If you attend the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (SOBEWFF), you have many opportunities to engage your senses. A champagne seminar with G.H.Mumm? Check. Dinner hosted by Giada De Laurentiis? Check. Events with Guy Fieri or Emeril Lagasse? Seminar on RIEDEL wine glasses or Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Vineyard? Check, check and many more checks. Deep dives into whatever kind of experience you’re looking for are yours for the taking.
The main event at Wine Spectator’s “Best of the Best” event: over 130 excellent food and wine stations were available
We were in South Beach for my birthday – a little sun away from the Northern winter – and Elizabeth chose to treat me to Wine Spectator’s “Best of the Best” event, held on a Friday evening at the iconic Golden Age Fontainebleau Hotel. This was a total immersion to a crazy walkaround sensory blitz: over 60 chefs, many Michelin-starred or James Beard Award winners or named “Food & Wine” Best New Chef, all offering a small tasting meant to showcase their talents and convince you it was more delightful than the most delightful thing you had just tasted before that.
Truffles were everywhere at Wine Spectator’s “Best of the Best” event
One of the many sushi offerings available to “Best of the Best” attendees
A small sampling of the wineries that caught my attention:
- Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite
- Maison Louis Latour
- Champagne Pol Roger
- Champagne Louis Roederer
- Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
- Far Niente
- Joseph Phelps
- Vie di Romans
- Ferrari Trento
Vérité is one of those quintessentially American/California wine stories. In brief: in the mid-1990s, Jess Jackson (of Kendall-Jackson fame) owned plenty of undeveloped land in Sonoma County. He met Pierre Seillan, who had been making wine in France for 25 years. Jackson asked Seillan if he could make a California wine as good as Pétrus. Seillan replied: “Why not better?” Jackson gave Seillan the freedom to develop vineyards as he wished, and Seillan was inspired to be released from the highly restrictive French wine appellation system, where so many grape-growing and wine-making decisions are proscribed by French wine law. Seillan developed new vineyards in the Alexander and Knights Valleys using classic Bordeaux grapes. The result? Bordeaux blends that rival the best in the world: the Cabernet-dominant La Joie, the Merlot-dominant La Muse and the Cabernet Franc-dominant Le Désir. And they were pouring them at the Best of the Best – Near-100-point wines. This was some party.
The Cabernet-based 2019 La Joie from Vérité; approx. $300 retail; free pours at the Wine Spectator “Best of the Best” event
Another producer, not as vaunted but one you may come by in a wine shop or restaurant, is Vie di Romans. From Friuli Venezia Isonzo in Italy’s northeast corner, Vie di Romans makes white and red wines and a rosé. I tasted the Chardonnay, one I’ve always liked, as well as their Sauvignon Blanc and Friulano, one of Italy’s native grapes (and sometimes in the past mistaken for Sauvignon Blanc). Both this area of Italy generally and Vie di Romans specifically are recognized as leaders in the development of excellent wines from native Italian grapes. It’s always exciting to see passionate winemakers taking up historical vines and developing them successfully. Vie di Romans wines are regularly scored in the mid-90s and sell for about $25. While not widely available in the U.S., they are making inroads, and if you see them, snatch them up as they represent a great value. And if you are so inclined, they estimate a cellar life of 20 years, with a peak in 10 years. Wow – for $25.
The 2021 Vie di Romans Chardonnay is 100% Chardonnay from 21 year old vines. There is no malolactic fermentation and the wine is matured 9 months on its lees. The wine has a beautiful bouquet of ripe orchard fruit with notes of sweet lime. All this is braced by its bright acidity, finishing with custard, spice and hazelnuts on the long finish. Expect peak maturation in 9 years and a cellar life of 18 years.
As with the beach event earlier in the day, and much like rampaging grade schoolers in a candy shop, we found that we could exhaust our appetites well before we could exhaust the wonders arrayed before us. But it was fun trying.
Elizabeth and Walter at the SOBEWFF Wine Spectator “Best of the Best” event
For most people, wine is a bit mysterious, associated with romantic images of candlelit dinners, getting together with good friends, and old-world wine estates with dusty bottles turning ever more precious over the decades. Wine School was certainly respectful of the romance, but all about the facts. Winemakers lovingly tend vineyards, but in the end the great ones closely monitor the chemistry of the ripening grapes, the fermentation vats, and the aging barrels. And the chemistry says, once the juice is in the bottle, only 5% of wines produced will gain anything by aging.
In part, this is because most wine is pretty simple stuff. According to SipSource, 73% of the U.S. wine market is priced under $8 (per .75L bottle). These wines just don’t have the chemical stuffing to age. Even wines in the Premium ($15-$20) and Super Premium ($20-$30) categories are not likely to benefit from aging. To age well, wines need a complex mix of tannins, acids, and other chemical compounds that will evolve for about three years following bottling. Some wines may take even longer to come together and show their true potential. Getting all that complexity into the bottle involves winemaking steps like barrel aging, which add cost to the final wine. Even many of the vaunted wines of Bordeaux, historically requiring age before they are ready, are now made to be drunk sooner rather than later.
Furthermore, even if your wine is age worthy, it must be properly stored (temperature, humidity, protection from sunlight) to avoid damage. We’ll talk about these issues more at Walter on Wine. We do love wines that age. But for now, know that unless you have great reason to believe your wine will benefit from aging and you have the right means to store it, it’s probably best to enjoy it sooner rather than later.
If you want to buy a truly outstanding wine, they are out there. Most high-end merchants, and even the mass wine merchants (think Total Wine) offer a good selection. So will high-end restaurants. All you have to do is pay up for it. It’s axiomatic in the wine trade that high ratings command high prices. Follow the expert ratings up through the numbers, and by the time you get to the 98+ range (from one of the more reliable raters – more on that later), you’re into hundreds of dollars. Not all wines commanding those prices earn ratings that high, as other factors, like brand image, demand and scarcity figure in. So equating price with quality can lead to disappointment. But generally speaking, that’s the way it works.
Not always, though. Sometimes, you can find truly exceptional wines – wines that are just transformative when you taste them – that linger on the palate for nigh on a minute, and they do not ask sky-high prices. So instead of, say, $200-$300 per bottle, you’ll pay maybe somewhere around $100 per bottle (all prices noted are retail; you’ll pay more, of course, in a restaurant). These wines can be hard to find, so we call them “unicorn” wines.
In most cases, unicorn wines are made by great winemakers, making wines from single vineyards in low volumes. Many of these winemakers in the U.S. operate on allocation to customers who sometimes wait a long time to get on the list – if they ever do. Some bottles are allocated to top restaurants, and those restaurants may sell through their small allocation before new wines are released the next year. So spotting them “in the wild” is like spotting a unicorn. Moreover, sommeliers at top restaurants are likely to hold back from recommending these wines unless specifically requested, so they can preserve them for their best – and knowing – customers. Maybe you’re one of them. If so, congratulations. But if you’re not (and who can be a “best” customer in every restaurant they go to?), we’ll help you spot them.
The easiest way to do this is to recognize the great winemakers. That’s one of the capabilities we’ll bring you on Walter on Wine. A great example is Aubert. If you’re looking for a New World (think more fruit forward vs. Old World austerity), cool-climate wine like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, the Auberts make wines that are just superb and often brilliant. You’ll never go wrong selecting one. But they are on tight allocation. So get on the list. Or if you see one dining out, grab a unicorn.