Classification of 1855
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Guilty as charged (as predicted). Rudy Kurniawan singlehandedly did for the wine world, what terrorists on 9/11 did for America - it's the end of the innocence. While I am not comparing counterfeit wine to loss of life in any sense, the impact is similar, in that we will not be able to trust very many sources of fine wine again for a long, long time, if ever. Being a collector of Bordeaux and to a lesser extent, Burgundy, and I have stayed away from auctions for some time now, knowing the amount of bogus wine that has been dumped into the market by Kurniawn and China. Ex-château is about the only thing left at this point.

Maureen Downey of Chai Consulting in San Francisco is an advocate worthy of great praise and I know her journey dealing with fake wines in the market will be formidable and challenging. Her dedication and knowledge is incomparable in the wine industry and we're lucky to have her. Bill Koch, a high-end collector from Florida, is also to be commended for his vigilance in bringing much of this counterfeiting activity to light.

The request by the defendant's attorneys to have Kurniwan examined by a psychiatrist and psychologist may play into the appeal strategy, which is only legal posturing to try to get a better deal for their client. I hope that appeal fails on every level and I feel the same as everyone: there is no joy in the victory of this verdict - only a sense of satisfaction that justice has been imparted in some small way.

David Boyer

Insanity Defined

Albert Einstein was once quoted as saying that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (paraphrased). It is certainly a feasible elucidation considering Mr. Einstein’s world. I posit that as it relates to the wine world, the definition of insanity is ‘anyone that could actually believe Rudy Kurniawan is insane or is not competent to stand trial’. Far too much work went into his ‘enterprise’ for him to be legally insane or incompetent. Disclaimer: everything in this post is my opinion, and although the information below is deemed reliable it may turn out to not be so.

Mr. Kurniawan is the now-infamous and alleged counterfeiter of fine wine whose trial is expected to begin January in Manhattan Southern District Federal Court. After a number of allegations spread out over the course of months (and conjecture going back years), the FBI raided Kurniawan’s home in the Los Angeles area to find all the equipment needed for producing fakes, including thousands of counterfeit wine labels for the most expensive Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, empty wine bottles of various vintages, capsules, corks, and equipment and supplies appurtenant to the production of counterfeit wine. The fact that on more than one occasion he tried to consign wines that were known to be fakes to fine wine auctions, combined with the evidence found in his home, in my opinion leaves little doubt as to his guilt. He was manufacturing and peddling counterfeit wine.

Questions arose about Kurniawan’s connection to faux vin at least as early as ‘08, and likely earlier by some accounts. At a 2008 fine wine auction in New York Kurniawan consigned 268 bottles to be sold. One of the bottles was a 1929 Ponsot, Clos de la Roche (a Burgundy grand cru vineyard), but Domaine Ponsot didn’t produce wine from this vineyard until 1934. He also put 38 bottles of various vintages of Ponsot, Clos Saint-Denis on the block, which were represented and labeled as vintages prior to the year Ponsot began making wine from this grand cru vineyard. Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and a number of other great wine estates figured into becoming dominant victims of fraudulent wine as well. From here things began to unravel for Kurniawan due to Laurent Ponsot’s quest for the truth about the origins of these fake wines. Mr. Ponsot was very concerned, and rightly so, that these counterfeit wines coming into the market were usurping Domaine Ponsot’s celebrated reputation as a producer of some of the finest wines from Burgundy.

It is known that Kurniawan dumped a staggering $35 million dollars worth of wine onto the market in the course of two auctions in 2006. Of course it’s impossible to know exactly how much of that was not the real thing but experts can say with some certainty that there are literally millions of dollars of counterfeit wine on the market with the possibility that much of it was produced and sold by Kurniawan. Notorious for his outrageous spending, whenever he ordered rare and expensive wine at restaurants, he reportedly always asked for the empty bottles to be shipped to his home. He was also selling wine directly to collectors outside of the auction world and one collector on the east coast reportedly bought several million dollars of wine from Kurniawan consisting of old and rare vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Shortly after selling $35 million dollars worth of wine Kurniawan began asking his wealthy friends for loans, while allegedly also fraudulently using the same pieces of valuable art for collateral with different lenders. By taking into account some of his more questionable business dealings, some believe he was not acting alone, which is even more chilling. In fact Mr. Ponsot claims to have figured out who Kurniawan’s accomplice is but is not spilling the information so far.

Kurniawan’s latest defense firm sent a request to Judge Richard Berman on November 7 requesting that a forensic psychiatrist and a forensic psychologist examine its client, of course both experts being selected by the firm. The prosecution, understanding the implications of this request, made a statement that Kurniawan’s defense team may seek to raise a claim of insanity or claim that he is not competent to stand trial. The defense denies that they wish to employ this tactic but so far haven’t given any tangible reason why they would want Kurniawan examined. In preparation for trial they have, however, filed a statement with the court that details questions they would ask during jury selection, and ends with a summation of Kurnaiwan’s not guilty assertion

"Upon being introduced to the exclusive world of fine wine, he quickly became recognized as one of the finest palates in the world. He suddenly found himself immersed in an exotic universe of wheelers and dealers in rare and expensive wines. He was soon buying and selling wines in a rarified world populated by rich, often arrogant individuals who frequently looked for a scapegoat for perceived defects or shortcomings in their dealings with others. Mr. Kurniawan is that scapegoat.” This has to be one of the most iniquitous fairy tales ever concocted by a lawyer – kudos counselors!

The prosecution’s response was swift, firing off a letter to the Judge Berman that, “defense counsel may have already decided to present expert testimony to establish a defense of insanity or to offer inadmissible testimony about the defendant’s mental state in an attempt to refute scienter [intent or knowledge of wrongdoing].” The prosecution also makes clear that they are concerned that the whole thing may be a delay tactic to avoid going to trial in early January.

On November 8 defense attorney Jerome Mooney III responded with a letter to the court stating, “We are not seeking and do not anticipate, an incompetency claim or an insanity defense. It is not our intention to delay the trial. Instead, there are certain things that have come to our attention during our brief time with our client that we believe require further evaluation. I have explained this in more detail to the government. It is significant to note that, at this point, we have only asked that the doctors be allowed access to our client in order to perform their evaluation. If he were not held in detention that would have been something we could have done without even telling anyone, especially the world.”

The letter to the court goes on to state that the defense doesn't know whether the information they find after examination will prove useful or not.

Even without asserting the plea of insanity or incompetence, there are lots of ways to use the expert witnesses (the psych guys) to sway a jury and one of the underpinnings of getting a 'not guilty' verdict is reasonable doubt. There is no question that such counterfeiting activity of the scale in this case would require a lot of knowledge, forethought, research, and premeditation, which is not something just anyone is capable of pulling off. Even the social aspect of becoming a person of acceptable, and even celebrated, status into the culture of fine wine had to be carefully planned, cultivated, and executed.

Maureen Downey, who owns Chai Consulting in San Francisco, is one of the world’s foremost experts on counterfeit wine and revealed this summer at an anti-counterfeiting seminar in Napa that the formula allegedly used by Kurniawan to create a 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild fake: ½ bottle of 1988 Pichon-Longueville Lalande (average today, $160), ¼ bottle of oxidized Bordeaux to give it a sense of age (lets say $50 to be generous), and ¼ bottle of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon to provide body and a bit of freshness ($50, again to be generous – all costs are my estimates except for the 1988 Bordeaux from Wine Searcher), for a total of $130 plus packaging to make. A real 1945 Mouton Rothschild sells for $28,990 at Sokolin & Co. as of this writing and I believe Dave Sokolin would have sourced the real thing. Nice margin if you can get away with it, but so far Rudy ultimately did not. As Ms. Downey addressed the future of counterfeit wine to me to me, “it’s going to be a mess.”

