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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The holidays are here, and every publication across the country is offering up advice on the perfect wines to serve for Thanksgiving and beyond.

These articles all suggest there is some skeleton-key wine out there that magically and universally pairs with everything on the table, somehow unlocking the doors to flavor bliss. This is a lie. Take it from me: There is no one wine in existence that will perfectly pair with candied sweet potatoes, tart cranberry sauce, oyster stuffing, green beans, a honey-glazed ham and your 20-pound overcooked turkey. Anyone who tells you otherwise has no idea what they’re talking about.

Let’s face it … the holidays can be rough. It’s incredibly stressful to host a dinner party for a throng of people, let alone the singularly most hyped meal of the year. Adding to that, the Thanksgiving guest list can be downright cringe-worthy: in-laws, a crabby grandpa, an overbearing and hypercritical mother, the inappropriate aunt who will probably make someone cry, and so on. These people the very reason wine is present at these dinners in the first place—but now we now have to worry that the grenache we chose won’t properly accentuate the delicate mushroom flavors in the gravy? Growing up, the only thing I remember anyone fretting about was the bird. So, when did we start agonizing over wine pairings? My main advice: Stop agonizing. Unless that obnoxious cousin who crushes beer cans on his forehead also happens to be a master sommelier, I’m here to tell you: As long as the wine you serve has alcohol in it, you’re doing just fine.

All that being said, I’m constantly asked what wines I’m pouring for the holidays, and I’m happy to tell you about my wine list.

I open up a lot of different bottles on Thanksgiving and would never commit to a case of anything. Much like the dinner itself, with its countless side dishes that make absolutely no sense, Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to procure myriad wines that normally would never be seen next to each other on the same dinner table. The bonus is, of course, that there’s bound to be something there that will please your snarky aunt.

I braved the nonsensical aisles of Total Wine and More to give you a one-stop wine shopping experience. All the wines mentioned heretofore can be found in the Palm Desert mega store. Pack a snack; you might be there a while.

First on my list is a sparkling wine—and there is no need to drop a paycheck on a good bottle if you’re in the know. My go-to this season is a fabulous little gem called Gruet. It’s produced in New Mexico (that’s right … New Mexico!) by a darling French family that’s been producing bubbles in Champagne since the 1950s. The Gruet brut is an astonishing value and will impress the snobbiest of wine nerds.

Next up are wines no one will be able to pronounce. This is always fun at a dinner party. My favorites are an Austrian gruner veltliner like the Winzer Krems gruner veltliner kremser sandgrube and the dry domestic Husch gewurztraminer. Both are lively and expressive and relatively low in alcohol, so you can keep your wits about you while sitting across from your mother-in-law all night.

As for the reds, let’s start with what I won’t serve: Zinfandel is always on my no-no list. So many are around 16 percent alcohol, and we all know that Thanksgiving is about endurance drinking. Plus, here in the desert, we very well may have a god-forsaken heat spike that day, and after heat plus a boozy wine mixed with all the tryptophan in the turkey, you might slip into a coma and not be heard from in days. So, no zinfandel. I will be picking up some cru beaujolais this year. Not beaujolais nouveau—cru beaujolais. I found a delicious Domaine des Maisons Neuves from Moulin-a-Vent that is every bit as food-friendly as your beloved pinot noir, but not nearly as wallet-draining. Plus, it’s meant to be chilled down, which will help you deal with the blazing heat from the ovens and burners going simultaneously in your kitchen.

Merlot will be front and center on my bar, haters be damned. It’s velvety and rich with loads of fruit and just the right amount of vibrant acidity. After revisiting the Frogs Leap Merlot, I can’t for the life of me figure out why everyone abandoned this beautiful little grape. C’mon people: Sideways was 13 years ago. Let’s move on.

The rest of the wines I’ll serve are fun favorites that I enjoy year-round—chenin blanc from South Africa, and a Cotes du Rhone rouge which is a delightful blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre, et al. I’ll have some Oregon pinot noir, and maybe a wacky Greek wine or two.

The point is I’m going to drink what I want without a single thought about the perfect pairing. The holidays are all about indulging and gastronomic hedonism, so have fun; be safe; and drink whatever you damn well please.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

One of the best perks of being a sommelier is that I get paid to drink. In fact, it’s expected that I drink—specifically, that I taste everything I can, as often as I can. And I happily oblige.

This beautiful thing called wine is an ever-changing and ever-evolving experience, and the only way to truly understand it is to immerse yourself in it. For those of us in the hospitality industry here in the desert, this time of year means it’s time to put on the crash helmet and dive in. Every week for the next month, there will be a ballroom somewhere in the valley filled with people sampling wine being poured by eager suppliers hoping to gain a spot on a wine list or a placement on a bottle-shop shelf.

