The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

IWM Client Interview: Richard Reich

A straight shooter who tells it how he tastes it

The role of a wine portfolio manager at IWM is to assist each client with his or her wine desires. What I love most about my job as a wine portfolio manager is the relationships I build with each client. It’s great to help select wines and to recommend food, but I enjoy the conversations the most.

Every Saturday we host tastings in our Studio del Gusto and highlight a different region in Italy. A few months back I received a phone call from a wonderful man named Richard Reich from Conway, South Carolina. He told me that he just read Sergio Esposito’s book Passion on the Vine and that he was interested in coming up for a tasting. A few Saturdays later I had the pleasure of meeting Richard at a tasting focused on Veneto. He and I ended up spending the entire afternoon chatting about wine, food and wine regions he’s seen. There are many oenophiles around the world who are followed and admired because they write books or have a rich background on the topic that I enjoy following. However, I enjoy people like Richard Reich the most because they have been drinking wine as aregular consumer. His views are not skewed by advertising or relationships with importers. He is a straight shooter who just tells it how he tastes it.

A few weeks back I conducted a series of questions with Richard and would like to share them with the rest of the wine world.

When did you start drinking wine and what was the wine that got you hooked?

I was introduced to wine in 1955 when stationed with the U.S. Army at Bussac, France, as a registered pharmacist in charge of a military pharmacy at the American army base located there. Arriving in January1955 and full of curiosity about French culture, I was quite interested to learn about all things French, most especially about wine. I began studying French, which led to weekend trips to Bordeaux,about 30 kilometers south, to try out my new language skills. I was like a sponge in water, eager to soak up everything I could learn about this marvelous sensation unfolding before my very eyes.With each succeeding weekend bus ride between Bussac and Bordeaux, I witnessed the emergence and growth of grape leaves and clusters of grapes covering the landscape everywhere I looked.

On one such occasion, during the summer of 1955, I made my customary bus trip to Bordeaux and decided to have lunch at an outdoor cafe on amain plaza downtown at the bus drop-off point. Once seated, I began looking for an opportunity to practice my French on the waiter when I heard English being spoken at the next table. There were about a half-dozen people seated there engaged in French/English conversation, and by their demeanor it became apparent to me they were French students working on their English. What a golden opportunity for me to make some English speaking French contacts! Setting aside any inhibitions I may have had, I introduced myself in “Frenglish,” and soon a very animated discussion got underway. It turned out my new acquaintances were all French locals enrolled as English majors at the University in Bordeaux, and they were quite anxious to help me with my French, acquaint me with locals, and immerse me in the world of Bordeaux wines. My learning curve shifted into high gear as the group and I made plans for me to be included in their local activities since they, too, were very much interested in the”Bordeaux wine experience.”

Through this chance encounter, I had the amazing experience in observing, first hand, the Bordeaux grape harvests of 1955 and 1956 atpublic wine tasting events taking place in the city. To experience the adventure of being on the scene in the heart of Bordeaux at two harvests was an eye-opening, life-changing event for me. The wine ran in the streets and I was hooked.

In your 50-plus years of wine drinking what has changed the most?

In my 55 years of “sipping, swishing and swallowing,” what I believe has changed the most is the wide acceptance of wine as the preferred drink with meals, worldwide, due to the enormous expansion of new geographic areas of the world producing top quality, affordable wines.The educated wine palette of consumers has benefited immensely due to wine producing entrepreneurs recognizing wine consumption trends. This has prompted winery development and distribution of crafted wines to meet the discerning tastes of many seeking wines to enhance their quality of life.

What is the single most important aspect of a wine for you? Color,body, taste, ageability?

Wine is comprised of multiple characteristics, each of which can have an important bearing on the drinkability of a wine. Whether it is color, body, taste, smell, shelf life, viscosity, terroir, price, it all adds up to one thing and one thing only. When tasting a wine, ask yourself this key question: do I like it? That single question covers the entire gamut of wine characteristics and considerations, and takes into account every element about the wine.

What are a few of your favorite wines or the greatest of your lifetime and why?

A few favorites for too many reasons to enumerate:1983 Giuseppe Quintarelli–Cabernet Franc1977 Tommasi–Amarone Recioto Della Valpolicella Classico1995 Casanova di Neri–Tenuto Nuova Brunello di Montalcino 1997 Staglin Family Vineyard–Cabernet Sauvignon 1988 Patriglione Brindisi.

What does drinking wine mean to you?

To me, wine drinking represents a glorious opportunity to share something of great value with those you love and hold dear. I remember an incident that occurred shortly after I first met John Lester, who became my very dear friend through our mutual appreciation for wine. John, who had been invited to my home for dinner, was quite interested in wines and quickly accepted my invitation to see our wine collection. In perusing the wine cellar, I asked John if therewas any particular wine of interest to him. He responded by expressing his liking for fine Piemonte wines. I showed John a few Barolos, but his eyes gleamed when I pulled out a 1983 Giuseppe Quintarelli Alzero. As we completed our wine room tour, John expressed his passion for such a fine, hard-to-find wine.

When we sat down to dinner, I produced the admired bottle of wine to my new friend’s startled amazement. After decanting, I offered John the first taste. When he put the Riedel glass to his nose, the tears came to his eyes! John exclaimed astonishment at the sensation his nose had experienced. When John sipped the wine and allowed it to swirl about in his mouth, I felt certain he would cry. A glow came to his face as he slowly allowed the wine to ease down his throat. John’s emotional response to this wine brought tears to my eyes in sympathy for the way I knew John felt. I thought to myself: here’s a person who feels as strongly and spiritually about this wine as I do. In an instant we became soul brothers. How incredible is life! As Sergio Esposito so eloquently stated when he autographed my copy of Passion on the Vine, “Richard, Wine is Love.”

Was wine just a beverage or did you always take it seriously?

To me, wine was never just a beverage and I always took wine seriously, to the extent that in 1989 some friends and I organized a guy’s wine tasting group in New Jersey.The group meets every Thursday night at a different BYOW restaurant for the purpose of wine/food pairing and to enjoy each other’scompany. Our group has met more than 1,000 times to date, and now numbers about thirty men. That’s taking wine seriously!

If you could change one thing about the wine industry what would it be?

Most restaurants know more about food than they do about wine, and the wine selection choices in many restaurants don’t compare to the quality of the foods presented to the customer. I would like to see the wine industry make a concerted effort to encourage restaurant owners to upgrade their wine lists, conduct wine/food dinner pairings, and permit customers to bring their own wine, even if it means the customer has to pay a corkage fee. If state laws or regulations need to be changed, so be it. The intended consequences will definitely be worth the effort!

What Wines Should Be Decanted?

Is that really the question?

For many years the notion of decanting to remove sediment from the liquid was promulgated; it was pretty much conventional wisdom. However, wisdom has changed and today the application of decanting has shifted. Rather than being a method of removing sediment, decanting now is a method of aeration because so much of the wine we drink today is young.  The philosophy behind decanting has changed, but controversy has remained. I have heard many heated discussions on the topic from highly credible sources, so today I’ll try to provide some practical understanding of this confusing subject.

Decanting, in its purest form, should be executed for mature big red wines that will “throw” sediment, which is to say that there is matter in the bottle that has separated from the liquid and can be removed by carefully and slowly pouring the wine into a decanter. Using a light source underneath the bottle allows the pourer to see when the sediment is moving into the liquid, and the pourer should stop decanting at the point when he or she can see the sediment approaching the neck of the bottle. If there is a desire to get every drop of liquid out, the pourer can filter the remaining wine into a separate glass.

This method of decanting had been the traditional method of decanting over the years.  However, both the method and the market has changed. For a long time the fine wine market was enjoyed by a very small group of individuals who had well-stocked cellars that enabled them to drink mature wines. Today wine has become a part of everyone’s culture. And the dynamic is very different.

In the US today 80% of wine is consumed within 48 hours of purchase, and 98% within six months. The bottles are consumed in their youth, before they have had an opportunity to mature. Here the process of decanting is executed to aerate the wine, not to remove sediment. Fortunately the wine community has come to understand the benefits of aeration. A group that was once somewhat divided between a traditional sediment-separating approach and a contemporary aeration approach has reached an accord. We decant.  We open bottles ahead of time, double decant and some even garishly violently decant (which is where most controversy springs from today).  Most young wines will not be hurt by oxygenation over a short period of time, and many will benefit. Perhaps our reference point should be changed all together. Perhaps the question should be: “Which wines shouldn’t be decanted?”

There is a very simple answer. Most sparkling wines should be consumed out of the original vessel to maintain their effervescence.  Older vintages or delicate wines should always be treated with reverence. And among more esoteric wines, there will be bottle variation that will require attention to the unique state of that vessel and may very well need to be handled as little as possible.

At the end of the day, most enthusiastic wine drinkers just want to know if they can get out their new Riedel decanter with the crystal aerator and watch the show. They might even want the sommelier to make the experience a bit more special.   The question is should I tumble that young wine? Yes, you should. The presentation is always more thoughtful and the wine may taste better. Do you need any other reasons? I think not.

Educating Peter—and Tida

A Book Review

Plenty of encyclopedic wine references offer densely packed servings of seemingly endless amounts of information. These guides are extremely useful to have on hand when you are looking for the answer to a specific question, but they’re not always the easiest to pick up and read for enjoyment. I’ve been keeping an eye out for a wine book that would not only be fun to read, but also informative for wine lovers of all levels. The book I found was Lettie Teague’s “Educating Peter: How Anybody Can Become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert.

Teague, wine columnist (“Wine Matters”) and contributing wine editor at Food & Wine Magazine and author of the blog Forklife, chose to write this book to show that learning about wine isn’t as hard as people think. Using as her disciple her friend Peter Travers, a film critic for Rolling Stone who knew nothing about wine other than that he liked “fatty Chardonnays,” Teague provides a crash course in wine education. She starts out with the basics of how to taste, gives some wine vocabulary, outlines the six basic grapes and what each contributes to a wine, describes various vinification techniques, and explains the importance of vintages. Then she moves on to different winemaking regions, starting with the Old World wine and ending with New World wines. The last section of the book is where Teague puts Travers’ newfound skills to the test; he goes on his own to a wine auction, buys wine at a wine shop, chooses wines to pair with dinner at a restaurant, and takes Teague’s final exam.

I just recently started reading the book—I’ve just reached the Old World and am now learning about the different regions in France. Teague gives a very brief overview, more than enough for the novice, and I’m finding that her writing works to make me more intrigued about learning the regions in further detail. I appreciate the story behind Teague’s writing and the third-person perspective that draws on the film critic Travers’ learning experience, but some people might find the comparisons between wine and film a little drawn out at times. During Teague’s tasting lessons, she uses everyday wines at reasonable prices, which is great because it shows that wine can be both high quality and inexpensive. These value-conscious choices will give readers the encouragement and the incentive to try many different wines of varying grape varietals from different regions.

So far, I am genuinely enjoying the book. Though familiar with a lot of the information presented, I am still learning some interesting new facts. For example, I’ve learned that the Bordeaux bottle has square shoulders to catch the sediment that comes from aging a wine; that Château d’Yquem was the only dessert wine recognized in the 1855 Médoc classification; and that Martin Scorsese’s favorite wine is Chianti. I think this book has something to offer for all levels of wine knowledge, and I’m curious to see how Travers’ journey ends. Does he pass the exam or continue drinking only “fatty” Chardonnay?

Given all that I’ve learned thus far, I’m betting on the former. Who wouldn’t want to pass an exam this tasty and fun?

The Sommelier Apocalypse

An Expert’s Opinion on a Wine Lover’s End of Days

How old is too old? And how young is too young? One question that stumps the savviest wine consumer and scholars alike is how to determine the longevity of a wine. It seems nearly impossible for any single person; nevertheless, wine drinkers want to be able to peruse a restaurant’s wine list or the shelves of a retail shop and know that the wine they are about to purchase is at the peak drinking phase of its life span. Sure, most may suggest simply pulling aside the resident wine expert and asking him or her, but what if there isn’t one available?

Let’s take a moment to imagine a sommelier apocalypse. You, the consumer, have to choose from all those pages of wines by the bottle and all those glittering shelves in wine stores all on your own. What are some of the approaches you should consider when determining the readiness of a bottle of wine?

A general rule of thumb is that price can determine a wine’s age worthiness—the less expensive, the shorter lifeline, and vice versa. But to every rule, there is an exception, and perhaps this is what confuses wine experts, collectors and casual consumers the most. To shed some light on these venerable questions, I turned to Christy Canterbury, IWM’s Director of Wine Acquisitions, to provide some personal insight.

Christy believes that many wines these days are released way too young, and she emphasizes that any quality-driven wine from $25 can generally use a few years of bottle age if properly stored, with most wines under $25 usually drinking within 1-3 years of vintage. While these wines may even hold longer, Christy suggests that they’re unlikely to develop any further benefits from sitting in a cellar. In contrast to these more value-conscious quaffers, Christy argues that wines in a more expensive price range abide by the rule that the more expensive the bottle, the longer it should sit—however, she stresses, it must have proper balance of fruit, oak, acid, tannin and alcohol to do so with benefits. “It’s important to remember that a wine you love may age for ten years, but you may not enjoy its developed profile as much as you liked it young, even if it’s a mind-altering vino to others,” she concludes.

Expanding beyond pricing as a point of reference, Christy provides some criteria on determining the general age worthiness of reds, whites and sparklers. Most of us know that reds age longer than whites and sparklers (this last wine, Christy notes, “depends on the disgorgement date, of course”). Reds have the tannin structure that lengthens their aging. Whites are a riskier business if you’re interested in laying them down, generally because they lack the tannins that make reds so ageable. Some whites are considerably more stable for the long-term, and this stability depends on their level of tartaric acid, which drinkers often recognize as tartness on the palate. Christy also recognizes that many dessert and fortified wines can beat out even some age worthy reds. “Stickies (an Australian fortified wine) with great acidity can live almost forever!” she exclaims and adds that “fortified wines can be very long lived, with the life span of Madeira arching over centuries…then again, Fino sherry should be drunk within 6-12 months of bottling whenever possible.”

Now that you’ve received a few rules of thumb to help determine your wine’s age-worthiness, we can breathe a sigh of relief and imagine the apocalypse ends, the skies clear, normalcy returns. Sommeliers once more roam the earth. There’s no question that when you’re worrying about the drinkability of a wine over time, the best thing to do is to look it up or ask an expert. Christy cautions, “Look to top critics for advice because the web has volumes of opinions that are not expert.” Fortunately, you’ve got your experts on tap right here at Inside IWM. View Christy’s posts, and reach out to your favorite IWM’er—you can even email, Facebook, or use Twitter to direct message us. There’s no need to fear the apocalypse with IWM on your virtual side.

On Kiwi Crus and Kurzweil

The Law of Accelerating Returns

Last week, I laughed out loud reading an article in Decanter on establishing a cru-like system in Central Otago, New Zealand.  The provoking moment in question occurred when Decanter quoted Simon Field, MW and the wine buyer for Berry Bros; Field said, “the appellation systems required ‘minute levels of detail’ and that the Burgundian system had taken ‘several centuries to establish’.”  I usually just roll my eyes when I encounter similar statements, but I’ve grown weary of hearing them and, at this point, I’m outright amazed at hearing them from smart people in the wine world.

Reading assertions like Field’s, I wonder if the people who make them have heard of Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns?  While Kurzweil’s theories ostensibly deal with computer and media technologies, the premise is applicable in other areas. Here’s a quote from the paper’s introduction that gives the gist of the theory and makes clear the ridiculousness of statements about why some new region isn’t going to catch up that fast:  “So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The ‘returns,’ such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.”  Even if you haven’t heard of Kurzweil (or if you think he’s crazy), you’ve at least heard Steve Jobs, Jim Goldman on CNBC Tech Check or some similarly forward-thinking individual talk about how quickly technology and the sharing of accumulated intelligence moves us forward faster with each passing day.  It’s a more or less accepted notion.

Interestingly, it’s not just humans’ ability to build semi-conductors or cyborgs that gains from the Theory of Accelerating Returns: all technologies do. And, in fact, Kurzweil’s theory explains how quality winemaking has soared in Washington State and Chile, not to mention Sardegna and Umbria—even taking into account the long lead times required in an agricultural industry such as wine.

In sum, whether or not Central Otago is ready for a cru-style system (and putting aside the question of whether it would benefit them) is a question that cannot be addressed by seemingly dismissing the idea by insinuating time is not on the Kiwis’ side. It’s an issue that’s complex, nuanced and touched by the long hand of human history, much as is wine itself.

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