Six glasses of wine — three white, three red, all unlabeled — lined up before each and every one of us.
Three… two… one….
“Your three minutes has started!” announced FnB’s Pavle Milic, after a short introduction to what would be a day of wine education at his first-ever Red Goat Sommit — an invite-only wine conference created in the image, but not the terroir, of Aspen's Food and Wine Classic, which Milic attended in June.
The introductory exercise, called 3, 2, 1, was created by famed Spanish-American Chef Jose Andres, and meant to challenge wine experts by de-contextualizing the wines — you have sight, taste, and smell as your friends — taste memory, too — but nothing else. In that three minutes our task was to identify a wine’s continent of origin, country of origin, varietal, appellation, producer, and vintage. Each right answer was worth up to three points. I didn’t fare so well — and even for many of the other attendants, a mix of 17 regional restaurant wine buyers and vineyard owners, the exercise was something new.
“This uses another portion of your brain you don’t use when taking notes,” we overheard one buyer say.
On more than one occasion, the wine producer we were sitting by, Sam Pillsbury of Pillsbury Wine Company in Cochise County (home to Wilcox, Tombstone, Bisbee), threw up his hands in defeat.
Other attendees: Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks, Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards, chef Joshua Hebert of Scottsdale's
Posh, and representatives from Chandler’s Quench Fine Wines, Virtu, and the Four Seasons.
3, 2, 1 was just the beginning. After guessing at wines and breaking the ice, attendees were transported to Arizona’s wine growing regions, a few steps — a few sips, actually — away in the adjacent dining room. Seven wines awaited — two from Dos Cabezas, two from Callaghan, two from Pillsbury, and finally, Pavle Milic’s own Los Milics label, Oliver’s Blend, named after his son. These big, earthy, and lively young wines were served alongside a warmly-flavored Middle Eastern lunch from Charleen Badman, FnB's chef — feta dusted with dukkah, made-to-order falafels dipped in yoghurt, spiced pita chips with kasundi-spiked hummus, lamb with mint and salsa verde. After these, Pillsbury’s Shiraz, a zippy red wine with 54 days of skin contact (compared to the norm of less than a month), volleyed with Badman’s chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream look-a-like — both elements seasoned so lavishly they resembled nothing of the sort.
As the dining portion came to a close, wines were once again lined up in the first room for an afternoon of lectures from visiting brand specialists.
First up was Sariya Jarasviroj Brown of Circo Vino, a national wine company based in Tucson. Though the company also focuses on Hungarian and Slovenian wines, her presentation focused completely on Austrian wines. Brown represented Austria as a place where multiple climates meet, where cool northern airstreams swirl into the Mediterranean climate. Vienna, she told us, is the only existing city with vineyards within its city limits, where city life and grape-growing mingle, where wine drinking is a part of everyday city life.
“For those of you producing wine in Arizona,” Brown began, “Austrian producers are always facing their own challenges like hail —“ to which Pillsbury chuckled. He, too, in a high desert climate with sunny days and chilly nights, must protect his grapes from hail. “The nights in Cochise are cooler than Napa most of the time,” he said over lunch. “My challenge is not to over-ripen because of how sunny it is.”
There are many similarities between wine producers from Austria and South Eastern Arizona, despite the distance.
Ditto Chilean wine. The next speaker was Elizabeth Butler, a Chilean Brand Specialist with California’s Vine Connections. She enlightened the room to ‘The New Chile,’ where only in the past decade or two have small producers spanning the length — and width — of Chile emerged as independents from a historically centralized industry run by the ruling class, consumed predominantly with volume, not quantity. And many of these small producers are making quality their business, pushing the production north and south, but more important, Butler said, east and west into wild pockets of of microclimates that exist to the east of Chile’s Northern and Southern mountain ranges.
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“Chile is ground zero for geological diversity,” Brown said. She reminded the room that famed wine-writer Jancis Robinson once admitted, “I am truly scared by Chile and it’s unparalelled pace of change.” She could be completely up to date one day and hear about new vines and vineyards the next.
Rudi Weist, of Rudi Weist Selections, focused on German wines, particularly dry, elegant Rieslings — some sweet, many complex — trying to break the idea that the variety only works with food when spicy Thai food is on the plate.
Finally, Nic Frei presented a Kermit Lynch portfolio of Beaujolais wines. “The only white wines that happen to be red,” he quipped, describing another genre-bending bunch working to fight their stigmas, just as rose has done before them. These are two wine types that FnB has championed among its Arizona selections.
“At the end of the day,” Milic concluded, as he poured Arizona wine for the crowd, “It’s all about who you are with, what are you drinking, and which memories are you creating."