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What it’s like to be a #wine judge – part 2 #LACountyFair

13 Sep

Picking up where we left off, this past May I was invited  by Planet Bordeaux, the marketing arm for France’s Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC, to be a guest judge at the 75th Annual Los Angeles International Wine Competition.


Since the Bordeaux panel wasn’t until Thursday morning, I was asked to observe a panel of judges evaluating Rhone blends on Wednesday afternoon. Here’s where it gets scary. Imagine you’re prepared to sit back and watch the panel in action. Instead, you’re asked to participate in the panel, and you have exactly 10 minutes to evaluate 15 wines. And then another flight of 15 wines arrives, and you have 10 minutes to evaluate those. And repeat. And you’ve never done this before.

Oh, and did I mention the other judges at your table include a Napa Valley winemaker, a well-known Hong Kong wine journalist, a veteran wine industry publicist, and the head chef and wine guru for The Fancy House Where The Founder of the World’s Most Recognized “Lad Magazine” Parties With “Cute Little Rabbits” (wink, wink)? I kid you not.

Photo by Ann Harrison via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Ann Harrison via Wikimedia Commons.

The wine publicist explained that we were to assign one of four ratings to each wine: Gold, Silver, Bronze or no medal. Easy enough, I thought. After we were finished evaluating each flight, we would go around the table and announce our rating. To my horror, each time I gave a wine a gold rating, the entire table would say bronze. When I said bronze, the table rated the wine as gold. And so it went: if I thought a wine was swoon-worthy, the rest of the table thought it was crap.

At one point, Mr. Lad Mag and the winemaker joked that wineries should come fully equipped with trapdoors to jettison annoying wine tasters. I silently wished there was a trapdoor under my chair that would swallow me whole. Oh, the humanity!

That night, the judges were treated to an al fresco dinner on the Fairplex fairgrounds. Black-tablecloth picnic benches were arranged in long rows in the Fairplex’s garden, while the sweet, smoky aroma of barbecued meat offered a tantalizing hint at what was to come.


All around me, the judges stood in convivial circles, sipping sparkling wine. I availed myself of a glass (okay, two), fully prepared to be singled out as The Girl With the Faulty Palate.


Thanks be to Bacchus, it didn’t happen. I sat at a table with my two Supreme-Goddesses-of-the-Vine wine instructors, Shelby Ledgerwood and Monica Marin. Seated next to me was Planet Bordeaux’s France-based, American publicist, Jana Kravitz, whose job I unapologetically envy.

It goes without saying that each course was exquisitely paired with a fine wine. A glowing full moon bathed the whole scene in the kind of light that only happens in Colin Firth movies, reassuring me that the next morning’s experience would be better.


Moonrise at the Fairplex wine judges’ dinner.

And it was. The Bordeaux/Bordeaux Supérieur panel comprised a well-known L.A. wine importer and a bevy of wine journalists from prominent publications, including a wine critic from France’s Le Figaro newspaper. This time, I streamlined my evaluation criteria to the BLIC formula I learned from Monica Marin: Balance, Length of finish, Intensity, Complexity.

Judging - big flight

To my ecstatic relief, my ratings were in harmony with those of the other judges. And I was finally able to appreciate the experience for what it was–an opportunity to learn, a chance to taste some of Bordeaux’s best wines, and an event I hope to attend again, this time with soaring confidence in my trusty palate.

The winners of the 2014 Los Angeles International Wine Competition are listed in a 132-page PDF that you can download from the Fairplex website. I wish to extend my most sincere gratitude to Jana Kravitz at Planet Bordeaux for the opportunity, to Renee Hernandez at the Fairplex for accommodating me at the last minute, and to the unsurpassed, wine-educating dynamos Shelby Ledgerwood and Monica Marin for all of the wisdom they have so generously and enthusiastically shared over the past three years. Raising a glass to you all. ¡Salud!

What it’s like to be a #wine judge – part 1 #LACountyFair

6 Sep

September in Los Angeles means it’s time for the L.A. County Fair. Award-winning wines from this year’s Los Angeles International Wine Competition will be poured,  and let it be known that yours truly was asked to be a guest judge at this year’s Competition back in May. Trust me, no one was more surprised than I was.

Photo by Nancy Newman

Photo by Nancy Newman

My invitation came via email from a  publicist for the Bordeaux/Bordeaux Superieur panel. Before I could over-think it, I accepted. As soon as I clicked “send,” I panicked. Me? Really? Do they have any idea I’m just a chica who loves wine and doesn’t consider herself a connoisseur? Maybe they confused me with someone else, and soon I’d receive an email with an apology for the error and a gracious dis-invitation.


No such email arrived, and after sending a frantic plea for help to the amazing Shelby Ledgerwood, my very first wine instructor at UCLA Extension’s Wine Education program, I started practicing the breathing techniques I learned  in a “Yoga for Relaxation” class. It turns out Shelby was a regular judge at the event, and after reading her reassuring response and helpful tips, I packed an overnight bag and drove to the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds.


So here’s how a wine gets judged. All wines are tasted blind, that is, we have no idea which wine we are tasting. All you know is that the wines are from a particular region or made with a particular grape variety. Each flight could have as many as 15 wines, and there are about three flights per session. Do the math. There are usually five to six judges and a secretary who records all of the ratings. And there could be guest judges whose ratings are not counted in the official tally but whose opinions are considered by the other judges.


If  you’ve ever seen the “I Love Lucy” chocolate factory episode, substitute me for Lucy and glasses of wine for chocolate. Gone was the luxury of 10 minutes to evaluate one wine, the standard in my WSET Level 3 classes. Instead, I had about 10 minutes to get through a flight of 15 wines. As with all professional wine tastings, I was spitting everything I tasted. And I know a thousand tiny violins will play in unison at this next line, but being a guest judge put my stress-o-meter into turbo-charge mode. Wait’ll you hear who was at my table!

How’s that for a cliff-hanger, chicas y chicos? Stay tuned for part 2 of “What it’s like to be a wine judge” next week. Until then, ¡Salud!


¡Mucho Gusto! Get to know Barbaresco

22 Jan

Happy Wednesday, chicas y chicos!

I’m still reveling in the newness of 2014, and in my never-ending quest to bring you snob-free wine knowledge, I’d like to introduce you to ¡Mucho Gusto!, a brand-new feature on Señorita Vino. Well, it’s not literally on me, but you get the picture.

Once or twice a month, I’ll be focusing on a different wine, with a bit of history, flavor and aroma characteristics, pairing ideas and maybe even a recommended label or two. The purpose of this new department is to inspire you to learn about and taste wines you may not typically drink. Some you may have heard of, others not, but I promise you’ll learn something new, even about wines you already drink.

So without further ado, heeeeeeeere’s Barbaresco!


HOLA, ME LLAMO: Barbaresco is a red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape.

MY ROOTS: Barbaresco hails from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy. It’s a DOCG wine (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), the highest quality ranking for Italian wines. Bear in mind that California, Chile and Mexico also make wine from the Nebbiolo grape, but the wine can only be called Barbaresco if it’s produced in designated districts in Italy’s Piedmont region.

ALL ABOUT ME: Barbaresco is a dry wine known for having softer tannins than its “cousin,” Barolo, an Italian wine also made from Nebbiolo grapes. For this reason, Barbaresco is considered by some to be easier to drink than Barolo. Because the wine is aged in wood for a maximum of two years, you may smell cedar or oak. Barbaresco has lush berry and plum aromas, along with floral notes of violet and spices such as vanilla and licorice. This is a full-bodied wine, which means it will feel heavier on the palate and have a higher alcohol content.

FOODS I LOVE: Because of the tannins and body, Barbaresco pairs nicely with the traditional meat and game stews of northwestern Italy. Want a little Latin sabor? Pair it with carne asada, seco de cordero (Peruvian lamb stew), carnitas or roast pork. If you love a good charcuterie plate as much as I do, try it with salami,  mortadella, and if your arteries can handle it, lardo di Colonnata.

DO TRY THIS AT HOME: Expect to pay anywhere from $14 to $400 or more for a bottle of Barbaresco. You can get a good one for $30-$60. Some respected labels include: Ceretto, Gaja, Pio Cesare, Bruno Rocca and Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy.

Now that you’ve met Barbaresco, what do you think? Is it a wine you think you’ll try? Are there other wines you’d like to see in a future ¡Mucho Gusto!? Share your comments – I’d love to hear from you.


Reyes Winery – the only Latino-owned winery in L.A.

18 Dec

About an hour’s drive north of downtown Los Angeles, the radio signal in my car begins to fade. Minutes later as I exit the 5 freeway at Agua Dulce Canyon Road, a country western station pipes in crystal clear.

The twangy guitar and folksy melody provide a fitting soundtrack for the winding country roads that lead to Reyes Winery, the only Latino-owned winery in Los Angeles County, and one of a few wineries 45 minutes away from the heart of downtown L.A.


Robert Reyes, winemaker and general manager, warmly welcomes me and a crew from ABC-7, who are here to do a segment on Señorita Vino for their Sunday morning television program, Vista LA [NOTE: the show aired Nov. 17, but if you’re in L.A. County, you might catch a re-broadcast in the late evening or early morning].


Smile! You’re on Vista LA.

Besides making wine, Reyes, a native of the Dominican Republic, paints and scuba dives. Yet this Renaissance man’s passion for wine stems not from idyllic trips to Europe’s wine regions, but from a beloved aunt.

“I’ve loved wine since I was a kid in the Dominican Republic,” Reyes says. “My 92-year-old aunt would visit us in Santo Domingo and she’d bring a bottle of her homemade fruit wine. As kids, we’d get a taste.”

Reyes was smitten, and as an adult, he started making his own version of his aunt’s fruity concoction.


Robert Reyes in his tasting room.

What started as a passion developed into a serious interest, and Reyes began schooling himself in the art of winemaking by reading books. He also consulted other winemakers and took courses at UC Davis, which has a world-renowned viticulture and enology program.

He planted the first vineyard at Reyes Winery in 2004, and harvested a small crop the next year. Today, the boutique winery produces 3,500 cases annually from five varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Muscat.

On display in the tasting room are Reyes’ own paintings of the vineyard and scenes evocative of his homeland. Also visible are some of the awards his wines have garnered.

“Our wines have been on the market for the past two-and-a-half years, and in that time we’ve earned medals in every competition we’ve entered,” Reyes notes. To date, the winery has won 29 medals.


Despite the honors, Reyes remains grounded. And he’s quick to dismiss wine snobbery. “There are a lot of people out there who, for whatever reason, have this attitude about wine knowledge,” he says. “If you taste a wine and like it, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says about it.”

When asked about wine consumption among Latinos, Reyes observes that Hispanics are definitely upping their wine drinking. He attributes the increase to the fact that Latinos are becoming more affluent as they integrate into American culture.

Vines are planted on 16 acres of land.

Vines are planted on 16 acres of land.

“Where we once worked in the fields, we now have the means to be able to make wine and especially drink wine,” states Reyes. “It’s a social phenomenon that we’re all participating in.”

Reyes Winery. 10262 Sierra Highway, Agua Dulce, Calif. 91390. (661) 268-1865. Open for tastings Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Book a tasting and winery tour at

Reyes Winery wines are available through its wine club, at certain Santa Clarita Valley restaurants and at Whole Foods Market. 

What are those crystals doing at the bottom of my #wine glass?

21 Nov

There’s nothing Señorita Vino loves more than a spontaneous wine education moment. Last night, I was relaxing with a glass of Pinot Noir when I noticed some debris in my wine glass. Check it out:


I know what you’re thinking. Either someone planted an illicit substance in my glass when I wasn’t watching, or I really need to work on kitchen hygiene.

What you’re looking at, chicas y chicos, are wine diamonds, or wine stones. In wine geek speak, they’re known as tartaric crystals, or tartrates. Maybe you’ve seen them before, and like a lot of folks, maybe you thought there was crushed glass at the bottom of your wine glass.

The good news is that it’s not crushed glass, and the better news is that tartaric crystals are totally harmless and have no effect on the taste or quality of your wine.

Image 2

Here’s the scoop on the bling at the bottom of your glass:

Tartaric acid is one of the most important acids present in wine, along with malic acid. Why do we need acid in our wine, you ask? Because it gives wine crispness, and it prevents sweeter wines from tasting  sticky-sweet, or “flabby.”

During the winemaking process, if the wine gets too cold, the liquid can’t absorb all of the acid. So the extra acid is released from the wine and forms crystals that look like ice or salt clinging to the bottom of the cork and/or settling at the bottom of the bottle.

Image 4

If you’re drinking white wine, the tartaric crystals will look like little shards of glass. If you’re drinking red wine, the crystals will look like tiny purple icicles (think Cher costume). If you see Cher at the bottom of your glass, you probably need to slow down and have someone drive you home.

It’s easier for the wine industry to filter out tartaric crystals than having to educate consumers about the chemistry behind tartrates. But you may still come across the occasional snow globe scene at the bottom of your wine glass.

If you do, don’t worry. Just drink in the wonder of it all. If you’re so inclined, you might even belt out a few verses of “If I Could Turn Back Time.”


Photo credit: Ian Smith via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ian Smith via Wikimedia Commons

Female winemakers in Uruguay are rockin’ the bodega

12 Nov

Okay, so I bet you saw “Uruguay” in the title and thought, ‘Señorita Vino’s going to share yet another gratuitous Diego Forlán image. The one with his shirt off.’ If you did, congratulations! Here’s your reward:

Don't say I never give you eye candy. Credit: Fotitos21.

Don’t say I never give you eye candy. Credit: Fotitos21.

And now for the real meat of this post…In my latest article for Latina magazine’s, you’ll get to know four fabulous young women who are making wine in Uruguay’s male-dominated wine industry.


Read the story and learn how they got their start. You’ll find out how women are transforming the style of Uruguay’s most popular wine, Tannat. And you’ll even pick up a new way to evaluate wine, which has more to do with Antonio Banderas than with balance and complexity.




Vino 101: Can you judge a #wine by its price tag?

16 Oct

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a wine by its price tag?

Photo courtesy of Daniil Vasiliev, Berlin / Saint-Petersburg, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Daniil Vasiliev, Berlin / Saint-Petersburg, via Wikimedia Commons

That, chicas y chicos, is the million peso question. If a bottle of vino costs a small fortune, is it really all that great?

It’s a tough question to answer because “great” means different things to different people, so let’s start with some of the factors that directly affect the cost of a bottle of wine.


1.  Land costs. A lot of the flavor in that glass of wine comes from the dirt where the grapes grew. Like real estate, vineyards are about location, location, location, so some plots of land are more ideal than others and have price tags to match.

2. Man vs. machine. Who–or what–is picking and sorting the grapes? Hiring people to hand-sort grapes generally costs more than using machinery to do the same task. How the grapes are handled can affect the quality and taste of a wine.

3.  Equipment. DId you know that the cost of an oak barrel starts at around $1500? The more bling-y the equipment and winery, the higher the cost of the wine.

4.  Packaging, distribution, marketing. Those cool wine labels were designed by someone, and they had to be slapped onto the bottle (the labels, not the designer). Then there’s the bottle itself, the cork, the shipping and packaging materials, the import fees, the marketing and PR team…¡ay, caramba!


Which brings us back to the “great” question. Which happens to be a great question.

Because each of us has a different palate and our own personal catalog of loves, likes, and blechs, the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has simplified things by creating this handy guide for evaluating a wine. And no, they’re not paying me to promote this.  WSET, you’re welcome.

Balance: All the flavor components should be evenly distributed, so you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by oak, accosted by acidity, felled by fruitiness or aflame with alcohol (gotta love alliteration).

Length of finish: After you’ve swallowed that first sip, do the aromas drop off immediately, or do they linger for several seconds? A lengthy finish is a mark of a quality wine.

Intensity: How intense are the aromas and flavors? Are they distinctive and easy to detect, or are they faint and barely noticeable?

Complexity: This is the fun part. Are you able to detect anything besides fruit and earth? Do you smell flowers? Can you detect woodsy smells from oak aging? Does the wine’s aroma remind you of a spice? How about vegetable aromas? Any toasty or yeasty smells? The more layers you can detect, the more complex a wine is. And that’s a great thing.

So if your palate gives the wine high marks in the categories above,  you’ve picked a winner. As for the price tag, the only thing that matters is that you’re cool with what you paid. And for the record, I’ve tasted $18  wines that have rocked my mundo, and $50 wines that were good, but not earth-shattering. Of course, the opposite is also true – I’ve had some forgettable bargain wines, and some $300 wines that I can only categorize as a religious experience (Sassicaia, I’m lookin’ at you).


Speaking of religious experiences, that “aflame with alcohol” line has Señorita Vino all hot and bothered. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to cool off with a refreshing glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc.


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