The machinations of Rudy Kurniawan have single-handedly tainted the landscape of buying wine on the secondary market, whether from other collectors, at retail, or auction. Considering the ubiquitous counterfeit wine in China, which is sure to arrive on our shores someday, and the amount of fakes that have already entered into the US market, to which I believe Kurniawan contributed greatly, leaves virtually no safe haven to buy fine wine except from legitimate wine merchants, the châteaux, or domains themselves. It is my hope that Kurniawan indeed becomes a ‘scapegoat’ in the sense that the US sends a very loud and clear message to every would-be counterfeiter by convicting and sentencing this scrofulous character to many years of self-inflicted misery. As of today, Judge Berman approved the psychiatric examination.

David Boyer

Photo: is it or isn’t it?

Dear Bordeaux,

After hearing so much about your region in the news throughout the year (weather, winemaking controversy, China buying up everything that’s not nailed down, and most unfortunately and uncalled for, other general bashing by some people in the American wine press), I have to write, to make a plea to you of sorts, in hopes that you will consider some of the issues at hand seriously. As you know, Bordeaux is what I and many other oenophiles in the world love most about wine but things have been changing slowly over the years, almost imperceptibly at times, but changing nonetheless. A few points on which to ruminate:

1. It seems that many châteaux are moving ever further away from traditional Bordeaux winemaking by producing very ripe or overripe wine that requires little, if any, aging upon release. I know that weather is part of the problem but adopting the notion of late harvests will not ameliorate this. Also how is this possible to once have created very structured wines that suddenly are so quaffable without the use of micro-oxygenation or nano-oxygenation? Why does Bordeaux want to compete with Napa? It is the difference from Napa that will keep you on the wine map for the long-term, not the similarity. Making big, dense, high alcohol, over-the-top wine that lacks finesse and will not age well or ever develop greater complexity is not the right direction for such a spectacular wine region. Human intervention is already producing soft-drink-like wine. By homogenizing wine using available technology, eventually it will have no identity of its own or any of the great characteristics from its terroir that sets it apart from any other wine. Embrace that you’re different from Napa wine or any New World wine and take the time and effort to educate people and emerging markets about those differences. Get back to your roots, what made Bordeaux great to begin with, and remember the unforgettable lessons learned by Coca Cola and others that tampered with their recipes or their fundamental identities, much to their regret. Employing interventionist techniques is not a good direction for this amazing wine region that needs only good vineyard management and honest winemaking. I don't want to taste through any Classified Bordeaux vertical and not be able to distinguish the difference between vintages. Bordeaux is far, far better than that! Help make consumers understand the difference between the wines you make, and the rest of the world. 

2. China is not your future (and it never has been). So you followed the rainbow to the end and it paid off. I understand the concept of ‘make hay while the sun shines’ and that, you have definitely accomplished, I think beyond even your own expectations. However, I believe the windfall is over. Now it’s time to get back to your primary markets, which is the UK, America, and the rest of Europe. There is not the availability of Bordeaux wine in the US like there was before the China boom on either the primary or secondary market, partially because prices have gotten so out of reach for many Americans and the rest of the world. Now that you’re seeing a slowdown in China’s growth for your product, what are you going to do? China doesn’t even drink wine nor like wine compared to the Brits and Americans! A considerable amount of your wines sold in China were bought for gifting, showing a certain status to friends and family, or as investments. Chinese admit that they know little or nothing about wine. Consumption there is very low per capita and as many other of the world’s wine regions try to gain market share there, it’s going to get even more difficult for Bordeaux. Also factor in that at this point the Chinese are wary of buying Bordeaux because there is such a huge sea of counterfeit wine in the market, and this country’s contribution to your future bank account suddenly looks bleak.

3. No one I know of is resentful about anyone making a fair profit, and that certainly goes for Bordeaux too. You are, of course, entitled to make whatever the market will bear but you really need to re-engage the markets that have supported you for centuries (UK), and for at least the past hundred years or more (US). You all but abandoned these major sources of wine lovers and revenue to make a quick Euro. Simply adjust your prices because you should realize by now that those very high prices rolled out in the past decade are not sustainable, and if your loyal consumers turn elsewhere, they may not come back at all. This is a risk already deeply in play and it will take effort on your part to fix it. You made your money, now get back to where you can enjoy long-term stability. If you want to keep your margins as high as possible, start dealing with importers and retailers directly and bypass Bordeaux brokers and négociants (sorry guys, but your time is coming to an end eventually in these ‘modern times’ of internet and technology; your services, once essential to the Bordeaux trade, are quickly becoming irrelevant). Eliminating an unnecessary layer between you and the consumer will ultimately serve you and us better. I still think that Château Latour has it right for many reasons and I hope that others will follow suit. There is a way to do this without having to take a financial hit for fifteen years by gradually eliminating the amount of participation in en primeur campaigns. You and your clients will benefit. 

4. As mentioned above, educating current wine consumers and upcoming generations is key to your continued success. Loire Valley did an all out assault on America a couple of years ago. The Rhone, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon regions have really come on strong in the past several years not only because of their relative value, but because they have worked hard to reinvent themselves and market their wines by educating people. This is not an easy or inexpensive undertaking but certainly is paying off by anyone’s measure. You can stand still, beat on your chest and proclaim, ‘yes, but we’re Bordeaux!’ while other regions pass you by. Or you can recommit yourselves to your core markets and stabilize your revenue instead of watching it bounce around like a yoyo. By the way, how well are you sleeping at night these days? 

You have one of the classiest and most beautiful cities in the world, I’m not kidding (and unfortunately for people that are looking for an amazing place to vacation, it seems that pretty much only the wine trade knows this)! The resources available to you in terms of vineyards and winemaking talent are truly remarkable, beyond words, and have been for hundreds of years. Embrace what makes you so very special and forget about trends. Clearly some changes are in order, but please put the values back in place that made you a world leader in the wine world to begin with.

Very truly yours,

David Boyer

Photo: Just a glimpse of the Bordeaux City Center, a really high-end beautiful city throughout; it would be a great place to live!

What’s So Great About California Wine?

Lots of things are great. Anyone reading this blog for any time at all knows I am a dyed-in-the-wool aficionado of old-world style wine. So, you may ask, what is it that suddenly put me on the path to write about California wine? Deep, dark despair, dear readers, and it’s all Doug Shafer’s fault. I’ll come back to this is a moment so please forgive my being discursive.

Forget about all the other stupendous attributes offered up by California like its weather, its culture, food, natural beauty, movies stars, the Pacific, and its mountainous terrain. There are a million things to love about California and a few things to loath, but apart from these, its wines are certainly worthy of your attention. Think about this for a second: approximately 333 million cases of wine were sold in the US in 2012 (yes, million and cases). These numbers are so unwieldy I had to put them into an Excel spreadsheet. This calculates to just shy of 4 billion bottles of wine (3,996,000,000 actually). Wow, that’s an impressive number! More impressive is the fact that two thirds of that volume is wine from California! That’s extremely impressive. Even with Monsieur Rolland, good luck Virginia. 

Notwithstanding the fact that AA may be doing a brisk amount of business, that’s a lot of wine, and actually we’re not even close to the highest consumption per capita (in the +15 year old category!?!?!?!). Not surprisingly Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are at the bottom of the per capita ranking; if we could only get those guys to loosen up a little . . . Anyhow in the US, we have a large and thirsty enough population to be the leading nation in the volume of wine consumed. Some will be proud that we are the ‘winner’ in that category, assuming that’s anything to be proud of - see previous comment about AA. 

Back to CA, I’m happy that the domestic wine industry is doing so well, even though my personal preference is French wine. Going into any US retail wine shop or restaurant is like walking through a minefield of fruit bombs, something I fear more than an atomic bomb. Still, I get the seductive part of California wine, and not all of them fall into the anonymous, nondescript, lack of terroir, near-soft drink classification and it would be unfair to categorize them as such. I have enjoyed many bottles of fine California wine on numerous occasions and have had pleasurable conversations with some of the region’s most celebrated winemakers. 

