Meet the Wine Coach – Interview with Laurie Forster

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I’ve been a fan of Laurie Forster’s half hour radio show The Sipping Point for the past two years.  I knew she had a budding standup comedy career in addition to her wine consulting and have long hoped that she would bring her performance to Chicago.  This Friday, April 4, she appears at City Winery for 7:00 p.m. (already sold out) and 9:30 performances. Tickets for the second show are (for now) available here.

Let’s meet Laurie and learn about how she finds the humor in wine, a topic that often brings out the Serious in many of us:

You have a unique niche – combining wine knowledge with comedy.  Which do you think is more accurate:  Are you a comedienne with wine as her theme or a sommelier who happens to be really funny?

I’d say a little of both…I am a certified Sommelier with training from the American Sommelier Association, Wine & Spirits Education Trust and more. Growing up I was always the one to crack a joke to diffuse a stressful situation so it’s part of my authentic self. Growing up in New Jersey you had to a have a quick comeback and sarcastic humor is just part of our DNA there.

When I switched careers from software to wine I found lots of things in the wine world seemed funny to me and foreign so I always found a way to laugh at that as well as any faux pas I made! Like tasting notes from the wine critics always seemed more like reading a Harlequin Romance novel or some of them Fifty Shades of Grey!

Have you been developing your wine knowledge and comedy chops at the same time or did one come before the other?

Formally I started studying wine in 2002 and started The Wine Coach in 2004. I’ve always incorporated humor into my classes because it’s who I am but my formal comedy training was at the DC Improv in 2010. The best material we are taught is found in your real life which for me includes the wine business, being married to a chef and a mom to a ten year old daughter.

Tell us a little about the wine show you host every Saturday morning.

I host The Sipping Point radio on WBAL 1090AM which is broadcast in the DC/Maryland area live Saturdays at 12:00 noon eastern time and can also be heard in my free mobile app. The Wine Coach as well is podcast on iTunes. Each week we explore the recipe for a delicious life with features on wine, spirits, beer, chefs and more. Past guests include Robert Parker Jr, Jancis Robinson, Andrea Robinson, Robert Irvine and more.


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Do you mention many winemakers, sommeliers as part of your routine, or do you try to avoid being that specific in the subject matter of your bits?

I love poking fun at the wine establishment especially critics and media as we can sometimes make wine too complicated for people. Winemakers are the heroes in my book and way more down to earth than somms!

Talk a little about your first exposure to wine, for example, did you family often serve wine and were they major collectors?  Did you grow up around a lot of winemakers and somms?

Ha ha, I grew up in New Jersey where wine was usually pink or in a box! Honestly I saw wine at my house when we had parties but not at the dinner table…my first wine was at the drive-in and it was Boones Farm Strawberry Hill. No, I don’t remember the movie!

Have you ever tried making wine yourself; would you be interested in trying?

I have the greatest respect for the craft of winemaking but honestly I know how much work it takes so no, I prefer tasting wine!

There’s something about online/mobile content that makes wine a friendly subject, but it hasn’t really developed strongly in “mainstream media”, do you agree?  Do you see this changing?

My whole goal is to change the way wine is viewed by the public and the media…it can be FUN with a capital F. Unfortunately most people approach it in a way that is anything but entertaining–I promise to change that with my perfect pairing for wine–COMEDY!

Friday Interview – Hello, Melanie Wagner!

Hello Wine

It was a pleasure to interview Northbrook based sommelier and wine consultant Melanie Wagner for my blog.  Her new book Hello, Wine was released last fall and is both a useful primer about wine and an inspirational story about a woman navigating a challenging career transition.  Hope you enjoy my YouTube video, available here and please check out Melanie’s blog at www.melaniewagnerwine.com.

 

 

Certified Sommelier Melanie Wagner shared her transition from preschool teacher to author and wine consultant, at Lincoln Square bookstore The Book Cellar.

Certified Sommelier Melanie Wagner shared her transition from preschool teacher to author and wine consultant, at Lincoln Square bookstore The Book Cellar.

