medium body, soft tannins, pretty juicy and elegant. It was among my top Carignanes of the day. - 9
Calder 2015 Evangelho Carignane - High acid, super fresh structure, incredibly bright red fruit with spicy licorice undertones. Evangelho Carignanges don't always do it for me. They tend to be made with overwhelming acidity. This was one of the more balanced expressions. - 9
Carlisle 2015 The Derivative White Wine - Made from a plurality of Semillon from Monte Rosso Vineyard, the oldest Semillon in the U.S. Great citrus aromatics, lemon curd on the palate, rich body, lanolin finish. The richness of the fruit gives the impression of some residual sugar. - 9
I. Brand & Family 2016 Enz Vineyard Mourvedre, Lime Kiln Valley - High acid, buried earthy dark fruit, stemmy tannins, elegant medium body with a long finish. - 9
Precedent 2016 Victors Zin, Lodi - Awesome textbook Zin with great balance, smooth body, fruit forward but elegant with structure. The best Lodi wine I tasted of the day. - 9
Reichwage 2016 Mancini Ranch Carignan - A new winery from Max Reichwage, the new owner of this historic RRV vineyard. Beautiful aromatics, round red fruit, white pepper, crazy musty/tarry character. - 8
Robert Biale 2016 Basic Black Heritage Blend - Killer depth, black fruit, spicy herbs, cocoa, lots of slate & structure. Solid wine from a storied Zin specialist. - 8
Stirm 2016 Zinfandel Cienega Valley - A lighter, brighter zin with white pepper, rose, cranberry, raspberry notes. Great acidity and a break from heavy zins. - 9
Stirm 2016 Riesling, Wirz Vineyard - Best Riesling I tasted from Wirz that day, some slight R/S giving body, great citrus fruit and plastic dust aromas (in a good petrolly way), medium plus acid, full fruit and full body on palate - 9
Stirm 2016 Cabernet Pfeffer, Lime Kiln - Lovely elegant body, crisp structure and tight tannins, candied cherry, white pepper and sweet cherry/rasberry finish, not as peppery as the name implies. Really quaffable, I could drink this all day. - 10
Turley 2015 Hayne Vineyard Zin - Super elegant body, smoky with deep blackberry notes, it's simply an outstanding wine, period. From Napa's most famous old Zin vineyard, this is the traditional Zinfandel style at its pinnacle - 9
Under the Wire 2013 Sparkling Zinfandel Bedrock Vineyard - The folks behind Bedrock wines also produce bubbly by Methode Champenoise. Amazingly balanced, mild bready notes, bright & crisp, white cherry fruit, loads of minerality. This is definitely not from Chard or Pinot and is a delightful detour. - 10
Favorite Producers: Calder and Stirm
These two newer brands headed by young winemakers blew me away. All of their wines were handled with balance and finesse. Each wine was also immediately drinkable but showed potential for moderate aging. Of course I love and respect many of the winemakers present at HVS who have long-established and consistently deserved reputations. But part of the fun of attending these events is trying new wines from emerging producers. From that aspect, Calder and Stirm rocked my palate with multiple wines.
Find them online at:
I used to be very intimidated when ordering wine at a restaurant, especially any fancy joint with a long wine list. After several years of wine travel, living in Sonoma, and earning an official wine certification, I've finally mastered the dreaded wine ordering process.
But you shouldn't have to get formal training to feel at ease with ordering outside your comfort zone. So take to heart my core message:
IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT!
Really. Go easy on yourself... It's. Not. Your. Fault. The difficulty and intimidation felt when ordering wine is the fault of the restaurant and their service staff. Most establishments in which I've dined go about their wine service entirely wrong. Even in some restaurants with a full-time, trained sommelier, the wine ordering process is an abysmal failure.
Guests are never given enough time to consider the wine list. The server requests a drink order far too quickly and then promptly confiscates the wine menu. Aforementioned server rarely knows a darn thing about wine. If they call for backup from a sommelier, that individual heaps on the discomfort by speaking in industry jargon and suggesting the second-most expensive bottle on the list.
I've developed a surefire strategy to confidently order wine, make your dining experience smoother, and feel like a boss doing so. No matter your level of wine knowledge, even if you're a self-proclaimed expert, this strategy will win.
Here Are My Tricks
#1 - Accept the fact that wine in restaurants is absurdly expensive.
The bar is more profitable than the kitchen. This is common industry knowledge. Restaurants rely on profits from alcohol sales to subsidize the food prep, so the drink margins are larger. Also, a fully-stocked bar and deep wine list is a pricey inventory to keep provisioned. Therefore, bottles of wine are priced at 2-3 times retail cost. Here's a secret: wine-by-the-glass is usually priced at the wholesale cost of the whole bottle! So that $40 bottle of Chardonnay which costs you $8 by-the-glass... costs the restaurant $8. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but accepting this reality will make you more comfortable ordering wine.
#2 - Do a bit of research prior to dinner.