I’m fresh off tasting No. 2. As I made my way from table to table, I couldn’t help but notice how many wine civilians (aka non-industry folks) were there. In the past, I was usually the person behind the table, focused on salesmanship and presenting my wines in the best light possible. The whole point of my being there was to sell wine. Sure, it was easy to tell who was there as a buyer, and who just snuck in for the free food and hooch, but it really didn’t matter. As long as people were trying my wine and being respectful, I didn’t care. This time around, however, I am on the other side of the table.

Now that I have a much broader view, I feel compelled to suggest a few dos and don’ts for trade-tasting novices.

I’m always the first one to tell people to drink what they like. However, this rule does not apply at a tasting—especially when the wine-tasting is free! This defeats the whole point. In fact, the point is to taste what you don’t know. Tastings offer a wonderful opportunity to sample wines before we commit to them, and an even greater opportunity to learn about them. Sometimes the people behind the table are winemakers or principals; more often, they are reps or distributors, but whoever is pouring, he or she is tied to the winery in one capacity or another and offers valuable information that you can’t get anywhere else. At every tasting, there is sure to be wine you’ve never had or perhaps never heard of. The standout wine for me at the last tasting was a vermentino from Corsica, and it was glorious!

I was also able to do a side-by-side comparative tasting of a sauvignon blanc—both from the same producer, and the same vineyard, but one was in a bottle, and one was canned. The education I received from the rep on their canning procedure, laws, regulations and what they’ve learned via trial and error was the highlight of the day for me. This is the reason trade tastings exist. However, while the concept seems logical enough, it never fails: People go right for what they know, zeroing in on their security-blanket brand like a heat-seeking missile. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll taste familiar wines, too. Things change; winemakers move around; vintages vary; vinification techniques improve and evolve. The difference is I yearn to taste the unknown, so I taste everything from everywhere.

So here are a few of my cardinal rules for wine tastings. Consider this your condensed guide for how not to look like “that guy”:

1. This is not a buffet. You do not, under any circumstances, help yourself to the wine on the table. Even if the pourer winked at you and laughed at your “I said my pinot is bigger!” joke, that does not give you permission to fondle the bottles.

2. Yes, you should be spitting. Those buckets on the table are there for a reason and should be used often. I know, I know … it’s a crime to spit out all that delicious wine, but tastings are, for the most part, a professional event and not the place to get commode-hugging drunk. But it never ceases to amaze me how many people I see stumbling around these events—even industry veterans. Which reminds me: Unless you want to wind up looking like you’re wearing a souvenir T-shirt from a Grateful Dead concert, it’s best to avoid wearing white and/or anything silk. Because, ya know, there’s a drunk guy with a glass of red wine stumbling around.

3. Be an information-gatherer. I get it; you read Wine Spectator. You visit Napa, Sonoma, Paso and Santa Barbara all the time. Your best friend is a winemaker. Still, you do not know more than the person pouring the wine. This is their business, and they want to share it with you. Let them.

4. If you don’t have anything nice to say, zip it. I used to joke around about this all the time, telling people that I’m not the winemaker, so it won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t like the wine. But the truth is … it’s kinda rude. Even if the rep didn’t make the wine, he or she is there representing it. Also, any negative comment you make might affect the person standing next to you who just declared this wine to be their absolute most favorite thing in the whole wide world.

5. Keep an open mind. If there is a pinotage open, try it. If you see wines from Romania there, try them. Had a bad experience with riesling when you were 17? Try it again. No, you’re not going to like everything, but you will surprise yourself. There is no better opportunity to nurture your sense of adventure and take a walk on the wild side, wine-wise.

So whether you’re wine-tasting at a private country club, at a restaurant, or sneaking into a trade tasting, always remember: Wine is about exploration and discovery. Now go get out of your wine rut, and get tasting!

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. 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 thing I do when I move to a new town is find the local wine shop.

I do this, in part, because no one needs a glass (read: bottle) of wine more than the person who just bubble-wrapped their whole life and went on countless Home Depot runs for more boxes, because they had no idea they had this much crap. (OK, maybe that’s just me.) Specifically, I look for the independent wine shop, because I am a wine super-nerd looking for other wine super-nerds. I know that, in these little stores tucked away in strip malls and located off frontage roads, I will find great wines—and more importantly, great people.

The guys and gals who run local wine stores do it because they love wine. They are passionate salespeople who not only know what they’re talking about, but are genuinely interested in helping you find your new favorite wine. They enjoy the stories behind the producers and regions where the grapes grow. They discover what great winemaker just started his or her own label; the new up-and-coming hotspot for value wines; and funky and rare varietals going mainstream thanks to young, intrepid winemakers. All the behind-the-scenes action and geeky factoids are the things that make wine exciting and fun to drink.

