Tag Archives: sommelier

Sassicaia vs. Ornellaia Smackdown – The Battle of the Super Tuscans

In a recent trip to Italy, my wife and I stopped into Enoteca Tognoni and tasted all wines on tap.

In general for the price point, the wines tasted were disappointing, with a notable exception. All the wines were very much French Bordeaux in style, but missing the finesse of the fine wine making tradition in France. One of the exceptions was Tenuta San Guido. Sassicaia was a truly an amazing wine and far beyond the other wine there. We also tasted Le Macchiole, Ca’Marcanda, Sapaio, Guado al Tasso and Grattamacco, but the Sassicaia and Ornellaia were clearly above the others. Tasting notes below:

2009 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 95 Points

Italy, Tuscany, Bolgheri

Tasted with a plate of prosciutto, cheese, olive oil and bread. Started just like a typical Super Tuscan… light texture, subdued alcohol, red and black cherry fruit with a dark chocolate finish… then, as you ponder what’s in the glass, the realization hits you. This wine is so well made, nothing is out of place and the entire experience is just right. All parts of the wine show themselves without overpowering. The texture is light, but silky and coats the mouth. There were strong tannins and acidity for a good backbone, but it did not prevent the wine from coming together. This wine presented a beautifully balanced, structured and harmonious profile.

2009 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Superiore Ornellaia 92 Points

Italy, Tuscany, Bolgheri

Tasted with a plate of prosciutto, cheese, olive oil and bread. Again, a typical Super Tuscan… light texture, subdued alcohol, red and black cherry fruit with a dark chocolate finish. Definitely well made, but did not leave you with that “wow” factor. For the same rough price point (approx. $200/btl.), the Sassicaia had bowled me over, whereas the Ornellaia just had me thinking this is “pretty darn good”. Maybe a little too thin in comparison? There was good structure, with strong tannins and acidity here too.


Perhaps the comparison was unfair and it was simply that particular vintage, but the difference seemed to be in the vinification, rather than the quality of the fruit. Of course, it could just be a personal preference, but for me the Sassicaia was not only more accessible young, but showed tremendous bottle aging potential.

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Filed under Bolgheri, Cool Climate Wine, Italian Wine, Super Tuscan Blend, Toscana, Wine Collecting, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes, Wine Travel

Wine & the Football Couch Potato

My wife and I started our wine country vacations nearly twenty years ago. Not very long after, we began collecting wines. At first, we stored the wine in racks, then later in expensive environmentally controlled cellars. Initially, we bottle-aged reds only, then whites and finally sparkling. A couple of years ago, I was formally trained in a classroom, passed the Sommelier exam and received my certification. It has been a wild and crazy ride. If this already has you thinking, “I could do that!”… It is time to accept your secret inner wine-o and warn your children. The first one to move out will lose his/her bedroom to a well-decorated, Tuscan themed wine room!

The Transformation

I graduated from a beer and whiskey drinking male stereotype, to someone who spends a good chunk of his income on fine food and wine. How the heck does THAT happen? I think my path broke the mold when it comes to your typical wine-o/foodie archetype. For the 6-pack of Budweiser Sunday football guys everywhere (old me), I will attempt to look deep inside and reveal the wonder of this miraculous change.

1. Romance

No, not that namby-pamby touchy-feely kind. When a guy figures out that your honey can be talked into just about anything, after a few bottles of REALLY GOOD red wine on a patio overlooking a beautiful vineyard, you will understand the connection between wine and hormones.

2. “Mellow Buzz”

The red wine effect is unlike any other alcoholic beverage. You feel good, warm inside, relaxed, sexy, friendly and all the world’s problems are thoroughly pointless.

3. Social Connections

You meet people when enjoying the wine country and drinking wine. It adds friends to your circle and you get the extra added benefit of impressing them with your manly description of floral aromas.

4. Cheap Wine vs. the Good Stuff

If only I had never traveled to Napa that first time, it would have saved me at least $100K over the last 10 years. Before that trip, I had never spent more than $15 on a bottle of red wine and it was all pretty awful. Had I been born in Italy, where the difference between cheap wine and the good stuff is not as great (topic for another day), my life would have been entirely different. I would have been wealthier, closer to retirement, much more good looking and writing this post from my villa on the Tuscany coast.

5. Crazy Flavors in Wine

How the heck do you make grape juice taste like graphite, or tobacco? Or for that matter… mint, bacon, or eucalyptus? The big guy upstairs really put some mojo in those grapes!

6. Adventure

Terroir is more than a Dictionary definition, it is a wonderfully engaging concept. Not just from the perspective of its impact on flavors, but the idea of “place” it brings with it. With every new wine region, it brings new expressions of different varietals, new flavors and aromas… and provides a very different experience. Tie that to the regional cuisines associated with each and you have an endless journey of discovery.

The Journey

There it is. I never pushed. I was always drawn along the path. Ladies, want to see if that Sunday football couch potato can transform into the kind of guy that talks YOU into a vacation in the wine country… here’s your template. Best of luck though, while he may become that dreamboat you always wanted, he is sure to be in the poorhouse begging for foie gras on the nearest street corner!

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Filed under Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

The 100 Point Wine Rating Scale has Become…

As wine media has begun reaching the consumer and wine critics are becoming rock stars… You have to ask yourself, just exactly how does this rating system work? On many websites, you will find an attempt at an explanation that reflects how the major critics SEEM to interpret it, but… does anyone really know definitively? There are no hard and fast rules. So hear is a quick look under the hood from the perspective of using the ratings as a method of selecting wines for your cellar.

