Thursday, November 27, 2008

Around the World with Alyssa Rapp

Alyssa Rapp (right) joins Chicago Pinot for a quick picture before signing more copies of her new book Bottlenotes Guide to Wine.

"Bottlenotes is a personal sommelier service; a platform to match wine to a buyer's personal taste." That's Alyssa Rapp, founder and CEO of Bottlenotes, an online company that's part online wine retail and part MySpace. There are 60,000 registered users of, over half of which have completed their Personal Taste Profiletm. Bottlenotes founded in 2005 and Ms. Rapp, like any budding entrepreneur, has used many different strategies to raise its profile. From personal appearances, podcasts, interviews, even filling goodie bags at the Oscars with her gift certificates. Her latest move is her first book Bottlenotes Guide to Wine: Around the World in 80 Sips, which she promoted at a launch party November 5 at the W Hotel on Lake Shore Drive. For two hours, she tirelessly signed books, answered audience questions and invited us to taste six wines currently available on her website.

"The book evolved from the Bottlenotes' Winecyclopaedia, a reference guide for wine enthusiasts replete with wine tasting terms, region guides, varietal guides, and more." The Winecyclopaedia features contributions from Ms. Rapp and many from her Yale and Stanford college interns over the past few summers. It starts with a history of wine, both as a beverage drunk for survival as well as the catalyst for a global industry. She discusses how wine is made (red, white and sparkling wines each have a different "recipe") and how to develop your personal "taste profile" (there is much more about this on Ms. Rapp's web site; fortunately, the book doesn't feel like a 300 page advertisement for it.)

Like most introductory wine books, Ms. Rapp also outlines the expected flavors you can expect to find from most of the major red and white varietals preferred by American consumers. I have probably read about a dozen of these books and it's always fun to see which grapes make the "major" group and those relegated to the "other varieties" section (Malbec is an "other"?)

The second part of the book takes us from Napa to New Zealand, to sixteen major wine regions; describing their history, what grapes have produced the best wine, and predicts their future market potential. If Ms. Rapp's guidebook is updated, I would like for her to include maps in the next edition; it would make this section a little easier to follow.

Overall, a very fun event. Bottlenotes, her web site, has just been updated, making it easier to find new wines to try and possibly new friends to share them with.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holiday Wine Buying - with Stephen Wroblewski of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar

Maybe you're not like me. You don't think about the next bottle of wine you want to try. Your eyes don't light up with anticipation when you read in the Tribune or on a blog that a new wine shop has opened in Chicagoland.

But maybe you've been drafted to pick up "a bottle", especially around the holidays. Maybe your co-workers or your little sister have this picture of you as a wine expert.

Stephen Wroblewski, Manager of Chicago restaurant Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, feels your pain. Chicago Pinot spoke with him last week to get some ideas, not necessarily about specific bottles, but about regions and grape varietals that would please different palates during the holidays.

I started by asking him for suggestions for what to bring to the most important CEO's in our lives, our parents. "At our resturant, we have received good guest feedback from South American wines particularly Malbecs. We have one from Pasucal Toso that is very popular and should be available in most stores from between eighteen and twenty-two dollars. It has the body of a Cabernet, fantastic aromatics, but not too overpowering. If you are buying for family, you might want to find something new for them to try without seeming to scary." He also preferred Tempranillo blends from Spain; "they are Renaissance wines, with a long flavor profile and very female friendly."

Then I asked him about Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners; with their almost potluck assembly of foods, what would blend in best. Mr. Wroblewski recommended light bodied Pinot Noirs ("they won't get beat up by Grandma's stuffing, but you might want to avoid California Pinots, they are a little hotter and higher in tannin"). He also thought highly of bringing sparkling wine (especially for appetizers and vegetables) and Beaujolais ("put a slight chill on it first, it can have a throwback appeal for your more experienced drinkers").

Finally, I asked him what to buy for the Wine Nerd. We probably all know one or two. What can you surprise him or her with and really make it look like you have done your homework?

