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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Everyone I know in the wine industry has had their own personal “Ah-ha!” moment—when wine became more than just a classy way to get drunk, when we went from simply enjoying the way the wine tastes to becoming consumed with every aspect of it.

Where was it grown? How was it grown? How did the winemaker ferment it? How long was it in a barrel, and what kind of barrel was it, and how big was the barrel?! That’s the moment we realized the wine was alive, has a personality and wants to be understood.

For me, that moment happened when I was in college. I applied for a job at a prominent steakhouse while going to school; I knew the difference between white and red, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. Thankfully, this steakhouse took a chance on me and informed me that if I was to keep the job, I would need to study the wine list and service procedures inside and out, and pass a test. Being the obliging little student that I was, I hit the books. I studied the regions, the grapes, the soils and the different price points. I bought every different (cheap) bottle of wine from Vons that I could afford and practiced opening them every night with a steady hand. I was determined to master the fine art of pouring without dripping on my makeshift tablecloth, which at the time was nothing more than an old dish rag. The more I immersed myself into the wine world, the more infatuated I became.

At the end of my training, I sat down to take the test I had so diligently prepared for … and I passed with flying colors. The reward for my hard work was a post-shift training meal with the managers. They ordered a few beautiful steaks and a couple of mouth-watering side dishes so I could experience the menu and better describe the flavors to the guests. As the chef approached the table to explain his creations to the neophyte I was, he asked the bartender for a specific bottle of wine. Within minutes, the cork was pulled, and the glasses were filled with my “Ah-ha!”

I was immediately struck with herbs and flowers and spice. There were beautiful aromas of cherry and figs intertwined with pepper and sweet cigar. As we sat and dined, I listened to Chef describe the food, but all I could think about was the wine—how, with every sip, I tasted something new. The wine was constantly evolving in my glass, and just when I thought I had it figured out, like a chameleon, it changed on me. I had never tasted anything like it.

That was the moment I knew this was going to be more than just a job to get me through school. This was going to be my career. A lot of years, and a few post-nominals later, I managed to prove my very Irish family wrong: You can, in fact, get paid to drink.  

One of the most frequent questions I am asked by budding wine enthusiasts is how they, too, can become a sommelier. The short answer is: You don’t. The common misconception is that sommeliers are the only body of wine knowledge out there, but the Court of Master Sommeliers is solely designed for those in the restaurant industry. This is a good thing: No average wine consumer should ever be subjected to the nerve-racking, hair-falling-out stress levels associated with the service practical. The blind tastings and exam are enough to give someone night terrors.

Much like the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Society of Wine Educators also has its own accreditation program where you can become a Certified Specialist of Wine and ultimately a Certified Wine Educator. These exams are incredibly difficult, not to mention expensive; while you don’t have to be in the industry to qualify for these tests, it really doesn’t make much sense for the average consumer to hold such a title. 

But … chin up, my budding wine-lovers! There are still lots of ways you can enhance your knowledge and become a credible wine consumer.

If you’ve truly found your passion and want to delve deeper into that beautiful glass of “Ah-ha!” the No. 1 resource I recommend is the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (wsetglobal.com), or WSET for short. This is the perfect information hub for someone who loves wine socially, but wants to take it more seriously—or perhaps even begin their own wine career. The trust has several levels that cater to individual wine prowess that get increasingly difficult as your knowledge progresses. You’ll need to commit to driving into Orange County, Los Angeles or San Diego to attend live classes and tastings, but there are online options available as well.

Speaking of online options, if you want to gain your information digitally, the Wine Spectator School (winespectator.com/school) and the Napa Valley Wine Academy (napavalleywineacademy.com) are fantastic alternatives to live classes. They both feature a ton of content and different classes specializing in specific regions or areas of knowledge.

Locally, there are a few places where you can go to taste and learn. While you won’t receive any credentials for attending these classes, they are easy and fun ways to expand your palate and gain a little more knowledge.

I recently went to the Bordeaux tasting at Total Wine and More in Palm Desert. For a meager $20, we tasted eight wines covering both the left and right bank, and even had a beautiful charcuterie spread prepared by The Real Italian Deli. Other than the fact that the last red wine we tasted had cork taint, and they served me warm Sauternes, the wines were decent, and the information was a pretty comprehensive Wine 101. They threw in a little humor here and there, and all in all, it was a pleasant way to spend the evening.

In La Quinta, yours truly hosts wine education afternoons once a month at Cooking With Class (cookingwithclasslq.com). We taste five to six wines, accompanied by artisanal cheeses, in a casual setting. The tastings usually last about 90 minutes and are designed to be fun and informative. I focus on food pairings, the stories behind the wines and unique varietals.

Lastly, you can always seek out private wine-tasting groups via Facebook, localwineevents.com, or your local wine shop. I know that Desert Wine and Spirits (desertwinesandspirits.com) in Palm Springs has great tastings once a week, and Dead or Alive Bar (deadoralivebar.com) always has unique, palate enhancing wines open to try. Desert Wine Shop on 111 (desertwineshop.com) also hosts regular wine get-togethers that are informal and social.

Other advice: Keep a wine journal. Take tasting notes. When you taste a wine, close your eyes; stick your nose in that glass; and inhale deeply. Be present and mindful, because wine is the greatest time machine there is.

The wine I tasted that fateful night was a 2001 Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape. I will never forget it, and it will always be my first love.

Your “Ah-ha!” moment is waiting … go taste it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you first start getting into wine?

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

What was your first wine love?

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

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

What’s exciting about wine to you right now?

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

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

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

Your desert island wine?

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

Favorite food pairing?

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

Favorite wine book?

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

What do you love about the desert?

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

Your favorite places to go in the desert?

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

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

Published in Wine