Wine Books – Champagne

Each of us has his or her foibles. One of my downfalls is the Wine Book. sends me frequent reminders of my wish list and recommended items. And so, on my shelves sit over a dozen books yet to be cracked. Just a week ago I received two new books, ‘To Cork Or Not To Cork’ by George Taber, and ‘Question Of Taste, The Philosophy Of Wine’, a collection of essays edited by Barry C. Smith. I actually spend more money on books than wine. Yet, with books queued and precious little time to read them, I revisit a book each year around this time, a book called ‘Champagne, How The World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War And Hard Times’, by Don and Petie Kladstrup.

There are other great wine books, and others about Champagne, but I am especially drawn to the Kladstrups narrative style; much of the book reads as history, and does so with a reverence and honor to the place and people it covers. Le champagne the beverage holds a unique place among the world of wines and la Champagne the province possesses a history as rich and relevant to Western Society as almost any other.

‘Champagne’ begins with Attila the Hun, whose army of seven hundred thousand warriors were turned back by a consortium of Gauls, Visigoths, Franks, and Romans in 451 AD, setting up a bloody record of la Champagne the battlefield host to the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, religious wars, civil wars, the Napoleonic wars, the Wars of Spanish succession, and more recent horrors of trench warfare in World War I and the siege and bombardment of World War II. Kladstrup and Kladstrup juxtapose the war stories to the concept of le champagne, the world’s most glamorous beverage, and allude to what one writer calls the Champenois “taste for contradiction.”

The more pleasant and romantic story of la Champagne begins with the Christian conversion of Frankish warlord Clovis and some three thousand soldiers on Christmas day 496 at Reims. Legend has it that the church was so crowded that bishop St. Remi could not reach the holy oil to anoint Clovis and a white dove appeared to carry the vial to the bishop. The group celebrated with the local wine, and though it was not the straw golden sparkling beverage we know today, le champagne began an association with celebration that exists to this day. The story of Clovis inspired nearly every King of France to be crowned in Reims and celebrate with champagne.

These are just some of the stories in the easy and quick read that is ‘Champagne’, and I highly recommend picking up a copy as a companion to the celebrating of the holiday season that is upon us. What makes wine so special, and I assure you that champagne is in every way a wine, is the the ability to tell a story. Ninety percent of the beauty, I say, occurs outside of the glass in the stories of a time and place and the people who have farmed, fermented, packaged, sold, and resold that thing that culminates when you pop the cork and take a sip.

Lately I have had reason to celebrate and have been drinking champagne almost exclusively. But drinking champagne does not need a reason or occasion. Rather, drinking champagne is the occasion. November and December see the emergence of a particularly festive alter ego of mine named Champagne Rory. As I preach to staff and guests at the James Hotel and David Burke’s Primehouse where I work, drink champagne and you will have a good time. Champagne Rory certainly does.

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A Very Special Stephen T. Colbert Memorial: Better Know an AVA

I saw this at Food & Wine’s Tasting Room, posted by Ray Isle, their Senior Wine Editor:

With Friends Like These…

Gotta love the governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, who was quoted as having said, at a fundraiser for fellow governor Chris Gregoire of Washington State, “You should be thankful we don’t make wine in Kansas. If you ever see Kansas wine, don’t drink it.”

The Kansas City Star reports the story here.

I would suggest Gov. Sibelius visit the Wines of Kansas site—since of course there are wineries in Kansas—jot down some addresses, and start visiting.

Posted November 8, 2007 at 11:57 AM EST

In that spirit, we at VinoVerve send this open letter to the Governor of Kansas.

Dear Governor Sebelius,

It turns out that there is wine in Kansas. Fifteen or so vineyards. Some of them have won prizes. And the industry, small though it may be, is being supported by the State. of Kansas. The State for which you are Governor.


Oh, and just so you know, there is wine being produced by every state in this country.

Even Alaska.

You should try some Kansas wine. I know that I will.



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Our Man in the Vineyard – Israel

Wine from ISRAEL??? – I ain’t drinkin’ that thick, boiled, sweet kosher crap!!!

Misconception, stigma or reality?

As someone who has spent the last two harvests at various wineries throughout Israel with time in between spent at a large custom crush in Napa Valley and selling wine on the streets of NYC, I assure you, MOST WINE MADE IN ISRAEL IS NOT THAT THICK SWEET STUFF YOU WOULDN’T SERVE YOUR DOG.

So if it’s not true, where does this supposed misconception come from?

YES – over 90% of wines made in Israel are kosher.

NO – most Israeli (kosher or not) wines are NOT boiled.

