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Friday, March 18, 2011

A Winery in the middle of Beverly Hills, California?

I always love visiting places that would be impossible to create today. In Europe, these types of places are easy to find and come quickly to mind, the Acropolis, the great Cathedrals, the important castles and so on. These types of projects simply could not be built in today's world. Not only are they cost prohibitive, but they include the type of painstaking labor that no one seems willing to do anymore on such a grand scale.

In our relatively young country, we think of more modest works, like the art deco floor of the Empire State Building or the steel work on the Golden Gate Bridge. Fairly impossible by today's standards.

Recently, I toured a winery that simply could not and would not be created today. It's called Moraga Estate, located in the heart of Bel-Air, California. For those unfamiliar with the area, Bel-Air is part of the "Golden Triangle" along with Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills. The area is replete with some of the largest, most beautiful and expensive homes in Southern California. It's a stone's throw from Candy Spelling's (the widow of Aaron Spelling) home which is the most expensive home for sale in the world at $150 million. This is a nice neighborhood.

Few would dream of building a home there. No one would dream of building a winery there. Too expensive. Way too expensive. Every piece of land is maximized to create the largest home possible on the property. Commit acres and acres to vineyards? Are you kidding? A precious few have one acre, yet alone dozens. Homeowners here dream about large wine cellars, not vineyards. Even the fictionally eccentric Jed Clampett, had he ripped out his cement pond, wouldn't have nearly enough acreage for a winery.

But, 50 years ago, things were different. That's when Mr. and Mrs. Tom Jones purchased the property. Mr. Jones, not to be confused with the legendary singer (although it's not unusual) ran a major defense contractor in Southern California for many years.  Mr. Jones was so impressed with the great wines of Europe that he wanted to grow grapes and make wine on his property that tasted like so many of the great Bordeauxs that he had drunk over the years.

So, he took to some massively inclined hills and started planting Cabernet Sauvignon. Moraga Estate has released wines for several years now and has a loyal following.

They open their gates up but once a year. Mr. and Mrs. Jones are now in their 90's, live on the Estate and desire privacy.  I had the chance to visit and to shoot this rough video of the property.  Although I would love to videotape this property with a professional crew, this gives you an idea of the beauty of the place and the special nature of the property.

As for the wine, one certainly gets the Bordeaux influence in the style of the Cabernets. They tend toward the softer, subtle wines. The Sauvignon Blancs are full-bodied, acidic and Graves-like.

The motto of Private Wine Counsel is "Wine is a journey, not a destination". The journey can take you anywhere, and most likely, to surprising, unusual places. The campy TV show made the zip code famous, but few would expect quality wine in the 90210.

Tipping my cap to Robin Leach:
With Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams,

The Ultimate Wine Scoring System

For those of us well entrenched in the wine world, the professional scoring system has always been a bit of a double edged sword.  One the one hand, the scoring of wine on a 100-point scale from the likes of Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer or the critics of the Wine Spectator have lead to great improvements in the industry. Wine consumers have been drawn to drink and collect wines that they otherwise may not have been introduced to. Obscure or small production wines from all over the planet have been able to gain some recognition because a prominent critic noted their efforts. For many, finding a trusted critic to help navigate through the seemingly endless number of wine choices is an invaluable tool in making purchases.

However, as we all know, the scoring system has created great controversy. Many complain that too many wineries have "Parkerized" their wines, meaning that they create wines in the heavily extracted, fruit laden style that Parker seems to score most highly. Others complain that only a small fraction of the world's wines are reviewed by the most prominent critics which affects the demand and pricing of wines reviewed and not.

And now we find ourselves in the era of the internet where anyone can become a wine critic (This author included).  Scores of new and experienced wine drinkers are now paying attention to certain bloggers and wine reviewers on

For me, I try to read all that I can. I'm interested in the opinions of the amateurs and the professionals alike. But, most of all, I am interested in the opinions of my clients and friends. After all, they are the ones that matter to me most. I don't care what score a wine received if it bombs at one of my tastings.

Unfortunately, I can never quite be sure that my clients and friends are giving me a 100% complete and honest opinion of a given wine. Some people don't feel comfortable criticizing a wine or don't want to be perceived as ungrateful of my efforts. Despite my pleas to not spare me on the truth, I just can never be sure I know exactly someone's opinion. Throw in other factors like what food is being consumed with the wine, the time of day or a person's mood and who knows what score a regular consumer would offer on any particular wine.

