CVIndependent

Thu04092020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

As we approach the start of the new year, I’ve been reflecting on my time here in the desert since moving back from Napa a few years ago. The one thing that I have realized is how much I underestimated the wine savvy—or better yet, the sense of exploration—of the wine consumers here.

When I first started buying wine for a retail space, my overall goal was to bring in wines that were more esoteric, more global, more natural—and more fun! I wanted to start steering away from the mass produced “grocery store” wines toward wines that were created by small producers—farmers and winemakers with deep roots, but perhaps shallow pockets. One at a time, I brought in a quirky label, and then another, and then an unheard-of varietal—hoping that maybe a hipster out of Los Angeles would stumble in and buy some, or maybe someone would trust me enough to take a recommendation for a wine out of left field. At the very least, I knew these wines were incredible—and if all else failed, I could always buy the case and drink the wine myself!

But then something started to happen … people started coming in and asking for these wines. Customers began talking to me about things like skin-contact whites and carbonic maceration. I would hear guests at tastings applaud the low-alcohol content in the wines that were being poured—and tell me they specifically came in to taste the Ribolla Gialla I was pouring.

What?! Who are you people? Where have you been?

Every day, I am surprised and excited by what people are gravitating toward—and so, in the spirit of new beginnings, for all my wine adventurers out there, here are some of my favorite “must-try” wines for 2020.

Italy is one of the most-daunting wine countries to tackle, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Each region has its own pasta and cheese to which it lays claim, and the same can be said for wine varietals—many of which historically almost never made it out of the country, and instead were consumed entirely by its local audience. From the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the far north, look for the deeply colored and richly textured Teroldego. Elisabetta Foradori, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest winemakers in Italy, took on the task of saving this grape from obscurity, and her bottlings are nothing short of glorious. It’s an intensely juicy wine, with loads of blackberry and raspberry flavors, followed by a subtle sweet smokiness.

On the other end of the intensity spectrum is a deliciously light-bodied red called Schiava. This delicious pinot noir-like grape also hails from the Alto Adige region and is as silky and feminine as it gets. Beautiful notes of rose petals, freshly picked strawberries and a touch of lemon zest are the hallmark flavors of this little grape.

From Southern Italy, seek out a wine made from the Aglianico grape. Made primarily in Campania and Basilicata, these brooding reds definitely fall into the savory category. If you’re a fan of rustic wines with layers of flavors (think old-vine zinfandels), you’ll be delighted by the notes of leather, figs, white pepper, nutmeg and boysenberries.

In France, there’s a little-known region called Jura that has garnered the attention of high-profile sommeliers and wine lovers alike. Located on the eastern border between Burgundy and Switzerland, this is a cool-climate region producing some pretty esoteric and geeky wine. For years, this small appellation was known mainly for a sherry-like wine called Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine,” which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. However, the region is now becoming known for a delightful red wine made with a grape called Trousseau that is worth seeking out. Trousseau creates a pale, light-bodied wine that’s surprisingly powerful. It’s so intensely flavored, in fact, that there are sommeliers in three-star Michelin restaurants pairing this seemingly delicate wine with prime cuts of steak! Trousseau might be the most obscure wine suggested here, but if you keep a lookout, finding one might be easier than you think. In fact, there are even a handful of California producers who have sought out domestic plantings of this esoteric grape and are producing some stellar incarnations of both Trousseau Noir and its cousin, Trousseau Gris. A few California names to look for are Jolie-Laide, and Arnot-Roberts. Domaine des Ronces and Michel Gahier are prime examples from Jura.

If you continue to travel south in Europe, this wine adventure will take you into Spain. Right now, there is no greater wine-producing country that offers up as much bang for your buck. Sure, we all know about Tempranillo and Garnacha, and even Cariñena isn’t as obscure as it once was … but have you ever had a Mencía? Hailing from the small western regions of Ribera Sacra and Bierzo, this dark and herbaceous red was once thought to be related to cabernet Franc. Although we now know that’s not the case, this aromatic wine is sure to be a hit with anyone who loves earthy and spicy reds. My personal favorites are the Mencías crafted by Raul Perez under the “Ultreia” label; his protege, Pedro Rodriguez, is creating stunning examples called Guimaro.

The perfumy and citrusy Spanish Albariño has long been my go-to for a crowd-pleasing white alternative to sauvignon blanc. But if you’re ready to venture into uncharted territory, there’s a grape called Hondarrabi Zuri from the Basque region that makes the most refreshing and slightly spritzy white called Txakolina. I cannot think of a better patio wine for our desert climate. It’s a bounty of fresh citrus like key limes, Meyer lemons and Clementine tangerines, all backed by a subtle fragrance of white jasmine and the tiniest presence of bubbles.

Lastly, leave it to Paul Hobbs to bring a project from Armenia to the forefront of our budding wine culture. Areni, which is a grape native to Armenia and the Republic of Georgia, is possibly the oldest varietal on Earth—not surprising, given that this region is the birthplace of viticulture. In 2011, archaeologists discovered artifacts from a winery dating back at least 6,100 years. Hobbs has now partnered with the Yacoubian family from this small Armenian village to revitalize this ancient grape. I recently found out that there are a handful of country clubs (country clubs!) in the Coachella Valley that currently have the Yacoubian-Hobbs Areni on their wine lists. Who would have thought?

