The Society of Wine Educators

SWE New logo wtext



The Society of Wine Educators is a membership-based nonprofit organization focused on providing wine and spirits education along with the conferral of several certifications. The Society is internationally recognized, and its programs are highly regarded both for their quality and relevance to the industry. 

The mission of the SWE is to set the standard for quality and responsible wine and spirits education and professional certification. 

Taste-Along Saturday: The Many Faces of Valpolicella



This coming Saturday morning, October 29th, at 10:00 am central time, we are pleased to offer the second in our series of taste-along SWEbinars: The Many Faces of Valpolicella: A Taste-Along Webinar, presented by Jane A. Nickles, CSE, CWE.

Grab yourself four bottles (Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone della Valpolicella, and Recioto della Valpolicella) and join us for a tour through the history, the grapes, the DOCs and DOCGs, production methods, and styles of Valpolicella! If you don’t have the wines (or don’t feel like tasting), join us anyway as this session is sure to be both educational and entertaining!

Here are the four wines (a “grocery list” of sorts) that we will study (and taste) during the session:

  • Valpolicella (Jane will be tasting Sartori di Verona Estate Collection Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC 2012)
  • Valpolicella Ripasso (Jane will be tasting Bolla Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore DOC 2012)
  • Amarone della Valpolicella (Jane wll be tasting Sartori di Verona Corte Brá Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2008)
  • Recioto della Valpolicella (Jane will be tasting La Salette Recioto della Valpolicella Classico “Pergole Vece” DOCG 2011)



Click here to download the session handout: the-many-faces-of-valpolicella-handout

Login Instructions: At the appointed time, just click on this link: Saturday, October 29th – 10:00 am central time: The Many Faces of Valpolicella. Link will go “live” on or before October  28th. There is no need to register in advance.

When the SWE Adobe Connect homepage appears, click on “enter as a guest,” type in your name, and click “enter room.” Remember that each session is limited to 100 attendees, and that several of our past sessions have reached capacity. We are hoping to avoid this issue in the future by offering more SWEbinars, but it is still a good idea to log on early!

  • If you have never attended an Adobe Connect event before, it is also a good idea to test your connection ahead of time (just click on the link).
  • If you are having any trouble with your Adobe Connect connection, please see our SWEbinar Trouble-shooting page. If you have any questions, please contact Jane Nickles:

Click here for the 2016 – 2017 SWEbinar Calendar

SWE’s SWEbinar series is unique in that it is offered free-of-charge, and open to the public! We also try to accommodate all schedules by offering sessions on weekdays and weekends, as well as daytime and evening hours. Sessions last for about one hour, and are live, interactive events.  If you have a topic you would like to see addressed, or a time-of-day that would work for you, please let our Director of Education, Jane A. Nickles know via email at

Meet the Board: Valerie Caruso, FWS, DWS, CWE

Valerie Caruso, FWS, CWE

Valerie Caruso, FWS, CWE

Last August, at our annual conference, SWE welcomed its new Executive Committee and Board of Directors.  While many of our board members have served for quite a few years, there are also some new faces in the group as well.  Today we’d like to introduce you to one of our new board members, Valerie Caruso, FWS, DWS, CWE…and thank her for her service to the Society!

Valerie retired after 25 years in the Air Force and moved to Italy a few months later to study wine at an international hospitality school. It started as a personal travel and learning adventure for a wine lover, but turned into much more. She was only back in the states 90 days before returning to Italy to study advanced Italian, speak on a collaborative book project about Tuscan wines, and then proceeded to another international culinary academy in France.

In 2010 Valerie began doing private tastings for friends and military spouse groups, and the following year started a business doing in-home tastings and while working with direct-to-consumer sales for a Napa winery. It was in 2012 when she discovered the Society of Wine Educators and the CSW program, and also when she started teaching wine tasting classes in Colorado Springs. She credits her first CSW preview that year as the moment that learning bug would formally establish itself as the desire to not only further her own education, but to bring others along for the exciting wine education ride.

Val has since established her own wine education company, Vino With Val, LLC, where she provides customized tastings for private and corporate clients and even organizations and tour groups. In 2015, she launched the Wine Two Five podcast with fellow CWE Stephanie Davis. Together they built a strong wine media presence and brand as well as a worldwide community of engaged listeners who want to be entertained, educated, and empowered as consumers. Val’s time is now largely consumed nearly full-time as executive producer, content writer, and host for the weekly show which can be found on iTunes, IHeartRadio and many other destinations.

After attending the 2014 conference and the CWE preview, Val knew she’d found her wine education home. She has since contributed to SWE’s popular SWEbinar and Certification Summit program as a presenter. Many of the SWE’s own professionals have found their voices warmly welcomed on the Wine Two Five podcast by the listener base to help spread the word as well, and affectionately refers to the friends she’s made at SWE as her “tribe” and believes strongly in the mission and spirit of the organization.

In her time on the board, Val would like to continue to proudly carry (some would say shamelessly promote) the torch of SWE to those who seek quality wine education and community, especially online for those who don’t live in the most restaurant-and study-group-rich locations.  Just as she has for those who have reached out to her for mentoring—particularly veterans who find her online—she is  determined to be instrumental in expanding the study resources for wine learning and contribute to the excellence in the SWE’s educational endeavors.

Welcome, Valerie!


