The Art of Storytelling

Once upon a time (aka earlier this month), I traveled to Seattle, which was initially founded with a settlement called New York-Alki, located across Elliott Bay from the present-day city. Established back in 1851, the settlement’s name meant “New York-in a little while,” supposedly for the site’s resemblance to Manhattan island, but also perhaps some wishful thinking on the part of the settlers?

While the early families were lured by land grants given to them by the U.S. government to protect the U.S. from Canada, I was drawn by the opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues who were in town for the Society of Wine Educators’ annual conference. Although admittedly, my only official conference attendance was at a reception at the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit at Seattle Center.

For the remainder of my visit, I played the role of tourist making sure to hit all of the top spots – the Space Needle, Pike Market and the Underground Tour. This latter attraction proved to be among the highlights of my trip despite its lack of a connection to wine.*

Created by Bill Speidel in 1965 as part of his efforts to save the historic neighborhood of Pioneer Square, the tour takes tourists on an adventure one story below Seattle’s streets, Strewn with ancient artifacts (frescoes, building facades and an original Crapper toilet) and more modern detritus (movie props left behinds from the 1970s), the journey is truly a walk back through time.

But, the environment itself would fall flat if it wasn’t for the guides who regale participants with well-rehearsed stories, punctuated by well-timed humor. Suddenly, the cast of characters are brought to life and history is exciting instead of boring.

For example, early resident (and madam) Lou Graham was among those responsible for an intriguing discovery during one of the city’s first censuses. The study revealed that loggers, who accounted for the vast majority of workers in Seattle at the time, made any average of $20/month. Meanwhile, members of the seamstress circle were bringing home $400/month; not bad for a town with limited need for bespoke garments and haberdashery. The astute city council saw their opportunity and levied a $10/week tax for all 2,700 seamstresses on their non-existent sewing machines.

The 1.5 hours flew by rather quickly, bringing the tour to an end, but my interest in Seattle history was piqued and the stories remained fresh in my mind even a week later.

Stories engage us, fascinate us and challenge us much more than simple facts and figures. Yet, when we talk about wine, how frequently do we find ourselves speaking about varietal percentages, acidity levels and types of oak trees.

Instead, isn’t it more interesting to know that Chateau de Villambis in Bordeaux operates its vineyard under a Help Center for Work permitting them to offer work to people with disabilities or that Mas Blanch I Jove in Catalonia supports the arts by commissioning a new sculpture for its vineyard each year?

Just something to consider the next time you teach wine or any other subject for that matter.

*If you take the more adult-themed tour at night (when it is renamed the Underworld Tour), the ticket price includes one cocktail.

Rose Revolution: Better Dead than Red

World winemakers unite! Admittedly I have Communism and Leon Trotsky on the brain thanks to having just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Lacuna. However, the notion that winemakers are globally uniting to produce rosé wines is not that far-fetched, at least not in terms of the depth and breadth of these wines now being produced.

While drinking pink wine (at least publically) was previously relegated to newbies quaffing White Zinfandel and other sweet blush wines, today’s rosés run the gamut in hue and are primarily dry in style. With a decade of growth in the U.S. market, rosé continues to be one of the U.S.’s fastest growing wine categories in retail sales; the message is clear: Rosé is here to stay. Tweet that!

A recent “Pink Party” hosted by Winebow showcased the importer’s vast portfolio of rosés, which not only ranged in style (from still to sparkling and pale salmons to deep pinks), but also in origin of production.

As the number one producer of rosé worldwide, it is not surprising that the line-up was heavy in French samples, with appellations that specialize in the pink stuff such as Provence and Tavel well represented. Italian specimens were similarly prevalent, most of which hailed from the southern portion of the boot: Sicily, Sardinia, Campania and Calabria.

But, Winebow’s rosé collection is much more widespread than the wine world’s two top producers. In addition to a reasonable showing of wines from the U.S.’ east and west coasts, more unique appearances came from Croatia, Greece, Lebanon and the Republic of Macedonia.

Adding to the diversity, the sparklers were not only comprised of the usual suspects such as Rosé Champagne and a beautiful rose Cava, but also on hand were lovely bubbles from Austria and Tasmania.

And, vying for most unusual wine of the day was a “100% pure rosé sake” produced from heirloom purple rice.

With such a plethora of rosé wines in the market, it can be quite confusing to the consumer to make sense of it all. But, the easiest way to understand rosé is to think about something with which most people are familiar – tie-dyeing. Tweet this!

Such childhood arts-and-crafts projects provide a simple, but effective tool, for learning about rosé production. Armed with white t-shirts, rubber bands and RIT dye, we saw that leaving the t-shirt in the dye bath for just a few minutes resulted in a pale hue, while soaking it for the full hour delivered the deepest color. Moreover, the instructions advised that higher temperatures and agitation further added to the color saturation.

Apply these same principles to winemaking, substituting grape skins for RIT dye and grape juice/must for t-shirts (no rubber bands required) and, by George, you’ve got it. Now you are ready to join the revolution!