Mr. Wroblewski suggested a few regions that have wine stardom in their future. He mentioned the Diamond Mountain region of Napa Valley ("these are big, robust wines you are still enjoying a minute after tasting them, they can last ten years") and Chilean wines, which he described as really "pretty" and offer just a little different taste experience for an American palate.

He also suggested that two half bottles might make a more attractive gift for the so-called wine expert in your life than one whole bottle. I am no expert, but since I am the type who wants to have a little taste of every varietal at least once, I can understand this approach!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Interview with Steven Rigisich of Pinot Days

Steven Rigisich, along with his wife Lisa, are bringing back to Chicago last autumn's hit wine festival Pinot Days. Next Saturday November 15, join Chicago Pinot and other Pinot lovers at the Navy Pier to experience the world's best examples of wine made from the "Heartbreak Grape."

While waiting for that tasting, here are some thoughts about the current Pinot Noir scene from Steven himself:

"Chicago is a vibrant city with a creative food & wine market. In our opinion, the restaurant scene is the most innovative and exciting of all the major cities in America. With that comes people who are willing to explore and searching for the best, whether that is a wine to pair with food or drink alone. Pinot Noir is experiencing a surge in interest because those folks who are searching for perfection and innovation and discovering Pinot Noir."

"I don't believe 2008 is a banner year for California Pinot Noir. A dry spring, the worst frost in Northern California in 25 years which devastated many vineyards, a cool summer and early ripening all led to less flavors than in year's past. But that is pure conjecture right now because Pinot Noir, the fickle moody variety that it is, seems to transform itself through the course of maturation. So, who knows what we have right now, we will really know more in March or April. "

"With that said, 2007 was, in my opinion, the finest year California Pinot Noir has ever seen. The wines are as near-perfect as you can get. Whether you like your Pinot austere and feminine, intense and bold, lush and ripe, funky and earthy, this vintage performed at its best. It is really a unique vintage in that sense. Over the past few years, we have seen vintages that have fallen into the wheelhouse of one particular style or another. The 2004 and 2005 vintage are perfect examples of this. 2004 saw the "modern" producer excel due to a warm summer and ripe grapes where 2005 was the perfect vintage for the "traditional" producer who crafts structured and elegant Pinots. In 2007, both of these styles have excelled. "

"We have sixty producers attending Pinot Days from every appellation in California, Oregon, Michigan, Ontario, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. Some of the names folks know such as Siduri, Gray Farrell, Arcadian, Fess Parker, Calera, Roessler and Freeman will be presenting their wines as well as smaller wineries like August West, Raye's Hill, Dain Wines, Bjornstad Cellars, Talisman and Zepaltas who are making small amounts of some of the finest pinots in the market. The other fifty producers are also worthy of mention because they too are making incredible wines of character and soul. "

"We also will have some local flavor with wineries from the Michigan and Ontario area. Great Pinot is being grown and produced in more areas than people believe and folks should seek the wineries out because I think they will be surprised how good some of the wines from these areas are. It is the beauty of Pinot, it may be a bear to grow but when it is done right, no other variety can reach its

"Pinot has always had the status as the noble grape but it had that claim in Burgundy exclusively. In California, pinot struggled mostly because people were planting it in the wrong places. Then in the late 1980’s, growers began to realize that the grape belonged in cool climates like Anderson Valley and Santa Lucia rather than Napa, it began to flourish. The Pinot legacy is due to mavericks like Joseph Swan of J. Swan Winery, Josh Jensen of Calera, Burt Williams of Williams-Selyem, Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa and Francis Mahoney of Mahoney Vineyards who paved the way by taking the risks and discovering the best sites, clones and practices necessary to grow the best grapes."

"If you build on that with these very passionate and innovative "Young Turks" like Adam Lee of Siduri, Ed Kurtzman of August West and Ryan Zepaltas of Zepaltas Wines who have emerged as the new guard, you have truly great wines and the genesis of a cult. However, that is not enough. For that, you need the passion of the producers and consumers and the personalities like Gary Pisoni, Peter Cargasacchi and Michael Browne, who bring a perspective that is electric and, to be candid, a little crazy. If you add this all together, you create a community and with the community comes a cult. "

"If you use sales as a barometer, Pinot’s share of the market is still below Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and many other varieties. French Colombard has twice as many acres planted in California as Pinot Noir! But that is more a factor of where varieties can be planted than of the popularity of the heartbreak grape. The interest in pinot continues to rise exponentially as others are becoming flatter and that is due to the unequivocal fact that Pinot Noir is the ultimate food wine and you can never tire of their diverse renditions; there are simply too many styles, too much flavor and too many unique sites where it is grown. "

"So, in terms of quantity, you don’t find as many followers as in other varieties. However, in terms of quality, Pinot stands at the top. There is no doubt there is no more passionate follower than the one who considers themselves a Pinot-geek. That fact is proven at every Pinot Noir focused festival because you will not find a more wine-educated crowd, a more passionate crowd and a better crowd to have fun. Personally, I think quality trumps quantity."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Freebie - "Riesling Rules"

Check out the Pacific Rim Winemakers website for a unique forty page guide to Riesling, one of the most noble but confusing white grape varietals. This forty page guide offers a history of the grape, and describes its many rises and falls in popularity over the centuries. It's available online and you can request a free hard copy.

There's a concise but thorough guide to reading a German wine label and understanding the various classifications of their Rieslings. Other wine regions with strong reputations for making quality Rieslings are also profiled.

The booklet provides just the right combination of fun trivia, valuable information you can take with you to your favorite wine store, and a little wine nerd science if you are interested topics such as brix and must weight.

Pacific Rim makes some excellent Rieslings too, but fortunately, this guide doesn't hard sell you; it recommends Rieslings from wineries all over the world.

Pinot Days Preview - November 14-15

Now, you know I have to write about this one. Pinot Days, a celebration and tasting of the world's most noble grape (in this blogger's opinion), returns to the Windy City at the Navy Pier on November 15 from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Over fifty wineries will send a total of over 150 different Pinots to Chicago.

There's also a Winemakers Dinner taking place the night before at Bin 36 from 6:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m. This four course dinner will feature two different pinots with each course along with lively conversation with many of the winemakers.

Pinot Days was one of my favorite tastings from last year. One aspect that makes it special is that unlike other tastings, most of the wineries in attendance send representatives, often the winemaker him or her-self! If you're a Pinot nerd like me, this is your chance to ask all of those cryptic questions you have about this grape.

Tickets for the dinner are $130.00 and the Saturday tasting tickets are $50.00. For a ten percent discount, go the the Pinot Days website and use the code

I hope to see you at one of these events next week!

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Economy and Your Wine Budget

Has the recession and the falling Dow Jones average affected your wine budget? I know it has mine. The other night at The Night Thing, I had to replace several dozen price tags on our bottles with new (higher!) prices. Some of the prices haven't changed for months. And , all categories in our store saw increases. Even our "budget" bottles and some of our hidden Spanish and Rhone gems won't be immune.

I know I will be watching my budget more carefully; probably buying much less than before, but trying new varietals and countries and maybe raising the quality of the bottles a little. And taking much smaller sips, so the bottles will last longer!

YPC Event at Lush - November 12

Join Young Professionals of Chicago as it hosts a wine tasting at Lush Wine and Spirits (1257 South Halsted), a boutique, vineyard-focused wine shop. Cliff and Mitch Einhorn (the brothers who own the Twisted Spoke) are behind this well-reviewed location in Little Italy / University Village. We will enjoy an assortment of five different red and white wines, including an extraordinary mix of Cabernets, Syrahs, Merlots and Rieslings. The wine will be complemented by a variety of heavy appetizers. Samples of Katherine Anne truffles will also be available for dessert.

The date is Wednesday, November 12, time is 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

This event presents a great opportunity to participate in a unique wine tasting experience, while networking with other young professionals. Attendance is limited, so please register at the link above by Monday, November 10th to reserve your spot. Cost is $25.00 for members and $35.00 for non-members.

Full Disclosure Time!: I have been a member of YPC for over six years; it is an excellent networking and career building organization with seven different committees for which you can volunteer. Hope to see you on November 12 and please consider joining YPC!