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The first time I tasted an orange wine was about seven years ago while I was living in Napa. I was working with Tommy Fogarty, of Thomas Fogarty Winery out of Santa Cruz, attempting to sell Santa Cruz wines—a daunting task in Napa, to say the least. However, there was no better person to tackle the obstacle with than Tommy. To this day, he’s still one of the coolest guys in the business—not to mention his Rapley Trail pinot noir is one of my favorite California wines.

When I dropped him off at his car at the end of our day, he grabbed a shiner (a bottle with no label) out of a case in the back of his Jeep and handed it to me. It was an orange wine made from chardonnay; he laughed as he told me it was a little funky, but it was a fun wine he thought I’d like.

I really didn’t know much about orange wine; in fact, I had never tasted one, but if Tommy thought it was fun and cool, I was game.

I held on to the bottle for a few weeks, staring at it in my wine fridge, never really sure if today was the day I should get freaky and try this odd little wine. Looking back, I think I was actually nervous to try it. What if I didn’t like it? Would that mean I didn’t have an elevated or knowledgeable palate? What if it was a “food wine,” and I was supposed to have it with some avant-garde meal of braised offal or an eccentric charcuterie plate covered with stinky cheese, and head cheese, and uncured meats? I created a ridiculous predicament in my own head. “Just open the damn wine, Katie.”

So that’s what I did. After my son was tucked in for the night, and the husband was still at work, I pulled out the bottle, fixed a simple plate of cheese and crackers, and opened the damn thing.

Yeah, it was kinda weird. But it had the most beautiful marmalade color, and wafting up from the glass came an aroma like a hard cider, with orange pith, honey and a note that was almost like sourdough bread. I sat there and drank about three-quarters of the bottle just trying to wrap my head around it. It was faking (or maybe freaking) me out. It looked like it should be a dessert wine, but it wasn’t sweet. It reminded me of molecular gastronomy, where a chef would trick you into thinking you’re eating a watermelon salad, but really it’s cubed ahi sashimi (and truthfully, I hate that). But I was loving this wine in all its nerdy, mischievous glory.

Time passed, and I maybe saw one or two other orange wines in Napa. I can only assume that marketing something as seemingly obscure as orange wine to the influx of tourists who descend on the valley is right up there in difficulty with selling them wines from Santa Cruz.

Fast-forward eight years, and orange wine is everywhere. Well … actually, it’s virtually nowhere to be seen here in the Coachella Valley, with the exception of Dead or Alive and maybe a bottle or two at Whole Foods—but it’s in every wine publication, blog and urban hep-cat wine bar. We’ll get there … eventually.

This brings me to the part where I tell you what orange wine is, and why you should not be scared or nervous like I was to try one. It’s really very simple: Orange wine is just white wine that is fermented on its skins like a red wine. You see, with very few exceptions, the juice from grapes is clear. It doesn’t matter if the finished product is red or white. If you were to crush a bunch of cabernet sauvignon grapes in your hand, clear juice would run down your arm. It’s the skins that give it pigment. White wine is no different: The type of grape and the length of time it spends in contact with the skins determines how pigmented the final product is. Just as it is with your favorite red wine, that’s where some of the tannin comes from, too. That’s the element in the wine that has a slightly bitter, drying sensation and gives the juice its texture and mouth-feel. This is something that’s not typical with a classic white wine, but it’s an unexpectedly enjoyable component in its orange form.

Admittedly, tasting a white wine that’s the color of a nacho-cheese Dorito can take some getting used to. But think of it like this: Your favorite bottle of salmon-hued rose is simply red wine made like a white wine, with very little color imparted from the skins. Orange wine is white wine made like a red, with maximum color extracted from the skins. And just like any red grape can be made into a rose, any white grape can be made into an orange wine. But I caution you: Because it can be made from any grape, and the length of time the skins are in contact with the juice can vary wildly, no two orange wines are alike.

If you’re looking to get your hands on a bottle, you may need to order some online. Here are some of my suggestions:

• The 2017 Field Recordings “Skins” Central Coast Blend is delicious and an easy drink. A great introduction to orange wines, it’s a blend of chenin blanc, pinot gris and verdejo.

• The 2017 Jolie-Laide (pronounced jo-LEE luh-DAY) Trousseau Gris Fanucchi-Wood Road Vineyard Russian River Valley is one of my all-time favorites. These are rare, near-extinct vines that originally hail from eastern France. This wine is serious, and savory, and elegant, and at the same time, it makes for a joyful, sublime glass of wine.

• The 2017 Channing Daughters Ramato Pinot Grigio Long Island, New York, is a beautiful symphony of dried apricots, baked apples and coriander. “Ramato” means copper in Italian and is the term used in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy for skin-contact pinot grigio. It’s definitely not like your bottle of Santa Margherita.

• The 2008 Josko Gravner Venezia Giulia Ribolla Gialla is a very pricey bottle of wine, indeed. But Josko Gravner is the undisputed king of white wine in Friuli … and dare I say, all of Italy? He is revered by absolutely everyone in the industry as being the resurrector of natural winemaking. This is the holy grail of orange wine.

Open your mind and open a bottle. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find your new favorite wine.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Galileo Galilei once said, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Of course, Galileo never made his way to sunny California—but if he were here now, something tells me he’d want to be at the WineLover’s Auction, taking place at the Thunderbird Country Club on Saturday, Feb. 16.

The WineLover’s Auction is the signature annual fundraiser for Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine. Doug Morin is the executive director of CVVIM, which operates the only free medical clinic in the Coachella Valley, in Indio at 82915 Ave. 48.

“This rose out of a study that was undertaken by JFK Memorial Hospital in 2007. The conclusion of that was the valley needed a free clinic for individuals who did not have insurance by whatever means,” Morin said. “The program was modeled after a national program called Volunteers in Medicine. … After a couple years of fundraising … in 2010, we started providing services near JFK.

“There was a lot of community support behind opening the clinic. Part of what was so time-consuming was getting the nurse practitioners, doctors and dentists to volunteer, as well as (raising money for) the operational costs and the direct patient costs, like the bandages and all the other sorts of things that are required for treatment and diagnostic services. … The county helped out by providing a county-owned office for us; our cost is the maintenance of the office space.

“Since then, we have consistently seen about 1,000 unduplicated clients every year, totaling around 3,500 visits … Many have a chronic illness that requires ongoing follow-up, like diabetes, which is our No. 1 issue that we see clients for, (followed by) COPD and congestive heart failure. We provide primary care and a few specialty services, but not urgent or emergent care. If someone breaks a leg, or has a heart attack, or an open wound, then they have to go to the emergency room.”

