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Sat07042020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

As we approach the start of the new year, I’ve been reflecting on my time here in the desert since moving back from Napa a few years ago. The one thing that I have realized is how much I underestimated the wine savvy—or better yet, the sense of exploration—of the wine consumers here.

When I first started buying wine for a retail space, my overall goal was to bring in wines that were more esoteric, more global, more natural—and more fun! I wanted to start steering away from the mass produced “grocery store” wines toward wines that were created by small producers—farmers and winemakers with deep roots, but perhaps shallow pockets. One at a time, I brought in a quirky label, and then another, and then an unheard-of varietal—hoping that maybe a hipster out of Los Angeles would stumble in and buy some, or maybe someone would trust me enough to take a recommendation for a wine out of left field. At the very least, I knew these wines were incredible—and if all else failed, I could always buy the case and drink the wine myself!

But then something started to happen … people started coming in and asking for these wines. Customers began talking to me about things like skin-contact whites and carbonic maceration. I would hear guests at tastings applaud the low-alcohol content in the wines that were being poured—and tell me they specifically came in to taste the Ribolla Gialla I was pouring.

What?! Who are you people? Where have you been?

Every day, I am surprised and excited by what people are gravitating toward—and so, in the spirit of new beginnings, for all my wine adventurers out there, here are some of my favorite “must-try” wines for 2020.

Italy is one of the most-daunting wine countries to tackle, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Each region has its own pasta and cheese to which it lays claim, and the same can be said for wine varietals—many of which historically almost never made it out of the country, and instead were consumed entirely by its local audience. From the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the far north, look for the deeply colored and richly textured Teroldego. Elisabetta Foradori, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest winemakers in Italy, took on the task of saving this grape from obscurity, and her bottlings are nothing short of glorious. It’s an intensely juicy wine, with loads of blackberry and raspberry flavors, followed by a subtle sweet smokiness.

On the other end of the intensity spectrum is a deliciously light-bodied red called Schiava. This delicious pinot noir-like grape also hails from the Alto Adige region and is as silky and feminine as it gets. Beautiful notes of rose petals, freshly picked strawberries and a touch of lemon zest are the hallmark flavors of this little grape.

From Southern Italy, seek out a wine made from the Aglianico grape. Made primarily in Campania and Basilicata, these brooding reds definitely fall into the savory category. If you’re a fan of rustic wines with layers of flavors (think old-vine zinfandels), you’ll be delighted by the notes of leather, figs, white pepper, nutmeg and boysenberries.

In France, there’s a little-known region called Jura that has garnered the attention of high-profile sommeliers and wine lovers alike. Located on the eastern border between Burgundy and Switzerland, this is a cool-climate region producing some pretty esoteric and geeky wine. For years, this small appellation was known mainly for a sherry-like wine called Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine,” which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. However, the region is now becoming known for a delightful red wine made with a grape called Trousseau that is worth seeking out. Trousseau creates a pale, light-bodied wine that’s surprisingly powerful. It’s so intensely flavored, in fact, that there are sommeliers in three-star Michelin restaurants pairing this seemingly delicate wine with prime cuts of steak! Trousseau might be the most obscure wine suggested here, but if you keep a lookout, finding one might be easier than you think. In fact, there are even a handful of California producers who have sought out domestic plantings of this esoteric grape and are producing some stellar incarnations of both Trousseau Noir and its cousin, Trousseau Gris. A few California names to look for are Jolie-Laide, and Arnot-Roberts. Domaine des Ronces and Michel Gahier are prime examples from Jura.

If you continue to travel south in Europe, this wine adventure will take you into Spain. Right now, there is no greater wine-producing country that offers up as much bang for your buck. Sure, we all know about Tempranillo and Garnacha, and even Cariñena isn’t as obscure as it once was … but have you ever had a Mencía? Hailing from the small western regions of Ribera Sacra and Bierzo, this dark and herbaceous red was once thought to be related to cabernet Franc. Although we now know that’s not the case, this aromatic wine is sure to be a hit with anyone who loves earthy and spicy reds. My personal favorites are the Mencías crafted by Raul Perez under the “Ultreia” label; his protege, Pedro Rodriguez, is creating stunning examples called Guimaro.

The perfumy and citrusy Spanish Albariño has long been my go-to for a crowd-pleasing white alternative to sauvignon blanc. But if you’re ready to venture into uncharted territory, there’s a grape called Hondarrabi Zuri from the Basque region that makes the most refreshing and slightly spritzy white called Txakolina. I cannot think of a better patio wine for our desert climate. It’s a bounty of fresh citrus like key limes, Meyer lemons and Clementine tangerines, all backed by a subtle fragrance of white jasmine and the tiniest presence of bubbles.

Lastly, leave it to Paul Hobbs to bring a project from Armenia to the forefront of our budding wine culture. Areni, which is a grape native to Armenia and the Republic of Georgia, is possibly the oldest varietal on Earth—not surprising, given that this region is the birthplace of viticulture. In 2011, archaeologists discovered artifacts from a winery dating back at least 6,100 years. Hobbs has now partnered with the Yacoubian family from this small Armenian village to revitalize this ancient grape. I recently found out that there are a handful of country clubs (country clubs!) in the Coachella Valley that currently have the Yacoubian-Hobbs Areni on their wine lists. Who would have thought?

So here’s to a new year full of exploration, curiosity—and a community of wine lovers who continue to surprise and inspire me.