YES – Some are (sort of). Generally they are rapidly heated to a high temperature (about 180 degrees) via a process known as flash pasteurization, a technique also used in some old world wines, most commonly in whites from Germany.

Does this process affect the wine? ABSOLUTELY. How?

Some people say it takes away from the potentially fresh fruit palate/aromas and gives more of a cooked or dried fruit palate/aroma. It is also said to adversely affect the aging potential of wines.

THEN if they don’t HAVE to boil it why the heck would they?

A great and religiously technical question (whose reasons I find somewhat offensive). To avoid getting too technical, let’s just say that it is a requirement for kosher wines served in places where the wine may come in contact with a non-Jew.

OK, so now explain the thick & sweet perception related to kosher wines.

On the Jewish Sabbath there is a blessing made over wine (known as “Kiddush”) before eating the ritual Friday night Sabbath meal. For many years the kosher options for Kiddush wine were the infamous Manishevitz and a few other comparable wines. Some people also claim that the preferred type of Kiddush wine is both red & sweet.

That said, YES there is clearly a basis for the stigma against Israeli wines.

HOWEVER, if anyone is still reading I will end with some quick Israeli wine facts:

There are no major differences between the methods used to make kosher wines (in or out of Israel) versus non-kosher wines.
Many of the best Israeli wines are produced by small boutique wineries and are NOT kosher.
Israeli winemakers have been trained at world renowned institutions such as UC Davis in California, Adelaide in Australia & The Bordeaux Oenology Institute.
Israeli wines are SLOWLY gaining recognition as being “up and coming” and “exciting wine finds”.

(Next time: a bit about Israeli wine regions, varietals, and wine production statistics.)

-Gary (The Wine Tasting Guy)

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Pinot Days!

Pinot Days are here! Well, this weekend anyway.

Kevin and I will be making sure that the girls are ensconsed in properly supervised activities then head down to Navy Pier for the Grand Tasting.

After considering the advice of Alder Yarrow, I will be:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep the night before;
  • Wear dark colors (less of an issue as that is most of my wardrobe);
  • Drink lots of water;
  • Have a full stomach; and
  • Spitting.

Just in case, though, I bring my trusty camera and notebook… Yes, I am that much of a dork.

Hope to see you there! Say ,”Hi!” if you see us.

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Better Know An AVA

I know that it is hard to imagine that Arkansas would be a center for viticulture and you are probably looking at this and thinking, “Wow, if people in Arkansas are drinking wine, then everyone in the world must be!”

Well, you would be wrong.

See, it turns out that there have been wineries in Arkansas since the 1880s when Swiss and German families began producing wines for themselves and their neighbors.

The region is located in the Arkansas River Valley on a plateau between the river and the Boston Mountains. The soil is a gravelly loam with a high acid content.

There are currently four wineries in the AVA. Three of them, Post Familie, Wiederkehr and Mount Bethel Winery have their roots back in the 19th century. The fourth, Chateau Aux Arc began in 1998 but has ties to the Post Family. The wines produced are largely from locally available grapes: Cynthiana (Norton), Muscadine, Muller Thergau (a Riesling hybrid), Chardonnay, Niagara, Vignoles, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now if I could just find a way to get a taste of these wines…. Unfortunately, restrictive state laws make it difficult to try these wines without travelling to Arkansas to get them. Do any of you out there know another way? Please tell!

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Grapevine News

It’s French…. From France!

Lu Wei-Chung has admitted to producing at least 6,000 bottles of red wine in Changhau, Tawain and selling it as country French wine.. This designation allowed him to sell his counterfeit vin for approximately NT $150 per bottle (US $4.62).

This White Zinfandel is Extra Tasty!

We know that temperature, glass shape, environment and what we are eating effect the taste of the wine we are drinking… is it any surprise to learn that what we are listening to does also? In a special report to the San Francisco Chronicle, W. Blake Gray reports on his interview with Clark Smith. It turns out that what you should listen to depends on what you are drinking and that the music itself influences, not just your perception, but the taste of the wine itself. The results? Interesting…

Pinot Noir – Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik
Cabernet Sauvignon – Dionysian music such as Metallica
White Zinfandel – Polkas

Will sensory researchers pick up on this research… time will tell… in the meantime, steer clear of those polkas unless you are with Great Aunt Fran!

A Bit of British Bubbly?

Vineyard owners in the UK believe that their nascent industry is being sabotaged by the EU which is calling for limits on the planting of new vineyards. This would hurt the fledgling wine industry in Britain. Unlike those vineyards in more traditional wine producing countries, British vineyards receive no subsidy from the EU. The soils and climate of South-East Britain are similar to those of Champagne, France and the winemakers are expecting that global warming will further aid the development of their industry.

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My Lunch With Richard Betts 10/10/07

Meeting all of the interesting people in the wine business is one of the best parts of working in this industry. As an Italian friend of mine said it the other night, throughout history wine has been a tool and metaphor for creating social unions. This holds true in my life quite often and in a variety of ways, though in this instance I refer to an event with Master Sommelier Richard Betts a few weeks ago.

Richard Betts lives in Aspen, Colorado where he not only presides over the wine program at the prestigious Little Nell, he also works the floor nightly at Montagna, the Nell’s fine restaurant. Richard Betts also makes wine under the ‘Betts and Scholl’ label in Australia, California, and the Nothern Rhone Valley in France. On October 10th I was lucky enough to attend a lunch event hosted by Richard and his local distributor Vintage Wines at Le Lan, a French Vietnamese fusion spot in the Chicago’s River West district.

Betts and Scholl is built on the concept that Richard Betts and his partner, Miami based art dealer Dennis Scholl, are not bound to any location, grapes, or style of wine because of legacy or proximity that limit the choices of what wines they can make. It is an ambitous project, involving travel to three continents to produce seven wines, though it seems to be for good measure; the wines are all excellent.

The first wine presented, and only non-Rhone varietal, was the 2006 Riesling from Eden Valley in Australia. Eden Valley, settled by German farmers in the nineteenth century, is a relatively cool area of Southern Australia that has a reputation for producing some of the finest Riesling in Australia. The vines are on average 50 years old and contribute to an expressive, yet balanced new world reisling. Though it is far from mainstream in this country, reisling is a sommelier favorite and I am not surprised that Richard Betts’ only Rhone departure is with that unique varietal.

From Eden Valley in Australia we travelled to Lyon, France and then south to the esteemed hill of Hermitage. Richard painted a vivid picture of late afternoon, driving south along the hill as the sun sets, vines beginning to fall under shade. The vines of Hermitage continue to recieve rays of sunshine until finally, hours later, the sun retreats. Perhaps that is why Hermitage is the undisputed prize of the Northern Rhone. In my experience, Hermitage is difficult to find and even harder to afford, and I am not embarrassed to say that I have little expereince with Hermitage Blanc or Rouge. Somehow Richard Betts was able to make both with help form Rhone legend J. L. Chave.

The Betts and Scholl Hermitage Blanc consists of Marsanne and Roussane grapes from four climats, or distinct vineyard areas, on the hill of Hermitage. In producing this particular wine Richard and the Chave family asked, “what else can the hill be?” Because of the low natural acidity of Marsanne and Roussane the key, according to Richard, is in controlling the glycerine, or has he put it, “grace over girth…It’s not what you wear, but how you wear it”. Achieving a wine with weight and ripeness is easy, but finding the elegance is not. No new wood, only foudre, a large neutral oak barrel, is used to develop the wine before bottling. What is in the glass is a pure expression of fruit from Hermitage, with butterscotch, pears and apples, hints of vanilla, luxurious texture and a pepper spice. Elegance achieved.

After the whites, Richard Betts tapped into a Master Sommelier bag of tricks by conducting a blind tasting of 5 wines, all Grenache, and in no particular order. The very experienced group of tasters in attendence quickly picked up that two of the wines stood out as new world expressions of the varietal, and, it just so happens, Betts and Scholl produces two different wines in Australia with Grenache. The ‘O.G.’and the ‘Chronique’, are both made from Barossa Grenache grown on sand. The difference between the two is that the latter comes form an 83 year old vineyard of very deep sand and exhibits increased intensity, ripeness of fruit, and caramel notes. Sand grown Grenache was the central theme of the blind excercise as the other wines, Pignan Rouge 2003, Brunel ‘les Cailloux’ 2004, and Henri Bonneau 1997 were classic expressions of sandy soil Grenache. Sand is not only famous for resisting the the spread of the infamous phyloxera louse, but also limits color extraction and focuses the “signature of the varietal”. I believe that Richard chose these wines as an homage, to display the benchmarks for sand grown Grenache and make a statement about the varietal character of Grenache, which he calls “warm weather Pinot Noir”.

Hermitage Rouge 2001 and 2004 from Betts and Scholl helped shift the gears from the white pepper, cherry, and orange zest of Grenache, to the blackberry, lavender, and black pepper of Syrah. Richard calls Hermitage “Syrah, appealling to the Pinot Noir sensibility”. I would like to see these wines again in 5-10 years as they seem a little unwilling at this stage, though it is unfair to consider such a classic expression and then move on to something called ‘Black Betty’, Betts and Scholl’s Australian Syrah aged in Bordeaux barrels. Black Betty lives up to the name (Bam Belam) as a wine of very deep extraction and intesity, displaying ripe black plum, blackberry, with and purple flower undertones. Because of Betty’s massive expression it was hard for me to believe that there was another wine that could follow. Though somehow the California Syrah did just that.