I recently had a small but nice wine dinner with a couple that is very dear to my wife and me. It began with hor d’oeuvres and Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, of which I am always fond. Moving on to dinner consisting of red snapper and a somewhat elaborate couscous salad, we enjoyed a bottle of Domaine Colin-Deléger Chassagne-Montrachet 2010, which was to perfection on every level. Taking a break from food, we left the dining room for the comfort of the living room and enjoyed a bottle of Richebourg DRC 2003 (mind-blowing). After that, it was time for dessert and I know that our esteemed guests, Tom and Jo Ann, typically enjoy port. They have a wonderful collection of wine themselves including numerous bottles of mature high-end port. I love port but I don’t collect it so I had only one choice that would work, and that was Shafer Firebreak 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Dessert Wine.

As for Mr Shafer: All of Doug’s eponymous wines are amazing and collectors know that Hillside Select is regarded as one of California’s very best. But this ’06 Firebreak is something out of this world. I originally only had two bottles and this was my last one so to put it concisely, I am desperate for more. As Doug explained at a Shafer Wine dinner in Austin about four years ago, in 1981 he, and his father John (who founded Shafer Vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District in Napa Valley), originally planted a small number of rows of Sangiovese around their home after it was almost destroyed by wildfire that made its way through part of Napa Valley that year. They aptly named the wine from these vines “Firebreak”, which by design, the vines were meant to slow down impending doom should wildfire breakout around the area again. At one point Doug made a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend but I’m not sure if it was a dessert wine; it appears not to have been.

I recall Doug mentioning the fact that they were not thrilled about how its Sangiovese was performing so I believe they ripped those vines out and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2006 vintage was made with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and having a whopping 18% alcohol I’m reasonably sure it was fortified, while earlier vintages seemed to have been around 14% alcohol. Although there are yeasts available that will produce that prodigious amount of alcohol I don’t believe there would be enough residual sugar left to be deemed a dessert wine. It was the last vintage produced (as far as I know) and is impossible to find anywhere in the country, partially because they only sold it to someone in person, at the winery. I’ll spare you the story about how I acquired two bottles, signed by the maestro himself, without having gone to Shafer Vineyards.

This very fine dessert wine had wonderful expression, complexity, balance, and purity of fruit with a mile-long finish. As mentioned, it is ‘port-like’ but because it was made with Cabernet Sauvignon, it has a very different fruit profile than the Touriga Nacional grape typically found in the best vintage port. I savored Firebreak each of the three times I’ve had it and was certainly happy to have had great friends to share it with, especially fine wine collectors. It went perfectly with dark chocolate macaroons and ripe organic black, dark red, and blue fruit.

I will at some point get to Napa to visit Shafer Vineyards and beg for more, but I’m not sure if they even have any left. I don’t know why the decision was made to discontinue making this treasure but if you can ever get your hands on it, it will rock your world, not unlike the rest of the great Shafer lineup. Just like the Shafer story, the Shafer family, and Doug (truly a nice guy and a rock star winemaker), this august bottle is superbly unique in a world of 'me-too' wine.

David Boyer

Photo: Shafer Firebreak label - at this point, it should be relabeled as “Shafer Heartbreak” – sadly, it’s gone

From the Ground Up - Learning About Wine

People frequently ask me what the best approach is to learn wine, which is analogous to asking me ‘what’s the best wine ever?’ I’m sure there are many ways to learn about wine but I definitely have an opinion about it. There is no shortcut when it comes to learning about wine or probably anything for that matter. While learning wine is probably not on the same plane as learning rocket science or neurosurgery, it nonetheless requires some of the same strategies that most subjects require for retention and competency. Most subjects are learned with basic building blocks, by breaking down more complex topics into smaller steps and later, adding reinforcement of what has already been learned. Wine is not that different but I believe the sequence of topics is a very important component to really learning wine.

If you have made up your mind and swear that you will never spend more than $12 dollars on a bottle of wine (it’s surprising how many people I’ve met that tell me that), then there is a somewhat different trajectory for your wine education. You will never really learn wine with that limitation. I’m not saying you won’t learn anything, but in this case your wine knowledge would be so severely incomplete that it would beg the question, ‘why bother?’ It’s just that we live in a huge and amazing wine world these days so I hope you never paint yourself into a corner with such notions.

There are others, however, that just want to learn about wine and implicitly understand there will be some challenges along the way and accept or even embrace that reality. A couple of things first: it will demand your time and, unless you have a dear friend that has given you unfettered access to his or her encyclopedic wine cellar, it is also going to require money. If you are a typical college student for example, your wine education will be hindered or delayed by the lack of pecuniary resources and there is no easy way to get around it that’s not criminal. No matter how bright you are, the two things that are not negotiable when it comes to wine knowledge are time and money – a lot like other challenges in life. If you want to go further to eventually receive, say, a Master of Wine qualification, it will consist of the formerly mentioned two requisites, times a multiple of many to achieve the status that is conferred upon about 350 people in the world. Most people are not that interested, me included, to relegate oneself to the excruciating educational regimen that few ever actually successfully get through to attain the coveted title.

Only you can decide the level of wine knowledge that will be satisfying for you but recognize upfront that that goal can change over time; you may get in deeper than you initially intended or you might bail sooner than you thought for any number of reasons, but in any case, anything is better than nothing. If you’re reading this post, most of us fall between the two extremes in terms of our goals and how to manage our time and money. The good news is that while learning wine, you will taste through a formidable volume of it. The bad news is that monetarily, you’ll pay for it. Regardless, any of it has to be more fun than studying actuarial science or taxation law.

It seems there are almost as many resources out there as there are bottles of wine, many available for free online, but also in book form. Not all sources are equal and there is a lot of specious and erroneous information out there, especially online. Subscribing to wine publications such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Stevan Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar are all great resources for every level of knowledge unless you have the time and resources to taste through about 10,000 bottles per year. Wine Spectator offer a great iPhone app for $3 per month too, that has vintage charts and their entire database of wine ratings on tap. Even if you don’t agree with wine scores, these resources are always good tools to have on tap as a guide.

Consider learning the following subjects in this order:

Wine 101

-        the importance of using the proper wine glass for the wine being served

-        how to hold a wine glass and why

-        how to take in aromas

-        how to taste wine

-        how to describe what you see, smell, and taste from your glass (learn wine vernacular)

-        wine etiquette

-        taste through noble grapes from various regions; learn where they are grown, and their flavor/aroma profiles

o   Chardonnay

o   Riesling

o   Sauvignon Blanc

o   Pinot Noir

o   Merlot

o   Cabernet Sauvignon

o   Syrah

-        wine serving temperatures

-        the concept of terroir and its importance to wine

-        the main elements wine consists of

-        the importance of balance in wine (fruit, acid, tannins, alcohol; sometimes sugar content)

-        which wines age well and which wines will not benefit from age

-        storing wine

-        wine faults

Wine 102

After Wine 101 is completed, then begin to learn Old World vs New World wine and the major wine regions of the world, which include important wine regions located in the USA, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. Book knowledge alone won’t serve you well because tasting is required (and at various price points) to really understand these regions and topics. While exploring these regions and wine styles (Old World and New World) you will also get acquainted with grape varieties other than just the noble grapes, such as Italy’s Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Barbera grapes, Spain’s wonderful Tempranillo, and much, much more. This will take some time so be patient, but things really start getting interesting here.

Wine 103

Once the previous subjects are mastered, delve into vineyards, soil types, weather, vines and species, growth cycles, vineyard strategies, management, and methodology. All of this is fascinating, even amazing, and helps us to understand where it all begins and how everything from the vineyard translates into what we have in our glass. I was actually blown away with some of the information while learning about vines and vineyards. There is real evolution going on in today’s vineyards that contribute enormously to the high quality wines we enjoy in these modern times.

Wine 104

Then continue learning about various winemaking techniques and practices, from vineyard to the sorting table, maceration, yeast, fermentation, secondary fermentation, cooperage, wine chemistry (at least the basics), barrel aging, blending techniques, and so on. Winemaking has been going on for thousands of years so it’s easy to think, ‘what’s the big deal? You crush some grapes, add some yeast and something will happen that at least resembles wine.’ There is so much more to it and again, winemaking has evolved in both a good way and also in a questionable way, as many wine regions use technologies and processing methods that were unavailable not so long ago.

