Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

When my wine counterpart in these pages, Katie Finn, suggested that we pull a beverage version of Trading Places—where she curated a list of wines for me to taste while I returned the favor with a list of beers—my first thought was, “I’m clearly the Eddie Murphy in this movie analogy, right?”

And then I thought it would be a wonderful way for me—a wine-eschewing philistine who thinks beer is far more exciting—to expand my horizons and sample a wine list curated by a sommelier. After months of trying to coordinate my weird schedule with hers, we finally got together at the house of a mutual friend. We also invited some of our friends to help (and in my case, unload some of their awesome beer cellars for the occasion)—and then we proceeded to try to impress each other.

When putting together my list for Katie, I wanted to showcase one of beer’s greatest strengths: its diversity of styles and flavors. This is trickier than it may seem to those who know how vast beer’s flavor spectrum can be. What I didn’t know is that she had the same thing in mind for me.

Trigger warning: What I’m about to do with these descriptions might make wine connoisseurs cringe. I ask for your forgiveness in advance.

Birichino Malvasia 2018 Bianca: This is a white from Monterey County. Once I got over my usual reaction to white wine (“uh, yeah ... smells like white wine!”), I started picking up on a mild spiced-pineapple aroma. Following that down the gullet (offended yet, wine people?) were floral aromas like rose and jasmine. What I really appreciated about the experience was the acidic, dry finish. I’m not a fan of sweeter wines or ciders; I always enjoy the ones that jump off the palate and don’t cloy in the aftertaste. The touch of warmth in the back of it all didn’t hurt, either. We were off to a decent start.

Forge Cellars 2015 Les Alliés Dry Riesling: I know Riesling is a German grape that makes a white wine, but my knowledge essentially ends there. What I learned from this one, out of the Finger Lakes in New York, was that wines from this grape can be very pleasant—with oak, citrus, orange blossom and another dry, acidic finish.

Sans Liege Groundwork Grenache Blanc: Paso Robles is no stranger to me, because of Firestone Walker’s magnificent brewery and invitational festival that I attend every year. (See my column about my trip last year for more on that.) But Paso Robles is primarily a wine region, even if I’ve successfully (and unconsciously) ignored any of its products until now. This had a floral, alcohol aroma up front with a warming, sweet vanilla finish. It was slightly acidic at the end. It was not my jam.

B Vintners Black Bream Pinot Noir: Now to the color of wine I’ve enjoyed the most when I’ve experienced wine: red. This South African pinot had aromas and flavors of oak and blackberry cheesecake, along with a slight smokiness, a dry finish and some tannic astringency (a drying sensation on the palate). I can only imagine this would pair very well with a cheesecake, but I will defer to Mrs. Finn on that.

Tommasi Rafael 2016 Valpolicella Classico Superiore: As a side note, if beer names ever get this protracted, I’m going to switch professions. As for the wine: This was an Italian dark fruit bomb, with prunes, plums, a hint of cherries—and a dry finish. It’s almost as if she deliberately picked drier wines in anticipation of my aversion to sweet drinks.

Bodegas Atalaya Alaya Tierra 2015: This was the show-stopper for me and my friend Jose. I’ll just show you what I wrote down as I tasted it, verbatim: “Jammy nose. Blackberry and currant. But the first taste is sweet. Then wood. Then hugely herbal. Big sage flavor. Tobacco. I would almost guess this was not oak, but some more exotic Brazilian wood instead.” I was floored—and kind of sad—that no one had showed me a wine with this much character and range before now. Katie generously gave me the remainder of the bottle to take home—and you’d better believe I finished it.

We also covered an “orange” wine, and I took notes regarding the reason it is called that. (It’s white wine, but the skins are kept in during fermentation, like with reds or rosés … but why have a beer guy explain this when you can read Katie’s illuminating column on this subject instead?) Unfortunately, I apparently neglected to make any notes of the bottle that she opened. Hey, I was drinking wine AND beer. What do you want from me? Professionalism?

My main takeaways from this experience were: If you ever get a chance to have a talented and thoughtful sommelier choose a wine flight for you, definitely step on board, even if you’re normally not a wine-drinker; and wine is not a restricted by its limited ingredients, as I mistakenly thought. The Alaya Tierra proved that to me, and I’ll be interested to see what more wine can accomplish as it strikes out into uncharted and nontraditional areas more and more. Who knows? One day, you may find me writing a wine column. But it won’t be this day.

Thanks, Katie! Let’s do this again.

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

“Katie wine” is a moniker that has followed me for years.

Sometimes it’s said as a joke, as in: “Ohh, that’s a ‘Katie wine.’ You probably won’t like it,” meaning it’s funky, earthy, savory or just plain weird. Other times, “Katie wine” has taken on a more positive definition, like: “I grabbed this bottle of wine I’ve never heard of and want to give it a try! It looked like a ‘Katie wine!’”

Either way, it’s no secret that my wine tastes are fairly specific. At my educational wine tastings, I always try to represent wines that cross the spectrum stylistically. For the whites, there’s always something zippy, high-acid and tart; I also include a round, full-bodied, rich style. For the reds, I’ll show a light-bodied, fresh and fruity wine; I’ll throw in an “old-world” varietal from Italy or France that has some earthiness and a rustic quality; and then to finish it off, there’s the powerhouse: the huge, extracted, over-ripe wine that is about as subtle as Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup.

It never fails: The punch-you-in-the-face wine that resembles motor oil is always the most popular selection of the night.

Honestly, it confounds me. And for a long time, if I fully confess my emotions, it pissed me off. As much as I try to be the poster child for wine tolerance, I wanted to smack my forehead or roll my eyes when guests would poo-poo anything that didn’t have at least 15 percent alcohol and/or didn’t taste more like Jim Beam than cabernet.

During the tastings, once we got to the heavy red, I would hear statements like, “Now that’s a real wine!” and, “Finally, we get to the good stuff!” I would pour silky and elegant pinot noirs from the Cote du Nuits and hear guests comment that the wine was “wimpy” or “it didn’t taste like anything.” As a wine lover, I was exasperated.

It took me a while to realize why I had a personal aversion to high-alcohol wines. And it took me even longer to identify why the average consumer gravitates toward those hedonistic wine beasts.

I try to avoid getting drunk at all costs. I don’t find the sensation particularly enjoyable: Glassy eyes, slurred speech and a wobbly stance are characteristics I don’t find overly attractive. I drink wine for a living. I meet with wine distributors often to taste new wine releases. I’m also a social wine drinker—I don’t care for beer or cocktails—and I very much enjoy having wine with my dinner. But no matter the drinking occasion, I find remaining vertical and awake to be a matter of great importance. If I’m at dinner or a get-together for a few hours, and the only wines available have a-melt-your-face-off alcohol percentage, I’m either relegated to just one or two glasses (no fun), or I’m getting blotto drunk (also, no fun).

Then there’s the flavor issue. Obviously, this is a much more subjective concern, but I stand behind my opinion that if a wine-drinker wants to become a better taster—or have a more adept palate—learning to understand and appreciate lower alcohol wines (read: balanced wines) with subtle nuances is paramount to being taken seriously as a wine connoisseur.

For example: Any idiot with taste buds can tell you what blue cheese tastes like. Its sour and pungent flavors and aromas scream at you from the moment you open the wrapper. It takes much more thought and concentration to identify the delicate caramel and nutty aromas of a mild cheese like Manchego. Wine is no different: Tasting the elusive and delicate flavors of a chardonnay from Chablis is much more difficult than simply absorbing the overt flavors of an overly ripe, forceful chardonnay from California. In short, understated, low-key, quiet flavors take work to identify.

But … who wants to work that hard to taste their drink? Really, I get it.

This brings me to the part where I finally began to understand what makes the average wine-drinker’s palate tick. What was it about the loud, blowtorch-in-your-mouth wines that made everyone get all giddy? Then it hit me: We are a cocktail culture—a cosmopolitan, Manhattan, gin-and-tonic, Jack-and-Coke country. Wine and its subculture came to us after we already had this notion of what alcoholic beverages were supposed to do—taste sweet and get us drunk. The idea that our alcoholic beverage du jour needed food properly paired with it, or the thought that we should be swirling the glass while pontificating the subtle nuances and layers of flavors—those are just not our collective forte. So … when wine bars, and wine tastings, and trips to Napa became all the rage, the natural progression was to simply substitute a glass of wine instead of a glass of bourbon—and the expectation was that your wine was going to be just as robust and high octane as your Maker’s Mark neat. And a lot of wineries complied.

I also realize that as we age, our taste buds become more and more muted. Therefore, it’s easy to understand why wines that have a more concentrated and fruit-forward profile become more appealing. They give a struggling palate more flavor.

I suppose, at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves why we choose wine. If getting drunk is the purpose, there are certainly faster, cheaper and more efficient ways to get there. Perhaps, as the cheeky cocktail napkin would have you believe, wine is simply how classy people get shitfaced nowadays.

I no longer get pissed off at people who demand over-the-top wines, nor do I feel the desire to smack my head when I’m told beautifully balanced wines are wimpy. Instead, I happily pour whatever the crowd-pleasing wine of the day is. And then I go home and open up a “Katie wine.”

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

I am always amazed by “I never/I only” wine-drinkers. I encounter them all too frequently when they come into the shop looking for a specific wine. I quickly discover that my suggestions for an alternative selection are futile when the customer informs me they will only drink this one wine.

Oh, how terribly boring. These wine-drinkers are like 4-year-old children faced with a new dinner option. “I don’t like it! I won’t eat it! What is it?”

Astonishingly, I even encounter a few wine professionals who fall victim to this ideology, although they are more likely to enter the “I never” subset (as in: “I never drink Napa cabernet!”) because they think they know better, or their vast years of experience have led them into some archaic belief system.

Maybe you know one of these “I never/I only” people. Or perhaps you are one of these people. If that’s the case, stay with me … this article is for you.

The most-common wine manifesto I face is: “I never drink chardonnay.” This is so rampant in the wine world that it’s hard for me to believe sometimes that chardonnay is still the No. 1 varietal in the country. The reasons why people have abandoned chardonnay are usually valid or, at the least, understandable—but they are also terribly short-sighted.

As one woman at a recent tasting explained to me: Those lean, crisp styles aren’t real chardonnay. I clutch the pearls; let out an audible gasp; and try to stay calm. “No, no,” I say, almost trembling at the misinformation. “The wine you’ve come to associate with chardonnay is the actual impostor here.” She is not alone in this thought. In fact, most desert-dwellers I talk to have the same thought-process. How can I blame them when every restaurant wine list from here to San Diego (with some fabulous exceptions) offer six whites by the glass—and four of them are overly oaked, creamy, carnival-midway explosions of buttered, fried, caramel-vanilla dipped flavors of something-or-other? There is no awareness that this same grape can produce wines with razor-sharp acid, bright mouth-watering citrus fruits, and a finish that makes your palate say, “Thank you, sir; may I have another?”

These styles are not as elusive as you may think—but they are hiding in plain sight. For every anti-chardonnay drinker, there is a bottle of Dauvissat or Patrick Piuze Chablis or Ceritas Trout Gulch Vineyard chardonnay just waiting to be discovered. Even in Napa, the heartland of overly contrived chardonnay, Steve Matthiasson is crafting an affordable, gloriously lean and zippy incarnation called Linda Vista. And in Sonoma, the chardonnays of Lioco, Porter-Bass and Scribe are breaking the age-old California interpretations. I implore everyone who has a myopic view of this little grape to give it another go. (Or, as I say to my picky-eater kids: Follow the three-bite rule.)

