The 1980’s proved to be a whole new frontier of Californian wines for me to explore.  Where the 1970’s consisted of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon based reds, the new, standout wines of the 1980’s, ventured into other grape varieties such as Chardonnay & Pinot Noir.

1980 VINTAGE–The first eye opening wine from the 1980 vintage, was my first taste of a Kistler Chardonnay.  I remember the 1981 was from Dutton Ranch & I am pretty sure so was the 1980.  In either case, both opened a new horizon for artisan, “boutique” wine AND the Russian River Valley growing region.  The 1980 Acacia Pinot Noir (I believe the 1980 was St Clair Vineyard & the 1981 was the Madonna Vineyard) was also the notable wine I had from this fledging winery.  While also received a lot of clamor for their Chardonnays, their single vineyard Pinot Noirs from the 1980 & 1981 vintages were their most compelling wines for me.  I was introduced to the Vichon wines by my best friend, Nunzio Alioto.  His family & other Californian restaurateurs & investors founded this winery, which was spearheaded by winemaker George Vierra.  Their 1980 Vichon Cabernet Sauvignon “Nathan Fay Vineyard” was their first vintage of red wine & was in my eyes a standout.  This winery also produced a 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon “Volker Eislese Vineyard”, though also quite good, it just didn’t have the magic of the Fay Vineyard bottling.  (As a side note they also produced a wonderfully delicious Chevrier Blanc–later changed to Chevrignon–both blends of Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc which were also stellar.  Sadly, the winery was soon taken over by the Robert Mondavi family & became an after thought–it’s brilliance faded away into the sunset.

1981 VINTAGE–the 1981 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir was the first wine I had from this true artisan, old school winery.  I believe 1981 was also the first vintage we were introduced to the Tepusquet Vineyard wines from the namesake vineyard down in the Santa Maria Valley.  They produced a lively, crisp & refreshing Vin Blanc & a lighter, tasty Vin Rouge, which we subsequently used as the house wine for the Kahala Hilton.

1982 VINTAGE–The most prominent standout red wine from the vintage was the 1982 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon.  While we had previously tasted a 1978 & a 1979 from this winery, the 1982 was its first shining moment.  1982 was also the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon I had from Spottswoode.  “Insiders” were already ear marking this winery as a “can’t miss”.  The 1982 Calera Pinot Noir “Reed” was the first vintage we had from this now iconic winery.  There was hints of minerality & wonderful acidity/vitality which made it standout from its peers.  Winemaker/owner Robert Stemmler had his moments of brilliance with the fickle Pinot Noir grape variety, especially early on.  The 1982 Robert Stemmler Pinot Noir was the first of his wines we encountered.

1983 VINTAGE–A friend, his wife & I were dining at Le Castel restaurant on Sacramento Street in San Francisco  Joining us was another couple (both considered wine experts) who brought the 1983 Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay “Les Pierres”.  Knowing his taste, I found it unusual he would bring a California wine to share.  The wine was so captivating, we were on the phone the very next morning hoping to get an appointment to see & meet with them.  The 1983 Calera Pinot Noir “Selleck”–while I had other bottlings & vintages from this relatively new face, this particular bottling from Calera was the one that captured my fancy & imagination.  It had something to do with the wine’s minerality!

1984 VINTAGE–was the first vintage I tasted of Byron Pinot Noir.   This wine reiterated the potential Santa Maria Valley of the Santa Barbara appellation had.  It was much lighter in weight & had more minerality than those Pinot Noirs I experienced from futher north.  I believe this was also the first vintage we were able to get the Etude Pinot Noir too.

1985 VINTAGE–I was really quite mesmerized by the 1985 Mount Eden Chardonnay.  It was quite the masculine, classy Chardonnay thoroughbred, which was really unique & unlike anything Californian I had previously had.  Upon further investigation, I couldn’t help but think, who had the vision to plant this vineyard 1000 to 2000 feet up in this remote, desolate, rocky, mountainous terrain, back in 1943?  At the time, I thought the Estate Chardonnay was far better than the Pinot Noir & Cabernet bottlings.  Legendary Master Sommelier, Fred Dame introduced me to his friend named Clark, who would in turn introduce me a whole new horizon of California wines.  The first was the 1985 Sarah’s Vineyard Chardonnay, which featured a very classy gold label & really upscale packaging.  The Chardonnay was in turn very classy & majestic, (AND much better than their Merlot).   In subsequent vintages, I recall the fruit coming from the Santa Clara appellation, a whole new scene for wines, at least for me.  A gentleman by the name of Mac McKelvey, who lived on Maui where he started his own Maui based wine distributor introduced me to the 1985 Ventana Chardonnay , which reiterated to me the wonderful potential the Monterey area had for the Chardonnay grape variety.  The 1985 BR Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon, although not spectacular, introduced us to the winemaking magic of then winemaker Helen Turley.

I should mention here, sometime between the mid to late 1980’s, I was introduced to the Draper & Esquin portfolio out of San Francisco.  I was initially searching them out for their Italian wines–Gaja, Jermann, Ca’ Ronesca “Ipplis”, Monsecco & Ca’ Rome wines–but also grew quite fascinated with their Californian wine selections as time went on.  The 1985 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma Mountain” was something special, as was some of the single vineyard Zinfandels from Ravenswood & the Santa Barbaran grown Syrahs from Qupe.

Also in the mid to late 1980’s–I was introduced to the Chardonnays & Pinot Noirs from Au Bon Climat, Ojai & Whitcraft & these wineries changed the game what these grape varieties could be out of California.  It took us a while to get these wines to Hawaii.  In the case of the Au Bon Climat wines & winemaker Jim Clendenen, because of looming governmental potential restriction on Italian wine imports, I was actually trying to get some of Clendenen’s Italian look-a-like wines which were mostly grown in the Santa Barbara appellation which he marketed under the Il Podere dell’Olivos label.  As it turned out, superstar Hawaii chef, Roy Yamaguchi, worked his magic at a Los Angeles high end food event to help make the connection to get the Au Bon Climat wines first.

Around the same time or perhaps a short while later, Fred Dame also recommended I check out the wines from then youngster, Bryan Babcock, specifically his “Grand Cuvee” Chardonnay.  The Babcock estate vineyard is located in what is now called the west side of the Santa Rita Hills appellation.  Back then, it was considered in the middle of nowhere between the towns of Buellton & Lompoc.  (I asked myself, who had the sense/vision to plant this vineyard in such an isolated, undiscovered spot which had meager soils & a continuous, gusting ocean generated wind?  I guess I could ask the same question about the iconic Sanford & Benedict vineyard of the same general area.)  As it turned out, I ended up first buying the Babcock Gewurztraminer, then the Riesling, then a short time later the Sauvignon Blanc “11 Oaks”.  I thought each were special, especially for California, as was the Chardonnay “Grand Cuvee”.

Also in the mid to late 1980’s, I was quite taken by the Howell Mountain grown Chardonnays of Chateau Woltner–3 single parcels–“Frederique”, “Titus” & “St Thomas”–which at the time were under the direction, both in the vineyard & the winery, of Ted Lemon, freshly back from a stint as winemaker at Domaine Roulot in Meursault, France.   Though quite pricey & somewhat hard to get because of limited production, these “mountain grown”, non-malolactic Chardonnays were quite special & unique.

1986 VINTAGE–the most memorable “label” we purchased from the 1986 vintage was the 1986 Bonny Doon “Les Cigare Volant”.  I had previously heard all kinds of stories of this winery phenomenon from Fred Dame (who was a good friend of winemaker/owner Randall Grahm) & later was fortunate to taste a Roussanne bottling of theirs, named  “Le Sophiste” & an earlier vintage of “Le Cigare Volant”.  While the wines were tasty & good, the packaging & schtick/stories were incredible!  Wow!  What a unique niche & a fabulous cache.

1987 VINTAGE–1987 was quite the vintage for California & there were many really good wine produced.  The wine I most remember, however, was the 1987 Georis Merlot from Carmel Valley.  I don’t recall who recommended this winery (though probably Fred Dame).  While I had thought the 1985 & 1986 were good, the 1987 was something very special!  Owner Walter Georis also owned Casanova’s restaurant in Carmel & I later had to chance to meet with him & tour his estate vineyard.  On the white wine side, the 1987 La Jota Viognier was really the first wine I tasted from Bill Smith & his La Jota label that caught our attention, being so lush & extravagantly tropical.

1988 VINTAGE–the most unique wines we tasted from the 1988 vintage was the 1988 Kalin Cellars Chardonnay “LD”.  Owner/winemaker Terry Leighton really was far ahead of his time.  His Chardonnays featured heirloom./heritage vines, from then relatively little known growing areas such as the cooler confines of the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast & even Livermore.  His Chardonnays were wild yeast fermented & bottled unfiltered & most of the time unfined too.  Plus, he released them years AFTER the vintage, so they had a chance to resolve themselves & therefore be much more in harmony.  In most cases the wines, especially the Chardonnays, were terrific.  The 1988 Talbott Chardonnay was also quite a discovery.  Again based upon the recommendation of Fred Dame, we were mesmerized by their Chardonnay’s lavish richness, decadent opulence, lushness & base note stoniness.   At a Trade tasting at the Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island, Donald Patz came up to me & asked if I wanted to taste his new 1988 Patz & Hall Chardonnay “Napa Valley”.  It was a unapologetically brash, bold, “game changing” Chardonnay, to say the least.  Interestingly, I stumbled upon the 1988 Justin “Isosceles” at a tasting in San Francisco.  What really caught my attention was the wine’s underlying high toned minerality, a quality I did not experience from the Cabernet based red wines out of the Napa & Sonoma valleys.  It was the minerality in this wine that opened my eyes to the potential the Paso Robles appellation had.

1989 VINTAGE–Although this vintage was generally maligned by the wine media, I tasted a few wines that caught our fancy.  The 1989 Talbott Chardonnay “Diamond T” was from their small estate vineyard adjacent to Rob Talbott’s home on a top of a windy hill in Carmel Valley.  While their other bottling of Chardonnay featured mainly decomposed granitic soils, “Diamond T” featured limestone.  Because this vineyard regularly yielded a scant 1 ton per acre, the bottle cost of the “Diamond T” Chardonnay was higher, almost like being a Reserve bottling.  It was a standout at the time nonetheless.  I was fortunate to also taste the 1989 Williams & Selyem Pinot Noir “Rochioli Vineyard”.  It was evident, even with the 1989 vintage, this vineyard had something special going on.  The 1989 Viader was also quite a unique wine.  The hillside vineyard was steep, spectacular & the planting scheme quite the sensation but later turned out to be quite controversial.  The wine was fascinating because of its Cabernet Franc dominance in the blend, its extreme hillside home & the winemaking prowess of Tony Soter.  In this less than heralded vintage, I also tasted the 1989 Alban Syrah “Reva” based upon the recommendation of Bob Lindquist of Qupe.  Although Alban also produced some Viognier based white wines, it really was the provocative, surly Syrah that stood out.

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I was a young lad of 23 when I landed a server job at the soon to open Alioto’s Restaurant, which was then located at the corner of Kaheka & Makaloa streets across from the old Holiday Mart location.  Alioto’s was & still is an iconic, family owned San Francisco restaurant located on Fisherman’s Wharf.  This was to be their Hawaii “branch”.

By that time, I was already into wines & even had in fact taken wine courses through the Grape Escape wine school, taught by Master Sommelier Eddie Osterland & his partner Ronn Wiegand.

My first BIG wine purchase up to that point was a bottle of 1970 Chateau Lafite Rothschild ($36 a bottle at the time) & a bottle of 1971 Chateau Margaux ($25), both from Hi-Ho Liquors in Aina Haina Shopping Center.

I was quite taken back, however, when looking over the initial, opening wine list for Alioto’s, because it featured only California wineries.  Made sense–San Francisco based restaurant & Californian wines.  My only real experience with high quality Californian wines up to this point though were those from Robert Mondavi, so, I was somewhat apprehensive to say the least.

The list was put together by the on sight, owning family representative, Nunzio Alioto, who I soon discovered had incredible knowledge of Italian, French, German AND California wines.  This was to be one of the most impactful wine educational experiences for me in my entire professional life.  (Nunzio & I eventually became fast & best friends & our relationship has now spanned 40 or so years.  I will be forever grateful to him for all of the knowledge & wines he shared with me over the years.)

While, at the time, I was enamored by the Chardonnay based white wines of Meursault, France, I now had to instead understand, appreciate & learn how to recommend Californian Chardonnays, from small, then unheard of wineries such as Chateau Montelena (1973), Freemark Abbey (1975), Burgess Cellars “Winery Lake” (1975) & Cuvaison (1974 from then winemaker Philip Togni).  And, instead of Dr Thanisch Riesling Spatlese “Bernkastler Doktor”, I now had to embrace Joseph Phelps Johannisberg Riesling.  And instead of French Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), I now had to get behind Chappellet Dry Chenin Blanc.  And, instead of the red wines of Bordeaux, I now had to get used to recommending the Cabernet Sauvignons from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (1973), Clos du Val (1974), Beaulieu “Private Reserve Georges de Latour” (’73 & ’74), Sterling (1973 & ’74 “Reserve”) & Heitz Martha’s Vineyard” (1973).  Then, it was quite the challenge & transition, but today looking back, it helped provide quite the foundation for me understanding the California wine scene0 as an emerging world class wine growing region & the players which helped it get to where it is today!

Our “house” wines–listed as Alioto’s Selection–were from the little known Foppiano winery!

It is quite remarkable how back then Californian wines were a hard sell here in the Islands.   Local wine drinkers wanted European wines.  Quite the flip flop nowadays.

As time went on & my getting used to what the Californian wines had to offer, I really started to get into them.

While the Chateau Montelena Chardonnays were truly heads over heels for those in the know, I had a hankering for the 1975 & 1976 Burgess Cellars Chardonnay “Winery Lake” AND the 1972 Mayacamas Chardonnay (out of magnum).  OMG, these were epic in my eyes.

And, on the red wine side, while Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars & Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” were the headliners, I really enjoyed the Beaulieu “Private Reserve” (1968, 1970, 1974); the Ridge “Monte Bello” (1968, 1970) & the Robert Mondavi “Reserve” (1971) bottlings.  I would also like to mention the 1974 Clos du Val & some of the early bottlings of both Mayacamas (1968 & 1970); Inglenook Cask (1967 & 1968); the 1966 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon & some 1967, ’68, ’70 Special Selection Cabernet & Pinot Noir bottling froms Louis Martini..

As time went on, the list of notable wines grew.

From the 1970 vintage–although the 1970 Beaulieu “Private Reserve” (which legendary Beaulieu winemaker André Tchelistcheff nicknamed his “Shining Star”); the 1970 Ridge “Monte Bello” & the 1970 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon were the real stars of the vintage, I also, however, took a fancy for the 1970 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon from what is now known as Pritchard Hill.  (I had subsequently later tasted the 1968 & 1969, but much preferred the ’70).

1972 was the first vintage I had tasted from the newest Napa Valley star–Clos du Val.  While it was wasn’t necessarily great, we loved his elegant, stylish approach.  The true star of the vintage for me, however, was the previously mentioned 1972 Mayacamas Chardonnay, which was served out of magnum on 2 different occasions.  It was a wine which truly exhibited the potential California had.

From the much ballyhoo-ed 1974 vintage–the 3 stars were–the 1974 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon; 1974 Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” & 1974 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve”.  There was also much hoop-la about the 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve”.  It came with a new look–a tailored bottle shape AND in a wooden case–almost as to say, I am of Grand Cru in stature.  Well, it was eye catching right out of the gates, BUT turned out to be quite controversial shortly thereafter.  We were later told there were four batches made–3 had a microbial issue & 1 didn’t.  This, along with the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23” bottlings, really brought to the forefront discussions of brettanomyces/dekkera bruxellensis.

From the 1976 vintage–the 1976 Ridge Zinfandel “Lytton Springs” was truly something special & the most memorable Californian wine of the vintage for me.  This was also the first vintage I tasted from Jordan winery & our first real inkling of the Joseph Phelps “Insignia”, although we had tasted at least a couple of vintages prior.

From the 1977 vintage, I was especially taken by the 1977 Ridge “Monte Bello” & the 1977 Beaulieu “Private Reserve”, although it would take decades for both to show their true potential.  This was also the first vintage I had from Diamond Creek winery, the fabulous, iconic Stony Hill Chardonnay, Hanzell Pinot Noir AND was the vintage, Mike Grgich released his first wine under his own label–1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay, which was quite a stunning, captivating wine!

From the 1978 vintage, 2 standouts upon release –1978 Clos du Val “Reserve” & the 1978 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve” come to mind.  (There were however, subsequent question marks on both since, as to whether they got any better with additional bottle age).  ZD winery, with the 1978 vintage, released 2 different Chardonnays–1 with a “Napa Valley” designation & the other with a “Santa Barbara” label designation.  I much preferred the latter & this really help open a new box of wine thought for me to explore–the Santa Barbara appellation.   (I had had an earlier experience with an “Alexander Valley” Chardonnay bottling by Chateau Montelena, which also enticed me to look out of the “Napa Valley” box, just as the Ridge “Monte Bello” bottlings previously had).

For the 1979 vintage, while we were really taken by the 1979 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve”, we were later really enamored by two very “out of norm” red wines even more–the 1979 Chalone Pinot Noir & the 1979 Opus One.  Elegance is the first word that comes to mind for both.

I should also mention here, the workings of Francis Mahoney of Carneros Creek winery.  I went to visit him, although I can’t remember the exact year, just to check out his Pinot Noir experimental farm & listen to his take on clones & vine selections & how they fit into California.  He opened the door for me to the concept of clones, something I really didn’t think too much about, at least up to this point.

We should also mention some of the standout, “other” grape varieties which stood out in the 1970’s.  For Riesling the highlights were from Joseph Phelps & Chateau St Jean.  For Chenin Blanc–Chappellet.  For Sauvignon Blanc–Dry Creek, Robert Mondavi & Chateau St Jean “La Petite Etoile”, which in each of these cases, labeled their wines as Fume Blanc.

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Lighter in Body?

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I think most people will agree, today’s wines are getting thicker & riper than in the past.

I had one winemaker insist it is because of better vine material, much better understanding on what to do in the vineyard & certainly a better understanding of what to do in the winemaking.

Others say it is because of the frequency of more & more sundrenched vintages.

The point of this post is not to discussed those topics (& I am sure many others related).

I am wondering what to do about it.  Today’s German Riesling Kabinett level wines are now at ripeness numbers which were yesterday’s Auslese levels.  So, those fleeting, light & wonderfully ethereal Mosel Rieslings have, today, a much different profile.  That’s not a bad thing at all.  In fact, I am sure those German Riesling producers are thrilled & good for them.

Over the past few years, I have been tasting the Marquiliani Sciaccarellu Rosé , a very light, ethereal pink wine from the island of Corsica, imported to the U.S. by Kermit Lynch.  What initially caught my interest was a note I had read written by Kermit about this wine–“Drinking her rosé is like drinking a cloud. There’s an absolute weightlessness to it. Nothing is left on the palate but perfume.”   After reading that, I was immediately bent on trying this wine!  He was right, OMG, what a unique wine–tasty & seemingly light as air on the palate.

So, that brings me to my question.  If this family can produce such a wine, in a relatively warm growing spot like the terraces of Aghione on the eastern coast of Corsica, with its schist, granite, silt soils & a grape variety like Sciaccarellu (& 10% Syrah), which often results in rustic, rather masculine & hearty red wines in other spots on the island, why can’t other places & winemakers do something along these lines?

Categories : General, Rose, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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We found a terrific, small wine store in Athens, Greece–named Fine Wine

run by husband & wife–Dimitri & Sofia Anthanassopoulou.

If you love wine and happen to be in Athens, Greece, this is the store you should go to. They have a small, very well selected list, reasonable prices,  


and this couple is adorable and really passionate about their wine


What a real find!!!!!!

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It’s remarkably been over 40 years of my being involved with wines.  My, my, how time has just sped by, AND so quickly.  I recently received an email invitation from one of my longest time wine friends, John Brincko, to have lunch, catch up, taste some wines & talk story.  I was elated.

I first met John, while I was the Wine Cellarmaster at the Kahala Hilton in the late 1970’s, perhaps the early 1980’s.  (sorry, my memory can not pinpoint a more precise, accurate time).  He would come to stay at the hotel once a year, & over the years, I relished hearing his stories of & his vast insight into the wine world.  He definitely played on a  different level, being then one of the most prominent wine collectors in the country, & way before it was fashionable.  John was therefore on a first name basis with France’s elite wine echelon, including Aubert de Villaine, Jean Francois Coche, Madam Leroy-Bize & Remy Krug, just to name a few.

For me, he also was one of those important teachers I was fortunate to run across.

I distinctly remember one instance in particular.  I was thrilled to acquire another “artisan” white Burgundy–the 1976 Robert Ampeau Meursault Charmes for the hotel’s winelist.  (Up till this point, the majority of  white Burgundy offerings in Hawaii were from larger houses such as Bouchard, Drouhin, Louis Latour & Louis Jadot.)  I was therefore thrilled & quite proud to recommend this Ampeau Meursault to John when he next came to dine.

5 minutes after I had served the wine to him, John asked to see me again, at which time, he let me know that this wine was “heat stressed”.  I immediately thought, ‘but we take pride in having a temperature controlled cellar & floor units, how can this be?”

He then asked “how about the shipping from France to Hawaii“?


Lesson learned.

In addition, over the years, John was kind enough to share many fine bottles of esteemed wines, many of which I could not fathom of acquiring, much less tasting, to further my wine knowledge.  Yes, John Brincko definitely got me out of my comfort box & to imagine the possibilities.

So, on this wonderfully sunny, breezy Sunday, we met for lunch with local wine collector, Gene Wong.  We spoke of many things–some from the past, some about the wine scene today & some just about the pure enjoyment of some favorite wines.  What a great afternoon!  Thank you to you both.

Here are the wines we tried—

1996 Philipponat “Clos des Goisses”–a truly iconic bottling–65% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay from the Premier Cru village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ & its oldest vines & steepest parcels.  I was immediately quite taken how complex & grand the nose was right out of the gates.  It, in fact, smelled of aged CRU white Burgundy–mesmerizing, powerful, very sophisticated & full of grandeur.  The palate was much tighter, firm, surprisingly fresh, youthful & uplifting with a fine bead & a very long, long finish.  This certainly was a standout!  I haven’t had a Champagne this good in a very long time!  WOW! 

2008 Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru “Clavoillons”–I must say upfront, I don’t sample this domaine’s wines as often as I did before.  When asked, though, I told the pair, I have found this domaine’s whites rather up & down in quality for some time, which is why I don’t buy them too often anymore, especially given their prices.  AND, I have found them to be often over oaked (to the point where the oak overshadows the minerality & pedigree).  I bought this wine, without tasting it, based upon a recommendation & because it was 2008.  I have generally liked the transparency many of the 2008’s I have tasted.  The nose & color was far more advanced than I would have imagined.  And, while, it did open up after an hour or so, I found it to be too oaky for my tastes, as I felt it curtained the wine’s underlying minerality & pedigree.  Furthermore, I found the palate less interesting & rather dull than the nose.  Still, I was thankful to have tried it. 

2010 Jean Marie Pillot Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru (MAGNUM)–I haven’t had the Pillot wines in quite a while & was really looking forward to trying the 2010, especially out of magnum.  The first thing I immediately noticed was how fresh & alive this wine seemed right out of the gates.  In addition, it was resoundingly Grand Cru–full of complexity, intricacy & pedigree.  I also loved how elegant, well balanced & transparent this wine is.  And, it seemed, every time I dived back in, over the 3 1/2 hours, the more it had to say.  I tried the wine again later in the night & it had really opened up in all its glory.  Thank you John for sharing. 

1999 Domaine Maume Mazis Chambertin Grand Cru–I have always had a soft spot for Maume red Burgundies.  It’s not that they are the grandest of Burgundy, but I liked how personal, masculine, idiosyncratic they can be.  The 1999, for me, was gorgeous.  I loved its earthy, forest floor, musk/pheromone scented nose & its wonderful Grand Cru character.  On the palate, it had ripe, gorgeous fruit, wonderful structure & balance in a rustic, masculine old style.  I would say, it’s definitely not for everyone, but I loved it.  It really offers a very different, personal perspective on what Grand Cru Burgundy can be. 

1991 Comte de Georges Vogüé Musigny–with first whiff, one could immediately tell this was Grand Cru Burgundy in all its glory.  Oh my goodness!  (It initially had some ‘funk” to the nose, but that blew off soon there after.)  It didn’t mask the incredible, underlying, supreme nobility & pedigree this wine profoundly showcased.  This is a standout aristocrat.  Although I have been fortunate to taste various vintages of Vogüé Musigny over the years, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed more often than not, especially considering the upper tier price point.  I can easily say, though, this 1991 was the finest bottle I have had from this venerable, iconic estate.  It was having Grand Cru red Burgundy in all its glory & a truly unforgettable experience.  Thank you John for sharing!

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The daytime seminars were an opportunity to share, learn & create camraderie.  So, were the various night time events.  To that, I would add, while having some fun too.  








NIGHT ONE “BYOB” at the Carlton Hotel

















NIGHT TWO “A Taste of Paso Robles” at the Pavillon by the lake.















Thank you to ALL!



Thank you to all who made Wine Speak 2018 such a success–first & foremost event co-founder Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (the true star of making it all happen & so flawlessly), the sponsors, the speakers, the event team & all of the participants.  It really was truly memorable because of each you.  Also thank you to Meredith May, owner of The Somm Journal & your team.  Thanks also to Cameron Ingalls for all of the wonderful pictures.  Much Mahalo ALL!










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The Wine Speak journey really started when Amanda Wittstrom Higgins asked if I would come to Paso Robles to teach some classes for the wine tasting room attendants & the servers of restaurants from their area.  I was really quite taken that she & her team were searching for ways to move the wine community of her area forward.  Education is certainly a good call…..especially their wish to bring “outside” talent in to shed light from a different perspective.  That would prove to be the underlying driving core of Wine Speak–come to share & learn, thus fostering camaraderie & collaboration.  Thank you all who came to share & learn!

DAY THREE-Panel One “ABC’s of Wine” 

I was really moved looking at the attendees faces during this seminar.  One could readily see a community of professionals wanting to learn.  I was just looking to say things that would make each think…& then hopefully “imagine the possibilities”.


DAY THREE-Panel Two  “So you want to be a professional”

Originally, this panel was entitled “so you want to be a somm?”  Back in the 1980’s Fred Dame worked hard to bring the Master Sommelier exam to America.  (It was previously only given in England, AND in my opinion, Fred was the only person I knew who could make this happen.  We as a wine community truly owe him so much thanks for all he did & still does).  Today, because of the great influence the Court Of Master Sommeliers has on setting standards on wine service, there has been a whole new generation striving for the MS pin, with generations also lining up behind.  The purpose of this panel was to ask 3 iconic, long time sommeliers to share their insights, wisdom & experiences which would hopefully remind us what the true “craft” of being a sommelier is & inspire all, moving forward.


–Fred Dame MS–former long time Chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers

–Nunzio Alioto MS–former long time Chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers

–Mark Shishido–Wine Director of Alan Wong’s Restaurant in Hawaii & Hawaii Restaurant Association “Hall of Fame” recipient

Thanks guys for coming to share.


DAY THREE-Panel Three “Hospitality by Hawaiian Airlines” 

Up until 10 months ago, I was traveling interisland here in Hawaii, at least 2 times a week.  Add to that the mainland jaunts I would also take during the calendar year & that added to the growing number of miles on an airplane.  I always prefer to fly on Hawaiian Airlines.  The flight attendants truly make me feel welcome, appreciated AND cared for.  So, when my event partner Amanda asked the principals responsible for the service to come share what they do hospitality wise & how they teach this, I was thrilled, as I have experienced the results of their hard work countless of times.  How they execute hospitality is remarkable & special & hopefully, the professionals of the Paso Robles/Atascadero area would benefit from their story.

–Renee Awana, Managing Director Product Development, Hawaiian Airlines 

–Alisa Onishi, Director of Brand Management, Hawaiian Airlines

These two ladies absolutely killed it!  They created ambiance, incredible content & an A+ presentation that, judging by the crowd’s reaction, inspired & moved all who attended, including me!  I was so thankful for the experience.  Thank you ladies.

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Just to provide a very different perspective on the Syrah & Cabernet grape varieties featured & discussed on Day One, we assembled 2 panels for Day Two, with some very amazing talent from the Central Coast of California to foster & continue the open discussions.

DAY TWO, Panel One–“Central Coast Syrah” 

We settled on featuring 3 panelists for this one.   (left to right in the picture)

–Matt Dees. Jonata.  Jonata is a top echelon wine project, which is the Santa Barbara-n sister of Napa Valley’s much heralded Screaming Eagle winery.  The estate vineyard is located in the Ballard Canyon, southeast & therefore warmer than the Pinot Noir country of the highly acclaimed Santa Rita Hills.  As we have seen over the years, this special site, under the direction of winemaker Matt Dees & iconic superstar wine consultant, Michel Rolland, has been producing some super high scoring, sought after Syrah & Cabernet Sauvignon based red wines. 

–Justin Smith, Saxum.  I think most would agree, Justin is one of the most prominent wine figures in the Paso Robles appellation & deservedly so.  His family own & run the very revered James Berry Vineyard.  His own label, Saxum, is one of the very top collectibles out of all of California.  In fact his 2007 Saxum “James Berry” bottling garnered 100 points AND was selected at the top of Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines.  In addition, Justin has helped many top level wineries to kick start their project by helping them select a site, advise on the planting & even winemaking.  Who better to provide insight into the Paso Robles appellation than he?  

–Adam Tolmach, Ojai.  I am one of those BIG fans who believe the Ojai Syrah from Bien Nacido Vineyard is one of the true standout Syrah based red wines in all of America.  In the 1980’s/early 1990’s, owner/winemaker Adam Tolmach was co-founding winemaker/partner of Au Bon Climat, which specialized in Chardonnay & Pinot Noir done with Old World sensibilities.  We were so thankful when Adam founded Ojai & added Syrah to his portfolio.  With the 1992 vintage Adam convinced the Miller family to plant Z Block, up atop the hill rising above Bien Nacido proper (Santa Maria Valley).  It really was this parcel & what it offered & his Old World sensibilities that catapulted the Ojai Syrah to the head of the class.  He is more than a top winemaker.  Adam Tolmach is “Hall of Fame” in my book & it is an honor having him on the panel.


DAY TWO, Panel Two–“Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon” 

We settled on featuring 4 panelists for this one. 

–Matt Dees, Jonata (Ballard Canyon).  El Desafio de Jonata is one of the most highly acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon based out of the Santa Barbara appellation & we asked founding winemaker Matt Dees to shed some light on the evolution of this wine.  Unlike its neighbors, the Jonata estate vineyard sits on sand.  How does Cabernet fair in such soils?  To show us what can be, Matt shared his 2005 with us.

–Guillaume Febre, Clos Solène (Paso Robles).   Clos Solène is the fulfillment of a dream for Guillaume & his wife Solène.  In the beginning, his family has crafted wine and farmed wineries in Narbonne, South of France for the past three generations.  “Guillaume lived on the winery in the south of France, Château Saint-Eugénie, until he was 22. He was attending University in 2000 when his family decided to sell its land and move the wine business to Bordeaux, in the Côtes de Bourg, Northwest Bordeaux City“.  Guillaume instead chose to move to California where he worked with Stephane Asseo at L’Aventure for many years.  It is understandable given his past that he works with both red Rhone varietals & Cabernet Sauvignon.

–Tyler Thomas, Star Lane (Happy Canyon).  I remember back in the early 1990’s, Bryan Babcock noting the huge potential he felt Cabernet grown in Happy Canyon had.  Winemaker Tyler Thomas was recommended to us by Matt Dees of Jonata, saying Tyler is the one who can help us understand the insights & potential this appellation has.  

–Michael Sinor, Ancient Peaks (Paso Robles).  We included Michael Sinor & the wines of Ancient Peaks, so we could be reminded of the great value these wines offer.  Estate grown fruit, from a family owned & operated vineyard, 1000 feet in elevation in southern Paso Robles…….all at $18 a bottle retail? As a wine buyer, one of our jobs is finding such value driven, quality wines.  What a discovery this was for us & we wanted Michael to provide insight into the project.

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It started when I was asked to do a ABC wine class for tasting room/restaurant servers in Paso Robles by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins at Ancient Peaks winery.  I said sure.  Can we do more?  In 2 weeks time we were able to assemble our “dream team” of TOP professionals who could foster interesting insight, wisdom & experiences dialogue that would hopefully create more questions & dialogue.  And, if we included some from  “outside” the region this would help nurture cammaderie & create collaboration.

The first panel–“New World Syrah” was held on January 9, 2018.

The premise for me is I believe Syrah is one of the world’s top 3 red grape varieties AND so grossly under appreciated.  I believe as a wine community, we need to help raise awareness. 

I remember the first time I had the Cote Rotie from Gentaz Dervieux & thinking how the hell can God & man grow & produce a wine like this…..something way beyond a grape variety & winemaking.  This beckons the question, how can we in the New World move forward with that thought.  NOT to be French, but to move the taster similarly to what I had experienced.

Amanda & I were hoping through collaboration & sharing of ideas, insight & experiences with vine material, growing & producing, this can help those of the New World to move forward with this varietal.  We then thought, who would be our dream team to inspire people.  While I originally thought one panel would be enough, we decided to change & do a few panels, so we could better foster more discussions….from different perspectives.

DAY ONE, Panel One–“New World Syrah” 

We settled on featuring 4 panelists for this one.    

–Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars (Washington state), who I think is one of the VERY best from that area right now. In addition, FYI, Greg was the former wine director for the Wolfgang Puck restaurants AND Emeril Lagasse restaurants.  He was also President of the Court of Master Sommeliers—America Chapter for 5 years.  His wines deftly display his knowledge, vast experience & passion. 

–Bruce Neyers of Neyers Vineyards is one of the wine yodas.  I have known Bruce for 40 or so years.  I first met Bruce back in the 1970’s when he ran Joseph Phelps—a time when they were one of the first to champion Syrah (& Riesling) in California AND created Insignia, a Cabernet blend, with the 1974 vintage.  In addition, in1992 he took over as National Sales Manager for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants (the premium game changing importer of true artisan standout French wines, such as Chave in Hermitage, Gentaz Dervieux & Robert Jasmin, Rene Rostaing in Cote Rotie & Clape, Verset & Allemand in Cornas amongst others).  Because he goes to France 3 to 4 times a year to visit them he clearly understands what they do & how, as he is REALLY good friends with each.  Bruce therefore because of 40+ years in California wine industry & 25 years dealing with the top producers of France is the ideal man to translate the New World & the Old World in these kinds of wines.

–Andy Peay of Peay Vineyards.  We asked Andy to come & give us insight into “cool” climate grown Syrah.  The Peay estate vineyard is located in the far northwestern corner of the Sonoma Coast, four miles from the ocean & reputed to be one of the coolest sites in the world for the Syrah grape variety.  It’s hard to imagine such an extreme, inhospitable site like theirs could ripen quality grapes every vintage. 

–Serge Carlei from Carlei Wines out of Victoria, Australia.  Although Serge is renown for Chardonnay & Pinot Noir, he also produces some very interesting Syrah in a much more civil style.  In addition, Serge has some very interesting views, insights & experiences on the whole organic/biodynamic grape growing subject.

 DAY ONE, Panel Two–“Cabernet Sauvignon”

Fortunately, all three of the panelists from the previous session also grow & produce superb Cabernet Sauvignon based wines too.  So, with this session we switch grape varieties, but continue the dialogue, sharing & insights to address this grape variety from different perspectives & 3 different parts of the New World.


–Serge Carlei  Carlei Wines (Victoria, Australia)

–Bruce Neyers Neyers Winery (Napa Valley, California)

–Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars (Walla Walla, Washington)

I loved how Bruce Neyers shared memories of the 70’s & 80’s in Napa Valley (& his work at Joseph Phelps); his work since 1992 with the producers from the Kermit Lynch portfolio & how he & his team continually evolve & transition because of his experiences.  And, Serge Carlei, for his “under the radar” region & very practical AND very personal organic/biodynamic regime in the vineyards & why.  And Greg Harrington for his wonderful insight into what’s happening in Washington state, wine production wise AND his incredible understanding & insights in a very practical, worldly manner.  Wow!  What a day!


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