Wine 201 and beyond

Moving forward from here gets you into smaller and lesser-known regions and appellations, less common grapes, and really learning your vintages. This can all seem daunting but it’s not if you break it down into small steps. In a year or two you’ll be surprised how much you know if you actively work at it.

But in the end (if there actually is an end), what’s really in for you? Confidence for one thing; you will know absolutely that you can walk into any wine merchant or restaurant in the world and have a very good shot at selecting the best wine for any given occasion. You’ll also be able to have meaningful conversations about wine with nearly anyone, including wine professionals. That’s huge all by itself but there are many other benefits too, such as really understanding why what you are drinking is so good, flawed, or just average and forgettable. Every single taste of wine becomes a lesson that contributes to your catalog of wine knowledge. The deeper you go with learning, the more rewarding it is. And remember that wine is a very social medium so at the same time you’re learning you will attract like-minded people into your social sphere, especially if you attend many wine tastings that happen on a regular basis in almost every town.

I will share with you one last thing I did in my earlier days of wine education. I highly recommend this, and although I recognize it's controversial, this one thing turned out to be an enormous contribution to my understanding of wine and changed everything for me. After more than a year of reading everything my head could comprehend and after tasting through many, many bottles of wine (a few good but many not so good), I bought a 100 point First Growth Bordeaux that was in its perfect drinking window at the time, opened it, and took it in. Every little detail about what I had been studying came together for me and I understood exactly what great wine should be. Everything I had learned seamlessly converged at that moment like some prodigious epiphany of ‘wow - I get it now!’ Virtually everyone that’s reasonably deep into wine has experienced that moment in one form or another. It’s what makes us want to keep going, but more than that, it completely explains the rewards of knowing about wine, experiencing it in all of its glory, what makes wine great, and why we want more.

David Boyer

Photo: Just a few of the many books I’ve read cover to cover, and have used for reference many times over. Get some.

Provenance of Fine Wine

Buying older vintages of wine is not without its risk, especially given the cost of fine wine, but it also has tremendous rewards if you’re careful. With lots of legal issues in the news lately surrounding wine, it’s always a good time to take stock of your wine buying practices to make sure you are getting what you pay for. News of alleged counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan, and billionaire collector Bill Koch’s civil case against another collector have been sloshing around for some time now but the fate of Kurniawan is highly anticipated and has certainly put every collector on high alert. Mr. Koch won his case against Eric Greenberg to the tune of $15 million dollars, proving to the court that Greenberg knew he was selling fakes. Considering the evidence that I’m aware of, it seems a good bet that Kurniawan will go down too. Two brothers allege in a federal court complaint filed on June 13, that Charlie Trotter’s eponymous and famed restaurant sold them a fake magnum of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Romanée Conti for $46,000. If that turns out to be true, I doubt that Trotter would intentionally sell a counterfeit wine to anyone, but rather one was sold to him and he unwittingly passed it on. Still he could be held liable.

While there is really only one sure way to ensure the provenance of your wine, there are things you can to do to mitigate the risk of buying flawed or even counterfeit wine. Much of this is just common sense but it can be overlooked sometimes in the heat of the chase. First and foremost (and we’ve all heard it a million times), if it seems to be too good to be true . . . that’s an easy one. No one is going to sell you a real bottle of Pétrus 1989 for $1000 dollars or a case of Henri Jayer Richebourg 1978 for $15,000 dollars. Just don’t fall for it.

Secondly, know thy seller! When I say that, I mean inside and out. Deal with them for a while before you take big plunges into fine wine. Research the devil out of them. Do they deliver on time? Will they take a corked or flawed bottle back, no questions asked (assuming it is a newer release)? What is their policy on buying wine? If they’ll buy or consign wine from pretty much anyone, keep walking (through Google search pages). I’ve had good merchants credit me for several bottles of older vintage Penfolds Grange that were severely flawed, just on my word alone. That’s a great merchant and a wise one. I’ve had another merchant go through a whole week of hell with importers, distributors, and eventually all the way back to the château, trying to determine if indeed a blatant label anomaly was produced by the château that particular vintage. It was. Later I was able to verify that the merchant was completely forthright about the information given to me when I actually visited château myself. These are merchants that are going to be around for a long, long time because they work hard to maintain their reputations and care about the outcome of your experience with them.

Auctions. Like so many things in life, auctions can be a blessing or a curse. In every auction catalog I have received, there is always at least one or two lots I can spot that are undervalued and if it is a wine I want to own, I’ll bid on it. On the several occasions that I have been the successful bidder I ended up with a very good deal on excellent fine wine. However, I personally only deal with a few auction houses that I consider reputable; I'm affirmatively not saying others are not reputable but, shall we say, I avoid them. The auction houses I deal with have very well informed experts that vet their wine very carefully before taking it to the auction block but even then, they can be duped; to wit Rudy Kurniawan. There are a plethora of auction sites that allow sellers to auction their undocumented wine in whatever quantity they have, be it single bottles or entire cellars. The problem with this practice is the occasional wine buyer that buys one or two bottles of a great wine but later decides to sell them for whatever reason but so often it’s impossible to track where it came from, how many people owned it prior to the current seller, or how it was shipped and stored. This can drastically reduce the quality of any wine regardless of how great it once was.

You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘there is no great wine, only great bottles’? I’m sure this adage was borne out of not-so-good experiences with questionable provenance. Some bottles I would hazard to guess are like that mythical fruitcake, in that they just keep passing from person to person the world over – no one ever consumes these wines, rather, people just keep selling them. Even with the best intentions of past owners, shipping at the wrong time of year to the right address in the wrong region or season will crush the life out of that wine. I avoid consumer-type auction sites and consumer consignment sites like I would avoid STDs or drinking bacon fat everyday for breakfast. Sorry, but if you like to gamble, go play the tables in Las Vegas and if you’re really feeling lucky, buy a bottle of Château Pétrus in Las Vegas, or buy wine on a consumer auction site. There are many merchants that buy wine from consumers by the bottle and resell them or buy them from these auctions. Do not buy fine wine this way unless you are masochistic. In that case, enjoy your probably flawed wine.

You will always pay more for wine that has a documented history and can be shown to you with original documents. Of course, as stated earlier, the one way to buy wine with perfect provenance is to buy it directly from the winery, or as close as possible. That’s difficult to do for most of us but sometimes wine will come on the auction block that was sourced directly from the wine estate, guaranteeing provenance. Also some of the better retailers will sometimes get an offer from a wine estate that is willing to sell off some of their ‘library wines’ (meaning back vintages), and the retailer of course can guarantee perfect provenance in these situations. Château Latour will be doing this probably at least once per year, selling to a handful of merchants and shipping the wine directly to them. It's a great way to buy older vintages of a spectacular wine that you know will be in pristine condition. These wines naturally cost more than others that have been banging around the planet for years in who knows what condition, but are definitely worth it. Many collectors are happy to pay a premium for these wines. 

Consider the age of the wines you are buying. Remember that the older the wine, the more important provenance is because, not only is it less likely to have a documented trail of ownership, but also wine gets fragile in its older age. There could be fifty-year-old great Bordeaux that you’ve always wanted but, assuming it is the genuine article, there will be a big difference between how that wine holds up by buying it from an unknown source, or buying it directly from the château or a reputable wine merchant. Buy from the wrong source that acquires inventory without being picky about the history of the wine, its owners, or its storage conditions, and you may end up paying a lot of money for worthless wine. Wine like this could have spent a year or two at room temperature during the course of being passed around auction houses and retailers, just because one owner in the chain failed to cellar the wine properly. Of course age will eventually make the wine undrinkable even with stellar provenance, but improper storage or shipping conditions just speed the aging process up, sometime substantially. Take into account that merchants can have wine in their inventory that they don’t know has already faded into glory. Don’t rely on a retailer or auction house to vet this for you because not all of them are able to keep up with each wine in inventory or sometimes they just don't catch it. It’s up to you to decide whether or not a particular wine has seen its better days but again research everything you can before putting large dollars into wine that was considered great - at one time. Always read the fine print from every source with which you do business too, so you know what to expect with your transactions.

