Why Tastings Work

In my "day job" as director of the charity wine festival VeritageMiami, my colleagues and I recently wrapped our 20th annual event, an occasion that combines equal parts of exhaustion and exhilaration for all of us who spend a good part of the year working toward this four-day denouement. There is something novel-like about the festival in its slow build toward an exciting conclusion, and we know that the “conclusion” is actually just a prelude to doing it all over again, striving to make the next time even better.

VeritageMiami is a four day event encompassing two dinner and two tastings. I have to say that it seems to me this year’s VeritageMiami was the best yet – the Craft Beer Tasting that opened the event was enormous fun and very educational. We had nearly 50 breweries and 25 restaurants at Miami's colorful Wynwood Walls for a vibrant kickoff, and the following night nearly 70 wineries joined another 25 restaurants to give wine lovers a chance to have a similar experience.

My new friends from Curious Traveler Brewery

My new friends from Curious Traveler Brewery

These tastings are especially intriguing because the breweries and wineries send pourers who really know their products, understanding that the attendees at both events want to talk about the producers and their production techniques. Well, up to a point – a cold beer or a chilled rosé is an end in itself on a warm Florida spring evening. I came away from both tastings having discovered some great new products I hadn’t known before – I loved Curious Traveler’s beers, and was really excited by some Belgian style ales I found at Wynwood Walls. And at the wine tasting, it was great fun to catch up with the team from Washington’s Mercer Estates Winery that won an unprecedented four gold medals at Best in Glass.

Also at the wine tasting, two pavilions grabbed enormous attention. One, Wines of Israel, was chock full of discoveries, wines with a long tradition that are still completely new to most American (and many international) consumers. Next door, importer Rick Musica joyfully poured a ravishing alberiño called 2 Amigos that went on to win the audience award that night for best wine at the fair. Albariño is usually a bone-dry white from Riax Baixas in the nortwestern Spanish region of Galicia. What I (and apparently a lot of others) particularly enjoyed about 2 Amigos is that while it is dry, it is fruitier than many albariños. It still has the flinty acidity we prize in this wine, but with that added level of fruity freshness, this is a very approachable wine that is lovely on its own or with food (everything from ceviche to grilled fish). 

With Argentine winemaker Edu Pulenta

With Argentine winemaker Edu Pulenta

Sharing the space with 2 Amigos was Edu Pulenta, a third generation winemaker from Argentina who absolutely stunned me with the quality of wines from a region I’ve visited and thought I knew. Pulenta is a master of cabernet franc, a grape that in his hands is going to get new respect I think, but in truth I was captivated by his entire portfolio. The chance to discover these wines is one very good reason to come to a festival-style tasting. In-store tastings are fine but generally only let you try a small number of wines. At a festival you can sample not only many wines, but many interpretations of a single region or a single grape variety, and often discuss your explorations with a knowledgeable winery rep in the process. This certainly was the case with Edu Pulenta, who passionately describes the technical innovations he and his family incorporate to preserve a stunning degree of freshness in their wines without giving up any intensity of flavor. My favorite white in his lineup is a silky pinot gris that neatly straddles the Alsatian approach of focusing on the grape's richness and the Italian style of emphasizing a light-weight balance of fruit and acidity. 

What we wine and beer lovers discover at tastings is that being a brewer or vintner is a craft, a skill and a continuing pursuit of excellence – no matter how long wine has been made in an area, there is still honing the craft, finding the very best location, the perfect method. Walking among the wineries, I had a fleeting memory of a passage by another wine lover, a European who kept a journal on his first visit to California wine country. He wrote:

"Wine in California is still in the experimental stage…. The beginning of vine-planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: the wine-grower also ‘prospects.’ One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure; that is better; third is best. So, bit-by-bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and (Château) Lafite. Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire, those virtuous Bonanzas where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry."

The soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry.
— A California Wine Lover

That’s what we are all looking for isn’t it? A kind of revelation in which one careful prospector finds gold in a vine or in a vat and through some strange alchemy transforms it and shares it in our glass? I had moments like that at both the craft beer and wine tastings. If you made it to VeritageMiami this year, I hope you had similar moments, and if you were not able to join us, I hope you will have some similar insight at your favorite wine bar, and that you might join us next year.

Oh, yes, the quote. Who was that intrepid, journal-keeping Scot who fell in love with California’s wine culture? The passage above was written by Robert Louis Stevenson when he spent his honeymoon in Napa and Sonoma…in 1880. You see, wine has its own sense of the eternal, and some core values have hardly changed in 135 years.