Jason Tesauro, aka www.themodgent.com, describes how a certain 1,200-page book shepherded him and 100 other tasters from Agiorgitiko to Zweigelt.
Quick, name a wine grape that starts with the letter Q.
Now name one that starts with Y or J.
Remember Julie and Julia, the book and movie in which a food writer cooks every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking? Last October, as I perused Wine Grapes, the monumental tome weighing 3 kg (6.6 lb), the notion of a wine version of this feat hit me. No, I would not in my lifetime likely taste all 1,368 vine varieties named in the book by Jancis, Julia and José Vouillamoz, but couldn't I at least assemble 26 varietal wines representing each letter of the alphabet?
Two baker's dozens. How hard could that be?
Thus, a historic event was born: GRAPETIONARY A-Z. My plan wasn't just to do it for myself, but to curate an epic affair at the sixth annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival: an afternoon luncheon featuring five courses and 26 wines. While we're at it, why not host this tasting at Vineyard in the City, the first ever pop-up urban vineyard in the USA?
By March, I'd completed my first wish list of off-the-wall grapes that I wanted to showcase. Abbuoto, a rare, thick-skinned Italian red wine grape, is the first in the book (p 3) and Zweigelt, Austria's most common red, is the last (p 1177). Between these bookends, I dreamt of extolling Moldova's beauty with a spicy, tannic Fetească Neagră; spotlighting Provence's hidden gem of Tibouren; and exploring Japanese and Korean viniculture with a light red Yamabudo.
Only two of those made the final cut. The more I dove into the book, the more it informed my final selections. It wasn't enough just to put on the is-it-obscure? lens. As I considered varieties, I put on the colour lens, the style lens and the country of origin lens. Italy, France and Spain alone account for nearly half of the book's grapes, but Wine Grapes names varieties from 42 countries. In the name of geographical diversity, my final line-up consisted of wines from 13 countries and an assortment of styles appropriate for a long afternoon of tasting: 12 white, six red, three sparkling, two rosés, two sweet and one orange. Aside from the sweets, only one wine topped 15% alcohol and most hovered around 12%.
Not that anyone knew this when they signed up. Within three days of announcing the event – weeks before the wines were finalised – it was sold out, in part, no doubt, because of the five vaunted chefs who'd be preparing our A-Z luncheon. They assured that even if the vino was plonk, the victuals would be peerless.
By late April, our panel of somms and wine pros was set and seating was capped at 100. Helping me spread the gospel of Wine Grapes for that afternoon would be Master Sommelier Scott Harper, Certified Wine Educator Julie Dalton and wine expert and importer Bartholomew Broadbent (son of Michael). The plan was to welcome guests with a refreshing cocktail, invite them under a tent for grapes A-H, transition to a seated lunch paired with grapes I-V, and then finish on our feet out in the vineyard with W-Z. Somm friends publicly shouted 'it's brilliant!' while privately texting 'it's crazy!'
By 1 June, two days before the event, all of the wines were confirmed, but only a handful of the 26 had actually reached Atlanta. Half of them, I knew, were with a courier en route from my kitchen in Richmond, Virginia, where I'd been stockpiling A-Z wines as I hunted and gathered for weeks from a slew of sources. The rest remained in the hands of UPS and FedEx, including my letter W, for which Wine Grapes lists but one variety: Würzer.
As it turns out, only one pallet of New Zealand's Seifried Würzer makes it to North America. And it's only available on the West Coast. I begged the importer for one case and at first he turned me down arguing the wine was too precious. But I didn't give up and he generously agreed to send it. Two days before the event, the wine still hadn't arrived. I phoned the importer and it was immediately overnighted. The next day, I checked the delivery, but they'd sent the wrong wine! It was after 7 pm in Atlanta, but thanks to the time difference on the West Coast, the importer had just enough of a window to send the right wine overnight. The Würzer arrived two and a half hours before the event.
According to Wine Grapes, there are but two Q vine varieties in the world: Quagliano and Quebranta. One is responsible for a little-known Italian sparkling red DOC, Colline Saluzzesi, and the other is one of the Peruvian grapes distilled into pisco. I struck out with Quagliano, but could find not a single bottle of it in the United States, nor an Italian producer who'd return my enquiries about shipping some. I then started to look for a 100% Quebranta pisco and decided that a proper Macchu Pisco Sour would make a refreshing aperitif to kick-off our killer tasting on a hot day. Once we had whetted our whistles, we were off to the races.
Before we poured a single splash of Greek Agiorgitiko, however, I gave a brief lesson in the art of spitting and told attendees that if they wanted to make it to Z, they would positively have to share some wine with the spittoon. 'It is way more lady-like to spit', I assured the attendees in Atlanta, 'than to slur'. The next three hours were glorious communion: swirl, sniff, fellowship. Repeat x 26. Amazingly, we all made it to Z with nary a spilt glass, overturned chair or passed-out guest. And aside from an occasional dullard or outright clunker, the wines ranged from curious to luminous. Mission accomplished. How successful was it? A week later, Forbes.com published a story by Cathy Huyghe entitled The Most Unique Wine Event I've Ever Experienced. If you'd like to learn which particular wines moved me, or if you'd care for a peek behind-the-scenes of Grapetionary A-Z, I recommend a read.
