Archive for June, 2011


Wine Blogging in the Old Dominion

Posted on Jun 28 2011 | By

Growing Number of Commentators Mirror Growth of Industry

Little more than a decade ago, if you wanted an opinion about a bottle of wine you needed to consult a handful of nationally known publications or your local wine merchant.  No longer.

Today, wine evaluation has become the domain of anyone with a blog and a desire to share their thoughts on the latest winery visited or wine consumed. Most blogs are interactive so visitors can comment on the author’s views.

But what exactly is a blog?  It’s a blend of the words web & log and is essentially an online journal maintained by anyone with an interest in…anything.  Given the inclination of folks to share their opinions, bloggers have exploded on the scene.  In 2011, an estimated 156 million blogs were in existence worldwide.  Today, there are over a thousand wine bloggers on the internet posting observations and reviews.

Given all this devotion to vinous products, one might assume wine lovers are hanging on every word bloggers write.  Think again.

While there’s not a lot of research behind who is and who is not relying on wine blog advice, a British web site, Wine Intelligence, created a bit of controversy this past February by positing that its market research showed, “Bloggers are one of the least trusted sources of wine recommendations.” The report stated only 1 in 5 regular wine drinkers in the UK trusted what independent bloggers had to say about wine compared with 50% who trusted the advice of a wine merchant.  In the United States, 80% of wine drinkers said they place their confidence in merchant recommendations.

Moreover, the online magazine Palate Press opines wine bloggers are failing to reach a meaningful size audience.  It states the top 100 wine blogs in the Nation enjoy aggregate traffic of 865,000 unique visits a month, or about 30,000 hits a day.  Sounds like a lot, yes?  But consider that there are 40 million wine drinkers in the U.S. and at that level of activity even the most popular bloggers are reaching less than half a percent of their audience.

Having said that, some two-thirds of U.S. regular wine drinkers surveyed do seek information about wine online.  Apparently, while individuals know the internet can be a valued source for gathering wine information, the conviction that bloggers can steer them in the right direction is low.  Time might overcome some of this reticence as trust grows in the hardest working bloggers who are providing the most cogent and useful reviews.

Old Dominion Blogs
Here in Virginia, there are over twenty blogs devoted to critiquing Old Dominion wine.  The growth of the phenomenon parallels the surge in wineries statewide, which now totals almost 200.  Most of the blogs are journals in the truest sense since they share experiences about winery visits and wines.  Typically such sites describe how the writers were treated by tasting room staff and their perception of the wines poured.

This is where Virginia bloggers provide significant value added. Their observations are not solely about wine but about the entire wine experience and are often accompanied with photos or videos.  These oenophiles regularly navigate the highways and back roads of the Commonwealth evaluating everything wine related so the horde of weekend wine warriors can maximize their precious free time.

The merit of Virginia blogs may well be enhanced in the aggregate.  If a wine lover is planning a day of winery hopping, a quick review of multiple web sites should paint a relatively accurate portrait of both the atmosphere and wines at any given establishment. By tracking the number of positive impressions, quality wineries can be identified and the information used as a handy itinerary planner.

So Why Blog?
In probing Virginia blogging, a few common observations emerge as to why people blog. For most authors—but not all—their work is an enjoyable hobby and a way to share their wine experiences.  There is also a bit of vanity press involved; it’s undeniably fun to be “published” without an editor’s approval.  Often the blogs are initially created to organize and document wine travels or simply as an outlet for creativity.  Most bloggers do not consider themselves wine professionals but passionate and knowledgeable amateurs.  If any income is derived from the work, it is modest and simply covers expenses; bloggers have full time jobs that pay the bills.

The free information scribes generate can come with a price tag.  In the beginning, the gratification of attracting readers and exploring new subjects is stimulating.  But as traffic grows, a blogger soon realizes if the site begins to gather cobwebs it will not gather readers.  Our culture demands fresh and new everything.  Todd Godbout, who writes at Wine Compass, summarizes it nicely when he says, “If you do not post; they will not come.  And in addition to the writing, weekends are usually devoted to traveling in search of fresh material.”