Meet the Board: Marc DeMarchena CWE, CSS, CHE

Marc DeMarchena CWE, CSS, CHE - a newly-elected member of the SWE Board of Directors.

Marc DeMarchena CWE, CSS, CHE – a newly-elected member of the SWE Board of Directors.

Last August, at our annual conference, SWE welcomed its new Executive Committee and Board of Directors.  While many of our board members have served for quite a few years, there are also some new faces in the group as well.  Today we’d like to introduce you to one of our new board members, Marc DeMarchena…and thank him for his service to the Society!

Marc DeMarchena CWE, CSS, CHE is a newly-elected member of the SWE Board of Directors. Mark is currently an Associate Professor of Beverage and Dining Services with the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University. During his 18 years as an instructor, Marc has taught a variety of classes, including Foundations of Wine and Spirits, Principles of Beverage Service, Dining Room Supervision, Contract Food Service Management, and Old World Wines.

Many of our members have met Marc throughout his 18 years of involvement with SWE, including our conference speakers who have found Marc to be a true life-saver in his frequent role as our Conference Audio-Visual Liaison.

Marc was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in Bordeaux last summer as part of this third re-accreditation as a Bordeaux Wine Tutor. He describes this journey through Bordeaux, hosted by the L’ École du Vin de Bordeaux, as a “dash between all the subregions visiting and tasting the deliciousness along the way.” He goes on to say that “this captures what I love about wine education.  The connection to the culture—seeing, feeling and tasting how it transcends into our subject matter—is simply fabulous.”

When asked how he sees his role on SWE’s Board of Directors, Marc replied, “My 18-year relationship with the Society has given me so much opportunity to connect to the world of wine. I would like to share that community with future members and help them see the value of our organization’s ability to light their beverage passion. It is pretty amazing to have witnessed the past decade of growth and educational programing that the Society offers. I believe my years managing in the food and beverage business and my time teaching at the university level can bring a combination of skills that will be useful to the Society as we face new opportunities and challenges.”

Welcome, Marc!


Guest Post: Moonshine Goes Modern!

Today we have a guest post from Harriet Lembeck, CWE, CSE. Harriet tells us the story of how she came to deliver a lecture of Moonshine for this year’s 40th Annual SWE Conference, and tells us how it went!



Why Moonshine?

I was recently invited to judge Moonshines for The Fifty Best, an on-line Wine and spirits ratings magazine, whose website gets over 1 million monthly page views. Through the process, I learned that Moonshines are diverse, varied, and so interesting, and I wanted to share this info. Publisher and Founder William Rosenberg was kind enough to give me the contact info for the Gold and Double-Gold medal winning Moonshines, so that I could create this presentation with the best of the examples.

“Moonshine” is a catchall name for un-aged white whiskies, usually distilled from corn. As I learned from going through the 14 that we tasted at the Conference, contrary to that casual definition, some Moonshine happens to be aged, and others aren’t even made with corn!


According to David Fleming, Executive Editor of Market Watch, Impact and Shanken News Daily, demand for Moonshine leveled off in 2014 after an initial rise in 2012. While the big spirits brands may be leveling off, there is no drop in enthusiasm from the top players, and also the smaller producers. Many are going upscale, playing to sophisticated tastes, and trying to lose the “hokey” character. Many are craft distillers. Others still package in jars and jugs.

Distilling moonshine is a simple process, requiring only 4 main ingredients: corn, sugar, yeast and water. Barley, rye, or fruits may be used, and even hogfeed is not unheard of. Simple pot stills do the job. Further, there is little emphasis on aging or maturation. Some future Bourbon producers are making Moonshine to tide them over, while waiting for their Bourbon to finish aging.

From George Washington, who built a grist mill in 1770, and returned to Mt. Vernon, VA (where he planted Indian corn and rye) in 1797 after his Presidency; through the Whiskey Rebellion (which occurred after Alexander Hamilton showed Congress that it could use its power to tax [repealed in 1801]); through Prohibition (1920 -1933); and to today – when distilling is now legal, distillers’ taxes are collected, and distillation is done in daylight, and not “by the silvery moon” – Moonshine has been part of Americana.


If you want to learn how to distill nowadays, and your grandfather is no longer around to teach you, there is Moonshine University in KY, where a 5-day Distiller Course will set you back $5,000-$6,000. Students say it is definitely worth it. Colin Blake, its Creative Director, warns that any illegitimate distilling flirts with breaking more than 100 state and federal laws. Small wonder that students gladly pay their tuition!

In order to get an official definition of Moonshine, I turned to the ‘Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits and Amendment’ (Code of Federal Regulations – Chapter 4: Class and Type Designations), and – surprise – there is no regulation for Moonshine! I saw an ‘Amendment’ from February 2013, and I thought a definition would be there, but it turned out to be for Caçhaca, a type of rum, and a distinctive product of Brazil.

So there is no legal definition for Moonshine, and I believe that’s how everyone wants it! The taxman is very happy that he can collect taxes without being threatened!



For our SWE Moonshine tasting, Bill Lembeck reduced all the proofs by 50% with high-quality bottled water. We ditched the crackers, and served organic, unsalted popcorn. In addition, Bill created the artwork, with a bottle shot superimposed on its home state for each moonshine. Click here to download a pdf of our guided Moonshine tasting, including tasting notes for the 14 different products tasting during: harriet-lembecks-moonshine-tasting-notes-august-2016

One final note: Attendees were loved this session, and were impressed with the uniqueness of the topic, and the range of products tasted!