What most people don’t understand about chardonnay is that it is a very neutral grape in terms of flavor. Its flavor profile is nowhere nearly as overt as, say, sauvignon blanc or riesling. And yet this is the very reason it produces some of the most expensive wines in the world. You know them as Meursault, Montrachet and, of course, Chablis. You see, chardonnay was chosen by the Cistercian monks centuries ago to be planted in Burgundy because of its propensity for high acid and its neutrality. What those smarty-pants monks knew, even way back then, was that this land—and each specific parcel of land—was unique in its composition. They firmly believed that what grew on this plot of land was going to taste different than what grew on any other piece of land. And that’s what mattered—the place. The grape was simply a catalyst to show what the land could do. The flavors and aromas of the grape shouldn’t outshine the flavors and distinct qualities that were inherent in the dirt—so they needed a grape that could be the bridesmaid to the more-important element.

But this is a double-edged sword, because just as chardonnay’s transparent nature was a bonus for the vignerons of France, it was also a tool for winemakers looking to make their mark in the new world. Chardonnay is easily manipulated and malleable to an eager winemakers’ every whim. When the masses demanded bigger, bolder, richer wines, chardonnay was an easy accomplice. All of a sudden, the market was flooded with wines that were stylistically so far removed from its ancestors that it was hard to remember they were ever even related.

If all of this isn’t reason enough to get you to abandon a negative viewpoint on chardonnay, then I’m left with no choice but to pull out the big guns. Yes, that’s right: I’m going to wine-shame you. Hear me when I tell you that no experienced, knowledgeable wine aficionado would ever, ever disrespect the white grape of Burgundy. In fact, most wine professionals and sommeliers will tell you that this region and its noble grape are the Holy Grail—so revered that, in fact, it’s many sommeliers’ “stranded on a desert island wine.” Yours truly is included in that bunch.

I realize I’ve singled out chardonnay here, but there are many other “I never/I only” wine-drinkers out there, and we’ll explore this more on another day. In the meantime, if you’re part of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) crowd, I hope you take away one thing from this: Wine is about so much more than just the grape.

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

We have entered the temperature ugh zone, where the only thing anyone can talk about is how disgusting it is outside. Yes, the next few months will be miserable, but as my Canadian grandmother used to say, “The desert is hot, but at least I don’t have to shovel the sand.”

While it’s sweltering outside, the idea of popping open your favorite bottle of cabernet might seem repugnant. And maybe you’re the type of person doesn’t love white wine … so what’s a wine-lover to do?

The answer: Have no fear! I have your summer wine to-do list right here—and it even includes a rich, brooding and intense red.

One of my favorite summer sippers is made by an unlikely duo from the Central Coast of California. Union Sacre is the brainchild of Xavier Arnaudin, a Wine and Spirit Education Trust-certified, oenology degree-holding, ex-boxer-turned-winemaker from France; and Philip Muzzy, a self-taught designer from Michigan who lived in his van before becoming Xavier’s business partner. Unlikely, right? But together, they have more than 25 years of experience working at Central Coast wineries—and it shows. The Belle de Nuit gewurztraminer might be the most luminous expression of this varietal I’ve ever tasted. On the nose, it’s full of ripe lychee fruit and rose petals, but on the palate, it’s bone-dry and crisp, with an almost-wiry tinge of grapefruity zing racing down the back. This is the kind of wine that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about gewurztraminer. It ferments on its skins for about 30 hours, which imparts the most beautiful pale copper color you’ve ever seen. And the label … oh my goodness, the label: It appears all serious and formal at first glance, but turn the bottle around, and you’ll reveal a stunning image through the clear juice. Can you tell how impressed I am?! If we’re friends, expect to drink a lot of this wine this summer.

Chenin blanc is one of my favorite varietals, and I think it’s tragically underrated. It’s the ultimate chameleon, ranging in style from sweet to sparkling to mouth-puckeringly dry, so there is a chenin blanc for everybody. In the summer, I love the citrusy, tart styles that wake your mouth up and beg for that summer peach-and-arugula salad. My chenin blanc du jour is the Maitre de Chai “Kierkegaard” chenin blanc, which is sourced from two old vine vineyards: the dry-farmed Sani vineyard, planted in 1981 in Dry Creek, Sonoma, and the original rootstock Reamer vineyard, planted in 1975 south of Sacramento. Owners, grape-growers and vintners Alex Pitts and Marty Winters are not professionally trained winemakers. They were, however, professionally trained chefs who met while working at Cyrus in Sonoma under the careful direction of famed chef Douglas Keane. The irony here is that a chef’s purpose is to create a dish by manipulating ingredients, adding a little of this and a little of that until it tastes just right. That couldn’t be further from what they’re doing as winemakers: They simply allow the grapes to do their thing—nothing added, tweaked or manipulated. No fining; no filtration; and the wine undergoes wild fermentation. The result is a glorious, low-alcohol wine bursting with key lime, passion fruit and melon.

Now, for you red-drinkers who think you have to give up the stemmed glass in the melting months: I assure you, that’s not the case! In fact, there are several red wines that are meant to be chilled and are perfect for our summer. And in case you missed the article I wrote explaining why it’s perfectly acceptable to chill all your red wines, consider this your permission slip.