Frank Morgan, writing at Drink What you Like, says, “Since this is purely a hobby for me, I feel no pressure to post new entries or make money.”  Morgan, who works for an aerospace firm and travels 100,000 miles a year, uses a lot of his flight time to write.  Notwithstanding his disclaimer of feeling little pressure, his site recently reflected eleven substantive entries over a two month period.   A fair dollop of devotion is needed to hold down a full-time job and produce interest worthy blogs.

Most nationally known wine blogs typically publish at least three times a week and review thousands of wine a year.  Loyal followers develop a “feed me” mentality that demands new content in exchange for readership, often at only modest remuneration for the wordsmiths.  Morgan explains, however, “When I retire, I may consider a career in the wine industry.  So in that sense, my hobby could ultimately reap a financial reward.”

Paul Armstrong at Virginia Wine Time reinforces that he and his partner Warren Richard, “… feel no pressure to write our blog even though we are posting two or three times a week. It is still fun for us. We do not write professionally so passion drives our keyboard. We have, however, scaled back a bit on winery visits because of the rising cost of gasoline.”

The married authors of Swirl, Sip, Snark, bill their blog as “The Best and Worst of Virginia Wine”, and keep readers updated on the state’s expanding industry sans rose-colored glasses.  Since their observations can range from laudatory to critical they travel incognito and post their observations at a demanding pace of five times a week. “It’s an emotionally rewarding pastime but definitely a commitment.  We find the interaction with our readers incredibly reinforcing and feel we’re building a virtual community.  But to keep the dialogue going we must keep initiating the conversation.  And if gas climbs much higher we’ll be forced to ease up.  This is a hobby.  The return on investment is supposed to be fun not expensive,” says one of the masked critics.

But for some it’s not just a hobby.  Rick Collier and Nancy Bauer have created a unique web site called Virginia Wine in My Pocket.  It’s both a blog and an “app”, or software application, and is the only iPhone and iPod Touch travel guide for everything wine in Virginia.  The guide includes information on wineries, wine trails, B&Bs, dining, and GPS mapping.

As a modest money making endeavor, it comes with a commitment of some 25 hours a week just for their Virginia wine application. Crank in another 25 hours for other travel related apps they’ve created, and the couple clearly feels the pressure.  Like many bloggers, Rick laments, “When a week goes by without a post, we get embarrassed and start to feel like slackers; especially in view of how prolific some Virginia bloggers are.”

But there are compensations.  “It’s a lot of work keeping our wine app current.  But traveling around Virginia wine country is better than writing the great American novel.  It’s provided us a reason to explore the beauty of our state and get connected in a real way with the life cycle of a bottle of wine,” explains Nancy.

The blogger strikes again

This writer blogs at Hagarty-on-Wine and views it as a retirement hobby.  After writing about wine for local newspapers, a friend suggested the articles be archived on a blog and offered to build the site at no cost.  One possible downside for writers is the time spent in front of the computer researching and writing.  Blogging can become a benign addiction that some spouses find a bit annoying.  Around this household when the question is posed, “Are you back on the computer again?” it’s the signal to sign off and spend time in real-world conversation.

One of the common refrains heard by many bloggers is that anyone considering writing on wine needs to commit themselves to studying the topic.  Writing only on Virginia offers the benefit of focusing on a subject near at hand; not an insignificant advantage considering that on any given day there are over 55,000 national and international wine selections for sale in the United States.  Centering one’s attention on a single state takes a lot of work off a blogger’s radar screen.

As with any movement, like-minded individuals form groups.  This July 22, in Charlottesville, hundreds of wine bloggers from around North America will descend on Thomas Jefferson’s home town for a three-day symposium.  The event will focus on the intersection of wine with the world of blogging and social media.  The fact Charlottesville was selected as the location for this major conference reflects the growing respect Virginia wine is garnering nationally.  Individuals interested in learning more about the conference can visit Wine Bloggers Conference.

And if you’d like to take a peek at the Nation’s most popular blogs, visit Top 100 Wine Blogs. But caveat emptor.  If writing a blog is addictive, reading them can become an obsession.




Here are Virginia’s current wine blogs; “current” being a relative term since new entrants seemingly appear monthly.

Beltway Bacchus

Cellar Blog

Charlottesville Uncorked

Drink What You Like

Kristy Wine Vine

My Vine Spot

Hagarty On Wine

Swirl, Sip, Snark

Richard Leahy’s Wine Report

Running Wine Girl’s Blog

Virginia Wine Dogs Blog

Virginia Wine Girl

Virginia Wine In My Pocket

Virginia Wine Notebook

Virginia Wine Snob

Virginia Wine Time

Virginia Wine Trips

Virginia Wine TV

Vin In Virginia

Vineyard Visuals

Wine About Virginia

Wine Compass Blog

Published in the Summer 2011 edition of The Piedmont Virginian.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Impressive Rendition of Virginia’s Up and Coming Grape

The Wine
This past February, I posted an article on the potential for Petit Verdot becoming the Old Dominion’s star grape.  I interviewed several of the state’s respected vintners who all agreed the berry was attracting the attention of a rising number of wine lovers.

Recently, I had the pleasure to again taste why this exotic wine is turning heads in the Commonwealth.  Chateau O’Brien’s winemaker, Jason Murray, has created a gorgeously inky 100% Petit Verdot with aromas of layered black fruit and lush spice notes.  On the palate black cherry with a veil of cinnamon and spice predominate, leading to an extended soft finish of silky tannins.

The wine was aged for 24 months in French Oak and has been moving out of the tasting room at a rapid clip.  Proprietor Howard O’Brien advises limited quantities of the ’08 are still available.  Otherwise, it will be a year before the 2009 effort will be released.  I’d suggest you stop by the tasting room soon if you want to score a bottle.

The Food
A big, bold wine needs the comfort of a juicy steak, right?  Yes, but.  I love going against convention and found that Baked Dijon Wild Atlantic Salmon fillets were equal to bringing out the best in this smooth red.  Why?  First, the salmon was full bodied and favorable.  But its depth was intensified with a glaze that included butter, Dijon mustard, honey, bread crumbs and chopped pecans.  It was a classic example of a dish’s intensity being magnified by its ingredients.  It was accompanied with spring asparagus.


  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 4 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 4 (4 ounce) fillets salmon
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 lemon, for garnish


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
  2. In a small bowl, stir together butter, mustard, and honey. Set aside. In another bowl, mix together bread crumbs, pecans, and parsley.
  3. Brush each salmon fillet lightly with honey mustard mixture, and sprinkle the tops of the fillets with the bread crumb mixture.
  4. Bake salmon 12 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until it flakes easily with a fork. Season with salt and pepper, and garnish with a wedge of lemon.
Categories : WINE ARTICLES

On Becoming a Master Sommelier

Posted on Jun 10 2011 | By

Love of Wine is only the Start to Becoming a Member of this Elite Profession

You’ve spent ten minutes perusing the wine list at a high end restaurant and still can’t come to closure.  Simply too many wines.  So how do you easily select a bottle that will best accompany your party’s dinner?

Ask to see the sommelier. That is, if he—and increasingly she—hasn’t already visited your table.

A sommelier, say some-mel-yea, is a trained professional whose job includes selecting wines for a restaurant’s list and then managing the purchase, storage, sales and service of the inventory.  At moderately priced restaurants, the wait staff often will serve as a wine guide, helping diners choose a bottle based on stated preferences.  But the gap between a helpful waiter and a certified sommelier is Grand Canyon in size.

Whether the position is called wine manager, wine steward, director of wine or sommelier, the numero uno task of these pros is providing you the best advice on a wine that will take your dinner to the next level of enjoyment.

Sommelier is French for wine butler.  The name dates to the middle ages and denoted a court official responsible for the transportation of supplies.   Exactly how it morphed into wine expert is a bit vague as is often the case with language.  Today, the meaning is unequivocal; a person who has their wine act together in the extreme.  And if you are a Master Sommelier, the act is all Broadway, bright lights and applause.

So let’s flip roles for a moment and pull you out of your comfortable dining chair and place you in front of a couple eager to hear your cogent wine advice.  What skills and training would provide you the authority to counsel a table on the merits of a 2003 Left Bank Bordeaux over a 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape?

First, you must have an acute ability to accurately smell and identify blind a host of foods and beverages—coupled with a gifted memory. Of course, this basic criteria has already eliminated the majority of possible candidates.  But wait. Don’t sit down.  For the sake of our exercise, we’re going to assume you possess both of these traits in abundance.  It’s called raw talent and it’s waiting to take you to the next step on your sommelier journey.

With a love of wine and the physical attributes to suss out aromas and flavors from food and drink, you’ve decided to become a certified sommelier.  And not just a run-of-the-mill one. Your goal is to become a Master.  In other words, you want to be a wine rock star.

There are four levels of examination in becoming a Master. The exams are administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers in the United Kingdom and testing in held in both Europe and the United States.  Levels I & II are courses with exams given after one and two day sessions and include a small blind tasting.

Level III is where the fun begins.  The course requires three days of intensive lectures and tastings conducted by a team of Masters followed by a two day exam. It includes written theory on wine knowledge and a blind tasting of six wines using the Deductive Tasting format.  So far so good.  You’ve passed all three levels and there is nothing wrong with taking any of your certified ratings and going to work.  But since center stage is calling you, the real challenge commences.

Level IV consists of three parts and can only be undertaken after passing the first three. The exam includes practical restaurant wine service and sales; detailed theory on serving of aperitifs, their ingredients and production methods; proper selection and use of stemware; menu content and pairing, and demonstrating a high degree of efficiency in serving wines, brandies, liqueurs and other spirits.

Part two requires the candidate to speak with authority on wine regions around the world; know the principal grape varieties; answer questions on international wine law; display expertise on fortified wines, beers, ciders, and cigar production, and understand the proper storing and serving of wine.

Part three involves the blind tasting of six different wines and identifying the grape variety, country of origin and vintage.  This requirement by itself can often be a showstopper.  “Wait a minute. Do you mean I need to say the wine I tasted was a 2004 French Northern Rhone Syrah?”  Yep.  Except you have to do it six times in a row with different wines.

The Court of Master Sommeliers Diploma was introduced in 1969 and only 171 people worldwide have been awarded the title in forty-two years.  Today, there are 74 active Masters in the Americas and 25 in Europe. In February 2011, six of the newest members were welcomed into the ranks of this prestigious organization.

Listen to just one of the honorees, Anthony Anselmi, as he discusses his preparation for the test:  “In the two months leading up to the exam, I did a blind tasting every day to hone my skills. When I learned that my exam was scheduled for 9am in Texas, I had to change my studying schedule accordingly.  I woke up at 5am in California so that I could begin my practice tasting sessions at 7am sharp, so I would be properly prepared for the exam itself,” Anselmi explains.

The six professionals who were awarded the honors in Irving, Texas spent a collective thirty-five years in preparing for the exam.  You can’t pull an all nighter with this test.

OK.  By now you’ve realized you are unlikely to become a vino rock star and are permitted to return to your dining seat.  In reality, it would be rare to even encounter one of these uber tasters at a restaurant because of the rarity of the title, so don’t take your failure too hard.

Whether practiced at the highest level or simply as a knowledgeable waiter providing straightforward advice, all of us can appreciate the skill and commitment of anyone trained to say with confidence something like, “I would recommend the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Our thanks to the experts.


Published in the 2011 winter edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES