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The YEG Wine Scene is Alive and Buzzing!

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So, I spent this past weekend pouring wine at the Rocky Mountain Food and Wine Festival at the Shaw Conference Center in Edmonton, and it was awesome! I have spent the better part of the last two years trying to explain to people from all over the globe that Edmonton, and Alberta as a whole is a wine market bursting at the seams and about to explode. If I got one thing from this past weekend, it is that I am absolutely correct, and I couldn’t be happier.

I brought in a great friend of mine from the Toronto area to help with the huge demand of pouring wine for 12,000 people, and he couldn’t stop saying how great the vibe was, how interested the guests were in what they were tasting, and not just looking to get a buzz. Many wine and food events turn in to a bit of a drinking festival, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can be a bit disheartening for passionate winemakers and representatives.

The most uplifting thing about working this past weekend event, is that I lost my voice by Sunday after answering all of the questions and explaining our wines over and over again, and you will never hear me complain about that. I love wine and food so much that I decided to turn it in to a career, and I banked on the consumers of Alberta to share that passion – well this weekend proved to me that I made the right decision. What is even more exciting than that, is the fact that we are at the start of something special. The wine scene is still in its infancy here in Edmonton.

Most restaurants still do not employ a fully dedicated sommelier, or even really put a focus on the importance of pairing their food with the right wine, so it is a real treat when you find one that does. The part in all of this that I am most excited about is that the consumers of Edmonton are the real drivers of new discoveries and push the availability of great wines in the right direction, as long as they are asking for it. So, after this weekend, I am completely charged with enthusiasm knowing I am in a city full of so many wine enthusiasts that seem to be asking for more, and are willing to accept the next wave of new and exciting wines, and the Edmonton wine industry is chomping at the bit to deliver and you can find fantastic wines from all regions at Characters Restaurant to enjoy.

By: TJ Harstine/Certified Sommelier

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Why do I Need to Taste my Wine Order?

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“I don’t like this one, let’s try…” NOOOOOOOO! If you have ever worked as a Sommelier, this is probably one of the most dreaded statements you can hear. Why is this such a dreadful sentence??? Allow me to shed some light on the purpose of tasting your wine order before your Somm or Server starts to pour it for the rest of the table.

When you are seated at your table and get nominated to order the wine for your group, how do you make the right choice? Even more so, when the bottle arrives and they pour that pro sized ounce into your extra-large glass and place you on center stage to not only swirl like a pro (nothing better than watching someone find a way to turn an ounce of wine into a murder scene when swirling all to vigorously) but also to sniff, taste and comment on whether or not this bottle is acceptable!!! A hefty task even for the intermediate wino, but what the heck are you looking for when trying to decipher how acceptable your choice is? FAULTS! Plain and simple.

The small little taste test that you are always presented with – before the bottle is poured to the rest of your table and then back to you, is not intended to find out if you like the wine at all, it is simply to ensure that your bottle is not faulted, and acceptable to drink. I will be clear that your Server or Sommelier should never, and hopefully would never make you aware of this if you were to turn away a perfectly acceptable bottle of wine however, I think it is important for more people to understand the purpose of this little process and avoid making this not so publically discussed faux pas yourself. Not to get in to too much detail on the “How to Order the Right Wine” topic, that will need an entire blog or two on its own to discuss, but in essence, you should know that you want that particular bottle of wine before you commit to opening it for your table. The reason for this is that once the wine is opened, the clock is ticking and the restaurant will have to try to recover that cost by hand selling it by the glass before it goes bad after you decide it was not to your liking. So now that that is out of the way, what does a faulted wine smell and taste like? Well to be honest, you can usually tell that the wine is off just by the smell.

To keep things simple, I am only going to talk about one fault, and the fault that the vast majority of “faulted” wines falls victim to. “IT’S CORKED!!!” Another term dreaded by the wine enthusiast, and not all that rare when you are opening multiple bottles night after night. Unfortunately, this fault is probably present in about 1 in every 25 bottes the last I checked, and actually has nothing to do with the wine. Cork Taint, or “Corked” wine is the term used to describe a wine that has come into contact with a chemical compound called TCA for short (trichloranisole for long), and comes from or through, you guessed it… The cork. This issue is not a problem to be blamed on the winery and has nothing to do with the quality of the wine. So, don’t go writing off your favourite wine because someone declares it is horribly corked. This won’t really hurt you or make you sick, but you really don’t want to drink it, because it smells and tastes pretty awful.

To prepare you for this issue when you are on the hook for deciding whether or not your wine order is in fact tainted, here are a few ideas of what to look for when performing your ever so important sniff test. If you know what a moldy basement, wet newspaper, wet dog, or any other somewhat moldy damp odor smells like, then you will recognize cork taint right away, and if you’re not sure, swirl a few more times and check again, it gets worse with more oxygen contact. If you do have a smell and recognize that wet basement odor, simply refuse the bottle and have your Server/Sommelier bring another, it’s really no biggie. If you want a little insider info… When your Server/Somm comes back and claims that the bottle was the last one and have suggested something else, chances are it wasn’t corked and their just being nice… Or they really are out and I am just being cynical, either one is completely possible. So, have yourselves a great week, and remember! Don’t turn away a perfectly acceptable wine, and definitely don’t drink wine that smells like a moldy, wet old basement.

Cheers!

By: TJ Harstine

Certified Sommelier

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Are Sulphites Really Such a Big Deal?

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Almost every wine show, seminar or in general every time I speak to a group about wine, I get the now dreaded sulphite question. I have heard everything from “Sulphites give you headaches” to “Italian wine doesn’t have sulphites” and let me assure you, sulphites are probably not your headache problem, and Italian wine most definitely contains just as much sulphites as any other. So why is this such a hot topic? Over the past decade or perhaps a little shorter, the topic of sulphites in wine has grown in popularity for a number of reasons, and continues to be the subject of controversy. This has a lot to do with wine drinkers continuously trying to find a blame for the dreaded hangover (guess what, you drank too much!) and has also been the focus of the ever growing and prominent “Natural Wine” scene. To be clear, natural wine is a wine that has been made without the addition of sulphites, but not a wine that contains NO SULPHITES, as many people misquote.

So what the heck are we all talking about here? Well sulphites are naturally occurring during the winemaking process, and also an additive that acts as both an anti-bacterial and antioxidant. Why is that important? Well since there is the possibility for there to be bad bacteria in either the winery or the vineyard that can ruin your grapes, and/or wine, it is important to protect them throughout the process. And since oxygen can be wines best friend or much more commonly worst enemy, it is extremely important to protect it from the dreaded oxidation before necessary. So in short, sulphur dioxide is not just some additive that bulk production wineries throw at their wines in order to give you a headache, and has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the wine; in fact you would be hard pressed to find a common super-premium wine that does not have added sulphites.

Most wineries try to add as little SO2 (Sulphur Dioxide) as possible, even your big production wineries are not interested in loading their wines with un-needed doses of SO2. To give you an idea of how much SO2 is added to a wine during the winemaking process, I would say that a common range I have been made aware of is around 20-80mg per litre, so we are talking some very small amounts. So to answer the title question for this blog… YES! Sulphites are a big deal, just not the way you may have heard. Wineries need SO2 to insure that their wines are clean and fresh by the time they are released, and also so that you can hold on to that wine in your cellar while it continues to develop all of those beautiful nuances that come with gentle bottle age. I will not claim to know if they are the cause for your headache or hangover or if you are intolerant to them (Sigh…) but all of my research has pointed to that NOT being the case. When people drink, they are usually also not consuming water, therefore becoming dehydrated, a very common cause of headaches. It is also increasingly common to eat foods that you would not normally consume when you are drinking wine, and most common of all we have a bit more wine than we are willing to admit, almost always resulting in feeling a little less than 100% the next morning, I could go on but you get the idea. So my goal with this blog is to simply provide some accurate information on the purpose of adding SO2 to a wine, and allow you the reader, and consumer to make whatever conclusion you feel fits the information.

I would also like to make very clear that there are some absolutely stunning examples of wines made without the addition of SO2 (Look at the Loire Valley reds and Beaujolais to find a few) and are totally worth trying, but lets give Sulphites a break here, and not let that taint your opinion before you dive in and have a taste. Oh and one more thing! If you are reading this, PLEASE give your sommelier a break and don’t ask them about sulphites your next night out, they are probably a bit tired of answering questions of that nature. You will probably benefit much more asking them about the back story behind your wine choice, if you have a moment or two that is.

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by: TJ Harstine Certified Sommelier

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Wine Prices,Whats the Deal? Part-2

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Before I get in to demand, I should touch on the cost of getting a wine to market. This is a tricky topic because like almost everything else in the wine world, it doesn’t necessarily make perfect sense. You would think that imported wine would be more expensive than domestic product, however in most cases it is actually the opposite due to taxes and trade agreements. Now to avoid going on about boring business costs for too long, lets just acknowledge that there is a cost that comes with selling your wine, and leave it at that, moving on…  Time to talk about demand. As much as you may think this is directly linked to supply, that certainly is not always the case. The demand for a wine can be a very unique thing at times, and does not always follow the normal economic trends like other goods might. It is not always dependent on the individual quality of each wine, and their certainly is not a simple formula that determines the demand of each wine. You have to think about where the wine was made, is it from a famous region? I can re-use my Napa and Bordeaux reference once again to describe regional price influence (they generally garner higher prices as a base). Some wineries have to claw and scratch to gain recognition and then eventually raise their demand. Spending a long time making very little money due to their high production costs making great wine but low margins due to being stuck in a region not well known for expensive wines; see the red wines of the Loire for an example of a region clawing and scratching for a few hundred years, and recently having some success.

Then you have media attention – wine critics, magazines, blogs and so on. Of course there is the fact that wine is produced annually with only a limited supply from each winery, and therefore you have to factor in the supply, even though this often does not become a factor until you get in to back vintages (older vintages of a particular wine).  So what does all of this mean at the end of the day? Well to try and explain this quickly lets use a few examples.  Starting with one of my favourite places on earth to visit and also synonymous with one of my favourite liquids to consume – Champagne.  Right away having the word Champagne on a bottle of bubbly wine will increase the base price that that particular wine will be able to demand when placed along side a comparable product from any region not named Champagne. There are many reasons for this, and I could describe a plethora of them, but how many other consumers can? My point is that as much as there are many good reasons to enjoy Champagne when craving bubbles, it is generally just the recognition of the word Champagne that creates the higher demand in the eyes of the consumer and to be fair, Champagne has largely become what most people call ALL sparkling wine just as people ask you for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, so it is pretty justified. So that is the regional influence in a nutshell, and can be applied to many other regions throughout the world, although Champagne definitely wins in terms of regional recognition.  Next up lets get in to media attention and the influence that can have on a wines final price.  To describe this I may as well use an example from another region that I have mentioned; The Loire Valley. This is of course the ultra sought after and extremely hard to acquire wines of Clos Rougeard.  Never heard of them??? No surprise, they are still under the radar, but don’t expect to pay anything short of outrageous for a bottle of their exquisite Cabernet Franc.

This is a great example of a winery that kept their head down and made ridiculously over-performing wines for years, and sold them for very reasonable prices. Until some time shortly after 1993 when a bottle of their 1990 Le Bourg Saumur-Champigny was snuck in to a blind tasting along side the likes of Petrus and Le Pin among other top 1990 Pomerol producers that sold for much, much higher prices, and was awarded the highest average score!  Just like that, a new cult wine emerged, and the demand skyrocketed to a point that the wines are pre-sold for years. Whats nice is that typically when one winery in a relatively under appreciated region is discovered, it shines a light on the rest of the region and allows other great wineries to start earning a buck or two, or three, or… well you get it.  So what is the end result of this strange and sometimes confusing pricing game that runs through the wine industry? For the most part it simply means that when it comes to wine, you are generally getting what you pay for at the higher price points, which is a relief because at least you know your not getting ripped off. But what is much more exciting, is that it also means you can find some crazy good deals out there that perhaps have not been discovered yet, and you can enjoy wines that hold the same quality as some of your super-premiums without killing your bank account.  So I say good luck to you on your journey to enjoying some beautiful and delicious wines at any price point, and hopefully this helps you feel a little more comfortable when putting a few extra bucks out there, or giving an unknown star a shot at becoming your new favourite.

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By: TJ Harstine/ Certified Sommelier

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Wine Prices, Whats the Deal?

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Part 1

Does that $300 bottle really taste better than that $75 bottle? To be truthful, I have no idea. A question like that is only answered by the individual tasting the wine, but WHY is that bottle $300? Now that is a a question that can be answered…sort of

To describe why a wine price is so high is to simply talk basic economics. First you have the cost of production, the cost of getting to market, then there is the demand, and of course the supply. There are definitely many other factors that can sneak into the mix, like the personal ideas or motivations of the proprietor, but to keep it simple lets talk about the 4 main reasons behind determining prices.

Firstly there is the simple and obvious cost of production. This can be influenced in many ways throughout the process of making each wine. Depending on whether or not the winery is new, old, or somewhere in between can affect the production cost a great deal. If the winery is brand new, the proprietors will be carrying a large start up cost like any new business, although the wine business certainly ain’t cheap. Purchasing property in an established wine region is anything but affordable, and the cost of building a winemaking facility only gets more taxing on the pocket book, oh right, then there are the taxes, damn the government! It can be argued that startup costs should not factor in the price of your wine but to be honest, it almost always does, so I thought I would mention it. Then you have the vineyard practices. Do you farm organically? Do you control your yield and if so how much fruit do you drop throughout the year? These are a few factors that can become quite expensive in the vineyard. As a quick example: some vineyards may harvest a crop of over 5 tons of grapes per acre while others may choose to crop closer to 2 tons per acre, and this will undoubtedly result in a more expensive wine as the winery cropping at 2 tons is surely spending more time and money controlling their volumes while ensuring only the best quality grapes get into their wines. Once you get passed that and to harvest time, you then have the option of mechanical harvest which can save some time and money, or hand harvesting which takes longer and is much more labour intensive and usually higher cost. Now that the grapes are harvested you are dealing with a plethora of ways that the cost can vary once in the winery. To keep the list short, the best way to describe winery costs is to think about the time each wine spends being made and its wait time before being released for purchase. One of the main factors that can drive a wines production cost up is barrel ageing. Not only do barrels cost a lot of money, some of which can reach the thousands for a single barrel that holds about 300 bottles of wine, it also means that the wine will have to rest inside that barrel for an extended period of time [sometimes upwards of 2 years and in some cases well beyond that]. So if you are making a wine aged in 100% new oak for 2 years (Can anyone say Oak Bomb! Okay, maybe not, but probably?!) you are not only spending thousands and thousands of dollars on the barrels to age this wine, you are also waiting an additional 2 years before you can see any return on all of your hard work and investment. Think of some of your favourite and most expensive red wines you enjoy from say Napa, or Bordeaux, both regions that are notorious for using new oak on their wines. Beyond this there are certainly many more cost factors that must be considered, but this should give you something to think about when wondering what went into making that $300 bottle of wine and keep in mind that expensive does not always mean better. More likely it means that a lot more time and money went in to making it, which HOPEFULLY means better.

Check out Part Two next week when I get into supply and demand. There is no shortage of controversy when it comes to the reasons people buy wine and how much of it some of the most prestigious wineries make!

By: TJ Harstine

Certified Sommelier

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