Wine Journal Woes

July 24, 2010

Wine Journal

I keep a wine journal. A paper one. Much to the annoyance of family & friends I am rarely without one. I’ve filled several with tasting notes, labels and dribble marks of wines consumed over the last few years. Perhaps not surprisingly, this obsession has resulted in another fixation: optimum wine journal format.

Incredibly, the perfect wine journal is an elusive creature. One might think that with wine being around since 5000 BC, or thereabouts, wine journal design must be perfected by now… but no. Silly, impractical wine journal designs abound making shopping for a new one enough to drive a person to drink (and with no place to put one’s notes!)

Here are my thoughts on good wine journal construction:

1. Size. The size of the journal should be small enough for portability, but large enough to fit all your thoughts and scraps (e.g. labels). Think: book/novel sized. Teeny ones will fit in your purse/man-bag but so maddening to write in (and read from) that you will probably not use them.

2. Cover. The cover should ideally be made of some kind of wipe-able, durable material. Wipe-able, so that it stands up to spills and durable so that it stands up to transport and frequent access.

3. Layout. Simple is best – with the following considerations included:

a) Label pages. Ideally the journal contains pages for labels, positioned opposite the notes page so notes & label are viewable side-by-side. I think labels are an important aspect of note-taking and provide a visual cue for remembering wines better than the name alone. They’re also helpful (& more interesting) to others leafing through your journals while you’re cooking dinner.

Open Wine Journal

Example of wine journal without dedicated label page - I just stuck the label in there anyway.

b) Notes pages. Ideally the notes page should contain 6 fields: Name (at the top), Date, Varietal, Region, Vintage & Price (I usually write where I bought it here, too) with a spacious, free-form area for Tasting Notes. Anything beyond this is just extra noise and limits what you can write where. Numbered rating systems – unless you have a strict criteria upon which you consistently rate wines – are arbitrary and unreliable. Separate compartments for appearance/nose/palate/finish/food pairing etc. are unnecessary and constrict use of space.

c) Dividers. Initially, I was undecided, but lately I’ve been warming to the idea of dividers, or tabs to organise journal content into sections – e.g. Red, White, Fortified, etc. This is primarily for retrieval purposes (as anyone familiar with the pain of hunting for a specific wine in a 200-pg wine journal can relate to). Fixed dividers are inflexible since they dictate a set number of pages per category (they also define the category for you) but using a 3-ring binder-style journal with generic tabs solves this problem.

Open Wine Journal

An example of an easy, loose format with lots of room for notes, and a label on opposite page.

You can, of course go digital, and disregard all of this luddite mumbo-jumbo 🙂

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Saint John, New Brunswick

Saint John, New Brunswick

Last week I spent a few days milling around Saint John, New Brunswick. My purpose was wine work – serving it, to be exact – and of course, drinking some too.

It’s been some years since I’ve professionally served anything to anyone (I won’t say how long exactly, but let’s just say Grunge was very big at the time). And the term “professionally” is probably a bit of a stretch as my serving duties mostly involved balancing beer pitchers on a tray and yanking drunk girls down off tables. So, I arranged with Peter Smit, owner of happinez wine bar, a few “refresher” shifts at his hugely popular haunt.

Some happinez wines

Some happinez wines

On the first day Peter and his staff showed me the ropes and patiently walked me through all of their inner workings – then set me loose. I was surprisingly nervous serving the first guests. I’d forgotten what it was like to wait on people how to do it properly (at one point I absent-mindedly collected some empty glasses by their rims which resulted in a finger-wave from Peter, “No. Always the stem”). Peter has decades of hospitality experience, training in Europe with the best of Hilton International and finishing as Director of food and beverage at the Drake Hotel in Chicago at a time when service levels were unparalleled. He also taught Hospitality and Tourism at the NBCC and carries through this top committment to service at happinez.