So, I have a secret method of scoring wine. It's a crude device, very unsophisticated. But, it tells the truth. Like a blinding light on a torture subject this method gets people to tell the truth and nothing but. What is this unfailing, unflappable wine reviewer? It's the bottle of wine. Simply put, when I open a bottle, the good stuff goes quickly, the mediocre stuff slower, the lousy stuff hardly at all. Rather than score wine on a 100 point scale, I'd like to put a timer on how long it takes to get from the top of the bottle to the bottom and rate wine accordingly.

I know, I know, I can hear you from here, this method doesn't account for the the number of people drinking, their drinking habits, how festive the evening is, etc. However, I think I can control for all of those factors in my head. I know how my friends and clients drink. I can tell by the amount they drink, not only from the bottle but from the glass as to how they are enjoying the wine. I look for other non-verbal clues as well. Like bad poker players, most wine drinkers have "tells". When someone closes their eyes while sipping or smiles or nods their head after swallowing, something good is happening. Frowns, squints and quizzical looks mean the wine is in trouble.

What does this mean to you? If your the type to open wine with a loud pronouncement of a score or the price, stop! Sit back and watch your guests and how they react to the wines you serve. Watch how quickly the wine disappears and look for the non-verbal tells as they consume. Rather than trying to convert your guests to thinking your wine is great, see what is disappearing the most quickly and serve that wine repeatedly.

I'm involved in several wine groups. In one of them, most of the attendees bring very expensive French wines to each meeting. Sometimes, I make it a point to bring something which costs considerably less than the average bottle not to be cheap but to see if the wine's greatness will be appreciated despite the lower cost. I'm happy to report that when the wine has been excellent my group has said so. More importantly, my trusty barometer never fails. Despite there being much more expensive wines in the mix, my bottle is usually amongst the first to be drained.

In the end, wine is to be consumed and enjoyed. If your guests are inhaling the stuff, you've done them a bigger favor than any wine critic could ever do.



Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Check out Roy's appearance on "What's Cooking Today" on CRN Digital Talk Radio!

Roy Newman of Private Wine Counsel appears in studio to discover Erik Hines wine "taste profile".

Here are a couple of clips from the show:

Roy tastes Erik, Mike and Paul on some white wines:

Roy tastes Erik, Mike and Paul on some red wines:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Visit to Kenzo Estate.

A Big, Bold and Japanese take on Napa Valley

California Wine Country is loaded with wineries founded by people who have made money, and usually lots of it, in other industries and have sought to pursue their passion in wine with their particular take and vision.

One of the newest such wineries is Kenzo Estate. Owned by billionaire, Kenzo Tsujimoto,  Kenzo Estate seeks to set the already very high bar of elite wineries in the Napa Valley a few rungs higher.  Kenzo made his fortune in the video game industry as owner of Capcom, Inc. You may know some of his games: Street Fighter, Resident Evil, Monster Hunter and Lost Planet. During my tour, a few wide-eyed moms claimed to have contributed to a wing or two of the winery.

Kenzo purchased a jaw-dropping 4000 acres in Napa in 1990.  Let me repeat, he purchased 4000 acres in Napa Valley. For reference sake, that’s the equivalent land size of FIVE New York’s Central Parks in one of the most expensive farming areas in the World.

From the minute you arrive at the front gate, the concept is made plain to the visitor, no expense was spared in creating this winery. By the time you make the shockingly long drive from the front gate to the winery, you begin to understand how he could have spent 100 million dollars on the property. Let me repeat, $100 million. You also begin to realize that you’ve arrived at a special place.

To quote Fitzgerald, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

As we arrived at the beautiful winery, we were greeted by our very gracious hostess and immediately introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Kenzo and their helicopter pilot who politely excused himself after dropping the couple at the Estate. The very rich are different.
But, though I appreciate F. Scott’s perspective, I have always preferred Henry Ford’s observation that money does not change people, rather it unmasks them. So, I was here to see why and what Kenzo Estate meant to the landscape of California wine.

