Thursday, March 27, 2014

Smell Up

In February, winemaker Clarissa Nagy and I attended Alexandre Schmitt's Olfaction Seminar in Napa. She had seen him do a short presentation previously, and told me she learned more in that few minutes as a winemaker than any other seminar. We signed up as soon as we could.

I'm going to brag a little here: Clarissa and I have amazingly detailed and exact palates. When we taste together, we both pick up minute details that most people wouldn't, and since we're both foodies, too, we love to use analogies and make pairings as we do so. In fact, I would put our palates against those of almost anyone in the county as far as identifying flavors and nuances in wine. The cool thing is, the two of us work well together because we pick up different things. Because I cook so much, my knack for noting spices and savory food flavors is impeccable, whereas her strengths are unparalleled in flowers and fruits. Seriously, she nails it almost every time, even if she's unsure. It's remarkable.

Through two days of building a sensory library, which included scents from oils of specific things but also certain chemical compounds that are found in wine, our noses were exhausted. But it was intriguing, and left us wanting more. We committed to meeting once a month to do more sensory evaluation, and made that happen recently.

Even smelling some of the same scents you've smelled before is challenging: they fade or become more concentrated, and smelling them in a different environment changes everything. Your mood or what you had for breakfast affects it, too. We take over the VIP room and surround ourselves with 300 tiny pieces of paper, each with a different scent, and talk like geeks. "Is it resiny?" she'll ask. "Definitely dry and woody," I'll respond. It goes on like this until we get tired, usually about an hour.

All in a day's work, for sure.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sparks In The City

San Francisco is one of my favorite places in the world. I've always called it the most European city in America, with its distinctive architecture and charm. It's loaded with culture. When I arrive there, I can almost feel the whirlwind of thoughts by people who know more than me about so many things. It makes me want to learn (Yes, I want to go to the Cartier exhibit! Yes, show me Fort Mason!) and it makes me want to just get lost. Mostly, though, the food and wine culture just envelops me completely.

I have a dilemma whenever I visit: do I visit my favorite restaurants and wine bars, or try some new ones? Inevitably I end up doing both, though when I go for work I end up typically being given a list of accounts to visit. I keep a list of places I want to go, and this list is infinite because I'm constantly adding to it. All I can say is I thrive in a city where I can get Burmese food on a Tuesday night.

I visited last week to work with my most awesome sales rep, Leif. The coolest thing about having worked the market for six years now is seeing how Riverbench has gained presence as a brand. Yes, the food and wine culture there is amazing, but that also means it's seriously difficult for a new wine label to break into, especially considering the Napa/Sonoma proximity. Having so many accounts in San Francisco, thanks to Leif mostly, is pretty rad since we started with none.

Some of my favorites include this kickass little Italian place called Frascati, whose wine buyer Justin loves great wine and loves pairing it with great food even more. If you haven't been there, go. And order...well, everything.

Another fun one is Say Cheese, a gourmet shop that has obscure and funky cheeses and really fun wines. I get intoxicated by stinky cheese, so it's the place to be.

Finally, it's not one of my accounts YET, but it WILL be someday when I have bubbles to sell wholesale. The Bubble Lounge is my kinda place: laid back, a little dark but comfy, and fully stocked with great Champagnes and sparkling wines from all over the world. Heaven.

See you again soon, SF. I'll be back.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Life From the Seat of a Tractor

When I was little, my dad bought a farm.

He's a beer and wine importer and was, at the time, working 100 hours a week growing his company. But he still bought a farm.

The years following were a series of pretty comical stories as he attempted to, with the help of his neighbors, become a part time farmer living off the land. Always his faithful sidekick, I remember tagging along (at 4 AM, no less) when he went to his first farmers market to sell his organic lettuces. It was then that I realized a few things: first, there's way more to growing your own stuff than I realized, and second, my dad is a true salesman. I don't mean the latter in the used car kind of way; on the contrary, he engaged his customers, spoke to them like he understood them, and showed them all how passionate he was about his damn lettuce. He cared so deeply and genuinely wanted his customers to like what he was selling, and he sold every bag of greens effortlessly.

I was inspired. I used some of our hard-earned profits to buy a mini pecan pie from the baker's booth next to us. And then I set out to spend my life trying to become just like him.

Now that he's been farming for twenty years, he has a few words to live by, and I find that those are applicable lessons to all of us farmers, whether you're growing grapes or lettuce.

You cannot unsay a cruel word. This goes for slightly unkind words, too. Keep it real, keep it polite, and keep it as pleasant as you can.

Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer. People talk too much sometimes. Quiet stands out.

If you get to thinkin' you're a person of some influence, try ordering someone else's dog around. Yep.

Riverbench may never be the trendiest, loudest, or even most popular winery. We won't elbow our way into the spotlight. We'll passionately and persistently share our relentless quest for quality, and tell you about our efforts because we simply love what we do so much. Because at the end of the day to us, that's what counts.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Comparatively Speaking

Working for a winery is tough business.

Stop laughing. I mean it. Ok, it's only tough part of the time; we DO get to do some fun things now and then.

Like yesterday, when Rawley, Clarissa, and I met for our quarterly comparative blind wine tasting. Four times a year, the four of us get together to taste wines from all over the world blindly. Usually, I slip a Riverbench wine into the mix to see if we can identify it without knowing. We focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but this year we plan to include Riesling, Rose, and maybe even sparkling wines into the mix.

For evaluation, we use an adaptation of the fabulous Mr. Olken from The Connoisseur's Guide's tasting sheet to look at color, body, aroma, and flavors. Then we rate the wines in order of our preferences. The great thing about wine is that you can never be wrong; it's more about practicing using our palates and identifying flavors along the way. It's a super fun and challenging exercise.

Yesterday's tasting was unusually difficult. We tasted four California Chardonnays, and they were all very different. We left with a few interesting takeaways:
- It IS possible to identify wines made from one vineyard. I have gotten better and better at this for Riverbench, having tasted and contributed to our wines for almost 7 years now. I think if you spend that amount of time examining wine, you can definitely learn to do this. The trick is doing that for every vineyard in the world, which is virtually impossible.
- Once again, Riverbench wines make me happy. Seriously. The Chardonnay that turned out to be Riverbench had comments like "fruit jumps out at you" and "happy nose!" I remind you, we were tasting blindly.
- Finally, Riverbench wines are well priced. Our Chardonnay came in first in the lineup (our retail price: $26) among wines priced $30 to $40 a bottle Wowza! A perfect illustration of our wines being approachable.

Now, I better get back to the tough parts of my job.