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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Wine

Wine is scary and intimidating. I get it; it has its own language full of science-y words. It comes from places we’ve never heard of, from grapes we can’t pronounce.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there is a whole fleet of wannabe wine experts just waiting to correct that word you mispronounced, or inform you that even though the wine you like is ”OK,” they like one that is, by far, better. And just how do they know that this wine of theirs is superior?

It got a huge score, naturally.

Before I proceed to rip apart the wine-scoring system that Americans cling to like cellophane-wrapped cheese, I want to point out that we have come a long way in our wine journey. Before wine became hip in this country, we were a Jack-and-Coke, Seven-and-Seven, cosmo-drinking culture. Wine was for snobs or elitists or Europeans. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to go to any city and not find at least one wine bar. We no longer associate all pink wine with sweet swill, or turn our nose up at something foreign. Walk into any supermarket today, and you will find a highly developed wine section with multiple offerings spanning the globe—a far cry from the olden days of one wall of wine that featured domestic, cheap chardonnay and merlot. Well done, America!

So … why—with all this wine sophistication and savvy that consumers now have—do we still hold tight to stupid scores?

Every time someone tells me that wine XYZ got 98 points, or that Chateau Crème de la Crème got a disappointing 87, I start twitching, and my insides get hot. There are so many things about the point scale that bother me, but the No. 1 thorn in my side is the notion that I am supposed to care about that number. There is a pervasive idea that we should respect a system that reduces wine to nothing more than a high school science project graded by a potentially burnt-out expert who may or may not be distracted with thoughts of their long-overdue Hawaiian vacation.

Giving a wine a score—a hard and fast number to hang around its neck like a noose—does nothing positive for the wine industry. In fact, I will say it has been the greatest hindrance to our blossoming wine culture. It infantilizes our decision-making and hogties us from being able to discover what we like about certain wines. Take me, for example: I happen to love wines that are bracingly acidic. I want there to be so much raging acid in my wine that it stings my tongue and makes me wince a little. What if gave 100 points to every wine that resulted in a slight chemical burn? It seems silly for a professional to tout such a concept, but I assure you it is no different than Robert Parker awarding 100 points to wines that are too-concentrated, overly alcoholic, hyper-extracted fruit-bombs. The only benefit I’ve ever found in such ridiculousness is that if Parker gave it a big score, I knew I’d hate it. My wallet and I are very grateful for that, because the other pitfall is, of course, that as soon as a wine reaches Wine Spectator/Wine Advocate stardom, not only does that wine immediately sell out; you are guaranteed to see that wine double in price, if you ever see it again.

Points give consumers the false idea that there is such a thing as a “perfect” wine: 100 points awarded for being flawless! According to that guy. On that one day. And that guy’s palate on that day. By giving power to the points, we fail to acknowledge that wine is a moving target. It is a living thing affected by all kinds of variables, the most important of which is you. I actually feel sorry for wines that get 100 points; chances are, they will never achieve that status again, and thus, they’ll never be quite as good as they used to be. In that same vein, I feel pretty sorry for us consumers, too: We will constantly be subjected to a wine industry chasing those big scores and crafting wines to appeal to what that guy likes—row after row of wines like little Stepford wives that are perfectly bland and soulless.

I often wonder if the scores these wines get would change if the circumstances were different when the wines were tasted. Maybe that Central Coast syrah wouldn’t taste like 95 points with a plate of yellowtail sashimi. Just maybe, in that same scenario, the 87-point chenin blanc just got a little bit better? Points eliminate context. Are we always just drinking wine alone, without food, in a vacuum—or do you actually eat during the day? Just last night, I opened a bottle of Spanish cava with some friends as we downed a bucket of cheap fried chicken. It was glorious (seriously, one of the best pairings you’ll ever have), and the bubbles were exquisite. Would I have enjoyed it any less if the cava received an 82? Nope. And I find the very notion of my pleasure being dictated by a number irresponsible and more than just a little bit laughable.

“I give that donut a solid 91!”

“That massage was an 88 at best.”

