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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.