HarrietHarriet Lembeck is a CWE (Certified Wine Educator) and a CSE (Certified Spirits Educator – a new designation). She is President of the Wine & Spirits Program, and revised and updated the textbook Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers and Spirits. She was the Director of the Wine Department for The New School University for 18 years. She can be reached at h.lembeck@

Are you interested in being a guest blogger or a guest SWEbinar presenter for SWE?  Click here for more information!


Guest Post: Montefalco Sagrantino

Montefalco, Italy

Montefalco, Italy

Today we have a guest post from Steve Armes. Steve is a wine-loving artist who resides in Irving, Texas. In this article, Steve takes us along on a trip to Montefalco, in Italy’s Umbria province, where he discovers the lovely countryside and architecture of the region – in addition to the area’s wine.

“In the horse race that is the Italian wine scene, the field is populated by the usual suspects. In the straight, Brunello di Montalcino leads by a length, followed by Amarone and Barolo in a dead heat. You can bet across the board on these. But my money is on a dark horse that is on no one’s preferred list: Montefalco Sagrantino.  Focus on the backstretch and look for this wine to finish in the money.

Montefalco (mountain of the hawk) is a small town tucked away in central-eastern Umbria, half way between Spoleto and Assisi. Encircling this walled city are 250 magical acres where God, man and Mother Nature collaborate to produce a little-know grape that is about to shift our wine paradigm: Sagrantino.

Although the origin of the grape is unclear, with some researchers attributing its birth to Asia and others to Greece, this variety is quickly becoming Italy’s next rock star. We know that behind every great grape is a sublime terroir, and this is no exception. Montefalco is surrounded by the Apennines, and its playground is an admixture of clay with limestone and sand. The hot summers there are ameliorated by a cooling breeze known as la tramontana (the north wind). The grape is ancient, but its reputation is young. How, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately wine universe is this possible? The answer is one of vinification.

57044157 - italian vineyard in autumnal foliage and sagrantino grapes


Unlike Brunello di Montalcino, which was sitting around in the cellars of Tuscany waiting for enologists to stumble upon it in the late 70s and make it an overnight sensation, Sagrantino languished in obscurity. Vintners often made Sagrantino in the passito style, drying the berries on straw mats prior to fermentation, making them raisin-like, which increased the sugar and the resulting alcohol content—the latter often exceeding 14%. But as wine cognoscenti will aver, the 1970’s brought a great change to the juice universe and tenacious growers of this region were determined to bring out the grape’s full potential. Discarding the older methods, visionaries of vinification began to make the wine in the secco or dry style, transforming it from a sweet wine into a bold and tannic contender. The wine would earn DOC status in 1979, and DOCG status in 1992. The Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG is approved for both dry (secco) wines and passito wines with between 80 and 180 grams/liter of residual sugar.

Sagrantino, with its deep garnet color, foretells a nose of blackberry, violets, and other floral scents. The palate reveals itself to be full of plum, lingering earthiness, and spice with a finish that will make tannin-lovers go wild. In its dry (and most popular) form, it can be a big, big wine. The grape is one of the most tannic of extant varietals, and will pair with a range of dishes as well as with spicy entrees. Or, savor it alone and decipher its amazing complexity and balance. It cellars well for at least a couple of decades, and in most versions, can profit from being opened and allowed to breathe for hours.


Those of us who have sipped our way through Italy know that the best Italian wines can be costly. But the manna from heaven in this promised land called Italy is that these premiere wines are also produced in a junior version which is made affordable by either an admixture of lesser grapes or a shorter aging period. Examples are Amarone/Ripasso, Brunello di Montalcino/Rosso di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano/Rosso di Montepulciano. Following suit, Sagrantinos await the wine enthusiast in 3 forms:  The passito style, which is still available, the secco Montefalco Sagrantino , both of which contain 100% Sagrantino, and the Montefalco Rosso DOC, which contains 10-15% Sagrantino blended with Sangiovese or other grapes. The dry Sagrantino di Montefalco is aged for 37 months, including 12 in oak. The sweet version is also aged for 37 months (with no minimum requirement for oak). Montelfaco Rosso DOC has a minimum aging requirement of 18 months (30 for the Riserva, which includes at least 12 months in oak).

To trek through Italy is to make un giro di gusto, a taste tour. In Montalcino, the world revolves around Brunello. In Montepulciano, vino Nobile flows from the tap. And anyone who has taken an excursion through Tuscany is familiar with the strada in chianti, and the tour bus from Florence to Siena that stops in Greve so tourists can consume Chianti Classico, the delectable poster child of Italian wine. But the people of Umbria have been taking notes. What they have learned is that tourists long to travel through the rustic campagna to discover for themselves the next great culinary Arcadia. It seems that the Umbrians know what is coming, so they have created La strada del Sagrantino. All roads leading to Montefalco host signs with the best logo I have seen of all Italy’s strade del vini (wine trails).


As you encounter the fare in the area, you will find that their world revolves around the grape (as in Montalcino). There are lenticchie (lentils) soaked in Sagratino, cheeses produced in similar fashion, so that the rind is the garnet red of the wine, even Sagrantino jelly. Walk into a shop in Montefalco, and they will be only too happy to offer you a sample of Sagrantino, but will also force upon you salumi e formaggi  (salami and cheese). Typically, shops will have about 15 to 20 different bottles of Sagrantino di Montefalco and 8 to 10 rossos. We saw few passito or sweet versions, but they are certainly available. As we gravitated toward the rossos, we were quickly told that they were misti (meaning “blends”), and we assured them that we understood. The rossos start at around 12 Euros, and the Sagrantinos begin just over 20 Euros. The 250 acres that spawn Sagrantino do not allow for a large yield, so the wine will likely stay in limited supply. And even though some prescient grapesters are experimenting with it in Tuscany, it will perforce be a different wine, for the elements that make up terroir differ  from mile to mile, if not from acre to acre.

As I wade through the travel magazines and blogs, I see that Tuscany is no longer the destination du jour, and that Puglia and Sardegna are the new hot spots, which is fine in my opinion, for I will continue to frequent Tuscany, hoping to find fewer tourists there. But the unavoidable truth is that Umbria, and Montefalco in particular, is going to be on the short list of savvy travelers. This region, known for such attractions as Lake Trasimeno, a popular sporting destination, and Assisi, the best-preserved medieval walled city in Italy, is poised to become the next Mecca for eager globe-roamers. Information is available from the Associazione Strada del Sagrantino, Piazza del Comune n.17 06036 Montefalco, telephone 0742 378490, email

Although it is unimaginable now, growers of Sagrantino nearly plowed the vines under, intending to replace them with more profitable varieties. But they didn’t. And thus they have given us Sagrantino di Montefalco, the best Italian wine you have never heard of, saving it from being the best Italian wine the world would never know.

Come to think of it, the Italian wine world really isn’t like a horse race. Horse races are loud, frantic and fast. Italian wine is more like a leisurely afternoon stroll through the dappled sunlight on a dirt path that separates the olive groves from the vineyards, the breeze carrying the ancient aromas of growth, fruit, and rebirth. And the Italians have caught it all and put it in a bottle.

Copyright Steve Armes 2009

Steve Armes is a classically trained painter who travels to Italy to paint the landscape. He is an ardent student of wine, with a particular interest in Italian wines. You may see his work at He lives in Irving, TX.

Are you interested in being a guest blogger or a guest SWEbinar presenter for SWE?  Click here for more information!



Guest Post: Vinifera is the new Black



Today we have a guest blog post from Elizabeth Miller, who takes a step back and looks at Vitis Vinifera from the “big picture” point of view. Read on – its very interesting!

Congratulations wine regions of America, you made it!  You’ve graduated from being an emerging wine region and are now enjoying widespread commercial success and the respect you deserve.

How did you do it?  By mastering Vitis vinifera.

In the American wine industry, vinifera is the new black.  A wine lover might take this for granted, until he or she realizes the bounty of non-vinifera native grapes growing on the American land mass.  Despite this, it seems that only through mastering the imported vinifera that a wine region earns commercial success and respect.  I must ask: why does making it in America mean making vinifera?

Vinifera in a Land of ‘Other’

From sea to shining sea, the Lower 48 is a deluge of wine grapes, with the widest variety of wild grapes on the globe.  Of the eight species of grapevines in the Vitis genus noted for wine, six are native to North America, while only vinifera is native to Europe.  Despite the numbers game, the powerhouse species from across the pond is viewed as the most legitimate amongst all the grapevines in America.



The Path to Success

America is now producing more wine than ever, and wine is made in all 50 states. Since the 1960s the modern industry has been born anew and grown rapidly.  In my research in preparation for an upcoming Society of Wine Educators webinar “Emerging Regions of the US”, a pattern became quite clear…

First, Vitis vinifera is planted in a young wine region.  This decision is greeted with a mix of optimism and skepticism, and many people are dubious that vinifera can grow in a particular place or climate.  Over time, viticulturists and winemakers learn about how vinifera interacts with a specific place, how best to cultivate it, and what authentic palate will be expressed from the region’s terroir.  Then the magic happens!  Articles are written, gold medals are bestowed, and the emerging region starts seeing sales in larger markets—first state, national, maybe even international!

Sometimes this path to success has a pioneer.  In the 1800s, Agoston Haraszthy introduced many new vinifera varieties to California, and 125 of them are still found in California today, earning him the title “Father of Modern Viticulture in California.”  We know how it turned out for California!



On the opposite coast, Dr. Konstantin Frank advocated for planting vinifera in the cold region of upstate New York in the 1960s, despite opposition.  Riesling became an early winner.  As I discussed in a recent Society of Wine Educators webinar, “I’m in a New York State of Wine”, the state rapidly grew and achieved national renown just a few decades later.

Many states are poised to leap into the limelight… with vinifera in hand.  Grapevines have grown naturally in Texas along rivers and streams for thousands of years.  The industry began on a commercial scale in the 1970s and today it’s ranked sixth nationally in number of wineries.  The land bears one of the most diverse arrays of grapevines on earth, yet, the commercial industry is 99% vinifera!

What’s Going On?

To understand why the imported Vitis vinifera has emerged as the king in a sea of native species, we can look at several factors:

  • Vinifera is tried and true.  Humans are known to have interacted with vinifera as far back as the Neolithic period.  The Latin root of the word literally means “wine-bearing.”  The idiosyncrasies of making wine with vinifera have been fine-tuned for several thousand years.  Physiologically, its skin thickness, sugar, alcohol content, and phenolic compounds make for a readily fermentable and universally palatable product.
  • .