On any given day, these shop owners can be visited by wine fairies, wheeling bags full of opened bottles, waiting to be tasted and procured. These fairies line up bottle after beautiful bottle—each ready to be swirled, sniffed and sipped—all while telling great stories of how these wines came into being. The merchants carefully analyze each offering to ensure quality and value, all while keeping their demographic in mind. OK, so they’re not really fairies as much as they’re wine reps peddling their hooch, but it sounds so much prettier this way, dontcha think? Either way, the point is that these guys are constantly being presented with the latest offerings from known producers, as well as up-and-comers. These independent retailers are your window into the world of wine. It’s all in a day’s work.

This is what separates your little local wine shop from your mega-retailer. Are you going to get a better price for your Santa Margherita pinot grigio at a big-box store? Maybe. They have the buying power to secure hundreds, if not thousands, of cases, which will garner a lower price. But you should ask yourself: Do you really want to always drink a wine that’s made by the ton? Sure, it’s nice to grab your old standby—the wine you’ve had 1,000 times and know like the back of your hand. You don’t need to give it any thought; you’re in and out of the store lickity-split. That’s what these mega-retailers are good for. However, if you’re sick of the same-old, same-old, and want to try something new, these wine superstores quickly become your worst nightmare. I find that even I, as an “old hat” in the wine business, get completely overwhelmed and go a little cross-eyed at the massive selection these stores offer. What makes the wine-buying prospect even more daunting is trying to navigate the floor-to-ceiling offerings all by one’s self. I feel confident making this assumption: If you happen upon an employee, and can steal them away from the four other people clinging to them for help, he or she has not personally tasted each and every wine on the shelf, and therefore will have little help to give. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across a gem who knows there’s a difference between Ketel One and Opus One.

When I moved back to the Coachella Valley, I was shocked to see that an old favorite, Dan’s Wine Shop, was a thing of the past. He was a man who had developed a loyal following and whose wine opinion was highly regarded. Therefore, I decided to investigate this new incarnation called Desert Wine Shop on 111. Talk about some big shoes to fill.

There, I met Matt Young and fulfilled my quest to meet a fellow wine super-nerd. Within minutes, Matt was helping me explore the selection and filling me in on what new, interesting wines he’d just brought in—specifically, the Hatzidakis Santorini 2015, an aromatic, citrusy white made from Assyritko. (Greek wines are the new cool kid in town and totally worth checking out.) He also introduced me to the Raats chenin blanc, from one of my all-time-favorite wine-producing regions, Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Beyond the benefit of stellar service and a carefully curated selection, smaller wine stores often have tastings and even wine classes to help budding oenophiles sharpen their palates and expand their knowledge. One of my favorite places to pop in and uncork is The Tasting Room at Desert Wines and Spirits. Costa Nichols, owner, wine guru, and all around wonderful guy, hosts weekly tastings every Saturday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. For a meager $10 ($5 of that goes toward the purchase of a bottle), you can taste a half-dozen wines, nibble on complimentary hors d’oeuvres, and mingle with other wine-minded folks. During season, you might even find the tasting being hosted by the winemaker himself or herself.

If you’re on the east end of the valley and like a side of live music with your wine, check out The Wine Emporium in Old Town La Quinta. Part retail store, part wine bar and part dance hall, the Wine Emporium features local musicians starting at 7 p.m. many nights. If you’re noncommittal about your wine selection, this place has a create-your-own-wine-flight option, where you can select as many 2 ounce pours as you’d like of their wines available by the glass. I was like a kid in a candy store in their wine room, and grabbed a delicious bottle of EnRoute pinot noir. A little charcuterie, good people watching and some toe-tapping led to a mighty fine evening.

If you needed one good reason to drink more wine … I just gave you three. Now, go out and find your local wine nerds and make friends.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

What’s that, you say? You love rosé? Well, if you live in the sunny Coachella Valley, you’re in luck!

While people in a large portion of the country are preparing for a frigid future—planning to spend part of their Labor Day weekend digging out the plastic bins that house their parkas and fleece underwear—here in the valley of eternal summer, we have another two months of scorching heat. While that thought is enough to bring grown men to tears, I choose to celebrate this fact with more rosé—yes, the little pink wine that was once the recipient of scornful glances, side-eye stares and snickers from fellow restaurant patrons is now having its proverbial day in the sun.