Last, but certainly not least, never, ever buy any wine that came from China or even may have come from China. Never. This is not just a mecca for counterfeit wine, it the center of the counterfeit universe. It’s so bad there, that even the Chinese will not buy wine in China that lacks proof-positive provenance. This is not a problem in the US yet but I believe it will be and I think these will begin to start showing up on our shores within the next year or two. As indicated in a past post on this site, the Chinese will not allow imports from anywhere without first receiving a printable copy of the wine label and every single detail about it, including the exact specifications for the label used, the glue used, the exact ink colors used, the precise specifications for the bottle glass, corks, capsules, and so on. No bloody wonder there is a counterfeit wine problem in China! Add to that the recent development of the Chinese government going all austere on their entertainment budgets and encouraging its residents to do the same. Accordingly, there are cellars being sold off from sources known already to contain fakes, including some owned by high government officials. Know your provenance, be vigilent, and use every resource available to you. 

Ad emendum vinum fictus stultus est  (to buy fake wine is stupid).

David Boyer

Photo: A nice library of wine sold at its source, beautiful and delicious Second Growth, Château Pichon-Longueville Baron. I know they have older vintages available too.

The Wines of Summer

It’s not that I don’t drink white wine in winter months, I do, but not as often and usually to prepare the palate for things yet to be poured. More and more, however, I find myself getting excited about approaching summer months, just so I can enjoy white wine as a wine for the evening, not just as an aperitif. There is so much to discover, which is half the fun, and like many red wines, the quality of white wine has definitely risen dramatically over the past ten years.

There is, of course, no reason not to drink white wine during winter months or not drink red wine in summer months. It’s only that I gravitate more to a colder, refreshing, mouthwatering white wine as temperatures rise, and living in Austin ensures the arrival of many such days. Speaking of temperature, it is a misguided notion to serve white wine too cold. Part of it is personal taste, but generally serve a good quality white wine between 50 – 55 degrees, and the same with rosé. If it’s too cold the nose and palate will be very muted or even closed and you’ll miss a lot of what the wine has to offer; serve it too warm and it’s flabby and flat.

I drifted away from white wines for many years, perhaps for cause, but more likely because I became distracted by reds. My first foray into wine was as a 16 year old and the wine introduced to me was Chablis. Not the California jug ‘Chablis’ but fortunately Chablis from Burgundy. White wine wasn't at its pinnacle at that time, for sure. I remember it being pretty harsh on my then tender palate, as was all alcohol, but I stuck with it for a few years and really began to not just acquire a taste for it, but actually enjoy and appreciate the wine beyond the inevitable effects it would have on my young brain cells. 

These days I am truly fond of red wine but I'm equally enamored of white wine, if for different reasons. White wines to put on your bucket list include Le Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Charlemagne, Chevalier-Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne, Haut Brion Blanc, La Mission Haut Brion Blanc, Viognier from Condrieu and select Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer from Alsace; I’m sure I’m missing many more. As exquisite as these are, they are often as big as red wine, or nearly so. They absolutely demand your attention, and not just because they cost a small fortune ($120 up to about $4K per bottle). They often have the mouthfeel and complexity of great red wines but with different fruit, as expected. These are truly exceptional wines, along with others, that require the drinker's time to contemplate, marvel, and enjoy with utter concentration, conversation about the wine, and some great food on the side. Like a great red wine, these upper-end whites also require bottle age to really get the most they have to offer. In other words, they’re generally not for casual sipping on a hot summer afternoon.

The white wines I’m talking about are what you order with lunch in France for five to ten Euros per glass. They’re light, remarkably refreshing and flavorful, with balance and enough complexity to keep it interesting. They don’t have to be from Bordeaux but that’s a good start. Bordeaux white wine is often dismissed but unless you’ve had some in recent years, overlooking them would be a mistake. This blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon is one of the very best values to be found at under $30 - $40. Look for whites from Pessac-Léognan or the larger appellations of Graves or even Haut-Médoc. Surprisingly, I have found very enjoyable bottles for $15 - $20 and I try to stock up on them whenever I can (they don’t usually last long)!

Other reasonably priced great whites for summer include white Burgundy such as Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, (both are Chardonnay). From the Loire Valley some standouts are Pouilly-Fumé, and right across the river, Sancerre (both Sauvignon Blanc), along with Muscadet (the grape for this is the simpler Melon de Bourgogne, but spectacular with seafood). Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand can be thrilling too and I’ve found great value in some Italian Pinot Grigio and Spain’s Albariño. I already know this summer I’ll go through gallons of Brut Prosecco (dry sparkling wine from Italy) and Rosé from France’s Provence region. These are all simply enchanting wines. 

You should be able to find good examples of all of the above (except the bucket list wines) for $40 or less, a lot of it much less. Each wine is very expressive, shows a definite sense of place, and is true to its grape profile in a very pure sense. Crisp, dry, and delicious, with minerality to various degrees, these wines are perfect for summer months and usually very little, if any, oak is used during fermentation or aging.

Unfortunately, I have not included domestic white wine but I know there are some very good wines out there. For me though, the few domestic whites worth drinking are $100 or more per bottle and I haven’t found many reasonably priced US wines that weren’t over manipulated or, they just didn't measure up to their international equivalents. When I spend $100 plus for a bottle of wine I’d rather buy French wine any day, but then again, French wine is what I’ve known since I was a teenager.

David Boyer

Photo: Château Cos d’Estournel Blanc – only about 300 cases made per vintage, difficult to find but well worth it.

How Do You Say That Word?

What You Need To Know About Wine Pronunciations

My love of wine runs very deep and if you’re reading this, yours probably is too. Great wine in and of itself, however, is not the end of it. Because wine is so multidimensional there is seemingly endless amounts of information available and I enjoy the cerebral, academic, and intellectual aspects of wine almost as much as having it in my mouth. Almost.  

From an academic point of view, a recurring theme that can provoke various reactions from me has to do with how accurately a wine’s name is pronounced, or the name of a region, vineyard, or a wine term but my reaction depends on the person speaking. If it is someone that’s intentionally not knowledgeable about wine or is just starting out with wine that mispronounces a wine name, it is completely forgivable. If someone is selling wine at retail, not so much. If the person speaking is even deeper in the trade such as a sommelier, the affront becomes more serious yet. I don’t want to come across inimical in any way but professionals absolutely cannot afford to mispronounce these words although I hear it very frequently in every single corner of America.

A few months ago I was looking for anything on the Internet that would help me learn how to properly pronounce the Champagne brand, Mumm (not Mumm Napa). Because I speak a bit of French I seriously doubted it would be pronounced, as it would seem, few French words are. From a Google search, I came upon this site that had a list of Champagne producers and I was suddenly in pronunciation heaven. From a list of eleven Champagne producers, I was horrified to discover I was pronouncing only four of them correctly; Mumm was not one of them. Granted, Champagne is not my wheelhouse but still!

And so began a collaborative project that I have been dreaming about for years: a central repository of pronunciations for the world of fine wines. This is a HUGE and remarkable resource for anyone that loves wine, teaches wine, sells it, writes or talks about it, or is a professional in the trade. No one has set out to do what Marie-Ora de Villiers is doing with her website, It is a formidable commitment to make and she has not only stepped up to get it done but has also in the process done everything with great integrity and painstaking attention to detail to ensure that this is the definitive, most reliable source for the correct pronunciation of French wine names. 

Initially, we started with, of course, Classified Bordeaux and will eventually get into the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy along with other important wine regions in France. Perhaps Madame de Villiers will even venture into other regions of the world but for Americans, French is certainly the most difficult to master in terms of pronunciation. In addition to wine related pronunciations there are great resources for food and travel as well so I’m positive you’ll want to bookmark this growing treasure-of-a-site and refer to it often.

Marie-Ora is a person for whom I have great respect for many reasons, but not the least of which is due to her substantial accomplishments. She is extremely erudite in the fields of languages, law, writing, food, wine, and travel, to name a few. And she is so great to work with that my part of the collaboration has seemed like a walk in the park (with a ’61 Latour). For more fascinating insight about Marie-Ora’s world, please read on:

When did you start your website?