    American wine traditions came from Europe.  The “old world” has been drinking wine and creating traditions for centuries.  When European settlers came to the American continent, they brought their vinifera with them.  While initial plantings of vinifera in the untested American climates resulted in many early failures, the sense of the superiority of vinifera as a wine grape remained.  Traditions like the 1855 Bordeaux classification were in essence effective marketing schemes.  They contributed to the sense that the apex of viticultural excellence reaches back to medieval Europe and Vitis vinifera.

  • Other vitis species taste different.  In the early days of American wine, settlers didn’t appreciate just how different American grapevine species were.  They tried to make wine from the native grapes but found their flavors and textures off-putting and unfamiliar.  Vitis labrusca, in particular was deemed “foxy”, and not in the good way.  The early misunderstanding of native species left a lingering and tainted reputation, and today some consumers and sommeliers will not even pay a wine produced from a native grape variety.
  • Native grape cultivation is fairly new.  In the global race of grape cultivation, vinifera has a several thousand-year head start.  In contrast, the identification of native grape species in America has only occurred in the last few hundred years.  Due to the low demand for these native grapes, there is very little incentive to study them, and very few are in commercial cultivation.  Until native grapes’ viticulture, vinification and styles are understood, only vinifera will be viewed as legitimate.


The Future of Vitis in America

Undeniably, Vitis vinifera has carried many American wine regions from obscurity to international fame.  Yet, what might the Vitis scene be of the future?

Might an influential native grape emerge?  A possibility could be Norton, a grape cultivar from Vitis aestivalis, grown widely through the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states. It has even begun to be grown in California.  Norton’s cultivation dates back to the early 1800s, and it’s a candidate for a real contender on a global stage.  It produces deeply-colored red wine with mouth-filling texture, ages very well, and has been compared to Zinfandel.  It is also the cornerstone of the Missouri wine industry, whose current reputation pales in comparison to its pre-Prohibition standing when it was the second-largest wine-producing state in the nation!  Could a non-vinifera grape like Norton find market power for itself and for Missouri?

Another thing to consider is what happens when Vitis vinifera fails. From the 1990s through the start of the millennium, the Colorado industry grew quickly.  Its winemakers have enjoyed a growing reputation for Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Unfortunately, that time also saw several fierce damaging freezes in a land of brutal winters, finicky springs, and some of the highest elevation vineyards in the Western hemisphere.  Grape growers are now looking at more resilient hybrids which can produce great wines but are unfamiliar to Americans.  Might a larger market embrace them, and then Colorado, in the future?

For the foreseeable future, though, Vitis vinifera is staying in style!

Elizabeth Miller is the General Manager of Vintology Wine & Spirits and the Associate Director the Westchester Wine School in Westchester County, NY.  She will present a SWEbinar “Emerging Regions of the US” on Wednesday, December 7th, and 7:00 pm central time.  Her blog ‘Girl Meets Vine’ is found at

Are you interested in being a guest blogger or a guest SWEbinar presenter for SWE?  Click here for more information!


Guest Post: A Trip to the Ramona Valley AVA



Today we have a guest post from SWE member Jan Crocker. Jan has just completed our CSW Online Prep Class and is planning on taking her CSW exam next month. Wish her luck!

Jan works on the “front line” of the wine industry as a beverage steward in an upscale grocer in Southern California. Read on as Jan shares about her recent trip to the Ramona Valley AVA.

Whenever I discuss California wine with wine shoppers at work, nearly all mention Temecula, since it’s extremely familiar to oenophiles in Orange County, California. I can also count on several folks each day singing the praises of the Napa Valley (“isn’t that where the greatest wines in the world come from?” they invariably comment), as well as Paso Robles and Sonoma.

However, because I relish exploring obscure wine varieties and regions—that’s why I’ve been a wine nerd for more than 15 years, after all—I’m genuinely excited about watching the emergence of a certain young American Viticultural Area that’s fast gaining acclaim among local wine writers, professionals and judges.



With that, I’ll present the 162nd AVA in the United States: the Ramona Valley AVA.

As the third AVA in the sizable South Coast “super AVA” at 33.1 degrees north, the Ramona Valley celebrated its 10th anniversary in January 2016. The region itself is 14.5 miles long and nine and a half miles wide, and is home to 25 bonded wineries within its 89,000 acres over 139 square miles. (Note to wine nerds everywhere: the other two AVAs located within the South Coast AVA are the San Pascual Valley, founded in 1981, and the Temecula Valley, founded in 1986.)

Located about 35 miles northeast of San Diego in north-central San Diego County, the Ramona Valley is a destination famed for its balmy climate throughout the year. On the other hand, the area is no stranger to scorching summers, with daytime temperatures often above the century mark. Winters, by contrast, are brisk, with afternoons reaching the mid-60s and nights often dipping below freezing. Small wonder: Ramona is exactly 25 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and 25 miles west of the Colorado Desert. Rainfall is moderate, with roughly 16 inches each year.

Julian, the historic burg famed for its apple pies and winters with light snow, is a mere 22 miles east of Ramona and more than 4,200 feet above sea level.  (That’s why I describe the Ramona Valley’s climate as “Mediterranean, with an asterisk.”)