Friday Interview – Nova Cadamatre

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Ms. Cadamatre became the lead winemaker for Robert Mondavi Winery in December, 2012.

I’m not sure if my first encounter with Nova Cadamatre was through her wine blog or through her frequent posts on Twitter.  I became quickly intrigued by both her Day Job and her after hours pursuit, both involving wine.

You may be surprised but only a handful of winemakers have reached the highest professional designations for wine professionals; the Master Sommerlier Exam or the Masters of Wine (MW).  Ms. Cadamatre is a finalist for the MW (she has blogged occasionally about her pursuit to pass its notoriously difficult exams).  But her day job as winemaker for the Robert Mondavi Winery is equally challenging.

Even though Mr. Mondavi passed in 2008, and his namesake winery passed rather messily into corporate ownership, the name still evokes Napa, California as the epicenter of New World winemaking.  In this interview, she openly shares the challenges of living up to the reputation he and others established.

Before discussing your first year with the Robert Mondavi Winery, can you tell me a little about your past winemaker experience?

I started making wine on the East coast in Pennsylvania and then in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York.  My husband and I moved to California in 2006 after I graduated from Cornell and I’ve worked at several wineries out here prior to landing my dream job at Robert Mondavi Winery.

How familiar were you with Mr. Mondavi’s wines before you interviewed with them?

I was very familiar with the wines.  I’ve always loved the style of Mr. Mondavi’s wines and it was the 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve that caused me to fall in love with the winery.

Would you say that Mr. Mondavi was a major influence or role model for you?

Mr. Mondavi was a very important role model for me.  His philosophy on wine and life in general was what I saw when I looked at the wine industry.  I still love his quote “Wine to me is passion. It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit.  Wine is art.  It’s culture.  It’s the essence of civilization and the art of living.”  That pretty much sums up my feelings towards wine as well.  I was lucky enough to meet him at the winery before he died and it was a pivotal moment for me.  My deepest hope is that I can continue to help the winery team nurture the legacy that he left us.

Since the Mondavi family sold their holdings to Constellation, there might be some confusion about the nature of the winery today.  Are you still working all the plots the family developed over the last fifty years?  Is the winemaking personnel (other than the Mondavis, of course) still pretty intact?  Are you trying to adhere to their winemaking philosophies or is it more accurate to day the “Constellation-Mondavi” has its own imprint?

Wow that was a lot of questions!  Yes we are still working with the vineyards that Mr. Mondavi and his family developed including the amazing To Kalon vineyard and Wappo Hill, where Mr. and Mrs. Mondavi had their home.  We still work with the same strong group of external growers for our Pinot Noir and Napa Valley programs as well.  That keeps the continuity very strong and makes our winemaking jobs easier because we have such great history with all of our vineyards.

My first week on the job, I only met a handful of people who had been at the winery less than 20 years.  That speaks volumes to the strong culture here at Robert Mondavi Winery.  When so much of the original team is in-tact it bodes very well for continuing the winery’s legacy exactly as Mr. Mondavi would have wanted it.  Since I didn’t know Mr. Mondavi personally, I’m relying on Margrit Mondavi, Genevieve Janssens,  Rich Arnold, and the rest of the Mondavi team to help me understand what Mr. Mondavi would have wanted me to know regarding his vision for the future of the winery.

How much of your interview(s) with the winery do you remember? Did you feel any intimidation stepping onto such an iconic property for winemaking?

All of it and yes absolutely.  I interviewed with six different people for this position and I remember every one of them.  I was 7 months pregnant with my son and it was right before harvest of 2012.  I remember thinking that there was no way that they would pick me for this position given the amount of winemaking talent I’m sure they spoke to about the job.  I was just happy to have been considered for an interview!  Once I got through the first couple of interviews I began to think I actually did have a chance and then I got very excited.  It is the opportunity of a lifetime!

“Napa Valley” wines are so revered throughout the world, but I am guessing even after working just one harvest, you may have discovered some nuances about Napa that aren’t as well known.  What are some aspects about Napa terroir that might surprise even wine experts?

There are so many different aspects and climates in Napa.  Even though it is a fairly small area it offers so many diverse terroirs.  I think the most amazing thing is the diurnal swings or the changes in temperatures from day to night.  I’ve seen it swing 40-50 degrees or more on some days.  It is remarkable that it can be 100 during the afternoon and cool off to 50 in the evening.  The soil formation is also incredible.  The history of To Kalon’s soil is truly remarkable and complex.  I don’t know if anywhere else in the world can boast of the complex soil composition that Napa has.

Can you share some stories/challenges about the 2013 harvest and vintage?

2013 was an amazing year.  The color is phenomenal!  Much higher than anything we’ve seen in California over the past several vintages.  The biggest challenge of 2013 was how quickly everything ripened.  All the varieties seemed to be moving together.  Verasion at To Kalon took one weekend where it normally changes over a week or so.  I left the vineyard on Friday and there was very little color on the reds and came back on Monday and almost everything was through veraison!  I think there was a day this harvest where we picked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet all on one day.  That is very unusual!  It was a fast harvest but I think the wines will show that it was a fantastic year.

What Robert Mondavi wines were you responsible for this year, and when will we begin to see them in our market?

I work very closely with our Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens on all the red wines made here at Robert Mondavi Winery.  We’ve worked together on blending the 2011 Cabernets and the 2012 Cabernets and Pinot Noirs.  2013 will be my first grape to bottle harvest.  The 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the 2012 Carneros Pinot Noir are already in the market so you can pick one of those up wherever our wines are sold.  The 2011 Oakville Cabernet and Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve will be released next fall.  The 2013’s won’t see the market until late 2015 for the Napa Valley tier and fall of 2016 for the Oakville and Reserve Cabernets.

Monday Night Wines – 1/13/14

It was great to get back on the blind tasting saddle again!  My study group was pretty quiet for a few months, but fortunately, a couple of folks sent out feelers just before Christmas expressing an interest in practicing again.  On Monday night we had a few wine newbies and I learned a great deal from their tasting notes.

Our first tasting meeting took place last night at Local Root, where we also enjoyed some delicious locally sourced food thanks to our gracious host Issac.  Definitely recommended if you’re visiting the River North neighborhood.

The first wine was my contribution; the final guess was a SB from the Loire Valley, but another participant pegged it as New Zealand.  One of us said it was “too balanced to be from NZ.”  There was pretty solid agreement on most of the grid characteristics (Clear, Day Bright, Pale, Star, Greenish Hue, On the Nose:  Lime, kiwi, white flowers, pineapple – PLEASE write me if you think this is TMI!)  We all felt more minerality on the palate compared to the nose, and we were pretty split as to any oak treatment.


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And the next wine up was (surprise!)

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Now how weird was that?  We all noted more of that familiar NZ jalepeno on the 2012!

The wine I tried to identify was a very delicate white, with a combination of citrus and stone fruit.  I was all over the (Old) World in terms of ID-ing the grape; the lack of obvious oak and veggie (green beans, celery, radishes on the palate) took me without much confidence to Chenin Blanc from the Loire, but I could also argue for Riesling or Albarino.  Looking back, acid would have probably been higher if the wine were an Old World example of either of these grapes.


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Really?  Well, at least I was correct about the very light touch of oak.

Our first red was one I am pretty sure I have tasted before, maybe not this vintage.  Our taster noticed the orange rim (should have been a major clue), a nose of cherries, mushrooms, cooked apple and some jamminess, which honestly confused me.  There was a certain barnyard quality on the palate, along with medium + tannins.  Another taster mentioned a “fast falloff.”  Very confusing!  I was suspecting a Grenache blend; was sure it was Old World, at least:

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Next up was another Italian wine, I picked up on some bitterness almost immediately on the palate; our taster thought this one has a little age, American oak on the nose, and a nose a blue and black fruit with a touch of cinnamon.  Acid and alcohol were judged medium with more coffee and dark chocolate on the palate.  I thought Pinot Noir was a pretty logical conclusion but that bitterness put me Italy and was convinced it was some kind of Super Tuscan.

