I remember walking into my first Grand Tasting 16 years ago. I was just a young wine nerd and not yet on the Wine Spectator staff and I wanted more than anything to come off as poised and urbane, but at the sight of all those rare wines, my eyes shot out of my head like a cartoon character's.
The chance to taste 250 wines, with winemakers and owners right there at the table, can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. Overwhelming as in awesome, awesome as in stuttering to say something insightful as your wine is poured, insightful as in, "uhm … Hi."
As a veteran, I'm approaching the Grand Tasting at this year's New York Wine Experience with a plan. It's a necessity if you want to achieve the two main goals of any wine tasting: Taste the classics and explore the unfamiliar.
Since the tasting is in New York and I live in California, I'll start with the wines that I review, which East Coasters may not be as familiar with, Zinfandel and California sparkling wine.
Outside of the West Coast, many wine lovers believe California bubbly is only good for value. Nonsense. Set aside your devotion to Champagne—if I can, you can—and give two wines a fair shake. Schramsberg J. Schram North Coast 2006 has the depth of a classic sparkling wine while retaining a distinctive California style. The other side of the coin is Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley L'Ermitage 2006. Winemaker Arnaud Weyrich consistently creates the most Champagne-like expression in California.
For those who dismiss Zinfandel as too ripe and simple, all I can say is, you're not paying attention. Both old and new school Zin winemakers have been refining this classic California wine and some of the best will be pouring there. Be sure to try Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Old Vine 2011, as well as Seghesio Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Cortina 2010, which was No. 23 in our Top 100 of 2013. Popular young winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson will be pouring his Bedrock Lorenzo's Heritage Dry Creek Valley 2012, as well.
Since my job is so California-centric, I spend most of my time tasting France, Italy, Spain, etc.
I try to get to the first-growth Bordeaux before the crowds form, and they always do, since the châteaus typically pour vintage wines. This year, Château Lafite Rothschild is pouring its 2001, which was rated 96 points and was No. 7 in our Top 100 of 2004.
I could spend an hour tasting in the Rhône Valley aisle, and this year I'm looking forward to the Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle 2011, a wine that's rarely within my budget. The same could be said for top Barolos like Aldo Conterno Granbussia Riserva 2006, which I usually taste late in the evening since young Barolos are usually such bruisers.
Since there are two nights to taste, I often focus on whites early one evening before my palate gets flabby from tannic reds, but this time I'm saving a sweet white for the end: Hugel Gewürztraminer Alsace Vendange Tardive 2007, a top-notch sticky that I suspect is aging beautifully.
With so many wines to taste in two nights, I'm always looking for the not-to-miss wines. Post your favorites on Twitter with the hashtag #NYWE14 and I'll check them out.