Morin said the clinic also offers case-management services to those in need, as well as education services. “A lot of diabetes education is designed for healthy living, to help the patient get around with diabetes and keep it stable,” he said.

“Almost two years ago, we began a homeless-outreach program around the Indio and Coachella area. We have physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers and a number of other Individuals who work in the field. We tend to think that (homeless people) need blankets and shoes, which they usually do, but what most of them really need is medical services. Often, they’ll get vaccinations or A1C level checks in the field.

“We do all of this with about 200 volunteers and six full- and part-time staff for the year.”

Who can receive treatment at Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine?

“We do have eligibility requirements,” Morin said. “One is that you must be a resident of Coachella Valley. You can’t have medical insurance, or you (must be unable to afford) to use your current medical insurance, and you must be at 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For an individual, that means making only about $20,000 a year.”

So … what about the WineLover’s Auction?

“This is the fourth annual wine auction, and it has, for the past three years, raised more than $200,000 each year. Our yearly budget is $600,000 to cover patient care, so almost a third of our yearly budget is raised from this,” Morin said. “We have presenting sponsorships from both JFK Memorial Hospital and the Desert Regional Medical Center. The evening starts off with a wine reception and a general silent auction, and then moves into the dining room for the live auction. There’s not just wine, but a lot of things that are wine-related; for example, there are trips to Napa Valley, trips on yachts and cruises for several hours, some featuring foods and wine. Sometimes there’s art involved. … There’s something for everybody. The auction items’ values are anywhere from $100 to several thousand dollars.

“Our biggest wine sponsor is Chateau Ste Michelle. They provide all the wine for the reception and the dinner. They also provide a number of packages of rare wines, signed bottles and collector bottles. … To cap the evening’s festivities off, there is usually some entertainment with songs from a winner of a local talent show.”

The WineLover’s Auction takes place at 5 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Thunderbird Country Club, 70737 Country Club Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets start at $250. For tickets or more information, call 760-625-0737, or visit cvvim.ejoinme.org/winelovers-auction.

Published in Features & Profiles

People often ask me what my favorite wine is. For me, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child; on most days, that would be impossible. So much of what I drink depends on the weather, or what I’m eating, or my mood in general.

I do, however, have a favorite wine-producing country, and it might not be what you’d expect.

My love affair with South Africa began about 16 years ago. I was sitting in a ballroom in Monterey, Calif., surrounded by other would-be sommeliers preparing for our exam. I knew very little about South Africa as a wine-producing nation—and this was going to be an introduction I would never forget. As I stuck my nose in that glass and inhaled deeply, I remember immediately … gagging. The putrid smell of rotten raspberries wrapped in bandages, with a slight animal-fur note, is something that still makes me shudder all these years later. Little did I know that I would grow to love that stinky little grape, called Pinotage, and everything else grown in that wild and wonderful country.

As my wine career progressed, I discovered that the wines from South Africa are not putrid or vile or gag-inducing at all. The reds are powerful and complex with a unique set of aromas that are savory and rich. They have aromas of blackberries and plums, sweet tobacco and black tea. Yes, they can be a little gamey and earthy, but not in an offensive way—instead, they are intriguing and mysterious. The whites are crisp and confident with bright fruit and a subtle herbaceous element. They were unlike anything I had ever tasted, but not in a pejorative way. I wanted more and began drinking everything from South Africa I could get my hands on.

That said … even with all the advancements in wine-making, marketing and distribution coming from South Africa, getting my hands on a good bottle is easier said than done. So when a friend of mine told me about a South African wine-tasting in Palm Springs, I immediately bought my tickets and circled the date. I had never heard of the “place” in Palm Springs hosting the tasting, which I thought was strange, but the address was on the invite, and I figured maybe this was a new place. How exciting!

It took me and my friends circling the block twice, walking up and down the street while staring at our GPS, and finally wandering into an alley before we noticed a small group of people congregating by a door. Eureka! This must be the place!

As we opened the solid industrial door, we were faced with a narrow staircase. There was no signage, and there were no people, but there were three bottles of wine sitting on the bottom stair. We figured that was a good indication we were in the right place. Not knowing any better, we ventured up the flight of stairs … and right into someone’s living room. Oh, shit. There we were, the three of us, now standing in some unknown person’s flat. Gulp. This is where the music abruptly stops in a screeching tone, and everyone turns and stares at the obvious outsiders.

I sheepishly walked over to a couple and explained that I was looking for Mood Wine. “Don’t be silly! This is Mood Wine! Grab a glass!” they exclaimed while getting a good chuckle out of my mortification. Phew. Within seconds, we were greeted warmly by Patrick and Jake, who graciously welcomed us into their home and quickly filled our glasses.

Our first wine of the night was Bloem from the Cape of Good Hope—a chenin blanc, known as steen in South Africa, blended with viognier. Named after the Dutch word for flower, this aromatic white combines the bright stone fruit and creaminess of chenin blanc with the floral, citrus blossom notes and perfumed honeysuckle of viognier. It was a delightful way to start our evening!

We moved on to try the Remhoogte “Honeybunch” chenin blanc from the Stellenbosch region. The estate was founded in 1812 on the slopes of the famous Simonsberg Mountain; this property was not noted for its grapes at first, but rather the discovery of one of the largest diamonds ever found on Earth. The diamond was purchased by the Queen of England and sits proudly among the royal jewels. Because of this discovery, the Remhoogte family acquired the capital to plant vineyards and create one of the finest estates in Stellenbosch. (Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!) The wine is rich and golden with flavors of preserved lemon, pear and chamomile tea.

After a little nosh of salmon canapes and mini meatballs, we were poured the De Grendel rosé. There is nothing more beautiful than a glass of coppery pink rosé, and the aromatics wafting out of my glass were already making my mouth water. It’s a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and the country’s signature red grape, Pinotage. There was not a whiff of animal fur or bandages to be found; this rosé is all juicy strawberries, bubblegum and zippy grapefruit deliciousness.

