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Tasting Wine With Tony Terlato

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On a recent sunny Sunday, a small group of sommeliers gathered at the Andaz hotel in Napa Valley to take part in a wine tasting.  That's not unusual; somms have tasting groups and often attend tastings to keep their palates up to date.  But this tasting was not organized by just anybody.  This invitation was to what is called the Options tasting, led by Tony Terlato, chairman of Terlato Wines International.  The Terlato portfolio runs deep and large across the international wine world.  Terlato owns a number of wineries, and has partnerships with others to import wine to the American market.

"I don't like to talk too much because I'm sure all of you have listened to winemakers talk about the wind and the rain and the soil so you really don't need to hear that from me," is how Tony kicks off this tasting, a blind tasting of seven wines.  The one big hint we all get is that the wines are from the Terlato portfolio.  That wine list is deep and wide; spaning roughly 80 wine brands and 12 countries.  The 10 of us sommeliers, nine from local Napa Valley restaurants, and me, the one journalist present, were divided up into three teams.  The ground rules: name the country, grape varietal and vintage.  Each team gets one point per correct answer on those categories for each wine.  Teams can consult or debate among themselves about the wine.  The winning team gets a prize, to be named afterwards.

This blind tasting format, Tony tells us, was his son Bill Terlato's idea.  "You'll make your own determinations on the wine, I don't."  It's a way, he hopes, to get us to really experience and examine the wine.  Each wine will be revealed after the teams make their best guesses.

Right off the bat, wine number one.  "Who said it's a white wine?" Tony asks.  "That's good." Laughter. With each wine, Tony does give an "option" for each category.  This first wine could be from France, California, New Zealand or Australia.  My team likes the minerality in this wine and that's pushing us to France.  Team 3 agrees.  Team 2 votes California.  For varietal we guess Sauvignon Blanc blend, and the vintage we think is 2010.

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"I don't want you to think I made this easy," says Tony.  Indeed; we're wrong on two counts, the country and vintage.  Turns out the wine is a 2008 Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc, one of my favorite white wine blends from Napa.  How did I think it was a French wine?  "I wanted a white Bordeaux that had ageability," Tony says.  He tells us that at a dinner with winemaker Doug Fletcher that he had Doug taste a Haut-Brion Blanc, which Tony said sells for more than the Haut-Brion red.  He told Doug "you need to make this for me in California." While Doug protested that he couldn't find Semillion that he'd want to work with, he put himself to the challenge.  When Tony tasted the new blend, he loved it.  It was a Sauvignon Blanc blend with Sauvignon Gris.  "We accomplished that goal," says Tony.  So mistaking it for a French wine?  Easy to see how.

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The other wines on the table were all reds; my team improved greatly on our guesses.  Each wine had a reason it was in the lineup.  A Russian River Pinot Noir from Terlato Family Vineyards and a 2009 Merlot from Rutherford Hill took top medals as the most recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

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In a story about the Merlot, Tony says for many years it was a solid wine, scoring 88 and 89 points, but never broke 90.  He challenged his winemaker Marisa Taylor Huffaker to go for it. She told him she thought she had that wine in tank but needed his permission to go forward with it.  Marisa had blended in five percent of Syrah, as some Bordeaux houses had done to create an Ermitage blend.  Tony loved it, "you can see it in the aromatics and it." The wine earned 93 points and double gold at the Chronicle competition.

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Even though Tony had said he didn't like to talk much, he ended up talking quite a bit.  But it wasn't wine geek talk.  Each story helped bring the wine to life, making it memorable.  He told us the Nebbiolo in Terlato portfolio, from Gaja, costs more than his first car, which was a 1937 Chevy with a stick shift, which cost him $75.  Tony also told us he had not found a Chilean Carmenere that he felt showed the promise of Chile's wine potential until he tasted the Clos Apalta from Lapostolle.

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Tony was actually happy when we correctly identify the wines.  "It means we are doing our work in the right way."  My team tied for first.  Our reward, a bottle of wine, and some small bites paired with more of the Terlato wines for us to try.  "I hope you don't mind I let you do the work, I didn't have to talk about the wines you did it all yourselves. You have your own opinions about them you might like some, might have made some discoveries.  It's much more than I could have done."  A very soft sell in this way, encouraging the sommeliers to think about the Terlato portfolio when putting their wine lists together.  But it's also a great insight to the man who has built his family business into a major tour de force in the wine world.  You hear how Tony pushed for better and better wines.  How he set goals with his team and accomplished them.  For Tony, the best way to experience and enjoy wine is when he can share his passion of bringing wine to people by telling the stories behind the label.