So here’s to a new year full of exploration, curiosity—and a community of wine lovers who continue to surprise and inspire me.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Oh, millennials. They’re so hard to keep up with, with all their abbreviated words and vegan, plant-based burgers.

Snark aside, millennials have an overwhelming amount of consumer power—so what they want, they get. The wine world is no exception, and right now, what millennials want is the wine equivalent of the unbathed, unshaven hippie—the un-photoshopped, makeup-free, I-woke-up-like-this wine … otherwise known as “natural wine.” Given that kids these days can’t seem to use words in their entirety, these wines, of course, are also called “natty wines.”

So what, exactly, is a natural wine? For starters, “natural wines” have no clear and regulated definition. They are absolutely not the same as being organic or biodynamic, although it’s safe to say all winemakers who adhere to the natural-winemaking philosophy wouldn’t think of using grapes that were not organic or biodynamic. However, organic and biodynamic wines are a result of grape-growing and grape-farming practices in the vineyard that are closely monitored and have strict guidelines for certification. Natural wines are created based on decisions the winemakers make in the winery—without any specific criteria. That said, there is a common approach to natural winemaking: The ideology across the board is to have minimal intervention.

The largest and perhaps most controversial aspect to natural wines is the exclusion of sulfur. If you want to sound like a cool kid, the term is sans soufre. Simply saying “no sulfur” is really quite pedestrian. Call it what you want, but sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring byproduct of wine fermentation. What we are talking about here is the addition of sulfur dioxide to prevent bacteria growth and spoilage. I, for one, will never be mad at the necessary addition of sulfur as a preservative. After all, I don’t want my wine to taste like a dirty diaper or a mouse cage that hasn’t been cleaned for seven years.

Another benchmark for natural wines is not filtering out particulates—so your bottle of “natty juice” is probably going to look cloudy with little “thingys” floating around. These little “thingys” aren’t bad for you and (probably) won’t make you sick, but the presence of all those proteins, microbes and organisms floating around can make the wine unstable and quick to spoil—not to mention taste sour, tangy and a little bit like my father’s barn.

By not filtering or adding more sulfur dioxide, winemakers are attempting to retain the “purity” of the wine. I totally get it: In an industry that’s been plagued by winemaker over-manipulation, thus creating homogenized and industrialized wines, it’s refreshing to try wines that are left the hell alone. But to what end? Liking a wine that doesn’t have additional sulfur dioxide just because it doesn’t have additional sulfur dioxide is like liking a wine just because it’s $300. At some point, we need to recognize that the proof is in the pudding.

Other aspects of the natural-wine movement include whole-cluster fermentation—the act of not destemming the grapes, but rather throwing the whole bunch into the tank to create depth of flavor and heightened textures; and allowing the wine to ferment with native yeasts as opposed to controlled, cultivated yeast strains. So whatever wild yeasts hitched a ride on the grapes on their way into the winery is whatcha got. Fun! If not a little unpredictable.

Oak barrels have also fallen victim to the natural-wine craze. This is not a bad thing; I’m happy to see the over-oaked pendulum swing in the other direction. Honestly, I loathe oakiness in wine, so the rise of alternative aging and fermenting vehicles is a happy sight. So, what is the new winemaker fermentation device du jour? Vessels like concrete eggs are ideal at fermenting without imparting flavor, and clay pots like ancient amphorae are used in an attempt to get back to our Roman winemaking roots. (I guess?)

Again: Purity and an honest, untainted expression of the wine is the goal—allowing the wine to be the master of its own fate and unveil its unique personality without a winemaker fingerprint. It’s actually a really exciting and profound thing, if you think about it—almost Daoist in its simplicity. But I have to wonder if the lack of winemaker intervention is creating a new kind of homogenized wine, where all the wines have a strange kind of kombucha-esque quality and really don’t offer that clean, terrior-driven sense of place that is sommelier cat nip. Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction?

I clearly remember my first natural wine experience. I was at a Calistoga party house—an exquisite home owned by a wine family where nobody actually resides; its purpose is to host epic parties and have attendees crash out—with a dear friend who had a bottle of Cruse Wine Co. St. Laurent Petillant Naturel. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I’d had the St. Laurent grape, and I know it was the first time I had experienced a sparkling wine called petillant naturel, also known in its abbreviated form (natch) as pet nat. This little darling is quite simply a sparkling wine made in an ancient—or, as it’s called, “ancestral”—way by bottling still-fermenting juice, and sealing it with a crown cap (like a beer); this allows the carbon dioxide to continue to build and finish fermenting in the bottle. The result is a delicately sparkling wine that’s a little fuzzy-looking, but delicious as hell.

Wanna jump on the natural wine bandwagon? Elisabetta Foradori is always a go-to for me, as is anything made by Marcel Lapierre. If you want your mind blown, Josko Gravner is the Holy Grail. Domestically, you can find some unique versions by Donkey and Goat, and Tendu by Matthiasson is an awesome summer sipper.

Those millennials. They’re a pretty hip and thought-provoking group. Just maybe, they’re onto something.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine