Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Choosing of Suburban’s Wine of the Year….A Study in Endurance.


Many have asked how we go about Michael put some pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard):

With the holidays wrapped up, and our 2010 Wine of the Year sold out (we have ordered more), I thought it would be interesting for our readers to have a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the process of choosing our winning wine. And I assure you, this is no simple task.

As you may have read when ’07 Mocali Mirus was announced in early December, the wine was actually discovered by Lance and George independently at a NYC trade show way back in the spring. It is normally the case that we begin to think about the next Wine of the Year (WOTY) shortly after the turn of the new year, as the trade show season begins, and as the sales reps from the 100+ wine distributors we do business with begin to reveal their latest offerings right at our desks. It’s a long shot that a wine we taste in January will still be available in November, but simply discovering a hot producer will ignite a spark in our heads that stays lit all year. Throw in a few blind taste-offs, and don’t forget our own wine consumption outside of work. Before it’s all over, we’ll have tasted 10,000 wines collectively, generating an intimidating vinous sea of possibilities to reference in retrospect. But creating all this work for ourselves will make that one final selection all the more special.

Fast-forward to mid-autumn; The WOTY discussions begin, primarily between Lance, George, Jason and me. We start to brainstorm about all of the wines that made a huge impression on us during the year, and we investigate their current status. We also begin the process of assembling samples of all the contenders. Many of the wines in the game are also considered as our individual staff WOTYs, and at times, one of our personal WOTYs is a wine that was eliminated in the final round for Suburban’s WOTY. Above all else, the contending wines must meet certain qualitative criteria to even be part of the mix in the first place.

In gathering our samples, we also consider the market-ability of what will ultimately become our WOTY. This by no means involves any dumbing-down of the selections or even a thought of playing politics or going commercial by sticking with “safe brands”; Quite to the contrary…..our WOTY is always a wine that is very “Suburban-esque”, meaning a wine whose quality is inside the bottle, not just suggested on the outside. We are also careful not to choose a wine that is too “geeky”, or of uncommon origins, regardless of the high quality (I think it’s safe to say that Austrian Blaufrankisch is out of the question as a Suburban WOTY for the time being).

The other WOTY factors to consider are the availability of the wine (we wouldn’t want to tout our prized selection, and be sold out of it by the next morning), the style of the wine (since our WOTY is revealed as we enter the cold months, you may notice that it’s almost always a red wine), and the price range (which should be reasonable, but not in the cheap zone). The wine should be an exceptional take on a particular terroir, be of small-to-medium-sized production, and offer not just an exemplary price/quality ratio, but come with a fun story or commendable background. So, as you may have begun to realize, the WOTY selection process is not just another taste-off!

Finally, as the moment approaches in early November, we make some last-minute eliminations (sometimes with solemn lament), narrowing the field down to the final dozen. We then have an independent 3rd party conceal the bottles in paper bags, numbered 1 thru 12. After the wines are packed into a case and crammed into the trunk, the four of us are off to lunch, where we’ll put these picks to the ultimate test…..alongside food! Traditionally, the deal went down at the local restaurant The Heights, which sadly closed in ’10. But for this year’s assessment, we were excited to dine with our friends at the brand-new Thyme, on Crompond Road in Yorktown Heights.

After we sat and settled in for our prearranged gathering, outfitted with 3 glasses each and plenty of dump buckets, we uncorked the bottles and entered into a trial tasting round, without food. In our first sample-and-spit session, we were disappointed but not surprised to discover that no less than 3 of the 12 wines suffered cork-taint (that’s 25%!)….quite an alarming but simple way to narrow it down to 9 players. Some outstanding thin-crust pizzas were served, followed by a delightful bistro-styled meal. Throughout, we continued to taste, analyze, and even conjure a few guesses as to which wine was which, until our dump buckets were overflowing. We each kept independent notes with our impressions and speculations, anticipating where this all will lead us.

As our meal was in progress, we unveiled the wines one-by-one. Collectively, we had guessed correctly on only 2 out of the 9 wines….all the rest had fooled us! We loved them all, of course, but began to eliminate-- based this time solely on aesthetic appeal, including how food-friendly they were, and where they stand within their drinking windows. After some supplemental deliberation, and a few more tastes, it became clear that Mirus was the winner. That was when the phone call was placed to secure our allocation of a wine that would be imported exclusively for Suburban. I snapped a quick picture (seen above), and began to write the wine’s review in my head. The process was now complete (Whew!).

History was made once again, and like with most great events, full bellies ensued. But more importantly, we had once again employed a time-honored, bias-free approach to bringing our customers a special wine that represents a composite of our staff’s palates and preferences. The results are priceless, and the process so fascinating and unpredictable that we’re excited to get started again. Who knows which WOTY 2011 will bring us? I already tasted a pretty good one last night….. –Michael Koehler

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