Considering all of this newfound fame, I started wondering whether people actually know what rosé is. This question was answered, in part, when I watched the recently released Vogue video interview with Drew Barrymore, self-proclaimed winemaker. If a “wine-expert” like Drew thinks that rosé is made by peeling the skins off the grapes early, then the answer is a resounding “no.” (Seriously, watch the video. It’s both horrifying and hilarious.) Given that it takes an average of 600 grapes to make one bottle of wine, the price of a bottle of Drew’s rosé with its peeled grapes would probably cost around $5,000. Instead, this delicious summertime wine is usually cheap and cheerful.

So why are some rosés more expensive than others? Why do they vary in color? What makes a pink wine sweet? Now that our desert markets and restaurants are offering so many different options, things can get a little confusing. Let me break it down for you.

Rosé can be made from any red grape, and while the process can differ slightly depending on the producer, the idea is the same: It is red wine that is taken away from its skins after mere hours of fermentation. Skin is what gives a wine its color; therefore, less skin equals less color. (OK, Drew, your comment was half right.) If these rosés were left in the tank, they would soon become red wines—big, bold, slap-you-silly, macho reds. In fact, in an attempt to give you a bigger, punch-you-in-the-face red wine, some winemakers will “bleed” off some juice from the fermentation tank in the first few hours to increase the ratio of skin to juice for a more concentrated final outcome for the reds—with rosé the wonderful byproduct. Waste not, want not … am I right?!

Because it can be made using any red grape you’d like, you’ll see rosés spanning the color wheel: from pale salmon-colored options, probably made from grenache or pinot noir, to cranberry and pomegranate colors, stemming from malbec or syrah. However, don’t be too quick to judge a bottle by its color: The wine’s hue isn’t going to have any bearing on the sweetness, acidity or alcohol content. Nowadays, most any bottle of rosé you pick up will be a dry, delicious, delight. That said, if you’re worried about buying the “wrong” rosé, my only advice is to steer clear of the word “blush” or any pink wine that comes in a box or 5-gallon jug. (Although that stereotype is changing now, too.)

If you’re looking to drop a pretty penny on a fancy-pants bottle, there are several regions, like Bandol and Tavel in the south of France, where rosé is taken very seriously and produced with the same amount of care and passion as some top-dollar reds and whites. They’re definitely worth a splurge every now and then.

So what about white zin—that sweet beverage reserved for prom-night motel rooms and the wine-confused can’t possibly be the same thing as my delicious bottle of Domaine Tempier, right? Well, yes and no. Just to be clear: white zinfandel isn’t a grape. It, too, is a pink wine made from red zinfandel grapes, but stylistically and historically meant to be sweet. It was really just an “oops” moment at Sutter Home in the ’70s that turned into one of the most profitable accidents the winemaking industry has ever seen.

Still not sure this pink drink is your thing? Do yourself a favor, and grab a seat at one of the valley’s wine bars, and give one a swirl. A few hot spots like Dead or Alive in Palm Springs, Cork and Fork in La Quinta, and Piero’s PizzaVino in Palm Desert offer a handful of different options by the glass from regions like Washington, Austria, Provence, Tuscana and Santa Barbara, just to name a few.  

And if you need one more reason to keep drinking this sunshine in a bottle just remember: It’s socially acceptable to drink rosé for breakfast.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

You moved back to the desert? From Napa? On purpose?

Yep. And I couldn’t be happier.

Naturally, your next question might be whether I suffered some kind of head trauma or had a lobotomy. After all, I am in the wine business, so Napa should be my holy land, my Mecca. That was certainly the idea when the wine-distribution company I worked for moved me there seven years ago. They were going to get me out of the desert and put me where I belonged—to be among “my people.” After some convincing, I bought into that idea.

I had no clue how wrong that idea was.

It was March, and it was beautiful in Palm Springs—warm, sunny and with a plethora of exciting events happening all the time. So long, farewell, adieu.

It was March, and it was cold, rainy and dark in Napa. And it stayed that way for three months. After the initial climate shock and a pretty hefty credit card bill to purchase new sweaters, a slicker and galoshes, I settled in to my new normal—trying to get comfortable with the constant feeling I was at a party to which I wasn’t invited.

Don’t get me wrong; living in Napa was a great experience, especially for a sommelier. I ate, and drank, and made merry. I was surrounded by lush, green, rolling hills covered in meticulously mapped-out vineyards. Grand estates, chateaus and European-inspired villas dot the landscape. World-famous restaurants and iconic wines were a daily norm. At any given moment, I was rubbing elbows with a famous chef, lunching with a winemaker, or sitting across from master sommelier so-and-so.

But the more I immersed myself in the Napa wine scene, the more I longed for my desert home. I realized that for me, wine in Napa was a chore—a job that paid the bills, and because everyone was tied to the industry in one way or another, there was no escaping it. There was a palpable burden to be a wine expert simply because Napa was where we lived. Don’t you dare ask a question and reveal that you don’t already know everything there is to know about the world of wine.