Grapes thrive as a result of the Ramona Valley’s vineyard elevation: about 1,400 feet above sea level. At least two of the region’s wineries sit at nearly 2,000 feet at elevation.

Indeed, the Ramona Valley’s neighboring mountains, hills, and rocks are a force in defining the character of the region’s wines. The Cuyamaca Mountains, Mount Palomar, and Vulcan Mountain are the “high points” of the steep inclines surrounding the valley. At the western portion of the region, 2,800’ Mount Woodson does its part as a rain shadow by keeping the Pacific Ocean’s trademark fog and chill at bay.

Let’s get back to those rocks.

During each of the four visits my husband and I have made to Ramona, we’ve never failed to be wowed by the huge boulders and striking rock formations along picturesque Highway 67, the only path leading into the region. On our first trip in early 2015, I hummed “The Flintstones” theme as we approached those monster rocks, since many of them resemble Bedrock, the cartoon’s setting. The closeness of those boulders, however, kept us alert: We fervently hoped that we’d be spared one of our home state’s signature earthquakes during our drive.



Granite dominates the geological landscape, either in its original form as rocks or boulders or within the region’s loamy soil as decomposed granite. (During our four days in the region this August, we also spotted milky and rose quartz, as well as some tiny flakes of pyrite, during our “personal tours” of the 11 vineyards we visited.)

Granite’s presence also makes itself known in Ramona Valley wines: Of the 100 or so wines from the region that my husband and I have tasted in the last year and a half, all have an elegant flintiness and a backbone of minerality that’s riveting.

Southern California’s “soft chaparral” is the garrigue that shows up in Ramona Valley’s wines, reds especially. Many of my tasting notes include “sage and rosemary,” so it’s no mystery  to find that flora in the region’s natural landscape, along with wild oak, toyon, chamise and numerous species of cacti.

Local winemakers embrace the Ramona Valley’s terroir, planting varieties that develop deep flavors as they echo the area’s climate, soil types and ever-present breezes. John Saunders, the proprietor/vineyard manager/winemaker at Poppaea Winery, mentioned that a few local enologists have identified “at least 11 different microclimates” within the 139-square-foot valley, so the range of wine grapes compatible to those potential “mini-AVAs” is broad – and speaks to the stunning diversity of the region.

Red varieties flourish, especially those with their roots (no pun intended) in France, Italy and Spain. To that point, two wineries – Poppaea Winery and Principe de Tricase – are planted to white and red varieties spanning the length of Italy. Not surprisingly, Tempranillo craves the region’s sunshine and wide diurnal swings.



Other growers and winemakers opt for Rhone varietals, as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier flourish in similar conditions in the Ramona Valley: rocky and barren soils, ample sunshine and a steady, moderating breeze, albeit without the destructiveness of the mistral. Woof ‘n Rose Winery was planted to Grenache Noir in 2004, with consultation from fifth-generation winemaker Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel—as well as Grenache rootstock from the French vineyard. Ramona Syrahs showcase a brooding, deep style much like their Cornas or St. Joseph cousins; those from Ramona Ranch Winery and Eagles Nest both offer elegant, haunting scents and flavors with earthiness and garrigue.

Wine fans searching for varieties above and beyond their tried-and-true classics will have a field day with offerings from the region. During our four days in the Ramona Valley, my husband and I visited 11 of the region’s 25 wineries, tasted 82 current releases – and had the good fortune to try six varieties we’d never before had the opportunity to taste: Alicante Bouschet, Refosco, Aleatico, Fiano, Sangrantino and Bolizao. Tannat, the pride of Madiran, is a featured variety at Ramona Ranch Winery, one of the wines my husband and I enjoyed thoroughly.



There’s no wonder why proprietors Marilyn and Steven Kahle at Woof ‘n Rose take pride in their Alicante Bouschet, the gorgeous teinturier: It’s generous, opulent, complex and undeniably enjoyable – and, my husband and I thought, a varietal that red fans would love if they tried it.

Speaking of Refosco: When was the last time we wine fans tasted one other than from their original northern Italian homes of Friuli or Trentino? Mike Kopp, proprietor/vineyard manager/winemaker at Kohill, offered us a barrel tasting of his signature Refosco, which nearly brought us to our knees.

Although heat-loving red varieties have a joyous home in the Ramona Valley, many whites do as well. Wine fans who enjoy their Chardonnays most when they’re flinty and zesty will appreciate the mineral influence of Mount Woodson and the nearby Cuyamacas; the elegant Chards featured at Lenora and Eagles Nest showcase that sculpted, sinewy quality as a counterpart to the variety’s richness.

Our Guest Blogger: Jan Crocker!

Our Guest Blogger: Jan Crocker!

It’s impossible to overlook how well Mother Nature took care of us during our four days during the first week of August. During each of our visits to the 11 wineries, every proprietor, winemaker and vineyard manager gushed over the gorgeous weather that week—sunny, of course, but with soft breezes. It’s usually blazing hot, “about 100 degrees at this time of year,” our winery hosts pointed out. “But it’s only in the high eighties. Isn’t it beautiful?”

We couldn’t have agreed more. And the Ramona Valley AVA’s future looks equally gorgeous – with the distinct likelihood that California wine fans will soon discover its current excellence and stunning future.

Photo Credits: Jan Crocker

Are you interested in being a guest blogger or a guest SWEbinar presenter for SWE?  Click here for more information!