“Your house is lovely, but there’s no pool, so you get an 83.”

Sounds ludicrous, right?

Scores will obviously continue to be used, and despite my ranting, I do understand why; I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. Scores act like little life vests to shoppers drowning in a sea of options. The idea is that scores help people paralyzed with the fear of buying the “wrong” wine. I’m here to tell you there is no such thing: No matter what the score is, you’ll always be faced with the unknown flavor in the bottle. Scores are not a guarantee that you’ll like the wine. They simply imply that someone likes the wine, and maybe you will, too.

I feel certain that you know your palate better than anyone else, and you probably know more about wine than you realize.

Trust yourself.

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

When I took my first sommelier exam 15 years ago (gasp!), it’s safe to say that most people didn’t know what a sommelier was. In fact, I once told someone I was a sommelier, and not being familiar with that word, he was convinced I was trying to tell him I was Somalian.

Fast-forward over the years, and we’ve seen the emergence of the foodie culture, the globalization of wine, and the idea of a sommelier going from obscurity to the mainstream. Hell, there’s even a movie that put this odd little profession of nerds in the Hollywood spotlight.

But even with sommeliers garnering more recognition and even a little notoriety, I can’t help but wonder if people really know what it is that we do. What does it mean to be a sommelier? Sometimes I think even people in our industry have forgotten what our purpose is.

For me, being a somm has always translated to wine education, and because I’ve made it my mission to get as many people drinking as much weird wine as possible, I always encourage questions at my tastings—and I get lots and lots of them. In my mind, they’re all valid (No, really!), because to me, there’s nothing worse than a self-proclaimed "wine expert" who won’t ask questions about what he doesn’t know, because he thinks he should already know. However, some questions are better than others. Dare I say … some are more intriguing than others?

At a recent wine dinner, I had the opportunity to answer one of my all-time-favorite questions. I was blabbing on and on about quality to value ratios, and seeking out great wines for the price, and finding "hidden gems" when I heard this:

So, do you think a wine like Screaming Eagle is worth its price?

I love these questions so much, because they really don’t have an answer. On one hand, yes, if you have the means and desire to spend $4,000 on a bottle of wine that you will probably never drink, because chances are, you’re looking at this as a collectible—much like someone buying a vintage car that they will never drive. It’s not about practicality or function; it’s about owning something very few people can lay claim to.

On the other hand … no way. The very idea is absurd, especially given that wine does, indeed, have a shelf life. The whole purpose of wine is enjoyment, and if you are purchasing a bottle of Screaming Eagle, and plan on pulling the cork and gleefully sipping it to your heart’s content, could it possibly bring you more joy than if the bottle cost you $400? Or $40? Many would argue … no.

But as far as a sommelier is concerned, the answer should be: “Who cares?” The truth is, wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan and Opus One bore me. There is no denying they are exceptional; they are rare, perfectly crafted, shining examples of what Napa is capable of, and anyone who buys a bottle should expect nothing less. If you’re spending $500 on a bottle of California cabernet, there’s no crap-shoot involved: You can pat yourself on the back and rest assured the wine you’ve purchased will be stellar. If I recommend a bottle of Cliff Lede’s Poetry, Dalla Valle’s Maya or Shafer’s Hillside Select, have I really done my job … or do these wines just make my job easy?

I like to think that a sommelier’s purpose is to do what the consumer cannot: We are the flavor-finders, the value-hunters, and the detective of wine secrets. We know how to identify a great bottle of wine, from a great producer, who’s using quality fruit under strict confidentiality from a famous vineyard. Maybe it’s a wine from a region that’s up and coming. Maybe it’s a varietal that is making a comeback or fell into obscurity. Maybe it’s a side project from a famous winemaker who started a new label just for the fun it. Our job is to find the wine that’s $20, but drinks like it’s a $75 bottle. Our job is to find your perfect bottle of wine.

The beauty is: Those wines are everywhere!

