Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
If you have been to a consumer wine tasting, you know the drill.A panel of winemakers, or winery representatives, is seated on a dais at the front of a room facing tasters who sit side by side at tables, much as students would face teachers in a classroom. In front of each taster there are, say, six glasses of wine filled just so, so that the attendees can get a mouthful or three as the winemakers talk about their wines.It is very professional, very traditional, and, unfortunately, somewhat impersonal. The format feels more like a lecture than a place where attendees can make personal connections with winemakers. So when the drill was tweaked a bit at a Chardonnay tasting last week at the Taste of Vail (a terrific winter companion to our Food & Wine Classic in June), it was a revelation. In a system modeled after Speed Dating, the organizers set up six tables and poured six wines for a dozen people at each. Then, rather than segregate the six winemakers on a dais, they seated one at each table where they sat for 12 minutes discussing their wine. At the close of each 12-minute period a bell rang, the winemaker got up, said thank you, and moved to the next table. This went on until each of the six tables had hosted all six of the winemakers.Simple.But the difference this change made was monumental. The tasting was perhaps the most enjoyable I have ever attended as the group dynamics changed dramatically for both the winemakers and the tasters. Both were forced no, allowed to personally engage with each other. If not exactly on a one-to-one basis, then pretty darn close.It must be noted that this was an extraordinary Chardonnay tasting. There was a 2005 HdV Hyde Vineyard Napa Carneros, made by the young Burgundy-bred but Napa-polished Stephan Vivier, who discussed his quest to make great California wines using Burgundian techniques.Greg LaFollette, a world-class winemaker and consultant who built Flowers and Hartford Court into names that define great Chardonnay, poured his own 2006 Tandem Manchester Ridge, Mendocino Chardonnay. While he spoke with enthusiasm about his vineyard, high on a ridge north of the Sonoma chard sweet spot and just over a hill from the mighty Pacific, the tone turned emotional when he confided that the only reason he can travel the world and make great wines is because of the sacrifices his wife and six children make as a winemakers family.The only French wine poured was a 2006 la Tour Les Charmes Mersault, which was presented by La Tours North American President Bernard Retornaz, who sheepishly admitted that he comes to Taste of Vail every year because he loves the snow. While Retornaz offered an overview of Burgundian wine law and a geographic perspective, his pride was palpable when he discussed the terroir of his homeland. Our wines are different because of the soil, he declared. You can grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir elsewhere and make very good wines, but only Burgundy has our soil.Gary Brookman was equally passionate about his use of wild yeast in the 2006 Miner Wild Yeast Napa Chardonnay. As was Donald Patz in discussing a single vineyard 2006 Patz and Hall Zio Tony Ranch Russian River Chardonnay. Sourced from the famed Martinelli Ranch in Sonoma County, he described the wine as his Grand Cru. And, as we tasted the 2006 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, Cameron Frey spoke with conviction of his desire to let a wine be representative of a vineyard and not getting in the way as a winemaker.In the 12 minutes spent with these guys I learned something from each. But more importantly, I put a face, a philosophy, and a personality together with the bottles that were in front of me. I will look at the Miner wines differently because I have seen Gary Brookman talk about his ideas about wild yeast. I will seek out the wines that Greg LaFollete makes and remember his familys contributions. And I will follow the progress of the young Stephan Vivier. All because I made a personal connection to each of them in Vail. Credit must go to Daniel Moore of ZMOR Winery in Sonoma who organized the tasting. It is a simple but revolutionary change in format and I, for one, will be recommending it to others down the road.Well done, Daniel.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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