For the Betts and Scholl California Syrah, Richard Betts called on cult wine makers Deb and Randy Lewis for assistance. The resulting wine, half aged in used Chardonnay barrels, was laden with coffee, caramel, brown sugar, and black fruit. It felt like a decadent dessert though its richness and complexity were appropriately hedged by balanced acidity.

Richard and his wines were the draw that day and both delivered a good show. But the best part of the lunch was the collection of interesting people in attendence from MS Richard Betts, to nameless sommeliers from the Park Hyatt, the Peninsula, and Charlie Trotters. One notable that I will name is the inimitable scholar and professional, Bob Bansberg, the Dean of the University of Chicago Sommeliers. Through casual conversation at our table that day I found out that later that night Bob was to give a speech about Ernest Hemingway at the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park.
(see next post for bio of the amazing Bob Bansberg)

I ventured to Le Lan on the afternoon of October 10th to meet Richard Betts and taste the wines of Betts and Scholl. But the energy of the room that day, maybe an extension of Richard’s ‘hakuna matata’-like aura, took me to another place that highlighted all of the great things about being a wine professional in Chicago; Good food, great wine, interesting conversation, and a sense of community. While it is a real burden to make time for outside wine tastings, lunches, and dinners, certain events justify the sacrifice of time. A visit from Master Sommelier Richard Betts and the audience that he inspires make the sacrifice and effort pay off. Like my Italian friend said, wine is a tool for creating social unions. As a sommelier in a restaurant I see that phenomenon each night. As a member of a vibrant wine community here in Chicago I see that happen in more profound ways.

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Bob of Chicago

Below is a a bio I have seen floating around the web for Robert Bansberg. I have only met him but a few times, yet even in those modest encounters I sensed a genuine warmth and depth of character.
(copied from

Robert (Bob) Bansberg is an award winning sommelier and wine educator, formerly at Chicago’s four star restaurant Ambria for its full twenty-five year run, and currently a faculty member at the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago. Since 1992, Bansberg has taught a Wine and Beverage Management Class at Kendall College’s School of the Culinary Arts and for five years has hosted the The Wine Series, a wine appreciation and food-pairing course for the community. Since 2000, he has lectured at the Alliance Français and The Calphalon Culinary also based in Chicago. He is an active board member of the “Toast to Humanity” charity and has donated his time to the National Charity “Share our Strength”.

In 2004, Bansberg was one of five nominated for “Best Sommelier” in the Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence. In their July 2000 issue, Food & Wine magazine Bansberg selected in a national poll of their readership as “The Best Sommelier in Chicago”, Chicago Magazine also listed Bansberg as the cities best in their August 2000 issue. In 1999, Bansberg was nominated for the highly coveted James Beard Award. He has won regional French sommelier competitions. He is a senior wine judge at the Beverage Testing Institute and has judged for the National Restaurant Association’s Wine Classic, and has served on numerous panels for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

He has written for Wine & Spirits and The Wine Enthusiast, and has lectured at the Midwest International Wine Exposition as well as Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. He has been writing wine tasting notes for Santé Magazine in 2004. Bansberg is a graduate of Northwestern University and studied in the Neurophysiology Graduate Program at the University of Illinois Medical Center. He resides in Evanston with his wife and their two children. He continues to be a leader and educator in his community. A gifted and gracious man in many respects, he is truly the “Sommelier’s Sommelier.”

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Grapevine News ALERT

Per today’s Chicago DISH, a star in the Chicago wine community is trading in the City of Big Shoulders for the Great White Way. We’ll miss you Belinda….a coup for Danny Meyer:

Belinda Chang has left her high-profile slot as corporate wine director for
Cenitare Restaurants (Rick Tramonto’s and Gale Gand’s sudden empire in Wheeling
and beyond), to run the wine program at The Modern, Danny Meyer’s elegant
American spot inside New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “The best thing about my
career is that things just happen,” says Chang. “I just couldn’t say no.” She’s
come a long way since the late nineties, when she waited on Meyer at Charlie
Trotter’s. “He didn’t stay for the whole dinner,” she says. “But it made a big
impression. Even Charlie said, ‘Ohmygod, it’s Danny Meyer.’ And there I was
saying, ‘Who is Danny Meyer?’”

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