The Fortnight cabernet, made by Napa legend Charles Hendricks, which we featured at our wine dinner at Cooking With Class, is a perfect example. Charles has made wine everywhere from Viader to Regusci, and now makes this fun side project in Calistoga with his friends at T-Vine. It’s labeled “California,” because from one year to the next, the fruit sources will be different. The varietal blend will be different. But the outcome is consistent: It’s a wine less than $20 that is downright delicious and a crowd-pleaser.

The Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti is the best wine deal going at Costco as of this writing. I have a case of this in my “cellar” at all times. This is one of the most notable producers in Piedmont, Italy, and this Barbera is juicy and ripe, with the perfect amount of acidity, body and fruit. This is the epitome of the Tuesday-night-with-homemade-spaghetti wine. Did I mention it’s $8.99 a bottle?

How about a deliciously drinkable pinot noir from Macedonia? I’m willing to bet you’ve never had a wine from Macedonia before. I recently grabbed a bottle of the Macedon pinot noir from Whole Foods and spent $15. I went home and drank it with some prosciutto and a triple-cream brie. ’Nuff said.

One more insider tip: If you want the best bang for your buck, make a beeline right for the Spanish wines. Spain really is a revelation in the world of wine these days. If you are a fan of the more classic European style, look for a Rioja. The ones from CVNE (pronounced COO-nay) will never disappoint you. If you like more fruit-forward, ripe and bold styles, à la California, the grenaches from Priorat or a lovely mencia from Bierzo are right up your alley. The Palacios family is my go-to for both regions! Are you looking for light and crisp refreshing wines for a warm evening? You can’t go wrong with a fresh, peachy albariño from the Rias Baixas (REE-ahs By-shas), or a zippy, citrusy rueda made from Verdelho. And don’t even get me started on sparkling wine. Remind me again why everyone is drinking Italian prosecco when Spanish cava is better AND cheaper?

Being a sommelier is all about the love of wine. We’re here so the consumer doesn’t get ripped off (ideally). We are matchmakers. We find the right wine for the right person. We save you time, money and the frustration of another disappointing bottle. We offer up wildly new and exciting bottles from grapes you didn’t even know existed. And we will happily give you your security-blanket bottle of cabernet.

I am lucky. I love what I do. Now, sit back, relax … and just trust me.

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 are so many parties in the desert this time of year. A girl can hardly keep her calendar straight, with all the fundraisers, galas and soirees all around town.

However, there is one fabulous party that, for obvious reasons, I have never been to—the White Party Weekend. Celebrities, sunshine, world-class DJs and gorgeous men splashing around in a pool … and I don’t feel invited. It all sounds like a helluva good time to me, but seeing as how I’m not exactly the attendees’ “type,” I miss out on all this fun. So, in honor of the thousands of men who descend into the valley to forget about their troubles for a glorious weekend, I, too, have decided to throw my own White Party—a White Wine Party, that is.

I feel as though the timing of this party is impeccable: The days are getting longer; the weather is warming up; and those beautiful desert sunsets and casual patio dinners just beg for a cool glass of something light and bright.

I’ve noticed a trend around town that has me a little perplexed: As of late, at every wine event I’ve worked or attended as a guest, more and more people are telling me they don’t drink white. As much as I could roll my eyes at a statement like that, I kinda get it. For years, California chardonnay was all about being fat and ripe, with mushy baby-food flavors and loads of caramel and butter. New Zealand sauvignon blanc was practically GERD-inducing, with its tart and bitter flavors of grapefruit and grass. If these are the only wines people are drinking, and perhaps the only wines available at their favorite restaurants, then they’re bound to think that’s what all white wine tastes like. This where I come in. (Cue the sommelier superhero, with cape flapping in the wind.)

The guest list to my not-so-exclusive White Wine Party features a roundup of all my favorite international wine darlings. I plan on surrounding myself with a bevy of beautiful bottles, dripping in beads of ice-bucket condensation. In case you’re wondering which wines are invited to this extravaganza, allow me to introduce you to the greatest wines you’re not drinking.

Portuguese vinho verde is my absolute favorite day-drinking, warm-weather sipper. Slightly sparkling with a tangy zip of key lime and lemon peel, and an alcohol by volume of around 9 percent, you can literally drink this all day. By the pool. Nude. So I’ve heard.

South Africa is my all-time-favorite wine-producing region, so I would be remiss if I failed to include a bottle of their delicious chenin blanc. Also known as Steen, these wines more often than not feature bright-green apple and grapefruit notes with a hint of grassiness. But a word to the wise: These wines can be chameleons, and some are made in an off-dry to full-blown-sweet dessert style. Those chenins are not invited to this particular party.

If you like bold and robust malbec from Argentina, you’ll adore the country’s signature white varietal, torrontes. This wine tastes like sauvignon blanc and viognier’s love child. It’s a perfect balance between peaches and lemons and roses and honeysuckle, and goes down as easy as your favorite box of Girl Scout cookies.

Albariño is just downright delectable, and its sole purpose in life is to provide you with happiness. Its other purpose in life is to help me wash down a big bowl of delicious ceviche. One of the most aromatic wines on the guest list—and God’s gift to seafood—this little Spanish gem is bursting with orange blossoms, honeydew melon and just a touch of saltiness.

Finally, enter the Grande Dame of all white wine—Chablis. This is not to be confused with the gigantic jug of Carlo Rossi on the bottom shelf at the store, because Chablis is not a grape; it’s a place. And this place in the northern climes of Burgundy is solely dedicated to making the best chardonnay in the world. This, my friends, is pure sophistication and elegance in a glass. This is the chardonnay for everyone who thinks they hate chardonnay. Lean and razor-sharp, these wines are all about pears, limestone, white flowers and passionfruit, with no butter, mushy fruit and caramel to be seen. These wines are like Grace Kelly: beautiful, rich and a class act.

Don’t forget to extend an invite to Sancerre, txakolina (Chalk-o-LEENA), assyrtiko (Ah-SEAR-tee-ko) and the countless other alabaster beauties: There is a glorious world of white wine out there, and your new favorite wine is waiting for you. Go get it.

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

Sophisticated and balanced with a hint of pretension.

Elegant and silky with a feminine nuance reminiscent of the Old West.

Forward and brazen with a left hook that will leave you speechless.

Seriously? What does this mean?

As an avid “reviewer” of wines—which, let’s be honest, means I get to drink for a living—I can’t help but wonder if people are perplexed by this verbiage. Don’t get me wrong—I love it, but it must confuse the hell out folks: Am I supposed to like the wine that tastes like animal dander warmed by rays of Italian sunshine?

I look at it this way: Wine is a lot like art and music. It is plagued by critics trying to one-up each other in describing tangible items in a way that sounds human and mysterious.

I’m guilty of this, too. I’ve been known to describe certain Napa cabernets as “teenagers at prom ready to give it up on the first date.” It’s not exactly the most tactful way to describe a wine, I know, but it is a more captivating description than simply stating the wine is bold, audacious and very forward.

For years, merlot was described as an iron fist in a velvet glove. My favorite wine geek, writer and importer, the great Terry Theise, once described an obscure little grape called scherube as being riesling’s evil, horny twin. If that doesn’t make you wanna rush out and get your hands on a bottle, nothing will.

Words like fleshy, sexy, demure and even slutty are a wine writer’s way of reinventing the wheel and keeping it interesting. Who wants to read the same old descriptors of New Zealand sauvignon blanc over and over? Gooseberry, cat pee, fresh grass, blah, blah, blah. How many times can one read (or write) about caramel, butterscotch and toasted oak? The flavor profiles haven’t changed; the times have.

But what does it mean when a wine is sexy? How does wine dance across your palate? What does riesling’s evil, horny twin taste like?! It could be so hard to interpret descriptions that have nothing to do with wine … and yet somehow, I know exactly what they mean. How would you describe an apple? Would you say it was crisp and tart with a little sweetness on the finish? Or would you say it was sassy and flirty with a voluptuous side? Are they one in the same?

I am often told by people frustrated with nouveau wine culture that they don’t know how to “talk wine.” They can’t relate. The truth is, you should be able to describe wine however you please—as obscure and abstract as that may be.

There is no secret to knowing how to thoughtfully describe a wine. All one needs to do is pay attention and slow down while enjoying wine. That said, I’m never going to tell you not to slug your favorite vino with reckless abandon, cuz’ that’s fun! But if you want to really understand the flavors in your wine, you need to be present while drinking. At my guided tastings, I always tell people to trust their palate. If you tell me this wine tastes just like your grandma’s strawberry rhubarb pie, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. If you want to tell me a particular wine reminds you of a cat ’o nine tails, go ahead … but I might start to panic that I’ve been roofied.

However, if you are a fan of the more technical lingo and want to have a conversation about wine that’s fairly universal, there are really only a few terms you need in your arsenal:

• Dry: This refers to the sweetness or, more importantly, the lack thereof, in the wine.

• Tannic: Tannins are astringent and slightly bitter. Think of the sensation in your mouth when you sip a tea that’s steeped too long. An overly tannic wine will feel like you just swallowed 36-grit sandpaper.

• Fruity: Not to be confused with sweet, a wine’s fruitiness is determined by its, well, fruity aromas. Whether it’s lemons and pears or blackberries and figs, or jammy and ripe, or fresh-picked and bright, a fruity wine will taste like fruit. See how easy this is?

• Acidity: Commonly confused with tannins, acid is that tingle on your tongue that will make your mouth water. Acid in wine is basically sommelier crack.

• Minerality: Ever heard someone say their wine smells like wet stones and chalk? Maybe they’re drinking a delicious chablis. Minerality is one of the non-fruit components to wine and is present in wines from certain places.

• Earthy: One of the other non-fruit descriptors. Earthy encompasses the aromas of mushrooms, tobacco and leather. Some wine professionals will use the term forest floor, soil or dust to describe earthy wines, but those are just fancy words for dirt.

• Herbaceous: That grassy sauvignon blanc and that cabernet franc that smell like chili peppers are considered herbaceous wines—and these are positive attributes. That vegetal wine that smells like canned green beans = bad. Got it?

I’ve made it my mission to make wine less confusing, more approachable and easier to understand. Does that mean what I say, then, has to be boring or predictable? I think we can swing both ways. (Pardon the pun.) Nothing says we can’t get frisky with our descriptors as long as we can back it up with something quantifiable. A bra stuffed with toilet paper will be discovered eventually.

While I’m on the subject, you should know that as I write, I’m sipping a delightful Barbera d’Asti that is as firm and defined as a shirtless Christian Grey, with a round and soft Kim Kardashian finish. Know what I mean?

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

Nothing says “let’s have a party and make some bad decisions” like a bottle of bubbly. There is a reason it’s the No. 1 beverage of choice when you want to celebrate a victory, christen your new yacht or get laid. Simply put: Bubbles are fun and can instantly turn an average Tuesday night into something special.

Wanting to share all the special fun of bubbly with my friends, I broke out my most coveted bottle for a toast to ring in the New Year. Imagine my shock and sadness when the glorious bottle of aged, grower Champagne was collectively poo-pooed: I was told it tasted like cheese and bread. I didn’t fully understand that those descriptors were a bad thing until I looked at one person across the table who had scrunched up their nose and let out a pitiful “eww.” Instead, my New Year’s comrades gleefully drank, and raved about, some bottle of beer that supposedly tastes like peanut butter and jelly. I took their word for it.

That night, I realized two things: I did not have to share my bottle of Champers with anyone (yay!); and these people have never had real Champagne. This is, of course, no fault of their own. Between the weird almond crap they give you at the polo matches, the cheap shit you get at Sunday brunch, and the endless amounts of Prosecco everywhere, it isn’t any surprise that the real deal was an assault on their senses.

So, with Valentine’s Day right around the corner—and all the hot tub- and Champagne-induced hanky-panky that comes with it—this is a good time to let you know what your options are. Perhaps I can spare you from ending up with a funky, cheesy bottle of eww.

