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A Dinner with Reynvaan Wines

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I have been watching the steady rise of this true artisan winery of Washington state, especially over the past eight or so years. I recently had quite an eye opening jaunt through their wine country a couple years back and I shook hands, talked story with many top caliber winemakers and walked some of the more revered vineyards. Here is what I learned:

–Watch out for Merlot and Syrah driven wines moving forward, with Mourvedre following to provide the next wave of excitement.

–There is a large amount of own rooted vines still in full swing up there—something other winegrowing regions of the world can only dream about.

–I just had to get to the Reynvaan to the islands!

The Reynvaans own two different vineyards–1 in the foothills of the Blue Mountains & the other in what’s nicknamed “The Rocks” over in Milton Freewater.   Yes, 2 VERY different terroirs, as we hope to show at this dinner.  

Well, thank goodness we were able to get some of their wines, despite their small production AND their astronomically high ratings by the wine media.    I thought, there was NO way we would be getting some here! Well, here we are, three years later and Gale & Mike Reynvaan are coming to VINO to do a dinner with us!!!!!! It is a true honor and it should be some kind of night. Yup, we will be serving some of their highly acclaimed wines. BIG scores. Each with a couple of years of bottle age and therefore in a real sweet spot, just the way we like them. What a very special opportunity!


first course 

Squid Ink PastaKona Cold Maine lobster, cauliflower puree and mint-shiso pesto 

WINE: 2014 Reynvaan Viognier “Foothills in the Sun Vineyard”–a 95 point rated Washington state Viognier in all its glory




second course 

Hudson Valley Duck ConfitSwiss chard and red wine-foie gras sauce

WINE: 2013 Reynvaan Syrah “In The Rocks”–co-fermented with 5% Viognier, 97 point rated from their in the rocks estate vineyard





Peppercorn Crusted Nature’s Natural New Yorkroasted red pepper couscous, Kalamata olives, baby arugula & a red vermouth-peppercorn vinaigrette

WINE: 2015 Reynvaan Syrah “In the Foothills Reserve”–100% Syrah from their 1600 feet elevation estate vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountains.  rated 95 points



My Friend–Nunzio Alioto M.S.

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I met & actually worked for Nunzio Alioto back in 1977.  He & his family had opened a restaurant in Honolulu on Makaloa Street across the street from the then named store–Holiday Mart.  The restaurant was named Alioto’s & they featured foods from their family recipes which they served for 3 generations at their world renown, iconic, namesake restaurant on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.  Nunzio’s grandmother, Nonna Rose Alioto, is in fact credited in the cookbooks as the originator of the iconic crab ciopino dish.

Nunzio was groomed early on to take over the family business at some time, attending the Culinary School in San Francisco, the hotel & restaurant school in Laussanne, Switzerland & then staging at several notable restaurants including Pic, a highly revered Michelin 3 star culinary destination in France’s Rhone Valley.

In addition to all of that, Nunzio had a true love & passionate fascination of wine–yes, of course–Italy, as well as Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley & Germany just to name some.  Because he was born & raised in San Francisco, though, he was also very well versed & knowledgeable in what was unfolding in California from the 1950’s on up & not just with the Napa Valley.

So, our paths crossed in 1977.  He was in the middle of opening a restaurant on the top floor of a business building on the Ewa-Mauka corner of the Makaloa & Kaheka street intersection.  I lived only a block away & just walked in to see how all of the construction was progressing & what it was starting to look like.  I ended up applying for a job that very day before leaving.

One of the main reasons was because of the wine list.  It featured ONLY California wines.  Please keep in mind, 1977 was a time when “boutique”, quality driven (versus commercial grade) California wines were barely visible here in the Islands & were just gaining traction in the California restaurant scene.  I was intrigued to say the least.

Notable white wines on the list included Joseph Phelps Johannisberg Riesling, Chappellet Chenin Blanc, Wente Grey Riesling & a host of Chardonnays–1973 Chateau Montelena, 1976 Burgess Cellars, 1975 Cuvaison, just to name a few highlights.  On the red side–1971 Robert Mondavi “Reserve”; 1973 & 1974 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, 1974 Clos du Val, 1973 & 1974 Sterling “Reserve”, just to name a few.

I was totally fascinated & started trying to get to know everything I could about these wines & what was happening in California.

As the months went by, Nunzio would host many winetastings at the restaurant in an effort to share his knowledge & his stash of wines he had collected over the years.  It wasn’t only for the staff, but also for the various “sommeliers”/avid wine lovers from around town.  I remember one tasting, for instance featured  a mini vertical of Beaulieu Vineyards “Private Reserve” Cabernets–1968, 1970, ’71, 73 & ’74.  Or a horizontal tasting of 1968’s–Ridge “Monte Bello”‘ Beaulieu “Georges de Latour”, Mayacamas, Joseph Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard”, just to name a few.  As time went on, I completely realized I was tasting historical treasures & was so very thankful for the opportunity.  AND, it was NOT limited to just Californian wine either.  I vividly remember the aha moment of trying, for instance, the 1971’s from  Dr Thanisch Auslese “Bernkasteler Doktor”, JJ Prum  Auslese”Wehlener Sonnenuhr” & the Staatsweingut Steinberger Auslese.  Epic to say the least.

He was & is my older sibling, my biggest mentor AND a truly treasured life long friend.  (I could thankfully say the same about his wife Joanne too.  It was after all, she who convinced me to get off my ass & stop feeling sorry for myself AND go back to take the MS exam again).

Although he (they) soon moved back to California, we still remained friends & still very much in touch.

Imagine 4 decades of a friendship which started with merely 1 1/2 years working together in Hawaii & the rest long distance between San Francisco & Hawaii.  Yes, there were the many trials & tribulations of life, work, children & family with each of our own lives, but there was also still the love of food, wine & most importantly our friendship.

Along the way, we both took the Master Sommelier examination (my invitation, most likely greatly influenced by Nunzio’s lobbying on my behalf).  I would have never pursued the MS diploma or even had a chance to take &/or pass it if it weren’t for Nunzio & Joanne.  I am forever grateful.  The whole Master Sommelier chapter, as it turned out, was a big one & affected both of us greatly–not only because of the prestigious title but more so about being involved with the unfolding of this British ideal to America & its candidates.

Fast forward to 2020.

A group of Master Sommelier old timers attended Wine Speak this past January–including Fred Dame, Madeline Triffon, Emmanuel Kemiji & myself.  Yup, real old timers.  I hadn’t seen Madeline or Emmanuel for at least 20 to 25 years ago.  It was great to see, hang out & talk story with them all.  Imagine, Emmanuel was the latest to pass of the group, being the 12th American to pass the exam.  We all worked together on projects & examinations totally hands on back then & therefore knew each other quite well.

The moment that made everyone’s eyes shine again in wonderment, just like the old days, was Nunzio again opening some wines he brought with him to share with us all.  It was typical Nunzio MO.  The wines were stellar, in fact some of the very best I have had in my life time.