Looking for some rosés to sip this summer (yes, I promise it will be summer one of these days)? Here are some of my favorites from the Pink Party tasting:

Jansz Sparkling Rose NV, Tasmania, Australia
A blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier with just a hint of color. Citrus, mineral and peach notes.

Juvé y Camps Rosé Brut Pinot Noir NV, Cava, Spain
100% Pinot Noir and medium-deep pink in color. Floral and fruit on the nose with red fruit and herbs on the palate.

Lanson Brut Rosé Champagne NV, Champagne, France
A blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Rich and intense with typical yeasty character along with citrus and a hint of red fruit.

Adelsheim Rosé 2013, Willamette Valley (OR), USA, $25.00
100% Pinot Noir. Herbs with some depth and slight grip on the palate. Fresh strawberries and melon.

Chateau Mercouri Lampadias Rosé 2013, Ilia, Greece
A 50-50 blend of Avgoustiatis and Agiorgitiko. Simply lovely with good fruit and acidity.

Les Vignobles Gueissard Côtes de Provence Rosé “Les Papilles” 2013, Provence, France
Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rolle. Berries and cherries with body and good length.

Zenato Bardolino Chiaretto 2013, Veneto, Italy
Corvina, Rondinella and Merlot. Very fruity with strawberry, raspberry and dried herb aromas and flavors.

It’s Complicated… but does it have to be?

Each year, dozens of high school and college teams gather together to compete in building complex machinery to complete simple tasks. This national competition, held in celebration of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, encourages the creation of far-fetched contraptions to accomplish straight-forward tasks such as hammering a nail or turning a page.

See the Rube Goldberg website for this and other images.

These machines take a circuitous route to getting things done, instead of simply moving from Point A to Point B, there are quite a few stops along the way.

In the context of the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, such round-about, comical approaches can be a lot of fun, but why do we seem to take a similar tack when explaining simple concepts about wine to our students?

As a refreshing antidote to encyclopedic tomes, Tom Stevenson has written “a [wine] book for people who don’t want to read about wine.” Stevenson’s newest book, Buy the Right Wine Every Time, The No-Fuss, No-Vintage Wine Guide, offers a simple, straightforward approach and focuses on wines that are generally inexpensive, widely available and consistent from year to year.

This is a distinct departure for Stevenson, who is well known for writing the (encyclopedia tome and) go-to-guide, World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparking Wine. Presumably much more at home drinking the likes of Bollinger and Taittenger, for this project, Stevenson found himself tasting Barefoot and Turning Leaf and seems to be impressed with these and several other big brands.

The first part of the book emphasizes wine by style, while in the latter section (referred to as the “A-Z of wines”), individual wines are listed alphabetically (naturally) with a few key elements included:

  • What is it?
  • What does it taste like?
  • If you like this, then try with confidence…

The very first entry in this section is the Adami Prosecco Bosco del Gica, which Stevenson rates as Recommended. (His other ratings are To Die For and Highly Recommended). As a consumer-oriented wine book, I would say it is Highly Recommended.

Interestingly, or at least of interest to me as a wine educator, while the label clearly indicates that the wine is Prosecco Superiore DOCG (and not just Prosecco DOC), Stevenson makes absolutely no mention of this fact in his text.

And, in the wine style section, none of the wines listed include the appellation or even country of origin. Truly a case of less is more.

Truthfully, having worked with the Prosecco Superiore consortium, I feel a duty to explain and clarify the differences between the two, but in all honestly, does the average consumer really care as long as the wine tastes good (to them) and fits within their budget? As much as I hate to admit it, the answer is no.

Yet, I do not advocate for a full abdication of complex principles; merely, for the use of clear explanations when they are necessary and appropriate. In this regard, detailed dissertations on appellation laws might be best left for trade training, but significant concepts that link wine and place should be explored, keeping context and audience in mind when guiding such conversations.

Similarly, at a recent seminar on “Why Terroir Matters,” author and educator Marnie Old questioned whether we should be using the term terroir with consumers, noting that discussions of “dirt” tend to turn people off.

In response, Bordeaux merchant and estate owner, Edouard Moueix suggested that, “[Terroir] is a term that was invented to describe something that can’t be easily defined,” but was adamant that terroir is indeed vital to the dialogue on wine. Instead, he proposed that we need to do a better job illuminating this term for consumers to help them understand how terroir distinguishes one wine from another in its identity as well as to clarify that it does not, in fact, mean “dirt.”

Admittedly, a tall order, but as a wine educator I am up for the challenge. What do you think?

Goldilocks and the Crus Bourgeois

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks who went for a walk in the forest. After walking for awhile, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry (walks in the forest tend to do that) and proceeded to taste the porridge from the first bowl.

“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed.

Next, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.

“This porridge is too cold,” she said

So (ever the optimist), she tasted the last bowl of porridge.

“Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily and ate it all up.

While we know that the bears soon returned home to find Goldilocks fast asleep in Baby Bear’s bed, we can learn a lot from Goldilocks (and not just the part about staying out of people’s –and bear’s– homes).

I recently had the opportunity to present a class on the Crus Bourgeois wines to the staff members of Bottle Rocket Wine & Spirit.

Since it was late (9:00 PM on a Thursday night), cold (polar vortex anyone?) and that they were likely to be tired (did I mention it was late?), I knew that I couldn’t give them too many facts and details. Not only would they easily forget them, it would simply be “too much” information.

I also knew that I couldn’t just talk about the Crus Bourgeois because the assembled group of employees possessed a varied set of existing knowledge about Bordeaux. Such an approach would provide “too little” information. I had to ensure that everyone had at least a basic understanding of the Bordeaux wine region.

Thus, I spent some time reviewing the essential elements of Bordeaux – climate, grape varieties, wine styles and appellations – before discussing and tasting the Crus Bourgeois wines. I acknowledged that some of this would be review for them and was careful not to dwell on irrelevant details. In addition, I made sure to emphasize the information that would be most useful to them in selling Bordeaux wine to their customers.

When I was finished with my presentation, the General Manager pronounced that what I had delivered to his staff was “just right.” I’m sure Goldilocks would be pleased.

Looking to expand your knowledge on Bordeaux and the Crus Bourgeois?

The inaugural issue of my Drink Wisely magazine was “All About Bordeaux,” but admittedly might be “too much” content for some readers. For a more general introduction to Bordeaux, see my Examiner article on Decoding Bordeaux (possibly “too little” for others). Finally, my Wine Portfolio article on the current status of the Crus Bourgeois might be “just right” to bring you up to speed on this important Bordeaux wine category.

Why Extra Dry is anything but

Those who know me well, know that I love everything that sparkles – wine, water, personalities and diamonds. With Christmas and New Year’s Eve lurking around the corner, it is the perfect time to break out the bubby, whether it’s a special bottle of vintage Champagne*, a fresh and fruity Prosecco or a fabulously food-friendly Lambrusco. As long as it glitters, all is right in the world J

Of course, sparkling wines should be welcome guests at the table any time of year, but with holiday festivities and parties proliferating your social schedule, there is even more reason to celebrate with CO2 infused libations.

For the uninitiated, the world of sparkling wine can be quite complicated with terms appearing on these labels not seen on other wines such as blanc de blancs. Plus, if you’ve tried to use the literal translation of those sweetness levels, you’ve likely been a bit disappointed or at least quite confused.

Looking for an easy way to teach yourself or others to remember the basics of sparkling wine?

As an educator, I prefer to appeal to people’s visual learning style because it can be much more powerful than simple text. There’s a reason the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” has become so popular. Equally important, images can highlight familiar concepts or reinforce associated meaning when introducing new concepts. To that end, I’ve created two infographics, which you may find helpful to you as you shop for wine or engage your students this holiday season (click on the thumbnails for larger version images).

Sparkling Wine Definitions

Dosage Table






I’ve also found another nifty visual aid over at Wine Folly.

For more tips on sparkling wine, check out the holiday issue of my newly launched magazine – Drink Wisely & Well (and also see the inaugural issue, which featured Bordeaux). I’m really proud of this new publication and have gotten a lot of praise on the design (and not just from my parents).

As for why Extra Dry is a misnomer, I really can’t say; even Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd edition) didn’t have an answer. But, whether your preference is for dry, sweet or somewhere in between, I raise a flute to you and wish you all the best as we count down 2013 and usher in 2014!

*It’s admittedly a pet peeve of mine, but in case you didn’t know, the term Champagne is NOT generic; it should be reserved specifically for those sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France.

Rediscovering Sicily and discovering Prezi

Italy 2013-05-08_247I’ve just returned from the American Wine Society‘s annual conference where I presented a session on Sicilian wines. As you may know, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit this amazing Italian region back in May. So, it was with great pleasure that I shared my experiences with seminar participants.

While I presented them with a lot of information about the region’s history, culture and commercial development, my main goal was to reinforce two main points:
-The Sicilian wine industry has made dramatic improvement in the quality of its wines;
and, perhaps more importantly,
-Sicilian wines are enjoyable to drink.

Beyond that, everything else they took away with them was gravy (mmm… gravy, thank goodness Thanksgiving is around the corner 😉 ).

In fact, since this was a group of wine enthusiasts, I wanted my session to seem more like a travelogue than a traditional lecture. Accordingly, I made sure to include many personal stories from my trip to capture the audience’s attention and imagination.

These same stories have been immortalized in an article I wrote earlier this year. If you haven’t already seen it, you can take a look here.

Of course, as an educator, I was also mindful to weave in facts about the region and its wines, having done considerable research on the new Sicilia DOC and Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties.

Aside from storytelling, I also implemented a new tool, Prezi, to introduce movement and perspective into my presentation. If you are not familiar with Prezi, it’s as if PowerPoint and Flash had a love child (okay – so I don’t know why these two software programs would have an affair, but just pretend they did).

This was my first foray into using this tool, so there is room for improvement, but I think it was a good first effort. What do you think? You can check out my actual presentation online.

What are your favorite ways for presenting about wine (or other topics)? Do you have any signature moves or methods to your madness? Tell me what works in the comments below!