The wines at happinez are carefully and personally chosen by Peter and changed regularly. Open bottles are preserved with the Le Verre de Vin system following each pour. I liked the system – it was easy to use, fast and performed well (we tasted the opened wines each day to ensure there was no drop in quality). Glasses are all washed by hand (via the Bar Maid, triple-sink system), hand-polished and inspected under the light for spots (a strict procedure established by Peter who dislikes the noise of dishwashers and the residual odours they leave on glassware). Keeping on top of the ‘dirties’ was challenging, but an automatic dishwasher probably wouldn’t have helped much since the stemware still need polishing. This way, it is only slightly slower and appears to result in less breakage.

The environment at happinez is intentionally relaxed, and pressure-free. Guests are allowed to linger as long as they wish and are not nudged to buy more (“can I get you another?” is a no-no) nor are they pushed to pay-up. A friendly honours-based system governs tabs –  no credit cards. The guest’s name is hand-written on a notepad along with their order and when they’re ready to pay they come up to the bar to do so. This practice, of course, relies heavily on the honesty of both staff and patron, but I’m told that in nearly 5 years of operating no one has ever run out on the bill (that hasn’t come back the next day to pay).

happinez goers

happinez goers

All ages darkened the doorway (and the funky Hapito patio), from students to retirees to all generations in between. Most came for the wines by-the-glass (12 red, 12 whites) and custom tasting-flights. Local and organic charcuterie and cheese plates were gobbled up in numbers, too – goodies such as Barbizon and Tomme Blanche cheeses from Fromagerie Au Fond des Bois and Saucisse, Jambon and Paté from La Ferme du Diamant.

Most notably, and indeed, most importantly, everyone seems to love this wine bar which made working there a very pleasant experience.

Bila-Haut Occultum Lappidem

2007 M. Chapoutier Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem

But it wasn’t all work! Peter was kind enough to share a few wines from his cellar. The 2007 M. Chapoutier Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem, a Syrah, Grenache, Carignan blend from the Rousillon, was particularly nice. An intense, dark violet colour extending to the edge, and a lively complex nose of dark fruit, floral, liquorice and barnyard. In the mouth, full and round with prominent tannins that softened the longer it sat. Wonderfully balanced.

Viognier tasting

Viognier tasting

I also went out to Rothesay to visit friends Craig and Christine to lust over their gorgeous property and help them taste some Viognier (nine, to be exact). Comparing our notes revealed the three of us had common favourites – one being the 2008 Mission Hill Viognier from the Osoyoos Vineyard Estate in British Columbia’s Okanogan Valley. A pale golden colour with a brown/green tinge. Apples, mild apricot, blossom and a touch of lime citrus on the nose. Medium-bodied, good mouthfeel, slightly pettilant with great acid, and bright lime flavours. Loved it!

Viognier Lineup

Viognier Lineup

All in all, a great wine experience in Saint John. I hope to return very soon.

Nice to see more Portuguese wines popping up on the shelves, here. Tried a nice one the other night at my brother’s 30th: 2005 Callabriga Tinto Roriz from the Dão region. The meal was BBQ’ed Strip Loin accompanied by various side dishes brought by friends & family.  The steaks were cooked to perfection (my brother takes steak very seriously) and the smoky, peppery Callabriga was a wonderful accompaniment.

2005 Callabriga Dão Red

2005 Callabriga Dão Red

Callabriga is one of many brands produced by SoGrape Vinhos with the Dão Red being one of about twenty in the range spanning the regions of Altentejo, Dão and Douro. (Yep, they’re a large producer). At $28* it’s a bit pricey for everyday drinking but a wine worth checking out just the same.

Made with Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Alfrocheiro Preto grapes the colour is extremely dark, inky, almost black. A perfumey/smoky nose with pepper, blueberry, chocolate and earth.  Medium-full bodied, balanced and velvety smooth. I’ve not had a wine this easy to drink in a while. But possibly – just possibly – it was too smooth… (is there such a thing?) Comes down to personal preference, I suppose. Sometimes a bit of an edge is nice, too.

2005 Callabriga Dao Red


*At Port of Wines at time of this writing