Showing posts with label Wine Spectator. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wine Spectator. Show all posts

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Tale of Two Wine Programs

I noticed an emerging wine trend in some of the snazzy new restaurants. I am talking about the kind of restaurants that will more likely snag a James Beard than a Wine Spectator Award. You will probably not find Bordeaux First Growths, big Champagne houses, or Napa’s Screaming Eagle on their wine lists. But that is the point. Their wine offerings are meant to pair with their food and not with Robert Parker’s scores. Let’s explore further.

Food and wine by Lee Myungseong on Unsplash

Two Restaurants, Two Wine Programs

If you live in Seattle, you have heard of Canlis. Perched on the edge of Queen Anne Hill with a spectacular view of Lake Union, Canlis has been awarded multiple James Beard and Wine Spectator Awards. In fact, it has won Wine Spectator’s highest level Grand Awards consecutively for over 20 years.

Iconic Seattle restaurant, Canlis from

Canlis’s line of wine directors hailed from the International Sommelier Guild and/or the Court of Master Sommeliers. Two years ago, the restaurant welcomed its first woman wine director. Linda Milagros Violago carries comparable credentials as her predecessors. The wine list is a book of over 100 pages with 2,600 wine selections, ranging from sparkling to still wines of red, white, and pink.

In 2019, Brady Ishiwata Williams at Canlis cinched the James Beard Award for the Best Chef in the Northwest. Two years later, Williams left Canlis to start his own restaurant, Tomo. Located next to an adult video store in a lower- to middle-income, admittedly grungy White Center, Tomo serves well-executed innovative upscale fare, which is a  juxtaposition to its neighborhood.

Tomo next to Taboo Video by Google Maps

At almost 20 pages, Tomo’s wine list is a fraction of Canlis’s. Nonetheless, it boasts of over 900 wines, curated from small production wineries to complement their dishes. Tomo’s current wine director, Rebar Niemi, came from a background of technology and education. Rebar may not share the credentials of his Canlis counterparts. However, in my few interactions with him, Rebar is very much a wine geek with a pulse on the palate of the Millennials and Zoomers. It is hardly surprising that Tomo was a semi-finalist for the James Beard’s Outstanding Wine Program in 2022.

Let’s delve into their wine lists.

The Sparkling

Both Canlis and Tomo have separate lists for Champagnes and other sparklers. Canlis showcases about 100 Champagnes, neatly catalogued by growers versus négociants, subregions, and vintages or non-vintages. In addition, there are 35 other bubblies from six countries with a good mix of French crémants, Spanish cavas, and mostly sparklers made in the Champagne style or traditional method. There are also a handful of Italian Moscato d’Astis and European Pet-Nats.

Dom Pérignon in Canlis but not in Tomo

Tomo’s Champagne list is not too shabby with about 30 selections, favoring grower Champagnes. You will not find the big négociants such as Billecart-Salmon, Dom Pérignon, and such. More interesting though is the list of 50 non-Champagne sparklers. There is one crémant and a Pet-Nat, intermixed with sparkling ciders and other non-classified sparkling wines.

The Still

Canlis’s impressive list of 2,000 reds and whites come from almost 20 countries. They are methodically organized by country, sub-region, winery, grape variety, and vintage. Canlis also has about 25 rosés. Each producer is respectable, and each wine is of a high quality. With a multi-year award-winning cellar, Canlis caters to a knowledgeable wine clientele who expect to find almost any special bottle to mark an occasion.

Tomo’s Seasonal Wine Selections, May 2023

Tomo holds its own with 400 selections from about 15 countries. You will be hard pressed to find a bottle of Bordeaux (compared to nearly 100 offered at Canlis). What you will find in Tomo, but not at Canlis, are the occasional Japanese wines as well as close to 80 orange wines. Listed under “Skin Contact” with 50 pink wines, that is the most orange wines I have seen in any restaurant wine list. Unlike Canlis, Tomo is catering to a younger and more adventurous wine clientele, who are willing to go off the beaten Robert Parker path to try something different.

About Skin Contact

While I love the incredible list of orange wines at Tomo, I am perplexed by the use of Skin Contact as a category. For those new to orange wine, it is made using white wine grapes with extended skin contact. White wine is typically made by separating the juice from the skin prior to fermentation. When making orange wine, these white wine grapes are fermented in the skin which leads to the orange hue in the wine; hence the term “skin contact.”

Orange wine at Tomo

Skin contact is, however, not an accurate descriptor for pink wine. Pink wine is technically the opposite of orange wine. Rosé, in essence, is made the same way as a white wine except that it uses red grapes. There are different ways to make rosé; separating the juice from the skin immediately after harvest or siphoning a portion of the juice from the red grape must into a different vat for fermentation. Regardless of the method, the goal is to minimize skin contact, not prolong it. Otherwise you will be making a red wine. 

My Verdict: I am excited about the new wine trend I see in hip innovative restaurants, like Tomo. It introduces a myriad of wines that are not constrained by traditional winemaking methods or Old World classification systems. This may just be up the Millennials’ and Zoomers’ alley. That said, I also don’t want to lose the tried and true wine styles - the Bordeaux, the Barolos, and similar styles in the New World. So let’s encourage innovation but continue to celebrate tradition - in wine.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Rioja Experiment, Part 1

Is Rioja a great wine?

Matt Kramer, a veteran wine critic, once made a bold claim to the contrary. In his book, Making Sense of Wine, published in 1989, Kramer mentioned that the best wines do not age so much as they transform. He also noted that while Tempranillo, the main grape in Rioja, makes age-worthy wines, it does not transform with age.

Reserva & Grand Reserva
Rioja's age-worthiness is a well-known fact. The famous Spanish red is classified by how long it is aged prior to release:
  • Generic (or Joven) - No aging requirement
  • Crianza - Two years of aging, with at least one year in barrel
  • Reserva - Three years of aging, with at least one year in barrel
  • Gran Reserva - Five years of aging, with at least two years in barrel

Generally, the higher quality grapes will be aged longer and are designated for the higher classification. However, Kramer claims that because Tempranillo resists oxidation more so than other grapes, it is limited in its ability to transform and evolve into secondary and tertiary flavors that you would normally find in a Cabernet Sauvignon or my personal favorite, Nebbiolo.

Let's unpack what all this means.

Wine has a love-hate relationship with oxygen. Oxygen at the right level plays a critical role in wine making and maturation. If you think of wine as a living product, which many wine geeks do, oxygen is the catalyst that helps the wine mature and evolve.

Too little oxygen, the wine becomes reduced and develops a skunky aroma. Too much, the wine becomes oxidized, which translates to a sherry-like aroma with a vinegar taste. Like any living thing, a wine may start off young, mature and peak over time, and eventually tire and expire.

Letting wine breathe is allowing oxygen to wake up its flavors

As wine matures with the perfect Goldilocks-level of oxygen, the tannins in wine will become softer. The aromas will develop from primary to secondary and tertiary flavors. A well-made wine with the right grape(s) develops a complex flavor profile as it ages. Some examples of the flavor profile include:
  • Primary flavors (from the fruit and primary fermentation) - Fruit, floral, herb, mineral
  • Secondary flavors (from secondary fermentation and the barrel) - Bread, cream, wood, spice, coffee
  • Tertiary flavors (from aging and oxidation) - Leather, tobacco, nuttiness, mushroom, earthy
So I recruited some friends to help me do a two-day social-distancing experiment to taste through the simulated aging process of Rioja. We each picked a Rioja of our choice that has at least a Reserva classification and tasted it about 4-5 times over two days. Each tasting would be about 6 hours apart. A bottle of Barbaresco was also added to the mix for comparison.

Rioja Experiment

The goal of the experiment is to answer two questions:

1. Does Rioja age and evolve well?
2. Does Rioja fit your definition of a great wine? 

We completed the experiment and are in the process of sharing our observations. We will do the big reveal in the next post. In the meantime, I'd love it if you try this experiment along with us. Feel free to drop me a note with your observations as well. I look forward to hearing from you and sharing our results.


Monday, December 31, 2018

Save Your Wine!

If you are like me, you'd love to have a glass of wine in the evening. You don't want to chug your wine and clean out a bottle all by yourself in one night or even two. You just want to sip and savor a glass. You do the math. If you get five to six glasses of wine from a bottle, will you finish the wine before it goes bad?

Thankfully the wine industry today is brimming with all kinds of wine preservation gadgets to solve this first-world wine problem. I'll share some thoughts about these gadgets in this post and even throw in one non-gadget solution that works surprisingly well.


Every wine geek with an impressive cellar seems to own a Coravin wine preservation system. I don't own one yet. However, I have benefitted from restaurants that have one, which allows them to serve some exquisite wines by the glass.
Coravin wine preservation system

Introduced in 2011, the Coravin wine preservation system leverages medical device technology to allow wine to be poured without removing the cork from nor letting oxygen into the bottle. The gadget inserts a hollow needle into the cork to extract the wine. Argon, an inert gas, is pumped into the bottle to displace the space left by the wine poured.

When the needle is removed from the bottle, the cork will naturally reseal, leaving the bottle intact. It's almost like watching a sci-fi movie. Needless to say, Coravin does not work with synthetic or glass closures since it relies on the "self-healing" power of cork.

For all its wonders, Coravin is also cost-prohibitive, starting at $200 for the basic model to over $1,000 for the latest offering with all the bells and whistles. And that is before you consider that each argon capsule used to preserve the wine in the bottle costs about $9 and is good for about 15 glasses of wine. It is definitely not for the average wine drinker.

Best for: Savoring that special bottle of wine over time, even years, to observe how it evolves. It also allows you to taste multiple prized bottles side by side without worrying about finishing them all.

Vacuum Seal Wine Saver

For many years, my go-to wine preservation gadget has been and still is the Sharper Image Vacuum Seal Wine Saver. It was a thoughtful gift from my niece, and it has saved many bottles of delicious wine. The wine saver preserves wine by sucking the air out of the bottle and sealing the bottle. This reduces the contact with air, which would otherwise oxidize the wine.

Sharper Image Vacuum
Seal Wine Saver
The vacuum seal wine saver is no competition to Coravin's inert argon. The seal is often less than perfect, and air leaks into the bottle over time. However, my trusty Sharper Image wine saver will suck air out of the bottle throughout the day. On average, it has extended the life of my open bottle to about 5 days without severe deterioration to its quality.

There are a myriad of vacuum seal wine savers in the market with varying abilities to preserve wine. The price range is definitely friendlier than that of a Coravin. You can get a manual version for as low as $10 and an electric saver can go up to $50-60. The downside for my electric saver is that it drains batteries very quickly as it sucks air periodically throughout its use. I can go through about two AA batteries every week with constant use.

Best for: Enjoying a really nice bottle for a few days.


Yes, you can freeze wine and apparently time too! This is probably the least expensive option if you already own a freezer. I actually got this idea from Wine Spectator Senior Editor, James Laube. There is some cred there. Nonetheless, I decided to try it for myself.

Freezing 2015 Pierre More Monthelie
I opened a bottle of 2015 Pierre Morey Monthelie this past Thanksgiving. After a couple of glasses, I put the seal back on the bottle and stick it in the freezer. A week later, I thawed the bottle for a few hours and poured myself a glass.

Viola! The thawed wine has retained not only the freshness of taste but also the aroma. I would not have known that the wine has been previously frozen purely from tasting it. The last glass had quite a bit of fine and almost sandy sediments, that was a bit unusual. But it was otherwise fine! That said, I probably would not freeze the wine for more than a couple of weeks.

Best for: Saving an open bottle when you have to head out of town for a few days or just because you are in a mood for a different bottle of wine but want to get back to this one again.

My Verdict: There is a wine saving technique for every bottle of wine that is worth saving. (Not all are!) And the price ranges from $0 to over $1,000. Consider the different scenarios and options. I think I'm going to use all three!