The last wine of the night was a 100 percent Pinotage called Vantage by Remhoogte. What exactly is Pinotage, you ask? There is a very good chance you’ve never had this obscure little grape—and a pretty good chance you’ve never even heard of it. I know a great many somms and wine enthusiasts who would say “lucky you,” because Pinotage is considered an acquired taste. It was created in 1925 as a cross between pinot noir and cinsault—the latter otherwise known as hermitage. Combine those two words, and you get Pinotage (like Bennifer or Brangelina). But unlike its parents, it isn’t soft and silky and feminine; it’s hearty and bold and meaty. It’s ripe and textured with a dense mouthfeel. This is the signature grape of South Africa, and aside from a little being grown on the Sonoma Coast, you typically won’t see it anywhere else. People tend to have a very strong reaction to the wine and will either love it hate it. But the best examples, like the Vantage Pinotage we had this night, show that South Africa is capable of producing some of the most exciting wines in the world.

I’ve come to realize that what I love most about South African wine is the unique and distinct flavors that put off other people. The world of wine is becoming more and more homogenized, where every country is making cookie-cutter wines to appeal to a global palate—but South Africa is unapologetically eccentric, and I have learned to embrace those aromas that simply can’t be re-created anywhere else.

South Africa is a country of unmeasurable persistence. Every time they took a step forward to advance their wine industry, they were dealt a crushing blow that forced them to take two steps back. They overcame devastating phylloxera (aphids that kill grapevines), wars, economic destruction and the most crippling act of Apartheid. What this wine region has accomplished in the last 20 years, most countries couldn’t achieve in 100.

South Africa truly embodies passion and perseverance—and that’s something to which we can all raise a glass.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Everyone I know in the wine industry has had their own personal “Ah-ha!” moment—when wine became more than just a classy way to get drunk, when we went from simply enjoying the way the wine tastes to becoming consumed with every aspect of it.

Where was it grown? How was it grown? How did the winemaker ferment it? How long was it in a barrel, and what kind of barrel was it, and how big was the barrel?! That’s the moment we realized the wine was alive, has a personality and wants to be understood.

For me, that moment happened when I was in college. I applied for a job at a prominent steakhouse while going to school; I knew the difference between white and red, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. Thankfully, this steakhouse took a chance on me and informed me that if I was to keep the job, I would need to study the wine list and service procedures inside and out, and pass a test. Being the obliging little student that I was, I hit the books. I studied the regions, the grapes, the soils and the different price points. I bought every different (cheap) bottle of wine from Vons that I could afford and practiced opening them every night with a steady hand. I was determined to master the fine art of pouring without dripping on my makeshift tablecloth, which at the time was nothing more than an old dish rag. The more I immersed myself into the wine world, the more infatuated I became.

At the end of my training, I sat down to take the test I had so diligently prepared for … and I passed with flying colors. The reward for my hard work was a post-shift training meal with the managers. They ordered a few beautiful steaks and a couple of mouth-watering side dishes so I could experience the menu and better describe the flavors to the guests. As the chef approached the table to explain his creations to the neophyte I was, he asked the bartender for a specific bottle of wine. Within minutes, the cork was pulled, and the glasses were filled with my “Ah-ha!”

I was immediately struck with herbs and flowers and spice. There were beautiful aromas of cherry and figs intertwined with pepper and sweet cigar. As we sat and dined, I listened to Chef describe the food, but all I could think about was the wine—how, with every sip, I tasted something new. The wine was constantly evolving in my glass, and just when I thought I had it figured out, like a chameleon, it changed on me. I had never tasted anything like it.

That was the moment I knew this was going to be more than just a job to get me through school. This was going to be my career. A lot of years, and a few post-nominals later, I managed to prove my very Irish family wrong: You can, in fact, get paid to drink.  

One of the most frequent questions I am asked by budding wine enthusiasts is how they, too, can become a sommelier. The short answer is: You don’t. The common misconception is that sommeliers are the only body of wine knowledge out there, but the Court of Master Sommeliers is solely designed for those in the restaurant industry. This is a good thing: No average wine consumer should ever be subjected to the nerve-racking, hair-falling-out stress levels associated with the service practical. The blind tastings and exam are enough to give someone night terrors.

Much like the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Society of Wine Educators also has its own accreditation program where you can become a Certified Specialist of Wine and ultimately a Certified Wine Educator. These exams are incredibly difficult, not to mention expensive; while you don’t have to be in the industry to qualify for these tests, it really doesn’t make much sense for the average consumer to hold such a title. 

But … chin up, my budding wine-lovers! There are still lots of ways you can enhance your knowledge and become a credible wine consumer.

If you’ve truly found your passion and want to delve deeper into that beautiful glass of “Ah-ha!” the No. 1 resource I recommend is the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (wsetglobal.com), or WSET for short. This is the perfect information hub for someone who loves wine socially, but wants to take it more seriously—or perhaps even begin their own wine career. The trust has several levels that cater to individual wine prowess that get increasingly difficult as your knowledge progresses. You’ll need to commit to driving into Orange County, Los Angeles or San Diego to attend live classes and tastings, but there are online options available as well.

Speaking of online options, if you want to gain your information digitally, the Wine Spectator School (winespectator.com/school) and the Napa Valley Wine Academy (napavalleywineacademy.com) are fantastic alternatives to live classes. They both feature a ton of content and different classes specializing in specific regions or areas of knowledge.

Locally, there are a few places where you can go to taste and learn. While you won’t receive any credentials for attending these classes, they are easy and fun ways to expand your palate and gain a little more knowledge.

I recently went to the Bordeaux tasting at Total Wine and More in Palm Desert. For a meager $20, we tasted eight wines covering both the left and right bank, and even had a beautiful charcuterie spread prepared by The Real Italian Deli. Other than the fact that the last red wine we tasted had cork taint, and they served me warm Sauternes, the wines were decent, and the information was a pretty comprehensive Wine 101. They threw in a little humor here and there, and all in all, it was a pleasant way to spend the evening.

In La Quinta, yours truly hosts wine education afternoons once a month at Cooking With Class (cookingwithclasslq.com). We taste five to six wines, accompanied by artisanal cheeses, in a casual setting. The tastings usually last about 90 minutes and are designed to be fun and informative. I focus on food pairings, the stories behind the wines and unique varietals.

Lastly, you can always seek out private wine-tasting groups via Facebook, localwineevents.com, or your local wine shop. I know that Desert Wine and Spirits (desertwinesandspirits.com) in Palm Springs has great tastings once a week, and Dead or Alive Bar (deadoralivebar.com) always has unique, palate enhancing wines open to try. Desert Wine Shop on 111 (desertwineshop.com) also hosts regular wine get-togethers that are informal and social.

Other advice: Keep a wine journal. Take tasting notes. When you taste a wine, close your eyes; stick your nose in that glass; and inhale deeply. Be present and mindful, because wine is the greatest time machine there is.

The wine I tasted that fateful night was a 2001 Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape. I will never forget it, and it will always be my first love.

Your “Ah-ha!” moment is waiting … go taste it.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Here we are in 2018, 54 years since the first screw-cap wine was released—and somehow, people are still apprehensive about this alternative wine-sealing method.

At a recent wine-education seminar I was hosting, we did a side-by-side tasting of several wines. One of the first sets of wines we opened included a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, and one from California. One bottle had a cork; the other had a screw cap. The purpose behind this was not to showcase closures, but rather to highlight the differences between the same grape grown in two distinct places. As soon as the wine was opened, one of the attendees announced that, clearly, the cork-finished bottle would be a higher-quality wine.

Wait … what? Are we still having this debate? Yes. Yes we are. Le sigh.

The truth is ... I understand the attachment to natural cork. Hearing your wine crack open doesn’t quite have the same romanticism as hearing the gentle pop of a cork. But to suggest that good wine will only have a cork, and only cheap swill will have a screw cap, is a huge fallacy. Think of it like this: Just because Two-Buck Chuck has a cork, that doesn’t mean it is a good wine. And if it were finished with a screw cap, that wouldn’t make it any less desirable than it already is.

The real question lies in the cork itself. I suppose it’s easy to assume that all cork is created equal, and that when the foil capsule is cut away, if what you see looks like a cork, surely it must be cork, right? Uh, not exactly. I’ve found that most people are completely unaware of all the “manufactured” cork floating around out there. But just like a knock-off Louis Vuitton bag, if you look close enough, it’s easy to spot the imposter.

The reason natural cork has been the go-to sealant for about 400 years is because it has the flexibility and spongy spring-back to create a perfect seal. The goal has always been to prevent oxidation and have an impermeable barrier between the wine and the air. Corks, being the renewable and sustainable substance they are, became the Cinderella slipper—a perfect fit.

But real, natural cork is expensive, and the process from tree to wine bottle is laborious. The bark from a cork oak can only be harvested once every nine years or so. It is hand-punched from large, single planks, optically sorted and graded by quality. And even after all of the painstaking measures are taken to ensure a quality product, cork failure is still possible.

You might have heard your local wine nerd, aficionado or enthusiast talk about “cork taint.” If they’re getting super-nerdy, they’ll throw the acronym TCA around. In short, this is a result of microorganisms in cork feeding on naturally present chlorine and releasing a byproduct that smells musty, mildewy and dank. “Moldy cardboard,” “grandma’s basement” and “wet dog” are just some of the unpleasant aromas that a “corked” wine can emit. Other times, it can be so faint that even a trained sommelier can have trouble detecting its presence. But no matter the intensity, it will have an adverse effect on your wine. It can deaden the flavors and mute the fruit aromas—or be an all-out assault on your senses.

This is where corks become the bane of my existence. I put it into perspective like this: Let’s say you come to me looking for a suggestion on the newest, hippest, hottest wine. I gladly offer up a recommendation for a wine that is knock-your-socks-off good. You get home with said bottle, dinner cooking away on the stove, friends en route … when you pull the cork and pee-eww. This is one stinky bottle of vino. You’ve never had this wine before, so you’re not sure what it’s supposed to taste like, but you are pretty sure the stinky socks should come off before they stomp the grapes. So now what? If you’ll pardon the pun ... you’re screwed. And for that matter, so am I. Chances are, you’ll never take another recommendation from me. If I think that was a great bottle of wine, clearly you and I have very different opinions on what good wine is. In addition, it’s pretty safe to say you’ll never buy a bottle of wine from that producer again. You obviously don’t like his “style.” So there you have it: I’ve lost your confidence and your business; the winemaker has lost you as a buyer; and you have nothing to drink with your dinner. Everybody loses.

This is where “pseudo” cork comes in. How do we give consumers the cork they crave without the taint that ruins everything? Agglomerated corks. In short, these are small, ground-down pieces of natural cork that have been washed and cleaned of any taint and glued back together using a food-grade polymer. Think of them as the particleboard IKEA version of a cork—inexpensive but effective, as long as you don’t plan on keeping it for a long time.

There are a few other cork-like closures, like colmated corks, which are made with low-grade natural cork, plus cork dust and glue used to fill in any gaps or pores—thus making the cork smooth, dense and better at creating that airtight seal.

Synthetic corks are basically plastic- or resin-based, and they are nothing short of terrible. Not only do they adhere to the side of the bottle, making them almost impossible to remove; they also breakdown quickly (sometimes in as little as a year!), allowing air to get in, and—even worse—wine to leak out.

A tiny percentage of wine is closed with a Vinolok. This is a glass stopper with an inert o-ring that is said to create a hermetic seal. While they look super-cool and do a fine job of preventing oxidation, they must be manually inserted (hello, labor costs!) and are very expensive.

That brings us to the screw cap. Ahh, my beloved screw cap. How do I count the ways in which you are perfection? No wine opener needed. No chance of TCA, cork taint, wet dog or moldy funkiness. Stelvin closures (the fancy-pants name for screw caps) create a perfect seal and keep the wine fresh for a long, long time. I know that when I crack open that bottle, it’s going to taste the way the winemaker intended, and if I don’t like it, it’s because it truly isn’t my style—not because I got that one bad bottle. It’s true the jury is still out regarding screw caps’ ability to age wine, and while they do prevent oxidation, they can also create the opposite reaction where they don’t let in enough air, creating reduction. But in my experience, this is very rare.

The point, my friends, is this: No closure is perfect. Everything will have its pros and cons. Cork, cork granules, glass, plastic or metal—it all has a place in the wine world. Remember, it’s what’s in the bottle that matters most.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Dear Katie:

I just found a bottle of 2004 Fetzer chardonnay in my hall closet. It was on the floor hidden under a down comforter. Is it still good?

Sincerely,

Thirsty in La Quinta

 

Dear Thirsty:

No.

Sincerely,

Katie


This answer might seem obvious to a lot of people—obvious because the idea is that chardonnay doesn’t age well. Obvious because Fetzer is an inexpensive brand. Obvious because it’s been housed in a sweatbox. Maybe obvious to some because it’s from California, and the common perception is that only wines from Europe age well.

But … what if it isn’t so obvious? What if the scenario was a 1998 Caymus Special Selection? What if the bottle wasn’t in your sweltering hall closet, but rather in a temperature-controlled wine fridge or cellar?

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday. Thus, it was a perfect excuse to uncork some bottles from the year of my birth and discover what aged better: Me, or the wine?

I’ve had a bottle of 1978 Kalin Cellars zinfandel in my possession for a long time—so long, in fact, that I can’t remember who gave it to me. Nothing in my cellar filled me with as much joy as this bottle. I thought this wine would always remain uncorked and in my collection. Maybe with a little “do not disturb” sign on it. I figured I would keep it as a fun wine relic that made my collection legit. Because I was not the original owner, I had no idea how this bottle was treated before I started lovingly caring for it. There was a significant amount of ullage (fancy speak for wine evaporation), and the mold was creeping out from under the foil. After a lot of thought, I decided that I could always keep the bottle—but if I was going to taste this wine, crafted by two people of undisputed genius and integrity, now was the time.

To my amazement, the cork came out almost entirely in one piece and was completely soaked through. Immediately, I could smell musky leather and sweet cigar. There was an earthy spiciness to it and even a little dried cranberry. It was alive! I actually shrieked out loud as if the wine glass I was holding was a winning lottery ticket. This 40-year-old California zinfandel was not just drinkable—it was delicious. Imagine that.

My dear friends gifted me a magnum of 1978 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon. This was the inaugural vintage of this wine under the expertise of the great André Tchelistcheff. Otherwise known as “The Maestro,” this man is considered the founding father of Napa, and his passion and knowledge is unrivaled.

Pulling the cork from this bottle gave me chills. I was about to experience history. Before tour buses, phony castles and bachelorette parties made their mark on Napa, it was a place of great destiny and unfettered hope. The dream of potential greatness was now in my glass, and it did not disappoint. If I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, the wine was every bit a Bordeaux. Truffles and mint and licorice leaped from the glass. I was in heaven.

I was 2-for-2. 1978 was a very good year.

At a party the other night, one of my friends was telling me that she had recently gone to dinner with her husband to celebrate their anniversary. They decided to open a bottle of 2005 Far Niente cabernet—the year they got married—to commemorate the occasion. To their shock and sadness, they discovered the wine was far past its prime—an undrinkable waste of money.

The question was, of course: Why? Convention says that wine gets better with time, and this was an expensive bottle from a very reputable producer. They had handled the bottle appropriately, and it really wasn’t that old. How could my 40-year-old wines kick the flavor pants off the 13-year-old?

Should we add wine to the list of things no longer allowed to age gracefully?

These questions gave me a great excuse to call my smarty-pants brother-in-law who also happens to be the enologist for Hall Wines in Napa. We got all nerdy about phenolics and color precipitation, and he schooled me on wine stability and pH levels. This is not exactly riveting content for a layman, so to put it simply: We discussed how winemaking has changed.

When California began its wine career, the idea was to emulate Bordeaux as much as possible. The first step in doing so meant picking the grapes earlier. An earlier harvest means grapes with higher acid and lower sugar, which translates to lower-alcohol wines. These are going to be wines with a beautiful garnet or ruby color. These are wines that have a silky and elegant mouthfeel. These are wines that have flavors and aromas like violets, cedar and plums. These are wines that are meant to be aged.

More often than not, when you pull the cork on a cabernet from California nowadays, you will be met with an opaque, inky, almost black wine. These will be wines that are rich and opulent on your palate. Flavors like blackberries, black cherries, vanilla and licorice will jump up and smack you in the face. The wines will most likely have an alcohol percentage of at least 14.5. These are wines that you want to drink sooner than later.

Winemaking has evolved over the last 40 years because consumers needs have changed. Their palates have changed. We buy a wine at 11 a.m. in order to have something to drink that night with dinner. We are a Jack-and-Coke, gin-and-tonic culture that learned to embrace wine—as long as it packed the same punch as our cocktail. I’ve even seen T-shirts that say “no wimpy wines allowed.” So most winemakers, in a crazy scheme to make money, follow consumer demand and create fruity, ripe, high-alcohol wines that are meant to be consumed right now. Any cellaring that needs to be done has most likely already been done by the winery before the wine is ever released to the market.

So what does this all mean? In short, we can’t have it both ways. That full-bodied wine that’s ready to pair with your steak tonight is not going to blow your hair back in 13 years, let alone 40. All those beautiful up-in-your-face fruit flavors that come jumping out of that inky liquid are going to be the first thing to dissipate as the wine matures. Once those primary flavors and aromas are gone, the wine has nothing left to offer. Without the preservative power of enough acid or tannin (and a few other nerdy factors) that will help the wine soften gradually and allow the flavors to meld together, that high-octane juice is going to fall flat on its face. Or worse, it will become an expensive bottle of vinegar.

This is not to say that Napa isn’t producing age-worthy wines—it is! They are just not the norm anymore, and that means the consumer needs to do a little homework before buying.

When in doubt, err on the side of younger is better. (Ahem, I’m still talking about wine here). Find a reason to celebrate (The newspaper wasn’t in the gutter this morning!), and open that bottle.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

My introduction to the world of canned wine came earlier this spring, when I stumbled upon a unique beer/fruit/wine fusion called Foxie. I was delighted to see it is a collaboration between an awesome winery out of Paso Robles called Field Recordings, and Hoxie Spritzer, the Southern California company that single-handedly made drinking wine spritzers cool again.

Upon the first sip, I was in love—real, lasting love. Flavors of fresh, tart grapefruit with just a touch of bitter hoppiness were all supported by a base of gloriously dry rose and bubbly mineral water. No glass. No bottle opener. Just a girl and her frosty cold can of aahhhh.

I totally understand all the hype around boozy cans. Given the only way to stay sane this time of year is to spend any and all free time in a pool (or the vegetable walk-in at Costco … but they told me I couldn’t drink in there anymore), the need for a glass-free way to enjoy wine is paramount. The more you think about it, the more obvious it is that cans should be the new frontier of wine packaging: Concerts, golf courses, movie theaters, public parks, beaches … all are a no-go for your bottle of vino and fancy Riedel glassware.

Cans have a lot going for them. They are easy to store and far easier to lug around in a cooler or backpack than a bottle. You don’t have to worry about cans breaking, and they chill down really quickly. They don’t require any extra stuff—like glasses, a corkscrew or a special insulated bag tall enough to fit the bottle. And the best feature is that they are far less conspicuous when you need a nip on the down-low. (There’s just something about pulling a wine bottle out of your diaper bag that feels wrong.)

I’d never really noticed canned wine on my shopping trips, so I figured that I might have a half-dozen or so options when I went to collect my R&D samples. I was so wrong—like, I-have-been-in-a-coma-while-cruising-the-wine-department wrong. Not only did Total Wine greet me with two huge displays of canned wine; I was also led to a floor-to-ceiling section down one of the aisles. Whole Foods has a more limited selection, but there is definitely a quality-over-quantity theme there, and the pricing isn’t any higher than their competitors.

I decided that I already had the beer/fruit/wine concoction nailed, so now it was time to see how plain ol’ wine fared in this trendy and highly portable vessel. I narrowed down the overwhelming selections by producers and availability. I didn’t want to grab anything too obscure or hard to find, so everything I chose is widely distributed and easy to get your hands on. (Not that you’d necessarily want to get your hands on all of this … but we’ll get to that in a minute.) All in all, I procured 12 different producers with 20 different offerings.

Then I grabbed some In-n-Out, phoned a few friends to come over, and started poppin’ tops. I’ll spare you all the gruesome details and give you the highlights. If nothing else, this was one of the most educational, thought-provoking and eye-opening tastings I’ve ever done.

Right away, we noticed that few of the cans featured a vintage. In fact, only three of the 12 producers had it somewhere visible on the can, and even then, we had to really search for it. The Tangent wines out of San Luis Obispo, Dark Horse from Modesto, and Underwood from Oregon—the pioneer of the canned-wine movement—displayed a vintage somewhere … even if that meant it was printed in teeny tiny numbers on the bottom of the can. I’m assuming the rest are not non-vintage wines, but the makers omitted printing a vintage on the label in an attempt to control printing/packaging costs. But who knows.

I decided that to help create a more unbiased opinion, we would taste each of these out of proper wine glasses. This might have actually been to the detriment of the wines, because every one of them—when poured into a glass—had some effervescence. It died down pretty quickly in some of them, but there’s something about seeing a fizzy cabernet being poured out of a can that is slightly unsettling.

I should also mention that I served these at what would be considered proper wine temperature. That was a big mistake, too: When it comes to canned wine, colder is better. The next day, I popped open a few more samples that had been in my 38-degree refrigerator overnight, and a lot of the unsavory qualities we found the wine to have the day before had magically disappeared. I also chose to drink these right out of the can—and discovered that is definitely the way to go.

All of the wines had a significant sweetness, with some featuring a fake fruity quality. In the worst examples, that resembled cough syrup; in the not-so-offensive wines, it tasted kind of like a fruit roll-up. The cold wines I pulled and drank from the fridge also lost the noxious rubber/sulfur smell that made a few of them absolutely undrinkable the night before.

There were clear winners and favorites—and some, while not my preferred style, are definitely drinkable and enjoyable. We discovered the whites are better than reds, and the roses are all pretty damn gulpable.

Here’s the list of what came out ahead:

• The favorite of the night was the Dark Horse 2017 rose from Modesto, of all places. I had never heard of Dark Horse, and would have never thought a wine from the armpit of the state could produce such lovely flavors and aromas. I’ve apparently painted Modesto all wrong, and Dark Horse is to be taken quite literally: The packaging is great, and the wine is clean and fresh with all the strawberry, rhubarb and ripe watermelon flavors for which you’d hope. It didn’t give off that funky, gassy smell when opened, and didn’t have a lot of effervescence right out of the gate.

• The best overall producer was Tangent from San Luis Obispo. Both the 2016 rose and sauvignon blanc were varietally correct in their flavor profiles, with bright acidity and none of the phony fruitiness of their competitors. The cans look great, and the labels had all the important geeky information like vintage, vineyard, varietal and place. Well done, Tangent!

• We all agreed that the Underwood Wines from Oregon are solid and very drinkable. We tasted the 2016 pinot gris and pinot noir, and the 2017 rose. While they all had that distinct sweetness and just a little factory-produced fruitiness, there was nothing unpleasant about them, and the pinot noir was the undisputed favorite among all the reds we tried.

There were quite a few chardonnays on the table that night. This was, by far, the most painful category. One of them was unequivocally the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. I thought for a moment that I might have thrown up in my mouth—but, no, it was just the wine. There were, however, two producers that created chardonnays for someone who loves California chardonnay: Westside Wine Co. and Alloy Wine Works are perfect casual sippers for anyone who loves their oaky, buttery, vanilla-laced chardonnay.

So … what have we learned? When the bottle is banned, reach for a can of really cold rose (or that super delicious grapefruit Foxie). Pop it; slug it back; and say aahhhh.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Oh, millennials. They’re so hard to keep up with, with all their abbreviated words and vegan, plant-based burgers.

Snark aside, millennials have an overwhelming amount of consumer power—so what they want, they get. The wine world is no exception, and right now, what millennials want is the wine equivalent of the unbathed, unshaven hippie—the un-photoshopped, makeup-free, I-woke-up-like-this wine … otherwise known as “natural wine.” Given that kids these days can’t seem to use words in their entirety, these wines, of course, are also called “natty wines.”

So what, exactly, is a natural wine? For starters, “natural wines” have no clear and regulated definition. They are absolutely not the same as being organic or biodynamic, although it’s safe to say all winemakers who adhere to the natural-winemaking philosophy wouldn’t think of using grapes that were not organic or biodynamic. However, organic and biodynamic wines are a result of grape-growing and grape-farming practices in the vineyard that are closely monitored and have strict guidelines for certification. Natural wines are created based on decisions the winemakers make in the winery—without any specific criteria. That said, there is a common approach to natural winemaking: The ideology across the board is to have minimal intervention.

The largest and perhaps most controversial aspect to natural wines is the exclusion of sulfur. If you want to sound like a cool kid, the term is sans soufre. Simply saying “no sulfur” is really quite pedestrian. Call it what you want, but sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring byproduct of wine fermentation. What we are talking about here is the addition of sulfur dioxide to prevent bacteria growth and spoilage. I, for one, will never be mad at the necessary addition of sulfur as a preservative. After all, I don’t want my wine to taste like a dirty diaper or a mouse cage that hasn’t been cleaned for seven years.

Another benchmark for natural wines is not filtering out particulates—so your bottle of “natty juice” is probably going to look cloudy with little “thingys” floating around. These little “thingys” aren’t bad for you and (probably) won’t make you sick, but the presence of all those proteins, microbes and organisms floating around can make the wine unstable and quick to spoil—not to mention taste sour, tangy and a little bit like my father’s barn.

By not filtering or adding more sulfur dioxide, winemakers are attempting to retain the “purity” of the wine. I totally get it: In an industry that’s been plagued by winemaker over-manipulation, thus creating homogenized and industrialized wines, it’s refreshing to try wines that are left the hell alone. But to what end? Liking a wine that doesn’t have additional sulfur dioxide just because it doesn’t have additional sulfur dioxide is like liking a wine just because it’s $300. At some point, we need to recognize that the proof is in the pudding.

Other aspects of the natural-wine movement include whole-cluster fermentation—the act of not destemming the grapes, but rather throwing the whole bunch into the tank to create depth of flavor and heightened textures; and allowing the wine to ferment with native yeasts as opposed to controlled, cultivated yeast strains. So whatever wild yeasts hitched a ride on the grapes on their way into the winery is whatcha got. Fun! If not a little unpredictable.

Oak barrels have also fallen victim to the natural-wine craze. This is not a bad thing; I’m happy to see the over-oaked pendulum swing in the other direction. Honestly, I loathe oakiness in wine, so the rise of alternative aging and fermenting vehicles is a happy sight. So, what is the new winemaker fermentation device du jour? Vessels like concrete eggs are ideal at fermenting without imparting flavor, and clay pots like ancient amphorae are used in an attempt to get back to our Roman winemaking roots. (I guess?)

Again: Purity and an honest, untainted expression of the wine is the goal—allowing the wine to be the master of its own fate and unveil its unique personality without a winemaker fingerprint. It’s actually a really exciting and profound thing, if you think about it—almost Daoist in its simplicity. But I have to wonder if the lack of winemaker intervention is creating a new kind of homogenized wine, where all the wines have a strange kind of kombucha-esque quality and really don’t offer that clean, terrior-driven sense of place that is sommelier cat nip. Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction?

I clearly remember my first natural wine experience. I was at a Calistoga party house—an exquisite home owned by a wine family where nobody actually resides; its purpose is to host epic parties and have attendees crash out—with a dear friend who had a bottle of Cruse Wine Co. St. Laurent Petillant Naturel. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I’d had the St. Laurent grape, and I know it was the first time I had experienced a sparkling wine called petillant naturel, also known in its abbreviated form (natch) as pet nat. This little darling is quite simply a sparkling wine made in an ancient—or, as it’s called, “ancestral”—way by bottling still-fermenting juice, and sealing it with a crown cap (like a beer); this allows the carbon dioxide to continue to build and finish fermenting in the bottle. The result is a delicately sparkling wine that’s a little fuzzy-looking, but delicious as hell.

Wanna jump on the natural wine bandwagon? Elisabetta Foradori is always a go-to for me, as is anything made by Marcel Lapierre. If you want your mind blown, Josko Gravner is the Holy Grail. Domestically, you can find some unique versions by Donkey and Goat, and Tendu by Matthiasson is an awesome summer sipper.

Those millennials. They’re a pretty hip and thought-provoking group. Just maybe, they’re onto something.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Wine is scary and intimidating. I get it; it has its own language full of science-y words. It comes from places we’ve never heard of, from grapes we can’t pronounce.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there is a whole fleet of wannabe wine experts just waiting to correct that word you mispronounced, or inform you that even though the wine you like is ”OK,” they like one that is, by far, better. And just how do they know that this wine of theirs is superior?

It got a huge score, naturally.

Before I proceed to rip apart the wine-scoring system that Americans cling to like cellophane-wrapped cheese, I want to point out that we have come a long way in our wine journey. Before wine became hip in this country, we were a Jack-and-Coke, Seven-and-Seven, cosmo-drinking culture. Wine was for snobs or elitists or Europeans. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to go to any city and not find at least one wine bar. We no longer associate all pink wine with sweet swill, or turn our nose up at something foreign. Walk into any supermarket today, and you will find a highly developed wine section with multiple offerings spanning the globe—a far cry from the olden days of one wall of wine that featured domestic, cheap chardonnay and merlot. Well done, America!

So … why—with all this wine sophistication and savvy that consumers now have—do we still hold tight to stupid scores?

Every time someone tells me that wine XYZ got 98 points, or that Chateau Crème de la Crème got a disappointing 87, I start twitching, and my insides get hot. There are so many things about the point scale that bother me, but the No. 1 thorn in my side is the notion that I am supposed to care about that number. There is a pervasive idea that we should respect a system that reduces wine to nothing more than a high school science project graded by a potentially burnt-out expert who may or may not be distracted with thoughts of their long-overdue Hawaiian vacation.

Giving a wine a score—a hard and fast number to hang around its neck like a noose—does nothing positive for the wine industry. In fact, I will say it has been the greatest hindrance to our blossoming wine culture. It infantilizes our decision-making and hogties us from being able to discover what we like about certain wines. Take me, for example: I happen to love wines that are bracingly acidic. I want there to be so much raging acid in my wine that it stings my tongue and makes me wince a little. What if gave 100 points to every wine that resulted in a slight chemical burn? It seems silly for a professional to tout such a concept, but I assure you it is no different than Robert Parker awarding 100 points to wines that are too-concentrated, overly alcoholic, hyper-extracted fruit-bombs. The only benefit I’ve ever found in such ridiculousness is that if Parker gave it a big score, I knew I’d hate it. My wallet and I are very grateful for that, because the other pitfall is, of course, that as soon as a wine reaches Wine Spectator/Wine Advocate stardom, not only does that wine immediately sell out; you are guaranteed to see that wine double in price, if you ever see it again.

Points give consumers the false idea that there is such a thing as a “perfect” wine: 100 points awarded for being flawless! According to that guy. On that one day. And that guy’s palate on that day. By giving power to the points, we fail to acknowledge that wine is a moving target. It is a living thing affected by all kinds of variables, the most important of which is you. I actually feel sorry for wines that get 100 points; chances are, they will never achieve that status again, and thus, they’ll never be quite as good as they used to be. In that same vein, I feel pretty sorry for us consumers, too: We will constantly be subjected to a wine industry chasing those big scores and crafting wines to appeal to what that guy likes—row after row of wines like little Stepford wives that are perfectly bland and soulless.

I often wonder if the scores these wines get would change if the circumstances were different when the wines were tasted. Maybe that Central Coast syrah wouldn’t taste like 95 points with a plate of yellowtail sashimi. Just maybe, in that same scenario, the 87-point chenin blanc just got a little bit better? Points eliminate context. Are we always just drinking wine alone, without food, in a vacuum—or do you actually eat during the day? Just last night, I opened a bottle of Spanish cava with some friends as we downed a bucket of cheap fried chicken. It was glorious (seriously, one of the best pairings you’ll ever have), and the bubbles were exquisite. Would I have enjoyed it any less if the cava received an 82? Nope. And I find the very notion of my pleasure being dictated by a number irresponsible and more than just a little bit laughable.

“I give that donut a solid 91!”

“That massage was an 88 at best.”

“Your house is lovely, but there’s no pool, so you get an 83.”

Sounds ludicrous, right?

Scores will obviously continue to be used, and despite my ranting, I do understand why; I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. Scores act like little life vests to shoppers drowning in a sea of options. The idea is that scores help people paralyzed with the fear of buying the “wrong” wine. I’m here to tell you there is no such thing: No matter what the score is, you’ll always be faced with the unknown flavor in the bottle. Scores are not a guarantee that you’ll like the wine. They simply imply that someone likes the wine, and maybe you will, too.

I feel certain that you know your palate better than anyone else, and you probably know more about wine than you realize.

Trust yourself.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

When I took my first sommelier exam 15 years ago (gasp!), it’s safe to say that most people didn’t know what a sommelier was. In fact, I once told someone I was a sommelier, and not being familiar with that word, he was convinced I was trying to tell him I was Somalian.

Fast-forward over the years, and we’ve seen the emergence of the foodie culture, the globalization of wine, and the idea of a sommelier going from obscurity to the mainstream. Hell, there’s even a movie that put this odd little profession of nerds in the Hollywood spotlight.

But even with sommeliers garnering more recognition and even a little notoriety, I can’t help but wonder if people really know what it is that we do. What does it mean to be a sommelier? Sometimes I think even people in our industry have forgotten what our purpose is.

For me, being a somm has always translated to wine education, and because I’ve made it my mission to get as many people drinking as much weird wine as possible, I always encourage questions at my tastings—and I get lots and lots of them. In my mind, they’re all valid (No, really!), because to me, there’s nothing worse than a self-proclaimed "wine expert" who won’t ask questions about what he doesn’t know, because he thinks he should already know. However, some questions are better than others. Dare I say … some are more intriguing than others?

At a recent wine dinner, I had the opportunity to answer one of my all-time-favorite questions. I was blabbing on and on about quality to value ratios, and seeking out great wines for the price, and finding "hidden gems" when I heard this:

So, do you think a wine like Screaming Eagle is worth its price?

I love these questions so much, because they really don’t have an answer. On one hand, yes, if you have the means and desire to spend $4,000 on a bottle of wine that you will probably never drink, because chances are, you’re looking at this as a collectible—much like someone buying a vintage car that they will never drive. It’s not about practicality or function; it’s about owning something very few people can lay claim to.

On the other hand … no way. The very idea is absurd, especially given that wine does, indeed, have a shelf life. The whole purpose of wine is enjoyment, and if you are purchasing a bottle of Screaming Eagle, and plan on pulling the cork and gleefully sipping it to your heart’s content, could it possibly bring you more joy than if the bottle cost you $400? Or $40? Many would argue … no.

But as far as a sommelier is concerned, the answer should be: “Who cares?” The truth is, wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan and Opus One bore me. There is no denying they are exceptional; they are rare, perfectly crafted, shining examples of what Napa is capable of, and anyone who buys a bottle should expect nothing less. If you’re spending $500 on a bottle of California cabernet, there’s no crap-shoot involved: You can pat yourself on the back and rest assured the wine you’ve purchased will be stellar. If I recommend a bottle of Cliff Lede’s Poetry, Dalla Valle’s Maya or Shafer’s Hillside Select, have I really done my job … or do these wines just make my job easy?

I like to think that a sommelier’s purpose is to do what the consumer cannot: We are the flavor-finders, the value-hunters, and the detective of wine secrets. We know how to identify a great bottle of wine, from a great producer, who’s using quality fruit under strict confidentiality from a famous vineyard. Maybe it’s a wine from a region that’s up and coming. Maybe it’s a varietal that is making a comeback or fell into obscurity. Maybe it’s a side project from a famous winemaker who started a new label just for the fun it. Our job is to find the wine that’s $20, but drinks like it’s a $75 bottle. Our job is to find your perfect bottle of wine.

The beauty is: Those wines are everywhere!

The Fortnight cabernet, made by Napa legend Charles Hendricks, which we featured at our wine dinner at Cooking With Class, is a perfect example. Charles has made wine everywhere from Viader to Regusci, and now makes this fun side project in Calistoga with his friends at T-Vine. It’s labeled “California,” because from one year to the next, the fruit sources will be different. The varietal blend will be different. But the outcome is consistent: It’s a wine less than $20 that is downright delicious and a crowd-pleaser.

The Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti is the best wine deal going at Costco as of this writing. I have a case of this in my “cellar” at all times. This is one of the most notable producers in Piedmont, Italy, and this Barbera is juicy and ripe, with the perfect amount of acidity, body and fruit. This is the epitome of the Tuesday-night-with-homemade-spaghetti wine. Did I mention it’s $8.99 a bottle?

How about a deliciously drinkable pinot noir from Macedonia? I’m willing to bet you’ve never had a wine from Macedonia before. I recently grabbed a bottle of the Macedon pinot noir from Whole Foods and spent $15. I went home and drank it with some prosciutto and a triple-cream brie. ’Nuff said.

One more insider tip: If you want the best bang for your buck, make a beeline right for the Spanish wines. Spain really is a revelation in the world of wine these days. If you are a fan of the more classic European style, look for a Rioja. The ones from CVNE (pronounced COO-nay) will never disappoint you. If you like more fruit-forward, ripe and bold styles, à la California, the grenaches from Priorat or a lovely mencia from Bierzo are right up your alley. The Palacios family is my go-to for both regions! Are you looking for light and crisp refreshing wines for a warm evening? You can’t go wrong with a fresh, peachy albariño from the Rias Baixas (REE-ahs By-shas), or a zippy, citrusy rueda made from Verdelho. And don’t even get me started on sparkling wine. Remind me again why everyone is drinking Italian prosecco when Spanish cava is better AND cheaper?

Being a sommelier is all about the love of wine. We’re here so the consumer doesn’t get ripped off (ideally). We are matchmakers. We find the right wine for the right person. We save you time, money and the frustration of another disappointing bottle. We offer up wildly new and exciting bottles from grapes you didn’t even know existed. And we will happily give you your security-blanket bottle of cabernet.

I am lucky. I love what I do. Now, sit back, relax … and just trust me.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

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