Welcome to the World, Willcox AVA!



Welcome to the World, Willcox AVA!

On September 12, 2016, the TTB announced the establishment of the Willcox American Viticultural Area (AVA). This 526,000-acre area is located in southeastern Arizona within Graham and Cochise Counties. The Willcox AVA is not located within or adjacent to any other viticultural areas.

A range of grapes are grown in the area, with a major nod to Bordeaux and Mediterranean varieties. Some of the stars of the region seem to be Viognier, Tempranillo, and Mourvèdre. There are currently approximately 21 commercial vineyards, 18 wineries, and a total of 454 acres planted to vine (with 650 additional acres planned for the near future) within the Willcox AVA area. The newly-established AVA status will be effective as of October 12, 2016.

Willcox is Arizona’s second AVA.  The first, the Sonoita AVA, was established in 1984. Sonoita, located south of Tucson, is just one county over and about a one-hour drive from the Willcox AVA.  The Sonoita AVA is unique in that it includes vineyards at elevations of up to 5,000 feet above sea level; these are some of the highest-elevation vineyards in North America.

The new Willcox AVA is a relatively flat area located within a broad, shallow basin surrounded by higher mountains and mountain ranges. These include the Chiricahua Mountains, Dos Cabezas, Pinalenos, Dragoon, Little Dragoon, and Winchester Mountains. Over time, the geologic activity of the region has moved or disrupted many of the streams, creeks, and rivers of the area, creating a “closed basin.” This closed basin is reliant upon rainfall to re-charge its underlying aquifer, as opposed to the area surrounding it which has year-round (or seasonal) creeks and streams.



The soils of the Willcox AVA are mainly alluvial and colluvial and composed of loam made up of nearly equal parts sand, silt, and clay. These loamy soils retain enough water to hydrate the vines while allowing sufficient drainage through to the aquifer. The soils are referred to as the Tubac, Sonoita, Forrest, and Frye soil types, and are not found to a great extent in the area surrounding the AVA.

This area of southeast Arizona is known to have a dry (arid) climate, with the most significant amounts of rainfall typically occurring in July and August. This aridity places stress on the vines during much of the growing season, slowing vegetative growth and adding complexity to the grapes.

Consumers should begin to see wines labeled with the Willcox AVA available within the next two years. Also of note: wine growers in Arizona have a third AVA in the works—the Chiricahua Foothills. This petition has not yet been “accepted as perfected” by the TTB, but it should be interesting to see what develops in the future!

Welcome to the world, Willcox AVA!

post authored by Jane A. Nickles…your blog administrator

2016 Conference Recaps: Saturday Evening

The following sessions were enjoyed by all on Saturday evening, August 13, 2016 as part of SWE’s 40th Annual Conference, held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC!



What’s so Great about Oak, presented by Bob Sechrist: This session began with the attendees discovering that oak and references to oak are most likely all around them. For proof, just look at the back of a dime, the cork in your wine bottle, or the wooden buttons on your sweater!

Oak is a common fixture in the production of wine as well, and oak actually shares many characteristics with grapes. While they certainly may look different, the two plants both share the following characteristics: both are keystone species, inter-species crosses are common, they are widely distributed, they are non-specialized, they are native to the Northern Hemisphere, and occupy many ecological niches. In terms of culture, they are both prized by humans, historically significant, highly symbolic, and integral to Western Civilization.

Oak has become the leading wood for use in wine barrels due to its unique structure. This includes a tight grain which permits a gradual extraction of wood flavors and minimized wine loss through evaporation. Oak is also resilient, enabling staves to be bent into the curved shapes required by barrels without breaking. Oak is also high in tannin, which is an important flavor component as well as an effective preservative.

This session progressed into even more fascinating topics such as the world’s best oak forests and the typical characteristics found in their wood, the specifics of oak flavor and aroma compounds, the parts and construction of a barrel, and oak alternatives to barrel use in wine production. For more information on this session, click here to download the slide show: whats-so-great-about-oak-presented-by-robert-sechrist-csw



Exploring the Back Roads of the Côte d’Or, presented by Don Kinnan, CSS, CWE: This session was introduced as a program about Burgundy’s “Blue Collar Wines.” This means a focus on wines that are high on value and (perhaps) low on glamor–but delicious all the same! The reason some otherwise very fine wines are lower in glamor does not necessarily correlate to quality, but more so to location, difficulty in pronunciation (and it accompany lack of popularity), less celebrity, fewer “star” producers, and less distribution.

The region discussed included Marsannay (the northernmost village appellation in the Côte d’Or, Fixin (Gevrey-Chambertin’s “little brother”), Pernand-Vergelesses (which includes 8 premiers crus as well as one-third of the Corton-Charlemagne vineyard), and Savigny-les-Beaune (the second-largest red wine producing village in the Côte de Beaune, after Beaune). For more information on these regions and the wines served during the session, click here to download the slide show: the-backroads-of-the-cote-dor-presented-by-don-kinnan-cwe

Alluring Italy—Wicked Wines, Celestial Cheeses, presented by Sharron McCarthy, CSW: This session began with an overview of Italian wines including the regions, classifications, and amazing diversity of grapes that make up Italian wine. Also included in the discussion was the range of cheese produced by Italy. Then, the session progressed into a tasting of “wicked” Italian wines paired with a selection of “celestial” Italian cheeses.



The first paring featured a wine from the Veneto, Cantine Maschio Sparkling Rosé produced from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Raboso grapes. This wine was paired with Quadrello di Bufala cheese from Lombardy. This was followed by a crisp, dry 100%Vermentino La Pettegola from the Toscana IGT paired Pantaleo, a semi-hard goat’s milk cheese from Sardinia. Selections from Tuscany included Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva and Summus Estate Bottled Toscana IGT—a deep, ruby red blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Cheeses paired with the Tuscan wines included Pecorino Toscano (sheep’s milk) and Fontina Val d’Aosta.

Wines and cheeses from Abruzzo, Emilia-Romagna, and Veneto followed, including a delectable Amarone della Valpolicella. To wrap things up, a classic sweet-and-savory pairing was demonstrated using Florus Moscadello di Montalcino late harvest dessert with serve with Gorgonzola Dolce. For more information on the wicked wines and celestial cheeses of Italy, download the session slide show here: alluring-italy-wicked-wines-celestial-cheeses-presented-by-sharron-mccarthy-csw Sharron also has an overview of Italian wines available for download here: overview-of-italy-2016-sharron-mccarthy

We will be posting additional conference recaps in the next few days. In addition, we are building our permanent archive of notes from the 2016 SWE Conference-click here! If you are a conference speaker who would like to share your materials, please contact Jane A. Nickles at

2016 Conference Recaps: Saturday Afternoon

The following sessions were enjoyed by all on Saturday afternoon, August 13, 2016 as part of SWE’s 40th Annual Conference, held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC!



A Side of Bourgogne Yet to be Discovered – presented by Jay Youmans, CWE, MW: Did you know that within each subregion of Bourgogne, there are many appellations that remain relatively obscure to the US Market?  In this session, attendees were able to examine a good number of these lesser-known AOCs and just what it is about them that merits consideration by the US—both trade and consumer.

Beginning with the far north of Bourgogne, undiscovered regions include Saint-Bris AOC which produces a white wine based on Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, Petit Chablis with its Chardonnay, and Irancy which produces red with based on Pinot Noir with up to 10% César.

Among the Côte d’Or, regions, some standout “undiscovered” regions include the AOC of the Hautes Côtes de Nuits; the attendees were able to sample a white wine from this AOC as well as red wines from Auxey Duresses, Givry Premier Cru, Monthélie, and Fixin.

The area of the Côte Chalonnaise includes the “undiscovered” areas of Bouzeron, known for its Aligoté, as well as the AOCs of Givry, Mercurey, Rully, and Montagny (which provided another delicious white wine for the group to try). The Mâconnais contains the familiar regions of Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran, but as this class found out, the AOCs of Pouilly-Loché, Pouilly-Vinzelles, and Viré-Clessé produce delicious wines as well! For more information on the undiscovered AOCs of Bourgogne, and details on the wines served at the session, click here to download the slideshow: a-side-of-bourgogne-yet-to-be-discovered-presented-by-jay-youmans-mw



International Bordeaux Blends—Blind Tasting Seminar, presented by Eric Hemer, CWE, MS, MW:  This session began with a discussion of the history of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety, beginning with its origin in (assumed) early eighteenth century France (in Bordeaux’s Médoc), all the way through the prolific grapes off-spring varieties of Marselan, Centurian, and Ruby Cabernet.

The physical characteristics of the grape (high vigor, late budding, thick-skinned, high tannin) and growing areas were discussed (France, followed by Chile, California, Australia, China, and Argentina). Following this, the grape’s most popular blending partner were examined; the most important being Merlot, followed by Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenère, Shiraz, and Sangiovese.

Then, the blind tasting began. Ten Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from around the world, in vintages ranging from 2009 to 2013 were tasted blind, followed by a discussion of the wine’s major characteristics and flavor attributes. After each discussion, the attendees were invited to decide whether the wines was New World or Old World, give a possible region of origin, and guestimate the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the wine. For more information on the session and the wines included in the tasting, download the slide show here:  international-bordeaux-blends-blind-tasting-and-seminar-presented-by-eric-hemer-cwe-ms-mw



Wines of Ningxia China: Old World, New World, or Unique presented by Houghton Lee and Tommy Lam: Located somewhat in central China, Ningxia is a young a fast-growing wine region. International grape varieties were first brought to the area in 1982 and there are now 85 operating wineries and over 87,000 commercial acres of vines. China’s first geographically protected wine region, the Eastern Foot of Helan Mountain, is located in Ningxia.

The leading white grape varieties of Ningxia are Chardonnay, Italian Riesling, Riesling, and Vidal. Red grapes are more widely planted than white varieties and include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir (among others).

The tasting portion of the session began with Kanaan Winery Riesling 2013 and Legacy Peak Chardonnay 2014. From there, the tasting focused on red varieties beginning with Sha-Po-Tou Winery’s Cabernet Gernischt 2013, Domaine Pushance Marselan 2014, and Chateau Zhihui Yuanshi “Son of Mountain” Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. For more information on the Ningxia wine region and the wines tasting at the session, click here to download the: wines-of-ningxia-china-presented-by-hougton-lee-and-tommy-lam

We will be posting additional conference recaps in the next few days. In addition, we are building our permanent archive of notes from the 2016 SWE Conference-click here! If you are a conference speaker who would like to share your materials, please contact Jane A. Nickles at