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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I’m now going to gush about the best wine-tasting I’ve ever been to—ever. I am going to spend the next 900 words or so name-dropping winemakers you’ve probably never heard of, and describing wine-making techniques that will bore you to tears. Consider yourself warned.

Earlier this December, the incomparable desert wine goddess, Christine Soto of Dead or Alive bar in Palm Springs, did what no one in this industry thought was possible: She managed to convince a laundry list of the best and brightest winemakers in California to converge at the Ace Hotel for one day of wine-tasting fun in the sun, for the first Palm Springs Wine Fest. You might think that wouldn’t be such a difficult task, given the beauty of our desert this time of year. I mean, who wouldn’t want to come to sunny Palm Springs in December for a little work/play? Well, the truth is the desert has not exactly been on the forefront of cutting-edge food and wine concepts. The wine scene here has always been a little conservative, if not staid and out of touch. So, to have a venerable list of the coolest “kids” making wine in California right here in our back yard was not only pretty damn exciting; it had never been done.

When I first walked in to the open-air event space at the Ace, it was a little overwhelming. There was a live band and throngs of people wedged between rows of tables. It was hard to even know where to begin. From across the room, I saw Abe Schoener of Scholium Project. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I was certain he wouldn’t know me from Adam. Back in my Napa days, I would sit at the bar of a local hotspot called Norman Rose and hope to get a seat next to him so I could eavesdrop (in a non-threatening fangirl kind of way) on all the cool wine stories he and his buddies would share. I introduced myself to him a couple of times—each attempt a little more awkward and pathetic. But he is such a sincerely nice guy that I think he just pretended not to notice my social ineptitude. But here at this tasting, in my hometown, I suddenly manufactured the confidence to walk right over to him, introduce myself (again) and immediately dive into a conversation about the gloriously strange glass of white wine from his table. It’s called La Géante, and it’s a blend of a couple of white varietals, none of which I can remember, except there’s 1 percent gewürztraminer in there, and I think he said something about skin-contact sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. But what makes this wine so crazy is how he’s making it. Abe proceeded to tell me about some friends of his at Hiyu Wine Farm in Hood River, Ore., making a solera red that blew his mind. So he decided to try his hand at it with some white wines. If you’re curious about the solera process, it’s chiefly used in sherry and other fortified-wine production, and it creates a multi-vintage aged product by fractionally blending the liquid through a series of barrels from top to bottom, with the oldest liquids being in the barrels on the ground. Fascinating stuff, right?! The wine was beautiful and complicated and fearless. I was off to a good start.

From there, I looked for any table that had an opening. I needed to regain a little personal space from the shoulder-to-shoulder New York City sidewalk vibe and blissfully found a spot at the Minus Tide table. Best discovery of the day! These guys released their first vintage in 2015, with the focus being the cool-climate wines of Mendocino. The first wine they poured for me was a riesling. As with Abe and his unique approach to wine-making, these guys do it a little differently, too. This riesling is made by carbonic maceration. If you’ve stuck with me this far, this might be where I lose you … but if you’re a wine geek, you just shouted out loud: “A RIESLING?! CARBONIC MACERATION?! WHAT?!” Yup. It’s 100 percent carbonic, whole-cluster pressed, unrefined and unfiltered from only 40 vines located in the pinot noir dominant Langley Vineyard in Anderson Valley. Just enough for one barrel. I’m choking up a little; it would be impossible for me to love a wine more. That said, this darling wine didn’t overshadow the stunning Feliz Vineyard Carignane—also 100 percent carbonic and 100 percent mouthwateringly delicious—or their velvety-rich malbec from the famed Alder Springs Vineyard. The unbridled happiness I feel knowing these wines exist is only shattered by the fact that everything they make is sold out, and I can’t get any.

Field Recordings from Paso Robles has long been a favorite of mine, and I had the pleasure of tasting their orange wine called Skins. This is a blend of chenin blanc, pinot gris and verdelho, and the result is a wine that, unlike a lot of other orange wines I’ve tasted, is full of bright acidity with that savory, cidery aroma and textured mouthfeel, without the bitter wood varnish component that can sometimes be too overpowering.

I think I hung out at the Red Car table for about an hour. The founder, Richard Crowell, and I discussed our mutual sentiments regarding scores; the beauty of syrah and why everyone should drink it all the time; and the rugged and picturesque vineyards from which the fruit for their insanely balanced and elegant wines comes. He was like a friend you’ve known for years, and our conversations were my high point of the day. If you haven’t tried Red Car, go to Eureka! in Indian Wells right now, and have a glass of their rose. Oh hell, just have a bottle. I did.

I hopped from table to table, tasting one gloriously foot-trodden wine after the next. More often than not, these wines are naturally fermented, and generally left un-fooled-around with by the hands that made them. All of these winemakers were there to tell a story, and what I found so endearing is that they were all so happy to be here in our desert. Many of them had vacationed here as children or had been here years ago without much reason to return … until now. The energy in the room was palpable, and everyone there, whether they were pouring or drinking, was genuinely excited to be there.

There is a wine awakening happening here in the Coachella Valley. Go buy a bottle of something fun and be a part of 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

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