I was immediately drawn to Kenzo’s national origin. After all, haven’t we been lead to believe that most Asian countries believe that the wines of importance are made in France? Why would a Japanese billionaire make such a huge investment in Napa? Perhaps, it is because he believes that this region is on par with any other wine making region in the World. Or perhaps it was because Capcom’s US headquarters are in San Francisco, so near to Napa Valley. In any event, this type of high profile winery can only help elevate the status of California wine in Japan.

Like a player of one of Kenzo’s video games, at this Estate we must graduate through various levels of intrigue and difficulty to achieve success.

Kenzo's Japanese heritage is woven into the various elements of the winery. Although the architecture is modern there are elements of California, Japan, and Napa present in all that the winery does. The structure incorporates beautiful stones, woods, and glass elements. The 20,000 square foot barrel room alone is worth the visit. Although the property makes a statement that would make an American proud, it also bows in humility, grace and taste.

Kenzo spared no expense in assembling his team. Winemaker Heidi Barrett brings her long-storied resume to the project. Surprisingly, she has a unique perspective on the land: she used to ride horses here when she was a girl. David Abreu, long considered the premier viticulturist in Napa (Harlan Estate, Araujo Estate Wines, Colgin Cellars, Screaming Eagle, and many other “A” list wineries) found a way to grow quality grapes at this site when others failed, namely by digging up four feet of earth to develop consistent soil. Thomas Keller, a long time friend of Kenzo, has pitched in with an on-site Bouchon serving a wonderful menu of sandwiches with the wine tasting ($75 for lunch and 4 wines).

The line up of wines is formidable and likely destined for greatness. All of the wines have been given Japanese names which reflect the wines colors and characteristics. Asatsuyu, meaning “Morning Dew” (2008) is the Estate’s only white wine (and the only white made anywhere by Heidi Barrett). It’s a lovely Sauvignon Blanc. Only 800 cases are bottled. The wine is made in the French style and presents a full mouth feel with rounded and rich fruit. The wine avoids the predominately grassy feature found in many California Sauvignon Blancs and instead opts for lushness and subtle flavors. (91 points).

The flagship wine is called Rindo, meaning "Bell Flower". This (2006 ) is an immediately accessible Bordeaux style blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Many of my visiting group of 8 picked it as their favorite. (91 points).

The preferred blend of Mr. Kenzo is the Murasaki (2006), which means “purple” in Japanese. Evidently the Japanese have several words to describe the color purple. It must be an important color in Japan. (I wondered whether many Japanese are Lakers fans? I mean the Lakers’ colors are purple and gold and their best player is named Kobe!) This wine is a nod to the right bank of Bordeaux with 52% Cabernet Sauvignon and significant amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. This wine displays an intense and significant red fruit palate. However, the young tannins are blocking the long term potential of this wine at the moment. (92 points).

My favorite was “Ai” which means “Indigo” in Japanese. This powerhouse wine (2006) is 92% Cabernet and a cinch to improve dramatically with 5 to 7 years in the cellar. The fruit here is intense and nuanced. It sings from the glass through to a long, satisfying finish. Unfortunately, at $150 a bottle, this wine is very expensive (92 points).

No detail here is overlooked or under appreciated.  The wine labels are attractive and elegant and, interestingly enough, were designed by the Benetton Family, the more traditional one by the elder generation and the more modern by the next generation.

The roll out of the wines has been methodical. The inaugural vintage, 2005, was shipped in its entirety to Japan. In fact, Kenzo maintains a tasting room in Tokyo that sounds like it would be worth a visit should you find yourself in the capitol of Japan. The 2006 in red and 2008 in white is the first vintage available in the U.S.

Only 70 acres of this massive Estate are planted to vineyards but there will be expansion. 30 more acres of vineyards are immediately planned for vineyards and a 15-bedroom guest house is scheduled to be built.

If you ever wondered what it would be like to build a winery where money was no object, then Kenzo is a must see. But beyond the awesome display of design and investment lies a heart of passion for wine and this region.  Although the very rich may be different, they may also be the same but just demonstrate it with more money.

As they toast in Japan, Kampai!


Roy Newman
Private Wine Counsel
July 1, 2010 

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Victory Celebration.

As the Lakers celebrated their second of back-to-back NBA Championships this Summer, I wanted to re-post something I wrote last year to celebrate:

A couple of nights ago, I sat down to watch my beloved Los Angeles Lakers play game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic (The Lakers were leading the best-of-seven series 3 games to 1). During halftime, I was having my dinner and I went to open a bottle of wine.  We were leading so I thought I should open a great bottle in anticipation of winning the World Championship. But, no, I thought, that would jinx the team; we would lose the game, and perhaps even the series because I celebrated too soon. The entire city of LA would blame yours truly. What to do?

I decided to open a bottle that I would have on any average night. Why not? I had been opening average bottles every night of the playoffs, and this had been working well for the Lakers and me and I can be a bit superstitious. Besides, I figured I could always open a truly great bottle once the Larry O’Brien trophy was safely in our hands. 

If you haven’t already noticed, I am a BIG Lakers fan. And, I don’t mean some “Johnny come lately” bandwagoner either.  As a native Southern Californian, I can remember listening to Chick Hearn (the long-time Laker announcer) on my blue solid-state radio in the ‘70s.  Back then, few games were on television and, besides, my Mom thought I was sleeping so TV would have been out of the question.  I listened as great players like Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich ran the floor of the Fabulous Forum.  I was a die-hard fan in the days of Magic, Kareem and Worthy.  When they lost to Boston in Game 7 in 1984, I almost broke my hand after I pounded a table in frustration.  I lived and died with the Shaq-Kobe teams of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  While I was on vacation in Prague in 2002, I scoured and found the only bar in town that was broadcasting game 7 against Sacramento and watched it in its entirety…. the game STARTED at 2:00 am local time!

So, you can understand my glee as I watched the clock tick down in Orlando as the Lakers celebrated their 15th NBA title as a franchise.

As is tradition, the Lakers poured Champagne on one another in the locker room to celebrate this momentous occasion.  I wonder, how many of you were first introduced to Champagne by watching a sports celebration?  I also wonder how many of you were watching and thinking as I was, “what kind of Champagne is that?” Anyway, I thought back to a trip I took to Reims and Eperney (the Champagne region in France) in 1998.  The folks there told me that they were striving to have Americans see Champagne as something more than just a wine to drink in times of celebration. Mind you, they’re happy that we drink Champagne to celebrate, but they would really like to see us drink the stuff every day.  Despite their best efforts, most Americans mostly drink Champagne (and, certainly the most expensive ones) on special celebratory occasions, like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve.

Come to think of it, most people only drink their very best wines, be it Cabernet, Pinot Noir or other varietal, when there is a reason to celebrate or remember.

Even on special occasions some folks balk at opening their best wines.
The excuses are many. Perhaps the person being celebrated wouldn’t appreciate a great wine (yeah, right), or the wine they’re thinking about may not be at its absolute peak drinking period, or maybe it won’t be a good match with the food they are having that night.

What if we all stopped thinking of reasons not to open our best bottles and, instead, thought of reasons to open our best?  Let’s embrace our celebrations and make them even more memorable by drinking some of our best wines. After all, there will most likely always be another great bottle of wine in your collection.

As I reflect back on my Lakers, I have seen them win 10 NBA championships. 10!  I have a good friend who is 73 years young and a lifetime Chicago Cubs fan. During his lifetime, the Cubs have never won the World Series. Never. I wonder what bottle he would open if the Cubs finally won? 

Whether you are a Lakers fan or not, I encourage you to incorporate wine into your celebrations. The next time your team wins a game that matters to you, find something special to open.  Think about your life victories as well. The next time a loved one walks out of a hospital or an x-ray turns out negative think about taking time to celebrate.

There are many moments in life to cherish. I encourage you to open your wines generously to add to the celebrations of those moments.

By the way, the wine I opened to celebrate the Lakers Championship? Two bottles: A 2002 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1999 Chateau Rieussec Sauternes. Why? Well, one wine is purple in color, the other gold, and, of course, those are the Lakers colors; and, 2002 was the last time the Lakers won the Championship and I wanted to reflect on and remember that year.  Both were terrific wines and excellent pairings with the sweet taste of victory!

Here’s to your celebrations.



Copyrighted Material 2009 by Roy Newman, Private Wine Counsel