A day in the life of a wine writer: One lunch, three tastings, and six hours
No one ever believes the Wine Curmudgeon when he tells them that wine writing is a lot more than sipping $100 bottles in five-star restaurants in the company of mini-skirted and leather-booted PR women.
It’s work — not mining coal or repairing roofs work, but work nonetheless. Last Thursday, I attended a wine lunch at 12:30 p.m., went to two walk-around tastings, and then did a home wine tasting as one of Two Wine Guys — all in the space of six hours. And I skipped two other events. (One sales rep said skipping them proved I wasn’t manly enough. I think he was joking.) This wasn’t a typical day, but something like it happens a couple of times a year.
Why did I do it? To taste wine that I wouldn’t normally taste, and especially expensive wine. To schmooze with other wine writers, wine executives and wine makers, which is an integral part of doing this job well. And because the point of writing about wine is to drink as much of it as possible.
12:20 p.m.: I pull into the valet slot at Stephan Pyles in downtown Dallas for a Pine Ridge lunch, launching the winery’s 2004 Fortis, a red blend from Napa Valley that retails at $135. My first thought: Gee, my favorite Pine Ridge wine is the $13 chenin blanc and viognier blend. I mention this, jokingly, to AnnaBelle Walter, the marketing director for the company that owns Pine Ridge, and she does not laugh.
12:40 p.m.: Lunch is served. The first course is some type of almond gazpacho, which strikes me as not Pyles’ best work. However, the 2006 Pine Ridge Dijon Clones Chardonnay ($33) improves the gazpacho tremendously. It has enough California oakiness for people who like that sort of thing, but also enough fruit and acid for those of us who prefer that chardonnay not taste like a baseball bat. I tell Erle Martin, the president and CEO of Pine Ridge’s parent, that the wine seems like a great value. He looks pleased.
1 p.m.: Main course is served — braised boneless short ribs with a tamale filled with what appears to be goat cheese. No one does tamales better than Pyles, and the short ribs are equally as spectacular. Ryan Tedder, the restaurant’s sommelier, pours the Fortis. Martin looks at the table, which includes two restaurant types; Julie Blacklidge, who writes about wine for a Dallas city magazine (Julie, who has more sense, is not going to the next two tastings); and Renie Steves, who was the wine writer in Fort Worth before me. We smell. We sip. We smell again. I take a bite of the ribs, sip some wine. Martin shows remarkable patience.
Finally, everyone starts to nod in that way that means we liked the wine. And we’re not just being polite. The Fortis is not only well made, but it is not nearly as overwhelming as most high-end Napa red blends, which are usually too fruity, too oaky, too alcoholic, too acidic, and too tannic. This is a style that makes the Wine Curmudgeon even more cranky than usual. I mention this to Martin, and he says that that was one of the goals with Fortis — to be, if not more subtle, less intense. We then have a very pleasant chat about why young people like higher alcohol wines, and Martin seems impressed with my analysis. Hopefully, Walker won’t tell him my favorite Pine Ridge is the chenin blend.
1:50 p.m.: I glance at my watch. At 2 p.m., in the building next to Pyles’ restaurant, there is a Frederick Wildman tasting, in which the importer is displaying 13 of its brands. That’s why I used the valet, figuring I wouldn’t have to re-park the car. Dessert, meanwhile, is a cheese tray, which I don’t have time to eat. I do get a chance to taste the 2005 Fortis, which won’t be released until the fall. It’s quite different, a little darker and less fruity, more Bordeaux in style. I shake hands all around.
1:55 p.m.: I tell the valet I’m going next door to the Wildman tasting, and will be back in an hour to pick up my car. I’m sorry, sir, he says, but we go off duty at 2:30. You’ll have to get your car by then. So much for thinking ahead.
2:01 p.m.: I am the third person at the Wildman tasting, behind only Chris and Deedra Keel, who own Put a Cork in It, a nifty little wine shop in Fort Worth. Are you going to the Diageo tasting later? asks Chris. Yes, I say, and speed ahead of them.
Wildman is an important importer, and is holding this event in six cities. There are about six brands I want to taste, and each has four or more wines. I have time to taste a couple of wines at three or four of the brands. What’s a wine writer to do? When in doubt, go French. That means I won’t taste the Churchill’s port, or any of the Spanish or Italian wines. One must do what one must do.
2:06 p.m.: I skip the Champagne (the Keels are making their way to Pol Roger) and go to Pascal Jolivet, which does Loire Valley wines. I’m a huge fan of French sauvignon blanc, and the Loire used to produce the best in the world. Today, it takes a back seat to New Zealand, especially when it comes to value. I sip and spit the Jolivet Sancerre 2007 and Pouilly-Fume 2006, both about $23. The former has some lemon and a touch of minerality, and the latter has a touch of lemon and lots of minerality, which is just the way I like it. But $23 is a lot of money for what each offers.
2:12 p.m.: Domaine Christian Moreau does Chablis, another of my favorites. I check my watch. I have time for one wine — the 2006 Chablis. I sip and spit, sip again. It’s classic, a fresh, clean wine with lots of acid, and not nearly as soft as the Chablis I had tasted on Monday. I check my price sheet: $30. I gulp.
2:15 p.m.: The next table is Olivier Leflaive, a top-notch Burgundy negociant. I can taste Puligny. I can taste Chassagne. But can I do it in five minutes? Sip. Spit. Sip. Spit. Sip. Spit. The Puligny is very young, but should age well. It’s probably about $60, which isn’t bad. The Chassagne, around $55, is also young, but I’m not sure it will age as well. Should have done another sip and spit to be certain.
2:20 p.m.: Time for one more wine. I see Brandan Kelley, a sommelier at the new Charlie Palmer. What should I taste? He points me to Hugel and the Riesling Vendange Tardive 2001, a dessert wine. Wow. I actually swallow. Sweet, luscious, rich. And only $100.
2:27 p.m.: I quickly walk back to the restaurant (the Wine Curmudgeon is knownn for his head down, legs kicking, quick walk), and hand the valet my ticket. The car arrives. I have to drive across downtown to the new Ritz, where Diageo, the multi-national that is the largest drinks company in the world, is showing two dozen of its brands. I’m starting to wonder why I’m doing this.
2:43 p.m.: The tasting starts at 3, so I have a chance to sit and catch my breath in the Ritz lobby. Which I do.
2:55 p.m.: I need to leave at 3:30, which will give me time to drive home and do the paperwork (tasting notes, invoice, and the like) for the Two Wine Guys tasting, which starts at 4:45. Maybe they’ll let me in five minutes early. They do. In fact, a very nice Diageo PR woman named Maire Griffin says hello. I tell her my schedule and apologize for not being able to spend more time at the tasting. She looks sympathetic.
2:59 p.m.: I have tasted most of the Diageo wines before, as well as the five spirits on display. I see Chalone, a great cheap California brand. I taste through it: Sip, spit, sip, spit, sip, spit. The 2006 chardonnay is terrific, $10 Hall of Fame wine material, and I make a star in my notebook so I don’t forget. Hard to believe I could forget, isn’t it? The 2006 pinot noir, about $15, isn’t bad, either, especially for the price.
3:08 p.m.: I’m wandering around the ballroom, and I see a guy wearing a kilt. Have I finally cracked? (I check later: He is there working for Classic Malts of Scotland.)
3:12 p.m.: I still haven’t found anything new and inexpensive to use for any upcoming columns for the Star-Telegram, Advocate or blog. Then, next to the Trimbach, an Alsatian brand I’m quite fond of, I see Macon-Lugny Les Charmes. I speed through the Trimbach tasting, and I think I have annoyed the Diageo rep pouring the wines by going so quickly. I apologize profusely, explain my schedule. Can I taste the Lugny? He pours. I sip and spit. That’s it — $11 Burgundian unoaked chardonnay with crisp green apple flavor. I thank him profusely and head for the front of the hotel, the valet, and my car.
3:48 p.m.: I get home, let the dogs out, change shirts. I have to leave for the Two Wine Guys tasting in 25 minutes. I type and print the tasting notes for the wines we’re using, and set up the invoice. I call John Bratcher, the other wine guy, and we coordinate schedules.
4:45 p.m.: I pull up in front of the home in Dallas’ Lakewood neighborhood where we’re doing the tasting for 28 women in a local wine group. Our topic? Inexpensive wine that’s not from California, and we’re going to taste and explain six wines for $15 or less. John, a wine broker who is much wiser in the ways of the wine world than I am, looks at me. How are you feeling? Not bad, I say, although I could really use a cheeseburger and a couple of beers.
6:35 p.m.: The tasting is a huge hit (forgive the shameless plug), one of the best programs they’ve had in years, say several women. John and I walk out to our cars. He smiles. Any tastings tomorrow? No, I say. Tomorrow I will have that cheeseburger and those beers.