The Sips Approach to Wine Tasting

You’ve all seen it. Most, if not all of you, have done it.  The it is the ritual of tasting wine. Sometimes all that swirling and sniffing looks pretty affected – But the truth of the matter is that engaging with the wine in the glass is the best way to enhance your Sip appreciation. First, a simple tasting ritual can tell you if the wine has any faults that will hinder or prevent you from enjoying it.  Then there’s the fact having a regular way to taste the wine in your glass will jumpstart your sipping experiences – kind of like lighting up your tastebuds!  Finally, there’s an opportunity to know a bit more about wine every time you raise a glass to you lips, and I think that adds to the overall enjoyment and entertainment we get from this amazing beverage.

So how can we create a tasting process that does those things, and without appearing to be some snooty wine aficionado?  The answer is to keep it simple and keep it real.  There are five easy steps that I call the Sips Approach to digging wine: See, Swirl, Smell, Sip and Savor.  Here’s what they mean:

See.  Be aware.  Look at the wine in your glass.  What you See can tell you a lot about what you’re going to taste and experience.  While we all know there is red, white and rose’ wine, within those very broad definitions is a wide variety of shade and texture. For example, if you just poured a taste of chardonnay what do you see?  Is it rich yellow or pale straw? Is it golden or honey-like with tint of amber. Typically the richer golden color will tell you that this chard came from a warmer year or region or spent some time barrel aging. And without taking a sip you can anticipate a more peachy or tropical fruit taste, probably with a fuller feel in your mouth. Each wine variety has its own color and texture profile and the more you See and become aware, the more you’ll come to know wine.

Swirl. Yep – do it. Don’t feel intimidated.  Swirling the wine in the glass is not only a great way to also See and admire it more, it’s the wine’s handspring out of the bottle. Swirling releases the aroma, essentially aerates the wine so that more of the wine is exposed to the air and flavor molecules are ready for your nose. Also, it can tell us a bit about the alcohol too.  Since our taste is driven by smell, swirling the wine in the glass activates the evaporation of some of the alcohol which carries the odor that we will Smell and lets us See the “tears” or “legs” on the side of the glass. Long slow legs indicates higher alcohol which tells us the wine will be more full tasting. Now…

Smell.  That’s it, stick your nose in that glass and give it a good whiff!  This is a fun one. But it’s also where folks get carried away.  Here’s where to keep it simple.  When I Smell I try to look for three types of aromas or odors. First anything bad or off-putting. Common faults are cork taint (think smelly gym socks) or acetone (nail polish) or like a Band-Aid and other unnatural smelling things. If it doesn’t smell right it’s probably not right so send it back or return the bottle to the store. Next, the fruit. Each variety has characteristic smells of fruit and I like to smell for a predominant one – not a litany of every fruit I’ve ever had (like some wine reviewers)! Next there are indicators of how the wine was made so I smell for the oakyness (vanilla, toasty or woody) or things like sur lie aging (yeasty or bready), and so on.  In future posts I’ll give you a whole list of Smell by different grape varieties and winemaking styles. But start now and trust your nose!

Sip.  Yes, you get to actually sip the wine! Here’s where I like to keep it real. Let the wine work around the inside of your mouth, let the aroma work back from your mouth to your nose. What’s there? Don’t try to name everything you experience… pick three, whether they be different fruits, herbal or vegetal qualities, flowers or zippy acidity, woodiness or style, body or astringency, just let the wine live in your mouth before you swallow it.  And then…

Savor. This is where the magic happens. This is where it all comes together – or not. This is where the awareness of what you See in the glass, the liveliness of the Swirl, the aroma assault of the Smell and the payoff of the Sip becomes a wine experience. And as you continue to try different wines and practice the Sips Approach the whole world of wine will be more open, more familiar, less intimidating and more entertaining for you.

Have I got you hooked?  If so here’s a terrific app to help you along the way.  It’s from the University of Adelaide in Australia and it is an interactive way to taste along and keep up with the experiences you Sip.  Find it for iPhone or Android: My Wine World (TM) produced by the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, the University of Adelaide.