As you walk through wine websites, you begin to notice there are virtually no ratings under 80, or over 95. I think the worst rating I have ever given a wine is 82. Of course this seems absurd, but regardless, if this is the standard… what do the ratings really mean? If you are the type that needs to make sense of this mess, follow me on my journey.

Criteria for the System

What exactly do the ratings evaluate: drinkability, age-worthiness, structure, balance? How do you compare entirely different styles using the scale: red, white, old-world, new world, sweet, fortified, etc. I am sure you get my drift here. Every critic’s wine notes and evaluation process is based on a different standard, therefore there is no frame of reference for the consumer. So, do the ratings have any real value, or are they just marketing ploys? Well, perhaps the intent is entirely marketing-focused, but I believe I have found ways the ratings can assist me in my wine purchasing decisions:


The majority of wine critics (AND fine wines collectors) have developed an educated palate. This assumption is important and I think largely true. I know for myself, I may not like a wine that others view as enjoyable, but that does not mean I cannot appreciate its quality. If the winemaker has produced a quality wine in its structure, balance and extracted flavors/aromas… I will not give it a poor score, even when I do not care for the wine personally. Again, I think this to be largely the case with the most (but not all) professional/semi-professional critics. the breaking point here for me is at 90. If the wine is rated 90, or over from several sources, odds are – it is a quality wine… but that does not guarantee that YOU will enjoy it. It is simply a place to start weeding out bottles not worth the investment. In my case, I know, I am missing many wines I might enjoy in the 85-89 range, but I try to visit wineries to sample what I can of those.

Callibrating Your Palate

Calibrate a particular critic’s palate to yours. Take a few minutes to taste wine and compare your impressions to the critics ratings and find one that generally matches your impressions. In my case, of the major critics, I think Stephen Tanzer is the closest to my palate. It is worth the time to find your match. I place a little more weight on an evaluation, when ST writes the note. Again that is just me personally.

Should the System be Changed?

I have read and many have explained to me that winemaking technology has improved tremendously over the last two decades and therefore there truly is no more “bad” wine… which is the reason why ratings do not drop below 80 any longer. I am willing to accept that, but if that is the case, then we MUST move to another system. I also believe a criteria for a new ratings system needs to be established. When I choose to purchase wines I have not tasted, here is my criteria:

  • Structure and balance: acidity, tannins, all the parts work together? Fuller, rounder wine with a mid-palate?
  • Fruit: fruit-forward, or not
  • Texture: wine coats your mouth, or crisp and clean
  • Terroir: the wine includes an expression of the local terroir?
  • Finish: flavors linger?

IMHO, if we rated each of these categories 1-10, that would provide a useful wine rating and evaluation!

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Restaurant, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

When is Winemaking Art?

OK, for you collectors that have a large cellar that you cherish, this is for you…

Age-Worthy Wines

I am often surprised by critic’s characterizations of wines that will age well. I see five years, ten years, thrown out there all the time, without a clear justification. I want to know WHY a wine deserves to be called “AGE-WORTHY”. No, there is no mystery to the educated palate that is inscrutable to the rest of the world (unlike what some critics would like you to believe). I think most who have already been introduced to wine and lay down at least a few bottles know that red wines without acidity and tannins, do not handle bottle aging well. What I almost never hear is a discussion of balance and structure. This is what defines age-worthy wines. Tasting notes for wines the industry typically views as age-worthy should focus on this aspect. I have not experienced many wines that magically “come together” in the bottle. When some element is missing, or one aspect overshadows the rest, more time in the bottle will just make what was suspect in the first place, a more subdued version of the same mess.

Art in Wine

So, where does art fit into this picture? When a winemaker can coax a balance of acidity/tannins/alcohol/aromas-flavors/textures from a variable fruit crop, year after year. Any winery can make a fruit bomb, an easy drinker, or leverage an appelation’s fame – like Rutherford’s dusty tannins… but winemaking talent and the quality it produces is most often evident in balance, structure and harmony. It is like Vivaldi writing for a string quartet, the greater understanding of how the parts join to comprise the whole.

So, shouldn’t the industry be helping you to recognize these balanced, structured wines that you can still pop now if you must? I am at a loss to understand why there is so little mention of this topic in the majority of professional critics’ tasting notes. Having developed an appreciation for the issue, the only wines that truly send a shiver down my spine are these perfectly balanced young gems. I have almost a reverence for the talent required to produce a red wine that, while accessible young, still has tremendous aging potential. If you need an example, the 2009 Sassicaia I tasted recently struck me as such a wine. Perhaps you can help engage the industry in this discussion? It feels lonely out there on this topic…

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Open Letter to Sommeliers

I see posts all over the internet from Sommeliers talking about their passion for wine and customer service and the challenge of being an ambassador to the industry…

Sommeliers Must Bring Business Management to the Table

There is a key point being missed. A Somm is also a beverage manager. He/she should be a businessperson first and foremost. The job for the owner is to build a beverage program that attracts clientele and contributes it’s share to the profitability of the restaurant/shop. Yes, Somm’s are passionate, wine-loving people… but without a business focus, they are not the invaluable asset they should be. Besides exceptional beverage service, they must be able to manage a budget, negotiate procurement agreements, practice good cellar management, devise effective pricing programs, train wait-staff, etc… exceptional people skills are very important, but a business focus is what will make a career successful.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Restaurant, Sommelier, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel