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A Wine with Real Providence

I made a clumsy foot slip while trying to navigate the wine purgatory that is my basement stairwell where over 100 bottles await their gustatory grave or longer-term respite in the subterranean bowels of my home.  The 2006 Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon acted as the hurtling, blunt force object, initiating a domino-like downward seizure of dozens of bottles.  In surveying the aftermath, as broken glass settled and red wine leached onto the now soon to be replaced carpet, I realized that nary an “important” bottle had broken, including the Swanson.  It seemed as if the projectile-like wine had the guiding touch of providence.  As it turns out, Chris Phelps, Swanson Vineyards’ winemaker, makes another wine that is truly touched by the hand of God.

By way of background, for April fool’s Day, I wrote a jestful post indicating that I was starting an ecommerce web site selling church wine –, as I called it; Sunday service being the province of wine plonk from specialty wine companies that now needed to find a consumer audience.  It was a slight attempt at humor on a day intended for just that.  Little did I know, however, that a Catholic church in St. Helena forsakes buying “church” wine that truly should be spit for wine made from Napa vineyards by a world-class winemaker.


Reader Michael Haas, a parishioner at St. Helena Catholic Church, tipped me off to the church wine quality par excellence.  Fellow parishioner Chris Phelps, the winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, works with fruit from Larry Bettinelli’s vineyard management company, sourcing from Rutherford, Oak Knoll, Pope Valley and Yountville.  Every year for the last dozen years, Phelps and Bettinelli have collaborated to make 12 to 18 cases of Merlot and Cabernet for St. Helena Catholic Church, the past four years being Cab exclusive.

According to Phelps, “I would be confident to put (the) street value in the $30 - $40 bottle range.  We never announce our new releases, but we just ‘released’ the 2006.  Of course, the wine is priceless once it is consecrated.”

Phelps noted that the quality wine at St. Helena Catholic Church seems to be an anomaly, “I think most Catholic churches in Napa, Sonoma, (and) Mendocino counties still use a sweet, white muscatel – a fortified white wine.  It’s kind of surprising, if you think about it.”

Surprising, indeed.  How would you like to be a member of that church?  Suddenly, as a Catholic, I feel compelled to make mass a part of my next visit to the Valley for field research purposes.


“Our parishioners have pretty refined taste in wine; they probably drink wine at or above our sacramental wine quality.  We do sometimes have inquiries about purchasing the wine, but we don’t sell it.  We have to keep an eye out for communicants at mass making a second pass in line for the cup, though,” Phelps said with a laugh.

But, what about the wafers that are consecrated into the body of Christ? 

Story tipster Michael Haas quipped, “If I could get our pastor to make a similar deal with Thomas Keller’s Buchon Bakery, we would never have to worry about Sunday Mass attendance.”

When not helping the church, Phelps utilizes an incredible resume that includes training in Bordeaux, an internship during the epic ’82 harvest, time spent at Chateau Pétrus and eleven years at Christian Moueix’ Dominus Estate in Napa Valley.  A seven-year stop at Caymus for various projects including a four year stint handling the reds from 1999 to 2003 and Phelps had over-proven his bona fides before joining Swanson in 2003.


Today, Phelps says, “I consider what we are doing at Swanson to be sort of a renaissance, trying to elevate the level of everything we do from vineyard to bottle.”

As if church involvement, winemaking and devoted Scoutmaster and family man responsibilities were not enough, Phelps has started his own label using fruit from St. Helena Catholic Church pal Larry Bettinelli’s estate vineyard in Yountville. 

The name of his label?  “Ad Vivum.”  A Latin phrase for, “To the Life.”

With Phelps’ record of success and quality, a delicious glass of 2006 Swanson “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon in my hand and notions of $30 + dollar equivalent wine at communion at a small Catholic Church in St. Helena, I think we should all give a brief toast “To the Life.”

2006 Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Oakville Cabernet
SRP:  $75 (received as press sample)
ABV: 14.8%
Production: 1306 cases

Tasting Note:  Brooding nose opens like an alley after the rain.  Blackberry, black currant, smoke, iodine, steak juice, sage and menthol that gives way to dense blackberry juice and more menthol on a nicely acidic and well-balanced mid-palate.  Medium fine tannins in a chalky finish indicate time in the bottle is needed, along with a hunk of herb crusted prime rib.
Score:  92


On Wine Blogging Shop Talk and Presentations ...

Over the course of the last year, I’ve made a conscious decision not to talk shop regarding wine blogging.

While it’s certainly interesting if you’re involved in the community, it can be stultifyingly boring if you’re not, like going to a work-related cocktail party with your spouse and talking about her business all night.

When pressed into those awkward work social situations I usually find myself close to the bar and a TV that is playing the game with my thoughts in a third, entirely different place—a sentiment that is probably shared by many that read online wine sites.

With the above caveat in place, I do want to talk “Inside Baseball” for just a moment.

This past weekend I attended a wine blogger confab in Walla Walla, WA and gave a presentation along with two top-notch comrade-in-arms (RJ Hilgers and Joe Roberts) called, “Advanced Blogging Strategies.”

The presentation content in PowerPoint form WAS intended to be a fire hose – too much stuff crammed into too small of a time window.  For all of the positive feedback that said, “Good presentation. You went through that way too fast, though” I will acknowledge that the point was to cram a bunch of tips in so a very diverse audience could walk away with at least one thing they didn’t know. 

That’s the value I get from seminars – I’m not into philosophical conversations about issues that can’t be solved.  I’m into, “tell me something I didn’t know fifteen minutes ago.”

I hope we hit the mark.  For those interested, the presentation is below.


Field Notes from a Wine Life – Perfect Palate Edition

… Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass …

Keeping the Knife Sharp, so to Speak

To perform at their peak, an athlete treats his/her body with respect, like a finely tuned instrument coaxed to peak performance.  Likewise, a guitarist gives a similar type of respect to the sweet wood, the tool of their trade, tuning it and according it special treatment.  The list goes on and on regarding a professional taking care of their moneymaker.

In the realm of serious wine enthusiasm and professional wine acumen, the tool of the trade is the palate.  Just the mention of it sounds like a disembodied body part, a possession—“My Palate.”  The list of no-no’s for palate acuity is short – don’t smoke.  Yet, what isn’t mentioned is, “Avoid seasonal allergies at all costs.”  I should know. 


Specifically, “My Palate” has been suffering from a long, miserable allergy season. 

According to experts, 2010 is one of the worst allergy seasons ever recorded.

Tell me about it.  Waking up in the morning with allergies is a daily exercise in feeling hung-over without the fun memories from the previous night; natch it’s all the bad and none of the good.

And, I almost feel naughty admitting it, like I’m a musical artist lip synching in concert, so unspoken is the fallibility of somebody’s palate amongst hardcore wine enthusiasts.

Fortunately, I only do wine reviews for very a slight fraction of what I taste, but given that roughly 1 in 6 Americans suffer from seasonal allergies, I know that a good number of other professional and online wine writers are also affected by a dulling of senses that comes with scratchy, watering eyes, sneezing, and general fatigue brought on by environmental factors.

I’m not a doctor, so I won’t get into the homeopathic, prescriptive, and over-the-counter ways of countering allergies, but I’ve tried them all and have found a combination that works for me.

More importantly, however, beyond the neti pot, when it comes to wine tasting, I’ve found a combination that helps me achieve Zen-like clarity for wine tasting – this I can opine on…

First, I’ll assume that by the point in the day when it’s time for your Gary Vee-like, “Sniffy-Sniff” that whatever could move in your sniffer is stationary or removed as an obstruction.  Ahem.

Now, here’s the first part of the two-part simple secret. Coffee beans.  Have you been to the cologne or perfume counter at a department store and they had coffee beans in a bowl or a glass spice shaker to clear your olfactory senses between smelling perfumes?


The same thing works for wine.  Taking a deep whiff of coffee beans is the same for your nose as wiping out freshman year of college is for your brain; it’s a restorative clean slate, almost like picking up 5 IQ points.

So, pick up a bag of whole bean coffee, put a few tablespoons (unground) into a Parmesan shaker, give a deep whiff and you’re through part one.

The second part is more traditional – SanTasti, a palate cleansing beverage.


I’m the worst kind of contradiction – I’m an Alpha Consumer, but deeply skeptical.  I assume the worst and hope for the best, at least when it comes to proactively trying new consumer goods and seeking results.  So it was for SanTasti, the palate cleansing beverage that purports to cleanse your palate for wine tasting.

Yet, son of a gun, it works like crazy.  I first tried it after a piece of cheesecake for dessert, my mouth coated with the sweet finale to the meal, but an unfinished glass of Pinot begged for the respectful conclusion.

Out came the SanTasti for a swish, gargle and swallow.

I try not to get too bullish about wine gadgets and such, but SanTasti is like the Magic Eraser for your mouth – it refreshes, enlivens and wipes clean your mouth allowing for a refreshed wine drinking experience.

Oyster crackers in baskets at tasting rooms across the country should be nervous. 

Without too much hyperbole, SanTasti is the most exciting wine accessory I’ve seen in the last decade, and that includes all of the aeration, decanting and associated schwag that has come out.

SanTasti is the single best wine accessory on the market today next to the corkscrew, all because it wipes the detritus that is aftertaste from your mouth.  Brilliant.

Regardless of your allergy levels, give coffee beans and a swig of SanTasti a try before you take notes on your next wine.


Food & Wine magazine mentions wild food foraging several times in the current issue of the magazine.  F&W is usually on point and very trend forward, so I expect that wild, foraged food will start showing up on white table cloth restaurant menus with regularity over the course of the next year (perhaps joining natural wine in a campfire mash-up of Kumbaya and a rendition of ‘American Pie’).


Aside from my Depression-era grandparents and chokecherry pie, I first came across the notion of cattails, dandelion greens and wild comestibles in a homesteading book a couple of years ago – it’s the very far left of the current green movement. 

Do me a favor, if you get into wild food foraging, there are a bunch of books on the subject, go old school with Euell Gibbons.  Every generation wants to think they invented this stuff, even if Red Rover has been around since Methuselah was a young lad.  Gibbons wrote the book (several, actually) on wild foraging.  His work is worth seeking out as the forefather of the movement (before it was cool) some 40 years ago. Just saying …


Wine and the Crucible of Connection

Many a cultural anthropologist and psychologist have issued dire warnings about Internet use causing social isolation and loneliness, but what if the opposite was happening?  What if, in fact, we are becoming more connected because of technology?

That’s the suggestion of one trendspotting site called TrendWatching.

I’ve mentioned Trendwatching and their monthly trend briefings before.  It’s a fascinating resource for making sense of our cultural climate.  Rare is the time when the site doesn’t isolate a trend that connects the dots on things that I see and sense, but haven’t fully synthesized.  And, equally rare is the time when that trend doesn’t have a connection path to wine.

Trendwatching’s most recent briefing, joining previous briefings that I’ve also written about (a brand as a consumer concierge service provider and how people denote ‘status’ in a new economic environment), is about the phenomenon of connected gatherings.  They call it, “Mass Mingling.”

By now, to many in the wine realm, this notion of a hybrid of connected online and offline gatherings and social networking made kinetic may be self-evident particularly because wine is already so social, but I can’t help but note that this is still very nascent outside of technology early adopters.


A “Tweet-up” may be intuitive to some, but isn’t for most.  AIDA – the old marketing axiom for Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action is still a developing situation for the vast majority of wine enthusiasts who haven’t made the jump to pursuing their interest online.  But, they will …

According to the Trendwatching report:

Thanks to the online revolution, hundreds of millions are now actively searching for, finding and connecting/signaling and staying in touch with likeminded souls in the virtual world.  Constant updates, GPS and mobile online access is now bringing this explosion of dating, networking and mingling to the real world domain.  Mass Mingling follows the pattern of any consumer trend, whereby an existing human need is unlocked in a new way … never before were people able to build and maintain such extensive personal networks.

The report goes on to discuss, primarily, the quick growth of geo-location services and mobile connectivity (smart phones) that blurs the lines between being on and offline and in so doing obliterates the previously constrained notion of who was or was not in our network of friends and acquaintances.

The primary takeaway of the report is that networking, empowered by evolving communication technology, will lead to significant and continued social aggregation of likeminded people.  Brands can participate in this social aggregation by helping facilitate these gatherings.

In the world of wine, we’re already seeing this to some degree with Twitter TasteLive, and independent online/offline Twitter-based gatherings that are forming around topical areas like Washington state wine or Pinot Noir, amongst other connection paths.

Elsewhere, research by eMarketer (here, here and here) supports the idea that much of our online activity is brand-centric (talking about brands) with a natural correlating response being offline word-of-mouth.  Forward thinking wineries already understand this, but what they may not be thinking about is this “Mass Mingling” notion with deeper possibilities like … well, like home parties—something that combines online and offline marketing with a consumer’ natural propensity to talk about the stuff that happens to them.


In 2006 when Stormhoek, a South African wine brand, sent wine out to 100 people with instructions to gather a group of friends and enjoy the wine while taking a couple of pictures it was inspired marketing novelty.  Doubtless, at the time, Jason Korman and his marketing mensch Hugh MacLeod didn’t think they were going to spawn a business model.  Yet, a company called House Party is proving that brand centric marketing and in-house parties can be big business.

The premise is simple enough – a consumer signs up at their site, monitors party opportunities, requests a party and, if selected, is sent a “House Party Pack” – a kit with product and marketing to support their in-house party that will occur simultaneously with others across the country.  In the weeks and days leading up to the event the firm provides online networking and social media tools to capture content and to foster engagement amongst participants.  Really, it’s all so beautiful in its simplicity:  People like free stuff, we already know people associate with and talk about brands, and the word of mouth that extends from the event, when multiplied across a thousand parties can be significant.

In short, what does technology-driven “Mass Mingling” and consumer-based house parties mean for the wine business?  When combined with the growth of miniature wine tasting samples like TinyBottles from Crushpad and 50ml bottles from, the world of consumer-based wine marketing is about to evolve.  In the future, it’s very likely that not only will direct-to-consumer wine sales be critically important to a winery, but so too will be the marketing that goes along with it, jumping out of the tasting room, off the computer screen and into the living room, with other likeminded people who can carry a brand message forward on a one-to-one basis whether that’s on the web, via your phone, or in person.


Wine Marketing: Wow! or Huh?

In the “ponderously head-scratching” category come two recent wine marketing examples that cause even the most intrepid wine explorer to pause and wonder curiously, “What the hell were they thinking?”

Exhibit A

In the realm of subjectivity, wine and wine marketing is in certain company with comedy movies.  Good is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

I’d rather stoop over and pick an acre of weeds than laze comfortably watching any piece of celluloid with Adam Sandler in it (The Waterboy or Little Nicky, anyone?).  Likewise, I’m painfully aware that the magic of “Caddyshack” is all but lost on my wife, as is the early oeuvre of Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, et al).

Yet, when presented with the below ad from Citra, an Italian wine brand, my wife and I both laughed heartily before pausing and wondering what the heck must have been going through the advertising creative director’s mind when constructing this ad.

Take a look yourself.  Is this comedy, tragedy or something else?


Exhibit B

Not to be outdone in the “head-scratching” category is news that 2nd tier 80s hair metal band Whitesnake has partnered with De La Montanya Vineyards to release a 2008 Zinfandel.


Now, don’t get me wrong, I got down with some Whitesnake back in the day.  Their video for “Here I Go Again” again was legendary on MTV’s video countdown in the late 80s.  But, with all due respect, Whitesnake isn’t a band riding a wave of nostalgia these days … and have you been to a Poison, Kiss or Motley Crue concert lately, bands that are enjoying a nostalgia wave?  The crowd is hardly the wine drinking sort.

Lead singer David Coverdale from Whitesnake says of the wine: “It’s a bodacious, cheeky little wine, filled to the brim with the spicy essence of sexy, slippery Snakeyness ... I recommend it to complement any (and) all grown up friskiness & hot tub jollies ...”

Priced at $29.95, the wine will be released to market in July.

Elsewhere, in contrast, B.R. Cohen’s “Doobie Red” becomes an appealing option.  If your wine and rock fix is still unsatiated, there’s always Wines that Rock, too.

Wow!  or Huh?  I’m going with Huh?


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