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

Published in Wine

The night I drink the Montefalco Rosso, Cesarini Sartori Fiorella, 2009—a blend of sangiovese, merlot, cabernet and sagrantino—might more aptly be dubbed Sunday afternoon.

I’ve been napping, dozing between the bells that ring out from a nearby Italian church. The bells clang one long, low DONG for the hour, and a brisker, lighter dong for each 15 minutes incrementally. So 1:30 goes like this: “DONG dong dong.”

That’s when I take a break from the hot day and sprawl out on my mattress.

The power went out for a minute yesterday. The digital clock next to my bed is flashing the wrong time. No matter. The bells keep me on track.

“DONG DONG DONG dong dong dong.”

I roll over and reset the clock to 15:46. Because I’m in Europe. There’s no confusing repetition of a 12-hour cycle here. A girl trucks through life one ’til 24. So it goes. Thankfully, the clock never rings 24 DONGs. Craziness.

I attempt to check Facebook. No luck. I’ve consumed my Internet bandwidth for the month. It will reset on Tuesday—in 48 hours.

I’m cut off from the world. I can’t post my witty, pointless observations about life for folks back home. Like “Q: How many Italian bartenders does it take to kick eight U.S. college students and a professor out of a bar when it’s closing? A: Only one, distractedly flipping the switch that turns off the Wi-Fi.”

I open the wine. The bottle is recommended by Pietra, a young man who owns Vino Symposium, a few labyrinthine blocks from my apartment. Pietra also sells vini sfuzi, “loose wines,” on tap in giant stainless-steel vats. Sfuzi—the original two-buck Chucks—sell for a couple euro per liter. Bring your own bottle; sfuzi go in any container. Last week, I bought a montepulciano/sangiovese blend. Pietra filled my 1.5-liter water bottle for three euro.

It’s OK.

The Cesarini Sartori Fiorella starts out a bit tight, but smoothes out nicely. I’m sipping my first glass as I assemble a pasta sauce. I’d been to the market for onions, a red bell pepper, fat garlic bulbs and several kinds of tomatoes, including half-ripe Sicilians and small Piccadilli that pack a big punch.

Food tastes great in Italy, because the ingredients are fabulous. Extra-virgin olive oil pressed from local family farms. Pastas handmade at a shop just around the cobblestoned corner. Meats, fresh and smoked, sliced thin or fat or diced or spiced, in a thousand varieties. Veggies soaking up the sun in fields of Sicily or Tuscany or right here in Lazio.

I blanch the skins off the tomatoes while I sauté an onion, minced garlic and some red bell pepper in tasty extra-virgin olive oil. When the veggies are getting done, I add a half cup or so of Pietra’s sfuzi.

I’m drinking the Cesarini Sartori Fiorella because this is my week to encounter wines from Italy’s Umbrian region, slightly north and east of the Lazio region in which I’m living for a couple months. Each Italian wine region specializes in some specific kinds of grapes. The rare sagrantino grows in and around the city of Montefalco. I could not find the exact wines listed in my Italian wine bible—Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. The book’s my tour guide. Without Internet, I’ve been poring over its pages. Highlighting and underlining. Starring the wines I’ve samples and the recipes I’ve tried.

The sfuzi bubbles over the veggies, and I add about a tablespoon zucchero (sugar) so the mixture will caramelize. I mashed peeled tomatoes with my hands, thinking about how delicious it must feel to dance around in a vat of grapes.

I stir the whole thing together—and I could eat it just like this! But I don’t. It will be so much tastier when it cooks down, and the flavors meld. The individual elements will lose their distinct characters and become one with the tasty sauce. In the Middle Ages, art was like this, says an architect who’s teaching a class in urban landscape here. Art emerged from the community without any specific artistic ego imposing its brand.

And then along came the Renaissance, and with it, the beginnings of rugged individualism. Religious and humanist pretensions. I digress wildly.

The day I drink the Montefalco Rosso, I chat with hubby Dave via Google chat on my telephone. This doesn’t use too much of my Verizon international data plan, which costs $25 for 100 megabytes of data. (To put this in perspective, I ran through an entire 10 gigabytes of data using Skype on my laptop. If I had to pay Verizon’s rates, that would be $2,500.)

Skype sucks up giant vats of data, which I imagine flowing from a shiny sfuzi-like tank, as precious as wine. I always remember to turn off my Wind (that’s a brand of Italian mobile Internet service provider) when I’m not using it.

My sauce gets tastier. The wine opens up. The two flavors seem molto compatible.

DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG. It’s only 18:00. Too early to cook the pasta, thin coils of capelli d'angelo. I read some stories from a book of women writers on their Italian travels. Here’s Mary Shelley: “The name of Italy has magic in its very syllables.” She digs gondola rides in Venice.

I start boiling salty pasta water around 19:00. Italians use salt in terrifying quantities. And I’m liking it. I pour a second glass of wine with dinner.

Finally, it’s time. But eating is like making love: Describing it, blow by blow, gets weird. To cut to the chase: It’s an exceptional sauce that brings out the best in this blend of Italian grape varietals.

I decide to watch Life Is Beautiful, an award-winning movie about an optimistic Jewish poet in Italy as World War II breaks out. The tale depicts a young family that ends up in a forced labor/death camp. Dad saves his preschool-aged son by transforming the horror of the camp into a game.

My Italian’s almost OK enough that I could watch this movie without subtitles and still get the full-on heartbreak.

Eleven quarter-hour DONGs later, I’m crying in my Montefalco Rosso.

So it goes.

Published in Wine