Fine Wine Blog

A California State-of-mind

1st December, 2015

Matt Thompson, International Sales and Buying


(Above: Mountain vineyards in Caifornia’s Napa Valley.)

“What’s the best wine you’ve ever had?”

“What’s your favourite wine?”

I’m sure many us have been asked these questions time after time. For me, they are impossible to answer: I could probably tell you the five most memorable wines I’ve ever had, and the style or region I’m most enjoying at any given time, but never anything as specific as one favourite wine.

However, if it came to the crunch and I could only fill my cellar with wines from a single region, I would answer “California” in a heartbeat. This often raises an eyebrow or two among Bordeaux drinkers, and inevitably leads to questions and statements about style, quality, age ability, Robert Parker… It’s definitely a case of looking beyond the label, literally and figuratively.

Recognising the heritage and spiritual home

The wines of California are too often overlooked or dismissed by those of us who might stick to Bordeaux for their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends. Given Bordeaux’s prestigious history and roll-call of famous Châteaux along both banks of the Gironde, why settle for anything less than Cabs and Merlots from their spiritual home? With centuries of experience behind their belts it’s not unreasonable to suggest the Bordelaise winemakers have the know how to produce the best ‘Bordeaux Blends’.

However, there are some interesting parallels between Bordeaux and California. Not only have they played a vitally important role in each other’s history with the exchange of root stocks and vines, both have bounced back from the brink of devastation. For Bordeaux, it was the devastation caused by the phylloxera pest in the late 19th century that destroyed virtually every vine across Europe and meant replanting the vineyards from scratch. For California, it was a man-made influence that all but killed the production of quality wine, in the guise of prohibition! Before this law was invoked there were incredible wines being produced in the vineyards planted by the 18th century Missionaries, but production came to a grinding halt once prohibition came in to effect. Even when the law was repealed in 1933, economic depression and the impending war meant that the industry remained all but forgotten. However, in the 1960s, riding on a wave of national positivity and economic growth, California began to rediscover its identity and the first generation of wines worthy of their peers in Bordeaux were produced.

David vs. Goliath tasting

The famous (infamous?!) Judgement of Paris Tasting in 1976 proved beyond a doubt that the best Bordeaux blends and Chardonnays could compete with France’s elite Châteaux and Domaines, and a string of incredible vintages through the mid- to late-1990s – and eye-catching scores from Mr. Parker – saw the region back in business when it came to fine wine.

It’s also telling that some of the great producers and Château-owners of Bordeaux have looked West for inspiration in the last few decades. From Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s collaboration with Robert Mondavi to form Opus One and Christian Moueix’s (of Petrus) purchase on the Napanook vineyards to establish Dominus in early 1980s, to Francois Pinault’s (of Château Latour) much publicised purchase of the Araujo Estate in 2013, the Bordelaise have seen how far the region has come and what a wealth of diversity is on offer.


(Above: Hundred Acre’s Few and Far Between Vineyard) 

It’s this final point that has fuelled my passion for the wines of California. With the best will in the World, a drive through the Médoc doesn’t exactly offer a wealth of beautiful views. It’s essentially a series of rolling, fairly featureless hills and woodland with the occasional, albeit it often breath-taking, Château along the way. It doesn’t scream ‘terroir’ in the quite the same way maybe Burgundy does. However, what a contrast the Napa Valley is: the region’s vineyards are located within 16 distinct AVAs (American Viticultural Areas – the equivalent of France’s AOC system) spread along a 30 mile valley floor flanked by the imposing Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the east, at elevations of up to 792 metres above sea level. The variation and diversity in soils and microclimates in unimaginably big, and the cooling effect of seas breezes and fogs from either end of the valley add to the wines’ complexity.


(Above: Vineyards on Bordeaux’s Left-Bank)

Throw in significant vintage variations, and you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about Bordeaux!

There’s also a great sense of freedom, passion and adventure in California that is expressed in the wines and the winemakers – a level a charm and bonhomie that’s rare to find in other corners of the globe. For me, the combination of history, innovation and ever increasing quality is irresistible.