The first wine was the 1995 Chave Ermitage “Cuvée Cathelin”–a wine Chave produces in only certain vintages.  I am not exactly clear on the whys, hows & whens, AND I have only had the 1990, 1995 & 2009 over the years.  What I can say is Ermitage “Cuvée Cathelin” is very different from their Hermitage bottling that’s for sure.  In the case of this 1995, it is seemingly more masculine, somewhat more macho, guttural & more grand with more swag, while still being so aristocratic & majestic.  It certainly is  something to behold.  Truly a most memorable wine for me!

The second wine Nunzio opened & shared on this night was the 1989 Gentaz Dervieux Côte-Rôtie.  I have stated several times over the years, this wine is the most memorable I can remember ever having.  (yes, of course there were some Burgundies over the years also surreal & bewitching, but this 1989 Gentaz I would say was very haunting for me & was therefore in my consciousness as well as my brain).  I had the wine at the domaine in either 1990 or 1991 on a visit.  Marius told he had just under 2 hectares of Côte-Rôtie–(50% “mauve” syrah originally from Hermitage–big berries, tightly packed; AND 50% traditional Petite Serine–small berries, more loosely packed).   I loved its breathtaking & sincere purity, its innate majestic pedigree.  Yes, it was earthy, masculine, wonderfully concentrated with lots of peppery, animal, raw meat/gamey, smoke/sandalwood nuances.  But, all done with a finesseful, masterful touch.  Nuance versus power.  UN-heavy & ethereal versus thick & opulent.  I was also quite taken by Marius himself–seemingly humble & down to earth, but certainly armed with so much knowledge & experience from his years of hands on work, both in the vineyard & the winery.   Yes, this was game changing wine for me.  It helped to imagine the possibilities of what can be!   Interestingly, on the last day of that particular trip, while in Paris before flying home, we found a score of this same wine at a four story, very chic, upscale Chinese restaurant in Paris (which we bought as many as could to take home with us).  It was certainly the most memorable wine of the trip for me & that is saying a lot considering we also visited Coche-Dury, Chave, Verset, Clape, Raveneau, Tempier, Vieux Telegraphe to name just a few along the way.  I believe this was the last bottle Nunzio still had & I am so thankful & grateful for him sharing it with us on this night.

There were 2 other wines that Nunzio had brought to share which I should highlight, the first being the 1989 Trimbach Riesling “Clos Ste Hune”.  This was an aged, SENSATIONAL, world-class Alsatian Riesling in all its monumental & majestic glory.  Explosively perfumed with lots of bravado, mojo & swag on the palate intermixed with innate complexities/character, definitively noble from one of the world’s top & most historic sites.  OMG.

The 4th wine which I feel deserves a real shout out for was the 1981 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage.  Yup, the word Hermitage was still part of this “tour de force” Australian red wine back then.  What was once a big, thick, opulent, lavish, masculine red wine is today, much lighter on its feet, with still dark, masculine, grand nuances but with a more transparent, sheer curtain as opposed to what was once ultra-ripe fruit, hedonistic & devoutly oaky.  It has finally had the chance to resolve itself to be something of beauty & class rather than just power & flamboyancy.

In each case, thank you Nunzio for your long time mentorship, friendship, brotherhood & your willingness to always share.  I am eternally & deeply thankful….beyond words.



Why do you do Wine Speak?

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The main goal for Wine Speak is how can we affect change?

 Affect change through sharing, camaraderie, talking story & hopefully collaboration moving forward. 

That first year, we had a dream list of 15 people (from the New World) who we felt had something very profound to share.  We were able to get all 15 to come.  While they may have known each other by reputation, they really didn’t know each other well.  Wine Speak was the venue to bring these people together.

It is important that everyone involved believes in the common goal of–“how can we affect change“?

It really starts with the “home” team–co-founder Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (VP of Operations, Ancient Peaks winery) & her whole team.  Amanda is certainly the rock, heart & soul of this event. She is so driven & determined with amazingly all of the honesty, graciousness & intangibles which makes the intent so credible, believable & achievable.  It is clearly understandable why she was deservedly selected as 40 under 40 by the Wine Enthusiast & prominently featured on the cover.  Yes, she is the real deal.

Her team vehemently has the vision, the dedication & will power to make everything happen AND on so many different levels & complete aspects.  They relentlessly persevere & get things done with integrity, grace & very importantly, in a way that makes everyone feel included.  They are like a family & they are so inspiring to watch them pull everything together.  It is NOT just a job or just another event.  Wine Speak resoundingly has meaning for each & one can clearly see & feel that.  I am always so honored & touched to be part of this family.  

I have also been privileged to get to know better every year the owners of Ancient Peaks winery–Rob Rossi, Doug Filipponi & Karl Wittstrom.  (Doug & Karl I would say are proudly real cowboys & could easily be in a group with John Wayne & the like.)  They are salt of the earth, honest men & it is so heart warming to see how they completely embrace this event with all of their resources & at the same time, I can see it in their eyes, that they are learning & growing along with everyone else. 

I should also mention & thank the community & people of the town of Atascadero.  They have warmly welcomed all of us visitors with genuine, wide open arms AND just jumped in to help whenever & wherever they can.  It is always so touching & amazing.  From the Mayor to the City Council to the small businesses, to the hotels to the restaurants to the wineries–I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.  I marvel how what we call in Hawaii the aloha spirit also resides in Atascadero.

I remember that first year, the attendance was way more than we ever anticipated.  The looming question was–where could we now do it?  

Thankfully, the mayor & the City Council allowed us to use their chamber in City Hall to conduct our seminars.  What????  What other city would jump in like that?  Also, that year there were heavy rains AND mud slides which shut down Highway 101 heading south to LA.  So, there were of course emergency meetings, after which the Mayor & City Council would set up our tables, chairs, wine glasses, etc for our seminars the next day!!!!  What????  Exactly my point.  This is a clear example of a community just jumping in to help us create an event & fulfill a dream.  I thank you all so much. 

So, the infrastructure was set & continually evolving, under the watchful eye of event matriarch Amanda Wittstrom Higgins.

What would happen when all of the winemakers/professionals, sommeliers & gang come in to share, get to know each other so we could all better talk story added much dimension to the goal of how can we affect change.

I should mention, it was a thrill to have so many younger, wanting to learn & share sommeliers (headed by Chris Ramelb) & winemakers attending this year. 





And, I was so thankful for all who came & shared their wines.  Most notably Nunzio Alioto, legendary Master Sommelier & my best friend for over 40 years. 






How do we affect change?–

3  or 4 years ago, I remember watching the face of a young, VERY reserved assistant winemaker’s face as he first smelled the 2015 Faury Condrieu (which I had brought).  It stunned him.  You could see it on his face.  The sense of great wonderment on his face heightened with his first taste.  (I was watching from a distance).  It was absolutely blowing his mind.  When I showed him the bottle, he was just shaking his head in disbelief, because he also grew & made Viognier, BUT nothing like this.  One could easily & readily see this wine changed the way he thought.

Fast Forward to 2020.  We brought Lionel Faury to speak.  That assistant winemaker is now a winemaker & I made sure they met & hung out for the 2 days.  I was touched when these two very reserved individuals were hanging out and belly laughing loudly & freely one night.  A dream come true? Yes, certainly for me.

On night 2, my best friend Nunzio Alioto, MS, brought several wines to share with all.  He served the first, 1995 Chave Ermitage “Cuvee Cathelin” to Lionel BLIND.  This wine absolutely stunned him, just as his wine had that young winemaker years ago.  You could see & feel a strong sense of bewilderment & wonderment on his face, even more so when he tasted the wine.

The earth shattering moment continued as Nunzio served Lionel next BLIND the 1989 Gentaz Dervieux Cote Rotie, the single most memorable wine I had ever had.

Both were from his general area & the Gentaz from the same hillside he works.

When he saw the labels, I would say, tasting these two wines were also a dream coming true. for him.  These are 2 of the very most legendary wines of the northern Rhone of all time, at least for true purists like him.  He had not had either before.  It was a grand, game changing moment for me to watch & marvel.

Just in this one vein of people, look how the event affected each of these people.


Yet another example. 

For the first year, since I have helped train flight attendants for Hawaiian Airlines, I asked two of the principals to come to Paso Robles & do a seminar on the Aloha Spirit/hospitality. 

The attendance was 250 AND these 2 ladies killed it. It was truly a chicken skin moment.   I would say 80% of audience were young ladies & one could easily see wonderment on their faces.  I can be like that.  I want to be like that.

Being inspired by all of this, for the second year, we created a panel, which we named “Wine from a different Perspective”.  4 panelists—Meredith May (Publisher/owner The SOMM Journal/Tasting Panel); Jordan Fiorentini (winemaker Epoch); Helen Keplinger (former winemaker of Bryant Family/former Food & Wine magazine “Winemaker of the Year”); Shelley Lindgren (owner/wine director of A16/SPQR both in SF AND former James Beard Wine Professional of the Year).  Moderator—Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (VP Operations Ancient Peaks/ co-founder Wine Speak/ cover of Wine Enthusiast—40 under 40 issue).  ALL very successful women.  I told them they could talk about anything, NOT just about being a female in the business.  For me, having 5 earnest, intelligent, charismatic, hard working, very successful professionals on stage together discussing their professional paths was truly inspiring in itself.   It was sooooo emotional, & people including myself were crying.  OMG.  Jackpot.  It certainly inspired many to the umpteenth degree. 


For 2020, rather than having so many on stage, we decided just to feature just two—Madeline Triffon (Detroit)—6th American to pass the MS, first female American/ 2nd female in the world.  In a totally male dominated fine dining industry, she rose above it all.  Moderator– Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (VP Operations Ancient Peaks/ co-founder Wine Speak/ cover of Wine Enthusiast—40 under 40 issue).    They again had everyone crying, it was again so emotional & impactful. 

ALL three of these addressed the goal of how can we affect change.  AND, they gave each attendee someone or something to aspire to.

Why do I do Wine Speak?  I hope these examples help to answer that very complex question. 

AND, I must honestly say, I was undoubtedly the person most inspired, because of the all of the people who came to share, create camaraderie & looking to create collaboration moving forward.

A special thanks to Cameron Ingalls of Acacia Productions, whose pictures capture those special moments & brought them to life.   

Thank you to all of the sponsors.  I am so touched by each of you for jumping all in to support.  Your actions speak louder than words.

Also, a BIG thank you to all of the wineries who came to share their insights & their wines to all of us is so very much appreciated.  We can make a difference because of your support.  

Much mahalo to you all!


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Wine Speak 2020–a recap

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2020 was the 3rd Year for our Wine Speak event.  With every year, we look to present topics & insights from very different perspectives.  We believe this fosters continual learning & more & more camaraderie, by including new speakers who have something profound to share.  As you will notice, 2020 is still New World centric, but we are segueing to more discussions including terroir rather than only about grape varieties. We therefore also seasoned the list of speakers with some from faraway places such Argentina, Spain & France, just to add further dimensions to the sharing & discussions.  It goes back to our original core value—how can we affect change?

With that thought in mind, here is our list of panels for Wine Speak 2020.  All modesty aside, the 2020 event truly was magical.


“Sense of Place”–with Tegan Passalacqua (Turley) & Laura Catena (Catena, Argentina)

A long time winemaker friend asked us, “when are we going to start discussing “sense of place” rather than grape varieties?”   That was the inspiration for this panel.  And, in this case, rather than do a comparative tasting, we sought to bring in two speakers from very different niches on the subject. 

For example, Turley Wine Cellars from day one specialized in the Zinfandel grape variety & took the perception of what can be with this grape to a whole ‘nother platform.  Today Turley, based out of Paso Robles, features wines grown up & down California without skipping a beat in quality and media prominence.  Under the direction of winemaker Tegan Passalacqua the wines are much more transparent stylistically & seemingly crafted with balance in mind.  We are asking Tegan to come share his insights into what “sense of place” can mean from his perspective.  What a truly fabulous, “complete package” presentation Tegan expertly did.

For a completely different take on our sense of place theme, we will be featuring Laura Catena CEO of our very first Argentinean winery—Bodega Catena Zapata. “ Founded in 1902, Catena is world renowned for its pioneering role in resurrecting the Malbec grape variety and in discovering extreme high altitude terroirs in the Andean foothills of Mendoza.  Although the family has vineyards at different altitudes and aspects, their highly revered, iconic Adrianna Vineyard is their crown jewel.  Located at almost 5,000 feet elevation it has been called the Grand Cru of South America”.  The 2016 Malbec “Adrianna Vineyard River Stones” was rated 100 points by The Wine Advocate.



“Paso Robles Overview” –Moderated by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (co-founder of Wine Speak/ VP of Ancient Peaks) & featuring Jason Haas (Tablas Creek), Jordan Fiorentini (Epoch), Steve Peck (J.Lohr) & Michael Sinor (Ancient Peaks)

We created this opportunity so attendees could learn more about this meteorically rising wine growing appellation.  To add to all of the recent media coverage, we asked moderator Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (co-founder of Wine Speak/ VP of Ancient Peaks Winery) to give us the insider’s scoop using a panel discussion with 4 of the appellations’ top winemakers—Jason Haas (Tablas Creek); Jordan Fiorentini (Epoch); Steve Peck (J Lohr) and Michael Sinor (Ancient Peaks).


Talk Story–with Bruce Neyers “My Wine Yoda

I first met Bruce Neyers back in the 1970’s when he was running the then promising, upstart Joseph Phelps winery in the Napa Valley.  Unlike many of their peers, Phelps continually challenged the norm.   While their Johannisberg Riesling bottlings created quite the revelation back then, it was their 1974 Syrah that was my first experience with a commercial California born Syrah.  In the same vintage they also conceptualized and launched “Insignia”, a premier, soon to be “game changing” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordelaise type grape varieties.  That would be quite a career for most.  In 1992, however, Bruce then took over the National Sales for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants and helped them build one of the real noteworthy, quality driven, iconic wine importers of our time, featuring true artisan, game changers from France and later Italy.  He visited with each of the wine families 2 to 4 times a year, talking story, walking vineyards & tasting their wines with them.  Who better to talk story with to learn from than my wine yoda, Bruce Neyers.


“Talk Story” —with Lionel Faury of Domaine Faury  (northern Rhone Valley, France).

The first 2 years of Wine Speak, we asked a select few New World winemakers to come share their insights, wisdom and experiences, so that we all could learn a thing or two and at the same time foster camaraderie and collaboration moving forward.  For Wine Speak 2020, while still New World centric, we will be seasoning the list of panelists with some from the Old World.  Lionel Faury was our first to confirm and we are thrilled.  This northern Rhone Valley domaine was created in 1979 (with Lionel taking over the reins from his father in 2006) and features wines from mainly the St Joseph, Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie hillsides.  This really is the world’s epicenter for Syrah & Viognier.  I brought bottles of each with me to the past 2 Wine Speak events to share, because of the mesmerizing purity, sense of place & real artisanal winemaking their wines deftly displayed.  Furthermore, wine historians believe Condrieu & Côte-Rôtie were first planted by the Romans, so there is a strong sense of place & history in their vineyards.  This domaine therefore approaches their craft with much respect and” a real attention to detail, with nothing done in haste.  Every method used encourages the grape towards greatness with the ultimate respect for its fragility” and terroir”.   I found this vigneron to be truly humble & down to earth.  It was quite a special moment watching his face as he tasted the 1995 Chave Ermitage “Cuvee Cathelin” AND the 1989 Gentaz Dervieux Côte-Rôtie .


Dream Big Darling“Wine from a Different Perspective”–with Madeline Triffon, Master Sommelier & moderated by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (co-founder of Wine Speak/ VP of Ancient Peaks) 

Dream Big Darling is really about inspiring others.  We therefore spend quite a bit of time finding professionals who will inspire.  In the world of sommeliers, one of the truly inspirational “Hall of Fame” icons is Madeline Triffon of Southgate, Michigan.  She passed the rigorous Master Sommelier exam in 1987, becoming the first female American Master.  She persevered through all of the challenges and rose to the very  top of the profession through her hard work, true graciousness and genuine hospitality.  She is and has been a TRUE inspiration to me and I only hope you take the opportunity to hear the insights, wisdom and experiences from this legend which I believe will greatly inspire & help you moving forward.  There was real magic in the air for this panel.


Inside/Outside—“Crazy Red Blends” –with Stephan Asseo (L’Aventure, Paso Robles, California) & Emmanuel Kemiji, Master Sommelier (Clos Pissarra, Priorat, Spain)

My first really eye opening experiences with “Crazy Red Blends’ started with the 1978 Mas de Daumas Gassac, the 1977 Domaine de Trévallon and later the 1992 Grange des Pères, all from southern France.  (Because Trévallon’s red was typically an unusual blend of 50% Cabernet and 50% Syrah, it had to be labeled as Vin de Pays back then.  That’s how avant garde his concept was at the time).  Still in all 3 cases each vigneron had a clear vision what their wine was to be.  Each wine was therefore an orchestra of their terroir rather than just a horn section.  We continue these discussions with two modern day vignerons—Stephan Asseo from Paso Robles & long time Master Sommelier, Emanuel Kemiji & his Clos Pissarra wines from Priorat, Spain.  2 very different terroirs and 2 very different visions on what their wines can be.  This seminar will hopefully be as crazy as their blends—crazy good that is!  Come on, let’s talk story!  As one young, aspiring sommelier noted–“how special it was to watch these two become fast friends right before our eyes“.


Inside/Outside—“Cabernet Sauvignon”–with Thomas Brown (Rivers Marie, Napa Valley) &  Fred Dame Master Sommelier (Daou, Paso Robles) 

We continue the discussions of this king of grapes with two leaders of what this grape variety can be in California.  Thomas Brown is a bonafide winemaking superstar, based in the Napa Valley with many wine projects such as Schrader and his own label Rivers Marie.  Fred Dame is one of the most iconic Master Sommeliers in the world & has now joined the Paso Robles power house, Daou, who not only created Daou Mountain and subsequently a whole slew of highly acclaimed Cabernet wines, but in doing so is also bringing Paso Robles onto the world class stage for this grape variety.


Inside/Outside “From a Wine Journalist’s Point of View”–with Matt Kettmann (Wine Enthusiast) & Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal). Moderated by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins ( co-founder Wine Speak/ VP of Ancient Peaks)

Here is an opportunity to taste and learn about wines from a very different perspective. I frequently taste with winemakers, sommeliers & other wine professionals, but rarely do I have the opportunity to taste wines with journalists. For this panel we will taste some wines with two of the very best in the wine media field.  It truly was quite interesting to say the least & I really adored the great synergy this two beamed & the fabulous insights into their expertise.


“Wine & Food Workshop”–with Randy Caparoso (Editor at Large, The SOMM Journal) 

Pairing wines & food is undoubtedly an art.  One of the big questions in the wine field is how do we nurture & provide insight for sommeliers & wine professionals on this art?  For Wine Speak 2019, we featured a Paso Robles paired luncheon with a local star chef, a journalist & superstar Master Sommelier Fred Dame color commentating.  To take the concept a step further we created this workshop, which will be led by Randy Caparoso, Editor at Large of The SOMM Journal.  Earlier in his career Randy was one of the founding Managing Partners of Roy’s restaurants. This group was an epicenter of some of the most progressive & imaginative wine and wine & food programs in the country, if not the world.  NO overstatement here.  We therefore asked Randy to help lead us through this much needed workshop & share his insights, knowledge & expertise at this art.  He truly has a gift & I really think he will inspire all those who attend, just as he has inspired me for all of these years.  Local Chef Jeffery Scott will prepare two dishes. Each dish will be paired with 2 different Paso Robles wines. The wines featured are as follows: Caliza Kissin’ Cousins, Alta Colina Sun Worshipper, Ancient Peaks Renegade, and Adelaida Viking Cabernet Sauvignon.  The outcome of this session will be to showcase the different ways that wines can enhance foods.


“Talk Story” on Blind Tasting”–with 3 long time, legendary Master Sommeliers—(in alphabetical order by last name)–Nunzio Alioto, Fred Dame & Madeline Triffon

When speaking to an Exam candidate recently, we asked what kind of wine should be served for their upcoming BLIND tasting.  He replied—it should be solid, well made & “true to type”.  If that is true & “fair” for the exam, shouldn’t that also be the kind of wines we seek out for our winelists?  While winetasting can be very subjective, the question then would be how do we determine as professionals/wine buyers what is “good” wine—good enough for a blind tasting and good enough for our winelists.  We have asked 3 truly iconic, legendary Master Sommeliers to help lead us through a tasting of 3 wines & provide their insights & wisdom in the selection process.   (Yes, this would be a very different methodology than tasting for the Masters.)


“Talk Story” on Hospitality–with 3 long time, legendary Master Sommeliers—(in alphabetical order by last name)–Nunzio Alioto, Fred Dame & Madeline Triffon

We therefore created this Sommelier Round Table—talking story with some of the very best—to share some of their personal, stellar hospitality experiences….also ask the audience to chime in with some memorable hospitality experiences.  Hospitality, after all, is one of the keys to excellent service, whether you work at a restaurant, winery or hotel. 

Thank you to all of you.  These were truly 3 amazing, unforgettable days of sharing, camaraderie & talking story, which will help our industry & community move forward!!!!!

Yup.  It was that time of the year again.  It snuck up on me way too quickly.


A group of us caught the red eye (Hawaiian Airlines) leaving Honolulu on Saturday, January 11th, arriving into Los Angeles around 5:00am Sunday morning.

We then did the 3 1/2 hour drive up to Atascadero & our hotel–The Carlton.

After checking in & dropping of our bags off we went to see some vineyards.

We started of at Caliza to see Carl Bowker.  Carl is such a nice guy (with Hawaii roots) & I really wanted to walk his vineyard with him & taste some of is newly or soon to be released wines.  (I am sorry to say, I don’t know what happened to all of the pictures I took during our visit).  I will say, as I had remarked to Carl that day, this was the best line-up of wines I have tasted from Caliza & we will certainly keep an eye out moving forward on what they are doing, that’s for sure.

We then took the gang right next door to Booker.  (Again, for some unexplainable reason, I cannot find the pictures of that visit either).  Many of the young sommeliers/wine professionals traveling with us, had not been to either Caliza or Booker, so it was quite the treat to see, walk the vineyards & taste each of their wines.

We then drove to Turley down the road, just to show them their vineyards as well.

Our final stop was to Linne Calodo.  Although we did not walk any of their vineyards, we did taste several of their wines AND, I wanted to make sure they took a look at the winery–with its many sizes/types/shapes of concrete vessels & oak barrels/foudres/large format.

I was hoping each of these stops would create vivid memories/pictures for each moving forward.

After a quick stop to the hotel to freshen up, we then went to dinner at a terrific “new” restaurant in Paso Robles, named Les Petites Canailles.  The food was really good….in fact some of the best I had eaten in the area over the 26 plus years of visiting the appellation.  I wholeheartedly encourage visitors to check the place out!



More & more of the event SOMM team had arrived.  It was great to see & meet all of the members.

from left to right–Ivy Nagayama (Corporate Director of Operations, DK Restaurants); Emily Edeen (sommelier, Canlis Restaurant); Matthew Dulle (Beverage Director, Lazy Bear); Madeline Triffon, MS; Chris Ramelb (Director of Fine Wine, SGWS Hawaii); Zack Musick (Corporate Director of Wines, Merriman’s Restaurants); my wife Cheryle Furuya & Sara Villers (General Manager, Sansei Waikiki).  Others joined in throughout the day.

In addition, Nunzio Alioto, a legendary, long time Master Sommeliers later joined us for the day of touring vineyards, along with Rafael Santos (sommelier, Acquarello), Taro Kurobe (Wine Director, Hy’s Steak House); Sang Hyun Mun (Wine Director, The Pacific Club) & Ariana Tsuchiya (Beverage Director, Royal Hawaiian Hotel).  

Our first stop of the morning was to Epoch’s Paderewski Vineyard with winemaker Jordan Fiorentini & vineyard manager Kyle Gingras.   








Epoch’s original consultant Justin Smith had taken me out to the vineyard before & as it was being planted to check it out.  (Check out the slant/grain of their bedrock.  It allows for the roots to burrow down easier in search for nutrients & water & drainage–some of the insights Justin showed before they started planting).   It is amazing now to see it all come to fruition.  It really is one of the special vineyard sites of the whole region.  AND, what a winemaking dynamo Jordan Fiorentini truly is.  It makes it easy to understand why this is a top level wine project.  Epoch & epic.



When jumped in the van & headed to see Daou, just to give the group a “look” at Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordelais planted vineyards… Adelaida District.  The view from the 1900 or so foot elevation tasting room was truly magnificent & the tasting room itself was quite THE hospitality venue to say the least.



As we drove to our next stop, since we were in the Adelaida district, we just had to also make a quick stop to Adelaida Vineyards & Winery to see our long time wine friend Paul Sowerby & a quick look at their estate vineyards, also reputed to be some of the highest in the Paso Robles appellation.  (They too had acquired a large part of the HMR estate).  Spectacular views & a chance to catch up to their wonderful wines.  Definitely a worthwhile stop!





Our next stop was to James Berry Vineyard/Saxum to meet Justin Smith.  I have quite a surprisingly long friendship with Justin & I am thankful & truly grateful it has endured all of these years.  he has graciously provided me with so many insider’s insights, knowledge & information into the unfolding Paso Robles appellation that I would not have otherwise been able to get on my own. 














What an amazing two days!  Thank you to all!

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An Interview with Emmanuel Kemiji MS

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Here is an interview we did with long time Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji for Wine Speak 2020.

Emmanuel Kemiji M.S. hits the trifecta when it comes to wine: master sommelier, winemaker and winery owner.

We are thrilled to welcome him to Wine Speak 2020, where he will co-host our panel discussion on “Crazy Red Blends.” You will also experience his wines at our Wines of The World and BYOB Dinner events.

Born in the United States and raised in Spain and England, Emmanuel is a graduate of the University of California at Davis. In addition to his Economics and Spanish Literature degrees, he studied Viticulture and Oenology, expanding his interest in wine and eventually leading to the formation of Miura Vineyards in 1995. Soon to follow were Almvs in 2000, Antiqv2s in 2001, and two projects in Spain – Arrels in 2003 and Clos Pissarra in 2005.

Emmanuel acted as The Ritz-Carlton Director of Wine & Spirits from 1988 to 1999, first at Laguna Niguel and then at the renowned The Dining Room in San Francisco. In 1989 Emmanuel became the twelfth American to pass the Master Sommelier exam in London, England and one of only 10 to date to pass on his first attempt.

Wine Speak co-founder and master sommelier Chuck Furuya recently caught up with Emmanuel to talk about his journey and about what wines have made their mark on him along the way:

 What made you get into the wine business?

It was my uncle in Madrid (who is like a second father) and a wine fan with a nice cellar who introduced me to wine during the summer of my sophomore year in college. When I got back to start junior year, by fortuitous coincidence, I happened to be going to U.C. Davis. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a fermentation science department previously!

How did life change for you after getting the MS pin?
It opened up a host of opportunities starting at the very place I worked—The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. I got a call from the corporate food & beverage director who wanted me to assist him in selecting the Ritz-Carlton house wines and embark on a host of other projects for the company. I became the go-to wine person for the Ritz-Carlton, which expanded into many other opportunities including starting up my own winery.

How are you able to find balance in managing everything?
Mostly because I have a lot of other interests that have nothing to do with wine: scuba diving, golf, stamp collecting, art, antique royal documents…

We are so excited and thankful that you will be sharing your wines and insights on your Clos Pissarra project in Spain.  What drove you to take that on, in addition to all that you do in California?
After I got Miura going in California, I wanted to do a project in Spain to honor my heritage and my uncle.

What is Priorat at its best?
A bold wine that speaks of a singular place.

What is Montsant at its best?
A more modern version of the above at a more reasonable price.

What California wines have you tasted over the years that were truly memorable and why?

Stony Hill Chardonnay for its incredible longevity. Louis Martini Cabernets from the 1960s for how well balanced they were.

Which Spanish wine and why?

Vega Sicilia for its complexity and uniqueness.

How about a few wines from throughout the world and why?

Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Barolo because wines aren’t made like that anymore. The Burgundies of Henri Jayer for how beautiful and profound they are. The Pouilly Fumes of Didier Dagueneau for their sense of place.

Lastly, what sommeliers have been inspiring to you and why?
Fred Dame for everything he has done for all master sommeliers. Rene Chazottes, because the old French guy taught me all about service.

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Here is an interview we did with Jordan Fiorentini for Wine Speak 2020.

Jordan Fiorentini is the winemaker extraordinaire for Epoch Estate Wines in Paso Robles —and she was also part of one of Wine Speak’s most defining moments, as you will see in the following interview.

Passionate, dedicated and not afraid to push the envelope, Jordan brings an enthusiastic and experienced spirit to Epoch Estate Wines. Her palate is the kind wine lovers dream of and one that speaks to Jordan through shapes—having an artistic side, Jordan now draws her tasting notes in addition to writing about each wine. Under her direction, Epoch Estate Wines has produced some of the most revered wines in Paso Robles.

Jordan holds an engineering degree from Dartmouth College and a masters degree in viticulture from UC Davis. Jordan earned her spurs working at her family’s winery in Georgia, Araujo Estate in Napa Valley, Antinori Winery in Italy, and as head winemaker at Chalk Hill in Sonoma.

Wine Speak co-founder and master sommelier Chuck Furuya recently caught up with Jordan to talk her experience at Wine Speak; her winemaking inspirations; and how she aims to keep it all in balance:

In 2019, Wine Speak featured a panel—“Wine from a different perspective”—featuring five top female wine professionals, and you were one of the panelists. Many, many participants have said it was so powerful and drew a lot of emotion out.  What made this happen?

It was a magical group of wine professionals – all with different panels. I think what made it so special was that Amanda, the moderator, started with a personal story about herself and her path in the wine industry, which made all the panelists feel like sharing about themselves. Amanda had asked us to share our stories. I also feel that the audience’s interested, smiling faces, and great engaged questions made the panel so meaningful. There was an energy that kept building with every question they had.

What was it like being a part of that?

I felt so humbled to be among a group of such accomplished, professional women in the wine industry. It showed me and hopefully everyone in the crowd that there’s not one recipe for success or becoming someone in the wine industry.

What will you take away from that experience?
I can still reflect on it now, and I am still wowed when I hear people mention the panel. I actually received several thank you notes from people in attendance who were moved by our stories. Now that doesn’t happen every day!

How do you keep it all managed/balanced—work, personal and family?

That’s a great question – do I keep a balance? It’s actually the eternal question, one I work on every day. Some days I feel I do and some days I feel I don’t. The key is having a great relationship with everyone at work so we all support each other and it’s the same at home.

Over the years who are some of the winemakers who have inspired you and why?

I gather inspiration from tasting people’s wines, hearing their stories and, most poignantly, from working or spending time with other winemakers. My first inspirations were the first winemakers I ever worked for, who continue to inspire me today: Michael Beaulac, Kim Nicholls and Franciose Pechon. They were the winemakers I worked for my first couple harvests I was in Napa. Then there is Steve Leveque from Hall (formerly Chalk Hill) who really taught me how to blend and make winemaking decisions in the vineyards and winery. More recently, I’ve traveled and been exposed to many Rhône winemakers, such as Ann Charlotte Bachas from Domaine della Font du Loup and Sara Perez from Mas Martinet, who are very different but leading the charge in their respective places.  Winemakers locally who help guide me through harvests, and who inspire and support me, are Vailia Esh of Desparada and Anthony Yount from Denner. There are others, too, but I talk to those two the most.

What were some “aha” moment wines for you and why?

In 2010, when visiting Paso to determine whether or not I wanted to move and work here, I tried L’Aventure’s 2007 Cote a Cote and thought it was so exciting with flavors I hadn’t experienced before. That wine helped me make the decision to move here. I have many other transcendent moments with wine, but the one described above actually helped me make a life decision!

What was an “aha” wine and food moment for you and why?

Randy Caparoso’s pairing of our 2017 Epoch White as the main course after several reds with an incredible duck pasta dish by Sean from the Range—this was at the last Wine Speak!

What advice would you give to your younger self?

That there isn’t one recipe to be successful in the wine industry. Now that I look back and see so many successful winemakers that came from different backgrounds, different approaches, I realize this industry is even more creative than I originally thought (and I got into it because I wanted a field that allowed creativity!).

What is it about Paso Robles that really intrigues you as a winemaker?

The community and sense that we’re in this together in winemaking and grape growing. Because you feel others have your back, you’re more willing to research, explore, take chances. And then you’ve got an audience to share those experiences with. It’s truly one of a kind.

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New on the Tablas Creek Blog: An Interview with Wine Speak Co-Founders Chuck Furuya, MS and Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins

We are blessed in the Paso Robles area with a remarkable number of world-class wine events. In addition to the three annual events put on by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, we’ve been the home to Hospice du Rhone for two decades. WiVi has in the past five years become the state’s second-largest trade show. And in the last three years, we’ve seen another amazing event come to our region. Wine Speak is a bit of a different take on a wine event, equal parts industry education and public showcase, celebration of the region and invitation to the world.

With the 2020 event just one week away, I had the chance to sit down with the event’s two founders. Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins is VP of Operations at Ancient Peaks Winery, as well as co-founder of Dream Big Darling, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the success of women in the wine and spirits industry. She recently appeared on the cover of Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40” issue. Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya was just the tenth American to pass the Master Sommelier exam, in 1988. He is a partner in and wine director for D.K. Restaurant Group, is a former Chairman of Education for the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and writes a monthly wine column for the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

How did the two of you come to work together on this?

  • Amanda: In 2017 we were having a conversation about hospitality and the advancement of offering world class service.  Chuck is a big fan of Paso Robles (and many other places) so I asked if during one of his upcoming visits he could dedicate some time to sharing his wisdom with our local wine community.  Hawaii is after all a culture built on hospitality and tourism.  I would never imagine that this one small conversation could lead to so many incredible opportunities for our industry and community.
  • Chuck: From my point of view, I recall Amanda asking me to come to a talk/training on wines for a few people. I then asked can we do more? She said like what? I don’t think she realized what she was getting herself into. From that came Wine Speak!

What was the genesis of the idea behind Wine Speak?

  • Amanda: The idea was and still is to elevate our entire wine community by collaborating and sharing.  There is great power in joining forces and teaching the next generation.  We want to see the industry grow and flourish and to create a stage for producers and personalities who have something tremendous to
  • Chuck: Since I had been working with Amanda on a couple of projects previously, I kind of along the way understood that she would be key to the unfolding of the Paso Appellation. She has an innate gift of charm and is very articulate and really good at problem solving. I also think she has a lot of integrity and is very honest. In Hawaii, if it was not 12 chefs on all the islands, Hawaii regional cuisine never would’ve happened in my opinion   Because it was 12 chefs, it created synergy, camaraderie…… It really was a movement. That is what changed Hawaii culinarily. I believe in each wine region of the world needs a band of like minded winemakers that can create change.  Take for example, the gang of four in Morgon, Beaujolais. So with that in mind, Amanda would be the foundation in Paso, and I would look to source and invite winemakers/professionals from various parts of the New World — both inside & outside expertise — looking to share, talk story and learn. This would also bring new faces to the Paso Robles wine region to experience the climate, the soils, the wines and most importantly the people.

For you, what was the highlight of years 1 and 2?

  • Amanda: The highlight of year one was developing the confidence in our concept and seeing the profound need in our community.  Year two was magnificent, we partnered with a new non profit, Dream Big Darling, and offered scholarships to up and coming sommelier’s from around the country.  These young people have become ambassadors for not so many producers they met over the course of the experience.  Watching them light up and discover something new was magnificent.
  • Chuck: For me, year one — it was seeing Justin Smith of Saxum hanging out for two or three days with Adam Tolmach of Ojai. Two different growing regions, two different generations and two different winemaking approaches getting to know each other, hanging out and talking story. I thought that was magic and it made me proud. For year two — it was watching an assistant winemaker taste the 2015 Faury Condrieu and seeing that candid sense of wonderment on his face as he switched and switched the wine in his mouth. Seeing the lightbulb go on was something that really affected me.

What new things are in store for 2020?

  • Amanda: 2020 offers a more global perspective and we are excited to host producers from Spain, France and Argentina.  We also enriched our “Grand Tasting” event to include producers from around the globe.  We wanted to make sure that all events were dynamic for our local wine community.  Being from a rural area, many people drink wines they make. However, in order to really stretch and grow we need to expose ourselves to new concepts and ways of thinking.
  • Chuck: First of all, this is the first year that we will be including people from faraway places such as Spain, Argentina and France. It was previously New World-centric. We believe this will add new dimension to insights, the questions, and discussions. Secondly, rather than having panels of two or three all of the time on specifically three of the panels we look to do mano a mano — specifically with three wine Yodas: Bruce Neyers, long time master Madeline Triffon, and Lionel Faury from Cote Rotie. These three may not be commonplace names which many are familiar with. But for me they are three of the most incredible wine minds I have run across in my 40+ years of doing wines. For example, Madeline was the sixth American to pass the master sommelier examination. She was the first American woman. She was the second woman in the world. I believe that is saying a lot and will hopefully inspire young professionals that attend, whether they are female or male. She is the consummate professional and rose to the top of her field despite all of the challenges. She doesn’t typically do on stage interviews like this, but I think we all agree it is an important time for industry to have some of the long-timers with wisdom come and share their thoughts insights and experiences, so that we can all remember what the craft is.

What makes Wine Speak unique as a wine event?

  • Amanda: Wine Speak sets itself apart from other wine events in a number of ways.  For one, it’s small, there is enormous access to speakers, panelists and guest interaction.  In addition there aren’t many other events that are engaging; winemakers, distributors, growers, and trade.  We bring several parts of the industry together for a time of learning, and not just about one segment of the business.
  • Chuck: Back in the 1970s, I remember tasting a wine from Cote Rotie and wondering how the heck can man and God create a wine that’s beyond grapes, oak barrels or winemaking? And if that is true, why can’t we do this in the New World? I believe that through sharing insights, wisdom and experiences we can make a difference. So for the first year we had two Syrah panels. One was entitled “New World Syrah” and featured Bruce Neyers, Andy Peay (Sonoma Coast), Serge Carlei from Australia and Greg Harrington MS from Washington state. And the other was entitled “Central Coast Syrah” featuring Justin Smith (Paso Robles), Matt Dees (Jonata, Ballard Canyon) & Adam Tolmach (Ojai, Santa Maria Valley). It offered quite a scope of what Syrah can be. Year two featured Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Pax Mahle of Pax/Windgap Wines and Jason Drew of Drew Wines (Mendocino Ridge). For 2020, we are taking a whole new approach to Syrah and featuring Lionel Faury from the Rhône Valley of France. So that is a eleven very different perspectives on what the Syrah grape variety can be from eleven very well respected winemakers and from very different places!

If there was one thing that you hope people get out of coming to the event, what would it be?

  • Amanda: New ideas and friendships.  In life, ideas and friends are the most valuable assets.
  • Chuck: A few years back, when I was inducted to the Hawaii Restaurant Association Hall of Fame, it made me think of all of the people who have touched my life to allowing me to be where I am today. In almost all of the cases, they showed me a box. Then they said, “Chuck, look inside the box”. After that they then asked imagine the possibilities. That is what I’m hoping Wine Speak can offer. To make people think differently. How can we effect change. How can we nurture sharing, camaraderie and collaboration so that we can move forward and make a difference.

Do you have dreams for future Wine Speak events?

  • Amanda: It’s hard to think about that right now.  As long as there is a need we hope to continue to bring forth an event that helps move our industry forward.
  • Chuck: Right now, we are focused on getting this one up and running in the next two weeks. Every year, we typically wait a couple of months before deciding if we are going to do another. Having said that, of course I have already have some ideas.

Chuck, what was your “a ha” moment that got you excited about Paso Robles?

  • It was a 1988 Cabernet-based red I tasted in San Francisco at a tasting. To me the wine had much more than fruit. It had an underlying minerality that was captivating. I knew then that I had to go see the vineyard.

Amanda, what’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you as a result of being named to (or on the cover of) Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 under 40” list?

  • Being named as 40 under 40 and making the cover was really special to me.  It’s incredible that the publication noticed our collective work and choose to highlight it, I am forever grateful and humbled by my team and community which makes it all possible.  I’m blessed to be 4th generation in the Paso Robles region and cattle rancher, I’m glad to carry the spirit of our history with my rope and boots in the picture.

What’s your favorite under-the-radar fact about Paso Robles or the Central Coast?

  • Amanda: The spirit of rugged terrain, a story of the land and people that is still being written, and a community that stands together.
  • Chuck: The soils AND the people/community!

Although many of the seminars are sold out, there are still tickets available to the Wines of the World Grand Tasting and some of the industry events. If you haven’t checked out this event, you really owe it to yourself to do so. If you attend, I’ll see you there, since I’ll be speaking on one of the panels this year, as well as pouring wines at the Grand Tasting!



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Here is an interview we did with legendary Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon for Wine Speak 2020.

Madeline Triffon is a legend in the world of Master Sommeliers and an icon in the field of skilled wine service.


We are blessed to have Madeline join Wine Speak 2020 and helm our seminar titled “Dream Big—Wine from A Different Perspective.”

Dream Big Darling is really about inspiring others.  We therefore spend quite a bit of time finding professionals who will inspire.  In the world of sommeliers, one of the truly inspirational “Hall of Fame” icons is Madeline Triffon of Southgate, Michigan.  She passed the rigorous Master Sommelier exam in 1987, becoming the first female American Master (and becoming only the second female Master Sommelier in the world).  She persevered through all of the challenges (especially in a then very male dominated fine dining industry) and rose to the very  top of the profession through her hard work, true graciousness and genuine hospitality.  She is and has been a TRUE inspiration & exemplary to the profession and I only hope you take the opportunity to hear the insights, wisdom and experiences from this legend which I believe will greatly inspire & help you moving forward.

Wine Speak co-founder and Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya recently caught up with her to talk about her journey—and what inspires her most:

What was it about wine that first attracted you?  It didn’t!  I was hired as a sommelier in a French dining room because I had a good French accent, and I did the best I could to educate myself with the resources available to me so I could do a credible job.

Can you please name a couple of people in wine who truly inspired you over the years and why?

Zelma Long and Jean-Pierre Moueix. I heard both of them speak, Zelma to a small room of trade people and Mr. Moueix at an early Wine Experience, to hundreds. They both did an extraordinary thing:  they touched everyone in the room and covered their subject, using inclusive simple language. Wow.

Professionally what advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t worry so much! Do your very best, and let it go, sleep peacefully. Don’t be quite so hard on yourself.

What values are important in our industry that need to be discussed more?

The joy of hard work, and how fulfilling service is! A lot of people speak “service”, and yet how often do you experience active eye contact and a responsive (not reactive) culture in restaurants? I see it more in humble places.

What Californian wines have you tasted over the years that were truly memorable and why?

  • Ridge Monte Bello at a vertical blind tasting against/with Chateau Latour. The winemaker and Robert Parker couldn’t pick them out 100%
  • Ramey Chardonnay, and hearing David Ramey speak at length to the subject of making Chardonnay, in the early days of Ramey Cellars.
  • Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet, 1984, 85, 86, 87.  Stunning fruit.

What were a few wines from throughout the world and why?

  • Recently, Il Palazzino Chianti Classico Riserva – perfect balance. This wine hides in plain sight.
  • Mt. Etna Rosso and Bianco, various cuvees – thrilled at the prospect of watching Nerello Mascalese and Carricante flower in the years to come
  • Prager Riesling, more than one cuvee – the nose alone was a revelation of Austrian Riesling.
  • Dominique Lafon’s wine in the Maconnais – the mouthfeel is satin.

Lastly, what sommeliers have been inspiring to you and why? 

The colleagues I grew up with in the business – at the risk of forgetting someone, Claudia Tyagi, Evan Goldstein, Fran Kysela, Nunzio Alioto, Chuck Furuya, Tim Gaiser, Wayne Belding, Peter Granoff, Sally Mohr, Larry Stone, Brian Julyan – all master sommeliers today. What touches me deeply is how very different we all were and are, and how honest we were with each other in serving the same purposes. They taught me how ego can be parked in the interest of the greater good.

And, great servers have always inspired me! I learned service working alongside terrific career service professionals, wine was just my specific specialty in the dining room. I love recognizing a great server, just experienced one at a new Detroit restaurant. Her decisions and actions were based on the pure intent of exceeding my expectations and making me happy and comfortable. Bliss.

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An Interview with Nunzio Alioto MS

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Here is an interview we did with legendary Master Sommelier Nunzio Alioto for Wine Speak 2020.

Nunzio has been like an older brother to me & by far, my biggest, most influential mentor.  I am so fortunate to have a life long friend like him.

Indeed, as a boy he helped out at his family’s Alioto’s Restaurant, a San Francisco landmark on Fisherman’s Wharf specializing in fresh seafood and Sicilian family recipes. Nunzio attended cooking schools both in the U.S. & in Lausanne, Switzerland and did apprenticeship stages in the kitchens of several esteemed restaurants including the Iron Horse, Ernie’s (both formerly top, fine dining restaurants in San Francisco) & Jacques Pic (a Michelin 3 star restaurant in Valence, France).   He then became the fourth generation of the Alioto family, to run Alioto’s, one of San Francisco’s oldest family-owned restaurant, until his retirement a couple of years ago.

But Nunzio’s fascination with food and wine did not stop with  his schooling & the family business. At an early age he was already traveling to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Alsace, Italy & Germany & was therefore quite versed in each.  Furthermore, living in San Francisco, Nunzio was also very well informed & thoroughly first hand knowledgeable from his continuous visits to the blossoming Sonoma & Napa wine country back in the 1960’s/70’s until even today.

His curiosity, fascination and talent with wine led him to become a Master Sommelier in 1987.

In addition, Nunzio is a former, long time Chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers–worldwide & was so very instrumental in bringing the program to the prominence it has today.

Nunzio has been a key contributor to Wine Speak since day one. Wine Speak co-founder and Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya recently caught up with him to talk about his journey—and about the wines and people who have inspired him along the way.

What was it about wine which first attracted you?

As I was born into the restaurant business, it was a natural attraction.

What drew you to the wines of the Rhône Valley, Italy, Germany and California in the old days, before it all was fashionable?

Our family restaurant is located in Northern California, and Napa and Sonoma were areas our family visited regularly. Also, Larry Romano, a San Francisco-based wine importer, was a major influence on me. We purchased many of his wine selections which were from around the world.  Because of Larry Romano I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Alexis Lichine, as Mr. Romano imported wine selections from him. It was these two gentlemen who drew me to these winegrowing regions. Larry Romano also distributed the Robert Mondavi wines in the very early years.

Can you please name a couple of people in wine who truly inspired you over the years and why?

Mr. Lichine, owner of Chateaux Prieure-Lichine, Bordeaux France, and author of the iconic Encyclopedia of Wine)—his general knowledge of French wines, in particular Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Remi Krug, of Champagne Krug—Remi’s attention to quality.

Gunter Künstler, Owner of Franz Künstler wines of Germany—His thoughtfulness and his attention to his soils and how they translate into wine.

Dr. Becker of Geisenheim in the Rheingau—His research into clones and rootstock was unparalleled and invigorating.

Chuck Furuya—for his relentless pursuit of knowledge. Keeps the fire burning in me.

Professionally. what advice would you give your younger self?

To immerse myself in Old World wines. In my estimation, that is the basis of understanding wine.

What California wines have you tasted over the years that were truly memorable and why?

1951 BV PR Cabernet: beautiful bouquet and balance

1968 BV PR Cabernet: intense flavor and a long finish

1975 Ridge Montebello Cabernet: intensity and great balance

1972 Mayacamas Chardonnay: Burgundian in style, a wine that opened my eyes to how good Chardonnay can be from here

Ojai Bien Nacido Chardonnay: Balanced and excellent winemaking

ABC Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir: floral notes and great balance

What were a few memorable wines from throughout the world and why?

1978 Romanee-Conti: Perfume, silky, incredible balance, Breed and finesse

2000 Richebourg, DRC: outstanding finesse and balance incredible floral flavors

1990 Echezeaux, Henri Jayer: Explosive flavors of red fruits, perfume, balance of layers of complex flavors

1994 Domaine Tempier, “Cabassaou”: elegant, bouquet of flavors, balanced with a long finish, savory

1998 Hermitage, Chave “Cathelin”: power and explosive, spice, rustic, incredible bouquet and balanced

1989 Cote Rotie, Marius Gentaz-Dervieux “Cote Brune”: outstanding flavors of spice, earth, bouquet and balance, wow

1989 Montrachet, DRC: power and finesse, explosive

1968 Vega Sicilia UNICO: Tempranillo at its best, intense, rich, balanced with a great depth of complex flavors

1979 Brauneburger-Juffer Sonnenuhr, GK Auslese, Fritz Haag: bouquet, incredible spice, balance of fruit, sugar and acid

1983 Scharzhofberger Trockenbeerenauslese, Egon Muller: an incredible mind-boggling wine with intensity of mature flavors and a crisp acid balance for such an intense wine

Lastly, what sommeliers have been inspiring to you and why?

Brian Julyan (England): His dedication to wine service

Serge Dubs (Alsace, France): the ultimate sommelier, panache, style

Fred Dame (USA): his willingness to mentor

Gerard Basset (England, now deceased): A true gentleman of our profession

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