I found myself homesick for the exploration and adventure that came with trying a new wine that I knew nothing about, and asking 100 questions to learn more, to dig deeper. I wanted the whole story, the history, the dirt and roots. Alas, wine had become serious business accompanied by fragile egos and meetings with the how-great-I-am du jour. The joy was gone.

After 12 years in the wine trade, I walked away.

What I had come to love and miss about the desert was the unapologetic hedonism of eating and drinking—people who drink wine for the love of drinking wine, with no swirling, sniffing and spitting required. I missed the freedom of knocking back a glass without a half-hour analysis of the nuances of this particular wine’s terroir. I wanted to go back to the days when I could talk about a wine with a genuine passion and enthusiasm. Unscripted and uncensored.

In my short time back in the desert, I’ve seen wine greatness. Servers I’ve spoken to are eager to become somms. The checkout clerk at Trader Joe’s is so excited about their rosé selection and can’t wait to give me some thoughtful recommendations. Friends want to share their latest wine find with me. There are fabulous, cutting-edge new restaurants and stellar, innovative wine lists. (Is that a Bandol blanc I see? Sip, sip, hooray!) There’s a curiosity about wine here that’s unblemished. The fantasy hasn’t been tainted by the reality.

The wine scene here still has some work to do, but it’s going to be exciting to watch it evolve, and I’m anxious to be a part of it. There is a longing for knowledge here that isn’t accompanied by pretention and is still rooted in the pleasure of the drink. There is a thirst for the wine world and all it encompasses without baggage and rules and etiquette. This is the wine experience at its best.

The grand irony, as it turns out, is that this is my holy land, and I am so thankful to back with “my people.”

So there you have it: I came back to the desert to enjoy wine again.

Go figure.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

There is a Napa vintner who was born into a winemaking family in France and married into winemaking royalty in California. He loves throwing lavish parties and spraying his guests with Champagne. Even in photos taken in the vineyard, he dresses like he’s meeting James Bond for a game of baccarat. Picture this man.

Now picture his polar opposite. That’s Randall Grahm, the founding winemaker from Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, who drives an old Citroën and writes parodic wine-themed lyrics to Dylan songs. Grahm is in his 60s, and still ponytailed.

“I’m Randall Grahm, and welcome to my nightmare,” he said at a recent event.

This got a laugh, but it echoes his James Beard Award-winning book, Been Doon So Long, where one rambling footnote paints in grim detail the indignity winemakers have to endure to sell wine: They pour their “product” (or life’s work … whatever) in an under-ventilated room full of reps wearing moist branded polo shirts—people who might have been selling prosthetics instead of wine, had that job called first. His quip was no joke.

Grahm does not have as many wines as he used to. He sold his most commercially successful brands—Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim—about a decade ago, reducing by about 90 percent his stake in an operation that was selling 450,000 cases a year. But pumping out hundreds of thousands of cases of those crowd-pleasing brands had encroached heavily on the goal Grahm set when he founded Bonny Doon in the early 1980s: to make vins de terroir.

Grahm glides in and out of French as he speaks and writes, so here is the essence of his conundrum: There are vins de terroir, and there are vins d’effort: wines of place, and wines of effort, respectively. The former are expressions of the land from which they come. The latter are expressions of the winemaker’s work and are, Grahm would argue, what California winemakers actually do well: They take grapes that have proven over centuries to be perfectly suited to their ancestral homes, bring them here, and make them work. When I asked him whether the term vin d’effort was necessarily derisive, he answered: “Mildly.”

The problem is that the little things done to make the wines work—like irrigating, say—don’t limit just their chances of failing, but also their shot at fulfilling their lofty potential. So Grahm is on a mission to plant the perfect grape at the perfect site, intercede minimally, and allow greatness to ensue in spite of him, not because of him. With what appeared to be real candor, Grahm said he was “pretty much chickenshit” for drifting away from that mission over the years. But here he is, refocusing on that challenge in his 60s.

After a years-long search, Grahm used the undisclosed sum he received in exchange for his brands to purchase his ideal site, Popelouchum, located in San Juan Bautista. It’s a place that came to him in a dream and whose name means “paradise” in Mutsun, the language of the Native American people of the area. His excitement about Popelouchum was palpable as he poured us a taste of its nascent wine from a hand-labeled 375-milliliter bottle. The wine is a perfumed and fruity grenache from dry-farmed 2-year-old vines, and it is superb.

Grahm’s history should be required reading. He was at the vanguard of making syrah and other Rhône varietals into California mainstays. He risked significant treasure by bottling the entire 80,000 cases of 2001 Big House Red with screwcaps rather than corks, and continues to bottle all of his wines that way.