Let’s Sip!

Much Maligned Merlot

I feel sorry for Merlot.  Here’s a grape that is one of the most widely planted in the world which you’ll find in some of the best wine made and yet it’s completely dissed.  You would think this grape the French call the “little blackbird” would get more respect.  Those of you of a certain age can insert your favorite  Rodney Dangerfield saying here (mine, by the way is “Come on. While we’re young!” from Caddyshack, but I digress).

Merlot had turned into a bar pour as in “I’ll have the Merlot” since people viewed it as a step up from “I’ll have a glass of red.”  To be sure, there was a lot of very average, grapey, flabby merlot out there on the shelves – then the movie Sideways came out in 2004 and really trashed it.  Merlot’s reputation and sales plummeted and, worse yet, it became very uncool.  Ironically, the star wine of the movie was not the Pinot Noir that the characters gushed about, but the long-saved and much anticipated bottle that the lead, Miles, was just waiting for the right moment to drink.  It was mostly Merlot!  The wine, Cheval Blanc, from the right bank of Bordeaux between the villages of Pomerol and St. Emilion is comprised of a blend that is half Merlot.

But, hey folks, that was eleven years ago!  Its time to get past it and rediscover Merlot.  It’s time to R-E-S-P-E-C-T (insert your favorite Aretha song here) Merlot.  And it’s ready to drink now.  Merlot is usually soft and approachable, with no bitterness or sharpness.

Merlot is the most planted grape in France, but usually you have to know the village or region to know what you are buying.  The home of Merlot is the so-called Right Bank of Bordeaux, which is to the east of that city. Look for the names Pomerol, St. Emilion, Fronsac, Blaye, Cotes de Bourg, Castillon and their combinations on the label.  These wines are typically blends that are mostly Merlot. They tend to be less fruit in your face dominant than American Merlot and a little more astringent or tannic (which people describe as tight).  American and other new world Merlot usually are very fruit driven, meaning that you’ll find lush flavors of dark cherry, blueberry or plum and often some chocolate mocha when you take a sip.

You can enjoy Merlot with lots of foods.  My personal favorites are a cheddar cheeseburger or some thick pork chops right off the grill.  And it’s out there in all price ranges.  If you want to buy the Cheval Blanc (the latest vintage is about $500 per bottle), let me know and I’ll be right over – but there’s lots to choose from between $10 and $25, with some truly exceptional wines up to about $60.

Everyday Sip:  2012 Columbia Crest “H3” Horse Heaven Hills Merlot, Columbia Valley $12
A lot of wine for this price. Horse Haven Hills is a subregion of the Columbia Valley putting out some outstanding wines. Black cherries and cocoa.  Easy to drink and versatile.

Guest Sip:  2012 Ferrari Carano Merlot, Sonoma County $25
Dark fruit with a little vanilla accent. Lush wine that’s very food friendly.

Splurge Sip:  2012 Pride Mountain Vineyards  Merlot $60
With apologies to Emeril – BAM!  This is a big juicy Merlot that shows off what this grape can be.  Bold plummy fruitiness with a dash of mocha.  Ripe and full bodied.

Preacher in the House

Today I’m going to preach. I’m going to sermonize, thump the table, bang the drum and shout Alleluia!  And I’m calling for the choir of believers to join me.  I am a Rose’ evangelist!

Rose’ is everything that is crisp, lively, summery and tantalizing about wine.  It’s typically dry, not sweet, so don’t confuse it with that pink stuff called white zinfandel or other so-called blush wines.  Rose’ is an artful and historic wine style.  The epicenter for Rose’ is the south of France but it’s made all over France and all over the world.  In Spain its known as Rosado; in Germany it’s Weissherbst; in Italy either Rosato or Chiaretto if you’re hanging out near Venice. In the US and places like Australia and South Africa we just stick with Rose’.  In addition to still wines there are also yummy sparkling wines and champagne made in the Rose’ style too.