Gamay is the signature grape of the Beaujolais region of France, and up until around 10 years ago, most people would have only associated that region with Beaujolais Nouveau, that grapey, fun and simple wine released the third Thursday of November every year. And while Beaujolais Nouveau might be akin to California’s white zinfandel, it, too, has a time and a place where it can be a fun beverage of choice. That said, real Beaujolais is so much more than that young and fruity rendition of gamay. There are 10 crus in Beaujolais, each making a serious wine with its own unique characteristics. Some of my favorites are Chateau Thivin from Brouilly, Marcel Lapierre from Morgon (the Raisins Gaulois is a household staple around here), and Guy Breton’s gamay from Regnie. The best part of these delicious wines is that they are meant to be consumed slightly chilled. If that isn’t enough, I’ll up the ante and tell you the cherry on top is that these wines have few to no additives, are lower in alcohol, and have almost no tannins. The result is an easy-drinking, dare I say gulpable wine that is the perfect beverage for friends, barbecues and pool parties.

If easy-drinking, lighter reds aren’t your bag, don’t despair: I have just the thing for all you hearty red-wine drinkers out there … and it’s called Tannat. This signature grape of Uruguay was relatively unheard of a few years ago. It originally hails from the Southwest region of France, and just like malbec, which also originally comes from southern France, it was producing harsh, tannic, difficult-to-swallow wines. It wasn’t until the grape reached South America that it found its true home. And, like malbec, tannat creates wines that are deeply pigmented, rich and full-bodied, with opulent aromas of blueberries, dark chocolate and licorice. Is your mouth watering yet? It’s also one of the “healthiest” red wines on the market due to its exceptionally high levels of resveratrol. Bodegas Garzon has set the bar high for tannat from Uruguay due to its state-of-the-art winery, no-expense-spared winemaking team, and meticulous farming practices. What’s more is that because it’s still relatively under-the-radar, you can get this stellar wine less than $20 a bottle at most places. Tannat really shines when it’s chilled down for about 20 minutes prior to opening, which means you can have your full-throttled red wine when it’s hot—and drink it, too.

Last but not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the party-perfect Matthiasson “Tendu” red. I cannot think of a get-together I’ve hosted in recent memory that did not include several liter bottles of this incredible juice. Don’t let the crown-cap closure and clear liter bottle fool you into thinking this is cheap jug wine. This delicious blend of barbera, aglianico and montepulciano is crafted by “winemaker of the year” and Napa demi-god, Steve Matthiasson and was modeled after the easy-drinking wines he experienced in the sidewalk bistros of France and Italy. This wine was made for those long summer nights, eating al fresco, playing bocce ball in St. Helena with friends. In short, it’s a sophisticated wine that’s meant to be drunk like a beer, when you don’t want a beer, but are craving wine. Yes, please!

There is an expression in France that has been adopted here in California—glou glou—which basically means glug glug, or down the hatch. My hope is that these glou glou wines inspire you to have more fun. Not all wine needs to be swirled, and pontificated, and analyzed. Sometimes wine is just a drink—a very good drink.

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

Everywhere I look these days, wine publications, blogs and even the occasional Cosmopolitan article are all proudly announcing: “Merlot is back!”

But is it?

I often talk about merlot in my tasting seminars as one of the most underrated varietals in production. Not only it is the primary grape in some of the world's most-expensive wines like Chateau Petrus, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Ornellaia; it has the ability to produce wines that are complex while still being approachable. Its exceptional juiciness and integrated but not overpowering tannins are the very reasons it became so hyper-popular in the ’90s. It was just so damn delicious, velvety and easy to drink.

Fast forward to 2004 and a little indie movie that the producers probably thought no one was going to see. By now, we are all familiar with the movie Sideways and how it directly affected the wine industry—skyrocketing the popularity of pinot noir, while totally and unabashedly tanking merlot, even if that wasn’t the intent.

That now-famous line—“I’m not drinking any fucking merlot”—had absolutely nothing to do with merlot and everything to do with the fact that Miles, the train-wreck antihero of the movie, had his heart ripped out by his ex-wife. Her favorite varietal was merlot, and he couldn’t bear to be reminded of her in any context. He was so fragile and broken that something as simple as a glass of merlot could push him over the edge. The last scene in the movie shows Miles sitting in a roadside diner, by himself, with his prized bottle of wine that he proceeds to drink out of a foam cup. A contented smile washes over his face. That wine is Chateau Cheval Blanc—a merlot. The symbolism is that he is now finally over his wife. He can move on and enjoy merlot without it breaking his heart. But nobody got it. The joke was lost on the non-wine-savvy public. The only take away was a primal “merlot bad, pinot good.”

Some winemakers will say that the Sideways effect, as it’s now called, was a good thing for the industry—that it forced producers making subpar merlot to abandon the varietal, because it wasn’t selling, and that the merlot grapes planted in places they shouldn’t be, being vinified in ways that weren’t suitable, were effectively pushed out of the marketplace. But I argue that great merlot producers were pushed out, too. Wine lists everywhere went from featuring dozens of merlot selections to a mere handful, and retail wine shelves became merlot-bare. Even now, at the wine shop where I work, we house less than 10 offerings.

And if pushing all the “bad merlot” out was a realistic or desirable outcome, what about all the god-awful cabernet sauvignon out there? Why hasn’t all the proselytizing about ABC (anything but chardonnay) weaned out all the cheap, ghastly, manufactured chardonnay? And at what point is someone going to get on their wine box and openly begin slamming the horrific things now done to pinot noir? The Sideways effect not only eliminated merlot; it also created pinot noir monsters. The beautiful, elegant, silky, high-acid, food-friendly, bright red-fruit style that was quintessential to pinot noir began to devolve into overly ripe, high-alcohol, super-concentrated fruit bombs. The evolution was so predictable. After all, what were those bad merlot drinkers going to switch to now that they were convinced their wine of choice was passé? Voila! Here’s your glass of pinot noir that dangerously resembles the merlot you’re not supposed to drink anymore!

However … the Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot was the top selection in the Wine Spectator Top 100 in 2017. Countless articles are touting merlot’s comeback. I personally love the grape known as the iron fist in a velvet glove. So why am I so skeptical that it’s making a return? Because there simply isn’t a lot of good, inexpensive merlot anymore—or maybe these wines are just a lot harder to find. I can’t help but think maybe it’s been out of sight and out of mind for just too long. It doesn’t even cross the consumer’s mind anymore. And the hip, millennial wine community that would totally embrace a wine that’s gone the way of the dodo bird will only get on board with something they think they’ve discovered or somehow revitalized—yet merlot is just not obscure enough to be trendy. So all this attention to bring merlot back is only going to turn off the cool kids who will drink it if they think it will make them a rebel in some way.

Don’t get me wrong: I want merlot to make an epic comeback. It makes me sad that consumers who like and appreciate wine would write off an entire varietal based on nothing more than a fleeting reference in pop culture. And yes, the perceived quality of merlot has improved as a result of the downturn, mainly because there is less crappy merlot from which to choose.

So dear reader, here is your challenge: Go buy a bottle of merlot. Curl up on the couch, and have a glass. I’m willing to bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and a contented smile will wash across your face, too.

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

I’m just not ready to give up on Temecula yet—but if my last two visits are any indication of what Temecula wants to be, then its destiny might already be written.

Twelve years ago, I ventured to Temecula for a work trip that slightly masqueraded as a girls’ trip. We all had a great time: The weather was perfect; the food was good; and the hospitality was on point. But one distinct part of the trip does not spark fond memories: We visited about seven wineries over two days, none of which were memorable enough to cite all these years later.

I would like to point out that I’m not a “day-drinker,” and when I’m working, I spit all wine. Always have, always will. So the lack of poignant experiences was not because I had over-imbibed, but because they were simply forgettable, at best. What I remember vividly was staying at a well-known resort, in one of their villas, and thinking at the time that it was a lovely property, despite the somewhat tacky faux-Tuscan decor.

Fast-forward 12 years later, and I found myself back at the same resort. The tacky faux-Tuscan decor remains … only now it’s 12 years older, and in sad, sad, shape. I think it’s safe to assume the decade-plus of bachelorette parties and drunken wedding guests have taken their toll. The carpet was crunchy. There were dead bugs in the bathtub. A pair of old, muddy work boots sat outside the room door. And when the staff wasn’t calling me “sweetie,” “love” and “honey,” they were downright rude.

This was not a work-related trip. I was there celebrating my dearest girlfriend’s 40th birthday. She graciously hosted us on a wine tour with a light dinner in a vineyard. The evening spent with friends and loved ones was sublime. However, I am a sommelier, which makes it impossible for me not to notice the wine and service standards around me. Granted, we did not visit the crème de la crème of wineries (if there is such a thing in Temecula), but instead what appeared to be fun and lively venues where the wine flowed freely. And frankly, I was horrified.

Our first stop was at a high-profile, more-commercial winery. I know, I know … how could I possibly judge an entire wine region by a winery that’s known for golf clubs?! Because it was packed—wall-to-wall people. And those people were having the exact same experience I was. Wine-savvy or not, all the guests visiting that day left there with a perception of what Temecula wine country is, based, at least in part, on that particular winery … which, as far as the tasting room is concerned, is not good. If the lack of quality wine didn’t turn you off, the terrible wine being poured by the un-dead was the clincher. Everyone working behind the bar looked like they would rather have something hot and sharp poked in their eye than pour one more “taste” to a wine-coupon-holding bride-to-be. At one point, I gave all my wine coupons to the zombie so I could put her, and me, out of our misery.

Ironically, once we were outside, the whole vibe changed. We could relax and sip the wine, and chat, in truly beautiful surroundings. There was a musician playing the keyboard and singing to a content crowd, complete with adorable little girls in fluffy dresses dancing along. Atmosphere: 1; Wine: 0.

On to the next winery! By far, it was the most pleasant of the three on the tour. It was a small, family-owned establishment. We ate at long picnic tables in the vineyards as the sun began to set, surrounded by a couple of other groups. The service was more attentive and focused, but I couldn’t help but notice that no one was explaining the wine. At most, we were told what was available to taste, with no further detail given. It was a little head-scratching to me, given I had moved to the Coachella Valley from a place where most people can’t shut up about wine. Then I realized … maybe there isn’t anything to say about it.

By this point of the night, we were all laughing and enjoying being out in our “backyard wine country.” All was going well until they started blaring songs like “Funky Cold Medina” and “Mambo No. 5.” OK … time to go.

Atmosphere: 2; Wine: 0.

The last winery we visited wasn’t really a winery at all. Or maybe it was. Who could tell? In any case, I’ve been to college keggers less rowdy. It could not have been further from a traditional winery experience; instead, it was a happening bar and dance scene. The wine was doled out like shots of whiskey. There were easily a thousand people “out back” where the band was. Apparently there was a guy, who may or may not have been high on ecstasy, doing backflips on the dance floor next to a woman who was 80 years old doing ballet moves … weird. My husband and I missed it all, because by this point, we’d had enough. The sun was casting its final shadows, and the rolling hills were gorgeous. We needed a moment of wine-country solitude. Yes, sometimes we miss Napa. So we sat out front, on old Adirondack chairs, and sipped our terrible wine by an unlit fire pit as we watched the sunset. It was perhaps the highlight of the night. This is when my husband, who grew up in Napa, said to me: “Ya know why this place will never be taken seriously? Because here, it’s not about the wine. They’ve simply substituted tasting rooms for bars. The employees can’t tell you anything about the wine, because they don’t care about it. The guests can’t tell you anything about the wine, because they don’t care, either. These are just venues to have a good time and get drunk. Instead of raising the bar to educate people about wine and the region, Temecula lowered the bar to keep everybody drunk and happy.”

Whoa. Now there’s some harsh truth, Temecula.

Now, let me set the record straight: I said I wasn’t ready to give up on Temecula. I’m happy to take suggestions and recommendations for wineries that will change my mind. I know there have to be dedicated producers out there who are crafting thoughtful wine. I promise to go back again, with an open mind. But hear me when I say that if my experience is by design, and this is what Temecula is putting out there as a tourist destination, then nothing is going to change. You can’t be taken seriously as a wine region if you don’t have respect for the industry, the product, the land and the people.

If Temecula wants to be serious about wine, it needs to grow up.

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

I’ve been working at a wine shop in Palm Desert for about three months now—and I love it! It’s a tiny little space, with a limited number of wines—and because the store is so small, each of the wines is thoughtfully curated. They each serve a purpose and are designed to be the best representation of the region, the price and the varietal.

For years, I was a wholesaler of wine. My job was to bring the samples of wines to the buyers of these little independent retail shops and peddle my goods. I was selling wine to other wine professionals, and there was no such thing as getting “too geeky” when it came to describing the wine or telling the story about how the wine came to be. Now I have the honor of being the buyer sitting on the other side of the proverbial table, listening to the stories and determining which wines make the cut for the store shelves. I’m not gonna lie: It’s an insanely fun job for someone as passionate about wine as me.

That said, there has been a definite learning curve working with wine civilians (aka the public); I am constantly working on not intimidating, scaring or confusing the pants off the average customer. Just the other day, a lovely lady came in looking for a chardonnay. I began to ask her what she normally drinks and what she likes her chardonnay to taste like. About two minutes later, I was using words like “malolactic fermentation” and “diacetyl.”

She blankly turned to my co-worker and asked: “Is that lady speaking English?” Oops.

I feel an innate responsibility to help people when they come in. I want to give guidance and suggestions if needed, and not let anyone drown in a sea of unknown labels.

Shopping for wine is unlike shopping for anything else. Nowhere else is a consumer faced with so many choices, spanning so many price points, with so many variables. Imagine if you walked into a grocery store and had an entire aisle of eggs in front of you—and each of those eggs was a different color, came from a different place, fed a different diet (which, of course, affects the taste) and came from different months of the year, with some months producing better eggs, natch. Some of these eggs are $5, and some are $100, with some at every price point in between. The words “fear,” “panic” and “confusion” come to mind (as does perhaps a fleeting thought of becoming a vegan). This is how a lot of consumers feel about walking into a wine store.

So in my brief yet educational time as a retail clerk, I’ve discovered there a few kinds of shoppers: Those who know what they want; those who ask questions to discover what they want; and—the majority of folks—those who have no idea where to begin.

There are a few foolproof ways to navigate through a wine selection. The first is to start taking photos of wines you enjoy. It seems stupidly simple, but I guarantee that you will not remember the name of that one wine you loved two weeks ago at Susan’s house while you played Bunco. Case in point: the customer who came in asking if we carried a certain bottle. He couldn’t remember the name, or where it was from, but he was certain it was a white wine of some sort, and maybe it had a black label. “Do you have that wine?” Umm …

There are a few apps like Delectable and Vivino that are also great for tracking the wines you like, and there’s a community of people reviewing and rating those wines along with you. If you’re not app-savvy, photos on your phone work just fine.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say again: One of the best ways to find the wine you want is to shop at a store where people can actually help you. No one, and I mean no one, has innate carnal knowledge of every wine out there. And no matter the size of the store, or how many wines the store carries, the shop is only as good as its employees. Find the store that has passionate people working there, and you’ll be in good hands.

The best experiences I’ve had with customers have occurred when there is a dialogue about wine—when someone is curious about what’s new and wants to learn about it. As a sommelier, I will always have wines that are intriguing me right now, or a new region that is hot, or a style that is making waves. I want to talk about them with you! If you’ve had a wine that you love, I want you to tell me all about it! Next thing you know, we’ll be behind the tasting bar sipping a vibrant white from the Canary Islands, and we’ll laugh and laugh and become best friends. Or at the very least, I’ll get to know you and what you like.

One final suggestion: Don’t be afraid to be specific. As one customer said to me today, “I really want to splurge on a great chardonnay!” To which I replied: “Super! We have a few bottles of Edge Hill chardonnay available; it’s $159 a bottle.” After he regained consciousness, he told me he was thinking more along the lines of a $40 price range. The terms “splurge,” “mid-priced” and “a great value” all mean very different things to different people. A millionaire might think a great value is a $70 bottle of Double Diamond from Oakville, while I, myself, would consider that a splurge. And if the idea of coming up with descriptions for wine (like juicy, jammy, oaky, buttery, dusty, or earthy) give you a panic attack, just tell the sales clerk what you normally drink. Anyone worth their salt will be able to properly guide you to a wonderful alternative bottle.

Remember: Most wine professionals, and I stress the word professionals, are not wine snobs. Spirited, intense and fanatical? Maybe. But not one wine industry person I know would ever embarrass or shame someone who wanted to learn more about wine. And don’t tolerate anyone who does. Ever.

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

My dad is here visiting from Canada, along with 50,000 other people from Canada, and has been enjoying our balmy winter.

I, on the other hand, am freezing to death, constantly bundled up in a parka, scarf, wool socks and boots. There is no question: I should have all my Canadian rights revoked for being so cold in 60-degree weather.

Because so many of his comrades are also down here, his social calendar is as full as a newly widowed resident at Sun City.

We began talking the other morning about food-and-wine pairings, wine gifts and what it means to be a good guest when going to dinner at someone’s home. As someone who entertains often, this is a subject that is very important me—and over the years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons.

Guests will often bring flowers or offer to bring a side dish or dessert. This suits me just fine, because most of the time, I already have the weird wines I’m going to pour for my guests all lined up and ready to go. But there are times when it’s wonderful to have people come over and bring their favorite wine—or something they discovered that they want to share.

Last Christmas, a dear friend of mine brought me a bottle of Michael Pozzan “Marianna” Red Blend from Napa. I’m not sure if she knew that my darling sister-in-law’s name is Marianna, but nevertheless, this was a wine that she enjoyed and thought I would enjoy it, too.

Recently, I was gifted a bottle of Gorman “Old Scratch” Chardonnay from Washington. I had never heard of this producer but love the sense of discovery associated with trying something new.

After a conversation about all the growth happening in Temecula, and me kind-of poo-pooing the region after a trip I had there about 11 years ago, I was given a bottle of Miramonte “Opulente” that was pleasantly surprising and made me realize it’s time to take another trip over the mountain.

I’m still holding on to a bottle of Anthill Farms Pinot Noir that was given to me over the holidays, because I just know it’s going to be grand.

The point of all of this: When you are invited to someone’s home for dinner and choose to bring wine, be thoughtful with your selection. That doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of money or chase down some rare “unicorn” wine, but it does mean that you shouldn’t give a bottle that you don’t like or won’t drink yourself. If it’s a throw-away wine to you, chances are, it will be to everyone else, too.

While we’re on the subject of what not to bring, there are a few unspoken rules that I would be remiss not to mention.

Vintages matter, people. Unless, you’re specifically going to a dinner where the “theme” is uncorking older vintages to see how they’ve held up, you’re risking embarrassment if the bottle you brought has gone by way of balsamic. Save that older wine for a dinner party at your house, where you have a backup bottle of something fresh and delicious handy—just in case.

If you’re on a budget, steer clear of name brands. Why? Because everyone knows roughly how much a bottle of Josh Cabernet is, and while it’s a great under-$10 bottle for your Monday night pizza-and-The Bachelor fest, it’s not exactly a thoughtful gift. Instead, look for a Spanish grenache or rioja, or a white called Albariño. Italian Barbera d’Asti bottles are juicy and delicious and a huge value. One of my favorites is the Michele Chiarlo Le Orme. If you want to stick to domestic wines, there are several affordable options coming out of Lodi, and the newly hip Red Hills AVA in Lake County.

I would always suggest staying away from pinot noir unless you personally know the wine and your hosts’ palates. Over the last 15 years, pinot has taken a drastic turn stylistically. If you’re a pinot purist, then you’ll see that comment as strictly pejorative, and if you’re a fan of Meiomi, then you’re incredibly happy about said turn. Either way, it’s become an incredibly divisive camp, not to mention an expensive one. To find a good pinot noir, no matter what the style is, you’re going to spend a pretty penny. I say it’s not worth the headache.

I happen to think that bubbles are always a good idea, and there are lots of options in the $20-$40 range that will do you proud. Look for Cremant d’ Alsace—I love the Lucien Albrecht—or a Crémant de Limoux like the Faire la Fête. For a few more bucks, you really can’t go wrong with the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs.

I think I’ll open that bottle of Anthill Farms pinot tonight and indulge a little. Then I’ll go turn the porch light on for Mr. Livin’ La Vida Loca and wait to hear about another fabulous night out when Dad gets home.

Here’s to living your best life, Dad!

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

The first time I tasted an orange wine was about seven years ago while I was living in Napa. I was working with Tommy Fogarty, of Thomas Fogarty Winery out of Santa Cruz, attempting to sell Santa Cruz wines—a daunting task in Napa, to say the least. However, there was no better person to tackle the obstacle with than Tommy. To this day, he’s still one of the coolest guys in the business—not to mention his Rapley Trail pinot noir is one of my favorite California wines.

When I dropped him off at his car at the end of our day, he grabbed a shiner (a bottle with no label) out of a case in the back of his Jeep and handed it to me. It was an orange wine made from chardonnay; he laughed as he told me it was a little funky, but it was a fun wine he thought I’d like.

I really didn’t know much about orange wine; in fact, I had never tasted one, but if Tommy thought it was fun and cool, I was game.

I held on to the bottle for a few weeks, staring at it in my wine fridge, never really sure if today was the day I should get freaky and try this odd little wine. Looking back, I think I was actually nervous to try it. What if I didn’t like it? Would that mean I didn’t have an elevated or knowledgeable palate? What if it was a “food wine,” and I was supposed to have it with some avant-garde meal of braised offal or an eccentric charcuterie plate covered with stinky cheese, and head cheese, and uncured meats? I created a ridiculous predicament in my own head. “Just open the damn wine, Katie.”

So that’s what I did. After my son was tucked in for the night, and the husband was still at work, I pulled out the bottle, fixed a simple plate of cheese and crackers, and opened the damn thing.

Yeah, it was kinda weird. But it had the most beautiful marmalade color, and wafting up from the glass came an aroma like a hard cider, with orange pith, honey and a note that was almost like sourdough bread. I sat there and drank about three-quarters of the bottle just trying to wrap my head around it. It was faking (or maybe freaking) me out. It looked like it should be a dessert wine, but it wasn’t sweet. It reminded me of molecular gastronomy, where a chef would trick you into thinking you’re eating a watermelon salad, but really it’s cubed ahi sashimi (and truthfully, I hate that). But I was loving this wine in all its nerdy, mischievous glory.

Time passed, and I maybe saw one or two other orange wines in Napa. I can only assume that marketing something as seemingly obscure as orange wine to the influx of tourists who descend on the valley is right up there in difficulty with selling them wines from Santa Cruz.

Fast-forward eight years, and orange wine is everywhere. Well … actually, it’s virtually nowhere to be seen here in the Coachella Valley, with the exception of Dead or Alive and maybe a bottle or two at Whole Foods—but it’s in every wine publication, blog and urban hep-cat wine bar. We’ll get there … eventually.

This brings me to the part where I tell you what orange wine is, and why you should not be scared or nervous like I was to try one. It’s really very simple: Orange wine is just white wine that is fermented on its skins like a red wine. You see, with very few exceptions, the juice from grapes is clear. It doesn’t matter if the finished product is red or white. If you were to crush a bunch of cabernet sauvignon grapes in your hand, clear juice would run down your arm. It’s the skins that give it pigment. White wine is no different: The type of grape and the length of time it spends in contact with the skins determines how pigmented the final product is. Just as it is with your favorite red wine, that’s where some of the tannin comes from, too. That’s the element in the wine that has a slightly bitter, drying sensation and gives the juice its texture and mouth-feel. This is something that’s not typical with a classic white wine, but it’s an unexpectedly enjoyable component in its orange form.

Admittedly, tasting a white wine that’s the color of a nacho-cheese Dorito can take some getting used to. But think of it like this: Your favorite bottle of salmon-hued rose is simply red wine made like a white wine, with very little color imparted from the skins. Orange wine is white wine made like a red, with maximum color extracted from the skins. And just like any red grape can be made into a rose, any white grape can be made into an orange wine. But I caution you: Because it can be made from any grape, and the length of time the skins are in contact with the juice can vary wildly, no two orange wines are alike.

If you’re looking to get your hands on a bottle, you may need to order some online. Here are some of my suggestions:

• The 2017 Field Recordings “Skins” Central Coast Blend is delicious and an easy drink. A great introduction to orange wines, it’s a blend of chenin blanc, pinot gris and verdejo.

• The 2017 Jolie-Laide (pronounced jo-LEE luh-DAY) Trousseau Gris Fanucchi-Wood Road Vineyard Russian River Valley is one of my all-time favorites. These are rare, near-extinct vines that originally hail from eastern France. This wine is serious, and savory, and elegant, and at the same time, it makes for a joyful, sublime glass of wine.

• The 2017 Channing Daughters Ramato Pinot Grigio Long Island, New York, is a beautiful symphony of dried apricots, baked apples and coriander. “Ramato” means copper in Italian and is the term used in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy for skin-contact pinot grigio. It’s definitely not like your bottle of Santa Margherita.

• The 2008 Josko Gravner Venezia Giulia Ribolla Gialla is a very pricey bottle of wine, indeed. But Josko Gravner is the undisputed king of white wine in Friuli … and dare I say, all of Italy? He is revered by absolutely everyone in the industry as being the resurrector of natural winemaking. This is the holy grail of orange wine.

Open your mind and open a bottle. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find your new favorite wine.

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

Galileo Galilei once said, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Of course, Galileo never made his way to sunny California—but if he were here now, something tells me he’d want to be at the WineLover’s Auction, taking place at the Thunderbird Country Club on Saturday, Feb. 16.

The WineLover’s Auction is the signature annual fundraiser for Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine. Doug Morin is the executive director of CVVIM, which operates the only free medical clinic in the Coachella Valley, in Indio at 82915 Ave. 48.

“This rose out of a study that was undertaken by JFK Memorial Hospital in 2007. The conclusion of that was the valley needed a free clinic for individuals who did not have insurance by whatever means,” Morin said. “The program was modeled after a national program called Volunteers in Medicine. … After a couple years of fundraising … in 2010, we started providing services near JFK.

“There was a lot of community support behind opening the clinic. Part of what was so time-consuming was getting the nurse practitioners, doctors and dentists to volunteer, as well as (raising money for) the operational costs and the direct patient costs, like the bandages and all the other sorts of things that are required for treatment and diagnostic services. … The county helped out by providing a county-owned office for us; our cost is the maintenance of the office space.

“Since then, we have consistently seen about 1,000 unduplicated clients every year, totaling around 3,500 visits … Many have a chronic illness that requires ongoing follow-up, like diabetes, which is our No. 1 issue that we see clients for, (followed by) COPD and congestive heart failure. We provide primary care and a few specialty services, but not urgent or emergent care. If someone breaks a leg, or has a heart attack, or an open wound, then they have to go to the emergency room.”

Morin said the clinic also offers case-management services to those in need, as well as education services. “A lot of diabetes education is designed for healthy living, to help the patient get around with diabetes and keep it stable,” he said.

“Almost two years ago, we began a homeless-outreach program around the Indio and Coachella area. We have physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers and a number of other Individuals who work in the field. We tend to think that (homeless people) need blankets and shoes, which they usually do, but what most of them really need is medical services. Often, they’ll get vaccinations or A1C level checks in the field.

“We do all of this with about 200 volunteers and six full- and part-time staff for the year.”

Who can receive treatment at Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine?

“We do have eligibility requirements,” Morin said. “One is that you must be a resident of Coachella Valley. You can’t have medical insurance, or you (must be unable to afford) to use your current medical insurance, and you must be at 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For an individual, that means making only about $20,000 a year.”

So … what about the WineLover’s Auction?

“This is the fourth annual wine auction, and it has, for the past three years, raised more than $200,000 each year. Our yearly budget is $600,000 to cover patient care, so almost a third of our yearly budget is raised from this,” Morin said. “We have presenting sponsorships from both JFK Memorial Hospital and the Desert Regional Medical Center. The evening starts off with a wine reception and a general silent auction, and then moves into the dining room for the live auction. There’s not just wine, but a lot of things that are wine-related; for example, there are trips to Napa Valley, trips on yachts and cruises for several hours, some featuring foods and wine. Sometimes there’s art involved. … There’s something for everybody. The auction items’ values are anywhere from $100 to several thousand dollars.

“Our biggest wine sponsor is Chateau Ste Michelle. They provide all the wine for the reception and the dinner. They also provide a number of packages of rare wines, signed bottles and collector bottles. … To cap the evening’s festivities off, there is usually some entertainment with songs from a winner of a local talent show.”

The WineLover’s Auction takes place at 5 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Thunderbird Country Club, 70737 Country Club Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets start at $250. For tickets or more information, call 760-625-0737, or visit

Published in Features & Profiles