These days, you always read the online menu before choosing a restaurant, right? Well, take an extra minute to peruse the wine list if they also have it posted. Just as you know which dishes are immediately enticing, certain wines will jump out at you. If the list is obscure or concentrated to one region about which you know very little, such as the wines of Croatia, you'll know to ask for guidance. (What the heck is Plavac Mali?!) You'll also get a feel for the value of the wines and will be prepared to spend accordingly.
Furthermore, consider the wine preferences of your fellow diners. If they aren't old friends, you may not know what wines they like, whether they are willing to split the cost, or if expensive wines make them uncomfortable. Before or immediately upon your arrival to the restaurant, and ask your companions whether they will partake in the wine and if they have any general preferences/aversions. It's the courteous thing to do.
#3 - Consider bringing your own wine.
Outside of wine-producing regions, this isn't a very common practice. But if the wine list is complete garbage, consider bringing your own bottle of wine. How can the untrained eye judge if the restaurant wine list is terrible? If you can recall seeing the majority of the brands for sale at your supermarket, then the list is an insult to fine dining. Feel free to bring your own bottle, which the restaurant will charge a corkage fee to serve to you. (Usually $15-30). If the corkage policy isn't explicitly listed on their website menu, then call ahead and ask. Be warned: it's incredibly tacky to bring a wine which is featured on the wine list, and doing so may even be prohibited by the restaurant.
On the other hand, if you're celebrating a special event and want to bring your favorite wine despite the fact that the wine list is great, go for it. Just be sure to order pre- or post-dinner drinks from the menu. The restaurant will appreciate that, and if you also buy a bottle of wine off the menu, they just may waive the corkage fee.
#4 - Elect a wine delegate.
When you sit down in a dining group of 2-6 people, designate one person to order the wines by the bottle. (Larger groups are a whole different ballgame.) Etiquette-wise, first right of refusal should go to the individual who chose the restaurant or can reasonably be considered the "host". Otherwise, nominate the person perceived to have the most wine knowledge. They'll not only feel honored to choose the wine, they'll enjoy doing so.
#5 - Pick your meal first.
There’s nothing I hate more than a waiter handing me an extensive wine list and then returning for my drink order less than five minutes later. Set the wine list aside unless you have something very specific in mind (or if you already chose your bottle per Trick #2). First select your meals, then go back to the wine list. If you want an aperitif drink while deliberating, get a cocktail or a glass of bubbly to start. You can then order your bottle of wine after you place your food order.
This restructuring of the ordering process will allow you time to consider food and wine pairing based upon the table's dishes. It'll also take the pressure off your table mates to make a selection compliant with your wine choice.
#6 - Confidently say how much you are willing to spend on a bottle.
It’s okay to get the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu if that’s what you want to drink. Per Trick #1, you've already come to grips with the reality that restaurant wine is overpriced. But don't be a cheapskate who settles for the cheapest bottle no matter what. If you've enlisted the help of the server or sommelier, confidently give them some price guidance. Don't be embarrassed if your budget is on the low end. Giving your sommelier wine style criteria without a budget range is certain to end in a costly suggestion. Be proud of the fact that most occasions don't call for an expensive wine.
#7 - State what you like.
Asking a sommelier for a random wine recommendation is as bewildering as asking a department store clerk for underwear recommendations: they can't tell what you have on and have no frame of reference for what you'd like.
If you have a favorite wine you drink each week, tell them that. If you're out for a special occasion, inform them of the best wine you've ever had. And if there is a type of wine that totally disgusts you, reveal that, too.
These points of reference will be incredibly instructive to landing on the perfect wine for the night.
#8 - Ask questions.
Have you never heard of Mencia from Ribeira Sacra? Don't know the difference between Riesling Kabinett and Riesling Auslese? Have no idea where Taurasi or Minervois are located, or what grape varieties they contain?
No problem! If the server/sommelier suggests a wine from an unknown place or a varietal you've never heard of, just ask about it!
Don't be shy to admit you know nothing about the wine or place. Give them an opportunity to educate you. And then, don't just settle for the facts. Ask the server why they are suggesting the wine and what makes it great. If they can answer those questions with certainty and without condescension, then they've demonstrated their excellent wine service training. Trust their advice and try something new!
If they can't answer those simple questions, then they've proven they are inadequately trained and don't know an iota more than you about wine! Perhaps they should go back to working at Applebee's, where "House Red" and "House White" are as complicated as it gets.
Now make that reservation, dominate that wine list, and enjoy your night out!
I'm excited to announce that some of my wine travel stories have been published by the Tampa Bay Fine Wine Guide!
I wrote a series of articles for them based on my travels in New Zealand. I've been to 41 wineries in NZ and chose 10 of my favorites, of which 7 made the final cut.
Check out the online version using this link, and let me know what you think:
I'll also be reposting the stories in their entirety here on my Travel section for your reading enjoyment.
Other non-travel ramblings on wine and business.