My friend Beth has over 500 bottles of wine. Yes, you read that right – 500. She works wine competitions and is paid in wine. Not a bad trade if you ask me. Wine is something I really enjoy tasting and I am fascinated by how pairing food with a bottle can make or break a meal depending on how well you picked the wine. As a cook and a wine-enthusiast, I thought it would be fun to ask Beth some questions about wine. I hope you find what she has to say as educational as I did.
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Name: Beth Niles
Occupation: Sales Director
Location: San Rafael, CA
When and how did you first become interested in wine?
After graduating from theatre school in the early ’80’s, I moved back to the States from the UK and straight out to California. I became aware of wine and eventually married someone who made wine in our garage in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco where we lived. We would go pick second crop (small and late ripening clusters left on the vine after harvest) at a very prestigious winery in Stags Leap in the Napa Valley. We would assemble our friends along with their kids and dogs and caravan up and pick a quarter ton and high tail it back to the city where we would crush in our driveway. We had a lot of fun making some pretty terrible wine. But we didn’t care. We were garagistes! Then in my mid 20s I was invited to my first Bordeaux tasting. It was a stuffy affair in a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf with a lot of middle-aged men. I had never done anything like that before and I had no experience tasting or describing wine. I distinctly remember noticing that one wine smelled like low tide on a clam flat and said as much. Of course what I was noticing was sulphur, which, if you just give the wine some time to open up will often blow off. My next descriptor was ” hot dog”. That sealed my fate as a rank amateur but it taught me to commit to at least one word that describes your own impressions of the wine.
What recommendations would you give to a novice wine drinker who wants to learn more?
Honestly there is so much hype about wine. Share a bottle with friends and make dinner together. You’ll remember the wine better that way. Try everything once. Order a wine wheel from Ann Noble (Google it). It’ll help you assign names to flavors and smells in the wine. Your first task is to describe what you see, smell, taste and experience. Everyone has to start from where they are, even it’s Oscar Meyer as was my case. The only important thing to focus on is simply enjoying it, preferably with good food and friends. It’s a lifelong exploration so there’s no rush. Your palate will improve and so will your choices.
There are some fun things you can do to shake your palate up a little. Try organizing informal blind tastings with friends. Pick a variety you don’t know much about like Malbec or Viognier. Set a budget so you don’t taste $10 wines against $50 wines. $20-25 is a good benchmark.
Open the bottle and remove the entire capsule and stick it in a brown bag. Twist the bag around the neck and wrap a piece of tape around it. No peeking!!
Number each one and grab some glasses. Give everybody a sheet of paper and decide on a scale for grading the wine. Taste each wine and give it a grade. Try to say something definitive about each wine, even if it isn’t very complimentary. When everybody is done tasting, do a show of hands and vote for each wine or add up the points and then reveal the wines. The person who brought the winner should talk about why they chose the wine. Put spit buckets out and learn to sip and spit. You can’t expect to sample a lot of wine if you drink every sample. It’s perfectly acceptable to do this and you can always have a glass of your favorite wine after the reveal at the end.
The most important thing is to try a lot of wines you don’t know and ask sommeliers and wine merchants to guide you. They are the pros so tap their expertise. And keep an open mind. Riesling is an example of a wine that can be dry (tröcken) or sweet (spätlese) or very sweet (tröcken beeren auslese) but you’ll have to try many bottles from different appellations to even begin to appreciate it. Even if you think you don’t like certain wines often just switching to a different region or price point can make a huge difference. I became a huge fan of dessert wine over time as I learned about Sauternes, Passito and Tokaji. Get on the mailing list of several different wine merchants and go to their tasting events. On website that I recommend is http://secondglass.com.
Do you have any tips for shopping for wine?
Ignore wine scores. Your palate probably doesn’t have anything in common with Robert Parker’s. Decide on your wine budget. If you’re on a limited budget try to take advantage of sales to try higher end wines. If you live near wine country go taste wines you might not normally buy so you can start to identify quality and varietal characteristics. Take a sensory evaluation or wines of the world class at the local JCC. You won’t get anywhere drinking box wines or 2 buck chuck. Not to say there’s anything wrong with those, but if your goal is to expand your horizons and find wines that excite you and your guests you’ll need to spend some money. There are quality cues that can sometimes fool you into thinking the wine in the bottle is as fancy as the font on the label and gold foil capsule. Bring in reinforcements. Consult a wine merchant. Give them a budget and ask for suggestions. It’s likely that they have tasted hundreds if not thousands of wines. Go to cafes and shops that have interesting wines lists with flights so you can get two flights with a friend and try 6 or 8 wines. Go to wine events like ZAP or Pinot Days. And don’t forget to spit and take notes on the wines you like.
