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People often ask me what my favorite wine is. For me, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child; on most days, that would be impossible. So much of what I drink depends on the weather, or what I’m eating, or my mood in general.

I do, however, have a favorite wine-producing country, and it might not be what you’d expect.

My love affair with South Africa began about 16 years ago. I was sitting in a ballroom in Monterey, Calif., surrounded by other would-be sommeliers preparing for our exam. I knew very little about South Africa as a wine-producing nation—and this was going to be an introduction I would never forget. As I stuck my nose in that glass and inhaled deeply, I remember immediately … gagging. The putrid smell of rotten raspberries wrapped in bandages, with a slight animal-fur note, is something that still makes me shudder all these years later. Little did I know that I would grow to love that stinky little grape, called Pinotage, and everything else grown in that wild and wonderful country.

As my wine career progressed, I discovered that the wines from South Africa are not putrid or vile or gag-inducing at all. The reds are powerful and complex with a unique set of aromas that are savory and rich. They have aromas of blackberries and plums, sweet tobacco and black tea. Yes, they can be a little gamey and earthy, but not in an offensive way—instead, they are intriguing and mysterious. The whites are crisp and confident with bright fruit and a subtle herbaceous element. They were unlike anything I had ever tasted, but not in a pejorative way. I wanted more and began drinking everything from South Africa I could get my hands on.

That said … even with all the advancements in wine-making, marketing and distribution coming from South Africa, getting my hands on a good bottle is easier said than done. So when a friend of mine told me about a South African wine-tasting in Palm Springs, I immediately bought my tickets and circled the date. I had never heard of the “place” in Palm Springs hosting the tasting, which I thought was strange, but the address was on the invite, and I figured maybe this was a new place. How exciting!

It took me and my friends circling the block twice, walking up and down the street while staring at our GPS, and finally wandering into an alley before we noticed a small group of people congregating by a door. Eureka! This must be the place!

As we opened the solid industrial door, we were faced with a narrow staircase. There was no signage, and there were no people, but there were three bottles of wine sitting on the bottom stair. We figured that was a good indication we were in the right place. Not knowing any better, we ventured up the flight of stairs … and right into someone’s living room. Oh, shit. There we were, the three of us, now standing in some unknown person’s flat. Gulp. This is where the music abruptly stops in a screeching tone, and everyone turns and stares at the obvious outsiders.

I sheepishly walked over to a couple and explained that I was looking for Mood Wine. “Don’t be silly! This is Mood Wine! Grab a glass!” they exclaimed while getting a good chuckle out of my mortification. Phew. Within seconds, we were greeted warmly by Patrick and Jake, who graciously welcomed us into their home and quickly filled our glasses.

Our first wine of the night was Bloem from the Cape of Good Hope—a chenin blanc, known as steen in South Africa, blended with viognier. Named after the Dutch word for flower, this aromatic white combines the bright stone fruit and creaminess of chenin blanc with the floral, citrus blossom notes and perfumed honeysuckle of viognier. It was a delightful way to start our evening!

We moved on to try the Remhoogte “Honeybunch” chenin blanc from the Stellenbosch region. The estate was founded in 1812 on the slopes of the famous Simonsberg Mountain; this property was not noted for its grapes at first, but rather the discovery of one of the largest diamonds ever found on Earth. The diamond was purchased by the Queen of England and sits proudly among the royal jewels. Because of this discovery, the Remhoogte family acquired the capital to plant vineyards and create one of the finest estates in Stellenbosch. (Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!) The wine is rich and golden with flavors of preserved lemon, pear and chamomile tea.

After a little nosh of salmon canapes and mini meatballs, we were poured the De Grendel rosé. There is nothing more beautiful than a glass of coppery pink rosé, and the aromatics wafting out of my glass were already making my mouth water. It’s a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and the country’s signature red grape, Pinotage. There was not a whiff of animal fur or bandages to be found; this rosé is all juicy strawberries, bubblegum and zippy grapefruit deliciousness.

The last wine of the night was a 100 percent Pinotage called Vantage by Remhoogte. What exactly is Pinotage, you ask? There is a very good chance you’ve never had this obscure little grape—and a pretty good chance you’ve never even heard of it. I know a great many somms and wine enthusiasts who would say “lucky you,” because Pinotage is considered an acquired taste. It was created in 1925 as a cross between pinot noir and cinsault—the latter otherwise known as hermitage. Combine those two words, and you get Pinotage (like Bennifer or Brangelina). But unlike its parents, it isn’t soft and silky and feminine; it’s hearty and bold and meaty. It’s ripe and textured with a dense mouthfeel. This is the signature grape of South Africa, and aside from a little being grown on the Sonoma Coast, you typically won’t see it anywhere else. People tend to have a very strong reaction to the wine and will either love it hate it. But the best examples, like the Vantage Pinotage we had this night, show that South Africa is capable of producing some of the most exciting wines in the world.

I’ve come to realize that what I love most about South African wine is the unique and distinct flavors that put off other people. The world of wine is becoming more and more homogenized, where every country is making cookie-cutter wines to appeal to a global palate—but South Africa is unapologetically eccentric, and I have learned to embrace those aromas that simply can’t be re-created anywhere else.

South Africa is a country of unmeasurable persistence. Every time they took a step forward to advance their wine industry, they were dealt a crushing blow that forced them to take two steps back. They overcame devastating phylloxera (aphids that kill grapevines), wars, economic destruction and the most crippling act of Apartheid. What this wine region has accomplished in the last 20 years, most countries couldn’t achieve in 100.

South Africa truly embodies passion and perseverance—and that’s something to which we can all raise a glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you first start getting into wine?

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

What was your first wine love?

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

What’s exciting about wine to you right now?

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

What inspired you to start Mood Wine?

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

Your desert island wine?

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

Your favorite food pairing?

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

Your favorite wine book?

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

What are you drinking now?

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

What do you love about the desert?

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

Your favorite places to go in the desert?

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

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

Published in Wine