I started toying with the website way back in 2007. I didn't know anything about the net, and it stalled a couple of times. My salvation was learning more about the technical aspects of website design, and discovering Wordpress, as well as finding a really great designer who could implement all my ideas. The site was only properly released around February 2012. I have a stubborn streak, and I don't give up easily.

Was there any particular event that happened when you recognized there was a need for people to have a resource for pronunciation?

Yes, I'd been laid up after an accident and I started watching a lot of the UK cooking programs. I'd studied languages, and I couldn't believe that someone at the BBC couldn't find out the correct pronunciation of so many of the words they were broadcasting. France is just over the Channel, there are loads of people who speak French in the UK, and the presenters were making mistakes - lots of them. With other languages, like Spanish, I could see exactly where they were going wrong. You often hear people saying Spanish words with Italian pronunciation, and so on. They know some rules in some languages, but they misapply them. Because I've studied 8 languages at university level, I can easily pick up that type of error, and predict where English speakers are likely to go wrong.

When did you get into wine?

I spent a lot of time in Europe growing up. Part of my family is Italian, so wine was a part of any special meal and weekend lunches and dinners. As kids, we always had a splash of Chianti in our glasses - it sounds outrageous to some now, but it was normal, and you learned to enjoy wine for itself and not as a vehicle for inebriation. The first time I tried Château d'Yquem was a revelation  - it was in Zurich, years ago. I thought I had discovered the Nectar of the Gods. 

You did! And Champagne also seems like a favorite region of yours. Are there any other types of wine you are particularly fond of?

I do like Champagne, I must say, although all are not created equal. I'm a great fan of Veuve Clicquot. I also particularly enjoy Merlot varietals. Chablis is another favorite.  There are some fabulous South African wines that are my staples, especially our excellent Pinotage blends and Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals.

What is your background?

I was born in the north of Namibia - it's a very remote region. The only point of international interest is the Hoba meteorite, which is the largest metal meteorite in the world, and which was on the family farm. There was no television and radio, so I grew up with a great love of reading, nature, and classical music, which was the only kind of music we had at home. I come from a long line of truly excellent cooks - my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all legendary. We had a full set of the Time Life 'Foods of the World' series - I still have them, and I loved going through them as a child. So there is a strong attachment to food and wine that formed very early in my life. Academically, my undergraduate degree was in languages. I majored in French and Spanish, and my minor was German. I also have a postgraduate degree in law, but I have no interest in practicing. I had the opportunity of pursuing a Masters in French or Spanish, and I regret not taking that route.

How did your attraction to languages come about?

As I said, I was born in Namibia, but I went to school in South Africa, and as a family we spent a fair amount of time in Europe. I have recent German, Italian and Austrian blood, and going back, French and Dutch, among a few others. In Namibia, I only spoke English with my family and a few close friends. I went to a German Kindergarten, and everyone else in Namibia only spoke Afrikaans. My grandfather was Italian. So I've always been around different languages and cultures. When I started school, I had a German accent. My mother sent me for years of elocution to eliminate that. But that accent made me hyperconscious of my pronunciation, which created a life-long interest in the subject.

In what part of the world are you currently living? Is there anything special about it or anything that helps you with your website?

I live in South Africa, but many of my close friends are first language French and Italian speakers. The thing about South Africa is that we are exposed to a lot of the USA and the UK here, so I have a familiarity with those countries that someone living in for example, California, would not have about South Africa, or even the UK. I think my family background is the most helpful aspect - if I had grown up speaking only English, I doubt I would have had the same insight and awareness of the problems English speakers face when trying to speak foreign words.

There is an enormous amount of misinformation on the Internet. How do you ensure that you don’t become part of that?

I never take anything on the Internet as gospel. I have a lot of books - my office is piled high with dictionaries, books on wine, Larousse Gastronomique (I have uncovered errors in my edition), Escoffier, and so on. I never use a single source of information. I spend a ridiculous amount of time on some entries - I can't help myself there - if I can't get it clear in my own head, I feel uncomfortable putting it on my site. I often just have to compromise though, but I will frequently go back and rework entries as I find more information. And I'm very grateful to my readers who sometimes have personal insight and share it. 

If a word or a winery name is not completely clear to you, how do you go about obtaining the proper pronunciation?

Skype! I phone around, if not the company, I get hold of friends in Europe and make them ask around if they aren't sure. For wine pronunciations, I phone the actual châteaux and ask. I also check all their websites, and there are some truly awful wine websites. The French really do love Flash, and you can lose the will to live while waiting for everything to load up. 

Because America is a ‘melting pot’ with so many different cultures, there are definite differences in how people speak between regions. Someone from Boston will have a different accent than someone from Austin. Or someone growing up in society’s upper class of London will sound different than someone growing up with a Cockney accent. How does this work in French? Do the French people also have different accents based on region?

Most definitely! European accents vary dramatically. This is what makes it so hard for students of foreign languages. You get your degree, and when you arrive in Europe, you don't understand a word anyone is saying. Of course this happens to English students as well. They have learned 'hello, how are you' and then they are confronted with 'what's up'. This is exactly what happens with French and so on. They will understand you if your grammar and pronunciation are adequate, but you will struggle to follow them. Also, you must remember dialects. There are numerous dialects, which have very different vocabulary and grammar. There is no way you will understand most of them without living in the actual regions where they are spoken.

If there are regional differences, how do you deal with this for pronunciations on your website?

All European languages have an academy or institute that teaches the formal, standardized accent and grammar of a language. This is what you learn at university, and what every school child in Europe learns at school, regardless of what dialect or accent they have at home. I stick to the formal language, unless there is a definite reason not to. You can't just blindly follow rules, you have to look at convention too. For instance, the final 's' in 'pastis' should be silent according to traditional French pronunciation rules, but this is a well-established exception, so I follow that. Saying 'pastee' is wrong and indefensible.

I always tell users of my site to remember that there is a difference between pronunciation and accent, and this is critical to my approach. Pronunciation is how that word is correctly said, and this can vary wildly from the orthography of a word. For instance, look at the English words 'bough' and 'cough'. Whether you speak with the Queen's English, or with a Texan accent, you are never going to pronounce 'cough' like 'cow'. That mispronunciation makes the word incomprehensible - it sounds like you are talking about something entirely different. 

When people sneer at pronunciation as being 'pretentious' they don't realize that if you don't pronounce words in a language correctly, you can easily be talking gibberish or worse. There are a lot of words, particularly in Italian that have obscene meanings when you mispronounce them. You want to get the pronunciation right. However, I don't believe in altering your accent at all. Unless you have really studied a language you sound pretentious when affecting a French accent in an English setting. And it's hard to pull off without a lot of practice. 

For this reason, I give phonetic pronunciation as well as audio of the word with an authentic accent. Each user has to find a happy medium between the two, so that they are correct in their pronunciation, but still speaking with their own accent - exactly as you would when saying 'cough' and 'bough'. You are looking for substantial correctness, not perfection.

What are your goals or what ideally would you like to accomplish with your site?

I really hope that I demystify the pronunciation of foreign (and many English) words. There is a veneer of 'class' and 'worldliness' attached to knowing the correct pronunciation of a wine, for example. And people who don't know it, and I have spoken to many people about it, can feel quite embarrassed and even defensive about that. There is a perception that you have to learn a language or have traveled to be able to pronounce words from it. It's not true. 

I wanted to create a reference where people could reliably learn how to pronounce a word on their own, as well as get a snap-shot of what it's about and where it comes from. Moët et Chandon, for instance, is one of those words that people always argue about the pronunciation of: do you pronounce the 't' or not? Just throwing in audio and phonetic spelling of the correct pronunciation doesn't address that. For that reason, I mention the history of the name, and give a reason why Moët is an exception to French pronunciation.

I want the user to get a complete picture. I like to give some detail and background on entries, as far as is possible, so that if a user needs to sound like he/she knows what they are talking about, they have just enough. I had some MBA students who had never traveled to Europe that I helped out a short while. They felt awkward when they had to do corporate entertaining. It was so gratifying to be able to help them feel more confident and at home with food and wine. This is a part of life that is meant to be enjoyed. It shouldn't be intimidating.

I get a lot of queries - I've even been asked to check the pronunciation of a dog's name - the owner had rescued him from a shelter. I love getting queries from readers: I'll answer anything from the most expensive champagne, to a question from someone learning English and wanting a basic word explained. I have contacts in most places, and I have access to a lot of native speakers across Europe who are immensely helpful – I’ve dug up Icelandic and Croatian, so anything goes.

I’m completely impressed! I cannot thank you enough for providing such a great service to the world of fine wine and beyond. You have been fantastic throughout and I wish you great and continued success with your site!

Dear Readers, please visit her site often as Marie-Ora will no doubt be adding many more wine, food, and travel pronunciations in the months to come. I will have a link permanently in the 'Class of 1855 Recommended Sites' area of the blog page (this home page) and also on the home page of the Classof1855 website (; you can click on the banner at the top of the page to easily get there from here. Happy learning!

David Boyer

Photo: Marie-Ora de Villiers

No Silly Questions

What I mean by the title is that when it comes to wine, for the most part there is no such thing as a silly question. Many years ago before I even considered studying wine, I used to think, ‘How tough can it be to understand this? It’s just a bunch of fermented grape juice. Simple’. Later when I began to get serious about wine I understood just how wrong my sophomoric attitude was.

Wine is indeed a very technically complicated subject and the deeper I ventured into the field the more I realized how little we actually know about wine. Scientifically, the collective knowledge has increased exponentially only in the past two or three decades. Except for the wineries of the world that have been in existence for centuries, in times past, winemakers were really just farmers who happened to also make wine. They may have had some experience with soil and plants but if a farmer’s wine turned out good in any particular vintage, it was mostly due to blind luck, not depth of knowledge or science. We’re just now getting caught up on a basic understanding of how it all works and many mysteries remain. From the weather, to the inner workings of vines, to the chemical reactions of virtually everything that happens in the winemaking and aging process, from bud break to glass is plethora of events waiting to go wrong.

When someone begins with the phrase, ‘this is a silly question’, most of the time it really isn’t at all silly. Nearly anyone that fields questions in public forums such as Wine Spectator or Local Wine will tell you that the most asked question goes something like this: I found an old bottle of 1973 Château Dos Equis Reserva in my late great grandfather’s coat closet. Is it worth a lot of money? Those questions often do seem silly to me because they are not about wine at all, they are questions about, did I strike it rich? The odds of an average person stumbling across a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild 1875 or a Château d’Yquem 1811 that has been stored in complete darkness at 55 degrees Fahrenheit in 70% humidity are infinitesimally small. I would dare to guess that the odds of winning the lotto once a year for twenty years in a row is more likely. But real questions about wine are not silly and I encourage everyone to ask them, no matter how simple they may seem. All of us start somewhere in our pursuit of wine knowledge and should never be embarrassed in our quest for more information or understanding. I am inquisitive myself and I never intend to stop asking questions.

I was recently asked a very non-silly question and wanted to elaborate with this post because, although I could provide a simple one-sentence answer, like most things concerning wine, we have to dig deeper to arrive at a true understanding. The question from someone I respect and has a good amount of wine experience is: Why do Bordeaux reds seem to drink well long after they are opened? Some Bordeaux red wines, even a week after I've opened them will taste just fine, certainly not as good as the first or second day, but often I find New World wines undrinkable after two or three days at the most. The simple answer is that Bordeaux ages so well, whether in an opened bottle for four or five days, or in an unopened bottle for twenty or thirty years, because of it’s structure.

If we break down the major components of red wine, today’s wine is roughly 80% water, 15% alcohol, and 5% ‘other’ elements. Those other elements are a very important part of a wine’s structure and include acidity, glycerol, and phenolic compounds, (there are small amounts of other elements in this 5% like sulfites, that are not considered part of the structure of wine). Wine phenols consist of, in part, tannins from grape skins, grape seeds, sometimes grape stalks, and oak barrels if used, along with color pigments also derived from the grapes’ skins. Structure is due mostly to that 5% of other elements and within the context of modern winemaking structure is, by design, added or diminished depending on the wine company, their market goals, and even philosophy about wine. And as with almost any discussion about wine, it all starts in the vineyard.

The value of vineyard management and also low yielding old vines becomes obvious when considering the resulting concentration of phenols due to a higher skin to pulp ratio of small berries, thereby increasing not only depth of color but increasing tannins. Although the ‘type’ of wine determined by each winery is based on many factors that are outside the scope of this post, goals are set for vineyard management technics that are most likely to meet the needs of the winery, which includes how each finished wine will be structured. After vineyard considerations, it's up to the winemaker to determine the wine's course and its outcome. 

Tannins are a crucial component of red wine because of its superior properties as an antioxidant. Really this post would not be complete without at least mentioning oxygen, which is an element that is ironic because it is both necessary for wine’s production and aging, yet oxygen can also completely irreversibly damage wine. In other words, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. During the initial barrel aging process that takes place after fermentation, cellar masters will top off each barrel with wine to eliminate air that finds its way into the container mostly due to very slow evaporation (the missing wine is often referred to as the angels share). The wine is exposed to minute amounts of oxygen during barrel aging through microscopic gaps in the barrels’ staves and even the cells of the wood. This small amount of oxygen facilitates the wine’s development until the winemaker deems the wine ready to be bottled. To leave air in the barrel will eventually cause the wine to oxidize, of course producing a flawed wine. Most wines are racked to separate the clear juice from sediment, which exposes it to even more oxygen. In many châteaux in Bordeaux, these topping up and racking processes are a daily task that takes several burly men about three months from start to finish to get through all of the barrels. By the time the last barrel is topped up, it’s time to start at the beginning again.

Aging wine in bottles only differs in that topping up does not occur again (unless a special old bottle is taken to the winery for the sake of preservation, a very rare occasion). In the bottle molecules of oxygen reach the wine by moving up in molecular sized spaces between the cork and the neck of the glass bottle. Again, this is a good thing and it is how wine evolves with age. Eventually, an age worthy wine that is tannic when bottled will have those tannins attach to the color compounds in red wine until they are so heavy, they drop out of solution, which is how aged wine softens and becomes rounder over time. Be warned, however, that not every tannic young wine will improve with age, simply because it has a lot of tannins present. In fact most will not improve with age unless it was made for aging. Having an out of balance overly tannic wine and having a wine with good structure are two different things.

But here’s the answer to the question: not every winery wants to make age worthy wines and in fact, most so-called ‘new world’ wineries intentionally create the opposite of age worthy wines. Most new world wines, which include California, take extreme measures to ensure their wines are drinkable upon release or close to it. Technologies employed such as micro-oxygenation equipment, reverse osmosis, and spinning cone columns all manipulate wines in many ways in which the public generally is unaware. Yes, there are these technologies used in Europe as well but probably to a much lesser degree than new world wine regions (most wineries don't like to talk about this openly). The desired effect is to soften tannins, reduce acidity from the effects of a cold vintage, manage alcohol levels from very ripe or overripe grapes, remove water to concentrate the wine, add acidity in hot vintages (doesn’t require machinery, per se), and take away all of the potential harshness of wine so it is nearly palatable to baby kittens. In this age of instant gratification who wants to spend a small fortune on wine, only to have to wait for fifteen years or more to drink it? The net result of all of this is that many of the elements that protect wine over time, are now extracted from the wine to meet market and commercial expectations – a very sad state of affairs to me.

Good quality Bordeaux will age well and with that age will often develop wonderful secondary and tertiary flavor and aroma profiles with nuances that cannot be found in younger wines, all the while softening and becoming rounder and fuller with time, at least for a while. The aging process is only possible due to the wine’s structure. Remove that structure and there is no protection available for a wine to fend off the inevitable effects of oxygen. I have experienced inexpensive new world wines that were completely flat and beginning to oxidize in twenty or thirty minutes after being opened. The first couple of sips had some life but after that, the air just deconstructed the wine as it sat in my glass. One of the most important issues of removing a wine’s structure is that it creates a sort of homogenization that ends up tasting just like every other new world wine out there, all lacking individuality and character, indistinguishable from all the others including its grape variety, vintage, and region/country of origin; just another cola!