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And we were all over the variety map on the last wine.  We all figured it was USA but split between Washington and California. Our notes included full body, black fruit, fried herbs, sage, potting soil, and a jammy, tart feel.  Definitely some American oak.  Merlot from Washington seemed very possible as did Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Fortunately we all received partial credit on the grape!  The base was Cabernet Sauvignon but as you can see in this review (sorry, forgot to get a picture of this one), there’s a little bit of several grapes here!

(This review was for the 2009, but we tasted the 2011.  I suspect the blend is pretty similar).  13.6%

http://www.cheapwinefinder.com/16872/matthew-rorick-2009-dexter-lake-red-blend/

I hope these notes are helpful to you.  If you try any of these wines and have different notes, please share in the comments!

Thoughts on Charlie Trotter

tour10Just some random thoughts on Charlie Trotter.

Best move he made was on Day One in 1987, when he opened.  He named his first restaurant after himself.  Very brave.  At least you knew when you were dining there, you are getting a singular vision, not something cooked by committee.  I also loved walking by his space in Lincoln Park.  I moved a little slower when passing his restaurant on my way to the North Community Bank ATM carefully storing my $962.00 in checking.  Sometimes I would stop and daydream for a moment “Maybe one day . . . “. Mostly I just liked how the restaurant blended right into the neighborhood.  No big signs, (not much parking either), just another dude with a local business trying to make good.

I really wonder if he registered at all with the ninety-nine percent who teach our kids, build our structures, nurse us back to health.  The ninety-nine percent who are the pulse of this or any major city.  Did he personally connect with the masses like Jordan, Daley I, Ebert or Studs?

Tonight on Chicago Tonight, several reporters and past employees, now running establishments of their own, described working for Trotter, and the overall concept of his restaurant.  Just listening to them, it confirmed what I usually free-associated about the place.  It was just not me. When I dine out, I want a specialist.  I desire an intimate look at one, two cultures maximum, through their wine and cuisine.  I am not looking for all-night theatre.  I look at dining out as an appetizer on my way to the theatre.

I can applaud the drive, the work ethic, the never satisfied reach for perfection.  We could all use a little more of that.  Now I’m no psychiatrist, but you have to mix that in with joy, with humor, with grace or really, what is the point?  (And, honestly, if you work all the time with such a fearful look in your eyes, your customers will eventually notice).

I read the Tribune 90% Application for Sainthood/10% Hit Job that came out a year ago. Now look, when I die, I expect whoever writes about me to reverse those numbers.  But I just don’t get the screaming, the Don Corleone management style, the undercutting of employee overtime pay.  I’ve formerly (maybe futurely) worked in the human resources discipline.  Sorry, those tactics give you two strikes in my book almost immediately.

I wish he had the courage to expand a little bit.  No, I didn’t want to see two dozen Trotter’s across the country.  I know a move like that would dilute his brand, and because he was such a hands-on guy, he could never succeed as an absentee owner.  But I would have been first in line for a Trotter’s II; Same dedication to Fine Service, a little more predictability in the menus, maybe pitched to the Middle High rollers as opposed to the Ultra High Rollers who could afford the original.  Sort of like this place.

I’ll close with a video from one of my favorite performers.  We all contribute to or detract from our legacy every day.  For a long time this cooking school dropout nurtured his, and inspired and influenced dozens of cooks, hosts and hostesses, and sommeliers.  We are fortunate that many of them maintain their Chicago roots and haven’t pulled an Oprah. Let’s all inspire each other to reach for his level of greatness, and if possible, leave some of the Drama Stuff at the coat check.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KEe-dA3a4M

Movie Review – “Somm” – Good Attack, Not Much Midpalate or Finish

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Now playing in Chicago, Somm opens in wide release June 21 Now playing in Chicago, Somm opens in wide release and on iTunes June 21.

If you have friends who fancy themselves wine experts, certain names roll off their tongue with admiration or are subject to vigerous debate, just like with people fascinated with movies, politics or sports.  Wine geeks (many actually like the phrase!) can extoll the virtues of superstar winemakers Cathy Corison or Randall Grahm, or argue whether Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker has the superior palate.

And they follow the career paths of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers; those who have reached the pinacle of academic knowledge about wine, and have demonstrated that knowledge over a series of increasingly stressful exams.

The movie Somm introduces us to four men, all I am guessing, in their late twenties or early thirties, as they approach the fourth and final exam in their pursuit to become a Master Sommelier.  Only 201 people have passed this exam, and multiple attempts at it are almost looked upon as a badge of honor within the wine community.

The exam involves an oral quiz about miscellaneous wine minutiae, a Wine Service demonstration, and a blind tasting of six wines; three red, three white.

We watch them at their study sessions, where they pour unknown wines and analyze them according to the official “grid” which offers various categories of descriptors, such as fruit, acid, tannin, and complexity.  The idea is to describe the wines with as much detail as possible, eliminate all but three possible grapes and then offer a final conclusion on the grape’s identity, along with the country of origin and vintage date.

Somm begins very strong, by quickly introducing the four contestants (and their innocent bystanders, aka wives/girlfriends in their respective lives).  Once we understand the gauntlet that’s been thrown in front of them, the film gives us close-up detail as they try to memorize and internalize all the information that may get asked at the exam.  Somm gives us lots of “how” (the score, by Brian Carmody, helps build the tension scene by scene).  If you’re interested in process, and watching seemingly ordinary people pursue a special goal and the pressure that hard work takes on them and their families, Somm will entertain and perhaps inspire you.

But if you work in the wine or restaurant industry, or dream of joining Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, DLynn Proctor and Dustin Wilson at a Masters exam at some point in your career, you are bound to walk out of Somm wishing you could have been wielding the camera, asking the questions that director Jason Wise avoided or at least didn’t make this cut (we can always hope for more footage on the DVD).

We never see the four guys at work (you know, at their jobs that enable them to afford the $995 exam fee, not to mention airfare to Dallas and five days in a hotel).  There’s only brief footage of their respective managers, who I am guessing, must be comparing the upside of having their protegees passing this exam versus having them on the clock doing Sommelier stuff.  The words “customer” and “guest” are rarely spoken by anyone in this movie.

And there is no context provided, very little explanation of why the world needs Master Sommeliers to begin with, or how anyone on Planet Earth produced, tasted and enjoyed wine prior to 1969, when the program was created.

Somm’s most intriguing figure is not one of the main characters, or their female companions, but the fatherly Fred Dame, who earned his MS title in 1984, only the third American to pass the exam.  Mr. Dame is seen coaching these candidates in the arcane skill known as blind tasting, and there is one rather creepy scene where he role plays the part of an obnoxious restaurant customer with an oh-so-smooth student in order to demonstrate what might get demanded of him during the Service part of the three-part exam.

There’s a touching scene (which I wish could have played out longer) where Mr. Dame expresses a certain sadness at all the talented sommeliers he has been forced to fail over the years when he is called upon to serve as a judge at one of these exams.  

But in his role as a mentor and role model to the four men in Somm, you wonder if Mr. Dame enjoys the power he has to watch his charges suffer, all in the name of . . . what?

It’s the “what” and “why” questions that are missing in Somm.  In most fiction movies, you need heroes and villains (or at least adversaries).  Somm has the heroes, but the adversary is this exam, which, let’s remember, is written and administered twice a year by actual people.

And that’s a major missing piece (call it the mid-palate) in this movie.  We hear from several Master Sommeliers, in quick sound bites, but no one sits down with director Jason Wise, to give us the official lowdown from the Court itself.  How exactly is this test written and what separates the four people who passed most recently (May 2013), from the fifty-nine who attempted it but failed.  What exactly does the Court want?

Like many “New World” wines which start strong but don’t endure over the course of a long meal (or movie), Somm doesn’t follow through and develop its protagonists or explore the consequences of their hard work on behalf of the overall industry they represent.