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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

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

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

It got a huge score, naturally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I give that donut a solid 91!”

“That massage was an 88 at best.”

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

Sounds ludicrous, right?

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

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

Trust yourself.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

Andre de Carteret is the wine and spirits manager at Spencer’s Restaurant, home to one of the most expansive wine lists in the desert.

With 1,052 wines on the list, the Palm Springs restaurant is a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner. While the list has an emphasis on California cabernet and chardonnay (the “bread and butter,” as de Carteret puts it), every major wine-growing region is represented—and there are wines in the cellar that aren’t even on the list

“I’m always looking for room,” says de Carteret.

De Carteret hails from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, under the authority of the British crown. At 16, he joined the British Armed Forces and trained in mountain and arctic warfare. From there, he taught and skied professionally—a career which brought him to the United States in 1982. He also worked in restaurants during his ski-racing career, and later started working in restaurants full-time. Before Spencer’s, he worked at restaurants in Reno, Lake Tahoe and elsewhere in the Coachella Valley, including La Spiga, Morgan’s in the Desert at the La Quinta Resort, and Fleming’s.

We sipped My Essential Rosé while we talked Spencer’s, wine and desert living.

When did you first become interested in wine?

Late in the 1980s, I was teaching skiing in Courchevel, France. I had a very, very, wealthy clientele who had incredible collections of Burgundy and Bordeaux. One of my clients would come back one week every month to ski with me, and we’d go to restaurants every night, and when he walked in, it seemed like everybody bowed down to him. He would buy all these incredible wines, and I started tasting them, and I would think, “Wow.” … In the ’80s, it was basically white, red and pink in restaurants. If you had six wines by the glass, that was a huge list. During that time, I drank all these incredible wines that I would never, ever, ever otherwise have a chance to touch: Hermitage, Romanée-Conti—you name it. That was my introduction.

What was your first wine love?

Burgundy.

What brought you to the desert?

I was a big tennis fan; I used to come for the tennis tournament. In 2007, I wanted a change, so I decided to move to Palm Springs.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I get a kick out of turning people on to something they may never have tried. When somebody comes back and says, “I remember you. You sold us a bottle of wine; it was amazing! What else do you have?” I get a kick out of that. I also like it when people come back for different vintages of the same wines; we have a lot of customers like that. (I also like) showing people the gems on the list, the good-value wine.

What wines are you loving on your list right now?

My favorite wines probably at the moment, and some of the best values, are the interesting reds: Paso Robles, Central Coast, Santa Ynez, Santa Barbara. Some phenomenal values come out of that area. There is great value if you want to experiment with different varietals.

What are you drinking now?

Beer (laughs). Right now, I’m drinking A Tribute to Grace Grenache. Lovely. I also love the Gruet Sparkling Rosé, which we serve by the glass.

Your desert island wine?

Russian River pinot, probably Merry Edwards Pinot Noir. I like the Merry Edwards a lot.

Favorite Pairing?

I have so many favorite pairings: Sauternes and foie gras. Port and California artisanal cheese. Zinfandel and chocolate. Oysters and sauvignon blanc. Champagne and anything.

Your favorite wine book?

Windows on the World. That was probably the first wine book I picked up. And my go-to is The Wine Bible.

What’s your favorite thing about living in the desert?

The hot weather in August (laughs). No, really, I think it has to be the weather—and a location close to the beach when it gets hot here.

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

Townie Bagels Bakery Cafe Opens On Sunny Dunes

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, things in the Sunny Dunes area of Palm Springs got a whole lot tastier. That’s when Townie Bagels Bakery Café opened its doors at 650 E. Sunny Dunes Road, in the space Tlaquepaque used to call home.

Owners Andy Wysocki and Bill Sanderson had been selling bagels for quite some time at the Palm Springs Certified Farmers’ Market before moving into the Sunny Dunes space, where they serve breakfast, lunch and coffee from Joshua Tree Coffee Company, in addition to their tasty bagels.

One of the things I like the most about Townie is the space: The café has a definite neighborhood coffee-shop vibe, with comfy seating, a welcoming atmosphere and all sorts of friendly faces from the surrounding area(s). It’s exactly the thing this part of Palm Springs needed. I’m a Palm Springs resident, and every time I’ve gone to Townie since it opened, I’ve run into at least one person I know.

Congrats, Andy and Bill. You’re really created something great.

Townie Bagels is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., every day but Tuesday. Visit www.facebook.com/towniebagels for more information.


Robbie Knievel to Make a Sunset Jump at Spa Resort Casino’s Brews and Bbq

A really interesting event is coming to downtown’s Spa Resort Casino on Saturday, Oct. 24—and a good cause will be all the better for it.

As one would expect from the name, Brews and BBQ will feature beer from great Southern California breweries, as well as food on sale from local restaurants. It’s a family-friendly event, with a play zone for kids; adults will be able to check out motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles courtesy of Palm Springs Motorsports.

But the highlight of the event, at least as far as I am concerned: Daredevil Robbie Knievel will make a motorcycle jump at 5 p.m.

Festivities start at 1 p.m. Admission is $15 (including a souvenir tasting glass); designated drivers and kids age 4-20 get in for $10. Kids younger than 4 are admitted for free. Beer-tasting tickets are a buck each, with the proceeds going to the Rotary Club of Palm Springs.

Get tickets and more information at www.sparesortcasino.com.