I have read with horror on numerous occasions, usually on Cellartracker, where someone will open a bottle of twenty five year old Bordeaux and decant it for 8 hours, or 24 hours, or three days and then complain about what a disappointment the wine was. Of course at that age there is usually not much structure left so the wine becomes easily oxidized and is unpleasant to drink. Conversely, there are those that open very young Bordeaux upon release and experience its harshness of tannins and acidity and then fail to understand how anyone could enjoy Bordeaux. In vintages like 2009 and 2010, many wines from the Bordeaux region can be drunk young and thoroughly enjoyed, or they can be aged as well, but it is a rare vintage that allows this to happen; it is only coincidental that two years in a row produced such amazing wines. But as a general rule, most good quality Bordeaux (Classified Bordeaux) should be aged for 6 – 8 years upon release and the best of them such as First Growth Bordeaux should not be touched for at least 15 years.

The short answer to the question is that Bordeaux lasts longer in an open bottle than a new world wine because it has structure providing antioxidant properties that new world wines have removed. I know. Way too much information, but I didn’t want to be a slacker and just dole the short version. Thanks Dennis - and every reader should feel free to send me wine questions anytime.

David Boyer

Photo: Being inside the cellars of Second Growth Bordeaux Château Cos d’Estournel was a great pleasure and although they didn’t open any of these vintages for me (I didn’t expect them to), they served up very wonderful wines nonetheless. It’s questionable how many of these in the photo, if any, are still drinkable – even great wines from great cellars will not last forever.

When Seconds Become Firsts

Regardless of what types of wine you enjoy most, you can’t help but have heard the loud and continuous pounding of the drum regarding the 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux vintages. To some, this pounding is analogous to having a major headache. To Bordeaux aficionados, it is like resplendent music to the ear. Why? Because it means there is some truly spectacular wine coming on deck and as with all great vintages, many of these wines can be drunk young or cellared for thirty years, plus. 

In the spring of 2011, I received an invitation from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux to taste the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux. The raison d'être of UGCB is to function as a public relations agency for its members, which consists of a nearly complete who’s who of Classified châteaux. The few auspicious châteaux not on the list presumably need no PR. Nonetheless, I went to barrel taste the 2010 vintage and many 2009s while I was there, both Left Bank and Right Bank. These vintages are not hyperbole. 

In great vintages, virtually everything gets amplified to an appreciable degree; indeed wines that have remained below the radar are suddenly on the screen because they became good enough to be noticed. Consistently Bordeaux (and perhaps all) winemakers are not surprisingly reticent about comparing their wines by vintage, and tend to think of each of them as their little darlings no matter what. When pushed, however, they will shower accolades upon certain vintages. Conversely, critics and writers like to compare vintages, as do collectors, connoisseurs, and fine wine merchants. So to pin winemakers down a bit with these latest vintages, all of them say pretty much say the same thing, which goes something like this: ‘the weather conditions created perfection in the vineyards to the extent that you’d have to be extraordinarily mentally challenged to make a bad or even mediocre wine in vintages like ’09 and ’10’.

Further, the ’09 and ’10 vintages have many of the attributes similar to ’45, ’59, ‘ 61 and to some extent ’82, whereas they can be drunk upon release with great pleasure, and continue to be great all the way through decades of cellaring. Bordeaux from lesser vintages often requires long cellaring times before they are even approachable due to the wine’s structure typically being so big and, in poor vintages, they need to be consumed early because they lack structure and therefore will not likely age well. With structured wine it simply takes time for tannins to attach to phenolic compounds and finally drop out of solution (this is the sediment found in older bottles that you don’t want to end up in your glass), which softens the wine. Acidity is a whole other issue but we definitely don’t want it to diminish with age because acidity is what provides freshness and the sense of youthfulness in wine. A wine without acidity is just ‘flabby’ and tastes flat and lifeless, often due to grapes that become too ripe causing acidity to be markedly less than desirable. 

The point is that we have two spectacular vintages back-to-back that raise generally lower rated wines to goodness and sometimes even greatness. The controversy will wage on for decades about which vintage is better, similar to what’s happening today between the ’89 and ’90 and the ’95 and ’96 vintages. It certainly makes for great conversation and really nobody wins or looses the argument, especially when these wines are opened and compared side by side. Still it is generally agreed by most everyone that both of the vintages subject to this post are considered to eclipse the aforementioned vintages and maybe even the mythical ‘61. Only time will tell.

Currently many ‘09s are coming in to retail and most of the ‘10s will be available in less than a year from now, although a few of the lesser known ‘10s are presently trickling in. This is a windfall for Bordeaux lovers because many Second Growth Bordeaux and even some of the other Classified Bordeaux will rival that of many vintages of First Growth Bordeaux. Yes, a Second that costs $350 seems expensive but it is much closer to stealing compared to paying $1200 - $1500 for a bottle of First Growth. Not that that $1500 isn’t worth it. As an example of the greatness of these vintages, the 2010 vintage of Château Lynch Bages was completely mind-blowing in its complexity, approachability, nuance, pureness, aromas and flavors. This is of course a Fifth Growth that in this vintage tastes like a very good vintage First Growth. I think I wrote this about the 2010 Lynch Bages months ago and respected wine critic James Suckling recently concurred by giving this wine a score of 99 points. And there are many others like this.

The most difficult part of owning these truly great wines will be keeping the cork in the bottle. I found both of these vintages to be absolutely seductive and extremely compelling, even extremely young so be warned: these will be easy to drink and therefore, easy to own none of them in fifteen or twenty years. To me the ’09s are perhaps a little more flamboyant but the ‘10s displayed this remarkable purity of fruit and definition that I have never before tasted, yet alone from barrel samples. Also there will be a number of bottles in the $20 - $50 range that are certainly worth buying by the case as everyday wines. Of course you need to buy a bottle first and taste it before committing to case purchases but if you like Bordeaux even a little, don’t miss this once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy up these amazing wines - you’ll thank yourself many times over.

Here’s a smattering of prices and scores to consider:







Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste

95 WA


Château Lynch-Bages

98 WA


Château Léoville-Las-Cases

98 WA


Château Léoville Barton

96 JS


Château L'Evangile

100 WA


Château La Conseillante

97 JS


Château Trotanoy

98+ WA


Domaine de Chevalier Rouge

95 WA 


Château Cos d’Estournel

100 JS – WA


Château Pichon-Longueville Lalande

95 WA


Château Pontet-Canet

100 WA


Château Brane-Cantenac

95 WA


Château Ducru-Beaucaillou

100 WA








Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste

95 - 96 JS


Château Lynch-Bages

99 - JS 


Château Léoville-Las-Cases

95 - 98 WS


Château Léoville Barton

97 - 98 JS


Château L'Evangile

96 - 98 WA


Château La Conseillante

95 - 98 WA


Château Trotanoy

96 - 99 WS


Domaine de Chevalier Rouge

95 - 96 JS


Château Cos d’Estournel

96 - 99 WS


Château Pichon-Longueville Lalande

94 - 95 JS


Château Pontet-Canet

96 -100 WA


Château Brane-Cantenac

93 - 96 WA


Château Ducru-Beaucaillou

99 - 100 JS


WA = Wine Advocate, JS = James Suckling, WS = Wine Spectator

Please note: the 2010s listed here at this time are en premeur (sold as futures) and priced as such.  All prices displayed are per .750 ml bottle and were obtained from reputable and various merchants. Also most 2010s are expressed as ranges of scores because they are for the most part not yet finished (bottled) wines.

I’d love to hear your impressions about these undeniably great vintages as they unfold over the years and as always, I wish you great and rewarding wine experiences!

David Boyer 

Photo: The arrant beauty of First Growth Château Margaux while I was in Bordeaux in 2012, no less beautiful today I'm sure