You’ve worked a number of wine competitions. Do you always agree with the judges?
Hmm, well, competition judges are total pros and seasoned industry insiders but after anyone has tasted 100 wines, it’s easy to miss things. Yes, on occasion you have to wonder about their choices but there are usually three or four judges on each panel so unless a wine is truly terrible it will usually merit a conversation and they will lobby each other to promote or demote a wine. The highest rated wines go on to a sweepstakes round and all the judges vote for Best in Show. Plenty of perfectly nice wines don’t medal but that’s why they call it a competition.
What do you look for when determining whether or not a wine is good?
There are so many factors to take into account but the primary one has to be to what degree you want to take another sip or not. Some wine begs to be savored, others quaffed, and still others poured down the drain. You can learn to detect flaws in the nose and confirm by taste. Some corked wines you don’t need to taste. They smell like a wet dog or worse, or suffer from Brettanomyces (barnyard odors) and are considered flaws but are tolerated to some degree in say, older Bordeaux wines, even though it is technically a flaw. Volatile acidity or VA smells a bit like nail polish remover. And then there are wines that delight the senses and make your mouth water, floral, spice, cedar, chocolate, bacon, etc. Sometimes you hit it on the head with a food and wine pairing and it just works perfectly. If you start to pay attention to umami you will know when you are on the right path or not. One rule of thumb for me is to be attentive to alcohol levels. Are they excessive or are they balanced. I’m wary of wines that have more than a 14.5% ABV. New World winemaking has tended to be higher in alcohol and as a result they can overwhelm you but if the tannins are balanced it can still be a pleasure able experience. The objective is to find harmony between all the components. Zinfandel is often guilty because it grows in super hot areas so that often translates into 15% ABC or higher with highly extracted fruit forward wines as a result. Some people like that style but I’m not a fan myself.
What do you consider when pairing food and wine together?
If either food or wine is negatively impacted by the other we’re going in the wrong direction. There are at least two schools of though in pairing. One says the wine should share some characteristic with the food. Like drinking a buttery Chardonnay with roast chicken. The fat in the food complements the buttery aspect of the wine caused by malolactic or secondary fermentation. The other school insists that you want the acid in the wine to cleanse/reset your palate so a dryer style or perhaps a different wine such as Chenin Blanc might be a better match. The classic pairings are really guidelines. Pinot noir often exhibits fungal, feral and earthy notes that make it a great wine to serve with mushrooms, pheasant or duck. The acidity of Sangiovese pairs with tomato based pasta dishes. Sauvignon Blanc goes with oysters. Champagne goes with just about everything, right?
Do you have any favorite wines? What is the best wine you have ever tried?
The favorite wine question is always a tough one for me. I’m a huge fan of wines from the Anderson Valley, north of Sonoma between Highway 101 and Mendocino. Navarro and Toulouse are favorites. It’s Pinot country with the cool influence of the Pacific and ideal for growing Alsatian whites too. I have also become an obsessed, and I mean enormous fan of rose. Not your grandmother’s Thanksgiving White Zinfandel, no ma’am. I’m talking about that lovely salmony, dry vin gris of you name it (pinot noir is my fave) that transports you from the first sip and lifts your spirits as it refreshes your spirit. Summer evenings on the porch with a dish of olives and a glass of this rose is my idea of the perfect end to my day. Try to get your hands on a bottle of Robert Sinskey Vin Gris in April when they release it. It’s only sold on allocation so you’ll have to get your name on the list and be ready when they call you! I do have my favorite wines and winemakers but like our tastes in other things, they change. Right now I’m a huge fan of a young winemaker named Morgan Twain Peterson. His dad is the famous winemaker Joel Peterson (founder of Ravenswood) and Morgan is doing a lot of the great things in his Sonoma based converted chicken coop re-purposed as Bedrock Winery. And as every winemaker will tell you, great wines begin in the vineyard. Morgan pays attention to his vines and has been resurrecting some really old Sonoma legacy vineyards. He calls these wines “heritage”, and he makes small batches of pretty fantastic zins, syrah’s and other cuvées (blends) both red and white composed of various things. His “Ode to Lulu” rosé is quite yummy, made from 120 year old Mourvedre vines and a bargain at under $20 if you can get your hands on some.
For white wine I tend to pick up a Sauvignon Blanc as my fall back white wine. Geyser Peak, often on sale for less than $8 is a perfectly acceptable B+ everyday wine. I tend to avoid New Zealand SB. I’m not a huge fan of the grassy, grapefruity, civet style that is prevalent there. I prefer a minerally French Sancerre or a Lake County SB with a tropical note. I’m not a fan of big, buttery Chardonnay. You can keep your Rombauer. If I want butter I can go to the movies and douse my popcorn. White wines in particular need to be refreshing first and capable of restoring some semblance of normal to your mouth after a creamy calorie busting forkful of Fettucine Alfredo! Even an unoaked Chardonnay will fit the bill just leave the splinters in the barrel! Other Wines to try: Albarino from Spain, Chenin Blanc from anywhere, Vermentino and Soave from Italy.
As reds go, the question has to be, what are we eating and what’s the weather doing? Depending on the barometer or moon phase, your Pinot Noir may just decide to close the shutters and stay in bed, no matter how many time you pour it through an aerator. I wouldn’t have known that if I had not worked in a tasting room and experienced it for myself. As mentioned before, I’m looking for a balanced wine, so whether it’s Cabernet Suvignon, GSM ( Cotes du Rhone) or a rustic little Sangiovese, I want to experience something delicious!
Can you recommend two splurge worthy, two mid-range and two budget friendly wines?
I confess I’m a Champagne girl on a Budweiser budget so most of what I recommend is not going to break the bank. My cellar consists of an old baker’s cabinet tucked into my garage, not exactly ideal cellaring conditions. Then there are racks in the bottom of closets, behind doors and an old freezer that has been repurposed as a “wine cave”. Ha! So I can’t spend more than I’m prepared to lose on wine. I already have an eclectic array of wine collected over years of working for a wine competition, so my splurges are rare. That said, there’s an awful lot of great wine within reach.
Unti Vineyards, Dry Creek CA.
This family winery grows and makes delicious, reasonably priced ( $25-30) Zinfandel, Rhone style and Italian varietals and even a Port. This is the real deal. If you find yourself near Healdsburg, definitely take the time to drive up the valley to taste (by appointment only) and sign up to get their newsletter so you won’t miss out when they release their wines. I rarely see this wine for sale except on restaurant wine lists.
Hartwell Estates Winery
Silverado Trail, Napa Valley. Splurge alert at $125 a bottle for Cabernet Sauvignon and $70 for Sauvignon Blanc. I first tried their Cab at a Stags Leap Winery Association Hospitality event. I was super impressed. The property is beautiful and within striking distance of Yountville so you can taste and then head over to the French Laundry if you can get a reservation or Bouchon for the Fruits de Mer Grand Platter, family style dining at Ad Hoc or the tomato soup en croute at Bistro Jeanty. Heaven!
The 2010 Vintage of a good Côtes du Rhône for your daily bottle will set you back about $10-15. Splurge-worthy would be a Chateauneuf -du Pape, Vieux Telegraph. Go on K & L ‘s website or just buy from Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley. 2010 is a Fantastic vintage. Totally affordable GSM (Grenache/ Syrah/ Mourvedre)
Champagne- the best you can afford, or Spanish cava, or Italian prosecco. Always have a bottle in the fridge. If Prosecco, pick up a bottle of Aperol, an orange, herbal aperitivo similar but not as bitter as Campari to make Spritz Aperol. Garnish with a slice of orange.
Splurgeworthy-ish: Abraxas vin de Terroir, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Napa Valley, CA. $ 35. An Alsatian – dry, field-blend of pinot blanc, pinot gris with a little splash each of gewutrztraminer and reisling. Each vintage is slightly different but it’s all sourced from biodynamically grown Carneros grapes. This is a versatile, citrusy, appley wine with fantastic aromatics. Pair with tarte flambé or choucroute and sausage. It has a cool glass stopper, too.
Pouilly Fume de La Doucette, Sancerre , Loire Valley France. $25. Sauvignon Blanc grown in soil composed of ancient oyster shells. Characterized by lively acidicty and minerality with a touch of gunflint. Serve chilled with fish, dungeness crab or by itself just because it’s soooo fabulous. Rumor has it that Jackie Kennedy used to serve it at state dinners. Trés elegant.
Other white wines I find interesting: Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, S. Africa. Clarksburg, CA or Loire Valley, France. Soave from the Veneto, northern Italy. Pair with Oysters, Radicchio and risotto. Torrontes from Argentina, Picpoul de Pinet from Tablas Creek, Paso Robles….OK. OK.
The list is truly endless. We haven’t even scratched the surface of dessert wines yet! (check out Passito de Pantelleria Ben Ryé ( pronounced ree-ay) from Donna Fugata if you want a truly mind altering encounter with one of the world’s great (and affordable) dessert wines. Pressed from raisiny Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown on an island off the coast of Sicily composed entirely of volcanic rocks. At $50 for a half bottle, it’s a splurge worth taking. If you can still get your hands on some foie gras it would pair well with it, too and a real treat for the holidays!