In Brief

Looking for a spiritual chat over coffee? Then check out the “Coffee House Rabbi” chats featuring Rabbi Sally Olins, happening at 10 a.m. the first and third Sunday of each month upstairs at Lulu California Bistro, 200 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Olins retired from Palm Springs’ Temple Isaiah recently. More info at rabbisally.com. … Applause, please, for the folks at Wally’s Desert Turtle, at 71775 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. As the high-class restaurant heads into its 38th season (!), president and owner Michael Botello recently announced a “complete conversion” of the landscape at Wally’s, including new signs—and native, drought-tolerant xeriscaping taking the place of water-guzzling grass. The restaurant will be reopening after its summer slumber on Friday, Oct. 9. More info at www.wallysdesertturtle.com. … It has always seemed somewhat oxymoronic that the excellent La Quinta Brewing Co. was located in the northern outreaches of Palm Desert rather than, well, La Quinta. However, this “wrong” is being righted: La Quinta Brewing will soon be opening a taproom on Main Street in Old Town La Quinta. According to the Old Town La Quinta folks, the new taproom will feature indoor seating as well as a patio. Watch LaQuintaBrewing.com for more information. … The second annual Taste of East Valley will take place from 4 to 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Shields Date Garden, 80255 Highway 111 in Indio. Your $20 will get you tastes from some of the eastern Coachella Valley’s top joints. The event will kick off East Valley Restaurant Week, which runs through Nov. 1; get tickets and details at www.cvdining.com. … Congrats to Zin American Bistro, located at 198 S. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, for its newly bestowed Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. It joined Spencer’s Restaurant in Palm Springs and Cuistot in Palm Desert as Coachella Valley restaurants that have earned the honor, for an impressive wine list. Less than 1,100 restaurants have earned the honor or better. … Postmates.com has come to the Coachella Valley. It’s a delivery service that includes a bunch of restaurants, both chains and local—but be prepared for the delivery-service fees. Check it out at, obviously, Postmates.com. … Renowned El Paseo Drive breakfast-and-lunch joint Wilma and Frieda’s Café will start offering dinners on Oct. 15. Watch www.facebook.com/wilmafriedascafe for details.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

CPK’s Palm Springs Location to Make Way for Construction

Every time we walk by the California Pizza Kitchen at 123 N. Palm Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs, we wonder: Given that it’s part of a mall that is now mostly demolished, what will be the restaurant’s fate?

We asked the CPK folks that very question. Spokesman Jeffrey Dorman responded via email: “According to Clint Coleman (CPK’s chief development officer), CPK will be closing the Palm Springs restaurant in late October/early November as the development gets to the phase where they need to demo the building.”

As for the future, Dorman said that the company is in “negotiations” for a space in the mall that will replace the Desert Fashion Plaza, and hopes to re-open in downtown Palm Springs sometime in the third quarter of next year.

In other words, for about a year, local CPK fans will have to make the trek to the chain’s other Coachella Valley location—on El Paseo in Palm Desert—to get their fix.

More info can be found at www.cpk.com.

Coming Soon: The New York Company Restaurant

A sign has gone up at 1260 S. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs—most recently the home of Brushfire Grille and 911 Saloon—announcing that the New York Company Restaurant is coming soon.

A spelling-challenged Craigslist help-wanted ad offers a few more details: The “fine dining restaurant with a full bar” is slated to open in September.

We’ll share more details as we get ’em.

Local Restaurants Nab ‘Wine Spectator’ Accolades

A number of valley restaurants have been honored by Wine Spectator magazine as having top-notch wine selections.

According to the Wine Spectator website, the awards “recognize restaurants whose wine lists offer interesting selections, are appropriate to their cuisine and appeal to a wide range of wine lovers.”

No valley restaurants were among the 73 “Grand Award” winners. (These restaurants generally offer 1,500 wines or more—wow.) However, two were among the 850 to earn the Best of Award of Excellence: Cuistot in Palm Desert, and Spencer’s Restaurant in Palm Springs. “These lists typically offer 400 or more selections, along with superior presentation, and display either vintage depth, with several vertical offerings of top wines, or excellent breadth across several wine regions,” the magazine’s website notes.

Quite a few area restaurants were among the almost 2,900 honored with the Award of Excellence (meaning that they offer at least 100 well-chosen wines): Circa 59 at the Riviera, Europa Restaurant at the Villa Royale, Zin American Bistro and The Steakhouse at Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs; Desert Sage Restaurant and Piano Bar, Morgan’s in the Desert, and Stuft Pizza Bar and Grill in La Quinta; Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, and The Steakhouse at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage; Mastro’s Steakhouse, Morton’s The Steakhouse, Pacifica Seafood Restaurant, Ristorante Mamma Gina, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, and Mitch’s on El Paseo Prime Seafood in Palm Desert; and Sirocco at the Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells.

Get more info at www.winespectator.com.

Get Some Learnin’ on French Wines

Speaking of wine: Total Wine and More, which recently opened at 72338 Highway 111 in Palm Desert, is offering some schooling on French wines.

At 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 8, the store will hold its “Romancing the Rhône” class and tasting. A news release promises “a journey through Avignon, Orange and Nimes to experience some of France’s most legendary wines, such as Côte-Rôtie and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

The class is $25, and it will go for about two hours. Seating is limited, as they say; call 760-346-2029 for reservations.

Published in Restaurant & Food News