Naturally, there were a few bottles left over. I filled the bathtub in my hotel room with ice, posted my room number on social media and shared the wines with as many people as would fit in my room. I'll never forget the thrill of those Friday and Saturday night afterparties featuring somms, chefs, millers and distillers gathering around my loo-cum-enoteca for their first mouthful of Jacquère, Negrette, Tibouren and Yapincak. Yes, wine is serious business, but must it be taken so seriously? I can't quite conjure 1,368 reasons to demystify wine, but – thanks to Jancis and company – I'll always be able to name at least 26 ways to do so.
The next chapter
If Grapetionary A-Z sounds like something you'd like to experience.…
I'm hoping to organise more of these events. Stay tuned to grapetionary.com for details.
A-Z - the numbers
260 bottles 14 importers and distributors13 countries8,929 miles. Furthest travelled wine: Seifried Nelson Würzer 2014, Redwood Valley, New Zealand. Nelson, New Zealand, to Oakland, California, to Atlanta 476 miles. Least travelled wine: Barboursville Vineyards Vermentino Reserve 2014. Barboursville, Virginia, to Richmond, Virginia, to Atlanta, Georgia.1: Number of W grapes listed in Wine Grapes – Würzer.2: Number of Q grapes listed in Wine Grapes – Quagliano, Quebranta.
In their own words…
Julie Dalton, CWE, Advanced Sommelier: 'Loureiro! What a deliciously fragrant, refreshing and affordable wine. That and the Vinoterra Kisi were the wines of the day for me. Obscure varietals make me all gushy inside. All of the wines you showed were definitely affordable. It shows that wines from all over the world and from all grape varieties do not have to be expensive. It also worked out that most wines were on the refreshing side – considering we were out in the sun, we definitely needed that.'
Bartholomew Broadbent, Broadbent Selections Inc: There were a number of revelations and astonishments about this tasting. One, the venue, in which was the seemingly impossible planting of 20-year-old vines, transplanted into the centre of Atlanta, filling a space the size of Parson's Green. But a revelation, or more of a confirmation, is that today, the wine consumer is all about finding the obscure, the weirdest. As Chateau Musar was trailblazing in opening the eyes of the sommelier community, today this excitement has been adopted by the hipster movement yearning for unusual grapes. Consumers under the age of 35 have no brand loyalty because they are intellectually turned on by new discoveries, but the revelation was that most attendees were well over 35 years of age and truly excited to learn about diversity. I think it revealed that Jancis's book is the essential guide to the experimental consumer, not just a reference book for the advanced sommelier.
GRAPETIONARY A-Z: 3 June 2016 Atlanta, Georgia
Agiorgitiko Aivalis Vineyards, Nemea Agiorgitiko 2014 Peloponnese, Greece
Blaufränkisch Glatzer Blaufränkisch 2012 Niederösterreich, Austria
Coda di Volpe Vadiaperti Coda di Volpe 2014 Irpinia, Campania, Italy
Durif Mettler Family Vineyards Petite Sirah 2013 Lodi, California, USA
Emir Turasan Emir 2015 Cappadocia, Turkey
Furmint Királyudvar, Tokaji Furmint Sec 2013 Tokaj, Hungary
Gamay Jean-François Merieau, Bois Jacou Gamay de Touraine 2012 Loire Valley, France
Hondarabbi Zuri Bodegas Arzabro, Arabako Txakolina Luzia de Ripa 2014 Txakoli de Alava, Spain
Insolia Valle Dell'Acate, Tenuta Ibidini Insolia 2014 Sicily, Italy
Jacquère Pierre Boniface, Les Rocailles Apremont 2015 Vin de Savoie, France
Kisi Schuchmann, Vinoterra Kisi 2012 Kakheti, Georgia
Loureiro Aphros Loureiro Vinho Verde 2014 Lima, Portugal
Malagousia Avantis Estate Malagousia 2013 Evia, Greece
Negrette Jérémie Mourat, Grenouillère 2014 Val de Loire, France
Obaideh Chateau Musar Blanc 2008 Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Petit Manseng Michael Shaps Wineworks Petit Manseng 2015 Virginia, USA
Quebranta Macchu Pisco Quebranta, Ica Valley, Peru
Ruché Crivelli Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato 2015 Piedmont, Italy
Sercial Broadbent Sercial Madeira, 10 Years Old NV Madeira, Portugal
Tibouren Clos Cibonne, Cuvée Tradition Rosé 2014 Provence, France
Ucelùt Emilio Bulfon Ucelùt 2008 IGT Venezia Giulia, Friuli Grave, Italy
Vermentino Barboursville Vineyards Vermentino Reserve 2015 Virginia, USA
Würzer Seifried Nelson Würzer 2014 Redwood Valley, New Zealand
Xarel-lo Juvé y Camps, Essential Xarel-lo Reserva Brut 2013 Penedès, Spain
Yapincak Pasaeli Winery Yapincak 2015 Thrace, Turkey
Zweigelt Markus Huber Zweigelt 2013 Traisental, Austria