Grape juice from red grapes isn’t red, it’s basically a clear liquid.  All the color for red wines comes from leaving this juice in contact with the red grape skins after they’re crushed and during the fermentation into wine.  (This is a process called maceration for those who like the geeky parts of wine).  There are really three methods used to make this kind of wine with the most common being one where the grapes are crushed and left to hang out in the juice for a few hours or a few days.  Actually some French producers use the term une nuit, or one night.  But regardless of how long they sit it’s up to the winemaker to decide when the juice is pink enough and then it’s pumped off the skins and tanked to ferment either bone dry or with just a hint of residual sugar.

The other two methods may even be called out on the label.  Saignée is a process where the red grapes are crushed and left to macerate for a while then some of the juice is pumped off and goes into the tank to eventually become Rose’ while the rest is left to ferment into red wine.  Guess that’s getting the most out of the grape, right?

And finally there’s direct pressing of the whole bunch or cluster of the grapes which almost immediately adds the color to the juice.  These are typically the lightest colored Rose’ and the label will often have the words vin gris on it.  But no matter which method is used, the artistry is the final wine and Rose’ can be a wonderful part of your wine experiences.

Rose’ can be made from any purple skinned grape. The color and flavors of Rose’ vary a lot.  Those from the south of France, like Provence, Bandol and Tavel, tend to be paler, salmon pink with more delicate fruit flavors of raspberry or ripe peach. In Spain, Italy, South Africa and the US they’re often darker, like a shimmering ruby you can see through and are “redder” tasting too – more like ripe strawberries or cherries.  But what they all have in common is that they are plain fun to drink.  These are “let’s have lunch on the deck” wines ideal for lighter foods and seafoods or crunchy summer salads – or just to sip entirely on their own.

This evangelizing thing must work because there are more and more on the shelves every year.  And now Rose’ is getting star power with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie owning their own label, Miraval (no kidding).  So if I’m preaching to the choir, Great!  And if you’re not in the choir yet open some Rose’ and sing along!  Let’s keep spreading the word and get ready to Pop the Cork on Rose’ today.

Everyday Sip:  Alexander Valley Vineyards 2014 Rose of Sangiovese $12
Coho salmon red with crispy fresh strawberry flavor.  Screw off the top and enjoy.

Guest Sip: Chateau Miraval 2014 Rose Cotes du Provence $23.
Very pretty wine.  Vibrant pink with strawberry and white peach tastes. Rounded bottle adds to the table setting and says that this is a bit more special wine.

Splurge Sip: 2014 Domains Ott Chateau Romassan Bandol Clair de Noir $48
Elegant – not a word usually associated with Rose’ but true none the less. Beautifully crafted. From the coastal area in Bandol.  Pale pink, with an almost light orange cast. Delicate flavors of strawberry with little squeeze of grapefruit. Crispy dry.

Food and Wine Love

Do you get stressed out trying to match up wine with food?  It’s not surprising since so much has been written about the “rules’ to follow, too many restaurants have fostered wine snob attitudes and there just seems to be way too much to have to know so that you don’t make a “mistake.”  There’s been information overload when it comes to wine and food pairing.  It’s like too many windows open on the compute.  So let’s reboot and then restart and home in on three ways to think about putting wine and food together.

Think C-squared… it stands for complement or contrast. Wine is really like another ingredient added to the recipe or another side dish brought to the table.  You can choose the style of wine that will complement the primary flavors of the meal, or one that will add contrasting flavors or taste.  Here’s what I mean:

Wines that are big and bold are usually the perfect complement to foods that are too… like the rich taste of lamb with reds like Shiraz, or a Bordeaux; the juicy soft texture of prime rib and soft, melt in your mouth Merlot; that charred on the outside, rare on the inside NY Strip with bold Cabernet from California.  And if you put acidic foods together, such as spaghetti sauce with acidic wine, like Chianti, the acids balance out. Wines that have richness like Chardonnay and Viognier are great with richer foods – think lobster or scallops, and can be terrific with turkey or dishes that have a fair amount of butter in the sauce.  Pinot Noir is awesome with dishes that feature mushrooms or have fruity sauces such as cranberry or pomegranate since they match the somewhat earthy yet red berry flavors.