What goes into a wine? What determines what comes out? It is an answer that Randall Grahm, throwing himself into a new project nearly four decades into his career, still seeks with wide-eyed curiosity. It is one he is wagering Popelouchum will reveal, when the wine he envisions is a bottled reality.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Nashville Scene.

Published in Wine

There is a new wine shop in town—a rare treat for us desert denizens.

It’s actually a reimagining of one of the desert’s few wine shops, Dan’s. No longer will you be greeted by Dan; most days of the week, you’ll find Matt Young, a tall, friendly, handsome young man who looks like a football player. There’s a reason for that: When he moved to the desert back in 2006, he was all set to play football for College of the Desert. However, an injury prevented him from playing, so he entered the fire academy to become a smoke-jumper, but he suffered another injury. He briefly trained as a fire inspector, but knew he “could not sit at a desk.” Shortly thereafter, Young found himself returning to the family business—hospitality and service.

Young grew up in Paso Robles, where his parents owned and operated restaurants. There, he was surrounded by wine and food, but didn’t really take to it until he started working at Roy’s in Rancho Mirage, where he met the woman who would become his wife; they fell in love with one another—and wine.

He continued working in restaurants and set up beer and wine programs across the valley. He was part of the opening staff and a manager at Whole Foods, and at the La Quinta Brewing Tap Room in Old Town La Quinta. Now he’s running the show at Desert Wine Shop, which promotes smaller and local wineries. You’ll still find your old favorites—but be sure to talk to Young about the store’s unique offerings. He and his partners hope to expand throughout the North America.

We chatted at the shop, where he answered phone calls, greeted vendors and helped customers—while simultaneously talking to me and tasting some Provencal rose: the 2016 Domaine de Cala.

The shop features tastings every Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. It is at 73360 Highway 111 in Palm Desert; visit www.desertwineshop.com for more information.

When did you first start getting into wine?

I grew up in Paso Robles, so wine has always been a part of my life. When I really started getting into wine is when I started dating my wife. We were both working at Roy’s, and we were put through a wine course, and we had planned a trip to Napa as well. After that trip and realizing this is what I grew up in, it hit me—and I have had the wine bug ever since.

What was your first wine love?

I have two: One, the 2009 Laetitia Estate pinot noir from Arroyo Grande. It was and is a medium-bodied, bright-red wine with fruit, medium tannins and clean acidity; it’s a food-friendly wine. Two, the 2005 Franciscan Napa merlot. I found both of these wines at CVS, and the merlot was on sale for $10. I will never forget it. I was just getting into wine, so I didn’t know much, and I had got off work late one night and wanted to grab some wine. I went into CVS, of all places, because it was down the street from my house, and they are open 24 hours. I looked around at the labels and varietals. I knew I liked merlots, pinot noir, red blends and some zinfandels at the time, so I grabbed six bottles and some other stuff and called it a night. When I got home, I opened the Franciscan merlot and was immediately hooked. The aromas that were coming out of the bottle were just so good, and in the glass, it was so smooth that I couldn’t stop drinking it. I went back the next day to see if they had any more, because at that price, I felt like I found a winner. When I left, there had still been six bottles. I got there, and they were sold out! I was so bummed.

The Laetitia was the first wine my wife and I took with us on our first vacation together to Laguna Beach. I had a seafood cioppino, and the pinot with the dinner was the first time I had done a real food pairing that blew me away.

What’s exciting about wine to you right now?

What isn’t exciting? The more I learn, the more I get excited, whether it’s a winemaker coming out with a new project, a new (American viticultural area) being designated, a wine that is so over-delivering for what you paid for it, showing someone a new wine they would have never thought to try—so many things excite me when it comes to wine.

What is the best part of your job at Desert Wine Shop?

Getting to know people’s palates and showing them something new that they would not have thought to try—educating people on the differences between areas and styles. (I get) to try new wines or wines that are rarely seen outside of restaurants or the wineries, and meet the winemakers, growers and owners—my job simply rocks. I get to do what I love and get paid to do it.

Your desert island wine?

I have tasted so many incredible wines that I could not choose just one, but I would not be mad if I got to drink a 2004 Merryvale Profile one more time.

Favorite food pairing?

Gewurztraminer with sushi. I do love a big red and steak, or syrah with a pork chop. Food and wine just don’t do you wrong.

Favorite wine book?

For education purposes and easy reading material, you can’t go wrong with Windows on the World by Kevin Zraly. I also really like The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil.

What do you love about the desert?

It’s big, but small. There is plenty to do, and if what you want isn’t here, then we are only two hours away from whatever you want to do.

Your favorite places to go in the desert?