So, what’s the best wine I’ve ever had? I’d be hard pushed to choose between Château Margaux 2009, Hundred Acre’s Ark Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 and Leflaive’s Le Montrachet 2011. Or maybe Harlan Estate 1996… Or maybe Château Mouton Rothschild 1986… or maybe Vérité’s La Joie 2008 (I think you can see where this is going)…

Tags: bordeaux, california, Robert Parker, cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, gironde, bordelaise, bordeaux blend, judgement of paris, opus one, petrus, dominus, araujo estate, hundred acre, medoc, terroir, AVA, AOC, mayacamas, vaca, howell mountain, mount veeder, oakville, rutherford, st helena, yountville, napanook, vintage, chateau margaux, Domaine Leflaive


There can be very few who have not baulked at the extreme mark-ups on wine demanded by many of the world’s restaurants. Whether it’s a 3 Michelin Star establishment or a rustic, local family-owned place, the frequent 70% mark-up has finally got diners up in arms and they’re calling for a revolution.

For years, the restaurant sector shrugged off the concerns of consumers who have been expected to put up with it. However, with the ‘bring your own bottle’ (BYOB) movement spreading around the world’s top gastronomic cities, can we expect this to be the norm in the future?

What is BYOB?

Originating in low-end restaurants that were often perhaps unable to secure an alcohol licence; the BYOB movement became popular with trendy pop-up restaurants and allowed customers to feel involved in their dining experience by bringing bottles of their own wine. Eventually gaining momentum in New York during the 1990s, the trend quickly got picked up in Asia and Europe. However, fine dining establishments in London and the rest of the UK have only recently become more open to this idea.

It’s a start, but is it enough?

Foodies who were serious about pairing wine with gastronomic delights wanted to avoid the significant mark-up, and would end up compromising on the wine choice that would have perfectly matched the quality of the food being served. In the past 5 years though, BYOB has been adopted by some mainstream establishments and top Michelin Starred restaurants.


However, often those restaurants that do allow BYOB might prefer to avoid openly advertising the privilege, so many customers would not think to ask. As a result of this, if a customer has a special bottle of wine they have been aging in their cellar, they may decide to stay at home and cook rather than celebrating at their favourite eatery.

Essentially, I got fed up of being mugged by punitive London mark-ups on fine wine… I was no longer prepared to pay the egregious, nonsensical prices that were being asked…In the end, I just ended up drinking wine at home and at friends’ dinner parties.” -  AWC Client Grant Ashton, 67 Pall Mall Founder and CEO

There’s little doubt that allowing BYOB can also be beneficial to the restaurant; Some restaurants have made some progressive steps by allowing BYOB, for a small corkage fee, at lunch or dinner on their quieter days. Not only does this help to keep their tables full, but if a customer invites friends, family, colleagues or clients, then they too could potentially become customers in the future. 

Creating the ultimate gastronomic experience

However, the paradoxical view might be that dining out at a top restaurant is an enjoyable and memorable, sensory experience. Browsing the wine list whilst mulling over the menu adds to the excitement of the occasion, and also offers the opportunity to discover new delights with the guidance of a knowledgeable sommelier - clearly a key source of pleasure when dining out.

Whatever a customer’s motivation for wanting to bring their own bottle, many restaurateurs have responded to the trend, such as: Chiltern Firehouse, which is currently one of London’s most exclusive restaurants, 2* Michelin, The Square in London, 3* Michelin, 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA in Hong Kong and 3* Michelin, Eleven Madison Park in New York.


Above: Chiltern Firehouse - currently one of London’s most exclusive restaurants.

Top restaurants like these and many more, are already allowing customers to bring their own wine (for a corkage fee), while also offering more choices by the glass or carafe, have more variety of wines, wine pairing menus and with the invention of the Coravin device, are able to provide the opportunity to drink older and rarer wines without having to buy the entire bottle.

Allowing BYOB is certainly a positive step by restaurants and we’re increasingly witnessing more demand for it. We’re regularly asked and we manage this on an individual basis. If a customer wants to bring a particularly special bottle, and we’re informed in advance, we’ll consider every request and only ask for a suitable corkage fee.” – AWC client Romain Audrerie, Head Sommelier at Chiltern Firehouse

Dine in or dine out?

Today’s wine consumers are increasingly more knowledgeable about fine wine than ever before; with many building cellars and significant wine collections at home – (previously highlighted in First Press).

Perhaps 25 years ago dining out was one of the few ways to drink and learn about fine wines. However, as the trend for drinking and storing more wine at home has evolved, driven by the democratisation of wine through the internet and other media, the role of the restaurant with regards to wine is also evolving. Discerning wine enthusiasts are clearly no longer inclined to pay the large mark-up, so the traditional model will need to change. We anticipate that BYOB will become widely accepted, but will this be enough?

What do you think? Share your thoughts via the button below.


Tags: bringyourownbottle, BYOB, finewine, AWC Fine Wine, Stephen Williams, chilternfirehouse, The Square, Grant Ashton, 67 Pall Mall, restaurants, pop-ups, pop-up restaurants, 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA, london, new york, hong kong, europe, asia, Eleven Madison Park, First Press

Author: Nick Palmer, Buying Analyst

On Tuesday 6th October AWC Fine Wine buying’s team were invited by Moët Hennessy to taste the new release of the 2006 vintage of Dom Pérignon with their oenologist & winemaker Vincent Chaperon. Taking place in London at M restaurant, just a few streets from the Bank of England, I gratefully accepted their invitation.

Vincent Chaperon works alongside Dom Pérignon’s Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy, overseeing 600 hectares of Grand Cru and 1er Cru vineyards as well as nurturing and maturing its extensive cellars. He has seen many changes come through Champagne over the last decade, and used the tasting as an opportunity to talk about the wider issues the region faces, including climate change, the influence of technology and the global economy.

The effect of climate change

The 2006 was shown alongside a vertical of the four most recent vintages (2002 – 2005). This is the first time in Dom Pérignon’s history that it has been able to offer five consecutive vintages. It made for a fascinating tasting - the quintet offered a complete spectrum of styles that was in many ways to tasting a flight of white Burgundies vintages. You could really see how the variations of each growing season affected each wine. Vincent pointed out that this is entirely intentional; Dom Pérignon’s ultimate goal is to create an expressive, individual wine every year (remember they declared a 2003 when most other houses did not), and Vincent believes the changing climate of the region will allow them to achieve just that.

Since the 1990s the effects of climate change have had a noticeable influence on the whole Champagne region. Ripeness levels are up, yields are more consistent, and the impact of botrytis has drop dramatically (we were told that in the 1970s it would not be unusual to lose between 50% and 70% of the crop to botrytis, now a loss of even 15% would be a shock). Longer summers have also allowed harvesting to take place over a broader period, allowing individual plots to be picked at the optimal time rather than rushed in before inclement conditions arrived. The diligent checking of ripeness levels across vineyards and selective picking has long been the norm for premium producers in other regions of France, but only in the last decade or so has this been possible in the northerly latitudes of Champagne.

How the vintages compare

The 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintage were categorised by Vincent into a trio of distinctive groups:

2004 is on its own as the most restrained of the recent vintages, showing what Vincent referred to as a ‘classic’ level of ripeness and a high level of acidity. I thought it was delicious with plenty of oyster shell minerality on the nose and a taught, lean energy. It has shut down somewhat since I last tasted it and will need a few more years for its biscuit and hazelnut richness to show through. Unfortunately vintages in this style will become increasingly less frequent due to climate change.

2003 and 2005 lie at the other end of the spectrum. These are concentrated, broad wines with structure and weight that need time to evolve. Their showy fruit masks their acidity and structure when young but it is most certainly there. I thought the 2003 in particular has really evolved from a few years ago, throwing off its abrupt exuberance for a rich, plump brioche character. The upcoming P2 release of this wine (formerly known as Oenothèque) should be extremely interesting.

2002 and 2006 are, in Vincent’s words, about texture and succulence. These are vintages made from fruit that was able to acquire complexity and concentration right across the growing season, striking a balance between fruit, minerality and weight. Much like the superstar 2002 at release, the 2006 is deliciously drinkable now yet has all the components to grow into a seriously good Dom Pérignon. Meanwhile, the 2002 is now an absolute knockout – layered, rich and rounded with supremely long, well balanced finish. A few years in the cellar should allow the 2006 to shed its puppy fat and join it as this level.

I thank Moët Hennessy and restaurant M for their hospitality; this was a fascinating and enlightening tasting.

Dom Pérignon’s new 2006 release is available from AWC Fine Wine on allocation – click here for more details.

Tags: dom pérignon, 2006 dom perignon, Nick Palmer, AWC Fine Wine, Oenothèque, Vincent Chaperon, Richard Geoffroy, Champagne, Champagne climate change, Champagne Vintages, wine tasting


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