If you’re new to the world of sparkling wine, or you just want to stay up to date with what the rappers are drinking, here is some serious insider info. First and foremost: Not all sparkling wine is created equal. There are several different grapes that are used, and several different methods of creating carbonation. I won’t bore you with all the technical specs, but there is one little nugget of information that is crucial to being savvy about bubbles: Champagne is a place. Prosecco is a place. Franciacorta is a place. Cava, Crémant and Pétillant-naturel are styles. Calling all sparkling wine Champagne is like calling all cars Bentleys, or referring to all vineyards as Napa. It simply isn’t the case. Luckily, navigating the sparkling waters can be fairly easy.

Cava is the wine God’s gift to bubbles on a budget. This little gem hails from Spain and is made in the same time-consuming way Champagne is (known as Méthode Traditionnelle), but with a Korbel price tag. Trust me when I tell you this is the best bang for your buck out there. Look around town for a beautiful bottle called The Lady of Spain by Paul Cheneau, and you’ll start looking for any excuse to celebrate.

Prosecco has one job: to make your brunch more fabulous. Never was there a better mate for orange juice, or any juice, for that matter. Just a touch sweet, Prosecco is the OG sparkling wine in the famous peach Bellini cocktail, because Italians know this cheap and cheerful offering shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Are there quality examples of Prosecco out there? Sure, but they are becoming harder and harder to find among the sea of mass-produced cases in the supermarket. Keep this value-driven option for your morning buzz.

However, if you are looking for some praise-worthy bubbles from Italy, look no further than Franciacorta. This is Italy’s version of Champagne, and it’s every bit as sophisticated and elegant as its French counterpart. There just happens to be some of this beautiful fizz at Desert Wine Shop on Highway 111. Grab it; chill it; and send me a thank-you note.

Here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., we are no slouch in the sparkling wine department—if you know where to look. Sure, we put out our fair share of garbage, but we also have some shining examples that will rival the best bubbles out there. The Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs (which means it’s made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes) is still one of the best bottles on the market. If you’re looking for something a little off the beaten path, I am absolutely in love with Gruet (pronounced grew-ā). The sparkling rosé is 100 percent pinot noir and comes from New Mexico. It’s around $15 a bottle, so be prepared to have your socks knocked off.

Do you have hipster friends visiting from L.A. that you desperately want to impress? Grab a bottle of Pétillant-naturel (or, as the kids say, Pét-nat); pop off that crown cap; and get ready to taste the wine equivalent of kombucha. These wines can be made anywhere, with any grape, and are usually unfiltered and foggier than San Francisco in July.

One of the biggest buzz words in the world of Champagne is the term “grower.” It’s what all the cool kids are drinking. What does this mean, you ask? Well, in short, it means that the wine is produced by the same people who own the vineyards. This is somewhat of a rarity in Champagne, because for years, it was easier and more profitable for these little family-owned operations to sell their grapes to the big Champagne corporations (think Veuve Clicquot, Moet, Roederer, etc.) than make, bottle, label and market the fruits of their own labor. Thanks to innovative importers who want to show what these little families can do, we now have the awesome ability to taste Champagne from tiny parcels of land, created by the same people who lovingly tend to the vines all year. Pretty cool, right?! One of my favorite examples is called Champagne Coquillette, which I happily found at Whole Foods in Palm Desert. Other personal favs include Gaston Chiquet and Vilmart et Cie. If you’re on a tighter budget but still want the French stuff, look for a Crémant d’Alsace like the Lucien Albrecht. The label looks like Cristal, but your card won’t get cut up at the register. Winning!

These are all easy-drinking, light and refreshing examples of sparkling wine that will never elicit an “eww” or a scrunched nose—I promise. Now go grab a bottle of fizzy bubbly, and do something naughty.

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..

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At long last, the desert’s al fresco season has arrived.

What better way is there to end an exhausting day of NASCAR-style evasive driving down Highway 111 than by relaxing on your favorite restaurant patio? This is where you’ll find me any given early evening. I’ll be pretty easy to spot: Just look for the gal sipping a full-bodied red with an ice cube floating in it.

Say what?! Ice in red wine? That’s right; you heard me. Before you clutch your pearls and recoil in horror, allow me to demystify this greatest of all wine crimes.

Several years back, I was sitting in a restaurant and having lunch with a notable winemaker. In the middle of a sentence, he casually picked up his fork, fished out an ice cube from his water glass, and plinked it into his glass of red wine. The look on my face must have resembled that of a child who just found out there was no Santa. What did he just do?! Is this OK?! Will we be asked to leave and dare not show our faces in here again?!

He simply smiled at me and said: “I don’t like warm wine.”

It was a revelation. As a sommelier, I had always known that it was perfectly acceptable to chill down a bottle of red, and I never flinched from asking for an ice bucket regardless of the reaction from the server. But if this guy—respected and revered in his position in the wine world—felt no shame about a cube or two floating in his cabernet, then who am I to say otherwise?

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been there—sitting in a bar or restaurant, ordering a glass of wine, and watching the bartender grab the bottle sitting on the counter next to the steaming espresso machine. You know that you’re about to endure a wine that’s an ambient 80 degrees (or higher if it’s in August). Let me assure you—this is not what “room temperature” was ever supposed to mean. Once upon a time, in a land far, far, away, “room temperature” was actually referred to as “cellar temperature,” and when a bottle of wine was desired to accompany the evening meal, one had to venture into the deep, dark, cold subterranean level of the castle where temperatures would hover around 50 degrees. Those are not exactly the same conditions as my hall closet, where some of my wine lives. But then again, I don’t have a castle—or a subterranean level, for that matter.

The truth is, we Americans notoriously drink our white wine too cold, and our red wine too warm. Living in the desert where temperatures often hover between 100 degrees and the blazing inferno that is hell, the “too cold” part is almost forgivable. I've long said that I'd rather have my wines too cold than too warm, as it's much easier, certainly ’round these parts, to go up in temperature than down. That said, there should only be a 10-degree difference between white wine and red wine: Your whites should be between 50 and 55 degrees (rosé and Champagne are a couple of exceptions), while the reds should be around 65 degrees. 

I know this may come as a shock to some people who hold tight to the “room temperature” concept as gospel and shudder at the very idea of plinking a cube into their wine. I honestly think folks are so afraid of looking like a wine novice—knowing that putting ice in your wine is considered very déclassé—that they’ve convinced themselves that drinking warm wine is OK. The fact is, when a wine is too warm, every flaw is exacerbated. The wine begins to live under a microscope, and each sip can be a painful reminder of a bad year, an unskilled winemaker, or just cheap crap. (If you’ve ever ordered a nondescript “house wine,” then you know exactly what I’m talking about.) In this case, an ice cube or two are your best friend, because when a wine is too cold, the flavors are muted, and the aromas are all but silenced. This is not necessarily a bad thing when the wine is marginally palatable. Conversely, if you’ve ever had a white wine that didn’t taste like much initially, only to have it develop into a delicious and delightful explosion of aromas, it probably just needed to warm up a bit.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you put ice in a glass of ’82 Lafite or a Grand Cru Montrachet. That would be a crime punishable by terminal sobriety. But if you’re imbibing benchmark, world-class wines, they’d damn well better be served at a proper temperature. Furthermore, any restaurant worth its salt is going to make sure the wines being presented are stored correctly at the ideal temperature—or at least pretty close to it.

If you get anything out of this article, let it be this: If you come face-to-face with a lukewarm rose, a tepid sauvignon blanc or a downright-sweltering malbec, don’t hesitate to reach for the ice. Is it going to water the wine down? Oh, probably. Will it interfere with the wine’s texture, aromas and delicate nuances? Sure it is. My point: That might not be such a terrible thing. Yes, manipulating the temperature of the bottle is most certainly the preferable method, but we don’t always have that option.

If you need further validation, even the great, venerable British wine-writing legend Jancis Robinson said she has been known to pop a few ice cubes into her glass from time to time—because no one should drink warm wine.

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..

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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..

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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..

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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..

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