Archive | November, 2009

Inniskillin 05 Vidal Icewine

Niagara Peninsula. Class taste. Very intense mango-citrus nose. Sweet but focused. Refreshing. Superb.

Made from grapes frozen on the vine, Canadians have carved a very successful niche for themselves with Icewine because they know they are going to get the appropriate climatic conditions if they just wait patiently. Several of these Canadian Icewines have ruthlessly bitch-slapped top Sauternes in head-to-head competition.

Canadian Icewine

2005 Inniskillin Vidal from the Niagara Peninsula. Tasted at Fundamentals of Taste & Smell class in Palo Alto. Retail store wine cost is around US$20 for 187 ml (a quarter-bottle). This size bottle works well for such a focused dessert wine, because you don’t need much, and it is expensive. Even the little bottles are heavy. They look and feel like a round of artillery ammunition. Very popular for gift giving in Japan.

Background wine education

     Canadians use a voluntary marketing incentive to severely regulate the production of Icewine. In Italy such a mechanism is called a consorzio. In order to get a little neck indicia, producers agree to comply with certain standards. In Canada this group is called VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance). The regulations state grapes can’t be picked if the air temperature is above 17ºF. That means the grapes have frozen and thawed many times before they’re finally picked. Pressed immediately, a large amount of water remains behind in the press trapped as ice. The resultant wine not only has 10-12% residual sugar, but it has elevated acid to balance that sugar.
     Theoretically the mechanics of this process can be duplicated in the winery – chill the juice; filter out the ice. This cryogenic technique is used in the US, much to the Canadians’ chagrin, and the result is often labeled ‘Icewine.’ Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon has the decency to label his example “vin de glacier” (wine of the refrigerator). Tasted separately on successive nights, a VQA Icewine and a cryogenic example can both be quite pleasant. Tasted side-by-side, the VQA wine is clearly superior, albeit four or five times more expensive.

What does Icewine taste like?

Intense, concentrated, tropical fruit. The intensity is the most startling initial impression. One picks it up while the glass is still ten inches away. The second impression is sugar::acid balance. The wine is very sweet, but it also has a long, clean, refreshing aftertaste. That’s rare, and no one misses it.
     Many VQA Icewines are made from Riesling grapes. This one was made with Vidal grapes. Vidal is a French-American hybrid with good winter hardiness and a strong citral aroma. The nose of this wine takes on a soft sweetness which might be illustrated by that which distinguishes a Meyer lemon from a Genoa or Lisbon lemon. Now imagine a slice of Meyer lemon placed on a hot skillet.


Canadian Icewine is a fine illustration, particularly when compared to Sauternes, of how important it is to pair wines to desserts carefully. Crème brulee is the place where VQA Icewine and Sauternes intersect. Sauternes is not very good with fresh fruit; Icewine is. Sauternes is okay with milk chocolate; Icewine is not. So, for this Icewine I might try a crème brulee with a slice of perfectly ripe peach on top. But the best indication of how powerfully this Vidal Icewine comes across would be to serve it with a lemon tart. Believe me, it will pass the test.

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Wine Education Gift Certificates

Wine education is a gift which truly keeps on giving. A good wine class pays dividends for a lifetime.

This Christmas give your relatives or business clients something they’ll recall every time they taste a great wine. Give them a Gift Certificate to a completely objective, non-promotional, purely educational Wine Class. They will be thinking of you hundreds of times each year for decades to come.

2010 Wine Classes

in San Francisco and Palo Alto.
     All these classes are three sessions. They meet in the evening from 7:00 pm to about 9:15. We taste 12 to 16 wines in each session, all side-by-side in groups of two or three. There is 30 to 45 minutes of well prepared lecture (with handouts and slides) each night.

Fundamentals of Taste & Smell Series $229 single / $429 couple
     Very popular class. Good place to start. Everyone has a good time.
     Three classes offered: Mondays, starting late January in SF; Tuesdays in July in Menlo Park; and Thursdays, starting in late September in SF.

The Art and Science of Wine $249 single / $469 couple
     New class. Covers all the general factors of climate and soil which define regionality in wines, and how those influence the taste of the major grape varieties. Also teases apart grower and winemaker decisions to show how these affect wine style.
     Two classes offered: Wednesdays, starting mid-February, in Menlo Park; and Tuesdays in April in SF.

Specialty Regional Classes
     Four separate classes covering all the major producing regions of the world, what wines they do best, and why. [see Class Schedule on this website.]

Weekender Wine Classes in San Francisco

     These are also 3-session classes, except they meet over a single weekend to encourage out-of-town visitors. Class totals about seven hours out of the whole weekend, so there is plenty of time for seeing San Francisco’s famous sights. Class on Friday starts at 7:00 pm, but Sat is from 5:00 pm to 7:15, and Sun is 11:00 am to 1:30. [Our website has pages of recommendations for places to stay, eat, and enjoy leisure activities. We even have maps for Wine Bar Walking Tours.]
     CA & Pac NW is taught in March; Fundamentals is taught in May; and a specialty highlights class, Europe vs. New World, is taught over Halloween Weekend at the end of October (how very San Francisco).

Wine Education Vacation

in the Sierra Foothills.
     Nevada City is located about an hour east of Sacramento, about halfway to Tahoe and Reno. Since the 1860’s Nevada City has been the cultural centerpiece of California’s Gold Country. There’s live music, good restaurants, a great deal of art, quaint B-n-B’s, boutique shopping, wonderful scenery, and myriad outdoor activities. Everything about Nevada City screams “Romantic Weekend Getaway.”
     We’re offering seven fine wine events to add that touch of sophistication which will draw your “Let’s take off for the mountains” invitation back from the lurid precipice.
     Four Friday night Varietal Classes starting at 7:00 pm: Feb 12; Mar 12; Apr 9; and May 14. Nevada City is about 2,600 feet of elevation, so it’s just below the serious snow line. Then we will do a Fundamentals Weekender in August. Then two Regional Classes Oct 8 and Nov 12. [See website for suggested restaurants, accommodations, and fun things to do.]

Wine Education Gift Certificates

     If you give a friend, relative, or business colleague a Gift Certificate this Christmas for our classes, they can employ it any time they want during 2010. Moreover, it can be for any dollar amount you choose – just phone (415) 512-9318 to make those arrangements. The recipient can apply your Gift dollars to whatever class suits their interest and schedule. Gift Certificates are quick and easy. They can be sent to you or to the recipient electronically – so this deal can be concluded right up to the last moment. And the classes are a real good time – everyone enjoys themselves.

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Wine Gifts.

Wine accessories are not always foolish. Here are 6 useful recommendations from someone engaged in wine activities all the time. Continue Reading →

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Thanksgiving wine?

Seems a cliché because answer is always consistent, like the meal. May be why we eat it so few times each year.

I understand the historical myth surrounding a traditional Thanksgiving meal. And I like the food. What I don’t like is the imperative that everything needs to appear on the dining table at once. That concept alone drives many hostesses more than a little bit around the bend. Why not have five or six courses, each 45-minutes apart? And in San Francisco, where Dungeness crab season starts right about the same time as Thanksgiving, why not make a crab appetizer part of the ceremony. Few things make me as thankful as the start of Dungeness crab season.

Thanksgiving Food-Wine Pairing?

Turkey may be the centerpiece of the meal, but it is not a strong flavor around which to base any wine selections. Stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy. These are the traditional flavors that should dictate the best wines to serve. But let’s see if we even get to that bridge before we discuss how to cross it.
     At several of the places I’ve gone over the years for family Thanksgivings, the issue has often been: “How many people will even drink a glass of wine?” My situation can’t be that unusual. One-third of Americans don’t drink any alcohol at all, and another third of Americans don’t drink wine. So, if I want to take three different bottles of wine to Thanksgiving at my stepmother’s relatives’ house, I’d better be prepared to drink them all by myself. Which may or may not be a problem. Good social choice = Continue Reading →

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Togni ’99 (Tanbark) Cab Sauv

Napa Mtns. Class taste. Restrained, green thread, good length. Could be Graves. Wine for dinner; not combat.

Not all Napa Cabs are alcoholic heavyweights plodding around the ring anticipating a one-punch knockout. Here’s one with a pedigree for elegance, and the structure to make that point repeatedly.

1999 Philip Togni (Tanbark Hill) Cabernet Sauvignon from 2,000 feet high on Spring Mountain, west of St. Helena in the Napa Valley AVA. Tasted as part of the Fundamentals of Taste and Smell class in Palo Alto. Wine cost is around $100 in a retail store. The wine was compared side-by-side with a 1995 Ch. Lagrange, 5th growth St. Julien, in order to discuss the effects of bottle age on CA Cab vs. classified reds from the Medoc.
     The Togni (Tanbark) is an estate wine made from younger vines. Philip Togni received his formal wine education at a French university under the tutelage of iconic wine professor Emile Peynaud. Togni was then assistant winemaker at the Margaux 2nd growth Continue Reading →

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