Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

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..

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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..

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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..

Published in Wine

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..

Published in Wine

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

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