Honestly, I don’t go out as much as I used to. Now it’s all about my kids, so wherever they like to go is where I like to go. But on the rare occasion that we get to go out by ourselves, we are always looking at new places all over the valley. That is the great thing about the desert: You can find things new, delicious, interesting, cool and fun all over the valley.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Meet Patrick Bartlett. He’s tall and energetic with a contagious smile. Oh, and he LOVES wine—and that love is infectious.

This love led to the creation of Mood Wine (www.moodwine.biz), a popular social wine club started by Bartlett and his partner, Jake Stanford. I went to a recent tasting and was pleasantly surprised by how many wine-lovers I met. “Moodies,” they’re called.

Bartlett grew up in Southern California in a blue-collar family. As a kid, he was in 4-H, showing goats. That’s where he got his start in wine—from a farmer’s perspective. However, his career started not in wine, but in sales and marketing for Xerox. You can sense his sales background when he describes a wine; it’s almost like a pitch. However, the wines he and Stanford choose don’t need a pitch; they are good on their own. That being said, Bartlett understands that some people may need a nudge to get them out of their wine comfort zone.

After Xerox, Bartlett moved to Canada with his family, where he worked for a catering company and received culinary training. From there, he lived and worked in Arkansas and Temecula, and has been in Palm Springs since 2009. He’s spent the past 15-plus years working in catering, food and wine education, event planning and winery management. In addition to running Mood Wine and its quarterly tastings, he is currently the director of sales and marketing at TheBank, an event venue in Palm Springs.

Bartlett and I chatted and sipped Tyrrell’s Wine, an Australian semillon from the Hunter Valley that he picked out for the recent Mood White Wine Club.

When did you first start getting into wine?

In my early 20s while living in Orange County. I had a manager (at Xerox) who was very sophisticated. I still remember that first bottle of crisp, chilled chenin blanc with a cheese plate on a warm summer afternoon—with little beads of condensation on the glass and a beautiful straw color. It was just slightly off-dry. This was post Boone’s Farm. (Laughs.)

What was your first wine love?

Chenin blanc, as I just described. My first wine nightmare was Thunderbird and Boone’s Farm. Don’t ask how a 12-year-old consumed a bottle of each, chased with Coors beer. Not pretty.

What’s exciting about wine to you right now?

Its explosive popularity and the never-ending desire to not just discover the wine, but the story and place. The wine culture is growing up, and it’s exciting to see.

What inspired you to start Mood Wine?

Nobody in the desert was offering a great wine experience. I have experience with wine clubs, and it was just a perfect fit.

Your desert island wine?

For this desert? Rosé—anything rosé, as long as it’s dry. Abandoned on a desert island ... bubbles, bring on the bubbles: Champagne, sparkling wine, cava, prosecco, anything that has sparkly, joyful bubbles.

Your favorite food pairing?

Barolo and fettuccine Alfredo. This was the first meal I cooked Jake, on his birthday, a week after we met. I do this meal for him every year.

Your favorite wine book?

What to Drink With What You Eat, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.

What are you drinking now?

I’m loving our newest discovery: Greco di Tufo, an amazing white wine with massive antiquity chops from Italy.

What do you love about the desert?

The power, spirit, energy, epic beauty and laid-back, friendly people.

Your favorite places to go in the desert?

Dish Creative Cuisine, Johannes, Jake’s, Zin American Bistro and—of course—Dead or Alive.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Selling wine is not for the faint of heart. The travel schedule is grueling; the competition is fierce; and the customer base varies wildly—from masters of wine to … well, the uninformed.

However, Christina Hammond makes it looks easy. She shows up energetically to dozens of appointments and tastings and trade events each week, always touting her Red Car Wine.

Good wine needs good people fighting the good fight—and Hammond is one of the good ones. She’s not a wine snob, but she knows her stuff. She cut her teeth working for a big wine distributor (where, in her words, she learned to “show up” to her accounts each week), then transitioned to a finer wine distributor, Henry Wine Group. Red Car is distributed by Henry, and after four years at Henry, she began to work for Red Car directly. Now she travels the country, extolling the virtues of the special Sonoma Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) and the deliciousness of Red Car Wine.

Hammond and I chatted and sipped a Red Car rosé. We followed up by phone. And texted. And e-mailed.

You get the picture—she’s a busy woman!

When did you first start getting into wine?

My family always loved good food and wine. Vacations were centered around where we were going to eat. My dad did client liaison, and took clients to eat and drink a lot, and loved the finer things. I personally got into wine, embarrassingly enough, when in college at (the University of San Diego). It was a dry campus, but I would buy a whole case of two-buck chuck, and it would be party favors for anyone who came to parties. I got into good wine when I was in restaurants in San Diego, then through working with Henry Wine Group.

What was your first wine love?

Grenache. It reminded me of my grandmother’s strawberry rhubarb pie. It was more than the wine; it was that moment that made me realize the way I taste and experience wine is very different from many people. I smell memories and visualize the entire situation I was in, and see the food, place and item, and break it down from there.

What’s exciting about wine to you right now?

Transparency and access to information. Producers and consumers are giving and getting more information than ever before. So many people freak out about what’s in their food, down to knowing the name of the animal their meat came from … yet with wine, we have a long way to go. I think we are getting there and unveiling the mystery. I applaud those who inform and give information and seek out truth about what’s in their wine, because there’s so much crap in wine. … Let’s not forget to mention the arsenic:Kevin Hicks, a former wine distributor who started Beverage Grades, a Denver-based lab that analyzes wine, tested 1,300 bottles of California wine, and found that about a quarter of them had higher levels of arsenic than the maximum limit that the Environmental Protection Agency allows in water.

Why did you decide to go to the distribution side? What do you like about it?

The hours, and connecting to the producers and to the vineyards. Traveling and connecting with people throughout the country, after I had really only traveled internationally, gives you perspective, good and bad. I love it when people and places surprise me by doing good work and pursuing great wine.

Your desert island wine?

Desert islands are hot, and I am pretty simple. You’d find me sunning on my MacGyver’d chaise lounge, with some bamboo-speared fish and cold rosé! I’m not sure how it would be cold, but we’ll go with that. … One of my favorites is the Clos Sainte Magdeleine Rose AOC Cassis. … Or, you know, Red Car rosé would do just fine!

Your favorite food pairing?

Champagne and potato chips, and if I’m really lucky, there is caviar and crème fraîche around for those chips!

Your favorite wine book?

For beginners, I always say Windows on the World by Kevin Zraly. … But there are many I love and recommend: The World Atlas of Wine, Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise, The Wine Bible and so on.

What are you drinking now?

Lots of rosé. I’m trying to will the weather into full-swing spring. Actually, I drink rosé year-round and think everyone should offer it year-round.

What do you love about the desert?

The sun and the pools. The vibrations are totally different there, and I love the energy of the natural desert; it’s beautiful.

Favorite places to go in the desert?

Dead or Alive, or course. I love the Sparrows (Lodge) and the soon-to-be Holiday House Hotel. Mister Lyons and the back bar, Seymour’s, is top notch.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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When you think of good wine, what comes to mind? A sit-down restaurant? A white tablecloth? A fancy bottle pulled from a cellar for a special occasion?

This is an outdated way of thinking: More and more, good wine isn’t limited to just high-end places or special occasions. For example, someone may not expect fine wine from a place well known for its coffee—but at Joey Palm Springs, you’ll get just that.

Vince Calcagno and Joe Lucero are partners in life and in business at Joey, which opened a little more than a year ago on Palm Canyon Drive. Calcagno spent more than 20 years as the owner/operator of Zuni Café in San Francisco, so he knows a thing or two about running a restaurant. At Joey, he does whatever needs to be done, including, on occasion, washing the dishes. One of his other responsibilities is curating the wine list.

Zuni Café has an expansive wine list and a sommelier, both of which helped Calcagno develop a love of wine. He brings this ethos to Joey’s more-casual bistro style. Although there are just six wines on the list, there is a little something for everybody—and you won’t find the usual affordable brand names, but instead offerings like a white Côtes du Rhône (which should please any chardonnay-drinker).

Calcagno and I sat down one morning at Joey and sipped not wine, but coffee—although I did taste the aforementioned white Côtes du Rhône!

What was your first wine love?

I was a waiter at the Hayes Street Grill from 1979 to 1981. Chalone Chardonnay! When I would have a hard night, my boss, Dick Sander, the owner, would pour me a glass, and I would sigh and say, ”Nectar!”

What’s exciting about wine to you right now?

I will always love delicious French wines, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc. I love blends. Since we live in the desert, (I love) rose all summer long. Italian whites.

Your desert island wine?

I mostly drink whites, so any white Tablas Creek, and Chablis.

Favorite Food Pairing?

Hmm … a Zuni chicken, although I make it differently now, with tarragon and a splash of sherry at the end. Then a great pinot noir … yum!

What are you drinking now?

I was having a Manhattan with Buffalo Trace and Carpano Antica, but I have a bottle of Clicquot rose staring at me.

What do you love about the desert?

Well, the weather, first of all. After living in the cold city of SF for so many years, it is fun to be in a warm place, where everyone seems so supportive. It is conducive to my “older” lifestyle.

Your favorite places to go in the desert?

I love Lyons. Tropicale, because it is always fun. Seymour’s, of course. Spencer’s for breakfast, and, oh … Dead or Alive.

Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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