The contrast works the same way, only in the reverse!  Garlic Shrimp Scampi loves the fruitiness and acidity of a Pinot Grigio to balance things out (by the way my personal favorite with Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris are steamed clams); rotisserie chicken with the fat dripped off and toasty skin and a nicely acidic Pinot Noir taste great together;  spicy Mexican food is perfectly contrasted with off-dry Riesling and salty ham loves the way Chenin Blanc cuts through it; and one of my favorites, the yeasty yet crisp and fizzy joy of Champagne with the delicate flavor of sushi!

Keep the wine and food “in-country.”  Wine is a product of nature and nurture – and so is food. The wine and foods of a country or region share culture, environment and heritage – the shorthand is the French expression, terroir, which gets close to capturing all the influences that impact a wine.  So one of the easiest ways to pair wine and food is simply keep them in the family. It’s not rocket science that the rustic cassoulet of France and the Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre blended wines of the Rhone Valley taste so good together. Or that hunk of Angus beef with a juicy California Cabernet; or the papardelle cianghiale of Tuscany with Chianti Classico and the  smoked wurst sausages of Germany  with slightly sweet Mosel Riesling.  The list can go on and on – get the picture?  Just default to the place for both the wine and food.

Drink what you like.  Forget the red wine with meat, white wine with fish thing.  Yes, some wines won’t pair as well to enhance the meal or fit with the way the sommelier recommends – but so what?  It’s really only your taste that matters and if you really like Cabernet and you really like grilled salmon then go ahead and enjoy.  If Sauvignon Blanc is your thing then enjoy it with your burger.  These may not be my wine preferences with these foods but all of our tastes are uniquely ours – so go for it.  Yes, this can make for some strange combinations, but I can’t think of a better way to be stress free about putting wine and food together than to be true to your own tastes and preferences.

About Ken

Who is this guy?

My name is Ken Ohr and I likIMG_5355e wine.  While that alone doesn’t mean you should read Sips, it’s how I got started writing about it.  In fact, I like wine so much that I launched a company, created a national media brand and spent close to ten years immersed in wine and all that surrounds it.  But I don’t collect wine and I don’t sell it.  I’m like most of you – fascinated by the never ending variety, the opportunity for continuos discovery and the way that wine brings us together.

The Wine Experience was the only national radio show about wine, running on stations around the country for over ten years and was a unique, fully independent website aboimage004ut wine as an everyday, fun, “unsnooty” part of life.  Life and the times can change so I have been away from any writing for about five years, but not away from wine as an everyday part of who I am.

So I decided it’s time to get back at it with “Sips of The Wine Experience.”  Through this blog I’ll share some thoughts on wine styles, varieties, tasting, buying, travel and enjoying that are personal and, hopefully, reasonably entertaining.

And you are welcome to journey along.  Let’s Pop the Cork!
Kenneth Ohr, CSW
Certified Specialist of Wine

What’s a CSW?  The Certified Specialist of Wine is a professional credential offered by the Society of Wine Educators to verify an individual’s wine knowledge.  To learn more about the Society of Wine Educators please visit their website here:

My Sips

IPhone Pictures 09-10 101What Are “My Sips” All About?

Hopefully part of the entertainment of Sips will be discovering some new wines.  I’ll regularly be offering up some wines to try that I am calling “My Sips.”  They are just that – wines I’ve tasted and like.  Nothing more.  I am not trying to tell you to like them or to buy them, nor will there be any ratings or comparisons with one wine being somehow better than another.  These wines are simply ones that I have enjoyed Everyday, or when Guests are over or when it’s fun to Splurge.  And I’ll give you the price that I found them at retail, online or directly from a winery.

In that Everyday category my goal is to keep the wines less than $25, with most of them under $15.  When I have a Guest Sip I move it up a notch, though of course that really depends on the occasion… and your friends!  Basically Guest Sips are wines to bring out when you’re entertaining or getting together with friends, no special occassion necessary.  And then when it is time to Splurge sometimes you just have to go for it – a special day, a real treat – however you want to define it.  By the way, expect to see lots of different Sips over time… just because I may identify a particular Everyday doesn’t mean it’s the only one, rather it’s one choice out of many and the beauty of wine is the amazing variety of those choices.

There are a lot of ways to buy wine and different laws state to state can make it complicated and sometimes frustrating depending on where you live.  I have the opportunity to find lots of choices at many different kinds of retailers.  But I also seek out wine and buy online from retailers in other states and from wineries directly.

There are some really good online resources to use, starting with  Wine-searcher is an aggregator… plug in the name of a wine and you’ll get multiple results from around the country from big retailers to smaller specialty wine shops along with prices and direct links to buy.  I have also bought online from different well known merchants like Zachy’s, K&L, Binny’s, BevMo and Morrell.  All the links are below.  Then there are the auctions.  Hart Davis Hart is a premier wine auction house and is another way to locate something special, case lots, collectables, etc.

The fact is it has never been easier to find the wine you want…  And if all else fails then just head directly to the winery site.  So I hope you enjoy my own “Sips” from time to time as much as I enjoy the continuing fun of discovering new wines and sharing them with friends – both in-person and as virtual sipping buddies!

Just for the heck of it, here are a few recent Sips of Pinot Noir from me to you.

Everyday Sip:
2013 Meiomi Pinot Noir $18
Fuller bodied offering with darker fuitiness. Very versatile, right down to the screwcap! Basically a “second” wine from Belle Glos.

Guest Sip:
2012 Penner – Ash Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley $40
Lovely Willamette Pinot that leads with black cherry.

Splurge Sip:
2012 Domaine A. F. Gros Chambolle Musigny $80
Ah, Burgundy. Delicious Pinot with complexity and just a hint of Burgundian earth under the lush raspberry flavor. I drank this young and loved it.  Great structure and depth.

Is Anybody There?

Hello?  Is anybody there?

No – this is not the script for another cell phone commercial. It’s me, Ken.  And once upon I time I created and wrote The Wine Experience.  That was a while back when it was the only national radio show about wine on the air and when was a key source for unsnooty wine info for thousands of people every month.  But that was then and this is now.  I took a break from wine writing, but not from drinking and loving it!  Like a vineyard that needs to be torn up and replanted, I’ve put in new root stock and the vines are now ready to bear some good fruit!  Together it just might be time to “Pop the Cork” again on some new wine experiences.  So welcome to Sips.

Sips of The Wine Experience is just that – a taste of wine knowledge fun and facts, food and travel to swirl around and taste together.  It’s a way to share what we discover in tasting a wine, finding a hidden gem, gnoshing some yummy morsels or digging into the beauty and people of the wine country around the world.

So – Is anybody there?  If you like wine and the wine life then let’s go.  No experience or expertise necessary.  The whole idea is that wine is an incredible gift of nature that doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, mysterious or pretentious.  And it’s a gift that comes in almost infinite variety – from crispy and tart whites, to bold and brave reds; from the palest salmon pink rose’ to the sparkle and tickle of bubbly; from the most subtle essence of fresh fruitiness to the earthy flavor of an ancient land.  There is much to Sip.

There’s an awful lot written about wine and a bunch of websites and magazines to tell you what to like.  That’s not what I am about.  Here you won’t find ratings – no sales gimmicks either. But you also won’t find me trashing any particular wine.  It’s like that old cliche “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it.” I’ll let you know what I have found that I like, personal opinion, not magazine reviews, and each time I mention a particular wine it’s not based on somebody’s rating or sales pitch – I will have had it myself.

Why does that matter? Because each of us is unique in our tastes, preferences and wine experiences.  What I taste is neither right nor wrong for you.  It just is.  So take any comments as a guide about style, flavor or predominant characteristics then trust yourself to know what you like.  After all, the great fun of wine is discovery.

Let’s Pop the Cork and get started.

Ken Ohr, CSW